Today I’m pleased to have an interview with Brooke Johnson, whose indie-published steampunk series was picked up by Harper Voyager.
What does it take to make it as an indie? Here’s a clue: I gave Brooke 11 questions last week and told her to answer five or six by this week. Within 48 hours, she’d sent back answers for all 11.
Interview with Brooke Johnson
Tell us a little bit about how you ended up at Harper Voyager.
Long story short, Harper Voyager held an open call for submissions back in 2012, I submitted my then self-published book,The Clockwork Giant, for their consideration, and about 18 months later, I got an email from one of the editors at Harper Voyager, offering me a contract. After a few months of back-and-forth negotiations, I signed a three-book deal for my steampunk series, and now, two years after signing the contract, that third book is out!
So, you write steampunk. What drew you to that subgenre?
I’ve always had a fascination with clocks and mechanical things, but I never really considered writing about them. My first writing love has always been fantasy. It wasn’t until I read Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan that I even knew steampunk existed, but the moment I read it, I knew I wanted to write something centered around impossible machines and the engineers who built them. Steampunk was perfect for that.
Are there tropes or conventions in steampunk? Do you use any of those in your books?
The primary tropes are simply steam-power and Victorian era aesthetics, and more often than not, set in an alternate history of 19th century Britain—or with enough similarities to be very loosely based on it. Some steampunk includes magic. Mine doesn’t. I think the most important thing is substance. There’s a bit of a pushback from the steampunk community against steampunk fiction that is poorly-researched with regard to historical or mechanical accuracy. You can’t just plaster gears everywhere, add corsets, goggles, top hats, and mustaches, and call it steampunk. Steampunk is not a veneer. It’s an ideology.
My series takes place at near the end of the 19th century, in an alternate history of the British Empire, where the main difference between this world and ours is the existence of a technologically driven city ruled by an organization of inventors and engineers. That means that a lot of the social mores and restrictions of the time remain the same. However, technology is significantly more advanced because of the existence of Chroniker City, so rather than a heavy reliance on steam technology, they’ve moved onto other, more refined technologies like combustion engines, electromagnetic batteries, and even early wireless devices. Steam is still used in some of the more industrial parts of the city, and in many of the vehicles currently in use at the time, but it’s considered a lesser technology by much of the scientific population. But despite the advanced technology, the story is still very much grounded in that Victorian aesthetic.
You also wrote a novella in this world. How did you like that, compared to writing novels?
The novella was a nice reprieve after writing and editing several 300+ page manuscripts. Much of the process is the same—unlike writing short stories which is a completely different monster I have yet to master—so it’s more like writing a lite version of a novel. Fewer characters, fewer subplots, fewer complications. And because it was about a third of the length of my usual books, it was much easier to complete and edit. I plan to write more in the future—whether a part of the Chroniker City universe or something else.
You came up as an indie author, didn’t you? What are the most important things you learned as an indie?
When you’re an indie author, you shoulder all of the responsibility for what happens to your book. Of course, there are a lot of things out of your control—a fickle market, the difficulty of gaining visibility—but at the end of the day, you are the one responsible for stacking the odds in your favor. You are in charge of cover design. You are in charge of editing. You are in charge of marketing. You are in charge of every single aspect of your book, from the writing of the words to the kind of paper they’re printed on.
Moving from that to traditional publishing was difficult for me. I liked having that control. I soon had to learn how to trust others with those responsibilities and to focus on what I could control. I depend on my publisher for a lot of things now, but I still have a voice. I still have power over my book. And I know that at the end of the day, I am the one person who believes in my book more than anyone else—not my editor, not my publicist, not anyone else who works at the publisher. They can help me, sure, and they want to see the book succeed as much as I do! But they also have a dozen other books that they’re trying to help succeed as well. I’m not getting a book tour with each new release. Marketing efforts on their part are divided between all the other books currently being published with the imprint. There’s only so much one publicist can do when she has six books she’s trying to successfully launch in a single month.
So, coming from an indie background, the question I have to ask myself is: how can I help? What can I do to make my publisher’s job easier? How can I stack the odds in my favor? At the end of the day, I want to know that I did everything in my power to make the book a success. It’s a lot of additional work for me, sure, but if I’m not going to put extra effort into it, why should my publisher?
Clockwork elements seem like they’d be difficult to research. Is that true? What do you look up, and what do you just make up?
Not so! Science follows simple rules, and if you can understand the concepts at play, it’s easy to research how something works, break it down, and rebuild it into something new—especially machines. I have a four-volume English translation of a German set of encyclopedias titled How Things Work that explains in detail how certain technologies work, using layman’s terms, and I studied it religiously when I wrote the first book in the series.
Once I understood how the mechanics work on a base level, it was easy to extrapolate outward from there and fit all the pieces together into something new that seems real. A lot of the machines in my books are quite impossible without modern computing, but because I understand the base mechanical structure of all the different parts, I can use what I know to lend credibility to the mechanics and fudge the rest for the sake of the story. So there’s a blend of fact and fiction, enough truth to make it feel real and suspend the reader’s disbelief as those machines stretch into the realm of the impossible.
What was the writing experience like for CONSPIRACY, compared to GIANT? Did you have any “book 2 problems?”
Oh, the number of blog posts I could write on this… Suffice it to say, The Guild Conspiracy was about 1000x more difficult to write than The Brass Giant for a multitude of reasons. It took more than twice as long to write and edit, working twice as many hours. I ran into difficulty after difficulty in the drafting process and had to do several sweeping revisions before it was ready to send to my editor, and then another couple of revisions after that. I ended up writing 200,000 words in total by the time I finished the book. Only 98,000 of those words made it into the final book. So, yes, I had problems.
What are some cool things you did in book 2 that aren’t in book 1? Did you try anything new, craft-wise?
The second book is so much bigger and grander than the first book, in almost every single way. I introduce an entirely new cast of characters, new settings, new conflicts. The Brass Giant was very narrow in scope, focused almost entirely on Petra and her relationship with Emmerich and the automaton. There were a few subplots and some important stuff going on in the background, slowly revealed over the course of the story, but it never eclipsed Petra’s role in the story.
In The Guild Conspiracy however, that focus is flipped. The impending war and the conspiracy behind it is front and center, with Petra struggling to hang on. There are several different players she has to contend with over the course of the story, each with their own agenda and motivations, and rather than the villain remaining mostly behind the scenes for the majority of the book, working in secret, he and Petra are in a constant struggle of wills, both of them trying to outsmart the other to get what they want.
Craft-wise, I worked harder on character interactions in this book, focusing more on what’s not said in a conversation than what is. I kind of had to. Secrets and suspicion run rampant in this book, so more often than not, characters dance around a subject than state anything outright. Which was frustrating as hell to write, by the way.
If you could have your own automaton that did one thing, what would it do?
Clean my poor house. Dishes, laundry, sweeping… whathaveyou. My house is in a constant state of disorder between my naturally messy nature and the fact that I have a toddler who I swear transforms into a tornado when I’m not looking. My poor husband tries to keep it picked up, but it’s a losing battle (sorry, sweetheart).
If my readers read and like your books (which they will do or face the consequences), what similar titles can you recommend?
I mentioned Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy earlier, which is my number one steampunk recommendation. It’s science-based like mine, no magic, set in an alternate WWI era with the world powers divided into Clankers (mechanical) or Darwinists (biological) as their preferred method of science and weaponry. It’s a fascinating read, and so well done.
On a related note, for people just getting into steampunk, what would you recommend as canon?
It depends on the kind of books you already like to read! There’s so much variety in steampunk. It would be hard to find something you didn’t like. Some recommendations though: Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices and Gail Carriger’s Finishing school series, if you like young adult and paranormal romance; Viola Carr’s Electric Empire series if you like urban fantasy, murder mystery type stories; and The Steampunk Bible for a good primer on the different varieties of steampunk.
Some people go for stuff like The Difference Engine by William Gibson or Mainspring by Jay Lake, toting them as quintessential to the steampunk genre, but I’ll be honest and say that I don’t really care for either. Call it a difference in stylistic opinion.
Also, there’s a bunch of new stuff coming out that I’m looking forward to, mainly David D. Levine’s Arabella of Mars, which centers around steampunk spaceflight. Honestly, there’s just so much, I haven’t even come close to reading a good sample of what the genre has to offer.
About Brooke Johnson
Brooke is a stay-at- home mom and tea-loving writer. As the jack-of-all-trades bard of the family, she journeys through life with her husband, daughter, and dog. She currently resides in Northwest Arkansas but hopes to one day live somewhere more mountainous. You can find her on Twitter @brookenomicon.
About The Guild Conspiracy
In the face of impossible odds, can one girl stem the tides of war?
It has been six months since clockwork engineer Petra Wade destroyed an automaton designed for battle, narrowly escaping with her life. But her troubles are far from over. Her partner on the project, Emmerich Goss, has been sent away to France, and his father, Julian, is still determined that a war machine will be built. Forced to create a new device, Petra subtly sabotages the design in the hopes of delaying the war, but sabotage like this isn’t just risky: it’s treason. And with a soldier, Braith, assigned to watch her every move, it may not be long before Julian finds out what she’s done.
Now she just has to survive long enough to find another way to stop the war before her sabotage is discovered and she’s sentenced to hang for crimes against the empire. But Julian’s plans go far deeper than she ever realized … war is on the horizon, and it will take everything Petra has to stop it in this fast-paced, thrilling sequel to The Brass Giant.
Find it here: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | iTunes | Google Play | HarperCollins
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