The Last Word

A few nights ago, I participated via Internet in a big teen lock-in and got a question I hear frequently: why did I choose to end ASHES the way I did? Now, for those of you who haven’t read the book, never fear. I won’t ruin it by telling you HOW it ends. Let’s just say that I broke several rules, and I did that on purpose. In fact, the end breaks enough rules that a recent Horn Book article talked specifically about this: that the “shocking” conclusion was among the “coolest” examples of an author being “daring enough (or heartless enough, depending on your tolerance for sad endings) to let their protagonists face seemingly insurmountable obstacles and find that they are, indeed, just that.”

Which is pretty darned cool in and of itself.

But, back to the question. Why did I do that? Well, whenever I’m asked, I always ask the question right back, not because I’m being coy but I want to hear what or how people think/feel/react. The answer I hear most frequently is that I did it to make people buy the sequel. EEEEHHHH! Wrong. (Although it’s true that my editor and I went back and forth about this–he was a tad nervous about breaking SO many rules–when I explained why, he was right on board.) Some people think I’m trying to be shocking just for the sake of being shocking, and that’s also wrong, but it’s a tad closer to what I was thinking and trying to convey. Going for that emotional gut-punch isn’t far off.

Let’s think, though, about what good beginnings and endings do for us. A great beginning grabs our attention, right? But a fabulous beginning sentence or paragraph also sets the tone for the novel; it hints at what’s in store. For example, one of my favorite beginning lines of all time belongs to William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic, Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Oh, my goodness, is that evocative or what? You instantly “see” that sky; you know what color it is; you also know that we’re talking a lot of light and tech because only a ton of light–and that means, a big city–has the ability to wash out a black sky and bright stars. (Or skies are muddy orange; I’ve noticed this in places like New York, where I wonder if people even remember that looking up is fun to do.) Regardless, that line sets up the entire book. You’ve garnered tons of information from fifteen words. Fifteen. That’s amazing.

Similarly, a great last line (or last couple of lines) sends the reader and the book on her way, and if the writer is very skilled, evokes the mood the writer wants you to walk away with. For example, at the end of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, poor mute Melinda, who’s found not only courage and closure but her voice, has the last word: “Let me tell you about it.”

Hand’s down, though, I think that Libba Bray is fabulous at these type of send-off last lines/last paragraphs, and IMHO, her best work can be found in her Gemma Doyle series. All her last lines are great, but my particular favorite can be found at the end of A Strange and Terrible Beauty:

“The wind shifts, bringing with it the smell of roses, strong and sweet.  Across the ravine, I see her in the dry crackle of leaves.  A deer.  She spies me and bolts through the trees.  I run after her, not really chase.  I’m running because I can, because I must.

Because I want to see how far I can go before I have to stop.”

This is a perfect send-off for that first book because it is all about beginnings and a young woman daring to break the rules.  This end does, in fact, set up the beginning of the next book and helps you understand where this series is headed.

Most often, when I reach the end of a book I’m writing, I know what the last line is because I knew it from the beginning, and the whole book has been a journey to that last line. The one time I was a little surprised by where I ended up was at the end of SHADOWS, not because the line hadn’t been “said” in my head already but because it wasn’t the last line/scene but the penultimate scene. When I got to the end, though, and penned what I had imagined the last line ought to be, it just didn’t feel right. Just didn’t. I realized after a few minutes that the book’s journey had really ended the scene before. So I switched them around, and now I do think that SHADOWS ends in a way that both evokes what I want to people to feel and summarizes the journey. (I’m sure you’ll tell me if I’m right.)

But back to ASHES: this is the G-d’s honest truth about why I ended it the way I did. It’s actually kind of artsy-fartsy, but my reasoning went like this: ASHES is a book about what happens when the world falls apart. Nothing remains that you recognize; all the niceties are swept away. Alex has to endure in that world, where all the old rules no longer apply. So my feeling was if she has to do that, why should you get a break? I wanted you to experience the same kind of shock and dislocation she does, that moment when you finally, truly understand that nothing will ever be the same again.

That’s why I did it. Do I succeed? I dunno; you tell me. But I sure hear enough from people who are FRANTIC to find out what happens next; who are so shocked and upset they want to yell and scream at me (that’s fine; just be civil); who think about throwing their books or Kindles across the room (some actually do). All that’s good because that means you felt something. You weren’t indifferent. You weren’t . . . oh, cool. You were . . . SAY WHAT?

All good. Mission accomplished. That you care is all and the best a writer can hope for.

27 thoughts on “The Last Word”

  1. I always look forward to stopping by your website to see what you’ve posted. Today was no exception.

    While I don’t think yours is the first book I’ve read that’s left me wanting more and searching the internet for the release date of the next book (certainly not in a series), I will say that it did leave me truly disappointed (and more than a little frustrated) that I had to wait nearly 11 months(!) to find out what happened to Alex, Ellie (and hopefully) Tom. It wasn’t until I’d set “Ashes” down (and caught my breath) that I realized how many rules you’d broken with your “cliffhanger”. From the very first page I was invested in Alex’s story. Did you succeed in teaching me that the old rules no longer apply? I’d say you succeeded very well.

    When I finished, I knew that Ashes was something special. So I did what any avid reader does when they stumble upon an unexpected treasure of a book: I shared the book with a friend. I told them nothing about it other than they HAD to read it. They devoured it just like I did. Their response to the ending was anger. Not at me, not at you… just at circumstances (again, that gawd awful wait)!

    I read. I read a lot. Several books a week, and mostly for my entertainment and enjoyment. If I like a book, I’ll keep it and re-read it in a year or two. I’ve already re-read Ashes a few times.

    I’m looking forward to seeing the series through to the end, whatever the journey may be like. I’m happy to say that I’ve recommended the book/series to several people and knowing they’ll be along for the ride makes it all the better!

  2. What a lovely comment. Thank you. I can’t think of a better compliment than having my work both enjoyed and recommended to others. I do hope that you and your friends enjoy the journey. I know I’m having fun taking that trip myself 😉

  3. Thank you, Ilsa, for your kind words! (I didn’t realize I’d rambled so much! I just pre-ordered Shadows!) I can’t until it arrives and the journey begins again. 🙂

  4. I just finished the book… literally less than 10 minutes ago. I ran to the computer to see if this was part of a series… (I am reading from an uncorrected proof that a book store owner friend gave to me so there was no indication on the cover if this was the “first in a series” or whatnot.) At first I was glad to see that it was… WHEW! I will find out what happens next! But as the ending has “settled” in my mind, I think I could have been content with it endling just like that. In the world that Alex is living in, it is not all rainbows and unicorns. A “happy ending” would not have worked. All the fighting to survive could very easily end suddenly and badly. That would be “real.” Overall I am glad there will be more to this story, and I look forward to reading it soon… but I’m even more glad to have an ending to Ashes that made me react. Thank you… and Write On! 🙂

  5. Well, thanks! I agree. I have a hard time wtih envisioning a lot of “happiness” at the end of the world. Mainly, I think people learn to endure. Here’s hoping you enjoy the sequels 🙂

  6. HOLY CRAP!! I read the book in three days!! I would have finished it in two, maybe one, but I gotta sleep and get sooome homework done :/ I LOVED IT!!!! I also finished it, turned back two pages, re-read to make sure I actually read it correctly, then raced to the computer to look and try ‘n find some sort of explination!! But I have to admit, after reading your reasoning, I have to agree. ugh…damnd you!! But you are right, when the worlds ends, you fight and fight and sometimes its futile, its doesnt matter how hard you try sometimes sh*t doesnt work out… even though Id love to think of alex ellie and TOM getting BACK TOGETHER, the truth is, its probably more than likely not the outcome…. but i WISH it was… 🙂
    I loved it, in school today before I was even finished I told this girl about it…i threw it at my bro just now and said – read it, its freakin awesome 🙂 xoxo
    –what i dont understand though, is why did jess do that? did she really want chris to try and “save” alex, or did she know/think alex was always going to be in love with Tom, and she basically tricked her and got her to exile herself?! I dont get it…?! Im ordering the next book, feel free to send me an early released edition 🙂

  7. LOL!! Your email made me smile, Rachelle. I’m glad you liked the book and always thrilled when someone finds it good enough to pass on to someone else 🙂 As for your questions go, though . . . you’ll just have to hold your horses, girl, and read on. Some of your questions will be answered. Others . . .

    I know I’m ~~cruel~~ 😉

  8. uugh!!! haha 🙂 yes ma’am!
    I know, so many questions, but common I just finished the book and was like whoa, wtf?! hehe… can’t wait to read the next one!!! Thanks for such a great book!!

  9. Abrupt endings that leave you wondering… This reminds me of Lois Lowry’s “The Giver”, when Jonas hears music. The last line “perhaps it was just an echo”.

    I really enjoyed Ashes. You managed to put distopia, zombies and a post apocolypse caused by an EMP all in one book. I think you did this to prove it can be done, or maybe just to make me so happy 🙂
    Thanks for the read, I am looking forward to book 2.

  10. Oh, Kate, I completely agree about THE GIVER. Great example of a truly haunting ending.

    I am glad to hear that you liked ASHES, too–and I ALWAYS try to make readers happy, though that’s relative. To my mind, “happiness” is sometimes synonymous with challenging assumptions. In any event, I do hope you enjoy the second book. If not . . . say nothing 😉

  11. I read this book on a recommendation follow up from my obsession with Hunger Games. I have to say, it definitely satisfied my yearning for a vivid and gripping story. I was one of those who WANTED to throw my Kindle…. :] I couldn’t believe the ending and that is what is so wonderful! Growing up, I thought about being a writer. I wanted to write a book where you fall in love with the main character and then on the very last page – she dies. :] I love the unexpected and am really looking forward to reading the next book!

    After reading Ashes I also picked up Draw the Dark because I enjoyed your style so much. I was pleased :]

    Thank you for your contribution to the literary world! :]

  12. Oh I just saw that the sequel is coming out on my birthday! Happy birthday to me!! I have been [not so patiently] waiting :]

  13. And an early Happy Birthday to you 🙂 I’m so pleased that you liked the book (and DRAW, too!). Way back,I wrote a story about a POV who dies in the end. Every single editor loved the story except they were totally bummed about the end, and so wouldn’t publish it! So I guess this is the closest I can come to having published that particular story 😉
    Glad I gave you some good hours 🙂

  14. I just borrowed “Ashes” from my best friend, and I literally could not put this book down! After I finally put it down to get some sleep, I sat in bed thinking about what would happen next. After I finished it, I had to come on this site to make sure there was going to be another book. And when I saw “Shadows” is coming out just a couple of days before my birthday, I FREAKED! Thank you SO MUCH for writing such an amazing story.
    By the way, I also live in Wisconsin!!:)

  15. Well, that is so cool! Glad you liked it, and as I’ve said to someone else, an early Happy Birthday 🙂 I do hope you enjoy SHADOWS, too, which will be a much BIGGER story, lots of new characters and mysteries.

    And where in Wisconsin?

  16. I finished Ashes forever ago and i have been waiting to long. You are a truly great author, but i HATE the way you ended the book. I mean talk about cliffhanger. I need Shadows. I read it because my library gave it to the high school kids for a group read. I’m only in 8th grade, but my brothers not a reader so he told me to read it for him. It was so good. I cant wait. I wish my brother would read it like i suggested. My mom might read it though. I cant wait. BTW shadows comes out on my birthday. 🙂

  17. Elena, that is so cool about SHADOWS and your birthday. Happy B’day, a little early 🙂 I wish your brother would read it, too, but–you know–maybe he will, eventually.
    Since you did read ASHES a while back, you might want to take a look at my website and go to the page on “SO YOU READ ASHES A YEAR AGO.” There’s a nice synopsis there and a bunch of the main characters, and since SHADOWS is a much bigger, broader story with lots of new characters and mysteries . . . might be worthwhile refreshing your memory 🙂

  18. I am reading ASHES again to refresh for my birthday present, too. :] I cannot WAIT to see what happens in SHADOWS. Although, I know I am just going to DIE ALL OVER AGAIN when I have to wait for the third book…… there will be a third, right? :] Happy Birthday to all of the September 25th-ers!!Thank you, Ilsa, for continually entertaining me!!!!

  19. O I am just giddy now! :]

    Do you write a book, like ASHES, with the intent of writing sequels or does it just come along as the story progresses in your mind? I have always wondered what is in the mind of an author… especially one with stories like you!
    Also, this would be a great movie…. you should consider it. :]

    Lastly, I am a 28 [almost 29… boo] year-old mother, wife, and full-time nursing student. You truly are able to reach all types of readers with your talented writing WHILEST distracting me from my daily duties. :]

    Happy Monday to you!

  20. Hey, Tricia! You know, you are my favorite kind of fan: a woman who can give herself permission to pick up a book marked “YA.” I’ve always found that to be both an interesting and silly distinction; I mean, heavens, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is YA (so is Romeo and Juliet, in a way) and it’s a classic 😉 But I also understand the distinction, and I’m thrilled you enjoyed the book. Movies: oh yeah, wouldn’t that be great? It’s not up to me, though; a producer and director need to come calling first. I’ve had a couple nibbles, but–you know–there are a lot of very fine books out there, and only a limited number of studios 🙂 I’m just thrilled that my books have seen the light of day.

    Sequels: yes; I knew this was a big story when I started it (I just didn’t realize how big). SHADOWS is a much more complicated, bigger and broader book, with many new characters and different POVs. It’s not a re-tread or like the HGs, where you’re limited to a single character focus. (In a world as big as this, I thought that was TOO limiting and everyone’s got backstory here and their unique perspectives.) I hadn’t thought of three books, though, only two–but it wasn’t until I sat and thought about it (and an editor said, “Oh no, this is a three-book arc) that I saw it. Sometimes I think I could go on for four, simply because things get very gnarly in SHADOWS.

    Anyway, I’m very glad you enjoyed the book–and Happy Tuesday!

    Nursing, eh? Some of the people who saved my butt as an intern were nurses. They’re like very experienced sergeants for new butter bar lieutenants: if you want your head to stay on your shoulders, you listen. I know I did 😉

  21. I am so glad that nurses have a good stigma in your opinion :] It is a demanding field, but I love every minute of it.

    I am not ashamed to say… I LOVE YA BOOKS! :] Yes, I read other genres as well… I really enjoy non-fiction because I love to try to outsmart everyone:-D I am a fan of Jeff Lindsay. I have really enjoyed the Dexter series – which reminds me of your writing in ASHES. I wish that my public library would carry some more of your books in Kindle form so I could read them all! I kept telling my husband as I was reading ASHES, “I canNOT believe this is happening!!!” He wouldn’t let me read to him, though. :]

    I think that a fourth book sounds like a wonderful idea. It isn’t often that I find an author that I want to read several [if not all] of their works. I have read a few snoozers lately that I couldn’t finish [which is SINFUL to me… I HATE not finishing a book] one of which will remain our little secret [[uh-hum.. twilight.. uh-hum]]….

    I love the complexity of your works – that is why I find it so hard to remember that it is actually a YA. I don’t think I could have been so enthralled in the story as a “young adult”…but I like to think of myself as STILL a young adult :]

    SO looking forward to picking up SHADOWS… more like waiting on one of my generous friends to send it to me via Amazon as a birthday gift because I HAVE TO HAVE IT the day it comes out. HAVE TO! :]

    By the way…. I did throw THE DARK. It was a hardback so no electronics were harmed in the process. :]

    Alright one last thing on my extra long post – I am just honored that you are writing back!!! :] What is your next project????

  22. Oh, girl, I can not tell you the number of books I have begun (largely because of rapturous reviews or an okay first chapter) and then tried to redo the contours of my drywall. I have to admit that I put back many more books than I read all the way through. These past few months, I’ve been hammering so hard on the final book in the trilogy that my past was nil, and I made it through, EXACTLY, one book. Usually, I do a monthly blog of books I’ve read, etc., and only post reviews of ones I like. Been lax these last three, so I thought I’d have a heap of catch-up to do. But . . . uh . . . that would be no.

    My *next* project, after MONSTERS goes to bed, is a book coming out next March, through Carolrhoda Lab: THE SIN EATER’S CONFESSION. A contemporary YA, and one that left me in tears 😉

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