Ladies and Gentlefreaks of the Jack Verse, it has been a long time since we’ve had a good jacking occur in these here parts. I’m about to change that… and change it in style.
Said style in the form of one Sara Marian.
Sara holds a special place in my heart for a few simple reasons:
- She’s my editor
- She’s made of all the good stuff
- Her mother rocks plenty of socks
With that said, let us get to the jacking of Sara.
JW: You and I share a penchant for a few things. Warm summer nights, long walks on the beach…
Oh wait, wrong penchant.
Words. Words. Words. And steampunk. Steampunky words. I discovered the genre quite by accident and fell in love immediately. I knew I had to write a book in the steampunk flavor. That book turned into a series which I plan on expanding in the coming year. What I find so appealing about steampunk is the amalgamation of retro-future technology, fashion with an added layer of innocence you don’t find in standard science fiction.
Unfortunately, like horror, steampunk is a very niche-y genre. The fans aren’t nearly as numerous as they are in, say, thrillers, but they are (again like horror) a very faithful group. That has always appealed to me – the rabid, close-knit fans. Besides, it’s not every genre that you’ll find people cosplaying your characters!
SM: Thanks for inviting me to your blog, Jack, and for your very kind introduction!
When it comes to Steampunk – well, I always liked alternative history type stuff of any kind, so when steampunk started showing up on my radar, I thought, “Oh! I guess enough other people like this that it’s got its own category now!” I like the fact that, even though a lot of the elements of steampunk come from Victorian England, they aren’t really confined to that time and place. There’s a look and feel to steampunk that’s really timeless and can work in any part of the world (or another world entirely). I think that’s partially because it’s a genre that’s explores the potential of alternative technology and energy, and how those things are interconnected with society and the lifestyles of individual people – issues of vital importance in the world we live in today. It’s a what-if niche, and it can go either gritty or gorgeous…or both at the same time. What’s not to love?
My only foray into the genre so far is a short story, “She Who Dines on Heavenly Food,” which is a steampunk/cyberpunk crossover about an opium-riddled cocktail waitress and her sociopathic automaton butler, set in post-apocalyptic Chicago. I have a series of stories planned (mostly in my head) about Penelope (the narrator) and Puddingfoot (the butler), but so far it’s just the one.
JW: How can you NOT want to write a series with a character named “Puddingfoot”? That’s truly smile-inducing.
I also do happen to love the fact that the new sub-genre, Dread Punk. That only recently came to light and I’m thrilled because I believe it is the perfect genre for my upcoming take on the Frankenstein story. Plus, it has such a guignol bent to it.
Okay, let’s talk about words. We live and die by our words. You are both a writer and an editor, so you’ve probably experienced, first-hand, configurations of words of every type and archetype. I like to think my style of wordsmith leans more toward the poetic and less toward prosaic. I’ve read some of your work and I’d venture to say your style is similar. Based on what you’ve seen though, where are words going? Do you think we will always live in this bi-polar state where some are X and some are Z (or Zed…I like the British take on the letter “Z”)? Or do you think it’s more gray area than that?
In Sara Marian’s beautiful and perfect world, what would words be?
SM: That’s an interesting question, and tough to answer! Or maybe I’m making it more philosophical than you meant it to be. Ha! What are words, to me? It could be my anthropology degree talking, but my first answer is that words are symbols, a tool humans use to communicate about reality (whatever reality is). And (just to be meta about it) by using words to tell stories, we’re essentially using individual symbols to create a larger, unified symbol (a work of fiction) which, in turn, communicates something larger about reality.
The writer/editor in me pretty much agrees with that, although is more inclined to use metaphors. Words are the building blocks of stories, just as cells are the building blocks of life – and how they’re configured determines the form of the creature. Or words are the lens that the reader looks through to see the story. Or words are like pigment in visual art – put together with skill, they form an image that makes an impression on the viewer/reader. Any of those answers would work for me.
I think there’s always a pretty broad gray area between poetry and prose. Some of the greatest stories of the classical world (think Odyssey) are in the form of poems, not to mention Shakespeare’s plays. In a more modern context, there are prose poems, list poems, etc., and any fiction writer worth their salt has some sense of flow and rhythm to their language. Sometimes we all write choppy sentences, run-on sentences, awkward sentences, but those stand out when we read them precisely because well-written prose does have poetic qualities. That doesn’t mean it has to be frilly or complicated, either, though I admire writers of the 19th century (Oscar Wilde and George Eliot, for example) who could wordsmith some serious purple prose and do it right. You can write extremely pared-down, simple sentences and still be poetic (think about Hemingway; much as I’m not a fan of his, he does deserve props).
JW: The use of that name “purple prose” gets me hot under the collar. So many people say it as if it’s a bad thing. Well certainly it is a bad thing if used incorrectly (and most writers DO use it incorrectly). But, as you said, when done correctly “purple prose” is a glorious thing. When I hear people dissing the “purp”, I just want to shout, “You’re a goddamn writer! If you can’t convey your meaning or intent with grace and eloquence, then you’re not really a goddamn writer!” Of course there are exceptions to every rule. But even the playwright David Mamet could use sparse verbiage and do so with eloquence and intent. There was never any 2 dimensional prose in his spartan texts. I dread the day fiction and the internet clash in such a way that the “Twitterfication” of fiction comes to fruition. That, to me, could mean the end of our craft.
SD: Didn’t mean to hit a nerve, there – and it’s true that the phrase tends to have a negative connotation, which I didn’t intend to step in. I’ve heard some discouraging concepts of what the “modern reader” is in my time at conventions, workshops, critique group meetings, etc., including that the modern reader has no attention span, particularly for ornate prose. My own sense of the modern reader, based on several years working in a bookstore and on conversations with other readers at conventions and workshops, is that people who don’t enjoy reading in the first place are the only people whose tastes have changed very dramatically. If you’re trying to appeal to readers (as in, people who go looking for books to read), in my opinion it’s a lousy idea to try to water down your prose or write down to your audience. It’s rude, it’s pretentious, and it drags down the quality of the fiction market as a whole.
But generally, I find that writers are always talking about rules and what should or shouldn’t be done in fiction, after which we collectively proceed to find as many exceptions as possible. Maybe it’s an unconscious writing exercise that we all do together. Ha! My mom (who does, indeed, rock some serious socks!) always tells creative writing students that the only absolute rule in writing is: Do what works. Or, in pirate parlance, you could say that there aren’t really “rules” in writing; they’re more of what you’d call “guidelines.” Personally, I’ve learned the hard way that one thing that doesn’t work when I try to do it is Really Serious, Depressing Literary Fiction (is that a genre?). I’ve done it, but I’ll leave it to other writers who can do it better. My voice, as a writer, works best with a good dose of humor thrown in, and I quite happily break any guidelines I want to while I’m at it.
I don’t think there’ll be an end to the craft of writing, just because I think storytelling is so ingrained in our species that we’ll always come back around to it, in one form or another. We’ve evolved with stories, and they evolve with us, in turn. I think the focus on “marketability” is an eye-roller of a mistake – at least in the context of, “Hey, that book sold well! Let’s write 500 knock-offs of it and sell those, too!” – but that’s one reason that the rise of small presses is great…it bypasses some of that pre-fab bull.
JW: Oh you are preaching to the choir on this one… on just about every level. I’m convinced that “marketability” has been the downfall of a lot of writers. But it’s not just that. So many writers are desperate for striking “quick gold” so they can become the literary equivalent of a meme. The problem with that type of fame is that you burn out and fade away. And, unlike the great Freddy Mercury, I don’t believe it’s better to burn out, than fade away.
Besides, why in the world would you want to be like everyone else? “Interview With The Vampire” has already been written. Don’t try to re-write it. If you want to take on the vampire mythos…take it on with your own voice, not someone else’s. And that is the truest of all rubs within the literary world.
Voice. It’s not something you can develop overnight, yet so many writers assume that the second their fingers hit keys, that magical voice will just appear. It takes time.
SM: Amen, brother! An original voice is the best goal a writer can strive for. Like they say, there’s no such thing as a truly original plot, since there are only two stories: Local Seeks Fortune or A Stranger Comes To Town. But there are an infinite number of ways you can tell a story, and that’s both the challenge and the fun of writing, for me. Voice does take time…time and effort and sometimes a dud manuscript, even. I can understand why people are intimidated by the idea sometimes. But I kept writing until I found my voice because it was worth it, to me, to be able to tell stories in my own way, and to tell stories I wanted to read, but that didn’t exist.
That, and I can’t help writing – something you and I have talked about before. Characters pop into your head, and you want to give them a voice. Or an idea takes off and just keeps growing in your mind, and you want to convey it on the page. You can’t just turn that off…well, I guess maybe you could, but I don’t know why you’d want to.
And speaking of writers who can’t stop writing, I have this really prolific client right now, whose manuscript I need to start reading tonight so we can get this book out for Halloween….I won’t tell you his name, but his initials are Jack Wallen. 😉
Sara Marian was raised in the woods by wild English teachers. She has been a writer for as long as she can remember, and a freelance editor since 2009. Sara’s “real-life” job is being an archaeological field and lab technician. Her favorite things to read or write are cross-genre stories and novels. Her first published novel, The Life and Death (but mostly the death) of Erica Flynn, from Per Bastet Publications, is available through Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle format. A sequel is in the works.