It’s weird and kinda wonderful. I’ve published four books: Disconnected, Barker, Ss, and now Riven. In past ages this wasn’t possible. In past ages, taking an idea from a loosely defined, barely-articulate concept to a realised artefact required:
- A lot more time
- A lot more effort
- A lot more money
- A lot more approval from gatekeepers
Fortunately, I don’t live in those past ages. I live now. The result? I’m able—with an unreasonably small investment of time, effort and money—to publish a book. Strange world (and one that I have to remind myself to appreciate). So let’s explore my own most recent instance of that journey. In order to maintain the tradition established with the post-project reviews of Barker and Ss, this PPR consists of three parts:
- Part One evaluates the process involved in making Riven a reality:
- Part Two evaluates the elements of Riven‘s story:
- Part Three is based on the structure of after action reviews. It’s three simple questions:
Let’s get to it.
Part One: The Writing Process
Below, I’ve conveyed the writing process linearly. Yet, as with other projects I’ve completed, Riven affirmed that the writing process is not linear. While it dances to the sequential rhythm dictated by the author, it also has an uncanny ability to disrupt the coherent, logical progressions that are desired.
I define the “preparation” stage of a project as everything prior to the decision to pursue a project in earnest. That doesn’t mean starting a project; it means deciding to finish it. Handily, this emphasis on deciding to finish instead of starting a project curtails the length of this section (lucky you).
My contact with contemplative practice began over a decade ago. I don’t know the original source but it was likely associated with the ideas around self-help-masquerading-as-philosophy that I was consuming. Think Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday.
At that time, I was working multiple jobs with irregular hours. This left me with free mornings practically every day of the week. I went through several periods of meditating every morning. I used Bhante Henepola Gunaratana and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work as guides.
I ended up being comfortable with longer sessions (thirty to sixty minutes), and experimenting with techniques beyond basic breath counting. Then my life began to change and I lost touch with the rhythm of regular contemplative practice.
Over the past year my relationship with contemplative practice has been revived. The emphasis for the past year—and probably until next year—is on plain ol’ adherence. I’ll tackle technique and skill development later. Currently, on weekdays I spend ten to twenty minutes going through the warm-up progression used by the main character in Riven:
- A couple rounds of Wim Hof breathing
- Box breathing until my time is up
At some point in this revival of my own contemplative practice I decided to tackle Riven and complete it. I’d already taken a couple stabs at catalysing the project but they all stalled. I believe I wrote the opening section and then stopped. Throughout last year I tried several times to prioritise the project. That failed. And then the end of the year came and I committed to completion. This was captured in last year’s Status of the Wholes:
“With my initial entry into the technological stack complete, however, I’ve also turned my attention to a creative project. Specifically, a new batch of short stories that began as a novella concept. I’m hoping to emulate the production velocity of Ss and I’m giving myself a few months to go from concept to draft to release.
In last year’s review I stated that I was “confident I will finish the novella by year’s end.” That didn’t pan out, and now the novella has been compressed into one of (currently) five short stories centred around a particular theme.
Looking forward to the coming year, I have similar intentions. I’m doubtful that there will be much public writing. I’m certain there will be much professional writing. And, if everything goes to plan, there will actually be an addition to my collection of published works.”
I initially selected Riven because I wanted a short story with an interesting constraint. I also wanted to try and communicate the notoriously incommunicable: someone’s experience as they observed and experienced their own thoughts.
At the close of 2021 I decided to try and achieve that.
Research / Ideation
Barker was a longer term project that involved a lot more research and thought, about both the abstract themes and their manifestation in the project. I spent time studying the Second World War, reading several biographies of Hitler, digging into alternative methods of education, and thinking about edge case outcomes of cancel culture’s integration with decentralised finance.
Ss was the opposite: short and with no deliberate research required to drive it forward. Ideation for the stories stopped at the edges of an A6 notebook.
Riven was closer to Ss than Barker. The main lift on the research side concerned retreat structures, locations and experiences. But even that ceased when I found a suitable inspirational location—Sharpham House‘s Kuti (which has since fallen victim to a fire). I had planned to stay at Sharpham House or go on a silent retreat, and experience a degree of what I intended to write about. That didn’t happen, in part due to Covid-19.
Where Riven differed from both Barker and Ss is its emphasis. The point was to see how I’d manage to write about a single person whom interacts with basically no-one and whom nothing really happens to.
As well as being a fun exercise from a writing perspective, it lightened the load on the research and ideation side. I didn’t have to go deep into multiple topics, nor spend weeks and months constructing fictional realities and rationales to situate the story in. As you’ll see when we get to the Elements section of this PPR, a deliberate minimalism was in operation.
With a suitable setting and a good-enough—though not thorough—idea of the terrain around retreats and general contemplative practice, I began to author.
I knew Riven would be a novella, which I pegged at totalling twenty thousand words. I decided that I wanted my retreatant to stay for five days. I also had a repeating daily structure, which gave me a way to parcel up each day into smaller pieces. And, this time, I tried explicitly and in advance to plot the valences of the beats. The valences here being both the subjective interpretation of the experience by the retreatant and the mood conveyed to the reader. I had a scale of:
With this, I imagined the shape of the retreatant’s experience at the level of the day. For example, arrival at the venue (which happened the evening before the official start of the retreat) and the first three days had the “average” valences of:
Part of this was pure speculation. I knew there had to be sufficient swings in values for it to be a viable story, so I built that in. But it was also based on microcosms of my own experience with solitude and the movements of the self that are so perpetual throughout it.
I propagated the valences of the days down to the “beats” of the story, and this—without recording any actual events within the story—gave me an outline. I then began to think about what each of those beats, in and of themselves, contained. The story itself being rather spurious and sparse I didn’t have great insight into what exactly was going to happen. I realised that I had only one way to find out.
The authoring continued.
I started, like I usually do, at the beginning. The opening sections of Riven were written rather arbitrarily. I hadn’t committed to finishing the project, like I described above, when I wrote the first section. I just had a free morning—a Saturday or Sunday, I don’t recall—and did it. I enjoyed the result and then proceeded not to return to it for several months.
That incubation period was, I think, impactful. I knew I would be returning to the project at some point. I was intent on finishing it. But the time I spent away from it likely allowed me to understand what I wanted to do with it, and why.
After the months-long estrangement—and the decision to complete—I picked Riven up once more, only to be hit by an obstacle. I persuaded myself, after writing a few more sections, that the story didn’t have the depth, the density, required to be a novella. I thought I’d gone too hard on the minimalism, on stripping away usually present elements of a story. So I tried transitioning to a short story collection.
The collection of shorts would be based on the theme of contemplation, so it would still include Riven. Except Riven would be one of five stories in total. Riven would be about an individual looking inwards. It would be accompanied by stories about:
- An individual looking outwards
- A collective looking inwards
- A collective looking outwards
The fifth story would be one containing all four categories of contemplation.
I contrived the following stories:
- Individual-in: a man going into the woods (Riven)
- Individual-out: a baby’s experience of being born
- Collective-in: a cabal workshopping a public-satisfying narrative about their exposed operations
- Collective-out: a detective agency pursuing a fugitive through multiple realms
- All quadrants: this stumped me…
The collection was to be titled, The Other Five Eyes, and feature some suitably dharmic, nested eyes on the cover.
However, after trying to take Riven through to completion for use in the short story collection I turned traitor. I realised that it could in fact function as a standalone work. And that is how I ended up not writing about a newborn baby’s first breath upon exiting the birth canal.
As I proceeded I didn’t manage to stick to the beats I’d outlined nor follow the valences I’d attached to them. I realised that coverage couldn’t be equally distributed across all the sections given the repeating structure inherent in the retreatant’s experience. Some sections would be longer and more detailed. Others would be covered with just a sentence, or even skipped entirely and (hopefully) assumed to have taken place regardless.
As I drafted, I zoomed out and ended up thinking in terms of “obligatory scenes“. However, as this wasn’t a traditional story I didn’t have ready-made scenes—protagonist confronts big bad and such—to slot in. So I thought about moments I thought it would be appropriate for the retreatant to have. Things like encountering features of the landscape, having episodes of exquisite highs and disillusioning lows. I made a list of one-line descriptions and worked these in.
Approaching the end of the story I was aware that the conclusion was somewhat feeble. As I penned the final sections I began to think about how to provide some extra oomph to the story. Eventually, I figured out a device and rapidly worked it into the story.
Of the three fictional works I’ve completed so far, Riven‘s conclusion had the most personal emotional impact on me. I’m sensitive, easily moved, but it’s less easy for me to physically exhibit that sensitivity and those strong emotions. Riven provoked a jarring, sorrowful response in me.
I finished the initial draft and took several minutes just to sit on the floor—perhaps inspired by the retreatant I’d been writing about—and let the emotions hit me. They passed and a satisfaction emerged. While I don’t think it’s always true, the feelings provoked by a story in its author act as a proxy for the emotions likely to be produced in a reader. I was pleased to have inflicted such sorrow on myself.
As a reminder, “macro-editing” is concerned with the structure of a story. The big blocks, the key pieces, their relationships and interaction. There were a few big macro changes that occurred within Riven.
After completing the draft, I worked through the manuscript once more and made a few alterations. Not many, however. I then distributed the book out to beta readers, most of whom were involved in earlier versions of Barker and provided valuable insight.
This time around—due to the focus of the story—I also wanted the equivalent of a subject matter expert to read the story. Early in the project, I’d reached out to David Collins and, happily, he’d agreed to give what I produced a read. He provided some invaluable comments—as well as some personal notes about his own experience with retreats—that shaped Riven.
I’ll avoid mapping major edits to their contributors here and instead list the bigger shifts that followed the round of beta reads and the input from David:
- Interactions with the retreatant after his retreat had begun were removed entirely. One or two were straight-up axed. Others were just sent to other parts of the story.
- I went heavy on metaphors and analogies initially. Multiple readers picked up on this, and I tried to dial it back, to focus on the descriptions and approaches that would most resonate.
- I also tried to remove anything that made the text seem too much like an instruction manual for contemplation, or a vehicle that carried my own personal philosophy into the mind of readers. I wanted a natural level of thought—from the mind of the retreatant—about method and meaning.
- I tried to emphasise the solitude inherent in the story, to communicate the retreatant’s distance from others.
There were other, line-specific comments that came up and I either heeded them or saw them as irrelevant in the light of larger re-works. But the above were the main focuses for me when I was re-writing parts of the story and thinking about it as a whole.
I began, at first, to treat macro-edits as distinct from micro-edits (what others would call copyediting, proofing and so on). But this turned out, for this project, to be clunky and inefficient. So I combined the two. I would select the next section and:
- Rewrite pieces based on pre-triaged beta reader comments and feedback
- Rewrite pieces that dealt with my own observations and chosen actions
- Plug the section into Autocrit and work through each section, making changes
- Re-submit the section to Autocrit, aiming for a high “score” (>90)
I did that for all the sections and then—after one final read-through from my partner—declared the manuscript “done”.
The remaining tasks were compilation of the supporting material. I’d envisioned this as being an essay—perhaps a preface—from someone well-schooled and experienced in contemplative practice, an afterword about my own perceptions of contemporary contemplative practice, and a reading list. However, I left the afterword and the essay till late in the project and decided to omit them entirely.
I wanted to move fast when it came to shipping.
First, because taking a finished manuscript and releasing it feels like the least fun part of the project for me. It’s still fun on an absolute scale. I enjoy having dictatorial control over the final product, just less fun than I do conceiving and authoring it.
Second, I’d begun a specialisation in data science a few months before (still ongoing) and I was struggling to parallel process a technical project and a creative project.
I decided to reproduce the internal structures I used for Barker and Ss, and go for a straight-up image as the cover. One Saturday—with multiple breaks—and a portion of a Sunday left me with digital and paperback manuscripts that I could submit and get approved via Kindle Direct Publishing.
- There was a cost to such expedited production. Some of the things that I didn’t get to do:
- Commission a high quality cover art (I had a strong sense for what I wanted)
- Configure distribution of Riven (and my other works) via Leanpub
- Solicit and include/produce impactful accompany essays (one from me, one external)
- Experiment with alternative internal structures and layouts
These were the big things that I avoided. I’ll push for them next time, though. But, overall, the shipping process was straightforward, simple, and (as always) surprisingly easy.
Part Two: The Elements
I’m unsure whether decomposing a story into five elements is an earth-quaking insight or an info-hazard. Sometimes, it feels like a cheat code for evaluating (and for conceiving and creating) stories. Other times, it feels absurdly reductive. I remain uncertain. It does provide a useful structure for post-project reviews, though, so I’ll continue to make use of it.
Authorial Intent (potency and purity of vision)
I helped myself out here. Early on in the project, I worked through the five elements and imposed some constraints. Under the banner of authorial intent I wrote to myself:
“Most stories have a significant web of characters in a dynamic world, experiencing, initiating and reacting to events. All of this is told in a particular style, with the actual creation motivated by specific authorial intent.
This is different.
Here there are four characters with simple relationships. Here there is a small, limited world. Here there are only standardised, simple and mundane events. The narration and intent are where the artistic/creative licence has the most room.
This is an exercise in minimal storytelling.”
I don’t think I can articulate my intent with Riven better than that. But as for its achievement? On that I feel torn.
I don’t think I can doubt the minimalism of the story. There’s a single primary character, with other characters playing minor roles, and only then entering into the story through the prism of the retreatant’s experience. Nothing much happens to the retreatant. There’s no inciting event, there’s no overt enemy to overcome, there’s no action sequences, no drama that leaves the character reeling. The world the story is situated in is contained, limited in scope, not really pointed to.
The only exception to the achievement of the desired minimalism of the story comes from the prose style, the narrative language employed. With more time—really, more patience—I would have tried to neutralise the language more. Make it simpler, more direct. However—and this is a difficulty I discovered whilst editing—simple words are limited in the richness they can convey.
This story’s subject matter was thought, emotion, intention, reflection, feeling. Simpler words are capable of conjuring—both more effectively and more reliably—a wider range of response in a reader to these things. The tradeoff is that the author loses some authority over what exactly gets invoked. I wanted to retain that to some degree, which resulted in the narration used being heavier, more complex, more rich than I envisioned in the beginning.
I’m satisfied with the tradeoff on the narration front because I think my intent with respect to character, world and events was achieved. Overall, I wanted to take a shot at portraying an individual’s experience of solitude, and of contemplative practice, in an engaging way. I think I managed to do that.
Character (the cast of beings)
For Riven I created spectacularly deep character profiles using this template:
- Letter-as-name (role, status)
The roles parcelled out were simple statements of their function in the story.
“Status” refers to ideas from Keith Johnstone’s Impro, in which he analyses character interactions based on the conflicts between their statuses.
For example, he talks about the effectiveness of certain master-servant duos being due to the differences and undulations in the pair’s status. I won’t try to explain this; it’s easier to understand when seen in action. Check out Laurel and Hardy (or refer to Tehol and Bugg‘s relationship in The Malazan Book of the Fallen). The characters included in Riven were allocated a status: high status, low status, variable. That was used to guide their actions, their thoughts, and—where appropriate—their interactions.
I don’t know where the decision to use single letters as names actually originated from. But I do know that it was driven by an observation of the power associated with names (one, two, three). I didn’t want to give reader’s imaginations anything so simple as a name to base their construction of the characters on. And it wasn’t as if I had hidden names for the characters in Riven. I thought of them as single letters myself. When multiple beta readers queried the absence of character names I felt unable to find adequate full names, names that could either:
- Capture the extent of the character
- Be arbitrary enough to avoid producing any bias or influence
Outside of those profiles, I had no notes on any of the characters to guide their roles and their reactions in the story. To use the academic term, I winged it.
World (the universe the cast inhabits)
As the world for Riven is small and self-contained, there wasn’t much room for worldbuilding nerdery. The need for world-nerding was also lessened by discovering Sharpham Trust. That gave me a solid foundation to build on top of.
The primary effort on the worldbuilding front concerned the hut and where it was embedded: the woodlands adjacent to the manor house Riven takes place in. The key features were the labyrinth and the hut itself, both of which revealed themselves as I wrote the relevant sections.
Other than that, there was little consideration for the world element required.
Events (what happens to the cast)
As described above, the events of Riven began as an undulating outline, were allocated minimal episodic descriptions, and quickly transformed into key moments stitched together by transitions. There were no big reveals, no climaxes.
For Riven, the shifts in the retreatants mindset were the closest thing to traditional fiction events, and these could not be too explicitly plotted and planned for. They had to be dealt with in situ, whilst writing.
Narration (how the above is described)
Narration, as an element, probably presented the trickiest challenge. It’s straightforward to omit other characters, scale back and limit worldbuilding, strip away events. Being a prose form, narration had to be present. The question was, “How would it manifest?”
As I’d outlined according to a scale of five valences, I thought it sensible to have an approach to narration that related to that. So I derived the following:
- ++ sections: the retreatant felt awakened; the narration would have a divine tone
- + sections: the retreatant felt content; the narration would have an optimistic tone
- 0 sections: the retreatant was simply being; the narration would have an apathetic tone
- – sections: the retreatant felt disillusioned; the narration would have a cynical tone
- — sections: the retreatant was suffering; the narration would have a despairing tone
As an exercise in how this may feel, I used a sample excerpt:
“G instructed me to sit with eyes closed and cultivate an experience of breath that is spacious, relaxed and bright. I have meditated with eyes open for twenty years. I find it easier to connect to the breath with eyes open. With eyes closed things feel dark, cramped and noisy. With eyes closed thoughts are more apt to distract.
I begin by alternating…”
I then refactored this section for each of the tones above. For example, here’s the sample reworked with a more “divine” tone:
“G commanded that I sit with eyes closed and feel the power of a vast, calm and warm breath. But I have sat with eyes open for two decades. For twenty years I have found an exalted state in this way. Eyes closed, I feel trapped, alone and under siege. Eyes closed, I am vulnerable.
I begin by alternating…”
And here’s the sample reworked with a “despairing” tone:
“G says I have to shut my eyes whilst meditating, look for a ‘divine’ breath. I’ve never done this, ever. I’ve always sat eyes open. It’s easier for me but what do I know? So what if when I close my eyes the world becomes a dark, cramped cacophony? I’m in G’s power now.
Coward that I am, I begin by alternating…”
As you can see, this was a difficult thing to do even to an isolated sample. I didn’t end up trying it for the full manuscript. However, I did try and remain aware of how, in episodes of solitude, the tone of observed movements of the self can vary dramatically, as can the sentiment of the commentary that inevitably lags behind it.
I tried my best to capture this in Riven, to provide a satisfactory variety that both captured undulations in the retreatant’s experience and managed to hold the reader’s attention in the absence of traditional character, world and event elements.
I think I succeeded, partially. Additional patience would have—as in other areas of the project—allowed me to execute more effectively, but so would have a greater technical skill and command of the written word.
Part Three: Three Questions
These questions, simple as they are, could lead to ground I’ve covered above. I’ll keep answers brief.
What was supposed to happen?
The rapid production of a novella, minimal in all elements and portraying a tricky, intensely personal and subjective experience of a man who goes into the woods.
What actually happened?
The less-than-rapid production of the intended novella.
What did I learn?
Several minor things. I’ll list four:
- Both technical and creative projects take longer, individually and collectively, when I pursue them in parallel (as opposed to sequentially).
- I enjoy the production of fiction—research/ideation, outlining, drafting, editing—more than I do the marketing (which is non-existent for this project) and the shipping.
- Finishing a project provides a significant, durable gain in energy that can be used to catalyse efforts in other directions and domains.
- Writing for people I care about and/or know is the most rewarding part of this entire process.
The major thing I learned as a result of this project concerns my own abilities. I’m fairly certain that I could go on producing small, self-contained works of fiction for a small audience indefinitely. Nothing about this project, from conception through execution and to release, presented a real block. I was not really, at any point, confounded.
As I’m not content to plateau this is a problem, and there’s two angles to it: imagination and nerve.
- Imagination: facilitating the emergence of world and event complexity
- Nerve: facilitating the emergence of character complexity
I think I displayed a decent level of imagination and nerve with Barker. Ss and Riven, with their harshly constrained scopes and deliberately shortened project timescales, meant that I couldn’t pursue bolder, more imaginative instances of the stories I was working on. That’ll have to change for my next creative project. If it doesn’t, there’s a risk I’ll get bored and be personally disengaged, and produce something that even the people who enjoy my fiction don’t like.
A Win in These Crazy Times
The latter observation about the imagination and nerve involved in my projects gives me something to work on next time. Essentially, it’s a prompt to try something unreasonably ambitious using different means than before. I have some ideas for what that could but but they need to incubate and ferment.
For now, looking back at Riven, I feel content. The gap between my intent and my accomplishment is, surprisingly, smaller than I expected. That is a win; a significant one in these crazy times. Here’s to there being more of them in the near- and far-future.