Friday, January 22, 2010

Steampunk: Making It Matter

Let me start by thanking Alison McMahan for her thorough and thought-provoking guest post on steampunk. She did a lot to demystify this genre, even while acknowledging the certain blurriness in the definition.

We've got two steampunk stories in the pipeline at Red Sage. The first, "Full Steam Ahead" by Nathalie Gray, will be released March 1. Nathalie's novel was our guinea pig in this subgenre, and I thought I would share with you some of the things we worked on during the editing process. For starters, let me tell you that the book is about a woman who time travels -- or dimension travels, I guess -- to a parallel earth where two species (one human and one humanoid) are fighting for dominance. The oceans are toxic, the continents have drowned, and people live either on dirigibles or in stilted cities high above the toxic surface. It's a bleak world, but it's not lacking in comic elements. For example, the humanoid species, which in my mind's eye looked something like dreadlocked orcs, has a very low tolerance for insults. So part of the humans' battle strategy involves shouting little-boy snark through a brass bullhorn. It's very funny, and that humor makes a great counterpoint to the bleakness and peculiar stresses of the environment.

When Nat first came to me with this novel, I have to admit my knowledge of steampunk was a bit on the minimal side. So right away her idea excited me. It was a chance to broaden my horizons and learn the ropes in a new subgenre just beginning to make hybrid inroads in romance. We talked a very little bit about the nature of her story, and then she went off to write it and I went off to figure out what, exactly, makes for a good steampunk novel before I had to edit hers.

Everywhere I went, I read about the cool props. Alison mentioned these as hallmarks of the genre, too -- the brass goggles, the long coats and gowns, the steam engines, the gadgetry. But there was something missing from all these discussions. Why are steam engines important to this world? What symbolic relevance is there in a pair of goggles? (I still haven't found good discussions on this topic. Can anyone help with links?) I mean, I get that we're interested in a pre-corporate artisanal environment, and that we still want to empower the characters with industrial-era tools and gadgets. And I get why that would be appealing to modern readers. But why brass goggles? Why hot air balloons? Why those, and not -- oh, I don't know, say monocles and pogo sticks?

By the time poor, unsuspecting Nathalie turned in her draft manuscript, I had already formed the impression that, regardless of the props she chose, we were going to have to find ways to impute some thematic or symbolic relevance to them. I mean, if you could substitute motorcycles or snowmobiles for dirigibles without affecting the substance of the story, then why do you need a dirigible? In other words, what is the essential purpose and nature of the steampunk environment? (btw, my answers to these questions have to do with, not simplicity or anti-tech, but a form of personal empowerment. Contrast a dystopian futuristic in which corporations control the environment with the steampunk past in which objects are made and used by people, for people, and you'll start to understand my admittedly misty thinking on the topic. This is why, I think, so many steampunk novels include large-scale power struggles.)

After reading Nat's draft, I knew that I had to stop worrying about the entirety of the genre, though, and just focus on the pages in front of me. So, with these sorts of philosophical questions plaguing me, I turned to her specific world.

Because, really, what it comes right down to is the story itself. That's what we have to work with. That's what we can control.

I already knew Nathalie would be open to tackling some of these bigger questions within the context of her story. She's a great sport. Also, I know from the umpty books we've done together that she's hungry to learn and grow, so I saw this as an opportunity not just to push myself, but to push her. We ended up talking at some length about the various thematic elements in her story and how to solidify them. I sent her long, pointless, rambling letters about the relevance of water and other barely interesting things, and she took it all in stride and somehow managed to craft a stronger book by the end of this process. That's a tribute to her. Go, Nat, go!

In the end, here's what I hope we've accomplished. I hope her book is a vivid steampunk erotic romance, a solid representation of the subgenre. I hope the steampunk elements come alive because of the care we've taken to make them relevant within the context of the story world. I hope that readers are as intrigued by this during the reading as we were during the writing and revising.

But maybe, all I've managed to do is convince myself that writing a good steampunk is much like writing any good genre story. You operate within the parameters of the world, and you try to make it coherent and integrated, and you question every element to ensure it's pulling its story weight. Come March 1, you'll all get to read this wonderful story and let me know if we hit the mark.


ps. Want to know the hardest part of the entire editing process? Naming the book. Not kidding.


Matthew Delman said...

Yeah, I can imagine that would be a difficult prospect. I love the title "Full Steam Ahead," by the way.

Good choice!

Andrew Rosenberg said...

Kewl, would like to read it. BTW why is comment moderation turned on? Or was it always that way?

I'm working through my Steampunk elements right now as well. When your mechanical horse kicks up a lot of dirt, you kind of need goggles.

Edittorrent said...

Iapetus, we've had some spam trollers that we're trying to clear out. I'm moderating comments until we shake them. I hope this will be temporary.

Matthew, the title really suits the author and the story. She's know for writing high-action, fast-paced stories. But we considered many titles before settling on that one!


Humans. Cats. Boat. said...

"But we considered many titles before settling on that one!"

Man, did we ever! But I love, love, LOVE this one. Full steam ahead, baby, yeahhh!

Heather Massey said...

Count me in as a Nathalie Gray fan, and I'm looking forward to FULL STEAM AHEAD. Incidentally, good to know the title because I'm working on a steampunk feature for LoveLetter, Germany's romance magazine and now I can include her title.

But why brass goggles?

Because they're cool! I don't think it gets much deeper than that, lol!

Steampunk romance is going to take over the world, baby!

Anonymous said...

Seriously, a clever title!

You've sold me, Theresa. The story and comedy have me intrigued and smiling. I'll have to read Nathalie's book now. No going back. Bring on March :)

Edittorrent said...

Ah, Heather, that's where I went wrong then. I understand cool, but I went looking for deeper meaning. :)

Rachel, you'll never regret reading any of Nat's books. She's a wonderful writer.


Ms. McMahan said...

To answer some of Theresa's questions, I think dirigibles and hot air balloons are hommages to the proto-steampunkers, H.G. Wells and Jules Vernes. Goggles of some kind were needed to run those; modern steampunk chooses to make those of brass instead of leather. But submarines, huge walking robots, monocles (see League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) all fit in. I'm sure Pogo Sticks do too, and if no one has put them in yet, I'm sure someone will!
BTW after reading Matt Delman's blogs on worldbuilding in steampunk, and then these followup articles, I've decided to continue blogging on worldbuilding in steampunk on my own blog.Check it out if you are interested at

vvb32 reads said...

sounds excellent. love the gadgetry and romance in the steampunk genre. looking forward to reading this one! oh yeah.