February 7th, 2007
It's always interesting to me, how long it takes for a story to move from concept to completion to (maybe... hopefully...) publication. In my case, at least, the process is rarely straight-forward. For example, yesterday, just foolin' around, I used my Powell's blog entry to write a new short story, "You Have An Instant Message from Ted Bundy In Hell." But I didn't really start that short story yesterday. I started it four years ago, when I had the idea for the title. And that's about all I had... that, and a vague notion that it would be fun to write about dead people using the Internet for diabolical purposes.
Now yesterday's story isn't bad for what it is — the roughest of rough drafts — but right now what's there is more like raw ingredients than stew. In first draft, it's still hard to tell how the thing might taste when properly prepared. Normally I'd let it sit a couple weeks, wouldn't even look at it until I had a while to work up some new ideas and get some distance from it. But we don't have time for that, so just at a glance, here are a few of the things I'd want to do if I was going to revise "You Have An Instant Message From Ted Bundy In Hell."
I'd start with that title. The title may have been the first thing to come to me, but there's no reason to hold onto it now. It doesn't mean anything and it may actually do a disservice to the narrative that follows, since it sets you up to expect a cameo from the Dead Tedster, and you don't get it.
How about just "Hell Goes Online"?
I like that title better. It appeals to the ear and the curious imagination. More than that, though, it gets the subject of the story right up front. It's always a good idea to introduce the concept, or the threat, as early as possible... in the first page, the first paragraph, or even the title, as Peter Benchley did with Jaws, or Shirley Jackson with The Haunting Of Hill House. Because time is short, and the reader has things to do.
And my narrator's voice is bad. I did the laziest thing, and gave my narrator that valley-girl-at-the-shopping-mall voice that we've all heard a thousand times. In his collection, Smoke and Mirrors, Neil Gaiman has a story, hardly longer than this one, titled "When We Went To See The End of the World by Dawnie Morningside, age 11 Â¼". I've never forgotten the icy delicacy of the narrator's voice, a sensible little girl with a good head for facts, a kid who has committed her father's recipe for potato salad to memory. She's both utterly familiar, and completely fresh at the same time. For me, as a reader and a writer, a clever concept is never good enough. What I really want is to feel that shock of emotional connection between myself and someone who exists only on the page.
Also: this piece is supposed to be funny. For me, the goal with "Hell Online" is to do in words something like what Charles Addams used to do in a single illustration in his cartoons for the New Yorker. Or maybe referencing the New Yorker is shooting a little high. Let's think a gag from Mad magazine instead. And since this is a story that ends with a guy being force-fed leathery devil maggots, the key word really is "gag."
But is it funny? I dunno. I don't know what works and what doesn't. I'm too close. So here's the part where I turn to one of my trusted readers — my editor at William Morrow, my wife, my parents, people who will tell me the truth, even if the truth isn't very nice — and begin a process of market-testing. Every line has to prove it belongs. If it doesn't tell us something essential about the narrator, or get a laugh, or create some emotional resonance, it's dead weight, and it's gotta go.
So how many drafts does it take to make something like this — or any other short story — respectable? "Hell Online" probably doesn't have too high a ceiling, so doing eleven drafts — as suggested by Chris Offutt in an essay that serves as the title story for a notable book of writing advice — is probably going too far. In other cases, even eleven drafts isn't enough.
I wrote a story called "Pop Art," about the friendship between a hoodlum and an inflatable boy, Arthur Roth, a kid made out of plastic and filled with air, who could be killed if he so much as sat down on a pencil. I spent a month on it when I was 27, working through three or four drafts, and then submitted it to an anthology of Jewish magic realism, With Signs and Wonders.
The editor, Dan Jaffe, liked the characters and the idea... but found the narrative thin. He wanted more and better. He wanted to know about Art's family, what Art and his best friend talked about when they were together, how the two boys met. All that summer I rewrote the story. Every time I sent Dan a fresh draft, he said it was better; and every time he had a new round of requests, suggestions, questions. By late July I was sick of Art, sick of the narrator, sick of my story, and sick of Dan Jaffe. That was about the time he sent me a letter saying he'd love to have "Pop Art" for his anthology. Now I think that story is one of the best things I've ever written. So there's no such thing as rewriting too much, right?
Years ago, I took part in a contest hosted by McSweeney's. Authors were challenged to write a story in twenty minutes or less, and McSweeney's would publish the best piece of work produced. So I sat down with a stopwatch and wrote a story in 19 minutes, 47 seconds, about long-gone trees returning to haunt the places they had once stood. It was short, maybe just 400 words, and while it had some rough edges, I liked its tone, which was both macabre and oddly clinical. It began:
"It has been argued even trees may appear as ghosts. Reports of such manifestations are common in the literature of parapsychology..."
I submitted it to McSweeney's — and didn't win. Or place in the top ten. Or top fifty.
But I liked that story, and my wife liked it, and I thought maybe someone else might want it, if I did a little more work on it. So I sat and revised. And revised. I did a second draft, a third. I added scenes, I took them out. A fifth draft. A seventh. Finally, after working on my 400-word story for most of a week and a half, I felt it was perfect, that every sentence had been polished to a high shine. You could hang those sentences from your throat and make a necklace out of them, that's what a pack of gems they were.
Quivering with pride, I brought the story, in eighth draft, to my wife, for her to admire.
Five minutes later she handed it back to me. "What in God's name did you do to it? It used to be good."
The version I eventually sold was exactly the same as my first draft. The one I wrote in twenty minutes. I was paid ten dollars. I bought a plant with it.
Which got some kind of rot and died.
Some stories are just more fortunate than others.
Books mentioned in this post
Joe Hill is the author of Heart-Shaped Box: A Novel