steampunk_lordnevermore

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?

Alderpod #26 – Chapter 23: Betrayal in the Key of G

I am just about back on a biweekly schedule again with the remaining chapters of The Aldersgate! This is cause for celebration. Up to Chapter 23 already, which is a scarce six from the Very End. How’d that happen?

I hope you do enjoy!

(Yes… I realized I said “chapter 24” instead of “chapter 23” – the problem is I decided on a re-order, all last minute like. I will fixify this… just not exactly right now… soon!)

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!

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.

This election has had me thinking a lot about feminism. We didn’t just have an almost woman candidate for Presidency, but now we have a VP nominee as well (though, I can’t say they are a thing alike). When it comes down to it, they both wear skirts and power suits, though reportedly one is much more fashion conscious.

Okay, that’s not exactly what I’m writing about. No, I’m writing about something that really has nothing to do with the political sphere, other than it’s on the subject of women. But not women politicians–rather, women writers.

I’m blessed beyond belief to be a woman and a writer in this century. I think about the difficulties that women writers who came before me had to cope with, including and not limited to horrifying sexism, inadequate education, and social restrictions. That’s not to mention that many women writers had to work their crafts in the dark, having no one to look up to or reach out to for support.

But now I live in a networked world, where other writers are just a click away. There are dozens of women writers that I look up to, that have shaped the way I write and create worlds. I never felt, growing up, that my dream of writing was any less attainable because of my gender. And, thankfully, my supportive parents always instilled a belief that, if I worked hard enough at something, eventually I could do whatever I wanted.

Though it’s not to say it still isn’t difficult. I am often told, “just write a romance novel!” or “write as a guy, you’ll get published”. As a science fiction and fantasy writer, I’m in a genre heavily populated by men. There’s no chance in Hades I’ll move from this place, but it doesn’t mean it’s any easier. Sure, I know there are women writers in SF/F out there, but a quick glance at most anthologies and best sellers in the genre will show you that men still make up the bulk of the market. And though there’s been plenty of argument on either side of the fence, women still read a great deal of SF/F.

I think the crux of the argument is that there’s a tension between traditional/popular SF/F and feminism. Though I don’t think I can be called a feminist in the truest sense, I’ll never parade my characters around in chain mail bras. But it’s unfortunate that it’s what sells the books. As much as I’m enjoying playing 4th Ed. D&D I cringe whenever I see the drawings of female characters. I mean, really, do the Dragonborn have boobs? They’re frigging lizards.

Unfortunately I don’t think the popularity of that sort of writing will wane. People pick up the scantily clad ladies for the same reason they pick up romance novels–sex sells, end stop. While I’ve nothing wrong with a good shagging scene every now and again, it’s got to be there to mean something, to me. You cheapen writing by using too much sex. I’m sure there are people who will argue with me, but that’s just my stance.

So what’s to do? I think we, as women writers, ought to raise the bar even higher. Maybe that’s not fair for us, but here’s my thinking: if we write as expected, it doesn’t do anything, doesn’t prove anything. It only reiterates what people already think of as “female fantasy writing”. And it’s not to say to write like a man, either. Write from your heart, write from your being. Write what matters to you, be it the epitome of feminist fantasy or not. Whatever it is, just write! There are some amazing women writers out there right now doing exactly what I’m talking about, people like Cherie Priest and Elizabeth Bear, who do jaw-droppingly incredible work. The work is just… wow.

What I’m saying is that we, as women writers, ought not back down. We need to be confident, strong, and assertive. More than anything we need to believe in ourselves. That’s probably the thing I see most often, in women of all walks of life in this society. We don’t think we’re good enough. But we are. We’re more than good enough… with the right drive, and the right vision, we’re positively magical.

KnightsTM

KnightsTM

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.

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!