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

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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.

ReginIt occurs to me that during yesterday’s very early morning post (this was before I even started work, people!) I missed out on a really fantastic comparison.

How could this be? Me, the writer? Missing a simile!?

Well, I should say, duh.

Yesterday during my Runes class (yes, I take a class on ancient Runes… and yes, that is super awesome) and we were talking about Regin and Sigurd, and how the sword Regin smithed was indeed the best EVAR, but it also took him three times to get it perfect (and good enough to slay a dragon, no less!).

So I realized, then, that gosh–the parallels in writing a novel and smithing are incredible. Yes, I’ve written novels before. And yes, they’re far from perfect. They would indeed “shatter” if used. But taking the time to edit, that’s like tempering the metal, refining it, making sure that it holds up.

And yes, it’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. It’s physically and mentally exhausting. But in the end, the final product will be that much more durable, because I took the time to do it.

Sure, some people can learn a craft and do it flawlessly each time. But most of us mortals have to work really damn hard to get it right. Because if you care at all about your work–whether it’s swordsmithing, portrait painting, novel writing, or invention tinkering–you have to be willing to make it better. You have to be able to say, “I wrote this, but it’s okay if I delete it, because it’s not good enough.”

I suppose in a way, I have my own characters to thank for this insight, as obvious as it might have been. Brick and Cora appeared to me in a flash of clarity almost a year ago to the date, their faces as vivid as if I’d seen them across the room. And since then, they’ve taken me on quite a surprising journey. I’ve learned more writing The Aldersgate than any other work to date, and not just about the story, either. Working on The Aldersgate has given me new insight into myself, my soul, my work; I feel like I know myself better having gone through the process.

So maybe it’s not just the sword that gets tempered, but the smith, too.

The AlderpodI present Alderpod #4 which contains lots of babbling and chattering on my behalf, and relatively little in the way of story (and is listed as #3, but is really #4… or the fourth… if you count the first as zero). I’m hoping to record Alderpod #5 tonight tomorrow night (way too much drama with the nearly two-year-old) which will be Chapter Three, and the introduction of Emry Roy, the Bard, to the story. I’ve been re-editing the chapters I read aloud, which, on top of editing/writing the rest of the book as it is, adds for another fun level of work (that, at this moment, there isn’t a whole lot of “free” time to do).

At any rate! Listen, enjoy. 🙂

The FuriesEditing a novel can be, pardon the language, a major bitch.

I think I could edit this book for a millennium and still never be happy with it. It’s like a plague–you start, you edit a few things, and then you realize: “Oh crap! I should go back and fix that, too!”

It’s cyclical. The more I edit and rewrite, the more I change, the less I’m happy with my own work. The more I doubt myself. The more I question, the more depressed I feel about the whole process.

Two weeks ago, I visited family up North and I had a lot of time to contemplate writing. Most of this was done in bed since I had a terrible time falling asleep. The idea occurred to me that I should do some major restructuring. As it is, this multi-POV is kicking my ass. I thought about putting the first book into a Book I and Book II, sort of in the way Tolkien did to manage his characters as they flitted around Arda. The first half could deal with the story from the POV of the Territories characters (Brick, Emry, and Cora, respectively) and the second half would be the Queensland contingent (Kaythra, Denna, Sylvan, and Ellin).

The idea of restructuring this again makes me feel slightly faint. But I think it’s the only way to a) keep the reader’s attention and b) keep my brain from overloading going back and forth from chapter.

I’m also thinking that my editing method might do better if I abandoned the way I wrote the first draft. Instead of writing by POV, I wrote by chapter without regard. But in order to keep continuity smoother, it’s may work better if I edit by character instead, that way I can make sure the overall plot and arc of each character’s journey is at its best.

So, it’s going to be a hell of a lot of more work. And it doesn’t help that I’ve been thinking about another book I started writing about five years ago, to boot. And all these short story ideas.

Ah, for a modicum of focus!

Anyway, it’s high time for a new podcast. I seem to focus better after podcasting… go figure!

Adventure! Intrigue! Airships!

I’ve been playing around with the idea of for a steampunk short story serial for a while, and decided to take a break from the hefty novel editing, and do a little fun writing. Sure it’s a little campy, but it was fun to do.

James Castledeck is a somewhat minor figure in the novel itself, and his short stories can be read independently of the novel, or in concert with. This first adventure is called “Castledeck and the Arabella” and takes place partially in the skies above Hartleigh City.

Read, enjoy, share, comment!

You can read the .html or .pdf version below: I’m working on a pretty .pdf version I’ll post a little later.

Castledeck and the Arabella

Castledeck and the Arabella – .pdf

the Anthology

I couldn’t help posting this. Though, certainly, anyone who follows BoingBoing at all will already have read this. Still–I ordered a copy on Amazon. Squee! Looks so good.

From BoingBoing and Cory Doctorow:

Last month, I mentioned Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s Steampunk anthology in passing, but the book deserves better than that. I’ve just spent several highly entertaining hours with my advance review copy and I’m knocked out. What a great piece of work this is, from the fascinating triumvirate of essays that recount the history of steampunk in literature and describe its contemporary appeal to the top-notch works of fiction inside, from forgotten proto-steampunk gems by Michael Moorcock and James Blaylock to contemporary pieces from Neal Stephenson, Jay Lake, Ted Chiang and Paul Di Filippo (among many others). Summer’s almost here — time to do some leisure reading, and what better place to start than here? Link

Edit: Although, I’ve got to say–where are the ladies on this list? No steamy ladies. Alas.

Edit #2: I have my book in hand and it differs from this cover; it does in fact feature Mary Gentle. 🙂

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?