First, I could probably write a novel about the process I’ve gone through on trying to finish my novel. That will be another series for another day. In the meantime, I wanted to give a piece of advice on novel endings, and how to know when you’ve finally come to the point when you know you’ve ended it. My advice? You’ll just know.
A number of years ago, poet Mark Doty give a reading at the New York State Writers Institute where he told us the story behind one of his poems (which I can’t seem to find now). He explained that when he wrote it, he wasn’t sure where the poem ended. Did it finish at the finish? Or did it really finish a handful of lines before? When he read it aloud, he naturally came to an end at a point before he had stopped writing, and knew that was where the poem needed to end. The rest of the lines he stripped out, but kept as a kind of addendum.
I didn’t know my ending when I started writing this novel. I knew where I wanted the main character to end up, and I knew the action of the first two-thirds of the novel, but I didn’t know the ending explicitly. What I did have in mind wasn’t that exciting for me either, was somewhat trite and cliched. I wanted my character to have a kind of awakening or movement, but I was focusing on an intellectually evolution, not the emotional one that he needed.
So I decided to kill one of my characters . Ah, that would bring emotional evolution!, I thought. I wrote the whole last third of the novel out, the whole scenario, finished with a flash forward. But something still wasn’t working. Was I making the right choice? I ended up at a class on novel endings at Grub Street, and everyone agreed: Don’t kill the character. In other words, you have your main character working through all this stuff in the first two-thirds of the novel. By introducing another character getting killed off, the main character has to pivot away from all the stuff at the beginning to deal with this other thing – and never deals with what’s been built up.
Back to the drawing board. I stripped out that last third, and started again. And wrote. And wrote. And ballooned the novel out to not a last third, but a last half. I kept adding scenes, taking them away. Stripping things down, adding more in. I had literally seven different ten-year flash-forwards with various iterations of how the characters end up. I jumped around. I cut, I added, and it still wasn’t working. Still. STILL. It took me a year to write the whole thing, and was taking another year to revise the damn ending.
I needed help. I wanted to enlist my good writing buddies, and drafted an email giving them a summary of my novel…and in the process of writing that summary, I figured it out. We don’t need a whole second half of the book. We don’t even need a whole third. We need an ending. We need the main character to grow, and change, and become a new guy. We don’t need the details of becoming the new guy. We need the new guy.
I cut everything out again, and started new. I had an extra chapter from the beginning that would be a fantastic ending, I thought, and when I moved it there I realized that I had done something unique: The ending chapters mirrored the first chapters. It’s like my main character entered into these situations as one man, and exited through the same situations as another man. It was what I needed.
And like Mark Doty reading his poem out loud, I realized that was the ending. I haven’t wanted to go back and add or alter or tweak, I haven’t have the inkling that there’s something more or different to do. It’s done. It’s set. I just knew. I just knew.
My advice? Keep toiling, keep tweaking, keep adding, keep altering. Eventually you’ll hit upon what the right thing is for your story, and you’ll stop, step back, and just know, in your gut, that you’ve finished.