Friday, October 30, 2009

Mechanical Computers and You

In 1837, Charles Babbage (a British mathematician) first described the Analytical Engine, which historians since have called the first workable design for a punch card computer. The Engine was never built, however, because Babbage himself was a jerk to work with and alienated a lot of his supporters (by all accounts), not to mention the political, financial and legal issues that surrounded the project.

A model of the Analytical Engine built in 1992
that now lives in the Science Museum (London).

The Analytical Engine is interesting because it predated the first electro-mechanical computers (the German Zuse Z3 and the American Atanasoff–Berry Computer) by more than 100 years. In many ways, it might have been more powerful than those first computers developed in the 1940s, except Babbage's design was more or less forgotten about in the world of mathematics and computer science. In "The Difference Engine," William Gibson and Bruce Sterling show their views on how Victorian England would've changed if Babbage had actually built the Engine. It's a very interesting read anyway, being one of the founding works of steampunk and all, outside its stance as a thought experiment.

Babbage's machine ran off the same style of punch cards Joseph Jacquard developed to run his looms, which were pieces of punched metal strung together into one long sheet. These were not the card-stock version Herman Hollerith developed in the 1880s for the U.S. Census, but did manage to create enough of a precedence for Hollerith to not get a patent.

What's this all mean for the writer of steampunk? Well that depends on how technology heavy you want to get in your story. If you don't want to deal with computers and punch cards (I do because I'm weird, but you already knew that) then you can safely ignore this aspect of Victorian technology. If, however, you want to include things like automatons and computer-controlled equipment, then you must of necessity make them run on punch card programming.

I could go into detail about punch cards, but that would probably make your eyes glaze over* (it's all very technical and not really necessary unless you're writing a character who has to explain it at some point). Suffice it to say, if you want computer functionality in a steampunk world, then mechanical computers are the way to go. And as with everything steampunk, the design of your mechanical computer is up to you. Happy writing, fellow travelers.

*If you really want a detailed discussion on punch-card programming, feel free to email me.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Again with the brain frying

Yeah, a busy day again today, so I apologize for the lack of honest-to-goodness post. Instead, I leave you with some steampunk art from Dark Roasted Blend.

Pretty isn't it?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Department of Redundancy Department

I spent two years working on a newspaper copy desk. During that time, my coworkers and I collected examples of what we'd termed the "Department of Redundancy Department." Some reporters were notorious for saying the same thing twice, or even repeating themselves in the stories (notice the example in the previous sentence).

Now, redundancy isn't confined to repeating yourself. There are such things in writing as what I call redundant actions (or description) -- things that you don't need to say because more concise text already assumes said action is taking place.

For example: "She turned her head to look east across the desert."

This is redundant because the act of turning to look means that you're turning your head. Even deeper is the action "to look," which can stand on its own in the sentence.

Now here's the revamped version: "She looked east across the desert."

See how much stronger that sentence is now?

Redundancy is good in some areas (the space shuttle, cars, electronics, etc) but not in writing. The potential for slowing down the pace of the tale and jarring the reader from the story is too great. Mind you, redundancy is not the same thing as repeating a piece of information to draw attention to it. Especially when the original tidbit was supposed to be foreshadowing and now your MC has figured out what it means. That's just plain tying up loose ends.

The easiest way to avoid this, in my opinion, is to read your text out loud. You can hear the redundancy much more easily when speaking the words than reading them on the page. I don't know why that is, just that doing so has helped me numerous times in the past.

What examples of redundancy have you seen?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Steampunk Vehicles

This post kind of ties into my previous one on the Holt Steam Tank (quite strongly, truth be told), because it focuses on things you need to think about when creating steampunk vehicles. My opinion on making things up when something real will do is well-known, so onto the steampunkery.

Steampunk vehicles are about more than looking pretty, which we can all admit they do very well. They also have to appear functional (the keyword in that phrase being appear of course -- no one's expecting you to actually build an airship or a steampunk motorcycle).

What's this mean? The simplest solution is to adapt real machinery to a steampunk style. Kind of like how the aesthetics of World War II infused the design of Keith Thompson's War Zeppelin:

If you click on the photo and go to the larger version, you'll see the way the design flows. He hasn't shown any exhaust steam, but the engines are probably set at the back near the tail or on the underbelly. Either way, the point is that something like this could exist. That's the major thing when it comes to designing steampunk vehicles.

For CALLARION AT NIGHT, I created a tank nicknamed the Turtle. It's a copper dome on treads with a boiler/exhaust in the rear and a 50-caliber machine gun up on the roof in addition to the main gun. The design was inspired by Crabfu Steamworks' Lobster Tank:

If you want good starting points for steampunk vehicles, you could do worse than perusing the Crabfu website. He also offers a brief tutorial on how to draw steampunk machinery, which gives similar advice to what I've been extolling here: Make it look like it could possibly exist.

Other than that, and a few general steampunk accouterments such as filigreed details, wood paneling, and a variety of other materials in warm tones, the world is your proverbial oyster. But remember, it has to look plausible for it to be believed.

More steampunk art can be found at Dark Roasted Blend.

P.S. Go check out Natalie Whipple's post on Steampunk. The fashion she details is very interesting.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Earnings Season Zombie

As you know, if you pay attention to people's profiles, I work for a press release distribution company. Many of our clients send us their financial releases, and we're currently in one of the four six-week earnings periods when clients disseminate their quarterly earnings reports.

Suffice it to say, today is extremely busy at work, and this will probably be the only post I'll be able to get up at all. My apologies to everyone who was expecting an information/interesting/witty post.

Earnings has fried my brain.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Sunday Post??? Wha??

As you can see, I changed my Blogger template to one with more of a steampunk feel than the plain white I had before. I'm interested in your opinions, thoughts, offers to make a better one -- anything really.

So let me know in the comments, fellow travelers, or shoot me an email. Either way works.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Clothing of the 19th Century

One of the ways to create verisimilitude in your writing is to have your characters dressed in period-appropriate (and class-appropriate) clothing. What does this mean for the writer of steampunk?*

The fashions of the 19th Century are your playground.

There are numerous websites devoted to steampunk and Victorian-era fashion. Heck, even whole books talk about the subject. A basic perusal of the scholarship out there reveals numerous styles of outfit for most any occupation you can hope to envision. Whether your character's an aeronaut, engineer, scholar, shopkeeper, or card sharp, you can find it there.

There are a few common items across almost all these styles though. For men, the basic clothing was trousers, a button-down shirt, a vest or waistcoat, a tie or cravat, and a jacket. Women, on the other hand, wore perhaps the most exhaustive list of clothing I've ever seen: chemise, three petticoats, a shift, a corset (depending on where in the century you're writing), and then the dress itself. It's enough to make a writer's head spin -- especially if you attempt to describe the process.

All the above is fine and dandy for the people who could buy their clothing new. However, the poorer folk tended to get their clothing like so: the rich bought it new and wore it until they didn't want to anymore; the clothing then passed to their servants; the servants wore the clothing out further, and eventually sold it to a secondhand shop; the secondhand shop would then sell the clothing to people one more rung down the social ladder, who would then resell the clothing when they were done with it; the clothes went further down the ladder to the street urchins, who wore the clothing until it fell into rags. The urchins would then sell their ragged clothes to merchants who sold them to the paper mills (paper still had cloth content at that point).

For steampunk-specific accouterments, remember that brass and copper were key metals in the Victorian period. Any accenting on clothing in those metals would add a decent steampunk feel.

*I should really say "what does that mean for this writer of steampunk?" considering you all know how much research I do. I swear, it's like an addiction or something.

Steampunk Super Mario Galaxy

So I found this image over at DeviantArt done by Amy Hollen, who corrects me in her comment below:

Yep, it's a steampunk drawing of Super Mario Galaxy. I just had to share, seeing as this here blog's title is a nod to the greatest Nintendo franchise in existence.

No worries, there will be a more detailed post about something steampunk or writing related later today. But this was just far too cool to not share immediately.

P.S.: My apologies to Amy Hollen for miscrediting this steampunk Super Mario drawing. 

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What Counts as a Completed Novel?

A postulation popped into my cranium the other day (couldn't think of a "P" word that meant "brain"): What counts as a completed novel?

Now, I ask this because SON OF MAGIC went through two (maybe three) completed iterations -- sometimes with vastly different storylines -- prior to the one it is today. CALLARION AT NIGHT is yet to be completed, but fast approaching that point (16.5 chapters, 169 pages, and 46,630 words as of this writing). Once I finish CaN (yes, that is my filename abbreviation for it), will this mean that I've completed two novels or four novels? Does a completed novel mean you've started over with entirely new characters, or does it mean you've completed works with different storylines where the characters have different motivations?

Where does the bouncing ball land on this? Your thoughts?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Unrelenting Teenage Angst"

Over at The Literary Lab today is an interesting discussion about the acceptability of "dark" fiction. The general consensus appears to be that darkness has its place in contemporary fiction right alongside the lighthearted, hopeful pieces.

This post's title is tied into the comment I made in that thread about what I've termed "unrelenting teenage angst," or UTA for short. What is UTA, you might ask?*

UTA is code for the stories where the characters moan about how horrible their lives are, how bad things always happen to them, blah blah blah. These are the books, and you can all probably think of at least one (I won't mention my favorite example, but you should be able to guess), where the hero and/or heroine is a sad sack (think Eeyore) who's Very Depressed about their entire life. Mind you, a story like that is not automatically a UTA candidate. That august classification only goes to the stories where everything around the MC is going well and the only things they talk about are the bad things.

UTA winners (it's not an award you want) are also discovered when you read the book/see the movie and want to reach in and smack some sense into the MC. For sad-sack boys, there's usually the pretty girl who wants to make them happy. Reverse is true for sad-sack girls. But the MC is so depress(ing) that they pay zero attention to said person and continue on their bullet train to Angst-ville.

In my experience, UTA is a casualty of sloppy writing and unrealized characters (at least from my perspective). Because you can write someone who's depressed and doesn't see the good in life, and could make it work wonderfully. But, and this is just my opinion, you need some happiness to break up the clouds. That's the way to make a good story. Not with UTA.

* It actually doesn't matter if you ask or not. I'm still going to explain it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Redone First Pages -- Callarion at Night

A conversation with a writer friend of mine sparked this revamp of the first few pages of Chapter One of CALLARION AT NIGHT. It's pretty much the original take I had -- with Moriah not coming back from school, but already being out of school for several years. Other than that, and a few additional tones of her being more jaded this time around, it's essentially the same opening. Let me know what you think.

Moriah relaxed into the corner of the bench seat. Ten long weeks on the job, plus another month-long journey home by steamer did not make for the best of moods. Someone recognizing her at the dockside in Itzcali didn't help either. Only since they passed the midway point of the sea voyage did people stop asking her about Father's work protecting half-nymph natemi.

Like she cared about Callarion politics. Moriah never stayed in the city long enough to get embroiled in the infighting between Father and the Premier's supporters. Besides, it behooved her to be gone from the city for stretches at a time. Being the Archduke's daughter couldn't protect a natemi for long.

"How long ye been gone, miss?" The sailor was winding a long rope around his arm. Moriah sighed. Apparently now the crew wanted to get in the act.

"Two months this trip." She immediately returned to her book. Maybe if she ignored him long enough, he'd go away.

"What were ye after? Business or pleasure?"

"Business." Moriah casually brushed her duster back. The long-barreled pistol on her waist usually silenced inquisitive folk.

"What kind?" The sailor didn't appear deterred. Moriah lowered her book to get a better look at him. The man wore a standard-issue navy pea coat over a turtleneck sweater, both stretched by his broad frame, and the khakis tucked into his boots had stains on the knees. Clearly a career sailor. Moriah caught his eyes then. Bronze eyes. Huh. A half-satyr dhalim perhaps?

"Bounty hunting for the Itzcalians," Moriah said. "One of their higher-class criminals escaped a prison over there."

"Aren't they havin' their own bounty hunters there?"

"The woman who fills that role is an old school friend of mine."

"Ah, Senro graduate are ye?" The sailor took off his workman's cap. Moriah caught a glimpse of small goat horns in his mop of nearly black hair. Definitely a dhalim. What made that even more intriguing was the lack of attention the other sailors paid him. She'd expected the humans of Callarion to be actively preaching Purity at all corners of the globe by now.

"Three years ago, yes." Moriah saw the aluminum lighthouse that marked the far edge of Callarion's harbor. Nearly home. Thank Donani. A few months lounging in the estate's gardens would be a well-deserved rest after traipsing all over the Itzcalian jungle.

The captain's voice boomed through the brass loudspeaker up near the helm. "Attention all passengers: We are now approaching the Quayside district of Callarion. Please gather all your belongings and wait for the gangplank to be lowered before you disembark. This is for your safety and the safety of others. Once again, please wait for the gangplank to be lowered and secured before you disembark."

"Donani's frozen breath," the sailor said, "Pleasure to be talkin' to ye, miss." He saluted and ran off. Moriah saw him dodge around two sailors running the other way. She threw her rucksack over her shoulder and walked to the bow. The sharp salt smell of her home waters twined with the bright wildflower scent of the mountains on Callarion's east edge to create the distinct smell of home. The aromas of Callarion's harbor washed over her, calming some of the annoyance her fellow passengers had engendered. As they neared the dockside, the harshness of coal-fired factory smoke mingled with spices like cinnamon and cloves and peppers to create the distinctive spicy sharpness of the Callarion dockside.

It smelled like home.

Docking took a few minutes of the sailors running around the main deck and down into the belly of the ship. Steam billowed from the stacks and the water wheel at the stern spun ever slower as the steamer eased into a slip along the brickwork docks. Moriah held onto the railing while she waited for the ship to stop, and saw other passengers doing the same. The gangplank dropped to the pier with a hollow thud. The first people next to it practically ran down.

Moriah rolled her eyes. Probably tourists on their first trip out from home. Donani only knew why they want to come to Callarion of all places. Moriah slowly walked the ship off, and waited for some of the sailors to drive a crane over to offload the luggage. The luggage platform hit the docks with a dull thud and Moriah paused only a moment before reaching for her trunk. But someone else grabbed the gray-and-blue trunk before she could get her hand on it. Moriah turned, opening her mouth to rebuke the offender, and then saw Malory dressed in a full suit, gray cravat tied around his neck and a top hat perched on his balding head.
So that's where I am with this now. I actually like this beginning more (I worked with it a lot before the returning home from school angle), because it allows me to make Moriah a bit more jaded and world-wise. And snarkier ... because now instead of just being focused on impropriety when she encounters the yellow-jackets tormenting an elderly dhalim, she's also annoyed that she's had to spend time dealing with nosy passengers and traipsing through a jungle.

More fun for me!

The Holt Steam Tank

The M1 Abrams Tank is a ubiquitous symbol of American military armored vehicles. The treads that carry its bulk across the field of battle aren't the only method of carriage possible that fills the same role though.

Between 1916 and 1917, the Holt Manufacturing Company (now Catterpillar Inc.), created the Steam Wheel Tank for the U.S. Army. Its design involved two 8-foot-by-3-foot wheels at the front of the substructure on both the right and left sides, with a third wheel at the rear used for steering. The main weapon was a 75 mm Howitzer, with secondary Browning 50-caliber machine guns on either side of the main fighting compartment.

The tank's design allowed for a crew of six men (top-down view here). Two Doble 75hp steam engines powered this behemoth, with each front wheel driven by its own engine. From the Landships website:

"The engines were mounted horizontally, each running its own wheel, drive was taken from the pistons to driving and roller pinions, which engaged internal gears fixed to the front wheels. Boilers were carried behind each engine; ventilation was achieved by using exhaust louvers in the rear of the vehicle, in addition to a fan driven by steam from the boilers, and a radiator which acted as a condenser for the engines. Exhaust was through two small openings behind the main housing near the rear of the vehicle."

Some reports from the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland said that the wheels would get bogged down under the tank's 17-ton weight. According to Landships, the tank did get stuck ... but only until enough pressure built up in the kerosene-fired boilers. Once that happened, the tank was able to get moving again.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this tank is that the two 8-foot diameter main wheels (3-feet wide, made out of pressed steel) weren't a special military construction. They came standard on the Holt farming combines of the same period.

The Holt Steam Tank was never put into mass production. Electric starters soon became prevalent on internal combustion engine vehicles, and the steam tank, like the steam car, ended up relegated to the proverbial dustbin of history.

Monday, October 19, 2009

I Blame Adam

So, Adam Heine's comment on condensers got me looking up different parts of the steam engine that make the mechanism operate at peak efficiency.

The ones he linked to, steam locomotive condensing apparatuses, were developed ostensibly to allow the London Underground to operate before the implementation of non-steam powered subway trains.

From Wikipedia:

"A steam locomotive condensing apparatus differs in purpose from the usual closed cycle steam engine condenser, in that its function is primarily either to recover water, or to avoid excessive emissions to the atmosphere, rather than maintaining a vacuum to improve both efficiency and power. It takes the form of a series of pipes, valves and other ancillary equipment usually attached to an otherwise conventional steam locomotive. The apparatus takes the exhaust steam that would normally be lost up the funnel and routes it through a heat exchanger, into the normal water tanks. Installations vary depending on the purpose, design and the type of locomotive to which it is fitted."

Anyway, the whole reason for the title of this post is because, during the ensuing click-o-rama on steam engineering, I came across a reprint of an 1887 book on the mechanics of steam engines.

Long story short ... I bought it. It's exactly the kind of resource one needs to add verisimilitude to any explanation of steam engines. The text will also give me a way to make certain the hero of SON OF MAGIC knows what he's talking about when it comes to steam power, which is good because that MC is supposed to be a steam engineer.

So as you can see, in a roundabout way, it's Adam's fault that I bought that book. Yeah ... that's it.

P.S. The titles of the aforementioned songs for Steam's Limitations Part 2 and Part 3 are Metallica's "Fuel" and The Who's "Water."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Steampunk Baked Goods and L.T.'s Awesomeness

The lovely and talented L.T. Host brought this post over at Cake Wrecks to my attention on Tuesday, and I forgot that I wanted to add it to the front page.

Mmmm .... steampunk cakes. I wants me the one near the bottom because it looks kind of like a Dalek (and my adoration for Doctor Who is well-known).

P.S. Congrats to L.T. for getting honorable mention in Nathan Bransford's first paragraph contest.

Steam's Limitations Part 3: We Need Water, Wow Yeah Good Water

Here you go, part 3 of the Steam's Limitations series (read part 1 and part 2 here). In this installment, we'll be talking about water supply -- probably the most important limitation for steam technology besides having enough fuel.

You cannot, I repeat, cannot run a steam engine without water. The very name of the technology means you need to change water from its liquid form into steam, its gas form, which will then make the mechanical innards of your machine speed along. Burning your fuel does nothing except create the fire that boils the water that runs the steam engine.

Because of this need for water, it stands to reason that you'd have to supply your steam engine with a constant amount of the live-giving liquid in order to ensure its continued operation. Whether this is through a water tank on the vehicle, a pump that pulls the water from the ocean, or someone whose sole job it is to spray water into the boiler, it just has to be there.

What's this mean for your steam-powered mechanisms?

Sufficient water supply, like sufficient fuel, is a requirement for your steam machine to keep going. This is regardless of the size of the machine, or of the engine. However, as we saw in part 2, larger steam machines require bigger amounts. So our aerial steam vessel would need to either find a way to draw water vapor from the air/clouds or carry a water tank on board that grows larger as the airship increases in size. Which, depending on weight, can make it that much harder for your flying machine to stay airborne.

This is one of those cases where oceangoing vessels come out ahead. They can draw their water supply from the medium they travel in very easily. Look at the steamboats that plied the Mississippi River in the 1800s. They used water wheels to supply a steady flow of water to the boiler, which would create the steam that drove the engine. Any naval vessel can do this -- water wheel not required.

And now we bring this series on steam's limitations to a close. I hope you learned something about what to consider when building a steam machine.

P.S. As always, adding magic into the equation can possibly eliminate real-world concerns. Author's prerogative of course.

P.P.S. Brownie points to the person who guesses which songs I took this post's title and part 2's post title from.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Because It Mentions The Princess Bride

A coworker directed me to this entry of commonly misused words over at Copyblogger. I'm posting it here for the simple reason that the list is called "The Inigo Montoya Guide to 27 Commonly Misused Words."

Ah Mandy Potemkin ... how we love thee.

Setting the Scene

Natalie Bahm's posts from a little over a week ago got me thinking about settings and the proverbial hoops we as writers jump through to put them together. The discussion proved interesting to say the least, and sparked the realization that setting is really, really difficult.

With imaginary settings, you have the freedom of molding the set to suit the story. Fantasy and sci-fi presents the unique problem of having to describe every detail you can to craft an effective backdrop for the story. Type of building, age of building, big city or small town, rural or urban, the natural world, the unnatural world -- these are just a few of the things you have to worry about as a creator of an imaginary place.

Now, setting your tale in a real place has an added dimension of making sure you get everything right. What's this mean for the writer? You can't place your MC's house in the middle of an intersection for example; and you also can't place the library clear across town from where it actually is. The burden of mapping out the city accurately is intense on the writer setting their tale in a real place.

Which, incidentally, is one of the bigger reasons that I prefer to not set any stories in real places. I'll choose a random place in the middle of a state somewhere -- generally where I know there's not an actual city/town already -- but almost never will you see me writing mainstream fiction that's set in New York City or San Francisco or Chicago. I haven't spent enough time in any of those places to give a story set there the kind of veracity it needs. Would I set a tale in Salem, the city my alma mater is located in and where I lived for a year? Probably. But that all depends on the kind of story it is.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Pause for Positivity

So Adam Heine's got a Positive Waves Week going on over at Author's Echo, and I figured I'd join in with passing along what makes me happy.

For starters, my wife and I are entertained by this hotel in North Conway, NH. How can you not want to stay at a place where one of the rooms is set up like a treehouse? That's some awesomeness right there.

Then we continue into some of the smartest sci-fi shows floating around the airwaves: namely Torchwood and the new series of Doctor Who. Hi, my name's Matthew and I'm a science fiction nerd (and now we take this moment to pause for the shock that's not coming). Moving on with the moving pictures, we have films that star Bruce Campbell in the leading role. Yes I know they're horrible, but they're that good kind of horrible. Especially when the lead actor knows he's in a B movie and hams it up accordingly ("Did somebody order a LARGE HAM?")

Terry Pratchett's books tend to make me happy. Reading fantasy novels that are brilliant in their skewering of every sacred cow in fantasy fiction is a good pastime to let hours slip away.

And, as I'm sure she'll say, I saved the best for last. My wife is perhaps the wittiest person I know and has stated that it's her job to make me laugh. Something she takes quite seriously. Oh, and she lets me be a geek. Always important, that.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Gratifications and Steam's Limitations Part 2: Gimme Fuel Gimme Fire

First off, I want to thank everyone who commented on the sample pages I posted Friday. Your thoughtful criticisms (and emails) have been read/considered/responded to. I'm gratified that you all loved the concept and the execution in the short amount of text I offered up.

Because of said commentary, I've made several changes to those first few pages that may or may not mean I have to change some other stuff in the novel thus far. That revamping is going to wait until the draft is done though (33,467 words as of this writing -- a third of my projected word count). And now, onto Part 2 of Steam's Limitations! Part 1 is here.

Gimme Fuel Gimme Fire

As I stated before, fuel storage is one of the major concerns with steam-powered equipment. In the movie Khartoum (1966), there's a scene where Col. Stewart takes the Europeans from the titular city up the Nile in a steamboat. This steamboat dragged two rowboats big enough for two dozen men -- and filled with wood for the boiler -- behind it. If either of these two ships was eliminated by enemies of the British soldiers manning the steamboat, the vessel wouldn't be able to keep up any sort of speedy pace.

The same is true of any steam-powered vessel. It's all well and good to have enough fuel to start your steam car, but if you don't carry/scrounge for enough fuel to keep it moving ... well then you have a problem. Potential solutions vary with the size of the vessel and how far it has to go. A large naval/aerial steam vessel, like in the previous post, would require their fuel to be easily accessible from the engine room. This means placing access to the coal/wood storage room (or a pile of said fuel) next to the boilers themselves so the person feeding the engine can keep doing so.

If you want to get fancy, you can have a lever that automatically feeds the boiler set next to the driver/helmsman. I actually suggest this for something like a steam car or any other wheeled vehicle that's only meant to carry one or two people. That way you don't have to stop the action to refuel. And as we all know, stopping the action is one of the things a good writer doesn't want to do.

Part 3 will be on supplying the water needed to create the steam that makes the engine run.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Opening Sentences and the Suckiness Thereof

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."

One of the things many authors (yours truly included) have problems with is the first sentence. You the writer have to get the audience interested and engaged from the first ten words (or five, or twenty, etc) of the novel and keep them there for the rest of the story. Anyone who's a reader of fantasy will probably recognize the quoted sentence above (Tolkien's "The Hobbit" for the uniniated). This opening sentence is beautiful because of the questions it forces you to ask: What is a hobbit? Why does it live in a hole in the ground?

Tolkien goes on to answer both questions in the paragraphs following the opening, as any good writer should when presenting a statement that makes readers go "wait, what?" And that's what an effective opening should do -- force the reader to ask questions that will keep them reading as opposed to ones that make them go "umm ... no" and put the book down.

There's reams of text out there on how to write an opening sentence, why they're important, etc., etc., etc. It's enough to make a writer's head spin. Not to mention that we're the ones who have to compose the brilliant five, ten, twenty words that'll keep our readers reading. Writing opening sentences is hard. I go through at least half a dozen versions for each story before I'm happy (occasionally more depending on the premise) and sometimes end up with the first option as the best (which is maddening). SON OF MAGIC will probably end up with twenty different opening sentences through all its revisions when all is said and done. I have no idea if CALLARION AT NIGHT will get any other versions, but it's possible.

And then, once you've perfected the opening? You have to take the same level of scrutiny to every word on every page. Although, as I said in the comments on my latest query over at PQS, I do love me a challenge. Guess that's why we're writers, huh?

Note: In case you're curious, this thought process came up after reading the comments on my sample pages. I'm currently making some changes based off that thread, so thank you very much everyone who took the time to offer their views.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Callarion at Night -- Sample Pages

I've been going back and forth about this, but I figure: What the heck?

So here, in all their glory, are the first three pages of CALLARION AT NIGHT (the draft's at 110 pages and 29,993 words as of this writing):


"How long ye been gone, miss?"

Moriah looked up from her book. The sailor smelled of sea salt and sweat under his turtleneck sweater and woolen pea coat stretched across a frame broadened by labor. His khaki trousers had stains in several places, especially around the knees, and his hazel eyes never wavered from her face. Which was impressive; considering what she'd heard about the general mood toward half-nymph natemi like herself in Callarion these days.

"Nine years," Moriah said. The sailor looked friendly enough, and no one else had bothered her on the steamer voyage from Anguo.

"Long time, to be sure." The sailor looked east over the foredeck, toward the city. He turned back, took off his tri-corner hat, and wiped sweat from his forehead with a sleeve. Moriah glimpsed the smallest nubs of goat horns in his mop of black hair. A half-satyr dhalim then. And one who could pass for human. Odd enough in a dhalim. Even more so that she'd not seen one sailor shun him in Purity's name. When he turned back, the sunlight had changed directions, making it clear his hazel eyes were actually bronze.

"I just graduated from university," Moriah slipped her book into the leather rucksack at her feet. The aluminum lighthouse of Sracon Island station passed behind the sailor, who wasn't paying attention. Only a few more minutes until the docks.

"Wish I could've done. Where'd ye go?"

"The Senro." Moriah ignored the slight scent of onions off his breath and the way his shoulders seemed to tense. Mentioning the bounty hunter academy tended to do that to people. "It was a pleasure speaking with you, sailor, but I see we've passed Sracon Island." The sailor whipped around and cursed when he saw the lighthouse.

"Attention passengers," the captain's voice came over the new brass loudspeaker installed outside the bridge up near the belching steam stacks. "We will soon be docking at the Quayside district of Callarion. Please ensure you have all your belongings before disembarking. All hands to stations for docking procedures."

"Pleasure to be talkin' to ye, miss." The sailor tipped his hat and slammed it back on his head. He ran to the stern, dodging around a metal staircase and a pair of sailors running the opposite direction. Moriah threw her rucksack over her shoulder and walked to the bow. She inhaled the spicy sharpness of the sea, letting the smells of her home waters wash over her. It felt good to be coming back.

Docking took a few minutes of the sailors running around the main deck and down into the belly of the ship, steam billowing from the stacks, the water wheel at the stern spinning ever slower as they eased into a slip along the brickwork docks. Moriah held onto the railing while she waited for the ship to stop, and saw other passengers doing the same. The gangplank dropped to the pier with a hollow thud and the first people next to it practically ran down.

Moriah rolled her eyes. Probably tourists on their first trip out from home. Donani only knew why they want to come to Callarion of all places. Moriah slowly walked the ship off while some of the sailors drove a crane over to offload the luggage, and waited for the platform with her trunk on it to be lowered. Someone else grabbed the gray-and-blue trunk before she could get her hand on it. Moriah turned, opening her mouth to say something, and then saw Malory dressed in a full suit, gray cravat tied around his neck and a top hat perched on his balding head.

"Malory Drovgor," she said, "How many times have I told you I don't need help?"

"Yes, my Lady," Malory tipped his hat, "but His Grace your father commands it. And I must obey."

"Of course he does." Moriah scanned the docks and saw the horseless carriage idling at the edge of the pier. "Is that the new horseless Father wrote me about?"

"It is." Malory gestured for her to walk ahead. "He sent me with it to bring you home."

"Interesting." Her boots clipped along the brickwork as she walked to the copper and brass machine, steam puffing from the rear, and slipped onto the brown leather seat beside the steering wheel. Malory hefted her trunk into the rear of the carriage, secured it, and then took the driver's seat. He pulled a set of levers and the carriage jerked into motion. Moriah glanced back and saw her sailor friend staring as they drove away. She smiled and waved, but he looked too dumbfounded to react.

The Quayside docks bustled with people and trucks, even in midafternoon with the sun high above the city and the breeze off the sea thickening the air. People moved aside for the horseless carriage; dockworkers in overalls, men and women in second- and third-hand clothes waiting for their relatives to arrive, and even some nobles in full suits heading to check on their cargoes.
Let me know what you think/if you want to read more (it's slightly raw, but I'm still open to early feedback).

Thank you all for your opinions on the query letter, by the way. I hope this selection lives up to your expectations.

Steam's Limitations Part 1: Size Matters

My steampunk series of posts has so far focused on what's possible with steam power. However, there are also some limits to the capabilities of steam technology, primarily focused on the needed parts for steam machines to operate and the size of the related engine.

Steam-fueled machinery, unlike contemporary electronics, requires moving parts in order to operate. This means gears, flywheels, pistols, belts, and various sundry items to maintain mechanical motion. If you've ever looked under your car's hood while it's running, you can see the type of machinery I'm talking about.

Because steam machines requires this, the mechanism is going to be more complex and, depending on your time period, larger than what we see now. Take a look at this steam car prototype from the 1770s vs the 1924 Doble or the Stanley Steamer. The last two are much more advanced, but you can see from this diagram (sorry it's in German), the parts that a steam car needs to have in order to run. And here's some diagrams of how a steam engine works.

For any other steam technology, whether it's an airship, tank, or battleship, some things to consider are boiler and engine size, water supply, and fuel storage. Sure you can have a massive steam engine powering your humongous aerial battleship, but you're going to need a boiler that's a proportionate size to create all the steam needed to make the airship rise. That's going to necessitate a room at least the size of a standard battleship engine room (roughly 60 feet long by 27 feet wide). The USS Texas had two engine rooms that size, as one example.

What's this mean for your naval/aerial vessels? They need to be comparable sizes to vessels that actually ran on steam power. And if you intend to have the airship be a zeppelin, well then you have another issue with the balloon size. Note how much larger the balloon is than the gondola where the people sit. This should probably increase proportionately with each addition to the underside. Or you could always go the Girl Genius route (Castle Wulfenbach) and make the balloon itself be part of the airship. Your choice really.

In Part 2, we'll talk about the other limits I mentioned.

Note: Involve magic instead of straight technology, and many of these limits go out the proverbial window.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

New Query

There's going to be this short-ish post and a longer one later today (maybe), but I wanted to draw attention to my new query over at Public Query Slushpile.

The hook for CALLARION AT NIGHT is giving me a lot of problems. For SON OF MAGIC, the hook's easy -- "Engineering student Swain Kirby remembers things that never happened to him." BAM! Done, and it tells you what the main crux of that volume is.

Moriah Rowani's story (CALLARION AT NIGHT's MC) is more difficult to encapsulate. Her father's death is the catalyst for the story, but I don't know how to get across the fact that he dies on her first day back in the city without getting too detailed. That's why, if you look at version 1 and version 2, the hook is So. Effing. Long.

I might just need to finish this revision of the story and get it out of my head for awhile. That's what allowed me to come up with the hook for SON OF MAGIC so readily. It's a thought at least.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Considerations on Steampunk Weaponry

Death rays, clockwork guns, and steam-powered cannons are some examples of the weaponry that can exist in a steampunk tale. What weapons you use depends on whether you decide to make things realistic or fantastic. My general rule is to not make anything up when something that already exists will serve the purpose. Some basic research will show the vast catalog of weapons that people used in the 19th Century, in details more than enough to satisfy the creative mind. Changing the names is OK, by the way.

Take the repeating rifle for example: a standard rifle designed in the late 1800s to improve on the breech- and muzzle-loading rifles of the time. There are four types of repeating mechanisms at use in this firearm -- bolt action, lever action, revolving, and pump action. Lever-action repeating rifles are the one seen in a lot of Westerns, where the shooter fires, pulls the trigger assembly down, and fires the new bullet that's been levered into place. This gun serves the purpose of giving soldiers a long-distance weapon that fires multiple bullets before reloading. And is a real weapon that can fit easily into any steampunk work.

The former Royal Small Arms Factory of Enfield, London crafted numerous ubiquitous weapons that fall under the auspices of traditional steampunk with its Victorian setting. The Enfield revolver and the Lee-Enfield rifle, two examples that bear mentioning, were in service well into the 20th Century for the British military. This is one of those cases, however, where you can't use the actual names of the guns unless you're writing a traditional steampunk or historical fiction.

Going forward with more esoteric weaponry, such as those with clockwork firing mechanisms, it's always worthwhile to consider how the design might potentially function. No one's really going to build a gun with a clockwork firing mechanism because traditional mechanical versions do the job they're supposed to. There's no point to doing anything with the level of complexity a clockwork mechanism requires. However, considering how the machine might work can add a certain veracity to your writing that you might not get simply from saying "a clockwork gun." It also helps if you have a MacGuyver-ish character that has to repair it in the context of the story.

Steam-powered cannons and other heavy guns are easy answers for determining how they fire. Steam generated by the attached boiler is compressed until the pressure increases to a suitably high level behind the cannonball/shell/whatnot and, when the pressure is released, the shot explodes from the cannon.

Then, there's the stuff of pure fantasy -- death rays, dream extractors, and whatever else you want to make up as weaponry in your story. The sky's the limit really. Just remember to think about how it operates. Details are good.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Information Dumps

Laura's comment yesterday about 100 pages of research equaling 1 page of narrative reminded me of one of my writing pet peeves/things I used to do a lot:

Information dumps

This, I feel, is one of the bigger problems for new writers. You have all this background information that the character needs to fulfill the quest or the reader needs to understand the story and, in the rush to get to the "meat" of the tale, you let the reader know absolutely everything up front. This has the unintended consequence of making the reader disappear faster than pizza at a Weight Watchers convention (brownie points for anyone who knows the comic I stole that from).

Same thing goes for all of the research we do as writers. It's all necessary for verisimilitude, but those reams of research may only serve to make sure one comment by one character makes sense to someone who knows the topic better than you do. For example, I chopped an entire page and a half from a friend's WIP because it was an information dump (she thanked me for it, by the way). All that (necessary to her story) background is better spread throughout the story, rather than up front.

I tried to do the same thing in SON OF MAGIC and CALLARION AT NIGHT. You never get all the info right at the get-go and, in fact, there's (hopefully) enough vague tidbits that you keep reading to find out if your questions get answered/that offhand comment in Chapter Three plays out in Chapter Seventeen and so on.

Information dumps can work, however. J.K. Rowling was asked, at one point, if she'd ever have Ron and Harry read Hogwarts:A History. She replied that they'd never read the book because then she couldn't use Hermione to explain everything to both them and, by extension, the reader. It's a brilliant way to get the background information out without resorting to massive blocks of text that makes the reader's eyes glaze over.

This is rare though, and most writers who attempt to do end up resulting in the dreaded info dump. The lesson to take away from all this is to only let your character and readers enough to drive the story forward. Otherwise, what's the point of writing it?

Monday, October 5, 2009

On Being Detail-Oriented

One of the things I always tell people is that I'm very "detail-oriented."

For my fiction, this means that I research things almost constantly. I have a "Russian"* character in CALLARION AT NIGHT, so I looked up Russian speech patterns; recently I found a resource on writing the Irish accent without using dialect (needed for another character). I have books on architecture, weapons, Nazi thought, numerous printouts of baby names from various cultures, etc.

I also know the exact mph of a horse at a walk, trot, canter, and gallop -- information I used to calculate the distance between the cities of Haldor (the world of SON OF MAGIC). And did you know that the average person's walking speed is 2 to 3 miles per hour? That's another random tidbit of information you can use to calculate distance.

All of this translates (I hope) into stories with as few holes in the background as possible. I'm not a fan of the practice of "making it up" if you don't know it. Mostly because there's always someone out there who's going to call you on any bit of information you get wrong, no matter how small. This is why writing historical fiction is so hard. You have to get things dead-on accurate for your period or else the story doesn't work.

Same goes for any part of a fantasy/sci-fi story where you pull something from reality. It has to be accurate or it doesn't ring as factual, with the end result being you lost the reader. Probably the worst thing that can happen to a storyteller.

So, dear readers, I told you some of the research I've gathered. Now it's your turn. What's the weirdest tidbit you've ever had to look up for a story?

* The character isn't Russian per se, but he's from a country that's heavily based on Russia.

Friday, October 2, 2009

I Got A Feeling ....

That CALLARION AT NIGHT is pretty much the best story I've written thus far. Also, based on the response over Public Query Slushpile, I feel like this WIP (more than SON OF MAGIC) has a chance of actually getting published.

Granted, I've yet to finish my current (third) revision of the story and figure out which of several endings will work. Then there's beta readers and more rewrites, and so on and so forth. The entire process may take upwards of a year. Which I'm OK with. Because I'm confident this will be the one that passes muster.

Oh, and where am I on the revision (in case you're curious)? Wrapping up Chapter 7 (less than a third done with it, so I have awhile before I get to the beta reader point). Word count's at 21,318 right now -- roughly 75 pages -- and growing every day. With any luck, this draft will be wrapped up by Christmas. It might even get a bow on it.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Where Seldom Is Heard ...

... a discouraging word/and the skies are not cloudy all day. -- Home on the Range

Natalie Bahm's Wednesday post on encouragement and Bane of Anubis's Art Rant got me thinking about the benefits of encouragement and of critcism. I won't summarize either set of points, because you can just check out the original posts at the links above, but I do want to add something that would end up being too long for a comment on either one.

Encouragement and criticism both have their places in a writer's development. One, in my opinion, isn't worth the sweat off a dog's back without the other. If you receive too much encouragement and not enough criticism, you might potentially have an inflated sense of your own ability. Conversely, if you receive too much criticism and not enough encouragement, you end up second-guessing yourself so many times the universe will perish before you come to a decision (extreme example, yes I know).

There's this one writing group in my area, lead by a published author, whose focus is not on publication or anything of the sort. It's merely a venue for people to read from the stories they're working on and get (mostly) positive feedback. The last time I attended this group was more than three years ago because myself and the two other fantasy authors in there spun off into the awesome crit group we have now.

This type of encouragement is good ... to a point. You need the person who's going to give your MS back dripping with red ink because they're the only ones who are going to tell you what is and is not working in the text. The above writers' group is good for those who aren't ready for this type of criticism. And it is something you have to be ready for. Otherwise you might end up just getting depressed instead of taking the comments for what they are.

Then you get into the "artistes" of the world who've received universal encouragement from their little circle of influence, or been in a place where what they create tends toward being better than the limited creative types they have contact with. These people may have an ego the size of the Sears Tower and be convinced, through the "yes" men/women around them, that they don't need criticism.

Artistes tend to look down on the folks in the trenches who are aiming toward publication. And could use a page dripping with red ink the most as a reality check, but they're also the most likely to say "oh you just don't understand my work." Said comment means two things a) they think you're a Philistine and b) you just wasted your time trying to be helpful.

Critique helps make creative types better. There's no two ways about it. Having your work deconstructed in front of your eyes and shone where it could be improved is sometimes energizing, especially because the person doing this loved (or disliked) your story/song/painting enough to take the time to think about it. Which is what we all want to have, methinks.

And remember, critique can also be a form of encouragement. If it's worded properly, of course.