Tag Archives: death

The One Where Nobody Dies

4 Jan

by Savannah J. Foley

~

I like to kill people. I love it. If someone doesn’t die at the end of a story, I feel unfulfilled (what, you didn’t think I was talking about real life, did you?).

I like death because of its significance. When someone is gone it makes their story and their life just that much more precious, because they aren’t here anymore to be an everyday, taken-for-granted thing. If your character lives at the end of the story, your audience can always return to the book and find them just as they were, going about their life, getting into adventures and coming out safe at the end. The character’s life continues after the story; your audience is comforted by the fact that the character is somewhere out there having witty conversations with the secondary characters, getting into spots of trouble and eking by again, paying bills, flushing toilets, and doing the dishes.

But, when a character dies there is no ‘after’ to imagine. Their life culminated in this story, and ended there. Your story is the high note, the final verse, the last words spoken by a significant hero or heroine. What they did, said, and believed, takes on a different meaning. These were the actions of a life in its final throes; was the struggle worth it? Did their sacrifice help lead the other characters to a new meaning? Will their story be remembered and retold; have they become a legend?

Yes, death is significant. A death at the end places a higher value on the life at the beginning and middle. I have said before that I try to kill off a main character in each of my works. I love the sorrow, the nostalgia, and the wistful longings for what once was, or what might have been.

Like an artist who always includes a particular object into his paintings, I considered death of a main character to be my mark, my signature move. ‘Which one’s going to get it this time?’ I imagined my future audience saying. I looked forward to surprising them, to making them love someone and then ripping them away. How much more they would love me, I believed, if they knew their journey with my characters was limited, a short, sweet burst of companionship, of ‘golden days,’ and then the ‘afterward,’ where everyone goes on with their lives and realizes the best times are just behind them.

And now the characters from the novel I’m working on (my 6th!) insist there is going to be no death at the end. If I’m being honest, I really can’t see a death at the end either, and this places me off balance. How can I pan away, if not from tragedy?

Nah, I’m just being dramatic. I know exactly how this story will end: Nobody dies. Instead, my characters are forced to live. In case you haven’t been following me at my livejournal and reading the sneak peeks I posted, my novel is about a girl who time-travels into the past (just once, and by accident), and devotes her life to watching her younger self grow up on the sidelines. Her interference and obsession with her younger self change the original timeline, and at the end neither girl is the way they were meant to be.

I comfort myself by believing that they have died then, in a way. The original girl is lost, like she never was, for she doesn’t actually exist in their timeline. For the past 15 years my main character has known what will happen next, but as dawn rises over a world that she’s never seen before both she and her younger self must reconcile their differences and wait to see what will happen in the moment where the present catches up to the future.

Or so the exciting version goes. Having a story where nobody significant dies is a new phase for me. It makes me wonder if I have used death in the past as a cheap way to make my audience feel something. Is my use of death a blunt tool where now I need to learn how to use a fine scalpel? I have a fear it might be this way, but it certainly never feels like an easy way out.

Death is hard, even for the writer. We must accept that the story ends here; there is no chance for a sequel. Unless a prequel develops (rarely a well-executed idea), my journey with the characters ends the same as yours. For this reason I don’t think killing off characters is easy; it’s hard to say goodbye, hard to judge how the other characters will react, and pull it off realistically.

I guess you could say I don’t know how to end a story with life. What conclusions can be made? How do you determine when the plot has drawn to its final close? How do you deal with the lingering questions of what happens after ‘The End?’ What can my characters possible say, or what can I say, about the long, steady march through life, that hasn’t been said before?

Fellow writers out there, what do you think? Is killing a main character the ‘easy’ way out? How do you like to leave your ‘life’ stories at the end?

~~~

Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Antebellum (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress. She has written five novels, owns her own freelance writing company, and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency trying to sell Antebellum. Her website is www.savannahjfoley.com

Advertisements

Sudden Novel Death Syndrome: Why It Didn’t Work Out

23 Nov

Sudden Novel Death Syndrome: Why It Didn’t Work Out
or:

“Why That Novel You Were Really Excited About Dead-Ended Into A Black Hole of Guilt and Lack of Plot Development and What To Do About It”

By Savannah J. Foley

~

I have them and you have them: failed projects. No matter how exciting the initial burst of inspiration, no matter how striking and significant the initial chapters, something causes the story to descend into a frustrating nothing, subsequent chapters diluting themselves into a boring parody of that first, promising beginning. As a writer, your excitement turns to hesitation, then panic, then disgust, and your project gets shelved and locked into the back files of your computer, never to be developed further (except for those occasional, guilty tweakings).

Why does this happen? What, if anything, can be done to prevent it? I’ve compiled a list of reasons—and solutions—to this stagnation, and I hope it’s a help to you:

1. The first rule of writing is: Don’t talk about your novel.

2. The second rule of writing is: Do NOT. TALK. ABOUT. YOUR. NOVEL.

Discussing ideas with your friend or audience seems to be a sure-fire way to kill a project from the very beginning. There’s just something about debating possible plot options that effectively stops production in its tracks. My theory is that it turns your project into an attempt to please everyone at once. Others suggest it distracts you from the delicate process of actually working on the project; you become the type of writer who is always talking about his/her book without ever actually writing it.

This phenomenon has been noticed by other writers as well. Consider the following quotes:

Sleep on your writing; take a walk over it; scrutinize it of a morning; review it of an afternoon; digest it after a meal; let it sleep in your drawer a twelvemonth; never venture a whisper about it to your friend, if he be an author especially. ~A. Bronson Alcott

I think it’s bad to talk about one’s present work, for it spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension. ~Norman Mailer

Solution: Don’t talk about your project! Don’t you dare let anyone encroach upon the amazing process that belongs only to you and your writing. Your friends can’t write it for you, and they can’t be there in your head when you’re working out all the details, so why would you involve them at all? Let them read the finished product, not influence a work in progress. Rule of thumb: Consider it bad luck to discuss the details of a project until it is finished. Bring out your novel or story like it is Athena emerging from your head: fully-formed and beautiful.

One last quote to pound the point home:

Writing is a product of silence. ~Carrie Latet

3. Beginning Too Soon

This is my biggest problem: trying to start work on the project when you don’t really have any idea what you’re doing yet. I have three pet novels in a suspended state of animation because I tried to work on them too soon and killed them: a YA about orphaned sisters, a scifi about global warming, and a steampunk about… well, I’m not really sure, but it involves poisonous, addictive perfume, and gangs.

The way my writing works is that I get a flash of an idea, typically just one scene or concept, and then work the plot around this idea. All I ever want to do is immediately begin writing so I can record this idea in explicit detail and start working on giving it the same vibe I envision in my head, but in the long run it’s better to wait. Remember what they taught you in school, and practice abstinence.

Working on a project too soon causes overstimulation, like touching a budding flower or playing rough with a newborn kitten. It’s just a baby idea; give it a little time to grow and develop before you start to mess with it. If you recall my earlier post, writing is a sort of mental disorder; you have to learn to trust your subconscious and let it develop plots and characters on its time. The conscious brain is a marvelous thing, but it’s not a very good writer in general. The best writing comes from the heart, the subconscious, and it can be terribly flighty.

Another metaphor: Think about your idea as a feral animal you have just caught sight of out in the wild. You have to be very still, very quiet, and very non-threatening before it will start to approach you. No sudden movements, lots of praise and encouragement, and before you know it you’ll be gamboling with that wild creature like you’re the best of friends.

A relevant quote:

As for my next book, I am going to hold myself from writing it till I have it impending in me: grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall. ~Virginia Woolf

Solution: Develop a list of things you MUST have before you begin writing. For example, the names and personalities of all your main characters and their families/significant others, a strong sense of setting, where/when the main characters/love interests meet, etc.

4. Panicking (Writer’s Block Happens)

You’ve given yourself enough time to fully flesh out your characters and plot. You’ve kept the existence of your next work-in-progress as secretive as possible. “Yes,” you say to your friend, “the reason I’ve been so busy lately is because I’m working on a new project. No, I don’t want to talk about it until I’m finished.” Then, without warning, you hit the Wall.

You’re not alone. “Every writer I know has trouble writing,” said Joseph Heller. We all experience that jarring moment when you realize that you’re facing a great chasm in your writing, with no way to get to the other side. Sure, you know where you want the plot to end up. Your characters are well-developed and strong-willed, but how in the heck are they going to leap across this plot gap and make it safely to the next planned-out plot development?

Rule of thumb: Relax. Take a break. You’re probably working too hard:

Writer’s block is a disease for which there is no cure, only respite. ~Laurie Wordholt

We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out. ~Ray Bradbury

Listen to Bradbury on this one; sometimes you just run out of creative juices. It’s okay; don’t panic, just take a break. Read a book; it’s how you get filled up with inspiration again. Watch television, take a walk, draw something, phone a friend (you haven’t talked to them in a while, have you?). Avoid thinking about your project, and when you do, think of it only as a dear friend. Only when you can’t wait to get back to your story and start working again should you approach your work-in-progress.

Need a different solution, or on a deadline? Try sleeping.

If I’m trying to sleep, the ideas won’t stop. If I’m trying to write, there appears a barren nothingness. ~Carrie Latet

The only cure for writer’s block is insomnia. ~Merit Antares

5. Not Getting Your Daily Dose of Inspiration

When writing a novel, it’s easy to lose track of the other recreational things in your life. You go to work or school, you come home, grab a bite to eat, maybe do some housework/chores/homework, but then you’re writing! This ties back into what I said above; sometimes you don’t allow yourself enough time to get properly relaxed and inspired again. Imaginations have to be fed and watered like anything else, or else they will stagnate and shrivel.

My favorite solution to counteract this stagnation is reading. When I was reading two books a day, in school and later when I worked at a bookstore, I read a wide variety of books, from fiction to self-help to comedy, poetry, scifi, fantasy, cultural, travel, biographical, etc. Reading other people’s styles and descriptions fires your own imagination.

One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment. ~Hart Crane

Solution: My favorite books to read for inspiration are either poetry (Billy Collins ftw), or the biographies or autobiographies of other writers. Shell Silverstein’s biography A Boy Named Shell, and Hunter S. Thompson’s biography The Joke’s Over by his best friend Ralph Steadman are two of my favorites. Others would include Maya Angelou’s autobiographical series, the most famous of which is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Stephen King’s On Writing, and anything by James Thurber (if you haven’t heard of him, immediately get on Amazon and order Lanterns and Lances. Seriously. Do it.).

Well, that’s my list. What problems do you encounter when writing, and what solutions have you developed to counteract this? Or, share your favorite writing quote about the process.

~~~

Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Woman’s World (now known as Antebellum) series on Fictionpress. She has written five novels, owns her own freelance writing company, and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency trying to sell Antebellum. Her website is www.savannahjfoley.com.