Category Archives: Alexandra Sokoloff

And yet another Thrillerfest wrap-up

by Alex

I’m one of the ones who grumbled about TF being in NYC again this year – not that I don’t love New York, I mean, please! – but I felt last year’s con was very – UNintimate compared to that magical first one in Phoenix. To be fair, last year I was having a rough time personally – a longtime friend of mine had died that week and I felt like an open wound.

This year, though, every single thing that went wrong about last year went beautifully right. Con organizers bent over backward to make sure that this Thrillerfest was awesome in every way. I can personally attest to the remarkable efforts of Steve Berry, the truly amazing Liz Berry and Kathleen Antrim – can we just bottle them? – Jim Rollins, Jon Land, Laura Benedict, Michelle Gagnon, and I know there are many more that I should be thanking. The panels were imaginative, lively, and well-attended, the mixers seemed to be as well (I was mostly running around too much to attend), everyone’s energy was WAY up, and the banquet and awards show (which I personally was sweating bullets about after last year’s 17-hour debacle) came in at under three hours and played like a variety show with debonair sweetheart Jim Rollins emceeing. There was much laughter (including everything Jim said and a Dating Game style introduction to the board members and a hilarious send up to the NY Times Bestseller list by those gorgeous and multitalented Palmers, Michael and Daniel…) and some incredibly moving moments (Tor editor Eric Rabb’s heartbreaking tribute to NYPD Auxiliary Officer Nicholas Pekearo, slain in the line of duty, whose first novel The Wolfman was bought four days before his death)

I was so thrilled to see Doug Clegg post this on another message board:

“It is the single best, most professional writers’ conference I have ever attended in 20 years in this business. It reminded me of the way Hollywood might portray a writers’ awards and events weekend.”

That is I think exactly what ITW is going for, and it’s working like a charm.

As usual I was doing way too much at this con this year:

– Singing for the banquet with some of the Killer Thriller Band again, down and dirty garage style this time… with Heather Graham, F. Paul Wilson, Dave Simms and Jeff Buick (although singing without Harley Jane Kozak was like trying to perform with a limb missing…)

– Meeting with my fantastic editor, Marc Resnick, and the St. Martin’s crew. As JT said yesterday, it’s gold to have that face time with your publishers – the planning you can do for the year is exponential, and I’ve got to admit that having TF in NY makes that all easily possible. St. Martin’s also hosted their usual packed-to-the-ceiling cocktail party, this time without any alcohol whatsoever. (Yeah, right…)

– Meeting with Eric Raab, my Tor editor on the almost-out THE DARKER MASK anthology and getting the first copies of the book.

– A fantastically successful book reading/signing at Borders on Thursday at 7 pm called “Quick Thrills from Out-of-Towners, with Michelle Gagnon, Laura Benedict, JT Ellison, Mario Acevedo, Shane Gericke and Tim Maleeny, emceed by James Bond… I mean Lee Child. We were standing room only and it really showed that putting some group effort into an event can pay off in spades.

– A Screen/vs. Page panel on Hollywood and publishing with Paul Levine, Thomas Sawyer, John Gilstrap and Lorenzo Carcaterra, emceed to the hilt by the irrepressible Jon Land. Those guys put together are their own film school and so funny – we could have gone on for hours.

– A spiritualism/parapsychology panel with Heather Graham and Wendy Corsi Staub, Friday night. It was billed as “a séance” which the three of us quickly nixed (we’ve all participated in them but for numerous reasons didn’t want to do that for entertainment). All three of us write on topics of parapsychology and the paranormal from a very realistic standpoint, and we were privileged to have Dr. Lauren Thibodeaux, a professional psychic – and psychologist – from the Lily Dale spiritualist community with us to discuss the real-life explanations of psychic events. People from the audience shared some amazing stories. We’d dimmed the lights for atmosphere and halfway through the program the recessed spotlight above Lauren started flickering on and off. None of the rest of the lights –just her light. And the second the panel concluded, the light came on full strength, completely normal. Our audience ate it up.

– Lunch with my uber-fabulous agent Scott Miller… perfect combination of work and play. Unfortunately I had to miss the debauched 3-hour dinner with the Scott Miller posse (we do have the coolest agent on the planet…)

– An interview with NPR.

Plus all the usual conference magic and madness… an outside highlight of the trip this year was going to the drag restaurant (yes, that’s what I said) Lips, where seven foot (in platforms and screaming pink wig) All-Beef Patty served us frozen Cosmos and dinner in between hilarious Karaoke and comedy acts and “Bitchy Bitchy Bingo”.

I thought the debut authors’ breakfast (which I managed to wake up for) was a great success – it’s not unique to Thrillerfest but a really important feature. I was happy to meet Jordan Dane – what a lovely person, I just adored her instantly – and get a few moments with Kelli Stanley – a study in noir all on her own.

I heard mixed reviews about Agentfest – the speed-dating session with 140 writers and 40 agents (a few editors), but it’s a great concept and the lineup of agents was just stunning. I think they just need to work out some logistical kinks, and I have no doubt that will happen.

On the slightly darker side, maybe because I’m so comfortable with this group and the whole drill myself, this year I was more aware of some underlying pain and trauma at the con. Hopes are so high, and I know some people who attend looking for an agent or a deal feel like they’re putting all their eggs in this one basket, or all their chips on one number – whatever metaphor you want to use – they think they’re taking their one shot. That really isn’t true at all – for example, I see Agentfest as a chance for an aspiring author to get a good look at and vibe from 40 great agents – and THEN do the querying and follow-up with the agents they feel a click with. But there was a bit of an undercurrent of all-or-nothing desperation, and I’d really like to see ITW do more of a prep session for aspiring authors – on conference etiquette, on how to pitch, on how to make the most of this divine madness. A kind of mini-mentoring program for aspiring authors, just as there’s a mentoring program for debut authors.

Finally, I had to mention what I think is a canny move by ITW: they’ve abolished dues for active members. Read here. It’s really not about the money – what it means is that every traditionally published thriller author is automatically a member of ITW, dues free. Of course, you the writer have to reach out to ITW to get the benefits of the organization, but this policy instantly swells the ranks of ITW in a way that can be profound.

So okay, call me converted to Thrillerfest in New York. What ITW does pretty brilliantly is star power – and the agents and editors and publishers and reviewers and journalists flock to that light. Having the con in NY makes it easy for all those people to attend. And as for the cost? Well, what I say is – slumber party!!!

FYI, I’ll be a guest in the Writers’ Chatroom this Sunday evening, so please pop in if you’ve always wanted to know what I most like in…

Well, okay, maybe never mind that.

Sunday, July 20, 2008
7-9 PM EST.
http://www.writerschatroom.com/Enter.htm

Binge reading

by Alex

I’m at that indescribably delicious time – just having turned in a novel AND a novella and not having gotten revision notes yet – in which theoretically I could read anything I wanted right now. Anything. Not for research, not for plot problems, not to make sure that my new project hasn’t been co-opted by a recent bestseller (although maybe that’s more of a screenwriting paranoia than a real author concern).

No, I can read anything I want to right now. In fact I better start reading something pretty soon or all those “shoulds” are going to start whispering at me. “You really should do your taxes while you can, or you’ll be scrambling in September.” “You really should update your mailing list before the anthology comes out.” “You really should organize your office so you can at least walk in the damn door.” You know – the “shoulds”.

Or what might happen – as did yesterday, a national holiday, I might point out – is that Michael will get caught up in something, which in this case delayed our river outing for a couple of hours, and I could have been reading and instead that OCD voice started whispering and I ended up writing four pages on the new book before he came home and dragged me out.

Not that that’s a BAD thing – but I’m one of those people who doesn’t relax well so enforced relaxation is important for continued mental health (recklessly assuming that health has anything at all to do with my mental state).

And it’s not like – heh – I don’t have enough books around the house to choose from. In fact, just having come from ALA, I have a brand new stack of ARCs, and there’s that TBR shelf of my friends’ books which in the last two years has morphed past “shelf” through “bookcase” into “bookcases” and on into “room”. I overheard Michael talking on the phone to the architect of our new old house that he’s renovating, and he said, “Look, basically, would you just put a bookcase anywhere there’s space?”

(So when you hear people joking about building a house for their books – IT’S NOT A JOKE).

But I’m having a hard time settling on a book. Now, I admit I often read a dozen books at a time – which is maybe why I can’t relate to the authors who say they can’t read books in their genre while they’re writing because they’ll start picking up on someone else’s style. Not a concern when you’re reading a dozen styles in an hour. But while I have this (relatively) guilt-free time that I could be reading, I’d really like to just sink into a book, one book, and lose myself in that way… you know, that way that made us all become authors to begin with.

I guess you could call them guilty-pleasure reads. Or comfort reads. Or binge-reads. Or maybe that’s the entire definition of “beach read”.

I think for me a binge-read is something that has nothing whatsoever to do with what I write (even though, of course, great writing is always an inspiration for writing). In the past (and I have to admit, still) it’s been Ayn Rand – THE FOUNTAINHEAD followed by ATLAS SHRUGGED and WE THE LIVING (if I’m really on a binge). Sometimes I’ll sit down and reread the entire LITTLE HOUSE series, or Jane Austen. I’ve had more binges than I can count on a YA series from the 50’s by Leonora Mattingly Weber – the Beany Malone series, and going to Denver for Left Coast Crime made me want to reread that all over again. It’s been a while, but I used to binge on Louisa May Alcott, and maybe that’s just what I need right now – in fact, I could throw in that biography that I’ve been hearing so much about as well. Madeleine L’Engle – at least once a year. Anne Rice’s THE WITCHING HOUR (maybe because I don’t think I’ve ever read the whole thing – so I keep finding interesting new things about it.). It might be time again for a Bronte binge.

Now, those are binge reads I’ve had for years and years and years. More recently, Ann Patchett and Lionel Shriver and Barbara Kingsolver have been satisfying binges for me.

But you know who really, really does it for me when I need a binge? Anne Rivers Siddons. Not in my genre at all, except for her classic ghost story THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR, but I discovered that one after I’d worked my way through nearly all of her beach read Southern women’s fiction (which is I think what she writes, but it’s so out of my own genre I don’t even know what to call it.). Siddons writes about the South from the 1920’s to the present, sometimes in family epics, sometimes in women’s lit (wife finding her husband in bed with a younger woman, and consequently finding herself), sometimes in historical stories about the vast social changes of the 1960’s. No matter what she’s writing about she had a certain languid – maybe I should say Southern – eroticism, and a keen sense of history and social and emotional dynamics and she’s a smashingly good writer – you just lose yourself in whatever she writes. I’m particularly hankering after a book called COLONY, in which the Charleston heroine marries a Boston banker and becomes the unwelcome fish-out-of-water in a colony of Boston Brahmins on the Maine coast. When I write that synopsis I just want to laugh because it is SO not my kind of thing on the surface, but somehow Siddons’ writing just hits all my pleasure centers.

(I don’t think I’ll even get into the fact that I’m now the fish-out-of-water living with a Southern man from a summer beach colony and with a whopping family saga of his own…)

So even though in this precious down time I’d love to find a book that I haven’t read before that would completely take me away from all this, I think I might just mosey over to my Siddons shelf today.

But I’m also up for suggestions for something new to take me away. What are YOUR binge reads?

Happy holiday to everyone…

Time for a Quickie?

by Alex

I must begin this blog by saying – and I’d never thought I’d say this – that Michael now officially has the patience of a saint. I wasn’t supposed to do ANYTHING even vaguely writing-related for at least two weeks after I turned in THE POLTERGEIST EFFECT, but as so often happens, stuff happened, and suddenly I had to jump right into an novella for an anthology…

Insanity.

But if I can make it so that the timing on the next one isn’t so crazy, this might just be a good pattern I’m discovering for myself: finish a novel, TAKE A BREAK, then do a quickie short before jumping into the next novel.

Because once I got past that “I never want to write again” feeling, I had a great time writing this thing, just as I had a great time writing “The Edge of Seventeen”, the short story I did last year right after finishing THE PRICE, for THE DARKER MASK anthology that comes out from Tor next month (and which our own Naomi Hirahara and I will be promoting at the American Library Association conference this weekend).

Now, I seem to be coming at this short story thing backwards – I never wrote one until I’d turned in my second novel. The thing is I’m not much into short stories, really – I don’t read many of them, and am not a particularly “short” writer in general. I mean, by the time you have enough story for a short story, you might as well write a screenplay, as far as I’m concerned. Since so far the only way I seem to be able to do shorts is if someone is threatening my life, I don’t think I’ll be doing too many of them.

But (always with the caveat that I keep all the rights to do a full-length novel/script/graphic novel/play/short film based on the story) – I’ve found these two shorts I’ve done very creatively refreshing.

For one thing I have found myself writing about Southern California in a way I have rarely done in scripts – and never so far in a novel, not even in the next four projected books. I don’t know why that is, since I’ve spent almost my entire life in California and you’d think that I’d find it kind of natural to write about.
But so far, no, only in these shorts – I guess because in both cases I’ve had to do them so fast that I needed to be able to throw down images without any research or any conscious thought whatsoever.

This novella (it’s called “D-Girl on Doomsday” and it’s about Hollywood and the Apocalypse) was particularly fun because I got to be just blistering about the whole experience of working in Hollywood – so much delicious hostility there to tap into, and it gave this piece a nice bite. I’m not sure I could maintain that level of savagery for 400 pages, but for 80 pages? It’s not only doable but amazingly cathartic. And you get that ecstatic “FINISHED!!!!” feeling so much faster… I can see the appeal of that, for sure.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to crank out the shorts, but once a year? Yeah, I like the feel of that. So I think I’ll be scheduling a short story a year into the ideal calendar that is finally taking shape in my head. That is, going into the second half of my second year as a professional author I am seeing how all of this new author chaos and madness eventually starts to sort itself into a manageable and maybe even enjoyable routine.

By the time you turn in the third book you’ve kind of figured out how much time it really takes you to write a book from scratch while juggling the marketing side of the job (plus, as we’ve been discussing here these last two weeks, you finally realize that you CAN pull off pretty much any book you start). With that information in mind, you can decide how many books a year or every two years that adds up to without, you know, incurring a divorce.

You figure out the conferences you absolutely have to go to, and you start getting good money for workshops, which become your other must-dos, and you start planning your other signings and events around those and – this is important – you start saying “no” to the impractical requests. You add in the particular promotional things that have worked best for you (for me, doing the bookstore drive-bys in the cities where I do other events).

And I think scheduling in a short story after each book might be just the thing to add depth to the growing body of work.

So what’s your relationship with short stories? Do you read them? Write them? Do you find yourself writing things in a short story that you wouldn’t do in a novel?

And if you’re at ALA in Anaheim this weekend, please stop by the Sisters in Crime Booth, staffed by the awesome SinC Library Liaison Mary Boone and Patron Saint of Mystery Authors Doris Ann Norris (the 2000 year old librarian).

The booth is number 290, & easy to find, right by the Internet Room, and here’s the author signing schedule:

Saturday, June 28:
9 – 11, Hannah Dennison
11 –1. Sue Ann Jaffarian and Denise Hamilton
1 –3, Jeff Sherratt and Aileen Baron
and
3 –5, Darrel James

Sunday, June 29:
9 –11, Melissa Garcia
10 – noon, Linda O Johnston
11-1, GB Poole
noon –2, Cara Black
1 – 3, Liz Jasper
and
3 –5, Alexandra Sokoloff

Monday, June 30:
9 – 11, Pat Ricks
11 – 1, Sheila Lowe and Debbie Mitsch
1 – 3, Elizabeth Zelvin
and
2:30 – 4:30, Naomi Hirahara

Tuesday, July 1:
8 – 10, open (Mary Boone and Doris Ann Norris)
9 – 11:30, Bonnie Cardone

What’s your type?

by Alex

I was out dancing last night and chatting with one of my partners who asked me what I did and then had that awestruck reaction when he heard I’m an author. He said something I hear pretty often, and I’m sure a lot of you do, too: “Wow, that’s much more interesting than being an (in this case, environmental designer, but you know, substitute whatever profession…).” And I tried to say what I always try to say in these situations, which is, “Not really,” but of course no one ever believes me so I move quickly on to “I think environmental design sounds really interesting, what’s a typical day like for you?”

Because one of the most interesting things about being a writer, in my opinion, is that you get to be every single other profession under the sun. I think without that aspect of writing I pretty much would die of boredom, or maybe I mean inertia, as in SITTING all damn day.

Of course all of us mystery authors have been cops by now, and DAs and defense attorneys; we’ve been serial killers and doctors and usually teachers, and parents, and hitmen (actually I haven’t and can’t imagine I ever will be, SO not my thing.). You never know when you’re going to have to be an environmental designer, either.

In my new book four of my main characters are psychologists and psych professors so I did some immersion in psychiatric theories. I love that kind of work especially, because it’s not just useful for the particular characters I was creating, but it’s great research for character in general.

One test I’m sure a lot of people here are familiar with is the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, always a fun one to look at when you’re refining character. I myself am of the personality type that can never get through a test that long, especially multiple choice which has always been the bane of my existence, so I can’t tell you my own classification, but I do know I split evenly down the line between Extravert and Introvert. Here are some good sites on the test and the personality types:

http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/JTypes1.htm

http://www.personalitypathways.com/MBTI_intro.html

I came across two books this time that I particularly like: PERSONALITY SELF-PORTRAIT, by Oldham and Morris, and SHADOW SYNDROMES, by John J. Ratey, MD.

The first one sounds like just some basic self-help pablum but it’s actually VERY useful – it breaks character down into 13 personality “styles” that are mild versions of much more serious personality disorders.

Conscientious Style – Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder.
Self-Confident Style – Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Devoted Style – Dependent Personality Disorder
Dramatic Style – Histrionic Personality Disorder
Vigilant Style – Paranoid Personality Disorder
Sensitive Style – Avoidant Personality Disorder
Leisurely Style – Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder
Adventurous Style – Antisocial Personality Disorder
Idiosyncratic Style – Schizotypal Personality Disorder
Solitary Style – Schizoid Personality Disorder
Mercurial Style – Borderline Personality Disorder
Self-Sacrificing Style – Self-Defeating Personality Disorder
Aggressive Style – Sadistic Personality Disorder

SHADOW SYNDROMES does basically the same thing, but goes into shadow forms of autism, intermittent rage disorder and bipolar disorder as well. I guarantee you will see people you know or even yourself in some of these descriptions. Me? OCD, I mean Conscientious, for sure, with a large dose of Self-Confident thrown in.

For a more Jungian approach, I’ve never found anything better than Jean Shinoda Bolen’s GODDESSES IN EVERY WOMAN and GODS IN EVERY MAN, which relates personality types to the Greek pantheon (we’ve talked about those books here before.).

So the question is, what personality types are you all, based on what favorite tests? Got any great links or books for us?

And what was YOUR favorite profession to research?

Michael is dealing with my OCD this week by taking me to the beach with NO INTERNET ALLOWED, but he’s going to be fishing half the time so what is he really going to know? I’ll try to check in.

Hope everyone has a great weekend!

It’s a miracle

by Alex

Yes, I turned in my third book, THE POLTERGEIST EFFECT, this week, and am experiencing that ecstatic rush of endorphins I hear women feel after going through the bone-crushing pain of delivery and finally giving birth – you know, that nasty seductive chemical trick that nature plays that makes women think they would ever want to get pregnant again…

Finishing is a relative term, of course – the revisions on this one are going to be pretty brutal. But even this stage of finished is such nirvana compared to a month ago when I was seriously telling my bf I just wasn’t going to pull it off, this time – this book was just not going to come together in whatever lifetime I had left.

And I meant it.

I’ve been told that I’ve said this before. I don’t think it was ever as true as this time, but maybe… in which case I really must get tattooed someplace on my body where I will always be able to see it: “You always feel this way at this stage, just shut up and keep writing.”

Actually, that’s a tattoo that would really hurt. Maybe just “Keep writing” for short.

Now, I was familiar with this stage in screenwriting. This would be the time about two weeks before deadline when my writing partner would pitch a fit, screaming that it would never come together, storm off and disappear for two or three days, in which I just kept going, stitching things together, basically faking it, and by the time he calmed down and came back, both of us could see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, and after the light at the end of the tunnel comes that blissfully anticipated stage – critical mass – and once you have critical mass, you know you’re going to have a script. He needed to step back, I needed to push through. It wasn’t exactly a fun thing, but it always worked.

The thing is, I always had faith that I’d be able to pull a screenplay together at the end. With a book, you’re talking about a much more massive thing that you have to pull together, four times as long as a screenplay, and it’s not just the story that has to work, but the prose and the emotion and the suspense and every single little other thing.

I knew I could finish this book eventually, but I thought it might take years, like, you know, Stephen King takes to write his books. (And I have this train of thought in the back of my mind, now… how can I work myself into a position that I CAN take two years to write a book if I need to…?).

So maybe I just have to get used to the much newer feeling of thinking a book is never going to come together and do whatever it is I did to push through this time. The trouble is, much like a woman in labor, I already don’t really remember what I did to push through. There was depression, there was writing in bed to trick myself into writing at all, there were thoughts that my career was over, of having to find something else to do for a living… I think possibly there was a deal with the devil… but it’s all kind of a blur.

On a practical level I threw out chapter after chapter, especially in the first hundred pages. Oh, right, I threw out the entire end, too. I restructured. I changed the villain. Did I mention that because of a sort of impossible deadline I was trying to “pants” this one? Never, ever, ever again. Ever. Allison Brennan must be some kind of witch to write that way, because no normal human being could pull it off. I’m going back to an 80 page outline for the next one, thank you very much (and my next one is a short story, btw).

But I hope that three’s the charm and that it is now a little more ingrained in my deep subconscious that I CAN pull it off, even when it feels like a book will never come together. The tattoo might help.

Because even after all that trauma and self-doubt and loneliness and despair, I am thrilled that this book, this world, these characters, this mystery, now EXIST. That’s the thing that keeps me writing, even as battered as I feel sometimes. It’s so awesomely concrete. A book exists that did not exist before. No one else could have written it. It came out of nothing, and now it’s an entire, living, breathing world.

THAT is a miracle, and I am so very grateful.

So tell me – what do YOU do to push through whatever you need to push through? Do you need to be reminded that you CAN?

Again, all commenters this month are automatically eligible to win a signed hardcover of THE PRICE. I’m pleased to say our lovely and talented regular Catherine is last week’s winner – Catherine, would you e mail me an address: alex at alexandrasokoloff dot com

RIP Tim Russert… you are already missed.

Why people don’t get published

by Alex

Well, okay, there are a lot of reasons. Some people simply don’t have the skill, talent, passion, will, guts it takes to be a professional writer. Almost everyone can write, and I am always the first to say that everyone SHOULD write, for their own pleasure, and sanity, and self-illumination. But a pro writing career is something only for the truly insane. I mean, driven.

And yet… I think we all know people who have the talent and the drive and still are not published. This is one of the most heartbreaking things I can think of. It is not just uncomfortable, it is literally painful for me to see talented friends and acquaintances who I know have the goods and are still struggling to find agents, publishing deals, screenwriting sales.

Now, this is very, very often self-sabotage. I certainly see people who refuse to “play the game”, even though the game is part of the job. I see people who are crippled by the thought of any kind of rejection, or stopped by the very first or first few rejections, even though rejection is part of the job. I see people who submit directly to editors because they think they don’t need an agent, or are too impatient to go through the process of acquiring an agent, even though having a good agent is a vital part of the job. I see people who jump at the first offer of representation they get, even though they know nothing about that agent, who can then burn that writer’s chances with that book by submitting to the wrong people, or pretending to submit, or by just being such an obvious fraud that no one will read his or her submissions anyway. I see people who just give up and turn bitter and bilious. I see people who simply don’t think that anything good is ever going to happen to them, consequently it never does. We all have our demons, and some more than others.

But after last week at Pen to Press in New Orleans, teaching a dozen amazing writers, I now know that there are phenomenally talented writers out there who do have the goods, and the drive, and the faith in themselves, and they still need help – not on their writing, because that’s there in spades – but on all that OTHER part of the job. I guess it just finally dawned on me how much marketing is involved in getting a book deal to begin with.

This may seem like a stupid and obvious revelation to some of you – I’m certainly not above being stupid and obvious! My excuse is that I’ve been doing the sales part of writing for so long that it doesn’t even occur to me how much of a salesperson I am. For a screenwriter, pitching is the only way to get a job – even if you write and sell an original script all on your own, you still have to pitch to get to a point of writing the next draft with the producers/studio who bought it. So coming as I do from screenwriting, writing a synopsis, writing a query letter, pitching my next project to my agent and editor, doing radio and TV interviews – all of those are just variations on sales pitches. We say “pitch” but really, we’re leaving out that critical word, aren’t we? What we’re talking about is a sales pitch.

I’ve said this before but one of the most amazing things to me about the publishing world, as opposed to Hollywood, is that agents and editors actually come to conferences LOOKING for new authors, and an aspiring author can sign up for pitches with really great agents and move herself to the top of the submissions pile at various agencies. It’s a miraculous process and we’re lucky to have it.

But after the Pen to Press workshop I understand better why some talented people don’t get published: they can write like crazy, but they have no idea how to tell someone what’s actually IN their fabulous book once they’re finished with it.

Really. It’s weird. Like seeing people struggle with a foreign language.

The emphasis of this particular conference was to get authors ready to pitch and submit their completed manuscripts, and now I know how enormously necessary that kind of coaching is. Because I couldn’t tell my students a thing about HOW to write. I could be taking classes from THEM on that. But it took a good four very full days for me and my fantastic co-instructor, Scott Nicholson, to coax the actual storylines out of most of our students and show them how to put those storylines into synopsis and pitch form. When they started, we were getting vague descriptions of books that were “A young man’s journey from adolescence to adulthood” and “A multigenerational family saga about the ravages of racism”. (Hint: that’s not your story, that’s a subgenre). We had to get them to tell their stories to us, character by character, conflict by conflict, revelation by revelation, climax by climax, just as if they were sitting around a campfire, so that they could go tell those stories to agents. But once they got it, they really got it – we were blown away by the power of their pitches, and apparently so were the agents, who made multiple requests for material.

It was so very enlightening to me to see how people who can write rings around me could be so clueless (and I say that with love…) about the next step in the publishing process.

So I guess my point is this. We are very lucky to have such phenomenal resources in the book world – conferences like Pen to Press and the Southern California Writers’ Conference (which I know is also a particularly good one for workshopping), and websites like Backspace where you can get instant and intensive feedback on query letters, synopses, first chapters – and online critique groups like Sisters in Crime’s celebrated Guppies. If you’re not published yet, or if you are but you have talented friends who don’t seem to be getting to the pro level, then please consider that you or your friends might have no idea to SELL what you or they write, and as much as you might think you know, a good professional workshop or online group could be the thing that breaks you through the concrete ceiling.

My PSA for the day.

(It is going to be 100 degrees in Raleigh today. Yike. Good thing I’m doing nothing but writing today, right?)

So can others recommend great workshops, sites, resources on selling, pitching, querying?

And I think it’s my month for the signed book giveaways, so if you’re looking for something spooky to take to the beach, all commenters are automatically eligible to win a signed hardcover of THE PRICE.

What’s your premise?

by Alex

I’m off to New Orleans this week to teach a five-day writing workshop run by Deborah LeBlanc called The Pen to Press Writers Retreat.

Yeah, pretty excited! Also feeling a huge sense of responsibility. Anyone who commits the time and money to a retreat kind of workshop is really saying to the entire world – “I’m serious about this, I’m ready.” And I want to give these people the best of what I know.

So my first lesson is going to be about premise.

I was at some author event the other night and doing the chat thing with people at the pre-dinner cocktail party and found myself in conversation with an aspiring author who had just finished a book, and naturally I asked, “What’s your book about?”

And she said – “Oh, I can’t really describe it in a few sentences– there’s just so much going on in it.”

WRONG ANSWER.

The time to know what your book is about is before you start it, and you damn well better know what it’s about by the time it’s finished and people, like, oh, you know – agents and editors, are asking you what it’s about.

And here’s another tip – when people ask you what your book is about, the answer is not “War” or “Love” or “Betrayal”, even though your book might be about one or all of those things. Those words don’t distinguish YOUR book from any of the millions of books about those things.

When people ask you what your book is about, what they are really asking is – “What’s the premise?” In other words, “What’s the story line in one easily understandable sentence?”

That one sentence is also referred to as a “logline” (in Hollywood) or “the elevator pitch” (in publishing) or “the TV Guide pitch” – it all means the same thing.

That sentence really 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. And – it should make whoever hears it want to read the book. Preferably immediately. It should make the person you tell it to light up and say – “Ooh, that sounds great!” And “Where do I buy it?”

Writing a premise sentence is a bit of an art, but it’s a critical art for authors, and screenwriters, and playwrights. You need to do this well to sell a book, to pitch a movie, to apply for a grant. You will need to do it well when your agent, and your publicist, and the sales department of your publishing house, and the reference librarian, and the Sisters in Crime books in print catalogue editor ask you for a one-sentence book description, or jacket copy, or ad copy. You will use that sentence over and over and over again in radio and TV interviews, on panels, and in bookstores (over and over and OVER again) when potential readers ask you, “So what’s your book about?” and you have about one minute to get them hooked enough to buy the book.

And even before all that, the premise is the map of your book when you’re writing it.

So what are some examples of premise lines?

Name these books:

– When a great white shark starts attacking beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, a water-phobic Sheriff must assemble a team to hunt it down before it kills again.

– A young female FBI trainee must barter personal information with an imprisoned psychopathic genius in order to catch a serial killer who is capturing and killing young women for their skins.

– A treasure-hunting archeologist races over the globe to find the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s minions can acquire and use it to supernaturally power the Nazi army.

Notice how 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. Another interesting thing about these premises is that in all three, the protagonists are up against forces that seem much bigger than the protagonist.

Here’s my premise for THE HARROWING:

Five troubled college students left alone on their isolated campus over the long Thanksgiving break confront their own demons and a mysterious presence – that may or may not be real.

I wrote that sentence to quickly convey all the elements I want to get across about this book.

Who’s the story about? Five college kids, and “alone” and “troubled” characterize them in a couple of words. Not only are they alone and troubled, they have personal demons. What’s the setting? An isolated college campus, and it’s Thanksgiving – fall, going on winter. Bleak, spooky. Plus – if it’s Thanksgiving, why are they on campus instead of home with their families?

Who’s the antagonist? A mysterious presence. What’s the conflict? It’s inner and outer – it will be the kids against themselves, and also against this mysterious presence. What are the stakes? Well, not so clear, but there’s a sense of danger involved with any mysterious presence.

And there are a lot of clues to the genre – sounds like something supernatural’s going on, but there’s also a sense that it’s psychological – because the kids are troubled and this presence may or may not be real. There’s a sense of danger, possibly on several levels.

The best way to learn how to write a good premise is to practice. Make a list of ten books and films that are in the same genre as your book or script – preferably successful – or that you wish you had written! Now for each story, write a one-sentence premise that contains all these story elements: protagonist, antagonist, conflict, stakes, setting, atmosphere and genre.

If you need a lot of examples all at once, pick up a copy of the TV Guide, or click through the descriptions of movies on your TiVo. Those aren’t necessarily the best written premises, but they do get the point across, and it will get you thinking about stories in brief.

And now that you’re an expert -go for it. Write yours and share!

Hope everyone has a great holiday weekend!

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I am thrilled to announce that while I’m in New Orleans next weekend the brilliant Megan Abbott will be blogging here on Saturday. I can’t wait!

Creating suspense

by Alex

I know, I know, huge topic. And I’m sure many others have done it better, but I’m not being satisfied with what I’m reading, so I’m blatantly using my post today partly to beg links to good articles (compile links, I mean…) and attempt to discuss what I myself know or suspect about creating suspense.

This is the first thing I tell people who ask me about suspense:

You have to study, analyze and teach yourself to write the kind of suspense YOU want to create.

Because there are all kinds of suspense. Many thrillers are based on action and adrenaline – the experience the author wants to create and the reader wants to experience is that roller-coaster feeling. I myself am not big on that kind of suspense. I love a good adrenaline rush in a book (in fact I pretty much require them, repeatedly). But pure action scenes pretty much bore me senseless, and big guns and machines and explosions and car chases make my eyes glaze over. What I’m looking for in a book is the sensual – okay, sexual – thrill of going into the unknown. How it feels to know that there’s something there in the dark with you that’s not necessarily rational, and not necessarily human. It’s a slower, more erotic kind of thrill – that you find in THE TURN OF THE SCREW and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and THE SHINING. So although I can learn some techniques from spy thrillers or giant actioners, studying that kind of book for what I want to do is probably not going to get me where I want to go.

There’s also the classic mystery thrill of having to figure a puzzle out. There’s a great pleasure in using your mind to unlock a particularly well-crafted puzzle. I love to add that element to my stories, too, so that even though the characters are dealing with the unknown, there is still a logical way to figure the puzzle out.

So to create suspense, the first thing you have to identify is what KIND of suspense you want to create. Most stories use all three kinds of suspense I just talked about (and others – really I’m just scratching the surface), but there will be one particular kind that dominates.

A useful thing to do is to make yourself a master list of ten books and films that are not just in your own genre, but that all create the particular kind of suspense experience that you’re looking to create yourself. There are particular tricks that every author or screenwriter uses to create suspense, and looking at ten stories in a row will get you identifying those tricks. If you’re reading a particularly good book, you get so caught up in it that you don’t see the wheels and gears – and that’s good. So read it to the end… but then go back and reread to really look at the machinery of it.

What tricks am I talking about? Well, let’s see.

To my mind, the most basic and important suspense technique is ASK A CENTRAL QUESTION with your story.

Of course, every good story is inherently a suspense story, because every story is predicated on the storyteller creating the desire in the reader or audience to find out What Happens? And writing mysteries as we all do (mystery/thriller/suspense), our genre has a built-in suspense element by its very nature – the built-in question – “Who done it?” (Or in my case, as Dusty says, “What done it?”)

So the very first place that a book creates suspense is on the meta-level: in the premise, that one line description of what the story is. That story line (flap copy, back jacket text) is what makes a reader pick up a book and say – “Yeah! I want to know what happens!”

– When a great white shark starts attacking beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, a water-phobic Sheriff must assemble a team to hunt it down before it kills again.

– A young female FBI trainee must barter personal information with an imprisoned psychopathic genius in order to catch a serial killer who is capturing and killing young women for their skins.

– A treasure-hunting archeologist races over the globe to find the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s minions can acquire and use it to supernaturally power the Nazi army.

Any one of the above can also be phrased as a question: Will Clarice get Lecter to help her catch Buffalo Bill before he kills Catherine? That’s what I mean when I say the central question of the story.

Now, there’s a whole hell of a lot of suspense in that story question – unlike in, say, the movie we saw last night: WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS. Does anyone going into that movie think for one single solitary second that Cameron Diaz is not going to end up with Ashton Kuchner? No suspense in that premise at all.

But in a mystery, or thriller, or horror story, someone could die. Anyone could always die. Even the main character can die – at least in a standalone. And I would argue that third person narration in a mystery/thriller is always going to be more suspenseful than first person, because even if your first person narrator DOES die in a surprise twist at the end, the reader hasn’t worried about it for the entire book.

In that SILENCE OF THE LAMBS story set up, we know Catherine could die – in fact, any number of additional victims could die – because it’s a thriller and we’ve got a particularly monstrous killer holding her. Clarice could die, too – in fact, throughout the story, we are always at least subconsciously aware that Clarice is disquietingly similar to Buffalo Bill’s previous victims: she is young, white, Southern, from a struggling family.

All this is STAKES – a critical element of every story. What do we fear is going to happen?

A good story makes the stakes crystal clear – from the very beginning of the story. We know right up front in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS that there’s a serial killer out there who will not stop killing young women until he is caught or killed. How do we know that? The characters say it, flat out, and not just once, and not just one character. Harris makes us perfectly, acutely aware of what the stakes are. The story ups the ante when a particular victim is kidnapped and we get to know her – we really don’t want THIS particular, feisty victim to die.

In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the government agent who comes to hire Indy to find the Ark of the Covenant says that Hitler is after it, and Indy and his colleague, the archeological experts, tell us the legend that the army which has the Ark is invincible. That’s really, really bad. Huge stakes. And it is spelled out with crystal clarity, in dialogue, with accompanying visuals of ancient text – in the first 15 minutes of the movie.

It might even be the number one rule of suspense – You need to tell your reader what they’re supposed to be afraid of. Not just scene by scene – but in the entire story, overall. You need to let the reader know what the hero, or another character, is in for – or the whole world is in for – if the hero doesn’t do something about it.

And if that’s the number one rule, then the photo finish number two rule is – You have to make the reader CARE. Because if the reader doesn’t care about the characters, then they have no personal stake in the stakes.

No, I’m not going to go into all the techniques of creating a character that readers will care about – different post!

But here’s one technique that also goes to creating suspense: stack the odds against your protagonist. It’s just ingrained in us to love an underdog.

In SILENCE, the protagonist, Clarice is up against huge odds. She has many personal obstacles. She’s a woman in a man’s world, young, a mere trainee, she has big wounds from a troubled childhood. She also has many external opponents, like Dr. Chilton, the Senator and more minor characters within scenes – not to mention that Dr. Lecter is not exactly being cooperative – he’s got his own agenda, and he’s a master at playing it.

In RAIDERS, Indy is up against Hitler (through his minions). Indy is awfully heroic and expert and, well, hot – but he’s still the underdog in this particular fight.

A lot of suspense stories use children, women, or characters with a handicap to stack the odds against the hero. Okay, it sounds manipulative, but suspense IS manipulation. And just because a technique is manipulative doesn’t make it any less effective when it’s done well: Think of WAIT UNTIL DARK (blind protagonist) , REAR WINDOW (wheelchair-bound protagonist), THE SIXTH SENSE (I swear I went to that movie just to make sure that little boy made it out okay), THE SHINING.

Another suspense technique that can be built in on the premise level is the TICKING CLOCK. Building a clock into the story creates an overall sense of urgency. In SILENCE, we learn (very early) that Buffalo Bill holds his victims for three days before he kills them. So when Catherine is kidnapped, we know Clarice only has three days to save her. We know this because the characters say it. Beginning writers seem to be afraid to just say things straight out, but there’s no reason to be coy.

Harris does the same thing in RED DRAGON – that killer is on a moon cycle so the hero knows he has only a month to track this killer down before he kills another entire family. Again, we know that because the characters tell us so – repeatedly.

Harris is actually the master of the ticking clock – he has a particularly clever one in BLACK SUNDAY: a terrorist attack is being planned to take place at the Superbowl. Well, we all know it would take no less than the Apocalypse to get sponsors to cancel or postpone the Superbowl, so Harris has both locked his characters in to an inevitable event, and also created a clock – come hell or high water, it’s all going to come down on Superbowl Sunday.

Again, a ticking clock is manipulative, and you can make an argument that it’s a less effective technique these days because it’s been overused, but that just means you have to be more clever about it. Make it an organic clock, as in the examples above. In RED DRAGON, for example – having the killer be on a moon clock is very creepily effective, because not only is this a real characteristic of some serial killers, Harris has built a whole symbolic image system into this story – he uses animal imagery to depict this killer: describing him as a baby bat (with his cleft palate), emphasizing his biting, giving the character a desire to become a dragon. The moon clock is part of the image system, and the killer seems much more monstrous.

Now, all of the above are suspense techniques on the meta-level. Once you’ve created a story that has the elements of suspense built into the overall structure, you have to start working suspense on the scene level, moment-by-moment. And here’s where I find a lot of books really lacking in the kind of suspense I personally crave, which is about making me feel the physical and mental effects of wonder and terror. And that you have to do by working a scene over and over and over again. You need to direct it, act it, production design it, cast it, score it. What is scary in the physical environment, in the visual and in the symbolism of the space? How can you use sound to create chills? What is going through the character’s head that increases the danger of the experience? How do you use pace and rhythm of language to create the equivalent of a musical soundtrack (the prime purpose of which is to manipulate emotion in a viewer?)

You have to layer in all six senses – what it looks, smells, sounds, feels, tastes like – as well as what your characters sense are there, even though there’s no physical evidence for it. You have to create the effect of an adrenaline rush. I think a huge weakness of a lot of writers is that they either don’t understand – or they’re too lazy to convey – the effects of adrenaline on the body and mind. You know how in a good suspense or action scene the pace actually slows down, so that every detail stands out and every move takes ages to complete? Well, that writing technique is actually just duplicating the experience of an adrenaline rush – your heart is going so fast and your thoughts are coming so fast that everything around you seems slowed down. You react to things faster because your metabolism has sped up so you CAN react faster and possibly save yourself.

I’m realizing that this is going to have to be two posts – at least! – but here’s my last thought for this one. I think one of the best things a writer can do to learn how to write suspense is to take some acting classes. Learning to experience a story from INSIDE one of the characters – literally, inside that character’s body – will make you much more proficient at creating a physical, sensual experience for your readers.

So yes, if you have links to particularly good articles or sites on how to create suspense, please share! Authors, what are your favorite suspense tips and techniques? Who did you study to learn the fine art of suspense? And readers, who are your favorite suspense authors, and do you have a favorite KIND of suspense?

Parents and the dreaded arts

by Alex

We all remember what weekend this is, right? I got a kick out of seeing the woman at the counter at my gym yesterday – slyly wishing all the men who stopped by a Happy Mother’s Day weekend and watching fully a third of them stop in their tracks with an “Oh shit!” look. That woman knows how to have her fun, let me tell you.

I am sort of thinking that Toni will have a great Mother’s Day post because she both has and is a mother, so I will sort of work around the topic in a different way, because this has come up for me lately.

I often find myself being confided in by young aspiring authors that their parents don’t approve of their aspirations. Well, we all know that feeling, don’t we? Certainly there are some parents who do encourage art as a living (and some of them are scary, see “stage mothers”). Nepotism is a fact of life in Hollywood, and successful film actors, producers, writers, directors, have no qualms about encouraging their offspring toward the family business.

But that’s pretty much the size of it – “the family business.” That’s one aspect of the arts as a profession that makes other, non-artistic parents quail at the idea of little Johnny or Janey trying to write, or act, or paint for a living. For centuries, millennia, children were taught the trade their parents were in, and that’s the way it was, and largely still is.

There’s much more resistance than that going on, usually. And I try to tell these young writers that they’re not alone – no parents in their right minds really want their kids to go into the arts, because it’s so hard, and unstable, and financially shaky. I think parents just know that on a genetic level, and because they love us, they gently or not so gently try to steer us away.

And then on another level, some parents might not approve because, well, we’re all gypsies, tramps and thieves, not to mention homosexuals.

And then maybe on another level, some parents might resist the idea because deep down, they always had some aspiration… but adults just don’t DO that kind of thing, so they didn’t, and neither should you.

So there’s all kinds of STUFF going on that might make parents not so very supportive of the young artist.

So what do you tell these young aspirants whose parents are less than supportive?

Well, I tell them what I did, with my parents. I just didn’t make a point of telling them what I was doing. I didn’t lie, exactly, but let’s just say I left out a lot. I didn’t declare my major until I was a senior in college and I didn’t let on how much theater I was doing.

I think those of us who are driven to do this THING that we do figure out how to work the angles pretty early on. And just as I get confided in by young, aspiring authors, I get confided in by people in mid-life who say that they always wanted to write, but their parents were not supportive (sometimes that’s to say the least), and they’re now in a morass of regret that they didn’t pursue the dream. For those people I write down this Bernard Malamud quote: “We have two lives – the one we learn with and the life we live after that.”

And then I tell them that a lot of authors I know didn’t write their first book until after they were 40.

But I keep their stories in mind when I talk to the younger ones and tell them – “You don’t want to end up regretting anything because you were afraid to try.”

I know there’s a lot of pain involved for artists who aren’t encouraged and supported in their passion by their parents – but it’s the evolutionary imperative not only to separate from our parents, but to transcend them. That IS evolution.

And there’s a lot of joy when your parents finally realize: My God, she really is making a living at this, we’re not going to have to support her for the rest of our lives.

And let’s face it – that’s a pretty legitimate fear – I don’t blame parents a bit for THAT one.

And you know what? As a writer I use lessons my parents taught me every single day of my life. They taught me to love work, and do the work I love (even though they weren’t exactly intending it be THIS work) – because, they said, work is what most of your life is. They took me and my sister and brother to about a million museums and concerts and plays and taught us to love art, and along with loving it, they taught us to analyze it. Mom will talk to ANYONE – I grew up seeing her start conversations on the street, in a restaurant, on a pier – with anyone and everyone, and you better believe I use that skill every day of my life as a writer. And they both just assumed that I could do anything a boy could, only better, and so despite all the messages girls get from the world about what they can and can’t or should and shouldn’t do, I had my parents’ faith that yes, I damn well could.

My point is, if you’re an artist, your parents are preparing you for a life and career as an artist, whether or not it looks that way on the surface. They give you gifts that will MAKE you the artist you are. It’s up to you to find those gifts, and use them.

Here’s my most treasured gift from my mother. Remember all those art museums I told you she dragged me to (yes, at the time, it was dragging…)? She told me very early on – “I want you to be able to see artistically – not just art, but the whole world around you. Because if you can see the world around you aesthetically, you will always find pleasure, wherever you are, whatever your circumstances.”

Now that – is beyond rubies.

This is the weekend to think about it, so what are some of the gifts you got from your parents? Were they supportive of your artistic aspirations? Did it matter? As a parent, how do you feel about the idea of your child going into this godforsaken business? 😉

And Happy Mother’s Day and THANK YOU to all the mothers.

There’s more going on here…

by Alex

There was a great post by Nancy Martin and a whole slew of accompanying stories over at The Lipstick Chronicles this week about disastrous wedding experiences. Well, actually, humorous disastrous wedding experiences, which is why I decided not to contribute my own most bizarre wedding memory – it was just too dark. Maybe it’s the stuff I write (you think?) but out of the multitudes of weddings I’ve attended and participated in (I had EIGHT good friends get married within a year, egad – one of the reasons I keep putting that wedding thing off myself), all with lovely and funny and heartwarming stories galore, it’s this one particular incident that, well, haunts me, so much so that I didn’t want to invoke it and cast a pall over that happy thread.

So I thought I’d tell it here, where you all are, you know, used to me.

It was a gorgeous wedding at a club by the ocean. Rich father plus highly artistic bride and groom and highly artistic friends helping so everything was stunningly lovely with no expense spared. Great dance band, entertainment by friends, the bride in a gasp-inducing princess gown. Lovely, lovely, lovely, perfect in every way.

And then came the toasts. All touching, funny… until the FOB. Okay, he was drunk, but that’s not unsual in itself. But when he started to speak, an uneasy hush fell over the crowd. He was telling a story about the bride, and it was just – wrong, the whole sense of it. He said that when she was born, they thought she was autistic and the way he said it made it sound like there was no hope, so they’d never expected much from her anyway. (She is not impaired in any way, by the way – quite the opposite – beautiful, brilliant, talented, charming) We kept waiting for an upturn, a happy ending, even something remotely mitigating, but no. It was horrifying. More than just disturbing in the moment – it felt like – the moment in Sleeping Beauty when the evil fairy shows up at Princess Aurora’s christening and curses her. It felt – prescient.

I wish, really now I’ve wished a thousand times since then, that all of us, the couple’s friends, had stepped in like the good fairy to cast some kind of counter-spell, right there on the spot, wedding protocol be damned. But what? We were all too stunned to even move.

The couple’s first child was diagnosed with autism a few years after birth.

Now of course that story gnaws at me as a writer because of the fairy tale curse aspect of it – I’m completely obsessed with the theme. But it wasn’t just me – all of us who knew the couple knew that something large was going on there – something more than ordinary – a foretelling. It was a moment that ordinary reality seemed to stop and you got a glimpse into the future, or at least a possible future (which is why I so wish one of us at the time had been an experienced witch or yogi to perform some kind of counter-ritual or blessing).

And because of the book I’m writing (yes, STILL writing…@#$%^&) I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently – the moments when we get a glimpse into a bigger, deeper reality. You read enough about psychic events experienced by ordinary people, as I’ve been doing, and they’re all so very similar.

– The crisis apparitions, where a loved one is hurt or dying and appears in some way to a relative or mate at the moment of death, either as a full-fledged apparition or a signal, like a mirror shattering.

– The precognitive dreams: A young mother has a nightmare that her new baby is crushed to death when the light fixture above the crib falls – she wakes up screaming and runs in to the nursery where she finds the baby perfectly fine, sleeping soundly, but she takes the baby into bed with her and her husband – and two hours later they’re awakened by a crash from inside the nursery.

– The visitations from dead loved ones who have something to say about where your mother’s bracelet is or where the new will was filed.

– And of course the ordinary psychic things that happen all the time – the wife who dreams that there is another woman in bed with her and her husband – and discovers that he is, indeed, having an affair. The teenager who decides at the last second to take the left turn instead of the right, even though it will mean an extra five minutes getting to his friend’s house – and as he makes the turn he hears the screeching of brakes and a grinding of metal back there at that very corner.

Yes, yes – all these things can be explained as simple, ordinary perception. The young mother noticed subconsciously that the plaster around the light fixture was cracked and her dream warned her about a very real danger. The woman whose dead husband visits her in a dream to tell her where the bonds is remembering that her husband made that stop at a certain bank one day and her dream makes it her dead husband telling her so so that she’ll pay attention. The teenager registered that a car was driving too fast on that side street out of the corner of his eye. (I can’t as blithely explain how people see their loved ones at the EXACT moment of death, but I’m sure there’s someone out there who can debunk that one, too.)

But I think – reality is a lot more mutable than skeptics want to admit. And I’m not just talking about our perceptions and instincts and intuitions. I mean the whole of the universe gives us signs all the time.

The morning my grandmother died, I woke up and walked outside and the sunrise was just – surreal. The whole sky was flaming orange and red and pink – much more like deep sunset than the pallid pink of LA sunrises. The pecan tree in my back yard towered against that sky, and in the tree were hundreds, hundreds of cawing birds. It was earsplitting, mindblowing.

A half hour later I got the call.

When I look back at those moments that I knew something more than I realistically should have known, there is a heaviness to them, an import, a hyper-clarity – even a time-slowing-down quality. And so it seems to me – and it’s said by spiritual teachers – that if we all paid more attention all the time to these insights, synchronicities, we’d be able to see the signs all the time.

So that’s my spring resolution, since it’s such a lush and pretty day today that it seems like a resolution is called for.

I’m going to pay more attention to the signs – the dark and the light.

So I know all of you have stories to tell about visitations, prescience, telepathy, dream signs, and those just larger-than-life moments. (Yes, all of you – even the people who don’t believe always have stories about friends…)

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