Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 26

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.

Q & A

My intent with Razor Mountain was always to write a “mystery box” story that actually resolved in a satisfying way. To do that, I created a starting premise with a lot of mysteries, and then made sure that I knew the answers—why everything was happening. In the first half of the book, most of my time was spent building up those mysteries. Now, as I approach the final act, it’s all about answering those mysteries.

I’ve long believed that it’s easier to create interesting mysteries than it is to resolve them, which is why so many mystery-centric stories fall flat at the end. However, in my hubris, I assumed that the hard work was in figuring out all the answers. Some of the feedback on early drafts of recent chapters has shown me that it’s not enough to just know the answer. The resolution has to come out in the story, while being clear enough that the reader doesn’t miss it, and organic enough that it doesn’t feel shoved-in just to make the story work.

So, one of the things I did while writing this chapter is to go back through my outline and review all of the things I set up early in the story, and make sure that I have plans for resolving them in the next few chapters. This chapter and the next one are important to some of these revelations, so it was a good exercise to do at this point in the story.

More Rearranging

I initially left out the third scene in this chapter. It was squeezed into the start of the next chapter because I was worried that it might reveal too much before the next chapter. This is part of the ongoing rearranging of the outline that I’ve been doing for the past few chapters.

However, when I began to write this journal I realized that the chapter felt purposeless without that third scene. Seeing Cain is interesting, because it’s a big link between the two narratives, but it’s not exactly a shocking stinger at the end of the chapter, and I would have had to be a little more coy in Christopher’s conversation with Speares to try to make it more of a revelation. The first two scenes are mostly the characters walking from A to B and talking, which is the same as Christopher’s previous chapter. Without the additional revelations and action at the end, it falls flat.

So once again I adjusted my chapters and pulled in that third scene.  I also decided that I can write it without quite giving up certain big secrets. But this scene combined with the next chapter will serve as the climax for Act II and set up Act III.

The Value of Journaling

Despite the power of ego, when I sit down to write one of these chapter journals I sometimes wonder how worthwhile it actually is. There are certainly times when feel that I don’t have much interesting to say about a given chapter. However, when I look back, it’s often when I’m working on a journal that I realize I’ve missed something or need to do some rearranging (as I did this week).

As it turns out, when I force myself to think about process enough to be able to articulate a journal entry, it helps me better understand the story I’m telling. Maybe that seems like it should be obvious, but it’s a lesson that I keep learning.

That’s partly because I originally intended these journals to be a sort of documentary—a way for other writers to peek inside my head and see what I was thinking, alongside the actual product. Not because I thought it would be a breakout bestseller and everyone would be interested, but because I can only speak for myself, and it seemed like a fun hook for the blog. I think there’s a real tendency among authors to want to keep the secret sauce secret, or to be so deep in the impostor syndrome that we don’t want to risk the potential embarrassment of opening up to others.

Now that I’ve been doing this for most of a book, I’m beginning to think that journaling through a big project will often be worthwhile for a lot of writers, even if nobody else ever sees that journal. As writers, we are used to thinking through a lot of things in text, and keeping up that meta-narrative has really helped me to understand the story I’m writing, and probably do a better job than I otherwise would.

It also occasionally serves as a record that I can return to, if I forget a decision I made, or an idea that I set aside that turns out to be important.

Next Time

The next chapter is a big one. Things are happening now.  It’s been a few minutes since Christopher’s life got worse, so I’m going to remedy that with some existential dread. It’s the end of Act II and the start of Act III. See you there.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 26.3

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

The man stared at Christopher long enough for it to become uncomfortable.

“I was told you wanted to talk to me,” Christopher said.

Cain smiled. “I did, indeed.”

Christopher waited for more, but once again the silence dragged on.

“I’m sorry,” Christopher said, “I’m not sure what’s going on here.”

“Forgive me,” Cain said. “I’m afraid I was not quite prepared. You see, there’s a project I’ve been working on for a very long time. It’s a rather…emotional thing for me. It started years ago, and I have to admit I thought there was no hope of finishing it. Every time I thought I had solved it, there was a catastrophe. Recently, I thought I had finally seen it over and done with. The work of half my life, wasted. And for Razor Mountain, far more than that.”

Christopher frowned. “I don’t understand. What does this have to do with me?”

“I’m sure it will sound a little absurd, but you are vitally important to this project. You, here in Razor Mountain, have renewed my hope that I can finally succeed.”

“I…I don’t want to get your hopes up,” Christopher said. “I don’t really understand what this project could be that I somehow have to be involved to make it work.”

Cain nodded. He stepped forward and put a hand on Christopher’s shoulder.

“I understand. It sounds absurd. It’s difficult for me to explain. I think we had better take a walk, so you can see it for yourself. Then it will all make sense.”

“Lead the way, then,” Christopher said.

Cain walked past him, back to the elevator. Christopher followed him in, and the doors closed. Christopher watched as Cain took out a little key and unlocked the metal panel he had noticed on the ride up. Behind it was a ten-digit number pad. Cain tapped in a long sequence of numbers, and there was a prolonged beep. Then Christopher felt the elevator begin to gently descend.

Christopher counted silently to himself again. It had taken about thirty seconds for the ride up. Now, he gave up after hitting one hundred on the way down. They were clearly descending deeper into the mountain than he had before. The old man seemed content to stand side-by-side in silence, but Christopher felt increasingly awkward. Despite his companion’s apparent frailty, Christopher was acutely aware of the imbalance of power between them. Cain looked utterly self-assured, and as usual, Christopher had no idea what was going on.

The elevator doors opened onto a hallway of polished, unadorned black stone. Cain stepped out without looking back to see if Christopher was following. He looked as though he were just out for a stroll. Christopher exited the elevator, and the doors closed behind him. He reached out a hand and let his fingers trail over the slick, glassy surface of the black stone. He had expected it to be cold, but it was not.

“It’s surprisingly warm down here,” Christopher said, as much to break the silence as to suss out any information from the strange old man. “I suppose that’s part of what you do?”

Cain nodded. “I make sure the temperatures are comfortable in the city proper,” he said. “We love to pump up geothermal heat wherever we can. But down here, it stays warm with no effort on my part.”

The light in the hallway came from narrow slits in the ceiling every twenty feet or so, creating a pattern of alternating darkness and light that reminded Christopher of night driving on the highway, street lights passing by. It was almost hypnotic. The effect also made it difficult to judge how far the hallway stretched ahead, although Christopher could tell that it eventually curved to the left, out of sight.

“What is this place?”

“This is one of the oldest parts of the city, or so I’m told,” Cain replied, chuckling. “Much older than me, and that’s saying something.”

“How old is Razor Mountain?” It seemed like a potentially sensitive question, but Christopher sensed a guileless openness from his guide.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Cain said. “Maybe better.”

The walls, the ceiling, the floor were all perfectly smooth and seamless. As far as Christopher could tell, it was precisely square and the dimensions didn’t vary, although it was hard to tell with light reflecting off the polished surfaces.

As they made their way around the curve, Christopher began to realize that the path formed a spiral. It started gently, but steadily tightened. The light also began to change. The narrow slits grew further and further apart, and the gaps of darkness between deepened. Then, there were no more lights. But even as they walked away from the faint reflections, Christopher could still see the path forward.

For a moment, a memory asserted itself: waking on the dark plane, groggy and confused. The sensation of a lightless cave; looming shapes and smothering darkness.

At first, he thought he might be imagining the blue glow. Then he decided it must be a translucency in the surrounding rock. It was so faint that he had a hard time seeing it, except in his peripheral vision. But it had an electric energy that made him feel like he had been shuffling in his socks on carpet. He blinked, and the glow intensified. He could see it through his eyelids.

When the spiral could get no tighter, the hallway opened onto a cylindrical room.

The walls here were different, metallic and dull.. The blue was searing, and for a moment Christopher held up his hands to cover his eyes. It did nothing to it out. He realized he was still holding the tattered paperback, and felt momentarily silly, hauling it around for the sake of a brief joke.

He couldn’t help but take a step into the room. He looked up, and saw darkness. The room extended upward beyond his sight. The blue glow pulsed deep in the center of that darkness, like the iris of a distant, giant eye trying to focus on him.

“This is your project?” he muttered.

Cain came up slightly behind him and made a small gesture that seemed to encompass both the room and the two of them. “This. This is my project.”

“What exactly do you expect me to do?”

“Just look around and tell me what you see,” Cain said.

Christopher took another step toward the center of the room. The book slipped from his hand, his limbs far away and oddly disconnected.

“I see…symbols and shapes on the walls. Incredibly delicate. There’s some kind of pattern there, but I can’t quite tell what it is. It’s all in that blue light. What is that light?”

Cain sighed. “I’m afraid I don’t know. I can only ever see it out of the corner of my eye. I’ve spent so many nights pacing around this room, but I can never quite see it.”

There was a distant thud that reverberated through Christopher’s body. Somehow, he had fallen to his knees, but he didn’t feel it. He was numb. He could hear someone whispering, many voices whispering. It was a crowd speaking over one another, many languages that he couldn’t understand.

And then he could.


Razor Mountain — Chapter 26.2

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

She opened the door, and he followed her out and down the stairs. They walked down the street toward the big cavern crowded with buildings that Christopher had come to think of as “downtown” Razor Mountain. The few people they passed ignored them. It felt strange to be even slightly anonymous.

“So what’s this Secretary of Energy’s name?” Christopher asked. “What should I know about him? Or her?”

“His name is Cain Dolus,” Speares said. “I’d suggest you call him Mr. Dolus though. As far as important government officials go, I think he’s pretty laid back, but it wouldn’t hurt to be polite in your situation.”

Christopher almost replied with, “Thanks, Mom,” then thought better of it. It was probably best to not irritate one of only two people who had shown kindness to him since his rough landing. He realized he had begun to think of Speares as a friend, but he suspected his calibration for social interactions was a little broken thanks to all the loneliness and torture.

“I’m honestly not sure what else to tell you,” Speares said. “I don’t know why he’s taken an interest in you.”

“Have you talked with him before?”

“Sure,” she said. “I do work for the cabinet from time to time. But I don’t know him particularly well. It’s a relatively small circle of people who interact with them on a regular basis.”

“Sounds like a lonely job for them,” Christopher said. “Kings and queens of a tiny little kingdom.”

“Not even. They have bosses just like the rest of us. Only my boss isn’t the president of the United States.”

They followed the road into the big cavern, but this time Speares led Christopher down side streets, around the outer edge where other avenues led back into the smaller caves. The underground complex already seemed impossible to Christopher, but he began to realize it was even larger than he had initially thought. He wondered how far out all those caverns went, and what was required to maintain the structural integrity with a million tons of stone above their heads.

They took one of these side streets, and something about it struck Christopher as more bland than the others he had seen. This wasn’t one of the odd little neighborhoods with its own transplanted style. It was more like a warehouse district, a road lined with low gray stone rectangles in the shape of buildings. Some of them had wide roll-up garage doors that looked like loading docks, although Christopher wondered what the purpose was when he had seen no vehicles to load and unload.

“Are we meeting in a warehouse?” Christopher asked.

“No. But the higher-ups have their own private areas of the city, and the entrances tend to be in…nondescript areas.”

“I see.”

They stopped at one of the loading docks, and Speares banged on the metal door three times. For a moment, there was silence, then the door rattled and rolled up, revealing two men in uniform with submachine guns, lit from behind by bright fluorescent lights.

“This is where I leave you,” Speares said.

Christopher looked into the impassive faces of the soldiers, then back at Speares. He suddenly felt like a kid being dropped off at the first day of school.

“Thanks for treating me like an actual human being.”

She nodded. “I hope this works out for you.”

“If not, maybe I’ll see you around.”

Christopher stepped through, and the door clattered back down behind him, locking out the outside world. One of the soldiers waved him down the hall. The other followed behind as he went.

The hallway was similar to the maze of corridors outside his old prison cell. Their footsteps echoed ahead and behind. It led to a heavy metal door that retracted into the wall when the soldier swiped his hand over the reader. Beyond that was another door, and this one turned out to be an elevator. The soldier stayed outside while Christopher entered.

“Where do I go?” Christopher asked.

“Only one way to go, when you get up there, sir,” the soldier replied. He gave Christopher a slight nod as the doors slid closed.

Christopher counted to himself as the elevator went up. It didn’t feel like it was going particularly fast. There was no floor indicator and no buttons, although there was a locked metal panel in the wall that Christopher thought might hide some controls.

He stopped counting at thirty-three as the doors opened. On the other side was a short hallway, but this felt completely different. The walls were painted a soft cream color here, and adorned with little landscape paintings. The floor was carpeted, a pattern of overlapping squares in various shades of gray. There were baseboards of some dark red wood. The lighting was softer and warmer than the harsh fluorescents down below.

It wasn’t exactly opulent, but it had the feeling of a nice corporate office or private doctor’s waiting room.

Christopher stepped out, and the elevator doors slid closed quietly behind him. Upon closer inspection, he saw there were four of the little paintings, two on each side of the hallway, depicting the same scenery in four seasons. Ahead were a pair of plain wooden doors that matched the baseboards. They had been left open to an office. Christopher could see a big, old-fashioned wooden desk, a bookshelf, and a side table with a lamp and a bottle of liquor on it.

He walked forward slowly. It was oddly quiet, and he realized he had grown used to life underground where there were echoing stone surfaces everywhere.

He started when a man stepped into the doorway from inside the office. He was older and a little paunchy, with thick gray hair, neatly combed, and jowels beginning to show on his lined face. He looked up, saw Christopher, and smiled, but there was some strange emotion in it. Sadness, Christopher thought, or maybe exhaustion.

“So,” he said, “You’ve finally arrived.”


Razor Mountain — Chapter 26.1

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

After his conversation with Speares, Christopher had expected that things would happen fast, good or bad. Instead, his comfortable confinement continued for two more days without any communication. He had food and a good bed, and the view of the street below, but he began to wonder if he would continue to trade one prison for another for the rest of his life. The bunker, the holding cell, the slightly dingy apartment: a never-ending limbo, waiting for some sort of final judgment.

When he fought back the existential weight of the situation, he knew that his basic circumstances were objectively better. In the bunker, he had been surrounded by the beauty of nature, seemingly free from any signs of civilization, but there had only been a handful of moments where he was really able to stop and appreciate that. The sheer loneliness, and the question of whether he would ever see people again, had made the landscape feel too desolate.

He was just as much a prisoner here, below the mountain, but the trappings of civilization surrounded him. The apartment could have existed in hundreds of other cities, apart from the view. And the view allowed him to look out over the rooftops of the neighborhood, and the place at the end of the road where it opened out into the central chamber of the city. People walked the streets, coming and going, having conversations. He was trapped for the moment, but no longer felt alone. There was some emotional value in simply being near people.

Beyond that, and in spite of Specialist Speares’s warnings, he had hope that his situation might still improve. He had been wildly optimistic when they had last talked, although that had been tempered by the intervening days with no visits and no news.

There was another way he felt changed, one that he was only just beginning to understand. When he woke inside the bunker, he had been gripped by absolute fear, and he had lived for weeks, maybe months, with those black claws wrapped around his heart. But, somewhere along the way, they had begun to loosen. By the time he was released from the interrogation room and Sergeant Meadows, they were gone. Having been a risk-averse person most of his life, he had the strange feeling that he had made his way through circumstances more difficult than he had ever imagined, and that he was capable of more. An unreasonable fatalism had gripped him, and it made him think that circumstances had guided him to this time and place for a reason, though he couldn’t articulate what it might be.

He was sitting in his place by the window, half-reading a ragged paperback of Stranger in a Strange Land he had found in one of the cupboards, when he saw Speares walking down the street. She looked preoccupied, flipping through her notebook as she walked, passed his door before she paused in the street and realized where she was. Then she looked up and saw him. He raised a hand in silent greeting, and she responded with a tight smile and a nod. Then she snapped her notebook closed and walked through the front door.

He waited for her knock at the door and said, “Come on in.”

The door opened and Speares stepped inside. She closed the door and paused as though unsure whether to enter any further.

“I was beginning to wonder if you’d forgotten me,” Christopher said. He had intended it as a lighthearted greeting, but as soon as he said it, he wondered if he might just sound bitter.

“No,” Speares said. “You’ve actually been the focus of quite a bit of debate.”

“Am I still in administrative limbo?”

“No,” she said again. “I think things have been resolved. It turns out that Sergeant Meadows had some connections to call on as well. He’s been fighting to keep you locked up. He made a variety of…interesting claims about you.”

“Like what?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. The man doesn’t care about anything except his own hide and ambitions, and I think that’s been exposed now. With any luck, he’ll face a court-martial. But even if he doesn’t, I think he’s likely to stagnate in some forgotten corner of the city.”

“So what happens now?” Christopher asked.

“Exactly what I thought was going to happen a couple days ago,” she said. “You’ve got a meeting with the Secretary of Energy.”

Christopher frowned. “Why?”

Speares shrugged. “Honestly, I have no idea. He seems to be the one who took an interest in you, but I’m not in a position to know what exactly that is.”

“What does the Secretary of Energy do?”

Speares pointed up, at the light fixture above the entry way.

“He keeps the lights on. Manages the electric generation, the heat, the distribution, and probably a hundred related things I’m not aware of.”

“Huh,” Christopher said. “We might actually have some things to talk about. My job dealt with that kind of thing too. Before I vanished, never to be heard from again.”

“For some reason, I don’t think he’s going to be asking you to consult on the city electrical grid.”

“Hey,” Christopher countered, “you said I was probably stuck here for good. Maybe it’s a job interview.”

Speares smiled. “So when you got your old job, was it the CEO of the company who interviewed you?”

Christopher made an irritated face. “Fair point. So when is this meeting?”

“As soon as I take you over there,” Speares said.

“You’re really trying to keep me on my toes, huh?”

Speares sighed. “I realize it’s frustrating to not have any idea where you’re going and when, but it’s out of my hands.”

“No, that’s fine. I was getting bored in here anyway.”

She gestured to the door. “Shall we?”

“Hold on,” Christopher said. “Let me just gather my things.”

She stared at him as he looked around the bare room, first left, then right. He grabbed the grubby novel from the table.

“Guess I’m ready.”

Speares frowned. “You sure you weren’t employed as a professional comedian?”

“You’re the one running the background checks.”


Growing the Language of a Story

My day job is in software development, and in pre-Covid times, when a solid majority of our teams used to still work in the office every day, I would host occasional “lunch and learn” meetings where we’d have our lunch in a conference room and watch a programming-related video.

Of these videos, one of my favorites is called Growing a Language, by Guy Steele. While it’s made for an audience of programmers, I think it’s fairly palatable to the layman. It is fascinating to me because it has a bit of a literary bent, where the form of the talk is, itself, a comment on the subject.

(I don’t blame you if you don’t want to watch the whole thing, but it’s worth watching to the 9-minute mark—the “now you see” moment.)


Steele starts his talk with a long string of definitions, ranging from nouns like “man” and “woman,” to the names of particular people, to grammatical constructs and mathematical concepts. His speech is oddly stilted to the ear, and some of his definitions cover complicated ideas with surprising conciseness. He perseveres for nine minutes in the face of the awkward, confused giggling from his audience.

At last, he gets to the point.

“A primitive is a word for which we can take it for granted that we all know what it means[…]. For this talk, I chose to take as my primitives all the words of one syllable and no more[…]. My firm rule for this talk is that if I need to use a word of two or more syllables, I must first define it.”

Steele starts with a somewhat arbitrary limitation: words of a single syllable. This is the reason for his stilted cadence. And despite his clever use of this artificially limited language, it’s apparent that he cannot get across everything he wants to say without expanding it. So he begins with simple definitions, then uses those to build more complex definitions.

The first several minutes of the talk are almost entirely devoted to building the language he needs. Then he begins to make his arguments. But he continues to sprinkle in more definitions as he goes, expanding the language so that it is ready to tackle each subsequent concept.

The Language of Stories

Steele is trying to make a point about the construction of computer programming languages, but his ideas are just as applicable to fiction. Each story has its own language, and as authors, we must construct that language as the story unfolds. We are just like Steele, defining concepts and grammar between making points. We are the train conductors laying track in front of our own speeding train.

In science-fiction and fantasy, this is especially obvious. We often need to build a secondary world that feels real, or a magic system, or the rules of some future technology. But even in more “mundane” genres, there are rules that must be defined. Who is the story about? What is the time period and setting, and how do the circumstances of the world affect the characters? What perspectives will be used?

Writing a story is a balancing act—the act of providing exactly enough information for the reader to understand what’s going on, at exactly the moment when it is needed. Too much, too early, and the whole story becomes bogged down in dull definitions. Too little, and the language becomes muddled and confusing; the story, difficult to follow.

Assumptions and Audience

Steele’s other key insight is that the starting point is extremely important. He chooses words of a single syllable. The starting point for a story is more complicated. It’s what you as the author assume about and expect from your audience.

For example, I might be writing about a dystopian future. I might focus on the technologies that enable the authoritarian regime to keep the people down. I might focus on the social constructs that make it difficult for the characters to fight back. I might focus more on the language and structure of the story, or the internal depths of the characters, or an intricate plot. The version of the story that highlights tech might appeal to a reader of hard sci-fi, while a focus on the society itself may appeal to a reader of “softer” sociological science-fiction. The version that uses challenging language and structure might appeal to a reader of literary fiction.

Whether we recognize it or not, every author must make assumptions about what their reader will bring to a story. A story that expects the reader to bring less will necessarily have to start with a simpler “language” and do more defining up-front. A story that expects more from the reader might start with a more complex “language,” but this runs the risk of confusing or driving off part of the potential audience. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Better to write a great book for a particular audience than a mediocre book that tries to cater to every reader.

Breaking Expectations

Most of the time, it’s good to cater to your chosen audience, starting with a language they can understand and building it as the story progresses. But it can also be a powerful tool to break those well-defined rules.

It can be a story-defining twist to reveal something new about a setting or character that the reader wasn’t prepared for. It can be shocking and exciting to suddenly change up the structure or the way the story is told. The best authors can even carefully lure an audience into a story that they would have thrown away, were it revealed at the outset, and make them enjoy it. Maybe the main POV character dies at the end of act II, and the book shifts to the villain’s perspective?

Of course, it’s a hard trick to pull off. When done poorly, betraying the reader’s expectations can ruin the story for them. It can feel dull, like deus ex machina that impacts the story without earning it, or even like a mean prank played by the author at the reader’s expense. This is where beta readers and editors prove invaluable, helping to ensure that the trick actually works.

So Easy, You’re Already Doing It

Building a language for each story may seem daunting at first, but the good news is that every author does it, either deliberately or intuitively. By actively thinking about growing the language of the story, we have the opportunity to build it well—providing exactly what’s needed, when it’s needed, and not a sentence too early or too late.

When You Aren’t Inspired, Trust Process

As I approach the final leg of writing my serial novel, Razor Mountain, I feel like I’m finally on the other side of the difficult middle. The central 50% of novels almost always feel like the hardest part to me, and I know I’m not alone. However, I have a big advantage on this project: posting it on the blog gives me deadlines and external accountability.

When I finish writing a chapter, sometimes I feel pretty good about it, and sometimes I’m disappointed. But I set myself a schedule, and I keep writing more chapters and posting them. Sometimes, my only consolation is in telling myself that I can always perform major revisions after the thing is done.

On the good days, writing feels like making art, but on the bad days it feels more like working an assembly line. Clock-in, spend a few hours sticking words together, and clock-out. It’s not glamorous, but it’s often what needs to be done.

Is It A Good Day?

I recently binged through the incredible 32-episode documentary Double Fine PsychOdyssey, which follows the seven-year development of the game Psychonauts 2. Even if you’re not particularly interested in video games, it’s a fantastic study in the complexities and interpersonal challenges of building a creative project with a large group of people.

Tim Schafer, who is something of a game design and writing legend, has a habit of daily writing when he’s working on a project. Over the years he has accumulated piles of old project notebooks that he can look back on. This offers an amazing archaeological view into how these stories grew and changed over the course of development.

Early in the documentary, Schafer flips through a few pages of the notebook for the original game, Psychonauts. These pages contain the first mentions of many of the ideas that became central to the story, although he had no way knowing it at the time. Schafer reads these tentative forays into ideas that now seem predestined, laughs quietly to himself and says, “that was a good day.”

What’s interesting about these “good days” is that they’re often not obvious when we’re living in them. It’s only in retrospect that we can see what works and what doesn’t.

Doing the Work

Cory Doctorow has a great article about this, called Doing the Work: How to Write When You Suck.

In those years, I would sit down at the keyboard, load up my text-editor, and try to think of words to write. Lots of words occurred to me, but they felt stupid and unworthy. I would chase my imagination around my skull, looking for better words, and, after hours, I would give it up, too exhausted to keep chasing and demoralized by not having caught anything.

That feeling of unworthiness and stupidity has never gone away. There are so many days when I sit down to write and everything that occurs to me to commit to the page is just sucks.

Here’s what’s changed: I write anyway. Sometime in my late twenties, I realized that there were days when I felt like everything I wrote sucked, and there were days when I felt really good about what I had written.

Moreover, when I pulled those pages up months later, having attained some emotional distance from them, there were passages that objectively did suck, and others that were objectively great.

But here’s the kicker: the quality of the work was entirely unrelated to the feeling I had while I was producing it. I could have a good day and produce bad work and I could have a bad day and produce good work.

What I realized, gradually, was that the way I felt about my work was about everything except the work. If I felt like I was writing crap, it had more to do with my blood-sugar, my sleep-deficit, and conflicts in my personal life than it did with the work. The work was how I got away from those things, but they crept into the work nonetheless.

This is a profound realization. There is a freedom in just writing (rather than trying to write well) that can be necessary to actually get anything done. The louder your internal editor is, the more important it becomes to be able to turn it off.

What Cory experienced is something I’ve noticed as well. I often don’t feel very good about my writing in the moment. It’s only when I come back to it later that I can take notice of the parts that I like. That’s not to say I don’t need editing. I always find plenty of things to improve. But most of the time my opinion of my writing is higher when I’m reading it back than when I’m in the process of writing it. I just can’t trust my own opinion while I’m writing.

And even if it turns out to be bad, I can always fix it later.

Writing as Manual Labor

As I get older and more experienced, I am more and more drawn to the idea of writing as manual labor. When I treat writing as a simple project of putting one word after another, it takes away the pressure to make those words great. I get the words written faster, and with less anguish.

I don’t always know if what I’m making will be good. I would love to feel constantly inspired—to have the muse always looking over my shoulder and making suggestions—but inspiration comes fitfully.

Sometimes the muse only strikes because I gave her room and did the work.

Reblog: Don’t dribble out morsels of information within a scene — Nathan Bransford

Today’s reblog comes from Nathan Bransford, who discusses some of the nitty-gritty details of getting across information when a scene is on the move.

Sometimes it’s hard to know when to reveal different pieces of information. Bransford suggests the simple and expedient route: give the reader the information they need to understand the scene, and give it to them up-front. Don’t make a scene a puzzle to piece together as you read it.

When you’re honing the narrative voice within your novel, you will likely get into all sorts of trouble if you try too hard to faithfully recreate a character’s contemporaneous thoughts. You probably won’t give the reader the context they need and you’ll risk disorienting the reader with inadequate physical description.

Remember, the narrative voice is storytelling to a reader. You are not transcribing the literal thoughts of someone in an alternate world (unless you’re writing something very experimental). It weaves in a character’s contemporaneous thoughts, but you have to make sure the elements the reader needs are present.

One major pitfall of trying too hard to stay true to a character’s thoughts is that some writers will wait for a “pause” in the action before they show the character observing their surroundings and concoct triggers for characters to look at things.

Read the rest over at Nathan Bransford’s blog…