Finding Your Way to the End

From Jane Friedman:

“One of the things I love most about this life is that there’s no final goodbye. You know, I’ve met hundreds of people out here and I don’t ever say a final goodbye.”

—Bob Wells in Nomadland

Sound familiar? The quote is from the promotional campaign for the new film, Nomadland. Winner of the 2021 Golden Globe for Best Picture Drama, Nomadland documents the itinerant lifestyle of thousands of older Americans who refer to themselves as “vandwellers.” Bob Wells serves as a shaman of sorts to these wanderers. Rather than say goodbye, possibly for good, Wells prefers an upbeat, “See you down the road!“

Given that many of us sidestep endings in real life, it should not be surprising that writers have trouble concluding book projects. If you are one of those struggling to find an ending for your novel, your novella, or your memoir, take a deep breath then take heart. Concluding takes a lot out of us. Even happy endings are hard to eke out.

I love what Jane Smiley says about finishing the rough draft of a novel in her excellent tome, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel:

…To write through to the end of the rough draft, in spite of time constraints, second thoughts, self-doubts, and judgments of all kinds, is an act of faith that is invariably rewarded—the rough draft of a novel is the absolute paradigm of something that comes from nothing.

Use a placeholder for your ending

So, as you approach the end, try not to worry about finding finality. Don’t press for profundity or go back to the beginning and start revising. Don’t leave the ending for later. Instead, settle for a placeholder this time around.

What’s a placeholder? Just what it sounds like: someone or something that takes up space until Mr. Right comes along. (Yes, it’s true. Occasionally, the placeholder morphs into Mr. Right. And if that’s the case for you, count yourself as one of the lucky ones.)

For now, aim for an okay ending. A placeholder will help you see the outlines of your story, and it will give you bragging rights: “I finished my draft!” Because you’re going to be revising, right? Of course, you are. So, trust that when you reach the end again, you will be older, more mature, and ever-so-much-more knowledgeable. Then, you can aim for a satisfying ending but not a perfect one. In truth, there is no such thing as perfect. Perfect is an absolute, like unique. Trying to be unique or perfect is the ruination of anything good. As Churchill said, “Perfection is the enemy of progress.“

Pleasing yourself is paramount

What’s okay or good enough, then? Something that serves the story and, secondarily, pleases you as a reader. Pleasing yourself is paramount because in doing so, you are likely to interest a select group of others, those whose reading preferences are like yours. And, finally, writing is something you do for one person. Most often, that person is yourself. John Steinbeck said it this way:

Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike in the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

3 thoughts on “Finding Your Way to the End”

  1. Well, I disagree with Ms. Friedman.

    The whole article sounds like a pantser’s writing method. “…you’re going to be revising, right? Of course, you are.” “…as you approach the end, try not to worry about finding finality.”

    I can’t imagine writing that way.

    I’m very slow, but the ending to the mainstream trilogy I’ve been writing since 2000 is the reason I’m still working on the same story, the reason I’ve learned to write, the reason I’m writing ‘the book I want to read.’

    And, though a rough draft exists (and is pretty terrible), it was part of the plotting process – to see if I could make the intricate steps between the beginning and the end I was working toward happen – not the writing process, and is actually a barrier to writing scenes when I get to them (not great in the writing, but the emotional intensity is already there, and drags me back to the scenes in my head).

    I still don’t understand how anyone can invest the energy to write a book if they don’t know, exactly, where it’s going. But that’s just me.

    Oh, and the closer I get, the more I love that ending.

    • Different writers, different process.
      You’re true to yourself, which is good.
      Don’t change.
      Some folks (probably most) actually enjoy fumbling to an end. Or mid story, figuring out the progression. Like solving a puzzle.

      The problem is all these prescriptive pieces aren’t really about helping people figure out *their* process. They’re about the certainty that there is but one right way; their way.
      They might help some but they are just as likely to confuse or outright hamper others who see them as gospel.

      I always keep a full salt shaker when reading them.
      There is value in knowing how others work. Sometimes.
      Through it all it is best to trust yourself; in the end the *readers* will have the final word.

      • I spent many years trying to things as Lawrence Block does them. His books of essays that appeared in Writer’s Digest, on how to do things, such as Telling Lies for Fun and Profit and Spider, Spin me a Web, guided me for years through a lot of my early bumbling – and turned out to be the worst possible teacher I could have had.

        He is a complete pantser, I an extreme plotter.

        He is the author (?) of something like ‘if the story flags, bring in a man with a gun’ (or just quoted that a lot).

        He made it look easy, he’s a fast writer, and he doesn’t revise much. No outlines, no detailed advanced plots.

        It wasn’t until I realized that I didn’t like the results – there were too many non-sequiturs among other things – that I also realized he was not the guru for me.

        When finished, my mainstream trilogy will be about half a million words, about as long as GWTW. I’m past the halfway mark, hoping to get the pandemic taste out of my mouth by publishing this year or early next. I can’t do that without a lot of plotting.

        Now I tell any beginners silly enough to ask me that the most important thing they can do is find out where on the 100%-pantsing-to-100%-plotting spectrum they might be, and to find teachers accordingly. Pantsers I’ve asked say they lose all interest in a story if they know where it’s going; I’ve only been able to stay the course for almost 20 years now because I know exactly where I’m going.


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