Moving Toward The Mountain

I was recently talking with my daughter about her writing goals, and it got me thinking about my own. I started this blog because my writing life had stagnated. I had an abundance of dreams and aspirations for my fiction. I had ideas. I just wasn’t doing any of it.

This blog has been great for me. Not because of incredible readership or acclaim; but because it got me writing regularly again. I write almost every day. I devote much more of my time and thoughts to writing. Writing has become much more  exciting.

In a lot of ways, this blog is the locus of my writing. Razor Mountain is my biggest writing project right now, and I’m posting it to the blog. I’m doing storytelling classes with my daughter, and posting about it on the blog. I’m reading fiction and books on craft and writing advice blog posts. Those are all great things to do for the pleasure of it, and as ways to become a better writer. But those things are also fodder for blog posts.

Objectively, a blog has no hard deadlines. Nobody’s paying me to write it or yelling at me if I don’t. Even so, this blog has worked as an excellent external motivator for me. For a while, that’s been enough.

My Mountain

A bit of Neil Gaiman’s writing advice has stuck with me.

Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain

If you want to follow this advice, the first thing to figure out is what exactly the mountain represents for you. It will change over time. For me, it means finishing novels and short stories, and submitting them for publication. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but traditional publishing still holds an allure for me. (Mainly the allure of an editor who reads hundreds of stories each month saying “this one is special, and I want to pay you for it.”) And when I say “finishing,” I mean polishing to a standard that I can be proud of; to the best of my abilities today.

Once you know where you want to go, the next question to ask is “how do I walk towards the mountain?”

Getting My Bearings

When I started this blog, just writing something (anything!) several times a week was a big move toward the mountain. Now that I’ve been doing it for over a year and a half, it’s starting to feel like stagnation.

The blog is still valuable as a way to reflect on my work and organize my thoughts on writing, as well as a place where I’ve met other writers and readers. It will continue to be the home of Razor Mountain—my dedication to that project hasn’t changed.

So, how can I walk towards the mountain? I’ve been thinking about that for a while. The strategy I’ve come up with can be boiled down to a few steps.

Evaluate, Plan, Execute, Repeat

Right now, I have a full-time job, and I treat my writing as a hobby. I don’t do a lot of planning. I write what I feel like writing, when I feel like writing it. I don’t really keep track of what I’ve worked on in any organized way. However, my gut feel for how much time I spend writing and what I spend time on are not very useful metrics. Gut feel is usually pretty inaccurate. So my first step is to actually track what I’m writing.

I’ve been evaluating project planning tools, which is annoying because most of them are focused on big business, not on individual creators or freelancers, and most of them have the kind of pricing where you need to call a salesperson to get a quote.

I know plenty of creative people will hear a phrase like “project planning” and immediately go into fight-or-flight mode, but it really is valuable to get all your projects (and potential projects) out of your head and onto paper, or at least a screen. My goal is to get a better view of all the things I could be working on, prioritize them, and then track how much I’m actually working.

Once I have some data, I can make a plan. Maybe it will show that I write less than I thought I did. In that case, I can plan ways to sneak in more writing time. Maybe it will show that I spend too much time on some things, and not enough on others. In that case, I can re-order what I work on, or set limits on certain things.

Once I have a plan, I have to actually try to follow it. It’ll go well, or go poorly, or go somewhere in-between. Then the process starts over again: re-evaluate, make new plans, execute again.

The Experiment is Ongoing

When I write the process down like that, it looks neat and tidy. Real life never quite works out that way. I’ve been working on this for a few weeks, and I’m still trying to find a free tool that I’m happy with. I’ve tried several tools. I stuck with Monday.com for a while, but it’s one of those big enterprise tools, and their free plan removes all the interesting features as soon as the initial trial is over. I’m currently trying ClickUp, which seems good so far. Fingers crossed. It’s an unfortunate amount of work to get projects loaded into a tracking tool, only to discover that it doesn’t do what you want it to.

My initial takeaways are that I do spend less time writing than I thought I did, and that being able to look at a list of projects and decide what’s important to work on next helps me a lot. As a procrastinator, assigning due dates to projects is extremely useful. A project just doesn’t feel real until it has a dangerously fast-approaching due date.

Ultimately, my goal is to treat my writing less like a hobby and more like a job. It won’t be a simple one-time process change. It’ll be more like continuous evaluation and improvement.

I’ll probably have further posts as I make progress. For now, it’s enough to once again be moving toward the mountain.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 11

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.

This chapter took extra-long to get through, mostly because I do the brunt of my writing on weekends, and my weekends have been fully booked lately. As usual, it was hard to get back into it, but it felt good once I did.

Combo!

I had originally outlined this as two short chapters, but as I mentioned in previous weeks, I’ve been looking to consolidate as I approach the end of Act I. I think these chapters ended up being better as one than they would have been if they were separated.

The end of the first section is mostly Christopher working himself up to his emotional revelation, which is that he is going to keep going instead of turning around and heading back to the bunker, as he has been telling himself. The second section ends with an external revelation in the form of the rabbit. Both the internal and external aspects move the story in different ways, and I don’t think it would be terrible to have them driving two separate chapters, but they complement each other nicely when put together.

Hints

The inner-focused part of the chapter provides more hints about Christopher’s past. One of the keys with long-running mysteries in a story is to keep the reader thinking about them. Laying down some groundwork early on is not very useful if you then go a hundred pages without mentioning it again. I’ve been trying to keep juggling some of the ongoing mysteries by alluding to them every few chapters. In this case, I want the reader to keep wondering what exactly went on in Christopher’s past.

This chapter also worked to expand how Christopher views himself, at least a little bit. This is challenging when the character is alone for such a large portion of the book. Just having him think about himself constantly doesn’t work very well, and he doesn’t have other characters to play off of and reveal his character in a more passive way. Luckily, lots of things will be changing as we finish off Act I.

Parallels

Finally, my last goal in this chapter is to draw parallels and contrasts between God-Speaker and Christopher. God-Speaker is with his tribe, while Christopher is alone. In the “tribe” timeline, it’s verging on Spring, while Christopher is headed into Winter. Both of them are headed in the same direction: toward the mountain with the shattered peak.

There’s a natural play between these two timelines and main characters, by virtue of them being the stars of the show and the alternating chapters. However, I want to set out some of these simpler comparisons early, because there will be more as the story progresses.

Next Time

That’s all for this chapter. I’m looking at combining another pair of chapters from the outline, which will leave me with three more to close out Act I. See you next time.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 11.2

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

As the tent walls darkened around him, Christopher found himself thinking about the past. He wondered if his family had arranged a funeral for him by now. What would people say about him?

He had been to funerals for people he didn’t care for very much. He had an uncle in particular who was a mean drunk. Christopher’s cousin, Susan, had spoken very eloquently about Uncle Dale. Christopher had come away wondering if, perhaps, he had misjudged the old man, at least until he overheard Susan talking about him later in the evening, when everyone had been through a few drinks.

Christopher didn’t think anyone would be speaking ill of him. He didn’t have enemies, so far as he knew. He got along. He was nondescript. If they remembered him for anything, it would be his childhood. And really, they wouldn’t be remembering him; they’d be remembering his brother. They’d be remembering the aftermath that was the rest of his life.

“Christopher kept his head down and stayed out of trouble,” they’d say. “He did his best to make his parents happy. He did well enough at his mundane job that they kept him around, but he was never going to be in upper management, was he? Not in his character.”

He tried to think of the hyperbole they’d use in his eulogy. He couldn’t come up with much.

There’s a kind of cowardice, he thought to himself, that’s not impressive or exciting, like deserting the army the night before the battle. It’s more like failing to stand up to the crowd that you know is wrong. Failing to stand up to anyone, for anything. Just doing the minimum that you think the people in your life want you to do.

He tried to think of a time when he had taken a risk. Nothing since childhood. Children have no conception of risk, they just act and find out later whether it works out or not.

He sat up in the dark. This was it. He was in the middle of the biggest risk of his life. Even this wasn’t entirely his own choice. He had been tossed out of the sky into this ridiculous situation. Every choice available was a bad one. Rot underground or go look for someone in the empty wilderness?

He sat for a while, cross-legged in his sleeping bag with his hands in his lap. His thoughts turned in circles of irritation and despair and self-loathing. He realized he was shivering, his body heat not being captured fully by the sleeping bag.

He fumbled for the lantern and lit it. Fuel was one of his most limited resources. He put on his layers and stepped out into the dark, the lantern providing a little orange bubble of illumination around him. He tried to remember where the closest trees were by the position of the rock and the tent, and trudged off with hatchet and sled. His aim wasn’t perfect, but after a couple minutes he came close enough to the pair of birches to see the lantern light glinting in the snow on their branches.

He went to work, chopping all the dead wood and more besides. He stripped papery bark, slipping it into the pile of wood on the sled.

Back at the tent, he cleared more space in the snow with the collapsible shovel. The air was still, and the sky was clear. The stars were unbelievably bright. It seemed almost offensive to drown them out with a fire, but he was shivering again as he cooled from the work of chopping wood.

He was confident using the flint now, but he lit the fire with a rolled-up piece of birch bark in the flame of the lantern. The shredded bark burned quickly, setting the smallest branches alight, which slowly ignited the larger branches. He split the wettest wood into thin pieces, and only put it on once the rest was blazing. He sat on a low part of the boulder and felt the heat on his face and hands.

The stars were still bright, even with the sparks and smoke and light of the fire rising up to meet them. The bonfire was bright enough that he could see a wide expanse of snow, glittering in every direction. The trees lurked out in the half-dark. Much further away, the sky was revealed to be not quite true black, where Christopher could see the faintest outlines of the mountains, shadow on shadow.

He breathed deep, taking in the strong smell of smoke and his own sweat, and the bright cold air. His thoughts had felt frantic in the tent. Out here, they evaporated. He thought of nothing but these smells and the stars above and the cold smooth hardness of the rock where his fingers ran along a sharp edge. It was the melancholy peacefulness of being completely alone, completely comfortable in nature. It was something he had never felt before.

For a moment, he didn’t care about what had happened or what would happen. He could choose to do anything he wanted.

He realized that he had never really taken choice seriously, as an idea. There were always choices, but there was also always the path he was “supposed” to take. The choices, the crazy possibilities of the world, always seemed like furniture: something to make the place seem a little more interesting. He had a path laid out for him, and the other options were just to look at.

The default path, the reasonable path, was to go back to bed. He would wake up in the morning, pack his tent and his things and trudge his way back to the bunker. He would have just barely enough food. He’d get there and he’d clean himself off. He’d eat a feast of dull and carefully preserved food. He’d sleep in an uncomfortable bed and it would feel amazing. He’d wait out the cold and snow of the winter. Maybe, when summer came, he’d venture out again.

That was the safe path, and he hated it.

The next dot on the map was the same distance as the bunker. Even if he went back and started out again, he wouldn’t stretch his supplies that much further. He was limited by the backpack and the sled, and the amount he could reasonably haul along with him. There was still some faint hope that somebody was out here searching for him. He doubted they would still be searching months from now, when the spring thaw came.

He could at least make a better eulogy for himself, even if he was the only one who knew it.

He sat until the fire burned down to coals, staring up at the stars. When the cold brought him out of his reverie, he doused them and went back into the tent. He undressed and shivered in the sleeping bag until his body heat warmed it up.

He slept, deeper and more peacefully than he had in years.

The next morning, he hummed to himself as he cooked his meager breakfast and packed his things. He hiked north, away from the bunker. The overcast had finally passed. It was sunny, if not particularly warm. It was the kind of winter day that looked perfect through a window, but had a bit of a bite when you were out in it.

He took his time, using the snowshoes to stay on top of the heavy snow. By mid-morning, the land was rising slowly. There were a pair of mountains that had grown closer in the past few days of his trek, though he hadn’t known it with the storm and the poor visibility. He could see a wide gap between them, and peering through was a third peak. That was the one that was oddly broken-looking, as though the top half had been split down the middle. He wouldn’t have to go that far, but it was the perfect landmark to aim for to get to the next dot on the map.

The trees grew more dense again, blocking his view, but he felt confident he had his bearings. He took frequent breaks, snacking and drinking. He tried not to linger over the three remaining jerky bars in his pack.

It would take days to reach the dot. When he arrived, he might have a long and grueling search. For now though, he only had to maintain his course as well as he could. Since the land was relatively flat and he had his compass, that was trivial. He had attention to spare for the birds flitting in the trees, or the occasional shelf mushrooms or bright lichen decorating a trunk.

It came as a complete surprise when he discovered a heavy stick stuck in the ground in his path. On its sharpened upturned end was a rabbit carcass, neatly skinned, gutted, and ready to cook.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 11.1

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

Christopher awoke, aching and feeling like he hadn’t slept at all. Light was just beginning to suffuse the sky. The world was blanketed in knee-deep snow that had settled in layers: dense near the ground, fluffier and lighter above that, with a hard crust on top that broke apart under his feet. The net result was exhausting to wade through. He was grateful to have his snowshoes. He wouldn’t get anywhere trying to trudge around in boots.

He packed his things, eating one of the jerky bars as he worked. His brain shifted into planning mode. He had packed extra supplies, but he had also expected to be at his destination by now. The storm and his detour chasing shadows in the forest had not helped him stay on schedule. He knew it was foolish to expect anything to go to plan when he was alone in the wilderness and so inexperienced, but his general sense was that everything was going poorly. If he didn’t find anything of value, his return would take longer than the outgoing journey. If he really wanted to plan for the unexpected, he was well past the point when he should turn around and go back.

However, he was close, perhaps only a couple hours away from the dot on the map, assuming he was correct in interpreting his surroundings. He could see that the land rose to the north. There was a hill there that looked like it rose above the treeline. He would make that his first destination.

He broke camp while the sun was still hovering at the horizon. His snow shoes distributed his weight enough that he mostly didn’t crack the crust of the snow, and he made good progress until he got to the steeper, rockier crown of the hill, where he had to take them off and scrabble his way up. At the top, he found that he did have a fantastic view of his surroundings. The low sun splashed rosy color across the snow-covered landscape.

The forest grew sparse on the other side of the hill to the north-east, which was the direction he wanted to travel. It opened up into the familiar flat, boulder-strewn terrain he knew from the area around the bunker. Further afield, a pair of small lakes flashed in the light. They looked to be iced over, but the snow had blown over them in drifts, and there was bare ice in the middle. They matched a place on the map that was further east than Christopher had expected, but that put him even closer to his destination than he had thought.

He descended with more confidence in his location, if not in his choices. He traveled over slight rises and descents, with only occasional trees and rocks to break up the monotony. He chose a path around the lakes. It would be a gamble to test the ice, and the edge of the water was hidden by the snow. If he took the path between them, he might very well not know he was out on the ice until he fell through.

The sun still showed late morning when he began to think he was close to his destination. Now came the tricky part. There were no particular landmarks close to the dot on the map. The contour lines were unlabeled, but Christopher thought they probably showed either twenty-five or fifty feet of elevation difference. If the second dot was a bunker like the one he came from, it could be hidden in a fifteen-foot-high escarpment and not show up on the map.

He began to walk slower and meander back and forth. The terrain looked about the same as it had all morning. A small entrance might only be visible from a specific angle or vantage point. His bunker door hadn’t exactly been hidden, but it would certainly be easy for a traveler to overlook.

When the sun reached its zenith, he stopped to eat and drink. His life consisted now of the study of trees and rocks. Nothing else interesting presented itself. His supply of homemade red ribbons was running low, but he decided to use them to demarcate his search area.

He tied them as high as he could on half a dozen trees, to create a rough perimeter. He found himself glancing skyward more and more, all too aware of the passage of time. He hiked to a large rock that stood somewhat close to the center of the area he had marked off. The land was flat. He could see each of the trees with ribbons in the branches from this vantage point. There was no structure. No big cliffs or changes in elevation. If there was something to find here, it was hidden under the snow.

Christopher imagined hatches set flat into the ground, or in some narrow crack that wouldn’t be visible until you came right up to the edge. He knew it was time to turn around and start going back. It was time to give up this ill-conceived plan, do his best to get back to safety, and try to come up with a better one. But he kept searching.

It was mid-afternoon when he slipped and fell hard onto his left side. As he rubbed his bruised elbow, he was thankful that at least he hadn’t landed on his injured leg. Then he felt the ground beneath him. At first, it felt like yet another boulder, picked up thousands of years ago by some glacier, and then placed back down in the long, slow retreat northward. But the flat surface of this rock was oddly pitted. When he scraped away the snow, he saw that it was an aggregate of fine rocks embedded in rough gray substrate. Worn and buried, but easily identifiable as concrete. He used his collapsible shovel to clear more snow.

This had clearly been one large slab at some point, but it was now broken into several pieces, each one meters long. They weren’t flat, they were embedded in the ground at slight angles. In many places, they were blackened or large pieces appeared to be missing.

Once he knew what he was looking for, he began to find more pieces scattered further out from the broken slabs. He went back to his viewing rock, not too far distant, and looked at the area he had excavated from the snow. There was a slight depression there, perhaps only a foot or two lower than its surroundings, although it was hard to tell beneath the snow. There had definitely been a structure here. Perhaps a doorway to something underground, with an angled descent to a hidden entrance?

For a few minutes, Christopher was lost in the exhilaration of the find. It felt like he had accomplished something entirely by his own wits and effort, and in spite of conditions that were far from ideal. That feeling faded quickly as he thought about the implications.

It was a ruin. Whatever had been here was now destroyed. By the looks of the charred concrete, it had been done thoroughly and on purpose. The damage didn’t look recent. But who would put these structures out here, and who would go to the trouble of destroying them? Some sort of military testing ground? Rich people building fallout shelters in the wilderness, and then changing their minds? It only added more confusion to his vague ideas about the intact and well-stocked bunker he had come from.

He sat on the central rock and unfurled his map. He marked an X over the dot with his pencil. Equidistant from him now were the bunker (the dot furthest south), and another dot to the north.

He thought he ought to feel something; anger or disappointment. He felt numb. There was some daylight left, but he unpacked the tent and set it up next to the big rock at the center of his search zone. He opened his pack and took out supplies. It was clear that he had been lying to himself. He had less food than he thought. At the rate he had been consuming it, it wouldn’t last the entire trip back to the bunker. Less than half of the rice and beans remained, and he had only five more jerky bars.

He made a fire and cooked a smaller portion of rice and beans. He refilled his water bottle, cleaned his utensils and packed it all up. It was routine now.

As the sky darkened, he got into the tent and tried to go to sleep, but sleep wouldn’t come.

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What I Learned From The Unwritten (Part III)

Having gone through the first four volumes in Part I, and the next four volumes in Part II, I finally arrive at the end. Just when the heroes seem to be at their strongest, rescuing a whole host of characters from Hades, Tom gets whisked off to another world entirely, leaving the others behind on an Earth that’s rapidly falling into a chaotic maelstrom of stories and reality.

Sometimes a Crossover is Less Than The Sum of Its Parts

The ninth volume of The Unwritten is a crossover with another (and arguably bigger) Vertigo series: Fables. I have only read a couple of the Fables books, so I know the basics. The Fables are castaways from fairy tale worlds, with the main series focused (at least initially) on a group living in modern day New York. Having not read the whole series, I had to make some assumptions about what’s going on in this crossover.

From what I can tell, Tom finds himself in an alternate version of the Fables universe where pretty much everything has gone to shit. One of the protagonists has become an antagonist here, and another is imprisoned. All the Fables are on the run from an evil that has nearly succeeded in taking over all of their worlds, with his seat of power in the hollowed-out shell of New York city.

Of course, this could also just be much further down the O.G. Fables timeline than I have read. I don’t know.

This illustrates an inherent problem with crossovers. Your target audience is people who enjoy both of these stories, but many people will only be fans of one. They will have little or no background in the other story. You can’t make assumptions—you have to explain everything that matters to the crossover story, and ideally try to avoid boring your core audience who already understands.

However, an even bigger problem than not knowing is not caring. I haven’t read all the Fables books because the ones I did read didn’t make me excited enough to go buy more. I was excited about The Unwritten. All I really wanted out of this story was to see what happens to Tom. However, Tom spends a good chunk of the crossover storyline stuck in his wizard alter-ego, Tommy Taylor, which was always intended to be a Harry Potter pastiche. The story is mostly a Fables story, where the “real” Tom gets one big confrontation and one big revelation at the very end.

As a result of all this, I found Volume 9 to be the least interesting to me, personally. Everything Tom got out of this storyline could be summarized in a few paragraphs in the next book. In fact, it is. I have no doubt that die-hard Fables fans find much more to enjoy, but for me it was one big aside to the main story.

Don’t Give Characters a Breather

As authors and as readers, we sympathize with well-written characters and often want them to be happy. But they can’t be happy. They always have to be in a tug-of-war; they always have to be struggling. Whenever they succeed, there has to be a new challenge waiting in the wings—preferably a bigger challenge, or the momentum of the story begins to peter out.

As Wilson Taylor says, “Nobody ever lives happily ever after, Tom. If that were to happen, the story would have to stop. Because it’s sustained on the endless agonies and exertions of the hero. The twists and turns of the plot resemble a maze. But they’re the very opposite of a maze. There are no wrong turnings. Just one way through, and one end point. At the close of each book, we promise…a respite. A moment’s peace, and a moment’s all it is. But believe me, lad—that’s as close as you’re ever going to get to a happy ending.”

The End is Never Really The End

And on that note, the very last page of The Unwritten is a title page. It has the credits listed, like the start of any other issue. And then you turn the page, and it’s done. Armageddon has more-or-less happened, and nearly all of the mainstay characters have disappeared. Only one is left. But rather than end on this note of “victory, but at what cost?” we get a title page. The tantalizing expectation of something more. Our last character is heading off in search of the others. It’s the beginning of a new adventure that we don’t get to see.

It’s a bold move, and one that clearly annoyed some people, going by the reviews. It worked for me, because I don’t mind ambiguous endings. In stories and in real life, the beginnings and endings are all a matter of where you choose to start and end the story. The characters were around before the first words, and at least some of the characters, the world…something…will continue on after the last words.

As authors, we tend to think a lot more about the backstory, the bits that happen before the first words. Those inform everything that happens in the story itself. But it’s also worth thinking about the post-story, the epilogue, even when it doesn’t get written. The trajectory of the characters and world after the events of the story inform the story as well. The real world didn’t magically appear the moment you were born, and it won’t disappear into the void when you die. A good story will feel the same way, like things are going to keep happening, whether the reader is there to see them or not.

A Tiny Bit of Review

As I’ve said before, I’m not very interested in writing traditional reviews. Instead, I prefer to look at a story and see what useful ideas I can pull from it. But I’ll indulge a little bit here.

I really liked The Unwritten. I read through the entire series, and then I went back and skimmed through a lot of it as I was writing these three posts. Even on cursory examination, I picked up on things I had missed the first time. I look forward to letting the story rest for a while and giving it a thorough rereading in a year or two.

It’s not without its weak points. It dragged for me in the Fables issue, and there were definitely a few plot points that worked on an emotional level and made a nicely-shaped story, but didn’t make logical sense for me when I stopped to think about them. Overall, they don’t detract much from the work. This is my second-favorite Vertigo series, after the incomparable Sandman, and in my top five favorite comics series of all time.

I guess I’m just a sucker for a “Power of Stories” narrative. I already think that stories have the power to shape the way we see the world, and in The Unwritten, stories have that power literally as well as figuratively. The universe bends to the story and the ways we interpret it. It’s a sort of mass hallucination. One that I’m happy to partake in.

What I Learned From The Unwritten (Part II)

Last time, I took some lessons from the first four volumes of The Unwritten. This time, I’m going to look at volumes 5-8. These volumes encompass some interesting turning points in the series. The heroes seem to have defeated the “bad guys,” even if it does come at a high cost. The mysteries deepen, a few new major characters are introduced, and some old characters come back.

What really makes these volumes great is that they don’t just continue the story that was started in the first four. They take it in new and unexpected directions. Each question that gets answered introduces yet more questions. All in all, it sets up the last three volumes so that you really have no idea what to expect as the story comes to its conclusion.

Moving the Goalposts Can Be Exciting

The first few volumes set up a shadowy cabal as the villains who cause all sorts of trouble for the protagonists, especially their chief henchman, Pullman. All of the bigwigs in the cabal are largely interchangeable and never characterized in much detail. It’s Pullman who is causing trouble on the ground for the heroes while the leaders of the cabal are safely hidden, and he’s the one they have to worry about. But Pullman is also the one villain who is given a back-story, revealed in drips and drops.

When the heroes actually have some success bringing the fight to the shadowy cabal, it might seem obvious that Pullman is just a Man in Front of the Man trope. But his motives turn out to be quite different from a “standard” villain. Almost exactly halfway through the story, the entire direction of the plot turns in a new direction.

Tropes are dangerous. If the reader thinks you’re just retelling a story they’ve heard before, they’ll quickly lose interest. However, tropes can be useful building blocks if you want to subvert expectations.

Tropes are just story elements that show up over and over again. They’re the canyons gouged by the flow of stories over the centuries, the comfortable shapes that stories like to fall into. A savvy reader will see parts of a trope and anticipate that the rest is forthcoming. However, you can make them a little less certain by including some elements that break the trope. Eventually, you can tear the trope apart in some unexpected plot twist, and it can be immensely satisfying. 

Sometimes these twists seem obvious in hindsight, but as a reader it’s very easy to get pulled into those deep currents that tropes provide. It’s a great way to disguise where the story is going.

Exposition Can Be a Reward

The Unwritten is great at introducing characters right in the middle of something. Tom Taylor’s dull life is turned upside down within the first few pages of the first volume. Lizzie sets those events in motion, but not in the way that she hoped. And Ritchie meets Tom in a French prison right before it explodes into chaos. The story forces the reader to hit the ground running. First, it shows you who the characters are and makes you care about them. Only then, and slowly, does it start to reveal their back-stories and the paths they took to get here.

By making you care about the characters first, the story makes exposition exciting. We want to know more about these people. How the heck did they get in these situations?

If these parts of the story were told in sequential order, they would be less interesting. They’re the lead-up to the exciting action that makes up the bulk of the story. But by withholding them for a while, they become a reward for the reader. Even better, they offer an opportunity to understand why the characters are the way they are. Learning about the events that shaped them provides new context to everything they’ve done so far in the story.

Epilogues Can Be Prologues Too

Almost every volume of The Unwritten, each major story arc, ends with a seemingly unrelated episode. After seeing the latest exploits of Tom, Lizzie and Ritchie, we might be transported to the Winnie-the-Pooh-inspired Willowbank Wood, to meet Pauly the lovable rabbit, who sounds a lot like a New Jersey mob thug and seems a bit out of place. We might be taken back a century or three to see the exploits of various famous storytellers and how they became entangled with the cabal. Or we might meet Daniel, a directionless young man with a degree in literature who finds himself taking a job that involves reading books all day with hundreds of other people in a featureless underground bunker.

Each of these little stories is an abrupt jump to a new time and place, with new characters. Each one eventually ties in to the main plot, but when the reader first encounters them, they seem like non-sequiturs. In this quiet lull at the end of an arc, when the story has just answered some questions and provided a small, satisfying conclusion, a brand-new big mystery is introduced. Namely, “who are these people and what the heck is going on?”

The next volume invariably jumps right back into the story of Tom et al., leaving these epilogues hanging unresolved for a while. Later on, when they tie back into the main story, there’s an “aha!” moment. These parts of the story are made more exciting simply by being told out of order. They’re also a great way of keeping up the tension in the parts of an episodic narrative where tension has just been relieved (at the end of an arc).

But Wait, There’s More…

The Unwritten is a big series, and I have one more post in me before we get to the end. Next time I’ll be covering the last few things I learned from the final volumes: 9-11. See you then.

What I Learned From The Unwritten (Part I)

The Unwritten is a Vertigo comics series published from 2009 to 2015, written by Mike Carey. I picked up the first few trade paperbacks by sheer chance, when my wife found them at a garage sale and thought they looked interesting. After devouring those four, I bought the remaining seven books in the series.

The Unwritten takes place in a world similar to ours, and follows Tom Taylor, whose father published a massively best-selling series of books starring a boy wizard named Tommy Taylor. Tom makes a meager living on the convention circuit by virtue of being the character’s namesake. Early in the story he becomes the target of a secret society that uses stories to manipulate and control the world, and finds out that his father was somehow involved with them as well.

The Unwritten is a modern comics masterpiece that intertwines its own original story with real history and dozens of famous works of fiction. It starts with the classic idea that stories have the power to change the world, and then asks what would happen if that were literally true.

This is a big series of books, so I’m going to cover it in a couple posts. First, volumes 1–4.

Everything is a Gun on the Mantle

Callbacks are powerful, and The Unwritten makes liberal use of them. Characters  are often introduced in short scenes where it’s not entirely clear what’s going on. The story steps away, only to revisit them later and explore them more deeply. Scenes from the Tommy Taylor novels and from other works of fiction are shown early in an episode and become relevant later on. And some ideas keep coming back again and again, like the vampire, Ambrosio, never quite being dead for good.

These callbacks use the principle of minimum necessary information to pull the reader along without bogging down the story. But they’re not just one-and-done. In Damn Fine Story, Chuck Wendig calls this “echoing.” The gun on the mantle need not be thrown away as soon as it’s fired. It can be fired again and again. It can turn out to have historical significance and emotional significance. This layering of narrative makes the reader feel rewarded for simply paying attention, seeing these through-lines keep building and building.

The Unwritten covers a lot of history, back to the very first stories and ahead to the end of the world. But that history is doled out carefully, in small helpings. It takes most of the series for the reader to finally see the whole picture. Each new plot twist seems inevitable, because the groundwork was laid for it by the elements that came before.

Leave Breadcrumbs

I skimmed through the books again as I was writing this, and I immediately discovered several tiny references that I had missed the first time around. These were little clues about what was going on, and which mysteries would become important later. Missing them didn’t hurt my enjoyment of my first read-through, although I’m sure they’d add to the experience of a reader who caught them. Perhaps it’s even better to catch them on a re-read, and discover that I can still find new things in a story whose shape I already know.

Breadcrumbs like these also give the reader an important sense that the author knows where the story is going, which is particularly relevant in episodic media like TV and comics. Many of us have been burned by stories like Game of Thrones or LOST where the authors threw down exciting mysteries and conflicts, but couldn’t come up with commensurate payoffs because they didn’t have a clear plan for the end. Breadcrumbs and callbacks let the reader know that the author is leading them somewhere. It’s hard to enjoy a story until you trust that the author is going to bring you somewhere interesting.

Form Follows Function

The Unwritten plays with a variety of different forms. News broadcasts show up in several places as a series of small TV stills with a ticker along the bottom of the “screen” and the voice-over text just below. There are also times when the characters are browsing the web, and pages of various sizes and shapes are shown shuffled and overlapping, to give the sense of time passing in a jumble of scattered information.

Stories from ancient and recent times are interwoven into the narrative, and are illustrated in different ways. The medieval Song of Roland has washed-out colors and heavier line work. The Tommy Taylor books-within-the-book are slightly more cartoony. Dickens looks like woodcut. The Winnie-the-Pooh-inspired fictitious Willowbank Wood is all pastel watercolors. The Nazi propaganda Jud Süß is black and white, with the red of swastikas providing the only color.

Beyond the visual style, the prose itself changes between these different types of stories. Even more interesting are narrative jaunts, like the issue that reveals Lizzie Hexam’s past. Rather than give the reader a definitive version of events, we get a choose-your-own-adventure story, and different branches paint the characters as sinister or sympathetic, in their own control or manipulated by others. The result is a character whose back-story exists in a quantum superposition of different states.

Sometimes, the way the story is told is what makes the story worth listening to. Memento just isn’t a very interesting story if it’s told linearly. House of Leaves would lose its punch without the multiple frame stories and the parts where the text starts wandering around the page and turning back on itself. The ordering of the narrative and the presentation are the layers of the story that the reader directly interacts with. Even if they aren’t the “meat” of the story, they are responsible for a lot of the flavor.

More to Come

Next time, I’ll dig into volumes 5–8.

The Read/Write Report

These past two weeks I’ve been reading a wide variety of things and doing more thinking about writing than actually writing.

Finishing Dune

First up, I finished reading Dune with my twelve-year-old at bedtime. His reaction to the conclusion was something like, “Wait, that’s the end?” It’s a fair reaction. The book does wrap up the plot quite nicely, destroying or subjugating all the villains while the heroes essentially take over the galaxy in a massive gambit. But this is also a book that is constantly looking into the future. Paul has his visions. The Bene Gesserit have their centuries-long plans. And nearly every chapter begins with quotations from a character who is only introduced near the very end of the book. It sets you up to want more.

Dune remains one of my favorite science fiction books. Its feudalism-in-space style gives it a timeless quality, and it addresses certain themes that still feel pretty fresh today.

Guards! Guards!

Moving on from Dune, we’re now reading “Guards! Guards!” at bedtime. This is one of Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” books. There are 41 of them total, and I think I’ve read about half of those over the years. This happens to be one that I haven’t read, and I was excited to discover that it seems to be the first book to focus on the Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork. The books tend to follow a few different groups of characters, such as The Witches, The Wizards of Unseen University, and the Night Watch. I’m looking forward to reading the origin stories of a number of characters who show up in many of the later books.

Pratchett is truly a treasure, simultaneously creating an amazing fantasy world and also infusing it with brilliant British humor. My closest comparison is Douglas Adams, although he wrote science-fiction comedy. I always find it sad how few books we got from Adams, and I take solace in the huge number that Pratchett was able to write before his death (which still felt too soon).

Reading a new Pratchett book is comfort food. The only sad part is that someday I will have read them all, and I won’t get to have that experience again.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

Weeks ago, while cruising around writing Twitter I saw some recommendations for wuxia-inspired novellas. I bought the e-books on a whim, and now I’m working through them.

The first one I finished was The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water. Although it’s a book that includes several fights and a little bit of magic, it is mostly a story that focuses on the tribulations and relationships among the members of a group of outcasts in the Tang Dynasty. It’s lighthearted and even funny in places without being straight comedy. It’s a fun read.

The author, Zen Cho, uses a fantastic trick that I plan to steal. Whenever the tension rises to a peak—an illegal sale goes awry or the group gets attacked by bandits, for example—Cho reveals one of the characters’ closely guarded secrets or a bit of their back-story, to the reader and to the characters. Not only are the characters in trouble, but their relationship is thrown into flux by this sudden addition of new information.

I think this is tricky to do in an organic way, but when it’s done well (like it is here) it takes an exciting scene and kicks it into an even higher gear. It also ensures that the characters have some new problems to work out as soon as they manage to resolve the mess they’re currently in.

I was a little disappointed by the end of the book; not because it was bad, but because it was short and it felt like it was only just getting going. The stakes never felt very high for the characters, and they never seemed to be in very much danger for very long. I was left wanting more of these characters and this setting, driven by a bit more danger and excitement.

What I’ve Been Writing

Not that much, if I’m being honest. I took a mini-writing-break, both from the blog and from my fiction.

I’ve got two short stories percolating in my head: one about using time travel for performance art, and one about the annoyances of reincarnation. I’m planning to work on at least one of those by the end of this week.

Of course, I also need to keep working on Razor Mountain, which remains my highest writing priority. Maybe I’ll try switching back and forth to stay fresh and motivated.

The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe

I wrote about The Stanley Parable a while back, as an exploration of the strange, non-linear storytelling that can be done in games, and how experience and participation can affect the player’s perception of a story.

I’m bringing it up again, because The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe has just released on PC and consoles, and I’ve had a chance to play a bit of it. Now I just have to figure out how to describe it in a way that doesn’t ruin all the fun.

What Is It?

First, let’s talk about the name—Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe (which I can only assume was purposely crafted for the abbreviation, SPUD). In a landscape plagued by remakes, remasters and sequels, SPUD has been cagey about exactly what it is. Something wildly new? Or a bare-minimum cash grab and excuse to release an old game on new platforms?

I fired up the game and discovered that it starts out exactly the same: the original experience with updated graphics. It gave me time to acclimate before I found anything new (or conversely, to wonder if the new content was really so paltry). I found myself squinting, asking myself, “Was that like that before?”

When I found the new content, there was no question about what it was. The game hit me over the head with it. “Look at this new content!” it said. “Isn’t it amazing?” It helpfully labeled doors “NEW CONTENT.” But was the new stuff very good? No, not really. Even the narrator was pretty let down. And then the game started over, because Stanley Parable is a game about

Rabbit Holes

What starts off as a little joke just keeps expanding. The game turns gags into running jokes into elaborate set-pieces, leaving you wondering whether you’ve seen the end of that particular through-line, or if you might turn another corner and pick up the trail again. It rides the line between absurdism and seriousness.

The silly bit about carrying around a bucket for comfort opens up storylines about addiction, murder, betrayal, and demonic possession. A standard video game scavenger hunt for pointless collectibles first gets a thorough mocking, then becomes an actual feature, then goes a little bit out of control.

SPUD is more of what was good in SP. As far as I’ve played, it doesn’t introduce anything radically new, but everything new fits right in. It’s happy to make fun of itself for being an expansion to a decade-old game. It realizes that its history comes with baggage, from awards and accolades to literal shipping containers full of negative Steam reviews. Eventually it shrugs it all off with a nihilistic sequence that seems to say “given enough time, the world will be ground down to dust, so maybe none of this matters that much.”

SPUD also brings some of the generic game sequel features like new achievements, while simultaneously making fun of those things. (The old game gave an achievement if you didn’t play it for five years. This one ups it to ten.)

Is It Worth Getting?

If you’ve never played The Stanley Parable, Ultra Deluxe is the perfect opportunity to play it. If you played the original and enjoyed it, you’ll likely enjoy this new iteration. And if you hate the game…well, now there’s even more to hate?

Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe is available for pretty much every major game-playing device. (To be specific, that’s PC, Mac and Linux, Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S)

What I Learned From Scott Pilgrim

I recently re-read Scott Pilgrim, a six-part comic series by Canadian author Bryan Lee O’Malley. It’s a silly slice-of-life about video games and indie music and trying to figure out how to be an adult. I’m pretty squarely in the target market for this nerd-comedy masterpiece.

As usual, rather than do a traditional review, I’m going to look at what we can learn from the series to use in our own writing.

Tell Your Audience What They’re Getting Into Right Away

You can’t please everybody. If you’re writing something that hits home for you, chances are it will work for somebody else, but there will also be readers who just aren’t interested in what you’re putting on the page. The clearer you are up front about what the thing is going to be, the sooner your reader will know if it’s for them or not.

The first few quick scenes of Scott Pilgrim introduce nearly the entire (sizable) cast of the first book. The very first words encapsulate the inciting incident. It starts with dialogue that is pretty representative of the banter throughout the rest of the series.

Pretty soon, we get into running jokes, like labels when introducing people (“Scott Pilgrim, 23 Years Old, Rating: Awesome), labels introducing scene changes (“The Next Day or Something”). The band starts to play, and along with panels showing close-ups of instruments, there are tiny lyrics printed in the gutters and chords in case you want to play along.

It’s clear this is going to be a goofy story that isn’t afraid to be a little weird, about a bunch of young adults whose idea of a good time is hanging out and making fun of each other.

You Make the Rules

Scott and his friends live in Toronto. Nothing special. Except in school you learn weapon proficiencies. And snacks and soda don’t have nutrition facts, they have stat boosts. Of course, America is a little different too—Scott’s girlfriend has to explain to him the standard American practice of traveling via subspace bypass (conveniently marked by doors around town with little stars on them).

Why not have a story populated by poor, mid-twenties indie rockers where someone occasionally punches a hole in the moon, or gets into an impromptu anime battle where the loser explodes into fifteen dollars (Canadian) in coins, and if you’re lucky you’ll get an extra life or power-up.

A lot of ink is spilled to talk about careful, consistent world-building in fiction. The truth is that sometimes you might just want to write something crazy, and that’s okay. Maybe it’s not entirely internally consistent. Maybe it doesn’t make a ton of sense. If it’s fun and entertaining enough, people will love it anyway.

Write What You Know

These words get thrown around a lot, but I think Scott Pilgrim is a great example of how to do it right. It’s an absurd, unrealistic comedy that borrows liberally from video games and anime. It’s also set (mostly) in very real places near where the author grew up. In fact, the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World movie went out and filmed at a lot of the exact places shown in the comic.

Bryan Lee O’Malley pulled from those real settings, used real friends and acquaintances as templates for characters, and then threw in a heaping helping of his indie rock, anime, and video game influences.

It feels like a crazy, unique mish-mash, despite pretty much all the individual pieces being heavily inspired by other things. It works because it’s the crazy, unique mish-mash of things the author loved, and we all have our own unique collection of influences that we can impart into our own works.

How to Get It

Scott Pilgrim was originally a 6-part black-and-white series (with a tiny bonus episode for free comic book day). It has since been collected into multiple box sets, most of them now the colorized version, which I would recommend. They are not that easy to find these days, and a bit expensive if you’re not used to the prices for manga-style comics. They are also available in a pretty excellent e-book format for Kindle/Comixology, including a lot of bonus material that is apparently not even available in some of the newer box sets.