I Have Mixed Feelings About Wattpad Comments

When I decided to write Razor Mountain as a free serialized novel, I figured that I might as well try to get as much exposure as possible. In addition to posting chapters here on the blog, I picked two other services to try publishing on, Wattpad and Tapas.

I will readily admit that I’ve put very little effort into publishing over there. I haven’t done all the tedious little things that people do to get attention on those sites. I haven’t worked hard on graphics or picking the right tags and metadata. I haven’t been going around and commenting on other people’s work to try to get them to read mine. Every once in a while I forget to upload chapters for a couple days after they go up on the blog. (Why, oh why, does Wattpad not have a “schedule post” feature?)

Razor Mountain hasn’t been very visible, and hasn’t caught a lot of eyeballs on these services. I wasn’t that concerned about it—I wanted to spend my time writing, and I figured I might try to drum up more views when I had a larger chunk of the book written.

Comments, Comments Everywhere

Although I haven’t gotten around to optimizing Razor Mountain on those services, a few readers have found the book anyway. As they came through, I began to take notice of the comment system on Wattpad.

The music service SoundCloud shows a waveform for each song. When a listener leaves a comment while listening, the comment appears at that particular point in the song. This lets people tag the moments in a song that they really liked.

Like most comment systems, it has some issues with spam and the general unpleasant behavior of online anonymous people. But it’s an interesting idea that can give the comments more context.

Wattpad has a similar comment system. Instead of simply commenting on a particular chapter or part, readers can leave comments on each individual paragraph, and the number of comments shows in the margins. The comments themselves slide in on a sidebar. Like SoundCloud, their goal is clearly to put those comments in their context. But I’m not sure it works as well here.

It’s possible to listen to a song and jot a quick comment at the same time, but commenting on a story is necessarily going to pause your reading experience.

Short, Quick and Shallow?

Wattpad is a fiction platform designed for readers on mobile, competing directly with social media, and social media is all about capturing attention. Social media encourages short, bingeable pieces of content and simple interaction. It encourages those quick dopamine hits that pull people in and keep them tapping, clicking, swiping.

I won’t get deep into social media commentary here, but I think it’s clearly evident that a lot of these platforms encourage shallow content and interaction as a side-effect of the overriding need to capture as much attention as possible. Complex, deep, or high-effort content and interactions require more effort from a person arriving for the first time, and they’re more likely to “bounce off” and go back to infini-scrolling TikToks.

Wattpad and other mobile-centric fiction services feel like they live in the same ecosystem. Short parts or chapters are encouraged—each story has a view count and number of votes that just aggregate the views and votes on each part. More parts equate to more views, more votes, and higher rankings.

Limiting readers to a comment at the end of a section (like this old-fashioned blog does) tends to garner fewer comments, and those comments tend to be thoughts about the whole thing. Paragraph-specific comments encourage the reader to comment quickly, in the middle of reading, and they encourage prolific commenting.

From what I’ve seen, comments on Wattpad tend to match these expectations this pretty closely. If a reader does comment, they usually leave several on a given part, and they are rarely more than one or two quick sentences.

Feedback

Okay, now that I’m in full, old man, “get off my lawn” mode and complaining about social media, let’s push back. Anyone who has participated in a writing group or critique circle might now be thinking, “Super-specific feedback? Sounds awesome!” One of the reasons that dedicated beta readers, editors, and communities like Critters are so great is that they give you really specific feedback on your work, and that kind of feedback is really needed to polish a piece.

However, if you actively seek out this kind of feedback, you know that not all comments are created equal. It’s great to know when you’ve written something that really works for the reader, and it’s even more vital to know when something doesn’t work. For that to happen, you need thoughtful and honest critique from a reader that wants to help you improve, and isn’t afraid to tell you when something is bad.

For a lot of hobbyist writers, this is a hard pill to swallow. It never feels good to hear that you wrote something bad. But it’s hard to fix it if you don’t know it’s broken.

I don’t see this kind of feedback on Wattpad. I’m sure there are some organized groups that do serious critique, but most readers are just looking for something good to read. If they don’t like it, they’ll stop reading. Many others are writers themselves, but they’re trying to solicit views on their own work.

Perhaps most importantly, all comments are public. Negative feedback, even when couched in positive, polite language, feels a bit like calling the author out in this kind of public forum. The only way to give private feedback to an author is through direct messages, which aren’t even tied to a specific story or part, let alone an individual paragraph.

My Own Experience

I’m not a regular Wattpad reader. I find it frustrating to find stories that actually interest me (although if you like teen and paranormal romance, hoo boy, there’s plenty for you). I have recently put in some effort and sampled a bunch of stories. I’ve tried leaving a bunch of comments throughout a chapter. I mostly find that it brings me out of the flow of the story.

Of the comments I’ve received, it’s hard to gauge how much readers are actually enjoying the story, and how many are just trying to be nice. The one or two comments that have made me consider edits to the story were not because of direct feedback, but because they showed that the reader clearly missed something I had intended for them to understand at that point. That could be useful (if incidental) feedback, but it’s also hard to guess if these readers are actually paying attention, or just skimming their way through.

I’m curious what others think. Do you like the idea of this kind of feedback? Do you think it encourages shallow interaction? Am I expecting too much?

The Thrill of Chasing Dragons

A sinus and ear-infection germ has been working its way through my household, and last week it was my turn to get it. So I’ve been sick, hacking and coughing, and sleeping poorly. One of the side-effects of being sick is that I tend to remember my dreams. The combination of sleeping lightly and waking up often just happens to put me in that liminal space between conscious and unconscious thought.

I’m telling you this because I dreamed up a story. I’m sure some of you are groaning as you read that, and justifiably so. I’ve had a few dreams in my life that felt like stories to me, right up until I tried to turn that vivid-but-vague dream imagery into an actual outline on the page, and was forced to admit that it didn’t really work. Dreams are often interesting to the dreamer, but that doesn’t mean they organize themselves neatly into the shape of a narrative, or that the feeling of the dream can make it onto the page.

The Irrational Excitement Phase

The truth is that I dreamed up some elements of a story, and as I wrote them down, I found myself naturally filling in the bits and pieces. I dreamed of dragons that were actually extra-dimensional, Cthulhu-esque monstrosities, and an ancient king who had managed to trap the Dragon Queen deep in the earth. I dreamed about the deep caverns where the dragon’s psychic echoes reverberate and create all sorts of monstrosities, and a vaguely witchy woman who was hell-bent on getting down there and releasing the dragons once again.

As I wrote that down, I came up with protagonists, a pair of siblings descended from that ancient king, who had lost touch with their roots, but still had stories passed down in their family. All of it is wrapped in Arthurian legend—the ancient king as Arthur, the witch as Morgana, the Grail as the macguffin with the power to unseal the dragon. Then I started thinking about the back-stories of these siblings…

This is one of my favorite feelings when it comes to writing. I start with the core of a story, and it spreads out like a web in front of me, as fast as I can write it all down. This is the feeling that many writers get, that the story is being transmitted directly to their brain from somewhere else, that the block of stone knows the statue inside of it, if only the sculptor will listen and strike the right places.

I like to call this the “Irrational Excitement” phase of story creation. At this point, the story is small and vague, and every new idea feels like an epiphany. There are tons of things that are undefined, so it’s easy to grab onto those threads and come up with exciting new ideas.

This phase is “exciting” because new pieces of the story feel easy to create. There are no broken parts. There are no difficult problems to untangle. There’s just the most fun parts of the story, and not enough detail to cause problems.

This phase is “irrational” because it feels like those problems will never come.

The Intractable Problems Phase

Of course, they do. Stories, especially novel-length stories, always run into challenges and roadblocks.

As I fill in more and more of the pieces, the characters and settings and back-story and motivations, certain things come into conflict with each other, other things remain unclear. I can’t come up with a satisfying idea to fill in a particular blank. Bits are too tropey or boring.

This is the nuts-and-bolts, getting-stuff-done part of writing. It’s the part that consists mostly of solving one problem after another, and it can get exhausting. It seems like this is the place, mid-book, when the finish line still feels impossibly far away, where many writers hate writing the most.

It can be really hard to push through this phase, but once you do, you approach the end and get that extra burst of motivation that comes with actually finishing the thing.

That’s why new ideas are so dangerous at this phase.

The Danger of Jumping Ship

When I’m deep in the Intractable Problems phase of Story A, the brand-new idea for Story B is incredibly appealing. I’m elbows-deep in all the problems of Story A, while Story B is this lovely little vague sprite with no problems whatsoever. I can just pull the threads and come up with new embellishments, one after another. It’s easy. Surely Story B must be a better story altogether.

Of course, that’s just an illusion, a trick of perspective. It’s important to remember that Story B is too young to have sussed out all of the difficult bits yet. With time and care, it will grow into an adult story, with its very own special problems to be figured out.

This is why there’s so much advice out there for authors that begs them to just finish their stories. Successful authors understand this cycle, and how appealing Story B feels. They’ve felt that draw before, and probably succumbed to it once or twice. But they’ve also pushed through the Intractable Problems phase and gotten to the finish line, and they understand that as bad as it sometimes feels, all those problems are actually completely tractable.

Some people get in a vicious cycle of following those shiny new ideas while leaving the old stories behind right when they’re at their most frustrating stage of development.

Harness That Energy

Over the course of years, I’ve developed the belief that the energy of the Irrational Excitement phase can be channeled for good. Jumping into a new story you love is one of the best feelings you can have as a writer, and you should absolutely enjoy it! When that new idea is delivered into your brain (or arrives in a dream), immediately jump on it.

When I had that dream, I hurried to write it down. Then I spent an hour or two turning it over in my mind and expanding it. I came up with a few characters, some back-story, and a couple of proto-scenes. I outlined some of the things that I thought should happen later in the story, not worrying too much about how to connect those dots. By the end of that time I knew I had enough material to actually make a story out of, and it would probably have to be a novel. I had expanded the ideas enough that I could just start to see the hints of some problems that would have to be figured out.

Then I set it aside, and I worked on blog posts and Razor Mountain. It was a fun burst of creativity, and it was extremely productive. I got to enjoy that “new story feeling,” and I wrote down enough that I can pick it up later. But I have other projects that I’m committed to, and that means I can’t write a new novel right now.

That creative energy is a fantastic thing to harness, but it’s important to control it rather than letting it control you. For me, it helps to remind myself that every single story I’ve ever written felt like that at first, and pretty much every one of them had some point where I had to struggle to figure out how to finish it.

Not only that, but I can use a new story as a carrot to dangle in front of myself when the going gets tough. “Just keep writing Razor Mountain,” I’ll tell myself. “Pretty soon you’ll be done, and then you can work on that dragon story you were so excited about. Or one of the other fifty things in your brainstorms folder.”

Indulge, But Limit

In short, indulge in those new stories, but only for a little bit. Savor that burst of creative energy, and harness it at its peak. Don’t let it distract you from what you’re already working on. If you get those story seeds down on paper, they can be surprisingly patient, and you can pick them back up when it’s time for the next project.

Reblog: Why It’s Important To Finish Your S**t — Chuck Wendig

Have you started a writing project, only to feel your enthusiasm wane partway through? Do you find yourself with notebooks or folders full of half-baked ideas? Are you thinking about putting aside the current thing for a much more exciting thing you just thought of, right now?

Well, Chuck Wendig is back with a motivational and deeply bizarre rant/list of eight reasons why you should finish the thing you started.

Point is: whether you’re doing NaNoWriMo or not, I want to remind you:

It is vital that you learn to complete what you begin.

Finish. Your. Shit.

I know. You’re stammering, “Guh, buh, whuh — but I’m not really feeling it, I have a better idea in mind, it’s hard, I think I’d rather just lay on my belly and plunge my face into a plate of pie.”

I’d rather do that, too.

I mean, c’mon. Prone-position face-pie? Delicious. Amazing. Transformative.

[…]

Here’s why I think it’s essential to learn how to finish what you begin when it comes to writing, no matter how much you don’t want to, no matter how much you’re “not feeling it,” no matter how much pie you have placed on the floor in anticipation of laying there and eating it all.

(If you’re not familiar with Wendig and are squeamish about cursing, violent imagery, or deeply weird metaphors, be aware that this post contains quite a lot of all of those things.)

Check out the rest on Wendig’s blog, Terrible Minds…

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 12

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.

Thank God For New Characters

This was a big, exciting chapter for a lot of reasons, and a fun one to write. This marks the end of Act I for Christopher, so a major shift in the story is appropriate.

Christopher’s long isolation is at an end. I get to introduce him to a new character, and then a whole host of new characters. A protagonist who is all alone presents some special challenges, as I’ve discussed in previous development journals, so it’s a relief to be out of that stage. It comes as both a relief and a shock to Christopher to suddenly be around people again, and hopefully readers will feel a little bit of a jolt as well.

This chapter serves as a transition. Rather than jumping into big blocks of dialogue, we start with a few terse sentences. Amaranth’s inability to speak (and her unwillingness to answer all of Christopher’s questions) means that we really only get a few terse sentences of back-and-forth between the two characters.

I really like Amaranth as a character. She comes across as very mysterious initially, but we’ll eventually see that she’s a person with simple motives. Writing her poses a few challenges—it can be hard to clearly describe gestures in fiction. I tend to fall back on a simple description paired directly with the character’s interpretation of what they’re being told. This hopefully helps the reader build an image in their head while making the meaning clear (or unclear, if that’s the goal).

I also had to decide how to depict her written responses in the text. I debated italics and eventually went with bold, just because it stands out more. I think I would ultimately like those “written” lines to be in a font that simulates handwriting, but that is more hassle than I want to deal with right now, especially when I’m posting the story across multiple services, and they each have their own tools and limitations.

Old Mystery, New Mystery

Along with the transition to Act II, we get the resolution of some major mysteries. However, the plot has to keep moving, and these resolutions only lead to new questions. Yes, there are more mysterious structures out here, and yes, there are people in them. But who are they? Why are they here? And why does at least one of them seem intent on shooting Christopher?

This is a balancing act. In this kind of “mystery box” story, the reader needs some mysteries to resolve or at least move forward. Otherwise, it just feels like it’s piling confusion on top of confusion until the reader gets fed up. On the other hand, the story’s momentum is built on those mysteries and getting to their resolutions, so the mysteries need to ramp up in scale and importance until the end, when the biggest payoffs and resolutions can finally happen.

Revision

This chapter and the previous chapter both started as two chapters in the outline (so these were originally conceived as four separate short chapters). I’m happy with how these turned out when reduced and combined.

There are two chapters left in Act I in my outline. These are both God-Speaker chapters, and once again I think it makes sense to combine them. This neatly keeps up the format of two Christopher chapters for every God-Speaker chapter. And while Chapter 12 was a pretty big moment in Christopher’s story, I’d argue that Chapter 13 will be an even bigger moment in God-Speaker’s. It’s the perfect way to wrap up the act.

The start of Act II will also signal a change in the format of the chapters. Christopher’s timeline will continue apace, but God-Speaker’s story is about to jump through time at a much faster pace. This big inflection point is a subtle signal that will hopefully make that more palatable for the reader.

Research

I didn’t have to do a lot of research for this chapter. In fact, the only things I looked up involved elevators. Specifically, what’s at the bottom of an elevator shaft? As it turns out, hydraulics, springs, or a shock absorber, and not much else. It only ended up mattering for a few sentences in this chapter, but I now know a little more about the different types of elevators out there than I did before.

Next Time: Finishing Act I!

That’s all for this chapter. Next time we’ll talk Chapter 13, and the end of Act I for God-Speaker.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 12.3

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

They walked. A sliver of moon rose, giving them a little more light to see by, and the girl slowed her pace. Her head still swiveled constantly, watching the shadows.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

She scrawled in the notebook and held it up to the light, still walking.

Amaranth

“Who was shooting at me, Amaranth?” Christopher asked.

She turned to look at him, then closed the notebook and kept walking.

He stopped.

“Look, I’ve had a lot happen to me out here, and none of it makes any sense. Yesterday I didn’t know if anyone even lived out here. Now I’ve apparently got someone trying to kill me. You’ve got to tell me something about what’s going on.”

She wrote in the book.

Be patient. Answers when we get there.

“Where is there?”

She started walking again.

“Look,” Christopher said. “I need you to give me something here, or I’m not going.”

Amaranth turned to face him. He tried to look determined, despite holding the thin blanket wrapped around him and shivering. She half-smiled sadly at him, raised a hand in farewell, and walked backward a few paces before turning and continuing on her way.

Christopher sighed and followed.

“What a skill, to be sarcastic without even speaking.”

They walked for hours, Christopher in sullen silence, Amaranth seemingly in her element. She exuded a confidence and grace moving through the woods.  After a while, he realized that she was leading him through the thickest parts of the forest, keeping them well-hidden from distant eyes.

“Did you leave that rabbit for me?” he asked.

She nodded.

“How long have you been watching me?”

She didn’t reply.

Christopher felt himself beginning to slow. He stumbled. He hadn’t gotten a proper meal or a rest after he set up camp, and the blanket wasn’t an adequate replacement for his coat, especially as the night grew colder. He clenched his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering.

Amaranth glanced back at him, and he thought he caught a hint of concern behind the serious expression.

Finally, she stopped and took out the notebook again.

Wait here.

Christopher looked around. They were still in the middle of the forest, in a place that looked the same as anywhere else they had hiked that night.

“What do you mean, ‘wait here?’” he hissed. “You’re the first person I’ve seen since my plane crashed. I’d rather not be alone in the woods again.”

I’ll come back.

He nodded. There wasn’t much point in arguing. She could run off into the woods if she wanted to, and he would never be able to keep up.

She crept off, and he found a dry patch of soft forest detritus under a big pine. He sat with his back to the tree, the blanket wrapped tightly around him. He instinctively faced south, away from the broken mountain peak and the source of the shooting.

Christopher tried not to nod off, his fingers going numb, wondering if he was cold enough now that he might not wake up again. He could no longer keep his teeth from chattering. He vaguely remembered reading that it was only when the body gave up on shivering that you really knew you were in trouble.

The tiny patches of black sky between the branches were just starting to turn morning gray when Amaranth returned. He didn’t realize he had fallen asleep until she shook his shoulder.

The notebook raised into his field of view as he blinked away the bleariness and tried to focus.

Let’s go. There’s a place up ahead where you can warm up.

She grabbed his hand and helped him to his feet. They trekked onward. The ground grew more uneven and rocky. There were boulders among the trees.

Then they came to a gully that descended into the earth, twisting and turning. It widened and led to a broad depression in front of a wall of rock, a ridge about ten feet high. The depression had become a little pond of dirty, frozen water. Set into the rock face a row of three drainage pipes, each a few inches in diameter and covered with rusted metal grating. They were half-visible, half-buried in the ice. Next to them was a metal hatch with a lever set into it. The design was similar to the door of the bunker, but twice as wide and slightly taller. The bottom of the door was also beneath the level of the ice. Christopher saw chunks had been chipped and cracked away along the frame.

Amaranth led him across the dirty ice, which was slippery in spots and rough in others. There was a number pad in the wall next to this door, just like the bunker, and she shielded it from view with one hand while she punched in numbers. There was a thud from within the door. She pulled the lever, then pointed to Christopher and mimed pushing.

“Teamwork?” he asked, and she nodded. They both put a shoulder against the door and did their best to find purchase on the ice. The door groaned and scraped, and eventually slid about a quarter of the way open. Amaranth slipped inside, and Christopher followed.

Beyond the door was a hallway, perhaps fifty feet long, that looked as though it was cut through solid stone. It was fairly smooth, but not as smooth as the walls of the bunker. It had faint circular scoring, like the marks of some high-powered drill or saw. There were webs of cracks running across the floor, some barely visible, others wide enough that he could stick a finger in. Most of them glistened with cold moisture.

Christopher looked back at Amaranth as she shoved the door closed and pulled the lever back into place. The hatch was keeping out most of the moisture, for now. Surely it would be an issue when the summer thaw came.

“What happened here?” he asked. “The bunker was in great shape. This place looks like it was hit with an earthquake.”

Amaranth shrugged and scribbled in the notebook in the half-light. Circular holes in the hallway ceiling provided diverted sunlight, but it was dim.

Problem with the geothermal. Before my time.

She led him to a similar hatch at the far end of the hallway. This one had no keypad, just a lever. It was in good shape, opening easily. A wave of warmer air washed over them as they entered.

On the other side was a huge space. It was outfitted like an old-fashioned office, with rows upon rows of identical desks. There were filing cabinets here and there. Much of it was knocked over or broken or shoved out of the neat and orderly rows. He found himself in a space near the door that looked like a sort of waiting area, with coat hooks on the wall and two rows of metal chairs all bolted together. The ceiling was higher here, but the light was still dim. A section of the room on his right actually tilted at a disconcerting angle, as if it had sunk a foot or two from the rest of the floor. It was eerie, deserted, and quiet. The air was stale and musty. Christopher felt like he was stepping into a scene from a horror movie.

Amaranth led him on a path through the sea of desks and fallen filing cabinets. She navigated the maze of furniture with the ease of familiarity, and she seemed less guarded and wary than she had been in the woods.

There were papers scattered here and there, occasional coffee mugs, pens and pencils. Christopher was hardly knowledgeable about architecture and design, but it all had a very post-war look to it, maybe the 40s or 50s. A few things, like a winged figure in stained-glass and chrome decorating one wall, seemed older.

They reached the far wall of the huge room and began to follow it to the left. They passed an opening, an empty metal door-frame with broken hinges still attached, but no door. It was a stairwell, but unnavigable because it had been crammed completely full of desks, chairs and filing cabinets, all the way to the ceiling. It was clearly a barricade, and it did not make Christopher feel any more at ease.

A little way further down, they came to a pair of elevators with steel doors, a rainbow of oxidation creeping across them like lichen. Amaranth took a short piece of metal out of her backpack. It looked like it had been broken off some piece of machinery for use as a makeshift crowbar. She wedged it between the doors and pulled them open far enough to put an arm through. After that, they gave way with little effort. The girl banged a syncopated rhythm on the metal door before putting the bar back into her backpack.

She gestured to Christopher, then pointed to the side wall of the empty elevator shaft. Christopher leaned forward and peered into the abyss. There was a ladder along the indicated wall, leading up and down into darkness.

“Up or down?”

Amaranth pointed down.

Christopher took a deep breath and fought back a little vertigo. It was perilous stretching out an arm and a leg to the ladder while clinging to the edge of the opening. Once he had hands and feet firmly planted, he felt a little more at ease. He wasn’t particularly scared of heights, but he was not comfortable hanging in the dark shaft, gripping a rusty ladder.

Amaranth illuminated the shaft with her flashlight while he got onto the ladder and began to descend, but she turned it off and stowed it before she followed. Christopher found himself in nearly complete darkness, with the sound of their feet on the ladder echoing dully around them. When his foot hit the bottom of the shaft, it was a shock.

He stepped out of the way, giving her space to come down. The bottom of the shaft was bare except for what looked like a big shock absorber made of thick rubber, dry and cracked. There was no elevator car, which made Christopher wonder if it was hanging suspended, high above them.

Amaranth reached the bottom of the ladder and stepped past him. She turned on the flashlight again, illuminating a low metal door in the concrete sides of the pit. She banged on it, the same odd rhythm she had used at the top of the shaft. Christopher realized it was a code, or a password. After a moment, the door opened, letting in too-bright light. Amaranth ushered him through.

He had to bend to fit through the door, squinting and half-blind. When he came up, he found himself in a small utility room. Discolored stripes on the walls indicated where shelves had been removed. A man in camouflage fatigues with a bushy beard and wild hair stood in front of him, holding a rifle. It wasn’t pointed directly at Christopher, and the man had his finger on the side of the trigger guard, but his bearing and his stare told Christopher that the gun could be brought to bear quickly, if that proved necessary.

Christopher held his open hands out at his sides as Amaranth stepped out next to him and closed the little door.

Christopher was unceremoniously ushered out of the room, his two armed companions behind him. They walked down another nondescript hallway to another room. This looked like a central area with more hallways and doors leading off in every direction. It felt more like a custodial or maintenance area than the offices above. There were a few chairs and tables crammed into the space, and a group of people. Two were playing cards at a table. Others leaned against the wall, resting or sleeping. Two men stood in one corner, talking quietly. All of them wore the same camouflage fatigues with no insignia. They all stopped what they were doing to silently watch Christopher as he entered.

He glanced back at Amaranth. She tilted her head slightly and raised her eyebrows. He took a deep breath.

“Um. Hi,” he said, addressing the group. “My name is Christopher, and I have no idea what is going on.”

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 12.2

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

Christopher jumped up from the fallen log that he had rolled up next to the campfire. He dove into the shadows of the surrounding trees, out of the firelight.

From the sound of gunfire in the distance, the shots had come from the direction of the broken mountain peak. That was the one direction where there was a clear view into the clearing where he had set up his tent.

Silent seconds ticked by. The fire still crackled merrily. The tantalizing smell of the half-cooked rabbit still hung in the air. It lay across the makeshift scaffold of sticks and twine, just above the tips of the flames. Without Christopher to rotate the spit, it would soon begin to burn.

A speculative shot hit the base of a birch just a foot to the right of Christopher’s head, leaving a flap of papery bark hanging loose. Christopher rolled again, further from the fire and the clearing.

He tried to think. He had packed a rifle, but it was on the sled and he had no idea how to find a target. The idea of shooting at someone, even someone who was shooting at him, turned his stomach.

Everything he had brought with him was in the clearing, in the tent or backpack or sled. He had even taken off his coat while he sat by the fire. It lay on the fallen log. If the shooter really was as far away as they seemed, he could easily escape under the cover of the thick forest in the dark. But how far would he get without the coat or his supplies?

A whistle cut through the air. It sounded close. Christopher scanned the shadows at the opposite edge of the clearing. There was a crouched shape there. As his eyes focused on it, a tiny white light flashed at him three times. In those momentary flashes, he could see the faint outline of a person.

It was too much. After weeks alone in the woods, it felt like the world was crashing down on him all at once.

He saw the shadow flit around the outer edge of the clearing, moving toward him quickly and soundlessly. He instinctively scuttled backward into the woods, too frantic to make it onto his feet. The shape crouched next to him, and the light came on again. It was a flashlight, one of those big, serious, black metal flashlights that police sometimes used, probably because they could be used as a weapon in a pinch. It had a hand cupped over the illuminated end, glowing pink and letting only a sliver of light out.

In that sliver of light, Christopher saw a girl in green and brown camouflage fatigues. Her brown hair was pulled back in a tight, short pony tail. She looked young, maybe a teenager. A rifle was slung over her shoulder, the barrel poking up behind her left ear.

She said nothing, but motioned toward the clearing, the fire and his supplies. Then she slashed a hand horizontally in two quick chops and shook her head.

Don’t go that way. Got it, Christopher thought.

She pointed to him, then to herself, then swept a down-pointed finger in a half-circle, pointing across the clearing. She was saying they should both go around the clearing, outside the firelight, and continue to the east. She turned off the light and motioned for him to follow her, both of them just shadows in the trees again.

Christopher was grateful for the direction, the opportunity to not have to make a decision for himself. He clearly didn’t have enough information. It hurt to think about leaving all of his supplies behind, but the idea of going back into the clearing to get them was absurd.

The girl moved much faster than Christopher. She ran ahead silently, then waited for him to catch up before taking off again. When he caught up to her a second time, she put a single vertical finger to her lips. He was obviously being too loud for her.

He raised his eyebrows, shrugged and put his hands out, palms up, in the universal silent gesture for, What the hell am I supposed to do? I’m not a ninja like you.

The whites of her eyes flashed in the darkness as she rolled them and kept going.

They continued for what felt like only a few minutes. Christopher had a hard time guessing how much time had passed. It was long enough that the adrenaline started to fade and he began to shiver without his coat. She stopped and took off a backpack, much smaller than his. She pulled out a thin blanket and handed it to him. He wrapped it around his body. He saw a sizable sheathed knife and a handgun in the bag. The girl took out a dirty, bent, pocket-sized notebook and a pencil.

She turned the light on again, setting the illuminated end into the snow to limit the light it gave off.

She scribbled on the notebook, then held it close to the light.

Who are you?

He reached out for the pencil, but she pulled it to herself as if it was a precious thing. She wrote again.

You can talk. I can’t.

She raised the light a little, then tilted her chin and pointed to her neck. Several vertical scars ran along her trachea.

“Oh,” he said. “I didn’t know.”

She shrugged and pointed at her original question on the page.

“My name is Christopher,” he said. “I…I was in a plane crash a few weeks ago. I’ve been trying to find people. Trying to find a way to get home.”

How did you survive?

“The crash, or afterward?” he asked.

She nodded.

He thought for a moment, trying to figure out how to put it all into words.

She wrote again.

Don’t lie.

He blinked. “I’m not. I’m just not sure how to describe it. It all sounds ridiculous to me. I can’t imagine how it sounds to someone else.”

She waited.

“I jumped out of the plane, before it crashed. I landed in water. Somehow, I didn’t break myself in half, although my knee has been pretty screwed up since then. I think I was probably pretty close to hypothermia, but I found…a door, a hatch in the side of a cliff. And inside, it was warm. There were supplies and beds and running water.”

She stared into his eyes for a moment, then nodded as though satisfied. She wrote in the notebook.

Come with me.

“Where are we going?”

Her pencil hovered over the page for a few seconds.

Maybe we can help each other.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 12.1

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

Christopher shivered, despite the bright mid-morning sun. He squatted and studied the skinned and skewered rabbit as though it were a bomb he had to diffuse. He shaded his eyes and squinted into the surrounding trees. A pair of small birds flitted in the shade, but there was no other movement.

“Why don’t you just come out and talk?” he said, partly to himself and partly to the woods.

Who would be hiding out here in the wilderness, and afraid of Christopher of all people? Sasquatch? Some crazed hermit playing tricks on him?

He stood and shouted into the surrounding woods, trying to sound reasonable.

“I don’t suppose you want to have a conversation? I’m alone out here, and I’d really like to get home.”

The trees absorbed his words, only a hint of his own voice echoing back to him from distant rocks. He waited for a few beats, just in case a mysterious stranger was going to appear. As expected, nobody did.

He sighed, then pulled the stick out of the ground, rabbit and all. There were a few smooth footprints in the snow, leading to and from some nearby trees, and there, they vanished. He didn’t wander around looking to pick up the trail somewhere else. He doubted he would find much.

Someone was out there. They were watching him, but they weren’t too keen on being seen themselves. The rabbit felt like a peace offering, left for this clearly untrained explorer who would no doubt be running out of food at any moment now. Or it could be a trap.

Christopher looked over the rabbit carefully. Could it be poisoned somehow? Full of sharp things?

It didn’t make any sense to think that way. It would be a needlessly complicated way to kill him. After all, there was a good chance that whoever it was could just wait a few days and he’d run out of supplies and freeze to death.

He put the rabbit into a small canvas bag that had previously held the strange jerky bars. He packed a little clean snow alongside it and hung the bag on the outside of his pack, to keep it refrigerated and make sure it didn’t leak rabbit juice on anything. Then he re-situated his gear and continued the way he had been traveling, hauling the makeshift sled behind him.

The snow was shallower under the trees, allowing him to walk comfortably without snowshoes. The branches blocked most of the sun, but they also blocked the wind that gusted periodically through the upper branches, setting the trunks swaying.

If the mystery rabbit-giver wanted to reveal themselves, they would. If they didn’t, all he could do was continue with his plan. There was another dot on the map, another bunker or some kind of structure, and he was going to find it. That was the thing he had some control over.

The day passed in the monotony of hiking that he had become used to. The rhythm of one boot in front of another. The pause to rest, to drink, to take a bite or two of the second-to-last jerky bar. They rhythm of boots again. The wind and the creak of swaying trees.

Christopher had never been the sort of person who was interested in becoming one with nature, but he was starting to feel the odd sensation that all these little rhythms of his life fit neatly into the larger rhythms around him: the cycles of the sun and the moon, the weather, the seasons. He wasn’t sure if that was a sign of personal growth, or if the stress of the situation was getting to him.

That night, he set up his tent in a small clearing surrounded by birch. It felt pleasantly secluded from the surrounding forest, with a view of the sky like a natural skylight, and a parting in the branches that perfectly framed the broken mountain peak to the north.

He built a small fire, then tied together a few sticks with spare twine, forming a slightly uneven scaffold that he could use to spit-roast the rabbit on a stick. It wasn’t exactly fine engineering, but it worked. The meat dripped and sizzled and smelled delicious. The thin limbs began to crisp while the body was still rare, so he cut them off and ate the little morsels of meat off them while he turned the body on the spit. It was delicious, even by his pre-falling-out-of-a-plane standards.

A sharp crack of wood startled him out of his greasy reverie. It sounded like a sizable branch snapping on one of the trees behind him. As he turned to look for falling deadwood, an echoing crack answered it from the direction of the broken mountain.

There was a whump next to him, and a puff of snow a few feet to his right. Another crack in the distance.

A thud accompanied the spray of splintered bark that exploded out of a tree to his left, at head-height.

As the distant crack reached him a second later, he realized someone was shooting at him.

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Storytelling Class — Conflict and Tension

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 conflict and tension.

(Well, okay, that’s not quite true. This one was actually a few weeks ago. I wrote it up and promptly lost it in a drafts folder. Here it is now, better late than never.)

We always start with two questions: what did we read, and what did we write?

What Did We Read?

Well, it’s been a few weeks, but back then I was finishing off a re-read of Scott Pilgrim on my own time, finishing Dune with my oldest child at bedtime, and I was dabbling in the comic Preacher on Kindle Prime.

Meanwhile, Freya was reading a Long Walk to Water, reading the second book in the Wildwood series with my wife at bedtime, and wrapping up the final book of Harry Potter.

What Did We Write?

I worked on Razor Mountain and worked on some short story ideas—one about time-travel performance art and one about the confusion of being unexpectedly reincarnated.

Freya continued to work on Amber and Floria.

Conflict and Tension

The main topic for the week was conflict and tension.

A lot of writing advice and literary analysis focuses on conflict as the engine that makes all stories work. I think people like Lincoln Michel have made pretty good arguments against that being true.

For one thing, a lot of literary analysis ascribes the label of conflict very broadly. Man vs. man, man vs. nature/god, man vs. self, and so on. Many of these can be better described as “tension.” There may be a conflict between two or more people with antithetical goals, or there may be tension between a person with a goal and a particular force or situation that makes that goal difficult to achieve, like societal norms or physical constraints.

Even though conflict and tension don’t drive all stories, we’re going to talk about them today because they do drive a lot of stories.

Heroes and Villains

Stories about heroes fighting against villains might just be story conflict in its most distilled form. This is mythology. It’s classic fantasy. It’s superheroes. It gives us two great focal points in the hero and the villain, and secondary characters can be placed clearly on one side, or live in the ambiguous space between.

People Who Just Don’t Get Along

Conflict doesn’t have to be as cut and dried as good vs. evil. It can be much more nuanced. Most of us run into interpersonal conflicts in our daily lives, and just as we (usually) wouldn’t ascribe hero status to ourselves, we don’t treat those who disagree with us as “villains” either. These conflicts aren’t about right and wrong. They’re just people disagreeing.

All it takes for conflict to happen is two or more people who have goals that are at odds with each other. They may even have the best of intentions, they may hold no malice for the other, but only one of the two can achieve their goals.

Person vs. Other

Conflict gets less conflicty when it’s no longer about people who are at odds with one another.

Person vs. Nature is a story like “The Martian.” It has only one or two minor cases of interpersonal conflict. Most of the story, everyone is working together. The tension comes from Mark Watney being trapped, alone, on Mars, and everyone trying to get him back home and safe.

Person vs. Self is about a character’s dissatisfaction with themselves, trying to become something different (or fighting an inevitable change all the way). My favorite discworld novel, Going Postal, has a surface-level conflict between the protagonist, Moist Von Lipwig, and his business rivals and the city’s autocrat. But the deeper conflict of the book is Moist, an inveterate con man, slowly becoming a responsible, honorable, and even kind of nice human being.

No Versus at All?

Other things can drive a story that don’t involve conflict. Kishotenketsu, for example, suggests an entirely different framework for evaluating stories. Form and language can drive more literary-minded stories. However, I’d consider those kinds of structures to be extra challenging modes of the craft.

Conflict and tension are great story engines, easy for readers to enjoy, with infinite variations available to the author. Conflict is the reasonable default for most stories.

That’s it for this week’s topic. We took a short break from these “classes”, but summer is almost here, and summer vacation along with it. With less school work, we’ll be trying to take more opportunities for reading and writing just for fun.

Reblog: What Makes a Story Feel Like a Story? — Susan DeFreitas

Today’s reblog comes curtesy of Susan DeFreitas, guest posting on Jane Friedman’s blog. She asks us, what makes a story feel like a story? It’s not just the causality of events — one thing leading to another leading to another, although that’s important for a coherent narrative.

Instead, she argues that it’s the protagonist’s internal problem that makes a good story feel like more than a series of related events.

Sure, external trouble will get your reader’s attention: The protagonist wakes up to find that a tree has fallen on her car. Now she has no way to get to work, and if she’s late, she’ll get fired, because her boss is a jerk. And because her boss is a jerk, she hasn’t had a raise in the last five years, and she can barely afford to pay her rent.

There’s plenty of external trouble in that scenario—enough, given the right execution, to keep the reader turning the pages to see what happens next. But if there’s no hint of some internal trouble the protagonist is facing, within the first twenty-five pages or so, chances are, our attention as readers will flag.

Internal trouble might be something more like this: The protagonist wakes up to find that a tree has fallen on her car. Now she has no way to get to work, and if she’s late one more time, she’ll get fired. She hates her job, though it’s the professional one her working-class mother was so proud of her for getting, so she feels like she can’t leave it.

She goes on to describe a few ways we can highlight that internal trouble, to give our stories the feeling that they have meaning, and are going somewhere.

Check out the rest of the post at Jane Friedman’s blog…