Here, in honor of its recent republication, is a “Behind The Short Story” I wrote for “La Upsell.”
The short story is its own literary animal, a wholeness experienced in few words and on small bones. Some writers get a sunbeam and angel choir moment of inspiration. Others grit it out, go find the story. I’m somewhere in between those extremes.
Inspiration went something like this:
- I was writing a collection stories based in various French cities. I needed one for Paris.
- Hmmm, I think. I remembered our first Paris trip, in 2007, when my wife talked me into a bateau mouche ride. It was a bright spring day, and the scenery lived up to its reputation, as spectacular as I hope the story conveys.
- But that’s backdrop and travelogue. To make a story, I needed a human moment, and I found it in my wife getting shoved off the rail by an old Chinese woman so her tour guide could get a clear picture. Our bateau was so crowded up top that I wondered how might a boat company entice its riders into ever more comfortable (and pricey) seating. Just how absurd, I wondered, could I make it.
- Pace: it’s a river cruise. It needs to flow, to show accurately what’s out the window, and to turn as the boat does. The pace must roll with the Seine.
- So now I need a point of view (what became Will) and a character arc to fit the world of an impossible river cruise.
- The bateau being an absurdity, the point of view had to be an everyman. Humor is conflict too, generated by tectonic movements between the unlikely and the normal.
- Paris being for lovers, having him loveable but unloved provided better fodder than a couple. He became a father who lost his French wife (his past), presumptively to his career.
- Bateau rides being for tourists, I needed a reason for a guy alone to get on the boat (his re-discovery of Paris tracks the rebirth of his stagnated life).
- Paris being a world city, who else would be there other than locals or tourists? Businessmen.
- I needed an ending. And like always, I lacked a complete idea. I only had Will on a bateau.
ENTER THE TICKET BOOTH GUY (TBG)
TGB came to me simultaneously with the boat ride idea. Someone after all needed to do the upselling. Short stories don’t stick long with the reader, but in my experience the great characters live on in the writer’s head. And he’s still in mine when I think about this story. He is Paris, occupationally and metaphorically, and a great antagonist in the Greek sense, not evil but working an agenda contrary to our hero.
Still, I struggled to put words to his motive. I could have him sell Will into ever more exclusive seating ad infinitum, and the result would have been crap. Better to limit the pitches to three or four, with escalating conflict each time. I wrote the first 1,500 words on a TGV from Avignon to Paris, using a guy across the aisle as a loose model for TBG, with one guy selling another guy. And there I froze again.
For two months.
I’m not sure what broke the logjam. I was chasing other bubbles of inspiration, letting this simmer and reduce my thoughts to good options. At some point I realized Will’s arc would only bend to a happy ending if TBG bent it. So I spent time in TGB’s head, revisiting what made him want what he wants. And it was the same thing as Will – he was alone in a city famed for romance, every day selling someone else the slice of fulfillment he wanted most. At his core, TGB was selling Will not on Paris but on TGB.
So I put opposing goals in play for both TGB and Will. In the Europop club of Will’s private seating, I plopped Camille the Provencal beauty (renewed love) that Will could have only by shaking free of the sales pitches. Camille is never fleshed out, but then that’s not why she’s at window staring out at Paris. She’s the future, not the present, and only thanks to TBG, he grabs it.
WRITING IS REWRITING
Like all first drafts, it stunk. I wrote it again. And again. And again. And when the prose matched the idea, I had Writer’s Digest critique it. They gave me gold, and I rewrote some more. And more still.
I include this last part not to scare aspiring writers. But the picture would be woefully incomplete without also admitting stories and characters are realized only through damn hard work. Will didn’t get his voice on Draft Two. The TBG didn’t foreshadow his intentions on Draft Four. Paris didn’t have the river details right on Draft Six. I didn’t start to hate it – the sign of being close – until many drafts thereafter.
So “La Upsell,” from personal image to broader tale of redemption. For anybody out there, I hope this helps your own inspirations and ideas. Trust me: writing is so worth the ride.