Are You A Closer?

Sometimes a story will come to us, fresh as a spring breeze and full of the wonderful energy that the season brings. We know how the narrative begins, we have a vision of its possibilities, and the main characters are present—almost to the touch. Yet the story never completes. Can we close the deal? Are we afraid of finishing?

In Albert Camus’ wonderful novel THE PLAGUE (1947), a clerk named Joseph Grand is writing a novel. He is a reclusive character and the gossip is that he has been working on this novel for years. As the protagonist Dr. Bernard Rieux comes to know Grand, we learn that the novel is nowhere near finished. The truth comes out in fragments: not even half finished. In fact, we eventually learn that Grand is still at work on the opening sentence and that soon he hopes to have it just right. Joseph Grand is such a perfectionist that he cannot carry on with the story until he gets the opening just as he wants it.

The novel deals with much more important matters, as it depicts the struggles of ordinary people quarantined by the sudden onset of a plague in a city. However, the minor sub-plot concerning Joseph Grand resonates with anyone who has taken writing seriously.

It’s quite a frightening portrayal because it shows how easy it is to kid yourself, how easy it is to think you are getting somewhere, when actually you are circling the same spot.

The subtly satirical portrayal of Grand’s obsessive concern with voice and style sounds like an exaggeration, but is only slightly so. My years of writing and teaching have shown me that Camus’s portrayal is accurate. Maybe most perfectionists get beyond a single sentence, but often the project doesn’t get past three chapters.

I went through a period where anything I wrote got stuck at about three to four pages; I was always being pulled back by the awareness of a word or even punctuation mark out of place. Eventually, I’d get fed up and drop the entire effort.

The perfectionists out there have to learn how to negotiate with their exacting inner critics.  We have to complete a version. As long as the version is true on some level—true to the narrative drive or true to character development—then it can be brought to a close. A close, that is, until we find the impetus to start on the edited second version.

Closing your story requires experience and the right instincts. There are certainly pitfalls. You can get off the train too early. You can go past your stop. But you have to trust that even these “errors” are part of the process. They bring the narrative to an ending of some kind, at which point you take the time to see what you have wrought. An ending requires a resolution of all the major conflicts you have introduced and an answer for the protagonist’s desires, either in affirmation or in denial. An ending also has to please your ear—eventually.

Then you have to challenge some of that trusting spirit and turn over the task to your inner critical editor and work through the material until you feel a shift toward the promise of that initial vision.

Who are the closers out there?  Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Colin Wilson, Isaac Asimov, Enid Blyton, Paul Zindel, R.L. Stine, John Creasey, Georges Simenon, among others, come to mind. They have all published dozens of books; some have published hundreds.

What are their secrets?  Phenomenal stamina, clarity, and focus are involved.  But there’s more to learn. It would be interesting to know specifically what these writers do in their daily practice to become such closers.

The list comprises different specialties: literary, Y.A., science fiction, mystery, horror. It’s not the genre. A highly respected literary writer like Joyce Carol Oates has published more than 50 novels, 30 books of short stories, 10 plays, 10 books of poetry, 15 books of non-fiction, and several children’s books, while also teaching creative writing at universities.

Enid Blyton, a British writer of children’s fiction, published over 800 books in a 40-year career. John Creasey, a British writer of mystery novels, published over 600 books in 42 years. Putting aside questions of quality and relative cultural value, and seeing only that the works were good enough to be published and become popular, there are some amazing facts to consider. Blyton’s output averaged 20 books a year. Twenty! Granted these were sometimes shorter children’s books, yet each had to be conceptualized, written, edited, produced, and promoted.  Creasey, sometimes writing under one of his twenty pseudonyms, averaged about 15 books a year. The usual length of his mysteries was about 150 pages or so.  Isaac Asimov, eminent science fiction and science writer, is the usual reference in the high numbers game, but he published “only” 470 books.

So…how do we measure up? Are we still toiling on that perfect opening paragraph?



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