The MICE Quotient

The MICE Quotient is an idea that originated with Orson Scott Card, in his books on writing: How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Character and Viewpoint. It has been updated and expanded by Mary Robinette Kowal, one-time student of Card, and award-winning author in her own right, who is one of the main hosts of the Writing Excuses podcast.

In its latest incarnation, MICE stands for Milieu, Inquiry, Character, and Event. It’s a framework for understanding where the overlapping threads of a story start and end, and how they’re affected by obstacles and complications along the way. It can be useful for architecting stories, or figuring out what’s wrong with a story when it seems to have gone off the rails.


Milieu threads are all about setting and place. The thread begins with the character entering or exiting a place. It ends with exiting the place, returning home, or entering yet another place.

Obstacles in a milieu thread typically prevent the character from freely coming and going — physical barriers or something more subtle like emotional ties.

Sci-fi and fantasy often have a milieu component in the form of new worlds or fantastic places. The hero’s journey often includes a milieu thread that starts with “crossing the threshold” and ends with the “road back.” Prison dramas and heists, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland are clear examples of milieu threads as a main driver of the story.


Inquiry threads are all about asking and answering a question. The thread begins when the question is posed and ends when it’s answered and understood.

Obstacles in an inquiry thread typically prevent the character from gathering the info needed to answer the question, or things that broaden the scope of the question.

Murder mysteries (any mysteries, really) are the classic example of inquiry-driven stories.


Character threads are all about a character’s self-discovery or change. The thread begins when the character questions who they are, and ends when the character decides the answer to that question — either accepting who they are, or changing in some fundamental way.

Obstacles in a character thread are things that prevent the character’s self-discovery. That may mean the character tries to be something they’re not, and fails. It may mean the character tries to stay the same in the face of changing circumstances, and has to bear the negative results of that.

“Coming of Age” stories and romances are typically character stories.


Event threads are all about disruption of the status-quo. They start when the established order is disrupted, and end when the status quo is restored (or a new status quo is set up).

Obstacles in event threads are typically things that prevent the situation from settling.

Disaster movies and spy thrillers are often driven by event threads, as characters seek to overcome the disaster or stop the villain’s evil plot.

Multiple Threads and Nesting

MICE threads can describe sweeping arcs across a whole novel, but stories can also be analyzed as a series of MICE micro-threads. An inquiry thread might be a character having a question at the start of a chapter, and finding the answer by the end. A character thread might consist of a single conversation where one character changes another character’s mind. Ideally, the resolution of one small thread will lead naturally into other threads, keeping the momentum going.

A single thread by itself produces a very simple story. Most stories have multiple interrelated threads. Threads do not have to proceed serially, one after another — they can be nested several layers deep, although at some point you risk muddying the waters for the readers who has to keep track of it all.

Kowal suggests that nesting threads in a first-in, last-out (FILO) structure is easiest for readers to parse. For example, my novel Razor Mountain begins as a classic type of Milieu story—the survival story. Christopher is lost in the Alaskan wilderness and he wants to get back home. However, as the story continues, there will be a Character conflict as well. Christopher will end up facing challenges that make him question himself and what kind of person he wants to be. Near the end of the book, Christopher will face a final choice that determines his character, finishing the character thread. As a result of that choice, he will exit the milieu, one way or another.

Simple nesting looks like matryoshka dolls, one thread within another. Complex nesting looks more like IKEA furniture, with each box possibly containing multiple boxes of different sizes.

Applying MICE To Outlining

Using MICE in outlining is a proactive approach to building story structure. Stories usually contain bits of all of the MICE elements, so the strategy when outlining comes down to asking yourself as the author, “What matters to me in this story?” As Kowal illustrates with the Writing Excuses homework assignments, any given story can be told with any one of the MICE elements as its primary driver.

In the outline, you can choose which MICE thread is most important, and nest all the other threads within it. You can then construct obstacles for the characters that block the resolution of specific threads. You can tweak inner threads so their resolutions affect the threads containing them.

Applying MICE to Editing

Using MICE in editing is more of a reactive approach — looking for parts of the story that don’t feel right, and analyzing them in terms of their MICE threads.

When the story isn’t working, try to identify the different MICE threads. Which ones are introduced first? Are they all getting resolved? What order are they resolved in? Are the sub-threads creating obstacles that contribute to their parent thread, preventing the characters from resolving a larger issue? Or are they introducing side complications that only distract from bigger, more pressing issues?

For example, take my favorite dead horse to beat: the show LOST. It introduces dozens, probably hundreds of inquiry threads, and many character threads. The character threads are mostly resolved, but some are resurrected later on. Many of the inquiry threads are left hanging with no resolution. The nesting is impossible to follow because there are so many threads.

As a different example, Lord of the Rings creates an epic story with a sequence of endings that irritate some readers. Reordering those endings to follow a clear FILO nesting structure would probably make them feel less like the books keep ending over and over for five chapters in a row.

That’s MICE

Like any writing technique, the MICE quotient is not a magic bullet. It won’t fix every problem in every story, and sometimes you can break the formula and still come up with something that works. You can probably think of at least one classic story that stands up despite breaking the nesting rules or structuring story threads in unusual ways.

On the other hand, the MICE quotient is a great starting point or default. It can be a guardrail when a story starts going off the tracks, and a guide when navigating the mire of a difficult outline. It’s an easy way to analyze plot structure through beginnings, endings, obstacles and nested threads.

If this piqued your interest, the full series of Writing Excuses episodes provide a great deep dive in eight short parts.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 3 (Redux)

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

Since I ended up posting the Chapter 3 episodes last week and this week, I had a brief Chapter 3 journal last Monday. I wanted to wait until after the episodes were out to avoid any potential spoilers. So now we can speak freely.


Christopher exploring the bunker has a certain element of mystery that helps propel the chapter, but I don’t think it’s not enough to sustain the momentum all on its own. The radio message and the map ramp up the mystery, while also giving Christopher some useful clues that he can use to start solving those mysteries.

The sooner Christopher can take an active role in determining his own destiny, the sooner he can start to be a compelling character. That active participation is important, even if it’s just small things. Characters who are just passive lumps, waiting for things to happen to them, are not interesting characters to read about.


There were several themes that I wanted to keep up throughout the chapter.

  • The strangeness of the bunker. A secret bunker in the wilderness has some built-in strangeness, but things like bunks, a radio, and survival gear are all reasonable things to find in that place. There are other things that are oddities, like the weird oven, the many-piped device behind the storage room, and the lights and odd decorative flourishes. I wanted the bunker to feel “off” in a few ways, to enhance the feeling that there’s a mystery here. (I also made sure to reference the strangeness of Christopher guessing the door code.)
  • Physical pain. Christopher likes action movies, but this is not an action movie. Jumping out of the plane was crazy, and it ought to have killed him. His survival is already a miracle, and he’s going to pay for it. It’s hard to make jumping out of a plane and surviving seem like a realistic thing, but I’m going to try. Christopher is thoroughly beat up, and I wanted to keep that in the forefront of the reader’s mind. He’s not going to be running and gunning by the next scene. He’s going to be hobbling and limping.
  • Christopher’s emotional state. I didn’t focus on this as much as the physical pain, but I wanted to make it clear that Christopher is someone who can work things out. He’s naturally compelled to be a puzzle solver. Even though he spends most of the chapter hobbling around, looking at things, and wondering what’s going on, he also spends some time thinking and planning. He tries the radio, even if it doesn’t work. He’s already thinking about next steps.

Editing Out Weak Language

One of the stylistic errors that I continue to fight is hedging language. I always find a few points in every chapter where things “seem” or “feel” or “are like” something, and I have to delete those words so they just are. I think this is a symptom of uncertainty while writing. If I’m not sure I have the right words or I am going in the right direction, this hedging slips in as a symptom. All it does is make the language weaker. On the upside, I’m developing a pretty comprehensive list of these problematic words, so I can catch this stuff quickly during revision.

Getting Back on Track

I started publishing Razor Mountain with a little more than one chapter already written, to give me a buffer. (The second was done, but not fully revised.) I intended to publish one chapter per week, fully knowing that would be a stretch for me. It only took until Chapter 3 for me to start to fall a little bit behind.

With Chapter 3 spread out across two weeks, I have a week of buffer again to get ahead on writing and keep going with the chapter-per-week cadence. I’m trying to stick with that plan for a few reasons.

First, it ends up being a nice amount of posts each week. Most chapters are going to split into two or three short episodes in order to fit the word count limits on the serial services. Filling Tuesday – Thursday with Razor Mountain fits neatly between a Monday craft post and this Friday development journal. If I ever have a really long chapter, I have the flexibility to split it between two weeks and maybe throw in some short posts or re-blogs.

Second, it feels like a stretch that is still achievable. One of the reasons I started blogging in the first place was to acclimate myself to writing more, and doing it on a regular schedule. I have to say, it’s been a resounding success. Having to write for my blog schedule (even though it’s self-imposed) has gotten me to write more, and write with consistency. I used to write in fits and starts. Now I write almost every day.

Writing on a tight schedule has forced me to be a little less precious about my writing. Posts can always be improved, but I’ve started to get a good sense of when I’m better served by expanding this week’s upcoming article, and when I should just let it go and think about next week’s post. I’m juggling Razor Mountain and blog posts, and I prioritize now, instead of putting things off and only writing what I feel like, when I feel like it.

I think I need to cultivate a little bit more of that attitude for Razor Mountain. I want it to be good, but there’s a limit to how much I can revise when I’m publishing serially. That’s okay. That’s the nature of the project. I console myself with the idea that I might go back when it’s all finished and clean up every little part I don’t like. Razor Mountain: The Director’s Cut. Whether or not I end up doing that, it helps keep me going.

I’ll keep trying to hit the chapter-per-week. If I find myself consistently getting behind, then I’ll reevaluate that and adjust the schedule. For now, let’s plan on Chapter 4 next week.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 3.3

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with a new chapter published every week. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Christopher hauled himself to his feet as quickly as he could, heart pounding. He hobbled over to the desk and looked at the mess of  switches and knobs on the radio. He flipped the switch next to the circular mesh that looked like it might be a microphone. A tiny red light came on, then flickered.

“Hello? Hello, can anyone hear me? Please respond. Anyone?”

He stared at the flickering red light, then realized that he might not be able to hear any response while the microphone was still on. He flipped the switch again. The light stopped flickering.

After a few seconds of silence, he tried again.

“This is Christopher Lamarck, um, in an unknown structure in the Alaskan wilderness. I am stranded and injured. Uh…I was on flight…”

He realized he didn’t know his flight number. His boarding pass was probably at the bottom of the lake, with his wallet and cell phone.

“…on a flight from Anchorage to Homer. I think we may have been off-course. I need help. Over.”

He flipped the switch. He had the odd feeling that he should probably be using words like “over” and maybe the phonetic alphabet, if any mysterious voices on the other end of the line were going to take him seriously as the operator of this ridiculous antique radio.

He left the radio on its current settings, afraid that if he changed anything, he would miss the voice when it came back. He rifled through the desk drawers again. There was blank paper, a box of sharpened pencils, an old, dull pocket knife, a coil of wire tied tight with string, a jar of little metal pins, and two more blank notebooks, identical to the one he had been sketching in.

He took a pencil and one of the notebooks out, to write down anything else the mystery voice might say. The notebook slipped from his hand and fell to the floor. The leather strap wasn’t fastened, and it flopped open to a page in the middle, where a folded piece of paper had been stuffed.

Christopher gingerly bent over to pick up the notebook. He unfolded the piece of paper. It was thin and brittle, and yellowed around the edges and the folds. It was a black and white topographic map, showing a mountainous area with several small lakes and swaths of forest marked by tree symbols. In several places, there were little squares, but no labels to indicate what they might be.

He tried adjusting the largest dial on the radio. Unlike the other dials, the timbre of the static changed subtly when he turned this one, which made him suspect it was for adjusting the frequency. He clicked slowly through about a quarter turn when he found the voice again.

“Three. Two.” High tone. High tone. Low tone. Silence.

Christopher flipped the switch.

“Hello? Can you hear me? Please respond.”


He turned the dial a few clicks further and found the voice again.

“Nineteen.” High tone. “One. One. One. Five.”

Christopher flipped the switch.

“What the hell is this?”

As expected, there was no response.

Christopher continued turning the dial. The voice seemed to be jumping frequencies every few seconds. Sometimes one click was enough to find it again, sometimes it jumped several clicks on the dial. After about ten adjustments, he lost it. He cranked through the entire dial, but there was no more voice.

Christopher looked at the notebook. He had written down some of the numbers as he heard them, but he was sure he had missed many of them as the voice jumped frequencies. There were also the different tones, which he had started writing as high or low lines.

A military code? If it was something like that, it was probably automated. He wouldn’t be able to decode something like that, especially from the pieces he had collected. And what good would it do him, even if he did? He remembered reading about numbers stations when he was younger, and speculation that they sent coded messages to spies. He had no idea if that was true, or if it was all just speculation.

He tore an empty page out of the notebook, folding and unfolding it without thinking. It was a shock to suddenly hear a voice in the silence, only to realize that it wasn’t real human contact. Just a facsimile. He was still alone out here. Wherever “here” was.

He stopped shredding the paper and picked up the map again. He hobbled over to the metal table. It was bolted to the stone floor, but the heavy steel chairs were not. He dragged one of the chairs noisily to the entry hatch. He pulled the lever from one side to the other, and it swung open, letting in cold air.

The night of the crash was a blur in his mind, but for some reason the numbers he had pressed on the keypad were clear in his memory. 122199. Still, he wanted to be sure he wasn’t going to lock himself out.

He placed the chair firmly in the hatchway, propping the heavy metal door open. As long as it was open, the lever was unmovable, locked in the open position. He looked at the side of the door, which was a good three or four inches thick. There were three rectangular bolts, currently retracted, and matching holes in the door frame.

He stepped outside. Beyond the rock overhang, the land sloped down gently to the lake where he had landed. It glinted orange in the sun that was already low over mountains beyond. There was a dusting of snow on the shore, but no ice at the edges of the water now. A swirling wind pelted him with snow that felt like sharp little hailstones.

He tapped the code into the number panel outside the door. A series of clunking noises came from the door, but the mechanism didn’t move, presumably because it was already open. He still had a little irrational fear that he would be outside and the code would suddenly no longer work, cutting him off from the one thing keeping him alive.

He unfolded the map and looked out at the landscape.

The lake was small enough that he could see the entire thing from his vantage point. It was roughly kidney shaped, although the lobe nearest him was skinnier and longer than the far end. There was an open band of rocky shore all the way around, but beyond that it was thick with evergreens. The forest rose away from the lake in every direction, smoothly on Christopher’s right, and rising in stepped cliffs to the left. The trees eventually gave way to steep, bare rock, decorated only by the occasional boulder or scraggly, determined pine.

Christopher studied the map. He had noted the three lakes, but he realized they might be larger than he had originally thought, and there were dozens of smaller lakes. There was no legend to tell him the scale of the map. Out here in the sunlight, he now saw that one edge of the map was rougher, as though it had been torn smoothly along the fold.

“Of course the part with all the useful info is missing.” he grumbled.

Several of the squares marked on the map were close to smaller lakes. There were fourteen squares in total. Four were near the shores of tiny lakes. Three of the lakes were more or less kidney-shaped.

Christopher looked at the orientation of the lake in front of him, then at the mountain peaks he could see from his vantage point. One far off to the right with a wide base and low slope, a much steeper peak almost straight ahead, and the largest to his left — an odd sort of sharp double-peak that almost looked like the mountain was cracked down the middle.

He looked at the lakes on the map, orienting each of them in turn to match the water in front of him, then looking for mountains in similar directions. The problem was that the map was full of mountains of varying heights. Christopher could only guess how far away the peaks might be. Each of the lakes had mountains that might fit.

Christopher stood, the cold already making his hands stiff, and looked out at the sun as it began to set. He sighed.

It was honestly a miracle that he was even alive. He had no right to survive. The bunker in the wilderness, the numbers station on the radio — it was all frustrating and strange — but he had found a place where he was safe for the moment. He had shelter and food. There were a lot of ways things could be worse. And he had to admit, the view was one of the most spectacular he had ever seen. He stopped to just look out at the water, trees, and mountains under the cold blue sky.

Before the sun set, he brought the notebook and pencil outside and sketched the outline of the landscape. When the light was behind the mountains he went back inside, marked several squares on the map that might show his location, and filled in a few more details in his sketch.

As the sky faded to pink and purple, the lights inside the bunker faded as well. Christopher decided there must be some clever skylights funneling the external light inside. However, that bright light was replaced by a cozier glow with a faint flicker to it. It looked like firelight, seen indirectly. He wondered if there was some sort of natural gas piped up from below.

With his map and landscape drawing in hand, he wrote out a paragraph in neat block letters, doing his best to describe what had happened to him and what his surroundings looked like. Then he flipped the switch on the radio, and read it aloud, over and over across a dozen channels. The radio only responded with faint static.

Christopher’s eyes watered and his head nodded. His bruised and battered body was dead weight. He left the radio on the frequency where he had last transmitted. He went to the supply room and found a jar of antibacterial cream among the medical supplies. He slathered his fingers, toes and face.

He stripped to his underwear. The bunker was warm, the stone radiating heat up into his bare feet. He picked the bed closest to the door, unfurled the sheet and blanket from the footlocker, and lay down carefully, wincing. Within seconds, he was asleep.


Razor Mountain — Chapter 3.2

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with a new chapter published every week. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Christopher sat at the little steel table, in the uncomfortable steel chair, and ate rice and beans. There was slightly tarnished silverware in one of the drawers of the little kitchen, and a selection of plates, bowls and pots in dull green-gray. One of the cabinets turned out to be a sort of oven. It had pipes running into it from the floor, and a single dial that opened and shut valves inside the box. There were little notches along the dial, but no numbers. Christopher had cranked it halfway, dumped in the rice and beans, and hoped for the best. It had worked out reasonably well.

The cans of food were strange and seamless, as though they had somehow been formed in a single piece around the food. The rice and other grains were all vacuum sealed in some sort of foil inside their boxes. It all appeared to be designed to last forever. The whole place was weirdly timeless. For all he could tell, it was equally possible that it had been abandoned for years, or that someone could walk in at any moment.

Despite his battered body, the simple hot food made him feel almost alive again. Next to the food, Christopher placed a leather-bound notebook and a pencil, both found in the drawers of the desk with the World War II radio.

The radio itself was in good shape. Christopher had flipped the large red switch on the front, and the box hummed to life with a crackle of static. However, no matter which switches he flipped or dials he turned, it picked up no signal. There was a mesh circle on the front of the device that looked suspiciously like a microphone, but he had no way of knowing if it was picking up his voice. The radio had a three-pronged cord that was plugged into a strange socket in the wall. It was the only electric appliance in the whole bunker.

As he finished his meal, he opened the notebook. It was unlined paper, completely blank. The paper felt brittle, but was in good shape otherwise. The leather cover was imprinted with a faint pattern of interlocking triangles. It was the sort of fancy notebook that had a built-in ribbon bookmark and a leather strap to hold the cover shut.

Christopher sketched a few of the objects from around the bunker: the hatch with its rotating handle, the radio, the strange boiler device from the back room. Between the sketches, he jotted phrases and words. It was a habit he had picked up in high school and college, when he still thought he might become an artist for a living and had been obsessed with da Vinci’s famous notebooks. The mixture of drawing and words helped him think.

The bunker was clearly outfitted to hold multiple people, with supplies that would probably last years. It felt a like a military installation, although Christopher wasn’t exactly sure what made him think that. What little he knew about guns all came from movies, and was undoubtedly questionable, but the guns in the storage room seemed like ordinary rifles and pistols. There were no explosives or anything that was clearly military issue. And it was all among other outdoors and camping supplies.

There were also the weird flourishes, like the Art Deco ornamentation around the door frames. It didn’t seem likely that some secret military bunker in the Alaskan wilderness would have extra decorations like that.

Maybe it belonged to some rich guy who wanted a place to hide away from business rivals or nuclear war. But wouldn’t someone rich enough to build a bunker like this stock it with more “rich people” amenities? There weren’t any golden toilets or big-screen TVs or freezers of filet mignon.

When he was done eating, Christopher had two pages of sketches and words, and had come no closer to understanding why the bunker existed. For a few minutes, he had been distracted from the pain in his body, but it all came roaring back as he slowly got up from the metal chair.

He went back to the supply room and searched the shelves, eventually coming to a corner that was stocked with first aid kits, gauze and iodine, rubbing alcohol and even some brown glass vials and hypodermic needles in cases of ten. There were several bottles of basic medicine cabinet stuff, including the pain medications he was looking for: acetaminophen and ibuprofen. It seemed likely that there might be some more serious pain medications in the vials, but Christopher decided it was better to be in pain than doped up on ancient morphine from the back shelf of the mystery bunker. Whoever had stocked the place seemed to know what would last, but relying on it might be a bad idea.

Christopher popped a pair of acetaminophen, then went back to the main room and stripped off his clothes. It was surprisingly difficult when everything hurt. He thought to check his pockets and found them empty. No wallet. No cell phone.

He imagined the owner of the bunker picking this moment to arrive. A naked stranger was not who you wanted to find in your secret bunker. Still, the light was better in this room than the others, and he thought he ought to at least try to check his injuries.

His fingertips and toes felt raw, and the flesh was red and scraped up, no doubt from crawling up the gravel-strewn beach. The skin of his knees was also covered in tiny scabs. He had probably sustained some frostbite in his fingers and toes as well, and judging from the numbness of his ears, cheeks and nose, that skin had been damaged as well. Christopher didn’t know if there was any treatment for serious frostbite. He had the vague impression that if it was bad enough it would just turn black and slough off. At which point it was like a burn and liable to get horribly infected.

He had to peel off his right sock, which was caked in dry blood. Underneath, his calf had a long, shallow gash running from knee to ankle. He thought back to the previous night, but couldn’t guess when exactly he had gotten it.

All over his body, bruises of varying sizes were beginning to darken. However, there were no bones sticking out, no limbs bending in directions they shouldn’t. No major new holes or leaks. He was relatively intact. The fact that his right leg hurt tremendously from ankle to hip was worrying, but hopefully it was a series of sprains and not fractured bones. 

When the radio crackled to life, Christopher jumped in surprise, which immediately sent a shock of pain arcing through his body. He sat hard, still naked, on the terrible couch, the pain so distracting that he barely heard the message.

“One. Seven. Seven. Nine,” said a matter-of-fact female voice. A low tone followed for several seconds, followed by a high tone. Then silence.


Debugging Stories: How to Revise Like a Programmer

When hackers are shown in movies, they’re always frantically typing code. Unfortunately, this isn’t very much like real programming. Real programming does require writing code, but it’s usually not done very quickly. There’s often a lot of code reading involved, a lot of sitting and thinking, sometimes some discussion, and then a bit of typing. Even with a lot of forethought and careful testing, most programs don’t work perfectly. That’s when the programmer turns to debugging.

Debugging vs. Editing

Debugging is what programmers call the process of identifying and removing bugs from software — bugs being things that the software does that we really don’t want it to do. In some ways, it’s a lot like revising and editing fiction, although they obviously have their differences.

Computer programs are very literal. Programming is a creative process because there are multiple ways to make a given thing happen, but the instructions are either correct or incorrect. They do what you want, or they don’t.

In fiction, there are many more ways to do a given thing, and fixes are often qualitative rather than quantitative — mostly coming down to taste. Because of this, it’s often harder to tell that there’s something wrong with a story, or identify exactly what it is. There might be hundreds of ways to fix those problems in fiction. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.

The Debugging Process

Debugging can be broken down into a few common steps:

  1. Identify possible problems
  2. Identify possible solutions
  3. Make a change
  4. Test
  5. Repeat as necessary

These same steps are a great roadmap for editing.

1. Identify the Possible Problems

It may seem obvious, but it’s hard to fix something if you don’t know what’s broken. As writers, we often have vague feelings that something’s not quite right, or not as good as it ought to be. This first step asks that we really try to identify what the problem might be.

Consider a novel that feels like it’s dragging in the middle. That’s the sort of vague critique that writers often face, but it’s not specific enough to “debug.” The middle might drag because the protagonist doesn’t have a clear goal, or because they’re not pursuing that goal, or because there aren’t enough interesting obstacles standing in their way. Maybe too much time is spent on a side character.

Try to figure out a problem that’s specific enough to describe in a sentence or two. If you think there are multiple problems, focus on one at a time. You may not be sure that you’ve figured out the actual issue. That’s okay. This is a scientific hypothesis. It will be proven or disproven later on.

2. Identify the Possible Solutions

Once a possible problem is identified, the obvious next step is to think about the ways it could be fixed. Don’t just run with the first idea you think of. This is a great time to do a little brainstorming. It’s easy to come up with ideas, but it’s more work to actually implement them.

The next step will be to implement your plan, but don’t throw away your other ideas immediately. You may think of a few improvements that naturally work well together and want to implement them all. Or you may find that the first fix you try doesn’t work, at which point you’ll want to come back and try something else.

3. Make A Change

This is the hard work, but you go into it well-equipped with a problem that you want to fix and a plan for fixing it. Take something out that doesn’t belong, add something in that was missing, or tweak what’s already on the page.

Occasionally, it’s apparent straight away that the chosen path is not going to work. Don’t feel obligated to write out a “solution” that didn’t pan out. You can always go back to steps #1 and #2. However, it’s important to write enough that you (or trusted readers) can make an informed decision about the change. It’s also important to differentiate between a bad solution and a hard one. A great solution that’s tough to implement might just need a few revisions to really shine.

4. Test

In software, once you think you’ve fixed the bug, you run tests to prove it. In writing, the only test that can really be performed is reading the new version. Depending on where you are in the writing process, it might be enough to read it yourself and make a judgement, or you may want to have other readers go through it, or even compare different versions.

The important thing is to make a decision: is it better than it was before? Is it better enough? If so, then you’ve solved your problem. Congratulations! If not, then you’ve got more decisions to make.

5. Repeat As Necessary

A failed improvement isn’t the end of the world. Difficult bugs don’t always get fixed on the first try. You just need to move back to a previous step and try again. If you now think you’re fixing the wrong thing, go back to step #1 and re-evaluate the problem. If you’re still convinced that you’re addressing the right problem, but aren’t satisfied with the result of your solution, go back to step #2 and try another solution from the list, or come up with new solutions.

It’s All About Problem Solving

This debugging formula isn’t a magic formula for success. It’s just a tried-and-true method for problem solving that can be applied to a variety of situations. Writing is an intensely personal experience, and it can be frustrating and disheartening when a story you love just isn’t working. Sometimes writer’s block is just the writer’s brain flailing in the face of an annoying problem.

These steps can provide a dispassionate process for working through that frustration. Addressing the problem through small steps with clear goals makes the problem itself seem less overwhelming. The option to backtrack and try again makes failures seem more like setbacks than crushing defeats.

So next time you run into a big “bug” in your story, don’t just blindly revise in hopes of fixing it. Debug it!

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 3

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.


I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.

Douglas Adams

This week, I did my Douglas Adams impression, finishing up Chapter 3 a few days behind schedule. It ended up being another 3-part chapter when I split it up for Wattpad and Tapas, and by the time I got through editing and beta feedback, I didn’t have three slots in the middle of the week to schedule it on the blog.

Instead, I put out a reblog on Wednesday, and episode 3.1 on Thursday. I’ll publish the other two parts next week, giving me a little buffer to get ahead again. I’d prefer to publish a full chapter every week, but failing that, I can at least publish something Razor Mountain each week.

I don’t know if anyone cares as much as I do about the scheduling, but my goal is transparency here, whether the process goes smoothly or not.

Taking Inventory

A lot of the work of this chapter was envisioning the layout of the bunker and all of the things inside. I debated what the technology and furnishing should be like. It had to be things that are made to last without maintenance. Geothermal? Strange, tiny oven? Water pump? All of it, as much as possible, with minimal moving parts. The people who made this place understand how to build for very long term use.

In a classic video game level design blunder, I forgot to include a toilet in the first draft. Then I debated leaving it out anyway, and forcing Christopher to go in the woods. It may technically not be necessary for livability, but that was a little too silly a thing for the builders to do. I put it in the most logical room: the one where nobody would be living, sleeping, or figuring out what to have for lunch.

As I researched the best ways to preserve food, survival gear, etc., I discovered that doomsday preppers have websites with great info on pretty much all of these things. Which shouldn’t have been surprising. Just another internet subculture rabbit hole you can get lost in.

More Next Week

I’m cutting it a little short this week. I’ll pick up next week to talk about the whole thing when the rest of Chapter 3 is out.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 3.1

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with a new chapter published every week. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Christopher woke up in pain. His head hurt. His fingers and toes and face felt as though they had been scraped across sandpaper. His legs hurt the most, especially the right one. His ankle throbbed. His hip ached. Cataloging his pains, he decided it would probably be faster to find the parts of his body that didn’t hurt.

Slowly, experimentally, he rolled himself onto his side. He paused in his movement every inch or two, as different parts of his body twinged and spasmed. After a minute or two, he managed to get himself onto his stomach, his forearms against the floor under his body.

“I should be dead,” he rasped. “Why am I not dead?”

His throat was so dry, it felt like it was sticking to itself when he tried to swallow.

The exertion and pain had him breathing heavily and beginning to sweat. His clothes, he realized, were still slightly damp, although they had dried quite a bit while he slept. How long had he slept? The floor beneath him looked like stone, gray with flecks of other colors. It felt like stone, but it was oddly warm, as though it was heated from within.

Christopher slid each knee up, pulling into a fetal crouch. He looked up to see the metal door set into the stone wall, recessed several inches. There was a short step down from the doorway to the floor of the room, a low lip that he used to begin pulling himself up. He imagined how he must look, like an old man in a dramatic commercial for one of those “I’ve fallen and broken my hip” devices.

Standing highlighted a whole new slew of pains, including a thumping headache. He was finally able to stand, so long as he kept most of his weight off of his right leg. He paused to breathe and take in his surroundings.

The low-ceilinged room was about fifteen feet wide and twice as long. A stainless steel table with four matching chairs sat in the corner across from him, in what appeared to be a tiny kitchen, with a sink, small cupboards, and a few feet of counter space. In the middle of the long wall was a drab green couch. Beyond, in the opposite corner, was a rectangular wooden desk. A large green box sat on it, covered in dials and switches. It looked like a World War II radio. Above the desk, a wide cork board was attached to the wall.

As far as Christopher could tell, the walls, floor and ceiling of the room were all carved directly out of the rock. It wasn’t polished to a shine, but it was uniformly smooth, every corner and seam perfectly straight. Bright light poured out of long, thin openings evenly spaced across the ceiling. Christopher looked up into the glow for a moment, but couldn’t tell if there were some sort of recessed light bulbs, or if the light was channeled from outside. The light from the tiny window in the outer hatch was certainly more muted.

Christopher hobbled slowly around the room, leaning on furniture and walls to stay steady. The surfaces all had a thin layer of dust. The place felt empty and disused, but wasn’t as filthy as he would have expected if it was some long-forgotten bunker from decades ago.

The couch seemed to be thick, tough fabric stretched over an oddly hard substrate. It felt like furniture built for sturdiness rather than comfort.

There were several open doorways leading out of the room. Each one had a stainless steel frame with fluting that had a distinctly Art Deco look to it. Christopher couldn’t quite remember when that style had been popular. The 1920s? Maybe earlier. Sometime between the  world wars?

The first doorway led to a much smaller room. It was crowded with shelves, all packed full of boxes, cans, bags and containers — all of it food. It was mostly simple staples: rice, beans, flour and so on. The cans held a little more variety, from vegetables to fruit to meat. The labels were incredibly generic: white text on a faded blue-gray background. There were no ingredients or nutrition facts. Just the name of the food in a slightly skinny font. However, he began to notice that each container had a little triangular symbol in the bottom left corner, like a simplified glyph of a snow-capped mountain.

He walked out past the couch, to the second doorway. This led into an almost identical small room. The shelves in this room were tighter against the walls. They were filled with outdoor gear. There were neatly tied bundles of canvas, probably tents; a camp stove; heavy wool coats; backpacks; lanterns; hatchets and knives; and a rack of pistols and rifles. Once again, everything bore the same dull green-gray, and many of the items had the little mountain symbol somewhere on them.

There was a slightly smaller doorway at the back that led to yet another, smaller room. A large closet, really. It was mostly filled by a machine that looked like some sort of boiler. The stone base melded seamlessly with the floor. It was composed of several stacked cylindrical sections, with thick pipes running between. More pipes ran out of the machine and into the floor around it, like stubby little legs. Others went into the ceiling. Apart from a couple of fluted steel flourishes, it was dull and gray, like everything else in the place.

The only other thing of note in the room was a steel toilet in the corner. It had no tank, just a pipe that came out of the wall. Christopher pulled the heavy metal lever on the side, and clear water quietly swirled down the bowl.

He returned to the main room and took the third and final doorway to what was clearly a sleeping area. There were three small, metal-framed bunk beds, with posts riveted to both floor and ceiling. The mattresses, if they could be called that, felt like the same uncomfortable material as the couch, covered with heavy fabric. A pair of small footlockers was bolted to the end of each bed. Christopher opened one and found a precisely folded sheet and blanket, and a dense, small pillow at the bottom.

He returned to the main room and looked around for a moment, utterly perplexed.

“Where the hell am I?”


Reblog: Accumulations — The Inner Moon

Remember when we talked about William Gibson calling the cyberpunk genre a retro-future on Twitter? Part of the reason cyberpunk can feel stale is that so many of the tropes are already part of our daily lives.

This thoughtful essay from The Inner Moon suggests that cyberpunk is actually a close sibling of post-apocalyptic fiction. An “entropic dystopia.”

In post-apocalyptic stories, the apocalypse strikes in a moment and leaves behind a broken world. A meteor, bio-weapon, zombie plague or nuclear war changes everything overnight.

Meanwhile, the apocalypses of cyberpunk are slow, insidious, and layered. Societal rifts that spread over decades. Dysfunctional governments in thrall to multinational corporations. Greed winning out over community. Tech becoming more and more ubiquitous without solving any of these issues. The problems just keep piling up. The world doesn’t collapse in cyberpunk. It gets steadily worse. It’s society as the frog boiled in the pot.

Check out the whole article over at The Inner Moon…

How to Research for Fiction

No matter what you’re writing, at some point you’re going to have to do some research. It may be the details of exoplanets or ion drives for sci-fi. It may be mythology or medieval society for fantasy. It may be the royal court of Victorian England for historical romance. Every genre and style of story can benefit from some kind of research.

However, research can be challenging. Sometimes, the information you want is difficult to find. Sometimes it doesn’t exist. When I started my novel, Razor Mountain, I quickly discovered just how little we know about prehistoric humans more than ten thousand years ago.

Sometimes, there’s far too much information available, and it can be completely overwhelming. It’s easy (and dangerous) to get sucked into endless YouTube or Wikipedia links in the middle of a writing session.

There’s a great discussion around research for fiction on episode 15.41 of the Writing Excuses podcast. Mary Robinette Kowal suggests that the best question to ask is “How little research can I do?” I take that to mean, “how can I do exactly enough research to write this thing well?” Research can be fun or frustrating, but ultimately it only has measurable usefulness if it contributes to the writing getting done.

When trying to limit your research, there are three important questions: when to research, what to research, and how much to research.

When to Research

Research can be done before, during, or after the first draft of the story.

Before starting the actual writing, you may have an outline, but you will be at the point where you know the least about your story, and therefore the least about what you need to research. However, before writing is a great time to do general research about a particular setting, a culture, a time period, or other broad parts of the story’s milieu. This kind of undirected research is a great way to find new ideas that will feed into the story and the characters.

N.K. Jemisin suggests traveling to places that you’ll use as settings in your stories. Of course, that’s only feasible if the setting exists in the modern world (or you can glean something about the past from visiting the present). It’s also time- and money-consuming, and not always practical for many writers or smaller projects. Sometimes Google Maps street view is good enough. However, if you’re making money from writing, travel can sometimes be used as a tax write-off, and a great excuse to see new places.

During the actual writing is when it’s easiest to find smaller details that need to be researched. These may be simple facts or figures to look up, like the three tallest mountains in the U.S., or more general ideas, like what types of fruit you’re likely to find in the green room of a Chinese TV talk show. It’s more rare to suddenly realize you need broad knowledge of a particular setting or culture, but that can happen as well, especially of you are an exploratory writer, and you’re discovering your plot as you go.

After writing the initial draft, research is sometimes an important part of editing. Things that didn’t make sense or need to be expanded may require research.

Putting Off Research and Filling Blanks

Research, especially at a broad level, can be infinite. You can know the answer to the three tallest mountains in the U.S., but if you’re researching the Canadian punk scene in the mid-1970s, you have to go in knowing that there is no end-point. The research is done when you feel like you have enough to write the story.

This mindset of “how little can I research” helps to avoid the problem of research as procrastination. Writers find a million ways to procrastinate, and research can be a dangerous one, because it feels useful. If it’s not putting words on the page, it’s really just a form of entertainment, not productivity.

This kind of undirected research can completely derail a writing session. In Writing Excuses 15.41, Cory Doctorow suggests using the old journalist notations, TK (for “to come”) and FCK (for “fact check”). When you’re writing, and you need a fact that you don’t know, just throw TK or FCK into the manuscript with some placeholder text and keep writing. This can also work when you need to remember something from earlier in the story — was the murder weapon in the study or the library? Just TK it and keep writing.

These strange abbreviations are sequences of letters that tend to not show up naturally in English, so it’s easy to search for them later. You can always come up with your own notations, but I’d suggest you use something that’s easy to search out in a manuscript. You might dedicate time to a research session instead of a writing session, going through these notes and finding what you need to fill in the blanks, without worrying about it detracting from the day’s word count.

Plot or Detail?

Sometimes, research will be needed for details, and sometimes the result of the research will directly affect the plot. The details and little bits that bring the world to life can often be FCK-ed for later. It doesn’t really matter what fruit is available in the green room. It won’t affect what the character does when they go on TV. On the other hand, if you discover that there really aren’t any talk shows on TV in that country, that may derail the next couple of scenes.

It’s important to differentiate between these detail and plot-vital questions. Skipping over a plot-vital question and continuing to write may backfire when you get to the research and the answers turn out to be incompatible with what you’ve written. This is a recipe for depression, as you’re forced to throw away hard work and change the course of the plot.

Details, on the other hand, are relatively safe. They can usually be put off for later research without much consequence. It’s important to understand the difference.

Using What You Know

One of the best ways to avoid research is to already know things. It sounds silly, but it’s true. Chances are, you’ve lived in a few places. You may have a job, and probably know other people who have jobs. You’ve been places. You’ve seen things.

“Write what you know,” is such well-worn writing advice that it borders on trite, but it is undoubtedly the best way to avoid research. In Razor Mountain, I decided that one of my protagonists is a former software developer from Minnesota. That happens to be my current job, and the place I live. There are plenty of other things that I have to research for that book, but any questions that come up about living in Minnesota or working in software will probably be easy for me to answer with my own experience. By using what I know, I can do less work and get the same quality result.

Just be aware that using the same knowledge over and over, to the point of it being a crutch, can be obvious to your audience, and even get a little boring. Not all your protagonists have to be writers, Stephen King. There are other professions.

Don’t Rely on Tropes and Stereotypes

Just because you want to limit your research doesn’t mean it’s okay to cut corners, especially when it comes to people and their cultures. One of the reasons old movies and books with minority characters are so often cringy is because they rely entirely on tropes and stereotypes for those characters and cultures.

Some of this can be avoided by finding readers who live in the places you’re depicting, or come from the same culture as your characters. These days, those people are often called “sensitivity readers.” They’re living research assistants, with the personal experience that you’re lacking. Whatever you call them, they invaluable.

When working with this kind of reader, it’s even better if you can work with them as you write. It’s better to ask questions up-front to avoid plot-breaking discoveries. And your reader will definitely appreciate reviewing work that already works hard to understand who they are or the culture they come from. Of course, like any person who works in a professional capacity to help improve your writing, you may have to pay them. This is skill and knowledge that you’re getting from someone else, and it’s as valuable as something like editing or cover design.

Not Too Much, Not Too Little

Research can make stories feel more real, but it can also be yet another form of writerly procrastination. It’s important to ask “when, what and how much,” as you delve into research. If you can use what you know, you may be able to skip that research and spend more time writing. If you can TK or FCK those detail, you can avoid derailing a productive writing session and come back to that detail later.

Research may seem like a daunting thing that requires travel and first-hand experience, but there’s a lot that can be discovered through the internet, and even through your local helpful librarian and (gasp) books. If you can find experts on a topic, they can be a great resource too. When it comes to depicting a culture or group that you aren’t a part of, finding readers and consultants to fill in those gaps in understanding can be a necessity.

Don’t let research scare you, but don’t let the allure of knowledge distract you from actually getting the writing done either.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 2

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production and outlining journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.


My outline originally called for a fight between a raiding party of outsiders and God-Speaker’s tribe. However, a little research made it clear that there is really no evidence of armed conflict between groups of paleolithic humans. The generally low population densities would mean that groups wouldn’t interact that much, and it would be disadvantageous for them to fight over resources in anything other than extreme situations.

I decided that attackers probably didn’t make sense as a raiding party, and might be more reasonable as desperate travelers who have fared poorly. They have different language and customs, and can’t communicate. The concept of violence between humans is foreign to God-Speaker’s people, so the attack is difficult to explain outside of supernatural causes.

These paleolithic people have some tools and bits of culture similar to more modern indigenous Alaskans, with the assumption that they are less adapted to that environment than their descendants will become (“modern” in this context still going back many thousands of years). Since they are far removed from future Alaskans, and there’s very limited hard evidence about how they lived, it comes down to inference, guesswork, and making things up.

I did spend some time researching the sort of flora and fauna that might be present, indigenous fishing and hunting techniques, and things like how simple shelters might be constructed.


My first draft started off slow, with a few paragraphs of background about the tribe and their winter settlement. I wanted to treat this as more of a second opening hook, since it’s introducing a new setting and characters for the first time. When I rewrote the opening, I tried to focus on the character and action and intersperse the background.

I also had the idea of simplifying the language of this chapter to reflect that the language the paleolithic people were using was likely less complex and developed than anything in recorded history. This is extremely tricky, because it’s very easy to get into tropey and condescending “cave-man speak.”

My son is a big fan of the XKCD Thing Explainer book, and I was aware that Randall has a word checker called Simple Writer, to flag any words in a text that aren’t in the most common 1000 words. This kind of writing strikes a nice balance to me, where it is definitely simple, but not quite at cave-man trope level.

I did use this tool to check the revised chapter, and it did help me identify some places where I could simplify the writing. I didn’t strictly adhere to it, because there were a number of places where conforming to it just didn’t sound good. I’ll probably continue to use it as a sort of automated advisor for the next couple God-Speaker chapters.

Properly Started

These first two chapters feel like the extended introduction to me. The two main POV characters have been introduced, along with the challenges they’ll be facing, and taste of both settings.

The next chapter will transition back to Christopher, and will be more about expanding what’s been introduced. More setting, more characterization, and more mysteries.