Thursday, January 17, 2008

Guest in Progress: Paula Whyman

Of all the questions a novelist faces, perhaps the hardest is to know when to give up and when to keep going. Our minds are a swirl of conflicting thoughts: Push through…but it’s not working…fix it…give up…don’t be a quitter...should writing be such torture? And in this difficult moment, all we long for is a bit of clarity. Unfortunately, the advice we’re most frequently given is along the “you’ll know it when you see it” variety. Oh, gee, thanks…you’ve been SOOOO helpful! And we’re left pulling out our hair.

Paula Whyman recently finished her first novel, and here’s her take on the matter. (You can read Paula’s previous Guest in Progress piece, a report on the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, here.)

Are novels-in-progress like relationships? How do you know when you’ve reached a dead end?

A few years ago, I was in the middle of writing what I had come to refer to as the Incredible Shrinking Novel. I’d been working on it for about two years, not counting the year I spent researching it. I would routinely write 50 pages and then cut 30 of them. By the time I reached the stage of existential crisis, I’d probably written, cumulatively, 300 pages and kept only about 65 of them. I had lofty goals when I started that book: I wanted to demonstrate the decline of a human population that was mirrored by the decline of the natural world. I wanted to write a novel that played out theories of island biogeography which I thought (and still think) would have serious implications for how we manage the environment. I had all these characters and subplots set in motion, I had a story that took place over three generations, I had medicinal plants, mysterious deaths, long-lost half-siblings, and incest. I even had a chapter that was written from the point-of-view of a lizard. Seriously. But the more I wrote, the less I liked, and the less success I had figuring out what to do about it. It came to the point where, even though I knew there were things about the book that worked really well, I dreaded looking at it every morning. The working title of this novel was Captivity, and that came to be an apt description for my situation. I was held prisoner by the book; I felt like after all that time and effort, I wasn’t “allowed” to just stop. Wasn’t persistence supposed to be the key? Weren’t rough patches to be expected? Was this a rough patch or the San Andreas Fault?

Meanwhile, there was an idea that had been nagging at me for a while, a character I was interested in who wasn’t in my book and wouldn’t belong anywhere in my book, because he already had his own story, or at least the makings of one, and he lived in the suburbs, not on a fictional island in the Gulf of Mexico. I couldn’t get this character and his story out of my mind, but I thought it was only because I was so frustrated with my novel and that I should press on and not let other ideas distract me. Then, I attended a lecture by the fabulous Alice McDermott at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, in which she talked about just this issue. It turns out that she’s always working on two books at once. She was working on another project when she had the idea for her novel That Night. She finished That Night instead, and the rest, as they say, is history.

She’ll probably never know it, but Alice McDermott gave me the permission I needed. The next day, I set aside Captivity, and began to investigate the character whom I’d been so curious about. Who knows? Maybe at some point I’ll go back to the other book—I’m still intrigued by the idea behind it, and I’m still interested in the characters—but with this new book, things were very different. Of course there were difficult points where I wasn’t sure what direction to take (that’s always the hardest part for me, deciding which way to go when there are a hundred options), but on the other hand, I always knew where it was going in general, and I thought that if I stayed with it I could make it work. I encountered problems, but never the same kinds of problems I had with the other book.

Maybe this is an extreme example, but the question I’m left with, now that I’m considering new projects again, is how do you know when it’s right? How do you know when an idea is “worth” pursuing? Do you have to be 100 pages in (or more) before you can tell if it’s going to work? When are you giving up too easily, and when are you deluding yourself by pressing on? I wish I had a simple answer, a clear formula for figuring this out.

In my case, I think the problem I had was in starting with a theme, a sort of “high” concept, and then trying to construct a story that would serve that theme, rather than starting with a compelling character that could lead to the consideration of compelling questions. Without realizing it, I started with, “How can I show…?” rather than “What would happen if…? or “What would s/he do if…?”

In the end, what’s compelling to me in a story is not the grand idea, but the convincing characters who are doing things that are both inevitable and surprising. If a story keeps bugging me, if there’s something about it I want to figure out, then I think (hope!) I can make it across the fault lines and keep going.

But do you ever really know, until you KNOW? Please, can someone reveal the secret formula to me before I get stuck in Captivity again? ~~Paula Whyman

About: Paula Whyman’s award-winning story, “Driver’s Education,” will appear in the anthology, Writes of Passage: Coming-of-Age Stories and Memoirs from The Hudson Review (Spring 2008, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago). In the fall, she was awarded a fellowship to the VCCA. She has just finished writing her novel, and she is glad.

Note: I wrote a previous post exploring the issue of when to move forward with your work here.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.