Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 23

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.

A Pyrrhic Victory

Christopher is out of the jail cell. He has escaped the grasp of Sergeant Meadows, and found a much more sympathetic ear in Specialist Speares (assuming she is actually what she seems). Still, he’s not exactly free—he’s traded a cell for a mediocre apartment, and it’s still unlikely that he’ll ever be able to leave Razor Mountain.

His only chance to help himself is to learn how to navigate the bureaucracy of the mountain and plead his case. Unfortunately, he knows very little about how Razor Mountain works.

Christopher also feels different after his torturous ordeal. He is, perhaps, a little more in control of himself, a little more Zen, even if he can’t exert much control over the world around him. The change in his character is still subtle, but I’ll be trying to bring it out more as the story continues.

Answers

This chapter is a turning point in the structure of the story. So far, Christopher has been doing nothing but ask questions, and in this chapter he’s getting some answers. They aren’t particularly good answers for him, but at least he has a better idea what’s happening.

On the other hand, the reader knows about God-Speaker, and something is still amiss with the story of the mountain that Christopher is receiving. My goal in this chapter is to start revealing a little more about the mountain while still making the reader wonder what happened in the years between God-Speaker’s chapters and the modern day. Then the last few chapters of Act II will reveal the answers to that.

Mysteries and Choices

This was one of the longer chapters that I’ve written in Razor Mountain. There is a lot of information to get across, and a good amount of dialogue.

This book is very uneven when it comes to dialogue. It was clear early on that there would be very little dialogue in the first half of the book. Christopher is alone in all of those chapters, with nobody to talk to except himself. God-Speaker’s tribe talks, but they’re not exactly loquacious.

As we work through Act II and introduce new characters, there is more and more dialogue. I expect it to continue to increase toward the end of the book. I always wanted a structure where the mysteries and questions steadily pile up for the first half of the book, and then more and more of them get answered in the second half.

I also realized at some point that the whole book won’t be driven solely by mystery. Before the end, all the big questions will be answered. The answers to those questions will then force the main characters to make hard choices, and the ending will be about those choices and their consequences. It’s nice to solve the mystery, but characters need to struggle and grow and change for the ending to really hit home.

Next Time

Christopher learns more about Razor Mountain, and may actually get some good news.

Reference Desk #17 — Story Engine: Deck of Worlds

If you’ve been around here for a while, you might remember my review of The Story Engine. The Story Engine is part card game, part tool for generating semi-randomized writing prompts. I’ve used it as a fun way to brainstorm ideas for short stories, and I’ve found that it works well for me. As someone who enjoys card and board games, it’s just a much more fun and tactile way to generate ideas than sitting in front of the notebook with pen in hand.

Recently, the folks behind the original Story Engine kickstarted a new product in the same vein. It’s called the Story Engine: Deck of Worlds. Deck of Worlds is another card-based brainstorming game, but this time it’s focused on settings instead of plots. It’s billed as a tool for storytellers and TTRPG game masters to easily generate interesting and deep settings.

I received my order right before the holidays, and I was able to take Deck of Worlds for a test drive.

What’s In the Box?

The base set of cards for Deck of Worlds comes in a flat box with a plastic insert, magnetic latch, and a heavy tagboard sleeve that guarantees it will stay closed. This is nearly identical to the box that the original Story Engine came in, and the build quality is good. It’s the sort of box you’d expect from a premium board game.

However, the original Story Engine had many expansion packs that added more cards, and Deck of Worlds is the same. If you add extra cards to your set, you’ll quickly fill up the small amount of extra space in the box. Luckily, the creators of the Story Engine are well aware of this problem, and they’ve created a new card box with dividers that is capable of holding all the cards, even if you’ve got every single expansion. They’re inexpensive, so I got one for my original Story Engine set as well as my Deck of Worlds.

I also received three expansion packs for Deck of Worlds. “Worlds of Chrome and Starlight” is the science fiction expansion, “Worlds of Myth and Magic” is the fantasy expansion, and “Worlds of Sand & Story” is the deserts expansion. I chose these because sci-fi and fantasy are my two favorite genres to write in, and I have a TTRPG project percolating with a strong desert component.

Much like the original product, the Deck of Worlds main box includes a slim “guidebook,” which describes the intended ways to use the Deck of Worlds—although the creators are clear that there is no wrong way to play.

The Card Types

There are six card types in the Deck of Worlds: Regions, Landmarks, Namesakes, Origins, Attributes, and Advents. According to the guidebook:

  • Regions establish a setting’s main terrain type and act as a hub for other cards
  • Landmarks add geographical sites and points of interest
  • Namesakes combine with Regions or Landmarks to create in-world nicknames
  • Origins record significant events of the area’s past
  • Attributes highlight present-day features of the area and its people
  • Advents introduce events that may change the area’s future

Regions are the only cards with a single prompt on them, and have a nice background that illustrates the geography of the setting. Landmarks have two prompts to choose between, and each one has a background illustration. The other four card types have a symbol and color to identify the card type, and four different prompts to choose from.

Building Basic Settings

The simplest way to play with Deck of Worlds is to create small settings, or “microsettings” as the guidebook calls them. These will typically be built around a single region (terrain type) and a single landmark, like a building.

For my test run, I built a few of these microsettings. First, I chose the prompts I liked best and combined the cards. Then I expanded or focused the results, writing a little blurb about each setting. I only spent a couple minutes on each of these examples.

The Grassland of Crowds

The museum’s founding piece is a huge fulgurite dug out of a sandy hill. The museum was built around this dug-out hill, and the piece is displayed, unmoved, where it was found.

The “lightning festival” grew in this area, and is held during the season of rainless storms. People display all kinds of art. One of these presentations is voted the winner of each festival and incorporated into the museum.

The Scree of Rivers

(Cyberpunk) The scree was mined for the long, winding veins of precious metals near the surface, leaving a maze of narrow, shallow canyons and piles of leavings. Rivers form when it rains. A grey market meets here periodically, protected from government scanners by the trace metals in the rock, with lots of escape routes and hidey-holes for quick getaways.

Not sure about the prophecy bit.

City of Sand and Story

The City of Rains is nestled in rocky mountains in a desert. During the wet season, the mountains funnel moisture and clouds and it rains on the city, creating a temporary river. All inhabitents capture as much water as possible, to live on and trade for the rest of the year. They plant crops along the river while it lasts.

A recent sandstorm uncovered caverns in the rock beneath the city, leading to underground ruins and vast cisterns. The discovery of so much water could upend the economy of the entire region

Complex Settings

The guidebook also includes some rules for building more complex settings out of multiple microsettings. There is really no limit to the number of smaller settings you could combine. There are optional rules, including a “meta-row” for attributes of the larger area as a whole, a “sideboard” of extra cards to give you more choices when selecting any given card type.

To test this out, I built a setting from four different microsettings, using the meta-row (on the left) and sideboard (on the right).

The Golden Plains

Once known as a wealthy region, but its reputation is fading. The area has been covered with strange dark clouds for weeks, but there is little rain.

In the North: The Red City

Home of a religious order, this city was built on a river and filled with canals. It was once a hub of commerce, but the river grew over the years and eventually overflowed its banks south of the city, disrupting the flow and creating a vast swamp.

Now, the priests of the Red City ply a darker trade: they’ve made the city into a prison for the worst criminals. The prison is the center of the old city, and is called “The Prison Without Walls.” It is surrounded by deep and fast-running canals, and is only accessible by a single, heavily-guarded bridge.

The priests have traditionally been led by a patriarchal lineage of high priests, but now a lowly priestess is gathering a following among priests and prisoners alike. She has radical ideas of rehabilitating prisoners instead of working them to death as penance for their crimes.

In the South-East: The Swamp of Ink

These thickets were once hunting grounds of the nobility, until the river overflowed and the land became swampy.

The few people who still live here are led by an excommunicated priest from the Red City. They harvest “swamp mites,” tiny, stinging crawfish that can be ground into fine black dyes. Travelers from the North recently called out the priest as an exile, and he imprisoned them, but there is unrest and talk of rebellion among the people.

In the West: The Moraine

The coast of mists is the western edge of the Golden Plains region.

The Moraine is the home of the School of Poets. It was created by a celebrated poet who was known as a cantankerous jerk. The only woman who ever loved him, muse of his thousand poems, made him promise to teach other poets his craft.

The school is rumored to be haunted. While most of its inhabitants don’t take this seriously, many students have recently complained of strange and disturbing noises coming through the stone walls.

In the Southwest: The City of Smoke

A city on the slopes of an inactive volcano, built atop the ruins of the “old city,” which was destroyed by the last eruption.

Hot springs in the city are warmed by the heart of the volcano. They supposedly have healing properties, and draw tourists who hope to have their injuries or sickness cured.

Vineyards planted in the fertile volcanic soil use a unique variety of small, golden grapes, harvested after the first frost to make sweet wine.

The dark clouds that have shrouded the region threaten the growth of the grapes and the year’s wine harvest.

Takeaways

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the Deck of Worlds so far. It has a very similar feel to the original Story Engine. The cards strike a nice balance by giving you a few options to pick from, but also limitations that force your brain to make interesting and occasionally surprising connections between seemingly unrelated things.

Like any sort of brainstorming, not every single idea will be a good one. The randomization means that sometimes you get combinations that just fall flat or fail to inspire. Some of this depends on your own creativity and willingness to explore.

Like the original Story Engine, the quality of the product is great. The new boxes are an improvement, allowing me to keep all my original and expansion cards together in a form factor that takes up less space than the original box.

I don’t necessarily like all the rules suggested by the guidebook, but it’s easy to tweak the process until it works for you. They’re just cards, and they can be arranged however you see fit. The extra rules for bigger settings are a little complicated for my tastes, but the end result in my experiment had some interesting ideas that I wouldn’t mind exploring further.

The guidebook also has more rules that I didn’t get into, for collaborative multiplayer and for combining Deck of Worlds with the original Story Engine. All of that feels like more complexity than I want when I’m brainstorming—I would much rather create smaller ideas and then mix and match myself. However, I’m sure this style of prescribed creation could work for others.

Finally, I think this could be a great tool for GMs/DMs who run custom table-top RPG campaigns. I’ve long believed that the best way to approach TTRPG worlds is the “billiards” style described by Chris Perkins, where you set up a number of interesting locations full of interesting characters, and then let the player characters bounce around between them, setting events in motion.

The Deck of Worlds is a great way to invent these little islands of content, and I think it would be pretty easy to create quick and dirty sessions with very little prep, especially if you’re using a lightweight rule set.

Where to Get It

The Deck of Worlds and its expansions are available directly from the Story Engine website. In addition to the Sci-fi, Fantasy and Desert expansions I chose, there are Horror, Coastline, and Arctic expansions. If you’re planning to use the deck for tabletop RPGs, they also have expansions for lore fragments, cultures, and adventure prompts.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 22

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.

Developing God-Speaker

In this chapter, I had two important things I wanted to accomplish. The first thing: showing a formative event for God-Speaker, where he once again loses someone close to him.

As I’ve mentioned previously, God-Speaker only gets about half as many chapters as Christopher in the book. This is partly because it draws out some of the mysteries, and partly because I want it to feel more like Christopher’s story than God-Speaker’s story.

In Act II, each of the God-Speaker chapters really needs to pull its weight in terms of developing God-Speaker’s personality, and revealing his long, long history. The challenge for me is that these chapters jump drastically through time and feature characters that only appear in a single chapter.

When a character dies, I usually want it to make a big impact on the reader. In the case of Strong Shield and Sky-Watcher, the reader barely knows these characters, and can’t really be expected to feel much for them. However, the purpose of these characters is really just to be foils for God-Speaker in different ways. They don’t have much development, but they have to help to build God-Speaker’s character.

Sky-Watcher accepts her own death with dignity, but God-Speaker does not. After all, he’s been alive for many lifetimes at this point, and he’s used to getting what he wants.

The Mechanics of Magic

The voices deep inside the mountain still aren’t completely explained. That’s a mystery that I want to draw out. However, there are plenty of hints about their origins that many readers will pick up on.

The voices provide God-Speaker with knowledge that would otherwise be far beyond human technological understanding at these points in time. This allows God-Speaker and his little civilization to excavate the underground city and make it livable.

The voices also give God-Speaker other powers, powers that seem to be beyond mere technological advancement. They give him the ability to live far beyond a normal human lifetime by transferring his consciousness to a new body. In this chapter, I also try to explain the mechanics of the “oracles,” specially trained people who can use the voices to move their consciousness through time instead of space.

I’ve found it a little challenging to clearly describe the mechanics of the “magic” while not making it feel like straight exposition. I may revisit this in a later editing pass.

Approaching the Present

In my outline, there are only two God-Speaker chapters left—in Act II and in the book as a whole. The final act of the book will belong to Christopher. These last two God-Speaker chapters will both take place in the same time period, bringing us within a couple decades of the modern day, in the final big time jump of the narrative.

This is an exciting part of the book for me, because it’s where the two main characters’ narratives finally come together. It also marks the point where a lot of the mysteries will be resolved.

Next Time

We’re back to Christopher for a long chapter. We’ll see a little bit of the modern state of the underground city, and see that things are not quite right. Christopher is still trying to get back home, but it seems less likely than ever that he’ll ever leave Razor Mountain.

My Writing Process — 2022

One of the goals of Words Deferred has always been to open up my writing process for everyone to see. I don’t claim to have the perfect process, and I think the best way to write will ultimately be different for each writer. However, there’s surprisingly little talk among writers about the day-to-day details of what writing is like, and I want to do my small part to change that.

As the end of the year approaches, I thought it would be interesting to look at the writing I’m doing and the tools I’m using in 2022. Then I can look back on this next year and see how things have changed, or if they’ve stayed the same.

Ideation

Writers are known for carrying little notebooks and jotting down ideas whenever and wherever they appear. In the past, I’ve carried pocket-sized notebooks, but I went entirely digital several years ago.

My digital notebook of choice is Microsoft OneNote. I have separate tabs for general brainstorms and ideas, short stories, novels, blog posts, lists of books I might eventually read, and more. When I need to take notes on the go, I just jot them down on my phone. OneNote synchronizes automatically between phone and laptop, with only occasional weird formatting issues.

My OneNote. There are a lot of pages hidden under those headings…

Novel Writing

For novels, when I’m ready to go beyond the idea-gathering stage, I move all my notes from OneNote into Scrivener.

As far as I am concerned, Scrivener is the best novel-writing application out there. Where it really shines is in the way it lets me split a big project into nested parts. I split Razor Mountain into folders for each act, then split out each chapter into its own document under those folders. I have separate sections for major characters, locations and other research notes.

With a click of a button, I can look at the chapter summaries on a cork-board view, and I can drag-and-drop chapters in the document tree to rearrange them, something that has been really convenient as I’ve merged and moved chapters in Act II. Scrivener also has built-in support for “snapshots,” which I use to save each revision of each chapter. I typically save at least a rough draft, a second draft after some editing, and a third draft once I’ve gotten reader feedback.

To ensure that my work is fully backed up, I save my Scrivener files to Dropbox, which copies them across my computers and my phone for safe-keeping. I do have the mobile version of Scrivener, but I almost never use it. I love taking notes on my phone, but I do not enjoy long-form writing on that tiny keyboard.

Serial Publishing

I’m publishing Razor Mountain as a serial in three places: here on the blog, on Wattpad, and on Tapas. I chose to do this so that I could get a feel for the different platforms, and to try to increase the visibility. However, I haven’t done much to promote the Tapas or Wattpad versions, so pretty much all of my regular readership is on WordPress. I keep telling myself that I’ll eventually put some love into Tapas and Wattpad, and that may actually happen at some point. Either way, I’ll continue on all three until Razor Mountain is finished.

Because I’m posting to three platforms, my process for this is a little bit insane. It goes something like:

  1. Write the first draft and first round of edits in Scrivener.
  2. Copy it to Google Docs for easy beta reader feedback. Fix the formatting that doesn’t transfer nicely.
  3. Make changes based on feedback in Scrivener, and decide how to split the chapter into multiple posts.
  4. Copy it to a OneNote template with the brief description at the top and links to previous/home/next at the bottom.
  5. Copy from OneNote to WordPress. Schedule the posts.
  6. Copy from OneNote to Wattpad. Fix all the formatting that doesn’t transfer nicely. (Wattpad has no way to schedule posts.)
  7. Copy from OneNote to Tapas. Fix the formatting that doesn’t transfer nicely. Schedule the posts.
  8. On the scheduled day, chapter parts automatically post to WordPress and Tapas.
  9. I have to manually post the saved draft to Wattpad. I also have to update the previous/next links in the WordPress post, and I need to add links to the Razor Mountain home page. Depending on how busy I am, I sometimes forget to do these things, and I typically don’t catch it until I start posting the next chapter.

Some of this complexity comes from posting in three places, each with their own idiosyncrasies. It’s obnoxious how often copy/pasting between tools and websites causes the formatting to be lost. It’s doubly obnoxious that Wattpad doesn’t let me schedule posts.

I suspect there is probably a way to add WordPress links (previous/next and home page) that point to a scheduled post and only work once the post is “live.” I haven’t spent the time to figure it out though.

Short Stories

The majority of my writing time this year went toward Razor Mountain and the blog, but I have managed to sneak in a few short stories.

For microfiction, drabbles, and flash fiction, I often just work in OneNote. Unlike novel writing, I sometimes do work on short short stories on my phone, and I typically do not need organizing features or formatting more complex than italics and bold.

For longer stories, I usually use Microsoft Word on the laptop. Oddly, I copy to Google Docs for easy beta reader feedback, but I never really write in it. I’ve been using Word for years and I’m comfortable with it.

For all of my stories, I save everything to Dropbox to make sure it’s backed up. When it comes time to find places to submit stories, I use Duotrope.

Blogging

My blogging schedule has fluctuated over time, but these days I try to post Razor Mountain chapters every other week.

Unless a chapter is around a thousand words or less, I will break it into 2-3 parts of about a thousand words each. I’ve read that 500-1000 words is the sweet spot for keeping readers’ attention for blogs, and a slim majority of my WordPress readers are on mobile, where a post of that size feels bigger on the page than it does on a full-size monitor or tablet. Tapas and Wattpad don’t have that kind of detailed dashboard for writers, but they do say that most of their readers are also on mobile.

Along with the chapters themselves, I write a development journal for each Razor Mountain chapter. Sometimes I post the chapter parts earlier in a week (e.g. Wednesday and Thursday), and the development journal on Friday. If I have three parts in a chapter or get a little behind, I will sometimes post the development journal the following Monday. I used to worry about maintaining an exact schedule, but nowadays I just aim for a schedule and adjust as needed.

I write blog posts unrelated to Razor Mountain on the “off” weeks, and sometimes for the Monday of Razor Mountain weeks as well. I’ve been blogging long enough now that I have a few ongoing series of posts, so I will often mix one of those posts with something stand-alone in a given week.

I’ve gotten in the habit of posting reblogs every other Wednesday. Writing three blog posts in a week is too much for me, and reblogs are low-effort (while hopefully still interesting content). They occasionally result in some cross-pollination with the other blog’s readership. Their main purpose is to serve as a good motivation for me to regularly read other writing blogs. I maintain a list of interesting articles and blog posts in my OneNote, and trawl through them for these reblogs.

For the header images on my posts, I use Pexels. I don’t usually do any picture editing apart from cropping. If I have a really difficult time finding an image that I’m happy with, I will occasionally check Unsplash. Both of these sites offer pictures that are free to use and do not require specific license language to be displayed.

(If you’re blogging, please do yourself a favor and always check the licensing and make sure you’re attributing correctly. There are trolls out there who will sue you for hundreds of dollars, even for such non-crimes as using the incorrect version of Creative Commons. And if the image isn’t licensed for your use, don’t use it!)

I make it easy on myself and always use the same cover image for Razor Mountain chapters, and pictures of mountains for development journals. For all other posts, I just search for terms vaguely related to the content.

I always write my blog posts in OneNote, do an editing pass, and then copy/paste them into WordPress. I almost never publish a post immediately. Instead, I schedule them for 7:00am CST on a subsequent day—usually Monday, Wednesday or Friday.

Tracking

My latest endeavor is to try to get a better understanding of how I’m using my writing time. Lately, I’ve been using ClickUp. I like it for charting “deadlines,” even if they’re entirely self-imposed, and laying out a schedule of things I intend to write.

And even though I’ve explicitly said in the past that I don’t want to end up tracking things in Microsoft Excel, I’ve been doing a little bit of tracking in Excel. I haven’t found a great way to roll up the time spent on different projects in ClickUp in a way I like. Excel makes it dead simple to make a few columns and track days, projects and half-hour increments. It’s all compact and easy to eyeball, and there’s always an easily searched website that will tell you how to translate a few columns into an interesting graph, even if Excel formulas make me feel a little dirty.

This tracking stuff is still in flux, and I expect it to change. In every other respect I am an old man, set in my ways. It’ll be interesting to check back in next year, and see if anything is different.

This post is already much longer than I planned, so I’ll end it here. Hopefully it was interesting to see how another writer works. If you’re an author who writes about your own process, I’d love to read about how you’re working. Leave a comment or a link to a post of your own.

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 20

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.

A Long Wait for a Short Chapter

Chapter 20 might be the shortest chapter so far.

I went into Thanksgiving week thinking that I would get a lot of writing done. That didn’t happen. The kids had activities, we helped a family member move, and the actual Turkey Day prep didn’t help either. On top of that, we’ve had some family medical issues lately and multiple home appliances dying. It’s been a lot.

As a serial procrastinator, I have a lot of baggage around making plans and then not getting things done. However, I’m getting a little better at looking at it objectively, and it was pretty reasonable to not get much writing done. I try to chalk it up to life intruding, and adjust my plans accordingly.

I’m taking quite a bit of vacation at the end of December and January, and I’m hoping to really reset and have lots of free time for all my writing projects. I think it will also help if I can finish off Act II and get into Act III of Razor Mountain. I’m feeling some of the mid-book doldrums and I usually get a second wind when the end is in sight.

Approaching the Breaking Point

This latest chapter ended up being yet another short one. Part of that is down to the fact that there’s no dialogue or other characters for Christopher to interact with. Part of it is because I don’t want to spend too long on these scenes where it’s just him in an empty room having a bad time—just enough to set up what will be happening in subsequent chapters.

I wanted to get across the visceral awfulness, and the feeling that Christopher really getting close to his breaking point. He has been through a lot, and he is worn down. At some point it’s going to be too much.

But we’re not quite there yet.

Serial Villains

Razor Mountain doesn’t have a big, bad, ongoing villain throughout the entire story. In terms of high school English conflict definitions, it’s more “man vs. nature” and “man vs. self.”

What it does have is a series of minor villains that cause problems for the main characters. God-Speaker had to deal with  Finds-the-Trail and Strong-Shield. Christopher was kidnapped by Garrett and Harold, and is now imprisoned under the purview of Sergeant Matthews.

It’s challenging to make these villains menacing when most of them are only around for a few chapters. Their main effect on the story is acting as roadblocks that the main characters have to somehow overcome, but they need to feel like an organic part of the story. They need enough character development that their actions make sense and hint that there’s more going on with them than we get to see. They need motivations that put them at odds with the main characters.

A notable effect of chaining villains in this way is that it naturally results in arcs of tension as each conflict ramps up, and then is overcome or superseded by the next conflict. This can be good, because it provides a natural structure of rising and falling action—you need both moments of tension and release to keep the story interesting—but it can also create lulls in the action that I need to make sure aren’t too long or boring.

Next Time

Chapter 21 might just be the straw that breaks Christopher’s back. We’ll get to know our new friend, Sergeant Matthews, the first Razor Mountain authority figure that Christopher has encountered. Things are going to get worse before they get better. If they get better.

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 — 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.

Dissecting Influences — Sci-Fi From My Childhood

If you’ve been around here for a while, you might remember that my favorite writing podcast is Writing Excuses. In Episode 17.7, the team discussed dissecting your influences.

We all have stories we love, whether they be books, shows or movies. The idea of this episode was that it can be useful to take apart our favorite things and figure out why we like them, because it guides us toward things that matter to us. The themes and ideas that draw us to these works will often be fertile ground for our own writing. And while it may seem obvious that we all know exactly what we like in media, the truth is that we often leave those stones unturned. It might even be surprising to dig into what really brings us joy in a favorite movie or book.

After listening to this episode, I started compiling a list of my own favorite media. It wasn’t hard to start. In fact, it was hard to stop. The things closest to mind were mostly books I had read recently or old favorites that I’ve been re-reading with my kids. But I soon started to remember books from childhood, poetry, and even influences outside fiction altogether.

With this list in hand, and continuing to add to it, I thought it might be fun to dissect my own writer brain in public. I have to limit myself to a reasonable size for a blog post, so I’m going to pick a somewhat arbitrary classification to pull out a handful of entries.

The Grown-Up Sci-Fi of My Childhood

That’s right, it’s some of my first loves in science fiction, way back when I was still in school. The actual dates of publication vary quite a bit, from 1965 to 1994, and these are all novels aimed at adults. One of the things that drew me into these books was the faintly illicit idea that I, as a child, could read stories intended for grown-ups. It felt like a window into ideas and worlds I wasn’t yet allowed to enter. Going from “Choose Your Own Adventure” and Goosebumps to heady books like Dune is a real shock to the system.

On that note, let’s start with Herbert’s masterpiece.

Dune

Having read this book at least three times—and one of those times quite recently—I have a hard time going back to the headspace I was in when I read it originally. I think I was in high school, and I’m pretty sure the reason I started reading it was because I saw a mention of it where someone said it was as influential in science-fiction as Lord of the Rings was in fantasy.

I think Dune is a pretty great book for young people who are starting to get into science fiction. On the one hand, it reduces the many political and economic complexities of the far future into a feudal culture where the only thing that matters are the machinations of a handful of powerful factions. The protagonist, Paul, is a ducal heir with adult responsibilities, but he’s still not quite an adult. Interestingly, the whole feudal system and it’s quasi-European royalty end up falling apart by the end of the book, with young Paul engineering their downfall at the hands of colonized people.

I remember this book being interesting because it sets up a world where people and decisions hundreds of years previous can have profound and complicated effects on the present. It’s a world of complex, interrelated systems that nobody can completely understand, and even a single person putting a wrench in the gears in just the right way can totally change the universe.

I also genuinely love Paul’s relationship with his own psychic powers. He hates them. He is constantly vacillating between seeing the future and being unable to steer it, or losing that sight and the fear of not knowing. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that handled that kind of power in quite the same way.

I have to at least mention the other books in the (original) Dune series. I read them all, although not right away. I don’t think any of them quite measure up to the original, but I appreciate how strange they are, and Herbert’s audacity in choosing to set them thousands of years apart in far-flung futures that are less and less similar to our own modern lives.

Ender’s Game

Another book with a child protagonist? Possibly a theme. Ender in this book is much younger than Paul is at the beginning of Dune, but he deals with some comparable drama. This is another book that I re-read recently with my kids.

This book was astounding in a few different ways. Firstly, while it’s not exactly dystopic fiction, it does depict a world where war with aliens has resulted in hardship for average people and a government with dictatorial power. We learn early on that Ender is special because he’s a “third.” In a world where the government limits how many children each couple can have, he is a rarity.

All of the main characters are children: Ender and his siblings, and all of the kids at the battle school. Parents and adults are present, but they have little time “on-screen.” Like the dictatorial government, they show up periodically and force some seemingly arbitrary and often cruel new rules onto the children, but it’s the children and their relationships that matter. This is a book that understands what it feels like to be a child, to feel like adults don’t give you all the information and many decisions are left completely out of your hands.

Ender is bred to be a soldier and a leader. He’s trained for it. He is subjected to insane cruelty, to the point where he ends up having to kill other children to defend himself, all because it’s part of the program. But the ultimate cruelty happens at the end of the book, when he discovers that the supposedly wise adults who forced this horrible life on him didn’t even understand the enemy that they trained him to kill. The entire war is nothing more than an interspecies miscommunication, and he finds out by accident.

And then he leaves. He finds the one person he loves and who loves him: his sister. They get on a spaceship and fly away. He leaves behind all the systems of abuse and control that defined his entire life. Maybe a metaphor for growing up.

The “Ender” series continues on. Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind are all great books, but again I feel like the original is still the best. The series is similar to Dune in the way it jumps large spans of time in a wildly changing galaxy. The Dune series eventually had a bunch of new books written much later, by Herbert’s son. I heard they were terrible and I never read them. The “Ender” series, on the other hand, had more and more books still written by Orson Scott Card, but I got to the point where I just wasn’t that interested by yet another rehash of the same story from a different secondary character’s perspective.

Before we move on, it’s worth mentioning that I’m still disappointed that Orson Scott Card turned out to be a homophobe and the sort of person who politely states their deeply held and hateful beliefs. Card was one of my early writing heroes, and I still hold his books on writing in high esteem, but as a person, he really bums me out. He kind of did the whole “J.K. Rowling” thing before Rowling.

The Uplift Saga

While the above two entries are the first (and I would argue, most important) books in a series, David Brin’s “Uplift” books are inseparable in my mind. There are six of them, in a pair of trilogies:

  • Sundiver
  • Startide Rising
  • The Uplift War

…and…

  • Heaven’s Reach
  • Brightness Reef
  • Infinity’s Shore

I suspect this series might be the most influential set of books in my childhood, but I came at them in a very weird way. I’m honestly not sure if I even remember it correctly. I know I read them out of order, because I bought one of these books at a garage sale, completely unaware that it was part of a series. I can’t be sure, but I think it was The Uplift War, the third book in the first trilogy.

That might sound a little insane to some readers, but it’s something I did multiple times as a kid. I even read through the fifth book in a series once, and didn’t realize it was part of a series until the ending completely failed to resolve the plot. One of the crazy things about being a child is that the world makes no sense. Every time you open a “grown-up” book, it’s like being transported into a completely new universe. Of course it’s confusing. Everything is confusing when you’re a child. It’s the ultimate introduction to the concept of “in media res.”

While Dune imagines a sci-fi future with no aliens whatsoever, and Ender’s Game has only the buggers, who seem to be mindless insectoid killing machines, the Uplift books are absolutely chockablock with all sorts of aliens. They are not your usual little green men. They are crabby things with 360° vision or energy creatures that live in the corona of the sun. They are varied and logical for the environment they came from.

The Uplift books depict a humanity that has just made contact with a galaxy full of aliens. There is a galactic culture. It is full of aliens who are much more advanced and powerful than humans, and we are forced to very abruptly change our own assessment of how awesome we are.

Humanity has started the process of advancing the intelligence of chimpanzees, dogs, gorillas and dolphins through genetic manipulation and technology. It turns out this is a pretty damn important concept to all the aliens, who call it “Uplift.” In fact, it’s the glue that binds all these different cultures together, as the uplifted races are forced into millennia-long servitude to the race that gave them the gift of sentience, and the races providing “Uplift” have a higher social position. Of course, the top dogs of the galaxy aren’t excited to see the newcomers, humanity, get that kind of respect, let alone the servitude of multiple freshly uplifted species.

Again, we have a fictional world that is too big for its characters. Hell, even the entire human race (and super-dogs/chimps/gorillas) is just trying to keep from drowning in a galaxy where almost everything is out of their control. I think, as a child, I was fascinated by the idea that everything we know and have ever known on planet Earth might be utterly inconsequential in the wider universe.

Overtime?

I have to admit, when I started writing this article I thought I might not have that much to say. Now I’m almost 2,000 words into this, everyone has probably stopped reading, and I only made it through half the books I intended.

I’m going to call it here. I found this to be a really fun exercise, but I’m curious if anyone else will be interested. I got more out of it than I thought I would, not the least of which is the desire to go and re-read the entire Uplift series. If anyone enjoys this, I might make it a regular feature. I have a lot of books, shows, and movies on my list.