Just looking at the most recent Goodreads review of my novella, The Death Trip, the reviewer deals directly with the ending, which readers either seem to love or hate. She vigorously defended it, coming close to but carefully skirting, spoiler territory.
Some readers think the open-ended ending is clever, while others are convinced I simply ran out of steam. Few are neutral. In a sense, both are right.
The Death Trip was written as my first entry in The International 3-Day Novel Competition. The contest could more accurately be entitled The Three Day Novella Contest because I don’t know think most people get past 40,000 words. (I’ve done it three times and never got past 30k). As its name implies, you write a novel (or something close to one) in three days. You are allowed to write an “outline” beforehand although each time I entered, I wound up not really following anything I’d prepared. In the case of The Death Trip, I’d had a concept floating in my brain for some time, and wrote up a character list a few days before the contest started.
This is what I knew when I started the writing: The story would involve a Philip K Dick-like hallucinatory process, by which terminally ill people would be put into a dream-like state where they could experience an entire life — maybe one that turned out better, the road not taken, or even the future they weren’t going to get. The process would be so appealing that people who weren’t ill would want to experience it recreationally, like the old joke about people dying to get in to cemeteries.
I wanted to have a character, inspired by the then recently deceased disability activist, Harriet MacBryde Johnson, who I was sure, based on her writings, would have been appalled by such a process. While I always found Ms. MacBryde Johnson’s writing thought provoking, I didn’t always agree with her positions. As I wrote the story, I found myself creating characters with different viewpoints as well as a protagonist, Chuck, who hasn’t fully developed an opinion.
The three-day experience is a pretty intense one. With only a few hours left on the clock, I knew I had to wind the story down. I was not going to get around to actually taking one of the main characters into a “death trip” and telling that story. I’m no philosopher, but the construct of characters with different positions and then taking those positions to their logical conclusions, owed as much to Plato, or my memory of reading the dialogues as a college sophomore, as it did to any storyteller I can think of, Dick included. I never lost control of the story, but at the same time, I was allowing it to develop, enjoying the show, and a few hours before the deadline, I “got” how it would end.
Some have referred to Chuck as a “loser” or at least a not especially admirable character. I had purposely avoided making him seem heroic. I thought of him as a kind of every man, and I didn’t want to make a decision for him, nor did I want to make it obvious to a reader what he would choose. I wanted to present him with two clear choices and end it there, which at a few minutes before midnight, is what I did.
As for the contest, that first year, I didn’t even make the short list, but I did go back to the story later to make revisions and I put it on Kindle and Smashwords as my e-book beta. Because I was hoping to develop a readership prior to publishing Loisaida, a full-length novel, I decided it made sense to make the novella free on Smashwords. Amazon demanded a set price, so I charged the minimum, 99 cents.
A few months later Amazon matched the free price. Back then, they paid the writers the minimum royalty when they did that — a policy they’ve now wisely changed — so I actually got paid for the freebies. When they began charging again, I matched the price on Smashwords and its affiliated outlets. Then last year, as sales slowed to less than a trickle, I “freed” it again on Smashwords, and Amazon soon “matched” the giveaway. Even though I knew Amazon would no longer pay me for free books, my feeling was that I was making so little on the story that it would be worth giving it away to get more readers. Unfortunately, so far it hasn’t helped much in generating sales for the novel, but seeing the occasional reader-review on Amazon, Smashwords, Goodreads, etc. whether good or bad, always makes me feel connected to readers, and is especially rewarding when those readers comment on how the story exceeded their expectations for a “freebie.”