Reference Desk #9 — Write Now with Scrivener

I’ve made no secret that Scrivener is my tool of choice for writing novels. Now — like everyone else in the pandemic — they’ve announced a podcast. It’s called “Write Now with Scrivener,” and it’s scheduled to come out monthly. Thus far, there’s only one episode.

Like any series, I don’t think the inaugural episode is enough to judge a podcast, but I decided to check it out and see what it has to offer.

The Interview

The host is Kirk McElhern, author of “Take Control of Scrivener,” which is certainly on brand. He’s not somebody I’m familiar with, so I had no expectations. McElhern seems to have prepped well for the interview, and had solid knowledge of his subject, but I didn’t feel like he asked any particularly surprising questions or drew out any great insights.

Part of it, perhaps, is that the interviewee for this episode is Peter Robinson. He’s the author of the Alan Banks series. With more than thirty published novels, he’s clearly a successful author, but I don’t read a lot of detective mysteries, and I’m not familiar with his work. So again I came in with no expectations.

We learn that Robinson eschews outlines (can we please stop using the word “pantser” for this?) when starting a new book, but builds an outline as he goes to keep himself organized. As someone who outlines, I always find this a little bit amazing. Even more amazing to me is that he doesn’t know the ending. I’ve only ever dabbled in mystery, but it seems difficult to know where you’re going in the genre without an idea of the ending. It goes to show that writers can have very different processes to achieve similar results.

The Obligatory Bit About Scrivener

The final few minutes of the podcast was reserved to discuss how Robinson uses Scrivener. This was the bit I had concerns about. On the one hand, perhaps I would get a couple of useful tips. On the other hand, perhaps it’s just very thinly veiled advertising by the patrons of the podcast.

Robinson dutifully explained that he writes scene by scene, in fairly small chunks, and that Scrivener makes it easy to rearrange those scenes with drag-and-drop, or pull things out and save them for later. He also uses snapshots before changing a scene to compare the different versions afterward.

Having used Scrivener for a few years, I didn’t really get anything new out of this, and unfortunately it felt a little bit like advertising. However, if you’re new to Scrivener, these are the kinds of simple, straightforward features that make the product good for writing novels, and they’re useful to know about.

The Verdict?

As I said before, I’ll withhold judgement until I’ve heard a couple episodes. Overall, I found the chat with Peter Robinson interesting, even if I’m not a reader of his books. I hope that they’re able to get authors from various genres for future episodes.

I’m honestly a bit worried about the “how do you use Scrivener” bit. As much as I like the product, it feels a little too advertisey. I suspect that most writers are going to  talk about the same handful of main features: the ones at the core of what makes Scrivener good. What might be able to make this segment shine is an author who really utilizes some of the more hidden features.

Episode 3: J.T. Ellison, Thriller Author, TV Show Host, and Publisher Write Now with Scrivener

J.T. Ellison has written more than 25 novels: standalone thrillers, three series, and has recently published the first in a series of co-authored young adult novels. She co-hosts a literary TV show, and is also a publisher. She also "loves Scrivener with the passion of a thousand fiery suns." Show notes: J.T. Ellison (https://www.jtellison.com) Latest book: Her Dark Lies (https://www.jtellison.com/her-dark-lies) @thrillerchick (https://twitter.com/thrillerchick) A Word on Words (https://awordonwords.org) (TV show) Jeff Abbott (https://jeffabbott.com) Story Planner (https://www.storyplanner.com) The Wine Vixen (https://www.thewinevixen.com) Learn more about Scrivener (https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener/overview), and check out the ebook Take Control of Scrivener (https://www.literatureandlatte.com/store). If you like the podcast, please follow it in Apple Podcasts (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/write-now-with-scrivener/id1568550068) or your favorite podcast app. Leave a rating or review, and tell your friends. And check out past episodes of Write Now with Scrivener (https://podcast.scrivenerapp.com).
  1. Episode 3: J.T. Ellison, Thriller Author, TV Show Host, and Publisher
  2. Dan Moren, Science Fiction Author, Journalist, and Podcaster
  3. Episode 1: Peter Robinson, Author of the Alan Banks Crime Fiction Series

Razor Mountain Development Journal #25

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 chapters 5-9, expanding the summaries, consolidating two chapters, and adding more mysteries and cliffhangers. I broke the pattern of Christopher and God-Speaker chapters, so I’m making a note to reevaluate that after I’ve gone through all the chapters.

Chapter 9

Christopher manages to dig his way out of the tent and the snow, damaging it in the process. He does his best to jury-rig a lean-to, but it goes poorly. He gets no more sleep before morning and is forced to eat and pack in heavy snow. He is cold, wet and miserable.

He decides to continue, with the belief that he can go one more day further and still make it back to the bunker if he needs to. But he is once again full of uncertainty. His progress is very slow.

He comes across what look like footprints in the snow in a heavily wooded area. He follows them, and they lead to a place where someone could have watched him. He continues to follow them, and thinks he catches a glimpse of someone in the trees. He chases and shouts, but he twists his ankle. The tracks go to a tree and disappear, as though someone climbed up, but nobody is in the branches. He shouts again, but nobody answers.

He still hasn’t gotten to his destination by nightfall, and he’s forced to make camp. He’s exhausted, and he constructs something that barely qualifies as shelter.

Cliffhangers – Is he lost again? Will he find the thing on the map?

Mysteries

  • 9.1 – Was there a person in the woods? Who?

Episode Arc – The chapter starts bad for Christopher, but his hope is renewed when he comes across the tracks. Then he chases the mystery person, hurts his ankle, and still hasn’t arrived. He pushes forward. He begins to seriously doubt he can do this, and even wonders if he’s having a mental breakdown.

Notes

  • This chapter originally lacked a good mystery or clear arc. I added the footprints and Christopher chasing the mystery person to address this.

Chapter 10 (Previously 11)

The tribe hikes slowly around the rock-strewn base of the mountain. It snows lightly. The other side is all scree slopes. They search for hours for a safe place to descend to a snowy valley below. They find a relatively shallow descent, but the loose rocks shift as they go down. Everyone slides to the bottom over sharp rock fragments. Several people are hurt. God-Speaker is struck in the temple on the way down and his head aches. They eat the last few morsels of food, then sleep.

The next day, they follow the valley as it winds to the left of the smoking mountain. The snow is deep here, and travel is slow. The valley turns away from the direction they want to go, and they are forced to climb rough slopes. At the top, they see a landscape of jagged glacial ice. There is no food in sight. God-Speaker’s head still throbs. He thinks he hears spirits nearby, but doesn’t understand them. The tribe sleeps, hungry and miserable.

The next day, they follow the canyons between the ice formations. Everything glows with the eerie blue light of the ice. They come to a tunnel into the ice, going in the right direction. They follow it, all sound muffled except footsteps and the deep thump of ice cracking far away or above. Deep in the tunnel, they come across a bear and two malnourished cubs. They kill, cook, and eat the animals, saving a few days of meat and giving thanks to the bears’ spirits.

The spirits seem louder here, to God-Speaker. He thinks it would be bad to sleep under the ice. Somewhat reinvigorated by the food, they press on. They arrive at the end of the tube. It is deep night, and there is a huge blizzard coming down. They sleep at the mouth of the tunnel. God-Speaker dreams that spirit voices are calling to him from the smoking mountain. They tell him that his tribe will be destroyed.

Cliffhangers – Will the tribe be destroyed? Will they make it through the blizzard?

Mysteries

  • 10.1 – What are the spirits that God-Speaker thinks he hears? Or does he just have a head injury?

Episode Arc – The tribe is hungry and travelling through barren areas. They have a difficult time over several days of travel. When they find and slaughter the bears, it gives everyone some hope again. The spirit voices worry God-Speaker though, and the blizzard means travel will be even harder from here.

Notes

  • This chapter was very poorly defined and really had to be reworked into a summary that will let me just write the chapter without having to figure out too many things in the process.
  • To make the travel interesting, I looked at pictures of glacial areas for inspiration. The tribe travels over varied terrain over several days.
  • The spirits that God-Speaker hears are alluding to the artifacts that he will encounter later, and add some mystery. His head trauma adds a plausible non-supernatural explanation.

Chapter 11 (Previously 12)

Christopher wakes early in the morning, aching and exhausted. He decides that he will look for the marked spot on the map for half the day. If he doesn’t find it, he’ll head back toward the bunker.

He studies the visible mountains, compares them to the elevations on the map, and believes he has a good idea of where he is. He travels over fairly flat, but heavily wooded terrain until he thinks he’s close to his destination. Noon comes and goes, but he finds nothing other than trees. He keeps searching, even though he knows he should start the journey back.

Mid-afternoon, he finds something: a slab of broken concrete sticking out of the ground at an angle, hidden behind a fallen tree and covered in lichen. He digs around and finds more chunks of concrete. He quickly realizes that a vague depression is actually the foundation of a small building. The walls are shattered. Christopher finds sooty scorch-marks on some of the concrete pieces.

He’s eventually forced to conclude that whatever was here is destroyed years ago. There are no hidden doors, and no habitable structure. It’s late enough that he sets up camp on the ruin.

Cliffhangers – No

Mysteries

  • 11.1 – What was the ruined building? How and why was it destroyed?

Episode Arc – Christopher is worn down, and starts his day by making a plan to give up. He searches longer than he told himself he would, desperate not to give up and admit defeat. He finally succeeds in finding the building, but it is ruined and useless, and he’s wasted more time. He is at his lowest point so far.

Notes

  • This chapter and the next both had very short single-paragraph summaries. I considered combining them, but I decided that they both had a viable structure and just needed to be expanded.

Results

I updated three more chapter summaries. I’m finding that analyzing each chapter by its cliffhanger, mysteries and arc is a pretty good strategy. When I don’t have a mystery or satisfying arc, that’s a pretty clear sign that something needs to be added or reworked. In every case where I’ve done that, I think the chapter has become stronger as a result.

I haven’t been able to put a ton of time into this project over the past couple weeks, which has been a little frustrating. I’m really eager to get through these summaries and begin writing. I wanted to start posting the story in the first half of the year. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I’ll be able to make that happen.

Still, steady progress is a good thing, and I’m not going to be too negative as long as the project keeps moving forward.

Write to Give

Welcome to “Write to Give,” my newest regular blog feature! My current plan is to post these one or two times per month on Wednesdays.

“Write to Give” is an opportunity for us to work together to make a difference. Every post will feature a charity or non-profit. I’ll explain how they’re making the world better, and I’ll link to their ratings so you can be confident they’re doing good things with the money they receive.

I’ll start things off by making an initial donation to the featured charity. Then, it’s your turn.

If you can afford it, make a donation. If not, that’s okay too. You can give just by commenting on my post. For each comment, I’ll donate an additional $1, and for each donation you make, I’ll match it, up to a max of $200 USD.

Second Harvest Heartland

Today’s “Write to Give” is in support of Second Harvest Heartland.

Second Harvest is a food bank in my home state of Minnesota. They distribute more than a hundred million pounds of food every year to people who would otherwise go hungry. They don’t just distribute canned and boxed foods. They focus on sourcing fresh food, working with local farms, coops, and local retail. You can read about their programs here.

Second Harvest acts as a distributor, providing food to local food shelves, shelters, meal programs, and even after-school programs.

With the myriad problems caused by COVID-19 over the past year and a half, more people than ever are depending upon food banks. Now is the perfect time to help.

Giving

I’ll start by giving $25.

Now it’s your turn. Just comment on this post! For each comment, I’ll give an additional $1.

Or, you can donate to Second Harvest Heartland here. Send me your receipt by email, DM me on Twitter, or comment with a link to somewhere like Imgur. I’ll match it dollar-for-dollar.

I’ll cap my matching/comment donation at $200. Show me your generosity and let’s see if we can hit that cap.

More Ways to Help

There are lots of ways you can help Second Harvest, or your own local food shelf. You can donate food, or even organize a food drive at your workplace, school, book club, or other get-togethers.

Many food shelves are in desperate need of volunteers to load/unload, organize or distribute food. Even if you can’t give financially, consider giving your time.

Other Considerations

Donations to non-profits are tax-deductible in the US and many other places. Keep your receipts if you want to claim the deduction on your taxes.

Many companies will match employee contributions to non-profits. Check with your employer to see if you can make your donation go even further.

Suggest a Non-Profit

Do you know of a charity or non-profit organization doing great work? Leave a comment on this post and tell me about it. I might pick your favorite non-profit for my next “Write to Give” post.

Reference Desk #8 — Working it Out

There’s a rare thing that happens sometimes in great comedies. The writers insert an episode, a scene, or even a few lines of dialogue that create a dramatic, emotional impact. A little island of seriousness among the jokes.

When this is done correctly, the knife twist from lighthearted laughs to pathos can be every bit as impactful as a similar scene within a drama, where the entire show may have been building up to it.

Fans of Futurama will know what I mean if I mention Fry’s dog, Seymour. Fans of Scrubs will remember Ben Sullivan. And fans of Adventure Time might just get a little choked up when they hear “Everything Stays.”

Birbigs

I’ve been a fan of Mike Birbiglia for a while, and I think it’s mostly because he lives on that edge between humor and pathos. He considers himself a stand-up comedian, but his on- and off-Broadway shows often feel like half dramatic one-man-show, half stand-up special. They revolve around events as serious as sleep-walking through a second-story window or being T-boned in a hit-and-run car accident.

Working it Out” is Birbiglia’s podcast. As you might expect from a comedian’s podcast, there are plenty of popular comedian guests, from John Mulaney and Hannah Gadsby to Jimmy Kimmel and Frank Oz. But rather than being a simple excuse to joke with friends and acquaintances, Mike makes it something halfway between an interview show and a critique circle. It turns out he is deeply studious when it comes to the craft of telling jokes, and the craft of storytelling.

The through-line of the 40 episodes that have been released so far is the new show that Birbiglia is developing. It started with the title “The YMCA Pool,” but he now calls it “The Old Man and the Pool.” It’s a comedy show about getting older and coming to grips with your own mortality.

In the first episode, Mike tries out some of the material he’s working on with his friend and “This American Life” luminary, Ira Glass. Ira gives him advice that involves significant rewriting, and he accepts it graciously. By episode 25, when Ira returns, Mike has done his rewrite. They run through it again, and discuss it in depth. Mike jokingly asks, after half a year of revisions, how close his story is to being worthy of “This American Life.” And Ira deadpans, “halfway there.”

The Vulnerability of Revision

What makes Birbiglia’s comedy work so well, and the knife-twist that makes it hit so hard, is his vulnerability on stage. The podcast is different from a stage show, of course, but it still works because he’s willing to be vulnerable in front of an audience.

It’s clear that Mike doesn’t shy away from the hard work of revision. Guests bring their work in progress, and he brings his, and they hash it out, every episode. Some of the guests are clearly less into the workshopping aspect than others, but Birbiglia’s enthusiasm shows through.

If you’ve read any of my writing development journals, you can probably see why this appeals to me. There’s something raw and awkward about a rough draft. It’s hard enough to be confident about work that’s polished to a mirror shine, and it can outright hurt to reveal the grotesque early versions of the art we’re passionately trying to create, in the midst of its creation. But it’s immensely reassuring to be reminded that it’s like that for everyone! Art doesn’t spring fully formed from our minds, like Athena from the head of Zeus. It has to be shaped and reshaped. Bits added on, and bits sanded off. The slow, steady grind of progress.

Of course, it helps to have a few jokes to lighten the mood, even if they are jokes about death.

49. Keegan-Michael Key: Schmigadon't Think Twice Mike Birbiglia's Working It Out

In 2015 Mike filmed “Don’t Think Twice” where Keegan-Michael Key played a guy who got cast on a fictional version of SNL. This year Keegan hosted the *actual* SNL in a delightful case of life imitating art imitating life. Today Keegan and Mike nerd out about live sketches vs. filmed Key and Peele sketches, the wisdom of Robert Deniro, and how Keegan seems to be able to do anything, including his most recent role in the new musical comedy series Schmigadoon! https://rfkhumanrights.org/
  1. 49. Keegan-Michael Key: Schmigadon't Think Twice
  2. 48. Judd Apatow Returns: Judd Has Notes
  3. Taylor Tomlinson: Quarter-Life Crisis Meets Mid-Life Crisis
  4. 47. Malcolm Gladwell: 10,000 Hours of Jokes
  5. 46. Brie Larson: Captain Marvel Helps Captain Jokes

Razor Mountain Development Journal #24

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 made some adjustments to the chapter two summary and expanded chapters three and four.

Chapter 5

God-Speaker and his tribe are traveling through rough, mountainous terrain. He carries the stone god in a carrier on his back, and the weight is hard on him. It has snowed, making travel more difficult.

The tribe reaches an outcrop where there are two paths. God-Speaker consults the god to determine which way to go. He is still grieving Makes-Medicine, and he has a hard time hearing the voice of the God over the cold wind. He doubts himself. He thinks the god is telling him to take one of the paths, because there will be animals to hunt.

The tribe goes that way, and soon finds animal tracks. They find a shallow basin, like an empty pond, surrounded by trees. The tracks are everywhere. It seems like the perfect place to lie in wait for animals. They set up here for a few hours, but only catch a pair of rabbits(?).

Another group of hunters suddenly comes out of the woods on the other side, and there is a tense stand-off. The groups can barely understand each other’s language. After an attempt at communication, everyone lowers their weapons. The other hunters return the way they came.

They find shelter along a cliff wall for the night and cook the meager amount of meat, supplemented by dried food they brought with them, but nobody is satisfied. As it gets dark, they see shooting stars. God-Speaker interprets this as he was taught: as an ill omen. Soon after, there is a small earthquake. Everyone is unsettled.

Cliffhangers:

  • Will the tribe find food?

Mysteries:

  • Are these omens real?

Episode Arc:

  • God-Speaker guides the tribe, but is worried that he isn’t up to the task. He leads them to food, but it is little. Climax: the stand-off with the other hunters. Resolution: things look bleak, and there are bad omens.

Notes:

  • Research a bit about wildlife in Alaska near the end of the last ice age. What animals might they hunt?
  • God-Speaker just suffered the trauma of losing his mentor. He is grieving and looking for reassurance, but not finding any.

Combining Chapters 6 and 7

These two chapters are doing similar work. Christopher is working up the courage to go out and explore, fighting his own fears. To work himself up to it, he needs to practice a bit, and gain confidence in himself. The way I wrote the original chapter summaries, chapter 6 had him making the decision, gathering supplies, and trying winter camping. Chapter 7 had him hiking a half-day out and doing the same thing, with a few more difficulties getting back.

I think this will be tighter and more interesting as a single chapter. As much as I love the completely consistent 2:1 ratio of chapters between the two POV characters, I need to break it. For now, I’ll leave the updated chapters where they fall, and re-evaluate ordering between Christopher and God-Speaker chapters later.

I also noticed that the original chapter 7 summary builds up to a good cliffhanger, where it’s late, and he’s tired and lost, then throws it away by letting him get back to the bunker at the end. I’m going to leave it on the cliffhanger.

Chapter 6 (Previously 6 and 7)

Christopher decides to investigate the closest marked point on the map. He collects all the equipment he thinks he will need. He tries camping outside the bunker to get comfortable with it. He practices using some of the equipment from the bunker: tent, camp stove, flint and steel, snow shoes, etc.

When he feels ready to do a test excursion he plans a day trip to simulate the actual journey. He hikes a half-day out, sets up a camp site, makes lunch, and tears it down, having more trouble with his equipment this time. He hikes to a high spot to look out over the trees. He hears a crack that sounds like a gunshot far away. He heads back toward the bunker. He gets a little lost. He’s tired, and it’s very late. He sees shooting stars in the sky.

Cliffhangers:

  • Will he find the bunker?
  • Are the shooting stars bad omens in this time too?
  • Was it a gunshot?

Mysteries:

  • 6.1 – What are the locations on the map?

Episode Arc:

  • Christopher builds up his confidence and goes out exploring, but it doesn’t go quite as well as he expected. Climax: he’s trying to get back to the bunker, but he’s lost.

Notes:

  • Christopher needs to come away from this outing knowing that he’s not an outdoorsman, but thinking he did well enough that he’s willing to take more dangerous steps from here.

Chapter 7 (Previously 8)

God-Speaker and his tribe hike over rougher, rocky terrain, their stomachs growling. They pause for a break, and God-Speaker hears the voice of the stone god clearly for the first time since Makes-Medicine died. It tells him to bring his people to the nearest high place: a boulder-strewn hill that looks like a bald head.

They climb up. From here, they can see a path through mountains and over glacial ice to a grassland bathed in sun. They decide that this is where the god has been leading them. They also see a crater and Razor Mountain, partly encased in ice. This appears to be an evil place, and they will have to pass it to reach their destination. As they look upon it, there is another tremor, and the mountain begins to smoke.

Cliffhangers: No.

Mysteries:

  • 7.1 – What is happening at the mountain? Meteor? Volcano?

Episode Arc:

  • God-Speaker hears the stone god’s voice, and to his relief, it leads them to what appears to be a good place. Climax: they see the danger and darkness they will have to pass to reach it.

Another Cliffhanger Opportunity

Once again, I see a perfectly functional cliffhanger at the start of old chapter 10, where Christopher’s tent collapses in the middle of the night, under heavy snowfall. Easy enough to put it at the end of the previous chapter instead, where it can do more work.

Chapter 8 (Previously 9)

Christopher calms down for a few minutes, then goes to a higher place, where he is able to see the glint of moonlight on the pond in front of the bunker. He makes his way down and goes inside to sleep, exhausted.

He takes a day to recover, deciding that he did well for his first excursion, and he should make his journey, before he second-guesses himself into losing his nerve. He sets out in perfect weather, to find the mark on the map. He figures he can make it there in two days. He travels most of the first day, marking his path by tying red string on tree branches. He gets up higher, but not high enough to see his surroundings to his satisfaction.

He happens across a moose in the woods, which is a little scary up-close, but doesn’t harm him. Then he finds a strange object in a broken tree: a crude wooden carving of a person, adorned with wilted flowers and grass.

He sets up camp. The tent and fire go smoothly this time, and he feels good.

He wakes up when his tent collapses in the middle of the night. There has been a huge snowfall. He is tangled in canvas and half-buried. It is very cold.

Cliffhangers:

  • Will he get out from the collapsed tent?

Mysteries:

  • 8.1 – Who made the little wooden doll and left it in the wilderness?

Episode Arc:

  • Christopher gets back to the bunker, then begins his journey, finally taking a risk to try to save himself. He finds a sign that someone else has been nearby. He feels good about his progress. Climax: his tent collapses in the night blizzard, and he is trapped and buried under the snow.

Notes:

  • This apparent success, followed by failure is foreshadowed by the smaller success and smaller failure

Results

I worked through chapters 5-9, expanding the summaries, consolidating two chapters, and adding more mysteries and cliffhangers. I broke the pattern of Christopher and God-Speaker chapters, so I’m making a note to reevaluate that after I’ve gone through all the chapters.

Learning from Great Hooks

The “hook” is the opening of a story: the handful of sentences where a reader is willing to completely suspend judgement and open themselves up to a new world. It’s called a hook because it’s the author’s opportunity to reel the reader in. To grab hold of them and refuse to let them go until the story is done.

Hooks are among the most daunting things to write. A hook needs to pull the reader in, but it’s also a promise of what’s to come. If the hook captures the reader’s interest, but does it in a way that’s at-odds with the rest of the story, it will feel like a betrayal. A bait-and-switch.

Today, I want to look at hooks from a few books I like and see what I can learn from them. How are they structured? As a reader, how do these introductory sentences pull me in? What do they promise about the story to come?

Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison

It is said that when the new Queen saw the old Queen’s baby daughter, she told the King that the brat must be got rid of at once. And the King, who by now had almost forgotten the old Queen and had scarcely looked at the baby, agreed and thought no more about it. And that would have been the end of that baby girl, but that her nurse, Matulli, came to hear of it. Now this nurse was from Finmark, and, like many another from thereabouts, was apt to take on the shape of an animal from time to time. So she turned herself into a black bear then and there, and picked up the baby in her mouth, blanket and all, and growled her way out of the Bower at the back of the King’s hall, and padded out through the light spring snow that had melted already hear the hall, and through the birch woods and the pine woods into the deep dark woods where the rest of the bears were waking up from their winter sleep.

This lovely rush of words is only five sentences. Most of them start with conjunctions, making it feel like one long, breathless run. So much is happening.

It’s clear from the first few words that this is going to be a fairy tale, and that’s further confirmed when we see that being able to turn into an animal is treated as no particularly impressive feat. We can also tell that this is no light and fluffy fairy tale. It begins with the almost casual cruelty of the king and queen.

This opening also makes it clear that this girl is the protagonist, and she will not be living a normal life. In this single paragraph, we see her lose her birthright, saved by a bear-woman and brought to live in the woods. It’s hard not to be curious about what will happen next.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, by Neil Gaiman

You ask me if I can forgive myself? I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter, when I believed her to have run away, perhaps to the city. During that year I forbade her name to be mentioned, and if her name entered my prayers when I prayed, it was to ask that she would one day learn the meaning of what she had done, of the dishonour that she had brought to my family, of the red that ringed her mother’s eyes.

I hate myself for that, and nothing will ease that, not even what happened that night, on the side of the mountain.

This opening starts in the second person, drawing the reader in by including them in what seems to be conversation in progress. A conversation with us.

We start with a few fragmented sentences, already waist-deep in mysteries. Where did you leave him? Who is he? What did you do? The daughter clearly didn’t run away to the city, so what happened to her?

The viewpoint character is already being defined here. He’s someone with strong emotions – a fierce temper that more or less caused him to disown his daughter, and his shame when he discovers this still unexplained truth of what really happened to her.

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”

“That’s what you said about the brother.”

“The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability.”

“Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”

“Not if the other person is his enemy.”

“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”

“If we have to.”

“I thought you said you liked this kid.”

“If the buggers get him, they’ll make me look like his favorite uncle.”

“All right. We’re saving the world, after all. Take him.”

Starting with dialogue puts us in the action immediately. It also tells us that whoever these two disembodied voices are talking about is probably important to the story. Dialogue like this, without tags attributing it to a character, is a dangerous choice because it can be disorienting to the reader. In this case, it works because we don’t have to care about these two speakers, only the information they’re conveying really matters.

The first sentence sounds like standard Messiah fare, but it’s immediately subverted. We understand that the target of this discussion is being observed and tested (in a very invasive way), and his brother and sister were subjected to this treatment as well. These voices are willing to be cruel to him if it’s required to make him into this messianic figure and save the world. The stakes of the story are already being established on the first page.

There is a little mystery here as well. What are the buggers, and why does the world need to be saved?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

It goes on like this for another page and a half of prologue, which meanders right into the first chapter. I found it hard to pick a cut-off point.

To me, this is the most interesting example we’ll look at today. It doesn’t introduce any of the main characters, or anything about the situation or setting (beyond Earth in general).

It does tell us that it’s science fiction, it’s not going to take itself seriously, and it’s going to be looking at everything from a rather skewed and unexpected viewpoint. In fact, what it’s really introducing is the the author’s incredibly distinctive voice and tone. If you’ve read Douglas Adams, you’ll know that his narrative voice is almost a character in its own right (even if it isn’t from an actual character’s perspective). This series includes plenty of chapter-length digressions and asides, and is undoubtedly better for it.

In short, the story can afford to wait a bit, because it’s so damn entertaining to just listen to what Adams has to say.

Give it a Try!

I’d encourage every writer to do this exercise with some favorite books. One of the wonderful things you’ll discover is the sheer variety of forms that a hook can take. You don’t need to feel forced into a formula — there are a plethora of ways to pull readers into a story. By analyzing the hooks of stories you love, you might discover some great ideas you can apply to your own stories.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #23

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 added detail to two of the chapter summaries, tracking cliffhangers, episode arcs and mysteries, and adding notes for when I write the chapter.

Chapter 2 Redux

After my last post, I kept thinking about where I had left chapter two, and I wasn’t very satisfied. The raid on his people provides some action, but he isn’t really involved. His arc for this episode is weak.

God-Speaker’s theme for most of the story is his escalating fear of death and the lengths he goes to as a result. I’m thinking the raiders attack God-Speaker directly, and he only survives thanks to the intervention of another person in his tribe. This brings fear of death front-and-center.

I also thought that this will mean more if it’s someone important to God-Speaker. I’m thinking it will be his mentor, the one who taught him about spirits and gods and other supernatural things. I’m tentatively naming this woman Makes-Medicine, and she’s something between physician and priest for the tribe. When she dies protecting him, God-Speaker feels guilty that he didn’t somehow do more to save her.

Chapter 3

Christopher wakes in the bunker, injured, but alive.

He finds room with ten bunks, the beds made up, but dusty and long unused. He finds a storage room with shelves of canned and boxed food bearing labels with a mountain symbol he doesn’t recognize. The storage room also contains camping and wilderness gear, and rifles and ammunition. Everything looks old. In the back corner is a strange machine that looks like a 1950s science-fiction version of a geothermal heat and power station.

In the main room, there is a dining table, couches, and a writing desk with a radio. He turns it on, and finds only static. He checks his injured leg, then eats an MRE from the storage room.

As he’s finishing his meal, a voice comes on the radio and speaks a series of numbers, followed by a set of beeps. Then static. He returns to the desk and cycles through frequencies, but the voice is gone.

Next, he goes through the drawers. He finds a folded map with several locations marked, but no legend for the markings. The voice comes back for a few more seconds. He cycles frequencies again and finds it once more. It seems like the voice is constantly jumping frequencies.

Christopher opens the bunker door and looks out across the lake. All he can see beyond are dense pines and mountains. He writes down a message at the desk that tries to describe where he is. Then he reads it out over the radio on several frequencies.

Cliffhanger: No.

Mysteries:

  • 3.1 – Who built the bunker and stocked it so thoroughly. What is the geothermal technology that seems to power it?
  • 3.2 – What is the numbers station signal on the radio?
  • 3.3 – What are the landmarks on the map?

Episode Arc:

  • Christopher wakes up and takes care of his injury and hunger. Climax: he hears the numbers station. Resolution: He sends out a radio message to try to get rescued, but it doesn’t seem hopeful.

Notes:

  • After the first two action-filled chapters, this one is a little slower. I need to build tension through the mysteries of the bunker.
  • Research what sort of food is likely to be in a mid-century MRE.

Chapter 4

Christopher wakes up late in the morning, from dreams of hiking through snowy mountains. He gets an unexciting brunch from the store room and eats it at the table. He plans his day in a notebook that he found in the desk.

It is day four at the bunker. He plans to make a signal fire and scout the area around the lake. He thinks his leg may feel slightly better. He reviews notes that he made previously, trying to remember all the details of his ill-fated flight. He remembers two other passengers and the pilot, but no details that offer any explanation for his bizarre situation.

He collects slightly oversized boots, warm clothes, and a hatchet from the store room. He goes outside and chops pine boughs. Then he uses a flint and steel to light a fire on the shore of the lake and burn green branches to create a column of smoke.

He hikes slowly around the shoreline. It is incredibly beautiful, but he sees nothing apart from empty wilderness. There are no signs of people, no planes overhead. After a couple hours, he stops to snack and just take in the beauty of his surroundings. It’s cloudy, and it begins to snow heavily. His leg hurts. He makes his way back as it’s getting dark. His fire is burnt out and covered in a layer of snow.

Inside the bunker, he eats dinner and lays out his notes and the map. He has notes on the numbers and how they cycle through frequencies. He has his notes on the airplane passengers. He has his cell phone, dead after the plunge into the lake.

Having been in a foggy daze since arriving, he suddenly feels panic. He may be trapped in this little bunker, in the wilderness. Eventually, the food will run out and he will die. He lays down in the bed, but he can’t sleep.

Cliffhanger: No.

Mysteries:

  • More building on mysteries from chapter 1.
  • Reveal some additional information about the passengers and pilot. Something about their looks and clothes were slightly off, slightly old-fashioned.

Episode Arc:

  • Christopher has settled into a routine. He is trying to figure out what happened to him and get rescued, but so far has had little success. Climax: the numbness wears off and he panics over his situation.

Notes:

  • This is the first time in the book where I get two chapters in a row for Christopher. At this point, I can really start to build him up as the protagonist. The setting and situation have been set, and this chapter can really focus on his thought process, and how he’s going to react.

Results

I made some adjustments to the chapter two summary and expanded chapters three and four.

Story in Games: Experience and Participation

This is still a blog about writing fiction, but in this post I’m going to talk about video games and the way they can provide some unique narrative experiences that are difficult or impossible to achieve in other media.

Even if you’re not interested in games, it’s worth learning a bit about how narrative in games continues to expand what media is capable of. A good place to start might be interactive fiction, an art form that straddles the boundaries of prose and video games. Interactive fiction is where a lot of interesting experimentation is going on, but more and more “traditional” video games are incorporating narrative lessons that were originally explored by IF.

Gameplay and Narrative

In many ways, the experiences in games can be tracked along two axes: gameplay and narrative.

I’ll define gameplay as systems to be solved or optimized. They are goal-based, whether implicitly or explicitly, and can be open-ended. Examples of gameplay include spinning and placing Tetris pieces or aiming and shooting opponents in a first-person shooter.

Narrative, on the other hand, is the “story” of the game. This may hew close to traditional story structures, as in film or fiction, but it can also branch, or even arise organically from the interaction of systems. Examples of narrative include branching dialogue choices in an RPG, characters talking in a cutscene, or distracting an enemy with a well-placed arrow in order to sneak past them.

I realize that there is a lot that could be argued within these definitions. I made them purposely broad, partly to illustrate how often we categorize narrative and story very narrowly.

Under these definitions, games may still range from no gameplay to all gameplay, and from no narrative to all narrative. However, the presence of one does not necessarily exclude the other — it’s not zero-sum, but it can require a deft hand to balance both.

Preconceptions

There is a certain set of gamers who think gameplay is the most important thing in a game. For this group, a game with little or no gameplay and lots of narrative doesn’t qualify as a game at all. These are the folks who coined the derisive term “walking simulator” for games that are entirely narrative, with little to no gameplay systems or challenges.

In opposition, we find the “games are art” crowd, who tend to be much more inclusive of walking simulators or visual novels, and appreciate narrative as much or more than gameplay. Many of the people in this camp will feel frustrated and excluded if a game has a lot of gameplay to wade through to get to the story, especially if it is difficult gameplay. If the player cares about the story, having that story blocked by gameplay that the player doesn’t care about can be irritating.

What Makes Game Narrative Special?

Games are a special narrative medium for two reasons:

  • They’re experiential
  • They’re participatory

In cinema, TV and books, the author will often try to create sympathy for a character. TV and movies have certain disadvantages here, because the visual media are always showing characters from the outside. Character narration is about as deep inside a viewpoint as they can get. Novels and stories, on the other hand, can use the first-person perspective to put the reader directly inside the character’s head. Even in third-person, they can reveal a character’s thoughts and emotions. The reader can more directly experience what the character experiences.

Games have a similar advantage, and go even further. In games, the player often controls or even inhabits a character. In this way, the player can experience what the character experiences. This is experientiality.

What a consumer of traditional fiction or visual media cannot do is take control of the story. Simple gameplay systems such as choosing where to walk at a given moment, or picking from several dialogue options, make the player an active participant in the story. Even if the choice is artificial and they are eventually funneled into a single location to progress, or the dialogue always ends with the same result, the feeling of participation is a powerful tool.

While other media can give the reader or viewer insight into a character’s thoughts and beliefs, games have a unique power to make the player feel unified with the character. The player becomes invested in the character’s actions as if it were the player making those actions, even when there really is no other option. Players often fall into first-person when talking about actions performed in the game. They say “I accidentally blew up the bokoblin camp,” not “Link accidentally blew up the bokoblin camp.”

Along with this fusion of player and character comes a strange feeling of player responsibility over the story. An unusual first person shooter called Spec Ops: the Line actively explores these concepts of narrative and player agency. The player has no real control over the story, moving from place to place and shooting everyone that moves. But when the characters participate in war crimes, the game asserts that the player did these terrible things. Because of the unification of player and character, it’s hard not to feel some amount of responsibility, even though the only other choice is to put the game down and walk away.

Simple experientiality can be as powerful as active participation and choice, but that power is often underestimated. In What Remains of Edith Finch, the player spends most of the game exploring the many ways that the members of the supposedly cursed Finch family died. It quickly becomes apparent that whenever you encounter a new character, they are destined by the narrative to die. It’s surprisingly crushing then, when you reach a point in the game where you discover that you are inhabiting the perspective of a small child, left alone for a moment in the tub. You know what will happen, and the very fact that you have no power to make a choice to change that outcome is gut-wrenching.

Bringing it Back to Fiction

Games can deploy experientiality and participation to create stories that would be impossible in other media. But is there anything in these concepts that we can bring back to our fiction writing?

I think there is, although it’s a challenge. We may have to dip our toes into the experimental end of the pool.

Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is an experimental novel that contains a layered narrative. It presents itself as a book pieced together from disparate documents, collected by multiple authors, and based in turn on lost video footage. It carefully passes the story through this chain of custody, from Will Navidson’s videos, to the old man, Zampanò, to the narrator, Johnny Truant. Implied within this is that the reader is the latest custodian of this story, which has driven its previous owners to obsession and insanity.

The text itself is cryptic and formatted in a variety of strange ways, sometimes swirling around the page with swaths of whitespace, colors or boxes. It is riddled with footnotes (and footnotes to footnotes), “supplementary” materials, and copious references to other works, both real and fictional. In some places, the text is so disordered, the reader must choose the order to read it in. At a broader level, the reader must make connections between disparate pieces of text across the book to assemble the story.

Simply by reading the text, the reader becomes a sort of detective, trying to derive meaning from this carefully constructed mish-mash. The reader begins to feel what Johnny or Zampanò might have felt as they compiled scraps of text into the book, or scrawled bewildered footnotes late into the night.

House of Leaves is a challenging book to read, and was no doubt a challenging one to write, but it is clearly trying to pull off the same tricks that many games achieve: to make the reader feel that they are experiencing and even actively participating in the story.

Trade-offs and Opportunities

Different forms of media will always have trade-offs — things they do better than other media, and things they do worse. For games, experientiality and participation are powerful storytelling tools. Working in fiction, we will always struggle to leverage those tools as effectively as games can.

Still, there are lessons that can be learned from this style of narrative, and perhaps opportunities to allow the reader to experience the story and even feel like an active participant.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #22

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 reviewed the overall outline and reread all of the chapter summaries in sequence. I thought about themes and and improvements to a couple chapters.

Improved Chapter Summaries

This week, I started going through each chapter summary one by one. I have a few goals with this.

Expand the Summaries

I’m adding extra detail in the outline so that I have a very clear blueprint that I can follow when it comes time to write each chapter. Normally, I wouldn’t go to this level of detail, and I would be more inclined to do some exploration as I write. However, since I’m going to write and release these chapters serially, readers will be getting them right away. I won’t have the luxury of rewrites and further edits.

Calling out Opportunities for Cliffhangers

Again, due to the serial release, I’m looking for places to stop where the reader wants to find out what happens next. I want to encourage them to come back for the next installment. I’m primarily looking for places to do a chapter break, but I am also considering the option of splitting some chapters into more than one episode, so cliffhangers within a chapter may also be useful.

Mysteries and Resolutions

The other thing I’m doing to create tension and keep the reader coming back is introducing lots of little mysteries. I’m going to note these and track their resolutions to ensure that I don’t leave plot threads hanging.

Arc

For each episode/chapter, I want to track the rising action, climax and resolution.

Notes

This includes things I want to research before writing the chapter, things I want to track, and general reminders of ideas I have for the actual text that may not come across in the summary.

Chapter 1

Christopher wakes up at night on a small plane over the Alaskan wilderness. As he wakes he has the impression that he is in a cave, but this resolves into the dimly lit passenger cabin. He feels  hung-over.

He looks around and discovers that the other passengers are missing. He checks the plane with rising panic and discovers that the pilot is also missing. There are no parachutes. The controls are confusing, but he can see that the fuel level is low.

In his panic, he has a sudden feeling that he knows what he must do: fly low and slow, and jump when he is over water. With uncharacteristic calmness, almost having an out-of-body experience, he watches for a lake, picks a spot, does his best to slow the plane, then jumps. (This is a hint of God-Speaker showing through.)

He snaps back to himself as he hits the water, terrified. The fall and the frigid water numbs his body, but he slowly realizes that his leg was injured in the fall. He manages to swim to shore, exhausted and shaking uncontrollably.

He stumbles around, already starting to lose consciousness, knowing that he needs shelter to survive. He makes his way under a shallow cliff. More by feel than by sight, he discovers a metal door set into the stone. There is a number pad, and he desperately pushes buttons, not expecting it to work. The door unlocks.

He stumbles inside, passing out. He is uncertain if he managed to close the door. He doesn’t know what’s inside, apart from a hard floor that feels surprisingly warm.

Cliffhangers:

  • Christopher jumping from the plane.
  • Christopher passing out as he enters the bunker.

Mysteries:

  • 1.1 – Why do the other passengers on the plane disappear while Christopher is asleep? Where did they go?
  • 1.2 – What is the bunker and why is it here in the wilderness?
  • 1.3 – How does Christopher know the door code to the bunker?
  • 1.4 – What are the strange thoughts that seem to be guiding Christopher?

Episode Arc:

  • Christopher faces the confusion of the empty plane, the harrowing jump, injury and swimming to shore. Climax: hypothermia, finding the door, and gaining entry. Resolution: passing out in the bunker.

Notes:

  • Research the kind of small passenger aircraft that might fly between local Alaskan airports, carrying around 10 people.
  • Research the effects of hypothermia.
  • Research realistic height and speed that would allow survival of the jump into water.
  • This chapter could be split into two short episodes for serial release, with each having a cliffhanger.
  • This chapter is action-driven. Readers won’t have a bond with Christopher yet, and will have limited investment in his well-being. His character is just being introduced, so it needs to be clear that he is terrified by all of this. He is surprised by his own decisive action.

Chapter 2

God-Speaker walks past the temporary dwellings of his tribe, scattered along a stream within a mountain valley. Others are packing and disassembling things.

He enters a cave in the cliff-side. It narrows to a crack that he has to squeeze through, then opens into a small space. There, he finds the tribe’s stone god, surrounded by little offerings. He prepares a sort of backpack — a carrier made of wood and animal hide. He puts the stone god into it and asks it for guidance and protection as the tribe journeys.

There is shouting from outside the cave. God-Speaker grabs a sharp rock and squeezes back through the crack. The valley is under attack by a raiding party. There is fighting. One of the raiders and one of the members of his tribe is killed. Another member of the tribe is wounded.

The raiders flee with some food, setting dwellings on fire as a distraction. A couple members of the tribe give chase, but God-Speaker stays — his greatest purpose is to protect the god. The return shortly after, empty-handed.

The tribe finishes preparations. They bury or otherwise prepare the dead. God-Speaker publicly asks the stone god for guidance and protection. They begin the migration, dispirited.

Cliffhangers:

  • What will happen to the tribe? Will they have enough food after the raid?

Mysteries:

  • 2.1 – Is the stone god actually supernatural, or is God-Speaker’s interpretation entirely in his head?

Episode Arc:

  • God-Speaker prepares for migration and is caught in the raid. Climax: The raid. Resolution: he supplicates to the god, but wonders if it can protect the tribe.

Notes:

  • With two POV characters, I have the challenge of effectively having two introductory chapters. Normally, I’d let the reader get to know one POV character for a few chapters before introducing another, but I like that the God-Speaker chapter can be a subtle allusion to Christopher’s fevered dreams/memories, as he’s passed out in the bunker.
  • This is where I need to establish a simplified narrative voice for God-Speaker’s early chapters, if I’m going to do it. My main worry with this is that simplified language will make it sound “dumbed down,” when I really just want to establish a bit of an alien feel with these ancient humans whose daily lives and needs are relatively simple. (https://xkcd.com/simplewriter/)
  • I need to research some details of how these ancient people might have lived. What are their temporary dwellings like? How might they hunt, fish, and fight with other humans? What are social structures like? A lot of this will probably be best guesses and extrapolating backward from more recent, better-documented groups.

Results

I added detail to two of the chapter summaries. This went more slowly than I thought it would, and I had less time than usual to work on it this week. I’m hoping that I can pick up the pace as I go.

I’m itching to get started writing, but I’m going to get through this prep first!

Cliffhangers, Resolutions, and Tension

Last time, I discussed conflict as the engine that drives a story forward. Conflict is one of the primary ways to create tension in a story.

Tension not only makes the reader want to find out what happens next, it is a valuable tool to direct pacing — how fast or slow the story feels.

Chapters Follow Tension

We are so used to seeing chapters that it’s easy to just accept them as the normal unit of construction for a novel. However, chapters are a choice. Some books eschew them entirely. The reason that they’re so common is that they’re useful for breaking the story into discrete sections.

The length of chapters can influence pacing, with shorter chapters tending to feel faster, and longer chapters tending to feel slower. However, it’s a little more complicated than that, and the complication has to do with tension.

Tension ebbs and flows throughout a story, and tends to follow an arc. The conflict, mystery, or other source of tension is introduced, then the tension increases to a peak where it is most problematic or concerning to the characters. Finally, the tension proceeds to a resolution where it stops being relevant.

Chapters tend to feel like good units of story when they follow one of these arcs of tension.

Resolutions or Cliffhangers?

Looking at the way tension ramps up and down, an obvious chapter structure is to start with the introduction of a source of tension and end with its resolution.  This structure provides a feeling of satisfaction and completeness. It makes the chapter feel like a little self-contained story within the larger narrative.

An alternate structure utilizes cliffhangers. A chapter with a cliffhanger ends at the peak of the arc of tension. This is a critical moment when the characters are really struggling, and there is no resolution yet in sight.

If several cliffhanger chapters follow one after another, it results in a structure where the chapters are offset against the tension. The middle of the chapter is where arcs start and end, and the end of the chapter is where the tension peaks.

Ending a chapter on a cliffhanger like this creates the maximum impetus to the reader to keep reading. This style of chapter is often used in fast-paced thrillers to achieve that heightened feeling of action and suspense.

Balance

Pacing is a tricky thing. A novel that is constantly high-tension or continually escalating tension can wear the reader out, to the point that they become inured or annoyed with the continuously high stakes. There are a variety of tropes (this, that, the other, etc.) to describe this kind of narrative, and there are a lot of potential pitfalls.

One of the ways to add variety to the narrative, and to even out the tension is to alternate between fast- and slow-paced sections. A  fast-paced chapter that ends in a cliffhanger could be followed by a chapter that ends with resolution. You may also choose to increase or decrease the tension within a sequence of chapters to follow larger arcs in the story.

With multiple characters or sources of tension, different arcs can be interleaved. One arc can be ramping up as another is resolving. Of course, this adds complexity as all the different elements play off each other.

Cliffhangers and Consequences

Tension plays a major role in pacing, and the structure of chapters is closely related to that. When sections feel too fast or slow, adjusting chapter breaks or the arcs of tension within chapters can help. Tension in each chapter also contributes to the larger arcs of the story.

It may feel comfortable to always end your chapters with a clean resolution, or always go for the cliffhanger, but it’s worth understanding both options and keeping them as tools in your writer’s toolbox. The choice to end a chapter on a cliffhanger or a resolution is a relatively small one, but the consequences go beyond that chapter, across the rest of the story.