My day job is software development, and once in a while I find some useful crossover in concepts between programming computers and writing fiction. Today, I’d like to take one of those software concepts – the “spike” – and apply it to fiction.
What is a Spike?
In software development, a spike is an experiment. It is writing code in order to answer a question or test a solution to a problem. Implicit in the idea of a spike is that this is “throwaway” code. It’s not expected to go into production.
When to Try a Spike
The goal of a spike is to take an infinite number of possible storylines and reduce them down to the best one. The most obvious place to try a spike is when you know your story could go in several interesting directions, and you’re not sure which one is the best option. Think of your story in terms of alternate universes. Each choice, each universe, differs at this specific point. As the author, it’s your job to find the most interesting universe, and discard the others.
A less obvious opportunity for a spike is when you don’t know where your story is going next. You may be doing some exploratory writing, and run into a bout of writer’s block. Or you may still be working on your outline. Often, when we feel like we have no ideas, we’re really just letting our inner editors censor us. Chances are, you have some “bad” ideas that you’re reflexively throwing away. Instead, use them as fuel for a spike.
The other useful time for a spike is when you reach an important inflection point in the story. This could be a major event for some of the characters, a big reveal, or a turning point in the plot. These are the moments that people talk about when they discuss books they love.
This might seem like a strange place to experiment. These moments are often the seeds of a story that first take shape in my mind, and make me want to write it in the first place. Why mess with a good thing?
Well, the human mind is lazy. Tropes and stereotypes thrive in comfortable, familiar territory. When we run with the first idea that comes to mind, those same well-worn, rehashed ideas can start to sneak in.
If these are the shiniest, most important bits of the story, shouldn’t they be as great as they can be? The worst that can happen is that you come up with bad alternatives, and you confirm that your original idea was the best.
The Steps of a Spike
You can do a spike during outlining, while writing, and even in revision (although you may end up making even more work for yourself). You just have to tailor your scope and output to where you are in the writing process.
First, get your mind into brainstorming mode. Define all the options. If you have a hard time coming up with possibilities, consider setting a specific number of options, and forcing yourself to come up with at least that many. Sometimes, great ideas come when we’re struggling, and we force ourselves to reach for the strange or unexpected. These options don’t have to be detailed. A list of bullet points is enough.
Once you have enough options, you’ll need to decide how many you want to pursue. A good default is three options, but this is entirely up to you. You may only have one – an alternative you want to try. Spikes are a balancing act. Remember, they’re designed to be disposable. You’re going to do some work, and then throw some of it away. Let that free you. That work isn’t wasted – it’s ensuring that whatever you decide to keep is the best it can be.
Next, it’s time to define the limits of your experiments. You can set a number of pages, number of words, or a time limit for each option. Once again, balance is key. Spend too much time or too many words on too many options, and the project will never be finished. The goal is to be confident about which option is best.
Evaluating the Results
Again, every spike is an experiment. You made your choices, and you wrote something for each one. You may have some additional notes as well. These are the results of your experiment. Now, you need to evaluate them.
If you have a confidant, spouse, editors or beta readers, and they’re willing to take a look, you may want to solicit feedback. They might see something special that you missed in one of your experiments. They might also catch a gaping plot hole. They might react more or less strongly than you expected.
Whether you get feedback from someone else, it’s time for a final decision. Evaluate each of your pieces and pick with the confidence that you’ve now thoroughly explored your options.
Finally, do some revision. If you felt hemmed-in by the time/page/word limits you set for yourself, now is your opportunity to expand and improve. Maybe you thought of something in paragraph ten that you could have set up more effectively in paragraph two. Like a science experiment that gets refined into a commercial product, you can take your proof of concept and polish it to perfection.
That’s it! A spike really isn’t complicated – just a controlled comparison between a set of options. But it’s good to remind ourselves that sometimes it’s okay to try things out, even when it might feel like a waste of words. You never know when that strange idea you set aside might change your story for the better.
This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead!
I made an initial attempt at God-Speaker’s act-level outline. I also started chapter-level outlines with the first two chapters.
I spent a little time thinking about secondary characters that Christopher will encounter in the first act or early in the second act.
Hunter – This girl, a young teenager, was born with a congenital disorder of the throat that prevents her from speaking. She is one of the exiles from Razor Mountain, and the most adept at surviving in the wilderness. She happens upon Christopher while he’s traveling and helps him. I felt like an unusual name, so I’m going to call her Amaranth.
Exile Traitors – A pair of brothers who have become disillusioned with the exiles. They’re looking for a way to get back in the good graces of the main group, and attempt to trade Christopher for forgiveness of their desertion. I’m calling them Garret and Harold.
Exile Leader – A woman named Ema. She became skeptical of the propaganda fed to the inhabitants of Razor Mountain and led the other exiles to try to escape.
Razor Mountain Factions
So far, I see the need for three factions: the exiles, the “main” faction, and the council who are the shadowy ruling group that knows about God-Speaker. The relationship between exiles and “main” group is straightforward. The exiles left the main group, distrusting the propaganda. The two exile traitors were initially excited to leave Razor Mountain, but their opinions quickly changed once they realized how difficult it would be to survive in the wilderness long enough to find civilization – especially since the residents of Razor Mountain don’t really know much about the outside world.
The interactions of the council and the “main” group are less clear. There are several problems to solve.
The council probably replenishes its members from the main group. How does this happen?
The council has to exercise control over the main group. What propaganda do they use to pacify the main group?
How does the main group see the outside world, and their place in it? Does anyone from Razor Mountain go out into the outside world or interact with it? Even if they somehow remain hidden and are largely self-sufficient, they’ll probably need some interaction with the outside world.
Names. As usual, when I notice myself needing to type vague names over and over (like “the main group”), I know it’s time to come up with a name. What does this main group call themselves?
To enforce order and strict hierarchy, I think it makes sense for the main group to have a militaristic bent, which means military hierarchy and ranks. I don’t know too much about military organization, so I did some searching. Generally, it seems that divisions contain brigades/groups, which contain regiments. Regiments are up to about 5000 soldiers, containing a few battalions.
For a robust, reasonably functional, mostly self-sufficient society, my gut instinct is that hundreds (and probably a few thousand) people are necessary. So a regiment is a good top-end for the size of the main group. I picked a random 3-digit number that’s well above any modern US regiment number: the 550th Infantry Regiment. I’m thinking that the propaganda of Razor Mountain claims that this military organization is a secret part of the US armed services, even though there is no actual connection.
Numeric identifiers don’t stick well in most people’s minds, so my inclination is to give the regiment a nickname. Many of the nicknames of Army regiments are cryptic or related to some obscure historical context. There might be some interesting context for this group at some point, but for now, I’ll just give them an animal appropriate to their surroundings – “the Lynx.”
Moving to Scrivener
Now that I’m into the chapter outlines and I’m starting to gather a variety of different notes – research, factions, and characters, I’m at the point where I generally start moving everything into a Scrivener project. Scrivener is a tool that merges word processor and writing project management. If you’re curious, I just wrote a whole post about Scrivener.
I got my paltry two chapter outlines into Scrivener, and I’ll be adding to character descriptions and other notes as I go.
I came up with brief descriptions for the hunter, Amaranth; the exile leader, Ema; and the exile traitors, the brothers, Garrett and Harold. Amaranth is the most important for the first act. I named the “main group” at Razor Mountain the 550th Infantry Regiment (the Lynx).
Next time, I’d like to get more Act I chapters outlined, and let any challenges that come up dictate what I work on next.
Scrivener is a word processor and organizational tool for writers. I’ve been using it for years, and I don’t see myself stopping any time soon. This might seem odd, when we have good general-purpose word processors like Microsoft Word and Google Docs, and good general-purpose organizational tools like Trello. However, what I like best about Scrivener is the combination of organizational and writing features, and that it caters specifically to writers rather than trying to be everything to everyone.
Weaving a Story
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m more of an outliner and planner than an exploratory writer, but the truth is that my process always varies from project to project, and it’s never perfectly linear. Some of my plans change in the process of writing, and ideas that started out vague necessarily become more detailed as more words land on the page. Planning, organization and writing are interleaved.
When an idea starts to develop in my head enough to resemble a story, I often start by putting down a few paragraphs in a plain text or Word file. Inevitably, I quickly reach a point where I stop and evaluate: I have som ewords – maybve the start of the story, or a scene that interests me – and some ideas. This is the point where the text file suddenly feels useless. I need to organize my thoughts, extrapolate from them, and figure out how they might fit together.
Usually, that’s the point when I open up a project in scrivener. Within a project, I can have many files: chapters, character descriptions, research notes, and anything else I want to track.
This might seem like a small thing – a collection of files in a simple hierarchy – but I find it much more effective to have everything for the story one click away (as opposed to files in a collection of folders). Even when I’m in the middle of editing or writing, I can quickly find my notes. Scrivener includes some templates for characters and settings that you can use or ignore, as you prefer. Parts, chapters and scenes can also be broken down in as much detail as you would like. I personally prefer to have each chapter in its own document, but you can choose more or less granularity.
When I write the outline to a novel, I generally take a two-pronged approach. First, I tend to write out chapter summaries in sequence, in a single file. When I start writing a chapter, I take that summary and paste it into the chapter document’s “synopsis” field.
In addition to the file tree, Scrivener has a cork-board view. In this view, you can see notecards with the synopsis of each chapter (or even each scene, if you like). Reordering is as simple as dragging notecards on the board, or documents in the tree.
When it comes to writing, Scrivener doesn’t compete for the most comprehensive formatting options. It can’t do the fancy layouts of something like InDesign or Publisher, or even Word. It gives you the standard tools you’d expect: text fonts, colors, sizes, emphasis, alignment; a handful of preset options like quote, heading or title; and some basic layout elements like lists and tables.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s enough. I’m not designing a magazine, I’m writing fiction. That said, you may find the options a bit limited if you’re trying to put together something like a travel guide, where you have lots of pictures, maps, or charts among and alongside your words.
If you like to split up your long works into individual chapter or scene documents, you can easily see them combined together by selecting multiple documents in the tree and selecting the “composite” view. Scrivener will instantly stitch all the documents together in the order you specify (with or without page breaks).
Scrivener allows you to set word count goals for an entire project, or a single session – useful if you’re tracking progress for a deadline, or participating in something like National Novel Writing Month. You can also pull up stats like word counts or printed/paperback page counts for the entire project, or an arbitrary selection. Tools like Word Frequency can even occasionally help you spot your writerly tics.
There are also color-coded labels and keywords that can be applied to documents and searched. This is honestly not a feature I have ever used, and it seems a bit clunky, but if you’re incredibly organized and want to put in the extra effort to be able to cross-reference certain things across many documents, it may be useful. For me, the full-text search has generally been adequate.
Scrivener includes a few other features I haven’t used, mostly because they’re for other styles of writing. It supports scriptwriting in a number of different formats. It also handles bibliographies, citations, and footnotes. It includes some simple tools for translating or looking up terms via various websites (e.g. thesaurus and dictionary.com).
Backup and Sync
Unlike many products today, Scrivener is a desktop application. There is no web-only option. It’s available on Windows, Mac, and iOS, and the different versions must be purchased separately (although they’re still relatively cheap, and there are slightly discounted bundle deals).
Scrivener also doesn’t handle its own backups or syncing between devices. It does offer some support for integrating with Dropbox for backup and sync, and I’ve found that this works pretty well between my Windows PC, somewhat outdated MacBook Air, and my phone.
Scrivener is not a cloud application by any stretch of the imagination, and this is one of the few places where I personally feel there is some room for improvement. I don’t particularly want an online Google-Docs-style editor, but seamless syncing with less setup would be nice.
Scrivener provides some import and export options, which are mostly useful if you want to pull in plain text files or get them out of Scrivener as plain ol’ text. It also offers “compilation” options, which combine the text of the chapters or scenes into a single file, with many formats available. This can be used for e-publishing (epub, mobi, PDF), or to import into other tools (Word, Open Office, HTML, Post Script, Final Draft, LaTex). You can even print, if you prefer words on paper.
Try it Out
Scrivener is one of my most-utilized writing tools. It’s not perfect, but it contains a blend of features that really work well for me. In a world where everything seems to be subscription-based, I also appreciate their customer-friendly business model. They offer a 30-day free trial (that’s days-used, not calendar days), and if you do buy, it’s a one-time purchase to own the current version forever.
It’s also worth noting that they have modest student discounts, and they typically offer discounts for participants of NaNoWriMo in November, if that’s something you’re into.
This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead!
Last time, I decided that Christopher has trauma in his back-story: an accident he blames himself for, which killed his brother. As a result, he’s risk-averse to an unhealthy degree.
I also put together the first act-level outline of the story:
Act I – Christopher crash-lands, surviving but injured. He finds a bunker, and signs that people once lived here, but the surrounding wilderness seems empty. Lost and alone, he must work up the courage to strike out and search for a way back to civilization. He travels to Razor Mountain, encountering one mysterious stranger who helps him, and others who shoot at him from a distance. He must also survive the wilderness.
Act II – Christopher meets the Razor Mountain outcasts, and learns about the main group from them. He’s brought to the main group, imprisoned and interrogated. He comes to the attention of the ruling council.
Act III – Christopher learns that he is God-Speaker. He navigates the politics of the council, trying to learn who is with him and against him. He recovers his memories and has to decide to use the artifacts to undo everything he has created at Razor Mountain.
God-Speaker has his own arc that runs in parallel to Christopher. Christopher’s first act ends with him finding Razor Mountain, and it would be nice symmetry to have God-Speaker first find the mountain at the end of the first act too.
One of the biggest reveals of the story is that Christopher is God-Speaker. It makes sense for God-Speaker’s story to wrap up at the same time as this reveal. After that, Christopher’s arc and conflict merge with God-Speaker’s, and the story wraps up.
The middle of God-Speaker’s story feels like it breaks down into two sections. The first section is about building up everything that Christopher finds at Razor Mountain. God-Speaker spends thousands of years building up and maintaining Razor Mountain, so that portion of the story will need to be told in a handful of vignettes across that huge span of time.
The second part will be about the machinations of his inner circle, leading to his eventual downfall. Comparatively, this section will cover a much shorter span of time.
This is even rougher than Christopher’s, but enough for the first attempt at the act-level God-Speaker outline.
Act I – God-Speaker’s tribe is attacked by other migrating tribes. They travel, and the tribe members die off one by one, until God-Speaker is alone and lost in the mountains. The artifacts call out to him, and he follows a cave into the heart of Razor Mountain.
Act II – God-Speaker uses the artifacts and his newfound powers to gain control of several migrating tribes, bringing them to Razor Mountain. Over thousands of years, he grows more jaded and disinterested in the lives of the people he rules over, using them to further his own ends, build up his stronghold, and insulate himself from danger. He learns how to use the artifacts to keep himself alive and in power.
Act III – God-Speaker manipulates politics among his inner circle, allowing a plot against him to progress so that he can weed out disloyal followers. However, he underestimates his enemies and is thrown into a random new body: Christopher.
The First Two Chapter Outlines
With an act-level outline for Christopher and God-Speaker that’s more detailed at the start than the middle and end, I can at least start digging into the first few chapters.
Chapter 1 – Christopher wakes up on a small plane over the Alaskan wilderness. Everyone else is missing. With no parachute and running out of fuel, he jumps over open water. He survives the fall with an injured leg and manages to swim to shore. Freezing and hurt, he looks for shelter. He finds a strange door in a cliff side, with a number pad. He puts in random numbers, and the door unlocks. He stumbles inside, passing out from cold and exhaustion.
Chapter 2 – God-Speaker and his tribe prepare for the winter migration. He prepares the tribe’s stone god. Another tribe attacks. They’re driven off, but several members of his tribe are killed or injured in the process, and supplies are stolen. They begin the migration dispirited.
I created an act-level outline for God-Speaker and chapter outlines for the first two chapters – one following Christopher, and one flashing back to God-Speaker.
Next time, I’d like to think about some of the secondary characters that will be needed for the first act. I also need to think through the Razor Mountain factions more, and possibly continue developing chapter outlines.
As a software developer, innovation is part of my everyday life. My job is to grow and improve the software I’m responsible for. I use technologies that are regularly updated, and new tech is always being invented to improve on the old. Innovation is everywhere, and it’s constant.
As a writer, “innovation” is a much more nebulous term.
You might call challenging, complex language and structure innovative. James Joyce is popular largely because of this. Or you might consider experiments in formatting and typography to be innovative, such as Danielewski’s House of Leaves. But how innovative are these things, really? They’re still words, printed inside a book. You still read them from front to back. They’re still attempting to deliver a story from the writer to the reader.
Fiction has been around for so long, and it is so ubiquitous, that it’s difficult to find ways to truly innovate. But I’d argue there is at least one type of fiction that is genuinely innovating, by testing and expanding the boundaries of what fiction can be. As you might have guessed from the title, it’s called interactive fiction.
Where most fiction involves the creator (such as a writer or director) delivering a story to the consumer (a reader or viewer), interactive fiction turns this on its head, and says that the consumer should be an active participant in the story. This is a fairly broad scope, and can include media as diverse as books, movies and video games.
Choose Your Own Adventure
One of the most iconic forms of interactive fiction is the Choose Your Own Adventure book series that was popular in the ’80s and ’90s. This was probably my first experience with interactive fiction. These books, aimed at kids, contained a branching narrative that used a second-person perspective to make the reader the protagonist. Every few pages, the reader would be presented with a choice (usually with two options, occasionally with more). Each choice pointed the reader to a specific page where the story would continue.
These stories approached interactive fiction from the angle of books with choices, but this was the time period where personal computing was beginning to come into its own on a large scale, and others were approaching interactive fiction from a different direction: stories told through computer software.
Games like Zork and its sequels provided a narrative in text, but also included game elements such as puzzles and simple battles. By using the computer to parse commands from the player, a much richer set of interactions could be developed. Even simple (and often cryptic) commands like “go north” or “hit troll” gave the player much more freedom than the binary options provided by Choose Your Own Adventure.
(Unfortunately, the promise of parsers that could effectively parse arbitrary plain-text commands from users never materialized. Modern computer scientists and tech giants still haven’t managed to produce AI that can carry on a simple conversation, decades later.)
As computer graphics advanced, these story-focused games would influence the graphical adventure games of the ’90s, popularized by LucasArts and Sierra, and role-playing games all the way up to the present day.
The limitations of early computer graphics were a boon to interactive fiction. Some games painted rich and detailed worlds in text at least partly because graphics were so limited. However, the graphics have become more and more advanced, effectively killing the commercial viability of genres like text and graphical adventure games.
In modern times, it’s still possible to find games that pride themselves on narrative depth – huge AAA role-playing and adventure games, and all manner of small-team indies. However, even as graphics and gameplay have advanced tremendously, there seems to be comparatively little exploration of how the player can interact with the narrative in interesting ways. Much of the interesting work on this front is happening not in the huge, successful game studios with multi-million dollar budgets, but in small, independent studios with niche audiences.
One such example is Fallen London, a browser game that has been around for a decade and continues to put out new content every few weeks. Fallen London has some of the classic video game trappings: character stats in the form of vague attributes (watchful, shadowy, dangerous, and persuasive), as well as an expansive item system. However, all of these systems work in service of the story. The story itself is branching and immense – millions of words doled out a few paragraphs at a time.
The story is the main content and the reward. Whereas most free games would ask players to pay for shiny graphical customizations and costumes, convenience features, or a bigger, sharper sword, Fallen London offers pay-to-play stories, and rewards cleverness or hard work with more words and perhaps the chance to learn something about a character or faction in the sprawling story.
Rather than the simple binary options of Choose Your Own Adventure, or the flexible-but-sometimes-inscrutable commands of Zork, Fallen London uses a system of semi-randomized “opportunity cards” that the player draws. Each card offers an opportunity – a small story or snippet of a larger narrative. Which cards can appear in a player’s deck depends on the location of their character, as well as the character’s attribute scores and qualities. Qualities can be anything from a profession to living arrangements to acquaintances to quirks of personality. The choices available are dependent on a wide variety of choices already made by the player along with a bit of luck and randomness.
This kind of game shows the immense range of possibilities available when game systems that have normally been used for gameplay are turned toward deep, interactive narrative, where the player can feel like their choices matter. Failbetter Games, the makers of Fallen London, have been coming up with new and innovative systems for interactive fiction for years.
Exploring Interactive Fiction
While interactive fiction remains something of a niche, it has many vibrant and growing communities. There has probably never been a better time to explore.
I’d highly recommend at least dabbling in Fallen London. It’s free to play, but has an energy system that limits how frequently the player can take action. They’ve also built up an impressive library of additional stories for purchase.
The Interactive Fiction tag on Steam shows hundreds of games, ranging from classic text-adventure RPGs to visual novels.
The quantity and quality of tools for writing interactive fiction has exploded in recent years.
To get started, or just play around a little, Twineand InkleWriter are two excellent, free tools that can be used without any programming experience.
However, depending on how elaborate you want to get, there are many, many tools. Some of these can be quite technical. At the most technical end of the spectrum, there are many interactive fiction writers who code their own engines so they can tell their stories with very specific forms of interaction. The IF Community Forum has a section dedicated to tools that is a great resource.
The Craft of Interactive Fiction
One of the most exciting things about IF is that it’s still a relatively new and fresh medium. Authors are still exploring how it can be used, and innovation is happening all the time. Much like traditional fiction, one of the best ways to learn is to read or play a few stories. There are also plenty of discussions going on if you like to dig deep into theory and analysis.
The Failbetter Blog – The makers of Fallen London have interesting insights on narrative structure, as well as making interactive fiction as a business.
Emily Short – The only individual I’ll mention here, and it’s because she is the most prolific and insightful author I’ve found on the topic of interactive fiction. Check out her blog and her talks. She also has some great resource lists for digging deeper.
This is a topic that really interests me, so I’m sure I’ll be coming back to it again in the future. For now, if it sounds interesting to you, try writing a bit of interactive fiction yourself, and let me know what you come up with!
This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead!
Last time, I decided to call the stone-age version of Christopher “God-Speaker,” as the keeper of his tribe’s little stone god figure. I dipped my toes into the research on the first ancient migrants to North America. And I spent some time on the first two chapters – introducing Christopher to the perils and mysteries of Razor Mountain, then introducing God-Speaker and his tribe, who are about to be in desperate circumstances.
What Makes an Act?
When I’m just starting on an outline, the structure I start with is three acts. This is the boring default: beginning, middle and end, but it can change as needed, as the story begins to have its own unique shape. The beginning, the first act, is about setting up the conflicts and getting the characters into trouble. The middle, the second (and usually longest) act, is about the action of the characters in response to the conflicts, and the changes they undergo. The third and final act is about the peak of the conflict and its resolution, happy or unhappy. It’s also about how the characters change after facing it.
There are many ways to break out of the bog-standard three-act structure. For starters, characters don’t need to go through all these steps at the same time. There may be more than one middle act, structured around a series of conflicts. There may be false endings or dangling threads that tie into larger narratives (as with a series).
Some people seem to want to fight against the three-act structure. Nonetheless, three acts are a starting point that feels good, and helps me organize my early thoughts.
Conflicts and Changes
I honestly only have one character in the story at this point. Even if I treat Christopher and his alter-ego God-Speaker as distinct characters, that’s a little sparse to carry the whole book. I’m hoping that as I define their paths through the story, I’ll start to see some holes around that path where other characters can start to fit and develop.
We know at this point that God-Speaker comes to be something of a cult leader, a god-figure, and the “man behind the curtain” in Razor Mountain. He’s backed by the power of the artifacts. He’s a personality and a force to be reckoned with. I like the idea that Christopher, at least in the beginning, is none of those things.
Christopher’s path will be defined by the conflicts he’s up against, and how he changes in response to them. If he starts out mild-mannered, boring and a little unhappy with his lot in life, that gives him plenty of room to grow in response to the considerable hardship he’s about to face.
Like real people, characters are shaped by their experiences. Christopher starts out as a scaredy-cat, someone who always chooses the safe route, the easy way. So, why is that? Perhaps he has some trauma in his childhood that affected him, and this is the result?
I thought for a bit, and came up with this: Christopher was doing something foolish and dangerous as a child, and his older brother saved him from the consequences, but died in the process. Christopher, of course, felt guilty about this. His parents, having lost a child, became overly protective of the one they had left. And Christopher internalized this as an intense aversion to risk and danger. He turns inward and worries more and more about himself.
With this conflict, Christopher’s opportunity to change is to overcome his fears, to become less inward-looking. He is forced into situations where he has no choice but to take risks and face dangers. And ideally, he is forced to look outward at other people, and worry about them instead of just himself.
Charting a Course
Christopher starts out scared and alone after the plane crash. He ends the story having overcome his fear, and realizes that he (as the latest iteration of God-Speaker) is responsible for all sorts of bad things going on at Razor Mountain. (Details to be determined later.) Between these points are the three acts.
I like the idea of the first act being mostly focused on Christopher alone, trying to make his way through the wilderness and overcoming some of his own internal issues. However, I want to introduce another character as we approach the middle of the book. This is a person (maybe a child?) who Christopher barely sees, skulking in the trees or the rocky terrain, but who occasionally helps him out by guiding him to the right path, or providing a freshly-killed rabbit.
Along his journey, Christopher also has brief encounters with the “main” group of people living at Razor Mountain. I’m starting to have some ideas about Razor Mountain society, but I’ll come back to those next session. The main group is an insular and secretive group. Along his journey, Christopher’s only interaction with these people is through mysterious radio chatter, their artifacts and abandoned buildings, and in one case, their people shooting at him from a distance.
In the second act, I envision him arriving at Razor Mountain. The mysterious person who helped him leads him to her people – a group of outcasts from the main group. These are people who wanted to leave, which is not allowed. They hide from the main group, honing their survival skills in hopes of becoming skilled enough to travel to some distant town and make their way from there. Christopher can get a skewed idea of Razor Mountain society from these people, who have their own biased perspective as well as limited knowledge of what’s actually going on.
These outsiders will be excited by his arrival. He’s the only outsider they’ve ever met. But they’re disappointed when they find out he came to them trying to find his own way out.
Some of these outsiders are looking to get back into the good graces of the main group, and they decide to use Christopher as a bargaining chip. They bring him to the main group, where he is promptly imprisoned and interrogated to determine what he knows.
Through his interactions with these people, he tries to figure out what is actually happening in Razor Mountain. He tries to convince these people that what he tells them about the outside world is true. Eventually, his presence comes to the attention of the inner circle that actually wields power.
In the third act, he interacts with the inner circle, finding out more about how the people of Razor Mountain are deceived to control them. He has to navigate the politics of this small group, and eventually figure out which ones were trying to kill him, and which have his best interests at heart. Then he goes through the process of regaining all of God-Speaker’s memories.
At the end of the book, he must decide if he wants to put things back to the way they were, with himself as ruler of this little kingdom, or if he wants to change it and make things better.
There’s still a lot of detail that’s missing here, even in this simple outline, but it’s an adequate starting point. The first act feels most defined, while the latter 2/3 of the book are still mushy. As I create more detailed outline for the first part of the book, it will provide more foundation to flesh out the middle.
I made a first attempt at creating an act-level outline of the story. It’s useful to see where the plot is still really vague. It also helps to determine what the different groups of people are, and illustrate some of the other characters that can be fleshed out: the child-hunter who helps Christopher, some of the outsiders (including those who turn him in), the people he interacts with in the main group, and the secret inner circle members.
Next time, I’ll work on some of these characters, get into the detailed outline of the first act, or think more about God-Speaker’s back-story.
Art Matters is a quick read, with few words and many pictures. The pages are small. But it is not a little book.
It contains four short essays, the words all hand-scrawled in capital letters alongside Chris Riddell’s lovely little sketches. The format is raw and straightforward. Neil’s tone here is conversational, even a little conspiratorial, as he lays out things he firmly believes about words, the creative process, the importance of fiction, libraries, and reading – not just as an escape, but as a force for fundamental good in the world. He makes his case compellingly.
The illustrations enhance the text in subtle ways, sometimes drawing attention to particular words and phrases, sometimes adding a little more meaning than the words would have alone. There are many little Easter eggs for those who have followed Neil and Chris’s other work, and there is just the right mixture of deadly seriousness and whimsy, putting me in mind of Shel Silverstein’s best work.
The book is good, in part, because it is so small. You can comfortably read the entire thing in a sitting, or a single section in a few minutes. It’s not a great epic, to be traversed over many too-late nights of “one more page.” It’s a plate of tasty morsels, to be savored for a few minutes at a time, again and again over the years, until it weaves itself into your mental fabric.
The best section, “Make Good Art,” is the largest and final portion of the book. It was originally a commencement speech Neil gave in 2012. You can watch him give it here (although without illustrations).
“Make Good Art” is a bit biography and a bit advice from an excellent and successful writer. It contains enough wisdom that every time I read it I take away something useful. It’s a good refresher, a palate cleanser, and a reminder of what’s important.
This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead!
Last time, I gave my protagonist a name. I spent some time figuring out how the beginning might fit with the rest of the plot. I started thinking about different factions, and about the mysterious artifacts that are used by the protagonist and are central to the plot.
My protagonist is really two characters in this story. Christopher is the viewpoint character in the present. He’s thrown into this mystery and is trying to figure things out. His alternate self is the viewpoint character in the past – the flashback chapters. He’s the paleolithic hunter-gatherer who becomes the nearly immortal ruler of his own tiny kingdom.
The past version of Christopher needs a name too. At first I thought I might be able to research some appropriate names, but this time period is so long before the advent of writing, it will have to be conjecture and guesswork. There is some relatively recent research into the possible links between certain Asian and North American language families around this time period, but it’s still pretty unsettled, and I haven’t found anything pertaining to names of people. While ancient remains are often named, the names don’t necessarily have much bearing on their original languages.
As an alternative, I’m going to fall back on well-known (if sometimes caricatured) North American naming traditions. It’s not too ridiculous to think that hunter-gatherers so far back might have similar traditions.
Typically, they are derived from nature, represented by an animal symbolizing desirable characteristics or a certain trait. A Native American name gives us an insight into the personality of the one who possesses it.
Native Americans have a fluid naming tradition—i.e., they can earn new names. A Native American wise woman explained this concept to me with nature imagery. Some people are like lakes; they change very little during their lifetimes. Others are like rivers that may change dramatically from their small beginnings to become mighty rivers that travel all the way to the sea. Native American children are given names that suit their personalities. If a name is given and proves to be a bad fit, the child’s name is changed. At adolescence, the given name may be changed again. As the adult progresses through life, new names can be awarded. Family and society award the new names, which provide the individual with a strong social bond to community as well as family. This naming tradition helps to motivate the individual to grow throughout life.
Since proto-Christopher has lived for thousands of years, it’s likely that he’s racked up a few names, although more modern Razor Mountain society may not embrace these same traditions. However, he probably has at least a birth name and a name that he acquires for being the interpreter between his tribe and their god. “God-Speaker” and later, when the tribe is forced to migrate, “God-Carrier,” seem like good names.
Research Rabbit Hole
At this point, I spent some time searchign out more information about the first migrations of people from Asia to North America. I expect to continue researching these things as I get further along in the novel, but now seems like a good time to get a jump-start on background reading. This doesn’t need historical fiction levels of accuracy (and that’s difficult to achieve considering how far back we’re going), but I’d still like the story to feel grounded.
Here is a brief overview of the wikipedia hole I fell down:
Migration from Asia to North America seems to have occurred around 14,000 – 11,000 years ago, although there is more recent evidence that some migration probably occurred as early as 33,000 years ago.
It is possible that migration occurred by coastal sea travel earlier than by land.
Due to the lower ocean levels, there were wide coastal plains in places not covered by glaciers.
Hunters in this time might have gone after mammoths, bison antiquus, mastodon, gomphotheres, sloths, tapirs, camelops, and wooly rhinoceros. Diets also included nuts, seeds and fruit; fish and birds.
Human artifacts from this time period include stone figurines, digging sticks, shell beads, bone and stone arrow and spear heads, abstract images, rafts and boats, bone needles, paints and pigments.
Groups moved from place to place as preferred resources were depleted and new supplies were sought. Small bands utilized hunting and gathering during the spring and summer months, then broke into smaller direct family groups for the fall and winter. Family groups moved weekly, possibly traveling hundreds of miles per year.
Most of what I’m looking for at this stage is general background so I can ask better questions later, and small details that will lend life to the flashback chapters, as God-Speaker and his group migrate.
I think the most interesting take-away I got out of all of this initial reading was that the timelines and theories around the first humans migrating to North America are still very uncertain.
The First Beginning
The book begins in the present, with Christopher in the soon-to-be-crashing plane. My goal with the first couple chapters is that he survives through what appear to be a series of lucky breaks and coincidences, which later turn out to be not coincidental at all. He has knowledge of Razor Mountain and its surroundings, even if it’s sealed away somewhere in his subconscious.
The danger with this strategy is that the luck and coincidences may seem too ridiculous before the reader discovers that there is more to them than it initially appears. I need to make sure this doesn’t just come off as Christopher being unreasonably lucky.
As the plane is going down, Christopher is forced to jump into water. This is more dangerous than it’s made out to be in the movies, but probably the only plausible way he could jump from the aircraft and survive. He might be able to grab something from the plane to slow his fall or lessen his impact. He’ll hurt his leg in the process, to make it clear up-front that he’s not invincible.
He manages to swim to shore, and in the half-light, he finds a shelter. In a shallow cave, there’s a door to a bunker – the first evidence of something strange in the area around Razor Mountain. But it’s locked with a rudimentary, perhaps oddly old-fashioned numeric lock. Freezing and close to passing out, he tries a random code. Amazingly, it works. This isn’t coincidence. It’s an old memory surfacing.
The Second Beginning
Christopher passes out from pain and cold, after (perhaps?) managing to get shelter from the elements. While he is unconscious, the next chapter is the first flashback. There’s no context for the reader, at first. This is a half-dream, half-memory.
The first flashback takes us to the earliest point in the story’s timeline. God-Speaker is with his tribe of hunter-gatherers. The early scenes need to show a bit of their everyday lives, and introduce the fashioned stone “god” that the tribe reveres. They also need to show that the tribe is under pressure to migrate further than usual. Resources are scarce. There is competition, perhaps deadly, with other groups.
My feeling right now is that the flashbacks will be more of a secondary plot, rather than an even back-and-forth between chapters. The first flashback chapter should focus on the tribe in homeostasis, but with accumulating stressors steadily making life harder for them. At the very end of the chapter, an explosive event like a conflict with another tribe heralds the end of their old lives and the beginning of a new, harsher existence.
I found a name for stone-age proto-Christopher. I did a bit of research to get my bearings on stone-age North Americans. I thought more about the first two chapters or so – setting up the present-day story and the ancient-past story.
Next time, I’d like to spend some time on Christopher and God-Speaker’s character arc (arcs?), and perhaps what other sort of characters are needed to play off of them.
This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead!
In session #1, I decided on a few problems I was going to try to solve: the name of my protagonist, how the beginning on the story fits with the rest, and as much of the structure at the “act” level as possible.
My protagonist is a man, born in the Midwest US, around 1985. I don’t mind somewhat off-the-wall names, but sometimes it’s nice to pick a name that feels like it belongs in the time and place of the story.
If you’re not aware, baby name websites are ubiquitous these days, and a great resource for writers looking for names. One of the first search results I found was actually the Social Security website, which lists most popular names per US state, by year: https://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/state/.
Looking at some Midwestern states, we get this:
Top two names by state, 1985
Just looking at the top two, Michael is a clear favorite, with Matthew, Christopher and Joshua as runners up. If you look at the top five, the lists are all very similar across these states.
Next, I like to look into the meanings of the names. This doesn’t really matter, but it affects my personal perception of the name, if nothing else. I do a bit more searching.
Michael – “Who is like God” – The archangel.
Matthew – “Gift of God” – The apostle.
Christopher – “Christ-bearer” – 10th century origin
Joshua – “Yahweh is salvation” – Another biblical character.
As expected for the time period and location, they’re mostly biblical in origin, and the one exception still has a very Christian origin.
At this particular moment, “Christopher” sounds the best to me. It feels like a Midwestern ’80s name. The “bearing god” meaning also plays into some ideas I have for him. I’ve been thinking that the protagonist starts back in the last ice age, as the “god-bearer” of his little tribe, literally being in charge of some small object revered as the tribe’s god. He is “attuned” to this god, communicating between it and his people.
I also like to sometimes use names that relate to concepts from the story. For example, the protagonist’s locked-away memories, which are transferred from host to host. So I did some more searching for philosophers, writers and scientists who worked on similar concepts.
There’s Carl Jung and his theories of collective unconciousness. There’s Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s ideas of inheritance of acquired characteristics. Ribot, Hering and Richard Semon are others who apparently had influential ideas about genetic memory.
For now, I’m going to call my protagonist Christopher Lamarck. This isn’t final, and it can always be changed up until the first chapter is out.
Sorting Out the Beginning
Because Razor Mountain is a set of ideas I’ve been kicking around for a while, I don’t recall the origin of the beginning. I think it was just a concept I came up with to provide immediate mystery. The protagonist (henceforth, Christopher), wakes up on a small plane over unpopulated Alaska. The other passengers and the pilot are gone.
This does provide immediate mystery. It also gets Christopher to the geographical location where the story starts – close, but not too close, to Razor Mountain. It leaves him in a bad situation with virtually no resources. The problem is: why is he even on that plane, and where did those people go where he was sleeping?
The reason he thinks he’s on the plane is because he sells products to small electrical utilities in western Canada and Alaska, and he’s traveling for his job. This is a lazy choice on my part, because my day job involves writing software for electrical utilities. If I suddenly need to come up with some details about his job, I can do it pretty easily from personal experience.
The reason he’s actually on the plane is a little more difficult.
It’s possible that the forgotten part of him (the ancient semi-immortal ruler of Razor Mountain part) has pushed him in this direction. I think there are also definitely going to be people in and around Razor Mountain that want him to come back after being away for decades. After all, if he built this little society around himself, he should have people who are wholly devoted to him.
However, there also need to be some people in this society that are very much against Christopher. That helps drive the conflict and gives me opportunities to put up barriers between Christopher and his goals. His allies and his enemies can work against each other. This might even fit in with the people missing on the plane – perhaps one group tried to bring him here, while another tried to kill him in a way that provides plausible deniability.
So, the beginning of the story goes something like this: Christopher wakes up on the plane, on a business trip. The passengers and pilot are gone. It is inevitable that he will crash in a desolate area of Alaska, alone and without supplies.
The reason this happens (which is not revealed until much later) is that “allies” from Razor Mountain manipulated events in order that he be on that plane, in this area, with the intent to divert him directly to Razor Mountain. However, the “enemies” subverted this plan. Perhaps the passengers or pilot were “enemy” agents, or double-agents. In any case, the enemies won out, then jumped out, leaving Christopher to die in a fiery wreck.
Obviously, this doesn’t answer all the questions about the opening, and it raises a few new ones, but the rough shape of this sequence is starting to feel better to me. In fact, it’s starting to drive a lot of the larger world-building for the story, which I like. It sets up a big mystery on the first page, and the resolution fits naturally near the end of the story, when Christopher finally gets deep into Razor Mountain, where the allies and the enemies are going to be.
Allies and Enemies
Christopher has allies and enemies in Razor Mountain society. I need to start thinking about what those groups look like. What are their motivations? What does Razor Mountain society look like in general?
This society is built around serving and protecting its “immortal” ruler. To do that effectively, for hundreds of years, it also has to be hidden and insular. It probably won’t last long if local governments find out about it. There will also be problems if people in the society leave and go out into the “ordinary” world. Anyone who does so need to have good reason not to tell anyone about this place.
Groups like cults, and even countries like North Korea, have similar needs to control their members and citizens in this way. They typically do so with specific kinds of disinformation and brainwashing, and by limiting any information from outside. They also tend to have small “ruling” groups with more knowledge, who are invested in the system. This investment makes them less likely to disrupt the system. However, if they have too much knowledge or power, it can lead to coups.
This seems like a promising avenue to explore for the allied and enemy groups within Razor Mountain. It also makes sense that there is a third group – those who don’t know much about Christopher, except as some sort of powerful, beneficent ruler. And this group is probably much larger than the “allies” and “enemies” who have more inside knowledge.
Artifacts and Rebirth
The reason Christopher is immortal is because thousands of years ago he found a set of objects in a cave deep beneath Razor Mountain. These artifacts may be mystical, or portrayed as mystical in the inner circles of Razor Mountain, but I think they’re actually devices from an ancient, crashed alien spacecraft.
(A spacecraft drilling deep into a mountain would explain its distinctive, razor-sharp peak. The mountain essentially sheared in half, and one side partly sank.)
One of these artifacts allows him to transfer himself into another person. This process is apparently not entirely convenient, because it recently put him in the body of a baby named Christopher, far away from Razor Mountain, with memories of his previous lives sealed away somehow. It may be that another artifact is required to unlock those memories. That would introduce times of weakness for him, and might explain why he would build up this society and let at least a few people know about the artifacts: he needs help to maintain his immortality.
Artifacts and Time Travel
The artifacts serve one other important purpose. One of them allows time travel. From a story arc perspective, his allows Christopher to come to the realization that everything about Razor Mountain is wrong, and he must go back to the moment when his ancient self discovered the artifacts to put a stop to it.
This time travel element might also be a way that he has maintained his power. If his plans fail and things go wrong, this allows him to go back and set them right.
Time travel is a dangerous element to introduce. I have to figure out which “version” of time travel I’m using. (Stable time loops? Altering a single timeline? Divergent timelines and infinite universes?) It’s also a big hammer that can theoretically fix all sorts of problems, so it needs to be limited in some way.
My initial thought is that it’s one-way, and only backward in time. Christopher won’t want to go back himself, so he’ll have to send others to warn him or fix things in the past. This introduces another useful dependency on others, and another potential opportunity for the “enemies” to throw a wrench in the works.
What did I accomplish this session?
My protagonist has a (maybe temporary) name: Christopher Lamarck.
To justify the strange situation Christopher finds himself in at the start of the book, I started fleshing out Razor Mountain society. It consists of a small group of allies and a small group of enemies, both with some knowledge of Christopher’s powers and the artifacts that grant them. The bulk of the society, however, consists of a group that knows very little about these things, and is either unaware of Christopher, or is fed vague and mythological misinformation about him.
The artifacts themselves are alien devices deposited by the crashed spacecraft that shattered Razor Mountain long before humans ever laid eyes on it. One artifact allows Christopher to transfer himself into another person. Another artifact allows people to travel one-way backward in time. The details of these artifacts still need to be worked out, and there may be other artifacts with other powers, if they turn out to be useful or especially flavorful.
I still need to think about the act structure, but I’ve got a little more material for figuring out Christopher’s motivations, goals and conflicts. Right now, he’s the only character in the story, but it feels like there’s space for interesting characters in these “allied and “enemy” groups, as they develop further.
I think I can start approaching the outline from two angles: story and back-story. At the start of the story, what happens to Christopher when the plane goes down? How does he survive? He’s landing miles from Razor Mountain, in inhospitable terrain. What does this outermost fringe of Razor Mountain society look like?
In the back-story, proto-Christopher and his tribe cross the Beringia land bridge, and he needs to somehow come to Razor Mountain and find the artifacts. Once he does, how does he figure out how to use them and begin developing his little society? What goes on there in the thousands of years of history where it remains hidden?
For now, that back-story only indirectly impacts the text, but eventually I’ll be looking for bits and pieces to include in the “alternate” chapters.
This is the first in an ongoing series of posts about the development of Razor Mountain, a book that I’ll be releasing serially on this site. Unlike my previous posts, which were about more general writing concepts, like writing episodically or creating satisfying mysteries, these posts will be very specific to the development of this particular book.
Writing is often a very solitary task, and while there are a plethora of great documentaries about film-making, TV, and even game development, there’s very little about the process of writing.
My goal with this series is to document what I’m thinking, my process, and the results in as much detail as I can. I don’t claim that my processes are the best or most efficient, but my hope is that it will prove interesting for other writers to get a detailed look into how someone else goes about it.
My base instinct is to avoid spoilers at all costs. I always want to preserve that “first read” experience, and the story will not read the same to someone who knows important plot points before they’re revealed in the text.
However, what I really want to do with these development blogs is to have as open and honest an accounting of the process as possible. I don’t think I can do that effectively without spoiling the plot. So I am not going to make any attempt to be spoiler-free. These blogs will be as open and straightforward as I can make them. You’ll see the ideas as they are formed and refined. The mysteries and their resolutions will be on the table from the beginning.
If you want to read the book without spoilers, you should stop here and come back later.
I’m not starting completely from scratch. I tend to kick around ideas in my head for a long time before I write them, sometimes with a few false-starts along the way. I’ve made at least two brief attempts at writing this story previously. Neither resulted in much actual content.
In my inventory, as I begin the outlining process, I have the following items:
A beginning – The protagonist wakes up on a small plane flying over an unpopulated area of Alaska. He finds that the few other passengers and the pilot have all vanished while he slept.
Some jumbled plot notes – The protagonist is actually thousands of years old, but doesn’t remember it. He has lived this long by jumping from one body to another with the help of some artifacts in the depths of Razor Mountain. He has built a sort of insular society/cult in this place, and kept it hidden from the rest of the world.
An ending – The protagonist regains his memories, and his current personality comes into conflict with his long-lived body-hopping personality. He uses one of the artifacts to travel back in time and stop himself.
Previous attempts at the first two chapters.
I think having a beginning and an ending for a story is a great starting position to be in. The “middle” is going to be most of the words, but getting from a well-defined start to a well-defined end is a straightforward step-by-step problem to solve.
This ending feels pretty good to me, in this admittedly vague form. It requires some setup: I will have to lay the groundwork of the protagonist’s long life and history and figure out the details of these artifacts. That’s fine.
The beginning feels considerably more wobbly to me. I want to start with a big mystery, and it achieves that. But I don’t have a good resolution. I don’t know why he’s on the plane or where the other people went. Without that, it’s a LOST-style big exciting question without a big exciting answer. This is the start of the book, so it needs to be really solid. This is currently the most important thing for me to figure out.
The second problem is the protagonist’s name. Yes, this is a silly detail, but I hate writing “the protagonist” in my outlines and notes. One of the first things I like to do is try to come up with a halfway tolerable name. I console myself with the knowledge that it can always be changed later (even if I often don’t).
There will be lots of other problems to resolve as I go along, but what I really want to dig into at this early stage is structure. By figuring out some of the structure of the story, I get a scaffold that I can hang all of the details on.
Structure – Space
Like many cults, I see this strange society that the protagonist has built as a series of concentric circles. Each inner circle knows more about what’s actually happening than the people outside it. He will have built it so that only a few people closest to him actually know any details about the artifacts and his long-lived-ness. There will then be one or more layers of people outside that who know progressively less and less.
These circles aren’t just metaphorical – they’re physical, too. The artifacts are deep inside Razor Mountain, and the inner circle is physically close to them, and perhaps locked-off and disconnected from the rest of this society. The outer circles are literally out around the mountain, and spread out into the valleys surrounding the mountain itself.
The story will start with Razor Mountain in the distance, and the protagonist will have to physically journey toward the peak. He will make his way through these outer circles, eventually to the inner circle, learning more and more as he goes.
Structure – Time
The bulk of the story will happen in the present, but the protagonist has a very long history, and bits of this history will need to be revealed throughout the book for everything to make sense. This history can also contribute to the mysteries.
I think a non-linear structure will work well for this. I could alternate chapters. One chapter is the present day, describing the protagonist’s slow journey to Razor Mountain. The next chapter in the distant past, revealing some events that relate to what’s going on in the “present.” This could go on for the whole book before it becomes apparent how these events are actually linked.
I expect these flashback chapters will tend to be shorter, and even then I don’t know if I will really need to alternate 1:1. There might only be occasional flashback chapters. I can work that out later.
At the end of each of these development blogs, I’m going to try to quantify what I’ve actually accomplished.
For this first round, I thought a bit about the overall structure. I gathered the little bits of work I had done on this story previously. I defined some important problems to start solving:
What is the protagonist’s name? (Or at least placeholder name)
How does the beginning fit into the plot? (I need to solidify this, or change the beginning of the story.)
I also intend to start thinking about the act-level structure. To me, defining acts involves looking for points where the trajectory of the story can change drastically. They should also be important points in the characters’ arcs. Those larger pieces will then break down into smaller pieces – the episodes or chapters.