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MATT'S OCCASIONAL WRITING BLOG

Novels, novellas, novelettes

People have a tendency to classify things--animals get tagged and sorted by biologists, languages are divvied up in philogy, geologists spend their days stratifying the earth. Stories, it seems, are no exception.

 

In fiction, most folks have a ready understanding of what a novel is. On the surface, it might be a thick tome in leather binding or a pulp paperback sitting in a spinner rack, but everyone knows what's going to be inside the covers. A lengthy story with protagonists, antagonists, rising and falling action, a subplot or two, that's going to take the typical reader a few sittings to get through. 

 

But there's a range of shorter fiction writing out there, works that don't run the length of a novel. Over time, there has come to be a commonly recognized delineation between different kinds of shorter fiction based on word count. So we have the ... 

Novella: 17,500 – 40,000 words
Novelette: 7,700 – 17,500 words
Short Story: Less than 7,500 words

 

(* You could add to this list, "flash fiction," which is a short story under 1,000 words)

 

Most people have a pretty good intuitive idea of what a short story is. It's a piece of fiction that you can sit down and read in one sitting. Usually it will entail no more than 3 or 4 scenes. Rarely will a short story venture far from a primary character (it's a hard trick switching point of view between multiple characters with only a 7,500-word runway). But novellas and novelettes aren't terms that are frequently used outside of writing circles.

 

Here is what Jericho Writers says about the novella and novelette:

 

 

Novellas tend to follow a linear structure with the main action centred on the protagonist's development. This could be an inner conflict that is resolved or simply explored, rather than a series of events. Due to brevity, there isn't the scope for several sub-plots or settings although some elements of the novel may have some complexity.

 

***

 

If the novella is the younger sibling of the novel, then the novelette falls somewhere in between a short story and a novella.  

 

With a word count of around 7,500-19,000 words, the novelette borders both the top end of a short story and the length usually acceptable for a novella. As with the short story and the novella, writers may be constricted in terms of the number of characters they can use and the amount of plot development they can include.  

 

The plot will probably be linear and uncomplicated with few, or no, sub-plots. One or two characters will feature – not a cast of hundreds. It will have a defined focus and will be complete as a story. The novelette enables writers to give more flesh to the bones of their short story, though the writing still needs to be concise. 

 

 

I've found novelettes and novellas an enjoyable pastime for fiction writing. In fact, that's been my focus lately. Look With Your Eyes was my first published novella. I've had a couple of novelettes included in short story mags. True, these kind of stories don't enjoy the popularity they used to (although trends can always change), but they're so much fun to write. You can experiment, work with off-the-wall ideas you'd never sink into a full-blown novel, because there's not nearly the same time commitment. The focused attention these forms demand is good for me (you can't chase rabbits down holes when you're limited to 50 or 60 manuscript pages).

 

 

Stories have always come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Today we have some handy labels to keep track of them.

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The Joy of Mad Libs

Because they never get old ...

Our younger son has gone on a Mad Lib tear lately, where he and I are doing 3 or 4 a day. I had forgotten how much fun these can be. It's not just the liberal replacement of bodily functions for ordinary verbs. It's the whole ridiculous, co-creative process. There's an art to picking Mad Lib words for maximum absurd comedy. You want randomness, of course. But the more specific your words can be, the funnier the result. If you pick "foot" when you're asked for a noun, you might get something funny. But if you pick "my brother's big toe knuckle" for that noun, I can almost guarantee a laugh.

 

Just for fun (and because we were running out of Mad Libs), I decided to try my hand at authoring a Mad Lib. It's really just an exercise in flash fiction scene writing. You get an idea for a quick scene that will be told almost entirely as exposition; then just remove certain key words. You don't want to overdue the number of blank words or else the underlying story concept will get lost. But you also want to give plenty of opportunities for hillarity. Since our younger son has also been getting into Dungeons & Dragons lately, I decided I'd meld the two interests into the first (of hopefully several) Mad Libs centered around a fantasy roleplaying adventure game that sort-of-kind-of parodies the classic D&D. 

 

He had a ball when I read the responses! So in the interest of spreading the fun, here, good reader, is the D&D-ish Mad Lib yours truly created. Try it out with a friend or family member and enjoy!

 

CASTLES & CARNIVORES

a Role-playing Game Fill-in-the-Blank

that has nothing whatsoever to do with Dungeons & Dragons or Mad Libs

by Matthew C. Lucas

 

 

It's Friday ____________________ [time of day], which means it's time for your favorite weekly ____________________ [noun], Castles & Carnivores. You and three of your ________________________ [adjective] friends have gathered at the Castle Master's, ____________________ [someone's name], house to start a new C&C adventure! There's plenty of ________________________ [food] and ______________________ [drink]. Everyone's got their dice, their character sheets, and their ____________________ [plural noun].  Your three friends already have their characters, a warrior, a wizard, and a thief. Now it's your turn to _________________________ [verb] a character of your own.

 

First, of course, you have to come up with a name for your ____________________ [adjective] adventurer. After ____________________ [verb ending in -ing] long and hard about it, you settle on ______________________________ [ridiculous, made-up name].

 

Next, you need to roll __________ [number], __________ [different number]-sided dice to determine your character's traits. You roll the dice and write down the scores on your character sheet. Your strength score is pretty good; but your intelligence score is downright __________________________ [adjective]. Your dexterity, constitution, and charisma scores are all __________________________ [adjective]. What a/an __________________________ [adjective] combination of traits! 

 

Now you have to decide your character's class. What do you want to be? A gallivanting bard who sings magic into being, a holy cleric who can summon the gods? Or perhaps a _________________________ [adjective] ____________________________ [job or occupation] who can _______________________________ [verb]?  After talking it over with the CM and your fellow adventurers, you decide that _____________________________ [same ridiculous, made-up name] will be a _____________________________ [job or occupation]. That's just what your party needs to explore the ___________________________________ [adjective] dangers and discover the hidden __________________________________ [plural noun] of the world of C&C.

 

Last of all, you need to outfit __________________________________ [same ridiculous, made-up name] with some ___________________________________ [adjective] adventuring gear for your first C&C adventure. After rolling a single, __________ [number]-sided die, your CM informs you that you have _____________ [number] pieces of _________________________________ [kind of metal] to buy gear with. You study the list of what's available and buy your character a cloak and a set of boots, __________ [number] feet of rope, a dagger, some torches, a/an ___________________________ [noun], a/an ________________________ [noun], and, most important of all, a polished steel _______________________________ [weapon].  Now you and your party are ready for your first C&C adventure!

 

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Review of a Review (How Has Big Publishing Changed American Fiction)

How Has Big Publishing Changed American Fiction (reviewing Dan Sinykin's "Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature.")

By: Kevin Lozano (Nov. 1, 2023, The New Yorker)

 
An interesting review in The New Yorker of a recent book about "big publishing." As always, I don't endorse the views of the article's author (or, for that matter, the book he's reviewing). But the conglomeration of the book publishing industry is an interesting—and, recently, a hotly litigated—topic.


From the piece: 


Today's publishing house is closer to a hedge fund than a tastemaker. Every book that it acquires is a bet on profitability. The financialization of the acquisition process functions like an index of risk, creating a "system in which homogeneity . . . is encouraged" to minimize bad bets. This system affects all houses, no matter their size. Every season, Big Five publishers are incentivized to pursue best-sellers, authors whose works can scale into a franchise or a movie. Meanwhile, independent publishers and nonprofits such as W. W. Norton and Graywolf Press seek to carve out their own niche in this ecosystem by focussing on books with small but ardent audiences (poetry, the literature of marginalized voices). Sinykin sidesteps the question of whether this system has made books worse. He wants to demonstrate something trickier: how the process of authoring a book has become subsumed by a larger and larger network of interests, changing what it meant to be an author. . . .

 
In casting a spotlight on the many players—editors, publishers, agents, booksellers—whose coördinated labor is required to create a book, Sinykin makes a compelling case that books are not produced by a single author but through a collective effort. But does that mean that the corporation itself should be thought of as an "author," as Sinykin suggests? At times, he seems to overstate the "systematic intelligence," the machinelike efficiency, of the publishing houses under whose imprints books appear. As a parade of industry executives testified in the course of the P.R.H. antitrust trial last year, a certain amount of randomness defines everything about literary success. No one ultimately knows which books will make money, let alone make it onto the classics shelf. The editor Daniel Menaker once compared the acquisition process to a bad night at a casino, saying, "You put your money down and most of the time you lose." In this respect, at least, nothing about the math of publishing has changed in the conglomerate era.

 
The subject of the review is obviously blinkered toward the large (frequently international) corporate entities who operate the "Big Five" publishing houses (Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Hachette): "Before conglomeration, Sinykin asserts, writing a book 'was a completely different experience.' Once, a would-be novelist's chances of being published depended on 'how easily you could get your book in the right editor's hands.'"

 
I have no reason to doubt that's an accurate historical summary. But a couple of points come to mind. First, aside from the wonderful advent and subsequent ubiquity of word processing programs, writing a book is pretty much the same experience as it's ever been. You sit down at a desk or table, you have thoughts, you put them in order, and then you put them down on paper. To be sure, how you go about publishing that book (so that an audience will find it and read it) has changed dramatically.

 
Which leads me to my second point. The publishing process has indeed undergone dramatic changes—some of which have nothing to do with the "systematic intelligence" of the Big Five Publishers. There has been a great democratization in publication. Independent publishing (whether self-publishing or through small and micro-presses) has grown tremendously from its pejorative "vanity press" beginnings. Need proof? Exhibit A: what you're doing right now. This blog is a form of publication. And you, dear reader whoever you are, are reading it. There's more content available for anyone to freely read than at any point in human history. If your authorial goals revolve around good old fashioned financial remuneration, there's all sorts of new trails being blazed in this new landscape of independent publishing. Exhibit B: fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson's completely independent publication of four novels, a project that yielded over $20M in the first 72 hours it was launched and broke the record for the most successful Kickstarter launch ever.

 
Mr. Lozano's review never broaches this technological upheaval in publishing. But in his defense, the subject was probably never mentioned, or, at most, briefly glossed over, in the book he was reviewing. If so, that's a shame. Because publishing books is indeed changing, and not all the changes are for the worse…

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Editing …

It's like a Choose Your Own Adventure

I've written several posts on editing (usually when I happen to be stuck doing it). Which, for the foreseeable future, is what I'm stuck doing. I'm in full-time editing mode this month and next. With two books under contract with two different publishers and a recently finished manuscript, I've got over a quarter million words to edit. Yay.

 

Though it really is a slog, it's such an important slog. Especially for discovery writers, like me. I've got characters whose story lines and arcs end up doing 180's, subplots that go by the wayside or pop up out of nowhere, people's names changing ... It all has to get smoothed out. I read a post in a writer's forum where another writer described the first draft as a "bum rush" just to get the words down. Others have called it "The Incredibly Sh**ty First Draft." I'm somewhere between those two. But because I figure out the story as I write, editing takes up a lot more bandwidth and time than for those who take the time to plot out their stories ahead of time.

 

So how does play out practically? Multiple reads, multiple goals.

 

After I've finished "The End" I have to wait a few weeks. Then I do the first pass. The first pass is a read-through/rewrite from beginning to end. The only goal here is to get the plot lines smoothed out and the plot holes filled in. So in McJustice, my current work in progress, a character who started out as a short, shrewd redneck of a man turned into a tall, no-nonsense woman; a love interest that became critical in the last third of the book now has to get developed in the first two thirds; a whole bunch of names have been changed; etc., etc. This pass takes the longest. I'm not even through chapter 6 out of 32. It'll probably take me through the end of the year.

 

Then, the second pass. The second pass is where I'm (hopefully) happy with the plot. I might move some scenes around, might flesh some parts out a bit or cut others back. Mostly, though, I'm looking to make the prose and the flow of the story better.

 

Finally, the third pass. This is the final read-through. By this time I'm pretty tired of the story. In fact, I'm usually sick of it. But now I've got to look for grammar, misspellings, inconsistencies (did a character who had a pistol at the beginning of the scene somehow find himself unarmed by the end? Could so-and-so really run from one end of town to the other in the time it took for such-and-such to perform a certain act or deliver a certain line?). All three passes are vitally important and can't be short-changed.

 

But, judging from the photo above, I'm in esteemed company.

 

-Matt

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Another One Done

Fin.

I've finally--at long last--finished my current WIP, an idea I'd been half-heartedly poking and prodding and trying out from different angles for over ten years. This last February, the pieces finally fell into place, and I got the story into a rhythm. And now, eight months and 87,000 words later, I've typed "The End" on a really, really rough first draft of what, I like to think, is going to shape up to be a pretty cool novel.

 

In something of a first for me, this one's a mix of legal thriller and dark, weird Florida. Tentative title is "McJustice." It's what you might get if John Grisham, Carl Hiassen, and Stephen King teamed up together. 

 

For those who are interested in the writing process, the next step after you've finished your first draft is the first round of self-edits. Because I'm a discovery writer, that means plot points and characters that got changed midway through (and on this one, there were more than a couple) have to become synthesized. Plot holes need to be filled. Slow parts have to be cut or sped up. It's tedious. And I've learned from past run-throughs, you have to wait at least a couple of weeks before starting. Which is hard when you're excited about finally being done.

 

But until then, I'll pop a cork on a bottle and turn to something else for a couple of weeks. Then it's back to work on McJustice to start the long slog of self-editing ...

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Laugh and the World Laughs with You (Unless You’re not Funny)

At least he gets it.

I've been thinking about humor in novels. Or more specifically, humorous novels. By which I mean, a novel that attempts to make humor its central driving animus. There's a number out there; I've tried a few. And I've only ever found one that worked: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

 
It's ludicrous, and very British, and was unlike anything else at the time it was published in 1979 (perhaps because it was based on a series of radio episodes). The novel's plot is tissue thin. The world gets blown up, but Arthur Dent (a kind of everyman/fish-out-of-water) and his friend, Ford Prefect (an alien in disguise) are saved when Prefect "hitches a ride" on a passing space ship. A merry band of misfits come together, gallivant about the galaxy, and in between philosophical musings, and ridiculous asides, the story kind-of-sort-of bumps around through time and space. The only thing that holds the book together, besides its binding, is that it's really, really funny (if you like British humor). Again, there's basically no plot, no rising and falling action, no resolution to any conflict. The characters are wooden props, with no interior lives, and not one of them have anything remotely approaching an arc. They're just vessels for absurdity.

 
And yet it works. Because, again, it's a very funny book.

 
A lot of writers have tried to replicate this approach, and I haven't found one who's pulled it off. I think I know why.

 
I try to infuse a little humor into some of my works (Yonder & Far once had a reviewer who said he wasn't sure if I meant my writing to be funny, but he found some of the scenes absolutely hilarious—which I'll take as high praise). Misunderstandings, misdirections, a little absurdity, they can help break tension and an otherwise slow part of a story keep pace with the rest. But I couldn't pull off a whole book around gags and one-liners. Very few authors can.

 
Why? In my view, it's a challenge inherent in the medium. A stand-up comedian only has to entertain you for about an hour. A comedic movie, a little over an hour and a half. And in the span of that time, some jokes might hit the audience as gut-bustingly hilarious, some might fall a little flat, a few might bomb. But it's okay, the audience is indulgent because their time investment is small—and, perhaps more importantly, it's understood that, by and large, each "bit" is meant to stand on its own. A comedian can transition set-ups quickly, change the scenery, so to speak, in a matter of seconds to turn to the next piece of funniness. To a lesser degree, the same holds true for comedy movies. We'll indulge a loose-hanging plot line if the gags are good enough. Take Caddy Shack for example. The "plot" can be summed up as follows: a gauche condo developer shows up at a country club, rubs the blue-bloods the wrong way, and settles matters with a golf game; some characters come along for the ride (albeit for different reasons); hilarity ensues. Sure, there's a story in there, but that's not why the movie remains in syndication decades after its release. It's Bill Murray trying to kill a gopher. It's Rodney Dangerfield's bevy of one-liners. It's Ted Knight's pompous laugh. It's classic Chevy Chase being classic Chevy Chase. The comic strands are more than capable of holding together the movie.

 
You don't have that luxury as an author. To hold an entire novel together with humor, you have to pack humor into all 70,000-odd words. You have to keep the reader entertained for days, not just a couple of hours. If comedy is the only strand, it's going to have to be made of steel, which means the jokes have to be really funny. Not just enough to make the reader smile or giggle; the laughs have to keep the reader coming back day in and day out for days. And none of them can land flat.

 
That doesn't mean a book should eschew humor. If you're an author and that's your "voice," speak in your voice. But I do think writers need to approach humor in stories the way a chef approaches seasoning. Sprinkle in the right amount and you can make a good dish extra special. But if you try to make a meal around cumin, or pepper, or, God forbid, thyme, most people are going to politely decline and move on to something else.

 

- Matt

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Clubs and Communities

So dorky it was cool...

When I was about 12, I shelled out around five bucks to join a club. It was the only club I'd ever staked my own cash on. And it was so worth it.

 

I'm referring to the now-defunct Otherworlds Club of the now-long-since-shuttered Walden Books. Walden Books was a chain bookstore that had its heyday back in the 80's when shopping malls were still in their halcyon commercial glory. The bookstores were small, no more than 3 or 4 aisles, and usually located near one of the big corner anchors. It was pretty standard fare for what you'd see in a big box bookstore--everything broken down by genre, register near the front, signage for new releases and best sellers--only on a much smaller scale. Which, in hindsight, meant its days were surely going to be numbered. 

 

One of the things that made Walden Books special was that it devoted a larger-than-average proportion of its space to fantasy and sci-fi books and role playing games. They really leaned into the genre; and dorky kids, such as yours truly, rewarded them by being devoted customers. What really set Walden Books apart, though, was how they went out of their way to make us feel like a community. For about five dollars (I can't remember the exact number, but it was enough, in 1980's dollars to hurt just a little bit for a kid living on a pittance of an allowance and lawn mowing money), you could become a member of Walden Books' Otherworlds Club. This got you a sweet membership card (example above) and a 10-15% discount on any fantasy, science fiction, or role playing game you bought from the store. It also got you a monthly (?) subscription to their "Xignals" newsletters, Walden Books answer to Dragon Magazine. The letter was green-tint, black, and white, as I recall, and would include recent book reviews, short story contests, announcements, and the like. I remember actually reading through them. But what I remember most was how cool it was to be a part of a group that shared the same interests as me.

 

Back then, in the dark ages before the internet, finding communities of common quirky interests was a lot harder than it is today. Which perhaps made it feel all the more special. 

 

Did Walden Books make money off of selling these memberships? Who knows? (Though I suspect between the discounts they were giving, and the production and postage of the newsletters, and the administrative costs of tracking memberships, probably not). What it did, however, was create a sense of community. And that's pretty cool.

 

I've been thinking about the notion of community in reading and writing lately. I've been trying to get a little more active in writing groups, both with the Authors Guild and one of my publishers--while I've also by trying to engage more with readers. What I've been struck with is that, as much as writing is mostly a lonely endeavor and reading a completely solitary one, writers and readers do enjoy the times when they can come together as a community. Whether it's talking about the latest book, or which writer in a genre is better, or if the movie or the book version of a story is superior, or just spending some time together in friendship and fellowship, readers and writers can, and should, hang out together from time to time. That can be in a small group, or in a convention, or online--whatever the form, it can be a really enriching experience.  

 

So if you're a writer, aspiring writer, reader, or gamer, make sure you're reaching out to others who share those interests. They're out there. And you don't even have to get a membership card to find them (although those can be cool, too).

 

Thanks for stopping by the blog.

 

- Matt

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The Bane of Back Cover Blurbs

The hardest part of writing

Back cover blurbs.

 

That age-old staple of book-making where a clever piece of copy splayed on a book's back cover in an eye-catching font gives the novel a little extra marketing umph. It's meant to close the deal for would-be-book-buyers who might not be sold on the cover, but don't have the time to skim the first few pages. A quick, spicy summary. All the shopper has to do is flip the book over and give ten seconds of his or her time. No opening any stiff book bindings, no page-turning, no finger-licking. 

 

They say the back cover blurb goes back to the earliest days of the printing press, when one of Gutenberg's more entrepreneurial apprentices, Johanne Blurb, realized they'd sell a lot more Bibles if they spruced up those boring, black vellum covers and gave the readers a little taste of the contents. Not on the front, that would be sacrilege. But, ah, what about the back? Herr Blurb cobbled together some spectacularly sizzling copy, and the rest, as they say, is history.

 

Blurbing (as it's now known) is actually one of the hardest parts of writing. Taking a 70, 80, 230-thousand word story and distilling it down to a hundred words ain't easy. Downright impossible when those words are supposed to also excite a total stranger to buy your book. I've had to write my own blurbs and have had the good fortune of having them written for me. I much prefer the latter. But even if you're lucky enough to have an editor write your back cover blurbs an author still has to master this arcane art because any time you pitch a new project to a publisher or an agent, you're going to have to "blurb" it. There's no getting away from it.

 

So how do you do it? I'm no expert, but I think it comes down to answering three questions:

 

(1) Who is this guy or gal?

 

(2) What happened to him or her?

 

(3) Why should you care?

 

Question one concerns your protaganist. Who is this main character you're asking a reader to spend the next few days with? What are they like, where are they from, what do they do? The second question revolves around the central conflict. Novels are made of conflict (novels that don't have conflict are "studies," or "scenes," or "really, really bad"). What's the conflict this character is facing and what are the stakes? Finally, the third question: why should you care. Answering this last question is the secret sauce of good blurbing. It combines genre-signaling (you'll care that the Zenzikkilian pirates of the Gomblot Galaxy have attacked the character's home world if you like space opera), characterization (this poor guy running for his life from those attacking pirate space ships sounds like a pretty cool dude), and a sense of urgency (will he save his planet, the galaxy, the universe? I want to know!). 

 

Great blurbing is an art. One I definitely need to keep working on.

 

- Matt

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Writing Out the Doldrums

She's listing...

"Doldrums" is one of my favorite words. It rolls off the tongue. It's evocative. It's nautical. It's what I named our world in Yonder & Far (because Yonder and Far's people find us so dreadfully dull). The word holds both a particular and a wider meaning:

 

Merriam-Webster.com captures both definitions, defining "doldrums" as: (1) a spell of listlessness or despondency; (2)  a part of the ocean near the equator abounding in calms … , squalls, and light shifting winds.

 

I'd offer a third definition.

 

"Doldrums": (3) the point in writing the first draft of a novel, roughly between 55% and 70% of completion, when the initial thrill of the book's idea has long since faded and every line, every word, comes to the page as a long, ponderous slog.

 

I'm in the doldrums now in my work-in-progress, my sixth novel, and it's just as it was with the prior five. Tedium. Slow-going. Listless. Oh, I'm making progress. The way an ant makes "progress" trying to cross a field. At the end of the day, it's not in the same place as it was before--but it hasn't gotten very far, either.

 

So that's where I'm at with McJustice, a book I've been poking at for nearly ten years. I finally hunkered down five months ago to devote all my writing time to it. I completely changed the POV, worked out the plot kinks, I've got a solid ending in mind. And now I'm closing in on the two-thirds finished mark, and, my God, it's a drudge. 

 

Fortunately (or unfortunately), I've been here before. Every time, I've come to a point in a manuscript where I'm not close enough to the end to see the finish line, but I've made it so far into the run I couldn't possibly throw in the towel. It's the point where you're winded, your muscles are burning, and the miles aren't going by so much as taunting you. It's the doldrums of the first draft.  

 

How do you get through them? How do you work through that deathly becalmed part of the creative process?

 

Another take on "doldrums," this from oceannavigator.com: "For centuries sailors dreaded the aptly named Doldrums. This band of windless, hot, and humid weather near the equator could stall sailing ships for weeks, driving the crew to distraction with the monotony and sometimes even leading to the onset of scurvy as fresh supplies ran out. . . . Generally, voyagers want to minimize time spent in the [Doldrums] by crossing it as quickly as possible at its narrowest point and in an area with the fewest thunderstorms."

 

There you have it. You get through the doldrums by getting through them. As quickly as possible, through the narrowest means, and by avoiding making further storms.

 

That sounds about right.

 

Good sailing.

 

- Matt

 

 

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On Bad Endings

Watching Arsenal's championship run in the Premier League completely unravel in the closing weeks of the season (capped yesterday by a 3-0 loss at home to Brighton) [5/20 Edit: followed up with a 1-0 loss to Nottingham bleepin' Forest] brings to mind a certain kind of book. One where the story's enchanting beginning and middle becomes sullied by a lousy ending. There's not that many out there. Usually, a bad ending just tags along behind a badly written story. But every now and then, an otherwise brilliant tale falls flat because the author just can't quite "stick the landing," so to speak. 


Stephen King's The Stand, for some reason, stands out as an example for me. I remember reading it in ninth or tenth grade (despite my not being much of a reader back then and the book weighing as much as a cinder block). It had me hooked—for more than a thousand pages. Interesting characters. Intense conflict. A dark, paranormal build-up. And then … plop. I won't spoil the ending here, but suffice to say, King took deus ex machina to a level even a teenager couldn't swallow. Which, to me, left a pall over an otherwise entertaining epic.


So what makes for a good ending to a story? I think there are three main requisites. First, the main arcs—plot and character—have to land on solid ground. Are the conflicts the protagonists faced resolved (whether for good or ill)? Have they been changed (for better or worse)? Have events reached a natural (i.e., organic) conclusion? If not (if, for example, the story concludes with the Hand of the Almighty swooping down to detonate a nuclear bomb, killing off a quarter of the main characters, leaving two others free to return home and start a family), then the ending's going to feel shaky, rushed, unsatisfying. And an otherwise solid story will sink.


Second, does the ending deliver what was promised at the beginning? Note, this doesn't mean a predictable conclusion (in fact, many times, just the opposite). Rather, this requisite is, in large part, tied to the story's genre. If the reader bought a romance, she or he is almost assuredly expecting some kind of a romantic attachment to have been formed by the time the main characters reach the end. If it's a mystery, there needs to be an intelligent solution to the crime. Epic fantasy had darn well better deliver an action-packed, dramatic "big fight." 


And finally, are all the loose ends tied off? This one is probably the easiest to fall short on. Have all the problems the author raised either been resolved or else left in a purposeful place of stasis that suggests a likely conclusion. Did Checkhov's gun ever go off?


What all three requisites have in common is that they all embody, in some fashion, the fulfillment of the author's implicit promise(s) to the reader. One of the most important promises being: a solid, satisfying conclusion at the end of the story.

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