One of the premium rewards at my Patreon is DRAFT BY DRAFT: ONE SHORT STORY FROM CONCEPT TO COMPLETION, a nonfiction textbook on creative writing in which I walk draft-by-draft through the process of writing my short story “EXPLOSIONS.” I explain every single significant alteration: imagine a 50,000-word case study on a 5000-word short story. Delving deep into the process of writing one single story gives powerful examples of how to write and edit overall, with ultra-specific examples that reveal grander principles for the writer at work. Here is the second section, which covers developing the idea and starting to write. I posted the Introduction last week.
Developing the Idea and Starting to Write
The idea for “Explosions” arose, as ideas often do, from reading.
James Wood begins his book How Fiction Works with the following passage:
“The house of fiction has many windows, but only two or three doors. I can tell a story in the third person or in the first person, and perhaps in the second person singular, or in the first person plural, thought successful examples of these latter two are rare indeed. . . . In reality, we are stuck with third- and first-person narration.”
I couldn’t help but read these lines as a challenge. “Explosions” began, basically, by picking an imaginary mind-fight with some guy who wrote some book I was reading, a man who will never become aware of my existence or our feud.
I had read a number of second-person stories, but I had to agree with Wood’s assessment that few of them were particularly impressive. Why not? What are the problems that arise when writing in the second person?
For me, the most serious flaw is the lack of excitement, of the kind of immediacy you can feel in other forms of narration. Although the point of the second person is to “grab” the reader, by addressing her directly, the “you” address often operates to distance the reader. The results are akin to prose-poetry: a voice speaking broadly and meditatively to this imagined reader, not a visceral grasping for his throat.
The generality of the imagined “you,” often approached in this broad sense by an author anxious for any number of disparate reading “yous” to see themselves reflected in the pronoun, seemed the likely culprit.
So, I decided, I would write a short story where my “you” was a specific person addressed as “you” but otherwise sharing the narrowness of qualities that we find in a “regular” fictional character.
Something I do immediately, once I start to consider an idea, is conduct research. Sometimes, I research particular factual matters: if I want to set a story on Mars, I’ll go find some articles on Mars. More important to me, though, is trying to find literary examples. I look for stories that either make use of a similar idea or the same stylistic approach that I’m considering.
Since I don’t have a story idea yet, my initial research is into examples of second-person narrative. More narrowly, I want to find other examples of engaging and sustained use of the second person, which don’t lapse into prose-poetry or abstract meditation.
The best example I find is a metafictional short story by David Arnason called “A Girl’s Story,” which begins like this: “You’ve wondered what it would be like to be a character in a story, to sort of slip out of your ordinary self and into some other character. Well, I’m offering you the opportunity.”
Arnason is a criminally underrated and almost unknown writer (beyond the borders of Manitoba, where he looms large). I love this story, especially how Arnason handles the metafictional intrusions with an elegant touch. (I highly recommended There Can Never be Enough: New and Selected Stories.)
However, while I am sure I will wind the story into a metafiction (I don’t see how I can avoid it, writing in the second person, and I love metafictions), I want to shy away from saying “I” and speaking to the reader directly as an “I” addressing a “you.”
It just seems like the obvious thing to do, and I wonder if it’s to blame for this consistent problem I see in second-person narration. Maybe the “you” isn’t the problem at all — maybe the “I” speaking to “you” or their interaction is to blame. Regardless, I want to simplify the structure to focus on “you.”
Already, in this initial exploration, before I have fleshed out the idea, I’m starting to place limits on myself. Limits help the idea develop, like how the strict rhyme scheme of a sonnet helps you write. You aren’t staring at a blank page, you’ve got that rhyme scheme that you can mentally overlay onto the page, and writing becomes a process of problem-solving rather than forcing inspiration.
As you begin to investigate the avenues you might go down, it’s good to scrub some off the map — especially if they are too well-lit. In the city of fiction, you do better to find the darker, murker, more dangerous alleys. The well-trodden, litterless streets won’t take you anywhere interesting.
I want a novel-length example, of the kind Wood suggests would never work, even though I’m only writing a short story. I want to see how to sustain the second person for a long work — I will use some of the same tricks but condense the scope and hopefully also the energy.
I start writing before getting ahold of a good example, but during my revisions I find Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. The publisher, Riverhead, is a member of Penguin Group, so Hamid’s book explodes my assumption that second-person narration is unmarketable. Like most publishing “wisdom,” such assumptions are typically untested and oversubscribed.
Hamid uses the same technique I settled on — making the “you” a very specific character, like any other “normal” character, to counterbalance the oddity of the narrative style. My instinct was right.
The Story’s Opening
I still don’t know what my story will be about, but I am excited by the idea, so I’ll just start writing. You always discover things in the writing. You can never start writing too early — as long as you are willing to later throw away your writing.
Often, since I have so many ideas, I don’t start writing seriously until years after I get an idea, letting things percolate until then, so that my first drafts have more solidity. But with “Explosions” I feel, frankly, a little lost. I’m putting off starting. I’m getting “writer’s block” … but I know that writer’s block is a lie, it doesn’t exist, the “cure” is to just start writing, so I do.
I make a deal with myself that I often make: I’ll set a timer and just commit to doing a bad job. Maybe I don’t feel like I can produce a great story today, but I can write really badly for twenty minutes.
I don’t have a character, or a plot, or anything. I just know that I want to use the second person “you” and that I want the story to be engaging and exciting in a way these second-person narratives usually are not.
What to write?
I find it’s always best to make any vague notion concrete, no matter how absurd this turns out. My idea is to write a “you” story that is exciting. How?
Well, I know what Hollywood would do with a story that was barely there, when it wanted to add excitement. Plop in some explosions.
I’ll do that, and I’ll try to work in some acknowledgement of how ridiculous this all is, and how I’m kinda worried I can’t do this.
This is the moment I come up with my title, and my opening paragraphs. I’m actually parodying how writers are told to begin their stories, with an exciting first line (a “hook”).
First there is an EXPLOSION, and then another EXPLOSION! It’s the most exciting story of all time, and you’re reading it. Then you stop. All these explosions? A strong beginning, but the ending is sure to disappoint. But it won’t! And then there is another EXPLOSION.
The explosions are all in caps, when they happen at least. Of course they are. EXPLOSION! That one took you by surprise.
You put the story down. So far the author has offered a good deal of excitement, but little in the way of pathos or character development. Should you keep reading?
You keep reading. And happen upon another EXPLOSION. But this one is different. This one is filled with pathos. And the character, who explodes, leads a rich inner life.
That’s all I’ve got for now. But it’s a start.