The Story of My First Fiction
Fiction offers a whole new medium for introspection.
Garrett Kincaid — July 25, 2021
On August 14, 2020, as we all do every night, I had a dream. I remembered that dream and recorded in my dream journal.
Part of that entry reads,
This place we were in was cold and mountainous. In the morning, I went out to explore by myself and ran into Eric Hosmer on this frozen lake. He was gearing up for something while talking on the phone … He made a narrow hole in the ice and plunged into the water, coming up about five seconds later, as he had instructed me before giving his example. I was next.
While that was a cool dream on the surface — hanging out with major-league first baseman Eric Hosmer, one of my favorite former Royals — I didn’t see it as much more than that. Just three days later, I revisited that dream journal entry and had an idea for a short story, which I also wrote down:
Write about my dream where I did a polar plunge with Eric Hosmer, but swap him for an enigmatic woman.
I’d captured the idea. Then it just had to marinate for a while — about six months.
This past semester, in the spring of 2021, I took my first creative writing class. It was conversation-based, and each week, we were assigned two of our peers’ stories that we would workshop as a group in the next class period.
The short story I wrote for this class, called “A Leave from Absence,” was adapted from that dream and stayed true to my original story idea. The workshopping process was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had as a writer. During that class period, 20 of my peers offered their praise and criticisms of an early draft of the story. Everyone had read it carefully and had thoughtful feedback.
My professor and peers highlighted flaws that I may have never noticed myself.
After a long revision process, I settled on a final version of the story and submitted it to my university’s annual Creative Writing Contest. With this story, I won 1st place in prose.
I’d like to share some of the story behind this story, including a description of my writing process and excerpts from the first and final drafts. I’m compelled to share this because “A Leave from Absence” has been pivotal in my development as a writer. And maybe part of this story will help you on a creative project of your own.
Going into this story, all I knew was that it would include a dream-inspired interaction with an enigmatic woman emerging from a frozen lake. I still had to come up with the rest, and I started by brainstorming and outlining, creating a document that was longer than the first draft of the story.
My outline included sections for theme, a synopsis, characters, conflict structure, miscellaneous ideas, and specific lines of prose and dialogue that I wanted to include.
I first tried to build out the main character, Liam. Why is he there? What does he want? How is he challenged? But I quickly hit a wall, and it wasn’t until I developed the theme and plot more that Liam’s character took shape.
The top line of my online reads, “On a hike in the Scandinavian winter, Liam ponders the question of what gives meaning to his experiences.”
Ink on the Page
The most unique part of this writing process was how I started the story. The first two sentences I wrote were the first and last.
At one point, the story read:
With one foot still on the bottom rung, Liam had hopped off the corporate ladder and onto a plane headed overseas.
Before preparing to draw new brushstrokes on his descent, Liam removed pen and paper from his pack, settled on a wind-blown rock, and wrote with the sort of clarity that comes from having clouds in your lungs.
I hit “enter” a couple times under the first sentence and filled in the middle. It made for a unique and challenging writing experience — to tie together these two points in the story. And those two sentences are probably the only ones that remained unchanged between the first and final drafts.
Write, Revise, Repeat
Without the significant revisions I made, I doubt this story would have placed in the writing competition. I ran it through 5 or 6 rounds of revisions over the course of a month before submitting the story. By the end, it was longer, the characters rounder and clearer, the dialogue more realistic, the imagery more gripping, the prose tighter, and the themes subtler yet more present.
Here is an excerpt from the first draft. After it, I’ll summarize the notes I received from my professor and peers and then share a similar but improved excerpt from the final draft.
He unhooked snowshoes from the two-way carabiniere on his backpack and fastened them to his boots then threw on an audiobook about Stoicism, earbuds tucked under his anywhere-and-everywhere beanie. Three months of accumulating facial hair is enough to three-quarter-zip his coat, affording more neck mobility to gawk and awe at each peak and ridge that he was able to spot through breaks in the morning fog that had settled in the valley.
The tails of his snowshoes drew continuous strokes across the lake, and his toe-plants were marked by Aurelius quotes so profound he’d have to pause the audiobook to digest them. At least the map was clear that there was wooden pillar with a sign that sat near the center of the lake’s edge and at the foot of what would be Liam’s big ascent. He was doing his best to cut straight through the fog, aiming for the minor axis of the elliptical body beneath.
There were a few common criticisms that I received on the first draft.
- Some parts were unclear because they lacked sufficient description and imagery.
- The dialogue wasn’t realistic and was too expositional.
- And, most importantly, the reader doesn’t know what is wanted in the story.
My professor suggested introducing Liam’s love interest, Kate, earlier in the piece to help establish what he wants earlier and more clearly.
You can decide how well those criticisms were received and incorporated into the final draft. During revisions, I also focused on the clarity and concision of my prose.
Liam unhooked snowshoes from the two-way carabiniere on his backpack and fastened them to his boots. He caught a whiff of Kate’s perfume, which he occasionally sprayed on his pillow, then shut the side door of his sleeper van. Three months of accumulating facial hair was enough to leave his coat open a quarter-zip, affording him more neck mobility to gawk and awe at each peak and ridge that managed to break through the dense morning fog. His chosen destination — the summit of Amor Fati — was dead ahead but obscured and impossibly distant.
Winter takes the needle off the record of life; no leaves brush in the wind, no birds chirp, and no water laps up against rocks. Instead, there’s a delicate silence that sits in the valley. A breeze may occasionally kick up snow with a whisper, but those noises — the kind that you normally wouldn’t notice — are just reminders of how silent it is. As much comfort as Liam found in that silence, it also made his mind louder. He threw on an audiobook of Meditations, hoping to truly understand it this time. Tucking his earbuds under his beanie, Liam started off. The tails of his snowshoes drew continuous strokes across the lake, and he planted his toes to the beat of Aurelius quotes so profound he’d have to pause the audiobook to digest them.
When Kate had visited Liam for a week the first time he was in Norway, the two of them listened to audiobooks everywhere they went. Although, Kate probably wouldn’t have enjoyed this one as much. That listening remained a part of Liam’s routine, even in her absence. He thought about how nice it would’ve been to have her live there with him full-time. But he couldn’t ask her to stay, just as she’d never told him he couldn’t go.
In each part of this process, from conceiving of this story and learning about creative writing in that course to polishing the story and submitting it to the contest, I learned more about writing fiction. And I learned what I’m capable of as a writer. Now, I feel more confident about writing fiction, and I’m more interested in creating short stories.
Both what surprised me the most and what will drive me to write more fiction in the future is that I found fiction offers a whole new medium for introspection.
Through these blog posts, I explore my thoughts by developing arguments and referencing philosophy, which is where I am most comfortable and have found the most success in clarifying my thoughts and beliefs. But in this story, through the character of Liam, I explored a question that I have wrestled with a lot in recent years: “Are experiences only meaningful because you share them with others; or are there experiences that, even if you were the only human walking the Earth, are meaningful in themselves?”
By engaging with these characters and this dreamed-up world, I was able to clarify my stance on that question in my own head in real life. And that is invaluable to me.
Have you had a profound experience writing or reading fiction? What realization did it help you achieve? Let me know, and thank you for reading!