Recently John Grisham was on the television talking about writing. He has that look of money, a perfect haircut and expensive suit, and he stated that he did not start a book until he knew exactly how it would end. (I muttered something obscene under my breath.) Mystery writers are always saying things like that. I admit I admire a good mystery, and I enjoy the escape of reading them, but I rarely, even for a moment, believe they are going to teach me anything truly useful or insightful. Maybe I haven’t read enough of them. I tried to read one of his once, but it did nothing for me. As one of my friends likes to say, “It takes all kinds.”
I’m talking about John Grisham because of that line about knowing the end. The writers I know personally have an idea about the end, but not to a certainty. Of course, I don’t know mystery writers. The writers I have a read (and reread and studied) have endings that spring from the whole of the book, but they also seem to come as a surprise, like opening a big painted box and finding a planet suspended inside.
Thus I have begun to theorize about how the masters I love land their narratives, especially the long ones. There’s the Brontes, Austen, Dickens, Proulx, Vonnegut, Goldman, Golding, Wolfe, Forster, and Wodehouse. I will consider them because of the novel I just finished reading.
Yes, I did finish reading the novel, and now my butt is asleep. Sigh.
I theorize it is ten times harder to end a novel well than to begin in well. Part of this theory is based on my own experiences as a writer, how the inspirational flash comes over a person, and then it’s months (if not years) of hard slogging through story and craft to land the narrative. Landings may sometimes be smooth, but they require a great deal more artistry than lift off. Another part of this theory comes from the numbers of books I have read, and enjoyed, but then I come to the end and think, “bleck.” It’s the weird flavor and grainy texture of sugar-free, fat-free ice cream. The book can have stacks of beautiful description and fun or funny dialog. The book can have winning and complicated characters, real and remarkable settings, but if the ending is forced or rushed or somehow false, it’s “bleck.” I’m not re-reading that book, not for fun. I might possibly do it for money.
So… where should I begin? I think I would like to begin with Golding. His master work begins and ends like poetry. Tomorrow, the dark heart of man is revealed by little boys.