Revising The Storm- Week 4

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Here we go, continuing with the edit of my short story The Storm. So far I have made it through the introduction, and now will work on Oscar’s journey to find the missing seaman Harry. This is an important segment, where Oscar extends himself further and further into waters that he is uncomfortable with, alone and wondering why he’s putting his neck out for a man he hates.

The Start of the Journey)

Oscar sighed, then slowly began to turn the wheel. There was that brief moment of delay between cause and effect, then the boat responded to his steering. Now his entire world shifted. The happy view of pier, berth, and road up to Lenny’s Tavern slid away to the left, giving way to the long, low coast, the rising point of the cape, and finally the bleak, open sea yawning wide.

Oscar spun the wheel back, steadying himself towards the storm. Where before he had only given the mounting clouds a cursory glance, he now held them in serious scrutiny. The muddled gray had grown darker since just a few moments ago, making it truly impossible to discern sky from sea, save for when a spike of lightning split the void. Oscar became aware now of the wind whistling around the wheelhouse, a constant, low, forbidding moan. And now that he was moving against the tide it rolled under his feet at doubled strength, raising and lowering him in a constant rhythm. All these particulars had had no weight on him when he was headed back to berth, but now that he intended towards them they were daggers of dread in his mind.

It was nearly enough to turn him back landward right then and there! But he gave himself a little shake and occupied himself with his work so that he didn’t have time to think about it.

“Back a little north,” he said to himself, “keep a steady and brisk pace for the cape.” So saying he turned the wheel until the cape came back to the forefront. Of course this made the oncoming waves buffet more strongly against the starboard side of his trawler, trying to push him homeward, but Oscar stubborned his hands against them. Never mind the discomfort, the fastest course was the best. These waves weren’t yet tall enough to roll him.

And so Oscar quickly advanced on the cape. The Broken Horn it was called, and it rose quickly from the otherwise flat coastline. Too quickly, in fact, for the grass and trees to keep up, thus its promontory point was naught but black, jagged rock, broken in a thousand places by the brunt of the sea. An ominous sigil to be sure.

From time-to-time he worked the radio, trying to raise Harry, but all to no avail. The man must still be around the rock, and something must have gone wrong with his journey.

Of course, it wasn’t the first time things had gone wrong in a storm for Harry.

Oscar had nearly made it to the cape and he quickly spun the wheel to the right. He didn’t dare draw any nearer to the Broken Horn, for there were treacherous shoals at its feet, and if one snagged their boat on those they would be quickly overrun by the endless flow of water. Or if not swamped, the constant surf would push the vessel past the shoals, then pound it into the jagged edges of the cliff beyond, tearing it to shreds in a single instant! If Harry had run into trouble anywhere else Oscar might have left him to run aground and wait out the storm on a rain-soaked beach, but here there was no “aground” to run into.

So Oscar pointed his vessel due east, letting the cape slip by him on the left. Of course due east also meant that the he was pointed back at the face of the storm, and here the water ran much deeper than before.

When I revised the very beginning of the story I cut the number of words by a very great deal. Here I am actually adding more in. This segment of Oscar turning from the docks, making for the cape, and turning deeper into the storm was originally 507 words, now it is 591. I do like the change these extra words bring. One of the things I knew I wanted to change was to make this journey to feel much more epic and exhausting.

You can view the original version of this piece here if you want, but my main changes were to stress the transition from cozy pier to stark sea, and to paint the way that Oscar’s mind is flooded with all the details that previously had had no bearing on him. I also added the detail of the waves buffeting the side of his ship and him having to hold the wheel steady, to communicate the constant physical exertion that will only increase as the story rolls along.

One thing I dialed back on, though, was the intensity of the storm at this point. I removed references to the cape looking like ink and shrouded in fog and the clouds being whipped by the air. I want to set this up as the beginning of a marathon, and I want the audience to be able to feel the escalation of the storm late on, so better to not have it be at a fever pitch just yet.

The first of those escalations will occur now as Oscar turns himself back into the face of the storm, but there will be many more to follow. Come back in a week as we continue that journey.

Covalent: Part Four

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Cace lay very still, waiting until he was sure that Rolar and Aylme were both asleep. Of course none of the children slept very deeply in their small hole beneath the tree. It was stuffy and humid, their sweat would stick to them, the moisture would choke them, there was no such thing as real comfort. They hoped only to get enough rest to less feel fatigued when they woke than when they had retired.

So this was as good a time as any to try and press into the Ether, perhaps Aylme would stir enough to notice what he was doing, perhaps she wouldn’t. It couldn’t be helped.

Before Cace pressed all the way into that other world, though, he decided he had better do some experiments. If he did make it through to the other side, was it still within his power to make it back again? These explorations would go over much better if he didn’t have to rely on one of the others to wake him up each time.

Cace closed his eyes, calmed his thoughts, and focused on his breathing. He listened to the air flowing in and out, noticed the taste of water in it, felt his chest rise higher and sink lower.

One-by-one he let go of his other thoughts, he let them sift to the bottom of his mind and rest. Then he told his mind to drop its connections to his feet and hands, to his legs and arms. An itch on his foot made itself known, but he let that pass without further acknowledging it and it went away. He became detached from those limbs’ sensations, lost his awareness of their weight, became nothing but a head and a body.

Now he let go of his belly and his head. He stopped noticing the grumbling in his stomach, the twitches in his face, the sweat pooling at his back. He was only the breathing, only the steady in-and-out of air.

Finally Cace turned his attention deeper than the breathing. He had learned that there was another rhythm within him, one that rose and fell like his inhales and exhales, but was not actually attached tied to his breathing. It was that rhythm that was his key to the Ether.

But it was a very faint signal, one that he had never been able to hone in on until just recently. Only after the Elders at the House of Olaish had taught him how to quiet everything else, and even then it had remained a rare thing for him to find. Sometimes he laid for hours in his chamber, without so much as a pulse to show for his searching.

That was not the case this time, though. This time Cace found the rhythm almost instantly, as if it was searching for him as much as he for it. Cace was not surprised, even amidst the day’s distractions he had had the sense that the tether to the Ether had not been fully severed when Aylme awoke him. He had walked and talked and moved here in the real world, but a part of him had remained a citizen of the other and it connected him to that place.

This other rhythm was much more rapid than his regular breathing, even more rapid than his racing heartbeat. It was like a strong current, rushing through pipes, throbbing under excessive load. It crackled and stung as he leaned in to touch it.

Even so he pressed into that rippling energy, he attuned himself to its rhythm, he rushed and halted his heart to match its beating. He rose when it rose, he fell when it fell. And in the rises he started to see more. Saw that flat gray tinged with blues and yellow, saw the forms starting to take shape. He was entering far more quickly than he had earlier that afternoon, he was almost back to feeling his different members in that new world.

And then he tried to stop it. Before he pressed all the way into the Ether he wanted to try drawing himself back out. He let go of the connection to its rhythm, tried to move his heart at a different cadence. What cadence though? He couldn’t remember what its usual beating was like… Didn’t matter. Any cadence, just so long as it broke out of the Ether’s.

But it hurt him to try and exit that rhythm. Every time he tried to raise himself out the strong current pushed back, kept him locked within. Still he kept pressing, harder and longer against the walls that confined him. Cace strained his breathing, strained his heart, strained his mind. It hurt, but he let it hurt. It tore, but he let it tear. He kept pressing on in one, unending push…

And sat bolt upright back in the hole under the tree. All the air was expelled from his lungs and his heart wasn’t beating at all. He blinked and gave a push and the heartbeat thudded back painfully. He opened his mouth and his vacuumed lungs sucked in the air with a great, moaning gasp.

It was very loud and Rolar snorted in his sleep beside him. Over on the other side Aylme started to sit upwards and Cace threw himself back to the floor. He tried to hold his trembling body still as he heard her looking left and right, trying to make sense of what was going on while still only half-awake.

“Something there?” she mumbled, then sighed and lay back down.

Back on the other side of Rolar, Cace clutched his hands to his chest and shook violently. He tried to quiet his desperate breathing, but he felt it would kill him if he didn’t get some air flowing in and out of his lungs. Maybe Aylme was still stirred enough to hear his gasping, but he couldn’t hold it back any longer. He opened his mouth and started hyperventilating. In and out, in and out, desperate and greedy. He cupped his hands around his mouth, trying to hold the air into him for longer.

And as the air flowed back into him he felt his body tingling painfully back to life. His lungs ached, his fingers and toes prickled from loss of blood, and his whole body shivered uncontrollably. Not only this, but he became aware of the taste of blood in his mouth. He didn’t know how or where, but he had torn himself.

It was horrible, and Cace wondered if he was dying. Would these pangs escalate until he could bear them no more? Would he keep shaking until he couldn’t hold himself together and things started to tear? Any moment he expected to discover some deep wound that he was bleeding out the last of his life through.

But no. His breath remained ragged and his body continued to shake for a full fifteen minutes, but finally the panic started to subside. Slowly Cace regained the ability to breathe normally. The shivers quieted down, with only a random tremble now and again. And though he spat out two full mouthfuls of blood, he never discovered any mortal wound.

His whole body was drenched in sweat, but now at last he could lean back and relax his shoulders, could collapse against the ground, could actually rest.

Earlier that afternoon he had felt he had no choice but to go back to the Ether. Now, though, he realized that Aylme was right…it was too dangerous. If he kept going back, he wouldn’t survive!

Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven

That’s So Inciting!

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Coming to a Decision)

I ended the last chapter of Covalent with the main character coming to an important decision. Previously Cace had been scolded by Aylme for his visits to the Ether. She felt these excursions were too dangerous and asked him to stop taking them. He never actually agreed to stop, but it was clear that he respected her and wouldn’t betray her wishes lightly.

This thread was interrupted, though, when the two children discovered Rolar, passed out at nearly dead from a strange intoxication. It was a traumatic experience, and all of the children were shaken until Rolar soothed them with the promise that so long as they kept watching out for each other, they would never fail. Rolar pledged to fight for Aylme and Cace, and Aylme for Cace and Rolar.

With that Cace came to the decision I mentioned earlier. He decided that he would fight for the other two as well, and that meant going back to the Ether and solving its secrets. To do his part to save the others he would just have to defy Aylme’s instructions.

Having this scene of Rolar’s endangerment was important, because I didn’t want Cace to just shrug off Aylme’s request. I made his determination be the result of an intense need so that the audience could agree with what he was doing.

The Gunslinger)

That’s the way things work in the 1953 film Shane as well. The overall plot of this movie is very simple: a retired gunslinger comes to a new town, trying to find a peaceful life. He starts to care for the people there, and when those people are threatened he sets aside his peaceful ways to gun down the villain, then rides away.

Shane doesn’t want to fight, but in the end he does fight. Of course the movie could have forced him into the fight in the first five minutes, but then there wouldn’t have been any story. The story is in how powerful forces pull at him, he resists for a time, but ultimately must give in.

First the man he is staying with, Joe Starrett, tells him how a cattle baron, Ryker, is trying to force all the homesteaders off their legal land. He hears the stories…but does nothing about it. Then he is insulted in town by Ryker’s men, they pour a drink on him and try to egg him into a fight…but he does nothing about it. He and Joe Starrett later get into a brawl with that cattle baron’s men, but still he keeps his guns sheathed. Another rancher, Torrey, is taunted into a fight and gunned down in the street by another gunslinger Ryker has hired…but still Shane does nothing about it.

But then, finally, a trap is set for Joe Starrett, and it becomes clear that sooner or later Ryker must die or Joe will…and Shane knows that it will be Joe. This, at last, is a cross he is not willing to bear. This, at last, make Shane decide to become the gunslinger once more. Like Cace, his decision is brought about at the moment of highest intensity so that the audience will approve his decision.

But where this would be the inciting incident of most westerns, it is the concluding one in Shane. After Shane finally makes his decision there is only one scene left and the movie is over. It is less a story of what the man does than of what finally gets him to do it.

In the Middle)

The Big Country does things differently from Shane, but also differently from other westerns. In this 1958 Western, sailor James McKay arrives in Texas to marry the daughter of the powerful ranch owner and cattle baron Major Henry Terrill.

No sooner does McKay arrive than he is hazed by a group of local ruffians, led by Buck Hannassey. This offense is the inciting incident of the movie. The Terrills hear of it and immediately set off to even the score with the rival Hannassey family. McKay, though, is strictly opposed to the whole thing. He’s frankly too honorable of a man to care about a few drunks being rowdy. He doesn’t condone their behavior, but he came to no serious harm, and he knows that retaliation will only lead to escalated violence.

And so McKay’s unwillingness to be incited against the Hannasseys creates a rift between him and the Terrills instead. Bit by bit he becomes disillusioned with them, including with the daughter he had been intending to marry. He starts a campaign to protect both of the feuding families, including the Hannasseys, which offends the Terrills deeply and McKay calls off the wedding and leaves the ranch. McKay then watches as an outsider while the two families continue their downward spiral, until they meet in a ravine and finally kill each other.

The hazing that occurred at the beginning of the film incited the families to violence, but McKay’s arc is one of standing firm against that pull, rejecting every reason to contribute to the senseless killing. Throughout the picture he does fight when necessary to defend himself and others, but then he moves on, never getting caught up in the vengeance spiral of the others.

Contrary Notions)

McKay came to a determination, just as Shane did, and just as Cace did. And the similar theme in all of them is that they are in opposition to what other people want, or even what they personally want. This is what gives the inciting moment its impact, it is a forceful declaration against outward influence or inward hesitation. It is breaking free to do what must be done, not what is wanted to be done. This opposition inherently causes drama, which is the lifeblood of every story, the very reason why the story is told.

And I will be leaning into that drama with Covalent. Of course Cace’s determination to travel into the Ether is going to be a point of escalating contention between him and Aylme, and even within himself. But whether he and she or Rolar wants him to or not, it is what he must do, he has been incited into it.

Revising The Storm- Week 3

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I have finished reviewing The Storm and have made note of the changes it requires. Now I will go through it piece-by-piece, correcting things as I go. I won’t take the time to detail every wayward comma and misspelling that I come across, but I will give a general description for the changes I am making.

To start off with, I had some problems right at the very beginning of the story. It contains a lot of details that are clunky and awkward, and I want to cut out a lot of these opening statements to focus instead on building atmosphere.


Oscar regarded the endless sea behind him. The muted gray of the water below was almost perfectly matched to that of the unbroken clouds overhead, and these were further blended by the distant wall of rain that bridged the gap between. It created the illusion that there were no separate bodies, but one massive ocean, and Oscar and his trawler were at this moment scurrying from that raised ocean’s advance, seeking to make land before the rain-wall did.

The storm had not been expected until later that evening, and Oscar had had to cut his excursion short without so much as a minnow to show for his effort. Fuel and time spent, but nothing gained. Oscar wasn’t surprised by that, though. Not anymore. Some days just turned out that way.

Most of the time the ocean would yield just enough for the sailors to pay their way, but from time-to-time it cut them short. “The ocean giveth and the ocean taketh,” one might say, but also “it taketh slightly more than it giveth,” so that a men grew a penny poorer each year for trying to live by it.

But also sometimes it was more than just a penny. Oscar knew better than most that in sudden, greedy moments the ocean took more than it ought. More than could ever be excused.

Oscar shook his head at the cold wall of gray and settled his focus back on the docks ahead. He was less than a quarter-mile out and he’d be moored and warming his boots in Lenny’s Tavern within the hour.

That is my new and improved opening. I’m not going to take up the space to copy-and-paste the original version here, but if you want to compare the two here is the link. You will notice that this new version in considerably shorter, 262 words compared to 390! Very little of substance was removed, though, I just tightened up the commentary about how the ocean exacted a slow toll out of the men.

And even with so much fewer words I was also able to add in some new content: that opening paragraph which paints the picture of the distant storm. In my original post the description was literally “the mounting storm” and nothing else!

I’m feeling quite pleased with this second draft. After I get through the whole thing I’ll read it all again and continue revising it, but for now I think I’m ready to move on. Next we have the conversation between Sam and Oscar, and the decision to go out and see what has happened to Harry.

The Conversation)

That you, Oscar?

Oscar fumbled for the mouthpiece of his radio. “Yeah, Sam, it’s me.” Oscar looked to the edge of the pier where the red-and-white lighthouse cast its broad light into the gray. Sam was their lighthouse keeper, their watchful guardian who never lost tally of each man’s going and coming.

Any catch?

“No catch.”

Sorry to hear that, Oscar.

“It’s just how it goes. Everyone else in already?”

All in but Harry.

Oscar’s radio crackled static, signifying that Sam had released the mic. Signifying that Sam would say nothing more until Oscar spoke first. Oscar sighed heavily, dropping his eyes from the lighthouse to the long pier where each of the local sailors had their permanent station. On the far left was his own berth, and as far away as possible on the right was Harry’s. Both empty. Oscar grabbed the mic.

“Do you know which way he went?”

Went for mackerel, around the cape, came the ready response. Probably why I haven’t been able to raise him.

“He woulda seen the storm coming even so.”

He woulda.

“He shoulda made it far by now that we’d see him.”

He shoulda.

Crackling static again.

Sam wouldn’t say it. He wasn’t the sort to try and tell people what they ought to do. He was the sort to let them decide it do it themselves. And what if Oscar said no? What if he said Harry was a fool for having gone around the cape when there was any storm warning at all, and that if he was caught in a gale now that was his own affair? If Oscar said that Sam probably wouldn’t even hold it against him. Sam would know as well as anyone that Oscar had reason enough for it. But then Sam would go out himself. And he would be that much more delayed, that much more imperiled by the storm.

Oscar swiveled his head around the spot and surveyed the horizon. No ship in sight.

“I suppose I better go after him,” Oscar rasped into the mic.

If you think that’s best, Sam approved. I won’t blink an eye until the two of you get back.

“I know you won’t, Sam.”

I still like this exchange between Oscar and Sam a great deal and I changed very little about it. I tightened up the description of Sam and I inserted the bit about Oscar looking at the empty berths for him and Harry. It provided an awkward gap before he acknowledges the problem that Sam has brought up, and it also provides a symbolism of unfinished business remaining between the two men.

I also inserted the bit about how Sam would come out to find Harry if Oscar didn’t go. I felt it was awkward to switch from saying that Oscar had enough reasons to not check on Harry to suddenly him volunteering to do exactly that. Whatever happened to those reasons? I think this small addition provides a reason, though intentionally a weak one. It is enough to get Oscar out where I need him to be.

Come back next week as I’ll continue with the next section of the story, cleaning as I go.

Covalent: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

“Rolar!” Aylme shrieked as she reached down and shook the boy. Some of the dark powder slid off his tunic and he gave a small moan, but his eyes remain closed. “Cace!” Aylme called to the side. “Cace, come help me!” Then she took hold of Rolar’s arm and pulled it around her shoulder. “What is it with you boys today?” she asked wearily. “Must I spend all my time saving you?”

“Aylme?” Cace groped through the twilight, trying to make his way to her voice. “Aylme, where are you?”

“Over here!” she waved an arm. “Rolar’s unconscious, you have to help me carry him.”

“Oh!” Cace said as he scampered over the roots and saw the older boy’s head lolling to the side. “What’s happened to him?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps he was bitten by something and poisoned. Help me get him away from here and back to the camp.”

Cace ducked underneath Rolar’s other arm and together the two of them were able to start moving the lad. It was difficult over the uneven roots, and it didn’t help that Rolar would suddenly give a cry and fling his head one way or another, nearly tipping them all over as he did.

“Rolar, can you hear us?” Aylme asked fearfully. “Rolar, speak to us!”

Rolar’s eyelids opened a slit, though not enough to actually see. Still he turned his face towards Aylme and gurgled out “It’s innnn my throaaat!” before his head slumped forward once more.

“In his throat?” Cace asked in surprise. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know. Here, let’s lay him down on his back.”

They did so, not quite so gently as intended, and Aylme pulled back his lips to reveal that the same black powder that had been over his tunic was coating his teeth. Looking down she saw that his hands were black with the powder as well.

“He’s been eating it!” Aylme said in shock. “Fetch me the waterskin. Quickly!”

Cace hurried back to the camp and soon was back with their waterskin. Aylme removed the stopper and carefully pried the mouth of the bottle between Rolar’s teeth. She squeezed a palmful of water into his mouth, then turned him on his side as he gagged, choked, and finally coughed out a large pile of the soggy powder. “Blech!” he exclaimed, finally returning to full consciousness. He rolled onto his back and looked up at the other two with fearful eyes.

“Help me!” he gasped. “Help me! Get it off!”

“You’re alright,” Aylme reassured him, palm pressed against this temple. “We’ve got you now, you’re alright.”

“No! My hands! It’s still on my hands!”

Aylme and Cace looked down at his ash-blackened hands. The fingers were bent unnaturally, scrabbling wildly in the dirt, like living creatures burrowing for safety.

“I can’t control them!” Rolar insisted. “Get…that…stuff off of them!”

Aylme reached to rub the dark powder off, but paused just short, realizing she didn’t want to transfer any of the stuff onto her own skin. Cace grabbed the waterskin out of her lap, though, and doused each hand. The ash washed away quickly and Rolar’s hands finally relaxed.

“Oh thank you!” the boy gasped.

“What was that?” Cace asked.

“I don’t know, I don’t know. But it was terrible!”

“What happened?”

“I was digging at the roots of the tree, trying to see if there’s something blocking the moisture from getting to it. And then there was that black stuff–that powder–just beneath the soil. I tried to dig through it, tried to get down to the roots, but my hands started to shake and go numb! I couldn’t feel them and then they started moving on their own, like spiders! I wanted to move but they kept lunging deeper and deeper into the soil, pulling the rest of me down to it. I tried to call for help but they grabbed the soil and shoved it onto my mouth! I clamped shut, but they smothered my face until I gasped and then pushed they pushed the soil straight in! That was the last thing I knew…and then I was here with you.”

Cace and Aylme shivered.

“We’re going to die in this place!” Aylme sobbed. “We shouldn’t have ever come!”

Cace didn’t say anything, but silent tears ran down his cheeks as he hung his head.

Rolar almost wept with them, but he snapped himself out of it. He had to shove his ordeal down, had to make himself strong for the others.

“Hey, hey, hey, it’s alright,” he said soothingly. He sat upright and put his hands around the other two. “Look, I’m okay. Something bad happened, but we made it didn’t we? Just like we have every time already, just like we always will.”

“You would have died if I hadn’t found you!” Aylme wailed.

“But you did find me! You did. One of us couldn’t make it alone, but together we’re invincible. You save me today, I save you the next. We’ll never fail so long as we’re there to save each other.”

Cace blinked back his tears. “How do you know?”

“Believe me, Cace,” Rolar smiled back. “I just know. We didn’t make it this far just to fail now. But we’ve got to keep our faith in each other. We have to keep our trust alive.” He held out his hands to the other children in a pledge.

Aylme sniffed deeply and wiped away her tears with the side of her hand, then took one of Rolar’s hands in her own. “Well I’m scared…but I do promise I won’t let you two get lost. I promise I’ll take care of you.”

“That’s the spirit,” Rolar nodded. “And I promise I’ll take care of you two, too.”

“And I’ll take care of you two, too” Cace affirmed, grabbing the others’ free hands with his own.

“Doubly protected,” Rolar said.

“Doubly protected,” the other two repeated.

And with that Cace decided…he would go back to the Ether that very night.

Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven

Bits of Thread

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Keeping Secrets)

Last Wednesday I integrated world-building into my latest story in a subtle way. It began with the boy, Cace, being angry at the girl, Aylme. Cace is trying to have a heated argument with her and she calmly refuses to answer his queries until he “tips his lamp.” This is an unfamiliar expression to my readers, but it becomes clear when Cace takes a literal lamp and pours some glowing essence out of it. As he does so his emotions calm to a more rational state.

And I don’t try to explain that. I leave it to the audience to work out that the children’s passions are somehow tied to these lamps, and by physically pouring them out they can calm their own moods.

Why? Frankly I don’t think it matters. What does this imply about the world? Definitely something, but I won’t waste my time trying to answer that.

Knowing that these lamps exist and are tied to the emotions of the children is important for evoking the sort of mystical world I want. But anything beyond that won’t actually help with appreciating the drama between those children.

A little bit later I made a statement in passing that was also meant to give color to the children and their situation:

It was a perpetual dusk in this place, and the children refugees had absolutely no notion of how many days had actually passed since they arrived.

There’s that one standout word: refugees. So these children are on the run from somewhere? But why? Was there a war? A famine? What happened to their families?

All fair questions, and some of this will be explored in later chapters, but only enough to raise more questions and very few answers. Because I want for this world to feel mysterious. I want the reader to not understand everything. I want them to understand that these children are in trouble, that they are fighting to survive, and that their emotions are heavily strained…but once they understand those facts then I am ready to tell my story, and I won’t go backwards to explain things that aren’t directly part of that.

Killing the Magic)

This is a topic that I have touched on before. When I was writing Raise the Black Sun I addressed the fact that some story elements were being implied and not fully spelled out. At the time I made the argument that this approach allowed for the world to seem far more complex, as if it was composed of a thousand folds, of which we only saw the occasional ruffle. It created a sense that the world went too deep for me to have words to describe it all, so I just had to limit myself to the surface elements and leave the rest to the imagination.

All my life I have loved stories that do exactly this, and I have been frustrated at the current trend of franchises that explore backstories that never needed to be elaborated on.

Take the character of Han Solo in Star Wars, for instance. When audiences first met the man in 1977 he was a cynical drifter, making his way through life with little regard for destination or greater purpose. He got involved with the heroes just to make a quick buck and rolled his eyes at their belief in something bigger than themselves.

This cynicism of his is established right away in his opening scene, and to help convey that personality the scene is also peppered with references that we never get the full explanation of. He did the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs? What’s that? He lost a shipment and has a price on his head? What happened there? And what’s with his furry companion? How did they end up together?

Frankly none of that matters and the film wisely avoids delving into it. It is only used to establish a character with an implied past, and from there it moves forward, not backward. This isn’t supposed to be a movie about everything that makes Han Solo tick, its supposed to be about the Force awakening in a young man and a Rebel Alliance challenging a mighty Empire.

But then, of course, Star Wars became a multi-billion-dollar franchise. Fans fell in love with the universe and along with it the character of Han Solo. And, unfortunately, these days it seems that any beloved character has to have their entire backstory filled out. Thus, three years ago we received Solo, a film dedicated to answering all of those unimportant questions about the character. We found out what the Kessel run is and how Han Solo was involved in it. We learned the origins of his relationship with Chewbacca and Lando. We saw how he came to possess his famous ship the Millennium Falcon. We even discovered answers to questions we had never had, such as the origin of his surname “solo.”

And you know what? It wasn’t a very satisfying experience. Because these elements were never meant to be the foundation of a feature-length film. A story of how a person meets people and gets his name and ship just isn’t as compelling as a story about rebels defying an empire and the unveiling of a mystical power. Backstory really isn’t story, it’s just information. It’s great for a “did you know?” fact book, but not for a film or novel.

What is a Story?)

At the end of the day, a story is supposed to be more than just facts or information. It will undoubtedly divulge facts and information along its way, but they do not define what the story itself is.

At its core a story is about an interesting situation and how that situation is resolved. That’s what makes a story a story, and that is true for Covalent. The situation is that there are three refugee children struggling to survive in a mystical forest, and I employed some interesting facts to help establish that situation. But now those facts have served their purpose and will not be dwelled on further. Instead I will dwell on the actual story, which is about how the children either reach their liberation or their demise. Come back on Wednesday as we pursue that question further.

Revising The Storm- Week 2

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I’m continuing to review my short story The Storm, making note of all the areas I wish to improve on as I go.

  • There is a line I just came across that has me utterly baffled.

    This put him at a slant to the waves, and now they were beating like Poseidon’s drum against his hull

    I honestly have no idea how I came up with the expression “beating like Poseidon’s drum.” I am not familiar of any legend that associates Poseidon with the instrument, and a quick Google search cannot find any either. It seems very irregular that I would have made it up out of nothing, but I don’t know what other conclusion to make. I’ll certainly be cutting that out.
  • There’s also a disorienting bit when Oscar starts having a conversation with himself. Its too melodramatic and the references to his tragedy are too obscure. They’ll most likely just confuse the reader. I’ll cut this out as well.
  • Let’s call out something positive, though. I don’t remember where I got the idea to have two boats tethered together, pushing their way through a storm, but it presents a very striking visual, one that I’m not aware of in any other story, and it is an excellent symbolism for the drama between my characters. I think this is the single strongest element of my entire story.
  • Another bit I feel quite positive about is Harry’s confession. His admission reads well and I like how it is interspersed with scenes of Oscar losing control of the wheel. There is some tidy-up to do, but this is a very promising scene. Given that it is the climax of the entire tale its a good thing that it works so well.
    I think that I could lean into it a bit better, though. I want to add a small piece to the plot right before. The storm will be beating down hard and the two men will stop making progress forward. It will be a hopeless situation, which will finally bring Harry to make his confession. He is divulging the truth to try and convince Oscar to just let him go and save himself.
  • I currently have things so that Oscar unconsciously puts his hand over the controls, as if to drop the line to Harry’s boat, and he is surprised when he sees it there. I want to rework that part so it isn’t just a subconscious accident. I want him to fully contemplate disconnecting the other sailor, heavily weighing the option, frozen by the choice until he is saved by the beam of the lighthouse falling on his vessel.
  • I need to fill out the final homestretch a little bit. The story needs more about how they rush the rest of the way to the beach. And then I need to add some more after that, too. I like the idea of the men going off to talk to Sam at the end, unsure of what the future holds but heading that way together. Right now, though, I’m reaching that conclusion too abruptly, and I need to provide some space for it to breathe.

And that brings us to the end of my read-through! To tell you the truth, when I first selected this story I didn’t think there would be much to change in it. I had very fond memories of writing it and felt it was already pretty close to its ideal form. I am now considerably humbled to see how many parts of it I actually have a problem with!

But I do feel that there is still a very good story to be found inside of there. It’s been compromised by awkward phrases, uneven pacing, and silly typos, but it is in there nonetheless. I caught glimpses of it as I read along and I’m excited to bring it out fully. Let me see if I can give a general description of what that ideal story looks like, and the main points that need to be changed to realize it.

This is a story about two men dealing with incredible loss and anger. The setting and the occupation are meant to reflect how they have been weathered down and turned salty over the years. They might appear slow-going on the surface, but there are many layers of dramatic depth beneath, all of which are going to force their way out in the eye of a violent storm.

It is a story that should be full of rich imagery. I need to practice the art of capturing a complex visual in a few, well-chosen words. It should be a story that transports the reader right onto the windswept deck, and I want the audience to feel as exhausted at the end as my characters are. I could see the ideal story being quite a bit longer than its current form, or at the very least feeling quite a bit longer. I want to hone in on that sense of gripping at the wheel for hours, holding on for dear life.

But having a great deal of rich imagery is not the same as an excess of poorly-written drivel! There are a lot of bits where I am trying to explain the way things are when you’re an old sea dog, something that I know absolutely nothing about! This is an allegory, not an actual job description and I should keep my focus where it belongs.

There is very little that I feel need to change from a structural point of view, though. All the main story beats should remain the same, just with each moment being enhanced or trimmed as mentioned above, all of its splintered edges sanded down and polished to an even shine.

And that is what I will start working on one week from now. Come back then to see how it goes!

Covalent: Part Two

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Part One

Cace shivered hard.

“What? What happened?” he panted deliriously.

“It’s alright, Cace,” Aylme rested her soft palm against his temple. “It’s alright now.”

“But I–but–” realization finally sunk in. “You brought me back!” he said angrily.

“Yes, I had to bring you back. Tilt your lamp down.”

“But I was there! I finally got through! You shouldn’t have done that!” his cheeks were hot and flushed and he struck his legs with his fists.

Tilt your lamp down,” Aylme handed Cace the vessel. “Look, I already have my own at half-ember.”

Cace scowled. He didn’t want to turn his lamp down, he wanted to stay angry. Even so…he would do anything for Aylme. With a sigh he took the lamp in his hands. As always it felt strangely anchored, as if Cace could let go and it would suspend itself in the air on some invisible hook. Cace turned his hands, pivoting the lamp, letting the golden ember run out of the spout. The golden drops did not fall to the ground, though, for no sooner did they touch the air than they evaporated into steam.

As Cace continued pouring out the contents he felt the fire inside of him diminish. He was still just as opposed to Aylme’s interference, but his passion ebbed out, making him capable of calmer reason.

“There,” he said, righting his lamp and turning it so that Aylme could see only half the ember remained. “Tilted down.”

“Thank you,” Aylme nodded deeply. “Now I’m sorry I had to wake you, Cace, but your breathing was becoming so ragged, and your fists kept clenching, and you were in a feverish sweat. I was afraid what might happen if you remained any longer.”

Cace looked down at his tunic. Indeed it was covered in cold sweat, and even now his body was quaking as if he had been running for miles. But now that he was back in the conscious world his strength was quickly returning.

“I understand why you did what you did,” he sighed, “but I had made it through, Aylme! I was there!”

“That must have been exciting for you,” she smiled, then started to rise.

“You don’t want to hear what it was like?”

“The Ether is…your realm of fascination, Cace. I have too much on my mind of here and now.”

“But it matters, even to the here and now,” Cace insisted. “I think I could use it to help us!”

“How, Cace?”

“I don’t know. I just…know that it could.” Cace wasn’t sure how to explain. Whenever he had his visions of the Ether he sensed that there was a connection between the images he saw and the things of the real world. He couldn’t explain that connection, but he felt that they were simply different perspectives of the same thing. And now that he had finally actually been there, conscious and able to push at things and affect them, now he had a hope that he could ripple changes into this world, too!

“I’m not so sure that you should try and visit the Ether any more,” Aylme said. “It seems dangerous for you.”

“I’m fine. Look, I’m already feeling much better.”

Aylme smiled sadly. She appreciated his desire to help, even if she thought it was misplaced. He was several years younger than she and Rolar, and he must feel guilty that he wasn’t able to contribute as much as they could. “We can discuss it more later. For now just gather your strength.” She leaned forward and gave him a kiss on his brow, then turned and climbed out of the hole that served as the entry to their dugout.

It was the most humble of abodes imaginable: a hole dug into the earth at the base of a tree. It was quite small, only reaching out so far as the trees’ roots allowed, which provided a natural barrier to hold the earthen walls in place. The only airflow came from that small entryway, and after a while one started to feel stifled. Cace did not remain in that dark hovel, but clambered out and sat with with his back against the large tree.

Not that the breathing was much better up here. Their camp was on the banks of a slow river, and its humidity weighed the air down, making it hover low to the ground and difficult to swallow.

There was also very little sunlight that could pierce through the dense canopy of treetops overhead. Indeed most of the illumination came from the bioluminescent moss that grew along the riverbed, a dim light obscured by the lazy roll of water. It was just enough light to cast the place in a perpetual dusk. Already the three refugees had lost all sense of time, and they could not say whether they had been in this place for a week or for months.

Cace slowly breathed in the scent of a million living things and watched Aylme as she carefully stepped around the banks of the river, making her way to the great almnut tree. No doubt Rolar was there again, prying at the roots, trying to free whatever binding kept the tree from producing fruit.

“Rolar?” Aylme called out softly as she approached the tree, eyes darting left and right. “Rolar, are you there?”

The tree was as wide as a castle tower, and as she came to its base she held it for support, stumbling her way around its massive roots. “Rolar,” she called, slightly louder. “Rolar where are you?”

Just then she happened to glance downwards and leaped back in shock. For she had, in fact, been about to to step on Rolar! The youth was laid out right before her, draped awkwardly across the roots, covered in a strange black powder, and totally unconscious!

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven

How Many Characters?

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Very Limited Scopes)

I’ve always been interested in movies with a limited cast of characters. Take, for example, the 2013 film Locke, starring Tom Hardy. The entire film takes place in a man’s car as he makes a long drive. Along the way he has a number of intense phone conversations, all dealing with a life-changing situation that has just come up. Obviously there are other characters involved at the opposite end of those calls, but it is very much a one-man show.

Then there’s Gravity, also from 2013, where Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts carrying out a mission in space. A sweeping cloud of debris takes out their entire crew, leaving them as the lone survivors, desperately looking for a way back into the atmosphere before the cloud of debris circles the earth and comes for another pass. George Clooney’s character doesn’t make it further then the first act, and so we are left with one singular character again.

Another example would be All is Lost, which, wouldn’t you know it, was also from the year 2013! In this film Robert Redford’s character is alone at sea when his yacht floods, leaving him stranded in the middle of the ocean on an inflatable raft. Not only is the entire film limited to the perspective of this singular character struggling to survive, he also happens to be a particularly silent character. There are almost no words spoken at all throughout the movie.

You might wonder how any film could work with such a limited set of characters. But for how limited they might seem, each of these movies provides a compelling narrative, significant character development, and a plethora of thoughts and ideas. This claim might seem less preposterous when you realize that while most films do have more than just one or two main characters, they usually max out at three or four.

Fewer Faces Than You Realize)

Just last week I finished watching Casablanca, one of the most beloved films of all time. Much of the film takes place in a bustling club, with dozens of characters filing in and out, ordering drinks, gambling at the roulette wheel, and selling contraband. But what stood out to me most as I watched this movie was how almost all of these characters are little more than set dressing, used to establish the mood of the film, but having no meaningful contribution to the central arc.

At the heart of this film there are really only three characters: Rick Blaine, Ilsa Lund, and Captain Renault. These are the only characters who ever show any development, the only ones with shifting feelings and objectives, and the only ones who change each other over time.

At the beginning of the film Rick is a disillusioned cynic, trying to hide from the life of passion he once led before his heart was crushed by Ilsa Lund. Captain Renault is somewhat similar to Rick, though he hides his true self behind a mask of careless joviality. Then Ilsa arrives on the scene, arm-in-arm with another man, Victor Laszlo. This forces Rick to confront his old wounds and he and Ilsa exchange a few heated barbs.

But those insults only prove that their feelings for one another are still very much alive. Rick finds himself slowly thawed by the shadow of the love he once held, first into bitter anger, but then into something more pure. By a series of events finds himself in possession of all that he needs to remove Victor Laszlo, clearing the way for him and Ilsa to run away together.

But now that he has awoken to love he has also awoken to his old sense of honor and dignity. And so he sacrifices himself to save Ilsa and Victor, arranging for them to leave the city together. He says goodbye to the woman he cares for, though this time on his own terms, and this honest departure allows the love to remain between them.

But then comes the complication with Captain Renault. For saving Ilsa and Victor required Rick to cross his old friend. He doesn’t want to kill Renault, but he must use him against his will for a moment, after which he promises to turn himself over to Renault’s superios and face all of the consequences that come. But when the moment comes for Captain Renault to exact his revenge he doesn’t. Like Rick, he sees the opportunity to finally redeem himself and he takes it. As they walk off Rick announces that he believes this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

And that’s it. Three characters and no more. I would even say it is really only two main characters, Rick and Ilsa, with Captain Renault only being a supporting player until the very final act.

Aren’t You Forgetting Something?)

But you might ask what about Victor Laszlo? Or Major Strasser, the villain who weaves the very trap around Laszlo and Ilsa which Rick must deliver them from? I maintain that these are supporting characters only. They are entirely single-dimensional. Each is a single, unyielding force in opposite directions that the main characters then pivot and weave around. They are present only to make the actual drama possible, they do not actually play in the game themselves.

And everyone else you see in the movie? Set dressing. They are there to set the tone, to provide flavor and humor, and even just to distract you from the fact this story is really only about a very few people.

And that’s alright. Because as it turns out, writing a story for central characters becomes exponentially more difficult for each one that is added to the plot. When too many faces are forced into the center some of them are usually left half-baked or else everything is too muddled to make any sense of. It is always better to write a story of a few characters well and dress it up nicely, than to overcomplicate a story to its own demise.

And that is going to be one of my guiding principles in my new story: Covalent. Last Wednesday I introduced a single character, and in his thoughts I made mention to two others. And that’s it. That is going to be the entire central cast for the entire rest of the story. Yes, there will be other creatures and entities that lurk about, but all the central plot is going to be focused on the interplay of these three key players. Come back on Wednesday to see what I mean.

Revising The Storm- Week 1

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Here we are at the first post of my new series: The Editor’s Bench! Here I will select one of my short stories and take it from its first draft stage to something worthy of commercial publication. I will be focusing exclusively on the short stories that are my favorite, the ones that I feel showed the greatest potential, and I will be working on them for as long as the process requires. I may be overhauling a piece for a very long while if I feel that that is what is needed for it.

These are the steps that I intend to take in my revising process, but I will likely modify them as I gain more experience at it:

  1. Read through the current story. Summarize what it would look like in its ideal form and how it differs from that now.
  2. Cut, refactor, and add scenes until the story is generally in the desired shape.
  3. Make multiple passes to correct misspellings, grammar mistakes, and awkward phrases.
  4. Repeat the above three steps until the story is in its ideal form.

I have decided to do the first of these revisions on my short story The Storm. I have chosen it because it is a shorter, simpler piece, one that I hope will let me gently ease into this editor’s role.

So without further ado, here are my notes from reading through the story.

  • The first thing that stood out to me was the awkwardness of my story’s introduction. I mention my main character Oscar, give a very slight description of his setting, go off on the philosophy of the old seamen in this hamlet, and finally pull everything back to the present moment when I introduce the story’s central problem. I believe that my intention was to reflect Oscar’s free-associative mind and how it drifts from one thought to the next. Actually reading through it, though, is a bit disorienting. I’ll want to revise this beginning to be a bit more structured, and to make sure than any transitions from one topic to another are clear.
  • Another element that is standing out to me is the ways that I am trying to add flavor to the story, such as when I talk about how the sea slowly wears down the lives of those that live by it, how the gains and the losses even out in time, and how the lighthouse keeper is sustained by a portion of all the sailors’ profits. Some of these details do contribute to the overall atmosphere, but others feel a bit forced. I’ll lean into the ones that work well and cut the ones that don’t.
  • I do want to call out one thing that I think works really well, though. I really like this exchange between Oscar and Sam:

    “Do you know which way he went?”
    Went for mackerel, around the cape. Probably why I haven’t been able to raise him.
    “He woulda seen the storm coming even so.”
    He woulda.
    “He shoulda made it back far enough already that we’d see him now.”
    He shoulda.

    There is a lot implied by those two-word agreements from Sam. He never tells Oscar that he ought to go out and search of his fellow seaman, but the way he emphasizes the “would” and “should” makes clear that he feels something is wrong and ought to be looked into.
  • I also like the occasional one-liners that keep signaling to the reader that there is some history between Oscar and Harry, a history that is going to be unveiled in due time. You see that in lines such as these:

    It wasn’t the first time things had gone wrong in a storm for Harry.
  • One thing that I’ve been noticing even since the beginning is how I need to lean into my description of the sea itself. This, admittedly, is a weak area of mine. I usually skirt around set descriptions, rushing headlong into dialogue and action instead. Before I may have had the excuse of a tight deadline, but now it’s time to get down to business and dress this piece up properly!
  • I’m also noticing that I ought to reference the storm in gentler terms at the start of the story. It feels like it’s already pretty heavy as Oscar goes around the cape for the first time, which lessens the sense of escalation as the story progresses. I’ve got to improve that sense of gradual, rising tension.
  • I’m also going to make note of the fact that I have a fair number of awkward phrases and basic typos to correct. As I’ve tried to wax lyrical with my prose I’ve run into some silly, unnecessary descriptions, such as:

    All at once the crackle of static changed to a small voice, timid and broken, yet tinged now with fresh hope.

    “Yet tinged now with fresh hope” tacked onto the end like that doesn’t flow very well, now does it?
  • I’ve just reached the point where Oscar throws Harry the line and the description of that event is unnecessarily complex. Relating the details of physical events can quickly become unwieldy, better to find a couple short sentences that give the reader the gist of what happens and they can work out the rest for themselves.
  • Here’s an example of how I extended myself too far and made a phrase worse for it:

    “Don’t mention it.” It wasn’t a polite deference. It was an order, and Oscar surprised himself at how much of a growl it came out with.

    It’s almost a good line, but I dragged it out for one statement too many. Drop the “and Oscar surprised himself at how much of a growl it came out with” and it becomes much better. A classic example of less being more.

Alright, I’m going to call it good there. Next week I’ll give my analysis of the second half, and then we’ll actually start making some changes. See you then!