So I had this whole other post in mind.
I was going to share some of my research into Chicago gangs, fascinating stuff that’s been a big part of my work-in-progress. Had the entry written and everything. And then something unexpected happened: I finished my new novel.
Okay, unexpected is an odd word choice. When I laid that on my wife, she doubled over. When she could breath again, she pointed out that the ending had snuck up on me stealthy as an elephant—that I had in fact spent the last three months saying things like, “I’m so goddamn close I may as well start vacation now,” and "the end is nigh!"
Which I suppose is true, if you want to get all technical.
Still, even though I could feel the end approaching, and even though I work from a synopsis and thus knew approximately what was going to happen, the ending still snuck up on me. I finished on Friday about 5:00, and if any of you heard a strange whoop rising from the Midwest, the kind of noise that frightens newborns and sets dogs to howling, well, that was me, and I apologize.
Anyway, finishing the book got me thinking about endings. About what it means to finish something, especially something so personal and deliberate as a novel.
A book takes about a year to write. Give or take, of course: if you’re Joe Konrath, you can turn out a book in the time it takes to read this column; if you’re Thomas Harris, you finish a book whenever you goddamn well feel like it. But for most of us, a year is both the expectation and a pretty good measure of the time required.
Of course, it doesn’t take a year to write. For me, at least, the actual writing is a smallish percentage of my day. The bulk of the time is spent pacing in small circles, banging head-shaped holes in the drywall, and resigning myself to my utter lack of talent. Somewhere along the line, usually about the time my forehead hits a wall stud, something clicks. My subconscious has gotten off its tookus and delivered up the goods, and I scramble to my keyboard and jam for an hour or three.
But even this is a simplification. Because the truth is that we’re always writing. That’s part of what’s both magical and scary about starting a new project—it’s like welcoming houseguests that won’t move out for a year. The first weeks are delightful, spent getting to know them, listening to them assure you this will be easy, watching them flex their muscles. But as the year goes on, their novelty wears off. They become part of you, and everything you see and do is filtered through their eyes. Sometimes they’re wonderful friends, and sometimes you want to slap the shit out of them.
But either way, so long as you are diligently putting in your time, every day you creep a little closer towards the two sweetest words in the English language: THE END.
One day you realize that goal is in sight. You’re on the down-rushing slope of all your character arcs. Instead of introducing complications, you’re resolving them. The dominoes have been set up and nudged, and now your goal is simply to find the most elegant way to describe their fall. And what’s interesting to me is that the closer I get to the end, the less I’m planning what will happen, and the more I’m seeing it.
Which is what I mean when I say it snuck up on me. I knew what had to happen. As in any good story, the conclusion was inevitable. But the specifics, the details, they worked themselves out. Twists cropped up that I hadn’t anticipated. Characters made plays that took me by surprise. Emotional and thematic ties plaited themselves neatly into gun-battle action. I don’t want to suggest I just leaned back and typed, gasping in astonishment. But there was a momentum powered by a year of steady forward motion, and it smashed through a lot of obstacles.
Norman Mailer has a book on writing called The Spooky Art, and I've always dug on the title. There is something spooky to writing. And part of it is that after a year of thought and planning and obsession, the ending of my own book took me by surprise.
What about you? Do you know what I’m talking about? Do you ever feel that momentum?
Does it feel spooky?