Steampunk, (part 3) and short stories.

I mentioned a while ago that one of the introductions I had to the world of e-publishing was Lindsay Buroker. I read a couple of her short stories (Ice Cracker II and The Assassin’s Curse), and got hooked on her writing. But it also got me thinking that  I could get into indie publishing in the same way.

This is something I’ve been thinking about since I started this blog, and set out on this e-publishing journey to begin with. So it was with great pleasure that I came across Ryan Casey’s blog and his recent post, “Short Stories: Four Reasons Why You Should Write Them.” Check it out, it’s a good read.

It also validated part of why I’m going about this the way I am. My short term plan is to write a collection of short stories and use them as a sort of “test drive” through the process of uploading and publishing a book on the Kobo store. The thought was that this would be a simpler project than jumping in head-first with a novel, it would take less time and resources to get my work out there and start building a platform, and it would introduce readers to my work for a minimal fee (I’ll probably charge $0.99 for the collection, and possibly offer one of the stories as a stand alone free download). Ryan hit on those points, and more–which makes me think I’m on the right track.

But his post also got me thinking about what else short stories are doing for me. I’m getting a lot out of it:

  • It’s getting me “in the habit.” Writing the first draft of a short story is taking me, on average, three days, and because it’s a shorter self contained plot, it’s easy to keep engaged. I look forward to finishing them, so I can go onto the next one. The end result is that I’ve written three stories in the last week and a half, have started a fourth, and have a plethora of new ideas.
  • It keeps me accountable. Having a long term project like a novel is great, but it can seem a long ways off. It’s also a large project, which–for me–is an intimidating way to start off. Especially if the novel ends up not selling, in which case I’d probably feel like I’ve wasted a good deal of time and effort. By writing short fiction, I can give myself shorter term goals, which are easier to achieve–which in turn keeps me engaged in setting new, larger goals.
  • Short stories are helping with my “world building.” I want to get into fantasy writing because it means that I get to make the rules; yes, there are tropes and ideas that most fantasy will make use of, but I can still use those as a framework, and dressing it as I see fit. But building a world is a lot of work; you have to be careful about consistency and tone, and doing that over a longer project is challenging. Writing short stories is allowing me to experiment with the world as it’s being built, adding onto things piece by piece until I have a cohesive whole. I’d like to talk about world building in a future post, so stay tuned for that.
  • Finally, it’s Immediate. Not literally–I’ve given myself to the end of September for my first collection, editors willing–but it’s a lot quicker than a novel, which can take months to write, let alone editing and revisions. I’m the kind of person who is generally productive, but likes to see results, and short stories are fitting the bill. I get small nuggets of success at regular intervals, they’re quicker and simpler for my readers to digest, and I can build up anticipation for new stories by issuing them relatively quickly.

So, for me, short stories are the way to go, at least to get started. In my short time in the online writer’s world, I’ve sensed that this is the consensus view; if you have comments to the contrary, let’s open a discussion!

And now, for those of you who have been following my experiment in Steampunk, (you can find part one here and part two here) here is the conclusion of The Astrologers:

Almost everyone in the audience jumped to their feet and started pushing one another aside in an effort to get closer to Vesir. He stepped back reflexively, grinning as he did so–he obviously enjoyed the attention—and tapped the handle on his other palm.

“Not so excited now, please be calm! The Astrologers know all, but they can only answer one question. And, my dear friends,” at this point, he adopted a hang-dog expression, “my magnificent Automata are not inexpensive to operate. Perhaps if someone would be so kind as to make a donation…”

Dolle’s mouth fell open. This man was a…what was the word her father liked to use? A huckster?

Nobody seemed to notice the barker at his game, however. The people started digging in their pockets for coins, waving them and hooting like pigeons begging for a crumb of bread. Vesir placed the rod under one armpit and made a show of applauding his customers.

“Excellent, excellent, my friends! I knew there were philanthropists in this crowd,” he cooed. He leaned into one particularly excited young woman and added: “the last lot were certainly not so kind–nor beautiful–as this.”

With a twirl, his coat flapping behind him, Vesir stepped back toward his Astrologers and tapped the closest one on the shoulder. An arm raised with a mechanical, jerky motion, producing a velvet bag. Vesir saluted the automaton and took the bag. Beckoning to the young woman, he deftly pocketed her proffered coin, and both it and the bag disappeared into his pocket.

“Now, my beauty, what is it you would like to know? Remember, the Astrologers can tell all the secrets of the heavens!”

The woman looked suddenly sheepish and stumbled over her words now that she was on display. Eventually, she leaned in and whispered to Vesir, who smiled, showing pearly white teeth. As she went back to her spot in the crowd, Dolle could see her blushing.

Well, well, well!” Vesir exclaimed, clapping his hands. A secret question! Well, my young friend, it is safe with me–and with the Astrologers! They are modest machines, I tell you. No one will hear of it from I, the Magnificent Vesir!”

With another flourish–his theatrics were wearing on Dolle by now–he retrieved the leather handled rod and whirled it in the air again. He walked up and down the row of mechanical men, choosing one seemingly at random, and fit the rod into a hole in its side. Smiling widely at his audience, he whispered at the automata, his eyes never leaving the crowd.

“This is Aspect, one of my wisest and most articulate Astrologers. He will answer your question, dear lady. Behold!”

He began to turn the rod. As he cranked, the Astrolger made a series of clicks and whirs, its head turning this way and that, arms moving up and down as he marched in place. Thoroughly disillusioned now, Dolle had to stifle a laugh. It was hard to believe that these people were believing such a ridiculous display. It was interesting, however, to see the wheels and dials on its chest move. The pointers cycled around, moving at different speeds.

But they ate it up. People were clapping in time to the automata’s clanking rhythm. Some shouted their own questions, though Vesir paid them no mind. The woman was gnawing at her fingertips in anticipation.

Then there was a faint humming sound which rose in pitch until it was almost a whistle. The wheels stopped turning, as did Vesir; the pointers rested at various angles. The showman examined the Astrologer’s chest with great concentration, giving the occasional nod and “I see”, stroking the small pointed beard on his chin. Then, removing the rod and folding it into his pocket once more, and faced the audience. Without looking at his creations, he addressed them in a loud, triumphant voice:

“And what, my Astounding Astrologers, is the verdict?”

Aspect stepped forward and made a clunky sort of bow, then raised an arm in front of itself, as if preparing to declaim on a stage.

“All signs point to…yes.”

Its voice was tinny, and buzzed on the sibilant sounds; there was no variation in tone, no emotion at all. It could have been a series of pops and clicks and buzzes that conveniently happened to sound like speech–but the audience erupted with applause. The woman who had asked the question rushed forward to Vesier and hugged him, tears in her eyes, then ran out of the tent–dragging her astonished male companion with her. The others seemed to want to stay and ask more questions, but Vesir feigned fatigue–holding out his velvet bag, of course–and told them he must rest before the next show, as must his Astrologers. On the way out Dolle heard at least one man say he’d be back for the next presentation.

The entire show had lasted less than ten minutes. Dolle wasn’t convinced, and felt more than a little guilty for sneaking in–her father seemed to have been right. It was nothing more than a put-on.

Vesir took off his gloves and chuckled to himself, hefting the bag of coins before stuffing it back into his pocket. He approached the Astrologer who had answered the question, and kicked it in the shins.

“Another good one, old boy. This lot pays much better than the cheapskates back in Heira’kol!”

The automata didn’t respond.

Vesir laughed, and punched it on the shoulder. “All right, you lot, back to the wagon! A few of you could use a polish before the next set, I should think…” He trundled back around the corner, and the Astrologers turned to follow.

All at once there was a tremendous racket coming from outside the tent. Vesir came running back, head cocked to the side, listening. Spitting some words that Dolle wished not to have heard, he ducked into the wagon and reappeared promptly with a coiled whip. He ran out of the tent, muttering “Not again…”

Dolle was alone with the Astrologers, who had stopped moving in Vesir’s absence. She inched forward; then, realizing she was entirely alone, walked boldly up to the Astrologers.

“Sirs,” she said, bowing, “That was a very…interesting demonstration.”

There was no response. She tapped Aspect on the side, looking up at him.

“Aspect, sir, what was the question the woman asked?”

The Astrologer whirred softly, as if considering a response, then bent his head down to look at Dolle. His multi-faceted eyes were flashing with hundreds of colours, but they seemed somehow empty. In the same, lifeless tinny voice, it answered:

“All signs point to…yes.”

There it was, then. It was all a trick, a toy, nothing more than a cleverly programmed anima after all. She had to admit that these constructs were more complex than she’d ever seen, but they were no longer magical, or even impressive. They were just big, clunky heaps of metal and wisps of elemental magic. She almost wanted to cry.

A loud crash shook her out of her reverie. There was something just outside the tent. She could hear panicked voices yelling in terror as booths fell and tents teared. Something was thrashing about outside, and even as she heard the ear splitting roar, her father’s voice carried over everything, calling her brother’s name.

The crashing noises were coming closer to the tent. Now she could hear her brother’s voice, sobbing with fear. Other voices, men mostly, clamoured and called, chasing after her family and, apparently, whatever beast had gotten loose.

There was another crash as the animal bowled its way into the tent. It fell on its side, growling, and righted itself quickly. It was a large lion, painted green and with a red mane. Clumps of paper mache clung to its fur along its back and tail. If it noticed Dolle, it didn’t show it; instead, its gaze was trained on the circle of men surrounding it–Vesir included, brandishing his whip–while her brother cowered behind her father’s legs. He was bleeding from scratches on his arms and face.

Several of the Astrologers had toppled over, knocked aside by the animal, but Aspect stood firm. Dolle, hiding behind the automaton, ventured to step around it to get a better look at the lion. It still hadn’t taken note of her, but as she stepped into view, her father did.

“Dolle!” he screamed, more out of relief than anger. “Where have you been, we’ve been looking…”

He was interrupted by the lion’s roar; the beast crouched, ready to pounce, its tail flicking pensively back and forth. Its gaze turned between Vesir and the other men, and its quarry–her brother. Jim whimpered as the men approached slowly, trying to circle around and corner it. Dolle, behind directly behind the lion, was in their way. Vesir called out:

“Girl! Little one…back slowly away so we adults can take care of this.” He sounded more annoyed than concerned for her; his eyes were trained more on his automata than Dolle. Her father noticed.

“Why don’t you order that contraption of yours to attack it?” her shot back angrily, pointing at the Astrologer. “If they can do half what you say they can, surely they could do something other than stand around. Hey!” he called to Aspect, “Get the lion, save her, you great bucket of–”

“You’re not helping the situation, sir,” Vesir said. His voice was calm, but dripping with condescension. He expertly avoided answering the question. The Astrologer stood there, mute and seemingly unaware of the situation.

As they argued, the other men started inching carefully forward in a wide arc. Vesir threw a cold look at her father and followed, snapping his whip to get the lion’s attention. It worked: the creature turned to Vesir and growled; the man swallowed, mumbling something about the missing trainer, and readied his whip again. The lion picked up the cue, and backed away.

Directly into one of the fallen Astrologers.

It almost tripped, and snapped around suddenly, jaws clacking at the perceived threat. Instead, he found only lifeless metal–and Dolle. Its tail flicked again, and its eyes shone. It raised its head to sniff the air, and the lion advanced a few tentative steps. It didn’t seem interested in Dolle herself so much as the fact she was the only one blocking its escape. It made to crouch again, and then everything happened at once.

Her father screamed her name. Vesir cried out. Her brother wailed. The lion leaped forward. Dolle let out a surprised yelp, and clasped the Astrologer tightly, her knuckles going white. The other men charged forward, desperate to get to the lion before it got to her.

And for Dolle, time seemed to contract, moving in slow motion. Her surroundings faded, and her vision went silver-white. Her hands grew warm and began to tingle. They felt almost fuzzy–like when your arm falls asleep if you lay on it wrong–but painless. The sensation swept in a tangible wave through her body, concentrated in her hands once more, then left, flowing into the automata. Her vision cleared and she swooned, falling to the ground. As she closed her eyes, she could vaguely see Aspect erupting forward, tackling the lion and bringing it to the ground, all the while repeating the same phrase over and over in that tinny, humming voice, the last direction he had been given: “Save her, save her, save her…”

When she came to, she found a circle of faces peering down at her. Her father and brother, Vesir, other men–and Aspect. She stared curiously at the featureless automata, and she swore that it regarded her just as closely. The eyes, glittering with colours as before, were dancing. It held out a metal hand to her; tentatively, she took it, and it helped her to her feet.

“She appears to be adequately recovered,” it said. The voice was still mechanical and toneless. Even as she stood, her head still dizzy, her father swept her into his arms, crying. Behind him, she could see the lion being manacled and led back toward the cage it escaped. He brother watched it wistfully; in his hand he held a paper mache tail with a serpent’s head at one end.

The others drifted away, their interests lying elsewhere now, clapping Vesir on the back and congratulating him on saving the girl. He smiled smile and nodded modestly–“no problem at all, just my duty”–but his eyes were awash with confusion. When they were alone, he darted toward Aspect, running his hands all over its chassis, examining every bit of the Astrologer. No longer the unresponsive and obedient machine, it politely brushed Vesir’s hands away.

“Thank you for your concern, sir, but I am quite undamaged. Your ministrations would be more beneficial if directed toward the girl.”

Vesir stood back in shock and surprise, and shot a suspicious look at Dolle.

“What did you do to it?” he asked. There was no anger in his voice; on the contrary, there was a touch of awe, of wonder.

Her father let Dolle gently to the ground, and took her hand.

“Don’t you touch her,” he warned Vesir, who promptly backed away. “Come, Dolle. Jim, we’re going. I think we’ve had enough of the carnival this year.” He held out both hands, which his children dutifully took in their own.

As they started walking away from the tattered tent, Dolle turned, breaking her father’s grip, and ran toward Aspect, hugging its legs.

“Thank you,” she said. The automata touched her gently on the head.

“I am pleased to have been helpful,” it said. “And thank you, for this.” It placed a hand over its chest.

Dolle smiled. “You’re welcome, Aspect,” she replied.

Running back to her father, she waved at the Astrologer. It waved back, arm clinking softly with the motion, as Vesir looked on, agape.

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4 comments on “Steampunk, (part 3) and short stories.

  1. Ryan Casey says:

    Thanks for mentioning my post! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Your short story experiment seems to be going great, and you are definitely on the right track 🙂 Good luck for the future!

  2. tobiasosir says:

    Thank you!

  3. […] as a setting for novels and short stories. The Astrologers–featured on earlier posts on this blog–is the first in this revamped world. But how does one go about creating a whole new world? As […]

  4. […] of you who read The Astrologers (which you can find here, here, and here), will have an idea about the World of this project. The setting is one I created many years ago, […]

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