The Book Is The Boss of You: Using Second Person To Get To The Heart of Your Story
In my bedroom there’s a shelf filled with journals. Some are leather, supple and glowing. Others are faded prints. One is an unfortunate DIY project involving a pair of corduroy pants and a glue gun. Another has that Footprints anecdote – you know the one, where there’s only one set of footprints because Jesus was carrying you all along. The oldest is plastic and has hearts in primary colors scattered across the front with the word Diary. I started writing in it—my first journal—in Kindergarten. I have journals for every year of my life through my freshman year of college. I never re-read them, but in order to write Bad Romance I had to read the ones that covered the time I was sixteen until I graduated from high school. Two and a half years—the worst of my life—which were spent with a beautiful boy who cried, who wore his heart on his sleeve, who made me simultaneously feel like the most important person in the world and no better than old gum on the bottom of a shoe from Payless.
Bad Romance is a novel, but it’s based on my life, on those years feeling hopelessly lost and in love and hurt to the very core of my being. It’s a survivor’s story where my main character, Grace, goes to the darkest place imaginable, then emerges into the light standing on her own two feet. She doesn’t need a knight in shining armor, she doesn’t need this boy who tells her she’s only worth something if he says so. But in order to get there, in order to write the book, I had to first begin it as a memoir. I spent my late nights pouring over my journals, reconnecting to the old Heather. It killed me, reading what I put up with, what I went through. It made me angry and so, so sad—and more fired up than ever to write this book.
I eventually turned the memoir into a novel, mostly because I felt like I couldn’t say everything I wanted to. There were people I had to protect, whether I wanted to or not. So I turned it into a novel, but the transition was harder than I expected it would be, and my editor was amazingly helpful during the process. I was having a hard time seeing Grace’s story because it was so intertwined with mine. I figured out my way in when I began writing the book in second person, almost as though it’s a letter to Gavin from Grace. This allowed me to just go for it, to put words to everything that had happened to me, and the things that are happening to girls all over the country right now. (One in three teens is affected by teen dating abuse and it was so important to me that these girls (and guys) knew they weren’t alone, and knew they could get out. The tumblr that I created for the book is a great resource with tons of info, encouragement, and inspiration—plus a kickass break-up playlist to pump up the readers who need to get out of their own bad romances).
The choice of POV ended up sticking: what was initially a writing experiment to get me into the heart of the story turned out to be the way the story wanted to be told. I’m a big believer in the story being the boss of you, and I think when you’re in flow and open you’ll feel which direction you need to go. You can’t impose a POV on a story. Second person wasn’t too challenging for me because it was really the only way this story could be told—at least by me. I think if I’d tried to impose second person, it wouldn’t have worked. I can’t think of a book in second person that has ever worked for me as a reader, so this was a real risk. A good little mind trick for me was really thinking of the book as epistolary as opposed to second person. The book isn’t actually a letter that my main character is writing to her boyfriend, but it would be if I just wrote “Dear Gavin” at the beginning of every chapter (which I don’t). So that worked for me. Side note: my favorite epistolary novel is the The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I actually re-read parts of that to get into letter-writing mode.
Another consideration with second is which tense to write it in. That is the subject of an entirely different post, but it will be the trickiest part of second person. I chose present, but it’s more like present tense with a retrospective twist. (Note: this was REALLY hard). My protagonist, Grace, informs Gavin (the boyfriend she’s narrating to in second person) that she doesn’t want to tell him their story from where they’re at right now in their relationship. She wants to tell it from their beginning. This was my way of letting the reader know that even though we’re in present tense, Grace has already experienced these things. I chose present because I wanted the reader to feel as though they’re going through Grace’s hellish experience as she’s experiencing it. I wanted them to feel her claustrophobia and powerlessness and fear and all the things she experiences in this relationship. I think it works, but I know that the retrospective element adds a layer to the narrative that might not work for everyone. But, again, the book is the boss so that’s how I wrote it.
I really didn’t want to write this book. It was not remotely fun, at all. But I think it’s vitally important – especially now – that we tell our stories. That we let our truth out, no matter how vulnerable it makes us. We can raise each other up, give each other strength. I think this is the power of literature, that we get to access this place of power through our empathy with characters—people we’ve never met. Stephen King once said that “Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” And he’s right. Though my memoir became a novel, it has just as much a chance of impacting those who read it because it is true. Pain and struggle is universal and the more we can show characters who triumph over darkness, the more light we let into our “real” world. Writing Bad Romance was incredibly cathartic, but, more than anything, I finally felt like there was a silver lining to what I went through. I can’t go back and change the past, but I can hopefully use what happened to me to change other people’s futures so that they can avoid some of the pain I experienced. Books are medicine. So if you’re feeling a tug to delve into your personal experiences for your next project, consider it as an offering to both you and your readers.
When Heather Demetrios isn’t traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, she lives with her husband in New York City. Originally from Los Angeles, she now calls the East Coast home. Heather has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real. Her critically acclaimed novels include Exquisite Captive, I’ll Meet You There, and Bad Romance. She is the editor of the forthcoming anthology of epistolary essays, Dear Heartbreak: YA Authors on the Dark Side of Love, which features letters from real teens. Find out more about Heather and her books at www.heatherdemetrios.com. Tweet to @HDemetrios.