The Writers Circle: Beginnings and Endings

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

We all write differently in terms of planning and outlining or writing from the seat of our pants (or something in between).  Today we’re curious: Do you prefer to have a well-formed beginning in mind before you start writing and then you write or plan until the ending becomes clear?  Or do you find it preferable to know how the story will end and then plan out or write until you accomplish the desired ending?  Or do you have another preference in terms of how you get going on a new work?

Discuss this topic here in the comments or head on over to the forums to start or engage in a more thorough discussion.

Sometimes You Just Need to Start Writing

busy excuseI have no free time.  I get up at 4:37am every day and I’m running all the way until I collapse into bed sometime after 10pm.  Between the day job, kids’ events, yard work, house work and any other multitude of things, my “free” time is that which I spend at the gym in the morning, running or lifting and making myself miserable for some reason I haven’t yet defined.

What that leaves me with is no time to write.

And that’s okay.  I mean, I have a day job that pays the bills, writing is a hobby at this point because I can’t make that leap to where I’m ready to try to make a living at it.  So I know the world isn’t going to end just because I can’t find an hour to write today.  Not very many people will lose sleep over the fact that I haven’t published a story to my blog in a while. The sun will likely still come up tomorrow morning even though Microsoft Word didn’t get pulled up and typed into for something other than the daily TPS Report at work.

But, as I thought about typing that paragraph releasing myself from the guilt of not writing, it dawned on me that the more I thought about reasons why it was okay for me to not write today…the more reasons I could come up with for not writing today.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy to some extent: my schedule is full, so I can’t write. I can’t write because my schedule is full.  My schedule says I can’t write.  My schedule…. Hmm… I can’t write.

I know I am not the only person suffering through thoughts and schedules like this.  And I also recognize that every day I am finding it easier to just let the “I have no time” excuse wash over me and become my default, go-to excuse for writing, for listening to music, for watching the game on TV…for anything I *like* to do but know I probably shouldn’t do because of all the other things I have to do. Admit it: you know exactly what I’m talking about.

So today, I want to take a stand against this thought pattern.  Today, I want to write. Even if just for a few minutes.  Sometimes, the key to getting a story started is, well, to start it. So my challenge to myself and to you is simple:

Wherever you are right now, be it on a train commuting to work or school, in a cubicle at the office, at a table in your favorite local coffee shop, or on the spot on your living room couch which is shaped perfectly for you and no one else to sit in… wherever you may be, look around you.  Look out the nearest window and then write down what you see. Look at the desk next to you and describe what’s in the mug in the corner. Take note of the person who is sitting alone, who never talks to anyone at all and write about what he or she is thinking about.  Do this and write it down.  Write a paragraph or a page, 50 words or 100 words or 1000 words.  This challenge isn’t about the quantity or even the quality, it is about getting the first words down on the page.

So who’s with me?   What do you see outside your window today?

Commencement

sunrise

Image from personal collection

Morning, a thin textured blanket on my feet as winter air enters through the window screen to my neck, down between my shoulder blades and I press the back of my head into this old blue sweatshirt hood and bring my knees close together.  The quiet that’s outside, though there isn’t snow yet, is a quiet that waits for the snow, which will happen today.  The air is already veiled with wet.  I listen to the steady blow from the vents, different from the modulation of breeze through leafless branches outside.  I sit in this quiet and wait.  This day, this is my beginning.  This is one start.

*

This day, this is my beginning: I boil water for tea over a mostly blue flame, orange creeping up the kettle sides like old, desperate fingers seeking a grip on a mirror, sliding away, sinking back to blue, then to try again.  I look at the fire and consider its genesis: I can start it with the flick of a match, a thumb and spark from flint, add gas, fuel, and the fire burns.  Our days are occupied with variant beginnings, offered as they are offered most days, with indifference, like shelves of thick book spines, rows of vacant parking spaces and we can grasp at whichever we choose; if we choose, we can enter this corn maze through a number of the spaces between the stalks to find paths.

This is the life as a writer.  We anoint ourselves with sovereignty, rightfully so, and introduce our story to the world with a well-directed dart, call me Ishmael; Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.  We own space and are as much a part of our stories as our characters; we are part of our stories because we are their tellers.

*

We’re in beginnings and potential beginnings, always.  Even more, we’re consistently in middles, like we’re in air.  The beginnings are as we ascribe them from where we make our first cut, where we choose to access them.  We watch, look back and relive and wait and then strike.  This will be our beginning, discovered right there in so much middle. The thing about our good stories is that they are always middles.  This is important, because we want what we’re telling to have stretch, extension.  We offer our readers a section of road and want them to recognize that that road came from far off and that it goes far off.  Our stories are glimpses into the expansive. They are snapshots.  When you are reading and realize this truth, you are humbled to know that the story isn’t page 1 to page 254 but is a life.  And lives are much longer than stories.  Thinking of this as we approach our work will naturally inject fullness into our characters and their beingness.  We are more interested as writers.  There is dimension, seemingly endless dimension, and that stimulates our writerly exploration.

When you start your story, independent from it being a shorter piece or a lengthy one, think about the life that you’re plucking your story from.  Think of what your characters were before the first page, what shaped them, what they were before the day started.  Try this: write about your morning; pick any point of that morning to start your story.  After that, write it again but move your start point an hour earlier.  Do it again if you have another hour more than that to go back to.  Then do the same thing with a fictional character.  What changes by moving your start point?  How does this shape your character?  Does the direction of your story differ?  Because it’s still the same life, the same maze.  You’ve just chosen where you want to enter it.

That’s All, Folks

endings_photo2

Personal family photo, used with permission

Any writer worth the ink in his printer knows how crucial the first sentence of his story must be, how perfectly constructed and seductive it must read. It’s this hello there that has to make our reader (agent, editor) suffer delirium tremens to get his hands on the rest of that first paragraph and the entire initial page and the whole of chapter one. No first sentence wowzer, and you have no purchase, no reader, no admirer, no nothing, nada, zilch, squat. Bubba, you just ain’t worth the sweaty socks on your computer’s mouse because you ain’t a writer.

If you’re still not sure, read – no, ingest, Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages, A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. It’s one of the books I rest my weary head upon each night as I go sleepy bye, hoping to absorb more of his wisdom. It’s a book so highlighted, underlined, and filled with sticky tabs pointing out instructions of merit that the only words not notated on my copy in some way are and, the, to, for, with. I exchange my blood for this book, and it’s only one of many writers’ guidebooks that stack between my spine, holding me up.

But that title, The First Five Pages, brings me to the subject of this article. What about the last five pages?  What about who got in the last word of the story, and what, by the way, was it? Because if the first five pages and the first five sentences and the first five words, and if indeed even the very first word are all so important, why don’t we talk much about the very end of our stories? Doesn’t the end count? In every other endeavor, it’s only the end that counts. We know who won the race but very little, and frankly, my dear, we don’t even give much of a damn, about how hard that person trained. We just care about the shiny medal around the neck of the winner who stands on the golden podium at the end of it all. We know who won the Olympic medal, the Oscar, the Presidency, the war, the lottery. We know who became valedictorian at our high school (especially if we thought ourselves in the running,) if the surgery was successful (and it better have been), who got the job we wanted. Even if our memories of conclusions are entrenched only until the next event, we care about that final moment because it’s the one that makes a difference, or at least it does for a minute or two.

So why do we devote so little to the end of our stories?  I ask because I can think of a number, one too high to ignore, of published stories that were beautifully, excitingly written, books I couldn’t put down and skipped dinner to read (and if you know me, you know I don’t skip dinner), whose endings are fuzzy in my mind. The story captivated and exhilarated, but I can’t remember the end because the end seemed to slide down a long embankment to land under a scraggy bush. Won’t budge from there. I won’t mention the titles of those books because they are after all published books by well established writers, and I am not yet published. I hardly belong in their company. I won’t mention them either because you may not have read the books I’m thinking about, and spoilers have their own bunk beds in hell that I’m trying to avoid.

Other people who’ve read those books usually find the same ambiguity about the end of these stories, and we all wonder why. What happened? Are we readers supposed to fill in the blanks, assume we have the wisdom and required evidence to complete what the writer neglected to do? Did the writer just throw in the towel, finally so bored with his own work, so weary with re-writes, with perfecting the first sentence and developing the complex plot and unique characters, that he simply ran out of originality for the final act, and so plopped in the words The End on the bottom page and called it quits?

Some books have endings we will always remember. You know about The Lord of the Rings, and only because one of you may not have read the trilogy I will not tell you what happened at the end, but suffice to say it really wasn’t a foregone conclusion. I perched at the edge of my seat, wondering, not sure I knew which way I wanted it to go until, well, it went.  Well done, Tolkien. He knew how to write the first five, the last five, and all the other multiples of five in between, for three incredibly thrilling volumes that have held the attention of millions of readers for decades. Suspense all the way to the very last word. OK, I’ll tell you the last word right here so you don’t have to go look it up. The word is said. There, make up my bunk after all.

I always write the last chapter long before I complete my book. I know for my protagonist the order and choice of final words, the concluding context, the resolution or lack of it are essential to the whole of my story. The ending is important to me because it’s important to my reader. I spend a lot of time on last sentences. I want my work to be experienced as a whole unit, beginning to end. Something started, something finished. The final words must have impact, the locking clasp to my story. Or to put it another way: perfectly constructed, and seductive to the very last word. We have landed. Plant the flag.

There I am finally, at The End. At least until I begin the re-write.

Perhaps you and I will write that anxious book, The Last Five Pages.

Be well, friend.