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.