Huzzah! It’s Wonderful News!

On May 26, 2017, one of my life-long writing goals will come to pass: My first novel will be launched.

A War of Deception Front Cover A

My first published novel! 🙂

A War of Deception is a story about fathers and sons, the past and the present, and retribution and revenge, encompassed in recent history.

The idea for the novel came to me in the early 2000s, but I didn’t sit down and start to write it until 2010. The manuscript has been edited, rewritten, critiqued, rewritten, workshopped, rewritten, proofread countless times, and professionally edited over the past seven years, and I’m proud of the result.

A copy for your Kindle is available for pre-order now. Click HERE to pre-order, and your copy will download to your Kindle on May 26. A paperback version will be available for purchase on Amazon.com by May 26.

For more information on the book, you can look at its description HERE. You can also check on where I’ll be for book signing events where you can purchase a signed copy by clicking HERE.

To celebrate the novel’s release, I’ve rebranded my collections of short stories published since 2012. To have a look at the new covers–and some with new, reduced prices–go to my Amazon Author Page in a few days to see the new covers.

I hope you share my excitement at this milestone in my life. I’m giddy and thrilled and giddy and… You get the picture.

NaNoWriMo 2015 – Day Seventeen

Back in 2008 when I decided to try this thing I’d read about, this National Novel Writing Month, where you write a 50,000-word novel in thirty days, I was still employed full time in a job which typically saw twelve- to fourteen-hour days, six or seven days a week. Still, at 1,667 words per day, I felt it was doable.

At the end of October 2008 I was assigned two trips which would encompass thirteen days out of the thirty. The 1,667 words per day became 2,941 per day, but, hey, I easily knocked 5,000 or 6,000 words for congressional white papers on a near daily basis. Still doable.

In seventeen days in November 2008 I wrote 50,000-plus words. Some days were 4,000- and 5,000-word days, but I did it.

In seventeen days in November 2015, I’ve written 50,106 words and won my eighth NaNoWriMo, but, hey, I’m going for ten. Two of those much-edited (very much-edited) NaNoWriMo novels are now being reviewed by a publisher, so worthwhile? Definitely. If you’ve been wondering if you should give it a try, do it. It’s fun, exasperating, challenging, frustrating, and just about any other positive or negative adjective you can think of.

Oh, and this year’s novel? Not finished yet. Thank goodness I have thirteen days left to clear up all these dangling plot threads. And because I wasn’t done with the angst, here’s a mind-bending excerpt. Remember, I mentioned it’s not done yet. 😉

Mai hadn’t abandoned her usual method of analysis. Her papers, maps, and transcripts were scattered about her office, and she walked among them, barefoot, sleeves of her blouse rolled up, pencils poked into her braid like pins in a cushion. Grace Lydell got to the doorway, then turned to Nelson.

“I can’t do this,” she mouthed.

Nelson moued his displeasure at her and walked around her to the open doorway. He tapped on the door.

Mai looked up, her smile bright. “Oh, dear, my boss and my boss’ boss. Whatever have I done?”

“Mai,” Nelson said. “Sit down.”

She frowned, and Nelson read her expression. She knew but she wanted to deny it.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Sit down,” he repeated.

“No, you tell me what it is,” she said.

Nelson sighed and took a deep breath. He found the news he was about to deliver as incredible as she would.

“It turns out the intell we got on that Nazi was a trap, a KGB trap,” Nelson said.

“You’re talking, but you’re not saying anything,” she said. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that he’s gone,” Nelson said.

“As in back to Russia?” she asked, though he read the disbelief. Much as he had when he’d heard the news, she was grasping for any straw within reach.

“No, kiddo,” he said. “Alexei’s…”

How could he put those two words together to tell her and himself what they’d both lost?

“Alexei’s dead,” he said.

“How?” she asked.

“Just accept that he is,” he replied.

“How?” she persisted.

“Fuck it, Mai. You know the KGB better than any of us do. How do you fucking think? They walked him into a cell in the basement of the Lubyanka and put a bullet in his head,” Nelson said.

If her desk hadn’t been behind her, she would have hit the floor on her ass. Grace finally found her gumption and went to Mai’s side, embracing her.

“I want to see,” Mai said.

Nelson shook with anger, not at her ultimately, but for the enemies he was no longer physically capable of fighting. “The KGB doesn’t send the bodies back to us,” he said. “They have ovens for that.”

“Nelson, Jesus Christ,” Grace said.

“She asked, Grace. She’s a big girl,” Nelson said.

“And you don’t have to be a fucking bastard about it,” Grace said.

At first he thought Mai was going to handle it like a trouper, but a sound filled the room, one he’d only heard once before and never wanted to again. For the British once he’d observed an IRA funeral, and the woman had made this same noise, a high-pitched, ululating wail.

Mai had sucked in a deep breath and keened for her lost love. When she had finished, her face eased then hardened into a mask he recognized all too well.

Inspiration All Around Us

The other day on my Facebook Author’s Page I shared a graphic from a great on-line group called Writers Write. Based in South Africa, this group offers writing courses, some of which sound so great it might be worth the expense of a trip to Johannesburg to attend. They also post inspiring quotes from writers, renowned and otherwise, for writers. Almost every day, one of those quotes makes me stop and think about my writing and my writing goals. Those quotes are affirming on so many levels.

Here’s one I shared recently on my Author’s page:

(c)Writers Write

(c)Writers Write

That struck a chord with me because I want to write more short stories, but I’m always lamenting that the things I draw inspiration from (current affairs, history, politics) lead to longer works. (Not complaining by the way; I love writing novels.) I keep a notebook with me at all times, but it’s distressingly empty lately. I live in a very interesting area of central Virginia, full of intriguing, odd, and refreshing characters and, so you’d think that notebook would be full of dialogue snippets, bon mots, and killer ideas for a raft of short stories.

Maybe I need to overcome the MYOB attitude imbued in me by my grandmother. “It’s not polite to listen in on others’ conversations,” she used to tell me. I paid attention to that because I probably didn’t know then I was going to be a writer. It just seems rude to write down what other people say; a southern thing, I suppose.

I do manage to overcome the reticence of jotting down what other people say on occasion. My one-act play, Yo’ Momma, started from a single phrase I overheard at a bar: “This here’s my new phone–I gots it for free.”

Recently, in my town two young men died within two days of each other, both at the age of twenty-six. One had mental and intellectual challenges; the other was an award-winning and brilliant cellist. One was murdered; the other died in his sleep of a heart defect. They both warmed the hearts of everyone they encountered. All that is rife with inspiration, but it will have to wait. It’s too fresh and raw.

I’ve long wanted to write a novel based on the lives of my father and my ex’s father–I even have a great title: Two Fathers. The ex (when he wasn’t my ex) and I discussed it, and I took a lot of notes on his father’s history. The ex and I haven’t been together for nine years, and even though I haven’t forgotten the idea, it is also too fresh, too fraught with emotions I’ve tried to put behind me. Someday, I’ll be in a place to write it.

Day in and day out, I encounter the oddest collection of characters in the most routine places: the barista at Starbucks whose laughter could damage eardrums; the couple who own a local business and have arguments in front of the customers; a bail bondsman who dresses as if he’s the east coast version of Dog the Bounty Hunter; a senior citizen who is always front and center of every Tea Party event with a sign which reads, “Keep the Government out of my Medicare!” (I fixed the spelling.) And so on.

There is the challenge, of course, of making someone too recognizable. I don’t have a problem doing that with public figures. In my series based on the Oklahoma City bombing, people will have no trouble figuring out on whom I’ve based President Randolph. However, I also have a family member who is pissed about how I characterized  my step-grandfather (that family member’s grandfather) in a story which is based on a family event. Just goes to show, every story has two sides.

Even with the pitfalls, look around you. There is inspiration in everything and everyone. Use it wisely, but use it.

 

AWP Report – Part 1

Before this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, I’d been to Seattle four previous occasions, all for work. I stayed in government-rate hotels near the airport or the Boeing complex. At my agency, if a group went to a locale for the same event, not everyone got approval for a rental car. If you weren’t the one with a car, you had to beg for a ride or rent one on your own. On my first trip, I couldn’t accept that I was so close to Seattle and might not get a chance to go there, so I rented a car on my own and drove downtown. I paid an outrageous price to park the car for the day; then did all the typical tourist things. I continued to blow my personal budget with a dinner at the Space Needle’s revolving restaurant. That was on my bucket list before I ever knew what a bucket list was.

Seattle is a gorgeous, bustling, clean, artsy city, which now is one of the greenest in the country. Gas cars are being phased out as cabs, replaced by hybrids; many city buses are also hybrids; and every place you enter has recycling and composting bins–even the hotel rooms have a recycle bin for plastics. Seattle has a decent literary history and several top-notch MFA programs, but it has long been a refuge for artists. It’s famous for its blown glass artists and sculptors, but this week it’s hosting probably more authors in a single place than anywhere else in the world. I hadn’t been in Seattle for six years, but the city’s vibe and energy were still there, and I arrived a whole day early to reacquaint myself with the only other city in the U.S. I could imagine myself living and working.

Unfortunately, Pike Place Market seemed a little seedier than it used to be, and there are a lot more street people than I remember, which could mean the city government isn’t dealing will with some people’s needs; but this isn’t the political blog. Seattle also now has one of those ubiquitous, over-sized, ugly Ferris wheels on its waterfront, but, overall, though, it’s the same lively place which got me hooked on Starbucks twenty-plus years ago.

I started Thursday, the first “official” day of the conference with a panel called “Structuring the Novel,” moderated by Summer Wood and featuring Melissa Remark, Jennie Shortridge, and Tara Conklin. This was a standing-room only event, and I was glad to have arrived early enough to get a seat.

This is my third AWP, and at each one I’ve heard the discussions that it’s getting too big to fulfill attendees’ needs. Indeed, the panels are being held among three buildings, all within two blocks, but, still, with only fifteen minutes between panels, getting from the far end of one building to the far end of another is problematic. But I digress.

All the members of the novel structure panel described how they personally structured their works. Conklin’s novel The House Girl has, what Conklin herself calls, an innovative structure–two timelines alternating every fifteen to twenty pages and incorporating sections other than narrative. Conklin advises, though, if you use an innovative structure, “you have to have a reason, it has to draw out or fit the themes in your novel.”

Shortridge indicated her structure issues are pretty typical of most of us–she gets a strong beginning and a catchy ending, but the middle “is a muddle, is soft, and needs structure.” She shifted her thinking and writes the middle with the end in mind. She also advocates the “four-act” structure: setting up, seeking, engaging, denouement. Sometimes, she says, she borrows from other genres; e.g., “If I’m writing an action sequence I model it after a thriller.”

Melissa Remark, a recent MFA graduate who has a background in script writing for film and television suggests we find the “present” thread in any uniquely structured novel and start with that. Pacing can also develop structure; e.g., a fast-paced middle and a lagging ending can thwart any attempt at structure, innovative or otherwise.

Long indicated that once you find the “deep structure or soul” of your story, the structure comes naturally. The soul is a set of connections which matter but they have to be intertwined, revealing the story beneath the story, or what you intended to write in the first place. Long also indicated that we should trust our instincts, that our “subconscious communicates our values to our conscious mind,” but if we don’t pay attention to it, it becomes writer’s block.

After that panel, I spent some time in the book fair, where I once again got the itch for an MFA, even though I’ve been told I don’t need one. I probably don’t. I don’t want to teach, but it would be nice to have a bigger writing community. Considering the expense, I really don’t think one is in my future. However, I discovered there are a lot of literary journals I can submit to, and I spent quite a bit of time at the Sewanee table, discussing the workshop I’m going to apply for.

The next panel was the key one for the day for me–“Writing Unsympathetic Characters.” My female protagonist evokes diametrically opposite opinions in people. Some like her as a strong, no-nonsense woman who has a deep sense of justice. Others find her brash and profane. At a critique group session recently, one person said, “Does she have to curse?” (Well, yes, she does; when you’re kicking ass you don’t watch your language.) I was hoping this panel would give me some insight on how to keep her as is but make her more universally appealing.

But when moderator Irina Reyn opened by saying, “Often readers don’t want to spend time characters they couldn’t be friends with. Well, I say, if you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”

Panelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz said, “Unpleasant characters are the most memorable, but the writer has to care about what that character is doing. Only then will the reader read on to see how the character ends up. If the writing is good, the reader will finish regardless of the character’s likability.”

Hannah Tinti, the editor of “One Story,” used markers and a sheet of paper tacked to the wall to illustrate her point that we should approach unsympathetic characters as if they were super-villains in a graphic novel:

  • a costume (the physicality of the character)
  • a superpower (what the character is good at)
  • the kryptonite (the character’s weakness)
  • the back story (the character’s past)
  • a quest (the diabolical plan, i.e., what does the character want, what motivates everything he/she does?)

Erin Harris added that an unsympathetic character who has no motive is a problem. “The reader wants to know the psychology,” she said, and that makes the character three-dimensional.

Publisher Richard Nash indicated we shouldn’t be afraid of a negative reaction to a character. What we should worry about is “no reaction at all.”

There were a lot of great points from this panel, and they gave me confidence that the way my protagonist is, is the right way.

After another swing through the book fair, I got ready for at event at a local Irish pub called Kells. I had entered my story “The Dragon Who Breathed no Fire,” retitled as “Man on Fire,” in the Press 53 Flash Fiction “Visions and Apparitions” Contest. I love this story, and I had a good feeling about its chances. So, when they read my name as one of the finalists, I was thrilled beyond belief. It didn’t win, but this was rather like the Academy Awards–you’re honored to be nominated. What was even better was meeting the judges afterwards and hearing how much they loved the story. “Get that story out there and get it published,” one judge said. I’ll do just that.

Continued in Part Two

 

 

Friday Fictioneers – After a High Note, a Low Note, and Another High

The life of a writer has its inevitable ups and downs. Compressing them into a week is hard on the nerves, though.

This week started off with an email from a writing instructor of mine who said he would shop my novel (Sudden Madness of the Carnival Season) to some agents he knew. I also found out my story, “The Dragon Who Breathed No Fire,” had made the top twenty-five in a contest I had entered. Man, I was feeling good, no, spectacular, about being a writer, about having what I thought were good stories confirmed.

Then came Tuesday.

The contest story didn’t make the top ten in the contest. I couldn’t believe it. I read the top ten list twice, three, four times, just to make certain. Now, it wasn’t arrogance which stunned me that my story wasn’t there. That story was good. Beyond good, it was one of the best things I’ve ever written. It came to me in a dream, from the voices of Vietnam vets I’ve known, and I worked it and reworked it for the better part of twenty-four hours before I submitted it. It was real, it was gritty, it was disturbing, and it was good.

A friend of mine, who is a Vietnam vet, emailed me and said it was the best depiction of PTSD he’d ever read in fiction or non-fiction. That was exactly what I wanted. And that beautiful, disturbing story lost out to fluffy dragon stories and happy endings.

(BTW, I love the people involved with the contest, but I’m not apologizing for my characterization. I’m entitled to a bit of a whine. Sour grapes? Maybe, probably, but if you’re a writer, you’ve been there; don’t deny it.)

I was astonished, “bummed” as I told a writer friend, whose great story had also not made the top ten from the top twenty-five, and we commiserated together. Truly, it made me want to close the laptop forever.

The other good thing about being a writer is that you have a cadre of writer friends who won’t let you get down on yourself. “You stop that right now, young lady,” said one such friend (also the mother of a teenager; hence, the tone of the language). “You send that story somewhere else.” And she was absolutely right. I spent Wednesday on Duotrope, selecting some publications where this story might fit. That mitigated the disappointment but didn’t completely eradicate it.

Then came Thursday.

I came awake to my phone indicating I had an email arriving. I fumbled for the phone and my reading glasses to see who had woken me up so early. An email from my writing instructor: “So-and-so from such-and-such agency is reading your manuscript and is considering representing it.” I read it twice, three times, four times. I cried like a little girl and was as giddy as a kid (of any age) at Disney. Now, it’s not a done deal–and when and if it is, you’ll hear me shrieking “Ermagerd!” from just about anywhere in the country. It’s the farthest a manuscript of mine has ever gone; that, in and of itself, is a reason to celebrate.

A typical week in the life of a writer.

Friday Fictioneers LogoToday’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt creeped me out. For as long as I can remember seeing empty shoes in an odd location has terrified me. I can see them in closets with no problem, but let me see a single tennis shoe on the side of the road and I’m gibbering. I went to an exhibit of photographs taken after 9/11 and never blinked an eye at the shot of a human spine atop some debris. However, the photo of a lone high heel in the middle of a street made me leave the gallery. I have no clue why this is the case–some deep-seated childhood trauma no doubt, but at least it gave me some great inspiration for “Big Shoes to Fill.” Yeah, I don’t write happy endings about fluffy dragons. I write real-life crap. So deal.

As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title of the story in the paragraph above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then click on the story from the drop-down list.

Of Synopses and Query Letters

Today’s post is somewhat late because I’ve worked most of the day on a two-sentence synopsis for a query letter for my “baby-in-the-wall” novel. Who knew summarizing 83,000 words into two sentences would be so hard. I mean, I’ve been to several query letter workshops and panels at various writing conferences, so how hard could doing a summary be? A lot harder than I thought.

I will add, I’m having some help from an instructor from a workshop I took this year. He’s doing the shopping to agents, but he needed a summary from me, as well as a writing bio. So here was my first iteration:

Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season is a literary novel of approximately 83,000 words, which follows a romance novelist’s investigation into the origin of an infant’s skeleton she and her older, literary-minded husband find while renovating a room in a house they’ve just bought in the Shenandoah Valley town of Ewington, VA. The two-track narrative brings a secret from the past into the present and forces the novelist to confront what she has denied about her  life.”

I thought I should have some other eyes on it, so I posted it on the Facebook page of my online writer’s group, Shenandoah Valley Writers, and after some back-and-forth and some really good suggestions, I ended up with this:

Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season is a literary novel of approximately 83,000 words, which follows a romance novelist’s investigation into the origin of an infant’s skeleton she and her older, literary-minded husband find while renovating a room in a house they’ve just bought in the Shenandoah Valley town of Ewington, VA. The two-track narrative uncovers an old secret, and what she finds forces the novelist to confront what she has long denied about her own life.”

That took the most part of the morning, but I was pretty satisfied with it. Even then, I let it sit for a while, decided it was pretty much perfect, then sent it off to my workshop instructor. A few minutes ago, I got an email from him, indicating he had “tweaked” the summary a bit, and here is what he did:

Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season follows a romance novelist’s investigation into the origin of an infant’s skeleton she and her older, literary-minded husband find while renovating a room in a house they’ve just bought in the Shenandoah Valley town of Ewington, VA. The two-track narrative uncovers an old secret, and what she finds forces the novelist to confront what she has long denied about her own life.”

Subtle edits in both latter versions but effective. Now, in just about every workshop I’ve taken about query letters, the agents have indicated they want to know genre and word count, the two items my instructor edited from the first sentence. However, he is someone who has dealt with a wide range of agents, so I trust his instincts.

I’m giddy that one of my manuscripts is getting sent to agents, but I’m also trying to temper my excitement. Nothing at all could come of this, but I’m beyond honored that this instructor felt strongly enough about my manuscript to give it his personal attention. I frankly have no clue how to repay that–not that he’s expecting remuneration–but as I said to someone today, the list of people to include in the acknowledgements section of the novel is growing long.

We writers are very often a solitary lot. We lock ourselves into our writing spaces and occupy worlds of our own making, our company only the characters we’ve created. And yet, it turns out the writing is the only solitary part of the process. Being published in the traditional manner means you leave your cozy, self-made world and venture into reality, a reality replete with editors and agents and proofreaders and copy editors, all of whom are working with you to make your novel a success. That’s exciting, well, happy-dance-inducing, but it’s also daunting and, not to mention, a little scary.

Still, I’m all for the process.

NaNoWriMo – Day 3

Update: I added 700 words this evening for a daily total of 4242 and a three-day total of 11,140.

———————————————————————————–

Combine going to bed at the ungodly hour of 2000, a time change, and an early wake-up, and you get another 3,542 words–and all before starting another jam-packed day of choir rehearsal, choir, and a birthday party for the two best five year olds in the world. That brings a three-day total to 10,440 words. And I’m glad for the cushion because I know there are days ahead where I’ll be lucky to get 1,000 words.

Here’s today’s excerpt from Chapter 3, Power Play:

Boyd Wahler stood before the painting, which had hung in every office he’d ever occupied—when he was a Congressman, a Senator, White House Chief of Staff, National Security Advisor, now Director of the CIA. He had painted it himself, based on a picture someone had snapped of him during his first tour in Vietnam. He stood alone in a field of high grass, a Huey in the background, and stared at something in the distance. Improvised camouflage adorned his helmet, and his rifle pointed at the ground. For the life of him, though, he could not remember what it was that caught his attention, what he stared at so intently. The photo, which he’d carried in his wallet, had long since disintegrated, and he’d done the painting from memory.

It reminded him that, at all times, no matter how many people worked for him or supported him, he always stood alone. When he needed someone to rely on, he could only count on himself. A carry-over from the previous administration, he knew the ground he now stood on was as mine-filled as the fields he trod in Vietnam. He knew, as well, the leverage he had over this Administration would take him only so far. Still, it hadn’t been a difficult call when one of his agents, Winston Everette, had requested Wahler’s presence at Everette’s cubicle in the Executive Office Building.

“Tell Agent Everette I’ll be glad to see him in my office at his earliest convenience,” he’d told his secretary. Her admiring smile had bolstered him for the rest of the day.

 (c)2013 by Phyllis Anne Duncan

NaNoWriMo Day 1

An excerpt from what I drafted today for this year’s NaNoWriMo project, Meeting the Enemy – Book 2: Retribution, Chapter 1, “Twilight in the Tunnels”–

“Alexei,” Sergei said, hand on his brother’s arm, “don’t go out there.”

“I’ll be fine, Sergei. I trust her with my life. If I didn’t she wouldn’t be with me. Besides,” he said, lowering his voice and smiling, “she likes me in bed. We’ll be drinking vodka together, soon, brother. Don’t worry.”

Sergei gripped Alexei’s shoulders with both hands. “Alyosha, I’m sorry for the things I said, about you being a traitor…”

“No need for sentimentality, brother. All that’s in the past. Now, no one is going to die here except maybe that presumptuous Muj out there, eh?” He released his brother before the emotion rose too high. “What do see out there, Mai?”

She waited until he was beside to answer in a low tone. “Just the one,” she said. “What did you say his name was?”

“Osama bin Laden.”

(c)2013 by Phyllis Anne Duncan

Planning How to End it All – Part One

No, no, I’m not about to jump off a bridge. This weekend I attended a half-day workshop called “Ending it All” at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA.

Some of us can nail the beginning of a story, novel, or essay. Some can do the middle. Some can do both. What stymies most of us is ending it all, i.e., putting those two words down when we’re finished: The End.

I’ve drafted a very complex novel about the year 2000 in what was then still Yugoslavia. The story involves assassinations of government officials, the criminal underworld, ethnic cleansing, election politics, and even disillusioned Russian soldiers. In other words, a lot of plot threads. And since the bulk of my writing has been non-fiction (government reports), I like all my threads tied up loosely.

Also, because my work is based on current events and recent history, as events move on, sometimes that affects what I’ve written. I have to go back and “finish” a thread–either by weaving some more of it or snipping it.

Some feedback I got on that draft was that the ends were tied too neatly, so much so the ending went on and on and on and…

You get the picture.

Hence, my attendance at Rebecca Makkai’s excellent workshop, “Ending it All.” Makkai is a novelist (The Borrower), short story writer, and non-fiction writer, and her workshop was eye-opening. I never knew there were so many different types of endings! Over the next few days, I’m going to recap this workshop and the useful points Makkai made.

Here are her “rules” (and she acknowledges rules are made to be broken) about an ending:

  • It has to “feel” like an ending, and the best judge of what that feels like is the writer.
  • It has to honor any promises you made to the reader, i.e., if it’s a murder mystery you must reveal the killer.
  • It needs to add to the story, i.e., “and then this happened.”
  • It needs to be poetic, even musical.
  • It needs to be “surprising, but inevitable.”
  • It needs, in some small, subtle way, to refer to the beginning.
  • And, sometimes, it doesn’t have to happen at all.

Makkai says when an ending doesn’t work, “It’s quite likely because it’s not long enough.” We’re tempted, she says, to get to the zinger of our last line when we should be imbuing the penultimate paragraphs with meaning. She uses a musical term for this–ritardando, or the gradual slowing which marks the end of a musical composition.

Despite the fact Makkai says we can’t really categorize or classify endings, she did provide “descriptors” of the kinds of endings writers have used. For each descriptor, she provided examples, some from contemporary literature, some from the classics, and even some from movies and television programs.

In discussing types of endings I may refer to the actual endings of the examples Makkai provided, so Spoiler Alert; however, I’m only talking about the ending as a stand-alone, pretty meaningless unless you’ve read the entire piece. And I was heartened that I’d read or seen most of her examples; that gave the workshop even more meaning.

Here are the descriptors of endings I’m discussing today:

1. Endings that deal with resolution, or lack thereof

The first sub-descriptor for this type of ending is Stasis, which is the intentional lack of resolution. Anton Chekov was a master of this, and the example Makkai provided was his short story “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” which is the story of two people, married to others, who meet at a Black Sea resort and fall in love (a common theme of Russian writers even into the 20th century). The ending shows both of them wondering what to do about their situations and, boom, that’s it. Makkai mentioned this is very difficult to pull off and that most literary mavens consider it a rather old-fashioned device. What seems to work better for contemporary fiction is the “stasis of a character,” i.e., a character who doesn’t change even though the world around him or her has, often in significant ways.

The next sub-descriptor for this type of ending is the Intrinsic Ending, which involves a final, decisive act or event. This is so dramatic and so final that the story has to be over, it can’t continue. Examples were Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and John Updike’s story “A&P.” If this is the type of ending you chose, Makkai says, you have to make certain you don’t just show the final, concluding event but also its impact.

Next is the Game Changer, an ending which destabilizes everything else in the story, or, as Makkai says, “pulls the rug out from under you.” Examples were the movie The Sixth Sense (where the protagonist finds out he’s been dead all along), Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (where we find out the previous 300 pages was just the protagonist introducing himself to his therapist, who is now ready to begin), and Ian McEwan’s Atonement (one I haven’t read). Other examples of the Game Changer ending are Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” and Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” Makkai’s only admonition about using this type of ending? “Do not ever, ever, under any circumstances, have a character wake up and realize it was all a dream, or anything equally insulting to the reader.”

The final descriptor for this type of ending (resolved or unresolved) is The Breakup, where the author abruptly pulls us away from characters we’ve come to like. Examples were Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, and John Updike’s Couples. Makkai adds you can’t do this just to be perverse to the reader, but only because it’s the right way to end the story. In each example she provided, she indicated the story could end no other way than how it did.

Tomorrow: Endings that Address Meaning and Endings that Emphasize Musicality and Sound.

The Places We Write

This past weekend I spent a brief time in a place where I used to spend a lot of time–eastern Connecticut. My ex, before he was my ex, and I spent as many weekends and holidays as we could on a small lake that spanned the Connecticut/Rhode Island border. The lake is called Beach Pond, and up until a few years ago it had a small beach on the Rhode Island side; hence, the name. Our lake house on the Connecticut side had a small lakeside yard and dock, a large deck, and a great view, which looked across the lake onto the Acadia State Park in Rhode Island.

On the drive from Providence Airport to Preston, CT, where I stayed at my ex in-laws, I have to pass by Beach Pond. I’ve only done this three times since I was last there in 2005 before the ex became the ex. For some reason, last Friday on the third time, I recalled that I wrote most of the rough draft of what’s now a four-book series at the little gray house on the lake.

Now, I’m not much of a water person. I’m a pool swimmer, and bodies of water with fauna in it make me a bit nervous, but sitting beneath some good-sized oak trees with a beer at hand, and notebook or laptop with me, I was in writer heaven. On the weekends, the place was very active in the afternoons–water skiers, JetSki-ers, canoers, kayakers–but in the mornings, the place was quiet and still.

My ex had, as one of his many good qualities, an ability to understand what writing meant to me. He knew it went far beyond the fact I did technical writing for a living. He knew what I wanted to do with my writing, and he encouraged it. He never once complained about the fact a notebook accompanied every vacation we went on and that some part of the day had to have writing in it.

At Beach Pond, he would hop into a small row boat and explore all the various nooks and crannies of Beach Pond, and I would write–pages and pages, sometimes by hand, sometimes on a monstrosity of a laptop (This started in the late nineties.) After two years of these getaways, I had a complete rough (very, very rough) draft of a novel.

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that until last Friday as I passed by Beach Pond and felt nostalgia for the happy times I’d had there, but the feeling was something like remembering where you had your first kiss or the first time you made love to someone. The place has an unending significance. This is where I wrote my first, real novel. This is the place whose quiet beauty helped inspire me to do that.

Now, inextricably, that place will always be associated with that particular manuscript. Someday, I’ll turn the pages of the books it has become, and I’ll hear the lap of wavelets against the bulkhead, the rhythmic splash of the oars on the row boat as my ex explored a place he’d known since he was a child all to give me the time to create.

Place, or setting, within a novel is often crucial to its plot, but don’t forget the place where you wrote it. That could be just as crucial–and special.