I am currently writing books aimed at middle-grade readers around ten years of age. Ten is an interesting age. Before a child is eight, they are still in the ‘dreamtime’ of their youth where fantasy concepts can seem as true as reality. Many younger children are either completely fearless or very fearful, depending on their nature, because everything is still ‘unknown’. A ten year old is still much smaller than an adult, but the world is no longer unknown territory. A ten year old has a pretty good grasp of the rules of the world.
Then puberty hits and messes up the world view again. But that’s another issue.
This makes writing for this audience tricky. They can tell if you’re talking down to them. They can certain sense insincerity. And they can most definitely tell if the writing and story telling is bad. So, it means you have to write with your heart as well as your mind; which is how we should write all the time, really.
I’m lucky. I still like many of the same things I liked as a ten year old: animals, comics, cartoons, fairy tales. It makes writing for this age group easier, because I can remember how it felt to be ten.
As a writer, my goal is clarity in my prose.But sometimes even the most careful writer will make a mistake. Take a look at the comic just above this paragraph. In all honestly, I can see me writing a sentence like this and not noticing the ambiguity of meaning, particularly if I was caught up in the storytelling. And I might not pick it up in the edits, because it will seem to make perfect sense in the context of the story. I might even miss this flaw in the proofreading stage, because writers often become blind to their own mistakes. This is why it is always a good idea to have one or two friends prepared to cast an eye over your work for typos and plot holes and ambiguous sentences.
This isn’t my only writing flaw. I’m not good with settings, unless I really concentrate. I tend to overuse the word ‘it’. I like adverbs (please don’t hate me). But these are flaws I can generally pick up when I am doing my edits.
Writers are only human. Achieving perfect means lots of hard work … and no writer ever looks at a finished piece of work and says “That’ll do.” I have a mental vision of most writers refusing to die because they have just one more correction to make. Sometimes our manuscripts have to be crow-barred out of our clutches. This is because we know that the minute our little word baby is released to the world, we are going to find a mountain of mistakes we never saw before.
But you can’t just hang onto your work forever. Even the most dedicated word nerd needs to finish that manuscript (I feel such a hypocrite while writing this sentence). If you’ve spent the time and the trouble to get your story nigh on perfect, it’s time to share, even if it just with a beta-reader or two.
There are many different ways that a novel can be structured. There are epistolary novels like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, both are written as a series of documents: letters, diary entries, excerpts & quotations from other books (real or fictional), notations in a ships’ log, and newspaper clippings. There are novels structured as a straightforward linear listing of events in a timeline, mimicking the style of a true history; the narrative structure contains a setup, conflict and resolution in that order. Then there are unusual structures such as in The Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. In this book, the six separate stories are nested around each other like Russian dolls. Some books flick backwards and forwards through a timeline, telling the story as a patchwork. None of these structures are better than another, as they all get the job done.
How a narrative is structured is closely related to how a writer wants to tell the underlying story to the plot. The knock-on effect is that the characters and settings must relate back to the structure, or create inconsistency that will jar with the audience. An illiterate character can’t write an epistolary novel – unless she dictates it to a third party, such as in Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. But then, we can’t be as talented as Atwood. (I wish!) Your structure should integrate with the three pillars of storytelling: the plot, the characters and the setting.
Many of the Steampunk novels that I read conform to the linear narrative structure. Now, I see nothing wrong with that – particularly as the scientific method is linear. You have a hypothesis; you come with a way to test to the hypothesis; you collect your data; the data either supports your hypothesis …or it doesn’t. Easy peasey. The structure of the narrative echoes the underlying theme of the science in the Steampunk story.
But consider a narrative structure made to resemble clockwork, with wheels turning within wheels. The convoluted plot could be as beautifully crafted as a machine, with every piece highly polished and beautiful on its own, but only really working when sitting in its proper place inside the mechanism. It would take more work than a linear narrative, but it would be a delight to read! It would certainly take a lot of prior planning to pull off such a complicated plot.
So, what other plots would suit a Steampunk narrative? Seriously, I can’t think of a single narrative structure that couldn’t be made to work for the Steampunk genre. The fun is in the experimentation! Never be afraid to try something new. It might not work, but then you will have learnt something. And if it does work? Brilliant! Another pretty for your writer’s toolkit.