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  • Joshua Britton

The Evolution of a Story

My writing process has varied greatly from story to story. Sometimes I have great success with writing a full first draft in one sitting, and the final published version of that story doesn’t end up all that different from the initial rough drafts. But I’ve also written completed an initial draft before deciding it’s really not that good or interesting, only to revisit it a year or more later and deciding that it has promise after all (“Befriending the Scum of the Earth” was like that, which people now seem to consider it one of my best). Other stories I’ve waffled between first- and third-person narratives, or past and present tense, sometimes fluctuation paragraph to paragraph, unable to decide. (I also tried hard to write a recently published story, “The Jam,” in the first-person-plural, but it wasn’t happening and I gave up in favor of a third person narrative.) Another story I started maybe ten years ago, and while it’s still not done I continue to revisit it to try to flush things out; the premise, setting, and characters are dear to me even if it hasn’t all gelled yet.

Nearly fourteen years ago I began spending several years and thousands of hours writing what was supposed to be my first novel. But after several months of working on that, I simultaneously began working on what I intended to be my second novel, a very different novel, a camping story set in the Adirondacks of New York. I remember brainstorming ideas for it on long drives to and from gigs, writing in the car—notebook on the passenger seat, left hand still on the steering wheel—what I thought were brilliant speeches and inner dialogue, only to have trouble deciphering later on what I’d written.

One of my early ideas was to model it loosely after Native Son, by Richard Wright. Wright had divided Native Son into three sections: “Fate,” “Flight,” and “Future.” I planned to divide my novel into three sections: “Flight,” “Fate,” and “Future.” My story had nothing do with racism, and, other than these titles, the only other actual similarity between Native Son and what I wanted to write was the burning of a body to cover up a killing. Wright’s killing, if I remember correctly, happened during “Fate,” the first section, while mine wasn’t going to happen until the very beginning of “Future,” the third section.

 What else? Just like with some of my short stories I couldn’t decide whether to write in the first person or third person. Writing in the first person came, and still comes, very naturally to me; that first novel was in the first person. But if something is written in first person, it’s usually assumed that the narrator is going to live (with some exceptions, of course) and therefore some of the suspense is taken out of it.

And, as for backstory, why had my character fled for the woods, to an island in a remote lake only accessible by foot, where nobody could find him? I’d written two very different versions of the deterioration of his marriage, his failure as a father, and his disgraced dismissal from his career.

And then finally I debated whether to tell it linearly or non.

At some point I finished that first novel and stopped working on the “camping” novel in favor of a third novel, similar in style to the first but frankly way better. I poured my heart and soul into that one, even more than the first, though, like the first, I doubt anyone will ever read it.

But I’d continued to think about the camping story here and there, which I’d long ago decided to call “Monarch Lake.” Without looking at any of the three or four documents I’d had saved on my computer, each of which contained several thousand words I at one time felt confident would make it into the final full-length draft, I decided it would work better as a novella, or even as something shorter.

The motivation to accomplish this came with a call for submissions to the second volume of Tickets to Midnight, which sought poetry and fiction in the “smut” and “horror” categories. I thought of “Monarch Lake” as having horror characteristics along the lines of Stephen King’s Misery and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. Smutty? Not really. Though I’d never tried to write it, I was once intent on including a pivotal rape scene, but during this attempt at completing a draft I officially decided to leave it out. Still, I felt it was suspenseful enough, and bloody and gory enough, to qualify. Thankfully, the fine editors at Tickets to Midnight agreed.

“Monarch Lake” is the second longest story I’ve had published, after my stand-alone Heart Decisions (and is by far the longest piece in Tickets to Midnight, for which there is more gratitude to the editors). When I was reading through the proofs, I identified spots in the story I might expand if I republish it someday in a collection of my stories; for instance, I left out almost all of the backstory; I can easily see it twice as long. And while the story is told non-linearly now, in part to get to the blood and gore faster but also because I really like the imagery of that first scene, I’m wondering if I’ll recut it later into a linear narrative. I don’t know.

But here it is, twelve or thirteen years after its initial conception, “Monarch Lake,” in the new volume of Tickets to Midnight, which you can purchase here: Tickets to Midnight: Vol 2 It's Human!

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