The ending comes first

I love this quote from Aaron Sorkin, about writing a film about Steve Jobs:

"If I can end the movie with that text, with that voiceover - 'here's to the crazy ones' - if I can earn that ending then I'll have written the movie I want to write."

I like how he is setting out to "earn" an ending. It sounds as if he is yet to write it or is in the middle of it, but I love that the ending, the thematic significance of the film, is what he has uppermost in his mind, and what he is aiming for. He wants the film to end in a certain way and to say something, not just follow a character in the course of a conflict, as so many screenwriting books exhort writers to do.

I am midway through a second draft of my novel, and also have an ending in mind I hope I can achieve. It's possible it might change, and you must always leave yourself open to that possibility, but I would be disappointed if my story did not make it.

In my beginning is my end, said Toilets in 'East Coker'. It is also true that you cannot really write the beginning of a story without knowing how it ends. The beginning of my story coils and flips in my head like a fish in a deep fat fryer the further away I get from it. When I finish the ending I shall need to go back to the beginning and rewrite it.

 

Weeks 69 - 71

69 Well. It's one of *those* blog posts.

"As you can tell I've not been writing here very often..."

"Sorry I've not been updating much..."

No updates for quite a while then. It was bound to happen.

I got a bit caught up with a short story, and am working full-time again for a spell, and, and - you get the picture.

Setting yourself a regular task requires discipline, and, as anyone who's ever committed to an exercise regime will know, as soon as you start missing one session, then two becomes easier, three, and before you know it, you can't face restarting. It's the same with writing, the same with blogging. You feel like a failure, and returning to it just deepens that unease. So those runs around the park, or daily photographs or weekly blog posts fade and disappear, ready for the next project or New Year's Resolution.

I'm determined to see this one through, so I thought I'd tackle the sense of failure head on. Don't ask me why, but somehow thinking about failure can make you feel more optimistic. Not thinking about it means it threads itself into your psyche.

I've written before about the wax and wane of a novel in your life. It is, for some, the green light at the end of a pier: always on, more noticeable at some times than others. For others it is little more than a dream, a nurtured idea. There is at leats one in all of us, some say.

I was determined to get mine out, and write it as solidly as possible, not to be one of those people who talk airily about "their novel". But, 70 weeks on after embarking on this project, I am becoming one. And this blog is becoming that hand waving in the air.

"How's the book?" my friends ask, but now I can tell they're not expeting much of an answer. It's been over a year, for goodness sake! How could anyone maintain their interest in it? For a month or so I devoted my time to writing a short story - just under than 5,000 words - and it felt good to know a story so fully, from start to finish, and all the bits that happened but go unwritten.

My novel, in comparison, sags in places, bending over itself with the weight of its own narrative and propped up with the odd read-through. And much to my chagrin, my life continues too, taking me away from writing. Once you've lost the discipline of sitting down every day, writing slips further and further away, and your story feels starts to feel distant and not worth it.

There are still some flickers, though: stories I read and watch in films make me think of my own, and I email myself ideas in between meetings and trips to Sainsburys.

There's not just one narrative arc to keep suspended: there's this one too. I wanted this blog to capture what went into writing a novel, and expected it to go from strength to strength. That there would be bad weeks, sure, but I'd learn from them, and be all teh more enthused. And that has happened, from time to time. I've also wandered off and gone on holiday and been left wondering if it's all worth it. How will it end? Might I be writing this forever, another person with only a half-tended dream of writing a book? Maybe I'll finish it. But then what? Will I document my heart-crushing attempts to get interest from agents, or find a publishing deal?

70

I've written a lot about knowing how my book ends, and how that knowledge helped me come up with a story. I think actually, having had some distance from it, the ending is where the story is. What I thought was the ending may very well be the heart, or even the beginning of the book.

Knowing the ending has helped me with this story immensely: there's still a lot to fill in, and a lot of tempting diversions and procrastination to be had before I get there, but at least I know where I'm heading. I'm not alone in thinking this helps, either. Among the list of storytelling rules recently tweeted by a Pixar animator was this one:

"#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front."

But what about this one, where there is potentially no ending? I might just fizzle out. Perhaps you are one of the two or three people who noticed I hadn't updated my weeknotes in a few weeks. Maybe you thought this was it. You've seen many a blog die before - the inevitable posts, five or six months apart, acknowledging and then apologising for the lack of updates - until one day you notice the date on the final one is more than two years ago, and you stop checking.

The knowledge that you have set up and abandoned a blog, a tiny section of cyberspace, that will be there forever, untended, its 0s and 1s still out there, bearing your name and directionless thoughts, and spiders crawling all over it, picking at its hidden significances with their computerised feet.

It is like watching a helium balloon soar on its own into the sky, still able to feel its string in your hand, or the bob of a bottle, your message folded inside, on the gentle waves of miles of ocean. You know the outcome - a withered slither of rubbery plastic in the field next door, or a swampy bottle wedged in sand on the ocean floor, its bit of paper long disintegrated - but you are still entranced by the sight of it.

This one.

This one.

Oh god. This one. 71

And so it may it be with this one, and with the novel it documents.

Starting out, my focus was on the end and finishing, and the new career and even accolades it might bring. I admit that. But what makes writing so frustrating and so impossible to stop altogether, is the realisation that it is everything that comes before the ending that counts. Working out an ending sets you free to focus on the meandering middle, whether it's the ending to your story or simply an acknowledgement that all things end.

And looking at that balloon, or that bottle, there's a part of us that hopes the outcome might be different, though we know it won't. That's where story is.

I suppose that's a very convoluted way of saying I am back in the saddle, getting back into my story again after a break, and trying not to beat myself up too much that the end is not so much nigh, as certain.

Here's another rule from the Pixar animator:

"You admire a character for trying more than for their successes."

So basically, I'm saying this blog is flying and I'm Buzz Lightyear. K? To infinity, and beyond!

Word count this week: 0 First draft: 127,812

Week 68

"Alan's prize hollyhocks leant brown and shrivelled against the fence." ...or...

"Brown hollyhocks, once prized by Alan, now leant shrivelled against the fence."

This is more like it!

This is what I expected writing to be like! Choosing the best words to describe something and then deciding which order to put them in!

Look at those adjectives - "brown"!, "shrivelled"! - for a while I even considered the simile "like wounded soldiers". And look, "Alan"! I don't know a single person called Alan, I have literally made him up!

Lock 68 on the Trent and Mersey CanalThat's not how it's been with my novel, however. The aim of first draft has been simply to get it down, which means a focus on a layer of narrative that's above the linguistic or stylistic. I often find myself writing how I've come up with "ideas", which always strikes me as a flat way of describing the process, because it's only by writing a scene or situation that characters and plot, or a new angle on them, comes to life.

Wow. Pretentious much?

What I'm getting at, is so far my novel is a string of ideas. Some that work, some that don't, some that contradict each other. They make up the story, but it's crude, out-of-focus.

In other words, what's important is what those ideas are, not how they are expressed.

I figured that I'd finish this string, the current draft, then read it through with a big red pen, except this red pen wasn't for striking out the odd word, or adding an insert, it was for highlighting the odd thing that could be kept, and crossing out great sections that should be dropped. The right words, and the order in which they are placed, was the last thing on my mind. That would come in the second draft, or the third, even.

That becomes a little worrying when you've written so much, and still have so much to go. Some writers prefer to edit as they write, so when they write the words "the end", well, they're not far off. When I write those words for the first time (not that far off, I hope), I'll be starting all over again with a second rewrite that'll be as much starting from scratch as tweaking. It won't be until at least the third draft that I'll be allowed the luxury of twiddling with the order of adjectives.

Shrivelled and brown?

This way of going about things doesn't fill you with confidence. What if my second draft is as bad as the first, just more voluminous? Will I carry on like this, layering ideas onto ideas, and never getting down to the business of true editing or writing anything good?

That's where short stories come in. I've not written many before - not unless you count a particularly heartfelt piece about horses when I was 8 - and I don't read them much either. Dipping in and out can be convenient, it can also be death to concentration. Without a longform story and developing characters I get bored.

I thought I'd give one a go. Writing the same story solidly for over a year was taking its toll, and I had a few ideas for stories: one-liners, thoughts, overheard snippets of conversation, nothing much more. I thought writing one might reinvigorate me and give me a bit of confidence, show that I can tell a good yarn after all.

So that's what I did. The writing process I've been anticipating for so long was immediately condensed: I wrote a first draft, set it to one side, took another look after a week, redrafted it by tightening the story, cutting down on tangents and concentrating its focus, and then did another draft, this time just polishing and improving the language.

So it works. The first draft was messy, and it wasn't the story I wanted it to be, or what I had in my head, but enough was in there that was worth pulling out. Redrafting brought more ideas, and the word count went up before it went down, but by the end it started to read like the story I had originally imagined, plus a few new ideas.

Then all that was left was a polish of every sentence, taking each one in turn like cutlery. That's when it felt most like what I expected writing to be like. That's when it was easiest. And not half as much fun, either.

Word count this week: 0 First draft: 127,812

To hell with suspense

The Atlantic quotes Kurt Vonnegut's 8 tips on how to write a good short story this month. Rules 5 and 8 struck a chord with me:

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

and

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Read them in full here.

The Story

I went to The Story on Friday, a one-day conference about stories and storytelling held at The Conway Hall. First, a few disclaimers: we all have a definition of story, and I suppose my one is the arbitrary application of limits to a set of events or experience that gives it structure, a certain symmetry, a rise and fall, a longing and release, and, therefore, pleasure.

It is neither definitive nor real. It can be subjective and objective. It changes with who's telling it, and with who's listening.

I went with a quote in mind, from J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, which I recently reread (or read for the first time properly - seems odd to think I'd not read it before, but really those were cartoons and films). Peter does not understand stories - he and the Lost Boys live in the moment at all times. They do not understand the passing of time and growing up, as they live in the present constantly, in a never-ending childhood. Just as Blake had done a hundred years before, Barrie is contrasting "story" with "experience".

And here is my third disclaimer: I am currently a little past midway through writing a novel, and the only truly certain thing I know about it - where it's going and where it's been - is what will happen at the very end. Not the final scene, I mean the last few pages. I know I have to get to a certain point. The whole thing has to build up to it, so that it's nor a surprise, and not expected either.

Unfortunately there is masses of stuff that has to happen first, and that's the really hard bit. Making something appear both obvious and sudden is something our brains do all the time, but creating that effect with a little over 90,000 words or 300 pages is hard.

So, disclaimers out of the way, I am going to say that the theme that stuck out most for me on Friday was The End. Endings. Stories and The Sense of an Ending, as Frank Kermode once described and Julian Barnes recently used for the title of his recent Booker Award-winning novel.

The End

Oh well Kat, you would say that. You're obsessed with ending, getting to a particular ending in your book, and the struggle to get there or even motivate yourself to write in the first place.

Yes, it's true. I think about The End a lot. So I probably noted down mentions of it a little more than others, but it seemed to me a few of the speakers suggested that a story can only exist when there is an ending. Here's what I mean.

Matt Sheret and Simon Thornton started proceedings, and established the (my) theme pretty quickly. Thornton, a musician and producer who's worked with the likes of Fat Boy Slim, Beats International and Freak Power, described the art of sequencing an album. Every track needs to be placed in relation to the others so that it tells a story, and he described the sometimes agonising process this becomes.

Not all are so difficult however: "the last track," he said, "is often the easiest." In choosing the final song, there is one golden rule: the biggest hit should never go at the end. Other than that, the final track, epic, providing resolution to the rest of the tracks, is usually clear from the start.

Anthony Owen, Head of Magic at Objective Productions, the production company responsible for The Real Hustle and Derren Brown's TV shows, and a former magician himself, quoted Teller from magician duo Penn and Teller (and I paraphrase):

magic tricks deceive you by ending with something you want to happen.

If anyone knows the exact quote or where it's from please tell me.

Even Tom Watson and Emily Bell (squee! we use the same Wordpress theme for our blogs!), talking about the progression of hackgate from a disparate collection of evidence into a story every newspaper wanted to cover, discussed an "endgame" of sorts. Tom Watson decided he was prepared to see the story through til the end, even if that meant making enemies and being forced to leave parliament. One gets a clarity and focus, he explained, "once you know how it ends".

In contrast, the artist Ellie Harrison seemed intent on avoiding an ending to her artwork, and its inevitable commoditisation. She is securing funding for her piece 'Early Warning Signs' to remain on the streets of Shoreditch, reminding us of climate change as we go about our energy-sapping business, and is seeking someone to adopt her 'Vending Machine'.

And then, of course, Phil Stuart and Tom Chatfield discussed their philosophical game 'The End'. By this point I'd eaten my entire dark chocolate speakers list, and was feeling slightly hysterical as a result. I've got it! I thought. What all this means! And here I wrote in my notepad the word ENDINGS, with three lines under it and a full stop, though strictly speaking it wasn't a sentence and therefore did not require punctuating. But it seemed fitting to bring this single word to an end, though, if I'm honest, it was the cocoa talking.

I hope I'm not misrepresenting Phil and Tom by saying that their talk was about how the game gave a binary choice to people, a dilemma, that forced them to think about big philosophical issues: what happens when I die? Is there such a thing as a cause worth dying for? AND SO ON.

It started to seem to me that the first thing you establish in any story is the ending. One you know your end, you give yourself the freedom to browse, play, experiment, get diverted.

Then Danny O'Brien took to the stage with a energetic talk about "everything", covering anarchists, Buddhist monks and Adam Curtis. It started with a slide of the observable universe, a picture of a mass of white dots with a red "you are here" note helpfully added.

The photo is the result of panning out until everything is homogenous and boring. This, O'Brien explained, is what scientists call "the end of greatness". Every definition and distinction in our world is removed. To understand anything, he argued, you must pan out and zoom in constantly, and constantly change your angle, not settle on a story and stick to it. That, he warned, is to behave like you're "in the middle of an Adam Curtis documentary".

Small things can change big things, he seemed to be saying. They are not at the mercies of wider patterns (though they fit into them from time to time).

As all the best talks are, it was inconclusive and fascinating throughout. There is something about establishing one's end - signalling a certain type of story - that removes its significance and lets you play. A story, rather than something to be found and distilled, is constantly to be fought against.

And so I went back to thinking about my project, my story. I find it the most elusive part of writing a novel, is pinning down that story. And now I realise that's as it should be: a novel is not a story. Storytelling is at its heart, but it must always struggle against fitting neatly into well-trodden narratives, falling into well-trodden grooves. There is a will to and against story in the writing and reading of a novel. Good art should always fight against story.

And, as if to perfectly demonstrate my point, I have not even mentioned my two favourite talks of the day, by Scott Burnham, an 'urban strategist' and creative director who told the story of a Stefan Sagmeister installation in Amsterdam, and Karen Lubbock, publisher of the wonderful Karen magazine. I wrote barely any notes during their talks, just listened.

I don't think they mentioned the end or endings once.

Thank you to Matt Locke for a great, thought-provoking day.