Razor Mountain Development Journal #22

This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead! You can start from the beginning here.

Last Time

I reviewed the overall outline and reread all of the chapter summaries in sequence. I thought about themes and and improvements to a couple chapters.

Improved Chapter Summaries

This week, I started going through each chapter summary one by one. I have a few goals with this.

Expand the Summaries

I’m adding extra detail in the outline so that I have a very clear blueprint that I can follow when it comes time to write each chapter. Normally, I wouldn’t go to this level of detail, and I would be more inclined to do some exploration as I write. However, since I’m going to write and release these chapters serially, readers will be getting them right away. I won’t have the luxury of rewrites and further edits.

Calling out Opportunities for Cliffhangers

Again, due to the serial release, I’m looking for places to stop where the reader wants to find out what happens next. I want to encourage them to come back for the next installment. I’m primarily looking for places to do a chapter break, but I am also considering the option of splitting some chapters into more than one episode, so cliffhangers within a chapter may also be useful.

Mysteries and Resolutions

The other thing I’m doing to create tension and keep the reader coming back is introducing lots of little mysteries. I’m going to note these and track their resolutions to ensure that I don’t leave plot threads hanging.

Arc

For each episode/chapter, I want to track the rising action, climax and resolution.

Notes

This includes things I want to research before writing the chapter, things I want to track, and general reminders of ideas I have for the actual text that may not come across in the summary.

Chapter 1

Christopher wakes up at night on a small plane over the Alaskan wilderness. As he wakes he has the impression that he is in a cave, but this resolves into the dimly lit passenger cabin. He feels  hung-over.

He looks around and discovers that the other passengers are missing. He checks the plane with rising panic and discovers that the pilot is also missing. There are no parachutes. The controls are confusing, but he can see that the fuel level is low.

In his panic, he has a sudden feeling that he knows what he must do: fly low and slow, and jump when he is over water. With uncharacteristic calmness, almost having an out-of-body experience, he watches for a lake, picks a spot, does his best to slow the plane, then jumps. (This is a hint of God-Speaker showing through.)

He snaps back to himself as he hits the water, terrified. The fall and the frigid water numbs his body, but he slowly realizes that his leg was injured in the fall. He manages to swim to shore, exhausted and shaking uncontrollably.

He stumbles around, already starting to lose consciousness, knowing that he needs shelter to survive. He makes his way under a shallow cliff. More by feel than by sight, he discovers a metal door set into the stone. There is a number pad, and he desperately pushes buttons, not expecting it to work. The door unlocks.

He stumbles inside, passing out. He is uncertain if he managed to close the door. He doesn’t know what’s inside, apart from a hard floor that feels surprisingly warm.

Cliffhangers:

  • Christopher jumping from the plane.
  • Christopher passing out as he enters the bunker.

Mysteries:

  • 1.1 – Why do the other passengers on the plane disappear while Christopher is asleep? Where did they go?
  • 1.2 – What is the bunker and why is it here in the wilderness?
  • 1.3 – How does Christopher know the door code to the bunker?
  • 1.4 – What are the strange thoughts that seem to be guiding Christopher?

Episode Arc:

  • Christopher faces the confusion of the empty plane, the harrowing jump, injury and swimming to shore. Climax: hypothermia, finding the door, and gaining entry. Resolution: passing out in the bunker.

Notes:

  • Research the kind of small passenger aircraft that might fly between local Alaskan airports, carrying around 10 people.
  • Research the effects of hypothermia.
  • Research realistic height and speed that would allow survival of the jump into water.
  • This chapter could be split into two short episodes for serial release, with each having a cliffhanger.
  • This chapter is action-driven. Readers won’t have a bond with Christopher yet, and will have limited investment in his well-being. His character is just being introduced, so it needs to be clear that he is terrified by all of this. He is surprised by his own decisive action.

Chapter 2

God-Speaker walks past the temporary dwellings of his tribe, scattered along a stream within a mountain valley. Others are packing and disassembling things.

He enters a cave in the cliff-side. It narrows to a crack that he has to squeeze through, then opens into a small space. There, he finds the tribe’s stone god, surrounded by little offerings. He prepares a sort of backpack — a carrier made of wood and animal hide. He puts the stone god into it and asks it for guidance and protection as the tribe journeys.

There is shouting from outside the cave. God-Speaker grabs a sharp rock and squeezes back through the crack. The valley is under attack by a raiding party. There is fighting. One of the raiders and one of the members of his tribe is killed. Another member of the tribe is wounded.

The raiders flee with some food, setting dwellings on fire as a distraction. A couple members of the tribe give chase, but God-Speaker stays — his greatest purpose is to protect the god. The return shortly after, empty-handed.

The tribe finishes preparations. They bury or otherwise prepare the dead. God-Speaker publicly asks the stone god for guidance and protection. They begin the migration, dispirited.

Cliffhangers:

  • What will happen to the tribe? Will they have enough food after the raid?

Mysteries:

  • Is the stone god actually supernatural, or is God-Speaker’s interpretation entirely in his head?

Episode Arc:

  • God-Speaker prepares for migration and is caught in the raid. Climax: The raid. Resolution: he supplicates to the god, but wonders if it can protect the tribe.

Notes:

  • With two POV characters, I have the challenge of effectively having two introductory chapters. Normally, I’d let the reader get to know one POV character for a few chapters before introducing another, but I like that the God-Speaker chapter can be a subtle allusion to Christopher’s fevered dreams/memories, as he’s passed out in the bunker.
  • This is where I need to establish a simplified narrative voice for God-Speaker’s early chapters, if I’m going to do it. My main worry with this is that simplified language will make it sound “dumbed down,” when I really just want to establish a bit of an alien feel with these ancient humans whose daily lives and needs are relatively simple. (https://xkcd.com/simplewriter/)
  • I need to research some details of how these ancient people might have lived. What are their temporary dwellings like? How might they hunt, fish, and fight with other humans? What are social structures like? A lot of this will probably be best guesses and extrapolating backward from more recent, better-documented groups.

Results

I added detail to two of the chapter summaries. This went more slowly than I thought it would, and I had less time than usual to work on it this week. I’m hoping that I can pick up the pace as I go.

I’m itching to get started writing, but I’m going to get through this prep first!

Cliffhangers, Resolutions, and Tension

Last time, I discussed conflict as the engine that drives a story forward. Conflict is one of the primary ways to create tension in a story.

Tension not only makes the reader want to find out what happens next, it is a valuable tool to direct pacing — how fast or slow the story feels.

Chapters Follow Tension

We are so used to seeing chapters that it’s easy to just accept them as the normal unit of construction for a novel. However, chapters are a choice. Some books eschew them entirely. The reason that they’re so common is that they’re useful for breaking the story into discrete sections.

The length of chapters can influence pacing, with shorter chapters tending to feel faster, and longer chapters tending to feel slower. However, it’s a little more complicated than that, and the complication has to do with tension.

Tension ebbs and flows throughout a story, and tends to follow an arc. The conflict, mystery, or other source of tension is introduced, then the tension increases to a peak where it is most problematic or concerning to the characters. Finally, the tension proceeds to a resolution where it stops being relevant.

Chapters tend to feel like good units of story when they follow one of these arcs of tension.

Resolutions or Cliffhangers?

Looking at the way tension ramps up and down, an obvious chapter structure is to start with the introduction of a source of tension and end with its resolution.  This structure provides a feeling of satisfaction and completeness. It makes the chapter feel like a little self-contained story within the larger narrative.

An alternate structure utilizes cliffhangers. A chapter with a cliffhanger ends at the peak of the arc of tension. This is a critical moment when the characters are really struggling, and there is no resolution yet in sight.

If several cliffhanger chapters follow one after another, it results in a structure where the chapters are offset against the tension. The middle of the chapter is where arcs start and end, and the end of the chapter is where the tension peaks.

Ending a chapter on a cliffhanger like this creates the maximum impetus to the reader to keep reading. This style of chapter is often used in fast-paced thrillers to achieve that heightened feeling of action and suspense.

Balance

Pacing is a tricky thing. A novel that is constantly high-tension or continually escalating tension can wear the reader out, to the point that they become inured or annoyed with the continuously high stakes. There are a variety of tropes (this, that, the other, etc.) to describe this kind of narrative, and there are a lot of potential pitfalls.

One of the ways to add variety to the narrative, and to even out the tension is to alternate between fast- and slow-paced sections. A  fast-paced chapter that ends in a cliffhanger could be followed by a chapter that ends with resolution. You may also choose to increase or decrease the tension within a sequence of chapters to follow larger arcs in the story.

With multiple characters or sources of tension, different arcs can be interleaved. One arc can be ramping up as another is resolving. Of course, this adds complexity as all the different elements play off each other.

Cliffhangers and Consequences

Tension plays a major role in pacing, and the structure of chapters is closely related to that. When sections feel too fast or slow, adjusting chapter breaks or the arcs of tension within chapters can help. Tension in each chapter also contributes to the larger arcs of the story.

It may feel comfortable to always end your chapters with a clean resolution, or always go for the cliffhanger, but it’s worth understanding both options and keeping them as tools in your writer’s toolbox. The choice to end a chapter on a cliffhanger or a resolution is a relatively small one, but the consequences go beyond that chapter, across the rest of the story.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #21

This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead! You can start from the beginning here.

Last Time

With my initial chapter outlines done, I took some time to consider what my high-level goals are as I revise those outlines. I’m looking to keep chapters shorter in Act I, and I’m willing to let them run longer in Act II. In each chapter, I’m going to track mysteries and resolutions. I’ll look for opportunities to end on a cliffhanger. I’ll treat each chapter as an episode, with its own mini-arc for character and plot.

Because revising these chapter outlines will result in a lot of small and tedious changes, I’m going to just provide the new and improved summaries and key highlights as I go. I may also add some asides in the midst of the chapter re-working to talk about more overarching changes when they come up.

Reviewing Chapter Summaries

I reread all of the chapter summaries in sequence. My goal here is mostly to just get as much of the story in my head at once as I can; to feel the general shape of it and see if anything sticks out or feels wrong.

In general, I see right away that a lot of these chapter summaries will need more specific detail if I want to use them as a straightforward blueprint for writing the chapters, without a lot of problem-solving during the writing process.

The Fear of Death

To that end, I need to work on really making Christopher’s encounters with death stand out. He faces death jumping out of the plane, out in the wilderness, in Razor Mountain prison, and when he is attacked by Reed. Over the course of these events, he starts out fearful. He finds some peace in the wilderness, when he decides that he will do what he can to survive, but it may be out of his hands. In the prison, he feels that fear of death once again, and has to actively remember and channel his attitude from the wilderness to accept that what will happen will happen. When he comes to Reed’s slightly pitiful attempt at murder, he finds it less scary than his previous experiences, but it gives him an opportunity to evaluate how he feels about death, and come to his final acceptance.

God-Speaker encounters death when he wanders alone, just before finding the artifacts, when his friend Strong-Shield betrays him, when his love, Sky-Watcher dies, and when he is actually killed by Reed. Each event reenforces his fear of death, and he doubles-down on obsessive, paranoid preparations to safeguard his immortality.

While I don’t think this focus requires any major changes to chapter ordering or content, it will affect how I try to write quite a few chapters.

The Artifacts

The artifacts interesting because they are only “on-screen” in a couple places in the entire book, but they are structurally very important to making the plot work, and central to resolving some of the mysteries. I think I’ve thought about them so much that I have been mostly glossing over how to sell them to the reader. I need to make sure that they are clearly and organically explained so that the reader understands what’s going on.

The pool of knowledge they give God-Speaker will be shown when he first finds them, and in the various anachronistic improvements he makes to Razor Mountain in Act II. The reincarnation aspect of forcing his mind into another body can be tangentially hit upon across Act II as we see him in different bodies across time periods, and in his interaction with his wife, trying to explain the process to her. I was thinking that the time-travel aspect of sending a consciousness into a person earlier in the timeline can be explained by his “oracles,” people specially sought in the community and trained to harness this ability, so that God-Speaker can send warnings back to himself. This can come up in the chapter with his wife as well.

Specific Chapter Improvements

Chapter 19, the second chapter of Act II, was originally about Christopher meeting the group of exiles and being questioned by them, with Garrett and Harold looking a bit suspicious as a lead-in to Christopher’s kidnapping.

This foreshadowing and focus on the brothers is fine, but there’s not much point in spending much time on the other exiles. They don’t end up playing a major role in the story. The exiles are there to add some verisimilitude. Razor Mountain is a society with underlying problems, and those problems are bubbling to the surface in the absence of God-Speaker.

I think this chapter will be better served by focusing on Christopher’s emotions and thoughts, with the sudden, overwhelming, and strange interactions with the exiles serving as a backdrop. They keep back details because they don’t trust Christopher, and he’s struggling to understand what is going on here.

Chapter 36 is similarly vague and uninteresting. Christopher talks with some of the secretaries in an attempt to figure out who might be trying to kill him. More of the same happens in chapter 37, and I think these two could be easily merged. Again, a focus on what Christopher is feeling here will be more meaningful than some of the actions he’s taking or the conversations he’s having with characters that don’t necessarily have any impact on the story.

Results

Overall, I feel like the outline holds up well at a structural level. I don’t see a need for any major adjustments to the order of events, the order of narration, or the major characters. Most of the chapter summaries need more detail, and I’ve identified several chapters where certain things need to be called-out clearly.

Next time, I’ll be evaluating individual chapters and expanding the summaries.

Types of Conflict in Fiction

Read any book about writing fiction, and it will probably have something to say about conflict. Conflict is the engine that drives characters to action, and it’s the force that drives readers to keep turning pages in order to find out what happens next. When a story lacks forward momentum, or it feels like the characters are being pushed around by the plot rather than pushing their own agendas, I find that it’s often due to a lack of conflict.

Conflict provides two vital services. First, it makes outcomes uncertain. Characters aren’t going to get what they want easily. They’re going to face hardship. The reader doesn’t know what will happen next. Second, it lets the reader gain a stake in the outcome and invest in the story. As social creatures, we naturally form bonds, even with fictional characters. We will latch onto a character and root for them to win. We will worry if it looks like they won’t succeed, and we’ll share in their joy when they do. We will empathize with them.

Mechanics of Conflict

Despite all of the attention conflict gets as a vital component of a story’s plot, the actual mechanics of creating conflict are frequently glossed over. How does an author create conflict and use it to drive the story?

If you do a quick search for “types of conflict,” you’ll see lists of varying sizes. Are there eight types of conflict? Four? Five? This is one of those topics where you can split hairs as much or as little as you like. The categorizations are somewhat arbitrary. For this article, I’m going to discuss three broad types of conflict, and some ways they can be implemented.

  1. Antagonistic Conflict, or character vs. character
  2. Internal Conflict, or character vs. self
  3. Situational Conflict, or character vs. nature/fate/God

Antagonistic conflict is when characters conflict with one another. As the name suggests, this often takes the form of a protagonist and an antagonist. This form of conflict has the advantage that the conflict is fully embodied in the characters. Many readers love a villain they can root against as much as they want a hero they can root for.

Internal conflict is when a character is uncertain or conflicted about what to think, say, or do. This can be more challenging to depict in a dramatic way, since the conflict is really inside the character’s head. The inner conflict often needs to be “externalized” as dialogue or action to really be understandable and compelling.

Situational conflict provides some external force for the character to fight against. The danger with this type of conflict is that the force is too amorphous or lacks the personality of an antagonist. Some authors would suggest that the situation or force is an antagonist, but I personally don’t feel obligated to personify something like a natural disaster.

It’s important to understand that these different types of conflicts can and do overlap. A character may have the situational conflict of being in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, overlapping antagonistic conflicts with the warden, guards, or other inmates.

Examples

From these three types of conflict, let’s dig down into some common examples. Try to correlate these examples to some experience you’ve had in your own life. We may not encounter such extreme conflicts as we see sometimes in fiction, but we all experience challenges. It’s often easier to understand and write these situations by relating our own, everyday conflicts to those of our characters.

Character wants or needs something that’s hard to get.

I like to think of this as a sort of default conflict for any character. We all have things we want and need, and some of those desires will be unfulfilled. Goals are simply wanting something and taking action to get it.

This basic conflict could describe a heist to steal some valuable artifact, or a romance where one character seeks to win over another.

Several characters want something they can’t all have.

This is almost always antagonistic conflict, pitting characters against one another for something each one wants. It can sometimes be connected to an internal conflict, where one of the characters decides that they don’t actually want to compete for a shallow goal, and turns to a more deeply fulfilling goal.

Examples of this are coworkers competing for a promotion, or a love triangle where two characters compete for the affection of a third. It could also take the form of a Hunger Games-style battle for survival.

Character wants two incompatible things.

This is usually an internal conflict. The character has two or more mutually exclusive desires. Usually this comes down to a choice, where the character has to pick one thing and let go of the others. Sometimes it may turn out to be a false dichotomy, and they manage to figure out a way to get everything. It might put the character in a position where their survival depends on violating their moral convictions or beliefs. They can stay true to themselves to the bitter end, or give something up to fight another day.

Examples include the workaholic who has to decide between wealth and success in business and a fulfilling family life; or a teen whose divorced parents move apart figuratively and literally, leaving her wondering where and how to live her life.

Character’s core belief is challenged.

This is often situational and internal conflict. An event or situation forces the character to rethink something vital to their personality.

The classic example of this is the priest who has a crisis of faith. It could also be the hotshot surgeon who gives up medicine after an important surgery goes awry. It might even be the parent whose child commits some offense that puts them at odds with the rest of the family.

Characters with incompatible personalities are forced to work together.

This tends to be mostly antagonistic, as different personalities butt heads, but you may also have situational elements pushing together people who would otherwise stay far away from each other.

This style of conflict is the basis for some classic genres like the buddy cop story, and many romantic comedies where the couple hate each others’ guts…right up until they don’t.

And many more…

These are just a few patterns of conflict. To discover more, a good exercise is to go through some of your favorite books, movies and TV shows, and try to briefly summarize every conflict you can spot.

Driving the Story

We’ve covered these three types of conflict — antagonistic, internal, and situational. We’ve skimmed the surface of how they can be deployed among characters. What good is it? If conflict is a tool, what do we want to achieve with it?

Conflict springs from the wants and needs of characters. It drives them to action, advancing the plot. It keeps the reader invested and gives them a means to measure the success or failure of the characters.

A short story may only have a single conflict that drives it, but longer forms tend to deploy multiple conflicts throughout the story. A series of conflicts may be chained together sequentially, but they can also overlap across different time scales.

In The Lord of the Rings, the ultimate conflict is the Fellowship and their allies against Sauron and his armies. They need to destroy the Ring of Power before Sauron’s forces march across Middle-Earth.

Within that vast conflict, there are dozens of smaller conflicts that play out within and across chapters. The hobbits hiding from the Black Riders on the road to Bree. The battles for Helm’s Deep and Gondor. The interplay of Sam, Frodo, and Gollum as Sam tries to protect his master, Frodo tries to reform Gollum, and Gollum schemes to steal the ring for himself.

Similarly, if you look at most modern episodic TV dramas, you’ll see some ongoing conflicts, perhaps across the entire run of the show. Then there will be smaller conflicts in each episode, across multiple episodes, and perhaps from season to season.

Chaining and overlapping conflicts in this way provides multiple threads to pull the reader along. Resolving smaller conflicts is also satisfying. There is a sense of closure, and of the story moving forward.

Resolving conflicts is also a central part of character arcs. An arc just tracks how a character changes over time, and resolving conflict inevitably makes characters change. If the character got what they wanted, then they’re no longer motivated to chase that thing. Perhaps they’ll pick a new goal. Similarly, if they failed in their quest, that will change their behavior. They might seek revenge, or turn toward a new goal.

The end of a conflict also often marks the end of a character’s involvement in a story. A beaten antagonist may be dead or irrelevant. A character who resolved their inner conflict may no longer be interesting for the plot to follow.

It’s also informative to look at where conflicts get resolved, and where new conflicts are created or ramped up. Looking at the example of buddy cop movies, you’ll often see that the conflict between cops is resolved just in time for them to work together to stop the real big antagonist. In those romantic comedies, the two leads frequently realize their true love around the end of Act II, only to have some additional complication come between them, providing the conflict to finish off the story.

Writing With Conflict

The next time you write a story, try doing a pass through it and noting all of the conflicts, the characters involved, and their resolutions. Look for chapters that feel weak, or characters that lack motivation. Is there enough conflict, and is it pushing the characters in the right directions? Is it resolved in a satisfying way? Does new conflict pick up the slack when other conflicts end?

Conflict is the engine that pushes a story forward. By evaluating stories as a series of conflicts, you’ll gain an amazing set of tools for creating action, suspense, and excitement.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #20

This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead! You can start from the beginning here.

Last Time

I worked out details of Reed’s second attack on Christopher. Then I outlined all of the Act III chapters. I have a full outline of the book!

This session, I want to go through the outline and look at where I need to make adjustments and improvements.

Outlining in Greater Detail

I want to make this outline much more detailed than I typically would for a novel. Normally I leave some wiggle-room to figure things out and make changes as I write chapters. After all, I can always fix things and do necessary cleanup when the chapters are all written.

Because this is a serial project, I want to make each chapter as solid as possible when it is posted. I can’t do a lot of adjustments in the writing process without running the risk of tying myself to choices that can cause problems later on. It’s still an open question whether lots of up-front planning can really solve that. I may still have blind-spots in my outline. I may still discover critical plot holes or other problems when I’m writing. Maybe I’ll still decide to do some serious revisions after I’m done writing the serial parts. I’m going to try the detailed outline and see how it goes.

Setups, Payoffs, and Cliffhangers

There are a few specific things that I’m looking for as I go through the outline.

One of the things I want to note in the outline is where the reader is going to need particular knowledge, and how I’m going to impart that. In a similar way, I want to make a note of all the mysteries that I’m setting up, and the resolutions of those mysteries. If anything is left unresolved, I want it to be on purpose.

Because this will be released serially, I want to treat each chapter as an episode. The “perfect chapter” will present some sort of mystery to draw the reader on, while resolving or answering something presented in an earlier chapter. It will end with a cliff-hanger. It will have some sort of arc, with a beginning, middle and end.

As I go through each chapter outline, I need to note the mysteries that are set up in that chapter, the payoffs for mysteries carried over from other chapters, and look for cliffhanger opportunities. I also need to add some detail on these character mini-arcs.

General Structure

Looking at the large-scale structure of the book from this outline, a few things stand out to me. First, Act I has the most chapters, followed very closely by Act II. Act III has about half as many. Assuming all the chapters are the same length, that’s a bit of an odd shape. I’d typically want Act II to be the longest. However, the number of chapters isn’t necessarily a good indicator of the actual length. If I can keep the Act I chapters shorter, I think it will work out well. Quick pacing up-front can help engage the reader until they can get invested in the story.

As is usual for me, I have a lot of chapters. If these chapters average around 2,000 words, I’ll be in a pretty comfortable novel length. This feels pretty good for me. I think too many chapters shorter than this tend to feel very jarring. On the other hand, I personally have a hard time with very long chapters.

Finally, I need to keep POV character in mind as I am modifying chapters. Right now, I have a very straightforward 2:1 ratio of Christopher and God-Speaker chapters, evenly spaced out. If I need to add or remove a chapter, it’s going to throw off that perfect pattern. I suspect even if many readers don’t necessarily notice, it will feel subtly wrong to break that flow.

Results

Now that I have outlines for every chapter, I took some time to consider what my high-level goals are as I revise those outlines. I’m looking to keep chapters shorter in Act I, and I’m willing to let them run longer in Act II. In each chapter, I’m going to track mysteries and resolutions. I’ll look for opportunities to end on a cliffhanger. I’ll treat each chapter as an episode, with its own mini-arc for character and plot.

I suspect that revising the chapter outlines will result in a lot of small and somewhat tedious changes, so I’m still figuring out exactly how I want to present that in these development journals. I may do a bit more summarizing than I have done so far.

The Clan of Novels Set Far in the Past

This post is one of those perfect coincidences, as I work on prepping a serial novel whose timeline ranges from prehistory to modern day.

It is interesting delving so far into the past that we have little idea what life was actually like. I’ll have to check out these recommendations.

Dave Astor on Literature

Jean M. Auel

Every novel is a work of imagination, but sometimes the imagination can be more striking than usual. That’s certainly the case with fiction set way back in time.

By “way back in time” I don’t mean several centuries. I’m talking about novels written in our modern age that are set millennia ago, perhaps MANY millennia. When a story is that far in the past, there are usually few or no documents for an author to draw on during the research phase of writing — and life was VERY different then. So, more imaginative leaping is needed by the novelist.

I’m currently reading Jean M. Auel’s impressive prehistoric saga The Clan of the Cave Bear, which takes place more than 25,000 years ago — a time when the Neanderthal race was reaching the end of the line and Cro-Magnon people were becoming ascendant. Auel did plenty of…

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Writing Lessons from Dungeons and Dragons

I recently wrapped up a Dungeons and Dragons campaign that I’ve been running for over a year. This is the longest that I’ve run a group, and it’s been a fun experience with a lot of lessons learned along the way.

Many of those lessons are specific to D&D and to table-top role-playing games in general, but I think there are a few that apply to writing fiction.

What’s this D&D Thing?

Even if you’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons, you may be at least vaguely familiar with it through the various ways it has popped into the broader cultural consciousness over the years: the 80s cartoon, the references in Stranger Things, or the myriad video games that draw from it directly or indirectly.

If you’re not familiar, D&D may seem obscure and confusing. It’s often portrayed in pop media as the sort of thing that obsessive nerds obsess over (and they certainly can be, on occasion). But these games really aren’t as cryptic or complicated as they’re often made out to be.

Dungeons and Dragons is the most popular table-top RPG. Table-top RPGs (or TTRPGs) are simply games where players collaborate to create a shared fiction, with rules. Depending on the game, the rules may be extremely complex or very simple. They may or may not have some element of chance — usually involving dice. Ultimately, a TTRPG is about creating a story with some friends.

Many TTRPGs have a special position: a player who runs or otherwise facilitates the game. In D&D, she’s called the “Dungeon Master,” in other games it’s often the “Game Master.” It’s often the responsibility of this person to provide the setting and the scenario, while the other players bring characters who will move about and interact in that scenario.

Now that we have a baseline understanding, I want to talk about what I learned playing these games that can be applied to writing fiction.

Lesson #1 — Give Your Audience What They Want

Dungeons and Dragons is typically played in Tolkien-esque high-fantasy settings, but there are other settings you can use, and TTRPGs in pretty much every genre. The campaign I just finished is called “Curse of Strahd,” and it’s based on classic monster horror: vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts, and even a sort of Frankenstein’s monster.

However, it’s important to realize that genre goes beyond these “which-shelf-is-it-on” kind of classifications. In TTRPGs, many groups focus on combat and the rules-heavy play of slinging spells and swinging swords. But you can also craft scenarios where the players are solving mysteries, or perhaps socializing with the movers and shakers of the world, trying to convince them to take particular action. Some groups may be interested in romance or sex in their fiction (while others will be vehemently uninterested).

Of course, few groups want only one thing, like pure combat or nothing but puzzles or social encounters. Furthermore, each of your players are likely to have different preferences. You have to balance everyone’s needs and provide a variety of experiences to keep everyone happy.

For a game master, talking with your group of players and understanding what they want to get out of the game makes a big difference when trying to craft a setting and scenario that they’ll enjoy playing.

For an author, you have to know your audience. Know what you like, and make sure you’re writing something you enjoy. Beyond that, who are you writing for? Can you imagine an “ideal reader” of your story — the theoretical person for whom the story is perfect? Can you distill a small list of things that you’re trying to give your audience?

Lesson #2 — The World is Always in Motion

An RPG called Dungeon World introduced me to the idea of “fronts.” They’re like the story version of weather fronts — something that blows in periodically and ushers in change. Fronts are a way to keep track of the things that are happening in the background of a game world.

For example, maybe the players are content to hang out in a comfy town for a few days, carousing and spending their treasure. Meanwhile, you know that the northern kingdom is preparing to invade the southern kingdom, and the king of the dragons is awakening from his thousand-year sleep deep under the mountain.

In a TTRPG, you may be the game master, but you do not control the players or their characters. Still, the world around them is a living, breathing thing. Stuff happens, whether they’re involved or not. So when they take their week-long vacation, the northern kingdom may be marching their armies. Perhaps Dragon Peak erupts, and the great dragon king takes flight, turning green valleys and hamlets into scorched wasteland.

There is a cost to inaction. Further, there may be no “right” choice for your characters. If they do one thing, their inaction elsewhere will still have a cost.

In your fiction, your characters may not cooperate, just like those players in your table-top game. Characters have to have agency in the world and make choices in keeping with their personality. If characters are forced into a plot where they have to do things that they don’t “naturally” want to do, you end up with soap-opera plots where the characters are just dolls being shoved around in predestined sequences of events.

Sometimes this can work to your advantage. The character can ignore their noble destiny and go do what they want. The world won’t wait for them though, and those fronts keep on moving. Villains have their own agendas, and aren’t about to accommodate the good guys. Whenever your characters are doing something in the foreground, things should still be happening in the background.

Lesson #3 — Good Ideas Can Come Out of Improv

TTRPGs are, in many ways, improv games. The GM can prepare and plan, but only so long as they can guess what the players might do. Inevitably, players will come up with unexpected and often creative solutions to problems that the GM couldn’t prepare for.

Likewise, the players may know the setting, but they don’t know the scenario like the GM does. They get only the information they can glean from the GM’s description and perhaps some lucky die rolls. Then they have to act on that information as best they can.

Often, the best and most memorable moments will come from a player doing something completely unexpected and off-the wall in a tense situation. As a GM, sometimes you just have to smile and throw away all your plans, because a player thought of something better.

When it comes to writing fiction, I’m an unabashed planner, but even the most organized and prepared of us have to do some improvisation sooner or later. If a scene feels wrong, we sometimes have to stop and ask ourselves, “is this really what that character would do?” Or perhaps we just feel there’s something missing, some spark of life. We may have to try a few different ideas to make something interesting happen, not knowing which will work out.

Lesson #4 — Feedback is Important

When running a TTRPG, it’s important to be excited by the story you’re trying to tell to your players. It’s also important to watch how those players react to that story. Are they invested, working together, trying to overcome impossible odds? Or are they distracted, disinterested, or apparently struggling to figure out how to participate?

Running a good campaign involves bringing in elements that you think your various players will enjoy. It also requires that you gauge whether those things actually worked the way you expected them to. Sometimes this is as simple as watching how they play and reading the room. Sometimes you have to explicitly ask if everyone is getting what they want out of the game.

This is the flip-side of lesson #1. As you’re writing, it helps to think about your “ideal reader,” and what will entertain your audience. Once you’ve got some draft pages, you can actually go out to that audience (at least some small bit of it) and ask what they think.

Family, friends, beta readers, writing groups or critique circles — however you can get it, feedback is vital. A book is a big project, and it’s almost inevitable that each of us will forget something, make mistakes, include a plot hole here or there. Feedback followed by careful editing can turn a good manuscript into a great book.

Interested in TTRPGs?

That’s all for the writing lessons. Perhaps in another year of running sessions I’ll find a few more to share.

If all of this talk about table-top RPGs piqued your interest, now is a great time to get into the hobby. It’s more popular today than it has ever been.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #19

This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead! You can start from the beginning here.

Last Time

I made some changes to God-Speaker’s cabinet, and I was able to roughly outline the plot beats in the third act. I still need to figure out how Reed’s attack on Christopher plays out to be ready to work on the chapter summaries for Act III.

The Attack

The secretaries are old. Reed and Cain are old. Even the undersecretaries are middle-aged to older. Nobody new has been added to the cabinet since God-Speaker died. This is not a dynamic and lively government. It is slow and set in its ways, largely content sit in a holding pattern and let Razor Mountain slide toward decay, waiting for God-Speaker’s return.

Christopher worries about the inevitable attack, but he is amazed by how well he can read people and make contingency plans when he has God-Speaker powers and access to the voices. But he also starts to understand how God-Speaker is always thinking about threats and reading people. God-Speaker is afraid of death all the time, partly because he has so many tools to fight against death.

Reed originally killed God-Speaker in anger, albeit a slow burn rather than a hot, immediate fury. After he succeeded, he had grand ideas of taking over Razor Mountain. However, he quickly discovered that he was still stuck in the quagmire of the government. He couldn’t very well stand against all of the other secretaries, and was stymied again and again as he tried to consolidate power. As the years began to wear on, he realized that he might not even enjoy absolute power under the mountain.

By the time Christopher returns, Reed would have been content to live out his few remaining years in his current position, without clawing for more power. But he knows that the return of God-Speaker will probably mean his death, and like God-Speaker, he fears death. So he makes some attempts to stop God-Speaker’s return, and when that fails, he feels that he can either admit what he did and accept judgement, or attempt to kill God-Speaker once and for all. He reluctantly chooses the latter.

Reed’s primary lackey is the Secretary of Justice, a slimy little man who just looks out for his own hide. Reed decides to blackmail him into attacking Christopher, knowing that he will either fail, or more likely try to give up Reed to protect himself. In any case, he will use the man as a distraction and then make an attempt on Christopher’s life.

So Reed does this. The Secretary of Justice goes to Christopher and tells him that Reed tried to get him to kill Christopher. Then Reed comes up behind him and literally tries to stab him in the back. Christopher sees what’s happening instantly, stops the old man, and drags him in front of the full cabinet. As he’s doing this, his memories of Reed killing him originally are trickling back, and he begins to feel a lot more like God-Speaker instead of Christopher.

Beating Reed like this feels easier than he expected, and that’s gratifying. But this is the exact point when he realizes that Reed wasn’t the real problem. The real problem is this: what is he going to do about Christopher and God-Speaker? Who does he want to be?

Chapter Summaries

All the Act III chapters are from Christopher’s perspective, although God-Speaker’s memories and thoughts intrude for certain segments, so I won’t label the viewpoint character for these.

  • Chapter 34 – Cain leads Christopher to the artifacts’ chamber. Christopher experiences a flood of emotions and memories. Once Cain is satisfied that God-Speaker has been awakened, he brings him to a meeting of the cabinet, where he introduces the new God-Speaker. Cain explains that he will schedule meetings between Christopher and all the individual secretaries. After the meeting, Cain tells Christopher that he is the ruler of Razor Mountain, once murdered, now back.
  • Chapter 35 – A Q&A session with Cain. He explains how Christopher was found murdered, and the imprisonment of the previous Secretary of Justice for the crime. Cain believes there may be another involved, who will want to kill him again before his memories fully return. Christopher has flashes of memory coming back, all out of order. Cain shows him how to access electronic records and a library of paper records.
  • Chapter 36 – A montage of Christopher meeting with secretaries. Some are eager to please. Some are suspicious and seem to be testing him. He talks with Cain and the imprisoned secretary of Justice. Others mostly glossed over. He continues to uncover memories.
  • Chapter 37 – Christopher researches the history of Razor Mountain. He does more interviews. He tries to remember who killed him. He discusses the problem with Cain, who suggests that God-Speaker could always read people exceptionally well, and perhaps he should rely on that.  Christopher counters that it apparently didn’t work the first time, but he decides to rely on his God-Speaker abilities.
  • Chapter 38 – Christopher runs into the Acting Secretary of Justice in a hallway, where the man tells him that Reed is the murderer and has blackmailed him. Christopher’s intuition tells him that this is accurate, that the man is an unwitting distraction, and that Reed intends to use the opportunity to kill him. Sure enough, Reed comes from behind with a knife. Christopher overpowers him and takes the knife. He sends the Acting Secretary to get MPs. Then he convenes the cabinet, talking with the cuffed Reed while the others gather. Christopher explains what happened. Reed and the Acting Secretary are taken to holding cells by the MPs.
  • Chapter 39 – Christopher stands on a private balcony as the sun sets, looking out over the beauty of the mountain valley. He remembers conversations with his beloved wife about selfishness, atonement, and the fear of death. He starts to think that the world is better off without God-Speaker and Razor Mountain. He watches the stars come out and thinks about her.
  • Chapter 40 – Cain wakes in the middle of the night to find Christopher sitting in his room. Christopher asks him why he worked so hard to bring God-Speaker back. Cain explains that the secretaries know God-Speaker constructed this utopia and will be the best caretaker of it. Christopher asks if Cain would still believe in him if all of Razor Mountain was just to safeguard God-Speaker’s immortality. Cain says yes, because he refuses to believe that, and even if he did, he sees that many good things have come out of it. Christopher suggests that Cain might think differently if he had lived in the outside world. Christopher feels that God-Speaker is tired of this endless cycle, and what is left of Christopher is no longer afraid of death. Cain says that Christopher will feel better when he’s “back to himself again.”
  • Chapter 41 – Christopher goes to the artifacts’ chamber and throws his mind back in time, in the same way he has trained “oracles” to send warning messages back to him when things go wrong. He seeks back thousands of years. We return to the scene where God-Speaker first entered the Razor Mountain caves. Christopher enters God-Speaker’s mind, a much stronger voice than the whisper of the artifacts. Where God-Speaker previously jumped across a crack, Christopher trips him up. He falls deep into the mountain, where his body is shattered. He’s surprised to feel no pain, only numbness. Death is peaceful for him. Maybe he glimpses something beyond.

Results

I worked out details of Reed’s second attack on Christopher. Then I outlined all of the Act III chapters. I have a full outline of the book!

Next time, I’ll go through the outline and look at where I need to make adjustments and improvements.

Am I Good Enough to Write This?

Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers, is probably best known for its assertion that the way to become great at something — anything really — is to practice it for 10,000 hours. Similarly, author David Eddings (and apparently a few others) claim that the key to becoming a good author is to write a million words, then throw them away and really start writing.

“My advice to the young writer is likely to be unpalatable in an age of instant successes and meteoric falls. I tell the neophyte: Write a million words–the absolute best you can write, then throw it all away and bravely turn your back on what you have written. At that point, you’re ready to begin.”

David Eddings

Some writers will hear these claims, crack their knuckles, and start typing with relish. They’re delighted to learn that success is as simple as aiming in the right direction and putting in the time and effort. Others (including myself) are a bit less enthusiastic. A million words equates to ten or eleven substantial novels. Ten thousand hours is 417 days-worth of writing, without sleep, meals, or bathroom breaks. Not to mention the unshakable feeling that there must be more to greatness than simply plowing forward stubbornly.

However you quantify it, we know that writing is a craft that can be refined over a lifetime. Whether you believe in innate artistic talent, practice and study do make a difference.

That’s all to say that sometimes, it can be daunting to write. It’s normal for writers to have deep insecurities about their own skill. Writers are readers too. We see the incredible feats of our favorite authors. We can cite examples of phenomenal writing, and we see every time we don’t quite measure up.

Be Afraid, but Not Too Afraid

Have you ever had an idea for a story that you loved, but you were afraid to write it because you thought you could never do it justice? Have you ever started to write what was sure to be your greatest story ever, only to have the words flow out of your brain, down to your fingers, to flop, sad and desiccated on the page; a pathetic imitation of what you saw in your imagination?

Being a writer requires a specific cognitive dissonance — the ability to believe that you are writing something brilliant, while simultaneously seeing all the flaws in that work in order to edit them into oblivion. It’s a knife’s-edge mental balancing act, and it’s awfully easy to fall off one side or the other.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

One of the traps that writers, especially inexperienced writers, can fall into is the belief that they have great ideas, but lack the skill to do them justice. They have the idea that could be the next bestseller, if only it was written by someone with more expertise. Sometimes this takes the form of a fear that they might be a one-hit-wonder, who only ever has the one great idea. It would be a terrible waste to squander it.

I call this a trap because it’s almost certainly not true.

That Idea Isn’t Special

How many awards are there for novels, poems and short stories? And how many awards are there for cool ideas?

That’s because ideas aren’t that special. We become writers because we read things that inspire us. We start coming up with our own ideas. Every writer is an idea-generating machine. You may feel like it’s a slog, but you can come up with story ideas, if you put your mind to it.

A great writer could take a downright mundane premise and create a mesmerizing story from it. Many have. Ideas only become great in the execution.

Even more dangerous is an idea that’s put on a pedestal. When you think of that idea as “the perfect idea,” the one that you may never live up to again, it’s hard to move past it. You might hold on to that idea for years. You might even obsess over it.

I know, because I’ve done it. You can wear down an idea over years, like a worry stone. You can keep adjusting it, refining it, or just tweaking it here and there. It can feel like you’re accomplishing something, but if you can’t bring yourself to translate that idea into an actual story, then all that thought and effort and obsession is useless.

That obsession also precludes other ideas. How many new ideas could you play around with in the time that’s being spent worrying about that one idea? Sometimes our minds are like a warehouse, and we need to clear out those ideas to make space for new ones. Dwelling on the old can prevent you from moving on to something better.

You’ve Got to Admit, It’s Getting Better

If you write for years with some regularity, I can easily prove to you that you’re getting better. Go back and look at something you wrote a year ago. Five years ago. Ten years ago. Those pieces will certainly be different. You may have preferences of voice and style that have changed. You’ll also notice a lot of improvements that could be made. You’re so much better at writing now.

Gladwell didn’t claim that a switch flips at the moment you hit your 10,000 hours. Every day you practice, you learn something, even if you aren’t always aware of it. It’s a slow and steady progression. You can improve your skill at dialogue, or at description. You can develop your voice, and you can learn to build deeper, more sympathetic characters.

Isn’t it strange then, to believe that you can get better at all of these things, but not at coming up with good ideas? It’s a skill like any other, and it develops through practice. Granted, if you’re brainstorming ideas, you can’t expect all of them to be amazing. But you can trust that the writer you become in five or ten years is going to be better at coming up with good ideas, just like they’ll be better at dialogue and characterization.

The ideas you come up with today are for present-you to write. Trust future-you to come up with their own great ideas to write about.

Diamonds Have to be Polished

First drafts suck. Sometimes second and third drafts suck too.

One of the times when that special brand of authorial cognitive dissonance is really tested is in writing a first draft. Ideas are like clouds. They’re soft and vague and beautiful. You can stare up into that bright blue sky and see all sorts of amazing shapes.

Words are flexible, but they’re less flexible than ideas. Those nebulous ideas seemed so good partly because you could ignore the missing bits, the conflicting bits, the bits that just plain don’t make sense or haven’t been thought through properly. When you put them down on the page, that luxury immediately goes away. They’re solidified into a rough, mangled form that will never live up to those gauzy visions in your mind.

Don’t confuse that first draft with the polished end-product it will become. Don’t compare the perfect idea to the worst form your story will ever take.

Don’t Wait

If it feels like a great idea, try writing it now. Expect your first draft to feel bad, and look forward to closing that gap between idea and execution in the revision process. If it still doesn’t work out, that’s okay too. Just consider it part of your 10,000 hours, or million words.

Trust that you’ll have better ideas and be better able to execute them in the future. Make room for those new ideas by not obsessing over the old ones.

And in case you weren’t sure, the answer is “Yes, you are good enough to write that.”

Razor Mountain Development Journal #18

This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead! You can start from the beginning here.

Last Time

I came up with a list of departments in God-Speaker’s cabinet. I thought about what happens among this small group after God-Speaker’s death. I began to navigate the internal politics that develop in his absence.

Rethinking the Cabinet

Coming into this session, I’ve been rethinking my plans from the last session. I initially wanted a very small group of people under God-Speaker who know who he really is. The justification is that he would minimize his exposure and the number of people who could realistically pose a threat to him. It also limits the cast of characters that need to be introduced and developed in Act III.

However, I began to think that the very small group I developed would not be enough to run everything in Razor Mountain. I also realized that as long as the group was small, it would require me to do a certain amount of rounding-out all of the characters. They become important by virtue of how few of them there are.

Now, I’m leaning toward a slightly larger group: something like ten to fifteen people. The unimportant characters in this cabinet can be mostly treated as a loosely-defined crowd, while I provide more detail for the characters that matter in the narrative. These flatter characters make the governance of Razor Mountain a little more believable, and a web of alliances and rivalries helps to explain why it’s difficult for the more powerful cabinet members to simply take over. It also makes it harder for the suspicious loyalists to discover who was really behind God-Speaker’s death.

I’ll probably take cues for these additional cabinet positions from the US presidential cabinet – Razor Mountain does maintain a facade of secret association with the US government. I can include secretaries of agriculture, commerce, labor, health, energy, education, science, etc.

Plot Beats

I have also been thinking about how the plot unfolds in Act III. I think it starts with Christopher being led into this inner sanctum, where only the cabinet and perhaps a small  guard corps are allowed to enter. He is greeted by Cain, who tells him, “Welcome home, God-Speaker.” That strikes me as a good line to end Act II on.

Cain’s first order of business is to bring Christopher to the place where the artifacts are housed. This begins the process of “unlocking” God-Speaker’s memories and personality. Christopher doesn’t realize what’s being done to him until he starts to have flashes of God-Speaker coming through. At that point, he realizes that he’s on a slow, inevitable road to death, or at least something very similar to death as he is subsumed in God-Speaker’s vast, long-lived persona.

Once the process is started, Cain convenes the cabinet and reveals Christopher to them, framing it as a long-awaited return to order.

It’s only after all of this, in private, that Cain really answers some of Christopher’s questions and warns him that the murderer may still be looking for a way to finish both of them off before Christopher remembers everything that happened.

Christopher remembers things piecemeal, and has access to a wealth of records. He worries about the seemingly imminent attack while also struggling with his transformation into God-Speaker. He questions the cabinet officials, gathering information.

When Reed finally makes a second attempt on his life, perhaps through proxies, Christopher already has accurate suspicions and is prepared. His memories of the first attack awaken. I still need to work out exactly how this happens. He stops Reed.

This easy victory feels strangely hollow (to Christopher, and hopefully the reader, since it’s intended to be a bit of an anti-climax). Even though Christopher has now regained control over Razor Mountain and gotten answers to the mysteries that plagued him through the whole book, he is fading away. He is turning into God-Speaker, and discovering that even God-Speaker isn’t excited to be God-Speaker. He’s just propelled onward in an endless malaise by a gnawing fear of death. In one sense he won, but he really had no path to any outcome that feels like success.

The cabinet is relieved that the long interregnum is over. They have spent their lives in Razor Mountain, they believe God-Speaker is a nearly infallible leader, and they were at least partly selected for their acquiescence to his authority. In short, most of them are relieved that they have him above them to be ultimately responsible for the functioning of their little society.

The End

Christopher can feel when the end is near. He knows that within hours he will be just another tiny sliver of God-Speaker. He weighs his fears, and he talks to Cain. He tells him that he thinks Razor Mountain was a mistake. Cain doesn’t understand and disagrees. He tells Christopher that he’ll feel better when he’s back to his old self again.

Christopher then goes to the place where the artifacts are, and sends himself backward through time. He stops young God-Speaker from entering the cave, sending him slipping down the rocks to his death.

Results

I made some changes to God-Speaker’s cabinet, and I was able to roughly outline the plot beats in the third act.

Next time, I need to decide exactly how Reed makes his final, desperate attack on Christopher, and how Christopher stops him. Once that’s settled, I think I have everything I need to work on the chapter summaries for Act III.