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.