Why endings are important

I am currently in the process of revising my short stories for the new Ambage anthology that is set to come out later this month. In particular, I’ve been revising the ending of one of my stories because I realized (thanks to some criticism I received from a fellow Ambager) that the original ending was predictable, flat, and unsatisfying. Not bad. Just . . . well, nothing worth writing home about, really.

As I revise the ending, this process has made me realize just how important endings are to stories in general. I mean, I’ve always understood that endings are important, that you want to end on a note that (at the very least) is the logical result of the previous events in the story, but it never occurred to me how endings define stories far more than beginnings or middles do. Changing the ending of a story often changes what the story itself is about.

Take, for example, a story about a boy and girl who fall in love. Depending on how it ends, the story could be a tale about how true love always wins in the end (boy and girl get married and live happily ever after) or it could be a tragedy in which true love rarely, if ever, wins (boy and girl get married, realized they don’t love each other after all, and then get a messy, bitter divorce). Of course, that is oversimplifying things quite a bit (there are more directions you could take the whole “boy meets girl” plot than the two I listed here), but I think the point still stands that we often don’t really know what a story is about until its over.

Maybe that’s why we sometimes get upset at endings to the stories we read, especially longer ones. Throughout the story, we built up this idea about what the story was about, one maybe we’re especially fond of and could defend in a debate if we had to, so when we finally get to the ending, we are shocked to find out that our theories about the story are wrong or at least not entirely accurate.

Of course, sometimes we dislike endings because they make no sense based on what the author had already written. For example, I didn’t really like the ending of Michael R. Hicks’s In Her Name: Empire. It simply made no sense to me. It felt like Hicks had already decided the ending, darn it, and he was going to use that ending even if the story would have been better with a different one.

To me, that’s one of the perils of outlining*. You might become so fixated on your planned ending that you are afraid to change it even if the story is drastically different from the outline you originally wrote. We organic writers can get overly attached to our ideas, too, but I think we’re generally better than outliners at tossing out our preconceived notions if they no longer work with the story.

And of course, we can’t forget the tried-but-failed Deus ex Machina, the god from the machine. More than one otherwise good story has been smote by this illogical deity over the years, especially stories by beginner writers. The Deus ex Machina can take on many guises, such as a character (whether new or old) coming out of nowhere to save the day or a character suddenly using a new power or ability with no build-up whatsoever to defeat the big bad. It’s probably the worst way to end any story, worse even than the whole “It was all only a dream” ending.

I intend to keep all of this in mind while I revise the ending of that short story. This new ending will be a lot less predictable than the original, yet will hopefully make sense within the context of the story and leave readers with something to mull over, too. The only way to know for sure, of course, is to let other people read it and see what they think.

What makes a good ending to you? What makes a bad ending? Are there any stories you can use as examples of these good (or bad) endings? Share your thoughts in the comments!

*I have no idea if Michael R. Hicks is an outliner or not. The story felt like it had been outlined, but he could just as easily be a lousy organic writer. Either way, forced endings are still a problem outliners have to deal with more often than organic writers, I think.

-Tim

The most important piece of writing advice that I know

There are thousands of books on writing out there, perhaps millions of articles and blog posts, and countless forums and writing groups where you can discuss the art and craft of writing with your fellow writers. There are workshops and conferences, apprenticeships and mentorships for writers who want to improve or those who want to help others improve, and creative writing classes in schools all over the world.

Sometimes, it’s all too much. It seems like every writer has a completely different approach to writing from the next. “Outline.” “Don’t outline.” “Follow your characters.” “Make them do what is necessary to advance the plot.” “Do a ton of research, even if you don’t use half of it.” “Do only the bare minimum of research necessary to make your story believable.” “Anyone who writes quickly is a hack.” “Anyone who takes their time never gets anything done.” “Share you book with 50 other people before you send it to the editor.” “Share it with maybe one other person and then send it to your editor.”

How is a writer — especially a new writer who doesn’t know much about the craft or business of writing — supposed to know what works and what doesn’t? Every writer who has ever felt the need to grace the unwashed masses with their opinions (like me, for example) sounds so certain that it can be hard to disagree, especially when they demonize or vilify anyone who disagrees.

In my experience, I’ve found that the most important piece of writing advice I have ever come across is this: “Do whatever works for you.”

Each writer is different. What works for me might not work for you, and vica versa. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no such thing as good or bad writing. It just means you need to realize that the path to writing something good is different for every writer. Certain paths are more widely traveled and perhaps more reliable than others, but ultimately there is no such thing as the definitive path that every writer MUST follow if they want to write anything worth reading.

Does outlining work for you?

Then do it.

Does organic writing work for you?

Then do that.

Does some sort of combination of outlining and organic writing work for you?

Then do it, even if no one else is doing it.

All writing advice you receive — whether it comes from a friend, a book, a member of your writing group, a magazine article or blog post, or from something else — must be judged by that criteria. If it does not work for you — even if it works for everyone else you know — then you don’t need to do it, no matter what anyone else says.

What is the most important piece of writing advice that you know?

-Tim

My Goal as a Writer

As a writer, one of my greatest personal fears (perhaps even the greatest) is stagnation.

What do I mean by stagnation?

I mean laziness. I mean writing the same story over and over again, with maybe a few cosmetic differences just to fool readers into thinking they are reading something different when in fact its the same thing you wrote last year . . . and the year before . . . and the year before that, too.

I mean never trying anything new, especially anything that is scary and difficult. I mean becoming little more than a hack.

On some level, repetition is unavoidable. After all, every story I write comes from me. It is only logical that certain themes, characters, and plots would reoccur throughout my writing. It can even give me clues as to what my strengths and weaknesses are, which is valuable knowledge for all writers to possess of themselves.

But just because I may subconsciously write certain characters, themes, and plots again is no excuse for laziness. My subconscious is pretty big. I am certain there are still plots, characters, and themes in there that are new, different, and maybe even scary. As comfortable as it is to write the same thing over and over again, I don’t believe writing is supposed to be comfortable, at least not all the time.

I’ll be frank: I want to be a great writer. Fame and money are great and all and if I end up getting both, okay, but that’s not what I want. I want to actually be great, even if most people never even know I exist or I don’t make a lot of money doing it.

And I can’t be great if I write the same story again and again. I would become boring and bland. Whatever impact the first version of the story might have on me and my audience would slowly but certainly erode as I wrote it again and again until it becomes banal and clichéd, good for little else but fire kindling.

This is at least partly why I write organically. By writing organically, I make it much more difficult to repeat myself unnecessarily. It keeps me on my toes. I allow each story to share with me what makes it different from all the others I have written before. It forces me to listen to my story, which I believe is a useful ability every writer ought to develop, whether they write organically or outline.

Learning to be great isn’t easy. Sometimes I am too hard on myself. I frequently deal with self-doubt and fear, like most writers do. I am all too aware of my own flaws as a writer. There is this insidious voice inside my head that sometimes tries to tell me that I should not write at all if I can’t magically produce a perfect first draft. I ignore it because I know it is born from fear, not reason, and therefore has no business telling me what I should or shouldn’t do, although it’s can be rather persistent at times.

Still, when I look at the “pass the bare minimum” attitude a lot of people seem to have toward writing (and life in general, now that I think about it), I realize I would never trade this attitude — as harsh and unforgiving as it sometimes is — for the alternative. I would rather aim high and fail than never aim at all.

The path to greatness, I have come to realize, is found not by doing what you are already doing, but by doing something different. I intend to follow that path, however difficult and scary it may be at times.

What do you want to get out of writing, if you are a writer? What goals do you have? Do you want to be great at whatever craft, art, or job you may practice?

-Tim

Immersive Writing

When I write, it is important that I immerse myself in the characters and world I am writing about. I cannot be a mere observer on the sidelines, mechanically recording the actions and thoughts and feelings of my characters or what their world looks like. I have to force myself to feel what they feel, think what they think, believe what they believe, see what they see, until I can start thinking of them as real people and not just figments of my imagination.

I consider this an essential part of organic writing (you can read about my organic writing process here). Because I don’t have a tidy outline to refer to when I am unsure what to write next, I need to know my characters and world almost as well as I know myself. I need to know what a character would or wouldn’t do under certain circumstances. I need to know what problems might occur in this world.

I rarely start out immersed in my worlds, however. It usually requires time for me to become fully immersed in the stories I write about. I know I have achieved immersion when I feel the same things they do and when I am thinking about my world and characters even when I am not writing about them.

As a result, sometimes the fictional world feels more real to me than the real world. I’m no Daydream Believer. I can tell the difference between fiction and real life. Yet in order to write stories that are genuine, I’ve found I need to blur the differences in my mind, make the dividing line between fiction and real life less clear than it normally is.

In other words, telling myself “It’s just a story, none of these characters are real, none of this really happened” is the most unproductive thing I can tell myself while writing. At the very least, I need to feel that my stories are “real” because if I don’t my readers won’t care about the characters, their world, or the things happening to them.

After all, isn’t that one of our goals as writers? If we are not convinced of the truth of our stories, then our readers won’t be, either, and they won’t want to read. Or if they do read, it’s unlikely they’ll finish or want to pick it up again or recommend it to other people.

Therefore, in order for my readers to believe the truth of my stories, I myself need to feel that my stories are “real.” At least I need to feel that way until the story is finished, anyhow.

How do you go about immersing yourself in your work? Do you find it easy or is it difficult? Do you do anything special to immerse yourself in your work or do you just let it happen naturally while you create?

-Tim

Organic Writing: An Adventure in the City

I don’t use outlines when I write stories or blog posts or anything, really. I find them boring and restrictive. I tried to outline years ago when I first started writing, but I was so busy making sure I followed the outline to the letter that my writing ground to a screeching halt.

So I threw it out and have been an organic writer ever since. And it has apparently worked out for me pretty well because no one has ever really complained about my stories’ structures. Even some of my older stories, which were riddled with mistakes like you wouldn’t believe, received little criticism in that area (admittedly they received little criticism at all, but I digress).

Quite a few outliners would be horrified to hear me admit this. They seem to think that writing organically means slapping down a rough first draft, maybe looking it over once for basic mechanically errors (if even that), completely bypassing any and all editorial comment, and then posting or publishing it for the entire world to see in all its mistake-filled glory and expecting everyone to praise it for how wonderful it is.

That would explain why some outliners have a great distaste for organic writing (and, unfortunately, for the writers who use this method). They so closely associate organic writing with shoddy craft that they think all organic writers are hacks who wouldn’t know a well-structured story if it slapped them in the face.

But to me — and, I hope, to my fellow organic writers — that’s hardly what I think of when I hear that a writer writes organically. It is, in my opinion, a crude caricature, one that only applies to the most inexperienced of amateurs and even then only to the worst of them. While I cannot speak for all organic writers, I can offer my experience regarding organic writing and why I feel that it’s not nearly as bad as some outliners make it out to be.

To me, organic writing is an adventure in a new city. In this city, you have plenty of sights to see and things to do. You have no particular plan for this trip. Instead, you follow your fancy, visiting that nice Chinese restaurant the city’s inhabitants seem fond of or observing the day-to-day lives of the locals. While you may have had a vague idea of what you wanted to do and where you wanted to go, you soon scrap that plan in favor of the much more exciting “distractions” that other travelers who carefully planned out their trip might miss, such as the old man in the clown suit who keeps checking his watch or the young girl who is playing with her pet lizard on the sidewalk outside of her apartment.

This is not to say you can or should go everywhere in one trip. That would simply drain you and make it impossible to enjoy any of the wonderful things the city has to offer. Instead, you make multiple trips into the city, each trip focusing on a particular area until you’ve covered the entire city or at least a good chunk of it. Some trips may require more time than others, some less, but regardless of length, each trip is important in helping you grasp the city in its entirety.

When you are satisfied that you have seen everything that you need to, you pack your bags and move onto the next city. You repeat the process again and again for every new city you visit. You don’t always spend the same amount of time in every city, but you make sure to spend enough time in each that you understand them better than anyone else, better even than their inhabitants, whose busy day-to-day lives prevent them from understanding the bigger picture of which they are a part.

In this analogy, the city is your story and your method of visiting the city is organic writing. Most organic writers, like me, usually know how we want the story to begin and have perhaps a handful of characters we are interested in writing about. But we do not allow our plans, as vague as they are, to control our stories. Instead, we pay careful attention to the characters’ actions and the general direction of the plot and make decisions accordingly. Nor do we dismiss the “distractions” that planners might because these so-called distractions often add flavor to our story better than anything we could have come up with on our own.

The trips we make into the city are the drafts we write about the story. For me, at least, each story has to go through a minimum of three drafts before I show it to anyone, though generally more. I am never satisfied with the first draft, no matter how good it comes out. That would simply be unprofessional of me.

It’s not a perfect analogy, I admit. While your trip to a city is limited by your funds, time, energy, interest, and knowledge about the place, you could start writing an idealistic romance story set in an early 20th century American high school and immediately change it to a psychological sci-fi thriller set at the end of time on an alien planet with no prior warning or foreshadowing at all. In writing, there is little holding you back besides your own imagination and common sense, if even that, although if you are interested in improving your craft at all you will hopefully learn to be a better traveler than the one who is hasty.

For that matter, the analogy doesn’t even cover editors or beta readers. If I had to fit them in somehow, I’d say they are tour guides, giving us helpful information about the city we may not have learned about on our own, or pointing us in the direction of interesting places we might not have known about. I will need to think about this.

For the purposes of this blog post, however, the analogy works. It describes how I do it, at least, which is primarily what I set out to do here. Other organic writers would probably explain it differently than me, which is fine because we all do it differently anyway.

Of course, this isn’t the only way to visit a city. Before going there, you might make a detailed plan of all the city’s most important landmarks and features and make sure to visit them, making changes to your schedule as necessary. You would probably interview the city’s inhabitants in order to get a better understanding of their them and their lives, recording detailed notes about their answers that you can refer to later.

This is how I understand outlining and, while I don’t enjoy it myself, I know a lot of writers do and I won’t fault ’em for that. Whatever works for you, works, and who am I to tell you otherwise?

But to me, organic writing is an adventure. Sometimes an uncertain adventure, even a frustrating one at times, but an adventure nonetheless.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What about you? How do you structure your stories? Do you organically write or do you outline or use some combination of the two techniques? Share your thoughts in the comments!

-Tim