Corry L. Lee is a 2009 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. She is a science fiction and fantasy author, Ph.D. physicist, award-winning science teacher, data geek, and mom. Her debut novel, Weave the Lightning (Solaris, April 2020), “infuses magical resistance with a Russian flair” (Lightspeed Magazine). In Ph.D. research at Harvard, Corry shed light on the universe fractions of a second after the Big Bang. At a major tech company, she connected science to technology, improving the customer experience through online experimentation. A transplant to Seattle, Washington from sunny Colorado, she is learning to embrace rainy days. Learn more at corrylee.com or on Twitter @CorryLLee.
You attended Odyssey in 2009. Can you talk about your pre-Odyssey writing process? What kind of writing schedule, if any, did you keep?
Before Odyssey, I snuck writing into the cracks of my life. I was working on my Ph.D., and so tended to write in odd hours and weekends…whenever I could escape problem sets and research. It wasn’t so much a schedule as the thing I did to decompress.
What made you decide to attend the Odyssey Writing Workshop?
I met some writers at Boskone (a Boston science fiction convention) who talked about how Odyssey and Clarion had a big impact on their fiction. They seemed like the kind of thoughtful, interesting people I hoped one day to become, so I decided to apply. I got into Odyssey, and am so happy I did!
How do you feel your writing and writing process changed as a result of having attended Odyssey? What insights did you gain into your own work?
Odyssey changed everything.
Writing had always been a love, but it played second fiddle to my “real” work in science. In my spare hours, I’d written a novel and shopped it to agents. I had a huge stack of rejections and didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. I was hungry to become a better writer—but lost as to how.
I tell people that I’ve never worked so hard as I did at Odyssey, and it’s true. Odyssey Director Jeanne Cavelos’s lectures blew the top off my understanding of fiction, reshaping how I thought about structure, prose, and character. I came out of every lecture feeling like a new path had opened up before me, and the practice of applying that knowledge by writing a new story every week…it was exhausting, but it made the learnings stick.
The feedback I received from Jeanne and my classmates shined a light into problem areas of my fiction, and the firehose of writing craft we drank from each day gave me tools to improve. My craft leveled-up so fast during the six weeks of Odyssey.
Before Odyssey, I had always focused on novels. At Odyssey, I re-tooled to work on short stories, continuing to write short fiction for a year afterwards. Short stories helped me practice plotting tightly, giving me a chance to see the whole arc in my head and work on certain elements (like a tight causal chain) that challenged me.
When I did return to novels, I had so many more tools at my disposal, and the muscles built up from short story writing translated over pretty well.
My writing process continues to evolve as I learn new techniques and encounter new challenges. Having drunk from the Odyssey firehose and seen such incredible progress in my craft, I feel better equipped now to stand back up after rough critiques, dust off my writing pants, and dive back in.
Congratulations on the recent release of your debut novel, Weave the Lightning! What drew you to write a Russian-inspired story about a magical revolution? What were some of the challenges in writing this novel?
Thanks! I wanted to eschew fantasy’s common, quasi-medieval Western European setting and build a unique secondary world deeply influenced by magic. I love a good resistance and cheering for the underdogs, which meant I needed a nasty regime to fight. The Russian-influenced setting helped create an atmosphere of having to watch what you say even around friends, that feeling of being watched, of anyone potentially being a State informer. And because I love cross-tension (as I discuss below), I chose characters on both sides of the fascist regime, making them confront their deeply held beliefs and make hard choices. Woven throughout that fight is a coming-of-age tale and the wonder of exploring magic that hasn’t been possible for decades.
I love hopeful stories. Balancing the hope and wonder of the more idealistic characters with the frightening, brutal realities of a fascist state was a challenge. I wanted the threat of the secret police to feel real and present, but also to show the joy of small moments and the larger hope that comes from refusing to bow down beneath the regime’s fist. I wanted the reader to love both Celka and Gerrit—even though they start out on opposing sides.
I also wanted to write a page-turner with tense resistance action and an intricate, complex magic system.
Balancing all those elements meant a lot of full-book rewrites (often starting from a blank page) and many iterative revisions. But I’m really proud of how it all turned out.
As someone who frequently makes appearances at science fiction conventions, what advice would you give writers who are just starting to go to cons? How do you think they could make the most of their time at one?
Be genuine. Listen more than you talk. Find peers and make friends.
Conventions are a great place to build community. (And hopefully we’ll be back to in-person conventions at some point! But much of this advice still applies to the growing number of online conventions in our time of COVID-19.) For me, it really helps to go into a convention with the attitude that you have a chance to meet interesting people and learn new things.
As an upcoming/aspiring writer, it’s unlikely you’ll become fast friends with bestselling or well-known authors who’ve been coming to conventions for ages and have already developed their own community. So build your own. Other writers at a similar phase in their career will be looking for connections. As you and they have publishing success, you can lift each other up, and as they see you for someone genuine rather than just grabbing for status and big names, they’ll introduce you to more people. It’s networking basically, but not the scary kind. It’s the kind where you get to be yourself and meet people with common interests.
What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
I mentioned cross-tension earlier, which I love. The thorn in my side, however, is forward tension.
To start us on the same page, by forward tension I mean the often external plot tension that pulls a reader through the story. In my Bourshkanya Trilogy, this tends to be resistance activities to weaken or tear down the fascist state. In general, fighting the big bad, and the sequence of events that leads to it, tends to be high in forward tension as the characters try and fail, as the villain pursues them, etc.
Cross-tension, by contrast, occurs between characters who have opposing, potentially unreconcilable beliefs. Both characters may try to do what they believe is right or necessary, may even care deeply for one another, but with the underpinnings of their belief structures in conflict, they’re forced onto opposite sides, e.g., a resistance fighter and a loyal State soldier. Secrets flourish in this soil, as do the juiciest (in my opinion) of all fiction elements: well-motivated, understandable yet heartbreaking betrayals. Or not. Opposing beliefs can be reconciled, which is part of what makes them so delightful. Cross-tension can also arise between a character and elements of the world, e.g., a resistance fighter who has to pretend loyalty to the State.
From my description, you can probably tell how much I love cross-tension. It makes my brain sing and is one reason I love having multiple POVs on both sides of a tricky moral line.
I love cross-tension so much that in my second draft of The Storm’s Betrayal (sequel to Weave the Lightning), I was so intent on the cross-tension that the forward tension fell by the wayside. I’d worked out what I thought was an interesting plot with important things for my characters to do, but my beta readers showed me that I didn’t have enough forward tension, and the first half of the book lagged.
Before that critique, I hadn’t really separated out cross- and forward tension so distinctly. In rewriting The Storm’s Betrayal, I’m finding that dichotomy incredibly useful, as I can now check that my chapters contain both types of tension. In plotting future books, I’m going to keep both explicitly in mind. I’ll still let my brain sing its cross-tension harmony, but knowing that forward tension is a weakness, I can be more deliberate about putting it in the melody.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
When this post goes live, I should be about to turn in Weave the Lightning‘s sequel, The Storm’s Betrayal. Then I’ll probably start working on book three of the Bourshkanya Trilogy—though I also have a character-driven, far-future, hard SF series that I’ve been noodling on the side, so I might sneak some time on that. 🙂