Category Archives: Alexandra Sokoloff

Romance Writers of America National Conference

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Last weekend Rob, Toni and I were all at the Romance Writers of America National Conference in San Francisco.

Now wait, you’re saying to yourself. This is a MYSTERY blog, right? And you three are thriller writers, aren’t you? So what were you doing at a romance conference?

(Rob of course has an easy answer – it was 3000 women to maybe 20 men.)

People continue to look at me askance when I say that I attend the romance conferences and am a member of RWA, and that’s fair enough. I read Stephen King and Shirley Jackson, Ira Levin and Ray Bradbury while I was growing up and even though I did pick up some gothic romances because of intriguingly spooky covers, I never had the slightest interest in the Harlequins with their “clinch” covers.

But I read everything Anne Rice ever wrote for years. “That’s not romance,” you cry. Oh, really? I submit to you that that’s exactly what Anne Rice wrote. Romance is a huge umbrella for many subgenres, and RWA knows that that includes thrillers and mysteries and supernatural – and authors like Allison Brennan and Lisa Gardner and our own Tess Gerritsen. It’s the rest of us that seem a little slow on the uptake, here.

This was my biggest clue that I needed to investigate the romance community and business: Our publishers go to the romance conferences in droves. I have never seen such a presence of editors, publishers and agents at any other genre conference. And they put much more money into the events and giveaways and promotions – it’s very clear that THEY think RWA is important.

And it’s not so scary. Really.

Here’s a quick summary of my time.

Arrived Wednesday afternoon, not having completely realized that the conference STARTED on Wednesday, so raced straight from Oakland airport to the SF Marriott, arrive just in time for librarian/bookseller mingler (for my money, that in itself was worth the whole conference). My case of THE HARROWING disappeared in five minutes, and the rest of the time was spent chatting, fueled by copious amounts of iced tea and lemonade.

The mingler was followed by the mass Literacy Autographing – there must have been 400 authors there in that ballroom, lined up at tables in alphabetical order. Other cons could take a cue from this arrangement – it is a LOT easier to plan to come to just one or two huge signings where you know you can easily and quickly find your favorite authors and browse all the others at leisure. Plus a mass autographing can be advertised to the public – and believe me, readers come – the line to get in to the hall snaked down one whole floor of the hotel, up a staircase, and down another floor.

I was surprised at how many people I knew there – this was my first RWA but I did know a lot of people from Romantic Times, Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans, and even my Raleigh RWA chapter (now that was a trip, to see Raleigh friends in San Francisco).

It was a staggering program, really. There were sessions with the buyers of Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Books a Million, there were spotlights on all the publishing houses, all of whom had 4 to 6 editors in attendance, talking about the specific needs and policies of their houses as well as their personal taste in books, genres, queries and pitches; there was a half-day screenwriting workshop with Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat!, there were pitch prep sessions and agent/editor appointments all week long. The only thing missing was, well, men – which meant RGB and Matthew Shear were at a premium.

I went to a lot of the publisher spotlights, which I found fascinating, and got a lot out of Lisa Gardner’s rewriting workshop (she broke down how she took two years to turn THE PERFECT HUSBAND into a breakout, mainstream thriller when the book she’d initially written was a Harlequin… um… Silhouette? One of those lines).

Friday was party day – starting at 4 pm at the authentic SF speakeasy, Bourbon and Branch, for thriller author Kelli Stanley’s launch party (not part of the RWA program but a happy coincidence). What a fabulous venue and fabulous party, in the secret library (revolving bookcase and all), with its stunning tin ceilings, antique bars, Deco glass chandeliers that looked like enormous sea anemones (you wouldn’t want one of those things falling on you, let me tell you…). Suddenly I was surrounded by mystery writers our Simon Wood, RGB, Michelle Gagnon… Kelli was her noirish self and it was great to see Diane Kudisch of the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore and Janet Rudolph of the Mystery Readers’ Journal… Janet was skeptical when I kept telling her she HAD to come to the RWA parties but she was a total convert by the end of the evening.

Because RWA knows how to party, and publishers spend the big bucks to entertain there. The St. Martin’s party was at a very stylish Asian Fusion restaurant called the E & O. Mouthwatering appetizers and St. Martinis… way too good, but I knew the minute I hit the Harlequin party I’d be dancing all that alcohol out, and so I did. The HQ party was at the Four Seasons and it was fun walking into the ballroom with Rob and seeing his chin hit the floor – you really don’t get it until you see it, how all out Harlequin goes. And what I really love about the HQ parties is that they don’t even pretend it’s about anything else but the dancing. They’d brought up a DJ from LA who just GOT it – he happily spun his way through the classic dance songs – Raining Men, Play that Funky Music White Boy, Lady Marmelade, Brick House, Dancin’ Queen, and hundreds of women never left the floor for the entire evening.

Saturday was another signing with St. Martin’s (the publishers all donate cases of books to give away to readers…. think about it) and my paranormal panel with Heather Graham, and then Nora Roberts’ pre-RITA award cocktail party. Heather and I managed to sneak out and get into the Frieda Kahlo exhibit at SF MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art, which was also worth the whole trip right there… they always publish the pretty paintings in those coffee table books, and Frieda is not about pretty. It was a knockout exhibit.

I had a great time seeing my brother, who lives in SF – one day for lunch on the pier, and again on Sunday (foggy and chilly) for a field trip to the Chihuly glass exhibit at the DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park – psychedelic, translucent pieces that made me feel I was underwater half the time and in Wonderland the other half. Then caught up with my friend Siegrid from Berkeley and ended the night in a biker bar, because SF is about nothing if not about contrasts.

All in all a wildly productive and wildly wild time.

Try it some time – you may find you like it.

So the question of the day is – what’s your opinion/impression about romance novels? Do you read them? Wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole? Have you taken any notice of how romance-driven the publishing industry really is?

– Alex

Visual storytelling, part 2

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I left off last week just before I got to image systems. This is one of my favorite elements of writing.

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 an entire 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.

As it happens, Michael brought home the anniversary edition of the ALIEN series last night. I could go on all week about what a perfect movie the first ALIEN is structurally as well, but for today – it’s 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, once again, my great favorite – you’ve got a monster in a maze.

Those are very specific choices and combinations. The sexual imagery and water imagery opens us up on a subconscious level and makes us vulnerable to the horrors of insects, machines and death. It 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.

I know I’ve just about worked these examples to death, but 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 a twisted wizard in his cave who is performing his rituals to try 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.

Now, a lot of authors will just throw in random scary images. How boring and meaningless! What makes what Harris does so effective is that he has an intricate, but extremely specific and limited image system going in his books. And he combines fantastical visual and thematic imagery with very realistic and accurate police procedure.

I know, all of these examples are horror, sorry, it’s my thing – but 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/Roman Polanski do with water in CHINATOWN, and try watching that movie sometime with Oedipus in mind… the very specific parallels will blow you away.

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 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…

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 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, basically, if you’re neater than I am, you can also use plastic sleeves in a three-ring binder). It’s another way of growing an image system. Also, 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 from scratch when you can tap into universally powerful archetypes? 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 help me out here with some non-horror examples (horror examples are just fine, too). What books to you have particularly striking visual and thematic image systems? What are some of your favorite images to work with?

I am in San Francisco this weekend with Toni and Rob at the Romance Writers of America National Conference, so no doubt we’ll all be reporting back next week.

(San Francisco – talk about your visual imagery!!)

Visual Storytelling

by Alex

Because I have been in that bliss period between handing in a new book and getting editorial notes, I’ve actually been able to read, and have been picking up about ten books a day. I can do that because when I’m reading for pleasure, I discard most books within ten pages, if that. Sometimes I give it 50 pages. Sometimes I make it halfway through and lose all interest. So that’s pretty much been the process over the last two weeks. Have only made it through two whole books so far.

Yesterday I picked up a book that had me riveted from the very beginning – and it made me realize something actually pretty obvious about myself.

I am a visual whore.

Yes, and proud of it. Oh, sure, I could pretend to be all highbrow and quote Aristotle on “Spectacle” in The Poetics, but really, why sugarcoat it? Give me eye candy. Dazzle me with images. But make them mean something. Your story better give me your themes visually or you risk losing me, and fast. I want symbols, symbols, damn it!

And no, I haven’t segued into talking about movies, now. I’m talking about books.

I have to say, one thing all that screenwriting has been really good for is helping me develop a strong visual writing style. I love it when readers tell me – “I can see every scene you write.” But actually, visual storytelling is a lot more than just putting a movie into your readers’ heads as they’re reading your book. Visual storytelling actually presents themes that elevate a story and make it resonate in a reader’s consciousness – and subconscious – long after they close the book.

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, 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.

Let’s start with establishing shots and master shots, setpiece scenes, and visual image systems.


One thing I’ve noticed about beginning writers’ writing is that they almost always fail to set up a chapter visually. Actually a lot of published authors have this problem, too. I find this extremely annoying and frustrating. After all, human beings process the world visually before any other sense, so why wouldn’t we as authors want to instantly establish where we are and what we’re looking at and how that makes us feel right up front, in every chapter? If you don’t, your reader is going to be uncomfortable and disoriented until you finally give her some idea of where she is.

That’s why it’s useful to think in terms of establishing shots and master shots.

An establishing shot, in film – you guessed it – establishes the location. A shot of the Eiffel Tower lets us know we’re in Paris, a shot of the Sphinx tells us we’re in Egypt. An exterior shot of an office tower followed by people working inside an office lets us know we’re inside that building.

A master shot is an angle on a scene that shows all of the players of the scene in the specific location – like looking at a stage and seeing the entire set and all the actors on it. You get all the information about the scene in one shot.

But an establishing shot is more than just information about WHERE the action takes place. It can, and should, convey emotion, suspense, theme – any number of things about the action about to transpire or the character walking into the scene.

Every time I start a chapter or a scene, I think first about the establishing shot and the master shot. I look at the upcoming action from a long enough angle to see everything there is to see about the scene. Where am I and what am I looking at? I might not describe it outright for a paragraph or two but if I don’t, there’s a damn good reason that I didn’t start with it, and I don’t keep the reader waiting long to give them the visual. And when I do give the visual, I think about what it says thematically and emotionally about the scene. Is it a confined space because my heroine feels trapped? Then I make sure to convey that claustrophobic sense. Are the colors of everything muted and leached because of my hero’s depression? Is every tree on the street bursting with bloom and fragrance because my lovers have finally reunited? (Yeah, I’m being on the nose, but my feeling is – be over the top at first to make sure the emotion is there… you can always tone it down later.)


This is a fabulous lesson to take from filmmaking.

There are multiple definitions of a setpiece – it can be a huge action scene like – well, anything in THE DARK KNIGHT – that takes weeks to shoot and costs millions, requiring multiple sets, special effects and car crashes… or a meticulously planned suspense scene with multiple cuts that takes place all in a – well, a shower, for instance, in PSYCHO.

If you start watching movies specifically to pick out the setpiece scenes, you’ll notice an interesting thing. They’re almost always used as act or sequence climaxes. They are tentpoles holding the structure of the movie up… or jewels in the necklace of the plotline. The scenes featured in the trailers to entice people to see the movie. The scenes everyone talks about after the credits roll.

That elaborate, booby-trapped cave in the first scene of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The helicopter chasing Cary Grant through the cornfield in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. The goofy galactic bar in STAR WARS. Munchkinland, the Scarecrow’s cornfield, the dark forest, the poppy field, the Emerald City, the witch’s castle in THE WIZARD OF OZ. The dungeon – I mean prison – in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. In fact you can look at RAIDERS and SILENCE and see that every single sequence contains a wonderful setpiece (The Nepalese bar, the suspension bridge, the temple in RAIDERS…)

Those are actually two great movies to use to compare setpieces because one is so big and action-oriented (RAIDERS) and one is so small, confined and psychological (SILENCE), yet both are stunning examples of visual storytelling.

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 OF THE LAMBS. 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 Tally 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.

But this post is already long, so I think I’ll save my discussion on visual image systems for another even longer post, so we can focus on setpieces today.

What are some of your favorite setpieces or symbolic images, literary or filmic, recent or classic?

Oh, and the book I picked up yesterday that inspired this post?

Barbara Vine’s THE MINOTAUR… wonderfully creepy and psychologically perverse – you have a schizophrenic (maybe) brother, four strange sisters, an even stranger mother, and a young au pair on an isolated English estate – and in the middle of this house is a mysterious library built as a labyrinth.

You better believe I’m hooked.

And yet another Thrillerfest wrap-up

by Alex

I’m one of the ones who grumbled about TF being in NYC again this year – not that I don’t love New York, I mean, please! – but I felt last year’s con was very – UNintimate compared to that magical first one in Phoenix. To be fair, last year I was having a rough time personally – a longtime friend of mine had died that week and I felt like an open wound.

This year, though, every single thing that went wrong about last year went beautifully right. Con organizers bent over backward to make sure that this Thrillerfest was awesome in every way. I can personally attest to the remarkable efforts of Steve Berry, the truly amazing Liz Berry and Kathleen Antrim – can we just bottle them? – Jim Rollins, Jon Land, Laura Benedict, Michelle Gagnon, and I know there are many more that I should be thanking. The panels were imaginative, lively, and well-attended, the mixers seemed to be as well (I was mostly running around too much to attend), everyone’s energy was WAY up, and the banquet and awards show (which I personally was sweating bullets about after last year’s 17-hour debacle) came in at under three hours and played like a variety show with debonair sweetheart Jim Rollins emceeing. There was much laughter (including everything Jim said and a Dating Game style introduction to the board members and a hilarious send up to the NY Times Bestseller list by those gorgeous and multitalented Palmers, Michael and Daniel…) and some incredibly moving moments (Tor editor Eric Rabb’s heartbreaking tribute to NYPD Auxiliary Officer Nicholas Pekearo, slain in the line of duty, whose first novel The Wolfman was bought four days before his death)

I was so thrilled to see Doug Clegg post this on another message board:

“It is the single best, most professional writers’ conference I have ever attended in 20 years in this business. It reminded me of the way Hollywood might portray a writers’ awards and events weekend.”

That is I think exactly what ITW is going for, and it’s working like a charm.

As usual I was doing way too much at this con this year:

– Singing for the banquet with some of the Killer Thriller Band again, down and dirty garage style this time… with Heather Graham, F. Paul Wilson, Dave Simms and Jeff Buick (although singing without Harley Jane Kozak was like trying to perform with a limb missing…)

– Meeting with my fantastic editor, Marc Resnick, and the St. Martin’s crew. As JT said yesterday, it’s gold to have that face time with your publishers – the planning you can do for the year is exponential, and I’ve got to admit that having TF in NY makes that all easily possible. St. Martin’s also hosted their usual packed-to-the-ceiling cocktail party, this time without any alcohol whatsoever. (Yeah, right…)

– Meeting with Eric Raab, my Tor editor on the almost-out THE DARKER MASK anthology and getting the first copies of the book.

– A fantastically successful book reading/signing at Borders on Thursday at 7 pm called “Quick Thrills from Out-of-Towners, with Michelle Gagnon, Laura Benedict, JT Ellison, Mario Acevedo, Shane Gericke and Tim Maleeny, emceed by James Bond… I mean Lee Child. We were standing room only and it really showed that putting some group effort into an event can pay off in spades.

– A Screen/vs. Page panel on Hollywood and publishing with Paul Levine, Thomas Sawyer, John Gilstrap and Lorenzo Carcaterra, emceed to the hilt by the irrepressible Jon Land. Those guys put together are their own film school and so funny – we could have gone on for hours.

– A spiritualism/parapsychology panel with Heather Graham and Wendy Corsi Staub, Friday night. It was billed as “a séance” which the three of us quickly nixed (we’ve all participated in them but for numerous reasons didn’t want to do that for entertainment). All three of us write on topics of parapsychology and the paranormal from a very realistic standpoint, and we were privileged to have Dr. Lauren Thibodeaux, a professional psychic – and psychologist – from the Lily Dale spiritualist community with us to discuss the real-life explanations of psychic events. People from the audience shared some amazing stories. We’d dimmed the lights for atmosphere and halfway through the program the recessed spotlight above Lauren started flickering on and off. None of the rest of the lights –just her light. And the second the panel concluded, the light came on full strength, completely normal. Our audience ate it up.

– Lunch with my uber-fabulous agent Scott Miller… perfect combination of work and play. Unfortunately I had to miss the debauched 3-hour dinner with the Scott Miller posse (we do have the coolest agent on the planet…)

– An interview with NPR.

Plus all the usual conference magic and madness… an outside highlight of the trip this year was going to the drag restaurant (yes, that’s what I said) Lips, where seven foot (in platforms and screaming pink wig) All-Beef Patty served us frozen Cosmos and dinner in between hilarious Karaoke and comedy acts and “Bitchy Bitchy Bingo”.

I thought the debut authors’ breakfast (which I managed to wake up for) was a great success – it’s not unique to Thrillerfest but a really important feature. I was happy to meet Jordan Dane – what a lovely person, I just adored her instantly – and get a few moments with Kelli Stanley – a study in noir all on her own.

I heard mixed reviews about Agentfest – the speed-dating session with 140 writers and 40 agents (a few editors), but it’s a great concept and the lineup of agents was just stunning. I think they just need to work out some logistical kinks, and I have no doubt that will happen.

On the slightly darker side, maybe because I’m so comfortable with this group and the whole drill myself, this year I was more aware of some underlying pain and trauma at the con. Hopes are so high, and I know some people who attend looking for an agent or a deal feel like they’re putting all their eggs in this one basket, or all their chips on one number – whatever metaphor you want to use – they think they’re taking their one shot. That really isn’t true at all – for example, I see Agentfest as a chance for an aspiring author to get a good look at and vibe from 40 great agents – and THEN do the querying and follow-up with the agents they feel a click with. But there was a bit of an undercurrent of all-or-nothing desperation, and I’d really like to see ITW do more of a prep session for aspiring authors – on conference etiquette, on how to pitch, on how to make the most of this divine madness. A kind of mini-mentoring program for aspiring authors, just as there’s a mentoring program for debut authors.

Finally, I had to mention what I think is a canny move by ITW: they’ve abolished dues for active members. Read here. It’s really not about the money – what it means is that every traditionally published thriller author is automatically a member of ITW, dues free. Of course, you the writer have to reach out to ITW to get the benefits of the organization, but this policy instantly swells the ranks of ITW in a way that can be profound.

So okay, call me converted to Thrillerfest in New York. What ITW does pretty brilliantly is star power – and the agents and editors and publishers and reviewers and journalists flock to that light. Having the con in NY makes it easy for all those people to attend. And as for the cost? Well, what I say is – slumber party!!!

FYI, I’ll be a guest in the Writers’ Chatroom this Sunday evening, so please pop in if you’ve always wanted to know what I most like in…

Well, okay, maybe never mind that.

Sunday, July 20, 2008
7-9 PM EST.

Binge reading

by Alex

I’m at that indescribably delicious time – just having turned in a novel AND a novella and not having gotten revision notes yet – in which theoretically I could read anything I wanted right now. Anything. Not for research, not for plot problems, not to make sure that my new project hasn’t been co-opted by a recent bestseller (although maybe that’s more of a screenwriting paranoia than a real author concern).

No, I can read anything I want to right now. In fact I better start reading something pretty soon or all those “shoulds” are going to start whispering at me. “You really should do your taxes while you can, or you’ll be scrambling in September.” “You really should update your mailing list before the anthology comes out.” “You really should organize your office so you can at least walk in the damn door.” You know – the “shoulds”.

Or what might happen – as did yesterday, a national holiday, I might point out – is that Michael will get caught up in something, which in this case delayed our river outing for a couple of hours, and I could have been reading and instead that OCD voice started whispering and I ended up writing four pages on the new book before he came home and dragged me out.

Not that that’s a BAD thing – but I’m one of those people who doesn’t relax well so enforced relaxation is important for continued mental health (recklessly assuming that health has anything at all to do with my mental state).

And it’s not like – heh – I don’t have enough books around the house to choose from. In fact, just having come from ALA, I have a brand new stack of ARCs, and there’s that TBR shelf of my friends’ books which in the last two years has morphed past “shelf” through “bookcase” into “bookcases” and on into “room”. I overheard Michael talking on the phone to the architect of our new old house that he’s renovating, and he said, “Look, basically, would you just put a bookcase anywhere there’s space?”

(So when you hear people joking about building a house for their books – IT’S NOT A JOKE).

But I’m having a hard time settling on a book. Now, I admit I often read a dozen books at a time – which is maybe why I can’t relate to the authors who say they can’t read books in their genre while they’re writing because they’ll start picking up on someone else’s style. Not a concern when you’re reading a dozen styles in an hour. But while I have this (relatively) guilt-free time that I could be reading, I’d really like to just sink into a book, one book, and lose myself in that way… you know, that way that made us all become authors to begin with.

I guess you could call them guilty-pleasure reads. Or comfort reads. Or binge-reads. Or maybe that’s the entire definition of “beach read”.

I think for me a binge-read is something that has nothing whatsoever to do with what I write (even though, of course, great writing is always an inspiration for writing). In the past (and I have to admit, still) it’s been Ayn Rand – THE FOUNTAINHEAD followed by ATLAS SHRUGGED and WE THE LIVING (if I’m really on a binge). Sometimes I’ll sit down and reread the entire LITTLE HOUSE series, or Jane Austen. I’ve had more binges than I can count on a YA series from the 50’s by Leonora Mattingly Weber – the Beany Malone series, and going to Denver for Left Coast Crime made me want to reread that all over again. It’s been a while, but I used to binge on Louisa May Alcott, and maybe that’s just what I need right now – in fact, I could throw in that biography that I’ve been hearing so much about as well. Madeleine L’Engle – at least once a year. Anne Rice’s THE WITCHING HOUR (maybe because I don’t think I’ve ever read the whole thing – so I keep finding interesting new things about it.). It might be time again for a Bronte binge.

Now, those are binge reads I’ve had for years and years and years. More recently, Ann Patchett and Lionel Shriver and Barbara Kingsolver have been satisfying binges for me.

But you know who really, really does it for me when I need a binge? Anne Rivers Siddons. Not in my genre at all, except for her classic ghost story THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR, but I discovered that one after I’d worked my way through nearly all of her beach read Southern women’s fiction (which is I think what she writes, but it’s so out of my own genre I don’t even know what to call it.). Siddons writes about the South from the 1920’s to the present, sometimes in family epics, sometimes in women’s lit (wife finding her husband in bed with a younger woman, and consequently finding herself), sometimes in historical stories about the vast social changes of the 1960’s. No matter what she’s writing about she had a certain languid – maybe I should say Southern – eroticism, and a keen sense of history and social and emotional dynamics and she’s a smashingly good writer – you just lose yourself in whatever she writes. I’m particularly hankering after a book called COLONY, in which the Charleston heroine marries a Boston banker and becomes the unwelcome fish-out-of-water in a colony of Boston Brahmins on the Maine coast. When I write that synopsis I just want to laugh because it is SO not my kind of thing on the surface, but somehow Siddons’ writing just hits all my pleasure centers.

(I don’t think I’ll even get into the fact that I’m now the fish-out-of-water living with a Southern man from a summer beach colony and with a whopping family saga of his own…)

So even though in this precious down time I’d love to find a book that I haven’t read before that would completely take me away from all this, I think I might just mosey over to my Siddons shelf today.

But I’m also up for suggestions for something new to take me away. What are YOUR binge reads?

Happy holiday to everyone…

Time for a Quickie?

by Alex

I must begin this blog by saying – and I’d never thought I’d say this – that Michael now officially has the patience of a saint. I wasn’t supposed to do ANYTHING even vaguely writing-related for at least two weeks after I turned in THE POLTERGEIST EFFECT, but as so often happens, stuff happened, and suddenly I had to jump right into an novella for an anthology…


But if I can make it so that the timing on the next one isn’t so crazy, this might just be a good pattern I’m discovering for myself: finish a novel, TAKE A BREAK, then do a quickie short before jumping into the next novel.

Because once I got past that “I never want to write again” feeling, I had a great time writing this thing, just as I had a great time writing “The Edge of Seventeen”, the short story I did last year right after finishing THE PRICE, for THE DARKER MASK anthology that comes out from Tor next month (and which our own Naomi Hirahara and I will be promoting at the American Library Association conference this weekend).

Now, I seem to be coming at this short story thing backwards – I never wrote one until I’d turned in my second novel. The thing is I’m not much into short stories, really – I don’t read many of them, and am not a particularly “short” writer in general. I mean, by the time you have enough story for a short story, you might as well write a screenplay, as far as I’m concerned. Since so far the only way I seem to be able to do shorts is if someone is threatening my life, I don’t think I’ll be doing too many of them.

But (always with the caveat that I keep all the rights to do a full-length novel/script/graphic novel/play/short film based on the story) – I’ve found these two shorts I’ve done very creatively refreshing.

For one thing I have found myself writing about Southern California in a way I have rarely done in scripts – and never so far in a novel, not even in the next four projected books. I don’t know why that is, since I’ve spent almost my entire life in California and you’d think that I’d find it kind of natural to write about.
But so far, no, only in these shorts – I guess because in both cases I’ve had to do them so fast that I needed to be able to throw down images without any research or any conscious thought whatsoever.

This novella (it’s called “D-Girl on Doomsday” and it’s about Hollywood and the Apocalypse) was particularly fun because I got to be just blistering about the whole experience of working in Hollywood – so much delicious hostility there to tap into, and it gave this piece a nice bite. I’m not sure I could maintain that level of savagery for 400 pages, but for 80 pages? It’s not only doable but amazingly cathartic. And you get that ecstatic “FINISHED!!!!” feeling so much faster… I can see the appeal of that, for sure.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to crank out the shorts, but once a year? Yeah, I like the feel of that. So I think I’ll be scheduling a short story a year into the ideal calendar that is finally taking shape in my head. That is, going into the second half of my second year as a professional author I am seeing how all of this new author chaos and madness eventually starts to sort itself into a manageable and maybe even enjoyable routine.

By the time you turn in the third book you’ve kind of figured out how much time it really takes you to write a book from scratch while juggling the marketing side of the job (plus, as we’ve been discussing here these last two weeks, you finally realize that you CAN pull off pretty much any book you start). With that information in mind, you can decide how many books a year or every two years that adds up to without, you know, incurring a divorce.

You figure out the conferences you absolutely have to go to, and you start getting good money for workshops, which become your other must-dos, and you start planning your other signings and events around those and – this is important – you start saying “no” to the impractical requests. You add in the particular promotional things that have worked best for you (for me, doing the bookstore drive-bys in the cities where I do other events).

And I think scheduling in a short story after each book might be just the thing to add depth to the growing body of work.

So what’s your relationship with short stories? Do you read them? Write them? Do you find yourself writing things in a short story that you wouldn’t do in a novel?

And if you’re at ALA in Anaheim this weekend, please stop by the Sisters in Crime Booth, staffed by the awesome SinC Library Liaison Mary Boone and Patron Saint of Mystery Authors Doris Ann Norris (the 2000 year old librarian).

The booth is number 290, & easy to find, right by the Internet Room, and here’s the author signing schedule:

Saturday, June 28:
9 – 11, Hannah Dennison
11 –1. Sue Ann Jaffarian and Denise Hamilton
1 –3, Jeff Sherratt and Aileen Baron
3 –5, Darrel James

Sunday, June 29:
9 –11, Melissa Garcia
10 – noon, Linda O Johnston
11-1, GB Poole
noon –2, Cara Black
1 – 3, Liz Jasper
3 –5, Alexandra Sokoloff

Monday, June 30:
9 – 11, Pat Ricks
11 – 1, Sheila Lowe and Debbie Mitsch
1 – 3, Elizabeth Zelvin
2:30 – 4:30, Naomi Hirahara

Tuesday, July 1:
8 – 10, open (Mary Boone and Doris Ann Norris)
9 – 11:30, Bonnie Cardone

What’s your type?

by Alex

I was out dancing last night and chatting with one of my partners who asked me what I did and then had that awestruck reaction when he heard I’m an author. He said something I hear pretty often, and I’m sure a lot of you do, too: “Wow, that’s much more interesting than being an (in this case, environmental designer, but you know, substitute whatever profession…).” And I tried to say what I always try to say in these situations, which is, “Not really,” but of course no one ever believes me so I move quickly on to “I think environmental design sounds really interesting, what’s a typical day like for you?”

Because one of the most interesting things about being a writer, in my opinion, is that you get to be every single other profession under the sun. I think without that aspect of writing I pretty much would die of boredom, or maybe I mean inertia, as in SITTING all damn day.

Of course all of us mystery authors have been cops by now, and DAs and defense attorneys; we’ve been serial killers and doctors and usually teachers, and parents, and hitmen (actually I haven’t and can’t imagine I ever will be, SO not my thing.). You never know when you’re going to have to be an environmental designer, either.

In my new book four of my main characters are psychologists and psych professors so I did some immersion in psychiatric theories. I love that kind of work especially, because it’s not just useful for the particular characters I was creating, but it’s great research for character in general.

One test I’m sure a lot of people here are familiar with is the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, always a fun one to look at when you’re refining character. I myself am of the personality type that can never get through a test that long, especially multiple choice which has always been the bane of my existence, so I can’t tell you my own classification, but I do know I split evenly down the line between Extravert and Introvert. Here are some good sites on the test and the personality types:

I came across two books this time that I particularly like: PERSONALITY SELF-PORTRAIT, by Oldham and Morris, and SHADOW SYNDROMES, by John J. Ratey, MD.

The first one sounds like just some basic self-help pablum but it’s actually VERY useful – it breaks character down into 13 personality “styles” that are mild versions of much more serious personality disorders.

Conscientious Style – Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder.
Self-Confident Style – Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Devoted Style – Dependent Personality Disorder
Dramatic Style – Histrionic Personality Disorder
Vigilant Style – Paranoid Personality Disorder
Sensitive Style – Avoidant Personality Disorder
Leisurely Style – Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder
Adventurous Style – Antisocial Personality Disorder
Idiosyncratic Style – Schizotypal Personality Disorder
Solitary Style – Schizoid Personality Disorder
Mercurial Style – Borderline Personality Disorder
Self-Sacrificing Style – Self-Defeating Personality Disorder
Aggressive Style – Sadistic Personality Disorder

SHADOW SYNDROMES does basically the same thing, but goes into shadow forms of autism, intermittent rage disorder and bipolar disorder as well. I guarantee you will see people you know or even yourself in some of these descriptions. Me? OCD, I mean Conscientious, for sure, with a large dose of Self-Confident thrown in.

For a more Jungian approach, I’ve never found anything better than Jean Shinoda Bolen’s GODDESSES IN EVERY WOMAN and GODS IN EVERY MAN, which relates personality types to the Greek pantheon (we’ve talked about those books here before.).

So the question is, what personality types are you all, based on what favorite tests? Got any great links or books for us?

And what was YOUR favorite profession to research?

Michael is dealing with my OCD this week by taking me to the beach with NO INTERNET ALLOWED, but he’s going to be fishing half the time so what is he really going to know? I’ll try to check in.

Hope everyone has a great weekend!

It’s a miracle

by Alex

Yes, I turned in my third book, THE POLTERGEIST EFFECT, this week, and am experiencing that ecstatic rush of endorphins I hear women feel after going through the bone-crushing pain of delivery and finally giving birth – you know, that nasty seductive chemical trick that nature plays that makes women think they would ever want to get pregnant again…

Finishing is a relative term, of course – the revisions on this one are going to be pretty brutal. But even this stage of finished is such nirvana compared to a month ago when I was seriously telling my bf I just wasn’t going to pull it off, this time – this book was just not going to come together in whatever lifetime I had left.

And I meant it.

I’ve been told that I’ve said this before. I don’t think it was ever as true as this time, but maybe… in which case I really must get tattooed someplace on my body where I will always be able to see it: “You always feel this way at this stage, just shut up and keep writing.”

Actually, that’s a tattoo that would really hurt. Maybe just “Keep writing” for short.

Now, I was familiar with this stage in screenwriting. This would be the time about two weeks before deadline when my writing partner would pitch a fit, screaming that it would never come together, storm off and disappear for two or three days, in which I just kept going, stitching things together, basically faking it, and by the time he calmed down and came back, both of us could see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, and after the light at the end of the tunnel comes that blissfully anticipated stage – critical mass – and once you have critical mass, you know you’re going to have a script. He needed to step back, I needed to push through. It wasn’t exactly a fun thing, but it always worked.

The thing is, I always had faith that I’d be able to pull a screenplay together at the end. With a book, you’re talking about a much more massive thing that you have to pull together, four times as long as a screenplay, and it’s not just the story that has to work, but the prose and the emotion and the suspense and every single little other thing.

I knew I could finish this book eventually, but I thought it might take years, like, you know, Stephen King takes to write his books. (And I have this train of thought in the back of my mind, now… how can I work myself into a position that I CAN take two years to write a book if I need to…?).

So maybe I just have to get used to the much newer feeling of thinking a book is never going to come together and do whatever it is I did to push through this time. The trouble is, much like a woman in labor, I already don’t really remember what I did to push through. There was depression, there was writing in bed to trick myself into writing at all, there were thoughts that my career was over, of having to find something else to do for a living… I think possibly there was a deal with the devil… but it’s all kind of a blur.

On a practical level I threw out chapter after chapter, especially in the first hundred pages. Oh, right, I threw out the entire end, too. I restructured. I changed the villain. Did I mention that because of a sort of impossible deadline I was trying to “pants” this one? Never, ever, ever again. Ever. Allison Brennan must be some kind of witch to write that way, because no normal human being could pull it off. I’m going back to an 80 page outline for the next one, thank you very much (and my next one is a short story, btw).

But I hope that three’s the charm and that it is now a little more ingrained in my deep subconscious that I CAN pull it off, even when it feels like a book will never come together. The tattoo might help.

Because even after all that trauma and self-doubt and loneliness and despair, I am thrilled that this book, this world, these characters, this mystery, now EXIST. That’s the thing that keeps me writing, even as battered as I feel sometimes. It’s so awesomely concrete. A book exists that did not exist before. No one else could have written it. It came out of nothing, and now it’s an entire, living, breathing world.

THAT is a miracle, and I am so very grateful.

So tell me – what do YOU do to push through whatever you need to push through? Do you need to be reminded that you CAN?

Again, all commenters this month are automatically eligible to win a signed hardcover of THE PRICE. I’m pleased to say our lovely and talented regular Catherine is last week’s winner – Catherine, would you e mail me an address: alex at alexandrasokoloff dot com

RIP Tim Russert… you are already missed.

Why people don’t get published

by Alex

Well, okay, there are a lot of reasons. Some people simply don’t have the skill, talent, passion, will, guts it takes to be a professional writer. Almost everyone can write, and I am always the first to say that everyone SHOULD write, for their own pleasure, and sanity, and self-illumination. But a pro writing career is something only for the truly insane. I mean, driven.

And yet… I think we all know people who have the talent and the drive and still are not published. This is one of the most heartbreaking things I can think of. It is not just uncomfortable, it is literally painful for me to see talented friends and acquaintances who I know have the goods and are still struggling to find agents, publishing deals, screenwriting sales.

Now, this is very, very often self-sabotage. I certainly see people who refuse to “play the game”, even though the game is part of the job. I see people who are crippled by the thought of any kind of rejection, or stopped by the very first or first few rejections, even though rejection is part of the job. I see people who submit directly to editors because they think they don’t need an agent, or are too impatient to go through the process of acquiring an agent, even though having a good agent is a vital part of the job. I see people who jump at the first offer of representation they get, even though they know nothing about that agent, who can then burn that writer’s chances with that book by submitting to the wrong people, or pretending to submit, or by just being such an obvious fraud that no one will read his or her submissions anyway. I see people who just give up and turn bitter and bilious. I see people who simply don’t think that anything good is ever going to happen to them, consequently it never does. We all have our demons, and some more than others.

But after last week at Pen to Press in New Orleans, teaching a dozen amazing writers, I now know that there are phenomenally talented writers out there who do have the goods, and the drive, and the faith in themselves, and they still need help – not on their writing, because that’s there in spades – but on all that OTHER part of the job. I guess it just finally dawned on me how much marketing is involved in getting a book deal to begin with.

This may seem like a stupid and obvious revelation to some of you – I’m certainly not above being stupid and obvious! My excuse is that I’ve been doing the sales part of writing for so long that it doesn’t even occur to me how much of a salesperson I am. For a screenwriter, pitching is the only way to get a job – even if you write and sell an original script all on your own, you still have to pitch to get to a point of writing the next draft with the producers/studio who bought it. So coming as I do from screenwriting, writing a synopsis, writing a query letter, pitching my next project to my agent and editor, doing radio and TV interviews – all of those are just variations on sales pitches. We say “pitch” but really, we’re leaving out that critical word, aren’t we? What we’re talking about is a sales pitch.

I’ve said this before but one of the most amazing things to me about the publishing world, as opposed to Hollywood, is that agents and editors actually come to conferences LOOKING for new authors, and an aspiring author can sign up for pitches with really great agents and move herself to the top of the submissions pile at various agencies. It’s a miraculous process and we’re lucky to have it.

But after the Pen to Press workshop I understand better why some talented people don’t get published: they can write like crazy, but they have no idea how to tell someone what’s actually IN their fabulous book once they’re finished with it.

Really. It’s weird. Like seeing people struggle with a foreign language.

The emphasis of this particular conference was to get authors ready to pitch and submit their completed manuscripts, and now I know how enormously necessary that kind of coaching is. Because I couldn’t tell my students a thing about HOW to write. I could be taking classes from THEM on that. But it took a good four very full days for me and my fantastic co-instructor, Scott Nicholson, to coax the actual storylines out of most of our students and show them how to put those storylines into synopsis and pitch form. When they started, we were getting vague descriptions of books that were “A young man’s journey from adolescence to adulthood” and “A multigenerational family saga about the ravages of racism”. (Hint: that’s not your story, that’s a subgenre). We had to get them to tell their stories to us, character by character, conflict by conflict, revelation by revelation, climax by climax, just as if they were sitting around a campfire, so that they could go tell those stories to agents. But once they got it, they really got it – we were blown away by the power of their pitches, and apparently so were the agents, who made multiple requests for material.

It was so very enlightening to me to see how people who can write rings around me could be so clueless (and I say that with love…) about the next step in the publishing process.

So I guess my point is this. We are very lucky to have such phenomenal resources in the book world – conferences like Pen to Press and the Southern California Writers’ Conference (which I know is also a particularly good one for workshopping), and websites like Backspace where you can get instant and intensive feedback on query letters, synopses, first chapters – and online critique groups like Sisters in Crime’s celebrated Guppies. If you’re not published yet, or if you are but you have talented friends who don’t seem to be getting to the pro level, then please consider that you or your friends might have no idea to SELL what you or they write, and as much as you might think you know, a good professional workshop or online group could be the thing that breaks you through the concrete ceiling.

My PSA for the day.

(It is going to be 100 degrees in Raleigh today. Yike. Good thing I’m doing nothing but writing today, right?)

So can others recommend great workshops, sites, resources on selling, pitching, querying?

And I think it’s my month for the signed book giveaways, so if you’re looking for something spooky to take to the beach, all commenters are automatically eligible to win a signed hardcover of THE PRICE.

What’s your premise?

by Alex

I’m off to New Orleans this week to teach a five-day writing workshop run by Deborah LeBlanc called The Pen to Press Writers Retreat.

Yeah, pretty excited! Also feeling a huge sense of responsibility. Anyone who commits the time and money to a retreat kind of workshop is really saying to the entire world – “I’m serious about this, I’m ready.” And I want to give these people the best of what I know.

So my first lesson is going to be about premise.

I was at some author event the other night and doing the chat thing with people at the pre-dinner cocktail party and found myself in conversation with an aspiring author who had just finished a book, and naturally I asked, “What’s your book about?”

And she said – “Oh, I can’t really describe it in a few sentences– there’s just so much going on in it.”


The time to know what your book is about is before you start it, and you damn well better know what it’s about by the time it’s finished and people, like, oh, you know – agents and editors, are asking you what it’s about.

And here’s another tip – when people ask you what your book is about, the answer is not “War” or “Love” or “Betrayal”, even though your book might be about one or all of those things. Those words don’t distinguish YOUR book from any of the millions of books about those things.

When people ask you what your book is about, what they are really asking is – “What’s the premise?” In other words, “What’s the story line in one easily understandable sentence?”

That one sentence is also referred to as a “logline” (in Hollywood) or “the elevator pitch” (in publishing) or “the TV Guide pitch” – it all means the same thing.

That sentence really should give you a sense of the entire story: the character of the protagonist, the character of the antagonist, the conflict, the setting, the tone, the genre. And – it should make whoever hears it want to read the book. Preferably immediately. It should make the person you tell it to light up and say – “Ooh, that sounds great!” And “Where do I buy it?”

Writing a premise sentence is a bit of an art, but it’s a critical art for authors, and screenwriters, and playwrights. You need to do this well to sell a book, to pitch a movie, to apply for a grant. You will need to do it well when your agent, and your publicist, and the sales department of your publishing house, and the reference librarian, and the Sisters in Crime books in print catalogue editor ask you for a one-sentence book description, or jacket copy, or ad copy. You will use that sentence over and over and over again in radio and TV interviews, on panels, and in bookstores (over and over and OVER again) when potential readers ask you, “So what’s your book about?” and you have about one minute to get them hooked enough to buy the book.

And even before all that, the premise is the map of your book when you’re writing it.

So what are some examples of premise lines?

Name these books:

– When a great white shark starts attacking beachgoers in a coastal town during high tourist season, a water-phobic Sheriff must assemble a team to hunt it down before it kills again.

– A young female FBI trainee must barter personal information with an imprisoned psychopathic genius in order to catch a serial killer who is capturing and killing young women for their skins.

– A treasure-hunting archeologist races over the globe to find the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s minions can acquire and use it to supernaturally power the Nazi army.

Notice how all of these premises contain a defined protagonist, a powerful antagonist, a sense of the setting, conflict and stakes, and a sense of how the action will play out. Another interesting thing about these premises is that in all three, the protagonists are up against forces that seem much bigger than the protagonist.

Here’s my premise for THE HARROWING:

Five troubled college students left alone on their isolated campus over the long Thanksgiving break confront their own demons and a mysterious presence – that may or may not be real.

I wrote that sentence to quickly convey all the elements I want to get across about this book.

Who’s the story about? Five college kids, and “alone” and “troubled” characterize them in a couple of words. Not only are they alone and troubled, they have personal demons. What’s the setting? An isolated college campus, and it’s Thanksgiving – fall, going on winter. Bleak, spooky. Plus – if it’s Thanksgiving, why are they on campus instead of home with their families?

Who’s the antagonist? A mysterious presence. What’s the conflict? It’s inner and outer – it will be the kids against themselves, and also against this mysterious presence. What are the stakes? Well, not so clear, but there’s a sense of danger involved with any mysterious presence.

And there are a lot of clues to the genre – sounds like something supernatural’s going on, but there’s also a sense that it’s psychological – because the kids are troubled and this presence may or may not be real. There’s a sense of danger, possibly on several levels.

The best way to learn how to write a good premise is to practice. Make a list of ten books and films that are in the same genre as your book or script – preferably successful – or that you wish you had written! Now for each story, write a one-sentence premise that contains all these story elements: protagonist, antagonist, conflict, stakes, setting, atmosphere and genre.

If you need a lot of examples all at once, pick up a copy of the TV Guide, or click through the descriptions of movies on your TiVo. Those aren’t necessarily the best written premises, but they do get the point across, and it will get you thinking about stories in brief.

And now that you’re an expert -go for it. Write yours and share!

Hope everyone has a great holiday weekend!


I am thrilled to announce that while I’m in New Orleans next weekend the brilliant Megan Abbott will be blogging here on Saturday. I can’t wait!