Anatomy of a Story

A few years ago I told a story at Story Oly, Olympia’s monthly story slam, about my adventures and misadventures while hitchhiking to New York from Mississippi in 1973. Folks laughed a lot at the story, so I wrote it as a short story for Creative Colloquy and read it at a couple of their events. And then about a year ago I decided it might be the kernel of a novel. Could I expand the story from 1,500 words to around 100,000 without making it burdensome, bloated and boring?

For starters, I knew I had to delve into the reason for hitching to NYC. I’d have to get into the characters’ heads. I decided the breakup of a romance would be motivation. The main character (no longer me, I decided to call him Jimmy) would have to feel like there was nothing left for him at home after his girlfriend dumped him. I also decided that I didn’t want to set it in 1973. Too many of my books have been set in the fifties, sixties and seventies. What if I moved the starting point from Mississippi in the seventies to New Orleans in the present? That would add a little distance to allow for more adventures, and the contemporary time period would lend it immediacy.

Ah ha! It was beginning to percolate. And then there’s the girlfriend. Who is she? What’s she like? I could make her a contemporary chick, strong, adventurous. There’s a group on Facebook called women who say fuck a lot. Or there used to be, I haven’t seen anything from them in a while, maybe they got booted off by the FB censors. Anyway, I thought the girlfriend could be one of those. Outlandish, in-your-face, a woman who doesn’t put up with shit from anybody. I’m starting to like it right about now.

And then I thought: what if Jimmy the protagonist is just the opposite. Somewhat shy, polite, not normally willing to take chances, but this one time he dives right into the deep end.

And then I came up with a kind of outline. Jimmy—he works in a bookstore in the French Quarter—falls in love with the most unlikely mate imaginable, Deborah, a burlesque performer in a strip club on Bourbon Street. Miraculously, to Jimmy, she falls in love with him too. She’s attracted to his sweetness and intelligence. See, there’s much more to her than being a burlesque performer. She was an English major at Tulane, and she has studied ballet and modern dance. But she grew up poor, and she wants to escape to a better life. And when Bryce, a rich businessman from Dallas, comes into her life, she sees him as her ticket to a better life. She drops Jimmy and takes off to Dallas with Bryce—regretting her decision almost the moment she leaves New Orleans. And it is only after she leaves that Jimmy, who has secretly longed to be an actor since childhood, decides to head to New York and see if he can make it on Broadway.

That’s the heart of the story. He goes his way and she goes her way, and they both want more than anything else to get back together again (although they can’t admit it even to themselves). Naturally there will be all kinds of roadblocks, temptations and adventures along the way.

My final decision before starting to write was how to structure the book and who will narrate it. I decided on a series of alternating scenes with Deborah and Jimmy each telling their story in their own voice.

I started writing it almost a year ago. This summer I got bogged down and began to wonder if it was worth pursuing. I quit working on it for two or three months and then started back about a month ago. I have now written 90 pages, 29,000 words, and I’m still not sure if it’s going to be a novel. It’s beginning to look like it’s too big for a novella, but I don’t know if there’s going to be enough for a novel. Just a few weeks ago I was ready to give it up, but now it seems to be going pretty good. We shall see.

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