WIPika Fridays: What Draft Is This Again?

Another week, another bit of productivity.

First on the block is the editing for “The Lone Blue Strand” for Fictionvale. I received the edits on Sunday night, and have spent an hour or so every day this week working on it. There’s still a little bit left to do tomorrow, but for all intents and purposes it’s finished. I’ll send it off tomorrow morning and wait for the second round of edits to come back my way.

Second accomplishment has been the short story codenamed “Evaporated Ocean.” It’s actually a rewrite of a short story I wrote back in 2012 that didn’t go anywhere with publishers. Looking back on it, I understand why: it’s unreadable! There are aspects of it that are neat (Such as the setting), but the characterization and plot were blah. Not coherent in any way, shape, or form. The core setting is largely the same, but the characters and plot have been changed almost completely. I’ve completed three outlines of it, and have started on what could be the second/third draft of it. I plan to finish that tomorrow, and then Sunday work on heavy edits for it.

First line from it:

Jisan paced along the dry ocean floor.

The name of the story will have nothing to do with evaporated anything, so I hope the idea of the ocean floor being anything other than wet will stand out to readers and make them want to continue on. I try to start my stories either with a conflict, or with a strange premise that grabs them. Don’t know that I succeed at it, but I know I’m a lot better than I used to be.

That’s something I should post up one day. A list of story first lines, from my earliest works to now. Should be amusing for somebody, at least.

The novel outlining has had its ups and downs this week. I’ve completed more than I probably would have had I not been on any sort of schedule, but I’ve officially gotten behind. I don’t know that I’ll be able to make up any time Saturday, but Sunday I will have to put my nose to the grindstone and get caught up. Even if it takes all afternoon and evening, it’ll have to get done! Fortunately we have leftover pizza that we made last week, so dinner’s sorted.

Where reading’s concerned, I’m also behind. I had hoped to finish with Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson before the weekend, but that’s just not happening. Same goes with Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman. I want to take my time with them and really read them, so it’s taking longer than expected. Alas.

Still, not bad for the second full week of adjusting to a new writing schedule. I need to hold onto this level of productivity, and ratchet it up. As long as I don’t slide backward, it’s all good from here.

Drafty Wednesdays: A Look at “Snowmelt”

Yes, I still haven’t come up with a working title for this viking-esque romp. I’m not fully finished with the story yet, so that’s probably why. Sometimes story titles refuse to come to me until I’m ready to push it out the door. Not sure if that’s laziness on my part or if I’m just bad at naming things. Either way, here we are.

I’m deviating from the (currently) established norm and will not show the opening scene to the story. Instead, I want to illustrate how well a fight scene can turn out once it’s gone from crappy rough draft to less crappy second draft to hopefully brilliant (At the very least, passable) final draft.

In this fight scene, Ylva (the protagonist) is facing off against Randolf, a subordinate challenging one of her decisions to the point of questioning her leadership entirely. She is an experienced shieldmaiden and has only just recently been made jarl of her town, following the death of her father. A more established jarl could get away with not accepting a challenge, but not in her case. So, the duel goes on.

This is my first time writing a fight scene since reading the book Writing Fight Scenes. In it, Rayne Hall breaks fights/battles/scuffles/violent action into six main areas:

  • Suspense – the proverbial calm before the storm.
  • Start – what it says. The opening blows, the opponents sizing each other up, etc.
  • Action – the fight begins in earnest.
  • Surprise – optional depending on type of fight, but adds depth. Could be anything from a sword shattering to a monsoon occurring.
  • Climax – the final, decisive moves.
  • Aftermath – the winner dusts himself off, spouts a noir-worthy one-liner, and heads off for the next big hurrah.

I would love to show the whole fight here, as its final version is no more than 820 words from the very beginning of the Suspense phase (Even a bit before it, really) to the part where the victory has to choose whether to slay the defeated or not. But, since I’m going to be shopping this around to some professional magazines, I’d rather not shoot myself in the literary foot for revealing too much. Instead, the Start, Action and Surprise phases will be shown.

Rough Draft:

Start:

They circled one another, each holding their shields close, but with the rims facing their opponent. She had learned from her father long ago to do it

Fight:

Randolf struck first, his axe head whistling through the air. Ylva stepped back. He swung again, too fast to dodge. She caught it on her shield. The blow reverberated up her arm. She hissed, and thrust with her sword, inside his shield guard. He jumped back. She pursued.

She pushed him back with a flurry of well-placed blows. She aimed at his thighs, his abdomen, his weapon hand. He dodged or caught the strikes on his shield. They approached the challenge ring’s edge. The crowd roared.

Randolf growled, and struck with his axe. Gods, he was fast. She blocked one blow, and then another.

Surprise:

A third strike connected. Her shield split, the axe blade held fast in the wood.

“Not even the Kraken could break that!” someone yelled.

A flash of anger ran through Ylva. Her father had given her this shield! She twisted and wrenched the axe from Randolf’s grip. She threw shield and weapon away.

Badly written, right? Well, that’s what rough drafts are for. Too much information (Does it really matter exactly how they’re holding their shields? They’re holding them. The reader can imagine it how they like), too many passive verbs (Was/Were). It’s also a bit lacking for a fight between individuals who are well-matched against one another, one with strength (Randolf) and the other with experience (Ylva). There’s also not much in the way of emotion on either’s part.

But, the basic structure is there. Let’s see what we can do to make it a bit better:

Second Draft:

Suspense:

They retreated a couple of steps, and then circled one another. Ylva kept her feet close to the ground, her boots clinging to the hard-packed dirt until she needed to move them. The crowd kept silent. No one wanted to miss the first strike.

Action:

Despite his earlier confidence, Randolf moved in cautiously. Ylva took advantage of his hesitance and slashed at his axe-hand. He jerked away and deflected her blade with the rim of his shield. He raised his axe to strike her, but stabbed just as he opened his guard. The point tore through his shirt and cut his chest. He grunted.

“First blood to the Jarl!” Tyr shouted, his voice almost lost over the screaming crowd.

Ylva tried to press her advantage, but Randolf counterattacked. The veins in his neck and head stood out as he advanced. His axe rose and fell in a flurry of blows. Ylva dodged some, but blocked others with her shield. The repeated impacts reverberated up her arm. Her shoulder grew numb.

Surprise:

Randolf swung again. Ylva raised her shield. Woodchips sprayed. He tried to jerk the blade free, but it held fast. She wrenched the shield back. The axe came with it. She flung shield and weapon away.

In this version another character, Tyr, is introduced. He’s basically the town priest and the one who oversees such challenges to the jarl’s authority. In this instance he’s part referee, part announcer.

So, it’s gotten better, even if not by much. There’s a definite build-up of action, and passive verbs have taken their peace-loving hippy ways elsewhere. While they’re all right in other scenes, they won’t do in action scenes. Or, I should say they’ll rarely do. There are few absolutes in writing, after all.

Now, for this last one – the final draft as of now – I’ll show just a bit more of the surprise phase. I decided on having two surprises during this fight: one where Ylva seems to gain the upper hand, one where Randolf seems to take the advantage back. It finishes in a brutal climax shortly after, but hopefully it’ll make it somewhere so everyone can read it.

Final Draft:

Start:

Ylva and Randolf circled one another. She kept her feet close to the hard-packed dirt. He made wide steps, as if to remind her of their difference in size. The crowd kept silent. No one wanted to miss the first strike.

Action:

Randolf lunged forward. Ylva danced back. He struck again. The axe glanced off her shield. She slashed at his exposed arm. He twisted away and deflected her sword with the rim of his shield.

He raised his axe. His shield shifted slightly. She stabbed into that sudden gap. Her blade tore through his shirt and pricked his chest. He grunted. Blood stained the ripped cloth.

“First blood to the Jarl!” Tyr shouted. The townsmen cheered.

A line of crimson ran down the length of Ylva’s sword. Her dagger had looked the same that day. Her chest constricted. Hot guilt burned through her. She couldn’t let it touch her. Not again. She flicked the accursed liquid away with a wild swing.

Light flashed overhead. Panic seized her. Sindri’s knife? No, Randolf’s axe!

She snapped her shield up. His heavy blade slammed into scarred wood. The impact reverberated up her arm. Her shoulder ached.

The veins in Randolf’s neck and head stood out as he advanced. His axe rose and fell in a flurry of blows. Ylva’s arm went numb. She gasped for breath. Gods, he’s fast!

Surprise:

He swung again. The axe bit into her raised shield. Woodchips sprayed, and the blade held fast when he tried to jerk it free. Her shoulder screamed in protest. With a cry, she wrenched the shield back. The axe flew out of his hands. She flung both away.

The roar in her ears drowned out the roar of the crowd. She rotated her left shoulder to work the numbness out.

Even unarmed, Randolf continued to advance. She stabbed and slashed. He dodged and blocked with his shield. Her sword went wide.

He stepped inside her guard. His fist connected. Pain exploded in her jaw. She staggered back.

Randolf slammed into Ylva. His weight bore them both down. She landed hard on her back. Her sword skittered across the dirt. She reached for her dagger.

He pressed against her flesh and pinned her left hand to her side. His arm pushed against her throat. She struggled for air that would not come. He leered down at her.

Ylva’s right hand scrabbled through the dirt for something, anything. Her vision blurred, and darkened at the corners. Fear jolted through her.

Ok, so part of that last bit is the beginning of the climax phase. But, I figured that last sentence was the best place to stop. The most dramatic place, in any event. Our heroine is seemingly down for the count. How is she going to defeat him? What’s for dinner that night? Oh, wait, that last one doesn’t get covered here. Sorry. (That’s what I get for writing blog posts before dinner)

It was during this draft that I really tried adhering to the 6-part structure, and I think it’s turned out ten times better than the previous iterations because of it. Is it good enough to sell to someone? Well, I’d like to think so. But, I know more work can be done on it. More work can always be done.

Oh, if you’re wondering what the “Sindri’s knife?” line is about, Ylva is suffering from a little bit of PTSD from the last battle she was in. I won’t say more, but there are instances of this scattered throughout the short story, reminders for her of a recent event that she is ashamed and horrified of.Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this foray into fight scenes. At the very least, seeing how horrible my earlier drafts are should encourage anyone to get a rough draft out. Even if you think it’s terrible, realize this: it’s terrible for most of us! Get through it, and get to the editing. Editing is where the real writing begins. It’s where the magic happens.

So, there you have it. My first attempt at writing a fight scene in 2015. Did Rayne Hall’s book help me? I think so. I’ve always loved writing fight scenes, but I don’t think I fully understood how to account for the build-up of action and the general ebb and flow of chaotic situations. But, I’ll have more experience in a short while. I’m currently outlining a book that will have several fights in it. I expect I’ll showcase more of them here.

Hurray, more exposure for my crappy first drafts!

WIPika Fridays: Novels and Shorts, Oh Me, Oh My

Today is the first full week of 2015, and it’s been a fairly productive one.

As of this afternoon two and a half drafts of a fantasy short story have been finished. The story is, at the moment, called “Snowmelt” (Or “Viking Irrigation”) and is consistently coming in at around 3,000 – 4,000 words or so. Not sure what the final count will be, but I doubt it will be much larger than 4,500 words. I may even be able to shave some out of it.

So, what is the story about? Well, it’s set in the Wendigo universe, and follows a 15 year old shieldmaiden who has just been field-promoted to Jarl (Lord) of her land after her father was killed prior to the story’s beginning. She has also survived an assassination attempt by her uncle and his illegitimate son. Men loyal to her killed her Uncle, but she had to personally take down her cousin. They grew up together, and his death traumatized her.

So, how do you salve this hurt in her soul? Well, if we want to be nice to the character we spend the whole story putting her in situations where she can cope, grieve, and recover. But, we’re not going to do that.

Instead, she’s thrown right into the fire. The first place she visits in the story is the farm that her cousin owned, to break the news to his widow.

The following is from the third draft, so it’s subject to change. Also, the names are placeholders at the moment:

Blood pooled on the blackwood tabletop. Ayla raised the wet knife. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t kill you.”

Ylva sat stock-still, her hands pressed to her sides. She kept her voice level, matter-of-fact. “I am your next of kin, and your Jarl.”

Ayla snorted.

And you don’t want your children raised by the woman who bereft them of father and mother.” Ylva’s hand strayed to her side and touched the hilt of her misericorde, the mercy dagger. The weapon she had killed her own cousin with.

Ayla’s eyes narrowed and her fair face flushed. She slammed the knife down. Its keen edge bit into the cut of goat meat.

Ylva kept her features smooth, but her insides roiled with nauseating guilt. Ayla, how can you ever forgive me?

Ayla sawed at the meat. “How did Sindri die?”

In other news, progress is being made on the Wendigo novel front. It will not feature any of the characters in this particular short story, except indirectly. It will be focused on the happenings of the mainland continent to the east of where this story takes place. No actual draft writing was accomplished, nor will it be until February. But, the outline is progressing very smoothly. The goal is to finish it by January 31st, but I would love to get it done beforehand, if possible.

Drafty Wednesdays: A Look at “Hero Defeats Ultimate Evil!”

The first Drafty Wednesday of 2015 is a short one, because we’ll be looking at a flash fiction piece I spent the last week working on: “Hero Defeats Ultimate Evil!”

Maoyu_coverThe story began as an idea taken from the concept behind the book series and anime Maoyu. Unfortunately I have not read the books, but I have seen the anime and can comment on it. The anime is basically a good versus evil tale, but with the twist that the Hero and the evil Demon King end up working together to break the never-ending cycle of war and create a better world for all. In it the main characters have no names, instead being referred to by their class: Hero, Demon King, Rogue, Merchant, etc. The idea, as I understand it, is to show them as the archetypes that they are.

I thought of doing something similar with a flash fiction piece, though probably not nearly as ambitious. I grew up playing RPGs on the SNES and later the Genesis, and the running theme through nearly all of them was the defeat of some kind of ultimate evil. And in most cases the evil was something that had either been sealed away in ages past and was now running rampant, or it was now running rampant and the solution was for the heroes (i.e. you and your controller) to seal the evil away “for all time” or whenever the sequel could be made.

This gave rise to the full title of today’s story: “Hero Defeats Ultimate Evil! Seals away for future generations to deal with.”

Seriously, why not just kill it and be done with it? Maybe I’m just not as pure and good as the good guys in these stories and RPGs must be, or maybe I’m just a coward. If a bad guy’s facing me down with the intent to kill me or mine, then I want him dead. That way he can’t come back and finish the job later.

Anyway, as you can tell from the title this isn’t going to be your typical POV kind of story. The title, I hope, reads like a newspaper article. That was the idea of it in the beginning, anyway. This would be the journalist’s view of what occurs in many RPGs: the defeat and sealing away of a great evil, and what it means for those involved.

The rough draft of it was, as you would imagine by seeing, fairly rough. I really had no idea how news articles like this would have been written, nor did I care. I had a spark for the idea and wanted to get it down on paper. And I did, in a half hour or so. It’s amazing how quickly an idea can be written out once it’s rattled around in my head for a long enough time. The original draft was around 704 words and broken out into 15 paragraphs. Here is the first few paragraphs of it:

Hero Defeats Ultimate Evil

Seals away for future generations to deal with.

Reporter seeks bards to put epic story to music.

After a cataclysmic battle lasting three days and two nights (“Even heroes need to sleep,” Paladin was overheard saying after sprinkling holy water on her pajamas) the Hero’s Party has done the impossible. The Ultimate Evil is vanquished, its body broken and sent to the depths of a newly formed lake at the base of Mount Doom. It is not quite dead, but it has been sealed away.

It will be many generations before the Ultimate Evil rises again,” Mage said. The gemstone on the end of her staff smoked from the amount of magical energy expended to carry out the world-saving deed. She wiped sweat from her dirty brow and pointed to the still-churning waters. “The lake will settle, but it will stir once more. Have no doubt of that.”

Reads pretty crappily, right? Well, for someone who doesn’t know the story at all, anyway. Who’s Paladin? And who is Mage? It becomes apparent that they’re members of a group called the Hero’s Party, but that’s not explained all that well in the beginning. It made sense to me, but I’m the writer. It hopefully makes sense to the guy behind the wheel.

After this I started reading up on wartime news articles, specifically the BBC’s stuff from World War II. I came up with a better idea of how a news article should be formed. Namely:

  1. Start with the punch line, the gist of the story. The title of the article already says it all, whether it’s “Hero Defeats Ultimate Evil” or “Normandy Invasion a Success.” Following that and maybe a subheadline, the first paragraph should say the most important thing that happened.
  2. The next two or three paragraphs expand on this punch line, going into a little bit more detail about what happened, what it means, or maybe what important figures or leaders have to say about it. A quote by a general, or something an eyewitness saw. Something that brings it all home.
  3. The meat of the story, or what I like to call, “Back to the beginning.” Here we go to the start of it all. The operation’s launch-point. We then work our way forward until we reach the aforementioned climax again and lay it out in more detail than the summary at the first of the article.
  4. The conclusion. Here the article pauses to reflect on the significance of the event, or to mention other things that were happening at the same moment elsewhere, or some such bit of reflective work.

Armed with this, I looked back over my work and came up with a much longer second draft. 1,274 words, and 32 paragraphs. Here’s the first bit of that:

Hero Defeats Ultimate Evil

Seals away for future generations to deal with.

After seven years of terror, the world is finally free from the clutches of the Ultimate Evil!

In a cataclysmic battle that sundered a mountain range, changed the course of two rivers, and left the magical city of Tarsis a smoldering crater, the elite members of the Hero’s Party (HP) have finally completed the impossible task placed upon them. The Ultimate Evil (UE) is vanquished, sealed away inside a newly formed lake filled with holy water.

UE struck the first blow in a horrific display of its tremendous power. A gigantic spell circle appeared in the skies over Tarsis, and moments later the earth opened up and swallowed whole sections of the city. The intent was to kill everyone in HP, but they had already left the soon-to-be destroyed city.

Better, but still not where I want to be at. We’re jumping into the meat of the story (“UE struck the first blow…”) too soon. Also, it’s a bit long for what is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek story. I doubt I’ll keep the reader’s interest for much more than 1,000 words, so going nearly 300 over that is a bad move.

More revision followed. This time I analyzed several articles and tried to come up with ratios for the punchline summary, the meat of the article, and the conclusion. After going through several wartime articles I came up with a rough formula:

  • Punchline summary – 10-15% of the article. The fewest paragraphs I saw were three, and the most were five.
  • Meat of the story – 65-80% of the article. Obviously the bulk of it, as it is here we’re going into the most detail about things.
  • Conclusion – 10-20%. If the ramifications of the event are huge or some famous person makes a commentary about things, this will end up being longer. At other times it’s only going to be a few words or so. Still, the shortest I saw this section was around two paragraphs. The most was five, depending on how long the overall article was.

Now we’re talking. This is quite a bit of work for a simple short story, right? Sadly, this inefficiency spills over into my longer works, which explains why it’ll take me upwards of 10,000 words to write a 4,000 word story sometimes. Sad, but true!

Ok, here’s the final revision, the version I submitted to:

Hero Defeats Ultimate Evil!

Subheadline: Seals away for future generations to deal with.

After seven years of terror, the world is finally free from the clutches of the Ultimate Evil!

In a cataclysmic battle that sundered Mount Dour Doom, changed the course of two underground rivers, and left the magical city of Dilirin a smoldering crater, the elite men and women of the Hero’s Party (HP) have done the impossible:

The Ultimate Evil (UE) is vanquished, sealed away inside a newly formed lake blessed by Paladin and Priest.

Paladin struck her breastplate in salute. “The Gods are with us! Failure was never a possibility.”

Priest dropped to his knees and prayed for those who had been lost.

Earlier this week HP gathered in Dilirin to receive a magical talisman that would help in the fight against UE.

So, the title and first line of the story has not changed at all from the get-go. I only added “subheadline” so that a first reader/editor will be able to note that it’s not the real beginning of the story, but rather an extension of the title. Probably not necessary, but I’m quirky like that.

Here we have the punchline summary done in five short paragraphs, beginning with the declaration that the world is finally free from the clutches of the Ultimate Evil, a brief summary of the battle and the damage wrought, and quotes or actions from two members of the Hero’s Party (This time properly introduced). We then begin the meat of the story with “Earlier this week…” and the story proceeds from there to its ultimate full-circle conclusion.

It reads more like a wartime article than it ever has, and I feel like it’s now something I could do should I decide to write any more stories in this format. Will I? Not sure. Depends on how well this one does, as well as what else strikes my fancy. My writing tends more on the traditional sword and sorcery side, but I do like experimenting with new styles and different genres and subgenres. So, we shall see!

As for the final version of the story? I was able to trim it down to right at 1,000 words. How’s that for a rubberband effect? Went from 700 to 1,300 back down to 1,000. If I’d written another draft it might’ve ballooned again! Glad I got it fired off.

WIPika Fridays: WOTF Entry, Second Draft

Another week down, but not as much to show for it as I would like. Christmas seems to be a multi-day affair in my wife’s family, and even though it happens every year I never fully prepare for it.

Despite that, most of the second draft of my Writers of the Future entry is finished. Spent last weekend and the early part of the week going back through the rough draft, transcribing it onto the computer, and taking down notes. I usually write the second draft on the computer, but I’m trying to do it by hand again to see what happens. This I’ll then transcribe, and begin work on the third draft.

I’m no longer confident that I will have this draft in a place where I’m comfortable to submit it to something as prestigious as the Writers of the Future, though. We’ll see what happens between now and New Year’s Eve, but I’m thinking it’s going to have to wait until the next quarter. If that’s the case, I plan to still get it finished within the next week or so. I don’t want to keep going back and forth on the story, because it will slow me down going into 2015. And I’ve got some big plans for 2015. More on that next week.

For now, back to writing! Still have a couple of scenes to finish.

WIPika Fridays: “Refocusing” and WOTF Entry

This week was fairly light with regards to actually finishing stories. “Refocusing” is a flash fiction piece that’s stuck with me for awhile. And, if you read this week’s “Drafty Wednesdays” post you’ll have read the opening paragraphs of the story. It’s currently floating out in the submissions aether, looking for bites from first readers and editors. Will it succeed? Maybe, maybe not. The point is it’s out there. In the worst case, it will wind up on here sometime during 2015 as a lead-in to the Soulweaver Universe. An older version of the main character of “Refocusing” is going to be a supporting character in at least the first book, but I expect there will be more stories focusing on her as a child in the future.

I’ve also made good progress on my Writers of the Future entry for the first quarter of 2015. The rough draft is done! I wish I could post up even a tiny excerpt of it or what it’s about, but they are pretty strict about maintaining anonymity for entries. I won’t be able to post anything about it until after the quarter ends.

Suffice it to say, next week will be busy, especially with Christmas coming up. Not sure how much will get done, but we’ll see.

Drafty Wednesdays: A Look at “Refocusing”

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.

Bad sign, shaking like that in this heat.

Bad sign, shaking like that in this heat.

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.

No Drafty Wednesdays This Week

With my wife taking off from work this week I’m a bit behind on my own work. And what time I do have to myself I want to use to focus on plotting and planning of a few stories. I have some hopes of getting several more tales done before the year is out, but I’m really focused on finishing an entry for the Writers of the Future.

WIPika Fridays: Of Refrigerators and Furnaces

There’s not a whole lot to show at this point of the week, unfortunately. I mean, I did get two stories finished, but they’re so short they can’t be considered much of an accomplishment. Not for a whole week’s worth of effort, in any event.

On the Premises is wrapping up Mini-Contest #24 today. They wanted a story no shorter than 20 words and no longer than 40 words. And of those words, exactly one had to be the word “refrigerator.” A single instance of a single refrigerator. I managed to come up with two stories concerning refrigerators and fantastical elements, but could only send in one. After some deliberation, I chose one and sent it off. We should get results back from that in a week. Several other members of the Writers of the Future forum submitted as well, so it will be neat to see how many – if any – of us make it into the prize or honorable mention categories. I would be ecstatic with either designation, as recognition is its own reward.

I have to admit I’ve started growing fonder of attempting flash and micro fiction. I haven’t been keeping up with my December plan of writing a flash fiction piece each week, but I really do want to get back into it again. It’s a manageable goal, even with some of the other demands I’ve placed on myself. And regardless of manageability, it’s good experience. You learn something every time you complete a piece of fiction, provided you have an open mind willing to accept either criticism from others (Readers, editors, etc) or criticism from yourself. I’ve read several books and articles on the art of fiction writing (From novels to shorts) and have discovered new things about stories I’ve previously written. I now know why certain stories did not make it past the slush gates, and what’s better: I now know how to fix them, if I’m of a mind to. The problem is having so many new ideas pressing that I now understand why a lot of well-established writers simply trunk stories that did not make the cut.

Anyway, that is all for this week. Next week will probably involve a lot less writing as well. My wife is taking the week off from work, but I won’t be sitting idle the entire time. Even if I don’t write any prose, there will be brainstorming and outlining going on. My goal is to get at least four stories outlined, and to make headway into the re-outlining of the first Wendigo novel.

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.