Guest Post by Terry Odell
Sometimes, the hardest part of writing is writing the third word. You know, the one right after "Chapter One." But you have to start somewhere, and if you're not a detailed plotter, that somewhere is often tough to come by.
Recently, as I chugged into the day's writing, the first thing I did was delete the beginning. By that time, I was about 13,000 words into the manuscript, and I didn't need them anymore. I've used that same basic opening at least two or three times, and it always gets cut. But you have to start somewhere, and as has been said over and over: "You can't fix a blank page."
It's kind of like revving the engine. The race doesn't begin until you cross the starting line, but sometimes you need that running start. Helps burn out some of the impurities. There's more to beginning a story than starting with a paragraph that hooks a reader. It has to hang together with the rest of the book, and since I really didn't know where I was going, it was more like messing around with a bit of clay, seeing if there was a shape inside.
We're advised that a reader is likely to want to read "one more scene, one more chapter" before putting down a book. So, writers are told to make sure that scene ends with something that will keep the reader reading. I discovered this long before I started writing. I knew I had to get enough sleep to make it to work the next day, and I realized that the end of a chapter made me keep going. So I started arbitrarily stopping mid page when the hour got late.
But what about that last page? The one where you can't turn any more pages.
It's been said that your first page sells the book. Your last page sells the next book. If you're writing a romance, that ending will include a happy resolution to the relationship. If it's part of a series of connected books, the author will have introduced some secondary characters and laid a foundation for an upcoming book that will the their story—their turn for that Happily Ever After.
Very few romances actually pick up with the same hero and heroine as the first book. JD Robb does this well in her In Death series, although she's expanded the cast of characters exponentially as the books continue. Would Eve and Roarke be enough to carry 20 or 30 books alone? Maybe. Maybe not.
Mystery series are another animal. Detectives come back, book after book, solving case after case. Is it 'fair' to the reader to end the entire book on a cliffhanger? I've noticed it in several series I've read recently. In one, the protagonist is thinking about three women he's dealt with during the course of the book. The phone rings. A woman's voice. And … 'the end."
It's clear the author is setting up the next book in the series, but I find endings like that less satisfying. The author needs to create compelling characters in their own right. The major plot threads in the book need to be tied up. It's all right to leave the reader with questions, but they shouldn't be in your face questions.
Leaving a totally unanswered question leaves me dissatisfied rather than feeling that a story has been told to completion. Will I read the next book in the example mentioned above, with the unknown voice on the phone? Of course, primarily because I like the characters. But I have this feeling that I've been coerced into it. Keep your endings strong without relying on gimmicks.
By Terry Odell
Author of four published romantic suspense novels and several romance short stories. Upcoming releases include two mystery short stories in an anthology, and another romantic suspense novel.