Category Archives: Alexandra Sokoloff

Creating suspense

by Alex

I know, I know, huge topic. And I’m sure many others have done it better, but I’m not being satisfied with what I’m reading, so I’m blatantly using my post today partly to beg links to good articles (compile links, I mean…) and attempt to discuss what I myself know or suspect about creating suspense.

This is the first thing I tell people who ask me about suspense:

You have to study, analyze and teach yourself to write the kind of suspense YOU want to create.

Because there are all kinds of suspense. Many thrillers are based on action and adrenaline – the experience the author wants to create and the reader wants to experience is that roller-coaster feeling. I myself am not big on that kind of suspense. I love a good adrenaline rush in a book (in fact I pretty much require them, repeatedly). But pure action scenes pretty much bore me senseless, and big guns and machines and explosions and car chases make my eyes glaze over. What I’m looking for in a book is the sensual – okay, sexual – thrill of going into the unknown. How it feels to know that there’s something there in the dark with you that’s not necessarily rational, and not necessarily human. It’s a slower, more erotic kind of thrill – that you find in THE TURN OF THE SCREW and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and THE SHINING. So although I can learn some techniques from spy thrillers or giant actioners, studying that kind of book for what I want to do is probably not going to get me where I want to go.

There’s also the classic mystery thrill of having to figure a puzzle out. There’s a great pleasure in using your mind to unlock a particularly well-crafted puzzle. I love to add that element to my stories, too, so that even though the characters are dealing with the unknown, there is still a logical way to figure the puzzle out.

So to create suspense, the first thing you have to identify is what KIND of suspense you want to create. Most stories use all three kinds of suspense I just talked about (and others – really I’m just scratching the surface), but there will be one particular kind that dominates.

A useful thing to do is to make yourself a master list of ten books and films that are not just in your own genre, but that all create the particular kind of suspense experience that you’re looking to create yourself. There are particular tricks that every author or screenwriter uses to create suspense, and looking at ten stories in a row will get you identifying those tricks. If you’re reading a particularly good book, you get so caught up in it that you don’t see the wheels and gears – and that’s good. So read it to the end… but then go back and reread to really look at the machinery of it.

What tricks am I talking about? Well, let’s see.

To my mind, the most basic and important suspense technique is ASK A CENTRAL QUESTION with your story.

Of course, every good story is inherently a suspense story, because every story is predicated on the storyteller creating the desire in the reader or audience to find out What Happens? And writing mysteries as we all do (mystery/thriller/suspense), our genre has a built-in suspense element by its very nature – the built-in question – “Who done it?” (Or in my case, as Dusty says, “What done it?”)

So the very first place that a book creates suspense is on the meta-level: in the premise, that one line description of what the story is. That story line (flap copy, back jacket text) is what makes a reader pick up a book and say – “Yeah! I want to know what happens!”

– 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.

Any one of the above can also be phrased as a question: Will Clarice get Lecter to help her catch Buffalo Bill before he kills Catherine? That’s what I mean when I say the central question of the story.

Now, there’s a whole hell of a lot of suspense in that story question – unlike in, say, the movie we saw last night: WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS. Does anyone going into that movie think for one single solitary second that Cameron Diaz is not going to end up with Ashton Kuchner? No suspense in that premise at all.

But in a mystery, or thriller, or horror story, someone could die. Anyone could always die. Even the main character can die – at least in a standalone. And I would argue that third person narration in a mystery/thriller is always going to be more suspenseful than first person, because even if your first person narrator DOES die in a surprise twist at the end, the reader hasn’t worried about it for the entire book.

In that SILENCE OF THE LAMBS story set up, we know Catherine could die – in fact, any number of additional victims could die – because it’s a thriller and we’ve got a particularly monstrous killer holding her. Clarice could die, too – in fact, throughout the story, we are always at least subconsciously aware that Clarice is disquietingly similar to Buffalo Bill’s previous victims: she is young, white, Southern, from a struggling family.

All this is STAKES – a critical element of every story. What do we fear is going to happen?

A good story makes the stakes crystal clear – from the very beginning of the story. We know right up front in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS that there’s a serial killer out there who will not stop killing young women until he is caught or killed. How do we know that? The characters say it, flat out, and not just once, and not just one character. Harris makes us perfectly, acutely aware of what the stakes are. The story ups the ante when a particular victim is kidnapped and we get to know her – we really don’t want THIS particular, feisty victim to die.

In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the government agent who comes to hire Indy to find the Ark of the Covenant says that Hitler is after it, and Indy and his colleague, the archeological experts, tell us the legend that the army which has the Ark is invincible. That’s really, really bad. Huge stakes. And it is spelled out with crystal clarity, in dialogue, with accompanying visuals of ancient text – in the first 15 minutes of the movie.

It might even be the number one rule of suspense – You need to tell your reader what they’re supposed to be afraid of. Not just scene by scene – but in the entire story, overall. You need to let the reader know what the hero, or another character, is in for – or the whole world is in for – if the hero doesn’t do something about it.

And if that’s the number one rule, then the photo finish number two rule is – You have to make the reader CARE. Because if the reader doesn’t care about the characters, then they have no personal stake in the stakes.

No, I’m not going to go into all the techniques of creating a character that readers will care about – different post!

But here’s one technique that also goes to creating suspense: stack the odds against your protagonist. It’s just ingrained in us to love an underdog.

In SILENCE, the protagonist, Clarice is up against huge odds. She has many personal obstacles. She’s a woman in a man’s world, young, a mere trainee, she has big wounds from a troubled childhood. She also has many external opponents, like Dr. Chilton, the Senator and more minor characters within scenes – not to mention that Dr. Lecter is not exactly being cooperative – he’s got his own agenda, and he’s a master at playing it.

In RAIDERS, Indy is up against Hitler (through his minions). Indy is awfully heroic and expert and, well, hot – but he’s still the underdog in this particular fight.

A lot of suspense stories use children, women, or characters with a handicap to stack the odds against the hero. Okay, it sounds manipulative, but suspense IS manipulation. And just because a technique is manipulative doesn’t make it any less effective when it’s done well: Think of WAIT UNTIL DARK (blind protagonist) , REAR WINDOW (wheelchair-bound protagonist), THE SIXTH SENSE (I swear I went to that movie just to make sure that little boy made it out okay), THE SHINING.

Another suspense technique that can be built in on the premise level is the TICKING CLOCK. Building a clock into the story creates an overall sense of urgency. In SILENCE, we learn (very early) that Buffalo Bill holds his victims for three days before he kills them. So when Catherine is kidnapped, we know Clarice only has three days to save her. We know this because the characters say it. Beginning writers seem to be afraid to just say things straight out, but there’s no reason to be coy.

Harris does the same thing in RED DRAGON – that killer is on a moon cycle so the hero knows he has only a month to track this killer down before he kills another entire family. Again, we know that because the characters tell us so – repeatedly.

Harris is actually the master of the ticking clock – he has a particularly clever one in BLACK SUNDAY: a terrorist attack is being planned to take place at the Superbowl. Well, we all know it would take no less than the Apocalypse to get sponsors to cancel or postpone the Superbowl, so Harris has both locked his characters in to an inevitable event, and also created a clock – come hell or high water, it’s all going to come down on Superbowl Sunday.

Again, a ticking clock is manipulative, and you can make an argument that it’s a less effective technique these days because it’s been overused, but that just means you have to be more clever about it. Make it an organic clock, as in the examples above. In RED DRAGON, for example – having the killer be on a moon clock is very creepily effective, because not only is this a real characteristic of some serial killers, Harris has built a whole symbolic image system into this story – he uses animal imagery to depict this killer: describing him as a baby bat (with his cleft palate), emphasizing his biting, giving the character a desire to become a dragon. The moon clock is part of the image system, and the killer seems much more monstrous.

Now, all of the above are suspense techniques on the meta-level. Once you’ve created a story that has the elements of suspense built into the overall structure, you have to start working suspense on the scene level, moment-by-moment. And here’s where I find a lot of books really lacking in the kind of suspense I personally crave, which is about making me feel the physical and mental effects of wonder and terror. And that you have to do by working a scene over and over and over again. You need to direct it, act it, production design it, cast it, score it. What is scary in the physical environment, in the visual and in the symbolism of the space? How can you use sound to create chills? What is going through the character’s head that increases the danger of the experience? How do you use pace and rhythm of language to create the equivalent of a musical soundtrack (the prime purpose of which is to manipulate emotion in a viewer?)

You have to layer in all six senses – what it looks, smells, sounds, feels, tastes like – as well as what your characters sense are there, even though there’s no physical evidence for it. You have to create the effect of an adrenaline rush. I think a huge weakness of a lot of writers is that they either don’t understand – or they’re too lazy to convey – the effects of adrenaline on the body and mind. You know how in a good suspense or action scene the pace actually slows down, so that every detail stands out and every move takes ages to complete? Well, that writing technique is actually just duplicating the experience of an adrenaline rush – your heart is going so fast and your thoughts are coming so fast that everything around you seems slowed down. You react to things faster because your metabolism has sped up so you CAN react faster and possibly save yourself.

I’m realizing that this is going to have to be two posts – at least! – but here’s my last thought for this one. I think one of the best things a writer can do to learn how to write suspense is to take some acting classes. Learning to experience a story from INSIDE one of the characters – literally, inside that character’s body – will make you much more proficient at creating a physical, sensual experience for your readers.

So yes, if you have links to particularly good articles or sites on how to create suspense, please share! Authors, what are your favorite suspense tips and techniques? Who did you study to learn the fine art of suspense? And readers, who are your favorite suspense authors, and do you have a favorite KIND of suspense?

Parents and the dreaded arts

by Alex

We all remember what weekend this is, right? I got a kick out of seeing the woman at the counter at my gym yesterday – slyly wishing all the men who stopped by a Happy Mother’s Day weekend and watching fully a third of them stop in their tracks with an “Oh shit!” look. That woman knows how to have her fun, let me tell you.

I am sort of thinking that Toni will have a great Mother’s Day post because she both has and is a mother, so I will sort of work around the topic in a different way, because this has come up for me lately.

I often find myself being confided in by young aspiring authors that their parents don’t approve of their aspirations. Well, we all know that feeling, don’t we? Certainly there are some parents who do encourage art as a living (and some of them are scary, see “stage mothers”). Nepotism is a fact of life in Hollywood, and successful film actors, producers, writers, directors, have no qualms about encouraging their offspring toward the family business.

But that’s pretty much the size of it – “the family business.” That’s one aspect of the arts as a profession that makes other, non-artistic parents quail at the idea of little Johnny or Janey trying to write, or act, or paint for a living. For centuries, millennia, children were taught the trade their parents were in, and that’s the way it was, and largely still is.

There’s much more resistance than that going on, usually. And I try to tell these young writers that they’re not alone – no parents in their right minds really want their kids to go into the arts, because it’s so hard, and unstable, and financially shaky. I think parents just know that on a genetic level, and because they love us, they gently or not so gently try to steer us away.

And then on another level, some parents might not approve because, well, we’re all gypsies, tramps and thieves, not to mention homosexuals.

And then maybe on another level, some parents might resist the idea because deep down, they always had some aspiration… but adults just don’t DO that kind of thing, so they didn’t, and neither should you.

So there’s all kinds of STUFF going on that might make parents not so very supportive of the young artist.

So what do you tell these young aspirants whose parents are less than supportive?

Well, I tell them what I did, with my parents. I just didn’t make a point of telling them what I was doing. I didn’t lie, exactly, but let’s just say I left out a lot. I didn’t declare my major until I was a senior in college and I didn’t let on how much theater I was doing.

I think those of us who are driven to do this THING that we do figure out how to work the angles pretty early on. And just as I get confided in by young, aspiring authors, I get confided in by people in mid-life who say that they always wanted to write, but their parents were not supportive (sometimes that’s to say the least), and they’re now in a morass of regret that they didn’t pursue the dream. For those people I write down this Bernard Malamud quote: “We have two lives – the one we learn with and the life we live after that.”

And then I tell them that a lot of authors I know didn’t write their first book until after they were 40.

But I keep their stories in mind when I talk to the younger ones and tell them – “You don’t want to end up regretting anything because you were afraid to try.”

I know there’s a lot of pain involved for artists who aren’t encouraged and supported in their passion by their parents – but it’s the evolutionary imperative not only to separate from our parents, but to transcend them. That IS evolution.

And there’s a lot of joy when your parents finally realize: My God, she really is making a living at this, we’re not going to have to support her for the rest of our lives.

And let’s face it – that’s a pretty legitimate fear – I don’t blame parents a bit for THAT one.

And you know what? As a writer I use lessons my parents taught me every single day of my life. They taught me to love work, and do the work I love (even though they weren’t exactly intending it be THIS work) – because, they said, work is what most of your life is. They took me and my sister and brother to about a million museums and concerts and plays and taught us to love art, and along with loving it, they taught us to analyze it. Mom will talk to ANYONE – I grew up seeing her start conversations on the street, in a restaurant, on a pier – with anyone and everyone, and you better believe I use that skill every day of my life as a writer. And they both just assumed that I could do anything a boy could, only better, and so despite all the messages girls get from the world about what they can and can’t or should and shouldn’t do, I had my parents’ faith that yes, I damn well could.

My point is, if you’re an artist, your parents are preparing you for a life and career as an artist, whether or not it looks that way on the surface. They give you gifts that will MAKE you the artist you are. It’s up to you to find those gifts, and use them.

Here’s my most treasured gift from my mother. Remember all those art museums I told you she dragged me to (yes, at the time, it was dragging…)? She told me very early on – “I want you to be able to see artistically – not just art, but the whole world around you. Because if you can see the world around you aesthetically, you will always find pleasure, wherever you are, whatever your circumstances.”

Now that – is beyond rubies.

This is the weekend to think about it, so what are some of the gifts you got from your parents? Were they supportive of your artistic aspirations? Did it matter? As a parent, how do you feel about the idea of your child going into this godforsaken business? 😉

And Happy Mother’s Day and THANK YOU to all the mothers.

There’s more going on here…

by Alex

There was a great post by Nancy Martin and a whole slew of accompanying stories over at The Lipstick Chronicles this week about disastrous wedding experiences. Well, actually, humorous disastrous wedding experiences, which is why I decided not to contribute my own most bizarre wedding memory – it was just too dark. Maybe it’s the stuff I write (you think?) but out of the multitudes of weddings I’ve attended and participated in (I had EIGHT good friends get married within a year, egad – one of the reasons I keep putting that wedding thing off myself), all with lovely and funny and heartwarming stories galore, it’s this one particular incident that, well, haunts me, so much so that I didn’t want to invoke it and cast a pall over that happy thread.

So I thought I’d tell it here, where you all are, you know, used to me.

It was a gorgeous wedding at a club by the ocean. Rich father plus highly artistic bride and groom and highly artistic friends helping so everything was stunningly lovely with no expense spared. Great dance band, entertainment by friends, the bride in a gasp-inducing princess gown. Lovely, lovely, lovely, perfect in every way.

And then came the toasts. All touching, funny… until the FOB. Okay, he was drunk, but that’s not unsual in itself. But when he started to speak, an uneasy hush fell over the crowd. He was telling a story about the bride, and it was just – wrong, the whole sense of it. He said that when she was born, they thought she was autistic and the way he said it made it sound like there was no hope, so they’d never expected much from her anyway. (She is not impaired in any way, by the way – quite the opposite – beautiful, brilliant, talented, charming) We kept waiting for an upturn, a happy ending, even something remotely mitigating, but no. It was horrifying. More than just disturbing in the moment – it felt like – the moment in Sleeping Beauty when the evil fairy shows up at Princess Aurora’s christening and curses her. It felt – prescient.

I wish, really now I’ve wished a thousand times since then, that all of us, the couple’s friends, had stepped in like the good fairy to cast some kind of counter-spell, right there on the spot, wedding protocol be damned. But what? We were all too stunned to even move.

The couple’s first child was diagnosed with autism a few years after birth.

Now of course that story gnaws at me as a writer because of the fairy tale curse aspect of it – I’m completely obsessed with the theme. But it wasn’t just me – all of us who knew the couple knew that something large was going on there – something more than ordinary – a foretelling. It was a moment that ordinary reality seemed to stop and you got a glimpse into the future, or at least a possible future (which is why I so wish one of us at the time had been an experienced witch or yogi to perform some kind of counter-ritual or blessing).

And because of the book I’m writing (yes, STILL writing…@#$%^&) I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently – the moments when we get a glimpse into a bigger, deeper reality. You read enough about psychic events experienced by ordinary people, as I’ve been doing, and they’re all so very similar.

– The crisis apparitions, where a loved one is hurt or dying and appears in some way to a relative or mate at the moment of death, either as a full-fledged apparition or a signal, like a mirror shattering.

– The precognitive dreams: A young mother has a nightmare that her new baby is crushed to death when the light fixture above the crib falls – she wakes up screaming and runs in to the nursery where she finds the baby perfectly fine, sleeping soundly, but she takes the baby into bed with her and her husband – and two hours later they’re awakened by a crash from inside the nursery.

– The visitations from dead loved ones who have something to say about where your mother’s bracelet is or where the new will was filed.

– And of course the ordinary psychic things that happen all the time – the wife who dreams that there is another woman in bed with her and her husband – and discovers that he is, indeed, having an affair. The teenager who decides at the last second to take the left turn instead of the right, even though it will mean an extra five minutes getting to his friend’s house – and as he makes the turn he hears the screeching of brakes and a grinding of metal back there at that very corner.

Yes, yes – all these things can be explained as simple, ordinary perception. The young mother noticed subconsciously that the plaster around the light fixture was cracked and her dream warned her about a very real danger. The woman whose dead husband visits her in a dream to tell her where the bonds is remembering that her husband made that stop at a certain bank one day and her dream makes it her dead husband telling her so so that she’ll pay attention. The teenager registered that a car was driving too fast on that side street out of the corner of his eye. (I can’t as blithely explain how people see their loved ones at the EXACT moment of death, but I’m sure there’s someone out there who can debunk that one, too.)

But I think – reality is a lot more mutable than skeptics want to admit. And I’m not just talking about our perceptions and instincts and intuitions. I mean the whole of the universe gives us signs all the time.

The morning my grandmother died, I woke up and walked outside and the sunrise was just – surreal. The whole sky was flaming orange and red and pink – much more like deep sunset than the pallid pink of LA sunrises. The pecan tree in my back yard towered against that sky, and in the tree were hundreds, hundreds of cawing birds. It was earsplitting, mindblowing.

A half hour later I got the call.

When I look back at those moments that I knew something more than I realistically should have known, there is a heaviness to them, an import, a hyper-clarity – even a time-slowing-down quality. And so it seems to me – and it’s said by spiritual teachers – that if we all paid more attention all the time to these insights, synchronicities, we’d be able to see the signs all the time.

So that’s my spring resolution, since it’s such a lush and pretty day today that it seems like a resolution is called for.

I’m going to pay more attention to the signs – the dark and the light.

So I know all of you have stories to tell about visitations, prescience, telepathy, dream signs, and those just larger-than-life moments. (Yes, all of you – even the people who don’t believe always have stories about friends…)

A living, breathing book

by Alex

Please just hit me if I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but one of the most amazing aspects of this new author gig is how much teaching is suddenly required of us. Well, not required, exactly, but requested. And I think those reading along are getting the picture of how much we all enjoy, and more, are fascinated by the teaching side of this profession.

So instead of writing more about Romantic Times (except just to say that no matter how much I think I’m immune by now to these obviously staged displays, I still nearly fainted at the waves of testosterone wafting off the collective cover models when I walked into the conference last weekend…) I’m going to talk about something else that has been… um.. bothering me.

Given the gigantic slush piles and the sheer numbers of aspiring authors out there competing for publishing deals, what IS it about a book that makes – agents, publishers, readers – say yes? And exactly how do we describe that something to an aspiring author?

What is it that makes a book ALIVE?

I just recently got a slew of first-five-page submissions for a workshop I’m going to be teaching and OH MY GOD, what an interesting experience it’s being.

This is not my first rodeo, mind you. Before I sold my first script and broke into screenwriting as a living, I worked as a reader (story analyst) for several Hollywood production companies, so I have all kinds of experience with sorting through mountains of submissions and having to cull the likely ones from the pile.

That may sound hard, but believe me, there’s nothing easier. A script is either THERE, or it’s not. Same with novels. It’s either a book, or it isn’t. The more of them you read at once, the more obvious that becomes. Now, beyond that, a book needs to fit someone’s particular taste – you have to find an agent who loves it and an editor who loves it and a house who loves it, and THAT is more intangible.

But before all of that it simply has to be an actual, living, breathing book.

And if you get, for example, twelve submissions at once, and read them all in one night, there is nothing in the world easier than picking out which of them, if any, is a real book – or not.

There are all kinds of ways to write a book. Plotting, pantsing, obsessive outlining, index cards, collage books, writing in layers, writing beginning to end, writing one chapter at a time until it’s perfect, writing reams of back stories….

And certainly by now we all know that authors often go through holy hell trying to get a book to LIVE – that we throw manuscripts against walls and go on drinking binges and tell everyone we meet that our careers are over and throw out hundreds of pages at a time and tear our entire structures apart and start over when it’s not working.

But all this drama means only one thing, really. We all know… that there’s a certain point that we have to get to in which the book takes on a life of its own. No book is ever going to engage every reader – there’s too much individual taste involved to hope for that. But we all have to get every book we write to a state in which a decent percentage of readers will pick the book up and say YES to it – that they will somehow, someway, find themselves so caught up in the world that they forget that they’re holding a book and reading, and instead are just LIVING it.

But what the hell IS that? How can you possibly TEACH that?

You can teach all the building blocks to writing but how do you teach someone how to make that conglomeration of parts LIVE, to the point that it’s a fully-dimensional, breathing, seamless experience?

Well, first, art is imitative. Just like children learning to be adults, we as authors imitate our author idols – in characterization, structure, rhythm, pacing, dialogue. We have to have finely developed ears for all of those things. We have to learn to speak novelese, so fluently that when we speak we are indistinguishable from natives.

We also have to have enough detachment to pull back from the writing process and read our work simply as readers, and see where the book is engaging us and flowing, and where it stumbles, where we are engaged and where we couldn’t care less.

Maybe what we really have to do is create a world, or a stage, that’s detailed enough that we can coax real live characters (wherever the hell they come from) out onto it, who will do the work for us.

Or maybe it’s all just a Jedi mind trick. Look, I’m not kidding. Maybe it’s actually magic. Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Morgan Le Fay-style magic.

But CAN that be taught? Or if you don’t have it from the beginning, can you get there?

If an aspiring author isn’t trying hard enough, if the book is just lying there like a dead mackerel, what might get them motivated to DO what it takes to get to the next level, a living, breathing level?

I honestly don’t know if that is something that can be specifically taught. I think it might be more of a Dumbo’s feather kind of thing. You, as a teacher or a mentor or an advisor, are not going to know what it is for any particular student that gets her or him to that magic place. Sometimes you may click with a student and say the right thing – but probably, most of the time, not.

That’s kind of scary, considering the fact that while you may sometimes do great good, you could also do great harm.

For example. I have to admit that personally, coming from a dance background, I am highly responsive to someone with a cane following me across a dance floor screaming in my face – TURN! TURN! Get up on top of that leg! MOVE!

Dance teachers, like football coaches and Army Sergeants, don’t pull any punches. And you know what? It works. The adrenaline of terror will push you to a certain level of competency that you were not aware you could achieve. (This, I feel, is part of the psychology of deadlines….)

There’s a certain magic to dance, after all – there are so many things that you have to do perfectly all at once to do just a simple triple pirouette that if you were only thinking about the component parts you would never, ever get there. What you need is the level of sheer adrenaline that makes a mother not think about what is possible or not possible but allows her to lift a three-ton truck off her trapped child. You need a level of WILL that transcends your physical and mental capabilities, right? That’s what writing is all about, because if you really think about what we’re doing, let’s face it, it’s completely impossible.

Going back to the Jedi analogy, maybe for some students what it takes is a teacher that you worship, who is your ideal of what you want to be and where you want to go, screaming at you – JUST FUCKING DO IT!

And somehow the combined rage and worship and terror flips you into an altered state in which you can levitate the Death Star, or do a triple pirouette, or set your book on fire.

Now, I’m not willing to apply those take-no-prisoners dance teacher techniques to my writing students. At least, I have not been – so far. I have also not, so far, been willing to say to aspiring author friends – “You know what? You’re not trying hard enough. Stop whining, get your head out of your ass and work on ONE book until it’s right, until it’s ALIVE.”

But I’m beginning to wonder – am I doing these people a disservice? Am I letting them down by not being as hard on them as I am on myself? Are great teachers hard on students precisely because they know they need to instill that sense of rigor and perfectionism in their students, if those students are ever to have any hope of being professionals?

Or is tough love a terrible gamble that could break a talented student if applied at the wrong time in that student’s life?

On one hand, I think any student has to be responsible enough to pursue the teachers who teach in a style that is compatible with the student, and drop flat the teachers who they sense could harm their development.

But maybe… maybe… as teachers we have to be responsible enough to look a promising student in the face and say – “Do better or get out.”

Just exactly as we say to ourselves, every day.

Maybe the point is – the BOOK has to be the most important thing, always. It has to be more important than your agent or getting an agent, it has to be more important than your editor or publishing house, it has to be more important than anything. Until you get to the point that the book lives, no matter what that takes, then nothing else matters.

So my questions are – what worked for YOU? Do you remember the point at which you first wrote something that you knew, unequivocally, was alive? Did a teacher or teachers help you get there, or is that something each of us has to figure out on our own? Is there a teaching style that works best for you, as a teacher or as a student?

Romantic Times Booklovers Convention

by Alex

I’m at the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention this weekend – as I said last week, it’s my secret favorite convention, and no, not just because there’s stunt dressing and real, actual dancing every night.

I think it’s important for people in the mystery, thriller and, yes, even horror genres, to hear this because Romantic Times is a convention that may not be on the radar for other genre writers – but it should be.

I never read romances as a kid, or any time after – just had no interest, although looking back I can see there was some romance crossover in the Gothic thrillers I gobbled up in my endless quest for the supernatural. And it’s that crossoverness that makes Romantic Times a more obvious bet for me than, say, a noir writer, because paranormal is so huge right now – in romances AND mysteries, and though a lot of paranormal seems to be about warm and fuzzy werewolves and endless variations on quirky vampires, there’s also a significant segment of the paranormal readership that likes a good straight-up ghost story.

I heard from almost the very beginning of my promotional efforts that I should go to RT because I write sexy and I write paranormal and romance readers simply Buy Books. In fact, they Buy Books voraciously, which I discovered when I went to my first romance-centric workshop in the fall, Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans.

But the thing that stunned me from the very first moment of the convention last year was how incredibly professionally and logically organized it was. RT had really worked to recruit and organize a thriller track and a mystery track (track = a series of panels and events in that genre), alongside their bookseller track, huge paranormal track, writing tracks, and breakout (how to get an agent/publish) tracks. ITW (International Thriller Writers) had been working well in advance with RT planners to organize an outside book signing at the truly lovely Murder By The Book bookstore and a bookseller event (the fourteen thriller writers chipped in to host a breakfast for all 75 booksellers in attendance at RT, where we did a meet and greet and gave out promotional material and books. 75 booksellers at once – think about it…). The mystery track similarly organized a group signing and events.

The conference also features some unique ways of handling reader/author interaction. Apart from outside bookseller events, there is only one mass signing – that takes place in a HUGE convention room on Saturday, after all the authors have already done their panels. The authors are lined up alphabetically at long rows of tables, and the readers just walk up and down the aisles. There are drawings for dozens of author-donated gift baskets going on throughout the whole three hour signing, and video screens project book trailers through the whole event as well (THAT was fascinating, and this year I’m especially excited to have both of my book trailers playing in the book room and on the hotel TV during the convention – it was seeing the trailers playing last year that convinced me to do trailers for my books.).

I sold dozens of books, and was just in hardcover last year and not nominally a romance writer.

Another cool feature of RT is “Club RT”. Throughout the convention, in the dealers’ room there are a couple dozen little café tables set up and authors are scheduled for one/two hour slots where they just sit at these tables and anyone who wants to can come up and chat, get books signed, etc. If I were an aspiring author I would have spent half my time at this conference just going around to chat with different authors in my genre. A truly unique and intimate opportunity for authors, aspiring authors, and fans.

Of course the feature of RT I really love is Heather Graham’s Dinner Theater, an original musical review written by Heather and her longtime, comically brilliant collaborators, writer/director/performer Lance Taubold and writer/manager/performer Rich Devin, always featuring several of Heather’s charming and multitalented offspring. Last year the show was “Vampires of the Wild Wild West”; this year it’s “Blood and Steel, a Pittsburgh Monster Mash.” This year not only are all three Killerettes in the cast again – Heather, Harley Jane Kozak, and me – but we’ll also have F. Paul Wilson and Dave Simms from the Killer Thriller Band. There simply is no more fun to be had with clothes on.

I also have to say, when women organize these things everything is just – prettier. The attention to detail is staggering. Promo Alley, where authors put out their postcards and bookmarks and giveaways, is a long aisle of covered tables on both sides, and instead of having people just throw their swag on the tables, all the giveaways have to be in displays or decorated baskets. Yes, that takes an extra hour of prep time, but oh man, is it worth it. You can actually SEE the promo stuff, and you get a feel for each author from the decorations of the boxes and baskets. Brilliant idea.

Ditto with the parties. RT has professional costumers/decorators who dress the ballrooms for the theme parties – last year, Moulin Rouge, Midnight at the Oasis, Vampires of the Wild Wild West, Immortals of Rock and Roll, and of course, the Faery Ball. There was lighting. There were trees. There were enormous Moroccan pillows. There were stage backdrops. There were mirror balls and candles. There were screaming mechanical skulls. And the level of personal costuming rivaled the Renaissance Faire events and special effects masters’ parties I’ve been to in LA (I never even dreamed there were so many variations on fairies. Seriously…)

And these women DANCE. All night. I’m sorry, but you can only talk so much. You get out on the dance floor with a bunch of readers screaming “It’s Raining Men” and you have made friends for life.

But RT is not just for women. Male authors are catching on to the gold mine of readers to be – mined – at RT and are coming over to the decadent side. This year I know F. Paul Wilson and Barry Eisler are joining us (I hear Joe Konrath dropped out at the last minute… terrible drag) and I expect that more men will realize what an advantage that Y chromosome gives them in a situation like this.

And well, okay, I admit it – all professionalism aside – after years of having to put up with only female strippers at Hollywood events, I like the turnabout of having half-naked beefcake at a convention. Sue me.

Will do what I can to report on this year in real time, but no promises! There’s some serious dancing to be done, here…

Writers’ Style

by Alex

No, I don’t mean WRITING style. I mean DRESSING style.

Someone posted to one of the loops asking about attire for the LA Times Festival of the Book, and someone posted back something like, “Dress nicely. Even if you wear shorts, make sure they’re nice.”

You know, somehow I never got that ‘nice’ memo.

For me, dressing for the LATFOB means sunscreen, sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and as little as possible after that. Plus, of course, a parka stashed away in the bag in case of bone-chilling coastal fog. I grew up in the California desert and I say, what good is it to start out looking NICE if after forty-five minutes you’re burned red as a lobster and sweating through three layers of clothes?

I don’t know, maybe it really is a California thing, but if I have to spend more than two minutes getting dressed for ANYTHING, it’s not going to happen. Having spent so much of my life 1. Writing and 2. Dancing, it’s a good day if I even make it out of pajamas or a leotard and leggings. That’s why I like dresses so much – you can throw one on in ten seconds and everyone acts as if you’ve made some kind of effort or something. Hah!

I get hives just thinking about the RWA national conference in San Francisco this summer. Everyone is going to be business elegant, with the manicures and stockings and salon perms and designer everything and I’m going to look like I just crawled out of the Haight… which, let’s face it, I will have.

Part of it is the hair. I know that. With this hair, a tailored look is just not in the cards. I can live with that. You have to work with what you’ve got, and what I’ve got is what casting directors tactfully refer to as “equestrian” when what they really mean is a rode-hard, put-away- wet look.

But that is not to say that I don’t enjoy clothes. Actually, I enjoy the hell out of clothes. I’m hardly unaware that we authors can communicate a lot about the books we write through the clothing , shoes and accessories we wear. It really is instant branding,

And I have managed to figure out the touring clothes that work for me – things that look a little rock star, a little Gothic, that make people I meet say things like – “Oh, I love that shirt!” when really my only criteria for buying anything these days are: 1. Can I wash it in the sink in my hotel room and get it dry by tomorrow? And 2. Will I be able to wear it two days in a row – or three – without ironing if my suitcase or I get laid over in Chicago (Phoenix, Atlanta…)?

But even though simplicity is my fashion mandate these days, I am thrilled that my intensive touring is ending with my secret favorite conference, the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention. RT doesn’t require business elegant. It does require stunt dressing.

Now, those of you who don’t live in LA have probably never heard this term. Actually, those of you who do live in LA probably haven’t heard the term, either, because I’m fairly certain I made it up. But stunt dressing is the only way I can properly describe the phenomenon I’m talking about. (And those of you in the SCA, World Con, World Fantasy Con, Comic-Con, StellarCon, AnyCon crowd -you know who you are – know exactly what I mean…)

What you’ve probably heard about Romantic Times, if you’ve heard anything at all – that it’s full of women dressed as vampires and fairies, and half-naked male cover models slinking around. Well, this is a normal party for me, and I’ve got to say I miss that kind of hedonism at the more sedate conferences.

This was my packing list for RT last year:

red velvet opera coat
saloon girl parachute skirt
black net crinoline
red velvet corset
black fishnet cape
black lace bodice
1 pair Victorian boots
1 pair red fishnet stockings
1 pair black fishnet stockings
harem girl outfit
3 veils
1 dozen arm bracelets and cuffs
Glinda the Good ballgown
matching wand
1 pair vampire fangs
sparkly Western hat
red lace mantilla
body glitter
hair ornaments
Victorian choker
riding crop
micro leather mini
thigh high vinyl boots
red leather vest

Admit it – it’s a hell of a lot more fun than “business casual”.

Now, I wasn’t born a stunt dresser. It took years for me to even want to try. But I have lived all my life in California and some things just rub off.

Los Angeles is, after all, home to thousands of professional special effects wizards, costumers, the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, narcissistic histrionics, and actors – oh, wait, that last is redundant. (KIDDING. Some of my best friends are actors.).

And in LA, event partying is a competitive sport – literally. Costume contests abound, and some people I know make a very nice auxiliary income from them, around October, especially.

Arguably some even more outrageous stunt dressing goes on in San Francisco, where most of my friends have also spent at least half their lives. You want to see some world-class costumes, try the Castro on any given Halloween (I’ll never forget the life-sized walking convertible with JFK and Jackie… well, all right, never mind that.).

Put all that together and you have what I call stunt dressing. Parties where costumes are NOT optional – not if you don’t want to stick out like a wallflower with a sore thumb.

Theme parties used to scare the s – stuffing out of me because I don’t think of myself as a crafty person. (You know, craft as in sewing, not all that OTHER stuff, which is another post entirely.) But I do love excess, and after attending a few L.A. parties like oh, A Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Voodoo Magic, Survivor (yes, that Survivor), Gilligan’s Island, Under the Sea, any number of the requisite Moulin Rouge and Pirates of the Caribbean and Lord of the Rings and Mardi Gras and Tiki parties… well, I started to think about it. I started thinking about what to actually wear to some of these things. I started to think – isn’t costuming just as much an artistic expression as words?

And that’s how I released my inner Stunt Dresser. I love dressing up as an Elton John song and having people guess which song I am, preferably with touchable clues. I love sequins and feathers and masks. I love a RED party where everyone and everything is – you guessed it. Have one some time and see what it does to the libido – yours and everyone else’s, in every possible combination.

Every thrift store is now an opportunity to collect cheap frothy things that will one day make the perfect drop-dead costume. I have hats. I have Victorian opera coats. I have a menagerie of corsets and boas and headgear. I have chain mail. I have every possible net garment you can think of. I have more sequined gorgeous confections than you can shake a stick at. I’ve also recently started on props. After all, how do you dress as Trillian (for a HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE party) without mice, which you can get three for a dollar at a novelty store? Throw on a string of battery powered fish lights, maybe even add a real fish net, and you’re all set for an Under the Sea party. You see what I mean? It’s not like you have to spend a lot of money or take a lot of time with it.

The thing about stunt dressing is that it gives OTHER people so much pleasure. You don’t have to make much of an effort to make so many people truly happy that you’re wearing part of the party. That’s what’s so great about it – and if you’re shy, I suggest you think about it that way – in terms of how much others will enjoy that you’ve done it.

These are the RT parties I have to look forward to this week:

– Under the Sea Faery Ball
– Hollywood’s Golden Age
– Midnight Speakeasy
– These Boots Are Made for Walking
– Western Extravaganza (at which there will be a real, that is, real staged, hanging)

And of course, the Vampire Ball, at which I will incongruously be tricked out as a kinky Bride of Frankenstein, due to my role in Heather Graham’s always outrageous dinner theater show.

Business elegant… bad. Bride of Frankenstein… good.

I can’t wait.

So I say – it’s Spring. Go ahead. Unleash your inner stunt dresser. There might just be an Elton John song in you that’s dying to get out.

And here are my questions for the day. First, what’s your style? Do you have one? Have you cultivated it?

If you’re an author, have you deliberately changed your style or invested in a new wardrobe as part of your author persona? If you’re a reader, does it matter to you if authors dress “nice”? (Or are you, ahem, on to us?)

And everyone – what’s the most outrageous stunt costume you’ve ever worn?

And, okay – have you ever had your colors “done”? What season are you? Do you incorporate color dressing into your style?

The Horror (World Horror Con 2008 report)

by Alex

In one of my patented insane tour moves, I split my time last week between the Public Library Association conference (see here) and the World Horror Convention in Salt Lake City – and if that’s not a dichotomy, I don’t know what is. The only unifying factor was the snow, actually… what a freaking long winter some parts of the country are having, I’m telling you…

I am a cross-genre kind of girl, which puts me in several convention loops: mystery, thriller, horror, and romance. I’m too dark for some of the attendees of Malice Domestic, but I’m a passionate traditional mystery reader myself and there are enough readers there who enjoy a supernatural edge to their mysteries that it’s always worth it for me to go.
By the same token, I’m not a hard-core horror writer, but my subject matter is dark enough to satisfy most horror fans, even though my plot structure owes a lot more to traditional mysteries, and the scares I offer up are more psychological than overt. And then of course there’s the whole paranormal slice of romance readers – fans of the Bronte sisters, Daphne DuMaurier, Shirley Jackson and Anne Rice – who are attracted to the spooky eroticism of my books.

Which means, basically, that I end up at more conventions than is really healthy for any one sane person. Oh well.

One con that I’ll probably never miss is World Horror. It’s a literary conference, in contrast to most horror cons which are heavy on movies and gaming. And I have to admit – my real love is the mystery beyond the mystery – what happens when even reality seems to warp. So even though I will never see SAW 1, 2, 3, 4 or 13, because I think torture porn is, well, evil – there is nothing so cathartic to me as a horror film or book in which the real battle between good and evil is played out, and in which good ends up with some sort of even temporary upper hand.

I can’t give anything like a full conference report as I didn’t get actually get to WHC until early Saturday morning – I was at PLA for three days and had to get from Minneapolis to Salt Lake City in a mad rush. But despite my incredible lateness I had a very full conference experience – three panels (“On Screenwriting”, “Thinking Outside the Horror Box” on marketing, and “Promotion, What Works and What Doesn’t” – which turned into a roundtable with back and forth discussion between Deborah LeBlanc, Sarah Langan and me and all of the audience, with special help from David Wellington – and turned out to be as illuminating for the panelists as it was for the audience, I think.

It was interesting to me that there were so many cross-genre panels – and two bestselling cross-genre authors, F. Paul Wilson and Heather Graham, were prominently featured. Of course, horror is languishing as a genre right now, and everyone seems to be looking to “The Once and Future King” – Joe Hill (author of HEART SHAPED BOX and son of Stephen King, for those who haven’t been following) and Dan Simmons (author of the brilliant THE TERROR – run, do not walk, to purchase and read this book – it will turn you inside out) and Scott Smith (THE RUINS) to revive the genre, while the rest of us tiptoe uneasily around the H-word at the request of our publishers. That’s okay – I can be a thriller writer, or a mystery writer, or a paranormal writer just as easily. Or just call me “dark suspense” and be done with it. (Actually, I should really write a whole blog on the subject of “When genres tank”. I’m making a note of it.)

I got my academic fix from the fascinating lectures on serial killers, and a chance to hear a taped interview with Ted Bundy… malevolently fascinating. I was also happy to get professional confirmation for my long-held suspicion that Aileen Wuornos is NOT a serial killer (but that’s also a different post).

Heather Graham and I managed to sneak some time to hit six bookstores in the area to sign stock and meet the managers (I drove in the SNOW – very proud of myself!). It’s always a treat to see how a real pro does this – Heather is well past 100 books at this point… I am in constant awe.

The climax of the conference was the Bram Stoker awards – it was of course completely thrilling to see the awesome Sarah Langan (THE KEEPER, THE MISSING) win for Best Novel, and FIVE STROKES TO MIDNIGHT win Best Antho (yay, Gary Braunbeck, Hank Schwable and Deborah LeBlanc!).

Jeff Strand is the Toastmaster of the Gods, as far as I’m concerned – SO funny – can he just please emcee ALL cons from now on, all genres?

F. Paul Wilson was in fine form as he announced Sarah (“I think we should have just named this ‘Sarah Langan Con’. She’s got panels, she’s got Coffeeklatches, she’s got readings… I’m stating to feel like Jan Brady. ‘Sarah, Sarah, Sarah…'”

And Gary Braunbeck had the whole room in tears as he dedicated one of his TWO Stokers to his late daughter. All in all, a much funnier and more emotional evening than you often get at these events.

So I was running around like a crazy person, but I still got a chance to catch up with a lot of people because I stayed over Sunday night for the Dead Dog Party… (it should always remembered that Sunday night is often the most professionally productive and wildly fun time of any con).

And then I was snowed in at the airport the next morning. But despite the fact that it took me 36 hours to actually get home, I got a lot of work done on my third book revision – airports do that for me, and the con inspirational magic was working in full force.

Now, as THE PRICE tour continues, I am in New Orleans this weekend with my darkside-cross-genre pals Heather Graham and F. Paul Wilson, Harley Jane Kozak, Kathy Love and Erin McCarthy, at a conference hosted by the incomparable Molly Bolden of Bent Pages Bookstore. They are going to work us and party us, Cajun-style, into the ground (yes, I can hear the ominous unsympathetic muttering right now, but I deserve this, OKAY?) so forgive my slow response.

But my question is – do you cross genres, as a reader or an author? And what genres do you cross?

(So very, very sorry to be missing NoirCon and the well-deserved tribute to Ken Bruen. I am absolutely there in spirit… X)

Public Library Association report

by Alex

This is one of my patented insane promotional weeks – I’m at PLA for two and a half days and then flying to Salt Lake City this afternoon to do two days of World Horror. And if that’s not a dichotomy I don’t know what is.

Slightly inauspicious start to the trip – my flight to Minneapolis was cancelled and I was rebooked 2 1/2 hours later. But even thought it was five in the %$#@$^& morning and I was pretty disgruntled that I could have had the extra 2 1/2 hours of sleep, it turned out to be a fortuitous delay, because there is absolutely nothing to do in an airport but think.

Well, okay. You can also shop, eat, drink, buy books, jump on the internet, read, people watch or cruise for illicit sex in the bathrooms (so I’ve heard.) But I decided to think, instead, something I don’t do enough of these days. So I was able to get some big picture thoughts (a lot inspired by David Montgomery’s blog discussion that we’ve linked to several times this week, in case you haven’t gotten the message that it’s IMPORTANT.

I was also able to start revisioning my book – it’s amazing what you can align yourself to do in a few hours of concentrated time. Maybe leaving the house more often would be a good idea. Anyway, I won’t be throwing it on a bonfire just yet, so that’s progress.

I’m also getting better at getting everything in that I need to do, conference-wise I rented a car at the airport and did my bookstore drop-ins right away (since the bookstore drop-in has become a mandatory part of all my traveling, and I would not have any time to do it later). I’ve found that you can do a lot in a block of just three or four hours. I was completely charmed by the famous local independents Once Upon a Crime and Uncle Hugo’s/Uncle Edgars, and was able to hit four B & Ns, too (no Borders anywhere in easy driving distance… were we missing the signs of Borders’ demise all along??) Minneapolis isn’t too hard to drive around (although I kept getting distracted by the fact that there was actual SNOW on the ground and almost ran into a guard rail when I rounded a corner and got a view of the lake. Frozen solid. In almost-April. How do people live like this, is what I want to know.)

Actually Minneapolis would be an interesting city to set a thriller in. I’m not going to be able to visit the world-famous Mall of the Americas (for a non-mall person, this is not exactly a tragedy), but I was completely awed by the Sky Mall – a complete second downtown of shops and glass connecting bridges set on top of the actual downtown. It’s really pretty sci-fi (you don’t even want to know how lost you can get) – but also incredibly practical – if it snows here from November to April you would need a completely enclosed and heated downtown, wouldn’t you? I can’t even imagine how much it cost to build the whole thing, but it’s a genius thing to see.

Now, I’ve blogged about PLA before and am linking here to two blogs about the importance of BEA, ALA and PLA to authors, especially new authors.


But here it is in a nutshell. Besides the fact that librarians are the best partiers on the planet, no joke, the reason for authors to attend PLA is that it’s about 8000 librarians all in one place who are there specifically (at least partly) to find new authors and old favorites and buy books. It’s great if your publisher sets up signings for you in their booth, but even if that doesn’t happen, a lot of publishers are happy to give you books to give away and Sisters in Crime, RWA, and usually MWA make it super easy for you to network with literally hundreds of librarians at their booths. Sisters in Crime and RWA ALWAYS have booths at PLA and ALA conferences and as a member you can sign up for slots to sign books or just staff the booths and meet the librarians. Everyone loves you instantly because you’re giving away books – you can’t beat that as an icebreaker. And librarians particularly love mysteries and Sisters in Crime – you really feel like a star.

I find that I pick up a lot of appearance and signing invitations as well, and I end up getting reviewed or promoted on library blogs because people have actually met me.

For me it’s one of the top three promotional efforts I make all year.

I am going to try to blog a bit about Word Horror tomorrow as well, but no promises, since I have no idea what kind of craziness ensues when you put a horror convention in Salt Lake City. I mean, think about it, right?

I can’t wait.


by Alex

t’s officially spring, and a holiday weekend, so what better topic than spring fever?

I have a new crush.   One of those breathless, heart-beats-faster, can’t stop thinking about them, obsessive crushes.

Now that THE WIRE is over (I still can’t say that without bursting into tears, and talk about crushes!, but I’ll get to that), my SO has found us a new show:  THE L WORD.   THE L WORD is a long-running, highly successful Showtime series about a tight-knit group of lesbian friends in Los Angeles and their love exploits.   A total male fantasy, right?

You just keep on thinking that, honey.

I love the show – it’s all about places I know like the back of my hand and a sly send up of most every aspect of LA life and sexual dynamics, also which I know like the back of my… well, okay, never mind that.  But there’s one character who has me completely mesmerized:

This is Katherine Moennig as Shane, and the photo doesn’t do her justice, because so much of her appeal is the way she moves and her amazing growly voice and her bowl-you-over talent.   She is THE L WORD’s heartbreaker, a love-em-and-leave-em, androgynous prowler.   She is the essence of Shakepeare’s girl-playing-a-boy, or boy-playing-a-girl-playing-a-boy, or in modern versions, girl-playing-a-boy-playing-a-girl-playing a boy.   She is every pouty,fucked-up, addicted, genius rock star I’ve ever obsessed over.

And here’s where being a writer is the best job on the planet.   

I can have her.   

And I don’t mean in some fantasy.   I mean, this character is now living in my head, or in that warehouse or workshop or backstage or whatever you want to call in our heads it where we writers keep our characters.   Only she’s back there turning into my own version, because, really, she’s been there for years… I recognized her instantly when she walked out on that screen.   I KNOW her.

I’ve talked about how writers are always collecting and building on these scraps of characters in our heads.  If we see something or someone that appeals, we seize it and use it.   We get to cast actors we like or lust after in our stories all the time.    (We also get to PLAY those roles ourselves, which is even more perversely fun.)

There are actors I’ve been using in my stories for years.   Ian McShane, long before DEADWOOD (so it was particularly swoony for me when he showed up in that genius show as the devil… with soul).  There’s Sting, of course, Mick Jagger, Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs, who can smoke a cigarette in a way that’s a whole character unto itself.    Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (so much promise that he hasn’t lived up to, but in my head?  Oh, baby…)  Nicole Kidman. John Hurt, John Cleese, Vanessa Redgrave (hmm…. heavy on the Brits, there…).   More recently, Keira Knightly (older in my head), and the mouth-watering Michael K Williams and Idris Elba from THE WIRE – major stars, both of them:  Michealkwilliams85_2


I really do have a whole ensemble of regular players back there in that warehouse.  The interesting thing to me is that although I’m always picking up new characters, I’m also writing some types over and over and over again, so when I see someone like Katherine Moennig, it’s instant recognition – that she’s one of MINE.

This might seem like a digression, but since I’m talking about casting, and crushing, something that fascinates me is how certain authors – series authors – can write characters that are so much themselves.   Let’s face it – anyone who’s met Lee Child knows where Reacher is coming from, and Madeline Dare is a unique and mesmerizing character because she is so very Cornelia Read.   I’m not sure I have enough sense of myself (or enough character stability) to be able to create an iconic character based on myself.   But I certainly recognize actors and people who are my characters  (or rather, who can PLAY my characters, which isn’t exactly the same thing…)  And when I meet one of them face to face, even on screen, is electrifying – better than any high I can describe.   No, wait – I can. 

It’s like falling in love.

And in these dog days of trying to finish the third book while promoting the second, I need to remember the outstanding perks of this job.

Like the 24/7 casting couch.

So authors, give it up.   Who’s in your regular cast of characters?   Are there actors you tend to use over and over again?    Any new or long-standing crushes you’d like to share?

And readers, who are YOUR crushes?   Who would you most like to see as a character?   Or do you see certain actors as your favorite fictional characters?

And more seriously… please scroll down and read JT’s inteview with Neil Nyren – mandatory for authors – and here’s the link to the equally illuminating discussion on promotion going on on David Montgomery’s blog (it’s the top three blogs).

Left Coast Crime report

by Alex

Since no one else here has reported on Left Coast Crime, I guess I’ll step up and start in, in the hope that others will chime in and we’ll all get some kind of vicarious conference thrills and tips.

I’ll set the stage: Denver is a fairly good-sized city in a great bowl of plains, surrounded by a ring of very high snowy mountains. Gorgeous. The airport is quite a ways away from downtown, where the Adams Mark is – a 45-minute car ride through a lot of open plain.

Downtown is very funky – there’s a Gold Rush feel to it and an instant sense of eccentricity – in the layout of the streets (narrow and veering wildly all over the place, coming to strange triangles everywhere), in the buildings (many of which are built in strange triangles to fit the strange triangular intersections), and the overall dress is Wild West: lots of cowboy hats and boots and fur vests. The people – well, the people were a trip. As in San Francisco (another Gold Rush town – think about it), Denverites cultivate their eccentricities. One of the first things I saw when we got off the freeway downtown was a homeless guy perched on a bridge with a sign that read: SPACESHIP BROKE DOWN – NEED MONEY FOR PARTS. And from the look of him, he wasn’t kidding.

One thing I really liked about the people, though, is that they were extremely friendly. Well, let me be more specific. It’s definitely a cruising town. But not aggressively so – people are just REALLY friendly. I loved it. I have been locked like a troll in my study, trying to finish this book, and it was very nice to go out on the Denver streets and be looked over so appreciatively. I have a feeling Denver is a great place to be if you’re single. In fact, I’m making a note of it in case I’m ever single again.

The hotel was right in the middle of downtown, where they have a glassed-in pedestrian mall (which I never got to) and a trolley, which a bunch of us used to good advantage on Thursday night to get to a spectacularly good restaurant whose name escapes me, but was possibly the most Feng Shui-ed commercial space I have ever been in in my life (and remember, I’m from California). There was even a crystal hanging above every table. (It did not, however, prevent a heated political argument that in old days would no doubt have turned into a bar brawl.)

The hotel was potentially perfect for a book conference, as it had five bars, one of which was a huge expanse of low tables and comfortable green plush lounge chairs that should have been a perfect congregating center. But in fact it was difficult to find other LCCers in the hotel; there were two towers with two separate bar areas, which divided an already small conference, and there was another conference of high school volleyball players (female) who for some reason were all camped out in the lobby and lounge for an entire evening, which I think put a damper on more adult socializing. It was an interesting complication for a scene, though, and went into the file.

Now that I’ve been doing this conference thing for going on two years (yeah, I can hear the pros out there laughing) here are a few general and LCC- specific conference tips that I’ve picked up, and I hope others will jump in and add to the list.

First, ANY conference in the winter is going to be dicey. Apparently outside of California they have this thing called “weather” which plays all kinds of havoc with travel plans. Also it makes certain conference locations cold, even snowy. Though the weather in Denver was mild for the season (try telling that to the homeless, of whom there were many more than just the stranded alien downtown), I was as usual woefully underpacked for the freezing nights. I actually own no real sweaters of my own and will either have to shop or raid Michael’s closet next time I go to anything in the winter, which is thankfully almost over, which means of course I will totally forget about the potential usefulness of sweaters and, oh, scarves, until I am on the plane for my next winter conference.

The other thing about winter conferences is that you (well, I…) don’t play as hard because there are so many sick people around you that you tend to go to bed earlier and eat more leafy green vegetables, which is not a bad thing, actually.

Second, if you’re an author, ALWAYS hit the local bookstores. On Friday Pari and I rented a car and drove around to 8 Denver bookstores to meet managers and sign stock. It took about four and a half hours (Friday traffic and Denver is much more spread out than you would think). We got to visit both Denver Tattered Covers, which are absolute cathedrals of books, each in their own way, one in a great old downtown building and another in a grand old theater – and the completely charming Murder By the Book, in a house in a funky little walking area – as well as make the rounds of the B&Ns and Borders. You get much more of a sense of the town driving around (renting a Garmin GPS helps!) and you are establishing a relationship with another book market. Plus we had a flat-out great time together.

Third, specifically for LCC – I’ve been to two LCCs now and for some reason the hospitality suite is the place to be. It wasn’t as packed as it was last year in Seattle, but I still had some of my best con experiences just sitting around drinking coffee, stealing coconuts from the catering decorations, and getting to know a whole raft of new people. I really think you might have the most fun and useful conference experience just planting yourself in the hospitality suite and never leaving.

Fourth – always try to hit the forensics panels. You will always get your money’s worth in the forensics panels. Jan Burke did a stellar job assembling experts, and it’s always gold to hear her and Doug Lyle talk about their work – you can get a year’s worth of research in in an afternoon. And I love hearing forensics and law enforcement experts from the specific region – you get a much better sense of the whole region in general.

Oh, and fifth – never assume that your fellow authors share your political views merely because they’re authors, even if there is a crystal hanging above your copper – coated table. On the other hand, I now feel Cornelia Read is my soul sister for life.

There were so many other Rati at LCC – I expect at least SOME report on the con from everyone. We were there and it’s our job to report here for those who couldn’t make it, and I had to leave halfway through the banquet to catch a plane.

And for those who didn’t make it to Denver – any conference tips you’d like to share?