Not So Fast, Honey by Terry Shames
Done! Finished! The End!
I wrote several novels before I got published. When I sent them off, publishers said, “Close, but no cigar.” I always thought that if I wrote just one more book, the new book would leap the hurdle. I thought secretly, as I know many pre-published authors do, that it was “them,” not me. It took an important workshop to force me to reconsider. In the workshop, author Sophie Littlefield cautioned that if we were writing one book after another and not getting published, we ought to consider that it was not “them” (publishers) at all—it was the book. She said she knew from personal experience because she had written many books before she finally hit her groove. She urged aspiring authors to reach deep inside to write the best book we could write.
Immediately after the workshop, I came up with the idea of the Samuel Craddock series. It seemed as if it had always been there, waiting for me. I gave the first book to my writer’s group to read, and they loved it. They said I had finally found my voice. The only problem was that the end came too fast. It wasn’t the first time this criticism had been rendered in the books I wrote, but it was the first time I took it seriously.
This time I really pondered what I had to do to satisfy readers. What did not work in the end? I realized it wasn’t what I had written that was at fault, but what was left unwritten. In general, the book had depth, so what was missing? If I had gone back to my old habit of simply dismissing the critique as irrelevant, I would most likely have missed what now seems to me to have been the obvious “real” ending.
Last year, when I wrote the sixth book in the series, An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock, I hoped I had finally mastered getting to the end. I was satisfied when I sent it off to my agent. Not so fast, honey! My agent said it wasn’t really finished. After grumbling to myself that it couldn’t possibly be true, I knuckled under yet again. I asked myself these questions:
1) Have I resolved every aspect of the crime? In one of the books, I had hinted at the resolution, but had not put it in an actual scene. I realized that it’s important that the reader have the catharsis of being present for the resolution. In “Unsettling,” the answer was no, I had not resolved every aspect, but I had accounted for why it couldn’t be so—it was in my original intention.
2) Had I met my original intention? Sometimes in the writing, a book strays from the original goal. This is okay, but the end needs to address what actually happens in the book.
3) Have all the characters been accounted for? In the first book in the series, I added the last chapter after my critique group said it felt unfinished. I didn’t know enough to actually ask myself these questions, but by luck I came up with a “finishing” chapter that accounted for a character who had slipped away. And this turned out to be the answer to how to finish An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock. One of the characters I loved had simply dropped off the page. It took staring into space and really considering how to bring her back in before the answer came to me clearly. I actually cried when I got to the real end.
Had I depended only on myself to get these books right, the ending to all of them in the series would have been stunted. Why can I not see this for myself? I think it’s because I’m so glad to get to the end, that I stop writing the best book I can write, and just write a “good enough” book—the kind that got rejected again and again before I got published. That’s where a good critique group or a good agent who reads critically comes in. I keep hoping that one day I will be able to ask those three important questions on my own, but until then I depend not on the kindness of strangers, but of people I trust to help me get it right, all the way to the end.
Terry Shames writes the award-winning Samuel Craddock series, published by Seventh Street Books. It’s her understanding that fans of the novels fall into two categories: women want to marry Samuel Craddock, and men want to be him! Find more about Terry on her website, www.terryshames.com. You can also find her on her author Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/TShames/.
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