Tavery, in profile , watches Kiramin, also in profile, conducting on the banks of the Pizzicato River at sunset.

The Story Behind Dissonance

Warning: There are spoilers ahead. Go read “Dissonance” first. You have been warned.


“Dissonance” was published in April 2016 by Abyss and Apex, but I wrote the first draft of the story in the spring of 2012 for my advanced fiction class. In this class, we were going to write and critique two stories in class and one story outside of class. I will freely admit that my first story was a bit of a disaster, so I was trying to improve on my second.


At the same time, one of my suitemates was taking a class on the architecture of ancient athens. She came back to our suite one afternoon and told us what had caught her attention in class that day. The word “orchestra” comes from the Greek “orchestron,” which was a place where the whole city could gather during a festival. Sound familiar yet?


“So what if,” my friend said, “the whole city was an orchestra?”


I was already working on the beginning of my memory wiping academy novel. The main character is a dancer, so I was already in the right head space to write about music.


I had decided I wanted to work on fantasy stories that semester, so I wanted the orchestra to be somehow magically important to the town in question—not solely culturally. I muddled around for a while trying to come up with an actual plot, and then another friend suggested a fire. From that idea, I got not only the fire that destroys the instrument house before the story starts, but also the Phoenix—a mythical creature literally and thematically connected to fire. From there, I developed the magic system—everyone plays in the orchestra because it is the orchestra’s music that gives the Phoenix the strength to carry their world through the winter and then to be reborn in the spring. (In my first draft, I wanted it to be ambiguous whether the Phoenix was really real or not.) All this led me to a main character who did not fit in the orchestra, which created the ideas of Resonance and Dissonance.


In this story, I wanted to tell two stories, but from only one point of view. There was Tavery’s story of coming to terms with the Dissonance in his past and accepting that, because of that Dissonance, he could no longer lead the orchestra. And there was Kiramin’s story of facing Dissonance every day but discovering that she could have a place in the orchestra while at the same time coping with the bullying she’s been subjected to and that if it weren’t for her, the instrument house wouldn’t have been destroyed in the first place.


I was in a very intense and pretty competitive advanced fiction class, and when they critiqued my first draft of “Dissonance,” they tore it to shreds. I’m not saying it was undeserved by any means. My first drafts are usually a bit messy. Many of their comments had merit, and I used them in revision eventually. But for a long time, it was hard to see that under the overlying comment I took away from that class: “Your story is not worth telling” (Someone actually said this. I am not exaggerating.) I pulled it together and revised the story to hand in with my final portfolio, but this was hanging over me the whole time, which made it difficult for me to put so much of myself back into this story.


In fact, after the semester ended, I wanted nothing more than to shove it in a drawer and never ever look at it again. But I still cared about it. I kept going back to it in my mind. I still believed it was worth telling. So I decided to tell it.


Still, it took until December for me to face the story again and revise it to submit to the Dell Award. It was at this point that I made the Phoenix definitively real and clarified the consequences if the town didn’t pull it together for the Harvest Festival, adding more significance to the fire. I also added in more world building in general and did some work to make Kiramin a more sympathetic character—some people thought in my first draft that she was something of a monster and didn’t deserve to be the conductor. Finally, I used my trick with the abicus to shorten it from 6000 words to 5000 words, which ultimately made the story a lot stronger. I submitted it to the Dell Award, and though I was not a finalist that year, I did get a wonderful email from Rick Wilbur, one of the judges, saying that “Dissonance” came very close, that they really enjoyed my story, and that I was clearly a talented writer. This email convinced me that I was right: This story was worth telling. And it was this email that pushed me to revise again and then to submit it to magazines and to keep revising and submitting until Abyss and Apex picked it up and published it.


Some fun facts:

In my first draft, Tavery takes Kiramin to the town’s Diviner, who reads her fortune and convinces her that she’s a conductor. I cut that almost immediately, thank goodness.


I chose the clarinet for Kiramin because I play the clarinet, and I am intimately familiar with both how beautiful it can be and also all of the unfortunate noises you can make with it (having made many of them myself). It was easier for me to work with an instrument I understand than to ask someone in band if I could fiddle around with their instrument. And to clarify: I love my clarinet and I do not condone the smashing of instruments.


I designed Kiramin’s sister’s clarinet based on one I saw in the musical instrument display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.


I learned how to conduct my senior year of college, when I led the band in one of our pieces for the final concert, and this experience added a lot to the kinetic feel of conducting in the story.


I did not have a specific piece in mind for “Harmony of the First Phoenix.” I sort of put together all my favorite parts of my favorite band pieces in my head, but I don’t remember what they were anymore.


I drew the illustration at the top of this page. As a general fact I have a lot of fun drawing scenes from my stories, with mixed results.


I have written four more stories set in this world, and I have ideas for several more, so keep an eye out.


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