Sunday, May 29, 2011

In defence of bad-assery

I think one of my favorite pieces of writing advice was delivered by Steven Brust. He suggested that in order to keep a reader's interest, an author's attitude towards his or her work must always be "And now I'm going to tell you something awesome!". I find from experience, though, that this attitude, while a good one, necessitates that the author walk a very careful line - if your character and the things they do are too amazingly awesome, the reader will often get bored and frustrated. If there's no chance the character can fail, there's no tension, no drama, and no story. In the online role-playing community, we call characters like these Mary-Sues, and frankly, nobody wants to play with them.

Today I want to talk about how this balance between awesomeness and vulnerability can be maintained, mostly via example of the author who I think managed it the best that anyone ever has - Frank Herbert, in Dune.

Paul and Jessica are amazingly bad-ass characters. They're essentially super-heroes, but unlike most modern depictions of super heroes (outside of some of the X-men lines), they've been extensively trained in their powers and know exactly what they can do and how to do it. Paul especially is super-human in about three different ways at once, being a Mentat, having a good proportion of the Bene Gesserit training, and his future-sense. You would wonder, then, how on earth (or Arrakis) anything could threaten them. Boring story, right? And yet it isn't. I know a lot of people who still consider Dune to be one of the most amazing epics they've read this side of Lord of the Rings.

What I find most interesting about the story is that the conflict doesn't necessarily come from another character. Baron Harkonnen got them into the situation they wind up in via his various cats-paw maneuvers, but in a flat fight, he stands no chance against Paul or his family. The story fascinates me, and I consider it particularly well done, because most of the conflict is environmental or internal, not interpersonal. That's tough to pull off, but I think it's one of the best ways to deal with characters that are that strong - the only thing that's strong enough to present a challenge to them is something as massive and impersonal as an ecosystem, or just their own strength. Most of Paul's conflict, both in Dune and throughout the series, comes from fighting against his future-sense, and what he comes increasingly to see as fate. He doesn't want to be the instrument by which the things he sees come to pass, and so he tries harder and harder to escape. Whether he ultimately succeeds, I think, is a decision that's up to the reader. These are ways to deal with a character so bad-ass that they would blow away any human opponent, and yet still make them seem human themselves.

Interestingly, though, before I end I want to point out that even with all of these precautions in place, ways to deliver conflict against a super-human character, to show them as being weak and vulnerable, it still happens sometimes that a number of people will take a dislike to the character because they're perceived as too powerful, too privileged. I've seen this in some of the cultural awareness of Dune - this is terribly unscientific, but in all my years of playing online games, I've seen scores more gamertags that are based on derivations of Feyd-Rautha then Muad'dib. I think the reason behind this is that although Feyd-Rautha honestly doesn't have many redeeming qualities as a character, there's an inclination on the part of certain readers to see him as parallel to Paul, and an underdog. This makes him infinitely more interesting to root for, even though Herbert clearly didn't intend for him to be a sympathetic character in any way. It's a reaction that authors should keep in mind, nonetheless.

So what are the lessons we can learn from Dune? Well, honestly, they're myriad, but the ones I want to take away today are that bad-ass characters are great, and will really pull readers in, but they need to have weaknesses and real human traits in order to remain interesting, and to allow a story to progress. Pitting two bad-asses against each other may seem like fun, but that can develop into an over-the-top Clash of the Titans that will leave readers cold. Environmental and internal conflict are a good way to deal with characters like these. And always remember, no matter how much you like your characters, there will always be somebody who likes the bad guy better.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Stung" Part 3 of 3

The appointed night came, and as darkness fell, Mort found himself again uncertain, despite his brave words to his intended, wishing himself that there were a way out, another way to make his fortune. The weather had him worried as well; there had been a stiff warm breeze all afternoon, and the rising moon was intermittently obscured by scudding clouds. He was certain there would be a storm, possibly a bad one, before morning.

Rupert could read the signs of the weather as well, and when the grizzled man arrived at Mort's cabin, he looked worried. He was carrying two large packs, and had an odd contraption looped around his waist. One end of it was a glass mason jar containing some kind of wire and mirror assembly, and this was attached to the other end to a hand-sized miniature bellows, by what looked like a length of wire wrapped in untreated wool, still greasy with lanolin. He grunted at Mort's questioning look. "The torch. Don't ask me how it works, I just know how to use it. Can't use it too long at a time or the wool fetches up an allmighty stink, though. Shouldn't come to that anyway, hopefully we won't be in there that long a'tall."

Glancing again at the sky, Mort hesitated. "Are you sure we should do it tonight? Weather's getting mighty chancy."

Rupert shook his head stubbornly. "Still our best chance. Weather should hold off for a bit yet, and once it comes through, we're like to be stuck with clouds for a few days, and we'll loose the moonlight. I don't trust this stash enough to wait another month to go after it, somebody else'll find it, sure as rain." He gave the younger man a gruff but not unkind look. "C'mon, boy, I've sat out on nights worse'n this trying to chase down a panther what was terrorizing these parts before you was born. Tonight at least we're trying ter avoid the critters what can bite back."

Nodding, Mort shouldered his pack. Though he was still frightened, he resolved not to show it, and set his face stubbornly. "Right. Let's get a move on, then, it'll take some hiking to get there." Rupert slapped him on the back in silent recognition of his stoicism, and they set off into the woods. Mort tried to ignore the whimpering his dogs set up as they left, unused as they were to their master setting off into the night without them.

It was late, though not yet the middle of the night, when the two men neared their destination. Motioning for quiet as they neared the top of a rise, Rupert dropped to his hands and knees to crawl the rest of the way through the underbrush, Mort following his example. Laying along the ridgeline, they looked down into the hollow below.

Mort strained his eyes to spot the still amongst the constantly moving silvery shadows of the forest floor. Finally, catching the glow of the low fire powering its boilers, he saw it, nestled quietly under a tree on the opposite side of the dell. In this, its resting state, it looked innocuous, though anyone born and raised in the mountains would recognize immediately that something was unusual about a still out in the open, unshielded by even the most rudimentary structure. He started to whisper something to Rupert, laying in the brush beside him, but the mountaineer raised a finger for silence, and mouthed a single word, "wait." Mort nodded and made himself comfortable, settling in for the stalk as every hunter knows how to do.

The night wore on, and the shadows danced in the wind and moonlight, but slowly their positions shifted as the moon made her way across the sky. By Mort's best guess, it was about 2AM when the creature in the hollow below them began to move. The fire crackled to life as its embers were stirred by some unseen mechanism, and both men heard the hiss of escaping steam and the creak of joints as the machine unfolded itself for locomotion. The still itself rose up on eight spidery legs, and arms extended themselves, snapping and waving in the air about the device as it tested all of its parts. Satisfied with its warm-up, the arms snapped back into place and the machine began to slowly amble, crab-wise, out of the glade. Finally getting a sense of scale as it passed in front of some brush, Mort gulped. Though they were of a human height when fully retracted onto the ground, the legs had been designed to allow the stills to pass over undergrowth rather than crashing damagingly through it, and the device took on a gargantuan size when in motion, with a height of nearly twelve feet, and a spread of legs with roughly the same diameter.

Quailing at the sight, Mort cowered into his bush, frozen until the thing passed. He might have stayed there all night, petrified, but as soon as the sounds of the machine's passage had faded, Rupert grabbed him by the front of the shirt and pulled him forward. They slid down the side of the hill together, until they stood in the bottom of the hollow.

Rupert nodded towards a dark shadow in the face of the cliff at the back of the dell. "That's the cave. When we find the cache, you're gonna have to load up your pack and mine. I need both hands for this daggum torch, one to point the thing and one to work it. Let's hurry, that thing ain't gonna be gone too long." He strode towards the cave, one hand pumping at the bellows of his device, and the other pointing the jar, which was emitting a watery, diffuse beam of light, still brighter than any lantern, but dimming every few seconds as he released the bellows for another squeeze.

Following closely behind Rupert, Mort looked over the cave entrance. Unlike most caves in the mountains, which were only accessible via cracks and tunnels, this one had an entrance full wide and tall enough for one of the stills to walk into, which was clearly why they had chosen it. The floor of the cave was sandy, and Mort strongly suspected that it had been the outlet for an underground stream sometime in the distant past. There were signs here and there that animals had used the place, small nests, little yellow bones, but no recent tracks or scat. Mort could only assume that the animals found the smell of the machines somehow objectionable; he had never heard tell of one shooting at or attacking anything smaller than a human child. Come to think of it, he had never heard of one attacking anything that wasn't a human, period, as they'd been known to selectively target farmers but not livestock when they raided farms for grain or other supplies. He shrugged to himself, and tried to return his attention to the task at hand.

Looking ahead, Mort and Rupert realized at the same time that the electric torch wasn't the only source of light in the cave. There was a soft glow, as from a banked fire, coming from around the next bend. Rupert stopped pumping his bellows and let the light die out, as both of them stood still for a moment, letting their eyes adjust to the lower light. Mort shifted from foot to foot impatiently. "What now, Roop?" he whispered.

"Well, shee-it," muttered the other in reply. "I kept an eye on em, every one I saw goin' in I saw comin' back out, I ain't never thought that there might be one in here all the time." He shook his head. "They weren't bringing no supplies in, though, just the likker. Can't imagine what the damned thing would be running on. C'mon, we already came all this way, we gotta at least take a closer look."

The men edged carefully towards the glow. Peering around the corner, they were both struck dumb at the sight in the enormous cavern below them. "Sweet Jesus," breathed Rupert. "You was right, they are just like honeybees."

Beneath them, in the glow of moving fires, they could make out an enormous pile of jars of what must have been high-quality moonshine. But what rendered both men incapable of thought or movement was the machinery itself. There were several stills in the cave, all moving about, stacking jars, moving piles of parts, and tending various other tasks - including, in the center of the cavern, a device three or four times larger than any of them. It had clearly been a still at some point, but so many ancillary parts had been welded on, either by itself or by its attendants, that it could no longer move. At one end, smaller machines were pouring the moonshine into tubing that lead to some kind of engine, larger and more sophisticated than the simple steam boilers used by the other devices. At the other end, multiple arms were welding, soldering, hammering, and the half-finished device it was working on was clearly another mobile still.

Mort felt sick. "They are. And that thing there's the Queen. Roop, we gotta get out of here. Forget the liquor, forget the haul. We gotta tell the sheriff. We gotta tell the guvvermint. They gotta blow this place up."

Backing slowly away from the cavern's portal and into the tunnel leading to the entrance, Rupert and Mort prepared to run, when both their hearts dropped at a sickening sound behind them. While they had been staring at the enormous device, blinded by the sights and sounds of the inhuman workshop below, another still had entered the cave's mouth, and was making its way up the tunnel towards them, blocking their escape.

"Devil's tits," muttered Rupert. "Boy, I'm gonna distract it. You run for it, get back to town and tell them. Then you get Emily and you get as far away from here as you can. Tell her I love her." With that, he ran bellowing down the tunnel towards the machine. "I'm Roop Heller, the son of a wildfire and a thunderstorm, and I'm -!"

Mort, following closely behind, winced as Rupert's words were cut short by a heavy blow to the midsection from one of the still's waving arms. He was flung across the tunnel, slamming into the cave wall and cracking his head with such force Mort had no doubt he was killed instantly. Taking the opening provided, Mort ducked under the creation, weaving between its legs, and out the other side, legs pumping as he ran for the mouth of the cave, marked by a silvery splash of moonlight.

He had nearly made it when he heard a sharp crack from behind him, and knew nothing more. The still lowered the rifle that it had leveled from amongst its waving arms and continued its way up the tunnel as Mort's body fell lifeless to the floor, a neat bullet hole piercing its skull.

It was assumed that the two men had died in a hunting accident, though considered somewhat odd that no sign of their remains was ever found. Rupert had told no one the location of the cache, for fear of competition, and only his immediate family knew that it had existed at all. They encouraged the hunting story, to avoid any whiff of legal trouble. Emily married a traveling preacher the following summer, and left the area for good.

In the cave, two more sets of bones mouldered and yellowed, as the Queen Still continued in her relentless drive to create.

Monday, May 23, 2011

"Stung" Part 2 of 3

Over the next few days, Mort's life proceeded as normal as he tried to put the upcoming raid out of his mind. He scratched at his fields, such as they were, went hunting one night and fetched up two fat possums, carried some corn down to the mill for meal. Despite Rupert's assurances, he was still nervous about the chance of having to face one of the rogue mechanized stills while attempting to steal its precious moonshine liquor, so two days before the full moon he made the walk down into town to buy more ammunition for his weapon.

It was the wrong time of year for Mort to have any cash-money on hand, so he brought the possum skins as well as some of their meat with him for barter. The meat wouldn't store well in the summer heat anyway, and it wasn't as though he'd be able to eat it all before it went bad. His business concluded, and feeling much happier with an additional box of cartridges in his pocket, Mort was about to begin the long slog back up to his cabin when the door to the general store opened again, and a pretty, sloe-eyed young woman walked in.

Mort coughed and cleared his throat, feeling a nervous blush begin to rise. "Miss Emily," he managed, by way of greeting, touching his hand to the brim of the shapeless hat he hadn't bothered to remove upon entering.

The girl flashed a smile at him, brightened by the freckles splashed across her nose and cheeks from time in the sun. "Mister Mordecai. If you'll pardon me while I carry out my business, I might have a word or two for you when I'm done."

Mort nodded, and stepped out onto the store's porch to await her. He looked up and down the street for any sign of Emily's mother or brothers, and smiled to himself when he saw none. That meant he could at least offer to walk her home, as the branch up to the Lawson place forked off the trail he himself would be following. And perhaps steal a kiss or two along the way...

"Mort." The sound of his name, called quietly from behind him, startled Mort out of his reverie, nearly causing him to jump forward off the split boards of the porch. He turned, and saw Emily behind him, grinning at his reaction, though her eyes were dark with worry. She had a net bag filled with odds and ends from the store that she slung across her shoulder with practiced ease, nodding at him as she stepped down into the road. "C'mon, we gotta talk."

They set out together, the lanky Mort automatically shortening his strides to allow Emily to walk alongside him, although her own steps were unhampered by her loose calico skirt. Although her tone had suggested urgency, Emily didn't speak again until they were out of town, on the path through the low woods.

"Mort, I heard what Uncle Roop's got planned for y'uns." She looked over at him unhappily. "It's dangerous, I don't want for you to feel like you've got to go."

Mort rolled his shoulders in an easy shrug, affecting nonchalance. "I know they've run wild, but Roop's right, those stills are just machines at heart. They shouldn't be too hard to outwit." He smiled at her, trying to bolster his own confidence by increasing hers.

She frowned, prettily, he thought, but then he thought she did everything prettily. "It ain't just that, even though I'm convinced there's more to them things than meets the eye." She sighed. "I know there haven't been that many revenuers around lately, but I don't want you to get caught selling the stuff, neither. They've done and changed the law again - now they're saying any liquor 'not produced by human hands' straight up belongs to the government, since they can't collect no kind of tax from them devil machines, and anybody who's caught taking and selling from a cache is gonna be charged with theft of government property."

Mort considered her words for a few minutes, then shrugged again. "Well, as I see it, I suppose they ain't really got any right to try and make money off'n it. It's not like they've sent us any extra officers to try and deal with the things, and they're a threat to life and limb for any man trying to make his living up on the mountains these days. Things're worse than bears, at least a bear won't always come after you whenever he sees you. If anybody's got a right to make money off the things, it's them of us as has to deal with 'em." He smiled again at the girl walking beside him. "You're right, there haven't been that many revenuers around lately, and it ain't like anybody around here's gonna turn us in, not when everybody knows what I need the money for."

Blushing, Emily smiled back at him. "Well. That's as may be, but I still wish't there was another way you could get it. I don't trust them things, not the way they run around all over the place, making moonshine and hiding it, shooting at people, even though it was a man as first made 'em." She shivered. "It's like they know something we don't. Uncle Roop says they don't think. I think they do, but they just don't think like us." She stopped suddenly in the middle of the trail, facing him, and jabbed a finger sharply into his chest. "You just be careful and come back, you hear? I don't want to find myself widowed before I'm wed!"

She whirled away again just as suddenly, and disappeared hurriedly down the side-trail that led to her family's cabin. Mort, distracted by her presence, hadn't even realized that they'd made it so close. He stood in the middle of the trail, scratching his head and frowning after her. "Huh. Women."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

"Stung" Part 1 of 3

As a brief explanation, this is the first steampunk story I ever wrote, and the inspiration is purely Appalachian. The Smoky Mountains got their name because of an odd meteorological happenstance: in the summer, when the sun comes back out after brief but intense rainshowers, the water evaporates from the ground and rises up through the trees all across the mountains in columns of what looks like steam.  The Cherokee Indians thought the phenomenon indicated the sites of fairy campfires.  During the moonshining era, it was used as an easy way to hide the signs of a working still in a mountain glade, because no law officer could investigate each and every one of those plumes.  One such summer's day, riding the bus home from school in Knoxville, I looked out at the river ridge and saw the smoke rising, and since I  had been reading entirely too much Girl Genius, the idea of a huge mechanical monstrosity, a mobile still powered by the steam from its own distillation fire, sprang full-formed into my head.  And that was the birth of Appalachian Steampunk.

Part 1 of 3
"We-ell, you in or you out? Can't leave this'n too long, or the revenuers'll catch wind of it. Big cache." The man leaned forward across the small, rough-hewn table separating him from his companion, casting his eyes meaningfully about the small, single-room interior of the mountain shack. "Share in it'd set you and Emily up a real treat, y'know."

The young, threadbare man sitting in the other chair ran a hand through his sandy, ill-kempt hair, shaking his head uncertainly, though a look of longing had passed over his face at the woman's name. "I just don't know, Roop. Those things are unnatural. A man could do a lot worse with his life than staying far, far away from them."

Rupert threw back his head and laughed, a huge, bellowing whoop that echoed out of the cabin and across the clearing, a laugh befitting his reputation as one of the best backwoodsmen left in the county. "A course they ain't natural," he replied, rubbing tears from his eyes with fat fingers toughened by years of exposure to Appalachian winters. "They's machines! But they ain't nothing but machines, you know that." He waved his hands expansively. "Machines is easier to take on than any other kind of critter, cause they can't think. All they can do is as they've been set to. I know there's some as says they can, but let me tell you, I've hunted and killed just about every kind of animal there is in these mountains, and when I shot 'em, they all had brains leakin' out. I've shot me one or two of these damned stills, too, when I come across 'em - I'll grant they's dangerous to children and women and the like, so I'll take 'em down when I can - but I ain't never seen anything leaking out of one a them save oil and likker." He smiled, his point proven. "No brains, how they gonna think?"

His companion frowned, drumming his fingers on the table in thought. "Still. Cache that big, they gotta be leaving one guarding it, that's just how they work." He shuddered. "Damn things're like bees guarding a nest. Ain't never seen the brains of a honey-bee, neither." He glared defiantly at the larger man.

"You ain't been gettin' your churching, then, or you ain't been listening right," Rupert chuckled. "Bees is a special case, made by the Lord hisself. But that ain't here nor there, Mort, you ain't given me an answer yet." He frowned slightly, contemplating the man. "I only come here seeing as I want to do you a favor. I know Emily's sweet on you, too, and since she's my sister's girl, I gotta make sure she gets done right by. This'd get you all you need for a better place, some fields, some stock..." He let the words hang invitingly in the air, grinning disarmingly.

"Huh." Mort snorted, but it was clear he was beginning to be won over. "Ain't never seen you work a field, Roop."

The big man only grinned wider. "Ain't got wife nor little 'uns, neither. Man wants those, he's gotta work a bit. Or be willing to take a bit of a risk."

Mort bit his lip, but one more glance around the interior of the rough bachelor's hunting cabin decided him. "Aw, hell. All right, what's your plan?"

Rupert thumped the table with a thick finger. "That's my boy. This here cache, it's in a cave 'round the south side of Raccoon Mountain. Seems like there's three or four of 'em round and about that mountain, always on the move. I been watching it for a couple weeks now; they always leave one guarding, but there ain't no spring there, so the beastie's gotta go down to the river at least once't per day to top up his boilers. The one what's there now always goes in the middle of the night, guess they can see in the dark, and they been told to know that humans don't get out at night much."

He leaned back, chair creaking ominously, tucking his thumbs into his suspenders. "I ain't been in the cave yet, but I seen 'em make drop-offs, and they're never in there very long, so it can't be too far back. And anywhere one a those blasted oversized spider machines can clamber to, so can a person. There's got to be a fair bit in there by now, Lord only knows why they store it when they can't use it." He tapped the side of his head, grinning knowingly. "Machines. Can't think, all they can do is what they're told, even though sometimes they decide that's something different than what the human doing the telling thinks it is."

Mort sat listening, unimpressed with the big man's bluff assurances, and still looking unhappy over the whole affair. "All right, so we've got to get out there in the middle of the night, go rooting through an unexplored cave, and then trek back out with as much moonshine as we can carry, all while avoiding the still what's doing the guarding." His eyes narrowed in thought. "You got a good look at it? Seen what kinds of weapons it's carrying?"

Rupert waved a hand dismissively. "We shouldn't ever have to worry 'bout that, but all it's got is a couple of old rifles. Nothing too powerful, probably can't even aim straight. As for getting there and back, full moon's next week, and I got a couple of rucksacks we can stuff the gettings in." He grinned like a cat in the cream. "Don't even need to worry 'bout the cave, I had occasion to do a favor for the Wizard a couple months back, and he gave me one a them fireless torches for it. Works like a charm, and it oughta light up our way a treat."

For the first time, Mort looked impressed, and as though he felt the plan was anything short of suicidal. "The Wizard, huh? Well, all right, then." He sighed. "I must be going crazy, but what man doesn't go crazy for love at some point or another?" He leaned across the table and shook Rupert's hand, sealing the deal. "I'll be here, you come find me when we're ready to set out on this damnfool exercise."

Chuckling, Rupert returned the handshake and nodded. "I'll be here. Have no worries on that account."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Review: Steampunk'd, ed. Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg

I'm not really certain how to write a review for a compilation of stories, but I figure it's at least worth a try. There were a few different reasons I bought Steampunk'd when I saw it in the comic shop a few weekends ago, and I'll admit that they were mostly self-interested. I try and keep abreast of what's going on in the steampunk genre, so that I can make sure my own stories stay compelling and original. I did a massive double take then, of course, when I saw a story by William C. Dietz in the collection, entitled "The Battle of Cumberland Gap". For those who don't know, Cumberland Gap is an area of the Appalachian mountains, one that lends itself so wonderfully to names that I still have every intention of writing a collection of short stories about the Wizard of Cumberland Gap. I had to have this book, to see if anyone else was writing Appalachian steampunk, but sadly, it was a story that simply took place in the Appalachians, and didn't have anything to do with the people or the traditions of the area. Not that it wasn't good anyway!

As is no doubt the case with every collection of short stories, I did feel that this book was a little hit and miss. A couple of the stories suffered from editing deficiencies, which I'm not sure whether to blame on the authors or the compilers, seeing as they really were concentrated in just two of the stories. Some of the stories felt a little too short, and the steampunk element strained. I'm really not a fan of stories that mix steampunk and magic, or that explain steampunk technology via magic, as in "Opals from Sydney" by Mary Louise Eklund but I'm aware that that's a personal opinion. That story in particular, as well as "Foggy Goggles" by Donald J. Bingle, felt as though the world-building was not very complete, and that the author decided the story could be classified as steampunk simply because there were dirigibles or brass robots involved. "Foggy Goggles" in particular annoyed me, because it was a short gimmick story intended only to grind a political ax of the author. Nevermind that I agree with the sentiment that "Climate change is bad, mkay?", I just don't feel that heavy-handed messages like that have much of a place in entertainment.

Other stories in the collection were quite good, however, and bode well for the future development of the field. In particular I was very impressed with "Chance Corrigan and the Tick-tock King of the Nile" by Micheal A. Stackpole and "The Nubian Queen" by Paul Genesse, both of which showed a real appreciation for history and the genre, as well as a dedication to world-building that bested even some of the novels I've read. Well-written stories really are the norm rather than the exception in this collection, and I consider it well worth the money I spent. It does raise some interesting questions about the genre that I feel like we should address as authors at some point, though.

-Should steampunk be primarily written as alternate history or as a new blend of fantasy and sci-fi?
-Does it matter if we face the same Hard/Soft dichotomy in steampunk as we do in sci-fi, or should we try to encourage the genre in one direction or the other?
-Can we please get some character tropes other than "Victorian Adventuress Inventor", "Dapper Industrialist", and "Myopic Tinkerer"?
-How much magic is allowed in technology before it simply becomes magic, period?
-How ingrained does the technology need to be with the world before it's called steampunk? Does "x period of history with zepplins" count, or do we need a more wholeist approach?

Please feel free to discuss your opinions in the comments, or link to other places where discussions like this are going on. I know we all have individual approaches as authors, but I'd love to hear what people think the answers to some of these questions are or should be!

Friday, May 13, 2011

5 things fiction authors can learn from academic writing

As I've been wending my way deeper into the writer's community, I've seen lots of lists of tips and tricks for the trade. Sometimes I agree with what I've seen, and sometimes I don't. I think the difference comes from having been in a program where I was specifically trained to write, but as an academic facing strict deadlines and stricter peer review rather than a fiction author. I'm starting to feel like I have a different perspective on writing in general because of that experience, and so I've decided to put together my own list of writing advice: What novelists can learn from academics.

1. Oh for a Muse of Fire - so that I can watch her crash and burn.
Writing has nothing to do with inspiration. Inspiration is what happens beforehand, to let you know where to start. But the actual process is much more mechanical. I'm used to writing, and writing lots to meet a strict deadline. I actually started my novel because when I scrapped my thesis, I had written three 30-page drafts of it within a month and a half, and I just couldn't stand not to be writing 4 or 5 hours a day anymore. Ninety pages in 45 days may not sound like much, but that kind of writing is a lot more demanding - I can manage about twice as much fiction as academic writing in a day before my brain just cries "no more!" (my limit in academic writing is about 5 double-paged spaces per day, at one page per hour). The point is that there comes a time when you just have to sit and write, no matter what, and write until your eyeballs bleed and your brains leak out your ears. This is done regardless of mood and inspiration, and this is enabled via my next point: planning.

2. The all-holy word count is no such thing.
In writing papers, my general modus operandi is to plan out the point I intend to argue, and the sections of supporting examples that I'll need for that. I write it, I make sure it's well supported and annotated, and I check to see if I've met the page requirement. If I have, hooray. If I'm under, I start to slot in secondary examples that I'd left out of the previous draft because they were perhaps weaker. If I'm over, depending by how much, I start weeding examples. I write books and stories like this as well, with the main points of the plot and important scenes planned out, but adding or subtracting random extras of scene or description as the mood strikes me. I'm also of the opinion, however, that indy authors who intend to e-publish frankly shouldn't be that concerned with word count. There are no publishing companies to enforce strict word count, no rule that a work must be 50,000 words or more to be sold as a novel, no physical binding to worry about if the work is too short or too long for structural integrity. I don't think this means that people will suddenly start flooding the market with shorter works, because the price point and purchasing trends mean that you can price a work appropriately for its length, and if customers feel like the price is too high, or that they've been shorted, they simply won't buy it or recommend it. My hope is that this will not only reduce bloat in authors who have felt pressed to meet a minimum, but also enable more people the freedom to write their 900 page epics without worrying how it's going to be printed. The point to take away from this is that you should be focused on scene, pacing, and plot, and measure your progress by how many scenes or chapters you've written, how far you've progressed through the plot, not by word count. Number of words is essentially meaningless.

3. If you're uncertain how to use a construction properly, don't use it at all.
Unlike in the academic world, fiction authors are unlikely to get shouted down at conferences if they've made an obvious error in their work. On the other hand, that's simply because fans aren't as inclined to voice their displeasure so, well, vocally. They just won't buy your next book. This is especially the case with historical novels, because history buffs tend to be sticklers for authenticity, but it applies to pretty much any grammar at all. Obvious mistakes are turn-offs and marks of amateurism to knowledgeable readers, and they're simply things that you shouldn't let out the door. What academics know, and more writers should learn, is that this is your job, and you had darned well better be professional about it. Catching mistakes is much, much harder when you're using grammar for which you don't know the rules. For example, I've read a couple of medieval novels that attempted to use the word "thou" in its various forms. In one case, the author clearly didn't understand that the word actually changes from case to case, and that there are rules about when you use "thou" as opposed to "thee" and "thy" or even "thine". It drove me absolutely nuts, both in terms of having to figure out what the sentence was actually intended to mean, and in terms of not wanting to believe that an author who chose to write a period book had so little respect for his topic that he did absolutely no research. I have no intention of ever buying a book by that author again, and that's a statement you never want one of your readers to make.

4. Foreign languages are your friend.
This is partly related to my previous point, and it's probably not the point that you're thinking it's going to be. I'm not encouraging you to go out and buy "learn Russian" tapes and start dropping random phrases into your work. Every academic has to learn at least one foreign language so that they can keep up with the progress being made by colleagues worldwide. I personally can read ancient and medieval Latin, as well as modern and medieval German. My personal opinion is that this process massively improves English grammar skills. Most of us who have been through American schools know that grammar is taught haphazardly, and that most students don't pay much attention. On the other hand, in order to learn a foreign language well, you have to understand the grammar, or you have know way of knowing what's going on in a sentence. Since basic grammatical structures like case and tense are common from language to language, learning grammar for a foreign language greatly improves your English grammar as well, if you let it. I've often been known to say that I didn't know an thing about English grammar until I started taking German. If you have the time, go and take a foreign language 101 at a local college. Even in the first level, you'll learn enough about how grammar works to be able to answer questions like, "Should I use who or whom here?" because you'll be able to tell what parts of speech and what case each and every word in a sentence features.

5. Quantity comes before quality.
Like any other art, the only thing that can improve writing is practice. Although I never had the free time to take him up on it, one of my professors in graduate school offered this piece of advice: "Always leave yourself enough time to write three drafts. Write the first one, then delete it. Don't even read back over it, it was full of mistakes that you needed to get out of your system, and you don't want to get too attached to them. Your second draft will be much cleaner for it, and that's the one that you need to revise. Once it's revised, you can turn it into your third and final draft, which will be the completed project." I have to admit the wisdom of this advice, particularly the bit about not reading over things. Even when I objectively know that a section needs massive revision, if I read back over it to try and figure out where to start, I get into the flow of it, and I just can't figure out where to cut and where to add. The wiser course is just to start over in a fresh word doc, and cut and paste the results.  When I do that, my revisions are much more thorough, complete, and meaningful. So write, and write a lot. Don't be afraid to trash things completely, because you can't think of it as time wasted. No time spent writing is wasted, because even if you screw up, it's a mistake you can learn not to make again.

I hope this list will prove useful, and I hope it didn't come across as too didactic. The fact is that academics have to know as much or more about the craft of writing as professional authors do. In fact, given how low salaries are for professors as compared to other professionals, it's a simple fact that many humanities professors actually make the majority of their money from royalties, just like authors, especially if they study history or literature and can write books that will appeal to a broader spectrum than just the academic community. I feel lucky that I've been able to be a part of both communities, of both authors and academics, and I hope that the advice I've shared here will help others feel like better, more professional writers.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Excerpt Time! Chapter Portion from St. Genevieve.

For people who are more curious about my current fantasy work than my upcoming steampunk plans, here's an excerpt from chapter three of The Nativity of St. Genevieve, forthcoming for Nook, Kindle, and more this June.

Gen stumbled blindly through the woods, neither knowing nor caring where her feet were taking her. Brambles hidden beneath mounds of snow reached out to snag at her skirts, and she ripped them free and kept running. Little dips and rises in the ground, normally navigable, but now hidden beneath the deep blanket of white tripped her time and time again, but she picked herself back up and ran on. Finally exhausted by the difficulty of wading through the snow, the emotional storm in which she'd been lost, and her fitful sleep the previous night, she paused for breath, leaning against the barren trunk of a tall fir tree. Looking around dumbly, she saw that she had run farther than she had realized. She was deep in the woods, near the spot where she and Goody harvested mushrooms, where Goody had told here the little people were wont to travel. Her sides were aching and she was gasping for breath, but Gen stumbled over towards the small glade, with the intent of perhaps breaking the ice on the tiny pond for a drink of water.

The mountainside rill ran quickly enough even in winter that the ice wasn't very thick where the stream met the pool, and it was easy enough for Gen to wrap her skirts around her hand and punch through the ice. She dipped her hands into the freezing cold water, and took a drink. The water was cold, but refreshing, and it helped her calm down enough to take stock of her situation.

She cleared the snow off of a rock near the pool and sat, trying to think. She was a long way from Goody's cottage, even farther from the village, she wasn't dressed for the weather, and she was starting to think that perhaps she had overreacted to the shock caused when she broke Goody's spell. She frowned. Goody should have told her about the spell, that was true. But everything else she had said, none of it was really justified, and Goody's reason for casting it seemed reasonable, if it was true.

Gen had loved her parents. After all, they looked after her, and Father David had said that it was her duty to love and obey them. But how many times had her father looked at her and said he wished she were a boy, so that she could help in the fields with the heavier chores? Even if he was laughing when he said it, it still hurt. And how many times had her mother lamented how hard it was to teach Gen weaving and spinning and sewing? She used to tell Gen that if she didn't learn her housekeeping skills better, they would have to offer a higher dowry than she was worth just to convince someone to take her. Not that Gen had really wanted anyone to take her, but that part fell under obeying too. With Goody, she was learning to do things that felt right, felt important. And she didn't have to worry anymore about being sold off to one of the young men in the village. Not that she disliked all the boys, but they would have given her to a man rather older than herself, and she wouldn't have had any choice in the matter. The more she thought about it, the more she realized that her life had improved when Goody had taken her in, as guilty as that horrible thought made her feel. It was the kind of thing that she felt she might have to go to confession about.

But the shock had been very real, and something that she wasn't prepared for. When she had removed Goody's spell, it was like going back months in time and finding out for the first time all over again that her parents were dead. The reaction was visceral, and painful. She suspected that Goody had known it would be, and realized that might be why the old woman had delayed telling her about the spell and deactivating it, knowing that it would be a profoundly painful moment for Gen. If there was one thing Gen knew Goody couldn't abide, it was causing other people pain. And how could she have accused Goody of setting the fire? It wasn't as though Gen had shown any signs of magic until after Goody had taken her in, and she rather shrewdly guessed that Goody knew she could feel magic by things that Gen herself had said and done, not because Goody could actually detect the ability in a person. She sighed, and buried her face in her hands. She was going to have to make her way back through the woods, tired as she was, and apologize to Goody for what she had said. She sat steeling herself to begin the long slog, when suddenly she froze, hearing voices in the woods.

"Ah, look, and what's this?" said the first voice. "I do believe it is a wee mortal child."

"And sitting on our very doorstep," replied the second. "Far away from where any mortal child should be, and all alone in the woods." Both voices were gravelly and deep. They contained odd echoes, as though the speakers were somehow being heard from far underground.

Gen could scarcely believe her ears, and her curiosity won out over her caution. She lowered her hands from her face and peered around, trying to spot the speakers. They turned out to be just across the pond from her, two very squat, ugly little men. Well, men in that they were both male. Gen knew immediately from what Goody had told her about the Little Folk that these weren't humans. Both were wearing knee-length breeches and shirts that had once been white, covered over by brown vests of some thick, pebbly-textured leather. Their lips were wide, their pallid eyes like saucers, and their noses and chins unnaturally pointy. Grizzled, wispy white hair, like that of an old man, poked out in all directions from underneath shapeless hats made from red cloth. There was more hair growing out of their enormous ears. One of them had a wart on the end of his nose, and even it had sprouted a few of the white hairs, as though eager not to be outdone.

Wart-nose spoke again, and Gen recognized him as the first voice that she had heard. "Well, now, and it's a wee mortal child that can see us. A rare and precious gem indeed."

"Precious," repeated the second creature, and snorted. Gen realized that there was a decidedly greedy cast about his mouth, and she started to become nervous. The tone of his voice didn't help either - it seemed to suggest that he was assessing her value in less esoteric terms then his companion.

Wart-nose attempted to smile charmingly, though all this managed to do was make him look insincere. He addressed Gen directly. "What are you doing out here in the woods all alone, mortal child? Haven't you got anyone to look after you?" Greedy-lips sniggered, and Wart-nose cast a dirty look at him before continuing. "Why don't you come with us down to our home, little one? The woods on a snowy night are no place for you, why, you'd be frozen to death by morning. A pretty little icicle all winter long, but not a happy sight come thaw. Come and have some dinner with us, and sleep by our fire. We'll take you where you belong in the morning."

The offer sounded tempting, but there was something in the way that Greedy-lips was staring at her that screamed danger into Gen's mind. She shook her head mutely, not trusting herself to speak to the strange creatures. Wart-nose frowned at this, and tried once more.

"Surely you don't mistrust us? I can swear to you that ye'll come to no harm in our care. Haven't your elders taught you that the Little People must always keep their word?"

When Gen shook her head again, he suddenly grew angry, redness suffusing his pointed little face. "Well then maybe you'll come with us anyway, mortal child, whether ye will or no!" He raised a hand to point at her, and she cringed back, but Greedy-lips' eyes suddenly grew wider, if that was possible, and he grabbed Wart-nose's wrist and dragged his hand back down.

"Take another look at her!" he cried to his companion. "We can't touch that one, she's got the mark of the goodwitch on her, and that puts her under protection of the Pact! If you do anything to that one, they'll come after us for sure!"

Gen didn't know who it was that these creatures could possibly fear, nor what the Pact was, but she had a pretty good guess about the identity of the goodwitch. She scrambled to her feet and stumbled off through the snow, following the broken trail she had made earlier in her rage. Suddenly she was no longer as tired as she had been, and she was eager to get as far away from that place as she could.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Appalachian Steampunk: Huh?

So, in my Twitter profile and a few other places, I've mentioned that one of the genres I like to write (when I'm not working on my magic nuns) is Appalachian Steampunk. Wait, what? Who's ever heard of that before? Nobody. Which is precisely why I'm writing it.

I really like the idea of steampunk as a genre, and it's one of the up-and-coming literary movements that I really go out of my way to support, even though it means I've bought a couple of real duds (don't worry, not naming names). I've been really fascinated, though, by the way that it's already divided itself into several sub-genres. There's your general London Fog type steampunk, which seems to be based on team detective stories in the Sherlock Homles vein, stuff like Newbury and Hobbes or Burton and Swinburne. Then there's American steampunk, which is either set in the colonial days with books like Mainspring or in the 1880s, either in the Wild West or in an alternate-history south where the Civil War hasn't yet ended. Cherie Priest is a pretty good representative of that style. The stuff that Stephen Hunt is writing could be considered steampunk as well, but I'm more interested in steampunk as alternate history here, so we'll leave him by the wayside for now.

Now, I'm pretty southern, for all that I grew up in a city without much southern flavor to it. I was born in the mountains of east Tennessee, and went back there for graduate school. I've always been fascinated by mountaineer culture, the way that Appalachian homesteaders made do or did without. And really, that seems to me to match the steampunk aesthetic fairly well. I'll admit that I prefer reading steampunk when the authors have clearly put thought into the gadgets and gizmos that their characters use, when they match the era and the feel of the story well, and when they serve as something fairly integral to society, rather than just window dressing. So, for example, in the couple of stories that I've written, the most dangerous critters in the Appalachian forests are rogue automated moonshine stills, which actually run on a combination of steam power and the very liquor that they produce.

I fully intend to keep writing Appalachian steampunk - not just short stories, I have plans for a novel whenever I get around to it (there's about three more in the queue ahead of it, at this point) - and fleshing out my little world. I sometimes wonder, with all the attention that's been paid to southern steampunk, especially with regards to the Civil War, why nobody's poked into this little niche yet. If they have, let me know, I'd love to be corrected, and to share notes.

In the meantime, although none of my work is published yet, I intend to release a collection of Appalachian steampunk short stories by sometime this fall. If you're curious about my take on the genre and would like to see an advance copy of one of the stories, about a steamboat race on the Tennessee River, just click on the Facebook "Like" button on the side of the page, and I'll send you a google docs link.