One Oar

One Oar

Where do ideas come from? Recently a short story of mine, One Oar, was published in Pif Magazine. I’d like to talk about my thought process behind this one.

Read One Oar in Pif Magazine

If you were to see the original draft of this story, you wouldn’t recognize it. Like most of my stories, it was hard work and took a lot of time to craft. In retrospect, it’s easy to ask, if the process is so long and tedious, couldn’t I have found a better way to go about writing stories?

Several years ago I was teaching writing at a university and I came across an interesting concept buried deep in an uninviting textbook. When it comes to putting words on the page, we have to consider both fluency and accuracy. Fluency has more to do with creativity and accuracy with editing. The two thought processes are different. When you’re in the editing state of mind, you’re thinking critically, which means you aren’t being creative. When you’re in the creative state, you aren’t self-correcting. The ideas are flowing. The story is growing. You’re brainstorming. But a lot of mistakes are being made.

With my students, I told them not to correct their writing. Write as many words as you can on the page. But sure enough, they’d correct mistakes during the process, whether it be spelling, grammar or even plot line. They wanted to look good. It was their own egos that held back the creative process.

The advantage of fluency without accuracy is you can be the most creative. Then, when you’re done writing, you can go back and fix the mistakes. You can focus on accuracy. If you think about fixing mistakes first, you’ll never be as creative. But if you approach the story from a creative state first, you get both parts in the end, fluency and accuracy.

For this story, One Oar, I let my mind soar. I wrote whatever. It’s sometimes surprising what comes from the depths of our creative wells. It often happens that I don’t even understand what a story is about until I write the end. Then I go back and revise the details in the story for continuity.

Writers also have inhibitions blocking their creativity, whether it be family values, fear of what a friend will think, or even a strict adherence to writing rules. How often have you heard, show don’t tell? And if you’re worried about things like that during the creative stage, it will hold you back. Let your inhibitions go and write whatever you want. You can always change it later. You can always throw it in the trash. Just write.

The downside to all this is that, while you end up with something highly creative, you’ve got a lot of fixing to do. And somewhere along the way, if you’re like me, you’ll wish you’d just written it the right way the first time. It tooks me months to fix One Oar.

I also showed the story to friends who gave me feedback on it. The story just felt stiff to me. It’s a very compact story, where every word counts. It’s just under 1,000 words, but I hadn’t intended to write it as flash fiction. Eventually, with enough time and distance, I got the story to loosen up and come alive. During that time, though, it was rejected at dozens of places. When I’d finally crafted it well, it was accepted for publication. A part of me almost knew at that point that this one was now ripe for picking.

I think when we are at our best, we are both creative and corrective at the same time. The more you write, the more often that will happen. But until then, you’ve got to split the process up and write the hard way. You’ve got to spend the time. I’ve resigned myself to that fact that, as a writer, I’ll have to revise each story hundreds of times, at least until I get better at it. For others, the process may go faster.

Read One Oar in Pif Magazine

For this story, I didn’t use quotations for dialog. I’d been reading James Joyce and thought I’d use the hyphen to indicate when people are speaking. It’s the only time I’ve done this and I’m not sure I’ll do it again. But it was a good experiment.

I also used a lot of sentence fragments in the style of Cormac McCarthy. I’d just read China Miéville who also uses this style. Sentence fragments are incomplete sentences, as opposed to run-on sentences. Run-ons have two sentences or two subject-verbs. Sentence fragments, on the other hand, are lacking in subject-verb, the two things needed to make a sentence.

Here’s an example of sentence fragments:

Night of your birth. Thirty-three. The Leonids they were called. God how the stars did fall. I looked for blackness, holes in the heavens. The Dipper stove.

This comes from the open in Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. “Night of your birth” isn’t a sentence. It’s only a detail. Same for “Thirty-three.” McCarthy is well known for his descriptive writing style. He doesn’t use quotation marks for dialog, either. Remember, let those inhibitions go! Just write.

Read One Oar in Pif Magazine


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