How do you know that you’ve finished a piece of creative work, apart from typing ‘the end’? Maybe you’ve built up to a dramatic climax. Or closed in on a quiet resolution? You end the book with that sigh of satisfaction you get when reading a really good novel.
If you’ve made sense of a story set in an otherwise messy, unresolved world, it’s something to be proud of. Many devotees of crime fiction relish the chance to make order out of chaos.
Anne Tyler has said she knows when she has finished a book when she stops wondering what will happen to her characters. She knows exactly where they are and that’s enough. There are no sequels to her books.
‘Be mean with your ideas,’ said Joan Aiken, and it’s advice I’ve often given as an editor. Examine the heart of your story from as many angles as you can, rather than adding on additional themes or tangents.
Cut, cut, cut.
I love that idea, but I also like the idea of writing on and on and on …
I love the idea of piecing fragments together, like working with mosaics. Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City sequence began as a weekly column. Then an editor at the publishing house Harper and Row suggested ‘There might be a novel there …’
‘So I spent a week (in a friend’s house) arranging chapters on the living room floor until they assumed a shape I could find acceptable. It was the first and only time I ever worked like that, and I found it immensely satisfying.’
I also love the idea of returning to recurring characters – hopefully by popular demand – and showing their evolution as well as the changes in the world about them. (Who’s up for a modern-day version of A Dance to the Music of Time?)
Of course, you can create prequels and sequels. But haven’t we all read continuations that didn’t need to be written? They can diminish the original instead of extending it.
You could be the Cassandra of the modern novel and unpick and unpick and never finish it.
Or you can write something new.
I think that’s where I am now. I’m writing out the old book, Ready to Love, by writing about the writing of it, rather than writing more bits of it. That’s not to say I won’t go back to the characters, because they do have events ahead of them that I’ve already prescribed. And I really write to write a sitcom-in-a-novel or a kind of serial book.
In my Ross Raisin-style notebook (which still exists solely in my head), Minna and Jeff are at the beginning of their relationship. But is that the start of their story? Maybe how they got together is their story?
Would I mind if that’s the case? Will readers?
You have to find the right moment to join your characters. Just as important if knowing when to leave them.