In Part 1 of this interview I was able to introduce folks to Brooke Johnson and we talked a little about her method and her origins as a writer. Below are some follow-up topics we discussed. If you haven’t checked out Brooke Johnson’s work and you are at all into alternate history or steampunk or the like, you seriously are missing out.
Without further ado: part 2!
Did you pursue learning about writing by formally studying it? I’m an engineer by trade and never took classes in writing or creative writing beyond a basic English composition requirement of the Humanities portion of my degree. (I am intensely jealous of your ability to outline!) Different writers have very different opinions on the value of formal study of the craft of writing. What’s yours? There are no wrong answers here! I love to hear other writers’ opinions on the value of formal study regardless of whether I might or might not agree with them.
In my early years, I was mostly self-taught, learning what I could from books that I loved to read—which is why everything I wrote was horribly derivative. It wasn’t really until college that I really studied the craft of writing. In the three years it took to earn my degree, I wrote more short stories than I ever had before, gave up on one novel, started another, edited hundreds of my classmates’ stories, and wrote more analytical essays than I ever care to write again. I learned what worked and what didn’t and why. I learned how to take criticism. I learned the basics about characterization, description, plot structure, and more importantly, the technical skills of a professional writer.
College gave me a good foundation for my writing career. It wasn’t comprehensive by any means. I didn’t graduate with the ability to write a bestseller, and I learned some bad habits, but I honestly believe that my degree took ten to fifteen years of bad writing and crammed it into three. I got a lot of bad writing out of the way. I will note that it’s funny you mention outlining. That’s a skill I had to learn on my own, well after I graduated college.
But the most valuable thing I learned in college was how to edit. I didn’t really understand how valuable it would be at the time because I had yet to finish a first draft of anything other than short stories—and this was when first drafts were as far as my stories got—but when I finally finished my first novel, I realized just how important editing was.
So, in my experience, I think formal study is a valuable pursuit. It isn’t for everyone, but if you can afford to spare the time and money to get a degree in Creative Writing, or take a few courses at the very least, I’d recommend it. Like I said, I got a lot of bad writing out of the way by taking structured courses. I probably could have learned the same lessons in fifteen years of working it out on my own, but I saved twelve years by studying writing in college instead. You make a lot of progress in a short amount of time if you make the effort.
I’ve heard discussion about the ways in which Steampunk can manifest the ideologies of other times and your use of the phrase “Victorian ideology” piques my interest along those same lines. Again, there are no wrong answers! I’m just curious to hear what in specific you mean by that. One of the most interesting considerations I’ve heard raised is that many people – rightly or wrongly – use colonialism vs. social justice as a too-easy line to draw down the middle of steampunk: works are either (say some undefined “they”) too eager to broadcast a revolutionary message or too sycophantically built on the premise that everyone is Lord and Lady Posherton. On the other hand, I’ve seen opinions that any attempt to evoke specifically the Victorian era needs at least to acknowledge the major issues and political forces of the time or to translate them into something more familiar to modern readers. This isn’t really forming into a great question per se but I’m curious as to whether you’ve got opinions to share.
When I talk about Victorian ideology, I’m thinking of the scientific pursuits of that era—people who believe in a future ruled by science, a culture that appreciates intellectual pursuits and scientific progress and who recognizes the engineers, inventors, and scientists behind it all. But that’s what I think steampunk should be.
Now, as for colonialism vs. social justice, my books aren’t revolutionary or socially skewed toward nobility. I think it’s a rubbish notion that a Victorian steampunk novel can only be about one of those two things. There are limitless stories to tell in a Victorian steampunk world. Yes, you have the lords and ladies of frills and lace and maybe a revolutionary or two, but you have engineers, servants, scientists, playwrights, actors, boiler workers, mechanics, seamstresses, nuns, businessmen, housewives, immigrants, and militia too. The number of stories you could tell in Chroniker City are as diverse as the people inhabiting it, as with any steampunk world.
As for evoking the Victorian era, when I first started writing The Clockwork Giant, I did a little research on the social structure and politics of the time to familiarize myself with it, but I didn’t want that to be the focus. I wanted science to be the focus. I wanted Petra to be the focus. But over the course of writing it, politics and social structure started to come into play, and moving into the sequels, The Guild Conspiracy and The Chroniker Legacy, the classist culture and the national politics of Victorian Great Britain become more and more important. But that’s my story.
I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to acknowledge class division or the political undertones of the society in order to paint it Victorian. For example, my novella Le Theatre Mecanique takes place in the same time period, but it successfully conveys the Victorian age without addressing politics or social structure. So, it’s not totally necessary, but if your story takes you into those territories, then you really need to know what you’re talking about. It’s a weird line to walk, really.
Totally random: do you ever do conventions or other in-person promotional events?
Not yet. I would like to go to a writing convention someday, but the nearest ones are a rather long drive away, and as for an in-person promotional event, I haven’t gathered the courage to do one yet. But I’m not swearing them off in the future!
You are very effective at communicating with your readers and your support network via social media. You’re very open about how many words you write in a given day, your plans for the next and so on. I find it fascinating, and I love reading it. What led you to be so comfortable sharing your process and your progress?
Sharing my progress day to day gives me the small satisfaction that I’m doing something, I’m working toward a goal. And hearing from people like you, who find those posts interesting, just makes it that much more rewarding.
I’m not entirely sure what led me to be so comfortable sharing that aspect of my work, but I think that my transparency with my writing process and daily progress is what helps me connect so well with my followers on social media, whether they are readers or writers. Readers get to see that I’m working on the next book, that I’m making progress, however slowly, and they know that there will be more stories from me in the future. Writers get to see the business side. They get to see what it’s like to write full-time, how difficult the editing process is, what kind of success they might expect from self-publishing. I’ve had many people tell me how grateful they are that I share everything from my daily word count to my sales numbers and royalties. It’s something you don’t often see in this business.
Again, major thanks to Brooke for being so generous with her time and her answers. I heartily encourage others to read her books and get to know the absolutely fascinating world and characters she’s created! -MGW
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