I have been writing a story called “Crooked Lake” since 2017. I know this because I am an anal person who dates every draft version as a way to taunt myself – it’s nearly 2022, Erik, which makes this story nearly four full years old. Great work!
Maybe one day you’ll read it. That would be nice. I’ve submitted it to my writer’s group twice, in two vastly different forms, and their feedback plus my own evolving taste have helped me shape it into something that more closely resembles what I’d like it to be.
(As a quick aside: I’ve never felt more seen by a piece of writing advice than what George Saunders wrote in his 2021 craft treatise, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. In it he offers excellent and approachable commentary on indelible Russian stories, but one line really stands out to me: “To be a writer, I only need to read a specific sentence of mine, in its particular context, on a given day, pencil in hand, changing the sentence as it occurs to me to do so. Then do that again, over and over, until I’m pleased.” That sentence, to me, is so true. It’s why editing is so difficult – you’re never quite the same when you pick up the pen.)
And what I’d like it to be is a move even handed telling of the Hemingway “Hills Like White Elephants”. Aim big they say.
My first draft, written those many years ago over a succession of food court lunch breaks, is not quite that. Reading it again now, several drafts removed, it’s failings (or my taste for such things) are more obvious.
The story takes place over the course of a man’s afternoon kayak trip around an island in the middle of a lake. This is a lake at which he’s had many lovely memories over his life, but this trip he’s returned with his wife at a fraught moment in their relationship. I gave you the obvious hint a second ago, but my intent is to underplay their relationship’s source of rot while at the same time hinting aggressively at it during the man’s trip around the island. At first read, I’m hoping the reader’s pleasure will come from understanding what the rot is; on subsequent reads I’m hoping the man’s recognizing what to do will carry readers.
The First Read
These types of stories can work. They’re possible. The challenge is tapping into the right balance between giving and withholding information. And when I first reread my initial draft, too much was withheld.
We start with the man on his kayak. He’s grumpy but determined to reach “the southern edge of Oden Island.” To me, it’s a fine way to start a story: there’s a degree of mystery about what this man wants/what he’s doing but we’re also on the move. As a reader I think you’ll get that there’s more to learn, and because he is rowing his kayak you see that there will be narrative momentum as long as that’s true.
The initial problem, in my estimation, was that for the first two full pages (and into the top of the third, the first ~700 words) the man does nothing but row and consider the natural world in front of him. I elongate the mystery, which, ok, is not exactly a sin, but I do it without advancing any other part of the story. Yes, the man struggles to navigate the kayak because he’s a bit out of shape (and more relevant: out of touch with who he used to be here). But there I’m setting up for the reader a future when this poor paddler will find himself in maritime danger. That’s a set up with no payoff.
We get our first glimpse at the relationship that should tie the whole story together in the middle of page three. It’s brief. The man acknowledges he didn’t want to “disturb [his wife’s] peace”, whatever that means (I don’t say). From that phrasing we understand they must have interacted at some point earlier this day, but really this interaction is the story’s inciting incident and carries importance for the reader:
- What was the fight about?
- Do they often fight? Or never? Are these fights razor sharp? Passive aggressive?
- If we know what the fight is about (or how it played out), we start to build out a clearer picture of who is in the right/who we identify with.
I wanted to use this moment to its fullest effect, so in subsequent drafts I staged the fight. The topic of the fight isn’t obvious, but for the story showing how this particular fight happened provided enough grounding to get the story moving in an understandable way while I could continue to withhold the fuller story.
The last thing that stood out about this draft was the structure of the trip around the island. I had answered for myself why he wanted to go around it, but not what that would accomplish for him – a glaring omission. I knew logistically he would round the island in the darkness of night only to see she had left him no source of light with which to navigate home, but that was his wife’s decision, one made independently of any understanding he had made during his trip.
Instead, the draft stitches together several vignettes from the trip around the island: two dragonflies mating on his kayak, a woman fishing, finding a floating dock taken over by terns. In my mind these moments could simply exist in the story and the reader would intuit their linkage to my hidden agenda and they’d also illuminate how the man’s thinking had changed during the trip. I still think they can. What I realized, however, is that these moments were dramatically flat. They existed to show something rather than to build to something and that was their ultimate sin. By existing in the story they were important but I didn’t do a clear job explaining why.
There’s another great bit of writing advice Saunders offers in A Swim in a Pond. I’m paraphrasing, but the basic idea is that short stories should operate like candy factories. Every bit of equipment or work done in a candy factory serves one purpose: producing candy. There’s no wasted movement or expense, and a story should operate similarly.
A story that runs 3,000-7,000 words provides only a finite amount of space for you, the writer, to build a world, tell your tale, and make your point. Every word takes up previous real estate and signals to the reader all the wrong words you churned through to get to the right one.
In my review of “Crooked Lake”, I saw just how inefficiently I was using my real estate. I was allowing too many moments and scenes that didn’t serve the story breathe, I was withholding too much and providing too little which confused everything. I was going for something and my calibrations were just enough off that it didn’t land.
Like with any project of mine, there are many more draft rounds to come before I’ll be ready to submit to magazines or contests. I plan to blog through more granular writing decisions I made in future weeks. The end of the year is usually a generative time for me creatively and I hope these blogs can offer anything valuable in the drafting or editing process. I can already tell the blog is a useful way for me to think more clearly about the decisions I’ve made in “Crooked Lake” and why they support this story of mine.
Keep at it, writer friends! The only way out is through.