Drafty Wednesdays: A Look at “Harmonious Bedlam”

This week’s post will focus on “Harmonious Bedlam.” It is a fantasy short story about a baker who has to take up the sword to defend her home. It was published in Episode 5 of Fictionvale just this past Monday, December 1st. You can find it at both Fictionvale.com and at Amazon.

The short story began as a submission for Crossed Genres’ music-themed issue released earlier this year. I’m not much of a musician myself, but I know how certain kinds and pieces of music affect me emotionally. Some get me really pumped up, while others can bring me down into the depths of despair. So, since I couldn’t really describe music in professional terms I thought I would focus on the emotional impact music can have on individuals and groups of people.

“Harmonious Bedlam” was not chosen for Crossed Genres, but it did make it down into the final selection. I received a personal rejection from guest editor Daniel Jose Older, who really is a musician. While it was sad to see the story rejected, it was cool to get a bit of feedback on it.

So, I shopped the story around a bit more and received a little bit more feedback, but still nothing but rejections. Such is the way of a lot of stories I write, so it didn’t surprise me too much. Well, then came Fictionvale’s fantasy/mystery mash-up issue. I had actually intended to get a fantasy/mystery mash-up story written (Still have plans to write it, in fact), but couldn’t get it done in time. I had a couple of days left until the deadline, and I wanted to send something in that I thought editor Venessa Giunta would like. I looked at a couple of stories I’d written in previous months, but none of them really worked for me. Then I came back across “Harmonious Bedlam” and thought, “This is the one.” I fired it off, and a month after the submissions window closed I received word of an acceptance!

Looking back on it, that was almost the easy part. I say almost because I know competition is fierce with any submissions window, and I do not mean to diminish that in any way. It’s a great honor whenever a story gets accepted and there are a finite number of spots available. Still, I will say that the real work began with the editing phase. I thought I was prepared for it with the work Miss Giunta and I did on “Mechanicis Solis,” but I was wrong! So wrong…

Before we get to that, let’s look at some of the revisions I made on my own. We’re going to look at the first two pages of the story, which will include all of the first scene and the opening paragraphs of the second.

Here we go. Scene one, rough draft:

The Fourteen were frightened.

The melody flowing out of Tower Hall was testament to that: a pair of fast, irregular drumbeats joined by the random trills of several flutes. It set Matthias’s teeth on edge and caused his heart to flutter.

The baker closed the shutters to his kitchen window and immediately missed the cool pre-dawn air that wafting through Southron Plaza. He had been working the ovens since just past second bell and the stone walls practically glowed from the heat they had absorbed over the last few hours.

Matthias returned to the counter where several balls of dough waited and began shaping them into loaves. With the music from the Fourteen muted behind wooden shutters his heart began to assume a more sedate tempo. He breathed a sigh of relief and thanked the gods he was not a native to Sanctum.

For those born and raised in the walled city the eternal aria of the Fourteen Minstrels was their lifeblood. From the womb to the grave the melody was in their ears, their minds, their souls, impressing the will of the Fourteen upon them to the point that it influenced their everyday actions.

In normal times the streets of Sanctum were filled with the sound of harp and lute, music that soothed the soul and instilled a sense of peace in the listeners.

These were not normal times.

The sudden clash of cymbals startled Matthias, and he was filled with a sense of looming danger. He dropped the half-shaped loaf and reached for his side, for the sword that was no longer belted there. He balled his hand into a fist and rested it on the counter. He closed his eyes and willed the fearful compulsion to pass.

Cymbals clashed again. Matthias felt a flash of fear, but it did not overwhelm him as before. He opened his eyes and looked to the shuttered window. Something terrible either had already occurred, or the Fourteen feared it would occur soon.

Matthias returned to his work. Whatever the situation, the baker knew the men on the walls would need strength to face it. A soldier fought better on a full stomach, and so he would do his part to insure the defenders were well fed.

It was the least he could do for the besieged city he had come to call home.

#

Matthias stood on the southron wall walk, alongside the silent ranks of the city’s defenders. An air of trepidation hung over the assembled city watch and militia as they looked out over the barbarian encampment, the camp of the mighty Silver Horde.

“I do not like this,” he heard Watch Captain Gared say. Several men murmured their agreement.

Matthias gave his friend a sharp look. He agreed with the sentiment, but it did little good for a commander to voice such concerns openly.

As always, let’s look at the first line. “The Fourteen were frightened.” Fourteen? Who are they? Why are they frightened? Why is “Fourteen” capitalized? Is it merely a title, or is it hinting that there is something more going on? Good first lines are something I struggle with once I’ve entered the revision and editing phase, but I’d like to think I’m getting better at it. “The Fourteen were frightened” offers up enough to raise questions and hopefully interest the reader into continuing on to learn more. And I do not leave them hanging for very long. Within the first short scene we know who the Fourteen are (Even if we don’t entirely know “what” they are) and why they’re frightened. We also can see what they are capable of: the music they play is heard all throughout the city of Sanctum and affects the actions, moods, and thoughts of its inhabitants. It even has an effect on the protagonist, who is revealed to be a foreign citizen.

Ok, now to the protagonist. We have Matthias, the baker. It’s obvious he’s a bit more than a baker, since in the eighth paragraph (“The sudden clash of cymbals”) he reaches for a sword that is no longer belted there. So, he was either a soldier at one point in his life, or he was just in the habit of carrying a sword but no longer does for some reason. I suppose we could assume he might still carry a sword, just not while he is baking, but the phrase “no longer” has a note of finality to it that would lead me to believe this is referring to a much wider span of time. He used to carry a sword as a matter of habit, but he no longer does it. Why? He seems able to get around without difficulty, so he’s not disabled. He quickly reached for the weapon that wasn’t there, so it doesn’t seem like he has any moral reasons as to why he wouldn’t carry one. So, there’s a question there that will have be answered later in the story(*).

(* Note: When a question is raised in a story, it’s ok if it takes awhile for the answer to come. But, the answer must come. If I mention “The Fourteen were frightened” as the opening line and then never address the who, the what, and the why of the Fourteen at all throughout the story, then it’s a false hook. I’ve sucked in the reader with the promise of answering questions about the Fourteen, and then I fail to deliver. That will result in people throwing your story across the room, and we don’t want that. [Kindles ain’t cheap, you know. {Oh no, parenthesis within brackets! Make it stop!}]

Lastly we learn without a doubt that the city is under siege, and that Matthias is working so hard in order to provide a treat for the city’s defenders.

That moves us right into the second scene, where Matthias is making his bread deliveries. In that opening paragraph we learn that the city is not defended by a standing army, but instead by city watchmen (Police) and militia (Citizen soldiers). This is obviously a city that has known peace for a long time if it has no permanent garrison to protect it. Maybe the walls were enough until now. Maybe they’re in a location that’s hard to assault. Whatever the reason, the city was once peaceful but now it is not, and they are not prepared for it.

This lack of readiness is illustrated by the “air of trepidation” looming over the assembled men and women, and it is personified by Watch Captain Gared, the second named character of the story. As the enemy approaches the city under what is possibly a flag of truce he voices his suspicions. “I do not like this.” This only worsens the mood of those around him, something that Matthias picks up on. That Matthias knows a leader shouldn’t say such things where the men can hear it is another hint that he is more than a baker.

All right, let’s move on to the submission that I sent to Fictionvale back in June. You will likely notice one change right away:

The Fourteen were frightened.

The melody flowing out of Tower Hall was testament to that: a pair of fast, irregular drumbeats joined by the random trills of several flutes. It set Mina’s teeth on edge and caused her heart to flutter.

Mina closed the shutters to her kitchen window and immediately missed the cool pre-dawn air wafting through Southron Plaza. She had been working the ovens since just past second bell and the stone walls radiated with heat.

Mina returned to the counter where several balls of dough waited and began shaping them into loaves. With the music from the Fourteen muted behind wooden shutters her heart began to assume a more sedate tempo. She breathed a sigh of relief and thanked the gods she was not a native to Sanctum.

For those born and raised in the walled city the eternal aria of the Fourteen Minstrels was their lifeblood. From the womb to the grave the melody was in their ears, their minds, their souls, impressing the will of the Fourteen upon them to the point that it influenced all actions.

In normal times the streets of Sanctum were filled with the sound of harp and lute, music that soothed the soul and instilled a sense of peace in the listeners.

The sudden clash of cymbals startled Mina, and she was filled with a sense of looming danger. She dropped the half-shaped loaf and reached for her side, for the sword that was no longer belted there. She closed her eyes and willed the fearful compulsion to pass.

Cymbals clashed again. Mina felt a flash of fear, but it did not overwhelm her as before. She opened her eyes and looked to the closed window. Something terrible either had already occurred, or the Fourteen feared it would occur soon.

Mina returned to her work. Whatever the situation, the baker knew the men and women on the walls would need strength to face it. A soldier fought better on a full stomach, and so she would do her part to insure the defenders were well fed.

It was the least she could do for the besieged city she had come to call home.

#

Mina stood on the southron wall walk, alongside the silent ranks of the city’s defenders. A light dusting of snow covered the crenellations, the thin layer beginning to glisten as the wan light of the sun melted it. A cold breeze snapped at the pennons affixed at regular intervals along the wall. Mina drew her cloak more tightly about her, and was thankful for its warmth.

An air of trepidation hung over the assembled city watch and militia as they looked out over the barbarian encampment, the camp of the mighty Silver Horde. Mina and the others watched as a group of enemy horsemen approached the city. The lead rider carried a rolled white banner.

“I do not like this,” Watch Captain Reed said.

Mina gave her friend a sharp look. She agreed with the sentiment, but it did little good for a commander to voice such concerns openly.

Female LinkMatthias has disappeared! And in his place we have Mina, a female baker who also reaches for a sword that is not there. So, the baker who is more than a baker is now a baker who is more than a baker and also a woman. Why is that? Why the switch? Well, it was actually for a few reasons that may or may not be shallow, but I’ll list them here:

  1. I read an article somewhere about how in a lot of stories the protagonists could swap gender and the story itself would not be affected. I didn’t really know what to think of that, so I started looking over my stories to see if that was really true or not.
  2. I had never written anything solely from a woman’s point of view, so I thought it would be a neat challenge. I’ve since gone on to write a few stories from that point of view, so it must have been a good experience.
  3. I’ve grown up watching anime with strong female leads (Most recently Attack on Titan’s Mikasa and Sword Art Online’s Asuna), and I’ve always wanted to write a character like that. What better character than the protagonist, right?
  4. Lastly, I realized that the story – as it was written – had no women in it at all! It’s not the first time I’ve written a story like that, but with “The Heart of the Wendigo” the excuse can be made that it’s the frontier and focused on a group of hunters tracking a beast. However, it is the first time I’ve failed to include any female characters in a city setting. What is this, Saber Marionette J? I mean, a few of the Fourteen Minstrels are mentioned as being female, but they’re not named. They’re just there.

Lightning Flash AsunaSo, why the protagonist? Why not just add in a couple of token females or change one of the other characters to a female? I didn’t want to add any new characters because it’s a short story. In a novel you can get away with more supporting cast members, but in a short story characters need to be consolidated as much as possible. I didn’t want to just throw in some walk-on roles to fill some arbitrary male-to-female ratio. Besides, quotas are insulting to everyone involved.

I also thought this would be a good way to further explore the emotional aspects of the story. Correct or incorrect, women are seen by many as being more emotional than their male counterparts. Much of this story is about how music affects people emotionally and how it can stir them to the point of heroic feats, or drag them down into a paralyzed depression. As the story progresses you will see how badly it affects Watch Captain Reed, young watchman Dewon, and scores of other unnamed characters, both male and female. The only person who is successfully fighting against it is the protagonist, and it is up to the protagonist to bring everyone else around.

So, now we can kill two birds with one stone. I get to write about a female protagonist, and we get to break some stereotypes at the same time. It’s win-win, right?

Well, now it’s time for Fictionvale to step in and help me edit the story into a virtually unrecognizable tale. From simple line edits to eliminate use of weak, passive verbs to whole scene rewrites, this story had a lot work done on it. In the end a new character was introduced: the leader of the attacking army. In other words, the lead antagonist.

Scene two changed a lot. Even the opening paragraphs are different, as you’ll see here. Scene one did not change much, so we’ll leave that alone:

Mina closed the gatehouse’s upper door and checked the wide wall walk for ice. The walkway had been swept clear of the glistening snow that dusted the battlements on either side of her. Salt crystals crunched beneath her boots as she took one slow step, and then another. Around her, defenders in blue uniforms trod as carefully as she did.

Pennons affixed at regular intervals along the battlements snapped in the cold breeze. With one hand, Mina drew her fur cloak tight about her shoulders to ward off the sudden chill. She shivered. The wintry weather always got to her after hours of baking.

In her other hand she held a large sack filled with bread. She pressed this against her chest and relished the warmth that radiated through the fabric. She had given several similar bags to the quartermaster to distribute, but she liked to deliver some of them directly to the defenders on the wall.

An air of trepidation hung over the assembled city watch and militia as Mina walked amongst them. Armed men and women accepted the small loaves with murmured gratitude, but their attention was elsewhere.

Even her old friend, Watch Captain Reed, had little to say to her. “Just put the bread in my pouch.” He placed a brass spyglass to his eye.

Reed had lost weight over the past fortnight, and he was a thin man to begin with. Mina opened the indicated pouch and dropped two loaves inside. A commander needed to eat in order to function. He grunted his thanks.

His spyglass swiveled to the left and right. Mina stepped up to the parapet and raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun. The enemy camp lay below, in fields once filled with golden wheat. The wheat was gone, harvested two months ago and stored away in one of Sanctum’s granaries. In its place were hundreds of tents fashioned of animal hide. Countless men draped in multicolored furs and armor gathered around giant bonfires. From this distance they appeared as ants, but there was no mistaking their identity.

The Silver Horde—the undefeated army of barbarians and scourge on all civilized peoples.

So, why the change? The original opening to the scene did a well-enough job of introducing Reed (Who was originally Gared, by the way) and the mood of the city defenders and the attackers below, so on so forth. Why add more detail?

There are a few reasons. One was to more firmly ground the reader into the world, so the setting is described in much more detail. It also allows us to get more into Mina’s head. We see how the cold affects her, how she has to tread carefully or she’ll slip and fall with all the ice on the walkway. We also get a better idea of how the morning bread deliveries are a habit of hers. She mentions it in her thoughts, but the way Reed automatically reacts to her presence without ever really looking at her is also a telling sign.

We better see just how tense the men and women of the militia and watch are in this. All we had before was “An air of trepidation.” Now we have an air of trepidation plus their attention being elsewhere in spite of being presented with hot food on a cold day. We see Reed looking through his spyglass down into the field below, and through Mina’s eyes we see what he’s studying in much greater detail than we would have in the original scene.

The paragraph following “The Silver Horde” will give us Mina’s emotional reaction to their presence, as well as how she handles it as opposed to those around her. But, I will reveal no more in this post. I hope this post has been illuminating to my fellow writers, and has been interesting to the readers. If you want to see how Mina’s story ends, check out Episode 5 of Fictionvale! “Harmonious Bedlam” is there along with nine other great tales of fantasy, mystery, or somewhere in-between. Check them out at Fictionvale.com and at Amazon.

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