Writing Tech Ideas #2 — Canonicity

As a software developer who also writes fiction, I find myself occasionally coming up with software ideas for writers. Honestly, I’ll probably never put in the effort to make these things a reality, but I am curious if anyone else would be interested. Let me know in the comments if this is something you’d use.

The Premise

Writers are often depicted as quiet loners, toiling away in hours of solitude in front of a typewriter or computer. That may be true for some, but many writers seek each other out. There are many vibrant writing communities.

Not only that, but many writers love collaboration—whether it be co-authorship, shared worlds, TTRPGs or fan-fiction. Yet there are surprisingly few places where writers can gather to indulge in these communal writing activities.

Canonicity would be a website and community built around collaborative fiction and shared worlds, where writers from anywhere can work together to create ever-growing fictional universes.

Creating a Universe

The process starts with one or more authors creating a new shared universe. As the creators of this universe they are the admin(s), but they are also opening up their world as a playground for everyone else to come in, look around, and play.

The admin can publish stories, novels, art, and other world-building documents (collectively called stories) in their universe. They also have certain privileges, such as the ability to add other users as admins and mark stories as “canon.”

Collaborating

Other writers can come into a shared universe as participants. They can make their own stories in the admins’ universe. They can use characters and settings that already exist, or invent completely new ones that integrate with the previously created stories.

People can also simply join the universe as readers. Readers can comment and up-vote stories within the universe (whether they are marked as “canon” or not). They can add “tags,” which are short little descriptors of the story to help other readers find what they’re looking for (a bit like Steam tags).

Admins can pick other participants’ stories that are especially high quality or especially well integrated into the existing universe, and mark them as “canon.” This allows the admins to curate a core collection that they feel represents their shared universe. However, users can also sort by votes, view counts, or tags to get more of a community opinion of the best Stories in a shared universe.

Tags can also be used by the community to identify offshoots of the curated “canon” universe, when it grows large enough to have its own identifiable alternate universes.

Monetization

Even as a website that’s primarily serving text, there are going to be costs to keep a live service like this up and running. Monetization offers its own challenges, including more scrutiny of copyright issues. Fan fiction, which should arguably be transformative fair use, is a copyright claim magnet. Even if those claims are spurious, as soon as lawyers have to be involved, things get expensive. Not to mention the kinds of trolls who will happily upload someone else’s bestselling story just to cause trouble.

There are a lot of ways Canonicity could be monetized, but the most effective would probably be to allow authors to monetize their stories and take some percentage. Paid stories (or a paid token system) would be a monetization route that many other fiction services use. Typically the service takes a cut, and the remainder goes to the author. Another strategy might be a subscription service that splits the monthly fee among paid stories based on readership.

If we wanted to avoid paywalls, there are options like running ads alongside story content or paid aesthetic improvements like custom avatars, story backgrounds, themes and emojis.

That’s It

What do you think? Would you be interested in opening up your worlds for others to write in? Would you be interested in writing within universes that others have created?

Writing Advice from Lemony Snicket

I recently reviewed a book by Lemony Snicket called Poison for Breakfast. It’s a delightful little book that has much to do with writing and stories, and as such, Snicket manages to sneak in a little helpful writing advice for authors.

Here are Lemony Snicket’s three rules for writing a book:

It is said that there are three rules for writing a book. The first rule is to regularly add the element of surprise, and I have never found this to be a difficult rule to follow, because life has so many surprises that the only real surprise in life is when nothing surprising happens.

The second rule is to leave out certain things in the story. This rule is trickier to learn than the first, because while life is full of surprises, you can’t leave any part of life out. Everything that happens to you happens to you. Often boring, sometimes exhausting, and occasionally thrilling, every moment of life is unskippable. In a book, however, you can skip past any part you do not like, which is why all decent authors try not to have any of these parts in the books they write. But few authors manage it. Nearly every book has at least one part that sits on the page like a wet sock on the ground, with the reader stopping to look at it thinking What is this doing here?

Nobody knows what the third rule is.

And as a bonus, advice for writing a good sentence:

Almost always, shortening a sentence improves it. A nice short sentence feels like something has been left out, which helps give it the element of surprise.

Genuinely helpful writing advice, or confusing nonsense from a silly book about bewilderment? I’ll leave it for you to decide.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 5.1

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

The people followed the river for days as it descended through the mountains. The great ice that filled in the cracks of the world was here, as it was everywhere. They could often see fields of ice filling the low places. Sometimes it was milky white, sometimes it was the deep blue of the sky just before nightfall. Even though winter was fading, the wind still cut like sharp flint, and the nights were bone-numbingly cold.

Early spring was a dangerous time. The reserves of dry meat, fish and berries that had sustained them through the winter were nearly gone, but the land was just beginning to awaken. There would be few edible plants to find, and nothing would fruit until well after the next full moon. Some animals were still in their long winter sleep. What few could be found would be lean and tough.

The river was a lifeline, not only because it gave them a path to follow, but because it kept them close to the river spirit, who could watch over and protect them. The tribe made good speed after the mild winter in the valley, but they were uneasy. They spoke little as they walked. They had suffered already this spring, and everyone was waiting to see if that hardship would lead to better days, or to more troubles.

God-Speaker felt the weight of their stares, saw them looking away when he turned. There were some who had grumbled when Makes-Medicine had adopted God-Speaker as family. The grumbling was quieter, but no less, when he had heard the stone god speaking and Makes-Medicine had announced that he was a shaman and spirit-talker. Now that she was gone, they were getting louder again. God-Speaker heard the whispers, and he could guess what was being said beyond his hearing.

There was no question of Makes-Medicine’s authority, at least while she was alive. She was beloved by the people, and a hard loss to bear. Now, the unspoken order of the tribe was unsettled. Despite Makes-Medicine’s blessing, God-Speaker was young and untested as a shaman. The tribe had not yet seen proof of the powerful visions or the deep understanding of the spirits that Makes-Medicine had shown. And God-Speaker knew there were some who expected him to be a failure. The grumblers were eager for Braves-the-Storm to lead. He was Makes-Medicine’s brother, now the eldest of the tribe, and wise by all accounts. And he had been a great hunter in his younger days.

Still, the people were a community that worked together. Respect had to be given to those who earned it. For now, the questions of leadership would remain open, and the people would watch and judge everything that God-Speaker did and said. God-Speaker had never wanted the burden of leading, but he had been chosen by the stone god, and by Makes-Medicine, and now he was trapped. When the stone god had first spoken to him, it was thrilling. For once, he felt useful. Now, he wondered if it would have been better for him to have not been chosen.

Three days into the journey, a storm crept over the mountains, dumping heavy, wet snow on them. Travel was slow and miserable, and there were no dry places to sleep. The tribe’s mood worsened, but they continued to descend, following the river and hoping to get clear of the snow.

They came to a place where the river wound back on itself, running between a series of ridges. He heard talk at the front of the group: some of the hunters, men his own age. They were talking about climbing the nearest ridge to see the lay of the land and the course of the river below.

The stone god had been quiet for days, only whispering wordlessly now and then. Now it spoke to him clearly. Go up.

Two of the tribe’s best hunters, Far-Seeing and Finds-the-Trail, were already scrambling up the steep, slippery ridge. It was icy, and covered in loose rock that skittered down behind them.

God-Speaker wanted to back away, into the group that was settling in to wait. Instead, he stepped forward and took a deep, shaky breath. He set down his pack of personal belongings next to the packs the hunters had left behind. Finally, he adjusted the second pack, the one that held the stone god, and began to climb. He heard a few whispers from behind. Nobody had expected him to go up. They did not hear the stone god. They did not feel the compulsion that gripped him.

The slope was shallow enough that it could be walked, if it weren’t so slippery and loosely-packed. God-Speaker kept his hands out, sometimes for balance, sometimes scrabbling on all fours. He slid and scraped his knees and hands. He slowed. The other two continued up the slope above, getting further and further ahead. One of them looked back down at him and grinned mockingly.

To God-Speaker’s surprise, someone else came up the slope behind him. It was Braves-the-Storm. Unlike the younger men, he was clearly taking his time, picking each step and hand-hold carefully. Despite his age and his deliberate movement, he soon caught up to God-Speaker and began to move ahead. As he passed, he nodded to God-Speaker, his face showing no emotion beyond the strain of climbing.

God-Speaker knew he could not catch the hunters, especially once they had seen him coming up behind. Unlike them, he had never earned names praising his strength or hunting prowess. He had always been weak and clumsy. But it was embarrassing to be unable to even keep up with Braves-the-Storm, no matter how strong the old man was for his age.

The two hunters reached the top of the ridge when God-Speaker was only halfway up. They turned back and shouted offers of assistance down to Braves-the-Storm, but he only waved them off. They looked past him to God-Speaker, but said nothing more and walked out of sight.

By the time Braves-the-Storm reached the top, God-Speaker was struggling. He was hot with exertion and freezing at the same time. The cold wind turned the sweat to ice in his hair and beard. His back burned and his hands and arms were shaking with effort. For a moment, he thought about stopping, letting go and sliding back down.

The stone god whispered and hissed. He kept going.

Braves-the-Storm sat at the top of the ridge, catching his breath and waiting for God-Speaker. He offered a hand and pulled him up the last few feet. They sat for a moment, together, looking down on the rest of the people at the bottom of the slope.

Before God-Speaker could calm his breathing, Braves-the-Storm stood with a grunt, giving him a light slap on the shoulder as he turned and followed the two hunters. God-Speaker wanted to sit until the shakiness left his limbs, but he stood and followed.

“We wondered if you would make it,” Far-Seeing said, and both men smirked.

Braves-the-Storm did not smile. “He carries a heavier burden.”

“Heavier than the seasons you carry?” Finds-the-Trail replied. But his smile faded in the face of Braves-the-Storm’s stoic stare.

There was a smooth outcrop of rock at the top of the ridge. Far-Seeing and Finds-the-Trail stood side-by-side, looking down at the land beyond. God-Speaker and Braves-the-Storm stood beside them. From where they stood, the land fell, and fell again down bare stony ledges. The river twisted and turned before pouring into a canyon crusted with ice. It was narrow before the falls—narrow enough that the people might be able to cross it. It was clear that they couldn’t follow the river down. They’d have to pick one side of the canyon or the other.

It was the moment God-Speaker had dreaded. They could no longer follow the river. They might be able to stay close and find it again below, but they had to make a choice now.

“Which side of the river looks best?” asked Finds-the-Trail. He was clearly thinking along the same lines as God-Speaker.

“Even where it’s narrow, it will be dangerous to cross,” Braves-the-Storm replied. “We should not take that risk without good reason.”

“We could stay on this side for now,” God-Speaker said. “We may follow the canyon down to that far ridge and see more of what lies ahead.”

The hunters both narrowed their eyes, as though annoyed that God-Speaker would involve himself in their conversation.

“Yes,” said Braves-the-Storm, “but the path is rough with rocks and ice. It will be slow. We may spend a day or more getting there, and if the trail ahead looks bad, then we will have to come back to the narrow place.”

“Whichever side we pick, we may not find a good path,” Finds-the-Trail said.

Their voices faded from God-Speaker’s ears. At the top of the ridge, the whispers of the stone god grew to a roar. They clung to him and made him itch. He felt compelled to kneel on the flat stone. He swung the leather pack around in front of him. His shoulders throbbed as the burden was removed. The outside world dulled and blurred. He opened the pack and gently slid the stone from it. It was all he could focus on. He cradled the god in his lap, and they surveyed the land together, like a parent cradling a child.

God-Speaker could not tell if the others were still talking amongst themselves. Everything close had become hazy, but the land in the distance was bright and clear. God-Speaker couldn’t hear his own breath. He couldn’t hear the wind scouring the ridge or his companions’ voices, but he could hear the rustle of trees across the river. He could hear the water far away as it quickened down its narrow channel, falling into the canyon in a foamy rush.

Away, beyond the next ridge, before the river dropped from sight, there were other noises. A dull thumping, as of hooves on hard ground, and then a deep bellow. The low groan rose into an eerie trumpeting that echoed among the rocks. It was a sound like elk or deer might make, but strange enough that God-Speaker wondered if it was some other, stranger beast the people did not know.

“Have you ever heard such a noise?” he asked.

“What noise?”

The fog fell away. Once again, the far-away ridge and the river and the woods were distant and muted, and the rock was hard beneath him. He could hear his own breathing again. It was slow and steady now. He shivered as the sweat of the climb dried on his neck and face.

The others stood nearby, looking down on him. The hunters wore their familiar irritated expressions. Braves-the-Storm was impassive.

“You were in a trance,” he said. “We heard nothing but the wind. Did the god speak to you?”

“Not with words,” God-Speaker said. He pointed toward the patch of forest. “I heard hooves on the other side of the river, beyond the ridge. Maybe among those trees. I heard bellows, too.”

“Deer?” asked Finds-the-Trail. He looked interested, in spite of himself.

God-Speaker shook his head. “I don’t know. They were strange, not like deer or elk I have heard before.”

“We should be wary,” Braves-the-Storm said. “It may be some new kind of deer, or a predator.”

“Deer meat would be worth crossing the river for,” Far-Seeing said.

The people still had some of their winter fare. They dug up what edible roots and plants they could find as they traveled, and Far-Seeing had killed a hare with a well-aimed sling-stone, but something as large as a deer could feed everyone.

Finds-the-Trail nodded. “We should cross if there is a chance of deer.”

Braves-the-Storm crossed his arms over his chest. “What do you think, God-Speaker? Did the God show you anything else?”

God-Speaker looked down at the smooth stone head. It was silent now. Even the whispers had quieted.

“Nothing,” he said. “I think it must have a reason to let me hear this, but even Makes-Medicine said that signs from the spirits could often be interpreted in many different ways. I think we should cross, but we should watch carefully for animal signs.”

They said nothing more, but stood for a moment, looking out over the land and holding as much of it in their memories as they could. The hunters seemed caught between their irritation with him and the hope of fresh meat. God-Speaker slid the stone god into its pack and pulled it onto his aching shoulders once more. They all went down together, the hunters again leading the way.

Far-Seeing and Finds-the-Trail moved among the group to explain what they had seen ahead. The people began walking again, with Braves-the-Storm leading the way. God-Speaker walked in the middle of the group. He heard mentions of deer here and there in the group, but nobody approached him to ask what he had seen or heard on the ridge.

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Writing Tech Ideas #1 — Struggle Writer

As a software developer who also writes fiction, I find myself occasionally coming up with software ideas for writers. Honestly, I’ll probably never put in the effort to make these things a reality, but I am curious if anyone else would be interested. Let me know in the comments if this is something you’d use.

The Premise

There’s a truism in art: “constraints breed creativity.” Wide-open, endless possibilities make it harder to make something good. Humans tend to follow the same paths of thought when faced with a familiar situation, but unusual constraints force us to think in different and more creative ways.

Struggle Writer would be a tool that embraces this philosophy in a writing prompt generator.

Pick Your Constraints

Struggle Writer would come with lots of built-in constraints, such as:

  • Write from a specific POV:
    • 1st, 2nd, or 3rd
  • Limited word count:
    • 100, 500, 1000
  • Finish your story in one hour
  • Particular genre (from a list)
  • Include a particular word (chosen randomly from a dictionary or list)
  • Use a word you invent
  • Someone dies
  • Someone is born
  • Include a mystery
  • Include something scary
  • Include magic
  • Include death
  • Include a birth
  • Include an animal
  • Include a natural disaster
  • Include a flashback
  • Include a joke
  • Time of day: morning / evening / late at night
  • Use a literary device (chosen randomly from a list)

You can probably think of many more possibilities, which is why Struggle Writer would include a simple interface for adding custom prompts, or removing prompts you don’t like.

Mix and Match

Depending on how much challenge you want in your writing prompt, you would pick the number of “struggles” you want the tool to include. Then you click the button, and the tool selects that many to build you a randomized prompt.

Don’t like the result? Click the button to re-roll for a new prompt with the same parameters, or change your criteria before trying again.

I could even imagine an interface where you can “lock” specific results and re-roll the ones you don’t like, although that takes away a little bit of the randomness.

Bonus Features

While I think the tool would work pretty well as described above, some other, higher-effort additions might help to spice things up. These could include:

  • Randomized images
  • Randomized sound prompts
  • A connected website to:
    • Share prompts and templates
    • Share custom criteria
    • Share stories with their prompts
    • Upvote the best of each of these

That’s It

It’s a simple idea, but I think it could be a lot of fun for people who like to use writing prompts. The ability to add new options and remove old ones would keep it fresh.

What do you think? If it existed, would you use something like Struggle Writer?

Reblog: How to Study the Craft of Writing — Priscilla Bettis

As I’ve mentioned before, I read a lot of books about writing and the craft of storytelling. Along with regular reading and writing, I think this is one of the keys to improving as an author.

I find I can usually take at least a few good things from any of these “how-to” guides, and I synthesize all of it into my own mish-mash of writing process. However, I’ve always done this very informally, mostly just reading, absorbing, and seeing what sticks.

Bettis suggests a much more rigorous form of study, and encourages us to take notes. Notes let us come back later and get the executive summary of what we read, but perhaps more importantly, they allow us to better retain all those juicy tidbits of advice.

As I’m reading a book or article or even listening to a YT lecture, I jot down key ideas in the left hand column, and then (this is the important part) in the bigger area I immediately apply each concept to a work in progress. If you zoom in on my notes, you might see items about a character named Wang and how I could develop an emotional core for Wang’s story.

I also make little boxes with published examples. In these notes, the published examples are from Moby Dick.

When I’ve filled up the note-taking area down to the bottom section, I stop and get out my yellow pen to highlight the main points of what I just studied. Then (this is another important part), without looking back at the notes so I’m not just copying, I summarize what I’ve learned in my own words at the bottom of the page.

She even includes an example page from her own notes, links to the note-taking method that she adapted, and an article explaining why note-taking can provoke deeper learning.

Check out the full article over at Priscilla Bettis, Author…

The Try/Fail Cycle

Many authors feel that the most challenging part of writing a novel is the middle. It makes sense. It’s easy to bring lots of enthusiasm to the beginning — all the ideas are exciting and new. The end is usually exciting because you’ve fought your way through and you’re finishing the damn thing. But the middle…well, that’s the place where that early, irrational exuberance is fading and you start to discover all of the challenges that the book will require you to overcome.

The middle is often the least-well-defined part of the book. In terms of typical 3-act structure, it’s also the longest. It can be a dangerous mire where the story slows to a crawl, and neither you nor your characters are quite sure what they’re doing.

Luckily, there are some great tools for navigating the squishy center of a novel. I happened to learn about these ideas from the Writing Excuses podcast. One of these principles is the M.I.C.E. quotient, which we talked about previously. The principle I want to talk about today is the try/fail cycle.

Characters Need Goals

Conflict or tension in a story typically comes from characters with goals, and obstacles that prevent them from achieving those goals. It’s a wonderfully simple idea that can be executed in myriad ways.

These don’t have to be explicit goals. The character might know exactly what they’re looking for (e.g. a fantasy quest for the magic sword) or they may have vague needs or wants (the abused orphan who just wants a feeling of belonging and family). However, it’s extremely hard for a character to stay interesting unless they have some goal, some desire, that they’re striving to fulfill.

Try, Try Again

From this first idea (characters with goals are interesting) we can derive more simple yet powerful principles.

  • If a character has a goal, they will try to achieve that goal.
  • When the character unequivocally succeeds (or outright fails) at all of their goals, they stop being interesting.
  • If the character tries and partly succeeds, or partly fails, they will try again.

These are the basic principles of the try/fail cycle. In general, if the character gets what they want, or it becomes impossible for them to get what they want, their story is over. Characters can have multiple goals, and resolving goals or introducing new ones can make for interesting inflection points. In most cases though, the character shouldn’t outright succeed or fail in their biggest goal until the climax of the story.

Luckily, for most interesting character goals there are many possible outcomes. Success and failure are two ends of a large spectrum. Many good plots are full of characters trying to achieve their goals over and over again, each time facing setbacks or only partly succeeding.

The idea of partial success or partial failure are often described as “yes, but…” or “no, and…”. Partial success (“yes, but…”) means that the character gets something they want, or moves closer to success in a goal without outright achieving it. Perhaps the fantasy hero finds an old map that will lead them to the sword, or the orphan makes a friend who seems to have some ulterior motives. Partial failure (“no, but…”) is a setback that can still be overcome or that introduces a new opportunity. Maybe the hero finds the secret tomb, but the evil henchmen already took the magic sword, or the orphan’s friend betrays them, but only to save their kidnapped family.

Consequences and Complications

One of the important things about the try/fail cycle is that each outcome (each “yes, but…” or “no, and…”) should change the status quo. While the character is trying, they are on a path. After their partial success or partial failure, they have to change course before trying again.

These outcomes can be split into two different categories: consequences and complications. A consequence means that the situation has changed, but the character’s goal remains the same. The hero still wants the magic sword, but they need to get it from the henchmen instead of from the secret tomb. A complication introduces a new goal or desire for the character. The orphan still wants a friend, but now they need to help save the kidnapped family as well.

It’s important to be careful when adding complications. In terms of M.I.C.E. threads, adding a complication introduces a new nested plot thread. That thread now needs to be pushed forward and resolved appropriately, while still managing the character’s original goal. Complications literally complicate the story — they add more complexity! A story where every try/fail cycle ends with a complication can quickly spiral out of control, as the many different goals and conflicts collapse under their own weight.

Tightening that Middle

If we break down a story by the M.I.C.E. quotient idea of nested threads, then any long-running thread can naturally be composed of multiple try/fail cycles. Each cycle will have consequences (changing the status quo and advancing the plot in some way) or complications (introducing new goals).

The natural shape of many stories is to introduce one or more major goals (and main M.I.C.E. threads) at the beginning, ramp up the complexity and introduce new goals (via complications) in the middle, and then resolve those complications one by one approaching the end, saving the resolution of the most important goals for the climax.

For a story that’s dragging in the middle, this is a great framework. Do the characters have goals that they’re trying to achieve? Are their try/fail cycles changing the status quo? Are there too many or too few complications to make the story interesting?

This kind of writing craft naturally appeals to me as a planner, but even if you’re more of an exploratory writer, it can be nice to have these sorts of frameworks to use when inspiration is in short supply. That novel’s difficult middle isn’t so intimidating when you’ve got the tools to work through it.