Sunday, July 25, 2021

Staying on course

In writing Wrath of Empire, I’ve mentioned the need to stay on course and not let the story drift away from the key events already set in stone. That bare-bones outline was mentioned briefly in Ghosts of Innocence, which I first drafted thirteen years ago. At that time I had no idea I would consider backtracking and writing about those times, so they were just convenient backstory. I’d given no thought to how events progressed from A to B to C.

Now, of course, it matters greatly.

To help me, I’ve drawn heavily on a number of tools and techniques I’ve accumulated over the years. Most of them are tools I keep handy to help avoid writer’s block, and which I describe more thoroughly in Breaking the Block.

What

First, naturally, there’s the good old standard outline. In terms of what an outline looks like, I reckon there are as many varieties as there are writers, but to me an outline is a top-down expansion of the story. It focuses on what happens, and starts with the main highlights then expands each into greater and greater detail.

Avid and practiced outliners will map out the entire story in this way so they know exactly what will happen in each chapter and scene before they write a word of actual story. I don’t go that far. My outlines are a combination of bullet-form statements laid out as an indented list, and sometimes more fully fleshed-out paragraphs as if I was trying to describe to someone what is happening in this part of the story.

In the case of Wrath of Empire, the top of my outline consists of the three headings: Empress Florence’s funeral, Imperial family assassinated, and destruction of Eloon (Shayla’s home world). These form the outline's skeleton and are the key events that I have to land on. From there, it’s a matter of fleshing out details to make a story.

Of course, as these events take place over the span of four years, that leaves a lot of empty space to fill. Expanding the outline directly only takes me so far, and I don’t do well with simply laying out things that happen. I need other tools to help figure out what goes into that space.

Why

I find it helps to think not just about what happens, but why. A couple of vital tools for me are Motivations/Goals/Methods, and Stakeholder Stories.

The first tool looks at the key players in the story and asks what motivates them, what are they striving for, and how do they set about achieving their goals. The idea is to write just a few sentence to capture the main drivers for the story. You can’t get too deep into this, because the whole point of a story is for people’s goals to be thwarted, so these notes just form the starting point. After that, characters’ actions will intersect and conflict, throwing them off course.

Stakeholder stories takes this method further and examine what happens when things go awry. They generally start with what a character is trying to achieve and how, but they go further and look at how they react when things get in the way. These stories start off with the overarching motivation and goal, but move into a lot of sentences along the lines of “When X happens, it affects Y this way, and Y decides to do Z”. This tool is also a form of outline, but it exposes how the different story threads weave together in a network of cause and effect. I find this a great tool for brainstorming the “what” because it allows me to delve deep into each character and think from their point of view.

Another tool is the character interview. I’ve used this in the past to ferret out some of their underlying motivations. I’ve not used this technique yet for this project, but I have drawn on interviews I happened to do with my main character when I was writing Ghosts.

When

No matter what form my outlines take, I always lay out the main events on a timeline. This helps keep track of multiple threads, making sure they align and cross at the right points. This is especially important when things need to take time to happen, such as traveling from A to B, or things taking time to prepare.

In all my novels, the story timeline eventually becomes the primary outline, and becomes what I regard as my go-to source of truth, a single reference to which everything else aligns.

My timeline usually takes the form of a spreadsheet, with each row representing a day, and columns for each of the main players in the story. This has worked well for my previous novels, where the stories have all taken place over a few weeks of time.

Here is a part of the timeline for Ghosts of Innocence.


Wrath of Empire posed a new challenge for me, because the story takes place over years rather than weeks. I found the spreadsheet format hard to manage, because I needed more flexibility to handle approximations and to move things around as the outline evolved. For this project I settled on using a drawing tool to capture main events in a more free-form picture.


Taken in combination, these techniques have (so far) kept me on track.


Sunday, July 18, 2021

Round numbers

Just a very quick update today.

Every evening, when I wrap up for the day, I tally my word count in a tracking spreadsheet. That may sound a bit nerdy, but I've blogged about this before as one of my motivational techniques. My spreadsheet graphs my progress week by week, and I like to see my "actual" line staying above the "target" line on the graph.

Today, I finished the week on exactly 90,000 words.

Talk about a round number.

Also a significant number, as that is often the starting target I pencil in to say I've reached a decent novel size. 

In this case, I know I've still got a long way to go. I think this novel is going to be closer to 150,000 by the time I finish. Noticeably fatter than my last two books, but not out of this world.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Fluid outlines

After six months of steady progress, I’m probably about 60% of the way through the first draft of Wrath of Empire. And this project is posing some challenges that I’ve not had to deal with before.

As this is a prequel, the bare bones – essentially three major events – were already laid out for me in the backstory to Ghosts of Innocence. The novel mentioned them to varying degrees, and gave some sense of the political climate at that time, but I had given no real thought to what happened in any great detail. It was on the level of saying that someone assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, and a few months later the whole of Europe was at war. OK, but what actually happened to lead from one event to the other?

The task, therefore, has been to add flesh to those bones.

I started off with a straightforward outline. Take those pivotal events and try to fill in the gaps. This added a layer, but it was still couched in very general terms, such as “Thwart Ivan’s attempt to claim the throne” and “Huge public turmoil”. Great. I could probably write a history text off those notes, but it would read like a history text with none of the specifics and personal connections that turn it into a story.

I needed to dig into the “who” and “why” and “how” in specific terms that can then be written out as a scene, and brought to life by the actors on the page.

The challenge for me has been this: In the novels I’ve written so far, I’ve had some kind of an outline, but as the story evolves it has always taken off in directions I didn’t anticipate. In each case, there are whole branches of the outline that ended up never being written, because the story took on a life of its own and the early outlines changed dramatically.

Always!

But that is a luxury I can’t afford this time. The story has to arrive at those pivotal events, and it has to arrive on time. Something I’ve never managed to do before!


Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Hello 2021

Okay, half the year has passed, and I’ve been largely absent from blogging. It’s been a tough spell. 

Nothing singly too bad, not even all bad in fact, but a lot going on that gets overwhelming at times. We’ve all had brushes with varying levels of health irregularities at times, and we’ve had to support each other through various workplace dramas. 

I largely try to ignore, or at least not get too distressed by, world events. Politics south of the border is still a shitshow, and the pandemic is under control in some countries but still wreaking havoc in others. Closer to home we are reeling from the unmarked graves coming to light at old residential schools. Nobody with a shred of human compassion can fail to be moved by the horrors inflicted on thousands of children over the course of many decades. 

All this has left me disinclined to engage with the world at large this year. 

On the upside, there are rays of sunshine at home and at work, and things are largely stable and happy in our little circle. We’ve all had our first vaccine jab and will soon have our second. Restrictions are relaxing and we might get to go out for a meal in the near future. 

On the writing front, I managed to get the paperback of The Long Dark published back in January, and since then I’ve been wrestling with the first draft of Wrath of Empire. But more of that (hopefully) in future posts.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Goodbye 2020

I’m not usually one for New Year year-in-review posts, but 2020 has seen so much turmoil that I have to say “good riddance”.


In many ways, as a family we’ve been lucky. Home life has been relatively unchanged, other than not having friends around for meals. Everyone we know has escaped so far, though it’s been harder on some than on others. The biggest loss for us was having to abandon a trip to visit family in the UK this summer.

We are all still earning, with all of us in essential services of some sort (groceries, education, provincial government). Again, we’ve been lucky. Many businesses are struggling, although many have also adapted in various ways as our knowledge of the spread evolved: closing doors, partial reopening, new safety procedures, new ways of operating ...

The biggest stresses that I can see emerging are connected: weariness at the constant vigilance and observing of distancing rules, and the lack of social contact.

People tout social media and online meetings. Zoom and Teams work fine for business meetings, but they are no substitute for gathering around a table for a meal or a drink. People keep promoting virtual coffees, virtual dinner parties, virtual water cooler chats, and I’m getting weary of that too because for me they just don’t cut it. Worse, to me they actively emphasize what we can’t do.

Sometimes you just need human closeness. Sometimes you just need a hug. That is the ultimate cruelty of this pandemic – that it’s robbed us of the most fundamental support mechanisms we know.

But my hope for 2021 is that we can learn and adapt in more long-lasting ways. We’ve learned that we don’t need to all gather together in an office in order to work and collaborate. The environment (and our wallets) has benefited from less travel. We could be and should be living and working smarter in future, making use of what we’ve learned this year. We should be looking forward to a kinder and more sustainable world, and treasuring togetherness when we’re finally able to again.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Near misses

Last week we had an unexpected snowfall. Snow was forecast for "higher elevations", which doesn't usually mean us, and when I left for work it was damp but not cold. Then I get a call saying "It's snowing here, and the highway is getting dicey." So I headed home while I still could and planned on working the rest of the day from there.

When I got home, we were without power. Power was out the whole day. We spent the day in semi-darkness, watching snow fall, and listening to the crack and crash of falling branches around our neighborhood.

But it could have been a lot worse, with several near misses:

The roads were getting dicey. The highway was slow but at least no accidents. I only just made it up the hill at the end of our road, and only thanks to a couple of patches of bare road where trees overhang, that gave me traction to get up speed for the next stretch.

We have a wood stove for warmth, so the house was livable. And we could boil kettles for drinks, and we cooked a simple supper on it just before the power came back that evening.

We have overhead lines for power and cable running from the road to the house. Half of the cherry tree at the front of the property split away and nearly took out the lines. Just the ends of some branches ended up resting on them, which I was able to reach with long loppers and cut them away.

At the side of the house, a couple of massive branches fell from the arbutus at the edge of the property. One fell onto a gravel path a few feet from the back of the garage. The other fell onto the carport roof. As I was clearing them away yesterday it was obvious how lucky we were that they did no damage. We have a deck above the garage and fencing for privacy along the edge of the carport where it butts up to the deck. Either of those branches could easily have wrecked the fence or the deck railings.

Yes, we had a lot to be thankful for that day.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Predetermination

My new book project, Wrath of Empire, is throwing up some writing challenges that are entirely new to me.

People tend to work somewhere on the spectrum between plotting and pantsing – writing by the seat of your pants. At one extreme, some writers will map absolutely everything out – what goes into each chapter and scene – into a detailed outline before they write a word. At the other extreme, some writers literally start writing and see where the story leads them, and plough their way through until they reach a conclusion.

Most writers sit somewhere in between, and I believe that how you go about writing a novel is not a neat linear spectrum between plotting and pantsing, but a whole landscape of possible methods.

In my case, I often start with no clear idea of where the story is headed (classic pantsing) but very soon I need to start adding some structure and direction (a high level plot outline). I then flip between manuscript and outline, and the two feed off each other.

Once I have an outline, my writing isn’t linear. Whenever I get bogged down in one part, I’ll leap ahead to an interesting scene further on, then come back and fill in the gaps. At the same time, the outline itself isn’t solid. All my novels so far have ended up taking very different paths from how I initially envisioned them.

And that’s where I’m finding things challenging this time around.

Wrath of Empire is a prequel. It tells the story of events that are mentioned in Ghosts of Innocence, so the broadest outline of the story has already been determined. And those landmark events can’t be changed.

I still have to flesh out a lot of details and bring them to life with a whole cast of characters and scenes that I haven’t begun to map out, but this time I can’t let the story take me any old where. It has to hit those landmarks on schedule.

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