Monday, March 22, 2010

writing and resting

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You put what in it?" my son asked, his fork halfway to his mouth.

"Ginger snaps," I repeated. "Crushed ginger snaps."

"I thought that's what you said." I watched while he put his fork back down on his plate and then pushed the plate away from him. It was clear to me that my son, normally a good sport, was not going to eat my innovative beef stew.

It was clear to me, after I tasted it myself, that he had made the right decision.

Sometimes in the process of creating, it is very difficult to know when to quit adding things.

Some years back, I received in the mail the first foreign edition of my first young-adult book, A Summer to Die. Fortunately it was French. Later I would receive, with a gulp of astonishment, the Finnish, the Afrikaans, the Catalan; but this first one was French. French I can read.

And so I leafed through the pages, savoring the odd, startling sense of recognition that I had, seeing my own words translated into another language.

On the last page, I read the line of dialogue with which I had concluded the book. " 'Meg,' he laughed, putting one arm over my shoulders, 'you were beautiful all along.'" There it was, in French. But there was something else, as well. I blinked in surprise, seeing it. In French, the book concluded: "They walked on."

They walked on? Of course they had walked on, those two characters, Meg and Will. I knew they had, and I had trusted the reader to know that they had. But I hadn't written that line. The translator had.

I don't know why. I can only guess that the translator simply couldn't resist that urge that makes all of us throw a crushed ginger snap into the stew now and then.

Knowing when to stop is one of the toughest tasks a writer faces.

Is there a rule that one can follow? Probably not. But there is, I think, a test against which the writer can measure his ending, his stopping place.

When something more is going to take place, but the characters have been so fully drawn, and the preceding events so carefully shaped that the reader, on reflection, knows what more will happen, and is satisfied by it--then the book ends.

In essence, you, as writer, will have successfully taught the reader to continue writing the book in his mind.

What about the concept of resolution, then? Isn't the writer supposed to tie up the loose ends of the story neatly at the conclusion? And if everything is neatly packaged and tied, then how on earth can something more be going to take place?

Your story--your plot--your theme--is only a portion of the lives of the characters you have created. Their lives, if you have made them real to the reader, are going to continue in the reader's mind.

Your role is only a part of that process. And you need to know when and how to get out when your role is finished. As author, you tie up and resolve the piece of a life you have chosen to examine. Then you leave, gracefully. The life continues, but you are no longer looking at it. You have engaged and directed the imagination of the reader; and then you have turned the reader loose.

Writing this, I looked at the endings of some of my own books to see if they followed any kind of pattern. In one, Anastasia on Her Own, a mother and daughter are laughing and tap-dancing together up a flight of stairs. In Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye, a young girl is packing to go away; she is deciding what to take and what to leave behind. The narrator and her mother in Rabble Starkey are together in a car, heading into a somewhat uncertain future. (Not coincidentally, that book was published in Great Britain under the title The Road Ahead.)


The forms of these endings are different. Some are descriptive, some consist of dialogue. Some are lighthearted, others more introspective.

But they do seem to have a few elements in common: They all include the main character--sometimes more than one--in the final scene. Each of them, in various forms, reflects a sense of motion, of flow, of moving forward. And each in its own way contains a kind of conclusive statement.

Anastasia fell in behind her mother
and tried to follow the complicated hops,
turns, and shuffles her mother was doing.
Together they tap-danced down the hall
and up the stairs. It was silly, she thought;
but it was fun. And it sure felt good, having
her mother back in charge.

--Anastasia on Her Own

It was the throwing away that was
the hardest. But she did it, until the
trunk was packed, the trash can was filled,
and the room was bare of everything
except the memories; those
would always be there, Natalie

--Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye

She sped up a little,
driving real careful, and
when we went around the
curve I looked, and it was all
a blur. But there was nothing
there. There was only Sweet Hosanna
and me, and outside the whole world,
quiet in the early morning, green and
strewn with brand new blossoms, like the
ones on my very best dress.

--Rabble Starkey
The common elements that you can see and hear in those ending paragraphs are a little like the basics in a good stew; maybe you could equate them to a garlic clove, a bay leaf, and a dollop of wine.

As for the crushed ginger snap? The ingredient that qualifies as overkill and makes the whole thing just a little nauseating?

Well, I confess that those three passages have one more thing in common. Each one was tough to end. Like the translator who added another sentence to my book, I wanted to go on, too. I wanted to add crushed ginger snaps: more sentences, more images, embellishments, explanations, embroidery.

And if I had? Take a look:

She sped up a little, driving real careful,
and when we went around the curve I
looked, and it was all a blur. But there was
nothing there. There was only Sweet Hosanna
and me, and outside the whole
world, quiet in the early morning, green
and strewn with brand new blossoms, like
the ones on my very best dress.

What would the future hold for us? I
had no way of knowing. But I remembered
how, in the past years, my mother had
worked and saved to bring us this far. I
looked at her now, her eyes intent on the
road, and I could see the determination....
Et cetera. You can't read it--I couldn't write it--without a feeling of wanting to push your plate away. It's too much. It's unnecessary. It is, in a word, sickening.

The letters I get so often from kids provide me, unintentionally, with a reminder of the impact of a good ending. Boy, if anyone in the world knows how to end, it's a kid writing a letter. "Well," they say, "I have to quit now.."

Lois Lowry is the author of numerous children's books, including Number the Stars and The Giver, both of which won the Newbery Medal. Her most recent novel is The New York Times bestseller The Willoughbys. She lives in Cambridge, Mass. Web:

Source Citation
Lowry, Lois. "Knowing when to quit: the best endings leave readers writing the rest in their heads." The Writer Feb. 2009: 22. Academic OneFile. Web. 22 Mar. 2010.
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