Tag Archives: steampunk

512. Time Jacks

Beginning last July I wrote a steampunk novel called Cost of Empire. It is presently seeking a home. I am now working on a second but very different steampunk novel called Like Clockwork. Besides being weird, it also insists on being about 65,000 words long. I really don’t know what I’m going to do about that; that would be a happy length for a 70s or 80s novel, but today’s market demands 100,000 words. Writing is easy compared to meeting the artificial needs of publishing, but short or long, LC is nearing completion.

(Of course, the post last Wednesday makes some of this obsolete. That is the problem with writing ahead.)

It is time to start thinking about a new novel. I have a time travel trilogy I began outlining about two years ago, just before Empire demanded to be written. I’ve been looking over my notes from then, to get my head in order before plunging in. At that time, I wrote a short first chapter, just to test things out.

Would you like to see it? I thought so. The novel will be called Time Jacks.

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In the middle of the continent is a state called Kansas, and in the middle of Kansas is a medium sized town devoted to Time.

Near the middle of the town is a university devoted to the study of time, its mathematical nature, manipulation, inviolability (or lack thereof), and philosophical implications. Bleekman University is the most theoretical of all theoretical institutions, where the finest mathematicians and the finest of philosophers meet and attempt to understand each other, while both are trying to understand Bleekman’s legacy.

On a lintel stone over the entrance to the campus is an engraving of Bleekman’s Theorem. It takes one hundred seventeen symbols, some of which are seen nowhere else in the history of human thought, and some of which are still disputed by those mathematicians and philosophers.

There are three other institutions in Bleekman — surely you guessed that would be the name of the town. Near the university on the north is the Institute of Applications, where the knowledge brought back from alterlines is studied before it is released to the world at large. Scholars at the Institute ask, ”How does it work?” and “What use can we make of it?”

Scholars at Bleekman University do not care for such questions. They spend their time — that statement is almost a pun in itself — poking about on the edges of the Universal Why, knowing that they will never penetrate to its core.

Scholars from the Institute and from the University rarely talk to each other. That may be fortunate for mankind. Opinions differ on this matter.

South of both is “The Academy”. It has a longer name, but no one uses it. Here the brightest and best from all over the Earth come to become Time Agents. Ten thousand are admitted each autumn, having been previously winnowed by harsh competitive examinations. After three years, a few hundred become technicians and a few dozen become agents.

As you might expect, the graduates are a cocky lot.

[I left space here for several paragraphs I wasn’t yet ready to write.]

Oh, you noticed? Not surprising, really. I mentioned the University and three other institutions, then only told you about two.

In the center of Bleekman is a dome, a hundred meters high and a thousand meters across. You can see it from space, but I can’t tell you much more than that. Agents go in through the dome’s only entrance and a year or so later they come out, changed forever. Within the dome are the mechanisms of transference, which anyone is welcome to understand. Just study Bleekman’s Theorem, and good luck to you.

There are many other exits from the dome, but they are all in other timelines; alterlines, most people call them. This Bleekman, this Kansas, this Earth, and this universe constitute the homeline.

Time agents go through the dome to various elsewheres and bring back treasure. They go with the courage of a lion and the stealth of a mouse, changing nothing, and stealing nothing but knowledge.

That is all I can tell you. No one knows more, except for the few who have passed the entrance exams and the three years of winnowing that produces time agents.

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Okay, it’s clearly a rough draft, but I like where it is going. This will be fun.

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511. Novel or Novella

If you don’t know about <tor.com>, it is a high quality on-line magazine of science fiction. For years they were one of the few places which would take unagented submissions for short stories, although they have recently changed that policy. They have been mostly closed to novellas as well, but they still have occasional open periods, and one has just begun.

Since most submissions end in, “Try again elsewhere,” I have not previously mentioned any of my own submissions in this blog. However this opening for novellas has brought up some things I want to talk about. Again (see also 146. Novella 1).

Before we begin, here is a piece of information. SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America), the professional organization which awards the Nebulas, breaks stories into these categories:

short story    under 7,500 words
novelette       7,500 – 17,500 words
novella         17,500 – 40,000 words
novel            40,000 words and up

In the last few years, most people would add very short, or flash fiction, to this list.

I have been working since January on a novel called Like Clockwork, but it has been fighting back. It wants to be 65,000 words long. That would be just right for a submission in the 1970s or ’80s, but is too short to sell in today’s market, unless you are self-publishing.

I’m not. I have considered it seriously, but it calls for a skill set that I don’t have, and don’t want. So I continued soldiering on, hoping for inspiration. Then I became aware of the novella opening at Tor (dot) com, which left me with a choice — try to make Like Clockwork longer than it wanted to be, self-publish it at its natural length, or cut it drastically to create a novella.

My own first publication was a novella, To Go Not Gently in Galaxy in 1978. It was roughly the first third of the novel A Fond Farewell to Dying which I was then in the process of writing.

Cutting TGNG out of FFTD was easy. There was a natural break in the action that allowed me to end the story without leaving the reader feeling cheated.

Cutting Like Clockwork down to size would be another matter; I would have to remove about a third of the book. That would be painful, but would not be a new situation. The floor under my computer is already metaphorically knee deep with good writing that didn’t fit into various novels.

First I had to cut out a long section that took place before the main story. That was easy enough, except that it meant dribbling the necessary backstory into the rest of the book a sentence here and a paragraph there. Smoothly, you understand, and without letting the seams show.

There were four main characters and four lesser characters in Like Clockwork, all paired off. One pair had to be dropped. Some of the things that they did for the plot had to be shoehorned into the lives of the remaining pairs. Smoothly; without letting the seams show.

Much was lost. The Great Babbage, companion to the Great Clock, simply went away. It was reduced to a couple of off-hand references, and that really hurt.  Altogether, it took me a month to chew 65,000 words down to 39,000 words. I submitted it earlier this week, retitled The Clock That Ate Time.

Will you be reading it soon? The writer’s psychotic optimism says yes, but I didn’t destroy any of the files that I cut, and everything that was removed can always be restored if necessary.

That’s my recent history, but it is only worth telling because it points out a larger problem.

Only certain lengths of story can find a market in today’s world. There are homes for flash fiction and for short stories, and novellas can occasionally find their place, but the lengths between 40,000 words and about 90,000 words reside in a wasteland. That is really unfortunate, since most of the best novels in the history of science fiction were in that range.

It’s all a matter of fashion. The best of today’s science fiction would have been rejected unread as too long to publish just a few decades ago.

To put it bluntly, then and now both stink if you have a good story that is the wrong length.

All this is somewhat malleable but there are stories that need to be a certain length. If you are a young writer, this profiling by story length is one more reason self publishing may be your future.

503. Colliding Conventions

On the fourth of July weekend in 1939, the first World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) was held in New York City. 200 people attended. It has met yearly since, except during WWII.

Despite its name, Worldcon didn’t leave the United States until 1948, when it was held in Toronto. It didn’t leave North America until 1957 when it was held in London. It didn’t leave the English speaking world until 1970 when it was held in Heidelberg.

Worldcon is best known for the fact that it gives out the Hugo Awards.

In 1948 the LA Science Fantasy Society started a west coast convention (Westercon) for those who couldn’t afford to go east for Worldcon. This competing event also meets yearly.

In those years when Worldcon meets outside North America, a North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC) is held somewhere in the US.

This year’s Worldcon 76 will be held in San Jose, California August 16-20. In 2019, Worldcon will be held in Dublin, Ireland, so a NASFiC should be held. The bid, which will be decided in San Jose, is for Layton, Utah on July fourth weekend.

This year’s Westercon starts tomorrow in Denver. Next year it will be in Utah — Layton, Utah, to be precise.

Yes, you did see them palm that ace.

In 2019, Westercon, which began as an alternative to Worldcon, and NASFiC, which occurs only when Worldcon is somewhere else in the world, will be the same convention. I wonder how that is going to work out?

Just fine, I would imagine.

I attended Westercons 33 and 34 in Los Angeles and Sacramento shortly after my first two novels came out. I attended Westercon 70 in Tempe last year just after Cyan was published.

In preparation for that convention, I made eighteen posts here on a number of subjects that would be covered on panels in Tempe. If you missed them, or if you want to see “How to Build a Culture” which I presented at Westercon 34, click on Westercon in the menu bar at the top of this page.

This year I am skipping Westercon 71, Denver, for my first Worldcon, just down the hill a hundred miles or so in San Jose. This should be fun.

499. Triple Tease

Thomas Anderson of Schlock Value has an ongoing love/hate (largely hate) relationship with blurbs. I mostly share his view, but things have changed since the era, mostly the 70s, which he reviews. When Cyan came out, I had the chance to write the blurbs myself. In fact, I was asked to write three blurbs of 10, 25, and 75 words, from which the publisher would choose.

Squeezing a whole novel into twenty-five-words-or-less is an interesting exercise. I decided to try it again on the novel I’m presently writing, Like Clockwork, but with a variation. 10, 25, and 75 is really hard. I’ll wait until the book is finished for that, but I did write short, shorter, and really short candidates.

Here are the results.

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The year is 1850. The year is always 1850. Now it is November and a year’s worth of progress toward understanding is in jeopardy. In a few weeks will come Midwinter Midnight, when the Clock that Ate Time will reset, it will be January first once again, and all that has been gained will be lost from memory.

Snap, who helped to build the Clock and regrets his actions; Balfour who was another man in another life; and Hemmings, formerly a computer, who now figures differently — these three, with Pilar, Eve, Lithbeth, Pakrat, and old man Crump are determined to set Time free again. And if they fail . . .

The year will be 1850. The year will be 1850 forever.

119 words

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The year is 1850 — again. A year’s worth of progress toward understanding is in jeopardy. In a few weeks it will be Midwinter Midnight, when the Clock that Ate Time will reset, it will be January first once again, and all that has been gained will be lost from memory.

50 words

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The year is 1850 in a this alternate London, where time has no hold. There are only a few weeks left to restart the future.

25 words

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How’s that for a tease?

497. A Tangled Web

Last July fourth weekend I went to Westercon and received a gift. While observing a panel, I got the inspiration for a novel. I started it as soon as I got home and finished it in October, which is fast for me. It became The Cost of Empire, my first steampunk novel, and you just got a chance to see the opening pages spread out over the last two weeks.

I call it steampunk, and it deserves that description, but it could as well be called alternative history since it does not have the sense of complete weirdness that many steampunk novels possess. Soon afterward, I began another steampunk novel called Like Clockwork. It is completely different in tone. If you want weird, we’ve got weird in this one.

I placed part of a chapter in a post, but that particular excerpt is almost domestic in tone. Not weird at all.

I’ve been working on Like Clockwork since about November and I am only about 40,000 words in. I have no idea how long it is going to be. I know the set-up and development, and I’ve already written the last few chapters. I just don’t know how many more words it will take to get from where I am to where I am going. Or exactly how I’m going to get there.

If I were teaching a class in how to write a novel, this would get me fired. Nothing I ever write takes a straight path, but this is the most tangled web I’ve yet woven.

Cyan has a fairly large cast of characters, but the novel centers around Keir Delacroix. There are sections of the novel where other characters step up and have their moment, but Keir is the sun around which everyone else orbits. That makes things easy for the reader.

Cyan takes a century (global) or about thirty years (subjective) to occur, but everything proceeds in a linear fashion. There are flashbacks, but not too many. Mostly we get to see things as they happen, which minimizes explanations, although there are a couple of dense pages right at the outset.

Events begin on Cyan, move back to Earth, then end on Cyan again, but the reader goes along for the ride, so there is no confusion.

In The Cost of Empire, Daniel/David James (one person, but he changes names part way through the book as part of a masquerade) is even more firmly the center of the story. He is our eyes and ears; there is only one short paragraph where the reader knows something that he doesn’t.

The action begins in England, moves to Trinidad, moves back to England, then crosses Europe and the Middle East and ends up in India. Like Cyan, it takes in a lot of territory, but the reader takes the trip with David, so he/she never gets lost.

My newest novel Like Clockwork has at least six major characters (so far) and a couple more nearly as important, all of whom have about equal time on stage. That stage is restricted to a portion of London in the year — well, I can’t really explain when things happen. Figuring out when is sort of the point of the novel.

At the beginning, the reader doesn’t know where or when she/he is; just that it is London, or sort-of London, and a strange London at that. The characters in the book know more than the reader knows, but they don’t know much either. The reader and the characters have to figure everything out as they go along together, and the storyline shifts from one character to another with every short chapter.

In a way, it is like a mystery novel, with clues in abundance, but without a villain. There is a prime mover, but he is in deep, deep background and — sorry, that would be a spoiler as well.

Like Clockwork is also a book length clinic in how to explain a situation without resorting to a narrative dump.  It’s been a lot of fun so far. Now if I can just figure out what the hell is going on, I’ll get this thing finished.

Thankfully Deleted

Snap shook his head. “Let’s look from here, and think about what we see. The Clock is a machine. It has gears that mesh together. 16,384 gears in the outer layer alone, although you can’t see them now. They are cleverly built, with fine bearings, but the still they generate heat. Look at the snow, falling on the shell of the Clock, but not melting.”

The paragraph above was written for chapter 36 of Like Clockwork, and then deleted. It was too detailed. It told an accurate bit about an important part of the world of Like Clockwork, but it also slowed the story down.

For those who follow this blog looking for hints about writing, here is a koan, or a parable, or a rule of thumb, depending on how fancy you like in your language:

Think up a thousand nifty things for your novel, hold them firmly in your memory, but write down only ten of them. If you use them all, you will never get to the end of your novel, and neither will your reader.

489. The Cost of Empire 4

This is the last of four posts from The Cost of Empire. Click here for post 1.

Jons had locked the lever, so Daniel gripped the rail in front of him and looked for the shark. By the time the Anne of Cleves had turned far enough to see it, the American had almost reached the outer line of ships. It seemed to be headed toward the narrow gap between two freighters. Daniel took bearings continuously, sending them to the Commander as fast as he could refocus. He marveled at the American’s audacity, and wondered how soon he would shear off.

He didn’t.

The American sub plowed along, passing before the Brixham, causing it to waver and turn partially aside, then turned hard to port and took station inside the convoy.

No, he didn’t take station. The shark did not slow down. It forged forward between the Naesby and the Bamburgh Castle, slick as a knife through butter, far faster than the freighters on either side. Then it made another hard turn across the Naesby’s bow and left them all behind, heading due north. Daniel continued taking readings on its retreating fin as it shot away, twice as fast as the ships in the convoy.

#                   #                   #

Old Ugly was a small ship with a small crew. Even Commander Dane was only in his mid-thirties, but that made him the oldest officer aboard. Daniel and David, just out of the Air Academy, were the youngest and least experienced. That made them the dogs of all work aboard the dirigible, constantly shifting duties through engines, gas bags, navigation, communications, ranging, and munitions. It was a great way to learn a lot, fast.

That night in the officers’ mess, Daniel and David took places on benches opposite each other at the bottom of the table. Commander Dane was in the single chair, bolted to the floor at the head. He mumbled some pleasantries until they had all begun to eat, then said to the assembled officers, “Today we had another demonstration of what the Americans are capable of, and what they are willing to risk. Mr. James, what was the top speed they demonstrated?”

There was a trace of a smile as he asked, and Daniel sighed softly. He was reminding Daniel of the two slight errors he had made today. It was Dane’s way of keeping all his men on their toes. Daniel answered, “Thirty-one knots, Sir.”

“Do you think that was their actual top speed, or were they holding something back from us?”

“No way to know, Sir.”

“Guess.”

By now Daniel knew it was better to be wrong than to be timid. He said with no apparent hesitation, “Probably not their emergency top speed, but their operating top speed, Sir.”

“Why? What is the basis for your estimate?”

“They were showing off, Sir. They always seem to be showing off, but this was more than audacious. This was actually dangerous, yet they did it anyway. Given that it was a show, and that they are showmen, if they could have gone faster, they would have.”

Dane nodded with no further comment and turned his attention to his next victim. Every meal at the officers’ mess was like an oral exam.

This evening Dane worked his way down the table, with a different mental task for each officer present, and ended with David.

“Mr. James — Mr. David James — tomorrow you will take your cousin with you — or he can take you with him, damned if I can tell you apart — and inspect the entire ship from bow to stern.”

“Yessir,” David interrupted, “but its easy to tell us apart. I’m the good looking one.”

“Debatable. As I was saying, you will inspect the entire ship from bow to stern, outside the gas bags.”

“Sir?”

“You do know how, don’t you?”

“In theory, Sir.”

“See Lieutenant Ennis about putting that theory into practice. But don’t waste more than ten minutes of his time. You won’t really understand it until you’ve done it.”

That’s all you get for a while. I’ll sound trumpets and send up fireworks when it gets published. SL