I’m a pacifist.

But don’t tell my characters.

One of my biggest challenges in writing is managing violent scenes. Call me a wuss. As someone who’s never even thrown a punch, you can imagine where I’m coming from. But my own personal preferences have to take second seat when I’m writing because, whether or not I like violence or not, it’s a part of life. Especially considering that war is a major component in my current novel–it is partially inspired by the Old West, you see, and there’s just no avoiding it. (Not to mention there’s a murder by the third chapter.)

Sometimes writers feel like they have to write their own agenda into their work. I think this can work to a certain extent (I’ve certainly included quite a helping of my feelings about society, gender, and spirituality in my book) but often it clouds the tale if gone too far. Readers need to trust a writer completely, especially if they’re going to keep with you for 100,000 words or so. So don’t skimp on violence if it’s part of the story, because your readers will feel like you’re withholding details.

That said, there’s a few things I do when I’m writing a particularly violent scene. The first thing to do is research. Sometimes this includes talking to someone who has first-hand experience. A few weeks ago I interrogated my husband about what getting socked in a particularly sensitive area that I have no personal understanding about might feel like if done with a steel-toed boot. I also take time to read other accounts (a quick crash course would be reading someone like Chuck Palahnhiuk, but only if you have a stomach of steel).

But you also want to make sure your violence is accurate. Often in fantasy people are given super human powers, or receive the most unlikely of wounds. If you’re being attacked by a mace, well, read up about what a mace does to the human body. The same with daggers, knives, blasters, rifles, or fists. (Medieval warfare is a good place to start for the fantasy camp.) That goes doubly for magic or anything high-tech. Take a half second to learn about physics! A quick gander certainly won’t hurt.

Violence has been a part of storytelling from the beginning. (Just take a look at the Bible!) It’s just one of the elements of storytelling that excite an audience, keep them on the edge of their seats. Whether it’s the severing of Grendel’s arm, Roland’s brain bursting from blowing his horn, or the frequent “brain bashing” of Malory in Le Morte D’Arthur, violence is a part of our mythology. We understand violence because it causes pain, and pain is something common to the human experience.

That said, if you’re still uncomfortable with your scene, I have a few more suggestions.

For instance, if you’re describing a group scene (a siege or the like) and the large-scale violence is either too complicated or too bothersome, use a single point of view. Narrow the lens, as it were, and describe what is happening through a character, not just the actions around him/her.

Also, remember that level of detail is always up to you. I’ve read some writers who go as far as the molecular level when describing their violent scenes. The difference between a wound, a gaping wound, and a seeping, putrefying wound… well, you get the point.

In the end, the decision is yours. Different writers have different levels of comfort (I’ve seen, for instance, some writers who don’t balk at writing a bloodbath, but skip over the sex completely). Find your balance, but don’t do it without examining the whys of your own approach.

Hard drive crashes are not fun. Even if you’ve backed up your work, and maintain the bulk of your information, one lapse (say about six days) can cost you. When my HD choked, it was in the midst of a good run of writing and editing, in which I’d changed around a great deal and put about 10,000 new words on paper. As I mentioned before, this work was wiped from the face of the planet.

When bad things happen like that, friends are quick to reach out and tell you it’s probably for the best, and that what you’ll write next will be even better than before. That sort of advice, while always well intended, often feels like a kick in the gut.

As grumpy as I was to lose so much of Brick’s narrative, my well-meaning friends were, actually, quite right.

I’ve finished editing Brick’s narrative through to the last 1/4 of the book, up until the point where his narrative starts intertwining more heavily with others and I have to wait.

And oddly enough (or not oddly, depending on how you look at it) losing all that work on Brick actually made me examine him more closely, to ask some really difficult questions. I thought I knew Brick, I really did. But after rewriting and tightening things up, I’ve realized there were a great deal of things that even through the first draft I hadn’t realized about him. It’s that extra layer of complexity that not only makes for a better story, but a more believable hero.

Coupled with the timing of Villain Month, this edit also happened to be Sir Gregory Ander’s (or just Ander as he’s referred to mostly) real entrance into the narrative. Now here’s a surprise. Even though I was pretty happy with his profiles (see the posts here) he’s turned out to be very different even than that. I’ve promoted him from minor villain in the first draft to major antagonist in the edit, and wow. He’s really taken on a life of his own.

My rambling point is that I’m very happy with the writing of the last few days. I’ve been putting my head down, as it were, and really concentrating on telling a good story.

I guess the moral of the story is to try and not let things get to you. Not to get all Pollyanna on you, but seriously: bad things happen, to everyone. And sure, a hard drive crash is worse for a writer in some ways than just about any other sort of person. You’re allowed a sulking time, but once it’s over: just get over it.

And just because it’s fun, here are five things I didn’t expect editing Brick’s narrative:

  • The appearance of codes and ciphers
  • The loss of appendages
  • A berserker knight
  • Major confessions and admissions of guilt
  • Strange alliances

A bit of an excerpt after the cut from Chapter Seventeen: The Merry Gentleman. Brick’s been recaptured by the Order of the Oak, and has been stowed away, tied up, in the corner of a stable stall for the better part of two days. Sir Ander finally pays him a visit and tries to make a deal with him.

(more…)

Airship!Of all things, it was my post about Tolkien that got me thinking more deeply about my “crossing over” as it were, from writing strictly high fantasy to steampunk. A snippet of a quote from The Two Towers briefly flitted over my brain last night while playing D&D with our new group (I do, in fact, roll polished brass d20s). We’re playing 4th edition, and it was the first time I got to combat with my new warlock. At any rate, I was thinking about Tolkien and his general distaste of all things mechanical.

Treebeard says to Gandalf at one point, re: Saruman:

“He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except insofar as they serve him for the moment.”

Holy cow. “Metal and wheels?” That’s totally steampunk.  However, Tolkien certainly didn’t mean this is a positive way. He viewed technology as a means of destroying nature–especially his beloved trees–with an ability to raze the calm, quiet, Shire he loved so much. Certainly I understand his trepidation growing up at the turn of the century as he did, facing the terrors of the two World Wars.

But strangely, it isn‘t the machines that really are the most corrupt in LoTR, but it’s magic itself. Though Sauron creates the One Ring, he is–in essence–descended still from the “magic” of Arda, part of the Creation. Of course this brings about all sorts of questions regarding free will, religion, and philosophy but, at the moment, I’m not in graduate student mode.

One of the common themes in steampunk literature is constant tension between good technology and bad technology. It’s a tension that we certainly feel today, as a nuclear reactor can both supply energy to millions of people and destroy them. We want technology to help people, to make their lives easier, but often it comes with unforseen consequences.

I guess my point here is that, in some ways, I’m more leagued these days than Saruman, at least without the massive destruction of Nature part.

Why steampunk? Once I realized that’s what this book was becoming, a steampunk fantasy, I began doing more reading and trolling the web for inspiration. The thing is, unlike the fantasy genre–which has certainly seen is share of hackneyed, cliched, and rather painful publications–steampunk literature is continuing to grow at a steady pace (just look at the Google Trends if you don’t believe me). And while some people are already heralding its death, I tend to disagree.

The thing about steampunk, if it even qualifies as a genre at all (this is up for debate, friends), is that it simultaneously reflects the tensions and concerns of our own world and transports us to another, whether re-envisioned, revisionist, or completely fabricated. This other world imagining is almost always a “distant but not too distant” past, unlike the bulk of science fiction that takes place in the future, or fantasy in an of ten very distant, mysterious past.

What that means for a writer is a little more freedom, I think, to work beyond the often allegorical mode of fantasy literature into a more mimetic mode. Because it’s not so far, far away, steampunk literature achieves a closeness to the reader; we can understand the ramifications and dangers of technology much better than we might, say, a great ring of power. Not that was can’t imagine that ring of power; but unlike magic, most people have actually seen technology at work in their daily lives.

The closeness of steampunk is that fuels the imagination of writers and makers alike with that closeness. A few trips to the dump or an antique shop, and you can mod your hard-drive with brass and mahogany. Peering through Victorian era newspapers is like a window into Verne.

I think as we continue to move toward nanotechnology and living in a hyper cyber world, steampunk will remain relevant as a hybrid, re-imagined past. It’s certainly captured its share of fans, and I think in time the general media will latch on, as well, as they did with Tolkien. But these sorts of movements start small…

My favorite things about writing steampunk fantasy literature:

  • You don’t have to worry about travel. Skip the horses and the backpacks: we’re boarding a train. Or better yet, a steam powered monocycle!
  • The clothing! I’ve mentioned this many times before on the blog, but one of my favorite research projects involves scouring the web for Victorian couture for my gals. You just can’t get better than that. Add a little steampunk modifier, and you’re in business.
  • The language. I’m a sometime linguist, and always struggle with the languages my characters speak in my high fantasy novels. It sometimes ends up sounding too formal, and it puts a reader at a distance. But I can never decide how the accents and voices of another world would sound. Not so much a concern with steampunk; sure there’s lingo, but it’s nowhere near as difficult.
  • The technology! A mind of metal and wheels indeed. There’s no limit on what the imagination can put together. And, it’s shiny.

Mad ScientistMad scientists. Cooky engineers. Lunatic tinkerers. The figure of a maker of some kind is one of those essential ingredients in steampunk literature that, though it thoroughly amuses, often borders on the humorous if not cliche. For dissenters, the folks who think steampunk is ridiculous (though some of the language I’ve seen is considerably more forthright in tone), these characters are often the point of their frustrations. Why? Well, I think as steampunk has grown as a genre of literature–sometimes a part of fantasy and sometimes a part of science-fiction–it’s begun its own long line of stereotypes and archetypes.

While not everyone agrees with me, I tend to see steampunk less as an extension of science fiction and one more of both sci-fi and fantasy. Technology and magic blur anyway (what matters if teleportation is done with microchips or mysterious energy? same idea in the end). Steampunk’s fantastical elements aren’t always magic, either. There’s something to be said about the Victorian or pseudo-Victorian setting that’s as specific as fantasy settings.

To me, the mad tinkerer is much like the wizard in fantasy literature. Sure, it’s a tired archetype. How many sage, white-haired old men can there be, after all? I’ve picked up one too many books, excited at the prospect, only to be disappointed by the wizard character as just another rehashing of Gandalf. Gandalf is great. Just not a million times over.

So, how do we prevent our inventors from becoming hackneyed versions of the Wizard of Oz (there’s a confused genre for you)? Sure, there are plenty of historical analogues for this (from Newton to Einstein), but getting your steampunk tinkerer right means thinking–just slightly–out of gear.

  • The young, half-starved, mad with ideas inventor has been done. Try tweaking the age–maybe the inventor began this later in life, and found a propensity for technology.
  • As above, half-starved and poor? I smell cliche. How about from a normal family? Or a family that is well-to-do but not supportive of tinkering or inventing? Or someone from a religion, like a monk or a nun?
  • When there are female tinkerers, they tend to err on the side of tomboyish. How about a female inventor who’s just as feminine as can be–like someone’s mother? A mother who’s discovered her calling while staying at home with her kids–a true mother of invention!
  • Scientist? Alchemist? Tinkerer? Engineer? If none of these terms work particularly well, use your own. Stuck for ideas? I like the Online Etymology Dictionary, The Indo-European Roots Index, and Old Norse Online. Or, for an easy reference with research already done, there’s always Gary Gygax’s Extraordinary Book of Names.
  • The ingenue. Don’t have one. Or if you do, at least make an attempt to make her cool.
  • It’s a mad mad mad mad mad mad…. okay. I’m all for eccentricity. But science and madness do not have to go hand in hand.

***

Of course, that’s not to say my advice is law. I don’t even follow it all the time. My own tinkerer is in her 50s, tomboyish, a little person, and certainly a little batty in the brain. You don’t have to knock all the stereotypes to make for a good inventor, but you do have to spend some time thinking about what will set them apart from the crowd.

Behind the goggles, we all need to stand out.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil by John KeatsCompulsion is described as:

1.
the act of compelling; constraint; coercion.
2.
the state or condition of being compelled.
3.
Psychology. a strong, usually irresistible impulse to perform an act, esp. one that is irrational or contrary to one’s will.

Writing is a strange habit, and certainly not one too many people engage in. There are lots of reasons for this. It is extremely time consuming; it requires focus, drive, and endless creativity; it is something done, with some exceptions, in near solitude.

And yes, it is, as Chaucer might say, “passing straunge.”

I have strange days when I open up Scrivener, and stare at the words–the words upon words–and can’t imagine where it all came from. I know, of course, that I’ve done it, that I’ve written the words and have told the story. But I can’t tell you where inspiration comes from, and I certainly can’t explain the magic formula involved when it actually goes right. Because, with writing–for me, at least–there is very little in the way of planning. Precious few are the days, hours, minutes, that I set aside for pure writing actually successful.

In spite of the loss of 10k words this week, the proof to me is that: hey, I wrote. I didn’t feel like I was, but I managed 10k in two weeks. 5k a week isn’t too shabby, that’s for sure, considering most of this “edit” has been a complete rewrite.

It’s rare that I go out of my way to share much of my writing. First of all, explaining fantasy novels–let alone steampunk fantasy novels–to anyone is trecherous territory. You either get it or you don’t.

The truth is, though, whether or not the novels, the stories, the poems ever see the light of day, it doesn’t really matter. I can’t stop writing, I can’t stop playing pretend. Because, really, that’s what it is. In fact, I can trace it back: I started writing novels when I stopped playing pretend with my little sister. We had an incredible world, she and I, filled with the kind of magic and mystique that only little girls can muster in the closeness and imaginative golden years of youth.

But, like Susan Pevensie, I suppose, I had to grow up. I was twelve and, at least according to me, much too old to be pretending to be someone I was not. Yet, the imagining didn’t cease. I wrote alone for a while, then brought my sister on board, and later wrote with my friend. Then when I was 15, I started the long dark years of teenaged angst, and didn’t write much (other than music, that is). And even in undergraduate school, I didn’t write much. This was mostly due to a rather stifling relationship that honestly didn’t leave any room for me. The stuff I did write was for workshops in my writing courses, and certainly not for me. I never could let go in those classes.

It took graduate school for me to revisit the book I’d started rather haphazardly when I was 18. That novel is finished, per se, but it still is lacking. I’ve probably been through it five times and I seriously doubt it can be resurrected. It’s a good story, but it’s so young. As I wrote it I could feel my writing improve, I could tell I was getting better; it’s hard to keep consistent when you’re growing that much.

Now, life is no less difficult–but it is different, in many ways. The Aldersgate is more than just my novel in progress; it was, you see, my way out of a very dark place, in the aftermath of postpartum depression. It brought me hope that I could write again, that I could create, and that there was light somewhere, even if it felt very distant. Slowly but surely, the world of the novel was revealed, in snippets, in voices, in conversations. It was as if after the suffering, the terror of nearly losing my son after he was born (and, I’m told, nearly dying myself bringing him into the world), I was given a gift.

I often say that Emry, the Bard, is the closest to me in the story. And at first, I thought it was because he was musical, and often clumsy, slightly foppish, and certainly a romantic at heart (curse me, but I am). But as I continue to write him, and to explore his growth in my novel, I realize that we share something else in common: suffering. We’ve been places that we can’t explain to people, even if we tried. And in spite of it all, we risk that suffering again because we love–not just our work and our calling, but our friends, too.

All that said, I’m feeling rather reflective since the Great Hard-Drive Explosion of 2008. Every now and again I feel as if I walk into another chapter of my own life; the light is different, the stars have moved, and there’s a new song to be sung.

So, with that, I suppose it’s time to move on along.

O Melancholy, linger here awhile!
O Music, Music, breathe despondingly!
O Echo, Echo, from some sombre isle,
Unknown, Lethean, sigh to us—O sigh!
Spirits in grief, lift up your heads, and smile;
Lift up your heads, sweet Spirits, heavily,
And make a pale light in your cypress glooms,
Tinting with silver wan your marble tombs.— Keats, “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil”

Ansel Adams' Saguaro Cactus

Yes, I realize this picture is of a cactus.

Elizaw mentioned it might be a good idea to do something with airships for the website. So I drew one. It’s not done much to help the general OMGWTF malaise that’s come over me since I flushed 10,000 words into the toilet earlier today, but it helped a little. I mean, she’s right. Airships are cool. I may scan and share tomorrow, just for hahas.

I do wish I had more of an ability to bounce back from disaster, but at the moment am feeling rather bleh and meh by turns. 10K isn’t a lot, compared to the whole novel which, in its first draft is over 100K and in its revised version (at approximately 50%) is already 75K. That’s roughly 10% of a lost book. And it’s two weeks of work, hours now completely lost to time and space (I feel like I’m playing Arkham Horror all of a sudden).

My birthday was Saturday, and I got a copy of The Born Queen by Greg Keyes, which I hope will help jog my brain into writing mode again. Though Stephen King certainly wasn’t the first to say it, he’s right: The more you read, the better you write. I can trace much of my book’s progress by the reading I’ve done on the side–it’s a hodge podge group of writers, not all of whom are exactly Pulitzer Prize winners, of course.

In the mean time, I have now successfully installed the Orchestra Jam Pack for GarageBand, so hopefully my podcasts will be a little more interesting. I’ve been meaning to re-record chapter four for some time, but it’s a long chapter, with some tough voices (a raspy Territories Alderman by the name of Bratner, for instance, who always makes me cough when I read him). It’s also the first Emry chapter, and since he is the character most like myself, I want to do him justice. Emry is so important in the books that at one point I considered starting off the narrative with him. But then I realized that might be a little toward selfish, or at least, self-serving. He’s the easiest character for me to write (well, duh). I’m actually looking forward to editing his PoV, though it’ll probably come after Cora’s. Right now I’m working on the Brick PoV, but that’s the one that bit the dust. Ah, square one.

At least I didn’t lose everything. There are a few bits in the Brick PoV that I’m really happy with. A little fun is provided behind the cut. It’s the introduction of some of the second-string heroes, including Sir Sally Din and Lark.

Below the cut: from Chapter Six: Attention

(more…)

Tristan and ISoldeThe Steampunk Novel Checklist post was one of the first posts I wrote when I started this blog. The post was not intended to be all that serious, but as a way to look back at what I was writing and show that I was, indeed, displaying all the common indicators of a steampunk novel.

Having both read the recent VanderMeer collection, and received a most thoughtful comment on the aforementioned post by Tim, I think it’s important to talk about steampunk writing and steampunk novels as social commentary. Because as fantastical as it may seem, and as tongue-in-cheek lots of steampunk can be (even rather campy, eh old chap?) there are some important things to consider.

See, steampunk isn’t solely about the clothing, the culture, and the music. It’s about something bigger. As with any genre of writing, steampunk has a responsibility to engage the mind of the reader, to ask the tough questions, and to–ultimately–say something important. And I tend to think that steampunk as a genre, as a setting, as a mood and a time and place, offers unending possibilities when it comes to making social commentary.

Sure, my book doesn’t take place in this world. But it’s like our world. Its residents have similar prejudices, concerns, and social restrictions. One of the first important thing I realized about The Aldersgate was that, first and foremost, it told a story about people, regardless of sexuality, gender, or religion. It asks the question “What makes us human?” I’ve always been fascinated by human rights, by the Otherness assigned to groups of people that the majority doesn’t understand. As an American, it’s baffling to think that just 150 years ago, slaves walked around my state, and many people thought there was nothing particularly odd about it. Once you transform someone into an Other (and no, this isn’t from Lost: it’s from Edward Said) it’s almost impossible to go back.

I didn’t want to shy away from questions of religion, politic, and gender, because that’s what makes the story actually important. Sure, there’s a love story, a mad tinkerer, and a few power-hungry villains. But you know, when the hammer meets the anvil, if the end product doesn’t stand up, it doesn’t matter how much work went into it–it won’t stand in the end.

Although I’m not gong to divulge the exact details of the plot, I promise that anyone who is following around won’t be disappointed. Of course, you might not agree with my conclusions in the end–but that’s okay. I’m passionate about making a point with the stories I tell, and I would be honored if you’d stay with me on the journey.

A short excerpt, though, to give a little teaser.

From Chapter Fifteen: Fiddles in the Dark

The crowd, once again, began moving and speaking all at once. The sea of faces blurred in Emry’s vision, and he felt all the blood rush to his head. Sleep, he thought. Damn it to the hells, but I haven’t had sleep in days.

“Hush, Children of the Rood!”

Whatever this meant, its impact was surprisingly swift. Every mouth closed, every set of eyes turned to the speaker: Nesme.

“I vote we conduct him to safety, with the others, provided… when the time comes, that he composes a song for us. It has been a great many years since we have been blessed with the company of the Bard. And as such, you would be beholden to us—would you not, Emry Roy?”

Emry was struck dumb. Nesme wanted a commission? “I—I would,” Emry said. “By the Barding code, once asked to work… for a commission, I am beholden until the piece is final.”

“What if you break your Oath?” asked a voice, sharp and sure—it was Ezz’s voice, Emry was certain, but he couldn’t locate the Sib.

“If… if the Academy at Dunlee were to find out, I would be killed,” Emry said flatly.

“Then let us have a vote!” cried Nesme. “Those wishing to conduct Emry through the Nithings safely, and to commission him for a song in exchange—and, I may say, as collateral—raise your fingers.”

What looked to Emry like two thirds of the crowd raised their arms high, extending their forefingers. But it was hard to tell if it was a majority.

“Those opposed?”

There was a moment’s hesitation, and then hands were raised. But they were clearly less—not drastically so, but enough to dispel the utter dread that had been mounting in the center of his chest. His arms were trembling now, and he could no longer keep his tears at bay.

“Good. Now, Riz, Kaze, and Xen—take our Bard to the Inn, and see to it that he’s refreshed, fed, and kept after, will you?”

Emry couldn’t hear the rest of the instructions for he had, quite unceremoniously, fainted.