Story endings that fit their means

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So much has been written and said about the Sopranos finale. I’m prepared to give a writer like David Chase any kind of ending he wants to his epic television show.

The commentary on the “surprise-cut” ending calls out viewers’ preferences for story. The howlers, well, they like genre stories: mystery, sci-fi, romance, all respectful of formula and always with a resolution. As in the Tom Waits song, they all “want to know the same thing we all want to know — how’s it gonna end.” Genre sells best. That’s why the howls are loudest this week.

A significant minority of viewers have sounded off with satisfaction after Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” cut off in mid-chorus, with a sudden cut to black. They’re literary readers, in my view, who enjoy stories with an ending you create yourself, like life. So few times do we know how everything turns out. Or if we do know, we’re wrong, because we have only our own point of view to consider.

I laughed out loud at the ending — after a moment of wondering about our satellite reception. David Chase has always used a “take it or leave it” approach to his HBO storytelling. Characters dropped, plot lines left tangled. If the howlers had looked closer at his style, they shouldn’t have been so stunned.

But millions of people, from the sports-talk host Jim Rome to my grocery store bagger, all had a better ending in mind. A flock of yay-ohs, all wanting to write the sweetest part of Chase’s story for him, to act as vicarious storytellers. Chase fights for his story, outlasts actor holdouts, agrees to write and produce about twice as many episodes as he wants. In his moment of ultimate spotlight, everybody wants their ending tacked onto his story.

You want an ending to a brilliant story with mesmerizing characters? Write your own damn story. Then you are entitled to whatever finale you can dream up. Asking for anything else is an ending that’s beyond your means as a storyteller.

Writing a double life

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My friend Laurie Cosbey, who’s working on a psychological thriller, spread the word about a storied novelist’s double life as a writer. Joyce Carol Oates has a well-known literary bibliography, including her more-than-autobiographical novel The Falls, based on Oates’ formative years in the Niagara Falls area of Western New York.

But Laurie told our manuscript response group that Oates has got two other outlets for her creativity.

She is a bestselling literary writer, but she also writes genre fiction under a pseudonym Rosamond Smith. She says her genre work is all about doubles. I think that’s something all writers are interested in, because we seem to be living double lives, one in our work and one in the world. She also writes suspense novels under the name Lauren Kelly.

There’s even more to Oates. She’s a prolific essayist, too.

In her book of essays, The Faith of a Writer, she’s interviewed about her 738-page epic Blonde: based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Oates won the National Book Award at age 32, one of the youngest winners ever for a novel.

Hooray for hens and their book buying

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Back at the WLT Agents & Editors conference, Evelyn Palfrey introduced me to the term “hen-lit,” books aimed at the beyond-30s generation. (It’s what she’s written, and well, too.)

This morning I saw this item in the report from Debbie Ridpath Ohi:

Hyperion launches new imprint for women

Named Voice, the new imprint is just one of several aimed at female readers. Warner Books already has a women’s imprint called 5 Spot and will be launching Springboard Press in the fall; aimed at baby boomers, a large percentage of its titles will cater to female readers. “Voice is specifically focusing on women from their mid-30’s and older and will have a resolutely anti-chick-lit bent,” said its founders.

There’s more in a New York Times story.

I don’t know if I want to put too fine a point on this, but if you’re writing fiction, you’re writing for women, three readers out of four. Of course, you should write whatever story is in your true voice. But imagine telling it to your sweetheart, girlfriend, wife or office pal, if you’re a fella — and if you care about getting picked up by a publisher who’ll print more than 1,000 copies of your book

Slipstreaming toward a genre

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One of the hard things for an writer to accomplish is knowing where their book will land on a bookstore’s shelves. Write a mystery, romance or western, and you have no challenge on this score. Write a story that simply tells a tale, though, and you have two choices: mainstream, or slipstream.

The latter term was coined by science fiction writer Bruce Sterling in 1989, and it’s even got a Wikipedia entry. Eventually that entry will lead you to Sterling’s article. He quips that he’s made up the word based on mainstream. Slipstream is also a kind of propulsion drive used in Star Trek, too, but in Sterling’s view it’s a story that crosses genres (say, sci-fi and mainstream) and describes a world that’s different.

For a master list of the wide and wooly range of slipstream, have a look at the titles Sterling compiled along with Nova Express sci-fi editor Lawrence Person. (Both living in Austin, by the way, home of our Writer’s Workshop.)

Sterling’s article is worth reading if you’re writing something that isn’t quite one genre or another. For now, I’ve decided that Viral Times is slipstream fiction. It’s not a section in Barnes & Noble, but at least it’s a more accurate description of how rich the story will be once its finished.