This particular flash fiction piece has been rattling around in my head and on various forms of paper and electronic media for weeks now. I finally finished it up this week and got it sent off to the first potential market (Wait, make that second. Clarkesworld works fast). So, while it’s still fresh in my mind, let’s take a look at it from conception to finished product.
“Refocusing” is in some ways a world building exercise, but its focus (No pun intended) is on developing a particular character in the Soulweaver Universe: Rina, an apprentice fire magi trying to deal with a tragic past. Well, aren’t we all?
Anyway, this story brings part of that tragic past into light: the morning her fire magic manifested itself. She was burned horribly by her previous master as punishment for something she didn’t even do, and in that instant her fire magic – her “spark” – activated. She’s been in the care of the royal family of Zele ever since, under the tutelage of the Royal Magus himself.
Enough background. Let’s get into the story. We’re now a few years from that incident. Rina has spent the last few years training as an apprentice, learning to control her fire magic while still being afraid of fire in general. It’s something Royal Magus Elis has worked with her on, Now those efforts are hopefully going to bear fruit. Due to a shortage of staff for reasons not disclosed in the story, Rina is the only fire magi available to be sent to the glassworks to assist them with a furnace that has burned out. She will have to master her fear if she is to get the furnace activated again.
Now, on to the rough draft:
The glassworks reeked of cooked meat.
Rina stood at the open double-doors separating the building’s cavernous depths from the bustling streets of the Crafter’s Quarter. Heat from a dozen open furnaces blasted her, and she broke out in a sweat. Even on the threshold the stench permeated everything. She covered her nose with a dark hand.
Beneath her crimson robes her legs burned with phantom pain, a result of the last time she had smelled such an awful odor. Tears stung at her eyes. She wanted to run back to the palace, to beg Magus Elis to send someone else.
The first draft is very front-heavy with revelations. Since this is the draft that only I get to read (Well, except for brief bits) I attribute this to some subconscious desire to beat myself over the head with things so I don’t forget about them. We’ll need to try and spread the emotional baggage throughout the story rather than just dump it all in one spot. Of course, since this is a flash fiction piece we can’t linger too long.
Rina meets Gaffer Fintan, the glassworks master, immediately after this. I wanted him and his problem to be front and center, since she is here to solve a problem. In the original draft the problem wasn’t mentioned until well into the second page. I wanted it on page one. Now, with the revisions that follow you won’t see mention of that problem in the opening few paragraphs, but trust me: it’s on the first page.
“I told Elis I needed someone slight, but I didn’t expect him to send me a child!” Piercing eyes reflected the glow of a dozen furnaces. “How old are you, girl?”
“Th-thirteen, master.” Rina bowed. The edges of her crimson robe brushed against the tile floor. Waves of heat rolled out from the furnaces and warmed her cheeks. She shivered, and a searing pain lanced through her legs just below the knees.
The man snorted, and ran a hand through short, graying hair. “I’m a gaffer, not some pompous lordling. Name’s Fintan. Yours?”
“Rina, mast- Gaffer.” She rubbed at her legs and willed the phantom pain to go away.
Now we’re moving a bit more into the realm of subtlety. Gone is the description of the glassworks smelling like cooked meat. I think this was a good opening sentence, but it draws attention away from other things, such as Rina’s more immediate fear of fire and her first meeting with Fintan, the glassworks master. The smell of cooked meat will return later in the story, as they approach the furnace that needs to be worked on.
Still, I think something is missing from it. We know she’s uncomfortable around fire. After all, the heat rolling off the ovens is causing her to shiver. I’ve spent many a month out in the southern summer, and shivering in that kind of heat is a bad sign.
But, while we’re seeing her physical reactions we’re not yet fully inside her head. I don’t want to beat the reader over the head with all this, so just a bit more subtlety is in order for this part of the story. See bold:
“I said I needed someone slight, but I didn’t expect Elis to send a child!” Piercing eyes reflected the glow of a dozen furnaces. “How old are you, girl?”
“Th-thirteen, master.” Rina bowed, the fringe of her crimson robe brushing against tile. Waves of heat rolled out from the furnaces and warmed her cheeks. She shivered, and searing agony lanced through her legs just below the knees. Calm down, Rina.
The man ran a hand through graying hair. “I’m a gaffer, not some pompous lordling. Name’s Fintan, glassworks master. Yours?”
“Rina, mast- Gaffer.” She willed the phantom pain in her legs to go away. That was years ago. Stop it!
Now we have some thought bubbles floating over her head in the comic book version of this story. This is important, as during the climax of the story Rina has a lot of frantic thoughts bouncing around her thirteen year-old skull. The addition of such italicized thoughts was a little jarring when I looked over the story with my crude editor’s lens. I read a lot of 80’s/90’s fantasy where character thoughts abound, but I’ve noticed that is not always the case with genre fiction. Some stories have no “thought bubbles” while others are prolific. The one thing I do notice is consistency within each novel. If a novel is going to have italics, they’re peppered throughout the work. If not, then you won’t see any. Or, you may see a couple, but it’ll be very rare.
Since understanding Rina’s state of mind is critical in the story’s climax, we need the thought bubbles there. And since they’re needed there, they’re needed elsewhere.
Is this submitted version better than the rough draft? Well, I hope so. It took me a lot longer to get it finished than I had planned, but that happens when you start analyzing stuff. It’s no longer just telling a fun story. It’s about telling a fun story in a structured way.
Speaking of which, it’s time to get back to a rough draft I was working on.