When is it over?
On a visit to the breathtaking exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, a retrospective of African artist El Anatsui - When I Last Wrote to You about Africa - I was overwhelmed by the perfection of his creations but asked myself how, with the thousands of tiny pieces in his assemblages, he knew when to stop, when he’d completed the piece?
Surely this is an easier question for mystery writers whose detectives, amateur or professional, must solve the puzzles and identify the killer. But maybe not so easy. Recently on Dorothy L there was a protracted discussion about the length of books, whether short or long books were better. This seemed irrelevant to me. Surely every author tells a story and knows when it’s done?
On the other hand, in an earlier blog Sue Pike pointed out that she was revising a short story because she’d gone on too long. Marion Pearson, wife of former Prime Minister Lester Pearson, when her husband asked how a speech had gone reportedly told him that he’d missed many excellent opportunities to stop.
If in doubt is it better to stop too soon, to leave the reader wishing there was more? Or should you work away answering all questions real or implied and give the reader no opportunity to fill in the blanks to her satisfaction?
And in the same vein how much does the reader want to know about the principle characters? Do their choices of breakfast cereal, their love of vodka, their obsession with shoes reveal something about them that makes the story more understandable, makes them more appealing or revolting? How much should we reveal?
These questions challenge writers. While you’re working out the details I suggest that if you’re in Toronto between now and January 2, 2011 make sure to take time to visit the exhibit at the ROM. Not only is it an amazing portrait of a man’s life work but it also may answer the question - how will we know when a work is finished?
Joan Boswell A member of the Ladies Killing Circle Joan co-edited four of their short story anthologies: Fit toDie, Bone Dance, Boomers Go Bad and Going Out With a Bang. Her three mysteries, Cut Off His Tale, Cut to the Quick and Cut and Run were published in 2005, 2007 and 2007. In 2000 she won the $10,000 Toronto Star’s short story contest. Joan lives in Toronto with three flat-coated retrievers.