Lucas JW Johnson: Five Things I Learned On The Way To Writing The Clockwork Empire

I didn’t mean to write The Clockwork Empire.

Way back in 2012, Fireside Magazine published my short story “Remaker, Remaker.” This was back in the days just before they started publishing Chuck’s The Forever Endeavor serial, when they were really first getting off the ground; “Remaker” was part of their very first public call for submissions.

Through subsequent Kickstarters, Fireside went on to publish two more stories of mine, all set in the same vaguely-realized world: an alternate-history steampunk industrial revolution in which the Roman Empire had never fallen. Otherwise, they were somewhat disparate stories, though: a remaker’s descent into depravity and ruin; a story of love and anger in a world gone mad; and an action/adventure of an investigator, betrayed as she’s on the brink of uncovering a conspiracy.

They did have some connective thread, though. A corrupt and rotten empire. A conspiracy to bring it to ruin. Vague references to recurring names. So there was always this open space in my mind, that they were connected, part of some larger narrative; there was a potentiality to these stories and where they might go. An… unfinished feeling about them. I just didn’t know what the rest looked like!

But Fireside’s editor, Brian White, had always encouraged me to reach out if I wanted to do more with the world. And so I unknowingly began a journey towards The Clockwork Empire, my first novel, out June 28th.

We all like our lists here at Terribleminds, so here’s FIVE THINGS on the way to a novel!

1. Finishing a Project

OK, weird that the first thing on the way to a novel is FINISHING, so bear with me.

I like finishing things. Or rather, I like having things be finished. There are too many projects out there that I want to do, and if I don’t explicitly endeavour to finish the ones that I start, I will end up working for years and years and having nothing to show for it.

(I should caveat that I don’t think it’s important to finish literally everything you start, whether it’s writing, or reading, or watching, or playing; sometimes something isn’t working, and you can and should abandon those rather than get mired in the belief that you Have to Finish It..)

Those threestories were out in the world, and I was proud of them, but they felt unfinished. I was working on novels and games and other things that felt endless, but this, this was a project that maybe I could finish, and put behind me, and move on to other things. So I set out to do so.

2. Tying Threads Together

If I was going to take these three stories I’d published and do something to finish them, I had to think about what the full, cohesive narrative was. I had this idea for what the storyworld was, I had set up some stuff that vaguely referenced each other, but that was it. But because I wasn’t originally setting out to tell a cohesive long-form story, I hadn’t put a lot of time into making sure they fit perfectly. That was going to have to change, if I wanted something that felt cohesive and consistent at the end of this.

Luckily, I’ve been running long-term tabletop RPG games for most of my life. How does that help? Oftentimes these games start out with some one-off adventures or storylines, as the group figures out their characters, and if we’re enjoying the system and setting, etc. Introductory episodes if you will. Then as things progress, the actions of the players help dictate what’s most interesting or important in the ongoing story—a villain gets away, they spend time investigating a side plot, whatever. 

Around that time I’m also (as the game master) starting to think about bigger plot points, and where I might take the campaign. Often, I’ll seed little things into early stories—rumours, some note left behind by the villain, hints there’s more going on—without there necessarily being an actual connection between them, because I don’t yet know where the game is going.

And one of my favourite things to do, then, is sit down with all this material, and figure out how it all connects to bring the campaign to a satisfying climax.

Now, I don’t necessarily condone this as a method for novel writing, or at least, a novel would then require a hefty editing pass to bring the early adventures back in line with the overarching plot. But here I had three short stories with a few dangling threads… I could work with that.

3. Things Happened

The original stories had been published over the course of a few years, and it was a couple years later that I was really thinking about finishing them. You remember those years. The mid-to-late 2010’s. Things Happened in those years. You remember those Things.

And because of those Things, more of this concept of the rotten, corrupt empire began to form in my mind. The rise of a fascist demagogue; unchecked corporate power; foreign interference and conspiracy. (You know, Things.) And the dangling threads started to come together into a more cohesive concept.

I began to imagine how things might go differently. I began to wonder what anyone could do about unchecked corruption and fascism.

4. So, Not So Finished Then, Eh?

As Brian had expressed interest in something more from this world, and Fireside published short stories, I put together three more short stories. A nice parallel to the original three, each from a different POV, which together brought the narratives I had begun to a conclusion. There was a lot of empty space there still, but I thought it a nice way to still imply that there’s more going on behind the scenes while wrapping up the stories I’d started.

I reached out to Brian with those stories, thinking that that would finally be the end of this little project, and I could move on to other things.

And then Brian asked if I wanted to turn them into a novel instead.

So much for moving on, but how could I say no?

What I had, then, was an outline: the first three stories were the foundation for the first act of a novel; I had a bit of a midpoint; and I had two stories that wrapped up the ending. And a lot of empty space to fill.

But I’d done this already. I knew how to take different threads and weave them together, fill out more storyline, to get from point A to B to C.

(And then at some point I realized I needed just one more beat towards the middle, so I added a train heist. Who doesn’t love a train heist?)

And thus, I had a first draft.

5. The Stories I Didn’t Know I Was Telling

Then began the editing process.

The main character in The Clockwork Empire is a young man who’s always had health problems, and who—at the very start of the novel, this isn’t a spoiler—is “remade” with a clockwork-powered heart and lung. “Remaking” was a big part of the steampunk world I’d devised (inspired much by Perdido Street Station), and ends up featuring in the climax as well. There are some metaphors around it too, thus “The Clockwork Empire”.

I’d set out to tell a story of queer found family fighting fascism, but Fireside rightly wanted to bring in a disability expert for a sensitivity edit, given the prevalence of remaking. And that edit made me realize that I was also telling a story about disability—not just that there was disability discourse inherent in this world, but that it was truly at the heart (pun intended) of the narrative.

Ace Tilton Ratcliff helped me see that, helped me understand what it was I was telling, and helped me do it well. I educated myself, I edited out the ableism (the English language has SO MUCH ABLEISM, y’all), and I tried to infuse the story with a true respect for the disability community. (As an example, the novel is full of parallels to real-world events, like the 1926 General Strike; I ended up adding an homage to the 504 Sit-In.)

Naturally, this process radically improved the narrative. And it introduced me to a community that, as a mass-disabling pandemic set in, helped give me a lot of perspective in the last couple years.

OK, I Guess It’s Six Things

And so, at the end of the day, I had a novel. A novel I’d had no intention of writing, but one that represented an opportunity too good to pass up, a story I’d wanted to finish telling, and a better understanding of the world I live in.

As I figured out what this story would look like, I returned again and again to the central question: what can we do about unchecked corruption and fascism? And the answer I hope to offer is this: be kind to one another; learn from other marginalised communities, and work together towards common goals; always fight fascists. There is no one answer, just many steps we have to take together.

Lucas J.W. Johnson is an author, game designer, and founder of Silverstring Media Inc., a narrative game design studio. THE CLOCKWORK EMPIRE is his debut novel, and just released June 28th, 2022.

The Clockwork Empire: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Apple Books

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

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