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'08 Authors Insider Tips

Everything About Epublishing
by Angela James
Epublishing: A Different Way
Choosing an Epublisher
Your Milage May Vary
Understand Your Contract!
Reasonable Expectations

by Louisa Burton
The Publishing Biz
Critiquing: To Give and ...
Commerical vs. Literary...
Antiformalism for Fun &...
So You Want to Write a Novel
The Story Idea
Planning Your Novel...

The Write Stuff
by Ashley Lister
5 Steps to Success
Opening Passages
Let's Get Critical
Writer's Block
Learning Lessons

Two Girls Kissing
by Amie M. Evans
Be a Finisher ...
Listen to Your Characters
Conferences: Act Now ...
Starting an Erotic Story
Exercises & Writing Prompts
Revising & Rewriting
Copy Editing
The Manuscript Critique
How to Submit Your Work
Reading as Craft

Guest Appearances

Adventures in e-Publishing
by Lisabet Sarai

For the Love of Man
by Laura Baumbach

How to...Influence Editors
by Alison Tyler

Marketing your e-Book
by Brenna Lyons

2008 Smutters Lounge

Ashley Lister Submits
by Ashley Lister
Role Play
Busy Doing Nothing
Picture of a Fish & Chip...
What I Did With My Summer

Cooking Up A Storey
by Donna George Storey
Naughty Cookies...
Tie Me Up, Please …
The Smut-Writer’s Holiday
Never Trust the Narrator ...
Compare and Contrast
Following the Pen
Naked at the Farmers Market
Iím Easy, But Iím No Slut
Good Girl Gone Bad
Pleasures of the Dark Side
Slow, Spare and Sexy

Get All Worked Up
with J.T. Benjamin
Raising Daughters
Jamie Lynn
The Good Old Days
Election '08
Traditional Marriage
Campaign 2008
Free Will

Pondering Porn
with Ann Regentin
Masturbating on SSRIs
Sex and Disability
Besides Ourselves
Adjusting our Contrast

Sex Is All Metaphors
by Jean Roberta
Sex Is All Metaphors
Turn-ons and Squicks
Sexual Truth
Fickle Muse
Porn, Erotica & Romance

Provocative Interviews

Between the Lines
with Ashley Lister
Alison Tyler
Ashley Lister
Debra Hyde
Donna George Storey
Jeremy Edwards
Kristina Wright
Rachel Kramer Bussel

Erotic Hot Spots
by William S. Dean
Interview with Tilly Greene
Interview with Devyn Quinn

Getting Graphic
with William S. Dean
New Times for Readers...
The Future in Words ...
Interview with Fantagraphics

On Writing Erotica

The Accidental Pornographer
by Lisabet Sarai

The End of Innocence
by Lisabet Sarai

Get Them Off in High Style
Helena Settimana

So, You Want To Write Erotica?
by Hanne Blank

Web Gems
Hot Movies For Her


by Louisa Burton

Planning Your Novelóor Not


My favorite bon mot about writing (this week) is this frequently quoted little gem from W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Talking about writing methods is like talking about religion and politics. The reason Mama always said not to do it at the dinner table is ‘cause nobody likes blood in their shrimp bisque. It’s just amazing to me how many novelists insist, when writing articles like this or teaching classes, on preaching The Gospel of The One Right Way.

Readers of my column are probably sick of hearing me repeat this mantra of mine, but I’ll say it again: Writing is an art, not a science. There is no One Right Way, a fact that is simultaneously encouraging (“I’m on my own!”) and dismaying (“I’m on my own.”). Writing is a personal, solitary endeavor, in which you’re synthesizing something brand spanking new from your own raw gray matter. Just as no one can write in that one way that is uniquely yours, no one can dictate your working methods.

There are as many ways to write a novel as there are novel­ists, but for the most part they fall into one of two major camps: pre-planning and non-planning.

Pre-planners do a lot of pondering and studying and note-taking before they begin Chapter 1. They typically create character sketches, at least for their primary characters. They collect their research in neatly labeled files or electronic notebooks, like Microsoft One Note. They fill index cards with plot elements. They create outlines and working synopses beforehand even if they aren’t needed for a proposal. They pin maps and pictures to their walls. Sometimes they even spend an entire summer creating a colossal map of mid-12th century London featuring every actual building that was known to exist then, each one carefully dated and color coded. Because some of them value thoroughness even if their husbands think they just don’t know when to stop.

Non-planners typically come up with an idea, roughly sketch out their protagonists and a basic plot thrust, and then go for it. The most extreme non-planners write entirely by the seat of their pants, although many will complete part of the book and then go back and do the preparatory work before finishing. In fact, that may be the most common working method of all, a sort of half and half approach.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both methods. You may already know which method is right for you. Maybe you’ve been writing for years, and you’ve got your system down pat. Or maybe you’re just getting started on your first novel, and you’re totally perplexed as to how to proceed. The most important thing to remember is: There Is No One Right Way.

A few years ago, I conducted an online survey on this subject among published novelists. Specifically, I asked for writers who felt strongly about the subject to discuss whether they pre-planned or not, and if they pre-planned, what systems they used. I got a lot of thought-provoking responses, including a few posts by writers who were absolutely convinced that the only way to write quality fiction was their way. The non-planners’ position was generally that any kind of plotting stifled the mental freedom that is essential to the creative process. The most obdurate of the pre-planning fascists (I’m allowed to call him that because as you may have guessed from the London map confession, I’m a card-carrying obsessive compulsive planner) was a guy who absolutely refused to believe that a decent book could be written without working out every tiny little detail ahead of time on about 5,000 3x5 cards.

From these responses, from my own experience, and from discussing this topic with other writers and listening to presentations on it at conferences, I’ve come up with what I think are the basic pros and cons of pre-planning and non-planning.

The Advantages of Pre-planning:

Pre-planning is almost certain to reduce revision time. A universal refrain among the non-planners who shared their working methods with me was the need to go back through what they’d written, both during the writing process and afterward, to clean up problems that resulted from not sorting things through ahead of time. Now, a certain amount of self-editing is always necessary, no matter how you work—it’s an intrinsic part of the novel-writing process—but for non-planners, it’s usually a much more major and time-consuming part of the process. If you started writing without thinking through your protagonist’s motivation, for instance, at some point, you’re going to have to go back and work it into the fabric of the story—create backstory, plant the appropriate little seeds... With pre-planning, these elements are generally included on the first draft.

Pre-planning the right way can result in richer, more complex characters and situations, because you think them through ahead of time. Possibilities crystallize; subplots gel; research yields story ideas; characters influence the direction of the story before you’ve even written the first word. You can avoid certain pitfalls that will weaken your original concept and keep it from being properly executed, such as shifting conflicts, too many conflicts, or weak conflicts. This process of thinking things through ahead of time can result in a clarity of artistic vision, cleaner, more coherent prose, and a tighter storyline. Instead of blundering around in a haphazard way, you know in advance where you’re headed and how you plan to get there, so you have a better chance of ending up with the story you wanted to end up with. It’s simply easier to visualize your story as a whole if you know what that story is: what its beginning, middle, and end are. And you can more successfully incorporate your through-line and fundamental theme into the story if you plan it out in advance.

A big plus: If you already know your story’s beginning, middle, and end, you are far less likely to fall prey to writer’s block and sagging middles. Finding yourself six months into a novel you don’t know how to continue—or end—can be crippling, not to mention intensely demoralizing. With pre-planning, you’ll stay on course because there’s a course to stay on.

A frequent criticism of pre-planning by non-planners is that it stifles creativity, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. When I don’t know where I’m going with a story—and yes, I’ve experimented with different working methods—it makes me distracted and nervous. I tend to fret about plot issues when I should be losing myself in the story. Having a solid structure to work with, knowing I can alter it at will, enables me to relax and invest emotionally in the scene I’m writing. If you’re into it, it will show. Your reader will get into it, too. You have to go along on the ride if you expect your reader to.

The Advantages of Non-planning:

If you’re basically making it up as you go along, you may find it easier to maintain a magical sense of wonder about your story, a feeling that anything can happen. That’s an important feeling to have working for you as part of the creative process. If it’s lacking, your story can turn out feeling predictable and ho-hum.

By working this way, you’ll avoid a common hazard of pre-planning, which is over-plotting. Writers who plot their stories out too rigidly, with every scene carved in stone ahead of time, run the risk of ending up with a novel that may be technically deft but lacking any real sense of spontaneity, surprise, or excitement. Great stories, the ones that really transport us, always feel as if they’re unfolding naturally, with each decision-driven event leading inevitably to the next, and so on. As you’re writing, you may find that your story has begun to take on a life of its own, and that the stuff that was supposed to happen in Chapter 6 no longer feels like a natural progression from Chapter 5. There are writers who work out each of these all-important turning points ahead of time and refuse to deviate from them even when their characters are screaming, “But I would never do that! Your reader is gonna know I would never do that! I’ll get there, but can I please get there in a way that makes some sense?”

If the lightning bolt of inspiration strikes you, and you sit down at your computer and hit the ground running, you’ve got a certain kind of intense and valuable energy working for you. That’s why many novelists write a couple of chapters and then stop and pre-plan—to capitalize on that energy. And also, of course, to become acquainted with their characters and situation before they commit themselves to the time and mental energy needed to plot the whole thing out.

Probably the most eloquent proponent of the non-planning approach is Stephen King. In his wonderful book, On Writing, he argues that “plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” He describes stories as relics of an undiscovered world that need to be gradually and carefully unearthed by the writer, and he likens the use of plot to a jackhammer that’s bound to destroy as much of the story as it uncovers. “I lean more heavily on intuition,” he writes, “and I’ve been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story.” He can also do that successfully, I believe, because his storytelling instincts are so highly evolved. Conflict, motivation, suspense... These elements are as instinctive to him as breathing.

Food for Thought:

In my opinion, if you pre-plan the right way, you can avoid or at least minimize the risks I’ve just discussed. You can maintain a sense of wonder and energy, and still know where you’re going with your story.

As I said, I’m wary of plotting novels out scene by scene before you begin writing, since that tends to stifle the natural evolution of the story, making it feel contrived and artificial. And trying to break your story material into chapters before you even start writing is pointless, since your chapter breaks will suggest themselves as you go along. It’s very helpful, however, to know the basic structure of the story. I think of it as “macro” planning rather than “micro” planning. Visualize a house under construction. The framework should be there before you begin, but you don’t have to have the interior layout finalized. You don’t have to know where all the plumbing and electrical will be installed. You can even add or subtract whole rooms as the house is being built, if need be.

As you’re writing, ideas for scenes and bits of business will come to you, usually when you’re in the dentist’s chair or somewhere where there’s no paper and pencil available. Definitely document all this wonderful stuff, and use it. It is okay to start working ahead of yourself and filling in your macro structure with micro stuff once you’re actually writing the story. It can also be helpful to picture each scene in its entirety before you write it. Run the filmstrip through your head first, so that you know the emotional roller coaster you want to take your reader on in that scene.

About drafts: The less you plan ahead, the more drafts you’ll probably end up writing, because of all that revision. A pre-planner who massages and edits as he/she goes along may produce only one draft, which is essentially final quality except for the inevitable tweaks and corrections during one or more hard-copy read-throughs at the end.

If you enjoy the revision process, as many writers do—I’d rather eat ground glass—then maybe you were born to be a non- or partial-planner. If you enjoy solving puzzles and thinking through problems, you might just be a natural pre-planner. Plotting a novel, especially a complex one, can be intellectually grueling. It’s often a torment, getting everything to work out just right. If you can manage it, though, you might find yourself more creatively loose during the actual writing.

Sometimes the book itself will determine whether you can write it on the fly or will need to sort the plot out in advance. A big suspense novel with numerous threads that all need to come together at the end demands pre-planning. Think about Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. These books were not written by just sitting down with an idea and seeing where it went. With other books, the process isn’t so obvious. The plot of Ian McEwan’s brilliant Atonement utilizes suspense to move the story forward, but that element is really just what Hitchcock referred to as a MacGuffin; the crux of the story is about something entirely different and more profound. Did McEwan work the story out in advance or did he allow it to unfold in a more organic way? It’s hard to say.

Even if you think you know for sure whether you’re a planner or a seat-of-the-pantser, it’s a good idea to try it the other way at least once. Non-planning is simple; sit down with your idea and start writing. With pre-planning, your method will depend on your personality and the needs of the book. You’ll have to decide how to document the elements you’re playing with to come up with your story. Working synopses, index cards, electronic files, storyboards... it’s all good, as long as it works for you.

For insight as to what those story elements should be and how to manipulate them, check out my future FictionCraft articles, which will explore such issues as character, point of view, conflict, story structure, and story questions. Until then, happy trails...

Louisa Burton
November 2008

Read more of Louisa Burton's FictionCraft in our 2008 Archive.

"FictionCraft" © 2008 Louisa Burton. All rights reserved.

About the Author:
Louisa Burton is a multipublished author of some two dozen erotica, romance, and mystery novels for Bantam, Berkley, Signet, NAL, Harlequin, and St. Martinís. A former publishing professional who is in love with the sound of her own voice, she has also taught numerous fiction writing courses and workshops. Way too much info about her current project, the Hidden Grotto series of erotic fantasy, is available at

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'08 Movie Reviews

Almost Perfect
Review by Oranje

The Fold
Review by Ashley Lister

Review by Spooky

Review by Spooky

'08 Book Reviews


Best Bisexual Women's Erotica
Review by Ashley Lister

Best Fantastic Erotica
Review by Ashley Lister

Best Women's Erotica '08
Review by Ashley Lister

Bound Brits (ebook)
Review by Ashley Lister

Deep Inside: Extreme ...
Review by Cervo

Dirty Girls
Review by Rose B. Thorny

Hide and Seek
Review by Ashley Lister

Hurts So Good
Review by Ashley Lister

J is for Jealousy
Review by Ashley Lister

K is for Kink
Review by Ashley Lister

Lust Bites
Review by Ashley Lister

Open for Business
Review by Rose B. Thorny

Review by Lisabet Sarai

Rubber Sex
Review by Ashley Lister

Rubber Sex
Review by Victoria Blisse

Seriously Sexy
Review by Ashley Lister

Sex & Candy
Review by Ashley Lister

The Shadow of a... (poetry)
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Review by Victoria Blisse

Tasting Her
Review by Kathleen Bradean

Tasting Him
Review by Ashley Lister

Tasting Him
Review by Kathleen Bradean

White Flames
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Yes, Ma'am: Male Submission
Review by Angelika Devlyn

Yes, Sir: Female Submission
Review by Angelika Devlyn


The Art of Melinoe
Review by Ashley Lister

Demon by Day
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Gemini Heat
Review by Ashley Lister

Gothic Heat
Review by Ashley Lister

The Hidden Grotto Series
Review by Lisabet Sarai

The House of Blood
Review by Lisabet Sarai

In Too Deep
Review by Ashley Lister

In Too Deep
Review by Victoria Blisse

Review by Donna George Storey

Review by Victoria Blisse

One Breath at a Time
Review by Angelika Devlyn

Out of the Shadows (ebook)
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Review by Ashley Lister

Review by Rose B. Thorny

Seduce Me
Review by Ashley Lister

Seduced by the Storm
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Serve the People!
Review by Donna G. Storey

Signed, Sealed and Delivered
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Sunfire (eBook)
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Templar Prize
Review by Angelika Devlyn

The Wicked Sex
Review by Ashley Lister

Wild Kingdom
Review by Angelika Devlyn

Gay Erotica

Review by Vincent Diamond

Best Gay Romance '08
Review by Vincent Diamond

Hard Hats
Review by Vincent Diamond

Review by Kathleen Bradean

Lesbian Erotica

Best Lesbian Erotica '08
Review by Donna George Storey

Best Lesbian Erotica '08
Review by Ashley Lister

The Night Watch
Review by Lisabet Sarai


America Unzipped
Review by Rob Hardy

Best Sex Writing '08
Review by Rob Hardy

Bonk: The Curious Coupling
Review by Rob Hardy

The Book of Love
Review by Rob Hardy

Casanova: Actor Lover ...
Review by Rob Hardy

Dishonorable Passions
Review by Rob Hardy

Flagrante Delicto (photos)
Review by Jack Gilbert

The Flesh Press
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Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star
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The Humble Little Condom
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Instant Orgasm (sex guide)
Review by Ashley Lister

Man O Man! Writing M/M...
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The Not So Invisible Woman
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Swingers: Female...
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Who's Been Sleeping in...
Review by Rob Hardy