Freebie Mondays: The Evolution of Symphony of the Stars

Freebie Mondays: The Evolution of Symphony of the Stars

I’ve been taking a look at the various iterations of my published novels to see how they change between drafts. I started by looking at Dreamers Do Lie which, because I took a significant break in between the first and second drafts, has a few less versions to look at.

The Celestial Serenade, on the other hand, has a few extra drafts because it went through a significant amount of editing before I decided to entirely re-write it. That might make this post slightly longer than some of my other scene comparison posts, but I find it fascinating how my writing has evolved.

I’ve specifically chosen a scene that required a lot of re-working throughout various drafts. I even made some final adjustments during my publishing pre-read because the scene didn’t quite feel solid enough. But if we go all the way back to the original first draft, this scene was so brief it didn’t even stand alone. It was just a few paragraphs tacked on to the beginning of another scene as a transition.

The Original

Kantis spent most of his time on leave in bliss with his husband. They walked in the gardens. They played games. They laid awake long hours into the night just talking. Salis smiled more often every day and Kantis allowed the knowledge that he would one day soon have to return to battle to slip further from his mind as the day of his departure grew closer. He forgot the sting of being parted from his beloved, and the trials of the battle field seemed to fade even if he would never be completely able to forget them.

Their bliss was shattered in a single, heart rending moment by a knock on the door. Kantis thought nothing of it at first; they had so many visitors that it was hardly worth worrying over each friend who came to visit. When he opened the door, however, and saw the grim expression of the Lord High General waiting beyond… he knew. He did not need to hear the words. He already knew. All mirth went out of him. The cold, harsh reality of war slammed against him like a solid brick wall. He was acutely aware of what was about to happen, what he was about to leave behind.

“When?” He asked without even offering a greeting. He drew in a deep breath and steeled himself for the answer.

“I am sorry, my friend.” The steely faced general responded, though the expression on his face did not ease in the least. He gave Kantis all of the details and then turned to leave, not waiting to be invited in. It was not an invitation that would have been offered in the first place.

By the time the Lord High General had gone, Kantis’s face was as stony and grim as his had been. He turned slowly, almost numbly back to his living room which now seemed dark and foreboding where only minutes before it had been warm and welcoming. Even if Salis had not been able to hear, even if he had not known what such a social call must mean, the look on Kantis’s face would have been enough to tell him. For a single moment after the warrior had closed the door, he and his husband stood facing each other, their eyes saying everything their hearts would not allow them to speak, then Salis fell into his husband’s arms and wept bitter tears until Kantis’s shirt was soaked through to his chest.

Three days of strategy meetings followed. While the soldiers discussed the how and why for what they were about to attempt, Kantis knew his husband was pacing the floors of their house, bitting his lips, wringing his hands and worrying about the day when he would once again leave his home and the city behind. He knew that Salis feared more than the distance that would be parting them, more than the time that would be spent apart from each other. His husband’s fear was for his life. He feared that one day soon he would set foot out of their front door and never return to set foot back through it again. Kantis did not deny or belittle his husband’s fears because he knew that they were well founded. He was leaving the city to face death and destruction. It was not a pleasant prospect.

But if he did not leave to face death and destruction where the Ruvalli wrought it, all too soon it would come to his doorstep, and by then it would be too late to protect his people or even those that he loved. So it was that in the evenings, when he returned home, they did not speak of what was to come. They lay clinging to each other and Kantis knew that Salis had put on his brave face. That he was doing his level best not to cry. He knew that the sorrow and desperation of his husband was just barely contained, he could see the dam waiting to burst in his eyes. He knew that Salis wanted, somewhere deep in his heart, to beg and plead his husband not to go. But Kantis knew that no matter how much it hurt him, he would never dare utter the words. Salis knew that Kantis was a warrior, that it was in his blood to fight and defend. Salis would not demand that his husband deny his very being. He simply accepted that warrior was who and what Kantis was. For his part, Kantis did not plead with his husband to let his sorrow flow freely. He simply held him tighter.

Round Two

The first time I edited this novel, I recognized that I was glossing over a lot of important information by presenting it as summary. Even as a young writer, I realized this was bad – though I wasn’t entirely sure how to fix it.

You’d think that I would have split this part of the story out into its own scene at this point, but I was still trying to shove the entire story into 120,000 words. Still, I think the second attempt does a much better job of showing what is happening instead of simply informing the reader it was a thing.
. . .

Once Kantis released his anxieties, home came close to bliss. He spent most of his time with Salis, walking the gardens, lying awake talking. Every day the war slipped further from his mind. Salis smiled more often. The battlefield seemed far away.

He thought nothing of answering the knock at the door. He forgot that nothing ever lasts. He expected company; Salis often entertained guests. He was as good a cook as his sister.

The moment he saw the look on the general’s face, he knew. He didn’t need to hear the words. Reality, like Osaria, is a cruel mistress.

“When?” he asked, without even a greeting, steeling himself for the reply.

“I am sorry, my friend,” the steel-faced general replied.

He isn’t, Kantis thought bitterly. He doesn’t have to abandon his family. He doesn’t have to worry he’ll never see them again. He just talks about the casualty reports while he allots the next round of resources.

“You depart next week,” the general continued when Kantis said nothing. “The legion is summoned and you are called to Council tomorrow.”

“Thank you,” Kantis replied without gratitude. The soldier nodded, saluted, and turned to depart. Kantis hadn’t intended to invite him in anyway. He closed the door but remained a moment. He felt the tenuous paradise he’d cultivated since his homecoming shatter.

When he returned to the living room, his grim expression told his lover everything. Salis looked up to ask who’d been at the door and his face fell. Tears sprung into his eyes. He launched himself into his lover’s arms and wept until Kantis’s shirt was soaked through. Kantis could think of nothing to say.

There’s nothing left we haven’t already said. It might be easier if he begged me not to go. It’s not the battlefield that worries me, it’s the pain my departure causes him.

But Salis was stronger than that. While Kantis spent the next three days in strategy meetings, bent over maps, shifting the tokens which represented his men, he knew his husband was at home wringing his hands as he paced the floor. He’s afraid I’m going to die. He’s worried these are our last days together.

His fears were not unfounded. Kantis didn’t lead from the back ranks; he fought on the front lines. The Ruvalli may be technologically inferior, but they know their way around the battlefield. If I, and others like me, refuse to make use of our skill, it won’t be long before the war is on our doorstep. To safeguard Salis’s life, I’ll gladly give my own.

Despite Salis’s worries, he always smiled when Kantis came home. Kantis knew it was forced. The only outward sign of his husband’s dread was the way he clung to his lover every night. It’s as much in his nature to worry as it is in mine to protect. I can no more ask him to change than he can ask it of me. So he respected his husband’s efforts by pretending he didn’t notice the occasional cracks in his armor.

Post Re-Write

This clearly worked a lot better, but still has problems. For one, there’s a bit too much inner monologue. Instead of nebulously telling the story, the character narrator is telling the story. Which is better in the sense that it it’s more direct, but it doesn’t paint as strong a picture as I’d like.

After this draft, I realized my story was moving far too quickly. I struggled to depict my characters as clearly as I wanted in the time available ‘on camera.’ I thought readers would struggle to identify with the challenges I was trying to depict because I only gave them a few scenes of introduction before the plot exploded.

I wanted to slow down and make sure I gave this story the time and energy it deserved. So I decided to split the first book into three installments so that I could expand all of the pieces of the story that felt rushed or compressed. The scene fragment we’ve been looking at finally became a fully independent scene, instead of just a fragment of transition. This allowed me to show a little bit more of Kantis’s relationship with his job and how he struggled to balance it with his personal life.

Here’s what the first part of the scene looked like after I re-wrote it.
. . .

Every moment not devoted to work, Kantis spent with Salis. Everywhere they went, they went together. They had already done everything in the city, but it didn’t matter. They did it all again. Walking trails, river cruises, dinner parties. Kantis squeezed time into his schedule for every fair, concert and garden tour, often waking early in order to return home by early afternoon.

Once he released his anxieties, the time Kantis spent at home came close to bliss. The battlefield became marks on a map, a number of supply package bundles and theoretical questions discussed over hot drinks in some general’s stuffy office. Salis smiled more often. He greeted Kantis every afternoon by throwing his arms around his neck and covering his face in kisses. He invited his sister and her stoic husband to dinner at least once a week; repayment, perhaps, for all the times they hosted him while Kantis was away.

It was almost like a dream. On the front lines, Kantis barely slept. He woke in the wee hours of the morning to agonize over troop movements and use of rations. He checked on the sick, rode patrols and tried to plan five steps ahead of the enemy. He worried constantly he would miss one critical piece of information and doom the men who followed him or, worse, doom the civilians they were meant to protect.

On the battlefield, war was a waking nightmare that Kantis and the rest of his soldiers endured out of necessity. It was a brutal, unforgiving landscape that required cool calculations to navigate. But from Altaris, the war felt more like an endless game of chess, wherein both players shuffled their pieces across the board, regularly redistributing them in new configurations, to protect or capture new territories. It was a dangerous way of thinking and Kantis tried to remind himself of that while he discussed the fate of fighting soldiers in various offices.

But the sight of Salis’s smiling face melted it all away, turning the time he spent at the front into a fading memory. In the evenings, after he and Salis made love, they lay awake talking like teenagers about every topic under the sun.

What would his life be like if he had become a Councilor instead of a soldier? Or a farmer or trade smith? If he were a scientist or engineer, he might have been able to live this life every day, instead of during the brief intervals when the fighting slowed down. Surely Salis would have been happier had he married anyone else.

But Alrayia had been right when she spoke to him on the night of his homecoming; it was impossible to ignore his own nature. And the more time he spent rearranging holographic projections of soldiers and supplies, the more he noted the situation’s degradation. Already, his hard-fought and carefully maintained advantage had disappeared. Though it cost them heavy losses, the Ruvalli had pushed forward all along the battle lines, forcing the Caltarans to evacuate several small towns and improvise fresh defenses. It would only take one major Ruvalli victory to demoralize the Caltaran army; after all, most Caltarans were still under the impression their technology far outclassed that used by the Ruvalli. Few realized how slim that gap had become. And with clever enough tactics – or little enough care for the wellbeing of their soldiers – the gap disappeared completely.

Council politics aside, Kantis knew his craft. He saw how to fix the problems from the front, but he couldn’t make it happen if he had to spend all his time arguing with men more concerned about how it would look to their business partners than the urgency of taking action. And he knew before anyone so much as breathed the words when it was time for him to take his legion back to the front. He was almost ready to volunteer.

Yet, he bit his tongue. He couldn’t bring himself to tarnish the joy on Salis’s face when he came home. Didn’t dare silence his bubbling exuberance. Not until the orders were drafted and the command was official.

Some Final Tweaks

This works a lot better than my initial attempts to show this portion of Kantis’s life – especially since it does actually continue into a proper scene depicting relevant events. It still has a few problems though.

The biggest issue is that this portion of the scene is mostly internal speculation. It doesn’t have any action beats. It’s hard to visualize because, for the most part, we’re just swirling around Kantis’s head.

I didn’t make a ton of changes this time around, but I did add some external description and interaction to better anchor the scene in a time and place. I’ve bolded the new additions so they’re easier to spot. This is the version of the scene that I published!
. . .

Every moment not devoted to work, Kantis spent with Salis. Everywhere they went, they went together. They had already done everything in the city, but it didn’t matter. They did it all again. Walking trails, river cruises, dinner parties. Kantis squeezed time into his schedule for every fair, concert and garden tour, often waking before dawn in order to return home by early afternoon.

Once he released his anxieties, the time Kantis spent at home came close to bliss. The battlefield became marks on a map, numbers of supply package bundles and theoretical questions discussed over hot drinks in some general’s stuffy office. Salis smiled more often. He greeted Kantis every afternoon by throwing his arms around his neck and covering his face in kisses. He invited his sister and her stoic husband to dinner at least once a week – repayment, perhaps, for the times they hosted him while Kantis was away.

It was almost like a dream. On the front lines, Kantis barely slept. He woke in the wee hours of morning to agonize over troop movements and use of rations. He checked on the sick, rode patrols and tried to plan five steps ahead of the enemy. He worried constantly he would miss one critical piece of information and doom the soldiers who followed him or, worse, doom the civilians they were meant to protect.

On the battlefield, war was a waking nightmare that Kantis and the rest of his soldiers endured out of necessity. It was a brutal, unforgiving landscape that required cool calculations to navigate. But from Altaris, the war felt more like an endless game of chess, wherein both players shuffled their pieces across the board, regularly redistributing them in new configurations, to protect or capture new territories. It was a dangerous way of thinking, and Kantis tried to remember that while he discussed the fate of fighting soldiers in various offices.

But the sight of Salis’s smiling face melted his troubles, turning the time he spent at the front into a fading memory. In the evenings, after he and Salis made love, they lay awake talking like teenagers about every topic under the sun.

It was hard not to think about that mutual euphoria as Kantis entered what felt like his tenth strategy meeting of the week. Why they always held these meetings in an office instead of an actual briefing room, he’d never understand. There were so many men packed inside, it was hard to breathe.

A map of the border the Caltarans shared with the Ruvalli waited on a table near the center of the office. It was a holoprojection that included simulated terrain as well as glowing names indicating the most critical strategic points. But the markers representing the military and their movements were physical, smooth pieces of polished wood that would be touched by every hand in the room before the meeting was done.

What would his life be like if he had become a councilor instead of a soldier? Or a farmer or trade smith? If he were a scientist or engineer, he might be able to live with Salis every day, instead of during the brief intervals when the fighting slowed down. Surely Salis would be happier if he had married anyone else.

Perhaps Kantis could melt to the back of the meeting, pretend he didn’t care and slip home after without worries plaguing his mind. But it only took five minutes for someone to suggest something foolish, and Kantis couldn’t resist the urge to catch their hand, shake his head and shuffle the markers where he thought they should go instead.

Because what Alrayia told Kantis the night of his homecoming was correct; it was impossible to ignore his own nature. And the more time he spent rearranging the markers representing soldiers and supplies on these holographic projections, the more he noted the situation’s degradation.

Already, his hard-fought and carefully maintained advantage had disappeared. Though it cost them heavy losses, the Ruvalli had pushed forward all along the battle lines, forcing the Caltarans to evacuate several small towns and improvise fresh defenses.

We need to make a major push if we want to keep the enemy away from our urban centers. At Xolip, maybe. Or perhaps Balrist. Sleepy little towns that just so happened to sit on defensible landscapes and guard major supply route intersections.

Luckily, the Lutaw Mountains stood between the Ruvalli and the capital to the north west, or their defensive lines would be spread too thin.

Kantis’s fingers itched, and he boldly shoved another set of wooden markers toward the glowing dot that represented Xolip. Several of the meeting’s senior officers frowned, but Damik nodded thoughtfully, agreeing with his unspoken plan.

It would only take one major Ruvalli victory to demoralize the Caltaran army; after all, most Caltarans were still under the impression their technology far outclassed that used by the Ruvalli. Few realized how slim that gap had become. And with clever enough tactics – or little enough care for the wellbeing of their soldiers – the gap disappeared completely.

Council politics aside, Kantis knew his craft. He saw how to fix the problems from the front, but he couldn’t make it happen if he had to spend all his time arguing with men more concerned about how things looked to their business partners than the urgency of taking action.

And he knew before anyone so much as breathed the words when it was time for him to take his legion back to the front. He was almost ready to volunteer.

Yet, he bit his tongue. He couldn’t bring himself to tarnish the joy on Salis’s face when he came home. Didn’t dare silence his husband’s bubbling exuberance. Not until the orders were drafted and the command was official.

There You Have It

But as I mentioned, I actually extended this portion of the book into a full scene after the re-write. So here’s what happens after the bit we’ve been looking at.
. . .

“You know what needs to be done, don’t you?” The voice belonged to Lord High General Damik, the only man with the power to order him back onto the field. Technically both Lord High Generals Onang and Banvor could counter his decisions, if necessary, but usually they bowed to his expertise.

It was something of a relief to turn and find Damik waiting just inside the door of his cramped office, like a breath of fresh air he hadn’t been able to capture for several weeks. Ignoring the small pang of gilt that swam in his stomach, Kantis deactivated the holographic projection of the front lines that filled his closet-sized cubby and gave the man his full attention. His actions in the briefing the day before must have convinced his commander it was time.

“I have a fair idea, yes. And you know it won’t get done as long as I have to wait for committee approval. Even my influence only extends so far.”

“I know.” With a sigh, Damik leaned against the edge of Kantis’s desk, shifting several forgotten file folders out of alignment, threatening to topple them onto the floor. Kantis searched for signs of grey in the man’s long, auburn braid, but he was neither that old nor that worn. Not yet, anyway.

“But I’ve been hesitant to lose your voice in the strategy meetings,” Damik went on. “You’ve got a cool head, and your logic is hard to counter. You’ve saved me countless hours over the past few weeks, and I’m grateful for it.”

“I’m glad to be of assistance, but we both know a soldier has to go where he can do the greatest good. Talk doesn’t accomplish half so much as muscle. And the Ruvalli are growing unpredictable. By the time we have the latest information, even with bouncing signals off the big arrays in real time, it’s out of date. The Eldats have already been forced to make their judgment calls. And our responses come too late to be helpful. It’s a sad reality that people question me less when I can show them the results of my command decisions.”

“A delicate line we’re all forced to balance. I don’t blame you for preferring the efficiency.”

Kantis pressed his lips into a thin line, swallowing the first words that rose from his throat in response. But after several silent moments of contemplation, he spoke them anyway. “I’m starting to think I shouldn’t come back until this is finished.”

Damik arched one auburn eyebrow. Time and politics had chiseled his jaw line but withered his cheeks and eye sockets, making his face appear hawkish. “How will Salis feel about that?”

A sharp pang of regret reverberated through his chest, but Kantis refused to let it sway him. “That’s a low blow, coming from you.”

“Forgive me.” Damik bowed his head briefly. “I only worried that two months wasn’t much of a reprieve. And you don’t know when you’ll be back again.”

“Some would argue it doesn’t matter,” Kantis replied, cool and calculating, falling back on old survival instincts. “There won’t be much to come home to if the Ruvalli win this war. And you can see what all these festivals and celebrations cost us.” He waved a hand to reactivate the holographic display. “We might be looking at a very different line if I had stayed out there. Six months is nothing compared to how long some of our people have been fighting without seeing their families.”

“Sometimes I wonder about you, Kantis. You’re too good to spend as much time as you do among corrupt politicians.”

A hint of a smile brushed Kantis’s lips. “Not good, my friend, just stubborn.”

With a small chuckle, Damik pushed off the desk and reached for the door mere inches away.

“When do I leave?” Kantis asked without looking at the lord high general, his voice low and soft.

“Next week,” Damik replied without pausing to think about it. “I have messengers drafting the official orders this afternoon.”

Kantis’s heart sank. He tried not to feel it, tried to numb himself to the pain he knew was coming, and utterly failed. Reality, like Osaria, was a cruel mistress. He steeled himself, lifted his back and straightened his shoulders. “I’ll be ready,” he promised.

It was easy to get through the rest of the afternoon, to make a list of the tasks that required his attention and work his way meticulously from one to the next. It was easy to sign the paperwork and make the phone calls. It was even easy to imagine where he would be in a month.

Until he left his office. Then every step filled him with dread. There was no easy way to break the news to his husband, no words that would take the edge off the sting. Nothing in the world pained him more than breaking his husband’s heart, and he did it with shocking regularity.

As he strode through the door to his house, his tenuous paradise shattered. His grim expression told his lover everything he needed to know. The smile melted from Salis’s face. When he threw his arms around Kantis’s neck, he clung to him, face buried in his chest, silent sobs shaking his shoulders. Kantis drew him far enough into the house to close the door, then held him until he cried himself out.

It might have been easier if Salis begged him not to go, if he railed against the cruel fate that often kept them apart. But he never did. For all that Salis hated the war, and hated his husband’s participation in it, he never tried to deny Kantis’s nature. He was stronger than anyone believed.

And Salis’s fears were not unfounded. Kantis didn’t lead from some sheltered tent tucked near the rear ranks on the battlefield. He led his legion into battle and fought at their head. He asked nothing of his men that he wasn’t willing to do himself. And he asked an awful lot of himself. He stared through the eyes of death every time he stepped onto the battlefield, half-expecting to hear the sun-goddess’s final call. If men like him didn’t make use of their skill, it wouldn’t take long for the war to reach Altaris’s doorstep. And he would gladly give his life to safeguard Salis.

“When?” Salis croaked when he finally drew back, peering up at Kantis with shimmering, bloodshot eyes.

“Next week,” he said softly. “So we won’t have to cancel those plans with Anten and Alrayia this weekend. In fact, perhaps we should extend them.”

“Of course,” Salis murmured around a soft sniffle as he tried to regain his composure. “I’ll call her now.”

But Kantis caught Salis’s wrist before he could escape and drew him close again. Leaning down, he kissed all the places moisture still lingered on Salis’s cheeks, snaking his arms around the man’s midsection as he did so. And Salis melted into his embrace, letting his fingers slide up Kantis’s cheeks and into his hair.

There were a million things Kantis could have said. But there was nothing they hadn’t discussed a dozen times before. A warrior’s heart beat in Kantis’s chest. And though Salis would spend the next week pacing and wringing his hands while Kantis was stuck in strategy meetings, there would still be a warm smile of welcome on his face whenever his beloved returned home. In exchange for this last, fleeting week of bliss, Kantis would pretend not to notice the cracks in his husband’s mask.

“We have one more week,” he murmured at last, setting his lips next to Salis’s ear. “Let’s make the most of every moment.”

“Starting with this one,” Salis agreed, pressing his lips to Kantis’s.

(Find the full story here!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.