Christmas Music For People Who Hate Christmas Music

By JD Rhoades
The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

Christmas is a time that brings people together. At least that’s the theory. In reality, there’s one thing that can often lead to stress and disharmony at this time of year.

I’m talking, of course, about Christmas music.
Some people love it, some people hate it. Even in my own family, there’s a sharp divide. I enjoy Christmas music (only if played after Thanksgiving, of course), while my daughter regards it as only slightly less agonizing than bamboo shoots under the fingernails. (Her reaction when I mentioned I was including her in this column: “Great, now everyone in town will hate me, too.”)
Part of the problem I think some people have with Christmas music is the repetitiveness of the standard Yuletide catalog. Even though I’m a fan, I confess that after about the 50th different rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear” or “Little Drummer Boy,” I start to grow weary. So the secret is to change it up. Listen to something a little more off the beaten track. Songs like:
Bob Dylan, “Must Be Santa.” Yes, folks, Dylan did a Christmas album. It’s called “Christmas in the Heart,” and it’s one of the stranger things you’ll hear anywhere. The album’s single, with accompanying video, sounds like a polka version of this staple of elementary school Christmas programs, rendered in Dylan’s signature croak.
The video features a house full of revelers, with Dylan wandering in and out of the frame with his long hair in his face, looking like a crazed street person. The whole thing culminates in a fight that ends with someone crashing through a window. It has to be heard (and seen) to be believed.

The Eagles’ rendition of the old classic “Please Come Home For Christmas” has become a standard on rock radio for the holiday season. But check out Charles Brown’s 1960 original. All due respect to Mr. Don Henley and the other Eagles, but Brown’s version is way more soulful and wistful than theirs could ever be, especially on the lines “My baby’s gone, I have no friends/to wish me greetings once again.” If you’re missing someone at Christmas, this is the song for you.

Robert Earl Keen, “Merry Christmas From the Family.” This redneck holiday anthem has it all: alcohol (“Mom got drunk and Dad got drunk/at our Christmas party”); family tension (“Little Sister brought her new boyfriend/he was a Mexican”); followed by acceptance (“We didn’t know what to think about him/till he sang ‘Feliz Navidad’”).
It has the inevitable mishaps (“When they plugged their motorhome in/they blew our Christmas lights”), followed by resolution and family togetherness (“Cousin David knew just what went wrong/So we all waited out on our front lawn/He threw the breaker and the lights came on/And we sang ‘Silent Night.’”) Bring tears to your eyes, don’t it?

The Waitresses, “Christmas Wrapping.” This minor hit by one of the forgotten bands of the ’80s tells the story of a single girl in the city, frazzled by a tough year and a series of missed connections with a “most interesting” guy. The narrator decides to spend her Christmas relaxing alone (“I just need to catch my breath/Christmas by myself this year”).
Well, you can see where this is heading: toward a coincidental last-minute meeting (“You mean you forgot cranberries too?”) with the aforementioned guy, and a “very happy ending.” It’s a charming little romantic comedy, told in a concise five minutes, with a killer horn break.

New York “Beer Metal” band Guyz Nite wrote and performed a song that’s a tribute to the greatest Christmas movie ever made: “Die Hard.” The song of the same name tracks the original story from the beginning (“Remember when we first met John McLain?/Argyle picked him up from the plane”) and follows it up to the triumphant refrain, where the band joyfully carols the movie’s signature line: “Yippie-Ky-Yaaay, mother-[bad word]!” Actually, you might not want to play this one for Grandma.

Hallelujah, everybody say cheese, and Merry Christmas from the family, to all those who keep it.

Via: J.D. Rhoades


Nanowrimo Now What? Lessons from Musical Theater

By (Alexandra Sokoloff)

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I know, it’s Panic Sunday, four days to Christmas, and nobody is writing this week except me, right?

Well, but here’s a little exercise you could do to hone your story structure skills and get into the holiday spirit at the same time.

Last week I went to see Wicked and was reminded once again that the best training I ever got for writing novels, and screenplays, was my musical theater background (acting, directing, choreography).

Looking at musical theater is an excellent way to learn how to present key story elements like Inner and Outer Desire, Into the Special World, the Hero/ine’s Plan, the Antagonist’s Plan, Character Arc, Gathering the Team – virtually any important story element you can name. Musical theater knows to give those key elements the attention and import they deserve. What musicals do to achieve that is put those story elements into song and production numbers. They become setpiece scenes to music. And you know how I’m always encouraging you all to SPELL THINGS OUT? Well, there no better way to spell things out than in song. The audience is so entertained they don’t know you’re spoon-feeding them the plot.

Yes, I know, you can’t put songs on the page. But – you can most certainly learn from the energy and exuberance of songs and production numbers, and find your own ways of getting that same energy and exuberance onto the page in a narrative version of production design, theme, emotion and chemistry between characters, tone, mood, revelation – everything that good songs do.

So in the spirit of the holidays, how about finding 90 minutes to screen The Nightmare Before Christmas? We’ll take a look at the songs in that piece one by one and identify the key story element, or elements, that each song is dramatizing.

• Overture –

(An Overture does what an opening image or credits sequence does: it establishes mood, tone, theme and expectation. In this film the Overture ends with the Opening Image shot of the circle of trees in the woods that turns out to be a portal to all the different holidays. An important set up and a visual depiction of the premise of the entire movie, really.

• “This is Halloween” – The Nightmare Before Christmas cast/ choir

The opening number is big production number, as befits a musical, which sets up THE ORDINARY WORLD of Halloween Town, and almost all the principle characters (except Santa Claus).

• “Jack’s Lament” – Jack

Nothing is better than musical theater for externalizing character’s needs, desires, plans and wishes. But there’s often more to a Desire song than that.

As I am always saying, a great deal of what creates dramatic conflict and character arc comes from the conflict between a hero/ine’s Inner and Outer Desire. For MOST characters, what they think they want is not what they actually need, and during the journey of the story, they will come to realize that they are WRONG about what they want. This musical is a strong example of that storytelling principle in action. “Jack’s Lament” is a Desire or Want or Wish song; he’s tired of doing the same thing every year (basically, he puts on Halloween) and feels there’s something missing. He is going to seize on Christmas as the answer to that desire, when very soon we realize that what he really needs is Sally. Jack’s Character Arc has to do with realizing that very thing himself, as well as realizing that he’s good at what he does, he’s supposed to be the Pumpkin King, and thus finding new excitement in his life and life’s work.

A Desire song is very, very often a “Careful what you wish for” moment. It certainly is, here!

• “What’s This?” – Jack

Here we have a song of Jack exploring the Special World, after he’s gone through the door to Christmastown (The Passageway to the Special World – which is also the Opening Image of the film: the circle of trees in the woods, with each tree having a door to a different holiday. This passageway scene has elements of C.S. Lewis’s The Mageician’s Son, The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, and probably a whole slew of other classics I’m not thinking about.)

• “Town Meeting Song” – Jack and Citizens

Here is a GATHERING THE TEAM song; Jack calls a town meeting to try to explain Christmas to the Halloween people, and rally them around this exciting new idea. Unfortunately, the team doesn’t get it.

So Jack’s first PLAN is to figure out Christmas so he can rally Halloween Town behind a new and exciting celebration, but the more he studies it, the more it eludes him.

• “Jack’s Obsession” – Jack and Citizens

A musical depiction of the HERO’S PLAN and OBSESSIVE ACTIONS (Obsessive and/or Immoral Actions and Crossing the Line are key elements of Act II, part 2).

• “Kidnap The Sandy Claws” – Lock, Shock, and Barrel

A PLAN song: in this case it’s Jack’s Plan, but carried out by these three villainous henchmen, which turns it more into a Villain’s Plan without making us completely hate Jack. However, Jack has definitely Crossed the Line with this plan, as illustrated by the song, which should cause some recoil in the audience!

This song is also a SIDEKICK song; one of the perennial delights of musical theater, which often, as here, employs the RULE OF THREE (even the names of the characters, Lock, Shock and Barrel, are a classic Rule Of Three pattern: same, same, different. In straight musical theater this is often a tap dance song; tap epitomizes playful exuberance and some comic slyness as well.)

(Of course one of the most wonderful examples of the Allies’ Song or Sidekick Song
and the Rule of Three is the three choruses of “If I Only Had a Brain/Heart/Nerve) in The Wizard of Oz, which also serves as the Gathering the Team Sequence.)

• “Making Christmas” – The Nightmare Before Christmas cast:

This is the production number that dramatizes the Storming the Castle scene; Jack Storms The Castle (Christmas Town) by reindeer and sleigh, and proceeds to terrify the sleeping citizens of Christmas Town by delivering horrifying and in some cases, vicious presents.

• “Oogie Boogie’s Song” – Oogie Boogie

Meanwhile back in Halloween Town we get a classic Villain’s Plan song: main villain Oogie Boogie is going to torture Santa Claus. This is a down and dirty New Orleans- style song, which musical theater loves, especially as a musical style for the villain. It undercuts the villainy by making it seem sexy and appealing and danceable, which in a children’s film takes the edge off the scariness of this monster.

• “Sally’s Song” – Sally

The love interest’s DESIRE SONG comes quite late in the film, but her desire for Jack has not only been clear from the beginning, it’s actually been the emotional core of the whole film. We get completely behind Sally’s Desire at the same time that we’re getting more and more uneasy about Jack’s Desire. Here her Desire song is actually used as a Black Moment or All Is Lost scene for her, too; she does not believe at this moment that she’ll ever be with Jack (which makes us WANT that for her even more.)

• “Poor Jack” – Jack

Jack’s All Is Lost Moment comes as he has been shot down from the sky by the police of Christmastown, and has fallen onto a cross in the cemetery. He sings as he hangs from the cross that he has failed utterly at his attempt to take over Christmas. But in the middle of the despair of this song, he also finds a Revelation: that he is good at exactly what he does, and he becomes excited about planning for the next Halloween. He races off with a New Plan, to save Santa Claus and restore him to Christmastown before it’s too late. He Storms The Castle again, this time Oogie Boogie’s castle, to fight Oogie and rescue Santa Claus and Sally in the Final Battle.

• “Finale” – Jack, Sally, Citizens of Halloween Town

Besides the production number of the finale (in which Halloween Town citizens frolic in the snow that Santa has sent as a gesture of forgiveness), Jack and Sally’s final love song at the end is a REPRISE, another favorite trick of musical theater. A Reprise is a great way to show Character Arc and a change in the hero/ine’s core philosophy or life outlook, as the second or third version of the song changes in lyrics and tone/mood (often with key changes from minor to major) to show progression. The love song is the same as Sally’s lament in Act II:2, but the words change from “Some things will never be” to “Some things are meant to be”. Of course, this and the kiss out on the frozen wave under the moon show us their NEW WAY OF LIFE: happily in love.

The point I’m trying to make here is that whether or not you’re using music, song and dance in a story, you can learn volumes about creating emotionally effective scenes from looking at how musical theater handles key story elements. Take a favorite musical and watch it with that idea in mind. I think you’ll be amazed.

So today, I’d like to brainstorm other great examples of Key Story Elements in song. I’ll start it off:

PLAN songs: “Follow the Yellow Brick Road/We’re Off to See the Wizard” in The Wizard of Oz. “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” in Oklahoma (hey, I’m always saying, dating is a Plan.) “Don’t Rain On My Parade” from Funny Girl. “Tevye’s Dream” – Fiddler on the Roof.

Interestingly, “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King is a PLAN song: Simba’s Plan at the moment is just to have a good time (like Prince Hal in Henry V). Of course, we know that Plan is not going to save the Kingdom from Scar! We want Simba to get his act together and do the responsible thing. I would also say “Luck Be A Lady” from Guys and Dolls is not just a Desire song but also a Plan song; often songs fulfill several story element functions.

Oh, and let’s not forget dark PLAN songs! One of my favorites is the duet between Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett: “Have a Little Priest”. Their PLAN is for Sweeney Todd to butcher people in his upstairs barber chair, and send the bodies down for Mrs. Lovett to bake into her pies, thereby fulfilling both their Desires: ST’s for revenge on humanity (especially the Judge) and Mrs. Lovett’s: to have a thriving pie shop and get closer to Sweeney Todd.

DESIRE songs:

Too many to even name! – there’s at least one in every musical. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” (My Fair Lady), “Reflection” (from Mulan – also a great Inner/Outer Desire song)”. “Corner of the Sky” (Pippin). “If I Were A Rich Man”. “I’m The Greatest Star” from Funny Girl. . .

When you have a character cluster such as the three oldest sisters in Fiddler on the Roof, they will almost always sing the Desire song as a group number as in “Matchmaker” (again, also, the Rule of Three). The male soldiers of Mulan (one set of her allies) express their own desires in “A Girl Worth Fighting For”.

It’s also very effective to use a group number to express a group Desire: as in “God I Hope I Get It”, in A Chorus Line. Every single one of those auditioning dancers wants the same thing: the job.

Sometimes instead of or along with a DESIRE song, the Hero/ine has an I AM song, in which s/he expresses a belief or philosophy that will be challenged during the course of the musical. A great, hilarious recent example: “I Believe” from The Book of Mormon.

I AM songs also can be, and often are: WE ARE songs: ensemble numbers in which a town or a group sings together about a group philosophy. “This is Halloween”, from Nightmare, is one of those, and there are some great ones throughout musical theater: “When You’re a Jet” and “America”, from West Side Story (which expresses battling philosophies within the culture and the song), and “Tradition”, from Fiddler on the Roof, also “Officer Krupke” from West Side Story, which is simultaneously a “We Are” song, a comic male specialty number, and a searing statement of the societal FORCES OF OPPOSITION in the story.


Scar’s song in The Lion King: a production number that climaxes Act One. We see exactly what will happen to the animal kingdom if Simba doesn’t get his act together and defeat Scar.

The Villain’s Plan song also expresses our FEAR of what will happen, and concurrent HOPE – that the Hero/ine will prevent this dire vision from happening.

I want to point out that very often in musicals and especially in film musicals and animation, the Villain does NOT have a song; he or she will express the plan in words and action, not music. Except in the rare case like Sweeney Todd, music tends to undercut the impact of the villainy – you wouldn’t want to see the Wicked Witch of the West burst into song, now, would you? The fact is that absence of music is suspect and scary, as Shakespeare said so eloquently:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.
(The Merchant of Venice, 5.1.91-7)

However, as we see in Nightmare Before Christmas, having a scary villain sing can make him or her less threatening to children, which is an important consideration.

Also, secondary villains are often given the songs so you can have a vicarious musical delight in the evil, before the real evil kicks in. Herod’s flashy honky-tonk song in Jesus Christ Superstar is a good example.


“I’ll Make a Man Out Of You” – from Mulan. Some great irony, there, as the song also expresses the hero’s philosophical flaw as well as the theme of the movie.


This is also a kind of training sequence song. “On the Right Track” from Pippin (also could be read as a Temptation Song) “True to Your Heart”, from Mulan, “Hakuna Matata”, from The Lion King, Aunt Eller’s “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends” in Oklahoma! “Bear Necessities” from Jungle Book is both an I Am song and a Mentor song. Most of the songs in the first half of Godspell are Training/Mentor songs, as befitting one of the ultimate Mentor stories.


“The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly In The Plain.” “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”. This number is often at an Act Climax or Midpoint.

The Triumph can be and often is the realization or reciprocation of love: “I Could Have Danced All Night”, “If I Were A Bell” (from “Guys and Dolls”), “Now I Have Everything”, from Fiddler.


The Nightmare Before Christmas is a very streamlined story, so subplots are sparse, but in full-length musicals some of the best numbers are ALLLIES’ SONGS and SIDEKICK SONGS. Allies’ Songs very often, if not almost always, express the Ally’s Desire, and are often a comic counterpoint to the hero or heroine AND also the hero/heroine love relationship (Ado Annie and Will in Oklahoma!) These songs are also often character dances such as tap, hip hop, regional dances. modern, swing, salsa, samba, tango, etc.).

I have to add that my absolute favorite kind of musical theater song is the SPECIALTY DANCE NUMBER, a group of usually five to seven women in a song and dance showstopper like the ones Bob Fosse is so famous for: numbers like Steam Heat, Big Spender, Mein Herr, He Had It Coming. At the moment I can’t think of any equivalent in film; it’s much easier to find specialty showstoppers with a small group of men, the classic tap numbers you see time and again both on stage and in film and the breathtaking gang numbers of West Side Story, but I wanted to bring the female equivalent up as an example of subversive female empowerment.

Okay, I could go on and on, but I’d like to hear some examples from you guys! And by the way, I’ve made up a lot of those names for songs and dance numbers, so I’d love to hear other names for them.

- Alex


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks. Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

- Amazon US

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE

- Amazon FR

- Amazon ES

- Amazon IT

If you’re a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon US

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE

Via: Alexandra Sokoloff


An Appreciation of Stephen Colbert, aka "Stephen Colbert"

By JD Rhoades
The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

You know, I’m really going to miss “Stephen Colbert.”

I realize that comedian and writer Stephen Colbert, creator and star of TV’s “The Colbert Report,” will still be with us, as David Letterman’s replacement on CBS’s “The Late Show.” But I fear that “Stephen Colbert,” the bloviating, self-important, clueless conservative pundit Colbert-the-comedian plays on his late night show, will be gone forever when the show ends its run this Thursday.
(In classic “Colbert” fashion, the supposed reason for the show’s ending is that its host has “won television” and to continue would just be “running up the score.”)
I confess that, when the “Colbert” character got his own time slot, a spinoff from John Stewart’s now-essential “The Daily Show,” I had my doubts. I thought basing an entire half hour, four times a week, on a single character, would be a one-joke premise that would quickly run out of steam. Eventually, I thought, Colbert would have to break character.
Boy, was I ever wrong. On the very first show, Colbert coined a word that would soon find its way into the actual dictionary: “truthiness.” Webster’s dictionary now defines truthiness as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts of facts known to be true.”
When he introduced the concept as part of his regular segment called “The Word,” Colbert promised, “Some of you may not trust your gut, yet. But, with my help, you will. The truthiness is, anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news ‘at’ you.” It was absolutely perfect satire, summing up in a single made-up word the anti-intellectual, facts-are-what-my-gut-says-they-are attitude that permeates so much of American culture, politics and journalism. “Truthiness” caught on so fast that Merriam-Webster named it the 2006 “Word of the Year.”
Colbert followed up with some of the most brilliant on-screen pranks ever committed to video. Like his “438-part series, Better Know a District,” in which “Colbert” interviewed a congressman or congresswoman from some district, always referred to as “The Fightin’ [district number]!” He would then proceed, with a totally straight face, to tie the hapless lawmaker in such verbal knots that eventually Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel began warning members of the Democratic Caucus not to go on the show (a prohibition which Pelosi later lifted).
Then there was the time when Colbert discovered that the Hungarian government was holding an online poll to name a bridge over the Danube River. “Colbert” urged his followers (aka “The Colbert Nation”) to go online and vote to name the bridge after him.
After 17 million votes were cast for “Colbert” (7 million more than there are actual people in Hungary), Hungarian Ambassador András Simonyi appeared on “The Colbert Report” and announced that “Colbert” had won the vote, but unfortunately could not have the bridge named after him because he was (1) not fluent in Hungarian; and (2) not dead. He then gave “Colbert” a consolation prize of a 10,000 forint bill (about fifty bucks American) — which “Colbert” promptly tried to use as a bribe.
Colbert didn’t even break character when he was invited to be the featured entertainer at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which was attended by President George W. Bush and the first lady, as well as a variety of other VIPs. “Colbert,” in the guise of a glowing tribute, delivered one of the most scathing critiques ever delivered to a sitting president’s face.
“There are some polls out there,” he said, “saying that this man has a 32 percent approval rating. But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in ‘reality.’ And reality has a well-known liberal bias.” He went on to say of Bush that: “You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday.”
He didn’t spare the members of the press corps for their lazy acceptance of everything that came out of the Bush White House: “Over the last five years you people were so good, over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, and the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out.”
It was brave, and brilliant, and boy, did it make some people angry, even as it made many more laugh. That, my friends, is the purpose of great satire.

Can Colbert the comedian deliver the same bite and sting to a mainstream late night talk show on stodgy old CBS? I have my doubts. But then again, I’ve learned not to bet against him. RIP “Stephen Colbert.” Long live Stephen Colbert, America’s greatest living satirist.

Via: J.D. Rhoades


Rewriting: Something has to happen

By (Alexandra Sokoloff)

by Alexandra Sokoloff

For those of you who are into the rewriting process, now, I want to do a few posts on some key elements of Act I.

Of all the many things I love about e books, I may love this feature the most: sampling. I’m a voracious browser and when I want something to read, unless I know exactly the book I want, I’ll often go through a few dozen first chapters of a few dozen books in a row to find something that grabs me.

This is a fantastic exercise when you’re struggling with a first chapter of your own.

I read through a bunch of first chapters last night, a couple dozen books at least, and it was pretty shocking how few of them grabbed me enough for me to want to keep reading.

Now, I’m not saying these books are badly written. The prose is fine, really. I’m just like everyone – there are very few books out there (proportionately) that I’m actually going to take the time to read. I like certain things in a book and if they’re not there, I’ll move on. Nothing wrong with that AT ALL – the wonderful thing about books is that there ARE books that deliver the exact or almost exact experience we’re looking for. So of course we look for those over less satisfying ones. I’m perfectly aware that just as many people discard MY books after the first few pages because I’M not delivering the experience they’re looking for. I’m certainly not for everyone’s tastes.

But there was something I was noticing in book after book that I started and then discarded last night that was just a structural error that could so easily have been fixed to – I think – increase the number of people who would want to keep reading. It’s pretty simple, really.

I couldn’t figure out what the book was about.

Or why I should care, either.

What was missing in the first ten, or twenty, pages I was reading was the INCITING INCIDENT (or the term I prefer – CALL TO ADVENTURE).

The Inciting Incident is basically the action that starts the story. The corpse hits the floor and begins a murder investigation, the hero gets his first glimpse of the love interest in a love story, a boy receives an invitation to a school for wizards in a fantasy. (More discussion on this key story element coming up this week.)


You can do this to some extent by setting mood, tone, genre, hope and fear, and an immediate external problem, but there is something about that first action that lets us know, at least subconsciously: “Oh, I get it. That teenage girl was murdered and that cop is going to find the killer.” “Oh, I get it. There’s a shark out there off the coast eating tourists and that police chief is going to have to get rid of it somehow.”

And once we know that, we can relax. It is a very disorienting and irritating thing not to know where a story is going.

Which means in general you should get to your INCITING INCIDENT and CALL TO ADVENTURE as soon as possible. Especially if you are a new writer, you cannot afford to hold this back. And I would argue it’s critical to get it out there if your book is or has any chance of being an e book, too, because it’s just so easy to go on to the next e book on your reader.

Genre fiction is popular because we go in knowing pretty much what the story is going to be about. The kid is kidnapped and the detective has to get him back. The house is haunted and the new residents are going to have to fight to survive. But setting your book in a certain genre does not always guarantee that the reader is going to know what the story is going to be about (as evidenced by what I was reading last night.)

So I’m suggesting – find a way to get that critical inciting incident into the first few pages or at the very least, strongly hint at it right up front.

Reading a bunch of first chapters in a row points out a lot of common errors, actually. So here’s a brief list.

1. Inexperienced writers almost inevitably START THEIR STORIES IN THE WRONG PLACE.

Now, please, please remember – I am not talking about first drafts, here. As far as I’m concerned, all a first draft has to do is get to “The End”. It doesn’t have to be polished. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. Screenwriter and novelist Derek Haas refers to his first pass of a story as “the vomit draft”. And that’s what Nano is about. Exactly. Just get it all out – you’ll make sense of it later.

BUT – when you’ve gotten to the end, you will probably want to start your story 20, 30, 50 pages later than you do. And this is partly why:

For some reason newer writers think they have to tell the whole back story in the first ten pages. Back story is not story. So -


With almost no exceptions, you should start your book with an actual scene, in which your main character (or villain, if that’s who you start with) is caught up in action. You should put that scene down on the page as if the reader is watching a movie – or more specifically, CAUGHT UP in a movie. The reader should not just be watching the action, but feeling the sweat, smelling the salt air, feeling the roiling of their stomach as they step into whatever unknown.

We don’t need to know who this person is, yet. Let them keep secrets. Make the reader wonder – curiosity is a big hook. What we need to do is get inside the character’s skin.

Here are two tips:


I cannot possibly stress this enough. We read novels to have an EXPERIENCE. Make yourself a list of your favorite books and identify what EXPERIENCE those books gives you. Sex, terror, absolute power, the crazy wonderfulness of falling in love? What is the particular rollercoaster that that book (or movie) is? Identify that in your favorite stories and BE SPECIFIC. Then do the same for your own story.

Now that you know what the experience is that you want to create, start to look at great examples of books and films that successfully create that experience FOR YOU. Make that Top Ten list!


A great exercise is to make sure that every three pages you’ve covered specific details of what you want the reader to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense. All six categories, every three pages.


This is one of those notes that always annoys me until I have to read 15 pages of “telling”. Then I realize it’s the essence of storytelling. If your character has a conflict with her brother, then let’s see the two of them fighting – don’t give me a family history and Freudian analysis.


You don’t need to detail the family tree or when they moved to whatever house they’re living in or their great love for their first stuffed animal.

What we need to know their DESIRE and WHAT IS BLOCKING THEM. We need to feel HOPE AND FEAR for them. We need to get a sense of the GENRE, a strong sense of MOOD and TONE, and a hint of THEME.

So while you’re writing your brains out today, take a few minutes to ask yourself these key questions:

Do you know where your inciting incident is? Is it soon enough? Honestly?

Do we KNOW where your story is going by page ten of your book?

Can you maybe do a little rearranging to make sure this happens, before you move on?

And for more discussion and examples of all of these terms, see.Elements of Act One.

- Alex


The writing workbooks based on this blog, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are available for just $3.99 and $2.99.

- Amazon US

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE

- Amazon FR

- Amazon ES

- Amazon IT

If you’re a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories, and more full story breakdowns.

- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon US

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

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Via: Alexandra Sokoloff


Reader Mail, plus More Hilarious Wingnuttery

By JD Rhoades
So this letter ran today in the Pilot:

Dusty Rhoades’ column in the Dec 7 Pilot disturbed me. To say that the prosecutor in the Ferguson case “threw” the case or deliberately lost it for the state involves a level of cynicism that is difficult to take.
Certainly, the prosecutor could have gotten an indictment if he “wanted” to. And just as certainly, there were political pressures for him to do just that. But Mr. Wilson is not a ham sandwich, of popular grand jury lore.
No he was not. But the rest of us would have been treated like one, which was part of the point.
Imagine for just a minute, even if you are as arrogant as Mr. Rhoades and are able to reach conclusions based on a superficial view of the evidence from newspapers and TV reports, that the prosecutor who did see all the evidence had a good-faith belief that the actions of Darren Wilson may have been justified.
Wrong. I actually read the transcripts. And I’m betting I read more of them than Mr. Muller. if actually doing your research is your idea of “arrogance,” then guilty as charged.
A prosecutor represents the state in an adversarial system, but he is not a pure advocate and must believe that the evidence on review supports a criminal conviction. Can you imagine a prosecutor asking a jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is guilty of a criminal offense when the prosecutor himself has significant doubts?
Yeah, actually, I can, because I live in the real world.
But, understanding correctly the highly charged nature of this case, rather than deciding himself to not proceed further against Wilson, which prosecutors do all the time, he presented the case to a grand jury as a check on the use of his discretion.
Again, a break which no one but someone like Wilson would get.
Yes, doing so and presenting evidence on both sides was highly unusual.
And thus, not “equal justice.”
But viewed in this way, the prosecutor was hardly giving Wilson a “break,” and just maybe was trying to do justice in the best way he could.
Justice which the average Joe (or Michael) would not have access to.
I acknowledge that I don’t know where the truth lies, but I respect the process and don’t share the view that “justice” requires a particular result here.

William Muller, Pinehurst
“Justice” does not require a particular result. It does, however, require a fair trial, not a sham.
At least Mr, Muller was (mostly) polite. But then of course, our old friend “Francis” needed to weigh in in the comments with his usual brand of wingnut fuckwittery:
More surprising than the article you have commented on is the fact you succeeded in having the Pilot post it, you have openly criticized, and even called arrogant one of those who John protects from any unflattering remarks, not often will you read honest appraisals on the individual you mentioned, even this comment may have gone too far, a very thin skinned critic who lashes out at others with no restrictions.
Get that? The guy with over 1100 posts on The Pilot website, the vast majority of them vicious personal attacks on me (including one that said I should die a slow and painful death from Ebola) is whining that The Pilot is “protecting me” from “unflattering remarks.” Not only that, he’s doing so in response to a letter disputing one of my columns that’s on there as a “Top Letter to the Editor.” And as for no restrictions, let’s not forger that he’s still allowed to post and I’m not.

Classic wingnuttery: using a public forum to complain endlessly about how that forum is violating their right to free speech.

Via: J.D. Rhoades


Announcement Time - A New Taylor Jackson Novel is Coming!

By JT Ellison

It’s time to publicly share the big news from my December newsletter. Here we go!

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I will be contributing a story to SWEET DREAMS, Brenda Novak’s thriller box set. The box set will be available for $9.99 for a limited time, starting May 1, 2015. And here’s what I will be bringing to the party:

From New York Times bestselling author J.T. Ellison comes the long awaited prequel to her Taylor Jackson series. CROSSED, the story of a madman trying to create his own end-of-days apocalypse, introduces Lieutenant Taylor Jackson to the young, troubled FBI profiler Dr. John Baldwin.

A brand new, never before published TAYLOR NOVEL, y’all! Just like you’ve been begging for! And they say I don’t listen…

A little background on CROSSED. This is the very first book I ever wrote. It’s the book that landed me my agent back in 2005. I will rewrite a bit (she says, hopeful it’s not utter crapola), to improve the craft aspects and some story updating, but it’s high time y’all get to see how Taylor and Baldwin met and fell in love.

I can’t wait to share CROSSED with you. And just look at the lineup of authors! This is going to be the box set to end all box sets.

Now, this book is not going to be in bookstores in this iteration. It will be available in the digital box set only from May 1- July 1, and then I have plans for it, which we’ll discuss in 2015. And don’t worry, if you don’t have an ereader, all the platforms have a version that allows you to read on your computer.

So … surprise! I will give you pre-order links when we’re closer to release. I’m honored to be included with all these incredible writers, and really excited to share Taylor’s first adventure with you at last.

And if you’re interested to see the places behind the books, check out Placing Literature, where all month long I’ll be geolocating scenes from my books!

So what do you think? Does this sound like something you might be interested in????

Via: JT Ellison


Live chat tonight: 9 pm EST

By (Alexandra Sokoloff) I forgot to say that I’m going to be chatting in the Writerspace chat room tonight (Sunday, 12/7) at
9 pm EST.

That’s 2 am Scottish time, so I can’t promise complete clarity (!) – but I will be up and talking about whatever anyone wants to talk about: the Huntress series, indie publishing, Scotland, story structure, movies, Deadwood, Amazon, the space-time continuum…

I’ll be giving away a couple of books, and anyone who stops in will automatically be registered for my monthly contest – to celebrate the rerelease of the Huntress series I’m giving away a Kindle in January. (If you can’t make it to the chat you can still enter by signing up for my mailing list.)

Come on by! Link to chat room

Via: Alexandra Sokoloff


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