The End Is Not Nigh

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I wrote a book. This is a big deal for me. I haven’t completed writing a book since my sophomore year of college, and that book was deeply, deeply terrible. It was a book set during the Civil War because I am a Southern boy and every Southern boy who fancies himself a writer will, at some point, write a Civil War book, as any 15th Century Italian who fancied himself a painter eventually farted out a glum-faced Virgin Mary holding a tiny adult Jesus making gang signs with his hands. The only good thing about my very bad Civil War book was that I completed it and so knew that Writing a Book was actually a thing I could do, if not well.

This bit of experience I carried through my 20s when I spent a great deal of time thinkingand talking about the books I planned to write, and imagining my inevitable literary immortality, while doing precious little actual writing. A few stories here and there managed to get written, and smatterings of chapters of novels that I eventually “put on the back burner,” which is to say I abandoned them when they proved too difficult. Thinking and talking and imagining were easy and pleasurable. Writing itself was labor, and so I put off doing it unless inspiration struck; partially out of laziness, and partially out of confusing the imagination of plot, character, and setting with the actual work of getting the words down.

It was when I was staring down 30 without a single writing credit to my name that I finally realized that if I wanted to think of myself as a writer, I should actually do some damn writing. So, I did, and discovered that despite some talent with words and years of rough training at writing about fiction (thanks grad school!), I was actually rather crap at writing fiction. This was disappointing, but honestly kind of a relief since it meant I could shrug off my pretentions, stop waiting for the Muse, and actually get to work, and think of it and appreciate it as work. Having a writing circle like the N.L.B. helped immensely in keeping me writing, and making my writing better.

Now here we are after a few years of honest, inky toil, and I have written a book. It’s a middle grade (for 8-12 year olds) novel-in-stories about my little wicked witch Mab Ipswich. It was a wonderful feeling when I finished the last story, and sent the book out to beta readers. I knew it would need revisions and rewrites, but the important thing was: The book was done!

…Or not. I haven’t heard back from all my beta readers yet, but the ones who have responded have been universal in not caring for the book’s final story.  This wasn’t too surprising as I wasn’t crazy about it myself. But it means I need a new ending. I have been trying to think of one for a couple of weeks now, sketching out different plots and paths, but they’ve all led to dead ends, and no good ending. I just don’t know how to bring all four of the book’s narrative arcs, and all five of its main characters, together in a satisfying way.

Kristopher Jansma had a great essay in the New York Times recently about trying to end a novel, and wrote, “Endings have always been my Everest. Or, really, if writing a novel is like climbing Everest, then my tendency is to get within eyeshot of the summit and say, ‘Well, that’s far enough.'” This is pretty much where I am now, within eyeshot of the summit, but tired, and fatigued, and not sure if I can make it. It’s frustrating, but the good thing about having learned to see writing as work, is that I know all I need to do is keep working at it and working at it, until the thing is done.

As Jansma says, “The last hundred yards up the mountain are the steepest. The air is very thin and you cannot share it with your characters anymore. You have to leave them, along with everything you’ve written to that point. It is the last thing you want to do, but as you go higher you’ll get your first look at them from above.”

So, it’s time to start climbing again. The good news is, sitting at your desk and opening a Google Doc is considerably easier than hauling your tired body up the world’s highest mountain. And there’s plenty of coffee.

image courtesy of Marcela Vargas

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7 Comments

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  1. I always enjoy reading what you write!  Glad that the book is almost where you want it to be!

     Aunt Paula

    ________________________________

  2. Austin, this is exactly where I am at with my writing. I mean, exactly parallel. I was a little later than you with my “oh shit, I’m not a celebrity author” moment. That happened to me last year at the grand old age of 35. However, we have the pleasure of knowing that unlike being a rock star, we have the potential to mature as wine or whiskey does with. It’s also good to feel that well of experience already accumulated that you can now dip into instead of the dopey 21-year-old who knew they were good with words but somehow never had anything to say. I totally agree that the fact that writing is a long hard slog does suddenly hit you, and then yes it does release you because you can just get on with it. I’m also relieved to hear that I’m not the only one that has suffered towards the end of a novel. I’m at that exact stage now. I have set everything up: characters, plot, setting, all the ingredients needed, and I’ve made it two-thirds of the way through. And I have flashes go through my mind sometimes of very vague end scenes, but nothing concrete. I too am thrumming my fingers wondering how to bring each part together. Thanks for the link to the article. I’m sure it will prove useful. It’s is good to know the fatigue I’m feeling and that sense of not being able to see or hear my characters anymore is not just me. Perhaps having these difficulties is, in fact, a sign we’re doing something right. 🙂 (for a change).

    • “the dopey 21-year-old who knew they were good with words but somehow never had anything to say”

      So very true! And it’s nice to know I’m not alone in feeling this way! In fact, I remember talking with you about my writing in Nagasaki, long ago, when I was a 25 year old with nothing to say 😉 But yeah, the difficulty of the final ascent makes me feel like it’s real. If it’s not hard, are you really doing it?

      Good luck with your book! I’d love to read it when you’re done!

  3. You will come up with the ending you want!!

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