Recently, I sold a story, a novelette called “Fire and Fate,” to SWORD & SORCERESS 25.
This story began with “Rite of Vengeance” in S & S V (1988). At the time, I was still reeling from my mother’s murder and struggling with themes of hatred and violence and, well, vengeance. “Rite” was a twist on the conventional smash-the-villain motif. I started with my swordswoman bent on destroying the evil sorcerer who had demolished her childhood village and brought her to a choice between sparing his life or unleashing an even greater evil. The next year, Marion bought “Crooked Corn,” another step toward healing with the same characters, but had too many stories for S & S VI, so it ended up in the overflow volume, SPELLS OF WONDER. “Crooked Corn” asks, Once you’ve fulfilled or renounced your dreams of revenge, what then? How do you put your life back together, or is that even possible, since you can never go back to the person you were before you turned yourself into an instrument of revenge? The title refers to a reaping contest in which our swordswoman must learn to work with the natural world instead of against human opponents. I stole that part of the story from an old Bulgarian folk tale.
Eventually, I took the two episodes and tried to extend them into a novel, but it never quite worked. It retained the pacing of a string of individual story-lets. Heeding my agent’s advice, I stuck the manuscript in a drawer, but something in it kept calling to me. The climactic sequence contained a moment of compassion, of deep transcendent understanding for the object of hatred. My character sees that the dragon, personification of all she has fought against, is really a creature lost and in pain. (Actually, it’s a magically reanimated dinosaur skeleton.)
When I was thinking about ideas for S & S 25, I dug out this story. I winced at how clumsy and overwritten the writing was, but I also rejoiced that I could now see the difference.
I snatched scenes from the middle and end to see if I could massage them into some kind of shape. Soon I realized that in order for this story to stand on its own, to have story-shape-ness, I had to sever the umbilical cord to the previous work. I fleshed out cultures and characters in different ways, changed names and back-stories and landscapes. And cut — going from 27K to just under 8K words. I had to examine each element, each scene…each sentence to weed out everything not essential. It’s said that novels teach us what to put in and short fiction teaches us what to take out. Yup.
In the end, the story achieved its own focus and rhythm, one I was pleased with. I’d taken the bit of wonder that I had loved and given it the setting it needed in order to shine.
SWORD & SORCERESS 25 will be released from Norilana Books in November 2010. The dinosaur still makes an appearance.
Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her recent publications include Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Jaydium, available in serialized chapters and ebook here on Book View Cafe.