While there is a deluge of advice on how to start a novel, there is strangely little on how to end it. For me, the ending is very important because you want repeat sales, and to get them you want to leave the reader with a good feeling. To rule out sequels, the classic ending, usually implied, is, “and they lived happily ever after”, or alternatively, as with Shakespeare, leave the deck littered with bodies. When a sequel is intended, that book must end satisfactorily, but leave a clue why the reader might be interested in the next one. My interest in this is because I am in the process of writing a sequence of what I call “future history”, and a satisfactory conclusion to one book causes the problem for the next one. This is what history is like, but that does not make it easier to write in a novel.
Suppose I was writing at about 1750, and suppose I could see the future. (I can’t!) It would be easy to write a book or so on the Napoleonic wars and one could end with someone staring at the vastness of Russia, to give an ominous hint of what next. The last war book could end with a view of the chaos of Europe. Your next one might involve the Congress of Vienna, and while this sowed the seeds for world war 1, can you give a hint? Perhaps one or two characters could feel dissatisfied, but surely you cannot invoke “impending doom”. The end of world war 1 easily lets some Germans fear the consequences of reparations, but would you really introduce an angry corporal, who had never fired a shot in anger? The problem is, how to give a clue without looking as if you are flying off at a tangent.
In my first attempt, I ended Puppeteer with a letter from a dead man (written before he died) predicting that while the hero thinks he has solved the problem, it will return. Time will tell whether that is a valid ending.
Let me finish with my version of the greatest ending ever, and it comes from the first ever story (as far as I know): The Epic of Gilgamesh. (This is a skeleton story, to be embellished by the storyteller. Most people of the time could not read, and anyway, who wants to carry around five hundred clay tablets?) At the end of the epic, Gilgamesh engages in a quest to seek immortality, eventually he almost finds a way by gaining a magic plant, but his tyrannical nature makes him take it home to try it out on someone else first. However, while asleep, a snake eats it, and thus denies Gilgamesh immortality. Gilgamesh returns to Uruk and carves his story in stone. Here is the skill of the storyteller: imagine the ancient storyteller ending with Gilgamesh saying, “They say all men must die, but my name will live for eternity, for I have invented writing”. Beat that for an ending!
And we’re eternally grateful. Thank you, Ian!
Ian Miller was born in 1942 and studied chemistry at the University of Canterbury (BSc Hons 1, PhD) followed by post-docs at Calgary, Southampton and Armidale. He then returned to New Zealand to work at Chemistry Division, DSIR, on recycling, biofuels and seaweed research. In 1986 he set up his own research company to support the private half of a joint venture to make pyromellitates, the basis of high temperature resistant plastics, which, with an associated seaweed processing venture, collapsed during the late 1980s financial crisis.
In his scientific career he has written about 100 peer reviewed scientific papers and about 35 other articles and was on the Editorial Board of Botanica Marina between about 1998-2008. Early in this century he had a provisional agreement with a major publisher to write a book on how to form theories. This took a lot longer than expected, the publisher lost interest, however he completed the first part of the project and the first ebook in the series entitled “Elements of Theory” was self-published last year. The second, Troubles, about planetary formation and the origin of life, has just been released.
During his first year at University, following an argument with some Arts students, he was challenged to write a fictional book. Following two rejections, this was abandoned, but subsequently, as he began to get some television exposure while trying to promote the pyromellitates venture, Gemina was self-published, only to find as a condition of finance that all publicity for it was forbidden. It was somewhat difficult to sell books without any promotion.
Following the collapse of the pyromellitates venture, he returned to writing fiction, using both his scientific and business experience to write “science in fiction” thrillers, a type of “future history”. This series starts with Puppeteer, set in the near future when both oil and resources are in short supply, when government debts leads to the inability of governments to govern properly and when corruption is widespread. In Puppeteer, one man threatens to detonate three nuclear bombs to get revenge of corrupt officials who have ruined his life, while two others alone can stop him. Further details can be found at www.ianmiller.co.nz. Ian will return in November to talk about ‘beautiful writing’.
If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.
The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with non-fiction and children’s author Lisa K Winkler – the four hundred and fifty-fifth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.
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Unfortunately, as I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t review books but I have a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me reading it / talking about and critiquing it (I send you the transcription afterwards so you can use the comments or ignore them) on my ‘Bailey’s Writing Tips’ podcast, then do email me. They are fortnightly episodes, usually released on Sundays, interweaving the recordings between the red pen sessions with the hints & tips episodes. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.