Thursday, September 18, 2008

Guest in Progress: Paula Whyman

A short but sweet intro…here’s writer Paula Whyman, telling it like it is in her “book proposal” for The Life of the Unsuccessful Writer:

The Real Writing Life
by Paula Whyman

Book Notes

From the Publisher: The Life of the Unsuccessful Writer by Paula Whyman is an instructive and contemplative meditation on writing and on life and, indeed, on the writing life, intended to provide a real world, experientially based, holistic ballast against which aspiring writers may gauge their expectations and balance their hopes and dreams. From a ‘writer’s writer’ who’s so obscure, even other writers won’t know who she is. Unlike well-known and successful authors who have produced inspirational writing guides, such as Eudora Welty and Joyce Carol Oates, here is a writer whom other writers can realistically hope to emulate.

Publishers Weekly called the book “a…much-needed tutorial for the vast majority of writers who are destined to labor in obscurity, well-deserved.”

Promotions: Postcard mailing, print ad in Poets & Writers, readings in Spokane, Sheboygan, Tallahassee, Queens, Olney, and anyplace else where the author has long-lost cousins, ex-friends, or more successful author friends who feel guilty enough to let her crash for the night. Print run 500, staple-bound. Workmanlike Press.

A follow-up to this volume, entitled The Spiritual Life of the Unsuccessful Writer: Cursing the Darkness and Lighting a Candle Only to Find It’s Not the Dripless Kind, will be released in Spring 2009.

Excerpt from Chapter 1

A Day in the Life: A Little Splash of Cold Water for the Soul
(or, A Place Called Hope in a Land Called Delusion)

Adhering to a daily schedule of work is the first step toward discipline in your writing. You may wish to keep track of your tasks by entering your daily accomplishments in a journal. Here’s an actual description of a typical work day, selected at random from my own journals.

8:30am: Yippee! The kids are off to school. I have all day to write! What freedom! I pay the bills and eat breakfast. I drink the same tea as Salman Rushdie. Is it helping?

9am: I have all day to write! I’m going to work on my novel! It’s my third novel. The other two have not been published. The first one was rejected by 28 editors, all of whom commented on how much they admired the writing—28 ‘good’ rejections, wow! The second novel made it to the quarter-final round of a prestigious contest run by a small university press (not Iowa). Should I put that in the cover letter with my next submission?? The winning novel was published by the university press as a paperback original, and the author was paid $1,500. There was no second printing. I am jealous.

9:30am: I receive an email from the Author’s Guild announcing a settlement in a class action suit. Has any of my work been reproduced electronically without my permission? If so, I can now get paid. I think about this. Hmm, I’m pretty sure I signed over electronic rights in my contract with that magazine, along with 100 shares of stock in Microsoft, my parking space, a few ovaries, and a puppy. They’re publishing my work; I don’t want to piss them off.

9:45am: People are calling--Everyone loves the piece I wrote for the city newspaper! I’m great! I’m a writer! People read my stuff! Editor asks me for another piece!

10:30am: Editor of city newspaper rejects my new story, saying he likes it but it’s “not quite right for them.” “Not quite right”: the classic half-ass brush-off non-explanation explanation. I sulk. I know it’s a great piece. What’s their problem? My mother thought the piece was hilarious. Are they saying my mother doesn’t know what’s good for them?

11am: I email the new piece to four newspapers in other cities. One writes back immediately to say they don’t buy freelance stories. Another writes back to say I should send it to a different editor. I send it to that editor, and she says they don’t buy freelance stories. I never hear back from the other two.

Noon: The mail comes. I receive a check I’ve been expecting for six months for an article I wrote a year ago. I put it on top of the mail pile to show my husband when he comes home. See, I’m getting paid for writing! I’m a writer!

Also in the mail, a rejection slip from The Topeka Review for a short story I submitted. It has taken them six months to respond to my submission. They send me a form rejection slip with no comments. Fuck ’em. Fuckin’ Topeka. Fucking piss-ant grad-student-reader fucking soul-patch-wearing eyelid-piercing tattoo-fearing milk-drinking intelligent-design-advocating UN-hating philistine

I also receive a rejection for a short story I submitted to a prestigious journal. They give me written comments: They love it! I’m great! They want to see more of my work! I’m on top of the world. I highlight the good parts and tape the rejection slip to an index card and stick it on my bulletin board. Whenever I pause in my work, I stare at the rejection and my soul is filled with a boundless joy. I love everyone. I’m going to finish my novel and it will be published and prominently displayed on end-caps in Barnes & Noble, where it will be selected for the Discover New Writers program. PEN will see my genius and I’ll be nominated for an award. I’ll be asked to write a feature related to the topic of my novel for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. I’ll be interviewed on NPR. An excerpt of the book will appear in The New Yorker. Film options will be sold, translation rights...

12:40pm: Why haven’t I been working on my novel?

1pm: I receive an email from the editor of an obscure online magazine: Will I please write a column for which I won’t get paid, but think of the glory? I’m flattered, and I accept.

1:30pm: I do my civic duty and write a pro bono letter on behalf of my community protesting a tree removal plan. Four board members request conflicting edits. One of them takes issue with the tone. What--Sarcastic? Moi? Another would like to add comments about Intelligent Design. I tell them the letter is theirs to do with as they wish, but please remove my name. Did Hemingway have to put up with this?

2:15pm: Stare into space.

2:30pm: I’m in the zone. I’m writing, finally.

2:38pm: The phone rings. It’s my mother. She’s calling to tell me about something very important that’s happening to someone I don’t know two months from now. I ask her if I can call her when I’m finished working. I’m writing! I can’t be interrupted! Does A.S. Byatt answer the phone when she’s in the zone?!

3:15 pm: I’ve figured out what’s wrong with my novel: There’s no discernible plot. I’m on page 137. But the characters are great! WWVWD? (What would Virginia Woolf do?) It’s important to stay positive; I’m nearly halfway through, right? Must. Keep. Writing.

4:23 pm: Alice calls very excited. She’s going to have a short story in The Atlantic Monthly. It’s the first time she’s ever submitted there. She’s quite talented, and she deserves the recognition. I’m really very happy for her.


I’ve submitted every story I’ve ever written to the Atlantic, and I’ve had such nice, encouraging comments from Mr. Curtis each time. “Maybe the next one,” he wrote. He said that! So I send a next one, and a next, and each time I feel as if our relationship is developing, growing—we’re cozy, we’re buds, we’re colleagues—that it’s just a matter of a sentence’s difference, a few words here and there, and he’ll take it, he’ll say ‘yes.’ Yes! Maybe the section breaks are problematic, too many asterisks in a row—Should I have gone with four and not five? I know he wants it to be perfect, and we’ve come so very close. And then I hear—not even from him—about the Fiction Issue: no more monthly stories, just a single annual Fiction Issue. And now he says ‘yes’ to Alice. I can’t help it; it feels like a betrayal. I take out his letters and re-read them, looking for clues, subliminal messages, holograms…

4:45 pm: Stare into space. Wonder when the literary magazines will be submitting their Pushcart Prize and O’Henry and Best American award nominees. How can I get them to nominate my stories? Maybe if I send strong subliminal messages by thinking about it very, very hard--

5 pm: Checking Yahoo News. This is called research. There could be something relevant to my novel. Oil prices; Fed raising rates; riots in France. Nope nothing of interest there. Oh, lookie here, someone was fired from the cast of “Desperate Housewives”…

5:48pm: Must. Keep…

6:05 pm: Time for a word-count check. Only the third one this afternoon. That’s the meaning of self-discipline. Number of words written today in my novel: 664. Total word count: 40,661 I broke 40,000! At this rate, I’ll be finished in, let’s see…in…

7 pm: Where is my check? My husband has sorted through the mail and has accidentally torn up the envelope with my check inside, thinking it was junk mail. “Sweetie,” he tells me, “I don’t think that was a paycheck. The fine print said, ‘Signing this check enrolls you in the Visa frequent buyer program for only $9.95 per month.’”

But I get the first month free…don’t I? ~~ Paula Whyman

About: Paula Whyman is the recipient of a 2008 Maryland State Arts Council grant and fellowships to the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Her work is included in Writes of Passage: Coming of Age Stories and Memoirs from The Hudson Review (June 2008, Ivan R. Dee), and in the current issue of The Delmarva Review. Her work is forthcoming on National Public Radio and in the anthology Gravity Dancers, edited by Richard Peabody. She has recently completed a novel. Her humor writing has appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, and more can be found on her website:

She will be reading at the Baltimore Book Festival, along with other Maryland State Arts Council grant recipients: Friday, Sept. 26, 5pm-6:30pm at the Creative Café. Details are here.


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