Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Literary Sunsets

Readers tell me they think the single most important aspect of a book is the ending. A woman at a Left Coast Crime Convention said, "If the author doesn't get the ending just right, it doesn't matter how good the rest of the book was. It's still ruined for me."

So I work hard at my endings. No exaggeration to say I rewrite them fifty, seventy-five, a hundred times. I may change the whole thing, or just one word. I may reinstate an earlier version, then go back to a different earlier version. I move phrases and sentences around. Square One and I get to know each other very well.

The moral and ethical questions in my upcoming book, A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, are complex, and I struggled to bring the action to, to the proper close. I've never put more effort into the final chapter of a book. As I worked late one afternoon, adding, deleting, revising, I glanced out the window into the sunset. It had been a typical Seattle January day, cloudy, drizzly, damp. In a word, bleak. I was anticipating one of those typical January sunsets, where the sun, absent all day, would go down without notice, leaving us to the gathering darkness. Like the last page of a Patricia Highsmith novel.

But just as the sun approached the horizon, it broke through the clouds and lit the sky, forming a magnificent pattern of brilliant orange and lustrous salmon-pink over ever-shifting streaks of gray. That brief blaze seemed to redeem the whole dreary day. Much more impressive, even, than those sunsets in July, when the flaming sun suddenly drops out of a cloudless sky to vanish behind the Olympic Mountains. All's well that ends well. Like the final number of a stage musical.

A low-note Highsmith ending wouldn't do, I thought. Not for A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, and probably not for any book I'd write. But neither would a stage-musical finale ring true for this story. My protagonist had done seriously wrong (if at least partially for good reasons), and he couldn't march, smiling, out of the novel. There would be sunshine at the end, but it would need to be filtered through carefully-laid out cloud cover, just so, such that when readers would close the back cover of the book, they'd smile, and say, "Yeah."

I think I finally got it right. I hope I did.


john M. Daniel said...

A PERILOUS CONCEPTION sounds like a well-crafted, complex novel, and I look forward to reading it. Endings for me often catch a whiff of the hay in the barn and race into the conclusion before I can catch up with them. Like you, I do a lot of rewrites on endings. my forthcoming BEHIND THE REDWOOD DOOR has a confrontation I never believed could happen, and it turned out to be the proper ending, not only for the novel, but for the Guy Mallon mystery series. Whew!

Larry said...

That might indeed be a good and proper ending to the book, but if the story is anything like THE POET'S FUNERAL and VANITY FIRE, there's no way I can rejoice over the ending of the Guy Mallon series.