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How to write an ending for a series

The higher the stakes, the harder it is to create

So I finished the first draft of the historical narrative for the third and final book in my Miramonde Series. It was a wild, rollicking, happy endeavor. Except for writing the ending. That was awful.

I love writing first drafts and especially love writing historical fiction, so normally I do not struggle with this phase of the journey. But this time I did, and here’s why: Because I had come to the grand finale. It had to be a showstopper. It had to be inevitable but surprising. It had to tie up all the threads I wove through the first books and left dangling. It had to be satisfying. It had to honor all of my characters, these dear people I’ve been writing about for years—even the villain. It had to wish all my characters safe passage and it had to reassure everyone—myself included—that they would be OK in the world without me. (Although, spoiler alert, I am planning a spin-off series about some of these characters. So I’m not really saying goodbye to all of them…not yet.)

Yoo hoo! Ending! Where are you?

So the stakes were high. My task was clear: I knew I needed a crisis scene, a climax scene, and a resolution scene. But whenever I sat down to write them, I kept inserting all of these lead-up scenes, pushing back the grand finale again and again.

I felt like I was watching myself from above, just shaking my head in wonder, going, “Cut to the end! The end! The END!” And then I would go write another one of those incredibly important lead-up scenes. The result is that my draft is now 85,000 words long. And this is just the historical narrative. I still have to write the contemporary narrative.

This isn’t a problem, since I would rather start with a super long manuscript and cut out all the excess. But I’m surprised by how the story mushroomed as I got closer to the end. And I’m surprised by the anxiety I felt about my imaginative abilities. I started doubting myself big time. Who was going to make this sh*t up? Because I clearly couldn’t do it. I have an editor, but it’s not her job to feed amazing plot twists to me. I’m supposed to do that.

It took me a couple of weeks of writing all these extraneous scenes and worrying about my lack of ideas and my vanished creative force to finally do it—to finally write the ending. So what shifted?

First, I complained to my husband Jon, who always listens and then finds several reasons to reassure me that in fact, I CAN do it, and in fact, it’s all going to work out. “How?” I ask. “I don’t know,” he says, shrugging. “It’s a mystery.”

Side note: Jon is relentlessly optimistic, which can sometimes get irritating, but it also is a source of great hope and comfort for me. If we were standing side by side on a beach and a tsunami was coming for us, I would say to him (or more likely scream hysterically), “Oh God we’re about to die I thought we had so much more time left I love you goodbye!” And he would roll his eyes and say, “What’s the problem? We both know how to swim.”

The muse finally shows up

We writers need that optimism in our lives for these difficult phases when we wonder where all our ideas went. I listened to a great TED talk a few days ago by Elizabeth Gilbert. She described the “muse” as a creative genius that we can all access. The only problem is, some days it just doesn’t show up. We arrive to do the work at the usual time, but the muse, the “genie,” is nowhere to be seen. Other times, we’re in the middle of something else (like working, driving, grocery shopping, or a million other things) when the muse decides to drop in for a visit with some incredibly great ideas. Then it’s on us to find a way to capture them before they vanish from our brains forever.

So I listened to the TED talk. I talked to my optimistic husband. I hung out with a friend’s 7-week-old kittens. And then, this morning, something happened. Now I’m not claiming that the ideas percolating in my mind at 5 a.m. this morning were genius, but they were irrefutably IDEAS! I woke up with one plot twist after the next churning through my brain. It was crazy. I just lay there wide-eyed in the dark, taking them all in. Then I jumped out of bed and noted them down. After a run in one of my favorite parks, I headed home and wrote for four hours. I got the crisis, climax, and resolution scenes down on the page. It was a complete state of flow. And it was such a relief.

Now I’m under no illusions that this ending is exactly how it will eventually look when I publish the book. I will make lots of changes, go through several more drafts. But just getting the bones down is the most important challenge I faced. I needed a foundation for my story. I had to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Now I have all those parts.

Is it really the ending, though?

I will do a little more tinkering on this bloated first draft, but nothing major. I will then ignore the manuscript for several weeks and get to work on the contemporary narrative (to help motivate and inspire me with that, I’m signing up for National Novel Writing Month and plan to bang out most of that draft during November). Then I’ll take a hard, critical look at the historical narrative again, do a preliminary round of organizing and cutting fat, and when it’s in the general shape I want, I’ll pass it to a few readers for feedback. After that, I’ll do another round of revision and editing. Then I’ll send it to my editor. And if the ending still isn’t good enough, she’ll tell me.

Hopefully, next time around, the “genie” will pop by when I least expect it to help me out of another jam. I’m not going to worry so much, though. Why? Because I can do this. And because it’ll all work out in the end.

How? I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

 

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