Sunday, April 16, 2017

1st 5 Pages April Workshop- Mbalia Rev 2

Name: Kwame Mbalia
Genre: YA Steampunk Sci-Fi
Title: The Floating Library of Timbuktu Rev. 2


Maysar flees his former master’s hired slave hunters across the unforgiving Vasahn desert. Eluding his pursuers, he rides the front of a sandstorm in a stolen inflatable, crashing into the legendary Floating Library of Timbuktu. The grandson of one of the Library's most revered scholars and himself a skilled wind cartographer, Maysar settles into life aboard the flying palace of knowledge. 

Never quite accepted, never quite trusted, Maysar learns that freedom and servitude aren’t easily separated. And when ruthless slavers attack the Library and threaten the tentative peace of the region, Maysar realizes he has to take a stand. 

Powered automatons, reluctant partnerships, and an eclectic cast of characters drive this sci-fi steampunk adventure through the reimagined landscape of Northwest Africa.


Maysar stifled a sob of relief and tightened the setscrew beneath the sparrow’s wing. Done. The mechanical bird’s gears whirred as it began calibrate itself, and Maysar let his head droop. Almost time.

Everything ached. His lips were dry and cracked from the scorching desert sun, the chaffed skin on his wrists burned, and a salty paste of sweat and sand clung to his arms, his legs, his - well, everywhere. 

It wasn’t easy to strip and reassemble a mechanical creature no bigger than the size of a child’s hand. Doing so while hiding in the dark made it harder. But, as Baba always said, that’s what practice was for. What Baba couldn’t predict was-

“He’s dead if I find him!” A deep voice rose to a shout beneath his hiding spot, and Maysar bit his cheek to prevent from yelping in surprise. “Smashed and burned. Might not even take him back. He’ll be a little brown smear on the sand when I’m done!”
Maysar shivered despite the heat of the sand beneath him. You can’t practice listening to slavers debate killing you, Baba.
He huddled in a small burrow high up the side of one of the Vasahn desert’s massive dunes. The wreckage of a lightship lay scattered at its base, and the airship’s limp inflatable covered him and his supplies. He’d opened a small hole - no bigger than a fingernail, really - into the leather balloon, and now he peeked out, holding his breath. 

“No way the runaway survived this crash, Badon,” a muffled voice shouted back.

“Then where’s the body?” 

The voice was getting closer, and as he shifted to scan the area, a huge pair of worn leather boots stepped into his line of sight a few yards away, just down the slope of the dune.

“Find me a body!” 

Maysar pressed closer, straining to hear the conversation, when a loud blast of air rushing startled him. What was that? He nearly crushed the bird in his surprise - as it was, he jostled the front of the inflatable.

Another slaver joined the others and spoke up with a nasal, wheedling voice. “He’s not stupid enough to hide around here! Besides, Danelo said a pair of tanks was missing. He’s probably a league into the desert by now.”
“He’s around here somewhere! Find him!” Badon said. 

“You wanna dig around in burning sand?” 

“We all will.”

“You go ahead. I can look around just fine from up here.”

The bird - despite his fierce grip - had finished calibrating and now idled in his hands. Every so often a tiny puff of steam hissed out as its gyros whirled, and Maysar cupped it nervously. Not yet.
Another blast shook the ground, and he squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed. A thumping sound shook the desert floor, followed by another. Maysar’s breath came in shudders now, and suddenly the plan he’d hatched over several sleepless nights in a cramped cell seemed insane. He opened an eye, looked out of his peephole, and fought back the wave of despair that threatened to sweep over him.


A man sat astride a squat, six-legged mechanical beast of black iron and charred leather. Black smoke leaked from its underbelly as it crept along the desert floor. Wide, splayed feet covered in rough cloth ensured it didn’t sink into the sand as it moved, and the man perched atop the rough saddle sent a vicious kick into its knobby head. 

“Stupid thing,” he said, wrenching a lever up. The Scorpion ground to halt with a violent shake, and its rider slid down and stomped towards the base of the dune, glaring at the others. “We need to go.” 

The Scorpion let out a blast of exhaust, causing the slaver to flinch. The one nearest Maysar - Badon - turned and slid his way to the bottom.

“Go?” he said. “I’m not going anywhere. We need to find this filth. Scolani wants him, so we’re finding him.”

“Make another pass and then let’s go. Scolani can come search himself if he’s that furious." Maysar's muscles locked and his heart skipped a beat.
Scolani. He clenched his teeth and forced his mind away from his memories. “Focus, Maysar. You’ve got one shot at this.” The whispered words steadied him, and he ran over his checklist while the slavers continued to argue outside.

“Watch it!” He heard the ringing of metal on metal again. “Stupid beast nearly broke my arm!”

A harsh laugh sounded. “Oil the gears more often, idiot. Now stop fooling around and let’s go.”

The Scorpion’s steam engine rumbled as it idled at the bottom of the dune. The sand shifted beneath him, though his hiding place remained secure - for now. 

“Find him!”

"Forget the slave! He’ll be dead in hour. Storm’s coming,” said the newcomer. “We need to head back.”

The fear in his words wrested Maysar’s attention from his memories and he took another peek. The cluster of slavers stood next to the man on his Scorpion, and the beast rumbled as it steamed up.

But Maysar only had eyes for the sky in the distance.
A greyish brown smear stretched along the horizon, and his eyes narrowed. He studied it, flicked his eyes to where a couple of the slavers shuffled nervously behind Badon, then licked his lips. Maysar fumbled with the idle bird as he brought it up to the pinhole of light and checked it one more time. Maybe. Just maybe.

“I’m. Not. Leaving.” Badon thumped a finger on the smaller man’s chest. The man on the Scorpion threw up his hands, and it looked as if the argument was nearing conclusion. Maysar tried to work up a bit of moisture in his mouth. It was now. It had to be now. 

“Revered Father,” he mumbled beneath his breath as he slowly loosened the tiny bird’s setscrew, careful to hold a thumb over the slanted hole in its sculpted beak. “Vasahn of the sands whose winds lift us aloft-”

Badon glared at the others. The slaver on the Scorpion sighed and returned the automaton mount to idle, then slid back down to the ground.

“-whose embrace shelters the ancestors gone before us.”

The slavers spread out and began to methodically search the wreckage. Every loose object was overturned, the fires doused with handfuls of sand until they smoldered in angry red scars on the sand. 

“Grant us the means to continue our pursuit of knowledge-”

Badon watched as the others searched. The giant man clenched and unclenched his fists, growing impatient. He growled and turned to scan the area. His eyes locked on the dune and the inflatable draped along the side. Maysar felt the weight of his stare, and he watched as the hulking man stalked over as he finished the prayer.

“-lest we return to you when you deem ready.”

The slaver scrambled up the hill. His companions turned to watch, confused. Badon’s face twisted into something between a snarl and disgust, and he ripped sand aside in his haste, but for the first time since crawling out of the filth and excrement covered cargo holds where his master - former master - kept his slaves, Maysar held his fate in his hands.

“We honor you,” he whispered to the bird before releasing his thumb from its beak. It took several seconds for the steam to flow past the setscrew stopper and escape with a piercing whistle, just as Badon yanked up the edge of the inflatable.


  1. Much better use of tension and action.

    I still think you can firm up a few places.

    It's a bit little confusing to find out he's above the searchers until later. When he's talking about laying against the hot sand but a voice comes from beneath him, I was confused. It was clarified a few lines down, but that forced me to go back and reread.
    I'd watch the overuse of exclamation points. You already have words like shouted and yelled, so you don't always need the accented punctuation.
    I also feel as though Badon is only yelling Find Him over and over. You could drop one or change up what he says and not lose anything.
    Overall, great improvements from where you started. Well done.

  2. Ooo! I really love what you've done here! Much more action, much more atmosphere & everything's moving forwards. I don't know that I've got anything to add. The steampunkiness hits you from the get go with the mechanical bird. All really good. I've gone up & down the extract trying to find something, & all I could come up with is that I snagged a bit on his thinking thoughts to Baba. Maybe just an extra line would clear that up. But maybe it's just me.

    Really great stuff!

  3. Okay, I honestly didn't think it was possible to amp the grit and tension here, but you did! I love how you added the description of the bird and more layers of sand (everywhere). This is making me itch because I can feel the sand through your description.

    I was also confused about the slavers being beneath him. I'm not sure this is necessarily a problem since you clarify pretty quickly, but you could move the description of where he is up above this part so your reader doesn't stop in their confusion. All that to say, I also LOVE the description of his hiding place. I can see it so much better now!

    Also love the description of the scorpion, and how you made said description active. Getting a great picture in my head.

    And finally, I flipping love that you added the prayer! Somehow it intensifies the pace and pulls us along. I started reading faster as I got to the end. Such a great revision!!!

    Thanks for sharing your work.


  4. Okay, the pitch: The first paragraph is constructed well, but as I read the rest a thought kept nagging at me - Is there a connection between his early escape, his title, and the library being invaded? Also, I think you need to state the conflict and his goal more clearing in the pitch. I'm not getting that.

    The pages: I honestly love this! You've upped the tension, set me even more concretely in the setting - which I'm a total fangirl of - and given me even more reason to care about this character. I'm am so cheering him on! You've done a great job condensing the words and actions of the slavers looking for him. It flows wonderfully and increased the pace. Yay! And the way you now mention 'Scorpions' totally gives me the chills. By far my favorite part is now the prayer and the way you've inserted it within action, thoughts, and tension. This is great! I would totally keep reading.

    I wish you all the best with! Thank you for sharing your work with us. Sheri~

  5. Hi Kwame,

    Comments on pitch: You do a great job at setting up the story, and it definitely sounds intriguing, you just need to work on tightening up the pitch in order to make it more concise. I like the premise of the story, and you do a good job opening the pitch and explaining what is going on. Much like S.A. Larsen mentioned above me, I did find myself with questions as to why things are going on within the pitch. There was a lot of "why?" moments, but I don't really feel like you need to go into a ton of detail. It would just be nice if you were to expand on the details just slightly, to help generate a little more interest toward the events that are taking place. It will also help to further establish a connection to Maysar, and the trouble he has faced, and what he will be facing when the library is attacked.

    Overall I feel like you are on the right track. You do a good job introducing us to the story, you just need a little more detail to help set the stage (don't go overboard with this) which will help to build more interest, and a stronger connection to the character and his story.

    Comments on pages: The world building in your opening pages is great. I love how you set up the steampunk vibe with the descriptions of the bird in those opening scenes. This was really interesting, and it helped draw me into the world that you've created for this story.

    I also really enjoy that you're opening up with a lot of action, while still giving the readers a clear understanding that Maysar is in the process of escaping. I like how the first five pages end with the escape on the inflatable, which you eluded to within your pitch.

    Overall you've done a great job with your opening pages. It's clear that the world in which the story is based is incredibly rich, which I find really exciting. I hope that you continue a lot of these minor details throughout the rest of the story.

    The way you have your pages set up definitely make me want to continue reading, I would just want to see the pitch be a little stronger so that I can erase my mind of some of the questions I have when reading the pitch.

    - Justin Wells (connect with me on Twitter at @Justin_941)

  6. Ooooooo!!!!

    I love these changes! Having him work with the bird totally helps ground the scene and taking a bit more time with each piece of the story really brings it to life and helps your details stand out. Great job, and also I want to read this!

    Onto the pitch:

    Queries/pitches are really about three things.

    1. Who is your character?
    2. What do they want?
    3. What is stopping them from getting it?

    Those things are the heart of your story. The tricky bit is to lay them out while also giving an idea of the world and voice of your book. (And it is tricky. That's why pitches are so hard.)

    Here again, I think you could benefit from a bit of streamlining. For example, your first paragraph could easily be condensed a little into something like this:
    "Escaped slave Maysar only wants two things, to flee his cruel master, and to find the legendary Floating Library of Timbuktu, where his grandfather was a scholar. A stolen inflatable and a the cover of a desert sandstorm give him his wish, and with his skills at wind cartography, Maysar finds a place for himself aboard the flying palace of knowledge.

    But freedom--and the Library--are more complicated than they first appear, etc, etc"
    This is obviously super rough, but you get the idea. A pitch is less about the play-by-play events of the story, and more about the conflict at the heart of it, your character's goals and what is standing in their way.

    Hope that helps a bit! I'm really impressed with both your story and your revisions and I wish you the best of luck! :)