Holly Lisle's Workshop

Issue #1: 01/01/01

Feature Articles
Making Histories
By J.S. Burke
Women and Childbearing 
in Fantasy

By Bryn Neuenschwander
Matching Your Money to Your World 
By Ron Brown
Capturing Time for the Muse
By Vicki McElfresh
In Praise of Praise:
A Second Look at Critiquing

By Lazette Gifford
Building a Better Beast
By Sarah Jane Elliott
State of the Horror Genre
By Ron Brown
Poetry and Everyday  Life
By Jennifer St. Clair Bush
Your Characters Are 
Not Puppets

By Anne M. Marble
Science Fiction: 
Are We Going Somewhere 

By Bob Billing
Stage & Screen: 
The Promise of Premise
By Robin Catesby
Suspense & Mystery:
The Motives of Villains 
and Heroes in Suspense Fiction
By Shane P. Carr
Young Adult & Children:
The Gulf
By Justin Stanchfield
Young Writer's Scene:
Five Practical Tips for Young Writers
By Beth Adele Long
Book Reviews
Web Site Reviews
How Critique Circles Work
By Jim Mills
Doggerel Contest Winner
News from Forward Motion

Here are the rules of order used at meetings---far better in my opinion than Robert's Rules of Order.

1) No throwing of objects not actually owned by you.

2) No dueling indoors.

3) Absolutely no blood on the carpet, or on any latex flat-painted surface.

4) Anyone making allegations of questionable parentage about another writer must be prepared to provide proof.

5) Payment for all emergency medical services and supplies required during the course of the meeting are the sole responsibility of the person or persons who made them necessary.

Holly Lisle

Schrodinger's Petshop Writer's Group Rules of Order  From:
Mugging the Muse

Free Download from HollyLisle.com



Beyond the Basics – Creating the Professional Plot Outline 

By Holly Lisle

Copyright 2001, By Holly Lisle


Creating the general story arc   

If you start already knowing the beginning and the ending of your story, you're ahead of the game. If you don't, though, all is not lost. In this workshop we're going to develop a complete novel or short story plot, starting with a basic idea and finishing with a complete outline you can use to write your story or, in the case of a novel, to pitch the story to an agent or publisher. 

So let's get started. 

First a couple of interesting facts. It's tougher to come up with ideas for short stories than it is to come up with novel ideas. Novels are much less dependent on a single central idea. Next, although breaking into either market is tough, you'll actually have an easier time selling a first novel than a first short story in a professional market. Finally, novels pay better. 

With those points in mind, then, let's develop a suitable idea for a story.

You can develop an idea from any of a number of directions. Start with a character, or a theme, or worldbuilding, or an idea that you got from researching. For this workshop, I'll use an idea developed from worldbuilding AND character development.

I like my character Cadence Drake, so I'll use her as the main character in this workshop. From her previous book, I know that she is a finder of lost things primarily hired by corporations who can afford her high fees, that she lost her best friend in a firefight, that she has a really cool experimental prototype spaceship for which she does not have legal paperwork, and, though this may or may not be relevant for this book, she has injected herself with a serum that is toxic to the recombinantly-created vampires who have developed a powerful cabal in her universe.  

Just rehashing this abbreviated biography has given me some clues to the story I want to write next. And some things I don't want to write, as well. 

I don't want to follow up on the vampire thread in this second story; I developed a huge universe for Cady, and I don't want to get bogged down in that one tiny facet of it and have the books stereotyped as vampire books. I do want to follow up on the death of Badger, Cady's long-time best friend and sometime lover, who was killed in a firefight. And I have discovered a device to get me into the story, as well.

Cadence doesn't have legal papers for her ship, the Corrigan's Blood, which she acquired when one of her employers tried to kill her in lieu of paying her. The employer ended up dead instead, and Cadence helped herself to his ship. I see the entry point to this story being the fact that if Cady is going to keep this ship - and she IS going to keep this ship - she has to acquire some good fake papers for it. And fast. 

So from the following tiny bit of background: 

best friend & partner dead 

piloting stolen spaceship 

profession is finder of lost things for well-heeled clients 

I have my opening set-up. Cadence is going to go looking for a place to get quality fake papers, and because the rightful owner of the ship is dead under suspicious, even dreadful, circumstances, she has to get the papers from someone not inclined to ask questions. This suggests moving into a dangerous situation, and I think she'll meet a dangerous but interesting character - one who is willing to give her the papers she wants in exchange for the barter of her services. He'll give her time-limited interim papers, and in exchange she'll find something important of his that has gone missing. 

We'll worry about what that is later. For now, I have a solid opening for this new novel that accomplishes the following essential tasks: 

Introduces my main character 

Gives her a motive for moving from a situation of danger into a situation of more danger 

Brings in a second character of less than sterling reputation for the hero to play off 

Time for you to do the same. With any combination of character development, worldbuilding, theme, and/or research, put together a story opener that meets those three goals. If you're a community member, you can work this out on the exercise board, where you can get feedback. If you're not a member, you can join here. Or develop this on paper at home.   

Got your opener now? Good. Let's move on to your ending. 

If your first reaction is, "What am I going to do with an ending when I have only the foggiest idea of my beginning, and none whatsoever of my middle?" don't worry.  You aren't going to do a completely written-out chapter. All you're going to do is figure out a basic landing pad for your story. 

In my case, I'll make the following decisions: 

Cadence will live (the survival of the main character is not always a given in my books, and eventually Cadence will make an irreversibly fatal mistake - but not this book) 

She will find what she's been sent to find 

It will not be what she was led to expect, and this surprise will nearly cost her her life, and will prove fatal to at least one person the reader has come to know (though not necessarily to like) 

She will have her reckoning with the man who used her 

Maybe she will get her papers - that I'll decide later.

Okay - next part of your workshop. Go back to your original entry and figure out in general terms how you want the story to end. Try to answer the following questions:

Does your protagonist succeed or fail in gaining the objective you gave him in your opener? 

Does your story come to an emotionally satisfying conclusion? 

Can you see yourself going through anywhere from ten pages to seven hundred and being happy to see the story end this way?  

Roughing starter scenes 

You have your beginning and your ending. Now we need to add some middle, throw in some neat twists and turns, and give you something so great to work on that you'll be excited about sitting down to work on your book every day. 

So we're going to build some candybar scenes to move you from first word in your story to last. 

I've mentioned candy-bar scenes before. They're my analogy for scenes you can't resist writing - your big set piece scenes. In these scenes, your characters will fight battles, save lives or take them, fall into or out of love, meet their enemies in unexpected places, chase or be chased. 

You don't need to work these out in any great detail. A line or two to give you something to shoot for is all you need. Even order doesn't matter at this point - that will come as you start fleshing your story out. 

For example, I know in this story that I'm starting to tell now, I want the following things: 

a great spaceship dogfight 

Cadence meets a potential new partner 

meeting up with Tangerine  

run-in with a one of the minions of the stellar-regional underground that ends in a gunfight 

Cadence sides with the underworld against area law enforcement, which is holding whatever she's after 

A recent acquaintance is murdered in terrible circumstances, and law enforcement arrests Cady 

The person she suspects of the murder breaks her out of the jail at great personal risk

And so on . . . 

Every scene I jot down spurs ideas for more scenes. As I run with this, I'll put together enough main scenes to peg into my novel, and then start creating transitional scenes to move me from on "candybar scene" to the next. 

How many is enough? Depends on what you want to write. There's no set number for any project, but you need at least three scenes for all but the shortest short stories, and at least one big scene per chapter for novels. A 125,000 word novel can have thirty or forty chapters (or more) with two or three scenes in each. I use ten pages as my scene-length estimate, and either twenty or thirty pages as my chapter-length estimate, and work from there. 

Your turn. Go back to your previous entry and click Edit, and sketch in between three and sixty one-line scene ideas. I suggest coming up with more than you think you're going to need, because if my experience doing this is any guide, some of your first ideas will be unusably bad. 

 Adding twists and surprises 

When you've finished jotting down your initial scene ideas, it's time to fix the fixably bad, and add some surprises to the already good. I'll give you a couple of demos. Take the following entry from my previous list of scenes: 

a great spaceship dogfight

Yeah, well - it's been done, hasn't it? What can I do with a dogfight in space that years of Star Wars movies, Battlestar Galactica TV shows, and space opera novels haven't done?

To find a unique twist to my dogfight, I'm going to look at my worldbuilding. When you discover that you have a potential cliché under development, don't panic and rip the scene from the book. Not without seeing if you can move beyond the cliché, anyway. Dig deeper - look at your worldbuilding, your character development, or your research to bring something to the story that wasn't there before.

In the case of the dogfight, I'm going to focus on the hyperspatial capabilities of the Corrigan's Blood as developed in the first book and in my background. The CB has a Trans-Fold Navigational unit (more popularly called an origami drive) on board that, with the help of other drives in other realities, folds hyperspace into a neat decahedron around the ship. The ship can then move in any of ten directions, but only some of those ten (and away from heavily traveled routes, sometimes none) have ever been mapped. Unlike ships which have a normal TFN drive, the Corrigan's Blood has no governor to prevent it taking uncharted routes. This has potential - if, for example, I give the enemy that Cadence ends up dogfighting an equally capable ship, the two could take evasive maneuvers through hyperspace, and through successive maneuvers could become so completely lost in unknown and uncharted space that in order for either to survive, both must agree to a truce and collaborate. I kind of like that. Now in order to make it work, I'll need to figure out who the enemy is, why he attacked, how much damage each did to the other's ship, and what measures each had to take to arrive at a truce. 

With these details and this approach, my dogfight will not be just another clichéd shoot-out. 

Time for you to take a turn at adding twists and surprises to your plot. Choose one of the most overused of your ideas. Use background, character development, research, or your story's theme - or any combination of these - to make your cliché into something extraordinary. 

On your own, use this same scrutiny to challenge the direction and content of each scene - not just the clichéd ones, but the fairly solid ones and the ones that really sing to you. Don't accept your first vision for any scene as the way it must be.

I can't overemphasize the importance of this. I think the comment about my work that I receive most often from readers, critics and editors is, "I thought I knew where you were going with that scene/ chapter/ novel, but you completely surprised me. I think it's significant that the element of surprise was the thing about my first novel that Josepha Sherman, the editor who pulled it out of the slush pile, emphasized over and over again in discussing with me why she had decided to recommend the book to the publisher. If I have one "trade secret," one technique that I developed on my own that has helped me sell not just the first book but the twenty-plus novels that followed it, that's it. I'm willing to take a second look at clichés and figure out how to turn them into something new, which is a great way to lull readers into a false sense of security.

Making everything add up 

This is the process I use for developing novels. The outline that I get the first time through is subject to revision, cutting, rearranging, and midcourse correction. It's a working document - a tool - and as such it is never really finished. It is a reflection of where the novel is, and where I think it is going, and I usually abandon it completely three-quarters of the way through my book. But it's always there when I need to rethink something. 

It will be there for you, too. A good plot outline can be any dedicated writer's best friend.

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