Mea Culpa, Mea Cliffhangers

I hear from readers who are confused or irritated by unresolved storylines in The Gilded Hour.  Specifically two storylines seem to raise the most questions.

  1. The Russo children (where was Tonino, and where is Vittorio?)
  2. The identity of the individuals who were responsible for the deaths of at least six women.

Here’s an email from Nancy. 

Dear Sara I just finished your new book the Gilded Hour. I have a question. On page 696,after looking for a killer through most of the other 695 pages Oscar says, no reasons to give up now, in reference to finding the killer. Then there is not another word in the remaining 36 pages about finding the killer. What???? Who was the killer??? It turned out to be a very disappointing read I must say.

I am hoping for a reply .

This next email is from Sandra, who is also curious, but in more general terms.

Hi Rosina/Sara

I have never written to an author before but I had to write you. I loved The Gilded Hour and was heartbroken to finish it. When I saw on your webpage that “a new series was launched” I assume that means you are going to write more. Whew! I just have to know what happens to all these people. I am in love with them and am imagining futures for each one of them. I want to read more about Anna & Jack, Sophie & Cap, Rosa & her siblings, Ned, Aunt Quinlan, Margaret, Elise. I feel like I know them now so want to follow their lives.

My first thought:  It’s really uplifting to hear from readers, even when they are irritated. It means the story got under that reader’s skin. My second thought: I hate disappointing readers.   Then back to the first thought: These are people who have read the book I wrote and felt strongly enough about it to write to me. That’s good. That’s what I focus on. 

There are only a few things I can say to this kind of letter from a reader: I’m sorry that the story didn’t work for you, and/or:   I’m writing as fast as I can, and I hope that the next novel will both answer your questions, and be worth the wait.

But there’s also one thing I need to say about the nature of storytelling.  As I see it, good storytelling never tells it all.  A well done novel  leaves questions open to be considered and answered by the reader.   So it is true that you haven’t heard in detail about what Tonino went through, and you don’t know where Vittorio is; his adoptive family is gone. You may never know some of those things; in the end they may be for you to decide.

The question about the murders is, of course, far more pressing. Some people raced through the last part of the book because they just had to know who was responsible … And then were disappointed.  Really disappointed. One star irritated.  [Edited to note that this question comes up in the comments, below.] An old friend pointed something out to me that I hadn’t considered: in the mystery genre, it’s pretty much expected that you’ll know who the guilty party is by the end.  I don’t read much mystery, or I would have realized that.  If I had been aware of that expectation, I’m not sure what I would have done differently.

Could I have written a better novel? Certainly.  I doubt there has ever been a novelist who is totally satisfied with a piece of work.  I know a writer with a t-shirt that reads IT’S ALL A DRAFT UNTIL YOU DIE.   It’s the nature of the beast, and still:  I don’t like disappointing readers, and I do hope that when the next book comes out, those I’ve irritated or frustrated will find that the answers they were expecting really were worth the wait. In the meantime, there are a lot of documents about the murders dragged from the archives of the police department, sitting over there at The Gilded Hour  site. You might well figure out the answer to this question on your own. 

The Editor’s Catch-All: AWK

First, a general announcement:

I’ve restored about a thousand posts from the earlier incarnation of this weblog. It will take me a while to categorize all of them, but the tag cloud should help (low in the right hand column) and there are a few links, also to the right, that are more specific. For example: links to the ‘writing sex scenes’ series and the ‘memoir’ series. Warning: the older the post, the more likely the external links will no longer work.

doctorow-elSo now, this word: awkward. You may see it  in the margin of work you have handed off to people in your workshop, or to your editor. The simplest interpretation of the AWK in the margin goes like this:

This [sentence]  doesn’t work.

Or:

This doesn’t work on many levels.

Or:

This doesn’t work on so many levels, I don’t know where to start.

An experienced writer, one who knows how to make the most of constructive criticism, will then look at the sentence in question and try  — really try — to see what’s wrong. Point of view? Tone? Lexical choices? Plot turn?  And if so, why didn’t the editor write POV instead of AWK? Answer: see responses two and three, above.

There are many synonyms for the word awkward: amateurish, stiff, artless, bumbling, floundering, inept, ungainly, ungraceful, unpolished but a good editor will most likely stick with AWK, because this shifts the responsibility back to you, the writer. There’s something off here, your editor is saying. You need to figure out what it is and fix it.

I’ve got a radical suggestion for you. If and when you encounter the AWK, do not panic. If you’re talking about a single sentence or short paragraph, don’t even try to rewrite it. Delete it, and see if the center holds. Because it often will.

 

are we there yet? or, writerly illusions

Karen the Lurker asked me an interesting question a few posts ago: How do you know when you’ve gone over the top?

The discussion was specifically about writing sex scenes, but I’m going to try to answer it in a greater context. It’s one of those questions that people don’t discuss much and here it is: how do I know if what I’ve written is any good?

The short answer: you don’t.

Say you write a short story about your Uncle Max and his shoplifting habit. You work a long time on the story, and now you believe it’s done. It’s as good as you can make it.
You print off a couple copies and you give them to people to read. The range of responses you get is astounding. Your mom wonders if Uncle Max will be offended; Uncle Max wants to know if your mother will be embarrassed. Your best friend says, you know, I really like where you’re going with this. Your best friend doesn’t think it’s done. Should you sit down and start writing again? First you show it to a bigger group of people. Your friend Janet who has some short stories in print says: You know I just can’t get into first person narratives. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. Your coworker says: wow, where do you get the time to write? Your boss says, When DID you get the time, and: I liked the bit about the dog.*You find a writing workshop, where other people are working on short stories or novels. After a couple meetings it’s your turn so you submit Uncle Max. The range of the feedback is confusing: Continue reading “are we there yet? or, writerly illusions”

my own transgressions

Here’s something from Into the Wilderness that I would rewrite if I could:

They paused, both breathing hard, like statues in the moonlight. Kitty’s clothing was disturbed; a white breast glinted between the edges of the bodice she clutched in one hand. Her loosened hair hung in frowzy ropes to her waist. Her complexion was gray, but her eyes glittered.

The ‘statues in the moonlight’ thing irks me, far too cliched. I’m uneasy with the glittering eyes (but maybe that has to do with my current study of eyes in print). But worst of all: the bodice she’s clutching in one hand.

Okay, so the detail is historically correct. But it’s a bodice. A bodice, and I’m always telling people that I don’t write bodice rippers (that is, books full of sex scenes that are there for no other reason than to arouse, rather than to move characterization or story along). And here’s Kitty, clutching her bodice. Yikes.

Mea culpa.

On another front: the hardest thing about writing a series is the constant challenge of bringing new readers along for the ride without confusing them too greatly, and at the same time, not boring everybody whose been on board since the beginning. I’m at that point in the fifth volume where readers will need some background on the village, but I hate recapping. Wendy (my editor) says, people will be confused, to which I want to say, well hell, let them go read the first four volumes, right?

Now she’s wondering about a foreword for the fourth novel, in which the Author Recaps formally and thus saves the uninitiated reader from having to go read the first three. Stephen King did this in the new editions of his Gunslinger books — there’s an introduction that tells you what happens in one, two, and three if you happen to pick up four first.

Does this sound like a good idea?