For the Love of Anachronisms

Back in the computer age, people had time to read books.

Steampunk is a genre of subversion, not only due to the actions of its characters but also for the ways its writers play with reality, creating imagined histories and technologies of science and fantasy. Inspiration can be drawn from both science fictional histories and contemporary histories. For example, in Morlock Night K.W. Jeter draws on aspects of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. In The Difference Engine William Gibson and Bruce Sterling create an alternate history where Charles Babbage’s original invention of the same name is mass produced to kickstart the age of computers.

At first sight, the anachronisms of steampunk appear to be little more than the curious gimmicks of an aesthetic that is widely believed to be over and done with. Back in 2008 when I decided to write my first novel in the genre, people would say, “Steampunk? What’s that?” Five years later when I tried to sell it, a revival had not only spiked but also petered out. The common response became, “Steampunk? Not again!” Having said that, new titles continue to be published, such as James P Blaylock’s The Steampunk Adventures of Langdon St. Ives, Gail Carriger’s Defy and Defend, and Phil Foglio & Kaja Foglio’s Agatha H and the Siege of Mechanicsburg (Girl Genius #4).

Furthermore, you can find a decent list of new works at Rising Shadow.

Perhaps another revival will happen again soon. After all, that’s how fashions roll.

But why steampunk? And why is the nineteenth century the perfect era to set it in? Is it simply a nostalgic return to the past? Or is it more than that?

Back in 2013 when I completed my PhD, I argued that steampunk was a historical narrative set in the past “seen through a speculative fictional lens that has been both irreverently tampered with and ingeniously enhanced with the benefit of hindsight.”

Similarly, Bowser and Croxall assert,

“Like most science fiction, it [steampunk] takes us out of our present moment; but instead of giving us a recognisably futuristic setting, complete with futuristic technology, steampunk provides us with anachronism: a past that is borrowing from the future or a future borrowing from the past.” (“Introduction: Industrial Evolution”. NeoVictorian Studies 3:1 2010).

In this way, the kinds of technologies that many people take for granted become defamiliarised, or in other words, the familiar is made strange and at the same time illuminated. Eric Rabkin states:

“If we know the world to which a reader escapes, then we know the world from which he comes” (The Fantastic in Literature, 1976 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977): p. 73.

The anachronisms of steampunk can also be seen as a form of subversion because they are an intentional and playful revision of accepted history. Early examples include the sentient robots of K.W. Jeter’s, Infernal Devices and the 19th Century nuclear device in Ronald W Clarke’s Queen Victoria’s Bomb. Books such as these work particularly well in a nineteenth century setting because the Victorians were similar to us in many ways. They saw the establishment of the empirical sciences, the industrial revolution, the first wave of feminism, the rise of imperialism and colonialism, all of which are still relevant in today’s society. Steffen Hantke argues:

“What makes the Victorian past so fascinating is its unique historical ability to reflect the present moment.” (Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk. Extrapolation 40:3 (1999): pp. 244-254)

For us, the nineteenth century represents a turning point – a time where things could have happened differently in ways we can only imagine with the benefit of hindsight. Peter Nicholls writes,

“Victorian London has come to stand for one of those turning points in history where things can go one way or the other, a turning point peculiarly relevant to sf itself. It was a city of industry, science and technology where the modern world was being born, and a claustrophobic city of nightmare where the cost of this growth was registered in filth and squalor. Dickens – the great original Steampunk writer who, though he did not write sf himself, stands at the head of several sf traditions – knew all this.” (John Clute & Peter Nicholls, The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, 1993 (London: Orbit, 1999): p. 1161).

I loved reading Dickens even before reaching my teens. By the time I sat down to write THE ETERNAL MACHINE, I’d read most of his novels at least once.

Two or three years ago, a little before I decided to get THE ETERNAL MACHINE professionally edited, I wanted to do something different with the genre. One of my early drafts was set in an unnamed fantasy world, but the worldbuilding was lacking, so I decided to flesh it out by moving it to an alternate reality in Sydney, Australia. I decided it needed a recognisable landmark, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge immediately sprang to mind. Yep, I know the bridge wasn’t built until the early 20th Century, but Steampunk is a genre of anachronisms, and in my novel, magic and science are equally valid disciplines. This made a very corrupted version of the bridge not only recognisable but also possible.

Next I needed a magic system that was not entirely smoke and mirrors. I already had the bare bones, but I wanted something inextricably linked to character and based on as much history as imagination. Therefore I put on my subversive writer’s hat. Or perhaps took a wild risk, because instead of basing my magic on science fictional history or folk magic or myth, I chose to playfully base it on a real life obscure metaphysical theory — The Monadology — devised in 1690 (published 1714) by the philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. This theory has more recently been argued by Eric Steinhart to be a description of virtual reality.

What I ended up with was an anachronism within an anachronism, or in other words, a 17th Century theory that describes a 20th Century concept set in a 19th Century alternate reality. I’m not going to try and explain it all here — and I’ll blog about it later — but the challenge was to cherry pick enough of the theory to eliminate the need for more than a few sentences of explanation, which I drip fed where the plot demanded.

Using this idea quickly became fun and most probably irreverent. If Leibniz or any professional philosophers would ever read it, I suspect they’d either be annoyed or amused 😉

The truth is: I discovered the Monadology twenty years ago, and have enjoyed reading about it ever since. Even papers that discredit its logic. After all, arguments for and against an idea are fodder for the muse, especially if that idea is controversial.

THE ETERNAL MACHINE ebook and paperback go live 14th January, 2022 worldwide including Amazon US   Amazon AU   Amazon UK   Barnes & Noble  Kobo US  Kobo Au and  Kobo UK

Image by Kiselev Andrey Valerevich edited by Carol Ryles

Unexpected Discoveries

What does this image represent?

A. Me proofreading and spotting a typo?

B. A character learning that something is not as it seems?

C. A reader surprised by a plot twist?

Answer:

All of the above 😉

THE ETERNAL MACHINE ebook and paperback go live 14th January, 2022 worldwide including Amazon US   Amazon AU   Amazon UK   Barnes & Noble  Kobo US  Kobo Au and  Kobo UK

Video Credits:
In video

Feature Image Credits:

Worried woman sitting at table: LightField Studio
Damask Wallpaper No-longer-here
Oval Picture frame cut out from image by: Darkmoon_Art
Steampunk man’s and steampunk woman’s face in oval frames: Kiselev Andrey Valerevich
Framed steampunk airship: flutie8211
Gold Rectangular Picture Frame: Avantrend
Woman in Red dress: Avesun

Images edited by Carol Ryles using GIMP

Proofreading and Layouts

My second to last proofread has arrived, and after combing through it, I was delighted to find my proofreader found only a single typo I hadn’t already found myself. I’ve still got a month until release date and I’m not going to sit back and believe there aren’t any errors left because I’m sure typo gremlins live inside my keyboard. If I slack off now, they might start self-replicating 😉 Fortunately I have one more proofread yet to arrive from a friend who also edits for a living. It’s taking a while but it will be worth it. Only then will I believe my job is done, and can then dedicate more time to writing novel number two.

Just for fun, here are some of the things I’ve had to fix:

The usual spelling errors and missed words. Not that many, fortunately, but they’re gone now.

A few missed quotation marks

Three malapropisms:

Appraised instead of apprised
Wretched instead of retched
Torturous instead of tortuous

Argh! Why doesn’t my brain see these when I write them? I asked a couple of other writers around my age and they confirmed this is something that gets worse as people get older. Not happy about that. At least I know now, and will triple check next time.

While I was proofreading I also tweaked a handful of sentences that still felt a bit clunky. To be honest, I could probably keep doing that for the next 10 years, but now it’s time to stop.

Lastly, I’ve been checking and double checking my layouts. Six months ago, I purchased Vellum, and it was expensive and only works on a Mac (which fortunately I have). It was easy to learn and certainly a worthwhile investment. Ebooks and Print layouts look way more professional than I could have done myself, and these are made within seconds with just a single keystroke.

Here are some examples of how my novel is going to look:

The beauty of doing the formatting myself with Vellum is that if I need to do any changes I can just get in there and do it and everything still looks great. It also does Nook, Kobo, Google and Generic.

PROOFREADING BLUES

Six weeks until my novel is released and despite hours and hours spent proofreading I’m still finding typos. Not many, fortunately; just the rare missed word such as ‘to’ or ‘the’, a couple of ridiculous misspellings, a misplaced comma and quotation mark, and most annoyingly, a couple of pesky malapropisms…

I have no idea why I wrote “wretched” instead of “retched” Or “appraised” instead of “apprised”? My brain knows the difference, but my keyboard and/or typing fingers do not seem to care.

Just as unforgivable, I found two instances of “it’s” being used in the possessive sense. How even? Surely it’s easier to leave out that apostrophe than it is to put it in.

Not that I’m proofreading on my own. My manuscript is having a final check by a couple of friends who have been through the whole process with their own work. Meanwhile, I’m double and triple checking, over and over, and still not satisfied.

Of course, MS Word’s spellchecker helps, but it’s not perfect. I type on a Mac, and follow up with the spell checker in Pages which seems to be a little more thorough. Both are good for spelling errors, but Pages seems to be better at picking up malapropisms. Even so, not everything gets caught.

Missed words are harder to see: eg, “how do” instead of “how to do”. And all because the human brain – and apparently computer brains – are great at filling in gaps. Or maybe I’ve been staring at the screen for too long, and when the grammar checker flags an absent word, I miss that as well.

This is why I get up and go for a brief walk around the garden every 15 mins. It wakes me up, forces me to refocus.

Another way to catch missing words is to read and listen at the same time. My version of MS word is the cheapest you can get, so it doesn’t read aloud, but I’ve found a couple of apps online which serve the purpose. I’m currently using Speakline which is pretty basic, but has a number of speeds and voices, is free and works on Macs and PCs.

Finally, as for clunky sentences, listening to Speakline helps with those as well, but fortunately, all but a couple were fixed by my line editor and copyeditor. Money well spent. Having professional advice not only helped polish my manuscript, but also felt like taking a masterclass with my own work as the focus.

But editing is expensive and with good reason: it takes a lot of concentration, many hours of work and training. Sadly, by the time I reached the final proofreading stage, my budget was blown.

So this is where I am now. Proofing and reproofing, pulling out typos with the same grudging dedication as pulling out weeds.

I have six weeks left and I plan to catch them all.

Two Months Until the Release of The Eternal Machine.

My first Advanced Reader Copy has arrived from Amazon, and finally this self-publishing gig is starting to feel real. For a few seconds I just stared at the envelope, afraid to open it in case I’d messed up the formatting or not centred the cover properly when I uploaded the PDF. I then bit the bullet and took a peek.

Phew! It looked exactly how I wanted. The cover worried me at first, because on computer monitors it looks quite dark. In real life, however, it not only shines but also shows the mood I was aiming for. And beauty too, in a clockwork dragonfly and the face of the automaton. I’m hoping she looks like she’s plotting something that human minds would not want to know. The dragonfly is also a symbol of hope. Is hope possible in all that darkness? Some of my characters believe there can be, if they fight for it.

A few hours after my book arrived, the following review came in from Aussie steampunk author Richard Harland who had kindly read the mostly corrected epub version for me.

Victoriana comes to Sydney in an alternative 19th Century, bringing dark Dickensian factories and even darker souls. Mages too, practising heart magic and skin magic, along with shapeshifters, demons and automata. Mix in a mad scientist, a touch of romance and a plot to keep you guessing—wild! What’s not to love?

Highly recommended.

~RICHARD HARLAND

Here’s a screen shot of Chapter One. I’ll be posting some entire chapters closer to the launch date, when the final proofreading is has been completed.

The Eternal Machine ebook is currently available for pre order worldwide including Amazon.com, Amazon UK Amazon Australia Barnes and Noble and soon at Kobo. Trade Paperback: 14th January, 2022.

Confessions of an Accidental Self-Publisher: Part 4

My Own Worst Enemy:

Four years ago — and ten years after I started this novel — I finally had it to what I believed to be a publishable standard. Next came the job of writing the dreaded elevator pitch and synopsis. I must admit I did a terrible job of both. Although the elevator pitch had successfully reduced my plot to a single sentence, it was boring. As for my synopsis…

I knew I had to focus on the main narrative thread, but I just couldn’t get my head around doing that. As a result, my attempts were either too much or too little. In the end, I went for the middle road and unfortunately the result turned out to be as boring as my elevator pitch. Looking back, I imagine very few editors or agents got past the first paragraph.

My title didn’t do anything towards selling itself either…

Having said that, it suited my novel perfectly, but it was long and may well have put people off my submission without having to read further than the subject line of my email:

A TRUE HISTORY OF FORSHAM: LOVE & THE INDUSTRIALISATION OF MAGIC.

I still like that title. But unfortunately it was yet another one of those darlings that had to go.

Regardless, this time around I managed to get an expression of interest from a small press publisher, but after a two year wait, I realised this wasn’t going to happen, so I took it back. Life is tough in the publishing industry.

I tried a few more agents and received another piece of feedback: “It’s not quite ready.” And although I was marketing it as steampunk, the fact that one of my characters was a shapeshifter led the agent to categorise it as urban fantasy and they weren’t interested in representing that.

Time to take control, I decided. If I was to get this thing published, I needed to do it myself.

My first job was to get editor Pete Kempshall to do a structural edit. This ended up being money well spent because it not only fixed a lot of rookie errors but also taught me how to organise my ideas into a coherent plan. It was like having a master class with my novel as the focus. Once that was done, I sent it back for a line edit, and finally the novel was starting to look polished. Almost.

This was where Amanda J Spedding came in. As far as I could tell, I had fixed all the internal inconsistencies, eliminated clunky prose and repetitions, fixed grammatical errors; but in the process of doing so had probably created a few more. Not only that, I ended up rewriting two chapters completely, and knew they’d need yet another professional eye.

So that was it! Three edits, by two professionals. At last I felt confident enough to upload it to Amazon.

Confessions of an Accidental Self-Publisher – Part 3

Difficult Decisions…

After much reading and rereading of my multi-rejected novel, I realised it was time to work out exactly what I wanted to do. Give up? Or punish myself further?

Before deciding, I combed through it for the umpteenth time, and gave it my most critical eye yet. There was one particular chapter in the first quarter that, in my mind, was the best I’d ever written. Everything about it seemed to shine: pace, character, world building, description; only to deliver a surprising twist at the end.

I loved this chapter so much, but it was at odds with the remainder of the novel. In other words, it was exceedingly pretty and a lot of fun, but failed to do anything to progress the plot. Was this a “darling”? I asked myself. Should I murder it in the way that has often been advised to aspiring novelists like myself?

This chapter has to go, I decided. It obviously didn’t fit. Nevertheless, the thought of losing it made me not only sad, but increasingly apprehensive. Why discard something I loved? What could I do to make it work? Desperate, I reached for my box of editing patches – looking for any number of ploys to make the remainder of the novel match up.

I got to work, popping in a symbol here, adding a few allusions there. I made my character remember parts of that fabulous scene in dialogue, in flashback…

All quite useless really. After several thousand wasted words, and yet another string of rejections, it was time to face the truth, regardless of how difficult or unpalatable.

That darling had to go!

Fortunately truths aren’t always as black and white as they seem. In the end, I kept that chapter; then deleted the remainder of the novel instead.

So now, I had around 5,000 words of what used to be a 110,000 word manuscript. A good many months later, when the new draft took shape far better than expected, that darling chapter functioned in all the ways it was supposed to.

Looking back, I have nothing to regret.

Part 1: Without Thinking

Part 2: Learning Curve

Part 4: My Own worst Enemy

Confessions of an Accidental Self-Publisher – Part 2

Learning Curve

One of the first things I learned when I decided to write a novel was: “You can’t polish a turd”. Many a time I’d written a story that appeared so unworkable the best course of action was to save it under ‘trash’. This strategy seemed the kindest thing to do.

I have since learned that sometimes turds can be polished; and if you don’t believe me, Mythbusters have already proved it.

Having said that, there really is no point in trying to fix a lacklustre novel by putting all your efforts into buffing it up. To keep it from falling apart, you’ve got to re-mould the underlying structure first.

Flash back to nine years ago, four years after that initial chapter I wrote for my PhD. I found myself faced with one of the greatest strokes of luck a writer could wish for: an agent from London had somehow seen my opening chapters on the internet. The following day, I received a request for the full manuscript.

As much as I wanted to believe this would be my big break, I should have explained, “I’m not sure if I’m ready for that.” But I was way too inexperienced, and although my novel held more than a little promise, my attempts at making it saleable had turned it into an unwieldy, unfocussed dog’s breakfast.

Fortunately, the agent was amazingly generous. He read my novel, then sent me a fabulous critique and an offer to resend. I followed his advice as well as I could, but at the same time made a serious rookie error. Instead of taking the idea of restructuring my novel seriously, I ignored too many interior flaws and added a new layer of polish to the outside instead. In doing so, I effectively set myself up for the first in a long string of rejections.

Although I already knew I had a lot to learn, I now understood there was more to this editing business than I’d imagined. Daunted, I took a break.

To be continued…

Confessions of an Accidental Self-Publisher Part 1: Without Thinking…

Part 3: Difficult Decisions

And Another Year Over…

I’ll never be a prolific blogger, but my plan has always been to keep in touch now and then. I didn’t publish any fiction in the past twelve months, but my hard drive has been filling up with work that isn’t yet ready to submit.

This time last year, I threw myself into yet another major edit of my Fantasy/Steampunk novel with the plan to have it published by 2019. I gave myself three months to get the edits done. They took eight. Then I sent it to a professional editor friend who gave me a face-to-face critique along with a stash of notes. I hoped to need only a line edit (I had, after all spent years editing it myself), but it needed a few more structural edits. Nothing major fortunately, but a few things that needed some time to think about.

That’s the trouble with self-editing. I’m so close to my writing, something that needs fixing can stare me in the face and I won’t see it. Editors are gold. Just saying.

I’ve also got an epic fantasy novel on the boil. Opening chapters for Draft One are done. I’m keen to get started on this again as soon as the previous novel reaches the line edit stage.

Last year was also the year of reading and convening for the Australian Aurealis Award’s Anthologies and Collections panel. I can’t say any more about that until the Awards Ceremony on the 4th of May, but it’s been a fabulous experience, and I’ve learned a lot and enjoyed every moment.

This year, however, I’m planning to take a break from judging. My to-read pile is getting taller and the novel really is my preferred form. Here’s a taste of what’s waiting for me:

Washington Black by Esi Edougyan
Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Riders by Tim Winton
House of Sighs by Aaron Dries
The Cup of Jamshid by Andrew Old
Into the Sounds by Lee Murray
Moonfall by Donna Maree Hanson

Plus there’s more staring down from the top of my bookshelf.

My favourite reads for last year that weren’t connected to Aurealis judging:

The Second Cure by Margaret Morgan
Ecopunk edited by Liz Grzyb & Cat Sparks
The Silver Well by Kate Forsyth & Kim Wilkins
Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination: Visions, Minds, Ethics by Russell Blackford.

Ramping Up Dialogue

Blogging the Editing Day #9

Chapter 7. Scene 2. Hero #1 acts passive when Hero #2 starts telling  lies. Time to have a word with my character…

Me: Hey girl, I know you’ve been through a rough patch but, seriously, are you just going to hang onto Hero #2’s every word and let them get away with saying all that?

Hero #1: Well you wrote it, what else was I supposed to do?

Me: Yeah, sorry. I was too focussed on the scene’s destination and neglected the most important part: The Journey.

Hero #1: Yep, that’s how it feels from this end. But do you know what? Hero #2 can still end up in the same place if you let me tell them what I really think.

Me: You reckon?

Hero #1: Of course. They may be acting like an asshat, but that doesn’t mean they ARE one. After all, they’re going through a rough patch too.

Me: So what do you propose?

Hero #1: Get some sparks flying, physical and metaphorical.

Me: Oooooh, yes please.

Hero #1: Okay, take the bit where they start gaslighting me. I know they don’t see it that way, and dire circumstances have pushed them into clutching at straws, but gaslighting is gaslighting. I need to be more assertive and dish out a satisfying reaction. Check out your writerly toolkit. There’s a perfect reductio ad absurdum just begging to be used. I may well be angry and assertive, but I like to be funny too. Even if it does sound a bit sarcastic. But Hero #2 deserves it. The reader will agree.

Me: That’s sounding better already.

Hero #1: You’re welcome.