How I Write: The Keel

Continuing my series on How I Write

Brainstorming gives me a long list of stuff that I could put into a particular book: possible ideas, images, characters, plot elements, etc. but all just written down scattershot, without any effort to turn them into anything coherent. Once I have that, it’s time to come up with a keel. (By the way, this is my own terminology, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else came up with it before I did.)

In a boat, the keel is something heavy attached to the bottom of the hull. It’s the heaviest part of the boat; in rough seas, the keel is heavy enough that it keeps sinking downward, and that’s what keeps the ship upright. (In the picture above, the keel is #5.)

In a story, the keel is what gives the story weight and keeps the narrative from flopping over whenever the going gets rough. The keel is related to theme (i.e. what makes your story matter). It’s also related to plot: it lies at the heart of the story’s actions. It’s the part of the story you consider indispensable. As you write the story, everything else is subject to change, but the keel is going to stay. It’s what makes your story what it is.

(At this point, contrarians may ask, “But what if you decide that the keel really needs to change?” Since you’re the writer, you can do anything you want…but if you change the keel, you simply aren’t writing the same story anymore. The keel of Romeo & Juliet is “star-crossed lovers who die”. You can write a version where one or both lovers survive, but at that point, it’s stopped being Shakespeare’s story.)

The purpose of a keel is to provide stability and a sense of purpose. If and when I lose sight of what the heck I’m doing in a book, I come back to the keel. “This is what the book is about. This is what holds the book together. This is what I don’t want to lose.” The keel should be weighty enough and engaging enough to make writing the book worth my time.

So let’s talk about my forthcoming book, They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded. It’s a sequel to All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, and I wanted GUN to take place shortly after EXPLOSIONS. I brainstormed a lot of cool things I could do in the world I’d created, including superhero hi-jinks, new things to do with the Darkling monsters who run everything, buildings I could smash in the Waterloo Region, and so on. I also brainstormed ways in which the characters could develop, themes I might explore, tropes to use or avoid, etc., etc.

After two days of idea generation, I had a huge list of possibilities. Then it was time to come up with a keel. Here’s what it was.

  • The new book would center on Jools, who was a central character in the previous book, but not the main protagonist.
  • It would deal with her drinking problem, which would be matched by a growing tendency to go into uncontrollable bouts of inventing weird devices.
    In other words, her alcohol addiction would start running in parallel with the possibility of becoming an out-of-control supervillain inventor.
  • Finally, the action would center around a weapon created by a serious supervillain, as Darklings and various super-types all tried to claim the weapon for their own.

I’m hiding some things here since I don’t want to give major spoilers for the book—for example, my real keel contained stuff about the book’s ending. But the points above give you the idea. They were my “rules” for the book: the keel that wouldn’t change, no matter what. Dealing with addiction made the book more than lightweight fluff…but dealing with everyone chasing a superweapon guaranteed plenty of opportunities for action.

Whether or not you write with an outline or by the seat of your pants, having some kind of keel is crucial. Next time, I’ll talk about what you do once you have a keel in place.

[Ship diagram by Jimmy P. Renzi (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons]

How I Write: Brainstorming

How do I start a book or a short story? Let me share a little.

Every story starts with a seed: something that catches my attention and won’t let go. It may be an image, a character idea, a plot concept, or something else. The main requirement is that it seems fertile enough to dig into in more detail.

How do I dig? I get some paper and I scribble down anything that I might be able to connect to the seed. For example, let’s say I get a cool idea about aliens showing up on Earth. I’d start scribbling down images, plot tricks, characters, etc. about alien arrivals: probably all the things I’d like to see in such a book, but that other books haven’t done (or at least haven’t done well).

This is similar to a mind map except that I’m not a very visual person, and at this stage, I don’t care about connections between concepts. Basically, I’m just making a huge list of elements I might throw in. This process has elements of a Rorschach test, since it’s “This makes me think of that” but I don’t care. All I want is several pages of stuff that I can draw upon as needed.

Eventually I transcribe this list into Evernote, which is where I keep most of my writing notes. (I’ll talk about note-keeping in some future post.) I’ll also sit down with a plain old word processor and write about the ideas. This is essentially talking to myself about the ideas, except that I write them down. The notes tend to be on the order of, “I could do this…and maybe there’d be a character like this…” Et cetera.

This is all just wrestling with possibilities, not actual concrete planning. What I could do, not what I will do. I’m getting a feel for the territory. And I don’t want to censor myself at all. Good ideas, bad ideas, who cares? Get them out of my head and down on paper. Later on, I can be choosy, but not yet.

Inevitably, some of this stuff will be cliché, but no problem. I want to get the clichés out of my system, so I write them all down too. Now is not the time to be critical.

So that’s how I start creating a story. In some future post, I’ll talk about the next phase: deciding whether I’ll actually write the story and if so, what will be its heart.

[Photo of pen and paper by Mushki Brichta [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons]

Sharing: October 9, 2018

More things I like:

Events: The Norfolk County Fair
I dropped the ball on this because I should have made the recommendation a week ago when the fair was actually open. Or perhaps I should have made the recommendation a month ago when you could have decided, “Hey, that looks like fun!” and then picked a date to go. Sorry about that. But the Norfolk County Fair is exactly what a county fair should be: a midway full of rides, booths full of junk food, and barns full of cows, horses, rabbits, chickens, etc. You can see giant pumpkins, try to win a stuffed animal at games that are probably rigged, and buy apple cider straight from the farmer. I’ve been going to the fair for decades; I wouldn’t miss it.
Book Series: The Laundry Files by Charles Stross
This series comes to mind because I spent last weekend at VCON in Vancouver, where I got to hang out with Charlie a fair bit. The Laundry Files series is funny, and icky, and full of surprises. It’s also a shining example of a long-running series that has never fallen into a rut—every book brings something fresh to the table and keeps events moving forward. The series never flinches from doing the next thing, even if that means…well, having the world taken over by Lovecraftian horrors. (Quick summary of the series: a British intelligence agency fights the apocalypse. Spoiler: eventually, they lose.) The next book in the series, The Labyrinth Index, comes out October 30 and the advance material I’ve seen looks great.
Podcast: Writing Excuses
Writing Excuses is a long-running podcast about writing, jointly hosted by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler…plus a number of guest contributors, almost all of whom are also writers. The podcast is in its 13th year, running like clockwork every week. It’s full of good talk about writing: an excellent resource for writers of all levels of experience, from beginners to professionals. If you’re a writer, it will teach you things and get your juices flowing. Well worth listening.


I’m gearing up for the release of They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded, scheduled to be published on November 6 (2018). Between now and then, I’ll be doing publicity here on the web site and at other sites too. I’ll also be visiting a few science fiction/fantasy conventions to make sure people know the book is coming.

The first convention I’ll attend is this weekend: VCON in Vancouver BC, Oct 5-7, 2018. I’ll be doing a number of panels and two readings, as well as the usual meet-and-greeting. If you happen to be in the neighborhood, drop by!

Next weekend I’ll be in Ottawa ON at Can-Con, Oct 12-14. I’ll be on a number of panels there too, and I’m always happy to chat with anyone who shows up.

After that I’ll be at the World Fantasy Convention in Baltimore MD, Nov 1-4. I’m hoping to have some advanced copies of THEY PROMISED ME that I can give away, but that hasn’t been finalized yet.

In the meantime, if any of you have any questions about the new book, feel free to drop me a line in the comments. I confess that I never know what to say when a new book comes out, so direct questions will make my life easier.

By the way, if you’re interested in the book at all, pre-order it! It’s available from the usual online sites and from bricks-and-mortar book stores (including independent book stores which are always worth supporting). Advance orders are super important for a book’s success. Amongst other things, advance orders have a huge effect on Amazon recommendations. This is true for all books…so if you want to support an author, it’s an enormous help if you pre-order their books.

Geology: The Crust and Upper Mantle

Continuing on with the structure of the Earth, just because I feel like it (and I like rocks).

The Earth’s crust is a patchwork of distinct plates which lie on top of the mantle and move slowly relative to each other. Different plates move in different directions and at somewhat different speeds; however, the usual comparison is that the plates move at roughly the same speed that your fingernails grow.

The plates underneath the ocean are significantly different than the ones underlying the continents. Ocean plates are relatively thin—about seven kilometers thick—and quite young, geologically speaking. The oldest rocks in the oldest ocean plate are only about 200 million years old. The youngest were made two seconds ago; new rock is constantly being added to several of the ocean plates.

The plates underlying the continents are much thicker. The average thickness is about 35-40 kilometers, but some parts of some plates are as much as 70 kilometers thick. Continental plates are usually much older than ocean plates. For example, some rocks in the Canadian shield and in Australia are more than 4000 million years old (i.e. four billion).

Ocean plates are mostly made of basalt, a black rock with a high iron and magnesium content. Continental plates are much more varied, with many different types of rocks and minerals. On average, however, continental plates are less dense than ocean plates. Loosely speaking, this is why continents are (mostly) above sea level: ocean plates are dense and “ride low” on top of the mantle, while continents are lighter and “ride high”.

There’s some weirdness about the dividing line between the crust and the mantle. The line is determined by the Mohorovicic discontinuity, named after a Yugoslavian scientist and generally shortened to “the Moho” because no one wants to type “Mohorovicic” repeatedly. The Moho is a layer where the composition of the rocks changes significantly from the basalt of ocean plates and the more varied continental plates, to a relatively uniform rock called peridotite. This change in composition is quite noticeable in seismological readings, so the Moho was officially taken as the crust-mantle boundary.

However, there’s a different boundary you might also care about. As I noted last time, most of the mantle has the consistency of thick peanut butter: solid but still able to flow very slowly. However, the topmost section of the mantle is cool enough that it doesn’t flow. It’s hard, like peanut brittle.

So the crust is mostly unflowing solid rock, and the top part of the mantle is also unflowing solid rock. This has led geologists to define the lithosphere as the crust plus the part of the mantle that doesn’t flow. Below that is the asthenosphere which is the part of the mantle where stuff starts to flow (and below that is the mesosphere which is a stiffer part of the mantle but it’s still a bit flow-y).

Confused? I certainly was when I was first taught this stuff. But if you think crust/hard mantle/soft mantle, you get the idea. The difference between the crust and mantle is what the rock is made of. The difference between the hard mantle and soft mantle isn’t the composition—they’re made of the same stuff—but the texture.

So those are the basic layers of the Earth. Some of these are divided into sub-layers, but let’s not complicate things. Instead, if I decide to keep going, I’ll move on to plate tectonics, the key to modern geology.

Geology: The Core and Mantle

All right, let’s do this for real: describing the various layers inside the Earth. Remember that these layers are dictated by the combined effects of pressure and heat.

At the Earth’s very center is a solid inner core. The core is very very hot—above 5000 degrees Celsius, about the same temperature as the surface of the sun. That’s so hot that the major elements in the core would be gases on Earth’s surface. So why is the inner core solid? Because the pressure is so high that atoms are squeezed in on each other and can’t flow around as they do in a liquid or gas. The core’s atoms are basically locked into a tight crystal structure even though they’ve got so much heat, they’re jiggling like mad and would jiggle free of the structure if they could.

The inner core is mostly made of iron. That’s because iron is the heaviest element produced during the normal burning of a sun, and our solar system (including Earth) consists of the leftovers from old stars that burned themselves out long ago in this region of the galaxy. These leftovers also included small amounts of elements heavier than iron; such elements can’t be created by a sun’s normal fusion, but they can be created by supernovas smashing smaller atoms together. Earth contains elements heavier than iron, all the way up to uranium, and all such elements were created by supernovas going off in this vicinity long before Earth was born.

Earth was created when leftover star junk started to clump together in a molten mass. At that point, a good percentage of the heaviest elements sank to the middle of the mass. The most abundant of these elements was iron. Other elements sank too—the core probably contains a significant amount of nickel—and it’s not like all the heavy elements sank, because there’s a significant amount of iron and heavy elements in other layers of the Earth. But the core is predominantly iron with some other stuff thrown in.

Surrounding the solid inner core is the liquid outer core. It has a similar composition to the inner core; the major difference is that the pressure is lower (because the outer core isn’t as deep down) so the pressure isn’t high enough to squeeze everything into a solid. Apart from that, the outer core and inner core aren’t very different.

Above the outer core is the mantle. One major difference between the mantle and the core is that the mantle doesn’t have nearly as much iron (since most of the iron sank down to the core when the Earth was molten). The major elements of the mantle are oxygen, silicon and magnesium, which together make up almost 90% of the mantle by weight.

The mantle is solid, but mobile. I like to picture it as very very thick peanut butter: solid, but it has some give. Over long periods of time, the contents of the mantle can and do move. Some very hot bits down near the core slowly rise, in the same way that hot air rises. Cooler bits that start near the top of the mantle slowly sink…so you get very slow circulation and convection currents.

We’ll leave it there for now. Next time, I’ll talk about the crust which sits on top of the mantle, including how the crust and the mantle interact with each other.

Geology: Pressure and Heat

Okay, let’s talk about the different layers in the Earth’s structure.

But first, let’s talk about why layers happen at all.

As you go deeper into the Earth, the pressure increases. Why? Think about it. Here on the surface, what’s weighing down on our heads? About 100 km of air, most of which is in the lowest few kilometers—the air thins out pretty quickly the higher you go. The result is an air pressure of about 1.03 kilograms per square centimeter (14.7 pounds per square inch) at sea level.

Now if we go down, say, a kilometer under our feet, what’s weighing down on our heads? A kilometer of rock. That’s a heck of a lot heavier than air, so any rock down that deep is under a lot of pressure. Go down another kilometer, and now there’s two kilometers of rock weighing down on our heads: roughly double the pressure (if the rock maintains the same density).

So the pressure goes up the farther you go down, i.e. the closer you get to the center of the Earth. At certain levels, this leads to phase shifts, which are changes to the physical properties of matter.

One well-known example of a phase shift is the formation of diamonds. Diamonds are made of carbon atoms locked into a particularly tight framework of chemical bonds. You can only make such a framework by crushing the atoms close together. Normally, carbon atoms don’t like to be really near each other—the nucleus of each atom is surrounded by negatively-charged electrons, so when two atoms start getting close, the electrons on one atom repel the electrons on the other. Under the pressures we’re used to, the repulsion force is stronger than the pressure trying to push the atoms together. The atoms never get close enough to form the framework that a diamond needs.

As you go down into the Earth, however, the pressure increases. Eventually, it’s high enough to squish carbon atoms close enough together, despite the repulsion force trying to keep them apart. At that point, suddenly the atoms can link together in the required framework. The bonds established are strong enough to hold the diamond together even if you reduce the pressure again…which is why diamonds don’t explode if some geological process sends them rising to the surface. (Note however that diamonds aren’t completely stable. They do explode if they take certain types of damage.)

Another type of phase shift involves going from solid to liquid or vice versa. In this case, the cause is loss or gain of heat, but the effect is somewhat similar to the creation of diamonds.

The atoms in a solid have a fixed framework. At any temperature other than absolute zero, the atoms jiggle a bit but they pretty much stay in their position within the framework. However, if you keep adding more heat, the atoms jiggle more and more until they’re finally jumping around too much to stay in position. At that point, the framework breaks down and the solid becomes a liquid.

The temperature of the Earth increases as you go downward, just like the pressure. Why? Because the center of the Earth contains a lot of heat left over from the planet’s creation. The Earth came into existence when the remains from burnt-out stars started to cluster together due to gravity. Chunks of matter clotted together by random chance until they had enough gravity to draw in other nearby chunks. The new chunks added more mass to the whole, which increased the gravity, which dragged in more chunks, etc.

Imagine the early Earth dragging in more and more asteroids from the cosmic neighborhood. Each time a new asteroid collides with the growing planet, it adds mass and a lot of heat. The result was a stage when Earth was completely molten.

Eventually Earth had sucked in all the nearby matter, so it stopped getting a regular bombardment of random stuff. At that point, the surface started to cool, losing its heat to outer space…but the interior of the planet cooled much more slowly, because most of what the Earth is made of doesn’t conduct heat very well. The heat is trapped inside and only leaks out very slowly. Earth still contains a healthy proportion of the heat it acquired from its early components slamming together.

There’s one other source of heat inside Earth: radioactive decay. Radioactive minerals only make up a tiny percentage of the planet’s mass, but they’re constantly pumping out heat as they decay, just like a nuclear reactor. This actually makes a significant contribution to the Earth’s internal temperature.

So why does the inner Earth have layers? Because pressure and heat cause phase shifts that change the nature of how matter behaves. Matter deep down has different properties than matter near the surface, even when atoms of the various elements are present in the same proportions. You have the same stuff, but it acts differently.

And sometimes the stuff doesn’t stay the same. But we’ll talk about that next time.

[Picture of earth structure by Kelvinsong [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons]