Category Archives: Alexandra Sokoloff

Zoë Sharp’s FIFTH VICTIM

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Today I have the great pleasure of interviewing my blog sister, Zoë Sharp, on her new book, the ninth in the Charlie Fox series: FIFTH VICTIM.

 

To introduce the interview, I started thinking back to the first few times I met Our Zoë.  And I realized when I first met her, I was intimidated. Now, that’s not something you’ll hear me saying often, about anyone. And as I thought about it, it occurred to me that I was intimidated because I knew I couldn’t fool her. Writers are perceptive people as a species, but even so I think most people tend to buy my public persona.  Which is not NOT me, it’s just not ALL of me.  With Zoë – I knew that wouldn’t work, not for two seconds. There was going to be no hiding anything from this woman.  I didn’t know how I felt about that, so I hung back until I knew her better.  (It was worth the wait!)

Zoë’s heroine Charlie Fox is that way. You cannot get anything by her; she sees to the core of people and also to the core of situations. She has a wry sense of humor and she can take the piss out of anyone (how’s that for British?) without even trying. But she also has this aura that is pure, white-hot power. You do NOT want to mess with this woman.  You especially want to be careful when she gets still. And if you were in trouble, this is the first person you would want to have watching your back.

Just exactly what you would want in a bodyguard.

We sat down over our computers, transatlantically, to talk about the book.

 

FIFTH VICTIM  

On Long Island, the playground of New York’s wealthy and privileged, Charlie Fox is tasked with protecting the wayward daughter of rich businesswoman Caroline Willner. It seems that an alarming number of the girl’s circle of friends have been through kidnap ordeals, and Charlie quickly discovers that the girl herself, Dina, is fascinated by the clique formed by these former victims.

Charlie worries that Dina’s thrill-seeking tendencies will put both of them in real danger. But just as her worst fears are realized, Charlie receives devastating personal news. The man who put her partner Sean Meyer in his coma is on the loose.

She is faced with the choice between her loyalties to her client and avenging Sean, but the two goals are soon inextricably linked. The decisions Charlie makes now, and the path she chooses to follow, will have far-reaching consequences.


Alex: So how do you research the habits and habitats of the wealthy and privileged?  Enquiring minds want to know. 

Zoë: My day job used to involve a lot of writing about classic cars – often very expensive and rare vehicles that were, by their definition, owned by people with a lot of disposable income. Spending any time of time around these people tells you that the rich are another country – they do things differently there. For the families I describe in FIFTH VICTIM, I guess I just built on that experience and took the next instinctive leap forwards.

Alex: Well, I love how completely unfazed Charlie is by all of it – her dry nonchalance is a riot. Also I noticed Charlie’s pretty comfortable around horses and slings that terminology around like a pro. Did you grow up riding?  Do you still?

Zoë: I confess that I did grow up with horses. In fact, my only professional qualification is as a British Horse Society riding instructor. It struck me when I started planning FIFTH VICTIM that I’d  never used this knowledge in any of the books, and yet I’d made mention  of Charlie having horses in her background, so I thought I’d like it to  play a larger role. Besides anything else, it fitted into the story so nicely, in a way that tennis lessons, say, simply would not have done.

Alex: Wow, I didn’t know that about you, although you do have the aura. I thought it was clever how Charlie uses the horse in that one fight scene. So obvious, and yet I’ve never seen it before.

Okay, since we’re kind of on the subject, when I blog and teach I’m always reminding my readers/students that people read books and watch movies for a vicarious experience. In FIFTH VICTIM you take us into the rarefied world of the Hamptons, the horse culture, the yacht culture.  As an author, do you consciously use settings like this to provide a fantasy experience for your readers? 

Zoë: Not especially, although for people to require close protection, often by definition they have the most to lose. The higher the stakes, the greater the conflict, and I like to put Charlie in situations of conflict.

Alex: Speaking of conflict, you’ve got a great love triangle going on in FIFTH VICTIM (I’m Team Parker, if you’re wondering).

Zoë: Are you? Hmm, interesting. I thought you’d be more of a fan of Sean’s bad-boy image.

Alex: Maybe I hit my limit in real life. But what I was wondering was – did that complication surprise you, or have you been plotting the triangle for years, now?

Zoë: I’d love to be able to say it was all planned from the start, but the truth is that the awkward relationship between Charlie and Sean and her boss, Parker Armstrong, was one of those things that developed more as the series went along. When I came to write this book and I was looking back, though, I was surprised to realise that there had been little signs previously that Parker looked on her as more than a simple employee. So it must have been fermenting away at a subconscious level somewhere. 

Alex: I love it when that happens, actually!

All right, now I have to ask about Torquil. He’s one of those wonderful love-to-hate-him characters. Just that name! You can refuse to answer on the grounds that it might incriminate you, but is he anyone you know?

Zoë: Actually, Torquil is nobody I know – honest. OK, so there might be one or two traits I’ve observed in various people who shall definitely remain nameless, but nobody specific. I think that all through this book I was working on a theme of people appreciating what they have – or failing to appreciate it until it’s too late and they don’t have it any more by which time it’s too late to go back. I wanted to embody some of that feeling in one character in particular, and Torquil was it. 

Alex: That is the way it played out – I never expected to feel sympathy for him, but I did. 

A completely different question, but fascinating to a non-series writer: I like the way your number titles are always actually significant to the story!  Does your series name concept influence your plots at all, or do you have the plots first and then figure out how to integrate the proper number in as a clue or significant phrase?  Is it a hassle or does it actually inspire you?

Zoë: It’s both inspiring and a hassle – and totally confusing, as FIFTH VICTIM is actually the ninth book, not the fifth. See what I mean?

Alex: Oh, yike. That is confusing.

Zoë: I wrote the first three books (KILLER INSTINCT, RIOT ACT, HARD KNOCKS) before the title FIRST DROP arrived from the rollercoaster reference. I  had absolutely no idea that my first US publisher would jump on that  and want the next book they took (actually book six, as ROAD KILL came  after FIRST DROP) to be called SECOND Something. I’m dropping the numerical sequence for the next one, a New Orleans-set tale called DIE EASY.

Alex: And you know I can’t wait for that one! Tell us a little about your research in my favorite city. 

Zoë: There’s a feel and a texture to New Orleans that really interested me. Plus the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing aftermath give the city a stark edge. People there spent a long time looking into the abyss and you can’t go through something like that and not emerge unchanged.  I was in New Orleans in mid 2010 – five years after Katrina – and some parts of it still look as though people evacuated and never went back. 

And although you look at the tourist areas and it’s all business as usual, there felt to be something defiant about it, something ever so slightly forced. I found that contrast fascinating. As an outsider I also felt there was a great sense of betrayal. Coming four years after 9/11 I think there was an expectation that if something really bad happened – whether a natural or man-made disaster, the government would be ready for it. Katrina proved they were not. 

Alex: Not ready or not willing. But you don’t even want to get me started on the betrayal surrounding Katrina!

So what’s next for Charlie—besides that complicated love life? 

Zoë: That’s a good question. I’m planning to take a little break from her next so I can write something new. In 2011 I had a pretty full-on  Charlie Fox year, what with organising getting the backlist to e-book  format, plus I did the short story e-thology for which I wrote a brand  new 12,000-word long short, Truth And Lies, and then did another  Charlie short in December, Across The Broken Line, plus DIE EASY. So, I’d really like a breather, just to take stock with the character and the direction she’s moving in. Having said that, of course, an idea for the next book in the series has already been forming vaguely in the back of my mind. I shall try to keep it in check!  I’ll keep writing about Charlie for as long as people want to keep reading about her. As long as I continue to have avenues of her character that I feel I can explore – as long as she has something to say to me – then the interest is there for me as a writer. I keep putting her under pressure, whether it’s physical, emotional, or psychological, and I see what happens. So far she’s always come out fighting. 

Alex:  Was your first Charlie Fox book your first novel, or did you have a few practice novels before that? 

Zoë: I did write a novel when I was fifteen, which I wrote long-hand and  my father, bless him, typed up for me. It did go out to publishers and  received “rave rejections”. I believe it may still be in a box in the  attic. My father keeps threatening to dig it out and put it on eBay. I  just threaten him at this point … Charlie was, therefore, my first real novel, and although I rewrote KILLER INSTINCT several times the basic  core of the book stayed true to the original idea.

Alex: And you’ve now got all the first Charlie Fox books up as e-books.  Can we get a list, in order? 

Zoë: To try to diffuse the confusion I’ve added the book order into the titles. It just seemed the best way to do it.

The full list is:

KILLER INSTINCT: Charlie Fox book one

RIOT ACT: Charlie Fox book two

HARD KNOCKS: Charlie Fox book three

FIRST DROP: Charlie Fox book four

ROAD KILL: Charlie Fox book five

SECOND SHOT: Charlie Fox book six

THIRD STRIKE: Charlie Fox book seven

FOURTH DAY: Charlie Fox book eight

FIFTH VICTIM: Charlie Fox book nine

DIE EASY: Charlie Fox book ten – coming 2012!

And today we’re giving away an e book to a randomly chosen commenter – any one of the first five Charlie books, winner’s choice.

Thanks so much, Zoë!

 

New Year’s Resolutions/Writing One Day at a Time

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Oh, okay, yes, the year is still new and I am finding myself compelled to do a New Year’s resolutions post.

One good thing is about writing a blog is that it makes one – well, me, anyway – more inclined to make public resolutions. I’m not actually sure how useful a list ever is. When it comes down to it, we all have kind of the same resolutions every year. Basically. Write more books and be a better person, right? Yes, okay, and look hotter, somehow.

But this year I wanted to do a list, mostly because as I said recently, 2011 was so hard it’s amazing just that I survived it.

I complain about the abject agony of writing all the time, but this year writing has been lifesaving, just to have one familiar thing to do every day.

But things are getting better. I’m feeling that I could move beyond survival to actually enjoying myself again.

So resolutions make sense, because they imply there IS a future, at least until the world ends in December. JUST KIDDING.

First, the standard ones:

Working out. This is one I don’t have to worry about. Exercise has been periodically too much of an obsession; I’m one who more often needs to tell myself, “You don’t REALLY need to take that two-hour Boot Camp class today.” I know if I don’t work out every day I become a rabid animal within 48 hours; it’s my version of antidepressants (depression being, as David pointed out yesterday, the real health hazard for writers). But these days I’m more balanced about working out. I take mostly dance classes, which is the way I most like to move and it’s so habitual by now it’s never a big deal to get myself to class to do it. So dance four or five times a week and one killer ab/ass class on top of that, not as much fun as dancing but the results are so immediate and visual, it’s addictive. No, I mean, it’s good.

Eating. Pretty good about this, too. I don’t eat too much, I eat mostly the right things, I know how to combine proteins, and I don’t keep anything like ice cream or Cheetos or macadamia nuts in the house, ever. One thing here – I am going to try to eat more Superfoods next year – why not, right? Salmon, blueberries, pomegranates, almonds, yams, dark greens; I love all that stuff anyway. I am finding it very MESSY to eat pomegranates, but wow, are they good.

Getting out more. Well, with my conference schedule this year I don’t have to worry about a social life, even though I have the typical author problem of feast or famine in this department. You live like a hermit while you’re writing, and party till you drop at the conferences. These days I’m mostly paid to go, a big perk of the job. But I am resolved to say yes more than no to social events.

Wear more colors.  I’m terrible about always automatically reaching for one of the five thousand black things in my closet (but they’re all different!). I mean, with my hair, I don’t really worry about standing out. Or rather, I do worry – about standing out too much. I KNOW why big city dwellers constantly wear black; it’s anonymous (and hides city dirt. And SO slimming….) But I also love dressing up for conferences, where I feel safe, and one of the most fun things is having people enjoy what I wear. So yes, a conscious effort to mix up the colors a bit this year.

Giving more. I am grateful to be feeling financially stable, and am glad to plug my favorite charities at the beginning of the year: Children of the Night, Kiva, Equality Now, Equality California. And don’t forget Wikipedia – you KNOW you use it.

Children of the Night – Rescues teenagers from prostitution.
Kiva You can pledge $25 or more as a microloan to small businesswomen in developing countries, the loan will be paid back and you can loan again to someone else.
Equality Now Ending violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world.
Equality California – Advocates for civil and legal rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Californians.

Writing more?

Okay, this one is not possible without a total brain meltdown.

My problem here is not that I’m not writing enough, but that I have too many concurrent projects. But I had a really productive December and am on track to finish my latest paranormal by my deadline at the end of January, which will make me less frantic about my contractual obligations. And I am closing in on finishing the thriller that I’ve been working on this year, sometimes just a few minutes a day. But five minutes a day for a year equals a book.

Did you catch that? I’ll say it again. Five minutes of writing a day for a year equals a book.

Which is what I really wanted to write about today, because I don’t think it’s said often enough that you CAN write a novel (or a script, or a TV pilot….) in whatever time you have. Even if that’s only five minutes a day. If you have kids, if you have the day job from hell, if you are clinically depressed – whatever is going on in your life, if you have five minutes a day, as long as you write EVERY DAY, to the best of your ability, you can write a novel that way.

I don’t know if I’ve posted this here before, maybe a million years ago, but I wrote my first novel, The Harrowing, by writing just five minutes per day.

My day job was screenwriting, at the time, and yes, it was a writing job, but it had turned into the day job from hell.

But fury is a wonderful motivator and at the end of the day, every day, I was so pissed off at the producers I was working for that I would make myself write five minutes a day on the novel EVERY NIGHT, just out of spite.

Okay, the trick to this is – that if you write five minutes a day, you will write more than five minutes a day, sometimes a whole hell of a lot more than five minutes a day most days. But it’s the first five minutes that are the hardest. And that often ended up happening. Sometimes I was so tired that all I could manage was a sentence, but I would sit down at my desk and write that one sentence. But some days I’d tell myself all I needed to write was a sentence, and I’d end up writing three pages.

It’s just like the first five minutes of exercise, something I learned a long time ago. As long as I can drag myself to class and endure that first five minutes of the workout, and give myself permission to leave after five minutes if I want to, I will generally take the whole hour and a half class, and usually end up loving it. (There are these wonderful things called endorphins, you see, and they kick in after a certain amount of exposure to pain…)

The trick to writing, and exercise, is – it is STARTING that is hard.

I have been writing professionally for . . . well, never mind how many years. But even after all those many years—every single day, I have to trick myself into writing. I will do anything – scrub toilets, clean the cat box, do my taxes, do my mother’s taxes – rather than sit down to write. It’s absurd. I mean, what’s so hard about writing, besides everything?

But I know this just like I know it about exercise. If you can just start, and commit to just that five minutes, those five minutes will turn into ten, and those ten minutes will turn into pages, and one page a day for a year is a book.

Think about it.

Or better yet, write for five minutes, right now.

So what are other people’s resolutions? And what are your tricks for actually following through?

Happy New Year, everyone!

Alex

Men of Mystery/ Rage Against the Night

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I wouldn’t call myself a connoisseur of men, exactly, or a gourmet, or heaven forbid, a gourmand.

But I do, well, notice them. 

One of the not-so-often-talked-about perks of the author life is that you are thrown in with some of the most fascinating, charismatic and fun males on the planet.

The variety is staggering.  Just consider our own men of Murderati. 

The oh-so-cool and oh-so-soulful Steve Schwartz. Well, who wouldn’t melt at the Kerouac/Cassady beat aura, the rhythm of a musician, that leather jacket?

Dusty Rhoades, an earthy, sexy bear of a man who calls himself a redneck when no redneck was ever so smart or so freaking liberal – but who you can see strangling a man with one hand if he ever even THOUGHT of messing with one of Dusty’s friends. 

David Corbett, so scary smart you want to whack him, but he’s carried noir elegance into present day and has the street cred to back it all up. And loyal as the day is long.

Gar Haywood, the sophisticated chameleon, who does “urban” noir and heartwarming cozy with equal skill – always the coolest man in the room but OH, you would not want to cross him and get caught in the fire. (Or would you?) 

Jonathan Hayes, who you KNOW could introduce you to a spectrum of sensual delights usually reserved for Arab men in patriarchal cultures who die gloriously in battle and get 100 virgins and the world’s best chefs working around the clock for them or something like that.

Ken Bruen, the Irish poet. I don’t know how any of the rest of us even have souls of our own: it seems to me that Ken has the keeping of the universal soul.  There is no harshness in this man, he is beautifully, truly himself to the core.

Expanding into the greater community. . .

Lee Child, every woman’s fantasy of James Bond but OH so much more interesting.   As radical as the day is long, and people call him shy but HAH. I’ve never met a man more capable of making any woman feel she is the most fabulous thing on the planet.  Reacher is a pale copy of the creator.  Plus he has that dreamy brother, the dreamy Andrew Grant, who has his own sleek spy thriller cred.   Lee or Andrew?  Andrew or Lee?  Or . . .  well,  that kind of speculating could keep a girl busy for a long, long time. 

Harlan Coben. The ultimate family man with bad boy written all over him.  He will drive you insane by telling you the absolute truth about why you are not where you should be as a writer, and then tell you the exact thing you need to know to get to the next level, driving you even more insane, because he’s right.  I love his passionate meltdowns on panels, they’re worth the price of admission to any conference. 

Joe Konrath.  If you can keep from killing him on first contact (or tenth), the most fun anyone can have standing up. Brilliant, visionary mind, nail-biting writer, and a sense of humor that will keep you young if you have the ovaries to survive it.  An earthy life force, and one of the only men who understands that all a woman wants on the dance floor is for you to be out there on it with her.  He would deny he is a good guy but I know better, and if you don’t, you’re missing out. 

F. Paul Wilson.  There is nothing this man does not know or cannot do. A practicing doctor AND genre-bending bestselling author AND serious drummer and wonderful actor; the sweetest man on the planet, as well as the most wickedly funny. You can rock out with him to ass-kicking Cajun music in a down-and-dirty Zydeco club on Bourbon Street, and talk to him about Deism while the band is taking a break.  A prince among men, and that’s no lie.

Barry Eisler. Well, what can I say – that hair!  No, there’s so much more to Barry. So much gorgeous and talented in one package would be insufferable if he weren’t so passionately political.  Get your mind out of the gutter and take a look. Barry has a moral compass that could lead us all.  If there were a zombie apocalypse, I’d want him rebuilding the world.

Speaking of Hollywood gorgeous – Marcus Sakey.  All right, I always had a thing for Starsky, so sue me.   But Marcus you can’t hate either, he’s the real deal. Uber-talented, doesn’t miss a trick, and a great guy – I’d love it if they’d just clone him.

Blake Crouch – hmm, can’t say anything here, I’m practically certain I could get arrested.  But someone so talented (writing AND music), so sweet, so fun, so loving, and so YOUNG, is going to rule the world any second now. And I’d be happy to have him do it.

We have men in this community who can turn you into a puddle just with their voices (Reed Farrel Coleman and and Gary Phillips)  There are brilliant soulful poets you want to save, while the more conscious half of your brain is saying they will destroy you if you stay a second longer at the bar (fill in the blank…)

I could go on and on and ON.  But there’s one man you might not be as familiar with as the others, while I, being the cross-genre slut—uh, wench—that I am, have had a little more exposure. And this is one you NEED to know. 

Rocky Wood is the current president of the Horror Writers Association, and the author of  Stephen King: Uncollected, Unpublished (Softcover), Stephen King: The Non-Fiction, Stephen King: A Literary Companion, Horrors: Great Stories of Fear and Their Creators

Rocky is a born New Zealander, current Australian, and believe me, Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe have nothing on him. They so very seldom make men like this anymore, it’s tragic. If there’s any point of cloning at all it should be to make more of these.

First of all, there’s that accent. But that’s just window dressing, really. 

He is charming in the way that the most charismatic movie stars I’ve met are charming.  He is totally present and focused in exactly the moment he is in, and on the person or group he is with. He has an aura that is sexy and smart and just beyond what you see in the real world.

You are drawn to the accent and his intensity, first, and the charisma, and then you very quickly start to realize that this is a wonderful person.  An exceptional person.  That whatever you thought you were rushing off to do can wait, possibly forever, because you really need to be right here and just find out who this person is.

A purely good person. 

They say about certain gurus and great spiritual leaders, like the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa, that you feel uplifted just as they walk in the room. That their physical presence changes your own auric vibration. Well, that’s Rocky.

All right, here comes the hard part.  And if you’re not sitting down, maybe you should, because when I say hard, I mean hard.

Rocky has ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease,  or Motor Neurone disease. It is an evil, insidious thing. It turns the muscles to soup. There is no cure.

The news of this, this year, made me want to take whatever pills that would get me out of this life as fast as I could exit it.  It made me wonder what was the point of anything at all.

Horrible things happen to good people all the time. No one can tell me that there is not actual evil in the world.

But this is one of those – THE PERSON WHO LEAST DESERVES THIS SCOURGE – events. 

So what is anyone to make of something like this?

Believe it or not, I’m not going to be dark about it.  I had that phase a while ago.  I’ve moved on, to two basic thoughts.  Which actually might be in opposition, but here they are anyway.

1. The perfect cure can happen instantly, tomorrow, this afternoon, this second. Miracles happen. Not consistently, but they happen.  As I wrote in THE PRICE, and as I believe (on good days): “If one miracle has ever happened in the world, why not this one, for you?”

2. Another, and possibly the more important point is that: this world is only illusion.  What you feel, what you can touch, right now, it’s only illusion.  There is a better state we pass on to, which to me is—pure energy.  Without the heaviness of a body.  Without the agony of what people do to each other on the earth plane.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my body, it gives me great pleasure, and I’m happy to know that it gives other people great pleasure.  But it’s so very heavy.  I have to think that there is a lighter kind of existence, and that it’s a much better existence.  I do enough yoga to believe that, with every cell and neuron in me.

And if this is true, it is not such a hard or horrible thing to have a fatal disease. Anything that is what the Hindus call Moksha: liberation, release from the earth plane, is a blessing.

(So I’ve gone from the ridiculously sensual to liberation from the physical body.  How’s that for a blog post?)

But since we’re still on this plane, a bunch of Rocky’s friends, who happen to be pretty incredibly great writers, have contributed a passel of short stories to a collection called RAGE AGAINST THE NIGHT, edited by Shane Jiraiya Cummings, with short stories by Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub, F. Paul Wilson, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Sarah Langan, Scott Nicholson, and many more. My short story, The Edge of Seventeen, is reprinted in the book, too. You may be especially interested in a story by Stephen King, which details a deal with the devil that Rocky would never make: passing this kind of illness on to another human being. But the book is also packed with tales from rising stars in the horror genre you may not be as familiar with.

The price is $3.99, and all proceeds go to buying Rocky an eye gaze machine, a miraculous device that allows which allows the severely physically impaired to communicate via eye movements.

Rocky has already made arrangements to pass the machine on to another family that needs it, because that’s the kind of man he is.

No one knows what will happen tomorrow.  I may drop dead long before Rocky does. Any one of us could. What I do know is that anyone who has not known this man is the poorer for it.   I hope this post will go a small way toward correcting that.

Thank you for reading.

Alex

RAGE AGAINST THE NIGHT:

E book now available for $3.99 from: 

Amazon (Kindle)

–  Smashwords (multi-format ebook)

In the coming weeks, the anthology should be available at all good online retailers, and the print version will be available in January.

Synopsis:

Under the onslaught of supernatural evil, the acts of good people can seem insignificant, but a courageous few stand apart. These brave men and women stand up to the darkness, stare it right in the eye, and give it the finger. These are the stories of those who rage against the night, stories of triumph, sacrifice, and bravery in the face of overwhelming evil.

– Edited by Shane Jiraiya Cummings.

 

The Walking Dead

 by Alexandra Sokoloff

That would be me, after two weeks of something that never quite turned into flu but wasn’t much fun anyway.

I don’t really watch television, no time and very little tolerance, but I do occasionally binge on it.

And I don’t know whether it’s my way of avoiding the traditional Christmas chocolate binge, or the fact that I’ve been sick for a lot longer than I figured on being, but I have been having a mother of a TV binge this week.

In the past I have become obsessed with shows like DEADWOOD (still the best of all), THE WIRE (excruciatingly close second), ROME, and MAD MEN. Obsessed means that I watch every episode as soon as I can get it, which can present a time management problem when I discover a show that has actually been on the air for several seasons already.

I may be able to blame this current one on Our Steve, because it actually started when I was feverish and I guess I needed to see people sicker than I was or something, so I watched Outbreak (a movie Steve helped develop) on Netflix. I’ll see Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Spacey in anything, and this is them together, and I’ve been kind of wanting to see it again after seeing one of what must be one of the year’s most excruciatingly dull movies—CONTAGION.

I don’t know what it is about the plague that is so hard to get right in a feature film.  At least I didn’t until I discovered the AMC TV series THE WALKING DEAD.  And now I know what has been missing from these plague movies.

Zombies.

Now you have to understand this. I like apocalypse stuff but I am NOT a zombie girl. Couldn’t care less. Mystified by the popularity (plus, that wave has   l  o  n  g  passed, hasn’t it?)  I read THE PASSAGE (good book) and some of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (cute, but you get it after a few chapters and don’t have to keep reading.  ZOMBIELAND was funny and 28 DAYS LATER was scary but has one of the worst endings I’ve ever seen from a talent like Danny Boyle.

But WALKING DEAD – well, it’s created by Frank Darabont, based on the graphic novel series by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard.  Darabont is one of my favorite filmmakers. Only person who’s every pulled off a Stephen King novel on film (besides Cronenberg with DEAD ZONE. I love Kubrick’s THE SHINING but it’s not King’s THE SHINING. And yes, STAND BY ME is great but it’s not a King NOVEL.).

The first episode of WD is so scary I had to turn it off periodically and calm myself down. I am beyond stunned that it didn’t give me nightmares.

It’s cinematic and riveting, often heartbreaking, purely wonderful storytelling.

Well, only the first 13 episodes are available so far and I went through that in a day.  (When I say binge, I mean binge.).

Which meant that I could actually resume writing the next day, which is the good news.

The bad news was I was jonesing for more apocalypse.  So I did some searching and discovered the BBC series SURVIVORS (the recent remake, or revision), which is post-flu apocalyptic.

Watching both series back to back was a seriously interesting exercise.  I’m not entirely sure in what – British vs. American TV, British vs. American gun culture, British vs. American people. . .  zombies vs. flu. . .

Here’s the thing.  I’m not a particularly violent person or writer; I avoid gore in my reading and my own writing. But after 13 episodes of WALKING DEAD, I am seriously craving bloodshed on SURIVIVORS.  Sure, everyone but a dozen people died in the first episode (shown through tasteful shots of the soles of tennis shoes and limp manicured hands).

But once the human encounters started again, there were some people who needed to be dead. And the British characters in SURVIVORS just refuse to kill people.  Also, I know this series aired on the BBC, but I have to think that in actuality there are more than two guns in Britain.  I’m sure Zoe has at least that many.  Okay, I’ve actually seen four guns on the show so far, but only two in play at once. 

Now come on, Brits, in case of an apocalypse, even without zombies—wouldn’t guns be one of the FIRST things you’d be looking for?  Like, after water, but before food?  That seems to me basic survival.  I know that you don’t have gun shops at every random strip mall, but you do have a military, and in the world of the show, the military is just as dead as the rest of the world.  So there would be guns to be had, right?

I’m sorry, but tire irons aren’t going to cut it.

That’s me being logical, there. But there’s another aspect to it, not logical at all.  I have to confess, thatcompared to WD, where zombies are shot, arrowed, pickaxed… skulls crushed with shovels, bodies torn apart by ropes (and by other zombies) – gruesome casualties by the dozens almost every episode . . .

Well, it sounds terrible to say it, but after all the excruciating tension of WD I just was not sure SURVIVORS was going to be violent enough for me. Even with all those British accents, I wasn’t getting into it.  It was, no big surprise, sex that kept me with it for the first two episodes.  There are two pretty fine leading men in this show, Max Beesley and Paterson Joseph;  I’m happy to see the producers realized they should be shirtless more often.  The other characters grew on me and the lead actress I disliked in the first episode turned out to be a villain, so that was okay. The lead actress I like best got to kick some serious ass a few episodes in, which was a pleasant—or maybe I mean gratifying—surprise. And I like the conceit of the show, which is that, at least so far, the Odyssey-like encounters the main group has with other survivors are modeled around famous stories from literature, like Peter Pan and Oliver Twist. It could have been corny but it works.

I am having one continuing problem with it, on the morality front.

With zombies of course you don’t have to have debates about morality, you can just break skulls—although THE WALKING DEAD does pretty well finding moral dilemmas, with some zombie killing anyway.

But I’m starting to wonder if my own morality got a little warped by the show, as with SURIVORS I am getting TIRED of the good guys letting the bad guys go. Especially in the case of two would-be rapists, who should have been put permanently out of commission.  The good guys could have talked about it, argued it, but someone should AT LEAST have brought up the idea.  Instead of turning them loose to attack other women. Or children, if there don’t happen to be any women handy.

There’s another weasel I’m sure the writers are just keeping around to keep people’s blood boiling, but it makes me long for the take-no-prisoners skull-crushing of WD.

I bet you’re all starting to wonder what my point is.  I’m not sure, actually.  My questions are not so much about zombies, but if you’d like to talk about them, have at it.  Give us some classics. But what I was really wondering was – have other people started to experience holiday meltdowns?  How did or do they show up for you? 

There’s also a question for the Brits.  Do you have more than two guns in the entire country?  (Sorry, kidding.)  But I can’t say that I’ve seen a lot of gunplay in my favorite British series.  Am I just missing the gory ones, or do you all look aghast at the level of violence in American cable TV, especially?

And I’m up for any recommendations of apocalyptic favorites. I only have five more episodes of SURVIVORS to go . . .

The very happiest holidays to all (with or without zombies), and hoping all wonderful things for everyone in the new year.

Alex

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P.S.   If I have not responded to anyone who requested review copies of THE HARROWING, THE PRICE or BOOK OF SHADOWS, please re-mail me at alex AT alexandrasokoloff DOT com.  I was late getting to my webmail on this because of my bout with plague, and may have deleted a few e mails along with the deluge of spam.

(And Reine – your e mail is not working for me….)

Alex

 

Year-end wrap-up

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Somehow it has gotten to be December (how the hell?)  and one of my editors and I have been commiserating about how really freaking glad we both are that this year is drawing to a close. Even if the world does end (or start over) in 2012, it’s just got to be better than this year.  Doesn’t it?

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I’m not one for the in-depth online personal disclosures.  Authors live a little in the spotlight, if just a minor one, and that’s fine, it’s not that I’m shy– but let’s face it, there are some strange people out there and you never know who’s reading.

So without getting too detailed about it, on the personal level this has been an enormously hard year for me. A lot of loss, as in death. Within six months: my father, a beloved aunt, and my cat of 19 years. My father from Alzheimer’s, and all I can say about that is – Don’t get it.  And I hope to God someone figures out prevention and cure to end that scourge.

All of this was coming down while I was not long out of and certainly not recovered from a devastating and permanent split from my significant other.

While here in New Agey California people are liable to say cheery and optimistic things like “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “God (the Goddess, the Universe) never gives us more than we can handle,” I’m not so sure about that. I think lots of people get more than they can handle.  Just take a look at all the crime and illness and tragedy in the world. People snap all the time. Does that mean they could have handled it and they just didn’t?  Well, yeah, sometimes, but some, I think, really do get more than anyone could handle.

Anyway, I’m handling it, I guess, but I’m also very aware that I’ve been pretty effectively shut down for most of the year, enough so that sometimes I’ve wondered if I’d ever really be coming back from it. Surviving is not the same as thriving.

On the other hand, I’d have to be the biggest narcissist on the planet not to know that I have it a lot better than a lot of people, especially in this economic climate.  I’m making a comfortable living at the thing I most love to do (although I admit, sometimes that love looks a lot like—something not so loving.).  E books are a godsend, and I have a lineup of book contracts that sometimes gives me panic attacks, but after a really rough patch there after Dad died, I have been managing my deadlines and doing a book on the side,  too, as well as getting some of my backlist formatted for e-release.  In fact it’s kind of amazing how much I got out there this year:

– I e-published a second Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbook:  Writing Love, and my first YA thriller: The Space Between.

– I finished the first book in a paranormal trilogy for Harlequin: Twist of Fate. 

– I finished a draft of and am now rewriting a new crime thriller than I’m writing on spec (about which I will say very little because I’m superstitious that way).

– The Unseen came out in the UK.

– I wrote a short story, In Atlantis, for Thriller 3, Stories to Keep You Up at Night, coming out in June 2012.

– I am about 100 pages into Night Shift, my second book in the continuing paranormal series The Keepers, that I’m writing with two of my best friends and favorite authors, Heather Graham and Harley Jane Kozak.

– And this month, I am releasing e versions of The Harrowing, The Price, and Book of Shadows in various countries.

It’s absolutely amazing, really, for me to look at that list, which doesn’t even include the workshops I taught this year, when I feel like all I did sleep and once in a while shuffle around the house running into furniture like some kind of undead thing. And I wanted to put it all on paper (or whatever this is) to prove to myself that I’m haven’t checked out of life completely, no matter how I feel sometimes.

In fact I am actually starting to love writing Night Shift, which is not something I say very often about my writing; finishing is so infinitely superior to the actual process.

And it’s great to be full time in the Hotel California again, except for time on the road, of course…  Both of the books I’m working on now, and my last, The Space Between, are set in California and it’s taken me a while to come around to it, but there aren’t many people more qualified than I am to write about this state. (I know it’s a terrible thing to say but I LOVED those violent winds last week; that was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.) I’m finally far enough out of the Hollywood trauma to write about that, too, and I am truly loving using the movie business as a backdrop to this paranormal thriller.  It’s so easy, in a way; I don’t have to think, I can just have fun.  I can set a scene on Catalina if I want and I don’t have to research it, I don’t have to take a field trip (although I could).

Maybe writing could be this way all the time.

And I may not know where I’m going to live next in any permanent way, but I am starting to have at least the beginning of faith that I will find a direction. Eventually.

Maybe I’ll find the rest of it, too. Eventually.

So, everyone – how was YOUR year?

Alex

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!!REVIEW COPIES!!

I am giving away 100 review copies of Book of Shadows, The Harrowing and The Price for potential review on Amazon, Goodreads and LibraryThing.

Book of Shadows for UK readers and anyone in France, Germany, Italy or Spain who might want to review it on Amazon.fr, Amazon.de, Amazon.it, or Amazon.es.

 

The Harrowing and The Price: for US readers and anyone in France, Germany, Italy or Spain who might want to review either or both on Amazon.fr, Amazon.de, Amazon.it, or Amazon.es.

 

If you’re interested, please e mail me at alex AT AlexandraSokoloff DOT com and I’ll get you a copy of your choice.

Thanks, everyone!!

Best Holiday Movies

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Everyone’s shopping, right? 

Okay, I’m a little behind on the post.  There are reasons, but also, I admit to some holiday blues here.   

The fact is that I am JUST NOT a homebody, so any holiday that revolves around decorating, baking, shopping, and obligatory writing of greeting cards is bound to give me the hives.  My friends know I love them.  I hope.  They know I love them enough not to cook for them, anyway.  

I also hate the feeling of HAVING to participate in all this commercialism.   It’s become so forced and desperate.    I heard Donovan’s “I Don’t Like Christmas Anymore (cause they push it on the TV and they push it in the stores…)”  on the radio the other day (because of course, the Christmas music started the day after Halloween) and felt a savage pleasure in it.   

And surely there’s more unnamed angst, deeply buried, requiring years of expensive therapy to unearth.

Truthfully, I grew up with not much religion.  At all.   My parents, both of the scientific mind (despite some pretty typical religious training for their generation) are two of the most agnostic people you are ever likely to meet.   My siblings and I were not forced to any particular church as children; instead, our parents encouraged religious promiscuity – meaning, whatever friend’s house was the slumber party for the weekend, we’d end up at that friend’s house of worship in the morning, whatever that was.   Or – not.

Little did our parents know how broadly we would apply that theory…

Well, never mind that.

I was really a lot better about the holidays when I had singing to do.  When I was in middle school, through college and those undefined and fucked up but kinda great years after college, the holidays were all about choir rehearsals and holiday performances, the obligatory but ecstatic gang-bang Messiah, and all that endless caroling, including impromptu a cappella breakouts into song on San Francisco cable cars, magical!!! I didn’t have to THINK about Christmas – I just FELT it, in the music.

Nowadays, I don’t have any formal singing to do, I don’t have any children to create holiday myths for, and there’s just too damn much chocolate around, leering and beckoning.  (“Everyone’s wearing sweaters this time of year anyway… no one’s going to notice…”  Oh yeah, right.)

Luckily, the antidote is clear.  The best thing about the holidays besides champagne: HOLIDAY movies.  TCM is already pulling out the stops.  So let’s compare.  Here are mine:

HOLIDAY INN

The ultimate escapist fantasy.    Yes, let me make a living doing 12 live shows a year, simultaneously keeping two men at my beck and call, one who sings, one who dances.   Where do I sign?    Best line:   “But I do love you, Jim.  I love everybody.”   Best song:   “Be Careful, It’s My Heart”.   Best dance – Fred and the firecrackers.   Best cat-fight moment: Marjorie Reynolds trying to look contented with Bing Crosby while Fred is dancing up a storm with Virginia Dale.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE

A non-escapist fantasy that puts you through the emotional wringer only to emerge the feel-good – that’s, feel GOOD – film of all time.

Used to show it to my gang kids in prison school – it remains one of the all-time highlights of my life to see those kids start out whining that I was showing them a black and white film and then watch them fall under this movie’s spell.   Oh man, did they GET it.

HOLIDAY

George Cukor directing a Donald Ogden Stewart & Sidney Buchman adaptation of a Philip Barry play starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.   Anything else you need to know?

PHILADELPHIA STORY

See above, plus Jimmy Stewart, and the brilliant and under-known Ruth Hussey  (“Oh, I just photograph well.”) and Virginia Weidler as the weirdest little sister on the planet (“I did it.  I did it ALL.”)   Not a holiday movie, per se, but if you’re looking for cheer…

RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER

Best Christmas musical soundtrack there is – one great song after another – only the whole thing makes me cry so hard I generally end up avoiding it.

FAWLTY TOWERS

BBC series written by and starring John Cleese and Connie Booth, with Cleese as the most incompetent innkeeper in the history of innkeeping.  The entire series is genius, every single episode – not exactly holiday themed, either, but guaranteed healer of depression and all other ills.   Be prepared to laugh until you’re sick.

ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS

My brother turned the fam onto AB FAB and now it just wouldn’t be a holiday without Patsy and Eddy and Saffy.   Sin is in, sweetie.

GODSPELL and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR

Okay, so I’m not technically a Christian or anything, but I can see God in those two shows.

Hah!  I’m feeling better already!

So give.   What movies mean the holidays to YOU?

 – Alex

 

Kindle highlights and best writing advice

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Okay, this has apparently been going on for a year and a half and I’m only now catching on. But I just discovered that the Amazon pages of my books are continually compiling the most highlighted quotes from my books.   

To explain for those of you who might not have an e reader – yet! – you can highlight passages of books that you read on your Kindle, and I’m assuming other reading devices, to refer back to at your leisure.  Whether or not you, the reader, know that this information is being compiled online is a different question.

Well, do you?  Some books you might not want to have those special passages spotlighted, if you see what I mean.

The debate about that aspect happened a year ago, (and here’s another) and granted, a year ago was not a very good time for me, to put it mildly, but I certainly didn’t know about this little Amazon feature.

Now, I’m not a big fan (also putting it mildly) of the overshare zero privacy aspect of soclal networking in general. Some things I don’t mind people knowing. Anyone who wants to know my politics, for example, only has to take one look at my hair. And like most authors I’ve gotten used to living in a semi-spotlight; I don’t mind that. On the other hand, I regularly lie on Facebook so that anyone who tried to put together a profile of personal details on me would have a hard time sorting the wheat from the chaff. The idea of Facebook Timeline horrifies me – I don’t even want to be able to look at what I’ve done in my life in what order, much less have anyone else be able to look at it.  Except that it would be fun to put together an entirely fake timeline. That is, if one had any of this said time to begin with.

And I find it horrifying that you would have to KNOW to opt-out of an e reader highlighting feature. Privacy should be the default, not something you have to opt in to.

But Big Brother aside, for the moment this highlighted quotes feature is actually totally EXCELLENT news for me because it means today, instead of a long blog post on what I think is important advice for those of you in the middle of Nanowrimo, I can just give you a pithy list of what readers think is the best advice in my Screenwriting Tricks books. And you all know how much I love lists.

So here you go:

——————–

Top Ten highlighted quotes from Screenwriting Tricks for Authors:

On LOGLINES/PREMISES:

– The premise sentence should give you a sense of the entire story: the character of the protagonist, the character of the antagonist, the conflict, the setting, the tone, the genre.  
 
– All of these premises contain a defined protagonist, a powerful antagonist, a sense of the setting, conflict and stakes, and a sense of how the action will play out.  

– Write a one-sentence premise that contains all these story elements: protagonist, antagonist, conflict, stakes, setting, atmosphere and genre.  

On a character’s GHOST or WOUND

– We all unconsciously seek out people, events and situations that duplicate our core trauma(s), in the hope of eventually triumphing over the situation that so wounded us.  

On CHARACTER ARC

– The arc of the character is what the character learns during the course of the story, and how s/he changes because of it. It could be said that the arc of a character is almost always about the character realizing that s/he’s been obsessed with an outer goal or desire, when what she really needs to be whole, fulfilled, and lovable is _______ (fill in the blank).  

On HOPE and FEAR

– Our fear for the character should be the absolute worst case scenario:  
 
– The lesson here is – spend some quality time figuring out how to bring your hero/ine’s greatest nightmare to life: in setting, set decoration, characters involved, actions taken. If you know your hero/ine’s ghost and greatest fear, then you should be able to come up with a great setting (for the climax/final battle) that will be unique, resonant, and entirely specific to that protagonist (and often to the villain as well.)  

On PLAN (and ACT II)

– This continual opposition of the protagonist’s and antagonist’s plans is the main underlying structure of the second act.  

ON CONFLICT/ANTAGONISM

– STACK THE ODDS AGAINST YOUR PROTAGONIST. It’s just ingrained in us to love an underdog.  

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Top ten highlighted quotes from Writing Love

– “Every genre has its own game that it’s playing with the audience.”

– The game in the romance genre is often to show, through the hero and heroine, how we are almost always our own worst enemies in love, and how we throw up all kinds of obstacles in our own paths to keep ourselves from getting what we want.   
 
– A great, emotionally effective technique within the final battle is to have the hero/ine LOSE THE BATTLE TO WIN THE WAR.  

– This continual opposition of the protagonist’s and antagonist’s plans is the main underlying structure of the second act.  

– I’m a firm believer that just ASKING the questions will prompt your creative brain to leap into overdrive and come up with the right scenes. Our minds and souls long to be creative, they just need us to stop stalling and get our asses in gear.  

– So once you’ve got your initial plan, you need to be constantly blocking that plan, either with your antagonist, or the hero/ine’s own inner conflict, or outside forces beyond her or his control.  
 
– Very often in the second act we will see a battle before the final battle in which the hero/ine fails because of some weakness, so the suspense is even greater when s/he goes into the final battle (climax) in the third act. 
 
– The final battle (climax) is also a chance to PAY OFF ALL YOUR SETUPS AND PLANTS. Very often you will have set up a weakness for your hero/ine. That weakness that has caused him or her to fail repeatedly in previous tests, and in the final battle (climax) the hero/ine’s great weakness will be tested. 
 
– “Get the hero up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Get him down.”  

– After I’ve finished that grueling, hellish first draft, the fun starts. I do layer after layer after layer: different drafts for suspense, for character; sensory drafts, emotional drafts, each concentrating on a different aspect that I want to hone in the story, until the clock runs out and I have to turn the whole thing in.  

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Now, if I’m remembering my own books correctly – always a big if – these are all quotes from the first few chapters, in both lists. I don’t know if that’s because all my best material is in the first chapters (JUST KIDDING) or if this is some quirk of the system that because only the top 10 quotes are listed, the quotes tend to be from the first chapters. Maybe someone else who is more familiar with this feature can explain this to us.

But actually, I’m pleased with the quotes that people have pulled. It makes me realize that sometimes short is best.  (It just takes so long to be short…).

So, everyone – have you all known about this highlights-sharing all along?  Whether you did or didn’t, what do you think about it? Are we all already doomed on the privacy front? Are we just going to let it all slide?

And those of you who are doing Nano, how’s it going?

Alex

So what about critique groups?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

This is a question I get all the time, and since Nanowrimo is upon us, it seems a good topic to tackle.

I think critique groups can be the best thing for writers since the Internet.  Except when (much like the Internet) they’re the worst.

The problem is, for newer writers, you’re casting around trying to get some tenuous grasp on this writing thing to begin with. And a bad critique group can sink you just as fast as a good one can elevate you.

As regular readers have probably gathered, I tend to have my own opinions about just about everything, and if someone else is wrong, they’re just wrong. I’ve been writing for so long that I HAVE to go with my gut.  I’ve had so, so many years to develop that inner bullshit detector that is so crucial for separating the good criticism from the moronic criticism (which sometimes criticism just is).  On the other hand, sometimes a moronic critic will tell you EXACTLY what you need to hear, so you can’t ever shut out the moronic comments completely.

The sad fact is, being able to critique a critique group is one of those essential skills that a writer needs to develop. And that just takes practice.

I was in a killer critique group when I wrote my first novel, THE HARROWING.  I was a seasoned screenwriter, but had never written a word of prose fiction before that.  I didn’t join the group until I had a very rough first draft of the book, and then week by week, that group showed me what novel writing was really about.  The format of that group was perfect: the group was limited to 12 people (meaning probably 9 showed up each session); we met every week; it was led by one person, a screenwriter, novelist and USC professor, the awesome Sid Stebel; and the format was very simple: anyone who wanted to be critiqued that week would read aloud, up to 9 pages or so; then first the group leader would critique, and then anyone in the rest of the group would critique: good comments first, then more critical comments.  It was a group of screenwriters, poets, journalists, teachers, actors, and novelists, and it was divine.  I think the reading aloud format is SO key because just as in live theater, you see, hear and FEEL what your audience is experiencing about your work.  Even if you have some off-key criticism, the live response of an audience just doesn’t lie.

My second critique group, which got me through my second novel, THE PRICE, was a very small group of friends that I’ve known forever, some of the smartest and most talented people I know (and I have to say that is saying a whole hell of a lot).  We met and exchanged notes on line, which doesn’t seem as if it would work but – maybe because we know each other so well, it worked like a charm.

My current critique group works in a completely different way.  I have a posse of mystery writer friends (I should say goddesses or divas!) that I met when I was living in Raleigh: Margaret Maron, Sarah Shaber, Diane Chamberlain, Katy Munger, Mary Kay Andrews and Brynn Bonner.

We don’t have time or proximity to meet in person every week or every month, so two or three times a year we go on retreat for a week in some fabulous place, the beach or the mountains or some generally fantastic place, and it’s all writing, all the time. There is something incredible about being on retreat with a group of trusted, seasoned writer friends for a whole dedicated week. We’ve got this thing down to a science by now. We have a group session in the morning: all of us set our intentions for the day, and brainstorm on any sticky story problems we’re facing. We separate to work all day long by ourselves and then convene at night to drink wine and brainstorm on any problem that any one of us is having (and of course, compare page counts! Competition keeps those pages flowing… )

One of our favorite retreats is the Artist in Residence program at the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines, NC.

Weymouth is an amazing place – a 9000 sq. foot mansion on 1200 acres (including several formal gardens and a 9-hole golf course) that’s really three houses melded together. It was what they called a “Yankee Playtime Plantation” in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the fox hunting lodge of coal magnate James Boyd. James Boyd’s grandson James rebelled against the family business to become – what else? – a novelist. Boyd wrote historical novels, and his editor was the great Maxwell Perkins (“Editor of Genius”), and in the 1920’s and 30’s Weymouth became a Southern party venue for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Thomas Wolfe. That literary aura pervades the house, especially the library, with all its photos and portraits of the writers who have stayed at the house.

It’s a fantastic place to write – pages just fly.

Weymouth has even worked its way into one of my books. When I started plotting The Unseen, I needed a haunted mansion that I could know and convey intimately – the house in a haunted house story is every bit as much a character as the living ones. So of course the Weymouth mansion, with its rich and strange history, convoluted architecture, isolation, vast grounds, and haunted reputation, was a no-brainer. I truly believe that when you commit to a story, the Universe opens all kinds of opportunities to you. And as it happened, our gang was able to stay in the house again for a week as I was writing the book.

And if you’re at this point thinking this is something totally, impossibly out of reach… well, think again.  Have you ever just Googled things like “writers in residence in —— (your state)”?  So how do you know there’s not a 9000 square foot mansion available to you absolutely free in your state?  If there’s anything I’ve learned over the years, it’s “Ask, and the Universe provides.”

But it’s also a wonderful thing that authors exchange their work between themselves all the time. What could be better than having authors you admire giving your work a read, and being able to read your author friends’ work in earlier stages?  (I’m at the moment eagerly awaiting Zoe’s newest Charlie Fox, months before it will be released.  I mean, how much would that privilege go at auction at Bouchercon?)  I just love it, and with the crazy schedules we all have it’s often a more viable option than a critique group. 

Maybe it’s the Berkeley in me (I like group – everything – what can I say?) but for me there’s nothing like a literal, f2f critique group, preferably as often as possible.   But – we are blessed that we have all the other options as well.

So let’s talk about it today.  What are your experiences with critique groups, good and bad?  What do you think is the optimum format for getting those essential notes for a new book?

And if you have nothing to say about that, just tell us something scary for Halloween.

I’m traveling for most of the day (that Halloween thing, you know, I write the spooky stuff…) but will check in when I can.

Alex

 

Nanowrimo Prep – narrative structure cheat sheet

 

by Alexandra Sokoloff

There really is something about fall for me, this huge jolt of energy.   Thank God, because I have a lot to do.   This week I did my taxes and a book proposal at the same time, two activities that should never be performed simultaneously.  (At some point the brain does explode, doesn’t it?)  This week I have to write another book proposal while doing edits for another book, and go to Houston to teach a workshop. 

In the middle of all of this there is another book that I am dying, just dying to get done.  This is why I’m a big fan of Nanowrimo. Even though, truthfully, like every full-time writer I have a Nano-like writing schedule most of the time, there’s something about having a designated month where all kinds of people are putting in this kind of insane writing time with the insane goal of having some rough approximation of a book at the end of it that makes it all feel okay, somehow, even doable.

For the last couple of years I’ve been doing a Nano Prep series on my blog   in October,  because I reel in horror at the idea of people just sitting down on Day 1 and starting to write to see what comes out.  The chances of getting a viable book out of that process seem – slim.

I may finally have gone to the opposite extreme, though.  The more I analyze structure, the more it seems to me that every story has the same underlying structure.   In previous years I’ve come up with a checklist of story elements, and last year I really expanded on that one.  But in the last month of some short workshops and my Nano Prep, I’ve actually tried to put the most important of those story elements into an almost narrative, a cheat sheet for story development.

So I’m running it by you all today, to see if it makes sense to anyone but me.

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Narrative Structure Cheat Sheet

Act I:

We meet the Hero/ine in the Ordinary World.  

S/he has:

   —  a Ghost or Wound

   —  a strong Desire

   —  Special Skills

And an Opponent, or several, which is standing in the way of her getting what s/he wants, and possibly wants exactly the same thing that s/he wants

She gets a Call to Adventure: a phone call, an invitation, a look from a stranger, that invites her to change her life.

That impulse may be blocked by a

    —  Threshold Guardian

    —   And/or the Opponent

    —   And/or she is herself reluctant to take the journey.

But she overcomes whatever opposition,

   — Gathers Allies and the advice of a Mentor

    — Formulates a specific PLAN to get what s/he wants

And Crosses the Threshold Into the Special World.


Act II:1

The hero/ine goes after what s/he wants, following the PLAN

The opponent blocks and attacks, following his or her own PLAN to get what s/he wants

The hero/ine may now:

     — Gather a Team

     — Train for battle (in a love story this can be shopping or dating)

     — Investigate the situation.

     — Pass numerous Tests

All following the Plan, to achieve the Desire.

No matter what genre, we experience scenes that deliver on the Promise of the Premise – magic, flying, sex, mystery, horror, thrills, action.

We also enjoy the hero/ine’s Bonding with Allies or Falling in Love

And usually in this Act the hero/ine is Winning.

Then at the Midpoint, there is a big Reversal, Revelation, Loss or Win that is a Game-Changer.

 

Act II:2

 

The hero/ine must Recover and Recalibrate from the game-changer of the Midpoint.

And formulate a New Plan

Neither the Hero/ine nor the Antagonist has gotten what they want, and everyone is tired and pissed.

Therefore they Make Mistakes

And often Cross a Moral Line

And Lose Allies

And the hero/ine, or if not the hero/ine, at least we, are getting the idea (if we didn’t have it before) that the hero/ine might be WRONG about what s/he wants.

Things begin to Spiral Out of Control

And get Darker and Darker (even if it’s funny)

Until everything crashes in a Black Moment, or All is Lost Moment, or Visit to Death.

And then, out of that compete despair comes a New Revelation for the hero/ine

That leads to a New Plan for the Final Battle.

 

Act III

The Heroine Makes that last New Plan

Possibly Gathers the Team (Allies) again

Possibly briefly Trains again

Then Storms the Opponent’s Castle (or basement)

The Team (if there is one) Attacks the Opponent on his or her own turf, and all their

     — Skills are tested.

     — Subplots are resolved,

     — and secondary Opponents are defeated in a satisfying way.

Then the Hero/ine goes in alone for the final battle with the Antagonist.  Her Character Arc, everything s/he’s learned in the story, helps her win it.

The Hero/ine has come Full Circle

And we see the New Way of Life that s/he will live.


—————————————————————————————

 

Let me know if this makes sense, or is at all helpful, and otherwise, who else is doing Nano?  And for the happy, sane, non-writers, do you get that Back to School feeling about fall, too?  What are you doing with that burst of energy?

Alex 

What I learned at Bouchercon

by Alexandra Sokoloff

St. Louis has a much prettier downtown than I ever would have guessed. Great architecture.

However, all the women dress like 1980’s hookers at night (just agreeing with Greg Hurwitz, there).

All male authors would give it up (writing) in a heartbeat to be rock stars (Mark Billingham).

Always keep asking for the hotel you really want and you’ll get it (the suites were dreamy.)

The world may be crumbling but people are still reading my books and happy to see me.

Always be aware of readers hovering who are too shy to talk to you unless you make eye contact and smile or sometimes walk right over and pull up a chair.

Never, ever miss a panel that Val McDermid is on.  You will always get the best writing advice and the best laughs of your life.

Ditto Harlan Coben.

There are good moderators, stellar moderators (Tom Schreck, Hank Philippi Ryan) and moderators who should never be let near a microphone, let alone called upon to moderate.

And: it is the panelists’ responsibility to take control of the panel if they are so unfortunate as to end up on a panel with a bad moderator.  We owe that to the audience.

There are few thrills as great as being up on a panel and seeing people in the audience pull out their Kindles and order my books as I’m speaking.

There will always be one day that the hotel is so cold it will take the rest of the conference to thaw out. Not bringing a coat is suicidal.

If you wait long enough, misogynists do accrue a critical mass of fury and bad karma and get their comeuppance.

Always go to the one-on-one interviews.

Always go to the heavy-hitters panel.

It’s sad when Lee Child isn’t there.

If I were casting Ridley Pearson it would hands-down be Tom Hanks.

I’m not the only one who is outraged that anyone could hold Lisbeth Salander up as this feminist heroine when the first thing she does in the second book is get a boob job to feel better about herself (Thank you, Karin Slaughter).

Nothing makes me happier than seeing teenage girls so into reading.

There is no better place to meet British men.

Weather.com lies.

You will always get EXACTLY the information/information/kick in the ass that you need  (thanks, Harlan).

There is no better way to find new favorite authors. (Last year, RJ Ellory, the year before, Mo Hayder, this year I suspect it will be Colin Cotterill and Simon Toyne.  Yes, I love those Brits.)

Steve Schwartz would rather go to Ireland for 3 weeks than to St. Louis for four days, even though ALL HIS FRIENDS WERE THERE.

I might move back to San Francisco just to hang out with Michelle Gagnon, Sophie Littlefield and Juliet Blackwell.

I need to go clothes shopping with Rae Helmsworth and Maddee James.

If you set an intention to meet someone, they will walk up to you in the bar and start a two-hour conversation.

If you don’t, you’ll meet someone just as great.

There are not enough hours in a day.

Even if you feel near death you can still achieve major enlightenment by half-sleeping in panels and letting your mind drift to your book.

Be that as it may, I will never make it to an 8 a.m. panel that I am not actually on.

Not just me, but everyone I know in this community pines for a recreation of the first Thrillerfest.  That would be in Phoenix, people.  PHOENIX.

Sex happens.  (Okay, I knew that.)

It majorly sucks but is also strangely comforting to hear from Those Who Know that writing is just hard. Hard, hard, hard.  And it never gets any easier.  But at least we’re not suffering alone.

I would rather dance than eat. 

However, if you want to eat well and laugh lots, follow JT Ellison.

We owe Judy Bobalik, Ruth Jordan, and Jon Jordan more drinks and massages than we can possibly pay out.

Mystery authors have the greatest life on the planet.

I love you guys.

Never, ever miss it.

 ————————————————————————————

Of course, my question today is – What did YOU learn at Bouchercon?  Or give us a few gems from other cons.  We can create our own McGuffey Reader, right here.

Alex

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