State of the Blog — Aug 2022

Dang y’all! Somehow it has been two years since I started this blog. It’s honestly hard to believe.

One of the key tenets of this blog is an open writing process. I’ve brought that to my serial novel, Razor Mountain, with my development journals, and I bring it to the blogging process with these “state of the blog” posts every six months or so.

Metrics

  • Years blogging: 2
  • Total Posts: ~250
  • Total Followers: 87
  • Monthly Views: ~375 (average over last 3 months)

I do my best to not worry too much about visitors, views, and all the other bloggy statistics, but I do keep an eye on them. In the past six months, I really have nothing to complain about as far as the graphs and numbers. I don’t pay much attention to the totals. I’m small by most standards. All I really look for is growth, and the blog has been growing steadily. It took until this May to hit 2,000 total views, and a couple weeks ago I hit 3,000 total views.

One Post to Rule Them All?

One interesting statistic that has become apparent over the last few months is that I have a single post that has out-performed all the others, by a considerable margin.

Great Writing Can You Say Hero? is a post from about a year ago. I had intended to start a series of posts talking about some of my favorite pieces, but I’m distractable, and I’ve never written another of these posts. Views for this post have steadily increased over the past few months, to the point where now they account for about 50% of the views I get every single day!

It’s important to note that I did not intend or expect this. I just wrote a post, and hoped (as I always do) that it would be interesting for others. This particular post hit a search algorithm sweet spot.

You see, there is a steady flow of people looking for Junod’s story about Mr. Rogers, and not very many search results on Google. Because of this, my post shows up near the top of results for several similar searches. This traffic is almost entirely driven by Google.

This is a potent illustration of the power of search engines to drive traffic. This is why people spend so much effort chasing SEO. However, the million dollar question is whether this traffic is actually good for me. I just happen to be capturing views in search of something else. On the other hand, the more people who read the blog, the more likely that some of them will be interested and come back.

The next six months will be interesting, because I’m also seeing search engine-driven traffic on a couple other posts on a much smaller scale. We’ll see if these other posts start to grow in a similar way.

The Long Tail

Even setting aside the search engine traffic, I’ve now reached a point where the post of the day is usually not the primary driver of traffic. On days when I post something new, it is almost always out-performed by a random assortment of my past articles.

This is why so much advice for “content creators” boils down to “keep making a steady stream of new stuff.” On rare occasions, you’ll make an outlier that performs better than most of your other stuff, but you’ll also create a large body of work that collectively draws in a bunch of people over time.

Looking Back and Setting Goals

These six-month reviews are partly about looking back, and partly about re-evaluating what I’m trying to achieve.

Looking back, I feel like I’ve really hit my stride. I have a steady rhythm of alternating weeks: Razor Mountain episodes and a development journal one week, then two writing-related posts and a reblog the following week. Every once in a while I skip a post. I’m not a robot. And I no longer worry about maintaining a perfect schedule.

I usually have a backlog of ideas for posts. Sometimes I do a series on a topic, sometimes I do one-offs. I’ve become a lot more comfortable with off-the-cuff posts and less editing. I’ve also become a lot less stressed about throwing my work onto the internet where everyone can see it. (There will probably always be a little pang of stress about that, but I think that’s probably healthy.)

My goals right now are:

  • Finish Razor Mountain
  • Write a couple of short stories alongside the novel
  • Write more, and especially write more fiction
  • Think about what’s next for the blog after Razor Mountain

See You Next Time

That’s all I’ve got for this two-year blogoversary. Thanks for reading, and we’ll check back in six months.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 15

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

Blocks

This was a slow and painful one.

I started writing this chapter three weeks ago. I wrote a couple paragraphs, then it sat. I write a couple lines of dialogue, then it sat some more. I felt that vague guilt that I should be writing, but I went and did something else. I even wrote some other things, but I just couldn’t seem to get back to the chapter I was putting off.

Then I had to ask myself, is this because I’m in a mood where I don’t want to write this thing, or is there something wrong with my outline or my plan? Is there something blocking me that I need to figure out to make this easier?

In this case, my outline had Christopher talking with this group of people (who I think of collectively as “the exiles”), but didn’t have any detail around what they would talk about. I hadn’t thought through what mysteries I could advance here, or what new mysteries needed to be defined. So I spent some time thinking about that, and soon enough I was able to write.

Sometimes, the hardest part about overcoming a block is realizing you have one, and identifying what the actual problem is. I find that it often comes down to whether I have enough information to start. There are always some things that I end up deciding or changing as I write, but I need enough confidence in the scene I’m embarking on to get started.

Dialogue

After all this time with Christopher having no dialogue, this chapter was almost entirely dialogue. I tried to use these conversations to flesh out the secondary characters and reveal more information. I also wanted to reenforce the idea that Christopher still doesn’t entirely know what’s going on, and his situation may not actually be improving.

You can think about dialogue as a form of conflict, with each character trying to direct it a certain way, trying to get the information they want, and sometimes trying to make things more difficult for their conversational partners. That framework worked well here, because both the exiles and Christopher have a lot of questions, while the exiles are hesitant to reveal too much to Christopher. Amaranth, as a sort of outsider among outsiders, is Christopher’s only foot in the door.

While the exiles’ reticence makes sense within the story and the situation they’re in, it’s also useful to me, because it allows me to limit how much I reveal about what exactly is going on. If we find out too much in the middle of the book, there won’t be as much drive for us to keep going to the end.

I’m finding that one of the challenges as I get into the middle of the book is walking that line of revealing new things, but not revealing too much. In some ways, the beginning of this kind of story is easy: just pose a lot of interesting questions. The end will be the real fun, revealing all the answers. But the middle is tough because it needs a little bit of both to keep the story going.

Up Next

Next chapter, we jump back to God-Speaker, where I’ll need to lay out the structure of his chapters for the entirety of Act II.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 15.2

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 day progressed, Christopher realized that all of his conversations would be like this. Some of these people seemed leery or even a little afraid of him. Others overcame it enough to talk with him, but the conversations were all short and focused on what he could tell them about the outside world. They avoided answering his questions.

There were more people than he had initially realized. He guessed that there might be as many as fifty of them. They all wore the same uniform, but there were no markings to tell him what branch of the service they might belong to. 

They didn’t have a lot to do, either. Christopher saw a few people preparing  food, and a few others cleaning the inhabited areas. He saw one man sitting cross-legged on a cot, reading a very dirty and tattered little paperback. Everyone else was talking, or playing cards, or sleeping.

The man named Garrett worried Christopher. He clearly thought that Christopher was a problem, and while he didn’t exactly follow Christopher around, he kept turning up in whatever room Christopher happened to be in. Whenever Christopher looked at him, he was staring. He made no effort to hide it.

When evening came, Amaranth eventually led Christopher to a small room with a single cot.

This is your room.

“All by myself, huh?”

They don’t exactly trust you. You’re not dumb, you see that, right?

“Yeah, I noticed.”

In truth, a room of his own didn’t sound too bad. He felt exhausted from all the interaction. He had spent weeks completely alone, talking to himself. He had rehashed memories of conversations from years ago, and thought through all the things he might say to family and friends when he got back home. Now that he had real people to talk to, the effort of it drained him. It didn’t help that every conversation felt like a confrontation.

“Is it just me, or does Garrett really dislike me?”

Amaranth smiled and let out a half-cough, half-sigh of laughter. Christopher suddenly wondered what injury had stolen her voice. She flipped a page and wrote for quite a while in her book.

Garrett is an idiot. He decided to come with us, and now he regrets it. But he doesn’t have enough brainpower to do any introspection, so he just takes it out on everyone else. 

“And I’m the new punching bag?”

I think everyone was hoping you’d know some things that you don’t know.

“Yeah, I feel the same way. I had this idea that if I found people, that would solve all my problems. I’d be on my way back home within hours. Now I’m surrounded by people, and I know even less about what’s going on.”

Amaranth shrugged.

“If I ask you some questions, will you answer? Or are all of you under orders not to tell me anything?”

No orders. They’re just scared and confused. I’ll answer if I can.

“Okay. Are you all in the military?”

No, but most are.

“So, this place, Razor Mountain, is like an Army base?”

Army base and a city.

“Am I a prisoner?”

She sighed.

No. But I don’t think you can leave.

“How is that any different.”

I guess it isn’t.

“You said they’re scared and confused. What is everyone scared about?”

They’re scared that we’ll get caught.

Christopher thought about this.

“You’re not supposed to be here. They asked me about the plane, about the ‘outside world.’ You’re all trying to get out of here too?”

I’m not. Everyone else is.

“Why not you?”

I like being out here. I like living out in the woods. I can take care of myself.

“You’d just live in the forest?”

Why not?

“I don’t know. It seems hard. And lonely.”

I don’t mind being alone. And I’m good at living in the woods. My dad taught me. I hunt. I fish. I know the plants.

“Wouldn’t you miss anyone?”

Everyone I’d miss is already dead. 

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

It’s fine. It was years ago.

“So why are you here instead of out in the woods?”

I’m trying to help them. I like to be alone, but I’m not going to just ignore people who need help.

“I appreciate that,” Christopher said. “You probably saved my life.”

She shrugged again. They sat in silence for a minute.

“Look, maybe you won’t want to answer, but why are they afraid they’ll get caught? Why did they run away? Is it like treason, or desertion or whatever?”

Desertion. They didn’t think they were being told the truth. They stopped trusting the leadership. But all information comes down from them.

“You don’t have TV or radio? Newspaper? Anything?”

Everything gets vetted by command first.

“What about people coming in from other places?”

Very rare.

“Wait, people must get transferred in and out.”

That’s not how Razor Mountain works.

“So nobody comes or goes and you don’t get any information about the outside world?”

Only through command. A lot of people don’t trust it.

“How can they do that? You can’t just keep people there indefinitely. Even if they’re in the Army, their contracts must end eventually.”

She flipped back a page and tapped the words she had already written.

That’s not how Razor Mountain works.

“And all these people decided to become deserters and leave? Without a plan to actually get to a town or something?”

Amaranth nodded.

Ema was working on a plan, but command found out. They had to leave before they were ready. Or probably face a court-martial.

“And now people like Garrett are thinking the court-martial might have been the better choice?”

Maybe. Maybe he’s just a whiner.

Christopher sat on his cot, back against the wall, and tried to process. Amaranth took out a pocket knife and a chunk of wood that had already been partly whittled. The carving vaguely resembled a person.

“You were the one leaving carvings in the woods?”

She nodded.

“Why?”

She flicked a few shavings off the piece before picking up the notebook and pen.

Just something to do. Decorating my space, I guess.

“Do you know how creepy it is to find something like that out in the woods, when you think you’re alone?”

Sorry.

They sat for a while. The small sounds of knife on wood were peaceful. A pile of shavings started to accumulate on the floor.

“What about me?” Christopher asked. “They shot at me. But I’m not a soldier. I haven’t deserted. If I got into Razor Mountain, would I be a prisoner there too? Would your people let me go?”

Amaranth pressed the knife against a knot in the wood. There was a small ping, and a little piece went sailing across the room to bounce off the far wall. She picked up the notebook.

They won’t want you to go. They don’t want you telling command where to find them.

“What if I promise not to say anything?”

That’s not a promise you can make.

“Why not?”

What if they say you don’t get to go home unless you talk.

“Ah.”

There are plenty of worse things they could do, too.

Christopher took a deep breath.

“So I’m screwed.”

If we find a way to get out, you can go with them.

“Yeah, but you said there was no plan. I don’t know where we are. We could be hundreds of miles from the nearest town.”

Amaranth closed her book.

“Done talking then?”

She tilted her head toward the door. A man was standing there, the same man who had stood guard when Christopher was waiting for his interview with Ema.

“I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced,” he said. “My name is Harold.”

He held out a hand, and Christopher stood to shake it. Amaranth stood as well.

“Am I under lockdown again?” Christopher asked.

“Sorry,” Harold said. “I know it’s unpleasant. People just need some reassurance.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Christopher said. 

Amaranth headed toward the door.

“Talk more tomorrow?” Christopher asked.

She nodded without turning, and raised a hand in a half-wave goodbye.

“If you’d prefer, I could stay outside the room,” Harold said.

“Makes no difference to me,” Christopher replied.

There was a muffled voice from the hall, and Harold stepped out, returning with a second cot. He set it down next to the door.

Christopher considered asking Harold more questions, maybe seeing if he had different answers than Amaranth. However, he already felt overwhelmed, and he decided it would be better to try tomorrow. Maybe, given some time, these people could start to trust him. Maybe they’d figure out how to get to the nearest town. After all, with a whole group working together, they ought to have a much better chance than Christopher all by himself. 

Still, no matter how much he tried to convince himself otherwise, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he would have been better off alone in the woods.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 15.1

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

It didn’t take long before Christopher began to feel like a zoo animal. He was allowed some freedom, and once he had rested, Amaranth showed him a hallway full of rooms where these people rested, some normal-looking office bathrooms, the room that served as a makeshift mess hall, and an area where the floors above had partially collapsed down to their level. The ceiling in that area was at Christopher’s shoulder height, and it looked as though there might be ways through the rubble, but it certainly didn’t look safe.

Although he had supposedly been vetted, and he no longer had guns trained on him wherever he went, he was never alone. It was hard to tell if people were just curious or keeping an eye on him. Despite their interest in him, none of them immediately tried to make conversation.

The makeshift mess hall was really just more office space that had been filled with tables and chairs. Christopher ate rice, beans, and some tasteless canned chicken. It was like being back home in the bunker. He tried to get information out of Amaranth, but it was slow going.

“What is this place?”

She set her fork down to write a note.

Building F

“What does that mean? Are there buildings “A” through “E” around here? Letters beyond that?”

She nodded. After another bite she wrote.

There are others. Not sure how many.

“Why is all this out here?”

 It’s all part of Razor Mountain.

“What’s Razor Mountain?”

It’s a mountain. But also a city.

“So it’s all connected?”

She shook her head and wrote, It’s all over the mountain.

While they went through this slow process of question and answer, Christopher became aware that several of the others were watching and listening from nearby tables. They all wore the same camouflage fatigues.

“Is everyone here in the military then? Is that why there’s all this secrecy?

Something like that.

One of the men in the watching group said, “You’d better be careful what you tell him, Amaranth.”

Christopher saw a clear look of irritation flicker over Amaranth’s face before she suppressed it. She wrote quickly on the paper and flashed it at him. Christopher couldn’t make out what it said.

“Hmph,” was his only reply.

As though this small interaction had opened the floodgates, several others moved over to Christopher’s table as a group. They congregated on the other side, with Amaranth, and left a gap on either side of him.

“Where are you from?” one woman asked. “Why are you here?”

Christopher sighed. “I’m from Minneapolis. I was on a trip and my plane crashed.”

“You survived a plane crash?”

“Well, I jumped, and I landed in water. I guess I was just incredibly lucky.”

“Incredibly lucky,” said the man who had warned Amaranth. He was still sitting back at the other table.

Christopher shrugged.

“I found a bunker. It must be one of these Razor Mountain buildings, but I didn’t know that. It’s the only reason I survived. Gave me a warm place to stay, food and supplies.”

“What are things like out there, these days?” the woman asked.

“What do you mean, ‘out there?’” Christopher asked.

“Out in the world. In Minnesota.”

“Fine, I guess. The weather isn’t that different from up here, honestly.”

“But what about the war?”

“What war? Afghanistan? Iraq?”

Christopher looked around. The faces were oddly expressionless, like they weren’t sure how to react.

 “I’m honestly not entirely sure which of those was an official war,” Christopher continued. “I’m sorry, I don’t know. You all must know more about it than I do.”

“What about Russia?” one of the men asked.

“What about it?”

“People aren’t worried about war with Russia?”

Christopher shrugged. “I don’t think so. I guess there are always some people who think the Cold War never ended.”

There was another moment of awkward silence around the table.

“Why is everyone asking me about geopolitics? Why Russia?” Christopher asked. “I feel like there’s something you’re trying to get at, and nobody wants to say it.”

The man sitting at the other table stood up and walked over.

“They’re having a hard time believing that things are going well out there,” he said.

Christopher laughed. “I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘going well.’ Better than the Cold War?”

Again, silence stretched.

“Do you not get the news up here?”

“What’s your name?” The man asked.

“Christopher.”

“What if I told you that I don’t think you’re who you say you are.”

“I’ve been getting a lot of that lately,” Christopher said.

The man nodded. “It’s probably because your story sounds made up. And you somehow got here, into this highly secure area, just by chance.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Christopher asked. “I don’t have anything to prove who I am. I lost my luggage, I lost my wallet, hell, I lost my shoes. I’ve just been trying to stay alive and get back home.”

“And what do you think someone would say, if they came here with other intentions?” the man asked.

“They’d probably have a more believable story than jumping out of an airplane. What intentions are they going to have?” Christopher countered. “To find your secret base here, which kind of looks like it should have been condemned fifty years ago?”

Amaranth wrote furiously on her paper again and held it up to the man. He glanced at it and then casually slapped it aside, out of her hand.

“I don’t care how long you were spying on him,” the man said. “I know you think you’re a real commando, and for some reason Ema thinks so too, but you’re just a fucking kid. You’ve got a lot to learn.”

Amaranth scooped up her notebook and stood facing the man, jaw and hands clenched. Christopher saw several of the others glaring at him. One of the women said, “Garrett…” 

“What? You all get excited over a stranger who just shows up out of the blue, and take him at his word that he’s here entirely by accident? Besides, even if he is exactly what he says, how does that help us? We have bigger problems to deal with.”

“Maybe he knows something that can help,” the woman said.

“What could he possibly know?” Garrett countered. “Either he’s telling the truth and he doesn’t know shit, or he’s lying and he’s not going to tell you anything useful anyway.”

The eyes of the group turned back to Christopher.

“He’s probably right,” Christopher said. “I don’t even know what the problem is. I could point you to that bunker I found, but that’s about it.”

“You said your plane crashed,” one of the men said. “How bad was the crash?”

“Fireball bad?” Christopher said. “I never found the crash site, I think it was pretty high up the slope from the bunker, but I doubt there would be much left to salvage.”

“See?” Garrett said. “He’s stuck. He’s either hoping that we can help him, or trying to get whatever info he can out of you.”

Amaranth wrote in her notebook. 

He’s not a spy!

“It doesn’t matter,” Garrett said. “We can’t help him, and he can’t help us.”

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Revising Short Stories

The Short Story Series

When we think of revision, we often think of line edits: correcting grammar and punctuation; cutting tropes or overused idioms; improving word choices here and there. These are mechanical improvements that anyone can learn to do.

The real challenge, however, is in making the story great. It’s in making something that hits the reader like a punch to the gut. While grammar and punctuation are important, they’re surface polish. What a story really needs underneath that is focus.

Finding Focus

Even the tightest of novels is huge in comparison to a short story. Short stories simply don’t have as much space to maneuver. A novel can choose to have more characters, go into more depth, have more plot points, more ideas. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As I said previously, if a novel is a searchlight, a short story is a laser. It needs to cut directly to the point. When it does, it can be incredibly powerful.

If you’re the sort of writer who likes to plan up-front, you may already know what you want the focus of your short story to be. If you’re more of an exploratory writer, you may leave yourself open to a few different options and see what speaks to you as you write. You don’t necessarily have to know all the answers while you’re writing your first draft.

It’s during revision when you have to make the hard choices.

Cutting Diamonds

Once you have a first draft, it’s helpful to go back and think about what you were trying to achieve. What made you want to write this in the first place? Is it still the thing that excites you the most about the story? Is there a twist ending that everything leads to? A particular character or situation? A hard choice that has to be made?

Maybe it’s not a “traditional” story element that excites you. Maybe it’s formatting or style. Maybe it’s tone or exploration of a particular emotion.

If you didn’t have a clear plan, reread your work and see what speaks to you. You’re looking for the core of the story, the beating heart that makes it live. Of course, it may not actually feel like that just yet. The important thing is that you want it to.

Once you’ve found the core of the story, there’s only one thing left to do. Put it at the center and rearrange everything else to support it. Even if you’ve written the greatest sentence to ever grace the page, if it doesn’t reinforce the core of the story it has to go.

Cut Relentlessly

When I was writing microfiction and studying drabbles, I learned an important lesson about revision: no matter how perfect you think your story is, there’s something that can be cut. When you have to fit a coherent story into a single tweet, you make some hard choices. You can replace two words with one, or a six letter word with five. If you can lose a sentence and the story still makes sense, you cut it. If you have a fun little aside you want to include…you don’t. You’re still fifteen words over budget. Cut, cut, cut.

I highly recommend any writer try writing a few tweet-sized microfiction stories. It’s one of the best exercises you can do to really internalize an understanding of trimming a story to its bare bones.

Of course, most short stories are much longer than 250 characters. After writing microfiction, a short story will feel positively spacious, but the same principles still apply. Unfortunately, writing a short story is harder than writing microfiction. Microfiction takes away most of your choices. If you can cut something, you probably do.

In a short story, you have some wiggle room. Not a lot, but some. You don’t have to cut quite as much. You still need to identify the places where you can make a cut with just as much ruthlessness as microfiction. Then, you need to identify the cost of that cut. Usually, there’s some identifiable reason you wrote that paragraph or sentence or word in the first place. If there isn’t, that’s an easy cut.

Once you’ve identified the cost, the only question is whether it’s worth it. Remember, as an author, you’re already biased toward loving your own words. Are those words really earning their keep? Do they reenforce the core, the beating heart of the story?

Cut more than you think is reasonable, and see how it feels. Save as many versions as you need to in order to cut fearlessly.

Getting Feedback

Revision can’t be done in isolation. No matter how much you try, no matter how much space you give it, it will always be your story. You need to see it through the eyes of fresh readers.

Luckily, requesting feedback on a short story is a much smaller ask than requesting feedback on a novel. If you’re lucky enough to have trusted beta readers, by all means ask them to critique it. A writing group is another great way to get feedback from several people.

There are also several online options. Critters is my go-to website for online critique from other active writers. Just be aware that you’ll be expected to return the favor and provide critiques for others in return.

Revision is Exciting

Often, the mere mention of revision is enough to make an author groan. It can sometimes feel like writing the first draft is the creative part of the process, and revision is dull in comparison. However, revision can be every bit as creative and challenging as the first draft. It is the art of perfecting—of finding the core of the story and trimming, sanding and polishing until every single word sings it out.

It is like taking a crude circle of glass and shaping it into a precise lens, to get that laser focus.