Reference Desk #7 – Trello

As a part of this Reference Desk series, where I look at useful tools for authors, I’ve now shared most of the software that I use for writing. I covered Scrivener, where I do most of my novel writing. I talked OneNote, where I keep my notes, from story brainstorms to blog posts. Finally, I discussed Dropbox, which I use to back up all my writing work.

However, there’s one more application that I use, for a different aspect of writing – organization and planning. That software is Trello.

I remember seeing Trello when it was first released, and thinking, “Is this really all it does?” Even the Trello website is a bit cagey when describing it, using all sorts of business buzzwords, like “collaborate,” “manage,” “productive,” and “organize.”

Personally, I use Trello to keep track of my weekly to-do list around the house. I use it to plan meals (at least when I’m feeling like a competent adult). I use it to track short stories I’m working on, and what stage of development they’re in. Sometimes I use it to track revision notes or prioritize my projects.

Boards, Lists, Cards

Trello doesn’t dictate a rigid form or structure. It just lets you make lists of things. Shuffle them around, color-code them, or check them off as you get them done.

An accurate (if not thrilling) description of Trello is “an app that makes very flexible lists.” Lists are one of the simplest and most effective ways to take complicated things, big things, and break them down into small and manageable things. That’s what I use Trello for, and that’s what it’s good at.

Trello lists are built from a few simple components. At the top level, there are “boards.” On each board, there are multiple ordered “lists.” On a list, you have “cards.”

Cards have a title and can have a description. They can have little color-coded labels, or comments, start dates and due dates, checklists, pictures, or other attachments. Cards are where the action is.

Simple and Flexible

You can think of Trello as a big cork board. Lists are just columns of index cards, pinned onto the board. You can move them between columns, or up and down a column. But cards are also like file folders, and they can have all sorts of interesting things inside them. From that basic structure, you can organize in whatever way seems natural to you.

The most obvious example is a to-do list. Make a board with three columns: To Do, Doing, and Done. Fill the first column with tasks. When you’re ready to do a task, move it to the middle column. When you’ve finished it, move it to the last column. When everything is done, close the board.

Of course, you can embellish the bare-bones process. You can shuffle tasks in To Do so they’re in the order you plan to do them in. You can color-code them by importance, or amount of effort, or both. You can add a picture to each one. You can add addresses or phone numbers or web links.

You could expand the basic To Do list into a writing board. Perhaps you want more columns: Ideas, Incomplete Drafts, Complete Drafts, Published, and Shelved. Then add a card for each of your stories. Some small story seed might end up as a card in the Ideas column with just a vague title and a few words. As it moves, it could accumulate more ideas, inspiring photos, character bios, and so on.

You could attach the story document directly to the card, or add a link to your cloud backup. You could maintain a list of the magazines you’ve submitted that flash fiction to. Heck, you could attach copies of rejection and acceptance letters.

Hopefully, you can see that these very simple tools can be put together in a lot of ways. Part of what I like about Trello is that I get to figure out how I like to do things over time, and I can adapt my process accordingly.

Collaboration and Synchronization

Trello is an online tool, so your updates are automatically saved and available across devices – computer or mobile – as long as you’ve got internet connectivity. They have the usual iOS and Android apps. I use Trello on my phone about 95% of the time, and it works well.

I use Trello almost exclusively for my own boards that nobody else needs to see, but I have shared boards with my wife in the past, and the changes and sync between the two of us were seamless. Trello is obviously trying to sell to the “enterprise” team crowd, so if you want to coordinate with a few writing or business partners, it shouldn’t break a sweat.

I’ve found the free plan to be more than adequate for individual use. The main limitation that you’re likely to run into is a maximum of 10 open boards. So long as you aren’t updating more than 10 boards on a regular basis, you can always close old ones and stay under the limit.

If you do need more boards, need to upload big files, or want to use some of the serious team collaboration options, the next tier up is about $120 per year.

One Small Caveat

It’s worth noting that Trello was recently acquired by Atlassian, a huge enterprise company that specializes in tools for software development. Thanks to my day job, I’m familiar with most of the Atlassian tools. They’re about as powerful, expensive, rigid and occasionally clunky as you’d expect from software that has big-business plans with prices listed as “Contact Sales.”

Trello has been slowly but steadily adding features over time, and that’s continuing under the new regime. So far, I haven’t seen any unsavory pushing of paid options or favoring big business over individual users. But there’s always that possibility when smaller start-ups are eaten by their older, larger competitors. Time will tell whether Trello influences Atlassian, or vice-versa.

Try It Out

If my description of Trello sounds interesting, I encourage you to try it out with a free account. The only advice I’d offer is to try to come up with more than one way to do things. Play around with it. One of the big advantages is freedom and flexibility that so many apps like this lack. You may find that the flow that ends up working best for you isn’t quite what you expected.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #16

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! You can start from the beginning here.

Last Time

I finished the chapter summaries for God-Speaker in Act II!

Embarking on Act III

I like to think of the end of Act II as the inflection point of the story. We’ve reached the proverbial mountain top. In act III, we’re headed back down at breakneck speed, toward the end of the book. Everything should be moving toward the finale. The plot needs to be wrapping things up. Emotionally, the characters need to be moving in that direction too.

Going into Act III, the reader knows that Christopher is the reincarnation of God-Speaker. Christopher still needs to find that out. We’ve seen the evolution of Razor Mountain, and the evolution of God-Speaker alongside it. Now we know about his downfall. We know that there are probably enemies here that Christopher doesn’t even know he has.

To survive, Christopher needs to figure that out. As readers, we feel that there’s probably a confrontation brewing, and we’ll definitely know that there’s one on the way when we see that Reed and Cain are both still here.

Once that is dealt with, there is an even bigger question: what happens to Christopher? Does he go back to being God-Speaker, tighten his grip, and try to put his house back in order? Has his journey (and his whole life, really) as Christopher changed him? That’s the question that I really want driving the final act to its ultimate conclusion, where Christopher chooses to reject everything he did as God-Speaker.


The chapter structure I’ve laid out so far is very consistent. I alternate between God-Speaker chapters and Christopher chapters, with Christopher getting twice as many chapters. Act I and Act II have almost the same number of chapters (17 and 16 respectively), although I haven’t tried to estimate word-counts yet.

I expect Act III to be shorter. There are no more God-Speaker chapters. He’s dead and gone. Christopher is the one alive in the present. However, once Christopher “unlocks” God-Speaker’s dormant personality and memories, I think it will still make sense to include some flashes of God-Speaker’s perspective here and there. It may help convey the feeling that Christopher is losing himself as this ancient god-being starts to take over.

Act III should really have two parts. The first part is about Christopher discovering that he’s the reincarnation of God-Speaker. He meets what remains of his inner circle (which will need more characters than Cain and Reed). He learns about the artifacts. He learns that he was betrayed and murdered, and that his life depends on figuring out who did it before they do it again and finish what they started.

While all that is happening, I need to include the emotional threads of the story. God-Speaker slowly became terrified of death, and bored of life. Christopher starts the book in much the same way, albeit on a smaller scale. He has now risked his life and made dangerous choices. He has accepted the eventuality of his own death, and his limited control of an indifferent universe.

Once he activates the artifacts and God-Speaker starts to slowly seep in, his “death” becomes very real and immediate. Does he want to be subsumed by this other person, who in many ways represents the most extreme version of his own worst attributes, magnified over thousands of years?

The second part of Act III starts when Christopher figures out that Reed betrayed him and kills or otherwise defeats the man. He is the ultimate winner. He came back from the brink of death to continue his endless reign, unstoppable. His other minions are happy that order has been restored. Unfortunately for him, it’s a pyrrhic victory.

Without the distraction of the direct threat to his physical existence, he has to think about the existential threat to his existence. He has to reconcile Christopher and God-Speaker. The final battle is between these two, within Christopher’s mind.

Christopher decides that God-Speaker has wasted thousands of years building a dystopia. He uses the artifacts to travel back to the moment from the end of Act I, where God-Speaker found the artifacts. He accepts death in the service of a good cause, kills God-Speaker, and changes the timeline for the better (or so he hopes).


The tone will be shaped throughout the book, but the ending is what will have the most impact on what the reader feels about the book. It’s obviously pretty dark – the protagonist kills his worst enemy, then himself, to prevent the terrible things he would otherwise do. It’s tragic by the original definition.

However, that tragedy isn’t so tragic in terms of Christopher’s emotional arc. He overcomes his fear of risk, danger, and even death. He makes a very consequential choice because he believes it’s the right thing to do. He’s satisfied with the outcome, and hopefully the reader will also think he did the right thing. The effectiveness of this is going to depend on how well I build up that arc throughout the story, as much as it will depend on the actual ending.

What’s Next?

I need to figure out what secondary characters come into play in the third act. I have two council members, but I need more for it to really be a council. They need to have some purpose and characterization in their own right.

I need to figure out how Christopher finds out who killed him. It may be as simple as retrieving that memory, but there has to be some tension around it. What does Reed do when he finds out that Christopher is here? What does he do as God-Speaker’s memories are returning?


I did some preliminary planning for Act III and the end of the book. I looked at the “scaffolding” like the number of chapters and the topics they have to address. I also thought about the tone of the ending.

Next time, I’m going to flesh out God-Speaker’s inner council and figure out how he discovers his killer.

Reference Desk #6 – Back Up Your Work!

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of the power going out while you’re in the middle of writing. It’s second only to the feeling you get when you boot up your computer and get an error message telling you your hard drive has failed.

As writers, it’s easy to get caught up in characters, settings and plots. That’s the fun stuff. Making sure your work is backed up isn’t fun, but it sure beats the alternative: losing anywhere from hours to years of work.

Take a little time to figure out a back-up plan for your writing. Think of it like an insurance policy. Nobody hopes they’ll need to use their insurance, but it’s a safety net.

What Makes a Good Backup Plan?

  • A backup plan should be easy. Ideally, once it’s set up there will be no extra work at all. The more effort you have to put into it, the more annoying it will be. You don’t want to be tempted to skip it. Murphy’s law tells us conclusively that the one time you skip your plan will be the one time you’ll need it.
  • A backup plan should protect against as many types of failure as possible. Copying your work to a USB thumb drive will protect against a hard drive failure, but won’t save your stories from a house-fire. You want a backup that protects your work from everything short of Armageddon, and maybe even beyond that if you plan on being your post-apocalyptic tribe’s resident shaman/storyteller.
  • A backup plan should provably work. The word “provably” is critical here. As a software developer, I’ve seen important systems with supposedly good backup plans go down, only to find that the backups are outdated, broken, or completely missing. This invariably comes down to the same class of problem: the backups were put in place, but were never tested, or tested so rarely that nobody noticed when they stopped working.

With these ideas in mind, let’s take a look at some of the available backup options.

Hard Drives and Hard Copies

In the good ‘ol days, the way to back up your work was to make a copy and put it somewhere safe. Expensive and inconvenient.

While computers steadily get faster and better in almost every way every year, text files remain incredibly small and easy to store. Even proprietary formats like Scrivener or Word – which include both text and formatting – make tiny files compared to audio, video or images. The most prolific writer will have a difficult time filling a cheap external hard drive, USB flash drive, or memory card.

Consider this the bare minimum for backups. If you’re like me, you probably already have a couple old memory cards or USB sticks in a drawer somewhere. It’s not particularly convenient to copy your files from computer to external storage on a regular basis. If you do this, you’ll tend to leave them plugged into your writing computer, or nearby, and that can make it more likely that an accident damaging the computer will damage the backup as well.

This is beginner mode. You can do better.

Cloud Backups

No matter what operating system you use, there is probably an easy cloud backup option available to you. “Cloud” is the buzziest of buzzwords, but in this case, it just means that your files are backed up to servers somewhere out on the internet.

If you use a Chromebook, Google Docs has you covered. In fact, if you want, Google Docs can have you covered on any operating system with a web browser. If you’ve only ever used a word processor like Word, think of it like this: Google Docs is a word processor that lives on the internet. It saves to Google Drive (their cloud file storage) by default. You can access the files from anywhere with an internet connection, and you can even edit in your browser.

If you’re on Mac, iCloud is the backup option that Apple is going to push you toward. On Windows, Microsoft wants you to use their proprietary cloud storage, OneDrive, which integrates with Word and the rest of Office.

Of course, you aren’t obligated to pay any attention to these huge multinational corporations and where they think you should store your backups. There are other options.

One of the oldest and most mature products out there is Dropbox. Dropbox is made for synchronization, so it’s designed to be installed on multiple computers and copy the contents of the Dropbox directory between them. A change on one computer gets automatically pushed to the others. Dropbox also keeps cloud backups and lets you access files from a browser. It even stores a history of changes, which can allow you to grab an old version of a file if you accidentally pushed changes you didn’t want to.

There are other tools. Lots of other tools. I haven’t tried them all, and frankly, there are new ones all the time. The fact is, it doesn’t really matter. All of them can save your work to the cloud. Pretty much all of them have completely free plans, typically with at least 5GB of storage. That may seem small in the age of inexpensive TB-sized hard drives, but you can fit an awful lot of text in 5GB, especially if it’s zipped.

Besides, there’s no rule saying you couldn’t use more than one of these services, if you really need more free storage. You could also shell out a little money to protect those precious stories.

Version Control

Alright. Let’s get really nerdy. Cloud backups are easy and safe, but what if that’s not enough for you? You’re not afraid of a little complexity, and you want to be able to track every single change you’ve ever saved for your manuscript. You want the ability to separately track the changes to the first- and third-person versions of a story. You want to control exactly where your backups live, instead of letting some company like Microsoft or Google decide.

If the thumb drive is easy mode, then version control is hard mode. Version control software is designed to keep track of changes in files. As a software developer, I use it every single day. When tracking down difficult bugs, it’s often vital to be able to go back and see what changed and when.

There are several popular version control systems, such as CVS, Subversion (SVN) and Git. They come in two basic flavors: centralized and distributed.

Centralized version control has been around for ages. It has a central server or repository that keeps track of all your versions and branches. A client can then be used on different machines to download one or more versions from the repository, make changes, and upload new versions.

Distributed version control is a newer idea, though still more than a decade old. In DVCS, there doesn’t have to be a central repository. Each client keeps a complete copy of the repository, with all the versions and branches. This adds more complexity, but it can also remove that central point of possible failure. In practice, DVCS can still be used like a central repository with clients, and often is.

There are thousands of websites and blog posts comparing the various features of version control systems. I can barely scratch the surface here. If you’re interested in going down this road, be aware that even the simplest version control systems are more than adequate for most writers’ needs. If you’re not the most technical person, this is a challenging rabbit hole to go down. Look for services that make it easier to set up, like TortoiseGit and GitHub.

Don’t Write Another Word Without Backups

If you haven’t been backing up your work, I hope this post inspires you to change your ways. There are so many free and easy ways to protect your work. If your writing is important to you, don’t run the risk of losing it. Back it up.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #15

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! You can start from the beginning here.

Last Time

I worked through what I wanted in each of the Act II God-Speaker chapters, but I didn’t get into detailed summaries. Time to get it done.

Names for Secondary Characters

As usual, I hate to have nameless characters for very long. If I’m going to write chapter descriptions, I at least need working names.

Reed Parricida – The disloyal servant who tries to kill God-Speaker. Reed is a sideways glance at papyrus, and he’s a bit of a bookworm. Parricida is a reference to his eventual murder of God-Speaker. (Parricide doesn’t feel like a very commonly used word to me, but may still be a bit heavy handed.)

Cain Dolus – The loyal servant. Cain to bring to mind the biblical betrayer and murderer, Dolus as a reference to the Greek spirit of trickery and guile. He’s meant to appear to be the traitor at first.

Sky-Watcher – The beloved. God-Speaker’s lover is an iron-age astronomer and mathematician who took the name for her love of studying the night sky.

Strong Shield – Friend/betrayer. The first person who betrayed God-Speaker. He earned his name by protecting Razor Mountain, but he comes to believe that God-Speaker’s desire to withdraw from the world is weak, and that they should grow their kingdom through conquest.

Chapter Summaries

  • Chapter 20 – (GS) God-Speaker introduces a new group of ice-age migrants to the village  build at the base of Razor Mountain, next to the cave. They eat a huge meal, to impress upon the newcomers how good life will be for them. He shows them fields of grain, orchards and livestock. He shows them a mine, a forge, and metal tools. He explains that this “great tribe” is superior to their small tribes. Finally, he tells them about himself and how he listens to the gods of the mountain, who teach him all of these good things.
  • Chapter 23 – (GS) God-Speaker speaks with his military leaders about a small army that is approaching the mountain. He has better weapons and better tactics, and isn’t worried about losing. He dismisses them, telling one to stay behind – his friend, Strong Shield. Strong Shield suggests a counter-attack, to stop the threat for good. God-Speaker explains that he is thinking about stopping all interaction with outside groups, and hiding their knowledge and wealth from the rest of the world to avoid conflict. Strong Shield says this is weak, and tries to kill God-Speaker, but he is ready, and kills his friend.
  • Chapter 26 – (GS) God-Speaker waits on the balcony of his home, which is now within a city inside the mountain. He watches excavations underway. He goes inside, to Sky Watcher, and they go to the chamber of the artifacts. He tries to guide her in listening to the voices and accessing their power, as he has been for some time. She has little success. He helps her up stairs, though she is very weak, and they go outside and look at the stars. They talk about the future. Even while they’re talking, he is worrying about her illness. She dies suddenly and quietly.
  • Chapter 29 – (GS) God-Speaker sits in his modern office within Razor Mountain. He explains to Reed, a member of his inner circle, that he believes Cain may have plans to betray him, and asks Reed to keep an eye on him. Then he speaks to Cain, who has a plethora of ideas for improving Razor Mountain, but also pushes God-Speaker to reveal information that God-Speaker wants to keep solely for himself.
  • Chapter 32 – (GS) God-Speaker tours Cain’s latest project, a geothermal borehole that provides heat and energy. They talk, and Cain apologizes for overstepping his bounds. God-Speaker realizes that the man isn’t a threat, just passionate about his projects. He returns to his office and calls in Reed, asking him to call off the surveillance, then telling him that his work has been poor while he’s distracted with this extra task. Reed unexpectedly attacks him. God-Speaker is hurt, and flees to the chamber of the artifacts. Reed kills him there, and he frantically sends his fading consciousness into a random person: baby Christopher.


I finished the chapter summaries for God-Speaker in Act II!

Next time, I’ll begin working on Act III, and working toward the ending of the book.

Story Seeds

This post was inspired by Lucy Mitchell, who recently asked “Does your story require more cooking time?” She talks about how we often get so excited about an idea that we want to write it immediately. But many of these ideas are half-baked – they’re missing something, maybe several things. That excitement to write runs into a brick wall, and the story has to be thrown away or shelved.

These problems take many different forms. The story might start strong, only to fade early in the first draft. It might seem great in your head, but feel flat and dull on the page. You might find yourself in a very cool setting with no characters to populate it, or have an amazing character who just doesn’t fit into the world. You might have a story where the characters go through the motions, pushed around by the plot.

In response to Lucy’s post, I’m going to dig into how early story ideas can transform into a full-blown story. You’ll never have everything figured out when you first put down words; there are always problems to solve along the way. So how do you know that your ideas are detailed enough to support you as you write? How can you tell if an idea needs more cooking time?

Seeds and Stars

Each story is unique, and each has some collection of elements that connect in a unique way. They usually don’t start fully-formed. Little ideas eventually lead to other ideas and begin to glom together. A character may start out as an idea for the clothes they wear, an ability they have, or some event that shaped them. A setting might start from a single image (real or imagined), or a place fit to a specific purpose.

I like to call these little bits “story seeds.” Like a tree, they grow and branch out in unpredictable ways. A story is like a forest grown from many of these seeds.

You could also think of these ideas like tiny bits of debris in space. Eventually, they stick to each other. Finally, they become so dense that they collapse to form a star. When a story fails to come together, it’s often because it doesn’t have that density. The ideas aren’t enough to support all the necessary parts of a story.

Do Your Seeds Meet Your Needs?

Writing fiction is amazing because you can do almost anything. There are always new books coming out with voices, characters and ideas that are so fresh and different that they change the way we see the world. Despite that, there are also a relatively small set of elements – characters, settings, scenes, viewpoints – that we can identify in almost every story. Granted, you can find avant-garde stories that lack one of these key building blocks, but if it works, you can bet that the author was very much aware of the limitations they were working under.

Stories thrive on cross-pollination. It takes many seeds to become a forest. It’s easy to get excited by a shiny, cool idea. Keep that excitement up! It may be the centerpiece that ties everything together. You just need to make sure that there are enough other ideas to fill out a complete story.

Before you start the story proper, evaluate your story seeds. Write down all the exciting ideas you have. Write down anything important that you think you know about the story. Then think about structure, and those standard story elements. What sets the story in motion? Do you have characters with some kind of goal and some kind of conflict making things difficult? Do you have settings for those characters to populate? Do you have some ideas for the journey they could go on (a.k.a. the plot) and do you have an idea of how they might grow or change as a result? Where does the story end?

If your story seeds don’t at least give you some options to explore for each of these things, you may have some rough times ahead. You can write for a while, but eventually you will run into a part of the story where you need to know that missing thing. You’ll be forced to stop and figure it out, or muddle on until it becomes apparent that something is dreadfully wrong.

If you’re not sure, try some simple outlining or summaries. Don’t let this scare you if you’re the sort of writer who prefers to write by the seat of your pants. You don’t have to be a full-on planner. Try to write a sentence or two about the beginning, middle and end; or try to describe the inciting incident, some complications, and the resolution. Can you describe your characters in a couple sentences? What do they want? What do they worry about?


One of the most important habits you can develop to grow ideas into stories is to write those story seeds down. Every time you think of a fun bit of plot, an interesting character quirk, or a scrap of dialogue, write it down. I’ve used an “idea notebook” for this in the past, but I now use a OneNote file that gets synced between my phone and computer.

Once you have an idea file, make the most of it. Read through it occasionally, and especially when you’re thinking about what to write next. This is like watering those sprouts. Different things will pop out at you at different times, and you may suddenly see a connection between two previously independent ideas. If you have a day where you just can’t write, open the idea file and try brainstorming. See if you can add a couple new ideas to the list. You might find it easier to come up with random thoughts for the future than it was to work on that manuscript. You could even find some inspiration in the file for the project you’re procrastinating over.

Letting it Grow

Some stories just need time, and you may decide that the critical mass of ideas just isn’t there yet. That’s fine. We all have an amazing secret weapon in the subconscious. Spend time thinking about your proto-story, and then mentally put it back in the cooking pot. Even when your conscious mind is busy with other things, those ideas will continue bubbling away. Eventually, you’ll come back to it, and and give it another taste, asking those same questions about character, setting and plot, and it’ll be so good you won’t be able to resist it any more.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #14

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! You can start from the beginning here.

Last Time

I fleshed out the artifacts, and changed their nature a bit. I worked through the building of Razor Mountain from a natural cave into the hidden city that Christopher finds when he arrives there. I outlined God-Speaker’s emotional evolution, and some of the reasons why he becomes so bitter and indifferent to the people around him.

Supporting Characters

Along with fleshing out the long history of Razor Mountain, God-Speaker’s Act II chapters need to illuminate his own character. To do that, he needs supporting characters.

God-Speaker needs a friend to betray him, and a love interest who dies tragically. He needs at least one loyal member of his most recent inner council and one who betrays and murders him, setting the events of the story in motion.

God-Speaker’s friend betrays him while he’s still building up a kingdom and fending off outside attackers. He is starting to really understand that increasing his fame will bring new dangers and problems to him, and considering a change of course. His friend is one of his best warriors and strategists, who believes that they should keep expanding the kingdom. He sees this change of heart as weakness in God-Speaker, and believes he can do a better job ruling the kingdom.

The artifacts, and the ancient voices that speak from them, give God-speaker some intuition that his friend has the potential to betray him, but he doesn’t want to believe it. Still, when his friend makes his betrayal plain and tries to kill him, God-Speaker is prepared with a hidden weapon and successfully defends himself. He kills his friend, and he and the kingdom begin to turn inward.

His great love comes many years later. Razor Mountain is a self-sustaining city, and little more than a legend to the outside world, conducting careful and clandestine trade. While God-Speaker has had some partners, this love is different. He is completely enamored. The woman he loves is an astronomer, and he uses the knowledge given to him by the artifacts’ ancient voices to help her better understand the physics of the cosmos.

However, she is sick, and getting worse. He knows that she has a form of cancer that has spread throughout her body, but he lacks effective treatments. Desperate to save her, he tries to teach her to use the artifacts to be reborn into another person’s mind. The artifacts are not compatible with most human minds, however, and she is unable to do much more than faintly hear the voices. Every night, they practice together, to no avail. Then he brings her outside to look at the stars. She dies, staring up at the sky.

The final two chapters of the act will revolve around God-Speaker and two members of his inner council, only a few years before the story starts. I’d like to fake-out which of the two is actually going to betray him.

He talks with the first council-member, a gruff but effective administrator that he relies on to plan his new projects. He tells the man that he distrusts another council member, and asks him to surveil his fellow. Then he speaks to the distrusted council member, a bookish intellectual who has a plethora of ideas to improve Razor Mountain, and is convinced that he could do more for God-Speaker if he could know all of God-Speaker’s secrets. They argue over this.

In the following chapter, the intellectual reports on several projects which have been successful. They have another discussion where the man decides that he over-stepped his bounds and God-Speaker decides that perhaps he can be trusted with a few additional secrets. Then he meets with the administrator. He tells him that surveillance can be scaled back, and the man can get back to some of his projects, which have been slipping while he was distracted by this task.

To God-Speaker’s surprise, the administrator betrays him. God-Speaker didn’t think the man had enough of an ego to be a threat. Even worse, the man has been planning for some time. He has removed God-Speaker’s hidden weapons from their hiding places. There’s a nasty altercation.

God-Speaker flees to the artifacts’ chamber, and the man murders him there. As he lays dying, his consciousness is flung out into the world, and into baby Christopher, where it lies dormant.

All of that should fit into four God-Speaker chapters, and I’ve allocated five. I think I can use my first Act II chapter as a look at the early days of Razor Mountain. God-Speaker is introducing a new group of ice-age migrants to Razor Mountain. The first thing they do is eat a huge meal, to remind the newcomers how good life will be for them. Then he shows them the fields of grain, orchards and livestock that the food came from. He shows them a mine, a forge, and metal tools. He explains that this “great tribe” is superior to their small tribe. Finally, he tells them about himself, and how he listens to the gods of the mountain, who teach him all of these good things.


Today was a shorter session, so I worked through what I wanted in each of the Act II God-Speaker chapters, but I didn’t get into the detailed summaries. I’ll finish those off next time. Then I’ll probably get into Act III, where Christopher and God-Speaker’s stories finally converge!

6 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block

The phrase “writer’s block” gets tossed around a lot, to the point that it has become a trope or boogie-man in the modern mythology of what it’s like to be a writer. The truth is that there’s no one thing that stops us from writing. Like any other job, writing is harder some days than others. Sometimes we have good reasons that the words aren’t coming. Other times, it’s a mystery why the muse has abandoned us.

Likewise, there’s no single formula to overcoming writer’s block. Everyone writes differently. Some find a routine and stick with it throughout their lives. Others have to catch a few words here and there, or need variety to stimulate their creativity.

Here are a few strategies that have worked for me. Next time you find yourself staring at the blank page or the blinking cursor, give one a try.

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

Thomas Mann

1. The Jump-Start

I discovered something about myself a few years ago. I’m often pretty bad about chores like cleaning, laundry, and dishes. What I realized was that all I needed to do was get myself started. I’d enter the kitchen, notice some crumbs on the counter, and decide to wipe it down. Then I’d clean the little island counter. Then the stove. Before I knew it, I was doing dishes or cleaning half the kitchen.

Getting started on a task is often the hardest part, especially when it feels big or unpleasant. It’s like diving into cool water. The initial plunge is the hard part, and then you get acclimated and comfortable. It’s easy to agonize over the opening of a new book, or even the first few words in a regular writing session. If I can get myself into the middle of a sentence or paragraph, I’m much more compelled to keep going.

Make a deal with yourself. Instead of thinking “I have to finish this chapter,” or “I need to write 2000 words today,” just tell yourself to write something small: a sentence, a paragraph, or perhaps a few lines of dialogue. Sometimes your writing session just needs a jump-start to get the engine running.

If you find this works for you, you might even want to end your writing sessions mid-sentence, even if you know how the sentence should end. It will give you something you can immediately start writing the next time.

2. The Deadline

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

Douglas Adams

Trying to be creative while up against the clock might seem unappealing at first, but deadlines can be a tool. When unlimited possibilities are overwhelming, it can be hard to come up with something concrete. Deadlines enforce limits. If you want to get your writing done within a time limit, you have to stop thinking, stop planning, and start putting words on the page.

Self-imposed deadlines can take many forms, but to really be effective, they need some sort of external accountability. You’re more likely to get it done if the alternative is telling someone that you failed.

If you’re working on a rough draft, you might hold yourself accountable to beta readers, friends, or a writing circle. If you’re writing short fiction or poetry, you might be able to find a fitting contest, anthology, or magazine that has a limited window for submissions.

You may not need a particular person to hold you accountable. Committing to a schedule, participating in challenges like NaNoWriMo, or writing daily or weekly blog posts or serial fiction might be enough of a push to keep you going.

3. The Speed Demon

Sometimes you’ve got an idea, but you just can’t find the right words or place to start. Well, it turns out that’s a problem for future you! Here in the present, all you have to do is write a pile of words that sorta, kinda get the point across. Write fast, and let that poor sucker, “future you,” worry about editing that hot mess into a beautiful manuscript.

How do you force yourself to write fast when you’re already struggling to write anything at all? You could try applications like Write or Die, The Most Dangerous Writing App, or Flowstate. These apps can play angry noises, flash, or even start to delete your words if you stop writing for too long, helping you learn how to write fast and stop worrying about the quality of the content.

If these tech solutions don’t appeal to you, you can still go old-school. Challenge a fellow writer to a word-count race. Put on a your favorite speed metal playlist and try to write a hundred words by the end of each song. The important thing is to get those words out. You can make them better later.

4. The Prompt

Creative cross-pollination is a real thing. A story that’s floundering may be missing some vital idea that will make all the disparate pieces fit into place. It can help to get away from the story, especially if you bring something new back when you return to it.

One of the best ways to reset the writing brain is with prompts. If you aren’t aware, writing prompts are popular. They’re everywhere. You can find hundreds with a quick internet search. If you prefer something physical, there are writing prompt journals, books, calendars, and cards.

If you prefer higher stakes, try looking for a themed contest. Many contests require a specific genre, setting, or topic. Find one in your wheelhouse, or try something you’ve never written before. You might even turn your writer’s block into a cash prize.

5. The Spike

Stuck trying to get a story from point A to point B? Not sure where the story is going? Too many possibilities, or no way forward? Try a spike.

I blogged about writing spikes in a previous post. In short, a writing spike is a little writing experiment to figure out where a story should go and how it might get there by trying different possibilities. Spikes are designed to be thrown away, so there’s no pressure to make them perfect.

6. The Great Outdoors

Do you always write in the same place? Use the same computer or the same notebook? Write at the same time of day or week? Routine can be grounding, and it can help to carve out time when schedules are tight. Routines can also become dull and stale.

A change of scenery, a different time of day, a switch from pen to keyboard or vice versa – all of these can help break that block.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

Try, and try again. Ultimately, overcoming writer’s block requires trust that more words will come. Sometimes just eking out a few words leads to a flood. Sometimes the words have to be bad so they can be made better later. Sometimes it takes external motivation or a change in scenery to make writing feel fresh and new again. And what you thought was terrible may turn out to be pretty good on re-read.

Do you have any favorite tricks to help you get past writer’s block? Let me know in the comments.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #13

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! You can start from the beginning here.

Last Time

I fleshed out the secondary characters that interact with Christopher in Act II. Then I wrote chapter-level summaries for 11 of his Act II chapters.

God-Speaker Problems

My Act II plans for God-Speaker are a lot more nebulous than my plans for Christopher. There are several things I’ll need to figure out. Once I solve those problems, I need to fit the results into the chapters, or make some modifications to make them fit.

I left 5 open chapters in my Act II outline while I was working on Christopher’s plot. That doesn’t feel like much space, but I’ll start with that. Those chapters need to work like little self-contained stories from different time periods, while still contributing to the overall plot and illuminating God-Speaker as a character.

Before I start on the summaries for those chapters, I need to figure out what information I have to present, what changes God-Speaker undergoes, and come up with supporting characters so all that can happen.

I need to figure out what the artifacts can do, and some back-story for them (even if it’s only hinted at in the story). I need to figure out the progression of Razor Mountain, from God-Speaker alone in a cave to a city-sized hidden society. Finally, I need to figure out how God-Speaker grows steadily more obsessed with and fearful of death, how he evolves into an emotionally hardened despot, how he slowly becomes disconnected from his own humanity as he lives for thousands of years.

The Artifacts

God-Speaker finds the artifacts when he first comes to Razor Mountain. They’ll barely be seen in the story, but their power drives the plot. They are essentially magic, even if they’re masquerading as technology. I need to make sure that I explain clearly what they can do, and also what their limitations are. Otherwise, their effects will feel like deus ex machina instead of being grounded in the world of the story.

The artifacts have three purposes in the story:

  1. Intelligence – When God-Speaker first finds the artifacts in a cave, his mind is altered. He suddenly sees the world differently than his stone-age cohorts. He can make cognitive leaps that are beyond them. He is able to manipulate them and make himself appear to be a god.
  2. Reincarnation – When God-Speaker grows old in body, he doesn’t die. Instead, he transfers his consciousness and memory into another person. For this transfer, distance is no issue. However, his thoughts are dormant in that person until “activated” by the artifact at close range.
  3. Altering the timeline – A person or their consciousness can be sent back to a particular point in time, with the power to alter the timeline. God-Speaker uses this to fix any catastrophic mistakes he might make by ensuring he is sent a warning from the future, before the mistake can ever happen. This also facilitates the ending, when Christopher goes back and stops God-Speaker from initiating the whole chain of events.

Although I’ve been referring to them as “the artifacts,” they could take whatever form is convenient. I think I may prefer them to be more abstract and mysterious. Maybe they’re not items at all. Perhaps there’s a chamber, deep inside the mountain, embedded in some much larger structure of unknown size. A crashed alien ship? A construct of some ancient, extinct race? In any case, it helps to explain why God-Speaker is so bound to the mountain.

The powers of the artifacts need not feel so precise either, as long as they still fulfill their functions. The transfer of consciousness that allows for reincarnation might just allow the transfer back in time. The intelligence or insight given by the “artifacts” might really be due to other consciousnesses or fragments of consciousnesses, trapped in the chamber in a way that God-Speaker can access their collective wisdom.

The Building of Razor Mountain

When God-Speaker emerges from the cave, he suddenly understands a great many things. He has become stone-age MacGyver. Resources are still scarce, but he has advantages in survival. He finds that he has expertise in plants, in the instincts of animals and trapping them. He can create better tools, from finely knapped flint spearheads to spear throwers that increase his range and accuracy.

Having satiated the immediate needs of his own survival, he begins traveling further afield. There are still migrating tribes nearby. Perhaps he even finds members of his own original tribe. He has a better understanding now of social manipulation, and he becomes a leader through careful application of flattery, bribery, intimidation and trickery.

With more labor at his disposal, he can begin to develop technology like agriculture, animal husbandry, mining, smelting, and simple medicine. His group prospers, and he builds up a little kingdom in a harsh environment; far more advanced than the neighboring tribes.

However, his kingdom draws the attention of rivals. He is attacked and even betrayed by some of his own. The bloodshed disturbs and disillusions him. He decides that it’s best not to expand his kingdom or draw more attention to himself. Instead, he and his kingdom turn their focus inward. He begins excavations under the mountain.

From there, things progress in small, incremental steps. His spies periodically go out into the world. The world progresses and he sometimes has people, materials and finished goods brought to the mountain. For the most part, his kingdom stays within a few miles of the mountain.

Turning Inward

To turn God-Speaker into an emotionally deadened autocrat, he needs more than the challenges of managing a small kingdom. He needs personal pain and loss. He needs the person he loves most to die, while he lives on. He needs to be betrayed by a close friend.

If God-Speaker loves someone deeply, he would do everything in his now considerable power to protect her. I think this relationship is going to be cursed. She’s sick. Perhaps with his considerable knowledge he even has some idea of how sick she is, but he lacks the technology and resources to heal her.

Of course, he tries to use the artifacts to save her, but perhaps not everyone can use the artifacts. Perhaps his connection is unusual. (This might also explain why nobody is able to use them in the years when God-Speaker is trapped as a sort of ghost in Christopher’s subconscious). She tries to use them with his instruction, but is unable to send her soul into someone else.

Early on, even as God-Speaker is growing in power, he is still among the people he rules. This begins to change when he is betrayed by someone he considered a close friend. He sees greed and desire for power corrupt this friend. It continues to be an ongoing cycle throughout the years, and God-Speaker builds up defenses against it. His society becomes stratified, with fewer and fewer people able to get close to him. Eventually, only a few even know he exists.

Even when only a handful of people are in any position to threaten him, God-Speaker develops social structures to separate the greedy and power-hungry from those who are willing and loyal servants. He allows the potential betrayers to make their plans under surveillance, then promptly crushes them. The cycles of betrayal and distrust wear at him. He begins to evaluate people by the likelihood that they’ll betray him.

The Recent Past

The final puzzle piece in the history of Razor Mountain is a relatively recent development.

It’s challenging enough to keep this sovereign mountain compound hidden from the outside world through the expansions and explorations of mankind over thousands of years. Where it really becomes impossible is in the modern age of precision satellite imaging and worldwide instantaneous communication.

I could make this a little less challenging for myself by setting the story a decade or three in the past, so the technology isn’t quite so developed. But I think it makes sense that God-Speaker would be planning to handle a world where it’s harder and harder to remain hidden. He also still wants access to the people, manufacturing capabilities, and resources of the outside world.

His first problem is remaining hidden. This is partly resolved by the artifacts’ ability to go back in time and get a do-over. Carefully placed spies, both human and technological, can help. The advent of the internet also potentially allows him to use the skills and knowledge from the artifacts to hack into information systems around the world and adjust things as needed.

His second problem is internal. If he wants to send people into the outside world, they can’t be shocked and awed by what they find there. Likewise, he can’t run the risk of occasional deserters finding their way out into the real world and revealing Razor Mountain’s existence. His isolated little city needs to feel integrated into the outside world while still physically separate.

For this, he develops the faux military system that ties into the American military. To the inhabitants of Razor Mountain, the 550th Infantry is a battalion of the U.S. Army. To certain Army IT systems, it may be too. However, the 550th isn’t an ordinary battalion. It’s cut off, with limited supplies. Its soldiers live in Razor Mountain, but so do their civilian families. Travel is strictly limited.

For this, God-Speaker develops a mythological origin for Razor Mountain: it’s a city built under the auspices of secret laws, unknown to the outside world. These laws establish the place as a sort of fail-safe against catastrophe. Should there be nuclear Armageddon, worldwide plague, or devastating meteor impact, Razor Mountain will survive.

Part of this mythology is the secrecy and self-sufficiency of Razor Mountain. In the heart of the cold war, the communists can’t find out about this secret bastion. They’ll nuke it. If civilization is destroyed by plague, it won’t do to let outsiders bring it to the last safe place.

This story reinforces the secrecy of Razor Mountain, but it’s also a story that can be used to instill a sense of pride in the populace. They live confined and limited lives, but the hardships they endure are because they are special: unique in the world. They are important. They might very well be the salvation of humanity in the face of disaster.


I fleshed out the artifacts, although there may still be some work to do there. I worked through the building of Razor Mountain from a natural cave into what Christopher finds when he arrives there. I outlined God-Speaker’s emotional evolution, and some of the reasons why he becomes so heartless and cold.

Next time, I’m going to do my best to distill all of this into a sequence of chapter summaries for Act II.

Reference Desk #5 – OneNote

There’s a small company called Microsoft that makes a little-known suite of productivity software called Office. Oh, you’ve heard of them?

Okay, yes, I really am going to shill for Microsoft a little bit here. Why? Because I like OneNote.

How Did This Happen?

I first encountered OneNote at my day job, where I automatically get a Microsoft Office subscription. I was mildly confused and irritated. Microsoft already had Word, the bloated, menu-bursting word processor so many of us know and tolerate. Now they were going to throw yet another application at me, and it’s also just for writing text? With fewer features?

It seemed like a product in search of a purpose.

However, I started noticing others using it. I tentatively tried it. I started to realize that the simplicity was a feature. Pretty soon I was using it for meeting notes, for project notes, for miscellaneous thoughts and to-do lists. I even started using it at home, for my writing notes.

In short, they had managed to hook me.

But Why?

OneNote isn’t exactly a word processor. It doesn’t try to do fancy layouts. It doesn’t have a ton of options.I do approximately two things with it: simple organization, and simple text.

Organization in OneNote breaks down into notebooks, tabs, and pages. These are convenient virtual metaphors that map to the real world.

I can imagine having a work notebook and a home notebook. I can imagine my work notebook with little colored tabs, separated into sections for the projects I’m working on. Likewise, my home notebook would have tabs for each of my writing projects: novels, stories, and blog. And within each tab are pages with specific notes: a page for a blog post, a page for chapter outlines of a novel, a page for that short story.

OneNote provides an additional organization feature: a hierarchy of pages, up to three levels deep. I mostly use this feature to organize several pages under a title or heading in the side-bar. For example, my Blog tab has headings for Razor Mountain, general blog posts, and reference desk posts, among others.

It’s easy to imagine unlimited levels of hierarchy, but I find that the limitation is good for me. It’s easy for me to fall into the trap of endless, complicated hierarchies, which is what inevitably happens to my computer desktop. The limitation forces me to stick to a simpler, more straightforward organizational system that actually serves me better.

Notes and Only Notes

When I write out notes the old-fashioned way, in a notebook, I generally don’t do anything fancy. I just jot down text. I might occasionally underline or circle something important, or create a bulleted or numbered list. I might write notes for different things on different parts of the page, all willy-nilly.

OneNote doesn’t provide fancy layout or crazy text options. It makes it easy to do the handful of things I tend to want to do when I’m writing notes. I have quick hot-keys for bulleted and numbered lists. I can throw a freeform chunk of text anywhere on a page. I can do the standard text decorations: bold, italics, underline and highlight. And I can easily grab notes from one spot in the page and move them to another spot, or to an entirely different page, tab or notebook.

At this point, I suppose I have to admit that OneNote does have a few other features. You can insert pictures and videos, which I can certainly see some value in, even if I don’t often do it. You can insert spreadsheets as well, which might be justifiable, since they do make notebooks with graph paper. You can draw or write directly, if you’re using a touchscreen or are braver with a mouse than I am.

The other feature that really sells OneNote for me is the synchronization. I have my Office account and notebook for work, and my personal Office account and notebooks for home. I can sync them both on my home computer, my work computer, and my phone. All of my work saves as soon as I write it. It seamlessly updates across my devices, as long as I have internet. Very little complexity or effort.

That said, when I get deep into writing stories and novels, I move over to Scrivener, because it’s good at organizing and laying out fiction. But before I get to that point, when I just want to generate tons of notes, I do it in OneNote, because that’s what it’s good at.

That’s It

I understand that not everyone wants to sign up with Microsoft. Not everyone wants to pay a subscription for a product (myself included). Despite my best efforts, OneNote has won me over. It works for me because it does one thing and it does it well. It almost always picks simplicity over extra features.

If you’re looking for an application to organize your notes that can sync across a variety of devices, I recommend you give it a try.

You can try the 2016 version for free on all sorts of devices, but the latest and greatest requires purchasing Office.