Theme-Worldbuilding-Plot -- it all has to end up being "of one piece, a single unified whole when you get done writing.
That is, the issues have to be there, but a direct and forthright discussion of the day's hot topics just isn't amusing when you have to live amid a morass. You read fiction to get a birds-eye-view of your life, not to relive it!
Getting that mix right is an artform, a performing artform.
Here are the previous 5 parts of this series:
Now, in November I posted a report on Chicon7 -- the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago in September 2012.
At that convention, I was touring the Dealer's Room and happened to be drawn into a discussion with a fellow who was minding a table -- upon which was the following novel:
As a reviewer, I became interested, and I really liked the pitch for this novel. It just sounded so very promising that I accepted a review copy. I'm glad I did.
The Thunderbolt Affair is a "steampunk" novel with a twist -- the technology is more SF than Fantasy, and the History is alternate universe but with a strong logic behind it. Both the History and the Science "work" in this novel's "worldbuilding." This sets it apart from other things published under the Steampunk genre label.
As with all good Steampunk, you get more out of it the more "real" history you know. Steampunk and other alternate history exercises are a playground for historians as galactic science fiction is a playground for inventive scientists.
So all in all The Thunderbolt Affair is a very worthwhile read, a lot of fun, and a pleasure to return to when you have to put it aside.
Here's the official back cover copy that so intrigued me, copied from Amazon:
“What you will be working on is underhanded, unfair, and damned un-English.”
The British Empire is in danger of collapse and teeters on the brink of war with the Kaiser Reich. Spies and saboteurs play at deadly games in the British shipyards as each side seeks naval superiority.
Ian Rollins is collateral damage in their shadow war. The “accident” and his grievous injuries are about to bring his naval career to an ignominious end. But with the aid of a former Pinkerton detective, a clandestine agent for the Admiralty, a brace of Serbian savants, and one, mostly sober valet, he might survive. If he can master the skills necessary to command the world’s first fully operational combat submarine, the HMS Holland Ram, and protect the secrets of the Thunderbolt.
Historical Note. The Fenian Ram, fictionalized for this novel, does exist and is currently on display at the Paterson Museum in Paterson, NJ.
I don't just rave about novels I discuss in this blog. I dissect them and look for ways they could be improved. I look for reasons why a book went to a small publisher rather than a larger house, or vice-versa. I look for things that enlarge the potential market and things that restrict it to a smaller market. I look for characteristics of the piece that identifies who will enjoy it -- and who won't.
I started to read The Thunderbolt Affair -- mostly just because I was given a copy. I kept on reading because I got caught up in -- ok, yes, I admit it -- the love story.
I'm a sucker for a good Romance, and the glaring anachronism in this novel of portraying a female mechanic against this Steampunk background just tickles me no end. Or she may be a technologist -- an implementor who MAKES things, rather than a theorist or researcher who nails the basic science, or an inventor who comes up with new applications of basic science. She fabricates models and prototypes, and by the way, improves the design as she goes. A man who loves that woman, loves me!
I always enjoy the SF novels featuring inventors who just cobble together stuff and get it to work, -- um, sort of work anyway. Then they improve it. I love the thinking behind "improving" inventions -- even though I think the worst swearword in the English language today is "Upgrade."
But then I loved The Thunderbolt Affair for the rich detail of inventing crazy stuff out of nothing much. I am also a sucker for stories of the improbable accomplished by clever people, sometimes from cleverness, sometimes by accident, sometimes by sheer cussed determination.
Reading The Thunderbolt Affair was, though, more like reading a great fanfic than like reading a Mass Market Paperback. I could easily see the structural problems, and even see how the editor should have fixed those problems, but because it was a roaring good story, I didn't care.
Toward the 3/4 point, I realized I had to point you at this novel because it's a vivid example of how to limit your possible readership to a very small group. You can get this in ebook - and it is worth the ebook price.
The author admits editors told him he had too much technical detail about the things they build (these things include a couple of submarines and some artificial mechanical limbs, even a mechanical eye that eventually should be able to let the wearer "see").
The point of the novel, the thing that drove the writer to complete the project, was his love of Steampunk technology, and he wanted to show off what can be done with the basic capabilities and materials of the 1800's and a lot of imagination.
But beta readers and editors prompted him to trim, cut, condense the technical explanations -- which he said he did. I think he did, from the way the tech stuff reads. It's expository lump after expository lump.
But his editors gave bad advice.
Now, if you're serious about learning to do what I've been describing in this blog since 2006 when I started posting here every Tuesday, go get a copy of The Thunderbolt Affair, read it and take notes, figure out what went wrong inside this writer's mind, and then come back here and finish reading this post.
START FINISHING READING THIS POST HERE AFTER READING THE NOVEL.
OK, now that you've read the novel, and probably some of the reader commentary on Amazon, let's think about what the editor of this novel should have said.
When you are handed a manuscript that has "too much" of something (say for example, too many sex scenes in a Romance -- which is, believe it or not, possible!), do you tell the writer to cut some of those scenes?
When you are handed a manuscript that has expository lumps, do you tell the writer to trim, reduce, condense or break up the expository lumps? Is that the cure for expository lumps (and sex scenes are usually expository lumps technically speaking).
Think about The Thunderbolt Affair -- consider what the full blown technical dissertations on the machinery and ship building must have been like, and why the author wrote them out in full.
I'm betting (though I don't know for a fact) that this kind of expository lump over-kill happens for the same reason that 'too many sex scenes' happens --- it's INTERESTING.
The author is fascinated, interested, engaged, enamored, transported, and somehow fulfilled by these scenes and just massages them over and over and over because it feels good to the author. The assumption is that if it feels good to the author, it will feel good to ALL READERS.
Nope. Not the way entertainment works.
Marion Zimmer Bradley taught an old quotation, so old and oft quoted you have to consider it an adage: "The book the writer wrote is not the book the reader reads."
Readers make up their own characters, emotions, even background images, room decorations, clothing, etc. -- they "see" the main characters in their minds, and it doesn't look the way the writer sees it!
How can you convince yourself of this? Find a graphic artist, show your manuscript and ask the artist (without further input from you) to draw the scene.
You won't recognize it!
When you do get anything even a little bit recognizable, it's because you talked to the artist, watched them draw and pointed out changes as they went.
Here are three examples from my own work:
Now here's the ONE cover that all the inveterate fans of Sime~Gen agree is most representative of the series.
This is the omnibus edition (in hardcover and paper) containing House of Zeor, Ambrov Keon, and Zelerod's Doom.
It's also available as a poster from the artist who is the incredibly famous (justifiably so) Todd Lockwood.
In the poster print, there's no overprinting -- the title and author names, just the gorgeous art.
I got to talk to the artist for a long time, to explain what this character looks like -- and it's close, seriously close, and very much as the fans see it, and the way all the visual artists see it, but not what I see. Still, it's so gorgeous!
In the course of working with the professional editors for these novels, and interacting with the growing fandom surrounding them, I learned much of what I'm showing you how to do here.
Here's the trick that's so important to master.
When the editor or beta reader tells you there's too much of something, and the cure for that is to CUT THAT SOMETHING -- to reduce the amount of words devoted to it -- that may not be the way to fix the problem the editor or beta reader is having with your material.
Readers, even professional editors, don't necessarily know what's bothering them, though they can point to WHERE it bothered them.
The business of being a professional writer is the business of reverse engineering reader responses to find the cause the reader does not know is there.
Some people learn to do this by having the process explained to them. Others need concrete examples. And others have to have it DONE TO their own work by other hands. Marion Zimmer Bradley did this kind of thing to my own prose -- just took my words and re-did them so they'd work right in a scene.
Bradley was a talented writer. I don't think she really knew how she'd learned to do what she did -- she may have been born with this talent. But I learned from her rewriting of my prose.
So, what do I notice first about The Thunderbolt Affair?
At the half-way point, I looked up and said to myself, "There are three novels here, loosely packed between two covers. Shaken not stirred. They just aren't blended properly, but I don't know why."
By the 3/4 point, I realized the author apparently had no clue he had fallen off the conflict line. Which he had, but by the time I got to the end, I realized where the issue really was. Theme-Worldbuilding integration, the subject of this series.
Now this is an advanced series. We've been at this writing craft discussion for 6 years or so, and only if you've been digging back into those posts, or have been following for 6 years, do you see instantly what I mean by "falling off the conflict line" or what I call "the because line."
However, even if you've mastered your conflict line and how to stay on that because-line, you probably won't know how to "fix" this novel we're discussing.
It's got three distinct because-lines --- and virtually no theme of enough moment to support three plot-lines.
So fixing this because-line issue won't fix this novel and make it salable to the huge market for Steampunk in general, or for Romantic Steampunk!
Here's what I see after finishing the novel.
We have a sub-strata of the technical because-line -- the British navy stole a submarine, reverse engineered, improved on the design using an outside consultant (Tesla by the way is justly famous in our real world), and built a larger submarine that it then used to avert a war by displaying what a threat that ship could be.
On top of that (very solid and interesting) foundation, we have a Love Story (main Navy character falls for female mechanic-genius). Nothing much ever comes of that infatuation on any because line.
And, disconnected from everything, just puttering along in counterpoint, we have a saboteur and an espionage threat (complete with kidnapping the girl but nothing ever comes of that) and ultimately the theft of the big ship, but NOTHING COMES OF THAT THEFT because the Hero gets the ship back through heroic efforts which are well foreshadowed.
These three separate novels have a few laborious cross-linkages, some "because" connections, but nothing strong enough to drive the three plots together.
The real author-love is lavished on the technology (which I adore!) and the rest is tossed in on top of that just to make a book -- the whole thing just doesn't crystallize as a single unified entity, a NOVEL. It's 2 novels and a non-fiction book.
Why? This author worked so hard, he tried so hard, he's so proud of his work, why doesn't it make a novel?
The three main elements are not INTEGRATED -- they haven't become one thing.
We know whose story it is, the Captain of the submarine. We see his career unfold as he becomes the Captain and trains a crew in this new technology. He falls in love and gets his girl, his promotions, and saves his country while he's at it. Any writer would be proud of that story!
The worldbuilding is as sound as it could possibly be -- Steampunk has lacked this dimension of technological plausibility, so what is preventing this thing from solidifying?
You might conclude, from the "because-line" problem, that the novel won't crystallize because while the story is solidly constructed, the plot is not of the same caliber.
I think that's true. The plot is not as strong as the story, but why is that?
We have a dynamite action-scene opening with the theft of the little submarine. Then we follow the little submarine as it is worked on by an outside consultant-genius, concurrently with building another larger submarine. We have the Captain losing a hand and an eye, and the technologist consultants concurrently working on an artificial limb of the Captain's design. And we have sporadic attacks by "someone" for "some purpose."
There's nothing lacking for plot material, so how could it have failed to crystalize?
Go back over those three PLOTs carefully.
1) Stolen technology improved and employed by a government using foreign national to do improvements.
2) Hero falls in love with fascinating genius-woman mechanic and wins her heart
3) Foreign government spies infiltrate and attempt to steal technology and fail because of Hero and genius-woman
What THEME do these 3 plots have in common?
If you've got 3 plots, you need 4 themes, but they must be RELATED IN A VERY SPECIFIC STRUCTURAL MANNER.
You need a master theme, and 3 sub-themes or versions of that theme, all leading to a single STATEMENT at the end of the Master Theme in a moment the reader will experience as a REVELATION, boosting the reader to a new level of understanding of "Life, The Universe, And Everything."
The Thunderbolt Affair lacks this commonality of structure created by THEME.
It is as if the author had this IDEA -- "write a steampunk that could actually have happened" -- and then said, well I need a love affair and the Hero has to get his girl, and there's no action after the opening on the theft of the submarine so I'll toss in some spies. Well, how should this thing end? The Hero has to do something GRAND (it is steampunk after all; he's got to have some punk in him, break some rules?) So the author cooked up the spies and a grand plot to steal the submarine again so the hero could save the country from a war.
It's very common to see this kind of thing done by new writers. Here's "my book" but it's not good enough yet, so "grab this from this other book and throw it in," then grab something else from some other book and toss that in just to keep the plot moving. And the parts just do not go together because they did not arise organically from a single, central, theme.
Very talented writers do this "theme integration" thing that we've been discussing at such length by innate instinct, never consciously considering theme at all. Others (like me) have to sort out the threads of ideas, and focus and re-focus on the particular theme I really want to talk about.
So what's the theme in The Thunderbolt Affair? Don't steal because it'll always come to naught? Or maybe "If you really need to win, steal first and often?" Or "Hire the best genius inventor around?" Or "Genius inventors are all very fine, but you'll lose crown and country if you don't have a daring-do-Hero on tap?"
Frankly, after reading this book closely, I have no clue what the theme is or what the author wanted it to be. It says contradictory things all at once, and ends up saying nothing.
Why do the 3 plots not crystallize, forming a single articulated work of art? Why is the theme (which I believe the author knows, but doesn't know he hasn't stated) so invisible?
This book has 3 plots -- and not 1 conflict.
The STORY is that of the Captain who succeeds in a) getting a promotion to the new Submariner Service b) getting the girl and c) saving crown and country. BUT WHO IS TRYING TO PREVENT HIM FROM DOING ANY OF THAT?
No preventing force, no plot. There's a great story and no CONFLICT -- without conflict there's no plot.
The author tried to disguise the lack of conflict by tossing in 2 extra plots that shouldn't be there, but those 2 extra plots (whichever 2 of the 3 are the extras) won't mix in properly because they explicate different themes destroying the "composition" of this book.
I can't tell which plots are "extra" because all 3 have equal weight. In a well constructed work of art, one element dominates all others, each of the other elements supports and explicates the details of the main one, illuminating it from all angles. The subordinate elements must have lesser "weight" (fewer words) than the unifying and dominating element.
Yes, the spies are trying to prevent launch of the new submarine, and/or to steal it or the new technology (their goal is never made clear), but that's not preventing our Hero the Captain from attaining his goal -- which goal is never made clear. The Captain doesn't know he has a goal regarding the woman he falls for until way into the book, and nobody is trying to thwart him from "getting the girl." When she is kidnapped, it's by the spies who want her for her expertise, not to thwart The Captain.
And so it goes throughout the entire book -- every place there should be a conflict, there is a complication substituted for it. That's why the thing wanders into loving description of technology during which all progress on all the story lines just stops. There's no development of an urgent necessity to know how the technology works, and the technology is presented in indigestible lumps of exposition. Cutting that down won't help. It would be fascinating reading if we needed to know it -- if there were any suspense causing us to barrel through those explanations determined not to miss the essential clue to the mystery and not let The Hero solve the mystery before The Reader!
You will find this thematic structure I've been describing above in every great novel that's lasted for generations -- though the older ones are much harder to discern because this structural trick was just being invented when they were propagated. Reading from Ancient Greece onwards through the Middle Ages, you can see how the rules of this structure were developed stepwise.
Here are some previous posts with links to other previous posts to study if you haven't followed this. Also you may, in the course of analyzing The Thunderbolt Affair, discover that you have found an even better way to get your novel to "crystallize" -- to create a unified matrix of artistic statements that move your reader to the core. If you do, be sure to teach your method.