Finishing a novel is a challenging task, one I’ve undertaken during the months of our corporate COVID-19 shutdown. My newest novel, Fleuringala, is now in the hands of my very able graphic designer Stephanie Pierce. She has designed a beautiful cover and, as I write this, she is formatting the interior for me.
Writing a novel is like embarking on a convoluted trip with multiple stops along the road, with detours, roundabouts, backtracks, smooth roads and bumpy ones. Finishing it is like seeing your destination in the distance and hoping you can make it to the end without getting lost or running out of gas.
I once asked John Grisham how he knows when a novel is finished. He punted. He said something like “you just stick on the ending.” He didn’t understand my question at all. He apparently knows his endings before he writes his beginnings. I don’t work that way at all.
For me, writing a novel is living it, discovering what happens to the characters, watching how they grow and meet challenges, waiting for unexpected events to upend their lives, and figuring exactly how they should and would react. This is how C.S. Lewis wrote, and although I don’t pretend to put myself in his company, his advice has been instructive and his method, affirming.
As for finishing a novel, I review every plot line, scene, sentence, word choice, metaphor, and character reaction. I obsess. A novel has to fit together logically and compellingly, like a tapestry—or a travel plan. It has to be just right so that the story line is believable and evokes a reaction in readers.
And it has to end at just the right spot, not be cut short by a writer’s impatience or linger too long over a writer’s uncertainty. A good ending has to be surprising and satisfying. I’ve read good books ruined by bad endings and mediocre books saved by great ones.
So I obsess.
To get it right, I often leave a story alone for months or weeks so that I have the luxury of returning to it with fresh eyes. You would be amazed how many mistakes I see after my mind rests and is able to look objectively at my work. Mr. Grisham, I’m sure, has legions of editors and proofreaders to do this for him; I don’t have that luxury. It’s all on me.
So I obsess.
I know when I have finally, finally finished when two things occur. One: When I am completely sick of the story, YET my words still makes me cry. And two: When I start to make a specific change and realize I’ve already made it.
Finally, I am there. And very soon, I’ll push the publish button.