As any good Jewish person or FOJP (friend of Jewish Person) will tell you, the title above is the first of the four questions asked at Passover. It was four questions that recently–and thankfully–changed the way I’ve been approaching my work in progress.
I’ve been working on this thing for a long time–almost two years. Throughout, people have had problems with the narration. I don’t want to go into it too explicitly, but basically, I was keeping the narrator’s identity a secret with a big reveal about it at the end. Those who have read chapters have expressed confusion or even frustration about this, but I had always thought, “I can muscle through this. I can see their objections, and I can work past them.” This all changed last week when a friend read through the entire draft–one of about two people in the world to have done this, I think–and approached the problem in the manner of Passover: asking questions.
They were pretty simple questions, but they got to the heart of the matter: how would I sum up this story in one sentence? Why was I keeping the narrator’s identity a secret? What would I lose by changing that up? In answering these questions, I realized that the whole secret narrator thing was, heartbreakingly, more of a device I was hanging on to than something that really served the story. In fact, what I thought might be most important in the story had nothing to do with a mystery and was not at all about hidden identity.
I stress again that none of this should have been a huge revelation. Just like Chazz Palminteri at the end of The Usual Suspects, I started hearing voices and seeing images of people saying the same–voices whose words I could remember with shocking clarity for conversations that happened quite a while ago. Grad School Advisor Margaret: “I’m not saying it’s not working. I’m saying it’s not working yet.” Agent Elizabeth: “I’m not saying to give up on it. But I am sounding an early warning.” Critique group member Jen, over her frothy chai (okay, I’m making that part up; I don’t remember her beverage of choice): “I’m still not buying it.” So–to throw in another question–why was my recent reader able to break through when these great responders–and they really are some of my favorites–couldn’t?
(By the way, I don’t mean to be cagey about the identity of the recent reader. She’s one of the most amazing writers I’m privileged to know, and I’ve been in agony awaiting her first book, which comes out in the fall. I just think she’d be a bit abashed at my naming her publicly, so I’ll call her Dane, a joke that I think she’ll enjoy.)
So anyway, why the great breakthrough with Dane? Part of it, I think, is time; I sent her the second draft, so I’ve had time to live with this story for a while and murder many darlings already. But more than that, I think there’s a power to asking questions rather than making statements. Goodness knows I can be a statement-y person–so eager to convince the writer that my idea is the right one, I might just rush in and declare my insight. However, this might not always be the right choice. Dane didn’t assume she knew what was best for my novel, and I shouldn’t do that for other peoples’.
I hope to learn by example to open peoples’ work up to them. In the meantime, I remain grateful for the four questions and also look forward to my mom’s customary Passover dessert come April. But that, dear readers, is another story for another time.