“Equestrian Engines” – Short Story First Draft (with edits!)


Eric Carr edits

Jordan Feil edits

My edits

Equestrian Engines (with edits)

Nirei leaned forward in the saddle, the wind whooshing past her ears. Ember’s hooves thundered against the trail that wound along the bank of the Hull River. The spring rainstorms had finally passed; -”and” a slippery riverside trail was no place for a proper escape route, but this one would have to do. Nirei hissed and tugged at Ember’s reins as they weaved around a handsome couple strolling beneath a white lace parasol, shifting in the saddle to accommodate the turn.
-So thundering at speed, but along a trail with a handsome couple? The reaction seems out of place.

The idea was that Nirei was focused on riding and had to act quick to avoid the couple, who appeared on the trail. I can either try to make that more apparent, slow Ember down (which I don’t want to do since they’re running away), or remove the couple entirely since they ultimately aren’t important.

The weight in her saddle bag slapped against her leg. A pistol, French-made; she hadn’t bothered to learn what it was before she stole it from Bieram’s locker. All she knew is she had seen it rupture the skull of a crazed mare from ten yards away. The beast had been three-quarters of the way through the machining process when its handler had lost her nerve. Nirei couldn’t blame her; the weight in the saddlebag attested to that. Better Ember die as he was than become the result of the Academy’s finest work.

Nirei had seen it several times before, and each time had imagined her own dearest Ember whinnying in terror as she had (-tense?) strung the caustic cables through his still-beating heart. Each had been a dreadful beginning to the summer break, but this year was going to be the worst of all.

The horses’ mating season had arrived, meaning their bodies had reached optimal time for transformation. Nirei had spent considerable time with Bieram — Supervisor Bieram, now — last semester, which had allowed Ember to skip the process for another year. But Nirei had ruined that too, and now she had run out of time.

She turned Ember north, and the wind screamed in her ears.
-if you end up adding the next paragraphs into dialog, I’d jump right from this to them coming up the hill.

When the horses changed, they changed for good. There was no returning from that process, that synthesis of flesh and chrome. Healthy red blood and strong sinew became diluted with oil, pumping hot through polished vein-tubes, spilling through newly opened cavities. Eye sockets converted into headlamps, ribs swung open to become hatch doors. When the process had run its course, the horses barely resembled their former noble selves.

You see, when Man asked the horses to help us see what lay beyond the valleys, hills, and rivers of the world, the horses had obliged. They bared their backs to buckle and belt, and frothed at the mouth under rider, whip, and carriage for hundreds of years. Their subservience was forgotten as a charitable act for the lesser species of Man and became falsely remembered as their God-given nature. And now, when the ambitions of Man have grown too large to sustain the sacrifice the horses made for their freedom, we again asked… and again, the horses obliged. Now it was their bodies that changed to take us to new eras of greatness.
As a quick aside, this whole paragraph is gorgeous. Having said that, if you could put this in the mouth of Bieram, you can combine your sexy prose/world building and get come characterization out of it too – the fiction trifecta.

Although I like this prose as just kind of floating exposition, Carr brings up a good point. I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to put it, so coming out of Bieram’s mouth could work. However, the way it reads seems to come from someone who views the machining process negatively, so it would work better coming from Nirei’s mouth. I’ll have to put some thought into where I want this and how I want it to work.

A familiar hill rose up before them. She slowed Ember to a trot, hopped off as they drew up to a weathered stable overlooking the Hull. The stable’s roof was caving in, but there was a trough with fresh rainwater outside. Ember began to drink, and Nirei took the pistol from her saddlebag. She checked the chamber like she’d seen Bieram do, clicked it back into place. She took a deep breath, took one last look at Ember slurping at the water in the trough and-

A shadow moved from within the stable. Nirei raised the gun.

“Whoa, easy there!” Bieram stepped from the shadows, palms held before him.

Nirei held the gun up for longer than she probably should have, then lowered it. “Are you here about the horse, or for me?”

“Are those the only two options?” Bieram took a step forward, and Nirei considered shooting him again. “Stealing school property is a capital offense,” he said.
That first line is a little too cute. Almost trite. Consider, “Perhaps both,” or “Does it matter?”

He’s absolutely right here. I had thought as much writing it, but went ahead with it anyway, and now I’m glad Carr pointed it out. Seems a bit too trivial a line considering the circumstances, ie. having a gun pointed at you.

Another step. “Why aren’t they here now, you’re wondering? Why is it just old Bieram again? Why can’t you get him out of your life?”
Who is saying this?
I gathered that it was Bieram but I agree that the dialogue is a little clunky. It strays a bit too close to the “taunting evil doer trope” for my taste.

They caught me! I am notorious for cutting chunks of writing and then not making the pieces connect. As for Jordan’s note, I can see how he would view it that way, but I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing if I can make it work. It just goes to show how much work the Nirei/Bieram relationship needs if this is going to stay in.

All good questions. (I don’t know if you have enough space to flag italics as internal thoughts, I’d move them into the regular prose, since you’re already in 3rd person omniscient)Nirei felt her finger itch against the trigger of the pistol. “Is this really the best time? I have business to take care of.”

“I’ve heard that one before,” Bieram said. “But you aren’t getting out of this one. The Academy isn’t just going to let you — or Ember — slide for another semester. My hands are tied.”

“You talk like you had everything to do with that,” Nirei said.

“Didn’t I? Gods, you’re insufferable, Nirei.”
-”Gods” here, but mention up top about something from France. Maybe I’d drop “French” from up above and replace with “foreign made” or “continental.” Less specific for your steampunk world.

Caught me again. You can tell that I was flip-flopping between making it a totally unique fantasy/steampunk world or an alternate 1800s England, and having both “French” and “gods” contradict each other a bit. I’ll have to consider whether I want to change “gods” to “God” or just remove it entirely. I think I like that “French” is in there, as adding a bit of real-world reference makes the horses-into-machines concept a bit more horrifying, in my opinion.

“What are you trying to do, Bieram? Talk me out of what I need to do?”

“I know what you never could do, and that’s let your horse change. I’m not going to spout the same Academy indoctrinations at you, you’re too smart for that. But that horse is going to change whether you like it or not. So what do I think you’re doing?” He stopped. “I think you’re running away. I know you think the only thing you can do is to keep running away from it.”

What does the change actually mean for Nirei’s relationship with Ember? Depending on the answer to that question I think it’s possible to both strengthen Bierams position as a villain and raise the stakes of this entire interaction.
-Is he a villain? He seems less good/evil than progress vs tradition. Either way it could be made more implicit. If you’re leaning the other way, you could have Bieram have shared a similar story as Nirei? Something like that could humanize him, and give Nirei a reason to loathe him.

Both Jordan and Carr raise good points here, and again, they involve the incomplete relationships Nirei has with other characters. Carr makes a good point about Bieram not being a villain, which to be honest is how I had envisioned him, but not in the way that Carr pointed out which was progress vs. tradition. This is a worldbuilding question I haven’t answered yet: What do horse-machines do for the world? Additionally, Jordan points out I haven’t really explored how Ember changing could affect Nirei, and it’s something I need to figure out before the final draft.

Then you never knew me at all. Before she could think better of it, Nirei raised the gun, aimed it at Ember, and fired.

The bullet bit hard into Ember’s skull. Nirei imagined she heard the crack of the bullet puncturing the thick plate between the eyes, as it drilled into the flesh and pierced the intelligent brain beneath. Ember’s body was strong, Nirei knew that, yet she could not believe even a creature as strong as her Ember could remain standing, let alone strain. But she felt him pulling the reins, frightened by the noise. What-
-Incomplete thought here?

Not an incomplete thought, but the fact that he interpreted it as such tells me it probably needs to go.

“He’s molting,” Bieram said. Nirei barely heard him. “The process has begun whether you’re ready for it or not. That’s evolution, Nirei. You and the other handlers merely help it along.”

Her instincts had taken over. She had drawn Ember’s head closer with the reins, avoiding his kicking front hooves, trying to soothe him. Minutes passed — hours, for all Nirei knew; she was focused on calming her dearest friend in the world. How she thought she could live without him…

“What should I do, then?” What do you want me to do?

Bieram looked like he was swallowing something distasteful. Nirei had seen the look before, on one of the nights she’d waited for him after lectures. It was not a pretty sight, but he was not a pretty man. Still, it was a look that she knew, a look that didn’t need explaining.

Nirei closed the remaining distance between them and handed him his pistol, handle-first. She turned, gathered her saddlebag, and went back to Ember who had been watching with eyes wide. Nirei mounted Ember, stroked his forehead, feeling the dent the bullet had made in his skull. His skin had parted from the impact like a cigarette burn on new upholstery.

Damn, those last two sentences are brutal. I love it.

Praise is always appreciated.

Without looking back, Nirei and Ember descended the hill, away from the trail and toward the woods that lined the Hull. She couldn’t kill Ember, not with the means she thought she could have. But leaving him in some scrap heap wasn’t a fate for him either. No, she decided, his was a fate best left discovered, and to do that they would have to go far away from Kingston Upon Hull.

When the horses changed, they changed for good — yes, Nirei knew that. But perhaps she could change with them. At the very least, she had to try.
I feel like I never had a super good idea what Ember was going to become in the first place so I have a hard time connecting/understanding this last bit. I don’t understand the change well enough to theorize what could possibly be in store for our two travelers.

Jordan finishes with a real toughie. Again, I think doing a bit more worldbuilding and figuring out what the horses have to do with the world at large will answer this question; it’s just a matter of figuring it out.


These were notes I left at the end of my piece to let my editors know what kinds of things I was worried about. Things they could focus on, or things I was looking to change. Remember, you can’t talk during a writing group, but it’s okay to provide a little context if you’re looking for specific critiques. (Of all the things in the story, I’m the least happy with the conversation between Nirei and Bieram and how that builds up to her decision to shoot Ember. Maybe it’s the justification itself that needs more background. Structural things need a little work as well, like the best places to put the third-person narration stuff, but that’s the big one.)

Jordan: So, that was a ton of fun haha. As someone who read and edited the first part of your writing series this was seriously cool. From a wikipedia article on trams to a brilliant story about evolving mechanical horses, that’s good shit man, well done. As far as the particulars go I absolutely love the bit Carr pointed out, you really struck gold with that idea. Not only is it wonderful to read but it gave a life to the story that really grounded it and made it real. The same can be said of all the gruesome transformation sequences, those were tight. I also like Nirei quite a bit. I think you did a good job showing her character in her actions. And I felt for her as she was slowly forced to face reality.

As for criticisms, I had a slight problem with Mr Bieram. I think you hit the problem on the head with your observations about the build up to the shooting. I think the issue is that there is a lack of motivation and threat. There was no tension in the scene which made the shooting seem less impactful. I think if you gave that missing justification through his character you might be able to tight together the scene and use him as an ideological threat. Especially if you look into carrs idea to have him say the paragraph he pointed to. I can see him arguing that the transformation is a sad but inevitable part of nature. And I think that’s a good place to contrast Nirei’s own reservations. Something that bother me is that we never really find out why the transformation is bad or good. That argument is kind of lacking. If Man demanded the horses continual evolution, and the Academy has a personal stake in it, it stands to reason that its powerful/generally thought of as good. Why is Nirei so against it and how it Beiram a threat to that. I think if you flesh that dynamic out further you’ll be closer to where you want to be.

Well, damn. Jordan beat me to it. I think the reason that you don’t like the dialog is that it plays like a vessel for Nirei’s own thoughts. It’s not really doing much to build the characters or advance the story. It’s sort of there. As they stand now, the characters are placed in opposition, but never seem to make their case so we don’t know the stakes.

It’s a style thing, but I would like some more pronouns. What color is Ember? What do the other characters look like? A good place to sprinkle those details might be in the dialog, since it would allow you to control the pace of the reading.

Also, while it was in the previous work you did, the story doesn’t have much in the way of why the horses turn mechanical and how that’s beneficial to society as a whole. Like, I want to know more about the world you’ve constructed, since it seems interesting while also being horrific and weird. Also, kinda cool.
Either way, I think that the core is interesting and the prose is just a pleasure to read.

So after all the edits, here’s what I have to work with: my editors have reinforced my notion that I need to work on the relationship between Bieram and Nirei to really make it work. Additionally, I need to flesh out the reason why the machine-horse process exists in the first place, and what that means for the world at large. That means I need to do some worldbuilding to really justify it, which will inevitably increase its word count past the 1000 words I had planned for. At this point, I think stifling word count would only do this story a disservice, so I think I’m going to allow myself to increase it if the story calls for it.

Now that you’ve seen the entire process, I hope you’ve gained some insights into your own writing/editing process. Or at the very least, been inspired to try to write one of your own.

Join me two weeks from now when I post the final draft of this story. Look forward to seeing how it differs from this first draft, as well as additional notes on which edits I chose to accept and which ones I did not. And if you can’t wait until then, check out the other stories my fellow editors have posted.

See you soon!

Eric Seal

Eric Seal is a writer, drummer, gamer, husband, son, and father, and he can't decide which of these he likes best. Also writes fatherly musings at mostlymetaldad.com.

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