On “Almost” and Completion

One of my favorite books of the past two years (and many other people’s favorite as well) is THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. I’m assuming most everyone reading this has read it or is familiar with John Green’s tail of two lovestruck teens who meet at a cancer support group.

More than anything else, there’s an overwhelming sense when reading the book not only of love but of what happens when someone is staring down the possibility of an unfinished life.

Which is terrifying.

It’s terrifying watching two teens struggle with the idea that they could go before they get to do everything. And it’s a point that’s driven home even more by protagonist Hazel’s favorite (fake) book that’s left completely unfinished. The words just stop in the middle of a sentence. It’s isn’t almost finished. It’s incomplete.

Hazel and her beloved Gus travel to The Netherlands to track down the author of the novel to find the elusive author and find out what happens.

But the author—and the characters—know that this isn’t how life works. If something is left unfinished, almost done, you may never get answers.

When talking about books, the idea of a story/manuscript/series having an “unfinished life” isn’t obviously as terrifying as when this happens in real life (or in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS). But it’s still disappointing.

As discussed in my last post, I have a complicated relationship with “almost.” I’ve spent my whole life doing things rather than almost doing things. But when it comes to books, there is some lack of control over completion.

Sure, as you may have ascertained, I’m one to finish the manuscripts I start. I don’t have any abandoned almost-book half-naked in a drawer.

However, the idea of the unfinished is different all together when it comes to publishing. For awhile, trilogies reigned, buffered by their popularity in YA. But recently, there’s been a pull back.

I know a few under-contract authors with big, six-figure deals, who have been told the three books they had planned will actually only be two. Or maybe only one book sells at a time when the author has been hoping for a series since birthing the characters from his/her brain.

This is a different feeling of almost.

I write my books as standalones that could continue to a series—something I’d love to do and have planned, but it won’t kill me to “finish” the tale because I don’t set it up like that. At this point in my career, I just want those characters to live, whether it be in one book or three. I think most writers understand this feeling, no matter the stage.

But as a reader, what can be done by a canceled series or unfinished plotline? It’s not the same (truly or metaphorically) of an unfinished life, but really now, what would our literary world have been like if J.K. Rowling had never been allowed to write all seven HARRY POTTER books?

Or if THE HUNGER GAMES was stopped on book two?

Or (more plausibly) if George R.R. Martin is never able to complete the GAME OF THRONES series, leaving us to wonder about the fate of our favorite characters and Westeros? I’ve read that the producers of the TV show related to the books know how the story ends, but what if we never get the book version of the end?

Yes, almost is a scary place in the literary world. As a reader, what would you do if you found out your favorite series just cut off, left unfinished, for one reason or another?

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7 thoughts on “On “Almost” and Completion”

  1. I have a difficult enough time even when a series that is “finished” stops! (Still sad about the Sookie Stackhouse books having come to a close, even though I respect the author’s choice to do that, of course.)

    Great post! Do you know the reason for the pull back? I had no idea that was happening. *off to make some protest signs*

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  2. Good post! Interesting! About the pull back, has that happened with more than one author you know? That seems so bizarre. I was actually offered a three-book contract but my agent and I decided to just do a two-book deal for now. My friend, Owen Laukkanen, took a two-book deal for his book series that began with The Professionals, but now I think he’s up to about six books contracted in the series. I think three-book contract is still probably ideal for most publishers. Really fascinating discussion. Interested to see what others have to say, as well.

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  3. I too am curious about the “pull back.” I love series – not just ones like Harry Potter where there are actually questions that aren’t resolved until book 7, but series that are almost like a collection of stand-alones (yes, there’s growth and character arc, but the ending of book 2 isn’t dependent on the ending of book 1).

    I cry when series reach a planned end. I think I’d die a little inside if a beloved series was ended prematurely!

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  4. Sarah, What a wonderful premise for a book. I’d like to check it out. Jordan passed away before finishing his Wheel of the World series, but someone close to him stepped up to the plate and finished for him. Fans say it was almost satisfying.

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  5. Yes, I know a few authors who have noticed the “pull back.” One who is really hoping to get the most out of her two-book, six-figure deal specifically so she can get contracted to write that third book, which she wants to write more than the second one (but she has to do them in this order). Another got a three-book deal but was told her series was to be two books instead of three and her third book would be an unrelated standalone. If you read PM you’ll notice deals like this or big two-book deals like the one for Owen that Kristi mentioned.

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  6. There are so many truths to this post that I don’t know where to start. As a writer, it is scary to start a project and thing you might see it to completion. I know one writer who has a 17 book arc for his characters. His publisher dropped him after 5 books. So what becomes a character most? Does a canceled contract really kill a character, or can an author have enough passion for a project to keep it going? So. Many. Questions.

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  7. I think this is where self-publishing might step in. Provided the writer has the rights to the characters, I guess. That would depend on the contract. But as far as hearing about pull backs, I’ve heard many stories about just that. I might have more access to those anecdotes, though, because I am so deep into the indie community. And it’s such a shame. I hate to leave things half done. Can’t imagine what it would feel like to have to “abandon” my characters.

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