How many times have I been amazed when the solution to a longstanding problem appears suddenly, all by itself? I suppose I’ll continue to be amazed, and continue to wonder why the solution is so obvious once it arrives that I wonder why it took so long to arrive.
My nonfiction death penalty WIP has been stalled for over a year in spite of my having a ton of research material, and knowing what topics I want to include. New insights keep coming, about what I want to say, but exactly how I need to say it has escaped me. I’ve made a certain amount of progress, eliminating completely any hint of scholarly objectivity, and giving more weight to what the condemned themselves have had to say than most books do. Death penalty literature runs mostly to fact-heavy arguments for or against, or collections of death row prisoner writing, with commentary by the editors. Neither is what I’m aiming for.
What I want to do is break the mold of writing about the death penalty, to reach into the emotional core of readers and move them in a way that hasn’t ever been done. I want it be the kind of book that makes readers tell their friends, “Here, you have to read this book.” That’s a pretty tall order, I know, and probably far beyond my ability to achieve. But I keep thinking that if I can find the right structure and tone, I can come close.
I have a pretty good grip on the structure, but it’s the tone that will make the difference, and that’s what has been escaping me. Until yesterday morning, when I woke up thinking about the book, and writing scenes in my head, all of which were in second person. I was addressing someone in the place of a prisoner, experiencing what it would be like to live for the rest of your life, however long that might be, in a tiny room made of cement and steel. “You are pacing this space for the first of thousands of times, becoming familiar with every inch of it, trying to imagine yourself never seeing the sky again, or being touched by another human being, except accidentally, as you’re put into restraints for the short trips — to the showers, to the cubicle in which you’ll look through bullet-proof glass at your visitors — if you have visitors — those trips that are the only part of the world you’ll experience outside your cell.”
I usually forget all those wonderful little bits by the time I’ve washed, dressed and fixed my first cup of tea. And usually, I don’t worry about it because there’s always more where that came from. But sometimes I forego all the getting-up rituals because what has been drifting through my sleep-fogged mind is too important to forget. Well, I did forget what I was addressing that person about, but not that I was addressing them, personally, as if I were talking to them. And that was it. That was the tone I was looking for. Not for the entire book, which could become wearisome, but interspersed with the quotes and my own commentary.
Second person isn’t used very much in fiction, and when I Googled it, I found that its most usual use is in instruction-type writing, or self-help books. When it is used in fiction, it’s meant to provoke an emotional response. “… second-person breaks the fourth wall on your work and results in your prose directly addressing and commanding the reader. This can have the problematic effect of popping your reader out of their suspended disbelief because it’s actively calling attention to them as a reader. It implies that the reader himself is the acting character of the prose.” “…at its most simple level, the second-person point of view serves as an invitation for the reader to come fully into a piece with all of their baggage, all of their expectations, and, for a moment, to become fully immersed as a character in the work.”
I was sure, as soon as I was aware of what I was doing, that it was the tone I needed. But it was good to learn more about second person POV and confirm that my instinct was right. And now that I know it, I wonder — why did it take so long?