Circumstances kept me from posting a Drafty Wednesday last week, but we’ve got one this week. We’re going to look at a flash fiction piece I’m still shopping around, a present-day apocalyptic fantasy piece titled “Blue Pearls.” Think nukes and mermaids, but not nukes riding mermaids. Or mermaids riding nukes. Not quite sure how that last one would work, but it sounds like the beginnings of a badass premise to me.
Since it is a flash fiction piece I can’t put up a whole lot of it, or even an entire scene. So, I’ll only include the first couple of paragraphs to give you a feel for the story. Here is how it was written originally, when it was still code-named “Fallout Ariel” on my computer.
She brought me pearls.
That was the first thing I noticed. Never mind that we were thirty meters underwater on the floor of Ago Bay and she wore no protective suit or breathing mask. And never mind that her skin and eyes were the color of the sea around us. All I saw at first were the thumb-sized orbs gathered in her slender hands.
The second thing I noticed was she was not human, though her body above the waist was convincing enough: a well-toned stomach leading to a chest adorned with small, firm breasts that connected to a slender neck containing gill slits on either side. Almond-shaped eyes the color of the sea stared into my helmet, and a small smile stretched her lips in a pretty way.
We’re 129 words into a tale than can’t be longer than 1,000 words in length by most people’s flash fiction standards. And all of it is description, some of it necessary (Such as location and showing that at least one of the characters isn’t human) but a lot of it fluff that might be allowed in a short story but is impossible to include in a flash fiction piece. Even in a longer piece, though, the opening paragraphs should carry a bit more action. The first line isn’t bad in and of itself, since it does refer to an action. It could also do a fair job of raising questions in the reader’s mind: Who is she? Why is she bringing the narrator pearls? Probably not the most earth-shattering of premise questions, but it’ll do the job.
But, hey, my rough drafts tend to be verbose. I just finished the rough draft for a flash fiction piece last night that came in at around 1,500 words. The rough draft of “Fallout Ariel” was around 1,200 words, if I’m not mistaken. The revised draft is usually where some of this trimming takes place. I look over the rough draft, compare it with my original outline for the story and see what aspects of the writing enhance the story and what aspects add nothing. I used to be surprised by how much could be cut away from a story and actually improve on it, and in a way I still am surprised by it. It’s one of the reasons I’ve come to enjoy the editing process.
Enough rambling. Let’s get on with the next revised draft, shall we? At this point the story is still called “Fallout Ariel,” although after this the new name “Blue Pearls” will take hold. Is that important? Well, you’ll have to read the story whenever it reaches a final destination.
1st Revised Draft:
The Mermaid brought me pearls today.
We were thirty meters down on the seabed. The sun burned bright over Ago Bay that morning, allowing me to see the shiny, thumb-sized orbs in her webbed hands. Almond-shaped eyes the color of the sea gazed at me through my helmet’s glass, and a small smile stretched her lips in a pretty way.
I wanted her. She always swam away whenever I reached out with a gloved hand. But, today she brought me pearls.
I reached for them. I reached for her.
Now we’re getting somewhere. The opening line has been changed to declare that one of the characters is a mermaid. This eliminates the need for some of the description of the original rough draft, but I didn’t like the abruptness of it in the first sentence. It took a bit of the mystery out of it, and ultimately I would change that back. Still, depending on my goals with the story it’s not a bad way to begin.
We’re now down to just one paragraph of description. We know the narrator is underneath a place called Ago Bay, and he is in some kind of a diving suit. We don’t know if he’s in a modern suit or one of those old, brass diving suits that I think are amazing (And not just because of Bioshock’s Big Daddies). We also know what the mermaid looks like, and that the narrator finds her attractive.
In the next paragraph we learn that the narrator has seen the mermaid many times before, something new from the rough draft where it seemed like a first encounter. If I recall in my notes it was their first encounter, but I didn’t think that would work for what happened in the rest of the story. The pair are thrown together shortly after this scene begins, and that just wouldn’t work if they didn’t have at least a little familiarity with one another. So, the idea that they have seen each other before comes into play.
We also learn in just a few words that the mermaid always fled whenever the narrator tried to reach for her. Her natural tendency towards timidity will be tested later on in the story in a powerful way, so it’s important to get this out in the open early on.
Lastly we get a decision on the narrator’s part. The narrator had always scared the mermaid off in earlier encounters, but now the mermaid is offering something. The narrator has a choice: reach out, or don’t. The narrator chooses to reach out not just for the pearls, but for her as well.
All of that in just 99 words. When the original 129 didn’t cover even half of this. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when a little bit of trimming is employed.
This scene was largely unchanged from what I sent out to different publishers. “Blue Pearls” in this form ended up in the final selections for Flash Fiction Online, but did not survive the winnowing process. The editor and staff over there were nice enough to provide me with valuable commentary on what I did wrong and right with the story, and I’ve incorporated many of those suggestions into the final version. I said “wrong and right” for a reason: one always learns better from failings and mistakes than they do from successes. At least, that’s how I work.
One of the things I discovered was I might have trimmed too much out of the beginning. At least a couple of the staff members were not sure why the narrator was under the bay at all, and when I looked through the story I realized some of my hints as to his profession were a little too subtle and vague, to the point that only someone with inside knowledge of the story (i.e. me) would understand. The narrator is a radiation diver, wearing a enclosed, protective suit not unlike the brass suits of yore. He’s there to maintain the radiation netting that’s been strung up across Ago in order to keep irradiated waters from spilling into Ago Bay. Why are the waters irradiated? Well, that’s left up to the reader. It could have to do with Fukushima, or it could have to do with the apocalyptic aspect I threw out there in the description of the story.
Anyway, here is the final version of those opening paragraphs that I’m currently shopping around. Let me know what you think of the added description and how it compares to the rest:
The Mermaid brought me pearls that day.
We were thirty meters down on the seabed. The morning sun burned bright over Ago Bay, allowing me to see the shiny, thumb-sized orbs in her webbed hands. Almond-shaped eyes the color of the sea gazed at me through my helmet’s glass, and a small smile stretched her lips in a pretty way.
She had been watching me for days, following me as I inspected the radiation netting that kept the waters of the bay relatively free of pollutants. She would get close sometimes, as she was at that moment, but she would swim away whenever I reached out with a gloved hand; whenever my desire for her showed.
That last day, though, she brought me pearls.
I reached for them. I reached for her.
For those of you who are curious, Ago Bay is a real place in the Ise-Shima region of Japan. My inspiration for the story came from reading about the pearl diving women from that region. It’s an ancient custom that is still practiced today, though it is a dying art. I wrote another story about a pearl diving village titled “A Ningyo’s Pearls” that I may have to look at in an upcoming Drafty Wednesday, and I’m including the concept in the Soulweaver universe. There’s just something fascinating about the whole concept to me, and it’s been that way ever since I read The Prince of Shadow by Curt Benjamin. In it the main character’s journey begins in a pearl diving village. That part of the story is not more than a hundred pages or so, but it was enough to spark my interest.