Monday, June 27, 2011

Event vs. Character driven stories

Why do some books seem to get bogged down halfway through, or meander around aimlessly, or simply fail to grab the reader's attention in the first place? There can be a lot of reasons, from poor plotting to a bad narrative structure, or even just because characters didn't wind up as interesting as the author intended them to be. There are a lot of things for an author to keep in mind, but it's come to my attention lately that one huge point of potential derailment isn't even on most writers' radars. That point is whether the story's plot is meant to be driven by characters or by events.

Imagine a book, or a series of books, where the main character(s) go through various adventures, have all kinds of wild things happen, but come out of it fundamentally the same people, reacting to things in the same way, so that you know the issue will be just as much rollicking good fun. That, my dears, is what you call an event-driven story. So far, we've seen them primarily in thrillers, mysteries (Sherlock Holmes is a classic example), and other genres that tend to feature serialized copy about a single protagonist or group of protagonists. As a writing style, it also used to predominate in sci-fi, back in the days of Phillip K. Dick and Asimov and Heinlein's short stories, which were all about exploring how completely interchangeable human beings reacted to the new technologies emerging around them. Truth be told, though, it's easier to maintain an event-driven writing style over a short story than an entire novel.

The alternative is something that's character driven, where the story focuses on the internal struggle of the character; where the main driving force of the plot consists of watching the character's evolution from one state into another. As writers, most of us are more familiar with this style: we put our characters through hell so that they can become beautiful butterflies. And the writing process is all about coming up with new and more inventive ways to do that, and trying to figure out what events would induce the changes that we need and want to see. This style of writing is more prevalent in genres like fantasy.

The real reason that I want to bring these differences up is because although they're something we internalize from reading stories written in the different styles, I don't think most authors are capable of articulating the difference between them very well at all, and that can lead to problems. Especially if an author who is more used to one style tries (knowingly or unknowingly) to write a story in the other style.

This is something the steampunk writing community needs to be aware of. Most of us are coming out of fantasy or sci-fi, both of which are currently quite character-driven genres. But while character-driven steampunk is possible and can be quite good (c.f. Stephen Hunt), the models that we're trying to match, books by authors like Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard, were almost exclusively events-driven.

Some authors are trying to match that and doing it well. George Mann's Newbury and Hobbes adventures manage to evoke the Holmesian events-driven feel that most London-fog steampunk authors are looking for. Others try to match it, perhaps without realizing what exactly they're doing, and without the knowledge to guide what they're doing, it just falls flat. Much as I hate to pan a book by an otherwise excellent author, I feel as though this is much of what happened with Cherie Priest's Dreadnaught. Her Boneshaker was quite good, but Dreadnaught feels like it can't decide which is more important - the train and the politics surrounding it, or the people riding it. It feels like she's tried to make it a character driven story, and there are some clear attempts at showing Mercy's evolution and growth. The only problem is that Mercy is such a flat and opaque character to begin with that any changes occurring to her seem disjointed and rather random. She grows over the course of the story, but it's in an unpredictable, unfathomable way, and the reader is often left wondering whether the scene that just occurred was meant to be important or not.

Every scene in a book should be important, and every scene should feel important. If you don't know what or who is in the driving seat of your story, though, this gets supremely difficult to pull off. Having multiple foci adds depth to a story when done well, but diffuses and mystifies it when done poorly. Just like sci-fi, I think that steampunk is going to divide (or possibly already has) into hard and soft sub-genres. And like sci-fi, the best hard steampunk will be events-driven, while the best soft will be character driven. Authors need to know what they want to write, and what that means they're getting into before they start. I hope that this brief disquisition will help with that.

Monday, June 20, 2011


It's been a crazy month.  I'm trying to get Nativity out the door, though it looks like I'll be delayed a few more weeks as my beta reader flaked on me (this is why you should never use friends and loved ones, no matter if they're wonderful editors and have the best narrative sense of anyone you know; it's entirely too disruptive to domestic harmony if something doesn't go right).  I'll be taking steps to amend that soon, but there are a couple of changes I know have to be made before anyone else can see it, and I need to find the time to make those changes.

Hopefully it'll happen this week. I intend to ask for volunteers on twitter, and get the files out to them as soon as possible. The only thing is that I'm not entirely sure when I'll have time to get serious writing done; I start a new job today and I don't really know yet what my schedule will be like.  I'm happy, and excited, because it's better than the old one, but really anything would have been, and things aren't ideal yet.  Well. They won't be really really ideal until I'm a famous bestselling author, but back-up plans are important after all, and since my MA in History is making it hard to get a real job at the moment, my intent is to supplement it with an MLS in a few years and become a subject librarian, or an archivist.  Over the next year, while I'm waiting for the application/acceptance cycle to come back around again, I'm working.  This new job is better than the last, but the schedule is still going to be somewhat erratic, so I may have to learn to write at different times of day.  I'll manage, but it means things are somewhat erratic at the moment, and will be for another couple of weeks as I settle in. 

It's kind of struck the blog as well, I know, and being under stress I haven't been as active on twitter as I probably should.  Working on it.  I already know what my next post will be, I just need to find the time to sit down and write it. Again, that's going to depend on this schedule that I don't rightly know yet.  Not the best thing to have happen right while I was trying to publish a book.  Things happen, though, and we deal with them.  Nativity may be delayed a little bit into July, but it's coming.  And so are a few other things I have up my sleeve, which hopefully will please and delight.  I'm looking forward to sharing them soon! 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Bad-assery part two: The Villain equation

So the other day when I was at Barnes and Noble I finally picked up a copy of The Osiris Ritual, since it's come out in paperback (I know, I know, what kind of e-author am I that I don't own an e-reader? A poor one.). I'm not done with it yet, but between it and having re-read Dune last month, it got me thinking on the topic of villains.

I've seen other authors talking about how fun it is to write really over-the-top villains. Guys that you love to hate. And it seems to me that they're quite common in steampunk as a genre. No steampunk story seems to be truly complete without some megalomaniacal monstrosity pulling the strings to send their Legions of Doom (tm) at Our Heroes (also tm). I've seen it in both of George Mann's lovely books, in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, in Boneshaker, and in pretty much all steampunk made for TV or the movies. Not that I mind. There's a certain pulp-fiction aspect to steampunk that can be quite appealing, depending on what kind of story you're looking for. Somebody once described steampunk to me as "A cross between Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard," as good a definition as any I've heard, and which you must admit calls for something pretty special in the villain department.

The thing I'm wondering (and slightly worrying) about is, is this necessary? Can you write a good steampunk novel where the villain is just a normal person who happens to be acting in a way that brings them into conflict with your protagonist? Where conflict is driven by something other than the stuff in the last three chapters of a college Psych textbook? For example, I have to admit that I really didn't like Dreadnought as much as I did Boneshaker, despite their being by the same author and set in the same world. Is it because there's no central villain in Dreadnought, no force that Mercy has to fight against except social pressures and environmental conditions, happenstance? I feel like Mercy is a much flatter character than Briar is; is that because the conflict just isn't arranged in a way to show her to her best advantage? I have to admit I'm not entirely sure.

I'm concerned about it because I'm still in the planning stages for my own first steampunk novel. I intend for the antagonists to be Union and Confederate generals, along with (possibly) a rich businessman trying to protect his vested interests. I suppose there's room there for making one or more of them into a slightly insane mechanical monstrosity for the sake of making the story more 'steampunky', but I kind of quail at doing that just because I think it's what the audience expects rather than because I'm convinced it would improve the story. I suppose that's the problem with writing in historical periods as someone with historical training; I dislike changing things just for the sake of change. Maybe it's something I had better get used to. Goodness knows I'm not above changing political history - not in a world that contains the Union, the CSA, the Republic of Texas, the Mountaineer Free State, and the Cherokee Confederacy, among others.

It's something I'll be putting a lot of thought into over the next few weeks, as I get my outline pulled together. Does steampunk require a supervillain-type antagonist? Will it help the world attain that feeling of adventure and uncertainty that I'm aiming for? Would they even train cyborgs at West Point? Or should I go with my gut and feature a world that has slightly less extraneous tech, people on a more human scale, but still plenty of steampunky gadgety goodness?

We'll see. And I'll keep y'all posted.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

June Update: Publishing and other Future Plans

It's a new month, and I have a lot of things flying around in my head that need settling down. May was my first full month of twittering, blogging, and social media excitement - I think it went well, and although 100 followers in a month may be a bit slow, I'm really excited to hit that milestone, given that, well, frankly, I haven't the faintest clue what I'm doing. I've had a few ups and downs already, and I've made a few decisions about the direction that I'm going to be headed from here on out that I wanted to share, so here's what's happening:

1. My Kickstarter campaign failed.
This isn't too big of a deal. While I would've preferred to go through an e-publishing house like Lucky Bat, I know lots of people have success with Smashwords, and that's the backup route I'm planning to take.

2. Genevieve will be coming out later this month.
I need to run my final set of edits and add in chapter headings, but my goal is to get The Nativity of St. Genevieve uploaded to Smashwords and published before my birthday, June 25. With a deadline that important, I'm going to make it, come hell or high water.

3. I will not begin work on the sequels to Nativity once it's published.
Nativity was envisioned as the first book of a trilogy, but it stands on its own fairly well. I likely will finish the trilogy eventually, but in the time I've spent on twitter so far, the number of people who've shown interest in a medieval fantasy novel has been minuscule compared to the number of people who are interested in the work I've done/am planning to do in an Appalachian Steampunk setting. So my current plan is to focus more on that setting, and hopefully deliver something that readers will be more interested in.

4. My next project is a collection of steampunk short stories, all set in the Appalachian Mountains.
I have plans for about ten stories; three are already written. My biggest question/concern here is whether I should release the stories as I write them, and follow them up with a discounted anthology once I have all ten, or if I should release the anthology first, and then make the stories available individually shortly afterwards. I'm honestly not at the point where I really want to spend the money on cover art for ten separate stories, though I may have to accept that as a necessity at some point. If anyone with some experience in the matter would like to offer advice, I'd be most grateful.

5. I'll be beginning work on my second novel soon, the first in the Mountaineer Free State series.
This is my steampunk setting; I have plans for at least two novels, though I'm not sure how many after that. However many I come up with, I suppose. I don't have a working title yet, but this book will be set in Chattanooga during the American Civil War. I seem to recall once saying that I really didn't want to write Civil War steampunk, but somehow I'm really excited anyway, and I promise it will have a distinctly Appalachian flair to it.

I'm excited that I'll finally have some work out there by the end of the month. I've been feeling rather like I'm all talk and no show, and I want people to get a better idea of what I can do and what I'm all about. I'm also really excited about the idea of bringing forth Appalachian Steampunk as a genre. The mountains are my home, for all that I'm currently stuck in the lowlands, and I want to share their culture and spirit with as many people as I can, especially since the mountaineer spirit matches well with the core ethos of steampunk. I love them both, and I think I can meld them in a way that will make people understand why.