January is the month of steampunk here at The Dabbler, and Eric James Spannerman is one of the Darkside Codex authors here to school us on steampunk and how exactly one goes about writing it.
Please give Eric a warm welcome and enjoy his thoughts on steampunk and writing. And don’t forget to enter the giveaway at the bottom of the page for a chance to win some amazing steampunk books!
- Can you tell us a bit about Applied Natural Magic?
Applied Natural Magic is the story of Charles Woodridge, a young professor in the city of Southwatch who hopes to improve the fortunes of the poor and secure his place among the elite by improving hydroponics. Of course, just because something is good and straightforward doesn’t mean it’s easy — reducing starvation and malnutrition proves to be surprisingly unpopular in some quarters. Along the way there are riots, financial scandals, magic-driven knife fights, murders and monocycle chases. And in the end, Charles has to face some unpleasant realities and make some tough choices.
- When did you decide you wanted to pursue writing as more than a hobby?
In a sense, I’ve been a professional writer for most of my working life. My degree is in journalism, I was a Public Affairs Officer in the US Air Force, and worked as a technical writer or in jobs with a large technical writing component for over 20 years.
As for fiction, I worked on it pretty hard in college, but put it aside when I graduated. About five years ago, I made a serious effort, completed several stories and sent them out, but ultimately decided to concentrate on my day job instead. Finally, about two years ago, I came back to fiction writing with renewed focus and energy, and this time I’m definitely in for the long haul. Applied Natural Magic is the most significant result of that renewed commitment so far.
- Why steampunk?
Aesthetically, I’ve always found brass, leather, fine woods and intricate mechanisms attractive. However, in the case of Applied Natural Magic, I was grabbed more by the idea of Southwatch and The Darkside Codex than steampunk per se.
I like the opportunity to explore class relationships and economic issues from the standpoint of a place as starkly and obviously divided as Southwatch. I also like the sheer variety of characters and creatures available — light and dark fae, automatons with varying degrees of consciousness, and of course the whole gamut of human characters: devious aristocrats, men and women of science, and out and out criminals of various types. Not to mention lots of ordinary people trying to make their way as best they can.
- Can you give us a brief rundown of your writing process?
At the very, very beginning I have vague ideas about scenes and characters. Usually, I don’t know how they’ll be used or how they’re connected, but I record them in Evernote notekeeping software, along with any other scraps of information that seem interesting. When enough of this activity seems to be coalescing into a project, I open an Evernote folder for it and collect all the relevant notes there.
When I feel like I’ve done enough “composting,” I start in on Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake” method, which involves a great deal of prewriting – character biographies, a scene-by-scene spreadsheet, plot summaries of progressively-greater length and detail, and so on. So far, I haven’t completed the entire process, but I always end up wishing I’d gone further than I did before I start a first draft.
I did the drafts for Applied Natural Magic and my current project as part of NaNoWriMo. I crank out a rough, messy draft that’s heavy on dialog (because I like writing dialog) and light on description (because I have to really think about description). The draft also typically has some glaring plot holes and places where I changed my mind, despite the planning.
When the first draft is complete, I spend several months cleaning it up. Early rewrites fix glaring problems, iron out continuity issues, and ensure the story and character arcs all “work.” Later passes through the manuscript are often focused on a single issue, such as making sure each character has a consistent “voice” when speaking. The final passes are focused on the fine points of grammar and punctuation.
- What’s the hardest part of the writing process for you and how do you make it easier for yourself?
Line edits and proofreading. I make this easier for myself by doing it in short bursts, and doing tricks like reading the pages out of order, or working through chapters backwards to get my mind off story flow and on to the details of the wording.
- Your first novel is part of a shared world series. Are you interested in writing novels within worlds of your own creation as well?
Definitely. My current project is a near-future world where debt slavery has made a comeback and formal duels have replaced the courts for many types of disputes.
- What are the biggest limitations of your chosen genre?
Probably the most restrictive thing about steampunk is that the social mores and basic social relationships are set, as is the “look and feel” of the surroundings. However, restriction in these areas leaves the author with a lot of freedom to experiment in others.
- Can you recommend some other awesome steampunk stuff for people interested in the genre?
Although it’s been out there for about 25 years, I can’t over-recommend The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Considered one of the genre-defining steampunk novels, it’s an alternate-history story in which the information-technology revolution takes place in the 19th century, driven by steam-powered mechanical computing, and is lead by Great Britain rather than the United States. The results are fascinating. I read the book before I knew that steampunk was a thing, and I was totally captivated by it.
One of my other favorite steampunk works is Girl Genius comics. Agatha is an amazing character, and I love the idea of a Europe ruled by Mad Scientists.
- If you could give an aspiring writer any one piece of advice, what would it be?
Write a lot and get good feedback.
The former is mostly a matter of deciding that writing is more important than something that you’re doing now, and making that decision a habit. The latter is mostly a matter of “finding your tribe”— gathering with smart, compassionate, skilled people with similar goals who are willing to tell you the truth.
These aren’t complicated things to say, but they are hard to do.
- What are you working on now that readers can look forward to?
I’m planning some contributions to The Darkside Codex blog. I have some thoughts on a follow-up to Applied Natural Magic and on another TDC project involving airships and economic warfare with Atragon, but those are both definitely at the “composting” stage right now.
Eric James Spannerman has been a farmer’s son, a US Air Force officer, a technical writer, a computer support specialist and a business analyst, as well as being a writer of speculative fiction. Applied Natural Magic is his first published book. He and his wife live near Des Moines, Iowa.
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