Endings and finishes

It’s not that I’m in a fight. But I’m disagreeing with someone and as polite as we’re being, as much as I rate the fella, we’ve come back to the same point many times this year and neither of us will budge. I can’t actually tell you the details because it’s about a book of his that isn’t out yet – and, besides, if you knew everything then you might take his side.

But I can try to present a case to you that I think applies generally to writing and drama and fiction. And by chance it also applies very directly and specifically to a piece of my own that I’ve been working on this week.

In both mine and this fella’s, the last moments are key. With mine it’s a radio play and it’s all about the penultimate sentence. With his novel, it’s about the past page.

He’s much further down the line with his piece than I am so I got to read it finished and as one of several readers he asked for opinions. I can tell you that my summary opinion was that it’s bloody good and so scary that I was reading bits through my fingers.

Only, he wanted to know a specific opinion about a specific thing. What exactly did I think the last page meant? I told him and actually felt a bit on the spot because while it was excellent and maybe a key reason I like the entire novel, what I thought about it seemed bleedin’ obvious to me. But of however many readers he’d had, apparently I was the only one who understood it.

Bully for me.

Except because of this, he plans to change the ending. To make it clearer. And that’s our fight: whether he should or not. Now, he’s going to win because it’s his book but in the middle of our emails about it, I stood up to make my point. I actually stood up even though we were emailing. I got to my feet because I am so certain that I am right. I’m never certain I’m right and yet here I am, standing up and steadfast.

His ending is a real punch to the throat, it is the kind of powerful head-jolt moment that a writer would give their last kidney for. He argues that this doesn’t matter, that it’s worthless if most people don’t get it.

I argue that there is no possible, possible way to simplify this single-point ending yet also keep its power.

So his position is that it’s better to have something every reader gets. And mine is that if you do this, then what they get is tepid water when they could’ve had moonshine-strength alcohol. He wants something for everyone, I want something brilliant. I envy this man’s writing and one of the reasons is this power that he’s willing to throw away.

Let me describe my own nearest equivalent, the thing I’m writing this week. It’s also not out yet and it’s actually so early days that the odds are it will never reach an audience or at least not in this form. Nonetheless, it’s mine so I can tell you that the penultimate line is someone saying her name.

That’s all. Just her name. It’s a point in the play when I officially reveal that someone is really someone else – and it comes about 40 minutes after the audience will have figured that out anyway. Only, I want the audience to be ahead of me here because when they finally hear the name spoken, it then tells them a second fact that they will not have got. I do like the trick of it, I do like the surprise, but it’s also important for the character and what she’s been going through.

And I’m proud of this next part: I wrote that line, I wrote the sentence that is simply her saying her name, and in that context, at that point, it made me cry at the keyboard. Honestly. Consequently that single line is the reason I must get this play made. The power in that penultimate line is my reason for writing it at all.

I just know both that audiences will have guessed the first part of it and also that given where it sits in the play, some will miss its import. Inescapably, you know the play is ending when you get to this line and I think it’s a beat that comes after you expect all of the plot and character to be done with.

Perhaps I could move it up earlier, but then it wouldn’t have the bang. I could skip it completely and just end the play a moment sooner. Accept that it’s no longer an ending, it’s just where the play finishes.

But this sentence is an end, it is the snapping of the suitcase being closed on the story. It’s also the best sentence I’ve ever written, so, you know, there’s that.

Finishing lines

Apparently:

“Happiness is typing THE END after writing a short story or novel”

I was searching for some quote along those lines because I’ve heard it said a lot and reckoned someone must’ve said it cleverly. I found an entire website whose every entry begins “Happiness is…”. I’m thinking that’s a hard site to keep going and sure enough, there are signs of desperation: the next entry I saw read:

“Happiness is, snowman”

I can just feel the writer’s wide-eyed, blank face as he or she hit that comma and wonder what in the world could possibly follow that bloody, cursed, seemed-a-good-idea-when-I-started-the-site line of “happiness is”.

Perhaps comma snowman isn’t the most flawless piece of writing, but there is one thing that you have to say about the writer of it and the site FunHappyQuotes.com: he or she finished the line.

(Incidentally, I would never have gone to a site called FunHappyQuotes if I weren’t searching for something for you so I’d like to say thanks a bunch. I’d also say that I will now put its toxic saccharine style out of my mind forever, but apparently “Happiness is, remembering”. I need tea.)

Finishing is the thing. It’s the thing I want to talk to you about today, it’s the thing that matters. It’s the thing that makes the difference between a professional writer and an amateur. There are other things, like at an extreme level the ability to form coherent sentences, that’s generally handy even if mine tend to go off the rails during paragraphs where my mind is still on the insane idea that “Happiness is, a family reunion” and how I burn to delete those wrong commas in all these things.

But finish.

I don’t know if you like my writing. You’re very nice, turning up here for a read, but I do wonder if it’s really for the tea and biscuits. Nonetheless,  even the doubting writer in me has to say that I am a professional: writing full-time since the late 1980s, freelance since around 1996, literally millions of words published, yeah, yeah. If I took a commission from you to write something, you’d be taking your life in your hands over whether it would be any good, but you could bet that life I will finish and I will deliver on time.

Nobody says you have to be a professional writer. Everybody says there are jobs that are a lot harder than writing, which I agree with but just once wish these everybodies would realise that there are jobs that are a lot easier too. Writing is a funny thing in that the skill and the requirements for professionalism are the same whether or not you’re commissioned. Nobody does brain surgery for the catharsis and relaxation. Plenty of people write for those reasons and without any intention of getting published.

I think I’ve said this before but I need that intention, I need that aim. It transforms my writing if I know that there is an audience because I’m commissioned or because I hope there will be an audience. I’m looking at you right now. This is such a part of me that I don’t honestly grasp how you can write without it. Many people tell me they don’t want an audience and I have no reason to think they’re making this stuff up.

But I do have reason to wonder why they then send me their pieces. Unfinished.

When you start writing something, you don’t know if it’s any good so getting someone’s opinion seems like the sensible idea. It isn’t.

Anything you write down on paper is better than the greatest thing you haven’t yet got out of your head. But you have the whole piece in your mind. You probably don’t have every word, every corner of the piece, but you know what it’s about, you know what it’s meant to be. And I cannot see that from an opening page or a chapter from somewhere in the middle of the story.

I can tell whether you can form a sentence but we’ve already recognised that mine aren’t paragons of grammatic structure. Plus, very many writers are extraordinarily poor and random in their first drafts, it’s like the ideas are bellowing out of them and they’ll worry about punctuation later. I worry about punctuation now, I worry about spelling now – because I know the power of a comma in the right place, I know the breath and the beat pause it gives and I want that. I know that if I’ve misspelt something you might not know what I mean and you’ll probably think I’m an eejit. You’ll form an opinion of me and what I want is for you to form an opinion of the writing.

What a new writer wants is for me to reassure them and instead I form the opinion that they are new. Not because of what they write, but because they haven’t finished. Writing may be a sprint or a marathon but it is never a walk and there is the issue of whether you are capable of finishing. I can’t know that, you can’t know that, until you do. But it’s the impossibility of forming any useful opinion about the writing, that’s what I’m obsessing about today.

It’s partly because I feel guilty. I met a woman at a workshop a year or so ago and she sent me the starts of a couple of different plays. It took me months to reply to her because I had no clue what to say. I think there is a spark there but I thought that when talking to her, I only agreed to read anything because she was clever and interesting – and because she was finishing so many things. She’d planned to start a company, so she did. She’d planned to do a show, so she did. I hope that having planned to write a script, she does. But she hadn’t and I don’t know that there is anything in any way useful I could say.

There was one guy who sent me a script start where I could see it wasn’t going to work but – I feel awful here – he needed to find that out for himself. Am I a right git or what? I just knew that it was true. I didn’t tell him to carry on regardless, I tried steering him. But I knew that he’d figure it out for himself, I knew that would be infinitely better than me telling him – and I also wondered if I were right. If he could actually pull this thing off, he’d be a better writer than I am and who’s to say he isn’t?

Right now, me. I’m the one to say he isn’t because he hasn’t written it yet. I’m looking forward to seeing the finished piece.

But it has to be finished. Are you getting that this is a thing with me? And are you getting that it really is a thing? Because I’m finding it frustrating that I feel I can give you these examples and I can urge you to finish, but I can’t specifically define the reasons why it is essential. Especially since even the word ‘finish’ is a bit vague.

I’m now sure I’ve said this to you before but back in January I had a coffee with a colleague who had finished writing her novel. I congratulated her, we enthused about how great that feeling is, and then we spent an hour talking about how she was going to finish it. She meant she was editing and rewriting, she was developing it further, but we were both saying ‘finish’ so we really did have sentences that went thisaway: “Now you’ve finished, how are you going to finish?”

Listen, the thing is that crossing the finishing line of even a first draft is a separator. Think of all the people who say they’ll write a book or a script one day. You know most won’t, you know some small fraction will start. But then you know that of those who start, most won’t finish. Some small fraction will and you are now one of those. It isn’t easy to finish but that’s part of the point: finishing a draft is an accomplishment and it is a hard-earned one. So there is the psychological punch that you’ve done it, you can do this and there’s the evidence.

I just think it goes further. When you’ve finished a draft, you are in the game. Not before.

I was going to try being clever with you today. I’ve known all week that I was going to write this to you about finishing and endings. I’ve been thinking about how you do hear this line of how typing “the end” is great and yet I never do. I usually write ‘ENDS’ in caps. It’s from my journalism training. Probably an unbreakable habit now. I was also thinking of how you might know something I don’t: journalists, especially American ones, used to end their copy with “– 30 –”, the dashes and the number 30. I have not one single clue why. Do you? I’d be grateful to know, I’ve wondered for a long time.

But I was going to be clever with all this, that was my plan. I was going to burble on at you about finishing and then not finish. Yes. Good, eh? I couldn’t decide whether I’d find some way to fizzle out or whether I’d do the battery-dying gag. You know:

Listen, I’ve got to tell you something urgent. Wait, my battery is dy

You had to be there.

But I can’t do this, I cannot fail to finish. And especially not when I can end by telling you two things that make me look stupid.

The first is that while I will never again read the start of someone’s unfinished work, I am today, this morning, reading two unfinished works. One is a book that I’m editing so, come on, that’s different. The other is a book by a friend and he’s given me something like 20,000 words of the middle to read. That sounds like it’s contrary to every single thing I’ve just said and that would be because it is.

But he did give me the first 20,000 the other week. And this is not a new writer. I know he will finish because I’ve read his work for years, he’s done far more than I have, there’s just no question that he’ll finish. There is a question that this is a horror book and dear god in heaven, I am the sort who finds the Muppets scary. He knows this. But he needs a reader, he needs several readers because this is a live project with a publisher waiting.

So I only look as if I’m going against everything I say.

Except that I actually am going against one thing.

I too have a novel and it’s far from finished. But I partnered with a writing buddy earlier this year and showed it to her. It is vastly better because I did. And next month I am trying out a writing group to whom I will send the start of that same novel.

I just truly don’t know what they will be able to tell me from it. I fully expect six people to say “Happiness is, typed nicely”.

 

UPDATE:

I’ve corrected something: I originally wrote that journalists used to use the term “- 33 -” but Jim Swindles has put me right. It was “- 30 -“. I knew this. I have known this since I learnt it in Lou Grant in 1977. But plainly TV drama gets into me because “33” is the title of an especially well-written episode of Battlestar Galactica. As to what it means, Jim sent me this quote from AJR, the American Journalism Review Archive:

‘Some say the mark began during a time when stories were submitted via telegraph, with “-30-” denoting “the end” in Morse code. Another theory suggests that the first telegraphed news story had thirty words. Others claim the “-30-” comes from a time when stories were written in longhand – X marked the end of a sentence, XX the end of a paragraph and XXX meant the end of a story. The Roman numerals XXX translate to 30’.