Tag Archives: steampunk

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.


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


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


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


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.”


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.”


“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

Serial Novels

Continued from earlier this week, when I discussed the Serial posts that were also writing how-tos.

I’ve been writing a long time, with some publishing success, and long years of drought. I’m not going to say, “But the things that didn’t get published are still good!” If you have been reading Serial, you already know that.

Here is the full list of my novels, not counting fragments.

Contemporary novels: Spirit Deer, Symphony in a Minor Key, and Raven’s Run.

Science fiction: Jandrax, published 1979,  A Fond Farewell to Dying, published 1981,  (and the novella To Go Not Gently which was extracted from it in 1978) and Cyan which is presently available

Fantasy: Valley of the Menhir, Scourge of Heaven, and Who Once Were Kin.

Steampunk: The Cost of Empire and Like Clockwork.

The Cost of Empire is freshly finished and looking for a publisher. Like Clockwork is in progress as we speak, and a little more than half done. You won’t be seeing either of them in Serial, but I’ll tell you when to start looking at your local book seller.

Valley of the Menhir and Scourge of Heaven are a single story, long enough for two novels, with a natural break in the middle. You won’t be seeing them here, but you will be seeing just the opening section of VOTM, Marquart’s story, starting Monday. 

488. The Cost of Empire 3

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

Another repeater above their heads spun, giving the tillerman a new bearing. He released the stop and heaved the chest high lever to his right. A linked lever in front of Daniel moved with it and he grabbed hold to add his strength. The tillerman could move the great ship’s rudder alone, but in time of need the Eye officer’s added power made things move faster.

Of course, faster is a relative term. Old Ugly never maneuvered with anything like speed. Now her bow swung slowly to starboard. Daniel could feel the increased trembling in the platform underfoot as her engines quickened far below and behind him.

Daniel’s arms felt the jolt as Jons locked the lever. Following the course was Jons’s duty; taking bearings was Daniel’s. Now he said, “Commander, the shark is moving parallel to the convoy, at high speed. Specification follows.”

David’s hands went to the sides of the cage surrounding his helmet, playing the levers there. He focused on the shark’s fin, set a lever, waited a slow five count, focused again and reset. Then he reported, “Twenty-nine knots, Sir.”

He heard the Commander acknowledge, then add, “Farragut class. We are honored by their newest.”

That didn’t require a response, so Daniel kept his mouth shut. They were moving to cut the sub off. Fat chance! The new diesel engines in that sub were much more powerful than the naphtha vapor engines in the Anne of Cleves, but also much too heavy for an airship to use.

Now the shark’s fin turned toward the convoy. Daniel had been waiting for any change in velocity. He took a bearing as it turned, counted a slow five, took another, and said through the speaking tube, “Changing course toward the convoy. New bearing coming on repeater. New speed — twenty-seven knots, but accelerating.” Daniel was taking readings continuously now. “New speed — twenty-nine knots. New speed — thirty-one knots. New speed — thirty-one knots. He seems to have maxed out.”

Daniel gritted his teeth at having added that unnecessary interpretation. The Commander didn’t need him to state the obvious.

“Thank you, Mr. James.” There was a judiciously measured touch of ice in Commander Dane’s voice and Daniel felt a flush in his cheeks.

He swallowed his embarrassment and continued taking bearings. The dirigible had made two more course changes; he had not aided Jons because all his attention was on the oncoming shark’s fin. The Anne of Cleves was small and slow, but she had an advantageous position.

Far below, Lieutenant Ennis and a crew of men had dragged up a spherical object, and now crouched around an open hatch. Commander Dane was calculating and estimating, based on Daniel’s continuous barrage of information. He ordered the drop.

Daniel saw a small black object fall into his field of vision, locked his monocular on it, and followed it down. It hit the water a dozen feet behind and to the left of the fin. He reported, then grabbed the linked lever. The sub has passed out of sight and the new bearings meant turning Old Ugly almost completely around. He and Jons fought the massive force of the rudder, and the dirigible slowed perceptibly as it swung onto its new course.

Through the strain on his body and the pounding of his heart, Daniel heard the Commander’s voice:

“A good try boys. When we bombed the Germans we usually hit our targets, but a stationary target is different from a moving one. It would have felt good to see a bladder of seawater burst on that American’s control deck. Still, we can console ourselves with the idea that they’ll wonder what we actually dropped.”

Jons snorted, and said, “Seawater, my ass, Sir. Brinley has been collecting urine all week. Now I know why.” more tomorrow Click here to jump directly to the final post.

487. The Cost of Empire 2

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

Submarine wasn’t entirely a proper term for the American craft. It had started as an improvement on their Hunley types, using the new engine devised by Rudolph Diesel, but because the engine had a hunger for air, they rarely submerged. The British called them sharks, because the only part anyone ever saw was the narrow fin that stuck above the water. The whole British Navy knew from direct experience was that they were fast while on the surface — faster than any ship in the British fleet.

Her Majesty’s Navy hated that.

America was not an enemy nation — technically. They had taken neither side in the German War. British-Americans and German-Americans had each lobbied Washington, but America had opted for neutrality. Actually, they acted more than a little holy about that.

That didn’t stop American sharks from harrying British convoys. There was no reason for it. It was just another game in which America flaunted her independence and self-righteousness. And any game that the British enter, they have to win. For Queen and Country. And just to prove that they are the best — especially Sub-Lieutenants.

Daniel tossed his canary to David and went down the starboard ladder in the unapproved manner, hands and feet outside the rungs, using friction to keep his descent just short of free fall. He hit the lower catwalk at a run and sprinted forward, past the last gas bag and up a sharply slanting ladder to the Eye of the ship. That was his battle station in this week’s rotation.

The tillerman was already there, of course. When not at battle stations, he stood his watch alone, translating the Commander’s orders into vertical and horizontal movements of the control surfaces. It was no easy task, and the ratings who qualified for the duty were uniformly big men, with bulging thighs and massive deltoids. Daniel slapped the tillerman on the shoulder to squeeze past him. He was a rating whom Daniel knew only as Jons, since his Welsh first name was unpronounceable. Jons nodded and eased aside. There was barely room for the two of them.

The Eye was in the foremost part of the ship, a tiny platform studded with ratcheted levers designed to allow one man’s unassisted strength to move the great rudders and elevators back at the rear of the craft.

Daniel struggled into the half-helmet and fastened the strap beneath his chin. Now his left eye was covered by a powerful monocular and his right eye was free. He could shift from detail to panorama by changing eyes. It took some getting used to, since opening both eyes at once caused a visual blackout. An hour in the half-helmet meant a headache that would last the rest of the day.

“Sub-Lieutenant James reporting, Sir,” he said into the speaking tube at his chin.

Commander Dane’s voice echoed in his ears, calm as always, “Daniel or David?”

“Daniel, Sir. Sorry.”

Jons pointed off the starboard bow, keeping him from a second embarrassment. Daniel managed to focus on the shark by the time the Commander asked, and was able to answer instantly, “I have it in sight, Sir. Bearings follow.”

He reached overhead and pulled down a head cage of silver, brass and mirrors. He slipped his half-helmet into the cavity and magnets snapped it into place. David looked at the ten foot red band on the flagmast of the nearest cargo vessel, set his verniers, chose another ship further back and to his left and repeated, then focused on the moving fin and pressed a button to finalize. The cage had monitored his head movements with great accuracy. Now the hundreds of gears in the babbage spun and sent the result down to the repeater in the control car. more next Tuesday. To jump straight there click here.