Reading as you write – A Swim in the Pond part II

by Aaron Cox

So, it’s time to take a dip in the pond. In this post, I plan to do a writerly-readerly meta-analysis of the opening few paragraphs ofmy work-in-progress novella Understanding. To get a sense of what I aim to do here, you can access my previous post on the subject here. In short, this analysis has been inspired by George Saunders’ book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain in which he conducts a bunch of close readings of published stories and look at the decisions writers make with each word, phrase, paragraph, character, scene and how they open up questions and narrative paths that need to be resolved in one way or another during the story.

As I said last time, my story is still fairly embryonic. I’m only 20,000 words into the first draft and I’m progressing very slowly due to a host of other commitments at the moment – which in itself is interesting (at least to me) as it creates a different relationship between me and the work than I get with my usual approach which is one of destructive urgency.

Writing slowly means the subconscious writing that I do away from the desk happens in a more subtle way and gives me permission to try on a greater various of outfits for each new section before returning to the work. It’s not something I necessarily recommend – and I’m a firm believer in Stephen King’s idea that you have to show up as a writer, although I can never see myself writing 2,000 a day, six days a week, which has been his regime.

So, here goes…

Understanding

His naked feet dangled inches above the water, coaxing them up from the deep. From an upstairs window she kept watch. Glancing at the woods. The barn. The bleached straggly grass which had once been a lawn. And then back at him at the end of the diving board. Her binoculars weighed a ton.

An opening passage is always going to create more questions than answers. I’ve so far written this story in a linear fashion and started with this simple image in mind. I didn’t know who they were – the he and she in this short extract – or, indeed, where they were. Although I now know a lot more about their backstories, some of this initial ambiguity lingers – and I like that, because it means I too will be surprised by some of the things I learn about them as I write. In that sense I try to keep a feeling of alignment with the reader. I’m aware that this approach doesn’t work for every writer but it works for me, even if it requires more rewriting and retrofitting once the first draft it done.

The opening sentence is grammatically ambiguous. Strictly speaking the antecedent of “them” is the grammatical subject of the sentence – “His naked feet”. But the sentence also suggests there is something in the deep beneath his feet – an ominous “them” in the deep below him.

Although written in the third person, it is not clear who the narrator is (is she or he writing from inside or outside the fabula – who is focalising?). When I started writing, the narrator saw the world through his eyes in a close third person, but this soon changed as her character asserted itself in the text.

At this stage we don’t know who they are and what their relationship is to each other. We get a sense of their environment. With trees and a barn, it doesn’t sound urban and could be in the country. The diving board suggests a pool (although it could be over a lake or sea), which then reframes the notion of there being a deep below him. How deep is the deep end of the pool? And what lives in the pool? And why does she need to keep watch with binoculars? There is definitely something strange about this set up that I wanted to explore as a writer and a reader.   

He peered down at the grey-green darkness she herself saw when it was her turn. The bottom invisible beneath the algae. With sudden violence – it always came sooner than she expected – he slapped the water with the back of the frying pan. The sound ricocheted off the trees that surrounded the garden. In the early days when he did this, she’d watch the birds scatter against the bluest skies. She knew them all by name. Goshawk. Buzzard. Swallow. Long-tailed tit. Today, apart from a distant squawk, there was nought.

This passage provides more details of their environment. It is a swimming pool. They are in a garden surrounded by trees. The list of birds suggests somewhere rural.

The narrative is explicitly from her perspective. Watching him, she knows what he sees from her own experience, yet she is still shocked by the strange ritual. She’s bright and possibly prone to distraction. “She knew them all by name” is a deceptively innocuous statement. It could be read as a simple piece of exposition – the narrator imparting information. But there is a childish boastfulness quality to it that suggests she herself would state this. The statement seems to come from her, and not just the narrator. Is it part of her character to be boastful? If so, is it because she likes to show off? Or is there another reason? A sign of defensiveness, perhaps?

He slapped and slapped. His thin, sinewy back glistening in the midday sun. It had been her idea to empty the fish tank into the pool after the winter rains. She hadn’t expected the carp to survive. When he’d killed enough – the fish floating on the surface of the green water, their bellies like bones – silence reigned over the clearing once again. He stared up at her briefly, checking she was paying attention. She pouted crossly and showed him the binoculars. The buckle on the leather strap dug into her neck. When he made a gun shape with his fingers, she lifted the rifle from the rug and held it up to the window with both hands.

Satisfied, he leant down and scooped up the dead fish with the frying pan, flinging each into the long grass by the pool. She scanned the treeline on both sides of the yard – nothing – before returning her gaze to her brother who wound up his arm as he tossed the pan deep into the grass before sliding along the board on his belly towards shore.

So what’s happening here? She is armed with a gun, which he checks she has – indeed, he checks “she was paying attention”, which underscores the notion she might be easily distracted, which might be because she is young, presumably younger than he is. The narrator seems to pop into her brother’s head for a moment (a shift in focalisation/point of view), reflecting on her brother’s reason for looking up, but it could just as easily be another part of the routine that she knows and expects – the narrator could still be focalising from her perspective when commenting on his motive for checking she is watching.

Her brother’s status becomes more evident in this passage too. He seems older and has an air of being the responsible one. When writing this story, I’ve been acutely aware of the different forms of status between them and how that, in itself, can shape their behaviour and drive the story on. (See Keith Johnstone’s book Improv for a great introduction to status.)

The nature of what he is doing is strange. Why slap fish in a pond with a frying pan? Why not try to fish them out another way? How have their lives evolved to introduce this pattern?

And I admit, I don’t quite know myself, but I like its oddness and feel that its strangeness is an appropriate metaphor for the odd patterns of behaviour people can adopt, especially when isolated.

I’m aware that readers will try to decode this world through their understanding of their own worlds. The story certainly has elements of magical realism or possibly even slipstream, but I’m not aiming for either genre. Rather, I’m attempting to write an appropriate metaphor for the strangeness many of us have felt in the last year or so while confined due to Covid-19. The key, though, is to do enough to make that implicit for readers – to show rather than tell.  

She looked out at the yard. There was cow parley and elderflower and sprigs of glass that looked like wheat but didn’t taste good and dandelions and a tree that produced the most delicious pears and a slime-green pool. In the breeze it all seemed to come to life, moving silently, hither and thither, hither and yon, yon and thither…she held these words in her warm mouth like yoke in an eggshell. She felt their roundness on her tongue before each was released with the shallowest aspiration. There was no one there to hear them, which was just as well for her brother hated her silly words. She had little time to recall when she first heard them – to remember which of her parents used them – because her brother had stopped dead in the middle of the board.

His gaze fixed on something in the forest.

A curve in the treeline meant she couldn’t see what he was looking at. Still, she raised the rifle and pointed it in the general direction of the forest path, her gluey tongue working its way along her top lip.

He followed the usual procedure, taking a deep gulp of air before sliding into the water, keeping his fingers curled over the edge of the board so he could sense any movement. If the board wobbled, he would know she had failed. He took a final gulp of air – his beard lingering on the water’s surface like eelgrass she’d read about in the National Geographic – its proper name was Zosteraceae – before pushing his head back under the water.

Shit, she said quietly, so her brother wouldn’t hear.

This last bit extends on many of the ideas I’ve mentioned already. She lives in an isolated and fundamentally scary world. She is intelligent and has a tendency to withdrawal into her mind, possibly as a defence against scary things happening outside, e.g. she thinks about the proper name for eelgrass which she sees as an appropriate metaphor for his floating beard and playing with words in her mouth – words that she has obviously heard spoken to her at some point in her life, but that she can’t properly recall. Then, in the final line of this extract, we get a stronger sense of how she feels obliged to modify her behaviour for the sake of her brother – another marker of their differing status. Perhaps her intelligence is actually a defence against his dominance. Her knowledge and understanding are things he can’t control.

He submerges himself in the water, presumably to hide from something he has seen – some source of danger that she knows she has to deal with. Yet, she still thinks of the eelgrass – how much danger are they actually in? It is real or perceived?

In summary, the story starts at a point of potential danger for the girl and her brother, and offers glimpses into their internal and external lives, but leaves many unanswered questions about who they are, where they are, and what will happen to them. The overriding feeling is one of fragility. And as I write I am aware of the questions I am opening up, which creates a kind of puzzle that I must solve. Not only do I need to learn the answers, but I have to make decisions about how I will represent them on the page for readers to learn – a process which exemplifies the separate notions of the story and the fabula. But often, the decisions are made for me in the process of writing the fabula. That’s the fun of writing fiction.

Thanks for reading.

© Aaron Cox 2021