Friday, February 6, 2009

Loose Ends Require Good Listening Skills

Debbie and Bonnie have done an amazing job talking about those pesky loose threads at the end of a story. Writers are admonished to write tantalizing openings to their stories, but a strong beginning only sells the first book. A satisfying ending builds reader loyalty.

Endings are extremely important.

Objective readers can help you develop your writing rhythm, knowing when to quick step past a dangling thread or to pause to tie a lovely bow, but only if you listen.

Here's a tip:
Mothers are not objective readers.

Start with the members of your critique group, and if you don't have a critique group, fast and pray until God sends incredibly gifted and fussy writers your way! My critique group is commited to my success, so they happily bracket wordy passages to delete and laugh heartily at my confusing descriptions. And, of course, they let me know if an ending leaves them feeling empty. This makes a critique group worth their weight in chocolate. Endulge them.

And listen to your editor. They are not three-eyed ogres out to ruin your art. Your success is their resume. You've already won them over by your voice and craft. Now, let them use their broad exposure to literature to advise you in writing a satisfying ending. There's always room for discussion and disagreement, but you won't know if you don't listen.

I know this to be true. I added 50 pages to the end of my first book at my editor's suggestion. She was so right.

And just a thought: The most satisfying endings offer hope of a continuing story. At the end of Gap Creek, Julie and Hank walk toward home under a burgeoning sky and a baby on the way. In
Levi's Will, Dale Cramer manages to bring hope out of a funeral when a shunned son reconnects with his high God and the coming of a buried spring. And Sara Gruen sets an old man free to join the circus in Water for Elephants.

I'm hungry to read more of each of these writers . . . thanks to their endings.


Patti Hill said...

Adding pictures to your blog is like a box of chocolates. You never know how the spacing will go until it posts. Oops! Next time will be better.

Thanks to Bonnie for teaching me how to post pictures!

Who do you listen when it comes to your fiction?

Lori Benton said...

Loose ends, series novels that need to stand alone yet hint at something more--over the past six months I've dealt with this stuff, while finishing the first draft of my historical.

I like serialized stories just as much as series books where each can stand alone. I'd read either type, although it seems the former has fallen out of favor for the most part these days.

When it comes to television, I much prefer serialized stories than a show where each episode stands alone (with a reset each episode as the characters deal with something totally unrelated to the previous ep). Those I tend to forget about. But shows like LOST have me waiting anxiously week to week to see the next chapter unfold, and bending over backward to adjust my schedule so I don't miss a single episode.

I feel the same anticipation with serialized stories in book form. I'd never throw one against the wall because many of the threads aren't tied, but be first in line at the bookstore (or Amazon) to buy the next installment.

Great posts this week, as usual!

Unknown said...

Patti, I think your own writing shows you have good listening skills. When I read The Queen of Sleepy Eye, I enjoyed the narration of the 17-year-old Amy and its authenticity. She remarks, "Enjoying God's grace is sloppy business" when she realizes with tears that the light from a church window didn't reveal, but rather overcame, her sins. And of course I loved Amy's wacky mother.

Another comment made by a minor character, an elderly priest, who asks when looking in a mirror, "Who is that old guy wearing my whippersnapper soul?" was equally perceptive and terrific.

All that is to say that you have another type of talent that can be equated with creating cliffhangers or unanswered (but leading) questions. You have the ability to create characters who are so real, they themselves leave the reader yearning for more --as if they were friends to whom we are bidding farewell. There's the bittersweet hope that even though they are going somewhere we cannot go, we want them to come back again.

Latayne C Scott

Lori Benton said...

PS: I have, so far, two gifted and dedicated beta readers who don't candy-coat their feedback. I listen to them, because they're right 99% of the time. And I listen to a host of more experienced writers I know on line.

Kathleen Popa said...

I listen to my critique buddy, who is our own Sharon K. Souza. Sharon can encourage and challenge all in the same breath.

I've also have found invaluable help at writers conferences. The one I've gone to for years is The Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, which will take place April 3-7, 2009. There are great tracks there for writers at every level, and there are also fiction clinics, which are brief, intense critique groups for your work in progress.

Patti Hill said...

Lori: I also enjoy serialized stories like Lost. But second choice are ensemble stories that have a continuing story in their relationship storylines. I'm addicted to NCIS. I watch the gory parts through my fingers,but I love how the characters interact. This goes to what Latayne wrote: good characters leave you feeling lonely for more. Interesting. Characterization and loose ends are connected. I've always thought of novel writing as a spinning plates sort of activity. There are lots of plates to keep spinning to make it all work.

Latayne: Thanks for noticing.

Bonnie Grove said...

Having someone read your work can be a painful experience - let's face it, we want them to LOVE it, every word of it.

But Patti is right, everyone needs an editor (or two or three). It doesn't have to be a professional editor, but it shouldn't be (as Patti pointed out) your mom, or your BFF.

Ideally, it should be someone who is just as serious about writing and books as you are. If you can find someone you admire as a writer so much the better.

Here is a tip I've learned from having multiple eyes reading my debut novel Talking to the Dead: You benefit greatly when you have an editor who is culturally savvy.
Someone who understands what appeals to people, turns them off, and what they will find believable.

Oh, I know, I know, I can hear the pack of sob sisters bawling this moment hollering, "We're Christians! Our work should be AGAINST culture, not pandering to it!"
Blah blah blah.

It is the eyes of the culturally savvy who will tell you when you've gone too far and moved from a tantalizing teaser to a melodramatic cliffhanger. The difference can be as mere as a sentence or two.

But, be warned, if you ask someone to read your ms and ask them to tell you what they think, you need to understand you aren't going to like everything they say to you. And you won't agree with some of it either. Work on a thick skin, know why you write, and then ask for someones honest opinion.

Patti Hill said...

Bonnie is so right. The first time my manuscript was critiqued, I got physically ill. But I knew what they were saying was right. You have to want a beautiful offering for the King more than you treasure your ego. Philippians 2:8-9 comes to mind. Jesus is our example.

Having said that, you also have to know your critiquer. On my first book, a critiquer told me to start the story with the police coming to the front door. Really? That didn't seem like the women's contemporary fiction I'd read, so I filed his opinion under "I" for I don't think so! Another critiquer offered ideas to strengthen the opening as written. Because I respected her work, I listened carefully, implementing some of her ideas, passing on others.

Your name is going to be on the byline. Listen. Evaluate. Make it your own.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I agree with having discernment about who you listen to regarding your manuscript. I remember Debbie Macomber saying that her first professional critique ended with the woman saying something to the effect of "honey, throw it away and give up". Joke's on her, isn't it? But how strong Debbie must have been to overcome devastating words like that about her art.

Nichole Osborn said...

Patti, I love the dessert. It looks yummy!

I'm addicted to 24 because of the cliffhanger ending each week. I've send this in a previous post but, my only finished ms has a cliffhanger ending. (there will be 3 books in the series) I am having a hard time with either leaving well enough alone or just putting all 3 books into one book.

I'm a member of an online critque group, but most of the time I don't get a whole lot of help. I got a good response for the first 2chapters but after that I didn't get much. So I asked a few girls from my home school group to read it, but afterwards, really didn't think they were very objective.

So I sent a few chapters to a publishing company in hopes to get some sort of response one way or the other. Just don't like waiting. I was told that it could take up to 6 months for the acquisition dept to decide what to do with my ms. April will be 6 months. I'm normally a fairly patient person, but this is about to drive me crazy. (my cildren would say I'm already there) lol.

Patti Hill said...


You definitely need to go to a writer's conference where paid critiques are available. They're done by people in the publishing biz, writers or editors, and they give you the objective critique you're looking for. There are also paid critiques available via the internet, but I don't have any experience with them. Maybe one of the other Novel Matters Darlings know more about that.

I've been to four writers conferences I can recommend as top notch: Mt. Hermon in California, Glorieta in New Mexico, Writing for the Soul in Colorado, and Colorado Christian Writers Conference in--where else--Colorado.

Also, Google Christian Writers Guild. Jerry Jenkins is the president. They run Writing for the Soul and offer writing correspondence classes which include mentorship. Mt. Hermon also does this in an amazing way.

Hope that helps!

Oops, I almost forgot! We'll be giving away free critiques by two top-of-the-heap literary agents in September. Stay tuned for more details.

Rachel said...

The Christian's Writer's Guild also offers a critique service via e-mail. (And this month they are running a special.) I just got a sample from my manuscript returned and let me tell you- it was worth it! They get down to the nitty gritty but don't say anything unecessary. I prepared myself for the worst (You know, I just hoped they didn't tell me to trash it- and they didn't) They supply you with a detailed analysis and offer marketing suggestions. I was very pleased with it. Hope that helps.

Bonnie Grove said...

For Canadians, or anyone living near Ontario, there is The Word Guild's Annual conference in Guelph Ontario, called Write!Canada. Top notch editors, agents, and writers (and yes, we bring up US agents and editors also, from Zondervan, Cook, Moody, and US agents as well. I believe Chip McGregor will attend this year).

Patti Hill said...

Thanks, Rachel for the information about the Writers Guild's critiques. They sound amazing. Jerry Jenkins just came to our town to do thick-skinned critiqes and encourage the writers here. They're extrememly thorough while exhorting writers to reach for excellence.

And Bonnie: Thanks for offering info for our Canadian readers.

Patti Hill said...

That's extremely. OOPS!

Bonnie Grove said...

Okay, this has nothing to do with anything but I HAD to share this with someone and who better than this fantastic group!?

Okay, so last night was Faith Night Hockey game (we have Junior A hockey in Saskatoon - so this is one step below NHL.These are the big guys). Faith Night is a special event, once a year Christians host the game -there are testimonies from NHL players about what being a Christian, a worship band plays, etc. Nice family, Christian stuff.

Soooo, second period and the visiting team pushes one too many buttons and they start. . . yep, fighing - every player on the ice. 10 guys pounding the snot out of each other. Finally the refs break up all the fights and there are 10 players stuffed into two penalty boxes. Refs call 10 five for fighting and 8 game misconducts! ON FAITH NIGHT!

I laughed so hard.

Nichole Osborn said...

Patti & Rachel,
Thank you so much, for the info. I am planning on attending the writer's conference at Calvin College, next year, but will be looking for something sooner, in Michigan. Don't have to $ to go very far from home. I will be checking to the Google group, too. Thank you guys so much.

Patti Hill said...

Bonnie: That sounds like a scene in a book someone (named B-o-n-n-i-e) should write!

Nichole: Calvin College is THE writers conference I want to go to. I made the mistake of saying to myself, "I'll go next year." There was no next year, because it's biennial! I'm not-so-patiently waiting for 2010. I'll see you there!

Also, I forgot about another writers conference I went to that was truly unique. The Jackson Hole Writers Conference has an inspirational track and a mainstream track (you know, they don't want to be called secular, don't you?). They draw BIG names in literature, like Wally Lamb and Elizabeth Berg. They also have a creative non-fiction track, which intrigues me. So many conferences, so little money and time.

Patti Hill said...

A couple clarifications: First, in my post about which conferences I had personal experience with, I really should have read that one more time before hitting the submit button. I meant to say, I have been to four writers conference and recommend five as top notch. I have not been to the Writing for the Soul conference, but I know several people who launched their writing careers there. Jerry Jenkins and the gang are dead serious about getting their participants polished, educated, and on their way to impacting the world for Jesus.

Also, I double-checked (my journalism profs will be mortified that I did this after publication) the Jackson Hole conference. It seems they don't have an inspirational track anymore. I promise to be more careful in the future.

Kathleen Popa said...

Nichole, I've never been to the conference at Calvin College, but from all I hear, it's one amazing conference. Yes, do go. You won't regret it.