Not Your Father’s Steampunk: Reviewing “The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities”

I didn’t set out to become an expert in Steampunk – and in that regard I suppose I’m not in any real danger of becoming one – nor did I have an specific desire to write Steampunk, per se.  It was just another reflection in the funhouse mirror that is the greater Speculative Fiction genre umbrella: a little bit sci-fi, an little bit fantasy, and a little bit something different.  I liked it, the same way I liked Fantasy and Sci-fi.  Heck… I liked it before I knew what to call it.  (The word “steampunk” dates back to the late 80s, but the genre didn’t seem to enter the popular consciousness until the late 90s and 2000s.  When I first discovered steampunk I had no word for it, and thought of it as “retro-futurism” and except for the fact that there’s now a significant fantasy cross-over segment of steampunk, I still think of it that way.)  But my first love was the classic Epic and High Fantasy.

But then I started this blog.  In the years before I started blogging Steampunk as a community – one part cosplay and one part literary movement – started gaining… um… steam.  So by this time I was aware both of the genre and its attendant aesthetic and of the now-accepted term itself.

The first time I mentioned Steampunk on this blog was in response to a Flash Fiction challenge that I completed as a Friday Flash.  This particular challenge asked us to use the word “zeppelin” somewhere in the story.  So, naturally, steampunk.  And this was the result.  After that, I discussed Steampunk once or twice with other bloggers in comments on their posts, throwing in my own two cents on the ins and outs of the genre.  Somehow, as a result of all that, I ended up writing one of my most popular posts on this blog: “A Steampunk Society“, which still gets hits today from people who apparently want to understand what values and mores would be present in a steampunk-inspired, pseudo-early industrial society.  I guess there was a small hole in the internet concerning that particular sub-topic of the genre, because writing that piece made me into something of a second- or third-string “expert” on the Steampunk genre.  And I’ve enjoyed digging deeper into the genre.  I’ve promised myself someday to return to that article and rewrite it with a more scholarly and exegetical focus.  I believe the popularity of that post lead indirectly to my first professional publication, here.  And those two things together likely combined to lead to this post.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities

The Curious Cover of The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities

All of this was a long way of saying I was somehow identified as a member of the Steampunk literary fan community – possibly even someone of some influence, although I might have a hard time believing that – and that as someone of this type I might be interested in reviewing Ann and Jeff VanderMeer‘s latest steampunk-themed anthology, The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities.

Well… indeed I was interested in reviewing it – so when I was contacted to ask if I was, I responded in the affirmative.  A few days later, a shiny new review copy of the Cabinet arrived on my doorstop.  So now, allow me to introduce you, if you have not already made the acquaintance, to The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities.

What is the Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities?

A fine question, my dear friend.

The Cabinet of Curiosities is, quite naturally, a curious specimen.  It’s an anthology, sure – but it’s unlike pretty much any anthology you’re likely to have picked up.  A typical short story anthology has a theme and a bunch of stories from different authors that fit that theme.  But that’s not exactly what you’ll find in the Cabinet of Curiosities. Continue reading

More Truth & Honesty in Fiction: The Dark Matter

Yesterday, I began a discussion here that was part of an ongoing dialog between myself and many other bloggers – including, but not limited to Lua Fowles, J.P. Cabit, Janna T. and any others who may have commented on yesterday’s post (obviously, I’m writing this before yesterday’s post went live, i.e. from the Past! Via the magic of Science!) – about honesty in fiction.  Yesterday’s post focused specifically on language and how we use it and, more specifically than that, on profanity.

The question at hand is author-extraordinaire Stephen King’s assertion that we have what amounts to a sacred trust with the Reader to represent the world of our story, and its characters, honestly and truly.   But, even in accepting that sacred trust, the question remains as to what represents honesty and truth in the context of what is essentially a fabrication, and figment, a lie.

The question I’m trying to explore in this blog post is the dark matter of fiction.  Story requires plot, and plot requires characters and conflict.  These are the most basic of building blocks in what writers do.  And the heart of conflict is… well… conflict.  That’s a huge can of worms to open.  There are many layers and many depths that we can explore regarding the issue of conflict.  We can skim it lightly, reflecting the little surface conflicts of every-day life: whether to drive too fast or aggressively to get to work on time after sleeping in too late, whether to ask the pretty girl/handsome guy out, whether to ask the boss for a raise, whether to stay home and study for the test tomorrow or go out to hang with friends, whether to lace a little profanity into your speech to seem hip and cool… and so on.  Some readers eat this stuff up, and some writers love to write it.

Me, I’m a speculative fiction lover, writer and reader.  I deal with everyday life conflicts every day.  When I turn to story and fiction, I’m looking for something that plays out on a larger stage.  I’m looking for something that makes it a relief to return to my little, everyday troubles.  I’m looking for something that gives me perspective, and context, and meaning.  I’m looking for something with mythic scope.  I’m not that unusual, in that regard.  Even if that doesn’t float your boat, though, what I’m discussing here will still be relevant. Continue reading

Truth & Honesty in Fiction

The thing about the “blogosphere” is that it can allow for a lot of deep discussion of big issues, if we let it.  Every blogger has his or her own soapbox on which he can stand to proclaim his or her opinion.  And then there are comments where, if they’re smart, they let other people express their opinion.  Some of those commenters – most, these days – will be other bloggers, who can go back to their own blogs to spout their own opinions again, and so it goes, back and forth, round and round, and maybe eventually we arrive at the truth of the matter, or maybe we just reach a level of comfort with our beliefs after having had a critical look at them.

This is a conversation that, in this iteration, was started over on Lua Fowles’ Bowl of Oranges on Monday.  But this is my soapbox, so this is where I tell you what I think.  What I didn’t think was that I’d be doing a blog post on the topic.  But a comment by J.P. Cabit on Lua’s blog, and a subsequent comment that Janna T. left over on my Comment Policy page convinced me there’s more to explore on this issue.  The topic, if you haven’t followed the links, is on “Honesty” in what we right.  But this topic can be explored on more than one level: there’s at least two, possibly three, that I can directly touch on in this post.  (I suspect this will be a long one, and so I may have a follow-up tomorrow.)

It’s an old saw that writers – especially Fiction writers – are professional liars.  (I can’t find a good quote on it, but you’ve heard the phrase before, I’m sure.)  It’s an equally old saw that somehow Fiction reveals Truth (that comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

But this raises the question: what is Truth?  What does it mean to be “True” in Fiction, or to be “Honest” as writers, when what we write is fundamentally not true, in the strict, factual sense?  It’s a philosophical question, perhaps, but it’s worth considering. Continue reading

Another Story: Shopping for Snow

I’m glad I was able to respond to this week’s Author Aerobics challenge, and this is the first truly short bit that I’m sure qualifies as Flash Fiction.  It’s the shortest piece I’ve put up on this site so far, clocking in at about 580 words.  So, this week’s challenge was:

Write a scene 1000 words or less that shows at least two character who posses very different frames of reference, for example, a mother talking to a child, or a physics teacher talking to a student. This week’s theme? “Apples”

And, as I packed my lunch for work one day this week, pulling an apple from the fruit crisper in the fridge, the inspiration for this story struck me.  It’s a familiar tale, perhaps, but the scene played out amusingly in my mind.  I call it:

Shopping for Snow

By: Stephen Watkins

“Apples!  Poison Apples!  Get your fresh-picked Poison Apples!”  The hawker’s voice rose above the din of the marketplace, catching the ear of Queen Lucrezia.  She stopped to admire the hawker’s wares, stacks of apples of more than a dozen varieties.  Bright red and beautiful, rosy with golden accents, and burnished  green.  She reached out a delicate, long-fingered hand, but stopped short of touching the apples.  Instead, she reached up to tug the hood of her disguise lower over face.  Lucrezia often went about in the marketplace, shopping for gifts for her stepdaughter.  In disguise, of course.  It wouldn’t do for the Queen to be caught mingling with the commoners.

“You like my poison apples, lady?” 

Lucrezia didn’t answer immediately.  “How is it that you sell poison apples in the market?”

“Easy.  I get poison apples from the apple farm, I bring ‘em here and sell ‘em.”

“But, surely you can’t have many customers for poison apples.”

The hawker shrugged.  “I make a living.”

“But… Poison apples?  Why would someone buy a poison apple?”

“Look lady, I’m sure I don’t know what you’d do with a poison apple.  None of my business.  But you want poison apples, I got poison apples.  Otherwise, make room.  I’ve got other customers.”

Lucrezia paused for a moment, about to leave, but then decided to entertain the hawker a little longer.  “Tell me about your apples, sir.”

“Well, I’ve got a find selection here today.  I’m sure your ladyship would fancy a nice Red Delicious.  A single bite is enough to kill a man.”

“Red Delicious?  In my experience, they are anything but delicious.”

“A lady of taste?  These Granny Smiths’ll make you grow old so fast your head’ll spin.  Before you know it, there’s nothing left but dust ‘n bones.”

“But doesn’t a green apple simply scream poison?  Do you have anything a little more… subtle?”

“Ahh, you want the real fine stuff.  You’re in luck, your ladyship.  I’ve got a fine assortment of Rome Beauties and Pink Ladies.  Rome Beauties drive you barking drooling mad, and Pink Ladies drop you right in a coma so deep you’ll never wake up!  These are the best quality poison apples on the market!”

Lucrezia regarded the Rome Beauties and Pink Ladies.  They were fine looking apples.  The Beauties were a luscious red, not so deep as the Red Delicious, spotted with pink and golden flecks.  The Pink Ladies were the color of the morning sky, gentle and warm.

“Is there any cure for the poison on these apples?” she inquired.

The hawker drew himself up, looking insulted.  “Cure?  Cure?  What do I look like to you?  You come here, insulting my wares?  I got paying customers waiting.  I got no time for insults.”

“My apologies, good merchant.  I’m merely a careful consumer.  You can understand, I’m sure, that not every merchant is so conscientious as yourself.  I’m afraid that I’ve spent good coin on faulty products and shoddy workmanship in the past, and I’ve grown wary.”

“Look, lady, these are the best quality poison apples anywhere in the whole kingdom.  You can’t cure poison on apples like these.  I personally guarantee it!”

“How much are they, then?”

“For you, your ladyship, my best price.  Three crowns for a dozen, and my personal money-back guarantee!   These apples’ll poison a Sanabrian Giant, or else you’ll get your money back and three free apples for your trouble.”

Lucrezia smiled.  “Excellent.  I’ll take a dozen.”

The End.

(For other short shorts by yours truly, check out the links on my “Stories and Scribblings” page.)

A Taste of Fantasy

I’m not sure how often I’ll be able to participate in these Author Aerobics exercises being posted by T. S. Bazelli on her blog, but I decided to participate this week, at least.  (I say I’m not sure because the situation on the home-front may evolve such that I might need to take a short break from regular daily blog updates, for a little while, to focus my attention on things there or for school.)

Anyway, this week’s challenge was a dialogue punctuation excercise, asking us to utilize a number of different dialogue tags and punctuation.  Which means, of course, that the story would largely involve a lot of talking.  Oh, and we were asked to touch on the theme of “spring” (with the sly suggestion at the end that this could mean “the season” or “the coil”… or something else, entirely).  I decided to pass on another shot at a steampunk (it’s too soon), as much as I enjoyed the last one, and go straight for a little mythology-inspired fantasy that actually arose from pondering both the word “Niflheim” and the antecedent of spring: winter.

So, a couple notes: yes the dialog is a little archaic and stilted.  It reflects the mood I was in after reading a few wikipedia entries on norse mythology.  I also struggled with adding “The End”, because this doesn’t really feel like the end of a story, but the end of a chapter.  I contemplated using the phrase “The End?” with a question mark, but decided that was a little silly looking.  I contemplated not putting “The End” at the end.  Ultimately, though, I’ve no idea if I’ll ever return to the world described in this short tale, so for now “The End” is appropriate.

I call this 1,004-word taste of fantasy (woohoo, almost in the word-limit!):

From the Farthest North

By: Stephen Watkins

“No,” he said.  “The law is the law.  I will not allow it to be broken, not even by you.”  Ingurd turned away from his impetuous son to gaze out at the thick banks of snow visible in the pale moonlight.

Hulfur Ingurdson would not be deterred.  “Do you want our village to die, father!  Our food will not last.  The spring has abandoned us, and we will all perish unless we do something!”

Ingurd turned on his son, a fire in his eye.  “Do not lecture me, boy!  Our laws have kept us safe for generations.  You cannot conceive of what is out there, of what I’ve—“

“Peace, Ingurd,” Snorri interrupted, holding his hand up in a gesture of conciliation.  “Allow me to speak to the boy, to explain again our law, so that he can understand.  The winter,” he said, turning his attention to Hulfur, “has always come.  And it has always ended.  And with the coming of the winter, there have always been the Niflurmur, who feed on men’s souls.  You have thought that they were legends, but there was a time when their attacks on Holdur Thyul were relentless. 

“That was before we built the wall.  And that was before the Law of Winter.  None can go outside the walls, as long as Winter’s claw grips the land.  Any who goes out is Lost, for we cannot risk the touch of the Worms of Nifhel here in Holdur Thyul.  When the spring thaw melts the mantel of winter, then we are safe, for the Niflurmur always retreat to Niflhimor with the retreat of winter.”

“But what if the winter will not retreat?” Hulfur pressed.  “It has been six turns of the moon since Deepwinter’s Night.  The spring is past due by at least two turns.  This winter…” He cast his glance over the wall toward the heavy drifts of snow, ghostly in the pallid light.  A raven settled at the peak of the wooden palisade and squawked once.  “This winter will not end…”

Ingurd turned again from his son, scowling, and shooed the raven away.  Snorri frowned momentarily before answering Hulfur.  “The winter always ends, Hulfur.  The spring always comes.  It has been thus ever since our people came out of Mitlhimor to this northern land.  The spring comes, and then we will plant.”

Hulfur sighed.  Snorri was a skaald.  He was the keeper of the history and the laws of Holdur Thyul.  These were things he would know.  He glanced at Ingurd, who kept stoic watch over the winter-gripped forest beyond the palisade walls of Holdur Thyul.

“You would be wise to listen to the boy.” 

Ingurd started at the sudden voice.  He gazed over the heavy drifts, from which the voice had sounded.  “Who… who dares—“

A figure stepped from the shadows of the woods, covered in a long dark cloak and a wide-brimmed hat.  Ingurd swore a curse.  “By the din of Vyolnir!”  He turned to sound the alarm.

The stranger raised his hand in a gesture of peace, striding toward the walls.  “Hold your alarm, I am no Worm of Nifhel.”

Ingurd growled. “Hold yourself, stranger.  Whether you be Niflurmur or no, I cannot tell, but you’ll not cross the gates of Holdur Thyul this night.”

The stranger smiled, and his hand disappeared into his cloak.  “I will wait here, then, in the shadows of your walls, until my message is heard.”

“What message is worth hearing in the cold of winter?”

“You fool, Ingurd Baldurson.  You cower behind your wall as the reach of Nifhel grows longer and tighter over Mitlhimor.  Do you think your walls can hold back the ravages of winter?  Do you think that you can hide from Nifhel’s gaze here, at the very steps to Nifhel’s Gate?  The boy is right.  The time for bold action has come.”

Ingurd eyed the stranger, wondering how the man knew his name.  “Who are you, stranger, that you come here and speak so, that you walk about in the depths of winter as though you have no fear of Nifhel?”

The raven settled on the stranger’s left shoulder as he produced a deep chuckle.  “A fool only has no fear of Nifhel’s might, but a fool also who goes about in winter unequipped to deal with Nifhel’s minions.”   The raven on his shoulder squawked again.  “I am called Gylfar, and I will deliver my message.

“Know this, Ingurd Baldurson, and Snorri Sturlungson, and all you of Holdur Thyul: the Twilight is at hand, and the Ashur move again in the Middle Realms.  The Bane of Turun stirs in the deep, and the Fell Fang is abroad, wreaking death and havoc.  You, Snorri, know that these are the signs of the Twilight. 

“But the Lords of the Ashur, the Ragna, will not let the long night fall without sending their might against Lukur and his consort, Nifhel.  The call has gone forth to gather the armies of men against that dark day.  Vyolnir, the Hammer of Turun, has been raised in the city of Fallsgard.  There, the princes of all of Mitlhimor wait for the sound of the horn, and for the Nine to come down from the Farthest North.”

“The Nine from the Farthest North?” Snorri interrupted.  “All these things are spoken of in the Elder Songs.  But surely you don’t mean—“

“Holdur Thyul,” Gylfar nodded, “is the Farthest North.  The last village of men before the Gates of Nifhel.”  He pulled his hand from the depths of his cloak.  The raven took flight, cawing loudly, as he held up a small, shining object.  “Behold the Eye of Othar!”

Hulfur gazed in awe as the stranger was engulfed in an intense light that made the night as day.  An Ashling!  One who had been touched by the Ashur, and carried their power.  Hulfur turned to his father, who looked humbled by this display. 

The stranger spoke again.  “Eight you must send forth, lead by Hulfur Ingurdson.  I will be the Ninth.”

The End.

Some Steampunk Fiction

Fellow writer-in-training T.S. Bazelli, over on her blog, has started up an occassional fiction writing prompt meant to excercise certain fundamental writing skills that’s called “Author Aerobics”.  I’ve decided to participate when I can, so in accordance with that, here’s the first dose of genuine fiction written by your’s truly.

The assignment was this:

In 1000 words or less, write a piece of fiction that includes all the elements of the 3 act structure, including at least one crisis in the rising action. To make things more interesting use the word “zeppelin” somewhere in the story…

…There’s only one rule: set a time limit.

Throwing the word “zeppelin” up there to get the creative juices rolling got me this little story.  The only problem is that I totally blew the word-count limit (it clocks in at almost exactly 2,000 words), and it took me a bit more than just one lunch break sitting to type it up – more time than I’d set for myself.

It’s a highly flawed piece – the characterization is weak, the ending is not particularly satisfying, and it’s not especially original.  As such, I have no immediate plans to spruce it up into something more publishable.  But, so that you can get a taste of my writing (albeit not at my peak), here is your first sample of my work, a little steampunk tale I call:

The Last Flight of the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance

By: Stephen Watkins

Leda watched as Captain Davney Ellory took the telescope from Saxwith and peered through it out the central window of the bridge.  Leda was done fixing the Engine Order Telegraph, but she was still tinkering with the controls, to give her a reason to stay on the bridge.  She liked being on the bridge; this was where the real action was!  Captain Ellory harrumphed, and lowered the telescope.  Leda followed his gaze to the horizon, where three black dots chugged on a course toward the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance.  The Lord Winstead’s Vigilance was a dirigible, an aging battlecruiser stationed out on the frontiers of the United Principalities of Alberot, patrolling the demilitarized zone.  It was a rust bucket, yeah, but Leda was proud to serve on it.  It was her rust bucket.

“An armored cruiser,” the captain confirmed, “And two destroyers.  Markovian marks.  They’re no more than a dozen aeronauts from the demilitarized zone.  They’re flirting with breaking the armistice.”

“They’re no match for the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance, sir.” Saxwith pulled herself up haughtily.

“Individually, no, Leftenant Saxwith.  Together, they’d easily overpower us.  Put the ship on alert.” 

Saxwith nodded and  starting barking into the voicetubes, sounding general quarters.

“Captain,” Leftenant Arbery warned, “They’re signaling.”  The Markovian ships were closer, now.  Leda could just make out their profile.  And she could see the flashes of light, blinking in a pattern unknown to her, coming from the lead vessel.

“Take it down, Leftenant Arbery.”

Arbery confirmed the order, and pulled out a sheet of paper and began taking down the complex pattern.  As it began to repeat, he went back and translated, then gasped.

“Captain, they’re demanding our surrender!”

Ellory swore, and swiped up the telescope again.  “Damn, they’ve crossed into the demilitarized zone.”  He glanced back at Saxwith.  “Hold course steady, but ready the guns.”  Saxwith nodded, and grabbed the handle of the Engine Order Telegraph.  At that moment, a whistle sounded from the voice tubes, then a garbled voice.  “Crumwell to bridge.  Trouble in the engine room.  We’ve blown a gasket on the main boiler.  Send Tensbit to engineering, on the double.”

Saxwith glanced at Leda to ensure she’d heard the command, and Leda nodded before turning to the portside.  Leda raced down the ladder into the engineering hold, in the bowels of the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance.  As soon as she passed the bulkhead door, she was confronted with a wall of steam, smoke, ash and soot clogging the engine room.  She waded into the thick miasma, coughing and trying to clear her path by waving her arm.  She could see the bright orange glow from the furnace, and there were Haddock and Whir, the stokers, still shoveling coal.

“What in the name of burning Tarshish do you think you’re doing?”  Leda was Engineer’s Assistant, so she could pull rank on the stokers.

“What’s it bloody look like we’re doing?” barked Haddock.  “We shovel coal, that’s our job!”

“Shoveling coal when the main boiler’s blown a gasket?  You want this rig to explode?”

Haddock blinked.  Leda growled, then jerked her hand in a get-thee-behind-me gesture.  “Come on, let’s find Rubet and get this turbine rolling again.”  Leda swam deeper into the Engine room, and found the main shut-off valve on the central boiler.  She could feel the heat from the furnace through her leather work gloves as she grabbed the valve.  It was stuck, but she threw her shoulder into it, and Whir came up to help.  In a moment, they’d thrown the valve, and the steam began to clear.  As it cleared, she could see Rubet Crumwell’s legs sticking out of a hole in the side of the central turbine, wiggling.  He pushed himself up and out of the hole and settled his heavy frame on the deck, tapping the side of his head with a massive wrench.

“About got this problem figured out, no thanks to you, Tensbit.”  He looked back toward the gaping hole, then stuffed his wrench back in.  “You’re late by the way.  You were due back a half hour ago.”

Leda suppressed a blush, but offered no explanation.   “See here,” Crumwell ordered, “Tighten down that clamp on the boiler.  We’ve got to get this turbine spinning, else we’re dead in the air.”

As Leda headed over back to the boiler, the Engine Order Telegraph sounded with three loud rings.  The reader read “All Ahead Full”.

“See now!” Crumwell barked, “Hurry with the gasket on that boiler.  Cap’n wants power!”  Haddock and Whir hopped to help Leda pull out the broken piece of piping and replace the damaged gasket.  Before she got it sealed, the E.O.T. rang again, reading “Back Emergency”.

“Cap’n’s ordering evasive maneuvers!” Crumwell shouted.  “What’s going on up there?”

“Three Markovy ships bearing down on us!” Leda shouted back as she finished tightening the clamps.  She pointed and Haddock and Whir threw open the main valve as Crumwell set the turbine in reverse.    The zeppelin lurched as the turbine roared to life. “Looks bad!  Cap’n says we’re outgunned!” 

To punctuate her remarks, the armored zeppelin began to shake as artillery shells started exploding all around.  Then there was the deafening thump, thump of return fire.  Crumwell swore as the artillery barrage continued.  With each detonation, the engine room rattled.  Loose tools and materials started clanging to the floor, and Leda’s newly replaced gasket groaned.  “We can’t take much of this!” Crumwell yelled, “She’s falling apart!”  The look in his eyes said much more. He’d served on the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance since her maiden voyage.  For all Leda was proud to serve on her, this rig really was Crumwell’s.  But he’d not had the engineering staff he’d needed to maintain the venerable old ship since the armistice.  It was killing him to watch the Lord Winstead suffering so.

Leda ducked in time to dodge the blown rivets as her gasket job shook loose after a near-impact. The engine room began filling with steam again.

Then, as quickly as the barrage began, everything fell silent, except for the straining of the turbine and the whistling of the steam.  Then a voice sounded from outside the hull, in thickly accented Albish, ordering the vessel to prepare for boarding.  A moment later, the Lord Winstead shuddered as the boarding gangplank made contact.

“Hurry,” Crumwell waved Leda, Haddock, and Whir toward the back of the engine room.  “Into the air ducts.  They try to take the Engine, I’ll hold them off, here!”  Leda nodded as she climbed onto the back of an equipment bin and lead Haddock and Whir into the ducts.  As he lowered the vent cover, Leda watched for a moment as Rubet Crumwell dashed back to the furnace and started stoking the coal hot and high.  Leda turned on all fours and lead the way down the duct pipes.

“Where we going?” asked Whir.

“To the armory.”  Said Leda.  “We won’t let them have this ship without a fight!”  There were soldiers on board, of course, but Leda’d be damned if she let them be the only thing standing between the Markovian shock troops and mastery of the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance.

The ducts were like a maze, but Leda’d done enough work on them to know her way.  She’d inspected nearly every inch of them in her time on the Lord Winstead.  Within minutes she’d lead Haddock and Whir to the armory, where she opened the vent and took a glance around.    As she’d hoped, the coast was clear.  The Lord Winsead’s armory was in an unconventional place for an Alberot battlecruiser, she had been drawn up on an experimental design that never caught on during the Albo-Markovy war, so Leda reasoned it would take the Markovian troops a while to find and secure it. She dropped lithely into the armory, followed by the loud klumps of Haddock and Whir.

Leda quickly secured a couple Prowith rifles and armed the stokers, then rummaged around a bit for the proper size shot.  She found a small pistol and tucked in her tool belt.  She grabbed another Prowith for herself, then shouldered up to the armory bulkhead door.  She threw the latch slowly, and peered out into the hall.  She signaled quiet to Haddock and Whir as she caught site of a dozen Markovian troops marching Captain Ellory, his Leftenants, and a few disarmed ship’s guard away from the quarterdeck.  She cocked the rifle, then stepped carefully out into the hall, behind the Markovian soldiers.  She didn’t wait to see if the stokers followed her.  She’d only handled a rifle a few times in her career.  But all hands on an Alberot aeronautical vessel are required to take training in marksmanship, and Leda found the memory of what to do rushing back to her.  She took aim and fired into the backs of the Markovy men.  Honor be damned!  They’d broken the armistice and boarded her ship!

The corridor quickly filled with smoke as Leda and the stokers fired off another round and the surviving Markovians  turned and opened fire.  Leda dropped to the deck floor, pulling out her pistol as the captured Alberot men turned on the Markovian and wrestled their rifles away.

The firefight was over as quickly as it began.  Leda pushed herself up from the deck, then saluted sharply as Ellory broke away from his officers to inspect her and the stokers.

“Fine work, Tensbit.” He complimented her.

“Thank you, sir.”

“I’m afraid, though, that the Markovians have us at a disadvantage.  We’re heavily damaged, and escape will be difficult, perhaps impossible.”  The look on his face was grave.

“Of course sir.”

Then Ellory grinned fiercely.  “But we’re Alberot people, in His Majesty’s service.  Never let a little thing like certain failure get in the way of our service!  Let’s see if we can regain control of my ship!”

“Yes sir!” Leda smiled as she saluted again then fell in alongside Ellory’s officers.  Ellory lead the way back down the corridor, while Arbery and Saxwith stopped off to gather more rifles at the armory.

The deck groaned as Ellory and Leda marched toward the crew quarters, then a loud crack shook the whole ship.  An explosive boom reverberated against the bulkheads, and the armloads of rifles Arbery and Saxwith had collected clattered to the deck floor.  Another explosion sounded, followed by another crack.  Leda lost her balance and fell as Ellory, Haddock, and Whir collided against the bulkheads.

“No!” shouted Leda.  “By Tarshish!  Rubet’s overstoked the furnace!  He’s going to blow up the whole ship!”

“Damn!” snarled Ellory.  A klaxon warning sounded, and a frank Markovian voice began yelling orders.  Though Leda didn’t speak Markovian, she knew enough to recognize a general order to abandon ship.

Ellory turned about and led the group down a side-hall.  “Looks like the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance is going down.  We’ll make for the escape skiffs.”

They passed another patrol of Markovian troops, but they hurried on without a second glance.  Smaller explosions continued to wrack the body of the dying zeppelin.  Ellory held the hatch as Leda, Saxwith, Arbery, Haddock, Whir, and the guards trundled into the small escape skiff.  Ellory was last to enter the skiff before pulling the hatch closed.  Leda climbed to the aft to start loosing the rigging tying the skiff to the Lord Winstead, while Arbery started loosing the rigging on the bow.  Ellory ordered the aerosail deployed, and in moments the skiff was away from shuddering dirigible.  Leda glanced out the starboard porthole.  The Lord Winstead’s Vigilance was engulfed in flames, and the Markovian ships were now moving to put daylight between them and the burning ship.  Nobody moved to give chase to the escaping skiff.

“That’s that,” sighed Ellory, “So much for the Versadian Accord.  So much for the armistice.”  He turned to the remnants of his crew.  “We’ll land the skiff comfortably in Alberot territory, where we’ll be picked up by His Majesty’s Army.  I want to thank you each for your faithful service on the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance.”

The end.

Dialogue, or “That’s what she said”

You may have noticed I have a tendancy to wax eloquent when I draft my blog entries.  My wife described my style as “very professional-sounding”, which I believe she meant as a compliment. 

But when writing dialogue, that’s a bad thing.

The problem, of course, is that people don’t speak this way in real life.  We don’t use phrases like “wax eloquent” in every-day speech.  We don’t use long, compound sentences with multiple clauses.  We use relatively few multi-syllabic words, or you could say there is an inverse relationship between the number of syllables a word possesses and the frequency with which it is used in spoken language.

So, on paper, my writing looks great.  But stories are about people, and people communicate with spoken language, and spoken language is nothing like this sort of professional language.

In fact, spoken language is a great deal more complicated than my sort of professional written language.  Speech patterns vary dramatically across regions, just in the anglophonic world.  Add in the variations of speech patterns brought to us by the native French speakers, or native Chinese speakers, German speakers, and everyone else, and you have a near infinite variety and complexity of patterns to try to grasp to get dialogue in a story sounding realistic.

But there are a few general rules that I think can help, and which I am trying to apply in my writing.  First, unless you happen to be me, most people try to use as few words as possible to say what they want to say, and they try to use as small words as possible.  So, generally, a dialogue between two people will be a series of relatively rapid-fire, short sentences.

Second, at least within the native English speaking world, there tend to be a lot of filler words that don’t add appreciably to the denotative content of a sentence (though they may add some connotative and situational meaning).  The exact filler words that are most commonly used seems to vary a bit from region to region, and excessive use of these fillers can give certain speech patterns a very stereotypical appearance.  For instance, as 1980s pop culture has drilled into us, excessive use of the filler “like” in a sentence tells us the speaker is from California, most likely a stereotyped “Valley Girl”.

Different regional dialects also employ a slightly modified vocabulary.  This article on Wikipedia details just a small number of the various regional vocabulary changes across North America.  Understanding some of these trends can go a long way toward making characters in a story sound like they’re from where they say they’re from.  I think using regional vocabularies can have a bigger, and more subtle impact than using phonetic spelling to spell out how the regional dialect is pronounced.  (By that I mean writing something like “Ah seyed what ah meyant” in place of “I said what I meant” to simulate the sound of the Southern accent, for instance, which might come off as mildly offensive in some cases.)

When writing science fiction, if you have a handle on dialects, you can have a lot of fun implying how future history has changed our language  by changing the way you have your characters speak.  If you are writing a fantasy that is not based in a contemporary world, you have a little more free-reign with speech patterns, vocabularies and accents, since you are modeling a world where the history and development of language are nothing at all like our own.

In some stories, you may have the tricky proposition of representing what is spoken by your characters in another language while using a language your readers can understand.  For instance, you may have a story set in rural China where all your characters are speaking a Chinese dialect.  But if your readers are all English-speaking, chances are you will want to write everything your characters are saying as if they had spoken in English.  But to make the dialogue still seem authentic, you may want to add in a few key terms from the appropriate Chinese dialect (which you have dutifully defined for your readers elsewhere), and try to model your characters’  speech patterns on the way actual Chinese speakers might speak.

Writing good dialogue is definitely a beast to tackle.  Doing so successfully takes more than a mastery of written language.  It takes a keen ear, used to listen to the ways in which actual people speak, and it takes familiarity with the words, phrases, and patterns that change between speakers across different regions.

And it takes one more thing: remembering that your characters are not cardboard cutouts, but should be fully fleshed-out human beings.  If you have a character who, like me, was raised through much of his childhood out in the Western States and was then transplanted into the Southern States where, as a grown man, he has now spent the majority of his life, who is well-educated, and who likes exercising with language you will have a character whose speech patterns sound like no one else in your story.  In other words, there’s an enormous variety in the ways we speak in the real world: try to capture some of that variety and uniqueness in your characters.

Happy writing.

Write, Rewrite, Edit, Proofread, Repeat

Rewriting, Editing, and Proofreading are sort of like the red-headed step-siblings of writing.  Or perhaps like Cinderella’s step sisters.  It’s something writers don’t want to have anything to do with, but without them the story isn’t complete.

In preparing to edit and proofread the story I have decided to try to prepare to send off to a publisher during my break from class, I thought I’d look up some editing and proofreading techniques.  There are some very good guides out on the web.  Much of this good advice (though not all), however, is geared toward students preparing term papers.  Of course, everything I learned in school about editing and proofreading my written work is still largely valid, even now that I’m focusing on fiction over academic papers.

One commonly offered piece of advice, and I can vouch for this, is to put a little time and space between you and the work you are editing and proofreading.  In my experience, for the first week or two after I have finished a story, or a chapter in a novel, I find that I’m so enamored of my work that it’s very difficult to find the errors and problems in my writing.  Given a few months, I’ll be able to approach the story with fresh eyes, and will be a little more objective.  For some people, this may only take  a week or so to get to an appropriate level of objectivity, for others, I imagine, it may be somewhat longer.

The story I am working on now I first wrote in March of 2007.  Yeah, there’s a bit of time and space between us now.  And looking at it now, I’m learning a thing or two, not only about revising and rewriting and editing, but about writing good stories in the first place.

The story was based on this “good idea” I had.  It was  neat twist, something a little unexpected.  And I still think the basic idea behind the story is a good idea.  When I tell people about the premise of the story, I usually get a positive reaction.  And yet… the story lacks something.

You see, a good story needs more than a good idea.   The problem is, when I wrote it – when I write short stories in general – I am usually high on this good idea I have and how it will make for such a great story.  But I miss out on the two really important elements that are the foundations of a good story: interesting characters and interesting conflicts.  A good idea is something that hooks your readers and gets them in the door.   But you need interesting characters with interesting conflicts to keep them in your story until the very end.

That said, I have a lot of work ahead of me.  The opening paragraph is relatively weak – it quickly lays out my “clever” premise and sets the tone for the story, but it lacks dramatic impact, and the story quickly gets lost with a lack of interesting conflicts and motivating impetus.   The main character is essentially the only character for most of the first half of the story. 

Without other characters to interact with early and frequently, the reader doesn’t develop any connection to the main character.  And without other characters, the conceptual conflict set up by the opening premise starts to stretch thin and fall flat.  Good conflict generally flows from interesting characters with opposing goals.

So, before editing and proofreading are even relevant, I need to spend a little time diving in deeper, peppering my story with a cast of interesting characters, some of whom are saddled with mutually exclusive goals.  That’s enough work that at this stage, I can hardly call what I’m doing editing or proofreading.  Instead, I’m rewriting for now, though I should  hopefully be able to keep some decent chunks of my original work.

My writing lessons for today, then: first, make sure you set your story aside for long enough, before editing, that when you pick it up again you can do so with fresh and objective eyes.  Second, for your story to have dramatic punch, you need to make sure it’s filled with interesting and compelling characters and an exciting conflict that forces your characters to make difficult choices.  And, wherever possible, hit the readers hard and fast with both characters and conflicts to keep the reader hooked and invested in the story.

Happy writing, and good luck with your own stories.