manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

The Tail of the Tale


Back in January, I typed “finis” at the end of my work in progress. Since then, I’ve gone through it twice, once to find gross errors and inconsistencies, and a second time to streamline the prose and reduce the word count.

Everything went swimmingly (a word to be used sparingly or not at all) until I came to what’s still called #15, which is the final section of the novel. (I haven’t decided where to put chapter breaks yet). The crisis and climax happen in #14. Why, some may ask, is another whole chapter needed?

In music, there’s something called a coda. Here are some definitions, snipped from Wikipedia:

In music, a coda (Italian for ‘tail’) is a passage that brings a piece (or a movement) to an end. Technically, it is an expanded cadence. It may be as simple as a few measures, or as complex as an entire section.

Coda (It.) (1) The tail of a note. (2) The bars occasionally added to a contrapuntal movement after the close or finish of the canto fermo. (3) The few chords or bars attached to an infinite canon in order to render it finite; or a few chords not in a canon, added to a finite canon for the sake of obtaining a more harmonious conclusion. (4) That closing adjunct of any movement, or piece, specially intended to enforce a feeling of completeness and finality.

Notice the bits about creating “a feeling of completeness and finality,” and “obtaining a more harmonious conclusion.” Also that it may be “as complex as an entire section.”

Prologues are a contentious subject among writers, but I haven’t seen as much discussion about devices to end a novel. I’m not talking about epilogues, which are disconnected from the story, both chronologically and otherwise. Some novels need what might be called a “literary coda.”

Such a device directly follows on from the events of the preceding chapter. It’s a kind of runway to land the reader gently rather than leaving them gasping in midair after the crisis (even if there is a sequel, but especially if there isn’t). Or maybe it’s like the gang getting together at the pub after the big game instead of going straight home. It’s a chance for the reader to linger a while longer with the characters and setting, savouring the reading experience. (Assuming it was positive, of course).

Loose ends (some of them, anyway) are tied up and a few final revelations presented. Going back to music again, the final chapter is like an encore, a way of prolonging the story for the reader who just doesn’t want it to end.

Back to the WIP. The first half of my final section was fine, but the closer I got to that “finis,” the more obvious it became that my main character (who is also the narrator) had been taken over by someone else — me. She was no longer talking about what was important to her, but rejoicing that she had arrived at The End. She was voicing my emotions, not hers.

The last paragraphs had an overly reflective tone, dwelling on earlier events already known by the reader. They didn’t sound like a 21-year-old with choices to make and apprehensions to deal with. The voice was that of the middle-aged writer who was almost finished. “Whew, we’re all done, and isn’t that great!”

A rewrite was in order.

A couple of things I had to keep in mind:

  • Until a book is published (and really, not even then, if it’s an ebook) nothing is unchangeable. I’ve had to persuade myself of this repeatedly while writing this novel. Just because my characters do or say certain things doesn’t mean I can’t change them or even (gasp!) delete them if they aren’t working. I am, after all, The Author.
  • Unless a scene or chapter is 100% horrible, wrong, and bad, I prefer to work with the existing text than to go back to a blank page. Some may consider the blank page a fresh start, but I don’t need blank page anxiety at this stage. I do, however, recommend making a fresh copy of the section to be edited before slashing and burning. The original, with all its faults, is safe until the rewrite is done.

This rewrite turned into the usual dog’s breakfast, with different colours and highlights marking problematic text, new text, and text moved from elsewhere. Then there were my exhortations and critical comments to myself, in ALL CAPS, so I didn’t overlook them.

SWCF screenshot pic

This is actually a selection of random paragraphs from the “Deleted Stuff” file, but looks just like sections of the actual manuscript, post-rewrite.

The rewrite is done and I’m happy with it. We’ll see if that satisfaction persists. I need to go through the whole manuscript again (at least once), this time zeroing in on words I may have used too often or inconsistently. Then there’s the matter of chapters. I’m excited about that, since I’m planning to give them titles instead of numbers.

About which I’ll post later.


    1. My chapter titles will be in the style of the ones in the Egyptian Book of the Dead (Budge version), because that work is mentioned in my novel. It should be fun making them up. On the other hand, it might be a royal pain.

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    2. Chapter titles are wonderful opportunities to hint and tease. 🙂

      The reader probably won’t understand the hints until after they’ve finished reading the chapter, or perhaps the entire story, but then…/then/…it’ll be like a small, secret communication between the author and the reader. “See…now we both understand.”

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      1. Exactly! And when you’re reading an ebook, even with a linked table of contents, chapter titles make it easier for a reader to go back and check something than numbers-only chapters. I think chapter titles (especially long, rambling ones starting with “In which”) went out of style in the 20th century, but it might be time for them to make a comeback.


        1. Oh I loved those ones! And I agree completely re ebooks in particular. I couldn’t live without my Kindle but I do something lose my place and finding it again is a nightmare without some signposts along the way.

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  1. I never leave a blank page; I will type something, so I don’t forget what I want to write there. Then when I get back to it, I know what I need to put there, and since my WIP is finished, I have a better idea of what needs to go to that chapter. Luckily, this doesn’t happen often. @v@ ❤

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  2. The ever heroic struggle to get those words co-ordinate with the thoughts and intentions and watching out for those sneaky typos which malicious keyboards love to sneak in.
    Forge on!

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      1. And Word is no help. It will babble on about ‘reflexive pronouns’ and worry about ‘resolving subjective verb disagreements’ but will it, say consistently warn you about using ‘loose’ instead of ‘lose’ or vice versa…..HA! …
        And there is a malicious trick of not pointing out you’ve hit the ‘O’ key instead of the ‘U’ key in the word ‘Shut’…..even worse when the ‘I’ key is hit.

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          1. Word programmers have no idea of the art of writing stories and the complexities. Business presentations….oh sure, let’s give you 45 options! Story writing?….’oh…how..non-productive,’….Ha!

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  3. What a great post about the minefield that is revision. And I like your technique of using different colored text and caps to catch your eye as you go through the book. I use a lot of * and [ ] and boldface for similar purposes.

    The coda or denouement is tricky territory for sure. You hate for it to feel like the end of an episode of Columbo, but you’re just not ready for the book to end.

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  4. I’ve read far too many stories where it was obvious the author didn’t know how to finish the story, as opposed to tagging ‘the end’ on the last page. Good for you on catching yours. 😀

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  5. Endings are as difficult to judge as beginnings. There is indeed a need to ‘bring the reader back to earth’, but judging how long that should take is tricky. I think it helps if you’re writing a series because the coda can set up the next novel, so the climax of the story doesn’t have to be on the final page and half.

    The screenshot to your corrections is revealing. I never delete early draft chapters. Each draft has a folder of its own. Thoughts and scribblings added in upper case red.

    I made it a bit easy for myself with the five Toten Herzen books because they all end with the sentence who are Toten Herzen. (newspaper article, film maker’s blog, Interpol presentation), But the other books in the series were more tricky.

    And one of the things that I remember about Lovecraft’s short stories was how he often brought aouth the climax to the story in the last sentence! Talk about hard breaking.

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    1. Indeed! I’m reminded of the last sentence of “The Whisperer in Darkness.” HPL’s protagonists often ran screaming into the night, which makes for a fast ending. Agreed about setting up a sequel in the last chapter. I don’t have a solid intention to write a sequel to the present WIP, but I keep adding details that point to one.

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