Friday, 7 November 2008

A Time to Change Anne Cassidy
A bright school student asked me a question a couple of weeks ago.

If you could change any of your books would you do it?
It was a surprisingly fresh and challenging question. I had to think. I gave an honest answer, YES. Since that day I’ve been thinking about many of my books. What if I had the chance to change bits that I didn’t like?

Take my book FORGET ME NOT. It’s about two small children being abducted twenty years apart. The mysteries of both these abductions are slowly revealed in this book. In narrative terms I am satisfied with the strength of both stories and how they have a thematic link. But when I read over the ending of FORGET ME NOT I can see that it ends abruptly. It was as if I’d got tired of it and drawn a line with ruler and a pencil. That’s that! it seemed to say, I’m not interested in these people any more.

If I’m honest a lot of my books end this way. I tell a pretty full on story and then guillotine it when I think it’s over. I suppose I would say that I want the reader to think about what happens next.

This reminds me of when I was about eleven or twelve. I didn’t do a lot of reading when I was a teen but we were given Lord of the Flies for a class reader. We were half way through and actually I was dying of boredom every lesson. One day the teacher gave us a chapter to read for homework.

I started reading it after my tea and became sucked into the book. The gang wars, the violence and the murders appalled and excited me at the same time. Long after my mum and dad had gone to bed I was reading, breathlessly to the end. Ralph had sharpened a stick at both ends and was chasing Jack across the island. I felt sick and fearful and thrilled and turned each page waiting to see what would happen to Jack. Just at the point where Ralph was going to catch Jack he got to the beach and fell at the feet of a navy officer. An adult. Someone who would save him. Someone who punish Ralph and all the others. Someone who would sort everything out.

I turned the page for the next chapter and found nothing. That was it . The end of the book. No more details. No more scenes. No more of Jack and Ralph. I couldn’t believe it. Still, all these years later, I can’t believe he ended it there.

I can’t change my book FORGET ME NOT. Will I change the way I write in future? Slow down my endings? Put flesh on to the aftermath of the drama? Will I?


Sally Nicholls said...

Apparently he actually wanted to end it a few pages earlier, with Ralph rolling over, begging for mercy. But his editor told him it was too grim and made him add the battleship.

Endings are interesting. We can all come up with wonderful opening lines, but how many of us can think of ending which are as famous? Lord of the Flies is definitely fab, but I can't think of many others, can you?

Richard said...

"Deus ex machina" never satisfies unless so slickly done no one notices it. The ending of Lord of the Flies was necessary because the basic premise of human barbarism was not to be compromised. Imagine if the children had invented the American Constitution instead.

Linda Strachan said...

A thought provoking post, Anne.

I find that by the time I get to the end of a book I am desperate to finish it, or a deadline is pushing me to hand it over.

But it often feels like my head is so full of the story - perhaps exhausted by the effort of getting to this point or even desperate to start on something new which is now shouting for attention - that I really should take time and put it away for a week (or a month!. Then coming to it fresh I would have time to consider if I am rushing the end because I want it finished, or coming to the appropriate ending for the story - as I want to tell it.

Not managed to work out which of these it is yet....

Lee said...

I usually know the end of the story when I begin - more or less. In fact, aside from a few key scenes, it's practically all I know, and part of the fascination is finding out how to get there.

In my publishing model, of course, I can change anything I want, any time I want, even years later.

Lee said...

Sally, the ending to Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping is one of the best I know.

Jon M said...

Made me think of Great Expectations and having a choice of endings, that always disappointed me in a way.

Nick Green said...

Curiously, some of the best homespun philosophy on 'the ending' comes from The Office, Ricky Gervais's comedy. In the final feelgood episode, Martin Freeman's character is seen ruminating on the end. He says something like, 'This isn't really the end, is it? Life will go on after this. It's arbitrary. You [the documentary maker] are choosing where and how to end this, so you're deciding what it means...' (That's a total paraphrase of course, I haven't seen it for years!).
But even this is then undercut in the final sentimental scene, as he gets the happy ending he was never expecting. Genius.

Lucy Coats said...

For me, endings are almost as important as beginnings. I'm always dissatisfied with my ending in first draft. It's as if I've raced to get there, and then suddenly I want to finish, to write 'the end', as fast as possible. I feel drained and unable to write another word--however much I want to. Then I go away, wait for the editor's notes, and come back to it fresh. Mostly, it's been a long while, so I come to it bright-eyed, bushy tailed and knowing exactly what I want to say. I tease it out, strand by strand, blow more into it, end it how I'd like to read it, with (most) of the loose ends tied up and satisfied. Maybe I will want to change an ending in 10 or 20 years. But not now. I feel I've done all I can.