Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Some Thoughts on Writing Steampunk Fiction

I have been reading some steampunk lately – big surprise, huh? – and I find myself irritated by some of it. The plots and themes don’t bother me, it’s the style of writing in some works which honestly makes it hard to keep reading. I won’t tell you which ones. I’m a writer, not a critic, and what bothers me may not bother the next person coming along. But the phenomenon deserves some comment.

What is it that bothers me? I am tired of reading an author write this:

Reggie had at length been forced to recognize that, in the interests of his continued epicurean well-being, he might find it somewhat to his advantage to be transported to a certain nearby and well-recommended butcher, and perhaps even a green grocer, whereupon their finest wares could be partaken of by him.

When what he or she set out to say was this:

Reggie decided to go grocery shopping.

I understand that part of the style of many (not all) steampunk works is the pretense that the book was actually written in the time period covered by the story, and so is written in Victorian style, or at least what the author imagines Victorian style to be. I don’t have a problem with that per se, but I do have a problem with how it sometimes manifests itself. Here are the main culprits, in my opinion:

1) Poor Tense Use: A tendency to use past continuous (he was going to London) and past perfect (he had gone to London), and sometimes even past perfect continuous tense (he had been going to London) because they “sound more Victorian,” when simple past tense (he went to London) works fine. Read this paragraph and see if it doesn’t make you edgy.

John was sitting in the chair in the den as Mary was telling him what transpired at the council meeting. John was listening to her but was also thinking about what action to take tomorrow concerning the deed.

Now try this:

John sat in the chair in the den and listened to Mary tell him what transpired at the council meeting. John listened to her but also thought about what action to take tomorrow concerning the deed.

Neither one is timeless prose, but the second one is easier to read. The first one makes me want to do something else, like take out the trash. Past continuous tense sounds passive and past perfect tense sounds remote. Past perfect continuous tense – well, don’t get me started. All of them distance the reader from the action. I think they should be used when absolutely necessary, when they are the precise tense needed, but never as a stylistic flourish.

2) Passive Voice: This is a big one, and a pet peeve of mine. Why do folks think passive voice sounds more refined, or Victorian? Beats me, but some of them seem to, even in action scenes. “She was seized by the pirates and her face was slapped by their leader.” No. “The pirates seized her and their leader slapped her face.”

I saw passive voice a lot in academic writing as well, there with at least a glimmer of a justification. Passive voice is another way of distancing the reader from the action. In academic writing, where you may want a sense of detachment and objectivity, that’s not an entirely bad thing (although it’s still dry as dust to read). In fiction, it is the death of a thousand cuts.

3) Lumber: By lumbering up a sentence we mean piling as much dead wood into it as you can. Adding meaningless clauses like “insofar as he could determine” and “or so it seemed to him.” Adding lots of adjectives and adverbs, preferably a bit over-the-top, such as, “He recoiled cravenly in abject horror.” It also means adding what I call "weasel words," words which chip away at the substance of a sentence without adding any value. You know the words I mean: He was somewhat confused. He was rather annoyed.

All this lumber may make your story sound like it was written by a Victorian author, but not by a good Victorian author, and that’s really the point. Bad writing is easy. Good writing is hard. A desire to achieve a period feel in the style of writing should not be an excuse for bad writing.

Do you need all these stylistic curlicues on your prose to make it read as if it comes from the Victorian period? No, you do not. Here are three examples of prose from the Victorian era, all written within ten years of 1889.

The Honorable Thomas L. Hammer, one of the ablest men Ohio ever produced, was our member of Congress at the time, and had the right of nomination [to West Point]. He and my father had been members of the same debating society (where they were generally pitted on opposite sides), and intimate friends from their early manhood up to a few years before. In politics they differed. Hammer was a life-long Democrat, while my father was a Whig. They had a warm discussion, which finally became angry . . . after which they never spoke until after my appointment. . . . [Hammer] cheerfully appointed me. This healed the breach between the two, never again reopened.

-- Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (1885)

My wife at least did not find my experience incredible. She ate scarcely a mouthful of dinner, and ever and again she shuddered at my too vivid story of the death of the flag-bearers. When I saw how deadly white her face was, I ceased describing. “They may come here,” she said again and again. I pressed her to take wine, and tried to reassure her. “They can scarcely move,” I said. I repeated all that Ogilvy had told me of the impossibility of the Martians establishing themselves on the earth, at first for her comfort, and then I found for my own.

-- War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells (1897)

It was difficult to decide which was most remarkable, his shrewdness or his capacity of labour. His quickness of perception and mastery of details made him in a few years an authority in the office, and a Secretary of the Treasury, who was quite ignorant of details, but who was a good judge of human character, had the sense to appoint Ferrars his private secretary. This happy preferment in time opened the whole official world to one not only singularly qualified for that kind of life, but who possessed the peculiar gifts that were then commencing to be much in demand in those circles. We were then entering that era of commercial and financial reform which had been, if not absolutely occasioned, certainly precipitated, by the revolt of our colonies.

-- Endymion, Benjamin Disraeli (1880)

Of the three, Disraeli is clearly the weakest, although even the ruffles and flourishes in his florid prose serve a purpose. Something to remember about Victorian authors is that while they could sometimes wax long-winded, they did so for a purpose, not simply to add words for the hell of it. A. W. Kinglake, a Victorian historian who wrote a decade or two before the others, had a very long-winded style, but his verbiage always added detail and precision to his writing, never “lumber.”

Along the course of the little rivers which seamed the ground, there were villages and narrow belts of tilled land, with gardens, and fruitful vineyards; but for the most part this neglected Crim Tartary was a wilderness of steppe or of mountain-range much clothed towards the west with tall stiff grasses, and the stems of a fragrant herb like southernwood.

-- Invasion of the Crimea, vol. I, A. W. Kinglake (published in eight volumes from 1863 through 1887)

Bottom line? If emulating the style of Victorian writers, emulate the good ones.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Thanksgiving Greeting and Some News

Thanksgiving is upon us (as you can see from the steampunk turkey to the left), and it is my favorite holiday. I love it so much because of its simplicity. It is nothing more than a feast day spent with friends and family, with no pressure to buy and wrap gifts or send cards, and so sense of guilt at having failed to get just the right gift for someone or, in my case, failing to send out cards at all. Don't get me wrong; I love Christmas. But it's no Thanksgiving, that's for sure.

This year I have special reason for celebrating my gratitude at the passage of another good year. My first published work of fiction, A Prince of Mars, will be out next month from Untreed Reads, and my first full-length novel, Conspiracy of Silence, will follow mid-year next. But something I didn't know until the last couple weeks, and wasn't official until I signed and returned the contract this week, is that I am also now a Baen author. Baen Books will publish my debut print novel, and I'd gladly tell you the title but we haven't agreed on one yet. (I had one, of course, but neither of us liked it very much. We're still trading ideas for a better one.)

Well, plenty of time to fill you in on that later. I will tell you that it is science fiction but not steampunk. I hope you'll forgive me for letting a non-steampunk subject intrude on this blog. :^)

So I intend to have a wonderful holiday! I sincerely hope all of you have a very joyous Thanksgiving as well -- including those of you overseas who do not normally celebrate this holiday. Have a big roasted fowl for dinner Thursday, and a nice nap afterwards. Do you a world of good.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

New Space: 1889 Villain Announced

This just in from Andy Frankham-Allen, series editor of the Space 1889 and Beyond series.

"And it’s all over. Our first Space: 1889 & Beyond competition closed yesterday. A big thank you to all who took part and sent your answers in. The question we asked was simple enough; “which world bookends series one?” and the answer was, of course, Luna (featured in both the opening and closing stories of series one)! We had many responses, some wrong and some right. But, as is the way of things, there could only be one winner. And with the help of Mark Michalowski, author of this month’s The Ghosts of Mercury, we picked out three names at random.

"The 1st Prize was a chance to be immortalised in literature by becoming a villain in the second series of Space: 1889 & Beyond, and receive a free copy of the new book, The Ghost of Mercury. And the winner of that first prize is… LISBETH LARIVIERE!

"The two runner-up prizes were free copies of The Ghosts of Mercury, and the winners of those are… GASPAR QUELHAS LIMA TAMEERIS and JASON HILTON.

"Well done and congratulations to all three winners, and a final big thank you (again!) to all who took part."

I'll add my own congratulations, as well as a greeting more appropriate to a villain.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Steampunk Game Pictures From Fall-In

As I mentioned a few days ago, I ran Mars Needs Steam at the Fall-In convention in Lancaster, PA over the Halloween weekend. It was not a scheduled game, but there was a cancellation the first night of a different game, and I had some figures and vehicles along, so ran a pick-up game.

I said before that the game benefitted from some very nice terrain my friend Glenn Kidd put together -- very nice and of genuinely epic scale! This Martian mesa is topped by almost a dozen High Martians. To give you an idea of size, those are 25mm minitures up there.

A unit of British prepare to advance, supported by an armed aerothopter.You've seen my aerothopter before but this is a different angle. For those of you exclusively into gaming, and who have never bumped up against the wider world of steampunk culture/fandom/whatever, one thing which the devotees have as a shared interest is actual physical craftsmanship and tinkering -- modification of costumes, props, accessories, you name it. That's actually a point of convergence with steampunk miniature gaming as well. There are some great figures and vehicles available commercially, and I've reviewed a few here in this column myself. But almost everyone I know who runs steampunk games takes particular pride in the vehicles and figures they have converted, and I'm no exception. Love that aerothopter!

You've seen our Venusian Schutztruppen before as well, but here's a nice closeup of the unit.

I wasn't the only one running steampunk games there. This is a detail from a the U.S. 5th Cavalry on Mars game run by Highlander Studio's Rod Campbell. This is fairly late in the action, as the cavalry have shot their gashants and are taking cover behind them.

This shot is from earlier in the action. Those are some very brave or very stupid Hill Martians.

Someone else ran a Space: 1889 miniatures game set on Mars using the Gaslight rules. I like the clean look of the terrain and there were a number of nice detail pieces that made this especially good-looking. Those are very nice Victorian SF combat walkers, converted from some Games Workshop pieces.

The RAFM fantasy lizards we use for Venusian lizardmen are long out of production, but this guy has converted some Games Workshop lizard warriors to Venusians, and I think they look great.

While I was there I picked up a bunch of figures from Bob Charrette at Parroom Station -- lots of sinister minions and a couple great anarchists, complete with floppy hats, long cloaks, and round black bombs. This stuff really is too much fun.

Friday, November 11, 2011

This Just In - Ghosts of Mercury Live!

Oh . . . wait. That should read "Ghosts of Mercury IS live." :^)

Jay Hartman, Editor-in-Chief at Untreed Reads Publishing, writes:

"I'm pleased to tell you that Ghosts of Mercury is now live and available for immediate purchase and download from:

The Untreed Reads Store (http://bit.ly/sGWqDu)

Amazon Canada

Amazon Germany

Amazon France


Barnes and Noble

Apple iBookstore (32 countries)

Lightning Source (a distributor, primarily North America)

"All other retailers and distributors will roll the title out in the days and weeks to come. As always, we appreciate you sending traffic through The Untreed Reads Store or Apple's iBookstore whenever possible. This ensures the best royalty for everyone involved. . . . We do offer MOBI (Kindle) format at The Untreed Reads Store, which can then either be emailed to someone's Kindle account or transferred directly to a Kindle device via USB."

Great news.

Book 4, Abattoir in the Aether, and Book 5, A Prince of Mars, hopefully should be coming soon, although we'll leave a decent interval for you to devour Mercury first. (Hmmm. Having written that, it occurs to me it doesn't sound very healthy.)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Your Chance To Enter Literature as a Villain!

I sometimes joke that one of my resume entries should read, "was an important supporting character in a work of alternate historical fiction." My friends Mike Dobson and Doug Niles, in their alternate history book of an invasion of Japan at the end of World War Two,  MacArthur's War, include the character Captain (later Rear Admiral) Frank Chadwick. The fact that there really was a Captain Frank Chadwick on Nimitz's staff had something to do with it as well. :^)

Well, here's your chance to become a villain in a work of steampunk fiction.

Untreed Reads is running a contest from now until November 14th. Simply answer the following question: "Which world bookends series one of Space: 1889 & Beyond"? Send your answer to:


One entry per contestand, please. On November 15th the winner will be drawn at random from the correct entries.

1st Prize: One c opy of The Ghosts of Mercury (book 3) in the digital format of your choice AND you will be featured in series two of Spacee 1889 & Beyond as a villain!

Two runners up will each receive a copy of The Ghosts of Mercury in the digital format of their choice.

Friday, November 4, 2011

One Day Only Deal on EBooks

If you have been putting off getting the eBooks for Space: 1889, there's a great one-day deal going on over at Books on Board. They are running a one-day-only 30%-off sale of non-agency publishers (which includes Untreed Reads). Here's the link for their site.

Once you're there, search the site for Untreed Reads and all their titles will come up. Buy as many as you like, of course, but the two of particular interest will be Journey to the Heart of Luna and Vandals on Venus. The great thing about this sale is that although you pay the discounted price, Books on Board is paying the full price to the publishers, so the authors get their full royalty. Nice way to show the authors some support and still save yourself a couple bucks.

On the same subject, Untreed Reads just released their in-site bestseller list for October, and both Space: 1889 and Beyond books made the top five. Andy's Journey to the Heart of Luna came in at number five, its second month on the list, and Vandals on Venus debuted at number one! Not bad, and thanks to all of you who bought it.

Ghosts of Mercury should be out very soon. It was going to release on Halloween, but there was a technical glitch with the ISBN number which temporarily held it up, but it should be out soon.

Late this month (probably the last week) we'll see the release of both Abattoir in the Aether (book 4) by L. Joseph Shosty, and A Prince of Mars (book 5) by (ahem) me.

I ran a game of Mars Needs Steam! out at Fall-In in Pennsylvania last week and should have pictures for you very soon. My pal Glenn Kidd did some kick-ass Martian terrain you'll really like, but that will have to wait for next time.