Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How I Found Steampunk (and Learned to Not Take Myself So Seriously)

Water Tower Repainting, Under Covers
Eight or nine years ago a story idea came to me all in a rush.  The MC, the major conflict, the external conflict, the even more major internal conflict, the internal character contractions that the MC would need to come to terms with (i.e. character arc), were all there in my head.

The only catch was the story was set in Victorian London.

And the only thing I knew about Victorian London was what I could remember from reading Sherlock Holmes stories when I was a kid.

Knowing I'd need to learn a whole lot more to write this in a believable way, I started looking around for books on Victorian England.  My wife, an avid history buff, eagerly encouraged me in this.  (Suddenly we were hanging out in the same sections of used book stores!)  That Christmas was heavy on Victorian history books, many of which were read quickly and eagerly.  These days I have about 35+  books on the Victorians and a 3' x 5' printed-from-the-'net-and-taped-together map of 1825 London on the wall in my writing room.

Here's the great thing about the Victorians: they lived in a time of vast scientific expansion and they appreciated the technological advances they were making.  In many ways, their age was very similar to ours, only with different mechanical means.  (On a very broad scale, if you substitute brass for aluminium and plastics, steam for electricity and horse-drawn carriages for cars, you get some sense of the differences)  They even had their own Victorian Internet [term] [book].

For a sense of how cool the Victorian Internet was, here's Adam Hart-Davis in a segment from his incredible BBC show "What the Victorians Did For Us" on the telegraph:

(Hart-Davis' book based on this series was one of the first books that I read that Christmas. Earlier this year I found the series on YouTube and I halted my day until I had watched all of them)

That first book idea was one that I worked on in my head for months.  And months.  I wrote out some sketchy notes and some brief character descriptions and backgrounds, but my mistake was in not just writing out a @%#$-y first draft to get something on paper that I could work on developing over time.  Instead, I allowed the project to gain such importance in my head that when I finally did write the first scene (one that I had rehearsed over and over again) nothing was going to meet my expectations.

I was so appalled by what I had written that I refused to even think about the story for almost a year.

Somewhere during that time a published writer friend over on LiveJournal told me, essentially, to stop taking it all so seriously and then kept peppering me with questions like, "Why aren't you writing?"

I slowly changed my answer from a whiny "because I friggin' $ΓΌ¢k at writing" to a begrudging "because I haven't found the right idea yet."

One day I found a link to Steampunk Magazine.  The magazine was seeking submissions and, as a free online 'zine that didn't pay, I figured I had as good a chance getting published there as I did anywhere.  Steampunk is based on Victorian-era sensibilities as well as technologies.  Add in the "Science Fiction from a Victorian Perspective" twist to what I had already researched and my imagination started playing with ideas, turning possibilities over and over in my mind.

Then --wham-- two characters came to me.  Even better, they were busy doing something.

I decided this story needed to be fun.  In fact, it should be funny.  Instead of being Heavy with Message, this needed to be a fun story with slightly goofy characters that would, hopefully, even make a few people laugh. 

In short, it needed to be the kind of book I would have read to my 2nd - 4th grade classes back when I was an Elementary School Librarian.

And that last thought was my Sullivan's Travels moment.  Lots of things fell into place and I found that writing became much easier.  I still take the craft of writing seriously, just as I still insist that these Steampunk stories must be the best they can be.  It's just that I'm also insisting that I loosen up around my characters, allowing them to tell the story as much--if not moreso--than I insist on trying to get it told.

-- Tom

What about your writing?  Have you found yourself taking your WIP so seriously that you haven't been able to write?  What have you done to step back and rethink your approach to your writing?

No comments:

Post a Comment