Often when my mind wanders it sparks ideas, this time it asked the question; How does an author know when they've written the last line?
So, I posed that question to author, Terry Persun.
by Terry Persun
The truth is, I don’t know my novel is over for several days after it’s actually over. I’ll write the last line, then revisit the chapter, and perhaps make changes (even to the last line). Then I’ll come back a third day and reread the last chapter again. If by this time it sticks, and I feel it’s over, then it’s over. Not that I haven’t changed a last line months later during rewriting, but usually, it stays fairly in tact.
I can’t say if it’s instinct or not, but most often it isn’t planned. I think the only planned last line I had was with my novel “Ten Months In Wonderland” where I framed the entire book in one image/feel. It goes like this: The Thai air hit him like the thick, high summer heat in the humid Pennsylvania valley where he’d grown up. The choice to frame this book came when I decided that my main character would get dropped into a strange world for the whole novel, not to get out and head back to the real world until the end. Like “Alice in Wonderland”, my character basically falls down a rabbit hole into a world unlike any he’d been in before.
So that was a planned last line. Here’s a last line from “The Perceived Darkness”, totally unplanned: Greg could imagine the sun rising already, even as he stared at the dark branches of the trees, swaying to the hard winter wind.
Endings are probably as mysterious as the stories themselves. I don’t think I know where this stuff comes from, but I do know that I have to write it down when it arrives. And over the years, I’ve become at ease with my writing duties. I try as often as I can to take Ray Bradbury’s advice in “Zen in the Art of Writing”, where he suggests that we combine work, relaxation, and don’t think together. By not thinking too much about what I’m writing, and just sitting down to do the work, I’ve learned how to make it a relaxing endeavor. That’s the best thing in the world.
For the bonus, here are a few of my favorite last lines.
From “Wilderness” by Robert Penn Warren: He could try, he thought, to be worthy of their namelessness, and of what they, as men and in their error, had endured.
From “Last Night at the Lobster” by Stewart O’Nan: It’s late, and he needs to get to bed if he’s going to make it in early tomorrow.
From “I Married You for Happiness” by Lily Tuck: When he sees Nina at the bedroom window, he stops what he is doing and, straightening up tall, he waves to her.
From “The Unlimited Dream Company” by J. G. Ballard: Already I saw us rising into the air—fathers, mothers, and their children—our ascending flights swaying across the surface of the earth, benign tornados hanging from the canopy of the universe, celebrating the last marriage of the animate and inanimate, of the living and the dead.
Forgive me, but this is from “The Witness Tree” by Terry Persun: As you must know by now, we had joined, had learned to become one, together, yet separate in our own worlds.
Terry Persun holds a Bachelor’s of Science as well as an MA in Creative Writing. He has worked as an engineer, has been the Editor-in-Chief of several technology journals, and is now marketing consultant for technical and manufacturing companies. Eleven of his novels, three of his poetry collections, and six of his poetry chapbooks have been published by small, independent publishers. His novels Wolf’s Rite and Cathedral of Dreams won ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Finalist Awards, his historical novel, Sweet Song won a Silver IPPY Award, and his fantasy novel Doublesight won a POW Best Unpublished Manuscript Award (it is now published). His latest science fiction space opera is Hear No Evil, which was a finalist for the International Book Awards (in science fiction). His novel Ten Months in Wonderland was also a finalist for the International Book Awards (in historical fiction). His poems have been published widely in both independent and university journals including Kansas Quarterly, Wisconsin Review, Hiram Poetry Review, and many others.
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Where Do My Stories Start?
This is such an interesting question for me, because there are several answers. Even though I write fairly chronologically, the story ideas often come through a variety of means.
I may overhear a phrase or sentence in a restaurant or grocery store that intrigues me, and get’s me to thinking about a story. This can attach itself to a character right away or a scene, or just an event. Once I get that sentence in my head, other things become attracted to it, perhaps a beginning or an ending, if the sentence feels like it’s mid-story. Or other people might have to be included if the sentence was part of a conversation and I wanted to keep it that way.
There are times when I’m walking in the woods and I’ll just get the whole idea for a story all at once. Of course, during the writing it changes, but the original idea could have been whole. Then there is rewriting. During rewriting, I might add or subtract information, scenes, details, anywhere in the book. So, even if I wrote the book chronologically, there are still events, problems, conversations, being inserted well after the novel is finished.
I teach a class where I discuss place, idea, character, and event, and go on to suggest that a book can be “primarily” about any one of these. A writer can start with anything, but eventually has to populate the novel with each of these. Things have to happen to someone, and they have to happen somewhere. Whether I start out in the middle or the end, I know I’ll have to include everything I can to make it a good story, so I’ll reenter the story again and again, just to be sure it’s right.
Terry Persun holds a Bachelor’s of Science as well as an MA in Creative Writing. He has worked as an engineer, has been the Editor-in-Chief of several technology journals, and is now marketing consultant for technical and manufacturing companies. Seven of his novels have been published. His science fiction novel Cathedral of Dreams won a ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Finalist Award, and his historical novel, Sweet Song won a Silver IPPY Award. His latest science fiction space opera is Hear No Evil.
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1. Do you have a play-by-play method for revising/polishing your work in order to reach the goal line?
A little of this, a little of that. I know what my weak points are, so I might start by double-checking a few things, like: Did I use ‘as if’ instead of ‘as though’? Did I misuse effect and affect? Did I absentmindedly put an ‘s’ on toward? How about then and than? That and which? They’re, their, and there? Your and you’re?
I start by reading what I have and if I see something like the above that I’ve done once or twice, I’ll jot it down and then go back through the whole manuscript with a “find and replace” attitude. After that, I also keep handy my physical detail sheets for each character so that I don’t mess up eye color or height or clothing. No one wants to see a character who wears only a t-shirt suddenly remove his jacket.
Now, down to the real polishing: I look for places where the story slows down, or where I can add depth to the character by adding a few words or a sentence. I look for dialog that sounds a bit off, or doesn’t quite sound like a character, or is actually not something a person would really say.
Polishing takes on different appearances for each novel. One novel I may want to get more and more depth into a character and I’m willing to lose a little action to do it. Where another novel, if it’s about the action, I might actually remove some “slow writing” so I can get back to the gunfire. It’s a personal thing. But it works for me.
2. Or, do instincts kick in and tell you when you have made a touchdown? In other words, how do you know when it's just right?
I’ll paraphrase W. S. Merwin here. In a poem he wrote about his teacher John Berryman, Merwin explains how he asked Berryman a similar question: “How can I know my poetry is any good?” Berryman answered by saying, “You can’t. And if you have to know that you’re writing is good, then don’t write.”
I love that. It speaks to two things: the art of writing, and the mystery of writing.
The art of writing is like the art of music, painting, or even automobile design. It basically says that you don’t know what’s good because good is subjective, not objective. Stop worrying about it.
The mystery, to me, concerns that fact that I don’t even know where the words come from in the first place. Who knows what any of us are writing, really. So, how can we judge whether it’s good or not. In fact, how can anyone? We can notice whether grammar or punctuation is correct (most of the time), and if spelling is correct, but that’s about it.
But we must judge. And if so, we judge for ourselves. What I find beautiful, another person finds boring, and visa versa. Case in point: My novel Sweet Song was recently on the top 100 list (made it to #3) in Amazon’s (paid) historical fiction section. It was there for over a week. I received two new reviews of the book after a day or two. One review was a one-star review and the other was a five-star review. So, I looked up a few of my favorite authors and their books. Every one of them had reviews at both ends of the spectrum. There is no knowing what is good writing for someone else.
Here’s the truth: I want to reach my readers. They are their own people, but for some reason they like what I write. That’s who I’m after. So, to get back to this question, only I know, ultimately, what’s best for my work. If I let myself read the manuscript as an outsider (which most often means I’ve let the work sit for a few months so that I can come back to it fresh), then I’m the only one who can judge whether it’s good or not. Trust in your own abilities and you’ll eventually find your voice and your readers. And that’s what we all want anyway
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ACP - The setting in a book is sometimes just as important of a character as the characters themselves. If I were a setting, what would I look like?
The Magic Garden
by Terry Persun
Leave it to Karla to come up with some of the most interesting questions. So, I sit and ponder the question from my small office separated from my house by a dozen or so steps. It looks onto a courtyard. The sun this morning shines through a smattering of disinterested clouds, across the water, the town, and onto the posts of the porch. The cat is perched in its cat bed, eyes closed, soaking up the morning warmth.
I close my eyes as well. I often do that while writing, which is like meditation to me, it’s like prayer. It’s the greatest connection to the universe that I have during the day, and I love the feeling like I love nature. I am myself in this state…and no one can touch me.
I think of this as a magic garden: anything can grow here, anything can appear, animals speak, trees and flowers move, everything is fluid, everything possible. When I am a setting, I am that magic garden. Inside me, you might find your own animal totem, you might shape shift like those in my novel “Doublesight”, or you might invent something inside a small laboratory like in “Revision 7: DNA”.
The truth is, I don’t make this stuff up. It appears to me like magic. All I do is open up to it, allow it to come through. I am often more amazed than anyone when a novel pushes through my psyche and onto the page. At that moment I have become the fertile garden it needs. The weather is perfect for the moment, whether raining, like in a recent novel I wrote, or barren and desert-like, similar to a sci-fi novel that’s going through production at the publisher’s.
If I think of myself as a setting, I think of that fluidness of growth, the fragrance of honeysuckle or lilac, the taste of rain on my tongue or metal from a gun barrel, the feel of a lover or a punch to the jaw. Could I go on? Of course, and each image, sound, smell that comes to me also comes with a character, an idea for a book. When I am at my most open, anything can come through the garden of me—and often does.
Look, the sky is gathering its cloak around the moon. A murder of crows leave the comfort of branches and travel across the light from the last glimmers of day, behind them the flat and scruffy terrain of a swamp. Something resides in that swamp, something beautiful and horrible, I’m going in after it.
Terry Persun writes in many genres, including historical fiction, mainstream, literary, and science fiction/fantasy. His novel, “Cathedral of Dreams” is a ForeWord magazine Book of the Year finalist in the science fiction category. His novel “Sweet Song” just won a Silver IPPY Award, too. His latest sci-fi thriller is, “Revision 7: DNA”, and his first fantasy novel just came out. “Doublesight” can be found online. Terry’s website is: www.TerryPersun.com or you can find him on Amazon.
1. Do your characters speak to you?
TP - There are times where my characters talk to me, but also among themselves. Well, that's how a novel is written most of the time--I'm eavesdropping.
2. What is the funniest thing you have heard from one of your characters?
TP - There are many things, but one recently was in writing a novel about a shaman and his son. They just had a tussle with a few bad guys and one of the characters asks if the son, Jason is okay. He said, "Shaken. But not stirred," which I thought was kind-of funny. Anyhow, maybe you had to be there. These are the kinds of dry humor-type incidents that I have.
3. What is the most memorable thing one has said?
TP - "Do not wish for everything, when you must concentrate on the first thing." This was a character in my new novel, "Doublesight". I won't tell you which one.
4. Who is your favorite character?
TP - There are way too many to count. But I do like Leon from my book, "Sweet Song". He had a tough life to somehow figure out and I believe he did. Some reviewers said that the book ended too quickly, but I feel that is always the case with books I want to go on longer. I'm glad it feels that way. Perhaps they wanted more of his life to view than the short period of time that I showed them. That's a good character.
5. Who is your least favorite character?
TP - No matter how bad a character may seem in one of my novels, I see the humanity in them. I have no least favorite.
6. Characteristics that you admire in a character?
TP -The same as humans: courage to go against the norm, courage to battle for right, kindness, a willingness to help others. You can probably go on from there.
7. Pet peeves about a character?
TP - I occasionally have a character who continually says the wrong thing at the wrong time. Sometimes I just want to say, "Shut up for a minute."
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Whether writing novels or poetry, Terry Persun is concerned with who his characters are and what provided the impetus for them to change along the way. Everyone lives within the constraints of identity. We may be one person at home and another at the office. We may play the role of the tough guy while struggling with our weaker self. Terry’s books let us look into the minds of people just like us who want to become something different, who want to live a more authentic life. According to Today’s Librarian, “Persun is adept at conveying the complexities of human inner struggle.”
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The Author in all of us
There is a story inside. One that needs out and to be read by others. It's there and now it's time for it to flow from author to the reader. Join us as we celebrate Indie authors.