On NaNoWriMo and writing the end

The first novel I ever finished was my undergraduate thesis. We English majors were supposed to write a 30-page scholarly essay, like a shorter version of a masters thesis, but I talked my mentors into letting me write a 300-page comedy novel instead, mostly because I figured the only way I’d ever finish a book would be with mentors hammering me with deadlines. Even then, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to reach the end. Then one day, on a long road trip with my then-fiancée (now my wonderful wife), a line occurred to me. Jennifer was napping in the passenger seat, and in the silence of the road I was daydreaming about my novel and some of the scenes I’d already written, and from one of those scenes, a single line flashed into my mind. It was connected to a moment early in the book, the first “turning point,” if you will, where the main conflict had begun, and suddenly, I saw the way to resolve that conflict and reference that early scene. The whole thing became so clear to me that I woke up Jennifer, asked her to root a piece of paper and a pen from the glove box, and dictated the line to her.

When she’d written it down, I told her, “I think you just wrote the ending to my novel.”

And that was how I met my undergrad thesis deadline and finished my book, because with that line, I had a direction, a concrete moment to move toward.

Almost ten years later, at the AWP conference in New York in 2008, I attended an address by John Irving, and he spoke in part about his process and the importance of the ending. He always began with the ending, he said, because if he didn’t know where the story was going, he would never know how to even begin a novel. I thought it was an interesting idea, but I still liked the process of discovery, of starting at the beginning and finding the book as I went, like an explorer or the book’s first reader. Let the ending remain a surprise, I figured.

At the time, my first published novel, Hagridden, was only an idea in my head and some notes in a folder somewhere. The next year, when I sat down to tackle Hagridden during my first NaNoWriMo, I knew the story I wanted to tell but I had no idea how it would actually end. I understood the direction but not the terminus. Which was fine for a while. But then, about two-thirds of the way through the book, the last scene came to me, the only possible conclusion, and though I’d been drafting more or less in order, writing my way through the novel from page one onward, in that moment I hurriedly jumped ahead wrote the last scene just to see it. And that was it. When I hit my 50,000 words and declared the novel finished, I hadn’t quite reached that ending yet — I actually wrote a chapter in that first draft that went “some more stuff happens here until we reach the end” — but I knew the book was done because I knew where it would arrive.

This past Sunday night, on the twenty-seventh day of NaNoWriMo 2016, I found the ending to this novel. I was not yet finished with the story — I’d not even reached the 50k mark at the time — but I wrote the last scene, possibly even the final lines.

I wrote those lines near the end of the evening and I went directly to bed, trying not to fret over them too much. As good as the words felt when I wrote them, I wasn’t sure if that was my ending or not, and this is the mad dash of NaNoWriMo — I try not to put too much stock in anything I write during November. But the next morning, when I reread the last paragraph, it made such good sense. It served as the right kind of reflection on the emotion of the book I am now writing, yet it didn’t feel too heavy handed, too pat. Nothing about that scene plays on explicit moments elsewhere in the novel; there are no pieces falling into place here. Instead, it feels like resolution in the classical sense, something I typically avoid in fiction but which, here, feels right, feels necessary.

And, knowing that — seeing the resolution I am now moving toward — all the other planned moments in the book make more sense than they ever have. The motives underlying my main character’s actions are clear to me, even if they remain unclear to that character. I’m not just writing scenes to write them; I’m not moving through all this violence and chaos gratuitously. I have purpose now. My characters have purpose now.

And for the first time since 2009 and Hagridden, my NaNoWriMo novel has purpose now.

And that is plenty to drive me past November, past the 50k mark (I reach 53k last night, and as of this writing, I’m currently at 60,028 words), and into the rest of this book, writing and writing, until it’s finished — until I’ve reached this ending.

But in the meantime, here’s celebrating probably my most successful NaNoWriMo since my first one! And that is a fantastic ending to the month of November.

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