“The Year of Salted Skies” was published in issue #71 of Andromeda Spaceways Magazine in June 2018, but I actually wrote the first draft of the story way back in 2012. It went through many, many drafts, and the published story is pretty indistinguishable from the first draft. For example, in the original draft, Bria realized she was the one who sent the rain away and commits suicide to break the spell and bring the rain back. Luckily several people pointed out how terrible an idea this was and it got fixed. But you get the point.
This is the page where I talk about the story behind “The Year of Salted Skies,” what inspired me to write it, what choices I made in revisions, and some other fun facts thrown in. There will probably be spoilers here, so if you haven’t read the story, go check it out. If you don’t want to read the story, then read on at your own risk. You have been warned.
I should start by saying that I don’t exactly remember where the idea for this story came from. I got the idea shortly after my first summer at the Alpha Young Writer’s Workshop, seven years ago. At the time, I was nowhere near getting published and hadn’t come up with the idea of doing these writing backstory pages, so I didn’t write down where the idea came from. I can say for sure that this is one of those stories which started with the title. I’d just come back from Alpha, and my brain was primed for fresh story ideas. I was on vacation on Cape Cod with my family, and one night we were outside looking up at the sky, and someone described the stars as looking like salt. And that’s where it started.
Somewhere over the next six months, this idea of stars looking like salt evolved into a story about two sisters and a drought. As I said, the original draft ended with Bria realizing the drought was her fault, not her sister’s. Beta readers have Alpha saved me from this terrible ending, and thus the drought became no one’s fault, Kari was blamed for it, and Bria and Kari worked together to save the village. I was using this story as part of my portfolio for my advanced fiction class (the same creative writing class when I wrote my story “Dissonance,” incidentally). The night before it was due, a college friend took the time to stay up half the night to help me revise the story. We sharpened Kari’s and Bria’s respective characters, motivations, grief, and emotional journeys. At some point during this all-night revising session, we ended up yelling at each other for reasons neither of us can remember at this point. We were tired, and I was stressed out because this creative writing class was eating my soul, so the revising session got a little intense. But the story was better for it. Whatever I may have said to my friend at 2:00 AM that night, I am fully aware of how much he helped with this story, and very grateful for it.
But this wasn’t the end of the emotional roller coaster that writing this story was rapidly becoming. I submitted this story as the story I wrote independently for my creative writing class portfolio, so it didn’t go through the ordeal of that class’s criticisms (which was fine by me, because the professor was encouraging a competitive environment that resulted in some nasty and not-that-useful critique sessions. I’d already been through two—one for “Dissonance” and one for a story that has since been trashed, and I didn’t need another one of those). BUT I did submit this story as my application story for Alpha. I was accepted to Alpha, and I went back as a Beta, which meant, among other fun things, I got my story critiqued by the entire workshop. And boy did I need it. There were plenty of small issues—for example, in this draft, Tariq was not named Tariq but something even I’m not sure how to pronounce, and the magic system didn’t make a whole lot of sense. And then there was the big problem. This draft was pretty hugely sexist. To be fair to 2012 me, I’d only discovered things like television, pop culture, and positive/negative representation in the last year (I guess I was living under a rock in high school). And to my credit, I was seriously horrified with myself and worked to fix it. And of course, huge thanks to everybody at Alpha 2012 for nicely pointing out the problems and giving me feedback that helped me fix them.
Basically, here’s what happened. When I changed the ending so the drought wasn’t Bria’s fault, I did nothing to make it clear that the drought wasn’t Kari’s fault either. Between this and all the slut-shaming Kari from the villagers, the story was problematic. I was sending a message that the villagers were right and what Kari did was wrong. It didn’t help that Tariq faced none of the consequences that Kari did, and it definitely didn’t help that Bria believed it was Kari’s fault. This was so not what I intended, and I was horrified by the message my critiquers saw in this story. I’m not saying that there aren’t cultures where this sort of thing might happen, because I’m sure there are. But what I learned from writing this story is that good representation means that while you can write about problematic cultures, you don’t want the broader narrative to be that problematic things are right.
After that horrifying critique session, it took about a year for me to figure out what I wanted to do with this story. Part of me just wanted to throw it out, learn from the experience, and do better next time. But part of me knew it could be fixed. I was pretty daunted by the pages and pages of comments I had on this story too. Eventually, I decided I should at least try to revise it. On one of my fellow Alphan’s recommendations, I read the book Half the Sky to really ground myself in the current discussion of women’s reproductive rights and health. The book is mainly about sex trafficking, but on the whole it just made me more aware of the arena where I was writing this story. Next, I organized that mountain of comments into a comprehensible, and manageable, plan of action. And I finally started revising.
First, I made so it Kari and Tariq were allowed and encouraged to get married, and I put the headwoman squarely on their side, even though she’s also pressured by the village. I made it so Tariq faced some of the discrimination Kari did as well, though still not as much as Kari. Most importantly, I made it clear that Bria’s anger came from her grief over her parents, her fear of her magic, and her feeling that her sister had abandoned her, as opposed to her anger in the original draft that Kari brought the drought. I even considered a revision in which Bria proves Kari’s innocence by digging through the town records and discovering that the demons were not real, but ultimately that seemed like a completely different story, so I didn’t go that route. In all these revisions, my aim was to depict this culture and this situation but to make it clear that what the villagers were doing was very, very wrong. I really hope I accomplish this, because the story I wanted to tell was a story about two sisters, each dealing with the grief of losing their parents in different ways while facing something they are blamed for and, on their own, neither has the power to fix.
In December 2013, when I finally finished my revisions, or perhaps when I was feeling a bit crazy after my eye removal surgery, I submitted this story to the Dell Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing. And it was the third runner-up! I got to go to the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, where I was treated like an actual writer and where I finally gained some real confidence in this story. I got some great feedback from the contest judges, too, and after another round of revisions, I started submitting this story to magazines. And here I am.
It took seven years, from idea to publication, but I’m so glad I stuck with it. While “The Year of Salted Skies” is my fifth published story, it was actually the first story I wrote that was recognized by someone not a beta reader or a teacher as being good. Being the third runner-up for the Dell Award with this story was my first major writing accomplishment, and my time at ICFA was the first time when I felt like I could actually be a real writer. And all this makes finally getting this story published that much sweeter. I really hope you enjoyed the story.
Some other fun facts:
Spring semester of my first year of college (spring 2011), I took intro fiction with the same professor I had later on for the advanced fiction class where I wrote this story and “Dissonance.” On the last day of intro fiction, this professor went around the room and told each of us what she thought we wanted to write, deep down, based on our submissions to the class. She told me that I wanted to write about “strong female characters and water.” It was kind of bizarre and made no sense at the time. And then I realized that was exactly what this story is. Not only that, but I went on to write a whole unrelated novel about a strong female character and water without meaning to. So maybe she was on to something.
Second, as much as I may gripe about the unpleasant environment this professor created, particularly in the advanced fiction class I took with her, I have to admit that three of my five published stories were written in her classes (“The Collector,” “Dissonance,” and now “The Year of Salted Skies”). I still think there are better ways to run a creative writing class, but there you have it.
Speaking of things I like to write about, I’ve noticed I like to write about sisters. I have two brothers, so I find sister relationships kind of fascinating.