#writerproblems: #writing a #cliffhanger vs. a #standalone in a #novelseries

I’m going to pause before I even begin in order to say how amazingly patient you all have been for enduring this 30-day blog-o-thon. I’ve been doing my damndest to catch up on reading your sites, but I have a feeling it’s going to take a month of NOT writing just to see all that you lovely folks have done during this cold, snowy month.

During one pre-dawn hour set aside for morning coffee and blog reading, I came across an old book review by the amazing Chris Lovegrove. His closing nails the very topic I wish to discuss today:


I felt a little cheated by the end. The lack of resolution for one character felt manipulative. Increasingly, fantasies these days are clearly labelled Book One of a spellbinding new series or The first volume of such-and-such saga; it wasn’t till near the end that I realised that this wasn’t a standalone novel but that I would have to invest time and maybe more money in the sequel. 

Chris Lovegrove, “Suspending Disbelief”

Indeed, what has happened to the standalone story? We are an audience of franchises and serieseseses to the point where filmmakers will divvy up a book and spread its material so thinly that a single story is transformed into a film trilogy. (cough cough HOBBIT cough cough)

When I study Diana Wynne Jones’ library (as every good and proper fantasy fan should do), I see 25 stand-alone stories. 2 duologies, 1 trilogy, 1 quartet (quartology?), and the octology of Chrestomanci. (I’m just making up number words at this point.) We won’t even get into the short fiction stuff here, or plays, or whatever else. Strictly novels. (If I missed any, let me know!)

If you go through all these novels, not one ends with a cliffhanger. Correct me if I’m wrong, but DWJ was one to practice what she preached:

My feeling is that the best stories leave the reader trying to imagine what happened after the story stopped.

Diana Wynne Jones, “Some Hints on Writing”

As far as DWJ was concerned, the story she needed to tell began and ended in one volume. Even the DWJ stories considered sequels or parts of a series are only considered such because they’re in the same universe, NOT because they’re picking up where the previous plot left off. Look at the Howl trilogy: Howl and Sophie go from primary characters in the first book to making cameo appearances in the second. In the third book they appear halfway through the novel with some importance, but still, they are not the primary protagonists. One of the primary characters of Deep Secret returns in The Merlin Conspiracy, but again, he is not the main character. DWJ utilized the same universe for multiple stories, not necessarily the same characters. Heck, Chrestomanci’s rarely a main character in his own series! (But I already wrote about that.)

I started paging through other Young Adult Fantasy stories read from my bookshelf or local library to see which stories end on a cliffhanger, and which are capable of standing alone.

Celine Kiernan’s The Poison Throne: She was travelling at a good pace, though, and it was not long before she disappeared up the winding path, to be swallowed into the treacherous depths of the bandit-laden forest and the company of wolves.

Cliffhanger. The protagonist’s clearly beginning another journey. Not only is the primary antagonist of the story is still in power, but we learn our protagonist is entering yet another enemy’s territory.

~*~*~

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games: Out of the corner of my eye, I see Peeta extend his hand. I look at him, unsure. “One more time? For the audience?” he says. His voice isn’t angry. It’s hollow, which is worse. Already the boy with the bread is slipping away from me.

I take his hand, holding on tightly, preparing for the cameras, and dreading the moment when I will finally have to let go.

Both. This one’s a bit grey to me. On the one hand, the protagonist has survived the Hunger Games. The primary conflict of the story has come to a close. However, we read here that the protagonist’s personal journey is not over, so there is, in a sense, a cliffhanger, just not like the life-or-death situation the protagonist’s been in for much of the book.

~*~*~

Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight: I touched his face. “Look,” I said. “I love you more than everything else in the world combined. Isn’t that enough?”

“Yes, it is enough,” he answered, smiling. “Enough for forever.”

And he leaned down to press his cold lips once more to my throat.

Standalone. You read right. Yes, I’ve read the whole series, so yes, I know there are more books after this. But I’ll give Meyers credit for giving this novel an ending that feels like an ending. As far as everyone knows, the last of the bad vampires has left the region and the girl’s got the guy. All’s right with the world.

~*~*~

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (hush, I’m an American, THAT’S the title here): Harry hung back for a last word with Ron and Hermione.

“See you over summer, then.”

“Hope you have–er–a good holiday,” said Hermione, looking uncertainly after Uncle Vernon, shocked that anyone could be so unpleasant.

“Oh, I will,” said Harry, and they were surprised at the grin that was spreading over his face. “They don’t know we’re not allowed to use magic at home. I’m going to have a lot of fun with Dudley this summer…”

Standalone. When you consider the primary conflict (protecting the Sorcerer’s Stone from Voldemort) that conflict officially ends in this book. Yes, Voldemort gets away, but his plot’s been thwarted. Even the other school-friendly subplots of making friends, succeeding in a wizarding school with a muggle’s childhood, and so on are wrapped up. The Voldemort conflict does not start creating cliffhangers until the third book, Prisoner of Azkaban.

~*~*~

Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel: Magnus reached behind himself and locked the parlor door. “Very well,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me what the problem is?”

Cliffhanger. Any time a story ends with a question, it’s an automatic cliffhanger–especially when that question pertains to a protagonist’s “problem.”

~*~*~

Peadar Ó Guilín’s The Call: Early in the new year, she tells her parents that she has to leave again.

“The Nation must survive,” she says. “I can help with that.”

She sits alone on the bus, her suitcase propped up on the seat beside her so she can pretend it’s Megan sitting there instead. And off she goes through the snowy roads, Agnes and Ferg waving her away, hugging each other, their pride so fierce it burns.

Standalone. The protagonist has survived her three minutes. The fight goes on, and so will she, determined to leave her parents and teach other children how to survive the dark land of the Sidhe. By this story’s rules, she cannot be summoned back into the Sidhe realm for another hunt, so again, by this story’s rules, our protagonist is officially free.
Of course, Peadar totally subverts these expectations in The Invasion, but I appreciate how he made this novel self-contained. Had this remained a standalone, it’d still be awesome.

Off the top of my head…

Other good examples of what I feel could be considered standalone novels whether or not they’re in a series: Court of Thorns and Roses, Uprooted, Neverwhere, Chronicles of Narnia 

Know any others? Let me know!

Other good examples of what I feel are cliffhanger novels: Cruel Prince, Mortal Instruments, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen

Ibid on the knowing and the letting of me knowing

Hey, what’s my own book doing there?

Yes, I must plead guilty. I was in a similar situation as JRR Tolkien; as you know, LOTR is one HUGE tome broken into three books for readability’s sake. The same thing happened with Stolen–my publisher kindly pointed out that people aren’t necessarily going to be drawn to a debut novel 650 pages long. Two novels, though, would split that length into readable installments. The result?

Her head nestles against Liam’s knee. The Voice in her heart sighs, too exhausted to notice a pounding, a drumming rising from deep, deep in the Pits.

A cliffhanger.

So what makes a cliffhanger tolerable and not infuriating?

Closure.

Somewhere along the way, SOMEthing must be resolved.

A series is bound to have many plot threads, and that’s fine. But if a few hundred pages cannot tie off a single thread, readers are going to get pissed.

Rightfully so, too. In a way it comes back to those expectations and payoffs: the patience of a reader lasts for only so long. The more you build, and build, and build, yet never follow through, the more readers will feel lost, disengaged, or both. Why spend time in a world that’s constantly tangled with characters never decently understood?

So sure, maybe the antagonist is still free at the end of Book 1. Maybe the hero’s journey has only just begun. Was a battle fought and one? Was an internal conflict resolved? Did a relationship come to fruition or destruction? So long as SOMEthing has been brought to a close, a cliffhanger ending will still bring some satisfaction to the reader.

Resolve nothing in that first book, and readers will resolve not to invest time in the second.

Tie a thread or two, and hold your world–your series–together.

Today’s the LAST day of my sale! If you haven’t snatched up Stolen yet for just 99 pennies, get it now while the gettin’s good!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#Author #Interviews: #writer Peadar Ó Guilín discusses #setting & #pointofview in #writing. Thanks, @TheCallYA!

download.pngFor more than ten years, Peadar Ó Guilín has been riveting readers with his fantasy and science fiction. His latest, The Invasion, hits American bookstores this week. To celebrate, I’m pleased to present his thoughts on the influence of Ireland’s landscape, as well as the challenges of using multiple points of view, while writing The Invasion’s thrilling predecessor, The Call. For a brief study of Ó Guilín’s writingplease click here.

~Landscape~

The Grey Land itself does as much as the Sídhe to trap the adolescents Called there. I could swear I caught a touch of Dante mixed among the Grey Land’s snares. True?

Absolutely true. Dante influences everything I write. In my first novel, The Inferior, I tried hard to model the world on that of The Divine Comedy. I even began the book with a quote from The Inferno and included a Dante Easter Egg in the middle of the story. It was way too obscure a reference, though. Not even the readers of the Italian translation got it.

However, while he has been a huge inspiration, my aim in The Call was the opposite of Dante’s. Rather than creating a system of perfect justice, I was trying to show the random nature of outcomes. Of awful things happening to the good and the bad alike.

The Sídhe surround Ireland in a mist no one can exit or enter. I tried to make my way through some impossible fog in Galway once, and gave up at the first pub I found. Did your inspiration for the fog come from myth or experience?

It probably came from watching too many cheap horror movies as a kid. We humans are often afraid of things we suspect are there but cannot properly see. This is why anything that cuts down the character’s vision gives readers the heebie-jeebies!

The windows between the Grey Land and the Many Colored Land are a particularly sadistic touch on your part. The lush vibrance of Ireland burns brightest in the windows than when we walk with Nessa and the other students at the survival college. Was the sparse allowance of setting details outside The Grey Land a conscious choice?

I created the Grey Land to be a hell. The Windows are there to make it so much worse. The Sídhe live in horror and pain, but any time they want, they can see those who ruined their lives enjoying the paradise that was stolen from them.

Meanwhile, the inhabitants of that paradise, rarely notice it.

“The Twisted Path” is one of my favorite bits of setting. Sensory details mesh around Nessa as well as in her, making us question our own senses. How did you strike upon this balance of mental and physical detail?

I was trying to imagine what it would be like to be in two completely different worlds at the same time. In reality, I suppose it would twist you inside out and kill you instantly. But what would it feel like if you could survive it? That was my thinking.

As a writer, do you see the Grey Land’s intrusion anywhere in your Ireland? Where does reality feel thinnest?

The most magical experiences I have occur when I am in the presence of a living wild animal that is going about its business as if I don’t exist.

~Point of View~

What process led you to utilize the p.o.v.s of students and teachers alike in telling The Call instead of using only Nessa’s perspective?

If you read books from the 70s and 80s, you will see a lot of jumping around from one character’s point of view to another’s. It can confuse the reader and jolt them out of the story, so over time, we have seen a shift to tight third person narratives. I myself prefer to stick with no more than one character per chapter.

However, a good, old-fashioned omniscient narrator can do so much more in far fewer words. The narrative voice of The Call provides the overall tone of the book. It is portentous, and wise and ironic — all things that the main character, Nessa, is not. If I stuck with her voice, the atmosphere would have been a very different one. Less like a dark fairy tale.

The page count would have doubled too, as I contorted the story structure in order to put her in a position to witness or hear about, every important event.

In a past interview you noted that Conor was a difficult character to write. Besides Nessa, which character was a joy to write from and why?

I loved Megan, of course, because she will say the sort of things I never would myself. Cahal was fun too, simply because his personality appeared out of nothing on the page as I was writing his Call.

I’m not going to ask for spoilers, but did you find a character in The Invasion to be as challenging as Conor? In what way?

There were several characters in The Invasion that caused me a lot of trouble. The Warden, Maurice, The Professor. The plot of the book relies on a great many moving parts that the characters need to slip into place with subtlety. They didn’t always want to cooperate.

On the other hand, I had great fun with Liz Sweeny.

One crime I’ve seen committed in young adult novels is the use of cardboard cutouts for second-string characters, lifeless save for the moment they flash for a plot point before fading into the story’s ether. (Don’t worry, you’ve committed no such crime.) Do you have any tips for other writers to help them carve out moments in the story to develop the crucial supporting cast?

I think you have included the answer in the question.

The key to a character’s solidity, is the effect they have on the world around them as they pass through it. Where were they before they appeared on the page? Where are they going after? What are the clues that show us that they existed before this? Somebody might have mentioned them, casually. Or cursed them. Or prayed for them. Maybe an item of clothing went missing that they are now wearing and that will turn up later on a battlefield.

Show me their footprints!

My deepest thanks to Peadar for sharing his time, experience, and beautiful photos of his homeland. The Call and The Invasion are both available online and in bookstores. Pick up your copies today!

After so much danger, Nessa and Anto can finally dream of a happy life. But the terrible attack on their school has created a witch-hunt for traitors — boys and girls who survived the Call only by making deals with the enemy. To the authorities, Nessa’s guilt is obvious. Her punishment is to be sent back to the nightmare of the Grey Land for the rest of her life. The Sídhe are waiting, and they have a very special fate planned for her.

Meanwhile, with the help of a real traitor, the enemy come pouring into Ireland at the head of a terrifying army. Every human they capture becomes a weapon. Anto and the last students of his old school must find a way to strike a blow at the invaders before they lose their lives, or even worse, their minds. But with every moment Anto is confronted with more evidence of Nessa’s guilt.

For Nessa, the thought of seeing Anto again is the only thing keeping her alive. But if she escapes, and if she can find him, surely he is duty-bound to kill her…

#lessons Learned in #worldbuilding for #fiction: #TheCall by Peadar Ó Guilín

In my previous world-building study, I noted the mix of normal and abnormal details to help create an other-wordly atmosphere in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. Nature is the focus of such details, as someone or something is altering the environment.

Not all stunning stories have to dwell on the environment, however. Sometimes a writer can build the world with pieces of society, of the “normal” one experiences when moving about in daily life. In Peadar Ó Guilín’s  The Call, that normal is, well, pretty f’d up. But a girl like Nessa isn’t going to let the new normal of her world dictate when she dies: not the doctors who want to put her to sleep because she has polio, or the Sídhe who hunt all of Ireland’s adolescents in the Grey Land.

51yePoz3hgL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_To look at how Ó Guilín builds this “normal,” I’m going to focus on the first ten pages of the novel.

Page 1: “She knows nothing about the Three Minutes yet.” This second sentence starkly contrasts the first line about Nessa turning ten and overhearing her parents argue. That’s a pretty bland normal–kids hear their parents argue all the time. But what is this “Three Minutes”? The fact it’s capitalized tells us that whatever this is, it’s important. It’s something worth arguing over. The rest of the page tells us parents are desperate to hide the Three Minutes from all children under ten. Why? We have to keep reading.

Page 2: “Oh for Crom’s sake.” What ten-year-old says this? Biff and Bash are eager to cram “poop,” “patoot,” and “pee pee water” into as many conversations as possible. I’ve heard a few kids Blondie’s age say “damn,” “shit,” and even one “bitch.” But never “Crom.” Does this have to do with where she lives? We don’t know the place yet.

“This is the first hint of the fear that will never leave her again; that will ruin her life as it has ruined the life of everybody in the whole country.”  Okay, something is definitely wrong in this country. There’s a desperation among adults to keep kids as innocent as possible. Referencing pagan deities instead of the common God when cussing. The Three Minutes must be pretty nasty. But what is it? We have to keep reading.

Page 3: “She has never asked herself where all the teenagers were.” Now we’re genuinely unsettled. That’s a huge chunk of population utterly absent, and not just from a town, but from a country. What in Sam Eliot is going on?

“But if she refuses to let the doctors put her to sleep, this is the future: Sometime during her adolescence, the Sídhe will come for her, as they come these days for everyone. They will hunt her down, and if she fails to outrun them, Nessa will die. Before we were unsettled, but now we’re downright scared. Not only is euthanizing disabled children considered both logical and preferential to letting them live, but all children at some point must be prey to some group. If you don’t know what the Sídhe are, you can gauge by Ó Guilín’s choice of the phrase “they come these days for everyone” that this group is damn powerful. The chances of human beings having that kind of grip on an entire country’s psyche is possible, but something about Nessa’s “hysterical, horrified” screaming when told about the Three Minutes says we’re not dealing with our normal human villainy.

Page 4: “Everything is old and everybody is old too.” Nessa is at a bus station, where old folk stand guard, sell tickets, drive the bus, and so on. Ó Guilín points out Nessa and her friend Megan are the only youths there, again to emphasize how little young blood there now is in this environment.

“The tired engine burps fumes of recycled vegetable oil so that everything smells deep fried.” Not only is this a great sensory detail, but it also builds on the previous hint about everything being old. Why would the bus be operating on vegetable oil? If the bus looks ready to fall apart, then surely new buses can be built, right?

Page 5: A big, middle-aged police sergeant waits by the bus, brandishing an iron needle four inches long…he swabs it with alcohol and jabs it into the arm of everybody getting on….”My apologies! Iron’s supposed to hurt them.” As far as we’re told, everyone around Nessa looks pretty normal. Whatever these Sídhe are, they have the capability to look like us. Damn.

When Megan steps up to face the needle, the sergeant makes extra sure she’s no spy. She takes the iron well enough, but the second he withdraws it, she kicks his feet from under him and twists his arm up behind his back so that the adult, twice her size, is on his knees before her. Kid fighters have been in stories for a while, but this is a very blatant disregard for the adult authority in society. I love this touch: so many adults in this environment are elderly and withered. They’ve been utterly inept at stopping the Sídhe from doing whatever they do to kids, so the kids have to take it on themselves to be the violent warriors in order to defend themselves.

35009643Page 6: Shortly after Lifford, they roll over a bridge into what used to be Northern Ireland. Nobody cares about that sort of thing anymore. The only border recognized by the Sidhe is the sea that surrounds the island from which they were driven thousands of years before. No human can leave or enter. No medicines or vaccines or spare parts for the factories that once made them; nor messages of hope or friendship; nothing. WHAM. Ó Guilín brings reality down like an ambush of arrows. This is why everything is so old. This is why there are no young people from elsewhere. And what’s better (for the reader) and worse (for the characters) is the motive Ó Guilín gives in one line: “the island from which they were driven thousands of years before.” Ireland was theirs, until the humans took it.

What enemy could be more terrible than one that’s ancient, magical, and really, really angry?

Page 8: “We’ve had a Call,” she cries. “Driver! You have to reverse! Reverse!” A boy vanishes from the bus, and the Three Minutes begins. If the bus does not reverse to where the boy vanished, what happens? Considering the panic of the driver as his passengers direct trailing traffic to go around them for the reversal,  it must not be good.

The boy’s body reappears and thumps down hard onto the floor. Nessa is relieved to see that it’s not one of the really awful ones. Okay, I have to leave out Ó Guilín’s description, because when he continues describing what “isn’t” awful, it just makes me shiver with what does constitute as “awful.” Let me just promise you that the boy–and Megan’s reaction to him–make you as a reader determined to find out the breadth and depth of the Sidhe’s “sense of fun” (9).

Page 9: A few of the old people are crying and want to get off the bus, but it’s not like the early days anymore. They might disturb the body as they try to step over it, and that’s just not allowed…the Recovery Bureau agents [will examine] him properly in Monoghan. So this way of life isn’t just in Nessa’s town, or even county. This is a country-wide deal, with the government just as invested as everyone else to figure the Sídhe out.

Page 10: The Sídhe stole him away for a little over three minutes, but in their world, the Grey Land, an entire day has passed, panic and pain in every second of it. With this revelation of the time difference we get a taste of the horror it means to be Called for the Three Minutes. Surviving anything horrific in our reality for three minutes is hard enough–hell, the inability to breathe or see while driving kids home from school  was f’ing agony, and that was without being chased by vengeful hunters. So now we know that these kids can’t just run for three minutes–they have to be capable of outrunning, out-hiding, and outwitting these Sídhe for an entire day and night. What can we humans possibly do to prepare young people for this kind of torture?

We have to keep reading to find out.

As tempting, as “easy,” as it is to simply explain how our story’s world operates, we must remember that readers open our books to experience a piece of life in motion. Life doesn’t pause, pop up a screen, and run a slideshow explaining how things work. We have to catch the snippets of lessons as we can, and pray to the gods we didn’t mishear. As you blaze the trail through your story, consider where such snippets may be placed, be it in a hero’s school book, a symbol under a rock, or in the mouth of a bat. Make the lessons and discoveries worth the hunt.

35292343After you answer The Call, where will you stand: for humanity, or for the Sídhe? The Invasion, Ó Guilín‘s latest chapter about the Sídhe of the Grey Land, is now available in the UK from Scholastic. It comes to the US March 27th.