Razor Mountain Development Journal #38

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

Last Time

Last week I revisited my old journals, scrounging for ideas that got lost along the way. I started looking into all the miscellaneous tasks that need to be done before I actually post chapters.

The Razor Mountain Book Description

One of those miscellaneous tasks is the back-cover blurb for Razor Mountain. Earlier this week, I posted what I’ve learned about writing book blurbs, and now, I need to put those lessons into practice.

I’m starting at a bit of a disadvantage with Razor Mountain. The whole goal of the project is to publish serially, putting out chapters as I write them. I’d prefer to have a finished, polished manuscript before I tackle the description, so I’m dealing with known quantities. That’s not an option for Razor Mountain, so I have to write my book description based upon my outline and plans.

In my previous post, I suggested three main things that tend to be important in a book blurb: hooks, characters and plot/conflict. The Novel Smithy’s excellent article on the subject tries to break it down further into the following categories:

  • Tagline
  • Character
  • Plot
  • Twist
  • Threat
  • Pitch

You see all of these things in book blurbs, but I would argue that you rarely see all of them at once. Still, I like this as a little more detailed list to brainstorm with.

Brainstorming

I started by just throwing out some phrases, trying to fulfill these different categories. I didn’t worry too much about awkward wording or cliché at this point. It’s just to get ideas flowing. (Besides, I’ve seen plenty of great best-selling books with prominent clichés in the blurb. Sometimes cliché sells.)

As brainstorming often goes, I started out pretty much hating everything I wrote. But after a while I found a few turns of phrase that I liked better, and built on those. Here’s a sampling.

Opening Hook

  • A plane crash. A mysterious bunker in the Alaskan wilderness. One man’s struggle to survive.
  • The shattered peak of Razor Mountain casts a long shadow over the Alaskan wilderness, and an even longer shadow across the centuries of human civilization.
  • The shattered peak of Razor Mountain casts a long shadow over the Alaskan wilderness, and across centuries of human civilization.
  • Strange technology. A hidden, militarized city. The secret to immortality. Welcome to Razor Mountain.
  • Dark secrets lie in wait, deep below the shattered peak of Razor Mountain.
  • For thousands of years, secrets seethed under the shattered peak of Razor Mountain. Soon, they’ll boil over.

Character

  • Christopher Lamarck thought moving from a desk job to making sales in rural Alaska brought more than enough excitement into his quiet life.
  • To say that Christopher Lamarck is risk-averse would be an understatement. Whenever he has a choice, he takes the path of least resistance.
  • To say that Christopher Lamarck is risk-averse would be an understatement. When two roads diverge in a wood, he takes the one more traveled by.
  • Christopher Lamarck is no daredevil. In fact, he thinks road trips and camping out are just a little too stressful to be fun.
  • Christopher Lamarck is no hero. Despite his love of ’90s action movies, he knows he wouldn’t survive through the opening credits.

Plot/Conflict

  • First, he inexplicably survives a plane crash. Then he finds strange, abandoned structures hidden in the forest. But it’s not until he’s lost in blizzard conditions and someone starts shooting that he realizes how precarious his situation really is.
  • First, he inexplicably survives a plane crash. Then he finds strange, abandoned structures hidden in the forest. But it’s not until he gets lost in a blizzard and shot at that he realizes how precarious his situation really is.
  • When Christopher’s puddle-jumper crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, he finds himself in the shocking predicament of actually surviving. However, it soon becomes apparent that nobody is coming to rescue him. If he wants to make it back home, he’s going to have to start emulating his movie heroes.

Twist/Second Hook

  • There’s something worryingly familiar about this place and these people.
  • He can’t help but think that he’s been here before.
  • As it turns out, the empty wilderness isn’t so empty, and the locals shoot strangers on sight.

Threat/Consequence/Conflict

  • Death may not be the worst consequence.
  • There are some fates worse than death.

Pitch/Genre Keywords

  • Sci-fi, thriller, suspense, alternate history…
  • A suspense-filled science fiction labyrinth that will keep you guessing until the end.
  • A thrilling sci-fi mystery, full of twists and turns.

Putting it Together

With this collection of sentences and phrases of varying quality, I tried putting together a blurb.

Christopher Lamarck thought moving from a desk job to making sales in rural Alaska would bring some excitement into his quiet life. But he gets more excitement than he bargained for when his plane goes down deep in the mountains.

Surviving a plane crash is only the start of his problems. He finds strange structures and advanced technology hidden on the forested slopes, and the secret society that built it is still looking down from the shattered peak of Razor Mountain. Yet Christopher is drawn inexorably into their machinations, and he begins to realize there’s something worryingly familiar about this place and these people.

A tale of life and death, obsession and control, and a conspiracy as old as human civilization, Razor Mountain is a thrilling sci-fi mystery, full of twists and turns.

I’ve been toying with the idea that Christopher loves action movies, which is fun for a character who is nowhere near action hero material. It gives me the opportunity to contrast him with these heroes and introduces some comic relief potential.

Including it in the blurb gives us a little more insight into the character, and I think this description flows a little better. I’m also trying the “In a world…”-style sentence fragments hook.

Strange technology. A hidden, militarized city. The secret to immortality. Welcome to Razor Mountain.

Christopher Lamarck is no hero. Despite his love of ’90s action movies, he knows he wouldn’t survive through the opening credits. But when Christopher’s puddle-jumper crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, he finds himself in the shocking predicament of actually surviving.

It soon becomes apparent, however, that nobody is coming to rescue him. The empty wilderness isn’t so empty, and the locals shoot strangers on sight. If he wants to make it back home, he might have to start emulating his movie heroes.

The inescapable gravity of Razor Mountain pulls Christopher deeper and deeper into a conspiracy that spans millennia. With his life in constant danger, he learns that death isn’t the worst fate that could await him under the mountain.

Razor Mountain is a suspense-filled science fiction labyrinth that will keep you guessing until the end.

And then I took the ending hook from the first blurb because I like it better.

Strange technology. A hidden, militarized city. The secret of immortality. Welcome to Razor Mountain.

Christopher Lamarck is no hero. Despite his love of action movies, he knows he wouldn’t survive the opening credits. But when Christopher’s puddle-jumper crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, he finds himself in the shocking predicament of actually surviving.

It soon becomes apparent, however, that nobody is coming to rescue him. The empty wilderness isn’t so empty, and the locals shoot strangers on sight. If he wants to make it back home, he might have to start emulating his movie heroes.

The inescapable gravity of Razor Mountain pulls Christopher toward the shattered peak, and he finds himself intwined in intrigues that span millennia. With his life in constant danger, he learns that death isn’t the worst fate that could await him under the mountain.

A tale of life and death, obsession and control, and a conspiracy as old as human civilization, Razor Mountain is a thrilling sci-fi mystery that will keep you guessing until the end.

What’s Missing and What’s Next

A book blurb is short. It will inevitably leave many things out. In this case, the most glaring omission is God-Speaker. However, Christopher’s story is ultimately God-Speaker’s story, and I think focusing my description on Christopher is a good limitation.

My next step is feedback. The blurb is an advertisement for the book. It’s only good if it helps to get people interested. If you like it or hate it, or even if you don’t care, feel free to let me know in the comments. I’ll probably continue tweaking this description up until I launch — and then reevaluate it again when I’m part way through the book and have a better understanding of what I’m writing.

Results

I created a book description for Razor Mountain.

Max Gladstone on Repetition

The always-delightful Max Gladstone discusses the good and bad of repetition in fiction.

We notice repetition as a negative. But some words do not just repeat as tics, or not merely as tics. What is a book, but a constellation of words? Each time a word is used, it accumulates new meaning from its context, and lends the meanings it has accumulated—in your particular text, and in others—to the sentence. In this way languages can be ennobled or (for a time, at least) poisoned—if you’re an American, do you feel the same way about the word ‘great’ that you did six years ago? If you’re a particular kind of nerd, when I began that sentence just now with ‘What is a book,” did you hear it followed by “a miserable little pile of secrets”?

Within a text, repeated words draw connections. What sorts of things in this book are ghosts? Is this car a ghost? This memory? Is the white of her hat a ghostlike white? “The ghost of a smile?” Fantasy and science fiction prose worldbuilding sings—or, to be honest, works at all—by loading vocabulary in this way: ’uplift’ in Brin, ‘Guardian’ in Jemisin (or the beautiful side-loading of ‘suss’ into the invented sensory verb ‘sess’), iris in Heinlein’s off-referenced ‘the door irised open.’ McKillip’s ‘riddles’ and ‘beasts’ are quite particular sorts of riddles and beasts, as are Jordan’s ‘channeling,’ and Tolkien’s ‘ring.’

Read more at Gladstone’s substack, The Third Place.

From the Blogroll: Nathan Bransford

Do people still do blogrolls? Is that a thing? Am I old?

Well, regardless of what the cool kids are doing these days, I’m going to take an occasional little Wednesday post here and there to point you toward some of my favorite writing bloggers.

First up: Nathan Bransford.

Nathan has been blogging for fifteen years. In that time, he’s been a social media guru, professional literary agent, published author, and most recently, freelance editor and book consultant.

Nathan’s blog is a great resource for writers, whether you’re on the traditional publishing track or self-publishing. It’s one of the most organized blogs I’ve ever seen, with detailed lists of articles featuring writing advice, agents and publishing, and self-publishing, all broken down into sub-categories for easy reference.

In addition to all this general writing advice, he also writes “This Week in Books” posts, where he collects interesting news about the publishing industry, and weekly critiques of first pages or query letters that people send in.

Check it out at https://nathanbransford.com/blog.

How to Write a Book Description

As I prepare to publish Razor Mountain, my serial novel, I have several side tasks to tackle. One of these is the book description. You might know this as the back cover or the book blurb.

The cover art and description are usually going to be your first (and often only) chance to catch the interest of a potential reader. The blurb isn’t the most important thing — the most important thing is to write a great book — but the blurb is the first thing. You have to convince your potential reader to start reading before they can see how great your book is.

Don’t think of the blurb as a simple summary. It’s a sales pitch. The blurb’s only job is to get a person to open the book and start reading. After that, it’s up to your story to keep them hooked.

Short and Compelling

Most writers don’t have a lot of experience crafting book descriptions. It can be a daunting task. If you’re writing a novel, it’s usually because you have a story that you want to explore over a lot of words. A luxurious amount of words. But there’s no such luxury to be had in the blurb. So the overarching idea of crafting a blurb is condensing and cutting that huge story into a few sentences that give the feel of the story and help sell it.

For Razor Mountain, I’m looking at services like Wattpad and Tapas as places built to publish serial fiction. Wattpad doesn’t limit the size of the book description, and Tapas has a limit of 2000 characters, which is quite a lot. A typical back-of-the-book blurb or Amazon description is in the neighborhood of 100-250 words, which equates to about 1/3 to 2/3 of a page, double-spaced.

The real limit is the reader’s attention span. We live in a world where we aren’t just competing with thousands of other books and stories, but all the other forms of entertainment available at the click of a button.  We’re competing with Netflix and TikTok too.

In a great recent conversation about book openings on the Writing Excuses podcast, they told the story of an author who planned to throw away an unsolicited ARC they received, but got caught up in by the back cover blurb on the way to the trash can and ended up reading the book. That’s how short and compelling the blurb should be.

Resources

One of the best ways to get started is to find good examples and deconstruct them. What is the description actually telling you about the characters, plot, or conflict? What kind of language are they using? Does the description pull you in?

My first step was to pull books I love from my bookshelves. These are books that I’m already familiar with, so I can evaluate what bits of the book actually make it into the blurb. I have also been cruising Amazon’s most popular books and reading descriptions. Many of these are books that I haven’t read, so I have to strictly look at how the description makes me feel. Do I want to click the “buy” button by the time I’m done reading?

Ultimately, if you want to craft a great book description, you should read a ton of book descriptions. Like learning a new language, immersing yourself in this stuff is the best way to get into the right mindset for writing a blurb of your own.

It’s important to know what genre(s) you’re targeting, and look at similar books. If you have a list of comp titles, that’s ideal. You’ll quickly notice that certain structures are common in the blurbs for particular genres.

On the other hand, don’t limit yourself solely to your chosen genre. You may find that a blurb structure common to another genre happens to work for your story. Just make sure you’re not inadvertently posing your book as a different genre — you don’t want excited readers feeling let down when they realize what they’re reading is completely different from what the blurb advertised.

Of course, I’m not the only person who has ever tried to figure out what makes for a great description. It’s also worth looking at the analyses other people have done. I was able to find a few good articles on the subject:

What’s In a Blurb?

You’ll notice that a lot of these articles claim to have the secret recipe (or “handy formula” or “step-by-step” guide). That’s great click-bait, because we all want to believe that there’s a simple and straightforward process for these things. Unfortunately, this is art, baby.

As is so often the case when it comes to writing, it can be unnecessarily limiting to treat a rigid recipe as the gospel truth and refuse to deviate. However, there are a few elements that are so common in a book description that they are almost obligatory. If you’re not touching on them, you should have a good reason why.

Hook(s) – This is a sentence or tiny paragraph at the start (and sometimes also at the end) of a blurb. This is straight up ad copy. It’s clickbait for your book. It should be surprising or shocking, exciting or unbelievable. A hook at the start of the blurb is a foot in the door, designed to get the reader to read the rest of the blurb. A hook at the end, on the other hand, should be the stinger — the summation of the blurb that compels the reader to immediately flip the book over and open it to chapter one.

Character(s) – If you have a single protagonist, especially with a first-person POV, they should feature prominently in your blurb. If your book is focused on the conflict between protagonist and antagonist, the antagonist should be prominent as well. However, if you have a large cast with multiple points of view, you may have to pick one character to focus on in the blurb, or lean more heavily on the overarching plot.

Plot & Conflict – Unlike a full summary or synopsis, you do not need to reveal the whole plot. What you need to do is reveal an important conflict or source of tension. If you have big secrets and exciting reveals, you can drop hints, but don’t give them away. Show the reader why they’ll want to keep reading. What is the challenge the characters will face? What will the consequences be if they fail?

Examples

Let’s look at some examples from my bookshelf.

The Martian, by Andy Weir

A MISSION TO MARS. A FREAK ACCIDENT. ONE MAN’S STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE.

When a dust storm forces his crew to evacuate the planet while thinking him dead, astronaut Mark Watney finds himself stranded on Mars’s surface, completely alone.

Armed with nothing but his ingenuity, his engineering skills — and a gallows sense of humor that proves to be his greatest source of strength — Mark embarks on a dogged quest to stay alive. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

  • At 86 words, this is a pretty short blurb. This is partly to make room for seven glowing quotes from major reviewers and authors. But it also reflects the story, which is a suspenseful sci-fi thriller.
  • The fact that it’s a sci-fi story comes through in the first four words.
  • You may or may not like the all-caps sentence fragments that form the hook here. “One man’s struggle to survive” reads a bit cliché to me. But there’s no question that this alone is a fair summation of the book, and it pulls me into the rest of the blurb.
  • The book has a single protagonist in Mark Watney, and that comes through clearly here. The bulk of the book is him, alone, on Mars. It’s told from his POV, and it’s a strong POV. His gallows humor is a selling point.
  • The conflict is also laid out clearly. He’s trapped, alone, on Mars. His crew thinks he’s dead, and he has to survive. This is the question that’s going to keep us turning pages.

Soul Music, by Terry Pratchett

When her dear old Granddad — the Grim Reaper himself — goes missing, Susan takes over the family business. The progeny of Death’s adopted daughter and his apprentice, she shows real talent for the trade. That is until a little string in her heart goes “twang.”

With a head full of dreams and a pocketful of lint, Imp the Bard lands in Ankh-Morpork, yearning to become a rock star. Determined to devote his life to music, the unlucky fellow soon finds that all of his dreams are coming true. Well, almost.

In this finger-snapping, toe-tapping tale of youth, Death, and rocks that roll, Terry Pratchett once again demonstrates the wit and genius that have propelled him to the highest echelons of parody next to Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, and Carl Hiaasen.

  • This one is 133 words, but about 30 of them are spent putting Sir Terry Pratchett on a pedestal among literary greats, not on the story. Which is a good selling point, if you can get it.
  • The genre is again pretty clearly defined as quirky fantasy by the strange names and the personification of Death.
  • The book is equally split between two protagonists, Susan and Imp, and this blurb dedicates a paragraph to each.
  • What it doesn’t do is delve too deeply into the plot. We only get a hint of the conflict for each character. Susan’s heart goes “twang.” Imp is unlucky that his dreams are coming true. Almost.

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

Shadow is a man with a past. But now he wants nothing more than to live a quiet life with his wife and stay out of trouble. Until he learns that she’s been killed in a terrible accident.

Flying home for the funeral, as a violent storm rocks the plane, a strange man in the seat next to him introduces himself. The man calls himself Mr. Wednesday, and he knows more about Shadow than is possible.

He warns Shadow that a far bigger storm is coming. And from that moment on, nothing will ever be the same…

  • Word count: 97. While this back cover has only one quote next to the blurb, it is from Stephen King, and the remainder of the space is dedicated to young, slightly goth Neil’s dreamy stare, which seems like reasonable use of the real estate.
  • This blurb focuses tightly on the protagonist, Shadow. Things haven’t gone well for him, and now they’re going worse.
  • From Mr. Wednesday’s strange name, and the implications of his impossible knowledge, we can guess that this is some sort of relatively down to earth fantasy. This description is the least clear about genre so far. However, that may be reasonable, as the book itself lives mostly in the mundane real world, even when there are gods involved.
  • Again, we get the start of Shadow’s story, but not much detail beyond that. We can presume that Shadow will have internal struggle with the death of his wife and the bad things in his past. All we know about the more external conflicts of the book is that trouble is on the way, and Mr. Wednesday seems to be involved.
  • Here we see a closing hook (although “nothing will ever be the same” feels a tad clichéd to me). The blurb ends with ellipses, explicitly suggesting that the reader can continue this thought by opening the book and reading on.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill

“There is magic in starlight, of course. This is well known. Moonlight, however. That is a different story. Moonlight is magic. Ask anyone you like.”

Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest to keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch, Xan, is really kind and gentle. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon. Xan rescues the children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest.

One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. Xan decides she must raise this girl, whom she calls Luna, as her own. As Luna’s thirteenth birthday approaches, her magic begins to emerge with unpredictable consequences, just when it’s time for Xan to go collect another child. Meanwhile, a young man is determined to free his people by killing the witch. And a volcano, dormant for centuries, rumbles within the earth…

  • The opening paragraph is the hook here, set in a different font and color. In this case, we’re getting a quote directly from the book, to give us a feel for the prose. Just like The Martian, this hook uses short sentences, some just fragments, to pull us in. Interestingly, these sentences don’t appear all together in the book. There’s an extra paragraph in the middle that has been left out to achieve this punchy, staccato effect.
  • At 170 words, this is the longest description we’ve looked at. That extra word count affords it the opportunity to include the three main characters and quite a lot of plot.
  • Xan gets the most words, Luna gets fewer, and Antain (merely “a young man” here) gets the least. As far as I remember, this roughly matches how much of the actual book each of these characters appear in.
  • This blurb wears its genre on its sleeve. It’s clearly fantasy, and details like the witch and the Perfectly Tiny Dragon suggest that there’s no small amount of whimsical fairy tale here. The mention of leaving a baby as offering every year, on the other hand, suggests that there’s some classic fairy tale darkness as well.
  • The blurb finishes with a building-up of tension by stacking conflict on top of conflict. First, there’s Luna’s magic and its unpredictable consequences. Then Xan is away while it’s happening. Then the young man is introduced, and he wants to kill Xan. But wait, there’s more! A volcano, set to erupt.
  • Once again, there are the ellipses at the end, inviting us to open the book and find out what happens next.

Next Time

I’ll be continuing to talk about book descriptions later this week. I’m taking all this analysis and putting it into action as I craft a book description for my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

Do you have a favorite book with a great example of a back-cover description? Post it in the comments!

Razor Mountain Development Journal #37

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

Last Time

I worked through the chapter summaries for what is now chapters 37, 38, and 39. I finished the expanded second draft outline for the book!

Taking a Moment to Reflect

One of the interesting things about journaling my progress on this project is that I can go back and see how I got to this point. I did that this week, rereading a bunch of my earlier development journals. I wanted to look for any ideas from earlier on that I had forgotten about as the story evolved.

I didn’t find too much lost by the wayside, although there were a couple ideas that stood out to me. Early on, I talked about mirroring between Christopher’s story and God-Speaker’s story. I think this is a subtle way to make these stories feel more connected, event though they don’t actually come together until Act III, when Christopher meets the Razor Mountain cabinet members.

This mirroring could range from similar events, like a blizzard happening in each story around the same time, to turns of phrase or ideas that show up in both places, to places or things revealed in the distant past that we see again in the modern era. I don’t think I’ll plan these things out in too much detail. I’ll just keep on the lookout as I write.

The other idea I came back to is using simplified language for the Act I God-Speaker chapters, to reflect the limited language of the stone-age humans in that tribe. I think this is something worth experimenting with, but it could also go horribly wrong and just be obnoxious to read. I intent to try making it work, but I’ll throw out that idea or heavily limit it if it gets in the way of the story.

Finally, I realized that there is an opportunity when Christopher is being kidnapped by the exile brothers. He has emotional baggage related to his own brother, who died saving his life when they were children. Christopher talks with these brothers, trying to understand why Harold puts up with (and supports) Garrett, whose decision-making seems questionable at best. Harold is the calm, collected, clear-headed one, but he believes that he and his brother are a pair that absolutely need each other. They’re two parts of a whole, and he’s willing to relegate himself to the number two position in service of that.

This is an opportunity to expand on Garrett and Harold’s relationship, and also get at some of Christopher’s back-story, explaining why he’s so risk-averse.

Warming Up the Printing Presses

With a solid outline in hand, I’m digging into all of the miscellaneous tasks that need to get done before I start posting chapters.

I need a halfway decent book cover in a few different sizes and formats. I need to write a back-cover blurb to describe the book. I need to write an author profile. I need to sign up and set up the book on the services where I’m going to release it. I need to work out beta readers/critiquers to help polish the chapters before I post them.

While I’m working on all of that, I’m also reading Clan of the Cave Bear, a book from the ’80s that follows ice-age humans and neanderthals, with the fantasy conceit that humans are more naturally adaptable, but neanderthals possess a racial memory that allows them to access the experiences of their ancestors.

This book hit my radar because of the time period it’s set in, which is obviously similar to what I’m looking at for God-Speaker’s Act I chapters. I was curious how it handles the characters and their interactions. The speculative fiction elements were something I wasn’t aware of when I started reading, but the ancestral memory angle is in the same ballpark as God-Speaker’s mind-jumping memory and the memories stored in the artifacts within Razor Mountain. Coincidences abound.

Results

This week was mostly reading and planning, as I figure out some of the busy-work around serial publishing. By next time, I’m hoping to have a lot of that stuff done. I may also start drafting chapters. I want to build a backlog so I have time for critique and can still maintain a steady posting schedule. We’ll see what I’m actually able to get done by next week.

I’ve Been Reading Drabbles…Lots of Drabbles

In my pursuit of the form, I’ve now read something like 100 to 150 drabbles. Luckily, hundred-word stories don’t take that long to read.

In addition to the Martian Magazine, which I’ve mentioned previously, I discovered The Drabble (which does include poetry and fiction less than 100 words, rather than exactly 100 words). I also found Speck Lit, which stopped updating a few years ago, but has a large archive still available. I’ve found drabbles of the exactly-100-words definition in a handful of other places. I’m sure there are plenty more out there, especially in flash fiction publications that would accept very short fiction, but typically have max lengths of 1000 or 1500 words. They’re just a pain to find.

One of the nice things about drabbles is that you can read quite a lot of them in a short amount of time. It’s relatively easy to see what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, because everything has to be laid out in a couple of paragraphs. They lend themselves to quick analysis.

My Favorites

These are my favorite (freely accessible) drabble stories so far. They surprised me, or made me laugh, or made me feel something. As usual, I skew toward speculative fiction. You can read the whole lot in less time than it would take to read a typical short story.

  1. Nicholas Was — Neil Gaiman
  2. Orbital Views — Gretchen Tessmer
  3. Todd — Jason P. Burnham
  4. The Reluctant Time Traveler Wears Two Watches — Wendy Nikel
  5. The Weave — M. Yzmore
  6. Double Trouble — R. Daniel Lester
  7. The Forest of Memory — Anna Salonen
  8. A Cabin to Die In — Anna Salonen
  9. Of Artistic Temperament — Sophie Flynn
  10. Redemption — Belinda Saville

Styles of Drabble

Having now observed quite a few drabbles in the wild, I tried to classify some of the common styles that are used to make a story interesting in one hundred words. It’s interesting to see that the limited word count really does force a wide variety of forms.

Great Writing — Can You Say Hero?

Sometimes a piece of writing just punches me in the gut. Tom Junod’s 1998 article for Esquire Magazine, a sort of biography of Fred Rogers titled “Can You Say Hero,” is one of those pieces.

Go read it.

(Or you can go here if you’d prefer to pay Esquire for the privilege.)

I think it’s probably my favorite bit of non-fiction writing, and it’s written in a way that fiction writers can still learn plenty from. While it has the advantage of profiling a wholly remarkable man, it’s not really about Mr. Rogers. Sneakily, it’s about Tom himself, and the profound impact that spending time with Mr. Rogers had on him.

Junod is a craftsman writer. A lot of the magic of this story lies in the technical execution — the structure and the choice of words — at least as much as the actual content they’re conveying.

The Hook

We’ve looked before at great hooks and how they can pull the reader inexorably into a story. This one is phenomenal.

Once upon a time, a little boy loved a stuffed animal whose name was Old Rabbit. It was so old, in fact, that it was really an unstuffed animal; so old that even back then, with the little boy’s brain still nice and fresh, he had no memory of it as “Young Rabbit,” or even “Rabbit”; so old that Old Rabbit was barely a rabbit at all but rather a greasy hunk of skin without eyes and ears, with a single red stitch where its tongue used to be. The little boy didn’t know why he loved Old Rabbit; he just did, and the night he threw it out the car window was the night he learned how to pray.

It starts with the classic storybook opening, and a simple declaration: there’s a little boy, and he loves Old Rabbit.

That leads to the vast, meandering second sentence, eight commas- and semicolons-worth of evocative description of Old Rabbit through the boy’s eyes. In that sentence, I know what Old Rabbit looks like. I know how it would feel, held close; how it would smell.

The last sentence of the opening paragraph introduces the conflict and the tension of the story. It’s a tension that won’t be resolved until the final paragraph.

Once Upon A Time

The story is littered with the trappings of children’s stories. Junod uses the phrase “once upon a time” liberally, to the point where he gives it a bit of a nod and a wink with “ON DECEMBER 1, 1997—oh, heck, once upon a time.”

He gives the impression of a breathless child’s rambling story by starting sentences with conjunctions and piling clauses upon clauses. Like Lemony Snicket, Junod helpfully defines words for his audience, doing it as much as an excuse for poetic emphasis as for actual definition.

Thunderstruck means that you can’t talk, because something has happened that’s as sudden and as miraculous and maybe as scary as a bolt of lightning, and all you can do is listen to the rumble.

These little things are responsible for a lot of the voice, but they’re surface ornamentation. The deep structure of the story is that of puzzle pieces, slowly fitted together to form a larger picture.

The story is a sequence of short vignettes – some from Tom’s time with Mr. Rogers, some from his past, some from stories about Mr. Rogers, picked up along the way. But these strands weave together, one referencing another, referencing another; building up in layers.

When we get to the end, it makes perfect sense. It fits. Every part of the story fed into that moment, in the same way it feels like all of Tom’s time with Mr. Rogers led to that moment in his own life.

The Frame

The story doesn’t begin with Mr. Rogers. It begins with a boy who has lost his stuffed rabbit, and prays that it will return to him. The first time, the rabbit is found. The second time, it is not. A microcosm, perhaps, for how people fall out of faith.

It’s only when Mr. Rogers asks Tom if he ever had a puppet or toy or stuffed animal that we learn (or confirm our suspicion) that the boy at the start of the story is Tom himself. The rabbit becomes the through-line of the story.

We’re reminded of it a third time, when Mr. Rogers talks to a little girl with a stuffed Rabbit. Junod makes sure it’s front-of-mind. It’s the same reason he leaves the question unanswered, “What kind of prayer has only three words?”

We don’t find out until the very end; the end of the story that started with the boy and the rabbit.

The Words

While I appreciate the structure of the story, it would be negligent to not mention the joy to be found in Junod’s delightful little turns of phrase.

The place was drab and dim, with the smell of stalled air and a stain of daguerreotype sunlight on its closed, slatted blinds…

And then, in the dark room, there was a wallop of white light, and Mister Rogers disappeared behind it.

…this skinny old man dressed in a gray suit and a bow tie, with his hands on his hips and his arms akimbo, like a dance instructor—there was some kind of wiggly jazz in his legs, and he went flying all around the outside of the house…

 …in front of all the soap-opera stars and talk-show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are….Ten seconds of silence.” And then he lifted his wrist, and looked at the audience, and looked at his watch, and said softly, “I’ll watch the time,” and there was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn’t kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked…and so they did. One second, two seconds, three seconds…and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier, and Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said, “May God be with you” to all his vanquished children.

What is grace? I’m not certain; all I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #36

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

Last Time

I worked through two more chapter summaries, 35 and 36. Most of the mysteries are now resolved, and we’re approaching the climax.

Chapter 37

Christopher meets with the Acting Secretary of Justice in his office, with Cain present. The secretary wanted to meet first thing in the morning. First, he asks Christopher whether “he’s God-Speaker yet”. Christopher explains that he thinks it is more of a gradual transition, and it doesn’t seem to be complete. He’s still missing memories.

The Secretary of Justice says that the patrols have finally captured the last of the exiles, including a young woman who cannot speak. She gave them a lot of trouble, but all the exiles have been treated gently on Christopher’s orders and locked up in a comfortable facility. He suggests Christopher could go observe the conditions and make sure they’re satisfactory. Christopher wants to go talk to them, but his God-Speaker side knows he shouldn’t. He should maintain his anonymity outside this inner circle.

Christopher agrees to go observe their conditions. He has a sudden “spidey-sense” feeling that something’s not right. He takes Cain aside and tells him to call a meeting of the cabinet in 30 minutes, then get a weapon and follow at a distance.

Christopher follows the Secretary of Justice through the mazes of halls that give them access to the rest of the mountain facilities. He hears what he thinks is Cain following, out of sight behind them. The man looks more and more nervous. Christopher probes him with small talk, asking him about family, how he came to the position, what he likes to do in his free time. The man finally stops and breaks down, explaining that he’s part of a trap, planned by Reed.

Even as he says it, Christopher hears footsteps behind him. It’s not Cain, it’s Reed coming at him with a knife. Reed isn’t a young man, or particularly adept, and Christopher is able to disarm him just as Cain comes with an armed MP. The soldier handcuffs Reed. Christopher asks if they actually captured Amaranth, and they confirm that they did not.

They walk back to the cabinet meeting. Christopher is overwhelmed by the feeling that this was all awfully easy. His God-Speaker self is a little smug. Flashes of memory come to him, from the last time Reed attacked him. They arrive at the cabinet meeting as the others are still coming in.

Christopher calmly explains what just happened, and describes what he remembers of the original attack. He questions Reed and the Acting Secretary of Justice in front of the others. The original Secretary of Justice was falsely accused. Her replacement, the Acting Secretary has been under Reed’s sway for years, but is ultimately a weakling looking for easy power. He didn’t have the guts to go through with the plan.

Reed admits that his plan was a poor one, but he had few options, given the circumstances. He thinks it was clever how he co-opted Cain’s spies on Christopher’s plane in order to crash it, but once that gambit failed, what else could he do?

He has no remorse for what he did — he sees God-Speaker as just an autocrat “with fancy toys,” and one autocrat is as good for Razor Mountain as another. Reed’s only regret was that he didn’t have centuries of practice at keeping everyone under his heel. He was never able to consolidate all the power he wanted in God-Speaker’s absence.

For a moment, Christopher considers making a bloody example right in the conference room, but he decides against it, and MPs take Reed and the Acting Secretary to holding cells.

Cliffhangers: No.

Mysteries:

  • Resolve 1.1 – Why do the other passengers on the plane disappear while Christopher is asleep? Where did they go?
    • They were supposed to be Cain’s spies, but they were actually Reed’s. They left Christopher and jumped out while he was drugged, intending the crash to look like an accident.
  • Resolve 4.2 – The passengers and pilot – something about their looks and clothes were slightly off, slightly old-fashioned.
    • They were Razor Mountain spies.
  • Resolve 31.1 – Why did Reed betray him?
    • He wanted power, and he didn’t think God-Speaker was any more fit to rule than anyone else.

Episode Arc:

  • Christopher senses that the final gambit is about to happen, and with God-Speaker getting stronger, he feels excited and prepared for it. It’s shockingly easy to anticipate Reed and stop him. With the betrayal resolved, Christopher realizes that everything is back to the way it was. And he’s miserable about it.

Chapter 38

Christopher sits on a private balcony as the sun sets, looking out over the beauty of the mountain valley. He’s not really a drinker, but he drinks something he found in God-Speaker’s rooms – he thinks it’s whiskey.

God-Speaker’s memories are washing over him like a flood, as though the memory of his own murder was a blockage, and now that it has broken loose, everything else is rushing in behind it. He remembers conversations with his wife. He didn’t realize it at the time, but she was trying to gently nudge him toward being less selfish, toward accomplishing something good in the world. She was trying to help him overcome his pathological fear of death.

Christopher thinks that that the world would be better off without God-Speaker and Razor Mountain. He watches the stars come out and thinks about her. He thinks about his parents and his brother.

Slightly drunk, he walks the back-halls of Razor Mountain to Cain’s room. It’s very spartan. Christopher pulls a chair up to the old man’s bed and stares at him. Cain wakes, and is oddly calm to see Christopher there.

Christopher asks him why he worked so hard to bring God-Speaker back. Cain explains that he has seen God-Speaker at work. He knows God-Speaker constructed this place out of nothing, and is the best caretaker of it. To him, it’s a utopia.

Christopher asks if Cain would still trust him if all of Razor Mountain was just a safeguard for God-Speaker’s immortality. Cain says yes. Even if that is true, good things have come from it. Christopher suggests that Cain is every bit as brainwashed as the ordinary inhabitants of the mountain, and he might think differently if he had lived in the outside world. Cain explains that he has seen plenty from the outside world, and it seems like they have plenty of problems out there too.

Christopher feels that God-Speaker is exhausted from this endless cycle, but also trapped by it. What’s left of Christopher is no longer afraid of death. He’s afraid of living forever. He realizes that he’s trying to justify the choice he knows he has to make – not for others, but for himself.

Cain asks if God-Speaker is almost back. Christopher says “almost.” Cain suggests that Christopher will feel better when he’s “back to himself again.”

Cliffhangers:

  • What is Christopher going to do?

Mysteries: None

Episode Arc:

  • With the external conflict against Reed resolved, Christopher is overwhelmed by his own internal conflict: Christopher vs. God-Speaker, acceptance of death vs. fear of death. He tries to use Razor Mountain and Cain to justify his desire not to become God-Speaker and go back to the status quo. Ultimately, he realizes he will have to find that justification inside himself.

Notes:

  • I decided to combine what were previously Chapters 39 and 40 into this single chapter. They’re both about Christopher working out this final conflict between himself and God-Speaker.
  • I came to a pretty important realization while revising this chapter. Christopher doesn’t stop God-Speaker at the end of the book to be the savior of Razor Mountain. He does it for himself. His conflict isn’t about overcoming external challenges anymore. It’s about overcoming his own fear of death. He has to learn to accept the time he had, and stop being trapped, effectively immortal but utterly miserable.

Chapter 39

Christopher goes to the artifacts’ chamber. He feels himself teetering on the edge between Christopher and God-Speaker.

He throws his mind back through time, in the same way he has trained “oracles” to send warning messages to his past self when things go wrong. Once he starts the process, he feels relief. There’s no going back now.

He goes back thousands of years. The hollowing of the mountain is reversed in high-speed. The population dwindles. The technology devolves. He returns to the scene where God-Speaker first entered the Razor Mountain caves (mirroring the language of Chapter 16, and Christopher’s half-dream at the beginning of the book).

Christopher enters God-Speaker’s mind, a much stronger voice than the first whisper of the artifacts. Where God-Speaker previously jumped across a crack, Christopher distracts him and trips him up. He falls deep into the mountain, where his body is shattered. He’s surprised to feel no pain, only numbness. Death is peaceful for him. Maybe he glimpses something beyond.

The artifacts are left to whisper alone, in the depths of the mountain.

Cliffhangers: No!

Mysteries: None!

Episode Arc:

  • Christopher has made his choice, now he just has to execute it. He stops God-Speaker from entering this eternal cycle, and accepts his own death. In the end, Christopher and God-Speaker are both at peace.

Results

I worked through the chapter summaries for what is now chapters 37, 38, and 39. The expanded second draft outline for the book is done!

Haunted (A Drabble)

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been reading and writing drabbles recently. If you’re not aware, drabbles are just short stories with exactly 100 words — no more, no less. It has been both interesting and frustrating. Where microfiction stories feel like little toys, drabbles feel closer to “real” stories.

Closer, but not quite.

The Challenges

Drabbles invite experimentation and strange forms, like a story-as-a-list, story-as-app-review, or story entirely in dialogue with no context. They require odd tricks, unusual style, or very clever wording to be engaging.

Dialogue is hard in a drabble. Even the vanilla “he said, she said” tags use up precious words. It’s tempting, because dialogue can do so many things at once, but I’ve found it very difficult to write drabble dialogue in practice. It needs to be tight without becoming artificial, stilted, or confusing.

What Makes A Good Drabble?

Drabbles love little twist endings. A twist ending is one of the easiest ways to make a drabble interesting. I’m not convinced that it’s the best way though. I can’t help but think that it’s a bit of a crutch, which may be silly considering how challenging it is to write a good drabble without any additional restrictions beyond word count.

I think a good drabble uses one, maybe two, storytelling structures. Drabbles are too short to include a setting, characters, a real character arc, a conflict, a resolution, dialogue, strong voice, and all of the other scaffolding that we typically use to hold up a story. A good drabble has only one or two of these things that it does really well. It might glance sidelong at one or two more, but that’s pushing it.

So far, I only have one hard and fast rule for a good drabble. A good drabble makes you think, “There’s no way that was only one hundred words.”

My First Drabble

Haunted

It sounds fun to rent a house haunted by a sexy ghost. I guess it was, at first. The dreams were amazing, until she got stabby.

It took a while for her to stop shrieking and talk, but she eventually told me about the adultery, the murder-suicide, and the whole “vengeance against all men” thing. She says she’ll be free if I burn the bones buried in the cellar. Free to leave, and kill as she pleases.

It wouldn’t be right to unleash a murder-ghost on the world. But if she keeps breaking things, I’ll never get my deposit back.

This is my very first drabble, a little parody of horror tropes. The idea came from a Story Engine prompt.

You’ll notice it has no dialogue. I summarized the conversation, because dialogue is hard in a drabble. It has two characters and approximately three words of setting. No arc. A conflict, but no resolution. It does have a twist, although the twist comes in the form of a joke. I’m happy with it, for a first attempt, even if it doesn’t make me think, “There’s no way that was only one hundred words.” On the other hand, I had to carefully whittle it down to those one hundred words, so maybe that rule just doesn’t apply when I’m the one writing it.

State of the Blog — August 2021

Has it been a year already?

In the spirit of being open about my process and progress, I decided to do a State of the Blog post every six months. This gives me a chance to evaluate my work, and hopefully will be helpful to others.

Goals

Why am I blogging?

  • To hold myself accountable to a writing schedule
  • To develop an audience of readers
  • To provide something useful to other writers
  • To make connections with other writers

This is the context that helps me decide how well I’m doing.

I started the blog around August 2020, deep enough into the pandemic to know that it wasn’t going away any time soon. Like many people, I was tired of the dread-induced lethargy, and looking for some creative outlet. I also needed something to help me keep my writing on a schedule; something to keep me accountable.

I didn’t have a plan exactly, but I did have a bunch of ideas. I’ve made vague attempts at blogging before, and they’ve never gone anywhere. This time, I was determined that if I was going to do it, I’d do it properly.

I had the idea of writing a serial novel, released episode by episode. I have a love of writing, and I knew that I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned with others. So before I started, I forced myself to list 100 possible topics for blog posts — to make sure I had enough fodder to keep me posting twice a week for at least a year.

The Metrics

  • Months blogging: ~12
  • Posts: ~85
  • Followers: 29 (and 9 on Twitter)
  • Monthly Views: 93 (average over last 3 months)

These numbers are small. That doesn’t bother me. I’d love to reach a bigger audience, but the important thing is the trend line, and the numbers are steadily growing. I can still get excited when I set a weekly or monthly record in some metric, and right now that’s happening pretty frequently.

Two Posts

After the first few months, I settled into a consistent schedule. On Mondays, I post something about the craft of writing. On Fridays, I post a development journal, where I document my progress on my serial novel, Razor Mountain. I always write my posts early, do a fairly quick editing pass, and schedule them for release.

This basic two-posts-per-week model has worked pretty well. The Monday post provides variety. I can write a Reference Desk post about useful tools, or a post about writing concepts like hooks, conflict, or outlining. Meanwhile, the Friday Razor Mountain posts provide consistency.

Writing these two posts per week also gave me a good baseline for how much time I could devote to the blog. I’m not a full-time writer. I have a day job and other projects keeping me busy. I needed to make sure I wasn’t trying to write more for the blog than I could sustain long-term. Two posts per week was good for me.

Three Posts?

After months of that cadence, I’ve started experimenting with more content. Part of this was finding things that I enjoy posting about, and that readers would enjoy reading. Part of it was finding ways to avoid dramatically increasing the time I spent writing for the blog each week.

I’ve decided to add a Wednesday post to my weekly schedule. I set myself a rule that I can’t spend more than an hour on a Wednesday post. These posts can be shorter and/or sillier than my other posts. I’m also trying to tie them into my other writing projects. Some examples of these Wednesday posts are my series on Twitter microfiction and my “ground-breaking” Writing RPG™.

I still consider the Wednesday post optional. I may skip it sometimes.

The Future

My biggest goal right now is to finish outlining and prep for Razor Mountain. Once that’s done, my posting schedule will probably change again. I still plan to post weekly development journals to talk about the writing process, but I’ll also be posting the actual chapters/episodes.

Being an inveterate planner, I will be writing chapters ahead of my posting schedule, so I have time for beta reader critique and revision. I plan to post episodes on other services as well, and I’ll be going into the details of that process.

I’m also working on interacting more with other bloggers. As a classic writer introvert, it takes a bit of effort to overcome the imposter syndrome and convince myself to comment on other blogs, even when I think I have something to contribute.

I’m also trying to reblog more of the good writing craft posts that I see, especially on days when I don’t have my own content scheduled. It took me a few months to find a decent list of WordPress blogs in my wheelhouse, but now I’m regularly seeing post in my feed that are worth sharing.

Next Stop

I’ll see you back here in six months, for the 1.5 year blogiversary!