I can’t figure out how long it took me to write my first novel. It might have been two years—or it might have been twenty-five.
I mean, in a certain sense it obviously took me two years; in 2013 I sat down to write a short story about a woman on an erratic personal quest for well-being, and that story quickly ballooned until I accepted that it was a novel-in-progress, and I worked and worked until I finished the final draft of Miss Portland in 2015. So that’s two years.
But then I wonder: maybe the only reason I was able to write Miss Portland and have it be any good is because of all the work that happened before 2013—work that consisted of (among other things) seven bad, failed novels, work that went all the way back to 1990. Maybe each one of those failures was part of the process of learning how to write a novel. Learning, in fact, what a novel even is.
I definitely did learn some things along the way. From my first two novels, written in college and full of teenagery emotional hand-wringing, I learned that my personal ennui is not enough to justify several hundred pages of fiction. From my next four attempts—one of which was a magic realist novel with flat characters and the other three of which were very strained allegories—I eventually gathered that some ideas are so difficult to pull off that the manuscript ends up reeking mainly of the author’s effort, and that, in fact, ideas are not novels. Not on their own. I also learned from one of those tries—my fifth—that you can’t expect a reader to wade through hundreds of pages of unwavering misery. (In that one, structured as a metaphor for the Biblical Exodus story—fun, right?—the book was confined to the week or so after the protagonist’s wife died, meaning that he was at peak grief on every page.)
But the big moment came around my seventh novel. I was determined to get my seventh novel right. It was going to be rooted in feeling, in something I cared about, but it wasn’t going to be an angsty spill. There was going to be a range of emotion. It was going to take on something big and important, but that big and important thing was going to be an experience, not an idea. There wasn’t going to be any allegory at all. I set out to tell the down-to-earth story of a single woman who was newly a mother, and scrambling to adjust.
That’s when plot ruined everything.
Really all I wanted to talk about was the enormity of becoming a parent—I had just become a parent myself—but because I knew I was writing a novel, I felt like I had to keep jacking up the stakes as the story progressed. The main character was freaking out a lot about all the changes in her life, which is natural enough. And so she started fantasizing about leaving the baby alone in her apartment to go get a drink, which is also natural enough as a fantasy—but then she did it. She left the child alone and got a drink. And that was only the first step; then she started going out again and again, for longer and longer periods. The novel had started out as a realistic portrayal of a new mom, and rapidly became the story of a really dangerously off-balance and neglectful parent.
A nice agent read the book and, in her email response, basically told me, I think you meant to write a short story, and you’ve blown it all totally out of proportion. And I instantly knew she was right. I had been worried about that same thing, deep down, myself.
Here’s the thing: if your material wants to be a short story, it needs to be a short story. You can’t turn a motorcycle into a freight train. So I broke that book into pieces and made it the basis for a short story collection.
In sum: I had spent twenty-three years learning what doesn’t make a novel. Honestly, they were tough lessons, full of rejections and disappointment, and I basically gave up on trying to write novels for about five years after that seventh try.
Like I said, when I started to write the thing that ultimately became my novel Miss Portland, I thought I was setting out to write a short story. Just something simple about a woman upending her life in a desperate grab to fix everything. I had her step off a bus in Portland, Maine, having just given up her whole life in Philly in the hopes of starting fresh, and I imagined there’d be a few scenes—she had this dicey guy she was going to see up there—and she’d get back on the bus and head back home. But it didn’t go like that. Miss Portland the novel snuck up on me. This woman’s journey was bigger and more involved than I had expected. And she wasn’t me, spewing angst. And she wasn’t an idea. And though her journey was full of challenges, external and internal, Zoe had a resilience and earnestness and sense of humor that provided a range of emotional experience to put on the page.
And so I wrote a novel—a real one this time.
It took eight tries, but I did it. In either two or twenty-five years.
And here’s the next question: does this mean I’m all set now? Lessons learned and ready to write my next novel?
I’m not sure. Part of me thinks that things are never that easy. Maybe now I’m going to have to learn a whole new set of lessons. Maybe I’ll have to write seven new failed novels before I can write my second not-failed one. Or maybe not. I don’t know. I only know one thing, really:
I’m going to do whatever I have to do in order to learn to write whatever I need to write.
David Ebenbach is the author of eight books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, including, most recently, the novel How to Mars (Tachyon Publications, 2021) and the poetry collection Some Unimaginable Animal (Orison Books, 2019). He teaches at Georgetown University. Visit him at www.davidebenbach.com. (updated 6/2021)
Ebenbach founded the AGNI blog in 2015 and edited it until 2019.