On August 18th I challenged myself to actually do some of the writing exercises I’ve recommended to others. That led to one success and one failure. The last of them we’ll cover this week, as part of a series of posts on using note cards to plot your novel. Here’s the challenge as I laid it out last month:

And last but not least:

I’m still not done with that whole exercise of using note cards to plot out a novel. I’m using the note cards I made that inspired that first post to populate an outline and they were instructive, but this never really took off for me. Or more accurately, it hasn’t yet taken off for me.

In “Outlining with Note Cards, Part 2: Seeking Wisdom,” I mentioned Holly Lisle’s advice on “Plotting Under Pressure.” I’m going to do this: create a plot like this, then write it start-to-finish in November as part of . . .

. . . drum roll, please . . .


I kinda tried to start that once, five years ago, but let’s say that this year, we’ll actually make it happen. So let’s get that note card plot started the first week in September, do some worldbuilding in October, and write the dang thing in November.

Click over and read that post from Holly Lisle, I’ll wait.

Okay, welcome back.

This sounded like fun to me, and you know what? It was fun.

Let’s take this in order, starting with Ms. Lisle’s “Preliminaries”:

In order to create this plot out of thin air, you’re going to have to do a bit of book dissection. You’re going to have to guess about the following things in advance:

  • Who are the primary viewpoint characters in the book?
  • How long do you want the book to be?
  • How long do you want each scene to be?

I already had an idea. For a long time I’ve wanted to write a dungeon crawl in space.

I won’t bore you with another treatise on how much I love space opera science fiction, and you know I’m a gamer from way back. These are two great loves that, like peanut butter and chocolate, are destined to be together.

Available now!

Available now!

I also recently wrote a short story for the Pro Se Productions anthology Write to the Cover called “Bella Lucky and the Titan of Tarvos.” Bella Lucky is my homage to Isaac Asimov’s Lucky Starr, mixed with all the great pulp archetypes, and conjured up in the form of a cop in the far future. The basic space opera premise, also well in keeping with Asimov’s setting for Lucky Starr—but made my own, of course—is that humankind has colonized the solar system. Bella Lucky is Saturnian, and her beat includes all the many moons of Saturn. I had a great time with Bella and wanted to send her off on more adventures, so when this exercise came up, she was the first person I thought of. She didn’t even have to audition.

You know I love monsters, too, so this will be Bella vs. monsters in the space opera version of a “dungeon.” I picked out an interesting moon that starts with the letter M and voila! Bella Lucky and the Monsters of Methone is (almost) born.

Thinking back to my own advice, via Dani Shapiro, to start off writing a short, bad book, and with November—National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)—coming up, this is a natural.

I need to write a short, bad, fun pulp space opera dungeon crawl starring a character I already feel pretty secure with.

Go me.

So following Holly Lisle’s advice, mixed with NaNoWriMo’s basic parameters and the dungeon crawl concept I knew that Bella would be my primary POV character, and she would be part of a “dungeon party” that should also include some space opera version of a magic-user, a thief, and a cleric. Bella’s a “fighter.” One of the other three is the suspected villain, and another of the other three is the actual villain.

This is me also taking my own advice to use role-playing games as storytelling resources—as long as you make them your own.

What a space opera version of a magic-user or a cleric looks like is something I haven’t quite nailed down yet, but there will be no magic or gods in this future solar system, so we’ll see. The cleric is a doctor, I guess, right?

NaNoWriMo says 50,000 words—sounds like a short book to me, so 50,000 words it is.

I have established on my own that the perfect chapter is 2500 words, so that’s how long my “scenes” are going to be. That means I need twenty of them to make 50,000 words.

That math is simple enough even I can do it! (With a calculator.)

Continuing to take Ms. Lisle’s advice I broke out those scenes by POV, so that the primary POV character (Bella) gets the most, the second POV character gets some more, and the other two share the rest. I went with Bella: 10, Dr. Niu (the villain/cleric): 6, Stas (the suspected villain, magic-user): 2, and last but not least Hunter (thief): 2. I like multiple POVs as much or more than the next guy, but this book really feels as though it would benefit from a tighter focus on Bella, so she gets a full half the book.

Then Holly Lisle says:

Break Out the Index Cards

This next bit is pure fun.

And boy was it ever.

I counted out twenty index cards: one per chapter/scene. For now, I’m considering each chapter a scene, though there’s no particular reason that has to be true.

At the top of each index card I wrote the POV character’s name, so ten cards said BELLA, six cards said Dr. NIU, two cards said STAS, and two cards said HUNTER.

Then I started writing out scenes, as Holly Lisle recommends, in no particular order.

I knew I wanted this story to be a dungeon crawl, so that means it needs MONSTERS and TRAPS/TRICKS. In most of these scenes I wrote those first, making sure that there were a lot of both, with a few more monsters than traps/tricks.

Because I like monsters, and that’s good enough reason for lots of monsters.

Here are a few examples of those random scenes:


injured by MONSTER

has to rely on Dr. Niu

Note that I’m already starting to think in terms of characters interacting with each other. And that’s just as much detail as I currently have for that scene.

Dr. Niu

alone, gathers data, releases


This is the villain doing something villainous.


saves the day by overcoming


has doubts about Bella

Note that in this scene, a character does something active, and in so doing, interacts in an interesting (I hope) way with another character in the story.


has to fight


all by herself

Because this is, after all, a story about Bella Lucky and the Monsters of Methone.

Here’s the card with the most text:


discovers the truth about Dr. Niu

-tries to tell Bella

-leaves message, but interrupted by


Dr. Niu leaves him to die

Bella shows up just too late

This scene idea inspired some thinking about Bella and her basic character arc. In the short story it’s established that Bella is a pretty good cop. She tries really hard and just loves every second of it. She has courage and brains to spare, but she’s still not terribly good at it. In particular, she has some trouble with the physical skills—she can’t shoot to save her life and her driving leaves something to be desired. But as her name implies, she has almost supernatural good luck. In this story she’s learned to rely on that luck, and I need to punish her for that. She needs to know that she can’t always rely on luck, especially when other people’s lives hang in the balance. This will be a revelation Bella has to grow through. This “complex” scene drives to that when she fails to prevent (spoiler alert!) Dr. Niu from killing Hunter.

I really let myself have a ball with this, though it was a little more difficult when it comes to putting the scenes in the order you want. But I did that, and did it pretty quickly.

What I’ve ended up with is the fastest though most basic, almost entirely detail-free start on an outline I’ve ever put together. It will definitely make for a short, bad book.

Or will it?

Remember: No plan survives contact with the enemy.

So after I start fleshing these basic scenes out, inventing monsters, doing more worldbuilding, thinking much deeper into the characters, and so on, I hereby leave myself open to better ideas. I wonder how close to this 20-index card rough outline I’ll be when I actually start writing?

I know for sure it will bear only a passing resemblance to the finished short, bad book.

And that will fall away in the revision (and expansion—50,000 words is kinda not quite long enough for me) process.

Still, I feel pretty good about what I’m armed with and I can see making a go of this in November.

I wouldn’t use this approach if I were sitting down to write the Great American Novel, but it was perfect for a NaNoWriMo space opera dungeon crawl.

Try it!


—Philip Athans




About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
This entry was posted in Books, Dungeons & Dragons, horror novels, how to write fiction, monsters, NaNoWriMo, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, RPG, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, Science Fiction Story, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing horror, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. mjtedin says:

    I think the answer to your question about who is the magic user in a Space Opera is the tech guy. The computer whiz who can fix any technology and write software to make it work.

    • Philip Athans says:

      I did go in that direction, but I’m worried that might be too obvious? Now I’m kind of leaning toward some kind of consultant/professor type–less about the tech than the “book learnin'” behind it? Hmm… thinking…

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