Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Posts Tagged ‘Writing: Fiction

Reading Critically

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My friend has written his first novel and joined a writers’ group to get some feedback on his work. He’s enjoying the discussions and is learning a lot, but he asked me the other day how he could better contribute. He felt like he didn’t have as much to offer about other writers’ work as they did about his.

The most useful thing about critique groups is the variety of things that the people point out. You might not agree with everything or act on everything, for instance, but if one reader had the thought or comment, you know that many others will, so it’s worth considering each comment and looking at text to see if you might change something to make the comment or question go away. If you can offer those kinds of comments, your critique group will appreciate your attendance even more than if you’re merely written something really good.

What to Look For

There are many contributing factors to reading critically. Here’s a fairly bald list of the things that I look for as a substantive editor, and the kinds of things you might look for when asked to read critically.


  • Accuracy. If it’s non-fiction, this is a given. But if it’s fiction, are allusions correct (for instance, do you have a troubadour playing the lute in Northern Germany in the 12 century? Believe me, people know that the troubadours never came that far north and not that early and that there weren’t lutes yet)? If anything can be checked and verified, some reader WILL check it and let it be known that there’s a mistake. As a critical reader, it’s your obligation to pose the question if you have doubts (did people use oil lamps in their homes in 14th century France, or would they have used candles?) or ask them to check it out.
  • Basic grammar and syntax. Is anything distracting about the way the work is written? Are things conjugated properly, and does the writer use words correctly (are the meanings conventional or obscure—or incorrect—are there unnecessary or distracting foreign words, are there made-up words, and if so, is their meaning obvious from context)? Are things capitalized that ought to be, and not when they shouldn’t? Are they capitalized and spelled consistently?
  • Compelling plot/story. If the subject matter is obscure, has the author found a way to make it interesting to folks who might be new to the subject? If the subject matter is well-known, do they have something innovative or unusual to offer?
  • Headings, titles, and subheadings. Can you read only these elements and have a clear sense of where you’re going to end up? Has the writer been clever in a way that makes the work itself less appealing (sarcasm, in-jokes, pop-culture references, etc.) to a wide audience?
  • Hook. The piece has to start with something interesting enough to make the reader want to persist. That means every piece, every heading or subheading, every new chapter, has to hook us, not just the first paragraph. You might not come up with a better hook for someone else’s work, but you might be able to help the writer think in those terms or tighten up an existing hook.
  • Punctuation and formatting. There are plenty of great resources on how to do these things properly, including my own Web page (, among others). Give them a read, and try your best to comply. No one’s perfect, but coming close earns you points. Nothing makes a publisher or a learned reader crazier than to have someone heedlessly ignore these niceties. Such things are the difference between readers thinking that the writer is a clever fellow with an interesting tale and thinking he’s a crackpot.
  • Tense: Does the work waffle from past to present to future?  It’s very helpful to point out waffling because a reader might not know why they’re losing interest, but it’s often this sort of confusion causing the dismay. If every word is valuable, the reader will be grateful. (Swobbling across tenses implies that the verbs are not valuable, which means that none of the action is important.)

Language Choices

  • Clarity. Can fewer words or better words express the same thing? If the expression “in other words” shows up, even the writer already knows that she hasn’t been clear.
  • Dialog and dialect. Is your dialog distracting or is it informative? Have you spent time making people sound like they really would sound and dumfounded readers with tin ears who can’t understand? (Note: Dialect is VERY hard to do well. Until you’ve got rather a lot of experience, reserve most such self-indulgences for the rare injection.) Are there natural hesitations in speech, the “well”, “er,” and “um” that all of us say, and the “I mean,” “like,””actually,” “really” and other ubiquitous empty expressions that many of us sprinkle liberally into any given sentence, and have you thereby bored the stuffing out of the reader? Point out curses or foul language that is gratuitous. Yup, hardly anyone is offended or surprised by these words anymore, but that doesn’t mean writing is improved by their presence. Dialog is a great way to show action (rather than tell about action), but point out if it’s sounding like a transcript. Dialog should serve a purpose other than providing color or breaking up a page.
  • Passive voice. Passive voice distances the reader (and the writer) from what has been written. It can be useful if the character is avoiding admitting complicity in a crime or the marketing department doesn’t want to admit that their product doesn’t really work, but it’s pretty tiresome reading, sentence after sentence.
  • Pompous voice. Are the word choices ordinary language? Readers soon tire of running to the dictionary. It’s another way to distance the reader, rather literally, I’m afraid. If you haven’t heard of the word, there’s a good likelihood that other readers won’t know it either.
  • Repetition. If something repeats, it had better be furthering the plot or there for obvious artistic purposes, or readers will soon be ripping out their hair and walking away. Repeating the story itself is the worst offence, but repeating words is almost as bad. You have to repeat nouns, obviously, but repeating adjectives, adverbs, and verbs appears lazy. And it’s distracting and boring. Point ‘em out, even if you think they might not be a problem.
  • Suitability. If it’s historical fiction, for instance, no one before the 20th century would say “okay” because it’s a radio term. Unless a priest is a bad guy, he’s not likely to curse in casual conversation. If readers are young adults or children, five-syllable words, discussion of historical facts (like wars and mutinies or rulers of obscure places) will lose them fast unless these subjects are the subject of the piece. If the audience is adults, the writing should not also make a five-year old happy. 


  • Sentence and paragraph length. Is there enough variety to keep the reader stimulated or does it grow monotonous? Have short sentences been used to promote breathlessness and long sentences to slow the action down? Are there long paragraphs making the page look daunting, or are there a whole series of single lines making the page look like a children’s picture book without the pictures?
  • Story arc. If you took an outline (for fiction or non-fiction), could you see a clear arc of discovery from the introduction of the idea or plot line, through each paragraph, to an endpoint that would have been predictable to someone who knew where they’d end up before they read it?
  • Title appropriateness. Does the majority (and I mean 80%, not 51%) of the piece answer the demands of the title? In other words, if the piece has a title like “Why I Like Sailing,” does it talk about the joy of the activity, or does it talk about wind velocities, boat types, the best places to go sailing, and so forth? The title and the content should match. If it’s fiction, does every paragraph promote either the story itself or character development?


  • Complexity. Can you imagine any other way to tell the story? If you can, tell the writer cautiously, or you’re in for an argument. It might be of value to point it out, though, so just weigh your words before letting fly.
  • Connection. If it’s fiction, do you relate to the characters? Why or why not? Is it something from your personal experience that makes you respond this way, or will a general readership feel the same? If it’s non-fiction, do you feel informed or entertained by the piece? Do you feel invested in the future of the discussion or characters sufficiently to want to read through to the end, or is a small sampling sufficient?
  • Continuity. Is the character wearing a green shirt at the start of the scene and a blue one at the end? Would the character, who claimed to be a pescatarian in chapter one, tuck into a big plate of steak in chapter three?
  • Motivation. Why are the characters behaving as they do? In many cases, the reader doesn’t need to be told why, but it needs to be apparent that the writer knows. In order for someone to be plausibly irritable, for instance, they can’t just be discovered drowning kittens. They have to have been pushed to their last strand of sanity and the reader needs to see some of that. The work needn’t show all the things that made the characters the way they are, but a character who’s evil for the sake of having an evil character only works in cartoons. Implausibly cheerful characters are just as grating.
  • The point. Is the writer telling the story to hear his own voice, or does he have something interesting or important that needs conveying? Yup, I know, it’s fun to wind the story up. But readers soon grow weary if they’re always being wound up.
  • Recurring themes. Does the writer have a soapbox that they keep climbing back up on? Can you recognize a character by an activity, a turn of phrase or a facial tic? Is it too much, just enough, or do you want more?
  • Show, don’t tell. If there isn’t a lot of action, and the action doesn’t lead readers deeper into the plot, there’s probably an inequality of telling the story rather than letting the reader discover for themselves. Good writing doesn’t tell the reader “be sad now;” good writing makes the reader feel sad. Sometimes it’s necessary to tell what this looked like or what happened in the past, but the reader is invested better if they have to ferret it out for themselves. Oh, and what one person thinks is a tale of horror and moral decay, another reader thinks is hysterically humorous. Both responses are legitimate. The writer shouldn’t pick the readers’ responses; they should hope for certain reactions, and you will help the writer if you reveal that your response was perhaps not what they expected or intended, or if it differs from what other reviewers felt.
  • Tension. What needs to happen to make the story progress? Why should we care? If it’s a murder mystery, well, there’s a problem to solve. That’s easy. But other forms of literature are harder to inject urgency into. What is it about the story that compels the reader deeper?

Presenting Your Comments.
Some people start with the good comments first. I like to mix them up, so that the good stuff isn’t colored by harsher comments. (We are, after all, a society that loves to linger on the negatives.) You don’t want the writer to stop writing; you want the writing to get better, right? Direct all your comments, the positive and the negative, so that your goal of helping the writer improve is apparent.

I make smiley faces in the margins when something strikes me as really good, for whatever reason (super clear sentences in a sea of otherwise purple prose, a clever or evocative expression, something unexpectedly funny, etc.). Other people highlight, make check marks, etc. Make sure that the author knows what you liked and why you liked it.

I try to find things that the writer does well, like perhaps they don’t write well (which I don’t say literally) but it’s a really good story. Or it’s maybe twice as long as it needs to be (which I will say kindly and gently and with clearly marked areas that could be cut) but it’s beautifully written. Maybe the story isn’t all that compelling (I don’t care why these people are here doing these things) but the characters are really well developed.  Perhaps the work seems overwrought, over-edited, and over-thought and suddenly, there’s finally a paragraph of wonderful, relaxed prose.

In some cases, the writer reads the piece aloud in the group, and the critique is extemporaneous. This is a hard way to do it because one person will say, “oh, I didn’t like such and such” and everyone else will say “yah, me too,” obscuring whether they’d actually had the thought themselves or just recognized it as true once they heard it. There’s a difference. Some readers can identify what they do or don’t like, but most people have a general sense of liking or not liking it and no clear idea of why they feel that way. It’s hard to gauge into which category the item falls with this “group think” response. However, it’s very interesting to hear how the words sound out loud—the writer will discover many things for themselves that did not leap out at them when they were reading silently. And, of course, you can learn what sorts of things people make note of, and add them to your list of things to look for yourself.

Other groups submit their work in advance, and each reader has a chance to review as much as they want before the meeting. For readers like me, this allows several passes (one for the story, one for grammar/syntax/formatting/punctuation, one for continuity, and one for fine tuning) and it allows me to edit my own comments, to make sure that they’re all helpful, positive, and clear. The comments are read aloud, and again, you have a chance to see what sorts of things other people point out and add them to your list.

Some groups don’t meet in person. This works much the same as the advance submission, where each participant has the opportunity to read the submissions several times, but it loses some of the interesting discussions that come because one person thought it was a romantic story and another thought it was a tale of stalking. (This happened recently during a discussion of Proust’s “Swann’s Way.” It was very surprising indeed.)

Whichever way your group works, there’s a lot to be gained by participating in critical review. Your editor/agent/publisher might be happier to get your work if it’s squeaky clean, but also, they are rather likely to just put you in the “no” pile if your work is too rough, rather than working with you to smooth it out. The critique might help you avoid the “no” pile.

Written by Melanie Spiller

November 29, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Poking at Things

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I spent a large portion of the weekend trying to write a synopsis of my novel. It’s a funny thing: If it’s someone else’s work, I can be creative and witty—and brief—but if it’s my own work, I can only be academic and dry. This is strange, because the book I’ve written is only a little academic and not at all dry.

It seems obvious now, but one thing I learned both from my non-historically oriented writers’ group and from the historical novel reading I’ve been doing lately, is that the academic stuff won’t sell books to non-academics. So, in a manner of speaking, I’m “dumbing” my book down.

I wanted to show a 12th century German monastery as a stark contrast to modern perceptions of monasteries and the Middle Ages, and to teach about Hildegard von Bingen’s life without writing yet another book  featuring Hildegard as the star. But it turns out that all of that “showing” came out like a bunch of “telling.”

I think the crux of the problem is that much of a nun’s life  is internal, and many revelations came through the thoughts of my narrator nun so that it looks like a lot of expository writing on the page before a single word is read. In my second draft, I’m trying to squish a lot of that. My writers’ group told me (in so many words) that it was daunting, even when their own work employed a similar amount of exposition. So it is either my writing that is daunting (gadzooks!) or this is the nature of writing about something completely unfamiliar to an uncontrolled audience.

I’ve decided, then, that in the interest of getting published, even though this one is the nearest and dearest subject matter that I will likely ever write, I’m dumping a LOT of the internal dialogs. They might move over to the memoir/travel guide to things Hildegardian, and they might end  up as bits of purple type stored in a “bits and pieces” folder on my hard drive.

Also, through the course of writing a synopsis and a summary of the various chapters, I have discovered that I left out one of Hildegard’s miracles, the curing of a blind child. Go figure. Now there’s a big yellow ADD note appended to the opening of the appropriate chapter awaiting revision. How hideous.

I’ve sent my summary/synopsis to three or four friends to solicit “sharpening” ideas, because—you know—I don’t market myself well. And in at least one case, I’ve done a fair amount of poking around in her work, so I’m pretty clear about her quick wit and clever connection-making. But, um, I haven’t heard from any of them (other than a willingness to do it). So now I’m suffering a crisis of confidence in with all the other angst about dumbing down my book.

Even worse, I’ve run out of closets to clean. No really. The hall is done, the walk-in, all the kitchen cupboards, and the bedroom. Even the refrigerator is clean. I suppose I haven’t done the bathroom, but that should take all of five minutes. I’m going to have to <chokes> work on revising my books, I guess.

Written by Melanie Spiller

June 7, 2011 at 3:21 pm

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Round Two of my Hildegard von Bingen novel is underway, and simultaneously (for reasons of pure avoidance), so is the travel guide to Things Hildegardian.

Thinking about how I will revise each chapter is fun. I went through and put a story arc on each fictional chapter (as I’d threatened to do in The Story Arc) and now I can see the slow points. I highlighted them in the outlines. I can focus on whether to add some action, change direction or tone, or just lop off the slow bits.

In the first chapter, it was pretty easy to lop off the beginning right after the second slow point. The lopped bits provided some context for the scene, but they didn’t really further the story much beyond introducing the characters and their location in time and place. The characters can introduce themselves during the less slow parts. See? That wasn’t so bad.

But all that reckless abandon and lopping away caused a dilemma. You see, I’d used the early part of that first chapter to show something about life in the Middle Ages within a convent, things my early readers had trouble understanding without a little help (oh, those pesky modern sensibilities!). Now I’ve got to find some clever way to put those little snippets of facts into the action. Someone can coyly say “oh she’s one of the reluctant nuns,” I suppose, and things of that nature.

Some of that knowledge of the 12th century needs to be in place for the second chapter to go smoothly. So there I sat, looking at Chapter Two as if it were a three-headed monster that had swooped up from under the davenport.

I turned my attention to the travel guide. I thought this would be easy—after all, I’m changing it to a memoir with an appendix full of directions for how to get there. Initially, it wasn’t hard, I plopped the directions into an appendix and then massaged the memoir-style stuff to flow nicely. But then I encountered the interesting tidbits about non-Hildegard things to see in the town. These are interesting! I can’t just lop them off! I can’t make another chapter or appendix for non-Hildegard things, can I? I mean, the memoir must include all the non-Hildegard things I did or it’s not the whole experience.

This led to the horrible question: Does it really have to be accurate? In other words, will anyone really mind if I go out of order, combine several trips into one, skip bits that I think won’t be interesting or add off-topic bits because they’re interesting or funny? (Like the fifteen-foot tall foot and ankle that I encountered outside a library in Mainz. Wouldn’t you be sad if that were missing?)

In the Travel Guide, the feedback of my readers was that the personal vignettes were the best parts. So my excursions around the town, Hildegardian or otherwise, are of interest, right? I mean the theme of the whole book is Hildegard and I plan to teach about her life as I go, but a memoir doesn’t need to be completely focused, does it? Shouldn’t it ramble into my own experience rather more than not?

And the fiction book, well, it’s fiction even though it’s based on history. I want to teach the facts, but it isn’t, after all, an academic exercise. So I have to snuggle the facts in there with the more entertaining aspects of the story. Can I use this technique in the non-fiction book?

I don’t know. I think I’ll go “revise” a closet or something. It’s gotta be easier.

Written by Melanie Spiller

May 24, 2011 at 11:06 am

The Full-Page Dilemma

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I always thought that facing the blank page was many writers’ problem. I don’t struggle with it much, myself. But lots of writers have told me about it and I believe it’s a real problem.

I have the opposite problem. I’ve written and written and the first draft is finished, and now I have to revise. If someone gives me feedback and tells me where I’m too wordy or the metaphor doesn’t work, I’m eager and ready to do the work of repairing it. But left to my own devices?

I think the trouble is that I am very comfortable writing. I like words—I like their nuance and their infinite variety. And, I play with words. I love a pun, I love collectives (I collect them:, and I often enjoy using a word that is appropriate but not often called upon in a given circumstance.

So when I reread my work, I’m embarrassed to say, I enjoy reading what I’ve written. Oh, it’s not that I’m not critical of my own work. It’s that as I attempt to revise it, I often compound the problem by being, well, ME during the revision.

I suspect that the trick is to try to read as if I were someone else. If someone called Adrienne (my dear friend) were to read, what would she call out as convoluted or misdirecting? Or what about my dad, who doesn’t like when it’s sarcastic or snarky?

I think there’s a certain handicap to writing easily. Perhaps if I agonized over the words, there wouldn’t be so many of them. (I think my worst offense is wordiness.)

Here I sit with several complete (and lengthy) documents ready for revision. The most pressing are a work project, my travel journal/memoir/travel guide and my historical novel. Oh, and I’m not counting the two and a half novels that I wrote off and on during the early 2000s.

Oh, and I have the next historical novel bubbling away under the mild-mannered surface. It’s so much more appealing to start the new thing than to do the disciplined, gown-up, and responsible thing and revise my finished works before starting the new. After all, if I do the second drafts, I lose the excuse for not getting published.


Let’s look at what’s stopping me. The work project isn’t a priority for the department, so it’s hard to scrape time together to focus on it. Not only that, perhaps no one will look at it when it’s finished anyway.

The travel journal/memoir/travel guide has been in the works since 1998, and frankly, although I’m thrilled to have finished the first version of it, the revision from travel guide to memoir format is so huge that I don’t want to do it. I’d rather clean the house or something. Oh, once I get started, I know it will be fine, but it’s the getting started that is the hard part. It’s the full-page dilemma.

And the fun one, the historical novel, well, I’m waiting for feedback from my writing group. Even though they’ve reviewed the early chapters and I figured out how to solve some basic problems within those early chapters. They’re going to review the rest next month. Uh huh. I could get started. But not having the whole thing reviewed is an excuse so I don’t have to start.

Look at me. I’m sitting here blogging about not starting rather than starting.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 14, 2011 at 1:42 pm

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When Characters Take Control

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There I was, all prepared to write the death scene of my historical figure, and I was debating about whether my (entirely fictional) protagonist would repent her wicked ways or carry her jealousy into the next world with her, when POOF! I accidentally killed off another character.

There are three main characters: the protagonist, the protagonist’s best friend who is also the narrator, and the historical figure. There’s a minor fourth character who serves as bearer of news and as general innocent, so the others can have edifying conversations.

I’d written the historical stuff that needed to happen in this chapter when the innocent wanders off into the woods (mushroom hunting), topples off a precipice, and breaks her leg. She manages to flutter about being carried back to the monastery by a burly manservant, but then she succumbs to shock.

I sat there bawling my eyes out as I wrote her faltering; telling the narrator what is to be done with her meager belongings and then the silent aftermath of her death. But once it was written, I was stunned. I hadn’t planned to kill her off—in fact, now I have a problem with the end of the book.

I tried to un-write it, to bring her back to life. Then I tried to justify the death, showing how hard things were in the middle ages and how crude medicine was. I also told myself that it was a foreshadowing of everyone else dying in the next two chapters, everyone but the narrator. (They are all quite elderly. Obviously the historical figure’s life has to end, and I wanted the jealous protagonist to live a roughly parallel life.)

Then, I told someone what I’d done, and how silly I felt crying over a character that on some level I had chosen to kill off. She said, “Don’t write things that don’t promote your plot.” Wise words.

However. Because it’s not a complete work of fiction, some of my plot is driven by historical facts. Chapters are defined by getting to the next momentous event. To keep it from being dry and sounding like non-fiction, I interspersed fictional events that sometimes had to do with furthering the plot and often had to do with revealing life in the 12th century, especially in a nunnery, which is not at all like modern preconceptions (if my writing group is any indication).

I’d addressed the historical event in the chapter already, and because I have a psychological problem with having chapters each of 16-20 pages and then suddenly writing one of only four pages, my sweet little minor character went slipping off the edge.

Oh, I could have leapt forward in time a few months and let the historical figure die her natural and well documented death. But I wanted that particular event to occupy a whole chapter on its own, so the weight of it can be revealed. And I wanted room for my protagonist’s thoughts about it.

So I killed off my innocent. I hadn’t planned to, didn’t know I was going to do it until it was already underway, but that’s what I did.

Many years ago, some creative writing teacher or other told me that when your characters take on their own lives and you lose control of their actions, that’s when you’ve written a plausible character. I’ve had it happen before, where the characters began behaving in a way that I had not planned or foreseen but that was entirely in keeping with my plot. This is the first time where it took the plot somewhere I hadn’t expected to go.

And I’ve slept on it for a few days now, and I think I like it that way. She stays dead. Rest in peace.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 9, 2011 at 11:43 pm

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The Story Arc

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Pretty much any resource on writing fiction will tell you that there needs to be a natural arc to the story that you tell. If you’re writing for theater, it’s in three acts:

  • Introduce the characters and the dilemma.
  • Bring the characters and dilemma to a crisis.
  • Solve the crisis.

For fiction, it works roughly the same as for theater, whether it’s a novel or shorter fiction. In a novel, you might have a long drawn out arc that parallels the three acts, and in each chapter you’ll have shorter versions.

Rules are made to be broken, though, right? I mean, how many murder mysteries have you read where the chapters are only a page or two long. Each chapter is basically a “scene,” driving toward a satisfying point along the arc, but not having much of an arc itself. You can almost imagine the writers’ work ethic: One chapter a day. Or one page a day.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but obviously, you can’t break the rules endlessly or people will grow tired of plot points without any connection to one another. And there’s the reverse, where the whole story is one long stream of consciousness, unbroken into digestible chunks. There may be an arc, but it’s darned hard to ferret it out.

I have a dilemma, as I sit facing the first round of revisions on my freshly finished (or nearly finished) historical novel. You see, real lives don’t necessarily come with a nice story arc. There’s a fair amount of dishwashing and planting the crops and such that don’t warrant coverage. In a novel where everything is fictional, you can design the characters’ lives around nice plot arcs, but it’s not so for fiction based on real people. Especially if a lot of people know a lot about your central character.

In my first draft, I peppered a fairly factual account of a famous person’s life with little vignettes that revealed how life was in the 12th century and the skeptical attitudes of   contemporaneous people toward the famous person who later became fairly universally revered. Some of the little vignettes felt contrived as I wrote them. Tales at the end of the book felt particularly contrived as I headed toward the end of the lives of my stars. Like I was filling in the space between accomplishments.

I think what I’ll do as part of my revision process is something I’m always telling technical writers and editors to do:

I’m going to pull an outline out of the work.

Chapter by chapter, I’m going to make an outline so that I can see where I do and don’t have arcs. Maybe there are some plot points that are pathways rather than arcs, but I don’t want any true side trips and I want to make sure that everything drives toward the same end point.

I’ll let you know how that goes.

Written by Melanie Spiller

February 25, 2011 at 11:14 am

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Heading Toward the Final Words

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I’m writing Chapter 19 of a 20-chapter novel. It’s a historical novel, so we all know that everyone dies in the end. I admit that I’ve tossed in a few vignettes here and there to kind of while away a year or four and reveal a bit more about the time and place. But what on earth am I going to write when the final breath has floated out into the chill morning air?

I hadn’t really thought about the ending until now, when it is a matter of grinding through the last few events to get to the end of the central character’s life. In a way, I have a certain license—I didn’t chronicle the famous person’s life exactly, I chronicled the life of her rival. Everything my protagonist does is in context of the famous woman. So I suppose I can kill my protagonist off in much the same way as the famous person.

But is that worth waiting for? Will that lead my readers to the point of closing the book with satisfaction and wondering what happens to the surviving characters? Or rather, will it leave them with a feeling of plodding through a laundry list of events?

Okay, so perhaps I can end the rivalry, have a letter sent from the famous one that says something like “I always admired you.” Or the unfamous one can have a moment of clarity and realize that the other woman never knew that there was a competition and she’d been in it alone all along. Or maybe her last words are of bitter remorse or maybe more rivalry. Or maybe she has a humiliating death and her last thoughts are on the order of “sheesh.”

Or maybe the famous one’s last gesture is one that ultimately causes the death of the other—one final fit of apoplexy.

It never occurred to me when I started writing the book that there would be any difficulty here. I mean, I knew that everyone dies in the end, even my narrator has to go sooner or later (it ends in 1179). You (my reader here) even know that everyone is dead at the end and you haven’t read any of it.

I had trouble in the middle, when it switched from setting everything in motion to plodding through the “this happens and then that happens” that provides the bulk of the middle. It was hard to get a good subplot going that would maintain the forward thrust of the novel but allow a little respite from straight historical narration.

Then I had trouble when the narrator goes to see a play written by the famous person. It’s a pivotal play—it changed the nature of theater in one sense, but also, it reveals oodles about the character of the famous person and her rival, and the times in which they lived. The narrator has to narrate the play while interjecting her own thoughts about it. I started by paraphrasing the play, but that was four pages of text that didn’t move the plot of my novel along. Then I tried synopsizing the play with a few quotations and some whispered thoughts, and then cut cut cut, but in the end, well, I’m not happy with that chapter yet.

But I thought the end would be easy. I know how and when the famous person dies. The rivalry doesn’t have to die with her—my character has been alone in the rivalry for nearly 60 years by that time, and she can easily maintain her peevishness if I want. Or not.

I thought about letting my protagonist die before the famous person, but the mythology that arose from the famous person’s death seems like a good thing to toss into the craw of my jealous character.

If I provide a nice fit of apoplexy for my protagonist, what of my narrator? How does she close the book? Do we just watch the protagonist die, shrug, and say something profound? Or trite?

What do you think?

Written by Melanie Spiller

February 18, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Writing

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