I loved the character conflicts in my first draft, but it wasn’t a cohesive story, and it had waaay to much information. Very on-brand for me, really.
As I had never written a short story before, I had to do some research on the best components of one. I came across these categories (not very different than novel writing):
Internal conflict, external conflict, MC’s goal, try-and-fail cycle, rising action, turn, falling action, theme.
Ok. Internal conflict I had in spades (also on-brand). External conflict had come out while pantsing my first draft, but it was ill-defined. Needed to bring that out earlier. Needed a stronger goal, and more agency for my MC. Had rising action and probably some sort of falling action, but no real “turn.”
I wrung my hands a lot, not able to look past my draft and really “see” what I could do to change it, so instead of worrying about the above, I first went through and highlighted the parts of the draft I liked and deleted all the stuff I was meh about. Not surprisingly, all the meh was the worldbuilding. I had done that on the fly just to have a story, and wasn’t wedded to any of it.
So again, highlighting is what I liked. (Although to confuse things, the red highlights were 1. the mention of Darvasi; I wasn’t sure if I wanted to name them and 2. distancing language that would take the reader out of deep POV).
That helped. I wasn’t so wedded to this world I had created and could mess around a bit. I ended up keeping a lot of the surface stuff, in the end, without the backstory.
By that point, I was able to gin up an actual goal for my MC (ending the retaliatory attack against the Darvasi by any means necessary), a turn (realizing the President was in direct danger, beyond just a strafing of the capital) and falling action (a change of heart, no matter how dirty it made her feel). I also moved the details of the internal conflict (the fact she’s the ex-wife) later in the story. Both for a better reveal, but also to move paragraphs around so the “turn” happened closer to the middle of the story and not just a few lines before the end, which is how it was when I first did the edit.
I didn’t quite have a theme but as I started writing, it came out. About how the people and institutions you love can disappoint you. Like a leader, and a former lover, who had been a paragon of virtue but now was pushing for something unethical. A nation, a shining city on the hill, that would stoop to something that went against all it purportedly stood for. Because that was what happened when ideals met reality. And what is your response? Do you betray that person, and that nation? And is betrayal actually an act of love? And finally, what happens when your ideals meet reality. Do you bend, the same way your country bent? Do you justify it? Do you know you’re doing the wrong thing, but still feel the compulsion to do so? And if so, how do you find absolution?
A motif emerged as well. Illumination. Glowing. Shining. Beacons. Hope. Tarnishing. Dimming. Smoldering. Blazing.
Heavy, for a mere 1000 words.
Shining Palais on a Hill
Four months after the attack, parts of the Ivory Palais still smoldered blue.
Sarai passed the checkpoints, one, two, three. Past the secretary, past security standing tall, she traversed the threshold into the stately office of the leader of the world.
“You wanted to see me, sir?”
A year before, she had rolled that word in her mouth. “Sir.” Tongue forming over sibilant s, uvula worrying over rhotic r. Practiced over and over, so she didn’t stumble over the novelty of calling this man, of all people, “sir.” Months after the Darvasi strafed the capital, their landmarks forever tarnished, the populace’s eyes dimmed, this, this she could control. “Sir,” said strong and true.
And today, she would stand strong as she betrayed her planet.
“We’re moving forward with the retaliatory attack against the Darvasi Syndicate,” the President said, eyebrows raising in anticipation of her response, which was indeed —
“Are you out of your fucking mind? Sir,” she added belatedly. “It’s unethical.” Needed a better argument than that. If she could avoid doing what she planned by changing the President’s mind instead —
“People want results, Sarai,” he said, not even paying attention to her as he perused his evening feed, dashing hopes of persuasion. “Restitution. And they fear further attacks.”
“People are idiots,” she said, trying again. “Sir. You do this, and you put New Terra in even more danger than before. The other planets are going to see this as crossing a red line. All for what? Revenge? We cross that rubicon, and we’re all in danger. Morgan and Jack are in dang–”
Damn. She had crossed a line herself, mentioning the children, obvious in the set of the President’s jaw. He held up a hand. “I know the argument. But I asked you here because you’re the only one who can sell it to the lawyers,” he said. “I value your skills. You know that.”
“That’s what you hired me, sir.”
“Indeed.” His mouth quirked up in a smile, eyes soft, and she couldn’t help the heat that sprung to her cheeks. “You’re the best in the business.” Statement of fact. Didn’t even need a nod in response.
Of course she could convince the lawyers. But she didn’t want to. To stoop to biowarfare, no matter the enemy, was against the ideals of New Terra. She couldn’t let that happen.
Which form would her rebellion take? She hadn’t yet decided. Leaking the plan to the other human planets? Influencing like-minded scientists to tweak the formula justso?
Sending surreptitious warnings to the Darvasi?
Each subsequent option more treasonous than the last. And each would hurt New Terra, badly. Wound it, a deep gash, like the bioluminescent glow still flaming like a torch on the Ivory Palace.
The President cleared his throat. “Anyway, what are your updates?”
She paused before answering, hands clenching and unclenching in rhythm. “We’ve got the projections, sir,” she said, stomach roiling. “The virus would only affect the Darvasi who’ve chosen to illegally enhance their powers. No innocents.”
How could he endorse this? This wasn’t the man she knew. Loved. Integrity brightly burning, now a dull sheen.
No innocents. So what? New Terra, deploying pathogens. Ripping away something integral to the Darvasi way of life. Her betrayal would cut New Terra just as deep as the Darvasi attack, but she would willingly break this planet she loved, in order to save it.
“We’re not indiscriminately harming, Sarai,” the President now said, looking at her with concern. “We’re trying to rectify a wrong.” He worked his lower lip and then grimaced. “We’ve been keeping it from you, but that’s not fair, because it relates to your portfolio. The Syndicate tried to assassinate me a few days ago. We kept it under wraps. I didn’t tell our kids. I didn’t tell the First Lady. And…I didn’t tell you.”
Sarai stumbled as she sat, accidentally spilling coffee on her clothes. Assassination?
The Darvasi had tried to kill the man sitting in front of her. This man, the president of New Terra, her ex-husband, the unrequited love of her life.
And he had put her in the same category as their children. Same as the First Lady. Someone he didn’t want to worry.
Stop, Sarai. Don’t wish. Don’t hope. Stop breaking your ruined heart.
“You absolutely should have told me, sir,” she said instead, tart voice and all. “Let me do my job.”
Her job. Sell the lawyers on something anathema to her. Could she do it? Instead of committing treason? Just following orders, doing something she knew was wrong?
She was the best. That’s why she had been called to the seaside mansion a year ago by the President-Elect’s transition team, and been asked to join the administration as Planetary Security Advisor. Why instead of laughing in their faces, she had nodded sagely and inquired, delicately, about the optics of having her, of all people, on this man’s staff. It was worth it, the transition team said. She was the best.
“Sir,” the secretary broke in over the console, “you have dinner with the First Lady in twenty minutes.”
He took in a breath and nodded over the screen, and returned his eyes to Sarai. But she had seen it — she hated she had seen it — that little grimace at the mention of his wife. A burning beacon.
No, Sarai. Don’t wish. Don’t start.
She stood on a precipice. Each direction led to damnation. Betray New Terra, and him. Or destroy her soul. And his.
He could have been killed. The realization rocketed through her mind, an aggressive whisper, rustling her carefully-constructed cathedrals. Who cared about her wish? Who cared about her scruples? None of it mattered. He could have died. This man. The father of her children.
She could do the work. Assist this horrendous retaliation. For New Terra. For… for him.
(By all that was holy, she’d do anything for him.)
She wiped her hands on her skirt, as if she could wash away the stain.