Paul Jessups Stories Like a Stone in Her Heart

Paul Jessup's "Stories Like a Stone in Her Heart"

I’m a big fan of Creative Commons, and the “free” media movement.

And I’m a big fan of Paul Jessup.

So, what I’m saying is: hunker on over to his website and become part of his great experiment with his short story “Stories Like a Stone in Her Heart”–you can pay or not pay (but please, pay!). Looks like it’s down for now, but I still hold by the following.

I was lucky enough to read an early draft of this very story, and can vouch for it. It’s intense, intelligent, and really gets to the core of the power behind the art and craft of storytelling. Blending his impressive ability to mold language with Native American myth and magic, it’s certainly a tale that stays with you.

I have yet to read Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, but I am quite enthralled by his blog. He’s witty, funny, and certainly helpful for those of us slogging through the novel process. His most recent post is about editing, and he hit it so spot on I started laughing (a little maniacally, I admit) while reading it. I’m glad to know that other people out there, especially those writing in fantasy and multi-POV styles, experience the same kind of borderline insanity that I do.

Currently, I’m in stage four, according to Joe:

4. Character Pass. And now we come to the meat of the exercise. You have to imagine me being interviewed, probably on a darkened stage with a single spotlight, in a black leather armchair like Mastermind, by Melvyn Bragg, possibly? I’m wearing a corduroy suit and a thoughtful yet slightly sour expression like I just tasted a fine wine and detected the slightest aroma of piss about it. And I say something like, “well, you understand, Melvyn, this is when I take on the mantles of my various characters, this is when I absorb them into my id. This is when I become them … Or do they become me?” (humbly apologetic smile, round of applause from the sycophantic audience, you get the idea). Basically I try and get as complete a sense of each point of view character as possible in mind, often taking one particular chapter that worked particularly well as a model. Then I spend a few days going through every chapter and part of chapter from their point of view trying to get as strong a sense of that character down on the page. Usually involves some cutting down, some tinkering with the prose style to try and get it consistent across every appearance of that character, some work on the dialogue to get the voice right, some application of clever tricks and catch-phrases, or repeating constructions, and so forth.

Also during this phase, and particularly with the three more important characters, I’ll be trying to draw out some of the theme relating to that character a bit more strongly, especially early on when I wasn’t (ahem) totally sure what their themes would, like, be. I will be trying to sketch their arcs more distinctly. Trying to boil them down to a more decisive essence of person. Melvyn. Whoever said I was pretentious? I’m just like any other master craftsman or great artist at work…

When this pass is done the book should hopefully be coming together nicely.

I’m currently on Chapter Eighteen, approximately 100,450 words in to the final book (the original was 32 chapters I think, so I’m actually cutting a few, and axed two POVs…). All the “finished” chapters are lined up so pretty in Scrivener, and it makes me feel fulfilled and happy. For a moment anyway. Until the real editing starts, I suppose.

The Write Stuff

I’ve been collecting data here at the AGC blog. I’ll admit to being a very curious individual. I like knowing how things work, figuring out the who-why-whens. So having a WP blog means I check my data a little obsessively.

At any rate, of my most popular posts since I started, by and large the majority of views come from a handful of posts I’ve made about steampunk fashion. In fact, the gross majority of searches have been for that same keyword phrase “steampunk fashion”. Sure, there are a few folks that trickle in looking for steampunk novels, short stories, and the like. But more and more the trend is moving toward fashion, and not fiction.

Not that I’m solely a steampunk genre writer (if there even is a thing). But I think this data points toward an interesting issue facing those interested in steampunk. There is an ever growing interest in steampunk fashion, culture, and society, moreso than any other aspect. For something that was born out of literature, this is slightly disconcerting.

I’ve always said steampunk fashion is inspiring to me, and it is and continues to be. What bothers me is a move in the direction toward the sheerly cosmetic aspects of steampunk and away from the tenets of the literature and philosophy that makes it so endearing to us. From what I can tell, people surf here to read about fashion, read it, and leave. Not that I don’t get comments, but the data points to LOTS more surfers/browsers than commentators, lingerers, and readers.

Now that Steampunk is on MTV, etc., you’ve got to wonder what’ll happen eventually. I imagine that as the popularity of steampunk fashion and style grows, the interest in literature may not be something relegated to the subculture, and rather something absorbed by the mainstream.


Some neat links from recent conversations:

My heroes do not wear chain mail.

They are not, in most cases, even that physically fit. They are not always beautiful, socially well-adjusted, or friendly.

They are writers, authors, and poets, and while most of them have since shuffled off this mortal coil, there are a handful of living writers that I admire. Writers, to me, are like movie stars to some people. For me, I value imagination above all things, and there’s nothing more that I admire than having my eyes opened to a new world.

I’m not picky by nature, nor am I a critic. And that’s where this post gets difficult. Where, for quite a large contingent of individuals, the internet is a sounding board for their scathing reviews and puerile commentaries on everything from cheese straws to Cheney, I don’t view it as such. I don’t post reviews, I keep them to myself, save them for later, make mental notes. At least, that’s usually the routine.

Except, lately, I’ve had a problem.

I’ve been disappointed.

It started with Greg Keyes, a writer who I’ve often bubbled endlessly about, and cite as a major influence in my latest novel endeavor (both as a steampunk writer, and as an adherent to the multi-POV narrative). I was so excited to be able to finish his most recent series with The Born Queen, and literally couldn’t wait to get my eyes all over it (that’s… a better description, I think). And I blasted through it, absorbing, absorbing, reading, reading, waiting… waiting… I finished, and felt as if I’d missed something. It just didn’t resonate right. The characters had changed drastically since the first book, so much so that in some cases (like Stephen, my favorite) the semblance was nearly unrecognizable. It was as if the magic had just faded.

This feeling of disappointment also happened with Diana Gabaldon, whose books I blasted through until The Fiery Cross, which, cool name aside (and the fact that it takes place in my home state, albeit in the 18th century) I just couldn’t get through. She’d made some choices with her characters and plot that brought the narrative down to absolutely… boring.

That’s not even to mention Stephen King’s Dark Tower series finale. That deserves its own post altogether.

The worst, for me, is the most recent. I gave Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys to my husband two years ago and had been waiting, hoarding it since then. I knew, if all else failed, I’d have it. And… at first, it was fine. It was comfortable. I kept saying to myself, as I read, “It’s just so good to read Neil Gaiman’s book. I love Neil Gaiman. I love the simple style, love the ease of language, the playfulness.” But then my inner monologue started to switch. I said, “The two main female love interests are Rosie and Daisy? Really? That’s their names?” and then, “Gosh, Fat Charlie reminds me so much of Richard Mayhew in Neverwhere. Normal guy with normal job and normal apartment has Something Strange and Wonderful Happens… and Rosie’s an awful lot like Jessica, just not quite as selfish,” and then, “Well, surely something Exciting and Unpredictable is going to happen. Oh… no, I guess not. No, he ends up with her after all and… yeah, I guess…”

I don’t believe that every writer is perfect, nor capable of always hitting it out of the ballpark with no exceptions. Some of the greatest writers only had one or two good books, or one series, and that was it, that was all they ever did. As Tolkien famously said, “It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can no other.”

I don’t like the feeling of disappointment, and I’m not sure what it says about me as a writer or as a reader. Heck, I get the same feeling reading my own chapters (you could have done that better, really!). And I don’t fault the authors. They’re writing their stories as best they can in the moment that they’re in. They’re human beings wielding a great power, the power of storytelling.

And sometimes, it doesn’t work right. Sometimes, the story your telling isn’t right to tell, or right for the person you’re sharing it with, or right at all.

I suppose the greatest of heroes are the imperfect ones because they’re so much closer to who we are.

Butterworth funeral home in Seattle - 1900

Butterworth funeral home in Seattle - 1900

It started out innocently enough. I have always loved the Old American West, and wanted to mash it up with fantasy, in some sort of different backgrop other than our own earth. I figured, fantasy writers do it all the time with the Renaissance and Medieval periods, so why not try it with something more recent?

I didn’t have a name for it at first. But I knew the aesthetic–brass, leather, airships, a sort of perfected industrialism that never quite was.


I can only assume I absorbed the concepts from BoingBoing posts over a period of time, since I’ve been following that blog for over half a decade. And it just seeped right into my writing, struck some kind of chord in me that seemed to make all the right sense.

Soon after I discovered that I was, in fact, writing a steampunk novel, I started snooping around the Internet, searching for inspiration. And boy did I ever find it.

Speaking of the web, chances are you’ve already read Bruce Sterling’s “The Users Guide to Steampunk” on GOGBOT (it’s made the rounds already today from Jake von Slatt as well as BoingBoing, I believe). But the last bit of it really struck me as … well, breathtaking (and especially good props to his mention of Ruskin…).

Steampunk is funereal theater. It’s a pageant. A pageant selectively pumps some life into the parts of the past that can excite us, such as the dandified gear of aristocrats, peculiar brass gadgets, rather stilted personal relationships and elaborate and slightly kinky underwear. Pageants repress the aspects of the past that are dark, gloomy, ugly, foul, shameful and catastrophic. But when you raise the dead, they bring their baggage.

There’s not a lot we can do about the past; but we should never despair of it, because, as Czeslaw Milosz wisely said, the past takes its meaning from whatever we do right now. The past has a way of sticking to us, of sticking around, of just plain sticking. Even if we wrap the past around us like a snow-globe, so as to obscure our many discontents with our dangerous present, that willful act will change our future. Because that’s already been tried. It was tried repeatedly.  Look deep enough, try not to flinch, and it’s all in the record. So: never mock those who went before you unless you have the courage to confront your own illusions.

The past is a kind of future that has already happened.

When I started this blog, I had finished The Aldersgate. The idea was that I’d post the edited chapters, one at a time, and podcast them. Seems like a pretty straight-forward plan, right? The name made sense, the format and structure made sense.

It’s all fine and good, but I realize I painted myself into a funny little corner. As editing has progressed I realized my little novel isn’t so little, nor uncomplicated. The more I edit, the more I discover; the more I discover, the more I change; the more I change, the more the book looks less and less like the first version and more like something new entirely.

And since my pace isn’t anywhere near as fast as I thought it’d be, this blog has become, ultimately, a writer’s blog about a host of subjects, from the process of writing, to trends in steampunk writing and culture, to music and history, to fantasy writing and science fiction.

Ultimately I realize I made a blog for a book, when I should have made a blog for myself as a writer. I suppose in a way it’s comfortable to hide behind something, like a book–but eventually personality wins out. So I’m contemplating renaming the site (not the address, as that’s impossible) and rethinking my approach a little more. The Aldersgate is a well-intended endeavor and, I keep telling myself any, a worthy one. But the more I edit and rewrite, the more I want to challenge myself and get it right. It’s a big story–a huge story, the largest and most ambitious I’ve ever tried to tell. And I don’t want to risk the telling by taking shortcuts.

So, suffice it to say, this blog jumped the gun a bit. Although, in my defense, when I sat down to serialize the novel I really did think it was 90% there. I just found out it was really closer to, oh, 20%. I’ve never been good at math.

To all the readers and friends I’ve made in the last few months, thank you. I’m rapidly approaching 10,000 views (?!?) and am ever amazed and inspired by the people I’ve come to know through this blog. Expect lots more from me as the months pass into the next year, and prepare yourself for new adventures!



From what I’ve been reading, people certainly feel as if there’s something amiss with what epic fantasy being published today. Either there isn’t enough of it, it’s dead (or not), it’s dying (or not), or it’s just lacking a je ne sais quoi. Certainly, I feel that perhaps it isn’t as pervasive as it once was, and has, in some cases, become either complete cliche or entirely inaccessible.

Paul Jessup linked to an article from IRoSF this morning on a somewhat unrelated subject, but indicated that sf/f makes up a little over 17% of the market, over $700 million. But if you think about that number, and what it includes, that’s quite a width and breadth.

In the 60s, when fantasy was “new”, fantasy as a genre had yet to be branded. There were no tie-ins yet, no movies, or light-up mugs. Most of the conversation then was fantasy writing and its connection to the myths and legends of bygone eras, more fodder for medievalists than the media.

And now, almost fifty years later, we’re in a very different world. Everyone understands, or so they think, what fantasy writing is. It’s swords, sorcery, sorcerors… usually included in the mix are some brawny dudes, scantily clad lasses, and sidekicks with clever quips. Right?

Well not exactly, of course. Those of us who write and read the genre know that it’s a great deal more complicated than that, and that real epic fantasy doesn’t just rewrite (because that’s important) but it challenges our ideas and preconceptions, too.

What I see in the market that is slightly disturbing to me is the adherence to brands in fantasy literature. This happens in SF too, and to a similar degree–but I don’t think it’s bled into the mainstream as much. There seems to be a great deal of new, exciting, unusual work being done in SF, but seemingly less in fantasy writing.

So, there are approximately 10 million subscribers to WoW (if every WoW subscriber bought one fantasy novel a year, even in paperback, that’d account for nearly the entire statistic above). You’d imagine they’re the perfect folks to get into epic fantasy–clearly they have a thing for armor, quests, etc, ad nauseam. But are they buying new epic fantasy, too? Or are they sticking with more familiar territory, like WoW novels, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, that sort of thing? Do the markets coincide much? I know they do, on some level, because I’ve met plenty of intelligent WoWers. But is it a wide enough trend to make a difference? Has fantasy in general become so mainstream that it’s too hard to do seriously any longer?

I just wonder if people are more likely to pick up something familiar, something branded, because it’s comfortable. It won’t challenge, it won’t discomfit, it will just be entertaining. And there isn’t anything wrong with that, if that’s the case, but it does shed some light into an increasingly complex genre.

So, as writers of fantasy, then, do we write what the readers want to read, or do we challenge them? Do we put success higher up in our priorities than telling the stories we feel are most important?

I’m not really sure, when it comes to it. I want to see more epic fantasy that pushes the envelope, that gets everyone talking… just not sure where it’ll come from, or when, or how. Maybe I already missed it? Maybe the Golden Age is passed, and we have to work harder to make the next age as impressive.

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