Category Archives: Alexandra Sokoloff

That breakthrough moment

 by Alexandra Sokoloff

There’s a question authors often get in interviews – more so in the early professional years than later: “Can you tell us what was it like when you got ‘the call’?”

Meaning the phone call from your agent that your first book had sold.

I think people like to hear those breakthrough stories because it’s a little like rehearsing for your own “call”.  You hear in various New Age philosophies that you need to actually feel your own success inside you to draw it to you.

My own call happened first with a script. I wrote it with a partner I’d met in a writing class, and while we had both written before, this was the first all out effort at a spec script. And it was good. We knew it. It got us our pick of agents, and he took it out to the studios. 

Well, we got into a bidding war situation, which was both electrifying and terrifying. It lasted almost an entire week, which I know sounds like lightning speed compared to the glacial pace of publishing, but it was the longest week of my life. Studios were in, studios were out. Producers we’d never met were calling us trying to talk us into going with them. To say things were tense is the understatement of that decade; sometime in the middle of the second day I started crying and basically didn’t stop until the script sold. 

Well, that’s not exactly true. I did go to a party the night before we got the call. I cried all the way through getting dressed, then stopped crying when my friends picked me up. We went to the party and, well, partied, danced, whatever – I was laughing and sunny and enjoying myself. I don’t remember now how four of us ended up walking through a park in the early hours of the morning – we couldn’t possibly have walked all the way from the Westside of L.A. to my apartment in the Fairfax district. Probably a bunch of us went out to a nearby deli (Canters, one of the only open-after-midnight eateries in L.A. back then) and then these three guys walked me home from there. I remember feeling like Dorothy on the road to Oz with the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion; my friends were actors I’d gone to college with and we’d acted together in many more unusual configurations than that. But there was a numinousness about that night; I felt poised on the verge of something massive.

I hugged them all at my door, closed it, and immediately burst into tears again, and stayed up the rest of the night (morning) crying.

 I should have mentioned up front:  I’m not a crier.  It’s very rare for me. The fact that I had a week-long fit of weeping is still amazing to me. But that’s how long this writing journey had been for me, and how stressed out I was at being so close to what may or may not have turned into a breakthrough.

And the next day we got The Call. The script had sold for quite a bit of money, much more than I’d ever had before in my life.  It changed my life substantially –not having to constantly worry about finances was a huge relief. But more importantly, I was “in”. I’d always pictured the movie business as a city inside an enormous glass dome, with all of us film hopefuls circling the dome, trying to figure out how to get inside. From then on L.A. looked exactly the same, but it didn’t feel the same, ever again.

Since then I’ve had other variations of The Call, including my first book sale and the moment of Huntress Moon hitting the Amazon bestseller charts. I’ve never cried for a week straight since that first time; I don’t think anything after can ever be the same as that first concrete affirmation that yes, you’re doing the right thing and you really can actually DO IT. But there’s always a heady sense of exhilaration mixed with massive relief – relief that all that obsessive work was leading to something, relief that someone values that work enough to pay you enough to do more of it.

For me the feeling of this moment is much more easily captured in music than on film or on the page; I really love songs about this breakthrough or that are about an artist right before the breakthrough, songs that have that dual sense of poverty and struggling along with the sense that the breakthrough is coming.  And I wonder if collecting those songs had a little bit to do with my own breakthroughs: that I knew from songs how it was supposed to feel, and sought out that feeling for myself.

The best ever to me is Springsteen’s “Rosalita”. No other song has ever captured that exhilaration of that “through the looking glass” breakthrough so perfectly; when I hear it I feel I can do anything. And who can NOT dance?

I also love the Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones”, another fabulous dance song. This one is very personal to me because I know some of the band; as a matter of fact one of my favorite memories is a party during which one of the guys – pre-breakthrough – fell off my second floor balcony clutching a life-sized statue of St. Francis (neither were hurt – if you’re going to take a dive off a balcony, make sure to take a saint with you.) 

And as over-rotated as Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” is, I never switch channels when it comes on.  All those sad people in the bar with their big dreams, and you listen to it knowing that when the bar patrons tell the pianist, “Man, what are YOU doing here?” that he won’t be there for long.

So of course I’d love to hear stories about “The Call.” And does anyone have any  breakthrough or “on the verge” songs for me? 

Alex

Come on Downton

by Alexandra Sokoloff

(No spoilers!)

You knew I’d end up doing this, right? I can’t help myself, I get addicted to a show and it ends up on the blog. I’m hardly alone on this one, either: Downton Abbey is the most successful British TV show in the history of British TV. Oh, I see the Facebook posts, people complaining that they don’t know what people see in the show. Hah, where do I start? So grab yourself some tea, or champagne, or even better, one of those newfangled cocktails that The Dowager Countess says are “too exciting for before dinner” even as she gazes longingly toward the tray – and let’s talk Downton.

 

I’ve been a big fan of writer/creator Julian Fellowes since his sparkly, pitch-perfect murder mystery Gosford Park, so I was primed to like Downton.  Put the best of British TV (and film) stars together with stellar writing and what’s not to like?

On a writing level, the show had my undying attention from the moment Mr. Bates, painfully disabled from the war and dependent on a cane, looks up that endless staircase (that we have seen all the other servants rushing up and down since the opening of the show) and we realize that the valet job that means both survival and redemption for him is completely dependent on his climbing those stairs dozens of times per day.  Talk about establishing HOPE, FEAR, and STAKES in one perfect camera pan!

As a writer I have always been mystified and envious at the manipulative addictiveness of soap opera writing. When I first moved down to L.A., I’d not only never been into soaps, I totally disdained them. I didn’t even really watch television. But it seemed like every actor I got to know in those early film career years ended up with a gig on “Days of Our Lives.” You can see what’s coming, right? I started watching the show a time or two just to support my friends – and ended up worse than a crack addict over it; it took me years to break the habit.

Downton uses every soap opera trick in the book. It’s gleefully melodramatic; full of deaths and near-deaths, plagues and miracle cures; I’m still waiting for someone to fall into an extended coma. No one is allowed to stay happy for more than a few shows at a time. Everyone, postitively everyone, is always on the verge of a romantic entanglement, or a devastating breakup. The villains, Miss O’Brian and Thomas, positively skulk, and I love their seething-over sexuality. O’Brien especially is a study in repressive rage.

And every major historical event of the times is woven into the plot, giving you a false sense of virtuousness even as you’re gorging on eye candy.  And OH, is there eye candy to gorge on.

I have this theory that people like literature and movies from periods that they most admire the clothes from. Me, as much as I love noir as a genre, I could never pull off that style. With this hair? Renaissance, yes, Edwardian, fine, Regency also works. But my hair is too big and my waist is too short for the fashions of the 30s and 40s, it’s just the way it is, so those periods of time have always felt alien to me. But I’d feel right at home in Downton. Never mind the house porn, this is unabashed clothes porn. I am not above freezing frame just to marvel at details of stitching. And I love that the VERY best clothes are always on the older women, who would naturally have HAD the best clothes.  Maggie Smith wears this teal velvet dress that does things with light I’ve never seen before, and makes her skin translucent and those blue eyes of hers as luminous as jewels. And Elizabeth McGovern wears some net things that fit her like tattoos and are every bit as intricate.

The lighting design is as stunning as the costumes and shots are regularly reminiscent of masterpiece paintings.

And then there are the men.

Hugh Bonneville is delightful in everything I’ve ever seen him in, from Hugh Grant’s hapless failed stockbroker friend in Notting Hill to a charming sociopath in The Commander. While I’m cynical about the uber rich being moral people at heart, I love to BELIEVE that they could be, and Bonneville’s Lord Grantham can always be counted on to do the right thing.

Brendan Coyle absolutely slays me as Mr. Bates, the archetypal “man with a mysterious past,” a valet with demons. What catnip, right? And clever, steadfast Anna is the perfect woman to save him. I haven’t been so committed to a love plot in I don’t know how long. I must mention Bates’ estranged wife – Maria Doyle Kennedy, in a small but pivotal role, was a striking embodiment of evil and madness; I am almost sorry we won’t be seeing more of her.

Dan Stevens as heir apparent Matthew heads up the younger eye candy. With a sexy diffidence that recalls a young Hugh Grant, he is lovely as this character – but if you haven’t seen the extras that come with the i Tunes season pass, I highly recommend a viewing. Stevens is almost unbearably charismatic just as himself; I predict we’ll be seeing him cast in everything until the end of time.

I’m more enamored with the idea of an Irish revolutionary chauffeur than I am with the actual character, but there is some occasional heat between Branson and Lady Sybil that keeps me rooting for him.

I love the women, too. I liked Anna from the start but she also snuck up on me; I just wasn’t expecting her to be such a pillar of the show.

Three sisters are always a great character cluster and it works like a charm in the show. I disliked Lady Mary in the beginning but have admired how Fellowes grew the character to make her grow on me. Same with stunted middle sister Edith, who I’m now completely rooting for. Of course I instantly saw myself in crusading youngest sister Sybil (yeah, I took the “Which Downton Abbey Character Are You? quiz and it was Sybil all the way).

Mrs. Patmore and Daisy are a duo straight out of Shakespeare as the earthy cook and long-suffering kitchen maid; one of my favorite scenes of the whole show is Mrs. Patmore trying to explain to Daisy why Thomas is “not the boy for you.”

But the real heart of the show, as I’m sure no one will disagree, is Maggie Smith.  I would happily watch her read the phone book; she is perfect in everything she touches, but just as with Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock this is a priceless alchemy of actor and role. You spend half the show not breathing, just waiting to see what she’s going to say, or who she will simply LOOK at, next. Even if the rest of the show wasn’t so stellar, I would be grateful to Julian Fellowes until the end of time for creating a role so perfectly matched to her talents that will allow the world to enjoy her at the height of her talent – for as long as we have broadcast devices.  I get teary just thinking about it.  

Oh, all right, maybe I’m teary about something else, too.  But remember – NO SPOILERS!!!!

So how about you? What do you love – or hate – about Downton?  What do you think has made it the smash it is? 

Alex

 

 

It’s called MICROBLOGGING, okay?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I was going to call this post “Is blogging dead?”  but that just sets up a conundrum I can’t wrap my head around, not after the week I’ve just had.

But this question has been on my mind a lot lately, for a lot of reasons.  

Promotion and social media exposure, a strong internet presence, is absolutely mandatory for an author. Blogging used to be THE primary method of getting yourself out there, and if you had a personal blog and participated in a group blog like Murderati, or several, even better.

But so many group blogs have shut down, and authors seem to be burned out on personal blogging.

And then there’s Facebook. 

I hear from a lot of people that FB is on the decline but it seems to me that the conversations that used to be had in the blog comments, and the large communities of “backbloggers,”  a lion’s share of that action has moved to Facebook, and that that aspect of FB is growing.

Blogs are in-depth entities. The joy of a blog is that you can really explore a topic (as well as sometimes do some virtuoso writing), and the comments that follow deepen the conversation, and there’s something compelling about the FEELING of a closed, fixed space that a blog is that makes it a sort of virtual salon. People return to their favorite blogs. I think of Murderati as a PLACE, where I can find people I know and where other people can drop by and join the party.  I love that virtual reality aspect of it.

But blogging takes a lot of time, not just for the blogger. It takes actual effort to read a blog, in that you have to go to a particular place to get to the conversation.  If the conversation there isn’t what you were looking for, you have to look elsewhere.

Facebook is a different kind of experience.  It’s all right there in front of you. You throw a topic up there and whoever happens to be passing by on the endless river of “feed” may or may not jump in.  You never know who or what you’re going to get, although I do notice a base of regular commenters coming back to my Facebook page over and over, so there is an aspect of place to it as well.  

FB has tailored a social media expereince that is either still a novelty, or possibly more suited to the kind of social media experience that we are looking for – quick, fun, convenient interaction that gives you a buzz of relevance without much work.

I’ve heard it referred to as “microblogging” and I think that’s a perfect description.

Now, I’m speaking from a very privileged position of being part of an established and respected group blog and also running a very popular blog of my own – my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors blog is getting more traffiic than ever (though far fewer comments these days), and a great deal of that traffic is for much older posts that are constantly reposted and linked to as people discover the blog and read the accompanying workbooks.  It’s a hugely important selling tool for my nonfiction books.

But lately I feel like I’m casting a far wider net with FB than I can with blogging.  Any post I make I get comments from people I don’t know at all. It’s a quick interaction that introduces me to a huge number of people who may remember me and the fact that I’m an author, which is the groundwork of all promotion – name recognition. And I enjoy the format of Facebook.  It’s so visual – which puts it light years ahead of Twitter, in my opinion. There’s an aspect of improv to it, in that I can always find something fun to say about something someone else has posted. I am, for better or worse, a social butterfly, and I love to have random conversations with large groups of random people.

I know, I know, it’s sounding like I’ve just discovered Facebook (Where exactly has she BEEN for six years?you’re asking). But that’s not exactly true. I was on it before it went public. It’s only recently that I’ve felt that I can use it properly and that it’s at least for the moment being a form of social media promotion that gives me the most bang for my time.  Time being always of the essence – not just for writers, but for everyone who reads them.

So today, I’d love to hear what you have to say about it. Do you think blogging has moved to Facebook? Have you had luck microblogging over there?  

And while we’re on it, where does Twitter figure in? If people ARE leaving FB, where are they going? I’m really interested in what you all have to say about it.

And for comparison of the two media, here’s my Facebook page, where you can find the same discussion topic (third topic, full page.)

Alex

Rewriting – sequence and act bridges

by Alexandra Sokoloff 

I don’t know what it is, but my family’s Christmas gatherings always seem to  involve aliens in some way. Possibly stems from all those years we spent road-tripping on (the former) Route 66. 

This year it was watching CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (again).

I haven’t seen the film in a while and it turns out to be a great example of a concept I’m always trying to get across to this college film class I’m teaching: act and sequence transitions. To get across the idea of the Three-Act, Eight Sequence structure, I show them films to illustrate that accomplished filmmakers often use a recurring image or device to indicate the end of one sequence and the beginning of another (not always for every sequence, but VERY frequently for the transitions between the four acts). 

Since my New Year is all about rewriting, two different projects, I wanted to talk about some examples today and hopefully get some from you all.

Some are very obvious, like:

– The still shots of wedding invitations that set up each act of FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL

 – The six stages of a con that set up the sequences of THE STING: The Set-Up, The Hook, The Take, The Wire, The Shut-Out and The Sting … and which are delineated by still paintings on title cards.  (Yes, that’s just six – the first sequence is the incident that compels Hooker to want to do the long con to begin with, and the eighth is the wrap-up.)

– The old newsreel-style shots of the map of the globe with the superimposed plane flying and the red line marking the journey and the sequence transitions in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

Others are more subtle but easy to spot if you train yourself to look, like:

– The long overhead shots of Jamie Foxx’s cab cruising through the streets of L.A. between each sequence of COLLATERAL. (There are similar long shots of the spaceship Nostromo gliding silently through the vast emptiness of space that mark the sequence breaks in the first ALIEN)

– The shots of seasons (fall, winter, spring) and specific holiday decorations in the Great Hall that delineate the sequences and acts in HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE.

– Another film I just love, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, cuts away from the main story of Westley and Buttercup to the framing story of the grandfather reading the book to his grandson at each sequence and act break – slyly demonstrating the power of cliffhangers.

– And in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, after the climax of each sequence, there is a cut to a short scene of the team of scientists, led by a mouth-watering François Truffaut (just saying) racing to yet another spot on the globe to investigate another UFO sighting.  These scenes appear every fifteen minutes like clockwork – not as blatant as still shots and title cards, but equally effective as the demarcation between sequences and acts.

Personally, I just love how these bridges, or markers, or transitions, or whatever you feel like calling them, create a symmetry and forward momentum to a story. It signals an audience that the story is moving into a different phase, and gives the audience a chance to take a breath and mentally prepare, even for a second, for the next stage of the journey.

I think it’s really useful to train yourself to look for how your favorite storytellers might be using these transitions, on screen and on the page. It will get you thinking about how you might use some kind of bridge scene yourself. It’s not that you HAVE to do it, not at all!  But maybe there’s a hint of some perfect recurring transition scene already in your first draft that you can build on to create a whole series of transitions that will give your story that perfect symmetry and momentum.  Something to think about!

In novels, one of the most obvious act bridges is dividing your book into Part I, Part II, and Part III.   Sounds simplistic but it really works to give the reader a breath and a moment to reflect before starting a new action. Another common bridge is to write sequences from different characters’ points of view (my favorite example being Barbara Kingsolver’s POISONWOOD BIBLE.

So do you have any examples for me?

And Happy New Year to everyone!  May all your writing dreams come true this year.

– Alex

The Wildcard Tuesday New Year Interrogation

Zoë Sharp

The first moon of 2013

Welcome to the first Wildcard Tuesday blog of 2013, and an enormously Happy New Year to you all. For this I asked a few lighthearted questions of fellow ‘Rati past and present, and below are their answers. I hope you find them worthy of a giggle.

(As a small aside, I started off searching for sensible author pix, but what I’ve actually ended up going for are the silliest pix that came up on the first page of a Google Images search on that author’s name.)

ALLISON BRENNAN

Where did you choose to celebrate the holiday season this year?

Home, as usual.

What would have been your ideal location?

Home! (Though, I would have liked to have gone to Disneyland right after Christmas … maybe next year!)

What was the best—or worst—gift you’ve ever received?

My husband once gave me an electric grout cleaner. Needless to say, I never used it.

The best—or worst—meal or item of food you’ve been served—or served to others?

The absolute best Christmas dinner we’ve had was when I decided to cook prime rib instead of the standard turkey or ham. It was pricey, but oh-so-delicious! I think that was back in 1997 …

What’s your idea of the Christmas From Hell?

Traveling for Christmas.

Looking back, what was your favourite moment from 2012?

Watching my oldest daughter graduate from high school—and hearing her and the Seraphim Choir sing the National Anthem. They were amazing.

I’m not going to ask about New Year’s resolutions, but do you have one ambition, large or small, you’d like to achieve in 2013?

Walk daily, meet my deadlines, don’t sweat the small stuff.

And finally, what book(s) have you brought out this year?

Two Lucy Kincaid books from Minotaur/SMP—SILENCED and STALKED; a short story in the anthology LOVE IS MURDER; an indie published novella MURDER IN THE RIVER CITY.

And what’s on the cards for the early part of 2013?

A Lucy Kincaid novella in March (RECKLESS), and two more book STOLEN and COLD SNAP. Plus a short story for the NINC anthology and maybe another indie novella. If I have time.

 

DAVID CORBETT

Where did you choose to celebrate the holiday season this year?

Home alone, if “choose” and “celebrate” are the correct verbs. Mette arrives on the 28th, so things should get merrier at that point.

What would have been your ideal location?

Buenos Aires. Ireland. A beach in Mexico.

What was the best—or worst—gift you’ve ever received?

Best gift I ever “received” was one I gave. As a gag gift I bought my late wife a red flannel union suit with a button seat flap that she absolutely loved. Slept in it all the time. Cozy as hell. Damn, she was happy.

The best—or worst—meal or item of food you’ve been served—or served to others?

When I was a kid one of my classmates’ families came over during the holidays and brought cookies that literally made me gag. I picked one up, sniffed it like a cocker spaniel, recoiled, and put it back. My brother started bellowing, “You touched it, you have to eat it.” Unfortunately, King Solomon (my father) agreed. I almost upchucked trying to get it down.

What’s your idea of the Christmas From Hell?

Oh, let’s not go there.

Looking back, what was your favourite moment from 2012?

A weekend in San Antonio for the wedding of one of Mette’s dearest friends, when I got introduced to the inner circle. Also, the moments when I read the cover quotes I received for THE ART OF CHARACTER. I was incredibly humbled and grateful so many writers I respect said so many kind and generous things.

One ambition, large or small, you’d like to achieve in 2013?

Make the new book a success, and wrap up the novel I’m working on to my own persnickety satisfaction.

And finally, what book(s) have you brought out this year?

Open Road Media and Mysterious Press re-issued all four of my novels in ebook format in 2012, with a brand new short story collection titled KILLING YOURSELF TO SURVIVE.

And what’s on the cards for the early part of 2013?

The new book, THE ART OF CHARACTER, comes out on January 29th, 2013 from Penguin.

 

ALEXANDRA SOKOLOFF

Where?

New Orleans.

Ideal location?

It’s hard to top New Orleans.

Best/worst gift?

Well, there’s this pretty spectacular amethyst necklace…

Best/worst food?

I’ve served many a bad meal to others. For everyone’s sake I stopped trying to cook long ago. Personally I don’t care much what food gets served, but I do remember one Christmas morning in London with blackberry jam on waffles and whisky for breakfast. The blackberry jam ended up all sorts of places and it was all very lovely.  I could do that again.

Christmas From Hell?

It’s hard to narrow that down, actually. Endless scenarios spring to mind. I hate being cold, though, so winter is perilous.

Favourite moment from 2012?

For public consumption, you mean? The general reader response to HUNTRESS MOON has been a real high.

One ambition in 2013?

I’d like to find a really wonderful place to live.

Books this year?

My crime thriller HUNTRESS MOON, a boxed set of three of my supernatural thrillers called HAUNTED, a novella called D-GIRL ON DOOMSDAY in an interconnected anthology with three other dark fantasy female author friends: APOCALYPSE: YEAR ZERO. And I got several backlist titles back and put them out as e books at wonderfully affordable prices: THE UNSEEN, BOOK OF SHADOWS, THE HARROWING and THE PRICE.

And for 2013?

The next book in my Huntress series comes out in late January:  BLOOD MOON. My next book in the paranormal Keepers series, KEEPER OF THE SHADOWS, comes out in May.

I’m selling my house in January and buying another as soon as possible, probably in California.

 

PD MARTIN

Where?

Every year we have Christmas Day at our home (in Melbourne) and then go down to the Mornington Peninsula (seaside) for most of January. It’s the hottest time of year here in Oz, so it’s great to be near the beach. We stay in a 1970s holiday house my grandparents bought in 1972, and given I spent summers down there as a kid it’s particularly special to now be going down there with my children.

Ideal location?

The Peninsula is pretty good 🙂 Although we’ve always said that one year we’ll do a white/winter Christmas in New York or something.

Best/worst gift ever received?

Best gift I ever received was actually for my birthday this year—my Kindle. I’m a complete convert to the point where I can’t imagine ever reading a ‘real’ book again. I prefer the Kindle reading experience for some reason.

Best meal?

I am biased, but I make a mean Tira Misu. I got the recipe from a chef and it’s divine! And great because you make it a day or two before, so it’s one thing to cross off the food preparation list early.

Christmas From Hell?

Mmm….I guess having to run around. You know, multiple visits. We do that a bit on Christmas Eve, but I enjoy the fact that then on Christmas Day we just kick back. We start with oysters at midday, then it’s prawns (yes, on the BBQ), then an Asian style salmon fillet dish then Tira Misu (at about 4pm). Then a movie!

Favourite moment from 2012?

That’s easy for me—picking up our son, Liam, from Korea and making our family of three a family of four 🙂

One ambition, large or small, for 2013?

I’ve got a few books I’d like to finish. And hey, a best seller or a lotto win wouldn’t go astray either.

Book(s) this year?

THE MISSING (two short stories), WHEN JUSTICE FAILS (two short true-crime pieces), HELL’S FURY (new book in spy thriller series), and two novels for younger readers that I’ve released under the pen name Pippa Dee—GROUNDED SPIRITS and THE WANDERER.

What’s next?

Probably what I’ve been doing the past few months—juggling motherhood and writing…and feeling like I’m going to crack under the pressure! 

 

JT ELLISON

Where?

Nashville and Florida.

Ideal location?

A family trip to Italy would have been fun.

Best gift you’ve ever received?

I got engaged during Christmas 1994, so that ranks up there….

Worst meal?

Italy, Cinque Terre, a large full fish the size of a cat, with its baleful eye staring up at me… I swear the thing was still breathing. Ugh! 

Christmas From Hell?

There’s no such thing. I love Christmas.

Favourite moment from 2012?

Seeing my DH in his gorgeous new kilt for the first time. *fans self*

One ambition, large or small, for 2013?

I want to learn how to paint. In oil, large canvas abstracts. 

Book(s) last year?

A DEEPER DARKNESS, EDGE OF BLACK, STORM SEASON

And for 2013?

Writing, writing and more writing. Deadline January 30!

 

 MARTYN WAITES (half of Tania Carver)

Where?

At my in-laws. The kids wanted to go to see all their cousins. They love a big family get together. As for me, I’m pretty bah humbug about it. I don’t care where I go or what I do or whether I get any presents or not. As long as I get to see Doctor Who, I’m happy.

Ideal location?

Somewhere abroad. Morocco would be good. If they were showing Doctor Who.

Best/worst gift ever received?

I’ve been lucky enough to get plenty of presents. I can’t think of specifics in terms of best or worst, but for me the worst kind of gift is the thoughtless kind that someone has put no effort, time or care into. The best ones are the ones you absolutely want. Even if you don’t know you do until you get them. I was lucky enough to get one of those this Christmas.

Best/worst meal?

At Christmas? It’s all the same. I’m not a fan of Christmas dinner. Or any roast dinner for that matter. I eat it, but that’s because it’s what you do at Christmas. Like getting into water and swimming. The best meal I was ever served was at a Persian restaurant in Birmingham in 1988. It involved chicken and pomegranates and I’ve never tasted anything like it to this day. The restaurant disappeared soon afterwards in a kind of Brigadoon fashion and I sometimes wonder whether I actually went there. As for bad food . . . loads. In fact, it probably outnumbers the good food. That’s why I try to remember the good ones.

Christmas From Hell?

Being forced to spend time with people I hate. That goes for the rest of the year as well. And not seeing Doctor Who.

Favourite moment from 2012?

Well, I wrote about my favourite cultural things on the last Murderati post—Y Niwl and the Hammer films retrospective—so they would be there in a big way. But other than that, it was something very small and personal that I’m afraid I couldn’t share and that I doubt anyone would be particularly interested in.

One ambition, large or small, for 2013?

I do. I can’t say anything about it in case I jinx it, but it will be the culmination of a lifetime’s ambition. Or at least I hope it will.

Book(s) this year?

CHOKED, the fourth Tania Carver book came out in September in the UK. THE CREEPER, the second one, came out in the States. There have been other editions round the world and I think Russia finally got round to publishing my 2006 novel, THE MERCY SEAT.

And 2013?

Finishing the new Tania, THE DOLL’S HOUSE, which I’m uncharacteristically quite pleased with. Although it could all go horribly wrong. And then there’s the afore(not)mentioned secret project . . .

 

GAR ANTHONY HAYWOOD

Where?

At the family’s new home in Glassell Park, which we moved into in October.

Ideal location?

At the family’s new home in Aspen, Colorado, which doesn’t exist.

Best/worst gift ever received?

The best was a dictionary.  It was given to me many years ago by a wonderful woman who at the time was my mother-in-law to be.  She knew I was an aspiring writer and gifted me accordingly, which, oddly enough, no one in my immediate family had ever thought to attempt before.  I still own that dictionary, too.

Don’t get me started on the worst gifts I’ve ever received.

Best/worst food?

The best, far and away, is the egg nog my godfather makes over the holidays. It tastes great and man, does it have a kick to it.

Never been given a fruitcake as a gift, and I pray I never am.

Christmas From Hell?

I think I actually experienced it last year.  Attended the worst Catholic midnight Mass possible: cornball music, pointless sermon, and theatre lighting (the service was being video-taped) that would make a mole cover its eyes.  Awful.

Favourite moment from 2012?

The family’s spring break vacation in the Galapagos.  Unbelievable!

One ambition for 2013?

Completion of a manuscript that a conventional publisher buys for a tidy sum.

Book(s) last year?

Didn’t have a book published this year, though my Aaron Gunner novels were re-released as e-books by Mysterious Press/Open Road.

And for the early part of 2013?

Early?  Maybe my first book for middle-graders, which my agent is shopping now.  Later in the year?  With the grace of God, a publication deal for my first Aaron Gunner novel in almost 10 years.

 

STEPHEN JAY SCHWARTZ

Where?

Stayed at home with the wife and kids—enjoyed the beach and the beautiful Southern California weather.  Played Scrabble and hung out in cafés.  Enjoyed a big meal of matzoh ball soup and tofurky.

Ideal location?

Ireland.  Clifton or Dingle, to be precise.

Best/worst gift ever received?

I haven’t paid attention to holiday gifts for a long time.  I think the worst gift I ever got was for my bar mitzvah—it was a belt buckle.  No, actually, perhaps the worst was the beer stein my father gave me for my high school graduation.  This, instead of the car I had my eyes on.

Best/worst item of food?

Probably that tofurky we had last week.

Christmas From Hell?

Again, tofurky takes the price.

Favourite moment from 2012?

Seeing my son come back healthy and happy after a two-month hospital stay in Wisconsin.

One ambition, large or small, for 2013?

Main ambition—work to live a creative life, 24/7.

Book(s) this year?

Move along, nothing to see here.

What’s on the cards for the early part of 2013?

Move along, nothing to see here either…

 

BRETT BATTLES

Where?

The first half I spent in a hot, tropical location with my feet in the water, a beer nearby, and a Kindle in my hand; the second half at home in L.A. with my kids, my parents, and my sister and her kids.

Ideal location?

Nailed it this year.

Best gift ever received?

This year I got the complete set of Calvin & Hobbs from my parents. It was perfect!

Best food?

I made a pretty awesome ham this year that was juicy and delicious. Hmmm, I’m craving leftovers right now!

Christmas From Hell?

Not being able to spend time with my family.

Favourite moment from 2012?

It was a pretty good year all around, so one event…? Going to San Diego for a week with my kids and parents was pretty damn fun!

One ambition for 2013?

Just more of the same … write, travel, and spend time with friends and family.

Book(s) last year?

2012: THE DESTROYED (Quinn #5), PALE HORSE (Project Eden #3), THE COLLECTED (Quinn #6), and ASHES (Project #Eden #4)

And for 2013?

At least four more novels (hopefully five), including a secret collaboration I can’t quite talk about yet.

 

TESS GERRITSEN

Where?

At home. With family.

Ideal location?

Exactly the same place.

Worst gift you’ve ever received?

An orange pantsuit.  I mean, really. My husband has not bought me anything orange ever since. (I’m guessing it didn’t look like this, then, Tess? ZS)

Best/worst meal?

For Christmas?  Not one bad meal sticks out.  On Christmas, everything tastes wonderful.

Christmas From Hell?

Being stuck in an airport. Far from family.

Favourite moment from 2012?

Standing on the Great Wall of China, with my husband and sons.

One ambition, for 2013?

To finally plant a vegetable garden that the deer can’t demolish.

Book(s) out last year?

LAST TO DIE was published this past summer.

And what’s on the cards for 2013?

Early 2013, I am headed to the Amazon River.

 

PARI NOSKIN TAICHERT

Where?

At home in peace. No requirements, no expectations. I just let myself be.

Ideal location?

The only other place I can imagine being this calm and relaxed would be Antibes . . .

Best gift?

Probably the best gift I’ve received so far is an essay my younger teen wrote about a difficult incident we shared last year and how it has taught her empathy. Made me cry, it touched my heart so.

Best/worst meal?

The best meal remains one brunch I had in Puerto Rico: fresh flying fish brought in that morning from a catch in Barbados, steamed bread fruit, Barbadian yellow hot sauce, fresh mangos picked minutes before from a tree just steps from where we ate.

Christmas From Hell?

I think it would be one filled with efforts to make it perfect, so many efforts that they’d hit the tipping point and tumble down to the other side of happiness.

Favourite moment from 2012?

The one where I finally realized I’m going to be all right, that the trials of this last year may continue . . . but they’re not going to pull me down into the depths of despair anymore.

One ambition, large or small, for 2013?

Yes.

1. I’d like to e-publish the book that “almost” sold to NYC. It’s the first in a new series and I’d like my character to meet readers and vice versa.

2. To continue to explore my creativity in whatever ways it’s now manifesting, to give myself permission to let it fly.

Book(s) last year?

Nothing in 2012. I’ve been in hibernation for many reasons including the whole copyright issue and the divorce.

And for 2013?

To begin writing again and to enjoy it . . .

 

ZOË SHARP

As for me, I also spent Christmas this year with my family, which was where I wanted to be.

My ideal would probably have been a ski-in/ski-out chalet somewhere with plenty of snow. Not necessarily for skiing, but definitely for sculpting. I never did get to finish that Sphinx …

As for my ambitions for 2013, to find a life/work balance and to continue to improve my craft.

And books? In 2012 I brought out two e-boxed sets of the first six Charlie Fox novels, plus several short stories, and of course, DIE EASY: Charlie Fox book ten.

In 2013, DIE EASY is hot off the press in the States. I’m also editing two new projects—a supernatural thriller called CARNIFEX, and a standalone crime thriller called THE BLOOD WHISPERER, as well as working on the first in a new trilogy, the first in what I hope will be a new series, a novella project I can’t say too much about yet, and—of course—Charlie Fox book eleven. That should keep me going for a bit 🙂

So, it only remains for me to wish you all an incredibly Happy New Year, and to thank you for your comments and your feedback during 2012.

Apocalypse Not

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Yay!  I get the Apocalypse post! 

I know, I shouldn’t joke, the day is young… but apparently they all survived in New Zealand and Australia, so I’m optimistic.

Actually this end of the world is turning out to be a lot less viral than the one with the crazy – or Really Media-Savvy – preacher last year. Maybe we just had too much lead time on the aptly named Mayan Long Count – sort of the way I feel about hurricanes as opposed to earthquakes, actually. There’s so much anticipation to a hurricane that by the time it hits, no matter how much of a disaster it really is you’re already emotionally burned out on it. Earthquakes, you get all your adrenaline rush at once.

More likely, though, we’re all too numb from our two most recent real-life end of the world tragedies, Superstorm Sandy, and the Sandy Hook massacre that Gar and PD have so eloquently posted about this week, to be able to make light of any theoretical apocalypse. It feels like we’ve had it. 

And then there’s just the ordinary anxiety of the holidays. The first day of January is really just one day after the last day of December, so why do we put all this pressure on the END of one year and the BEGINNING of another?

A better way to look at it would be that we get to let all of the baggage of the old year go and start over fresh. Maybe some people do do that and I’m just late to that party.

I think a lot of my Christmas anxiety is because my tendency is ALWAYS to think I’m not doing enough, and the end of the year brings that out (What did you DO all year, anyway?). So today I’m going to go back over my year to remind myself I got a hell of a lot done, and even enjoyed myself doing it. (Sort of like Facebook is encouraging us all to do now with some app about our 2012 Year in Review highlights.  If someone could tell me how Facebook knows what the highlights of my year were, I’d be grateful.)

But these were my own highlights, in relative order.

E books have been good to me. I got my backlist up; every one of my books is now available for the infinitely reasonable prices of $2.99 or $3.99, and I’m thrilled to have more control over my writing schedule, release schedule, and book pricing, not to mention a regular, understandable, and perfectly livable income.

I launched a new series, my first direct-to-e thriller, Huntress Moon, which instantly became an Amazon bestseller in mysteries and police procedurals, and I’m thrilled to report that it made Suspense Magazine’s list of Best Books of 2012.

Writing the series is giving me a chance to get reacquainted with all my favorite places in California, where I’m living again, though I’m still unsure if I’m going to settle in the Bay Area or the Los Angeles area. I love them both! I’m loving the research, though, and Book Two in the series, Blood Moon, will be out in late January or early February. 

My dear friends Heather Graham, Harley Jane Kozak and I had a blast co-writing the next installments in our paranormal mystery series The Keepers; this time we took the series to L.A., and the new books come out in January, March and May.  

I’ve also been teaching a film class in L.A. – basically I screen my favorite movies and talk all the way through them, raving about all the visual excellence and story structure brilliance. And they call this working! Such a scam!

This summer I was the keynote speaker at the Romance Writers of Australia National Conference on the Gold Coast, and had a wonderful time teaching my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop and doing panels on e books and writing paranormal suspense with all those crazy Aussies.  Then my friend Elle Lothlorien and I did a wild road trip down to Sydney, driving on the wrong side of the road and leveling – I mean visiting – every beach city along the way.  Love the country, love the people, want to go back as soon as possible.

 

Then I came back and put my house on the market (meaning two months of the worst kind of emotionally fraught prep), and it’s currently “under contract”, so a lot of the beginning of my 2013 is going to be house-hunting. If I can ever narrow the prospective location down from just “somewhere in the world, possibly California.”

 

Throughout the year I did my usual insane conference traveling, with appearances at Left Coast Crime, Romance Writers of America National Conference, Romance Writers of Australia National Conference, the ever –inspiring Bouchercon – and I just returned from paneling, performing, and dancing the night away at Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans, my favorite conference in my favorite city, which is just as fabulous at Christmas as it is every other time of year. (French Quarter photo with Chantelle Osman and Elle Lothlorien)

 

Somewhere in there I did an entire website overhaul: designed by the fabulous Madeira James of Xuni.com. 

– I’ve also embraced Facebook as the virtual cocktail party it really can be. This might not sound like an accomplishment, but promotion and networking is a fact of life for authors, and to find a way to do that that feels a little like taking a break to hang out at the conference bar with witty and like-minded friends – without ever leaving my chair – is pretty damn cool, if you ask me.  

Not only that, but – even though I didn’t quite get Blood Moon finished (finished in my definition of the word) for a December release – I’ve put together a boxed set of three of my spooky thrillers called Haunted. Anyone who doesn’t already have these books can now get them all for just $5.99, and give themselves or special friends nightmares for days! 

 Buy now on Amazon.

 

And to bring this back to the end of the world: I have a brand new anthology out this weekend: Apocalypse: Year Zero, with four end-of-the-world novellas by me and my award-winning dark fantasy friends Sarah Langan, Sarah Pinborough, and Rhodi Hawk. We cover 9/11, tsunamis, Hurricane Katrina, and The Big One, as well as, in no particular order, Hollywood, sex, rage, and the Four Horsemen, who turn out to be not men at all.  (Nook link to come shortly…)

On Amazon

So if tomorrow you wake up, are still here, and feel cheated out of your Apocalypse, no worries – we’ve got you covered.

Okay, I bet you know the question of the day!  What were the highlights of your 2012?

Or if that’s too personal, let’s talk Apocalypse.  What are some of your favorite Apocalypse stories, in any media?  Yes, I am already missing The Walking Dead… and since I just got back from Australia, I’m thinking The Last Wave…

And don’t forget – today is not just the end of the world, it’s also the winter solstice, a very powerful day for manifestation. Make a wish.

Alex

The art of the author website

By Alexandra Sokoloff

I’d venture to say that creating and maintaining a website is one of the bigger dreads of a professional author. You know you have to do it, but you’ll do anything to avoid it. Every couple of years you end up having to do a complete overhaul, which is a huge and stressful time suck when none of us have any time to spare, ever, anyway, and I’d bet good money that I’m not the only one who postpones it for as long as humanly possible.

But with my new series, I knew I had to bite the bullet. And I knew exactly who I wanted to hire.

Our David recently did a fantastic interview with the incomparable Madeira James of Xuni.com,  so I didn’t want to go over the same questions.  I thought it would be interesting to write about Maddee’s process of creating a website design – from the author’s point of view.

Maddee asks her clients to choose 4-6 images (pulled from any number of stock photo sites), and she designs the site from those images. She recommends that the images not be specific to one particular book, as that would date the site too quickly. It’s more about the overall, encompassing feel an author wants to convey to a potential reader.

Well, that’s a brilliant and also intimidating assignment. And I’m sure Maddee gets a fair number of control freaks who are very specific about what they want (of course none of us know any of THOSE!)  

I wouldn’t dare to guess where I fall on the control freak scale – I know I have my… moments… but I think in general I’m pretty good at maintaining supreme control of my own projects but going with the flow and trusting the process when someone supremely talented is in charge, as was entirely the case here.  I really encourage you to browse through Maddee’s portfolio so you can see what I mean.  Every one of her sites is like a movie trailer: a seductive tease about a story that you just can’t wait to see. (I WISH I could see the films of some of those websites…)

Having to choosing the specific images for myself was panic-inducing, though, especially because I write so many subgenres of thriller. Five images?  Six?  How could I possibly narrow it down?

I knew I wanted to emphasize my Huntress Moon series while being general enough to give a sense of ALL of my writing. I definitely didn’t want to get too supernatural, because the Huntress series is straight crime (pretty much!) and Book of Shadows is also less overtly supernatural than my earlier novels. At the same time I did have to suggest the supernatural to encompass my other books. Also, I generally lean VERY feminine in my tastes, and Maddee does some lusciously femme designs, but I knew I had to contain myself on that front because I have a LOT of male readers who would be turned off if I let myself go that way. And I definitely didn’t want the website to give the impression that I write paranormal romance (even though I do have a couple of books out in that genre with the Keepers series),  because what I write is much darker and more ambiguous than the required HEA (happily ever after) end of any subgenre of romance.

Also, there’s the whole issue of my non-fiction, the Screenwriting Tricks for Authors books on writing. How could I suggest THAT on top of everything else I was trying to do? 

(Are you starting to see the kinds of questions you’re confronted with when you sit down to create a website design?) 

Luckily Maddee is incredibly perceptive on this front, and when we sat down to talk about the design, she instantly got what I was talking about in terms of supernatural vs. crime thriller, male vs. female, fiction vs. non-fiction. This was also easy to do because when you have the examples of a portfolio as extensive and varied as Maddee’s, it was easy to talk about the qualities of her other sites that I wanted in mine (I gave her a word list just like the word lists I’m always encouraging writing students to do: dark, dreamlike, erotic, filmic….)  I was very confident that once I came up with the images for her, she’d have all my desires and concerns in mind when she was doing the design.

That still left the problem of coming up with the images.

So I browsed and I brainstormed. Horrifying process.  I don’t know about you, but I’m a WANT IT ALL NOW kind of person, and limitation is not my idea of a good time.  But I did know four solid things: I wanted to emphasize a polarity and an erotic tension between male and female figures. I wanted the moon to figure prominently.  I wanted a strong suggestion of film, and I’m a fan of the classic LOOK of an old filmstrip. And I wanted to suggest a shattered psychological state, broken glass or a broken mirror.  So I came up with images for those four things, and a couple of others: multiple doors and a ghostlike image. 

And then I turned it all over to Maddee and waited with bated breath.  

(No, not really, but yeah, sort of). 

And she hit it out of the park on the first design:         

http://alexandrasokoloff.com/ 

There are a million things I love about the site. The descending circles of moon, man, woman give me a sense that all of these entities are dreaming each other.  I can’t say enough about how much I love the fim strip with my name.  It wasn’t my idea to have my own image in the site design but I love how Maddee worked it in. The writing was also her idea and I swear, there’s writing on the moon – that’s so trippy and cool, and completely apropos. There’s gorgeous color in the site but subdued enough that I don’t think it will turn men off. The moon, the film strip and the font of my name give it a psychedelic carnival effect that makes me think of Ray Bradbury, one of my huge literary influences.

I could go on and on, and I haven’t even gotten to the clarity of the organization, which is obviously a whole separate post. But to say I’m thrilled is the understatement of the year. 

So obviously, I’d love your comments on the new website, but my actual question for the day is: What five images would YOU would choose to convey what you’re writing? Or – what are five images that convey YOU, personally?  I think it’s a powerful creative and spiritual exercise. Scary and fun and illuminating.  Let’s hear it! 

Alex  

 

Apparently comments are not posting today, so I’ve posted this blog on my website blog as well if you’d like to comment there!  

http://axsokoloff.blogspot.com

 

PS: I’m thrilled to report that Huntress Moon made Suspense Magazine’s list of Best Books of 2012!

 

Noir Friday

by Alexandra Sokoloff

One place you will NOT find me today is in a mall. Instead, we’re having Noir Friday here on Murderati.

So I’ve professed my undying love for Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, many a time on this blog, but I do have a serious beef with this year’s line up.

The noir panel was all men.

I mean, really? In 2012?  When Megan Abbott and Kelli Stanley and Cornelia Read are attending? When Christa Faust is not only in the room, but up for an Anthony?

I guess all the women were stuck in binders or something.

(Kudos to the one panelist, John Rector, who knows a little about noir himself,  who jumped to point this absence out.)

Bouchercon was over a month ago and this noir sans femme thing is still rankling me, so I decided to blog about it.

 This is also partly because I was asked (multiple times) to take part in the latest author blog hop, The Next Big Thing, in which authors post their answers to a set of ten questions about their latest books on their blogs and then tag five more authors for the next week, and possibly Kevin Bacon is involved, and then we take over the world. 

So my horror/thriller author pal, the wildly dark, or darkly wild, Sarah Pinborough, tagged me two weeks ago, ad I did my ten question interview on Huntress Moon last week – here –  and now it’s my turn to tag five authors and link to their interviews this week. 

And because I am still seething over the noir panel, I chose a theme of fantastic dark female characters, and tagged my authors accordingly:


– Michelle Gagnon is a thriller writer who has recently brought her powerhouse female perspective and adrenaline-charged storytelling to the YA thriller genre with her latest, Don’t Turn Around. Noa is a terrific tenage role model; I hope we’ll see more of her.  Read her Q & A here

 

 

 

– Christa Faust knows noir backward and forward, and has virtually created a whole new direction for the genre and its characters. Angel Dare is an alt heroine who brings OUT everything that noir anti-heroines like Gloria Grahame were doing in a coded sense, and Butch Fatale takes the “two-fisted detective” archetype to a new meaning.  Read her Q & A here

 

 

 – Wallace Stroby. As Anyone who reads this blog knows, I am VERY picky about men writing “strong women”, and on the dark side, Stroby is as good as it getts, both shattering and reversing noir gender stereotypes. His Crissa Stone series presents a thief who doesn’t just hold her own, but leads and controls motley collections of male gangsters. And I’m even more fond of Stroby’s Sara Cross, who mirrors the classic noir paradigm; she’s a truly good woman whose near-fatal flaw is a tragically bad man.

 

 

in the Charlie series is set in New Orleans! http://zoesharp.com/  

Zoe Sharp needs no introduction here. As we know, she actually DOES write a kick-ass female lead, Charlie Fox, who works as a bodyguard and makes the physical reality of her job perfectly plausible (I’ve learned a lot about self-defense from these two…) while she battles uniquely feminine psychological demons. And her new installment in the Charlie series is set in New Orleans! http://zoesharp.com/

(Right, that’s only four.  I can count, at least up to ten, but getting authors to do anything on deadline is like heding cats.)

 

 

 

I really encourage you all to click through to their interviews, especially for the fun question on who they would cast in a film or TV version of their books. Always a good exercise for any writer, you might get inspired!

So not everyone above is writing noir, exactly. Stroby, definitely. Faust has a lot of noir influence but I’d say her work is more like female-driven pulp, with a strong emphasis on camp humor, too. Sharp and Gagnon write dark and intense, but it’s not noir any more than I’m writing noir, which is not at all.

I’m also no way a noir scholar, and let’s face it, the lines are blurry (Is it noir? Pulp? Neo-noir? Just a good old B movie?) and I’d like to leave the question open for David – I mean everyone – to jump in and define it for us in their own words.  Personally, I know it when I see it!  No, really – for me, the key difference is that, for example, in Zoe’s and Michelle’s story worlds, there is the possibility and even probability of redemption, while in the classic world of noir, there is none, or very little. Doom and fate figure predominantly.

I liked  John Rector‘s capsule summation on that B’Con panel: “Noir pushes people to extreme circumstances and there is no happy ending. The hero/ine is fighting the good fight… but loses.”

So I guess the personal line I draw between “noir” and “dark” is about that possibility of redemption and at least temporary triumph. You can win the battle even when you know the war rages on. In my own books, there’s plenty of dark, but not noir’s overwhelming sense of inexorable fate; my own themes are more about the people caught up in a spiritual battle between good and evil. And no matter how dark it gets, there’s always the presence of good. 

In fact, some of my favorite dark thriller writers: Denise Mina, Tana French, Mo Hayder, Karin Slaughter, Val McDermid, seem to me more fixed on exploring that spiritual evil than fate. As dark as they get, I wouldn’t call what they’re writing “noir”, because it IS more spiritual, they’re dealing with a more cosmic evil.  Or maybe the evil they depict is so rooted in a feminine consciousness and feminine fears and demons that it doesn’t FEEL like noir. But that could be me splitting hairs, you tell me! That’s what this blog is about.

And there’s another element that I consider classic noir:

Threatening women.

Threatening to men, anyway, apparently! 

But the presence of shadowy – or maybe the word I mean is shaded – women is key. For my money some of the most interesting women ever put to page or celluoid are noir femmes, and part of that is because quite a few noir writers and filmmakers and actresses actually made a point of exploring the dark sides of women.

And noir takes on significantly different meaning when the leading roles are played by women instead of men. These days Sara Gran, Megan Abbott, Gillian Flynn, Christa Faust and Wallace Stroby are all doing really exciting work genre-bending by putting women in the protagonist’s seat and then absolutely committing to what it would look like and feel like and mean for a woman to take that lead in circumstances we don’t usually see women in.

I was enthralled by Sara Gran’s Dope, which explores a noir standard, addiction, and the noir paradigm of the tarnished white knight committed to a hopeless and destructive person – all from a completely feminine point of view. Likewise Wallace Stroby’s Sara Cross (in Gone Til November) is a committed knight… lawman… lawperson… who very nearly falls because of a fatally seductive man, and any woman who’s ever been tempted will understand her struggle. 

Gran has created another classic yet entirely unique noir heroine in her latest, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead; I can’t think of another noir character so reliant on my favorite force in the world: synchronicity. But also, back to addiction: is that synchronicity drug-induced?  Claire’s pot habit might be useful juice for her detecting instincts, but one gets the feeling it’s playing hell with her personal life.

Megan Abbott layers a specifically feminine addiction, the pathological narcissism that anorexia can be, into her latest, Dare Me – to chilling effect. And I’ve never seen anyone else portray the feminine counterpart of criminally sociopathic male athletes, but you better believe these cheerleaders are exactly that.

Abbott, Gran and Flynn (in Sharp Objects) are also sometimes writing female protagonists battling female antagonists, with men relegated to secondary roles. I find it a deliriously welcome reversal of the traditional order.

I suspect it’s easier, or really I mean more natural, for women to achieve a genre bend with noir and thrillers because we’re working against a very entrenched male tradition. If we’re just fully ourselves, it’s going to look new to the genre.

But men can get there. I think Dennis Lehane did a brilliant genre bend with his male characters in Mystic River by going places that men don’t usually go in their own psyches  – they’d rather assign that scary stuff to female characters to distance themselves from the experience instead of having to put themselves into those vulnerable positions. Which  personally I think is cheating.

And as Stroby is proving, consciously committing to the physical and emotional reality of a complex female protagonist is possible for a male author, too.

By looking at crime through a specifically feminine lens, these authors are creating a new genre. I don’t know what to call it, but I know I love it.

I know there are more of these authors and books out there, and I want to hear about them, so let’s have it. Who are your favorite dark female leads – and villains? Which authors in our genre do you think are portraying ALL the facets of women, black, white, and every shade of gray in between?

And yes, what is your definition of noir?  I’d love to know.

Alex

 

Research tripping

by Alexandra Sokoloff

As anyone who interacts with me on Facebook knows, I got a little tense this election week.  Not that that’s unusual.  And I doubt I was the only one here who wasn’t getting much work done in the last few days.  At the same time, I can’t really afford to take time off, given the deadlines I’ve got going on, even if most of them are self-imposed.

But the Universe lined itself up for me,as it so often does. Actually, some people would say it ALWAYS does, even if that’s not the way it looks on the surface. But that’s another blog!

I just finished a second draft of my new book, BLOOD MOON, and I don’t know about you all, but I find it REALLY REALLY hard to take the advice I am always giving other writers: to take time off in between drafts of a manuscript. Even when I know it’s the best possible thing I can do for the next draft. But the next logical step in my process required research, in fact, a research trip to San Francisco.  I know, I know, rough life. So on Tuesday I just got in the car and drove up, meaning  I got to watch election returns in downtown Oakland (massively fun and obviously a huge party…)

And now I’m running around the city to locations I’m using in the book.

Now, I lived in the Bay Area for years, it’s not lke I don’t  know what I’m writing about. But there is nothing like revisiting a city, neighborhood, park, street, whatever, while you are in the headspace of your characters, looking specifically for those details that will color in your book.  And that’s really how I think of it – coloring in. I have the outlines of the story, but now I have to add those layers of light and shadow, color and sound and smell. And the feeling of being in a place.

I did a great panel at Bouchercon this year and the fabulous moderator, Daniel Palmer, who knows my acting background, asked if I used acting techniques to develop character. And of course I do. I don’t think about doing it, its just something I’ve done for so long that I couldn’t imagine not doing it. A lot of conveying emotion on stage is about creating that emotion inside of you, first, and then layering on the physical manifestations of that emotion so that the audience feels it, too.

So all this walking around in the actual physical world of my story is what really helps me to get the sensual reality of that world and whatever the characters are experiencing onto the page. I need to FEEL it.  I can do research online and read books, and craft an approximation of an experience from that research and my own  memoreies of experience, but it’s a lot harder for me than being there in person. In fact I have been doing so much walking that I can barely move at night, but it’s the only way I really know how to do this. Driving it won’t cut it.

But I’m a really physical person. Kinetic learner, psychologists call it. And the kind of writing I like to do and read is a lot about creating a sensory experience.  I realize that not everyone is like this, because there are books out there that do very little to create a sensory experience., and people buy them anyway, so someone  must be getting something out of them. But that kind of book rarely does anything for me. I want all six senses n ny books – especially that sixth sense of SENSING – the unseen stuff, the things that make your skin tingle.  Synchronicities. A smell that takes you back to your childhood.  Walking into the exact scene that you have been thinking about, and realizing the epiphany that your character will have there.

So for today I’m wondering – are you guys aware of what experiences you most want to read or create in a book, the way I find sensory experience (including the visual) my prime pleasure in reading?  What is that draw for you, and  what do you do in terms of reearch and craft to create that? Does acting technique play a part?

Or in reading, which authors/books are great examples of the experience you most want in a book?

(Sorry for the typos and short post today – I’m working on my iPad, which is not an optimum blogging experience!)

– Alex

Retreat!

by Alexandra Sokoloff

So it’s October, and for me that has come to mean not just Halloween, but a semi-annual retreat with my awesome writing posse: Margaret Maron, Sarah Shaber, Diane Chamberlain, Katy Munger, Mary Kay Andrews and Brynn Bonner.  At first once a year, then twice, now sometimes three, we go on retreat to the beach or the mountains or some generally fantastic place. We work all day long by ourselves and then convene at night to drink wine and brainstorm on any problem that any one of us is having (and of course, compare page counts!). Murderati’s own Dusty Rhoades now regularly joins us for at least some of the fun.

Our favorite retreat is the Artist in Residence program at the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines, NC.

I’ve written about Weymouth here before: the mansion I used for my haunted house in The Unseen, a 9000 sq. foot mansion on 1200 acres that was what they called a “Yankee Playtime Plantation” in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the fox hunting lodge of coal magnate James Boyd. James Boyd’s grandson James rebelled against the family business to become – what else? – a novelist. Boyd wrote historical novels, and his editor was the great Maxwell Perkins (“Editor of Genius”), and in the 1920’s and 30’s Weymouth became a Southern party venue for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Thomas Wolfe. That literary aura pervades the house, especially the library, with all its photos and portraits of the writers who have stayed at the house.

And yes, it is haunted, ask anyone who’s been here.

When I started plotting The Unseen, I needed a haunted mansion that I could know and convey intimately – the house in a haunted house story is every bit as much a character as the living ones. So of course the Weymouth mansion, with its rich and strange history, convoluted architecture, isolation, vast grounds, and haunted reputation, was a no-brainer. I truly believe that when you commit to a story, the Universe opens all kinds of opportunities to you.

And that’s what a retreat means to me. It’s a commitment to do as much work – and as much magic – as you can possibly do in a weekend, or a week, or if you’re really lucky, two, or in the case of NaNoWriMo – a whole freaking month. 

Last time we were at Weymouth I came committed to figuring out the sequel to Huntress Moon. I left a week later with a full thirty-page outline. This week my task was to take my rough draft of Blood Moon and bash through a second draft. I finished yesterday, and today am bashing through the update of my website (a much more daunting task than a book, let me tell you!)

Writers among you know this Goethe quote I’m sure (which doesn’t apply just to writing…)

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness concerning all acts of initiative and creation. There is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans; that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen events, meetings and material assistance which no one could have dreamed would have come their way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now!

Well, I’d like to add that it really, really helps to have a whole group of pro writers committed to the same thing along with you.

But you know what makes it exponentially productive?  This place is imprinted.

One of the most prevalent theories of a haunting is that a violent or tragic event leaves a lingering residue on a place, like an echo or a recording. Well, Weymouth has had its share of tragedy and weirdness, but it’s also got an imprint of pure creativity.  (Come on, reread that list of authors above!)  It’s been a writers’ retreat for decades now, centuries, and you can feel it in the marrow of the house.

Layer on to that the sexual energy, just another facet of creativity – oh yes, think about it. Writer parties in the Roaring Twenties?  What was going on in every other room, in the gardens, in the horse stables…?  Did I mention that Weymouth regularly hosts weddings?  We arrived to find a massive wedding marquis in the back gardens, the most elaborate I’ve ever seen, (and I’ve been part of a wedding or two) with the detritus of what was clearly a fantastic and opulent party.

As I write this, well-built men are putting up another party tent in one of the front gardens while another bride is being photographed in the gazebo in back.

It resonates, I’m telling you.

All of this beauty and, um, stimulation, it really makes the pages fly. Also the dreams I’ve been having… well, never mind that.  But one of the most fantastic things about the writing life is that our work brings us into these incredible, layered situations, dreamlike, sometimes, with hazy boundaries between eras and dimensions, between the real and our imaginations. When we’re in the zone, synchronicities spark and breakthroughs become the norm instead of a longed-for rarity.

Writing is a draining thing. You can never really turn it off. So I’ve found that retreats, and the dedicated companionship of other writers, keeps me working deeper, faster, further than I could possibly go on my own.

And I am grateful to whatever providence brought me to my writing group and to Weymouth.

So what about you all? (You all.  Yes, I must be back in the South….)  Do you have retreats, writing groups, places that supercharge your writing?  Let’s hear about them!

Alex

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Lots of extras today. 

— First, for the Cumberbitches out there (you know who you are) I was interviewed by Newsweek/The Daily Beast as a Cumberbatch authority and managed remarkable restraint, if I do say so myself.  Read here.

— HALLOWEEN GIVEAWAY

It’s October, my favorite month, and you-know-what is coming, so I’m giving away 31 signed hardcover copies of my spooky thrillers Book of Shadows, and the book that stars the Weymouth manor I speak of in this post: The Unseen.

Enter here to win!

Book of Shadows.

An ambitious Boston homicide detective must join forces with a beautiful, mysterious witch from Salem in a race to solve a series of satanic killings.

Amazon Bestseller in Horror and Police Procedurals

 

 

 

The Unseen

A team of research psychologists and two psychically gifted students move into an abandoned Southern mansion to duplicate a controversial poltergeist experiment, unaware that the entire original research team ended up insane… or dead.

Inspired by the real-life paranormal studies conducted by the world-famous Rhine parapsychology lab at Duke University.

 

 

 

And finally, I’m doing my usual NaNoWriMo prep series on my Screenwriting Tricks blog.  Commit!!!