Hello, again! This is the third and final part of our “How to Write a Short Story” writing feature. If you haven’t read the previous parts, I highly recommend you do so to get the most out of the seeing the writing process in action.
Now it’s onto the second draft, the majority of which has been almost entirely reworked. Once you’re done reading, check out my notes at the bottom, which go into detail about my writing decisions as well as why even this “final draft” will not be the last at all.
Nirei leaned forward in the saddle, the wind whooshing past her ears, Ember’s hooves thudding against the wet trail that wound along the bank of the Hull. The spring rains that had been drenching the grounds of Kingston Academy were blessedly absent this morning; Ember would have little trouble getting them away from this place.
After three months, they were going back home. Three months were all it took to want to get as far as possible from the machine shops and production lines that slowly turned horses into monsters. Three months to know that when the horses changed, they changed for good.
Nirei knew there was no returning from the machining 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. And when the process was complete, the horses, no longer resembling their former, noble selves, would spend the next thirty to forty years ferrying the bourgeoisie to their lavish balls and dinner parties. Nirei was young, but not so young that she didn’t remember a time when horses simply pulled carriages instead of becoming them, and she wished for that time to return.
“That’s ludicrous,” Bieram had said to her. They had been sitting together on the stable roof, drinking wine after class, when Nirei had let the thought slip. “The horses live for practically double their original lifespan. And haven’t you heard about the plans to expand the commercial district? We simply don’t have the space for miles upon miles of open fields anymore.”
Ember slowed as a group of horse-machines crossed the road in front of them. His ears flicked as the gears in their legs grinded against their bones. Nirei covered her mouth and nose to keep out the acrid smell of engine oil. The beasts passed and they continued north.
She had come to Kingston seeking an education, and she had received one: She knew now that the Academy’s machining process stood against everything she believed in. Humans changing the natural growth of the horses to suit their own needs — it had instilled a morbid curiosity in her at first, but now it disgusted her.
She wouldn’t do that to Ember, not like Bieram had done to his horse, not like every horse who was born at Kingston Academy would end up if they stayed.
The hill at the edge of the Academy grounds rose up before them. She slowed Ember to a trot, hopped off as they drew up to a stable next to the watchtower overlooking the Hull. As the guard began climbing down the ladder to open the gate for her, Nirei fiddled with the straps on a bag attached to Ember’s saddle.
It had occurred to her many times that she could have killed Ember herself. And every time she thought it, she hated herself more for it.
The guard reached the bottom of the stairs, but instead of turning toward the gate, he walked over to Nirei. As he got closer, she could see who it was.
“Let me through, Bieram,” Nirei said.
“No,” Bieram said. “Not until you tell me where you’re going.”
“I’m going home. Now will you please let us through?”
“Home is hundreds of miles away,” Bieram said. “Assuming you get that far without getting caught, how long do you think you have before the Academy finds out where you are? Weeks? Months?”
“Bieram, they’re killing horses in there,” Nirei replied. “How you or anyone else can stand it is beyond me. I’m not staying, and neither is Ember. Nothing you can say can change my mind, so stop trying.” She tried for all the world to sound firm, but she didn’t think she managed it. She spoke her next words more softly. “If you ever truly cared for me, you’d let me leave.”
They’d been more than friends, once. He’d grown quite fond of her, she knew, and she had even entertained the notion that she cared for him too. But to save Ember’s life, she had to put Bieram behind her, too.
“Nirei, I’m the only friend you’ve ever had here. At times, I feel like I wasn’t even that. But if you leave now, you’re hurting Ember, not helping him.”
“If I stay, I’ll be letting Ember die. Just like you let Shadow die. I can’t do what you did, Bieram. I can’t give him that death sentence.”
Bieram took another step towards her. He stood no more than a few yards away. “The Academy’s transportation program is only getting larger. Even if you do manage to evade them, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them laying down the tracks toward a brighter future right outside your bedroom window in the very near future. Don’t fight them; come back with me. Please.”
A knot tightened itself in Nirei’s chest. She hadn’t seen the new engines for herself, but had heard plenty enough to know the factory was a place she should avoid.
“If I go back, Ember dies,” Nirei said. It was as much a reminder for herself as anything else.
“And if you leave, you’re only prolonging your pain,” Bieram said. “You know that every horse eventually stops growing. They reach their physical limitations, then begin to decay. It’s such a terrible waste, don’t you think?”
“Our bodies do the same thing, but I don’t see them running tubes through our veins.”
Bieram smiled thinly. “Maybe someday. But horses have more possibilities. We’re just so weak compared to them.”
“If I had wanted philosophy,” Nirei said, “I would have stayed for the morning’s lecture.”
Bieram shook his head. “There’s a difference between that and propaganda.”
“It worked on you. You submitted your own horse to the program.”
“I did. And I wanted to. Unlike you, I see that the future can only benefit from this. I am fully aware of what the horses have to sacrifice for our gain, but Nirei, it’s the only way to progress.”
Bieram sighed. “When we asked the horses to help us see what lay beyond the valleys, hills, and rivers of the world, the horses 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. Eventually this service became falsely remembered as their God-given nature. And now, when our ambitions 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.”
“That’s a damned selfish outlook.”
“He’s already changing, Nirei,” Bieram said. “That’s just how things are now. Maybe in a different time, you could have done something.”
Maybe he wasn’t lying. Maybe what he said was true, but that didn’t make Nirei any more inclined to go back. Nirei focused her breathing, forced her hands to unclench and her shoulders to relax. Every ounce of her anger was being directed upon Bieram for not understanding her point of view. But then again, she was not understanding his.
“So what can I do now? I’m not going back to Kingston, maybe not ever. But you’ve got a chance to let me leave without hating you. Give me something to work with.”
Bieram looked at her in that sad way of his. It was not a pretty look, but he was not an especially pretty man. He was, however, smart, and Nirei had in the past relied on him for that. So when he reached into his jacket and pulled out a pocketknife, she did not panic. Instead she listened to what he had to say. “I want you to cut into Ember’s leg and see for yourself what’s beneath. Even if you never cared for me at all, I was never anything but a good friend to you. I hope you’ll consider that and that you’ll indulge in my request.” Bieram handed over the knife, and Nirei took it.
The knife was fairly dull. She looked at Ember’s dark eyes. The area near the horseshoe wouldn’t be enough to hurt him.
Nirei lifted Ember’s leg and cut just above the hoof, peeling away the skin. Shiny chrome lay beneath, with blood trickling down the chrome. It reminded Nirei of spring rain against the classroom window.
It was a moment before either of them spoke. “He’s already begun to change. We just help the process along. Perhaps we’ve added more than our fair share of changes to them, and maybe God will judge us for that. But until that day, we’ll continue doing what we do here.”
“Maybe,” Nirei said, “that will be the day I return to Kingston.” She wiped the bloody knife off on her sleeve, and handed it back to Bieram. He looked like he was swallowing something distasteful. Still, it was a look that she knew, a look that didn’t need explaining. Bieram turned around and went to the wrought-iron gate, unlocking it with a key. It whined as he swung it open, and Nirei walked Ember past and through to the other side.
Nirei did not spare another look for Bieram nor the Kingston grounds. The trail before them continued north towards home, but already Nirei knew it would not be the peaceful refuge she sought. There was work ahead of them.
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.
And there you have it, a second draft. The work on this story is by no means finished, but I feel it’s getting closer to where it needs to be. A few more writing group sessions and it’ll be good to go.
- Following the second draft, I took many of my editors’ gracious notes into consideration in trying to fix my story. My main problems were:
- – Identifying Nirei’s and Bieram’s relationship to each other
– Figuring out what the horse-machines do for the setting/world at large
– Resolving the conflict better
My approach this time around was to tighten up Nirei’s motivations for leaving the Academy, putting them at odds with Bieram’s motivations for wanting her to stay. This was previously unexplored territory in my first draft, so adding those elements in were pretty easy. Same goes for the worldbuilding stuff about why horse-machines are even in the world; I just added details where needed and let the characters talk it out. As for the big confrontation that begins halfway through the story and closes it out, I cut the entire thing and reworked it from the ground up, using what I now knew about the two characters’ relationship and how that would affect them. I got it to a point where I was mostly happy with. Mostly.
Therein lies the final lesson for this exercise. Even after a big brainstorming session, a first draft, a writing group workshop, followed by an extensive rework and draft, a story still might not be where the author wants it to be. There are things about this story that I’m still not happy with (the conclusion is still really weak), but the changes I made are several steps in the right direction.
I hope you got something out of being able to see these stages in my writing process. If there’s anything I hope you learned, it’s that I hope you won’t be afraid to just go for it when you write, no matter how wacky an idea you think you have and no matter how bad you think your first draft is. Your ideas can always be wackier, and your first drafts can always be worse. But I can say with confidence that anything you write will be better than having not written at all.
If you do end up using this exercise, let me know in the comments where I can read your story. I’d love to see the hard work you’ve put into it!