“Sticking the landing” on the ending

Allegiant, the latest book in the “Divergent” series by Veronica Roth, has been released this week. It’s the end of a popular trilogy. It’s riding right now at Number One on Amazon, and that’s all books, not just a specific category.

Please know that I have not yet read these books, so I have no opinions at all on this best-selling series. But what I did notice today was this:

Divergent Series Amazon Reviews

Ouch.

Hopefully as more reviews come in that picture will look a bit better, but it’s apparent a lot of fans were disappointed, and many of them in the reviews mention the ending.

When you have a successful series, the pressure is on for each book to “top” the last one, or at least match it. Naturally, this tends to make the last book a lot more important than the early ones. Particularly the ending of the last book, where the author really has to wrap up the whole story and then kick it right through the center of the goalposts (apologies for mixing sports metaphors).

Me, I’m old-fashioned. My personal prejudice is toward happy endings, which may not be award-winning or “artistic” nowadays, but are still a lot more fun to read than certain “realistic” or “sophisticated” endings I could name. I like endings where the loose ends are tied up, and your favorite characters come out on top with happy and interesting times ahead that you’d love to stick around and see. If the author kicks the ending smack between the uprights, the readers will wish there was another book, but still be satisfied with what they have. This isn’t always easy.

In my opinion, the epilogue to the Harry Potter series got the kick right up the center from sixty yards out. A writer can do a lot worse than winding up a long and amazing story with “all was well.”

J. K. Rowling and “Real Writing”

I just read that J. K. Rowling has been “outed” as the author of a new mystery novel that she had written under the pseudonym “Robert Galbraith.”  I haven’t read the book (or her other new one) so that’s pretty much the extent of my knowledge of the details, although she posted her own statement on it here.

What makes best-selling writers want to break free of their best-sellers?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a writer trying to stretch her writing legs by trying to write outside her “field of expertise,” i.e. the kind of writing that made her famous. But is this really essential to be a proper writer? If you keep writing what you’re really good at, and it sells to many happy readers, are you stagnating? Or are you going with your strengths? Who decides?

I see some writers succeed wildly in some particular genre, and then spend the rest of their lives somehow trying to break loose from it, as though there was something wrong with their early work and now they have to try to go beyond it to some lofty realm where “real writing” hangs out. Look at Arthur Conan Doyle, forever trying to get Sherlock Holmes out of the way so he could do serious writing. His premise seemed to be that Sherlock Holmes somehow wasn’t “real writing.” That premise, of course, is a steaming load of horse apples. The same goes for the Harry Potter series, which I have read, and is very well-done.

I’m sure critics have some influence here. Popular writing is often relegated to lower tiers in the realm of literary criticism, while the “real writing” gets the awards and the accolades (if not always the sales). Small wonder even writers raking in the numbers can get infected with the idea that they’re just “commercial” or “popular” writers, without the chops to do the “real writing” the critics will laud.

It’s not just writing, either. We’ve all seen those popular actors with a dozen Emmies for comedy trying to do Shakespeare or “serious” roles. Some of them manage. Many don’t, and I guess I think they’ve failed somewhere.

So if Rowling’s new books don’t do as well as some people think they should, will she consider it some sort of failure?

Why? To paraphrase Clarence the angel, no writer is a failure who has readers. Especially if they have millions of them.

It sounds like Rowling did this for a lark, a “liberating experience” as she put it. I hope so. Certainly she doesn’t have anything to prove.

J. K. Rowling wrote imaginative and well-plotted books with characters that made us care about them. She wrote books that had children flocking to read them, many who had never been enthusiastic readers before. She wrote books that had mobs in bookstores screaming like rock fans when the new ones were rolled out to the shelves. She wrote books that still have fans living happily in the world she invented.  She wrote books that sold millions of copies and earned her a billion dollars.

If that’s not “real writing,” what is?

The first 250 words

I’ve been involved in several writing contests where the entry calls for your pitch and the first 250 words, or sometimes just the first 250 words.

This is fine, and it’s kind of fun, but I’m worried that some new authors are getting the idea that if you don’t shoot the Sheriff in the first two paragraphs, you’re not going to get an agent’s attention. I suspect that many entries have been specifically “tuned” to the contests. There have been too many cases of the “hook” arriving in the last sentence of the 250 words to be a pure coincidence.

The way I see it, most readers buy a book for these main reasons:

  • It’s an author the reader likes and she knows what they’ll deliver.
  • The reader checked out the cover and the back of the book or the end papers.
  • The reader saw a review or a friend recommended it.

If they’ve gotten that far, most readers will happily plow through a few pages of gray, gray Kansas to get to Oz.

An agent can’t do these things when they’re checking out a new author, so they typically request a pitch/query to lay out the whole idea, and the first chapter to demonstrate writing ability. A whole chapter gives the writer a little more slack. The first 250 words in the examples I’ve collected below may be mundane, but almost all of the books they are taken from have you into some real action before the first chapter ends.

Usually only contests cram us down to the first quarter page, or even loglines or Twitter pitches. Again, I hastily add that I’m perfectly okay with that, especially since the judges are good-hearted volunteers who don’t deserve being buried in hundreds of pages.

Still, it’s important to remember that ultimately you’re writing for readers (and agents), not for contests. Make the pacing work for the story. There’s a lot to be said for “hooks” and “grabbing the reader right away,” but I’ve read many a good book that eased you into the story a lot more quietly.

A few 250 word examples after the break:

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