5(ish) Reasons I Love Steampunk (and a Winner)

Last week, I held a contest. After busting out my d20, the winner is: SID G! E-mail me at adamheine(at)gmail(dt)com to name and collect your prize.

And now, five reasons I love steampunk.

1. Floating mechanical castles

2. Because where else can you take over the world with only science and a really awesome facemask?

 3. Airships

4. Because you can introduce a guy with a mechanical arm, and nobody ever asks how it works.

Arm and photo courtesy of Phillip Valdez

(Seriously, I don't know what's wrong with me either, but LOOK AT THESE! AREN'T THEY AWESOME?)

Confession of an Analytical Writer

My characters don't talk to me.

They don't talk to me. I don't feel like they're my friends or someone I know in real life. I don't spend time with them, and they don't bug me with their story until I write it.

There, I said it.

I know a lot of you writers are the opposite. A character starts talking to you, tells you their story, and you feel compelled to write it. And I'm really, really sorry, but that's never how it worked out for me.

I usually get a world first, one that's in danger somehow. And then I have to think of an epic plot to save it. The characters come later as I ask questions like: Who lives in this world? Who has the abilities to save it but is least likely to do so? Who are their friends? Their enemies?

Even once I find the characters, they don't tell me their story. If they ever did, it would be like, "I read books and don't do anything interesting." Or "I'm a ninja and go on missions and stuff." Or even "I start fires with my mind, but only when nobody's looking. I'm just trying to stay out of trouble."

They don't talk to me, but if they did, this is what they would say. Because my characters wouldn't want to get involved in the story I put them in. That's the whole point (and maybe one of my themes): my characters don't want to save the world, which is exactly why I choose them.

And they don't tell me their story. I tell it to them.

My characters never break the fourth wall. They do whatever I need them to do. The guy who used to work in a bookstore? Now he works on his father's shipyard (and only wishes he worked in a bookstore), because there's more conflict that way. The ninja who was framed for killing his clan leader? Maybe he really did kill him -- or was about to -- because that makes later plot points that much more dramatic.

They don't complain. They just...change.

Sometimes I wish they spoke to me, because then I'd know I was starting with a strong voice and a deep character. Instead, I have to decide what I want their voice to be and what their goals are. And I have to decide if that fits the story I put them in.

I know there's no wrong process, but when other authors talk about these characters that won't leave them alone, sometimes I wonder if I'm doing it right. So I had to confess: I'm not like most writers. I don't write novels in some kind of inspired dream state. I solve them like a computer program or a Rubik's Cube.

And for some reason, it works, too.

Throwing Rocks at Your Characters

They say when you don't know what happens next, or when the story is slowing down, the best thing to do is throw rocks at the characters. It means make things hard for them. Just when they think they got out of one scrape, toss them in an even worse one.

I learned this best from one of my favorite chapters in Air Pirates. Hagai (not a pirate) needs the help of Sam (pirate) to find his mother and plans to leave the town of Providence with him. Unfortunately, the Imperial Navy and another particularly nasty pirate named Jacobin Savage don't want Sam to go.

The outline for this part said "Hagai helps Sam avoid arrest then together they escape Providence." But when the time came to write it, I wasn't sure what that looked like.*

It started simple. Hagai boarded their airship just as two Navy ships showed up and starting shooting at them. Fortunately Sam and crew had a clever piratey maneuver to get them airborne fast and out of range. It was a good scene, but it felt too easy.

So I threw rocks.

They escaped the first two ships, but the Navy was ready for them. Over half a dozen new ships came out of the clouds and surrounded them. They attached themselves to Sam's ship with steel wires and started reeling them in.

It was good. It was tense, but now I had a new problem: how would they get out of it? Whenever you throw rocks, you'll run into this, but that's when you know you're doing it right. If the situation isn't impossible, it means it's too easy.

I won't tell you how they escape (hint: it gets worse before it gets better), but I will say that what started as a clever-but-simple maneuver turned into one of my favorite battle scenes in the entire book. (In fact, I had a hard time topping it for the climax...I'm still not sure I did). All from throwing rocks.

To sum up:
  • When the story is slow, or you don't know what happens next, or things feel too easy: Throw rocks at the characters.
  • Throwing rocks means: Every time the characters think they're okay, make something even worse happen.
  • When the situation looks impossible, you're doing it right.
Have you done this in your stories? How did it work out for you?

* It's true, my outlines used to be really vague. They've gotten progressively more detailed the more novels I write. But no matter how detailed your outline is, eventually you do have to make up something.

A Contest for My Tiny Little Cash Cow

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Winter 2011
So it's not really a cash cow, but while Air Pirates fights its way through the query trenches, "Pawn's Gambit" is still over there making money.
That's right, you guys. Those selfish requests I made? You totally stepped up. Thanks entirely to you, my first-and-only pro sale is going to be printed in Beneath Ceaseless Skies' Best of Year Two Anthology. And I'm going to pay you back the only way I know how: with a contest.

Leave a comment, and one of you will randomly win your choice of the following:
  1. $5 for Amazon or Barnes and Noble (enough to buy, say, the anthology when it comes out in the fall...if you wanted).
  2. A critique of a query letter and/or the first 10 pages of a novel.
  3. A sketch of anything you like.
The winner will be announced Friday morning, July 29th.

I feel a little silly celebrating every little dollar this one story makes, but when you're in the query trenches, you gotta take what you can get, aye?

And anyway, as long as I'm going to have a patron, I'm glad it's Beneath Ceaseless Skies. The art, the stories, the editor...that magazine is a class act all the way. If you haven't already, go check it out (besides, it's free).

A Tip for Writing Multiple POV Characters

My current WIP has two POV characters, kinda like Scott Westerfeld's LEVIATHAN. While I was outlining, I realized my favorite scenes were spread out between two of the characters: the ninja and the con artist. But neither of these characters had the whole story.

See, when choosing a protagonist, you need to choose a character who does all the interesting things and who has the most interesting character arc. And I had two characters who had all the interesting stuff spread out between them (actually three: the con artist has a sister whose arc I want to explore too).

There were a couple of ways I could've gone with this: (1) focus on one character while downplaying the other or (2) write a dual storyline. I've already written a shared story with mixed feedback, so I wanted to focus on one character this time. But who? To help me decide, I took a long look at each character and thought, "If this book was ONLY about them, what would their plot and character arc look like?" Then I would pick the arc I liked best.

Instead, I ended up with A REALLY STRONG DUAL STORYLINE.

Don't get me wrong. Writing from two POVs is still going to be a lot of work to do right, but this feels like a good way to start.

Ever written a dual storyline? Got any advice before I take it too far?

What Are Your Themes?

Every writer has themes they come back to again and again. Whether intentional or not, these are the issues that weigh on our hearts.

One of those issues for me is trust. All my stories seem to have some character wondering whether or not they can trust someone and a critical point where they need to decide if they do. I don't know whether this is something I struggle with or not (maybe it is!). But while I was writing Cunning Folk, I was consciously thinking of one of our kids who had difficulty trusting authority figures. They had good reasons for their mistrust, but it was very difficult for them to believe they could really trust us.

Actually, a lot of our kids struggle with that. Maybe that's where the theme comes from?

What about you? What themes do you keep going back to, either in what you write or what you watch/read? Where do those themes come from?

How Creativity Dies

A couple weeks ago, I drew this pig for one of my kids. He came up with an awesome story about how the pig ran away from his mommy but his mommy was coming to find him. You can see the whole drawing and story here at Anthdrawology.

One of the other artists asked the excellent question: "Why does that crazy creativity go away when we grow up?"

I can think of a couple of reasons, though these might just be why my creativity died, or almost did.*

My son's story about the pig and his mommy comes almost directly from The Runaway Bunny (which I know only because I read it to him all the time). It would be easy for me to say it's not creative because I know where he got it, and I think a lot of people -- parents or not, well-meaning or not -- do exactly that.

But his story is creative. He added bits that are totally unique (at least I don't recognize where he got them, which is the same thing), and the whole thing put together is his own creation, whether I know where he got all the pieces or not.

A lot of people assume originality means something completely new, never been done before. Unfortunately, that's an unreasonable expectation, especially for a kid who hardly knows any tropes and has no idea he's "stealing" them.

A friend of mine was teaching a Jr. High art class. One of the students was very good, with a unique style all her own, and the teacher said so. This student's mom, however, disagreed because her daughter's art wasn't "realistic." She kept asking the teacher to help her daughter "get it right."

Stories like this make me mad. Can we just agree that art is subjective? What moves one person may not move another, even if those people are a kid and their own mother. Realism does not equal art.

We could define good as something that moves a lot of people, or moves more people than it doesn't. But to get to that level takes practice. Telling a newbie they're no good isn't helpful and -- especially with kids like I was -- it can make them quit forever.

I understand the difficulty. When one of my kids brings me a piece of paper covered in green scribbles, usually the best I can muster is, "That's nice, buddy. Put it over there with the rest of them." But I try really hard to praise creativity when I see it, and especially to praise practice and hard work, because those are the things that will turn those green scribbles into Awesome some day.

I have to remember that for myself too. I'm constantly getting down on myself for not being creative (that's why I keep writing posts about how nothing's original; it makes me feel better). It's the thing I hate hearing the most, but it's true: you have to fail a lot before you get good at anything.

What are your thoughts? Did you ever have your creativity squashed by some well-meaning authority? How did you get through it?

* For the record, my parents were fully supportive of my artistic endeavors. I don't actually remember who taught me that "original" and "good" were required for creativity.

Using Tropes to Fix a Weak Plot

I am heavily plotting Post-Apocalyptic Ninjas (with Mechs!) in a vain effort to forget that, right now, agents are judging my soul. It's taking a lot longer than I think it should (the plotting, not the soul-judging), partly because my wife and I decided nine kids wasn't enough, and partly because Post-Apoc Ninjas is the novel I have to love more than the one I'm querying,* so I want the plot to be STRONG before I start writing.

And I've discovered a couple things: (1) my first idea is often a trope I'm dangerously familiar with and (2) the weak parts of my plot are where I used my first idea.

Take, for example, the Engineered Public Confession (warning: TV Trope link), in which the hero tricks the villain into admitting to his plan while he secretly records it. It was done in Minority Report, UHF, Monsters Inc, practically every episode of Murder, She Wrote, and it's #189 on the Evil Overlord List.

Does that mean we can't do it? HECK, NO! (Dude, Murder, She Wrote ran for twelve seasons!) The question is: how?

First: Identify the point at which the reader will recognize the trope. It could be as early as when the hero confronts the villain, or later when the villain begins to gloat, or (depending on how you play it) it might not be until the hero reveals his recording device. Finding the point is subjective, and varies depending on what genre you're writing (a reader of detective novels will probably see it coming long before a romance reader, for example), but do your best.

Everything before that point doesn't matter. It's what you do after that point that makes or breaks the trope.

Second: Decide how to play the trope. There are a number of ways you can do this:
  1. Subvert it. We talked about this before. Subverting a trope means it looks like you're going to do the trope, then you twist it in some way. Maybe the recording device doesn't work, or the villain is genre savvy and doesn't fall for the trope, or the intended audience hears the confession and doesn't care (or agrees with the villain!). Don't make the mistake of thinking your twist is completely original, but it's a good way to keep the reader guessing, and it can take you down some unexpected plot paths.
  2. Avert it. This means don't do the trope at all. The reader recognizes the trope is coming then...it just doesn't. There never was a recording device, or there was but the recording is never used. Sometimes averting a trope can be just as clever as a subversion. Sometimes it's just a different trope. But it's another way to go.
  3. Play it straight. Wait, wouldn't that be cliche? That's always a danger, but even played straight, there are a million ways you can pull it off (TWELVE SEASONS!). The recording could be accidental. It might be witnessed instead of recorded. There might be obstacles keeping the hero from showing the recording to the public. (This, btw, is where TVTropes.org is most useful).
The trick is to keep it unpredictable. That point when the reader recognizes the trope? It's at that moment she creates expectations in her mind of how the story will play out. If you meet all those expectations exactly, you will (probably) have bored your reader. That's what you have to avoid.

* Yes, there's Cunning Folk. There are definitely things we like about Cunning Folk, but we're not convinced it's the novel to get us an agent, not without a significant amount of rewriting anyway. (When did we start using the royal we?) Anyway, it's not trunked yet, but neither is it a priority. It's just waiting for me to love it again.

Loincloths and the Undead

A brief selfish request (last one, I promise!): "Pawn's Gambit" made it to voting round two! So please, PLEASE, if you're on Facebook, vote for it here to get it into Beneath Ceaseless Skies' Year Two Anthology. (Please?!).

And now our regularly scheduled post:

So I'm not drawing every day, but Marie Criddle did convince me to join this group blog where we draw every week. I'll probably cross-post things here every once in a while, but if you're interested in random sketches by some fantastic artists (and some by me too), head on over to Anthdrawology.

Last week's theme was "Board Games." Check it out.

You're Not the Best (and that's Okay)

One aspect of my overwhelming fear of failure is that when I see someone do something I can do, but much MUCH better, it makes me want to stop trying.

This is ridiculous, of course. Did I really expect to be the best guitar player? Or the best sketch artist? Or to play Moonlight Sonata better than someone who's had it memorized for years (that would be my wife)?

No. But sometimes I fool myself into thinking maybe I'm the best bass player in my church, or the best writer in my crit group. Then someone comes along in what was supposed to be MY realm, totally shows me up, and makes me wonder what I was ever doing there in the first place.

And even this is ridiculous. No matter what I do, or how small my realm is, there will always, eventually be someone better than me.*

There's the obvious lesson: Don't compare yourself to others. It's a game with no winner and one loser (you).

But there's also this: The fact that there are people better than you is a GOOD thing!

If you're close in skill level, that person can challenge you to become better.

If you're not so close, that person can educate you to become better.

And if they're so much better than you that their skills are the equivalent of MAGICAL WIZARDRY,** then at the very least they can entertain you.

So there you go. Don't compare yourself to others, but if you do (cuz it's basically impossible not to), USE IT.

* Unless my realm is just me, which is either just sad or else exactly the solution I should be looking for.

** As opposed to regular wizardry.

On Endings


While writing your story, you are making certain promises to your reader. Some of those promises are inherent in the genre you're writing: if you're writing a murder mystery, you promise the reader will learn who did it and why; if it's a romance, you promise the right people will get together in the end. (Mostly. You can break these rules, but you should know what you're doing first).

But genre aside, every story makes promises, and it's your job to give the reader what they want. That doesn't mean you have to be predictable, but throw in the wrong kind of twist and your reader will toss your book across the room in frustration.

Let's look at an example. Halfway through Back to the Future, everything's set up for a big climax. The two major conflicts (will Marty get back to the future? can he get his parents together so he still exists when he gets there?) are set up so that Marty's only chance at both is at the same time: the night of the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. How does this have to end? You might think there are a thousand ways it could end--after all, anything's possible--but the truth is that the viewer is expecting a very limited subset of what is possible.

In BttF, the viewer expects Marty to get home and his parents to get together. Why? Because it's a light-hearted, funny movie. From the very beginning, the movie sends subtle clues that this will be a fun story, which implies a happy ending. There are a number of twists that can happen, but if Marty dies in the end, or gets stuck in the past forever, the viewer will be upset.

BttF also sent signals about what kind of climax it would be. Because there are action scenes (the Libyans attacking Doc Brown, Biff and his goons chasing Marty), the reader expects not just similar, but bigger, action for the climax. Because the movie is funny, we expect a little comic relief from the climax (or at least aren't blind-sided when it happens).

There's more. Marty's dad didn't have to become confident, did he? Could Marty have gone home and found everything exactly as he left it--loser parents and all? He probably could have, but we're all glad he didn't. The viewer expects the characters they care about will not only win, but win big (or, if it's a tragedy, lose big). It's not enough for George McFly to get the right girl, he has to become more than he was before Marty interfered. Marty doesn't just come back home, he comes back to something better (a new truck, Doc Brown lives and is a closer friend to him than ever).

Not all endings have to be happy and predictable, but they have to be satisfying. They have to be bigger and better than anything that's happened in the book so far. If you twist it, the twist should be better than the straight-forward ending would have been--don't twist just to be unpredictable.

Ask yourself, what has to happen in the end? Twists and details aside, where do the characters have to end up for me to be satisfied? That's where the ending needs to go.

Books I Read: Perdido Street Station

Title: Perdido Street Station
Author: China Miéville
Genre: SF/F/Steampunk/Horror(?)
Published: 2000
Content Rating: R for language, sex, and the sucking of brains

Beneath the ribs of a dead, ancient beast lies New Crobuzon, a squalid city where humans, arcane races, and bio-engineered Re-mades live in perpetual fear of Parliament and its brutal militia. Everyone's got something to hide, including Isaac -- a brilliant scientist who's in over his head. He's been hired to help a de-winged birdman fly again, but that's not the problem. The problem is one of the specimens he collected for his research: a caterpillar that feeds only on a hallucinogenic drug. What finally emerges from the cocoon turns out to be so terrible, not even the Ambassador of Hell will aid in its capture.

The world in this book is AMAZING. It felt like a dark, more-serious version of Terry Pratchett's Discworld. It's got everything: steampunk tech, psuedo-scientific magic, fantastic sentient species, monstrous terrors, mafiosos, oppressive governments, even artificial intelligence.

The writing is really good, if you don't mind the tangents into a description of some new burrough of New Crobuzon (which really aren't tangents, as the city is one of the main characters in the book, but some might not see it that way). The plot, too, was really strong. I admit there were moments I felt were too coincidental (like when Isaac learned what to feed the caterpillar), but it led me along nicely. And especially once the cocoon hatched, I couldn't put the book down.

Assuming the content doesn't freak you out, you should totally read this book.

On the Probability of Success

A conversation I had with my wife Cindy the other day:

Cindy: "It's so hot!"
Adam: "We should invent like a portable room with air conditioning and just drive it around."
Cindy: "You mean like a car?"
Adam: "No, no. We'll put a couch in it and a TV or something. We can rent it out!"
Cindy: "Good luck with that, honey. I think you've got a better chance with getting published."
Adam: "Wow. I didn't think the idea was THAT bad."