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Reblog: Want to Build Tension? Encourage the Reader to Ask Questions — Angela Ackerman

Today’s reblog comes from Angela Ackerman, guest-posting on Jane Friedman’s blog. She discusses how to use the push and pull of tension to draw the reader in and keep them wondering what will happen next.

We can make good use of the reader’s need to know by building scenes that cater to it. For example, imagine a jerk character in our story who is dating two women, Alice and Shai. Neither is aware of the other, which is just how Logan wants to keep it. But in an epic goof, he asks them both to meet him for dinner at the same restaurant on the same night.

When the women arrive (at the same time, of course), that’s conflict. When they both cross the room, unaware they’re meeting the same man, that’s tension.

Tension draws readers in by causing them to mentally ask questions:

Will the women find out Logan’s dating them both?

Will he worm his way out of it somehow?

What will the women do?

Will there be a big blowout?

Strong tension follows a pattern of pull-and-release—meaning, you let the tension build until it reaches its peak then resolve it by answering some of those unspoken questions.

Read the rest over at Jane Friedman’s blog…

3 Things I Learned From Startide Rising

I recently read the 1983 science-fiction novel, Startide Rising, with my kids. It’s the second book in David Brin’s first “uplift trilogy,” a series of loosely-related books that take place in a shared universe. I haven’t read these books since I was a teenager, and I didn’t remember too much about them before re-reading.

The previous book in the series was Sundiver, which I also wrote about.

https://wordsdeferred.com/2022/10/24/3-things-i-learned-from-sundiver/

1 – Unlimited Points of View

These books are very plot-heavy science-fiction, and Startide Rising has an expansive cast of characters. If it were me, I would look for a small number of main characters, and follow their points of view, adjusting the plot so that all the important action happens on their watch. That would be challenging in this story, because there are so many characters, in different locations and constantly shifting groups.

Brin sidesteps that problem by not really focusing on main characters at all. Some characters get more “screen time” than others, but it’s hard to say that this is a story about the dolphin starship captain Creideiki or midshipman Toshio or the genetically-modified couple of Gillian Baskin and Tom Orley. The story is about the Earth ship Streaker and its entire crew as they try to escape the galactic armada that’s bearing down on them.

Brin uses some tricks to make this constant switching between viewpoints less confusing. Most chapters are labelled with the name of the viewpoint character, so the reader doesn’t have to guess and the author doesn’t have to use narrative tricks to make sure it’s clear. There are a few chapters where there is no viewpoint character, or the story follows a group from an omniscient point of view. In those cases, the chapters are labelled with the setting. This might feel very heavy-handed, but it’s a simple and clear way to make the reader’s experience better.

Of course, there is still a notable cost that Brin has to pay for this wide-ranging story with so many point-of-view characters. As a reader, it’s hard to feel extremely close to any of these characters. The story focuses on the plot because there is less focus on the specific characters.

2 – Flat Characters are not Always Bad

This is something I’ve felt for a while, but this book certainly emphasizes the point. Because the cast is so big, it is already inevitable that some characters will be more fleshed-out than others. Because there is an intricate plot, some of the characters may be vital because of a few specific actions they take at key moments, while others are core drivers of the story from start to finish.

For those less important characters, they only need to be fleshed out enough that their actions make sense. They are mostly there to serve as cogs in the story machine. They make the thing keep moving. That doesn’t mean they can be free from any development—readers are still going to be annoyed by “plot robots” who do things that make no sense—but the development only needs to go just far enough that the character’s actions are believable.

Deep, rounded-out characters with complex motivations are important (and a lot of fun to write), but in a book like this, making every character like that would result in an overblown, muddled mess.

3 – Don’t Ignore the Ethics of the Future

The main conceit of the Uplift series is that humanity embarks on a project of genetic modification for dolphins and chimpanzees shortly before making contact with a vast multi-species extraterrestrial civilization where this exact sort of “uplift” is normal and codified into a form of species-wide indentured servitude.

Brin contrasts a kind, enlightened humanity, who treat their uplifted “client” species more or less as equals; with  the often-cruel galactic species, some of whom treat their clients as disposable slaves. Unfortunately, this simple, black-and-white presentation of morality sidesteps all sorts of ethical dilemmas.

At the start of the first book, Sundiver, there are hints that Brin is interested in exploring challenging ethical situations. In his imagined  future, there is an advanced personality test that can accurately predict violent and antisocial tendencies in people. The test Is mandatory, and the basis for a class system that limits the rights of those who fail it.

Unfortunately, the idea seems to be included mostly as setup for a red herring in the overarching mystery of the book. Sundiver does, at least, admit that this sort of policy would be highly controversial, even though it never gets into arguments of whether it is right or not.

By the time Brin gets to Startide Rising, there are even higher stakes. The book follows the first spaceship crewed by newly-sentient dolphins, and it puts the ideas of genetic “uplift” front-and-center. It is made clear that humans are trying to make dolphins their equals, but they are still in the midst of genetic manipulation, and it seems that the primary mechanism of this manipulation is through breeding rights. Individuals who show positive traits are encouraged to have as many offspring as possible, while those with negative traits are not allowed to procreate.

This is plainly a species-wide eugenics program in the name of “improving” intelligent animals into sophisticated people. Yet Brin shows barely any awareness that there are moral depths to be explored here. The “client” species accept this, even if individuals with fewer rights don’t like it, and no human ever shows qualms about the idea. When some of the dolphins eventually succumb to primal instincts under extreme stress, it is presented only as justification for these policies.

We live in a world where tech startups are making daily advances in AI, robotics, facial recognition, and dozens of other fields that could have a profound impact on society, but most of those companies are, in the classic words of Ian Malcom, “so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they don’t stop to think if they should.”

Science fiction has a long history of considering ethical concerns around technology and culture that doesn’t actually exist yet. Sci-fi is a playground for exploring future ideas before they invade our real lives. It’s an opportunity for due diligence and to anticipate issues that may need to be addressed. More than ever, this seems like something we need.

It’s also only going to make your story better. As an author, you never want to be in a situation where the reader expects you to address something and you just let it go. If you’re writing a mystery and ignore an obvious clue, the reader will get irritated. If you’re writing science-fiction and you gloss over the ethical minefield of the technology you’ve invented, you should expect the reader to be just as annoyed!

Next: The Uplift War?

This first Uplift Trilogy finishes with The Uplift War, where the Terran inhabitants of a colony planet have to deal with the fallout of the galactic conflict started by the starship Streaker in Startide Rising. We’re halfway through it, and I’ll write a follow-up when we’ve finished.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 23

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

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

A Pyrrhic Victory

Christopher is out of the jail cell. He has escaped the grasp of Sergeant Meadows, and found a much more sympathetic ear in Specialist Speares (assuming she is actually what she seems). Still, he’s not exactly free—he’s traded a cell for a mediocre apartment, and it’s still unlikely that he’ll ever be able to leave Razor Mountain.

His only chance to help himself is to learn how to navigate the bureaucracy of the mountain and plead his case. Unfortunately, he knows very little about how Razor Mountain works.

Christopher also feels different after his torturous ordeal. He is, perhaps, a little more in control of himself, a little more Zen, even if he can’t exert much control over the world around him. The change in his character is still subtle, but I’ll be trying to bring it out more as the story continues.

Answers

This chapter is a turning point in the structure of the story. So far, Christopher has been doing nothing but ask questions, and in this chapter he’s getting some answers. They aren’t particularly good answers for him, but at least he has a better idea what’s happening.

On the other hand, the reader knows about God-Speaker, and something is still amiss with the story of the mountain that Christopher is receiving. My goal in this chapter is to start revealing a little more about the mountain while still making the reader wonder what happened in the years between God-Speaker’s chapters and the modern day. Then the last few chapters of Act II will reveal the answers to that.

Mysteries and Choices

This was one of the longer chapters that I’ve written in Razor Mountain. There is a lot of information to get across, and a good amount of dialogue.

This book is very uneven when it comes to dialogue. It was clear early on that there would be very little dialogue in the first half of the book. Christopher is alone in all of those chapters, with nobody to talk to except himself. God-Speaker’s tribe talks, but they’re not exactly loquacious.

As we work through Act II and introduce new characters, there is more and more dialogue. I expect it to continue to increase toward the end of the book. I always wanted a structure where the mysteries and questions steadily pile up for the first half of the book, and then more and more of them get answered in the second half.

I also realized at some point that the whole book won’t be driven solely by mystery. Before the end, all the big questions will be answered. The answers to those questions will then force the main characters to make hard choices, and the ending will be about those choices and their consequences. It’s nice to solve the mystery, but characters need to struggle and grow and change for the ending to really hit home.

Next Time

Christopher learns more about Razor Mountain, and may actually get some good news.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 23.4

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

When Christopher had rested for a few minutes, they kept walking. The narrow residential street ran into a wider avenue within a much bigger cavern. There were a few buildings here that looked like multi-story apartments, but most of the buildings looked like storefronts and businesses. There was considerably more foot traffic here, and people on bicycles, but there was a distinct absence of cars, and there were no sidewalks. Everyone just walked in the street.

The ceiling of this cavern was high enough that Christopher had a difficult time estimating it by eye. The largest buildings seemed to top out at four or five stories, and the ceiling was well above them. Here, too, it was painted to look like sky, with a smattering of clouds here and there, but the illusion was broken by a web of geodesic support beams. Christopher also saw bundles of pipes in varying diameters running here and there along the walls or high across the ceiling. If he squinted, it almost looked like a vast glass ceiling with sky beyond.

It was like something out of science-fiction, and Christopher had the vague sense that he ought to feel more impressed than he did. But it wasn’t some gleaming futuristic metropolis of glass and steel. It all looked a little outdated and a little tacky, with too many layers of old paint and too many conflicting architectural styles. It reminded him of Las Vegas, the real city that never actually looked as glitzy as it was portrayed in the movies, and turned out to be built on the back of cheap labor and broken dreams, not just piles of money brought in by high-rollers.

The other thing that made it feel old-fashioned, regardless of how the storefronts actually looked, was the complete lack of chain businesses. There were no McDonald’s here, no familiar grocery or department stores. Across the street was Red’s Diner, and next to it was a place called Modern Chic that looked like it sold clothing. Further down, he saw a store simply called Furniture.

Speares distracted him by asking more questions about his journey from the bunker to Razor Mountain. He recounted his time in the wilderness and his interactions with the people he thought of as “the exiles.”

“What happened to Harold and Garrett?” he asked her, “and the rest of them, for that matter.”

“Those two will most likely have to face a court-martial,” she said. “I don’t know much beyond that. I’ll see if I can dig up some information, but it’s going to be limited. I’ll try to keep you out of those proceedings if possible. Hopefully your documented testimony here will be more than enough.”

They left the busy, large cavern and entered another one of the residential neighborhoods, but they didn’t have far to go. Speares led him to the door of a three story apartment, and they went inside. There was a little entryway, followed by a narrow staircase leading up.

“This might be a little rough on you,” she said. “I tried for a ground-floor place, but no luck. At least for now.”

Christopher took the steps one at a time, holding tight to the rail and getting both feet on a step before tackling the next one. He paused at each landing to catch his breath. Two landings per level, and three stories to the top. He felt like an old man. His whole body burned by the time he finished.

“You seem like you like to be self-deprecating, but you’ve held up pretty well considering what you’ve been through,” Speares said.

“Yeah, well, I think I’d like some more water and a bed to lie down in,” he replied.

“You’re in luck.”

The single door at the top landing opened onto a small, unremarkable apartment. It had a bathroom just large enough to contain a toilet, sink and shower; a bedroom with nothing but a bed; and a combination living and dining room with a small table, two chairs, and a simple kitchenette along one wall. There were two little windows—one in the bedroom and one in the living room—but they offered little light and a disappointing view of the stone-enclosed street outside. Most of the light came from recessed bulbs in the ceiling.

Christopher found a glass in the cabinets. There was a pitcher of water (and not much else) in the small refrigerator. He took his drink and sat at the table. Speares sat across from him, still holding her notebook.

“Who decides what happens to me?” Christopher asked.

“Your case will go before a tribunal. They’ll decide what happens, and how much…supervision you need. For now, you’re under house arrest.”

“So I go on trial?” he asked.

“Something like that.”

“When do I have to talk to them?”

Speares shook her head. “You don’t. They already have all the case information, including everything from Meadows. I’ll make my reports as well.”

Christopher frowned. “I get no say in what happens to me?”

Speares sighed. “I know it seems unfair, especially as an outsider. Those of us who live here know what to expect. The tribunal is not debating whether or not you can go back home. That’s not even a question. Part of it is secrecy, but it’s also to protect you from the bad guys. Even if you were willing to keep all the secrets you know, there are always going to be people out there trying to find out about this place, and if they get to you, they will do whatever is necessary to get you to talk.”

“I’m still debating who exactly the bad guys are,” Christopher said.

“I don’t blame you, but I’d suggest you try to be pragmatic instead of bitter. There are things we can change, and things we can’t. Work within the framework that’s available to you.”

“I’d like to at least make my case,” Christopher said. “You’re going to report to them. Tell them I want to at least talk to them in person.”

“That’s really not my purview…”

“Please. Like you said, I’m being pragmatic. This is the only opportunity I have to influence what happens to me.”

“It may not have the kind of influence you’re hoping for,” Speares replied.

“I’m willing to take that risk.”

“Well,” she said, “I suppose I could make a motion on your behalf. It’s only a request. Most likely they’ll reject it and make their decision without your input.”

“Then at least I tried.”

“Very well,” she said. She set the notebook onto the table and opened it. “Now, I have a few more things I want to go over before we’re done for today.”

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 23.3

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

Speares let Christopher finish his food while she politely flipped through a small gray notebook and occasionally tapped on the pages with a pen. From what Christopher could see, the notebook was filled with precise, hand-written notes that could almost be mistaken for a printed font.

When he was finished, she snapped the notebook closed.

“Can we walk and talk?”

Christopher stretched his sore limbs. “I think so, if we go slow. Maybe limp and talk.”

“Sure. Leave the tray. Take the bottle, if you like.”

Christopher slid to the edge of the seat and levered himself to a standing position. Then he picked up the one water bottle that was still half full. Speares waved a hand over a black plate next to the door, and Christopher heard the lock click. Then she held the door open as he stepped through. It felt like crossing a magical threshold, even though it only led into the dingy hallway he had seen when he first entered.

She stepped past him and went right, down the hall, notebook in hand, shoes clacking on the stone floor.

“I’m going to tell you a few things up-front,” she said. “Then, unfortunately, I’m going to need you to answer some of the same questions, one more time. We’ll take breaks, and you can ask me questions. I can’t promise that I’ll answer everything.”

“Alright.”

The area around the jail room really was a maze of identical corridors in varying shades of beige and gray. Here and there, Christopher saw places where the paint had chipped away, revealing more layers underneath, or sometimes bare gray stone with white or black flecks. It looked as though the hallways had been cut directly out of the rock and merely had a coat of paint applied. The lighting was mostly indirect, from narrow gutters that ran along either side of the ceiling. It was bright, but still somehow gave him the feeling of the light just as the sun began to set. Here and there, he did see electric bulbs set into the ceilings as well.

“Outsiders coming into our custody isn’t unheard-of,” Speares said. “But it’s not a common occurrence either. There are procedures in place, and—off the record—Meadows was way out of line. My determination is that you are a low-threat individual. However, I’m going to be honest and tell you right now that you are never going to go home, and that’s something you’ll have to come to grips with.”

She paused to look at him, gauging his reaction.

“Why?”

“Everything you’ve witnessed since you found that bunker is classified. We can’t let you go back out into the world with nothing but a pinky swear that you won’t tell anyone. Assuming you’re trustworthy, there are still bad people out there who would use coercive methods to get whatever information out of you they could.”

Christopher nodded. “I’ve had enough of coercive methods for a while. But I’d still like to go home. What’s supposed to happen to me if you’re not going to keep me in a cell?”

“The best option is that you integrate into Razor Mountain society. You rest up, you heal, and eventually, we find you something productive to do. In short, you stay here, and you’re…lightly supervised. It’s a bit like being out on parole.”

“Except I never committed a crime,” Christopher said.

Speares resumed walking without responding to that comment, but Christopher thought she had the good grace to look a tiny bit guilty.

“If you don’t mind, tell me about your rough landing and finding the bunker,” she said.

Christopher recounted his story yet again, starting with an overview of his sales trips and job, and ending with his entry into the bunker. Speares stopped him here and there to ask clarifying questions, but otherwise just listened. She flipped pages in her notebook, which he realized must contain notes taken from his sessions with Meadows. Occasionally, she paused to jot a note in the margins.

Their path took them through a set of wide double doors and out into a different series of branching pathways. These were wider, and they entered into what appeared to be a sort of residential area. Small stacks of apartments lined the road. They were all carved directly from the rock, but only a few had stone facades. Others had brick or stucco or tile, and a handful even had wooden shakes or painted siding. There were tiny neighborhoods in different styles, giving the strange impression of moving from an older small town in rural America to some nondescript Mediterranean village, to New York brownstones. Except, of course, that there was a stone ceiling high above them, instead of a sky. In most of the neighborhoods that sky was painted blue, but the illusion only really held up when you weren’t looking directly at it.

There were unusually bright street lights, and they were all lit, even though it seemed to be what passed for daytime here. More indirect light brightened the ceiling-sky and shone down from above. The sources must have been cleverly hidden—Christopher couldn’t see where the light came from.

The path was sparsely populated, but they did pass people. Many wore uniforms, but others wore ordinary civilian clothes. Christopher noticed glances directed toward Speares, and wondered if her uniform somehow marked her in a way that made people take notice.

“I need to rest,” he said.

“Sure.”

She directed him to a nearby bench that had been carved from the wall in the space between “neighborhoods.” Christopher drank the remainder of his water bottle.

“What is this place?” he asked. “Why is everything classified, and why does it look like someone picked up little pieces of different cities and jammed them underground? This doesn’t seem like an ordinary military base.”

“Of course it isn’t,” she said. “Although I could certainly show you areas that I imagine are pretty ordinary-looking. Regardless, the entire mountain is considered a military installation. We just have a large civilian population. This place is a carefully hidden, potentially self-sufficient society. A place that can act as a last bastion if something really astonishingly bad happens. Nuclear war, or a meteor impact, or climate catastrophe. That sort of thing. In some of those scenarios, we just need to be able to take care of ourselves, but in others, secrecy would be vital to our survival.”

“So this whole place is one big bunker,” Christopher said.

“You could say that.”

“What do you mean by potentially self-sufficient?”

“We’re not completely disconnected from the outside world,” Speares said. “But we could be, if we needed to.”

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 23.2

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

Christopher’s dreams were full of misery: freezing cold and the inescapable noise, or endless falling through a black void. However, even in his dreams he felt different. He no longer felt the desire to escape these horrors. He accepted what was happening. It washed over him like a wave. The nightmares didn’t wake him. Each one eventually subsided.

When he did finally wake up, he felt a sense of peace. The idea of sitting in his cell in the empty jail room was a perfectly reasonable way to spend his time. Perhaps it would continue to be quiet and warm. What a wonderful idea. Perhaps a soldier might bring a bottle of water, or a tray of basic, institutional food. That would be something on par with the best days of Christopher’s life.

He was delighted to discover that his stomach no longer hurt, and the rest of his body ached slightly less. He still felt like a living bruise, but he had regained some basic mobility, and he experienced fewer knifing pains when he moved. He lay on the bed for a while, then experimented with sitting on the floor and even standing upright while using the bars for support. There was a whole world of possibilities.

The next time the door opened, he was certain it was someone he had never seen before. A woman entered, carrying another tray and two water bottles. The tray captured Christopher’s attention for a moment, as he realized it was the previous day’s fantasy made real, a doubled version of his previous meal, two sandwiches, two apples, a veritable heap of carrots, and two cookies. He was delighted to note that he had underestimated how good his day could get.

The woman was dressed in a dark green uniform similar to Sergeant Meadows, but it was completely unadorned except for chevrons and some sort of white oval symbol on the shoulders. The name tag said “G. SPEARES.” She had short brown hair that hung just past her ears, and a face that projected an air of someone who has to deal with irritations all day, every day, and would be swift and efficient when dealing with those irritations.

She set the tray and water bottles on the steel table in the middle of the room before turning and walking to Christopher’s cell. Unlike the soldiers who had previously visited him, she walked like a human being rather than a robot, and she actually looked at him as though he were visible. The eye contact was the most surprising thing that had happened so far.

“I understand you’ve been through some bullshit,” she said, “so I’m hoping that we can both be civil if I let you out without restraints. Sound good?”

Christopher swallowed, wishing he had one of those water bottles in hand, and nodded.

“Sounds good.”

The woman unlocked the cell and opened the door, then walked back to the table and sat down facing him. Christopher noted that she had left her back to him for a few seconds, perhaps as a gesture of trust. It was a silly gesture considering the fact that he was malnourished and could barely walk, and she seemed like the sort of person who might do respectably in a fistfight with a gorilla. Christopher found himself appreciating it nonetheless.

He hobbled over to the table and slowly lowered himself onto the seat. The woman gestured to the food.

“Don’t let me stop you. I’m sure you’re still hungry. I only limited your intake yesterday because your body would have trouble handling too much right away, and most people find it hard to control themselves when they’ve been starved half to death.”

Christopher was already halfway through the first water bottle, and his throat felt lubricated enough to speak properly as he bit into the apple.

“Makes sense. I felt terrible afterward, and I still would have eaten more.”

“I hope you don’t find it awkward if I sit here while you eat,” she said.

He laughed.

“The mere suggestion,” he said, feeling loquacious, “that my opinion would have any bearing on the situation is pretty fucking delightful, if I’m being honest.”

Her eyes widened a fraction of a millimeter in surprise. She blinked a few times as though trying to order her thoughts before responding.

“I’ll say this. What was done to you was completely unconscionable. You also seem…surprisingly glib about it.”

“I definitely feel different,” Christopher said, moving on to the first sandwich. “Not sure exactly how, yet. But I’m guessing it has something to do with trauma or PTSD or whatever it is that happens to you after being tortured.”

Again, she paused, and Christopher continued before she could respond.

“So are you the local psychologist, here to make me functional again? Or is this a good cop, bad cop thing?”

She frowned and leaned back slightly, hands flat on the table.

“Neither,” she said. “At least, not exactly. I’m not a psychologist. I’m Specialist Gabrielle Speares. I’m a soldier, albeit with a rather unusual job description. I’m a sort of liaison. And I don’t like the good cop, bad cop idea, because it carries the implication that I’m working in some way with Sergeant Meadows. I know you have no reason to believe me, but I can assure you that is not the case. I am, however, going to have to immediately compromise my position here though, because one of the things I’ve been tasked with is interviewing you. Yet again.”

Christopher washed down the peanut butter with the remainder of the water bottle before beginning on the second sandwich.

“I’ll tell you this, if you are the good cop, I think you’re pretty good at it. But again, I’m not confident that my brain is working at full capacity right now, so I might be an easy mark.”

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 23.1

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

Christopher awoke to the aching of his body. He was stiff and sore everywhere; he felt like he had been beaten. But he was also immediately aware of a clarity of thought. He felt rested in a way that he hadn’t for days, maybe weeks. He also felt that he could continue sleeping forever, but his body suggested that there were more immediate needs. He was incredibly hungry and thirsty.

He worked on sitting up. Each movement brought a new twang or jolt of his joints and muscles. By the time he was able to sit upright on the metal bed, he was holding his breath and tensed all over. He caught his breath and looked around the cell. It was essentially the same as it had been for his entire stay, but it felt entirely transformed. There was silence, the lights were set to a reasonable level, and the temperature was comfortable. There was also a tray of food and an unlabeled plastic bottle of water sitting on the floor, just inside the cell door.

Christopher would have lunged to the tray, if his body hadn’t betrayed him with jolting pain. Instead, he embarked on the arduous task of sliding into a sitting position on the floor, where he could scoot himself the two feet over to the food. It was real food, not whatever bland mush they had been feeding him. There was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread, a small and slightly under-ripe apple, five baby carrots, and a hard little chocolate chip cookie.

While it was objectively something like a mediocre school lunch, it was the best meal Christopher had ever eaten. It put past cookouts and fancy restaurants and thanksgivings to shame. He nearly wept as he ate the cookie in two bites. The lukewarm bottle of water was even better. It was probably his imagination, but he thought he could feel it spreading through his body, the moisture infusing his scratchy eyes, cracked lips, and tight throat.

Perversely, his stomach hurt even more after the food and water. It felt like a wooden knot in his belly that the food was being forced through. Still, he would have eaten several more meals if they had been offered.

Unable to bear the idea of getting back onto the bed, Christopher slid himself into a sitting position against the stone wall. He closed his eyes and felt the moisture welling up under the lids, soothing the sandpaper feeling. He dozed, savoring the silence that now seemed like such an incredible treasure. In his half-dreaming, he thought he ought to be angry. He didn’t have the strength for it. Instead, he felt amazed by everything around him: the taste of the food, the silence, the warm air. There were a lot of simple things worthy of appreciation, and he hadn’t given them the respect they deserved before this ordeal. He wondered if he was still delirious.

He was jolted awake by the sound of the door opening. The uniformed guard entered, carrying another bottle of water.

Christopher wondered if this was the same guard each time. It was difficult to remember anyone other than Sergeant Meadows. There might have been multiple guards, but he couldn’t picture their faces.

The man walked smartly to Christopher’s cell, set the bottle of water inside through the bars, and picked up the empty bottle and tray that Christopher had left. Christopher wanted to ask him what had happened. Why were they suddenly treating their prisoner as though he were an actual human being? Had Christopher somehow told them something they wanted to hear? Had he inadvertently mentioned some secret about Harold and Garrett and the rest of the exiles? Or had Meadows finally decided that Christopher really was just a very unfortunate person in the wrong place?

Christopher wanted to ask the guard if he was proud to have participated in the torture of an innocent person, but he couldn’t even be sure this particular soldier was involved, and he was too grateful for the bottle of water.

All he managed to croak was “thank you,” before the soldier walked back to the door and stepped out of the room. Despite the gift of the water bottle, Christopher saw no warmth in the soldier’s attitude. There was no hint of eye contact or acknowledgment of Christopher’s presence. Just a man whose job was to set a water bottle down inside a room and pick up the discarded bottle and tray. No human interaction necessary.

As Christopher slowly made his way over to the water bottle, he tried to remember what he had said to Meadows. It was all clouded. Christopher knew that some of the things he remembered must be hallucinations: places melding together, people and events that were long past or never happened.

He remembered Meadows fishing for information about the exiles, talking about Harold and Garrett, the woman who had been their apparent leader, the many others whose names he didn’t know, and even Amaranth. He remembered talking about the fall from the plane, the bunker and the lake and his excursions into the wilderness. The messages on the radio. He remembered talking about his own life in ever expanding detail. His job, his schooling, his family.

He had told Meadows about his brother’s death, about how it had fractured their family, about all of the problems and sorrows in Christopher’s life that had come out of that one event. It wasn’t clear how much of that was real, and how much of it happened in fever-dreams. Christopher recalled a particular feeling, the feeling that something had broken inside of him, and the strange connection he had felt as he huddled in the corner of his cell and remembered sitting at the top of the stairs, listening to his parents argue down in the kitchen. It was as though the two moments had become linked across the span of years.

A new memory intruded. Christopher had stopped the interrogations. He sat across the metal table from Meadows and told him calmly that he would no longer participate.

“I’ll talk to whoever you report to,” Christopher had said, “but I’m done talking to you. You can keep doing whatever you want to me. You can kill me. But I’m done with you.”

After that, Christopher had become like a rock, hard and mindless. He had some vague sense that they had, in fact, kept doing the same things to him, but the conversations had stopped. Somehow, with his brain barely functioning, Christopher had found a way to keep control of himself. He remembered the grim satisfaction of sitting across from Meadows in silence.

As Christopher sat on the floor, savoring the bottle of water, he wondered if his stupid strategy had actually worked.

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The Read/Write Report – January 2023

It has been a while since I did one of these posts, but the new year seems like a great time to jump back into it. Here’s what I’ve been up to lately.

Vacation

At the end of 2022, I took what is probably the longest vacation I’ve taken in the past 15 years—three whole weeks. The last two weeks of the year were “stay-cation” around the house, and in the first week of 2023 my family escaped the snow and cold of Minnesota and went down to Florida.

I stayed fairly busy during my time at home, and we did quite a bit of sightseeing and beach time while in Florida, but I was able to do about twice as much writing as I typically do. Most of this went into Razor Mountain, but I couldn’t entirely resist poking at side projects and some potential future blog stuff. But I’ll talk about those things another day (maybe).

New Year’s Resolutions

I generally don’t put much stock in New Year’s resolutions, but I’m trying one this year. I’m not a person who tends to collect many possessions, with a couple notable exceptions. Firstly, as you might expect from a writer, I tend to collect a lot of books. I have a couple shelves full of physical volumes I haven’t yet read, and a handful of e-books on the Kindle.

I’m also a sucker for video games and, to a lesser extent, board games. There are a lot of inexpensive video games these days, especially with various services competing to offer the best sales. So I wish-list a lot of games and buy them when they’re cheap.

My not-too-serious resolution for the year is to not buy any new books or games, and try to work through the backlog that I already own. We’ll see how that goes.

Recent Reading

As usual, I have ongoing bedtime reading with my kids. We finished Startide Rising and moved on to The Uplift War, the last book in David Brin’s first “uplift trilogy.” It has been interesting, because these were formative books that I read in my teenage years, but I actually remember very little about them. I’m certainly seeing things that I missed when I was young.

On my own, I’ve started a slim little volume called Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino. The book is framed as conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, where Polo describes the many cities that he’s visited in his travels.

I’ve been sitting on an idea for a fictional city for years, but I’ve never quite figured out whether it fits into a novel, a TTRPG, or something else. Invisible Cities is one of the pieces of fiction that I’m investigating to find some inspiration with my own fictional city.

Waiting for the Secret World

In November, a Kickstarter project popped up on my radar: The Secret World TTRPG.

The Secret World was originally an MMORPG released in 2012, back when people still believed that a new game would someday overthrow World of Warcraft. It was moderately successful on launch, but it was a little clunky, didn’t get a lot of updates, and slowly lost players over time. In 2017 it was relaunched with some new systems as the free-to-play Secret World Legends. That iteration was equally unsuccessful, and it eventually went into maintenance mode while the developers moved on to other projects in order to keep paying the rent.

Secret World, in both its iterations, was a very strange MMORPG. While the gameplay itself never really shined, it had a fantastic story, amazing settings, great voice acting, and some interesting puzzle design that was often a bit like an ARG. It’s a little cosmic horror, a little X-Files, with some Jules Verne and The Matrix thrown in for good measure. It still has a cult following, and those that love it stick around because of the story.

A TTRPG seems like a perfect fit for this kind of rich, expansive setting, so I’m excited to see what Star Anvil come up with. A few people have voiced concerns that it will be using the Dungeons and Dragons 5E rules, which may not be a perfect fit for this style of game. However, that’s the most popular TTRPG around, so I can’t really fault a small indie studio with a relatively unknown property for hedging their bets.

The current goal for releasing the book is October 2023, and over-funded Kickstarter projects aren’t exactly known for meeting their deadlines. , the project got me itching for some science-fiction or science-fantasy TTRPGs. To scratch that itch, I dug into two other games: Shadowrun 6e, and Cyberpunk Red.

Shadowrun

I’ll be honest. Shadowrun 6e seems like a mess. Both gameplay and setting feel like they took the “kitchen sink” approach, with a lot of different fantasy ideas and sci-fi ideas all fighting for attention, while nothing really stood out to me. Some of the ideas, like big dice pools, seem fun. But, having never played Shadowrun, I felt like the core book really didn’t give me a good feel of what it would be like to play, and I didn’t get enough of the setting to feel comfortable running a game. I think any core rule book should have snippets of gameplay or an example adventure, and this had neither.

I was a little leery of spending any more money on the game, so I tried looking in the…somewhat legally gray areas of the internet…for campaign books. The 6e adventure books I found were still frustratingly vague about actual gameplay, and seemed to largely eschew the mission-based play described in the core book.

By the time I got through the book I was fairly irritated, and I went down the rabbit hole of reddit posts and forums. As far as I can tell, Shadowrun players spend about half of their time debating which version of Shadowrun to use, or which bits to cannibalize from all the different versions. 6e doesn’t seem to be popular. And I started regretting purchasing the book at all.

Cyberpunk Red

To soothe myself, I moved on to another venerable franchise, one that recently had a very over-hyped video game made in its image: Cyberpunk. The latest iteration of Cyberpunk is called Cyberpunk Red. It is also quite recent, and interestingly, it seems to have been made alongside the development of the video game.

One of the challenges of the game’s namesake genre is that it was popularized in the 80s, and in some ways it has become retro-futurism. Cyberpunk Red takes an interesting approach to modernization. Rather than rewrite history, Red moves it forward. In the “Time of the Red,” decades have passed since previous Cyberpunk games (and their outdated references). The world has changed. It’s still an alternate-history version of our world where technology advanced faster than it did for us, but letting a few decades pass allowed the creators to change the setting so that it feels like it’s exploring and expanding upon today’s problems, not the ones that were relevant thirty or forty years ago. It’s an elegant solution.

It may not be fair to compare Cyberpunk Red to Shadowrun, but I read them back to back, so I’m going to do it anyway. Cyberpunk Red pretty much addresses all of the things that irritated me about Shadowrun. Where Shadowrun is all over the place with fantasy and sci-fi tropes, Cyberpunk Red is laser-focused on its cyberpunk setting. There are lots of character options: you can play as a rock star, mid-level executive, or freelance journalist, as well as the soldier and hacker types you’d expect from the setting. You can outfit yourself with all sorts of cybernetic hardware. But everything fits nicely in the setting. Everything seems to make sense.

The book includes a thousand-foot view of world history and geopolitics, but it focuses on a single city. This overall focus makes it feel like Cyberpunk Red can dig a lot deeper into the details of the setting. Even better, it includes a meaty section on how to run the game, some fiction to get a feel for the setting. It doesn’t include an example adventure, but there are a couple small free ones easily found online.

Back to the Grind

With my long vacation at an end, I’m back to work, kids are back at school, and we’re getting comfortable with our routines again.

My main writing project remains Razor Mountain, and I look forward to finishing it in 2023. After that, I’m going to have to think about what to do with this blog—I’ve been working on that book in some form for almost the entire life of Words Deferred. It’ll be an exciting new adventure!

For now, I still have a ways to go, and I’m back in my normal writing routine. Look for a new chapter next week.

Reference Desk #17 — Story Engine: Deck of Worlds

If you’ve been around here for a while, you might remember my review of The Story Engine. The Story Engine is part card game, part tool for generating semi-randomized writing prompts. I’ve used it as a fun way to brainstorm ideas for short stories, and I’ve found that it works well for me. As someone who enjoys card and board games, it’s just a much more fun and tactile way to generate ideas than sitting in front of the notebook with pen in hand.

Recently, the folks behind the original Story Engine kickstarted a new product in the same vein. It’s called the Story Engine: Deck of Worlds. Deck of Worlds is another card-based brainstorming game, but this time it’s focused on settings instead of plots. It’s billed as a tool for storytellers and TTRPG game masters to easily generate interesting and deep settings.

I received my order right before the holidays, and I was able to take Deck of Worlds for a test drive.

What’s In the Box?

The base set of cards for Deck of Worlds comes in a flat box with a plastic insert, magnetic latch, and a heavy tagboard sleeve that guarantees it will stay closed. This is nearly identical to the box that the original Story Engine came in, and the build quality is good. It’s the sort of box you’d expect from a premium board game.

However, the original Story Engine had many expansion packs that added more cards, and Deck of Worlds is the same. If you add extra cards to your set, you’ll quickly fill up the small amount of extra space in the box. Luckily, the creators of the Story Engine are well aware of this problem, and they’ve created a new card box with dividers that is capable of holding all the cards, even if you’ve got every single expansion. They’re inexpensive, so I got one for my original Story Engine set as well as my Deck of Worlds.

I also received three expansion packs for Deck of Worlds. “Worlds of Chrome and Starlight” is the science fiction expansion, “Worlds of Myth and Magic” is the fantasy expansion, and “Worlds of Sand & Story” is the deserts expansion. I chose these because sci-fi and fantasy are my two favorite genres to write in, and I have a TTRPG project percolating with a strong desert component.

Much like the original product, the Deck of Worlds main box includes a slim “guidebook,” which describes the intended ways to use the Deck of Worlds—although the creators are clear that there is no wrong way to play.

The Card Types

There are six card types in the Deck of Worlds: Regions, Landmarks, Namesakes, Origins, Attributes, and Advents. According to the guidebook:

  • Regions establish a setting’s main terrain type and act as a hub for other cards
  • Landmarks add geographical sites and points of interest
  • Namesakes combine with Regions or Landmarks to create in-world nicknames
  • Origins record significant events of the area’s past
  • Attributes highlight present-day features of the area and its people
  • Advents introduce events that may change the area’s future

Regions are the only cards with a single prompt on them, and have a nice background that illustrates the geography of the setting. Landmarks have two prompts to choose between, and each one has a background illustration. The other four card types have a symbol and color to identify the card type, and four different prompts to choose from.

Building Basic Settings

The simplest way to play with Deck of Worlds is to create small settings, or “microsettings” as the guidebook calls them. These will typically be built around a single region (terrain type) and a single landmark, like a building.

For my test run, I built a few of these microsettings. First, I chose the prompts I liked best and combined the cards. Then I expanded or focused the results, writing a little blurb about each setting. I only spent a couple minutes on each of these examples.

The Grassland of Crowds

The museum’s founding piece is a huge fulgurite dug out of a sandy hill. The museum was built around this dug-out hill, and the piece is displayed, unmoved, where it was found.

The “lightning festival” grew in this area, and is held during the season of rainless storms. People display all kinds of art. One of these presentations is voted the winner of each festival and incorporated into the museum.

The Scree of Rivers

(Cyberpunk) The scree was mined for the long, winding veins of precious metals near the surface, leaving a maze of narrow, shallow canyons and piles of leavings. Rivers form when it rains. A grey market meets here periodically, protected from government scanners by the trace metals in the rock, with lots of escape routes and hidey-holes for quick getaways.

Not sure about the prophecy bit.

City of Sand and Story

The City of Rains is nestled in rocky mountains in a desert. During the wet season, the mountains funnel moisture and clouds and it rains on the city, creating a temporary river. All inhabitents capture as much water as possible, to live on and trade for the rest of the year. They plant crops along the river while it lasts.

A recent sandstorm uncovered caverns in the rock beneath the city, leading to underground ruins and vast cisterns. The discovery of so much water could upend the economy of the entire region

Complex Settings

The guidebook also includes some rules for building more complex settings out of multiple microsettings. There is really no limit to the number of smaller settings you could combine. There are optional rules, including a “meta-row” for attributes of the larger area as a whole, a “sideboard” of extra cards to give you more choices when selecting any given card type.

To test this out, I built a setting from four different microsettings, using the meta-row (on the left) and sideboard (on the right).

The Golden Plains

Once known as a wealthy region, but its reputation is fading. The area has been covered with strange dark clouds for weeks, but there is little rain.

In the North: The Red City

Home of a religious order, this city was built on a river and filled with canals. It was once a hub of commerce, but the river grew over the years and eventually overflowed its banks south of the city, disrupting the flow and creating a vast swamp.

Now, the priests of the Red City ply a darker trade: they’ve made the city into a prison for the worst criminals. The prison is the center of the old city, and is called “The Prison Without Walls.” It is surrounded by deep and fast-running canals, and is only accessible by a single, heavily-guarded bridge.

The priests have traditionally been led by a patriarchal lineage of high priests, but now a lowly priestess is gathering a following among priests and prisoners alike. She has radical ideas of rehabilitating prisoners instead of working them to death as penance for their crimes.

In the South-East: The Swamp of Ink

These thickets were once hunting grounds of the nobility, until the river overflowed and the land became swampy.

The few people who still live here are led by an excommunicated priest from the Red City. They harvest “swamp mites,” tiny, stinging crawfish that can be ground into fine black dyes. Travelers from the North recently called out the priest as an exile, and he imprisoned them, but there is unrest and talk of rebellion among the people.

In the West: The Moraine

The coast of mists is the western edge of the Golden Plains region.

The Moraine is the home of the School of Poets. It was created by a celebrated poet who was known as a cantankerous jerk. The only woman who ever loved him, muse of his thousand poems, made him promise to teach other poets his craft.

The school is rumored to be haunted. While most of its inhabitants don’t take this seriously, many students have recently complained of strange and disturbing noises coming through the stone walls.

In the Southwest: The City of Smoke

A city on the slopes of an inactive volcano, built atop the ruins of the “old city,” which was destroyed by the last eruption.

Hot springs in the city are warmed by the heart of the volcano. They supposedly have healing properties, and draw tourists who hope to have their injuries or sickness cured.

Vineyards planted in the fertile volcanic soil use a unique variety of small, golden grapes, harvested after the first frost to make sweet wine.

The dark clouds that have shrouded the region threaten the growth of the grapes and the year’s wine harvest.

Takeaways

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the Deck of Worlds so far. It has a very similar feel to the original Story Engine. The cards strike a nice balance by giving you a few options to pick from, but also limitations that force your brain to make interesting and occasionally surprising connections between seemingly unrelated things.

Like any sort of brainstorming, not every single idea will be a good one. The randomization means that sometimes you get combinations that just fall flat or fail to inspire. Some of this depends on your own creativity and willingness to explore.

Like the original Story Engine, the quality of the product is great. The new boxes are an improvement, allowing me to keep all my original and expansion cards together in a form factor that takes up less space than the original box.

I don’t necessarily like all the rules suggested by the guidebook, but it’s easy to tweak the process until it works for you. They’re just cards, and they can be arranged however you see fit. The extra rules for bigger settings are a little complicated for my tastes, but the end result in my experiment had some interesting ideas that I wouldn’t mind exploring further.

The guidebook also has more rules that I didn’t get into, for collaborative multiplayer and for combining Deck of Worlds with the original Story Engine. All of that feels like more complexity than I want when I’m brainstorming—I would much rather create smaller ideas and then mix and match myself. However, I’m sure this style of prescribed creation could work for others.

Finally, I think this could be a great tool for GMs/DMs who run custom table-top RPG campaigns. I’ve long believed that the best way to approach TTRPG worlds is the “billiards” style described by Chris Perkins, where you set up a number of interesting locations full of interesting characters, and then let the player characters bounce around between them, setting events in motion.

The Deck of Worlds is a great way to invent these little islands of content, and I think it would be pretty easy to create quick and dirty sessions with very little prep, especially if you’re using a lightweight rule set.

Where to Get It

The Deck of Worlds and its expansions are available directly from the Story Engine website. In addition to the Sci-fi, Fantasy and Desert expansions I chose, there are Horror, Coastline, and Arctic expansions. If you’re planning to use the deck for tabletop RPGs, they also have expansions for lore fragments, cultures, and adventure prompts.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 22

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

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

Developing God-Speaker

In this chapter, I had two important things I wanted to accomplish. The first thing: showing a formative event for God-Speaker, where he once again loses someone close to him.

As I’ve mentioned previously, God-Speaker only gets about half as many chapters as Christopher in the book. This is partly because it draws out some of the mysteries, and partly because I want it to feel more like Christopher’s story than God-Speaker’s story.

In Act II, each of the God-Speaker chapters really needs to pull its weight in terms of developing God-Speaker’s personality, and revealing his long, long history. The challenge for me is that these chapters jump drastically through time and feature characters that only appear in a single chapter.

When a character dies, I usually want it to make a big impact on the reader. In the case of Strong Shield and Sky-Watcher, the reader barely knows these characters, and can’t really be expected to feel much for them. However, the purpose of these characters is really just to be foils for God-Speaker in different ways. They don’t have much development, but they have to help to build God-Speaker’s character.

Sky-Watcher accepts her own death with dignity, but God-Speaker does not. After all, he’s been alive for many lifetimes at this point, and he’s used to getting what he wants.

The Mechanics of Magic

The voices deep inside the mountain still aren’t completely explained. That’s a mystery that I want to draw out. However, there are plenty of hints about their origins that many readers will pick up on.

The voices provide God-Speaker with knowledge that would otherwise be far beyond human technological understanding at these points in time. This allows God-Speaker and his little civilization to excavate the underground city and make it livable.

The voices also give God-Speaker other powers, powers that seem to be beyond mere technological advancement. They give him the ability to live far beyond a normal human lifetime by transferring his consciousness to a new body. In this chapter, I also try to explain the mechanics of the “oracles,” specially trained people who can use the voices to move their consciousness through time instead of space.

I’ve found it a little challenging to clearly describe the mechanics of the “magic” while not making it feel like straight exposition. I may revisit this in a later editing pass.

Approaching the Present

In my outline, there are only two God-Speaker chapters left—in Act II and in the book as a whole. The final act of the book will belong to Christopher. These last two God-Speaker chapters will both take place in the same time period, bringing us within a couple decades of the modern day, in the final big time jump of the narrative.

This is an exciting part of the book for me, because it’s where the two main characters’ narratives finally come together. It also marks the point where a lot of the mysteries will be resolved.

Next Time

We’re back to Christopher for a long chapter. We’ll see a little bit of the modern state of the underground city, and see that things are not quite right. Christopher is still trying to get back home, but it seems less likely than ever that he’ll ever leave Razor Mountain.