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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

First Things First: The Story Idea


One night some years ago, my husband rented the movie Hard Target. Never having been a huge Jean-Claude Van Damme fan, I was disgruntled but resigned; after all, he—my husband, not Jean-Claude—had been pretty cool about Sense and Sensibility. You’ve been there.

Then the movie started, and I realized right off that the plot incorporated elements from The Most Dangerous Game—humans being hunted like animals—with the theme of the hard-bitten, world-weary ex-military type who gets suckered into helping a woman in distress. As the inherent virtue of her cause reawakens his sense of honor, she reawakens his humanity, transforming him from cynical and disillusioned to caring and capable of loving and bonding. I’d seen this dynamic in other movies and books, most notably the best film ever made, Casablanca (do not talk to me about Citizen Kane), and I’ve loved it every time. When I realized where the movie was going, I grabbed the popcorn, settled back, and got ready to savor an evening of painless—dare I say, even satisfying—entertainment.

Afterward, I scribbled down the basic concept and added it to my Idea File, a rag-tag hoard of scrawled-on supermarket receipts, envelopes, and paper napkins that had one thing in common: they were within arm’s reach when the light bulb of inspiration zapped the old cerebral cortex. In recent years, I’ve replaced this hard-copy hodge-podge with an electronic hodge-podge via Microsoft One Note, which is where I keep everything that the middle-aged hard drive in my skull no longer has enough memory for.

To date, I’ve incorporated aspects of the hardass-turned-helper scenario into a number of novels, and I’m sure I’ll do so again. When I pinpoint a concept that really spins my wheels—electrifies me, gets my heart pumping—I milk it for all it’s worth. Authors often revisit favorite story elements because they know that their own excitement about those elements will not only make their books more satisfying to write, it will make them a lot more satisfying to read.

A strong initial idea is the spark that ignites everything else in your novel. That spark can be any fragment that inspires you to start building a story around it: something that happened to you; an intriguing conflict; a historical event; a current event; an overheard conversation; a visual image; a memory; a dream; a piece of music; an intellectual concept; a setting; a scene or bit of business; a character, like Hard Target’s disillusioned ex-Army guy; or even an entire story premise that comes to you full-blown. It can be a primal plot that really speaks to you, such as a treasure hunt, a revenge story, or a coming-of-age tale. Actually, no matter where your original idea came from, it will likely hearken back to one of these age-old premises.

Maybe brilliant ideas come to you easily, and you just don’t have time to write them all. If so, I hate you very much. If you’re like me, you may find yourself between books, thinking, what now?

First, it’s a really good idea to know which genre you’re aiming for—mainstream, fantasy, literary, etc.—and what kind of tone you intend to strike with your story. Heroic? Tragic? Comic? Naturalistic? As I discussed in my previous article, “So You Want to Write a Novel,” these decisions should have something to do with what you most like to read.

Unless you’re a masochist, you’ll want to avoid ideas that have no chance of flying in the genre you’ve got your heart set on. I knew an unpublished writer once who was working on a very dark, tragic love story between two men that she was determined to market to genre romance publishers. Not gonna happen. I’m not saying there was anything wrong or weak with the concept itself—witness the wonderful movie Brokeback Mountain, from a literary short story by Annie Proulx—but her book had zero chance of being bought by a romance editor, period. She eventually accepted this, but rather than jettison a story idea she was passionate about, she jettisoned the idea of getting published in the romance genre, which was probably a good call.

The moral is, if you’ve got a story in your heart that’s aching to get out, maybe you need to write it and worry about positioning later. Writing from the heart is the only way to create something that’s going to move people, and if it’s a brilliant story, it will eventually find a home. But if you’re absolutely certain that you want to get published, say, in the classic mystery genre, you’re going to want to come up with an idea you not only love, but that works as a whodunit. Every genre has certain reader expectations, including the literary genre (and if your hackles are springing up in snooty indignation at my tacking the G-word onto the L-word, you might be reading the wrong columnist). Within the parameters of your chosen genre, a writer with artistic instincts will endeavor to come up with fresh concepts or truly fresh spins on classic concepts.

Willa Cather said, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as if they had never happened.” Geores Polti catalogued thirty-six “dramatic situations.” Ronald Tobias wrote a book called 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them. Someone else—wish I could remember who, ‘cause I like this one—said there are only two stories: 1) the protagonist leaves home, and 2) the protagonist comes home. Regardless of how many of these primal concepts one acknowledges, there’s no doubt that the same essential ideas reappear frequently in books and movies. Much of modern popular fiction harks back to a handful of mythic themes that have been the foundation of storytelling for thousands of years.

Movies, plays, TV shows, and other works of fiction are great for generating ideas. Sometimes one little thread or snippet of someone else’s story can be spun into an entirely new and original tale. (The operative phrase here is “entirely new and original.” Cloning someone else’s story or lifting chunks, however small, of their wording is not only illegal, but shameful.) Think about the novel you’ve re-read twice or the movie you bought on DVD so that you could watch it over and over again. Something in that story really speaks to you. Why not start flipping switches within it and see what happens?

Let’s say you’re a romantic suspense novelist who’s really crazy about The Fugitive, the 1993 film based on the 60’s TV series, in which Harrison Ford plays a doctor wrongly accused of murdering his wife. U.S. Marshal Tommy Lee Jones tracks him with rabid persistence while he searches for the one-armed man who actually committed the murder. Your goal is to morph that nutshell plot until you’ve created an altogether different, and hopefully compelling, romantic suspense story. Envision the story elements as switches in a circuit box and start flipping them to change stuff around.

You’ve got your Tommy Lee Jones character. What if he’s—Flip—a woman? As fugitive and pursuer play cat and mouse, they begin to feel a mutual—and very dangerous—attraction. Our heroine-cop comes to suspect that her quarry is innocent, and even tries to help him. But is she really aiding and abetting a charming wife-killer?

Okay, what if it’s the fugitive who’s a woman? The U.S. Marshal could be the love interest, or maybe it’s someone else entirely—the lawyer she phones for help, or the P.I. whose aid she enlists, or some surly stranger she runs across who is reluctantly obliged to assist her. As the inherent virtue of her cause reawakens his sense of honor...Whoa! The Fugitive meets Hard Target? Why not?

How about The Fugitive meets Three Days of the Condor? Let’s flip the fugitive’s sex back to male again. He’s on the lam, and there’s a woman who can help him, but she won’t cooperate, so he has to kidnap her. Naturally, she’s just a tad outraged in the beginning, seeing as how she’s been abducted by a lunatic wife-killer. Just as naturally, kidnapper and captive are inexorably drawn to each other and, well, if you can’t fill in the blanks from there, you’ve got no business trying to write romantic suspense.

Ooh! Flip! Our fugitive’s a woman again, and she finds the one-armed man. Only he seems like such a nice guy, and he’s got a real (take your pick) Clooney/Pitt/Depp thing going on, and she can’t imagine him killing anyone. Should she turn him in or run away with him to Venezuela?

Or—Flip—he actually did the dirty deed—but he swears he had a good reason. Ooh! Flip! He did it to protect her...

Somebody stop me! You can keep going like that for hours. Just make sure your final storyline and characters are truly unique and not too derivative of your original inspiration.

“The Fugitive meets Hard Target” is an example of a high-concept idea, those instantly evocative premises that are so beloved of big movie studios and publishers of bestselling novels. The heart of a high-concept pitch, whether presented in person or in a query letter, is always short and crackling, and will sometimes feature a pair of highly recognizable and possibly paradoxical cultural references. For example, West Side Story could have been, and probably was, pitched as “Romeo and Juliet in the slums of New York.” In the world of popular entertainment, the right high concept is gold. I read an interview with Samuel L. Jackson when he was promoting Snakes on a Plane, where he talked about having told the studio, when they were courting him for the film, that he would star in it on the condition that they not change the title. Smart man.

Research can yield awesome ideas. I call this “exploratory research,” when you have a vague notion of the kinda thing you maybe sorta might want your story to be about— “vapor” in my parlance—and you start reading research books to help condense that vapor into something more substantial. Back when I was writing novels set in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, I was reading a book about rural medieval England. The author noted that in those times, peasants were so close to the earth, so in tune with the cycle of nature, that one who was very ill might dig his or her own grave, lie down in it, and wait to die. A picture materialized in my mind of an aristocratic priest coming upon a peasant woman digging her own grave. That one image gave birth to the plot of Heaven’s Fire, a romantic suspense novel with a Pygmalion theme that was published with the most noxious, sulfur yellow, oddly berry-festooned, what-the-hell cover in the history of mass market paperbacks. Check it out if you don’t believe me. Here’s some actual sulfur for comparison. Hell yeah, I’m still bitter.

Story ideas. Right. Okay, so things that actually happened to you or to other people can provide ideas with a heady verisimilitude. Anaïs Nin maintained that writers should keep journals in order to capture the emotional charge of real-life events in the “white heat” of the moment. The journal she wrote from 1914 to 1977, and which eventually totaled 35,000 pages, is now in the Special Collections Department of UCLA. Given the people she knew and the things she did, I would guess there are countless great story ideas within those pages.

Articles in periodicals and non-fiction books can be excellent sources of inspiration. Whenever you read something that really grabs you, even if it doesn’t inspire a story at that moment, photocopy it and stick it in a file; it might be the genesis of a novel. In her memoir A Match to the Heart, Gretel Erlich wrote about indigenous cultures that regard people who’ve been struck by lightning, as she was, to be shamans, adept at practicing magic. This got me thinking about what a modern shaman would be—maybe someone with ESP. So, for a romantic suspense story, I created a female veterinarian who gets struck by lightning and develops psychic powers as a result. Because I like character-driven fiction, it’s often the characters I come up with first; they make me ask the questions that evolve into the plot. In this case, my veterinarian’s internal conflict comes in the form of a charming Irish police detective who thinks ESP is so much hooey.

Most of us, when we set out to write a novel, have a pretty clear image of what we want it to be when it gets there. But the journey can be long and bumpy, and it can be tricky keeping on track with that original story idea as we go along. Maintaining the integrity of your premise as you write your novel is a skill born of experience; like so many other skills, it takes practice to perfect. The process is facilitated if the core idea that forms the backbone of your story is strong, succinct and clearly envisioned.

When you’ve narrowed down your ideas to The One, take it and mentally massage it. Turn it over and over in your mind, looking at it from every angle and exploring all of its possibilities. People it with real and empathetic characters and fortify it with one good, solid conflict. And then work it and shape it into a concrete central core that will support an entire novel without getting derailed under the weight of all those words. You’ve heard this a zillion times, but it’s true: if you can sum up the basic premise of your novel in one or two sentences—always encapsulating the conflict—you’re on target. It means your story is focused and will have that much more powerful an impact on the reader. Write those one or two sentences on a Post-It and stick it on your computer. This is your through-line. It’s the heart and soul of your novel.

And as you write that novel, stay on message. Don’t get mentally lazy. You are the God of your story. If you don’t keep it on track, if you let it just sort of happen willy-nilly, you’ll end up with... whatever you end up with. That’s not art; it’s happenstance. Art is having a vision and seeing it through to completion.

The ability to do that—to come up with a sensational idea and breathe life into it—is at the heart of creating great fiction. It’s what separates artists from craftsmen, and what results in those really legendary books that end up on our keeper shelves.

As for how to get started exercising this literary godliness, meet me back here next month for “Planning Your Novel—Or Not.”

Louisa Burton
October 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
Review by Rob Hardy

Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star
Review by Donna G. Storey

The Humble Little Condom
Review by Rob Hardy

Instant Orgasm (sex guide)
Review by Ashley Lister

Man O Man! Writing M/M...
Review by Vincent Diamond

The Not So Invisible Woman
Review by Ashley Lister

Swingers: Female...
Review by Lisabet Sarai

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