Every now and then over at the Tumblr I wind up chatting with people about various aspects of writing, the writing business, and technique — usually under the “writing advice” tag. Some weeks back (don’t ask me when, it’s been busy around here) a question came up about outlining, and various people suggested that they’d like to see what one of my outlines looked like. So I made a note to myself to find an outline at some point and post it for those who might be interested.
Today I was going through one of the smaller portable expansion drives we keep around the house for temporary data storage, with an eye to cleaning it out so it could be used in updating my old laptop to run Windows 7. While I was sorting through the directories (and again and again muttering “Why the hell have I been hanging onto this…?!”) I came across what appears below. This is the outline for the Star Trek novels Swordhunt (later subdivided into Swordhunt and Honor Blade) and The Empty Chair.
This is an example of one of the ways I outline. It’s not a “beat outline,” in which every scene is laid out in book-chronological order and with considerable detail about action and sometimes even dialogue. I suppose it could be considered more of a “pitch outline”, intended to indicate both a story’s background and its foreground issues and action in broad strokes. It’s also intended for an editor already thoroughly familiar with my writing style and the way I handle a given license and its characters (in this case Star Trek).
One of the reasons I allowed myself to submit something so (relatively) relaxed in format is that I knew my editors — first John Ordover and then Marco Palmieri — were confident enough about what I would do with the actual novels to not mind an outline of this kind. It does however begin with a brief recap of previous work in the series for the benefit of anybody in the Trek offices (either at the book end in NY, or the licensing-and-approvals end in LA and elsewhere) who might need to be brought up to speed on the background; as Trek editors in general and the faithful and long-suffering Paula Block (routine overseer-of-things on the licensing side) always have so much other work on their plates that a reminder of the details might be welcome.
The outline weighs in at just under 3700 words, or about eight single-spaced 8.5″ x 11″ pages. Needless to say, if you have not read the Rihannsu sequence of Trek novels and you’re planning to, and you don’t want to be spoiled, then you should avoid reading any further….
RIHANNSU: SWORDHUNT and RIHANNSU: THE EMPTY CHAIR
Sequels to MY ENEMY, MY ALLY and THE ROMULAN WAY, these novels will deal with the consequences of events described in those books, and bring that arc of events to a conclusion.
The Sword in the Empty Chair, ultimate symbol of Romulan tradition and power, and most treasured of all ancient artifacts of the Romulan Empire, has been stolen during a raid on the Empire’s Senate Chambers by the renegade Romulan Commander-general, Ael t’Rllaillieu of ChR 63 Bloodwing. The whole Empire has lost face by the theft of the Sword and the insults of the woman who stole it, and as a result, recovery of the Sword has temporarily superseded all other policy concerns of the Senate. Its power and authority have been directly and publicly slighted, and if allowed to go unavenged, the theft of the Sword looks like an admission of weakness which will certainly be noted by forces both inside and outside the Empire…especially the Romulans’ erstwhile “allies”, the Klingons. The Klingon Empire and the Federation, and especially the various Romulan subject worlds, must be shown that the thieves will be caught and drastically punished, whatever it takes—even starting another war.
The problem with this resolve is that Ael and her loyal Bloodwing crew are currently guests in Federation space. Ael’s involvement in Federation affairs began with the events which culminated in the destruction of the Levaeri V research facility (see MY ENEMY, MY ALLY for details), and the delivery into the Federation’s hands not only of the complete research materials for the Romulans’ clandestine mind-control project, but also the equations for the implementation of the “Sunseed” technique for the creation of ion storms on demand—both extremely useful and powerful weapons likely to profoundly change the balance of power in the galaxy (though the mind-control project, which uses live cloned brain tissue from Vulcans, is a weapon which ethical constraints will forbid the Federation to use). Some time later, Ael and Bloodwing went on to rescue Dr. Leonard McCoy from a rigged trial on one of the Romulan homeworlds…a trial which would have concluded with his execution. Ael’s rescue of McCoy was mostly in the nature of a returned favor, but it enabled her to briefly return home and make very public her opinions of the present Imperial government and its policies. Her final gesture during this incident (originally uncalculated, though many on all sides will doubt this)—the removal of the ancient Sword from the Senate Chamber—has gained her more enmity in the Senate than simply turning renegade would ever have done, and has ensured that Ael’s life and those of her crew will be the very minimum price paid for her actions, if the Romulan forces ever catch up with her. All three of these acts were so much to the Federation’s advantage that Starfleet has been willing to allow Bloodwing and her command to take sanctuary in Federation space…for the time being. At high levels, both Starfleet Command and the Federation Council are aware that this condition cannot be allowed to continue permanently. However, they are willing enough to let it go on for the time being, since it’s to their advantage to do so. Various people, especially high up in the Federation, have thought for some time that any destabilization of the present, actively hostile Romulan government would be desirable. But there was no way to bring that about short of open war, which they have been avoiding for a long time, especially since the Klingons have been something of a “wild card” in this hand of the game, and no one has been too sure of what their reaction would be.
Now, though, the Federation—most specifically, the higher echelons in Federation Intelligence—have realized that a war involving the Federation and the Romulans has suddenly become both extremely likely and unavoidable. They feel that, whatever power comes to fill the space left by the present Romulan government, a weakened and destabilized or just a different replacement government would be a big improvement over what’s already there—a dangerous and hostile government whose behavior at Levaeri V make it plain that the old “rules of engagement” in dealing with the Romulans are no longer of any use. The Federation’s priority is now to find a way to shape to their ultimate advantage the form which the conflict will finally take.
And meanwhile the upper-echelon Rihannsu, the small group of the most powerful Senators, have been assembling their own ideas about how such a war should go. There are factions on both the “left” and “right” of the Romulan political spectrum which have been spoiling for war against the Federation for a long time. These people see Ael’s public defection and theft of the Sword as the excuse they’ve been waiting for: they welcome it as enthusiastically and openly as the Federation is doing so reluctantly and quietly. As an initial gambit, the Romulans decide that a task force will be sent into Federation space, empowered to make “diplomatic” approaches to the Federation. The diplomatic representatives will demand that Ael and her crew be returned to them for trial. Otherwise (they will announce with great regret) war must ensue. This tack seems to the Romulans one which is likely to succeed. Their experience of the Federation as a culture of peacemongers, usually unwilling to fight except when forced to it, suggests that they will buckle under when threatened, considering continued peace more worthwhile than the trouble of harboring someone who comes of an enemy race and might be a deep-cover spy as well.
But if diplomacy fails, the diplomats will become assassins. Their purpose is first to recover the Sword and restore it to its proper place in the Senate, and (with or without the cooperation of the Federation) to bring Ael and as many of her crew as possible back to ch’Rihan for a punishment which will long be an example to others. But failing that, they will willingly blow Ael and Bloodwing to plasma, and the Sword as well, to keep it out of the hands of traitors and aliens.
At the beginning of the books, as the Romulan diplomatic task force sets out, the overwhelming consensus amongst the Federation’s Strat/Tac advisors is that the Romulans are sufficiently outraged at Ael and Bloodwing to carry out their threat of war—or at least of ferocious raids directed at Federation frontier worlds, which seems a much more plausible threat for remaining unspoken. Some of the more paranoid parties involved in these discussions take seriously the theory that Ael might indeed be a spy, and that the whole affair, from Levaeri V right down to McCoy’s rescue, could be a typically ruthless Romulan plot laid with the intention of giving one of their top commanders and most dangerous ships (especially considering the boosted warpdrive and Klingon-built gunnery augmentation circuitry fitted to Bloodwing) free access to space on the wrong side of the Neutral Zone. But others (in the majority at the moment) have decided that until those supporting this theory can come up with some evidence to back it, it makes more sense to allow Ael free passage in the outer reaches of Federation space, and to let the Romulans, for the time being, play out the early stages of their game. The Federation will be watching eagerly for signs of weakness among the chief Romulan players, and back on ch’Rihan and ch’Havran.
And the Federation is not without its resources in this regard. Chief among them at the moment is Terise Haleakala-LoBrutto (aka Senator Arrhae i-Khellian t’Llhweiir), who will be part of the Romulan diplomatic delegation as both a head-of-house and as one who has had recent experience of dealing with Terrans. Her position is particularly difficult, for she must act as a balancing force and a voice of moderation at a time when moderation is the last thing most of the Rihannsu in this task force will want. But she must also function in her original capacity as Federation deep-cover operative, and must do it in a capacity she and her spymasters in the Federation never anticipated. It was never planned for her to be in a situation where she would be so carefully watched, by such potentially deadly observers, as she will be now. But it was also never suspected that Terise would manage to rise to the status of a head-of-house, a position of influence and honor which may lend her some slight protection. How much—in a culture in which honor has become such a devalued currency—is hard to tell.
However, what Terise/Arrhae and other operatives will be able to tell the Federation is that, mixed in with the various members of the deputation who have lost kinfolk to Ael’s activities and who want vengeance for them, are others who have relatives and friends among Bloodwing’s crew (some of whom have already been introduced in THE ROMULAN WAY). The government’s assumption is that these members are also hostile to Ael’s case (and indeed some are). But some of them secretly support Ael’s actions as those of a true Romulan, one possessed of the mnhei’sahe so plainly lacking in those who presently rule the Empire, and given the chance, these people will do whatever they can to help her and hinder her opponents. This splinter group is a reflection of a larger movement back on the two homeworlds. Many Romulans have become increasingly disaffected from the Senate and Praetorate of their day, growing restless under the pressure of an increasingly tyrannical and unrepresentative government. Previously this restlessness has crystallized out around various minor “rebellion” leaders who have had to carefully hide themselves and their small organizations from the attentions of the Rihannsu government’s hyperobservant secret police and intelligence services. Now, though, much of the attention of those services is focused outwards, toward Ael and the Federation and the danger they (together) represent. And the putative “rebel” leaders are turning toward Ael as well, as a symbol of the disaffection of a large part of the Romulan people, a symbol of their desire for a return to the old ways, the traditional values of honor. By the act of taking the Sword, Ael has (in these people’s minds) made herself a symbol of what they should be doing as a people: taking back their old heritage, themselves, without waiting for a government or other body to lead them in that direction: without waiting for “permission”. Ael has become a banner around which to rally. Slowly, quietly, the fragmentary “return-to-ancient-values” movement on the two Romulan homeworlds—which has been slowly gaining strength over the last twenty years—is now starting to build in earnest, waiting for a chance to break out into open rebellion….
The Klingons, at their end of things, simply want to see the Romulan deputation fail miserably whether is limits itself to diplomacy or turns to the use of force. An Empire seen to be incapable of adequately avenging such a crime and bringing the criminal to justice will begin to fall apart from within, the Klingons think. And if the collapse needs a little outside help, they’ll be more than willing to provide whatever push is required, and then move in to bring their own New Order to the chaotic anarchy that remains….
But finally it all comes down to what Ael will do…and none of the various forces involved in this about-to-be-a-war are sure of that at all. She, off with Bloodwing in the “debatable space” at the fringes of the Federation as the story starts, seems to be at rest in the quiet eye of this hurricane of plotting and counterplotting. But she is perfectly aware that it must be going on, and is contemplating her options. Ael knows that her act has now driven the Empire to play the game to follow for its very life, for it is now having to start to face the uncertainty and instability at its own heart. She knows she is a catalyst of sorts: her life or death, and the way she plays her part in the game, will now directly or indirectly affect the lives or deaths of millions on the Two Homeworlds. It is not a position Ael ever foresaw for herself. Now, though, she must use that famous cunning of hers to the utmost: to play Federation and Empires off against one another, to stay alive, to foil her enemies, to turn their evil intention back on themselves, and (if she can only work out how) to use her position to help her people and her culture find their way back to the old ways of nobility and honor. She may die trying. But Ael commits herself to the Great Game with a will: for of all prizes, this is the one most worth playing for…
Others have their own games to play, and their own agendas to pursue… old and new. James T. Kirk would not normally count himself among this number. But he now finds himself finds himself acting as liaison between Federation authorities and Ael, and caught between them—a position he’s held before, but never in such uncomfortable circumstances. The forces in Starfleet and the Federation which mistrust Ael most profoundly are watching Kirk to see whether he is somehow secretly in league with her.
(Scenes will appear here involving each of those sets of forces: the Starfleet Admiral who’s sure Kirk is going to sell them out, the Federation High Commissioner watching it all, waiting to see which way to jump…)
The amused, edgy intimacy and rapport Kirk and Ael share is too easily mistaken for treachery by those who don’t see that it roots right down into the basic, incorruptible honor of each of them. Kirk’s concern is for peace, as the Federation’s is, and he watches with growing unease as the tide of events turns toward war. But at the same time he is concerned for Ael, a friend being driven to ever more dangerous acts by her absolute commitment to see her culture recalled to the old ways of honor. He knows how dangerous a game Ael is playing with her own people as well as with his. Unfortunately he finds that he’s unable to dissuade her from her plans to manipulate her own people and his…and finds himself faced with an unpalatable choice. Help Ael, and allow himself to appear involved in what may be treason, or acts calculated to start a war? Or refuse to help her, let her head willingly into danger which may be the end of her, her ship and her crew…and let Ael construct her own death and sail into it, without trying to save her?
Spock, unshakeably loyal to Kirk and the Enterprise as always, nonetheless also finds himself caught in a moral bind. Ael’s plans, if successful, will see her people returned to a lifestyle more similar to the “uncorrupt” one they built for themselves on leaving Vulcan. It is a desirable outcome. But he has been inside Ael’s mind, and suspects more clearly than even Kirk does what her real motivations and intentions may be, and how they are torn. He knows how fine a line she is treading between—on one side—the constructive “deconstruction” she intends to wreak on the present Romulan powerstructure, and—on the other—a furious campaign of plain old-fashioned revenge on those who destroyed the life of Ael’s niece the Romulan Commander, banished Ael herself to the outermost regions of Empire space, and forced her into the present set of circumstances which culminated in her exile and the death of her son. Spock is nervous enough about the changes Ael proposes to force on the Romulan government, if the rebellion brewing at home gives her the power. Her success may be potentially as destructive as her failure. As for revenge, he cannot allow himself, or the Enterprise, or Kirk, to be involved in it….for any Romulans surviving such a revenge would follow them anywhere in the Galaxy to “get their own back”. He admires Ael, insofar as a Vulcan can admit to admiring anything. But he will not allow her to use Enterprise, or the Federation, or Kirk ,as a tool. And this stance will sooner or later, Spock knows, bring him into conflict with Kirk himself…whose motivations as regards Ael are not entirely clear, even by human standards.
McCoy’s concerns, for both Kirk and Spock as well as for Ael, have made him an unsuspected wild card in this particular hand. He has already been pushed (in ROMULAN WAY) to exhibit depths of understanding, analysis and courage which have, in retrospect, surprised even him. Now McCoy begins to suspect that he knows even more about what Ael and the Romulans will do than Spock and Kirk think they do. He finds himself caught between them, and between them and Ael, as her planning begins to unfold—as powerful characters on ch’Rihan and ch’Havran begin to declare for or against her and start to move at her instigation. McCoy realizes that he potentially has it in his power to abort the Second Romulan War, saving many millions of lives—and possibly killing Ael—or to help the War to occur, costing millions of lives but saving many other millions. For a surgeon, used to judging best and worst case while holding the knife or the protoplaser, the situation is all too familiar. But in this case the “knife” is Ael, and the patients on the table—the Romulans, and the Federation, and Jim and Spock, and Ael herself—are caught in a kill-or-cure situation larger and more deadly than any one practitioner should have to handle. Yet in the end, the success or failure of the entire operation may lie with McCoy,with a word spoken or left unsaid at just the right moment…
Kirk, Spock and McCoy all find themselves caught up in the initial meetings with the Romulan “diplomatic” group, and (after that) in the skirmishes which ensue when the diplomats turn assassin—when the Romulans attacking Ael miss their target (though they do not miss the Federation vessels then shielding her), and when Ael seemingly flees with Bloodwing for the Neutral Zone in the wake of her attackers, in circumstances which make it unclear whether she has betrayed her hosts to her attackers or is pursuing them with intent to kill…or both. In the confusion, Enterprise is one of the ships sent after her with instructions to, if possible, capture Ael and bring her back to Federation space to clarify matters…but if not, to determine as far as possible what’s happening, to keep the war about to break out from spilling out of the Zone into Federation space, and above all not to interfere. Ael herself, Starfleet tells Kirk, must be sacrificed to circumstances, and to the other Romulans, if necessary. She is the spark in the powderkeg, and must be allowed to “burn out” in her own way, succeeding or failing in the rebellion which she has purposely or inadvertently instigated. But as the War starts, James Kirk is faced with the choice which will affect its beginning and its end. Risk a career and defy orders to help a friend? Leave her to her own devices, as ordered, to die alone? Or find a third way out that no one, not even he, could have predicted?
And at the back of it all, Starfleet, and the Senators running the Romulan Empire, watch to see if the Game will play itself out the way they think it will, rather than the way the gaming pieces think it will go…
Over the course of the books, the Second Romulan War breaks out in earnest (its initial battle having happened at the end of book 1), involving the Federation, the Klingons, the Rihannsu, and many of the Romulan Empire’s subject worlds. At the end of the war, at the end of the books, the Romulan Empire is in a rather different shape (reduced in size, but both stronger and somewhat less hostile), which suits the Federation; the Klingons are in disarray—which definitely also suits the Federation; the Federation is somewhat bruised; but satisfied enough with the way things have turned out; and matters have taken a most unusual turn, for the Rihannsu force Ael to become Empress. She attempts to resist this. But realizing that her catalyst status (and the fact that she has dared to touch the Sword, an act reserved for a leader of the Romulan people) has put her in a unique position—and that all her talk about duty has finally come home to roost—she accepts, on the condition that her people must be prepared to accept her as an Empress indeed, an old-fashioned despot. Our understanding, though, is that she will be a benevolent despot: her intention is to drag her people, kicking and screaming if necessary, back to the old honorable ways. To the Federation, and James Kirk, she says, “We will be closing down our borders for a good while to ‘set our house in order.’ Do not expect to see us, or hear from us, for a long, long time. And when you do see us again, we may not look or seem to you anything like the way we seem now….”
And so it comes to pass. The Neutral Zone remains quiet for many years…into the Next Generation…and we are left (knowing about TNG, and the Romulans we see in that time) to wonder what in the worlds happened to Ael and her plans. Did they go wrong in some spectacular fashion? Did they go right—and then founder? Or did her attempt to redirect a whole culture back into an older pattern take some turning that neither she nor anyone else expected? Only the stars looking silently down on ch’Rihan and ch’Havran know: and they will make no answer…