The trials and tribulations of a self-published steampunk writer

Sunday, 27 May 2012

It's all about the length...

When I first started writing Red Mercury I just got on with it, trying to write a few hundred words every day, keeping the story moving along. However, after a few weeks I started to worry about how long it 'needed' to be. Was this going to be a short story? A novella? A novel? What length is a book?

Looking online, the general consensus seems to be anything less than twenty thousand words or so is a short story. Anything above that but less than forty thousand words is a novella. Anything more than that is a novel. As a result of this info, I became slightly obsessed with hitting 40k and writing a 'proper book'.

As it was, my first draft came in at just over forty thousand words, and I was all pleased with myself. However, my ruthless editor (ie. wife) has a great eye for padding and pointless paragraphs, and through judicious use of the red pen, reduced that first draft by a full 10%. She decimated it. Literally.

There is no doubt in my mind that the story is much better as a result of this pruning - punchier, sharper, more active, more exciting. But now it's not a 'proper novel'.

I've decided to refer to is a 'novella', even though I don't really like the word. I think  it's a bit fey - especially for an action story. But novella it is. The last thing I want when I finally publish is for anyone to complain that it's shorter than they expected.

Of course, over time, the requirement for such a distinction is going to completely evaporate. That 40k number was originally driven by the minimum page count which old hardback binding technology could handle. Over hundreds of years, this technological requirement has created an expectation in people's heads about how long a book needs to be. But in the world of e-books all these old standards will eventually wither away. We're going to end up with short stories, long stories, short novels, long novels, epic trilogies - and their 'length' will be essentially invisible, experienced only as the reader reads, rather than in measureable inches of dead tree visible on a bookstore shelf.

My favourite story ever is one that Gibbo tells about another mate, Irish Dave. I doubt the word count on that one goes above a couple of hundred. Not one of them is safe for online publication.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Cover story

As intimated in my previous post, I started doing some cover art for Red Mercury. Apparently this is not something a first-time writer is supposed to do. It's supposedly as big a sign of a dodgy novel as drawing a really detailed map of your fantasy world*. So sue me.

I've done two cover images. I've posted them on my Flickr account and get folks to choose which version they think should be the cover. Alternatively, if anyone wants to comment here, feel free.

I like both images. I think I prefer the Lenin image to look at, it's something I might want on my wall at home. But I figure the other image is more visually striking and probably gives a better idea of what's actually in the book. I'll be interested to see what people think.

*I haven't drawn any maps of my fantasy world, because it's not a fantasy. It's set in late-19th / early-20th century Europe. I figure there are plenty of maps of that already. If it had been a fantasy world, rest assured I would have drawn a map.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Burden of proof

Today I sent off copies of the draft of Red Mercury to my two brave "beta readers", Richard and Doug. I'm bizarrely twitchy about it. Remember when you made a mix-tape of your favourite songs for your new girlfriend when you were a teenager? And you were all nervous to see if she would like it or not? That's exactly how I feel.

The only other people who've read it so far have been my wife and son. My wife has a fierce eye for a typo or a pointless passage. Thanks to her, the most recent draft is about 10% shorter than my first stab at a "final" draft. It's scary that whole paragraphs that I deemed essential to the story were revealed as adding little or nothing when challenged by someone else. Removing the dross has undoubtedly made the story punchier.

My 14 year-old son finished it (a good sign) and said he enjoyed it. I pestered him for a bit more feedback. "The ending was a bit cheesy," he said. Obviously, I couldn't let an in-depth critique like that go ignored, so I revisited the last couple of scenes and attempted to remove a little of the Parmesan.

I'm now waiting to do any more editing or rewriting until I get comments back from the "beta boys".

To keep me occupied until the guys get back to me, I've started on a couple of different cover designs. The first rule of first-time writing is apparently "Never draw your own cover art". Oops.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

What? No Prussians?

Red Mercury will be set in a Europe teetering on the brink of war, around the end of the 19th century. I've avoided being too specific as I wanted to mess around with some of the historical context. Notably, I've got the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia kicking off about twenty years early.

As soon as I decided to write a steampunk book, I thought it would be cool to set it in Soviet Russia. The obvious temptation is to include the pesky old Prussians as the enemy, but I figured that as my book is bound to be chock-full of steampunk cliches, how about we avoid a big one up-front?

Don't get me wrong, I like a Prussian mech or u-boat as much as the next man, but I thought those pesky Commies looked like a more promising bunch of adversaries for my intrepid band of Imperial heroes.

So if all goes according to plan, Red Mercury will be like Guns Of Navarone meets Jules Verne. With Russians.

We'll see how it turns out.

I know what I like...

There seems to be a raft of new steampunk stuff coming out recently. This is A GOOD THING in general. I reckon the more clanky works that appear, the more good steampunk writing / movies / games we'll end up with to enjoy.

However, a load of the new stuff seems to include more than "just" the clank. Lots of books with steampunk and magic, or steampunk and aliens, or steampunk and whatever. I'm afraid I prefer a good old-fashioned bit of classic clank, without the added seasoning of other fantastic elements.

My favourite steampunk authors are Jonathan Green, who writes the Pax Britannia series, and Cherie Priest, who writes the Clockwork Century books.

Although both writing steampunk (amongst other things), they have very different styles: Jonathan's books are like movie adaptations - rollicking, high-speed thrill rides that can be an absolute hoot, whereas Cherie Priest's books are more "writerly" - subtle and moody with a great sense of place (and occasionally downright scary).

If you haven't read them, I'd heartily recommend trying them both out.

As for other steampunk books, you've got to love Sterling & Gibson's Difference Engine - which for my money is one of the ones that really started it all, along with KW Jeter's Infernal Devices.

Philip Reeve's Larklight kids' series is brilliant, and apparently soon to be a movie (great website too). You also can't go wrong with Moore & O'Neill's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the graphic novel, obviously, rather than the disappointing movie) and, I have a big soft spot for Joshua Mowll's Operation Red Jericho.

The point of this post, is not to try and make out that my book is going to be a patch on any of these fantastic works. Rather, I just want to give folks an idea of what style of clank they might find if they decide to pick up Red Mercury when it comes out. More on this another time.

In the beginning...

Last Christmas I received a steampunk novel as a gift. It should have been right up my street. The 'blurb' on the back, even the cover art, gave me high hopes.

However, I thought it was really bad - poorly written and plodding. Utter crap, in fact. It made me incredibly cross that it had been published at all.

In a fit of childish pique I threw the offending article in the bin and shouted at it: "I will write a better book than you by Easter."

Well, I didn't quite make it for Easter, but my book* is nearly done.

I plan to post here about the book, how I found writing for the first time, and the process of publishing my stuff on the Kindle.

* "Book" is maybe a bit of an overclaim. Looking at word-count posts on tinterweb, I reckon it's coming in as either a short novel or a long novella. I've decided to call it a novella to avoid any complaints from anyone who buys it expecting some sort of opus. You can read more about that decision here.