Columns > Published on October 4th, 2012

Storyville: Story Dissection - Maker of Flight

I thought I would take the time to dissect another of my stories. The last one I covered, “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave” was a unique format, so with this column we’re going to look at a more traditional structure. We’re going to dissect my story “Maker of Flight”, which was a contest winner at ChiZine, on their Chiaroscuro webzine. The “Enter the World of Filaria” contest asked the competitors to write a new chapter that could fit into the world of Filaria, a steampunk novel by Brent Hayward. We were given a few sample chapters, which I read of course, and a maximum word count of 1,000 words. What I’d like to do is go over the story paragraph by paragraph and let you know what I was thinking, what I think works, and where I might make changes if I were to change anything. I hope you enjoy this. If you’d like to read the story, I'll post it first, THEN the dissection:

Moist damp air clung to his skin as he hunched over the workbench, goggles tight. Isaac held the little bird down with his gnarled hands, the incessant chirping pinging his ears.

“Schit schtill, wouldja,” he said, as his mouth clenched shut, rotten gums pressed together tightly where teeth used to be. “Thish ish for your own good.”

A flurry of blue wings batted at his knuckles, panic stretching the tiny bird’s eyes wide, as Isaac poked around its backside with the silver screwdriver. Finding the latch, he inserted the tip into the screw and the cavity flew open, spilling sprockets and gears onto the scarred wooden surface. Quiet filled the room as he placed the still bird down. Wiping his brow and the top of his bald head, the candlelight bounced off the walls. Silence. Stretching his back, shoulders raised, he took a deep breath. Hacking out a deep, rattling cough he spat into a dirty handkerchief and stuffed it into his pocket. His dusty dungarees were more stain than fabric. The floor was lined with metal parts lurking in the shadows. Sheet metal and iron beams, mesh wire and rebar. Rust and mold drifted to his flat, wide nose, his sinuses raw from the turpentine and ether.

He reached across the desk, a hulking presence in the claustrophobic room. Grasping the tin cup, he swallowed the orange juice in one massive gulp, squinting his eyes shut for a moment of humanity. He’d paid a lot for this forbidden fruit. Scarce, yes. Gone? No. So many lies and rumors these days. But the sweet crank that was his only friend, nectar to the godless, she was his only reward for a job well done.

Dirt walls vibrated around him as another pod rambled up the shaft nearby. Soil spilled down on his glistening skull. His broad shoulders slumped over the bird to protect it. If the tiniest fleck of earth dropped into its innards he’d spend all day cleaning it out. So easy to jam up these fickle machines.

“4:21 ish a wittle earlwe today.”

A gust of foul air eased across the room, and Isaac blinked, wrinkling his nose. The lone vent in his cell was of little help, content to belch rancid gas. A window, he thought. What I would give for a window. Blinking his eyes, the sunlight would probably blind him.

Standing up he walked over to the house of cards that were his shelves. Small glass jars littered the planks, cups and bowls of dented brass and tarnished tin. Screws, pins, springs. Gears, sprockets, filament, and rubber bands. His hand floated above the fourth shelf, faulty memory hunting down a replacement part for his little blue baby. They were all his children. Hundreds of them. Mostly Bluebirds, because that was what Diedre liked. But now and then he’d make a Cardinal anyway. Try to sneak it past his supervisor, his guard.

His only friend. Besides the juice. And the odd bits of moss that floated his way.

The moths were way beyond his ability.

“I’m coming darling, don’t you fret,” he muttered, glancing at the lifeless bird, tipped over on its side, guts spilled out in a pile of metal. Its vacant eyes still in shock, faded yellow beak open as if waiting for a worm.

“Ah, here it is,” he said, his grubby fingers picking up a miniscule box and lens.

Back over to the desk he plopped down again, his hands a blur of efficiency, as he shoved one part inside another, screwed it in tight, every puzzle piece in the right place, every gear lined up, a latch set, and the compartment to its belly shut with a nearly inaudible click. Immediately the bird flapped its wings, scattering the dirty bolts and washers all over the floor. It chirped and chirped, flying in a circle, round and round, faster and faster. Isaac watched, a grin on his face. Eyes never leaving the bird he reached over and picked up a small box, entered a seven-digit code, and punched the button. The Bluebird fell from the air into his outstretched hand.

“It’s okay. You’ll be free schoon, darling.”

On the far wall by the barely visible arc of a door sat a wicker basket. Shuffling over to it, he gently placed the bird inside, atop its inanimate brothers and sisters. Fifty-two birds in all. One dull red Cardinal buried in the mix. Daphne was her name, blue number fifty-two. They were all letter “D” today. Helped him keep his head straight. Daphne, Danube, Dominic, Delilah, Desiree, Davide.

“Not much room to schpare today,” he said. But two over quota.

Standing next to the wood beam door, a pounding on the other side shook him out of his spell.

“Isaac, I’m coming in, sir,” the voice squeaked.

He stepped back and eased into his chair, placing both hands on his meaty thighs, hands crossed as if waiting for a cup of tea, goggles misting as he freed his brood once again.

“Enter.”

A tall thin boy poked his head in, dressed in rags, a dirty knit hat pulled tight over his head.

“Everything okay today, Isaac?”

“Just peachy. Fifty-two.”

“Excellent,” the boy said, smiling as a muscle tic caused his left eye to flinch. Blinking. Blinking.

“Go ahead,” Isaac said. “I’m ready.”

The boy glanced down at the pile of birds, waiting to be taken. His eyes moved back to Isaac and in he crept. He grabbed the basket and stood up, arms full, that one moment of vulnerability that he dreaded each day.

“I’m going now, Isaac.”

“Be well, my friend,” Isaac whispered, as the child disappeared behind the door. It pulled shut with a deep latching noise, locks turned and fastened, bolts passed and shut.

Looking down into his hand, Isaac stared at the tiny video camera, turning it over and over in awe.

“Wonder if da schky is schtill blue.”


“Maker of Flight”

Let’s start with the title. It’s the first clue about what’s going on. As you get into the story you’ll see what the title means, the birds that Isaac makes. By phrasing it as I did, somebody who is a “maker of flight” and not a maker of birds, or birdman, or something else, I wanted to try and imply a sense of godlike wonder. It’s focused on the action, the freedom of flying, not just the bird.

ISAAC, L1

I used a sub-head here, something I rarely do, but it ties into the way that the author, Brent Hayward, sub-titled his chapters in Filaria. I felt like that helped it to feel like part of the novel, instead of a stand-alone story. Every little bit helps, right?

Moist air clung to his skin as he hunched over the workbench, goggles tight. Isaac held the little bird down with his gnarled hands, the incessant chirping pinging his ears.

You’ll notice this is in third-person. I usually write in first-person, but Brent wrote in third, so I wanted that to tie-in nicely. I focus on setting very early, something I like to do, giving you that moisture, the idea that he’s warm, sweating, uncomfortable even. The hook here is that we see a strange man in goggles who looks like he’s abusing some poor bird. My goal was for you the audience to be intrigued, to ask yourself “What the hell is going on here?” Moist air, goggles, the bird—I hope that I’ve painted enough of a picture that you want to keep reading. This opening paired with the title feels like a pretty good start to me.

"Schit schtill, wouldja," he said, as his mouth clenched shut, rotten gums pressed together tightly where teeth used to be. "Thish ish for your own good."

This was definitely a risk—the way he talks, the lisp. Isaac has no teeth, something I picked up from the novel, how this kind of decay was rampant. I practiced talking with my lips pulled in over my teeth to see how it sounded. This is the result. I like that he talks to the bird—he’s alone, and this is his world.

A flurry of blue wings batted at his knuckles, panic stretching the tiny bird’s eyes wide, as Isaac poked around its backside with the silver screwdriver. Finding the latch, he inserted the tip into the screw and the cavity flew open, spilling sprockets and gears onto the scarred wooden surface. Quiet filled the room as he placed the still bird down. Wiping his brow and the top of his bald head, the candlelight bounced off the walls. Silence. Stretching his back, shoulders raised, he took a deep breath. Hacking out a deep, rattling cough he spat into a dirty handkerchief and stuffed it into his pocket. His dusty dungarees were more stain than fabric. The floor was lined with metal parts lurking in the shadows. Sheet metal and iron beams, mesh wire and rebar. Rust and mold drifted to his flat, wide nose, his sinuses raw from the turpentine and ether.

This is the first major scene, or micro-scene. My goal is to get to the mechanics of it all as fast as possible. I only have 1,000 words, so I have to move fast. I wanted these mechanical birds to be as lifelike as possible, and for you the audience to believe the illusion for as long as I could make it last—up until the moment where he sticks the screwdriver in and you’re let in on the secret. I wanted a moment of unease where you think he’s about to impale the poor bird, I’m setting him up as a hulking beast, when in reality he’s a gentle giant. The words “sprockets and gears” definitely give it a steampunk vibe, something I wanted. The scarred wood ties the surface into the work he does, how he’s been there a long time. I like the visual of his bald head as well, I wanted him to be a little different, and when I thought of teeth falling out, a lack of hair seemed like a normal physical trait as well. Candles make you wonder about electricity, and when and where we are. The cough and phlegm ties into the novel, and his sickness. Also, the word choice of “dungarees” instead of jeans seemed to fit the old/new steampunk language I was looking for. And I end the paragraph with more of the senses—mold and turpentine, and his physical presence—a flat, wide nose and raw sinuses. I feel at this point we’ve gotten a good picture of who he is and some of his workspace.

He reached across the desk, a hulking presence in the claustrophobic room. Grasping the tin cup, he swallowed the orange juice in one massive gulp, squinting his eyes shut for a moment of humanity. He’d paid a lot for this forbidden fruit. Scarce, yes. Gone? No. So many lies and rumors these days. But the sweet crank that was his only friend, nectar to the godless, she was his only reward for a job well done.

Again, I wanted the room to feel small, him to feel large. It’s a tin cup, which makes it feel like a jail in my mind, it’s not glass or porcelain, right? And the orange juice being a rare commodity ties into a lack of nature, we’re making birds here, so maybe there aren’t any trees or bushes either? The idea of lies and rumors ties into the sense of conspiracy and imprisonment that I wanted to create.

Dirt walls vibrated around him as another pod rambled up the shaft nearby. Soil spilled down on his glistening skull. His broad shoulders slumped over the bird to protect it. The tiniest fleck of earth dropped into its innards and he’d spend all day cleaning it out. So easy to jam up these fickle machines.

The idea of dirt walls was a mistake. It implies that he was underground, level one, the lowest level, when in actuality, he was on the highest level, on top. There are pods (elevators) around him, so that typically implies height. What were you picturing so far, up high or underground? If you were thinking underground, then I screwed up, I didn't give you enough to make it seem like a skyscraper. Somehow, I still won. Mostly because I think they missed that detail. What do you think?

"4:21 ish a wittle earlwe today."

It implies that there is a schedule, a routine, for Isaac, and the world around him.

A gust of foul air eased across the room, and Isaac blinked, wrinkling his nose. The lone vent in his cell was of little help, content to belch rancid gas. A window, he thought. What I would give for a window. Blinking his eyes, the sunlight would probably blind him.

I like the expression that Isaac makes here, the idea of him being bothered by this stinking air. Here we see the idea of a window, which is why I think there is a bit of a disconnect (my fault)—why some people think he’s up high and some people don't. I would probably go back and change the dirt to something that makes us feel like we’re up high in a tower, some other building material. Dust can come from drywall or paint chips, so I’d fix that if I could.

Standing up, he walked over to the house of cards that was his shelves. Small glass jars littered the planks, cups and bowls of dented brass and tarnished tin. Screws, pins, springs. Gears, sprockets, filament, and rubber bands. His hand floated above the fourth shelf, faulty memory hunting down a replacement part for his little blue baby. They were all his children. Hundreds of them. Mostly bluebirds, because that was what Diedre liked. But now and then he’d make a Cardinal anyway. Try to run it past his supervisor, his guard.

I wanted to show you as many of these little parts as I could. There was something soothing about it, to me—this is his world, the only variance he has. It also speaks to his mental abilities—he’s actually very smart. Plus I get to say “sprockets” again. And “filament.” Calling these birds his children gives him the appearance of being a father (or a god). Deidre was a main character in the novel, Filaria, so I wanted to make sure she was included in this story. She likes bluebirds, so all of the birds he makes are blue, but he sneaks in a red one now and then—I like that he rebels. Supervisor and guard let you know, if you weren’t sure, that he’s a prisoner here.

His only friend. Besides the juice. And the odd bits of moss that floated his way.

He sees the guard as his only friend, which is just kind of sad.

The moths were way beyond him.

This hints at two things—that there are those that are like him, others trapped in this tower making things, birds and moths at least, we know that much, but certainly much more, and also that he is of a limited intelligence, he can’t make the moths.

"I’m coming darling, don’t you fret," he muttered, glancing at the lifeless bird, tipped over on its side, guts spilled out in a pile of metal. Its vacant eyes still in shock, faded yellow beak open as if waiting for a worm.

I like that he talks to the bird, it makes him more endearing in my eyes. The way that I combine the mechanical aspects of the bird with human descriptions (shock, vacant eyes, guts) is a nice blend that appeals to me. We’re in a grey area here where these are machines, and yet, they are lifelike. Artificial intelligence always fascinates me.

"Ah, here it is," he said, his grubby fingers picking up a minuscule box and lens.

This seems like a throwaway line, but it actually is important, the box and lens, it will tie into his last line in the story, his last actions.

Back over to the desk, he plopped down again, his hands a blur of efficiency, as he shoved one part inside another, screwed them in tight, every puzzle piece in the right place, every gear lined up, a latch set, and the compartment to its belly shut with a nearly inaudible click. Immediately the bird flapped its wings, scattering the dirty bolts and washers all over the floor. It chirped and chirped, flying in a circle, round and round, faster and faster. Isaac watched, a grin on his face. Eyes never leaving the bird he reached over and picked up a small box, entered a seven-digit code, and punched the button. The bluebird fell from the air into his outstretched hand.

I like the click. It’s quiet here, but I can hear that click for sure. And the fact that the minute he closes the flap it jumps back to life. The remote, it implies control, at least, as far as this bird is concerned.

"It’s OK. You’ll be free schoon, darling."

Stephen Graham Jones would kill me for the “OK” and I never spell it that way any more. “Okay.”

On the far wall by the barely visible arc of a door sat a wicker basket. Shuffling over to it, he gently placed the bird inside, atop its inanimate brothers and sisters. Fifty-two birds in all. One dull red cardinal buried in the mix. Daphne was her name, blue number fifty-two. They were all letter "D" today. Helped him keep his head straight. Daphne, Danube, Dominic, Delilah, Desiree, Davide.

The arc in the doorway, that implies a different architecture doesn’t it? It feels Roman or something to me, and I wanted that strangeness. 52 birds is a lot, he’s a busy guy. I like how he uses the letter “D” to name all of his children, and the fact that the names are different, too, not your typical David (this one has an “e” right?) lots of exotic names, for an exotic place and time.

"Not much room to schpare today," he said. But two over quota.

This reminds you of his work, his sentence—there is a quota.

Standing next to the wood beam door, a pounding on the other side shook him out of his spell.

"Isaac, I’m coming in, sir," the voice squeaked.

He stepped back and eased into his chair, placing both hands on his meaty thighs, hands crossed as if waiting for a cup of tea, goggles misting as he freed his brood once again.

"Enter."

A tall thin boy poked his head in, dressed in rags, a dirty knit hat pulled tight over his head.

"Everything OK today, Isaac?"

"Just peachy. Fifty-two."

"Excellent," the boy said, smiling as a muscle tic caused his left eye to flinch. Blinking. Blinking.

"Go ahead," Isaac said. "I’m ready."

The boy glanced down at the pile of birds, waiting to be taken. His eyes moved back to Isaac and in he crept. He grabbed the basket and stood up, arms full, that one moment of vulnerability that he dreaded each day.

"I’m going now, Isaac."

"Be well, my friend," Isaac whispered, as the child disappeared behind the door. It pulled shut with a deep latching noise, locks turned and fastened, bolts passed and shut.

I wanted to speak to this whole little scene here. It’s a power struggle, right? Who is in charge? You’d think the guard, right? But he addresses Isaac as “sir,” which implies that he was (or is) important, had (or has) status. The guard lets him know before he enters, and checks with him before he takes the birds. The moment of vulnerability, as well as all of the little actions that came before this, imply that Isaac can be dangerous, unstable at least. I wanted that balance between Isaac being seen as a caregiver, a creator, but also something to be watched, an animal. “The lord giveth, and the lord taketh away,” right?

Looking down into his hand, Isaac stared at the tiny video camera, turning it over and over in awe.

"Wonder if da schky is schtill blue."

Hopefully these last two lines bring home a sense of peace and also wonder. I wanted you to feel sad for Isaac, but also to feel hope, that maybe he can get out, that maybe the world has not moved on so much that he has been abandoned. Do you get the ending? He’s placed a tiny video camera in the bird, he wants to see outside, to see “if the sky is still blue.” So much has changed, he isn’t sure any more.

Well, that’s my dissection. Do you agree with my comments, my analysis? What do you think works especially well? Is there anything that doesn’t work for you, that you didn’t get when reading the story? Hope this helps with your own writing.


Why not check out the novel that inspired this story, Brent Hayward’s Filaria. It’s an excellent book, one that I really enjoyed reading. And while you’re at it, would you like to see who came in second place? You can read “Bone Pickers” by Debi Carroll. Did I deserve the win?


TO SEND a question to Richard, drop him a line at Richard@litreactor.com. Who knows, it could be his next column.

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About the author

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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