Embrace the Bloat

The other day I was having coffee with a friend of mine, another writer who’s slowly yet surely finishing his first novel. The way he described it, he’s all but poised to bring this baby home: individual characters all appear to be near the end of their respective stories while everything has now been set up for the Final Confrontation that would conclude the overall, overarching story. The problem now, said my friend, was that the novel was already so long (600-ish pages) that it made the already daunting task of just sitting down and finishing the damn thing that much more difficult.

I know the feeling, I said, and I do. When you set out to write a novel, one of the tasks you give yourself is searching for little story “sparks,” that is, ideas for details that could matter in the long run. Do you want your main character to be an only child? Do you want the opening scene to take place in a dark office after business hours or a crowded amusement park? Should your villain wear an eye patch? There’s an intoxicating “anything goes” feeling that can take over at this early stage, which can go a long way toward overcoming all that pesky self-doubt, particularly as the pages start to pile up.

A bigger challenge (which often makes itself known just as the self-doubt starts to fade) occurs during the novel’s middle phase, when all those little “sparks” now have to be developed in order to result in consequences for one or more characters, consequences that lead to evolving motivations, which lead to more actions, all of which drive the story forward. Should the main character’s only child status wind up driving his need for companionship, making him vulnerable to the manipulations of a certain femme fatale? Does the opening scene’s taking place in a crowded amusement park mean there are witnesses who now must be silenced? Does your villain’s wearing an eye patch mean he lacks the depth perception to complete the trapeze stunt that will cause the bomb to go off precisely at 3:13pm? Developing “sparks” into high-functioning plot points is extremely difficult, but once an author gets the hang of it, true storytelling can begin.

Ah, but then comes the ending, which demands a weird sort of reverse-storytelling. No longer are you involved in the construction of a story so much as the controlled implosion of a story, as all those high-functioning plot points now must be concluded or tied off or simply done away with. (I don’t think I’m the first person to ever say this, but writing a novel can feel a little like designing and building a maximum security prison, then escaping from it.) And, the longer you’ve made your novel, the more plot points need to be concluded or tied off or done away with.

Still, as with most things worth doing, the only way out is through. If your novel is 600 pages and you still have to come up with an ending, then come up with the ending. If it takes another 100 pages to resolve all those loose-end plot points, so be it. Embrace the bloat. Don’t get ahead of yourself now by worrying over what the editing process will be like later.

Sometimes the ending will feel like the least inspired thing in your novel. The only child protagonist wises up to the femme fatale’s manipulations and comes away a little wiser. (Yawn.) The witness from the crowded amusement park is taken into police custody. (Snooze.) The villain misses the swing and falls to the safety net, where the police await with the warrant for his arrest. (Snore.) Writing the ending can feel like a process of closing off all the wonderful options you gave yourself at the beginning and all throughout the middle. It’s a kind of heartbreak, as all those once-proud little sparks wither and die as their author gazes Heavenward and asks, “Is that all there is?”

I remember spending a long, arduous afternoon pounding out the first draft of my ending for We Take Care of Our Own (available in 2020 via Montag Press). It felt like the last hour of a grueling game of Monopoly, where it’s obvious who’s going to win and everyone else is just growing more and more destitute, mortgaging their properties, selling off their railroads to pay their bills, hoping the next roll of the dice finally finishes them off so they can get on with their lives. The writing felt desultory and rote, with lots of short, declarative sentences that relayed information and nothing more.

Even so, that first draft of an ending came out to roughly 40 pages, which making the novel a wildly overlong 550 pages. But you know what? Who cares? The prison had been sprung. I won the Monopoly game, despite my identifying with the losers. Now I was free to start trimming fat, fat which had made itself much more apparent now that I had the whole story straight, not just in my head and my heart, but on paper. Where it matters.