Brave new e world

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Well, Tess said something apocalyptically frightening in her post on Tuesday:

E-book land is going to be a busy, anarchic universe with a dizzying array of great books sold along with bad books, and lord knows how it’s all going to shake out.

And hanging over us all will be the one thing that could doom us all.  Piracy.  Once books can be copied and disseminated for free, there will be no way to make a living in the writing profession. I fear that it’s only a matter of time before that happens.

And we will look back on this era as the last age of the professional writer.

Thanks, Tess, just what I needed to hear going into a new year.

I guess it’s no big secret anymore that the publishing industry is undergoing a revolution that has us all in shock, awe, fear, or simple paralysis.

One of the components of this revolution is the e reader, as Tess talks about in her post.

At the end of the year, along with my agent, I made the decision to publish Screenwriting Tricks For Authors, the workbook I wrote based on my blog and the story structure articles I’ve posted here at Murderati, at the Kindle store.   It’s now up for sale here.

There were a million reasons.   Well, okay, not a million, I just always like the sound of that number, and I’m a Pisces and can’t count to save my life.

But some of the reasons are –

– I TRULY needed to get the information on my blog into a coherent order, and a blog is not the greatest format for what I am trying to convey.

– I’m being asked to teach a lot, these days, and I can’t possibly take the time anymore to print the workbook at Kinko’s for distribution to my students, and when Amazon started making Kindle books available to PC users, and is promising a Mac version imminently, that made Kindle publishing the easiest instant solution.   And a Kindle or PC version is far cheaper for students to buy than a hardcopy version, about a third of the cost.   That part was just a no-brainer.

– I am constantly adding to the info on my blog and with Kindle, you can republish a new version any time, instantly, without cost.   Now that is cool.

– It’s not huge money, but a LOT more in royalties, comparatively, than other options.

– Publishing on Kindle doesn’t tie up other publication rights – if I am offered a good book contract for the workbook, I can just take it.

– Peer pressure from Joe Konrath, who has a lot to say about Kindle and other e publishing, but you could start here.     

Really, this is a revolution, and while I’m not personally comfortable publishing a novel on Kindle, at least not yet, I am excited to stick at least a toe in the water by publishing this workbook.   Anyone can take the time and click through links on my blog and get a lot of the same info for free, but if you find what I’ve written on the subject is useful,  $9.99 is not such a huge chunk of change to put down to have the whole deal in coherent order.   Plus, you know, supporting an author whose information you are using is good karma.

So this is a New Year’s experiment, which I’ll keep everyone posted on.  So far the only drawback I’ve experienced is intense complaining from non-Kindle, non-PC (meaning Mac) readers who want the book downloadable or in hardcopy for them NOW.  

In the meantime I’ll keep blogging about craft, because God knows it’s exhausting – if not outright terrifying – trying to keep come up with posts on your personal life. 

So I’ve been teaching another online class these last two weeks.   NOT the greatest time for an online class, actually, because everyone is still so dazed from the holidays and just trying to get back in the swing of things.   Um… especially me.  Still, I am as always finding the teaching completely inspiring  – I love hearing other writers talk about their stories and characters and writing processes.   And new writers have all that, you know – hope.

The discussion so far has completely reinforced my belief that the best thing that you can do to help yourself with story structure is to look at and compare in depth 5-10 (ten being best!) stories – films, novels, and plays – that are structurally similar to yours.

The late and much-missed Blake Snyder said that all film stories break down into just ten patterns that he outlined in his Save The Cat! books.  Dramatist Georges Polti claimed there are Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations and outlined those in his classic book.

I think those books on the subject are truly useful – as I say often, I think you should read everything.  But I believe you also have to get much more specific than ten plots or even thirty-six.

(I also think it’s plainly lazy to use someone else’s analysis of a story pattern instead of identifying your own.  Relying on anyone else’s analysis, and that for sure includes mine, is not going to make you the writer you want to be.)

For example, in the class that I’m teaching now, without giving details of anyone’s plots, there is a reluctant witness story, a wartime romance story, an ensemble mystery plot, a mentor plot, a heroine in disguise plot.   And others.  

Each of those stories has a story pattern that you could force into one of ten general  overall patterns – I guess – but they also have unique qualities that would get lost in such a generalization.  And all of those stories could also be categorized in OTHER ways besides “reluctant witness” or “hero in disguise”.   

Harry Potter, for example, is what you could call a King Arthur story – the chosen one coming into his or her own (also see Star Wars, The Matrix…)  but it is told as a traditional mystery, with clues and red herrings and the three kids playing detectives.   It’s also got strong fairy tale elements.   So if you’re writing a story that combines those three (and more) types of stories, looking at examples of ANY of those types of stories is going to help you structure and brainstorm your own story.

If you find you’re writing a “reluctant witness” or “accidental witness” story, whether it’s a detective story, a sci-fi setting, a period piece, or a romance, it’s extremely useful to look at other stories you like that fall into that “reluctant witness” category – like Witness, North By Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Conspiracy Theory, Someone To Watch Over Me.

If you’re writing a mentor plot, you could take a look at Silence of the Lambs, The Karate Kid, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, An Officer and a Gentleman, Dirty Dancing, all stories in completely different genres with strong mentor plot lines, with vastly different mentor types.

A Mysterious Stranger story has a very specific plotline, too:  a “fixer” character comes into the life of a main character, or characters, and turns it upside down – for the good, and the main character, not the Mysterious Stranger, is the one with the character arc  (look at Mary Poppins, Shane, Nanny McPhee, and the Jack Reacher books).

A Cinderella story, well, where do you even start?  Pretty Woman, Cinderella of course, Arthur, Rebecca,  Suspicion, Maid to Order (I think that’s the one I mean), Slumdog Millionaire.

A deal with the devil story – The Firm, Silence of the Lambs, Damn Yankees, The Little Mermaid, Rosemary’s Baby, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Devil’s Advocate.

And you might violently disagree with some of my examples, or have a completely different designation for what kind of story some of the above are…

But that is exactly my point.  You have to create your own definitions of types of stories, and find your own examples to help you learn what works in those stories.   All of writing is about creating your own rules and believing in them.

So I guess that’s what I wanted to say today.   Identifying genres is not enough.   Identifying categories of stories is not enough.   What’s the kind of story you’re writing – by your own definition?

When you start to get specific about that, that’s when your writing starts to get truly interesting.

So what kind of story ARE you writing?  Would love to hear some, and brainstorm some great examples.

Have a great holiday weekend, everyone!

– Alex

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Related posts:

What’s YOUR structure?

Meta Structure

Fairy Tale Structure

What is High Concept?

39 thoughts on “Brave new e world

  1. Mikaela

    Right now, I am at a hiatus from writing. 5k from the ending, on a roll. And I have to study for the genetics re-exam. Argh.

    I am writing a story about hard choices, betrayal and prophecies. ( It is fun!) And it is set in Hell. ๐Ÿ˜€ So, you have a deal with the devil, in a way, too…

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  2. plastic santa

    Often, too, I find that when I’m trying to think about story structure, that not much happens in my brain that’s an accident. Mine, at least, seems to want to help me. If I’ll only pay attention.

    But it’s not like the GPS voice saying "Turn right in one-half mile." It’s a STOP sign hidden behind a bush. It’s there, but you have to be paying attention to see it.

    Example: after Bouchercon (where I met Alex – Hi, Alex!), I decided to get serious about writing the first draft of one of the stories that had been nagging at me. But which one? I made a list of ideas and narrowed it down to two. Each have a good hook, a promising direction, and enough of a personal emotional connection to keep my easily distracted attention on the task at hand. But which one? I make notes. I look at "Save the Cat" again. I read over Alex’s blogs for a hint of a direction. All of a sudden, I realize my brain is sending me a signal. On impulse, I had gotten Truffaut’s book on Alfred Hitchcock out of the library and was reading it in a whole new way this time.

    This wasn’t a signal, it was a flashing red light. "Write what Alex calls the ‘reluctant witness’ story." So I started thinking, writing down elements of Hitchcock films that tie to this kind of story. I came up with pages of them. From lots of films that I never would thought of that way before. Not just North by Northwest or The Man Who Knew Too Much, but Rear Window, Vertigo, and even The Trouble With Harry.

    Quit trying so hard. Pay attention to what you’re telling yourself. Your brain is really trying to help you. Let it.

    ps

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  3. billie

    Alex, I have all your posts printed out and saved in a an actual purple folder – but count me as one of those Mac users awaiting the software to get the e-book version. Either that, or I just need to go ahead and buy a Kindle.

    I’ll be interested to see how your sales go once creative writing instructors at large discover your e-book. I’m thinking it will be a GOOD thing, and I love the idea that you can add to/update the book as needed.

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  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hi Santa! Hitchcock is the absolute master at the reluctant witness story (AND the Cinderella story, with women protagonists, too.), you couldn’t have a better teacher.

    And you win post of the day already with this gem:

    "Quit trying so hard. Pay attention to what you’re telling yourself. Your brain is really trying to help you. Let it."

    This is exactly what I need to do myself, right now. Thank you.

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  5. billie

    And not only save them time and grief, but get them excited in the process. Watching movies, analyzing structure, developing their own ideas. It takes something that can be dry and lonely and difficult and makes it perfect for a classroom setting. While also giving the individual students a huge new perspective they can take directly to the keyboard when they write.

    I hadn’t thought of this until now, but as an undergrad, my favorite classes were the film analysis classes and the creative writing classes – the idea of putting them together is brilliant. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  6. Shizuka

    Hi, Alex. Did you make it to the MWA party at Partners in Crime? I wanted to meet you so I could tell you how amazing your blog is.
    I probably left too early.

    Getting back on topic: I think my book is "fish out of water."
    The twist is that the girl is going back to Japan, where her parents are from.
    Oh, and both parents are dead (I love orphans in stories. May have read too much Frances Hodgson
    Burnett as a child.) So I’m trying to hunt down "fish out of water" movies or books that are drama rather than comedy. And deal with a sort of homecoming/finding of roots.

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  7. alli

    Great post, Alex! Good luck with the ebook. I’m the same as Bille – buy a kindle or wait for an ebook version that I buy and put on my PC? Congrats on the book – I think it is a great move for you and I hope the sales will prove it.

    This was a truly interesting post. I went through your list and realised the MS I am querying now is a King Arthur story. As soon as I read the description, it all clicked. And I am always drawn to these type of stories – the new WIP I will be starting soon will be in a similar vein, too.

    I love tying screenwriting with novel writing – I do find a lot of the ideas/methods can crossover (plus I love watching movies – especially if ai can call it "studying"!). Thanks again for an interesting and informative post.

    Reply
  8. Cornelia Read

    I think I’m writing a reverse Cinderella story at the moment–a chick who thinks her life is set, losing one pillar after another as reality sets in. And, like Mikaela, that includes "hard choices, betrayal, and prophecies." The hell part is only symbolic, though. And I need to work a serial arsonist and a copycat in somehow.

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  9. JD Rhoades

    Heinlein once said there are actually only THREE types of stories boy-meets-girl, The Little Tailor, and the-man-who-learned-better. "The Little Tailor" is the rags-to-riches, or rise and fall type story; the King Artur and Cinderella stories are arguably a subset of this. I think yours, and the examples you cite. are more useful. I’ve got several elements in what ‘m writing now: a mentor, a deal with the devil, a fallen/ tarnished knight/mentor, and (moving into Polti’s definitions) crime pursued by vengeance, enigma, rivalry of kin (sort of) , and of course, good ol’ Madness.

    I’m interested in seeing how your Kindle experiment works; I’m thinking of doing something similar with the book I described as "DIE HARD meets KEY LARGO"

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  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Shizuka, I’m so sorry to have missed the Partners in Crime party, and the MWA gathering this weekend. Some personal issues forced me to stay home. Would have been great to meet you.

    I love Burnett, too, A LITTLE PRINCESS was one of my absolute favorite books. And now that you mention it, orphan stories are a whole story pattern of their own, very powerful and universal.

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  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Billie and Alli, you’ve both nailed it – it is SO much more fun to study writing by studying movies (it also somewhat solves the huge issue of writers never spending enough time with their loved ones.

    Alli, glad you resonated with the King Arthur patterns. And there are so many others… I was being lazy with this post and only listing a few that have been in my face because of the class. I really need to start and keep an ongoing list.

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  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    The tarnished knight story is a classic, Dusty – I’m very fond of that one myself!

    The important thing, I think, is to be able to recognize that there ARE these story patterns out there, and it doesn’t really matter what anyone else calls them – only that they might be useful to YOU.

    I guess you can’t really tell about Kindle sales until three months down the line, but I can’t tell you what a relief is it just to have all of this in a fixed form that makes sense. When I start beating myself about not doing enough last year, I try to remind myself – Yeah, and there was that OTHER book you wrote, too.

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  13. BCB

    I’m staying off the internet this weekend so I can write (see how well that’s working?) but I’m one of the people waiting, with excruciating patience, for Kindle for Mac. Your workbook will be my first purchase.

    I’m so glad I took your online course last year, Alex. I’ve had a handful of lightbulb writing moments and finally understanding story structure was one of the biggest. I’ve printed out several of those emails and refer to them often.

    Back to writing.

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  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    BCB, thanks, you get a pardon for PROCRASTINATING on the internet today just for that post. The teacher in me lives to hear about those lightbulb moments.

    I love structure. For me it’s the same pleasure that some people must get from – ahem – math.

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  15. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Great post, Alex. You are the right person to be blogging on this subject. And it’s exciting that you are one of our first authors to be dipping your toe into the Kindle waters. I’m looking forward to studying your book.
    Everything I’ve ever written has been a combination of different Master Plots, with a central plot driving the train. I don’t really think about combining the elements ahead of time–I’ve had so much exposure to the different styles through my job in film development that my brain has become something of a grab-bag of styles to pick from. Boulevard is definitely a mix of many different classic story structures.

    In addition to the different Master Plots, there are the overarching themes of Man against Man, Man against Nature, Man against Himself…I try to incorporate Man against Himself into all my stories.

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  16. Tom

    Glad you did this book, Alex. You had doubts about it last year, as I recall.

    Another Mac user waiting for the appropriate version, btw (and now that Mac is on Intel, what’s their problem? There’s not much code difference!). Don’t they know the creative community – your audience – is much more Mac-inclined?

    About Tess’s comment; we ain’t dead yet, but we will live differently. We already have to self-market. Why not cut out the middleman, as you’re doing? My musician friends are selling a great many CDs and downloads, with no interminable problems from bean counters at their record labels.

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  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Stephen, you remind me of an important point – you don’t always know what kind of story you’re writing in the first draft, but identifying the drive of the story when you’re rewriting is pretty crucial.

    I don’t know any story worth experiencing that ISN’T "Man against himself"…
    except of course for all those "Woman against herself" stories…

    (Sorry, couldn’t resist…)

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  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Tom, I wouldn’t give up my middleman (a NY publisher) for anything. There is still NO WAY to get the same kind of distribution on your own that a good publisher will get for you. I would argue that the nice income stream Joe Konrath is getting from his Kindle books has a lot to do with his name recognition from his traditionally published books.

    But for this workbook, which is bound to be a significantly different ms in 6 months from what it is now… Kindle publishing makes a ton of sense. I can always publish an ultra-cheap addendum for those who have already bought the book.

    And I hear you about the Mac. I’m a Mac fanatic myself, so I can’t even read my own book (!).

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  19. Allison Brennan

    Ugh, you’re making me think again Alex. :/ I don’t know how to classify my books. I’d probably say that the seven deadly sins series is more a King Arthur story I suppose. or maybe a fairy tale, the Grimm Brothers variety. I hate having to think about these things. I can look at OTHER people’s stuff and figure it out, but mine is definitely murky in my head. :/ Book one definitely had a strong mentor subplot, and book two has a strong "deal with the devil" subplot (though not THE devil). What about family dynamics? Like the prodigal daughter, but in reverse (i.e. the mother is an evil witch–there are two daughters, the "good" daughter who stays with mommy to practice black magic and the "bad" daughter who leaves and tries to stop her mother.) That’s the undercurrent of the series.

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  20. Gar Haywood

    Alex:

    Brilliant post. Very thought-provoking.

    BUT… (And you knew there had to be a "but," right?)

    I worry about advising young or undeveloped writers, especially, to study great films and books similar to the work they’re about to write so as to better define or target that work. Here’s why: Because newbies don’t know how to MODULATE the effect such emulation will ultimately have on their own writing. Inexperienced writers unconsciously cut and paste rather than simply use a viable, established work as a loose model or framework for their own stuff. They don’t know the difference between "inspired by" and "the same thing, only better." So someone writing a book similar to CHINATOWN ends up writing scenes in which their protagonist pulls a valuable clue from a swimming pool or has his wounded ear treated by a beautiful fem fatale in her bathroom, just before they kiss…

    The truth is, we’re all writing something that could be directly linked to something else that came before, and it can sometimes be helpful to recognize those connections and write with them in mind. But writing from page one with the intent of adhering to those connections can be a risky business for the fledgling writer desperate to emulate a work he or she greatly admires, because nothing short of actual replication is often the result.. Not a good thing.

    Or course, in Hollywood, nobody cares about replication, unintended or otherwise. Despite all the lip service producers and studio execs give to their passion and respect for originality, what they really want is uniformity and audience recognition. They WANT a prospective viewer to know IMMEDIATELY what kind of film (or TV series) it is they’re selling, and what hit films or shows it has most flagrantly ripped-off. Nobody in Hollywood knows how to sell something that can’t be hyped as the "next" (FILL IN THE BLANK) or as (FILL IN THE BLANK) meets (FILL IN THE BLANK), so it’s almost counterproductive for a screenwriter NOT to model everything he writes on a past proven commodity. Why write outside the Box when the Box is almost exclusively where the money is?

    Whew. Am I done yet?

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  21. Allison Brennan

    re: kindle. I have nothing to publish on Kindle, but I’ll likely be giving away a short story and using all platforms. We’re still looking into the logistics of this. There’s an exclusive short story in the back of ORIGINAL SIN for the Walmart version of the book, and I get to use it after XX time (still waiting on the answer!!!) so I plan to give it away to fans and hopefully draw in new readers. It’s about 5,000 words and a ghost story (you’d like it Alex!)

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  22. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Allison, for my money, you write fairy tales. Modern, edgy, adrenaline-jumping – but fairy tales. So I’m not surprised to hear you’ve got a witch with a good daughter and bad daughter. Which one is that? I’m all over it!!!

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  23. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I don’t know, Gar, I understand what you’re saying, but I think a writer is either original or they’re not. They find a voice or they don’t. Writing advice is helpful to them or it isn’t.

    When I was reading all the writing books and taking all the writing classes I swear I only understood about one percent of what I was reading or listening to. The rest was just characters screaming in my head and visuals that wouldn’t go away.

    I am grateful for everything I read and heard, though – I always learned what I needed to at the right time, to move me to the next level. I was arrogant enough to ignore a lot of it, anyway. Later it started making sense.

    I guess what I’m saying is – I don’t think ANYONE can make anyone a writer, or stop them from being a writer.

    We all find our own way. Arguing against writing advice is just as viable as taking it.

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  24. Allison Brennan

    Thanks Alex ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s ORIGINAL SIN — but the whole series has the mother/daughters dynamics. The "bad" daughter (who turned away from magic) is my heroine. It is likely a dark fairy tale with a king arthur type quest (my heroes have to find out how to destroy a book written in demon’s blood–I don’t know if it’s information they need or something physical, but I do know that they are being misled. Plus, they don’t know how to send the seven deadly sins back to hell, and I have an inkling of an idea on what’s going to happen with that . . . sort of :/) Hmm, my characters might be misleading me, too! It’s going to be fun seeing what happens.

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  25. Gar Haywood

    Alex, I certainly wasn’t arguing against anyone giving writing advice, especially a pro like you. I was just wondering out loud about the inherent risks of advising people to study hit movies/books similar to what they’re writing for the purpose of homing in on what works and what doesn’t, because inexperienced writers don’t always know how to do that without inadvertently replicating whole scenes and/or plot lines. Part of the process of becoming a good writer is forging a voice and style of storytelling different from anyone else’s, and I think it’s harder to do that if one is consciously writing with one eye on another writer’s work.

    But your point is well taken: Maybe writers who are fully committed to being original have a better sense of when they’re crossing the line between inspiration and imitation than writers who aren’t.

    I guess I’ve just read too many books touted by critics and fans alike as "incredibly original" that turned out to be — as was obvious less than 15 pages in — a virtual scene-by-scene hijacking of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, or THE BLACK ECHO, or B IS FOR BURGLAR, or…

    As for the other subject of your post, the Kindle and Tess’s suggestion that electronic publishing will inevitably lead to the death of the professional writer…

    I find myself wondering if the only way to prevent rampant literary piracy in the future is to somehow control the dissemination of a book’s ENDING. In other words, distribute the bulk of a written work conventionally, but use encryption or some form of "burn-after-reading" technology to control who gets to download the work’s LAST FEW CHAPTERS, and how long they can keep it.

    Does that sound wacky, or…?

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  26. toni mcgee causey

    Allison, I think yours is a King Arthur/ quest, a kind of scavenger hunt for the answer. (And it is awesome…

    I’ll just tell this part. I was reading the ms. version while traveling on the plane to a conference. I got to a particular scene and the man next to me moved a little and I was so jumpy, I yelped. Scared the hell out of the people around me, but seriously, that book had me by the throat at that point.

    I’m writing a reluctant witness / quest kind of story, if I had to boil it down, but like Allison, these things are murky to me, especially in the first draft. I can look back at the finished book and know more about the kind of trope it falls into. Or the blend of tropes.

    Alex, I am thrilled to see your blog compiled in a book. I’ve been recommending new writers to your blog for the last few months, and I will gladly point them to the Kindle workbook. I think it will be one of the most useful tools out there for new writers.

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  27. Zoรซ Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Great post. I have no idea how I would classify the Charlie Fox series in terms of classic story type. I’ll have to give that one some thought …

    Congratulations on getting your blog out there in book form. I hope it does deservedly big things for you ;-]

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  28. Alexandra Sokoloff

    But Gar, if they could encrypt the end with that kind of control,couldn’t they just encrypt the whole book with the same kind of restricted access just as easily?

    Bear in mind when it comes to technology I have NO IDEA what I’m talking about.

    Personally I usually give up on books long before the end. Sad, but true.

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  29. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks, Z and T! It’s a little weird to have something available so relatively soon after I’ve finished it, that’s for sure.

    Toni, glad to hear you say you don’t know the trope sometimes until after you’ve finished. I keep telling students that that may well be the case.

    Charlie Fox, hmm. She’s an archetype herself for sure…

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  30. JD Rhoades

    Dusty, that must have been interesting for you, since I was writing about YOUR BACKYARD!!

    Almost literally.

    Actually I did get a chuckle over Laurel’s reaction to all the trees. We get that a lot.

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  31. JT Ellison

    Maybe Allison and Zoe and I can pay Alex to explain to us what our stories are….. cause I don’t know how to classify mine either. I for one can’t WAIT to get an e-reader or the Mac software to purchase this workbook. I love being pushed to think about things differently. And now I’m going to sit and try to figure out what exactly I’m writing.

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  32. Allison Brennan

    I want the workbook too. There is an app for the iTouch where you can read Kindle books, but I haven’t tried it yet because honestly, I do NOT want to read a book on my iTouch. But as soon as the Mac versions come out, Alex’s workbook will be the first (and very well may be the last) kindle book I purchase.

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  33. Mark Wilcox

    The Kindle app for IPHone/Touch (and Android when it comes out) is not really designed for long-form reading (though that may change if the Apple tablet happens). Instead if you have a Kindle, you do most of your reading on it. But let’s say you are in the line at the grocery. You have 10 minutes to kill waiting for the person in front of you. If you have the Kindle on your phone – you can read the novel – right where you were on the Kindle. And then when you get back to the Kindle, it picks up where you left off on the IPhone.

    The PC/Mac clients – are really more for technical publications though you could use similar ways (in particular with netbooks).

    IMHO – Kindle is a godsend. I’m fixing to leave on a trip where I want to read King’s Under the Dome. If I could only get the dead-trees version – I probably would not have even bought the book it’s so huge.
    But since I’ve got it on the Kindle (plus 5 others books), it takes up an inch.

    In other words Kindle encourages more reading, not less.

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  34. LOUIS VUITTON

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