Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Novels, Short Stories, and Me

Jan 26, 2018

Photo credit of Erin Kohlenberg

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.

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