In addition to the joy of getting to read so many great short stories for free, one of the things I like about being an editor at Electric Spec is that I feel like, quarter to quarter, I have a window into the zeitgeist of the collective consciousness of aspiring speculative fiction writers.
This manifests itself in themes that emerge from the slush. I know there is a high chance that these themes are coincidence only. Certainly I have never invested the time in documenting themes by quarter to validate if my impressions are real or just bias. But whether it's true or not, I am convinced that Chance's shuffling of the deck often deals me what feels like an outsize proportion of stories related to one subject, quarter by quarter. We deal in a broad range of speculative fiction here at Electric Spec, so the themes vary widely: spiders one quarter, body parts another, ghosts, dragons, robots turning on their human overlords -- you name it, there has likely been a theme on it.
This quarter, I ended up with a slug of submissions all in second person. The "you" stories:
You walk into the entry of your house. You set your keys on the table. Something moves in the living room and you freeze. No one else should be home.
Or, they are first person but really just a one-sided conversation:
What's that you say? You want to buy a dragon? Well, you haven't got the guts for it, I say!
Sometimes these show up as letters to "you". I call these "Dear Mom" letters, though they can be addressed to almost anyone:
My love, I mark these last words on the silver sheen of my transport's floor, using my own blood, to convey to you all that went wrong before the crash.
A related category of You stories are really more like instruction manuals:
- First you strap on the jet pack
- Then you pull the string
Invariably, the concept of all of these stories is really interesting. I can't bring up examples without calling people out in a way they would immediately recognize, and that's not fair, but suffice it to say, I often reject those stories with a bit of regret because the spec fic angle is interesting and usually pretty unique. But the storytelling gets in the way of exploring the topic.
Here are two main things that I see go wrong:
Description falls away, because you're not writing in real time -- in media res or very close to it. The story becomes a talking head, and you have no room to add descriptive narration because you have now cast your story in a form that is really more just dialogue presented in a narrative format. It gets repetitive too, like the one-sided conversation, where, in order to get the You person's dialogue into the story, the character has to appear deaf or inattentive: "What's that you say? You want to buy a dragon?"
The opportunity to move into the POV character is much harder to achieve.
Here's my response to the first kind of You stories:
You walk into the entry of your house. Oh yeah? How do you know what I did? I don't use the front entry of my house -- I only use the garage entrance.
You set your keys on the table. What table? I don't have a table by my front entrance. What kind of table is it, anyway -- oh wait, there's no room for that because if you're forcing me into this You POV, then I would already know exactly what kind of table it would be, wouldn't I? It would be breaking POV to describe the table, but my ability to be inside that POV character's mind is already shot because we're two sentences in and here I am arguing with you about whether or not I would actually do any of these things that you're telling me I'm doing.
The Point of Storytelling
To the authors who submit the instruction manual stories: when has it ever been exciting to read an instruction manual? Even with the most powerful and engaging voice ever invented in fiction writing, you're already struggling to get up a big hill to hook a reader. The saying goes that someone with a beautiful voice "could read the phone book and still get an audience" -- sure, because you just need an excuse to listen to the voice, not because the content conveys any real meaning.
One exception might be Neil Gaiman's "Instructions", a poem in second person. However, I would like to point out that it is a poem, not a story. It's there to evoke a feeling, not take a reader on a journey. I might argue that the poem itself is about the hero's journey, but again, at more of an emotional level than full engagement of the imagination and senses as you would in a narrative.
A story is all about meaning. It is about taking a theme and emotionally engaging a reader so that when they get to the end, they have internalized that theme. You have touched them in a way that hopefully stays with them forever. When I think of books, I think of the line from the LOTR: Two Towers movie: Some of these were my friends!
Books -- stories -- got me through some of the darkest times in my life, by letting me escape my world, even for a brief time. Any author should be aspiring to achieve that level of meaning in a reader's life. But you do that through the hero's journey or some other construct of embedding the reader so deeply into the main character's transformation that they take that transformation with them into the real world. That doesn't have to be tragedy -- comedy can achieve the same effect. It's all just a different side of a many-sided coin.
If you prevent a reader from engaging with the main character at this level, then the transformation has not been achieved. "You" does not create intimacy. It creates distance, a gap that voice or concept really struggle to close. I'm not saying it can't be done -- I'm sure there are examples out there that have overcome this gap. But they are very rare unicorns of fiction, and probably not going to be discovered by little ole me at little ole Electric Spec.
Make your stories deeper and more engaging! Make them about "me" or a him or her that is so fabulous I want to be them -- I want to move into their mind and make myself at home. That is how transformation is achieved.
Finally, I want to note that you could argue that this article is written in second person. Here I am, talking directly to you. I appreciate the irony, but I would also argue that it underscores my point. I'm not trying to tell you a story here. I'm not trying to take you on a transformation journey that will mark your soul for all time.
I'm trying to convey advice. That's a totally different circumstance than storytelling. Stephen King, one of the greatest storytellers of our generation (and I would argue beyond) once followed up all of his stories with "Dear Reader" letters that were really the same thing as I'm doing here -- speaking in an intimate way to an unknown number of a mass audience. My audience is a lot smaller than his, guaranteed! But it serves a purpose -- and not a storytelling one. I mean, really -- who voluntarily reads an instruction manual? Who wants to find out what happens to someone who starts a "Dear Mom" story already dead? Who wants to spend the length of a story arguing with the narrator?
As far as I can tell, no one. So, my advice to you: if you have a great idea and you're struggling to put it to pages, don't fall back on "you". It's not as clever as you think it is. In fact, it's terribly limiting. If that's all you've got, marinate on it longer. Don't give in to "you". Write a real character I can get behind (or climb into) and use the story to transform that character in such a powerful way that I can't help but carry that with me for the rest of my days. You do that, and you won't be submitting to Electric Spec for very long -- you'll be on your way to the big time, for sure.
Very interesting! Thanks, Nikki!