Lord Nevermore by Brigid Ashwood

It’s been a few years since I first stumbled upon the term, drooled over the aesthetic, and learned about the culture. From a writer’s perspective, it’s been an interesting ride. I didn’t start out with a steampunk novel in mind, and I hope I’ve never given that impression. However, since discovering that the world of the Aldersgate Cycle was a fantastic take on steampunk, I’ve done my own delving into the culture.

I came to steampunk, as I’ve written before, by way of the American West, and through a love of fantasy and alternate worlds. While I spent some time in the early 2000s hanging around lots of punk rockers in the Baltimore area, I’ve never considered myself very counter-culture. I mean, sure. I’m weird. I’m a geek. I’ve always been a maker of words. It’s not to say that I don’t have plenty of political views that might be considered unusual, but I try not to let that leak into my blog or (too much) into my writing.

What’s been interesting to watch, however, is the greater absorption of steampunk culture into the mainstream. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a progression like that before, save perhaps the goth progression in the late 80s and early 90s (though I was listening to the Beatles at that point, I certainly watched from the wings). Search trends for steampunk continue to rise, and everything from fashion to home decor shows signs of cross-pollination.

But I wonder, is the definition of steampunk changing? As it becomes a known part of our culture at large, does it diminish? Or does it grow? Here’s a few scenarios I think we might see in the coming months.

Gaining literary steam. I’m not the only writer out there with a love for steampunk. In fact, I see more and more writers trying their hand at incorporating alternate history/fantasy steampunk facets into their writing; we’ve seen Steampunk Tales for the iPhone, for example, and of course the VanderMeer short story collection (which, I believe, is in talks for a followup). From a novel approach you’ve got people like Ekaterina Sedia, Tobias Buckell, and Cherie Priest (among others) either publishing or actively working on steampunk-esque books. Why? While “steampunk” literature has been around a long time (well, they didn’t call it that when they were writing it in the late 19th century) it’s seen a rebirth. With appeal for fantasy, science-fiction, horror, and thriller writers, it’s not surprising to see growing trends in steampunk writing. It’s wonderfully fertile ground, and can be written in a multitude of ways. From a fantasy perspective, it’s a nice break from the standard medieval approach.

The -punk phenomenon. We may start hearing about lots of other “new” punks. You’ve probably already heard of cyberpunk and dieselpunk, etc.. I know plenty of writers who hate these terms (even the term steampunk itself) but it is what it is. In a way steampunk has become an umbrella term, incorporating bits and pieces from the 17th century onward to the Edwardian, and sometimes beyond. There are definitely divided camps, here, some who believe steampunk is only Victorian, and others who want to broaden the definition. Of course, there are positive aspects of each, but I certainly see–especially in the realm of fashion–the second camp winning out. It tends to give historical nitpickers hives, unfortunately… Is “steampunk” the right term? I dunno. It is what it is at this point.

Movin’ down the dusty trail. As with any subculture, there are always folks who are transients. That is, people who “find” a movement, become active, and move on. Now that you can buy steampunk inspired clothing at JC Penney, it’s not as hard as it once was to fit in at an event or a club. But, given time, and other new subcultures bound to crop up, people will move on to other things because, by nature, they always need to be different. Hell, there are already folks disenchanted with steampunk, or frustrated with the growing commercialization of steampunk. Or just bored. Because for some people, being different is all that matters. What lies beneath is inconsequential. (Although, if you join a movement to look like a bunch of other people, “different” is very relative, I suppose.)

Makin’ a steampunk buck. I’m sure you’ve seen it. The superfluous gear. The short story that tries too hard. That friend of yours who has become a born-again steampunk and is now making bookmarks, postcards and t-shirts all proclaiming love of the culture. Yeah, it’s tough territory here. You want to be welcoming to everyone, but at the same time, so much of what I’ve been seeing lately just comes across as people trying to make a quick buck. And I hate that.

Asking the hard questions. Steampunk isn’t perfect. The Victorians, for all they gave us, were highly flawed people. They were often racist, sexist and classist. And while some writers, in particular, have explored these issues, it hasn’t really seeped into the culture. I love corsets, from an aesthetic perspective, for example. But, some of the extremes women went through–or were made to go through–in attempt to “look right” is downright uncomfortable. That we can choose to wear corsets or not in this day is rather amazing. Know what I mean? It’s amusing to find that one of the instruments feminists rallied against has become a symbol of feminine power and sexuality… Anyway. I digress.

Not your parents’ steampunk. Steampunk will change. People will push the envelope. It’ll move beyond gears, cogs, and goggles, and become something else. It will be reinterpreted, re-envisioned, re-appropriated. It will move to Asia, to Africa, to the Middle-East, and bring new flavors, sounds, sights, and influences. And it will be better for it. I, for one, can’t wait!

What about movies? I think they’ll continue to be few and far between, and of middling quality. So far, most attempts, including most recently City of Ember, have not done terribly well. There’s something steampunkish, certainly, about 9, as well as a few others (not to mention new RPGs). I mean, in the past, the outcome just hasn’t been that great. Not even I could sit through Wild Wild West again. My hope is that something comes to television, soon. I think there, steampunk might find its home. With shows like Warehouse 13, which certainly cater to the aesthetic, I’m optimistic!

So, what do you forsee for the future of steampunk?

medievalscribe1You know, words matter. Sure, it’s good to see you’ve written quantity. But, honestly, I think many people working on NaNo take the whole word count thing a little too seriously, and I think it freaks some people out. 50K is a valiant goal, but it’s not quite long enough for most genres to be considered a whole novel, and it’s especially hard to do in November. I mean, November? Really? That pretty much eliminates anyone working in retail, or anyone with a family. I know this week will be extremely challenging through Thanksgiving…

At any rate, I’ve been approaching my word count with caution. Because, let’s face it: I’m not exactly a novel newbie. Sure, I’m not published. But I’ve written books before, in spite of school, and having babies, and working. I get that part. So I don’t want to just write for the sake of writing. It’s got to mean something to me; it’s got be good.

So, this morning I opened up Scrivener and took a look at the word glut from last night. I never went over it; I just fell asleep, completely mentally spent. I wasn’t expecting much, because the green-tea fueled write-a-thon from last evening really is an anomaly. I’ve never written that much that fast before.

Funny thing is, it’s actually some of the best writing in the novel to date, shocked as I am to admit that. Don’t know what sort of sweet spot I hit, or what kind of stars aligned but for someone, like me, who is insanely (and I mean, without reason or sanity) critical of her writing, I found very little to complain about. The scenes were vivid, the descriptions clear, the dialogue particularly strong (even when I interspersed the dialogue in Maddie’s head with the actual, talking conversations… writing dialogue when two women share one body… is a challenge).

Anyway, in the next few days I have to eke out 10K. It won’t finish the book, but it’ll finish NaNo. I’m a bit torn as to what to do when NaNo is over, because I know Pilgrim of the Sky is much more marketable than AGC is in its current state. So I might write a bit more while it’s fresh on my mind, finish the draft, and then set it aside to work on AGC until I can go back and edit again. I don’t want to lose the moment, in other words.

As I’ve read some recent postings of people on NaNo boards saying everything from “How can I even write 20K” to “I’m writing 200K because 50K is not a challenge” consider one of my favorite quotes from Mr. Shakespeare: “When words are scarce they are rarely spent in vain.” Don’t just write for writing’s sake if you can help it. Tell your story, and tell it as best as you can. Make the words count; don’t just count words.

But, consider this, too. Discipline is important. The ACT of writing is just as essential as the word count; that’s what I think NaNoWriMo is so good at demonstrating. It helps aspiring writers get a window into a life where writing is what you do; it’s what you do every moment when life allows. When you don’t have a typewriter or a pencil, you do it in your head. You dream it, you sing it. You are the story. But great stories don’t materialize, or at least rarely do they, in unpracticed people.

In the excellent words of Mr. Ray Bradbury (I figured someone said it better than me, and I was right.)

It simply follows that quantity produces quality. Only if you do a lot will you ever be any good. If you do very little, you‘ll never have quality of idea or quality of output. The excitement and creativity comes from a whole lot of doing; hoping you‘ll suddenly be struck by lightning. If you only write a few things, you‘re doomed. The history of literature is the history of prolific people. I always say to students, give me four pages a day, every day. That’s three or four hundred thousand words a year. Most of that will be bilge, but the rest … It will save your life!

I’ve been attempting to Twitter some of the day, but I’m admittedly a very crappy texter. I blame the pink Razr, which, though it lulled me into its metallic embrace with its shiny exterior, is really a very cruddy phone when it comes to anything but making and answering phone calls.

We were very late arrivals to D*C, and when we finally got there, I was extremely disappointed to see that the one panel I wanted to go to was switched out. I was admonished since I had not looked at TODAY’s Daily Dragon–which would have been nearly impossible in the car (see comment about crappy phone). So, missed that.

However, there is happiness to be had as I was able to talk to Ms. Finn Von Claret of Abney Park, who was charming and lovely in spite of the late night/early morning (she also has an etsy store, so check that out). I picked up the new CD, a sticker, and of course a set of pilot wings (because, aye, I’m a sky pirate at heart, too). I got her and Captain Robert’s autographs, and then got to people watching.

I admit to you I’m a con virgin. But this was awesome. I just went dressed as myself which, in normal company, tends to run toward the slightly eccentric. But I definitely felt quite… boring, I should say. Some of the most amazing costumes. I didn’t have the camera in tow, so there’s no way to show you some of the costumes, alas, but I promise you, it’s amazing.

Next was the Gonzo film fest, opening with Paul and Storm (who if you haven’t heard, you should–so go listen, huh?). Geek rock meets comedy in perfectly harmonized bliss. Except when the sound guys messed it up. But, hey, that’s showbiz.

Tomorrow morning starts early, and I get a chance to interview Tobias Buckell, thanks to the awesomeness that is Matt Staggs. That’s in just a few hours, really–so I dearly need to prepare for that.

I’ll check in again soon!

The most influential film of my childhood years was Disney’s oft forgotten Sword in the Stone, adapted from T.H. White’s Once and Future King. It was my first real exposure to Arthuriana, and eventually led to my reading the full novel and, in fact, contributed significantly to my study of the Middle Ages in college. Plus, reflections of Merlin and Wart are in every early story I wrote (and, likely, still there in what I write today).

Since then, I’ve learned that much of SF/F deals with the taking, gaining, and control of power. It’s about stature, about relationships. It asks the questions that traditional fiction and nonfiction just can’t, because it (literally) removes us from our own world as we know it. It’s a long series of “what if’s” set to an intergalactic soundtrack that continues to kindle our imaginations.

But the very strengths of sci-fi and fantasy are what cause people to so often dismiss them. Oh sure, the Force is exciting–but start defining it as a parasite, and boy, we lose our love affair. Explain too much, and there’s no whimsy, no room for imagination. Critics of both genres hate the black-and-white delineation in novels and film. We live in a world where more and more, people realize that there are shades of gray, shifts in perception, and decisions we make that put us on one side of the fence or the other.

I don’t think SF/F will ever go away, and I certainly don’t want them to. But in order for these genres to survive, and to continue challenging readers and writers alike, we must fend off the expected. As writers, we owe it to our readers to write fully imagined characters, each with the good, the bad, and the ugly as part of who they are. Sure, archetypes are important–but we are all flawed, and we’ve all had to make choices. Nothing irks me more than “purely” good or bad characters.

And that brings me back to Arthur, I think. The thing I’ve always loved about the Arthurian canon is that, in spite of additions and emendations throughout the centuries, it’s not a happy ending. The most beloved knight in the entire kingdom not only fails at the quest for the Holy Grail, but has an elicit affair with the Queen who just happens to be the wife of his best friend, Arthur. (That this realistic approach was brought to life by medieval writers is amazing in and of itself!)

Everything falls apart. There is no celebration, no wedding, no making up. Sure, Mordred (usually) gets it in the end, but so does Arthur. The world he fought for is gone. Ended. Caput. T.H. White does a heartbreakingly good job of showing us this at the end of The Once and Future King. Near the book’s conclusion he writes, partially in Arthur’s own mind that

The fate of this man or that man was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea.

White was writing as a man in the middle of wars–both World Wars–and later as a conscientious objector. He asked the difficult questions, like the famous Might vs. Right argument and ultimately influenced a whole new generation of writers. Writers including, Michael Moorcock, J. K. Rowling, Gregory Maguire and Ed McBain also cited White as an influence (from Wikipedia: T.H. White).

My point, my meandering and somewhat obvious point, is that we ought, as writers of these incredible genres, to hold up a mirror to our own world, and ask the important questions. Fantasy and science-fiction mean nothing if we cannot tie them to the human condition and contrast the far-off worlds to our own somehow. And it can happen in the most expected places, like the Arthurian canon for instance. It isn’t always what we say, but how we say it. This is from White again:

Perhaps man was neither good nor bad, was only a machine in an insensate universe–his courage no more than a reflex to danger, like the automatic jump at the pin-prick. Perhaps there were no virtues, unless jumping at pin-pricks was a virtue, and humanity only a mechanical donkey led on by the iron carrot of love, through the pointless treadmill of reproduction. Perhaps Might was a law of Nature, needed to keep the survivors fit. Perhaps he himself…

Before dying, Arthur, the paragon of knightly virtue, the greatest of all men, cannot find the right answer. He cannot say what his life was worth, because he does not know. He cannot know. He is only a man in a story, in the end; but his thoughts, his questions, they become ours.

And in that way, he does continue on.

In that way, there is a great deal of hope.

Anyone who’s attempted to write a novel–even if they’ve just managed through the planning stage–knows how challenging and often daunting the prospect can be. Precious few of us have unlimited time to sit back, drink coffee, and write (as Stephen King famously does, for instance) until you reach your daily 20 pages, or 10,000 words, or whatever.

Here’s a few suggestions that might help you out of the mire. I’m not an expert, but over the last decade or so I’ve figured out some tips that just might get you going in the right direction.

1.) Don’t listen to other writers’ processes. I’m not saying not to listen to me, exactly. I’m saying, don’t take a successful writer’s process as law. Everyone works differently, and at difference paces. Tolkien took decades to write the LoTR, and many popular authors seem to crap (for lack of a better term) out a book every month or so. Find your own pace, your own style. Learn when you write best, and under which circumstances. If you are busy, like me, you might want to use a calendar for a few weeks and mark down what days and when you were the most prolific.

2.) Avoid quicksand. There’s a reason writers write in drafts. Very few people–excluding, I’ve heard, Neil Gaiman–have to rewrite large parts of their books during the process. So when you’re writing your first version down, try not to sweat the small stuff. It’s way too easy to mistake the forest for the trees when you’re writing your first draft, and you can get hung up on the smallest stuff. If you’re like me you treat your first draft like an outline, and build from there. I’ve talked to plenty of writers who get stuck in this stage and never get out, and blame it on extraneous factors. But quite often, the mire of stalling in draft stage is self-inflicted quicksand.

3.) Don’t apologize. This happens quite often with fiction that skitters along the fantasy, science fiction, or steampunk flavor: writers feel like they have to apologize for their interests. This is deadly poison. The moment you start apologizing for what you like or what you like to write, you immediately discredit yourself to whoever it is your talking to, and to yourself. Writing takes confidence, and any crack can cause serious stress points in the whole structure.

4.) Get over the hard work factor. For the vast majority of writers out there, writing a novel is damn hard work. It’s harder, too, when you have a real job, a family, and a life outside. Making writing a priority is no small task. I’ve been setting word goals for myself. i.e.: no surfing the internet until I’ve hit another 1,000 words. And then, only for a few minutes. You can’t sit and say, “Ugh! This is so hard!” because you could be writing instead of complaining. If you’re dedicated to getting it finished, then you just have to do it. No publisher in their right minds will take an unfinished novel! We all have ideas, after all. It’s the work in between that distinguishes a novel from an idea.

5.) Keep finding inspiration. Whether it’s movies, music, other books, or pieces of art, we all have points of inspiration when it comes to writing. Don’t get so wrapped up in your book that you forget to absorb; be a sponge! Writing takes momentum, and it’s much easier to maintain it than to lose it and start from scratch again.

6.) Figure out why you write. Ask yourself the question, and examine the answer. Think about it. If the answer is acceptable for you, something you can live by, great. But if you’re not finding success writing, maybe your heart’s not in it for the right reasons.

Through the friendly FriendFeed Fantasy Writers Room I discovered that is sending free ebooks to registered folks. OMG it’s so awesome to see a huge publication company do this! I really think the wave of the future is with online publication, .pdfs, and the like (not to mention CC licensing…). Yay! Books to read

Not only that, but the wallpaper offerings are truly gorgeous. I’m usually the kind of gal who keeps my wallpaper the same for a while, but I’ve been changing every day.

What are you still here for? Go sign up!

William MorrisFiction is curious. In the last century or so, it’s seen more movement and change than ever before, morphing and shifting as culture, philosophy, religion, and expression continue to influence writing.

I mean, fiction wasn’t even a viable means of writing at all for many centuries. Sure, there’s allegory and myth, legend and religious writing–but the concept of alternate worlds, horror writing, romance novels, these are all concepts we’ve accepted now as fairly standard.

So, I’ve been wondering about steampunk writing. In fact, I posted about it to the Brass Goggles forum last week, wondering what people thought: is steampunk writing an offshoot, or its own genre? I tend to think it’s growing into its own genre, even as a subsidiary of its cousin cyberpunk. It either will represent a new genre, or it will prove that, perhaps, genre writing is dying itself.

Why do I say this? Well, I think that, more and more, books are failing to adhere to the expected. Horror blends with fantasy blends with mystery blends with science fiction. Take something as mundane as Harry Potter–it’s part mystery/part fantasy/part bildungsroman. Take away any of those elements, and you make for a boring, unmarketable piece of writing that surely wouldn’t have spawned a multi-billion pound empire. Even big “fantasy” writers like George R.R. Martin adapt history, intrigue, mystery, to come up with something else entirely.

No, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a glossy “Steampunk” section pop up at Barnes and Noble any time soon. But I don’t think compartmentalization is the right way to approach any emerging writing. When Tolkien published his Rings books, many people simply didn’t know what to do with them. But he wasn’t the first! In fact, William Morris was at it half a century before (if you’re really intrigued, you can read the whole text of The Well at the End of the World online), writing “fantasy” worlds. It just didn’t catch on in his time.

I guess I’m just cautiously optimistic about where steampunk is going to go in the next few years. Will it go the way of Tolkien? Or a less-traveled? As an internet phenomenon, and already at the brink of the digital text age, it’s an intriguing question. Already, magazines like Steampunk Magazine are available completely in digital format.

So, I wonder: what do you think?