The 7-Draft Ending

To tell the truth, I remember very little of writing The Nearest Exit. I’d like to say it was because I was drunk the whole time, or in the midst of some tempestuous love triangle—these things make for good PR copy—but the fact is that the year and a half I spent writing it were my first year and a half as a father. My time, my memory, and sanity, were all wrapped up in the life of an infant girl.

It was a bit of a joke around the house—I’d dedicated The Tourist to Margo, our daughter who hadn’t yet been born when I finished that book, and now she was making it impossible for me to write the sequel: Why on earth would I dedicate a book to such a disruptive influence?

Once I’d finished The Nearest Exit, my wife was shocked: “When did you get the chance to write? I don’t remember you ever being away from our daughter!” So I’m not the only one with a hole in my memory.

I do, however, remember writing the last fifty-or-so pages. It was July 2009, and we were with family in Novi Sad, Serbia. The weather was blisteringly hot, and the apartment lacked air conditioning. Despite this, I wrote through to the end of the book and set it aside. A couple days later, I came back to read it. Depression set in: It sucked.

Well, it didn’t actually suck; it just didn’t work.

Well, not even that. It worked—that is, the storylines wrapped up all right—but I didn’t like it. It felt…how to put it? It felt average. It felt like nothing special.

I’d spent a year on the book, which was full of things I really liked, but as all writers know a novel is only as good as how it ends. No matter how good the rest is, a reader will leave your novel with the end resonating (or not) in his head, and in this case the reader would leave with the humdrum feeling that the book was “okay.”

So I cut the last fifty pages and started again, using pieces of what I’d had and writing a lot more. Five days later I had a new draft. I read it and…

No. Not right.

By the fourth rewrite I was getting pretty worried. I was shifting scenes around like puzzle pieces, cutting maniacally, coming up with new endings. But it still wasn’t right.

My fifth rewrite felt better. I set it aside for a week, and in the meantime made the mistake of reading a particularly nasty Amazon customer review that convinced me (as all negative reviews do) that I not only wasn’t as good as I thought I was, but I would never be that good. I contemplated (briefly) other lines of employment.

But then I sat down again and reread the whole book. It was much better than I remembered, but still not quite there. I needed the ending to be surprising yet inevitable, to be exciting, to work rhythmically and structurally within the novel, and to feel as if it was part of a cohesive whole, plot-wise and thematically. I didn’t actually think of it in those terms—all I thought was “Do I feel satisfied or not?” I still didn’t.

Draft number seven turned out to be the winner. It did all the things I wanted it to do, and even a few extra things that, had I stuck with the initial draft, I never would have stumbled upon. I came back from Serbia with a finished novel.

In the car, crossing back into Hungary, my wife said, “When did you find the time to write it?”

I still don’t know.

- May 1, 2010