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Getting to The End: How to FINISH a book

Speg of the Pigs
Flickr Creative Commons: Speg of the Pigs

For the last four years, I’ve taught creative writing workshops to kids of all ages. And here’s something I’ve noticed: the older the kids (and by “older” I mean 13-18), the longer their stories, and the less likely they are to write a story all the way through to the end.

The kids I work with are some of the most creative, dedicated, enthusiastic writers I’ve met. But as they get beyond simple stories (Bob the unicorn finds a magic ring and learns to fly) and into stories with rich characters and complex story lines, it gets much more difficult to take a story all the way through to its conclusion. The inability to finish a story (and some of the stories my students are working on are 30, or 65, or 150 pages long) plagues writers of all talent levels. The fact is, writing a complete, beginning-to-end work of fiction is a damn hard thing to do. Getting to “The End” is riddled with challenges, including maintaining your enthusiasm for your original story idea through tens of thousands of words and figuring out how to actually create a complete story arc from that wonderful idea that seemed so rich when you began.

But finishing is what distinguishes writers from “maybe-someday”-ers. Finishing a novel or novella is an incredible accomplishment, and something few people ever do. Whether your work is published or not, that finished manuscript is an achievement you’ll have for the rest of your life.

I’m a dedicated “pantser,” but I’ve finished and published three novels. With each book, I reached a point where I was convinced that a) I would never finish; b) that finishing the book was truly impossible; and c) that the fact that anyone in the history of the world had ever finished writing a novel was a wonder up there with the hanging gardens of Babylon and the Taj Mahal (and that took 20+ years to complete). But I finished every book anyway. Here are a few of the tricks that helped me get to that blessed final page:

Figure out your climactic scene, and write to it. With all my books, I had two things: an idea that was the driver of the story, and a rough idea of the climactic scene I wanted to get to before the end of the novel. I had little idea how to get from A to Q (that climactic scene always comes a bit before the true end), but I knew the general direction I was headed in. No matter how lost I got in the middle (and believe me, I started down a lot of dead ends and crooked paths), I knew I had to get my characters to that point where the house burns down and the heroine realizes she doesn’t love the house she loves the life she made there, or the overprotective, anxious mom has to do the one thing she fears most and learns to understand and forgive herself, etc. It may be the climactic scene changes from your original vision once you get there, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you GOT there, and getting from that climactic scene to the final end of the story is much less difficult.

Write a scene that takes place the day after your novel ends.

So you don’t know exactly how your book is going to end. That’s okay. Imagine your main character the day after the book ends. Where is she? What does she look like at this moment? What is she doing? What is he looking at? Is he alone? Who is he with? What is he thinking? Writing this scene—even if it’s just a paragraph or two—should help you think about who your character is after the story of the book is over, which helps you see how your character could/should change during the course of the book, and what needs to happen for that kind of change to take place. Who knows? You may even use this scene one day as the end to your novel.

Write every day. Oh, everybody says this. But it doesn’t mean what you think it does. I didn’t—and don’t—put words on paper every day. But the novel I’m working on (and I only work on one at a time, because I’m a plodding pantser) is part of every day of my life until it’s finished. If I don’t have time to sit down and write, I think about the novel while I vacuum, or go for a walk, or shower. Thinking about my characters and plotting scenes is what I do instead of counting sheep when I have insomnia, and what I do instead of worrying frantically when my adventurous daughter is off hitchhiking around New Zealand (or whatever other worry is foremost). If you let those settings and scenes and characters slip from your conscious (and, even more important, unconscious) mind for too long, you lose them. In the middle of writing my second novel I was washing dishes at my kitchen sink and so immersed in thinking about my book, which took place in the San Juan Islands, that when I turned off the water and looked around my first thought was how nice it was to be home after being away for so long. I hadn’t written a word, but I was immersed in my book and believe me, that immersion turns into writing.

And here’s the part about finishing a novel that I don’t like: You know those characters who have lived with me and taken up all that space in my head and heart and soul for some part of every single day since I first began writing about them? I miss them like crazy when it’s over. I miss them enough that I almost—almost—wish I hadn’t yet reached “The End.”

How do you get yourself through to the end?

About Kathleen McCleary [1]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.