The Read/Write Report

This week, instead of the usual storytelling class that I have with my daughter, we just set aside some time to write together. It was nice to have that time set aside, and I think we may switch to a schedule where we have our “class” every other week, and just have a scheduled writing time for the weeks in-between.

However, one of the things I’ve really enjoyed about our writing class (and documenting it on the blog) is the opportunity to review what I read and wrote over the past week. I figured I can continue to do that even if I don’t have a separate topic to discuss as well.

What I Read

I continued to work my way through The Unwritten, finishing volumes 5, 6 and 7. This series is my favorite read of the year so far, and quickly becoming one of my favorite graphic novel series of all time.

One of the tricks that The Unwritten pulls off amazingly well is the constant expansion of the story. It’s a mystery at its heart, with the main characters trying to figure out the motivations and powers of their enemies, and even trying to understand how the world around them actually works. In each volume, our understanding expands. We learn more about the world, which reveals more questions and raises the stakes.

I’m already thinking about a dedicated post talking about the series once I’ve finished, so I won’t dig too deep now, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

I’m continuing to read Dune aloud at bedtime with my oldest son. It has been years since I last read Dune, so I get to come at it with fairly fresh eyes.

I’ve been struck by Herbert’s style, which is equal parts florid and terse. He seems almost allergic to conjunctions, and is happy to connect multiple sentences with nothing more than commas. He frequently has paragraphs that consist of a single short sentence, or even a fragment. And yet, there are moments when he waxes poetic, when he’s describing the geography and environment of the desert planet Arrakis, or when delving into the characters’ thoughts on philosophy and politics.

Like many works of science-fiction that have been able to endure for decades, Dune is a strange book. It is a mix of prescient futurism and anachronism.

It is infused with environmentalism and ecological systems inextricably tied to the human populations that live within them. It offers a generally positive view of Islamic cultures. It imagines a universe where people have rejected artificial intelligence, and spent centuries exploring, advancing and honing the possible modes of human thought.

It also imagines a far-flung spacefaring society that is fundamentally feudal, governed by all-powerful emperors and lesser royals, where the populations of ordinary people have no meaningful say in the structure of their society. The only competition for power comes from the Spacing Guild, who monopolize space travel; the CHOAM company, who monopolize life-extending spice; and the Bene Gesserit, who use social, political, and even religious manipulation to infiltrate the other powers and perform experiments in long-term eugenics. Power is almost exclusively amoral and self-serving. It’s not the sort of future most of us would be eager to experience first-hand.

Having read all of the Dune books (at least the ones by Herbert himself), I never felt that any of them stood up to this first one in the series. They are interesting though, because they do a better job revealing Herbert’s interests in vast timelines; huge interconnected systems; and ideas of humanity behaving as a single collective organism, with the fates of individuals being dictated more by the drives of the super-creature than any individual choices they make.

What I Wrote

I got about halfway through Razor Mountain chapter 9. I also started writing a short story that I’m calling “The Incident at Pleasant Hills.” The idea was inspired by a Story Engine prompt, and I used a slightly modified version  of Firewater’s Cube brainstorming method to flesh out the characters and setting.

I think I was in need of other fiction to work on alongside Razor Mountain. I’m still enjoying writing Razor Mountain and I’m committed to finishing it, but it’s nice to have small things to work on alongside the novel that I know I’ll still be working on for months to come.

Storytelling Class With Freya

One of the joys of parenthood is when your children take an interest in an activity you love. You get the opportunity to teach them what you know and give them all the advice you wish you’d had. My nine-year-old daughter Freya recently lamented that English class was boring because she didn’t get to write stories. She said, “I wish I had a story writing class.” It took a lot of restraint for me to not jump up immediately and start singing “A Whole New World” from Aladdin. Instead, I immediately instituted a story writing class for just the two of us.

My daughter was kind enough to give me permission to post about our classes. Since we’re planning to meet once per week, this will be a new weekly feature until she gets bored or I run out of things to talk about.

Teaching writing to a child is an interesting exercise, and I don’t have a ton of experience teaching. My daughter is a smart cookie, but she doesn’t have a lot of experience writing or reading stories, having not been on this earth all that long. I think the key is to be flexible and adjust to her interests. The most important thing kids need for successful learning is enthusiasm.

For our first “class,” I decided to start with some general principles and try to find out what she was interested in.

Nobody Can Tell You How to Write

I started with an abridged version of my writing advice advice. There are many authors who have found success with wildly different methods that work for them. It’s great to study and find out what works for other people, but you ultimately have to synthesize your own systems from bits and pieces of others’ advice, along with your own discoveries.

I can give advice, but not all of it will work for you. Just take what works and don’t stress too much about what doesn’t.

Making Sense, Feeling Good

It’s important for (most) stories to make sense. They should have events that follow one after another logically. But that isn’t what makes a good story.

If you think about some of your favorite stories, you probably love them because they made you feel something. The “feeling” of a story, the emotions it evokes, is the real measure of its worth. It might be “happily ever after” and make you feel good, but it might also make you feel bad, scared, surprised or satisfied.

I think one of the many reasons humans are storytellers is because stories serve as a sort of experience by proxy. I will never know what it’s like in real life to be an astronaut stranded by myself on Mars. I’ll never know what it’s like to be a little person with hairy feet, sneaking to volcano to throw in a magic ring. But I can still experience these things vicariously through stories.

Doing It on Purpose

The most important things you can do to improve your writing are:

  • Read a lot
  • Write a lot
  • Seek advice and opportunities to learn from others

The human subconscious is a wonderful thing. Your subconscious can absorb ideas and techniques, even without you realizing that you’re absorbing it. Your subconscious instincts can take you a long way. Still, if you want to get better at writing, you can’t rely solely on your subconscious.

You want to be able to make choices and decide how to do things to achieve specific effects. To do that, you need to consciously learn different techniques and the ways to deploy them.

Questions and Homework

To finish, we discussed a few open-ended questions. These may seem a little silly, but I do think that it’s worth it for any writer to ask themselves overly-broad questions

  • What is a story?
  • Why do you read stories, and why do you enjoy them?
  • Why do you want to write stories?

I also asked Freya what she wanted to cover in these classes. She said that one thing she has trouble with is not finishing stories. I’ll admit, this is something I’ve occasionally had issues with as well. So that will be our topic for next time: finishing stories!

Who to Write For When You Have No Audience or Readership

Elliot Chan

At the beginning of your writing journey, you won’t have a following. No audience. No readers. Nobody knows who you are. It’s almost impossible for them to find you. It can be an awfully lonely place at the start, and in this solitude, you’ll ask, “Why am I even writing this? Nobody will read it.”

Writing is more than putting words on pages. Writing is communicating. To solve the problem of not having a readership, all you have to ask is “Who am I communicating with?” Now, at this point, you might have an epiphany and discover your audience are the children of Mexico or all the pregnant women in their second trimester. If that’s you. Great! All you have to do then is direct your writing efforts towards schools in Mexico or building a pregnancy blog, and in a matter of time, you’ll have an audience.

But then…

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Kindle Vella is Now Live!

This is an interesting new market for serial fiction. It’s unfortunate (although not particularly surprising) that Amazon is demanding to be the sole distributor of any stories you put on the platform. That’s the main reason I’m not excited to start using it immediately.

It’ll be interesting to see if Amazon can leverage their existing writer and reader ecosystems to make headway against the existing services, especially companies from Asia, where short, serial fiction for mobile has been a thing for a while…

Originally posted on chrismcmullen: KINDLE VELLA Amazon just launched the new Kindle Vella. What is Vella? Stories that are told one episode at a …

Kindle Vella is Now Live!

The Clan of Novels Set Far in the Past

This post is one of those perfect coincidences, as I work on prepping a serial novel whose timeline ranges from prehistory to modern day.

It is interesting delving so far into the past that we have little idea what life was actually like. I’ll have to check out these recommendations.

Dave Astor on Literature

Jean M. Auel

Every novel is a work of imagination, but sometimes the imagination can be more striking than usual. That’s certainly the case with fiction set way back in time.

By “way back in time” I don’t mean several centuries. I’m talking about novels written in our modern age that are set millennia ago, perhaps MANY millennia. When a story is that far in the past, there are usually few or no documents for an author to draw on during the research phase of writing — and life was VERY different then. So, more imaginative leaping is needed by the novelist.

I’m currently reading Jean M. Auel’s impressive prehistoric saga The Clan of the Cave Bear, which takes place more than 25,000 years ago — a time when the Neanderthal race was reaching the end of the line and Cro-Magnon people were becoming ascendant. Auel did plenty of…

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Razor Mountain Development Journal #11

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

Last Time

I finished the chapter summaries for Act I!

A Little Meta Talk

I’ve now done ten of these development journals. It has been a lot of fun talking through the process as I figure out what this book is. Having to explain my thought process has helped me get more done, and clarified by thinking. I’ve also been surprised how useful it is to have the session-by-session details available to consult when I’m trying to remember a detail here or there.

These development journals also make it easier to think about scheduling. My original plan for Razor Mountain was to finish the prep work and start posting chapters in Q1 of 2021. However, I’m ten sessions in, and just finished outlining Act I. At my current pace, it looks like I’m probably not going to hit that goal.

Rather than try to cram more work into my weeks going forward, I’m going to just let that rough schedule slip if it needs to. My current pace feels good. I’m steadily progressing, I’m not feeling too stressed, and it’s balanced with the rest of my life.

Questions for Act II

When I made my act-level outlines for the two viewpoint characters, Act II looked like this:

  • Christopher meets the Razor Mountain outcasts, and learns about the main group from them. He’s brought to the main group, imprisoned and interrogated. He comes to the attention of the inner circle.
  • God-Speaker uses the artifacts and his newfound powers to gain control of several migrating tribes, bringing them to Razor Mountain. Over thousands of years, he grows more jaded and disinterested with the people he rules over, using them to further his ends, build up his stronghold and insulate himself from danger. He learns how to use the artifacts to keep himself alive and in power.

These descriptions obviously aren’t detailed enough to start throwing down chapter outlines, so I need to ask questions and figure out answers until I have chapter-level details.

  • Who are the important exile characters? What are their motivations? How do they interact with each other and Christopher?
  • Who are the important 550th Infantry characters? Again, motivations and interactions.
  • What about the inner circle characters? (These are slightly less important for now, as they’re mostly in Act III.)
  • How do I cover the thousands of years of God-Speaker’s story in a few chapters? What are the important points to hit? Do I want a different ratio of chapters between Christopher and God-Speaker? (Act I was 2:1.)
  • Who are the important secondary characters in God-Speaker’s chapters? Are they all one-offs until close to present day?
  • What does Christopher’s character arc look like through the rest of the book?
  • What does God-Speaker’s character arc look like?
  • What are the details of the artifacts? What do they look like? How do they work?

Changes in Character

In Act I, I set up Christopher and God-Speaker to run into a bunch of hardships and challenges. Both are deep in unfamiliar territory.

I’m getting to know these characters better, and now I need to spend more time thinking about their motivations, fears, and how they’ll change over the course of the story.

God-Speaker suffers this trauma, then comes into tremendous power in the form of the artifacts. He begins shaping the world around him into a sort of protective cocoon. The natural progression, as he lives longer and longer, is more detachment from and indifference to the people around him. He becomes insulated.

Ironically, by gaining the ability to continually extend his life through the artifacts, death looms larger and larger in his mind. His fear of death drives him.

For Act II, I think the scenes across thousands of years should show how God-Speaker builds up Razor Mountain and uses the artifacts, but also specific inflection points that reveal changes in his attitude toward death and his disconnection from people around him.

As for Christopher, I already feel like I have several plot points defined for Christopher in Act II. He’s better-defined in my mind at this point, so his story feels like it comes easier.

Christopher’s initial motivation is to figure out what’s going on, at least enough to find a way home. However, he will quickly get dragged into the complexities of Razor Mountain. His risk-aversion and fear of the unknown mirror God-Speaker, but he has to overcome them to make progress. As he gets further into Razor Mountain, he begins to realize that a lot of this is strangely familiar to him.

He starts with the exiles, where he sees the results of this oppressive society, and the fracturing that has occurred in the years that God-Speaker has been absent. Then he’s captured by the 550th Infantry, where he witnesses the absolute, cultish beliefs that some of the people maintain, and the extremes they will go to in support of those beliefs.

Finally, he enters the inner circle, near the end of the act. Some of the inner circle are devoted to maintaining and increasing their power and control – most notably those that attempted to kill him and disrupted his reincarnation. But there are also those who are still loyal to him, and have various levels of sympathy for the people of Razor Mountain. He sees all the systems of control that have been built up in service of God-Speaker.

Christopher starts out risk-averse and scared of danger. His journey to Razor Mountain gives him several chances to face his own death (lost in the wilderness, being shot at, and maybe threatened or tortured by the 550th). In the mountain, he has the opportunity to see the huge amount of hardship and suffering of the people there. This should set him up for the shocking discovery that he is actually God-Speaker, and the inner conflict between the two main characters in one head.

When Christopher unlocks God-Speaker’s memories, there is a transition process as he integrates into this ancient mind. The puddle of his personality flows into the lake of memories and experiences that comprise God-Speaker. For a while, Christopher remains dominant. In the midst of this, he has to thwart the plans of the inner circle members who want him dead. Then he has to decide whether he will fix things by reestablishing the status quo, or if he will tear it all down and give up on the idea of immortality. (He will.)


I came up with a list of problems that need solving to move from my high-level Act II outline to chapter outlines.

Next time, I’m going to try to answer some of these questions.

Writing Like Knitting

I wrote a poem today, which is not something I typically do. In fact, I didn’t intend to do it at all.

I was listening to Mike Birbiglia’s postcast, Working it Out. In episode 4, he talks about writing poetry with his wife, and Matt Berninger and Carin Besser of The National. They talked about all the people who are out there making creative work, but not showing or sharing it. Maybe not even having the desire to share. Mike seemed surprised and fascinated by the idea, and I also find it very strange to think about. Whenever I write, I always have the vague idea of a reader other than myself in mind.

They discussed working on a poem for years, “like knitting,” with no real concern or urgency for finishing it. In fact, specifically enjoying the not-doneness of it. Writing as a pass-time. Writing as a personal, private act, or peaceful meditation.

This idea really struck me. So even though I don’t write poetry, it felt fitting in the moment to write a poem about writing poems. I started writing, and before I knew it, a poem happened. I won’t vouch for the quality, but it was a fun little spontaneous act of creation. In fact, it was fun enough that I’m thinking I might delve into poetry again some time.

She Writes

She writes
Taps the keys
A poem, a secret, between her and the screen
Words are fluid
Day to day, month to month,
Year to year
Obsequious to whim and whimsy
To whatever mood takes her
That day
That year

The poems are not for others
They are hers
They are her
They are
A slow progression, knitting
Bonsai trimming
Cutting hair
No desire to share
To show
Not greedy
Just comfortable in the words
In the middle of making
No concern
For done

Is Cyberpunk Retro-Futurism Yet?

The author of Neuromancer – the book widely considered to have kicked-off the cyberpunk genre – says it’s now a retro-future. That’s pretty interesting, considering how much high-profile cyberpunk seems to still be happening.

For those who don’t follow video games, Cyberpunk 2077 was perhaps the most hotly anticipated game of 2020 (before it ended up releasing late, dogged by accusations of employee abuse and so buggy that refunds were offered on some platforms). Blade Runner 2049 was a lauded, big-budget movie just three years ago. And most of the streaming services have their own recent cyberpunk offerings.

Through five decades, we received a steady, if inconsistent, stream of cyberpunk literature, cinema, television and games. Not only that, but it gave us an almost absurd number of ___-punk sister genres, cribbing the dystopian outsider aesthetic and patching in various kinds of technology.

Death of a Genre?

Unlike most genres that take place in the present or a particular historical era, most science fiction has a built-in shelf life. While most people might be able to look past the 2019 “future” date of the original Blade Runner or the clunky flip-phones of The Matrix, there comes a certain point where an imagined future starts to feel stale.

The parts of these retro-futures that actually came to pass seem somehow more depressing, more mundane, more obvious when we live inside them every day. The predictions that failed often seem further away than they did before, or outright absurd.

Some of cyberpunk’s staying power might owe to pop media’s perpetual mining and re-mining of nostalgia for remakes, reboots, sequels and spiritual successors. Cyberpunk has also accumulated plenty of visual and tonal markers that have been used (and abused) to provide quick and shallow style. For every Matrix, there’s an Equilibrium or Aeon Flux.

It seems clear that if cyberpunk does die, it will be a slow, sighing death. Most science-fiction genres and styles don’t go away completely. They inform the sub-genres and successors that follow, transforming or splintering.

Where is the Center of the Universe?

Back on Twitter, Aaron suggests that the future is in “Gulf Futurism, Sino Futurism, Afro Futurism.” It’s not hard to see that these are all sub-genres with very different geographical and cultural centers from old-school cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is rooted in extrapolations of 1980s American culture. Even when it goes as far afield as Hong Kong, it’s more 1980s British Hong Kong than post-handover Chinese Hong Kong. The neon hanzi are largely window-dressing.

There is certainly a deep vein of anxiety in America that suggests that the country’s cultural and economic influence on the future is waning. That refrain seems to be getting louder, not quieter. Meanwhile, other places in the world are seeing their cultural and economic influence grow at breakneck pace, even as technology upends old norms and traditions.

Gulf futurism centers the world on the Arabian Gulf, while Sino Futurism looks at the future through a Chinese lens. Afro Futurism explores futures and themes not only centered on the African continent, but also on African diaspora and the complex intersections of culture and history that brings.

Cyber, Solar, Bio or Steam

Other Twitter responses mention solarpunk and biopunk, offshoots that focus less on traditional cyberpunk technologies like AI and VR, and instead explore the consequences of things like environmental disaster, climate change, and runaway biotechnology. In a world where climate change becomes more apparent every day, these themes are more relevant than ever.

Meanwhile, there are many other derivatives that shift the aesthetic from futuristic to fantastic. Genres like steampunk and dieselpunk are more fantasy than science-fiction, enjoying anachronistic alternate universe playgrounds that are concerned with the themes of the last century rather than the themes of the upcoming one.

Fodder for the Reading List

Cyberpunk will continue, in some form or another, but it’s getting long in the tooth. Maybe its latest micro-renaissance will prove to have interesting things to say about our modern dystopian world. And even if it doesn’t, it’s interesting to see the genre splintering in so many different directions. If nothing else, these tweets have inspired me to sample some of these other sub-genres.