Gardners, Architects, and... Excavators?

Gardeners, Architects, and… Excavators?

Last night, Kari-Lise attended a conversation with Erin Morgenstern focused around the launch of her new novel, The Starless Sea. I didn’t go—had too much on my plate—but after chatting with her about it, I wish I had made the time. (Isn’t that always the case?)

Based on Kari-Lise’s recounting, during the conversation, Morgenstern hit on something that I strongly feel more writers need to hear. We’ve heard of the term “Gardeners,” authors who plant their stories as seeds and follow those seeds as they grow, and we’ve heard of the term “Architect,” writers who extensively plan their work and follow a tight outline. Both get mentioned all the time. However, Morgenstern doesn’t see herself as either and chooses instead to call herself an “Excavator.”

What that means is, like an archaeologist, she exhumes the story from a mass of writing. She allows herself to fully explore a narrative and then whittle it down in edits. She finds the story by writing and writing and writing. For example, she mentioned that for her bestselling debut, The Night Circus, she wrote pages and pages describing specific locations in the setting, then forced herself in edits to pare things down to a single page. In her most recent book, The Starless Sea, Morgenstern talked about a character who barely gets mentioned in the final manuscript, but one she had written an entire journal for—it let her know the character to their fullest measure. But, in the end, it didn’t serve the story, so she cut it.

She’s mentioned this before but recently explained her approach in an interview with Rachel Barenbaum for Dead Darlings. (I’d encourage you to read the full article.)


“Sometimes it feels more like excavating than building because it’s all there, I just need to figure out how to translate the space into words. I had this sprawling underground library-esque space in my head and it took me a long time to figure out how to wind a narrative through it. I end up writing a lot more than I’ll ever use just to flesh out the world.”


This really resonated with me—what a refreshing approach to creation! So often, we’re reminded to be efficient. We are told throwing away work is a waste of time. Industry-wide we see everyone declare that your next book is what’s more important. It’s the Facebook mantra of “most fast and break things” but applied to storytelling. The Excavator ignores that dogma and serves only the story. It works against the tenets of hustle culture and allows one to fully realize a place, a person, or an event, and it gives permission to take time and to cut what is unnecessary. We say write for yourself, and this is taking that maxim to its furthest reaches. Working as an Excavator—while slower—allows an author to explore a story to its limits, and in the end (based on the quality of Morgenstern’s work), I can see how it makes for a better book.

Maybe we need more than two schools of approach? Perhaps it’s time to add the Excavators into the conversation as another equally valid strategy in writing.


FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: John Atherton, 1975


Raunch Review: Firefly

Raunch Review: Firefly

Raunch Reviews is a series about profanity. Not real profanity, but speculative swearing. Authors often try to incorporate original, innovative forms of profanity into our own fantastical works as a way to expand the worlds we build. Sometimes we’re successful. Often we’re not. In this series, I examine the faux-profanity from various works of sci-fi and fantasy, judge their effectiveness, and rate them on an unscientific and purely subjective scale. This is Raunch Reviews, welcome.


Raunch Review: Firefly
Raunch Review: Firefly
The Author: Joss Whedon
Work in Question: Firefly
The Profanity: “Gorram”

Joss Whedon’s much-beloved Firefly did a lot of fascinating things with language. The mixing of refined Mandarin Chinese with backcountry dialects helped layer a world with a myriad of linguistic possibilities. Throughout the series, we see this intermingling of language with many characters shifting between English and Mandarin as they talk. While many bits of “profanity” are uttered in Mandarin, the word we’re looking at today isn’t one of them.

The minced oath “gorram” crops up a lot. Unlike the interplay of language, this term happens to be more of an exploration of linguistic drift borrowing from a more blasphemous origin and becoming a bit of a minced oath. (Not unlike “by golly,” “gadzooks,” “holy moley,” and “jeepers,” before it.) From a language standpoint, drift is essential. The English we speak today would sound like a foreign language to English speakers from five hundred years ago. So it’s easy to see how five hundred years in the future common parlance has shifted and corrupted further. Language tends to drift towards ease—words are simplified and shortened; binary becoming singular is a common occurrence. We see that with “gorram”—a drifting portmanteau of “god” and “damnation.”

As it stands as both a minced oath, a curse, and an example of linguistic drift “gorram” is a fantastic example of faux profanity. While you couldn’t do it for the entire show—it’d be impossible to understand—it’s nice to see little touches like this sprinkled throughout. They help a world feel as though it’s evolved; it gives it a sense of history.

So “gorram” does Firefly justice. But, you might be interested to know while generally attributed to Firefly, that short-run series wasn’t the first use of “gorram” in the English lexicon. Its origins are actually much older.

Score: Half Swear (5.0)

🤬 Previous Raunch Reviews


Have a suggestion for Raunch Reviews? It can be any made-up slang word from a book, television show, or movie. You can email me directly with your recommendation or leave a comment below. I’ll need to spend time with the property before I’ll feel confident reviewing it, so give me a little time. I have a lot of books to read.


William Gibson

A Shopping List

“I don’t begin a novel with a shopping list – the novel becomes my shopping list as I write it.”

William Gibson


From Conversations with William Gibson edited by Patrick A. Smith. While I love this quote, this particular interview conducted in 2011 by David Wallace-Wells is excellent as a whole. An extended version of the exchange is below but you can read the whole thing over on The Paris Review, “William Gibson, The Art of Fiction No. 211.” (Paywall.)


David Wallace-Wells: How do you begin a novel?

Gibson: I have to write an opening sentence. I think with one exception I’ve never changed an opening sentence after a book was completed.

David Wallace-Wells: You won’t have planned beyond that one sentence?

Gibson: No. I don’t begin a novel with a shopping list—the novel becomes, shopping list as I write it. It’s like that joke about the violin maker who was asked how he made a violin and answered that he started with a piece of wood and removed everything that wasn’t a violin. That’s what I do when I’m writing a novel, except somehow I’m simultaneously generating the wood as I’m carving it.

E. M. Forster’s idea has always stuck with me—that a writer who’s fully in control of the characters hasn’t even started to do the work. I’ve never had any direct fictional input, that I know of, from dreams, but when I’m working optimally I’m the equivalent of an ongoing lucid dream. That gives me my story, but it also leaves me devoid of much theoretical or philosophical rationale for why Me story winds up as it does on the page. The sort of narratives I don’t trust, as a reader, smell of homework.


FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. AlexanderWant to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →

Crafting Cuttac, Part One

Crafting Cuttac, Part 1

My free map brushes for fantasy maps are designed to replicate specific eras of cartographic development—usually aping styles from the 16th or 17th centuries. As a result, they tend to be focused on line art, which works quite well with early printmaking. While I love those old styles of maps dearly, I’ve wanted to try something a little different. Stretch my creative muscle as it were. I’ve recently hit a few knots in my revisions of Gleam Upon the Waves, and I find that I brainstorm better when I can channel some of my energy into something creative, and it’s not uncommon for me to make random maps.

I’ve been kicking around some ideas for a new writing project. So I decided to work on a map for that setting. For now, I’ve given it the working title, Cuttac—mainly because it sounded cool in my head. I thought it’d be fun to do all this worldbuilding publically, so welcome to Crafting Cuttac, a new series where I reveal the process of how I develop a fictional world.


✏️ Stage One – Continents & Islands

Using my tablet, I sketched out the continents and islands of the world of Cuttac. I focused on vast oceans and fewer chunky continents in favor of something a little more dynamic and fluid. I kept the brush small (2px, Soft Round) to highlight the details within the world. (You can click on any of these images to view them larger.)

Crafting Cuttac, Stage One - The World Outlined
The basic outline of the landmasses on Cuttac.

🏗 Stage Two – Structural Work

I decided on foresty green as the base color for the ocean—mainly to be different, but I have some ideas that it’s referencing as well. (More on that in the future.) After that, I filled the outlined continents and islands with a base of white. As of now, I have three layers: the outline, the white landmasses, and the green ocean background. This is all structure, as I can down hide objects and patterns behind the white shapes and use each as a base for image masks. It’ll make trying different effects really easy and non-destructive—helpful in experimentation.

Crafting Cuttac, Stage Two - Structural Work
The islands and continents pop a lot more when placed against a darker background. After seeing the continents rendered like this, I’m really like these landforms. Feels very natural.

🌊 Stage Three – Ocean Depth

With the structure work done, it was time to move onto the topography. Mountains influence rivers, rivers influence settlements, and settlements create civilization and so on—so it’s fairly essential! Since it’s big and bold, I figured I’d start by doing some testing on the ocean floor. Primarily working in transparent layers to simulate depth. For this, I started using the cloud brushes from Kyle’s Concept Brushes (now apparently included with Adobe Creative Cloud) and just swirled ’em around using my cheap tablet.

Crafting Cuttac, Stage Three - Ocean Depth, Test One
This was my first test with the ocean depth, and I was pleased with the result but felt it lacked definition.

Each color was on a separate layer then blended together using Blend Modes and Opacity adjustments until I achieved the effect I wanted. There was no system to this, I just did it by feel. I felt it was working, and I got some positive feedback, but I didn’t feel my first approach was detailed enough. So I started smaller and worked with more layers and a broader color ramp to simulate depth. The smaller brushes helped a lot and let me get more elaborate with undersea ridges while still achieving the painterly effect, I liked.

When finished, I was worried its boldness would overpower the landforms. So, when complete, I dropped the ocean down to an opacity of 65% —it softened everything significantly. You can see a comparison below.

Crafting Cuttac, Stage Three - Ocean Depth, Final Result
Original bold coloring on the left with the softened final version on the right.

🗺 More to Come in Part Two

That’s where I am for the end of Part One! I think the softer ocean colors will help the terrain pop when I get started on that. I’m going to try to use a similar style for the elevations but stick with even smaller brush sizes and utilize a standard topography color ramp. I think nine “stages” will work well.

Crafting Cuttac - Elevation Color Ramp
A simple color ramp showing shifts in elevation, left is sea level, right is the highest peaks in the continents

Hopefully, you enjoyed this series! There will be much more to come in Part Two. I’m going to be delving into the above-water topography and figure out the placement of the rivers. It should be fun!

Any questions, ideas, or advice? Feel free to leave a comment below or contact me. Want to make your own maps but don’t know where to start? I can help! Be sure to check out Free Stuff to download any of my free brush sets or to check out one of my Tutorials with practical step-by-step guides at getting started.


💸 Supporting This Work

If you like my brush set, tutorials, or map experiments like this one, and want to support my work, instead of a donation, consider buying one of my speculative fiction novels. The first book—The Stars Were Right—is only $2.99 on eBook. I think you’ll dig it.

You can find all my books in stores and online. Visit bellforgingcycle.com to learn more about the series. Tell your friends!

The Bell Forging CycleNot interested in my books but still want a way to support me? Buy me a coffee.


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. AlexanderWant to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →

Color Out of Space

It’s Just a Color…

The Colour Out of Space is arguably one of the best—if not the best—H. P. Lovecraft stories. Plus, this is directed by cult-filmmaker Richard Stanley. (I highly recommend his film Hardware and the documentary Lost Soul, which tells the story of Stanley’s attempt to create a film based on H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau.) And to top it all off, this is being produced by the folks who made Mandy—one of my favorite campy horror flicks!

I’m sold. Sign. Me. Up.

The Murder of Deadspin

The Murder of Deadspin

The internet is ephemeral. It’s always seething and shifting. Nothing remains the same from day to day, month to month, or year to year. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking over the last few days in regards to the very public murder of my formerly favorite blog: Deadspin. I’m not going to recap the whole incident. You can read about its demise here and here and here and here and here. It’s been a thing. But it’s a thing to which I can relate—I’ve gone through an acquisition, and I’ve watched startups collapse around me, I’ve seen friends and colleagues go through the same both good and bad.

I have some thoughts.

Great Hill Partners (the private equity firm that bought Deadspin), G/O Media (the company that operates Deadspin’s blog network), and Jim Spanfeller (the CEO) made a purchase that was, in its essence, a talent acquisition. But either they didn’t realize it was a talent acquisition or they didn’t understand what to do with the talent they acquired. Most likely both. They failed to recognize that fans (myself included, Deadspin had been my homepage for years) didn’t go to Deadspin to read a generic sports blog. We went to Deadspin to read articles on all manner of things from writers we loved. Sport was a part of that, but it certainly wasn’t all of that. And that was its draw. There are a hundred other charmless sports sites that bloviate ceaselessly about sports—they exist for those who want them. Loyal readers didn’t want Deadspin to “stick to sports.” We wanted Deadspin to stick to Deadspin.


Loyal readers didn’t want Deadspin to “stick to sports.” We wanted Deadspin to stick to Deadspin.


Over the years, the site made a name for itself with a brash tone and a punk attitude. They punched up, made stands, took sides, and spoke truth to power. That was something that resonated with its fans. It set them apart from everyone else. Anyone could see that trying to force them to be something they weren’t would have backfired. Smart and capable leadership should have known that before the purchase was finalized.

As you’d expect, when a company doesn’t understand its talent acquisition, things went poorly. A longtime editor, Barry Petchesky, was fired when he spurned mandates that went against the site’s ideology. The staff revolted and refused to capitulate to management’s ridiculous demands, and they left en masse. Of course they left. They should have left.

Good on them.

I applaud and admire the staff of Deadspin for sticking to their principles. It’s uncommon to find that level of integrity in online media today—especially in blogging, and particularly in sports blogging. My gut tells me that the Deadspin I knew as a fan will never be back. That’s the nature of our everchanging web. But often, when this sort of thing happens, the result ends up becoming something greater. The talent goes elsewhere. The hydra spawns two new heads. Something new arises from the ashes, and it is often something better, with a wider reach and a tremendous impact. So while I mourn the death of my favorite blog, I cannot wait to see what the writers and editors do next.

Deadspin was a good website.

Deadspin forever. ✊