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Author: Lorraine

Don’t Throw Feathers!

One of the most important things my mentor pointed out to me in Pitch Wars was my tendency to sabotage my own plot tension in tiny ways.

I would be writing along, maintaining my big story goals and my character arcs and my scene goals and all those lovely things, but then I would needlessly pull tension out of the scene by reminding the reader that life would be okay. Because my main character was quite competent and was good at reading people, she would size up the situation and decide not to be scared.


You want your characters to be scared. You want them to be confused. You want them to be in pain, because all of these things add to the tension of the story. Even if that moment of tension is something simple, like not knowing if another character will be helpful or stand-offish, it still adds another brick to the story-house you’re building.

In THE MAGICAL CONSTANT OF RICE, my Pitch Wars story, Stana is a strong, well-trained girl, who can kick butt and take names. This makes it even more important to establish and maintain story tension for her. Otherwise, she would become too perfect–a cardboard character who can easily defeat all opponents.

Think about John McClane in DIE HARD.

He is incredibly competent and incredibly driven, but what makes his story so compelling is that the creators of the movie keep ratcheting up the tension on him throughout the whole story. He never gets a break, never has a moment where he can sit in some air duct and reflect on how everything is going to be fine because he has so many skills. Instead, he is constantly running into new problems that increase his story tension. They aren’t all terrorists–sometimes they’re broken glass–but they all make it more difficult for him to attain his goal.

Long ago, I heard someone describe storytelling as the process of stranding a character in a tree, then throwing rocks at them. The story happens as the character works to find a way to overcome the rocks and get back down out of the tree.

By allowing my character to reassure herself, I wasn’t throwing rocks at her. I was throwing feathers. They never quite reached her, so they did no damage, and she had nothing to overcome.

So create big rocks and throw them hard at your character in the tree. Give the reader a reason to fear for your protagonists and root for their success.

Don’t throw feathers.

I survived Pitch Wars!

Today, November 3, my Pitch Wars manuscript was posted to the Agent Showcase! It’s been a wild two-month ride, but I have emerged with a much better manuscript, thanks to my mentor Rhiannon Hart. Even though the Agent Showcase is the big set piece at the end of Pitch Wars, the skills I’ve gained and the camaraderie between the PW17 mentees feel even more valuable, in the long run. I’d love to get representation for this book, and have had requests from some fantastic agents, but even if I don’t, I will be embarking on my next novel project as a better writer than I have ever been before.

But it’s not all writing. Pitch Wars has given me the chance to really sharpen my Twitter collage game. Just look at this novel aesthetic!

I mean, just look at it!

Here, dear readers, is THE MAGICAL CONSTANT OF RICE: Stana, Madame, Tarik, storms, lamps, and yurts. I hope to bring it to you in print one day, and if I ever do, it will be Pitch Wars that got me there.

I got into Pitch Wars!

I am happy to announce that I’ve been chosen to join the Pitch Wars Class of 2017! This is a remarkable opportunity, and I am so grateful to have been selected. I’ve been working on revisions with my wonderful mentor, Rhiannon Hart, for the past two weeks, and it’s been fantastic.

Pitch Wars is a writing contest hosted by Brenda Drake via Twitter in which writers compete to gain a two-month experience with a mentor. All of the mentors are agented authors or editors who are volunteering their time to work with unagented authors, getting their manuscripts ready for the Agent Showcase, which takes place in early November.

This year there were more than 3,000 applicants, competing for 180 slots. Each applicant submits a query letter and their first chapter to 4 or 6 mentors, who read the queries and pages, request partial or full manuscripts, and narrow down their choice to one lucky writer each. It is intended to be a microcosm of the publishing industry, and it certainly feels like it! By compressing the entire process down to just a few weeks and adding the element of direct, visible competition, Pitch Wars is quite a rush. I never expected to win, but I am thrilled that I did!

I’m planning to write a couple of posts about what I’ve been learning during the revision process with my mentor, as well as resources I used to get ready for the contest, so stay tuned.

#PimpMyBio for #PitchWars 2017

I am a little late to this wagon train, but since I’ve finally come up with a high-concept pitch for my novel, I’ve decided to jump in. For PitchWars 2017, I’ll be subbing a young adult historical fantasy novel entitled THE MAGICAL CONSTANT OF RICE.

My Pitch:

THE WIZARD OF OZ meets ARABIAN NIGHTS when a storm-wielding young sorceress must scheme her way home from an evil djinni’s domain.

This story was born of two of my great loves: skilled, confident girls and obscure history.

Skilled, Confident Stana:

Stana, my main character, is born a slave outside of Samarkand at the turn of the fifteenth century. She is surrounded by violence and exploitation, but also by opportunity. In this fantasy version of our world, magic exists in everything–fire, air, water, rocks, art, craftsmanship, living beings, mythical creatures, gods, and goddesses. Most people never learn to use much magic, but Stana is determined to be a great sorceress, ensuring her own freedom and the power to control her destiny.

When my story starts, Stana is sixteen, and has studied magic for ten years under the elderly, devious Madame Qi. She is skilled enough to call down a sandstorm against her enemies, but not always skilled enough to make it go away again. She has a strong moral code and the confidence to pursue her own ends, even when they lead her into peril. Her weakness is her temper, which is a dangerous thing in a sorceress.

Obscure History:

One morning, I thought of an opening line (which will undoubtedly be cut before the book is ever published), and the story just flowed from there. For reasons known only to my subconscious, Stana lives in medieval Central Asia, a location and time period I’ve never studied. Thankfully, research is my patronus.

Some interesting facts about Asia in 1402:

  • Stana’s city, Samarkand, is ruled by Timur the Lame, one of the most vicious conquerors in history. Timur’s habitual brutality inspired some of the actions of my villain.
  • The turn of the century was a time of dynastic transition in China. The Mongol Yuan dynasty had just been replaced by the Ming, giving me several marvelous historical characters to play with: the young Jianwen Emperor, his mother, the Dowager (everybody loves a good dowager), a court full of scheming eunuchs, and, most importantly, Madame Qi herself.
  • Slavery was common throughout all the Central Asian Khanates, India, Persia, and China. Stana herself is born a slave, though she is purchased and freed in childhood by Madame Qi. Slaves could be transported far from their birthplaces, further mixing the already-diverse population that lived along the Silk Road. Stana is not sure what her own ethnic heritage is, but given her birthplace, she is probably a mixture of Mongol, Tajik, and Kipchak.

Books, Books, Books:

A small selection of the books that have influenced Stana’s story:

The Arabian Nights, edited by Muhsin J. al-Musawi
Ozma of Oz and The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum (Ogoz the djinni is inspired by the Nome King.)
Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale (Dashti lives just down the road from Stana.)
Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson (Genies! Jinnis! Djinnis! However you spell it!)
The Girl With Ghost Eyes, by M. H. Boroson
Temeraire, by Naomi Novik (History! Fantasy!)
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik
Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo
Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor (Binti and Stana both know what home feels like)
A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab (Stana would disapprove of Lila Bard’s morals, but they could kick butt together)
Every book I’ve ever read where the girl saves herself with her fists, her sword, or her wiles.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan
Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World
China: A New Cultural History, by Cho-yun Hsu

About Me:

  • I am a native Pacific Northwesterner, and I only notice the rain if it lasts for more than three months at a time. Put me in a desert, and I wilt like a week-old bouquet.
  • I currently teach pre-college writing at a Seattle-area community college. This means that I interact with students from dozens of countries, preparing them for communication, jobs, and further education. Many of my students have come to the USA as adults and are starting over, learning English along with their children. They are the most courageous people I know, and it is a privilege to work with them.
  • I dragged my non-teacher husband to Brazil for two years, where he gamely taught science while I taught history. He still loves me.
  • I have two children, aged seven and four. My son is Wile E. Coyote, super-genius. My daughter wishes assault rifles came in pink.
  • My idea of a good time is hiking the length of Hadrian’s Wall across northern England, loudly humming the music from the Lord of the Rings movies.
  • I am a pretty decent rock drummer, in addition to playing the piano and singing.
  • The Magical Constant of Rice is my third complete manuscript. I wrote the first draft in eight weeks, including research.
  • I am a hard, creative worker, and I don’t mind ripping apart my manuscript to make it better. I love a challenge. If I am selected as a PitchWars mentee, my mentor may be as critical as they like in their feedback. I am in the game to play, not to sit on the bench. Bring it on.


Americanisms and Science Fiction Speech

I’m reading a very enjoyable science fiction novel right now. It is fast-paced, with great voice and compelling characters. The non-Western worldbuilding is full of gorgeous imagination and rich detail. There is something that has been bothering me, though:

All of the characters sound American. Not just American, but idiomatically, casually, gen-x-ically American. And it grates, reader. It grates.

In my day job as a community college writing instructor, I work with both native English speakers and students who have learned English as a second language, either as children or adults. This gives me the opportunity to hear English as it is spoken in nearly all of its forms.

I know, for instance, that my students who are seventeen sound very different from my students who are fifty. Now, that seems fairly obvious when one considers their voices, but I can even tell, without looking at their names on assignments, which kind of writing will come from which age group. They don’t just choose different words to use, they handle information differently. They value different things.

Another thing I know is that a native English speaker from the United States chooses different words from one who was born in Britain. Again, this seems obvious. But what about one born in Nigeria? Or India? Or Guam? All of them can be native speakers, but their vocabularies are different, and, again, they handle information in different ways, think differently, and value different things.

Then, there are a whole range of English language learners. The people I teach are considered “fluent,” but their vocabularies are still tiny, compared to any American of a similar age. Even highly educated English language learners, with vast vocabularies, still lack the idioms that native speakers use without thinking.

(At this point, I am reminded of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who always claims, “I speak the English idiomatique.”)

As a result of all this exposure to different forms of English, when I sat down to write a character who was speaking a second language for most of my novel, I was careful to make her sound like one of my students, instead of just giving her the speech patterns of a native-born American. She is highly educated, so her speech is precise and polished, without grammatical errors, but it is a little stilted and formal, just like my students. She would never say, “join the club,” or “tell me about it,” or even “no kidding.” Instead, she would say, “indeed,” or “yes,” or “you’re right.” Not because she is less intelligent than the other characters, but because her knowledge of the language is different from theirs.

Now, my characters are not supposed to be speaking English at all, of course. They’re speaking the made-up language of my made-up planet. But since English is the language I’m writing the book in, it has to do all the work. And my made-up people aren’t American, so they should not sound that way.

This is important for science fiction. If I am going to convince my readers that my story is taking place far in the future, why wouldn’t I adjust the language they use? This is not the same thing as inventing words–I see plenty of that in scifi books–this is about using regular English words in different ways. It’s about creating speech patterns that differentiate my characters from each other, from myself, and from the guy down the street.

So, I’m off to revise and edit my manuscript, again, for the eleventy-millionth time. This time, I’ll be on the lookout for Americanisms to put the kibosh on. After that, I’ll stick a fork in it, drop the mic, and call it good. <shudder>