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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

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