How (Not) to Write a Steampunk Novel by Gaie Sebold

I had one of those conversations, you know the way you do, about this idea that might be quite fun, which I hadn’t really thought through in any way at all, and then someone said how about you send us a proposal?

At which point I made that gulping noise, the one cartoon characters make where a big comedy bump sproings up and down their throat, and said, OK sure no problem.  Then I ran away to find a large glass of wine and hide in it.

Because I’d never done a proposal before.  And the writing sort is probably not quite as scary as getting down on one knee before the love of your life with intent to wed, or at least find out if they wouldn’t throw their arms up in horror at the very idea, but from my point of view it was pretty damn close.  I wasn’t committing myself to a life of togetherness but I was committing myself to trying to write down all the ideas that make up an entire novel.  In a few pages and fewer weeks.

Which meant I had to have them first.  And since what I had at the time of the gulp-making conversation was more a sort of tra-la-la airy sketch, not so much an embryo novel as a single lonely spermatozoa swimming around, looking lost, this was a bit of a challenge.

I did eventually come up with something that might look like a proper professional proposal through the wrong end of a telescope, if you squinted a lot.  Amazingly, my publishers went for it.

(I haven’t dared look at it since; I have no idea how much the finished novel ended up resembling that trembling and tear-stained mess – and yes I know emails can’t actually be tear-stained, but its very pixels were, I swear, imbued with trauma).

I read a lot about C19th Shanghai and China and the Opium Wars and re-read Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor and got quite depressed, because there was a lot of thoroughly ghastly behaviour going on and many people were having a very, very bad time.  And the idea of trying to write about this and turn it into anything other than a wail of nihilistic despair – which I was fairly sure wasn’t what the publisher was hoping for – was a teensy bit daunting.

But gradually Eveline Duchen, my heroine, started to come into focus among all the grimness.  A bolshie, determined, spiky young woman who’d survived by the skin of her teeth and developed a snarky sense of humour along the way.  Other interesting characters turned up.  I got to spend a lot of time looking up various outrageous Victorian phraseology and weird inventions and make up a few of my own, and things happened and there was stuff and somewhere in there among the rampant panic and utter conviction that I had no idea what I was doing I started having fun .

And somehow, eventually, I had a book.

And then I fell over for a few days, and then the editing notes came back, and then there was a cover, and there was a launch, and I was signing copies of a steampunk spy adventure story that I seemed to have written, still not entirely sure how all this had happened.
But it’s there, and it has a beautiful cover that I adore so much I’d marry it if it would have me.  And people mostly seem to like it, which is nice.

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that it’s a funny business, this writing lark, and if you can find a way of doing it that involves less panic and slightly more certainty about what you’re doing, then you probably should, but sometimes things work out all right even when you are in a total flap about it all.

Besides, since then I’ve just about learned how to write a proper proposal.  Sort of.  Well, I had to, since they appear to be a necessary part of being a real grown-up author.   Which I suppose I am, now.  And I’m still not entirely sure how that happened, either…

Shanghai Sparrow
Eveline Duchen is a thief and con-artist, surviving day by day on the streets of London, where the glittering spires of progress rise on the straining backs of the poor and disenfranchised. Where the Folk, the otherworldly children of fairy tales and legends, have all but withdrawn from the smoke of the furnaces and the clamour of iron.

Caught in an act of deception by the implacable Mr Holmforth, Evvie is offered a stark choice: transportation to the colonies, or an education – and utter commitment to Her Majesty’s Service – at Miss Cairngrim’s harsh school for female spies.

But on the decadent streets of Shanghai, where the corruption of the Empire is laid bare, Holmforth is about to make a devil’s bargain, and Eveline’s choices could change the future of two worlds…


Gaie SeboldGaie Sebold
Gaie Sebold’s debut novel introduced brothel-owning ex-avatar of sex and war, Babylon Steel (Solaris, 2012); the sequel, Dangerous Gifts, came out in 2013. Shanghai Sparrow, a steampunk fantasy, came out from Solaris in May 2014. 2019 sees a new novella ‘A Hazardous Engagement’ from NewCon Press. She has published short stories and poetry, and had jobs involving archaeology, actors, astronomers, architecture, and art: most of them have also involved proofreading. She now writes, runs writing workshops, grows vegetables, procrastinates to professional standard and occasionally runs around in woods hitting people with latex weapons.
Find out more at 
Follow the latest scandal and tidbits from the world of Babylon Steel at

About Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford maintains this blog. She is a writer of science fiction and fantasy (, the secretary of Milford SF Writers (, a singer ( and a music agent booking UK tours and concerts for folk performers ( She's also a Home Office / UK Visas and Immigration department licensed sponsor processing UK work permits (Certificates of Sponsorship).
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2 Responses to How (Not) to Write a Steampunk Novel by Gaie Sebold

  1. Pingback: How (Not) to Write a Steampunk Novel by Gaie Sebold | andallshallbewelldotcom

  2. Reblogged this on Loving Life in the Rain and commented:
    Ah… the ups and downs of a writer’s publishing life…


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