Why is finishing a novel so hard? I’ve done it before. I know how it works. It should be easy. Or, if not easy, at least easier than the first or the second time around, right? Wrong. Yes, it’s summer and procrastination is easy. But that’s not it. I actually declared this second mystery novel finished several weeks ago. What I meant by “finished” is that I wrote through the dramatic ending. And, in a mystery novel, the denouement should be short — just wrapping things up. But every time I sit down to write it, I instead decide I should re-read it first. You know, make sure I’m in the flow of it to get the ending right. But then I get distracted and reading a novel start to almost finished is not a quick process. It takes days. And then my internal editor kicks in and I feel the need to note something to change here, something to add there. Aargh. Maybe I should just put it in a drawer and forget about it until September when it always feels like it’s time to sharpen my pencils, lay in a new set of notebooks and get a fresh start.
The truth is, I know just how important an ending can be. As a reader, there have been many times that I’ve enjoyed a novel so much, until the ending. I’ve had lots of discussions with friends that go something like this. “Oh I loved that book. Except — what did you think of the ending?” “Yeah, disappointing.” I read an interview recently with an author who said she thought that endings were given too much weight and that, as readers, we need to let that go. Really? I don’t think that’s possible. Especially when a perfect ending is sometimes what makes a good book great. Of course, that’s so much pressure.
But I also know that it’s not just the pressure to write the best ending that’s the problem. In his article, Fear of Finishing, (See: Writer’s Workshop in a Book) Mark Childress gets to the real heart of this dilemma. He describes the first novel he ever wrote but never finished. How he got within fifty pages of the end and stopped. How he not only never finished it but never showed it to anyone because he was too embarrassed to do so. And yet, he says, this unfinished book is in some ways his most favorite, precisely because it’s not done. “Not finishing a book can be so much more satisfying than finishing. Just stop. Before it’s done. Let the ending be implied. Let it live in a drawer, forever.” Because if you don’t finish it, it will always be a potentially great book. “If you finish it and especially if you publish it, chances are you will find out how great it was not.” He calls this a secret that most writers share.
Yup. That’s it. I actually think this mystery novel I’ve written might not be too bad. But it’s a sequel to the one that didn’t sell. The one that my agent at the time loved, but didn’t find a publisher for. Yes, I’ve considered self-publishing, but can’t seem to pull the trigger on that either. I’ll always think that the problem with the first mystery novel was — it wasn’t compelling enough. At least one rejection letter said that. Read: not good enough. But this one is better, right? It’s potentially really great. But I guess I’m not quite ready to find out because it’s not quite finished. So there. This attitude is, of course, ridiculous. It reminds me of when my youngest daughter would say to me, “You can’t make me!” in all her three-year-old fury. Of course, she was right. I couldn’t make her brush her teeth or dress herself in an appropriate way for preschool. But there were consequences for that behavior. Usually, privileges were withheld, or maybe a time out.
That sounds about right. If I never finish this novel, it will remain potentially great, but the privilege of knowing that someone (a total stranger!) might actually read the novel and like it, would be withheld. Then there’s the time out. It’s possible that a kind of self-imposed time out is what I’m experiencing right now. And I don’t like it. I miss going into my office every morning and entering the world of this novel filled with opera singers and religious zealots, newspaper reporters and police negotiators. Enough already. It’s time to listen to Mark Childers again:
Finish it. Go home and finish it. Be afraid. Be deathly afraid . Or don’t be afraid at all and just keep typing until you come to the writer’s two scariest, two most favoritest words in the world . . . The end.
Tomorrow is Independence Day. Time for me to declare freedom from this oppressive self-imposed time out! Time to write the damn ending.