What does ‘finishing a novel’ actually mean?
Update Posted: 971 words
I started work on Currahee — then known as All Right — in 2016. It actually wasn’t the first book idea that came to me in a dream, which I then fleshed out, expanded, and drafted. To be technical, the idea for Currahee came about in 2012, when I wrote a short story called “Decade,” which was also from a dream, and bad highschool writing though it may be, that’s probably the seed of what became the book known as Currahee.
This suggests that the idea of alternate lifetimes is not a new one for me. In fact, as someone who’s grown up all over the place, alternate lifetimes are more non-fiction than fiction. But, like I wrote in August, the idea of dropping everything and starting over isn’t foreign to me: it’s actually the siren call of my entire life. The promise of being able to start over and control which friends I make, where I live, and what I do, is alluring to me.
Currahee has seen many revisions, and throughout the drafts I’ve realized that Jacob may be a main character, but he’s not the main character. This is a book about Jessica. And Jessica, I realized partway through the third draft, is actually me.
I don’t mean that Jessica is literally me. I’ve never worked at a quick lube shop or lived in a single-wide or, for that matter, grown up in the same town I was born in. Though we check in with Jessica at the end of her time in Currahee, she is Currahee born-and-bred (something that Jacob is not). And yet, we have one basic commonality: we’re control freaks.
As it’s evolved, this novel has grown into a story about control. Who controls our lives and what we do with them? This story is about Jessica leaning into her fear of the unknown.
Speaking of unknown, I’m in uncharted waters myself. I’ve never actually finished a novel in my lifetime, discounting the fantasy novel finished at age 12. Age 12 me was willing to say ‘this is done, this is good’ and leave a book aside. Publication wasn’t the goal — writing a book was. It didn’t matter whether it was a good book or not.
Currahee has a different goal. I’d like to see this published, in a volume that people can hold and buy at Barnes and Noble and smell and read and love. I want a publisher to take a chance on it because it will mean that someone other than me thinks there’s a story worth telling here. By that standard, self-publication would be a failure.
But it’s difficult to pronounce the book finished when I’m clearly not finished. I’ve seen growth in myself, evolution in these characters, and changes in my writing style as I’ve revised the book doggedly from 2016 onwards. By most counts this is the fourth or fifth major draft of this book, and huge swathes of it have changed and been rewritten.
Most lately, I have seven new chapters at the end of the book that are basically rough drafts. They need revision badly: for style, for tone, and especially for pacing. The plot is in a better place than its ever been, but the second half is rough and unpolished, same as the 2020 draft was.
This is going to happen. This story is going to happen.— November 19, 2020
“The progress of this novel feels so halting at times. The second draft is rounding into shape, and it’s a lot better. There’s still a lot of it waiting to be drafted, and even more of it that will need to be revised and cut and revised again after I’ve drafted.”— November 20, 2020
With a complete rough draft, I’ve lost some motivation to revise. I had hoped to have a revised manuscript finished by the end of December, but the sorts of revisions I’m making don’t feel extensive enough. I hate the chapters and feel rather too close to them. With family in town, and the holidays, maybe it’s best to let things stew and simmer for a month, and then pick it back up.
When the book is finished (a nebulous pronouncement that I’m not sure if I will have the heart to make, even after revising the troublesome seven chapters), my plan is to seek publication with Rabbit Room Press, failing that, I’ll look for a literary agent and strike out on a brand new journey.
After (if?) Currahee reaches publication, there are two more books set in the same universe of Chegralohi. One of them, Tugaloo is half-drafted and has my typical problems of an incomplete plot. The other, Tagawahi, is a list of hazy ideas hastily jotted down one night two years ago. My bookshelf of research on Northeast Georgia, its landmarks, the Cherokee people, and time travel slowly grows, volume by volume.
What’s the goal? To hold all three books, bound and thus affirmed by someone other than me. To say, “I made that.” And, at the end, to be done with it all. When all three books are done, published or otherwise, I will also be done. Not forever, but for a while.
Who knows? Maybe the next book will come in a new dream, or I’ll finish two of the other story ideas that also came from dreams.
“Story isn’t imposed on our lives; it invites us into its life. As we enter and imaginatively participate, we find ourselves in a more spacious, freer, and more coherent world….Story is the primary means we have for learning what the world is, and what it means to be a human being in it. No wonder that from the time we acquire the mere rudiments of language, we demand stories.”—Euguene Peterson