Friday, January 22, 2010

More on Steampunk

Alison and Theresa have already discussed the Steampunk genre, and I have only one thought-- question really.

Let's say you are going to submit a Steampunk novel. You might have noticed, and if not, Alison made a good case for it, that the current Sherlock Holmes movie has certain important Steampunk markers.

(It also has Jude Law, and you remember I said that if Jude Law planning to star in an adaptation of your book, that would get me to read it? Well, I am modifying that. Jude Law plus Robert Downey, Jr., making googly eyes at each other in your book? Sold!!!!)

Now Steampunk isn't a genre and doesn't have its own publishing lines, as far as I know. So you can't count on that YA editor or that s/f editor knowing as much as Alison knows (or Theresa knows now, having edited one). My question is:

You naturally want to provide some notion of how your book fits in with a trend and how it might be marketed. And so you might refer to the Sherlock Holmes film in your query letter. How would you do that without being annoying (I for one get annoyed with those breezy brain-teasers: "It's like Sleepless in Seattle meets Pulp Fiction!")?

The purpose would be, I presume, twofold-- one to give a quick way to understand what the approach is, and second to say it's really cool and trendy now. So give me a couple sentences or a paragraph where you might insert the mention of the film in a subtle and effective way, connecting it to your own Steampunk story.



Matthew Delman said...

Alicia --

I'm going to disagree with you on "Steampunk isn't a genre."

I have a more involved history over at my blog, but the short version is that steampunk as a style of science fiction has been around since the 1970s. Michael Moorcrock's "Warlord of the Air," Harry Harrison's "A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!", William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's "The Difference Engine" are just a few of the examples from adult fiction I can think of off the top of my head. There's roughly a dozen more works (at least) than I can't remember right now.

For YA, "The Golden Compass" by Phillip Pullman leaps immediately to mind.

The short version of my point is this: steampunk is an established subgenre of cyberpunk, and thus has its own tropes already. The primary of these being highly advanced steam-powered technology that performs a lot of the same functions modern conveniences do. There are some other things too, but this comment is already long enough. :)

Matthew Delman said...

Sorry. I should've said at least since the 1970s.

Dave Shaw said...

If it's a subgenre, how can it also be a genre? It isn't shelved separately in any bookstore I've ever seen, and as Alicia says, there are no publishing lines specifically for steampunk, so I don't see how it can be considered a genre unto itself. It's a subgenre of specfic, nothing more.

Heather Massey said...

Now Steampunk isn't a genre and doesn't have its own publishing lines

If by that, you mean that steampunk isn’t a major trend, I agree. The core fans love it fiercely, but it’s not mainstream by any means. I consider it a subgenre of SF & F. And steampunk romance is probably about as niche as one can get currently!

But from the comments I’ve seen online, it seems that readers are definitely interested in learning more about it. I also think people have encountered it in books, films, and television shows even if they don’t know what it’s called.

Seems to me like the focus of a query should be the premise and characters, and then perhaps any steampunk elements would be included to accentuate what’s unique about the story’s setting. I’m wondering if it’d be helpful to state that a steampunk romance, for example, would appeal to fans of alternate historical fantasies/romances or science fiction romance.

Not sure about the film comparison you suggested except to establish the Sherlock Holmes-brooding hero connection. And if that many non SF/F editors are unfamiliar with steampunk, I wonder if the term should be included in a query at all. “Alternate historical fantasy/SF” might be more accessible at this stage of the game.

I know that in jacket/online copy describing the story, I definitely would want to know about the steampunk elements (airships, steam powered weapons, etc.). It can even be a throwaway bit as long as it’s there.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

It's like Sherlock Holmes except with airships and goggles and mad scientists and industrialists and explorers and crazy inventors and and massive hand-crafted machines and mechanical steam-powered robots and goggles and futuristic anachronisms.

Get off the Sherlock Holmes thing already. It's not Steampunk, not even close. You can't just call everything set in late Victorian London Steampunk. I don't think you're getting what it is yet.

Edittorrent said...

Matthew, I agree-- steampunk is probably a SUBgenre.

Not a genre. To me, a genre is much larger, like "crime novels", which will incorporate subgenres.

So s/f is a genre incorporating the subgenre steampunk.

But taxonomy is something I've never been good at! :)


Edittorrent said...

Okay, forget Sherlock Holmes movie. Forget the whole Jude Law thing (easier for you than me, I bet :).

I'm just saying-- this is about query letters, which are not the novels, and not "true" to the story usually, and are just marketing material. IN A QUERY LETTER TO A PUBLISHER OR AGENT....

Would you make reference in a query to Jules Verne, say? The point is to give the editor/agent some reference point, and some ammunition when she/he is taking it up to the next level for approval.

(I do wish writers would not get too upset the realities of submitting... that such things, alas, do matter.)

"Historical science fiction" isn't going to win marketing over. What will? I think the term steampunk itself is sort of cool, and yes, even when it's applied to books the cognoscenti might not consider part of the subgenre.

What will help you get a read from this editor/agent?

Andrew Rosenberg said...


If I knew how do to that I wouldn't be trolling the interblogs for advice!! :)

My thought if the agent/editor doesn't know what Steampunk is, then how will they ever market your story?
Or are you saying that's my job?

But if I say, "alternate history where New England never joined the Revolution" then I think most people understand the type of book I'm proposing. But I don't know.

Edittorrent said...

Yeah, that's your job. :) With a newish subgenre (for example, steampunk romance), often you have to lead the editor or agent into understanding why this is cool.

They'll figure it out maybe as they read your story... but are they going to read it if you don't describe it in a fun, accessible way in the query?

Remember... an agent might get, no joke, 25K queries in a year. Your story will never be read unless the query introduces it as something better or more fun or more intriguing that the other 24,999 stories.

So... how would you introduce something new or unusual in a query? (And yes, relating it to a current #1 box office film helps-- do you think the agent is going to care that it's not "really" steampunk by the definition used by steampunk pioneers? No need to get technical. "You have a brain tumor" works better than "you have a twiskaphilic chanceteric carcinomic" (no, don't google-- just made that up). Get their attention. Save the technicalities for the yahoogroups list. :)

This is, I think, the sort of thing (like POV, actually :) that writers know more about than editors and agents, so think about how to guide them into thinking it's worth learning more about.

A teachable moment?

Edittorrent said...

Keep in mind, too, that romance editors might not have been knee-deep in steampunk like scifi editors might have been. This is pretty new territory for us. Fun new territory. But we might need a little more help in understanding what you're talking about when you query a steampunk story.


Matthew Delman said...

If you query outside the sci-fi/fantasy realm, where steampunk is more known, then I'd probably suggest focusing more on the characters and the addition of high-level steam technology to the concept as a setting.

Since the word "steampunk" usually requires explanation outside of sci-fi circles (as I've recently experienced), it's probably better to refer to other elements.

And yes, Alicia I would mention Jules Verne in a steampunk-ish query letter before I mention Sherlock Holmes. Steampunk is kind of a throwback to late Victorian sci-fi in general, and Verne was one of the fathers of that. So it would actually end up making more sense.

Edittorrent said...

Matthew, what about Wells? What are some other names that non-cognos will know?

Dave Shaw said...

Edgar Rice Burroughs's science fantasy works, such as the Barsoom books and The Moon Maid series, aren't exactly steampunk, but they have similar elements that some agents and editors might be somewhat familiar with. His name is known from Tarzan, even to people not familiar with his other writings, so maybe a valid comparison would be helpful.

Matthew Delman said...

Alicia --

Wells is definitely a good choice as well. For other 19th Century sci-fi that influences the steampunk ethos, I'd lean toward Mary Shelley (Frankenstein deals with a lot of the same themes that early steampunk does) and Mark Twain.

As a general rule, most of this proto-steampunk is classified under the term "scientific romance." Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars series might be recognizable to some as well.

Gail Carriger's Soulless is a good contemporary example of steampunk romance, by the way. I'd suggest that and the rest of the Parasol Protectorate series as it's released for anyone interested in emulating the steampunk elements for their own work.

Hope this helps, Alicia!

Matthew Delman said...

Oh and if you want to stay in keeping with movie comparisons, the film "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" has a lot of tried-and-true steampunk elements in it.

Heather Massey said...

Another film comparison could be WILD WILD WEST.

For book comparisons from the romance genre, Katie MacAlister's STEAMED is out in February, and in October of this year, Meljean Brook's THE IRON DUKE will come out.

Seems to me that if the story sounds amazing and the pitch is well-crafted, the actual label won't matter as much. But it's great to hear editors open to authors using the term steampunk in a query. And if the story is referred to as steampunk romance (when it applies), wouldn't that help clarify where the book would be shelved?

Edittorrent said...

I love that "Parasol Protectorate."

Alliteration is my thing.

And Heather, I think that romances using the term "steam" in the title could mean the publishers want to really put some muscle behind the term "steampunk"?

I really want to come up with a romance term. Steamluv? Steamhunk! :)

Heather Massey said...

I agree, using a variation of "steam" in the title is a great shorthand to convey story content. And also words like "iron," "brass," etc. Lots of fresh ideas to mine there.

Dave Shaw said...

'Steamiron love', anyone? Sounds like something Murphy could go for...