Endings Matter

In Harry Bingham’s latest email, he discusses the importance of the ending of a novel.

“I just realised that I write quite often about beginning a novel, and not all that often about ending it.

And yes: beginnings are important. If you don’t get your reader onto the story-train in that opening chapter, you’ve basically lost the game before it’s really started.

Endings matter at least as much as beginnings and the reason I don’t talk about them much is simply that endings mostly write themselves.

I don’t know about your experience, but my endings generally pass in a rush. It’s as though the entirety of the preceding novel is there to allow me to write the final chunk in a blaze of understanding and joy.

The understanding is: I know my characters. I know how all my little plot intricacies need to play out. I know what the grand finale needs to deliver. The prior 90,000 words involved me figuring those things out. The last 20,000 are my reward.

The joy is partly the ease of writing. But it’s also the joy of completing the arc. It’s like writing one long punchline, where you already know that the joke is going to land. I’ve certainly had some spectacularly happy writing sessions that haven’t involved endings. (Giving Fiona hypothermia in the snows of Love Story, with Murders was joyous. And I did enjoy burying her underground in The Dead House.) But mostly – the writing sessions I remember with most pleasure involve endings. Words flowing and the text satisfying.

So maybe you don’t need help with the endings. I think there’s an argument that if the preceding story has worked properly, the ending should just fall into place. But here, for what it’s worth, is a checklist to keep at hand …

Exterior drama

Have you properly completed your exterior drama? In the kind of books I write, that’ll typically involve some good splash of violence – a sinking boat, a fight, a burning building. But that’s not necessary. In Pride and Prejudice, the exterior ‘drama’ involves a naïve girl eloping with Mr Wrong and the Romantic Hero doing (off-screen) what Romantic Heroes are there to do. The off-screen quality of that drama is probably a little underweight for a modern audience, but so long as you have some dramatic action that’s well suited to your genre and readership, you’re fine.

Interior drama

The flipside of the exterior action needs to be some serious internal pressure. In a standalone novel, that pressure needs to have the sense of being pivotal – life-altering, life-defining. In a series novel, you can’t quite get away with a new life-defining moment with every instalment, but the stakes still need to be high. Series characters take a bit of a battering as a result. (I once did an ‘interview’ with Fiona, in which she grumped at me for giving her a rough time. Reading it back, I have to say that she’s in the right. I’ll never tell her that though.)

Romantic relationship

Most books, not all, will involve a romantic relationship. And – of course – the pressures of your grand finale are also pressures that test and define that relationship. You definitely don’t have to kiss and get married at the end of every book. I’ve ended a book with my protagonist ending what had seemed like a strong and constructive relationship. But when your character enters the furnaces of your ending, everything is tested, everything will either prove itself durable or fallible. The relationship can’t simply be as it was before. (Again, series characters need to play those things differently, but ‘differently’ doesn’t mean you can just ignore the issue.)

Other key friendships / relationships

Of course, there are a ton of other relationships that build up over the course of a book. Those might be best-friend type relationships, or children, or parents. They can (importantly) be office colleagues, which sounds dull but they can matter too. My detective’s relationship with her boss and other colleagues is just quite central to the architecture of her life and the books. These relationships too don’t need profound alteration necessarily, but they need some token of ending. A boss hugging your character (when he/she never normally would), or talking about a promotion, or offering a holiday – those things sound trivial, but they can define something important about everyone’s relationship to what has just happened. You don’t necessarily need much here. Half a page? A page? That might be ample. But if you book misses that page, it’ll never quite satisfy as it ought to.

Mystery resolution

Most books – not just crime novels – will often have some kind of mystery at the heart. That mystery will probably be unfolded in your grand action-climax, but that won’t always be true. Modern fiction has (rightly) moved away from that moustache-twirling final chapter where the Great Detective reveals the mystery to a completely static audience. But it’ll often be the case that little questions and niggles remain. Those things need to be addressed. It’s even OK if they’re addressed by saying, “We’ll never know exactly how / why / who X.” But you need to resolve your mysteries or acknowledge that you haven’t.


And, since we’ve just dissed static and moustache-twirling final chapters, I’d add that maintaining some kind of motion still matters at the end. Just as you’ll want to move settings fairly frequently in your middle chapters, I think you’ll want to do the same at the end. Physical motion is still a good way to convey story motion.

The closing shot

And –

There’s a theory in film-structure that the opening shot should show the ‘Before’ state of a character and the closing shot should show the ‘After’ – where the before/after vignettes somehow encapsulate the alteration brought about by the story. So to take the (vastly excellent) Miss Congeniality movie, the opening shot shows Sandra Bullock as goofy, unkempt, and without close female friends. The closing shot shows her kempt, still her, but now with close female friends. That’s the key transition in the movie.

I don’t quite like the mechanical nature of these movie plotting guides, but I do think it’s worth reflecting on the closing shot. What are you wanting to show? What’s the image of your character that you want to leave with your reader? In one of my books, a girl had been long separated from her father. Fiona’s last act in the book is to rejoin the two. She’s not physically present when the two meet – she’s set up the meeting, but remains in a car outside, watching. And that maybe is just the right tone for the book. Fiona plays this almost Christ-like role – suffering for others, undoing wrongs – but nevertheless remains on the outside of ordinary human society. That point isn’t made in any direct way, but it doesn’t have to be. An indirect point lingers longer than one made more crudely.

Isabel Allende on Writing

Isabel Allende is a Chilean writer, born 2 August 1942. She is famous for writing novels such as The House of Spirits and City of the Beasts. Her latest book is A Long Petal of the Sea.

Allende, who is a novelist, feminist, and philanthropist, is one of the most widely-read authors in the world, having sold more than 74 million books.

Her books have been translated into more than 42 languages. Allende is known for entertaining and educating readers by interweaving imaginative stories with significant historical events.

She has received 15 honorary doctorates, including one from Harvard University, and the PEN Center Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded Allende the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour. She received Chile’s National Literature Prize in 2010.

Isabel Allende

On her website, she says this about writing: “On January 8, 1981, I was living in Venezuela and I received a phone call that my beloved grandfather was dying. I began a letter for him that later became my first novel, The House of Spirits. It was such a lucky book from the very beginning that I kept that lucky date to start.

“January 8th is a sacred day for me. I come to my office very early in the morning, alone. I light some candles for the spirits and the muses. I meditate for a while. I always have fresh flowers and incense. And I open myself completely to the experience that begins in that moment. I never know exactly what I’m going to write. I may have finished a book months before and may have been planning something, but it has happened already twice that when I sit down at the computer and turn it on, another thing comes out. It is as if I was pregnant with something, an elephant’s pregnancy, something that has been there for a very long time, growing, and then when I am able to relax completely and open myself to the writing, then the real book comes out.

“I try to write the first sentence in a state of trance, as if somebody else was writing it through me. That first sentence usually determines the whole book. It’s a door that opens to an unknown territory that I have to explore with my characters. And slowly, as I write, the story seems to unfold itself, in spite of me. It just happens.

“I spend ten, twelve hours a day alone in a room writing. I don’t talk to anybody. I don’t answer the telephone. I’m just a medium or an instrument of something that is happening beyond me, voices that talk through me. I’m creating a world that is fiction but that doesn’t belong to me. I’m not God; I’m just an instrument. And in that long, very patient daily exercise of writing I have discovered a lot about myself and about life. I have learned. I’m not conscious of what I’m writing. It’s a strange process—as if by this lying-in-fiction you discover little things that are true about yourself, about life, about people, about how the world works.

“I take notes all the time. I have a notebook in my purse and when I see or hear something interesting, I make a note. I cut clippings from newspapers and write notes about the news I hear on TV. I write notes on stories that people tell me. When I start a book I pull out all these notes because they inspire me. I write directly on my computer using no outline, just following my instinct. Once the story has been told on the screen, I print it for the first time and read it. Then I know what the book is about. The second draft deals with language, tension, tone, and rhythm.

“When I develop a character I usually look for a person who can serve as a model. If I have that person in mind, it is easier for me to create characters that are believable. People are complex and complicated—they seldom show all the aspects of their personalities. Characters should be that way too. I allow the characters to live their own lives in the book. Often I have the feeling that I don’t control them. The story goes in unexpected directions and my job is to write it down, not to force it into my previous ideas.”


In his email of 10 March, Harry Bingham, of Jericho Writers, wrote about the problem of making characters memorable to the reader.

He said, “I’m reading a book at the moment that came recommended, a psychological thriller about a small, close group of friends.

I’ve started the book. I’m seventy pages in. I already know I won’t finish it.

The problem, a terribly common one, is that I haven’t bonded with the characters. They don’t feel like real people. If I’m honest, I can’t tell one from another.

Now, quite likely, part of the problem is me. I’m TERRIBLE with names and faces. Always have been, always will be. I forget character names in my own books. I fail to recognise people I know and have chatted with extensively. My uselessness in real life probably carries over into books too.

But good characterisation should still overcome reader idiocy. Perhaps I might be slow to assemble the characters in my head, but I should still get there in the end, no? I shouldn’t be fifty pages in and still have no meaningful idea of who these people are.

Also – alarmingly – this book has avoided all the common pitfalls. So, the author has:

  • Been sure to give the characters distinctive names. They’re not all Amy, Anna, Alice and Andy.
  • Given them distinct physical characteristics. We have (inevitably) the pretty sexy one, the hunk, the dark scowling one, and so on.
  • Put a bit of zing in their dialogue
  • Endowed them with plenty of interpersonal history, likes and dislikes, divergent backgrounds and so on.

It looks like the author has done all the things she’s meant to have done – all the things that the writing books suggest. All the things that, erm, helpful weekly emails on writing advice are likely to suggest.

So what’s the problem? Why do some books never quite ground themselves? Why do some characters end the book still feeling two-dimensional and unreal?

The short answer – I’m not sure.

The longer answer is threefold.

First, I’m confident that you can’t just introduce your characters in a rush. When you’re at a party, that “Harry, meet Amy, Baz, Charlie, Dino and Esmerelda” thing doesn’t really give you a chance to remember who everyone is. But if you get five or ten minutes chatting with Amy before you get to meet Baz, and so on, you’re likely to win this game. Amy is no longer just a face and a name. She’s now someone who comes stored with her own little fact-file. When you meet Baz, you have enough data on Amy that she can safely be put into storage as you meet Baz.

I think the same rule applies in books. Slower introductions are better. And if, for example, your book just does have a group of characters turning up in a cluster – a group of friends meeting up for a long weekend – you can still split them apart. Amy and Baz can hike to the house from the rural train station. Dino and Charlie can score a cheeky snog in the kitchen. Esmerelda can just be late (she’s always late) and arrive in a flurry at the end of chapter two.

And then too, I think you need to look away from, not directly at, the issue.

What I mean here is that you don’t solve the problem of character identification by aiming to provide a torrent of quick data. “Hey, reader, you haven’t met Charlie before, so here’s a quick summary of what you need to know. She’s the tall, blonde, pretty one, OK? Gifted at university (studied English), but wasted in a sort of glam-but-dead-endy PR job. Blah blah blah.”

That kind of introduction, especially if it comes amongst a spatter of other such introductions, is likely to wash over and through the reader. I think they just don’t work.

Instead, just show your characters in action. Then it’s simple: just tell the reader what the reader needs to know to make sense of the action. So let’s say that two or three friends have gone out to dinner. Leaving the restaurant, Charlie breaks a heel. You now have a perfectly sensible opportunity to describe her clothes. You might well use the chance to describe her appearance more generally. (“I could see passers-by looking over at us. A woman, blonde and pretty, in a silver sequinned dress, lying on the pavement. You can tell they thought she was drunk, and perhaps she was a bit …”)

You’re still conveying data to the reader, but you’re not doing so by presenting an index-card of facts. You’re doing so by telling a story. The reader doesn’t feel engaged by the index-card approach (it feels like work), but they do feel engaged by story (it’s why they’re reading.)

The third trick, I think, is that you can do much less than you think. It’s easy to think that you need to do it all: How tall is our pretty Charlie? What’s her eye colour? What do her mum and dad do for a living? Can she ride? (I bet she can ride.) Was she academically strong? Is she lazy? Does she love kids?

The more facts you shove at the reader, the more the reader is likely to resist.

And – it doesn’t matter.

Your mantra can be simply this: tell the reader what’s necessary for the story. Not more, not less.

That way, you’re not asking the reader to keep track of data that they don’t need. You’re giving them only what they do need, when they need it, in a way that slots logically into your story. Right at the end of the PSes, I’ve put a chunk of text from early in a novel – a group of five people going out to dinner.

What’s interesting to me, reading that chunk back in the light of this email, is how brusque I am. Two of my five characters aren’t relevant longer term, so I essentially discard them. I tell the reader next to nothing about them.

The other three do have longer term relevance, but even here I present virtually no character-data unless and until it becomes relevant to the moment in question. So one of the characters – David ‘Buzz’ Brydon – is a fit, intelligent, capable, courageous police officer. He’s not introduced like that, until it becomes relevant. Then, when the story needs him to run, Fiona says simply, “Buzz, who’s superfit …” That data slots so naturally into the story, that the reader just absorbs it with the story. There’s no sense anywhere of an index-card being presented.

With Buzz’s colleague, Jon Breakell, it’s the same thing to start with: appearances don’t matter. Then Fiona asks him to stay with the two women and he “puffs out his not-very-mighty chest and indicates his willingness to protect the women from all perils and dangers of this night.” That’s still hardly a complete physical description, but you already have something about him that’s memorable and presented in a way wholly congruent with the story-task at hand.

Buzz and Jon Breakell start to take shape as the story takes shape. The reader’s expected knowledge of those two keeps exact pace with the story itself.

You can do the same. Go slow. Stick with story. Do less than you think you ought to.”

And here is Harry’s text about the five characters:

“Pizza. Puddings. The works. A nice enough evening, except that it’s got to the point where everyone wants to go home.

So we troop up the Hayes, beneath a soft night sky and the first hints of oncoming rain. We’re talking of nothing much, when Buzz’s phone bleeps a text. He looks at the phone and says ‘Crime report. Up here.’

His finger points us up the Hayes, where it forks off into Victoria Place. He starts walking faster. I can see he wants to run, except he doesn’t want to abandon his Intended.

I say, ‘Jon, can you stay with Penny and Jade? We’ll meet you up by the castle.’

Jon nods. Puffs out his not-very-mighty chest and indicates his willingness to protect the women from all perils and dangers of this night. [As soon as Jon becomes relevant to the story, he starts to take shape. Fiona is characteristically colourful in the way she speaks about him, and we still don’t know hair colour or family background or that kind of thing, but we start to feel Jon because we see and feel him in the setting of a story.] Buzz and I jog, then outright run, up Victoria Place, then down Church Street.

Buzz, who’s superfit, says, ‘Double assault. Ambulance on the way. Uniforms present. Sounds nasty.’ [Now we start to get more data about Buzz – he’s fit, he’s efficient in a police-y sort of way – but again, we only get data relevant to the situation.]

I don’t comment, just run. The truth is, if the scene is already being attended by police and ambulance services, our services aren’t really required. Buzz isn’t even a detective these days. He now runs a Data Intelligence Team which helps the force direct its resources to where they’re most needed.

But still. Buzz is the kind of man whose boots run towards disasters, not away from them. My own, more elegant, boots share that same basic mentality. [More data in these two paras. Again, directly relevant to the matter at hand.]”

Short Stories

I’m writing a collection of short stories to be published as a book, and I found a post on the Writer’s Digest website written by Lisa Cupolo which is interesting.

Lisa Cupolo is the author of Have Mercy on Us (January, 2023; Regal House), which won the W.S. Porter Prize for a short story collection. Born in Niagara Falls, Canada, she has lived and worked all over the world but currently resided in Southern California, where she has taught fiction writing at Chapman University.

Lisa Cupolo

She says, “When writing my short story collection Have Mercy on Us, my biggest challenge was not getting too lost in my character’s backstory and presenting the trouble of the story right from the start.

“A novel tells us everything while the short story only tells us one thing,” V.S. Pritchard said. This is a great premise to hold onto while writing a short story; stories are a window into a life, not the whole enchilada.

These five tips for making sure you’re creating enough conflict to keep your reader turning the pages may seem like basics, but I still use them as good reminders about what’s crucial to writing an engaging short story. Often, I’ll write an entire draft and forget about a few of these necessary elements. But always, they show themselves through many revisions, as they are always necessary to make a story really sing.

1. Have your character want something.

Your character needs to be presented in a way that they desire something, but they do not have it yet. It can be a possession, a person, even a trip to somewhere. In the title story of my book, Alina is stalking her daughter’s boyfriend in a creepy way. In the first paragraph we learn she is outside the boyfriend’s apartment every morning, in the afternoons she’s at the coffee shop when he gets his cup of joe, she’s hoping he’ll be haunted by her presence.

He is the reason her daughter is in trouble, the story declares. I wrote this line after many revisions as I knew I had to be upfront about the conflict in the story. In this way, the reader wants to find out what the guy did to her daughter, and feels empathy for the mother in the situation.

2. Create a situation that involves danger.

Any kind of danger, from seeing a suspicious text on a spouse’s phone to being caught in a bank robbery. The tension of that situation is what carries the story forward and becomes its anchor. Unlike novels, every sentence in a short story has to involve developing the plot or revealing more about the character.

In revision, I tend to move paragraphs and reshape the way a story unfolds, not unlike rearranging furniture in a room. I cut big chunks that don’t need to be there, like taking out that old sofa you love, but in the end, it has to go.

In my story, “How I Became A Banker,” the first line is, When I was twelve I made a promise to myself, that I’d make a shitload of money. The reader immediately wants to know why the narrator made such a promise and at such a young age. Again, I didn’t come to this line until after many revisions.

3. Conjure up complications.

Whatever the situation you create, add some complication to it: Nicola is tempted to flirt with the tattoo artist, and does so, and then discovers that the tattoo artist’s assistant is an old school buddy of her boyfriend. She flirts because she is determined to ruin her life, her goal is self-destruction, not messing up her relationship.

It’s complicated and sorrowful and the reader is hooked. Be on the lookout for plots that surprise you. It’s usually a good thing.

4. Hide the real problem.

“It’s not the mud on the floor,” my mother used to say. She meant it as a metaphor for when things go wrong and it seems it’s one thing that’s bothering a person, but it’s usually something else.

For example, in my story “You’re Here Now,” Sylvie has never met her father but she’s on the way to his funeral. The story seems to be about the loss of ever having a relationship with her father, but the reader soon realizes the story is about the resentment she has toward her mother, who never let her see her father or his large family. It’s the hidden thing, the complication behind what is initially presented that can make stories so rich.

5. Make sure the readers know the trouble early, like a few paragraphs in.

It’s almost a cliché to say write a story and then delete the first two pages to get to the “heat” or “pulse” of it.

In Flannery O’Connor’s famous story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the first line gives trouble that seems minor, though it will lead to the catastrophe at the end: The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. It can be as simple as that, to start.”

I would add that there is almost no space for backstory in a short story. For this reason, any essential history about a character (and it really has to be essential – not nice to know) has to be inserted cleverly into dialogue or into brief descriptions of the character.

Creating Characters

Under the Books section of the Guardian’s website, there is a So You Want to Be a Writer Page which has advice from prominent authors, living and dead. One piece of advice I found particularly appropriate was from Gabriel García Márquez on creating characters.

Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez (6 March 1927 – 17 April 2014) was a Colombian novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter, and journalist, known affectionately as Gabo or Gabito throughout Latin America. Considered one of the most significant authors of the 20th century, particularly in the Spanish language, he was awarded the 1972 Neustadt International Prize for Literature and the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature. He pursued a self-directed education that resulted in leaving law school for a career in journalism. From early on he showed no inhibitions in his criticism of Colombian and foreign politics.

Gabriel García Márquez

He says, “Writing a character into being is like meeting someone you want to fall in love with. You don’t care (yet) about the facts of his/her life. Don’t overload us with too much information. Allow that to seep out later. We are attracted by a moment in time – a singular moment of flux or change or collapse – not by grand curricula vitae. So don’t generalise. Be specific. Go granular. The reader must fall in love with your characters quickly (or indeed, learn to hate them quickly).

We have to have something happen to them: something that jolts our tired hearts awake. Make it traumatic, make it mournful, make it jubilant, it doesn’t matter – just allow your reader to care for the physical body that your words evoke, the person behind the language. Later on in the story we can settle down with them and get to know them in a wider sense.

Sometimes we take a character from our own immediate lives and we build a new person upon that scarecrow. Or sometimes we take well-known characters in history and shape them in new ways. Either way we have a responsibility to write them into life.

In the end you should probably know your characters as well as you know yourself. You should be able to close your eyes and dwell inside that character’s body. The sound of her voice. The texture of her footsteps. Walk around with her for a while. Let her dwell in the rattlebag of your head. Make a mental list of who/what she is, where she comes from. Appearance. Body language. Unique mannerisms. Childhood. Conflicts. Desires. Voice. Allow your characters to surprise you. When it seems they should go right, send them left. When they appear too joyful, break them. When they want to leave the page, force them to stay a sentence longer. Complicate them. Conflict them. Give them forked tongues. This is what real life is all about. Don’t be too logical. Logic can paralyse us.

Nabokov says that his characters are just his galley slaves – but he’s Nabokov, and he’s allowed to say things like that. Let me respectfully disagree. Your characters deserve your respect. Some reverence. Some life of their own. You must thank them for surprising you, and for ringing the doorbell of your imagination.”

I think his point about being creative/imaginative with characters is very important, because it results in the reader being engaged with the character, trying to understand him/her and seeking to predict her/his next actions, which will (hopefully) surprise or delight us.

What Readers Hate

There is an interesting article on the Washington Post website dated 8 February 2023 by the Book Critic, Ron Charles, about what book readers hate.

Since the article is quite long, I have posted excerpts below:

“A few weeks ago, I asked readers of our Book Club newsletter to describe the things that most annoy them in books.

The responses were a tsunami of bile. Apparently, book lovers have been storing up their pet peeves in the cellar for years, just waiting for someone to ask. Hundreds and hundreds of people responded, exceeding my wildest dreams.

Dreams, in fact, are a primary irritation for a number of readers. Such reverie might have worked for Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” or Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” but no more, thank you very much. “I absolutely hate dream sequences,” writes Michael Ream. “They are always SO LITERAL,” Jennifer Gaffney adds, “usually an example of lazy writing.”

Laziness may be the underlying cause of several other major irritants.

Sharp-eyed readers are particularly exasperated by typos and grammatical errors. Patricia Tannian, a retired copy editor, writes, “It seems that few authors can spell ‘minuscule’ or know the difference between ‘flout’ and ‘flaunt.’” Katherine A. Powers, Book World’s audiobook reviewer, laments that so many “authors don’t know the difference between ‘lie’ and ‘lay.’”

“If those who write and publish the book won’t make the effort to get it right,” says Jane Ratteree, “the book doesn’t deserve my time and attention.”

A few words need to be retired or at least sent to the corner of the page for a timeout. Andrew Shaffer — a novelist himself — says no one should use “the word ‘lubricious’ more than once in a book (looking at you, James Hynes).” And don’t get that confused with “lugubrious,” which Wanda Daoust is equally tired of. Meanwhile, Cali Bellini finds that the word “preternatural” is “overused, abused and never necessary.”

While we’re at it, let’s avoid “bemused.” “It doesn’t mean what you think it means,” says Paula Willey.

If these responses suggest anything, it’s that readers don’t want to waste their time.

Excessive length was a frequent complaint. Jean Murray says, “First books by best-selling authors are reasonable in length; then they start believing that every word they write is golden and shouldn’t be cut.” She notes that Elizabeth George’s first novel, “A Great Deliverance” was 432 pages. Her most recent, “Something to Hide” is more than 700.

But it’s not just the books that are too long. Everything in them is too long, too. Readers complained about interminable prologues, introductions, expositions, chapters, explanations, descriptions, paragraphs, sentences, conversations, sex scenes, fistfights and italicized passages.

In fact, McCarthy may be the source of another frequent irritant: the evaporation of quotation marks. If it’s meant to seem sophisticated or streamlined, it’s not working. Speaking of Amor Towles’s “Lincoln Highway” Nancy George says the lack of “quotation marks for dialogue is just distracting.”

When authors don’t use quotation marks, “sometimes you have to reread a passage to determine who is speaking,” writes Linda Hahn.

It’s like a film director shooting in black-and-white to signal seriousness of purpose, writes Michael Bourne. Mostly, though, it just makes it hard to tell when the characters are talking. See?

Such confusion is akin to a larger objection: Readers have had quite enough of what Susan Mackay Smith calls “gratuitously confusing timelines.”

“Everything doesn’t have to be a linear timeline,” concedes Kate Stevens, “but often authors seem to employ a structure that makes the book unreadable (or at least very difficult to follow). There seems to be no reason why this is done other than to show off how clever they are.”

But clever authors are still preferable to preternaturally unrealistically clever children or talking animals, who are deeply irksome in novels — along with disabled characters who exist only to provide treacly inspiration.

And how discouraging at this late date to find so many “women who always need rescuing,” as Deborah Gravel puts it. The old sexist tropes are still shambling along in too many novels. Even when female characters are given modern-day responsibilities and occupations, they’re often pictured through the same old gauzy lens. “Nothing makes me put down a book faster,” writes Heather Martin-Detka, “than overly sexy descriptions of women in unsexy situations, e.g. a scientist at work in the lab.”

NJ Baker is done with “stupid women who start out with intelligence, then turn into blithering idiots over men who aren’t worth their shoe leather.” She admits, “Sure, it worked for Jane Austen (think ‘Pride and Prejudice’), but if you’re stuck in that type of story arc, you are not Austen.”

Of course, the classic objections that have dogged novels since they began are still current. Many readers are disgusted with explicit sex scenes (including references to “his member”) and gratuitous violence, especially against animals, children and women. “I love detective fiction of all sorts,” writes Margaret Crick, “but graphic descriptions that go on for pages, no.”

Surely, somewhere some cynical, market-driven AI scientist is working on a novel-writing program that can accommodate all these complaints for maximum marketability. Trouble is, the things we hate in books demonstrate not only infinite variety but infinite specificity.

And with that, we have come to the end.

Book writers, you’ve been warned.”

Writing that Moves Us

There is an interview in Writer’s Digest of Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, who is the Vietnamese author of nine novels, in which she talks about writing The Mountains Sing, which was published in 2020 and reviewed by The New York Times.

Born into the Việt Nam War in 1973, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai grew up witnessing the war’s devastation and its aftermath. She worked as a street seller and rice farmer before winning a scholarship to attend university in Australia. She is the author of eight books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction published in Vietnamese, and her writing has been translated and published in more than ten countries, most recently in Norton’s Inheriting the War anthology. She has been honored with many awards, including the Poetry of the Year 2010 Award from the Hà Nội Writers Association, as well as many grants and fellowships.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

What prompted you to write this book?

Then, in 2012, when I was traveling with a Vietnamese friend in a car, I asked him what it was like for him during the Việt Nam War. He told me that he was 12 years old when Hà Nội was targeted by B-52 bombers. His parents were in Russia at that time and he was living with his grandmother, who saved him from the bombing raids. His story moved me so much. When I went home that evening, after putting my two young children to bed, I sat down at my computer and googled about the bombings of Hà Nội. I heard audio broadcasts of the sirens warning citizens about bombing raids. With tears running down my face, I penned 2,000 words which eventually become the opening scene of The Mountains Sing. I wrote without knowing where the story would lead me. But I knew I had to let Grandma Diệu Lan have many children, who would be separated by historical events which in turn lead them to becoming the enemy of one another.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process? 

I took me seven years to write and edit. My vision for the book stayed the same, but the objectives became clearer: that I needed to write about war to highlight the value of peace, about darkness to be able to talk about light, and about desperation to be able to bring a sense of hope.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title? 

I have published eight books in Vietnamese and The Mountains Sing is my first novel and first book I have written in English. I learned English in the eighth grade so penning this novel felt like climbing a mountain barefoot. I arrived at the mountaintop and am stunned that the magnificent view of all the love which has been pouring in for The Mountains Sing. Never in my wildest dream did I dare think my book would be reviewed on the New York Times, NPR and is picked as a Best Book of the Month/Season by The New York TimesThe Washington PostO, The Oprah MagazineUSA TodayReal Simple…. Readers’ feedback on Goodreads has also been amazing and I am grateful beyond words.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book? 

The Mountains Sing was fueled by my wish to have a grandmother. Both of my grandmas had died before my birth. Growing up, I was very jealous of my friends who had grandmothers to tell them tales and stories of their family. So I told myself I would write a novel one day with a grandmother figure in it. And finally I found Grandma Diệu Lan in The Mountains Sing.

I have no photos of my grandmothers and as I wrote the novel, I could imagine how my grandmothers looked, I could hear their voices. Grandma Diệu Lan and her granddaughter Hương are very real to me, as well as all other characters, including Hương’ parents, uncles, and aunt.

As a writer, I used to underestimate the power of imagination. I learned that once I let go of my fears and trusted my imagination, my writing will soar and take me where it is destined to be. Of course the imagination has to be grounded in knowledge for it to be believable, so research and hard work is key.

I used to be a documentary filmmaker, and a film director once told me: “You can’t make a good film unless your hands tremble behind the camera.” Let us write stories that move us to the core, because when our pen is trembling, the reader can feel it, too.

Having Fun!

I can particularly relate to the email which Harry Bingham sent out on Friday.

It starts out with a quote about having fun: “Benjamin Jowett was a Victorian professor of Greek, a theologian and a college reformer. Photos of him have a somewhat stern and whiskery air, but he is responsible for one of my favourite quotes ever:

We have sought truth, and sometimes perhaps have found it. But have we had any fun?

I love that. As writers, we’re not all that interested in truth, so perhaps we can rephrase: We have sought a decent story, and sometimes perhaps have told one. But have we had any fun?

That quote is in my head because it occurred to me this week that perhaps my best books are also the ones I most enjoyed writing. It’s certainly true that the ones I most laboured over ended up proficient enough, but less joyous in the reading.”

He goes on to mention several books that he has written that he enjoyed writing and people have enjoyed reading. He says, “Overall, I think it is true that a joyous writing experience leads to a better reading experience. That’s nice to know in one way. Most writers could make more money in other jobs – or indeed, use those other jobs to fund their writing time – so it definitely matters that writing is fun.

But life ain’t always easy and writing isn’t always pleasurable. What happens if you are finding the writing a slog? The joyous writing = good writing rule is a comfort if you’re having fun. But doesn’t that also mean that painful writing = bad writing? In which case, the rule seems to double your troubles.

I think maybe it does.

I do strongly believe that you should write mostly for the fun of it. If you’re not actually under contract to a publisher, then why write if you hate it? Of course, in any book, there’ll be tough patches that you just have to push through, but that’s the same as any challenging hobby. Overcoming those challenges is part of the joy.

But some books have the joy/challenge balance wrong. The joy’s never quite enough, the challenges rather too constant.

So what to do? As usual, I don’t really know the answer, but my personal cocktail of solutions includes the following:

  • KBO. This was a core part of Winston Churchill’s philosophy on life. If women were around, he expressed it as “KBO”. If they weren’t, he said it plainly: Keep Bu**ering On. In the end, an ability just to push through the tough patches is the single most important quality of any writer.
  • If possible, take a break. And the breakier the break, the better. A sharp change of routine – a holiday, a love affair – is going to work better than “everything the same, but no writing”.
  • Figure out if there’s a technical flaw somewhere. A big one this, especially for less experienced writers. So often enough, you start a project with enthusiasm. At about the 30,000 word mark, that enthusiasm starts to dissipate. Then you write more text, but it just seems pointless. You don’t like what you’ve written. You give up. And often, often, often it’s because of an identifiable and fixable technical fault. So it could be something you’re doing wrong in terms of points of view. Or your sense of place. Or your plotting. Or almost anything. Those things will make your writing seem bad (because in this one specific way, it is bad). Then, since you don’t know what the issue is or how to fix it, you just give up. That’s where a professional can help.
  • Cut. Oh my goodness, this is so simple and so powerful. If you are telling a good story in 120,000 words that you could express equally well in 90,000 words – and it’s very, very common to see such things – then you have attached a huge drag anchor to your narrative. It can never leap free because you are burdening the reader with 30,000 purposeless words. Cut, my friend. Cut more than you think you can cut. Take joy in cutting. You will feel your manuscript lift and surge forward in the water. It’ll love you for the surgery. Be ambitious.
  • The dagger in the table. And sometimes, simply enough, a narrative starts to drag because it’s a bit draggy. The set-up is great. The ending you have in mind is fantastic. But the bit in-between? It’s all a bit ho-hum. So kill someone. Or have a bank robbery. Or have someone get abducted or buried underground. Offer a mid-story incident that shatters the shape of the story that the reader was expecting. Write a novel with two climaxes. Plunge the dagger into the table and watch it quiver.
  • Ask yourself: have a nailed the basic concept for this novel? If you don’t have a stellar concept, your novel will never be stellar. If your concept – your elevator pitch – just isn’t all that strong, the novel will essentially be unsaleable no matter how many nice little plot turns you have in chapter 22, and no matter how quirky you make Aunt Maisie. And if you have embarked on a novel with too little zizz, then add it. You don’t have to scrap what you’ve written and start again. You just have to find the ingredient – a ghost, a murder, a secret letter, a splash of magic, a something – that gives life to all the rest.”

I think Harry is right: that fun can make big difference in writing. I’m working on a collection of short stories, and I’m having a lot of fun writing them. But I’ve decided to stick to some rules. First of all, my idea for a new story has to be thoroughly tested in my mind for at least a week until I’m sure that readers would enjoy the story. My second rule is if the text starts to lose momentum I stop and fix it, taking whatever time it takes. So far, I’ve had only one story that I just didn’t like after three pages. And my third rule is to look at my completed work through the eyes of a sceptical reader. I keep finding little flaws that are fixable.

J K Rowling Explains

There is an article by Anita Singh in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph which gives some insight into why Ms Rowling took on the Scottish National Party and Nicola Sturgeon in the Big Trans Row.

J K Rowling

“J K Rowling has defended her stance on women-only spaces by stating the ’98-99 percent of sexual offences are caused by those born with penises.’ The Harry Potter author said she felt a ‘moral obligation’ to take on trans activists who had adopted ‘the attitude of the fundamentalist’. Those close to Rowling had implored her not to enter the debate. ‘There were people close to me who were begging me not to do it,’ she said in the latest episode of The Witch Trials of J K Rowling podcast. But Rowling said she had no choice but to stand up against ‘a movement that I see as authoritarian, illiberal. I think I have a very realistic view, not a scaremongering view, on what may happen when you loosen boundaries around single sex spaces for women and girls,’ she said. ‘I can already hear the screams of outrage: ‘You are saying that trans people are all predators.’ Of course I am not, any more than I’m saying all men are predators. I have good men in my life who are among my favourite people. But I am also aware the 98-99 percent of sexual offences are caused by those born with penises. The problem is male violence.’

According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, between 2017 and 2020, the 98 percent of victims who had experienced rape or assault by penetration since they were 16 years old reported that the perpetrator was male. Data also show that in the year ending in June, of the 6,403 people convicted of serious sexual offences, 6,223 were male – or 97.2 percent.

On why she felt moved to act, Rowling said: ‘I had been becoming increasingly concerned about the way in which women were being shut down. I was starting to see activists behaving in a very aggressive way outside feminist meetings. I’m looking at an assault now on freedom of speech, freedom of thought, even freedom of association.'”

It seems to me that some trans activists have lost the distinction between Respect and Rights in a democracy. Like any other person, a trans individual is entitled to our Respect. But Rights and Freedoms in a democracy are not unlimited. Rights and Freedoms can be trumped by individual Safety, Privacy and Fairness, as is the case with women-only spaces and most women’s sporting competitions.

Putting Emotion on the Page

Jane Freidman’s blog has a useful post about writing believable emotion. The post was written by Susan DeFreitas, who is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award, and the editor of Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursala K Le Guin, a finalist for the Foreword INDIES. An independent editor and book coach, she specializes in helping writers from historically marginalized backgrounds, and those writing socially engaged fiction, break through into publishing.

Susan DeFreitas

 “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.

It’s a saying that applies well to fiction: people often don’t remember the plots of the novels they love, but they absolutely do remember how those books made them feel.

I think this is such a huge part of what makes us readers—and writers—to begin with: as James Michener put it, “the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.”

Okay, but…how do you do that, exactly? Meaning, how do you actually generate strong emotions in the reader—and how do you get the reader to feel what your character is feeling in the moment?

There are some very specific points where you’re actually writing the character experiencing emotion in the moment.

And this is something that many otherwise excellent writers get wrong, I find, by slipping into a distanced point of views, an issue that can occur whether you’re writing in first person or third.

Here’s an example of an emotion written in a distanced way from the third person:

She felt angry. “Stop that!” she shouted.

And here it is from the first person:

I was stunned. “I’m leaving,” I announced.

On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with either of these little snippets—but the fact is, neither is likely to generate any real emotion in the reader, even if the author has set up those other key elements of the story in such a way as to predispose that reader to care.

So what will?

Let’s address why overt statements of emotion don’t work.

Think back to a time when you really were angry, or really were sad.

Did you realize, in the moment, that you were feeling angry?

Did you realize, in the moment, that you were sad?

Chances are, you didn’t. Not right away, at least. Because those words—angrysad—are the sort of labels we apply to our feelings after we’ve had a chance to process them. The feelings themselves are much more immediate and visceral.

To speak in the terms of brain science: Emotional labels like anger and sadness are generated by the frontal lobe, that advanced part of the human brain that can think about what it is thinking, and think about what it is feeling as well.

To truly put your reader in the emotional position of your POV character, you have to dig deeper, to the more primary thing, the feeling itself, which doesn’t occur in the frontal lobe at all, but rather in the older, more primal parts of the brain associated with our physical and social survival.

And that is best accomplished by body language and internal narration.

Tactic #1: Body language

Body language is generally the easier tactic for most of us to get a hold of, because we’re all quite familiar with the physical manifestations of emotion.

For anger, for instance, that might mean:

  • your hands balling up into fists
  • pursing your lips
  • clenching your napkin
  • feeling your jaw tighten
  • shoving something out of the way

Those are all physical manifestations of an emotion that tells us we may need to fight, to defend ourselves or others.

For feeling sad, that might mean:

  • feeling tears well up in your eyes
  • feeling heavy
  • needing to sit down
  • closing your eyes
  • taking a deep breath

Those are all physical manifestations of an emotion that tells us we may need to reveal our vulnerability to others, so we can get help—or that we may need to go to ground, conserve energy, and nurse our wounds.

Fiction is full of the physical manifestations of emotions, and writers can often go too far with it, having their characters leapfrog right from bad news to outright sobbing, with no pitstops in between for glassy eyes, a tear escaping down a cheek, and so forth.

But even so, this sort of “body language” is indispensable when it comes to really translating the emotion of the character to the reader. Because it’s this sort of language that the reader maps onto her own body, when she reads it.

This sort of thing actually helps your reader feel the emotion of the character, physically.

Tactic #2: Internal narrative

But to my mind, the more important tactic, when it comes to the generating emotion in the reader, are the thoughts that actually carry that emotion.

Feeling teary-eyed and heavy, feeling your jaw clench—that sort of body language carries emotion in a general sense. The thoughts associated with the specific emotions of a specific circumstance actually put us there, in this specific moment of the story.

For instance, here are some thoughts that might carry the emotion of anger in a specific circumstance:

Julie couldn’t believe it—her best friend had betrayed her, and hadn’t even had the decency to try to hide it. How had Julie so disastrously misjudged her? And here Julie had thought they’d still be friends when their kids were grown, when they were two old biddies getting up early to hit the estate sales…

And here are some thoughts that might carry the emotion of sadness in a specific circumstance:

Maybe I should have seen it coming, but I hadn’t. In fact, I hadn’t had the slightest idea that anything was even wrong until the moment she said it. And now everything I’d worked so hard to build was crumbling down around me…

These sorts of thoughts are part our internal narration—the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, and about what’s going on in our life. These sorts of thoughts help us formulate and preserve our identity, and to negotiate our social environment.

Internal narration  does a lot to show the reader the meaning the character takes from the event being related, which helps to keep us clearly in that person’s point of view—and helps us to feel exactly what they’re feeling.

Combining tactics

Now here’s the body language and the thoughts conveying anger combined:

Julie could feel her hands balling up into fists as she clenched the napkin in her lap. Her best friend had betrayed her, and hadn’t even had the decency to try to hide it. How had Julie so disastrously misjudged her? And here Julie had thought they’d still be friends when their kids were grown, when they were two old biddies getting up early to hit the estate sales…

Here’s the combined body language and thoughts conveying sadness:

I could feel tears prickling in my eyes, so I squeezed them shut. Maybe I should have seen it coming, but I hadn’t. In fact, I hadn’t had the slightest idea that anything was even wrong until the moment she said it. And now everything I’d worked so hard to build was crumbling down around me…”

This is a good little tutorial.