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Tag Archives: Editing

Ellipses, Italics, and Bold! Oh, My!

 

There is nothing worse for an avid reader than to find the book budget gone dry. Luckily, this age of technology has provided an answer of sorts. At the press of a button, I have available to me countless free and usually self-published novels to read. Sure, the search is payment enough for finding that one with virtual cover art that doesn’t remind you of Zork, the title isn’t rife with unpronounceable pseudo-elven or awkwardly contrived Victorian titles, and the summary doesn’t include libidinous vampires, swarthy werewolves, smoking detectives, or improbably combat-ready damsels. Trust me, if you’ve never delved the depths of free fiction on your eReader, I am not exaggerating.

I’m more than willing to give a non-traditionally published novel a chance despite having been burned over and over by authors with a great concept, some skill at writing, and no budget for an editor. Maybe I’m just a sucker for other hopefuls like myself. Either way, my latest acquisition has become something of a project for me. I’ll review it once I’ve finished tackling the 1300+ page monstrosity, but for now there are a few things I thought bore mention. And I don’t do this lightly – these are problems repeated without break on nearly every page of this book.

First, I really think that italics could probably be limited to almost never when intended to represent inflection. When a book is written in first person, you don’t really need to use italics for thoughts. The entire thing is coming out of the narrator’s head, so italicizing an individual thought separate from the rest of them seems either redundant or weird. I haven’t decided which yet. If you’re using italics for emphasis or inflection in speech, then you’ve missed the point of character voice. You should be able to give your characters patterns of speech without resorting to drawing them in crayons and black marker – which is essentially what italics is doing. If you want someone else’s take on this, check out Jeff Gerke’s thoughts on it at Where The Map Ends. He’s even less forgiving than I am, but with more justification.

Second, and largely related to the first, is ‘overuse’ and ‘misuse’ of single quotation marks when you think something needs to be pointed out as ‘wonky’ or ‘slang’. In a print book I would have thought that an ink leak had wreaked havoc on each and every page, but electronic books make short work of that excuse. While this isn’t exactly an unjustifiable use, it is inappropriate. See, in the UK (and, I assume, other places as well) the single quotation mark and double quotation marks are used opposite of how they are in the US. So, given that you can use double quotes to mark a slang word, there is a justifiable defense that the use is as intended. Unfortunately, if you intend to use them to mark everything that your great-grandmother would have been confused by, then you’re going to leave your final work looking prickly. Nevermind that this particular writer used ginormous repeatedly without giving it the same treatment she did bed-head. When in doubt, check Scott Bury’s thoughts on these particular marks at Written Words.

Although less problematic, there are certain other signs of unpolished writing that put me off as a reader. Personally, I tend to avoid them unless dialogue requires stuttering or significant pausing within a sentence. In actual narration, they look sophomoric if not used correctly. If, as is this case with this particularly problematic piece of prose, ellipses are used to end every single chapter, then there is work to be done on transitions. In a very bad way. Bold should be given the same sparing treatment as italics or, preferably, never at all in fiction.

The story isn’t the worst part of this self-published piece. In fact, at 1300 pages, a good editor could pare it down to a reasonable size in pretty short work. It is entirely possible that cutting out every improperly used punctuation mark could save 100 pages. So, no, I’m not against self-published works. I am, however, certain that anyone truly interested in putting out a polished novel should find an editor first. Even when you give it away for free, readers have expectations. And those expectations will carry over should you put any more novels out, self-published or otherwise.

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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3, 2, 1…Submit.

I just sent off the first three query letters for THE COALSLIDES. It isn’t advisable, I think, to send too many queries out at once because an agent may ask for an exclusive look at your manuscript. If that happens and you agree (you will), then you may be forced to say no to any other agents who reply afterward. My fantasy manuscript sat exclusively with one agent for nearly six months. If I had sent out 25 queries, I could potentially (not likely) have had to turn down 25 requests to see the rest of the manuscript.

The agents I sent my queries to were found at http://www.writersmarket.com/ where I was able to search specifically for agents listing Steampunk as a genre of interest. Of the five results, I excluded the magazine and the agency that did not have an entry at Predators & Editors. Three was exactly how many queries I wanted to start with, so I didn’t need to expand my search to all YA or MG agents, or urban fiction, sci fi, or whatever else I thought might apply. The search feature isn’t amazing anyway – there are, in fact, other agents in search of Steampunk that do not turn up under this search.

Two of the agents required a query letter, synopsis (included as part of my query), and the first 5 pages. The third required the first 20 pages. In almost every case for e-queries, you will be asked to copy and paste everything into the body of the email. Nobody wants to open 100 attachments every day and put their computer at risk for countless bugs, viruses, or bogeymen.

Within a minute of submitting each of the queries, an automated response popped up in my email. The first read:

Thank you for querying me! This is an automatic email letting you know I
received your query; I’ll respond as soon as I am able.

If you received this email in error, don’t worry. I regularly check for
emails that my automated service mislabels, so I will respond to your
non-query email shortly.

The second:

Thank you for submitting your work to ******* Agency. We do answer all queries so we appreciate your patience awaiting our reply.

And the third:

Thank you for your email.

If this is a query, consider it received.

There really isn’t much to say about the automated responses that would have any bearing on how things may turn out, but I promised to share the entirety of the experience with you, so there you have it. As things progress, I’ll let you know.

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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The Question of a Query

I’ve decided, given the advice of some trusted friends, to go ahead with my Steampunk manuscript, tentatively titled The Coalslides. The query letters will start their migration from my home to agents on Monday. We’ll see if the word count becomes an issue at some point, but I am pointedly choosing to ignore that possibility for now.

Because this is the best and worst part of writing, I’ll do my best to share the experience with you wholesale. I’ll leave out the names of agents or publishing houses, but I’ll share whatever responses I get as they come in. For now, understanding that changes may be required, here is the query letter I will begin with:

Dear [insert agent’s name],

The summer of 1878 beat hot and oppressive on St. Louis and Oscar Tumblety and his friends were looking for adventure. They found it in the The Coalslides, the sprawling undercity deep beneath the city. The Lamplighters and Tunnelflushers , a stolen automaton, a band of dangerous ruffians, and the strange waterworks quickly become an adventure more exciting and perilous than the trio could have imagined. Oscar learns truths about himself and secrets about the post-war state of the nation among the mysteries of the Coalslides.

Oscar recognizes Billy Lemp’s wild streak and utter fearlessness. He sees Constance Scott for her sharp wit and rational mind as well as her strength and speed. What he doesn’t see is his own invaluable contributions to the close-knit group.  The trio sets off to hunt down a Golem stolen from the old Orthodox clerics and discover a plot that threatens to destroy the tenuous peace they’ve found in skulking the city’s alleys and rooftops all summer. To survive and thwart the shadowy men set on upsetting the delicate recovery of United States, Oscar discovers the strengths his friends had always known he possessed.

I’m an unpublished writer seeking an agent to foster my manuscript through the publication process. In an effort to begin building a community with interest in the novel, I have started a blog at https://tobiaswrites.wordpress.com and tweet as @tobiaswrites as well. While my background is in Anthropology and Higher Education, I have been an avid Steampunk reader for more than a decade. As an American Steampunk/alternate history tale, I would describe The Coalslides as a YA compliment to Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series.

Thank you for the opportunity to share this story with you. The manuscript is available for your reading and is 43,504 words in its entirety. 

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Middle Grade, Young Adult, Confused Gen Xer

Yesterday was a big day for me. I completed all the edits on my Untitled Steampunk (yes, I know) and considered it ready to shop to agents. It’s been about a year since I last shopped out my Blood of a Godkiller manuscript to agents and I’m ready to get back to actively trying to sell a book. The elation, the pride, the self-satisfaction. I had a solid, worthy manuscript on hand.

For about 10 minutes.

Some little brain worm burrowed itself into my grey matter within moments of giving myself an internalized huzzah. The completed manuscript is 43,504 words. Prior to really getting involved in writing this story, I reread some of the books I read growing up. I needed a little experiential instruction on the YA format, so I read these familiar stories with a different eye. I looked more closely at character development, pacing, and content. I even looked at word counts. I felt confident. So where had this insatiable brainworm come from and why was it siphoning off this newfound confidence with such gusto?

Careful dissection of the nefarious beast revealed two things. First, is this manuscript intended to be YA (Young Adult) or MG (Middle Grade)? Second, does the admittedly sparse word count greatly affect which category this manuscript can be considered for? See, I’m not overly familiar with the MG classification as I had intended this story to fall into YA. Now that I wasn’t so certain, I had to do a little research.

According to Colleen Lindsay at the swivet, my manuscript falls just shy of expectations at the lowest end of YA (45k) and just over the highest end for MG (40k). Okay, that isn’t entirely disconcerting. It is acceptable to have some variation, I’m sure.
Well, then I read at www.fromthemixedupfiles.com that  YA generally starts around 55k words. Even so, they still classify MG as topping out around 40k, so there must be some shady grey area where anything between the two resides.

Naturally word count is hardly the defining factor in classifying a book. The writer at The Mixed-Up Files and Michelle Schusterman at YA Highway take a closer look at content as the dividing factor. Subject matter, naturally tops the list. The overarching theme in my Untitled Steampunk manuscript is self-discovery which, in both cases, seems to best fit into the MG category. However, being an American Steampunk tale, there are issues of ethnicity, class, and politics that are largely linked to the Civil War and Reconstruction. Someone dies. So, unfortunately, I fear that this particular designation is a bit murky as well.
Romance is quite disparate in MG and YA. In MG it would typically involve hand-holding and maybe a first kiss. In YA it can go so far as intercourse and could potentially deal with such subjects as rape and abandonment. Well, I’m not much for romance as a reader or, really, as a writer. Even so, I did include an unspoken adoration between two of the three protagonists. As it is neither central to the theme nor important to the story, it never progresses beyond furtive glances, lingering touches, and the like. So, does this mean it falls squarely within MG?

Finally, and most easily adjusted to suit my needs, is intended readership. While an 8 year-old would not be put off reading about a 13 year-old, it might be less likely that a 13 year-old would read about an 8 year-old protagonist. At present, my protagonists are 11, 11, and 12. Technically, that would place the book into the MG category. If I (or an agent or publisher) felt more keenly that the book should fall into the YA category, I could probably push the characters into the 13 and 14 range, but not much further. I wrote them to be independent and worldly and they are self-sufficient with little interaction with their parents. If I push the 1878 setting to 1880, I may have to change some of the historically accurate names and realign the timeline in reference to events, but I don’t think the characters would be forced to change much. It had always been my intention to give them more responsibility, freedom, and capability than might be expected of children.

So, yeah. I am somewhat deflated in comparison to my brief joy at having completed edits because it seems more work may need to be done. “More work” could include adding another 30-40k words if I decide the manuscript does not easily fit into the YA category.

I think I’ll go ahead and put together a query letter and let the responses I receive determine how much more work I may need to put into it, if any.

 
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Posted by on May 9, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Beta Readers, Beta Reading

As is probably common with most writers, I have not had the best success in finding willing and able beta readers. More often, I can find willing people who are not exactly able. Well, able to actually ever offer up feedback anyway. It is a boon to find someone who can or will take the time to read a work in progress. It is, unfortunately, far worse when the best you get from that person is, ‘I liked it’ or, worst case scenario, you never hear from them again.

I am not too proud to mention that my mother (yes, my mother) has been my most effective beta reader for the purpose of pure editing over content editing. She is my mother, so I tend to fear that her lack of plot or story input is based in uterine muscle memory rather than a critical eye. Even so, she has the keenest eye for grammar and sentence structure that I could ask for. So good, in fact, that I don’t look for other beta readers in that area. What I hope for is a reader that can give me feedback about character development, plot momentum, setting, background, and all of the other various and sundry elements that are far less clinical and far more esoteric.

Jami Gold offered a pretty clear illustration on beta readers in her blog. The point she made that resounded most with me is this: If I want quality beta readers, I’d probably better start offering myself up for some beta reading as well. I had a dear friend who is an accomplished short story author ask me to beta read for her first full length, YA novel. Within two chapters, I confessed that it was getting in the way of my writing and I wouldn’t be dependable. Well, that is no longer an excuse. With three completed manuscripts in the editing process, I can safely allow myself to read now.

So, here it is: Writers, I am willing and able to be your beta reader. I confess, my tastes are limited to Steampunk, science fiction, fantasy, essays, and various YA genres. Anything else may find a hard time maintaining my attention, but I am willing to offer up brutal and constructive criticism if it means I might be able to call on you later. Feel free to contact me here and we can work out something based on your timeline.

 
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Posted by on May 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Prologue Problems

I recently had a feedback coffee date with a couple of beta readers for my Untitled Steampunk novel. For the most part, there were no great concerns and only a few small points that needed addressed. One of which was how appropriate the use of Rapture in conversation is in a novel taking place in 1878. I’m sticking to my guns on this one not because I’m certain it’s the best use of the phrase, but because the Rapture has become culturally relevant even to young adult readers and I think it will have much more impact than the lead characters joking about transcendence.

At any rate, the other big idea I walked away with was the possibility of incorporating a prologue. See, the main story line includes massive golems crafted of technology and alchemy and put to work at the Orthodox Temples. While golems only appear a couple times in the story, they are a major driving factor behind the actions the main characters take. What my beta readers brought up was how little information about these golems is actually shared with the reader. It hadn’t even occurred to me that there might be more interest in a golem backstory.

Certainly I could sprinkle bits and pieces of golem history throughout the novel without interrupting the flow, but could a prologue better serve to provide this information and completely avoid any risk of reading as last minute thoughts poked into the story line? So I walked away from our meeting with the idea that yes, indeed, a prologue will best serve me. However, being who I am, I decided to do a little Googling to see how prologues are generally received.

From Foremost Press, I found this:

“A prologue is used mainly for two reasons.

1. To outline the backstory quickly and economically, saving the author from having to resort to flashbacks or ruses such as conversations or memories to explain the background to the reader. This is commonly done in science fiction and fantasy to show why a certain quest is being undertaken or what will happen in the future. The prologue is a better option than a first chapter bogged down in detail.

2. To hook the reader and provide the story question right up front, giving them a reason to keep turning the pages to find out the answer. Quite often the prologue relates to a scene near the end of the story, and the story itself then shows what has led up to this moment. When is this justified? Perhaps when you want to introduce your characters in a more leisurely fashion, and your reader’s experience with ‘meeting’ them will be enhanced by some sort of foreshadowing of what is to come.”

And from Writing-World.com, this:

“Any workplace has a list of dos and don’ts; the prologue is no exception. Here are some:

-The prologue should always be an integral part of the novel, written in the same spirit and style. Otherwise it’s a personal preface rather than an opening chapter.

-The prologue should read like a short story in every aspect, except for its ending. Rather than resolving all conflict, the end should leave the reader intrigued. Any conflict created in the prologue, however, must be resolved somewhere along the plot.

-The prologue should start with a strong and intriguing hook as if it were the only beginning of the novel. This does not exempt Chapter One from beginning with an equally strong and intriguing hook.

-The prologue must stand out from the body of the novel in at least one fashion: the time of the events (which should be stated both in the prologue and in the first chapter), the POV character, and so on. The reader should feel a distinct switch in his mind when he begins reading Chapter One. And just as important, he should never experience the same switch again within the novel. For example, if the difference between the prologue and Chapter One is an interval of five years, you may not fast-forward time again within the novel.”

Beyond that, there were blogs like this one from Pens and Swords that really makes a person second guess any inclusion of a prologue:

“Another pitfall that writers fall into is turning the prologue into a dumping ground for backstory on the world. I did this myself with Maiden and the origin of Saestra Karanok. Instead of weaving the depth and richness of the world into the story, the writer crams it all into the beginning and promptly forgets it. Prologues set an expectation for the reader that the information revealed will have significant relevance later on in the story. Fail to do this and you let the reader down.”

So more than anything, I am now convinced that I’m going to have to pay extra attention to creating this prologue so that it isn’t just a dumping place for information I didn’t have the foresight to include the first time around. Sometimes I wonder if my compulsive need to Google isn’t as self-destructive as other people’s need to WebMD every occasional symptom and consequently blow seasonal allergies into a migrating calcified fetus.

 
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Posted by on May 1, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Steampunk and Steampunk Accessories

Because I am no different than anyone else, I thought it important to include goggles in my Steampunk manuscript. I wouldn’t leave a dragon out of a story about St. George and I wouldn’t leave sex from a vampire novel, so here you have it, Electro-sensitive Nightlight Goggles:

“I figure that we’re going to places they might not have light and my pocket watch isn’t going to do if we get separated,” he said. Oscar’s stomach sunk a bit at the suggestion that he might end up separated from the others, lost in the winding dark of the Coalslides. Even so, the nightlight goggles Billy had brought back were just intriguing enough to put him off his worries. They were typical of an airship pilot’s goggles in that they were held together on a thick band of treated leather. The eyepieces were pink-tinted glass set in metal casings and included a spare set of lenses in light blue hinged to the sides.

Oscar fastened the goggles to his head and felt around the edges of the eyepieces. Without much trouble, he located the on switch and gave it a push. Light blossomed from the outermost edges of the lenses, lighting the area before him without hampering his sight. They were in a well-lit corridor now, but it seemed likely that these were quality nightlights and would serve them well enough in the dark. Experimentally, he pushed on the extra lenses, sliding the pale blue lenses over the pink ones.

With the inclusion of the new lens, faint blueish lines appeared all over, running alongside the corridor, the length of the ceiling, and even the floor. He peered closely and saw that the lines were, in fact, several of the wires and thicker rubber tubes that ran endlessly throughout the Coalslides. He noted that the bare electric light bulbs clinging to the ceiling had taken on a similar blue glow.

Oscar pushed the goggles up onto his forehead and blinked. The bulbs and wires ceased glowing. He slid the goggles down again and the faint blue lines reappeared. Pushing the goggles back up on his forehead again, he looked to see his friends doing exactly the same thing.

“What is it?” Constance asked in awe. They both looked to Billy. He was grinning from ear to ear and staring up at a swinging light bulb directly above their heads.

“Electro-sensitive lenses,” he said in a low voice full of wonder. “He said they let you see electricity.” Billy jerked a thumb in the direction of the peddler he’d purchased the goggles from. The soot-stained man waved at them, grinning in appreciation of their astonishment.

“See electricity?” Constance repeated. “That’s marvelous.” Oscar could only nod in agreement. If such a thing existed aboveground, he’d never heard of it. “These must have cost you a fortune.”

“Nah, not at all. It did cost my Pa a few bright pennies though.” Billy grinned and they grinned back. It was no secret that the Lemp family had as much money as anyone could imagine. They even had great steel vaults inside their opulent mansion to keep it in. If Billy spread the wealth around a bit, he was never proud or arrogant about it and he always made it very clear that he had no particular attachment to it anyway.

 

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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The Birds and the Dead Bees

When I read YA books, and I do this pretty frequently, I very rarely find the violence or deaths to be over the top for children. Instead, I keep wondering how all of these stories about kids anywhere from 13 to 18 never seem to involve anything more than the occasional cheek peck.

I was raised on Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera, so I’m pretty certain that any excessive exposure to imaginary violence would have already reared its ugly head and forced me into a life of cannibalism and human trafficking if it was going to happen. Moreover, the books I read as a child were almost exclusively within the fantasy genre, so I read about gruesome deaths inflicted on all forms of both the living and undead without growing up to be a skin-wearing serial killer.

 

And yet, not surprisingly, very rarely did I happen upon books that dealt with the very real likelihood of sexual attraction among the characters. Don’t get me wrong, I was gifted Then Again Maybe I Won’t and it did wonders at answering some few questions I didn’t have the guts to ask. Even so, books specifically aimed at young adults very rarely broached the subject of sexuality by any real measure. Having grown up a young boy, I cannot begin to illustrate how woefully uninformed I was and how the occasional pilfered porno mag or overheard locker room braggart did little to provide real information. Even worse, my attempts at furthering my book-based knowledge with other Judy Blume titles did less to help. I never got my period, so I must have skimmed over something vital.

Harry Potter got a kiss, Whatshername and the sparkling vampire waited until they were married and anyone not terminally romantic had stopped reading before anything progressed beyond the weird watching-her-sleep thing. Despite the excessive use of ‘puss’ as ‘face’ in the Xanth books, nobody ever actually saw one. Maybe if just one character that I grew up with had dared to have a thought about sex, I wouldn’t have considered myself unreasonably preoccupied with it. I’m not suggesting that Wind in the Willows should have culminated in an explicit contrivance between species, but Ron and Hermione could have gotten as far as a little under the shirt, over the bra without turning everyone into perverts.

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Boggling over Backstory

So, how important is it to include all of the tiny and potentially inconsequential details that you’ve labored over in creating your own world or your own version of our world?

This is a problem that I faced first and foremost in writing my fantasy manuscripts. Since I was creating an entirely new world, I wanted to hammer out details of the economy, the judicial system, class and caste, the ecology and environment, and of course, the history. To me, it was important to have all of this decided in case it was relevant to the story. And, admittedly, it was the more satisfying part of developing a fantasy world. This is the instance in which a writer becomes a god, capable of creating and destroying and turning the tides of evolution and development to suit his or her needs.

The problem, then, became how much of this information to include in the actual manuscript. For instance:

“Their rootstocks cultivated to limit expansion and their limbs pruned to prevent uncontrolled growth, the black-barked trees looked like nothing less than a phalanx of fastidious soldiers…”

This passage from Blood of a Godkiller shows up in the first chapter. The protagonist is, as is usual, a simple youth tossed into the larger world. He comes from a sharecropping town that handles the bulk of the apple supply for this small realm. Now, I know that the extent of climates inclusive to this realm is such that this particular area is best suited for apples. I also know that the powers that be have a habit of encouraging singular production to maintain control over the economy. As such, any attempt by the community or its landed lord to challenge the existing power structure would be met with an attack on their one and only sustainable crop. A history of ore production from nearby mountains had once provided this territory with considerable wealth, but meddling administrators worked to diffuse the monopoly by encouraging mining in another territory with similar access to ore veins.

My first inclination was to provide all of this information at the introduction to the settlement because I had assumed the reader would want to know everything they could about Wylard’s Ferry before moving on to the next new concept. After creating a relentlessly informative first chapter with absolutely no action, no plot formation, and no character development, I realized that I was writing an encyclopedia entry rather than a story. Well, no, that isn’t exactly accurate. It wasn’t until beta reader after beta reader told me the first chapter was a plodding mess of unwieldy facts that I realized my mistake. Even then, it wasn’t until much later that I was able to find it within myself to hack and slash my way through the morass to rewrite the entire chapter.

So, I went back through the original manuscript and peppered some of the information throughout. I wanted to incorporate some of the same ideas, but I needed truncated versions that could be incorporated without turning into lectures. So, in chapter five, I added to a conversation:

“We’ve kept the people poor for fear that inheritance rights among these xenophobic farmers and stonewrights might create an amassed wealth too far from Canon to be controlled,”

There I tackle the importance of why this particular territory is so poor in comparison to some of its neighbors. It actually leads into a specific instance in the sort of tactics used, including the introduction of a disease that causes women to become infertile, but that’s neither here nor there. The important this was that I was able to sneak in a bit more of what I thought to be a very important component of the backstory without resorting to endless historical accounts.

I put off the history of the territory’s once-wealthy past because it wasn’t entirely relevant to character or story development. I kept the information, however, and did include it in the next manuscript because it made much more sense there. And, as an avid reader, I don’t find it too offensive to continue learning about the world from book to book. I also waited to deal with the specifics of the ecology as it applies to the apple-farming community because the breadth of travels is larger. Where the first manuscript primarily takes place in a relatively small area, the second sends the protagonist across the realm. It just made more sense to delve into the broader ecology when it was actually relevant.

So, really, more than anything my thought is this: Developing a world from scratch is the most exciting, agonizing part of writing off- and other-world fiction. I’m still tackling with how I present the science-magic of the realm without explaining it. I’m still fretting over characteristics of places and people that I want to include, but cannot find a really good reason to do it. Ultimately, having a beta reader with superior grammatical and spelling skills (thanks, Mom!), the bulk of my edits are focused on turning historical discourse into descriptive prose.

Never mind the entirely different set of problems I discovered in maintaining some level of accuracy peppered with alternative history in writing the Steampunk manuscript…

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Busy Busy Busy

I’m actually on a very nice roll with the editing today, so rather than spend time deciding on a topic, I’m going to give you another excerpt from my still untitled YA steampunk manuscript:

“That hatch up top inside her gullet there is the coalslide, namesake of the whole of the undercity. Folk aboveground dump the coal and we open the slides up to let it in as we need it.” The Furnacemaster paused with a twinkle in his eye. “But there’s a better reason everything got named after them chutes, of course. And I suppose the fastest way to get you where you need to be will help explain that.”

Furnacemaster Joseph Locklear led Oscar and his friends to the room across the hall. If he closed his eyes and gave it a second, Oscar could imagine that this room was identical to the last minus the actual machinery. A black scorch outlined the spot where a furnace used to sit and several open holes in the wall and one in the ceiling marked where the missing furnace had connected to the rest of the system. The most obvious difference other than the missing equipment was a metal track running at an angle from the coalslide to the ash chute cut in the floor. A line of what looked to be upright leather mattresses sat against one wall, looking very out of place.

“First time tends to give folks the shakes, but seeing as how you rode an air duct down here, I think you might enjoy this.” The towering Lamplighter strode to the line of leather mattresses and grabbed one. Walking back to the center of the room, he stopped and yanked on a beaded chain hanging alongside the iron track. A red light flickered on inside the coalslide and was reflected by a second inside the ash chute. Joseph Locklear set the mattress against the tracks. Oscar saw then that the bottom side was fixed with a line of adjustable clamps and small, inset wheels. Moving his large hands with surprising dexterity, the man snapped the clamps loosely over the tracks and gave the whole of it an experimental jostle. It moved smoothly up and down the tracks.

“Now, who’s first?”

Completely clueless as to what exactly he’d be volunteering for, Oscar stepped back slightly, putting himself behind both Billy and Constance. Constance merely shook her head and set her face back to the unreadable mask she’d worn since they met the man. Billy, naturally, stepped forward excitedly. If there were times that Oscar envied him his courage, and there were, this was certainly not one of them.

“Aright then, listen close. Once I’ve got you strapped in, you’ll be moving fast. Keep your arms in if’n you want to keep them and try not to get sick all over the place. The rest of us have to slide through anything you leave behind.” Joseph Locklear gave Billy an earnest look and then a lopsided grin when he realized that Billy was fidgeting in excitement. “In you go then, feet on the brakes and hands on the lights.”

While he spoke, he pointed out the particular pieces of the slide. At the bottom, jutting out from the base of the leather sled-bed, was a pair of peddles intended to slow or stop momentum. He assured them they’d have no need for those as they were going to the last stop where springs and lock-stop gears would slow and halt them. Even so, he pointed out, if someone was hopping in below them, they’d want to slow themselves rather than let the safety stops engage. Just as he’d done when he lit the red lights here, anyone hopping in below would light red lights which would set a stop at the slide above them. If they didn’t brake to slow, the stop would be abrupt. When he said abrupt, he said it with the sort of gravity that strongly encouraged using the brakes.

The lights were a pair of pressure activated electric torches set in either side of the sled, very much like handles. When Billy stepped up on the base and grabbed at the smooth copper grips, twin beams lit at their bases, shining downward toward his feet. It was that moment that it dawned on Oscar exactly what Billy had so readily volunteered for. Constance seemed to arrive at the same conclusion in the same moment. The grimy Lamplighter had just finished strapping broad leather belts across Billy’s chest, waist, and thighs as both Oscar and Constance opened their mouths to protest. A moment too late, their tongues caught as he stepped on a release set in the floor alongside the ash chute.

Both Billy and slide disappeared into the hole with a creak and a hum. As the wheels on the slide carried him along the tracks, further away and deeper into the Coalslides, the low hum slowly faded into nothing. Oscar felt his stomach sink into his knees.

“You’re not getting me on that thing,” Constance said matter-of-factly, verbalizing Oscar’s particular feelings exactly. “There’s no way that is even remotely safe.” At that she set her fists into her hips and furrowed her brow. She looked immovable.

“Ah, well, there’s always the corridors.” Joseph Locklear grinned at the two of them. “If you aim yourselves down and start walking, you’ll find your friend at the bottom come morning. It really is a long walk, though I’m happy to let you make it.” He planted his own considerably larger hands on his hips, mimicking Constance’s own stalwart pose. For a moment, Oscar wasn’t sure who he was more frustrated with, but that settled itself soon enough. It wasn’t the Lamplighter’s fault that Billy had a tendency to leap into dark holes without thinking it through. Even so, he wasn’t excited about what he was preparing to do. Swallowing hard, he stepped to the line of leather-wrapped slides and selected one that looked as sturdy and safe as he could hope for.

“Alright, I’ll take this one,” he jerked a thumb at it and walked back to the tracks. He gave Constance a wry smile that felt like a grimace. “Look, he’s right. We can’t let Billy go in alone. There are displaced folk down there with belowground dispositions.” He emphasized the words the Lamplighter had used to describe some of the Peddlers, hoping that Constance would understand. Not that she wouldn’t understand his meaning, of course. No, he hoped that she would understand why he wasn’t taking her side in this. He was, ultimately, forcing her to take the slide as well.

Constance surprised him with a brilliant smile that lit her eyes.

“Right on, then. I’ll take that slim one at the end; it should get a bit more speed than that old dump Oscar’s picked.” Her wild grin dropped his stomach past his knees and into his ankles. Constance had never had misgivings about the coalslides at all. She’d merely put on an act to give him the opportunity to take the cowardly way out. And he’d fallen for it so completely that he was almost surprised to see himself already strapped against the slide with his hands clenching the grips and his feet already poised to push on the brakes.

“You’re a rat, Constance Scott,” Oscar started when the bottom fell out from under him and his slide rushed into the ash chute at an impossible speed.

If the slide down the airduct had been fun, the coalslide was awful and wonderful and impossible all at once. The moment Joseph Locklear hit the release, Oscar dropped straight into the darkness with gut-wrenching speed. He reflexively grabbed at the handgrips, summoning up the forward lights to illuminate the narrow chute. What he saw in those twin beams was breathtaking.

The rails ran down the center of the chute, twisting and angling their way at a fast clip downward. At irregular intervals, a burst of green light would flash past his head, presumably bulbs meant to mark the route as clear. When he came to the first turn, his heart nearly stopped in his chest. Below him he could see the sharp turn of the track and the flat surface of metal that marked where he would collide if the sled failed to make the curve. He instinctually smashed his foot down on the brake to slow into the turn and the sled slackened its pace to slide around the bend.

Impressed by the clever mechanisms that gave him control over the sled, Oscar grinned and whooped wildly, letting loose the brake. Whatever misgivings he’d harbored before were lost in the pure joy of the reckless ride.

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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