On October 10 I attended a panel discussion by well-known Northwest authors. It was held at an indie bookstore and sponsored by the Women's National Book Association as part of National Reading Group Month. There were seven authors on the panel (Robert Dugoni, Kit Bakke, Erica Bauermeister, Kevin Desinger, Jonathan Evison, Robin Hobb, and Indu Sundaresan). Their writing covers the gamut, including literary, historical, fantasy and science fiction, thriller, suspense and middle grade/YA. The topic: what makes for a good 'bookclub' book? Book clubs are a major venue for booksellers, marketers and authors to focus on, as they have become a strong force in sales. And of course they are of personal interest to many readers.
The panel discussion quickly moved into authors' processes, as it became obvious that what makes for a good bookclub book is the same thing as what makes for a good book: one that changes the question from "what happens next" to " who am I?"
Two points were made that stood out for me, because they spoke loudly to my own recent experiences in both writing my novel and doing final revisions (I have another two days worth of work, then I'm done!)
1. the authors agreed that at some point in the writing, usually about a third to half way through the book, the writing gets a lot easier because they start caring deeply about their character(s) in a way that drives the narrative forward. They care more about their characters than anything else at this point, and just want to do right by them, to give them a life that is worth living, and one that becomes, at the same time, separate from the author. It becomes the characters' story.
2. the ending is not necessarily what you think it's going to be. As an author, you need to be open to letting the ending unfold as it needs to.
Both of these things are necessary to making a good book.
Before you protest that you don't write without first knowing the ending (I'm raising my hand), listen to this discussion among these authors: Someone said, "Have you ever noticed how many books you read that are great until you get to the ending, and you're thinking 'I hate that ending.' Everyone agreed. Then Bob Dugoni (thriller writer) mentioned that on his last novel, he got about 80% of the way through, knew he hadn't thought about the ending satisfactorily yet, and went back and read the whole manuscript over again. He got to the same point and got stuck again, so went back and read it all again. Only then did new thoughts begin to form for him so he could write the ending. Five of the other authors were nodding in agreement, and Jonathan Evison (literary), said something along the lines of "That makes sense to me. You have to be open at the end, because you have to accomplish the paradox: the ending has to be surprising, and at the same time, it has to be inevitable."
This was an important moment to me. It resonated so strongly with what I'd just been through in my revisions that I nearly jumped out of my seat. It sounded like a huge undertaking, to make sure the ending is both surprising and inevitable, but I realized that it might be a small thing that does that. It's all about the character. Whatever the structural ending of the book, how the character changes is the key to whether you get that surprising but inevitable, and therefore totally satisfying, ending. It is not necessarily what you think it's going to be, and not necessarily a big, sweeping change. You've given the character life. Instead of giving her the clever, but likely, next step at the end that might lead to future books for her, let her tell you who she's become. Let her accept all that's happened, and grow from somewhere deep, even if the change is more focused on the personal than on potential action. When it's that authentic, you can be sure that readers will find your ending compelling, and are likely to want more. Why? Because you've changed the question from "what happens next?" to "who am I?"