Category Archives: Alexandra Sokoloff

More scary monsters: Sense And Sensibility

by Alexandra Sokoloff

In Stephen’s wonderful post yesterday he was asking about great thrillers – in the context of comparing and contrasting two of my favorite books and movies:  Thomas Harris’s masterpieces Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs.

When I teach, I use those two books all the time – to the, um,  horror, of the aspiring romance writers who often take my workshops, who wouldn’t be caught dead (sorry, I’ll stop now) reading those books.   But I always try to get new writers to understand that they can learn just as much from stories outside their own genre, because the elements of story – and suspense – are the same no matter how many bodies are or are not falling or how many creatures are or are not lurking in the basement.

And for us darker types, there’s a lot to be learned about storytelling  from classics in other genres.

I am lately on a Reacher binge and at the same time obsessed with the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson film of Sense And Sensibility.   Which makes a warped kind of sense because my experience with romance is more along the lines of what you get in the Reacher books, and I find serious horror in Sense And Sensibility.  But I’m not joking about the horror in Sense and Sensibility (or any Austen book), and it’s not a horror of romance, either.    I am, however, horrified at the Netflix description of the film as “Austen’s classic tale of 19th century etiquette”.  This story is more about monsters in the basement than it is about etiquette.   

Actually, it is about an evil much bigger than a monster in the basement.

The film opens at the deathbed of Mr. Dashwood, the father of our heroines Elinor and Marianne (Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, one all “Sense” and the other all Sensibility” – ie, passion.).    Mr. Dashwood has called in John, his son from a previous marriage, to whom Dashwood’s entire fortune and houses will pass under the law of primogeniture, which bars women from inheriting property and keeps both the patriarchy and the aristocracy intact by mandating that family fortunes pass undivided to the eldest son of a family, with only minimal livings carved out for any remaining male children.

Before he dies, Dashwood extracts a promise from John that he will take care of the present Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, who by law are only allowed to inherit 500 pounds.

John’s original intention is to give the Dashwood women an additional 3000 pounds so they can live comfortably on the interest, but in the course of a carriage ride up to Norland Park, where John and his wife will take over the Dashwood house, John’s harridan of a wife, Fanny whittles John’s gift down to nothing at all:  “Twenty pounds here and there should be ample.   What would four women need with more than 500 pounds?”

This series of scenes is a beautiful – and funny –  dramatization of greed in action, and Fanny makes a detestable villain.   But more importantly, the scenes introduce the real villain of the story, and every Austen story: primogeniture – which kept the rich superrich, the poor practically or literally indentured as servants to the rich, and women enslaved to men, for centuries.

Stylistically, Jane Austen was writing comedies, but the stories are built on social outrage, and I believe it’s that canny blend that made and keeps these books classics.

The whole next sequence introduces us to the extremely sympathetic Dashwood women as they are reduced to guests in their own house – in the midst of their deep grief over the loss of their father and husband.   While Fanny steamrolls through the house claiming everything in it as her own, the Dashwood women scramble to find other living arrangements on their tiny inheritance.

And then, enter Edward Ferrars – Fanny’s intelligent but very reserved brother (Hugh Grant at his diffidently charming best) who instantly understands the pain of the Dashwoods’ circumstances, bonds with and draws out youngest daughter Margaret, and falls hard – abeit reservedly – for kindred soul Elinor.   Of course, a match made in heaven – but there’s more to this than love.   In her circumstances, Elinor’s life and her family’s lives depend on her making a good marriage, because women are prohibited from earning an income.   So a happy marriage to a well-off man is the dream, the best possible outcome– but the stakes couldn’t be higher, and Elinor’s situation is more than tenuous – she has not the slightest power over the outcome.   Fanny and Edward’s mother (offstage, but very present in the form of threat of disinheriting Edward if he makes an “unworthy marriage”) immediately go about preventing this match, and the Dashwoods move from their home to a cottage on the estate of Mrs. Dashwood’s wealthy cousin, without a marriage proposal from Edward to Elinor. 

In their new home, younger sister Marianne catches the eye of the county’s most eligible bachelor, wealthy and cultured Colonel Brandon  (a completely dreamy Alan Rickman).  Marianne scorns Brandon’s attentions, thinking him too old (he’s 35 in the book), and falls hard for the dashing Willoughby, who also seems very well-fixed financially and outspokenly shares Marianne’s passion for poetry and music.   Elinor, though, has doubts…. 

All of this set up (the first act of the film) makes for huge stakes emotionally.   We hope that Elinor will make her happy marriage with Edward.   We hope Marianne will also make a happy marriage, but are uneasy with her choice of Willoughby (over Alan Rickman???   Surely that’s wrong…)   We fear that Edward will not marry Elinor because of his mother’s threat of disinheritance.   

Elinor is very much in love with Edward; we know she will never find as perfect a mate elsewhere.  But even beyond that – her life without him is clear and endlessly grim – spinsterhood, poverty, or perhaps a loveless marriage that at best would turn her into some version of Fanny, and at worst – well, put any ribbon you want on marriage, but at the time women were property of their husbands. (And we’re not all that long out of it, ourselves.)

Marianne’s possible fate is spelled out even more graphically by Colonel Brandon.   As a youth he fell in love with his family’s young ward, but they were forbidden to marry because she was penniless.   Brandon was shipped off to war, and the young woman was turned out of the house and reduced to prostitution;  Brandon returned to find her dying in a poorhouse.

It’s all reported very discreetly, but it’s clear this is exactly what could happen to the passionate, impetuous Marianne if Willoughby throws her over.   And throw her over he does…

Now of course, after some hair-raising reversals, there is finally a brilliantly happy ending; all the right people marry.  But underneath all of that is the undercurrent of the horror that might happen if it doesn’t end happily – the stakes are just about as high as they can get.

And it’s not just the women who suffer under the system of primogeniture and complete control by the property owners of the society.  Willoughby is disinherited and reduced to marrying for money, when his true love is Marianne.   Edward is disinherited by his mother when he chooses to marry “beneath him” and only saved from poverty by the sympathetic Colonel Brandon, who offers him a clergy position in the local parish.   And we also see the miserable marriage of a couple of minor characters – wonderful performance by Hugh Laurie as a man who married for money and is drowning in his own bitterness.

Austen’s work is so often called “drawing room comedy”, but I don’t read or see many thrillers that have anywhere near this level of tension, suspense, and truly horrific stakes – it’s my most fervent hope that I can create characters and situations anywhere near this emotional gripping.

So how about it, Rati –  what books or movies have gripped you lately?   Any examples of huge emotional and/or thematic stakes you weren’t expecting in a particular genre?

I’d especially love to hear about emotional and thematic stakes in thrillers and mysteries, but any gerne is fine with me.)

And of course I have to ask –  Hugh Grant or Alan Rickman?


Whoa, There’s a Man On My Cover!

By Alexandra Sokoloff

I have a new book out this week, The Shifters, which makes my third this year, if you count my non-fiction Screenwriting Tricks workbook, which has been selling really well on Amazon – maybe everyone should be paying a whole lot more attention to Joe Konrath than they already are. 

So I guess the year wasn’t the complete and total black hole it felt like as I was living through it.   Things got done, even if I can’t exactly remember how that was or even how it could have been, under the circumstances. 

I think maybe this book was a bit more of an out of body experience than usual because, yes, I went over to the dark side, that is, the not-as-dark-as-my-usual-dark-side side, of paranormal romance.   Which I am hoping the discerning reader will be able to discern from the cover, which indeed, has one of those alpha males on the cover.   Truth in advertising, people.


Despite challenges, like having to write a love plot that actually ends well, this has been a fun thing in every way.   I am constantly urging new writers to go to the conferences and workshops because Good Things Happen there – whether it’s getting the inspiration for the next book or getting a great agent or getting a great feature article in a great magazine or  – even – having friends ask you to write a book with them.

In this case the phenomenal, and I mean phenomenal, Heather Graham, author of I think around 175 books now, all with her distinctive blend of paranormal romance, thriller, and traditional mystery,  asked me if I’d be interested in writing a book for a trilogy that she’d be headlining for Harlequin Nocturne.   For the record, there is no possible answer to  a question like that but “When do I start?”

And I have developed an interesting dilemma.   I have a growing contingent of readers who want to read me but who are too scared to read my books.    (If there is such a thing as doing a job too well, I guess I’ve achieved it).    So this was a chance to write something that the people I meet at the romance cons, and at a lot of workshops that I teach, can actually read.   And then of course maybe, just maybe, they’d go a little further and read one of the others…

I’ve been very interested in Nocturne’s business model, which seems to be mostly about developing trilogies:  either three interconnected books by three different authors, or three interconnected books by the same author, that are generally released quickly, one per month for three months, to build maximum momentum for the series.   (All of us know how well that worked for Our Allison as a debut author.)

And our third author is Deborah LeBlanc, another horror writer (President of the Horror Writers of America, in fact) who also sidelines as a paranormal investigator.    So I knew even though a happy ending was required, I could also get pretty dark with these two. 

We decided immediately we wanted to write three sisters, and while we were at one of our favorite library events:  Jubilee Jambalaya, in Houma, LA, we were able to sit down and brainstorm out a story.  All great – except when we discovered that even though Nocturne had initially said, “Anything you guys want to write,” in reality that translated to “contemporary setting with vampires or werewolves.”   

So it was back to the drawing board at last year’s Bouchercon in Indianapolis, where the three of us sat down in a quiet alcove in the lobby and in a shockingly short time came up with the idea of The Keepers, three sisters with an ancestral duty of keeping the peace between the communities of paranormal beings which hide in plain sight in our mutual favorite city of New Orleans.    This way each sister could have charge of a different set of beings: Heather could write the vampires, as she has done so well before; Deb would write the werewolves, which she’d always wanted to do; and I, the least comfortable with creatures, was assigned the shapeshifters, with whom I have long acquaintance.   Men, mostly….

We decided that each book would focus on a murder within one of the communities, and the Keeper sister of that community would have to team up with a male vampire, werewolf, or shapeshifter from that community to solve the crime before the human population of New Orleans got wind of the murders… and discovered the existence of the paranormal communities.   And that teaming up of course provided the love plot and also the relationship conflict – Keepers aren’t technically supposed to be involved with their charges.

Now, for those of you reeling at the idea of collaborating on interconnected books – remember, I worked in Hollywood and in improvisational theater, so collaboration is something I actually miss.   And this situation was the perfect blend of independence and teamwork – we were each off writing our own books, but the rules of each paranormal community were developed by the author writing the corresponding vampire book, the shifter book, and the werewolf book.    So we could take each other’s rules and characters and weave them into our own books.   And the three of us have spent significant time with each other in New Orleans, and we were absolutely committed to portraying that city in all her outrageous glory.   It really did work shockingly well, and whatever we missed, our terrific editor Leslie Wainger was there to bring things into focus and continuity.

The process was not without its quirks.   I was writing the second book and mine was due just two weeks after Heather’s – which posed a problem for me because Heather writes at the speed of light and I just – don’t.   So I couldn’t bear to wait to read what she was going to write… instead I ended up joining her on the Florida Romance Writers Muse Cruise, from Miami to Mexico,  and when the group left the ship to take a side trip to the Mayan ruins of Tulum, I trapped Heather in the back of the bus and we bashed out a lot of both our stories.   It was probably the most surreal writing experience I’ve had to date, but we got what we needed out of it.   (Writers have the most amazing lives – I know we’d enjoy them completely if it weren’t for that constant adrenaline rush of panic.)

And Harlequin has been wonderfully supportive of the series, including creating this great website for us:   (You can read first chapters of all three books in The Keepers trilogy there).

I wanted to talk about this experience partly for all our aspiring author ‘Rati, because I know as a new author I had this idea in my head that I would be writing a book a year, on my own, in the same genre.   I didn’t have any idea that opportunities like this would exist, or that I could create my own unique projects, like another collaboration I did this year which I’ll be able to talk more about shortly.    But publishing really is a whole huge world, and you never know what great experience is just around the corner.  Or even on a Mexican bus trip.

So, authors, I’d love to hear about quirky writing opportunities that have come up for you.  And readers – how do you feel about following authors you like into a different genre?


Nanowrimo – Make a list

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I’m sure many 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 – now international – 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 debut 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.

I’ve been doing a series of Nano prep posts on my blog, but today I’m going to give you the bottom line of everything I’m ever saying about writing.

Make a list.

I am pretty sure there is no story problem that cannot be solved by stopping the hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth, breathing a bit, and then sitting calmly down to make a list of examples of the way great storytellers (YOUR favorite storytellers)  have dealt with the particular problem that you are tearing your hair out and grinding your teeth over. 

I am talking about specific, personalized, Top Ten lists.

Can’t figure out a great opening?   List your Top Ten favorite or most striking opening images.  

Your villain isn’t villainous enough?   Make a Top Ten Villains list, and take some time to really break down why those bad boys, or girls, turn YOU on.   (More here….)

Your story isn’t hot enough?   Have some real fun and list your top ten steamiest sex scenes – and/or best kisses.  (Warning: try to have some loved one close at hand for later… better yet, make a night of it – rent the movies and… analyze… those particular scenes together.   Don’t you just love research?)

Not enough suspense?   List your top ten most thrilling suspense scenes (and this would be a great list for you to do anyway, because we’ll be delving further into suspense this week.)

Top Ten Character Introductions  (see here).  Top Ten Climaxes (story climaxes, I mean now).  Top Ten Heroes and Heroines.   Top Ten Inciting Incidents/Calls to Adventure.  Top Ten Crossing the Threshold/Into the Special World scenes.   Top Ten Image Systems (more posts on this coming.)

Are you starting to get how incredibly useful  – and fun – this can be?

Here’s a more in-depth example.

I recently read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the oh-so-it YA series – and for good reason.  Talk about a high concept premise!  Actually we’ll talk about that some other time.

But just one of the many, many things this book does well is develop a unique and memorable mentor character, that often crucial character archetype  – so-called for the original mentor, Mentor, in the Odyssey.  Of course that Mentor had a little more than human wisdom, as it was really the goddess Athena taking Mentor’s form who guided Odysseus and his son Telemachus at critical junctions in the story.   This is good dramatic history to know, as we often see the same god/desslike wisdom and nearly supernatural – or overtly supernatural – power in more modern versions of the mentor.

I’m a particular fan of the mentor story, so I thought I’d make a list and see why this character so appeals to me.

In fact, if you want to play along, just stop right here and try it – just take a minute to brainstorm ten great – or at least memorable – mentor characters. That is, great according to YOU.  Oh, all right, you can do five now, and get down to some juicier ones later.  You can even throw in some not so classic ones, for contrast.

My off-the-top-of-my-head list:

Hannibal Lecter (but you all knew that!)
Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid
Glinda the Good
Morpheus the Bad
Obi Wan Kenobi
Their granddaddy – Merlin
Mary Poppins
The Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth
Johnny in Dirty Dancing
My new favorite, Haymitch in Hunger Games

And that’s already more than ten, but I’ll also throw in Baba Yaga, that most feared witch of Russian folktales, a pre-Lecter villainess who often served up great wisdom to her protégés… if she didn’t eat them first.  

And yes, yes, I know, Mr. Miyagi in the ORIGINAL Karate Kid.

It’s an interesting thing to look at mentors in terms of what they bring to the story structurally, as well as just as individual characters.  Of course everyone on my list is quirky, outrageous or frankly off the charts (except Johnny, but it’s that dance thing…).  And yes, a couple of my choices reflect that I am partial to the hot mentor type.   But I also love some of them for how they enhance the stories structurally. 

In The Hunger Games, Haymitch is a past (distant past) winner of the games who is supposed to guide the two sacrifices from his province to victory in the Games (think Survivor meets The Lottery meets Lord of the Flies).  We meet Haymitch as he falls off a stage, stumbling drunk.   In fact, he vomits all over himself on national TV.  He has a reputation as a complete buffoon.   Not a great omen for his protégés, right?   But doesn’t that up the suspense incredibly?   How are Our Heroes Katniss and Peeta supposed to survive the Games with only this loser to rely on?


Katniss and Peeta do their damndest to get the most information they can out of Haymitch, and the relationship begins to develop, first as Haymitch realizes he might have a couple of survivors on his hands, and then with Katniss learning at key points that she can actually rely on Haymitch’s sponsorship and guidance – they develop an almost psychic bond, and Katniss comes to understand through her own growing success in the games exactly what would have turned Haymitch into an alcoholic: she can see herself going down exactly the same road if she survives/wins.   In the end, Haymitch is the first one she runs to embrace, showing how deep the relationship has become.

(Unfortunately I can’t see this coming as such a surprise in the movie version with the rumored – or is that desired? – casting of Alan Rickman.  The minute we see Alan Rickman we know there’s more to a character than meet the eye.  I will never in my life argue the casting of Alan Rickman in anything, but it really would be a big tipoff, there.)

The Harry Potter series is a wonderful example of how can give your story a fairy tale mysticism
and resonance by creating three mentors (also sometimes called supernatural allies) in the pattern of the three witches or three fairy godmothers – one of the world’s most powerful and enduring archetypes.  In the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid are fantastically unique characters on their own, but as a trinity, they are mythic.   Of course, the classic A Wrinkle In Time (novel) does the same with Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which – direct descendants of the three Fates, Moerae, Norns – all themselves derivative of the Triple Goddess.

And speaking of fairy godmothers… helpful as she is in a pinch, Glinda is less a mentor to Dorothy than an anima figure, a personification of the pure strength and goodness of Dorothy’s feminine Self.   For all Billie Burke’s campiness, it’s still one of the most powerfully transcendent images of the feminine ever put on film.   And please – give me a mentor who bestows ruby slippers!

Yoda, of course, and Ben Kenobi, also bring depth to the mentor roles by their utter contrast in characters and similarity in strength and spiritual power.   And of course the feisty Zen charm of Yoda, the utter surprise of this tiny indomitable creature when he harrumphed his way onto the world stage, earned him a place on the Top Ten Mentors Of All Time list.

Both of these are direct descendents of Merlin, as are Dumbledore and Gandalf.   I especially love T.H. White’s depiction of that classic wizard/mentor in The Once and Future King.

Hannibal Lecter, as I’ve discussed here before, is a delicious (sorry) take on the mentor character – a cannibalistic sociopath who turns out to be a damn fine teacher.

Besides being a delight for the pure badass sexual charge of Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, The Matrix is a great film to look at for a structure you often find in a mentor story: the mentor drives the action for a good long time, and when the protégé, in this case Neo, finally takes over the story to save his own mentor, we feel that action as a huge and exhilarating character growth. 

In Pan’s Labyrinth, the Faun is a unique take on a mentor not just for that amazing creature created by the filmmakers, but also because we really don’t know if the young heroine should be trusting this bizarre and erratic being who is her guide into the underworld.   This unease creates a lot of suspense and dread in this very emotional film.

While not as fantastical as the others on my list, Johnny from Dirty Dancing is a memorable mentor because he really is a great teacher, from a dancer’s perspective, and personally I particularly like the mentor/lover combination, the forbidden quality of that dynamic.   That kind of story generally has a bittersweet end, and Dirty Dancing delivers the poignancy.   Back to Merlin, again – I love his own backstory (or front story, as he lives life backward…) with Nimue, a protégé/lover/destroyer to him.

Mary Poppins is also a Mysterious Stranger character – the mentor who pops in to fix a situation (in this case a family), and pops out again.   Everybody’s ideal of a teacher, who literally opens magical doors.   As much as I love the druggie movie, the PL Travers books are must-reads for the sheer prickliness of Mary P.  – Julie Andrews she is not, but the adventures are all the more fantastical and bizarre.

Now, remember – not all stories have mentors, it’s not a requirement of a great story.  I should also note that often instead of a mentor you will see another classic character: The Expert From Afar.  Both Hooper and Quint in Jaws fall into this category, in my opinion (as well as being Sheriff Brody’s chief Allies).  They’re great characters, but they don’t take on the deeply personal and often spiritual dimension of teacher that a true mentor character tends to have.

The Expert From Afar, done badly, can take a turn into “Morris The Explainer” – a character (to compound the cliché, this is often a professor) who appears in one scene to take an exposition dump (okay, REALLY sorry, but if you think of it that way it might discourage you from ever doing it…) and promptly disappears into oblivion. 

I really should do a list of bad examples for contrast, but maybe you all can just take care of that for me in the comments (she says hopefully…)

And there’s another character that shows up sometimes that I guess I’ll call the Oracle, or Sibyl – like the Oracle in the Matrix, or the little Indian woman who tells Jamal to “Win it for India” before the last round of the game in Slumdog Millionaire, or the three witches with their fateful prophecies in Macbeth.   This is not to my mind the same as a mentor, who takes on the protégé as a much longer commitment (although I think the Oracle comes back to do something more like that in the Matrix sequels, but I wouldn’t swear to it…).   But it’s a variation that can have a lot of dramatic power, done well.

So how about it?   Give us a few examples and why you love your favorites.   Or tell us about one of your own mentor characters, and how they came to be.

– Alex


I am teaching an online story structure workshop throughout the month of November, through RWA’s PASIC.

These workshops are an outrageous deal: $20 for PASIC members, $30 for non-members.

Click here to register.  More detailed information

The Social Network

by Alexandra Sokoloff

This is being touted as “the film that defines a generation”.

Well, SPOILER, but I don’t think so.  On the other hand, I think we could have a great conversation about it – what is is, what it could have been, what really does define Facebook and all these other – whatever they are.   

And I really would like to have that conversation.  At conferences I have seen the most godawfully insipid presentations on Twitter, Facebook, blogging, RSS feeds, etc.   I think we can do better.

The movie is pretty brilliant for the first hour.  It’s fascinating to see what Facebook started off as.  As presented by the movie I read it as a nerd’s revenge on “social clubs”, which I gather is Harvard’s version of frats and sororities.  

Okay, look, I went to Berkeley.  Frats and sororities were the low end of the totem pole.   Being in a frat meant you were suspected of fucking sheep, and at least at the time, that was not completely without reason.  And doing sorority rush was cause for massive group intervention every bit as dire as would be learning that a friend’s boyfriend was battering her.

But for someone as misogynistic and socially pathetic as the movie portrays the character of Zuckerberg…. I can see that frats – I mean social clubs –  that got hot girls bused into the frat – I mean social club – as entertainment – would incite a nerd’s jealousy and revenge. 

On the other hand, there was also the homoerotic undercurrent of Jesse Eisenberg (who I thought was brilliant, btw, wonderful performance)  having his first look at the classic erotica fantasy of the Winklevoss twins, in all their 6’5” preppie cutness.   Talk about visual imagery:  after that I didn’t ever really buy that anyone female had anything to do with anything, motivation-wise. 

(By the way, did EVERYONE in college have hot prep jock twins?   Serious question, because for all these years I thought that was just me, only to find now that it’s just a college cliché.   And yes, the movie did inspire me to Facebook them, and no further will I go on THAT train of thought.)

Anyway, in the movie, Zuckerberg, the ultimate social outcast, creates (the formerly known as) The Facebook as sort of an online social status meter.   And the app is complete when a random conversation makes Zuckerberg realize the missing element:  the relationship status button.  Because the only thing you really care about in college is if someone is single.   Or for some people – taken and looking anyway is fine, too.

That was probably the high point of the movie for me because it made me understand what made Facebook – at least originally – a killer app.

From there the movie declined, for me, rapidly, because I thought the filmmakers, and I mean by that Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher (although I can definitely see the fingerprints of producer Mike DeLuca here), who have done such brilliant and emotionally unnerving work elsewhere,  never took the trouble to define and portray what the Facebook experience actually IS, at its core.

Okay, well, it’s a biopic.   Biopics by nature are unsatisfying – I think because no one can ever fully define a human being.  Except in fiction, of course – you CAN define a character.    Even the biopics I really love, like Walk The Line, tend to dissolve into soap opera melodrama in the end.  I’m always left with an unsatisfied feeling, and  this was absolutely true of TSN.

And I guess the filmmakers were most interested in the corporate and legal aspects of the story.   But what I wanted was a movie about Facebook. 

Why is it Facebook that has taken over the online world?   What makes it more addicting than – MySpace, I guess, for example, or the Ning networks or online bulletin boards?   Has Facebook become its own Internet within the Internet?    Or is Twitter really where it’s at, but not enough people have figured Twitter out to tip it over into critical mass?

Personally I was a little ahead of the curve on the online addiction thing – I burned  out all my obsession on an online message board before FB even existed, and of course then the obligatory blogging thing that we all do, and by the time Facebook came along I was politely interested but not rabid the way newbies to internet addiction are.  

But I do get some basic things about why Facebook.

First, it’s brilliant that it’s so plain, visually.  You don’t have to spend any time setting up a look for your page – in fact, you can’t – so there’s no competition or feelings of inadequacy, there, and no reason to put it off.  You can just be up and running.

There may be feelings of inadequacy about numbers of friends, I don’t know.  I bet that was a big deal when FB was just on the campuses.   But as authors, we have “friends” come to us.   We have thousands of them (in fact I am now in the not fun process of having to convert my “friends” over to a fan page – you would think by now FB would have designed an automatic way to do that).

The other obvious thing about FB is that it became the place to be, therefore you can find almost anyone you want from your entire life on it, no matter how long ago you fell out of touch, and message them without having  to explain why you are – because everyone else is doing it.   (You do get a sense from the movie of how in a business sense that kind of coverage happened, even though the movie only deals with the college phase of FB). 

I have not done much on FB to track down people from my past, but I’ve seen in other people what an addiction that is.   And for me, the connectivity is great.   I like keeping up with real friends – I like getting random updates about what they’re doing.  Of course the dark side of that is – that’s no substitute for a relationship.   There’s a song about social networking that says something like “and we’ll get together one of these days”, with the clear implication that people just never do anymore, now that there’s FB.

I love the update feature of FB because it’s like having a mini-blog without any of the things that make blogging such an exhausting time suck. Promotionally, it’s great for authors because it requires so much less energy than a blog.  You can get a fun thread of conversation going with just a random off-the-wall comment.    I have to cop to being extremely judgmental about what people end up posting – the level of inanity is truly off the charts.   If a writer can’t come up with something halfway interesting or witty or amusing… But when you have time, if you have time, you can punish those inane time-wasters in your own head by quietly removing them from your news feed. 

Anyway, I have no idea of the figures on this but I would venture to guess that you can reach more people in far less time by doing your blogging on FB.  But I can’t really say because Murderati has a large audience compared to most blogs, and so does my own blog.   I could never use FB as a substitute for my blog, but I have a specific niche – my blog is more a product than a journal.   For other people who are not getting the same kind of blog traffic and who hate blogging anyway, I would think FB is a great and maybe sanity-preserving alternative. 

And then obviously, FB is “dating” heaven – I think it must have completely replaced singles sites by now.  And that is the point I guess the movie was trying to make  – that what made FB a killer app is that it allowed people to hook up on line from within a network of friends, which makes it seem less skeevy.   Not that skeeviness isn’t happening left and right, it’s just the perception.

(It’s always sex and war that drives entrepreneurial innovation, right?)

So those are the basics that I see driving the phenomenon, but what I really want is to hear what everyone else thinks.

The 64 million dollar essay question is:

– Define the Facebook experience – for you and/or for the world.  (Come on, it’s Saturday, you’re only going to spend it on FB anyway.)

But if that’s too overwhelming – here are some softer ones:

– Give us your review of The Social Network.

– Tell us some great biopics and prove me wrong on this genre.

Hope everyone had a good week!



Self-expression? Is it?

– by Alexandra Sokoloff

I attended an event last weekend where I was in a mix of people from wildly diverse backgrounds, which included a fairly intimate dinner, and we had a chance to all go around introducing ourselves and what we do, and of course instantly you get that validation of Just How Cool being a writer is if you don’t actually have to do it every day, especially those days when you know you’re never going to get that subplot to work.  (Oh!  Right!  Yes!  It’s cool!)  

One woman was enthusing about self-expression – how great it must be to live a life that is totally about self-expression.   And for the life of me, I couldn’t understand what she was talking about.  

But she seemed so sure, and so I tried to get into her mindset, because I wanted to understand, but I didn’t see where the “self” part was coming into it.  

I don’t know about the rest of you, but if I pray anything at all before I lie down to work  each day (because now you all know I don’t SIT down to work) it’s something like this:   “Please God/dess, Universe, Angels, Fairies, Story Elves – let me serve this story and make it whole and somewhat readable and also marketable, please, thank you, Amen, Sat Nam, Ashe, etc.”  

It’s not that I don’t put myself into what I write – I know I do.    I put my whole life experience and observation into what I write, all the time.  I write on the themes and the subject matter I write because I care passionately about those themes and subjects.   But what I am and what I’ve experienced and observed and care about is only useful as it serves the STORY.   In fact, I myself am only useful as a channel to serve the story (although I have many other fine qualities as a person, but we are talking about me as a writer, now.).  

But what this woman said really got me thinking about what we do, as writers – how we define what we do.   And self-expression has almost nothing to do with my job description, as I see it.  

I think what I do is create an EXPERIENCE for a reader or audience.   Reading a book or seeing a film (and I’m talking about fiction, now, and especially genre fiction)  is about getting completely out of yourself and going on a journey as someone else, or multiple someones, and LOSING yourself in that experience – an experience that is solely in your mind, but can sometimes be far more gripping than anything in real life.  

Actually (and you can tell me if I’m being just too Hollywood for words) – you could say what we do is create theme park rides.  Some of them very smart ones, but still, theme park rides.   You could also say we create dreams.    We take our readers through a dream.  And our absolute, bottom-line goal is to create a dream state so hypnotic, so mesmerizing, so enticing – that readers/viewers get lost in the dream.     And I’ve actually heard editors say this over and over again on panels – that the number one requirement they have for a book is that it doesn’t break that dream state.  

Think about it.  Isn’t everyone’s favorite review a sincere: “I couldn’t put it down”?  

Hmm, now that I’ve put it like that – are we much more than pushers, really?   

Okay, maybe I’m digressing.   But now that I have put it like this, do you see what I’m saying when I say that this has very little to do with self-expression and everything to do with being acutely attuned to serving the EXPERIENCE – the needs of a reader/audience?  

I am a genre writer.   I am very aware that I was continually hired in Hollywood because I could deliver a certain experience of spookiness and sensual chills.   As a novelist I continue to deliver that experience of spookiness and sensual chills.    I am privileged as a novelist (much more so than I was as a screenwriter) to be able to bring my specific, warped tastes to the stories I tell – but my bottom-line mandate is to deliver the experience.  

And my other bottom-line mandate is to serve the story.  I am not doing my job, I cannot calll myself a novelist, if I do not deliver the STORY.   That is: an uninterrupted dream of an experience, from beginning to end.  

Now, as Lincoln said, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.”  We need look no farther than our Amazon reviews to realize that not everyone will have the experience of our stories that we hope that they will have.    But our best chance of pleasing as many of the people as we can, as often as we can, is being as true to the STORY as we can be.   And in my experience, that’s about acknowledging what I want to experience in a story – and then committing to get out of my own way as much as I possibly can, in order to let that experience come through me, unimpeded by some need for “self-expression”, so that I can provide that experience, uninterrupted by ego, for other like-minded people.  

This may be an analogy that makes sense only to me, but I will try to explain it anyway.    When I got involved with dance, first it was because I was acting, and dance training just increased my chances of being cast in productions I wanted to be in.  I worked hard, really hard, to learn the language of dance, to make my body an instrument that was capable of dance.   Then I kept dancing even when I wasn’t acting anymore because – well, because the endorphins made me less likely to have a complete nervous breakdown.   And I kept dancing and training and improving just because I was actually really good at it and nothing else made me feel so much like myself, and it wasn’t at all about being cast or anything except the fact that not doing it was agony.  And then, after all those years, I was actually good enough to get paid for it, pretty much accidentally.   

Well, I’m sure a lot of people think dance is all about self-expression.   But when for the first time in my first professional show I told a choreographer “That pose doesn’t feel like me,” and he looked at me in that totally dom way that choreographers have and said – “What do you have to do with it?” –  it suddenly clicked for me that professional dancing is about serving the dance.    I – and my body – were really just props – a medium of expression for something much, much bigger.  

And that’s how I feel about my writing.   I have honed my “instrument”, as actors say – after years and years of work I have the technical skill it takes to write, to deliver the complete experience of a story.   But all of that technical craft is just so that the story can flow through me – from wherever the hell it comes from.  

Self has something to do with it, no doubt.   But mostly, we have to leave self behind, get out of our own way, and serve the story.   And hopefully – hopefully – deliver the experience our readers are looking for, hoping for, wishing for, when they pick up our books.

So am I the only one who feels this way?  Do the rest of you, or most of you, feel that your writing is about self-expression?  Or how would you describe what it is that you do?



Ass In Chair. Well, sort of….

by Alexandra Sokoloff

So this is me in my office.

HAH.    Nobody really believed that, right?   I didn’t think so.

Your first clue is – I’m dressed.   How often does that happen?   Not bloody often.   Second, books belong on the floor or under the bed, not neatly lined up behind glass.   (Who has glass bookcases anyway?   People with full-time housekeepers, or too much time on their hands, that’s who.).    Third, I’m in a chair.   Sitting up.   Granted, it’s a very lovely chair, but if I actually wrote like this it would mean that all my best ideas would be draining down into the floor, not to mention what it’s doing to my back. 

But we’ll get to my ergonomic theories in a minute.

The photo isn’t a total sham, actually – it’s a place I do write, and write exceptionally well, the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines, a writers’ retreat where I go a couple times a year with my fabulous NC writing posse, and the real-life haunted mansion on which I based the haunted house in THE UNSEEN.

But this is really where I write:

Yes, a couch.   Lying down on it, with my Mac Air on my lap  (which can get really hot, I haven’t worked that out, quite).   I do the requisite eight hours, give or take, of Ass In Chair, only with me it’s Back On Sofa.    On a very difficult day it will be Back In Bed (writing, not sleeping).   I do this because it doesn’t feel so very much like working that way, because it’s easier to keep the cats off the keyboard, and especially to protect my back.   Let me clarify that I don’t have a bad back.   In fact I haven’t had a single back problem for at least ten years.   But I am pretty sure I don’t have back problems because I’ve been lying down to work for the last ten years.   Writing for as many hours a day as a professional writer has to write is VERY hard on anyone’s back; there are whole seminars on the issue.   We all find our ways of coping; mine is to keep my spine relatively aligned throughout my work day.

And the couch thing could actually have something to do with my very first impressions of the writing life being old episodes of The Dick Van Dyke show, in which  – when he wasn’t pacing – Rob Petrie was always lying on that couch in the office as they worked.   (I had a hard time with Rose Marie always doing the typing and getting the coffee; I deliberately can’t make a decent cup of coffee or operate a stove to this day.   I did seem to pick up her dating habits, however.).    As a matter of fact, if you look at just about any old movie about screenwriters you will mostly see them musing while lying on couches, usually (if male) tossing an old tennis ball idly up in the air, whereas authors in movies tend to sit at desks hunched over typewriters (and they don’t outline, either, they just put a blank sheet in the roller and start typing CHAPTER ONE.   Yeah, right….).  

Hmm.   Maybe these movie depictions are why screenwriters get no respect.

Anyway, my couch is in my living room, and there are actually two, matching, and I go back and forth between them, because variety is the spice of life, and sometimes I sit for a while at a café table (not in a café) with high stools to accommodate my legs, also in the living room.  

On one wall where I can always see it, or sense it, is this painting by my mega-talented sister Elaine.  


The painting is called L’Esprit de L’Escalier (a phrase I’m sure at least Zoe knows well and one which pretty much describes the core impulse to write, if you ask me. )    And the painting to me encapsulates the writing process; I never get tired of looking at it.

And on another wall, one of Elaine’s drawings:  a corner on the north side of the Berkeley campus featuring the late Rather Ripped Records.  



There’s something about the manic energy of this piece that puts me right back in the manic energy of Berkeley, very useful for writing.

And of course I have index cards up on structure grids everywhere, some on tables, some on the wall.  This one is sticky Post Its on a white board:


I’m working on three projects at once right now so I’ve completely taken over two tables and a wall in the dining room (who needs to eat?).   

This is another one of my favorite writing spots:  

I know, it’s weird, but I write really, really well on planes – I can get a solid two days work in during a cross-country flight.    Unfortunately I don’t write so well in hotel rooms, but research trips are always magical and staggeringly productive for me, and as any one of us can tell you, that’s just as much writing as anything.

I know, now you want photos of cabana boys (see comment section of Stephen’s post, which somehow took on a life of its own.  Sorry, Steve…).   But I’d much rather you post suggestions of cabana boys for me, with current contact information and typing speed, thanks…

Cabana boys aside, I have to say I have found this week of sharing workspaces more interesting than I possibly could have imagined. One thing I absolutely love about my author friends and the author life is that we all know EXACTLY what we all are doing, work-wise, at any given moment.  The business side of it, the sales, will be different for all of us at different times.  But the writing process?  How we spend 8-10 hours or more of every day?   We know intimately what all of us are doing – writing is writing, and we all live it, every day.   It is overwhelmingly, as Rob posted, in our heads.  

But a glimpse of these little personal quirks – how and where we sit, or lie down, in isolation or in public, as all this massive STUFF is going on inside our brains… or to put it another way, how we get that door to that alternate universe to open up inside us – has been really touching to me.   I can’t wait to read more – and hear more from YOU all about the inside/outside thing, your workspaces, everything.

Finally, I’d like to send love and sympathy to the families and friends of those lost on 9/11 and in all senseless wars.   Peace, Peace, Peace.


Drawing the dark

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I have a dilemma.   I want to see The Last Exorcism this weekend but am too afraid to go alone.

(Where is my brother when I need him?)

This is the kind of movie that separates my friends from… my weird friends.   While I know all of you – most of you – would happily jaunt off to this movie with me, all in a day’s work, after all – there are other people who don’t see this kind of movie because they just don’t want that stuff in their heads.   I get these people at booksignings a lot.   “I want to read your books but I’m too scared.”   Fair enough – I’d never force anyone to open that door.

And because I’m very much into recovery these days, I have a lot of people around me who don’t want that kind of thing in their heads.    Hence not so many people right at hand who would go see The Last Exorcism with me.

I actually love going to movies alone – it feels decadent and I don’t have to pretend to make conversation when actually I’m there to take notes for my blog.   But this one – well, I’m not exactly expecting a masterpiece (did it have to be a Southern preacher?), but I’ve got a pretty good imagination and possession can take me all kinds of places that the movie isn’t really going, if you see what I mean.

In fact I had one of my – actually quite infrequent – but life-changingly intense nightmares last week, on this very subject.   So I am now dying to see this movie (and seeing it alone might be exactly what I need to do) but also a little worried about what it’s going to do to my psyche.   Of course I WILL go see it because the whole point is to fling open those doors in my psyche so I will have more nightmares so I can write about them – I’ve already got a book in mind from that last dream.

But – just hypothetically, you understand – what are we really doing to ourselves when we constantly, deliberately open those doors?

You may be beginning to see that this post is actually just an extension of Stephen’s post from yesterday, in which most of us were reveling in our comfort level with violence above sex, or violent sex.   Well, the dark is our job.   I don’t have to ask any of you why you write about these things.   I know why I write about these things.    Because they’re THERE.    Ever since I was a child, and I mean like a child of four, I have been stunned and outraged that people walk around pretending these things, like for example, evil, don’t exist.    I write it with a supernatural edge, because it’s hard for me to deal with evil without getting across that feeling of something supernaturally powerful at work, but it’s really human evil that I’m talking about.   I think if you don’t acknowledge it’s there, THAT’S when it can really get to work and do some major damage.

But there’s another aspect to my attraction to the dark, which is that I have an attraction to the dark.

A writer friend of mine just sent me a book with a perfect discussion of this, that asks among other things:  “Do you want to watch Andy Griffith or The Last Picture Show?   Do you want to hear Pat Boone or Little Richard?”  (it gets progressively more graphic, but I’ll need to ask him to quote him and anyway, you get the drift.)

Would you rather watch Eat Pray Love or The Last Exorcism?

A year ago I wouldn’t have had the slightest problem answering that last, but today, I am experiencing some discomfort with my answer.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that writing is a no-boundaries kind of profession and mindspace.   Most of us here have openly admitted that half the time we don’t even remember what we write and quite often are blown away by what we read when we pick up our mss for those rewrites.  

Now, I know for a fact that I started writing what I do because I saw it in my life, and my friends’ lives, and my school life, and life life.   No doubt which came first, there.   But you know how they say, “Life imitates art”?

Well, does that thought ever bother anyone else?

Writing is a powerful thing.   It manifests.   No one can tell me otherwise.

I had that possession dream. So one option is that I could take it as the obvious sign it is that there is a toxicity in a dynamic I have with someone that is actually dangerous and frightening to me…  cut off the relationship, and continue to heal myself.

Or I could fling that door open wide, run through it, and inhabit the dream for the next year as my next book.

Maybe it’s not an either/or question.   I think any one of us could make the argument that inhabiting the book would be healing.   Could be healing, I mean.   But is that a true argument?   If there is healing in writing a book, it seems to me a happy byproduct of the main purpose of writing a book, which is to bring a story to life.    If I approached it as a healing exercise… would that make a better story or no story at all?    If I used the healing part as the protagonist’s character arc, would that just be a clever rationalization for dwelling in the dark?

I honestly don’t know.

So I wondered today if you all ever wondered or worried about what dwelling in the dark does to you, on a long-term basis.   Do you think you’d be a happier person if you wrote lighter books?   Do you care?   Do you think dwelling in the dark draws the dark?  

And – if you feel like telling us – Why do YOU write what you do?

(PS:  Realistically,  if I went to see Eat Pray Love this weekend – I might enjoy it, but I’d still come home thinking about when I could get off to see The Last Exorcism. )

What is a Big Book?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

A friend of mine did a workshop at the RWA National Conference a couple of weeks ago on the High Concept Premise.   We ended up talking before the workshop about high concept in books and movies, and also about the even more elusive concept of the Big Book.

I was interested to hear that when she polled a number of editors to ask them how they would define a Big Book, while everyone said that the Big Book is the one that everyone is always looking for, no one could give her a specific answer about what exactly it is.   Or even try.   A Big Book is the one all the editors get excited about because they think they can make a ton of money with it.   But what IS that?

I’m used to people being vague about what High Concept is.  And yes, it’s an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing – the idea that is so good that it is painfully obvious, only no one else has thought of it until now.

And as my friend and I were talking, I realized that a Big Book is slightly different from a High Concept book.   They are NOT necessarily interchangeable terms, which is going to make this blog post even more confusing.

But let’s start with High Concept.    This is a Hollywood term.   And very often, it IS what editors mean when they talk about a Big Book.

If you can tell your story in one line and everyone who hears it can see exactly what the movie or book is – AND a majority of people who hear it will want to see it or read it – that’s high concept.   (If you need a refresher on the premise line you can read more here:  What’s Your Premise?).

Here’s another way of looking at it: the potential of the setup is obvious. A movie like MEET THE PARENTS instantly conjures all kinds of disaster scenarios, right? Because we’ve all (mostly) been in the situation before, and we know the extreme perils.

I would also add, not as an afterthought – with a high-concept premise, the moneymaking potential is obvious.

I would also add, because MEET THE PARENTS is a good example of this, that you know what the movie is from the title alone.   (In fact, many movie ideas are sold on the title alone.   I had lunch with an A-list screenwriter friend recently who said that the title might be the most important selling point of any film pitch, these days.)

Here’s another indicator. When you get the reaction: “Wow, I wish I’d thought of that!” or even better, “I’m going to have to kill you” – you’ve got a high-concept premise.

But okay, let’s break it down, specifically. What makes stories high concept? One or more of these things:

– They’re topical – they hit a nerve in society at the right time: FATAL ATTRACTION for AIDS, JURASSIC PARK for cloning, DISCLOSURE for sexual harassment (only reversing the sexes was utter bullshit.)

– They are about a subject that we all have in our heads already (THE PASSION, THE DA VINCI CODE, FOUR CHRISTMASES, JURASSIC PARK, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN)

– They exploit a primal fear (JAWS, JURASSIC PARK) or a spiritual fear (THE EXORCIST, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY).

– They are about a situation that we all (or almost all) have experienced (MEET THE PARENTS, THE HANGOVER, BLIND DATE, FOUR CHRISTMASES).

– They are controversial and/or sacrilegious enough to generate press (DA VINCI CODE, THE LAST TEMPTATION, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR)

– They generate water-cooler talk (FATAL ATTRACTION, INDECENT PROPOSAL)

– They have a big twist (THE USUAL SUSPECTS, THE SIXTH SENSE, RUTHLESS PEOPLE, THE CRYING GAME). And not necessarily a twist at the end – the twist can be in the set up. SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE is about two people falling in love – when they’ve never met. RUTHLESS PEOPLE is about a group of kidnappers who kidnap a wealthy woman and threaten to kill her if her husband doesn’t pay – which turns out to be her heinous husband’s dream scenario. He WANTS her dead, and now the kidnappers are stuck with a bitch on wheels.

– They are about a famous person or event – or possible event: TITANIC, GALLIPOLI, APOLLO 13, ARMAGEDDON, ROSWELL, 2012, THE HISTORIAN, DA VINCI CODE.

– There’s also just the “Cool!!!” factor. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK revolves around an artifact that supposedly has the supernatural power to will any army undefeatable. Well, what if Hitler got hold of it?

Let’s take a closer look at a few high-concept ideas:

JURASSIC PARK – A group of scientists and the children of an inventor tour a remote island where the inventor has cloned dinosaurs to create a Jurassic amusement park – then have to fight for their lives when the dinosaur containment system breaks down.

What kid has not had that obsession with dinosaurs? And who of us has not had the thought of how terrifying it would be to be face to face with one of those things – live? Throw in the very topical subject of cloning (they get dinosaur DNA from a prehistoric fly trapped in amber) and the promise of amusement-park thrills, and who ISN’T going to read that book and/or see that movie?

Plus, there’s the potential for an amusement park ride.   I’m not kidding.   What made STAR WARS one of the biggest moneymaking franchises of all time?  Action figures.  Light sabers.  Wookie costumes.   Do you think for one single second that Hollywood is not thinking of these things all the time?

FATAL ATTRACTION – A happily married man has a one-night stand and then his family is stalked by the woman he hooked up with.

This film hit a huge number of people in the – uh, gut – because even people who have never had an affair have almost certainly thought about it. Also the film came out when AIDS was rampant, with no effective treatment in sight, and suddenly a one-night stand could literally be fatal. It’s easy to see the potential for some really frightening situations there, as the innocent family is terrorized, and of course we all like to see a good moral comeuppance.

INDECENT PROPOSAL – A young, broke couple on vacation in Vegas are offered a million dollars by a wealthy man for one night with the wife.

This is a great example of the “What would YOU do?” premise. It’s a question that generated all kinds of what the media calls “water cooler discussion”, and made it a must-see movie at the time. Would you have sex with a stranger for a million dollars? Would you let someone you love do it? Oh, boy, did people talk about it!

HARRY POTTER:  A boarding school for wizards?   You don’t even have to say any more about it.   Except that – what kid DOESN’T think that they’re a crown prince/ss wizard or witch trapped in a Muggle family?   (Also, see “amusement park ride” and “action figures”.   Cereal, candy, Halloween costumes… have you seen the EAT PRAY LOVE clothing line, wines, and storage containers at Cost Plus?   I’m just saying…)

Are you starting to get the hang of it?

But with movies, the high concept premise has a couple of incredibly practical considerations.    It suggests a built-in marketing campaign – and it is such a good idea that you could shoot it on a low budget and still have a movie that people would go see.   That doesn’t mean anyone’s GOING to shoot it on a low budget, because we are after all talking about Hollywood.   But you COULD shoot it on a low budget.   It is the idea that is golden.   (Think of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, OPEN WATER – all ultra low budget movies that made mints because the ideas were so compelling and the movies were well enough done to sustain the idea).

A Big Book, however, is almost the opposite.   It’s Big.   Epic.     The HARRY POTTER series, THE HISTORIAN, THE PASSAGE, DA VINCI CODE, THE HUNGER GAMES – these all scream big budget.   Huge setpiece scenes, international or otherworld locations, huge casts.  They have been or all will be made into movies because they are bestsellers and also incredibly cinematic (not to mention in a few cases great books) but without that bestseller thing they are concepts that would give any studio head pause, because of the budget considerations.   But in a book, we have no budget constraints.   We can do the international scope and build a whole other world.   And once that book has proven itself in the book world, Hollywood is more than glad to sweep it up for film or TV production.

So what can we do to start generating more high concept/Big Book ideas for ourselves?

One of the best classes I ever took on screenwriting was SOLELY on premise. Every week we had to come up with three loglines for movie ideas and stand up and read them aloud to the class. We each put a dollar into a pot and the class voted on the best premise of the night, and the winner got the pot. It was highly motivating – I made my first “screenwriting” money that way and I learned worlds about what a premise should be.

Whether you’re a screenwriter or novelist I highly recommend you try the same exercise – make yourself come up with three story ideas a week, and try to make some of them high concept, or Big Books.   You’ll be training yourself to think in terms of big story ideas. You don’t have to sell out. I’m always telling exactly the stories I want to tell, about the people I want to write about.  But there’s no reason not to think in more universal terms and be open to subject matter, locations, themes, topics, that might strike a chord in a bigger audience.

(Also, I hope the brainstorming we’re going to do here today will help.)

The reality is, these days agents and editors and publishers are looking for books that have those unique, universal, high-concept premises, and the attendant potential for a TV or movie sale.

Open your mind to the possibility of high concept, and see what happens. You may surprise yourself.

So I’m really interested in talking more about this today.   Which books do YOU consider Big Books?   What about High Concept – books or movies?    Let’s throw out some examples and analyze what’s going on to make them such successful premises!


RWA Nationals and some thoughts on INCEPTION

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I’m posting from Orlando, where I am at the Romance Writers of America National Convention, along with ever-lovelier Murderati lovelies JT and Allison.

I don’t suppose it’s even much of a surprise any more that a good chunk of this Rati lineup attends one or both of the major romance conventions a year, and smaller ones on the side as well.   And it’s not just because we can’t bear to go more than a few months without seeing each other in person, although that’s part of it.

Many of us have said this here before, but it bears repeating.   ANY writer in publishing today ignores the romance market at their own peril.   Industry insiders openly admitted that romance kept the book business afloat during the bleakest times of the recession, and continues to.    And it’s no longer the case that mystery and thriller writers are just outsider guests, mere curiosities at these conferences.   Just in the last four years that I’ve been a published author, I’ve seen the huge tent that romance is take in more and more subgenres, some of which tilt darker and darker  –  and I’m talking dark like in zombie apocalypse stories – to the point that I’m not sure you can realistically call romance ANY kind of genre at all, as much as it is simply a marketing strategy.

(Okay, all right, I can hear romance purists howling out there, but I’m looking at this from a mystery/thriller perspective.).

ALL the publishers are here, some of them with dozens of reps, from divisions all over the world.    You can’t walk two steps without tripping over an editor or agent from a major company, And not to be crass, but you can tell how romance ranks with our publishers not just from that overwhelming presence, but also from the sheer amount of money the agents and publishers spend on parties, marketing, and book giveaways (staggering…).

Because of that overwhelmingly professional slant, RWA is not the free-for-all that Thrillerfest and Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime – and Romantic Times – tend to be.   (Although nothing beats that Harlequin dance party – I’m so sore this morning I can barely type…).   It’s a working conference; many, many aspiring authors come to pitch to agents and editors (and do come away with representation and book deals), and the very cool thing is that RWA chapters all over the country prep their chapter members for conferences with practice pitch sessions and conference how-to in the months before “nationals”, as they call it.

One feature I really love about RWA (besides being able to wear all my dressiest clothes and changing outfits three times a day) is the daily luncheons with keynote speakers.   Not only do they feed us (which means I actually eat, something I often forget to do at other conferences), but there’s always a fascinating keynote speaker at the lunches – yesterday Jane Ann Krentz, who has published 160 books under three different names, giving us a wry breakdown of how she has sabotaged her own career over and over and over again over the years, and always managed to reinvent herself.   You can’t help but learn – and find comfort – from a pro with that much life and career experience.  

But the greatest thing for me about this conference, as really any of the good ones, is hearing aspiring writers all around me say in a way that makes me know they mean it – “That’s it  – no more fucking around.   I’m finishing this book by   —-“    (Oh, all right, it’s Nationals, they’re not saying “fucking”.)   And they mean it.   I’ve seen it happen over and over and over again – a conference like this is what gets people past those last internal blocks and gets the book finished, repped and out there.

Something to think about.


Okay, so while I’ve been here I’ve taught two Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workshops, SRO, and because I saw INCEPTION last week I kept using that as an example, and I want to make a couple of comments without discussing in-depth until more people have seen it.

The movie is a great one to see not just because anything Christopher Nolan does is worth seeing, but also because it illustrates how useful it is to watch movies and read books with story structures specific to what you’re writing yourself.    I’m going to do a full post on it next month, and if you want to play along, there are two things especially I wanted to suggest you guys keep in mind when you see it.

First of all – the movie is about the nature of dreams and reality, sure, but while you’re watching it, ask yourself – “What KIND of story is it? (See here if you don’t know what I’m talking about).  It’s a very specific sub-genre that Nolan uses to tell this story, and all the conventions of that genre are used and laid out very -conventionally. Instead of giving you the answer, though, I think I’ll let you see it and tell me.

But it’s absolutely textbook how all the story elements I keep talking about are laid out in this movie (watch particularly for how the PLAN is articulated over and over and over again…)

Also, the movie is interesting structurally because it uses a convention we haven’t talked about yet – a Point Of View character. Even though DiCaprio is the protagonist, we maintain a certain distance from him because he is so unreliable. So there is also a character who carries the emotional investment of the audience – a character who observes DiCaprio, worries about his mental state, and steps in at a crucial moment with a plan of her own. Ooops, there, I gave it away, but it’s not really a spoiler – I just wanted to mention that Ellen Page is serving as the point of view character, and you can see how that works. (Actually I think the Ellen Page character is a very weak character, and it’s a weak performance, but the presence of that character as written still works to build suspense about DiCaprio as a dangerous character, unsuited to do the job he’s supposed to be doing.).

This is a storytelling trick used when you want to build in a whole other layer to your protagonist, and observe her or him as a character instead of simply being inside the character as a vehicle for your experience of the story. Often this character will actually BE the protagonist, the one with the biggest emotional arc.

Also, this is a great movie to watch for the outlining of the PLAN.

And oh, all right – what class MYTHS do you see working in this one? (One is too easy for words, but not ALL on the nose…)

There are some classic Point Of View characters in literature, and some not so famous – any examples for us?

And yes, I want to hear what KIND of story you think INCEPTION is!

And of course – anyone else have a take on romance conferences?

Back to the trenches, now… where are those spike heels?

– Alex

No sex, please, we’re mystery writers

by Alexandra Sokoloff

When my first book came out I didn’t read my reviews all that often, except the biggest ones.    Maybe that was mostly because I was so deep in the middle of the second and it was such an intense experience that I blocked out most of what else was going on around me.   I know some authors don’t read reviews at all.    I don’t avoid them, but I don’t try to hunt them down.   But you do get a lot of them by osmosis, and it is useful to have an overview, because by the fourth book I am getting a sense of some patterns of response, here.  

And one of them I find really amusing, always from men, of course, is the “unnecessary romance” gripe.    Usually phrased as “unnecessary sex”.  

Now, the first thing that comes to mind is, “Unnecessary to whom, exactly?’   Because I know these characters I’m writing pretty well, and I can assure you that they don’t feel sex is unnecessary.  As a matter of fact, if you asked them, they’d probably say it was about !%@#&* time by the time it finally happens.    I myself would be pretty unhappy if I had to go the whole length of a book without sex.

But it’s really interesting how some genre puritans – I mean purists – just do not think sex belongs in a crime thriller, or a horror novel, or a mystery. 

Maybe I’m just coming from a different frame of reference.   I’m sure Steve, Rob and Toni can back me up on this – the love subplot is just de facto in Hollywood, except in the most extreme cases, and so you learn to weave it in as an essential part of your plot.  

But I still can’t understand why people would be so put off by sex in a thriller.   If you’re not getting off on the sex, doesn’t that mean, basically, you’re getting off on the violence?   Worrisome.

Anyway, long rant to get to what I really wanted to talk about.   I am not going to be taking sex out of my books (in fact, having done a paranormal, now, coming out in November, people who read me better be bracing themselves for more than usual).     But I do feel very strongly that the love plot has to be essential to the action, and thematic, not just a throwaway.

It’s sort of a monumental task to take on the structure of romance, so I’m been starting to break it down into elements one at a time, to see what I can learn about what makes a great love story.   I talked about how crucial theme is in a love story before, and today I’m focusing on a particular dynamic between characters that I’ve noticed lately.

There’s a saying I’m sure you’ve heard that in a relationship there is always a Lover and a Loved One. Whether that’s actually true in life, I’m not sure I want to know; one would hope these things would be somewhat equal. But I know this Lover/Loved One dymanic tends to be the case in romantic comedy (the romance readers/writers will have to tell me if it’s the case in romance fiction, I’d love to know your thoughts.). Either way, it’s a useful model for writing romance, and I think for a love subplot, too.

In most stories, for most of the story, there’s an imbalance between the hero and heroine, or hero/hero, or heroine/heroine… the two lovers, whatever gender and orientation they may be. (I’m not going to get into the subgenre of ménages today, sorry.)

At first what this looks like is that there’s a Pursuer and a Pursued – but the pursuer might not be the one who loves most deeply. The pursuit might be ego-based, or to win a bet, or obviously, just sexual conquest – any number of things.
Now, the two characters might equally hate each other at first: as in WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS, YOU’VE GOT MAIL.

But pretty quickly in most romantic comedies, one of the characters becomes more interested in the other, and becomes the pursuer.

Note that the protagonist can be either the pursuer or the pursued. In NOTTING HILL, Hugh Grant is the pursuer (in that diffident English way, of course…). In IT’S COMPLICATED, Meryl Streep is the pursued.

In WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, Harry is the pursuer. In YOU’VE GOT MAIL, Tom Hanks is the pursuer. In PHILADEPHIA STORY, Katharine Hepburn is the pursued. (arguably in these three films there is no true protagonist; the hero/heroine characters are about as equal as characters ever get in a story)

Hmm, do we see a pattern here? Male pursues, female is pursued. Maybe biology really IS destiny. No, wait – in BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, Bridget is the pursuer. In BRINGING UP BABY, Katharine Hepburn is the pursuer (but not the protagonist). And I’m sure you can think of a lot of other examples.)

But the pursuer is not the same as the Lover, necessarily. In NOTTING HILL, Hugh is both the pursuer and the lover (he is definitely the one who feels most deeply in the tentative dance going on between him and Julia Roberts). In IT’S COMPLICATED, Alec Baldwin is very much the pursuer, Meryl Streep is the pursued, and Steve Martin is the lover (also a pursuer, but overwhelmed by Alec Baldwin’s intense pursuit. But in this trio, Steve Martin is most clear about who and what he wants.).

In WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, Harry is the pursuer, but not the lover. At a certain point, it’s Sally who realizes that she wants more than friendship. She becomes the lover.

In PHILADELPHIA STORY, Cary Grant is the pursuer and also the lover, but interestingly, he’s coming from much more of a position of strength than the lover usually comes from; from the beginning, he has no intention of compromising.

Pursued and pursuer, lover and loved one, different combinations of and variations on those dynamics. 

And once I noticed that dynamic, I also noticed that there’s a very typical scene, usually in the very last part of Act II:2, but sometimes in Act III, that I’ll call “The Lover Makes a Stand” (Takes a stand? Makes a stand? Looking it up. Okay, it’s “makes a stand.”).
And in this scene the Lover, or whoever has become the Lover by this point, the one who loves most deeply, basically says to the Loved One – “I’m not going to take your bullshit any more. Make up your mind. Either commit to me or don’t, but if you don’t, I’m out of here.”

Steve Martin tells Meryl Streep that she’s not done with Alec yet, and he doesn’t want to see her while she’s still emotionally involved with him. Hugh Grant tells Julia Roberts in the bookstore that between her “vicious temper” and his far more inexperienced heart, he doesn’t think he would recover from being discarded again, and turns down her offer to date. Sally refuses Harry’s offer to go to the New Year’s party as his “friends with benefits” date because “I’m not your consolation prize, Harry.”

Cary Grant – well, in PHILADELPHIA STORY Cary makes his stand at the very beginning, in action, not words. The whole movie is about him creating a situation that will force Katharine Hepburn to look at herself clearly and choose what and whom she really wants. Cary never begs. He manipulates, then stands back and watches until she falls, and in falling becomes the whole woman he always knew she could be, but he will not accept less than.

(And that, btw, is the sort of thing that makes a person Cary Grant…)

In all of the above scenes, the Lover’s Stand forces the Loved One to step up and commit just as deeply as the Lover is committed. But it seems that very, very, very often, it’s one character, the Lover, who has to force the issue.

It’s such a common scene, I’m going to have to stick it in my Story Elements Checklist, right around Sequence 6 or Sequence 7.

Now, sometimes there’s a different scene at this juncture, which I will call The Declaration. A very good example is in BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, when Bridget races to the party to tell Colin Firth she loves him, only to find that his parents have thrown the party to announce his engagement and departure for America. Then she makes her Declaration – a mangled sort of toast that Colin understands is her desperate confession of love. It’s not the same as a Make a Stand scene because it’s not saying, “I’ve had it, I’m walking.” But it does put the cards on the table so the Loved One will have to make a decision, one way or another.

The more I look specifically at the way love plots work, the more these elements seem to be the natural – or unnatural, if you want – rhythm of courtship.    For better or worse, but that’s the way the game plays out.    And that’s an interesting thing to know, whether your book or script is all romance, or whether you’re working on a love plot for your mystery or thriller.

What do you think, all you romance writers out there who are far more qualified to write this post than I am? Am I on to something, here?

Any examples of Pursuer/Pursued, Lover/Loved One? Or examples of The Lover Makes A Stand scenes or Declaration scenes for us?   Or other essential elements of romance/love plots that you’ve found?

Or am I wrong, and sex really doesn’t belong in a mystery/thriller?

– Alex


I’m teaching a 2-week online Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workshop this month – details here.