Answering a question about endings

Aaron asked:
This may sound like an odd question, but:  Do you know the endings of your stories?

I.e. do you know what the final scene will be, a la Robert Jordan? Or, does it continue to evolve in your mind?

Apologies in advance, because this is long, and for people who have no interest in the process of writing, it’s probably also going to be TDL, and you may want to skip it.  I’m not sure how to do what amounts to an LJ cut in wordpress, or I’d have put most of the answer behind one.

I’m moving paragraphs of this question around, because the answer is complicated. Before I start to answer, though, I need to make one thing absolutely clear: What I’m writing about is entirely my own process; it’s the way I write books. No two novelists I’ve ever talked to–and I’m a bit of a process geek–work the same way. So this isn’t meant to be prescriptive; it’s entirely subjective.

If you’re reading this, and you write, and you write in an entirely different way, that shouldn’t be a surprise; the trick of learning to write a novel is really only learning how you can start and finish your stories. It has to work for you. Trial and error over the early years has brought me to my current process solely because it’s the one that works for me. There’s no superiority of approach implied because in the end, most readers don’t care how you arrive at the finished book; the only thing they see is the book itself.

Okay, with that disclaimer out of the way, back to Aaron’s question. The answer is: Yes and no.

In the West novels, I’ve known since Hunter’s Death where the overall story is going. I know the end arcs for characters that haven’t been introduced yet. I know the end of Kallandras’ arc, and Evayne’s, for instance; I know the end of Auralis’ and I know the end of Kiriel’s — both characters who made no appearance in Hunter’s Death. I know the shape of the overall events that will cause those arcs to end. That would be the Yes.

But.

In any of these arcs, in any of these plans, there’s an element of the organic; the way the story itself unfolds isn’t scripted or orchestrated. Some of the scenes I’ve envisioned do occur; some don’t. Characters that I love and know, when thrown together by events, don’t interact the way I assumed — before I put words to screen — they would. Some of those interactions cause changes in the characters themselves, and some of the outcomes that I’d been writing toward shift because of those changes. They have to because that’s the way I write: the scenes are entirely rooted in the characters who are part of them.

The farther away a character — any character, even Allasakar — is from text, the more fixed they are, and the more they conform to what I “know” before I start writing actual book words. But…writing opens windows into the possible. An outline is a skeleton, but it’s not actually alive, and in any case, I loathe writing outlines with unbridled passion.

At any minute that a character is on screen, there’s a range of things that they can do. An open range. I mean, they could sprout wings and fly off, although that would probably damage the book & the worldbuilding a fair amount. But the sense of possibility is what makes the book breathe, to me; it’s what gives it a sense of life, without which I would find it impossible to finish anything; possibility — small or large — holds promise and potential; I need some ability to surprise myself. I have a strong idea of what a character will or won’t do, but even then, I’m thinking rationally, and not emotionally until I start to write. Emotion is what opens up when I start to put words on page.

What my characters do on the page is the truest expression of who they are as people. I hesitated to write that because it sounds…vaguely pretentious, and that’s not in any way my intent. It is, however, my experience of the book as I write it. Therefore, if characters deviate from what I thought they would or should do, I accept that my sense of who they are was not in synch with my sense of what they would do; I’m sure you’ve all been surprised in positive and negative ways by things people you know well have done. This is like that.

I then have the choice of forcing the scene into what made sense before I started writing the book, or allow the character choices to have unforeseen consequences. I go with the consequences. What this means is that I cannot say, for certain, what will happen. I know what I’m aiming for, because there’s a certain resonance of tone and emotion that runs throughout a building arc, and I think it’s necessary for me to have those goals, that end-in-sight.

But if I get to that end and it isn’t exactly the one I envisioned, it’s nonetheless the one for the book I’ve written, and that’s where it goes. If, in the small list of endings I’ve listed above as things I “know”, things change — then they change. It’s not fixed. I can tell you right now what I’m certain will happen because I do feel certain that’s where it’s all going. But I can also tell you that it’s likely that things will change, regardless — in event, in consequence — by the time I get there because I honestly don’t know for certain how the events will change the characters themselves between here (unwritten) and there.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the endings are random, and this is where it gets trickier, explanation-wise. The endings that I aim for are the ends of emotional character arcs; some are small arcs within larger arcs. They have a feel and tone for me that’s like the sound of a perfect bell; the waves resonate, grow louder, and then finally fade. In character terms, this means that I know how the ending feels to the characters, and to me.

But the events which comprise the ending can and do change in the telling because I think, on some subconscious level, I’m still working toward that tone and feel, no matter what actually happens on the page. So…I need the endings in mind when I start at the beginning, but the ending events themselves are not what actually drives me: it’s the way the characters feel, think, and ultimately grow.

Does that make sense?

Ironically this question came up because I was thinking of your recent post w/re to the Dragon Emperor. The same kind of question applies. Do you really have a firm picture in your mind of Kaylin’s meeting with the Dragon Emperor? Or, is this something that will “happen” as you write it?

The Kaylin stories are structurally very different from the West novels. The West novels, start to finish, trace a single defining series of entwined arcs in my mind, and events cascade — structurally — in a sequence.  In the West novels, I know the shape of the overall plot from here to the final book (but have no idea how many books that will be).  I know the events that are ultimately necessary, and I know where they start, and in theory, where they finish — but the balance of open possibility and character deviation is always running neck-and-neck with the worldbuilding knowledge and the background information.

The Kaylin stories are much less a single cohesive vision; each book is meant to stand more or less alone, although there is a continuity of character and growth between the novels. The Cast books are meant to be more like a television show in terms of beginning/middle/end; there’s an emotional payoff to watching all of them in sequence, but I’m trying not to make that watching necessary to an understanding of where the characters are.

So with the Kaylin books, I have the end of each individual book in mind. With the West novels, the edits-for-sense-of-individual-book don’t work.

For instance: in Broken crown there are two prologues; the first is Askeyia and the second, Ashaf. They are structurally important because Askeyia is Kiriel’s mother — she is the only person who could actually bring Kiriel to term and have Kiriel survive the birth, because her ability to self-heal, and to heal, are absolutely necessary.

But Ashaf, the mother in spirit, is there in part because I knew when I wrote the very first scene what Kiriel would ask of Valedan at the end. That didn’t change. I didn’t feel I could cut either because I felt both were emotionally important to the overall structure of the story as it unfolded, and I knew that this was the only living glimpse of Ashaf a reader was otherwise likely to see. And Kiriel is crucial both in the Sun Sword and in the End of Days arc; in Sun Sword she reaches the midpoint of her story. So everything about Ashaf, the South, and the Voyani is of relevance to the whole.

There are also scenes of set-up in Hunter’s Death which have no relevance to Sun Sword at all — but are very relevant to End of Days. They’re not large scenes, and people will probably miss them — but they’re there because I knew where they would eventually go. How they arrive there is less clear. I don’t think it all out and I don’t plan and outline it, because if it’s that clear to me, the book becomes static, again for me; it’s almost a deliberate and necessary obtuseness on my part, and it’s entirely my process. I think about things constantly, and I have to know at least one book in advance what I’m going to be working on next, because my subconscious chews over what’s coming while I work on what’s here. I think of it metaphorically as planting a seed; it needs time to take root and grow.

So the possible implication that the story itself as written is somehow happy accident isn’t accurate. I need to know enough, and have subsumed enough, before I can actually write; if I have to start something Right Now that I’ve had no time to think through, it’s messy.

I don’t have a firm picture in mind of Kaylin’s meeting with the Dragon Emperor, because it’s not the end of a character arc (or book); it’s an event, and it’s what I think of as a floating event. Until she does meet with him, there are story possibilities that can’t open up — but there are so many story possibilities in Kaylin’s life that it’s not strictly necessary that it happen immediately.

I know certain things about the meeting, and one of them is that Kaylin’s ability to present information in the very narrow confines of acceptable-to-the-Emperor is entirely lacking at the moment. I know some of the things that she’ll be required to speak about, because she’ll have knowledge that no one else does, in theory. But it is, in fact, one of the things that will happen as I write it.

Which sort of answers the question in a very long-winded way, but I wasn’t sure the shorter answers would actually explain enough.

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Aaron
    Dec 10, 2009 @ 08:59:56

    To be honest, I’m not quite sure if I more enjoy your writing…or enjoy you writing about your writing. :)

    Thank you for responding.

    Reply

  2. Eva
    Dec 11, 2009 @ 17:00:15

    Wow, thanks! I have been interested, I hope its not too personal to ask, do you see the arcs as images, like dreams, or do the words flow through your mind, like conversations?

    Reply

  3. starlady38
    Dec 29, 2009 @ 03:38:06

    I love reading about your writing process; it’s not mine, but it sounds really cool. And the end result is also really cool. *g*

    Speaking of which, a friend of mine and I were discussing how best to refer to your West books. The Sagara novels have the convenient series name “The Chronicles of Elantra” (and the Sagara-West books are the Books of the Sundered), but I’ve never seen any single overarching name for the West books. If I can ask, is there one that you use, or is “the West novels” as close as it comes?

    Reply

  4. Lorrie
    Jan 03, 2010 @ 02:27:49

    Joy, joy, joy! After having no internet access for an excruciatingly long time, I finally logged on today, found your article & discovered what I’ve been hoping for- confirmation that you will continue the Sun Sword story!! I’ve been searching for proof of that ever since I finished The Sun Sword- I knew you couldn’t leave us hanging! Well, actually you could, but that seems rather sadistic of you….. any idea when you’ll get to write the End of Days books?

    Reply

  5. Jen
    Jan 14, 2010 @ 16:14:05

    I have a question about the Elantra books.

    Will any of them be published as Mass-Market paperbacks in the future? I’ve been waiting for Cast in Fury since Oct 2009 (since usually between first publishing and the mass-market trade is 1 year). My mild OCD won’t allow me to have books from the same series be different sizes on the bookshelf :(

    I look forward to reading them in the future no matter what, but I was just curious about your plans for publishing.

    Reply

  6. Katherine
    Mar 30, 2010 @ 15:44:47

    In regards to endings, The Sun Sword series ended but didn’t. There is still so much more that seems to be happening. It reminds me of a battle one but the war is undecided. Any possibilities of continuing this series in some form or another?

    Reply

  7. Michelle Sagara
    Mar 31, 2010 @ 01:49:50

    Any possibilities of continuing this series in some form or another?

    I am working on the continuation of that now, finally.

    I wrote Hidden City, City of Night and the forthcoming House Name; they’re prequels to the events of The Sun Sword, and they started out as part of the current time-line’s House War. For a variety of reasons, they didn’t stay in the current time-line. They deal almost entirely with Jewel & her den, from its inception to the moment they’re given the House Name.

    The book that I’m writing now, House War: Skirmish is the first book that takes place pretty much directly after the end of Sun Sword. It is the beginning of the actual war for House Terafin, but it takes place against the backdrop of larger events, some of which began at the end of the Sun Sword: the dreaming plague in Averlaan, for one. The rise of the Shining Court, for two. And … the aftermath of the culminating war in Sun Sword, because some things happened there that shattered — no wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

    Reply

  8. Michael
    Mar 31, 2010 @ 18:28:58

    “— no wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.”

    …Grrrrrrrrrr. So, how much were you smirking when you wrote that horribly mean little sentence? :)

    Reply

  9. Michelle Sagara
    Mar 31, 2010 @ 21:35:05

    Michael, Michael, Michael. Authors don’t smirk :D.

    Actually, more seriously, I did stop because I sometimes don’t remember what’s already in the text and what isn’t — it blends together, for me; I know what happened, but it’s not entirely clear to the characters yet.

    And some people really hate spoilers, so…

    Reply

  10. Aaron
    Apr 01, 2010 @ 04:05:16

    Everyone else out there is suddenly wondering “shattered…” what?!!??! I can only assume is has something to do with Kiriel’s rather mortal decision at the end of Sun Sword (wow, that was 6 years ago!).

    And for the original post-er that wondered what to call the West books that cover Sacred Hunt/Sun Sword/House War: in the Yahoo discussion group, we generally refer to the conglomerate as the ‘Essalieyan Universe’. It may not be apparent when you first start the books, but in the end, they all revolve around around the focal plots of Averalaan.

    Reply

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