Normally I use Wednesdays to post a chapter of my current short story. But I’ve just wrapped up work on Covalent, and I want to take a moment to examine that story, what went well, and what could have been improved on. So next week will be the first chapter of my new short story: Secrets in the Mountain.
Where Are We Going?
Not for the first time, this short story got away from me! Covalent began with a very clear vision for how to begin and how to end, but all the in-between I would have to figure out along the way.
Many times this approach has worked for me. I get to roam freely, but having a clear destination in mind allows me to still end up where I want. Sometimes, though, I manage to thwart my plans the ending without even realizing it. I don’t recognize how the steps I am taking make the intended conclusion a poor fit until they’ve already been taken and published. At that point I have to let go of the ending and feel my way to a new sort of conclusion.
So what was the original intention for Covalent? Well, I always wanted it to be a story about three children in a strange and dangerous forest, where the youngest of them has a connection to a parallel world that he uses to help protect the others. That parallel world would provide them many advantages, but through it the boy would also inadvertently wake the most dangerous menace yet! Wielding powers he did not understand may have introduced their new foe, but gaining a true mastery of that power would be their only hope of surviving. The boy would have no choice but to delve still further into the parallel world.
Which is pretty much where the current story has brought us, so far all seems well. But the rest of the story was going to show how the boy had to surrender more and more of himself to the alternate world, which would result in his transformation, gradually changing him from human to machine. He would have to sacrifice his body and soul, giving up his own identity to protect the other two children.
And this arc has been compromised by some of the things that I recently wrote into the story. First and foremost, it is essential that the boy is sacrificing everything so that his friends can be spared the same fate. He is supposed to turn into the machine so that they don’t have to, just as young soldiers endure the horrors of war so that the “folks back home” don’t have to. But in my current iteration, I have already ruined both of the friends that the boy is supposed to be protecting. This completely undoes my central theme!
Tied in Knots)
I got into this conundrum through the best of intentions. First there was the matter of needing Cace to go back to the Ether after his last visit had nearly killed him. I realized that there needed to be a moment of desperate need, a situation that he would be willing to risk his life to resolve. So I had Rolar be attacked by a beast and left dying. Cace rushed into the Ether to save him, which was exactly where I wanted him to be.
But now, how was he to save him? I thought it would be cheap for him to just flip a few switches and bring Rolar back, right as rain. Things had been broken and I wanted there to be a real cost for saving Rolar. I went with the first idea that occurred to me: Cace had to swap parts of Rolar with those of another creature, which resulted in Rolar surviving, but also being transformed in the overworld.
But now Rolar was the one being ravaged from Cace’s expeditions to the Ether, not Cace. Rolar’s normal life is already ruined, which breaks half of that theme of Cace sacrificing himself to preserve normalcy for his friends.
But what about his other friend, Aylme? Well, I wanted to develop her while Cace was busy trying to save Rolar. I wanted to show how much grit and determination she had, trying to save the two boys while they were unconscious. Once again, though, I felt that there needed to be a cost here. I didn’t want the segment to be “oh no, something bad is happening, but Aylme works really hard and escapes the threat entirely, so it really didn’t have any impact.” Another major theme of this story is that the danger is real. It has teeth. So it only felt natural to have Aylme rescue the boys, but she ends up being taken by the threat instead. Which felt like a great story beat in the moment, but now the second half of my motivation for Cace’s ongoing sacrifice is gone.
At this point Cace is virtually alone. Aylme is completely unconscious and under the control of the enemy and Rolar has been reduced to a half-monster, almost entirely devoid of his original character and nuance. So now Cace wouldn’t be fighting for them at all, because they’re already pretty much lost.
At this point I could try and continue the story anyway, coming up with a new arc for Cace and a new conclusion. Maybe Cace doesn’t sacrifice himself to preserve them, but to retrieve them. But if I do that then it’s no longer the story that I was initially so excited to tell. I felt it would be better to fade to black instead, and then revisit it later.
And I really would like to revisit it, because there actually is a lot of good that came out of this free-roaming process.
For one thing, I now know the exact nature of the Ether and of the water-beast that Cace inadvertently unleashed. In my previous notes I didn’t really understand the rules of these things, but through this exercise I’ve been able to clear that all up. The Ether is a large machine, with individual modules interconnected, which modules can be rearranged to invent new things in the overworld. That’s a great mechanic, and something I didn’t have before taking this journey. The water-beast is based off of resonance and rippling effects. It disrupts all living things to force them into harmonizing with itself. That is also a compelling idea.
Another thing I discovered was the importance of characters flinging themselves into danger for one another. I still want to change things so that Cace is the one primarily making sacrifices for his friends, but I don’t want to lose the bit of Rolar and Aylme throwing themselves into the fire for their friends, too. There was a great segment in the middle of the story where Rolar rushed to battle to save Cace, then Aylme rushed to save Rolar, then Cace dove into the Ether to bring Rolar’s consciousness back, then Aylme hauled the boys to safety while they were trapped in the Ether. This was very endearing, and I absolutely want to hold onto that and have it as a central theme.
How I Would Move Forward)
If I had more of this blog written ahead of time, I probably would have tried to revise things before they were already published. I believe the simplest shift would be to keep the story beats mostly the same, but to cut down on the costs that Rolar and Aylme had to pay for their heroics.
First I would have had Cace fill the broken pieces in Rolar with his own submodules, resulting in a mostly-normal Rolar, but a drastically shifted Cace. And I still would have wanted Aylme to be attacked by the dark water entity, but instead of being entirely lost, perhaps she could have just had her consciousness split. Part of her would still be with Cace and Rolar, but it would be tormented by the other half of her consciousness, which now served the enemy and was trying to bring about their demise.
For what it’s worth, I do think I will end up making these changes to the story, just not yet. I’ll see how I’m feeling at the time, but right now my intention is to make Covalent the next story that I revise in The Editor’s Bench. I’ll wait until I’ve finished with The Storm before making the decision final, but one way or another I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of this story!