Category Archives: Alexandra Sokoloff

Nanowrimo Prep – narrative structure cheat sheet


by Alexandra Sokoloff

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

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

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

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

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


Narrative Structure Cheat Sheet

Act I:

We meet the Hero/ine in the Ordinary World.  

S/he has:

   —  a Ghost or Wound

   —  a strong Desire

   —  Special Skills

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

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

That impulse may be blocked by a

    —  Threshold Guardian

    —   And/or the Opponent

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

But she overcomes whatever opposition,

   — Gathers Allies and the advice of a Mentor

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

And Crosses the Threshold Into the Special World.

Act II:1

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

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

The hero/ine may now:

     — Gather a Team

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

     — Investigate the situation.

     — Pass numerous Tests

All following the Plan, to achieve the Desire.

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

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

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

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


Act II:2


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

And formulate a New Plan

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

Therefore they Make Mistakes

And often Cross a Moral Line

And Lose Allies

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

Things begin to Spiral Out of Control

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

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

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

That leads to a New Plan for the Final Battle.



The Heroine Makes that last New Plan

Possibly Gathers the Team (Allies) again

Possibly briefly Trains again

Then Storms the Opponent’s Castle (or basement)

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

     — Skills are tested.

     — Subplots are resolved,

     — and secondary Opponents are defeated in a satisfying way.

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

The Hero/ine has come Full Circle

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



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


What I learned at Bouchercon

by Alexandra Sokoloff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ditto Harlan Coben.

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

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

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

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

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

Always go to the one-on-one interviews.

Always go to the heavy-hitters panel.

It’s sad when Lee Child isn’t there.

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

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

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

There is no better place to meet British men. lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are not enough hours in a day.

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

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

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

Sex happens.  (Okay, I knew that.)

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

I would rather dance than eat. 

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

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

Mystery authors have the greatest life on the planet.

I love you guys.

Never, ever miss it.


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


It’s Fall – do you know what your next book is?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

 Fall is my favorite season. Maybe it’s that Halloween thing, maybe it’s the “back to school” energy, maybe it’s the Santa Ana winds that were so much a part of my life growing up in Southern California that I made them a character in The Space Between, maybe it’s just that you get a jolt of ambition because it gets cooler and your brain returns to some functional temperature.  

Because it’s sort of ingrained in us (whether we like it or not), that fall is the beginning of a new school year, I think fall is a good time for making resolutions.  Like, about that new book you’re going to be writing for the next year or so. 

Myself, I have so many books to finish right now that I can’t let myself think about any new ones until I get at least ONE more done.  I’ve taken the idea of multitasking to a near-suicidal extreme.  But I’m not complaining – not only do I have a job, I have my dream job. 

However, given what I blog and teach about, I am aware that this is a perfect time for OTHER people to be thinking about THEIR new books.  Because, you know, it’s September, but November will be here before you know it.

I’m sure many if not most here are aware that November is Nanowrimo – National Novel Writing Month.  As explained at the official site here, and here and here, the goal of Nanowrimo is to bash through 50,000 words of a novel in a  single month.  

I could not be more supportive of this idea – it gives focus and a nice juicy competitive edge to an endeavor that can seem completely overwhelming when you’re facing it all on your own.   Through peer pressure and the truly national focus on the event, Nanowrimo forces people to commit.    It’s easy to get caught up in and carried along by the writing frenzy of tens of thousands – or maybe by now hundreds of thousands – of  “Wrimos”.  And I’ve met and heard of lots of novelists, like Carrie Ryan (The Forest of Hands and Teeth) Sara Gruen (Water For Elephants), and Lisa Daily (The Dreamgirl Academy) who started novels during Nanowrimo that went on to sell, sometimes sell big.

Nanowrimo works.  

But as everyone who reads this blog knows, I’m not a big fan of sitting down and typing Chapter One at the top of a blank screen and seeing what comes out from there.   It may be fine – but it may be a disaster, or something even worse than a disaster – an unfinished book.  And it doesn’t have to be.

I’m always asked to do Nanowrimo “pep talks”.   These are always in the month of November. 

That makes no sense to me.

I mean, I’m happy to do it, but mid-November is way too late for that kind of thing. What people should be asking me, and other authors that they ask to do Nano support, is Nano PREP talks.

If you’re going to put a month aside to write 50,000 words, doesn’t it make a little more sense to have worked out the outline, or at least an overall roadmap, before November 1?   I am pretty positive that in most cases far more writing, and far more professional writing, would get done in November if Wrimos took the month of October – at LEAST –  to really think out some things about their story and characters, and where the whole book is going.   It wouldn’t have to be the full-tilt-every-day frenzy that November will be, but even a half hour per day in October, even fifteen minutes a day, thinking about what you really want to be writing would do your potential novel worlds of good.

But you know what?   Even if you never look at that prep work again, your brilliant subconscious mind will have been working on it for you for a whole month.   (Cause let’s face it – we don’t do this mystical thing called writing all by ourselves, now, do we?).

So here’s my topic for the day, and possibly for my next blog as well:

How do you choose the next book you write?

I know, I know, it chooses you.   That’s a good answer, and sometimes it IS the answer, but it’s not the only answer.  And let’s face it – just like with, well, men, sometimes the one who chooses you is NOT the one YOU should be choosing.  What makes anyone think it’s any different with books? 

It’s a huge commitment, to decide on a book to write. That’s a minimum of six months of your life just getting it written, not even factoring in revisions and promotion. You live in that world for a long, long time.  Not only that, but if you’re a professional writer, you’re pretty much always going to be having to work on more than one book at a time.  You’re writing a minimum of one book while you’re editing another and always doing promotion for a third.  

So the book you choose to write is not just going to have to hold your attention for six to twelve months with its world and characters, but it’s going to have to hold your attention while you’re working just as hard on another or two or three other completely different projects at the same time.   You’re going to have to want to come back to that book after being on the road touring a completely different book and doing something that is both exhausting and  almost antithetical to writing (promotion).

That’s a lot to ask of a story.

So how does that decision process happen? 

When on panels or at events, I have been asked, “How do you decide what book you should write?” I have not so facetiously answered: “I write the book that someone writes me a check for.”

That’s maybe a screenwriter thing to say, and I don’t mean that in a good way, but it’s true, isn’t it?

Anything that you aren’t getting a check for you’re going to have to scramble to write, steal time for – it’s just harder. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, or that it doesn’t produce great work, but it’s harder. 

As a professional writer, you’re also constricted to a certain degree by your genre, and even more so by your brand. I’m not allowed to turn in a chick lit story, or a flat-out gruesome horrorfest, or probably a spy story, either. Once you’ve published you are a certain commodity.  

If you are writing a series, you’re even more restricted.  You have a certain amount of freedom about your situation and plot but – you’re going to have to write the same characters, and if your characters live in a certain place, you’re also constricted by place.  Now that I’m doing a couple of paranormal series, I am learning that every decision is easier in a way, because so many elements are already defined, but it’s also way more limiting than my standalones and I could see how it would get frustrating.

Input from your agent is key, of course – you are a team and you are shaping your career together. Your agent will steer you away from projects that are in a genre that is glutted, saving you years of work over the years, and s/he will help you make all kinds of big-pitcure decisions.

But what I’m really interested in today is not the restrictions but the limitless possibilities. 

How DO you decide what to write?

And even more importantly – How do you decide what to READ?  

Because I have a theory that it’s actually the same answer, but we’ll see.

Happy Fall, everyone!


The Help

by Alexandra Sokoloff

The film of The Help came out this weekend, and I know everybody else is going to be talking about it, and it’s my day today, and it’s been on my mind, so why not?

I will try not to spoil too much, but if you’re trying to stay pure before you read/see  – you’ve been warned.

First, the book. 

I understand why it’s popular and I also understand why there’s a backlash against it. I have to say it – it made me uncomfortable.

Now, uncomfortable is an emotion, not an objective criticism.  And I don’t read books for comfort most of the time, I read for passion and thrills and to live a certain experience.   Which can all be comforting, in their way. 

I know a lot of people feel passionately about this book and I don’t mean to undercut that.  But I’ll just try to describe the discomfort I felt about it.

There’s been a lot of criticism about the dialect, especially Aibileen’s.  I didn’t mind the dialect at first – I love figuring out phonetically how people are speaking, myself, I’m actually a little obsessed with phonetics, and I know I’ve been guilty of going overboard with it in my own writing on occasion.  But as I kept reading and got to the white characters…. who were portrayed with no such dialect at all…

Well, to write in such a broad way for an African-American character and not at all for white Mississippians… who have some of the deepest accents in the South….


But what made me most uncomfortable about the book was that all of these maids ended up in the service of a white woman again, to get “her” book written. It made me feel guilty of being patronizing by association.

And I think a whole lot was left out.

Now, I know perfectly well that as a California native I cannot possibly understand the relationship between white children and the African-American women who raised them (Southern friends of mine say, “My other mom”).   In fact, there are a whole lot of things about the South I will never understand, but that’s another post. 

And as a white woman I have no business speculating about what was or was not true to the actual experience of the African-American women portrayed in the book.

But even so, I can’t believe that the depths of anger that must, must have been there, and are still there, were adequately portrayed. 

I think it’s a good story. I think Stockett is talented, and she’s obviously created some powerful characters. I would rather have read this subject from an African-American point of view. That’s not Stockett’s fault.  Absolutely, obviously, she wrote the book from her heart.  But I felt that as the author she was offering a forgiveness to the white characters in the book that is not hers to offer.

And I sure would like to read a book with an alternative POV now.

The movie was less uncomfortable for me, possibly because I knew what I was going into, and a lot because of three key performances. 

– Viola Davis as Aibileen.  I would camp out overnight to see this woman read the phone book. I think she’s one of the major actors of our time.  It is her movie, period. The depths of emotion – and emotional truth – that I didn’t find in the book I did find in her performance, and she has the authority to portray it. 

– Emma Stone as Skeeter.  Ever since Zombieland I’ve been seeing everything she’s in.  The most exciting young actress working in Hollywood, I think, she’s stunning.  And while I’m sure this was how she was directed, too, she knows this is not her story.  I had huge problems with the Skeeter character in the book; I don’t think she ever got how irrelevant she was in the bigger picture.  The movie cuts her role down to a more proportionate size, and portrays the character more as a journalist simply recording stories instead of acting as if this book is all her doing, and Emma Stone has moments – I felt – of reflecting the shame of her situation.  It’s not really there in the book or the movie, but I felt it in her. 

Btw, I have to say it for those who were here for my post 2 weeks ago: Tom Cruise doesn’t hold a candle to Emma Stone in the “too pretty to play the character” category, but it didn’t matter a bit, here (because Emma Stone is one of those actresses who leaves room for an audience to inhabit her AND her emotion and ferocious mental life sort of overwhelm her beauty).  As a matter of fact, Viola Davis is way too pretty to play Aibileen.  Pretty much the definition of Hollywood is “too pretty”.

– Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly.  What a great villain this is!  In my opinion Hilly is half of why this book has become a classic, and Howard doesn’t shy away from the viciousness.  It’s a comic character, but the has her moments of wonderfully ordinary evil. I sure hope she made some people uncomfortable.

I think I liked the movie better than the book for the first half (and the dialect issues are much less apparent, partly because you can hear the broad accents in ALL of the characters) and I was totally with it, and also appreciating the adaptation – there were some very deft, concise additions and staging to underline the real stakes. Until that midpoint where

SPOILER (although the trailer does it anyway)



The maids agree to tell their stories. 

And then the action just kind of stopped.  It was an interesting thing to see, because theoretically the cuts that writer/director Tate Taylor made should have made the story play better, but actually nothing much happens in the second half of the book, and that just gets more and more obvious in the movie.  The film gets a little embarrassing as it works the pie joke way too many times over a solid fifteen minutes, and the big reveal of how and why Skeeter’s beloved housemaid “left the family” is a pale shadow of what happens in the book, an awkward and unconvincing scene (it’s also staged in a room that is way too small for the action, a very strange choice.  I could barely watch the action for trying to figure out why the scene was taking place where it was.)  Also in the film the Millie and Celia subplot is cut down so much that I didn’t feel much investment in it.  And unfortunately Millie’s character loses the internal life that she had in the book.

But the truth is nothing much happens in the second half of the book. So even when you cut out all the obvious fat, when you put it up on screen almost everything feels like filler. To ME.  Until the end, where




Aibileen has a great final confrontation with Hilly – you can see her talking to her just as any one of the seventeen children she raised, and to me, that really worked, emotionally – it takes a lot to make me cry but I was wrecked.


I don’t know, this is hard.  I have to think it’s always a good thing when a popular work of art puts a spotlight on racism; my discomfort is the feeling that the book and maybe the film are more of a feel-good bromide than any meaningful step toward – even a discussion that might change attitudes.  But I could be totally wrong; maybe both the book and the film are doing good where good needs to be done.

And it does force me to think about the way I portray race in my own books, and how I’m falling short. And that – is good.

Anyway, Rati, if you’re up for it – what do you think?


Tom Cruise is Reacher

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I can’t believe I’m about to do this but lately I can’t go to any message board or listserv without running headlong into people from the mystery community whining about Tom Cruise signing on to play Jack Reacher in Lee Child’s One Shot.

I rarely find myself in the position of defending anything Hollywood does, but this tempest over Tom Cruise as Reacher demonstrates a ignorance not only of the workings of the film industry (which I actually hope any decent person has a healthy ignorance of) but an ignorance of filmmaking in general that is so vast and astonishing that I am just going to have to use my blog post today to rant. I mean, get this out of my system.

We’re book people, people, we’re supposed to be smart.  And yet what are people obsessing over about this casting?   “Cruise can’t play Reacher, Reacher is 6’5”.” 


That’s all we’re getting out of that character and those books?

And here I had this idea that action has something to do with character. That there’s something about an iconic character that has to do with essence and soul.  I thought that Reacher’s brains and the fact that he’s a walking (literally) archetype – a modern and completely fucked up – I mean wounded – knight errant had something more to do with his charm than – inches.  I thought the actual stories – the Mission Impossible-like intricacy of Reacher’s plans and the way he is constantly able to rally the most unlikely teams of misfits to accomplish hopelessly lost causes had a little to do with the appeal of the books.

As much as I am in total favor of the objectification of male bodies, preferably as often as possible, to me Reacher’s size and six-pack are completely incidental to the man.  But people are posting photos of their picks to play Reacher that would launch me into the mother of all feminist rants if people were posting the equivalent photos of female actor choices for – oh, say, Clarice Starling, Jane Tennison, Jane Rizzoli, Elizabeth Bennet.  It’s embarrassing.

Would any one of us really want any of those slabs of beefcake who were hulking around the Reacher Creature party last Boucheron to play Reacher?  Really?

I have seen some perfectly idiotic casting choices floated on boards and lists, and no, I’m not going to name names, because those actors might actually be fine actors.  Or something.  But we are not talking about repertory theater, here.

The height thing aside (and height in Hollywood is relative), there’s a whole hell of a lot more to playing a role like Reacher than acting.  We are talking about a mega-million dollar movie that is supposed to turn into a multi-billion dollar franchise. You don’t just need an actor for Reacher, you need a movie star.  You need more than a star – you need someone who can carry the movie.  And not just carry the movie, but carry the franchise.

Carrying a film is something more than acting. It’s not a very tangible thing. It has to do with being able to be present as a unique character but also letting the audience inhabit you.  It’s about being the point of view character, a vehicle for the audience, and the film’s authorial voice, all rolled into one.  It’s why movie stars are rarely as good actors as the character actors around them are, and why character actors are almost never able to play leads.  A lead actor can be acting his heart out and the movie will still be dead on arrival because the actor isn’t doing that other essential intangible thing. 

And the more action and special effects going on, the more important it is to have a lead who can carry all that action.

Those wonderful actors who seemed to be rising really fast and suddenly disappear and are never heard from again? Well, maybe they’re on the rehab circuit, but just as probably they were cast in a film that was supposed to be their big breakout and they just weren’t able to carry the film.

Carrying this movie is going to be ten million times more important than size.  I can think of a couple of actors, good actors, who seem to me physically perfect for Reacher, who in fact work just fine as Reacher in those random Reacher fantasies, you know the ones I mean – but who I wouldn’t want to gamble on being able to carry this film.

Tom Cruise has been carrying movies consistently since he was 21 years old. Ironically, what all these size-obsessed complainers don’t seem to realize is that Tom Cruise is one of the only actors on the planet BIG enough to carry a franchise that big.

And anyone who thinks Tom Cruise can’t act should go rent Collateral, or Magnolia. Or Jerry Maguire. Tom Cruise is a hell of an actor. You don’t have a string of dozens of successful movies over thirty years, the majority of which have made over two hundred million dollars each, and more, worldwide, without having something going on. Or would you like to try to argue that that list of movies succeeded in spite of Cruise?

Moreover, he is a terrific action star.  He is a superb athlete and known for training for weeks on end to get the physicality of every action he performs in a film exactly right.  Do you think it’s easy even to fire a gun convincingly on screen, much less perform the kinds of stunts he routinely does in the Mission Impossible films (not that I’m a huge fan of those, but that has nothing to do with Cruise)?

What exactly do all these naysayers know about casting, anyway? Give a major actor some credit for knowing what he can and can’t play. No one thought Dustin Hoffman could make a convincing woman and he only got cast in Tootsie by making demo films of himself as Dorothy Michaels to convince the powers that be that he actually could do it. But he knew.  And after the fact, can you imagine anyone else in that role?

Well, newsflash: Tom Cruise knows a whole hell of a lot better than a bunch of mystery readers what he can do.  This is not a man in the habit of doing things badly. Will he pull if off?  Maybe, maybe not.  Think about it. Any time we sit down to write a book we think we just might be able to do it some meager form of justice and from there we work like dogs and pray like hell. What makes anyone think it’s any different for an actor?

But we are talking about one of the hardest working and most passionately dedicated actors in Hollywood.  I’d lay down money that Tom Cruise has a better idea of who and what Jack Reacher is than the vast majority of these posters. Character is his job and he’s been doing it brilliantly for over 30 years.

He’s a seasoned and successful producer as well, which I’m not going to get into, but you better believe it’s good news for the movie.

But I will say it is stupefying to me that a community of readers and writers, in all this ranting, seem to be saying not one word about what could go wrong with the script. Josh Olson, the original adaptor (adapted and was Oscar-nominated for A History of Violence) is smart, passionate, angry, iconoclastic – I was excited that he was writing the script.  Christopher McQuarrie, attached as director, is doing his own adaptation of the book now.  He’s most famous for writing and winning the Oscar for The Usual Suspects.  All sounds good, right? But there’s no guarantee here that what ends up on screen will have anything to do with the story we know from the book.  Personally I would hate to see the incredible ensemble energy of this particular story, the way all the seemingly minor characters come together as an unlikely and sympathetic team, get eviscerated to showcase Reacher going it alone. But that’s an optimistic view of what could actually happen, story-wise.

Instead of bitching about Cruise, we should be on our knees lighting candles to the movie gods that whoever ends up in creative control of this film (and that can change radically in between now and the film’s release) doesn’t decide… oh, let’s say… that the stakes aren’t big enough, and get the bright idea to make the villains the joint heads of the entire Russian mafia who have decided to take over the US and to do so have acquired a nuclear warhead which Reacher will be forced to dismantle while simultaneously trying to rescue his long lost and hitherto unknown son or daughter or, hey, twin son and daughter– with the loyal help of the dog the executives gave him to make him more “relatable”.

Oh yeah, there is a whole lot that could go wrong with this film.

There also is a chance that a very smart movie could come out of this. And if it doesn’t, it’s not going to be because of Tom Cruise. 

How about putting some energy into wishing for a great movie?  It’s rare enough that that happens. Does everyone really want to jinx that with all this vitriol before they even start shooting?

Finally, let me just say this. Reacher fans are the last people who should be complaining. We can have Reacher in any form we want, every time we pick up one of the books. Cast at will. And I guarantee that not one of us sees him the same way. That’s the beauty of fictional characters.

But look, this is Murderati, we’re all friends, here. If you want to talk about who really should play Reacher, here’s your chance to do it. Share the fantasies. Go wild. Link to beefcake shots, or Youtube exotic videos, I’m not going to object.  Or tell us some books-to-movies that were perfectly cast, and why.

So who do I see as Reacher?  Lee Child. It is entirely mystifying to me that anyone could not think so. And there’s not a living actor in Hollywood who could come up to that level of brains and sexy. But it’s not going to happen, and it shouldn’t. 

Let’s all just GET OVER IT.


Oh, and if there’s anyone left after all of that, The Unseen comes out in the UK this week, with maybe my favorite cover ever, it actually gave me a bad nightmare.  Just don’t ask me who I’d cast.

On Amazon UK

Workaholics not so anonymous

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I don’t have a problem.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to say. Easy to say because this is America, where hard work (note that it’s “hard” work, not “easy” work)  is not just rewarded, it’s canonized.  Easy to say because “all my friends do it.” Easy to say because people all around you would kill to have your career, so you should be grateful. Easy to say because IT WORKS.

Writing is my job. No one supports me—I do this for a living. And I do make a living at it, which all my life I was told couldn’t happen. Well, I’ve made it work for pretty much my whole adult life.

So I never thought I had a problem. Why should I think that? In Hollywood, workaholism is the job description. You better love it, want it, because you’re going to be doing it every waking hour, and by the way, who told you you needed eight hours of sleep? Workaholism is the standard for Los Angeles; ambitious people from all over the country, all over the world, come here since to “make it” and that’s created a whole culture of ambition—and workaholism. I’ve been immersed in it so long it was the only thing I knew. It was a huge shock to live in the South and be surrounded by people who didn’t live that way; I felt like I was set on 78 rpm while almost everyone else was on 45.

And writing is one of those things that you can never fully turn off, anyway. Maybe it IS just the job description.

Add to that that given the recession, we’re ALL working too much. All of us who are lucky enough to have jobs, that is, and with so many people who don’t, it’s the last thing you’re going to complain about. All my friends with “real” jobs are working harder than ever before because staffs have been cut everywhere and the staff that remains is expected to pick up the slack. And hey, at least it’s a job. So given the national (world) circumstances, it’s crazy to even bring up the question.  Isn’t it?

Is there such a thing as workaholism, anyway?  It’s not in the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (a crime writer’s favorite light reading), like the other isms. There may be treatment centers for it in California, but then we also have treatment centers for workaholic pets. If you see what I mean.

So – iit’s a time that no one can complain about working, all my friends do it, and it works.

And yet… I think I have a problem.

I don’t know what exactly to do about it. You can stop alcohol and pills and gambling and Internet porn. You can reprogram food binging. You can’t quit work cold turkey.

But I’m not naive about treatment for this things. I was a functioning anorexic for a while (another “ism” that’s easy to dismiss if you’re rewarded for it). Never to the point of hospitalization, but certainly flirting with the deep end.

So how did I get out of it? I didn’t seek treatment, but it was about that time that I started practicing yoga and meditation (which I didn’t know at the time is considered one of the most effective treatments for anorexia), and some in-depth journaling (therapeutic writing instead of professional writing). The obsession faded, maybe to be replaced with work – although the work was already there.

So I know the treatment for balance is more yoga, more meditation, more “self-care”, as a therapist would say.

This is all coming up because I’ve been working my way through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, as I mentioned in the discussion here on Monday.  I’d been aware of Cameron’s creativity books and workshops for years, but I never knew that she used principles of recovery to break through creative blocks. There’s some serious healing to be had in that book.

And this week I got to a chapter on workaholism (and other blocks to creativity).  Well, I’d been with the program up until then, but workaholism as a block to creativity? That does’t even make sense.

She poses a list of questions entiled The Awful Truth which begins:

1. Tell the truth. What habit do you have that gets in the way of your creativity?

I read that and scoffed. Is she kidding? I’m creative 12 hours a day. I have so many creative projects going I can’t keep them straight.  I have four book contracts, two spec books, I’ve got the first book up in my new e-book business, I’ll have the second up next week….


I see.


2. Tell the truth. What do you think might be a problem? It is.

Okay, so my problem is overextension. Yes, it is a problem.

3. What do you plan to do about the habit or problem?

So here we are. I can’t stop working, and I have no idea what I am going to do about the problem, but I have taken the first step. I’ve admitted I have a problem.

And my question is (Tell the truth:) Do you? 

Here’s an interesting tidbit for discussion. Professor Bryan Robinson, a major researcher in this field, identifies four kinds of workaholics:

– Savoring Workaholics, (low work initiation, low work completion, high procrastination)

– Attention Deficit Workaholics (high work initiation, low work completion, high procrastination)

– Bulimic Workaholics (high work completion)

– Relentless Workaholics (high work completion).

I haven’t been able to find more complete definitions, but certainly I am familiar with the low work completion/high work completion gap. Busyness is not working, as far as I’m concerned; the only work that counts is the work that gets finished. So I’m definitely not one of the first two. I can’t figure out what a Bulimic workaholic would be, which maybe means I am one, but I think relentless is more apt.

Anyway, thought I’d throw that in there.

But what do you guys think? Is workaholism just part of a writer’s job description, or a serious behavioral dysfunction? Is it a problem, but better than the alternative? Is it okay as long as it works?

Anyone out there have anything to confess?

And even if none of this applies to you, do you think that we’re quietly headed for a national problem because the recession is forcing all working people to overwork?

– Alex

Brave New E Book World

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I know, it’s a holiday weekend, but here at Murderati, no one sleeps.  

Last week I threatened to start a related series of blogs on indie publishing and how the whole e book revolution has been affecting me.

In my post I talked about how over the years I have had pretty good intuitions, cosmic nudges as it were, about moving in directions that have enabled me to make a full-time living as a writer for pretty much all of my adult life. And the latest cosmic nudge was about e books. Well, okay, maybe that was Joe Konrath, who tends to be even more insistent than the cosmos.

At any rate, I’ve done it – yesterday I put my first original e novel up for sale, $2.99, any format.

Buy for Kindle:

Buy on Smashwords

Buy for Nook

I’d already worked through this process with my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbook, with about a dozen very patient author friends who had already been through it talking me through the steps.  So this time was easier and faster because I’d already been through all the steps, and I know ALL of it is going to get easier and easier. Except, of course, writing the books. That part hasn’t changed, unfortunately.  

So that’s the first point to cover, today.


Here’s my story line:

Sixteen-year old Anna Sullivan is having terrible dreams of a massacre at her school. Anna’s father is a mentally unstable veteran, her mother vanished when Anna was five, and Anna might just chalk the dreams up to a reflection of her crazy waking life — except that Tyler Marsh, the most popular guy at the school and Anna’s secret crush, is having the exact same dream.

Despite the gulf between them in social status, Anna and Tyler connect, first in the dream and then in reality. As the dreams reveal more, with clues from the school social structure, quantum physics, probability, and Anna’s own past, Anna becomes convinced that they are being shown the future so they can prevent the shooting…

If they can survive the shooter — and the dream.

This is a project that was very close to me and very hard to write.  You know, every book is different, but I know from my own experience and from talking to a lot of author friends (including several of the Rati) who started publishing at about the same time, that sometime around about your fourth book you start getting restless and you just want to stretch.

So I was experimenting with a lot of things with SPACE. It’s my first Young Adult, my first book in present tense, my first book set in California even though California is where I’ve lived for practically all my life (apparently I had to leave it to be able to write about it).

Also I was adapting my own short story, “The Edge of Seventeen”, which won the Thriller award for Best Short Fiction two years ago.  

Which I also just put up online, because that’s what we can do, now!  Just 99 cents, any format.

(Both cover designs by my very talented sister, Elaine: ElaineSokoloff  at gmail dot com).

Buy for Kindle

Buy on Smashwords

Buy for Nook

I’m not new to adaptation, it was half the work I did when I was a screenwriter, but I really had to open up the story. That was the best part, it turned out – I always felt there was much more to the story I’d initially told, but I really surprised myself with how much more there was.

Add to all those challenges the fact that for the last two years I’ve been dealing with a devastating family illness and death. It’s easily been the hardest time of my life.

I guess it’s no surprise, then, that when I’d finally nailed the book, it was…. How to say this?  


Really, really dark.  Which I tend to be anyway, but under the circumstances… well, it was dark.

And it’s about high school. Now, I personally had a better time in HS than most, because we had such a great theater department and that’s what I was always doing. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t acutely aware of the horror and misery going on around me, and that’s what I write about in Space. And when you’re dealing with a sixteen-year old protagonist, everything seems all that much darker.

So that brings us to the second point.


The first thing is always writing a great book. But once you have that great book, there’s the decision of how to market it. In traditional publishing, this has a lot to do with your agent deciding which editors are the best potential buyers at each house, and then the fate of the book is largely determined there. But with the rise of indie publishing, one of the new decisions is “Indie or traditional?”

Well, here’s one of the things that’s so cool about e publishing – that you can use it for those slightly off projects that I KNOW all you great slightly off people have. In this case, I was writing a YA that was – even as edgy as YA has gotten – edgy enough to give me and my agent pause about submitting it to editors.

Not that it wouldn’t be totally great to have a banned book in my bibliography, but… I was writing from the perspective of a 16-year old who has seen WAY too much, just like the 16-year old that I was.  And while I myself was reading things that were way too old for me when I was – well, seven, actually, but certainly when I was 16 – what that meant was that I was reading adult books that were way too old for me. Because when I was a teenager there weren’t really that many YAs that were too old for anyone except for that twisted Flowers in the Attic series. And those were twisted in a way I was familiar with from my friends’ lives, unfortunately, so I didn’t really understand why the books were considered so twisted. I mean, why get upset about the books?  Try getting upset about incest and child abuse in real life, and DOING something about it, why don’t you…

Um, sorry, where was I?

Oh, right.  Nowadays there is a ton of edgy YA out there – edgy being the encompassing word for books that cover incest, rape, cutting, eating disorders, mental illness, child abuse of any kind, teen criminal behavior, school shootings, suicide…  no taboo is left, actually.  But in The Space Between I cross a supernatural thriller and edgy YA, which takes things a little further out there.

Now, that didn’t discourage my agent. But because of the life interruptions of my last year, I’m in the interesting position of having several interrupted spec books that I’m just now getting back to. So because The Space Between is my first and only YA, and one of my others is much more along the lines of my other adult thrillers, only even more mainstream, and because my agent is really aware of and supportive of my desire to get into the indie publishing business, we decided that I would indie publish Space, and he will shop the adult thriller traditionally (if that still makes the most sense when I finish that book).

It’s an experiment – because at least at the moment YA is not generally a great seller in e books, so it could be that a traditional publishing deal would be a better way to go. But things have changed so much in publishing in a year that e publishing first does not preclude doing a traditional publishing deal later; in fact it’s more and more common for traditional publishers to pick up indie books for traditional publishing.

I’m in the lucky position of having multiple projects and a steady income from previous contracts, so I can take some risk.

So the KIND of book SPACE is figured into that decision.

Another factor was price. I have traditionally published books out on Kindle at the publisher’s price of $11.99 and $12.99 and it just feels like publishers are killing all chance of sales at that price.  I absolutely gladly pay twice that for a hardcover of an author I love, but for an e book?  No way. Who wouldn’t gravitate toward a $2.99 book in the same genre? In this economy?  Sorry, but that’s such an obvious reality it just makes me sick to see publishers ignoring it – and killing authors’ sales in the process. 

The other big factor, of course, is rights and money. One of the biggest pulls for me about getting into the e book business now is – of course – the 70% royalty rate on Amazon, slightly less for most other formats.  That can change, but at least if it changes I’ll still own full rightst to the book and can take it anywhere I want from there. I have no idea what kind of sales I can expect for a fiction YA; the only numbers I have to go on are the sales from a non-fiction workbook. But non-fiction is statistically the WORST selling genre in e books, and I’ve already done well enough with it to totally justify doing it as an e book rather than a traditional deal. And those were the kinds of numbers and comparisons that my agent and I were talking about in our discussions on the subject.

So the lessons here?

YOUR AGENT IS YOUR BEST FRIEND. At least if you’ve chosen well, and those Rati who share mine will testify to the awesomeness of ours.  You and your agent make these decisions together.  If you don’t have an agent and are considering doing directly to indie publishing, I would strongly suggest that along with writing the best damn book you can write, you be doing reading every day on what indie publishing actually entails so you are going into it with real knowledge.

Here are the most essential resources I know of for indie publishing information:

A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing 

Not that anyone here doesn’t already know, but Joe’s is the one essential site on e publishing.

The Kindleboards  
Browsing this message board a couple of days a week will give you a very practical crash course on everything from cover design essentials (what works for traditional publishing is NOT what works at thumbnail size), to promotion, to what indie authors’ actual sales figures are.  People on the boards are friendly and helpful; I also found my two great proofreaders there.  It’s also interesting to see the politics of indie vs. traditional publishing; personally, I just don’t see it as an Either/Or proposition.

The Business Rusch Publishing series

Everyone, and I mean everyone, should read Kristine Rusch’s incredible series on the essentials of publishing and the changes in our world.

And speaking of agents, this is an interesting article by Barry Eisler on a new trend:

– I’ve also been hearing plugs for Digital Book World: but I haven’t read enough to give a personal recommendation.

Okay, I think that’s enough reading to get your through the four-day weekend (sorry about that!) so I’ll save my step-by-step guide of what I’ve learned about prepping a book for e publication and getting it up and published: editing, formatting, cover design, pricing, distribution, promotion, and the kitchen sink – for my next post.

So, questions. Does anyone else have something twisty there in the back of that drawer that you’ve been thinking of putting up as an e book? Anyone out there reading edgy YA, and if so, there any taboos you haven’t seen broken?

And – is anyone else watching 1776 for the holiday weekend? (Hi Allison!)  Have a great one.


Looking Back, Looking Forward

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Zoë did a brilliant thing in her post last week – a looking back and looking forward at her career as a writer, and JT said something about all of us maybe doing it.  Which is just like JT, who is so good about one-year plans and five-year plans and that kind of grownup thing.

Well, maybe Steve’s post yesterday scared me into acting a little more like an adult, because I decided to do the career review thing for myself today, and the rest of you can do what you want.

A career is always evolving, I guess, it’s not just a writer’s career that does. And it’s interesting to look back over my career and see how certain patterns emerge. Today I’ll be looking at the fairly positive ones, not the horrific soul-crushing mistakes that take years to recover from. That’s another post.

So a first really clear pattern is that every 5 to 10 years I have moved from one medium to another, always incorporating what I’ve learned from each previous incarnation.

I started off not as a writer but in theater, at eight or nine, first acting (a lot of it) and dancing, then directing and choreographing. I didn’t start writing until college.  But in theater,  without meaning to,  I was learning all the jobs required to write: acting, directing, set design, lighting design, choreography, musical direction, props….  I also did a stint in video production in there somewhere.

I graduated from college and worked for a couple of years in an improvisational theater ensemble, which was more great training, and a totally fabulous time. But I started getting these– feelings. Whispers, you might say. They weren’t all that coherent really, but I was picking up on a message that sounded suspiciously like: “No one’s ever going to pay you to do political theater in Berkeley.”  It’s a coals to Newcastle kind of thing.

So since I’d already been to New York, and I knew I didn’t want to write for Broadway (or Off-), I decided – not all at once, but in a sort of gradual tipping point from “maybe” to “okay, let’s just do it” – that I’d move down to LA and become a screenwriter. Yes, just like that. You really have to love California; from birth we are completely inundated with T-shirt and bumper sticker messages like “Follow your bliss!” “Do what you love and the money will follow!” “Feel the fear and do it anyway!” 

Even more amusing- we actually believe all that.

So I moved down to LA and became a screenwriter.  Pretty much just like that.  Well, I worked in development for about a year and a half while I was writing my first script, and of course I was working my ass off learning the craft and the town and everything it takes to actually accomplish it all, but it really did happen pretty much like that. 

This is another example of a pattern that established itself early in my life. I’d be subliminally pushed to do something and then I’d power down, one might say obsessively, and make it happen. I directed my first full-length play at 16 by pretty much the same process; I landed an unheard-of gig (for a 17-year old!) in college directing a full-scale musical every year with an actual budget and in fantastic theater venues.  The Universe is very supportive of inspiration, I find.

I won’t go into my Hollywood years, it’s too convoluted a story for one blog and I still have the PTSD issues. I’ll just say I made a good and sometimes great living as a screenwriter for a long time until I started getting those feelings again– this time more like something was going terribly wrong in the industry. A lot of this was coming from being on the Board of Directors of the WGA, the screenwriters’ union, and getting an insider look at changes happening in the film business. I started getting whispers again– something like: This is insane. Save yourself.  Get out.  Or at least, diversify, as they say in the financial business.  And so I wrote a book. At night. Screenwriting became my day job as I sweated over the novel, one page at a time.  Sometimes one paragraph or one sentence at a time.  But that’s how a book gets written.

And that book sold and was nominated for a couple of awards and suddenly I was in another career. Just at the right time, I have to say, given what’s happened in the film business since I wrote that first book.

So now for the last five years I’ve been making my living at books. I have five published novels out, with numerous foreign editions, and a non-fiction workbook of my Screenwriting Tricks workshops. I have contracts for four more books, and every day I am incredibly grateful to be making a living at what I love (or some days, love to hate) in the middle of this terrible recession.

But –  I’m getting that feeling, again.  That – “Time to change” feeling.  “Diversify,” the voice whispers. Sometimes it’s not much of a whisper; sometimes it’s a bolt straight upright in bed with a voice in my head screaming DO IT!!!!  kind of thing. I mean, I have contracts for now, but what’s the business going to look like in a year?

Yes, I am talking about indie publishing.

We’ve been having these backstage discussions at Murderati about where we want the blog to go from here, and my own very strong feeling is that we need to be talking even more about e books and indie publishing. So I am putting my blogging where my mouth is and am going to do a series of posts on how the changes in the publishing business are affecting me and how I personally am dealing with it all.

I already have a toe in the e book business. Screenwriting Tricks For Authors is up on Amazon for Kindle, and I’ve been loving getting that direct deposit to my bank account every month; it really helped back there around Christmas when my advance check was taking about forever to show up. And a few weeks ago I finally buckled down and figured out how to get the book up on Smashwords, in all those formats that Smashwords does, and on B&N for Nook. And once I did, I felt like a complete idiot for not having done it before.  It is instant money that I could have been getting all along.

Back to the portfolio analogy for a moment:  it’s an income stream. As a professional author, I have many income streams. I get advances for my new books, I have a backlist that generates royalties, I have royalties from foreign publishers, and now I have e book income, soon to have much more, if things go as I’m planning – all in concert with my agent, of course.

The thing writers don’t talk about enough, I think, is how we actually manage to make that combine into a real living.  Well, I can tell you for myself, and for most of my friends who have NOT broken into the huge advance category but are still making a full-time living at writing books: how it’s done is by constant, grueling work to get more product out there to create more income streams – on top of writing the best book you can write every single time. It’s not very pleasant, truthfully – it means firing on all four burners 24/7.  But that’s nothing new – it seems to be the job description. Everyone I know does it.

Now, e books are a freaking ton of work that I’ve just added to an already overflowing plate. I am now responsible for lining up all kinds of support people that my publisher has always provided: proofreaders, editors, cover designers, formatters, technical services – and there’s a lot of new technical stuff I’ve had to learn myself, which I must say is not my forte. It’s overwhelming, which is why I haven’t fully done it before now. But I think it’s going to be crucial to have some eggs in that basket, so I’m biting the bullet, for real.  To mix all kinds of metaphors, as you all know I love to do.

And honestly, the control and flexibility you get with indie publishing is exhilarating. One thing I’ve discovered is that you can create your own formats. For Screenwriting Tricks, I have been working on and off for most of the past year on an extensive revision of the first book, incorporating all the things I’ve been learning in my own workshops. And then I realized – Why revise the first one?  At a $2.99 selling price I can put out another book that has a different focus, and people can choose which book is best suited to their needs, or get both – two whole workbooks for the price of one paperback novel! That’s an incredible thing. And I can price it that way and still make money because the royalties are so high.

So, in the next couple of weeks I am going to be releasing two new e books, the second Screenwriting Tricks book and a spooky new original e book novel: The Space Between – plus the Thriller Award-winning short story that I based that novel on: The Edge of Seventeen. And I’m going to write some posts documenting the process I’ve been going through and the resources I’ve discovered that helped me do it all.

It’s a whole new world, but it’s an exciting one, and I hope I can convey it in a way that might open some doors for other people thinking of taking the plunge.

So, a couple of questions.  Do any of you do periodic reviews of your careers to see how far you’ve come and where you want to go from now?  Do you find patterns?

And what about this e book thing?  Have you done it?  Are you thinking of doing it?  It’s coming up on Solstice, time for some serious manifestation.   Follow your bliss!!!

–  Alex

Visual image systems

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I am finally catching up on some films I didn’t get around to last year for various massive personal reasons, and I just watched Black Swan.

I have a lot to say about this movie if I were just writing about this movie. It was immediately striking how very, very, very, VERY seldom Hollywood puts out a movie that’s about a woman. It really is outrageous, when you think about it.  And when they do, it’s a not-so-sane-to-begin-with woman descending into complete madness. Well, maybe we wouldn’t be so damn mad if movies actually acted as if we exist.  But that’s not what I’m writing about today.

It reminded me of the old Bette Davis movies, really not something you see very often these days. And yes, I have to say the dancing drove me completely crazy.  Natalie Portman is a very good dancer for an actress, but she’s not even in the same universe as a prima ballerina; I wish they’d just used the real one throughout.

But the real reason I am starting this post with Black Swan is that it is a great example of a blatant and shameless visual image system.
Look at the fun Darren Aronofsky and his designers have with black and white: note when the heroine wears white, when she starts wearing white and black, when shades of gray are used (as with the company director), who else wears black and when.

It made me want to revise a previous chapter on Visual Storytelling and Thematic Image Systems to incorporate other examples I’ve come across in the last year.

I’ve said that I think it’s most useful to think of theme not just as one sentence, but as layers of meaning, a whole set of morals and lessons and ruminations and propositions; a world of interrelated meanings that resonate on levels that you’re not even aware of, sometimes, but that stay with you and bring you back to certain stories over and over and over again.

(Think of some of the dreams you have, where there will be double and triple puns, visual and verbal. And by the way, if you’re a writer, and you’re not keeping a dream journal, you’re working too hard. Why not let your subconscious do the work?).

There are all kinds of ways to work theme into a story. The most obvious is the PLOT. Every plot is also a statement of theme. DIALOGUE is another, as I’ve discussed before.

But today I’m going to revisit the concept of reflecting theme through primarily visual image systems.

A great example of working a thematic image system, in this case entirely visually, is the first scene of Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

The very first encounter and shock moment comes less than two minutes into the film, when one of the guides in Indy’s search party chops through undergrowth to reveal a huge, demonic statue. The terrified guide runs away, screaming. It’s a thematic reference to the awesome power of the gods (And a setup of Indy’s CHARACTER ARC: he begins the movie without fear of the supernatural; by the end he understands that there are things he will never understand, awesome forces that need to be respected).

The entrance to the cave is temple-like, part of the thematic image system of world religions and mysticism.

Inside the cave, Indy pushes through a veil of cobwebs. At first this just looks cool and spooky – but maybe it’s also symbolic of piercing the veil between reality and the supernatural or divine.

Beyond the chasm Indy and the guide pass by a gold Aztec calendar (or something like one!) at the entrance of the cave: another visual representation of world religions, which will be presented in various ways throughout the film. The calendar is also part of the ongoing theme of mysticism and the supernatural; note the eerie music.

And finally, the inner chamber and the altar with the gold idol, another religious image. Indy susses out another booby trap: the stepping stones: if you step in the wrong place, poisoned darts fly.  

Just as Indy makes it out of the cave, there’s the reversal and defeat that the natives are right there with bows and arrows… and Belloq steps up to take the idol away from him. When Belloq holds the idol up, all the natives bow down to it, externalizing the theme of the power of the gods and the necessity for reverence.

And you thought all that was going on there was action, right?

Of course, one thing all my screenwriting has been good for is learning how to convey a story visually. But my obsession with visual storytelling started way before I started writing scripts. Production design is a crucial element of theater, too, and we had a brilliant head of design in the theater department at Berkeley, Henry May, so I got spoiled early on with mindbending, thematic sets that gave a whole other dimensionality to the plays I saw in my formative years. A good production designer will make every single thing you look at on stage – color scheme, props, sets, costuming, shapes, textures – contribute to your deeper understanding of the play’s story, characters and themes.

That was a lesson that served me well when I started screenwriting. And then working as a screenwriter opened up whole new worlds of visual storytelling.

So what can we as authors learn from screenwriting about writing visually?

A lot.

In film, every movie has a production designer: one artist (and these people are genius level, let me tell you) who is responsible, in consultation with the director and with the help of sometimes a whole army of production artists) for the entire look of the film – every color, costume, prop, set choice.

With a book, guess who’s the production designer?

You are.

And how do you learn to be a great production designer?

But studying other great production designers.

Alien is a perfect example of brilliant production design. The visual image systems are staggering. Take a look at those sets (created by Swiss surrealist HR Giger). What do you see? Sexual imagery everywhere. Insect imagery, a classic for horror movies. Machine imagery. Anatomical imagery: the spaceships have very human-looking spines (vertebrae and all), intestinal-looking piping, vulvic doors. And the gorgeous perversity of the design is that the look of the film combines the sexual and the insectoid, the anatomical with the mechanical, throws in some reptilian, serpentine, sea-monsterish under-the-sea-effects – to create a hellish vision that is as much a character in the film as any of the character characters.

Oh, and did I mention the labyrinth imagery? Yes, my great favorite: you’ve got a monster in a maze.

Those are very specific choices and combinations. The sexual imagery and water imagery open us up on a subconscious level and make us vulnerable to the horrors of insects, machines and death. The combination imagery also gives us a clear visual picture of a future world in which machines and humans have evolved together into a new species. It’s unique, gorgeous, and powerfully effective.

Obviously Terminator (the first) is a brilliant use of machine/insect imagery as well.

Nobody does image systems better than Thomas Harris. Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon are serial killer novels, but Harris elevates that overworked genre to art, in no small part due to his image systems.

In Silence, Harris borrows heavily from myth and especially fairy tales. You’ve got the labyrinth/Minotaur. You’ve got a monster in a cage, a troll holding a girl in a pit (and that girl is a princess, remember: her mother is American royalty, a senator). You’ve got a twist on the “lowly peasant boy rescues the princess with the help of supernatural allies” fairy tale: Clarice is the lowly peasant who enlists the help of (one might also say apprentices to) Lecter’s wizardlike perceptions to rescue the princess. You have another twisted wizard in his cave who is trying to turn himself into a woman.

You have the insect imagery here as well, with the moths, the spiders and mice in the storage unit, and the entomologists with their insect collections in the museum, the theme of change, larva to butterfly.

In Red Dragon Harris works the animal imagery to powerful effect. The killer is not a mere man, he’s a beast. When he’s born he’s compared to a bat because of his cleft palate. He kills on a moon cycle, like a werewolf. He uses his grandmother’s false teeth, like a vampire. And let’s not forget: he’s trying to turn into a dragon. A lot of authors will just throw in random images. How boring and meaningless! What makes what Harris does so effective is that he has an intricate, but extremely specific an
d limited image system going in his books. And he combines fantastical visual and thematic imagery with very realistic and accurate police procedure.

Hopefully I have by now trained you all to be on the lookout for SETPIECE SCENES in films and books. But a really great setpiece scene is a lot more than just dazzling. It’s thematic, too, such as the prison (dungeon for the criminally insane) in Silence.  That is much more than your garden variety prison. It’s a labyrinth of twisty staircases and creepy corridors. And it’s hell: Clarice goes through – count ‘em – seven gates, down, down, down under the ground to get to Lecter. Because after all, she’s going to be dealing with the devil, isn’t she? And the labyrinth is a classic symbol of an inner psychological journey, just exactly what Clarice is about to go through. And Lecter is a monster, like the Minotaur, so putting him smack in the center of a labyrinth makes us unconsciously equate him with a mythical beast, something both more and less than human. The visuals of that setpiece express all of those themes perfectly (and others, too) so the scene is working on all kinds of visceral, emotional, subconscious levels.

Now, yes, that’s brilliant filmmaking by director Jonathan Demme, and screenwriter Ted Talley and production designer Kristi Zea and DP Tak Fujimoto… but it was all there on Harris’s page, first, all that and more; the filmmakers had the good sense to translate it to the screen. In fact, both Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon are so crammed full of thematic visual imagery you can catch something new every time you reread those books.

If you watch or rewatch Sea Of Love, which I did just recently, you’ll see how the storytellers work the sea images and the love images throughout the film. The film is often shot in blue tones and against backdrops of wide panes of glass, with moving shadows –  all creating an undersea or aquarium effect, especially in the suspense scenes. The story explores themes of love, including obsessive love, and addiction – sex addiction and alcoholism. There are repeating visuals of bottles, glasses, drinking, nudity, erotic art, X-rated movie theaters, hookers.  

The film also uses color to create emotion and thematic meaning: red for passion and attraction (in clothing, flowers, fruits and vegetables), and white for innocence, truth, new love (again in clothing, bedclothes, dishware).  Al Pacino as the protagonist starts wearing the soft leopard-print slippers his lover gives him to reflect that he is discovering his sensual and animal side.

The Harry Potter books are so crammed full of visual imagery it would take a book to  go into it all (there probably is one, in fact…) The books play with all the classic symbols of witches, wizards and magic: owls, cats, gnome, newts, feathers, wands, crystals, ghosts, shapeshifters, snakes, frogs, rats, brooms (I don’t really have to keep going, do I?).  But Rowling also uses recurring images very specifically – and numerology as well. Twos are ambiguous and problematic, a classic symbol of duality, with good and evil unintegrated and opposing. You see this in the character clusters of Harry and his rotten cousin, Dudley; Harry and Draco Malfoy; Harry and Voldemort (who are linked by the feathers in their wands, only two of a kind in existence, produced by the same phoenix, another recurring image). In the first book and film, Voldemort lives as a tumor on the back of Professor Quirrell’s head (creating a Janus two-face). Even the cake that Hagrid brings Harry for his birthday is cracked in the shape of the yin/yang symbol.

Threes, on the other hand, are good: there’s the triumvirate of Harry, Ron, and Hermione; and the other powerhouse three of Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid. Even the seemingly threatening three-headed dog turns out to be a guard dog named Fluffy who is in the service of Dumbledore and Hagrid.

In The Secret Life Of Bees Sue Monk Kidd builds a wonderful, intricate thematic image system based on fairy tale symbols and tropes and representations of the goddess and femininity. The young protagonist runs away from her abusive father after breaking her African-American housekeeper out of custody, and the two of them are taken in by a group of three African-American women who keep bees and practice worship of the Black Madonna.  This is total fairy tale stuff: the girl and her companion, the three fairy godmothers who raise her to true womanhood in the wilderness (relatively). But the three fairy godmothers are also representations of the Triple Goddess; bees are the classic symbol of the goddess; there are lots of references to flowering and queens, Mary and the Black Madonna, as the girl discovers the strength of her own femininity and femininity in general. There is also a strong theme of love transcending and healing the wounds of racism. It’s a great book to study for superb use of image systems.

Look at The Wizard of Oz (just the brilliant contrast of the black and white world of Kansas and the Technicolor world of Oz says volumes). Look at what Barbara Kingsolver does in Prodigal Summer, where images of fecundity and the, well, prodigiousness of nature overflow off the pages, revealing characters and conflicts and themes. Look at what Robert Towne and Roman Polanski do with water in Chinatown and also, try watching that movie sometime with Oedipus in mind… the very specific parallels will blow you away. Take a look at Groundhog Day, which constantly provides groundhog images, images of stopped or handless clocks (and that malevolent clock radio), an ice image of the eye of God, anthropomorphic weather.

It’s always useful to start with blatant use of symbolism and visual imagery, as in the some of the examples above, to get the hang of how storytellers use these visual techniques, and then start looking for more subtle usages. But if you prefer your stories more bare instead of dripping with imagery, well, great! It’s all about what works for you.

So how do you create a visual/thematic image system in your books?

Well, start by becoming more conscious of what image systems authors are working with in books and films that you love. Some readers/writers don’t care at all about visual image systems. That’s fine – whatever floats your boat. Me, with rare exceptions, I’ll toss a book within twenty pages if I don’t think the author knows what s/he’s doing visually.

What I do when I start a project, along with outlining, is to keep a list of thematic words (in my notebook!) that convey what my story is about, to me. For The Harrowing it was words like: creation, chaos, abyss, fire, forsaken, shattered, shattering, portal, door, gateway, vessel, empty, void, rage, fury, cast off, forgotten, abandoned, alone, rejected, neglected, shards, discarded… I did pages and pages of words like that.

For The Price: bargain, price, deal, winter, ice, buried, dormant, resurrection, apple, temptation, tree, garden, labyrinth, Sleeping Beauty, castle, queen, princess, prince, king, wish, grant, deal, contract, task, hell, purgatory, descent, mirror, spiral…

Some words I’ll have from the very beginning because they’re part of my own thematic DNA. But as the word lists grow, so does my understanding of the inherent themes of each particular story.

Do you see how that might start to work? Not only do you get a sense of how the story can look to convey your themes, but you also have a growing list of specific words that you can work with in your prose so that you’re constantly hitting those themes on different levels.

At the same time that I’m doing my word lists, I start a collage book, and try to spend some time every week flipping through magazines and pulling photos that resonate with my story. I find Vogue,
the Italian fashion mags, Vanity Fair, Premiere, Rolling Stone and of course, National Geographic, particularly good for me. I tape those photos together in a blank artists’ sketchbook (I use tape so I can move the photos around when I feel like it. If you’re more – well, if you’re neater than I am, you can also use plastic sleeves in a three-ring binder). Other people do collages on their computers with Photoshop. I am not one of those people, myself, I need to touch things. But it’s another way of growing an image system. And it doesn’t feel like writing so you think you’re getting away with something.

Also, know your world myths and fairy tales! Why make up your own backstory and characters when you can tap into universally powerful archetypes? Chris Nolan was blatantly working the myth of Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur in the labyrinth in Inception (a little too on-the nose to me to actually call the character Ariadne; we get it, okay? But overall, it was good stuff).  

Remember, there’s no new story under the sun, so being conscious of your antecedents can help you bring out the archetypal power of the characters and themes you’re working with.

So I’d love to hear some books and films which to you have particularly striking visual and thematic image systems. And authors (painters, dancers…) hat are some of your favorite images to work with? Are you aware of having recurring thematic images in your work?

– <a href=””>Alex</a>



By Alex


What? What are all of you doing here? Don’t you know the world is ending at 6 pm tonight?  You East Coasters better get a move on.
Actually, one of the things I love about the Rapture is that there’s really nothing to do about it.  It’s all already decided, you’re either in, or you’re out.  The thing I really love about the idea of the Rapture is that everybody wins.  We would finally get rid of all those people (they are taking Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck with them, right?), and they would finally get rid of us.
No, there’s more than that to love about the Rapture.  The idea that all of these people would just disappear, literally, at the same time, poof!   Or rise up to heaven like balloons.  That’s great science fiction, total eye candy for a writer.   In fact I read a great version of that kind of thing, kind of, when I was a kid, when one day the world suddenly just divided itself into  male and female.  All the men continued to exist in one universe, and all the women continued to exist in another, and they had to rebuild their societies completely without the other sex, and the author was comparing and contrasting the societies that emerged.  Great idea, and disturbing, too.
In this case, I don’t think the world that remained would change much with the Raptured people gone. Since I don’t really believe they’d be taking Limbaugh and Beck, we’d still be stuck with the noisiest.  And their side of things – I’m not all that interested in imagining what they think they’re going off to.  But if people literally disappeared at 6 pm today, what a great disaster movie that would be, right?  I mean, Hollywood will never make it because the town is so weirdly paranoid about offending fundamentalists, but it would beat hell out of the recent 2012, for example.
I guess I’m fixating on all this because – well, the question is, who isn’t fixated on it?  I think it’s fascinating that this particular prediction of the Rapture went viral – it was the most-Googled thing on the planet yesterday. It makes me think that I’m doing something wrong – in a marketing sense, that is.
Why are we so in love with Doomsday?  Besides the fact that it means we can take the day off, I get that part.  Or maybe that’s most of what there is to it.  But maybe what we’re missing is that riotous celebration of death that primitive cultures used to indulge in. Maybe we’re just enjoying the surreal and potentially spectacular quality of this  – concept? Obsession?
Or is it more about self-punishment?  Do we pay the attention we pay to this Rapture thing in some small part because we actually believe in a punishing Universe?   Or God, if you will?
Personally, I don’t believe in a punishing God.  But when I get really honest I have to admit that I still fear random punishment, which is a spiritual belief, or spiritual choice.  Not from God – certainly not from a God of the Bible – but from the Universe.  I don’t believe that rationally or even consciously most of the time, but I have realized that I believe it in expectation.  That sooner or later, something bad is going to happen.
And that’s one of those self-defeating illusions that you can be totally unaware that you have, until you really examine what you’re thinking, what you believe, what you expect.
When writers or artists are blocked, I think it’s usually more about that kind of thing than anything to do with the difficulty of the current project.  It’s more a time bomb of self- sabotage that was set long, long ago that’s suddenly gone off.   “I’m not good enough.”  “Making art is selfish.”  “You don’t get paid for doing something you love.”  “I don’t deserve to be successful.”
Sound familiar?  Seems like we’ve been talking about things like that here for at least a couple of weeks, now.
I’m beginning to realize how important it is to do periodic sweeps for these subconscious landmines.  If you’re not aware that you believe these things, they will eventually blow up in your face.  Self-sabotage can take all kinds of forms, some spectacular, some insidious, but all equally devastating.  But I think – I think – they might all come down to the idea that there is something OUT THERE preventing us from getting our heart’s desires – when really the only thing preventing us is INSIDE.  And generally planted a long, long time ago.
I’ve heard it said that the family is the cradle of theology.   I love that – it seems so exactly true.  We believe we will get from the Universe what we did from our families.  And psychologists generally agree that our core traumas have been inflicted by the time we’re five years old, which means we don’t even usually REMEMBER what those traumas are.
So it’s not an easy thing we’re talking about here – finding the roots of our own Doomsday beliefs and defusing those bombs before they blow up (or at least cleaning up effectively after they do.)  
But that’s what I wish for all of you on this, the last day of the world – that you let the Rapture take away all those demons – just send them on up there with Limbaugh and Beck – and start your fresh new lives.
Six o’clock p.m, and counting.
And if you aren’t out there stocking up on water and propane, how are you spending your last day?  What do you think it is about this Rapture thing?
– Alex