Category Archives: YA Work in Progress

What’s in a name?

Cogpunk Steamscribe

Girl under tree

I am one of those people who spend a lot of time choosing a name for a character. I think a name aids in defining a character, and a good name is halfway to helping your readers to visualise them physically and possibly give them insights into the character’s personality.

 

I’m certainly not the only writer to feel this way. And it is no surprise that my own favourite writers are probably of the same mind. Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones are (or were) very clever at giving their characters the perfect name, like Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg or Sophie Hatter and Howl. Sometimes an author will even make the character’s name an integral part of the plot, like Michael Gerard Bauer’s ‘Don’t Call Me Ishmael’. So, I thought it might be interesting to dissect the process as I see it.

 

When I first start thinking…

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Filed under Characterization, Steampunk Genre, Victorian Era, Women in Science, writing, Writing Style, YA Work in Progress

What the Plot? – a Steampunk Perspective

1871 map of London

Since the last two blog posts were about setting and characterization, logically this one should be about plot. I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts that I am a planner when it comes to plots. I sit down when I first get an idea for a story and do a ‘chunking’ exercise. This is when I let my imagination run unfettered, without any restraints. The weird and wacky ideas are given as much chance as the more rational possibilities. I sit down and write down chunks of text, feeling my way through the original inspiration.

At this point, I might have some idea of my setting and my characters, but they aren’t fully realised. I need a plot to generate the characters and setting; conversely, I need to know my characters to get a feel for the events that will be in the plot. The ‘chunking’ exercise helps draw out the relationships between the characters, the setting and the plot. This will help me generate a timeline and a plotting grid.

So, at this point, I have a map of what is going to happen and the order of the events. I can set off on my journey with some idea of what is going to happen along the way. Other writers prefer to write without a map, and I admire their strength of spirit; I couldn’t work that way.

I start filling in the events, while at the same time I am learning more and more about my characters. I have two methods for ‘filling’ in the map. Sometimes I start at the beginning and work through to the end. Sometimes I will write the big scenes first, and they will give me a better idea of what needs to happen in the lead up to these scenes, and what the repercussions will be for my characters.

It is at this point that the plot will go through its first set of changes. As I get more familiar with my characters, I sometimes find that certain scenes won’t fit into the plot any more as that will mean someone acting ‘out of character’. I might find I need more or less characters, to fit in with the vagrancies of the plot. Even as I am writing the first draft, I will deviating from my map. And so the map gets changed. My plots are very, very flexible in the early stages.

Now – I know I harp on this but it can’t be said enough – there is no wrong way to writing a novel. If you feel more comfortable plotting in a different manner, run with it. I am just sharing my methodology for those people who are still seeking a methodology of their own, or are like me and are absolutely fascinated with the processes of other writers.

With the current Steampunk Work-in-Progress, my original inspiration was reading the biography of Beatrix Potter, and how her sterling work with studying British fungi was unrecognised by the British scientific community simply because she was born a woman. The unfairness of her position pricked my muse. So I decided to create my own ‘Beatrix’, a young woman with an extraordinary intellect, fighting against the misogyny of her society. Alice has a lot more happen to her than just struggling for academic recognition, and yet all her adventures had their beginning in wanting to empower Beatrix Potter.

You know you’ve hit the right mix of plot, characterization and setting when you find it easy to write a scene. This is due to your mental flow not being interrupted by inconsistencies. Generally, if it is easy to write, it is easy to read. Some days the words will just fly onto the page. It is the best feeling in the world.

However, there are going to be days when the words sink to the bottom of the cesspit. They stink. But it is better to keep struggling, because you will working towards understanding what is wrong. Think of those heavy words as stepping stones.

I’ll give you an example from another WiP … a YA vampire parody novel (I always have several projects on the go). I had one of a loving vampire couple having an affair with a human, because she misses being human. I was having so much trouble writing those scenes. Oh boy, was I stuck! That was because I was writing against the character, who passionately loves her husband. My muse was just about shouting at me how I was creating a huge mound of plot problems for myself if I kept that event in the plot. So I changed it, and did a complete rewrite to erase the incident entirely. Suddenly, the blockage was gone and the words were flowing again. Character and plot and setting were back in sync.

My biggest problem was that I was kind of attached to the scene where the husband confronted his wife. This is what they mean by ‘kill your darlings’. Never be so in love with a scene, even if it fabulous with snappy dialogue, if it is going to create plot holes.

So, in the end, my plotting technique isn’t for everybody, but it works well for me. I would love to hear from anyone who has a different technique that works well for them.

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Filed under Plot, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Work-in-Progress, YA Work in Progress

Constructing Alice: A Steampunk Perspective

When I am constructing a personality for a character in my stories, I always try to give each character a backstory that will make them act in ways that will move my plot along. Even if this backstory makes no appearance in the text, it will impact on how that character acts and what that character wants. It is what the character wants that causes the conflicts in a narrative, be it the character wants to rule the world or simply desires to save it. Character should affects plot and setting as much as setting and plot affect the character.

 Professor Alice in modern era

In my Steampunk Work-in-Progress, my protagonist has quite the backstory. Alice is a polymath, but her specialty is Botany. At seventeen years of age, she has a professorship from a tiny European country, because she attended classes dressed as a man, claimed to be ten years older, and spelt her name as Ellis. She got away with this because she is tall for a woman, and she pretended to be suffering from bad colds most of the time to disguise her voice. She values rationality over emotions.

General random details: She is a genius inventor. She was born in 1854 (and shared her birthday with me; all my protagonists share my birthday to make it easy for me to remember). She had a younger brother, Phineas, but he died in infancy and she can’t really remember him. She is a redhead, and gets frustrated with people who expect her to have a fiery temper. (Actually, I suspect most redheads have a temper because they are sick of people telling them they have a temper – and no soul.)

Her parents went missing when she was eleven, as they were both botanical scientists and went to explore Australia looking for a rare plant they thought might hold a cure for consumption (Tuberculosis). They thought they would be gone just six months to a year, and left Alice in the care of Comtesse Amélie Veronique du Palais, a French cousin to her mother (and a scientist and an innovator in aeronautics). Amélie has done her best to bring up Alice in the manner her parents wanted, by getting the girl tutors in mathematics and all the sciences. Alice often wonders if she is getting the education planned for her deceased baby brother.

It is popular opinion that Alice’s parents are dead, and yet Alice secretly hopes they are alive, though she can’t understand why they haven’t returned to her. Because her parents were quite wealthy, and minor nobility, she has had several offers of marriage, even though she considered something of a scandal and an eccentric. And remember, her husband takes ownership of everything including Alice, and can even refuse Alice permission to do any further research.

Apart from the heartache of her missing parents, Alice finds the outright rejection of the British academic and scientific societies just so unfair and something of a burden. She can’t get any of her papers published. She hasn’t been asked to join any of the societies (though her friendship with Mary Somerville and Charles Babbage may see that oversight corrected). Most academics and scientists don’t appreciate a young woman showing them up; particularly since society frowns on the education of women in the rational sciences and natural philosophy in case their brains melt. She can matriculate at an English university – though she is welcome to study and take exams – and so she can never lecture at a British university. As well, she can’t even go to Kew Gardens without special permission (and the gardens were run by a series of very misogynistic gentlemen). Those fusty old men are also jealous of the fact that she is making another fortune with her discoveries and inventions.

She is devastated when Charles Darwin writes of women being inferior to men. She feels betrayed by her hero.

Alice finds it hard to make friends with women her own age, mainly because ‘nice’ families don’t want her giving their daughters any ideas. She doesn’t look down on girls who haven’t been given the same educational opportunities that she has had. The few times she has been able to chat with girls around her own age, she has found them rather delightful company. She is a lot happier now that she has Sophie Watson as her assistant, for the help AND the company.

Sophie adores Alice for her enthusiasm for science – she was recruited from one of poor scholar schools Alice’s parents started and Alice continues to fund. She isn’t a polymath, but she very intelligent and creative and has something of a crush on Alice. I plan on Sophie finding love eventually with another very bright woman, as Alice is heterosexual (though Alice does like to cross-dress and wear masculine clothing). And I prefer seeing their love mature into a strong platonic love between equals, rather than something sexual.

Speaking of sex, Alice is just starting to get interested in boys as something other than friends. Her best friend in the whole world is Felix Tame (Oscar Wilde), who is a year younger than her but just as much a genius – if in the Arts rather than the Sciences. The two were drawn together by their need for company, and as my mother says ‘water finds its own level’. Two genius level intellects longing to connect with people who can understand the difficulties of being ‘different’; there is no sexual attraction between them.

Mark and James enter Alice’s circle of friends through their mutual interest in science; and she is attracted to both men for different reasons. Mark is the ‘Edison as a boy’ and ‘boy next door’, and is a mechanical and electrical wizard; he invents a working robot using hydraulics and clockwork run by steam. However, Mark is poor and a colonial from Australia – two counts against him marrying Alice who is rich and of higher status. James is rich and sophisticated and of the same class as Alice (and therefore less likely to be interested in marrying her for status or money). His area of science is mathematics and statistics. However, as we will discover, James is more interested in her value as ‘breeding stock’ for providing him with intelligent children rather than in Alice for her own sake.

What is the defining event of Alice’s young life? The loss of her parents. She feels that the source of all her personal troubles flow from there.

So – what does Alice WANT? What causes the conflict?

1/ Alice wants her parents to be found alive.

2/ Alice wants the respect of the scientific and academic establishments.

3/ Alice secretly would like a beau and to feel like a normal girl.

 Professor Alice

Now, this backstory and personal information is even more detailed in my files. I didn’t want to bore you with too much information. I won’t be coldly stating the facts like this in my narrative. But knowing all this helps me keeps her character consistent. I know how exactly how she will react in a situation. This makes writing about her much easier than if I was just blindly writing and making it up as I go along. It increases the believability of Alice as a real person, and the verisimilitude of the narrative in general.

Now, you might notice very little mention of Alice’s appearance in this backstory. This is because Alice isn’t motivated by her looks, but by her intellect. This is probably because she is a pleasant looking, and can be beautiful on occasions, and so she can ignore her looks. If she was super beautiful, or very plain, or disfigured, this would have an impact on her confidence and behaviour. She would prefer not to have red hair, but doesn’t really fret about it. I chose red hair because she is of Scottish descent, and it amuses me to make her a ginger because Doctor Who wants to be a ginger. Joking aside, I prefer to keep details of her appearance vague so that the reader can supply their own image from their imaginations, though I see her as rather like the two girls accompanying this article.

So there you have it. I now have a character who will react in a very specific way in my narrative, in ways that will push my plot along! And she fits perfectly into the setting, because the setting was designed with characterization and plot in mind. I even know what she would do if she saw a spider – can you guess what Alice would do if confronted by a bird-eating spider?

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Filed under Characterization, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Work-in-Progress, YA Work in Progress

The Holiday Work in Progress

 Witchy Kitty

I am having a busman’s holiday at the moment. I am writing a young adult/older child chapter book at the moment, with a goal of writing 20,000 words by the 14th of January. This gives me a break from my editing and job seeking, while at the same time giving the muse an outlet for a build-up of writing energy and inspiration. It is a win-win situation.

My protagonist is a witch who specializes in breaking curses. This is a theme I’ve visited before, in another novel aimed at an older audience. This is a very different take on the theme, with my protagonist very different to the heroine of that other narrative. Coriander Jones is currently trapped in the shape of a small black pig, due to the backfiring of a curse. However, she finds that people tend to talk more freely to a pig, and hasn’t been in any rush to lift her own curse.

My background notes for Coriander:

Coriander Jones is a powerful witch who has unfortunately been turned into a pig by a curse.  She is a trim and neat black sow with a white saddle, not fat but plumpish, with the floppy ears of the Cornish Black breed. Because pigs can’t ride a broom, she travels by a living chair with wings. Her grandmother was Mrs Corrie (of the Mary Poppins fame), her mother was Annie Corrie, and her father is David Jones (a son of the infamous Davy Jones (Locker) family).

Mother Carey/Corrie is a supernatural figure personifying the cruel and threatening sea in the imagination of 19th-century English-speaking sailors. She was a similar character to Davy Jones. Mrs Corrie is a Fay or nature spirit: Mother Carey is a Mother Nature figure, the “Angel of the Wild Things”, who favours the strong and the wise but destroys the weak: “She loves you, but far less than she does your race. It may be that you are not wise, and if it seem best, she will drop a tear and crush you into the dust” from Ernest Thompson Seton.

As you can see, I have been inspired by reading the Mary Poppins books late last year. I was intrigued by the Mrs Corrie character and her two daughters, particularly after reading about the Hempstock family in The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Word of God from Mr Gaiman:  I’m writing a story about Lettie Hempstock. Who may be distantly related to Daisy Hempstock in Stardust and Liza Hempstock in The Graveyard Book. This got me thinking about strange families (seeing my own family over Christmas probably contributed to this train of thought). So, in this new story I have twin sisters witches, and a mother and daughter as witches.

How would magic run in families? One thing I know, a powerful witch would come from a powerful family.

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Filed under writing, YA Work in Progress

Adapting Victorian Settings to the Steampunk Genre.

Victorian-era Burial Vaults.

Victorian-era Burial Vaults.

Not every Steampunk adventure needs to be set upon an airship or in a laboratory. In fact, I would encourage using a range of settings to give added texture to the storytelling. The Vicwardian era had a lot of places that don’t have an equivalent in today’s society. As shown in the picture above … when was the last time you visited a burial vault? Or even seen an example of a proper Victorian drawing room?

Balloon Reading Chair

Balloon Reading Chair

Hall Chair

Hall Chair

Victorian Lovers Seat ... reupholstered in modern material.

Victorian Lovers Seat … reupholstered in modern material.

Even the furniture was different. The Victorian believed that there should be a tool for every job. This meant they made special furniture for everything. A chair just wasn’t a chair. There were reading chairs for libraries, armchairs, sofas, chaise longues, day beds, piano stools, a special chair used for carving a roast, desk chairs, lovers seats, grandfather chairs and grandmother chairs, commodes, dining chairs, nursing chairs, slipper chairs, bedroom chairs, hall chairs, high chairs and the list goes on and on. So, when you are describing a ‘standard’ room in a ‘standard’ house, there will be unfamiliar items in the décor. You can’t take it for granted that a Steampunk bedroom – even without taking any gadgets into account – looks like a modern bedroom.

Everything will seem overdecorated to modern eyes. And garishly coloured. This was an era when wallpaper hit the bigtime. This was the era of the curiosity cabinet and the whatnot. You think your Great Aunty Edna’s house is cluttered? You should have seen her grandma’s house!

Ipswich Open House visit 2014 101Ipswich Open House visit 2014 187

The Steampunk literary genre isn’t a modern story with cogs glued on. A correctly constructed setting will give your characters the perfect frame for their adventures. Think of your setting as another character in your scene, and give the setting its own ‘dialogue’.

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Filed under Setting, Steampunk, Steampunk Genre, writing, YA Work in Progress

The Highs and Lows of Editing in the Steampunk Genre

Nivatima Dimentia, Steampunk at its finest.

Nivatima Dimentia, Steampunk at its finest.

Steampunk is:

  • A subgenre of science fiction and fantasy featuring advanced machines and other technology based on steam power of the 19th century and taking place in a recognizable historical period or a fantasy world. (Dictionary.com)

  • A subgenre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century. (Wikipedia)

  • a genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology. (Oxford Dictionary)

I am currently in the middle of edits and rewrites for my current Work-in-Progress (WiP). I am concentrating on the genre markers and subtexts at the moment, strengthening the scaffold of my story, and filling in holes. I’m making sure the characters stay true to the natures I have provided them. If something tries to twist away on a tangent, I make a note of it but abandon working on it for too long or too hard. I want to leave that for the third edit.

This is how my process goes:

1/ First draft – written just to get the story down. Full of gaps and bad writing.

2/ First edit – getting an overall feel for the story. Seeing what works and what doesn’t. Getting the story into a good enough shape that I can show this to someone else.

3/ Second draft – Where I am now! Building up the characters, themes, settings, and fixing the plot holes.

4/  Polishing – A repeat of the first edit and second draft.

5/ Beta-reading stage, where the final tweaking occurs and the line edit occurs. Where I have to draw a line in the sand and call it a day.

So, I am halfway through the second draft. This is the longest stage for me. This is probably due to my constantly fiddling with the story. I always want to add more of everything. I don’t know when to stop researching, because I am always finding out new details that will enrich my narrative.

I am not an over-writer, like Stephen King, who writes more words he needs and then prunes his block of words into the sculptural intricacies of a plot. I am an embroiderer, starting off with a fairly plain cloth and then building up layers of colour to create my patterns. By the end of this second draft, I will have a huge file of false starts and deleted scenes. But I will also have some great stuff that would never have occurred to me without having the bulk of the first draft in place.

Some people forget the journey should be as much of an experience as the destination. The journey of my WiP gives me a great deal of satisfaction. If you are interesting in seeing some of my research, I have a page on Facebook you can investigate: https://www.facebook.com/SteampunkSunday

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Filed under Editing, Genre, Steampunk, YA Work in Progress

Update on the Steampunk Work-in-Progress

Steampunk Ghostbusting portrait

This past week has seen some major editing being done on the Steampunk YA work-in-progress. I’ve been taking my own advice, as well as taking hints from other writers’ blogs on WordPress. All-in-all, I have finally tapped into the enormous potential WordPress has for supporting a writer, by providing a community context for what is essentially a solo occupation. So, what did I achieve over this week?

I’ve rewritten the start of the novel, to plunge the reader straight into the action. Personally, I don’t mind a slow reveal at the start of a novel, but as an emerging writer I shouldn’t try to be too clever and lose my audience. I’ve shared this new start here on the blog. I was uncertain whether to do that or not, as it was a first draft, and it will most likely be much changed in the final draft. Then I decided What the heck! This blog is about writing, and like to see other writers’ processes, and I figure I’m not the only person fascinated with the writing process. A new beginning means a change in intent, atmosphere and expectations, and the rest of the novel has to adapt to that change.

I’ve added a couple of ‘walk ins’ by historical personages. Mary Somerville, Arabella Buckley and Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) are all now scheduled to make an appearance in the narrative. As prominent women in science, I have Mary and Bella giving my protagonist some feminine support against the patriarchal world of Victorian British Science. Dodgson should have been an obvious inclusion, since my Alice works with talking flowers, (well, a talking tree man). I can use references to Alice in Wonderland as a thematic device in my novel. After all, the Steampunk literary genre does allow for these cameos of real historical personages.

“Good afternoon. We haven’t been introduced, but I am a great admirer of your books, Mrs Somerville. My name is Professor Alice Saint de Cologne,” she said, and gave a tiny curtsey.

“You have probably guessed that I am Mrs William Somerville, and this is Miss Arabella Buckley, my editor,” said the elderly woman, accompanying the introduction with a kind smile. “I’ve heard of you, my dear.”

“I have also heard about you,” said Miss Buckley. “And I have quite a few of your creations bearing fruit and flowers in my gardens.”

“I hope everything you heard of me was good,” said Alice.

Miss Buckley flushed and pursed her lips. She looked embarrassed, and couldn’t meet Alice’s gaze. Alice felt herself start to blush, and wished herself a thousand miles away.

Mrs Somerville glanced sharply at both of them. “Oh, look at the both of you,” she said in an exasperated tone. “Of course Bella and I will have heard some silly, pompous men make claims that you, Professor  Saint de Cologne, are impertinent and have ideas above your station, and other nonsense. We need not take any heed of such idiocy, as sensible women.”

I have decided to use Victorian food as a sustained metaphor throughout the novel. Victorian dishes range from stodgy to magnificent … what a great way of lamp-shading what is going on in a scene. Bad food hints at bad events, and visa versa.

Currently the novel is standing at over 115,000 words in length. This will vary over the next few weeks as the editing process prunes away the deadwood, and adds fresh wood to fill in the gaps in the hedge. Wish me luck!

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Filed under Personal experience, Steampunk, Steampunk Work-in-Progress, writing, YA Work in Progress