Contest winner Kate MacNamara on “The Dance”

The first-place winner of our "Spring Cleaning" short story contest shares her writing process.
Published: April 9, 2018


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What inspired you to write “The Dance?”

The story concerns a real place, Delaware Bay on New Zealand’s south island, where I have holidayed with my family, and where we lived for a year in 2015. My husband and daughter did indeed get caught in the strong currents off Delaware beach. That’s where real life ends and fiction begins. Their story ends happily.

How did the story change over time from draft to draft? How many total drafts did it take to arrive at the final version?

The original story was longer and a little more rambling. It included a paragraph, close to the beginning, that mused on the mundane things that become monuments once someone dies, the notepad on the phone table with a few words scratched there. It took the reader away from the swimmers, and diluted the intensity of the story. This was pointed out by a friend who gave the piece an early read.

 

What’s your writing process like? 

I keep a journal of sorts, a couple of notebooks at any given time – they float between my desk at work, the kitchen table, my bedside table, and points between – sometimes I lose one and go a little berserk. In these, I jot down all sorts of scraps from life, ideas, turns of phrase that appeal to me. When I have an idea for a story, I often find I am exhuming it from one of these notebooks. I tend to write the story out longhand, then type it up on my tablet, and revise it as I go.

How about your revision process?

I work through a number of drafts, two or three making substantial changes. Once I have the broad brushstrokes I tinker quite a lot with language. I also dragoon a friend or two to read through to catch what I’ve missed.

One of the most powerful points of the story is when we transition to the present – not only are readers forced to bear witness to this terrible tragedy, but we also see the lingering, lifelong effects on the survivors. Why do you think it was important to visit the present-day narrator and her daughter? How did you decide how much weight and space to give each time period in the final draft?

I hope that the present day adds an emotional heft to the events in the first half of the story. The passage of time can do that. I don’t think I thought much about weighing out and apportioning the two pieces of the story, I think I just felt my way along.
Why do you think this POV was the right choice for the narrative voice in this story?

The story is written in the first person, but through much of the first portion, the narrator speaks directly to her lover. I hope this lends it intimacy. It is, in its way, a love story.
Some of our favorite imagery in this story happens at the end in the kitchen – the “quietly damning,” “Methodist minister” of a coffee pot, the “glazed, jaundiced eye” of the egg. What inspired you to give such voice and character to these everyday objects? What do you think it added to the story?

It’s hard to explain why I give consequence to the objects. I suppose they allow another way of reflecting and articulating what is going on inside the protagonist’s head. I don’t think I could ever tilt as far as magic realism as a device in writing, but I’m not averse to talking to the coffee pot, and if it has a few thoughts of its own, well, that’s to be expected.
Speaking of the “glazed, jaundiced” egg, the last line of the story is one of the most memorable sentences we’ve read in a long time. How long did it take you to craft the ending, and when did you know it had landed just right?

The ending was formed, much as it remains, in the first draft. I did get feedback, early on, that the egg bit didn’t work. I thought about it, and decided to keep it anyway. It’s always a tricky thing soliciting an opinion. Sometimes other eyes absolutely help to hone writing. It’s important to be able to take advice. But it’s also important, sometimes, to ignore it.

 

Kate MacNamara is a business journalist with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She lives in Alberta, Canada. “The Dance” is one of a number of stories she wrote while living in New Zealand for a year with her family, on hiatus from real life.