Writing: The RPG™

In the halcyon days of the mid-2000s, the exploding popularity of alternate reality games got a lot of Silicon Valley types excited about the power of games to motivate people. For a few years, investors were happy to throw money at any product that included the word “gamification.” A handful of useful or interesting products came out of that wave of gamification, like StackOverflow and the StackExchange network it spawned, but a lot of attempts at gamification just slapped points and badges on drudge work in the vain hope that people would suddenly love it. Those products all sucked, and mostly disappeared.

Still, the idea of gamification isn’t completely useless (probably). I’ve browsed the ARG scene in years past, strictly as a casual observer, not a front-line puzzle-solver. In the best cases, it’s an interesting vehicle for storytelling, and it can be pretty amazing how effective a small group of people are at solving a problem when they’re all having a good time and feel like a community. I read Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken, and while I didn’t exactly come away believing that gamification can fix all the world’s ills, I think it can sometimes be useful as a way to self-motivate.

So anyway, that’s why I sometimes think about treating real-life writing as a role-playing game.

Character Creation

Do you want to play Writing: The RPG™? You can! All you have to do is follow these easy steps that I’m making up on the spot. Get yourself a couple pieces of paper.

  1. Select a character name. This can be your real name, or a pen name, or the name of a friend who has a better name than you.
  2. Select a title. This should be something cool like Iron Pen, Word-o-mancer, or Page Slayer.
  3. Select your starting class. This is a general category of writing or writing-related stuff. Writer, Editor, Blogger, or Reader are all good classes.
  4. Select your starting sub-class. This is more specific than your class: Sci-Fi Writer, Short Story Writer, Fashion Blogger, etc.

Character Growth

Your character levels up by gaining experience points. You start at level 1. To gain a level, you need to get as many experience points as (your next level) x 2. So you need 4 XP to level up to level 2, and 6 XP to level up to level 3.

To gain experience, you have to  do stuff related to your classes.

  • A basic, unexceptional amount of work is worth 1 XP. This might be something like writing 1000 words or a short blog post.
  • Completing a task for the first time gets you a First Time Achievement, worth 2 XP. This is stuff like “First Thousand Words Written,” or “First Blog Post,” or “First Short Story.” You also get an achievement for the 10th time and the 100th time. After that, you’re an expert and you don’t get experience for doing that thing anymore.
  • Completing tasks that are very big or very difficult gets you an experience bonus: 5 XP or 10 XP, depending on how big and monumental you think it is. Finishing a novel or having your favorite author retweet you might fall into this category.

Writing: The RPG™ supports unlimited multi-classing. You can add as many new classes or sub-classes to your character as you want to. To add a class or sub-class, you have to complete a related task. You can’t get the Editor class until you’ve edited something. (Like really edited. Edit a chapter of your novel or something. Just fixing a couple sentences doesn’t count. This is serious business.) If you want the Blogger class, you need to post a blog post, and if you want to subclass into Fashion Blogger, that blog post better be about fashion, dangit.

What’s the Point?

There is none. It’s just a silly game. But maybe it’s a silly game that could actually motivate you to do something you kind of already wanted to do anyway? That’s what gamification is supposed to be good for, after all.

What do you think? Can we come up with more rules? I hearby release Writing: The RPG under a Creative Commons public domain license (no doubt giving up my chance to make millions from a half-assed afternoon blog post). Leave a comment with your additional rules, modifications, complaints, or erotic fanfic mash-ups down below.

Filling Plot Holes

As I’ve been working on the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain, I’ve recently been thinking about plot holes. Razor Mountain is a “puzzle box” story driven by mysteries. While any story can fall victim to plot holes, this type of story is especially susceptible.

I’m doing a few things with Razor Mountain specifically to try to catch and fix plot holes, and I plan to talk about those in my usual development journals. Today, I want to talk more generally about plot holes — what they are, how to find them, and how to fix them.

Two Layers of Story

There are a million ways to dissect and study stories, but for now I want to look at two layers: the action layer and the motivation layer.

The action layer is the “what” of the story. What happens? Who does what? The motivation layer is the “why” of the story. Why do the characters behave the way they do? For a story to have depth, it needs both of these layers. For it to make sense to the reader, the motivation layer should drive the action layer. If the action isn’t being driven by the motivations of the characters, then the plot is either arbitrary, or the characters have little agency in their own story.

Both layers can have plot holes, but holes in the action layer look different from holes in the motivation layer.

What Exactly is a Plot Hole?

For my purposes, I’m defining plot holes as any time when story elements at a particular point don’t lead logically into the story elements that follow. The reader has to stop and say, “Wait, why did that happen?”

Holes appear in the action layer when something happens that shouldn’t be physically possible. If the butler was trapped in the cellar in chapter two, then how can he be serving tea to the duchess in chapter four as if nothing happened? Holes appear in the motivation layer when actions don’t make sense based on a character’s motives or personality. Lucy hates Rachel, and we’ve seen that Lucy only helps her close friends. Why would she step in and defend Rachel when their teacher accuses her of cheating?

Action layer holes are usually obvious once they’re pointed out. That thing that happened is impossible. Did the author forget a scene? Did they lose track of the order of events, or simply overlook that particular instance of cause and effect?

Motivation layer holes are less straightforward. Character motivations are more nebulous than the physical reality of the action layer. Just as it isn’t always easy to understand why real people do what they do (or even why we ourselves act in a certain way!), it’s not always easy to understand why characters take action. Often, as authors, we want to be circumspect and only gently imply a character’s motivations, instead of beating the reader over the head with precise, detailed explanations of why the character does what they do.

How Plot Holes Happen

It’s certainly possible to accidentally write a character doing something that goes against their personality or goals. Plot-focused writers can have this problem, if they’re more worried about the sequence of the plot and not paying enough attention to the motives of the characters driving that plot.

It’s also possible that we intend to make the character’s motivations drive the actions they take, but fail to make the relevant motivations clear enough to the reader. This is one of those challenges where there’s no right answer. Some readers may have no trouble following, while others are thoroughly confused. As an author, this kind of problem is very hard to catch without the help of critique partners or beta readers.

Exploratory writers (a.k.a. “pantsers”) may end up with plot holes due to the way they approach the writing process. If you don’t know the path that the story will take when you’re in the middle of writing it, it can be easy to include accidental incongruities. Usually, exploratory writers will have to look for these inconsistencies in the revision process, once they have a better idea of the shape of the story.

However, just because you’re a planner who follows an outline doesn’t mean you’re immune to plot holes. Outliners can get plot holes because they go into the story knowing a lot of it so well that they forget to adequately explain something to the reader. When you know all the back-story and exactly why each event leads to the next, it can be surprisingly easy to forget to include a vital piece of information that you simply take for granted.

Identifying Plot Holes

We’ve established that plot holes can happen to anyone, and they can happen in the action layer or the motivation layer of the story. So how can we find those plot holes in our own work and fix them?

As I mentioned before, mysteries are magnets for plot holes. You can think of a mystery as a purposeful, temporary plot hole. The author picks specific bits of information to withhold from the characters and the reader in order to create tension. It may be a mystery of what happened (in the action layer), or a mystery of why it happened (motivation layer).

For a mystery to be effective, the reader needs to trust that the author is doing this on purpose. A mystery that looks like a plot hole can bother the reader just as much as a real plot hole. As authors, we need to make it clear from the structure of the story that the mystery is supposed to be there, and understand that the reader will have the expectation of a payoff where that hole is filled in later.

To identify accidental action layer plot holes, it helps to look at places in the story where a lot of action is happening. If you have complex, interwoven plot lines, you’ll want to look closely at those areas of the story. It may help to make simple lists of events in sequence, or even a flowchart for complicated plots. A missing piece in the sequence is often much more obvious when laid out in this way. Does each event lead to the next in the sequence?

To identify motivation layer plot holes, you need to think about how character motives lead to character actions. Complex motivations make it easier for something illogical to slip past, so you might want to pay special attention to a character with several conflicting goals, or situations where multiple characters are at odds with one another, or have shifting allegiances and animosities.

Just as you can map out the sequences of action with lists and flow charts, you can map character goals and personality traits to the actions they take. If you can’t describe why a character would do that thing, you have a problem.

Finally, your last and best line of defense may be your readers. Critique partners or beta readers — really anyone can help find plot holes that you miss by virtue of being too close to the story. Ideally, you want readers who read a lot of your genre. Readers who prefer murder mysteries may have a slightly harder time catching inconsistencies in your politically charged sci-fi space opera. Still, the most important thing is to get extra pairs of eyes on your story to double-check your work.

Fix That Plot

Often, identifying a plot hole is the hardest part, and the actual fix just requires adjusting or adding a scene. A nasty action layer hole may require you to rethink how the events around it are laid out. A bad motivation hole may force you to change what a character does in the story, or change the character. You may find that you can add some backstory or personality trait earlier in the story so their actions make sense. Just try to make it feel organic. If done well, this can add depth to the character.

Instead of looking at it as just a fix for something broken, treat a plot hole as an opportunity to make the character or plot richer than it would have been. You can fill that hole with whatever you want, so you might as well fill it with something great.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #31

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 outlines for chapters 23-25.

The Oracles in Chapter 25

There’s some information that I need to work into the conversations in chapter 25 that I neglected to note last time. I need to clarify the use of the artifacts to travel through time. This isn’t physical time travel. God-Speaker seems to be uniquely attuned to the artifacts, and is able to use them to transfer himself into another person. However, the artifacts also contain the power to send the user’s personality and thoughts into the past, to a particular moment. There, they can perform a similar trick, inhabiting the targeted person.

God-Speaker has found that children are generally a bit better at attuning and using the artifacts, but he is the only one that can use them to their full potential. However, he keeps a small group of children “trained” in their use. He calls them oracles, and it is their job to act as an emergency warning system for him.

When something catastrophic happens, God-Speaker can give one of these oracles a message, and send them back in time to inhabit his own mind and report this message. This gives God-Speaker the opportunity to do something to prevent the catastrophe. It also destroys these children. They last long enough to deliver their message, then become untethered from the host mind. God-Speaker doesn’t know what happens to them after that. They may be dead, or they may become roaming spirits, sent into purgatory from a future that no longer exists.

God-Speaker doesn’t entirely understand how this “soft” time travel works. Are there alternate universes? Does the old future disappear when changes are made to the past? There’s no way of knowing. All he knows is that he has received messages from his future self in this way, and those messages have allowed him to keep Razor Mountain secret. They have allowed him to quash potential rebellion and conspiracy against him. They have warned him of people in the outside world who are close to discovering Razor Mountain or his other secrets.

This is also how he initially learned that Sky-Watcher, his love in Chapter 25, has a degenerative disease that has no cure. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help him. The world lacks the advanced medical resources he would need to treat her, and there is no way for him to build up the necessary infrastructure quickly enough on his own.

He tries to teach her to use the artifacts to jump bodies permanently in the current time, but she lacks the capability. In the end, the artifacts do nothing. They give him a warning he cannot act on, and he has no choice but to watch in anguish as his love slowly dies.

This is important to build God-Speaker’s character, but it’s also a bit of Chekhov’s time machine. At the end of the book, this is the mechanism that Christopher will use to travel back in time to the moment when God-Speaker first entered the caverns under Razor Mountain. This is how Christopher will take control of God-Speaker at exactly the right moment to throw him off the edge and into a deep chasm, ending his machinations before he has a chance to even find the artifacts in the first place.

Chapter 26

The banging noise stops with no explanation, leaving Christopher’s heart pounding. An indeterminate amount of time passes. Christopher thinks whoever is holding him is doing this as a form of torture to wear him down. He waves to the camera near the ceiling, just outside his cell. He gets no response. He pretends to start falling asleep again, but nothing happens. Only when he really starts to doze does the noise wake him.

Shortly after, a uniformed soldier arrives and takes him out of the cell, cuffing him to the steel table in the central area of the jail room. More time passes.

Finally, a man in an officer’s uniform (Sgt. Chris Meadows) enters and sits across from him at the table. He says that they have a lot to discuss.

Cliffhangers:

  • What are they going to discuss? What are they planning to do to Christopher?

Mysteries:

  • 26.1 – Largely continuing the mysteries from chapter 23, 24, 25. What’s going on here, and what do they want with him?

Episode Arc:

  • Christopher is confused and alone, as he has been since the beginning of the book. Since he doesn’t know who’s holding him, he has no way to gauge what they’re likely to do to him. By the end of the chapter, he is fairly confident that they’re willing to hurt him, if they think it will be useful.

Chapter 27

Sergeant Chris Meadows introduces himself. He makes an un-funny joke about their shared first name. He states plainly that his judgment will decide what will happen to Christopher for the rest of his life. He could rot in a cage, or be set free. There could be other, worse options. Then he asks Christopher who he is, and how he arrived at the mountain.

Christopher gives an abridged, but honest version of events. Meadows asks about his life before being dumped in the Alaskan wilderness. Christopher talks about where he grew up, his parents and brother, and his job. Meadows asks about his interactions with the exiles. Christopher explains that he has no ties to them and holds no grudges against them. He was just looking for anyone he could find, in the hopes of getting back home.

Meadows seems dissatisfied. He has the soldier put Christopher back in the cell. Time passes. They continue blasting him with noise to prevent him from sleeping. He’s brought back out to talk to Meadows again. Meadows suggests that he tell the truth this time. Christopher tries to convince him that he is telling the truth. He asks Meadows what answers he wants. He suggests that if they’re honest with each other, maybe Christopher will know something useful. Meadows just tells him “I know more about you than you know. I know you’re lying, and until you tell me the truth, this will only get worse for you.”

Lack of sleep wears on Christopher. He begins having a hard time keeping events straight. He begins to wonder if he is lying. He’s uncertain when he’s only thinking, when he’s talking to himself (or the camera) and when he’s talking to Meadows. He seems to jump between sitting at the table and sitting in the cell. He thinks he’s forced to run in circles down the empty gray hallways. Then he finds himself jogging in place in his cell. He’s fed infrequently.

He talks about the time when he was young and nearly drowned. His older brother saved him, but was taken by the riptide and drowned in the process. He talks about his own guilt from that incident. After that, his parents never let him take any risks. He internalized their fear, and avoided any risks in his own life. He doesn’t know if he tells this to Meadows, or only thinks it to himself.

He hallucinates. He shrinks, getting smaller and smaller while the cell grows huge around him. His voice is too small to be heard. He screams and shouts, slamming his fists against the bars and the concrete floor until he sees blood. Then everything goes black.

Cliffhangers:

  • Is he dead? Has he lost his mind?

Mysteries:

  • 27.1 – What information is Meadows actually trying to get out of him? Who do they think he is?

Episode Arc:

  • This is Christopher’s lowest point so far. He has no control over his situation. It’s at this low point that he takes stock of himself, who he is, and what shaped him. He remembers this incident from his childhood that has shaped the rest of his life.

Notes:

  • This is the necessary breakdown that allows Christopher to understand himself and choose to change in upcoming chapters.

Chapter 28

God-Speaker sits in his modern office within Razor Mountain. He’s in an older body, feeling aches and pains. He knows that he’ll have to decide on a vessel and make the jump into a new body soon. Perhaps after he’s resolved the current situation? He feels a bit of nervousness, but reminds himself that he’s dealt with betrayal many times before.

He meets with Reed, a member of his inner circle. He explains that he believes Cain, another Razor Mountain official, may have plans to betray him. He asks Reed to keep an eye on him. Reed expresses skepticism, but accepts the duty and promises to keep God-Speaker updated on what he finds.

After Reed leaves the office, Cain comes in. The man is full of energy and has a plethora of ideas for improving Razor Mountain. God-Speaker pushes back, suggesting that they don’t have the resources to do all of this, and the plans haven’t been vetted by others. Cain is irritated. He asks God-Speaker pointedly about their resources and what his plans are for further construction. God-Speaker becomes irritated. He likes to keep some of this information from his lackeys to maintain his power. He suggests that Cain needs to work with the others to coordinate the governance of Razor Mountain. Cain complains that the other government secretaries lack ambition or vision.

God-Speaker reminds him who is in charge here. Cain leaves, glowering and annoyed. Again, God-Speaker feels a twinge of worry and a deep tiredness. He tells himself that a new, young body will help him feel better.

Cliffhangers: No.

Mysteries:

  • 28.1 – Does Cain intend to betray God-Speaker?
  • 28.2 – What will Reed find out?

Episode Arc:

  • God-Speaker is imperial and demanding of his underlings. He sees them as tools, and he’s annoyed that they don’t just do what he wants. He’s tired and bored of having to constantly manipulate and control people. His fear of death lurks just under the surface, still driving him.

Notes:

  • This is the penultimate chapter from God-Speaker’s perspective. His arc is pretty much complete. He is a shell of a human being. He feels his incredible age. He’s worn down. But his fear of death is too entrenched. This is what drives him.

Results

I finished chapter summaries for 26, 27, and 28, as well as digging into God-Speaker’s “oracles” and their structural purposes in the story.

The Scrivener Podcast — A Follow-Up

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about Scrivener’s new podcast, Write Now with Scrivener. I think it’s hard to judge most media based on the first episode, but I gave it a bit of a mixed review. The first half, focused on the author interview and writing process was interesting. The second half, focused on how the author used Scrivener, was a little too infomercial for my tastes.

The next episode of the podcast dropped, so I decided to briefly revisit it here. The guest author for episode two is Dan Moren, science fiction author. I have to say, this one hooked me more than episode one, so I’m glad I kept an open mind.

I’ll be clear up-front that this episode is just better tailored to my personal tastes. I’m a reader and writer of sci-fi, and I’m honestly more interested in the perspective of a relative up-and-comer. Dan Moren has a couple of books out in his science fiction series, and seems to be doing well, but he’s open about the fact that his fiction writing income isn’t paying the rent, let alone buying Lamborghinis or a 40-acre ranch. Peter Robinson, the episode one guest, was nice enough, but he was working in police procedural style mysteries, has dozens of books, and seems to be much more at the “rich guy” end of the spectrum.

Regardless of my tastes, I thought this episode had much better conversation too. Some of that may be the host getting a little more practice. Some may be that these two have a bit of a history together. I’m guessing most of it is down to the fact that Dan Moren hosts half a dozen podcasts, and is pretty comfortable in this environment. The “how do you use Scrivener” section of the podcast felt much more natural this time around, although there was still one moment I noticed where the host was a little too energetic giving Scrivener tips and I could feel the sponsorship miasma creeping in.

After this second episode, I’m on board. A once-per-month, half-hour podcast is easy to commit to, and the content is pretty good. I’ll keep listening.

I’ll put the second episode below, and if you’re interested in sci-fi authors who are open about finances, agent/editor interaction, and the nitty-gritty of publishing, you should check out Dan Moren’s blog.

Episode 4: Annik Lafarge, Author of Chasing Chopin Write Now with Scrivener

After a career in publishing, from being a publicist to senior editor, Annik Lafarge is now a consultant and advisor to authors. Her latest book is Chasing Chopin: A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions. Annik talks about how important it is for authors to help market their books. "I honestly don't think I could have written this book without without Scrivener." Show notes: Annik Lafarge (https://anniklafarge.com) Chasing Chopin (https://whychopin.com/about-chasing-chopin/) David Bellos: The Novel of the Century, The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables (https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/181/181795/the-novel-of-the-century/9780241954478.html) Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel, Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (https://wwnorton.com/books/Portrait-of-a-Novel/) Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic, Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/82976/confederates-in-the-attic-by-tony-horwitz/) Scott Huler, Defining the Wind, The Beaufort Scale and How a 19th-Century Admiral Turned Science Into Poetry (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/84279/defining-the-wind-by-scott-huler/) Catherine Raven, Fox & I (https://www.spiegelandgrau.com/065447811953/projects) Maggie O'Farrell, Hamnet (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/612385/hamnet-by-maggie-ofarrell/) 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 4: Annik Lafarge, Author of Chasing Chopin
  2. Episode 3: J.T. Ellison, Thriller Author, TV Show Host, and Publisher
  3. Dan Moren, Science Fiction Author, Journalist, and Podcaster
  4. Episode 1: Peter Robinson, Author of the Alan Banks Crime Fiction Series

Writing Advice…Advice

When I was younger, I would devour a book or blog on how to write, and I’d think, “Okay, maybe this is the one that will stick. Maybe this is the one true path that will work for me.” Maybe I can write just like Stephen King, or Neil Gaiman, or Sue Grafton, or even Strunk and White.

Inevitably, I would do my best for a few days or a few weeks, and then I’d start to drag my feet. Or I’d miss my thousand words per day for one day, and then two, and then I’m hardly on the writing-a-thousand-words-per-day plan anymore, am I?

Trying to follow these myriad, often-conflicting pieces of writing advice can be exhausting. Every time you find a process that doesn’t work, it can be even more dispiriting. They’re a bit like fad diets.

Yet, I have a shelf of books about improving your writing. I follow blogs about improving your writing. My own blog is all about writing and learning about writing. I love this stuff. I love the analysis of the writing process almost as much as the actual writing. So how do we make that learning process more useful, and less painful?

Today, I don’t want to talk writing advice. I want to talk about how we take writing advice. Writing advice…advice. Meta-advice, if you will.

Remember Who You Are

If you go look in the mirror right now, chances are pretty good that you won’t see Stephen King or Neil Gaiman. (If you do, get them a warm drink and a typewriter in a corner and they’ll stay out of your way.)

When someone successful puts out writing advice, it’s easy to say, “Look how well it worked for them.” We focus too much on the “look how well it worked,” and ignore the “for them” part.

We all have different life experiences, different internal machinery. We live in different times, places and circumstances. Even if those wildly successful writers could provide the exact book-length recipe that lead them to their wild success, it wouldn’t work the same way for the rest of us. We have different circumstances, and different mental cogs and flywheels that make us tick.

This gets said sometimes, in various ways, but usually not loudly enough. The first thing to accept is that we each have our own recipe for success. It’s going to be different from everyone else’s recipe.

Instead of trying to replicate someone’s recipe, step back and try some of their ingredients.

Pick and Choose

Let’s mix metaphors. Look at all that writing advice like the classic American buffet. There’s everything from pancakes and steak to crab legs and raspberry ice cream. There’s way too much.  A lot of these things don’t really belong together. Some of it is fresh, some of it has been sitting there a while. See, the metaphors are all food-related. It’s fine.

If you try to take everything from the buffet, you’re going to have a bad time. If you only take one thing…well, why are you at the buffet? Instead, pick a few things that seem to go together. Things you think you’ll like. Pick and choose.

I know myself better than any author with a book on writing knows me. I know what I’m good at and not-so-good at. When I hear some advice, I can think about it and have a gut instinct about whether it will be good or bad for me.

Unfortunately, I don’t know myself perfectly well. There are probably some things that would sound awful to me at first hearing, but actually work pretty well. There are certainly things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but ended up working terribly for me.

When following writing advice, pick and choose what sounds good. Once in a while, maybe try something that you’re skeptical about, just in case it surprises you. Follow that advice for a while. If it works, keep it. If it doesn’t, don’t be beholden to it. Throw it away and try something else.

Let it All Wash Over You

When I think of following writing advice, I tend to think of making a plan and putting it into action. It’s a bit of a science experiment. Make a hypothesis, run the experiment, and compare your results to what was expected. (Okay, this one isn’t a food metaphor. Sorry.)

That’s just my personal default mode. You may be different. But there are other ways to learn. As clever, thinking humans, we are great at acquiring knowledge and skills through purposeful study and experimentation. But we still have an ape brain lurking just below the surface. That animal brain, that subconscious, is great at learning just by exposure.

I’ve read plenty of blog posts and a few books on writing that just didn’t inspire me to go out and try doing something new and different. I’ve read some that I enjoyed, but I didn’t come away with a list of things to put into practice. I think that can still be useful. The act of considering the writing process, and listening to other people’s opinions and thoughts on the topic can still exercise those subconscious muscles. Your ape brain will take bits and pieces, mix them into your subconscious stew, and pour out a big helping the next time you put words on a page. (I did it! We’re back in food metaphors!)

Raise Each Child Differently

As a parent of three children, I know for a fact that my parenting style has changed over the years. My oldest got a different experience that the middle child or the youngest. As a young parent, I worried about things that I now know are no big deal. As an older parent, I have new worries that my younger self never considered. And regardless of order and what I’ve learned along the way, each of my children is their own person, with a unique personality and way of seeing the world.

Have you ever heard writers say that their books (or stories or projects) are like their children? Well, it’s true. Sort of. Each project comes along at a different time in your life. You, yourself, are different when writing them. And each project is its own thing. It has its own needs and its own unique challenges. Just like being a parent of children, when you’re a parent of words, you have to adapt.

It’s one of the most amazing feelings in the world to find a way to get through a book, or even a short story. And it’s really damn frustrating when I find out that what I did last time doesn’t really work that well for the next one. It’s unfair, frankly. But that’s the way it is. One of my favorite quotes lately is Gene Wolf’s: “You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel you’re writing.”

Accept that some projects — maybe every project — will be different. Even if something worked for you previously, don’t feel like a failure when it doesn’t work this time. And keep all your failures in your back pocket. You never know when a project will come along where one or two of those things just happen to fit.

Keep Evolving

There is no silver bullet. No One True Way. I write as well as I can today, and I keep learning new things so that I’ll write a little better tomorrow. Promises of sudden writing super-powers are enticing, just like those diet books that supposedly let you lose 20 pounds in a week. Unfortunately, those promises usually don’t pan out. It’s the steady, incremental improvements that make a real difference over the long term.

Many writers, myself included, like to think about some nebulous point in the future when we will have “made it big.” It’ll all be easy after that. The words will flow out of my keyboard and onto the bestseller lists. I’ll have it all figured out.

Even for the people on the bestseller lists, with the books about how to write, it doesn’t work that way. They still struggle sometimes, and if they’re good, they keep changing up their tactics. They keep learning. Instead of imagining some point of total enlightenment, think of learning as a continuous journey. There is no writing nirvana. It may be a bit sad to accept that we’ll never get to the point where we have it all figured out. But it’s also pretty awesome that we can always get even better than we are today.

That’s It!

That’s the end of my writing advice…advice. We’ll be back to the regular old non-meta writing advice by next week. And I hope you’ll take the things that work for you, for the project you’re working on, and throw away the things that don’t, without a hint of remorse.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #30

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 two more chapter summaries. I also admitted that I’ve learned how terrible I am at cliffhangers. Luckily, it’s easy to fix, because it turns out I have a tendency to put the cliffhanger bit at the start of the next chapter. All I have to do is pull it back to the end of the previous chapter.

The Big Three-Oh!

It’s hard to believe I’ve been doing this thing for thirty weeks. I tend to underestimate how long my novels are going to take, and this one is no exception. When I started working on Razor Mountain, I thought I’d be posting chapters by now.

Part of this is the result of choices I made. I decided to expand and revise my outline when I could have done one pass and started writing. I decided to do more up-front in hopes that it’ll make the actual writing easier. There are also a few things outside the text of the book that I’m going to have to address as I work on finishing up the outline. I need to decide what services I want to post to, and figure out things like cover art, blurbs and author bio.

Characters as Adjective-Nouns

Connie J. Jasperson had an interesting post recently about delving deep into characters by selecting key nouns and verbs to describe them. This reminded me of Fallen London, the darkly whimsical literary browser game. In Fallen London, hardly any of the characters you encounter have proper names. Instead, they have “adjective-noun” monikers, like the Ambitious Barrister, the Captivating Princess, the Jovial Contrarian, or the Gracious Widow.

As a fun little aside, I tried to come up with evocative “adjective-noun” names to describe my characters.

  • Christopher – The Melancholy Wanderer
  • God-Speaker – The Thanataphobic Despot
  • Amaranth – The Accomplished Trailblazer
  • Ema – The Despairing Rebel
  • Garrett – The Reckless Captor
  • Harold – The Obedient Brother
  • Strong-Shield – The Traitorous Lieutenant
  • Sky-Watcher – The Ailing Lover

Try it – it’s an interesting exercise. I tried to come up with a noun that describes the character’s role in the story and an adjective that describes a key personality trait. And check out Connie’s post for a more in-depth exercise in a similar vein.

Chapter 23

The soldiers swarm Christopher, Garrett and Harold. The three are pressed into the snowy ground, disarmed and have their possessions taken from them. Then they’re shoved, stumbling, across the rough terrain. They come to a metal door, cleverly hidden in the mountainside, and are pushed through.

On the other side is a maze of hallways, where they’re immediately split up. Christopher hears Garrett trying to say something about bringing them an enemy spy before he’s whisked out of earshot. Christopher tries to tell the soldiers that he is just someone lost in the wilderness, trying to get back home. He’s not a spy, he’s harmless and this is all a big misunderstanding. The soldiers tell him to be quiet, and give him a solid punch in the gut when he tries to keep talking. After that, he’s quiet.

They haul him to a gray-walled room with a metal desk. Adjacent to it are four empty jail cells. The soldiers put him inside one of them, remove his cuffs, and leave him.

Cliffhangers:

  • What will happen to him in this jail?

Mysteries:

  • 23.1 – Who has captured him? What do they want?

Episode Arc:

  • The chapter starts with Christopher feeling that his life is completely out of his control, but he quickly realizes that the exile brothers may have been far kinder and safer captors than the efficient, silent soldiers that grab him and bring him to this underground jail cell in the mystery complex.

Notes:

  • After half a human lifetime away, Christopher/God-Speaker is finally back at Razor Mountain. There should be one or two things in the bunker and the abandoned building that the exiles inhabit that give Christopher a strong sense of deja-vu. He can’t quite bring those memories to the surface of his mind, but they feel like vague bits of something important. As soon as he’s under the mountain, even though it’s all gray walls and nondescript doors, that feeling of not-quite-remembering really ramps up to 11.

Chapter 24

Christopher paces in his cell, verging on a panic attack. His mind is frantic with ideas that these people are really going to do bad things to him. He was foolish to leave the bunker, and even more idiotic to let the brothers drag him to this place as a goodwill gift that won’t even help them.

He tries to calm himself down by assessing his surroundings. The cell has a hard bed with no sheets and a dented-up stainless steel toilet. He finds himself squinting, and realizes that the lights are abnormally bright. He becomes aware of a faint, high-pitched sound that immediately irritates him.

He sits on the bed, back to the concrete wall. The temperature, which initially felt warm compared to the outside, soon drops. His panic fades, replaced by misery. He feels childish to admit it, but he just wants to go home.

He thinks about everything that has happened, and is a little surprised to realize that the very real possibility of death doesn’t scare him as much anymore. He remembers how he felt in the wilderness, when everything had gone wrong and he decided to keep going. He tries to channel that inner peace. Despite his discomfort, he is exhausted and begins to doze.

Just as he’s losing consciousness, he’s jerked awake by violent banging just outside his cell.

Cliffhangers:

  • What’s that banging?

Mysteries:

  • 24.1 – Who are his captors and what are they planning to do with him?

Episode Arc:

  • Christopher’s situation feels like it’s slowly worsening over this chapter, but his emotional state is slowly stabilizing. He is beginning to understand that even though he can’t control his external situation, he can still control his own internal response.

Notes:

  • Yet another cliffhanger pulled from the following chapter to make this one more interesting!
  • This is another important point in Christopher’s overall arc. When he decides to persevere in the wilderness, and again here when he starts to accept the inevitability of death, he’s growing beyond God-Speaker’s limited, “stuck” perspective, which is constantly driven by fear of his own mortality.

Chapter 25

God-Speaker waits on the balcony of his home, which is now within a city inside the mountain. He’s “wearing” a middle-aged body. He watches excavations underway, expanding the underground space. Sky-Watcher comes out. He asks her how she’s feeling, and she says she’s better. They go to the chamber of the artifacts. God-Speaker treats her a bit like she’s made of glass, and she acts mildly annoyed, but is clearly feeling weak.

In the chamber, God-Speaker guides her in listening to the voices and accessing their power. It’s clear that they’ve been practicing for some time. She has little success, and is quickly worn out. He helps her up a flight of stairs, and they lay outside and look at the stars. This is where she is happiest. They talk about the stars, and about the future. While she talks, he is distracted, worrying about her illness. He half-dozes, and when he wakes, he discovers that she is no longer breathing.

Cliffhangers: Nope.

Mysteries:

  • 25.1 – What exactly is he building under the mountain?

Episode Arc:

  • God-Speaker is quietly desperate. He loves her, he knows she’s dying, and he knows he doesn’t have the technology to cure her. He wants to use the artifacts to let her do what he does, transfer bodies. But they only seem to work well for him. He is used to being in control, but he senses that he’s running out of options. At the end of the chapter, he has failed, and she dies.

Notes:

  • This is the last time we see God-Speaker in any meaningful connection with another person. After this, he begins to pull back from others. He begins to use people solely as means to his own ends.

Results

Three more chapter outlines complete. I’m now about 3/4 of the way done.