By Ellen Kirschman:
The end of the story: who decides? I do.
This is a great question. For me, the answer changes with every book. I wrote the first Dot Meyerhoff mystery, Burying Ben, by the seat of my pants. I had no idea how the book would end or whodunit. I only knew I wanted to explore the issue of police suicide. When I submitted the book to an agent, she liked it, but told me she couldn’t sell it with the current ending. I needed to 1) punish the responsible parties harder—readers, she said, like to see justice served, or 2) maybe change the suicide to a murder. (Negative on the spoiler alert. The reader learns about the suicide on page 1). I didn’t have to think about this too long. I said yes to #1— that really improved the book— and a resounding no to #2. End of story? She liked the revisions, acknowledged my openness to her feedback, signed me on, and sold the book.
For the second Dot Meyerhoff mystery, The Right Wrong Thing, I promised myself I would know the ending in advance. It’s very hard to hit a target if you don’t know where it is. Adding a bit of planning to my “pantsing” really helped. That book wrote much faster. I now call myself a “plotzer, ” meaning I fall somewhere in the middle between planner and plotter. It was during this second book that my characters started to talk to me. I always thought writers who did this, or said they did, were smoking their socks. I was wrong. It’s not that I am conversing with imaginary people like a crazy person, it’s more like I pose a question about what my character would do and then listen for whatever bubbles up in my brain. This works surprisingly well, especially in the shower.
The Fifth Reflection, third in the series, has a surprise ending. Actually they all do. But this one really has a twist. I knew from the beginning whodunit and why. This time my characters literally shouted at me. I didn’t always like what they said, but I listened.
Endings are hard. Maybe the hardest part of writing a book. You can feel when a writer is exhausted and has lost patience with her novel or grown tired of her series. The ending feels rushed, weak, or sometimes implausible, as though the author can’t face another revision. The same thing holds for TV series. The antics get wilder, the sex gets hotter, and the effort to pump air into a tired script is far too noticeable.
Most writers are open to feedback. We get so close to our words and characters, we can lose perspective. It helps to have trusted people to give objective advice. At the same time, I know that, while there is a lot of help for authors, not all help is helpful. You have to discriminate. Like the old Kenny Rogers song, The Gambler, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em, Know when to walk away And know when to run…”
Bio: Award winning police psychologist Ellen Kirschman is the author of three non-fiction books and the Dot Meyerhoff mystery series. Dot Meyerhoff is a spunky 52-year-old psychologist. Too dedicated for her own good, she should be counseling cops, not solving crimes. The Fifth Reflection, forthcoming in July, is third in the series. Ellen blogs at Psychology Today online. Find out more about Ellen, her blogs and her books at www.ellenkirschman.com.
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