In the Beginning…
I started writing a novel about four years ago. I signed up for a novel workshop, and even though I didn’t know at the beginning what my novel would be about, I did the work. I began to find my characters. I discovered their lives, including their wants and dreams and secrets and fears. I started to understand the story of the novel, which is to say I figured out what was happening in this world I was making up.
And then it all became too much for me. I made a very conscious decision to stop working on the novel. I dropped out of the workshop and planned to go back to writing only short fiction. I wanted to write and publish some really good short stories, and eventually, I would publish a collection. And then, in a complete surprise, I ended up focusing on poetry in an attempt to understand the form better. For the next two years, I wrote poems, almost exclusively. A couple of short stories worked their way out during that time, but mostly, everything that came to me came in the form of a poem. More than once, I went for a month or more when I wrote a new poem every day. It was exciting and fun because, even though the first draft of a poem might not be perfect, you can get the idea down on paper in a relatively short amount of time.
That was the problem I had with the novel. It took too long. And it was hard. I had figured out most of the mile markers, but I hadn’t gotten far enough fast enough. Now, let me clarify that many true poets won’t think much of my comparing poetry and novels in this way. I know a lot of poets who spend weeks and months, even years, returning to one poem before it’s finished. In that case, it might take as long to write a really fantastic poem –the poem of all poems—as it does to write a novel. But usually, the draft of the poem comes quickly, and the rest is revision.
The draft of a novel is different though. It takes far, far more words on the page before you can begin the true revision process. A novel is generally considered to be at least 60,000 or 70,000 words. Anything less is a novella, and when I was getting tired and bored with myself, I prayed to just figure out how to write a novella and put the idea to bed. Maybe I was just lazy, or maybe it wasn’t my time. I don’t know for sure, but what I do know is that even during those two years when I was writing poetry, I was thinking about the novel. I avoided writing it, but I was thinking about the novel. Everything I had written for the novel was in a binder that sat on my desk with a rubber band pulled tightly over it. I wouldn’t open it for fear it would suck me back in, but I was still thinking about it. I was always thinking about the novel.
In addition to not being able to get the novel out of my head, I couldn’t quit thinking of myself as a fiction writer. I was pumping out poems, some of which were getting published and winning contests, but I winced any time someone called me a poet. Not out of embarrassment or shame. I wanted to be a poet, but I didn’t feel like one. I might not have been a novelist, but I was a fiction writer more than a poet.
In June, I entered the MFA program at Bennington College. Determined to be a fiction writer, I broke down and opened the binder with my novel in it. Now that I’ve reentered that world, it has actually become more vivid and real. A big part of the job in these past months is just to fully realize where the holes are and start filling them in. As I said already, I had established the mile markers, but there were vast stretches of open countryside in between. It’s now my job to further explore.
Even after four years, I’m still in the early days of this work, and who knows if it will ever be finished. Even if I do finish it, there’s no guarantee that it will see publication. But I can’t think of that now. I just have to keep filling in the holes. I have to write. As of today I have about 22,000 words which make up what I currently see as the first nine chapters.
If you’re looking for blog posts from an experienced novelist, you’re reading the wrong blogger. But if you want to see how someone like me is bumbling through the process, I look forward to sharing these occasional posts. Now, it’s time to write.
Denton Loving lives on a farm near the historic Cumberland Gap, where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia come together. He works at Lincoln Memorial University, where he co-directs the annual Mountain Heritage Literary Festival and serves as executive editor of drafthorse: the literary journal of work and no work. His fiction, poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Minnetonka Review, Trajectory, Main Street Rag and in numerous anthologies including "Degrees of Elevation: Stories of Contemporary Appalachia." He’s at work on his first novel.