Welcome back to week 3 of the Writer in Motion event, in which a too-busy-by-choice author attempts to make sense of the ALL VIBES NO PLOT words that sprang from her own head…
This week, the participants in the challenge were assigned a small critique partner group and exchanged stories. My CPs all brought their A-game with amazing work, and I had to dig deep to find feedback to give them! But giving feedback was the easy part. I wasn’t looking forward to having to edit this round. I put it off because I still didn’t know the answers to the questions that haunted me from my first draft.
The process of receiving feedback goes like this for me: I receive it, read it, wince, and then put it away. Then I pull it out a few days later and look again. I’m always amazed at how helpful new eyes are on a piece, but it takes time for my brain to marinate on any suggestions and get over the “oh help!” of having my flaws Perceived. This time, my CPs zeroed in on the issue immediately: I had thrown in several different theories about what was happening in the story without really landing on one consistent idea.
I still really didn’t know what to do with that though, until I pulled the document up promising myself that I would just look at it. I wasn’t going to do anything, just look again! And then, once I did that, I was allowed to go take a nap. (Rewards are crucial to motivation.)
I read it again. I read my CPs’ notes again. I thought to myself, “But who are these people to each other?”
And then, suddenly, it came to me. These people aren’t random strangers. Of course they aren’t. This isn’t a fantasy story so much as a ghost story, and a little bit of a love story, though it doesn’t exactly have a happy ending. (Now, of course, the next question is whether I made my answer clear enough in the text.)
Once I knew what I wanted the story to mean, finally, I had a better idea of what to do with it. I consolidated the two middle sections, took out some lines that didn’t fit now that I had picked a direction, moved others around, and expanded on a few lines to bring slightly more context to the characters’ pasts. I also took a risk and changed the voice in the final section from third person to a first/second person hybrid. One of my CPs thought this section wasn’t as effective and emotional as the others, and my theory is that making the second narrator’s voice more personal might elevate it. We’ll see what my editor feedback says next week!
I always love seeing these, so here are snapshots comparing the draft I sent my CPs with the new version:
And here’s the story in its new form, at 985 words. CW: Fire, loss, character death.
Fire Season (Draft 3)
He comes at dusk, the shadow man.
He hovers in the corner of my vision, dissolving when I look straight at him, looming when I look away. Sometimes he is indistinct, smudged at his edges like smoke, only the suggestion of a man’s shape and height. Other times, he seems almost solid. If I turn just far enough, if I squint just right, he might even have a face I could know.
When I do finally turn, he dissipates. He’s nothing more than a trick of the light, an artifact of my brain’s attempt to make sense out of the random and the meaningless.
We coexist, my shadow and I. It’s not as though we can touch each other.
But a day comes when the air scratches and chokes, when the sky outside lowers dark and angry as a week-old bruise. And because the twilight doesn’t end, he doesn’t go away.
It’s fire season. It’s always fire season now, and the burn scar aches inside me. It scorches everything to ash.
I stare straight ahead, and my voice scrapes hoarse and harsh in my throat. “What do you want? Why are you here?”
He doesn’t answer. After a while he fades back into the wall. But the next day, when dusk slips in, he’s there again.
Maybe he’s lonely too.
There was a time when things were different, before fire season came to stay. Time we didn’t live like this, in the shadow of our own destruction.
There were eyes blue as the vanished sky back then and a voice that went through me like a thunderclap, with a lightning laugh that chased away the shadows in my mind. But those memories burn away into smoke when I grasp at them, and my hands close on empty air.
The fire took so many things, and not all of them were mine.
That day, the inferno passed over me like an angel of death and took everything else. That day, smoke turned daylight to dusk and I learned the nature of fire. I’m the sole survivor, but there’s no rhyme or reason to it. It’s random, the way my brain ascribes meaning to shapes, to the tall dark figure leaning against the wall.
Fire doesn’t give back what it takes. And yet he’s still here.
He comes more often now, lingering in the dim orange daylight and the thick gray night that follows. He has a polite air about him, as if he is waiting for something.
Maybe he’s waiting for me.
When he comes for me at last, it doesn’t hurt like it should. It’s warm like a benediction.
He leans over me. He’s still made of smoke, dissipating at the edges. But when he wraps me in his arms and presses me to his chest, I breathe him in.
“You saved me that day. I remember now.”
He had eyes like a summer sky and a laugh that dissolved me. He had soot on his face and his hard-muscled arms, soot under his fingernails. And after he guided me out of the blaze, he turned around and walked back in.
It had already taken him, you see.
“You left me!” I strike out at him then, but my fists hit nothing but air. “Why save me and not yourself?”
“It was my job. I had to save what I could.”
“Same answer.” The flame licks at me like an old friend, and finally my fireman shows his face. In the flickering light, his eyes glow restless as the inferno around us.
“Are you a demon?” I breathe, likely my last, more smoke than oxygen. “Or an angel?”
His laugh crackles and sighs like the fire, dissolving the rest of my resistance. “A distinction without a difference, dear heart.”
His arms tighten around me, and I let him take me, his whispered words gentle in my ear.
I wanted to come for you before, dear heart. I promise I did.
I saved you then, but once the fire touches you, it never truly lets go. Its embers glow inside you, waiting for tinder. It’s the same way that a blaze sometimes goes to ground, smoldering in isolated hollows or deep within the blackened trunks of dead trees. Holdover fires get down in the roots of things and burn unseen, until fire season comes again and brings them back to life.
You flare up like a candle, fierce and beautiful, until there’s nothing left of you. Nothing but smoke and ashes, and the smile that dawns on your face when you understand what I’ve come for.
You go easily in the end, and you feel no pain. I can give you that, at least.
When they find you, they’ll look for a spark, a stray cigarette, a frayed wire. They’ll whisper the words spontaneous combustion, but eventually explain it away, their minds searching for meaning. Maybe they’ll note the irony that you survived the firestorm of the century only to go up in sudden flame peacefully at home, leaving everything else intact while you crumble into ash.
Outside the little apartment, smoke curls in the air. It shapes itself for a moment into the figure of a woman walking graceful as you walked that day, untouched in the eye of a pyrocyclone.
Then the wind kicks up, arid and hot, driving relentless down the slopes of the mountains and rattling the dead grass like bones. Your form disperses before it, bleeds into the smoke-laden air, and blows away. Not gone but so diffuse as to be indistinguishable. A distinction without a difference.
I rise on the wind and follow you, scudding over the scarred fields. I’m done here, but my work goes on without respite. Lives big and little still go up in smoke, a thousand hot spots in a world dry as tinder.
It is fire season, after all.