What I’ve Learned From My Thesis Proposal

I don’t really read much steampunk.

When I submitted a draft to my professor, he sent back revision suggestions with a note along the lines of “What steampunk books can you cite in your bibliography?”  I stared at the page for a few minutes before sitting back and sighing. Shit, I needed to add steampunk books.  Somehow, I didn’t think I would need to reference any. 

Even though it is the genre I write in (though I am considering myself closer to historical fantasy now) and I love the aesthetic and idea of it, I barely read it.  The major pillars of contemporary steampunk are not something I really enjoy. I love Gail Carriger’s work, but I find G.D. Falksen’s work underwhelming (though I did like his vampire book), George Mann gets dull to me halfway through, and even though I loved The Golden Compass, I loathed Phillip Pullman by the time I got to The Amber Spyglass. Apparently men who write steampunk aren’t my cup of tea (didn’t notice that until I listed them).

Half the reason I write in this genre is because I was dissatisfied with what I read. None of the major authors were writing what would satisfy that itch I had.  Carriger came close but never quite did it for me, especially since I would love a Biffy and Lyall book that will probably never be written. Most of what I read (apart from books for my grad school classes) are historical fiction or historical fantasy that isn’t steampunk.  Most of my to-be-read list contains little steampunk because it just doesn’t interest me. Is it bad of me to have little interest in my own genre?

As time goes on, I feel steampunk is less my genre and that I am gravitating toward historical fantasy more and more. I feel boxed in by the label.  Is my book supposed to focus on the gadgets only or should my stories and characters have aspiriations outside of the bells and whistles?  I care about characters, and where those characters lead me, I go, and usually they lead me away from gizmos and toward figuring out what is wrong with society and how to deal with it. It’s hard to escape the steampunk label when you write about a story set in the Victorian era and attach fantasy or anachronistic elements to it, so call my work whatever genre you want. In the big scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter.

I read and write what I please and not for genre conventions or marketability.  That is probably to my detriment at times in terms of sales, but readers are more important than dollar signs.  I’d rather have a fan base clamoring to know what is going to happen next instead of a peak in my sales graph (though that is nice too, just saying).

A lot of the questions I have had to answer about my thesis, aka Ingenious Mechanical Devices #3, are about figuring out where it belongs in the literary map. I honestly don’t know where it belongs. It tiptoes on the line between literary fiction and genre fiction if you believe lit fic focuses on characters while genre focuses on plot. It crosses a variety of genres, and it’s identity isn’t completely quantifiable. Does it really have to be though?

I am writing the proposal for the committee to approve, so I can get into the class. I know logically that the proposal is a quality check to make sure the author is serious and focused on their project, but at times, I want to tear up the paper and throw the confetti on myself. After writing two books, it seems pointless to have to delineate everything about my work to a bunch of strangers for approval. I’m not one to seek people’s approval very often, so it grates on my nerves and raises my anxiety. Such is bureaucracy though. An unavoidable evil in academia, especially the creative side of it.

This is just a bit of self-reflection on my part, but this process has made me wonder about my own writing. Do other authors read nearly exclusively in our genre? Do readers expect that we do? If anyone has any great steampunk or historical fantasy books I should check out, please recommend them in the comments.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “What I’ve Learned From My Thesis Proposal

  1. I can really relate to you here. My novel falls within the steampunk category, but it is not really steampunk. It fits in several genres. And other than yours, I’ve never read a steampunk book in my life. And I didn’t set out to write it; it just fit the story.

    I think as long as you enjoy what you are writing and do research when appropriate, you do not need to read in “your” genre (of course, I don’t believe in sticking to only one genre, either). As for marketability, I truly believe, from a business standpoint, that if you are passionate about your product and creative, you can figure out your niche and figure out how to market your book to them. It just takes research and practice. If there are people that read dinosaur erotica, there are people who read kind-of-steampunk. Just saying.

    • Kara Jorgensen

      I completely agree with you on all fronts. I like books that are more than one genre anyway. It gives it a bit more dimension I think. I think I only have two “steampunk” books on my thesis bibliography. Soulless by Gail Carriger, which I enjoyed and is definitely steampunk and The Golden Compass by Pullman, which is scifi that happens to resemble steampunk. I like historical fiction and fantasy, but I tend to read pretty diversely. Read and write what you enjoy =)

  2. In answer to your query as to whether other writers read in different genres other than the ones they write, then, for me, the answer would be yes. However, I’d say in a limited capacity at the moment.

    I’ve read quite a few Science Fiction by Peter F Hamilton, a lot of fantasy by the likes of David Gemmel, David Eddings, Chris Bunch and Jaqueline Carey, all of which I would highly recommend.

    I’ve also read Steve Turnbull’s Maliha Anderson books starting with Murder out of the Blue and also a new writer Kory M Shrum Dying for a Living, which are also really well written and intriguing stories, but both on opposite sides of the coin, the former is set in an alternate Victorian era and classed as Steampunk, while the latter is more urban fantasy.

    I also read a lot of non-fiction, mythology, ancient history, crystal healing, magic, to aid my research and because I enjoy such interesting subjects.

    While I write mostly fantasy, with some Steampunk elements, I don’t go out of my way to place myself within that genre label. In fact, I was unaware that was the outcome of my work until I started exploring the world of Steampunk itself. I merely write what interests me! 🙂

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