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Sex & Violence

Sex & Violence

Of all the scenes to ever trouble the weary fingers of the career author, those which rely on sex or focus on action and violence are the most difficult to write—and, from the writer’s own perspective, often the least satisfying. Both involve the same two hang-ups: action, and intense and passionate emotion, which can be difficult to convey in swift and sudden fashion.

This, of course, is how you often want the heart of an intense scene to progress: buildup aside, you want things to proceed briskly, rather than getting lost in the details. The mind of the reader needs just enough to work with so that they can fashion an image of what’s going on for themselves.

With that in mind, how should you go about conveying this kind of imagery, ensuring that enough bridges the gap between writer and reader—without knocking the reader’s head against the wall, just to remind them that it’s there?

Pace Your Scene

The Devil is in the details… so avoid them. Use the buildup to your sex or action scene to establish atmosphere. Describe a few important details; when you visualize the scene itself, what stands out? Is it the color of the room, or the texture of a wall—perhaps as someone’s fingertips run along uneven masonry? Does the creaking of a bed remind your main character of the treehouse that their long-vanished father built for them as a child? Establish atmosphere before reaching the heart of the scene, using colorful, vivid, but increasingly clipped detail.

Your audience will remember the atmosphere. Now, it’s all about the action. Think of it as the foreground to the atmosphere’s background.  Describe actual action in minimalist terms—whether it’s combative, or sexual… or both, if you’re into that sort of thing. Be sparse with your description, but make sure that what you do use is well-written and relevant. As a rule, you shouldn’t describe superfluous detail that stands starkly in contrast to the atmosphere you’ve already laid out.

With the conclusion of your action sequence, hearken back to the atmosphere briefly, just to tie it all together. Make a final, departing reference to the texture of the wall, or the creaking of the bed, before you continue with your story. Unlike the buildup to an action scene, the ensuing story can return to its previous pace abruptly—not without acknowledgement, but some of the most accomplished authors in existence manage this with a short paragraph, if not a single sentence.

The transition from the main force of an action scene, back to dialogue or narrative, can be as abrupt as the action itself.

Know What You’re After in Advance

sex violence action scenes writing
I’m 60% certain that this falls under “sex.”

The broad strokes of this are obvious (“it’s a fight sequence with the villain,”) but let’s take things one step further than that.

By overcomplicating an action sequence, you risk giving your reader too much to absorb. Sudden changes, such as points that profoundly affect the narrative, need to be indulged quickly—or else they run the risk of interrupting the scene. That’s sometimes a desirable thing, but certainly not always.

Suppose that you’re writing a tense Victorian crime thriller. Your heroine is a young heiress who spends her night fighting for London’s impoverished lower classes—mask and all, although her primary tools are her father’s dueling pistol and her brother’s rapier. You’re writing a scene where she finally comes upon the villain she’s been pursuing. The setup is quick; there is both cause and vengeance at steak. You’ve laid the groundwork: a fiery intensity of emotion, a keening Warrior Princess cry that leaves her foe backpedaling, and our femme fatale draws first blood.

In so doing, she unmasks her foe—revealing the face of her brother, whom she had thought dead, and for whom she had been seeking vengeance all along.

I’ll even give you the benefit of the doubt, and assume that there’s more to the story than that, Shyamalan. Her brother, as it turns out, isn’t the villain at all: he’s been working against the same forces that she’s been fighting, the whole time, but he always did his best to hinder her progress and—in so doing—keep her out of harm’s way.

He’s less interested in the greater good, and more in avenging an unfair slight against his family’s honor. He’s done terrible, horrible things in the act of pursuing his vengeance. Your heroine is confused, and she wants answers, but that rage is still there—she knows what he’s done. She’s seen him do it. The righteous fury of the cause rises to the surface…

It’s a bit much, isn’t it? To be conveyed during a fight scene?

You’ve got two choices here. Progress the action scene for a time, giving your reader some satisfying, adrenaline-pumping excitement, before the unmasking of the noble heroine’s brother. The foe can appear to be toying with her, only to have it later revealed that he was simply trying to avoid doing her any harm.

Once he is unmasked, have the heroine stagger; convey a cold, hard shock, and shift things into a tense dialogue to explain what’s going on.

The other option is to continue the fight. In place of cold shock, there is the fiery anger of betrayal; the heroine redoubles her efforts against her treacherous brother, who is not so unwilling to do her harm that he is willing to risk his vendetta by falling to her sword. The two continue fighting, but there is brief, clipped dialogue intermixed with the action—don’t use four words, when three will do, and only cover the broadest possible details. Major revelations should pause, if not end, the scene.

Too many people get lost in the scope of the detail with an action scene that’s important enough to have more at stake than the simple result of the action itself. They try to introduce new plot elements mid-fight, to change the atmosphere entirely, or to introduce lengthy, interruptive dialogue in between every act involved. This kind of thing bogs an action scene down, and is better reserved for the consequence of a scene—not the mid-point. Full paragraphs and a sudden mood change is a transitory point, not something to indulge in while the bullets are flying.

Pace your Writing

We’ve gone over pacing a scene, but there’s something else to remember about pacing: it applies to your actual writing habit. The greatest writers all say the same thing: “just write.” Sit down, and write. Write until you don’t have anything else to write. Write until you’ve hit the end of your ideas and you’re rambling—then ramble some, before stopping.

Never, ever “edit as you go.” Editing as you go is writer’s block waiting to happen. It’s 100% assurance of dissatisfaction with your own work, and for something as important as an action scene, you don’t want to second-guess yourself unto eternity.

With sex and violence, it’s more crucial than ever that you just… keep… going, until you’re done, and then don’t let yourself change anything right away! Continue writing your story. Write it until the end. Write subsequent action scenes; during the editing process, what you’ve written later may inform some minor tweaks you want to make to what came before, but you’ll be far more likely to be happy with what you’ve written in context. Editing sex or violence as it’s written is the surest way to wind up mired in what I like to call “porn syndrome:” too much detail, not enough reality.

Trust Your Reader, Trust Yourself

This point is critical, but is too often overlooked: you need to relax. Your reader knows what they’re after in a story. Have faith in yourself, in your ability to convey the desired imagery for this scene in the same way that you’ve held your reader’s attention thus far. By the same token, you should also trust that your reader is enjoying your story; if they’ve made it to the sex, or the action, they want to appreciate the scene—but they also want to know what’s coming next. It’s very unlikely that anything you’re likely to do, if you relax and let the words flow, is going to shatter their immersion or ruin their appreciation of your work.

By staying true to yourself—to your vision, your established style, your existing techniques—everything will most likely turn out fine, without a lot of hassle.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen

As a writer who has spent the last couple of years trying to transition into new genres and mediums, I’d be very interested in what you have to say about this, or any of my other articles concerning advice for writers. If you have questions, comments, or concerns, please feel free to share them in a comment below.

If there’s anything I’ve left out, such as some strategy which has worked well for you in the past? Share it in a comment as well—for the benefit of anyone else who might come along!

Ancient Stories: The Wild Hunt

Ancient Stories: The Wild Hunt

The myth of the Wild Hunt, or “Raging Host,” is based on an ancient European folk story. It has been told and retold by many different cultures over thousands of years, but its origins are popularly held to lie among the ancient Germanic tribes of central Europe. It usually takes the form of a cautionary tale about a supernatural hunting party, pursuing its prey through the woods (or the night sky). Its pre-Christian origins have taken different forms over the centuries, but all are recognizable as having their roots in the original myth—and, like most myths, the story of the Wild Hunt was meant to entertain. It was also intended to offer moral and spiritual guidance.

Ancient Stories Wild Hunt

What is the Wild Hunt?

The Wild Hunt takes the form of a host of supernatural beings in wild pursuit of their quarry. They may be elves, faeries, or some other fey (of the early, non-diminutive variety). Their leader is usually a figure associated with Woden, an early Germanic deity, who would later become the Norse God Odin; he was known to the Celts of central Europe, Britain and (especially) Ireland as Lugh, with some variations on the name occurring in other areas of the Celtic world. The figure might be an avatar of Woden, or—in some traditions—a partial representation of the deity, some specific aspect of his area of influence given separate form. On occasion, the leader of the Wild Hunt is represented as a great hero, or a quasi-historical figure out legend.

In other versions of the story, the Wild Hunt is comprised of the dead; ghosts, although the concept served a different function thousands of years ago. The modern ghost is usually an aberration; a lost soul which didn’t leave the world of the living behind when it was supposed to, something that defies the natural order and serves no purpose. In the ancient world, spirits of the dead were thought to manifest in service to some intended function; it was less “they aren’t supposed to be here” and more “we aren’t supposed to see them.” Ancient mythologies frequently placed the realm of the dead close to the world of the living, and there were held to be many possible ways to pass back and forth between them; go back far enough, and the separation was seen as little more than a journey of a few miles. In this form, the appearance of the Wild Hunt often heralded a “thinning of the veil,” a time when (or a place where) the boundary between this world and the next was unusually thin—perhaps even penetrable.

In either form, the Wild Hunt was a herald of ill omen. Its appearance was seen as a thing to be interpreted by the wise, whereupon human sacrifice, war, or migration might be engaged in for the sake of averting a subsequently prophesied calamity. The ancient world offered frequent hardship; the Wild Hunt might be seen in a storm, or a comet, and the less common its form the direr the predicament it presaged. At best, the sudden appearance of the Wild Hunt was said to mean the death of the one who beheld it; it was not uncommon for ancient European peoples to flee the site of a battle with the rise of a sudden storm, fearing the arrival of a spiritual entourage. On more than one occasion, this saved the loser of said conflict from complete annihilation.

Some stories of the Wild Hunt story describe its leader as being charged with escorting mortal spirits to the realm of the dead. This type of figure is referred to by modern mythologists (and spiritualists) as a “psychopomp,” with familiar examples including the Greek Hermes, the Egyptian Anubis, the Norse Valkyries, and the Christian Archangel Michael. In older myths, this was a far less benign role than how it is described later, with the psychopomp laying claim to whatever souls it can find—including those residing in people unlucky enough to stumble upon the Wild Hunt while they’re still breathing, as well as any individuals who happen to be sleeping nearby. The benign guide represented by figures such as the Archangel Michael comes much later; early psychopomps were seen as more of a function of natural laws, part of the universe’s machinery, and any soul which ventured too close was swept away with all the rest. As such, they were cautionary figures, whose reported approach sent ancient people scrambling indoors—and kept them out of mysterious, sacred places, such as the depths of the woods, and those places where the dead were buried or venerated.

Elements of the Wild Hunt Story

In addition to the leader of the Wild Hunt, and the individual huntsmen accompanying him, there were other elements which change with the time and location. The huntsmen in this supernatural entourage were often accompanied by hounds, who varied in appearance from great hunting dogs to wolves. In some locations, most notably in Celtic and post-Celtic Britain, the leader of the Wild Hunt was accompanied by hounds only. This is the origin of the black dog folk story, which is common in more recent British folklore: a black dog which appears as an omen of death. It is also the point of origin for the hellhound of modern fantasy, which arose as a Christianized version of the black dog story before passing into popular culture.

Long after the Wild Hunt has passed largely into obscurity, the black dog story continues to influence popular media today, most notably the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most popular Sherlock Holmes tale, The Hound of the Baskervilles. J. K. Rowling also included the image of the hound as an omen of death in the form of the Grim, first encountered in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In the Potterverse, the Grim is the direst portent of death that exists; the one who sees it is almost inevitably doomed. The Little Black Dog, from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, is an example of an Americanized version of the British black dog folktale, which—like a lot of English legends—jumped the Atlantic with early American colonists.

The Wild Hunt’s quarry also changes depending upon the time and place from which the folktale is being sourced. Early accounts feature an animal of the sort that a mortal hunting party might track, such as a deer or a boar. Later accounts went in different directions: in the United Kingdom, a white hart or a white stag became common, and developed folktales of their own. Both recurred regularly throughout subsequent centuries’ fantastic and romantic adventure fiction, with notable appearances in the various retellings of the King Arthur legends. In Norse mythology, the Wild Hunt is often described as being in pursuit of unusual quarry, such as horses, or even maidens.

Wild Hunt hounds huntsman

Origins of the Wild Hunt

The name “Wild Hunt” first appeared in 1835, in a study of Germanic mythology written by Jacob Grimm (a profound linguist and mythologist, though he remains better known as one of the Brothers Grimm). Jacob noted the many variations on the same mythological theme, which occurred in ancient cultures throughout Europe, and he coined the phrase Wilde Jagd (“Wild Hunt”) as a reference.

…they sweep through forest and air in whole companies with a horrible din. This is the widely spread legend of the furious host, the furious hunt, which is of high antiquity, and interweaves itself, now with gods, and now with heroes.

Jacob Grimm, from Teutonic Mythology

He was the first to recognize the true geographical breadth and temporal depth of the many variations of the story, and may be responsible for recognizing the connection between Woden, Nodens, Odin, and other variations on the same ancient Germanic deity.

That the wild hunter is to be referred to Wodan, is made perfectly clear by some Mecklenburg legends.

—Jacob Grimm, from Teutonic Mythology

The actual origin of the folktale itself is unknown. Wild Hunt stories go back for thousands of years, with variations present in a range of British cultures, Nordic cultures, and the ancient Germanic tribes. Jacob Grimm notes the fact that, in every culture where stories of the Wild Hunt arose, they appeared to go back into pre-Christian times:

Look where you will, it betrays its connexion with heathenism…The Christians had not so quickly nor so completely renounced their faith in the gods of their fathers, that those imposing figures could all at once drop out of their memory. Obstinately clung to by some, they were merely assigned a new position more in the background. The former god lost his sociable character, his near familiar features, and assumed the aspect of a dark and dreadful power, that still had a certain amount of influence left. His hold lost upon men and their ministry, he wandered and hovered in the air, a spectre and a devil.

Jacob Grimm, from Teutonic Mythology

Many of these cultures were widely illiterate, with writing either entirely unknown or reserved to a special, learned class of society, making backtracking to a specific point of origin difficult. It is entirely possible, given the ubiquitous concept of the hunting party and the widespread notion of a powerful sky god, whose sphere also encompassed victory on the battlefield, that the concept of the Wild Hunt arose separately in several ancient cultures. As with the changes in the black dog folktale with its conveyance from England to America, divergent traits would have spread from one society to another with the advent of trade and diplomacy, and different groups of people would have seized on aspects that were at once different from their own tales—yet familiar enough to relate to.

 

Post-Christian Forms of the Wild Hunt

Jacob Grimm has already told us how converted Christians retained the memory of their ancient beliefs, but in many cases certain elements of the Wild Hunt mythology were eventually supplanted: in no society has the development and creation of folktales ever ceased, with modern-day examples ranging from urban legends to the internet’s creepypasta.

Christian influences on the Wild Hunt folktales can be broadly divided into two forms: the identity of the master of the hunt, and the nature of the quarry being pursued. In either case, Christian “use” of the story parallels pre-existing pagan tradition very closely: the Wild Hunt was seen to be a harbinger of great misfortune, and was often regarded as being an omen of certain death to those who beheld it. It is possible to find parallels between the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the story of the Wild Hunt, while in other cases the leader of the Wild Hunt is represented as Death—stripped of his divinity, and even of his individuality, but not of his power and influence. Notably, some later folktales presented the master of the hunt as being a dead nobleman whose life had been characterized by wickedness; in some versions of the tale, he was slain by a boar, which he was subsequently doomed to never cease pursuing.

One German version of the post-Christian Wild Hunt names the doomed huntsman as Hanns von Hackelberg, who is said to have violated the Sabbath with his final, fatal hunting expedition. In various parts of the UK, post-Christian versions of the Wild Hunt frequently feature King Arthur as the phantasmal leader of the expedition. For a time (read: several hundred years) it became common to characterize notorious and unpopular political leaders as the master of the Wild Hunt—after their deaths, of course.

The quarry pursued by the Wild Hunt under Christian influences was sometimes of the traditional variety, as in the legend of the Baroque-era German nobles and their boars. One of the more common alterations to the story does feature a significant change to the quarry, however. This type arose among the Christianized Nordic peoples of northeastern Europe, whose ancient tales of the Wild Hunt had already incorporated the pursuit of maidens, mythical creatures, and other types of unusual quarry (at least for a mortal huntsman). The post-Christian Wild Hunt stories of northeastern Europe featured the Wild Hunt conjuring up the souls of specific types of sinners, most notably those of unrepentant petty criminals and unbaptized infants. These versions of the Wild Hunt sometimes featured hellhounds in forms recognizable to modern fantasy enthusiasts, and might have been led by the Devil himself—but this region did give rise to the version of the Wild Hunt, which would eventually become more widespread, which didn’t have a huntsman at all. It was simply a wild procession of the damned, with or without demonic hounds or other diabolical figures in attendance.

That last variation would eventually lead to the “dissolution” of the Wild Hunt folktales, where—without the rallying point of the huntsman himself, whatever his identity—other individual elements of the Wild Hunt, like the hellhound or the demon, began to take on more importance. These led to the distinction of the Wild Hunt fading away, or to the rise of alternate folktales that bear only a cursory resemblance to their point of origin: many would be regarded for centuries as death omens, or otherwise as a sign of misfortune.

Modern Pop Culture References to the Wild Hunt

While its origins as a distinct myth might not be well-known, particularly outside of central or eastern Europe, the Wild Hunt is one of the most influential stories behind much of today’s popular fantasy and science fiction media.

The Wild Hunt in Books

The Wild Hunt makes an appearance in many books, but is perhaps most well-known in fantasy.

In Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence, the leader of the Wild Hunt is a primordial entity who controls the Wild Magic, one of the four fundamental magical forces of the universe—infamously powerful, and notoriously resistant to any attempts to harness it. The forces of the Light and of the Dark both seek out the ritual elements required to bind the Wild Magic to their service for a single night, which will be enough for either side to remove the other side’s influence over mankind’s continued development.

In her bestselling Mortal Instruments series, Cassandra Clare describes an alternate New York populated by all manner of supernatural beings, including the angelic Shadowhunters who seek to protect the innocent—and the demons who want to destroy everything. In this setting, the Wild Hunt is depicted as being led by Gwyn ap Nudd, the ancient Welsh God of the Dead—an equivalent to the Irish Lugh and the Germanic Woden, and one of the early figures to lead the Wild Hunt in Britain.

In a noteworthy departure from traditional fantasy fare, Cormac McArthy—author of The Road and No Country for Old Men—penned a semi-autobiographical work called Suttree over a twenty-year period. The book is set in 1951, but wasn’t published until 1979. Many people have speculated over the apparent Odinic parallels to Cornelius Suttree, the titular, somewhat Steinbeckian hero, which are scattered throughout the book. While it is generally accepted that the Wild Hunt is given mention in Suttree, there isn’t a lot of consensus as to the meaning behind it—except, perhaps to the Hunt’s useful symbolism as an image of chaos, corresponding to Cornelius’ attempts to find himself (in an existential sense).

Andrzej Sapkowski is an award-winning Polish fantasy author most well-known in the rest of Europe and America for The Witcher saga, a series of fantasy novels featuring the exploits of one Geralt of Rivia—one of an order of Witchers, sorcerer-assassins who fight the monsters that infest Andrzej’s dark fantasy world. His world is itself deeply reminiscent of the gritty, non-Disney-esque fairytales and folk stories of ancient Germanic Europe. It features the Wild Hunt, led by a “King of the Wild Hunt” and consisting of a host of specters, which Geralt at one point joins after giving his soul in exchange for that of another. The Witcher series is noted for its seamless inclusion of various scholarly and scientific disciplines within its fantasy; as such, the exact nature of the Wild Hunt is debated by intellectuals within the context of the story itself.

Frank Long’s Hounds of Tindalos were incorporated into the Cthulhu mythos after being codified by August Derleth. They appear as emaciated, “rotting” hounds, which inhabit the angles of time. Living outside the normal progression of time as such, they are able to find their quarry wherever it may hide. Their lapping tongues produce deep, bloodless wounds which drain their victims’ vitality. These Lovecraftian hounds are deeply reminiscent of some of the creatures once described as being a part of the Wild Hunt, unshakable hellhounds with the power to steal a person’s soul away from them.

hound tindalos lovecraft wild hunt

The Wild Hunt in Film and Television

The Wild Hunt is a 2009 Horror/Drama film by Canadian production company Animist Films. A low-budget film, produced for approximately $500,000 CA, it has won two awards of note: Best Canadian First Feature Film at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, and an Audience Sparky Award for Best Narrative Film at the fifteenth annual Slamdance Film Festival (which focuses upon emerging, low-budget film production) in 2010. More widespread critical reception of the film, which features a live-action role-playing event gone wrong due to a ritual invoking the Wild Hunt, was lukewarm; a few critics have given it three stars, but multiple problems have been pointed out with lighting, special effects, and film editing.

The Wild Hunt in Games

The Witcher saga has been transformed into a series of three games (to date) by Polish video game developer CD Projekt Red. The company has rapidly risen to prominence based upon the success of the Witcher series. Witcher 3, the latest installment, is fully titled “Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt; it has accumulated more than 800 awards since its release, with more than 250 “Game of the Year” awards from reputable sources within the worldwide video game industry—and more than 10 million copies of the game sold to date. The Wild Hunt features prominently throughout the Witcher series, and its representation is somewhat complex: at times, the King of the Wild Hunt seems like a diabolical figure, while at other times the Hunt is represented as a mechanical part of “the way the world works.” Within the context of the game itself, characters have varying takes on the nature of the Hunt; some believe that it is not actually a host of specters at all, but “simply a magical phenomenon.”Witcher King Wild Hunt death omen

The Wild Hunt has been a contributing factor to western folktales for so long that many of its influences have evolved beyond recognition. The plot of the existing installments of the critically acclaimed Mass Effect video game franchise centers around the coming of the Reapers: a host of sentient machines created by the first intelligent spacefaring race in the Milky Way galaxy. For millions of years, the Reapers have returned to the galaxy from the depths of intergalactic space at regular intervals, wiping out all sentient spacefaring civilizations before they could develop the technology to completely scour the galaxy of all life themselves. The bodies and memories of those slain are then used to construct new Reapers. The oldest and most powerful Reaper, the nominal “leader” of the Hunt, is known as Harbinger, tying in the idea of a death omen with the coming of the Reapers.

Reaper Mass Effect Harbinger Death Omen Wild Hunt

The Wild Hunt on Stage

The Wild Hunt was a popular theme in theater and opera for centuries, up to the innovation of modern media.

  • Karl Maria von Weber’s 1821 opera Der Freischütz.
  • Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Études of 1837.
  • Arnold Schönberg’s oratorio Gurre-Lieder, 1911.
  • Spanish writer Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer’s 1861 El monte de las ánimas features a much-overlooked contribution to the modern Wild Hunt story, as it introduced the idea of the Hunt appearing on Halloween.
  • Robert Wagner’s Die Walküre, from which we have Ride of the Valkyries, was first performed in 1870 as a complete piece. However, the main score may have been written as early as 1851. In Norse myth, Valkyries are not only psychopomps, but also supernatural warrior-maidens who hunt down the cowardly; they were often involved in Nordic stories featuring the Wild Hunt, for as long as those stories have existed.
  • B. Yeats evoked the Wild Hunt in his 1893 poem The Hosting of the Sidhe. The Sidhe are one of the houses of the fey as represented by the Celts of ancient Britain and Ireland. Yeats is noted for having competed with English aristocrat Aleister Crowley, “the most wicked man alive,” for leadership of the occult Golden Dawn Society: their power struggle split the popular Victorian occult society in two.
  • Stanisław Wyspiański’s play Wesele, 1901.

The Wild Hunt in Modern Pagan Tradition

In the late 1990s, a modern Pagan group in Norfolk, England staged a “Wild Hunt Challenge” on Halloween. Participants would explore a local wooded area during the daytime, then repeat the process at night in a timed competition. The activity was associated directly with Gwyn ap Nudd, as the particular wooded area used was believed by the group to have been an area which the Wild Hunt frequented in ancient times. Successful completion of the challenge was rewarded by permission to cut timber from the woods and fashion a staff, representing the initiate’s having gained the trust of the wood’s spirits.

Founded in 1979 in southern California, the Reclaiming tradition combined Goddess worship with political activism to create an offshoot of the feminist movement, which Reclaiming adherents felt had gotten off-track. The movement combined modern feminism, anarchism, the peace movement, and environmental awareness. It was reported by various outlets that the leaders of the movement—a pair of Neopagan women who had converted to the faith from Judaism, bringing some elements of ancient Jewish religious practice with them—staged a recreation of the Wild Hunt in an area of San Francisco.

Digging Deeper into the Wild Hunt

This was originally intended to be a standalone piece; it now seems likely that additional blog posts will be written on the subject, with each one most likely focusing on a specific aspect of the Wild Hunt as outlined in this article. If you’re looking for more information on this fascinating subject in the meantime, here are a few highly authoritative sources which deserve consideration. Most have already been referenced within this article, but here they are for convenience:

Modern Genres: Five Characteristics of Successful Steampunk

Modern Genres: Five Characteristics of Successful Steampunk

steampunk hero gunslinger clockworkSteampunk has been described as “Victorian science fiction,” a futuristic version of a world long past—but never far from our hearts. It’s characterized by a solid industrial setting, advanced steam-powered technology, defunct scientific theories, Victorian English aesthetics, and (frequently) alternative history; it is worth noting, however, that—unlike cyberpunk, which is usually set in the urban landscape of near-future Earth—steampunk regularly departs from real-world settings completely.

Steampunk may also incorporate metaphysical themes, of the sort more commonly associated with fantasy than science fiction: there may be a great clock tower, in which there lies imprisoned a figure who is the embodiment of all the world’s sorrows. There might be a massive engine of unknown origin at the center of the world, which drives the life-force of an entire race of living machines, inevitably leading to a conflict of interests whereby its function would seem to endanger humanity. Steampunk grew, in part, out of early twentieth-century pulp fiction set within the Victorian era, and ethical questions of human progress and advancement were a common thematic element in Victorian writing.

In honor of Peter Jackson’s upcoming feature film, based upon Philip Reeve’s steampunk novel Mortal Engines, let’s explore five of the characteristics which successful steampunk novels have in common.

Creative Anachronism

steampunk hat goggles steam-powered technology Victorian fashion

Steampunk features advanced technologies, often with abilities which would be incredible even by modern standards. At the same time, there is a strong element of retro-futurism; these technologies are anachronistic, as they may have been imagined by a fiction writer living in Victorian times. The steampunk writer must take the forward-thinking but still fundamentally limited prescience of the modern science fiction author, and imagine what the same individual might have written about 150 years ago—give or take a few decades.

Common technological elements of the steampunk genre include steam power, early experiments with wireless and electrical technology (which are often presented as being both powerful and uncontrollable, save perhaps by a few gifted individuals), complex mechanics driven by clockwork mechanisms, hydraulics, orreries, and automatons. Steampunk automatons are frequently represented as true artificial intelligences—either the unfortunate victims of uncaring men, or the monstrous offspring of a botched experiment. They are often cast as either the casual hero, striving to be human, or the tragic villain, whose responsibility for their own actions is deliberately debatable.

Meanwhile, the feats which such devices are capable of achieving may include such noteworthy accomplishments as the replication of solid matter, teleportation, the generation of free energy, travel beyond “the spheres” of the known universe (during a time when even the concept of the galaxy and the composition of stars were unknowns), and the reanimation of dead matter.

The Ambiguity of Power

Steampunk incorporates contrasting views. On the one hand, the nature of scientific progress and human achievement is placed under a critical microscope—but this is not to say that such ideas are presented as inherently bad. Rather, the suggestion is more that careful thought needs to be put into such concepts, lest we make ill-considered decisions—with potentially cataclysmic consequences.

In fact, steampunk embraces the concept of scientific advancement and achievement. Anything which is unknown or “outside” the laws of science is, if not invariably bad, certain to be sinister and suspect. Extra-dimensional powers and spiritual entities, where they are present, have ulterior motives and agendas that are at worst malevolent; at best, their plans take on such a long view that most characters can simply sidestep any scrutiny of their ethical considerations.

If a character in a steampunk story is fiddling with alchemy, researching sorcery, or dabbling in the occult, the powers with which they are contending are portrayed as dark and ill-advised influences. Magic and technology mix and react in uncertain ways, with magic (where it exists; it’s not a universal element) being portrayed as the essence of chaos. Its very use may serve to break down the natural order of things, and—if it is even successful—there are always unanticipated consequences.

Steampunk DIY: Do-It-Yourself

The Victorian era—the actual Victorian era—was a time of almost steampunk-clockwork-deviceunprecedented invention and technological innovation, as compared to all the rest of human history. It also saw the growing frequency of large corporations, railroad barons, and captains of industry, and introduced (at least to the popular perception) the widespread idea of intellectual property theft as a damaging, criminal enterprise.

In modern times, for example, we recognize the frequent theft of ideas perpetrated by Thomas A. Edison, as well as his propensity for ruining the livelihoods and careers of his competitors so thoroughly that some died in relative anonymity many years after Edison himself was long gone.

The steampunk genre pays underlying tribute to the more genuine side of the spirit of Victorian innovation. Large organizations and powerful individuals are usually presented as having stolen their ideas, often for dark and sinister ends. The most remarkable innovations are the prerogative of individual, independent craftsmen and innovators, often unrecognized for the true extent of their genius, who are forced to assemble their gadgetry more or less single-handedly from secondhand materials. Time and again, the day is saved thanks to the life-long efforts of an unsung “do-it-yourselfer.”

A Motley Aesthetic

steampunk soldier officer steam-powered prostheticThe appearance of steampunk settings has a lot in common with the era on which they are based. The average individual is not clean and well-kept, save perhaps in higher echelons of society—which are invariably keeping the majority of the population oppressed. Technology is functional first, and neat second: neatness, where it occurs, is one of several traits that tends to be characteristic of the corporate presence, the inner circle, and other parties with sinister or suspect motives.

Patchwork riveting, scavenged materials, and dirty streets intermingle with other cobbled-together visual elements, such as clothing and personal accessories which incorporate bits of the steampunk aesthetic. They may be functional, such as a steampunk or a clockwork-driven prosthetic limb, or they may be purely decorative, serving no apparent use—except to make an individual stand out as being a character in a steampunk setting.

Steampunk is a gritty, hard, and visceral setting, one that is based profoundly on visual imagery and readily recognizable components. The profound nature of its underlying themes is manifested directly in the way everything else is presented. Things look a certain way—right or wrong, benevolent or dangerous, friendly or hostile. There is, of course, a meta element to such a presentation: the visual nature of the genre is for the reader’s benefit, leading to the dramatic tension of a character interacting with something we know to be dark and sinister—even if we don’t quite understand why.

A Disenfranchised Society

Steampunk, like the other ‘punk genres, embraces the lone and asocial hero. Sometimes, a small group of these may be forced to work together, and might even find some common ground, but there is always a maverick streak—a sense of rebelliousness, which encourages them to rise up and work against a corrupt and inadequate system. The system, after all, is something that most people simply accept, for the sake of the greater good or simply not rocking the boat. As a result, there is a certain amount of ambiguity in the main characters’ actions; some part of why they’re fighting, or working against the system, is based on their own internal dissatisfaction—or other needs that must be reconciled.

They might be doing the right thing, but not entirely for the right reasons—and they may not be going about what they’re doing in the best way. That’s not to say that the steampunk hero can’t be a clearly right-minded individual, only that they frequently aren’t, and the latter seems to be the ingredient of more highly-praised and critically-acclaimed steampunk. One of the great forebears of the genre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—while not a work of steampunk in itself—features two primary characters: Victor Frankenstein, an obsessed man who follows blind ambition to a result that was dark and ill-advised from the beginning, and his creation, a creature who is at once terrible and innocent, as tragic a villain as any in the last two centuries of modern fiction.

In steampunk, nobody is perfect. The people in power are corrupt and uncaring; the do-gooders are naïve—and often obsessed—and the common people are either bitter, broken, or angry, reduced to the dog-eat-dog state of doing what it takes to survive. The villain may have the best of intentions, but fail utterly in their realization, and the hero might use the absolute darkest methods. In the end, steampunk is about upsetting a carefully constructed balance, often one that is stressed as having stood the test of time for most of human history up to that point, in response to the growing need for individual recognition and personal satisfaction. It is not a genre for the faint-hearted, or the unusually reserved.

It is, however, a lot of fun to read.

Need More (Steam)?

 

How to Tell an Indie Author that You Love Them

How to Tell an Indie Author that You Love Them

indie authors love reviews
I mean, who doesn’t? We’re all so clean and well-irrigated.

Write a review. Please. And, thank you.

There’s a lot to be said about this, but that’s the cold, hard gist of it. Each year, hundreds of thousands of new writers join the millions who are already engaged in self-publishing. Thanks to platforms like Amazon and CreateSpace, millions of new books are flooding the worldwide market.

I recently joined the ranks of new authors (The Death of Constance is a BDSM erotic thriller, available now, if you’re into that sort of thing) along with my coauthor Amburgese Rain; it’s been an adventure, a rewarding experience, and a lot of fun. A simple release party on an indie authors group on Facebook can lead to a few hundred dollars in sales, right away, but for anything bigger—to climb the ranks; to become known? That takes some serious elbow grease, thanks to the level of competition.

This is not a bad thing. It’s “the more, the merrier.” And, thanks to eBooks, reading habits are actually on the rise: print sales are gradually declining, but the difference is vastly outpaced by the number of people using e-readers. Until conclusive evidence is presented as to e-readers somehow being “harmful,” there is no reason to discount electronic readership as being somehow “different.”

I love a hard copy as much as the next B&N haunt, but—ultimately—books are books. I’m sure people complained when we stopped using clay tablets, and again when we stopped using parchment scrolls.

Another Non-Sequitur “Nick Can’t Stay on Topic” Moment: Digital Information Death

To those worried about the eventual decay of electronic media, a phenomenon sometimes called “digital information death” or “digital information disintegration,” modern books disintegrate after a few decades. Books from five decades ago are frequently in worse shape than books from five centuries ago. The medium of the written novel began using cheaper, less durable materials a while back, and nobody noticed—except to appreciate the associated decrease in pricing, which e-readers have once more delivered.

Back to Indie Books and Writing Reviews

save authors help indie books write reviews
My review type is 0+. There’s a shortage.

The sheer number of new books and fledgling authors has led to the saturation of many commonly read genres, both in fiction and in nonfiction. As a rule, “commonly read” equates to “commonly written;” it’s mostly readers who become writers, and the self-publishing community relies heavily on community support. People also tend to write within genres and subject matter which they personally enjoy reading about.

As a result, there are simply too many books for online publishing and marketing platforms to keep track of via traditional methods. This has resulted in their finding ways to essentially narrow down the list, without actually discriminating directly against authors based on subject matter or preferred genre. To be fair, the latter is the avenue being taken by many traditional agents and publishing houses (it is common, for example, to stumble upon “no longer accept manuscripts within the fantasy genre” in the course of one’s search for a potential outlet).

What the online platforms have done, in response to the glut of new literature, is to focus related product searches and other incidental promotional efforts on customer reviews. Books on Amazon are ranked, referenced, and promoted based upon customer rankings and reviews, with books that have no reviews loitering in a negative space that is in some ways even more disadvantageous than having an overall negative reception.

How to Write a Review

amazon goodreads reviews indie publishing
Give a hoot! TEASE YOUR EYEBROWS! Also, write reviews.

There are lots of places which offer tips and advice on how to write the perfect review. What they tend to neglect (though not always; thanks for the ample assistance, Kyle!) is the fact that even something quick, low-effort, but high-energy is far more valuable than nothing—even more than a standalone rating. The simple act of taking a few moments out of your day to submit a review at all is what Amazon and other markets are looking for. The rest is icing. Sweet, sexy, succulent icing—but still icing.

Reviews in places like Amazon and Goodreads don’t have to be lengthy. They can be as simple as “Great job; can’t wait for the next one!” or even “I liked it!” along with an honest rating. Goodreads also offers other forms of engagement, including a forum for questions, quizzes, and trivia questions relating to the book.

Frankly, many authors don’t pay enough attention to these features.

Would You Like to Know More?

  • Amazon’s Customer Review Guidelines. They’re pretty much common sense, but everybody involved in the industry ought to read them at least once as a reminder.
  • The best reviews on Goodreads; a weekly/monthly/annual/all-time list of the site’s 50 most popular book reviews in the United States. If you really want to do your favorite authors a favor in return, this is where to go to find some good examples. It’s applicable outside of Goodreads as well.
  • From Bustle.com, Nine Websites for Readers Who Think About Books All Day, Every day. As with Goodreads (which is on the list) it’s to the indie author’s benefit to be familiar with these websites as well!
  • Join The Hive on Facebook, a group dedicated to indie authors pooling their resources to provide a mutually supportive boost to new authors. Mind you that “mutual” is a point of emphasis—but it’s the effort that counts!