Sunday, November 3, 2013

Handling the Landing

 Novels and air travel share much in common. Imagine your flight leaving early, smoothly ascending, flying without turbulence, and gracefully gliding back to earth. Ten minutes early, no less. Alas, another aircraft occupies the assigned berth. Twenty minutes later, no one can recall the applause-worthy flight and descent. All the travelers take to baggage check is how long they waited to unclick the seatbelt.

The ending overshadows everything else for all passengers, including novel readers. It’s no time for self-indulgence from the one in charge. Imagine the Captain slowing just prior to destination to ask, “Weren’t those mountains majestic? Sure hope you folks saw the brilliant neons of Las Vegas as we flew over. And, by the way, did you notice how we changed altitude, as needed of course, to insure a safe and swift arrival?” Is this guy nuts? You can remind yourself what you enjoyed or discovered, thank you very much.

But you’re no pilot, you say. Happily, this has nothing to do with you. Unhappily, you’re wrong. Here’s how the landing can bump, bump, bump.

~ The Let-Me-Spell-It-Out-for-You Ending
However smart we actually are, we all like to believe we’re just a little smarter still. Nothing defeats that happy confidence faster than a patronizing summary, especially during the last few pages, or worse yet, the final paragraphs. Who’d forgive that?

~ The Lingering-at-the-Gate Ending
You’ve nailed the climatic point.  All signs read “go.” But you’re early. Best to delay? Stretch things out a little longer. Don’t let them rush away. Fine, so long as you know they’ll never forgive you.

~ The Lurch-to-a-Grinding-Halt Ending.
You’ve heard that agents and publishers prefer about 70,000 – 90,000 words. You’re at 92, 479. So you—just stop, without synthesizing sub-plots or clarifying the role of choice in fate. Why not? So long as you know they’ll never forgive you.

~ The Landing-at L.A.-instead-of-Philly, But-Maybe-They-Won’t-Notice Ending.
Hold on. Why am I here? How’d I get here? True, I’ve arrived. I’m no longer en route, which is sort of good, except—I feel as if I’ve awakened from someone else’s dream. After signing on for a particular journey, no one wants to descend somewhere else, clueless about why or how. Who did this to you? You’ll never forgive them.

Every moment of a novel matters. What matters most? The first page. It gets you off the ground—with a soar or a groan. Then the last page. It’s what you remember when you tell your friends about this book.

Tip: The landing leaves people applauding or lamenting. Which do you want?

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