Category Archives: Getting Started

How to say it with feeling: a Steampunk Perspective

As members of the human race, we are social beings, and have a huge emotional palette to assist us in interacting with the herd. The emotional palette of a written character should reflect that fact, but most of our emotional interaction is visual; we read emotions using facial cues and body language. This makes it trickier for a writer, as we still have to convey to the reader the emotional byplay that is occurring on the page.

Sad Doll

Look at this image of a Steampunk doll. What emotion can you see? Sadness. And how is that sadness being conveyed? The lowered lids over the damp-looking eyes, the pursed lips, the slouched body language created by the pose … all signal the emotion. And yet this is a doll, which can have no feelings except those imposed by the artistry of the doll-maker. As a writer, you have to do a similar process with the characters in your story.

To do this properly, you need to observe how people look when expressing various emotions. But here is a quick and rough guide to the strongest and simplest emotions:

Happiness: a smile creates rounded cheeks that in turn create wrinkles around the outside corner of the eyes. There may be dimples. The eyes may even shut and fill with tears if the character is laughing so hard. The top of the lip may be pulled back to reveal the teeth, but this isn’t an aggressive baring of fangs. The body language should be relaxed, unless the character is shaking with laughter. In a bout of laughter, it isn’t unusual to clutch at something for support, as the effort of laughter weakens the limbs. Laughter is as distinctive as a fingerprint, no two people laugh the same way. I sound like a seal barking, whereas someone else may have a tinkling and ladylike chuckle.

Sadness: a wrinkled forehead, eyebrows pulled together to form a peak, to the point the eyes may be shut. Tears are released from the eye ducts, and the nose will run. The mouth will make a ‘box’ as the corners of the lower lips are pulled down, and the top lip will be pulled down over the teeth. The chin will be pulled out of shape. The throat will be tight, and the rest of the body will be heaving with sobbing.  The noise the sad person makes may be a howl, as if in pain.

Anger: the brows lowered over the eyes, but the eyes will be wide, creating the ‘angry’ brow line. The lips will be pulled back as far as they will go to reveal gritted teeth, and that will be deforming the chin. The face will change colour, usually it will redden, but some people go white with rage. The body will be held rigid, with the fists clenching and unclenching. The arms will be held away from the body, to make the person look ‘bigger’. They may even growl.

Of course, there are thousands of emotions. If you want to show them, you have to know their markers, like the curled lip and wrinkled nose of disgust or the tremors caused by fear. Your characters aren’t robots, and you need to prove that by providing them with their own emotional responses in various situations. Remember, what might frighten one person might be an exciting challenge to another. So don’t let your characters all react the same way in a scene.

In the Steampunk literary genre, it is important to make your characters seem as real as possible. They are in a fantastic setting, doing strange things, and encountering bizarre situations, but they are still people. Unless, of course, they’re not. But even an alien or monster should have an emotional palette – only robots have any excuse to be completely emotionless.

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Filed under Characterization, Getting Started, Steampunk, Steampunk Genre, writing, Writing Style

Olympic Level Procrastination: A Steampunk Perspective

Procrastination, for writers, often means going off to do something else that is still personally constructive – like housework, taking a shower, or exercising … or writing a blog post. It still feels like we’re not working to task, but something is getting done. Usually, doing this other activity actually helps us get our thoughts in order, so that we can go back to writing inspired and refreshed and full of enthusiasm.

But what if you are writing to a deadline?

This is a tricky problem. Some people work better under pressure and some people collapse into a quivering,useless heap. If you think you are in the first category … are you sure? Or is this the excuse you are telling yourself to procrastinate some more? If you really do your best work when under pressure, you can stop reading now. This blog is for the rest of us.

quote-procrastination-is-the-kidnapper-of-souls-and-the-recruiting-officer-of-hell-edward-irving-369576

If you have a deadline and you are still procrastinating, time to lift your game. This is using your procrastination to actively move forward in your task. Do more research about your topic (with the Steampunk genre, you can never have too much research under your belt). Reread your notes and shuffle them; are they in the very best order? Can you arrange things to create more clarity in your prose? Email your writing group for advice (real advice, not to gossip). Edit out unnecessary words and phrases and sentences. Write a completion timetable, and stick to it. This is positive procrastination, which is actually pushing you towards your deadline rather than holding you back.

This is what I meant by Olympic Level Procrastination. Make it work for you.

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Changing Gears: the Steampunk Plot

If you’ve done any journalism courses, you know about the five questions you need to answer in any story – news or otherwise – which are :

  • Who?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • Why?
  • How?

In a novel or short story, characterization is the Who; Where and When are described by the setting; and the plot is driven by Why and How. Plot is just as important as characterization and setting in a Steampunk story. The reader might be enchanted by your characters and settings, but they will soon lose interest if there is no plot. All three, plot, characterization and setting, need to be top notch and working together as a cohesive whole. A good Steampunk adventure needs to answer the Why and How.

Any basic plot can be modified to a Steampunk plot. There is a traditional list of seven basic plots:

1/ The Monster, aka Overcoming the Monster. The perfect Victorian examples of this plot are Dracula and Frankenstein. It is a protagonist fighting against fearsome antagonists, or antagonistic forces, that threaten her very existence. The monster can be the protagonist and an anti-hero, and so the protagonist doesn’t always win. I think this plot can be broken down into a couple of subplots, where the monster has no real motivation other than to terrorize/eat the villagers, or where the monster is a misunderstood anti-hero.

2/ Wish fulfilment/Rags-to-Riches. This is the classic Cinderella plot, where the protagonist overcomes many obstacles to achieve her goals. It is often a coming-of-age story. It can be a story where hard work and/or technology achieves the same effect as a magic wand. I think the movie, Back to the Future III is a good example of where technology acts like a magic wand. I know I want a flying time-travelling train. Who wouldn’t?

3/ The Quest.  The classic examples are The Lord of the Rings or The Golden Fleece. Little town girl goes off with a bunch of unique and interesting characters to fulfil a ‘save the world’ goal, and finds her true self along the way. The plot is all about how the protagonist grows as a person.

4/ Voyage and Return. I go, I come back. It might seem very like the Quest plot, but it is more about the exciting places and events of the journey than about the growth of the protagonist or her companions. Examples are H G Well’s The Time Machine and Jules Verne’s Around the World In Eighty Days. It is easy to conflate the Quest and the Voyage and Return plots.

5/ Rebirth. This is kind of the opposite of the Monster plot. The anti-hero/antagonist starts off as wicked or unfeeling, and ends up having a change of heart. At this point, she may sacrifice herself for the greater good, or redeem herself with deeds of kindness. The classic example is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

6 & 7/ Comedy & Tragedy. You’ve all had to study Shakespeare’s plays so you know what these sorts of plots are like. The movie The Prestige is a good example of a Steampunk tragedy, with none of the main characters achieving a truly happy ending.

Personally, I don’t think these are the only plots available, but you get the idea.

The Prestige

The Prestige

As the Steampunk genre is a subgenre of Science Fiction, the effect of industrial technology and innovation on a society should underpin any Steampunk plot. No science…no Steampunk. You can’t take a plot and just ‘paste cogs on it’ to achieve a Steampunk plot. It won’t ring true.

Some writers favour plot over character, while others favour character over plot. I believe that a proper story needs plot, characterization and setting to work together, and not put any of these elements first. A strong plot will not work within a weak setting and peopled with two dimensional characters; it can’t hold things together on its own. The best way of achieving the balance between plot, character and setting is to sit down before you write your story and work on all three. I know there are writers that can sit down and just write, but the Steampunk genre doesn’t lend itself to this kind of writing.

And then you can tell your family you are plotting…

I run a Steampunk themed site on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SteampunkSunday

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Filed under First Draft, Getting Started, Plot, Steampunk

Steampunk Stereotypes (and how to avoid them)

Helen as Sophie Watson

‘A Room With A View’

Helena-Bonham-Carter-in-The-Lone-Ranger-3-jpg

Red Harrington; Image from the recent remake of ‘The Lone Ranger’.

Here we have two pictures of the same actress: Helena Bonham Carter. Period dress is kind of her thing, so that it doesn’t take much effort to find her in Victorian or Edwardian costumes. The first outfit isn’t Steampunk (but could be modified to meet the Aesthetic), while the other outfit is pure Steampunk. A prosthetic leg modified to be a weapon? Genius!

The Steampunk genre has it own stereotypes, just like any other literary genre.

To name a few examples (most of these can be of any gender):

  • The Airship Pirate
  • The Intrepid Explorer
  • The Genius Engineer/Inventor
  • The Mad Scientist
  • The Evil Scientist
  • The Living Robot
  • The Trickster/Thief who is secretly a Rebel Leader
  • The Plucky Girl (often disguised as a boy)
  • The Pilot/Captain (of airship, submarine, mole machine, etc.)
  • The Scheming Gold Digger

There are other stereotypes; you can see a more detailed list here. You can see an overlap of characters with other genres, because the Steampunk genre is open to a good mash-up with other genres. It is a genre that embraces other genres affectionately. Not every stereotype on the list will occur in every Steampunk story, though some novels give it a damn good attempt.

Now re-examine the two images of Helena above. You can immediately identify the picture on the top as ‘The Plucky Girl’, and who often reacts in a fairly typical way. The image on the bottom is not quite so easily pigeonholed. In that movie, Helena is playing ‘The Cathouse Madame with the Heart of Gold’, but Red Harrington isn’t quite a square peg in a square hole. She also runs a carnival, and she has an ivory prosthetic leg that conceals a loaded gun. She has a troubled background that gives her motivation for her actions; she acts rather than reacts.

There is nothing wrong with using the ‘usual suspects’ in a Steampunk story. However, it is lazy writing to stick to the stereotype of a ‘stock’ character, and a genre-savvy reader will soon be able to predict your plot from the selection of stereotypes. If your goal is to be unsurprising and boring, go right ahead. If you want to fully engage your audience, you should grow your characters beyond their stereotypes.

So, how do you shatter a stereotype? First up, what makes the stereotype tick in the first place? Break down a stereotype into its components, such as personality, motivation, background, intelligence. Using Red Harrington as our example, tarts with hearts are used in fictional tales as a metaphor for unexpected kindness and/or integrity, so under their hard exterior they are decent human beings. Another version of you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. They are a stock character in every literary tradition. Red follows in this tradition almost to the letter; what makes her stand out is her prosthetic leg and her ability to sharp-shoot with it, and she seems more grumpy than kind.

So how would you change the stereotype? On my own, I would probably make her the inventor of her leg gun, and have her working on a whole range of covert weaponry. The Bustle Bomb. The Glove Grenade. The Killer Cane. If tarts with hearts are meant to be kind, I would make her secretly educating a whole regiment of women suffragettes who are masquerading as her ‘girls’, conflating her character with the Trickster-Who-is-Secretly-a Rebel-Leader stereotype. I’m sure you can come up with ideas of your own.

You can take the general aspects of the stereotype and beef it up to extra extremes; this would work best in a humorous story or a satire or a parody. You can completely turn the stereotype on its head, such as having the Intrepid Explorer unable to find his boots under his own bed. Have fun with breaking all the so-called rules.

An Incomplete List of Steampunk Novels:

  • Michael Pryor: The Laws of Magic series & The Extraordinaires series
  • Richard Harland: The Worldshaker Series & ‘The Black Crusade’
  • Scott Westerfeld: The Leviathan trilogy
  • Stephen Hunt: The Jackelian series
  • David Freer: The Drowned World duology
  • Ged Maybury: Across the Stonewind Sky series
  • China Miéville: The Bas-Lag series and ‘Railsea’
  • Gail Carriger: The Parasol Protectorate series
  • Cassandra Clare: The Infernal Devices trilogy

I also run a Steampunk-themed site on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SteampunkSunday

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The Perfect Frame: Steampunk Settings

Cogs

“Remember in your story that setting is the other character. It is as important to your story as the people in it because it gives them context and can ideally be used to heighten drama and tension, depending on where it is.”  Rob Parnell

The advice in this quote above is pretty much the same advice I was given by one of my lecturer/tutors in creative writing, Dr Ross Watkins. Ross told me to think of the setting as a character with its own ‘dialogue’. As setting is the weakest tool in my writer’s kit, I’ve always taken this advice to heart.

The right setting is important to a Steampunk story, as it adds to the overall verisimilitude of the work-in-progress and can have a secondary function in adding details to characterisation and plot. A Steampunk Scientist needs a laboratory, the Airship Pirate has to have a dirigible (even if they have to steal one), the Engineer need machines and tools and to smell of grease. This match-up of character to setting may seem rather obvious, but the setting has to live and breathe for the reader, and it is up to the writer to give their characters the most exciting and appropriate setting.

Think of your character as a gemstone, and the word ‘setting’ suddenly make more sense. A faceted diamond can be beautiful all by itself, but the perfect setting will make it unique and outstanding from other diamonds. That is how your setting should function … by working in partnership with your characters and plot to form a seamless work of craft.

Art by Brian Kesinger

Art by Brian Kesinger

As a visual prompt, let us use one of Brian Kesinger’s Tea Girls. She is sitting under a tree … not the most Steampunk of settings, one might think. But note the inclusion of 1/ text books, 2/ a magnifying glass, and 3/ several small vasculums dangling from the woman’s belt. She is most likely a botanist of some sort, so an arboreal setting isn’t out of character. She would be out of place in a drawing room, though maybe not a greenhouse or library. It is the layering of details that makes a setting work.

'Raising Steam' by Terry Pratchett

‘Raising Steam’ by Terry Pratchett

To use a text sample from Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam:

There was something insect-like about the metallic contraption, bits of which were spinning incessantly while the whole thing was shrouded in a cloud of smoke and steam of its own making. Harry King saw purpose personified.

Here is the perfect example of setting as a character. The steam locomotive, Iron Girder, functions as both setting and as a character in this book. This is pure Steampunk, a scientific innovation that changes how a whole society functions. (And – if you haven’t read this book yet – hurry up!) Ross would approve of how the locomotive also acts as a metaphor for the changing attitudes in a society. Terry Pratchett really knows how to make a setting earn its keep within a story.

The Genre Markers of a Steampunk Setting:

a/ The society is industrial;

b/  The era is the equivalent of the English Victorian and Edwardian eras (but need not be limited to such);

c/ They can be borrowed from other works of fiction (Steampunk is open to  good mash-up);

d/ And are only limited by your imagination.

And always remember to have fun with your settings. You need to immerse yourself in a setting with all five of your senses. Hear the clang of metal work, see the gleam of polished brass and steel, smell the burning oil, feel the grease on your skin, taste the smoke, and let it make your eyes water. Feel the thud of the pistons in your bones!

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Garbage In, Garbage Out.

This is probably the closest thing I have to a single, simple life rule: Garbage in, garbage out. This basically means the more effort and planning you put into something, the greater the rewards. This rule works for my diet, my exercise regime, my relationships and my lifestyle. It also works for writing, in particular, what you should be reading.

Chained Books

Many years ago, I was on a writing forum when a rather pompous gentleman declared he never read any books, and he wrote perfectly good novels. At the time, I was in awe of him and his confident demeanour. These days, I think that he was a misguided dolt. Why this change in my attitude, you may ask? Experience and training.

I have been a judge for the Aurealis Awards, on and off, over the past few years. This meant I got to read everything in a certain genre, good, bad and indifferent. I could see the coming trends (I knew that zombies were going to be the next big thing before they were the Next Big Thing), I could see how old ideas could be turned on their heads to create something rich and new, and I could see where writers had been trying to write into a genre where they had no familiarity of the tropes or what had already been achieved. It gave me a good grounding in what was happening my genres.

If you don’t read in your genre, how are you going to know anything of this? You don’t. You can’t. You’re writing into a vacuum, and most probably reinventing the wheel. It might be a fabulous wheel, but everyone knows what a wheel looks like and won’t be too interested or excited. As well, when you don’t read in your genre, you can’t understand all the tropes of that genre; which would be like building a house using nothing but nails because you’ve never heard of screws. It can be done, and it might look great, but it might not hang together as strongly as it should.

The gentleman who never read might have been writing excellent stories, but they would be out of step with his chosen genre.

Please don’t think that ‘garbage in, garbage out’ means that you only ever have to read quality writers in your chosen genre(though there is nothing wrong with that). Reading lighter material can feed your muse. Reading in other genres will give your writing depth of understanding, particularly if you read nonfiction. Even reading the newspaper can inspire you.

To be a writer, you have to write. But you also have to read.

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Influences

Writer's Clock

I have a long list of people who have influenced my writing style. My very first major influence was Elyne Mitchell, who wrote the Silver Brumby series. I loved her purple prose with a passion. (Try saying that fast without spitting. And let me just say here … at no point did I suspect Thowra was a palomino, since he was supposed to disappear in snow. To me, Arrow was a palomino, and Thowra was a milk-white grey.) My very first attempt at writing a novel was a Silver Brumby fan fiction; though no one called it fan fiction back then, called Allinta, the Flame. Allinta was copper-coloured mare with a golden mane and tail, and all her adventures were pale echoes of events in The Silver Brumby series. My writing style was florid, without the authentic touch that Mitchell brought to her work. She knew the Snowy Mountains and I most certainly did not.

I was just a pre-teen when I wrote Allinta, the Flame. As I grew older, into my mid-teens, I lost interest in finishing Allinta’s adventures. I had become a huge fan of Star Wars, and now I was writing excruciatingly bad Space Opera. I suspect my main character was a Mary Sue, and I base this suspicion on the fact that my two male protagonists were physically based on my two crushes at the time: Leif Garrett and Ike Eisenmann. I managed to finish this story, and – as I recall – it did show some actual flashes of originality. But it was still terrible, as I had only a vague idea of what it took to write a novel. It was a series of adventures with no real central theme to link them together.

During the time I was studying zoology at university, I found less time to write. I did attempt another Fantasy, thanks to a sudden passion for The Sword of Shannara. Alas, I spent more time studying than writing, and that story faltered in its early stages. I wrote a little poetry and the less said about that the better. I graduated with a Bachelor in Science. I got a job completely unrelated to my degree. I got married to the wrong fellow.

Then I reread some of my juvenilia. Oh dear. It was obvious to me that my talents didn’t lie with literature, and for over ten years I did other things. I took drawing lessons. I even did a diploma in Art & Design. Art tried to fill in the hole left by writing. Of course, it couldn’t.

I had a baby. I got divorced. I thought that my social life was over, at over thirty with an infant and a whole lot of baggage. I was wrong. I met the right man. I remarried. I had another baby. And even while she was a sweet little bundle of cuddles, my muse was whispering in my ear. “Write down these feelings. We can use them.” My second husband is an enabler. When I mentioned I was drawn to try writing again, he encouraged me. I joined an online writing group. I did a TAFE course in short story writing. Then I took the plunge, and decided to do a second degree, this time in writing, with his full support.

I had spent a long time having nightmarish dreams about being lost on a bus. The minute I started my degree, those dreams disappeared. I had found my way at last.

Catbus bus

Now my life is submerged in writing, and I am content. I have found my own voice, my own style, and even if I am never published as a novelist, I feel a part of the writing community. It was at this point I decided to start this blog, and give back to the community that supports me. As well, I do volunteer work related to writing, such as judging the Australian Aurealis Awards, helping out at writing conventions, and giving seminars on the Steampunk genre. I run Steampunk Sunday, Queensland Australia on Facebook. I’m a tadpole in a very big pond, but I’m still swimming.

These days, my major influences for Fiction are Diana Wynne Jones, Neil Gaiman, Angela Slatter and a score of other writers. My Science writing is heavily influenced by Isaac Asimov. I’d love to write like Terry Pratchett, but I don’t have his genius for humour. I know what my strengths and weaknesses are. That is why I did the Writing Experiment online, to take a risk and push my envelope. There is always something new to learn.

Isn’t it wonderful?

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Filed under Dialogue, Getting Started, Personal experience, writing, Writing Experiment