Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tuesday Tip: When is a Book Done?

Personally, I find this post from Mark Coker (founder of Smashwords, or 'SW') on the SW Site Updates Page to be hilarious, but it wasn't intentionally written as humor. No, sadly, there are indeed many books that either end too soon, too late, or don't actually end at all. From the SW page:
May 28, 2011 - Tip of the day. We often receive complaints from customers that the book they purchased isn't complete, yet after much investigation we learn the book is complete, it's just that the customer couldn't tell. As we recommend in the Smashwords Style Guide, never end the book with a period and nothing. Provide some clear notation the book is finished. One option is to center "###" (without the quotes) after the last line.
I'd suggest using the traditional The End rather than "###" but yes, you have to put something at the end of the book to indicate there is no more content. It should be obvious. That is, the story should come to a resolution that satisfies the reader, to a conclusion that answers all of the questions it raised and the story should leave the reader feeling satiated and glad they just spent time and effort (and money!) reading your story. Alas, that is not always the case.

What Mark's talking about here is when a book doesn't end even though the story is over. He's referring to books that end before The End or just keep going after the story is done--and then abruptly stop (which might be why Brits say "full stop" instead of period) at some random spot. It's hard to know where and when to end a book.

I ran into this with Coming Home (Dicky's Story), which used to end at a different spot entirely. I used to have an additional scene, an epilogue of sorts, explaining the why behind Dicky's first-person narrative of the entire book. I still feel as though I should have left that in there but my two Copyeditors both felt otherwise.

One of those readers has read the book a handful of times, so he'd seen the various endings I'd tried. Although he liked every ending he read, he felt strongly that this time, I had it just right. The other reader had never read the book before, so he had a "fresh eyes" opinion. He also felt the book ended in just the right place, resolving the plot (faith walk) and the love story concurrently.

I'd even started to write yet another (new) alternate ending! I was just unwilling to leave Dicky and his world behind. Maybe I'll have to give the alternate endings away as a "Freebie Friday" blog to see what you think.

I'm not alone (though at least I had the self-discipline to listen to my readers). A lot of new authors don't want to leave the story and just keep going after The End. After all, the world they created is a nice place for them to be, as its AuthorGod. Also, after writing 100,000 (+/-) words in that world, it's hard to come back to reality and know that you're not going to have any excuses to go back to that special, happy place. Absent a potential sequel, when you get to The End, you're all done with the fun part of creating that book.

You still have to edit (see my remarks on editing in A Word, By Any Other Name) but if you keep writing past The End, your sense of incompletion will be communicated to the reader no matter at what point you just pick your hands up where we can see them and step away from the keyboard.

If you feel as though you have more to say about these people or that world, then consider writing a sequel or another story set in the same world even if it isn't precisely a sequel. During editing, you can insert connection material between the two books or set up the sequel's plot by leaving unanswered questions. Just be careful not to make those questions too prominent or too important to the current story if you're intentionally not answering them.

Mark goes on to make some excellent suggestions for what else you can do at the end of the book to indicate to the reader that the story is really and truly over.

Or, insert additional content like an "About the Author" bio, or take advantage of this special moment (the reader finished your book, they love you, they want more) and add "Other books by this author" with a link back to your Smashwords page.
In addition, I'd know that it's sometimes better to put some of the "front matter" like Acknowledgements at the back of the book instead of the beginning. A "Foreword" for instance, probably will make more sense if it is an "Afterword" instead. As one of my favorite authors, Lois McMaster Bujold, often says, the less material you place between your story and your reader, the better, so put it ALL at the back if you can!

The real advantage to using the back of the book as Mark suggests, however, is that it gives the reader a way to find you again, to spend more money on your work, to get in touch with you. If you take a look at the back matter I've stuck after The End of Coming Home (Dicky's Story), you'll see I stuck all of the links for reaching me and following me online, for hearing about what I'm doing next, into my "About the Author" section. Actually, this reminds me that I need to update that section to include the link to this blog. Good thing I wrote this article!

If you've already bought Coming Home (Dicky's Story), be sure to look for a new version in a week or two (takes Smashwords a while to propagate changes). That's one of the great things about Smashwords: you buy once, download anywhere, anytime, as many times as you like.


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