That Troublesome Last Chapter

Unless my characters rise up in revolt today, I’m finishing up the last chapter in my latest novel, for which SusanH has suggested the title, Sir Kay’s Last Quest. The question for me always is: how the-end-is-heremany loose ends to tie up?

In the editing process of Return from Avalon (and Points West), my editor “suggested” that I get to the end quicker after the climax of the story. When I went back to work on it, I discovered that there were 21,000 words after what most people would regard as the climax. Holy crap, that’s 20% of the book! I painstakingly cut 7,000 words. 7,000 very good words that I’d lovingly crafted in the first place. If I ever become rich and famous as a writer, after I die somebody may be going through my papers and discover those missing 7,000 words. Then there will be a big brouhaha over them and a new edition published with the “lost words,” sort of like they do with long-dead TV series, and then everybody will have to buy a new copy and of course you can’t get that one signed by the author since I’ll be dead. Maybe I should sign a bunch of labels in advance and store them with the lost words. Except that nobody keeps papers anymore, just 40 different versions of manuscripts in digital form. And who would be going through that!

In Strange Bedfellows, you’ll remember (well, probably you won’t. But I’m reminding you so you’ll remember), there were 4 final chapters, one from each characters’ point of view. A tidy little 5500 words. During which we got the happy family moved to the Caribbean, engaged, J.G.’s little girlfriend confirmed to have extra-sensory powers and still around, a messy threesome with Morgan/Tig’noire, etc.

In Avalon, S.C. there weren’t that many loose ends. J.D had been left on the island; Rick and Sabrina had moved from semi-platonic to fully-lubricant lovers. What more was there to wrap up? Adeline offered Rick the job of staying at the cottage as caretaker, they agreed on their story to tell the Sheriff about J.D., Sabrina wasn’t pregnant, plus a nice teaser that ties in with Return from Avalon (and Points West) and sets up a potential novel where Sabrina goes to Wales and meets Vivian and Meg. 1,948 words and we were outta there.

Sir Kay’s Last Quest  has a lot more loose ends. I’m just not sure how many of them to tie up and how many to leave loose. Like the Holy Grail: touch on, or leave hanging? Morgan’s redemption? The upcoming discovery of Lancelot and Guinevere tryst by Aggravaine and company?

Sometimes books have an epilogue where they list the major characters and tell what happened to them. This is a frequent device in military books where a platoon fights together, then disbands after the war (or in the case of Vietnam, rotate home). Curiously, everybody is a success at something; nobody ever lives a life of bleak mediocrity where they lose the house due to mortgage foreclosure. But using that device for an Arthurian book would be even worse:

  • King Arthur: dies in the battle of Camlan
  • Sir Kay: dies in the battle of Camlan
  • Sir Gawain: dies in the battle of Camlan
  • Sir Aggravaine: dies in the battle of Camlan
  • Sir . . .

Hey, I didn’t write the original story. And some things you just can’t up and change. At least with Morgan, we’d have a different fate.

  • Morgan le Fay: learned how to jump into the bodies of “special nieces” to avoid death. Last seen in the 21st century in the body of an 18th century voodoo priestess.

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16 thoughts on “That Troublesome Last Chapter

  1. I don’t think you have to detail the outcomes of the all Arthurian characters — surely everyone knows they do some glorious thing & some stupid things & then die. You have left George Foster muddling around in the 6th century; perhaps he could use some wrap-up.

    Re title: “The Last Quest of Sir Kay” sounds like he dies in the story — I don’t like it. My thought is “Sir Kay & the Holy Grail”, or the ‘Unholy Grail’, if you prefer.

  2. First . . . congratulations on another major milestone . . . The End. Taking a moment to sigh with the imagining of it.

    Agree with Ginny’s observation re title. I think when this first came up it was more like Sir Kay’s Best Last Quest. Now I’m thinking the title also needs a nod to seminal feminism. Hmm. Fun to think about.

    As for wrap up, I’m rarely a fan of epilogues, and I don’t need every loose end tied or snipped unless a mystery has been presented with the expectation of resolution.

    Again, way-to-go!

  3. Rusty, I have a process question. You’ve said a couple of times that you don’t go back and edit until you are 100% done with the first draft. But you clearly bring chapters to read for critique groups. Are those things you bring raw out of Rusty’s brilliant mind or do you do some editing before you bring them? If so, what are you editing for and how much editing do you do?

    I ask because I was preparing to bring something to a critique group from my WIP but looking it over I have a really bad itch to do some major slash and burn editing before letting anyone see it. WWRD?

    • Here is my personal process. I don’t pretend that everyone should use it, but it works for me.

      First, when I write, I don’t just plop words down onto the page. In my writing, the “elegant wit” is as important as the “story” (of which there is little enough). So if I write a sentence and it seems awkward, I reword it. I occasionally pull out a thesaurus. What I don’t do is fret over the exact wording or churn the prose.

      Next, after I get to the end of the chapter, I go back and do a rough edit. That takes about 20 minutes for 1,600 – 2,200 word chapters. Restate things that are awkward, fix obvious problems.

      Then I do a Word spell/grammar check. That usually takes 5 minutes and finds a small handful of errors (and misses about the same number).

      At that point I “release” the chapter to my first draft readers.

      SusanH returns each chapter within a couple of days with her infamous “Green Edits.” She is an outstanding proofreader, and catches 90%+ “errors” on her reading. She also gives me a lot more back than that–stuff that’s much more valuable at that point. But I get the draft proofread for free, so I take it.

      If I’m going to read a chapter at Writers’ Group, I take a look at the Green Edits and see if there’s anything easily correctable. By easily, I mean “10 minutes or less.” I NEVER rewrite at this point, but I don’t mind correcting glaring (to Susan, if not to me) errors.

      That is what you see at WWG. Prose that has been through those steps but not a rewrite and certainly not a polishing pass. So while I might not be bringing them “raw” as you would use the word, they’re have not been subjected to the process I call “1st pass editing.”

    • So, Bruce and Susan, let’s take a look at the urge to do major editing before anyone sees it. First, what is the point of the critique? If you are writing the draft and asking people to critique at that point, you want a critique of the raw product–the story, not the prose.

      If the story is too flawed to get meaningful critique, it may not be ready to present.

      The concept of “releasing” chapters is important to my writing discipline. “Release” means it’s far enough along to get meaningful critique.

      When you show a draft to an audience, you need to explain where you are in the process so you don’t get criticism for unpolished writing when what you are presenting is unpolished.

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