Kill Your Darlings
By A.J. Mietke
The fact that we have a story titled "Kill Your Darlings" and a piece on writing with the same title is pure serendipity.
Of course, they both complement one another by stressing the idea that everything you write and every character you create does not necessarily make it into the final draft!
I hadn’t been dead for long when I sat up in shock at the realization.
This couldn’t be.
“Oh, no. No, nooo!”
I could not be dead. 
How would Zelana cope without me?
I stood and out of habit, smoothed the fabric of the dress I still wore; though in this vacuum of a space I found myself in, the silk and satin did not seem to crease. The dress was one of Zelana’s first creations. Not my best gown by far, but one I knew the young seamstress was exceedingly proud of, for it had meant overcoming her demons. I could see the pride in her eyes whenever she looked at the flowing skirts and beaded stomacher of her making; her gaze a mirror of the proud look her mother would bear at the sight of her accomplishment. 
A look people reserved for my dresses and rarely ever spared for me.
I sighed and turned my attention to my surroundings, trying to make sense of what they were. 
This place looked nothing like the luxurious rooms I roamed in the Nyraltan world, the world I now understood She’d made up. In fact, it looked like nothing at all. I had a dim sense of enveloping darkness, impenetrable enough that I couldn’t see past the hem of my skirts, yet velvety enough that I felt comforted rather than scared.
But if She’d truly killed me…
I shivered at the thought, haunted by the memory of my presence being ripped off the page.

It all started with a strange feeling of fading away, an eerie sense of dissociation from the world I’d inhabited, taken for granted and never questioned. The terrifying realization I existed only on Her whim, punctuated by the gunfire sound of a delete key, ruthlessly followed.

I was gone before I could react, and I woke up here. 

Alone, with the understanding of who I was turned entirely upside down.

Some days, revisions feel so frustrating —yet so necessary!— that even the scratch of red pen on paper does not suffice to mend a broken plot. Ink may bloody the page as it kills unsatisfactory characters, but its impact isn’t enough.
Once, I tore the pages of my manuscript apart. 
I’ve taped them back together since.
So goes life for the novelist in the making.
I took a few steps in the ethereal darkness; though what difference it made, I couldn’t tell, for the space never seemed to take shape ahead of me.
“I think we have a newbie,” said an amiable voice.
I whipped my head around even if I couldn’t place the source of the sound. The girl who spoke sounded a few years my cadet, and I jumped as she materialized in a scintillating ripple of light, a mere foot away from me.
“Who are you?” Surprise took the better of my royal manners, and the question rang more discourteously than I intended. “And…where are we?” I added, recovering my composure.
Another flash of light broke the obscurity and a myriad of flickers followed as a small crowd appeared around me. I suppressed a whimper.
“Yep, definitely a newbie,” another girl agreed.
The two were the most prominent of the troop, their substance just shy of being as substantial as mine. The first looked a bit frayed at the edges, though this only accentuated her elfish look— almond eyes and lavender skin. Her companion’s glow seemed a bit tarnished next to mine, as if she’d been on space travel for too long and the energy supply of the suit she wore had withered.
I startled myself with the understanding of the concept of a spacesuit. There were no such things as spaceships in Nyralta— we’d barely entertained the thought of sailing beyond the Angry Sea, let alone to the stars. 
Yet for some reason, facing this odd teenage girl, I knew what she was. I couldn’t state her name for the life of me, yet I had a sense of all the planets she’d dreamed of, and I understood her universe and mine were vaster than I’d ever known.
At least in Her imagination.
A universe in which planets orbit along a triangular plane?! 
What were you thinking?
And yet. I still find appeal in the idea. 
But since the boldness of the youth set no limit to my imagination, I have grown and learned the laws of physics. I married a physicist too, and he assures me there’s no science fantasy world in which this idea could fly. 
The planets shall revert to circling their sun. (Along an elliptic course.) 
A shame. 
At least no linguist has destroyed my elfish alphabet yet.
“I’m Omberyn,” the elf-girl introduced herself, one hand outstretched in a welcoming gesture, the other respectfully pressed to her heart as she gave a minute bow.
A smile stretched the corner of my lips. My maid would appreciate such deference, more appropriate to my rank than Zelana’s manners had been when she’d first entered my life.
“And this is Melly.” 
The space traveller gave me a half-hearted wave, and rolled her eyes in the way that screamed “Here we go again.” She looked more the part of Zelana.
“We’re in the in-between,” Omberyn said in what She would have described as helpfully, though this did not help at all.
“The haunted space,” Melly amended in a spooky tone. “Except we are the ghosts.” She snorted over my gasp. 
“I prefer the in-between,” the elf said again. “After all, if we aren’t dead, we can’t be ghosts. And we’re not quite dead yet.”
“What do you mean we’re not quite dead yet?” I cut in.
“If we were, we wouldn’t exist in Her mind at all.” 
Omberyn smiled. Her sapphire eyes kindled with optimism and hope, a stark contrast with Melly’s resigned glare. My own expression must have only looked blank, for the elf sensed the need for clarifications.
“She’s still thinking about us, which means She might revive us some time. We know She wants to,” Omberyn added in a whisper, as if speaking the words could change Her mind for the worst.
My mouth opened in a gaping “Oh.” 
So that’s what this ghostly place was. Her mind, the birthplace and graveyard of Her creative thoughts.
And I was trapped in it.
I fought the mounting panic. With the desperate faith of the drowning handed a lifeline, I focused on Omberyn’s words.
Not quite dead yet.
I could escape.
I could help Zelana.
And salvage the fragile peace of our crumbling Empire.
“Don’t get your hopes too high.” Melly scoffed as if she’d just read my thoughts. “We —for one— have been stuck in-between for a good damn fifteen years. I call this pretty dead. And who knows the state of our galaxy by now?”
“How can you say such things? We almost got our second chance a few months ago!” Omberyn argued, unperturbed by the shiny new idea momentarily blinding our horizon. The bright idea was here and gone in a split second, implying She must have seized it.
The elf returned her attention to my person, and gratified me with another of these explanations she seemed keen to issue.
“You see, She reopened our draft— truly did, like She hadn’t in years. She even liked it.”
Her tone turned wistful as a world of lost opportunities clouded her gaze. 
“Though in the end, She only resurrected the bot. Melly’s still not over it.”
But I could see she wasn’t either.
It is the fall of 2020 and, after six months of a horizon cut by the skyline of downtown Boston, my imagination goes wild as we drive to the open coasts of the Essex bay. The Plum Island coastline, vast and deserted, calls for contemplation. The gardens of Crane Estate and their concealed alcoves inspire intrigue. The refurbished barn we’re staying at is a treat of a relaxing place, and my cluttered mind soon clears and wanders.
And then there’s this painting in the bathroom. A five-mast ship with pristine sails, morphing into a flock of birds.
Maybe I’ll write something about pirates in the clouds.
They’ll have a cat named Charbon, like in this first story I penned.
I still fought to take it all in when a cat black and smooth as the enclosing darkness jumped at me, scaring me to death.
Provided I wasn’t dead already, as the point seemed up for debate.
“Hush, Charbon! Be kind to our new friend,” a new girl came trotting after the animal. 
The in-between was decidedly crowded— especially with teenage girls. This one had tanned skin, green eyes and hair to match the cat’s fur.
She scooped the reluctant feline into her arms.
“At least you guys had a conflict. I only saved a cat.” The whine in her voice betrayed her young age. “How is She going to remember me when I hardly had a purpose?”
“Yet you’re still here, Sarah.” Omberyn pointed out. “She poured a lot of her angsty self into your character. That’s not something She’ll forget.”
The elf went on to explaining that over the years, Sarah had almost faded away. In fact, she’d come perilously close to vanishing entirely. 
Yet in the past year, the trend had reversed. Sarah’s spectral form had filled up with renewed strength. She’d even reached an unprecedented level of consciousness, acquiring senses she’d never had before. Like smell and touch. The experience was a little overwhelming, the young girl commented, and she winced as the cat planted his claws into the tender flesh of her arm. And for some reason none of them could explain, Sarah kept flickering between her early teens and late twenties.
“It’s really spooky,” Melly chimed in. “But it’s not the first time some of us are resurrected and back again… Who knows how many years She makes us go through in the meantime? We can’t always say.”
If I stick at it, I shall get there. A chapter a week, and I’ll force myself to move on, even if I’m not satisfied. I can always clean up the prose in the next iteration, for there will be many more. I just have to keep at it, however slow and steady.
Steady is the key.
But there’s this open call for submissions, with its inspiring prompt and looming deadline.
I’ll go back to revising later. 
This two-year old draft can wait awhile longer.
The moment Melly said that, I had a vague feeling I wasn’t on my first visit to the in-between. The thought sent my head spinning.
No, I reasoned. Some of the crowd would remember me. I was pretty distinctive, with my Renaissance attire and dignified stance.
And even if. This only meant I could escape again.
“There’s no accounting for what happens to us out there.” Omberyn aptly perceived the yearning to leave I shared with her astronaut friend. “Perhaps you’re better off staying. Perhaps you really die at the end of your story. And then there’s no chance of resurrection.”
“I’d still take the chance.”
I couldn’t agree more with Melly’s latest interjection. As an heir raised behind secluded walls, I knew the boredom of gilded prisons enough to see this one was no better. I might have craved for company in my lonesome palace, but I could already see I’d come to miss my solitude.
L’enfer, c’est les autres.
The foreign quote crossed my mind, only half-surprising me by now. In this eerie space of Her mind, it appeared I knew French philosophy.
I shook my head, trying to disentangle my thoughts from those of my creator. 
Back in my world, there had to be a part of me She didn’t know, and if I could surprise Her, perhaps I could slip out of the in-between. I had a sense She’d killed me at Chapter 3, sacrificing me to the unforgiving altar of revisions. And if She was only at Chapter 3, I’d wager She was going through my draft in chronological order.
I still existed in 27 chapters. That left some hope.
A headache split my skull at the dissociating thought I existed here and there, killed in all intentions yet lingering on the page and in the world of Nyralta I was born to inhabit. I had to reconnect to this version of myself before She erased it all— show Her I was deserving of the role She’d wanted to grant me.
Besides, Zelana needed me. Mine was a fantasy novel— the veterans informed me that was all She wrote, save the odd Sci-Fi short story every once in a while. I had no magic of mine —if I ever doubted it, this was now quite obvious— but there had to be a way I could break the system. A way I could reappear. 
I would behave, I would be nice to the guarded seamstress from the start, I’d help her and her kin… I would do what You wanted me to!
“But that’s exactly not what She wants,” Omberyn interrupted, intruding into my thoughts once again. “I bet She killed you because you did just that. That’s the paradox of our lives. You have to become your own independent self— jump right off the page, otherwise you can’t stay in it.”
I fumed. Could this be the reason? I wasn’t realistic enough— a flawed yet likeable character, with a relatable will of my own and the drive to pursue it?!
Damn it. It actually made sense.
But I would show Her.
If Zelana taught me anything, I definitely had a flaw.
And in the act of killing me, She’d just given me a want.
Sometimes it seems I’m not the only one who’s sick of seeing my words. When my computer spontaneously displays a blue screen of death —right as I’m typing this!— I even start to question my own agency. 
Is that a glitch in the Matrix? Or am I the unknowing hero of an upmarket contemporary fiction book?
I hope it has a happy ending.
It was dizzying, sitting here in the in-between, entertaining those metaphysical thoughts. On the page, I’d only had a sense of the immediate surroundings She’d created for me, and of the time I stood in— the time She’d decided for me to explore on that day.
But now, I suddenly had access to all the versions of me.
I realized I hadn’t always gone by the name of Coraline. I visualized myself from Her very first and unfinished draft, where I had more in common with Zelana than I’d ever thought possible, down to the final final draft She was currently wrestling with. I even had a faint sense of where She’d wanted it to go— this elusive goal, this “idea of a story” that existed only in the Plato’s cave of Her mind, the one She tried to transfer to the page with all the desperation of a writer’s driven heart.
It was an odd sensation, discovering the fears and deepest desires of a god— your god. The one who’d created you, whether you chose to believe in Her or not, whether She decided to curse you with the awareness of Her mighty presence or not. 
Even now, while I thought I understood it all, She might still be pulling the strings. 
I shuddered. 
But I knew She remained undecided about the ending. This must be my chance.
Some writers struggle with the first draft. I surely haven’t written enough to experience that; and for me revisions are the toughest.
Here’s the protagonist, going about with her life, ignoring all those Chekhov’s guns I’ve planted for her...until I realize upon revisiting her arc that I need her to fire something else entirely.
And there’s this half-constructed, slippery world she’s trudging, the tip of a hollow iceberg about to flip over, destabilized by absent economics and shallow political motivations.
Forget about realistic secondary worlds. Perhaps I should go back to my triangulating planets. A made-up universe seems easier to swallow when it can’t make sense in the first place.
“Look, I have to get back to my story,” I said with more decisiveness and intent than I’d known myself capable of. 
“Yeah, right. So do we.”
Melly’s dismissive tone did nothing to alter my determination.
“I really mean it.”
The middle of my storyline might be murky, but if I didn’t meddle my way back in and out of it, there would be consequences.
“I fear for Zelana’s life. And if I don’t tell her...”
My eyes opened wide as the critical role I could play became clear; now that I’d got an insight into the workings of Her inventive brain.
My unfinished sentence piqued Omberyn’s curiosity. “What do you have to tell her?” 
“She’s not who she thinks she is,” I answered in one breath. “Nor am I.”
My heart skipped a beat.
I suppose I should be grateful it still beat at all.
Perhaps Omberyn was right after all. Sometimes you’re better off not knowing how it ends.
“Meowww,” I looked down to the cat brushing against my legs, seemingly discerning the pain and wishing to comfort me.
I tried to see the revelation as an opportunity. If I wasn’t royalty, then I needn’t behave as one.
Although I hadn’t spoken the words out loud, Melly gave me a knowing look.
“So how do I escape?”
I braced myself for Melly’s derisive smirk and Sarah’s complaint that if they’d known, they wouldn’t be here to tell. But Omberyn’s philosophical speech greeted my question first.
“In our book,” she pointed to Melly, and I arched an eyebrow as I tried to connect the stories of the wise elf and the fiery space traveller, “I am the narrator. This gives me some leeway in how it all pans out…”
“Not that it did us any good.” 
“But in the end,” Omberyn ignored Melly’s interruption, “no matter how exciting you make the plot, you still need to convince Her to write it.”
“How do I do that?”
“I think She’s in a bit of a dark place at the mom—”
I shrieked as Sarah vanished midway through her sentence.
“Sarah made it back to her story!” Omberyn exclaimed, and the crowd of nameless faces, whom I’d thought too faded to utter a sound, gave a collective cheer.
But the rejoicing was short-lived, for Sarah reappeared as abruptly as she’d left us. Except she looked twice her initial age, and wore a pirate’s hat.
“It happened again,” she said, frustration etching lines on her small brow.
Melly gave her a pat in the back, congratulating her with a “Nice try.”
“I was right back in— though the world looked really strange. I think I might have been in the sky… But then She switched gears again.” Sarah cast me a resentful look. “I think She’s back on your storyline. For heavens’ sake, She’s spent ages on it!”
I let the resentment wash over me as the meaning of Sarah’s words dawned in.
If She was back on my storyline, I had no time to waste.
I felt a sudden tingle in my limbs, and my golden glow took a new intensity.
Coraline cried out as the cat clung to the meat of her calf and a pile of grimoires landed heavily on her head. With a final protesting meow, the animal dashed out from under her skirts and skittered out of her line of vision, snaking his way through the wreckage.
Coraline had made it back.
Despite the desolate scene around and the remaining echo of the library’s collapse, she felt giddy with relief, and embraced the sensation of her aching body with irrational glee. She forced a cough, seeking to get rid of the dust clotting her mouth, and the tickle in her throat turned into a laugh.
“I’ll never let you have it!” 
Zelana’s angry shout resonated over the roar of crushing bookshelves and walls, her voice a music to Coraline’s ears.
She gasped as she recognized the line.
This was her moment. Her chance to change it all.
And if she succeeded, her story would be so brilliant, I would never think of burying it again.
Our combined perseverance would finally pay off.
“This is all worth it,” Coraline steeled herself as she struggled through the rubble.
She wondered if she’d borrowed that thought from me; if it ever crossed my mind when I fought my way through the unending road of revisions, as exhausted and battered as she presently felt, stumbling through a mess of broken sentences and stones.
The fallen heiress knew what lay ahead, though I might surprise her with a last-minute twist. Or perhaps she could surprise me.
“This is all worth it,” she repeated the words like a mantra, though she didn’t really know why anymore. Her thoughts, so sharp and clear a moment before, had turned all jumbled. They seemed to tear apart from her, never to be retrieved, just like the pieces of silk caught on splinters that she left in her wake.
She paused behind a shelf— if not the last standing in the Nyraltan library, at least the last standing between Coraline and fate. Zelana and her opponent stood on the other side, arguing over a right and wrong path for the Empire to take, caught in a battle of will that couldn’t end well for its citizens.
Coraline had to pick a side, and although her instincts were to pick the all-knowing and powerful mage’s, the inexplicable sense that she should side with her seamstress tugged at her.
A black cat jumped on the top of the fateful shelf and peered at her with judgmental eyes. She couldn’t imagine how he’d made his way in here, and got the uneasy sensation he could see through to her soul.
She took a deep breath, readying to step out of her hiding place. 
It was all worth it.
Even if she died at the end.
DreamForge Anvil © 2021 DreamForge Press
Kill Your Darlings © 2021 A.J. Mietke