Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 21

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

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

Anchor Scenes

When it comes to writing, I am a planner. To a lot of people, that just means having an outline rather than writing and seeing what comes out. However, there are really several phases to planning, especially when it comes to a big project like a novel.

For me, the first phase of planning is really just collecting ideas. There has to be some set of ideas that get me excited enough to say, “Yeah, I want to put hundreds of hours of effort into making this book.” Often, these ideas aren’t enough to provide a start-to-finish synopsis of the story, but they are important moments, so they tend to be the things that cluster around the beginning, the end, or act breaks. Occasionally, they’re just something cool that happens in the middle, and that’s fine too.

That collection of exciting ideas are like mountain peaks in the fog. They’re moments in an incomplete story. To make a real story, I have to figure out all the obscured parts—I have to blow away all that fog in between.

Before I really start to put together a proper outline (and even while I’m outlining), I tend to act out those scenes in my head and think about what the characters might do and say. Sometimes I come back to the same scene over and over and discover new details or different directions they could go.

For Razor Mountain, these were things like Christopher waking up alone on the plane and the moments leading up to jumping out; his journey into the wilderness, and facing the choice of going back to safety or continuing on without any certainty of success; or God-Speaker falling down into the depths of the glacier and discovering that the stone god is broken and he is utterly alone.

A lot of the ideas in this chapter came to me later in the process, but it still feels like one of those anchor scenes. When I first conceived this book, I didn’t know about Chris Meadows yet. I didn’t have a complete understanding of Razor Mountain, and I didn’t know exactly how Christopher would get there. What I did know was that Christopher would have to be broken down completely. He doesn’t know it yet, but this is the experience that allows him to really change.

The rest of the story will be about him figuring out why he is who he is, and whether he wants to do something to change that.

Capturing Dreaminess

I got to play around with style a little bit in this chapter. Christopher is in a dreamlike state, sleep-deprived and tortured on top of everything else that has happened to him since the beginning of the book.

I wanted parts of this chapter to feel more concrete, as though we’re with him in the room, and parts to be more dreamlike, to the point where it’s not entirely clear what is real and what is hallucination, what is memory, and what is happening in the moment.

To make time feel disjointed, I added an unusual number of narrative breaks within the chapter. The story jumps back and forth between (what we can assume to be) multiple interviews with Sergeant Meadows and descriptions of Christopher’s mental state and thoughts. I also used an unusual number of short sentences and sentence fragments in the dialogue and descriptions to show how unfocused and disjointed his thoughts are. A side-effect of this is that longer sentences stand out, and I used that to draw attention to one or two things.

The third trick I used was substituting italics for quotes in some of the dialogue. I think this makes Christopher’s quoted dialogue feel more immediate, while Meadows’s italicized dialogue makes him seem more distant. It also has the side-effect that it’s much easier to follow the back-and forth without any dialogue tags. There’s no description in these parts either—just two disembodied voices—and that also adds to the dreamlike quality.

Finally, I added a section where I switch to first-person for the first time in the book. Honestly, I suspect I wouldn’t have had the guts to try something like this if I hadn’t read and analyzed The Martian and seen how many times Andy Weir jumped between perspectives and tenses, and how seamless it all felt.

I initially tried the change in perspective to untangle some gnarly sentences where it just wasn’t clear which person the pronouns were referring to. However, I kept it because it puts the reader deep into Christopher’s perspective at the exact moment when he is most vulnerable. This is a big reveal of something only lightly hinted at, a key piece of Christopher’s background.

With any stylistic experiments there’s a risk of failure, but I’m happy with how this chapter turned out. I think the experiments paid off.

Next Time

In chapter 22, we’re coming back to God-Speaker, once again leaping ahead through history. We’ll see a formative time in his life, and a little more information about Razor Mountain, the mysterious voices within, and their powers.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 18

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

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

The Great Act II Chapter Consolidation

In my previous journal, I talked about consolidating two chapters (as defined in the outline) into one: what is now posted as Chapter 17. It made sense because they were consecutive chapters, contiguous in the narrative, and both were shorter than I expected when I finally wrote them out. Also, because of the way I had laid out the surrounding chapters, it was easy to shuffle them around and avoid having to change the structure too much.

With this fresh in my mind, I started working on Chapter 18 and quickly determined that I should do the same thing once again. In fact, several of the chapters from Christopher’s point of view in Act II are going to be short, even in the outline. I think I was trying a little too hard to keep the 2:1 ratio of Christopher and God-Speaker chapters when it really doesn’t serve the story so much as give me the satisfaction of a mathematically precise outline.

There’s nothing wrong with short chapters, but the chapter breaks need to serve a narrative purpose, and some of these just weren’t doing that.  After combining two more chapters to form the new Chapter 18, I decided to spend some time re-evaluating the rest of Act II for more consolidation. I had also trimmed enough that I could no longer keep my 2:1 ratio, so I needed to figure out how to correctly order the remaining chapters.

Reordering

Reordering different narratives within a book can be a real pain, especially when you have multiple points of view or time periods to keep track of. As Lemony Snicket told us, stories are a series of unfortunate events, and you’ve got to make sure your causes and effects happen in the right order (unless you’re doing some really crazy time-travel shenanigans).

Luckily, Razor Mountain only has two points of view, each in a very different time. Different parts of those narratives fit together to reveal bits and pieces of the larger story together, but in many cases the ordering of the actual chapters is not that critical.

However, there is a single major “connection point” where the two timelines and points of view come together. This is where several major mysteries are resolved (although a reader who is paying attention will probably know what’s coming). This big moment in the narrative is situated neatly at the end of Act II, and the structure and point of view will change once again going into Act III. So my main concern with rearranging chapters is to ensure that the secrets aren’t given away before the end of the act, and that this section of the story still builds up to the final two or three impactful scenes.

I’ve now done my rearranging and I’m fairly happy with it. I’m still considering some changes right at the end, but I’ll look at that more seriously when I get to those chapters.

Next Time

Chapter 19 will finally get us back to God-Speaker. With the combined chapters, it feels like it has been even longer than usual since we last spent time with him. His narrative is still time-jumping, so it’s been an even longer wait for him. God-Speaker has already been through a lot, but in these next few chapters I’ll be working doubly hard to show how events come to shape God-Speaker’s personality and who he eventually becomes.

Razor Mountain — Bonus Development Journal

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

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

But Wait…There’s More!

I write and edit each chapter of Razor Mountain as a single cohesive unit, but I’ve been splitting each chapter into multiple parts, usually between 1,000 and 1,500 words. For blog posts, this is supposedly the sweet spot for keeping readers’ attention, and it lets me draw out each bit of the story over a couple of days, to mitigate the fact that I usually only produce a new chapter every two weeks.

I sometimes take little notes as I’m writing, and once I’m done with a chapter I write the development journal for it. Usually this means I post the parts of the chapter early in the week, and the dev journal on a Friday.

A week ago, I released Chapter 17 in two parts and thought I was done with it. I posted the development journal. I did get feedback from my wife that this chapter felt a little short and ended abruptly, but I thought that was perfectly fine, and I moved on to working on Chapter 18.

As I wrote Chapter 18, I realized that it was going to be a short one, probably not even long enough to split into two parts. And then I realized that Chapter 17 flowed directly into it, with no significant shift in time or location. I reread the part of the chapter I had finished, and I had to admit, it was really a continuation of Chapter 17.

So, I decided to merge this into the previous chapter. This week I’ll post it as Chapter 17.3, and I’m posting this “mini” development journal to explain why.

Outlining and Flexibility

I am the kind of writer who likes to outline. For Razor Mountain, I knew I was going to be posting chapters as I wrote them. That’s a scary prospect, so I spent more time outlining in detail than I ever have for any other project before.

I know there’s supposedly this great schism among writers who outline or don’t outline, but I think it’s a false dichotomy. There’s a spectrum of more or less preparation, and more or less tweaking the story as you write it.

We outliners are a little smug about knowing exactly what’s going to happen in the story, but that can be dangerous. You can miss the opportunities for improvement that present themselves during the writing process, because they don’t “fit into the plan.”

The outline is an invaluable resource for me. I can’t imagine embarking on a project like Razor Mountain and not knowing exactly how I want the plot to flow or not knowing how it will all end. I’m not that kind of writer, and I’ve seen too many serialized stories crash and burn. But I also refuse to be beholden to the outline. I consolidated several chapters in the first act, and I’m happy to do it again. I’ve changed and adjusted a few minor plot points. The outline is a tool, a safety net, to be used only as long as it’s helpful.

The Upshot

The downside of making changes as you go, and the reason some writers are loathe to deviate from the outline, is that any significant changes mean the outline has to change too. Razor Mountain is a story of two different timelines, Christopher and God-Speaker, and thanks to my particular mental proclivities I have arranged it so that we get two Christopher chapters followed by a single God-Speaker chapter. Combining or eliminating chapters throws that off.

While that kind of consistent formula appeals to me, I don’t feel the need to force it when it doesn’t serve the story. Conveniently, the two timelines are fairly independent. The characters exist thousands of years apart, so while adjacent chapters may relate to one another indirectly or share similar themes, most of the book is fairly amenable to small re-orderings of individual chapters. I can probably pull chapters back to fill in the “gap” left by combining these two chapters. I just need to make sure the pacing feels good.

As evidenced by this post, this unexpected change also throws off my posting schedule. This sort of thing would have worried me back when I first started posting Razor Mountain. However, I’m now a year into the project (holy shit, yes, it really has been a year), and I’m slowly becoming less precious about the blog and how I present my fiction to the universe at large. As a small-time blogger, I now work under the assumption that none of my readership cares about my posting schedule as much as I do.

Besides, the whole point of this project was to provide a radically open view into my writing process, and I think this is a great example of that. Look for Chapter 17.3 this week, and then a return to the usual schedule.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 16

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

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

The Times They Are A-Changing

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

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

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

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

Process Notes

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

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

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

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

Up Next

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

Mapping Dialogue

Dialogue is a cornerstone of fiction. It’s also one of the hardest things to write well. Dialogue isn’t like real life conversation. Let’s face it—real conversation is often not that interesting to someone not directly involved, and doesn’t always serve a purpose. Dialogue in fiction can’t afford to be dull and meandering. It has to be pulling its weight.

Mapping dialogue is a way to plan, analyze, or fix dialogue by looking at what it contributes to the story. It’s all about deciding what the dialogue should accomplish, and then figuring out how it can accomplish it. It won’t turn dull dialogue into snappy conversation—but it will ensure that the dialogue is at least moving the story forward.

Dialogue mapping can be used when outlining or planning, to make sure the dialogue achieves a narrative goal. It can also be used in revision to tighten up dialogue that isn’t getting the job done.

Finding Purpose

Dialogue, like anything included in a story, should have a purpose. If it has no purpose, it can be safely left out, the way you’d leave out a character’s irrelevant breakfast, or that bathroom break they took between scenes.

To understand the purpose of a given conversation, you need to look at the state of the story before and after. What does the conversation change? In what way does it move the story forward? You can think of this in terms of how the dialogue contributes to the MICE quotient thread that contains it. The conversation itself may also be a small thread of its own. Either way, it needs to contribute to the bigger picture in some way, or the story is just treading water.

Since a conversation consists of two or more characters, this before-and-after effect can be broken down for each person. Each character has their own goals, and each character may change, or change their goals as a result of the conversation.

  1. What is the state of each character at the start of the conversation?
  2. What does each character want at the start of the conversation (in the story, and in this particular interaction)?
  3. What is the state of each character after the conversation?
  4. How has each character’s goals changed after the conversation?

These individual character differences add up to form the total change in the story from a given piece of dialogue.

Dialogue is Conflict

Dialogue has two main story purposes: information sharing, and conflict. However, information sharing isn’t terribly interesting without some sort of associated conflict. It can become interesting if the information is incomplete, incorrect, or not given freely.

As an example, consider a detective trying to solve a murder. If they ask the witness, and the witness explains exactly who the killer was, how they did it, and why, then the story isn’t interesting. However, if the witness only saw a fraction of what happened, the detective has to make inferences and combine information from other sources to solve the crime. If the witness doesn’t want to help, the detective needs to find a way to change their mind or trick them. If they lie, the detective needs to discover the lie. These “twists” on basic information sharing are all forms of conflict between the characters.

This conflict is caused by interactions between the characters’ goals:

  • Characters with similar or identical goals may try to work together toward a common cause. In this case, the conflict is something external that they team up to fight.
  • Characters with opposing goals will try to succeed at the expense of each other. One or the other may end up “winning” the conversation, or it may end in more of a tie, with the tension remaining or ramping up. They may get something useful from the conversation, or it may just increase their animosity for one another.
  • Characters with different, but not opposing goals may make a trade where both try to gain something from the conversation.

Action in Dialogue

Sometimes characters just talk, and sometimes they act without speaking, but often the two go hand-in-hand. When mapping out dialogue, it’s important to consider the actions that the characters will be taking while they talk. Are they just sitting in a room, or are they in the middle of a heist, trading quips between the safe-cracking and zipping down elevator cables?

Scenes can really start to pop when the characters’ actions in a scene drive one thread of the plot, while the characters’ dialogue in that same scene drives a different thread. The two characters may be stealing the diamond so they can pay off their debts to the deadly villain, but they can also be flirting in a way that ramps up the sexual tension, or trying to work out which of their fellow criminals ratted them both out.

Of course, sometimes the action and the dialogue go hand-in-hand, both advancing the same story thread. But beware scenes where only the action or dialogue is doing work. Meaningless dialogue during important action, or vice-versa, is a missed opportunity.

Charting a Course

Here’s a simple example with some of our heist dialogue in a table with a column for each character, and actions (in parentheses).

NatashaFrank
(slides down elevator shaft first)(slides down elevator shaft second)
Comments about the view from below. 
 Asks about Boris’s suspicious behavior recently. Is he the traitor?
She trusts Boris—he saved her in Amsterdam. 
(Works on the vault lock until it opens)(keeps watch)
Asks about Rocky—he knew things about her dad that he shouldn’t. 
 Agrees that Rocky is suspicious. He seemed to be snooping when they were planning the job.

The important thing is to list out the segments in order. Dialogue is give and take. In a typical conversation, each segment will lead logically into the next. When mapping dialogue, it typically looks like a series of actions and reactions.

Sometimes the characters will exhaust a topic and move on to something else, but even that requires planning. If one of the characters has more to say, they may not want to shift topics. If there is a break, one of the characters will usually start a new topic that pertains to their goals at that point in the conversation.

Mapping in Revision

Dialogue maps can be useful for editing, by providing a tool to analyze dialogue that’s already written. If a piece of dialogue doesn’t feel right, a dialogue map can reveal structural problems. Does the conversation flow naturally from the characters’ starting points and goals? Is there conflict? Does the flow of the segments back and forth make sense? Do the characters leave the conversation with new goals or knowledge? What changed?

Because dialogue maps are a structural tool, they won’t help with voice. A piece of dialogue can be perfectly functional in pushing the story forward, but still come across as stilted and artificial. Dialogue maps describe the content of the conversation, but not the exact wording.

The other important function of dialogue maps in revision is in making sure that changes to dialogue don’t break the structure. I often find that I want to change something that a character says in the middle of a conversation. Maybe I come up with a single line that I really want to include. Because of the nature of dialogue as back-and-forth, one change can result in another character’s response no longer making sense. Sometimes a change to one segment requires that the next segment change, and the next segment, and so on.

With a dialogue map in hand, it’s much easier to embark on this kind of reworking with an understanding of what that conversation has to accomplish. Even completely replacing the entire conversation is possible, so long as it starts and ends with the same character states and goals, and the appropriate action still happens.

To Map or Not to Map?

Depending on how you write, you may want to do some dialogue mapping before writing, as a guide through the conversation. It can be especially useful when more than two characters are involved or there’s a lot going on in a given scene.

If you’re less inclined to plan, you can always write first and ask questions later. Mapping dialogue after the fact is a great troubleshooting tool for a scene that feels “off,” or even as a way to decide exactly what a meandering conversation should be about.

Mapping every single conversation may be overkill. It can be a lot of work. But it’s a useful tool in the writer’s toolbox for addressing one of the biggest challenges of writing great stories.

The MICE Quotient

The MICE Quotient is an idea that originated with Orson Scott Card, in his books on writing: How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Character and Viewpoint. It has been updated and expanded by Mary Robinette Kowal, one-time student of Card, and award-winning author in her own right, who is one of the main hosts of the Writing Excuses podcast.

In its latest incarnation, MICE stands for Milieu, Inquiry, Character, and Event. It’s a framework for understanding where the overlapping threads of a story start and end, and how they’re affected by obstacles and complications along the way. It can be useful for architecting stories, or figuring out what’s wrong with a story when it seems to have gone off the rails.

Milieu

Milieu threads are all about setting and place. The thread begins with the character entering or exiting a place. It ends with exiting the place, returning home, or entering yet another place.

Obstacles in a milieu thread typically prevent the character from freely coming and going — physical barriers or something more subtle like emotional ties.

Sci-fi and fantasy often have a milieu component in the form of new worlds or fantastic places. The hero’s journey often includes a milieu thread that starts with “crossing the threshold” and ends with the “road back.” Prison dramas and heists, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland are clear examples of milieu threads as a main driver of the story.

Inquiry

Inquiry threads are all about asking and answering a question. The thread begins when the question is posed and ends when it’s answered and understood.

Obstacles in an inquiry thread typically prevent the character from gathering the info needed to answer the question, or things that broaden the scope of the question.

Murder mysteries (any mysteries, really) are the classic example of inquiry-driven stories.

Character

Character threads are all about a character’s self-discovery or change. The thread begins when the character questions who they are, and ends when the character decides the answer to that question — either accepting who they are, or changing in some fundamental way.

Obstacles in a character thread are things that prevent the character’s self-discovery. That may mean the character tries to be something they’re not, and fails. It may mean the character tries to stay the same in the face of changing circumstances, and has to bear the negative results of that.

“Coming of Age” stories and romances are typically character stories.

Event

Event threads are all about disruption of the status-quo. They start when the established order is disrupted, and end when the status quo is restored (or a new status quo is set up).

Obstacles in event threads are typically things that prevent the situation from settling.

Disaster movies and spy thrillers are often driven by event threads, as characters seek to overcome the disaster or stop the villain’s evil plot.

Multiple Threads and Nesting

MICE threads can describe sweeping arcs across a whole novel, but stories can also be analyzed as a series of MICE micro-threads. An inquiry thread might be a character having a question at the start of a chapter, and finding the answer by the end. A character thread might consist of a single conversation where one character changes another character’s mind. Ideally, the resolution of one small thread will lead naturally into other threads, keeping the momentum going.

A single thread by itself produces a very simple story. Most stories have multiple interrelated threads. Threads do not have to proceed serially, one after another — they can be nested several layers deep, although at some point you risk muddying the waters for the readers who has to keep track of it all.

Kowal suggests that nesting threads in a first-in, last-out (FILO) structure is easiest for readers to parse. For example, my novel Razor Mountain begins as a classic type of Milieu story—the survival story. Christopher is lost in the Alaskan wilderness and he wants to get back home. However, as the story continues, there will be a Character conflict as well. Christopher will end up facing challenges that make him question himself and what kind of person he wants to be. Near the end of the book, Christopher will face a final choice that determines his character, finishing the character thread. As a result of that choice, he will exit the milieu, one way or another.

Simple nesting looks like matryoshka dolls, one thread within another. Complex nesting looks more like IKEA furniture, with each box possibly containing multiple boxes of different sizes.

Applying MICE To Outlining

Using MICE in outlining is a proactive approach to building story structure. Stories usually contain bits of all of the MICE elements, so the strategy when outlining comes down to asking yourself as the author, “What matters to me in this story?” As Kowal illustrates with the Writing Excuses homework assignments, any given story can be told with any one of the MICE elements as its primary driver.

In the outline, you can choose which MICE thread is most important, and nest all the other threads within it. You can then construct obstacles for the characters that block the resolution of specific threads. You can tweak inner threads so their resolutions affect the threads containing them.

Applying MICE to Editing

Using MICE in editing is more of a reactive approach — looking for parts of the story that don’t feel right, and analyzing them in terms of their MICE threads.

When the story isn’t working, try to identify the different MICE threads. Which ones are introduced first? Are they all getting resolved? What order are they resolved in? Are the sub-threads creating obstacles that contribute to their parent thread, preventing the characters from resolving a larger issue? Or are they introducing side complications that only distract from bigger, more pressing issues?

For example, take my favorite dead horse to beat: the show LOST. It introduces dozens, probably hundreds of inquiry threads, and many character threads. The character threads are mostly resolved, but some are resurrected later on. Many of the inquiry threads are left hanging with no resolution. The nesting is impossible to follow because there are so many threads.

As a different example, Lord of the Rings creates an epic story with a sequence of endings that irritate some readers. Reordering those endings to follow a clear FILO nesting structure would probably make them feel less like the books keep ending over and over for five chapters in a row.

That’s MICE

Like any writing technique, the MICE quotient is not a magic bullet. It won’t fix every problem in every story, and sometimes you can break the formula and still come up with something that works. You can probably think of at least one classic story that stands up despite breaking the nesting rules or structuring story threads in unusual ways.

On the other hand, the MICE quotient is a great starting point or default. It can be a guardrail when a story starts going off the tracks, and a guide when navigating the mire of a difficult outline. It’s an easy way to analyze plot structure through beginnings, endings, obstacles and nested threads.

If this piqued your interest, the full series of Writing Excuses episodes provide a great deep dive in eight short parts.

How to Research for Fiction

No matter what you’re writing, at some point you’re going to have to do some research. It may be the details of exoplanets or ion drives for sci-fi. It may be mythology or medieval society for fantasy. It may be the royal court of Victorian England for historical romance. Every genre and style of story can benefit from some kind of research.

However, research can be challenging. Sometimes, the information you want is difficult to find. Sometimes it doesn’t exist. When I started my novel, Razor Mountain, I quickly discovered just how little we know about prehistoric humans more than ten thousand years ago.

Sometimes, there’s far too much information available, and it can be completely overwhelming. It’s easy (and dangerous) to get sucked into endless YouTube or Wikipedia links in the middle of a writing session.

There’s a great discussion around research for fiction on episode 15.41 of the Writing Excuses podcast. Mary Robinette Kowal suggests that the best question to ask is “How little research can I do?” I take that to mean, “how can I do exactly enough research to write this thing well?” Research can be fun or frustrating, but ultimately it only has measurable usefulness if it contributes to the writing getting done.

When trying to limit your research, there are three important questions: when to research, what to research, and how much to research.

When to Research

Research can be done before, during, or after the first draft of the story.

Before starting the actual writing, you may have an outline, but you will be at the point where you know the least about your story, and therefore the least about what you need to research. However, before writing is a great time to do general research about a particular setting, a culture, a time period, or other broad parts of the story’s milieu. This kind of undirected research is a great way to find new ideas that will feed into the story and the characters.

N.K. Jemisin suggests traveling to places that you’ll use as settings in your stories. Of course, that’s only feasible if the setting exists in the modern world (or you can glean something about the past from visiting the present). It’s also time- and money-consuming, and not always practical for many writers or smaller projects. Sometimes Google Maps street view is good enough. However, if you’re making money from writing, travel can sometimes be used as a tax write-off, and a great excuse to see new places.

During the actual writing is when it’s easiest to find smaller details that need to be researched. These may be simple facts or figures to look up, like the three tallest mountains in the U.S., or more general ideas, like what types of fruit you’re likely to find in the green room of a Chinese TV talk show. It’s more rare to suddenly realize you need broad knowledge of a particular setting or culture, but that can happen as well, especially of you are an exploratory writer, and you’re discovering your plot as you go.

After writing the initial draft, research is sometimes an important part of editing. Things that didn’t make sense or need to be expanded may require research.

Putting Off Research and Filling Blanks

Research, especially at a broad level, can be infinite. You can know the answer to the three tallest mountains in the U.S., but if you’re researching the Canadian punk scene in the mid-1970s, you have to go in knowing that there is no end-point. The research is done when you feel like you have enough to write the story.

This mindset of “how little can I research” helps to avoid the problem of research as procrastination. Writers find a million ways to procrastinate, and research can be a dangerous one, because it feels useful. If it’s not putting words on the page, it’s really just a form of entertainment, not productivity.

This kind of undirected research can completely derail a writing session. In Writing Excuses 15.41, Cory Doctorow suggests using the old journalist notations, TK (for “to come”) and FCK (for “fact check”). When you’re writing, and you need a fact that you don’t know, just throw TK or FCK into the manuscript with some placeholder text and keep writing. This can also work when you need to remember something from earlier in the story — was the murder weapon in the study or the library? Just TK it and keep writing.

These strange abbreviations are sequences of letters that tend to not show up naturally in English, so it’s easy to search for them later. You can always come up with your own notations, but I’d suggest you use something that’s easy to search out in a manuscript. You might dedicate time to a research session instead of a writing session, going through these notes and finding what you need to fill in the blanks, without worrying about it detracting from the day’s word count.

Plot or Detail?

Sometimes, research will be needed for details, and sometimes the result of the research will directly affect the plot. The details and little bits that bring the world to life can often be FCK-ed for later. It doesn’t really matter what fruit is available in the green room. It won’t affect what the character does when they go on TV. On the other hand, if you discover that there really aren’t any talk shows on TV in that country, that may derail the next couple of scenes.

It’s important to differentiate between these detail and plot-vital questions. Skipping over a plot-vital question and continuing to write may backfire when you get to the research and the answers turn out to be incompatible with what you’ve written. This is a recipe for depression, as you’re forced to throw away hard work and change the course of the plot.

Details, on the other hand, are relatively safe. They can usually be put off for later research without much consequence. It’s important to understand the difference.

Using What You Know

One of the best ways to avoid research is to already know things. It sounds silly, but it’s true. Chances are, you’ve lived in a few places. You may have a job, and probably know other people who have jobs. You’ve been places. You’ve seen things.

“Write what you know,” is such well-worn writing advice that it borders on trite, but it is undoubtedly the best way to avoid research. In Razor Mountain, I decided that one of my protagonists is a former software developer from Minnesota. That happens to be my current job, and the place I live. There are plenty of other things that I have to research for that book, but any questions that come up about living in Minnesota or working in software will probably be easy for me to answer with my own experience. By using what I know, I can do less work and get the same quality result.

Just be aware that using the same knowledge over and over, to the point of it being a crutch, can be obvious to your audience, and even get a little boring. Not all your protagonists have to be writers, Stephen King. There are other professions.

Don’t Rely on Tropes and Stereotypes

Just because you want to limit your research doesn’t mean it’s okay to cut corners, especially when it comes to people and their cultures. One of the reasons old movies and books with minority characters are so often cringy is because they rely entirely on tropes and stereotypes for those characters and cultures.

Some of this can be avoided by finding readers who live in the places you’re depicting, or come from the same culture as your characters. These days, those people are often called “sensitivity readers.” They’re living research assistants, with the personal experience that you’re lacking. Whatever you call them, they invaluable.

When working with this kind of reader, it’s even better if you can work with them as you write. It’s better to ask questions up-front to avoid plot-breaking discoveries. And your reader will definitely appreciate reviewing work that already works hard to understand who they are or the culture they come from. Of course, like any person who works in a professional capacity to help improve your writing, you may have to pay them. This is skill and knowledge that you’re getting from someone else, and it’s as valuable as something like editing or cover design.

Not Too Much, Not Too Little

Research can make stories feel more real, but it can also be yet another form of writerly procrastination. It’s important to ask “when, what and how much,” as you delve into research. If you can use what you know, you may be able to skip that research and spend more time writing. If you can TK or FCK those detail, you can avoid derailing a productive writing session and come back to that detail later.

Research may seem like a daunting thing that requires travel and first-hand experience, but there’s a lot that can be discovered through the internet, and even through your local helpful librarian and (gasp) books. If you can find experts on a topic, they can be a great resource too. When it comes to depicting a culture or group that you aren’t a part of, finding readers and consultants to fill in those gaps in understanding can be a necessity.

Don’t let research scare you, but don’t let the allure of knowledge distract you from actually getting the writing done either.

Reblog: NaNoPrep: Signing Up and Getting Started — Connie J. Jasperson

Last week, I talked about the good and the bad of NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month, where the goal is to write the entire first draft of a novel in the month of November. Now, November is almost upon us. Are you going to participate?

If you’re on the fence, or you’re just not sure where to start the whole process, take a look at Connie J. Jasperson’s latest NaNoWriMo prep post for a guide to getting a project set up on the NaNoWriMo site.

If you don’t like to plan, you can just start writing after Halloween midnight. If you’re an inveterate planner like me, that strategy might feel overwhelming. Luckily, Jasperson has you covered, with an entire series of NaNoWriMo prep posts linked at the bottom. They’ll get you figuring out your setting, characters, story arc, and more.

Check it out on Jasperson’s blog, Life in the Realm of Fantasy…

The Good and Bad of NaNoWriMo

It’s almost November. If you’re a writer on any sort of social media, you know what that means: National Novel Writing Month. It’s affectionately known as NaNoWriMo and spearheaded by a non-profit company whose founder started with the simple idea of writing a novel in a month. Modern participants do the same thing, specifically striving to write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November.

In recent years, I’ve come to have mixed feelings about NaNoWriMo. For many writers and non-writers, it’s an awesome event. For others, I think it’s counter-productive, and may even turn some people away from writing.

My Experience

I have six different years logged on my NaNoWriMo account: three are successes (at least 50k words in the month) and three are failures. I’ve participated more times than that, but I either didn’t track progress or they got lost in some revamp of the website. (Fun fact: one of those failed projects was a very early idea for Razor Mountain, the novel that I’m currently preparing to publish serially, years later.)

I am a planner, so I’ve come to realize that my success in a project like NaNoWriMo is mostly dependent on whether I’ve put together a decent outline before November. The best I’ve done without an outline is something like 10k words before the story stopped dead and I realized I needed to rework what I had written to have a path forward.

However, an equally important factor for me is how much free time and energy I have. Over the years, I’ve done NaNoWriMo when I was single and when I was married, when I did or did not have a job, and before and after I had kids. I’ve observed just how much my living arrangements and family situation can affect my ability to dedicate a month of evenings to a single project.

At least one year where I failed was the result of falling behind in the first week, and realizing I simply didn’t have the time (or energy to write) that I would need to continue, let alone play catch-up.

What Works

NaNoWriMo was built to encourage people to write. It is especially focused on new and inexperienced writers, even people who have never tried to write fiction before and don’t think they can. The promise of NaNoWriMo is this: you don’t have to be an expert to write a novel; you just have to keep writing one word after another until you’ve stacked up 50,000 of them.

For some, this is a revelation. Writing has a certain mystique (that many writers are happy to encourage) as a process that requires some particular innate talent or even some important credential like an MFA. The truth is that anyone who is literate enough to put words on paper or screen and persistent enough to put down a lot of them can write a book. NaNoWriMo doesn’t claim that book is going to be a bestseller (or even close to publishable), but for some folks, the experience of simply writing a book is enough, even with nothing more expected beyond that. And plenty of people have gone on to do the work, past November, to get that novel published.

The event has developed a huge community, with hundreds of local groups across the globe alongside geographically dispersed virtual groups. Those who are unsure of themselves can search out one of these communities that fits their needs and helps encourage them.

NaNoWriMo is a nonprofit that does great work with a small team. In addition to the online events, it facilitates a Young Writers program that encourages kids to write.

What May Not Work

NaNoWriMo has expanded exponentially since its early years, and tried to provide more options than the “traditional” November event. There’s the project planning NaNo Prep in September and October. There’s the editing and revising “Now What?” series in January and February. There’s Camp NaNoWriMo in April and July, intended to be a less structured way to work on writing projects. Even for the November event, the website will happily let you set whatever word-count goal and timeframe you want for your project.

There’s clearly an ongoing effort to expand the brand here, but NaNoWriMo remains known for one thing: writing a 50,000-word novel in November. After all, it’s built into the name. As much as they’re trying to encourage a variety of options, most people will get involved in the “real” NaNoWriMo, and that has a structure that is going to work well for some people, and poorly for others.

Many will come into the event with little or no outline. If they’re planners like me, writing a whole novel like that may feel impossible. Some will find that they don’t have the time or energy to write 1667 words each day, and feel like setting a lower word count goal is cheating.

In short, a lot of people will fail at NaNoWriMo for a lot of different reasons. If they’re new or inexperienced writers, they may not even understand exactly what those reasons are — especially if they are seeing forum posts and tweets where other writers seem to be having great success and a good time. They’ll just think they’re bad at it.

NaNoWriMo is all about encouraging people to try writing, but in these cases it is very possible for new writers to think “this is what writing is like,” and get burned-out. There are as many different ways to write as there are writers, and some of those ways just don’t jive with “50k in November.”

Don’t Take This Too Seriously

I don’t want this to read like I’m ragging on NaNoWriMo. The organization does a lot of great work. They’ve probably encouraged hundreds of thousands of people who otherwise wouldn’t to try their hand at writing a novel. They try to demystify writing for young people, and help them tell the stories that matter to them. They’re clearly trying to cater to a variety of writers with different styles and techniques.

NaNoWriMo has gotten huge. It’s hard to miss it if you’re tuned in to writing stuff online. I worry sometimes that people who don’t fit NaNoWriMo will be turned off by it; that they won’t realize they don’t have to follow prescriptive writing advice or a monthly goal to be a “real” writer.

If you’ve never tried NaNoWriMo before, I encourage you to do so, if not this year, then next. Even if you think you couldn’t possibly write 50,000 words in a month. Just take it one word at a time.

But if you discover that you can’t do it, or it’s a terrible experience, that’s okay. You’ve learned something about the kind of writer you are. Try it again next year. Prep differently. Or do your own kind of NaNoWriMo with your own goals and limits. To succeed at writing in a way that works for you, you don’t need a website that tells you how much to write and when. You need to find something internal that drives you to write. Then it’s just a matter of putting one word after another.

Reblog: Kishōtenketsu for Beginners — Nils Ödlund

If you’re a consumer of any kind of modern media, chances are pretty good that you know something about three-act structure. You may use it in your writing. You may recognize it intuitively from books, movies, TV and stage. But those three acts are not the only way to structure a story.

Today, I want to send you over to Mythic Scribes, where Nils Ödlund discusses Kishōtenketsu, a four-act story structure with roots in Asian classics.

Recently we presented a series of articles on three-act structure here on Mythic Scribes. This inspired me to try and write an article about a kind of four act structure known as Kishōtenketsu. It’s used in classical Chinese, Korean, and Japanese narratives, and is often mentioned as an example of a story structure without conflict.

Now, I’m not well versed in narrative theory. I find it interesting, but I’m far from an expert, and most of what I know of writing I have figured out myself (though the forums here on Mythic Scribes have been invaluable in doing just that). As such, this article will really only scratch the surface of Kishōtenketsu.

I’ll begin by explaining the word itself and the basic principles behind the story structure. I’ll then show two examples of stories told in this way, and finally I’ll give a few tips I’ve found useful for wrapping my head around this whole concept.

Read the rest over at Mythic Scribes…