Razor Mountain Development Journal #3

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!

Last Time

Last time, I gave my protagonist a name. I spent some time figuring out how the beginning might fit with the rest of the plot. I started thinking about different factions, and about the mysterious artifacts that are used by the protagonist and are central to the plot.

Another Name

My protagonist is really two characters in this story. Christopher is the viewpoint character in the present. He’s thrown into this mystery and is trying to figure things out. His alternate self is the viewpoint character in the past – the flashback chapters. He’s the paleolithic hunter-gatherer who becomes the nearly immortal ruler of his own tiny kingdom.

The past version of Christopher needs a name too. At first I thought I might be able to research some appropriate names, but this time period is so long before the advent of writing, it will have to be conjecture and guesswork. There is some relatively recent research into the possible links between certain Asian and North American language families around this time period, but it’s still pretty unsettled, and I haven’t found anything pertaining to names of people. While ancient remains are often named, the names don’t necessarily have much bearing on their original languages.

As an alternative, I’m going to fall back on well-known (if sometimes caricatured) North American naming traditions. It’s not too ridiculous to think that hunter-gatherers so far back might have similar traditions.

Typically, they are derived from nature, represented by an animal symbolizing desirable characteristics or a certain trait. A Native American name gives us an insight into the personality of the one who possesses it.,the%20one%20who%20possesses%20it

Native Americans have a fluid naming tradition—i.e., they can earn new names. A Native American wise woman explained this concept to me with nature imagery. Some people are like lakes; they change very little during their lifetimes. Others are like rivers that may change dramatically from their small beginnings to become mighty rivers that travel all the way to the sea. Native American children are given names that suit their personalities. If a name is given and proves to be a bad fit, the child’s name is changed. At adolescence, the given name may be changed again. As the adult progresses through life, new names can be awarded. Family and society award the new names, which provide the individual with a strong social bond to community as well as family. This naming tradition helps to motivate the individual to grow throughout life.

Since proto-Christopher has lived for thousands of years, it’s likely that he’s racked up a few names, although more modern Razor Mountain society may not embrace these same traditions. However, he probably has at least a birth name and a name that he acquires for being the interpreter between his tribe and their god. “God-Speaker” and later, when the tribe is forced to migrate, “God-Carrier,” seem like good names.

Research Rabbit Hole

At this point, I spent some time searchign out more information about the first migrations of people from Asia to North America. I expect to continue researching these things as I get further along in the novel, but now seems like a good time to get a jump-start on background reading. This doesn’t need historical fiction levels of accuracy (and that’s difficult to achieve considering how far back we’re going), but I’d still like the story to feel grounded.

Here is a brief overview of the wikipedia hole I fell down:

Some interesting facts and conjectures:

  • Migration from Asia to North America seems to have occurred around 14,000 – 11,000 years ago, although there is more recent evidence that some migration probably occurred as early as 33,000 years ago.
  • It is possible that migration occurred by coastal sea travel earlier than by land.
  • Due to the lower ocean levels, there were wide coastal plains in places not covered by glaciers.
  • Hunters in this time might have gone after mammoths, bison antiquus, mastodon, gomphotheres, sloths, tapirs, camelops, and wooly rhinoceros. Diets also included nuts, seeds and fruit; fish and birds.
  • Human artifacts from this time period include stone figurines, digging sticks, shell beads, bone and stone arrow and spear heads, abstract images, rafts and boats, bone needles, paints and pigments.
  • Groups moved from place to place as preferred resources were depleted and new supplies were sought. Small bands utilized hunting and gathering during the spring and summer months, then broke into smaller direct family groups for the fall and winter. Family groups moved weekly, possibly traveling hundreds of miles per year.

Most of what I’m looking for at this stage is general background so I can ask better questions later, and small details that will lend life to the flashback chapters, as God-Speaker and his group migrate.

I think the most interesting take-away I got out of all of this initial reading was that the timelines and theories around the first humans migrating to North America are still very uncertain.

The First Beginning

The book begins in the present, with Christopher in the soon-to-be-crashing plane. My goal with the first couple chapters is that he survives through what appear to be a series of lucky breaks and coincidences, which later turn out to be not coincidental at all. He has knowledge of Razor Mountain and its surroundings, even if it’s sealed away somewhere in his subconscious.

The danger with this strategy is that the luck and coincidences may seem too ridiculous before the reader discovers that there is more to them than it initially appears. I need to make sure this doesn’t just come off as Christopher being unreasonably lucky.

As the plane is going down, Christopher is forced to jump into water. This is more dangerous than it’s made out to be in the movies, but probably the only plausible way he could jump from the aircraft and survive. He might be able to grab something from the plane to slow his fall or lessen his impact. He’ll hurt his leg in the process, to make it clear up-front that he’s not invincible.

He manages to swim to shore, and in the half-light, he finds a shelter. In a shallow cave, there’s a door to a bunker – the first evidence of something strange in the area around Razor Mountain. But it’s locked with a rudimentary, perhaps oddly old-fashioned numeric lock. Freezing and close to passing out, he tries a random code. Amazingly, it works. This isn’t coincidence. It’s an old memory surfacing.

The Second Beginning

Christopher passes out from pain and cold, after (perhaps?) managing to get shelter from the elements. While he is unconscious, the next chapter is the first flashback. There’s no context for the reader, at first. This is a half-dream, half-memory.

The first flashback takes us to the earliest point in the story’s timeline. God-Speaker is with his tribe of hunter-gatherers. The early scenes need to show a bit of their everyday lives, and introduce the fashioned stone “god” that the tribe reveres. They also need to show that the tribe is under pressure to migrate further than usual. Resources are scarce. There is competition, perhaps deadly, with other groups.

My feeling right now is that the flashbacks will be more of a secondary plot, rather than an even back-and-forth between chapters. The first flashback chapter should focus on the tribe in homeostasis, but with accumulating stressors steadily making life harder for them. At the very end of the chapter, an explosive event like a conflict with another tribe heralds the end of their old lives and the beginning of a new, harsher existence.


I found a name for stone-age proto-Christopher. I did a bit of research to get my bearings on stone-age North Americans. I thought more about the first two chapters or so – setting up the present-day story and the ancient-past story.

Next time, I’d like to spend some time on Christopher and God-Speaker’s character arc (arcs?), and perhaps what other sort of characters are needed to play off of them.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #2

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!

Last Time

In session #1, I decided on a few problems I was going to try to solve: the name of my protagonist, how the beginning on the story fits with the rest, and as much of the structure at the “act” level as possible.


My protagonist is a man, born in the Midwest US, around 1985. I don’t mind somewhat off-the-wall names, but sometimes it’s nice to pick a name that feels like it belongs in the time and place of the story.

If you’re not aware, baby name websites are ubiquitous these days, and a great resource for writers looking for names. One of the first search results I found was actually the Social Security website, which lists most popular names per US state, by year:

Looking at some Midwestern states, we get this:

North DakotaJoshuaMatthew
South DakotaChristopherMichael
Top two names by state, 1985

Just looking at the top two, Michael is a clear favorite, with Matthew, Christopher and Joshua as runners up. If you look at the top five, the lists are all very similar across these states.

Next, I like to look into the meanings of the names. This doesn’t really matter, but it affects my personal perception of the name, if nothing else. I do a bit more searching.

  • Michael – “Who is like God” – The archangel.
  • Matthew – “Gift of God” – The apostle.
  • Christopher – “Christ-bearer” – 10th century origin
  • Joshua – “Yahweh is salvation” – Another biblical character.

As expected for the time period and location, they’re mostly biblical in origin, and the one exception still has a very Christian origin.

At this particular moment, “Christopher” sounds the best to me. It feels like a Midwestern ’80s name. The “bearing god” meaning also plays into some ideas I have for him. I’ve been thinking that the protagonist starts back in the last ice age, as the “god-bearer” of his little tribe, literally being in charge of some small object revered as the tribe’s god. He is “attuned” to this god, communicating between it and his people.

I also like to sometimes use names that relate to concepts from the story. For example, the protagonist’s locked-away memories, which are transferred from host to host. So I did some more searching for philosophers, writers and scientists who worked on similar concepts.

There’s Carl Jung and his theories of collective unconciousness. There’s Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s ideas of inheritance of acquired characteristics. Ribot, Hering and Richard Semon are others who apparently had influential ideas about genetic memory.

For now, I’m going to call my protagonist Christopher Lamarck. This isn’t final, and it can always be changed up until the first chapter is out.

Sorting Out the Beginning

Because Razor Mountain is a set of ideas I’ve been kicking around for a while, I don’t recall the origin of the beginning. I think it was just a concept I came up with to provide immediate mystery. The protagonist (henceforth, Christopher), wakes up on a small plane over unpopulated Alaska. The other passengers and the pilot are gone.

This does provide immediate mystery. It also gets Christopher to the geographical location where the story starts – close, but not too close, to Razor Mountain. It leaves him in a bad situation with virtually no resources. The problem is: why is he even on that plane, and where did those people go where he was sleeping?

The reason he thinks he’s on the plane is because he sells products to small electrical utilities in western Canada and Alaska, and he’s traveling for his job. This is a lazy choice on my part, because my day job involves writing software for electrical utilities. If I suddenly need to come up with some details about his job, I can do it pretty easily from personal experience.

The reason he’s actually on the plane is a little more difficult.

It’s possible that the forgotten part of him (the ancient semi-immortal ruler of Razor Mountain part) has pushed him in this direction. I think there are also definitely going to be people in and around Razor Mountain that want him to come back after being away for decades. After all, if he built this little society around himself, he should have people who are wholly devoted to him.

However, there also need to be some people in this society that are very much against Christopher. That helps drive the conflict and gives me opportunities to put up barriers between Christopher and his goals. His allies and his enemies can work against each other. This might even fit in with the people missing on the plane – perhaps one group tried to bring him here, while another tried to kill him in a way that provides plausible deniability.

So, the beginning of the story goes something like this: Christopher wakes up on the plane, on a business trip. The passengers and pilot are gone. It is inevitable that he will crash in a desolate area of Alaska, alone and without supplies.

The reason this happens (which is not revealed until much later) is that “allies” from Razor Mountain manipulated events in order that he be on that plane, in this area, with the intent to divert him directly to Razor Mountain. However, the “enemies” subverted this plan. Perhaps the passengers or pilot were “enemy” agents, or double-agents. In any case, the enemies won out, then jumped out, leaving Christopher to die in a fiery wreck.

Obviously, this doesn’t answer all the questions about the opening, and it raises a few new ones, but the rough shape of this sequence is starting to feel better to me. In fact, it’s starting to drive a lot of the larger world-building for the story, which I like. It sets up a big mystery on the first page, and the resolution fits naturally near the end of the story, when Christopher finally gets deep into Razor Mountain, where the allies and the enemies are going to be.

Allies and Enemies

Christopher has allies and enemies in Razor Mountain society. I need to start thinking about what those groups look like. What are their motivations? What does Razor Mountain society look like in general?

This society is built around serving and protecting its “immortal” ruler. To do that effectively, for hundreds of years, it also has to be hidden and insular. It probably won’t last long if local governments find out about it. There will also be problems if people in the society leave and go out into the “ordinary” world. Anyone who does so need to have good reason not to tell anyone about this place.

Groups like cults, and even countries like North Korea, have similar needs to control their members and citizens in this way. They typically do so with specific kinds of disinformation and brainwashing, and by limiting any information from outside. They also tend to have small “ruling” groups with more knowledge, who are invested in the system. This investment makes them less likely to disrupt the system. However, if they have too much knowledge or power, it can lead to coups.

This seems like a promising avenue to explore for the allied and enemy groups within Razor Mountain. It also makes sense that there is a third group – those who don’t know much about Christopher, except as some sort of powerful, beneficent ruler. And this group is probably much larger than the “allies” and “enemies” who have more inside knowledge.

Artifacts and Rebirth

The reason Christopher is immortal is because thousands of years ago he found a set of objects in a cave deep beneath Razor Mountain. These artifacts may be mystical, or portrayed as mystical in the inner circles of Razor Mountain, but I think they’re actually devices from an ancient, crashed alien spacecraft.

(A spacecraft drilling deep into a mountain would explain its distinctive, razor-sharp peak. The mountain essentially sheared in half, and one side partly sank.)

One of these artifacts allows him to transfer himself into another person. This process is apparently not entirely convenient, because it recently put him in the body of a baby named Christopher, far away from Razor Mountain, with memories of his previous lives sealed away somehow. It may be that another artifact is required to unlock those memories. That would introduce times of weakness for him, and might explain why he would build up this society and let at least a few people know about the artifacts: he needs help to maintain his immortality.

Artifacts and Time Travel

The artifacts serve one other important purpose. One of them allows time travel. From a story arc perspective, his allows Christopher to come to the realization that everything about Razor Mountain is wrong, and he must go back to the moment when his ancient self discovered the artifacts to put a stop to it.

This time travel element might also be a way that he has maintained his power. If his plans fail and things go wrong, this allows him to go back and set them right.

Time travel is a dangerous element to introduce. I have to figure out which “version” of time travel I’m using. (Stable time loops? Altering a single timeline? Divergent timelines and infinite universes?) It’s also a big hammer that can theoretically fix all sorts of problems, so it needs to be limited in some way.

My initial thought is that it’s one-way, and only backward in time. Christopher won’t want to go back himself, so he’ll have to send others to warn him or fix things in the past. This introduces another useful dependency on others, and another potential opportunity for the “enemies” to throw a wrench in the works.


What did I accomplish this session?

My protagonist has a (maybe temporary) name: Christopher Lamarck.

To justify the strange situation Christopher finds himself in at the start of the book, I started fleshing out Razor Mountain society. It consists of a small group of allies and a small group of enemies, both with some knowledge of Christopher’s powers and the artifacts that grant them. The bulk of the society, however, consists of a group that knows very little about these things, and is either unaware of Christopher, or is fed vague and mythological misinformation about him.

The artifacts themselves are alien devices deposited by the crashed spacecraft that shattered Razor Mountain long before humans ever laid eyes on it. One artifact allows Christopher to transfer himself into another person. Another artifact allows people to travel one-way backward in time. The details of these artifacts still need to be worked out, and there may be other artifacts with other powers, if they turn out to be useful or especially flavorful.

I still need to think about the act structure, but I’ve got a little more material for figuring out Christopher’s motivations, goals and conflicts. Right now, he’s the only character in the story, but it feels like there’s space for interesting characters in these “allied and “enemy” groups, as they develop further.

I think I can start approaching the outline from two angles: story and back-story. At the start of the story, what happens to Christopher when the plane goes down? How does he survive? He’s landing miles from Razor Mountain, in inhospitable terrain. What does this outermost fringe of Razor Mountain society look like?

In the back-story, proto-Christopher and his tribe cross the Beringia land bridge, and he needs to somehow come to Razor Mountain and find the artifacts. Once he does, how does he figure out how to use them and begin developing his little society? What goes on there in the thousands of years of history where it remains hidden?

For now, that back-story only indirectly impacts the text, but eventually I’ll be looking for bits and pieces to include in the “alternate” chapters.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #1

This is the first in an ongoing series of posts about the development of Razor Mountain, a book that I’ll be releasing serially on this site. Unlike my previous posts, which were about more general writing concepts, like writing episodically or creating satisfying mysteries, these posts will be very specific to the development of this particular book.

Writing is often a very solitary task, and while there are a plethora of great documentaries about film-making, TV, and even game development, there’s very little about the process of writing.

My goal with this series is to document what I’m thinking, my process, and the results in as much detail as I can. I don’t claim that my processes are the best or most efficient, but my hope is that it will prove interesting for other writers to get a detailed look into how someone else goes about it.


My base instinct is to avoid spoilers at all costs. I always want to preserve that “first read” experience, and the story will not read the same to someone who knows important plot points before they’re revealed in the text.

However, what I really want to do with these development blogs is to have as open and honest an accounting of the process as possible. I don’t think I can do that effectively without spoiling the plot. So I am not going to make any attempt to be spoiler-free. These blogs will be as open and straightforward as I can make them. You’ll see the ideas as they are formed and refined. The mysteries and their resolutions will be on the table from the beginning.

If you want to read the book without spoilers, you should stop here and come back later.


I’m not starting completely from scratch. I tend to kick around ideas in my head for a long time before I write them, sometimes with a few false-starts along the way. I’ve made at least two brief attempts at writing this story previously. Neither resulted in much actual content.

In my inventory, as I begin the outlining process, I have the following items:

  1. A beginning – The protagonist wakes up on a small plane flying over an unpopulated area of Alaska. He finds that the few other passengers and the pilot have all vanished while he slept.
  2. Some jumbled plot notes – The protagonist is actually thousands of years old, but doesn’t remember it. He has lived this long by jumping from one body to another with the help of some artifacts in the depths of Razor Mountain. He has built a sort of insular society/cult in this place, and kept it hidden from the rest of the world.
  3. An ending – The protagonist regains his memories, and his current personality comes into conflict with his long-lived body-hopping personality. He uses one of the artifacts to travel back in time and stop himself.
  4. Previous attempts at the first two chapters.


I think having a beginning and an ending for a story is a great starting position to be in. The “middle” is going to be most of the words, but getting from a well-defined start to a well-defined end is a straightforward step-by-step problem to solve.

This ending feels pretty good to me, in this admittedly vague form. It requires some setup: I will have to lay the groundwork of the protagonist’s long life and history and figure out the details of these artifacts. That’s fine.

The beginning feels considerably more wobbly to me. I want to start with a big mystery, and it achieves that. But I don’t have a good resolution. I don’t know why he’s on the plane or where the other people went. Without that, it’s a LOST-style big exciting question without a big exciting answer. This is the start of the book, so it needs to be really solid. This is currently the most important thing for me to figure out.

The second problem is the protagonist’s name. Yes, this is a silly detail, but I hate writing “the protagonist” in my outlines and notes. One of the first things I like to do is try to come up with a halfway tolerable name. I console myself with the knowledge that it can always be changed later (even if I often don’t).

There will be lots of other problems to resolve as I go along, but what I really want to dig into at this early stage is structure. By figuring out some of the structure of the story, I get a scaffold that I can hang all of the details on.

Structure – Space

Like many cults, I see this strange society that the protagonist has built as a series of concentric circles. Each inner circle knows more about what’s actually happening than the people outside it. He will have built it so that only a few people closest to him actually know any details about the artifacts and his long-lived-ness. There will then be one or more layers of people outside that who know progressively less and less.

These circles aren’t just metaphorical – they’re physical, too. The artifacts are deep inside Razor Mountain, and the inner circle is physically close to them, and perhaps locked-off and disconnected from the rest of this society. The outer circles are literally out around the mountain, and spread out into the valleys surrounding the mountain itself.

The story will start with Razor Mountain in the distance, and the protagonist will have to physically journey toward the peak. He will make his way through these outer circles, eventually to the inner circle, learning more and more as he goes.

Structure – Time

The bulk of the story will happen in the present, but the protagonist has a very long history, and bits of this history will need to be revealed throughout the book for everything to make sense. This history can also contribute to the mysteries.

I think a non-linear structure will work well for this. I could alternate chapters. One chapter is the present day, describing the protagonist’s slow journey to Razor Mountain. The next chapter in the distant past, revealing some events that relate to what’s going on in the “present.” This could go on for the whole book before it becomes apparent how these events are actually linked.

I expect these flashback chapters will tend to be shorter, and even then I don’t know if I will really need to alternate 1:1. There might only be occasional flashback chapters. I can work that out later.


At the end of each of these development blogs, I’m going to try to quantify what I’ve actually accomplished.

For this first round, I thought a bit about the overall structure. I gathered the little bits of work I had done on this story previously. I defined some important problems to start solving:

  • What is the protagonist’s name? (Or at least placeholder name)
  • How does the beginning fit into the plot? (I need to solidify this, or change the beginning of the story.)

I also intend to start thinking about the act-level structure. To me, defining acts involves looking for points where the trajectory of the story can change drastically. They should also be important points in the characters’ arcs. Those larger pieces will then break down into smaller pieces – the episodes or chapters.

The Reference Desk – #1 – Start With This

Over the years, I’ve picked up useful information and ideas from books, websites, podcasts, and other resources about writing. In this ongoing series, I’d like to share some of those things with you. For the most part, these are going to be things that are interesting to other writers. However, if you’re a reader who enjoys learning “how the sausage is made,” you may find them interesting as well.

Start With This

Start With This is a podcast by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. If they sound familar, it’s probably because of their most popular project, the podcast “Welcome to Nightvale.” Nightvale is something like small-town lovecraftian horror, with a healthy dose of humor, seen through the lens of local public radio.

Start With This is a writing podcast that comes in comfortable, 30-minute installments. Each bi-weekly episode focuses on a particular theme, like “Feedback” or “Collaboration.” First, the hosts talk a bit about their own experiences in that particular arena. Then they provide some homework: one thing to create (usually a short exercise relating to the theme) and one thing to consume (some work that exemplifies the theme).

The hosts have plenty of experience in theater and live shows, as well as podcasting, and since they’ve been working together for years, they have good rapport. The episodes feel snappy and focused.

Because of the pair’s experience, the show skews a bit toward podcasts in particular and theater in general, but there is enough content for a writer outside these media that I still find the show worth listening to.

The show also caters to various levels of listener enthusiasm. I’ve found that I get something useful simply listening, but the “create” and “consume” assignments add another layer for those who want to invest the time. There is also a subscription-based forum where true enthusiasts can discuss the episodes and assignments, and find collaborators.

Outlining vs. Exploratory Writing

It’s the classic battle of writing styles! Is it better to plan a story down to the smallest detail before you begin writing, or fly by the seat of your pants, figuring out everything as you write it?

Of course, this is a false dichotomy. If you really plan a story down to the smallest details (the actual words), then you’ve written the story. And you can’t really write a story without having some sort of starting point. But there is clearly a spectrum between extensive preparation and very little preparation.

Like so many religious wars, adherents on both “sides” have strong feelings about the right way. I’m going to talk about feelings, because there’s a strong emotional component to writing. But there are logical and structural components to writing as well, so we should consider those too.

First, let’s define our terms.

What is Outlining?

At first glance, it may seem silly to even ask, but I often find that taking the time to define something sheds light onto what I’m actually trying to accomplish. Let’s take a crack at it.

An outline is a recipe for a story. In software development, we would call it an algorithm. It describes the story by breaking it down into small, ordered ideas.

A recipe has a limited level of detail, but different recipes might be more or less specific. They will probably tell you a temperature to preheat the oven, but they probably won’t tell you to open the door to put things in, or close it afterward.

The outline of a story has many more axes along which it can be more or less detailed. It could describe the plot of a novel in a few paragraphs, in chapter descriptions, or down to individual scenes. It could map out the emotional arcs of characters, or the flow of conversation in important dialogue. It could track the locations of characters or the web of their relationships.

In short, an outline can track many different aspects of a story, but it’s generally going to break them down in terms of the plot, and usually chapter-by-chaper or scene-by-scene. It will usually place them in chronological order (although it may be out of order in a non-linear story).

What is Exploratory Writing?

Exploratory writing starts with one or more ideas – “story seeds” or anchors that start to define what the story will be about. From there, you simply write to find out what will happen next.

Much like exploring a new land, you don’t know what’s ahead. You might try a path, only to discover that it leads to a dead-end and you have to back-track. You might also go a long way, only to turn back and see that there was a much better way you could have taken.

Exploratory writing embraces the idea of discovering what a story should be by going through the process of writing it.

The Feeling of Writing

There is an emotional, and some would say spiritual, aspect of writing. More than one author has connected the act of writing to the sculptor “discovering” the statue embedded in a block of marble.

When the words just seem to flow, it can feel like writing a story is more an act of discovery than a work of skilled craftsmanship. The story seems to already exist, somewhere out in the ether, and it’s the author’s job to snag it from thin air and pin it to the page.

Being a conduit for the power of a muse like this feels good. However, there are dangers to this brand of writerly mysticism. It rejects the agency of the author in their own story. It favors blind intuition at the expense of forethought and careful craftsmanship.

The Illusion of Discovery

People have been telling stories for thousands of years – before cities, before agriculture or writing. Human brains are built for narrative. Just as eyes will see phantom shapes when exposed to complete darkness, human mind will find stories and narratives in meaningless coincidences and mindless systems. It’s the fuel that drives everything from conspiracy theories to astrology.

In modern times, stories are more ubiquitous than ever before. There is an incredible abundance of stories across a wide variety of media. We are all inundated with narrative and steeped in stories from birth. An amazing side-effect of this media-rich environment is that it trains our writing intuition. We learn, instinctively, many of the shapes that stories can take.

Intuition is the brain’s subconscious pattern-matching system. We train our intuition by feeding in examples – in this case, stories. Unfortunately, intuition is an unconscious process. Recognizing that a particular pattern or trope “feels right” doesn’t automatically give you an understanding of why it works, or what the trade-offs might be. Analyzing those patterns and working to understand them helps us to improve, tweak, or fix the bits that don’t quite fit.

Pre-Editing and Post-Editing

Let’s assume for a moment that all good stories need revision. I’m going to write a first draft, and if I rewrite it several times, it will be better in some way after each revision.

In my personal experience, when I write without an outline, I end up with a rough first draft. I’m discovering what the story is about as I write it, so it’s meandering. It starts down a path, then veers off in another direction as I find the “good stuff.” The tone of the writing sometimes changes as I try to figure out what sound matches the plot. Character and their motivations may be muddy and confused.

In this case, the revision comes after the first draft, and it’s a lot of work. A lot of things need to be cut, changed or rewritten. The cost of not following a recipe is that it may take a few attempts before you manage to cook something tasty.

If we call traditional revision and rewriting “post-story editing,” then one of the advantages of outlining is that it allows for “pre-story editing.” It’s much less effort (in terms of number of words) to write the outline than it is to write the entire story, but it forces you to do a lot of the same work – figuring out the story beats, defining character motivations and arcs, and so on. Some of the problems that would eventually be obvious after writing the story out are also obvious when looking at the outline. But the cost to fix the outline (in terms of number of words) is considerably less than the cost of rewriting those portions of the completed story.

Of course, some problems just don’t reveal themselves until you get deep into the details of the story. Even with a great outline, you’ll still have problems to resolve as you write. But there’s a balance to be struck here.

The Obligatory Razor Mountain Part

Ultimately, I want to write a good story. I want to shape it into the structure that works best for it. Razor Mountain is going to be a serial. By outlining up-front, I can make sure my mysteries have pay-offs. I can make sure I’m not painting myself into a corner. I can plan my characters’ plot arcs. I can more easily keep track of the non-linear portions of the story.

However, I also want to be open to happy accidents. I want to be able to discover things about my story and incorporate them. Having an outline doesn’t preclude this.

You might say, “How can we incorporate new ideas if we already have an outline of the story?” Well, the answer is to change the outline. The outline is a guide, a recipe. A good chef tastes the food while cooking. Maybe it turns out to need a little more seasoning here and there, and they make adjustments in the middle of the process.

The outline is the clear path. It’s a way of knowing that there’s a guaranteed line from the start of the story to the end, and it’s a good path. But you can still veer off and come back to it if you notice something scenic along the way.

Even better, an outline is a record of the challenges you faced as you first built the story, and also a list of ways you thought to solve those challenges. You might think of other ways as you write. New ideas can be plugged into an existing outline to see how well they work. Maybe the new idea causes some problems. Good! Now you know the problems you have to solve if you want to incorporate that idea. You can see the trade-offs and make informed choices.

Looking Behind the Curtain

I have been in the process of outlining Razor Mountain as I wrote these last few posts. I think it’s interesting to see how other writers work, so I may end up posting my outline and other prep materials. Since this will obviously spoil the plot of the story, I may wait until it’s done. It might also be interesting to compare the initial outline and the completed story.

Are other writers interested in this sort of peek at another writer’s process? If so, would you rather be able to see everything as it happens, or get more of a recap at the end, to avoid story spoilers? Let me know what you think.

Satisfying Mysteries

I’m continuing to plan out my upcoming project, Razor Mountain. While the end product is going to be a novel, I will be releasing it in serial form – one post at a time.

One of the things I find most interesting about writing fiction (and something I plan to post about at some point) is “story seeds.” By that, I mean the formative elements of a story: the various little ideas, characters, scenes, and plot points that suddenly come together in a way that makes me think, “Oh, there’s a story in this.”

One of the formative elements of Razor Mountain wasn’t about the plot points or characters at all – it was structural. It was the simple idea of writing a story that is driven by mysteries.

Big Mystery, Little Mystery

I want to be clear that I’m not necessarily talking about the Mystery genre. The Mystery genre, like most genres, is full of conventions and tropes that I don’t necessarily want to be bound by. In Mystery fiction, the entire plot is driven by a big mystery, like a murder or crime. But the truth is that almost all fiction is at least partly driven by mystery. One of the joys of reading is finding out what happens next.

Mysteries, large and small, are a great way to keep the reader reading. Few things are quite as satisfying as having a lingering question answered. There are many ways this can be used. The reader might be given knowledge that the characters don’t have, forced to watch and worry as they make bad decisions thanks to this missing knowledge. Alternately, the reader themselves may be left in the dark, while the characters withhold their information. But most frequently, the character and the reader are both missing that critical knowledge, trying to find the answers together.

Mysteries don’t have to be drawn out. Often, it can be just as effective to pose a question at the start of a chapter, and answer it by the end. This is a way to create a miniature plot arc, and a bit of satisfaction for the reader, without resolving the larger elements of the plot.

Some stories might pose a question near the end of a chapter instead, only to resolve it shortly into the next chapter. This is a common way to “manufacture” continuous cliff-hangers, create suspense, and keep the reader turning pages.

Not All Mysteries are Good Mysteries

It’s important to note that just throwing a mystery into a story doesn’t necessarily improve it. In fact, it was bad examples of this, not good ones, that made me want to write something where mysteries drove the plot.

I’ll admit that it wasn’t initially fiction that inspired me at all. It was a tradition of disappointing TV shows. The X-Files was a formative experience of my youth, and the first show I remember that provided an endless sequence of mysteries, but rarely offered any coherent explanations for those mysteries. More recently, I watched years of LOST, only to be disappointed, along with so many others, when it became clear that it was building up dozens of mysteries that would never be properly resolved.

Those shows, and others in the same mold, often gain huge audiences, only to irritate and disappoint many of their viewers as time goes on. And sometimes there are reasons for this. There are writers’ strikes. There are budget problems. Actors leave. Shows are cancelled or move between services and networks. Even under the best of circumstances, well-laid plan can go awry and mess up plots in the process. Other times, these problems can be can be avoided by simple forethought and careful planning.

How to Piss Off the Audience

It’s simple. Ask questions and fail to answer them. Or provide contradictory answers.

The fact is this: it’s easy to create a mystery. Something happens, with no clear explanation. This is dangerous. It’s easy to ask questions, and those questions create tension. They pull the reader (or viewer) along. For the most part, a mystery with no resolution feels just as good, right up until the reader realizes that it’s not going to have a satisfying conclusion.

It’s harder to create a good mystery. A good mystery doesn’t just pose a question. It may generate a series of interesting clues. It may make the reader speculate among several clear (or more obfuscated) possibilities. Most importantly, it has a satisfying explanation that answers the questions and ties up loose ends. It doesn’t contradict other parts of the story.

A Formula, With Caveats

It’s always dangerous to try to distill broad structural issues in fiction down to simple rules, but I’m going to do it anyway. When it comes to writing fiction, there’s always a mix of skill and intuition involved. This is just a starting point to work from.

Before you start, make a commitment. A mystery is a contract with your reader. You pose questions, and promise to answer every one of them in a cohesive way. Don’t leave the reader hanging. If you’re plotting a novel and you don’t thoroughly outline before you write, you may not know right away how you’re going to solve a mystery. In this case, you need to carefully track the questions you’re posing. Make sure that by the time you reach the final draft, they’re all either resolved, or removed from the plot.

For my purposes, writing serially, I think it’s much safer to only introduce mysteries if I already know how they will resolve. Releasing in episodes means slowly painting yourself into a corner. By knowing the answers up-front, you avoid making decisions in chapter 3 that preclude the really clever resolution you think of in chapter 10. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t choose to change the resolution when you think of something better. You just have to make sure that the new resolution fits together with the other elements of the plot. Having a resolution in-hand for each mystery makes it possible to evaluate that.

The first step in building a mystery: create a straightforward question and answer. For example, a character suffers a setback. Who caused it? Don’t be afraid to stop right there. A small mystery that is only driving the plot for a few pages or a chapter doesn’t have to be complicated.

Next, you can introduce obscuring complications. Maybe it’s obvious who’s responsible for your protagonist’s problem. Ask yourself what you could change to make it less obvious. Does the protagonist have some particular knowledge that gives them an edge? What if you adjust the plot to take that away? What if that bit of information seems true, but there’s actually something different going on?

To improve complications, think about clues and red-herrings. Consider alternatives. You know which character is responsible for the murder. But what if it was a different character? How would that change the facts of the matter? Look for similarities between this “alternate-reality” version of the plot, and the “real” plot. Those clues that suggest different options are clues you can play up to make it harder for the reader to guess which world the characters actually live in.

Finally, don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. It’s easy to get bogged down in details, but once you’ve added clues and red-herrings, the overall plot still has to make sense. The characters have to follow their motivations. The twists and turns of plot can’t come off as absurd or ridiculous. Beware characters coming off as “plot-puppets”.

Razor Mountain

When I started working on Razor Mountain, I was entertaining some silly ideas. Things like trying to create a specific number of mysteries in the first half of the book, then winding them down and resolving them in the second half of the book, or intertwining mysteries and answers across odd/even chapters. Maybe it’s a side-effect of my day job as a programmer. I love the idea of perfect symmetry and exact formulas. But those tend to break down pretty quickly in the face of a real project.

I do think it makes sense to raise more questions in portions of the story with rising action, and answer more of those questions to highlight a resolution. I will be trying to intersperse smaller, chapter-sized mysteries to drive individual episodes, with larger (act- and novel-spanning) mysteries. A mini-mystery is a great tool for making an episode feel satisfying while furthering the larger plot. As I work on the outline for Razor Mountain, I’ll be explicitly calling out mysteries and resolutions.


If you haven’t considered how mysteries play out in stories outside the mystery genre, I’d encourage you to spend a little time thinking about it. Try to find all the little mysteries and resolutions in one of your favorite stories or books. You might be surprised how many there are, and how they influence the plot.

Writing Episodically

As I said previously, one of the main things I want to do with this blog is serial writing – putting a novel into the world piece by piece. I’m not the sort of person who typically jumps into something without thinking it through and preparing, and this project is no exception. I will be reading and planning while outlining the story itself. The next few posts are going to be about this process. Hopefully, my experience will be useful for others.

Ancient History

From the moment of their invention, books were a luxury good. They were hard and time-consuming to make by hand. Only the rich and privileged could afford them. Then, along came the technologies that enabled mass printing. It suddenly became cheaper to produce books in quantity. Societal changes, including greater literacy, provided a mass market.

In the British Victorian era, all of this came together. Serial fiction took off, and eventually made its way across Europe and America. Novels by Dickens, Dumas, Melville, and many others were released in weekly or monthly installments.

Over time, serial fiction in periodicals and papers faded from glory. Serial fiction moved to radio, which was usurped in turn by television.

Serials Today

There are a few places to look for inspiration in modern times.

  • TV – This remains the place where most serial fiction is made. Episodic shows with at least some sort of overarching narrative are more popular than ever before.
  • Podcasts – After nearly fading into obscurity, radio serials have found fresh new life in the form of podcasts. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of fiction podcasts with ongoing stories.
  • Magazines – The world of magazine fiction has fallen a long way from the heyday of Harpers and The Atlantic, but fiction magazines still exist. Most of the pages these days are dedicated to self-contained short fiction, but serialized longer works still occasionally appear. Manga is a notable exception across the pond.
  • Video Games – Games, and their more literary cousin, interactive fiction, have typically been delivered in a single package, but have dabbled with serialization and episodes. Modern web-based interactive fiction games like Fallen London deliver ongoing narrative.
  • Web Fiction – As far as the written word goes, this is the modern mother lode. The web fractures everything and everyone into little tribes of interest, and this is no exception. The fan fiction writers have websites where they post their episodes, stories, and novels. Users on Tumblr and Medium and various blogs write serialized fiction. Relatively new sites like SerialBox seem to be making a go of professional-level serial fiction tailored for mobile, but I think it’s too early to tell how successful that business model will be. There seems to actually be quite a bit out there, but without big gatekeepers, it takes some effort to go out and find it.

If I’m going to write an original, free, serialized novel, as a writer who isn’t a household name, posting it to a blog seems like as good a choice as any. The market for original serial fiction (if you can even say there is such a thing) is messy and confusing. Publishers and magazines have little interest, and sites and apps like Wattpad and SerialBox seem like unproven novelties.


Unsurprisingly, writers love to give writing advice. After all, if you love to write, why wouldn’t you love to write about writing? Despite the relative unpopularity of modern serial fiction (at least in comparison to other forms), a quick web search brings up plenty of articles about writing it.

It’s an appealing format – the initial effort seems low, the feedback is fast, and it’s tailored to the modern attention span.

From reading about others’ experiences, there seem to be a few key decisions that factor into writing a serial. How episodic is it (vs. a single narrative simply split into parts)? Is it written solo, or collaboratively? Is it all written before release, or released as a work-in-progress? What should the episode size and frequency of release be?

Size Matters

I want to write as I go. If I write the whole thing in advance, then I might as well just write it as a novel. That doesn’t mean I don’t intend to be prepared, but I’d like to have as much of the “serial experience” as I can, within my own limitations.

The frequency that I update is going to largely be a function of how much work I can devote in a given week. I’d rather start small and potentially ramp up, than worry about having to scale back an overly-ambitious start. My current plan is to start with weekly updates, with a single writing session and a shorter editing session per post.

With those limitations in mind, I’m probably not going to be able to finish more than 3-4,000 words per week. It looks like the big money sites like SerialBox trend more toward 8-10,000 words per episode, which means I’ll be breaking down into smaller chunks than they do.

However, I know my own work, and I write fairly short chapters, averaging around 2,000 words, and rarely more than 4,000. That fits pretty nicely within the weekly range I’m looking at. The question that I don’t yet know how to answer is whether those chapters will work nicely as “episodes,” or if they’ll feel too short. I suspect the only good way to figure that out will be to write them and see how it feels, once I’ve done it a few dozen times.

Solo or Collaborative

Episodic television shows, some episodic podcasts, and even some serial fiction use a model with multiple writers, often under the overarching control of a show-runner. This is a model that is designed for speed and consistency, where the art is also a commercial product, usually backed by a corporation that needs to turn a profit.

I’ve never written collaboratively. Many years ago, I played around with shared worlds on message boards, but it was messy and uncoordinated, adn I got turned off by what felt like poor writing from my “collaborators.” Those experiments fizzled quickly.

More recently, I’ve taken to playing table-top role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. These are a form of collaborative fiction, but a very different one that lives within the framework of the game elements. Unless you’re playing for an audience (which is more and more popular these days), the only people you have to worry about pleasing are yourselves. Deep characterization works great here, but it’s very difficult to create plot arcs that would seem elegant to someone outside the game.

For now, I like the control of being a solo author. I think I have enough to figure out to get this project rolling, and adding collaborators and an unfamiliar workflow will only make it more difficult. That said, I’d like to try it, perhaps with a smaller project, some time in the future.

Planning or “Pantsing”

I don’t know the origin of this term, but it seems prevalent among online writers. “Pantsing” comes from the phrase “by the seat of your pants” – that is, just starting a project without a complete plan, and seeing where it goes.

I think a more accurate term might be “outlining vs. exploratory writing”. This just might be the most contentious topic among writers: is it better to start with an exhaustive outline and follow it, limiting the possibility of incorporating serendipitous ideas? Or is it better to let the story “flow,” and fix any resulting structural issues or inconsistencies through more extensive rewrites and editing?

At one point, I certainly believed in exploratory writing. I rarely did much outlining, simply because I didn’t know how to do it well. I still appreciate “discovering” things about a story as I write it, but as I’ve written more, I’ve tended to outline more as well. It’s ultimately a matter of results: I find that I get a better product with less work and frustration.

This is a big topic, and I plan to dig deeper in a future post. For now, suffice to say that I think a solid outline is a necessity for me, personally, to be able to succeed at this project.

Putting the Episode in Episodic

One of the unifying factors across TV, podcasts, and web fiction is episodic content. It may seem obvious, but these shows aren’t just 25-hour movies split into one-hour chunks. When I first thought about writing a serialized novel, that was more or less how I thought about it: a novel split into chapters, or possibly even smaller sections.

Obviously, a novel typically has both overarching plots and arcs within and across chapters. However, novels don’t usually feel obligated to make each chapter a self-contained story. In episodic television and podcasts, the episode is more often of primary importance. Even when the plot continues across a season, or many years, the episode needs to be its own, discrete entity. It needs to be a first-class citizen of the story.

What I take from this is that a serialized novel needs to be a novel across its entirety, but episodes have special needs. For each episode, I need to craft something that can stand on its own. Now, that doesn’t mean it has to be a self-contained short story, in terms of plot. It means an episode has to be emotionally self-contained. It needs to have the feeling of rising tension and resolution.

These episodes also need the connective tissue to pull the reader from one to the next. For this, my plan was always to use mysteries to pull the reader along. I think this still works, even when there’s a greater emphasis on individual episodes. A few open questions keep the larger plot moving. Episodes with their own plot arcs can still pose these questions and provide clues. Ideally, the end of an episode’s arc will align with resolving larger questions, posing new ones, or both.

There are dangers with this style. But just to prove how effective a good mystery can be, I’m going to save that discussion for another post.

Where Does That Leave Us?

I’ve now learned a bit about the history of serial fiction. I scoured the web for more modern examples, and found more than I expected. Looking at TV, podcasts, and modern web serials, it has become clear that serialized fiction needs to focus on satisfying episodes, even if the end-goal is a cohesive novel.

I’ve determined my posting schedule: one fiction post per week, with each post being a chapter or episode. I also intend to post one blog post per week, leaving open the possibility of more. I think Friday morning is a good time to post fiction, and Monday morning is a good spot for the blog. That gives me the opportunity to do the bulk of my writing during the weekend, and personally, I find that I’m most likely to slack off work and read a blog on those days.

Finally, I have a couple more blog topics to cover in the lead-up to this project. I’m getting deeper into the outlining and prep. I’m figuring out the structure of the story, and also looking for opportunities to make it more episodic.

Further Reading

I’ll leave you with some of the things I found interesting in my research this week.

Coming From, Going To

I’m not a big fan of introductions, and I don’t much like talking about myself. However, if this blog is going to be a teetering pile of my thoughts and opinions, it’s only fair that I provide some context so that you can decide just how much those thoughts and opinions are worth. 

I write fiction as a hobby, and have done so for more than 15 years. My first loves were science fiction and fantasy, but I find that my tastes are constantly expanding as I get older. Still, I very rarely write anything that doesn’t have at least a tinge of the bizarre or unreal about it.

When it comes to writing, I am sporadic. Sometimes, I will write every day for months. Sometimes I will take months off. Part of my reason for starting this blog was to have an excuse (or perhaps an obligation) to write on a more consistent basis. I write novels and stories. While I love writing, I also love reading. I love reading about writing, and thinking about writing, and talking about writing. Part of my reason for starting this blog is to be able to share all of that with other writers.

By day, I create software. I’ve been coding since childhood. This influences what I write and how I think. One thing I may do with this blog is create little online tools or pages that are useful to writers.

I am a husband and a father of three children. Half of the books I read now are children’s or middle-grade books, and I mostly read them aloud. I’m sure this has had effects on my writing. I certainly have more appreciation for the sound of good words, precisely spoken.

Those are a few little fragments of who I am and where I’ve been. What’s coming next is a short series of posts about a thing called Razor Mountain.

Razor Mountain is going to be a novel. But first, it’s going to be posted, bit by bit, on this blog. I have never written serial fiction before, so this will be an experiment. Whether it succeeds or fails, we will learn something. First, I will post about the process of preparing to write this thing. Then I will be writing it, and I will post about that as I do it. When it’s finished, I’ll very likely talk about editing, and revision, and some of the joys and regrets of putting a large piece of fiction onto the internet in bite-sized portions.

There will be other topics interspersed. All of them, somehow, related to writing.

While I don’t know exactly what the posting schedule will look like, I plan to stick to at least two posts per week – one blog post, and one piece of serialized fiction.

There. We’ve got our bearing. We’ve got half a map. Let’s see where the road take us.

The Blank Page

Every writer knows the daunting feeling of staring at the blank page. There’s promise and possibility. There’s a perfect story in your head, in that hazy wonderland where all characters are rounded and all plots are hole-free, and your brilliant, subtle themes give future literature professors whole semesters of discussion topics.

Unfortunately, as soon as it’s on the page, all the imperfections become obvious. Writing gets hard when you get down to the actual words. Like any other story, this blog is going to be one thing in my head, and another thing entirely when it’s on the page.


I’m going to talk about techniques and experiences. I’m going to point to things that I think are great, and do my best to explain why. I may review books or other media, but I’m more interested in what we can learn from it than any opinions on how “good” something is.

Serialized Fiction

Following in the footsteps of Dickens and Dumas, I’m going to be publishing free, (eventually) novel-length fiction here, hopefully weekly. This will be a fun experiment; I’ve never put work out into the world this way.


Another experiment I’d like to try is live-streaming writing sessions. The act of writing is oddly intimate, and while writers love to talk about writing, we rarely have an opportunity to see the first drafts or the editing as they happen. It may be a great way to start discussions. It might be a disaster. If nothing else, it should be interesting.

And More?

Of course, now that this post is nearly done, I find that it’s much worse than what I thought it would be, when the page was still blank. I’m sure there will be other things we do here. Other ideas. Other inspirations. We’ll keep some characters and kill off others. We’ll find the plot eventually. There will be a glorious arc. It’ll all work out.

At the very least, I’ll get it out of my head and onto the page.