Category Archives: Alexandra Sokoloff

Two books a year

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Okay, I’m sure a lot of you have read this NYT article by now (or at least heard it mentioned here on Murderati) which tells us that the minimum output of books per year for a professional author is now two. Per year.  Double what people are used to thinking.

In the E Reader Age, a Book a Year is Slacking 

And the article links this new phenomenon to the e book revolution.

Well, I would strongly disagree.  MOST of the authors I know who make a good living at just writing books have been writing AT LEAST, at the VERY least,  two books a year for longer than I’ve been in the author business.  There are very few I know who can afford the leisurely pace of a book per year.  (I dream of being able to afford that luxury…)

It was one of the first things I noticed when I moved from screenwriting to the author business in 2006. Successful writers write a LOT of books.  Tons.  Staggering numbers. Plus stories and any number of other things. (I felt like a total slacker until I realized if I had been writing books instead of screenplays for the last 11 years I would have those kinds of numbers, too.)

Of course, there’s a catch that we all have to be wary of.  How long does it take to write a GOOD book?  When are you starting to risk, well, dreck?

I wanted to think and talk about that today.

From the beginning of my (still quite short, really) author career, one of the questions I have gotten most often at book signings and panels is, “How long does it take you to write a book?”

My feeling is what’s always being asked is not how long it takes me to write a book, but how long it would take the person asking to write a book. Which of course, I have no way of answering, unless it’s to cut to the chase and shout, “Save yourself! Don’t do it!” But that’s never the question, so I don’t say it.

What I started out answering instead was, “About nine months.” Which, from Chapter One to copyedits, used to be true enough. But I’m getting faster. And the paranormals I write take more like two months. And of course with e publishing, the whole process of publishing has changed, and the time frame has changed, too.

I wrote three and a half books last year.  One YA thriller, THE SPACE BETWEEN, one non-fiction writing workbook, WRITING LOVE, one paranormal, TWIST OF FATE (coming out in 2013), and half of my latest crime thriller, HUNTRESS MOON, which will be out next month.  (And technically I also outlined another paranormal, KEEPER OF THE SHADOWS, which will also be out in 2013.  Outlining is writing, too!).

This year I will have written another four or possibly four and a half. Two paranormals, another thriler and a half, and – either a half or whole other SOMETHING yet to be determined.

So that’s a lot of books.  How long did it take me to write any one of those?  It’s really hard to say when those projects are constantly overlapping.

But the fact is, in almost every case, the real answer to the question of “How long?”  is almost always: “Decades.”

Because honestly, where do you even start? I’m quite convinced I’m a professional writer today because my mother made me write a page a day from the time I could actually hold a pencil. At first a page was a sentence, and then a paragraph, and then a real page, but it was writing. Every day. It was an incredibly valuable lesson, which taught me a fundamental truth about writing: it didn’t have to be good, it just had to get written. Now I make myself write however many pages every day. And now, like then, it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to get written. Some days it’s good, some days it’s crap, but if you write every day, there are eventually enough good days to make a book.

Then there were all those years of theater, from writing and performing plays in my best friend’s garage, to school and community theater, to majoring in theater in college, to performing with an ensemble company after college. Acting, dancing, choreography, directing – that was all essential training for writing.

And then the reading. Again, like probably every writer on the planet, from the time I could hold a book. The constant, constant reading. Book after book – and film after film, too, and play after play – until the fundamentals of storytelling were permanently engraved in some template in my head.

Hey, you may be saying, that’s TRAINING. That wasn’t the question. How long does it take to WRITE A BOOK?

I still maintain, it takes decades. I think books emerge in layers. The process is a lot like a grain of sand slipping inside a clamshell that creates an irritation that causes the clam to secrete that substance, nacre, that covers the grain, one layer at a time, until eventually a pearl forms. (Actually it’s far more common that some parasite or organic substance, even tissue of the clam’s own body, is the irritant, which is an even better analogy if you ask me, ideas as parasites…)

Let’s take a look at Book of Shadows, the thriller I’ve just gotten back from my publisher and put out myself as an e book last week.  

When did I start Book of Shadows? Well, technically in the fall of 2008, I guess. But really, the seed was planted long ago, when I was a child growing up in Berkeley. (The Berkeley thing pretty much explains why I write supernatural to begin with, but that’s another post.) Those of you who have visited this town know that Telegraph Avenue, the famous drag ending at the U.C. campus, is a gauntlet of fortune tellers (as well as clothing and craft vendors and political activists and, well, drug dealers.).

Having daily exposure to Tarot readers and psychics and palm readers as one of my very first memories has been influential to my writing in ways I never realized until I started seeing similarities in Book of Shadows and my paranormal The Shifters, and discovered I could trace the visuals and some of those scenes back to those walks on Telegraph Ave.

Without mentioning an actual number, I can tell you, that’s a lot of years for a book to be in the making.

Over the years, that initial grain of sand picked up more and more layers. Book of Shadows is about a Boston homicide detective who reluctantly teams up with a beautiful, enigmatic practicing witch from Salem to solve what looks like a Satanic murder. Well, back in sixth grade, like a lot of sixth graders I got hooked on the Salem witch trials, and that fascination extended to an interest in the real-life modern practice of witchcraft, which if you live in California – Berkeley, San Francisco, L.A. – is thriving, and has nothing at all to do with the devil or black magic. Hanging out at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire (more Tarot readers!), I became acquainted with a lot of practicing witches, and have been privileged to attend ceremonies. So basically I’ve been doing research for this book since before I was in high school.

And my early love of film noir, and the darkest thrillers of Hitchcock, especially Notorious, started a thirst in me for stories with dark romantic plots that pit the extremes of male and female behavior against each other; it’s one of my personal themes. Book of Shadows is not my first story to pit a very psychic, very irrational woman against a very rational, very logic-driven man; I love the dynamics – and explosive sexual chemistry – of that polarity.

So to completely switch analogies on everyone, this book has been on the back burner, picking up ingredients for a long, long time.

Now, what pulls all those ideas and layers and ingredients into a storyline that takes precedence over all the other random storylines cooking on all those hundreds of back burners in my head (because that’s about how many there are, at any given time), is a little more mysterious. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe storylines leap into the forefront of your imagination mostly because your agent or editor or a producer or executive or director comes up with an opportunity for a paycheck or a gentle reminder that you need to be thinking of the next book or script if you ever want a paycheck again. I know that’s a powerful motivator for me. So speed in writing comes partly out of practical necessity.

But the reason a professional writer is able to perform relatively on demand like that is that we have all those stories cooking on all those back burners. All the time. For years and years, or decades and decades. And if a book takes nine months, or six months, or a year to write, that’s only because a whole lot of stuff about it has been cooking for a very, very, very long time.

A long time.

And I’m wondering, lately, if one of the keys to writing faster without killng yourself doing it is to check those pots bubbling back there on the mental back burners more often. Taking the time every few months to just sit quietly and free-form brainstorm on paper or on the screen… and see what ideas might be more done than not. Sometimes random and seemingly separate ideas can suddenly combine to create a full story line. Because I’m quite sure that we ALL have books that have been cooking back there for decades now. Maybe it’s time to take them out.

So writers, how long does it take YOU to write a book? Or your latest? How many stories do you figure you have on the back burner at any one time?

And readers, do you ever notice certain themes – or recurring scenes or visuals – in your favorite authors’ books that make you suspect that story seed was planted long ago?

And here’s one worth discussing: is anything MORE than a book a year cheating the book?




All right, Nook people, you keep asking, and for a limited time I’m putting The Unseen, The Harrowing and The Price up at B& for Nook:  $2.99 each.

Writer financial survival 101: multiple income streams

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Lisa asked this week if I would blog about my financial (read: survival) strategy of building multiple income streams. Well, okay, but I think it’s going to have to be a series!

The principle we’re talking about is like the financial strategy of a balanced portfolio.  A lot of people derive income from just their job, and so it’s devastating if anything happens to that job – as we’ve seen all over the country and for so many people we know since the financial crash four years ago. But there are other financial philosophies that would caution strongly against having income from just one source (and to cultivate as many sources of passive income, like investments and royalties, as possible.)  And the very interesting thing about consciously cultivating multiple income streams is that these don’t have to be massive rivers of cash to support you. Every stream is meaningful, and every stream will probably wax and wane.  If you’re invested in the stock market, you know sometimes a stock is up, and sometimes it’s down. But if you spread your investments over a wide range of KINDS of stocks, or sectors, and also have some of your savings in cash, and some in bonds, then it doesn’t matter so much if one sector is down, because your other sectors will cover the loss until that troublesome sector picks up again.

This works with this concept of income streams, too.

This week I’m going to talk a little about one of my income streams – the teaching, since I’m coming up on what may be my favorite teaching gig, the West Texas Writers Academy, at Texas A&M University.

This was not something I ever expected to be doing. But when sold my first novel and got involved in the conference circuit, I saw an opportunity to create an income stream that would be a no-brainer and actual fun for me.

The occasional teaching gigs I have, which are a very welcome income stream, I get because of my blog and because I go to conferences.

I’ve said here before that I started blogging on craft because I was out of things to say about myself.  Well, it’s true. But I also was being asked to teach screenwriting workshops at novel writing conferences, and I would always start those workshops like this:

“Who here lives in LA?”  (Almost never any hands up). 

“Who plans to move to L.A.?” (No hands here, either).

“Then you’re not going to be a screenwriter.  So here’s how you can use screenwriting tricks to write better novels, which is way more satisfying and more likely to earn you money anyway.”

It may sound harsh, but I think it’s despicable how many struggling screenwriters take money for teaching workshops on screenwriting and somehow fail to mention what the actual requirements of the job are. Selling false hope is a crime.  (Of course, if there are people in the workshop under 30 or so, who say they want to be screenwriters, I tell them to move to L.A. if they’re serious. Under 30 you still have a chance to catch that train.)

Well, people were responding so enthusiastically to the techniques I was teaching that I started blogging about what I was teaching, and teaching about what I was blogging, and pretty soon so many groups were asking me to teach workshops that I could never possibly do it and do all of my fiction writing, too, so I started asking for a lot more money for the workshops and choosing only places I really wanted to go. 

And that craft blogging and occasional workshop turned into a really nice double income stream when I wrote my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbook and put it out as an e book, and then wrote another and put that one up…. that’s now a very solid passive income stream (the very best kind, because it means the money flows in without me doing a thing) that I can count on every month, and I know I can always do another and create another income stream…

And more than that, it all turned into a kind of calling.

The thing is, I love teaching because it’s – well, performance.  These days I spend most of every day chained to a desk, and I do it because that’s how writing gets done, but it’s very hard for me to sit still and to be alone for such a large chunk of every day.  I spent OH so many years on the boards, or the street, elevators, balconies, wherever, all the world’s a stage…  and I still do the performance thing a couple times a year thanks to my friend, bestselling author/singer/goddess Heather Graham, and her gypsy theater troupe, the Slush Pile Players.  Yes, and there’s the occasional drunken karaoke.  I like to dress up, and sing and dance and have no boundaries with my fellow players. Steve asked last week about our reincarnational hangovers – well, the traveling theater troupe is surely one of mine. When I die you can bury me in unconsecrated ground with the other prostitutes-slash-actors, thank you very much; at least I’ll know I’ll be spending eternity having wild fun with wildly interesting people.

And I think I bring something a little different to the workshop experience for a couple of reasons.  First, I’ve taught dance, which is a very visceral and immediate thing to do.  And more than that, it’s so INTIMATE.  You need to figure out exactly what a dancer’s issue is and correct it on the spot (usually with a lot of touching) so they can do better on the next run-through, or maybe even break through to excellence. Well, that applies to writers, too – alas, without the touching. But one thing I’m really good at from dance is knowing how intimate the process is, and not being afraid to be intimate about it, so the dancer (or writer) isn’t afraid to be intimate, too. Otherwise – how are we ever going to engage our readers’ emotions, desires, and soul?

And then of course there were all those years of spitballing in film development meetings. When my first script sold, my partner and I had about a million meetings in the first two months, but one of the first was with a couple of young hotshot producers who are now film industry moguls, and in that breakfast (I think) meeting, one of them was prodding me to rewrite the script in front of him and I said, naively, that I would have to go home and think about it, and he said, “What kind of bullshit is that?  Tell me NOW.  I want to SEE you think.” 

Total, immediate awakening to what my actual job as a screenwriter was, which was to be creative RIGHT NOW, in front of whoever was asking me.  And be entertaining about it, too, by the way.

Well, so, from dance and from screenwriting, and from theatrical directing too, for sure, I’m very good at identifying the immediate creative problem and solving it right there.  I can do it pretty much on command. Which makes me a good teacher. I LOVE to solve story problems.  Please don’t ask me to play charades or Scrabble or chess, but if there’s a story problem?  I’m your girl.  Even if I’m asleep, the challenge will inevitably wake me up. I’m not unusual in that at all, that’s how creative people are wired.

But I never expected to be doing the teaching along with writing. In fact I resisted anything that resembled teaching for a very long time because my mother, the teacher, was always doing that really annoying thing that parents do with their creative offspring: “You know, you could always fall back on…”

(Personally I think I’m a professional writer because I refused to consider a fallback position.)

But it turns out that teaching a workshop maybe once every other month, and writing the Screenwriting Tricks workbooks one blog at a time, has been not just a practical supplement to my fiction writing income, but sort of lifesaving, psychologically speaking, because I’ve realized I NEED that interaction with creative people over creative ideas.  I need to be able to move around a big space and gesticulate wildly and joke with a room full of people once in a while to break the monotony of hunching over a computer.

Teaching opportunities abound for professional writers, and I’ve discovered they don’t have to take up a lot of time. They’re also a great way to have someone else subsidize my rather alarming and terribly expensive travel habit.  One huge upside of the author life is that you get to meet and befriend people from all over the country. One huge downside is that your friends are all over the country and you never get to see them except at conferences. Except now I can take a teaching gig nearby and see people I want to see.  Or even go someplace fabulous, like, well, the Gold Coast of Australia, where I’m doing a Screenwriting Tricks workshop in August.

It’s a perfect income stream for me because of all of the above and because of its infinite flexibility; I can do it just as much as is fun for me and that works into my regular writing schedule. And it’s also automatic promotion for me as an author; there’s always a big book signing attached to these workshops, so I’m selling books and building my readership, too. But now people pay ME to travel and promote myself instead of me shelling out for it, a very good deal.

I don’t need my teaching to pay the mortgage, but it pays for a lot more than I ever expected it to.

So the financial lesson here is – be alert for opportunities to turn what you are doing anyway and love to do into an income stream.  It doesn’t have to be teaching!  There are so many writing-related services that could turn into an income stream for you: designing book covers, formatting e books, social media assistance to the overbooked… the list is really endless.

The question is, what are you good at and how can you make it pay?

So, do you practice multiple income streams, in investing, saving, writing, or whatever? Or is this a new concept that might work for you financially? How ARE people making ends meet in this most definitely improving, but still precarious economy?

And most importantly – do you EXPECT to be paid for doing the things you love, if you are doing them well?  Or have you bought into the idea that artists must starve and struggle?


Thriller 3: Love is Murder – the art of the short

by Alexandra Sokoloff

As fate would have it, it’s my turn for Wildcard Tuesday right on the day that the ITW’s  new romantic suspense anthology Thriller 3: Love is Murder is released.

(Fate, hah. This was no doubt Liz Berry arranging things with the universe, in that sweetly inexorable way she has. Those of you who know Liz know what I mean.)

Anyway, it’s apropos, because this is a Murderati-heavy anthology – Our Allison Brennan co-edited with Sandra Brown, and  it features stories by Allison, Rob Browne, JT Ellison, and me – along with Rati favorites Lee Child and Heather Graham and a whole lot of other great authors. As you can see from that lineup, it’s going to be a bit more heavy on the suspense than on the romance, but that’s what we like, right?

I’ve said here before I very rarely write short stories. For me it’s every bit as hard to come up with a great idea for a short story as it is for a novel, so my feeling has always been: why not push through and MAKE it a novel (or script) which will serve as an income stream instead of just a fun advertisement for your books that ARE income-producing?

I know that sounds horribly practical, but writers have to be practical if we want to eat.

But maybe I’m just a long-form writer by nature. I wrote my first short story, The Edge of Seventeen, only because I was asked to contribute to an anthology I thought was a really cool idea – stories about marginalized superheroes (people of color, women), and I thought I could probably manage a dark story about an alienated high-school girl who has to become a heroine in horrific circumstances. She’s dreaming about a terrible massacre at her school, and becomes convinced that she can stop the shooting with the help of a popular boy, her secret crush, who is having the same dream. I wrote it, loved it, and it went on to win a Thriller Award for Best Short Fiction. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and the situations and it just kept nagging me that there was a lot more to it, and last year I finally just gave in to that pull and adapted the story as a VERY dark YA thriller, The Space Between.

I was right – there was a whole hell of a lot more to it, including quantum physics and parallel universes, and I’m actually now going to have to continue the whole thing as a trilogy.

And now that I’ve written my dreamlike Bahamian cat-and-mouse encounter In Atlantis for the Love is Murder anthology, I’m having the same thing happen – I can’t stop thinking about the characters and what happens for them next, and I know I’m going to end up expanding the story into a novel which may actually turn into a series.

So my very infrequent attempts at short stories seem to turn out to be springboards for future novels.

Yet people are always asking me to talk about how to structure a short story. And even though I don’t have much experience writing them myself, I can look at them analytically and come to conclusions that may be helpful (you know my prescription for everything by now – MAKE A LIST of ten of your favorites and see what the storytellers are doing and how they do it.)

I don’t read many short stories these days but I grew up compulsively reading Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthologies, and actively sought out stories by my favorite authors: Shirley Jackson, Daphne Du Maurier,  Ray Bradbury, Poe of course, and Stephen King. The ones that I love have that great high concept premise, which usually includes a huge twist.  I really think that the essence of a short story is the twist, and once you have that, you can set up the story with a basic three-act structure: You have someone who wants something very badly (The Act I setup) who is having trouble getting it (The Act II complications) and eventually DOESN’T get what they think and say want, but they get what they really need instead. (Which creates the Act III twist.)

Because of the restriction of length, often all a short story really does is take a premise and set it up (Set Up is generally just Act I of a novel or film) and pretty much cuts directly to the chase: the final battle and TWIST. The Edge of Seventeen was basically that set up and then the twist. As a matter of fact, when I actually sat down to write the first draft of the novel, I found I used most of the story almost directly as written as the first act! 

So with a short story, you have a beginning and an end, but not much of the vast middle section that comprises a full-length novel or film.

I think that’s why shorts are so seductive (and arguably good practice) to more beginning writers.  It’s pretty easy to write a first act.  It’s the middle that’s hard. (I may just have gotten myself in a world of trouble, we’ll see!)

Another thing I think a short has to deliver – every bit as much as a full-length novel does – is the genre EXPERIENCE (or maybe I’m just a little obsessed with this aspect of writing, these days).

I had no premise at all in mind when I was asked to do a story for Love is Murder. I said yes because – well, seriously! It’s not like I could turn this opportunity down – with that lineup of writers, I was going to do whatever it took.  But when I actually had to sit down and write something, I was in a very difficult place emotionally and I wasn’t feeling very romantic. Suspense I can do in my sleep, but love wasn’t the first thing on my mind. So I asked myself what would be a romantic escape, the kind of fantasy setting that I think really helps deliver the experience of romantic suspense? And the first thing that came to mind was my first trip to the Bahamas. We Left Coasters don’t generally do the Bahamas – we tend to go to the far closer paradise of Hawaii if we’re in the mood for an island, so the first time I was in those other islands it was truly an overwhelming experience.

I knew I could do the sensuality of that setting justice, and then I decided not to fight the emotional place that I was in, but rather use the experience of heartache and devastation as a jumping off point for the story. And once I’d put a wounded character into that lush setting, everything started coming alive – it’s just the magic of the process. I also took a huge hit of inspiration from the image of the Tarot Queen of Cups – that card was a touchstone for the main character, the Macguffin, and the whole story.

I layered water imagery and the theme of Atlantis and precious objects and art throughout, to make a kind of modern fairy tale (which I won’t talk too much about because it’s too easy to give away a short.). I did structure the story in three acts (I’d actually say that ALL stories are three acts, that’s what makes them stories), but I’m very aware that the first two acts of the short would be no more than a first act in a full length novel, and that the third act of the short would still be the third act of a novel – with many more twists and action, of course.

But I’m perfectly aware that I may just be looking at the structure of a short that way because it allows me to fit the longer-form ideas that I have into the format of a short. 

I know that there are others here who are far more experienced at writing shorts than I am, so I’d like to hear from you all. Do you read a lot of shorts? Do you write them?  How do you write them?  Is my “Act I set up, then cut to the Act III chase” resonating with you (as a reader OR a writer) or do you find yourself doing something completely different?


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Unalienable rights

by Alexandra Sokoloff

When I was a screenwriter, the absolute worst thing about the job was having to sell my rights. I was mostly a spec writer – although I did some novel adaptations, I made most of my screenwriting income by writing original scripts and selling them. And the first thing that usually happens when a script is bought is that after the original writer does her contractual drafts, or is bought out of them, she is fired off her own script so that the producers or execs or director or sometimes actor can hire their own writer, or a writer they want to be in business with, or just what they love to call “fresh blood.”

People don’t understand that about the film business. The writer can and most often will be fired off their own story at any time. Nothing you can do about it.

Even worse than being fired was having studios and production companies hold my original scripts hostage – the movie could be going nowhere (because you fired the original writer, you moron) but they still refused to revert the rights.  Talk to a screenwriter about this situation and they’ll mostly tell you just about the same thing: it’s like the physical pain of having a loved one imprisoned, and knowing there’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve contemplated murder more often than I like to think.

In fact there’s a story about a certain screenwriter who was in the situation of an original script being held hostage and he stormed the office of a certain studio head, brandishing a really sharp knife – and then threatened to cut off one of his OWN fingers right there on the desk if the studio head didn’t sign back the rights to him. And the story is he got the rights back, more because the studio head didn’t want the negative publicity he’d get from the incident than out of any concern for any bodily harm to the writer. Or maybe he just didn’t want to lose the desk. That’s showbiz, kid.

I’ve thought about that story a lot, recently. Because I so understand the rage, and the willingness to do ANYTHING to get your work back.

A lot, and I mean a lot, of authors now find themselves in the same position. They could be making a living income off e books, but the publishing houses they signed contracts with won’t revert the rights. (I’ll refrain from launching into a tirade about the 1%, but – really? This is okay in a democratic society?)

These days it’s critical that authors think clearly before they sign away their rights, especially e book rights. In the exhilaration of being offered a contract, it’s far, far too easy to just say yes to whatever a publisher is proposing. A mistake you may well regret for longer than you ever want to think.

Myself, I feel extraordinarily lucky that no fingers are going to have to be cut off after all. Although for a while there, I was wondering.

But I finally, finally, finally have the rights back to Book of Shadows and The Unseen in the U.S. Now I can offer these spooky thrillers as e books at the infinitely reasonable price of $2.99, as opposed to the publisher-set price of $11.99.  I mean, truly, does ANYONE pay $11.99 for an e book? Even your most highly prized authors? And I have the one-star “Protest Publisher Price Fixing” Amazon reviews to prove it. I was about to kill myself.

The whole structure of the publishing industry is changing. I’ll refrain from using Konrathian imagery featuring sexual acts with amphibians while Rome burns and all that, but this is a massive sea change we’re all experiencing. No one has any idea what things are going to look like next MONTH, let alone next year.

So why is it that writers would want to lock themselves into a contract that would mean someone else holds their e publishing rights in perpetuity? Especially given the clever ways that corporations are able to get around reversion issues?

For a large amount of money up front – sure, I understand it. A bird in the hand, etc.  But for a not-so-large amount?  Why?

The thing is, when we sign contracts, we’re speculating. We’re debating if this particular deal is better than what we could get elsewhere, or at a different time in the future. Same as choosing mortgage terms when we finance a house. Same as when we decide on an investment strategy with stocks. What’s our comfort level with volatility? Are we willing to take a risk to make a little more?

Don’t you hate it that we have to think about our writing careers as if we’re building a stock portfolio?  I know I do. But how can we not? If we are going to make a living with the writing we do, we have to make these choices, weigh the options, decide on our acceptable level of risk, and develop we believe is the best strategy for maximizing our income flow in a constantly shifting business landscape.

Half the room just stopped breathing, right?

So first things first. Breathe.

But please. Don’t ignore the fact that when you sign a contract on a book you may be limiting your income on this particular property – YOUR BOOK – to that one figure, the advance money, for possibly a lifetime.  Is it really enough, over the course of possibly a lifetime? Do you KNOW the other options? Do you know how much other people you know are making with other strategies?

Your job isn’t done when you type THE END. The job now is to do right by yourself, and by the work that you’ve just created.

So, I’m curious. DO you pay $11.99 for e books from your favorite authors? Because myself, when faced with that price I will just pay $26 for a hardcover, whether that makes any sense or not.

And – if you just want to vent about the absolute fucking scariness of the business part of writing, please feel free. We’re all there.



Now liberated and available on Kindle, Nook & Smashwords, $2.99!

Two psychology professors 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.

Based on the world-famous Rhine parapsychology experiments conducted at Duke University.



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 Paperback/e book from Little Brown at Amazon UK

 Destined to become a horror classic.”  – Romantic Times Book Review

“Gave this reviewer a bad night’s sleep – what more could you ask of a horror novel?” – SFX


Available on Kindle and Smashwords, $2.99  (On Nook, 5/26)

A cynical homicide detective from Boston reluctantly joins forces with a beautiful, enigmatic witch from Salem in a race to solve a series of what appear to be satanic killings.

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Smashwords (multiple e formats)

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“A wonderfully dark thriller with amazing is-it-isn’t-it suspense all the way to the end. Highly recommended.”   – Lee Child

“Sokoloff successfully melds a classic murder-mystery/whodunit with supernatural occult undertones.”  Library Journal

“Compelling, frightening and exceptionally well-written, Book of Shadows is destined to become another hit for acclaimed horror and suspense writer Sokoloff. The incredibly tense plot and mysterious characters will keep readers up late at night, jumping at every sound, and turning the pages until they’ve devoured the book.”   – Romantic Times Book Reviews, 4 1/2 stars


Writing Setpieces: the unlimited production budget

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I’m headed off to teach a Screenwriting Tricks workshop in Cleveland (open to all, if you’re in that part of the country, see here).

So of course my head is in craft mode.

I sit on the plane thinking about what is really essential that I want to get across in an always too-limited time to talk about our craft, and also about what people are hiring me in particular to teach.

One of the things I always hope people get out of my workshops and writing workbooks is the concept of setpiece scenes. I try to hit that hard up front in a workshop, and keep going back to examples during the day.

There’s a saying in Hollywood that “If you have six great scenes, you have a movie.” And I’ve said before that these six great scenes are usually from that list I’ve given you of the Key Story Elements.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Scenes like The Call To Adventure and Crossing the Threshold (and on the darker side, the Visit to Death or All is Lost scene) are magical moments: they change the world of the main character for all time, and as storytellers we want our readers or audiences to experience that profound, soul-shattering change right along with the character.

Filmmakers take that “six great scenes” concept very literally.  These scenes are often called the “trailer scenes” or the “money scenes”  (as opposed to “money shots”, which is a different post, with a different rating!).  As incensed as I am personally about how trailers these days give every single bit of the movie away (I won’t even watch them before a movie I’m interested in seeing), I understand that this is essential movie advertising: those trailer scenes have to seduce the potential audience by giving a good sense of the EXPERIENCE the movie is promising to deliver.  The scenes that everyone goes into the theater to see, and that everyone comes out of the theater talking about, which creates first the anticipation for a movie and then that essential “work of mouth” that will make or break a film.

And do not for a second think that directors aren’t putting excruciating thought and time and detail into designing and staging those scenes.  There’s not a director out there who is not in the back of his (or her, but statistically mostly his) mind hoping to make cinematic history (or at least the Top 100 AFI Scenes of All Time list in whatever genre) with those scenes. These are scenes that often cost so much money that producers will not under any circumstances allow them to be cut, even if in editing they are clearly non-essential to the plot.

The attention paid to these critical scenes is not all an ego thing, either. We are not doing our JOB as storytellers if we are not delivering the core experiences of our genre. Genre is a PROMISE to the audience or readers; it’s a pact.

And a setpiece doesn’t have to cost millions or tens of millions of dollars, either, although as authors, we have the incredible advantage of an unlimited production budget. Did you authors all get that?  We have an UNLIMITED PRODUCTION BUDGET. Whatever settings, crowds, mechanical devices, alien attacks or natural disasters we choose to depict, our only budget constraint is in our imaginations.  The most powerful directors in Hollywood would KILL for a fraction of our power. Theoretically, they can’t even begin to compete. 

However, directors can and do compete and top most authors on a regular basis because they know how to manipulate visuals, sound, symbolism, theme and emotion to create the profound and layered impact that a setpiece scene is.

So how do we take back that power? By constantly identifying the setpiece scenes in film and on the page that have the greatest impact on us personally and really looking at what the storytellers are doing to create that effect and emotion, so we can create the same depth on the page.

I’ve compiled some examples (and categorized them by story elements they depict) on my own blog and in my second Screenwriting Tricks workbook.

But just in the last week I’ve come across some great examples that have really stayed with me.

I’m on an Edith Wharton tear at the moment, and it’s striking how beautifully she sets her love scenes, on every visual and sensual level, like this setup from THE HOUSE OF MIRTH:

Selden had given her his arm without speaking. She took it in silence, and they moved away, not toward the supper-room, but against the tide which was setting thither. The faces about her flowed by like the streaming images of sleep: she hardly noticed where Selden was leading her, till they passed through a glass doorway at the end of the long suite of rooms and stood suddenly in the fragrant hush of a garden. Gravel grated beneath their feet, and about them was the transparent dimness of a midsummer night. Hanging lights made emerald caverns in the depths of foliage, and whitened the spray of a fountain falling among lilies. The magic place was deserted: there was no sound but the splash of the water on the lily-pads, and a distant drift of music that might have been blown across a sleeping lake. 

Selden and Lily stood still, accepting the unreality of the scene as a part of their own dream-like sensations. It would not have surprised them to feel a summer breeze on their faces, or to see the lights among the boughs reduplicated in the arch of a starry sky. The strange solitude about them was no stranger than the sweetness of being alone in it together. At length Lily withdrew her hand, and moved away a step, so that her white-robed slimness was outlined against the dusk of the branches. Selden followed her, and still without speaking they seated themselves on a bench beside the fountain.

On a different note, in the romantic comedy FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (a younger audience would call it a “lude comedy”, and I don’t disagree!), the hapless hero has his first kiss with the love interest at the Midpoint, of course, a classic “sex at sixty” scene (sixty minutes, that is, halfway through the film.).  Every kiss in a romance or romantic comedy is, or should be, a setpiece and the filmmakers give the lovers a typically gorgeous romance setting, in this case a cliff overlooking the ocean in Hawaii. But being as this is a comedy, the reckless heroine tells the hero, quite rightly, that they’re both in ruts and need to take a leap of faith, which she promptly does, off the cliff.  The hero doesn’t land quite so well, but after narrowly escaping death and possible castration on his slide down, he ends up in the water with her, for a beautiful backdrop to a sensual first kiss that is also a baptism that the hero has been sorely needing.

On the nose? Yes, but well-played and effective, and it does what the Midpoint is supposed to do – it kicks the second half of act two up to another level.

In the film of MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, over and over the filmmakers use images of bridges and interesting corridors, or stepping stones in a creek, to underscore significant moments. The heroine first meets her love interest, The Chairman, on a bridge over a stream, with cherry blossoms in the background. Now, those of you with jaded eyes might look at that and think, ‘Oh, right, another “lovers meet on a Japanese bridge in an explosion of cherry blossoms’ scene, but the setting is utterly gorgeous, and I would be very surprised if most of the moviegoing audience even notices the bridge or the cherry blossoms – except subliminally, which is how these things are supposed to register.

And in a subsequent scene, the nine-year-old heroine has just realized what the desire of her life is to be, and runs through a long, curving passageway, another classic symbol of transition and birth, but the scene is filmed as an endless following shot in the psychedelically orange gateways of the Fushimi Inari shrine (just click through and look!), and truly delivers on the sensation of transformation that the moment is.

Now, filmmakers have location scouts to find these perfect physical settings for them, but I think it’s one of the great joys of my job as an author (as it was when I was a screenwriter) to be constantly on the lookout for perfect locations to use in current and yet-to-be-conceived storylines.  And they’re all ours for the taking.

So you know the question.  What are some of your favorite setpieces and locations in films or books?  Come across any good ones lately?  Or – what is a location you’ve always thought would make a great setpiece scene in a film or book?


DOJ files antitrust lawsuit against publishers

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Last week there was some publishing news so big that I’ve been wondering ever since why we haven’t been talking about it here.  But it’s like that classic left-wing admonition:  “I looked around me at what was happening and wondered why somebody wasn’t DOING anything about it… and then I realized I WAS somebody.”

Oh, that’s right.

So, unqualified as I am to write this post, today I’m posting about it.  I’m going to keep it short and mostly link to more qualified sources so that you all can use your Murderati time today to catch up, if you haven’t been following along.  The news, of course, is that the Department of Justice has filed an antitrust lawsuit against Apple and five of the Big Six publishers, alleging collusion in e-book prices and sales models.

If you haven’t read about it, do that first, here.

So what does this mean for us as authors, exactly?

I have no idea. 

I can’t imagine it’s going to be good for advances for traditional book contracts, which have been dropping steadily over the last few years even before this.  Damages are being claimed for consumers of e books and not for the authors who have suffered from publishers fixing prices far too high for e books, so there’s no restitution coming there.

What I do know is that it’s going to mean SOMETHING.

Joe Konrath tends to be right about these kinds of things, so I’d highly recommend reading this blog of his and subsequent ones as this case progresses.  And April Hamilton has summed up quite a few of the arguments going on in the publishing world over all this.

What I DON’T recommend is ignoring it as if it’s some esoteric business thing that has nothing to do with you.

Writing a book is so hard all on its own that it’s very distracting and anxiety-provoking to have to speculate on how something like this lawsuit may affect your own ability to make a living.  I know.

When I was a screenwriter, the life was so 24/7 crazy that I adopted the head-in-the-sand attitude of most screenwriters:  “Oh, I don’t have time to keep up with union issues, I am Too Busy with Very Important Writing.”

That is, until an assault by some highly-paid screenwriters on the WGA credits rules so floored and angered me that I got politically involved, so involved that I ended up running for and winning a seat on the WGA Board of Directors.

Now, that wasn’t the brightest career move I could have made, because in truth NO ONE has the time to write and serve on a union Board of Directors at the same time.  But being on the board did put the reality of the business changes that were going on in the film industry right in my face.  Unignorable. 

And what I realized was – I’ve got to get out of this.  It’s not sustainable.  If the film business model is going to keep changing in this direction, I personally won’t be able to make a living as a screenwriter in five or six years. Which were remarkably coherent thoughts for such a right-brained person as I am, actually. Absolutely not anything I wanted to think about, much less have to act on, but I knew I couldn’t not act.

And I started putting my eggs in other baskets and writing novels while I watched things steadily get worse for screenwriters.

Now I’m making a comfortable living as an author, while a lot of my screenwriter friends have lost their houses and/or haven’t had a film job in years.

I’m not trying to sound dire, especially when I’m being so vague about what all this will mean for us. And of course the news that the publishing industry is undergoing a massive sea change is no news at all for anyone who’s been paying any attention over the last few years.  But I do find some authors’ reactions to all of this perplexing, and the idea of silence on the issue alarming. I may not be an expert, but I know this is not a good time to stick my head in the sand.

So I urge you to click through some links, do your own Googling, and be informed. It IS our business.


Sassy Gay Friend! Character stereotypes and archetypes

by Alexandra Sokoloff

After Gar’s great post this week on African American stereotypes in Hollywood, I thought I’d follow up with another stereotype that came up for me this week.

I am constantly rewatching Notting Hill, I can’t help it, love Richard Curtis! And there’s a character in that film that – despite an eccentric turn on it by Rhys Ifans, his breakout role – we’ve seen a million times before: the puckish (that’s Puck from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream), irrepressible, slightly lunatic magical ally/mentor that’s such an archetype in romantic comedy.

I could really teach a whole class on this one character – the “asexual”, usually meaning gay, friend who solves all the straight lovers’ problems. (Now, in Notting Hill Spike is not gay, but definitely Puckish, and he got me thinking about the origins of this character and what it’s really about.)

Modern romantic comedy has really overused the gay best friend archetype (see My Best Friend’s Wedding, He’s Just Not That Into You, Sweet Home Alabama, etc.), but it’s a centuries-old tradition – from Shakespeare and Commedia Del Arte, to Eric Blore, Erik Rhodes and Edward Everett Horton in Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies and Donald O’Connor in Singing in the Rain. These movies often ghettoized gay characters by making them buffoons and/or magical helpers for the heterosexual main characters  – the exact role Spike Lee excoriated as the “Super-duper Magical Negro,” a secondary African American character who seemed to live to help the white main characters solve their problems, still unfortunately extremely prevalent in Hollywood – see The Help as the latest lauded and extremely uncomfortable example.  (And the uber-successfull Hunger Games gives its heroine a gay African American ally/mentor.  Just saying…)

Well, last week at LCC I was thrilled to be introduced by my friend Elle Lothlorian to the ultimate satire of the character: Sassy Gay Friend!

And there are more:

EVE –…

I love these videos for satirizing the archetype, and because it’s actually true. All these disasters could have been averted by a Sassy Gay Friend.

So yes, it’s a stereotype, but there’s something else working here as well.

For one thing, the dance movies I mentioned above were largely created by gay men, and for them, I’m sure it was a way to layer a subversive gay perspective into movies in a time when homosexuality was actually illegal and censors were keeping close watch.  (Take a look at the trio dances in Singin’ in the Rain: who’s really dancing with whom?)

There’s no excuse for the modern romantic comedies that keep these gay characters subservient to the heterosexual leads, and deny them a romantic life of their own to boot (with rare exceptions  – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). But I do understand these lame attempts at working gay characters into the action. There is an archetypal resonance about homosexuality that is a powerful draw. These characters have been over the rainbow, so to speak, and they have wisdom beyond the ordinary world that the rest of us want. It’s not entirely surprising that lost het characters latch on to them looking for enlightenment, or at least advice for the lovelorn.  Also at play is the powerful archetype of Puck, the fairy (I’d say bisexual, but who really knows? There were all KINDS of things going on in that play….) who both meddled in and solved human lovers’ problems in perhaps the ultimate romantic comic fantasy, Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It’s that same “outsider” knowledge that people are grasping for in some depictions we see of African Americans that more often that not fall into stereotypes.  But some of them, I think, are at least reaching for archetype. I love the character of  “the Oracle” in The Matrix: the priestess/seer/sibyl that Morpheus takes Neo to see in order to confirm if he is “The One.” She’s played by Gloria Foster with a kind of Billie Holiday flair, and to me she’s a quirky personification of the Black Madonna, Lady Wisdom, the black Universal Mother who has absorbed the sins of the world. I respond deeply to that icon of the feminine.

The point I’m trying to make is that there can be a very thin line between stereotype and archetype.  As authors we have to be careful not to fall into stereotype, but at the same time we can’t be afraid to dig for archetype.

So today – what are some character stereotypes that drive you crazy?  And now – can you think of books, movies, plays that depict that same character, but raise the characterization to the level of archetype?

Here’s a partial list of tropes to get you thinking!

Chosen One, Cinderella, Mysterious Stranger/Traveling Angel, Knight Errant, Boy Next Door, Girl Next Door, Femme Fatale, Seer/Sibyl, Christ Figure, The Fool, The Third Son, The Third Daughter, Whiz Kid, Final Girl, Absent-Minded Scientist. Byronic Hero, Bad Boy, Bad Girl, Gentleman Thief, Reluctant Hero, Sinner Who Becomes a Saint. Supervillain, Shapeshifter, Trickster, Dark Lord, Evil Twin, Pissed-Off Brother (or Sister), Black Widow, Mad Scientist, Perverted Old Man, Mystery Villain, Witch, Crone, Evil Clown, Evil Wizard, Absent-minded Professor, Expert From Afar, Magician, Divine Fool, Wise Child, Seer/Sybil, Religious Nut, Hooker With A Heart Of Gold, Too Dumb To Live, Mary Sue, Manic Pixie, Martial Arts Master, Jedi Mentor, Cannon Fodder, Blonde, Ingénue, Jailbait, Jewish Mother, Magical Negro, Dark Lady, Clown, Crone, Fairy Godmother, Monster-In-Law, Pompous Ass, Nerd, Supernatural Ally, Wise Old Woman/Man, Snooty Clerk or Waiter, Devoted Domestic.


Left Coast Crime report & Free e books/Kindle giveaway

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I just returned from Left Coast Crime in Sacramento, a smashing success, thanks to organizer goddesses Robin Burcell and Cindy Sample and what looked like some graceful heavy lifting from the Sacramento area Sisters in Crime.

I love Left Coast Crime because it’s always so laid-back and friendly, possibly the most comfortable conference on the mystery circuit.

But this year there was definitely an undercurrent at the con, the same furtive conversation overheard repeatedly in dark corners of the bar, and it went like this.  Have you done it yet? How was it? How many times have you done it? Have you told your agent you’re doing it?  I want to do it but I’m afraid to do it… but should I do it?

Well, let’s face it, we’re all doing it, and some of us have been doing it for a while.  I’m talking about e books, of course.  Everyone was comparing stories, numbers, strategies,  numbers, choices, numbers….

Because it’s the numbers.

Things have changed so much since I went to my first conference in 2006. Oh, the conferences are still wonderful, unforgettable experiences, so very good for so many things on so many levels.  Let me just start with some non-business things.  

For one thing, I get to get dressed.  I even get to get dressed up, but just getting dressed every day is a miraculous thing.  It makes me feel so professional and human.  And because that’s such a treat I like to play around with it. This year I’ve been taking a belly dance class and I’ve discovered that they sell regular clothes – sort of – in belly dance costume stores, so I had some wonderful net-y sparkly things that other people seemed to enjoy seeing me in. But full-on costuming is not required: Kelli Stanley is never without her trademark fedoras (and this year some fabulous scarves and jewelry) and Bill Fitzhugh is always memorable in his berets – a little accessorizing is a great way to stand out from the crowd, express a little personality that gives a hint of your books, and help readers find you.

There is the sudden totally immersive social life – scary to some people but for most of us it’s a relief and a comfort and a total joy to be around people that just GET IT.  There’s nothing anyone has to explain because we all do the same thing all day and night and we all feel exactly the same way about it and we can talk about it with people who really know but we don’t have to because they do know.  And if we get a little crazy, and who doesn’t, once in a while? – what happens at a con stays at a con, and the family has your back.

And when we need to talk, well, there are no better listeners than writers. This year was actually a very weepy one; so many people had lost parents and spouses, others were struggling with or had just emerged from serious illnesses.  But if you can’t break down sobbing in a dark corner of the bar with your brother and sister mystery writers, I don’t know who else you could do it with. 

It’s also so wonderful to be around so many readers; they keep us honest and – well, they make me remember WHY I write, WHY it’s worth it to get to The End.

At a con writers exchange business information, they learn even more from booksellers and librarians; they get inspired hearing each other talk on panels (This year it was John Lescroat, the Guest of Honor, who gave me the inspirational ass-kicking I needed). Some of us teach and learn just as much from our students as they’re learning from us.

And in a business sense, I mean a book business sense, there are reviewers, editors, social media pros – unexpected opportunities come up for promotion. And you’re exposed to new readers.  I taught a workshop that was maybe 60 or 70 people.   I was on a panel for which there were about 25 people in the audience; I did another that was packed, easily 100 people.  That’s some good exposure to potential readers, even though I know there’s a growing percentage of those readers  who already know of me and my books, so in some ways I’m preaching to the choir.

In 2006, going to one of these cons was still one of the best ways to develop a following that would buy your books.  You’d have to do a lot of them, and other appearances as well, but the theory was that you would build a devoted audience that would always buy your books, and that would be the core of a growing fan base.

But here’s where the numbers question starts to come in, in this new era.

This week I’m doing the new thing, a Kindle Select promotion on Amazon in which I am listing several books for free – a blast that gets thousands of books out there – not to my fan base, which theoretically already HAS my books – but to a whole lot of people who have never heard of me but who might become fans.  Our Zoe Sharp and former Rati Brett Battles and I have teamed up with recent guest blogger Scott Nicholson, and thriller writers Mel Comley and Aiden James to further promote our giveaways by raffling off three Kindle Fires and some gift certificates on the new site Scott has built for this kind of promotion (it’s, and you can click and enter the drawing for free with the button on the left of the page, and download all our free Kindle thrillers as well).

Well, first day of promo, day isn’t anywhere near over yet, and The Harrowing, my first giveaway, has already had over five thousand downloads.  That’s five thousand new readers who actually HAVE the book – they’re not just considering it as I speak on a panel or as they walk past it in a bookstore – they HAVE it. (And to put that in more perspective – 5000 copies is a standard first print run for a lot of books!  We’re talking ONE DAY). If people don’t read it all the way through – well, that’s my fault or their particular taste, but those odds are a huge improvement over pretty much any other kind of promotion I could do myself (not counting a big publisher push).  And that’s just one day – we’re doing this giveaway all week (I’ll be offering The Price and The Space Between on Thursday and Friday) and the cost to each of us participating is less than the cost of one day at a conference.  In fact I’d say it costs about a quarter of what one day at a conference costs.

This is the new model and the kind of economic reality we’re looking at these days, and it’s really making me think. I will never stop going to conferences. They’re life.  They’re my inspiration, they’re my social life, they’re my way of keeping up with my beloved extended family, and they are great business. But these days there are ways of reaching readers that are book promo on steroids, and I wanted to at least broach the subject because this is what I’m seeing and that’s what we do here – we talk about this stuff.

So please check out every weekday this week to take advantage of all the free books (including The Space Between on Saturday, still)  and by all means sign yourself up for a chance at those Kindle Fires.  And I’ve just noticed another Rati alum in the Top Ten Free Suspense along with Brett and me today – J.D. Rhoades.  It’s a bonanza!

And tell me, authors – how do you see the promotional model changing?  Are you more confused than ever, or is some of this making sense to you (and if so, please explain it fo the rest of us!)

And readers – how do you find books, these days?  Are you into the free book promos?  Has your bookbuying changed with e readers?


What’s the experience?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I’m teaching my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors Workshop at Left Coast Crime in Sacramento this week, so today I’ll be in and out when I can, you know how the conference thing goes, especially depending on how late I was at the bar last night.

I’m sure the workshop went well (it was yesterday); they always do. I hope I refrained from tearing the class a collective new orifice. Although with teaching, sometimes a good rampage is exactly what a student needs at the time; I’ve certainly been the beneficiary of some beneficial – and memorable – ones from my favorite teachers myself.

I had this fear going into the workshop that I might get, um, testy.  The thing is, when I teach a workshop, I always ask the participants to do a little homework up front – some exercises all you regulars are familiar with: 

I always like to get some info from workshop participants before the conference so I can tailor my examples to the people who are actually in the class. Obviously this isn’t mandatory homework, but it will pay off for you to do it.  😉  The whole principle of what I teach is that we learn best from the storytellers and stories (in any medium) that have most inspired us, and that we as authors can learn a whole new dimension of storytelling by looking specifically at films that have inspired us and that are similar to what we’re writing.  So here are a few questions/exercises to get you thinking along those lines:

1. Tell me what genre you’re writing in. All right, yes, it’s a mystery conference.  So tell me what subgenre or cross-genre you’re writing in.

2. Make a list of ten movies and books – at least five movies – that you feel are similar in genre and structure to your work in progress or story idea (or if you don’t have a story idea yet, ten movies and books that you WISH you had written!)

3. Write out the premise of your story.  If you’re unclear on what a premise sentence is, here’s a practical explanation with examples:   

Not everyone does the homework, but the answers I get give me some ideas of examples to work with when I’m going through the Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure.  In a long workshop I can also work a little with the idea of premise; I’m not able to do that in a 2-hour workshop.  Nonetheless, if I had a rampage yesterday, I can guarantee it was on premise.

I understand that people have problems with loglines, or premise sentences.  Believe me, I do. I would teach a class on writing premise if it weren’t so damn hard to do that it exhausts me too much to teach it.  After all, teaching is just this fun little sideline for me, and why should I wear myself out teach something so hard when there are much easier and more fun things to teach?

Especially after I got a reasonable number of homework assignments back, and almost half of them went like this: 

A professor (librarian, banker, accountant, divorcee) goes on holiday (to a high school reunion, to a Scottish castle, to his ex-wife’s wedding) and gets involved in solving a murder.

Uh huh.

Okay, I get the amateur sleuth fantasy about vicariously solving a murder. And maybe that’s all there does need to be to it to attract a certain type of reader. Maybe just that one situation in an infinite variety of settings really does get the job done, sort of like porn for the mystery-oriented mind. I’ve even picked up books myself that could be summed up the same way.  Except that they happened to be written by Agatha Christie or Elizabeth George or Ruth Rendell, and I knew I was going to be getting my money’s worth.

But why would anyone buy a book described like that by someone they’d never heard of?  And I’m not talking just readers – but how does that book even get read by an agent or editor to begin with?

Where’s the hook? Is it the quirkiness of the detective? Is it the fantasy aspect of the setting? Is it the jeopardy to the detective or to an excruciatingly sympathetic victim? Is it the startling and topical arena?  It is an untenable moral choice the protagonist will be forced to make?

I guess what is really missing for me in most of the premises I read – ever – is the EXPERIENCE that the story is going to give me.  Now, any of us know what that experience is going to be with an author we are already familiar with. I don’t need anyone to spell out what the experience is that I’m going to get from a Mo Hayder book  – I know that I will be wrung out emotionally from the experience of human evil so overwhelming it might as well be supernatural. And call it masochism on my part, but that’s why I buy her books.

As authors it’s not just our job to know the experience that our books deliver, and that readers buy us for, it’s our job to be able to communicate that experience in the logline or premise sentence of our books.  Myself, if I’m not making the hair on the back of people’s heads stand up when they read my flap copy, I’m in trouble.

Some of that knowing about the experience comes with – experience.  Readers TELL you what they buy your books for, and that makes it easier both to deliver it in the next book, and to get a feeling of that experience into your promotional material.

But you have to know it to say it.

So the question today is, authors, what is the EXPERIENCE you feel you deliver in your books?

And readers, what is the EXPERIENCE you look for in some of your favorite authors’ books?

Alternately, tell us about a great rampage you got from a teacher or mentor that changed your work or life!

I’ll be checking in from LCC with reports when I can.  Maybe I can rope some other authors into reporting with me!



Welcome guest blogger Scott Nicholson!

Today I’m thrilled to host Scott Nicholson here at Murderati.  Scott is a friend and one of my favorite supernatural thriller writers (some people say horror; I think what Scott delivers masterfully is spooky thrills, the best kind!) 

If you haven’t read Scott, I highly recommend you give him a try. Here’s his Amazon page to browse, I guarantee there’s something for everyone, and the price is right! 

Just added:  Scott will be giving four books away (free for Kindle) this weeked (March 17-18) at , so it’s the perfect time to load up!

And those of you who know anything at all about e publishing know that Scott has been at the vanguard of the e publishing revolution – I’ve been wanting to get him here for ages to talk about what he sees as the future. So for your enjoyment and hopefully enlightenment – here’s Scott!

Subsidizing the Freebie

By Scott Nicholson

I’ve gotten out of the “writer babble” business for two reasons: (1) I don’t know as much as I thought I did, and (2) it’s all changing so fast that even the boldest predictions of digital evolution quickly become laughable.

I don’t even use traditional publishing as a reference point anymore, because that is so far removed from most writers’ realities that it may as well be Shangri-la or Hollywood. The indie vs. trad debate is now only meaningful for a small group of people, and they are all making way more money than you or me.

So you are in it, and if you are lucky, you made a nice little nest egg back when everyone was standing on the sidelines deciding whether indie was the way to go. Hopefully, you shook off the intellectual shackles that chained us to the agent speed-dating sessions at writing conferences and were hammered and locked into place by “publishing experts” with 20-year writing careers in the old system. You know the mantras: “Get an agent,” “Only hacks self-publish,” and “You can’t produce and distribute a book without the advice of publishing experts.” Basically, ego affirmation. Of course the experts didn’t want to lose their position of authority (and in the agents’ case, the intermediary status of being the first in line to get checks.)

But the gate was left open and the horses all got out of the barn, or something like that (come up with your own gatekeeper metaphor; I am writing this for free!) So now we have a market where the 99-cent ebook had a year’s run, and the pool was finally beginning to find stratification (crappy books sinking, good books nailing stable plateaus) when Amazon unleashed the latest version of indie roulette—the free ebook.

I’m on record as predicting the flat-text e-book era has an outside range of five years, at least for fiction—specialized non-fiction and manuals will continue to be valuable for their content alone. I believe e-book sales will continue, but certainly not with expanding profits for all involved. Now that there are thousands of free Kindle books available every single day, how long before readers come to expect and even demand free books exclusively?

Freebie roulette. Great for readers. Good for Amazon (maybe in the short term, but it is hard to figure the long term). Terrible for authors.

The market is diverse enough to support many different price tiers, but writers who want to survive in 2015 will need to make money off of free books, or they will soon quit writing.

I only see one outcome: ad-supported or sponsored books. At first blush, you’d think N.Y. has an advantage, since Madison Avenue is right there. But can corporations, with their large structures, be able to compete when indie or smaller entities can react more quickly to present conditions instead of protecting some imagined status quo?

J.K. Rowling can inspire a Pottermore built around her brand, and James Patterson, Tom Clancy, and Clive Cussler have already built factories around their names (and, yes, V.C. Andrews, you can roll over in your grave two or three more times for all I care, because this is all your fault). But most of us are not factories or we wouldn’t have to indie publish.

This points out the new era of the branded writer. And not just “writer,” but “content creator” and even mere “idea marketer.” A personality is more suited to building brand identification and audience than a publisher is. I say “James Patterson” and you get an image. I say “Random House” and what do you get? Randomness. We’ve seen it here locally: “Ray’s Weather” is where you check the weather and “Todd’s Calendar” is where you click to find what’s happening in the region—and both are ad supported. You can get the free content elsewhere but you don’t get the human personality attached.

I’m already experimenting with the ad model because I believe it is viable. I am counting on Idea Marketing being one of my foundational pillars. I am not quite sure what it all looks like right now, but I look at it this way—you don’t need NY in order to give away tons of free e-books or to spread an idea or to build a social platform. You are the idea you want to spread.

Other authors will say “I’ll never sell out.” (Ironically, those are usually the authors who have given most of their incomes to agents and publishers…) I don’t blame people for sticking with what worked in the past. It all goes to how invested you are in a certain system and how the alternative looks, and, of course, the turf where you’ve staked out your ego. Publishing-industry talk on e-books uses phrases like “managing risk” and “cautious adaptation.” That is why those of us in the trenches knew Barnes & Noble was in serious trouble when most in the “publishing industry” only realized it recently when BN’s horrifyingly bad third-quarter reports came in. They are working off of old data while I work off the data I got an hour ago.

And my data says this may be the very peak of the Golden Age of digital publishing. The $9.99 novel may be dead this year, since three-quarters of the current bestsellers are low-priced indie books. As fast as major publishers yank their name-brand authors out of digital libraries, 10 new indies cram into that virtual shelf space. Maybe forever. James Patterson’s factory can’t run on $2.99 ebooks, but mine can.

But what happens when the $2.99 and 99 cents drop to permanently free? Where’s your sponsor? Are you willing to go there? It’s not going to be as clumsy as an image of a refreshing Bud Lite popping up when the main character enters a bar (though it’s not unthinkable at some point.) Can you see Jack Reacher with a favorite brand of soft drink, or Bella Swan wearing only Calvin Klein? At what point is your willing suspension of disbelief shattered? At what point do you realize the ad is the only reason the book can exist at all?

My informal polling on ad-supported ebooks yields statements like: “I’ll quit reading before I put up with that.” I also remember saying I’d never carry a cell phone, or be on Facebook, or give up my vinyl albums, or start thinking that maybe nuclear energy is the best short-range answer to our energy addiction. Or that I’d ever read an entire book on a screen.

I don’t know the answer, but I am deeply invested in the question. So, ads in ebooks. As readers and writers, what is your opinion?


Scott Nicholson is the bestselling author of a bunch of books and also released The Indie Journey: Secrets to Writing Success, because some people still think you can buy the secret instead of be the secret. Follow him on Facebook, blog, Twitter, website, or newsletter.