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.

Writing Schedules and Avoiding Burnout

I struggled for years with motivation to write and periodic burnouts, and I know I’m not alone. For every author I see putting out a book every year, there are many who struggle to meet their word-count goals or lament their inability to write every day.

We want to get more done, or worse, we feel like we “ought” to get more done. When we fail to live up to that (sometimes unrealistic) standard we set for ourselves, we lose hope and even feel a lack of self-worth. Writing requires emotional energy, and when that energy is drained by these perceived failures, we can burn-out: unable to write until we refill our tanks.

Agile Writing

I’ve found that the most effective way to avoid burnout is to be honest with yourself about what you can actually accomplish. That sounds simple, but it takes some real work to figure out just how much you can do, and it’s not a static formula — it can change over time.

My day job is in software development, and I often find that writing software is similar to writing fiction. It’s not always obvious going into a project how much effort it will take. The software industry has spent decades and untold millions of dollars trying to better understand how to estimate the time and effort necessary to complete projects.

In this post, I’m going to talk about the modern Agile software development methodology, and how we can apply some of its lessons to writing.

Prioritize, Break Down, Estimate

To get things done, you have to know what things you’re doing. That sounds obvious, but it’s easy to jump into an exciting project head-first, without realizing that you don’t entirely know what the whole project entails.

Any large pieces of work get broken down into the small tasks that compose them. Having “write novel” as a task isn’t useful. Split it into individual scenes or chapters (or developing a character, etc., etc.)

Before you can work on a task, it needs to have an estimate. This is your guess as to how long it will take. You can try to estimate in real-world hours, but many agile teams find that counterproductive. They’ll often use a small set of options, like T-shirt sizes (S, M, L, XL) or nonsense units like jelly beans (1, 3, 5, 7, 10 jelly beans).

Having a limited set of options avoids wasting too much time trying to zone in exactly on a perfect estimate, because it’s unlikely any estimate will be perfectly accurate anyway. If it’s not quite an M, it’s got to be marked as an L. If it feels like four jelly beans, it needs to be marked as a 5.

Units that aren’t actual time will be useful later on, when it comes to evaluating your estimates. You might decide that a S is a day of work initially, and later come to realize that it’s more like two days of work. That’s no big deal. But if you use real-time estimates, you’ll have tasks marked 1-day that are actually 2-days of agile-time. Your estimates will get confusing quickly.

I like to use Trello for tracking my writing tasks, but there are plenty of other applications that will do the job. You can also use good old-fashioned index cards or post-its.

Sprinting

The Agile process breaks down time into “sprints,” which typically range from a week to a month. At work, I use two-week sprints. For my own work, I use one-week sprints.

At the start of a sprint, you estimate how much work you can get done. Then take tasks from the backlog and put them on the sprint until the estimates fill up the time you allocated for the sprint. If you can’t fit exactly, it’s better to go under the estimate than over. Try to be honest with your task estimates, and how much you think you’ll be able to finish.

Next comes the real work! Pick tasks and finish them. If you get them all done and you still have time left, you may want to grab another task or two from the backlog. On the other hand, if you don’t get all the tasks done, that’s okay. Think of each sprint as more than an organizational tool. It’s an experiment. The goal of the experiment is to research how much work you can typically get done in a sprint. Don’t worry or freak out if a sprint goes badly. (In fact, it’s pretty normal for a first sprint to be a bit of a mess.) Instead, get ready to evaluate your progress and make adjustments.

Reviews

The sprint is finished. It may have gone well, terribly, or about as expected. The first few sprints are more likely to be rough, as you’re learning the process and have rougher estimates. You may discover that you thought (or hoped) that you’d be able to get a lot more work done than you actually did. That’s good. The experiment yielded some meaningful results.

In the Agile process, a review is held at the end of each sprint. This is an opportunity to evaluate how things went. Look over the work that was finished. Firstly, be proud of what you accomplished. Then, spend a little time thinking about the estimates for your tasks and for the sprint as a whole.

If you were able to get everything done with ease, consider adding more estimated time to your sprints. But be wary! Sprints will naturally vary. Like all solid science, results have to be repeatedly verified before they can be taken as fact. Before you make wild changes, look for trends across multiple sprints. This will be much more reliable than a single result.

If you weren’t able to get everything done, first look at individual issues. Did some take longer than estimated? Sometimes this happens when tasks aren’t broken down well enough, or aren’t clearly defined. You’ll find pretty quickly that smaller tasks are easier to estimate accurately than larger ones. It’s easier for bad assumptions or unexpected snags to throw a large task off-course than a little one. You might also find that a task ended up being harder than expected, in a way that was difficult to foresee. Don’t stress too much about it.

In software, there are two things that most teams work constantly to improve: breakdown of large tasks into small ones, and accurately estimating those small tasks. But there are other problems that can mess up a sprint. Sometimes the real world steals away your writing time — your in-laws decide to stay for a week, you have a family emergency to work out, or a broken furnace needs your attention immediately. Consider the circumstances around your sprint. It’s normal that you’d get less done in that kind of situation. You can take solace in a new sprint and a fresh start.

What’s the Point?

When Agile started getting popular in software, a lot of teams balked at it. Some still do. Why do all that obnoxious estimating and review? It’s more time in meetings when the “real” work could be getting done. You might feel the same way at first. Try sticking with it for a while.

Firstly, the planning and review that feels so onerous when you’re starting out becomes easier and even satisfying with practice. Breaking down tasks becomes second nature.

More importantly, this is a way to evaluate your expectations, your actual output, and why they might not be aligned. If burnout happens because we expect more from ourselves than we can deliver, then we need to come to grips with the gap between those two things.

Your sprints may show that you finish 75% as much task-time each week as you first expected. Your sprint reviews might make it clear that you’re consistently under-estimating how much time chapters take to write. They might tell you that you have an outside interruption almost every week that keeps taking time away from your writing. Understanding these problems is the first step in addressing them.

Ultimately, you may find (as I did) that you just can’t get as much done in a week as you wanted to. That can be okay too. I have a regular 9–5 job and children. I’m an inveterate planner who doesn’t write that quickly. I have to accept that I can’t write at Stephen King pace. And that’s okay.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #17

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 did some preliminary planning for Act III and the end of the book. I looked at the “scaffolding” like number of chapters, and the topics they have to address, as well as the tone of the ending.

Upper Management for an Immortal

So far, I’ve created two characters to serve in God-Speaker’s inner circle, because these two were important for Act II. They’re not the most rounded characters yet, because they were designed to fit a plot purpose. I also need to figure out what other characters are in this inner council.

God-Speaker understands that one of the best ways he can protect himself is by minimizing the number of people who know or suspect that he exists. He built Razor Mountain to hide himself from the outside world, and he built the internal mythology of Razor Mountain to hide himself from the people within the mountain. However, he is obsessively controlling. He wants a constant feed of information coming in to him. He wants to project his influence across Razor Mountain, and when necessary, the world.

To do this effectively, he created a small group of carefully vetted people who can act as his liasons, bringing him information and carrying out his orders. They necessarily know more about him than anyone else, and he knows that they are the only people likely to betray him. Because of this, he keeps the group as small as possible, and watches them carefully. He develops tools and strategies to discover and weed out disloyal people in the inner circle (which work well up until Reed’s betrayal.)

What Does God-Speaker Need?

What departments does this council have?

  • There must be some amount of management and governance for Razor Mountain itself: the facilities, the people and the goods generated and consumed by those people.
  • The mountain is largely self-sufficient, but trade with the outside does happen, and this needs to be handled in a secretive way.
  • While God-Speaker keeps Razor Mountain hidden, he still sometimes needs to manipulate events in the world, he needs a few carefully trained people to send out and accomplish tasks.
  • Razor Mountain society is largely built around a military hierarchy masquerading as a part of the U.S. Army. The illusion of that hierarchy has to be maintained. It makes sense that a military-style justice and policing system would also be incorporated.

From those needs, I can begin to decide what the positions on this council might be. The term “council” doesn’t particularly fit the actual function of these people. They don’t deliberate – they are more like cabinet heads, or political ministers or secretaries. They serve at the pleasure of God-Speaker, and he can ultimately allow or overrule their decisions.

  • Building and Works Department – Cain Dolus (loyal)
  • Economic Department – New character?
  • Intelligence Department – Reed Parricida (traitor)
  • Military Department – New character?
  • Justice Department – New character?

I think those positions might also sometimes have a senior secretary and an undersecretary who is effectively in training to take over. While God-Speaker is missing from the mountain, a secretary might also die or be deposed, and their positions consolidated under other secretaries.

What Follows God-Speaker’s Death?

As soon as God-Speaker is gone, Reed knows that he is up against the other secretaries if he wants to actually take control of Razor Mountain. He hides his treachery by planting evidence that incriminates one of the other secretaries. This also provides him an opportunity to create an opening that he can fill. The Military and Justice departments would probably be the most useful to a budding new dictator.

So, Reed kills God-Speaker, but God-Speaker manages to transfer his consciousness into baby Christopher. Reed plants evidence and accuses the Secretary of Justice. They deny any involvement, but the rest of the cabinet decide to imprison them. There is an Undersecretary, but they are a weak-willed pushover who easily falls under Reed’s sway.

Cain, however, finds the entire situation suspicious. He believes that the Secretary of Justice may have been framed or working with another member of the cabinet. He sometimes talks to them in their jail in hopes of gleaning some new information (and out of pity). Cain is also close to the Secretary of the Military, and the pair effectively block Reed and his puppet Secretary of Justice from taking too much power.

Even worse for Reed, Cain has more of a knack with the artifacts. He discovers that God-Speaker isn’t gone, and can be brought back if they find Christopher and bring him to Razor Mountain. Reed knows this will be disastrous for him, but can’t act overtly. He helps Cain plan to bring Christopher to the mountain, but plans to dispose of him before he can come back and reveal that Reed was the traitor.

Results

I didn’t get as far in this session as I was hoping, but I honestly underestimated the work that had to be done here. I came up with a list of departments in God-Speaker’s cabinet. I’m going to need to flesh out characters for the deposed Secretary of Justice, the weak Undersecretary of Justice (who takes over and allies with Reed), the Military Secretary (who allies with Cain), and the Economic Secretary (who probably ought to play a lesser role just to limit the cast of characters.

Next time, I need to sort these characters out. I think I’ll be lucky if it only takes me one session.

Reference Desk #7 – Trello

As a part of this Reference Desk series, where I look at useful tools for authors, I’ve now shared most of the software that I use for writing. I covered Scrivener, where I do most of my novel writing. I talked OneNote, where I keep my notes, from story brainstorms to blog posts. Finally, I discussed Dropbox, which I use to back up all my writing work.

However, there’s one more application that I use, for a different aspect of writing – organization and planning. That software is Trello.

I remember seeing Trello when it was first released, and thinking, “Is this really all it does?” Even the Trello website is a bit cagey when describing it, using all sorts of business buzzwords, like “collaborate,” “manage,” “productive,” and “organize.”

Personally, I use Trello to keep track of my weekly to-do list around the house. I use it to plan meals (at least when I’m feeling like a competent adult). I use it to track short stories I’m working on, and what stage of development they’re in. Sometimes I use it to track revision notes or prioritize my projects.

Boards, Lists, Cards

Trello doesn’t dictate a rigid form or structure. It just lets you make lists of things. Shuffle them around, color-code them, or check them off as you get them done.

An accurate (if not thrilling) description of Trello is “an app that makes very flexible lists.” Lists are one of the simplest and most effective ways to take complicated things, big things, and break them down into small and manageable things. That’s what I use Trello for, and that’s what it’s good at.

Trello lists are built from a few simple components. At the top level, there are “boards.” On each board, there are multiple ordered “lists.” On a list, you have “cards.”

Cards have a title and can have a description. They can have little color-coded labels, or comments, start dates and due dates, checklists, pictures, or other attachments. Cards are where the action is.

Simple and Flexible

You can think of Trello as a big cork board. Lists are just columns of index cards, pinned onto the board. You can move them between columns, or up and down a column. But cards are also like file folders, and they can have all sorts of interesting things inside them. From that basic structure, you can organize in whatever way seems natural to you.

The most obvious example is a to-do list. Make a board with three columns: To Do, Doing, and Done. Fill the first column with tasks. When you’re ready to do a task, move it to the middle column. When you’ve finished it, move it to the last column. When everything is done, close the board.

Of course, you can embellish the bare-bones process. You can shuffle tasks in To Do so they’re in the order you plan to do them in. You can color-code them by importance, or amount of effort, or both. You can add a picture to each one. You can add addresses or phone numbers or web links.

You could expand the basic To Do list into a writing board. Perhaps you want more columns: Ideas, Incomplete Drafts, Complete Drafts, Published, and Shelved. Then add a card for each of your stories. Some small story seed might end up as a card in the Ideas column with just a vague title and a few words. As it moves, it could accumulate more ideas, inspiring photos, character bios, and so on.

You could attach the story document directly to the card, or add a link to your cloud backup. You could maintain a list of the magazines you’ve submitted that flash fiction to. Heck, you could attach copies of rejection and acceptance letters.

Hopefully, you can see that these very simple tools can be put together in a lot of ways. Part of what I like about Trello is that I get to figure out how I like to do things over time, and I can adapt my process accordingly.

Collaboration and Synchronization

Trello is an online tool, so your updates are automatically saved and available across devices – computer or mobile – as long as you’ve got internet connectivity. They have the usual iOS and Android apps. I use Trello on my phone about 95% of the time, and it works well.

I use Trello almost exclusively for my own boards that nobody else needs to see, but I have shared boards with my wife in the past, and the changes and sync between the two of us were seamless. Trello is obviously trying to sell to the “enterprise” team crowd, so if you want to coordinate with a few writing or business partners, it shouldn’t break a sweat.

I’ve found the free plan to be more than adequate for individual use. The main limitation that you’re likely to run into is a maximum of 10 open boards. So long as you aren’t updating more than 10 boards on a regular basis, you can always close old ones and stay under the limit.

If you do need more boards, need to upload big files, or want to use some of the serious team collaboration options, the next tier up is about $120 per year.

One Small Caveat

It’s worth noting that Trello was recently acquired by Atlassian, a huge enterprise company that specializes in tools for software development. Thanks to my day job, I’m familiar with most of the Atlassian tools. They’re about as powerful, expensive, rigid and occasionally clunky as you’d expect from software that has big-business plans with prices listed as “Contact Sales.”

Trello has been slowly but steadily adding features over time, and that’s continuing under the new regime. So far, I haven’t seen any unsavory pushing of paid options or favoring big business over individual users. But there’s always that possibility when smaller start-ups are eaten by their older, larger competitors. Time will tell whether Trello influences Atlassian, or vice-versa.

Try It Out

If my description of Trello sounds interesting, I encourage you to try it out with a free account. The only advice I’d offer is to try to come up with more than one way to do things. Play around with it. One of the big advantages is freedom and flexibility that so many apps like this lack. You may find that the flow that ends up working best for you isn’t quite what you expected.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #16

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 finished the chapter summaries for God-Speaker in Act II!

Embarking on Act III

I like to think of the end of Act II as the inflection point of the story. We’ve reached the proverbial mountain top. In act III, we’re headed back down at breakneck speed, toward the end of the book. Everything should be moving toward the finale. The plot needs to be wrapping things up. Emotionally, the characters need to be moving in that direction too.

Going into Act III, the reader knows that Christopher is the reincarnation of God-Speaker. Christopher still needs to find that out. We’ve seen the evolution of Razor Mountain, and the evolution of God-Speaker alongside it. Now we know about his downfall. We know that there are probably enemies here that Christopher doesn’t even know he has.

To survive, Christopher needs to figure that out. As readers, we feel that there’s probably a confrontation brewing, and we’ll definitely know that there’s one on the way when we see that Reed and Cain are both still here.

Once that is dealt with, there is an even bigger question: what happens to Christopher? Does he go back to being God-Speaker, tighten his grip, and try to put his house back in order? Has his journey (and his whole life, really) as Christopher changed him? That’s the question that I really want driving the final act to its ultimate conclusion, where Christopher chooses to reject everything he did as God-Speaker.

Scaffolding

The chapter structure I’ve laid out so far is very consistent. I alternate between God-Speaker chapters and Christopher chapters, with Christopher getting twice as many chapters. Act I and Act II have almost the same number of chapters (17 and 16 respectively), although I haven’t tried to estimate word-counts yet.

I expect Act III to be shorter. There are no more God-Speaker chapters. He’s dead and gone. Christopher is the one alive in the present. However, once Christopher “unlocks” God-Speaker’s dormant personality and memories, I think it will still make sense to include some flashes of God-Speaker’s perspective here and there. It may help convey the feeling that Christopher is losing himself as this ancient god-being starts to take over.

Act III should really have two parts. The first part is about Christopher discovering that he’s the reincarnation of God-Speaker. He meets what remains of his inner circle (which will need more characters than Cain and Reed). He learns about the artifacts. He learns that he was betrayed and murdered, and that his life depends on figuring out who did it before they do it again and finish what they started.

While all that is happening, I need to include the emotional threads of the story. God-Speaker slowly became terrified of death, and bored of life. Christopher starts the book in much the same way, albeit on a smaller scale. He has now risked his life and made dangerous choices. He has accepted the eventuality of his own death, and his limited control of an indifferent universe.

Once he activates the artifacts and God-Speaker starts to slowly seep in, his “death” becomes very real and immediate. Does he want to be subsumed by this other person, who in many ways represents the most extreme version of his own worst attributes, magnified over thousands of years?

The second part of Act III starts when Christopher figures out that Reed betrayed him and kills or otherwise defeats the man. He is the ultimate winner. He came back from the brink of death to continue his endless reign, unstoppable. His other minions are happy that order has been restored. Unfortunately for him, it’s a pyrrhic victory.

Without the distraction of the direct threat to his physical existence, he has to think about the existential threat to his existence. He has to reconcile Christopher and God-Speaker. The final battle is between these two, within Christopher’s mind.

Christopher decides that God-Speaker has wasted thousands of years building a dystopia. He uses the artifacts to travel back to the moment from the end of Act I, where God-Speaker found the artifacts. He accepts death in the service of a good cause, kills God-Speaker, and changes the timeline for the better (or so he hopes).

Tone

The tone will be shaped throughout the book, but the ending is what will have the most impact on what the reader feels about the book. It’s obviously pretty dark – the protagonist kills his worst enemy, then himself, to prevent the terrible things he would otherwise do. It’s tragic by the original definition.

However, that tragedy isn’t so tragic in terms of Christopher’s emotional arc. He overcomes his fear of risk, danger, and even death. He makes a very consequential choice because he believes it’s the right thing to do. He’s satisfied with the outcome, and hopefully the reader will also think he did the right thing. The effectiveness of this is going to depend on how well I build up that arc throughout the story, as much as it will depend on the actual ending.

What’s Next?

I need to figure out what secondary characters come into play in the third act. I have two council members, but I need more for it to really be a council. They need to have some purpose and characterization in their own right.

I need to figure out how Christopher finds out who killed him. It may be as simple as retrieving that memory, but there has to be some tension around it. What does Reed do when he finds out that Christopher is here? What does he do as God-Speaker’s memories are returning?

Results

I did some preliminary planning for Act III and the end of the book. I looked at the “scaffolding” like the number of chapters and the topics they have to address. I also thought about the tone of the ending.

Next time, I’m going to flesh out God-Speaker’s inner council and figure out how he discovers his killer.