The Never-Ending Novel

Viking ship

Is someone writing all this down?

Find yourself a soft spot to sit here—just push the dog, he’ll move—settle in with your glass of chocolate milk, and I’ll tell you a saga. Who doesn’t love a saga? This particular saga doesn’t have men half wild with flowing beards, or wooden ships launched boldly across the dark sea, or dragons with a passion for torching the bearded men.

This saga is a little more. . . mmm, conceptual, about how a book, like a magic entangling vine, can grow in every possible direction, so that it becomes impossible to know what the book is, or what it could be, or how it should be trimmed back to make sense, or where it should be allowed to grow.

In 1997, when I was still teaching here in Atlanta, before I launched off to be smacked around America like a billiard ball, I began writing a novel that takes place in Atlanta around the time of the Olympics, in 1996. Sitting here now, nearly twenty years later, I’m considering how to revise that book, wondering if I can make something of it.

From time to time over those twenty years, I’ve worked on the book, revised it, and made extensive changes, and yet as I was looking at it a few nights ago, I thought, “Oh my God, this is rambling and ridiculous.” Whoever wrote this needs to be spanked. I should just spank myself.

The original “novel” consisted of six stories, about six different characters. I had some overlap of characters, but each story was really a separate thing. These days I don’t think of something like that as being a novel, and I wouldn’t do it, but here I am telling my literary sin in public.

I may have written a lousy book, but I was bold and imbued with faith, and when the book was done, I went looking for an agent. By then I was living in New Jersey, and as part of my quest, I signed up for a writers conference in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Without a lot of detail, I did get an agent (the only time, so far, that I’ve had one). At one point I went to meet her in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where she lived. It was a five-hour drive in one direction, but I drove over, met her in a coffee shop for a couple of hours, then drove home.

The agent suggested that the book needed more coherence—an easy call, now that I look back on it. So I took one chapter of the six, a chapter involving an elderly monk at a monastery near the city (yes, there is a Catholic monastery near Atlanta), and I cut that chapter into pieces, using them to frame the other stories. This technique did create a slight facsimile of flow and connection in the novel, but not much, and the agent was unable to sell it. Shocking to hear, no doubt.

Several years later I had moved again and was living in central Pennsylvania, more energetically engaged with writing novels, and I said to myself I’ll try this book again, and this time I’ll seriously revise it to make a real story out of it. I plunged in, and I cut and I stitched and I threw things out (including all of the monk’s tale) and I wrote new bits and new bits and new bits. Why, it was a completely new book! And did I mention rambling and ridiculous?

A few nights ago, as I said, I was looking at the novel once more. Having finished The Invention of Colors (a book I am very happy with), and as I begin making notes for a completely new novel, I thought I’ll also make one final attempt on this Atlanta novel. If I’m not able to make it work this time, well then, twenty years was a good try, and that will be enough.

I had barely been skimming through the book, just to see what’s there, when I decided that the two major male characters have to go, and I began cutting their chapters. In a way, it makes me sick to cut those sections, as there is so much writing that I really love, and things I will probably never write about otherwise, but as I was making the cuts, it also struck me that suddenly the book began to make more sense.

And I’m adding the monk back in. I kept all that material, and I missed having him there. Somehow in my head, he never went away. Maybe he will bless the undertaking.


In a few days I’m headed to Europe for two weeks (Ireland again, and Poland), and as I did last year, I should be able to post to the blog from there. It won’t be the elegant, polished writing you naturally expect from this blog, but dang it, that’s just how it is.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), How We Create Magic, Writing While Living

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