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Posts Tagged ‘writing methods and theories’

During my weekly writing group, we were reviewing the outline for my next novel. The idea came up (taking this entirely out of context) that happy endings are, in general, cheesy. Can a novel end “happily ever after” without becoming non-literary crap? Let’s explore.  

I will briefly review some stories that have different types of ending. SPOILER ALERT- I can’t very well talk about the endings without referring to what happens, so if you don’t want to know how a particular book/movie/play ends, skip that review.  

The four ending styles are: Happy, Tragic, Ambiguous, and Happy with a Twist.  

Happy:  

 Elantris by Brandon Sanderson  

The setup: Raoden wants to rule the kingdom that is rightfully his, Sarene wants to help her new husband.   

The end: Raoden gains the throne, is healed from his mysterious disease, gains amazing powers, and marries Sarene. She is happy too, getting to rule the kingdom and use her diplomatic powers, and finding she really likes the guy her father arranged for her to marry.   

The impact: A powerful punch of a first novel. (Though it wasn’t the first he wrote!) When it was over, I wanted more. I wanted to see what Raoden would do with his powers. But did it make me reconsider all I know about life, the universe and everything? No.  

Would I do it?: Absolutely. Why not write about good people who work hard and get what they want in the end? Isn’t that why we work hard to begin with?   

   

The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer  

The setup: Edward and Bella have a forbidden love, and everything from werewolves to enemy vampire clans to Bella’s own humanity threaten to keep them apart.  

The end: Bella gets everything: she has Edward forever, her daughter is going to be fine, the Cullen Family has enough prowess and friends to keep the Volturi at bay for millennia, and she even gets to hang out with Jacob, at last, without all the angst. There is no problem, everything is happy.   

The impact: Meh. Say what you want about Twilight’s lack of literacy, and I will agree with you. But no one can deny its outrageous popularity. Despite that though, what it really leaves you with is: “Why doesn’t MY husband hang on my every word and watch me sleep?”  

Would I do it?: NO. At least, I hope not. It’s a tough one, isn’t it? On the one hand this is your classic “snack book.” It’s a guilty little pleasure you hope no one sees you with, yet you devour all four books in a week. On the other hand, Stephenie Meyer is set for life!  

   

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen  

The setup: Darcy and Elizabeth really don’t hit it off.  

The end: Darcy and Elizabeth overcome their pride and prejudice, respectively, and end up the happiest of anyone (except maybe Bingley and Jane). They know they are good for each other, they are both good-looking, and Darcy is rich.  

The impact: Huge. One of the great classics of English Literature, and now one of the most copied stories of all time. They are happy, we are happy.  

Would I do it?: Uh, yeah! If I could, I most certainly would.   


Tragic: 

  

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey  

The setup: Randle McMurphy is a memorable character we almost feel bad about rooting for. He has vices: he’s dirty, he gambles, he treats women like objects, but he stands up to Nurse Ratched, the oppressor without an iota of human mercy.   

The end: McMurphy is lobotomized, and Cheif Bromden smothers him with a pillow to end his suffering, then flees the psych ward.   

The impact: Big. I remember this novel very well, though I read it long ago. I remember instances of acute pain and others of personal triumph. This book makes you question the establishment and the basic concepts of right and wrong.  

Would I do it?: Again, as if I could. But let’s pretend I could…I don’t know if I would. Its implications are far-reaching, and its impacts long-lasting, but when you finish reading it, you just feel down. Isn’t there a way to get life-long remembrance without making readers want to kill themselves?  

Hamlet by William Shakespeare  

The setup: Claudius murders Hamlet’s father, and Hamlet seeks revenge.  

The end: Everybody dies. Everybody.  

The impact: Astronomical. I don’t feel qualified to analyze Hamlet’s impact on humanity. But at the same time, when it’s over, I’m left with a sense of frustration: if Hamlet would have just killed his uncle and stopped hesitating! I think tragedy gives me a sense of futility above all else: if Romeo just would have gotten that missive from Friar Laurence! I don’t like feeling that if only one little thing had gone differently, things wouldn’t have ended with a bloodbath.  

Would I do it?: I’m gonna have to go with no. I may be closing the door on a world of potential literary genius here, but I like to feel good, and I think most people do.  

    

Ambiguous:  

The Handmaiden’s Tale by Margaret Atwood  

The setup: A religious sect has taken over and relegated fertile women to the role of breeders for the infertile upper society.  

The end: Offred is offered a chance to escape that may or may not be a trap. Maybe she steps into freedom, maybe she steps into her own execution; we don’t know for sure.  

The impact: This book affected me greatly. I first read it in high school and recently reread it, and both times I was left with a sense of awe. It’s feminist, to be sure, and anti-establishment, which I’m really not. But the idea that women are forced into roles they don’t want resonates with me. And the writing is phenomenal: very chiaroscuro, which I strive for.  

Would I do it?: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! In my wildest authorial dreams, I would write a book like this.  

    

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller  

The setup: Yossarian recalls, in hectic bits, his experience in World War II, the futility of war, and the impossibility of escape.  

The end: Yossarian realizes that his tent mate did not die, but rowed a life-raft to Switzerland to wait out the war. Yossarian decides he too, can escape this way, and on his way out the door, someone tries to stab him. The end.  

The impact: This novel brilliantly demonstrates the author’s experience in war. Despite the death of most of the protag’s friends, this book was laugh-out loud funny. I will remember it and recommend it for the rest of my life. But did Yossarian’s tent mate really make it to Switzerland? Can Yossarian ever really escape the horrors of war? We are left to decide for ourselves.  

Would I do it?: Yes. The dreams where I could write this book might be even wilder than the ones where I write like Margaret Atwood.  

See also: A Brave New World by Aldus Huxley  

    

Happy with a Twist:  

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by JRR Tolkien   

The setup: Frodo must destroy the One Ring or the entire world will suffer death and oppression. A host of beings of different races sign up to help him.  

The end: Frodo succeeds. Yay! We’re all saved! But wait: the pain of the Ring is too great. Frodo can no longer live in the world he saved, and must take a ship across the sea with the elves, presumably to a sort of heaven or paradise. Sam and Aragorn get to live happily ever after, but there is nothing that can heal Frodo.  

The impact: Again, huge. Tolkien, along with C.S. Lewis, defined fantasy as we know it today. The writing can be – dare I blaspheme?- a little dull. Ok, sometimes it’s a lot dull. But to find out what happens to Tolkien’s characters, I will read about Tom Bombadil frolicking uselessly. Not up for it? Luckily Peter Jackson’s films brought the epic to a new generation of humanity (me, for instance) with the characters and themes intact, and most of the fluff cut out.  

Would I do it?: Yes. Yes I would. Call me cocky, but I like to think I can write a fantasy that is more pointed and meanders less. We call it outlining, my friend, so we don’t forget characters and plotlines…  

   

The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson (Book Three of Mistborn)  

The setup: Vin and Elend have overthrown a tyrannical ruler, and now deal with the larger forces of Ruin and Preservation, who battle over the fate of the world.  

The end: Vin essentially becomes Preservation, giving up her human body and becoming a presence. Elend gathers an army, and is killed leading them in battle. Sazed, Vin’s and Elend’s companion and friend, becomes God and restores the broken world to its proper, healthy state.  

The impact: Personally, I was floored. Here are two characters I love (Elend in particular has a spot in my heart) laid out, pale and quite dead, and somehow I feel good. It’s probably because everything they fought for was finally achieved, even if they weren’t alive to see it. That alone, however, would not have been enough to allay the frustration I feel when people in stories needlessly die. What made it all ok, then, was that Sanderson crafted the events so that victory would have been impossible without those deaths. The heroes give their lives for their cause, and are two key pieces in reaching the long sought-for goal: the healing of the world, and freedom from Ruin’s presence. In the end, bits of knowledge that seemed worthless end up being of utter importance: tidbits the reader may have overlooked turn out to be vital.  

Would I do it?: This question gets sillier all the time. I will strive my whole life to write a book, a trilogy, as compelling, original, well-planned and yet surprising as the Mistborn Trilogy.  

So what do you think? Which stories stay with you? Which type of ending is your favorite? Which is the most effective?

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This is the story of how Brandon Sanderson changed my life, and my writing career, forever.

In February I attended a writing conference called Life, the Universe and Everything: A Symposium on Science Fiction and Fantasy. This was a three-day event held at Brigham Young University (henceforth known as BYU. Actually, it’s always been known as that…) full of panel discussions on various scifi/fantasy topics. Most were writing related, but there were some art based panels as well. The panelists were published authors, working artists, publishers, and a few well-placed specialists (like a cop who worked with Ted Bundy on the panel about serial killers, or the doctor on the abnormal psychology panel). But the highlight of the weekend was easily Brandon Sanderson. (Read Elantris. Then read Warbreaker. Or vice versa. You’re welcome.)

Ok, to be fair, I’m kind of obsessed. And that weekend I was little more than a restrained stalker. But there were two distinct occasions on which uberfans like me were given the opportunity to sit at the feet of the master. Literally.

 So Brandon Sanderson was the guest of honor, which means he was on several of the panels and available for Q&A a lot. But twice he was on a panel and had an hour break after, and went to the dealer room (where some people were selling art and books) for a more intimate Q&A.

A bunch of us followed him in there like groupies and stood around for the first few questions. When it got awkward standing there and it became apparent no one was going to fix it, I plopped down on the floor and sat indian-style. Everyone followed suit and our worship session began. Seriously, it was a little weird. We asked questions, he answered.

Then Brandon Sanderson changed my life.

I essentially asked what I should do with my flawed first novel. I knew it had problems. Big ones. Should I work on it till it was better, or give up and move on? He replied with a modern-day parable.

I paraphrase. Poorly:

“Expecting to sell your first novel is like expecting to learn to play a scale on the piano, record it and sell a CD. The first time you play it through without  a mistake is great. Good job. Now play it 9,000 more times, then move on to a concerto and record that. Writers are the only artists who are so possessive of what we create. When learning to paint, students make 100’s of sketches and at least 100 paintings before creating a masterpiece. Musicians practice for hundreds of hours. Yet we expect to create something sellable on the first try. Have you ever taken a pottery class? (I have. My teacher wasn’t as cruel as what he’s about to describe.) You try and try to make a pot, and you can’t. (Throwing is HARD.) The first time you make a pot, misshapen and ugly, you’re so proud! Your teacher comes over, looks…and squishes it. “Do it again,” she says. And again. Until you can make that crappy, ugly little  pot in your sleep. Now you are ready to make a good one. As writers, we too have to practice. We practice by writing. And we have to learn to squish our pots. Stop cherishing every word we write. Learn from our mistakes. Squish our pots. And move on.”

Now, you have to know that Brandon Sanderson wrote 7 novels before writing one he felt was good enough to seek publication. (Most of  the authors there had a similar history.) He was picked up by Tor, a Sci-Fi publishing giant. Knowing that alone pretty much powered me through writing my first novel. I had to learn to let myself make mistakes. I still do. But knowing about  Sanderson’s first 7 unpublished novels helped me see that if I write this novel, and it comes out bad, it’s ok. I can still make it to the New York Times Bestsellers List someday. It basically gave me the courage to try something I’d  never tried before: the biggest writing undertaking I’d ever…undertaken.

And now I have to squish that pot. I ‘m actually going through it again, rewriting a lot of it, trying to correct some of the major mistakes, but I know I will end up squishing it soon. There are a few cool surprises in there and one character I really like, but that doesn’t make the whole mess a masterpiece. I have lots of other ideas. It’s kind of depressing knowing all these cool ideas will be some of my first novels and likely never see the light of day, but if this is all the ideas I ever have, I’m not going to be  career novelist anyway.

So, in short, it is ok to write imperfectly. Isn’t that freeing? You can write something that sucks. Go ahead. You can write 450 pages that suck. What great practice that was! Now squish your pot, and do it again. And this time, do it better.

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