The Birth of a Steampunk Tale

Posts tagged “good writing

The Religion of Writing

I think a lot about religion. A lot. And I’m hardly diversified. I grew up within Christianity, attended Christian school, and spent a considerable chunk of each summer at a Christian camp. It’s probably not surprising, therefore, that I look favorably on religion. But I think it surprises many of the Christians I meet. There is, within contemporary Christianity, this trend to try and rise above one’s religion, or to disavow it in favor of being “spiritual” or “in a relationship” with Jesus. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that there is a danger of putting the cart before the horse, and making religion a priority before God, but tackling the issue has worked its way backward into other aspects of my life.

I’ve often said that religion is a tool, a set of spiritual habits that a Christian (or person of any religion) commits to, in order to draw nearer to God, personally. Religion is also a tool that Christianity commits to, as a whole, to draw the world nearer to God. On a personal level, Christians have found spiritual aid in consistent times in prayer, in the Bible, in fasting, vows of chastity, celibacy, or temperance. I don’t advocate all of these, but you cannot ignore that some of the most peaceable, productive, and effective people on the planet (Jesus, Desmond Tutu, Gandhi, etc.) have worked from within a frame of self-sacrifice.

The idea of giving something up isn’t limited to spiritual things, though many who sacrifice for some other reward often describe their experience in terms that suggest a spiritual high. Eric Liddell said, in Chariots of Fire, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” There is a sense of accomplishment we have when we sacrifice for something we know that we are good at, are called to, or enjoy.

One of the reasons I despise the phrase “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship,” is because it sets up a false dichotomy, or else, a false definition of religion. Imagine a husband who says of his marriage, “It’s not about romance or fidelity, it’s about the relationship.” Imagine a soccer player who ignores the rules and referees because he’s only interested in “the game.” Or a student who eschews the rules of their school, the deadlines of their assignments, or their schedule because only their education matters.

That’s how I try to be with my writing, and most successful writers will describe their process in something that sounds very much like Judaic or Mosaic Law: Write every day. Write 1,000 words a day. Write 10,000 words a week. Keep deadlines. Cleanse your manuscript of all adverbs. Some rules are so deeply ingrained that we forget that they’re there. Like spelling.

The point of making those rules and habits is to develop a routine. The writers of Leverage talk about the self-imposed rules of the show, one of which is that there isn’t any deus ex machina, and that any secondary complications have to arise from the characters’ failures, or the fact that they succeeded too well. There was a particularly revelatory moment in the commentary of one episode where a writer said that while self-imposed rules sound limiting, they actually help them to know where to go next.

When I started writing Salvage Yard, I decided that no matter what happened within the novel, it needed to end where it began. This isn’t so much a gimmick as a promise to my reader. It says, don’t worry, we’ll be back. It also helps me to know where to start the story, which is a hard thing to choose.

In order to be successful at writing, or anything, really, one must make a religion of it. If one believes that God honors our efforts to be diligent in anything, whether we’re talking about studying or earning a paycheck, we actually make a religion of the thing we do. To be clear, we don’t make a religion of it in order to worship that thing, but in order to become better at it.

The Bible is almost entirely silent on the actual workings of religion and this is something that has caused centuries of arguments within the church. Should we baptize by sprinkling or immersion? Is one day holier than another? Are all days equally holy? Do we fast, or do we eat in remembrance? Do we gather together or do we pray in the solitude of a prayer closet? Do we marry or stay single? The fact that the Bible says yes and no to each of these is telling. The fact that the Bible never outlines a specific form of church government should be something of a hint.

I think that the authors of the Bible, and the early church fathers, and probably any successful religion recognize that people are different, and yet, we’re all the same. We all face troubles, pain, grief, periods of emotional drought, periods of achievement, joy, and success, but we deal with those things in vastly different ways. But we must deal with them.

It is hard for me to understand how people write without an outline. It’s hard for other people to understand how I can outline a novel to such a degree that I know, within a thousand words, when a particular thing will happen in my novel. It’s hard for me to understand how some people can sit down and write 3,000 words a day and not turn out drivel, and they don’t understand why I do so little revising. It’s because my religion of writing is different from theirs. The ultimate goal—to create a readable, enjoyable, reading experience is the same, and we both have the same burning passion to fulfill that goal, but the roads by which we reach it are vastly different.


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