Part of it was because they (innocently, I believe) mentioned the idea that publishing is some sort of competition. Which it isn’t. Anyone who’s earnestly pushing that idea, that I’m somehow competing against other writers, is saying a lot more about themselves than they are about any aspect of publishing. Seriously.
And right after that someone on my twitter feed mentioned they’d given up on the idea they’d ever be a published novelist. Which was kind of heartbreaking, to hear someone’s given up on a dream. But it’s also tough to counter because… well, “published” isn’t always the neat, clean goal some folks think it is.
Anyway, I went to answer the first comment, started thinking about the second, and that’s how we ended up with a bonus post. These aren’t tips or tricks but more guideposts. If I’ve finished my manuscript and I want to be published, there are certain decisions and admissions that need to be made. I may be way off—and I’m open to hearing other thoughts–but I think if I want to succeed in publishing, there’s three things I need to be very honest about.
That’s the big thing here. I need to be completely, brutally honest with myself.
First is being honest about my manuscript. Is it the absolute best it can be? Have I really put in the work? Did I do multiple drafts? Line edits? Get feedback? Did I listen to the feedback? I’ve mentioned once or thrice that “good enough” isn’t going to be an easy sell, for me to an agent or for an agent to an editor.
Again, we’re not talking about what it can be with help from that professional editor. We don’t care about how cool the adaptation’s going to look on the big screen. How is this manuscript? Seriously.
Second is being honest about how many people my manuscript is really going to appeal to. We all love the idea of the runaway bestseller with millions of copies in print anddozens oftranslations. But the simple truth is that’s very rare. Maybe one book a year does that. Maybe. And simple math tells us… it’s probably not going to be our book. I mean, hell… my own grandmother never read any of my books. They just weren’t her thing.
So I need to really consider this. How many people are realistically going to want to read my book? Will it only appeal to die-hard splatterpunk fans? Would most mystery readers enjoy it, or only cozy readers? Yeah, it’s a fantastic sci-fi epic, but how big is the market for sci-fi epics right now?
Having a realistic understanding of how much my book will sell makes it a lot easier to sell my book. It also gives me a good sense of what path I want to be on. A book with broad appeal has a better chance with a big traditional publisher, while a more niche book may do well at a small press, and a very niche book could make me a lot of money self-published.
Third, maybe the toughest, is being honest about what I really want out of this. Why do I want to be published? Am I hoping to make storytelling a career? Do I just crave the validation that somebody thought I was worth publishing? Do I want a six-figure advance? Am I just hoping to get invited to better parties the next time I’m at a con? Am I seeing this as a stepping stone to Hollywoodor comics or something else? Is this just all about getting chosen for you-know-who’s book club?
There’s a lot of book clubs out there after this past year. There’s probably one we’d all like to get chosen for.
It may feel like there’s a lot of overlap and room for multiple choices in that mess of questions, but again… what am I reallyhoping to get out of this? What’s the thing that pops to mind when I hear “published author” applied to me? Do I want the money? The recognition? Something to put on my shelves? Hopefully it’s clear that what I’m hoping to get should affect how I go about trying to get it. And maybe, if I’m being honest, I might even realize my primary goal in writing a book is a bit… unrealistic?
Again… be honest.
And once I’ve been honest about these three things, I should be able to see some overlap. Places where pushing at this one means pulling on that one. And when I’m done, it might give me a better sense of where I am. And what I may need to do to get where I want to be. I’m not saying these things can guarantee anyone a publishing contract, but I think it’s worth noting that most of the successful writers I know consider this stuff.
Anyway, just a few quick thoughts. Your mileage may vary, as the kids say.
This is one of those posts some folks may feel the need to argue with. It’s a writing tip that’s going to feel obvious to some of you, and ridiculous to others, but I truly think a writer needs to follow if they want any measure of success. And when I say “success” I refer to the classic definition—“making money off your material.”
If I want that kind of success, my hero has to win.
Fair warning, there’s going to be a couple spoilerscoming up. Kind of necessary if we’re going to talk about how things end for a character in a story. They’re for pretty big things I’m sure most everyone already knows the ending of, but there’s the warning just in case. If you’re way behind in your required reading or viewing, you may want to stop here.
Also, I’m using hero in the gender-blind sense. If it makes you feel better, feel free to swap in heroine or protagonist. I’m not against any of these terms or the characters they attach to, I’m just using hero because it’s short, and quick and I’m trying to stay focused on this instead of everything going on in the world. So for this post, I’m just talking about the hero.
And the hero wins.
Pretty much always.
Now, there’s a belief in some circles that having the hero of the story fail and die somehow improves the story. That it’s more dramatic. It’s the belief that having something depressing and random happen to my hero is more “honest” because life is often depressing and random. I think this ties back to the frequently-waved buzzwords realism and art. Art imitates life, so if I’m imitating life, I must be making art. That’s just logic. Right?
As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, this kind of ending sucks. It sucks because we all inherently know the hero is supposed to win, since we identify with the hero. If the hero loses, it means we lost. We’re losers, identifying with another loser.
Believe it or not, this sort of statement doesn’t go over well with most people. I mean (as we’re currently seeing in the real world) people have a lot of trouble dealing with it when a character they’ve invested so much of themselves in doesn’t win.
Now, before people start scribbling down below (for any reason, although I’m sure at least one person already has), let me finish.
I’m not saying every book has to end with happy smiles and people rolling around on piles of money in their new twelve-bedroom mansion. My hero doesn’t need to defeat the cyborg werewolves, save the world, and fly off into the sunset with nymphomaniac heiress Margot Robbie in her private jet.
Truth is, the hero doesn’t necessarily need to enjoy winning. I just said they need to win. They may be damaged physically, emotionally, or both. In fact, if my hero ends up wounded or broken after all they’ve done, it just makes us identify with them a little more, doesn’t it?
When they win like this, we often call it a pyrrhic victory. Maybe our hero solves the murder mystery, but loses their best friends in the process. She got revenge, but her lover’s still dead and now she’s a wanted criminal herself. He won the contest, but now his family’s humiliated and wants nothing to do with him. The team tried to save all the hostages but only half of them got out alive. As I mentioned above, victory isn’t an all-or-nothing thing, and my hero can still have a pile of losses even though they’ve succeeded in their main goals. A partial win is still a win.
Hell, the hero doesn’t even need to survive the storyin order to win. There are plenty of characters in books and film who didn’t live to enjoy their victories. At the end of Rogue One (here’s that spoiler alert) our two surviving heroes are literally incinerated in the blast from the Death Star’s test firing. And note I say surviving heroes. The rest of their team has already suffered a series of brutal and violent ends. Nobody gets out of that movie. Same with Tony Stark in Avengers: Endgame, cooked from the inside with a single snap of his fingers.
And yet, in both of these examples, the heroes win. No question about it. Anyone who’s seen these stories will tell you the good guys won and the bad guys lost.
A key thing here is my character’s motive. What are they trying to do? Keep in mind, their stated goals and their actual goals might not always be the same. Phoebe may say she wants to date the head cheerleader, but what she’s really looking for is romantic love and companionship. Wakko may say he wants revenge, but what he really wants is justice. So they may fail at that obvious, stated goal (dating the cheerleader) or even a broader, more universal goal (keeping their left leg attached), but still succeed with their actual, motivating goal.
Now, I want to mention one other thing, because my friend Stephen Blackmoorebrought it up when I mentioned this theory of winning at the Writers Coffeehouse once. There are some stories (a lot in the noir genre, for example) where the hero doesn’t win. In fact, in some cases they fail completely, on all levels, and end up much worse off than they began. This can absolutely happen in stories. Great stories, some of which get a lot of praise and awards.
I think if we named some stories where the hero fails in this complete way, we’d probably realize… they’re not all that well-known. And they’re probably read even less. Again, not saying they’re bad, but it is a much smaller niche of potential readers who’ll enjoy a story where the hero, well, doesn’t really accomplish anything. Even if it’s beautifully written. So there’s nothing wrong if those are the stories I want to write, but I should have my eyes open about how wide an appeal they’re going to have.
Y’see, Timmy… we encounter enough failure and losing in real life that most folks aren’t going to also enjoy it as entertainment. We want to see victories and success and heroic sacrifice because these are the things we dream of in our own lives, and we relate to those people because they’re the kind of people we wish we could be. Even if just for a little while.
So if I’m my plot ends with a massive failure or my hero dies for no reason… maybe it’s worth rethinking that.
One thing all of our books and stories and screenplays have in common is an ending. They’re going to be different for all of us, and for all of our different projects, but everyone of them has an end. Even if it’s part of a series, this discrete part of that overall story has concluded and another part will (hopefully) begin at some other time. Hopefully on the sooner side
Endings come in all shapes and sizes. They can be happy. They can be semi-positive. They can be ambiguous. They can be blunt. They can tease more potential story or be very, very clear this is the end.
But one way or another… the story ends.
We don’t talk much about the fact that there are different types of endings. Not just in that happy-sad-ambiguous sense. In a structural, nuts and bolts sense. There’s also the type of ending where I think I might get to do another book someday, the ending where I know I’m going to get another book immediately, and the ending where I know that this is it, we’re done. Just to name a few.
Also, before I go much further, I’m going to toss around some terms here and I think some of them get used in very general, catch-all ways a lot of the time. Which I also think is what causes some of the issues I’m blathering on about. So some of my blathering may go against things you’ve been taught or picked up here and there.
That said, let’s lean into television for a moment. Yeah, I know most of you aren’t here for screenwriting, but I think this is a good, universal reference point. You should all understand what I’m talking about.
There’s a certain class of network show that tends to have what we might think of as a respawn point most of the time. No matter what’s happened, no matter what the characters have gone through, by the end of the episode they’re pretty much right back where they began—physically and emotionally. They’ve reset for new stories next week. We see this in a lot of sitcoms and even some one hour dramas.
There are also shows that have season arcs, with story elements that carry through from episode to episode. A lot of these end on dramatic revelations or beats that aren’t quite cliffhangers, but still compel the audience to think about what’s going to happen next.
What’s that? Why aren’t they cliffhangers? Good question. This is just my own musings, granted, but I think the big difference between a cliffhanger and a dramatic ending is where they compel us to pick things back up next time. What does the audience/reader need to see next? So it’s a structural, framing difference. If I’ve got a cliffhanger, the next chapter/episode/issue/book needs to begin right here, right at this moment where we left off. With a dramatic ending… the story can resume a little later. We’ve all seen this. “Three hours later, his mind was still reeling from this new information…”
Again, this is just my take, but I think it’s a take that hold up pretty well. And I’ve experienced the jarring results when someone sets up a cliffhanger, but then just treats it as a dramatic ending when the story resumes. Or doesn’t resume. Because if it doesn’t resume, that kinda kills the whole “needs to resume” aspect of it, doesn’t it?
I think it’s also worth noting that a lot of newer, bingeable content is created to be seen as one ongoing story. Each episode still has an ending, but they’re structured very deliberately to line right up with the next episode, more like act breaks than episode conclusions. These shows tend to have really powerful season finales, because that’s the ending that really matters—the one that makes us come back for next season.
And, as I mentioned above with books, there are the endings that imply the potential for more story if the opportunity arises (“hey, we don’t know if we’re renewed yet so just in case…”) and the ones that wrap everything up nice and tight. They all lived happily ever after.
Why am I blathering on about all of this?
Hopefully it’s clear that the type of ending I have—structurally–should give the reader a sense of what comes next. And what doesn’t come next. Again, this is an ending, which means… something should end.
That doesn’t mean I just stop typing. But I’ve seen that plenty of times in books and on some shows, and even a few movies. Things just… stop. The werewolves lunge down the street, our heroes raise their swords and shotguns to fight and wait why is the next page blank.
This is why I’ve been going back and forth with this for so many weeks. It’s tough to talk about endings because each one’s going to be unique to that story and that writer. I can’t say “Don’t do X” when X might be exactly what need to happen in your particular story. A lot of it is going to come down to each of us looking at our story with an honest, critical eye.
Let me toss this out, and then I’ll ramble on a little more. Have I actually ended my story? Or have I just stopped telling it? They’re not the same thing, and if I don’t realize that… well, that’s probably a bit or a red flag right there.
I think one thing we need to do, as writers, is make sure we’ve finished our stories. If my book is about a chosen one accepting his destiny and fighting the manifestation of pure evil… well, by the end of my book he should’ve accepted his destiny and fought the manifestation of pure evil. If my story is all about the school valedictorian desperately wanting to ask out the head cheerleader… at the end of the story she should’ve asked out the cheerleader. This is basic, three-act structure stuff. Once I’ve set up conflict, I need to resolve that conflict. If I don’t… I’ve kinda failed as astoryteller. You remember what Chekov said about that phaser rifle hanging over the fireplace in act one, right?
Ahh, I see some hands and at least one scoffing shake of the head. Yes you did. I saw you. Let me slap down two provisos on this, not so much exceptions as places for a little more thought and that honest, critical eye I mentioned up above.
First, it’s not unusual for my protagonist’s stated goals to be different from the actual goals of the story. The valedictorian may think this is about asking out the cheerleader, but the book is more about her accepting who she is and gaining self confidence. Plus, she’s clearly supposed to be with the goth girl who paints all the drama club’s backdrops. So, yes, in this sense the resolution may not be the one the character hoped for or originally set out, but my story’s (hopefully) structured in a way that still makes this a cohesive whole.
Also, it’s not unusual for a story to veer off and for characters to suddenly find themselves with all new goals. Maybe the valedictorian had worked up her nerve, was approaching the cheerleader out in front of the school and oh holy crap! Cyborg werewolf kidnappers! They’ve got the cheerleader! And they’re going to infect her with lycanthropic nanites at if the valedictorian doesn’t stop them! This is going to take all her computer and science skills, plus maybe some help from that goth girl who paints all the drama club’s backdrops…
Again, though, there should’ve maybe been a few tiny hints so this kidnapping wasn’t coming out of nowhere. Or didn’t happen in the back third of the book after 200 pages of high school drama and musings. It’s a goal that’s carried through the narrative and eventually achieved.
Second, there’s the possibility there’s more to this. Maybe my book’s part of a trilogy or an ongoing series. Maybe it’s in a shared universe and questions here are going to be answered over there. If the story’s going to continue on and spill over into other places, isn’t it normal that things won’t end yet?That questions will be left unanswered?
Well, yes and no. Sure, there may be three or four more books, or another season’s worth of episodes, or maybe a new issue in just a month. But that doesn’t change that this, the book I’m holding (or season I’m watching or what have you), is a single thing. Yes, The Hunger Games is a story of a ruling elite being overthrown by a rising rebellion, but book one (and two) are really the story of Katniss training for the arena and then surviving in the Games (again). If book one had ended with five people still alive in the arena, will she make it out, pick up book two in just ten months… well, you’re already laughing, aren’t you? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t’ve bothered with book two after an ending like that. I’d bet a few million other people wouldn’t’ve, either.
Y’see, Timmy, this one book still needs to stand on its own . It may have threads or whole subplots that continue on in other places, but this book still needs to be a self-contained thing. It has to hold some kind of story within itself. Yes, the series might be about finding the six, errr… seven… Eternity Crystals (copyright 2020, Peter Clines), but what’s happening in this part of that overall story? Are my heroes involved in a big heist to get the Chronos Crystal, even if they don’t fully realize what it is yet? Or has an old friend distracted them away from their quest to help rescue a cheerleader from cyborg werewolf kidnappers? What goals have I set for my characters to accomplish in this book?
Because if this book doesn’t have any goals for them… what are my characters accomplishing? They either don’t have goals, or they have goals that aren’t met. Either way… not an exiting read. And not likely to get a lot of folks to book two.
Again, every ending is going to be unique to every book by every author. But the one thing they should all have in common is that things need to be resolved. No resolution means my characters (and my readers) are just kind of left flailing and unfulfilled.
Ultimately, the thing I need to remember is that the end of my book is it. This is the last chance to amaze my reader. My final chance to shape their emotions, to lock down what they think about my book. Once they turn that last page, it’s all in their hands.
We talk about first impressions, but the last impression means something, too. It’s what people are going to walk away with. How many books or shows or movies have you enjoyed—maybe really enjoyed—and then the end just left you snarling in frustration?
And why are we usually frustrated? Because we didn’t get answers. Because ultimately nothing happened. Because we feel like we wasted our time.
Stick the landing. Nail your ending. Get that phaser rifle down from the fireplace and make sure it goes off.
Speaking of endings (shameless plug) if the end of the world is your kind of thing, my latest novel–Terminus–finally came out in ebook last week. If you haven’t checked it out yet, it’s kinda fun and fairly inexpensive. If you have checked it out and enjoyed it, reviews are always appreciated.
And now we rejoin our ranty writing blog, already in progress.
Hey, everyone. Thanks for sticking with me through the Black Friday stuff and the Cyber Monday stuff and then even more good book stuff on top of that. Hopefully it’s all helped you a little bit with the holidays.
I don’t know about you, but NaNoWriMo is still kinda fresh in my mind. With Thanksgiving right there at the very end of the month, it left me feeling like I’d been kinda cheated out of a week, y’know? More of a NaNoWriThreeWeeks.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t hit my word count goals for the month. By a long shot. I ended up hosting/moderating two Coffeehouses last month and the dystopian book club. Plus a day doing some promo stuff for an upcoming project. Plus my parents came out for Thanksgiving so, y’know, an extra level of cleaning and neatening. All in all… I think I lost close to two weeks. You probably needed to focus on some of them, too, right? I mean, I’m not the only one who had to do work stuff. Or holiday stuff.
But I’m okay with it. I still got a lot done, even if not as much as I’d hoped. Also figured out a major narrative issue that’d been nagging at me for ages.
And that’s kinda what I wanted to talk about. Before the month started, I mentioned that “NaNoWriMo” is deceptive because we’re not really trying to write a novel in a month. We’re trying to write a first draft in a month. A rushed, hurried, often truncated first draft.
Thing is… even that’s a bit misleading. Because if the ultimate goal was to get an even slightly passable first draft this month, pretty much everybody would fail. I don’t know what the numbers are, but I’m willing to bet the majority of people who do NaNoWriMo don’t complete a draft. And I’ll go a little further out on this limb (and even hand you a saw) and say I wouldn’t be surprised if half of the folks who do finish have drafts that… well, let’s politely say they’re drafts need SO much work they’re effectively going to be rewriting the whole thing in their next draft.
So here’s my take for you. First, stop thinking about “winning” NaNoWriMo. This was a marathon, and most people don’t run marathons with the sole goal of winning them. Because if that’s my only goal, I’m going to be disappointed. A lot.
Most of us run marathons just to see if we can do them. The goal isn’t to be first—to win—it’s just to see if we can actually make it to the finish line. I don’t know about you, but I’d be friggin’ thrilled to finish a marathon, even if it took me three or four hours. Hell, if I could do a half marathon in that time I’d be kinda proud.
That said… point the second. What did I get done during NaNoWriMo? How much did I write? How many words got put down?
Y’see, Timmy, the real goal here is to see how many words I can write in a month. Because now I know how many words I can write in a month. Which means I can do it again this month. And next month? Hell, January’s clear sailing. No holidays, nothing to slow me down. Now I know exactly how long it’s going to take for me to finish that 90,000 word first draft. I have a solid, very attainable goal because I just showed myself how much I can write in a month.
So celebrate finishing NaNoWriMo. Even if you didn’t “win.” Because you won in the way that really matters.