Storytelling Class — Beginnings, Middles and Ends

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was beginnings, middles and ends.

We always start with two questions: what did we read and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

We each read a lot of things this week!

I read the usual fiction blogs, and a whole bunch of graphic novels from the library:

Freya read:

She also continued reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

(FYI – bookshop.org links are my affiliate links)

Freya really enjoyed the Iliad and the Odyssey, although she said she likes the Odyssey better. She enjoyed the cliffhangers in the Odyssey and the perspective shifting between Odysseus and Penelope.  She didn’t like the limited choice that Penelope seemed to have in the story, and I don’t blame her. We discussed the agency of women in ancient Greece and in our society today.

What Did We Write?

I wrote a few blog posts, and worked on Razor Mountain chapter 7. It’s going to be the longest chapter so far, by a significant margin.

Freya wrote her Ivan reading journal at school, and a 101-word story. She was inspired by my explanation of drabbles, and decided to write one herself! However, she tried to write it in a single draft, and had a hard time finding an ending at exactly 100 words. Hence the 101.

I explained that my process for drabbles is to write a first draft that’s relatively short, but captures the story that I want. Then I trim it down over several drafts until I get to exactly 100 words. Drabbles really force brutal cutting, and I explained that she was making it extra hard on herself by trying to do it all in one go.

Last Week’s Homework: Ten Story Ideas

Freya and I talked through some of the story ideas that we came up with for last week’s homework. She only came up with eight, but eighteen ideas is still a lot to get through, so I won’t go into great detail in this post.

Freya’s ideas included movie scripts and a series of Felix the Cat stories (no, a different Felix the Cat), as well as a story based solely on an interesting title. We got the idea that she often likes to start with a particular media or “shape” of story and figure out the details afterward, which is interesting, and different from the approach I usually take.

Beginnings, Middles, and Ends

The main topic for this class was beginnings, middles and ends.

We often split stories into three parts, because three parts feels good (the “rule of threes”) and because the beginning and end tend to have specific things that need to happen, and the middle holds everything together. A lot of talk about three act structure can also be said to be about beginnings, middles and ends.

Beginning (Act I)

Beginnings introduce the important characters, the setting (or world), the situation, and any overarching mysteries.

Beginnings often start with a “hook,” which is something exciting that draws the reader into the story long enough to get them…well…hooked.

The beginning typically includes an “inciting incident,” something that goes wrong or changes the status quo. This incident breaks normality, forcing the action of the story.

Middle (Act II)

In the middle, the characters pursue their goals and try to overcome the main conflict through try/fail cycles. They progress mysteries without completely solving them. Most of the interesting action in the story happens here, and this is usually the biggest chunk of the story.

How do the characters deal with their “broken normal?” Do they try to restore the old order, or make a new order?

Ending (Act III)

The ending should bring the story to a resolution. It may be “happily ever after,” or not. This is where big mysteries should finally be solved. It’s where big questions should finally be answered. Characters succeed or fail at their major goals, or change goals completely.

At the end, the main conflict should be over. The villain should be defeated (or at least no longer in opposition to the good guys).

The major characters will often be clearly changed or have learned something by this point. This is the time to highlight that.

The most important thing here is that the story feels resolved. Finished. The world and characters may go on, but the story is done and they’re moving past it.

Examples

We talked through some different ways you can delineate the three parts in some particular stories, including The Martian, The Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter series, as well as Freya’s own Felix the Cat story from last week’s class.

There aren’t hard-and-fast definitions for splitting up stories, so it’s up to each reader’s own interpretation where the transition from beginning to middle or middle to end occurs.

Series

Freya also asked about series such as books in a trilogy (or septology or whatever-logy) and episodes in a TV show.

Typically, each piece of the whole should have a beginning, middle and end, and work at least somewhat on its own. However, there may be larger arcs that span all the books, or a whole season, or only a few episodes. These larger arcs will also have their own beginning, middle and end.

On the other hand, some series, especially comedies, rely on a basic premise that remains the same. Each episode contains a beginning, middle and end. The characters resolve a problem and everything returns to baseline “normal,” ready for next week’s episode.

There are other, stranger ways that series can be handled, but I think this covers the majority. Maybe in a future class we’ll go into other, more unusual styles.

Homework

The homework for next class was to write another short 1-2 page story, thinking specifically about the beginning, middle and end, and what happens in each.

The Principle of Minimum Necessary Information

Have you ever read a bad fantasy book prologue? Maybe it starts with a creation myth, only to go into the history of entire countries and important figures. Finally, it narrows down to the time and place that the book actually focuses on, and you get to chapter one.

Either that, or you’ve already given up and closed the book, wondering how all of that history could possibly be relevant.

The truth is, it’s probably not. Prologues are always fraught with danger, and never more so than in speculative fiction, where the author naturally builds up a rich and complicated world and history as part of the process of creating the setting. When you’ve gone to the trouble to create all that wonderful stuff, it’s so tempting to put it on the page.

Even if every single thing in that history-dump prologue is important for the reader to know, chances are good that it’s not all vital for the reader to know at the start of chapter one. It violates the Principle of Minimum Necessary Information.

The Principle of Minimum Necessary Information suggests that you should give the reader information only if it matters the story, and ideally right when the reader needs it.

Information, Just in Time

The history-dump prologue gives the reader more information than they need, long before they need it. If that info does matter later on, there’s a good chance they’ve already forgotten it, since they lacked the context to understand it in the first place.

One option for exposition that often gets overlooked is to simply tell the reader what they need to know, in straight exposition, at the exact moment it’s relevant. Too much of this starts falling back into history lessons, distracting from the flow of the story, but little bits sprinkled here and there can add context without too much distraction.

She is three stories up, ensconced in brick and mortar, almost a monument, her seat near the window just above the sign that reads “Hoegbotton & Sons, Distributors.” Hoegbotton & Sons: the largest importer and exporter in all of lawless Ambergris, that oldest of cities names for the most valuable and secret part of the whale.

“Dradin, in Love” – Jeff VanderMeer

It will slow down the story to take these little detours, so be careful.

Multitasking

A more subtle option is multitasking. This is when the text serves more than one purpose at a time. A description of a character’s surroundings as they travel is part of the action as it happens, but it might also reveal some of the history of the place that will matter later.

In The Return of the King, when Pippin and Gandalf first arrive at Minas Tirith, the city is described in detail.

For the fashion of Minas Tirith was such that it was built on seven levels, each delved into the hill, and about each was set a wall, and in each wall was a gate. But the gates were not set in a line: the Great Gate in the City Wall was that the east point of th ecircuit, but the next faced half south, and the third half north, and so to and fro upwards; so that the paved way that climbed towards the Citadel turned first this way and then that across the face of the hill. And each time it passed the line of the Great Gate it went through an arched tunnel, piercing a vast pier of rock whose huge out-thrust bulk divided in two all the circles of the City save the first.

Tolkien isn’t afraid to spend a good page or two describing a landscape, and this description of the city goes on for several paragraphs, but it does serve double-duty. First and foremost, this is exactly the awe-inspiring view Pippin sees as he approaches this last great city of men in Middle Earth. However, this will also be the site of an epic battle, and one where Pippin and Gandalf will find themselves racing around under dire circumstances.

By describing the city in detail on Pippin’s first viewing, Tolkien captures the majesty of what he’s seeing in a relatively quiet moment. Later, in the rush of battle, when the pace is fast, we already understand the layout of the city. Tolkien doesn’t need to interrupt the action to describe the characters’ routes.

Clue the Reader In

Even further away from straight exposition are clues and hints. Some stories just contain ideas, events, or settings that are complicated, requiring (and deserving) extensive description. Instead of springing them on the reader all at once, it can pay to lay some groundwork.

By layering small clues here and there before the Big Event, the reader has less to take in when it arrives. This is akin to multitasking, but spread out in little bits beforehand. Once again, when done well, it’s seamless and the reader doesn’t even realize that they’re catching fragments of something that will be fully revealed further on.

Make it a Mystery

If a character has good reason to be missing the same knowledge as the reader, they can act as a reader-surrogate. In that case, the missing knowledge can be treated as a mystery. The story doesn’t need to be a mystery story, and the mystery itself doesn’t even have to be a major driving force in the story. It might only be a very minor goal of the character to find the answers to their questions.

The great thing about couching exposition in mystery is that it stops being a chore that has to be cleverly imparted to the reader without slowing down or distracting from the story. Instead, it becomes a little treat, a tiny reward for the reader and the character, when they find out what’s going on.

There’s a reason the outsider-as-a-proxy-for-the-reader is so often used: it’s a very effective way to impart information. Just be aware that this frequently-used pattern can easily become tropey. The mystery has to make sense within the story. If it’s shoehorned in as an excuse to throw some exposition-as-mystery at the reader, it can backfire horrendously.

Keep it to Yourself…For Now

What if you just don’t tell the reader?

No, seriously. Sometimes the reader just doesn’t need all the context for what’s happening. Yes, it’s going to be a little confusing. But if the story is compelling, the reader wants to keep reading. They’ll accept that they don’t understand something, at least for a while.

This “suspension of comprehension” can work, but it incurs a debt. The reader will be slightly confused while they keep reading. If that confusion is resolved by an explanation later on, the debt is paid. If more confusion is layered on, the debt grows. If it grows too high, the reader will decide that the story makes no sense and give up. Every reader is different, but most have their limits.

This is a tactic that readers of speculative fiction are more used to. Sci-fi and fantasy often involve elaborate worlds that are wildly different from the place we live, and readers of these genres understand that the setting will unfold over a large portion of the book, simply out of necessity. Readers of other genres may have less patience for this style of ongoing world-building. This is a case where the genre your story is marketed under can make a difference in reader expectations.

Principle, Not Law

Exposition sometimes get a bad rap. It’s easy to put in too much of it, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used carefully and sparingly. Still, when you have a lot of info to get across, don’t just dump it on the page. Remember the Principle of Minimum Necessary Information. Give it to the reader when they need it.

Reblog: Does Social Media Sell Books? — Chuck Wendig

Yes! Of course! I mean, sure, probably. Long-standing publishing orthodoxy takes it as a given.

And, of course, I’m a writer with a blog. Based on my typical audience, chances are pretty good that you, reading this, are also a writer with a blog. We have some sunk costs. It’d be much easier to not ask this question. Because if the answer is anything other than an unqualified “Yes,” we might have to consider how well we’ve been spending our time.

Chuck Wendig asks the thorny question, and doesn’t shy away from the answers. And like so many things, the answers turn out to be complicated and nuanced.

Way back in THE OLDEN DAYS, in the BEFORETIMES, at the outset of this current wave of social media (Twitter, FB, IG, eventually not Tumblr, eventually yes Tik-Tok), it was a common refrain that an author had to have a “platform,” which was something of a corruption of the notion that non-fiction authors had to have a platform. For non-fic authors, that platform meant they had to have a reliable reputation in the subject matter at hand and/or some kind of demonstrable expertise in it. But the dilution of that became simply, “As an author, you should have a social media following at one or several social media sites.” (At this time, blogs were still acceptable. Remember blogs? Yeah, me neither.) It was a little bit advice, a little bit mandate. What that social media following meant or needed to look like was a set of teleporting bullseyes, and though I’m sure some publishers had hard and fast numbers they hoped to see, they did not share them with any authors I know.

The purpose of this social media following was unclear, though it was usually sold as some combination of, hey, be funny, be informative, earn an audience, oh and don’t forget to SHILL YOUR BOOKS, BOOKMONSTER. Drop the links, use the graphics, do the hokey-pokey and shake it all about. You’re an author! Also a brand! Standing on a platform! Asking an audience to love you with money! You’re like the Wendy’s Twitter account — be funny, be individual, be the best version of yourself, get attention, but also get them to eat your goddamn wordburgers.

The question is, did it work then? Does it work now?

Read the rest over at TerribleMinds…

Storytelling Class — Turning Ideas Into Stories

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was how to turn ideas into stories.

We always start with two questions: what did we read and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

This week I read the graphic novel version of Dream Hunters and my usual blogs. I’m continuing to read The Lord of the Rings to the kids. The day has now been saved, and we just have to get through the final 100 pages of endings.

I picked up Dream Hunters from the library. I like anything by Gaiman, and although I read the original Dream Hunters illustrated story, that was years ago and I remembered almost nothing about it. This full-on graphic novel version was a great story with excellent art.

Freya was in the middle of rereading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in her free time, and The One and Only Ivan at school. We talked about an exciting part of Ivan, and how she likes action sequences more than lots of dialogue.

What Did We Write?

I wrote my usual blog posts, Razor Mountain chapter 6, and my “homework” short story for this class.

Freya wrote things for school, and her homework story for this class.

Last Week’s Homework

Our homework was to complete a story of two pages or less, as practice for finishing stories.

I wrote a drabble version of my microfiction story “No More Kings.” I like how drabbles force you to cut to the essence of a story (and usually force you to cut more than feels comfortable). But unlike microfiction, they actually feel like a complete tiny story that doesn’t require a gimmick to work.

Freya wrote a two-page story called Felix the Cat Goes to School. This has nothing to do with the cartoon character—it’s actually about a green-furred cat named after her little brother. (His favorite color is green.)

Turning Ideas Into Stories

Our main topic was discussing ways to turn ideas into full stories.

As an example of building up ideas into a story, I talked about a story I’m working on that’s still missing some pieces (like a clear ending). It started as a detective story in the vein of Sherlock Holmes, in a world where magic exists. Eventually, it transformed into something closer to a steampunk James-Bond-with-magic spy drama. It also expanded from something short story length into something novel-length. As I built up this story idea, I had to add in a magic system, a setting, and a background and personality for my main character. Each of these things changed what the story wanted to be.

1. Idea Journal and Brainstorming

I’m a big believer in having a writing journal. A place to keep story ideas is one of the most useful tools a writer can have. Sometimes the muse gifts us with ideas, and this journal gives us a safe place to keep them. However, it can also be useful to dedicate some writing time specifically to brainstorming story ideas.

I showed Freya my idea journal. I used to keep an actual, physical journal, but I switched to a OneNote journal that I can sync between my phone (for ideas on the go) and my computer (for writing time).

We also discussed brainstorming time. This doesn’t have to be time spent hunched over keyboard or journal. It can just as well be a walk in the woods or whatever other environment helps you think creatively, as long as it’s free from distractions.

2. Build Idea Combos

Cory Doctorow talks about story ideas coming out of a “super-saturated solution” of things that catch your interest. You can also think of ideas as the bits of dust in space that accrete into planets and stars. The basic idea behind these metaphors is that one idea—a character, setting, situation, etc. is usually not enough to sustain a story. Instead, each story is a mixture or combination of interesting ideas.

3. Fill In Missing Pieces

Most stories need a specific set of components: characters, setting, a source of tension, and so on. Sometimes fleshing out a story idea is a Mad-Libs-esque exercise in determining the “blanks” and filling them in.

This doesn’t have to be a hard commitment. It can be an experiment. If you know you need a setting to make the idea work, you can pick one you’re not sure about and try it out. If it doesn’t work, try something else.

4. Prompts, Challenges, and Games

Another way to expand your ideas is to mix and mingle them with outside influences. These might be writing prompts or challenges, or games/tools like Story Engine.

Next Week’s Homework

In keeping with the theme, we decided that next week’s homework will be to come up with ten story ideas. These don’t have to be fully fleshed out; they might be a single character or some other piece of a story. We can then talk about what other pieces it needs to become a functional story.

The past two class topics have come from Freya’s questions and thoughts in the previous class. This time, she had no strong opinions on what the next topic should be.

Luckily, I had a list of potential topics for us to consult. After some discussion, we decided that next week’s topic will be beginnings, middles, and ends.

What I Learned From “Over the Garden Wall”

Over the Garden Wall is a strange show. It’s a cartoon mini-series of ten tiny episodes, less than twelve minutes each. It purposely evokes an old-fashioned style, and while it’s not afraid of a joke, the mood of the show is often one of slowly building horror.

The show is the story of two brothers, Wirt and Greg, who are lost and trying to find their way back home. Where exactly they are (in geography or time period) and where their home might be, are all left a little bit unclear. But that doesn’t stop them from continuing down the road, accompanied by a pet frog and a talking bluebird named Beatrice.

It is strange enough that it seems a small miracle that it was ever made. It’s the sort of thing that knows exactly what it wants to be, even though that doesn’t fit very neatly into television seasons or half-hour slots, or precisely-delineated viewership and advertising segments. I expect it’s the sort of thing that people mostly either love or hate, and I fall firmly into the first camp.

As usual, I’ll eschew a traditional review. Instead, I want to comb over this beautiful oddity to see what lessons we can learn from it, to improve our storytelling.

There may be some light spoilers here, but I’m going to try not to ruin the mystery for those who haven’t watched it. If you don’t want to be spoiled, go watch it first! It’s on Hulu, and only slightly longer than a movie.

Succinctness is a Virtue

When I was a wee lad, I loved giant stories that spanned many volumes. I loved giant jRPGs that shipped on half a dozen discs. I loved TV shows that ran for the better part of a decade.

There are still examples of those things that I love, but now that I’m kind of an old guy and there are never quite enough hours in the day, I really, really appreciate things that fit greatness into a small package. I love a good short story or novella. I treasure a good miniseries or single season show.

Over the Garden Wall clocks in at under three hours in total. You can watch the whole thing in an evening, and you don’t even have to stay up late. And although each episode is quite short, each one is gratifyingly complete. Across the episodes, every major character has an arc, and the little mysteries build into big mysteries.

Even the twist ending (which could have been disastrous) is satisfying, layering additional meaning onto the episodes leading up to it. When I finished the series for the first time, the first thing I thought was, “oh man, I need to rewatch that to find all the things I didn’t pay enough attention to.”

It’s easy to make a big, messy, sprawling story. The real artistry is in crafting that story down into a svelte package where every single word is in exactly the right place, and even doing multiple things at once.

Mood Matters

Over the Garden Wall is autumnal. And I don’t simply mean that it’s set during the fall, although it is. The backgrounds are scattered with orange leaves verging on brown. There are fields, ripe and ready for harvest. There are fall festivals and Halloween parties, and as the show goes on, the chill of winter descends over everything.

There’s also the music, which is original to the show but sounds decidedly old-fashioned. It’s sometimes jovial and silly, sometimes morose and melancholy. It hovers between major and minor keys. It captures the mood of Halloween, an old festival that has continued into modern times, stripped of its original meanings: a hint of the ancient and sacred, a hint of the otherworldly and evil, a hint of banal silliness.

Almost every single episode manages a difficult trick. Each one feels like a horror story, beginning with the mundane, leading into strangeness and rising dread. Then, in the end, that menace turns out to be overblown. Everything works out fine, but that dread lingers and grows as the episodes go on.

Autumn is the season of dying. The cold death of winter is on its way, and the plants and animals seek shelter and hope for the rebirth of spring. The show is keenly aware of this, and almost everything is built around these themes of fall, winter and spring, of death and rebirth.

An overarching mood or theme like this can elevate a story beyond the individual components.

Don’t Explain Everything

The last two episodes of Over the Garden Wall come out of nowhere. At least I certainly didn’t see them coming. And yet, they’re a satisfying conclusion. They provide an explanation for what’s going on, and they provide the emotional closure that makes the whole thing feel complete.

What the ending doesn’t do is explain everything. Did everything literally happen? Or was some of it metaphorical? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, and we can each ponder and debate what we think really happened.

I know there are some folks who need to have every mystery wrapped up neatly with a bow, but…I don’t understand those people! Life in the real world is mysterious, and things often go unexplained. Hundreds of years of scientific exploration have only shown us how little we really know. Stories, like science, are a way to explore the universe.

By all means, resolve those big mysteries in your stories. Answer those burning questions. But when you get to the acknowledgements or let the credits roll, consider leaving one or two things open to interpretation. A little ambiguity can make a good story feel like it was just a little too big and too real to entirely fit onto the page.

Comedy Enhances Tragedy Enhances Comedy

There are great dramas and great comedies, but I’ve always felt that the greatest works of art straddle the line between comedy and tragedy. There’s something magical about laughing at the start of a sentence and crying by the end of it.

Over the Garden Wall has some amazing jokes that have become a part of my daily conversations with my family. None of them bat an eye when I talk about burgling turts, call harmless lies “rock facts,” or mention horses who want to steal. But the show also has some relatable teenage angst, tear-jerking brotherly love, and even maybe some life-and-death stakes.

Just because you’re creating “serious art” doesn’t mean you can’t crack wise once in a while, and if you’re crafting a work of comedy you can still sneak in an emotional gut punch or two. In fact, those things can be even more effective thanks to that juxtaposition. The real world isn’t all good or all bad. It’s a mix of both. Stories that acknowledge that feel true.

Wear Your Influences Proudly

Have you ever had a great idea for a story, only to realize it’s not your idea—it’s actually from a movie or book that you forgot about long ago? I have. It’s mortifying.

As artists, there’s an incredible pressure to create something unique and new, with your own voice. To be called derivative is an insult. But the fact is that each of us is a creative soup whose ingredients are all of our most beloved influences. The art and media that you consume inevitably influence the art and media that you create.

Over the Garden Wall emulates a turn-of-the-century style in its painted backgrounds (often with sweeping countryside or dark forest), its new-yet-old-timey music, and even in the mode of speech used by many of the characters. The animation evokes Felix the Cat, Betty Boop, and early Disney.

The show isn’t afraid to look, sound, or act like things that have come before. It pulls wholeheartedly from its inspirations. It wears its influences proudly. And wonderfully, by amalgamating all of these old influences with its modern writing, voice acting and processes, it manages to create something that feels unique and fresh.

Over the Garden Wall is a Modern Masterpiece

What can I say? I love this show. I love the mood that it puts me in, and I try to watch it every year around Halloween. I love how difficult it is to find any comparisons for it when I’m recommending it to people. I love that I keep finding little secrets hidden in the dialogue or visuals, even after multiple viewings.

If you haven’t watched it, go check it out. As I said in the intro, it’s on Hulu and only slightly longer than a movie. And I hope, like me, you get a little inspiration from it for your own creations.

“It’s a rock fact!”

Reblog: Writing Set-Up For the Big Reveal — Beem Weeks

Today I wanted to point you to a quick read about setting up a story with a big reveal at the end. I appreciate that this advice is just as applicable for writers like me, who like to outline, as to those who prefer exploratory writing.

Some writers swear by the outline. Other writers, those seat-of-the-pants types, have little time for such nonsense. The desire to get that story from head to page is much too urgent. I’m not going to rehash that old outline-versus-pantser argument. Writers will choose the one that works best for the individual and run with it.

What I’d like to share today is the set-up. This is where an outline really comes in handy, though it certainly isn’t necessary. Most writers know what the set-up entails. It’s those breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout the story that leads to the big reveal at the end.

Read the rest over at Story Empire…

Storytelling Class — Finishing Stories

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. In our first class, I asked her if she had any topics she wanted to cover. She said, she sometimes has trouble finishing stories, something that I think many of us can relate to. So this week, our topic was how to finish stories.

The Two Questions

Each class, I start with two questions: what did we read, and what did we write? Then we talk about how we felt about those things, and if we learned anything.

What Did We Read?

Freya has been reading a lot. She’s re-reading the Bone graphic novels and Harry Potter (currently on The Order of the Phoenix). At school, they’re reading The One and Only Ivan.

I had just finished The Martian. I’ve also been reading the ongoing bloggy adventures of Ela the Expert and Grace. I’m also in the midst of reading The Lord of the Rings to the kids. We just finished the Battle of Pelennor Fields.

I explained that I really appreciated the Martian as a great example of the try/fail cycle in action. Freya had a hard time thinking of specific things that she liked about the stories she had read. I suggested that when she reads, she occasionally try to think about what she likes or dislikes about what she’s reading. As a writer, this is a great way to learn from what you’re reading, and pick up new ideas and techniques.

What Did We Write?

Freya wrote about The One and Only Ivan in her writing journal at school. I wrote a chapter of Razor Mountain. In keeping with the theme of this week’s class, I’d been procrastinating getting that chapter done.

I also wrote four or five blog posts, including a reblog of Cory Doctorow’s “The Memex Method.” We talked about his idea that a blog can serve as an idea incubator, growing those ideas until they’re ready to be stories.

Freya said she often has fun ideas, but isn’t sure how to make them into a story. We talked briefly about saving those ideas in a file or journal, and how sometimes the key is to combine a couple different interesting ideas into a story. Turning ideas into stories is a big thing, so we decided this would be a good topic for a future class.

Finishing Stories

On to the main topic: what are some ways to finish stories when we’re having a hard time?

1. Write Shorter Things

As a general rule of thumb, the shorter the story, the less time and effort it takes to write. It’s harder to finish a novel than it is to finish a short story. That doesn’t mean that writing a short story is easy. It just means that if you want to try to finish more things, a good strategy is to write shorter stories.

2. Have a Plan

We talked a little about outlining vs. exploratory writing, and G.R.R.M.’s categorization of writers as gardeners and architects. I’m more of an architect, and Freya is more of a gardener. Either way, we all sometimes get stuck in the middle of a story because we don’t know what happens next. It can help to have some sort of plan. It doesn’t have to be a full outline. It may just be knowing the beginning and ending of the story, or knowing a handful of stepping-stones we want to land on.

3. Make a Schedule

A lot of writers are procrastinators. As the famous phrase goes, “I hate writing, but I love having written.” Sometimes what you really need is a reason to put butt in chair and pen in hand. Personally, I often find that the biggest effort of a writing session is to get myself to write the first sentence. As soon as I start, I remember what I love about the story, and the words flow.

One of the reasons I love having a blog is that it makes me write on a regular basis. If I want to post something every Monday and Friday, then I have to sit down and write something at least a couple times per week. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m working on other projects, but at least I’m writing.

4. Switch Back and Forth

Sometimes we just need variety in our lives. While there are a few authors who are content to write book after book in the same world, with the same characters, most authors I know have so many varied ideas that they’d like to explore that they’ll never have enough time to work on them all.

It can be incredibly refreshing to take a break from a project that you’re struggling on to work on something fresh and new. One of the oddities of human brains is that they’ll often solve problems in the background, when the conscious mind is focused on something else.

This is another great thing about having a blog. If I’m having a rough time working on a novel or story, I can always take a break to write something for the blog. I can switch from fiction to non-fiction, or from one story to another.

Of course, if you’re switching between things, you need to make sure you’re coming back to them. It’s not a helpful technique if you start ten things and finish none of them. Then you’re just telling yourself you’re taking a break, when you’re really serially abandoning writing projects.

5. Be Accountable to Someone

I’ll be honest. My ambitions are usually far bigger than my work ethic. I’d love to finish that novel, but dang it, there’s another Steam sale and I’ve gone and bought five new video games for $3 each. For a lot of us, our own internal motivations don’t always get the job done. Being accountable to something or someone beyond just ourselves can give us that motivating boost we need.

This is yet another place where having a blog helps me. If I know I have readers, it makes me want to keep writing for them. Even if, realistically, nobody is going to be terribly disappointed if I miss a week of posts, I still feel a little bit like I’m letting someone down.

A writing partner, writing group or class can also be a great motivator. Schedule a regular time with a helpful reader to go over new work, and you’ll suddenly be far more reluctant to show up with no new words in hand.

6. Set it Aside

This may not sound like a great way to finish things, but it can be, occasionally. Sometimes you start writing a story and it’s just…missing something. No amount of brainstorming or reworking seems to fix it. In that case, it may just be that you’re not ready to write that story. Maybe it’s missing some crucial idea that will pull everything together, and you haven’t thought of it yet.

If a story just isn’t working, you may need to set it aside. Again, your subconscious can keep struggling with that problem while your conscious does something else. The key is to keep coming back periodically. Re-read it every once in a while. Look through your idea journal and see if there’s something there that breathes new life into that old story. Eventually, inspiration may strike. If not, you’ve hopefully been more productive writing something else.

7. Check for Something Missing

Many stories don’t work because they’re missing something structurally. Make sure you have at least a main character who has a problem or wants something. A character without a goal is rarely interesting, and a goal without complications or road-blocks usually doesn’t make a very good story either.  There has to be a source of conflict or tension.

I told Freya a little bit about chapter five of Razor Mountain, and how it wasn’t very interesting until I added some conflict between God-Speaker and other members of the tribe. We also talked about the characters in the Harry Potter series, and how each of them has their own goals and challenges, even though Harry vs. Voldemort is the central conflict of the series.

Homework

First, we have the standard weekly homework: we need to be ready to answer the two questions, what did we read, and what did we write? How did we feel about it and what did we learn?

Second, we’re going to finish a story! Each of us will write a story two pages or less. This will help us practice some of the techniques we talked about: writing shorter things, making a schedule, and being accountable.

Next week, following Freya’s suggestion, we’ll look at ways of turning ideas into stories.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 6

his 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.

A Little Rewrite

I knew what I wanted to do in this chapter and I didn’t deviate too much from my outline. I initially wrote the first couple pages of this chapter as a summary of what Christopher had been doing for the past week or so, but that was too dull. I rewrote that section from the perspective of a single day, while layering in little details of what he has been doing along the way.

This is something I catch myself doing occasionally. It almost always turns out better to have a scene where a character is actively doing something, instead of paragraphs of exposition describing what they already did. While I think “show, don’t tell” is one of those rules that people worry about far too much, this is a fairly classic example of “show, don’t tell.”

I caught myself (much more quickly) doing the same thing in the second part of the chapter, as I summarized Christopher’s thought process leading up to his test excursion. Once again, I adjusted it to start with him taking action, and interspersed his thoughts and details of his preparations.

Winter Camping and

For this chapter I had to research a topic that I knew was coming: cold weather camping. Some things are fairly obvious: you need to wear multiple layers and warm outerwear. You need a fancier sleeping bag and tent. Other things were less obvious to me, like watching out for sunburn or dehydration from sweating.

Here’s a selection of links, if you want a taste:

Tents for cold-weather camping come in a few different types, ranging from under 3 lbs. to over 20 lbs. Single-person tents designed for mountain climbers can be impressively light and sturdy. The larger ones are more for basecamp or for recreational camping, because they’re a hassle to carry.

Some are double-walled, but not all. They’re typically a waterproof fabric with additional coatings, and require stronger poles (e.g. carbon fiber). Even with waterproofing, water in the tent can be a concern – a person’s breath can create condensation on the inside.

I made a rough list of the things Christopher might want to bring with him. Estimating the weight of all of this, it could come to 50 lbs. or more, so the sled really becomes necessary to carry a good chunk of that weight.

  • Food
  • Fresh water (need 1 liter / 2 hours of hiking. 3.78L = 1 gallon. Snow can also be melted.)
  • Sleeping bag + pad
  • Hatchet
  • Flint and steel, dry kindling
  • Snow shoes
  • Small snow shovel
  • Spare clothes
  • First aid kit
  • Rifle
  • Camp stove & fuel
  • Utensils, Knife, misc.
  • Lantern

Everything is Harder Than It Looks

Things are still not easy for Christopher. He has supplies, but he has no expertise. He’s not in particularly good shape and was recently injured.

I think pop culture has trained a lot of us to accept that protagonists can just step up and do whatever needs doing and end up being just fine. The supposedly average character effectively gains super-powers when the plot calls for them to do hard things. I really don’t want Christopher to be one of these action heroes. Even something that might sound fairly straightforward, like hiking and camping in cold weather, can actually be fraught, especially when completely cut off from civilization.

Christopher’s just taking baby steps, but soon he’s going to have to get riskier. Things are going to get harder for him. We’ll see how it goes in Chapter 7.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 6.2

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

Two days later, excited and nervous, Christopher stepped out of the bunker with a full pack on his back and another tied onto his makeshift sled. It would be more than he needed for a day trip, but he needed all of it to validate his experiment.

Christopher knew, intellectually, about the Dunning-Kruger effect, but he now realized that he had never really believed that it applied to him. Of course he knew his own strengths and limitations, fully and completely. As a suburban office worker who hadn’t gone camping since childhood, he had known he was no expert outdoorsman. On the other hand, how hard could it be, if you had the right equipment?

A week and a half in his current predicament had cured him of those notions. Even with the safe, warm, well-stocked bunker as his base camp, he could tell how out of his depth he was. Making it to the next square on the map would require a multi-day trip. He would need to navigate. He would need food and water and shelter. Even then, he had no idea what he would find when he got there.

He checked his compass and veered off at a diagonal to both the line of the cliff on his left and the shore of the pond on his right. The lightly wooded land ahead sloped slowly upward toward a pair of hills. His first landmark. He stopped after a few minutes and looked back.

The entrance hatch to his bunker was fairly well-protected under the overhang of the cliff. While it wasn’t exactly hidden, it could only really be seen from a small area of shoreline within twenty or thirty feet of the hatch. From his current position, it was invisible. If each of the locations marked on the map were a similar structure, Christopher might navigate perfectly and still never find what he was looking for. He could stand on top of it and never know.

He would have to prepare for the trip to the next square, and the trip back if he didn’t find anything. Then he’d be faced with an even tougher decision. Try again? Dare an even longer journey to the next dot in the chain? Or sit in the bunker and wait until the supplies eventually ran out, with less hope of rescue every day?

He forced himself to not think so far ahead. First, he would get to that next dot. That was enough for now.

But before he could do that, he had to convince himself that he had a reasonable chance of making it there and back.

He had decided on a one-day trip for his first major excursion. He could scout in the direction he would be headed. He could practice camping and cooking, and he would be much less likely to become catastrophically lost. He would pack everything he was going to take on the final trip. As it turned out, that was a lot.

The day ended up being perfect for hiking. The sky was clear blue. The sun shone brightly, providing what little warmth it could. Visibility was perfect, and the mountainous landscape and trees were the only thing preventing Christopher from seeing from horizon to horizon.

He was surprised how energized he felt. He was finally doing something. He was taking control. He had to admit, it felt a little out of character for him, but in a good way.

“All it took for you to be proactive was a terrible, mysterious plane crash in the wilderness,” he said to himself as he trudged up a low hill. “They should make that some kind of corporate leadership training exercise. Get your MBA in Alaskan Wilderness Survival and Self-Esteem today, at Fly-By-Night University.”

His makeshift sled worked unreasonably well, considering it was just a broken shelf. He had debated whether it would be too much of a hindrance in rough terrain, but it didn’t seem possible to carry both the tent and all his supplies on his back. So he was hauling it, at least on this test excursion, to see how practical it was.

He did his best to keep a steady pace, knowing that once he was more than a day out from the bunker, the speed of his progress would be a very real factor in his survival. He paused on a hill with three aspens crowning it and ate one of the strange jerky-and-fruit bars. He measured his progress by the movement of the sun. As it approached noon, he found a flat place with only a little snow, nestled between two low hills. A crescent-shaped grove of aspen, still clinging to a few of their yellow leaves, half-surrounded the hills, providing some protection from wind.

He unstrapped the little shovel from his backpack, he did his best to clear a space in the snow. Then he set everything down on the sled and unfurled the tent. He had set it up twice, once in the comfort of the bunker, and once on the bare, flat ground between the hatch and the pond, with the full inconvenience of heavy gloves and winter gear. Now, he did it once again, setting up the inner tent, then the outer rainfly. He used the hammer end of his hatchet to pound the stakes into the frozen earth.

By the time the tent was set up to his satisfaction he was sweating beneath the layers of winter clothes, and he realized he was intensely thirsty. He paused to drink from a jug of water, and ended up finishing half of it. It seemed strange to be so thirsty hiking in the cold, but he would have to be careful to not become dehydrated.

He hauled his gear into the tent, doing his best to avoid tracking snow inside. He set up the sleeping pad and sleeping bag. He already felt the allure of taking a warm nap, but with no alarm to wake him he didn’t want to risk accidentally camping overnight. This was only supposed to be a day trip. He took off his jacket and snow pants, and sat cross-legged, sipping water and taking inventory once more.

His backpack was filled with things he most wanted to have on hand, or keep dry. The sleeping gear, extra clothes, fire starter and the food that could be eaten on the trail. The backpack was also equipped with a pocket specifically for a first-aid kit, and straps for snow shoes, collapsible shovel, and hatchet. In the pack on the sled, he kept more food and water, a gas camp stove and fuel tank, a lantern and cooking utensils. He had also brought a rifle and a box of ammunition, even though he had never fired a gun before and doubted he would be likely to use it for hunting or self-defense.

Once he had rested and cooled down a bit, he suited up once more and went outside. He cleared a space near the tent to set up the little camp stove. First he melted enough fresh snow to refill his water bottle. Then he opened a can of chicken noodle soup. He knew that there should be nothing stopping canned goods from staying fresh for decades, but he still sniffed it tentatively. It smelled more or less like  soup. The little burner of the stove was unimpressive, but it heated the small saucepan well enough. Christopher worried that he had no good way to check the amount of fuel left in the small tank. It wasn’t a concern on this trip, but it might be a concern on a multi-day journey.

By the time he was done with his lunch and felt somewhat rested, it was well past midday. He felt a little foolish disassembling the tent after having it up for an hour, but he packed it back into its bag, and all the rest of his gear into his backpack. He had thought he was becoming acclimated to tromping around in the snow and spending hours out in the cold, but hiking with dozens of pounds of gear was sapping his energy more than he had expected. It drained him just knowing that he couldn’t step back into the warmth of the bunker whenever he wanted. As he followed his own tracks back the way he had come, he could tell that his knee was starting to get irritated again as well.

The motivation of the morning had left him. A sharp wind came blowing out of the southwest, and it brought scudding clouds that dimmed the sun as it drew closer to the horizon. Christopher pulled his ski mask down over his face against the cold.

As the sun sank lower, it became clear that he was taking much longer going back than he had on the way out. He came to the hill with three distinctive pines where he had taken his mid-morning snack as the sun approached the mountain peaks, casting them in red light. All he could think was how lucky he was that he had decided to take a test outing before attempting the real thing.

He climbed to the top of the hill and squatted among the three trees for another snack, watching the sun come down to touch the tallest peaks. He remembered to drink his water and found once again that he was incredibly thirsty. He rose and picked up the sled rope, but before he could start down the hill, a crack rang out, echoing among the trees and hills.

It could have been a large branch breaking somewhere in the distance, but something about the timbre of it gave Christopher the unshakable feeling that it was the sound of a gun, far in the distance. He waited and listened, holding his breath without realizing it. The silence was cut only by the gusting wind. He knew there were probably a dozen natural explanations for such a noise in the wilderness, but it left him feeling uneasy.

After a minute or two, he continued. The sun sank past the distant mountains and the now-cloudy sky lit up like a purple and red bruise, then faded slowly to black. It felt like a defeat when Christopher was forced to get out the gas lantern and light it. It was well after sunset when he reached the long, gentle slope that led down between the cliff face and the pond, back toward the hatch and the bunker. Navigation had been easy. He just had to follow his own trail.

The moon was obscured, but the cloud cover wasn’t complete. There were patches of sky where bright stars still shone through. Christopher paused to take a deep breath of cold air and stare up at them. Even after a frustrating day out in the wilderness, he couldn’t deny that it was beautiful out here.

In the small patch of open sky, framed by gray clouds, a streak of light appeared, followed by another.

“Damn.”

He couldn’t remember if he had ever actually seen shooting stars before. People always seemed to make such a big deal about them in TV and movies, but it was just a tiny streak of light, so quick and faint that he wondered if he had imagined it. Still, he decided to take it as a sign of good luck, finishing out an otherwise unsatisfying day.

“I wish to not die alone in the wilderness,” he said, under his breath. Then, recalling that he had seen two, he added, “And I’d like to go home, please.”

The sigh of warm air as he opened the hatch was a relief. He dragged the sled inside and left a trail of slightly damp clothes across the floor on the way to the bunk room. He had just enough energy to replace them with warm, dry clothes. Then he fell into bed, where he was immediately asleep.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 6.1

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

Christopher woke before the piped-in sunlight illuminated the bunker. The days were getting shorter. He wondered if he was far enough north to see days of near-total darkness in the depths of winter. He opened the footlocker in front of the bed and dressed. He had packed it with the few sets of clothes he had found in the bunker that fit him relatively well. Most were slightly baggy, although he had made some crude adjustments to waistbands with a small sewing kit.

He ate a dull breakfast of oatmeal, flavored with a packet of freeze-dried berries. He put on his jacket and snow-pants, grabbed his backpack of supplies, and exited the hatch, dragging a makeshift sled behind him. It was fashioned out of a sheet-metal shelf from the pantry, with a length of rope passed through the bolt-holes.

It had snowed again, several inches of fluffy powder, so he got out his snow shoes to travel easier. He trekked down the shoreline to an area thick with large pines. He had been working his way through this section of trees, chopping off the most easily accessible branches and collecting the dead wood. He made three trips today, loading the sled thigh-high with wood each time.

He didn’t drag it all the way back to the bunker. Instead, he brought it to a shallow pit he had dug and surrounded with a ring of rocks. It was nestled next to a tangle of low shrubs that protected the fire from the wind, making it easier to light. The line of trees further off gave the smoke a chance to rise before the wind caught it. The smoke still dissipated as it rose above the tree line, but he could only hope that the faint haze would be enough to tip off any observers.

He sat on a flat rock near the pit, periodically feeding more wood into the fire and writing in his notebook. He marked the days so that he wouldn’t lose track of time. He wasn’t quite sure how much time he had lost after the initial crash, but he figured he had been at the bunker for eight or nine days. Enough time that anyone looking for him would probably be looking for a body, rather than a survivor.

Once he had put the last of the wood on the fire, he packed his things. He had been exploring the area around the lake, and had discovered that there was a place about a few hundred feet east of the hatch where the sheer cliff was broken by a gap. It looked as though a whole section of the wall had sloughed off, leaving behind gravel and fist-sized rocks. A shallow slope rose through the gap, leading to a shelf some twenty feet up. From there, several navigable paths branched off.

Christopher had spent a good part of two days exploring up on the cliff, making a crude map in his journal as he went. He wanted to find a vantage point to get a better view of his surroundings. Today, he followed a rough path that went further up, finding that it eventually turned back in the direction of the bunker entrance, rising steadily the whole way. It led to a narrow ledge that tapered to nothing, but he found a few hand-holds up to another, wider ledge. After a couple hours of hiking, it led him to a flat spot that he guessed must be nearly straight above the hatchway. From here, he could survey his tiny corner of the world.

From above, the shape of the lake was quite different from what he had imagined as he walked the perimeter. He had envisioned it as a bean shape, with the lobe closest to the bunker a little bigger than the one further away. He had found a dozen or more lakes like that on the map he had found in the bunker. From his higher vantage point, he could see that it was more like a “3,” with a third protrusion in the middle that jutted out beyond the other two.

Christopher had studied the map for days. He knew that shape. It was the shape of a specific pond on the map, one of a handful directly adjacent to the unlabeled squares. He had no way to take a picture from this high vantage point. His phone was either in the burnt remains of plane, scattered across a mountainside, or at the bottom of the pond. He took off his gloves for a few minutes to sketch in the notebook. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough considering his half-numb hands.

He made his way back, purposely taking his time. His leg was still sore, but he no longer felt a knifing pain when he put weight on it. Now that it was healing, he didn’t want to re-injure it with an accidental slip or fall. Going down the final slope turned out to be the most taxing part. It felt significantly steeper descending than it had ascending, but he found a piece of dead wood for a walking stick and sidled his way down without incident.

He made it back to the hatch before the sun had reached its zenith, but he felt as though he had already spent a full day outside. He made an early lunch of rice and beans to regain his energy. When he had finished, he set the map and his sketch on the table.

After all the hours he had spent studying the map, it was gratifying to see that the shape of the pond from above clearly identified his location on the map. It was also irritating that he had wasted so much time scrutinizing all the little bean-shaped ponds simply because he couldn’t get a good sense of the shape from walking the perimeter. He circled his location on the map with the pencil. It was a little square in the bottom left corner.

The squares were scattered across the map, but there was clearly a pattern, with several lines of them radiating out in five directions from the middle, like an octopus. Pentapus? There was nothing marked in that central area, but from the contour lines it appeared to be the tallest peak in the area. The square above the little “3”-shaped lake was at the very end of one of these spokes. Only one other dot was anywhere near it.

There was no indication of scale on the map. The only easy measure that Christopher could think of was the lake itself. He didn’t particularly trust his own eyes, but he guessed the lake was about a mile long. He carved little notches in the pencil with his fingernail, using it as a rough ruler. The distance between most of the squares was anywhere from ten to twenty miles, if his guess was accurate. The distance from his square to the next one was about fifteen miles.

He had been hiking up and down the relatively flat and open shoreline of the lake for several days. Fifteen miles of that type of terrain might be hard to manage in a single day, especially if he were carrying supplies. But the terrain would almost certainly be rougher. In every direction, the landscape was mountainous and rocky, and often dense with trees or brush.

An even bigger issue would be keeping track of where he was. There were compasses among the gear in the bunker, but the rough, hilly terrain would force Christopher to go around obstacles. The map had little detail apart from the contours of the land, and bodies of water. Those would need to be the landmarks he navigated by.

A faint crackle of static issued from the radio over in the corner. Christopher left it on day and night now. He never caught anything, apart from a few seconds of the numbers station here and there. The radio and the smoke signals held no hope for him at this point. There was no rescue coming. If he wanted to get home, he was going to have to do it himself.

He circled the square closest to his own on the map, and drew a line for his route. He flipped the journal to a fresh page and began a list of the things he would need for an expedition.

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