Razor Mountain Development Journal #41

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 wrote part of the first pass at chapter one, and thought about the bits I want to write and polish before I start publishing chapters.

Real Life Intrudes

I’m still trying to come to grips with the new family schedule with the kids back in school. Unfortunately, the way it shakes out, I have to get up significantly earlier than during the summer. It follows, then, that I have to get to bed earlier. I haven’t been doing that very well, and as a result I feel approximately half-dead.

As you might expect, a state of partial undeath is not particularly conducive to good writing. Or any writing, frankly. I used to do the majority of my writing at night, after the kids went to bed. Now, it’s starting to look like most of my writing time and energy will be on the weekends.

All this to say that I had hoped to get through chapter two this week, and that didn’t happen. I made some progress, but once again I spent a lot of my time doing research.

When I was thinking about getting the first couple chapters done, I would have sworn that I started with two chapters from Christopher’s perspective. Turns out I actually have chapter one in Christopher’s point of view, and chapter two in God-Speaker’s point of view. As a result, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about indigenous Alaskan groups, in order to flesh out my stone-age Beringian tribe.

How Fast Can I Write, Actually?

Stephen King famously suggests that writers should write 1000 words per day. Is that first draft? Final? Does he do his editing on the side? I don’t know.

I’ve certainly gone through more than one November at NaNoWriMo speed (1667 words per day), and even had the occasional 3-5k day. Those aren’t sustainable rates for me. I did expect that a few thousand words per week would be fairly doable. I’m reevaluating that now.


My schedule is part of the problem. I also think things may go faster once I’m a bit further in. The biggest issue may be that this is going to be a serial story. I’m going to be publishing chapters as I go, so I really want to get them as polished as possible up-front. If I were writing a “normal” novel, I would write a rough draft of the entire book, then go back to revise and edit. Now, I’m going to have to combine the initial draft and at least some revision time together, up-front, which makes each chapter take longer than my rough-draft-words-per-minute rate might otherwise imply.

I also want to be able to publish frequently and regularly enough that readers will stay interested. Since I’m having a hard time getting through a chapter of rough draft per week, I can’t really plan to publish on that schedule. That might be okay though. My chapters are generally going to be 2,000–5,000 words, but many of these serial stories seem to be broken up into smaller chunks: around 1,000 words. I assume this is a natural evolution catering to small screens and short attention spans. I should probably embrace it. I don’t intend to chop the book into a hundred chapters, but I will look more seriously at chopping chapters into several smaller parts, and posting those either weekly, or more frequently when I am able.

Results

I worked on writing the first draft of chapter two. I began to admit my own limits under my current schedule.

Reblog: “On the Many Different Engines That Power a Short Story” — Lincoln Michel

We’ve talked in the past about engines that power story: types of conflict and creating and resolving tension. Today, I want to point you to Lincoln Michel’s great article about the false dichotomy between character-driven and plot-driven fiction. Lincoln argues that there are an almost infinite number of engines that can drive a story, and that any single one is rarely enough to power even a short story on its own.

The hard thing about writing—or one of the hard things in the endless series of hard things about writing—is that there’s no one way to do it. Instead, there are infinite paths in the dark woods of fiction leading to infinite types of stories. It’s hard, a little scary, yet ultimately thrilling.

Despite this, there are countless articles that insist there are in fact only two methods of storytelling: plot-driven and character-driven. It’s understandable that writing guides and craft classes are reductive. Who would pay for a writing guide that said “lol who knows ¯\_(ツ)_/¯” followed by 200 blank pages? Still, the plot-driven vs. character-driven binary has always made me wonder why those two aspects of fiction are the only ones allowed in the driver’s seat. Couldn’t a story be driven by voice? Couldn’t setting have a turn at the wheel?

Read the rest over at Lit Hub…

Reference Desk #14 — MasterClass

MasterClass is an online learning platform. They split their courses into about ten different high-level topics, and one of these topics is writing. If you’ve been on the internet at all in the last couple years, chances are pretty good that you’ve seen a few ads for MasterClass. I’ve certainly been seeing these ads for ages, and while they sometimes caught my interest, I always balked at the price. However, I also noticed that the roster of instructors they were advertising was getting more impressive over time.

As you’ve probably guessed by the title of this post, they finally got me. I decided to subscribe and see whether it’s worth the money or not.

Big Names and High Production Values

MasterClass wears its business strategy on its sleeve. They get extremely well-known celebrities in a given field to make a series of instructional videos, and then they charge an all-access subscription fee for the platform. All of their marketing banks on these big names drawing people in. Of course, it’s perfectly fair to note that these celebrity creators may be great at what they do, without actually being very good teachers. On the other hand, this is a risk you run with almost any class. At least if you’re familiar with what they’ve made, you have some idea whether you’ll appreciate what they can do.

In the “Writing” category, MasterClass currently has twenty courses. The instructors span a broad range of genres and formats, including fantasy and sci-fi (Neil Gaiman, N. K. Jemisin); kid lit and YA (R. L. Stine, Judy Blume); thrillers (James Patterson and Dan Brown); screenwriting and TV (Aaron Sorkin); and nonfiction (Malcom Gladwell).

Along with the high-profile instructors, MasterClass really leans into the production values. Each instructor appears to have one or two custom-built sets that they teach from, to set the mood. The sections of each class are split up with little musical interludes and graphics or video snippets that lead into the title card. The overall effect is something like a well-produced documentary.

If your main goal is to mainline great writing advice directly into your brain as quickly as possible, you may not care about these little flourishes. Personally, I found it immensely soothing to get to sit in a cozy little private study, shelves packed with books, while grandpa Gaiman gave me advice about writing.

My Experience So Far

At the time of writing, I’ve watched the Neil Gaiman course, and I’m about halfway through the N. K. Jemisin course. My experience is based on that. Other courses maybe structured differently.

What I’ve found thus far is that these courses are very conversational. They’re a bit like getting to have an extended talk with a great author. They are not focused on exercises or activities. As far as I can recall, Gaiman suggested only one or two exercises throughout his series. Jemisin suggested several in a section on world-building, but these pretty quickly fell off in favor of general advice. If you’re looking for very hands-on, workshoppy courses, you may find the videos to be less interactive than you’d like.

However, alongside the video instruction, each course also includes a downloadable workbook. From what I’ve seen so far, these workbooks aren’t really referenced in the videos at all. In fact, it was only as I was digging around the website to write this post that I found them. The workbooks are supplementary material that follows what was talked about in the videos, and may be better for those that want a workshop feel. Now that I know the workbooks exist, I’m inclined to go through them as I watch the videos. You could just as easily watch the videos first, then dig into the workbooks.

The length of the video series vary from course to course, but a typical length seems to be 2-5 hours. For example, Jemisin’s course is a little under four hours, and Gaiman’s course clocks in just under five hours.

In addition to the web app, MasterClass provides mobile apps. I’ve spent more time watching (or listening) to the videos on my phone than I have while sitting at the computer. The app does its job well enough, although I find it a little annoying that it always seems eager to show me new videos, when I usually want to go to my bookmarked list or pick up where I left off on my current course.

The Downsides

The biggest hurdle for some people is going to be the price. I realize that it’s a privilege these days to have a comfortable, steady income. MasterClass advertises $15 per month, but that’s a little misleading, as they only have annual subscription plans. The most basic plan will make the most sense for most people, at $180 per year. There are more expensive plans, but the only additional features you get are offline viewing on mobile, and the ability to watch on more than one device simultaneously. These don’t strike me as worth the additional money unless you’re looking for some kind of corporate team subscription.

The other thing that may turn people off the platform is the amount of content. Although MasterClass has a lot of big, recognizable names, they do not have a broad selection. Other platforms, like Udemy, boast tens or hundreds of thousands of courses while providing far less curation — pretty much anyone can create a course, and user have to rely on user ratings to sort the good from the garbage. Those platforms necessarily use a pay-per-course purchase system.

If you’re only interested in a single genre or format of writing, you will probably only have a couple of classes on MasterClass that match your interests. The all-access subscription is an inherently better deal if you’re paying that price for ten or twenty classes that you’re interested in. If you’re only interested in one or two classes, that subscription fee starts to seem significantly worse.

Is It Worth It?

This is a question that you’re going to have to answer for yourself by browsing the site (and depending on your finances, possibly checking your bank account). Look at the instructors and see how many classes interest you. Look into the other categories and see if there’s anything good there. The big advantage of the Netflix-style subscription is that you can watch as much as you want for the same flat rate.

Personally, I’m excited to watch the courses that pertain to sci-fi, fantasy and suspense. After that, I plan to branch out into other genres and styles. While I may not be writing a screenplay any time soon, I’m interested in hearing what an expert like Aaron Sorkin has to say about the topic.

So far, I’m pretty happy with the courses I’ve watched. Having tried some other learning sites through my day job, MasterClass has some nice quality-of-life features and general polish that is lacking on other platforms. However, if you don’t care much about aesthetics, you might be miffed that some percentage of your fee goes toward these shiny bits instead of more content.

At the very least, I think it was worth the initial fee to try the platform for a year. The real test will be when my subscription comes due. I may post a little follow-up at that time, when I decide whether to keep it going.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #40

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 wrote my author bio. I also did some research into online critique groups.

Writing is Hard

This week was an exhausting one, with work and family busyness sapping my writing energy. The weather is sidling toward the cooler end of the thermometer, and school is back in session for my kids — with a few extra pandemic complications to contend with.

After planning and outlining Razor Mountain for the majority of the year, the book still managed to sneak up on me. I find myself wishing I had sorted more of the publishing setup as I worked through the outline. However, I finally made the big leap and started writing. Not a huge amount, but as much as I could manage this week. I haven’t quite finished my first draft of chapter one.

I suppose I should be more triumphant. I started writing! Unfortunately, it didn’t feel that triumphant. It felt…tiring. I could blame the surrounding circumstances of a busy week, or the broader state of the world. And I’m sure those things deserve some blame, but not all of it.

I don’t know how it works for other writers, but for me the start of the novel is always the hardest part. When the book is entirely in my head, it exists in a bright, gauzy haze of lovely, perfect ideas. It’s not concrete enough to have rough edges yet. Even when I’m outlining, I end up squinting at it enough that it still looks pretty great. But when I start putting one word in front of another, that’s when I really have the opportunity to start doubting myself. There’s no more hiding behind the vagueness of incomplete ideas. I now have to actually perform the telepathic alchemy of sending ideas between minds using only my words.

Even with an outline, there are a million details to figure out and decisions to make during the writing process. Most importantly though, each novel has its own distinct sound, and I’m not quite sure what Razor Mountain sounds like yet.

The First and Last Chapter

This is a project full of experiments, so why not add another? Something I see authors occasionally write about — but I’ve never personally done — is writing the last chapter of the book before the rest. The idea is not to have a completed last chapter, or even a fully functional draft of the last chapter, but to have an idea of the ending that you’re aiming for as you work your way through the story.

For a while now, my intent has been to have parallels between chapter one, the last chapter (41), and God-Speaker’s last chapter of Act I (chapter 16). Chapters 16 and 41 involve God-Speaker and Christopher in the cave of the artifacts. In chapter one, Christopher wakes up on a small plane, slightly drugged, in the dark. Because of some faint trace of God-Speaker’s memories seeping in, and because of his groggy state, Christopher sees the plane initially as a dark cave. Only after he wakes up a little bit does he realize where he actually is.

The Razor Mountain Prototype

As I think about what the book should sound like, I need some pages to work with — some word-clay to shape. Razor Mountain starts with two Christopher chapters, to get the reader into his adventure, before switching to God-Speaker’s point of view for chapter three. I think these three chapters, plus the experimental final chapter, make a good selection to start with. My current plan is to write rough drafts of these chapters. Then I can begin to polish, figure out the voice, and have a three-chapter sample for potential beta readers and critiquers. I’m also hoping to get an idea of how fast I can realistically write this thing in a way that I’m proud of.

Once I have that done and have readers lined up, I just have to get through the final publishing setup. I’ll probably spend a few days updating and revamping the website. The blog schedule will change, as I’ll continue publishing development journals for each chapter alongside the chapter itself.

After that, there’s nothing to do but write as fast and as well as I can.

Results

I wrote part of a first draft of chapter one, and thought about the bits I want to write and polish before I start publishing.

Don’t Write the Tedious Thing — Maud Newton

Simple, but extremely good advice from Maud Newton on Medium.

At times while working on my book over the years, I would become resentful of it, as if it had its own expectations, as if the draft itself were insisting I recount the entire history of genealogy in the United States or offer a dissertation on genetics. Ugh, now I have to write this boring part, I would think. I would spend a few days in active rebellion against this directive that I imagined the book was imposing.

Read the rest on Maud Newton’s Medium page.

Games for People Who Prefer to Read — Fallen London

Albert, the Prince Consort, lies on the threshold of death. Facing the loss of her true love, Queen Victoria cuts a deal with the Masters of the Bazaar. They will save Albert, but in exchange they will take the Traitor Empress, her consort, and all of London to their domain deep beneath the Earth. The Neath.

Years later, when you come to the vast underground cavern that contains Fallen London, the Empress and the parliament remain, but it is unquestionably the Masters of the Bazaar who rule the city. The city is changed but recognizable, twisted and reconfigured around its new heart: the mysterious Echo Bazaar. Londoners are resilient, and have come to grips with the strange situation, including the fact that death is now a mere inconvenience — as long as you don’t venture back up into the sun.

Fallen London is a web browser game more than a decade old — an incredibly long run by the standards of such games. Thanks to its art style, its reliance on text, and a steady stream of improvements, it doesn’t feel outdated. It is by turns comedic and dark, and overflowing with Victorian sensibilities and literary references.

Gameplay

The gameplay elements are simple. You create a character, and this character has attributes. They may represent skills you’ve picked up, items you’ve acquired, or connections you’ve made with people and organizations. In general, they represent who you are, and what you can do.

Your character, at any given moment, is in a location. You draw from a deck of cards called the opportunity deck. Your opportunities depend on your attributes and where you are. Each opportunity gives you an illustration, a few paragraphs of text, and usually a choice. The outcome will often depend on your attributes and plain luck, and you may gain or lose something as a result.

Unfortunately, Fallen London came of age in the heyday of FarmVille-style mobile games, with energy mechanics that limit the number of actions you can take before you must wait (or pay) to recharge. You cannot binge Fallen London without paying. That said, it’s designed around brief play sessions, and I don’t think the energy mechanic detracts too much from the experience.

Story

The gameplay is not really the draw of Fallen London. It’s merely the engine for dispensing story. Players have stayed with the game for a decade because of the masterful environmental storytelling, interesting characters, and deeply interwoven plot elements.

There are hundreds of unique characters in dozens of locations within the city. There are centuries of history buried (literally) beneath London, including the ruins of other cities previously stolen from the surface world by the Masters.

You can venture out into the cavern, across the Unterzee. There are strange islands and distant shores. Hell is a real place, populated by bureaucratic and seductive devils. In Polythreme, inanimate objects spring to life.

Above all, Fallen London is a game of mysteries. The rewards most valued by the playerbase are not currency or items. They’re new stories that reveal why things are the way they are in this slightly steampunk, cosmic-horror alternate history.

How did the Gracious Widow come to run a vast smuggling empire? What exactly are the bumbling, Cthulhu-esque rubbery men, and where did they come from? Why do the Masters of the Bazaar steal cities and bring them to the Neath?

Content and Costs

The bulk of the content in the game is free, and there is enough to keep new players busy for months. Additionally, there are seasonal stories that appear for a limited time each year, sometimes with little additions. The developers also release a new story each month, with new locations and opportunities.

The game makes money primarily by selling these monthly stories. Players can purchase a $7 monthly subscription to automatically get all the new stories as they come out, but old stories must be purchased individually for around $5 – $25 each, depending on size. The subscription option also doubles your energy pool.

See You in the Neath

Whether Fallen London pulls you into its story or not, I think it’s a great game for writers to check out, to see just how literary and story-centric a video game can be. It’s a master class in the looping and branching techniques of interactive fiction.

If you like cosmic horror, steampunk, Victorian mystery, you’ll probably find something to enjoy in Fallen London. It’s a weird and living city, deep as Vandermeer’s Ambergris or Miéville’s New Crobuzon. I find myself getting pulled back into it every couple years.

In fact, I created a new account as I was writing this. So if you need an acquaintance in the Neath, let me know in the comments. We can exchange letters, insult each other for our own gain, or take turns attempting assassination.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #39

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 wrote the book description for Razor Mountain.

The Author Bio

Earlier this week, I discussed yet another part of the book that isn’t actually the story: the author bio. This seems like a small thing — and it is, compared to the story itself — but it’s still part of the overall package, and one more little way to sell yourself to potential readers.

If you read that post, you’ll know that I need to craft something short, in the neighborhood of 50-100 words. It needs to be third-person (“Sam is great,” not “I am great”). It should tell the reader a little bit about who I am and what my perspective is, not just where I’m from and what my job is (although these are common defaults in author bios). It should also include a link to my website or social media.

For a first draft, I started with my bio and the tagline on this blog, added a little bit of personal history, and finished off with the requisite bit about my family situation.

Sam Johnston is a software developer by day, and a writer by night. He’s been writing fiction since grade school, when a particularly morbid class assignment had him write a future obituary for himself. “Best-selling author” seemed like a nice way to be remembered.

You can find his serial fiction, ruminations on craft, and radically open writing process at www.wordsdeferred.com. Follow him on Twitter, at @DeferredWords.

Sam lives in Minnesota, with his wife, three children, and one tiny dog.

This is 79 words, right in the sweet spot. However, there are a few things I’m not entirely happy with.

I’m hesitant about saying “it seemed like a nice way to be remembered.” It’s supposed to be a little jokey, but  it might suggest that I’m just writing for the fame and fortune, which isn’t really the case at all. (It’s kind of amazing to me how much fame and fortune the average person thinks most authors have.)

I also decided to rearrange the family bit and the website bit. I’m not sure if it’s worth linking Twitter at all, because 70% of the time I’m just using it to advertise my website. Still, I occasionally post, and it’s another avenue to get people involved. Book Twitter is still a thing, and some people live on that site.

The bio also doesn’t say too much about what I like to write about. That’s largely because I have a hard time nailing down what exactly I like to write about. I like to read a wide variety of things, and I like to write a wide variety of things too. I don’t want to be locked into a single genre (though I tend toward speculative fiction, or at least some element of the fantastic). I know I don’t much like the idea of writing a series of books, because I’d rather write more completely different books that have nothing to do with each other.

After revision, the bio looks like this:

Sam Johnston is a software developer by day, and a writer by night. He’s been writing fiction since grade school, when a particularly morbid class assignment had him write a future obituary for himself, and he liked the idea of being remembered as a story-teller. He thinks the best stories are filled with impossible things.

Sam lives in Minnesota, with his wife, three children, and one tiny dog.

You can find more of his fiction, ruminations on craft, and radically open writing journals at wordsdeferred.com. Follow him on Twitter, at @DeferredWords.

Getting Feedback

The other thing I’ve been looking at this week is pre-publishing feedback. I’m a plotter. I like my outlines and I like to be prepared. So even though I’m planning to post Razor Mountain serially, as I’m writing it, I still want to revise and polish those chapters before they go up.

It may seem a bit odd to try so hard to polish when I’m forcing myself into an inherently seat-of-my-pants process, and maybe it is odd. To me, posting these chapters as I write them just means that I want to make my first drafts as good as they can possibly be. Even if I’m posting as I go, I still want to put the best possible product out into the world.

As much as I like to write, the truth is that I really don’t have any close writer friends. One of the reasons I started this blog was to make more connections with fellow writers. My wife is always my first reader and editor, but she doesn’t write. She can give great feedback about where the story doesn’t work for her. In addition to that, I’m looking for other readers and critiquers, preferably writers as well, who can offer feedback, chapter-by-chapter, before I post.

To that end, I’m looking into a few options. One option is online critique groups. These are websites that typically involve some sort of credit system, where you submit work for critique, and you submit critiques of other people’s work. You need to keep up a certain amount of submitted critiques if you want your own work to get reviewed.

Another option is more like critique match-ups. They’re a bit like dating sites for writers. These forums or services let writers advertise their work and look for other readers and writers who want to critique it, often in a small group or “swapping” critiques.

There’s also one other avenue I’m looking at…

Who Wants a Critique?

…and that avenue is this blog. This is a blog about writing, and you’re reading it. Perhaps you are also a writer with some work that could use revision?

I’m looking for fellow writers to critique my novel, one chapter at a time, as I write them. It’s going to be 41 chapters, and I’m planning to post one per week. So, that’s a commitment of close to a year. However, I’m not looking for charity. I will happily exchange your critiques for my own. If you have short stories or a novel in the works, I’m ready for some quid pro quo!

We’re going to be most useful to each other if you’re writing something in the neighborhood of sci-fi and fantasy. I also expect to do a trial run of a couple chapters or stories, so we can decide if we’re a good fit before making a commitment.

If you’re interested, email me at wordsdeferred@gmail.com, or DM me on Twitter @DeferredWords.

Results

I wrote my author bio. I also did some research into online critique groups. More on that in the future.

Shea Serrano and the Perfect Mailing List

Shea Serrano is a journalist who has written for all kinds of publications. He has written a lot of things — most of which I haven’t read yet — but I assume it’s all stellar. He writes articles, he does podcasts, all great, I’m sure. He writes about hip-hop and basketball and movies and TV, and it’s clear from everything he puts out that he does it because those are the things he loves.

The way I discovered him was through his little e-book about the TV show, Scrubs. It’s sold as a collection of essays, but it’s really just an extended love letter to a great show.

Anyway, Shea Serrano is one of my favorite people to get email from.

Now you can go searching online and find lots of advice about how to set up an author newsletter or mailing list or SubStack. How you can connect with people and grow your audience. All that smarmy business stuff about growing your brand.

Really, I think all you need to do is be like Shea Serrano. Every couple of weeks, he sends out an email to his list. Each one is just a short story, probably only a few hundred words, about something funny or weird that happened in his life. Things like his kids insulting each other at the breakfast table, and then proceeding to roast him with devastating insults that don’t really make sense.

At the very end of the email is a link with mildly insulting text that takes you to the page where you can buy his latest work. The most recent one sends you to pre-order his upcoming book, and says “If You Don’t Click This Box And Preorder The New Book I’ll Really Fucking Fight You.”

That’s it. It’s fun and a little bit ridiculous, just like his books. It’s a little gift in my inbox, with a zero-pressure note that points me toward something I could buy, if I feel like it. And honestly, the next time he writes something that aligns with my interests, I’m going to click that insulting button and feel great about it.

I think the best kind of marketing gives people something they want, and then does the absolute minimum to make them aware of what you’re selling. If they like you, and you bring them joy, they’re going to be happy to throw some money your way.

(If you want to subscribe to Shea, click this and then click “Follow.”)