An Exercise in Self-Critique 4

This is the fourth post in the series where I critique the beginnings of my own stories, written long ago, and try to make them better. Here are the previous posts:

The usual method is to look at the first 250 words and examine/edit that excerpt in detail. But today I’ll do something different. I want to talk about some of the material that I cut from Thinker Traitor Soldier Spectre, the Mass Effect fanfiction novel I finished last year, and explain why it never made it into the final version.

One of the major changes I made on the old draft from 2012 when I started working on it again in 2018 was the removal of a subplot involving a series of Saren’s dreams, the first of which was also the first paragraph of the entire work. Here’s the beginning of chapter 1, Adrift, as it was back then:

A bright morning in Har Triste on Palaven. He’s standing on the edge of a crater, ankle-deep in the rubble. Where the Subourus Plaza used to be. The buildings around still stand. At angles. Burnt and punctured, shattered windows and naked armature. He can’t remember which war he’s fighting in, but war it is. His planet is under attack, his people suffering. Yet as he looks up at two winding missile tails in the serene yellow sky, he only thinks, it’s beautiful.

Saren awoke wide-eyed. His heart was drumming in his ears, rapid, like a frightened child’s. He closed his eyes again and ran a hand over his face. His palm was wet. Everything was wet, the underweave of his hardsuit, the support of the pilot chair under his fringe. But why? It wasn’t a nightmare. It was… strangely pleasant.

Unless there were parts of it he didn’t remember.

It took him several blinks to break away from the dream and focus on the when and where. The Virial, his light corvette, was about to go through the Caestus relay. He awoke just in time to hear the rude voice of the VI:

“Disengaging FTL drive in sixty seconds. ETA to Caestus relay, five minutes.”

You can compare this ancient version of chapter 1 with the final one in full by following the links. I found (and hopefully fixed) a lot of issues in the old version and rewrote the beginning itself from scratch, without the dream.

But why did I delete the dream?

There’s an unwritten (or perhaps written, but I forgot by whom) rule saying that the very first paragraph of a work is “for free”. As in, you can put pretty much anything you want there without paying the price (of losing readers). Friends who’d done early proofreading raised no objections with the dream. And nothing in it strikes me as obviously wrong, even today. Yet I felt that getting rid of it (and the others in the series/subplot) would improve the overall quality of the work.

The main reason is that I’ve grown wary of starting stories with protagonists waking up from sleep, remembering dreams, sitting, pondering, or even outright being bored. To summarize, being passive. I can’t swear I would point this out as a problem or even notice it in stories written by other people, but it’s a symptom that haunts almost everything I have written and it started to actively bother me.

It seemed bad enough that the first paragraph of the whole work is a dream followed by waking up and pondering, but the rest of the dreams in the series are also strategically placed at the beginnings of chapters or scenes, exacerbating the situation. Here’s the next one, originally from the 2012 version of chapter 6, The Boy, where it appeared after the scene break:

Looking up at the two winding missile tails in the serene yellow sky, he thinks, it’s beautiful.

Then an awful howl echoes from the ruins, and several more answer. His heart quickens: varren! There are varren about. It’s all clear now: the krogan, the krogan have recovered from the genophage and have come to exact revenge. They have brought the varren with them and now they are all over the fallen city. They can smell blood from miles away. He inspects his body; it appears he is undamaged. Why does he care, though? He is not afraid of the varren. He shouldn’t be. But as another chain of howls breaks through the deathly silence, closer now, almost at hand, his heart goes to his throat and all he can think about is where to run and hide.

Saren jerked, grabbed his seat for support, looked about wildly. Where the hell…?

The removal of the dream from chapter 6 didn’t change much in itself. Saren still starts from some nightmare and launches into an awkward exchange with Nihlus. But once I made up my mind to delete this subplot, all the dreams needed to go. The next one was in chapter 9, Respite, which changed so much from that early draft that it’s almost unrecognizable today. It’s the first of the four troublesome chapters I complained about in Muddy Middle. In the early draft it started with:

Another chain of howls breaks through the deathly silence, closer now, almost at hand, and his heart goes to his throat. All he can think about is where to run and hide.

He enters a ruined building, an antique shop he’d used to frequent as a boy. Nothing but rubble in it now, a hole in place of the ceiling, plaster hanging on misshapen armature, the clear sky shining in its innocence above. He takes the stairs down, into the basement. He’ll be safe there. Safer. There’s one window, broken, it’s barely above the sidewalk but from where he stands, it looks impossibly high. No varren would dare jump through, not even to feed. He can relax.

And then a low growl behind his back launches him into a state of panic the likes of which he had never experienced before. There’s a varren in the basement with him.

This time he had shouted out, he knew it because some of the men jerked from their sleep as well. To their credit, nobody spoke. Saren was grateful. He had a lump the size of a salarian egg in his throat, his heart was beating in his temples like a krogan war-drum. But why? Why? The dream was receding fast, he couldn’t catch it, whatever it was that came next was now lost behind the shroud of consciousness.

This chapter was so riddled with problems that beginning with a dream was probably the least of my concerns when I set out to rewrite it. But the removal of the dream affected its tone, themes and structure in a way that provoked several significant changes in subsequent chapters too. Thematically, the most important change is in the state of Saren’s mind. In the early draft, it was the dreams that upset and unbalanced him; in the final version, it’s the side-effects of medication, essentially shifting the focus from the internal to the external. While less tangible than the “don’t start with passive protagonists” mantra, this is actually another reason I wanted to get rid of the dreams. At the time of writing the early draft, it seems I had been bent on portraying Saren as the tortured antihero even though TTSS takes place too early in his antihero career for him to have accumulated that much torture. In the final version, while still disabled by sudden illness and generally out of his depth in the jungle setting, he remains stable and confident within.

The final dream was at the beginning of what is now chapter 11, They Wouldn’t Dare:

A low growl behind his back launches him into a state of panic the likes of which he had never experienced before. There’s a varren in the basement with him. He backs away and the vile animal follows, growling, it can smell fear as sure as it can smell blood. He trips, going backwards, and falls down, turns on his belly and tries to get up on all fours, but he is weak, he is slow, every movement feels like swimming through tar.

But the varren doesn’t attack, doesn’t claw, doesn’t bite. Instead, the unthinkable happens. The varren straddles his leg and starts rubbing against the unplated skin under the knee. Penetrates. Starts moving in a sickening, accelerating rhythm, violating him, and he can do nothing but watch in horror and Spirits! Make it stop! Please! Make it stop make it stop make it finish already and stop stop stop!

He can feel everything as the varren deposits its filth inside him, a warm, thick, sticky fluid that makes a nauseating bump under his skin. Then it retreats, and he finds the strength to rise and examine the puncture. The lump has grown hard. It is throbbing. Like some living implant. Glowing a faint blue light.

Saren’s eyes shot open. He slammed a hand across his mouth, scrambled to his feat and ran for the nearest bush. It started coming out before he was ready but he was quick enough and didn’t stain his suit or his hands. The disgusting things he’d eaten after the battle came out in big, barely chewed lumps and seeing them, smelling them, brought about another wave of spasms in his stomach and another fountain of gruesomeness out of it.

This chapter, that originally had a different title (which I no longer remember) was rewritten so thoroughly that nothing of the old material remains. The final version, however, hits the same plot milestones:

Spoiler warning! Click to reveal.

Saren is disabled by sudden illness. Feverish, he discovers that he’s been infected by Sovereign’s nanites; this manifests as tiny cysts that glow blue under the skin. In the early draft, the dreams were a sort of a lead-up to this revelation, hinting at his growing concerns about the role he has accepted as Sovereign’s agent. Originally, the nanites were activated by poison from a snake bite; in the final version, by the severe reaction to a standard vaccine against local maladies. Instead of hinting, his concerns are spelled out in chapter 16, Gravity, which at the time of the early draft didn’t exist yet.

It’s been more than a year now since I published Thinker Traitor Soldier Spectre and happily forgot about it. This wasn’t so much an exercise in self-critique as a trip down the memory lane, a reminder of 1) just how much work that early draft needed to get where it ultimately got and 2) just how much I managed to improve it. To be completely honest, there were many things that needed fixing a lot more than the dream sequence, which was by no means horrible. But it was unnecessary. It was idiosyncratic, reflecting rather my own interest in dreams and dream interpretation than providing any significant value to the plot. It made Saren less confident and more vulnerable, which I correctly diagnosed as overkill. And it drew attention away from more immediate and interesting developments too early.

While I don’t regret removing it from the manuscript, I am glad to share the dream sequence now, with all the benefits of hindsight.

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