And so I arrive again in a part of the first-draft woods I know all too well. The “OH MY GOD HOW IS THIS GOING TO END?” part.
I always assumed that A Telling of Stars would remain an under-the-bed manuscript, destined for reading by my lucky children, and their lucky children, if I was lucky. No one was waiting for me to turn in the manuscript, so it took me six years to write. I had no idea how it would end—but it wasn’t just the ending I didn’t know: it was what would be waiting for my young protagonist from the moment she fled the beach where she’d grown up, and every step she took after that. I knew barely more than she did, for the longest time. But at last I got her across the sea, which had been the only certain thing, for years—and then I finally had to sit down and plan. It took me months to figure out Jaele’s fate. I struggled and fought, filled pages with scribbles and scratchings-out. It took a coffee house concert by a friend of mine to calm me down. Somehow, sitting in the dark, listening to cello and guitar, I started to understand what the ending had to be.
Then came The Silences of Home. This time, in order to get an offer from Penguin, I had to produce a plot synopsis. A detailed one. I remember going a little hysterical on my editor over the phone: “I’ve only written 80 pages! I barely even know what’ll happen on page 81!” She was, as ever, firm but reassuring. “We know you’re capable of finishing a book: just write something. Something plausible. It doesn’t matter if things turn out to be way different.”
I took myself off to the Royal Ontario Museum, mere days before the synopsis was due. I was miraculously kid-less: I’d dropped one daughter at daycare; the other was home with a neighbour. I sat on a bench in the Egyptian exhibit and chewed on my ballpoint pen, staring from a painted frieze to the blank notebook page on my lap. I wasn’t dealing with just one main character, now: I had to figure out arcs and endings for five. Why the hell had I been so ambitious? Why had no one told me that the delight of creating five points of view would result in pen-gnawing paralysis among sarcophagi?
I ended up writing something. Pages and pages of something, in fact. I submitted it, and Penguin made me an offer, and the synopsis got filed somewhere, never to be referred to again. I kept writing the book—a little frenziedly, since this time I had a deadline that was closer to six months than six years. The plethora of POVs continued to thrill me. I continued to have no idea where it was all going. 70,000 words, 80,000 words, 85,000—still no idea, but I’d need to figure it out soon. I whined to family and friends. I jittered and frittered away my precious 1.25 hours of writing time-per-day. The due date was still a couple of months away, but it didn’t matter: I was terrified.
And then one of the friends to whom I’d whined suggested we go see The Return of the King. I’d already seen it, but this didn’t matter: I’d buy myself three hours of escape in Aragorn’s stubble (and subsequent kingly beard, which never did do it for me as much).
In fact, what it ended up buying me was clarity. Because I’d seen it, I didn’t need to focus—and yet, even as I wasn’t focusing, I was awash in multiple points of view and sweeping vistas and a story that was ending. I sat in that theatre, and my own five strands started to knit. It wasn’t an epiphany (not an on-the-spot Erin sweater), but it was enough. I left there, once Sam Gamgee’s round door had closed, and I went home and made a chart of possibilities, and very quickly I narrowed these down, and in the end I handed the book in two months ahead of deadline. (The ending, by the way, looked nothing like the one I’d cobbled together at the museum.)
The Pattern Scars marked a return to my first-novel non-method: “Oooh! Here’s an idea; here are some images; just start writing!” Two years later, at 95,000 words, I was still in familiar territory: “OH MY GOD HOW IS THIS GOING TO END?”
This time I didn’t go to a movie: I went to Rivendell. True, there was a certain Tolkienian consistency there—but this Rivendell was a house in Prince Edward County, Ontario. A house inhabited by two beloved friends; a house backed by woods (and a Gandalf carving!), and a pond (frogs!) and high pasture (tiny white snails!). I’d paced the fern-thick forest paths in previous years, trying to come up with a beginning; now I went in search of an ending. And, at some point between the paths and the martinis, between sunlight and dark, I found two. I made a chart. “Nola lives” was one column. “Nola dies” was the other. I sat cross-legged on the bed, while hummingbirds dive-bombed the feeders above the porch and tree shadows lengthened on the road up to the house. I figured it out. This wasn’t an epiphany, either; it was months of conscious and sub-conscious wondering (/fretting), finally easing into certainty. Not that that made it any less fantastic.
The Door in the Mountain, which will be out in April, is volume one of two—so while the book ends, the story doesn’t. And that’s what I’m into now: the actual ending. You’d think that, because I plundered a myth this time ’round, there’d be at least one clear way to wrap things up—but nooooo. The due date’s still a few months away, but that doesn’t matter: I’m terrified. It’s a stupid kind of terror, since I’ve been here three times before, and there’s always been a catalyst ex machina. I have to trust this scattered process of mine. And yet.
The sounds of cello and guitar in a darkened café; a movie theatre; a house in the country. No pressure, process, but what’ll it be this time?