Thursday, April 2, 2009

Guest in Progress: Virginia Pye

I met Virginia (Ginny) Pye during one of my previous residencies at VCCA. She was only staying for a week, and she was revising a novel manuscript. We quickly hit it off, swapping novel horror stories and pertinent gossip over dinner. But after every meal, she disappeared back to her studio…back to work. I had thought I was a hard worker, but she put me to shame. And, yes, on her last day, she reported that she had finished going through her book. Yay!

But as you’ll see in the following piece, “finishing” a book doesn’t always mean it’s “done.”

So, take heart, revisers and re-revisers and re-re-revisers. The path to the last page is not always easy, but you can be confident that your book will be better for the journey.


Some authors write a book a year. They know the beginning, middle and end before they put their fingers to the keyboard. Perhaps they improvise along the way, but essentially they know where they are headed from the start. I envy them.

Barnes and Noble’s shelves are stocked with how-to books on plotting the novel. Writers can follow clear steps to achieve results: simply develop the hook, create some conflict, throw in a sub-plot, reach a climax, then slide into a denouement. It should be as easy as cutting out a dress pattern or following a recipe.

So why has it just taken me more than four years to finish my novel, Sleepwalking to China?

For me, writing a novel is like running a marathon in a dream. The landscape keeps shifting. I’m continually cresting the next hill and looking out over a changed horizon. The ground below my sneakers sometimes turns to quick sand and at other times propels me forward to fly.

It took me about a year and a half to write the first two drafts of Sleepwalking. I was certain I had the general shape of the story and now just needed to polish it. Then I showed the manuscript to some people, including my agent, who said it was far from done. I stepped back for a month and when I reread the book, I saw my readers had been kind. That first version wasn’t at all what I had in my head. The characters didn’t have enough depth. They didn’t make the reader, or even me, laugh when they mumbled out of the corners of their mouths. When they died, no one cried. I knew who they were and how wonderful they were meant to be, but no one else did. Not yet, anyway.

Part of the problem was the order in which I was telling the story. Sleepwalking is a tale of three generations of an American family in China, Vietnam and Boston spanning the twentieth century. When I told it chronologically, the reader became acquainted first with the grandparents who were missionaries in northwestern China at the start of the century. By page 100, we finally get to know the father and it isn’t until about page 150 we encounter the third generation—a brother and sister who were the ones I cared about most of all. My poor reader had to slog through a lot of storytelling just to get to the people I wanted them to fall in love with.

At that point, I enlisted Leslie’s help, received some valuable editorial insights from her and went back in and began restructuring the manuscript. I thought about the many scenes I had now written and those I still had blooming in my head. Which of them would make a great opening? Should I start with the grandfather out in a Mongolian desert hamlet in 1907? Or begin with the daughter at the student take-over of Harvard in 1969? Or throw the reader in with the son and the other Marines at the Fall of Saigon? I knew my story was going to travel all over the place—across continents and through the twentieth century—but where should it start?

And what about the overall shape? I tried any number of things, including braiding the story. I wove the tales of the three generations, each conveyed in the voice of that time period’s principle character. I tried having the son tell the story, only then I realized on an umpteenth draft that he had to die three quarters of the way through the book! That led me to wonder if I should have the grandmother look back on everything and tell it all from the grave. Anything seemed possible, which made me both excited and miserable.

With each attempt at restructuring—some only brief experiments of twenty or so pages and others sketched out into full blown drafts—I expanded my plot. The story revealed itself to me. I made connections between crucial details across decades. And, finally, the principle character stepped forward into the light.

Sleepwalking to China is Penelope Carson’s story—Penny. She is the daughter of Charles Carson, dean of students at Harvard who was raised in China as the son of missionaries. Despite the fact that her father and grandfather both seem to have the more interesting tales to tell, it was her story I was most interested in.

I was relieved and yet disappointed. My previous novels had female protagonists. This book was meant to be about men. I had scenes set in wartime Vietnam; others showed a missionary minister alone on a mule in Mongolia; I even have a beheading! But there was no denying it: Penny was the one who needed to make sense of her family’s past. She was the one most changed and most brought to life by knowing their tale.

Once I figured that out, you’d have thought the writing would have just zipped along. It did, in a way, but the process still took me another two years. The story needed to be told and retold. The language refined and improved. The plot tightened and connections made clearer between scenes and characters. I did all this with the brilliant help of several friends, including novelist Susann Cokal, who read a full draft over one academic year and steered me right when I started to go off course.

During all those years of working on the manuscript, I did my best to hold my head high when people asked if I was still working on that same China book. I had to be patient with myself and the process. The hype and anxiety these days about the publishing industry can easily cause a writer to put their toe into that fast-moving stream too early. We’re told we need to start our web pages and write our blogs and build our platform. We’re supposed to start promoting our book before we’ve even written the first chapter. The world can be way too much with us as we write.

When I started Sleepwalking, I had an agent, but by the time I finished, I didn’t. That was discouraging, but I had to press on. Actually, not having an agent was all the more reason to fall in love with the process of writing. The only ones waiting to read my chapters were my writing buddies, so I might as well settle in and take some risks and do my best to make it good.

I decided not to research possible new agents until I knew I was coming down the home stretch. Meanwhile, I had been going to conferences—the AWP and James River Writers’ Conference here in Richmond, which, as co-chair of the organization I help run each year. I gathered agent’s and editor’s business cards and talked up my novel whenever I could. I knew I’d use the connections I made when the manuscript was really ready. But, in general, I tried to not to get too distracted by the publishing side of writing.

And I’m glad, because it took all my brain power, all my spare and quiet time, to just wrestle this story onto the page. I don’t write brilliant first drafts, or even tenth drafts. I don’t write a novel a year. I don’t even really know how I did this one, but, after thirteen drafts, I finally feel it’s done. I am reminded now that it takes lots of time and infinite patience to write a novel.

So, if that’s your method, too, then I’m in good company. Let’s leave the how-to books on the shelves and delve into the strange dream marathon of novel-writing. While I’m glad to be finally waking from it, I can also say it’s been a wonderful and challenging course to traverse. I wouldn’t have taken a shortcut for anything. ~~Virginia Pye

About: Virginia Pye has published stories in literary journals, including The North American Review and failbetter, and was recently a finalist in several Glimmer Train contests. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College where she studied with Allan Gurganus. At Wesleyan University, Annie Dillard was her first mentor. Virginia taught writing at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania and has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In Richmond, Virginia, she is Co-Chair of James River Writers, a literary non-profit which hosts an annual writer’s conference in addition to other programs and events that support aspiring writers and lovers of literature. Her new novel, Sleepwalking to China, tells the story of three generations of an American family in and their ties to China and Vietnam. You can read one of Ginny's published short stories here.


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