Brooke Johnson: Steampunk and Fantasy Fiction Inspired by Machines and History

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book cover art steampunk novel
Brooke is the author of The Brass Giant and The Mechanical Theater (initially released as The Clockwork Giant and Le Theatre Mecanique) part of the Chroniker City series for young adults. Her geeky obsession with mechanical science and history is the driving force behind her writing, flavoring her steampunk with scientific accuracy and her fantasy with the rich cultures of ancient civilizations. When she isn't writing, she enjoys a plethora of hobbies: drawing, painting, paper-craft, sewing, and baking a Jack of all trades, master of none, in true bardic fashion.

If the world were a tabletop role-playing game, she would be the studious bard of the party, her husband the fiercely-bearded paladin, their dog the cowardly wizard who only knows one spell, and very soon to join them, their daughter, who will certainly choose her class once she arrives. They currently reside in Northwest Arkansas, but once they earn enough loot and experience, they'll build a proper castle in the mountains, defending themselves against all manner of dragons and goblin-kind. 

book cover Chroniker book one
How long have you considered yourself a writer?

I was twelve when I made the decision to be a writer, but I don't think I ever really considered myself a "real" writer until after I graduated college. Until then, I had been a student, an artist, a gamer, spending very little time actually writing. But after college, I dove headfirst into the career I wanted to devote my life to, spending hours upon hours working on my stories every day, not just an hour or two a week. When people asked what I did, I could tell them I was a writer because that's what I did day-to-day; it became my job.

What inspires and motivates you to write?

Various things inspire me —a line from a book, a character from a movie, a random thought or dream, a painting or drawing, or even just a name or a combination of words. I don't try to explain where my inspiration comes from. It just happens, sometimes when I'm looking for it, sometimes when I'm not. But what gives me the most inspiration, what really inspires me to write, is reading a good book. Reading a good book makes me want to write something that someone else will read and be inspired. Really, that's the driving motivation behind my writing. I want to share stories. I want to make people cry because they care about a character I created. I want people to dream about the worlds in my stories. I want them to believe, for just a moment, that the world I created with my words, the people who live there, that it's all real, that if they could step through the pages of my book, they'd find a real place and real people, and hopefully, they wouldn't want to leave. That's what I want to accomplish with my stories, and that's why I keep writing, to share those stories, to share those worlds and people with others. Otherwise, they'd only exist in my head, and that's not fair.

Why Steampunk and how did you come to write Y.A.?

I sort of stumbled into writing steampunk by accident. Before writing my first steampunk novel, The Brass Giant, I was in the middle of editing a garbled mess of a fantasy novel, and it wasn't going well. One night, lying awake in bed, I had a thought: A machine is truth. It was an odd thought, and I wondered who would think such a thing. So I started exploring the idea, and out of it came my main character, a clockwork mechanic, and my setting, a city built on steam and clockwork technology. I had read a few steampunk novels by this point, and the thought of writing one terrified me since I had only ever written fantasy, but I had a story to tell. So I did.

Writing young adult fiction was also a sort of accident. My favorite stories are middle grade, meant for readers between the ages of eight and twelve, and I always wanted to write stories for that age group, but every time I came up with a story idea, it didn't fit middle grade. My protagonists were too old, their problems too complicated, and of course, I have a fondness for romance that's better suited for teenagers and older. Writing young adult wasn't really a decision so much as my stories just happening to fall into the young adult genre. My actual writing style also lends itself more toward young adult and middle grade instead of regular adult fiction. I write very simply, which works well for children's fiction and young adult.

What is the publishing process like?

The actual act of publishing a book is pretty simple. It's getting to that point that takes time and effort. My process from first draft to finished product is pretty similar from book to book. Once the first draft is done, I let it sit and mellow for a while, spending time working on something else to get my mind off it. Then I go back and do my first round of edits. After that, I might send it to beta-readers or do another edit after some time away, especially if I made a lot of changes in the first edit. I usually like for the story to be as good as I think I can make it before sending it to betas. Once it's with betas, I spend that time working on something else, usually whatever I worked on while letting the story sit after finishing the first draft. This is usually two months or so. And then once I have all of my beta feedback, I go over all their comments and follow-up with them with more specific questions if I have them. Then I do what I call my beta edit according to their feedback. After that, the book will sit for a few weeks while I work on cover art, formatting, marketing, and any other product packaging for publication. I'll do one more edit after that, make adjustments to the product packaging accordingly, and then get everything ready with retailers so that when I near my publication date, all I have to do is press "Publish."

I'm pretty lucky that I know how to do most of this stuff on my own. I have a background in graphic design and art, so I do my own cover art. I may work with another artist sometime in the future, when I have more funds to play with, but until then, I'm confident in my own work. Formatting comes pretty easy to me, and ever since publishing my first book, I now draft in the format I plan to publish in. The hardest part is always the editing —knowing what to cut, what to keep, what to change. Sometimes, it requires a second opinion, even before the beta stage, especially if I'm having a really hard time looking at the story objectively. And it takes the most time. I easily spend twice as much time editing as I do writing. 

But once the book is edited and formatted and has cover art, all I have to do is upload the files to Kindle, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, and Createspace, make sure everything looks like it's supposed to, and publish. 

What’s your typical writing session and environment like?

My desk is generally pretty cluttered. I have a bad habit of sticking post it notes and to-do lists everywhere, and because I snack quite a bit, there are usually dirty dishes, pudding cups, and half a dozen empty water bottles littering my work space. I likely have a chapter or two of my current manuscript printed out and marked up in pen, maybe a few handwritten pages of scenes or brainstorming notes half-hidden beneath my keyboard. My plot board is close by, scene cards pinned to a cork-board with pretty colored, star-shaped push-pins. 

I generally start working after lunch, once all the goofing-off-on-the-internet is done and I know I won't be disturbed. I sit at my desk, open up whatever manuscript document I happen to be working on, and start reading over the previous day's work before writing new words. I have Google+ chat going on my second monitor so that I can talk to my writer friends during the day, and depending on what I'm working on, I might have a document or two relating to the manuscript open for reference. While I write, I listen to music —usually film scores and video game soundtracks, sometimes techno. I very rarely listen to anything with lyrics. 

I tend to write in hour-long spurts and take short ten to fifteen minute breaks between. I aim for 500 words per hour, which is a really good pace for me. It's challenging but doable. I usually get three to four hours of solid writing done in the afternoon. Sometimes, I'll write another hour or two after dinner if I'm feeling particularly productive, but most of the time, my day is done when my husband gets home from work. The afternoon is my best writing time. In the morning, I'm too sleepy and distracted, and at night, I like spending time with my husband. This is likely to change soon, as we're expecting an addition to the family this fall, but I'm sure I'll figure out a new schedule eventually, even if it's not as productive as before.

What tools do you prefer to write with?

I write on a desktop computer, dual monitors for sufficient work-space, and an ergonomic keyboard for comfort. I draft in Microsoft Word 2010, which baffles many of my writer friends, who all use Scrivener, but Word works well for the way I write.

What is the most surprising response you have had to your writing?

Honestly, the thing that surprised me most was whenever my grandma read my novella. I thought she might like it, since it's a quieter, character-driven story, but I never expected her to like it so much that she read it in one sitting because she couldn't put it down. I think I always wanted her to believe in my writing and prove to her that I made a good choice with my career, so when she read my book and loved it, it sort of validated my career. I wouldn't have quit writing or anything had she not liked it, but the fact that she enjoyed my book and is proud of me and my writing, it means a lot to have that support from family, especially from a family member who thinks that job security is more important than following your dreams. 

Do you have any regrets pertaining to your writing?

Two. First, I regret rushing to publish my first book. I didn't really understand how important editing was, and I think had I waited, my book would be much better than it is. I'm still happy with it, but I think it could have been better if I would have given it the time and attention it deserved. In the future, I'll give each book the amount of time it really needs, even if that means pushing my deadlines and publication goals back. Second, I wish I trusted myself more. This is more of a general regret, but too often, I doubt myself when it comes to my work, and I make bad decisions based on that. It's something I'm working on. 

What plans do you have for future work?

My career goal is to publish fifty books. I've published two so far, so I have forty-eight to go. For short-term goals, I have the final two books in the Chroniker City series to write—The Guild Conspiracy and The Chroniker Legacy —which I plan to publish in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and I also have The Wizard's Heart, a fantasy novel in the middle of edits that I plan to publish next year. Outside of those books, I plan on pursuing traditional publication with a middle-grade fantasy that's still mulling about in my head. By the time I finish all of that, I'm likely to have twenty more ideas begging to be written.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Write what you're passionate about. I've seen too many young writers write what they think will sell, or they write what other people tell them to write. They give up on the books they love because people tell them that no one reads those books, that it's not "real literature", or that publishers won't buy a book like that. Nonsense. If you write what you're passionate about, you'll write something worth reading. It's as simple as that.

Find Brooke Johnson online…
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