Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Spirit Rebellion French Cover...J'adore!

Special Saturday Update! So the absolutely wonderful Sita tipped me off that The Spirit Rebellion is going to be released in France... and check out this COVER!

Is this not the BEST MIRANDA EVER? Okay, so it's not quite accurate, but the Miranda in my head approves enormously. Also, Gin looks PIMP. LOVE!!

Since the Fench version of The Spirit Thief used the omnibus art I was wondering what they'd do for book 2, but this is totally boss. Can't squee enough over it! SQUEEE!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

TL:DR - Don't be a dick

I've made no secret of my opinion on the importance of book bloggers and book reviews in general (SPOILER: I love them to pieces like crumbles of awesome pie), so it probably doesn't come as a surprise that this whole mess involving thriller author Jon Stock and his practice of tracking down and "outing" people who leave him bad reviews makes me feel stabby. If you're interested in the whole sordid affair, Dear Author has an awesome write up including the aggrieved reviewer's side of the story and a breakdown of why Mr. Stock's argument that he hunts down people who didn't like his books in an effort to provide "customer service" is about as bullshitty as you would assume. I'm actually not going to go into this situation any further because Dear Author already said pretty much everything I'd want to, plus more I hadn't even thought of. I would, however, like to take a moment and talk about this mess from an author's perspective.

I love book reviews. I love them in theory, I love reading them, and I love what they do for sales. Counter intuitive as it sounds, even bad, awful, flaming reviews sell books. It's win all around! That said, (confession time) I don't actually pay that much attention to my reviews.

Now wait wait wait, don't get me wrong here! I read every single review I can find. I appreciate them all, the good ones that make my day and the bad ones that bum me out, and as an author I have taken reviewer complaints into account when writing future installments... THAT SAID, I'm a firm believer in not getting your panties in a wad over things you can't change, and since all book reviews are, by definition, beyond my ability to do anything about, I see absolutely no point in getting upset over them.

You see, by the time reviews start coming in for a book, it's done for me. The story has printed and is now out in the wild, and even if a reviewer brings up an amazing point that I really should have thought of, I can't do shit about it. That ship has sailed.

This is how it should be, because book reviews aren't there to help the author, they're there to help readers decide if this book is right for them. To put it more plainly, it ain't about me. It's about the book and the reader and the reviewer's opinion. Therefore, for me, as an author, to track down a reviewer so I can tell them how their opinion is wrong is so pointless, aggressive, and insecure I can't even begin to contemplate it.

Tracking down a reviewer who gave you a bad review is like calling an agent who rejected your book to tell them how wrong they were. Not only is it rude, it's actively counter to your objective to sell a book, whether to a publishing house or a reader. Let's say you read a book you hated and posted a review explaining why to warn others, would you want the author coming to you trying to explain how you're wrong? Of course not. You'd think that person was crazy.

Now, this isn't to say you can't think the reviewer/agent/whoever is wrong. You are entitled to your opinion, just as the reviewer is entitled to theirs. But you are not entitled to act like a creep and go all vigilante on a bad reviewer who was simply expressing their opinion freely.

On some level, I can understand why authors like Mr. Stock do what they do. It sucks to put so much time and effort and love into a project only to have someone rip it to shreds. It's hard not to take it personally, but here's the thing: if you're going to be an author, and you're going to read reviews, then coping with criticism like a mature individual is a skill you will have to learn. No book is universally loved. If you have written a novel, someone out there thinks it sucks. That's the writing life, folks, and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it.

At the end of the day, a writer's only job is to write the best books they can. Lovely as they are, book reviews have very little to do with this. In fact, it would probably be better is authors didn't read their reviews at all, but we do. And that's fine, so long as we keep things in the proper perspective and remember that everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if it's your opinion that their opinion sucks. If you can't handle that, then just don't read your reviews. But whatever you do, don't be a dick. ESPECIALLY don't be a dick online where everything is easily recorded for posterity. If you do, people will know your name for exactly the wrong reasons, as Mr. Stock is undoubtedly experiencing right now.

Friday, October 19, 2012

How to write a prologue people won't skip

There are many different parts to a book - middles, endings, beginnings, climaxes, that train station scene at the end of the last Harry Potter - but no slice of the novel engenders quite as much derision and outright hatred as the prologue. Agents don't want to see it, readers skip it, editors cut it, yuck.

With so much open hate the pressure to just forget about a prologue can be intense, but just because prologues are tricky to pull off doesn't mean you can't have one. When used correctly, a prologue becomes an invaluable tool and an indispensable part of the story. The secret (as always) is that you have to know what you're doing. 

The Prologue's Purpose
As a writer, I never, ever, EVER want to write something readers can skip. A good novel is like a well tuned race car, every piece has its purpose within the whole. If a reader can skip a part of your book without consequence, then you have to ask yourself does that part really need to be there. But prologues are even more sensitive since they come at the very beginning. Mess up the middle of your novel and you'll get a bad review, mess up the opening and the reader will put the book down and forget about it forever. 

With stakes like these, it may seem safer to just skip the prologue and save yourself some trouble, but I say prologues can be a huge help to your novel so long as the writer understands that the purpose of a prologue is to improve the reader's enjoyment of the book

Your prologue is not your first chapter, it's not even the beginning. It's what comes before, the set up, the before dinner cocktail that eases you into a wonderful night. The most successful prologues fall into two types: prologues that exist to feed the reader information they otherwise couldn't get, and prologues that set the mood.

Past as Prologue
The easiest (and my personal favorite) prologue is one that serves as a vehicle to give the reader information they couldn't otherwise obtain within the structure of the story. For example, in my second Eli novel, The Spirit RebellionI open with a scene from Eli's past showing how he ran away from home and came to be the Shepherdess's favorite. 

This was perfect prologue material. It was something Eli himself would never talk about and, since it happened several years in the past, I couldn't show within the constraints of the novel's timeline without resorting to a flashback. More importantly, by showing this scene to the reader at the very beginning, I was able to foreshadow and set up several events that happened later in the book. I gave my reader information about what happened in the past in order to make the events of the present more powerful. In other words, I used my prologue to set up context, and then I used that context to twist the knife.

This sort of one-two set up is incredibly powerful, and you don't have to limit yourself to the past to make it work. In The Spirit War (Eli book 4), I show events that are happening in the present, but on the other side of the world. Again, I used the prologue to feed the reader information the characters couldn't know in order to create tension. Eli and company had no idea what was going on across the sea, but the reader knew exactly how big a shit storm was coming, and that knowledge created a ticking time bomb that twisted the tension in the novel to heights I couldn't have achieved otherwise.

By giving the reader inside information, I was able to drop subtle hints that the characters didn't notice, but the reader did. This let me create a "don't open that door!" situation to keep the reader on the edge of their seat without having to resort to gimmicks. Thanks to the prologue, the hooks were already there, buried deep in the reader, all I had to do was pull.

That said, I have to admit this sort of prologue works much better in subsequent novel than it does in a first book. The prologue for The Spirit Rebellion I mentioned earlier wouldn't have worked nearly as well if I hadn't been able to rely on my readers' built up curiosity about Eli's past to pull them in. This isn't to say you can't use the "show a hint of the past to put the present into context" prologue in a first book, but there are more hurdles. In a first novel, your readers aren't yet invested in your world or your people. They don't care about what happened in the past yet. Hell, they don't even know it is the past unless you tell them. You have to make them care right off the bat, and that can be a difficult trick to pull off, especially if your prologue jumps around between times and characters. 

As with everything in writing, it all comes down to execution. If you can pull it off, a good Past as Prologue can take your novel to new heights. By giving the reader inside information, you can tighten your story's tension to a cutting edge with very few words simply by leaning on and hinting at what the reader already knows. It's showing the maid hiding a body before you spend the novel with everyone else wondering whodunit while the murderer is pouring their tea and your reader is going out of their mind waiting for her to strike again. It's tension through revelation, and with the right treatment, it can be magic.

Setting the Stage
The second type of prologue is more nebulous, artistic, subjective, and, consequently, much easier to mess up. I'm talking about the atmosphere prologue which, rather than flat out revealing plot information, focuses instead on setting the stage and preparing the reader to enter your world. A good (and very famous) example of this kind of prologue would be the opening of Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
In this prologue, Dickens sets his stage. Though the novel is in third person, the author here speaks directly to the reader, describing the context of the story and the political situation of the time. Simultaneously, the exalted language and sweeping statements gets us in the mood for an epic tale of revolution so that by the time the plot actually kicks in in the next chapter we are 100% on board.

Unfortunately, these type of prologues are often the ones agents/readers/editors are talking about when they hate on prologues. When done well, atmospheric prologues can be the most memorable part of a book, the lines people can still quote years later, like the first line of the Dickens quote above (which most of America can quote even though a very small percentage of those people have actually read the book).  When done badly, the atmospheric prologue becomes a long winded, boring, and disjointed from the story it's supposed to be introducing. When done very badly, it can become a cosmic info dump (more on that below).

This isn't to discourage you from trying an atmospheric prologue. As I said, some of the best writing comes from this sort of work. But because it is so easy to mess up, you have to be extremely careful and self critical when writing an artistic prologue, especially if you're trying to sell your novel for the first time. Trust me, nothing makes you come off as a pretentious, boring doofus like a badly done art prologue.

At its best, an artistic prologue is the beautiful beginning, the gorgeous credits at the opening of a movie where, by the time they finish, you just know you're going to love the film even though it hasn't yet begun. But the atmospheric prologue is an all or nothing deal with an extremely high bar. If you can't knock it out of the park, you're probably better off just starting on chapter 1.

What a Prologue Isn't
So those are the two large classifications of prologue, and though I'm sure you can find outliers if you look hard enough, the vast majority will fall into these two camps. That said, perhaps the most important part of writing a good prologue is understanding what makes a bad one. So, to make things a bit easier, here's a list of shit that doesn't fly in prologues:

1. The Cosmic Info Dump 
In the beginning there was darkness, and then Gaia the Earth Mother created the light and the waters and...zzz...

Ahh, the creation story opening. This little gem is almost exclusively a fantasy trope, but can you see it in other forms all through fiction. In Science Fiction, it can be the history of how people got into space, in mysteries, it might be how your detective got into business solving murders, whatever. The point is that this sort of industrial scale info dumping does not belong in a prologue.

The very worst thing you can do to a prologue is to treat it like a chute to shove setting information down a reader's throat. If background details are really important, they'll come up naturally in a story. If they aren't important enough to be woven into the novel, then why the hell would you put them in your prologue?

To be fair, there are plenty of big, successful authors who have done this kind of info dump prologue successfully. To this I say hooray for them, but just because someone else got away with it doesn't mean you get a free pass. No matter how beautifully you write it, dumping information on your reader in huge blocks is lazy writing plain and simple. Maybe you can get away with it, but for my money, if you're going to do all the work it takes to make an info dump like that palpable, why not just not be lazy in the first place? Background info belongs in the background, not at the front of the book.

2. The Action! Prologue
Have you ever picked up a book and opened the first page to find yourself dropped unceremoniously in the middle of the action? Right off the bat there's dramatic stuff going on you and all these characters are dying or doing seemingly very important things, but there's no context, so you flip back a page to make sure this is actually the beginning only to find out that yes, this is the start of the book, and you have no idea what's going on.

This is the Action! prologue, also called in medias res, where the author dumps their reader smack dab in the middle of the action in the hope they'll stick around to see what happens. This sort of thing is a very powerful tool that can be used to great effect. It's also just enough rope to hang yourself.

With so much emphasis being put on hooking your reader from paragraph one, the Action! prologue can seem like a good bet. You get to start right in with the big explosions for a flashy opening and then go back to cover all that boring, "why this stuff was blowing up" paperwork once chapter one begins. (Of course, if the why of the blowing up is too boring to start your book then you've got bigger problems than your prologue, but you get the point.) Even if your why is very cool, though, starting in the middle of the action can be problematic. Sure you get immediate tension and interest, but it's all just dazzle, smoke and mirrors with no context and, thus, no depth. And unless you dig that depth very quickly, your reader will quickly see through the ruse.

Unfortunately, digging in to build that depth brings its own problems. Full throttle starts tend to throw a lot of information at the reader very quickly, and that puts a lot of pressure on your audience to keep up, especially if you're asking them to remember stuff while you're setting off explosions in their face. Readers can handle pressure, but at the very beginning of a book with no context or investment, some might not see a reason to try. If you're lucky, they'll simply skip ahead to the actual beginning of the book. If you're not, they'll put the book down entirely.

This isn't to say an Action! beginning can't work. There are plenty of novels, especially in the thriller genre, that get right to the shooting and worry about the details later. However, just like driving a high performance sports car, writing a high octane opening takes a surprising amount of skill and practice. It also has to be right for the book in question. If your the rest of your novel doesn't eventually match the boom at the beginning, even the best written Action! opening can feel jarring and out of place.

Like everything in writing, it all comes down to execution. If you can pull off an Action! prologue, bully for you. But as a general rule of thumb, if your opening has your reader wondering if the publisher put chapter 5 at the the beginning by mistake, that's bad.

3. The Wha?
Have you ever read a book where the opening just seemed to make no sense at all. Like, there's action taking place, and it's clearly important, but you have no idea why or what's going on? Maybe the prologue opens with a woman standing on a hill and then she opens a box of sand and pours it to the wind, after which we jump to a child in England during the Blitz eating a stolen ice cream cone while the narration waxes poetic on the ephemeral nature of life. Through it all, there's the implication that this that this is all actually very deep and you should be moved, but you're not, because just don't know enough yet to care.

This is what I call the Wha? opening, because by the time you've reached the end, that's all you can say. Wha? In theory, a Wha? opening is supposed to be confusing, an artistic mystery to draw the reader in while also planting a question in the reader's mind that the novel itself will then proceed to ruminate on. These sort of openings are mostly found in literary novels and are part of why I have a hard time taking lit fic seriously. Even the best written ones can't help coming off as pretentious.

I will freely admit to some bias here. The Wha? prologue is my absolute least favorite way to open a book. I get how it's supposed to work, I've even read some that were quite lovely, but I have never, ever seen one of these that actually helped the novel it was attached to.

For me, these are the ultimate skippable prologues. Even in the hands of a master, it's almost impossible to make these sort of beginnings meaningful because meaning requires context and the Wha? opening lacks context by its very definition. Actually, I've found these kind of openings much more enjoyable after I've already read the book, and while I'll admit that has its own merits, do you really want to open your novel with something that doesn't get good until the end of the story?

As with all the "bad" prologues I've mentioned, I'm sure there are exceptions out there. As always, you are the only one who can decide whether or not this kind of prologue works for your novel. That said, however, I think prologues like these--the giant info dumps, the jarring, no context action, and especially the nonsensical disconnected arty openings--are the type of extremely hard to pull off, usually terrible openings that give all prologues a bad name, and I would think very, very carefully before putting any of them in one of my novels.

What a Good Prologue Can Be
When setting out to write a prologue, or anything really, the most important thing to remember is your audience. Your reader is your partner, the one you must entertain. As such, they can be your best friends and greatest champions, climbing mountains just to hear the end of your story. Readers are the ones who make your story come alive and support your career, but before any of that can happen, you have to earn their trust.

Readers picking up a new series for the first time (or agents looking at a new novel in the slush) owe you nothing. They will not jump through hoops for you, and they certainly won't extend you the benefit of the doubt. It is your job as the writer to entertain them, to make them love you. As with all romances, first impressions are vital. You have to be very, very careful to start on your absolute best foot if you want them to stick around. This is why getting your prologue right, especially on a first book, is so important. It's your opening shot, maybe your only shot, and if you flub it, your book may be done before it even begins. But if you nail it, a good prologue can hook your reader even better than a fantastic first line, because a good prologue hints at everything a novel can be, and if you can sell the reader on that, you've got them right where you want them.

At its very best, the prologue is the perfect augment for the story it begins. It is the icing that takes a cake from delicious to gourmet, the overture that deftly plucks you out of the real world and prepares you to fully appreciate the symphony to come. A prologue should never exist merely to hold information you want the reader to know but couldn't be bothered to work into the main story, nor should it be treated as an optional extra for those readers who want a little more. Like every part of your book, a good prologue must be necessary, a vital piece of the whole. It should be unskippable, a joy to read all on its own, and if that sounds hard, it's because it is.

Remember, the reason so many people hate prologues is because most of them are bad. Even good writers fall victim to the bad prologue because prologues are really freaking hard to pull off. It's like a gun: incredibly powerful, but it can shoot you in the foot if you don't treat it with proper respect.

I hope this post helps you prologue responsibly. Maybe if we all work together we can end the prologue's exile to the butt of bad writing jokes and restore it to its proper place of honor among the author's tools. Or at least keep agents from wincing when they see the word "Prologue" at the top of the page. Baby steps, people, baby steps.

I hope you enjoyed the post! Do you have a prologue in your novel? Has it given you problems? Let me know in the comments!

As always, thanks for reading, and if you enjoyed this post, I hope you'll check out my new book on writing, 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. It's less than a dollar, so give it a try!

Thanks again, I couldn't do this without y'all!

<3s and="and" p="p" ponies="ponies">Rachel

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


I've been working on a secret project for a few weeks now, but today, finally, all the bugs are worked out and I'm ready to go. So, without further ado, may I new writing book!

Well, ebook novella to be technically accurate. 2k to 10k (Amazon UK) combines my most popular writing blog posts (all updated, expanded, and edited), new chapters on creating characters that write themselves, making story structure work for you, and beating writer's block, and a whole bunch of other new stuff inserted all through out. 

The book is short and simple (a brisk 30k!), and, like the post it's named for, focuses on practical, everyday advice to help the average writer, pro or beginner, work faster and better. It's also only $0.99. Hard to beat that!

The book is currently available on Amazon only since this is my first foray into self publishing (and I wanted to try out this KDP thing everyone's going nuts over), but I hope to expand to other platforms soon. In the meanwhile, I hope you'll bet a dollar on me and give the book a try.

And if you tried my 2k to 10k triangle already, I'd love love love to put your testimonial up! Please contact me or leave a comment on this post with your success story and how you'd like to be identified and I'll put it up. Your help means a lot, and I really do love hearing how other people are using my methods. 

Thank you tons, and I really hope you enjoy the book!

- Rachel

PS: The original blog posts that form the bones of this book will remain up and free on my site forever. I wrote this book as an expansion and deepening of those initial ideas, and while the book has a ton of new content, the old stuff will stay exactly as it is. TL;DR: The original 2k to 10k post isn't going anywhere, so no worries! 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Wherefore art thou Steampunk?

I'm a little ashamed to admit this for fear of proving myself terminally uncool, but the Steampunk explosion has baffled me since it began. I've been drawn to it ever since I first saw some of the amazing things people were doing, but I couldn't quite come to terms with it as a category. Especially when it came to books.

Don't get me wrong, I can see the aesthetic appeal. The Steampunk "look" has always been imaginative and lovely, combining the brass and dark wood accouterments of a more elegant age with the endless technological enthusiasm and hope for the future of the industrial revolution. But aesthetics aren't enough to make a genre. Just as there's more to Urban Fantasy than vamps, tramp stamps, and black leather, there has to be more to Steampunk than gears, anachronisms, and airships.

Of course, to look at the explosion of Steampunk publishing, you wouldn't realize this. With Steampunk culture picking up, um, steam, books that have only minimal Steampunk-ish elements are being marketed as "Steampunk" to a steam hungry public. The Peculiars is an excellent example of this "steam washing" (OH HO, I am clever!). While I enjoyed the book itself more than The Book Smugglers did in the review linked above, I have to agree with them that this was Steampunk in marketing only. To quote The Book Smugglers:
The Peculiars is not even remotely a Steampunk novel. There are a couple of innovative inventions created by Mr Beasley and mention of Zeppelins but these are not widespread enough to make it an effective part of the worldbuilding at all. Steampunk to me means that not only a world has these developed technological elements but they also must affect the world at large and the people who live in it. As I keep repeating whenever I see the label carelessly attached to just about any book with a dirigible: dirigibles do not Steampunk make!
I agree with this sentiment 100%, but if dirigibles do not Steampunk make, what does? Because if we're defining Steampunk on a strictly technological basis, then any of China Mieville's Bas-Lag novels (King Rat, Perdido Street Station, etc) would count. In fact, considering how popular and well done Mieville's novels are, they should be cornerstones of steampunk literature, but they're not, which leads me to believe that Steampunk is more than technological.

Another common element in Steampunk besides the actual steam is a Victorian sensibility. The gentleman (or gentlewoman) explorer/scientist is as much a Steampunk trope as the gears themselves.
But one of the most celebrated Steampunk novels, Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan (which, for the record, has the best interior decoration of any book EVER), takes place during World War I, decidedly after the Victorian era. Same with Cherie Priest's fabulous Boneshaker, another quintessential Steampunk book that takes place in America West during the Civil War. So while it hits the Victorian time period more or less, it's far more of a Western (which, to be fair, is another area Steampunk loves to co-opt) than a story of Victorian adventure.

Defining what is and is not "Steampunk" can feel a bit like trying to describe the smell of motor oil. You can't really lock it down, but it is certainly a thing all its own. That said, though, as someone who's actively trying to read more "real" Steampunk, the tendency of marketers to take advantage of this nascent genre's popularity by slapping gears, antiqued fonts, and misleading copy on books that have only a tenuous relationship to Steampunk in order to trick me into buying is really pissing me off. Far be it from me to demand 100% truth in advertising, but if something is called Steampunk, then dammit I want more than a passing mention of a blimp!

This line of logic begs the question, though: What do I want from my Steampunk? If it's so hard to define, why is it so popular? What force allows marketers to slap gears on covers to make books sell? Why do we like it so much? What is it about Steampunk that's turned the collective crank of geek imagination so hard?

I've pondered this puzzle quite a bit over the past year as I've tried to get in on the Steampunk fun. At this point, I'm not even sure Seampunk could really be called a genre, not in the same way Fantasy or Science Fiction or Alternate History are. It's probably more accurate to think of it as a stylistic classification rather than a new branch of fiction. But while I have clearly failed to come up with a definition of "Steampunk" solid enough even for my own internal use, I have come up with (and this should come as no surprise to anyone who reads my blog on a regular basis) a LIST! A lovely little list of elements that I think make Steampunk so addictive to the modern geek.

Rachel's (Non-Definitive) List of Probable Reasons Why We Like Steampunk So Much

1) It Looks Freaking Cool

There is absolutely no denying that the Steampunk aesthetic is boss hog. Personally, I think this explains why it's such a popular costuming choice. Who doesn't want to look amazing? Also, Steampunk elements provide almost unlimited costuming potential since they can be freely added to other outfits to make them "Steampunk X" such as "Steampunk Bobba Fett" or "Steampunk Flintstones." Steampunk is like the Ranch Dressing of the cosplay world. It goes with everything!

On a deeper level, though, I think the Steampunk aesthetic feeds our natural human longing for the past. I am thrilled to death that I don't have to wear corsets to be seen in public, but when I see those gorgeous Victoriana gowns, I can't help feeling a longing for the lost elegance of a more mysterious, elegant, and poetic time where a lady wore her gloves even while piloting her mechanical golem. Steampunk stirs the imagination, and while I don't think anyone would actually like to return to the days before internet, women's rights, and modern medicine, it is damn fun to play dress up with such lovely materials.

So the visual appeal of Steampunk is well noted, but what about novels? Looking great at a convention is one thing, but books aren't visually based. You can get pretty far describing brass goggles, but unless you've got a bitching airship to wear them on, they're just flavor. So for Steampunk to survive in novels, it has to bring something more than just a pretty face to the table, which brings me to my next item...

2) Rekindling the Love of Discovery
One of my favorite aspects of Steampunk is the feeling of discovery and adventure it brings along with all those gears. It's the "anything we can imagine, we can build" spirit that fueled the industrial revolution taken to the next level. In Steampunk, it's the scientists and engineers who hold (and usually go mad with) all the power. In this way, Steampunk actually has a great deal in common with the Technology of Tomorrow excitement of the 1950s, but with a less corny aesthetic.

Also, since Steampunk science is very malleable (often through the addition of some kind of supernatural element), science fiction rules of bullshit technology can be applied without penalty. As in "Quickly, Bethesda! Load the Unobtainium into the gyrocopter! We're taking off for Shangri La!" which is just plain fun. I mean, come on, who doesn't want to get into that gyrocopter?

But even deeper than the technology is the feeling of exploration. In most Steampunk settings, even those that don't add in the supernatural, the world is often presented as a more magical, mysterious place. This is why I think Westerns and Victoriana are such common Steampunk settings - both of these cultures had a fascination with exploration and settlement of new lands. For the American West, it was claiming and taming of seemingly endless land. For the Victorians, it was the exploration of Egypt, China, and "Darkest Africa."  And though now we can look back and see this exploitative expansionism for what it was, the thrill of adventure is still there in Steampunk, and we love it.

Humanity loves to discover things, to seek out new worlds. Even Steampunk that never leaves 1900s London is filled with new inventions, exotica from far away, and characters who are excited about all of it. There's a feeling that it's an exciting time to be alive, that the future is happening right now, and that excitement lends its charge to any stories told inside the Steampunk setting.

3) More Rules, More Tension
This one is actually my favorite part of Steampunk. As I mentioned above, most Steampunk takes place in the past, often during the long reign of Queen Victoria or her alternate history stand-ins. By placing a story within the Victorian culture, the author picks up not only a stellar wardrobe, but also a whole host of incredibly oppressive social morality standards (often made even worse in alternate history or complete fantasy Steampunk) that serve as an elixir for instant conflict.

For example, if you had a modern story about a smart young girl who wanted to be a brilliant scientist, you'd have no real barriers to her success other than the pervasive and quiet sexism of academia. This is a huge and serious problem, but it's not the kind of conflict you can easily base an adventure story around. Now, take this same girl and stick her in an alternate history Victoriana setting and suddenly you've got a smart, determined young lass who wants to trade in her petticoats for a leather apron so she can start building her airship and pushing the boundaries of steam technology. The character herself hasn't really changed, but by moving the sexism barrier from difficult to prove hiring discrimination to corsets and mustached old men in bowler hats crying "a girl can not build steam engines!" we move the moral enemy from passive to active, which makes for a much better adventure story.

The heavy handed societal rules found in most Steampunk (Victoriana or not) helps move the fight against the man to a personal battle rather than a societal one, and tension in novels is all about significant personal action. The harsher the rules and the more immediate and severe the punishment for breaking them, the more exciting it is when our heroes upset things, and the harder we, as an audience, can root for them. The Steampunk setting provides an absolutely perfect set of hooks for this kind of storytelling.

4) The Lure of the Strange and Unknown
The final, and perhaps most enthralling aspect of Steampunk is its intrinsic relationship with the strange and unknown. Practically every Steampunk has a mystery or supernatural element of some sort: monsters, vampires, zombies, portals to other worlds, or a mysterious new technology that will turn the world on its head. It takes those classic figures of discovery: the dashing explorer, the mad scientist, the kooky inventor pushing the bounds of human possibility -- the same ones that filled boy's adventure books during the Victorian era -- and retools them for modern consumption. Steampunk takes these old tropes and makes them new again, just as Steampunk costumers stick old gears on top hats to create something unique. It's the classic human cycle: everything old is new again. And, in the case of Steampunk case, everything old is cool again.

Humans love oddity. We love spectacle and the feeling of a mystery and being on the edge of the unknown. This is what Steampunk can deliver at its best: that rush when you see something miraculous, and for a shining moment, everything feels new, exciting, and possible. This feeling is why Steampunk stories are so often described with words like "thrilling" or "adventure." That is what Steampunk gives us, good old fashioned adventures in a strange and unknown world were everything is still possible. It's fantasy dressed up in top hats, parasols, and psudo-science, and I see nothing wrong with that.

All that said, I'd like to end this post by admitting that Steampunk still baffles me a little. When it first burst onto the market I thought it was a fad, but I've been waiting for it to die out for years now and it's still going strong. I've been trying and trying to figure it out, and while I think it brings a lot to the table, when people ask me "do you think Steampunk is here to stay?" I don't know what to tell them. On the one hand, I feel a genre based largely on aesthetic can't last, but it keeps enduring.

So, since I'm stumped, I turn to you, gentle reader. What makes Steampunk for you? Do you think it's a fad or the beginnings of a new alternate history renaissance? Please leave your answers in the comments, because I'm really curious. Also, if you have any Steampunk refs, please let me know! I'm having such a hard time finding stuff that's really Steampunk and not just adventure stories with gears stuck on.

Yours sincerely will bells on,