Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 31

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.

Waking Up

I find myself writing a lot of chapters in this book that start with Christopher waking up. Popular advice is that this is an overused trope that should be avoided. I feel like I might be given a pass, because earlier in the story there was some question as to whether Christopher would wake up at all, and now the question is whether he’ll still be himself when he awakens. But maybe those are just excuses for using tropes.

After Chapter 30 delved mostly into Christopher’s head, Chapter 31 gets back to the external action. However, I did make a little digression back into Christopher’s thoughts at the start of the chapter because I wanted to drop more information about the voices. Now that Christopher is getting God-Speaker knowledge, there’s no more hiding their origins.

I expect this is a spot where I might lose some readers. It’s been clear since halfway through the book that God-Speaker has some inhuman powers, but it wasn’t clear whether these came from a supernatural source or something else. If the reader thinks the book is trending toward fantasy and it takes a sudden swerve into sci-fi territory, that’s bound to annoy someone.

Hopefully those readers are invested enough at this point to accept it and keep going to the end.


My goal in the breakfast scene was to highlight the juxtaposition of the incredibly mundane (mediocre microwave breakfast burrito) with the incredibly weird (attempted assassination by poisoning). Even for the immortal god-emperor, breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

Revealing tidbits of information helps to drive the story, but the poisoning incident and the interview with Reed are there to help keep up the tension. The reader knows who killed God-Speaker, but Christopher and Cain do not, and that kind of information disparity can be used as a tension machine. As time runs out, we have to wonder when Reed is going to make his move, and what form the danger will take.

The other topic I wanted to cover in the conversations between Cain and Christopher was the oracles. They are one of the two big mysteries that I haven’t adequately resolved, and they’ll play an important part in the ending of the book. I’m honestly a little worried about how well it will work. I don’t want it to feel like deus ex machina, but I also don’t want to give away the secrets too early.

If it doesn’t work, I’ll have to go back in revisions and figure out how to clean it up. I knew there was a risk of that happening when I decided to post these chapters as I wrote them. This is an open experiment, with all the possible messiness that entails. If nothing else, I hope it’s interesting to other writers to see how one person’s process played out for one particular book.

The Interviews

The interviews that make up the rest of this chapter mostly serve to flesh out the world and the way God-Speaker fits into it. He’s the spider in the middle of the web, and the web started to break down in his absence. Hopefully it also raises the question of what Razor Mountain is for, and whether it’s a good or bad thing that God-Speaker has created.

Moira, the former Secretary of Justice, has been imprisoned for a good portion of her life in an absolutely unjust way. Whether Christopher and Cain feel guilty about this, it’s a result of the systems that God-Speaker built. She points out that no matter how they feel, there’s nothing they can do now. It’s already done, and nothing will get those years back.

Next Time

Chapter 31 was the longest chapter yet, and looking to be the longest of the book. (It’s not that long though. I just like short chapters.) There are only three chapters left.  In Chapter 32, big things will happen. See you next time.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 31.5

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

The Secretary of Labor sat in the chair on the other side of the desk with legs crossed and hands steepled. He wore a dark suit with a narrow tie that only further accentuated his lankiness. He didn’t speak, he just looked at Christopher.

“Well, since I’ve been asking everyone else, I suppose I had better ask you too: do you need more evidence that I am who I say I am?”

Reed frowned. “Is that what the others have been doing?”

“Some of them.”

Reed shook his head. “As I said before, it seems like the reasonable thing to do is wait. If what you’ve said is true, then it shouldn’t be long before we have all the incontrovertible proof we could ever desire.”

“What would you like to talk about then?” Christopher asked.

“I was under the impression that this meeting was for your benefit,” Reed replied. He picked up the briefcase next to his chair and set it on his lap. “I’ve taken the liberty of organizing some reports. It’s obviously not practical to condense decades of work, but I’ve summarized a few of the more interesting projects, and the things that are currently in progress.”

Christopher took the proffered papers and set them on the desk.

“I’ll take a look. I’m sure it will take some time to get caught up with everything.”

“Yes, half a lifetime of work. I’m sure by now Cain has mentioned his many concerns that everything is more or less falling apart around here, but I think you’ll discover for yourself that his claims are overblown.”

Christopher heard a faint sigh escape Cain from across the room.

“Honestly, I don’t think that’s been the nature of our conversations at all,” Christopher said.

“I see. Well, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by some of the advancements we have made in your absence.”

Reed stood, abruptly enough that Christopher sat back in his chair. His hand touched the gun under the desk.

“If there’s nothing else?”

Christopher shook his head. “No, I suppose there isn’t, at least for now.”

Reed left as stiffly as he had entered, briefcase in hand.

When the door had closed, Christopher said, “That was odd.”

“He came in expecting an argument,” Cain said.

“Why is that?”

“I assume it’s because he and I rarely see eye-to-eye on anything, and he thought I’d be busy telling you how awful he is.”

“Is he? From what I remember, he was competent enough.”

“He does his job well enough, from what I can tell,” Cain said. “It’s the way he always tries to do little bits of other peoples’ jobs as well that tends to irritate me.”

“I see. He’s one of the ones who has been trying to expand his kingdom, so to speak?”

“That’s my opinion,” Cain said. “Obviously I don’t expect you to take my word for it. You can form your own opinions. But that’s more or less the root of our particular disagreements.”

Christopher thought about the strange mix of people within the cabinet. God-Speaker had sought out a set of qualities in his administrators. They were supposed to be reasonably good at their jobs, but they also had to be servile and content with the limited power they had. Above all, God-Speaker had tried to build a place where he was safe and in control; a protective shell around himself.

Cain was a perfect fit for the job. He enjoyed the work and sought out improvements. He kept the trains running on time, so to speak. Beyond that, he had little ambition. In fact, he was so eager for God-Speaker to come back, he had almost single-handedly engineered it. It was a rare combination of personality traits.

“When did you send back the oracles?” Christopher asked.

Cain scratched his scalp. “We sent one an hour or two after you were found. Then everyone argued about how we would know if it had worked. The next morning we sent two more. The last two were a couple days after that. At that point, there was only one left. Despite all the arguments about whether or not the oracles were of any use at all, nobody wanted to send the last. Of course, at some point he aged out, as they all do.”

Christopher shook his head. “I remember now. I remember getting those messages, for all the good it ended up doing.”

“So they did actually make it?”

“They made it. But they didn’t tell me who the threat was.”

Christopher cocked his head, listening. “Nobody knows exactly how the oracles work. Not even the voices under the mountain. I received messages, but it’s hard to say if they were from you.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

Christopher waved a hand. “It’s not important. I remember being on my guard. I knew something was coming. Whatever happened, I wasn’t prepared.”

“We didn’t know who had done it either,” Cain said. “We couldn’t send you a proper warning.”

“That should have been enough.”

Christopher rose from his chair.

“I think I had better sleep. Maybe in the morning we’ll know the truth.”


Razor Mountain — Chapter 31.4

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

Christopher no longer felt the freedom of anonymity to walk around the city unrecognized. Although nobody outside the cabinet would know who he was, public areas would be dangerous: someone acting on the murderer’s orders might attempt assassination anywhere. Cain suggested he remain in the highly restricted areas reserved for himself and the cabinet, where even high-level advisers and well-vetted guards were rarely permitted. It would force the traitor to involve themselves personally in any assassination attempts.

Christopher insisted on one excursion, despite Cain’s attempts to dissuade him, so Cain called a lieutenant colonel he trusted to act as personal body guard, and they set out without warning anyone that they were going. They took service hallways and elevators to the levels below the city center, and made their way to the section that served as the city’s military prison.

Cain led the way, showing credentials and speaking to the guards at the entrance. Prisons, it seemed, did not like unexpected visitors. There was some discussion among the guards (and Christopher suspected some complaining just out of earshot), but they were eventually allowed through. One of the guards took them down a maze of hallways to another checkpoint, where they were let through immediately. Then more hallways.

Finally, the guard swiped his card over the black Plexiglas square on the wall and held the door open for them. Cain stepped through and Christopher followed. The door shut behind them with a solid sound, like an airlock sealing.

“I don’t like this,” Cain said.

“Isn’t this one of the most secure places in the city?” Christopher asked. “There are cameras covering every nook and cranny. And plenty of witnesses.”

Cain shook his head, but didn’t complain further. Christopher understood what he was feeling. Regardless of logic, it felt like they were trapped. He supposed that was the whole point of prison architecture.

At the end of the hallway, where only specific guards were permitted to enter, there were four cells. For decades now, according to Cain, only one of them had been occupied. Drawing on the confusing swirl of memories available to him, Christopher was able to calculate that the woman inside should be sixty-six. She looked far older.

The cell was lavish, compared to the one that Christopher had been kept in. It was about twenty feet square, with a real bed, a desk and chair, and a stainless steel privacy partition for the toilet. It still wasn’t a place he would want to spend days, let alone decades.

Moira McCaul was sitting at the desk in the middle of the cell, well back from the bars. She didn’t stand, or even turn to look at them.

“It’s been a while, Cain.”

“Longer than it should have been,” Cain said. “I could make excuses, but they hardly seem adequate in the face of your situation.”

She laughed, though it was little more than a papery whisper. “I accepted my situation years ago. I think it’s your guilt that keeps you coming back to visit me.”

“It’s not guilt,” Cain said. “I did what I could to try and free you. I just thought it might make it a tiny bit more bearable if you had someone to talk to once in a while.”

“Maybe if you were a better conversationalist,” she said, dryly. “Though I appreciate the effort. Now I imagine you’re not here to rehash the same old conversations again. Who have you brought with you this time?”

“It’s me,” Christopher said, without thinking. There was something different in his voice, something he didn’t recognize.

Moira turned her head sharply. It was clear she recognized it.

Christopher was momentarily submerged in new memories: a young McCaul taking the elevator to the top floors for the first time, their early meetings and her guarded excitement. The young face faded from his inner eye, leaving behind the wrinkled and far older version that sat before him in the cell.

“You actually came back,” she said.

“I did. Through a truly ridiculous series of events.”

“Nobody said it would be easy, coming back from the dead.”

Christopher scratched his head. “I don’t suppose you were the one who killed me?”

As soon as it came out of his mouth, he thought it might be the worst thing he could have possibly said. There was silence for a moment, and then she laughed, a real proper laugh this time.

“Did you pick up a sense of humor while you were away?” she asked.

“I picked up a few things,” Christopher said. “Unfortunately, I’m still missing memories, and a few of them are important ones.”

“I see. Well, as I’m sure Cain has already told you, I didn’t kill you, and I don’t know who did. I gave up trying to figure it out a long time ago.”

“There may have already been another attempt to kill me,” Christopher said. “Poison, this time. You don’t seem to be in the position to pull that off.”

She nodded, but her humor had fled.

“I promise you, I’ll release you as soon as we know who the killer was.”

“I appreciate the thought,” she said, “but it comes a few decades late.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Oh, not your fault. Certainly not your fault. You’ve had all that being dead to deal with.”

“Everything under the mountain is my responsibility,” Christopher said.

“Maybe so, but what’s done is done. Even the oracles couldn’t undo it.”

They stood in silence.

“Was that all you came to say, then?”

Christopher sighed. “I guess it was. I felt like I needed to speak to you in person.”

“To know that it really wasn’t me? You always were convinced you could read anyone, up close. Did it do you any good?”

Christopher didn’t know how to reply. “I’ll see you again when we know who the killer is.”

“Just make sure you take care of it this time.”

“I will.”

They left the way they had come, and Christopher felt the oppressiveness of the prison lift bit by bit as they passed the checkpoints. There were no traps and no assassins.

Even safely back in his office, Christopher couldn’t banish Moira’s face from his mind, the young face from years past superimposed on the unnaturally aged face of the imprisoned woman. He realized what really unsettled him was her calm in the face of it all. So much of her life had been taken from her. There was nothing she could do about it, and she had accepted that.


Razor Mountain — Chapter 31.3

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

David Tull was the Director of Media, responsible for overseeing all the books, movies, television and any other forms of text or video that originated inside or outside the mountain. Perhaps more importantly, it put him in charge of censorship and ensuring that no information entered the mountain that would go against the narratives that had been carefully constructed for the general populace.

He was a short man with a precise gray crew-cut. He entered the office wearing a salmon dress shirt, a wine-red tie, and khaki pants with a crisp crease. He talked fast and spoke little, and struck Christopher as decidedly unfriendly.

The first thing he did after sitting in the chair on the far side of the desk was to hand over one of the two manila folders he carried. The topmost thing within was a page of questions, double-spaced and numbered.

“These are all the questions I could think of that only God-Speaker would know,” he said.

Christopher glanced down the list.

“Would you like me to answer them right now?”

“Yes, that’s the idea.”

“And your opinion of whether I am, in fact, God-Speaker will depend on my success.”

“It will be a contributing factor,” Tull replied.

Christopher sighed.

“As I said before, I haven’t yet regained all of my memories. I also have to say that some of these things…I just don’t care about, and I will never remember.”

The corners of Tull’s mouth turned down a fraction of a millimeter.

“I believe you are the twelfth person to hold your current position,” Christopher said, starting down the list. (This was either incorrect or very incorrect, depending on how specific he wanted to be about the position and its predecessors, but accurate to what Tull knew.)

“Numbers two and three I’ll just write here, and you can look at them. I assume you don’t want to talk about those things in detail with others present,” Christopher continued. He glanced over at Cain, who was sitting in a chair off to the side, ostensibly working on a laptop while observing the situation.

The other questions ranged from pretty reasonable indicators to complete ridiculousness.

“I don’t remember what color the halls in section B-22-F are painted, but I would assume something awful in the range of dull gray to dull green. If the maintenance rounds still work like they did before my absence, they will have been repainted…three or four times.

“The last edition of official city history was finalized in 1974, with the usual yearly updates. That’s again assuming that there hasn’t been an updated edition and you’ve all just been keeping up through those updates. The list of disallowed topics was 1975, with the same caveats.”

As he worked his way through the list, Christopher became more and more distinctly aware of the knot of thoughts and emotions that he felt as God-Speaker’s presence in his head. These thoughts were both irritated about satiating a slightly annoying subordinate, and mildly pleased to finally be getting back into the workings of Razor Mountain. The place had decayed in his absence, but that also meant new opportunities to fix things. To make them right again.

Christopher felt uneasy discussing the various ways that information was manipulated within God-Speaker’s society. The God-Speaker thoughts, perhaps in response, were about whether it was really much different beyond the confines of the mountain.

Christopher was also constantly aware of the gun slung under the desk, ready for quick access. It served as a reminder that any of these people might have betrayed him, might be ready to do it again.


The new Secretary of Justice was named Justine Vahn, and Christopher knew nothing about her beyond their brief encounter at that first chaotic meeting with all the secretaries. She wore a stylish navy business suit, offset by a gauzy yellow scarf.

“Is there anything I can do to reassure you of my identity?” Christopher asked, after she had introduced herself.

“Oh, no, no, no,” she said, waving the question away as though it were an insect. “Your story and Cain’s clearly line up, and I don’t know what reason Cain would have to lie to us.”

She turned in her chair to talk to Cain. “You’re not exactly the power-hungry type, are you? And if you were, you wouldn’t wait three decades to get ’round to your secret master plan for taking over.”

She turned back to Christopher.

“No, I think the big question now is how we can all readjust to your presence. It’ll be a relief to have everything properly organized again. No more petty squabbles among the cabinet. Of course, we still have the matter of who exactly this traitor is, but I have every confidence we’ll get that business out of the way soon. With any luck, you’ll confirm that the cabinet convicted the correct person, and we can get back to doing our jobs.”

“You’re not worried that it might be someone else?” Christopher asked.

“The truth will out,” she replied. “I trust that my colleagues did not take it lightly to convict and imprison my predecessor. Obviously that was before my own tenure. I was relatively new to the deputy secretary position at that time, so I really didn’t have the access to know the details.”

“You didn’t go back and look at the events in retrospect?” Christopher asked. “I assume you have access to all those records now.”

“Well, of course. But it hardly seemed appropriate to re-litigate.”

“Even if the result is that my murderer might remain free and in power, among you?” Christopher asked. This was entirely God-Speaker’s irritation leaking through. “You’re the Secretary of Justice.”

“You have to understand, there was no authority to appeal to,” she said, for the first time sounding a little more hesitant. “Without you around, the cabinet is a council of equals. We each have our own domains of control, and no particular authority over each other. There was a great deal of debate as to whether I should even be permitted to take over the position. Nobody was supposed to be appointed to the cabinet without your approval.”

Cain chimed in from the corner. “It seemed like a better option than giving one of our remaining number double-duty.”

“I must say,” she continued, becoming more prim with every word, “it was quite a shock to learn how everything really works. I felt rather out of my depth. I certainly didn’t feel like I ought to be leading a charge to reopen the investigation. There was a certain period where I thought the whole thing might just fall apart.”

“Luckily, everything seems to have worked out,” Christopher said, through the barest hint of a smile. “Here I am.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “It’s remarkable.”

“…Although it may not have worked out so well for Moira McCaul,” Christopher said.

There was the faintest hint of a twinge in Justine’s dimple. Her smile had begun to look a little artificial.

“Yes, well, I suppose we’ll know soon enough.”

“I suppose we will.”


Razor Mountain — Chapter 31.2

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

Christopher rubbed his eyes and forced the complaints of the voices out of his head. He found himself back in the apartment entryway, in front of the stone doors. On the wall screen was an image of Cain, standing awkwardly in the hall beyond the doors and holding a brown paper bag.

Christopher opened the door. Cain stepped inside and held up the bag.

“Breakfast, unfortunately.”

They made their way to the apartment kitchen, where Cain poured out a pile of pre-packaged breakfast foods. The cardboard boxes and plastic wrappers gave Christopher an odd emotional twang. These were cheap, probably unhealthy, and shockingly normal. They were the sort of thing he might eat in a hurry when he was late for work. They felt out-of-place and alien here.

“I was hoping to have a proper chef cook you something fancy, to celebrate your return,” Cain said, by way of explanation. “Instead, you get the bounty of my personal freezer. I’m afraid I have a weakness for the kind of food that takes no effort to make. I usually just want something I can throw down the hatch and get on with what I’m doing.”

He hefted his belly. “The results are self-evident.”

“This is fine,” Christopher said. “Maybe even weirdly appropriate for this morning. Besides, this is exactly the sort of thing I’d eat when…well, in my other life, I suppose you could say.”

They selected breakfast burritos and microwaved them while Christopher put a skillet on the stove and tore open a package of Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage links. Cain made a move to get in front of the stove, but Christopher waved him off.

“I’m not an invalid,” he said, then worried that he might come across as irritable. “I don’t mind doing things for myself. I don’t expect to be treated like a king.”

“Sorry,” Cain said. “It’s been a long time, and I’m not sure how to navigate…all this.”

Christopher chuckled. “Believe me, I get it.”

“I just thought today deserved some sort of, I don’t know, ceremony,” Cain said. “Of course, it should really wait until everything is resolved. I discovered that the hard way, this morning.”

“What do you mean?”

The microwave beeped, interrupting their conversation. Cain took one burrito and handed the other to Christopher. He ate one-handed and gave the half-thawed sausages a shake in the skillet.

Cain sighed. “There was a meal prepared—rather nice, I thought—but we did a test run last night, and I gave it to one of my engineers. Called him first thing this morning, and he was knocked out with food poisoning. Maybe proper poisoning, the doctors are looking him over now. Thus…”

Cain raised his partly eaten breakfast burrito.

“You used someone without their knowledge to test my food for poison?” Christopher said.

Cain shrugged. “I honestly thought it was far-fetched. But there were a number of people who would have known what I was doing and guessed the food was for you.”

“I don’t like the idea that someone might die that way.”

“You’d prefer to eat the poison?” Cain asked.

“Of course not. But don’t you feel bad about doing that?”

“I feel bad that the man is ill, but that doesn’t mean it was a bad choice. And hopefully it turns out to just be some coincidence or allergic reaction.”

Christopher studied Cain’s face. There was a streak of cold, unemotional intellectualism there that Christopher hadn’t noticed. The man was an engineer, and Christopher had known one or two engineers like that, who unexpectedly failed to grasp the emotional import of some things, despite being incredibly intelligent in other ways.

“So whoever killed me last time around may or may not be trying to poison me now?”

“We’ll have to make sure you only eat and drink things that we’ve thoroughly vetted,” Cain said. “I’ve also got people trying to trace the ingredients. The chef is also being thoroughly questioned, although I’ve known him for some time, and I don’t think he’d purposely do something like this, unless someone had some kind of serious leverage over him.”

Christopher took a fork out of the drawer and shuffled the sausages around the pan as they began to sizzle.

“This would all be a lot simpler if I could just shuffle through these memories in some kind of orderly way and open up the ones I need.”

Cain nodded. “But you’ve said that’s not how it works.”

“No, that’s not how it works.”

They stood in the well-appointed kitchen, finishing off their breakfast burritos, the sizzle and smell of the sausages filling the room. Christopher felt untethered from reality, unable to really believe in the sequence of events that somehow ended in this moment.

He dumped the sausages onto a plate. Cain followed him into the adjoining dining room to eat them.

“So what now?” Christopher asked. “There must be something I can do while I wait for the eureka moment.”

“I had some thoughts on that,” Cain said. “I thought it might be beneficial to meet with some of the other secretaries today. We’re all still getting used to the idea that you’re really back, and it would probably do them some good to talk with you in a venue other than a chaotic conference room. Of course, there’s some risk involved, whoever has it out for you might try something, but we can take precautions. And it might jog some memories loose.”

“It might,” Christopher said.

“If anyone does try something, it can be at the battle-ground of our choosing,” Cain added. “We have to assume they’re getting desperate, and that should play to our advantage.”

To Christopher, Cain sounded a little too much like a man playing a game. He wasn’t wrong, as far as Christopher could tell, but the man wasn’t in the cross-hairs. Christopher could feel worry lodged in the too-tight muscles of his shoulders and neck, the constant knowledge that someone nearby was desperate to kill him.


Razor Mountain — Chapter 31.1

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

Christopher awoke.

Christopher. Not God-Speaker. Not yet.

His inner landscape had changed once again. There were still stray memories, like flags in the wind, untethered and confusing. Others were sorted and collated, slotted neatly into larger narratives, anchored to times, places, and events. The swirl of emotions in his chest had a different timbre, a different color. He couldn’t explain it to himself in less synesthetic terms.

He realized that the desire to return home, to return to Christopher’s life, had faded, even if it wasn’t quite extinguished yet. That life felt impossibly remote, and how could he ever return to it? How could he make sales calls with the voices of the mountain ringing in his ears. How could he visit his parents and talk about how the back-yard garden was coming along?

The things that made him Christopher hadn’t gone away, but they were being diluted by the flood of God-Speaker washing over them. Christopher had thought that the transition might be like flipping a switch. Now he realized it was more likely that he wouldn’t be able to pinpoint the moment when he crossed over. Perhaps he already had. Christopher wouldn’t go away. He would become a few small branches in a very large, very old tree of thought and memory.

He could see now that he wasn’t unique. There were many other branches like his. After all, this was how God-Speaker had always achieved his immortality. He jumped into the body of another. These vessels were typically prepared for the experience, and it would be done with great ceremony when the new host was a few years into adulthood. He didn’t like to make the transition more often than necessary, but if he was going to take on a new body, why not one that was young and healthy?

These new bodies weren’t empty. They brought with them the thoughts and memories of their original occupant. They weren’t wiped out—they were incorporated. And while God-Speaker was the dominant personality, especially with the accretion of years and memories, these others were still present in some way. They could not easily be pried apart; they were no longer their own entities. But Christopher could sense that some of them might be disappointed by what had become of them, while some would hold some amount of satisfaction or pride at being incorporated into this larger whole. Together, they were a power, a unique creature on the face of the earth.

The voices had also changed, or he was hearing them differently. They no longer grated against him or overwhelmed his other senses. They were still present, but he could more easily “tune” them in or out. He could set them aside and listen to the quiet of the room. He could concentrate on other things again. If he focused on them instead, he could hear them with a new clarity.

They still had a neediness, an irritating quality of demanding attention despite being utterly powerless. They were kings without kingdoms or subjects, still issuing opinions and decrees, and Christopher was the only one who could really hear them. Now, though, he understood that they were subservient. If they had some morsel of knowledge, he could take it, and they had no say in the matter. They wanted so badly to strike at him, to make him obey, but they could not. Some trick of evolution and brain chemistry prevented them from entering into him the way he entered into a new host body.

There was a buzzing sound, and Christopher realized it was the sound of someone at the main doors to the apartment. He stood, but he was in no hurry. This internal world was too interesting to set aside just yet.

He focused intently on the voices. There were many of them, but not as many as he had initially thought. They were a choir, not a crowd, even if they didn’t sing in harmony. They were so much like God-Speaker, and of course they were, they were the ones who had taught him the original trick to immortality. Despite their current impoverished state, they were far more than God-Speaker.

Christopher reeled in shock as he saw a flash of them as they truly were. They were so very old—less individual personalities and more geological forces. God-Speaker’s reign of a few thousand years under the mountain was nothing in comparison to them. It was too much time for Christopher to fit in his mind.

They were creatures born in the adolescence of a strange world. They had learned many things, and eventually, a few of them learned the trick to immortality. They had warped their people and their world around them, just as God-Speaker had done with Razor Mountain. They were true kings. They had watched a young world grow old and weary, and finally die. Even then, they remained kings, albeit diminished. They set out into a vast universe, confident in the long arc of time. Eventually, there would be another world, another people who were compatible enough to continue their endless line of immortal rule.

But destiny had a cruel streak, or a sense of humor. Something had gone wrong. They had found a new place, a new people ripe for control, but there was an accident. They had come down in a streak of fire and light, cracking the mountain asunder, bathing it in noxious smoke, and burying themselves deep in its roots. Still, it might have been fine, if not for the other problem. The people of this place, as primitive as they were, were somehow immune to the interlopers’ power. Their minds, so similar to the invaders’, were impenetrable. Most of them could barely even hear the voices howling their futile anger from buried caverns.

There was one who heard better than the others, one who followed the voices down into the darkness. But even that one could not be used. The voices remained trapped. Even worse, they were at his mercy, used for his own ends. They were forced to watch his petty kingdom rise up around them, in defiance of the vast domains that now lived only in their memories.

No wonder they were pissed.


It’s Not Style Unless Someone Hates It

I recently read The Wes Anderson Collection, and it got me thinking about style.

For the unfamiliar, Wes Anderson is the writer and director of numerous films, and he has a very particular style that can be seen in the art direction, special effects, dialogue, and many other aspects of his movies. He’s a critical darling, and he’s managed to collect an impressive array of well-known actors who are eager to work with him in movie after movie, even in small roles that might seem “beneath” them.

There are also plenty of people who absolutely can’t stand him. They think the dialogue is stilted and monotone, the sets are twee, and the man loves pastels more than the Easter bunny.

Whether you love it or hate it, it’s clear that Anderson has a distinct style.

What is Style, Anyway?

Artistic style is nothing more than a pattern in your work. It might be subtle or obvious, and it will probably change over time.

It’s often hard, as an artist, to be aware of your own patterns—the elements of your personal style. This is one way that feedback can be incredibly valuable. Others will often see patterns you haven’t noticed.

If you have regular readers, ask them about any repeated elements they see in your stories. Those ideas, characters or settings might tell you something about the topics you’re interested in exploring, even if you haven’t consciously realized it.

Digging Into Your Own Head

Style doesn’t have to be entirely subconscious. You can probably identify some elements of your personal style without a reader’s help.

Look at the things you’ve written, and the things you’ve thought about writing. Past writing is a map of the places you’ve been, stylistically, and brainstorms, journals, or half-baked ideas will tell you more about where you might want to explore next.

Know Your Influences

It can also be valuable to look at the work that inspires you. What were your favorite stories growing up? Which books on your bookshelf are well-worn? What about other media?

The most fertile ideas are often the ones that you see in your own work and your favorite stories. You might also find inspiration in non-story pursuits, hobbies, and even “regular” jobs. Life and art often intersect in interesting ways.

Follow Your Interests

The reason it’s valuable to think about your own style is because it will help you shape your stories to be exciting as possible for your primary reader: yourself. It’s a bit of common advice that you won’t get anyone else excited about your work unless you’re excited about it first.

Understand as best you can what thing you want to make, then make deliberate choices that project or communicate that to the reader. Depending on what you like, these choices might be intellectual (references, tropes, allusions, subtext), or emotional (feeling, sound, resonance).

Most importantly, make honest work. It’s easy to shy away from the parts of ourselves we don’t like (or the parts we think others won’t like). But those thoughts and emotions are important aspects of style too.

You have to be true to your thoughts and experiences. Don’t shy away from the unpleasant bits, the cringing embarrassment, the weaknesses. Good characters are usually flawed characters, and authors often need some insight and sympathy for the darker sides of our shared humanity.

Writing With Style

Style often plays out in the choices we make without realizing it. If something feels right, interrogate it. Look inward, and understand your loves, hates, influences, and fears. Play to an audience of yourself.

If you’re honest about the things that fascinate you most, it will help you to write stories you love. And if someone out there decides they hate your style, then at least you know you have it.

Becoming a Writer

Becoming a Writer is a slim volume written by Dorothea Brand in 1934, based upon her experience as a creative writing teacher. As Brande is quick to point out, this is not a book about stylistic technique or story structure. She’s happy to guide readers to other books for that (and there are far more now than there were in the 30s). This book is exactly what it purports to be: a book about how to become a writer, and not necessarily how to write well.

The intended audience seems to be college students or post-school adults who want to get into writing, but aren’t quite sure how to start. Rather than get into all the technical details, Brande suggests what they need is an understanding of how to get into a writer’s headspace, to learn how to think and work like a writer.

While some of the language feels outmoded and there are one or two references to streetcars, Brande’s book stands up well almost a century after its original publication.

Writing Practice

As a first task for a writer to tackle, Brande suggests getting used to writing daily. The prospective writer must embark on a plan of writing immediately after waking up in the morning, before doing anything else. Once this has become habit, she advocates setting specific writing times based on each day’s schedule, and varying them to get used to writing at any time of day.

As a night owl, I am already fairly miserable in the mornings, even when I do get enough sleep. I’ve tried “morning pages” with mixed success in the past. I’ve decided that this is advice I can follow on the weekends, but I’m hit-or-miss during the week.

On the other hand, I have recently tried scheduling mini writing breaks in the middle of my day. It works surprisingly well, and increases my output a small but noticeable amount.

The Mindful Author

Brande is of the opinion that most writers spend too much time discussing the conscious work that a writer has to do, and not enough on the unconscious part of the writing brain. She believes that much of what makes for great writing comes from this unconscious well of ideas, and that great writers learn to effectively use and cultivate it.

To this end, she offers a series of exercises that sound an awful lot like mindfulness and meditation to the modern ear, but must have seemed rather “out there” when the book was first published.

She encourages writers to pay attention to the world around them, observing it with as much child-like wonder as they can muster, and avoiding distractions. This observation, however, should be followed by carefully describing the exciting bits with exacting and detailed language—practice for the unconscious brain in observing, coupled with practice for the conscious brain in relating the raw experience through words.

She also believes that consuming stories while working on a story of one’s own will contaminate it with other authors’ voices. Instead, to release a writer’s inner genius, she suggests some mostly-mindless, hypnotic activity to help free the unconscious—whether that be walking, cleaning, sewing, etc. She essentially recommends cultivating a meditative state with the story as its focus.

Here There Be Writers

A short book with strong opinions, Becoming a Writer tackles the task of writing in a surprisingly wholistic way. On the other hand, it makes sweeping generalizations about artistic sensibilities in almost every word, and I can’t bring myself to believe that those kinds of generalizations ever apply to everyone. But it’s a unique take on the writing book, with ideas that kept me thinking well after I had finished it

Despite being a book of concrete ideas about how to cultivate a good writing process, it is surprisingly romantic—and even borderline mystical—about writers and their art. It treats us as dragons and unicorns, imbued with a certain amount of innate magic, but also gets detailed about the practical care and feeding of these creatures to get optimal results.

If you’re looking for a writing book that is more about getting in the writing headspace, and less about rehashing the hero’s journey for the umpteenth time or tightening up your first five pages, Brande’s book is a good choice.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 30

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.

It’s Not Easy Being King

It has only been two chapters since Christopher found out who he really is, and this is the first time he’s had a chance to sit with that information. There’s no conversation or reveals. He spends this chapter snooping through God-Speaker’s house and God-Speaker’s memories.

I wanted to evoke a feeling of melancholy. Most of God-Speaker’s memories and possessions are old and sad. Christopher is beginning to see that even though God-Speaker rules his own little kingdom, being God-Speaker might not be that great.

There’s also the question of what will happen to the part of him that’s still Christopher when God-Speaker takes over, and whether he’ll effectively die or cease to exist.

Planning Out the Rest of the Book

With only a few chapters left, I’ve been starting to look at what it will take to wrap this thing up. Part of that is tracking the unanswered questions and teases from earlier chapters that need to be fully resolved. Part of it is trying to set up the emotional payoff to make the end of the book feel like a proper conclusion, and not just an ending.

I’m pleased with how well my outline has held up across the entire book. As I’ve mentioned before, I went into more detail in this outline than I normally would. I wanted to give myself a safety net, since I knew I would be dropping episodes as I wrote them, and I wouldn’t be able to go back and fix mistakes without making a confusing mess for anyone who was reading each episode as it came out.

There were a few things that changed along the way. Some chapters split in two, and other chapters were cannibalized by their neighbors before they were ever written. Some bits of information ended up coming out in different places than I had planned (usually because it made sense to insert it into a particular dialogue or moment, and I hadn’t anticipated that in outlining). Despite all that, I’m still headed toward the conclusion I planned all along. Everything mostly fit into the shape I planned for it.

I still have a rough draft of the final chapter that I wrote immediately after the first chapter, just as an experiment. I think it was a success. It’s not perfect, and I’m sure I’ll rewrite it when I get to that point, but it was a useful guide for the mood of the book, and the final target that I was shooting for.

I might try writing the last chapter first for all my books going forward.


As I think about the end of Razor Mountain, I’ve also been thinking about my posting schedule. I’ve generally been posting a new chapter every other week, but I’d like to finish this thing by posting the last two or three chapters in quick succession.

To make that work, I’ll want to get all those chapters written in advance, which means I’ll probably have an extra one- or two-week break right before the big finale.

Next Time

Chapter 31 has everything you could ever want: exciting new reveals, arguments about city planning, and some light attempted murder.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 30.2

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

There were other rooms accessible from the hall: a living room with luxurious couches, a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen. At the end of the hall were two more heavy doors, and these led out onto a balcony carved directly from the side of the mountain. Christopher unlocked them and stepped out.

It was drizzling, and the patter of it was a balm to his exhaustion. The balcony was cleverly concealed from below, and a roof of stone kept it mostly dry, but the far end was open to the elements. The small drops ran down the heavy stone railings and ran together, flowing into narrow slits in the floor.

Christopher lay on the cold rock with his head in the rain. He looked up, blinking against the drops. Fast-moving gray clouds streaked the black sky, but he could see a dark sky and a few stars beyond. Instinctively, he reached out a hand for a presence on his left. There was nobody there to grasp it. An aching loneliness filled him. He remembered a woman’s face, but he couldn’t think of her name. Whoever she was, she was gone. Thousands of years gone.

Other faces came to him then, and some he could put names to. Strong Shield, and others who had betrayed him. There would soon be another to add to that list. But really, who hadn’t betrayed him? They all died, all left him behind, going away and never returning. Going where he couldn’t follow. Wouldn’t follow.

He stood and wiped his eyes. Back inside he found the bedroom. He stripped off his wet shirt. There were still clothes in the drawers here, only faintly musty. He found something soft to wear and lay on the bed, on top of the blankets. The images still flickered on his eyelids. He held up a hand. It looked steady, but he felt as though he were shaking.

He stood and walked across the room. There was a long strip of dark glass, a gas fireplace stretching the length of wall. He turned the knob and pressed the ignition switch, setting the flames racing from one corner to another with a satisfying whoosh. It immediately put out heat, more than he really needed in the already-warm room, but the flickering firelight comforted him. He lay down again, imagining himself alone in a cave with a roaring campfire as his only company.

Is that what it had been like, after he lost the rest of the tribe? Had he found some wood while wandering the halls of ice and stone? Had he somehow been able to set it alight? He couldn’t remember. Those ancient caves were a dream place. He couldn’t quite bring himself to believe it had ever been real, even if their remnants still existed, far below him.

He had wanted to give up. That was all he had wanted, really, ever since Makes-Medicine had been taken from him in the warm valley where the tribe had wintered. When he had lost the tribe, there was no reason to keep going. No reason except the voices. They kept pushing him, kept telling him what he could build. He could make a tribe, lead it himself. He could be in control of everything. He could be the greatest shaman anyone had ever known. They would give him secret knowledge of the world.

Of course, he wasn’t really a shaman. Perhaps there was something wrong with his brain, something that had once convinced him that a chunk of rock in the vague shape of a man could somehow speak. Something that made him think he could see the magic and spirits behind the ordinary world. Maybe it was that same defect that let him understand the voices of the mountain when nobody else could. He wished they would shut up, even for just a moment.

As Christopher’s consciousness grew fuzzier with sleep, he turned inward. It felt like looking down an endless well. Or perhaps up into the endless blue light above the chamber of the voices. God-Speaker was waking up, and he was a vast ocean of thought and memory. Christopher was just a drop, and his gut tightened with the fear that he would cease to exist.

He was dreaming now, the flickering images still playing across the sky above the endless ocean. He wondered if he would still be himself when he woke.

The mountain was there, in the ocean. It was the mountain of old, its freshly split peak still vomiting black smoke. People, like insects, swarmed over it and built upon it. They scratched its surface and begin to dig. They dug deeper and left the surface altogether. They popped out only briefly, connecting new little structures to their network of holes and tunnels. Soldiers marched around the perimeter, protecting the mountain from a strange outside world. But it wasn’t really the mountain they were protecting. It was the lone figure at the center of the mountain. It was God-Speaker.

He was in his body again. So cold and so tired, his hands were dirty and bleeding, but he couldn’t stop. They called to him. He stumbled and crawled through the rough, uneven tunnels. There was no light. He was far too deep. And yet, there was something blue in the distance. It hurt his eyes, even when they were closed.