Friday, 16 November 2007

How to End Your Novel

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughreanWriting conferences and how-to-get-published guides constantly focus on the first chapter of a novel. When you sign up for a 15 minute critique at a writing workshop, the focus is inevitably on the first line, the first chapter, the first words of your novel. How do you hook that editor/agent with that irresistible beginning that makes it impossible to stop reading?

But what about the end?

Just this past Tuesday, I finally typed 'The End' to my YA novel, Ugly City. Woo hoo and all that.

It's the third time I've managed to finish a novel — and just like the other two, as it became clear that the book was coming to a close, I was stricken with a terrible, crippling feeling that the book was no good, that the words were pedestrian and the characters uninteresting and that I had thrown away precious hours, minutes, MONTHS better spent not neglecting my family.

It doesn't help that writing an ending doesn't have the fresh awakening of writing a beginning, or the thrill of building up to the climax of the story, or the wow of turning the corner to the denouvement.

Wither the end then?

I trawled through my favourite YA books, looking for a way. The greatest difficulty was that, Ugly City being a dystopian fantasy, there was a danger of too much explanation putting the reader to sleep.

In the end (pun unintended) it was Geraldine McCaughrean who gave me the answers. I read and re-read The White Darkness and Not the End of the World. Boy can that woman write. And there was method to her artistry.

She opens her final chapter with a unversal statement. Here's what she writes in Not the End of the World:
The planet tilts, like the eyeball of a sleeper waking. From Space, that is how large it all seems. But of course it is vast really — too vast to comprehend — too vast for the most catastrophic natural disaster to touch all of its blue-green sphere.
In The White Darkness, the last chapter begins like this:
What kind of word is 'big' to describe Antartica? To begin to capture anything here, 'big' would need twenty-seven syllables.

Words can't cope. The space between the letters ought to make them elastic enough, but they aren't. The tails under the g's and y's and q's and j's ought to help them grip, but they slide about helplessly. Cliffs are the length of counties. Icebergs are the size of cities. Prospects run as far as the sky. Parallel lines never meet because there's no disappearing point. Adjectives die on the wing the moment they see Antartica and plummet on to the Plateau. Words are no good.
The universal statement leads to a single kernel of truth. And that single kernel takes us to a short summary of key events that happened offstage while we were in the grip of the heroine's viewpoint and version of events. They are just brief one liners but they fill us in on what the heroine — what WE didn't know. (Note: I won't quote anymore to avoid spoiling the books for you)

Thus having enlightened us, McCaughrean gives us a final scene - and her final scenes, though as final as final can be, continue to thrust us forward, thrust us to the promise of a story that will not end, a life that will continue to be as eventful as ever — but without our participation.

And always, always, we are sorry that the story has come to an end. Because we have been so engaged in the characters that we are flabbergasted that they would have the temerity to leave us behind.

Oh, words can't cope.

I apologise heartily to Ms McCaughrean — I doubt she'll recognise this ... it's just my own interpretation, such is the nature of inspiration.


  1. Congratulations on getting to The End of Ugly City.

    Of course, this isn't the end, it's just The Beginning...

    Good Luck.

  2. >it's just the beginning

    oh how i know what you mean. the beginning of the search for a publisher / agent ...

    the beginning of endless rewriting until you've read the thing so many times you can't bear to read it again ...

    the beginning of self-doubt ... what if nobody likes it ... what if i'm just kidding myself that i can write ... what if i die and never get published ...

    >good luck

    thank you.

  3. geraldine mccaughrean really rocks! i think the white darkness was beautiful.

  4. Yeah, congratulations! :-)

    And I ADORE The White Darkness, one of my favourite books. Even the cover rocks.

    Sarah x

  5. White Darkness is brilliant - I am consumed with jealousy having just read it for the second time.A.


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