Tag Archives: steampunk

479. Snap at his Bench

Here is a peek at Like Clockwork, the steampunk novel I’m working on now.

Snap worked every day in his shop, sometimes on maintenance, sometimes on new toys. Day after day, the children cleaned and polished and wound the mainsprings on the toys that he had already built. It would have been cacophony if all the toys had all run all the time of course. Even a good thing can be overdone. Still, every day at least ten of the clockwork toys whirred, clanked and blatted (if it was a clown) or sang (if it was a doll).

The ships whose sails shifted with the wind were entirely Snap’s. So were the several kinds of self-bouncing balls, and the elfin forest of trees that waved their branches to an unfelt, fairy wind. The toys which had faces were his and hers — the mechanism was by Snap and the wood or porcelain flesh came from Pilar’s hands. The dolls which cooed and snuggled in a child’s arms had hands and faces of of clay that Pilar had moulded, fired, and glazed.

Every iteration of the year, a dozen new creations were added. Hundreds of toys lined the shelves and a few each day clanked, chirped, crawled, waltzed, rolled with laughter, and bounced in acrobatic arabesques. Their motion came from Snap; their expressive faces came from Pilar.

Rarely did anyone buy them. Once a year, perhaps — almost never twice in one twelvemonth — someone from the other London made his way to the street outside, saw the sign that said Like Clockwork, looked through the window at the wonders inside, and entered. Then one of Snap’s and Pillar’s clockwork offspring would reach the outer world, and for a time there would be meat in the pot, and new brass, paint, clay and springs for future creations.

Their daily bread came from Pilar, who worked alone in a back room with a spring pole lathe and carving tools, making nutcrackers, jester’s heads and crudely carved puppets. She had no more than six or seven patterns, and she produced them quickly in the time she could spare from other work. They sold for a shilling, but they sold. There were thousands of children in Luddie London without toys, and a few parents who would set aside a penny here and a penny there until they could buy one of the toys Pilar made.

Eve, Lispbeth, and Pakrat were an integral part of the enterprise. Snap called them his sweepers and dusters and winders. They kept the place spotless. The delicate machinery of the toys demanded it, and Pilar demanded it. The children worked continuously, but joyfully. No one made them come each morning.

Outside the toy shop lay hunger and cold, fog and soot, bullying and torments. In the streets and alleys and tenements life was lived by the law of strength, augmented by the rule of want.

Inside was warmth and kindness. Even Pilar’s stony look seemed a mask over a beating heart — but it was such a good mask that the children were afraid to take chances with her wrath. Snap was a massive presence at the workbench, short and thick with muscle, with fingers that were always bleeding a little from scrapes and punctures given to him by slivers of brass or steel or wood, but ignored in his fierce concentration. From time to time he would look up and smile, at Pilar or one of the children, but his eyes always turned quickly back to his task.

Inside there was food, simple and not plentiful, but always there, always to be counted on.  And work, unending, undemanding, unpaid. In the mind of each child there arose a formula, as sure and unrelenting as algebra — work equals warmth, work equals food, work equals safety from the world outside the shop, work equals acceptance.

Work equals self-worth.


How to Get Readers for Your Blog

I have discovered the secret to getting readers for my blog, and I hate it.

On November 29th I posted a blog called Machine Porn. It was about an episode of a PBS show that showed lots of old sewing machines, and it used that as a springboard for talking about the clockwork aspect of steampunk.

If you are a guitarist, you know that guitar porn doesn’t mean naked women with guitars, it means cool looking guitars. If you are a motorcyclist, you know that motorcycle porn means pictures of cool looking motorcycles. In either case there may be naked women, but that is incidental. By machine porn, I meant that the PBS show in question had lots of cool looking old machines.

So far no one has “liked” the post. That is appropriate; it was a very minor effort. But hardly a day goes by without someone, somewhere opening that post. It probably has more hits than anything else I have done.

I’m sure they must all be terribly disappointed. I refuse to visualize what they think they are going to find.

471. Sunshine Blogger Award (2)

JM Williams nominated AWL for the Sunshine Blogger Award, which he and I both consider a chance to give a shout out to bloggers we follow. I started on Monday, and ran long, so here is the rest of the story.

There are four rules to the SBA. I took care of two of them on Monday. The remaining are:

Answer the 11 questions sent by the person who nominated you.
Nominate 11 new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.

I only nominated four blogs, and only wrote three questions. Michael, Thomas, Joaquin and James, the questions are at the bottom, should you chose to accept. (There is no penalty if you don’t. This post will not self destruct.)

 JM Williams’ questions to me were:

1. When did you start writing?   In the early seventies I started by writing a few articles for magazines. I started writing fiction in 1975. not counting the answer to question five.

2. Which genre do you prefer to write? To read?  Fantasy for both.

3. Which genre do you actually write most often? It is about equal between fantasy and science fiction, with a few contemporary novels as well, but only SF seems to sell.

4. What is your favorite piece of work and why? By other writers, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. From my own work, a short story The Prince of Exile. Of everything I’ve written, that was the only story in which I had no idea where it came from, nor where it was going while I was writing it. On the inspiration-perspiration continuum, it was way to the left.

5. Where is the most interesting place you came up with a story idea? This is not so much a where as a how.

A couple of years before I started writing fiction, I was with my wife in the stacks of a library. I had finished for the night and she was still working, so I took down something to read. The only tolerable book in the area was Beowulf. I flipped it open to a random page and read, “All that lonely winter . . .”

A vision exploded in my head, of a young boy, at an open wind hole in a castle, looking out over a snowy scene. He was living with relatives who had taken him in after his father was killed. They expected him to grow up and avenge his father’s death, but he had no interest in revenge. He just wanted to be left alone.

I saw him and his situation with instant and absolute clarity.

The next day I wrote the first chapter of the novel the incident called out, then put it away. Four years later, it became my third novel, but it remained unfinished for decades. Now it has grown into a three book series, and if I ever find a publisher, I’ll announce it here.

6. If you could win any writing award, which would it be? The Nebula, of course. A Hugo wouldn’t be bad either. I can’t hope for a Nobel Prize since I can’t sing, play guitar, and blow harmonica at the same time.

7. Do you associate with other writers? Are they at the same level as you? My level  is totally weird. I have been published since 1978, but I went unpublished (and unknown) for a long time after, and now am published again. I work strictly alone. I loved meeting writers at Westercon this year, and I love meeting them on the internet, but there is a huge generational gap.

8. What’s one of your writing goals for 2018? I have two actually. I want to see my recently finished steampunk novel find a publisher, and finish the second steampunk novel I am working on now.

9. Are you a plodder or a plotter? 100% plod. I outline very little. When I was a teacher, I was always in trouble because I refused to write lesson plans. I carried everything in my head, and that scared the principal half to death.

10. Where do you currently live, where are you originally from, and have you ever lived in a foreign country? I live in the foothills of central California, on three acres with wild turkeys and bobcats. I grew up on a farm in Oklahoma. In between, I lived in cities and hated it. When I became a teacher, and finally had a dollar in my pocket and summers off, my wife and I spent six summers living in a tent and subsisting on bread and apples, four in Europe and two in Australia. You can go far on little, if you want to badly enough.

11. If you could travel anywhere in the Universe, where would it be and why?   If?  What do you mean if?  I travel everywhere in the Universe I want to. Why else would I be a writer?

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Now the questions for my nominees. Three instead of eleven, and loosely organized at that.

1. List your favorite authors. Length of list is your choice. A reason for the choices would be nice as well.
2. List your favorite books (That’s not the same question, since it it quite possible to have a favorite book by someone with only one great book.) Again, reasons would be nice.
3. List your favorite genres (or sub-genres, if you that works better for you) and tell what you look for as a sign of quality in that particular genre.

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I had a great time doing this exercise, but my nominees may not feel the same way. If they don’t respond, no problem. The reviewers in particular have a tightly formatted product that might not work well with the Sunshine Blogger Award.

The main idea is to send them some new customers.

A Timely Note

I found it amusing to set my clock to Daylight Savings Time on Sunday, then turn on the computer and write a critical chapter in my new novel about a device called The Great Clock. That entity is also known as The Enemy, The Clock That Swallowed Time, The Clock that Put Time in a Cage, and quite a few other names.

I’m about a third of the way through the book, and it finally has its proper name. It’s called Like Clockwork. Of course. I should have known that from the beginning.

My computer must have been amused as well, because as I was typing in the title of this note, I hit a wrong key and it activated Time Machine, which is Apple’s name for the backup program I use.

Although — can there be any irony without surprise, and can there be any surprise in a multiverse where everything that can happen, must happen?

Yeah, it’s that kind of book. I have a short excerpt scheduled for April 11.

470. Sunshine Blogger Award (1)

The logo above is for the Sunshine Blogger Award, for which JM Williams just nominated A Writing Life. It’s not a HUGO, but a way for bloggers to give a shout out to other bloggers. Thanks JM. I appreciate it.

The rules of the contest (if that’s the right word for it) are:

1.) Thank the person who nominated you in a blog post and link back to their blog.
2.) Answer the 11 questions sent by the person who nominated you.
3.) Nominate 11 new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.
4.) List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award logo in your post and/or on your blog.

Okay, I’ve done 4 and I’ll do 2 and part of 3 on Thursday. Here come 1 and the rest of 3, all mangled together.

JM Williams who nominated AWL, is a writer with a long list of stories, mostly published electronically, and one anthology of flash fiction, The Adventures of Iric. I mentioned Iric recently in a post about author’s names, and reviewed it positively on Amazon. JW Williams has a new website, and an old one that you might still fall into if you are using a search engine, along with an author page on Amazon.

Our connection came when he liked one of my posts, some time ago. I don’t formally follow any blogs, since my time is limited, but every time someone likes one of my posts, I drop in to their site and look them over. I get a lot of newbies, and a lot of people who are working out problems in the semi-public sphere of the internet.  I like that. I hope this doesn’t sound smart-ass, but it seems to me that baring your soul to the universe, without telling anyone your home address, is a safe way to both vent and find support. I also get likes from a lot of new and would-be authors, and every time I post a poem, I snare a lot of poets.

I end up reading a lot of poetry and fiction and occasionally something really grabs my attention. JM Williams and Iric did that. I have also found a lot of useful information on the world of e-publishing on his site. I’ve been in this game a long time, but the “e” side of publishing is something I’m just learning about. So thanks for shared interests and information. I’m glad we’ve met. I liked Iric and I’m anxious to read your novel when it comes out.

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I’m only going to nominate four new blogs, one by an author and three by reviewers.

Michael Tierney was another whom I discovered when he liked one of my posts and I backtracked him. His blog, Airship Flamel, is largely devoted to steampunk and victoriana, and to publicizing his writing. That makes him a man after my own heart. I enjoy his blog, but this is primarily a shout out for his novel. I bought, read, and reviewed To Rule the Skies. I recommend it as a very British romp.

The remaining nominees are reviewers of novels that they consider really old — but which I read when they first came out.

Thomas Anderson is the voice of Schlock Value, which is the only blog I read without fail every week. His subtitle, Reading cheap literature so you don’t have to, is probably all you need to know in order to understand his perspective.

I found him in an odd way. About the time I was starting my blog, I googled myself. Strictly business, you understand, and I found a review of Jandrax, my first novel. It had been out of print for forty years, and here was a review dated 2014. Did I read it? Does Donald comb his hair funny?

Thomas didn’t love Jandrax, but his review was fair. More important, compared to the reviews it got when it came out, he had obviously read it closely.  I went to the contact me section and sent him a letter, saying something like, “Since you review books that came out forty years ago, you probably never expected one of the authors to respond, but here I am.” We’ve been going back and forth ever since.

Thomas likes to review schlocky books, and he has a talent for finding them, skewering them, and still finding something worthwhile in most of them. It’s an odd approach, but I really like it.

I discovered Joachim Boaz (actual name unknown to me) and his site Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations via Schlock Value. He reviews book of the same era, but takes them all on, the good, the bad, and the weird, and with a more serious demeanor. If you check out one of his many indexes you will be amazed at the breadth of his coverage. If you are curious about an old SF book, this should be your go-to site.

James Nicholl  of James Nicholl Reviews also came to my attention when he reviewed one of my old novels. His site covers publications over a wider time scale, and anybody who has review categories like 50 Nortons in 50 Weeks and The Great Heinlein Juveniles (Plus The Other Two) has something worthwhile going on. I have read a dozen or so reviews so far, which means I have just scratched the surface. This is going to be fun.

Okay, I’m up to a thousand words and I haven’t started answering questions yet. It looks like this post is going to roll over into Thursday.

459. Steampunk Research, 2017

I’m offering a look at the nuts and bolts of how I organize my writing, in four posts. 456 explains the system I used for years. 457 tells how I keep order while writing today. 458 gives the gory details on why this system works and 459 shows you how to keep track of your research. Take what you can use and ignore the rest.

The best thing about doing novel research on a computer is that you have access to the world, instantly and right on your desktop.

The second best thing about doing research on a computer is that you don’t have to copy things down longhand.

I am very careful to respect the rights of other writers, especially on copyright issues. However, those rules don’t necessarily apply to copying into your own research notes to be considered, modified, used for inspiration, and not quoted.

You can’t copy everything you find on the internet, no matter how useful. Sometimes you have to bookmark. I found an 1868 map of London which I returned to a hundred times. It lives on Safari, along with bookmarks for thirty other websites I have used. A few of those which would be of general interest to steampunk fans and authors are: Beyond Victoriana, All Things Victorian, Historical Emporium (even if you don’t buy the clothes they sell), and The Victorian Web. That doesn’t even scratch the surface.

Another map from Wikimedia Commons was available in jpg. It lives on my desktop, along with a number of maps, coats of arms, and photographs whose jpgs could be snagged.

Whenever I copy from the internet into a word processor program, I always also copy the URL.

Most of what exists in the folder for The Cost of Empire consists of things I have written myself. I would guess that my character, historical, and world building notes probably run about half as many words as the novel itself.

So how can we keep track of all this?

I explained about keeping track of the chapters two posts ago, and about the nitty gritty of ordering last post. Now let’s tie it all together.

Here is a low-fat version of what my folder looks like, with 11 files instead of 77. It starts with important research files, then has chapters, and ends with less important research files.

  changes (notes on changes planned)
 Delhi Durbar Ebook ( excerpts from an Ebook)
 Final Timeline
 Sleeves, color (on uniform sleeves, color denotes rank)
0.1 chapter outlines
1 “Tick tick”
20 “Death of an Airship”
American submarines (notes)
Naphtha engine (excerpts on the real thing along with how I modified them)
The German War (I made it up, but I had to write a history of it to keep track)

You may not see it, but there are two spaces before “  changes”, and one space before each of the next three file names. The three file names after that begin with numbers. The last four begin with letters.

Here’s why it is done that way. The computer puts numbers (in numerical order) on the top of the stack. Letters (in alphabetical order) come next. However, a space comes above anything else.

If you want your most important files to be above your chapters, put a space in front of their titles. If you want one of them to be at the very top, put two spaces in front of that title. Once a file is no longer a priority, don’t throw it away. Put a “z” as the first letter in the title and it will drop all the way to the bottom.

“zTimeline” is an early attempt; I didn’t want it at the top where I might use it by accident, but I also didn’t want to lose track of my original thoughts on the order of in which things happened.

It’s amazing how simple this is in practice, and how well it works.

458. Alpha-not-betical

I’m offering a look at the nuts and bolts of how I organize my writing, in four posts. 456 explains the system I used for years. 457 tells how I keep order while writing today. 458 gives the gory details on why this system works and 459 shows you how to keep track of your research. Take what you can use and ignore the rest.

I wrote my first six novels on a typewriter, keeping notes in a card file. If I had to go back to that, I wouldn’t write. Thank you Steve Jobs.

The way I work today depends on having multiple files in one folder, each with it’s own function, while making full use of copy-and-paste between the files. This requires placing all the files in a manner that makes sense visually, and for that you have to have a deep understanding of how a computer orders files. Buckle your seat belt, it’s going to be a nerdy ride.

For my most recent project, a steampunk novel titled The Cost of Empire, I have 77 files in one folder. From the beginning I had imposed an organizational structure on it, so I never lost anything. I explained the chapter organization last post and I will explain the research organization next post. For now I’m gong to concentrate on the structure behind the structure.

The following is based on Mac. I can’t guarantee that it transfers totally to another platform, but it should be at least close, and you can find any differences by experimentation.

The files in your folders are an order that is not quite alphabetical. The words go in alphabetical order, the numbers go in numerical order, and special characters like tilde and backslash have an order of their own. Mixed units go where their left-most letter or digit directs. That is, 13b would be placed among the numbers and ordered numerically, but B13 would be placed among the words and ordered alphabetically.

Bear with me. This is a powerful organizational tool you can learn in about twenty minutes. I have tried to write this out, but this is one case where words don’t work. So let’s look at examples instead. The following numbers occur in numerical order.

1, 2, 7, 11, 23, 2514

Now let’s put those same numbers into alphabetical order. We get:

1, 11, 2, 23, 2514, 7

If this doesn’t make sense, let’s replace each numeral with the corresponding letter of the alphabet.


There you have it, pure and proper alphabetical order.

Decades ago, I had a night job teaching spreadsheet to my fellow teachers. I would read a group of numerals such as the first example given here in random order, to be placed one per cell in vertical array. Then I would tell my teacher/students to let the spreadsheet put them in order. They would get what is given in the second example.

Once their minds were properly blown, I would show them where the program gave a choice of sorting numerically or alphabetically.

Alphabetical order takes all the words with A as the first letter, then all the words with B as the first letter, and so forth. Then it looks at the second letter in each word, then the third, and so forth. It also follows the rule that nothing comes before something, so that A comes before AA.

Numerical order takes all the numbers with one numeral to the left of the decimal place first, then the numbers with two numerals to the left of the decimal place, and so forth. It assumes that whole numbers always have an invisible decimal at the right. Then it puts things into 0, 1, 2 … 9 order, and it doesn’t care how many places lie to the right of the decimal point. That is, it assumes that all numeral groups to the right of the decimal point end in an infinite string of zeroes.

Am I wasting your time? Do they teach this in ninth grade now? I had to learn it by experimentation after I got my first computer in 1986.

All this is the key to the orderly arrangement of a complicated folder, and that is the key to my method of keeping track of both chapters and notes in one folder.

I number my chapters and use word titles for my research notes, then use the mixed system my computer provides to make it all easily retrievable. We’ll put this all together in the last post on Thursday.


By the way, if you know ASCII, forget it. This isn’t ASCII. It isn’t a pure system at all, but a mixed system designed to produce a result that is intuitive to humans, not to computers.