Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 3 (Redux)

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.

Since I ended up posting the Chapter 3 episodes last week and this week, I had a brief Chapter 3 journal last Monday. I wanted to wait until after the episodes were out to avoid any potential spoilers. So now we can speak freely.

Momentum

Christopher exploring the bunker has a certain element of mystery that helps propel the chapter, but I don’t think it’s not enough to sustain the momentum all on its own. The radio message and the map ramp up the mystery, while also giving Christopher some useful clues that he can use to start solving those mysteries.

The sooner Christopher can take an active role in determining his own destiny, the sooner he can start to be a compelling character. That active participation is important, even if it’s just small things. Characters who are just passive lumps, waiting for things to happen to them, are not interesting characters to read about.

Themes

There were several themes that I wanted to keep up throughout the chapter.

  • The strangeness of the bunker. A secret bunker in the wilderness has some built-in strangeness, but things like bunks, a radio, and survival gear are all reasonable things to find in that place. There are other things that are oddities, like the weird oven, the many-piped device behind the storage room, and the lights and odd decorative flourishes. I wanted the bunker to feel “off” in a few ways, to enhance the feeling that there’s a mystery here. (I also made sure to reference the strangeness of Christopher guessing the door code.)
  • Physical pain. Christopher likes action movies, but this is not an action movie. Jumping out of the plane was crazy, and it ought to have killed him. His survival is already a miracle, and he’s going to pay for it. It’s hard to make jumping out of a plane and surviving seem like a realistic thing, but I’m going to try. Christopher is thoroughly beat up, and I wanted to keep that in the forefront of the reader’s mind. He’s not going to be running and gunning by the next scene. He’s going to be hobbling and limping.
  • Christopher’s emotional state. I didn’t focus on this as much as the physical pain, but I wanted to make it clear that Christopher is someone who can work things out. He’s naturally compelled to be a puzzle solver. Even though he spends most of the chapter hobbling around, looking at things, and wondering what’s going on, he also spends some time thinking and planning. He tries the radio, even if it doesn’t work. He’s already thinking about next steps.

Editing Out Weak Language

One of the stylistic errors that I continue to fight is hedging language. I always find a few points in every chapter where things “seem” or “feel” or “are like” something, and I have to delete those words so they just are. I think this is a symptom of uncertainty while writing. If I’m not sure I have the right words or I am going in the right direction, this hedging slips in as a symptom. All it does is make the language weaker. On the upside, I’m developing a pretty comprehensive list of these problematic words, so I can catch this stuff quickly during revision.

Getting Back on Track

I started publishing Razor Mountain with a little more than one chapter already written, to give me a buffer. (The second was done, but not fully revised.) I intended to publish one chapter per week, fully knowing that would be a stretch for me. It only took until Chapter 3 for me to start to fall a little bit behind.

With Chapter 3 spread out across two weeks, I have a week of buffer again to get ahead on writing and keep going with the chapter-per-week cadence. I’m trying to stick with that plan for a few reasons.

First, it ends up being a nice amount of posts each week. Most chapters are going to split into two or three short episodes in order to fit the word count limits on the serial services. Filling Tuesday – Thursday with Razor Mountain fits neatly between a Monday craft post and this Friday development journal. If I ever have a really long chapter, I have the flexibility to split it between two weeks and maybe throw in some short posts or re-blogs.

Second, it feels like a stretch that is still achievable. One of the reasons I started blogging in the first place was to acclimate myself to writing more, and doing it on a regular schedule. I have to say, it’s been a resounding success. Having to write for my blog schedule (even though it’s self-imposed) has gotten me to write more, and write with consistency. I used to write in fits and starts. Now I write almost every day.

Writing on a tight schedule has forced me to be a little less precious about my writing. Posts can always be improved, but I’ve started to get a good sense of when I’m better served by expanding this week’s upcoming article, and when I should just let it go and think about next week’s post. I’m juggling Razor Mountain and blog posts, and I prioritize now, instead of putting things off and only writing what I feel like, when I feel like it.

I think I need to cultivate a little bit more of that attitude for Razor Mountain. I want it to be good, but there’s a limit to how much I can revise when I’m publishing serially. That’s okay. That’s the nature of the project. I console myself with the idea that I might go back when it’s all finished and clean up every little part I don’t like. Razor Mountain: The Director’s Cut. Whether or not I end up doing that, it helps keep me going.

I’ll keep trying to hit the chapter-per-week. If I find myself consistently getting behind, then I’ll reevaluate that and adjust the schedule. For now, let’s plan on Chapter 4 next week.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 3

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.

Deadlines

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.

Douglas Adams

This week, I did my Douglas Adams impression, finishing up Chapter 3 a few days behind schedule. It ended up being another 3-part chapter when I split it up for Wattpad and Tapas, and by the time I got through editing and beta feedback, I didn’t have three slots in the middle of the week to schedule it on the blog.

Instead, I put out a reblog on Wednesday, and episode 3.1 on Thursday. I’ll publish the other two parts next week, giving me a little buffer to get ahead again. I’d prefer to publish a full chapter every week, but failing that, I can at least publish something Razor Mountain each week.

I don’t know if anyone cares as much as I do about the scheduling, but my goal is transparency here, whether the process goes smoothly or not.

Taking Inventory

A lot of the work of this chapter was envisioning the layout of the bunker and all of the things inside. I debated what the technology and furnishing should be like. It had to be things that are made to last without maintenance. Geothermal? Strange, tiny oven? Water pump? All of it, as much as possible, with minimal moving parts. The people who made this place understand how to build for very long term use.

In a classic video game level design blunder, I forgot to include a toilet in the first draft. Then I debated leaving it out anyway, and forcing Christopher to go in the woods. It may technically not be necessary for livability, but that was a little too silly a thing for the builders to do. I put it in the most logical room: the one where nobody would be living, sleeping, or figuring out what to have for lunch.

As I researched the best ways to preserve food, survival gear, etc., I discovered that doomsday preppers have websites with great info on pretty much all of these things. Which shouldn’t have been surprising. Just another internet subculture rabbit hole you can get lost in.

More Next Week

I’m cutting it a little short this week. I’ll pick up next week to talk about the whole thing when the rest of Chapter 3 is out.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 2

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 and outlining journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

Research

My outline originally called for a fight between a raiding party of outsiders and God-Speaker’s tribe. However, a little research made it clear that there is really no evidence of armed conflict between groups of paleolithic humans. The generally low population densities would mean that groups wouldn’t interact that much, and it would be disadvantageous for them to fight over resources in anything other than extreme situations.

I decided that attackers probably didn’t make sense as a raiding party, and might be more reasonable as desperate travelers who have fared poorly. They have different language and customs, and can’t communicate. The concept of violence between humans is foreign to God-Speaker’s people, so the attack is difficult to explain outside of supernatural causes.

These paleolithic people have some tools and bits of culture similar to more modern indigenous Alaskans, with the assumption that they are less adapted to that environment than their descendants will become (“modern” in this context still going back many thousands of years). Since they are far removed from future Alaskans, and there’s very limited hard evidence about how they lived, it comes down to inference, guesswork, and making things up.

I did spend some time researching the sort of flora and fauna that might be present, indigenous fishing and hunting techniques, and things like how simple shelters might be constructed.

Revision

My first draft started off slow, with a few paragraphs of background about the tribe and their winter settlement. I wanted to treat this as more of a second opening hook, since it’s introducing a new setting and characters for the first time. When I rewrote the opening, I tried to focus on the character and action and intersperse the background.

I also had the idea of simplifying the language of this chapter to reflect that the language the paleolithic people were using was likely less complex and developed than anything in recorded history. This is extremely tricky, because it’s very easy to get into tropey and condescending “cave-man speak.”

My son is a big fan of the XKCD Thing Explainer book, and I was aware that Randall has a word checker called Simple Writer, to flag any words in a text that aren’t in the most common 1000 words. This kind of writing strikes a nice balance to me, where it is definitely simple, but not quite at cave-man trope level.

I did use this tool to check the revised chapter, and it did help me identify some places where I could simplify the writing. I didn’t strictly adhere to it, because there were a number of places where conforming to it just didn’t sound good. I’ll probably continue to use it as a sort of automated advisor for the next couple God-Speaker chapters.

Properly Started

These first two chapters feel like the extended introduction to me. The two main POV characters have been introduced, along with the challenges they’ll be facing, and taste of both settings.

The next chapter will transition back to Christopher, and will be more about expanding what’s been introduced. More setting, more characterization, and more mysteries.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 2.2

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

God-Speaker did not know what to do. The rare contact they had made with others had been hard. They spoke with different words and made confusing gestures. But he had never imagined that people, even these strangers who seemed so different, would hunt another of their kind. People worked together. They left their houses strong and clean when they traveled, for others who might find them. This was the way of their elders, and the elders before them. They did not hurt one another.

Far-Seeing, the strongest and fiercest hunter, approached the stranger with his spear in his hand, shouting. To God-Speaker, his words were quiet and far away. Was the stranger desperate for food? Why had he done this terrible thing?

God-Speaker didn’t hear if the stranger made any reply, but the hand-axe rose again. But the stranger could barely stand, and Far-Seeing was quick and strong. His spear plunged into the stranger’s chest. There was a cry from someone nearby.

The stranger must have been near death already. He did not move. The hand-axe fell to the ground with a thud, and the man fell onto it. God-Speaker approached cautiously, but the stranger’s wide eyes were dead.

God-Speaker fell to his knees next to Makes-Medicine. The rest of the people had come, and there was now a small crowd looking down, whispering among each other and trying to understand what had happened.

There was a sticky red furrow along Makes-Medicine’s hairline where the stone had struck. God-Speaker could see white bone. She struggled to breathe and reached out to him.

“You are God-Speaker and God-Carrier,” she croaked. She was trying to perform the ritual, even as she lay dying. He held her hand to comfort her.

“Listen to the stone god,” she said. “Only with the favor of the spirits of the earth will we find a new land to make our home.”

She pulled out of his grasp, made gestures of naming in the air between them, hands shaking. Then she lay still.

He could barely hear her dying words. “Give my spirit to the river. You must show the way to the people. The god will lead you.”

She slumped as her spirit left her body. He had not been training long, but he knew the words to speak over her, hands out-raised to ward off evil spirits. As a shaman and medicine-maker, her spirit would be strong. She would bring great power to the river.

When he had finished, he looked up. The others had waited in silence. Now, they looked to him, and to Braves-the-Storm, who was now the oldest of the people. God-Speaker was young to be shaman, an apprentice who would now have to do his best with what little he had learned from his mentor. Makes-Medicine had said that he heard the voices of the spirits more clearly than anyone she had known. This and the stone god gave him considerable clout, but he was young and inexperienced. The people revered their elders for their knowledge, and Braves-the-Storm was known to be wise and measured. With Makes-Medicine gone, the flexible social order of the tribe had been thrown into confusion.

God-Speaker thought he should want to lead the people, but all he wanted to do was to run into the trees where nobody could see him. He thought he would have years still to learn how to listen to the spirits, to make medicine and practice rituals. He knew he had a responsibility to the people. For the first time, he wished he couldn’t hear the spirits. He wanted to grieve without all of this added responsibility.

“Makes-Medicine wishes to be given to the river,” he said, looking to Braves-the-Storm. “We should prepare her.”

Braves-the-Storm nodded. God-Speaker let out his breath in relief.

“We must do as she said,” Braves-the-Storm confirmed. “We must give her to the river. Then, we will travel, as was planned.”

It was too much. He had lost his mentor. The whole tribe was in shock. And they had to still prepare to leave the valley today?

God-Speaker frowned. Braves-the-Storm was wise. They were nearly packed and prepared to leave. The death rituals would slow them, as would their sorrow, but it didn’t make sense to put off the journey for another day. For all they knew, there could be more of these strangers somewhere close.

After a moment of thought, God-Speaker nodded. Only as he looked up did he realize that many of the others were watching him. He could see relief on several faces. As long as the hierarchy of the tribe was unclear, there would be this cloud of uncertainty. As long as he and Braves-the-Storm were in agreement, it would be tense. As soon as they disagreed, however, that tension would need to be resolved. The people would be watching, deciding for themselves who was best-suited to make decisions for the group.

God-Speaker’s skin tingled, a sensation that had become familiar. The stone god called out to him. He had left it, unready, in the cave.

“I must finish getting ready for the journey,” he said. The others would know what he meant. He stood and hurried back to the crack in the cliff face, shoving his way through the narrow gap. He was lost in thought and again the narrow passage scraped his shoulders.

He found the god where he had left it, next to his pouches of color. He put everything into his personal bag, then spoke to the stone god. He knew he didn’t really need to speak — spirits understood feelings and actions as well as words — but he had enough trouble understanding his own thoughts right now. Putting them into words helped him to make sense of it all.

“Why did Makes-Medicine die?” he asked.

The voice of the god spoke to him, speaking from the earth itself.

“The people have traveled for a long time, but the journey is nearly over. The people will face great danger in the coming days. Evil spirits block your path. Makes-Medicine goes to the spirit world as an envoy for the people. Her strong spirit will speak to other good spirits on your behalf. Her spirit will make the evil spirits afraid to stand in your way.”

The spirit of earth chipped at his doubt. It seemed so unfair that Makes-Medicine be taken away from them. But when the spirits were considered, it made much more sense. If there were evil spirits blocking their way, they would need strong protection on their journey. Makes-Medicine could protect them far better in the spirit world. God-Speaker wished he had learned more about these matters of the spirits.

“Did she know that this would happen?” he asked.

The stony rumble was already fading. “She knew the journey would be dangerous. She protects the people.”

God-Speaker knew this was true, though it did not answer his question. Makes-Medicine had told him that it was always hard to know what to tell the people about the spirits, and what a shaman should keep to themselves. Even great shamans did not always understand.

God-Speaker carried the stone god and his personal bag out of the cave. He was careful to carry the god with the care it deserved. The last thing they needed was to turn the god against them.

As he came out, he found the others still standing where he had left them, talking among themselves.

“Why did the stranger attack her?”

“He does not look like us. He looks starved. Maybe he was hunting us.”

“What strangers could be so evil that they hunt their own kind?”

They looked to Braves-the-Storm.

“He was alone. Did you see his eyes? Those eyes did not see. I have seen eyes like that before. When we hunt, when we drive an animal away from its herd, when it knows it cannot flee our spears, you can see death in its eyes. This man had dead eyes.”

God-Speaker walked over to them.

“The god has spoken to me. There are many evil spirits in this land. We must pass them to reach a safe place again. It may be that this stranger was used by evil spirits, a spear thrown by hunters.”

God-Speaker looked at their faces. Some seemed to understand what he said. Others looked unsure. He wondered if he should pretend to be more certain about the strange and mysterious matters of spirits. Makes-Medicine always spoke with great authority.

“Makes-Medicine has a strong spirit. We must help her as she goes to the spirit world. She will watch over us and keep the evil spirits at bay. We will give her to the river, as she said.”

Braves-the-Storm nodded, as did several of the others. Even in death, her authority would not be questioned. Everyone set to work. Some finished preparing for the journey. Others wrapped her in fishing nets weighted with heavy rocks.

God-Speaker searched the small hide pouches and bags Makes-Medicine had prepared for the journey, finding the ingredients for the ritual. He laid her flat on her back, unable to look at her staring eyes. He marked her skin with color and placed herbs in a small pouch, tied round her neck by a leather cord.

He made a small fire, lighting it with coals from one of the still-smoldering morning fires, and set the stone god before it. Makes-Medicine was arranged, facing up with arms bound at her sides, between the fire and the river, head toward the water.

God-Speaker spoke the words, only faltering once. He had heard them only a few times, at other death ceremonies, and in bits and pieces from Makes-Medicine. The full ritual could not be practiced. It could only be performed when the tribe wanted the full attention of friendly spirits to guide one of their own to the spirit world.

God-Speaker moved to her head and disrobed. The four strongest hunters stepped forward and removed their furred wraps as well, taking positions at her bound arms and feet. They lifted her together, and slid her into the river, guiding her into the deepest waters. The rocks would weigh the corpse down, but it would still be pulled along by the current. Her body would sink into the river mud. It would bind her to the river.

They came out, shivering, and took places squatting around the fire. God-Speaker faced the stone god.

“Spirit of earth, god of the people, you have chosen us. Gather the other spirits and guide Makes-Medicine to the spirit world. Protect us on our journey. Makes-Medicine, spirit of the river, protect us.”

God-Speaker threw dried herbs on the fire. They crackled and popped, sending fierce sparks and smoke into the air with a cloying sweet smell.

God-Speaker and the hunters wrapped themselves in furs once more. He made a thick paste of ashes and water, closed the eyes of the dead stranger, and covered his face in the mixture, to close the eyes, mouth, nose and ears. Then all the people piled large rocks over the body to protect it from scavengers. Better that any evil remain there, sealed away.

Finally, God-Speaker placed the stone god inside its carrier and hauled it onto his back. He put his own bag over his other shoulder, along with the bag of smaller pouches that had belonged to Makes-Medicine.

God-Speaker studied the faces of the people around him. They were grim and determined.

In all the horror of the day, there was one thing for which he was grateful. Makes-Medicine had given him a path to follow. She was bound to the river. If they spoke of who she had been, she would be Makes-Medicine, but if they spoke of her now, she was River Spirit. They would follow her and trust in her protection as far as she would take them.

The people walked along the stream through the valley and down into the gravel-strewn gully that would take them to the roots of the mountains. The homes where they had wintered were behind them. An uncertain future lay ahead.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 2.1

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

The sky shimmered with green and blue light, but the spirits refused to speak. Once again, God-Speaker wondered if he was suited to his new name. He sat for most of the night, wrapped in seal furs outside his pit house, listening and watching the sky. He slept little. When the first pink light touched the peaks of the mountains, he stood, knees stiff.

The pit house had a roof of branches, dry grass, and moss, bent over a shallow hole in the hard earth. God-Speaker crawled through the entry tunnel — the dip and turn that stopped the wind — to the room inside. Old coals still glowed at its center, a thin line of smoke rising to a small hole in the ceiling.

God-Speaker’s house was small. He had no mate to share it with. His things all fit in one bag. It was similar to what the others would carry: a waterproof seal hide with a leather strap. Along with food, a spear, hides, and a few stone tools, he had herbs, paints, and other tools of magic.

He slung another, empty bag over the other shoulder. He would carry less of the tribe’s supplies than others, but he would carry a heavier weight: the stone god.

It took only a few minutes to pack everything and be ready to leave the winter settlement. When he came out into the cold morning air, it was brighter and others were awake. They ate dried fish, meat or berries; tended their fires; and packed their own things for the upcoming journey.

God-Speaker took a few small bites of smoked salmon as he walked among the pit houses. His stomach churned.

The valley followed a river running between two snowy peaks. The gurgling sound and clean smell of water permeated the little village. The river was deep, and though it had turned icy and shrunk during the winter, it had never frozen or dried up completely. The houses were dug into a flat area of hard earth that led down to the water. God-Speaker walked away from the river, toward a steep, gravel-strewn wall of striped rock on the far side of the houses.

At the end of the little cluster of houses was another house so small that only one person could live there. This was the house of Makes-Medicine, oldest and wisest of their people; shaman and herbalist. She had her own special pouches of herbs and tools to pack, but God-Speaker knew she had risen early as well. Whenever the group traveled, she would look for signs from the spirits, and prepare magic to aid them on their journey. She had built a fire in a shallow hole outside her house and was prodding it with a stick.

“Are you ready?” she asked him, without looking up.

He took a deep breath. He was proud to carry the god, but also nervous.

“Today, you will be God-Speaker and God-Carrier to the tribe,” she said. “I will name you to the spirits before we set out.”

Their people had many names as they grew older. Each person was named soon after birth, for a physical feature, a personality trait, or the hopes that the tribe had for them. As they grew, they acquired new names by their actions. Names were given by the other members of the tribe, but it was good to offer those names to the spirits of the world around them. The spirits were powerful and mysterious. If they recognized the people by their actions, friendly spirits might help them and keep them safe.

God-Speaker was unusual. While men were often hunters and protectors, it was not common for them to be shamans. Women seemed to be more adept with the herbs, potions, and paints. More importantly, they were more likely to hear the spirits. Makes-Medicine often heard the spirits in dreams, but she had told him that others witnessed the spirits in other ways.

God-Speaker had earned his name before the winter set in, by finding the stone god and the place for the village. A voice had called out to him, a voice that nobody else could hear, leading him to a shallow place in the river right before a waterfall. There, sitting on top the other rocks, was the stone god. After that he heard the voices of spirits almost daily.

God-Speaker still wasn’t used to the whispers he heard from the god, and from spirits he couldn’t yet name. They had led him past the waterfall, down to the green valley where his people had spent the winter, and to the cave.

God-Speaker left Makes-Medicine and walked to the sheer rock face. It looked as though a long line of earth had heaved up, making a wall of layered, crumbling stone. A jagged crack split the face from the ground to its upper ridge. God-Speaker squeezed himself sideways into the crack, into the cold darkness. The spring sun was warming the world outside, but it was still winter in the earth.

The crack bent and turned. God-Speaker took his bags off his shoulders, crouched, and pressed through. Beyond the tight entryway was a little chamber. The crack opened up into a low room with a shelf of broken rock at one end. Sharp shards crunched under his feet. On the shelf, surrounded by little offerings of flowers and food, was the god.

It was oblong, with a flat, neckless head. Thick arms and legs wrapped around the huge belly. He had accentuated its features by careful chipping, bringing out the eyes and clawed hands and feet. It was a strange form, a little like the people, and a little like the animals they hunted. Makes-Medicine told him this was how the spirits were: they took whatever forms suited them, and shaped the world in their image.

God-Speaker had to crawl on hands and knees to enter the space, carefully avoiding the sharp rocks. He bent his head low and spoke to the spirit of the rock, in the way that Makes-Medicine had shown him.

“The people must continue our journey today,” he said. “We ask the god of the earth to speak to us. Lead us to safe places. Lead us to food and shelter. The people will give you many good things.”

The god made no response. It was often silent, and would speak to him in its own, mysterious, time.

From his bag, he took several little pouches. Each pouch had a different color of powder prepared by Makes-Medicine. There were orange-red and white powders made by pounding certain river rocks, yellow and bluish-purple from dried flowers, and a dark green paste made from fresh grass and caribou fat.

God-Speaker rubbed the colors into the pitted surface of the stone god. The white of the eyes and the predatory claws. The green of the fertile earth on the body. The yellow of the life-giving sun on the head. The purple-blue of defeated winter ice on the soles of the feet.

With the god suitably honored and prepared, God-Speaker gently placed it into the bag that he had made for it and pulled the rawhide drawstring closed.

God-Speaker heard whispering from the bag, like the sound of leaves in the wind. He opened it. The god spoke to him, though he did not understand how he understood the meaning of the sound. It spoke to him of the journey, of crossing the river and leaving the valley, and of following the rising sun.

The tribe had followed the rising sun for years, searching for a place where the sun was strong enough to hold back the great ice. Searching for a place with more abundant plants and game, and fewer people to hunt the animals.

The whispers continued, and the cave became colder. The journey would be hard. Harder than it had been so far. The blood of the people would be poured out, and the earth would drink it. The people would be tested. God-Speaker would be tested.

The whispers faded, but God-Speaker heard another noise. There was shouting outside the cave.

God-Speaker left the god on the shelf. He squeezed his way back through the crack as quickly as he could. He came out of the cold earth, scraping his shoulder on a sharp edge as he did.

The people were coming out of their pit houses, running toward the noise, which was coming from Makes-Medicine’s house.

A stranger stood there. God-Speaker stopped in shock. It was once rare to meet other tribes, but they were more and more common. Others were also looking for warmer, more hospitable lands. They were not the only ones struggling to find the food to feed everyone.

Still, this stranger was alone, and that was unusual. Nobody could live very long on their own. His tangled hair was a reddish-brown that shone in the sun, unlike the black hair of God-Speaker’s people. He looked sick and starved, his skin taut over the bones of his arms and legs, his ribs showing and his belly round. His eyes were open too wide, bright against his dirty face.

In one hand, he held a stone hand-axe. Something wet hung from it, dripping onto a crumpled shape. It was Makes-Medicine on the ground.

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Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 1

Welcome to the Chapter One development journal. For these journals I’m going to talk about what I worked on in a given chapter of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. These journals will be spoiler-free, as long as you’re caught up with the latest chapter.

If you want to check out my pre-production journals (which are definitely not spoiler-free) or the book itself, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

So Much Prep

Sometimes I envy exploratory writers. They just jump right into writing the story, feeling it out as they go along. But then, I remember my days as an exploratory writer, and the pain of half-done books that just didn’t seem to go anywhere, or the sudden realization that I needed to throw away and rewrite a whole slew of chapters, and once again I accept my fate as an outliner and planner.

I spent a lot of time in pre-production on Razor Mountain. Close to a year. Part of that was figuring out things like how to write a book description or create a book cover, since I’ve never self-published before. Most of it, however, was extensive outlining.

I knew that this was going to be a serial, and I was going to be writing chapters and publishing them without waiting for the whole book to be done first. That means no opportunity for big rewrites or even adjustments that span multiple chapters. I already outline to try to avoid that sort of thing, and the scariness of publishing as I wrote drove me to outline in even more detail than I typically would.

I have also never documented my process in nearly as much detail as I have in these development journals. A side-effect has been that I am much more aware of what I’m doing every step of the way, and just how long I’m spending on it. It’s easy to let things slide when I’m just typing in my little corner of the basement, with nobody watching.

Now I’m aware that I have an audience (however small). I try to be as honest as possible in these journals, but I do sometimes think about whether I’m going to be boring my readers when I’m really slow to make progress. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t affect me a little.

So, of course it’s exciting to be releasing the new thing. Even if it is a little nerve-wracking too.

Starting the New Thing

Anyone who outlines knows that weird feeling of finally starting to write the book after spending ages just outlining. It’s a very different set of skills. I’m always mildly irritated by my own writing in the first draft, and doubly so in this first chapter.

It’s almost a trope at this point, but the best way to deal with a first draft, at least for me, is to just power through. I have my outline and I know what happens. I just need to write it. I can come back later and worry about finding the right words.

While I was writing the first draft of this chapter, I got bogged down in research several times. It made me wonder if I should have spent yet more time in pre-production on research. But again, at some point you have to stop preparing and start doing, if you want to actually get something done.

Researching Planes and Falling to Your Death

Christopher is flying in rural Alaska, where towns and villages range from tens to a few hundred people. Most of them are inaccessible by road, and since traffic is so light, these flights run small aircraft.

I researched a variety of small aircraft that are used commercially. The Beechcraft King Air seemed like a great example. It’s been in production for decades and is often used for this kind of smaller flight. There are a variety of different models, with capacities around 5-16 people. I give myself some room to be vague here by not specifying exactly where Christopher is flying to, and since he doesn’t know anything about aircraft, it’s reasonable that he doesn’t know exactly what kind of plane he’s flying in. I use this leeway to fudge a few details, taking attributes from several different small aircraft.

I searched for images of the interior, the exterior, the cockpit, and diagrams of the layout. I wanted an idea of how much space you’d have, sitting inside one of these. Where would you put your luggage? Where are the interior lights? What do the controls look like? Where are the doors? The bathroom? That sort of thing. One of the best resources I found were actually websites that list small plane sales, because they post galleries of interior and exterior pictures to show off the planes for sale.

Some details that caught me by surprise, having never ridden in a plane like this, is that they often have pairs of seats back-to-back, so one faces forward and one faces backward. They also may have no bathroom, or a “bathroom” that amounts to a toilet with a privacy curtain.

Action and Feeling

One of the challenges in this first chapter was to perform a little bit of build-up and introduce the situation as Christopher realizes how wrong everything is. Once I get to the point where Christopher has realized the trouble he is in, and he’s flying the plane, getting frantic, and preparing to jump, it all gets more exciting to me. I tried to focus on Christopher’s emotion and what he was feeling.

I was worried about researching the plane layout and how it flies, as well as the mechanics of falling a long ways into water without dying. Ultimately, this is all set dressing. What is really going to make or break the chapter is getting across what it feels like to be Christopher in this crazy situation.

Revision

The first draft of the chapter ended up being longer than I expected: just over 5000 words. (Usually my chapters skew on the shorter side.) I felt a lot better about it as I wrapped it up than I did when I was in the first 1-2000 words. I felt like I had a much better idea of what I wanted this chapter to be.

This is the introduction to Christopher. I work in hints of his back-story and bits of personality, although the focus is on action and feeling. By getting inside his head during these dramatic events, I can start to build a bond between the reader and Christopher. Hopefully. It’s always hard to tell if you’re pulling off the magic trick until you see how the audience reacts.

Because this is the start of the book, I spent a lot of time working on the first page and the hook in particular. I think it’s wise to make the first page the most polished part of any book.

It’s a little unfortunate that I’m starting with the trope of the main character waking up, but I do think it makes sense in this context (and as the book goes on). The opening ties into several events that will happen later on, so I wanted to set up everything I needed to make those links.

Using Multiple Services

At this point, I’ve been blogging long enough to be fairly comfortable with WordPress. It has its irritations and inconsistencies, but for the most part, it stays out of your way.

When I started uploading the first chapter to Wattpad and Tapas, I immediately felt ill-prepared. It turns out to be slightly annoying.

Firstly, I had to deal with formatting. I’ve been using something close to standard manuscript format in Scrivener, but for publishing online I needed to convert to no tabs, and space between paragraphs.

Secondly, Wattpad doesn’t let me schedule an episode for release. I can save a draft, but I have to manually push a button to send it out into the world. As a software developer who has spent years automating repetitive processes like this, it’s an affront. Every post I’ve published on this blog for the past year has been written in advance and scheduled. Tapas and WordPress let me schedule posts. Why doesn’t Wattpad?

Tapas has its own oddities, however. It only lets you schedule posts in PST. Why? It’s not complicated to shift the time zone a few hours in my head, but still, I’m confident I’ll screw this up at least once over the course of publishing the whole book.

Onward

While it felt like a lot of work to do the initial setup, I got it all up and running. Now I just need a few chapters to get used to the process of publishing across multiple platforms each week, and do it efficiently.

See you next week, for Chapter Two.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 1.3

Blackness swallowed the orange light. It pulsed red with his heartbeat. The plane had crashed in a fiery cataclysm, and it had somehow engulfed him. He felt nothing. His muscles refused to respond. He was dead. A ghost. Or some remnant that soon would be.

A moment passed. Another. Feeling came back to him: pressure pushing from every direction, crushing inward. His vision was blurry and stinging. Recovering from the immediate shock that had forced the air from his lungs, he instinctively sucked in a breath and found himself choking.

It came to him, as he struggled for air, that the thunderous pain he had felt was his body hitting the water. The explosion of the plane only happened to coincide. The darkness lightened in faint increments. Christopher wondered how many miles he had plunged beneath the surface of the water.

Like everything else, breaching the surface came as a complete surprise to Christopher. The cold air needled his face. He coughed out an unbelievable amount of water, trying desperately to hold his mouth above the surface. Just as he thought he might have gotten most of it out, he went under again for a moment, sucking in a fresh mouthful that led to another round of gagging and coughing.

He finally managed a few quick, shuddering breaths of freezing air. It felt like breathing electricity. It arced down his limbs, into his fingers and toes. Everywhere it touched, fresh pain blossomed into his body. The pulsing black-redness encroached on his vision again and he had to fight it back.

His thoughts had been sluggish on the plane, even under the terror of his situation. The strange disassociation between body and mind had somehow gotten him this far. Now, with the impact of the water and the cold electricity suffusing him, he was fully awake for the first time.

He could breathe. He could swim. His body hurt all over, but there was an entirely different level of pain shooting up his right leg. With his newfound awareness, he knew that the water and the air were too cold. Though it was ostensibly early autumn, winter had clearly started seeping up into these Alaskan mountain valleys.

Whatever rational part of his brain had been guiding him up to this point, it was gone now. All that was left was the eerie sound of the water lapping all around him. Christopher didn’t need a guiding voice to tell him that he had to find shore as quickly as possible.

He pushed his leaden limbs through the water. It was like swimming through molasses. He was not a strong swimmer — God, how he knew he was not a strong swimmer — but he managed a fumbling breast stroke. Here and there, his hands shattered thin sheets of ice on the surface.

This wasn’t the first time he had found himself frantically swimming toward shore. As a child, he had once gone too far out, not fully understanding the differences between lake and ocean. In that case, he had been rescued. He had been a child, but uninjured. Now, he knew there would be no one bringing him to shore. He was grown, but might very well have broken the bones in his legs.

It took so much concentration to simply keep pushing forward that he didn’t notice the shore until it was close. He looked up, trying to muster the energy to continue, and saw a rocky shoreline. The sheets of millimeter-thin ice were smashed and piled up along the rocks under tufts of scrubby grass. Boulders loomed on the slopes beyond, which rose to a stone shelf some fifteen feet high.

Christopher redoubled his efforts, managing to cover more than half the distance before he had to pause again. Despite the intense exercise, he was shivering uncontrollably. He clenched his teeth to stop them chattering. He let his legs sink under him, stretching his toes and discovering that he could just barely touch the lake bottom. He took a few deep breaths and paddled forward.

His strength gave out with little warning, and he suddenly had trouble holding his head above the surface. As he went under, he scrabbled with his feet and found the bottom once more. It was shallower, enough that he could stand with his head tilted and barely keep his mouth above water.

His right leg was in bad shape. He had to push off the bottom with his left. Even a small amount of pressure on the right was excruciating. He fought the urge to reach down and check for protruding bone. He couldn’t pull his knee up anyway.

Pushing with his leg was faster than swimming, at least until the shallows where he had to stand. He took a moment to confirm that there were no jutting bones and nothing was horribly twisted. He tried to put all his weight on his left leg, but it was still too much strain on his right. He got halfway up before it gave out and he splashed down onto his right hip. The pain was a white sheet that covered him. He couldn’t see or feel anything beyond it. He couldn’t tell how much time passed before he was aware of himself again.

Unable to stand, he crawled through the shallows. This was no sandy beach. The lake bottom was covered in smooth-worn lake rocks, with occasional sharp bits that had tumbled down the slopes more recently. Christopher had little feeling in his fingers and suspected they would be torn up by the time he reached shore.

The final gauntlet the lake placed in front of him was five feet of rough gravel beach caked with razor shards of thin surface ice. He crunched through it painfully.

He looked up from his ground-level drama to find the nearest tree. It was a gnarled pine with clumps of finger-length needles. He set this as his target and continued crawling into the crispy, freeze-dried scrub grass. He was shaking with fatigue and pain now, as well as cold. Harsh wind sucked heat from his wet body. His clothes were already stiffening.

The lowest branches of the tree were five feet up the trunk. Christopher propped himself onto his left knee and grasped the deep crevices between chunks of bark. Finally hauling himself into a standing position, he kept his weight on one leg, hugging the trunk while he caught his breath.

It was incredible that he had survived all of this. The jump from the plane. The swim to the shore. The sort of thing they’d write about in world record books, or at least one of those “Strange, But True” articles. Really a shame then, that he would die of hypothermia after all that.

He thought he felt his shivering subsiding, though the creeping numbness made it difficult to tell. He knew that was the beginning of the end. Shivering meant the body was at least fighting for warmth. When it gave up the fight, you were really in trouble.

Now that he was on his feet, he wondered what good it would do him with one good leg. He probably wasn’t thinking clearly anymore. He probably hadn’t been thinking clearly at any point in this debacle.

He managed to move a few feet with a couple awkward hops, from the gnarled pine to the slanted rock face. He could see a deeper shadow among the rocks, an indentation in the side of the cliff that might offer some small shelter from the wind.

It was a little easier hopping along the wall, his left hand steadying him. The rock had fractured in fist-sized chunks, leaving plenty of handholds. He had to stop to breathe and recover from the pain between hops. Time was something theoretical to him now, not actually felt in any meaningful way. He had never been so exhausted. This, he thought, is what it feels like when all energy leaves the body. This is what it feels like to die.

The alcove in the rock, as it turned out, was deeper than he expected. It was more like a shallow cave. As he hopped inside, he found that he didn’t feel cold anymore. Probably the hypothermia, more than being out of the wind.

The little cave was the size and rough shape of a doorway, but it still came as a surprise to Christopher when he found a door set into the rock a couple feet inside. It was a very sturdy-looking gray metal door with dime-sized rivets around its perimeter. A thin strip of glass was embedded at eye-level, but it was covered with grime and frost. Christopher could see nothing but darkness behind it.

The door had a large handle embedded near the center, clearly intended to rotate. It was not dissimilar to the one Christopher had used to open the airplane door. A perfectly flat strip of rock had been cut away along the right side of the door, and embedded into this was a small box with little metal buttons bearing numbers from zero to nine.

“This must be the hallucination part,” Christopher whispered to himself. He normally made an effort not to talk to himself, but it hardly seemed worth it at this point. He jabbed a finger at the keypad, firmly pressing the “5” key in the middle. It depressed with a satisfying click, a bit like dialing an old pay phone. There was no readout or any other indication of the key he had pressed.
“The password isn’t ‘five’ then,” he muttered.

He was having a hard time keeping his eyes open. Even leaning against the door, he was barely able to stay upright on his one decent leg. Still, it felt right to make at least one attempt at the code before sliding into oblivion.

He decided that the code to his garage keypad was as good a guess as any. It was his birthday.

111183.

That was what he decided. Apparently his fingers had different plans. He was wavering. He observed that the code he entered was not the code to his garage keypad. It was not his birthday.

122, he observed.

199 followed.

There was the deep hiss of oiled metal on metal, followed by a surprisingly loud thunk behind the door. Christopher grasped the long handle with both hands and pulled. It held firm.

Good attempt, Christopher thought. “A” for effort.

A thick crust of dirt or ice broke free at the point where the handle connected to its axle, embedded in the door. The resistance gave way, and Christopher’s shoulder slid. The handle groaned, shedding the last of the caked-on gunk, and the handle rotated home, landing at the opposite end of its arc with another solid thump.

The door immediately swung open on huge, silent hinges. Christopher followed it, sliding, then falling. He landed, again, on his injured hip, but the pain was muffled in his fading consciousness. It was happening, but so far away. He rolled to his final resting position, on his back on some sort of smooth, warm floor.

The doorway was embedded a half-step up the wall, so that the door banged fully open, then ponderously swung over him, back the way it came. It blocked the faint light of the stars and moon beyond.

On the floor, in the utter blackness, there was nothing left to do. No more shore to find, no more tree to crawl to, no more strange doors or number pads. Christopher could stop. He could rest. He let go, and sank down, deep into the darkness.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 1.2

Christopher sat in the pilot’s seat. He still felt like a passenger, panic-stricken and helpless while his body seemed to act of its own accord. There was some part of him that knew what it was doing. A part he wasn’t familiar with. A part that took in the situation without emotion and formulated a plan.

The lights and screens in front of Christopher flickered and died. He had touched nothing. The noise of the engines changed timbre, then cut out entirely, leaving only the roar of the wind.

He looked for landmarks through the windows. If he was anywhere close to his original destination, the only human habitation this far north would be small towns and villages. He didn’t see any lights on the ground.

Tentatively, he gripped the flight stick. This felt like a point of no return. He knew nothing about the plane, but it had apparently been flying itself. Was there an autopilot? In any case, he was introducing his own control into the equation. Whatever happened next, good or bad, would be his own fault.

The plane was going to crash. That was an inescapable fact. He probably couldn’t land a plane under the best conditions. Were there parachutes? He didn’t know where they would be.

A crash would almost certainly kill him. People survived plane crashes sometimes, but it was all down to luck. Would it be better to jump? Avoid the crash altogether? Without a parachute, he’d be splattered across some mountainside.

People jumped out of planes in action movies. They’d jump an absurdly long distance, land in water, and be running and gunning a scene later. Of course, that wasn’t real life. Still, real people jumped long distances into water. Cliff divers. Olympic divers.

He tried turning the plane, ever so slightly to the left. His instinct told him that he would have to really muscle the yoke, but it was actually a lot like driving a car. The plane slowly banked to the left. The nose nudged forward as well, and Christopher had to pull back to keep it level.

It was eerily quiet without the sound of the engines, leaving only the noise of the wind across the outside of the craft.
Christopher continued to bank gradually left, afraid that any attempt at a tighter turn would send the craft spinning out of control. He squinted into the dark landscape below, looking for the telltale glint of moonlight on water. All he saw was a shadowy mix of pines and rocky ridges.

When he finally saw water, he immediately realized he had two major problems. First, it was difficult to tell exactly where the water was. A glint here or there didn’t tell him how big the body of water was, or where the shore was. Second, he was very high, moving very fast. He didn’t know how big the waves on a placid mountain lake might be, but they were barely pinpricks of light from his vantage.

He tried to hold the plane in a wide, lazy spiral, in hopes of slowly descending while keeping the lake in view. The plane felt sluggish, and Christopher quickly discovered that his own internal sense of balance was fighting him up in the air. There was no flat horizon for reference. He was surrounded by jagged peaks, indistinct against the clouded sky. He felt the plane accelerating, nose too far forward, but when he pulled back to compensate, he had the sudden sensation that the nose was far too high, headed toward a catastrophic stall.

Christopher felt panic reaching up from his stomach into his chest. He he had been holding his breath, and his teeth hurt from clenching. He had no training. There was no way he could keep the plane level, and it was even more far-fetched that he’d be able to manage a nice spiral down to the water.

Instead, he turned the plane until the moon was more or less behind him, then tipped the nose down. He thought the water was beneath and perhaps behind him now. The plane was descending fast. The trees below, still indistinct, felt uncomfortably close. Facing the nearby mountains, snow-dusted ridges aglow in the moonlight, he realized that he was now below the tops of the larger peaks. If he kept going, he would crash head-on.

He continued in the same direction as long as he dared, feeling like he could vomit at any moment. He could only guess at the distances. Finally, he began to turn. He kept the nose of the plane slightly down, and felt the pressure of the g-forces before he realized he was in a much tighter turn than before. The entire airplane shook.

“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” Christopher said under his breath, yanking the control back the other direction. Now the nose was too high. Christopher could see stars peaking through the clouds, directly ahead. He couldn’t see the ground.

His mind was blank with fear. He had no idea how to control this thing. He was going to die.

At that moment, an overwhelming sense of detachment hit him. He felt his adrenaline-soaked body, but it was like a machine he was driving — one step removed from him. Likewise, his panicked thoughts were muffled, like someone was shouting in a room down the hall.

That other part of Christopher, detached from the emotion and the bodily chemicals, guided him. Look for the moon. Aim toward it. Find the moonlight on the water as you approach.

It wasn’t like talking to himself, where he was really carrying both sides of a conversation. This felt more like some internal filter had shut down. Like a door had opened in his chest, allowing these instructions in his guts to make their way up to his brain.

Wherever the instructions came from, they had a better grip on the situation than he did, so he did his best to follow them. With the nose of the aircraft already too high in the sky, it wasn’t hard to find the moon, still some 45 degrees to his left. He stopped fighting the controls and let the plane continue its too-tight bank toward the moonlight. He did his best to tip the nose back toward the earth.

The moon moved toward the center of the windshield, then continued past, still accelerating. Christopher pulled back slowly, still keeping the nose down. He nearly fell out of the seat. The plane shook so hard he thought it might break in half. The moon was high and at an angle now, but coming back in the right direction.

The clouds around the moon parted, imparting fresh light on the landscape, and Christopher became aware of a ridge as the plane was passing over it. It could have been five feet below, or fifty.

He didn’t see the glint of the moon on the water until it was already beneath the plane. How big was the lake? Was it too late now? Wasn’t he still too high up?

It doesn’t matter, the internal voice told him. There was no way he could bring the plane around again, and even if he could, the moon would be behind him and it would be nearly impossible to see the water. It wouldn’t matter how high he was.
Jump now, and there’s a chance. Wait, and there isn’t.

Christopher forced himself to let go of the controls, jumped out of the seat and tried to run down the narrow aisle between seats. He misjudged how tilted the plane was, and veered hard into a seat, knocking the breath out of him.

He continued down the aisle, struggling to breathe, grabbing the chair backs and pulling himself more than walking. The nose of the plane was plunging now. He reached the back of the plane, the rearmost seat quickly becoming a ledge that held him on a steepening slope. His backpack and the other luggage strained at the netting that held them. There would be no time to extricate anything.

Christopher half-crawled, half-climbed the rear seat to reach the doorway. It had a lever slightly inset, with a helpful red arrow painted beneath. He pulled it in the indicated direction with a satisfying “thunk.” It barely opened, thrumming in the wind.

Christopher had expected it to slam open or even be torn off, but the door faced the wrong direction — the airflow was holding it closed. He gave it a shove, but was only able to move it an inch or two before it slammed back.

He found a foothold in the metal connections between the seat and the floor, pressed his back and shoulder against the door, and pushed. The handle dug into his back. The door gave a few inches, and he held it, trying to push hard enough to lock his knees. The gap was wide enough to force an arm through. He took a deep breath and shoved again, trying to force his upper body through. As the roaring wind whipped at his hair, he tried not to imagine what would happen if the door slammed shut with his head in it.

Squirming and shoving, Christopher forced his upper body through the door and became intensely aware that he was hanging out of a plane. The clawing fear in his chest tried to reassert itself, but the calm calculation that was driving him left no room for doubt.

What he was doing was insane. He would probably die. But the alternative was to definitely die. There was no time, and there was no room for argument.

He pushed with arms and legs, the metal door scraping his back and stomach and tearing the hem of his shirt. He felt a button pop, and then, as though that were the last thing holding him in, he slid out of the aircraft and into the night sky.

He tumbled violently end-over-end, first screaming and then vomiting into the cold night air. He wanted to curl into a ball, to hide from the wind that tore at him, but that quiet internal voice told him he needed to stabilize and orient himself. He flung his arms and legs out wide, centrifugal force aiding him against the wind, his tumble slowing to a ponderous pirouette.

A shoe tumbled past. It was his own, pulled off his foot as he slid through the plane door.

There was a sudden flash of light, an instant sunrise, followed a fraction of a second later by a shockwave of heat and noise. Christopher had just enough time to register a fireball outlining trees and rocks in searing light, and pull his limbs in before he was engulfed in pain.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 1.1

The cave was night-dark and claustrophobic, crowded with indistinct shapes. Christopher struggled to identify his surroundings through eyes bleary with sleep. All around him was loud buzzing; it permeated his body. He pressed his palms to his eyes and breathed deep, trying to clear his head.

His surroundings were shadowy, but Christopher could make more sense of the shapes around him as he blinked away his grogginess. The hunched shapes were seats. He fumbled around, felt the thin padding beneath and behind him, felt the armrests.

Christopher’s perception shifted and he understood what he was seeing. Not a cave; an airplane cabin. Why had he thought it was a cave? Moonlight illuminated the small, round windows. The prop engines buzzed. Now that he was paying attention, Christopher could feel their vibration through his seat.

He tried again to blink away the sleepiness that clung like cobwebs. Even when he had pulled all-nighters in college, he hadn’t felt this brain-dead. This was worse than a hangover.

The other salespeople had warned him against sleeping on planes. Better to hold out and hit a new time zone running. They all had their little rituals and superstitions for effective travel. He had rolled his eyes, but it all seemed less absurd now, as his brain pounded against his skull.

He tried to stand and found himself still seat-belted. He fumbled the clasp open and got to his feet, immediately banging his head on the sloped ceiling above. For a moment, pain cut through the fog of his thoughts.

It was too dark in the passenger section of the little plane. Before he had dozed off, Christopher recalled little LEDs along the aisle floor between the seats, and recessed lights hidden in the seam between wall and ceiling. This little plane had pairs of seats back-to-back, and he was facing the tail. He had to turn around to face the front of the plane. There were only eight pairs of seats in the passenger area, and Christopher’s was in the middle.

The seats were all empty.

Christopher took a few tentative steps forward, sidling up the narrow aisle. Nobody was slouching or sleeping against the window. The seats were definitely empty. Hadn’t there been passengers on the plane with him?

He struggled to remember, stepping back toward his own seat. There were two pairs of seats ahead of him, and one pair behind. Beyond that was the tiny toilet that faced the boarding door, the privacy curtain open, the toilet unoccupied. What little space was left in the tail end was taken up by the luggage area, separated from the passengers by netting that attached to hooks along the walls, floor and ceiling. The netting was detached from several of the floor hooks. Christopher’s travel backpack lay on the other side, next to a black duffel bag and a large travel suitcase with a blue and green floral pattern. Those other bags weren’t his. They had to belong to someone.

He tried to think back to boarding the little plane in Anchorage. It felt like a long time ago. Christopher had never tried any drugs stronger than alcohol or coffee, but he wondered if this was what it might feel like. Like there was a gauzy separation between his sense of self and the thinking part of his brain.

There had been a person, a man, who had stepped onto the plane before him. Younger, Christopher thought. Dark hair, parted. Jeans and a brown sport coat. The coat stood out vividly. It was a very “70s TV professor” look that reminded Christopher vaguely of the suit his father had worn in old wedding photos.

There had been a middle-aged woman too. Older than Christopher, maybe in her forties? She had boarded after him and gone to one of the front seats. All he could picture of her was a tight bun of blond hair, loose wisps of gray at her temples.

Had they landed and taken off again, all while he slept? Wasn’t it a direct flight? He found his boarding pass in his pocket, but it was impossible to read the smudged text on the low-res picture of Alaskan mountains and forests. Why was it so dark?

In the curve where ceiling met wall above each seat, there were shapes and depressions. Christopher ran a hand along them, trying to find some button or control for the lights. He found what felt like a vent, and what might be a light in a sort of ball socket that allowed it to rotate. There was no control for the light, as far as he could tell.

The plane shuddered and lurched, forcing Christopher to grab on to the seat back. He froze as a thought meandered through the maze of his brain. He looked toward the front of the plane.

He had only ever flown on large commercial flights. He was used to thinking of the passenger area of the plane being a separate universe from the pilot’s cabin. He had vague memories of a time before 9/11 when kids could meet the pilot in the middle of a flight and the cockpit was wide open and friendly, but all of his adult life, the doors to the front of any passenger plane had been locked like a vault.

On this little plane, however, there was only a curtain between the eight passenger seats and the two-seat cockpit of the plane. Christopher could ask the pilot to turn on the interior lights. He could ask what had happened to the other two passengers. He’d probably feel like a fool when the pilot explained the flight plan that was no doubt printed on his boarding pass.

He felt a heart-thumping trepidation sidling up the aisle toward the cockpit. He tried to think exactly what he wanted to ask the pilot. The plane lurched again, and Christopher fell forward. He tried to grab the faux-wooden partition that bordered the curtain, but missed and got tangled in the curtain itself.

The curtain was attached to a rail with metal rings, and there was a series of snaps as they tore away. The curtain slid to the side, and Christopher stumbled awkwardly against the partition, halfway into the cockpit, left arm still wrapped in the curtain.
The only light in the cockpit came from the glow of the instruments: panels of LEDs, switches, buttons, dials and levers, and three small monitors. They illuminated two empty seats.

Christopher stared at the myriad instruments for a moment. The monitors showed a little representation of the plane superimposed over lines that must be altitude or angle or something, and a crawling topographic map of mountainous terrain, overlaid with dozens of readouts, numbers, dials and graphs.

Christopher knew there were reasonable explanations for the missing passengers. He had no trouble coming up with potential explanations for that. When he saw the pilot’s seat empty, however, his mind stopped working for a moment. There was no explanation for Christopher being on a plane with no pilot.

He looked through the front windshield. They were definitely in the air. The moon was visible among wispy clouds, off to the left. The darkness below was rough and textured: pine forest and snowy rock. Glints of moonlight on water. The ground appeared worryingly close, but it was difficult to tell by the moonlight.

Christopher could feel his own heart, beating too fast in his chest. He heard his breathing over the buzz of the prop engines. He looked past the curtain, down the aisle to the luggage area at the back of the plane. He was incredibly alone.

The mental fog that had surrounded him since he woke now threatened to envelop him completely. He was numb. He was aware of his own hands shaking, but he couldn’t feel them. His body was something entirely disconnected from him.

He felt something else: a wordless voice, a stream of dispassionate information at the back of his head. It told him, with neither interest or judgment, that he needed to act immediately or he was going to die.

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Razor Mountain Development Journal #47

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

Last Time

I added and updated the fiction sections of the blog, and I set up Razor Mountain on Wattpad and Tapas.

Reminiscing Before The Starting Gun

Forty-seven weeks. That’s how long I’ve been working on Razor Mountain.

I brainstormed and researched. I outlined and outlined again. I created an author profile and a book description. I made a book cover. I wrote the first couple of chapters, revised them, sent them out for feedback, and revised some more.

As I did all that, I took you along for the ride and did my best to document the whole process in these journals. I hope you found it useful, or at least interesting, to follow along.

It’s been a long journey. The better part of a year, and about twice as long as I originally expected it would take. Now, everything is ready. Mostly. As it turns out, it always feels like there’s more I could do to prepare. I think a lot of writing is like that. You can always put in more time and eke out a little improvement. But at some point you hit diminishing returns and you’ve got to move forward.

This is the last pre-production journal. It’s time to publish, baby!

There’s Gonna Be Some Changes Round Here

I’ve settled into a comfy blog cadence:

  • Monday – A post about writing craft
  • Wednesday – A mini-post or reblog
  • Friday – A Razor Mountain development journal

Starting next week, I’m adding Razor Mountain episodes into the rotation. I’d like to post a chapter a week, but it will depend on how quickly I can write and polish them. I’ll also be splitting longer chapters into multiple “episodes,” since serial services (and readers) seem to prefer lots of smaller episodes.

I’ll still be writing these journals, but I’m going to switch to a journal per chapter instead of one per week like I’ve one up to now. I’m also going to continue writing my usual weekly post about craft.

The new schedule will look something like this:

  • Monday – A post about writing craft
  • Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday – One or more Razor Mountain episodes. Sometimes a mini-post or reblog.
  • Friday – A Razor Mountain development journal

Not too different. Just a little more nebulous around the middle of the week, and hopefully with even more content. I’m still keeping the weekends open, because I don’t like weekend deadlines, and because I generally see more traffic during the week anyway. Lots of you coming into the office on Monday and reading blogs. I see you.

Results

I did more little revisions on Chapter One and Two. Like picking a scab. I worked on Chapter Three. I figured out how I’m going to adjust the posting schedule to accommodate Razor Mountain episodes. And I vacillated between nervousness and excitement about publishing.