Thursday, November 19, 2009

Guest in Progress: Katharine Davis

It’s one of the trickiest questions writers have to face: When is it done? (This is also a tricky question with regard to Thanksgiving turkeys, but I digress…) Here, my dear friend and former writing group member Katharine (Kitty) Davis wrestles with the ramifications of saying "the end."

(Also check out her previous posts for this blog, “Betwixt and Between,” about filling time between projects; and this New Yorker-style “Letter from Maine.” And here’s her yummy recipe for fish chowder, inspired by her second novel, East Hope…perfect for these dark winter evenings.)

Letting Go of Your Novel
Katharine Davis

Writing a novel is a long journey. From the simple physical endurance of turning out all those pages to the emotional ups and downs of the creative act—it’s an enormous endeavor, consuming one’s life for years at a time.

Writers often talk about the difficulty of getting started. How do you find the voice, where to begin, which point of view, the time frame, the setting? There are thousands of questions to consider, big and small.

Then, there is the problem of sticking to it, finding the time to write, getting blocked. Oh, the agony of finally understanding a character in the thirteenth chapter and having to re-write the previous 200 pages. How painful it is to discover you’ve gone off on a tangent, another 60 pages. You love every word, but you have to take them all out.

Eventually, you do the tedious revisions. Sentence by sentence, word by word, the work of getting the prose just right. Some days it’s nothing but a pleasure to revise, working on the rhythm, having the perfect metaphor seem to land in your lap. You might experience the thrill of coming up with that one word that changes everything. But, the countless hours spent on dialogue that clunks along like the rattle in your car that the mechanic can’t fix, or the flashback that’s brought your narrative drive to a halt--these trials are part of the process too.

Yet to me, one of the hardest parts of writing a novel is letting it go. You type ‘the end’ in all caps. You send it out. You want to celebrate, drink champagne, eat an enormous chocolate cupcake and tell all your friends, “I did it. I’m done. It’s the best ever. Yay!” And then, wham. What have I written? I didn’t get deeply enough into that character’s head. Did I tell enough about the mother? Oh God. That part’s too sappy. I should have made it better. These thoughts come at 3 AM, thanks to the champagne, the cupcake, or both. At that moment, the initial thrill of finding the story, and the enthusiasm of bringing it to the page is like some prehistoric event.

The next day, I feel somewhat better. There’s that scene where . . . and, remember when . . . , and the ending that can still make me cry. I find a paragraph I truly love. When did I write that? The next few weeks bring a combination of highs and lows.

Letting go of a novel is like sending children off to college. They’ve spent the last few years of high school driving you crazy, but also bringing you joy and delight. You experience the relief of getting them out from under your roof, to deep sadness. You miss them. You want your child to have his own life, to succeed. But it’s no longer up to you. Your baby if gone. Still, you’ve created something with love and hard work. Hopefully, the sense of pride and satisfaction will be long lasting.

This morning I pressed “send” and heard that final electronic click. I sent my novel, A SLENDER THREAD to my editor. The champagne is in the fridge. I plan to go to Magnolia Bakery this afternoon. Best cupcakes in New York.

About: Katharine Davis began writing fiction in 1999. Capturing Paris (St. Martin’s Press, 2006) was her first novel. Recommended in Real Simple Spring Travel 2007, the novel was also included in the New York Times' suggestions for fiction set in Paris. Her second novel, East Hope, was published by New American Library in 2009. She is an Associate Editor at The Potomac Review. She can be reached at (Be sure to check out her fabulous Maine and Paris travel tips!)


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