What I Learned From “The Martian”

The Martian is a 2011 sci-fi suspense novel about astronaut Mark Watney, who finds himself stranded on Mars after a huge dust storm ends his crew’s mission and nearly kills him. It’s a book that combines near-future hard science-fiction with a classic survival story. Author Andy Weir keeps the story rooted in realistic science and extrapolates what the first few manned missions to Mars might look like. But it’s Watney’s struggle to survive and overcome one impossible challenge after another that gives the book its heart.

Rather than review a decade-old book, I decided to look at what the story does well, and what lessons I can learn from it to improve my own writing.

A Good Opening Is a Juggling Act

There’s a lot going on at the start of the book. The astronauts of the Mars mission leave their habitation module in the midst of a severe dust storm, fleeing to their launch vehicle so they can escape before it tips over in the high winds. They’re unable to see each other in the dust. When Watney is skewered by a high-speed flying antenna, disabling him and his suit’s comms, his teammates have no choice but to leave him for dead.

Weir could have started the book with this high-octane action scene, but he doesn’t. Instead, he starts with this:

Chapter 1

LOG ENTRY: SOL 6

I’m pretty much fucked.

That’s my considered opinion.

Fucked.

Six days into what should be the greatest month of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.

I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.

For the record…I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, “Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.”

And it’ll be right, probably. ‘Cause I’ll surely die here. Just not on Sol 6 when everyone thinks I did.

There’s no doubt that the action scene would start the book on an exciting note, and it would set up the plot nicely, but wouldn’t do much more than that. Instead, Weir starts with a log entry and Watney’s assessment of his situation, before he describes what happened.

This has a few advantages. It immediately gives us hints of Watney’s personality. The way he describes the situation is important. These few sentences set up Watney as the main character and the challenge he will have to overcome: surviving Mars, alone. This primes us to ask “what the heck happened?” And now we’re hooked, and we keep reading to find out more.

Adjust the Narrative Style to Fit Your Needs

I can’t remember the last time I read a book that splits up the scenes of the story in so many different ways.

The first five chapters (about fifty pages) are told entirely through Watney’s computer logs. We get to know him and his situation, and see him go into problem-solving mode as he tries to solve the immediate challenges of staying alive. Interestingly, the logs are relatively short, with several logs per chapter.

Next, the book goes into a third-person narrative style to go back to Earth and the folks back at NASA. There is a larger cast of characters to follow at NASA, so this shift makes it a lot easier to follow what’s happening, while sacrificing some of the closeness to a single character that the “logs” style give us with Watney.

The next major shift is at chapter 12, about halfway through the book, where we finally get a flashback to the action-packed scene of the astronauts fleeing earth. This comes at a time where things are going well for Watney, so it injects a bit of needed tension. More importantly, this flashback serves to introduce us to the rest of the crew of the Ares III mission, just in time for them to come into the story. After the flashback, we immediately roll into a scene with these same people in the present.

Finally, throughout the book, little mini-scenes and dialogues play out as back-and-forth messages between those in space and those back on earth. These serve a few different purposes, but mostly convey necessary info quickly so the story can move on to something more interesting.

What was most surprising to me about all of this is that it’s really not distracting. As long as these different techniques are written well and serve the needs of the story, they enhance the experience, rather than detracting.

Go to Great Lengths to Cut the Boring Bits

The style of Watney’s logs give Weir a great way to skip the boring parts, and opportunities to create micro-tension as Watney describes his plans in one log, then describes the results of those plans in the next log, often within the same chapter.

The story doesn’t even touch on the people back at NASA or Watney’s crewmates until it’s time for them to enter the story. All along the way, the important information is provided, the characters introduced, exactly when they are needed. Information that isn’t worth an entire scene is conveyed through quick exposition or text messages.

The book doesn’t slow down, because as soon as there’s any risk of that happening we skip ahead to the next exciting bit.

The Try/Fail Cycle is an Engine That Drives the Story

Watney is faced with a big challenge: survive and somehow get off Mars. That one overarching goal is actually composed of dozens of smaller challenges: having enough food, water and air; making contact with earth; and traveling hundreds of kilometers to another mission’s launch vehicle. Back on Earth, they have their own challenges. As the characters try to solve each problem, they sometimes succeed, sometimes fail, sometimes have to change strategies and try again, or deal with the fallout of a bad decision or unexpected event.

The book exemplifies how the try/fail cycle can drive a plot. The characters have clear goals and sub-goals, and clear stakes for success or failure. Plus, Weir uses these cycles to ramp the tension up or down. I could sense when a few things had gone well for Watney that it was just about time for some new catastrophe to blow up all his well-laid plans.

The tension only abates occasionally, to give the reader a reprieve. Once we’ve taken a collective breath, a new problem is introduced, and once again the characters have their work cut out for them. They have to inch forward, fighting every step of the way.

One example even interleaves Watney’s happy logs, where everything is going smoothly for a change, with italics description of the manufacturing process for a particular piece of equipment. What would otherwise be relatively mundane description of things going well becomes ominous as it becomes clear that the description is foreshadowing the imminent failure of that equipment, and the ensuing disaster.

Asymmetric Information Can Create Tension

For most of the book, Watney is completely cut off from NASA, or can only communicate one-way through simple morse code messages, spelled out in rocks and read through satellite photos. This creates a dynamic where Watney knows things that the people at NASA do not, and vice versa. In each of these cases, Weir uses this asymmetric knowledge to create tension.

The reader, being able to look out through multiple viewpoints, can see the incoming problem while some of the characters remain ignorant until it’s too late. The characters would have too easy a time overcoming some of these challenges if they could work together with no hindrance, so Weir creates believable problems that prevent them from working together.

Sometimes You Don’t Need a Villain

A lot of readers love a great villain, but this book really doesn’t have one, and it still works. If anything, Mars is the antagonist, but none of the characters really bear any ill will toward the big red rock. Despite effectively being a prisoner on the planet, alone for months, Watney has mixed feelings whenever he thinks he might actually escape.

If the book has any overarching message, it’s one of optimism. It says that almost anything can be overcome with human ingenuity, and our greatest strength is our ability to work together. Near the end of the book, Watney ponders how he could have never come as far as he had without the help of hundreds of people working tirelessly at NASA, along with the rest of his Ares III crewmates, and even some surprise help from the Chinese space agency.

A story like this can be hopeful without being saccharine. Not every story is zero-sum. Sometimes nobody has to lose and everyone can win. And I think that’s the kind of story that a lot of readers are finding appealing right now.

Should We All Be Selling Fiction NFTs?

If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last few months, you’ve probably heard a bit about NFTs. The news outlets and crypto bros are all incredibly eager to tell us about just how much money this or that JPEG was recently sold for. The only thing more popular than gawking at these huge sales is writing blog posts trying to explain in layman’s terms what the heck an NFT is, or why the heck anyone would want to buy one.

As authors, it feels like we’ve been living in a technological revolution for a while now. We’ve seen a huge transformation of the publishing industry in the past decade or so. Traditional publishing and distribution channels shrank while self-publishing and online distribution became viable options. Could the recent rise of NFTs represent yet another way for authors to sell their work?

For as much talk as there has been around NFT visual art and the (ugh) “metaverse,” there is comparatively little discussion of monetizing the written word. Although the latest NFT craze has been around visual digital art, there’s no technical limitation stopping other types of art from being “NFT-ified.” An NFT itself is able to hold only a tiny amount of data, but the way NFTs are typically used is more as a glorified digital certificate of authenticity, and it can point to almost anything. So let’s take a look at what fiction NFTs might look like, and whether they seem likely to be a viable way for authors to sell their work.

Downsides

Publishing fiction and building an audience is already a challenge. Most of us aren’t looking to make it even harder, so it’s important to look at the downsides of using NFTs.

Minting Ain’t Free

NFTs use cryptocurrencies and blockchains as their bedrock (usually the Ethereum chain and its native currency, Ether). You’ll need a cryptocurrency wallet, and you’ll need some cryptocurrency in it. That means you’ll need to buy crypto with real money. You’ll need to pay gas fees. You’ll probably also need a browser extension or a wallet with built-in browser to interface with the exchange and set up your listing.

If that last paragraph sounded like technobabble to you, then you see the other cost: complexity. If you haven’t been involved with cryptocurrency and/or you’re not very computer savvy, getting all of this set up can feel like a pretty big undertaking. Plus, the world of crypto is full of hacks and scams (try looking up “rug pull” or “stolen NFT”), so jumping into it without a good understanding of what’s going on can be risky.

No Silver Bullet

Huge sales of NFTs have drawn big headlines because they make for exciting news, but anecdotes should not be confused with statistics. Like cryptocurrency, the NFT marketplace seems to be pretty volatile. It’s fueled by speculation, sentiment and hype.

A few people have tried to fight the hype with research, and what they’ve found is that most NFTs don’t sell for more than a hundred dollars (and that’s before fees). Most artists who jump in aren’t getting rich. It’s not even clear if the average artist breaks even. There are a few people selling for hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, but is that really any different from Stephen King or E. L. James in the traditional publishing world?

Simply minting an NFT is no guarantee you’ll make money, and it’s certainly possible to lose some.

An Ideological Minefield

Cryptocurrency and NFTs aren’t exactly mainstream yet, but they’re getting more attention and press. And there are plenty of institutions and investors hyping them (often with holdings that stand to benefit from that hype). But there are plenty of others who are just as loudly pointing out the dangers: energy consumption, unstable and insecure technology, lack of regulation or oversight, and more.

In a world that is increasingly polarized, this is a natural ideological battleground—a tangled web of political beliefs, complicated technology, and economics. Having money at stake rarely makes people more objective.

It’s fair to say that announcing a venture into this arena will be met with excitement by the true believers, and scorn by the skeptics. Be ready to deal with that, and hope that the audience who gets excited is big enough to make it worthwhile.

Upsides

So far, NFTs don’t seem like a great deal. They’re certainly fraught with challenges. But there are some possible advantages too.

Novelty

NFTs have name recognition. They’re relatively new technology that’s attracting a lot of attention. And for those who are interested, they feel a bit like being involved in a sci-fi future.

If you’re the sort of person who likes experimenting with new, technology-infused forms of storytelling (like interactive fiction), then NFTs may be an exciting new playground. And the readers who are interested in new forms of storytelling may be more likely to jump the technical hurdles and be willing to support an NFT project.

This article from Lit Hub suggests that at least a few authors are making money by using NFTs to experiment with form and function, or at least provide a novel (heh heh) marketing twist for their writing projects.

Another Potential Income Stream

One of the oddities of NFTs, at least where digital art is concerned, is that they don’t actually provide legal or physical ownership of the thing they represent. They’re a digital note that can’t be easily forged, and point to the digital item of your choosing.

An NFT could be used as a way to sell the rights to a story or a novel, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be used more like autographed promotional materials or Patreon rewards: a bonus or collectable for invested fans. Minting an NFT of a story doesn’t mean the buyer owns any legal rights to that story, and you could still go on to publish it yourself.

Be aware, however, that blockchain information is inherently public. A typical NFT points to the item it represents at a URL that anyone can access. Since many publishers want “first” rights, minting an NFT of a piece of fiction may severely limit the rights that you can subsequently sell.

Conclusions

I’m personally pretty skeptical of NFTs and their cryptocurrency underpinnings, but it is a fact that it is now possible to mint NFTs for our art (or at least tangentially related to it). If nothing else, I think it’s always good to know what options are out there.

What do you think? Would you ever consider making NFTs of your fiction? Do you think there’s a market for it today? What about in five or ten years?

Reblog: 13 Things That Might Be Holding You Back as a Writer — Edie Melson

(I found this post thanks to Chris, the Story-Reading Ape, who re-posts a ton of interesting writing-related things from around the web.)

If you’re still looking for a New Year’s resolution, this might give you some ideas. Writers aren’t all the same, but it’s worth taking a look at this list. Chances are pretty good you’ll find something you should work on. For example, I don’t read as much as I should, and I’ve been meaning to join a writing group for about five years now.

Check out the list over at The Write Conversation, With Edie Melson…

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 5

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.

God-Speaker’s Goals

After two chapters starring Christopher and a holiday hiatus, it feels like it has been a long time since we got to hang out with God-Speaker. His tribe is on the road now, and we get to see a glimpse of what life is like for him in the wake of his mentor’s death.

It took a long time and quite a few drafts to write this chapter. Much longer than the previous chapters. Part of that was real life, but a lot of it was the story itself. It’s an important lesson that’s easy to forget: if writing something seems especially hard, you may not be writing the right thing.

My initial outline for this chapter mostly just had the tribe moving from point A to point B. My primary beta reader (the wife) confirmed that the chapter felt like filler, or “waiting for something important to happen.” I was thinking and writing about story threads and character goals at that time, it became pretty obvious that God-Speaker needed better-defined goals and clearer challenges to overcome.

This chapter is still about the tribe going from point A to point B, but that is now the backdrop for God-Speaker’s own struggles. It turns out he’s not good at the things that are important to a pre-historic tribe, like hunting, so his status has never been very high among the tribe. When he was taken in by Makes-Medicine to train as a shaman, and when he found and bonded with the stone god, his social status became murkier.

Now, Makes-Medicine is gone, which removes some of his social “armor.” The people of the tribe still aren’t too sure about this stone god thing, and some of the hunters still clearly have a low opinion of God-Speaker. The expectation for a shaman is to prove himself wise and capable, and become an important leader for the tribe. This is one goal.

Another goal becomes clear in this chapter. Makes-Medicine couldn’t bring the tribe out of the mountains to someplace warmer and more hospitable, but God-Speaker might. God-Speaker has no idea how to find snowless lands, but again, this gives him some direction.

Secondary Characters

I really didn’t have secondary characters fleshed out for God-Speaker’s part of the story, which probably should have been a red flag in the outlining process. However, this chapter forced me to build some of these characters. They’re directly tied to God-Speaker’s goals and obstacles.

I had to come up with more names for members of the tribe (both in this chapter and for later use). The interesting thing about this style of descriptive naming is that it automatically gives the character a bit of back-story. I need to come up with something that they’ve done or that they’re known for, to figure out what they should be named.

Far-Seeing and Finds-the-Trail are two of the best hunters of the tribe, representing everything that God-Speaker aspired to, and largely failed at. They see him as beneath them, and would be happy to see him fail, maintaining the current social order.

Braves-the-Storm is a more ambiguous figure. He is a rival for leadership. He has status as someone wise, brother of the former shaman, and a great hunter in his youth. However, he also reveals Makes-Medicine’s prophecy to God-Speaker, suggesting that he could bring the tribe to a better place. He quietly stands up for God-Speaker and begins to act as a possible replacement mentor figure in this chapter.

Research

I did a bit more research on the kinds of game animals that the tribe might find. There are a lot of good resources that talk about animals in the modern day, their habitats and ranges. But it’s much harder to find information on what was around thousands of years ago.

For example: pages about Alaskan hares.

Serial Writing

As writing this chapter dragged on, I had to admit that I just can’t consistently hit a schedule of one chapter per week with any consistency. Writing and publishing chapters as I go is honestly more of a challenge than I expected.

I could have put out this chapter a couple of weeks sooner, but the extra time has improved it quite a bit, and will also improve the rest of the story going forward. Rather than being beholden to a tight schedule, I decided that I’d rather try to put out good fiction and adjust the schedule as needed.

Of course, I’m still never completely happy, so I’m still planning to do another pass of revisions and improvements once all the chapters have been released. (If you have any thoughts or suggestions, feel free to leave comments!) But I’d like the story to be as good as possible for the readers that are reading it now.

Thanks for reading. See you next chapter!

Razor Mountain — Chapter 5.3

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

When God-Speaker and Braves-the-Storm returned to the rest of the people, it was nearly dark. Soon after, the hunters returned, not with deer, but with two more hares.

“You said there were deer in the trees,” Far-Seeing said, setting the rabbits on the ground and sauntering up to God-Speaker.

“I only heard something like deer,” God-Speaker said.

Far-Seeing raised a finger and opened his mouth to reply, but he was cut off by Braves-the-Storm.

“There were tracks. You followed them, didn’t you?”

Far-Seeing gave the old man a surly look. “We followed them until it was dark. We found no deer.”

“You found meat,” God-Speaker said, trying to sound encouraging. “If the deer have moved on, then there is nothing else you could do.”

Far-Seeing turned and walked away, scowling. “If you think we can’t track deer, you’re welcome to come on the next hunt. Maybe the spirits can tell us where to find meat.”

It was less of a feast than everyone had hoped for, but once they had been skinned and cooked, there was enough for each person to have a few bites, and the mood around the fires improved. The pelts would be fine and soft as well, caught between winter white and summer brown.

Braves-the-Storm told the people about the small tribe of strangers that he and God-Speaker had seen across the river. They had never had reason to fear other tribes before, but with the death of Makes-Medicine still fresh in their minds nobody was happy to have another tribe somewhere nearby. Wood was plentiful near the trees, so they fed the fires until they burned high and bright. A few of the hunters took turns staying awake, watching the path back toward the river crossing.

God-Speaker stayed awake for much of the night too, but not out of fear of the strangers. The other tribe did not feel like a threat to him. One of the strangers had set down his spear in what seemed like a gesture of peace.

The faint sound of the nearby river made him think of a time when he was a child, and the people had journeyed along the sea. It was so much water; sheet ice and shimmering waves stretching into the distance. That was before the years journeying through the mountains. And what had been before that? All the people knew was the journey, never ending. There were stories of a time long ago when they had lived in snowless lands. Then the ice came, covering everything. Evil spirits bringing cold to destroy the people. What would it be like to find another snowless land? What would it be like for God-Speaker to lead the people to that place?

God-Speaker rolled in close to the stone god and murmured to it.

“Will you bring us somewhere without snow and ice?”

The god was silent and still.

God-Speaker rolled onto his back again. What would they encounter tomorrow, away from the river?

He thought about Makes-Medicine. He tried to remember what she had told him—about the spirits, about the rituals and the herbs and plants that could heal sickness. He could no longer ask her questions. He was afraid that he would forget something important. What secrets had she not passed on to him? What had he missed or forgotten? Those things would be lost to the people forever now.

He lay on the hard ground, staring up into the clear sky. Among the bright stars, there were two streaks of light, one after another. He waited, frozen in place, and watched. Another streak. Another.

These, at least, he remembered. Makes-Medicine said that many signs could be good or evil, to be interpreted by the events surrounding them. But shooting stars were almost always a bad omen.

God-Speaker sat up. The god remained silent; a hunched mass in its pouch. Far-Seeing squatted near one of the fires, half-dark, half illuminated, watching the darkness between the river and the trees. Everyone else was asleep.

God-Speaker lay back down. He closed his eyes and tried to remember everything Makes-Medicine had ever taught him.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 5.2

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

It did not take long to come to the narrow part of the river. They found it was an even better crossing than it had appeared from above. Many of the rocks and boulders that had washed down the river collected here in a place where the water cut back and forth through a crack in a huge shelf of solid stone. The water was very deep and fast, but the crossing was narrow enough that everyone could jump it, even mothers carrying their children. The only child too big to carry was Black-Eyes-Staring, and he was nearly a man and able to make the jump by himself, under the worried eyes of his mother. They crossed one by one, with people waiting on the far side to catch them, until all were across.

The land was rocky and barren around the crossing, but they soon came to the trees that God-Speaker had seen from the ridge. They covered a broad area of rolling hills. Birch and pines grew far apart, surrounded by tangled bushes and undergrowth. All the plants and trees were eager for spring and had sprouted new growth and new leaves.

The people followed the edge of the forest, still within sight of the river, and soon came upon hoof-prints in a half-frozen patch of mud. The sun was still well above the horizon, but they immediately stopped and made camp. Several of the hunters took their spears and slings and went off into the trees while the rest of the people made quiet, excited conversation.

God-Speaker saw Braves-the-Storm at the edge of the group, and the man motioned for God-Speaker to join him. God-Speaker looked down to the pack that he had only just removed from his aching shoulders. He left the god sleeping there, in the middle of the camp, and followed Braves-the-Storm.

“If we do not hunt, we can at least look ahead,” he said as God-Speaker caught up.

They walked a little ways in the space between the trees and the river. The shadows grew long in the fading light. The water was quieter here. The furrow carved by the river cut deeper and deeper into the earth. They approached the edge and saw that the water was far below now. The walls of the little canyon were slick with ice. Even here, the gap between the walls was not wide. Braves-the-Storm picked up a rock and threw it to the other side. It barely cleared the gap and skittered into a line of gray boulders.

Suddenly, the shape of a person holding a spear came walking from behind those boulders, followed by several more. They were not quite shadows, but were hard to see clearly with the sun setting behind them. They stood in a line, looking across the gap at God-Speaker and Braves-the-Storm. It was a small group, much smaller than their own people. God-Speaker thought of the strange man who had invaded their valley days before. Did these people look the same? It was hard to tell. He tensed, watching for any sign of danger.

The man with the spear crouched and set his weapon on the ground. Then he stood and made a broad, sweeping gesture with his arms. One of the others spoke or made some sound, but it meant nothing to God-Speaker. He looked to Braves-the-Storm, but his face showed uncertainty too. After a few silent moments, the others walked back to the line of boulders, turned, and went out of sight up-river.

When God-Speaker and Braves-the-Storm returned to the rest of the people, it was nearly dark. The hunters had returned, not with deer, but with two more hares. It was less of a feast than everyone had hoped for, but once they had been skinned and cooked, there was enough for each person to have a small portion, and the mood around the fires improved. The pelts, caught between winter white and summer brown, would be fine and soft as well.

Braves-the-Storm told the people about the small group of others that he and God-Speaker had seen across the river. They had never had reason to fear other tribes before, but with the death of Makes-Medicine still fresh in their minds, nobody was excited to have another tribe somewhere nearby. Wood was plentiful near the trees, so they fed the fires until they burned high and bright. A few of the hunters took turns staying awake, watching the path back toward the river crossing.

God-Speaker stayed awake for much of the night too. The other tribe did not feel like a threat to him. The man had set down his spear in what seemed like a gesture of peace. Still, he worried about what they might encounter tomorrow, away from the river. He thought about Makes-Medicine. He tried to remember everything she had ever told him, about the spirits, about the rituals and the herbs and plants that could heal sickness. He could no longer ask her questions. He was afraid that he would forget something important. What secrets had she not passed on to him? What had he missed or forgotten? Those things would be lost to the people forever now.

He lay on his back, staring up into the clear sky. Among the bright stars, there were two streaks of light, one after another. He waited, frozen in place, and watched. Another streak. Another.

These, at least, he remembered. Makes-Medicine said that many signs could be good or evil, to be interpreted by the events surrounding them. But shooting stars were almost always a bad omen.

God-Speaker sat up. The god remained silent; a hunched black mass in its pouch. Far-Seeing squatted near one of the fires, half-dark, half illuminated, watching the void between the river and the trees. Everyone else was asleep.

God-Speaker lay back down. He closed his eyes and tried to remember everything Makes-Medicine had ever taught him.

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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?