Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 19

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.

Language Research

For this chapter, I did some research into Proto-Inuit and Proto-Eskimoan language in order to come up with the character names. I already knew what I wanted the meaning of each name to be, so it was a matter of scanning through research papers and websites to find words that fit the meaning and also sound good to my ear.

It’s always a little harrowing writing anything in a language you’re not proficient with, because it’s very easy to miss bad connotations or grammatical rules that alter the meaning. This is a pretty mild case since each of these names are simple phrases and the languages are ancestors of modern languages with relatively small speaking populations. Getting something wrong in French is much more likely to be caught by readers and pull them out of their immersion than getting something wrong in proto-Inuit.

I still like to get it right though, for the sake of craftsmanship and out of respect for the language and the people who spoke it, regardless of what it is.

Building God-Speaker

One of the challenges of an effectively immortal character is that you have such a large span of time to populate, and then such a limited number of scenes to actually show. Act I showed God-Speaker’s origin and how he came to Razor Mountain. Act II is jumping through time specifically to showcase particular formative moments for him. Hopefully this will give the reader not only an understanding of who he is, but why he is that way.

Some of the reader feedback I got for this chapter was that we know almost nothing about the relationship between God-Speaker and Strong-Shield, so it’s hard to care about their fight. That is a valid concern. On the other hand, Strong Shield only lives in this one chapter. I have to limit the amount of words I spend on him. What really matters to me in this scene is that we see what God-Speaker is doing and the state of Razor Mountain.

These chapters will end up being a sort of slide-show, little moments from a long span of history. They will mention or hint at other things that happen in the mountain, but there will necessarily be a lot that is left out. Novels are full of choices like this, and I chose to go a particular way. That doesn’t necessarily mean it was the “right” way or the “best” way (if such a thing even exists).

Immortality

Chapter sixteen ended with God-Speaker seeking immortality. While this chapter isn’t explicit about how much time has passed, it does reveal that he is in a new body.

I thought spending more time on this resurrection, but I decided against it. His new body is mentioned in passing, and this keeps an air of mystery around the process. We know that the voices in the mountain are somehow involved, but we don’t know the exact mechanism of it. The reader understands that God-Speaker can live beyond a normal human lifespan, but there are still questions to string us along. I like this kind of partial answer as a way to dole out information without completely giving up the mystery.

Next Time

Going by my outline, there are three more God-Speaker chapters in Act II. However, next time, in Chapter 20, we are back to Christopher, who is having his own bad times in a prison cell under Razor Mountain.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 19.3

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

God-Speaker found that his eyes were welling up. The voices were right. They were always right. He hated them.

“Don’t walk this path,” God-Speaker said. “Give me some other choice.”

“Step aside,” Strong Shield said, even as God-Speaker side-stepped his spear-thrust.

God-Speaker’s hands were empty. There was nothing on the table except papers.

“You are no match for me,” Strong Shield said, the head of his spear bobbing and thrusting. He approached carefully, ready to strike, making it impossible for God-Speaker to do anything but move backward, away from the doors.

God-Speaker blinked and a tear ran down his face.

“I trusted you. You think you can lead these people? Nobody should follow someone who would betray his own brother.”

Strong Shield only lunged again.

God-Speaker knew these steps, these thrusts. The voices knew much about fighting, but little about human bodies. God-Speaker had synthesized their knowledge into something practical: a fighting style he developed himself. He had taught their first warriors, long before Strong Shiels. His techniques had been refined and passed down. Strong Shield was adept, but his skill had limits.

God-Speaker threw up his arm. When Strong Shield thrust again, he sidestepped and brought the arm down, capturing the shaft under his armpit. He wrapped his arm around it as Strong Shield tried to pull it back, the barb cutting into the flesh beneath his shoulder blade. Wincing, God-Speaker brought his other hand to bear, shoving the spear down. Strong Shield was caught off-balance, brought to one knee with the butt of the spear touching the stone floor.

God-Speaker brought the other end down to his right knee. His other knee fell on the middle of the shaft. It bent, then broke under his weight.

Strong Shield staggered, now holding only the broken butt of the spear and still off balance. God-Speaker held the sharp end under his arm, but he had been forced to throw his weight downward to snap it. Instead of fighting this momentum, he leaned into it, tucking his chin to his chest and rolling forward onto his left shoulder.

He somersaulted, intending to come up onto his feet. Before he could get all the way around, Strong Shield’s hand lashed out and grasped his arm at the elbow. Instead of trying to regain his footing, the man had lunged after him, turning the fight into a grappling match on the floor.

It had only been a few months since God-Speaker had taken on this new body. It was young and strong, but not as muscular as Strong Shield, and God-Speaker was still learning the feel of it. He felt just a little too slow, a little too weak. Strong Shield took hold of his wrists as they tumbled, both men fighting to come out on top.

Strong Shield feared the spear tip that God-Speaker had pried away from him. God-Speaker held it in his right hand. He let his left arm go limp while he struggled to press the right toward Strong Shield’s face.

Strong Shield’s face had shown fear for a moment. Now he smiled, confident in his control of the situation. He held God-Speaker’s right hand firmly, elbow locked as they rolled to a stop, the larger man on top.

“This is meant to be,” Strong Shield said, twisting God-Speaker’s wrist.

“I’m sorry,” God-Speaker said. “I should have seen this coming. I should have been able to stop it.”

Strong Shield cried out in wordless victory as the broken spear fell from God-Speaker’s twisted hand. He scrambled to grab the half-spear. God-Speaker twisted underneath him, but Strong Shield straddled him, grabbing God-Speaker’s right hand with his left.

His body half-turned, God-Speaker bent his left knee, bringing his foot up to his hip as Strong Shield raised the spear point for the killing blow.

God-Speaker’s free left hand slipped a thin flint blade from a hidden pocket on his boot. The blade came up at an angle across the man’s exposed abdomen, cutting a clean line through skin and muscle, only stopping when it struck the bottom of his sternum. The blade was as long as a finger, just enough to wedge under the ribs and press into the beating heart. God-Speaker felt the twist of his wrist, the snap of the razor-thin tip of the blade, buried in Strong Shield’s chest. Then he felt the wave of hot wetness as Strong Shield’s lifeblood poured over him. The head of the spear came down without any force. The arms were already limp. The black irises were dull and empty.

For a moment, God-Speaker could do nothing but sob silently. Then he shoved the body away. He was soaked in blood. The smell and the taste of it was overwhelming. For a moment, he thought he would vomit, but he suppressed it. He stood.

The blood drained off of him, onto the floor. There was a rhythm to it, dripping, like the beating of drums. His heart beat with it, a cold rage building. Underneath it all were the voices of the mountain.

God-Speaker let his breathing slow. His anger and sadness didn’t diminish, they only concentrated to a white-hot point in his chest. He walked to the closed doors, knowing that he left footprints in blood every step of the way.

He opened the doors, letting the cold autumn wind blow over him, and looked down the small flight of stone stairs. There was a wide, flat gathering space below, where his remaining war councilors waited and talked amongst themselves. They looked up at him in shock.

“What happened?” asked Aoyura.

“I was betrayed,” God-Speaker said. “Strong Shield believed that he could lead our people better than I. He thought he could kill me. He is dead by my hand.”

A few others who had been nearby began to gather, staring open-mouthed at God-Speaker’s blood-soaked body.

“I am Tutanarulax Qatqa. I am the one who speaks to the gods of the mountain. I am the one who does not die.”

The gathered people, the councilors, all of them averted their eyes and bowed their heads. Out of respect? Fear? In that moment, God-Speaker did not care.

“Come,” he said. “Bring water. We must cleanse this place of the blood of the traitor. Then I will tell you the future I see for our city in the mountain.”

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 19.2

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

Strong Shield paced around the room, his hand first trailing across the maps on the table, then the carvings on one of the pillars. He was clearly agitated.

God-Speaker organized his thoughts before speaking.

“I always listen to your council, but it is council only. I will not act on advice that I know to be wrong. I gave you your name because I know you want to protect our people. You are a great warrior. What you propose will not protect them. You must look beyond one fight, beyond one enemy.”

“That is what I am doing.”

“You have never seen an empire,” God-Speaker said.

“You have?”

“The gods of the mountain show me many things. The idea of empire is new to us, but it is not new to them. Those we subjugate will hate us, and they will do anything in their power to destroy us.”

“What do you propose then? Let them attack us? That is not looking beyond the fight at hand.”

“No,” God-Speaker said. “You said yourself, we are strong and we have what we need. When we trade with outsiders, it is often better for them than for us. For many years we wanted to bring people in, to grow. Now, we are a city.”

God-Speaker gestured to the room. The cleverly slanted windows high above let in the afternoon light while keeping out the weather. Strips of golden light shone across the room, revealing sparkling motes of dust.

“Let us hollow out the mountain. We will continue to live here, but let nobody in. When we go out, we will go out in secret. Let the stories of a city in the mountains become legends. Leave a few burned remnants scattered across the valleys below. Let those put the lie to these stories that bring enemies here in search of treasure. We will make our doors and windows so cleverly that they will never suspect we look down on them from above. They will go home and tell the story of the legendary city which turned out to be nothing but spirits and burned rocks.”

As God-Speaker spoke, Strong Shield’s eyes narrowed.

“You would have us hide away from these weaklings who have no hope of defeating us? You would have us be remembered as a tribe that was utterly destroyed?”

“What do the stories of other tribes matter to you? We will be safe in the mountain. We will have what we need, and we will keep our knowledge and our wealth to ourselves.”

Strong Shield shook his head.

“You are pitiful.”

“Do you truly want to fight so badly?” God-Speaker said. “Can’t you see that it is better to not fight at all?”

“No,” Strong Shield said. “I want us to be led by someone who isn’t afraid of the outside world.”

The conversation had taken a turn God-Speaker had not expected. He realized now that the voices in the mountain were agitated. Their susurration was like a wind blowing in the depths. They saw the signs. They knew what could happen.

The sound was only audible to God-Speaker. There might be one or two others on the mountain who would feel a faint uneasiness. Strong Shield would think that God-Speaker’s sudden change in expression was a response to his words.

“You are like my brother,” God-Speaker said. “You know I want what’s best for our people.”

“Of course,” Strong Shield said. “But you can still be wrong. You are not a strong leader.”

God-Speaker clenched his jaw.

“I came to the mountain alone. I was here before you were born. I gathered the people to me. Everything we have built is because of me.”

“So you say.”

“Only I hear the voices of the gods.”

“Given enough time, perhaps another can learn to hear them.”

Strong Shield reached behind the pillar and pulled out his fine spear, tipped with a sharp barb of whale bone.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 19.1

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

The lord’s chamber was freshly hewn from the gray rock. It was new enough that the walls still showed the tool marks, and in places there were cracks and openings left behind by the caves they had widened for the construction. In time, these blemishes would be smoothed away and covered over. It was an astonishing task, the work of years and many hands, cleverly trained and carefully guided. It was a needless expenditure of effort, compared to work that could have been done on the smithy or the farms or a dozen other construction projects that would have more direct effect on their day-to-day lives. Its value lied in its beauty. Nowhere else in the world could such a place exist. It was a monument to the people of the mountain city and the knowledge they took from the gods.

The long room had large doors of heavy timber banded with bronze, marked with symbols of protection and warding. Four ornately carved and painted stone pillars told spiraling stories of the founding of the village and the many achievements of its people. The furnishings in the room were moved in and out depending on the occasion. Long tables could be brought in when it was made into a feasting hall. Ornate wooden thrones could be arranged for God-Speaker and his advisers when it was a court for the visiting emissaries of distant tribes. Today, it was a war room, furnished only with a large round table, strewn with durable parchment maps and scrawled notes on the rougher paper made from local reeds.

“Tutan, the scouts report a war party. Less than fifty people. They will come up along the deep river valley, to the place where it splits. They mean to attack the city.”

 God-Speaker’s name had changed with the language his people spoke, a creole of the varied dialects spoken by those who made the mountain their home. “Tutanarulax Qatqa” was the one who spoke to the mountain, but it had become more comfortable for him to go by Tutan, “one who speaks,” in all but the most formal situations.

“Who are these people?” God-Speaker asked. “What quarrel do they have with us?”

A woman across the table, Aoyura, lifted a piece of paper. “One of my people took meals with the traders who came just after the new moon. They said they had passed a group like this, a group girded for fighting, and the fighters bragged that they were going to take plunder from a great tribe of the mountains. The traders said they spoke little to the fighters, for fear of them and fear of arousing our anger.”

“But they made no mention of an attack to me,” God-Speaker said.

“No, I think they only hoped for good trade and were happy to stay out of it. Strangers offer no kindness to one another in these days.”

A tall, muscular man close to God-Speaker thumped an open hand onto the table. It was Kuoemanuna, who took the name that God-Speaker had given him meaning Strong Shield.

“We were gracious hosts! We gave them good food and warm beds, and a place at the storytelling fire. We gave them good trades, even for the things that are not very useful to us. The least they could do is warn us of this war party.”

“I did not say we were unkind to them,” Aoyura replied. “But the people from far away speak differently, act differently. They do not trust easily and they keep their kindness for their own.”

“Then we should treat them no differently,” Strong Shield said.

God-Speaker put a hand up to halt the line of conversation before it got any more argumentative.

“It has always been our way,” God-Speaker said. “It is what brought many different peoples to the mountain, and why they have stayed.”

“Yes, but are we not our own people now?” Strong Shield asked. “We must protect ourselves.”

God-Speaker loved Strong Shield like a brother, but he was often too eager to solve problems in the most direct and confrontational ways. Aoyura was the opposite. She was known for changing people’s minds, getting what she wanted by making other people think they wanted it too. She had taken charge of a group of talkative women who gathered information within the city and amongst the traders sent out to other tribes.

“Let us focus on the problem at hand,” God-Speaker said. “These people come to take from us. How shall we stop them?

“I think it is best to let them use up their energy and food climbing the mountains. They will have to cross the river at the mouth of the valley to the south. We prepare our defense there. Away from the city, and where the terrain is most favorable. When they arrive, we give them a choice: turn away, or face our sharp spears and swift arrows.”

Strong Shield shook his head. “We have better weapons and better tactics. They have no chance against us. We should meet them further south, where the valley is wide. Show them that even in the open, they cannot defeat us. If they fear us, they will not return.”

God-Speaker nodded. “Our people are strong, that is true. But I do not want to spend our peoples’ blood to simply make a point. If we prepare our strongest defense, that will be enough to show them how outmatched they are.”

“They will learn their lesson best on the point of a spear,” Strong Shield said. “Even if they are shamed and turn away, do you think that will be the end of it? We should at least capture them.”

“For this season, it will be the end of it,” God-Speaker said. “If they dare to return next season, they will find that we are still strong. And I will not keep prisoners on the mountain.”

Strong Shield sighed. “May I speak honestly?”

“Of course,” God-Speaker said. “Speak.”

“We have strength here, but it is wasted. Others hear stories about the city in the mountains, where the people never go hungry and have many amazing things. They grow envious of us. More and more of them will want to test themselves against us, and perhaps take these treasures as war prize back to their own people.

“And yet, the stories they tell of us only guess at what we can do. You know this. This city is a miracle, built on the knowledge of the gods. We should show them that they cannot take what belongs to us. Anyone who comes to us with spear raised should be destroyed. Then, we should send our own warriors to their people. We offer them death, as they would have given us, or the chance to become like us. New villages, just like ours, under the rule of our people. In return, we ask only that they never raise arms against us, and that they send some small fraction of their new bounty back to us.”

He stared into God-Speaker’s eyes, his own black like the water at night, but holding a glint of fire.

God-Speaker shook his head.

“You speak of an empire,” he said. The word was strange in his mouth, a guttural, foreign word that came to him from the voices deep in the mountain. There was no word for it in his people’s language.

“We will have more resources,” Strong Shield said. “Our people will be safe. And others will receive the same miracles we have received.”

God-Speaker held up a hand.

“Everyone who is here chose to be here,” he said. “No miracle comes out of blood. Our people will not be safe. Everyone in these villages, from oldest man to youngest child, will hold their hatred of us in their hearts. Our food and drink will taste sour and rancid in their mouths. They will tell themselves stories of the way we spilled their blood.”

“They deserve it for attacking us,” Strong Shield said, brow contorted in anger.

“Maybe so,” God-Speaker said. “It will not change what is in their hearts.”

“Why won’t you listen to me?” Strong Shield shouted, slamming a fist on the table.

The booming resonance of it filled the chamber, leaving behind a heavy silence. The only sound was God-Speaker’s calm, even breathing.

“Let us speak alone,” God-Speaker said. “Everyone, please go outside.”

The others nodded, walking quickly to the door. None of them had any desire to get involved.

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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 — Chapter 18.2

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

Time was difficult to judge in the cell. There was no window to observe the cycles of the sun and moon. The bright lights set into the high ceiling were unrelentingly bright. Every cough, sniffle and movement echoed back at him from a room full of hard surfaces.

At first, he sat quietly, assuming that someone would eventually come to interrogate him. He tried not to think about what they might do to him, but was mostly unsuccessful. He thought about what he ought to say, how he might word his story so that they would believe him. There would be evidence of his stay in the bunker. The ruins of the crashed plane would still be scattered across some nearby mountainside. The airlines would have records of his ticket. His company could vouch for him. Unfortunately, day jobs and plausible excuses were probably the sort of thing a real spy would also have.

There was also a long list of unlikely events that he could not explain. Why had the plane gone down in the first place, and where had the other passengers gone? How had Christopher managed to survive the fall? How could he have guessed the code to the bunker while almost delirious and verging on hypothermia?

Could someone have set him up? Maybe he was a distraction to turn eyes away from something or someone else. Maybe he was a contestant on the world’s most sadistic game show. So far he hadn’t liked any of the prizes behind the doors.

He wondered if there was something he should have done differently. Even now, he couldn’t say it would have been any better to stay in the bunker indefinitely. If he had been found there, it was just as likely that it would be the Razor Mountain people doing the finding. Staying there, completely passive, might look slightly less suspicious. Or it might look odd. After all, who would simply accept their fate and decide to stay in a place like the bunker without making any effort to be rescued.

Instead, he had gone out questing, a sad little knight-errant in strange lands. He had let himself be guided by Amaranth. He had accepted imprisonment by her people. He had gone along with Harold and Garrett in their doomed scheme to curry favor with their superiors. Was there anywhere he could have gotten off that path once he had followed Amaranth through the frozen doors to the ruined underground office building? Could he have tried to escape? All along he had felt a deep unease, like he was a train headed for disaster, but unable to jump the tracks and turn away.

Christopher stood and paced in slow rectangles, walking the perimeter of his cell. He took deep breaths, trying to fight down the rising panic in his chest. He studied his surroundings. The slight dents in the stainless steel toilet. The metal shelf: a bench or a bed. The table in the center of the room, the brackets welded to the top hinting at darker purposes than facilitating friendly conversation.

When he had entered the mountain, the air had been warm compared to the outside. Now, a clammy chill gripped him. He rubbed his arms with his hands. His skin certainly felt cold.

He rubbed his eyes. Had the lights gotten brighter as well? The white walls and glaring stainless steel suddenly felt blinding. He sat on the “bed” and pressed his back to the wall, eyes closed. He breathed, feeling his heart thumping.

The room wasn’t actually silent. Though the small noises he made still seemed abnormally loud, there was some ubiquitous noise, an almost imperceptible whine. As soon as he noticed it, it grated on him. He felt a headache coming on.

As he breathed deep, he felt his panic subsiding. It was overcome by a wave of misery and self-pity. How long had it been since he had last been able to actually relax? How long since he had been free of the nagging knowledge that the universe had turned against him, that he had to fight to stay safe, or even alive?

It felt somehow childish to be so miserable. Hadn’t he led a perfectly mundane life before this? He had been comfortable. He was hardly the first person in the world to be subjected to such hardship. How many people lived through wars? How many refugees were left to fend for themselves and their families for months or years? How many lived their entire lives in abject poverty? It seemed only fair that he take his turn.

He felt petulant. He didn’t want to do this anymore. He wanted to throw a tantrum. He wanted to go home.

Even the bare comforts of the bunker would be luxurious compared to this place. The barely-discernible whine pierced his brain like a dentist’s drill.

Christopher held his breath. In all of his misery, there was one thought he hadn’t let himself think. There was another way out, an exit that he had been studiously looking away from. The ultimate exit. The idea filled his guts with lead. No, he wasn’t ready for that.

And yet, he felt the strange realization that the idea of death no longer terrified him quite as much as it once had. Out in the woods, when the snow had fallen and he knew he didn’t have the supplies to make the trip back to the bunker, he had been forced to look death in the face. Christopher knew death, at least a little. They were old friends, even if they hadn’t seen each other in quite some time.

He thought back to that moment in the woods when he made the choice to keep going. It was terrifying, but also oddly freeing. He wasn’t sure if it was fatalism or nihilism or something else, but it was a peaceful feeling. For the moment, he gave up his expectations for the future, his desperate belief that the universe owed him something.

He didn’t realize that he was slipping into sleep until he was jerked awake by a violent banging outside his cell.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 18.1

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

The entire group marched without speaking. Boots crunched in the thin layer of snow. One of the soldiers’ radios squawked to life momentarily, issuing a series of staccato beeps familiar to Christopher from his time manning the radio in the bunker. The soldiers weren’t particularly rough, but Christopher felt corralled, like cattle, and if he stumbled in the wrong direction, there was instantly a gloved hand on his arm, shoving him back into the center of the formation.

He glanced at his ersatz companions. Harold’s face was as impassive as ever, revealing nothing about what he might be feeling. Garrett’s brow was creased and his narrowed eyes flicked back and forth, but Christopher could see that he was focused on his own scattered thoughts rather than his surroundings. Christopher suspected a battle raging inside the man’s head: would his risk be rewarded, or had he voluntarily ruined himself and his brother?

The soldiers marched them up a shallow ravine between hills, then into a deeper gorge where the ground was rocky and steep on either side. Now they were coming to the base of the mountain itself. The gorge led to a dead end, a broad stone face that had sheared cleanly from the mountain. Christopher could see the worn path where the water would run over the rocks above and into the gorge where they stood, but for the moment it was dry.

One of the soldiers walked up to the rock face and did something, his body blocking Christopher from seeing. A rectangular seam appeared as the man pulled at a section of the stone. It turned on concealed hinges, silent and perfectly camouflaged. Behind the stone facade was a heavy metal hatch, similar to the one on the bunker that was so familiar to Christopher. A lever was set within a little alcove in the door, and the adjacent keypad was also set flush with the surrounding stone, so the facade could close tightly against it.

The soldier took a step so he was between the keypad and the prisoners and punched in a code. Christopher listened to the sound, trying to guess the number of keystrokes, though he realized such little scraps of knowledge were unlikely to do him any good. He suddenly felt like his brain was buzzing, taking in everything around him.

Another one of the soldiers took out his radio and punched in another code in the keypad on its face. The soldier at the door watched him, waiting for a few beats afterward before he pulled the lever. The lever’s action was smooth and silent until it hit the far end of its arc with a satisfying clunk. The door swung open, and the soldiers immediately pushed the prisoners forward.

The entrance was too small for more than one person to enter at a time, so they had to go single-file. One soldier went through, then a second grabbed Harold by the arm and pushed him in before going through himself. Garrett went next, and Christopher was ready when the soldier next to him sent him through.

Even though it hadn’t been bright outside, it was dark beyond the door, and it took some time for Christopher’s eyes to adjust. The air was warm and carried a faintly mechanical smell, like oil and metal.

They navigated a series of long, branching hallways. Christopher couldn’t tell if the paint on the walls was a light green or a dull gray. It might have even been the naked rock, polished smooth. He wasn’t given time to stop and investigate.

He wasn’t typically prone to claustrophobia, and they couldn’t possibly be that deep underground, but he physically felt the weight of the mountain above him. It was as though the air got thicker as they went, syrupy and hard to breathe. Christopher felt dizzy, then nauseous. Sparks flashed across his vision. When it passed, his eyes were better adjusted and he no longer felt ill, but he still felt jittery and too-aware of his surroundings. He felt like he had downed too much coffee. He could differentiate the rustle of each piece of clothing as the soldiers moved around him. He could hear the tread of their boots on the smooth floor. He wondered if it was the lack of food and water over the past day catching up with him. Or just the shock of everything that had happened.

They reached the end of a hallway and moved into what looked like a separate section of the compound. The walls were brighter here, off-white. More halls branched off in three directions, but they were shorter and lined with wooden doors. At the intersection, the group split without warning or any apparent signal. One of the soldiers continued straight, fast-walking on his own. A pair of them took Christopher to the right, and the rest took Harold and Garrett to the left.

Christopher turned to look back at the brothers as they were marched around the corner. He thought he heard Garrett’s voice saying something about “bringing in an enemy spy” before the soldier behind him gave him a firm push to turn him around and keep him walking.

“I’m sure it doesn’t do me any good,” Christopher said, “but I’m just someone who got lost out here in the wilderness. That guy is determined to try to use me to help himself, and he’s going to say whatever he thinks will help him. I’m really not anyone special.”

The soldier ahead of him barely glanced back. “Please be quiet, sir.”

“Yeah. Sure.”

Eventually, they stopped in front of a doorway and ushered him inside. On the other side of the door was a big, high-ceilinged room. In each corner of the room was a jail cell made of bright metal bars. Each cell contained nothing but a metal toilet on one wall and a narrow metal bench on the other. The four cells left an open, cross-shaped central space. In the center was a metal table. On either side of this was a metal chair. All of them were bolted to the floor. The desk had four brackets welded to the otherwise smooth surface.

The soldiers brought him to one of the cells and opened the door with a small key. He felt them cut the zip tie around his wrists, before shoving him into the cell. The door closed before he could turn around. The soldier turned the key and tested the door, then the pair turned and went back out the way they had come.

Christopher grasped the bars and took a moment to study the room. Then he sat on the bare metal bench that was apparently supposed to serve as a bed. He stared at the lines on his hands, then up at the ceiling.

He had never been in jail before. He had certainly never had an experience like this. Even so, he felt a jarring sense of familiarity. He closed his eyes and pressed his head back against the wall.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 17.3

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

When the sun was above the horizon, they continued walking. Harold took some jerky from his pack and gave a piece to Christopher and another to Garrett. They walked in silence.

Christopher noticed that Garrett seemed to be scanning the ground as they went, and he finally stopped and picked up a straight stick about three feet long, with all the bark missing. He paused to take a plain white tee-shirt from his pack, and using his pocket knife he cut a square of fabric from the torso with two extra strips hanging off. Then he used the strips to tie the fabric to the stick. Finally, he tied the flag to his backpack so that it stuck up just above his head, hanging like a dead thing in the still air.

He also unloaded the rifle and slotted it onto the opposite side of the pack, through a series of straps that seemed to be designed for it. He pointed to Christopher and looked at Harold.

“Keep an eye on him.”

It didn’t seem to matter much whether Harold kept an eye on Christopher or not, because Garrett also made Christopher take the lead while the brothers walked behind. That meant Christopher would be the the first thing any sharp-eyed resident of the mountain would see, and the first thing they’d be likely to shoot at. Christopher thought about asking if he could wear the flag, but he already knew what Garrett’s answer would be.

“It won’t be long now,” Garrett said to Christopher. “We’ll either run into a patrol or be seen by a spotter. If you want to stay alive, don’t do anything that could be construed as remotely threatening.”

“That’s actually my standard operating procedure,” Christopher replied.

“Cute. If you’ve got any info that we could use to negotiate, now’s the time.”

Christopher shrugged. “Even if I did, wouldn’t it be better for me to hold onto it? Why would you do anything to help me? All you’ve done so far is kidnap and insult me.”

“What helps us helps you,” Garrett replied. “If they have reason to believe you’ve been cooperative, it might make you look a little better.”

“You think they’ll be lenient on the supposed spy who collaborated with the traitorous deserters?”

Christopher glanced back in time to see Garrett’s irritated frown. Harold looked oddly unperturbed for a man who had very recently suggested they might all be murdered before they had a chance to realize what was happening.

Christopher sighed.

“You want real truth? The truth is that, as far as I can tell, all of you have been wildly misinformed about what the outside world is like. Nobody has been very eager to share much with me, but it seems like you think it’s a lot worse out there than it really is. You’re all worried about Russia and I can’t tell if you think the Cold War is still going. I suppose it makes sense, being right next door to them, but you all still seem way too concerned.

“I realize it doesn’t really matter what I say. I’m an outsider, and everyone here has a lot of trust issues. I don’t know whether that’s justified or not, but the fact that your people are on the run from the military and might just go to prison or get shot makes me think at least some of the fear is reasonable. Meanwhile, I’m stuck out here, having been dropped down the shittiest rabbit hole this side of wonderland, and I’m more and more of the belief that I’m going to end up dead because of you. So thanks for that.”

“Just walk.”

“Sure thing, boss.”

They kept walking, a thin, hard layer of snow crunching beneath their feet. Despite the talk of being shot, Christopher couldn’t stop his mind from wandering. The human brain could only keep up the tension for so long in the face of sheer boredom.

“So what’s it like up there?” Christopher asked, pointing at the mountain that now dominated the sky in front of them.

“More like down there,” Harold said.

“What, underground, like that office where your friends were?”

“They’re not our friends,” Garrett said, “and we’re not here to play tour guide.”

“I was friends with a couple of them,” Harold muttered.

“What’s the point of all the secrecy anyway?” Christopher said. “Your people already told me that there’s this base here, and there are certainly enough other buildings littered around here to make even someone as clueless as me start to wonder what’s going on. Other countries must have satellite cameras. These places must be visible in infra-red or something.

“Knowing there’s something is a lot different from knowing what that something is,” Harold said. “You’ve heard of Area 51, right? Everyone has.”

“Sure.”

“What exactly do they do there?”

“Okay, that’s a pretty good point.”

Christopher gave up his questioning and marched in silence for a while.

The trees began to thin out. The land rose in fits and starts, hills piled upon hills, with unexpected little dips and gullies hidden by scrub bushes. They had to find narrow places to jump across or scrabble down and up. A few of these low places had ice at the bottom, and one had a thin trickle of dirty water. Christopher imagined them flooding with snow melt in the summer, the water carving up the land into little puzzle pieces, the inexorable pull of gravity doing its work over hundreds of years. Once again he was captivated by the beauty of this lonely landscape. It felt like a place outside of time, like he could walk these paths a thousand years before or after and see the same things in only slightly different arrangements.

They came up a slope and found themselves on the edge of a wide open, treeless expanse with a clear view of Razor Mountain. Perception was tricky: the roots of the mountain might only be a few hundred meters away, or still miles distant. For the first time, Christopher could see the entire vast mass of rock in all of its glorious crenulations and textures. The sunlight glinted here and there on facets of the rock and gilded the deeper ridges with liquid gold. There was very little foliage visible among the shattered boulders and jutting rock, and the nearly vertical faces made the mountain look almost as though it had burst from the ground in a single violent incident. It was a mingling of dull reds, grays and blacks. The broken twin peak was dusted with snow, but even in the bright sunlight the dull black rock looked as though it had been scorched from above by heavenly fire or some unruly dragon.

Garrett stopped and adjusted his makeshift flag. Christopher saw a meaningful look pass between the brothers before Garrett looked to him and motioned him forward. They stepped out into the open space, completely devoid of cover.

A stiff breeze blew through, whipping and cracking the flag dramatically, then everything went quiet. Christopher felt the tension hang between them. He stepped carefully; his footsteps in the gravel seemed loud. Off to the side, somewhere in the low brush, unseen birds chirped and chattered at one another. The breeze blew over the rough grass in uneven waves.

Christopher felt certain that something was coming, the crack of a gunshot or a shout from some hidden spy. His muscles were tight, vibrating with nervous anticipation. He glanced back and saw the fear in Garrett’s eyes. Harold studied the landscape around them, but he still looked calm. Whatever he thought would happen, he appeared to have made peace with it. Christopher felt a faint pang of envy.

Christopher didn’t see where the soldiers came from. He only saw the sudden change in the brothers’ expressions. He turned, and found himself facing six men in gray-green camouflage, helmets and body armor. They shouted orders as they surrounded Christopher and the brothers, though Christopher didn’t process exactly what they were saying. Something about not moving and getting on the ground, he supposed, because they immediately pressed their captives face-down to the earth. Christopher heard a thud near his head as Garrett’s backpack was removed and tossed aside. The tee-shirt flag lay on the ground nearby.

More voices and footsteps joined the others. Christopher kept his face in the rough, sharp grass, adjusting his position only to avoid getting jabbed in the eyes. He half-expected to hear the sound of gunfire or Garrett making some desperate excuses. But the guns and the brothers remained silent.

After a quick, whispered conversation among the captors, Christopher felt hands firmly grasp his arms and haul him upright. The soldiers weren’t rough or cruel; they exuded an aura of professionalism. This was what they did, and they’d do it efficiently and with a minimum of fuss. Christopher saw that Garrett and Harold now had their hands behind their backs as well, bound with black zip-ties. Two soldiers held their backpacks.

The soldiers gathered in a loose formation around the captives, weapons held ready, and they began to march, once again, toward the mountain.

Though he still had a tight knot of fear and worry lodged just below his heart, Christopher couldn’t help a slight smirk at his situation. He had swapped captors three times in as many days, but he was still headed toward the mountain. In opposition to the seasonal flow of water, pulled by gravity toward distant lakes and oceans, Razor Mountain had its own gravity, and no matter what he did, Christopher couldn’t escape its pull.

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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 17

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.

Writing After Time Off

This chapter took a little longer than usual because of my Covid vacation, which mostly involved sleeping and being unproductive. This particular break was outside my control, but I’ve taken plenty of writing breaks in the past. I’ve never been a very consistent writer, so I’m no stranger to taking time off, but this blog has been slowly helping me get better at that.

The challenge for me with time off from writing is almost always just the mental block on getting started again. It’s not exactly writer’s block. Getting myself to write that first sentence is like pulling my own teeth, but once I’m a paragraph or two in, I can usually set my writing cruise-control for a while. It helps a lot to have a project like Razor Mountain, because I can write from a detailed outline. Most of the plot problems are small and easy to solve.

Mixed Feelings in the Middle

Looking at chapters, we are dead center in the middle of the book. We’ll have to wait and see how it shakes out in terms of wordcount. For me, this is always the most nebulous part of the story. That may be because I rarely feel comfortable working on a story unless I already have a detailed understanding of the beginning and the end. It just doesn’t feel like a proper story until I have those elements.

The beginning is all about introducing characters and problems and settings. It’s busy. The ending is the most exciting part, because it’s full of problems being resolved and characters making important decisions and mysteries finally revealed.

The middle is more trouble. The middle is the glue. It’s the throughline that gets you from the beginning to the end. The middle is the most flexible part. It’s also usually the part with the most difficult decisions and problems to figure out. As a result, the middle is where I do most of my second-guessing and wondering whether I’m going in the right direction.

The issue I have right now with the middle of Razor Mountain is that it feels like a lot is going on—there are new characters in every chapter, new time-jumping narrative for God-Speaker, and a lot of shifting mysteries where some things are revealed while bringing up new questions. That all sounds pretty good on paper, but I have some doubts over whether all of these things will feel like a logical sequence of events or more like distracting degressions.

All of this is further exacerbated by putting each chapter up online for the world to see, as I write it. I have to accept that I may be writing imperfect story beats (and let’s be real, they’re never perfect), and that people will actually see them before I finish the thing and edit and polish as much as I would like.

The advantage of experience is that I know I always feel this way to some extent in the middle of the story. I can keep writing through it and come out on the other side with a more informed perspective. Looking back from the end of the book, I may choose to pull some plot points or change what happens. And the advantage of putting the story out there in this state is that I hopefully get a little less precious about my stories and get a little better at pushing forward and writing the thing.

A Lack of Agency

The other issue that I’ve been thinking about here in the middle of the book is how much agency Christopher has over the story. God-Speaker will be doing a lot for the next few chapters, but Christopher is at the mercy of other characters for a while. In these parts, his agency has to come from his thoughts and reactions, and how he chooses to react to the lack of control over his external situation.

My goal is to use these scenes to further develop Christopher’s character and set him up for the challenges and choices that will happen in later chapters.

Next Time

Chapter 18 continues Christopher’s forced march with the kidnapping brothers as they make their way toward Razor Mountain.