by Michelle Knowlden
My job is to help you fall in love.
~ Science Fiction Author Ray Bradbury’s 1995 Speech at Brown University.
I love to plot. Plotting makes writing the best job ever. It’s where we get paid to daydream.
Want to daydream with me? Would you like to plot your next short story, novella, or novel with no pain and all the bliss? Join me for this three part adventure series. You might say “I love to plot” too.
I don’t understand writers who have to work at it. I like to play. I’m interested in having fun with ideas, throwing them up in the air like confetti and then running under them.
~ Ray Bradbury
Most writers have a folder of ideas, some a file cabinet, others a storage unit. If that’s you, pick a favorite.
If your idea box is empty, grab something from your fridge, your childhood, or a headline. Any noun will do. At a conference, Dean Wesley Smith said that a writer can write about anything, even a microphone. I took that challenge, but the microphone idea seemed too easy. I wrote about floor tile instead with a future forensic bent. One of the best short stories I’ve written.
PLANT YOUR IDEA
My stories run up and bite me in the leg — I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off.
~ Ray Bradbury
An idea needs a bit more to grow, so let’s shop for genre, setting, size, and characters. Don’t fuss over it. If you feel driven to jot notes, use the backs of envelopes or the margins of your electric bill. We are daydreaming a premise. You can do this in the shower, while you’re washing dishes, or walking the dog. Easy-peasy.
Pick a genre.
Check out the variety! I’d advise selecting a genre you enjoy reading or one you’ve always wanted to try. I wrote mysteries, science fiction, and mild horror for ages, because I thought that’s what I should do. In the past five years, I’ve experimented with juvenile SF, juvenile fantasy, YA dystopia, YA contemporary romance, shifter romance, and historical fiction. Some are even published.
Don’t overthink the category. Choose what excites you.
Pick a Setting.
Locations are trickier. Lots out there. I’d recommend that you select a place you know well. For my first Micky Cardex mystery story, I picked Madison, Wisconsin. I’d never been there, but I wanted to use the line “Don’t be ridiculous. No one gets cholera in Wisconsin.” Fourteen Micky Cardex stories were published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Every time I churned out another one, I had to deal with Wisconsin in all its exotic unfamiliarity.
Did I learn from that? I’m currently writing a novel partly set in Messina, Sicily. Never been there either.
Pick a length.
Not that this is set in stone, but word count helps determine the complexity of the plot and characters. Don’t worry about it. Just grab a size off the shelf: short story (10 to 30 pages), novella (50 to 150 pages) or novel (200-400 pages). Page counts are approximate. I’m sure yours will fit.
Pick a pack of people.
You’ll be spending time with them, so choose ones that you like, or that you love to loathe, or whose shiny imperfections don’t grate. No need to know much about them. They’ll evolve anyway. Keep it to two or three to start—the minimum your idea needs. When your laundry runs long or the bank line isn’t moving, dream up a quick line about your main character(s).
The premise of my Abishag mystery series was about female college students who hire out as contract wives (bed warmers) for wealthy vegetative, hospice patients. My main character, Leslie Greene, was a college student who couldn’t keep a job and had no money to pay for her next school term. Those two sentences kicked off a four book series.
YOUR IDEA GERMINATES
Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.
~ Ray Bradbury
Let your concept take root and send shoots through the soil. Fill in blank spots on that envelope. Ask questions. Your daydreaming might look something like this …
For the first Abishag book, I asked:
Why couldn’t Leslie keep a job? She’s too argumentative, too mission-oriented.
Does she have friends? She’ll need one to tell her about contract wives. Maybe one or two that will help her after she marries.
About the Abishag concept: What state and federal laws legalize the practice of bed warmers? A parent’s signature is needed if they are less than twenty-one. Add laws that protect the patient’s wealth. How would potential wives be selected for the vegetative rich guys? Through licensed agencies that provide legal support for hospice patients and training for Abishag wives.
Since I picked Palos Verdes as my setting, what is the vegetative husband’s background? A widowed businessman with a neurotic hands-off daughter. What mystery would Leslie solve? The true 1960s story of a Greek freighter shipwrecked in nearby Lunada Bay might work. How would a shipwreck from the distant past put Leslie in danger now? Hmm…
I had loads of fun daydreaming about this, but I tried to keep it simple. We are only world-building on a premise, a molecule of the final product. Time for details later.
Love Your Premise
Now you can rough-out a book description from the ideas on your envelope. Three sentences should do it. Remember to include (1) the premise, (2) your main character and how he or she gets involved, and (3) stuff you like to read. The reason for that last one? Since you’ll be spending time writing this book, why not include what you find engaging?
The book description for my first Abishag mystery, Sinking Ships, was:
After signing with the Abishag agency (a firm that supplies temporary wives to comfort dying men), Leslie marries a comatose 83-year-old executive. Armed with the Handbook for Abishag Wives, Leslie arrives at Thomas Crowder’s Palos Verdes home … and finds a dead hospice aide.
A Portuguese shipwreck and an antique stack of hidden ledgers led to the murder, and now only her university housemates stand between Leslie and a vengeful killer.
Since I packed those sentences with what I love, I couldn’t wait to find out more. Tweak your three sentences till you fall in love with yours. It will keep you focused as you continue to plot. Added bonus? You’ll have a draft book description when you complete your manuscript, which you can finesse for either indie publishing or for querying agents and traditional publishers.
More daydreaming is in store for part two of this series on plotting when we explore the promise of your story. You will watch your tale unfold on your mind theater screen, and see the details that will fill in a handy-dandy sheet I’ll talk about in part three.
Did you create a premise? Do you love it? Let me know in the comments.
Don’t forget popcorn for next time. I’ll bring confetti.
Between 1992 and 2011, Michelle Knowlden published 14 stories with Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. The 1998 story “No, Thank You, John” was nominated for a Shamus award. Many of these stories have been included in anthologies and translated in multiple languages. She also published a science fiction story for the More Amazing Stories anthology published by Tor and another for Daily Science Fiction.
More recent mysteries include the Abishag mystery quartet, Jack Fell Down (Deluded Detective Series Book One), Egrets I’ve Had a Few (Deluded Detective Series Book Two) and The Admiral of Signal Hill, all of which are available on Amazon.
She has also written a 1920s romance under the name Michelle Dutton, and collaborated with Neal Shusterman on several YA Sci-Fi stories, including Dark Matter (An X-Files Novel) for HarperCollins under the name Easton Royce and Unstrung, an e-novella in Neal’s Unwind world published by Simon & Schuster.
After leaving an engineering career of many years, Michelle lives in California with her family and writes full-time. Check out Michelle’s Amazon Author Page!
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