By Colorado Review Associate Editor Chelsea Hansen
At the time of writing this, I have just finished the third draft of my first novel. A year and a half of planning, writing, deleting, and revising has brought me within a week of turning in this third, and hopefully final, version to my thesis committee. It feels like a tremendous thing, handing over to someone else the 300 or so pages I’ve been working on exclusively for so long, that I don’t know where I start and my novel ends.
Being so close to finishing a novel has made me reflect on how I got here… all these pages, characters, and story in hand. I’d never written a novel before this. When I first started taking writing seriously, I knew I wanted to write one… someday. Still, I stuck to short stories. I once wrote seventy pages of a novel that I ended up drifting away from (maybe someday I’ll come back for you), continuing to focus on short stories instead. I’ve always considered myself a lover of short stories by others, but didn’t feel particularly inclined to write them myself. When I did write them, it was to test out characters I hoped to put in a longer work someday. Some of my short stories I feel a connection to; others I don’t. Although, I suppose this is an inevitable aspect of writing many different works rather than a single novel.
I didn’t really start to think about how my many years of writing short stories affected the creation of my novel until I visited a friend’s beginning creative writing course last semester. Her students, though writing short stories in class, had expressed a desire to know more about writing novels. How do you do it? What goes into it? How do you turn a one-line idea you had in the fast-food drive-thru into 300 pages of plot arcs and character development? I agreed to visit her class and be part of a panel about how I wrote my novel, though I feared I wouldn’t be able to provide any answer besides “I don’t know. It just happened.”
This is often my response when others ask how I kept my plot lines straight, and how it all came together. “I don’t know. It just happened.” It hasn’t been until now, on version three, sitting with a fresh 2018 time stamp on my flash drive, that I’ve realized that, no, it didn’t just sort of happen. I planned, I schemed, I outlined for months. I started one outline, tore the whole thing up, and wrote a new one. I’ve drunk a lot of tea and spent a lot of hours staring at the ceiling, wondering how I was ever going to put this monster together. But most importantly, I drew on the lessons that all my years of short story writing taught me.
It’s true, writing a novel was a very different experience from writing a short story. But they weren’t completely different worlds. Lessons my short story advisors and professors have taught me over the years cropped up immediately, and were useful in long-form writing, too. The story still needs an immediate hook. Something needs to be at stake; the main character must want something, even if what that is changes as the story progresses. Starting the story in media res is always a good idea. There needs to be an arc, a climax, and the main characters need an opportunity to change.
I realize now that this is why the seventy pages of the first novel I attempted, failed. I was eighteen or nineteen years old then. I hadn’t given short story writing a solid chance. Now I see that all those short stories—both the ones I still love and the ones I haven’t looked at it in years—taught me the writing lessons I needed to commit to such a long project. This novel, the one I have three versions of, and which I have poured countless hours into, only came after all those lessons and practice. And here it finally is, whole and complete… something I actually feel I will be able to do something with someday soon.
I will always marvel at all you short story writers out there, who make me feel intense emotions in such a small amount of space and time. There’s a special magic in them that has taught me lessons about novel writing before I’ve even had a chance to realize I was learning them. Part of me is excited to try writing a short story again while my novel and I take some space away from each other. And maybe soon, I can return to that first failed novel to finally see how it ends.