Before “Mechanicis Solis” found a home in Fictionvale Episode 4 it was an entry for Penumbra’s “gaslamp fantasy” theme back in 2013. The word limit was 3,500, and I had planned for the tale to have eight scenes. That was around 438 words per scene, on average. So, words and sentences were at a premium, as you can see.
Now, when I write rough drafts I try to have as detailed an outline as possible to work with. I stick to the outline loosely, allowing myself to go off on a tangent if I feel it’s needed. After all, we’re not into the editing phase yet. Well, because of this rough drafts tend to be a bit… verbose. That’s not a bad thing by any means, but it can lead to some drastically different versions as we go from draft to draft.
Today we will look at the first scene of “Mechanicis Solis”, from rough draft to final submission draft. The final version came as a result of a lot of hard work from Venessa Giunta, the editor-in-chief at Fictionvale. I can only imagine how much time she put into going over my story with a fine-toothed comb in order to help me make it into the very best story it could be. If you like what you read, be sure to pick up a copy of Episode 4 (At Fictionvale or Amazon)!
Brace yourself for the coming rough draft. It’s terribly written, for a number of reasons:
“Mechanicis Solis”; Scene One; Rough Draft:
When he was five years old Jakob saw his older sister Maia taken away from the house. Men dressed and black and bearing a strange card that gleamed oddly in the morning light of the Mechanical Sun had arrived, telling Jakob’s parents that Maia had to come with them.
Jakob did not understand what happened, only that his sister was gone and would never come back. He had cried as she was escorted down the street, but she had never looked back. She soon disappeared in the morning steamfog generated by the mechanical sun’s enormous hydraulic presses as the bronze shutters opened, letting its light shine down onto the homes and buildings of Urbem Luminare for another day.
The next morning Jakob’s mother was missing, and he feared she, too, had been taken by the strange men in black. He and his father went out into the Lower Burg quarter of Urbem Luminare and looked high and low for her. They returned empty-handed that night. The next few days brought them no satisfaction, either. Jakob noticed his father grow more and more depressed, and he spent more and more of each subsequent night with a bottle in his hand.
Jakob spent his nights crying into his pillow, for Maia and for his mother. He wanted them both back in his life. When the sobs would subside he would look at the card the men had given Jakob’s father. He had not wanted it, so he had told Jakob to safeguard it for him.
The card was made of an iridescent metal which was always warm to the touch, as from the light of the mechanical sun itself. It stayed warm even in the cold that resulted when the mechanical sun’s great light arrays were shuttered for the evening, leaving the city to bask in the permanently wan light of the Shattered Moon and the yellow glow of the city’s many gas-fueled lamps.
Four days after her disappearance a Lower Burg magistrate banged on the door of their brick row-house. “Mechanic! Mechanic Elroy!” he bellowed, so loud that half the neighbors on their densely populated street came out of their homes and shops to see what the fuss was about.
Jakob answered the door, for his father had just woken up from another night of drinking and was in no condition to speak to anyone. When Jakob explained this to the magistrate the plump man became even more irate. He tugged at the lapels of his pin-striped jacket with both hands as if he were restraining himself from throttling the boy right then and there.
“Tell your father, boy,” the magistrate growled, “that we found his wife.”
Hope blossomed in Jakob. “Mother? How is she?”
“Dead.” The lips under the man’s well-trimmed mustache perked up in a twisted semblance of a smile as he watched Jakob stagger back from the news. As if that had not been enough he continued in a loud voice, turning so he could address the neighbors. “We found her body in the Almentary Street Cistern, dead these three days. Three days, bloated and rotting in our water!”
He rounded back on Jakob and, heedless of the tears in his eyes, thrust a finger in his face and said, “Do you know how much effort it will take to drain and clean a cistern as large as-”
“Eight hours to drain and pump the cistern dry,” Jakob’s father, Elroy, said in a sleepy voice. Jakob turned to see Elroy standing next to him. The maester mechanic was still in his bedclothes, and his eyes were bloodshot.
He continued, counting off each step with a finger on his right hand. “Another eight hours to send the scrubber automata down there and let them scour the walls clean. After that there is a four hour soak in a liquid crystalline cleaner, and an hour to drain and flush that dry.”
The magistrate was taken aback by Jakob’s father’s knowledge. “Er, well, yes,” he said in a much calmer voice than he had shown Jakob. “That is about the long and short of it.” He tried to take back the momentum of the argument when he spread his hands and said, “As you can see, that is an expense the community can ill afford-”
“It was scheduled for it, a fortnight from now. It’s the first cleaning it’s had in eighteen years.” Elroy barely stifled a yawn as he added, “I doubt two weeks will make much difference.”
“How dare you talk over me. Who do you think you-”
Jakob’s father interrupted him again. “I’m the one in charge of the design and maintenance of the sewer automata of this lovely part of the Lower Burg, along with other automata-related duties. I know a lot.”
The magistrate continued to bluster. Jakob’s father sighed and rubbed at his forehead. “Jakob, boy, would you show this man the Card you received?”
Jakob obliged, producing the card left for the family when Maia had been taken. When the light of the mechanical sun struck its etched surface the metal glowed like a prism. On one side of the card was an artists’ representation of the mechanical sun, its burnished bronze light shutters unfurled as rays of metal surrounding the sun to both amplify and reflect the artificial lights produced by the ancient device.
The reverse side showed an etching of Urbem Luminare as it would appear at a great distance. The ancient stone wall surrounding the inner city was shown in start detail, but the Lower Burg on the outside of the wall was nowhere to be seen, as if the drawing had come from a time before the Lower Burg existed. Mounted to the wall’ many towers were enormous support pylons which held up a great bronze latticework dome that enveloped the inner city and suspended the mechanical sun high above it.
The magistrate’s eyes widened and he backed away so suddenly he took a misstep down the stairway and rolled down the few steps to the street. He landed in the ever-present muck of the streets of this part of the city, and continued to back away from them on the ground, drenching his black slacks as well as the sleeves and coattails of his jacket.
“Pray, forgive me, master, young sir,” he stammered. He scrambled to his feed and bowed low to them. “Thank you for your noble sacrifice. Long shall it be remembered!”
“Just see to it that my wife gets a decent burial,” Jakob’s father said. He tugged at Jakob’s elbow. “Come on, son. Let’s get inside.”
Jakob let himself be led inside by his father, but he could no take his eyes off of the magistrate. The man had been so arrogant and angry, but now he stood in the mud, his head still bowed and his shoulders shaking visibly.
As the door was closed Jakob looked at the card in his hand. What was so special about this? And what did the magistrate mean by a sacrifice? I would be some time before the young boy would connect the two events: the taking of his older sister and the magistrate’s sudden change of heart.
In the coming days and months their neighbors who had witnessed the exchange treated him and his father differently, almost reverently. Jakob’s father took it in stride and would explain nothing to Jakob. Jakob decided he would learn more, even if he had to do it on his own.
This version of Scene One comes in at 1,247 words. That was bad, especially for a short story with 8 scenes that could only be 3,500 words. In case anyone is wondering, the original rough draft ended up being 4,539 words. Excluding Scene One, the remaining scenes had an average length of about 470 words. Even if I had no word length restrictions, the fact that Scene One is nearly three times longer than the other scenes makes the beginning a bit too front-heavy.
I also want to point out that I did not know much about maintaining a tight viewpoint back in August of 2013 when this was written. The story is written from the third-person omniscient narrator point-of-view, where the narrator knows everything that is going on. It’s distancing, and is not a recommended point-of-view for a modern audience. It’s also not recommended for Fictionvale, as Miss Giunta was quick to point out to me in the editing phase. I’ll get back to this towards the end of the post.
Another thing you will probably notice in this opening scene is a prevalence of “was” (16 instances) and “were” (4 instances) and other passive verbs. That’s bad. If passive verbs can be avoided, they should. Especially with short fiction. In longer works it can be forgiven, but not if it’s overused. Passive verbs can weaken the action and slow the pace of a story down, so if you can think of a way to rewrite a sentence or paragraph so as to reduce the passivity of it, you should. It is well worth the time to go through a story line-by-line and attempt to pare it down. Let’s take a look at one such sentence, and while we’re there we’ll see if we can fix what else is wrong with it:
The card was made of an iridescent metal which was always warm to the touch, as from the light of the mechanical sun itself.
Ouch. That sentence is terrible, and just because of the double “was” in it. There’s also too much going on with it, from talking about the kind of metal to the heat it radiates, to the comparison with it to the mechanical sun. This must be why I ended up cutting all reference to this card from the later drafts. It was subconscious rebellion. Here’s a different – and hopefully better – way to write the same sentence while reducing passivity:
The card glowed with iridescent light, and warmth radiated from its metallic surface.
We’ve eliminated not just one, but both passive verbs in it. We’ve also managed to tighten up the prose and eliminate flowery references that don’t really need to be there in the first place. Now, you’ll notice I’ve only partially described the card here and in the original sentence. In a later paragraph I went into more description of what the card looks like. Why I did that, I don’t know. It’s another one of those things that shouldn’t have happened, but typically does in a rough draft. As you’re writing ideas come to you and – rather than stop and find a proper place to put it – I say keep going. Plant the description or action right there in the middle of the page where your pen last touched paper or your keystroke last touched white, pixelated space. If it means something’s out of place or is redundant, so be it! It will catch your eye when you ready for the second draft, and you can trim it down there.
Ok, let’s move on to the final submission draft (Not the final published version, though Scene One is mostly the same in both places). You will notice that this entire scene has been redone. It is shorter, tighter, but still manages to show what needs to be shown. You’ll also notice that the main character’s name has changed from Jakob to Horace. There’s a reason for that. I’m a sucker for names and the meanings that they have. I try to give my main characters (Be they protagonists, antagonists, or supporting cast) names that reflect their story roles, their personalities, or their abilities. Or, if I’m lucky, all three. One meaning for Horace is “Time Keeper”, and as the story progresses we will see Horace advancing through his life until he achieves (Or fails at. No spoilers!) his end goal.
“Mechanicis Solis”; Scene One; Submission Version:
When he was five Horace’s older sister Lucia was taken away from their terraced house in the Lower Burgs. Horace and his parents had stood in that dirty cobblestone street, shivering in the early morning chill and watching the retreating backs of Lucia and the priest-mechanics who had come for her.
He wept when his sister disappeared from view, her eleven year-old figure swallowed up in the steamfog that flowed from Mechanicis Solis each dawn as its great bronze shutters were opened to reveal enormous magilamps. Those lamps cast warm light over Urbem Luminare and the neighborhoods – like Horace’s – that lay outside the city’s massive wall of stone. “Where are they taking her?” he sobbed.
Something wet struck Horace’s neck, making him look up. His parents stood with heads bowed, tears falling freely from their closed eyes. “She goes to the Sun,” his father told him. “She goes so that it will continue to shine.”
Horace looked towards the city, towards the wrought iron latticework that extended from Urbem Luminare’s ancient wall and rose to a domed ceiling high above the city. At the latticework’s apex rested Mechanicis Solis, the Mechanical Sun, the only source of light left in the world since Sol Caeli fell long ago. The ancient construct of bronze and iron had illuminated Urbem Luminare for centuries and was tended to by the Ordo Equitum Solis, a religious order of priest-mechanics, the same priest-mechanics who had taken Lucia away.
“Come on, son,” his father said, taking his elbow in his hand. “Let us go home.”
Horace let himself be led inside, but he could not take his eyes off the metallic sphere suspended over the city.
This version is 280 words. One reason this is much shorter than the rough draft is I have removed the part of Horace’s (Jakob’s, whoever!) mother going missing, and I will get to that in a second. For now let’s look at what is still in this scene. Most of the fluff from the rough draft has been stripped away and instead we are left with a beginning that does what a beginning is supposed to do. Namely (And in no particular order):
- Introduce us to the main character, Horace. This is accomplished in the first sentence: “When he was five Horace’s…”
- Introduce us to the setting. In the first paragraph we’re shown that Horace and his family live in a terraced house on a dirty cobblestone street. The filthiness of the place would lead us to believe that either they are poor or lower middle class. This notion is reinforced in the second paragraph when it’s revealed that their neighborhood lies outside the walls of Urbem Luminare. The fact that their neighborhood is outside the walls also hints that the city is overcrowded and no longer able to house everyone within its walled confines.
- Show us the genre. At the end of the first paragraph it’s revealed that Lucia is taken away by individuals referred to as “priest-mechanics.” Sounds kind of like steampunk, or maybe Warhammer 40K. The second paragraph begins to describe the mechanical sun in, while in the third and fourth paragraphs we’re shown how important the sun is to this city and the world.
- Raise questions for the reader. Who are the priest-mechanics? What is Mechanicis Solis? Why was Lucia taken to it? How will her presence help it continue to shine?
- State or – at the least – hint at the main character’s goal. In the last sentence Horace cannot stop looking at Mechanicis Solis, at the place where his sister Lucia was taken.
This short beginning accomplishes these critical points far better than the chunkier, clunkier rough draft beginning did.
Ok, back to the whole mother going missing thing. In my submission to Penumbra this matter ended up reduced to a single, descriptive paragraph in Scene Two, when Horace is ten years old:
After Lucia was taken to Mechanicis Solis Horace had become apprenticed to his father, a designer and builder of all sorts of automata used in the Lower Burgs. The two of them were alone now, his mother having committed suicide from the grief of losing her daughter. Since that time Horace’s father was given to black despondency, but he took solace in his work and in Horace’s education.
1,129 words of Snidely Whiplash magistrates, bad poetry about cards and suns, and Jakob washing his pillows and clothes with his tears condensed to 68 non-angsty words. It could be better written, but that’s still a sight better than the super-sized version in the rough draft.
With that said, a boy losing his mother so soon after his sister is a critical event by anyone’s standard, and one that should not be either emphasized poorly (Rough Draft) or understated (Penumbra Submission Draft). So, once I decided to submit it to Fictionvale back and noted the increased word count I set to adding this back in as a scene. Originally Scene Two would be the first time jump, from five years of age to ten years of age. Ten years old became Scene Three, and six years old became Scene Two:
When he was six Horace ran away from home in the dark of night. In one hand the boy carried a knife taken from his mother’s kitchen. This he would need if anyone tried to prevent him from reaching his destination inside the walls of Urbem Luminare itself.
Couple this paragraph with the last sentence of Scene One where Horace is looking up at Mechanicis Solis, and you know what his destination is. This is a boy’s attempt at a rescue operation. At around 300 words in we now know Horace’s goal: free Lucia.
Now, this initial attempt will end in failure on a couple of levels. First, Horace will not make it into Urbem Luminare. The world grows bitterly cold when Mechanicis Solis is shuttered for the night, and if one is not prepared they could easily catch their death. He almost does, and spends a few days in the care of a good Samaritan. This would be our character’s first try/fail cycle in the story, and his hasty planning and poor execution will set the stage for the rest of his life.
Second, his disappearing in the middle of the night leads directly to the suicide of his mother, as we discover at the end of this new scene. Let me repeat that: his poorly planned actions directly cause the death of his mother. How’s that for angst? That adds a lot of emotional tension to the story, and shows Horace (And the reader) that there are grim consequences in this world. This will further reinforce to Horace that this initial try/fail cycle was completely the wrong way to go, and that he must be more methodical and patient if he is to succeed in his plan.
Ok, let’s move into the final, published version of the scene. Miss Giunta at Fictionvale really helped out a lot on this story:
“Mechanicis Solis”; Scene One; Published Version:
When he was five, Horace’s older sister Lucia was taken away from their terraced house in the Lower Burgs. Horace and his parents had stood in the dirty cobblestone street, shivering in the early-morning chill, and watching the retreating backs of Lucia and the priest-mechanics who had come for her.
He wept when his sister disappeared from view, her eleven-year-old figure swallowed up in the steamfog that flowed from Mechanicis Solis each dawn as its great bronze shutters were opened to reveal enormous magilamps. Those lamps cast warm light over Urbem Luminare and the neighborhoods—like Horace’s—that lay outside the city’s massive wall of stone.
“Where are they taking her?” He sobbed.
Horace felt his mother’s hand on his shoulder, and he looked up. His parents stood over him with heads bowed, tears falling freely from their closed eyes.
“She goes to Mechanicis Solis,” his father told him. “She goes so that it will continue to shine.”
Horace looked toward Urbem Luminare, toward the wrought-iron latticework that extended from the ancient wall and rose to a domed ceiling high above the city. At the latticework’s apex rested Mechanicis Solis, the Mechanical Sun, the only source of light left in the world since Sol Caeli fell long ago. The ancient construct of bronze and iron had illuminated Urbem Luminare for centuries and was tended to by the Ordo Equitum Solis, a religious order of priest-mechanics—the same priest-mechanics who had taken Lucia away.
“Come on, son,” his father said, taking Horace’s elbow in his hand. “Let us go.”
Horace let himself be led inside, but he could not take his eyes off the metallic sphere suspended over the city.
Not much has changed in this particular scene, other than a few style changes. Some of the later scenes had more extensive edits that needed to take place, and Miss Giunta was a huge help through it all.
One area that she helped in was the ending. As you can see in just these opening scenes, we’re working with a narrator point-of-view. Someone is writing about this after the events have taken place, and the narrator seems to know everything that is going on. We’re not really getting into any character’s head, at least not for very long. This is distancing, and can turn some readers off. It was one of the things that Miss Giunta wanted changed about the entire story, but she came up with a great idea: why not leave the narrator style the same all the way through the story until the final chapter, when we’re in the so-called “present.” The last scene was never written in the present tense, but it was obvious from the way even my earlier drafts were written that every moment in the story was leading up to this final confrontation. She thought we should bring the point-of-view for the final scene tightly into Horace’s head, so that we could live out his triumph (Or failure) through his eyes and with his feelings. I had to rewrite the last scene pretty extensively, but the story was much more powerful for the effort.
Alas, I can’t show you this with this particular story. If I show you any part of the final scene it will spoil what has happened up to that point. You’ll just have to read it for yourself. Check out Mechanicis Solis and nine other great tales in Episode 4 (Available at Fictionvale or Amazon)!