It’s a great feeling when you can “see the light” at the end of a long-form work like a novel. A premature sense of accomplishment sets in, followed by the creeping dread of anxiety. But how the hell am I supposed to get from Q to Z in 40 pages?
A football analogy is appropriate. Great, so you’re on the defense’s 20 yard line and that touchdown is in sight. But the closer you get to the end zone, the more the field shrinks, the less ground the defense must to cover to stop you, and your play-calling is limited to what can be accomplished within that space.
Analogies are clever and all, but we need solutions. Results.
Countless books and movies falter in the third act. They’re so near that finish line, but the human drive for closure rushes them toward it like some desert mirage of salvation. They don’t take advantage of the weapons in their arsenal that got them this far. Character development dies as it becomes merely a vehicle for plot resolution. People act in ways contrary to their nature. The sentences get shorter, description briefer. Zeus reaches down from the heavens with the answer to the central dilemma.
I say fuck the end zone. Right now, your target is probably still way up in section 349. Don’t be fooled into thinking all you have to do is hit that 250-page mark, or 20-page mark, or whatever. There is no wall waiting to crash into; space is infinite. Your story is complete when it’s damn well complete. For now, write from point Q to point R, then R to S, and so on until you arrive at Z naturally, being neither contrived nor concerned for length. Do not change your game plan just because you think an ending is expected soon.
This is what editing is for: chipping away and whittling your masterpiece down to its most efficient form. And you must be merciless. Be prepared to “kill your darlings,” as someone once said. Take some time away from the material and come back fresh and objective when you aren’t still on honeymoon with your own words. Any scenes that don’t advance the plot or reveal character must go. I’m sure they’re brilliant, and you can keep those trims in your personal “director’s cut” journal to marvel over for years to come. But they don’t belong in my $24 copy. I don’t care about your linguistic genius; thrill me with a great story that doesn’t sell out in the third act.
FYI, modern novels tend to be around 60-80,000 words and 250-ish words per page.