Why I Write the End of My Novels First and You Should Too

If you don’t know where you’re going you’ll never get there

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Write the end of your novel first

Before you shake your head and click away, give this story a chance. The end-first routine is not mine. I learned this method from John Irving. He writes the last sentence first and rarely changes the sentence once he’s finished the work. This is Irving’s process and the method I use now. It may not be your process.

Writing the end first isn’t a cop-out, it’s a boundary.

All genres have boundaries. The commercial novel format is a boundary. Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. This doesn’t mean you’re a sellout if you write a story with those three parts. There’s a boundary You stayed within it.

The novel is a ultra-marathon of writing.

We get excited. Then we get tired. Finally, we’re over it and want to move to the next one. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather write the last thing my reader remembers when I’ve got the most energy into the project. When my eyes are crossed, my fingers are crumpled from typing so long, and my brain has long-been reduced to oatmeal — this is not the time to write the end.

A bad ending will ruin your novel.

Not only will it wreck the book, but a bad ending will also ruin a series. Why would I want to read book two if book one made me feel terrible at the end? You can convince a reader to finish a bad book once, not an entire series.

I write the bulk of my novels and short stories on my phone. Here’s a story I wrote to explain my process:

The end is a big deal. Not only does it signify the final chapter of the story, but it’s the end of a chunk of the writer’s life. We spend many hours typing and we send this stack of paper out to the world. Sometimes the stack of paper brings joy and the people show their gratitude my reviewing it, telling their friends, and buying copies as gifts.

The end of your book is the walk-away feeling you give the reader. The feeling is tacked to your author brand. Think of the last time you saw a great movie and the director phoned-in the end. You walked away angry, sad, upset, or unfilled. If you don’t own your ending with everything you’ve got, your reader will feel the same.

I use a leapfrog editing method and edit the previous day’s work as I go. I also return to the beginning and end of my manuscripts dozens (if not hundreds) of times. Every. Word. Matters.

I refer to the end often to ensure I’m traveling in the right direction.

I’m a hybrid ‘pantser.’ This means I use a framework, but I don’t outline my books (see linked story above). I don’t know the entire story in advance. I have a general idea. I know who the bad and good guys are, but the story unfolds as I write it. I’m the first reader.

Pantsers run the danger of writing off on tangents that lead to nowhere. By revisiting the end frequently, I may curve off the trajectory, but I won’t miss it.

I challenge you to try writing the end first.

You can do this with short stories too. This is very unpopular amongst purists — like you’re cheating yourself knowing the end in advance. I disagree. The purists can have their soapbox. I’ll be over here writing novels people want to read. But you don’t have to listen to me. Follow the master. If it works for John Irving, it’s got to work for the rest of us.

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