Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Cliffhanger by Vicki Lane

Vicki Lane is the author of the just-released Under the Skin, the fifth of the Elizabeth Goodweather Appalachian Mysteries (Signs in the Blood, Art's Blood, Old Wounds, and Anthony-nominated In a Dark Season,) as well as of the stand alone The Day of Small Things. Vicki draws her inspiration from rural western NC where she and her family have lived on a mountainside farm since 1975.  Visit Vicki at her daily blog, her website  or go HERE to learn more about Under the Skin.

The Cliffhanger
by Vicki Lane

When you’re writing a series, the temptation to end a book with a bit of a cliffhanger is almost overpowering. After all, you want the reader to look forward eagerly to the next book. Notice I said a bit of a cliff hanger. You also don’t want to alienate those readers. And though I grew up watching serialized movies at a local theater on Saturday mornings, I’ve resisted ending a book with Elizabeth tied to a railroad track as a train is bearing down on her. I’ve totally not left her tied up in a dark cellar with water pouring in and rising slowly. Nor have I abandoned her to the vile clutches of the Emperor Ming and his minions. (Flash Gordon was my favorite of said Saturday morning serials.)

That said, I admit to having ended several of my books with the suggestion of some challenge on the way and that’s seemed to work well.  So I blithely closed In a Dark Season, my fourth Elizabeth Goodweather novel, with an unresolved thread – a puzzling message on the answering machine that suggested that Elizabeth’s lover might not be what he seemed.

There was no imminent danger – but a definite possibility thereof. And when the book ended, Elizabeth hadn’t even checked that answering machine so she was in the dark as to what the future might hold.

It didn’t seem too terrible to ask readers to wait a year. I had a new, two book contract and I’d already written the beginning and the end of Under the Skin, the book that would, for better or worse, explain that puzzling message.

Then my editor suggested that I write a spin-off /standalone. First.  Before Book 5 of the Elizabeth series. I agreed and, as Dark Season was still in the editing process, I suggested that maybe I should go back and change that cliff hanging ending so that readers wouldn’t have to wait two years for a resolution.

“I like that ending,” was my editor’s reply. “They can wait.”

And wait, alas, is what they’ve had to do. Dark Season came out in 2008 and, whether because of, or in spite of the cliffhanger, was nominated for an Anthony. But the standalone took longer than a year to complete and it didn’t come out till 2010. Which pushed Under the Skin back to . . . well . . . now. And all these three years, I’ve had readers emailing or grabbing me in bookstores, just to let me know how impatient they were to find out about that dratted phone message.

“What,” I began to think, “if I’m hit by a car or a tree falls on me and I never finish that last book? All those nice folks waiting to find out what happened . . . and I do have that part written already…”

So I wrote a really touching blog post that included the resolution to the cliffhanger and put it in the drafts folder on Blogger. And I penned a note to my family, asking that in the event of my demise, they follow the directions to put up my farewell blog post.

The only thing was, I just never got around to telling anyone about this. It just felt a little  . . . odd. I left the note under my mouse pad and pretty much forgot about it till I was in the airport, getting ready to fly to Bouchercon 2009.

As I sat in the waiting room, I suddenly remembered that note. What if the plane crashed? How long would it take my family to clean out my work room and come across that touching note?

I decided I needed to tell someone and not wanting to worry anyone in my family – who would likely laugh at my silliness -- I decided to call my agent.

Ann picked up at once and I launched into my explanation of how, in the event of disaster befalling me, she should call my family, tell them where to find the note, and ask them to post the resolution to the cliffhanger.

When I finally finished talking, there was a silence -- a very long silence. Then Ann spoke.

“That’s the weirdest damn phone call I’ve ever gotten,” she said.

Then, without missing a beat, “Do you want me to wait till after the funeral?” 

Obviously, the plane didn’t fall down and at long last, the book is out. I’m happy to say I’ve erased that blog post and thrown away the touching note. But I’ll think long and hard before writing another cliffhanger.


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Vicki - Welcome!!!! I love this post - Thank you!

I'm so sorry THE Cliffhanger caused you so much angst, but I have to admit to laughing out loud about the phone call you made.

I'm a huge fan of yours and your Elizabeth Goodweather. I've loved each book in the series (and The Day of Small Things), but UNDER THE SKIN in my fave (so far!). It was worth waiting for. But yeah - I was a little ill about THE Cliffhanger, I'll admit.

Hugs, my friend!

Carol Murdock said...

Vicki you are so funny!You know my stand on the 3 year wait!Ha!
It's a wonderful work that was worth the wait! But if you make us wait another 3 years, I'll leave a note for my daughter to read it to me graveside just in case! I LOVE Lizzie Beth, she's my kind of gal! :)

Vicki Lane said...

Kaye -- So nice to be back at M & M! And nice to have a chance to apologize again to all those I left hanging three years ago.

I really appreciate that folks like you and Carol have been so good natured about the whole thing.

Victoria said...

"They can wait." Wow. It's true what I've heard...editors are heartless. I had to laugh when I read about your phone call to her. But...'Under the Skin' was definitely worth the wait!

Martin said...

Cliffhanger or no, your writing style is a joy.

Brian Miller said...

hahaha you are awesome vicki...that is a rather funny story but maybe i dont want to put myself through all that stress...smiles.

June said...

Oh, that's funny.
Such drama!

Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

What a great story about hiding the cliffhanger. I had to smile about your phone call to her. That's a story in itself.

Anonymous said...

This has got to be the funniest blog post I have ever read. Have the new book in my possession, but haven't read it yet.

LJ Roberts said...

I love your story, Vicki. I'm one of those no-cliffhanger people. Of course, one of the saddest examples is Ariana Franklin (Diana Norman) whose fourth book "A Murderous Procession" ended with a major cliffhanger and then Ms. Norman passed away. Not only did we lose a wonderful author, but the readers will never know what the h*ll happened to the characters. Nope, no cliffhangers, please.

Chester Campbell said...

Funny story. I like to use cliffhangers at the end of chapters but would never put one at the end of a book. At my age, too much of a risk. With all the junk on my desk, they'd never find a note under the mouse. I expect the mouse to disappear into a hole at anytime, anyway.

Brenda Buchanan said...

Hello Vicki,

I didn't read In a Dark Season when it first came out (silly me!) so was fine with the cliffhanger ending, knowing I wouldn't have to wait too long.

How thoughtful of you to care so much for your readers that you drafted the emergency blog post and had it at the ready just in case.

I'm in the middle of Under the Skin and loving it.

Also love seeing all your beautiful animals. Thanks, Vicki!

Brenda Buchanan
Portland, Maine

tipper said...

You made me laugh out loud with this one : ) I'm just glad you made it to finish the book-and I hope you make it to finish a bunch more!

jenny milchman said...

Vicki, your books have THE best covers. This is why book-books must never die. I see my copy of DAY OF SMALL THINGS on my shelf and just looking at it makes me happy. And this latest is more beautiful still, or so it appears from here. Can't wait to read it!

I think you have to have earned your readers' trust to get away with a cliffhanger at the end of a book--as you clearly have. My editor just spoke to this exact point re: my debut novel, saying, essentially, no cliffhanger. And I think she is right.

But once you have secured that trust, I personally love an ending that makes me even more excited for the next book--Lee Child's 61 HOURS comes to mind.

Thanks for the post!

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Vicki, this in itself is a great little story. Have you thought about becoming a flash fiction writer? No, no, not a flasher!
I'm so looking forward to getting my hands on this new book.
And, yes, contemplating the plane going down with all those loose threads floating around in one's mind---I know that fear all to well. But I'd just leave behind a terribly messy house, no cliffhangers that I know of.

Sue P said...

Great blog, Vicki. Loving the book, but am reading it on my e-reader, because I want to keep the one that I won and you sent me in good shape.

I'm with Brenda - love the pictures of your animals.


Stella Jones said...

It is tempting, I agree and I did the same thing with 'Murder in the School' leaving the reader wondering if Gerald was going to 'get off the charge' or not! When I was growing up, my father used to say 'always leave the table when you could eat just a little more'. I thought this was good advice.
I can wait for your answer. I love your books and I know that if you leave the cliffhanger, then you will surely return to Elizabeth's life and write another story. If you made a final end, I would be more disappointed, actually because then I would think you did not intend to return.

Deb said...

Oh, Vicki! I snorted my Perrier through my nose. You shouldn't do that to a person when they have liquids on hand...

And it was very weird because I had just the same thought the other day--"What if something happens to me and no one ever knows what happens to Duncan and Gemma, etc., in the w-i-p"?? But I didn't think about leaving a note under my mouse, or calling my agent.

But I forgive you for the Perrier snorting, and have just ordered the book.

I've waited long enough:-)

Vicki Lane said...

LJ, you're so right. And at my age... well, I'll just join with Chester in avoiding leaving readers wondering.

Thank you, Brenda and Jenny and all my blog friends who [popped over to visit.

And Debs -- I'm eager to catch up with Gemma and Duncan!