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Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Saving Grace of Brackets

I really really suck at writing endings. I rush into them, and the conflict that built so well through the Black Moment just... disappears. And boom, happy ending. Or at least, I stop writing. I have hated my first draft ending for everything I've written in the three years that I've been writing seriously.

So when I got close to the ending for the manuscript I just completed, I decided to do something different: I didn't write it. I knew I was going to get stuck writing the conclusion, and that whatever I came up with would suck, so I got 2/3 through the story, wrote a terrible ending that was way too fast-paced for the story, and started revising.

As I revised, I was better able to understand my plot and wrap my mind around which of the three different endings I'd thought of would work best with the story. I planned more conflicts for the second and third acts as I rewrote the early parts, and by the time I wrote the ending for real, I was pleased with it.

I realize that not everyone sucks at endings like I do, but I think everyone has their own Achilles' heel. Even the best writers have the part that they're least-awesome at. Maybe it's witty dialogue. You know you need some, but when the moment comes to write it, it always falls short. Maybe it's scenery—you see it in your head, it just never makes it onto paper. Maybe it's sentence rhythm. No matter what you do, your sentences fall flat when read aloud.

My advice: skip it. Even if it were beginnings or middles that I struggled with, I still would have skipped my weakest part (with only a vague sketch to get out my worst ideas) as I wrote my fast draft. If you really need witty dialogue, but slowing down to think of something will take you a few days, just write "[insert witty dialogue here--Karen zings Horace]" and come back to it later. If you can't picture a scene, but you need your reader to, write "[insert fitting description of room]" and then keep going. That's the important part: understand why you're stuck, make a note to fix it later, and keep going.

In my most recent book, I had so many brackets--research I needed to do, names I couldn't remember offhand, dialogue I couldn't get right the first time... and missing scenes after the midpoint. When I did my first revision, I could just search for opening brackets and look at what I needed to fix. With my editing brain on, I was able to come up with a solution that I wouldn't have managed during the original drafting.

When I remember that not everything has to go down perfectly in the first draft, and give myself permission to save research and "hard stuff" for later, then the most important part of the process happens: I get the book written.

Rochelle Deans sometimes feels like the only writer on the planet who rushes through the writing so she can start editing. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and young daughter. Her bad habits include mispronouncing words, correcting grammar, and spending far too much time on the Internet.


Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Ohmigosh, I do the same trick! I thought I was the only one.

I find if I come across something that would get me stuck, if I stop to figure it out or research it or nutter it out, I lose momentum.

By putting in square brackets and notes about what's supposed to go there, I can keep going.

I'm terrible with the conception of names. I once finished a ms to final draft with a character named LLLL (four L's for search'n'replace convenience) before he got named.

Melissa Sugar said...

This is the best advice I've read in a really long time. I also struggle with the ending. I usually have two or more alternate endings and I can picture them vividly in my mind, but like you said, I seem to rush through them. Everything up to that point is written with escalating stakes, tension, setups and payoff, but each time I read the draft of my ending it falls short and doesn't seem to fit with the tension and voice of the rest of my novel. It's good to know I'm not the only person with this issue. Most of the articles and blog posts I read are written by authors who love writing the climax and ending. They savor it. It's their best writing. I was beginning to wonder what was wrong with me that I didn't share their enthusiasm and I couldn't understand why my writing pittered out toward the end. It makes perfect sense to begin with revisions after reaching the 2/3 mark. I can see how it might be much easier to write a more compelling and rewarding ending, after I've fleshed out many plot holes and character issues and when I know more about the entire story. I'm so glad I read this today.

You mentioned giving ourselves permission to skip over [inserting brackets] the areas or parts that are not are strongest areas of writing and you went on to name a few. Unfortunately, the ending is not my only problem. I can toss out good dialogue all day long and I can amp up the stakes and suspense, but for the life of me - I just plain suck at writing setting descriptions. It's probably connected to the way I read and what I like to read or there may be another reason for my issue. When reading a novel, I like authors who provide minimal setting description ( unless the setting is a character itself or some exotic locale, but when the setting is just another police station, Resturant, courtroom, hospital, office building, coffee shop or bar, I get bored quickly when the writer goes on and on for pages, describing every facet of the interior design, every sound, smell etc. I like just enough to ground me and let me know where we are. I believe I'm in the minority on this issue, but I tend to skim long overly descriptive passages.

When writing my draft I get so hung up on finding the perfect word(s) to describe setting and making sure I include all of the senses that it takes my head out of the writing and it's hard to get back into to moment where the words just flow. Thanks for this article. I'm going to leave lots of brackets from now on for setting descriptions. I can fix them during my revisions, but I'm not sure, even then, if I will ever write setting descriptions that naturally flow. It's my Achilles heel for sure.

Anonymous said...

Yep, I do this, too. Not for endings, so much, but for sections where I'm not really sure what should go there, or for small notes that I know I need to research and come back to later. Helps me stay in the flow of writing without getting too hung up in other areas.