The ‘Punk’ in Steampunk

The ‘Punk’ in Steampunk

One of the reasons I enjoy writing in the Steampunk tradition is its focus on social and economic disparity.  I have tried in my writing to emphasize what I believe to be the ‘Punk’ part of Steampunk.  That part that focuses on the disenfranchised, the fringes, oppressed, and under represented classes and conditions.

I wrote many of these stories several years ago and they reflected my opinions and feelings at the time, probably no different than the classical writers like Verne and Wells did in their time.  As I review these stories getting them ready to be published, I am struck by how relevant, if not more so, that they are now.

Conflict, either direct or indirect and sometimes inadvertent, is the key to writing.  I have heard and read that many times and it rings true for me.  There are many forms of conflict, of course, ranging from character conflict with the setting to character vs character, and character conflict within themselves.

My favorite, as is my desire to write character driven stories, are the latter two.

Character vs. character in my steampunk western world is represented by the rich and elite oppressing the lower class to maintain their lifestyle all the while still being entirely dependent them.  Economic oppression, exploitation of workers, etc. is not a new theme by any stretch.  I like to toy around the edges with the interdependencies.  Are the privileged dependent on those they oppress?  Would they cease to exist if they could not oppress?  Do we create our own elite?  Do we need these elite we create?

If oppression is integral to the Punk part of steampunk, it clearly is not new either.  Captain Nemo was funding rebellion and hated imperialistic nations (Steampunk v1.0?).  Moorcock brings forward the same theme of oppression, that of colonists, in The Warlord of the Air (Steampunk v2.0?).  Yes, finally getting around to reading what many consider the inventor of Steampunk (v2.0).  No spoilers, Land Leviathan and Steel Tsar are queued up!  Can I really add anything new to the oppression theme?

My favorite is internal conflict – Character vs Self.  Self doubt, self esteem, anxiety, depression, maintaining control.  These themes are also as relevant now as they were when I first started writing in my world.  Weaving these themes into my stories and creating the flawed characters will, hopefully, let me put the grim reality into what I feel is my version of steampunk – what my publisher coined “Grimpunk.”

Anyways, heavy thinky post behind me, I would invite you to checkout www.brymlight.com for more information an upcoming Kickstarter to fund a small anthology of my short “Grimpunk” stories.  There is a place to sign up if you are interested in receiving updates on the KS campaign.

Writing and Boardgames…

Writing and Boardgames…

Ok, this may be a stretch, so bear with me…

I find writing, the structural part of writing, a lot like designing a good euro-style strategy board game. For those who know me, or taken a look at some of the other pages off the main of my blog, you may be aware of my work in the board game industry.

The definition of “euro-style” is applied to style of strategy board games that rose to popularity in Europe late 1990s that prefers indirect over direct conflict and has very low level of luck.  It has seen a huge growth here in the hobby game market, particularly with the last 15-20 years, more so recently with the emergence of Kickstarter.

In a strategy board game, generally speaking, each player is trying to execute their plan to win the game.  As part of executing their plan, they are disrupting the other players’ efforts to execute their plans.  Better games typically have a high level of interaction whereas those with very limit interaction are considered “multi-player solitaire.”

Applied to writing, I see the interaction between the characters much the same way.  Each character has goals and needs to overcome challenges.  I think it makes the story better when in the process of achieving an individual character’s goals, they are creating the challenges for the other characters.  Sure, challenges can come from the setting or the plot, much the same way a game can throw other obstacles at a player to overcome, but it really the interaction between the characters, much as in boardgames, that make it more interesting.

Again, hats off to Michael Stackpole who introduced me to character interaction in his character driven “21 Days to a Novel” methodology.

If you are interested in hearing more about the upcoming Kickstarter to fund publishing a number of my short stories, and to be notified when the campaign goes live if you are interested, check out: www.brymlight.com

Collaborative Editing

Collaborative Editing

Another thing I had to work out with Paul (my editor) (no, saying “my editor” still hasn’t gotten old) was how to work together.

I do all my writing in Scrivener, a fantastic tool for creating, but when it comes to working with alpha readers or an editor, not so much.  Remember here that my work with Paul and my publisher is still very much in the world of indie publishing with little or no budget!

After trial and error, it seems that I have found a consensus: Google Docs.  Here’s the key features that I believe are making it so:

Ability to ask and answer questions: Is this the word you meant? This doesn’t make sense, what were you trying to say? etc.  Docs lets you highlight a chunk of text as a question, have a 2-way conversation, and ultimately mark it as “resolved.”

Concurrently working on the same document at the same time: This is a little one, but extremely helpful – I don’t have to worry about stepping on an alpha reader or editor’s work when I am responding and updating.  None of the save the file and let the other person know which version they should look at.  Handily even marks changes made by the other collaborators.  You can also open two copies of the same document if you need to look at something else without wanting to lose your place.

Chat: If you do happen to be working on the same document at the same time… you can online chat with your collaborators (in my case my editor) and sort things out on the fly.  I didn’t realize you could even do this until Paul (my editor) (nope, still not getting old) hit me up one evening while we were both looking at the same doc.

Versions and showing changes: This one seems pretty obvious, the the cool part for me is never having to think about it – it just does.  While not as powerful as revisions in Word, the ability to look at versions created over time is a great help in seeing what was changed.  And not having to fuss around with other settings is a plus.

Where is the Save button??? I add this mainly because I have had to get used to the autosave.  Even more dramatic, before I really knew about Google Docs, was not understanding why my daughter lost a term paper when borrowing my computer and using Word.  “What? You didn’t hit the save button?”  “Dad, what is a save button? (big mood)”  Point taken.

Mechanically, it is a little bit of work to use Google docs effectively.  Specifically, I export my writing from Scrivener in Word format to my Google Drive (which is shared with my editor)(…), open the document using Google Docs, re-save it in the new format.  Then I blow away the original Word Doc.  Going back the other way, I make a Scrivener snapshot of the scene and copy/paste the updated content back in.  A little bit of work, but well worth it in my opinion!

Apologies for the long post.  If you are still with me, my publisher (also not getting old) is planning a Kickstarter for the end of July to publish my short stories.  For more information, and to sign up to be notified when it goes live, head over to: www.brymlight.com

Character Driven Stories

Character Driven Stories

My writing preference is character centered stories – focusing on the characters, their challenges, their triumphs, and their despair rather than on plot and setting.  I go even further in my stories – prejudices, dark motives, hatred, and jealousy.  Good raw emotions.  Don’t get me wrong, I think plot and world building are also important, but I don’t want them to be central focus of my stories.

Some of this, of course, is based on the “21 Days to a Novel” from Michael Stackpole which helped me plan for and successfully win my first NaNoWriMo thereby solidly guaranteeing that it will be a guide post for my writing.  Tip of the hat to Mr. Stackpole I think he gets it right on a number of levels.  My first encounter was in a seminar where his opening premise was the importance of character vs. setting driven stories – his recommendations was character driven all the way.

Another rationale I have heard for Character vs Setting is based on the adage: “show don’t tell.”  I apologize that I cannot credit the source for this because I haven’t the foggiest where it came from!  Basically, it goes like this:

Focusing on characters is engaging the heart, whereas setting and plot being central is engaging the brain.  Similar to show vs. tell.  Telling requires the brain to be engaged where Showing lets you engage the emotion.  Connecting emotionally engages and connects better with the readers than intellectually.

Applying to my own writing preferences – the deeper, more intense the emotion, the greater the engagement (by logical extension) (at least that is my theory!)

Ok – so many more established writers are thinking of course that this is all obvious, but for me, I am seeing it play out as I struggle to write my own stories!

My publisher is planning a Kickstarter for the end of July to publish my short stories.  For more information, and to sign up to be notified when it goes live, head over to: www.brymlight.com

Voice and Editing

Voice and Editing

My first, introductory call with Paul (my editor) went great.  Total transparency here, I have never worked with an editor that would be taking a more technical look at my writing.  I have alpha readers, and I have greatly appreciated their feedback, but this feels like a whole other level for me.  In amongst geeking out on various things that we are, well… geeked about, we got to talking about writing and “voice.”

Before going any further – I have to say: I’m really excited about this project!  (bet you can’t tell)

One of the things we discussed was Voice and the use of colloquialisms. As an editor, this can make it hard for Paul to sort out whether I meant something to be grammatically incorrect as a colloquialism, or whether it’s just grammatically incorrect.

Stepping back for a second, its pretty cool looking at my writing through the eyes of someone else, an editor that is interested in preserving my writing style but also in cleaning up it and making it better.

We came up with a couple of basic rules (that I will also have to keep in mind as well!)
Grounders (lower social classes) generally walk on characters, will speak pretty heavily in slang and colloquialisms. Main characters, will be better spoken, but may slip into colloquialism when speaking with other grounders. Narrative voice will be the same. Highborn upper classes will be more formal.  I have read stories with slangy narrative voice and it just gets annoying pretty quickly.

Timelines

Insert usual apologies about not updating blog more frequently…

I received a question from a reader regarding how I constructed my timelines – any special software?

When setting out to write The West Wind, I knew I was going to need something to create timelines.  I had never written something so big and complex but knew that I needed something to organize the multiple story lines.  I am also a very visual person – I often find myself drawing a picture to help describe some point I am trying to make.  Notebooks are fine, but I really needed something a bit more specific.  There were several features that, at the time, I thought I needed:

  1. The ability to capture a short description – these ultimately became my writing prompts for scenes
  2. Some way of tagging or creating meta data
  3. A way of showing relationships

I looked at the writing apps that had timelines built in, e.g. yWriter and even basic notecards.  They covered most of my requirements, but ultimately lacked a fourth item that I discovered along the way: flexibility!  Notecards, I need to point out, was a horrible experience.  I didn’t have enough space for all the cards, couldn’t keep the relationships, and most importantly, couldn’t read my handwriting.! My romantic notion of  a writer staring at a cork board plastered with notecards was quickly dashed on the rocks of practicality.

Then I started using Visio.  I use it in my professional life and in the design of boardgames, the other often referenced hobby of mine on which I will blame my lack of writing…   I put together timelines for each of my characters, a timeline for the world, and connected them all together with the dynamic connectors.  I found the flexibility I needed to move things around without losing anything and had control over cutting and reconnecting the relationships.  I also found I didn’t need to use any tagging, like an action vs reflective scene, instead I used colors.  Worked just fine…

Until I found out how much I was missing using the Windows Beta of Scrivener and, as luck would have it, demands of my professional life gave me a great excuse to invest in a MacAir.  Darn.

I finished writing The West Wind in Scrivener on my new Mac but then found myself wanting to re-arrange my timelines.  No, nothing really easy or cheap for importing Visio documents into Mac drawing programs that I could find.  I also didn’t want to go back and forth between platforms.  I wound up re-building the timelines in OpenOffice.org Draw which, as it turned out, was needed anyway due to the amount of drift from the original story timelines over the year that I wrote the story.  Re-building the timelines got me back in touch with the story and allowed me to implement an idea I had for telling much of Rachel’s backstory through a couple of key flashbacks.

To give some context, here is about the first third of The West Wind timeline as it was orginally in Visio:

First third of the West Wind timeline in Visio.

New Writers Resources

Finally, a topic about which I am almost qualified to dispense advice. Being still a new writer and all.

Slight detour…

I just returned with my family from Great Lakes Games, a four day annual invitational event for about 100 friends and family to get together and play boardgames. Boardgames and board game design is another of my frequently exercised hobbies (see “Other Publishing Credits”). This was the ninth year and we have attended all but the first. The timing is such that several of the folks in attendance have just returned from the Spiel in Essen… meaning lots of shiny new games unavailable yet here in the US. It also means getting together a number of game designer friends who are regulars. Exciting and notable this year was the placement of Hawaii by Greg Daigle on the FairPlay Essen scouting report – one of the more reliable predictors for commercial success of a game and pretty remarkable for an American designer. I am extremely happy for Greg – he has worked very hard at his craft and deserves the success and recognition for his work.

So what does this have to do with writing? Well not a whole lot really, but over the weekend I had a number of folks asking whether I had any games in the works. I always have games in the works, like stacks of half finished designs, however this time around they have all taken a back seat to this new writing thing. Several folks were surprised, several others shared their interests or desire to also write. The next question was how did I get myself up and going…

1) Preparation – I attended Michael Stackpole’s “21 Days to a Novel” seminar at Gen Con 2010. In an hour, he was able to explain in simple terms a number of writing exercises that would help prepare and construct a novel. Subsequently I found “The Secrets” podcast available at Stackpole’s site and iTunes. I listened to and enjoyed these podcasts. A portion of this podcast covers the 21 days process with examples. There is also an eBook available at his site and on Amazon.

2) Technique – Hands down the best source of information is the Writing Excuses podcast. Short, fun, and very educational. This should be recommended listening for anyone learning to write! Start at the beginning because they are that good.

3) Technology – I spent a great deal of time trying different writing applications. YWriter was the best application I found for the Windows platform. But hands down the program I prefer is Scrivener. I suffered through the Beta version of the application on Windows long enough to discover its true potential. Finally broke down and bought a Mac, the native platform for Scrivener. Haven’t looked back.

4) Encouragement – Wherever you get it, however you get it, it comes in handy. Give NaNoWriMo a try (adequate preparation is necessary to succeed), take a couple of Continuing Education classes at nearby community college, find a writer’s group, enlist your friends and family.

Enjoy! And best of luck.