Corry L. Lee: Five Things I Learned Writing Weave The Lightning

Empire. Revolution. Magic.

Gerrit is the son of Bourshkanya’s Supreme-General. Despite his powerful storm-affinity and the State’s best training, he can’t control his magic. To escape the brutal consequences, he flees.

Celka is a travelling circus performer, hiding both her link to the underground and her storm-affinity from the prying eyes of the secret police. But Gerrit’s arrival threatens to expose everything: her magic, her family, and the people they protect.

The storms have returned, and everything will change.

***

People can believe in terrible things.

I wanted Weave the Lightning’s government to be scary—secret police bursting into your house in the middle of the night kind of scary. But that has a lot of wiggle room. In an early draft, I explored a Soviet-style dictatorship where it didn’t matter how clear your party affiliation, you could still be targeted and everyone lived in fear. This created an obvious villain, but it also left basically no one “good” on the dictator’s side.

I discovered it’s more interesting when people have good reasons take different sides. (I mean, maybe they’re not Good reasons with a capital ‘G’, but at least understandable ones.)

This led me to a fascist state, where plenty of zealots believe the party line. They support the regime not out of fear of what happens if they don’t but because they believe. Maybe they think they’ll get something out of it, maybe they have a grudge against the people the regime is villainizing, maybe they just want to belong and they see the regime as a powerful force they can be part of. Regardless, there’s a strong belief that the regime is right, that it’s necessary. It may not be pretty, but what can you do when enemies are breathing down your neck?

The trick then was figuring out the kind of character who could have been steeped in that belief but have a chance to escape it. What would it take to kick the State’s conditioning? How would that belief erode, and what would it leave behind?

In Weave the Lightning, this character is Gerrit. He’s the youngest son of the Supreme-General, and he’s a mage trained in a top military academy. But he never managed to gain his father’s respect, and he can’t help challenging stupid orders. When the ability to create new magic returns to the world, some serious shit starts to go down, and it sets Gerrit on a path of questioning his deeply engrained beliefs. This leads to an interesting journey and a complex character—a richness I lacked when the regime was just the Big Bad.

People are complicated; so, too, magic.

Complex magic makes my brain sing. I love when the magic feels organic, an outgrowth of nature with deep roots. People work to understand it—they come up with theories, and those theories yield practical results. But as with science, we don’t know everything. There’s always more to discover.

Magic has one up on technology, in my opinion, in that it can be personal. With tech, you press a button and your computer turns on; it doesn’t matter if you’re in the right headspace. With magic, it’s not necessarily so easy—and from this, organic complexity can arise.

Building in this personal element, however, turns out to be… challenging. I describe the details of my magic system on my website, but one central element is the “neighboring reality” where magic is formed, a place of needs and ideas and emotion. It appears as a full-blown alternate world for those strong enough to see it but, because it arises from the mage’s internal landscape, it’s different for everyone.

This turned out to be a pain in the ass. It’s cool, don’t get me wrong. I love how it makes magic deeply personal. But inventing complex characters is hard enough on its own; digging into their psychology to manifest their emotional world… oof. Sometimes I hate past Corry.

Sometimes, you just have to explain.

Writers are often warned about the perils of exposition. “Show, don’t tell” is the knee-jerk adage. But sometimes, you really do need to tell.

Figuring out the right balance is hard—not least because the balance is different for everyone. I personally like figuring things out from subtle incluing. I’ve also been reading spec fic since I could sound out words on the page, so I have a vast cannon I can call on to understand new worlds, and I love when tropes are turned on their heads. Other readers may not work that way. One fabulous writer my year at the Odyssey Writing Workshop (which is specifically for spec fic writers) didn’t know that to kill a zombie you had to destroy their brain.  People have gaps.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that my early drafts of Weave the Lightning suffered from a complex magic system and an (utter) lack of reader hand-holding. I got better. I learned that exposition, when used sparingly, is a wonderful tool.

I still trust my reader to figure things out alongside my characters… I’ve just added enough waypoints to make it so they can.

And for readers who prefer an explanation up front, I put a magic primer on my website.

Break open your reveals.

I live for narrative moments when characters discover that things not what they believed—the surprising reveal that slots everything before it into place; the discovery that flings a character on a new path. I planned several for Weave the Lightning, and they were awesome. My readers were going to love them.

When an early critique said, “Gerrit doesn’t have time to react to [awesome reveal],” I was confused. That reveal set him on a new course! It changed everything about how he viewed his life before! What did she mean he didn’t have time to react? Clearly that comment was garbage.

It took me over a year to understand. When I did, it blew my mind and reshaped the book.

What my clever friend (Kate Alice Marshall, whose books I highly recommend) was trying to tell me was that I had a multi-stage reveal smashed into a single moment. Gerrit discovered something really big about his past, but that discovery came at the same time as he learned something else plot-shaking. I had done something similar with Celka later in the book. Because I had conceived of each “reveal” all at once, I saw each as a single point, when in reality they were complex. (As a physicist, I feel I should use the analogy of an atom that seems indivisible until you reach higher energies and discover it is actually made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. And those, in turn, are composed of…)

Getting back to reveals…

By unknotting the multiple threads that made up each reveal, my characters could uncover clues and piece them together throughout the story, building up to those earth-shattering moments. This gave them space to react to each component of the reveal (you’re welcome, Kate), and brought the reader along for the ride.

It’s okay to trash a draft.

And trash it again. And again.

I have this dream that one day I’ll write a book and I won’t end up throwing the whole thing away and rewriting from a blank page. *wistful sigh*

Like many daydreams, in my heart of hearts, I’m not sure I believe it.

I hear other authors talk about writing their first draft, doing some minor revisions, and publishing it. I’m not that writer. Often I wish I was. It seems so much simpler, so much more efficient! If only I could plan things out well enough ahead of time, maybe I could become that writer!

Bah.

I number my revisions like software. Version 2.3 is, for example, the third major rewrite (I start at version 0), with its fourth minor rewrite. When I blow the whole thing up, it gets a new version number. Weave the Lightning reached version 9.

And that’s okay.

***

Corry L. Lee is a science fiction and fantasy writer, Ph.D. physicist, award-winning science educator, data geek, and mom. Weave the Lightning is her debut novel. Her science fiction short story “Shutdown” won the Writers of the Future award.

In Ph.D. research at Harvard, she shed light on the universe fractions of a second after the Big Bang. At Amazon, she connected science to technology, improving customer experience through online experimentation.

Everything Corry does, she does with intensity. Currently, she’s obsessed with cross-country skiing, French pop music, and single origin coffee.

Corry L. Lee: Website | Twitter

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