Razor Mountain — Chapter 17.1

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

Christopher woke as someone was pulling something tight over his mouth. A moment later, more fabric slid down over his face. He felt himself choking, unable to get enough air, and he clawed frantically at the cloth, trying to breathe. Hands grabbed his wrists and pulled them behind his back, where they were tied together with rough rope. Without thinking, he bent his neck and rammed his body, shoulder-first, toward the assailant he couldn’t see. He struck a glancing blow and heard a grunt, then lost his balance and fell forward and to the right, landing hard and banging his forehead.

A violent static filled his vision and hearing. He felt like he was plunging into the lake again, sinking into the darkness.

He was being captured, or kidnapped. But that didn’t make any sense. Wasn’t he already captured, already a prisoner among this strange group? Once again, he was overwhelmed by the frustration of not knowing. There was more going on among these people than he had been told. They were obviously afraid of the Razor Mountain people. Maybe they had been found?

The sparks and waves that filled his vision began to fade into more ordinary darkness. His eyes were open, but he couldn’t see anything. He realized that he had been pulled to his feet while still dazed, and he was stumbling forward with an unseen hand pushing between his shoulder blades. Another clamped his left arm, guiding him.

He took slow, shaky breaths through the fabric and found that he could still breathe reasonably well. It was only the animal fear of being smothered in his sleep that had made him think he was being suffocated. He could hardly enunciate with the fabric bunched in his mouth, but he tried to shout, to make some noise. It sounded muffled, even in his own head.

“Quiet,” said a familiar voice on his left, and the hand on his back shoved harder.

Next, the hand pushed down on his shoulder, forcing him to bend. He tried to straighten up, only to scrape his head on something above. He bent forward, letting himself be guided and propelled. He thought about the collapsed section of the building and wondered if he was being pushed beneath that low ceiling.

He walked, half-crouched, listening to the scrape of feet and the faint sound of breathing nearby. The guiding hand grabbed his shoulder and pulled back. He found he could stand at full height again. For a moment, there was no hand gripping him. The idea of running or flinging himself away from his captors flashed through his head, but it was nonsense. Where could he go when he couldn’t see or use his hands? He had no idea how many people were with him, although it didn’t sound like more than two or three.

He took another deep breath and tried to calm down. He didn’t understand what was going on. He didn’t have enough information to guess. He had to just accept that. He also couldn’t escape at this point. He had to wait, try to be patient, and look for opportunities.

Although his heart was still beating loudly in his ears (and pulsing in the lump he could feel rising on his forehead), when he stopped to listen he found that he could make out a quiet conversation going on behind him to the left.

There were two voices, both familiar, but one that he recognized right away. It was the low, slow voice of the big man who had been assigned as his guard, or at least his observer. Harold. So he was still with the same people as before. Probably.

Before Christopher could really parse anything they were saying, a hand grabbed the rope binding his hands behind his back and ushered him forward once again. They turned to the left and there was the sound of a door opening in front of him, then closing gently behind him. He felt cooler air on his face, though not as cold as the outside air.

The sound was different here too, the scrape of footsteps echoing as though they were in a bigger space. The voices were whispering again, and this time he could hear snatches of the conversation. The low voice, Harold, sounded like he was arguing with the other voice.

“…bad idea…choice…won’t help…”

Christopher thought he recognized the other voice too. It wasn’t as deep. It was a voice that was irritatingly self-righteous. A voice that knew everything it needed to know, and expected everyone else to come around to its viewpoint. Christopher was pretty sure it was Garrett, the argumentative man from the mess hall who had even managed to get Amaranth riled up.

A gust of wind hit him, and now it was brutally cold. Now it felt like they were facing the outside. He was shoved forward again. As he walked, he was forced to rely on the hand on his shoulder or arm to guide him.

He felt the crunch of snow underfoot, and the subtle rise and fall of the rough ground. He had to concentrate on his steps to make sure he didn’t slip on slick spots or trip on the rocks and grass and whatever else he trod over.

His world of darkness lightened a little, to a deep gray, and he thought that the sun must be rising.

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Storytelling Class — Style/Substance

Every once in a while, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This time, our topic was style and substance.

We always start with two questions: What did we read and write recently?

What Did We Read?

Freya is getting close to finishing the first Wheel of Time book. I asked her if she was excited to continue with a series that has fourteen books. She said she thought she might be 70 before she finishes. She also just started the “Janitors” series, though she hasn’t gotten far enough to form an opinion yet.

I have been working my way through my beautiful new Ambergris hardcover. City of Saints and Madmen was a formative book for me, and I’m excited to now have it in a single massive tome alongside Jeff Vandermeer’s other Ambergris stories. I was however, a little disappointed to find that they actually removed some of the appendices that appeared in the original, so now I have to keep my copy of City of Saints and Madmen as well.

In non-fiction, I started Ways of Being at the recommendation of Cory Doctorow, although I’m only a few pages in.

What Did We Write?

Freya has kept busy writing for school work, and hasn’t worked on any fiction recently. After my Covid break, I’ve been working on getting back into Razor Mountain.

Style and Substance

Each story consists of two parts—two sides of the same coin—style and substance. You can think of “substance” as “what the story is about” and style as “how the story is told.” Substance is the meaning. Style is the actual words. By some definitions, substance is good, while style is just the shallow surface layer. However, when it comes to fiction, each story is really a melding of the two.

Schools of Thought

At the risk of being a little controversial, I’m going to define two schools of thought, and I’m going to call them “genre fiction” and “literary fiction.” I put them in quotes because each story is a special snowflake, and I’m about to speak in broad generalizations, so take it all with a grain of salt.

The “genre fiction” school of thought is that substance takes precedence. Genre fiction sometimes even devalues style. Common genre fiction advice suggests that, when reading a great book, the reader should forget they’re reading and get lost in the story—that is, in the plot and the characters. The descriptive text should become transparent. Authors should endeavor to become invisible, and never call attention to themselves.

The “literary fiction” school of thought holds that style is quality. Literary fiction tends to put a higher value on authorial voice. The advice here is that a great book should be overflowing with the author’s unique voice, and the reader should be transported into the mind-space of the author. Mechanics like plot and character are nice, but they need to be described through transcendent prose. Anyone can tell a story. A true author tells it in a way that only they can.

False Dichotomies

Like most dichotomies, this one is artificial. Style and substance aren’t strictly opposing forces (although they can sometimes fight each other). Some authors make the mistake of crafting page after page of beautiful prose that doesn’t really  tell a story, while others create intricate plots by placing row upon row of flat words like bricks in a wall.

Readers, like authors, are unique, and there are audiences for both of these styles. Science fiction has a big audience that revels in clever plots and is fine with a lack of ornamentation. Likewise, there are plenty of literary fiction readers who care more about delicious sentences than characters who actually go somewhere and do something.

As an author, you can make your own choices about what you value. You may choose to focus on substance, or style, or try to find a happy medium. However, it’s important to understand that there are trade-offs. The more stylized your prose is, the more your reader will have to work to understand what’s going on. Some readers will appreciate the extra layers of complexity, but others simply won’t be interested, and may just put the story down. Focus on style inherently takes some focus away from the substance.

Examples

We looked at a few of my personal favorites when it comes to literary style.

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series is a relatively mild example, where most of the stylistic flourishes could be described as “literary comedy,” twisting language for fun and amusement.

Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a book with literally complex text that stretches sentences across pages, forms shapes and pictures, and wraps around upon itself. But it is also a narratively complex work, presented by a character named Johnny, who details the work of his acquaintance, Zompano, who himself took detailed notes based on videos shot by a third character, Navidson, whose descriptions of his ever-shifting, labyrinthine, and spatially inconsistent house form the heart of the story.

Finally, there’s Vandermeer’s more recent work, Dead Astronauts, a book that is so dense and challenging to decipher that it almost feels encoded.

These are wildly different examples of a strong authorial voice put to use for different purposes. While Adams is extremely readable, House of Leaves ranges from straightforward prose to deep complexity. Dead Astronauts is lyrical and dreamlike, but so obfuscated in parts that I found it off-putting. And there are many other examples of other authors doing entirely different but equally interesting things with language.

Choosing a Style

Depending on the type of writer you are, you may find that you default more toward one end of the spectrum than the other. There’s nothing wrong with that. Many authors are influenced by their own favorite writers and stories, and you may like to write the same kind of stories that you like to read.

I find that memorable quotes and phrases tend to come from style-heavy writers. Substance-heavy writers tend to make unforgettable stories where you don’t necessarily remember any of the words in particular. I loved The Martian when I read it a year ago. I remember some of the structure (maybe because I blogged about it) but I don’t remember a single line from it.

Sometimes particular stories will speak to you in a certain way. Just because you normally write very straightforward sci-fi space operas doesn’t mean you can’t do a bunch of clever stylistic embellishment in a complicated, self-referential time-travel story.

As with most things in life, it can be good to experiment. You might discover that you can find joy in more kinds of stories than you previously realized. Or you may find that a particular story calls for a particular style.

In Defense of Endings

I have a co-worker who loves anime and manga. Once, several years ago, he was in the bookstore, perusing the manga, and a boy sidled up to him. The kid was practically vibrating, he was so excited to tell him about the best manga ever: Naruto. My co-worker was all-too-familiar with Naruto and explained that he was not interested. But the boy insisted. Repeatedly rebuffed, he refused to give up. He was certain that this series was great, if only the dumb adult would listen. He pointed to one of the spines, some ten or twenty books into the series.

“Here,” he said. “See where the covers change color? That’s where it gets good.”

My co-worker, exasperated, threw up his hands and said, “I’m not going to read twenty books just to get to the good part!

The War on Endings

In the traditional story breakdown, the ending is one of the three parts of the story. It comes after the beginning and the middle. Or does it?

Today more than ever, media is business as well as art. And it is competitive. All the big gatekeepers are in competition not just with each other, but with all the little indie artists out there, from self-published e-books to rappers on SoundCloud to short films on YouTube.

Big media companies love a sure thing, or as close to one as they can get. Conveniently, after decades of mergers and acquisitions they also have warehouses full of old IPs and characters from all their previous successes. They are happy to use and re-use it, playing on nostalgia or even just vague familiarity. And even with brand new IP, they love to milk their stories and characters until they’re dry, desiccated husks.

More Star Wars, more Marvel, more Game of Thrones and Stranger Things and Lord of the Rings!

These modern mega-media empires are incentivized to make everything as episodic and ongoing as possible. Endings are bad for business. They want to sell more tickets, more monthly subscriptions, more merch. They want a multi-generational fan base. In short, they want the story to go on forever.

But stories aren’t meant to go on forever. They’re meant to end.

Engines Need Fuel

What drives a good story forward? What gets us excited and makes us eager to find out what will happen next? Well, Lincoln Michael would say that there are many different engines that can power a story.

Often the engine is about characters and their goals. They’re seeking something. Sometimes it’s mystery and discovery: something we want to find out. Machael suggests other options, like form, language and theme. However, all of these engines have some similarities. As we dig into them and begin to understand them, they get used up. The patience of the audience is a finite resource. Familiarity breeds contempt.

A character with a goal drives the story forward. They run into obstacles, they have successes and setbacks, and we root for them. But eventually, they have to make progress, whether that be success or failure. Eventually, they need to achieve their goal or have it slip out of their reach, or we get bored. Likewise, a mystery can only remain mysterious for so long. The clues have to lead somewhere. The red herrings have to be revealed eventually, or we’re left in a stew of uncertainty and frustration. The detective has to find the killer.

There are ways, of course, of stretching out that resolution. Perhaps the character fulfils their goal, only to discover a newer, bigger goal. Perhaps the original villain turns out to be just another henchman of the real villain.

These kind of tricks can only take you so far. The engine of the story eventually runs out of gas. You might be able to refill it once or twice by escalating into some exciting new territory, but if you go too long without a satisfying resolution, it all starts to fall apart.

What About Episodes?

Episodic stories might seem like the escape hatch. After all, the police procedural catches the killer at the end of the episode, and next time there will be a new case, right? But it doesn’t really solve the problem at all.

Episodic stories have two options: they can carry baggage from episode to episode, or they can wipe the slate clean every time. If they carry things forward, building larger arcs beyond episodes, then they wind up with the same problems of escalation as any other story. They need arcs, and they have to build toward endings. But if they wipe the slate clean, they run into an even bigger problem.

Episodic stories with no larger arc are cartoons. Often literally, but sometimes only figuratively. The world and the characters become static cardboard cut-outs. They can be played for laughs or drama for a while, but there are only so many times we can laugh at the same jokes or wonder “how will they get out of this one?” These are the zombie remains of real stories, still going through the motions, but utterly devoid of life.

Are Endings Really Necessary?

No. For all my complaining, I’ve watched some of those shows. I’m actively reading several stories with no ending in sight. That’s fine. We can still get joy out of those things. Hell, Hollywood is banking on it.

It’s really just a missed opportunity. A good ending elevates the beginning and middle. A bad ending can ruin a good beginning and middle (which is why we collectively get so incredibly mad when the ending is bad). A story with no ending at all? We’ll never know if it could be great. It’ll just fade away slowly.

All of my favorite stories have endings. So really, this is just a plea for you to cater to my tastes.

Give your stories endings. Give them the opportunity for greatness.

An Unexpected Fall Break

I don’t typically talk much about my personal life on this blog. The blog is about writing, and I want to keep it that way, and not digress into the kind of parasocial voyeurism that pervades so much internet and television these days. However, I did want to drop a quick personal note today.

I’ve been absent from the blog and my other usual online haunts over the past week or so. Mere days into the busy start of the school year with three school-aged children, we had COVID make its way through the family. We’re all vaccinated, but I was still pretty effectively sidelined for a couple days, and the kids had to stay home from school.

I’m now on the other side of it, feeling fairly functional—only occasionally short of energy and a bit more easily winded. Everyone else is recovered or mostly-recovered. I’m thankful that we all had relatively mild and short-lived symptoms. I probably had the worst of it, and I really have nothing to complain about when considering what some people have gone through with this illness.


After what felt like an interminably hot and humid August, this weekend I got to enjoy air that feels cool enough to qualify as autumn weather. I went for a walk in the woods with the kids. I sat in the back yard with the monumental 865-page Ambergris omnibus hardcover. The cicadas are in high form, buzzing their raucous farewells to summer.

The parkway near our house was populated by only the most determined joggers and bikers in the mid-day swelter of a week ago, but in the cooler weather it now seems to have spontaneously germinated clusters of people like mushrooms: adults with their dogs and their children in strollers.

This week I feel like I’ve been given the opportunity to slow down; to watch and listen and “be present” (as trite as that phrase sometimes feels these days); to experience a series of peaceful moments, like little Norman Rockwell paintings. Maybe it’s a touch of altered consciousness, thanks to cold medications and COVID brain fog. Whatever it is, it feels like a nice break.

I’ll be back to the usual blogging soon. Back to Razor Mountain and the writing stuff. I’m already itching for it. I guess I’ve become a bit of an addict over these past couple years.

Dissecting Influences — Sci-Fi From My Childhood

If you’ve been around here for a while, you might remember that my favorite writing podcast is Writing Excuses. In Episode 17.7, the team discussed dissecting your influences.

We all have stories we love, whether they be books, shows or movies. The idea of this episode was that it can be useful to take apart our favorite things and figure out why we like them, because it guides us toward things that matter to us. The themes and ideas that draw us to these works will often be fertile ground for our own writing. And while it may seem obvious that we all know exactly what we like in media, the truth is that we often leave those stones unturned. It might even be surprising to dig into what really brings us joy in a favorite movie or book.

After listening to this episode, I started compiling a list of my own favorite media. It wasn’t hard to start. In fact, it was hard to stop. The things closest to mind were mostly books I had read recently or old favorites that I’ve been re-reading with my kids. But I soon started to remember books from childhood, poetry, and even influences outside fiction altogether.

With this list in hand, and continuing to add to it, I thought it might be fun to dissect my own writer brain in public. I have to limit myself to a reasonable size for a blog post, so I’m going to pick a somewhat arbitrary classification to pull out a handful of entries.

The Grown-Up Sci-Fi of My Childhood

That’s right, it’s some of my first loves in science fiction, way back when I was still in school. The actual dates of publication vary quite a bit, from 1965 to 1994, and these are all novels aimed at adults. One of the things that drew me into these books was the faintly illicit idea that I, as a child, could read stories intended for grown-ups. It felt like a window into ideas and worlds I wasn’t yet allowed to enter. Going from “Choose Your Own Adventure” and Goosebumps to heady books like Dune is a real shock to the system.

On that note, let’s start with Herbert’s masterpiece.

Dune

Having read this book at least three times—and one of those times quite recently—I have a hard time going back to the headspace I was in when I read it originally. I think I was in high school, and I’m pretty sure the reason I started reading it was because I saw a mention of it where someone said it was as influential in science-fiction as Lord of the Rings was in fantasy.

I think Dune is a pretty great book for young people who are starting to get into science fiction. On the one hand, it reduces the many political and economic complexities of the far future into a feudal culture where the only thing that matters are the machinations of a handful of powerful factions. The protagonist, Paul, is a ducal heir with adult responsibilities, but he’s still not quite an adult. Interestingly, the whole feudal system and it’s quasi-European royalty end up falling apart by the end of the book, with young Paul engineering their downfall at the hands of colonized people.

I remember this book being interesting because it sets up a world where people and decisions hundreds of years previous can have profound and complicated effects on the present. It’s a world of complex, interrelated systems that nobody can completely understand, and even a single person putting a wrench in the gears in just the right way can totally change the universe.

I also genuinely love Paul’s relationship with his own psychic powers. He hates them. He is constantly vacillating between seeing the future and being unable to steer it, or losing that sight and the fear of not knowing. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that handled that kind of power in quite the same way.

I have to at least mention the other books in the (original) Dune series. I read them all, although not right away. I don’t think any of them quite measure up to the original, but I appreciate how strange they are, and Herbert’s audacity in choosing to set them thousands of years apart in far-flung futures that are less and less similar to our own modern lives.

Ender’s Game

Another book with a child protagonist? Possibly a theme. Ender in this book is much younger than Paul is at the beginning of Dune, but he deals with some comparable drama. This is another book that I re-read recently with my kids.

This book was astounding in a few different ways. Firstly, while it’s not exactly dystopic fiction, it does depict a world where war with aliens has resulted in hardship for average people and a government with dictatorial power. We learn early on that Ender is special because he’s a “third.” In a world where the government limits how many children each couple can have, he is a rarity.

All of the main characters are children: Ender and his siblings, and all of the kids at the battle school. Parents and adults are present, but they have little time “on-screen.” Like the dictatorial government, they show up periodically and force some seemingly arbitrary and often cruel new rules onto the children, but it’s the children and their relationships that matter. This is a book that understands what it feels like to be a child, to feel like adults don’t give you all the information and many decisions are left completely out of your hands.

Ender is bred to be a soldier and a leader. He’s trained for it. He is subjected to insane cruelty, to the point where he ends up having to kill other children to defend himself, all because it’s part of the program. But the ultimate cruelty happens at the end of the book, when he discovers that the supposedly wise adults who forced this horrible life on him didn’t even understand the enemy that they trained him to kill. The entire war is nothing more than an interspecies miscommunication, and he finds out by accident.

And then he leaves. He finds the one person he loves and who loves him: his sister. They get on a spaceship and fly away. He leaves behind all the systems of abuse and control that defined his entire life. Maybe a metaphor for growing up.

The “Ender” series continues on. Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind are all great books, but again I feel like the original is still the best. The series is similar to Dune in the way it jumps large spans of time in a wildly changing galaxy. The Dune series eventually had a bunch of new books written much later, by Herbert’s son. I heard they were terrible and I never read them. The “Ender” series, on the other hand, had more and more books still written by Orson Scott Card, but I got to the point where I just wasn’t that interested by yet another rehash of the same story from a different secondary character’s perspective.

Before we move on, it’s worth mentioning that I’m still disappointed that Orson Scott Card turned out to be a homophobe and the sort of person who politely states their deeply held and hateful beliefs. Card was one of my early writing heroes, and I still hold his books on writing in high esteem, but as a person, he really bums me out. He kind of did the whole “J.K. Rowling” thing before Rowling.

The Uplift Saga

While the above two entries are the first (and I would argue, most important) books in a series, David Brin’s “Uplift” books are inseparable in my mind. There are six of them, in a pair of trilogies:

  • Sundiver
  • Startide Rising
  • The Uplift War

…and…

  • Heaven’s Reach
  • Brightness Reef
  • Infinity’s Shore

I suspect this series might be the most influential set of books in my childhood, but I came at them in a very weird way. I’m honestly not sure if I even remember it correctly. I know I read them out of order, because I bought one of these books at a garage sale, completely unaware that it was part of a series. I can’t be sure, but I think it was The Uplift War, the third book in the first trilogy.

That might sound a little insane to some readers, but it’s something I did multiple times as a kid. I even read through the fifth book in a series once, and didn’t realize it was part of a series until the ending completely failed to resolve the plot. One of the crazy things about being a child is that the world makes no sense. Every time you open a “grown-up” book, it’s like being transported into a completely new universe. Of course it’s confusing. Everything is confusing when you’re a child. It’s the ultimate introduction to the concept of “in media res.”

While Dune imagines a sci-fi future with no aliens whatsoever, and Ender’s Game has only the buggers, who seem to be mindless insectoid killing machines, the Uplift books are absolutely chockablock with all sorts of aliens. They are not your usual little green men. They are crabby things with 360° vision or energy creatures that live in the corona of the sun. They are varied and logical for the environment they came from.

The Uplift books depict a humanity that has just made contact with a galaxy full of aliens. There is a galactic culture. It is full of aliens who are much more advanced and powerful than humans, and we are forced to very abruptly change our own assessment of how awesome we are.

Humanity has started the process of advancing the intelligence of chimpanzees, dogs, gorillas and dolphins through genetic manipulation and technology. It turns out this is a pretty damn important concept to all the aliens, who call it “Uplift.” In fact, it’s the glue that binds all these different cultures together, as the uplifted races are forced into millennia-long servitude to the race that gave them the gift of sentience, and the races providing “Uplift” have a higher social position. Of course, the top dogs of the galaxy aren’t excited to see the newcomers, humanity, get that kind of respect, let alone the servitude of multiple freshly uplifted species.

Again, we have a fictional world that is too big for its characters. Hell, even the entire human race (and super-dogs/chimps/gorillas) is just trying to keep from drowning in a galaxy where almost everything is out of their control. I think, as a child, I was fascinated by the idea that everything we know and have ever known on planet Earth might be utterly inconsequential in the wider universe.

Overtime?

I have to admit, when I started writing this article I thought I might not have that much to say. Now I’m almost 2,000 words into this, everyone has probably stopped reading, and I only made it through half the books I intended.

I’m going to call it here. I found this to be a really fun exercise, but I’m curious if anyone else will be interested. I got more out of it than I thought I would, not the least of which is the desire to go and re-read the entire Uplift series. If anyone enjoys this, I might make it a regular feature. I have a lot of books, shows, and movies on my list.

Great Writing — Good Bones

I don’t read or write a lot of poetry. I’m more of a dabbler. However, I know that poetry is important.

Where fiction has all its twisted plots and detailed characters, poetry (at its best) is a distillation of pure emotion. It’s a few precisely chosen words, polished to razor sharpness so they can cut into your soul. Poetry shows sloppy fiction writers like me just how exacting each word can be.

Maggie Smith is a poet I found only recently, but her work exemplifies the things I like best about poetry. I don’t know if Good Bones would have hit me the same way before I had children, but it certainly hits me hard now.

Good Bones

Go read Good Bones, by Maggie Smith, at the Poetry Foundation website.

The Things We Don’t Tell Our Children

It starts with the things we don’t tell our children. Smith talks about the things she keeps from her children four times in seventeen lines. She keeps the things she did and doesn’t want them to know about. She hides that the world is at least half terrible. There’s a quiet desperation there: the world is bad and I’m part of it. I’m terrible too. I’d rather my children not know that.

Why is the world terrible?

“For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.” What an apt metaphor.

“For every loved child, a child broken, bagged, sunk in a lake.” Jesus fucking Christ. No wonder you don’t tell your children. While this is literally hyperbole, figuratively it feels true. If we take everything out there in the world and put it all on the scales of good and evil, does it balance out? An awful lot of the time it feels like it doesn’t.

Selling Something Broken

At the end, there’s a twist: “I’m trying to sell them the world.”

As parents, that’s what we do. Children ask a lot of questions, and all too often they’re asking about why things seem to be so awful. We each have our own internal parenting algorithm, refined over time, to provide information, sometimes truth, sometimes opinion. Maybe even lies, when we feel backed into a corner.

We tell our kids about the world, but we can’t resist “selling” it. We want them to be happy. We want them to make things better, even when we helped cause the problems and failed to clean them up ourselves. We need them to have hope, even when we ourselves don’t have any.

“This place could be beautiful. You could make this place beautiful.”

The Moral of the Story

Every time I read this poem, I change my mind about whether it’s supposed to be hopeful or despairing. Of course, it doesn’t have to be entirely one or the other, but I feel like I ought to be able to suss out an opinion. This is what keeps the oft-derided field of literary criticism alive: that feeling that we need to figure out what the work is “trying” to say.

Ultimately, I think the poem may not have an opinion. It’s just describing the way things are. There might be a lesson in there for us. When you write about something, you don’t have to inject your opinion, positive or negative. Sometimes you can just tell it like it is, a reporter on a made-up world. Leave it to the reader to decide how they should feel about it.

Short Story Advice Roundup

The Short Story Series

This is the end of my short story series, at least for now. If you’re a writer who only writes long-form fiction, I’d like to try one more time to encourage you to at least give short story writing a try. I’m a firm believer that the more techniques and styles you have in your arsenal, the more they all inform each other and add depth to all your writing. Besides, short stories are fun to write and fun to read!

I wanted to wrap things up by pointing you to more short story writing resources. If you want to dig deeper, there are tons of articles. Here are a handful of the ones I’ve found useful.

For an introduction to some of the possibilities of short stories:

What is a Short Story?Reedsy

For important elements of a short story:

How to Build a Short Story from the Ground Up — Chris the Story Reading Ape

For some advice on keeping your short story short:

How to Keep Your Short Story Short — Janice Hardy’s Fiction University

To avoid some common mistakes:

Common Mistakes in Short Story Writing — Chris the Story Reading Ape

To keep the reader interested:

Forget Hooks: How to Pull Readers Through a Short Story by Making Promises and Raising Questions — Janice Hardy’s Fiction University

For writing to a specific length and theme:

Gaining Readers Through Writing Short Stories — Life in the Realm of Fantasy

For an annotated description of the process that goes into a short story:

Writing the Short Story, Part 1: Experimenting — Life in the Realm of Fantasy

For advice on which markets to send your stories:

Submit or Surrender? A Tale of Three Publishers — Aeryn Rudel’s Rejectomancy

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 16

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.

The Times They Are A-Changing

A lot of things are different in this chapter. It starts with a big time jump that is potentially disorienting. God-Speaker is still in the same place, but years have passed. I needed to settle the reader as quickly as possible, so I start the chapter with God-Speaker feeling older. Then he goes out to the village, and we see that things have completely changed.

I also wanted to make sure that I addressed how God-Speaker feels about how his situation has changed. The way he deals with the young hunter in the group of newcomers stands in contrast to his interactions with the hunters in his old tribe. He’s in charge, and he’s comfortable with that.

The way this chapter is told is also different. God-Speaker is more sophisticated. He’s thinking in more complicated ways thanks to his interactions with the voices in the mountain, and this is reflected in the overall language of the chapter. In previous God-Speaker chapters, I used Simple Writer to check for complex language and tone it down. Here, I let myself go a little bit in the opposite direction.

I was initially happy to be done with the simplification, but I decided that God-Speaker would still use more straightforward speech when he’s talking with the newcomers. I did end up using Simple Writer to check those particular pieces of dialogue.

Process Notes

For a change of pace, I wrote this entire chapter by hand before typing it up. I’ve hand-written drafts in the past, but this was the first time I’ve done any for Razor Mountain.

I have terrible handwriting, so I’ve gotten used to writing in all-caps for clarity. Unfortunately, this means writing by hand is very slow for me compared to my fairly fast typing speed, and my hand gets worn out. It’s a different experience, and it changes the flow of the process.

Because I’m writing slowly, my perception is that it will read more slowly than it actually does. I have to keep this in mind for pacing. I suspect this might have been a slightly longer chapter if I had typed it from the start instead of writing by hand first. This chapter ended up being short enough and continuous enough that I didn’t feel there was a good place to insert a break, so this was the first chapter in a long while that I’m putting up in a single post.

I had a very detailed outline for this chapter, which made it relatively easy. There were not a lot of problems I had to solve as I went. One of the things that was not in the outline was minor characters. I’m starting to notice that this is a flaw of mine — I often don’t think quite enough about minor characters. I don’t usually give them names in the outline, and I end up having to spend some time thinking through their personalities when I get around to writing the chapter.

Up Next

Next chapter jumps back to Christopher, whose life is about to get even more exciting in more terrible ways.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 16

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

God-Speaker woke in the near-darkness of the cave and tasted the cool air of spring. His body was stiff and sore, despite the mat of soft reeds and layers of furs that made his bed. He sat for a moment and studied his hands. He remembered when they had been young and strong. Now they were gnarled. He felt the years sapping his strength. His skin was thinner and looser. Soon he would need to address that problem, but this morning he had more immediate matters to attend.

A fresh group of migrants had arrived with one of his scouts last night. They had spent the night in the woods at the base of the mountain, as was customary, and they would come up today.

He prepared himself and put on his usual clothes, a finely woven robe dyed in a pattern of deep reds and browns, and trimmed in bright yellow.

The mountain was riddled with caves, and God-Speaker could navigate most of them by touch. Only he and his acolytes were permitted in the deeper areas of the mountain. God-Speaker made his way through a series of chambers until he came to a tall, narrow crack that led to the outside world. He stood for a moment and let the morning sun warm his old bones while his eyes adjusted.

From each of the many cave entrances came a path, maintained by the acolytes. They  were cleared of tree branches and the densest brush, but were no more obvious than any natural game trails or gaps in the foliage, unless you knew where to look. Only secret symbols, carved subtly into the trees, marked the different ways. One of these paths took God-Speaker down to the village.

He knew how the voices in the mountain would look at the village: simple, quaint, and unimpressive. Beneath them. But when he looked with his own eyes, it was a small miracle. It was like a much-expanded version of the winter villages of his youth. The pit houses were larger and sturdier. Already, there was a bustle of activity as people ate their morning meals and got about the business of the day. It smelled of woodfire and roasted fish and the rich pine of the surrounding forest.

When God-Speaker walked through the village, the people paid attention. There were no overt signs, but he felt their glances, and the sound of conversation grew slightly more subdued as he approached. How different from his tribe, his people, who had known him since he was a squalling baby and had witnessed his every weakness and indignity. Those people had gone on, he hoped, to those distant snowless lands he had once glimpsed. At least his scouts had never found them.

No, he thought, this was his tribe now. These were his people. They knew him only as the man who spoke to the gods of the mountain, the man who knew things nobody else knew, the secret knowledge of the spirits. He had brought this community together and created a place where everyone was safe and well-fed.

God-Speaker met his scout and the newcomers in the forest, in a place where the sounds and smells of the village were perceptible, but it could not yet be seen. He always insisted on being the one to bring newcomers into the community.

“God-Speaker!” the scout exclaimed. He was called Swift-Over-Snow,  named because he was small, light, and fast, even in deep winter snow: one of God-Speaker’s best scouts.

“Swift-Over-Snow,” God-Speaker replied, nodding. “I hear you have brought us newcomers.”

“Yes, these are our guests,” Swift-Over-Snow said.

God-Speaker and his scout knew that such guests would almost always accept the invitation to stay, but it was better not to presume. The guests would understand that they brought a food-burden to God-Speaker’s people, in addition to the smoked fish and other gifts that the scouts carried and gave to traveling peoples to entice them to make the journey to the village. The village was daunting to newcomers, and God-Speaker made sure to give them good reasons to stay and see everything he wanted them to see.

“Welcome, honored guests,” God-Speaker said to the newcomers as he looked them over. There were ten of them: five adult men, three women, a baby and a child just old enough to stand on his own feet. They were thin and had no doubt felt hunger this winter, but their eyes were bright and curious. One of them, a young man, showed a hint of defiance in his expression, a refusal to be impressed despite the stories that Swift-Over-Snow had no doubt already imparted.

“I know you have not yet eaten a morning meal,” God-Speaker said. “Come, I want you to eat with us. I will tell you about my people.”

He led them through the trees to the village. Ten more people. He needed more people for his plans. He was eager for everything to move faster, but he would need to temper the growth of the community to ensure that it was stable and strong.

The entrance to the village was carefully prepared—a dense wall of pines with a narrow pathway through. It led into the wide clearing where the pit-houses clustered.

God-Speaker stepped out through the gap and indicated everything with a sweeping gesture.

“This is our home.”

He watched each of the newcomers as they stepped out. Their eyes widened in surprise or narrowed with worry. The young child clung to his mother’s leg. It would be far more houses and people than they had ever seen in one place.

To the left of the houses was the lumber workshop. To the right were the stone-workers and other craftspeople. The faint crack of rock-on-rock came from somewhere higher up the slope, where his people searched for metal-bearing ores, flint, and other useful resources.

God-Speaker led the newcomers on a path around the pit-houses. The village of strangers was too overwhelming for some when they first arrived. This path let them look without feeling surrounded or trapped.

The people of the village who passed close knew to nod and politely welcome the guests without lingering or staring. God-Speaker had carefully prepared everything about this first experience.

“How do so many people live here?” asked one of the guests. “Do all of these people travel together in the warm season?”

“This will be our home forever,” God-Speaker said. “Some of us may go out a long ways to hunt or fish or find plants for food and medicine, but we always come back to the mountain. The gods of the mountain watch over us. I have learned great wisdom from them. We have all we need here.”

On the far side of the village, the path led to a long row of steps—flat stones set into the steep mountainside. They wound their way up to a wide plateau that had been cleared of debris and edged neatly with rocks. At the center of the space was a long, flat boulder set as a table and already covered with a feast. There were berries, mushrooms, seeds, nuts and edible roots. There was smoked fish, fresh roasted fish, and venison stew. And there was a sort of flatbread made from ground seeds and baked in a simple stone oven.

“Please, sit and eat,” God-Speaker said, indicating simple log seats set around the stone table.

They sat, some still looking uncertain, but enticed by the food. God-Speaker and Swift-Over-Snow sat at one end of the stone table. God-Speaker tore off a chunk of the flatbread.

“This is bread made from seeds, a food my people love. Many like to dip it in the stew, or fill it with meat and vegetables. Do as you like.”

He ate, again watching the newcomers closely as they tried some of the unfamiliar foods. The voices had shown God-Speaker new ways of cooking and processing foods, including this bread, but it would take many years of careful cultivation to grow crops that would be ideal for flour. Still, this was something the newcomers would have never experienced before.

The plateau was built to offer a perfect view of the village and surrounding forest. The smoke of the fires wafted up from the pit-houses, and they could see beyond, over the trees and down into the valley where the river glinted.

The young man looked out over the village as he ate, and God-Speaker could see he was still looking for reasons to be unhappy. It was amazing what God-Speaker could read from eyes and faces by combining what he knew about people with the things he learned from the voices inside the mountain.

“Why are there gods in the mountain?” the young man asked, as though he had heard God-Speaker’s thoughts, “and why do they speak only to you?”

God-Speaker interlaced his fingers.

“Everything in the world has a spirit. Every rock, every tree, every river. But some spirits are stronger than others. The spirits of these mountains are very strong. They shouted out into the world for many seasons, but nobody listened to them. I am strange. I hear the voices of some spirits. When I came this way, long ago, I heard them calling and they guided  me here. I have searched for others who can hear them, but there are very few others, and even they can hear the spirits only faintly.”

“How do you have so much?” asked one of the others. “This was a bad winter. It is hard to feed a few people, but you have so many. And you say you do not travel to hunt in new places.”

“We have not forgotten our old ways, but we have learned new ways too,” God-Speaker said. “I will show you when we are done eating.”

When they had eaten their fill, God-Speaker asked them about themselves.

“You are guests, and welcome to stay for a time before continuing your journey. You will have a place at our fires. If you are tired of walking long paths, know that you are also welcome to stay. You can join us and become

part of our people.

“With so many of us, we find things for everyone to do that match their skills. You may find something new that you are drawn to among the many crafts and skills we practice in the village. Some even become my acolytes and learn to listen to the spirits. For now, though, I want to know what you are good at. What are you named for?”

The young man spoke first.

“I am a hunter. I am called Outruns-the-Deer and Far-Thrown-Spear. But we are our own people. We live as our elders lived. We will not become part of your people.”

God-Speaker kept his expression friendly. “You show the strength of your ancestors.”

Some of the other newcomers looked less certain about how they felt than Outruns-the-Deer. They told God-Speaker of their skill in fishing, knapping flint, and identifying herbs.

Next, God-Speaker led them around the other areas of the village. They saw the weavers making simple cloth and soaking it in dyes. They saw the gardens with young grain grasses, and where root vegetables and raspberry bushes would grow as the weather grew warmer. They saw the cave filled with a thick loam of rotten wood where mushrooms were grown. They even saw the experimental forge where God-Speaker’s people were working to get their fires ever hotter. God-Speaker showed them a handful of little golden nodules coaxed from rock.

Lastly, God-Speaker showed them the caves where his people stored dried meat and berries, smoked fish, firewood, and all the supplies that would see them safely through hard winters.

Outside the storeroom, some of the hunters were meeting, preparing their spears and knives and slings while discussing where in the area to hunt. God-Speaker told them that Outruns-the-Deer was a guest and an expert hunter, and they took the hint, immediately asking for his opinions on hunting in the area. He talked with the hunters while God-Speaker told the others about the foods his people preserved and stored for winter.

When they left the storehouse and the hunters, Outruns-the-Deer was still quiet and kept his expression neutral, but he held himself differently after being consulted as an equal.

“Will you take us to these spirits of the mountain?” Outruns-the-Deer asked.

The other newcomers looked shocked and worried. These were spiritual matters, and not to be trivialized. Even Swift-Over-Snow looked at God-Speaker uncertainly.

God-Speaker only smiled.

“That is a place where only my people may go. Even among us, it is a holy place, not to be entered without care and understanding.”

There was a moment where God-Speaker and Outruns-the-Deer locked eyes. God-Speaker sensed that the young man might be looking for some sort of confrontation. Discomfort rippled through the rest of the group.

Outruns-the-Deer was the one to waver and look away. The tension dissipated.

“Still,” God-Speaker said, “It is not for me to say who might be close to the spirits. If any of you choose to stay, you may find that you come to hear them, in time.”

With the tour of the village concluded, God-Speaker left Swift-Over-Snow to show the guests to the pit-houses reserved for them while they decided to leave or join the village. God-Speaker thought it was likely that this group would stay, even Outruns-the-Deer. He was the sort who had to make a show of being convinced, but God-Speaker saw his interest in the spirits, and the change in his disposition after talking to the hunters. Besides, he wouldn’t leave if most of the others wanted to stay.

Whether this group stayed or went, the village would continue to grow. There would be other weary travelers making the hard journey through the mountains.

As he left the village, God-Speaker took a different path through the trees and up the slope. His knees ached. He felt death as a lurking presence, always close at hand. Ever since Makes-Medicine had died in his arms, he had felt it, but it was closer than ever now.

He entered the mountain by another opening in the rock and made his way deeper inside. The whisper of the voices was faint at first, but it grew as he went deeper.

He knew what needed to be done. The voices spoke to him of their empires and their endless rule. They told him how to overcome the specter of death and be reborn into immortality. He knew how. The only question was whether he could do it.

Soon, he thought. Soon he could show his people something truly amazing: his own rebirth.

He just had to do it before his body gave out.

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Reference Desk #15 — Duotrope vs. Submission Grinder

The Short Story Series

It’s the ultimate crossover event! Today we have a continuation of my short story series, as well as my Reference Desk series detailing useful tools for writers. Get ready for a battle of publication catalogues and a submission tracker showdown!

Finding the right place to submit your short fiction isn’t trivial. Back in the olden days, you might have to subscribe to an actual dead-tree trade journal just to have a somewhat up-to-date list of publications. These days, the internet gives us some easier options.

The two most popular submission tools for short fiction writers are Duotrope and Submission Grinder. Both of them are designed to help you find markets for your stories and track your submissions. Today, I’ll be comparing some of the different features between these two tools to give you a better idea of which one you might want to use.

Price

Let’s get this out of the way up front. Duotrope is a paid service. After a 7-day free trial, it costs $5/month or $50/year. Submission Grinder is completely free to use, although they have numerous options to donate.

If you don’t want to pay or can’t afford it, Submission Grinder is the tool for you.

Listings

Duotrope maintains listings of publishers of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and visual art. It also lists literary agents for fiction writers. Submission Grinder maintains fiction and poetry listings.

At the time of writing, Duotrope lists 5,027 fiction markets. They claim that they keep their listings accurate and up-to-date by checking each active listing for changes about once a month. They also run more thorough check twice a year, contacting the editors or agents if anything appears to be inaccurate or if there are signs that the market may be dead or on hiatus. (Websites not being updated is honestly a pretty big problem with small markets.)

At the time of writing, the Submission Grinder has 2,669 listings for fiction and poetry. It’s not entirely clear from the webpage how the listings are kept updated, although there are links for users to suggest a new market listing or suggest a correction, so it seems to be mostly crowdsourced.

Submission Tracking

Both tools let you

  • Add stories to your tracker
  • Add submissions for a story
  • Mark a submission as accepted, rejected, or no response
  • Track and search personal statistics
  • Track deadlines

Both tools also aggregate the statistics across their user base. This allows them to show information like what percentage of submissions are accepted or rejected by a specific market. They both have anonymized feeds of recent activity.

Duotrope has a plethora of statistics*, including the markets that are fastest and slowest to respond, and those that are most or least likely to accept (or even respond!)

*Note: you can see the list, but not the actual statistics, without a subscription

Additional Features

  • Both tools have an optional newsletter with new listings and other publishing news.
  • Duotrope has transcripts from hundreds of editor and literary agent interviews—possibly useful for getting a better idea of what your favorite market is looking for, or just general good practices.
  • Duotrope has some basic guides for writers, especially around submitting your work. It also has guides to using their various tools.

Takeaways

Honestly, both of these tools get the job done. They make it easy to search a lot of different markets, and to track your submissions as you send them out.

Overall, I do find Duotrope to be a little bit nicer. It has a few more features and a little more polish, but that’s to be expected when they have a subscription fee. If you don’t mind spending the money, I think Duotrope is good value for the cost.

Submission Grinder feels a little more like a community project, crowdsourcing market info and relying on donations. Maintaining a popular tool site takes work, and based on their Patreon, I think Submission Grinder is powered more by love than money.

If you have a story or two that you’re looking to send out, you should definitely try out one of these services. It will make it a lot easier to find ideal markets and keep track of what gets sent where.