At 80,047 words, An Empire For Yesterday is complete, and I have another draft novel under my belt. As has become tradition, I’ve sat on it for a few days to reflect on what I learned from writing it. I’m to going to break the novel down into its base elements, and have a look at what worked and what didn’t. Feel free to stick around while I do so.
As usual, I started with a setting. The idea I keep coming back to is a galactic empire growing stagnant. I’m still very much inspired by Foundation, and the collapse of civilisation remains my most prominent theme. This time I limited myself to one ship and one planet. The problem I ran into was an inability to balance the desire for freshly founded colonies and a space-exploration undercurrent, with my enthusiasm for rich future histories. I want to portray worlds where discovery and exploration are the driving force, but near future stories hold little interest for me. The lesson I take away from this is that Star Trek and Dune are very different wells from which to draw. It’s hard to get that deep fictional history while also keeping a sense of wonder when the characters experience something new. With this book, I also broke away from the harder side of science fiction and introduced some time travel elements. Hard SF is still something I love, but playing it a little looser has opened my mind to a few ideas that i think have a lot of potential.
I am getting better and better at writing characters. Not really bragging, because I started off pretty low on the ladder. An Empire For Yesterday has my most diverse (in every sense of the word) cast yet, and writing the character dynamics was the easiest part of the book. I started this draft with a series of introductory scenes for each character, which helped nail their behaviour early on. I also had fun pairing them up for different scenes. However, I had six points of view (plus a one-off extra character), and this was probably too much for a book this short. I tried to show everything that was happening by having so many PoV characters, but realistically I could easily cut two of them without losing anything. My brief nods towards romance I doubt I’ll ever be happy with, but they are a step in the right direction, even if it didn’t quite come through the way I wanted it to.
This was the biggest issue for me. The introductory scenes helped with characterisation, but after that there’s a reboot as the real plot starts. Really, it’s hard to see those introductions as part of the same book, however useful they may have been for me personally. For the majority of the book, the characters are split across two storylines. I’m definitely better than I was at making sure everyone has something to do, but the timelines don’t quite line up. The space combat is good, though ironically not stellar, while the material on the planet tended to be cyclical. Capture-escape-capture-escape. I’m also not fully happy with how I introduced the time travel elements. This was the idea that I had from the very start, but when it came to adding it in, I found it hard to do so in a way that felt organic. All of that said, the climax is probably the best I’ve yet written. For all the problems I had writing it, everything came together at the end and I’m very happy with how it ended.
I didn’t intend to have a theme when I started, but fairly soon I realised that all of the arcs I’d planned had one thing in common. They all revolved around duty. Once I settled on that as a theme, I really leaned into it. As always, I found writing epigrams for each chapter greatly beneficial to the theme. There’s a chance I may have been a bit heavy-handed at times, but I think that by including the theme as a through-line, I made the book stronger overall.
As always, I have a few main takeaways from writing this draft. The first is that my method of roughly sketching the outline but being willing to change is generally a good one. It led to a bit of rambling in the middle act, but overall having that road-map was a huge help. I think I also need to cut down on my number of PoV characters, or else massively increase the wordcount. For the 80-100k word range, I thing 3-4 characters would probably work better than my 7. Both of these thoughts are ones I’ve had for a while, but An Empire For Yesterday has really driven the point home.
More generally, I think having a solid theme will be really helpful in future. I don’t want to be one of those authors who becomes all about the message, but a theme will be something to give the book structure, and that is probably my biggest weakness right now. Being more open to a little bit of looser science also opens new avenues that I’m interested in exploring.
Next I’m going to do something I haven’t done before: Write a sequel. I have a good setting and some strong characters, and I want to write more of both. I don’t know how in-canon the books will be with each other, but I plan to dive right into it. With luck, I’ll have it finished by the end of the year. But the way this year is going, who can tell?