Prime Writing: Heather McDougal

April 8, 2013

Gardom Pond

Songs for a Machine AgeWorried your NaNoWriMo novel won't amount to much? Heather McDougal illustrates how she turned an insightful idea about robotics into a novel, and worked on making it better until Songs for a Machine Age found a home and an audience.


I wrote Songs for a Machine Age as a NaNoWriMo project to begin with, basing it in a world I’d already been tinkering with in a YA experiment I’d been writing called Neddeth’s Bed (you can still go read what there is of it here ).

The idea for the world evolved from a robotics course I took for teachers.  They ran the course in the traditional way, as a problem-solving situation: you create the parts of the robot based on an assigned task, and then tried to do the task.  So, if the task was to move an object from one side of a maze to another, people came up with, for example, an arm that picked the object up, or a flat blade that pushed the object ahead of it like a bulldozer.

I went along for awhile, but in the end the thing that struck me was how prosaic, how mundane the challenges had been.  And when it came to building our own designs, everyone went on to make machines that spoke of industry, of tasks.  They all did something useful.

I come from an art-making background.  I’m not used to making purely useful objects, and I wanted to experiment.  I built a little 4-wheeled vehicle that had large and small tires kitty-corner to each other, so that when it changed direction it would also shift its center of gravity, making it waggle from side to side.  It was a silly, floppy, dancing machine.

The others were intrigued by this machine of mine, its patently un-useful being.  "What does it do?"  they asked me, and I said, "It dances."  And they all commented on how unusual it was.  They scratched their heads and smiled.

I couldn't get this experience out of my head.  I went home and kept thinking about it.  I began to think about how much the Industrial Revolution has shaped the way our society approaches machinery -- how, in fact, it was the needs of industry that created machines, and we don't -- we often can't -- think of machines except as framed in terms of their usefulness.  Which is interesting, because machines weren’t always that way.  If you look at 17th and 18th century machines, their inventors had a totally different approach: the machines were beautiful, devices that celebrated the act of creation itself.  People were trying to imitate life, with singing birds and artistic automatons, and the point was to create wonder.

The industrial view of devices is actually changing these days.  Burning Man, the Maker movement, indie music and even playlist technology have had a huge effect on why and how machines are created and used -- creation is increasingly moving from industry to the individual.  And more and more, homemade devices are being made for art, for fun, and for creativity.  But what would have happened if, in the very beginnings of the industrial revolution, the whole industrial paradigm had been subverted? What kind of culture would we have then?

Because really, making things is essentially a political act. Do you make some of the things that you wear and use, or do you always go buy manufactured goods?  Doing it yourself can be an incredibly empowering thing to do: it connects you with the process, and thus makes you aware of what it is you’ve been buying all this time, all the work that someone’s put into your sweaters and furniture and so on.

The people in this story come from a culture that has chosen this kind of empowerment over the ease of a manufacturing economy. Three hundred years before the narrative, they  were in the middle of an industrial revolution -- and then someone invented a truly horrific manufacturing technology which became the catalyst for a revolution. The result was that all machinery was banned, with the exception of handmade devices of purely aesthetic value.  And skill in making things became a highly-prized commodity.

Interestingly, until I had written most of Songs and had begun re-reading it, it hadn’t been apparent to me that this little adventure novel I’d been cranking out was really a very political statement.  I hadn’t realized how much the motivations for the characters were all about holding onto the Revolutionary ideals on which their culture was predicated -- especially a revolutionary experiment that was so close to my heart.

I work with kids, and every day I see the effects that targeted advertising has on their self-esteem; and I see the disconnect they experience between what matters to them as children -- the physical world, hand/eye coordination, the interaction between cause and effect -- and the actuality of their lives, where they are handed food from mysterious sources on styrofoam plates, and where practically nothing they own or use is something they or someone they know made.  It’s schizophrenic.  I feel like someone needs to address this lifestyle we’re having.

So I rewrote the ending to Songs, then rewrote the beginning, and then had to add all kinds of stuff in in between.  And the more I messed with it, the better I wrote, and then I had to fix all the early bits that weren’t written as well.  And in the process I started to understand more and more about the culture I had created, and had to add more bits here and there.

It got to be a bit of a mess, and yet there was something there that I couldn’t let go of; the world of Devien was haunting me.  Finally, Hadley Rille said they’d like to take the book on, and my editor there spent about a year combing through the book with me and helping me straighten out all the snarls (and helping me see which details I could throw away).  It was not an easy birthing process, but I think I’m probably a much better writer now!

Heather McDougal is a writer and educator living in Northern California.
She has an MFA in sculpture but went back to her childhood love of writing.
Songs for a Machine Age was the Frankensteinian end to her 2007 NaNoWriMo project.

Songs for a Machine Age is available at Amazon.

Keep up with Heather online at and

One comment on “Prime Writing: Heather McDougal”

  1. I've heard the story about how Songs came into being, but it always gives me an "aw, cool," tickle up my back. I love to see the wheels in motion.

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