Last Lines

By John Gilstrap
Over the years, we’ve devoted a lot of space here at The Killzone to the importance of first lines, but in the grand scheme of things, I spend far more time in my own writing fretting over the last line.  I’ve lost track of the books that have held me solidly in their spell all the way till the last couple of pages, only to betray my devotion by short-changing me on the ending.  I vow never to do that.

As a writer of thrillers, I think it’s my job to give my readers a wild ride, filled with exciting twists.  I work hard to make my characters seem alive to readers, and I’m often harder on the good guys than I am on the bad guys–at least for a while.  I owe it to my readers to bring the story to a satisfying ending.  That doesn’t mean that I promise a “happy ending” necessarily, but I do guarantee a sense of peace when the journey is over.  It’s the kind of commitment that I think breeds trust between a writer and his readers.

Now that I’m writing a series, I face the additional challenge of leaving enough of a cliffhanger to compel readers to look forward to the next book without also incurring their wrath by making them feel baited and switched.  To pull all of that off within the time constraints of my contract, I have to know the point to which I am writing the story.

All too often these days, I read books by brand name authors who seem to end their books by running out of words.  The plot develops, climaxes and then . . . I’m at the back cover.  One of the most egregious examples in recent years is John Grisham’s A Painted House.  I actually wondered if I had picked up a defective book where the last chapter had been removed.  Don’t get me wrong: I think Grisham is a great story teller, and as I read it, I thought that House was one of his best.  And then . . . thud.

An even more famous example is Stephen King’s The Stand.  There I was plowing through hundreds of thousands of words, loving it, loving it, loving it, and . . . what are you kidding me??

Here’s the thing about this three-act structure most of us adopt in our writing: A story had a beginning, a middle and an end, and each part is equally important.  There’s no room for laziness.  Every component of every scene needs to pull the reader forward.  The last scene is most important of all, I think, because that’s what the reader will remember forever.

I haven’t always gotten it right, either–at least not if you read some of the letters I’ve gotten over the years.  Nathan’s Run in particular has generated a number of letters from fans who wanted one more chapter.  In fact, the chapter they craved was in my original draft.  I took it out and reinserted it four or five times before I decided to leave it in the drawer.  Without giving too much away, I thought–and I still think, but am less sure–that the story ended when the action ended, and that the final feel-good knot-tying chapter was a step too far.

Of course, I’m the curmudgeon who believes that JK Rowling’s biggest misstep in the largely-wonderful Harry Potter saga is the final chapter–the coda, really–of The Deathly Hallows.  I would rather have imagined the future instead of having it spelled out for me.  It didn’t ruin anything for me; it just felt like one too many bits of storytelling.

What do y’all think?  Any favorite endings out there?  Terrible ones?

For me, the best closing line ever written, bar none, comes from To Kill A Mockingbird: “And he’d be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”  It tells us everything we need to know, and let’s us just float on the satisfaction of time well spent.


Been There, Been That

By John Gilstrap

I’ll be honest: This is not the blog entry I’d intended to write, but given the posts over the last two days, inspiration struck while I wasn’t looking.

I think Ol’ Cap’n Sully is worth every dime of the $3.2 mill his agent was able to squeeze out of William Morrow. He’s worth twice that if that’s what Morrow was willing to pay. That’s how the game works. Agents pitch books, publishers make offers and authors accept or decline. I know for a fact that if Pinnacle, my current publisher, had offered ten thousand dollars more than they did for my next book, I would have accepted it. Ditto a hundred thousand or a million or even five million. I’d be out of my mind not to. I’d expect nothing less (more?) from someone as sharp as Sully.

I think Mark Combes had it right in his reply to Michelle’s post yesterday. Publishing is not a zero sum game. The fact that Sully got big bucks does not mean that someone else won’t. I heard on the news yesterday that Crown is paying $7 million for President Bush (43)’s book on his most important decisions. That’s $10.3 million in a single day from two different publishers. Will they earn out? I’m betting they come close, but I’m sure that from the authors’ perspectives it doesn’t matter.

I’m equally sure that as authors competing for shelf space in the same stores, it’s none of our business. I find the sniping about such things off-putting.

Fourteen years ago, I had the honor to be one of the seven-figure first-novel news items. After decades of writing for my desk drawer, I’d achieved my lifelong dream–in spades. I think I’ve written in this space before about the thrill I feel being in the company of writers, of calling myself a member of the club that I’ve always dreamed of joining.

Unfortunately, my newsmaking advance barred my immediate entry to the club because I was assumed by some of my “colleagues” at the time to be a talentless hack who happened to bamboozle gullible publishers (23 of them worldwide) out of money that they could never earn back. Because I hadn’t paid my dues, some of the authors I admired most wouldn’t even speak to me.

Most notably, I was in New York attending an event when a well-respected midlist mystery writer introduced me to one of the Great Names as “John Gilstrap, the guy who made X on his first novel.” The Great Name glanced at my outstretched hand and walked away.

Even though all of these authors understood how the game is played, their prejudice (jealousy is too loaded a word, and is too self-elevating) was focused on me—not on my agent and not on the publisher, but on me. I guess no one wants to burn bridges with agents or publishers. I have it on good authority that my advance in and of itself made NATHAN’S RUN dead on arrival as a possible nominee for a first-novel Edgar Award. (I’m not saying that I would have won, or even should have; only that I was told that the fix was in from the beginning.) That’s tough stuff.

As for there being no zero sum game, I think it’s interesting to note that one of the popular and woefully underpaid writers at the time—and one who always treated me very well, in fact took me under his wing—recently signed a reported $10 million book contract. Good for him.

Every year brings a new crop of newsmaking advances. Some of the recipients are celebrities, some of them are short-term headline darlings cashing in, and some of them are real authors beginning what they hope will be a long career. Each of these newly-anointed rich folks triggers a new round of behind-the-back sniping. I understand where it comes from, but I can’t bring myself to participate. Been there, been that.