The Finest Place You Know
by Bill Kenower
of the first pieces of advice a writer looking to find an agent will
receive is to pay very close attention to the beginning of his or
her novel. If the opening doesn’t grab the agent it won’t grab the
and it probably won’t grab the reader. So polish and polish those
first five pages, we are told, and then scrub that first paragraph
until it blinds you with its reflection.
yes, and yes. You must have a grabber opening, whatever that means
for your particular genre. The opening is your invitation to the
reader, so it needs to be as accessible and interesting as possible.
In my own experience, I once had an agent ask to see an entire
manuscript because she liked the first sentence of the sample pages
I’d sent her. I grant then that your opening is not just where your
but the first phase in the long process of marketing your novel.
it is only your first and, in my opinion, not necessarily the best.
I think that with enough practice anyone can learn how to write an
engaging opening. Maybe not a fantastic opening, but
certainly good enough to let the reader know they are in capable
hands. Just as much attention must be paid to the middle, where
almost every writer I have ever interviewed reports they eventually
become mired trying to find their way from the beginning to the end.
Readers will usually only tolerate so much muddling before they put
the book down—so polish that middle, too, yes? Yes, of course.
we come to the end. I have read many novels where I close the book
and feel like I have just stepped out of a rollercoaster. Which is
to say, the story flew along then . . . just ended. It was as if the
writer worked so hard to keep me engaged for the first 350 pages
that they had nothing left for the last five.
the novelist has missed a great marketing opportunity. Reviews are
good, store placement is good, interviews and email lists are good,
but in the end nothing beats word-of-mouth. Being told by your best
friend that you must read such-and-such book is the very best
advertising I can think of.
in my opinion, it is the end that moves a book from good to great in
a reader’s mind and induces them to become your own personal
promotion engine. A good book can entertain you, but a great one
leaves you someplace different than where you
Illustration by Jennifer Paros -
and it is the ending that defines where you are left. It is the
reason the book was written in the first place.
understand that there are some novels that, by the nature of their
genre, have somewhat preordained endings: the girl will get her man,
the killer will be caught, good will conquer evil. But even if you
are writing in such a genre, push yourself at the end. Most great
distance runners have what we call a “kick,” a hundred-yard sprint
at the end of a three-mile run. Many a distance race is won in the
final fifty meters.
Develop your kick. The ending is the gift to the reader, the punch
line, if you will, of your novel. Why did you tell this story? If it
was simply to make money, very well, perhaps this article is not for
you. But if you told it for other reasons, the ending is the time to
know why. And I am not merely talking about twists, though these can
be memorable—I am talking about change. All stories are about people
changing, whether they are falling in love, catching their first
crook, or just finally understanding their relationship with their
father. Without change there is no movement and without movement
there is no story. To where are you moving?
can be challenging, I know, because at the end of your novel you
must ask yourself, in a sense, “What do I believe in?” The answers
are not always what we thought. But no matter, share the ideas
anyway. It is as if you have taken your reader by the hand and asked
that they follow you. Where would you take someone you loved if
they agreed to follow? Where is the finest place you could leave
them? That is your ending.
Kenower is Editor-in-Chief of Author magazine and a full-time
freelance writer. He lives in Seattle.