Finish Your Doggone Story!

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Robert Heinlein had two rules for writing:1172011_100417_0

  1. You must write.
  1. You must finish what you write.

We usually have no problem with #1. But #2 can bite us in the caboose.

What is it that keeps us from finishing a project?

It could be fear … that we haven’t got a handle on the story.

It could be perfectionism … we want the story to be excellent, but sense it isn’t the best it can be.

It could be laziness … it’s easier to tell someone who doesn’t write just how hard it is to write, than it is to actually write.

Whatever it is, it holds us up. And that’s bad for everyone, including your characters.

I find endings to be the hardest part of the craft. They have to do so much–leave the reader satisfied or, better, grateful. Wrap up the story questions. Deliver a certain resonance.

And we all know a lousy ending can ruin an otherwise great reading experience.

My own approach to endings is to have a climactic scene in mind from the start, even though it is subject to change without notice. It usually does change, because as your book grows, unplanned things start to happen. Characters develop in surprising ways; a plot twist takes you around an unforeseen corner. I’ve even had characters refuse to leave a scene when I’ve told them to. I always try to incorporate these things because, as Madeleine L’Engle once said, “If the book tells me to do something completely unexpected, I heed it. The book is usually right.”

As you make these changes in your plot, the ripples go forward in time to affect how the book will end.

So you adjust. When I get to the point where I’m going to write my ending scenes, I follow a plan I call Stew, Brew, Accrue and Do.

I think hard about the ending for half an hour or so, then take a long walk, letting the story “stew” in my subconscious. My walk inevitably hits a Starbucks, because you can’t walk in any direction on earth for very long before hitting a Starbucks.

Inside I go and order an espresso. Brew.

I sip the espresso and take out a little notebook and pen. That’s when I Accrue. I jot idea after idea, image after image, doodle after doodle. I’m not writing the words of the ending, I’m just capturing all the stuff the Boys in the Basement are throwing out at me because they are hopped up on caffeine.

Then it’s back to my office where I actually Do–write the blasted thing until it’s done!

Now, even with that plan there have been a few occasions in my professional life where I get to Do and got stuck in Didn’t. I just was not finishing, for some reason or other. And I had to break through because a company had been nice enough to pay me some money and was expecting, in return, a complete manuscript. How unfair!

I always made it. And of late I haven’t really gotten stuck in Didn’t.

With one screwy exception: my novelette, Force of Habit 4: The Nun Also Rises.

I mean, I should have finished this six months ago! I was doing other projects during this time, yes, but I always came back to Force 4 trying to figure out what the heck was going on–or, rather, what was not going on–with my vigilante nun, Sister Justicia Marie of the Sisters of Perpetual Justice.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I just said to myself, “Listen, Stupid. Finish the doggone story! Or are you just a big fraud?”

“Okay,” I answered back. “How do you propose I do it? And don’t call me Stupid.”

And then I thought of Ray Bradbury.

As an L.A. resident I was privileged to hear Bradbury speak on a number of occasions. He liked to tell the story of when he was writing––or trying to write­––the script for John Huston’s film version of Moby-Dick. He was in Ireland and London for months, trying to

Bradbury

Bradbury

pare down the huge novel and all its symbolism into a filmable screenplay. Finally, Huston demanded the script.

Bradbury rolled out of bed one morning and looked in the mirror and cried, “I am Herman Melville!” Then he sat down at his typewriter and went at the keys for eight straight hours. And finished. He took the pages across town and handed them to Huston. Huston looked at them and said, “What happened?”

And Bradbury said, “Behold Herman Melville!”

Why did I think of this account? Because Force 4 was born as I was reading the biography of Robert E. Howard, one of the great pulp writers. He was, of course, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, as well as other series characters in different genres. His writing was big and wild and full of action.

Which was how I was conceiving this latest story of mine.

So I pulled a Bradbury. In my office I cried, “Behold Robert E. Howard!”

And then I wrote and wrote and finally finished the story. And it is big and wild and full of action.

But most important of all, it is done!

And now it is available for Kindle. Here’s a preview:

So tell me, writing friends. Have you ever had a real hands-on struggle with an ending? How did you handle it?

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44 thoughts on “Finish Your Doggone Story!

    • It’s a great mantra, isn’t it? And you could choose a different one depending on your project:

      “Behold Raymond Chandler!”
      “Behold John D. MacDonald!”
      “Behold Don Draper!” (If you’re in advertising)

  1. This is one of the best posts on writing I’ve read in a while. I write every day, but I get scared of finishing. Is it fear? Do I really have a “finish”? Will I have to face that the story I’m writing is mush (no structure)? Am I kidding myself since I have never talked someone into publishing me? Someone told me once not to be my own worst enemy. Hmm.

    However, I am J.K. Rowling! Wow, I go straight to the top don’t I?

    Teresa

  2. I usually have a fairly good idea of how the book has to “end” — if it’s one of my romantic suspenses, the hero and heroine have to solve the mystery/suspense side of the story and then convince the reader their relationship stands a chance.

    In one of my mysteries, the crime has to be solved.

    It’s the last page that’s the struggle. Even more, the last paragraph. The last sentence. In the book I just turned in, I added a closing sentence to the final round of edits (and my editor loved it.)

    As for finishing a project, I just keep writing. If I’m not writing, my husband would expect me to cook and clean.

    • That’s a great incentive, Terry! The “husband expectation” motivation. Love it.

      I also love it that you work on the last page the most. Me too. I want just the right last chapter and last line, the resonant note. I usually change that ten or fifteen times. So I’m right there with you.

      “Behold Harper Lee!”

  3. I have a different problem. I’ve been messing around with book 7 of my series. Had the book cover, killed one of my recurring likable characters, but after 3 months I had no enthusiasm for the story and a measly 16,000 words. So a few days ago I ditched the book and began a new series and found my writing chops again. I don’t know if I’ll go back to that story some day or if I should have stopped at 6 books in that series. So in my case I’ll yell out NOT Jill Quint, the protagonist of my first 6 books, who I’m happy not to be dealing with in this new series!

    • That’s not uncommon, Alec. I’ve heard very popular writers with a hot selling series say they feel “trapped.” But money talks, and their publisher is giving them the dough.

      Starting a new series is one answer. Think of Connelly, and John Sanford and Robert B. Parker, for example.

      Sounds like you’re taking a good break. Your other character will come calling when ready to get back in the game.

  4. This post could not have come at a better time.

    For me there seems to come a point in every book where I take a step back and think and mull over how I’m going to finish the story with a satisfying ending. The ending is always there – or the idea of the ending is always there. But as you say, James, it changes.

    One my main protags asks, “Is this the end?”
    And the main character’s response. “No. It’s the end of the beginning.”

    For a variety of reasons those sentences will close the 4th book in a paranormal series. But it took many hours of mulling over, digging in the dirt in the garden, making notes etc., until the characters spoke those words.

    Great post.

    • I like that ending, Christine. And you’re right. It’s always there somewhere, and we dig to find it. Or, as I like to say sometimes, it’s like panning for gold. You have to be patient and go through a lot of sand, but pretty soon the sparkle will catch your eye.

  5. Talk about timing~!

    Wrestling a WIP shaped by a couple of early ~ and one recent ~ influences.

    That said:
    Behold John D.!
    Behold Ray B.!!
    Behold James Scott…

    🙂

    As always, thank you, Sir, for another inspiring and motivating post.

    g

    • Aw, thanks, George. I haven’t been beheld before!

      And yes, Ray Bradbury is another good one. I loved his enthusiasm for writing and his generosity in sharing it with others.

  6. It’s interesting how every author has a different way of finishing a novel. For my first three novels, I didn’t know the ending until I had a draft written. For my fourth novel, I knew the ending, but not the beginning. The “brew” part of Stew, Brew, Accrue and Do happens for me when I’m jogging. Somehow fresh air gets my imagination working. Great article today. Thanks for sharing.

    • Right, Kristina. I love it that our minds are writing even when we are not. That way, when I’m staring out the window and somebody asks what I’m doing, I can say, “Working.”

  7. Jim, thanks for the post. Some timely advice to get me motivated to finish a current project.

    My struggle with an ending came with a sagging middle – no where to go – boring. I added another layer to the antagonist – the evil behind the evil – and suddenly the quest for the ending crystallized, complete with multiple twists.

    Thanks for the link to FORCE OF HABIT 4. I just bought it. Look forward to reading it tonight. I love Sister Justicia Marie. I think we all have a facet of our personality that would like to kick some behind.

    And thanks for the kick in the posterior with this post.

    Veni, vidi, vici. (I came. I saw. I conquered. – Caesar)
    Behold! The ending hath been vanquished.

    • Right, Steve. Sometimes adding a single character to that “sagging middle” does the trick.

      Thanks for the good word about Sister J. Criminals are the knuckles. She is the ruler.

  8. Jim, Interesting thought, and one I’ve used, except without the “behold” part–for me, it’s usually Robert B. Parker, all of whose novels I’ve read and reread until I almost have them memorized. When I couldn’t figure out where my novel should go, I’d read a few chapters, after which I found I was writing like Parker…which isn’t too shabby.

    Glad there’s another Sister Justicia book out. I plan to purchase it, so at your next Starbucks visit you can have another cup of coffee lon the profits. : )

    • Thanks for the cuppa joe, Doc.

      Your bring up a good point about reading authors one admires. Doing so really does get the creative juices flowing. For my next Mike Romeo book I did just that. I was not happy with the ending, so I took out some of my favorite John D. MacDonald books … and just read the endings again. That’s when I found my own.

  9. JSB, got an Aussie CP I’m doing the four year shoes in the back of her airplane seat ~ BANG, BANG, BANG ~ demand for her last three chps. (Waves! Hiya, M. Knew you’d come read this post.)

    Odd, but not so long ago I read this dude’s book, Write Your Novel From The Middle & which also addressed this issue.

    Here’s my behold & suspect a great deal of head-scratching over her:

    Behold Andre Norton!

    (For those who never heard of her, welcome to her place in time. She wrote over 130 SFF books and was awarded the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/18/books/andre-norton-dies-at-93-a-master-of-science-fiction.html?_r=0 )

  10. Thanks for this post Jim.

    I picked up a battle cry from one of my favorites years ago. It not only propels me into action when writing but against a mountain of dirty dishes, daily exercise, and paying the bills.

    “Towandaaaa!!!!”

    Thanks to Fannie Flagg, those dirty dishes don’t stand a chance.

    Behold, Idgie Threadgoode: The bee charmer

  11. Jim,

    I was just facing an ending problem with the second novel in my current series this very morning. I thought I had the ending worked out, but something was bothering me, and I went to my go-to solution: brainstorming on paper, talking to myself, and skull sweat as I play with the plot pieces (someone should create a line of Plot LEGOS(TM).

    Turned out it was a timing issue, which gave me the means to work in the subplots into the climax and thus an ending that worked for the novel. Voila, problem solved! Brainstorming on paper and playing with the plot pieces (beat sheet) and lots of skull sweat. Works every time if I give it the chance.

    • Dale, first off, I love Plot Legos. Put me down for the first batch.

      And isn’t it great to find out what the problem is (in your case, timing) and then be able to fix it? That’s why knowing the craft is so important. It gives you the tools.

      Any fool can say, “Look, there’s a leak.” But it takes a plumber (or you with the right tools and some experience) to fix it.

  12. Lynn Sholes and I almost always have an ending in mind way before we get to it. Sometimes it’s a general idea and sometimes it’s very specific. One of the most interesting endings came in THE 731 LEGACY, the thriller that ended the 4-book Cotten Stone series. Our fans kept asking when a physical relationship between Cotten and her love interest would finally happen. So we decided after much deliberation to face the question directly. It all came down to one word–the last word in the book. Because 731 is still being sold and read, I don’t want to spoil the ending, but that one word changed everything–the last word of the last sentence of the last chapter of the last novel in the series.

    • Nicely played, Joe! I expect 731 sales to spike.

      And speaking of last lines, I felt that the last line in the third book of my Ty Buchanan series was absolutely perfect. I’ve had many people ask me to continue the series, but I always hesitate because of that ending…I don’t know that I can improve upon it!

  13. My new mantra: “Behold! John D. MacDonald!”

    I am stuck on a new WIP (forget the ending…I can’t get past chapter 2). Have rewritten 1 and 2 four times now and thrown each draft away. The other day, I picked up (again) MacDonald’s short story collection “The Good Old Stuff” and started the first story “Murder For Money.” Here is the opening graph:

    Long ago he had given up trying to estimate what he would find in any house merely by looking at the outside of it. The interior of each house had a special flavor. It was not so much the result of the degree of tidiness, or lack or it, but rather the result of the emotional climate that had permeated the house. Anger, bitterness, despair — all left their subtle stains on even the most immaculate fabrics.

    And suddenly, I understood why my story was failing: I had entered the story too late — my character was already in his house, living there for five months. I knew I had to back up and have my man standing outside his old home — there is a for sale sign in the yard — and making a life-changing decision. The story lacked a catalyzing event because he — and I — had arrived too early.

    Thank you John D.

    Normally, I don’t read much fiction when I am writing, especially in early going. But boy, was this a gift.

    • So glad to find another John D. fan here at TKZ, Kris. What a master of plot, character and style.

      It’s truly amazing, isn’t it, when we write something that just doesn’t work, and we know it, and we try again, and still it doesn’t work? The story is hitting us upside the head and saying, “No, not that! Look over HERE!”

  14. Wow, I needed this today. I’ve got a climax that just isn’t going right–I’ve been chewing on it in my notes and outline, and it still isn’t working. I guess I need a long walk and an espresso! Or just permission to write a crappy draft that I can fix later. 🙂

  15. Love this post. Love Sister J., too. Thanks for the preview – it inspired me to get the whole series! Now back to writing … mmm, behold …, well, thinking on that.

  16. I’ve got no problem beginnings or endings. In my current trilogy, ICE HAMMER, about a family split apart by a war I had the first chapter and the last chapter, including the dramatic scene that ends each book, fully visualized and have already written them. Book one is done and coming out early this summer.
    My problem comes with book 2 & 3, the dreaded middle!. Linking all these cool scenes with not dorky dialogue and not uncomfortable segues is like walking through a fantastic dream wearing mud caked lead boots. I just need to make it to the awesome ending without choking myself on the muck of the middle.

    Paging Frederick Forsyth!

    Behold: Frederick Forsyth!

  17. Hullo, this is Fillii.

    I am the eldest of the four Leprechauns that live in Basil’s basement.

    As Leprechauns we don’t worry about endings to our stories, they just go on and on, since with such long lives our endings tend to come from natural causes.

    Since our endings are few and far between the stories we write tend to go on, and should be considered more like a contigus, er contiguano, er constigleous, er on going series of connected stories with cliff hanger endings that make you want to come back for more.

    Gnillii : You said we mostly only die of natural causes.

    FilliiYes, that is true.

    BoffinWell what about Uncle Hubert?

    Gnillii Ya, he was only 650 years old when he got squished under that giant steam roller thing in New York.

    Berthold Well, technically that was natural causes

    Boffin Natural Causes?? he was turned into a 3 foot long meat pancake.

    Gnillii Ya, except you could still the expression in face, he was quite surprised right up to the last minute.

    Fillii And surprised he was, being caught kissing a lovely little faerie princess right there in an alley off the street under the Empire State building when it was being builded.

    Berthold Indeed, and when Aunt Gerta caught him and he said “Sorry Gerty old girl, but I’ve decided I like girls without beards.” she gave him such a shove, and he went right under that steam roller, the one what squished him real flat.

    Fillii Yup, and after that steam roller finished its steam roll he had died, naturally.

    Boffin Oh….that makes sense.

  18. You nailed it -fear that I don’t have a handle on the story. I just want to say, it’s a bit of a relief to know that someone out there ‘gets’ our fears and struggles. Thanks, James for another awesome and uplifting article.

    • That’s why we’re here, Jan. We’ve been around the block and know what writers go through. And we love sharing what we’ve learned so it helps our fellow scribes

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