The Birth of a Steampunk Tale

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Karma and Grace in the Boiler

Last night I was mapping out my writing goals for 2012. Last year came together nicely, but I was still too tight on every single deadline I gave myself. Just to give you an idea of what to expect to see from me in the coming year here is my itinerary:

 

  • At the end of February, I want to start re-editing Cold for publication on the Kindle. This is more or less a side-project with no deadline. It’s just something I’d like to do.
  • Salvage Yard should be finished by the end of April, edited and prepped for querying by the end of May.
  • Immediately following the last page of SALVAGE YARD, I want to begin writing my next Christmas novel/novella, SNOWBALL’S CHANCE. I’ve got a pretty large promotion planned for this one.
  • I’m going to rewrite both STREET URCHIN and IRON ORPHAN as sequels to SALVAGE YARD.

 

It’s this last point that I want to talk about most. The main character for four of the aforementioned novels is a man named Cage Donnagan, who works as a blacksmith, but continually ends up in the role of a crime-fighter and vigilante. The book IRON ORPHAN dealt with this in great detail, and through that, lets me explore a theme that I want to dig into even more as I rewrite the story.

 

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The theme is ‘Karma VS. Grace’ and deals with the repercussions of justice and mercy. Despite the terminology, both of these are ancient, primitive, and biblical themes. The Christian apostle St. Paul tackled a concept very similar to karma in his letters to the churches in Galatia and Corinth.

 

St. Paul talks about sowing and reaping, and what he means is that if you plant corn, you get corn. You don’t get potatoes, or oranges, or Dalmatians. And the second verse speaks to the quantity. If you put a lot of seed in the ground, you’re more likely to get more back than if you only planted one seed. Paul uses this to drive home a very general spiritual point: if you plant greed, or jealously, or gossip, or whatever, into someone’s life, you’re going to get greed, or jealousy, or gossip back. And the same tends to be true of positive things: If you’re kind, people are kind back. If you listen, people are more likely to listen back.

 

I called the law of sowing and reaping a very general spiritual point for one reason. The bible also talks about this thing called grace. I have heard of grace described as getting the good things that you don’t deserve, and not getting the bad things that you do deserve. In other words, it’s when Christ takes upon himself the pain and penalty for the things that you’ve done wrong.

 

There are people in your life who probably deserve whatever they get. I’m talking about cheating spouses, deadbeat parents, and child molesters, just to name a few. They genuinely deserve to suffer whatever punishment life deals them. That is sowing and reaping. That’s justice. That’s karma. What I want to point out is that none of us get through this life without hurting other people. Those people that we hurt are God’s children, and God cares about them deeply. Just as you have been forgiven by God, and hopefully, if you’ve wronged someone, you’ve asked them to forgive you, you need to forgive others for that grace to be complete in your own life.

 

I say all of that to get to the theme of IRON ORPHAN, where Cage Donnagan faces down against a vigilante who is determined that no justice will be seen in the afterlife, so it falls to him to bring justice to people in this world. Cage has no problem with justice. He’s dealt plenty of it himself, but the Iron Orphan’s methods are so severe that Cage finds himself wanting to spare those criminals, to offer them at least a small amount of grace.

How about you? When your main character is thrown into the boiler, does the struggle between good and evil represent the meting out of justice, or is there a degree of grace being offered?

Making Mountains Out of Molehills

Two days ago, I logged into my Amazon Kindle publishing account and found a pleasant surprise. In the first five days of January, I had met the minimum sales needed to receive a royalty check for that month. It isn’t a huge amount ($10.00) but it was the first time I had met that particular goal in the first week of a month. Back in November, I was just thrilled to be making enough to get a check every month. Of course, none of this means I get to quit my job. It doesn’t even mean I can pay myself to take a whole day off work to write.
What does it mean, then?

In short, it means I’m making progress towards a larger, identifiable goal. Tiny little milestones like a monthly check, making minimum requirements in a week, or adding a hundred people to my Facebook author page, help keep me motivated and writing.

It also promises Future Jeremy hours of entertainment. In five years, what will I think about these molehills that I’m making into milestones? I can look back now and remember the first time I finished a novel, or the first time I sent out a query letter, and still feel a sense of the satisfaction I felt then. Sometimes my enthusiasm is embarrassing (OMG you guys!!! Someone commented on my blog!!!), but more often than not, I’m able to recognize it for the motivating factor it was. Besides, Future Jeremy will have his own mountains to tackle under the watchful gaze of Future Future Jeremy.

So, my friends, take time to find your molehills and make a mountain out of them.

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Salvage Yard: 22,004 words

Dragons, Wolves, and Dr. Moreau

I swear I forget what a blog is for…

I’m sitting at the computer three hours from the end of the year. The year of the rabbit is about to be eaten by the year of the dragon, and I can’t help but hope it’s a friendly dragon. This year has been kind of bittersweet for me, with higher ups and deeper downs than years in the past. On one hand, I received five or six rejection letters for a novel I’m shopping around. On the other hand, two of those rejection letters came from extremely prominent agents with detailed critiques and a request to see my next manuscript.

Don’t tell me if they tell everyone that, okay?

I set aside one manuscript (Iron Orphan), finished a novella (City Sidewalks), and started a prequel (Salvage Yard) to the novel that didn’t get picked up (Street Urchin). The day-job fared quite well through the whole year, but dropped off drastically towards the end of November. The group of teens I work with, speak to, and pray with on a weekly basis more than doubled.

What am I looking for in 2012? The payoff. This year has been one of the most personally productive years I’ve ever had, both physically and emotionally. I feel strained and stretched, and ready to be filled with more. If I can get deeply vulnerable in front of a whole bunch of people (Don’t kid yourself, Jeremy. Four people read this.) I’ve learned a few things.

1. When I’m doing the best I can, God seems to increase my margin for error. I’ve managed to make a bunch of mistakes this year, and none of them went to the worst possible consequence. Some of them even came out better in the end because of the mistake. In fact, there have been a few times when felt like some of my most well-intended mistakes have been rewarded with some kind of consolation prize. The thing I have to keep in mind is that doesn’t mean I can get sloppy. I want to stay out of that margin as much as possible. It’s just nice to know there’s a hand to catch me.

2. Tenacity wins. In college, we used to talk about brute force attacks on computers and phone systems. I’m not much into that kind of thing now, but there’s something to be said about the effectiveness of  hitting something over and over again. If 2011 wasn’t your year, and you feel like you’re giving everything you’ve got, just keep going. The world out there is big, but it can’t last forever.

3. Holiness will be the ladder by which I climb out of this hole. “Wait, what?” you say. Holiness? Where did that come from? Call me a mystic if you want, but don’t miss what I’m about to say because I borrowed a fundamentalist buzzword. There is an amazing liberty in living a holy life. At the end of the day, when you climb into bed, you can sleep knowing that you have wronged no one (even yourself), or if you have, that you plan to make it right shortly. There are a lot of crazy people out there, saying a lot of mean, crazy-person things. Living a holy life means knowing deep down that you’re not to blame, and then making sure that you never give them a reason to convince you that you are.

What’s left? I touched on the (Year of the) Dragon. I referenced something to do with wolves with my novels and novellas. Oh, right. Doctor Moreau. This Christmas, I asked for two older movie versions of H.G. Wells’ classic, The Island of Doctor Moreau. I also used my Kindle gift card to  purchase an annotated copy of the same. My dad asked me if I was obsessed or something. I assured him that I wasn’t, but that I simply wanted them because the storyline is very similar to the series I’m working on. How’s that for saving the best for last? I hope you had a merry Christmas and that you have a happy New Year.

Let’s Get Positive. What Makes You a Good Writer?

This is a response to Regan Leigh’s challenge to get positive with ourselves. You can read the original blog post HERE.

She starts with this: “We can easily list all the things that make us a poor writer. It’s a general trait of writers to be self-conscious and at times negative. So puff out your chest and be proud — at least for today — for the traits you possess that make you a good writer. We all have SOMETHING good to take note of! Don’t back down.”

This is an excellent place to be for anyone who is serious about writing. Honesty is the only true currency. It’s only by being honest with ourselves that we can get anywhere. Regan’s point in writing her article was to get honest about our strengths, and write to them.

Finding my own strengths without comparing myself to other writers was harder than I thought. It’s easy to look at some of the godawful manuscripts and snippets being posted on the internet and say “I’m better than those guys.” But that really doesn’t say anything about me except that I can hold my own against the lowest common denominator. This list is about those things that I feel are my strong points. 

#1. I am tenacious.  

I learned to snowboard in a blizzard. My friend and I were the only people on the mountain. They had to keep the slopes open because we bought tickets. In my writing, I’m just about that stubborn. I crazy enough to believe that if I work, every day, on getting better, I will get better. I don’t pound out crazy word counts. I write a thousand words a day. But I try to do it six days out of seven.

#2. I have a feel for dialogue that works.

Something that I’ve heard from several people is that I know how to avoid cheesy dialogue. Thank you. I have listened to a dozen instructors explain dialogue writing a dozen different ways, and I hear every one of them when I’m re-reading a written conversation. I feel like the hardest part about dialogue is knowing when to stop fixing it.

#3. I’m not too artsy.

There’s a danger that all artists face: being too artsy with our work. I would love to write a four-hundred-page novel that was one gigantic palindrome, but guess what? It’s not going to happen. I have to settle for something as cliched as a good story, told well. When I first started writing, I put way too much time into stuff that no one would ever notice, on the off-chance that after I died, someone tracked down the one notebook where I scribbled the evidence of my genius. That’s just silly.

#4. I try to help more people than I have help me.

I appreciate good help and a good review. I abhor a time-spounge. There are people in this world who will suck every single moment of free time that you have, and they’ll do it while subtly suggesting that they’re entitled to do so. I am just selfish enough to be able to tell those people no. I have told a friend or two that it seems to be a fact of life that the more disciplined a person is with their time, the more people will line up to absolve you of that sin. Hanging on to the hours that God gave you, and putting them to the best use you can is your responsibility. That’s why he gave those hours to you, and not to someone else. And at the end of your days, you’re not going to be able to blame anyone else for the hours you let someone squander. Crap. I’m preaching. Sorry. In summation: I’m guarded with my time, because there are people out there who think it’s theirs. The ones who appreciate my help are the ones who get it.

Prayerpunk

I’ve titled this entry “Prayerpunk,” but it might have just as fairly been titled “Crosspunk.” Or I could have named it “Why Christian Fiction Needs To Tackle Certain Problems Before Chasing New Genres,” but that’s a little wordy. In a previous week, I mentioned that one of the biggest problems I see in aspiring steampunk authors is the mistake of writing a novel about steampunk, instead of writing a novel that is steampunk, or contains steampunkish elements. There is a tendency to slap a few airships, a dozen clockwork devices, and some goggles on something and call it good. That’s not how this thing called writing works.

Similarly, there’s a tendency in Christian circles to produce stuff that is about Christianity, or about prayer, rather than producing things that are inherently Christian or prayerful. Walk into any Christian book store, and you’re bound to find Christian breath mints, Christian writing utensils, prayer pillows, and cross necklaces. But a Christian breath mint doesn’t do anything additionally Christian when it freshens your breath. Prayer pillows really aren’t any more beneficial to your prayer life than regular pillows. Unless you know how to use them, prayer beads are going to make you into some kind of spiritual intercessory warrior. Christian marketing groups have sold us on the idea that slapping a cross or a pair or praying hands on something makes it worthy of the name “Christian.”

It’s not a travesty or anything. Nobody’s going to Hell over it. It’s just a little hard to take seriously.

Let’s move on.

Steampunk is fun. It’s fun to write. Fun to read. Fun to role-play. And it’s catching on. Sooner or later, we’ll start seeing Christian steampunk, dieselpunk, atompunk, clockpunk, and punkpunk. Do you see where I’m going?

The people responsible for transforming Christianity into a philosophy of If-you-like-it-you-shoulda-put-a-cross-on-it will now be moving into a genre (or set of genres) that are already unusually susceptible to cultural veneering. Hmmm… that’s not a bad name. Maybe I should have gone with that.

So that’s the problem as I see it. We have two futures spread out before us. We can either go nuts, stamping crosses and cogs on mediocre manuscripts in an attempt to honor God, or we can these two examples of veneering to see our way out of committing it in either form.

When NOT to write steampunk…

During an interview, I was asked “Why steampunk?”

My answer was kind of boring, really. After trying to publish almost half a dozen novels, someone pointed out that most* of my storylines would have worked better in the Victorian Era, or in a fantastical version of our world. But certainly not reality.

A few years back, I had attempted to tell the story of a vampire watchmaker, living in 1880’s London. Since I knew little about watchmaking, or London, or really, the 1880’s, it didn’t get so far. But I loved the world. I kept tinkering with that world for years, thinking there would never be a time when such a speculative world would have a market. Then one day, I stumbled onto steampunk. And I smiled.

What about you? Because I advertise myself as a steampunk author, I get a lot of interest from people who want to write steampunk. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some super-creative type that touches something lesser minds are incapable of grasping. But if I could point to the one thing that all failed steampunk manuscripts have in common, it’s this:

They are ABOUT steampunk.

It’s not that they fail to understand some eccentric definition of the genre. It’s not that the author isn’t immersed in neo-Victorian surroundings. It isn’t that they’ve not developed their world into a workable frame. Many of them simply do not have a plot. They’re simply a handful of quirky Victorian characters in a steam-driven world, going about daily steampunkish activities.

A novel must have a plot in order to succeed. It must drag the reader along to the next page. It must move forward. Many people wanting to write a steampunk tale think that indulging their audience’s fascination with clockwork and airships will get them from the opening line to THE END. It won’t.

If you’re struggling to garner interest in your novel, ask yourself, what is this novel about? If the first thing that comes to mind is “Well, it’s steampunk,” you need to try writing a story without the cogs and kettles. When you can get my attention without a lick of brass or silver finery, you’ll be ready to attempt something that includes it.

*Joy & Carnage was the exception.

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Jeremy McNabb is a steampunk author, youth director, and speaker. Check out his latest e-novella, Gravesight, on Amazon: http://amzn.to/fSAyQy

That Book Does Not Mean What You Think It Means

All of us have seen or heard of someone who overanalyzes a short story, novel, movie. It used to be that everything was Freudian, that is, everything had sexual undertones. Everything related to sexual oppression, or repression, or frustration. I don’t see that so much any more. Maybe its because I’ve been out of college for a decade.

But what I’m seeing now troubles me more. There is a tendency to overexaggerate the theological–the thoughts about God–in what we’re reading and watching. Don’t get me wrong, Christian symbolism and allegory has been a powerful force in fiction for centuries. Every writer writes from a worldview, whether we’re talking about Lewis’ theism or China Mieville’s communism. That doesn’t change. What bothers me is that books and movies are being judged as good or bad, based not on the quality of the words and ideas contained within, but on the worldview from which they spring.

Just as much of the Freudian imagery was imagined, much of the theology that gets saddled upon a story exists only in the reader’s mind. William Young, author of The Shack, has probably had to spend more time dispelling the myth that he’s a universalist than he has talking about the impact his story is having on the unchurched. People read a certain word or phrase in a book, and tune their understanding to reinterpret the entire work in such a light. Or they stop reading altogether because the wrong worldview makes the rest of the writing garbage.

For readers, the danger is that this kind of practice will make you look like an idiot. There is nothing more laughable than a man who decries a book as garbage then whispers “Or at least, I’m sure I would think so if I ever stooped to reading it.”

For writers, the danger is this: It can lead someone to believe that their own writing is good, simply on the merits of being written from a “good” worldview. But everyone thinks their own worldview is the good or right one, otherwise, we would switch to a better one. No one adheres to communism because it produces failed economies. No one becomes a Christian because of the lack of compassion that they see in cold-hearted churches. People hold to worldviews that they feel are correct, and produce fiction from the “correct” worldviews to which they adhere. When the quality of writing is judged from this objective perspective, instead of whether or not it elicits a reaction (even a bad one) from the reader or viewer, then it becomes easy to be a lazy writer. Instead of grammar, plotting, characterization, and originality, the standard measure becomes a question of degree.

How universalist is this book?

How conservative was the plot of this movie?

How correctly does this short story convey an orthodox understanding of trinitarian theology?

There is a joke that goes around Christian writers’ conventions: the image of an author whose book was inspired by God, doesn’t need editing, and is destined (again, by God) to be a world-changing best-seller. It’s silly, but it serves as a warning to write well, not just from the right philosophy.

Yes, books and movies should address bigger issues. But the quality of the book should be defined by how adeptly they address those big issues, and not, as some would suggest, whether they take the proper stance. It’s easy to write from a “right” worldview. It’s much harder to write well, to convey your passion with style and strength.

~Jeremy