Archive for the 'High concept' Category

Alice wonders why
by Jessa Slade on February 1st, 2010

Currently working on: Judging RITA books, the Romance Writers of America award of excellence in romance fiction
Mood: Awed by some great talent

There’s a lot going on in a writer’s head, I swear, even though a lot of time it looks like I’m staring off into space.  While I’m staring, I’m plotting, testing out lines of dialogue, thinking about whom to kill.

And more often than I’d wish, I’m just afraid to start.

See, while the stories in my head are endlessly entertaining to me (hence the long periods of blank-eyed staring) getting what’s in my head onto the page can be a maddening proposition.  In fact, I often feel like my writing sessions are a bit like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, where too many conflicting (and crazy) voices have been invited to the table.


The White Rabbit of Overwhelm
He’s the one always chanting “I’m late, I’m late” in my head (because, really, aren’t we always late for something?) which doesn’t much get things off to a convivial start.  Trust me, if you go chasing rabbits, you know you’re going to fall.

The Mad Hatter Muse
Yes, even when not played by Johnny “I’m too sexy to <fill in the blank>” Depp, everybody swoons for the Muse, so he must be invited to the party even though he’s — you know — psychotic, encouraging everyone to run amok and constantly asking silly questions like “How is a raven like a writing desk?” when everybody knows we needn’t answer that question until Chapter 23.

The March Hare Moment
He’s best friends with the Mad Muse… and equally crackers.  He comes around holding out inspiration like a big cup of tea… Only to jerk it away at the last moment.  Emphasis on jerk.  At best, I’ll be left with a little spill of inspiration that I try to mop up and ring out over my pages.

The Queen of (Broken) Hearts Internal Editor
Everybody has to tip toe around her for fear of coming under her gimlet eye.  She’s always deflating the mood with her muttered “Off with her adverbs!”  Heads and hearts are constantly at risk around her, and yet she has a chair of her own because somebody has to be in charge of cutting words and killing our darlings.

The dormouse
He’s already asleep, curled up at the keyboard with his head on ZZZZZZZZ, even though we still have a thousand words to go.

And there, at the far end of the table — she’s lucky she even got a seat — is poor Alice, who just wants a story that makes sense.

Well, forget it, Alice.

It’s impossible to get all those voices to speak one at a time, much less use their napkins instead of their sleeves.  So I’ll take what they spew out and try to capture it for you in all its mad glory.

Maybe a raven is like a writing desk because, with the wind under their wings, they can both take flight.

Anybody else looking forward to Tim Burton’s vision of Alice In Wonderland?  He’s one of my heroes, because if he doesn’t get everything that’s on his head down on paper, I can’t even imagine what else is in there!


I love the smell of apocalypse in the morning
by Jessa Slade on January 11th, 2010

Currently working on: The End is coming! (Not an apocalypse end, just The End of my Book 3)
Mood: Pre-post-apocalyptic


As a child of the Cold War, I have a special place in my heart for apocalypses.  Total world destruction was forever imminent — but it was survivable as long as we got under our desks in time, and meanwhile there’s still a lot of ice cream to eat when you’re 10 years old so it was hard to get too freaked out.

Of course, I planned to be a survivor (the aforementioned ice cream was motivation and I’m super quick sliding under a desk) so — thinking ahead — I even decided to study Russian.  It was us or them, I figured.

Who knew, I should’ve studied Mandarin.  Oh well.

Over the years, I studied apocalyptic literature and movies with great and horrified delight.  Here are a few of my favorites apocalypses you might have missed the first time around.  I even learned a few more tricks — besides the head under desk thing — that might help you survive the end.

nuke-alasALAS, BABYLON by Pat Frank
One of the first post-apocalyptic books written in the nuclear age, ALAS, BABYLON was also one of the first post-apocalyptic books I read as a kid.  Set in a small Florida town, the book chronicles the breakdown of the society — naturally — as well as the heroism of those who kept their heads and their hearts.

Apocalyptic lesson: When the bespectacled doctor’s only set of eyeglasses are destroyed, I was horrified.  As a four-eyed kid myself, I understood this was a death sentence.  The lesson I learned was read lots now because you never know when you won’t be able to read again.

nuke-swanSWAN SONG by Robert McCammon
In a post-nuclear world, two children become the leaders of opposing camps of good and evil as the rebirth of civilization hangs in the balance.  Apparently the author hates being compared to Stephen King, but this story does read as a more digestible version of the themes in King’s THE STAND, another fun post-apoc — plague, this time — story.

Apocalyptic lesson:  The survivors are afflicted with keloid scars that worsened through the course of the story… and then revealed the true, inner nature of the afflicted.  The lesson being, you better be pure and good if you want to avoid permanent radiation burns and possession by creeping evil.

nuke-maxMad Max with young, hawt, pre-crazy Mel Gibson
Because post-peak-oil is definitely post-apocalyptic as anybody who wouldn’t be able to fuel up their sweet 1973 XB GT Ford Falcon Coupe aka Max’s Interceptor would agree.  You probably saw this movie when it first came out and then it got buried under layers of Tina Turner’s hair in Beyond Thunderdome.  Go back to the roots where surviving the apocalypse meant being badder ass than the bad guys.  Yes, I know this contradicts the earlier post-apocalypse lesson of being pure of heart, committed to humanity, and not so quick on the trigger.

Apocalyptic lesson: Invest in black leather now, before it’s too late!!!

nuke-loganLogan’s Run (the 1976 movie version)
Spoiler alert!  This was an interesting take on post-apocalypse because… whatever bad thing had happened (some sort of environmental disaster, apparently) was over, but the people didn’t know it and had barricaded themselves inside a domed city and were euthanizing themselves to avoid any overcrowding that would force them out into the bigger world.  Allegedly, a remake — in the works with various producers and directors since the mid-1990s — has been again rescheduled for 2012.

Apocalyptic lesson:  The only thing worse than an apocalypse that ends the world is living as if an apocalypse has ended the world… when it hasn’t.  Doh!

nuke-sarahApocalypse has gotten more sophisticated over the years, from the fabulous climate change pseduo-science of The Day After Tomorrow — cold air from space swirls down to freeze our heroes!!! — to the amok-running of technology in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (my fave of the franchise — girl crush!) which taught us that (contrary to the waif-like Jessica 6 in Logan’s Run) upper body strength will be vital to post-apocalypse survival and, yes, black is still THE color for Armageddon.  But for all the changes since the fall of the Soviet Union, apocalypse remains full of good times in the end times.

Don’t forget to pack your Zippo.

Do you have a favorite apocalypse story?  Do you think you’d be the brave assistant deputy mayor who leads the survivors to safety?  Or would you be the well-armed loner who vows not to get involved?  Or would you be the mutant screamer?

How long?
by Jessa Slade on June 22nd, 2009

Currently working on: Staring into the abyss without blinking
Mood: Abysmal

March Hare: “Start at the beginning!”
Mad Hatter: “Yes, yes. And when you come to the end… STOP!”

I’ve always written long.  I write long words in long sentences to make long paragraphs that end up as long stories.  ALICE IN WONDERLAND’s Mad Hatter would be an even madder hatter after reading my first drafts.  I live in a place formerly nicknamed Stumptown for the love of logging, and even the hard-pressed papermills around here wouldn’t approve of the number of reams I could burn through.  Luckily, editors invented revisions.

I think writing short is harder.  I’m always impressed with art that compesses idea and expression into the smallest space possible.  Think of haiku and Faberge eggs and lolcats.

The modern equivalent is Twitter stories.  Twitter is the microblogging site that allows you to post, at most, 140 characters.  Not words, characters.  Yeah, I know, 140 pages barely gets me out of Act I.

But I’ve been toying around with the form.  Well, mostly I’ve been reading other people’s stuff and secretly suspecting they fleshed it out later to Facebook status update length.  The trick is, how do you fit character, plot, conflict and resolution — or at least the suggestion of all four — into 140 characters?

Brain strain time.  It’s actually kind of fun.  I can write a Twitter story in my head while I’m walking the dog and have a half-decent chance of still remembering it by the time I get home.  Here’s what I came up with on this morning’s walk:

She waited behind the door. Patiently, as a lady should. Soft sand crept in, but nothing else. She feared all along he had wanted the tiger.

Deathless prose to equal Lewis Carroll?  No.  But I think I got the four elements in, plus (to my mind) a touch of pathos.  Okay, sure, I used up every single one of those 140 characters.  Like any good papermill, I’ll let nothing go to waste.

Go ahead and try it.  Never fancied yourself a writer?  This is a quick and relatively painless way to join the fun.  To the first 10 people who take a shot (and remember, quality is not an issue in first drafts, which these are) I’ll send a SEDUCED BY SHADOWS bookmark.  (I should add, this is for residents of the U.S. since I plan to use up old stamps on ya.)  Just like words, you can never have too many bookmarks!


High Concept or Bandwagon?
by Our Guest on April 2nd, 2009

Like Hollywood, publishing can be a bandwagon industry. The marketing people notice that something is selling particularly well, the buzz goes out that this is the new hot item and suddenly the shelves fill up with row after row of books in a similar vein.

What was high concept now becomes the thing everybody and their sister is doing.

And yet, within that cascade of sameness, certain books will still jump out as special. As Sharon pointed out yesterday, well before TWILIGHT there was BUFFY, and there are a lot of similarities to be found between the two. And before Buffy there was Anne Rice with her pioneering take on good and evil vampires and even a dose of adolescent angst in the form of Claudia. Fans of NARNIA, LORD OF THE RINGS and HARRY POTTER can easily find the parallels between all three - and yes, C.S. Lewis was influenced by Tolkien and J.K. Rowling was influenced by both. Yet despite some of these works having been inspired by what came before them, each became a blockbuster in its own right.

So what keeps a high concept idea from falling into the midlist? Magic.


Yes, that’s pretty hard to pin down and define, but there it is: an almost mystical coming together of chemistry, emotion and a unique, underlying chord that simply resonates deeply with the reader. In TWILIGHT, for me it was the yearning between Edward and Bella. In HARRY POTTER, the courage of an orphan constantly facing danger and the loyalty of his friends. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES and THE RED TENT exuded magic in the form of The Sacred Feminine, the powerful bond between women as creators and nurturers of life.

So how do you make this magic? Ah. If I knew the secret of that, I’d be on the NYT Bestseller List, now wouldn’t I? I mentioned the midlist, and it’s so important to remember that there are countless wonderful books that are not considered high concept or bestsellers but nonetheless touch readers’ hearts. The promise of those books is what keeps people striding deeper into the bookstores, past the proud displays of the front tables to the diverse choices to be found, usually spine out, among the general stock.

As Bonnie advised us, we do need to keep market trends in mind and be open to unique ideas, but at the same time write from our hearts, tell our stories as best we can and know that magic most often occurs without a lot of fanfare, but can affect a reader just as powerfully.

Welcome Bonnie Vanak!
by Our Guest on March 31st, 2009

We’re thrilled to have Bonnie Vanak blogging with us today! A prolific author, Bonnie has penned seven Egyptian historicals for Dorchester and now also writes paranormals for Silhouette’s Nocturne line. She began writing as a child, when she penned adventure stories and poems. After receiving a journalism degree from the University of Florida, Bonnie worked for several years as a journalist. She left newspaper reporting behind when she took a job writing for a large international charity. A few years ago, she discovered she needed a diversion from the emotional strains of traveling to poor countries and encountering horrific suffering. So she began writing romance novels. THE FALCON & THE DOVE was her first book. It won the historical category of the 2001 RWA Melody of Love contest.
Visit Bonnie’s website at

Bonnie will be giving away a copy of MIDNIGHT CRAVINGS to a lucky winner so be sure to leave a comment!

Book of the heart or book of high concept? Why not both?
By Bonnie Vanak

High concept. Agents and editors want it. Writers strive for it. High concept is typically described as a fascinating idea that can easily be explained in a short sentence. It’s different, has a terrific hook, and takes something everyone knows and puts a new twist on it.

For example, Dracula meets teenage angst. Twilight, of course.

Great high concept, but how did the idea evolve? In a dream. Stephenie Meyer dreamed of a couple conversing and one person was a vampire. She didn’t sit down at the computer and say, “Let’s see. How can I arrive at a high concept idea, and get published with a book that will become a worldwide best-seller and a major motion picture?”

Sometimes the best ideas can come when you’re thinking of something other than a best idea! High concept is wonderful, and if you can conceive of such an idea off the top of your head, more power to you.

I start out with a character or plot premise that engages my emotional interest. I get an idea, run with it, and then adjust it according to market needs.

Face it, the book of your heart may be wonderful and fascinating, but if it doesn’t have the elements an editor or agent need to sell it, most likely it will get a pass. This doesn’t mean you should toss that book into a bottom drawer. If you start with an idea that sparks your interest, or emotionally engages you, you can shape that idea into a high concept novel.

It happened for me when I read an article in National Geographic magazine about the Egyptian pharaoh Akhetaten. He had a secondary wife named Kiya. Kiya mysteriously vanished around year 12 of the pharaoh’s reign. No one knows why or why her name was erased from the ruins of the ancient city. Her tomb has never been found.

I became intrigued with the mystery of Kiya. Who was she? Why did she vanish? I began playing the writer’s game of “what if?” I created a tribe of great warriors dedicated to Kiya for more than three thousand years. They were brave, fierce fighters like the windstorm they were named after…The Khamsin warriors of the wind.

The idea became a book called The Falcon and the Dove, my first romance novel. The sheikh of the tribe, Jabari, abducts Elizabeth, the American who is after Kiya’s sacred shield. Eventually, the two come to realize they are reincarnated lovers from the past.


The Falcon and the Dove is The Mummy meets The Sheikh. That’s high concept. Yet the idea stemmed from an article I read out of sheer interest.

The seeds of the original idea resulted in a harvest of subsequent books. The latest, The Lady and the Libertine, is my seventh Egyptian historical. In this book, a handsome English earl desires to seduce a virginal beauty so he can steal the vast treasure she guards in Egypt.


Nigel is a very naughty earl who strives to steal from Karida her virginity and a rare ruby that unlocks a pharaoh’s treasure. Yet in the process, he finds she may steal something he guards more than any priceless treasure – his heart.

Nigel is badly in need of redemption. He keeps trying and wanting to change, and then reverting back to the bad boy. Karida longs for love, and yet she holds fast to the moral compass that guides her, for she fears diverting from anything but the straight and narrow. Together they make for a fascinating pair as they experience adventure and danger in both London and Egypt.

Nigel was a character written from the heart. I had a vague idea of the plot when I set out to write his story. I only knew his story should be told. It presented a huge challenge. How can I make what appears to be a very unlikable character, perceived as a villain in my last book, into a hero? One way of overcoming this was to create sympathy by giving Nigel a goal that involved an innocent party he’s trying to rescue. He does the wrong things for the right reasons. Nigel also has a tortured past he can’t seem to overcome.

The result was The Lady and the Libertine. If I pitched that book today it would be Heathcliff in Egypt.

Of course Heathcliff is a different time period, (my book is Edwardian), but you get the picture. Nigel is dark, brooding, has a tormented past, and is quite ruthless when it comes to getting what he wants.

Ideas can stem from anything. One day you might be talking with friends, or see something that intrigues you. Or you can even experience heartbreak that leads to a book, and a new direction in your writing.

That was the case for my Silhouette Nocturnes. In 2006, our beloved Shih Tzu was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer. Tia was more than a pet. She was a family member, a friend, a lively, sweet dog who was an important part of our lives.

I was devastated to know that I was losing my beloved dog to the same disease that claimed my mother. To cope, I began writing a story about a woman trying desperately to find a cure for her dog.

The woman became Maggie, the veterinarian, and then the hero became Nicolas, a werewolf belonging to a race called the Draicon. They were powerful shifters with deadly enemies, Morphs, who could shapeshift into any animal or insect form. Maggie had untapped powers to heal anyone or anything, including her dog. It became Nicolas’ job to bring her back to the pack, and teach her to accept her powers in order to heal Damian, the pack leader. The underlying theme through the story is loyalty unto death and Maggie’s acceptance of both her powers and her real “family.”

That book eventually became The Empath, my first Nocturne. The pitch would be The Godfather meets The Big, Bad Wolf.


I liked the world I built so much that I kept writing about the Draicon. In The Empath, there was a secondary character named Baylor, adversary to Nicolas. Yet Baylor, and his clear affection for another character named Katia, proved intriguing to me because they both lost their destined mates.

My Draicon werewolves seek their destined mates. Long ago, they were one entity, who split into two beings to lessen their magick so they could live on earth and learn from it. When destined mates reach a level of emotional commitment during sex, they bond during the “mating lock” and become one, exchanging memories, emotions, and the missing half of their magick powers.

Destined mates are common in paranormal romance. Yet I’ve always wondered what happens to those whose destined mates are dead? Are they doomed to live without love?

Undestined mates. That’s taking a common theme and putting a new, creative twist on it. High concept. The result was Baylor and Katia’s story, Broken Souls, in the Midnight Cravings anthology.


Katia deeply cares for Baylor, yet refuses to make any commitments to him until she finds her father. But when Katia’s spell summoned a Morph claiming to be her father, nothing Baylor said could convince her of the danger. Baylor knew too well the cost of trusting a loved one who’d turned and desperately wanted to save Katia the pain he’d lived with for so long. He also knew that if he spared the Morph, it would destroy Katia, but if he killed this evil being, he risked losing her love forever.

Katia fears that making love with Baylor will mean turning her back for good on her past, as is evidenced in this scene from Broken Souls.

“Katia, why do you keep putting me off? I know you want me,” he burst out.
Silence greeted him. Katia turned and saw the stark anguish in his deep gray eyes.
“You’re like quicksand, Baylor. Every time I draw near you, I sink deeper and it’s more of a struggle to release myself. And yet I can’t help but be close to you. You make me feel alive and happy, but it’s frightening. If we make love, I’m afraid I’ll sink down for good. It means too much to me.”
She heard his intake of breath across the room. “I’d never hurt you. No matter how far you sank or deep you went. I’m with you all the way.”
“I feel so adrift, so broken.” Her voice dropped as she rubbed a knuckle against the glass.
“I’ll be your anchor, sweetheart. Let me.”

It is Baylor’s tender assurance and his deep feelings for her that enable Katia to finally forge a new beginning. Together they face danger, but in the end, as is the case with all my books, love always wins.

High concept or a book of your heart? I firmly believe it’s possible to have both. With a little imagination, and a lot of work, you can do it. Go for it!