This week I’m going to pick up where I left off two weeks ago. In that post, I began with an idea, showed how I developed it into an initial and potentially workable story concept, and created the main character. I also picked the viewpoint (third person) and the tense (past).
I’m sure that some of you who read the opening probably yawned at it or at least said “This isn’t very good.” And you’re right to have done so. It’s not the most engaging of openings.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with continuing the story at this point to complete a rough first draft to start revisions from. I’ve heard a lot of writing advice that says to do this and to worry about polishing it later. Many writers like to work this way. I don’t. If a story doesn’t grab or excite me, how can I expect it to do grab a reader? If I’m going to finish this story, I want to feel good about it from the beginning.
I should point out that I have the benefit of 20:20 hindsight on this story because I have a finished version to look back from. I should also point out that I never wrote it in third person. I started it in first person. So why did I change it to third for this blog? I wanted you to begin with the standard form of most stories, to try it out, before you decided to experiment.
I contend that choosing the right viewpoint, tense, and voice are THE MOST IMPORTANT aspects of any story–possibly even more important than the idea itself. The most brilliant idea can fall flat and fail if poorly executed, and a so-so idea can be made to sparkle with the proper application of these aspects of good story craft.
When it comes to short stories, it’s much easier to experiment because you don’t have all that much to revise. With a longer work, if you decide to change the person from third to first or to change from past tense to present tense, you’re going to have a LOT of work on your hands and many chances to mess up the “conversion.”
People will argue with me on this, but I strongly believe that it pays to try to get things right from the beginning for at least two reasons. One, it will mean less work during revisions; two, a well-begun story tends to be easier to write. And there’s a third reason: If you do it right from the beginning, you’ll likely feel better about it and put more effort into writing a successful piece. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered a writer with an unmarketable, “finished” novel and when told this becomes totally discouraged at the thought of having to rewrite all of it. The writer may give up or try to sell it or will self-publish it in its current form. Then he wonders why no one is buying it.
So, let’s go back to “Jury Duty” and reexamine the opening before we attempt to continue with it.
Here’s the opening in first person (with an error corrected–“caused her to bumped” to “caused her to bump”).
I stared at the computer-printed, tear-open-here, official notice. “Not even a regular envelope,” I grumbled. “A college grad joins your fine community, does his civic duty by registering to vote, and this is how you thank him.” I read the notice with disgust: Jury duty. Thursday, February 29, 1996, 9 A.M. at the Town Hall.
A dozen imaginative imprecations flung themselves from my lips. Jury duty for the Town? The only thing that stopped my youthful impetuosity from ripping up the notice was a longstanding desire to sit on a jury and proclaim a scumbag defendant microwave-able.
Fat chance I had this time. A Town didn’t try major societal trash. Murderers, rapists, and child molesters would be shipped off to the County or City courts. Probably get nothing lower than a shoplifter in Town court. Speaking of which, whatever happened to the good old days when fingers and hands got severed for pickpocketing and petty thievery. With my luck I’d get put on a civil suit of an eighty-year-old granny suing some discount store because the flashing red light of the red-light special temporarily blinded her and caused her to bump into the too-sharp corner of a display counter.
Minute hope lingered with that thought. We could find in favor of the granny, award her a huge sum in damages, and blissfully watch the store fold. Going-out-of business sales are great dollar stretchers for the newly employed living in an unfurnished apartment.
At this point, speculation was useless. I figured my chances of winning the state lottery were better than my sitting on the jury for a major offender. Maybe this was an omen that I should buy a lottery ticket today.
I marked my calendar. Didn’t want the police coming after me for dereliction of duty. Jail was not where I wanted to be loved by my fellow man.
Better? I think so. This puts the reader closer to the main character. Keep in mind that this was an early draft of the story. It still needs work because in this version, the main character is not identified by name. We’ll fix that up later, and we’ll also update the story to a more modern setting since I originally set it in the mid-1990s.
As a side note, you might not think that you’d ever have to bother with updating a story. Here’s why. Let’s say you wrote a story a while back and never had it published, as I did with this one. Our world is changing so fast that a story set just a few years back may need some updating on certain technology details (like types of cell phones, tablets, e-readers, etc.). And if you used any current events (such as the current President of the US or leaders of other countries), you’ll need to update. Let’s just say that if you wrote a novel ten years ago (unless it was already set in a particular historical period prior to that time), you’ll need to make some changes if you want to bring it up to date.
Meanwhile, let’s go into the next scene of “Jury Duty.” At this point, the story has been set up and the reader has been given some hints of interesting stuff to come. In the next scene, it’s the day of David’s jury duty. Here’s where I used the notes I took during my own summons to jury duty–along with some made-up details and side comments based on David’s personality and attitude.
Eight fifty-one on the fateful morning. Cold and overcast, bad sign. I strolled into the Town Hall with a library copy of Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad tucked under my arm. Having been warned by a friend that I should take along plenty of reading material, I’d picked it up out of my fondness for Old Sam. When I discovered the perfect marginal comment penned in the preface, I knew I had made the right choice. Twain had begun, “This book is a record of a pleasure trip.” The anonymous scribbler had added, “but the real pleasures have been censored out.” I decided that Dickens’ Great Expectations, my second choice, having been devoid of riveting marginalia, was too heady and too optimistic for the occasion. So, I let Mark Twain set the tone for today’s excursion.
At the clerk’s window I submitted my jury summons. “Down the hall, to the end, and turn right.” The lady’s voice had at least two decades of practice behind it, and her glucose-laden smile was enough to give a person diabetes. But I’d come totally prepared. I popped a sourball into my mouth and followed her directions to disappointment and despair.
I took an aisle seat in the next-to-last row of cold, gray-brown, metal folding chairs. Luckily, I wasn’t wearing thin, slippery slacks. The seating puzzled me for a moment. I knew that church pews were purposefully made uncomfortable to keep the clientele awake. I quickly decided that these chairs were cheap, easy to move, and wouldn’t collapse under a wide load.
I perused the room. The wooden jury chairs were straight-backed and unpadded. No wonder prosecutors found it easy to make a jury squirm. At the front of the room, atop an unadorned dais, stood the impressive mahogany Bench with three tall swivel chairs behind it. I knew those were covered in supple, butt-caressing leather.
The judicial decor in the front offset the recreation-hall trappings and utility tile floor throughout the rest of the room, attesting to the room’s alternate purpose. A faint hum emanating from two long rows of fluorescent lights broke the pervasive silence. The rear door to the rec-room cum courtroom was open. Through it came periodic switchboard beeps and the muffled voices of Town employees pretending to earn their pay.
A fascinating collection of dysfunctional miscellanea garnished the courtroom. Three rows up a pretend blonde in a tight skirt silently chewed her cud, regular gum or she’d have been snapping bubbles every fifteen seconds.
One row up on the far right sat a man, probably twenties like myself, wearing wire-rimmed glasses. A shadow ringed his mouth. His left leg rested across his right knee. Generic black and white sneakers, blue denim shirt, obnoxious tie (probably a gag gift and the only one he owned), and a black down-filled vest. Typical minimum-wage grunt whose idea of entertainment is drinking beer in front of the TV. He hadn’t bothered removing his vest. Since it wasn’t that cold in here, did he know something I didn’t?
On the far side of the room, away from everyone else, sat The Guy: a snug tank top and stretch jeans, military haircut, earring in the right ear, and a how-about-you-and-me-afterwards stare.
Across the center aisle, in the same row as me, a lady with permed, graying hair turned the next page of her inch-thick romance novel. She smiled occasionally. Vicarious sex.
Only the gray buzz cut, flannel shirt and khaki workpants flipping through a sportsman’s magazine held any promise of assisting me in seeing justice served. With the insipid and jejune thus arrayed before me, I knew that my advance preparation had been insufficient. I hadn’t put on any deodorant this morning. I figured that by the time we got into the jury room, the aroma of depravity and guilt swirling around me would make it easy to sway them to my point of view.
In this scene we’ve filled in the setting, fleshed out the character some more, and completed the set up. We’re set to launch into the main part of the story.
Next time, we have another guest blog related to this topic. For those of you who like to write romance fiction, Sherri Ellerman will be talking about her thoughts on that topic and the elements that every good romance should contain. After that, I’ll be back to finish the first draft of “Jury Duty.” In successive installments, we’ll take that rough draft, update it, examine it for problems and impact, and polish it into a final story perhaps fit for publication.
I make no claims that the final result will be a stunning piece of literary genius, only that it will be a decent, possibly enjoyable, story free of rough spots.
We will also examine some other variations for telling this story, such as first person, present tense and second person, present tense.