Category Archives: Alexandra Sokoloff

Where do stories come from (part three zillion)

by Alex

I’m at LCC in Denver this weekend, along with what seems like a  staggering number of ‘Rati, really fun, although I’m shocked and bummed that Rae isn’t here – your name is being tossed around all over the place.

This afternoon I’m on a panel on "Where do stories come from?" with the interestingly diverse group of Donna Andrews, Jane Cleland, Penny Warner and Mike Sherer.   I never get tired of this question (and apparently neither do conferencers) so I’m thrilled to be able to indulge in this conversation with some of my favorite authors.

The thing is,there are so many answers to the question, and I suspect we all have different answers to the question depending on who’s asking, and on how much sleep we have had, or, you know, other variables.  And call me humorless, but I don’t really find it funny when authors answer glibly, "At Walmart" or something similar, although it’s true that you can always pick up a character or two for the storage bin cheap in line at one of those places.

I think, in no particular order, that sometimes there’s a particular aspect of ourselves that we want to explore, or a fantasy we want to work out (possibly instead of destroying our lives and everyone around us by doing it for real.  And don’t ask me why I would want to live out fantasies as dark as what I write.

Sometimes a character will work itself into my consciousness first and start nagging to be written about, but for me that’s usually after I start with an overall story idea or thematic thread, like "I want to do a story that’s an erotic triangle between a woman with a troubled past, a cop who thinks she’s an indulgent prima donna, and a very, very bad man… and then the characters will start to grow out of the situation.

I have said before that I think authors are generally working just a handful, maybe as few as a half dozen, personal themes – over and over and over again (as I wrote about a few weeks ago, THE PRICE is only one of my deal with the devil stories.).   I also keep working out themes of violence and gender and how men and women react differently to violence, or force the pairing of an unlikely man and woman in a crime-solving situation and have them have to use specifically gender-related skills to the solving of the case.   The soul-crime of sexual abuse and sexual violence is another big theme for me, and so is the more supernaturla theme of opening doors that shouldn’t be opened and having to deal with the consequences of that opening.

Sometimes an idea presents that is just obviously a story, like my third book, which is actually such a great idea that I’m reluctant to talk about it on the Internet – public domain and all.   But at the time that story seed presented itself to me, I had already done years of research on the overall subject, so maybe (or apparently) I was more ripe to recognize the idea as a terrific story than someone just casually reading about it for the first time.

But I’m not entirely sure that when people ask authors – "Where do you get your ideas?" that they’re not really asking THAT so much as "How the hell do you ever put a story together?"

Because yeah, you can sometimes identify a seed idea that acts like the grain of sand that irritates an oyster enough that it starts the process of adding layers that become a pearl.   That’s one metaphor for it all.   But I also think that writers keep vast warehouses of story ideas, snippets of character, dialogue, themes, locations, professions, character quirks, sexual dyanmics – that are not just sitting passively on these warehouse shelves, but that are actually constantly shifting and turning and rubbing against each other and sometimes they stick and magnetize and suddenly you have a premise or subplot.   At any given moment I’ll have half a dozen to a dozen story ideas in various stages, and occasionally I can feel ideas collide in that warehouse and become a greater magnetizing force that will attract other elements and eventually snowball (to now hopelessly mix about seven metaphors, but that’s what the process feels like.)

But no matter how much I talk about story being my first motivator, writing is ultimately ALL = about the people for me – the characters.   At a certain point I get invested in the people I am idly fantasizing about and that’s when a story shifts into high gear.   Because from then on, no matter how hard writing can be, you need to bring those people into the world – the sense of responsibility is enormous, some shadow of what parents must feel.   You’re solely responsible for their existence and that’s what keeps you going, keeps you writing to the end and through all the subsequent revisions, that responsibility.

Or that’s just me.

I’m looking forward to hearing what everyone else has to say.

What’s it for you?-

How do you teach writing? (Part 2)

by Alex

To start off my PRICE tour I did the Southern California Writers’ Conference in San Diego last week. The conference is run by a WGA friend of mine, the irrepressible writer/director, Michael Steven Gregory, and his perfect straight man, Wes Albers, a writer/cop and the best of both professions. I love this conference because it feels like home, of course, but especially because of the unique dynamic between the instructors and attendees. The conference is made up primarily of workshops rather than panels and so attending authors end up doing a lot of teaching and also one-on-one sessions, and the whole atmosphere of the conference is so casual and friendly that I think students can get a lot of in-depth attention just by asking for it.

In prepping for my workshops and doing the actual teaching I realized that I have no idea how to teach people HOW to write. That is, if someone can’t put together a descriptive sentence, or a dramatic paragraph, I am not the person who is going to be able to help them with that. I can tell you how to make an existing sentence more effective and I can tell you what paragraphs you need to expand on to bring out the full potential of the situation, but I can’t tell you how to start from scratch. Honestly I think that skill starts extremely early – like, with third grade journaling. Storytellers are writing down stories from practically the time they can write (but that’s my theory – would love to hear what people have to say about late starters.).

I also have to admit that I hate with a singular passion the kinds of writing exercises in which an instructor gives you a situation, or a set of characters and you have to put together a story from those elements. I’m perfectly capable of coming up with my own elements, thanks very much.

But I am finding I am useful in explaining to people how to tell a story.

The classes I taught were “Creating Unbearable Suspense” and two sessions of “Screenwriting Tips and Tricks for Novelists (and Screenwriters)”. I’ve picked up a lot of structure tricks over the years and I’ve managed to distill them into a form that was translating amazingly well to the three classes of students I had last week. And one thing I found that worked really well was that I asked the students to give me examples of books and movies in their particular genres, so we were dealing with a set of examples that I knew would resonate with the classes. It’s a fun way to teach because you end up expanding your own repertoire and learning something (imagine that!)

Another huge perk of teaching is that in going over al these classic examples of great storytelling you remember why you wanted to write in the first place, which I admit I sometimes forget. Someone paid me the supreme compliment – he’d been ready to move on from his first novel and just send it around as is because he thought he’d taken it as far as he could go – and then after my class he said he was excited about diving in to the rewrite and taking it to a deeper level. That was especially nice for me to hear because I need to do exactly the same thing with my own book and all the back and forth with the classes jazzed me about doing it.

I like using examples of both films and books because the entire class is more likely to have seen the same movies and actually remember them than books. And the examples I find myself using over and over again are SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (which should surprise to no one), JAWS, STAR WARS, THE WIZARD OF OZ, HAMLET, THE SHINING and PET SEMATERY. I love these stories because they are pretty much perfect examples of construction, and some other techniques that I love to teach. OZ and STAR WARS are particularly good for demonstrating how the hero’s journey plot works; JAWS is a great example to kick start a discussion of high concept premises and obligatory scenes, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a stunning example of using fairy tale archetypes and motifs to make your story resonate (RED DRAGON is great for this as well); THE SHINING and PET SEMATERY are wonderful for demonstrating the power of fate, inevitability and the hero’s ghost; HAMLET and OZ and SILENCE and STAR WARS are fantastic for subplots and supporting characters.

I picked up some great new examples from my classes, too – BLACK FRIDAY for a knockout premise (terrorists plan an attack on the Superbowl – genius), and WITNESS for a brilliant exploration of theme, especially in the climax.

So since I’m in the mode, what I’m wondering today is – for those of us who teach, what do you think you teach well, and not so well? For example, I know RGB teaches a great seminar on character, which I’m not sure I would know how to do – would love to see him break it down for us on Murderati sometime.

And when you teach, or even just when you go off on a rant about great books and films – which are the examples that come up over and over for you, and why?

I’m really interested in hearing what stories are touchstones for our Rati readers and writers.

THE PRICE – in more ways than one…


Yes, finally, THE PRICE will be in fine bookstores everywhere on February 19 or 20, depending on… I’m not sure exactly what.

Don’t we love this cover?  It is so EXACTLY right for the book it’s – well, spooky.   Kudos to Adam Auerbach at St. Martin’s Press!!

I will be starting off my tour in Southern California tomorrow, teaching workshops at the Southern California Writers’ Conference in San Diego this weekend, then signing at the divine  Mysterious Galaxy on Tuesday, February 19th at 7 pm, and at legendary Book Soup on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles on Wednesday, February 20, also 7 pm.

Yes, there will be wine, as we most definitely need to toast the successful conclusion of the writers’ strike.

(Okay, more specifics about the book at the end of this post, but first, the topic of the day…)



So, the second book!

All the interviews have started, and as I’ve said before, there’s nothing like an interview to shock you into remembering why you write to begin with and especially why you wrote a particular book.

I wrote a blog here a few weeks ago about personal mythology and was delighted with all the thoughtful examples of ‘Rati personal myths.   I was actually struggling toward a topic of theme that I didn’t quite get to that day, so I will try it from a different angle today. 

I really do believe that as authors we only have a few themes that we’re working on, or working out, over and over again, and it’s useful to identify our personal themes, as people and as authors.

Well, one of mine is the deal with the devil.

This is a funny personal theme to have, considering that my parents are two of the most agnostic people I know and we really had no religious upbringing at all.   My sister and brother and I were taken around to different churches and temples and mosques and encouraged to go to whatever religious service was happening in whatever family our parents had pawned us off on for the weekend (KIDDING)… but, in essence, not a religious family by a long shot.

Nonetheless, I really seem to have a thing for the devil.

I don’t like the word.   "Satan" is much more, well, elegant.   But even Satan is too on-the-nose a term for the core concept that intrigues me.

Which is not about temptation, so much, but about what you’re willing to do for what you want.   

I honestly have no idea when this obsession started.   I was always into vampires as a kid (much more than I am today) so I guess the idea of forbidden passion and the price of unchecked desire loomed large, with big teeth.

I think I was also hit hard early on by Simone de Beauvoir’s famous statement, re: women artists – "The book or the baby."    That is, as a female artist you have to choose between the two.

Now, obviously two of my favorite writer/friends, Heather Graham and Allison Brennan, have driven a massive and multi-pronged stake into the heart of THAT little homily, but I didn’t know Heather and Allison in my formative years and I did see an alarming number of the wildly talented women writers and actors and designers I knew in college choose the family route and never find the way back to their artistic dreams and potential, and it disturbed me.   More than disturbed me, it ATE at me.

(Things that eat at you tend to turn up in your stories, don’t you find?)

And beyond all that – let’s face it.   Those of us with the need to write are pretty ruthless about it.   Writers aren’t particularly nice people.  We are often kind, and empathetic, and compassionate – but nice?   Not so much.  We are focused, we are determined, we are obsessive, we are relentless.   Some of us hide it better than others, but bottom line is – we have to be all those things, or we would never, never get it done.

And we make choices all the time that seem on the surface to be irrevocable.   We give up one thing to get another – all the time.   And… getting to the heart of it now: who here hasn’t whispered a little prayer that possibly is not meant for God to hear… about what we would really do for what we want?

So where does the devil come in? 

Well, it’s partly just sex, of course – if sex can ever be referred to as JUST sex.   If you’re going to sell your soul,or make a bargain that you’re going to spend all of eternity paying off, wouldn’t you rather it be to someone sort of dashing?

But also I’ve always thought that just as God is supposed to, the devil KNOWS you – knows the depths of your soul – knows the things that you want that you would never breathe a word about to another human being.

How intoxicating is that?

In fact, you could argue that the devil knows some things about you that you are going to great pains NOT to let God catch on to.   And that’s intoxicating, too.

So that’s the tension that draws me again and again to Satanic characters: the idea of an overwhelmingly erotic and all-knowing figure who knows you to your core – knows you well enough to offer you your most secret desire – at a premium price.

I watched SILENCE OF THE LAMBS again last night (probably my three-dozenth time) because I’m teaching with it this weekend, and you better believe that the deal with the devil is the driving theme and force behind that book and film.   A perfect depiction in every way, and not coincidentally, one of my five favorite books AND movies of all time.

Well, THE PRICE is all about the deal with the devil, too.   And it won’t be my last book on the subject, either.   My Satanic villain in THE PRICE knows exactly what a human being is worth, exactly the pressure points that will make them cave, exactly what every one of us is willing to do, for good or for evil.

And what would I be willing to do?

Hah.  Like I said – I’ll never tell a human soul.

But I hope THE PRICE will tease readers into thinking about it.

So several questions for today, and no, you don’t have to answer in writing:   

– – What have you given up for what you most want?   

– – What WOULD you give up for what you most want, if someone who really had the power were offering?

– – And less drastically (!) – what’ do you feel is one/are some of your recurring writing themes?

On the road, now.

– X



Here’s the scoop about the book, and you can read the first three chapters on my website, too.

What would you give to save your child?  Your wife?  Your soul?

Idealistic Boston District Attorney Will Sullivan has it all: a beautiful and beloved wife, Joanna; an adorable five-year old daughter, Sydney; and a real shot at winning the Massachusetts governor’s race.   But on the eve of Will’s candidacy, Sydney is diagnosed with a malignant, inoperable tumor. 

Now Will and Joanna are living in the eerie twilight world of Briarwood Hospital, waiting for Sydney to die, and both going slowly mad with grief. 

Then a mysterious, charismatic hospital counselor named Salk takes special interest in Will and Joanna’s plight… and when Sydney miraculously starts to improve, Will suspects that Joanna has made a terrible bargain to save the life of their dying child.


"A medical thriller of the highest order… a stunning, riveting journey into terror and suspense." 
    – Michael Palmer, bestselling author of THE FIFTH VIAL

"This heartbreakingly eerie page-turner paints a vivid picture of the struggle between reality and the unknown."
     – Library Journal

"A psychological roller coaster that keeps the reader on edge with bone-chilling thrills throughout."   
    – Heather Graham, bestselling author of THE SEANCE

"Beyond stunning, it is harrowing in the real sense of true art."
   – Ken Bruen, bestselling author of PRIEST

Watch the book trailer

More tour information is here, and being added to daily.


M is for Marketing

At least, this week it is…

by Alex

List of marketing tasks (I mean tools. TOOLS):

Author website
Personal blog
Murderati blog
MUSE blog
Storytellers Unplugged blog
MySpace page
FaceBook page
Crimespace page

Book trailer/COS Productions

Dark Scribe column

Business cards

Personal mailing list
Reader mailing list
Library mailing list
Bookstore mailing list
Invitations to book launch

Bookstore signings/readings
Bookstore panels
Bookstore drop-ins

Posting on websites –
-Romantic Times

Posting on weblists –
-Murder Must Advertise
-Sisters in Crime
-MWA Breakout
-Mystery Babes

Participation in local chapters of genre associations – each with online lists

-Genre conventions
-Book festivals
-Art festivals

Teaching workshops
TV/radio interviews

Author blurbs
Collecting reviews

And that’s just off the top of my head – no doubt I’m leaving out several obvious things.

No wonder authors are always tired and frazzled, right? The above is pretty much the list, give or take, that we all juggle all the time IN ADDITION to writing. Things fall off the list, until the moment that we hear another author talking about one of the things on the list, and then we jump back into it.

Or we wake up in the middle of the night as if the smoke alarm has just gone off: “OMG, I’m completely out of bookmarks and Left Coast Crime is NEXT WEEK.”

We’ve been talking on and off over the last few weeks about cutting down on all that and spending most of our time on writing. Excellent. Only when I had one of those reality check talks with my editor this week about whether I should cancel some of my upcoming promotional events for THE PRICE so I could get Book 3 in on time, he said, “No! Do the promotion!”

Well, that’s not too vague.

Still, there must be a better way. There must.

The thing is, it ALL works. It’s almost impossible to say what works the best, because I think that shifts, actually. You can’t predict which is going to be the best conference of the year, and you can’t predict which bookstore you randomly drop into is going to have the handseller of your dreams, and you can’t predict which random blog post is going to get you that coveted gig on Murderati. 😉

But there are some things that you start to suspect are worth moving toward the top of the list.

Of course, that may change from week to week, or it might be an idea you cling to because you can’t possibly do it all.

But this week, the two things that I’ve moved toward the top of the list are the mailing list and the book trailer.

I mentioned Vertical Response last week (I think that was last week.) It’s a direct mail marketing software that’s free to get started on and costs very little to send out a bulk e mail campaign (which they can do for you without your e mail account being shut down for spamming). There are many great things about VR:

– It has all kinds of templates with layouts and easy ways to upload book cover images, even for the technologically challenged.

– It saves all your e mails and lists in one station for easy, permanent access.

– It has features that let you separate your lists into specific segments for specific mailings so that you can customize an announcement and send it out with different information to different segments of your list (like sending out your California signing schedule to all your California readers) – without risking deluging the same people with your announcements.

Now, the thing about a program like this is that there’s a learning curve – you have to figure out how to do it and how to use it and, oh yeah – you have to take the time to build your list to begin with. But after working with it pretty intensively over the last week I can see how this is a really targeted, CHEAP way to reach people who have, after all, actually ASKED you to keep them informed about your books.

So maintaining a detailed mailing list has moved to the top of MY marketing list, and taking an hour to update the list every two weeks or so is one of my belated New Year’s resolutions.

My second big marketing ploy at the moment is the book trailer. We all hear a lot of chatter about these on various lists these days. I decided to do them for the paperback release of THE HARROWING and the hardcover release of THE PRICE mainly because of two people: our own Toni, who talked to me about how excited our mutual publisher got about her excellent trailer (and I thought – That’s reason enough to do it right there), and the wildly successful Christine Feehan, who very kindly spent a long time with me at Heather Graham’s New Orleans conference talking about how doing a book trailer was in her experience the most important marketing tool available to authors. Christine emphasized that the company that does her trailers, Circle of Seven Productions, doesn’t just make the trailer for you, but also distributes it to several dozen websites that feature book trailers. COS has also just made a deal with Barnes and Noble and Powell’s Books to put all their authors’ trailers on those websites, and COS also functions as a PR firm for their authors – they’ve already passed along several great interview opportunities free of charge.

Making a trailer is more of an investment – of either your own time, or money – than other marketing tools, but once you have a trailer there are multitudes of uses for it. You can link to the trailer in your newsletter, embed it on all your websites and blogs, send it to bookstores and libraries where you’re appearing to advertise your appearance… some conferences like Romantic Times charge a relatively low fee to broadcast your trailer during their mass signings (I found myself mesmerized by the trailers at RT).

Plus, trailers are starting to be recognized as an art forum. There’s a category for Best Book Trailer in the new Black Quill awards – and COS just won for their trailer for THE HARROWING.

I can’t say I have any evidence for this yet, but I’m starting to suspect that the additional exposure of a trailer is gold.

And it costs less to make one than the cost of going to a conference, for example. Something to think about.

So that’s my marketing report for the month. As always, would love to hear other authors AND readers thoughts on what works for them.

And anyone who can explain to us all how to do RSS feeds gets a signed hardcover of THE PRICE, hot off the press.

Things they don’t tell you about this author deal

by Alex

I actually have a long list of good things I could say.   (Reader mail, for example!)  Coming from screenwriting, as I’ve said many times before, most days I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven.   But there are a few things that are an essential part of the job that no one warns you about that can really work your last nerve.   And it’s winter, and I’m on a deadline, and I’m grumpy, and I’m missing Love Is Murder so that I can MAKE the @#$%^&* deadline, so I’m going to dwell on the bad.

Being an author requires a skill set that no one would necessarily think you’d need to have.

And if this is not Number One among the evil things about being an author, it is surely a close second:

The technology.

Oh, look, I’m okay with computers.  Not a whiz, not a slouch.   Against all odds, I manage to figure out most of what I’m supposed to do.   (Except “tags”.   What are “tags” and why are they important?  And how am I supposed to do them?   On Typepad, for example?   When I write a post, and there’s a box for Technorati Tags… what do they actually want from me?   What’s the upside of doing them, if I can ever figure out how to do them, and what’s the downside if I blithely leave them out?)

I feel the pain of any new author who is confronted with the vast array of Internet – stuff – that we’re all supposed to be masters and mistresses of to do the promotional aspects of this job.  I would be freaking the @##$ out if I hadn’t had to teach myself how to make the unofficial WGA website, WriterAction, happen a few years ago.  I was arguably the least qualified person in the entire Writers Guild to do it, but apparently, for whatever reason, I was also the most motivated, which gave me a sort of slash-and-burn determination about web-related issues.   That learning curve has been a lifesaver in my new career as an author.

Take, for example, MySpace.  Which requires more scary html than other author-related activities. 

In general, I love MySpace because it’s such passive promotion.  Once you get your page up there, people pretty much find you, and it really only requires 20 minutes a week to approve your Friend requests and answer your mail, when you remember to do that, of course.   You have a presence without any work, and people on MySpace actually buy your books, how great is that?  But once in a while it takes some work, and it’s harder to figure out than a lot of the other places.   

This week I had to update my MySpace page for the release of THE PRICE.   I managed to post a new blog and update my profile and upload the new bookcover image and it was all pretty intuitive, nothing suicide-inducing.   The problem was the template that I’d initially somehow managed to get up there to make my profile just a little more than the basic MySpace profile.   After I’d put my new PRICE bookcover up, the old background color was just ungodly, an horrific clash against the colors of the new cover.    But when I tried to go on the site of the template I’d used, to change the colors, it wasn’t letting me on.   And it’s not like you can get live help from these free sites, right?   

Well, I’m not exactly sure how I did it, but I managed to figure out what the color code was from some other link and get it in there to my site and change the color background to something halfway compatible. This is not, mind you, something I’m ever likely to be able to replicate, and not in any way professional design caliber, but at least now clicking on my MySpace profile will most probably not induce nausea, and that’s a victory.

But my blood pressure?   Worrisome.

Then there’s the whole mailing list thing.   Yes, I have one of those mailing list services, Vertical Response, which I found through one of those essential-for-new-author weblists, Murder Must Advertise, and it’s a wonderful thing in theory: with Vertical Response you can build a newsletter with templates and images, and import mailing lists and all this good stuff.   Perfect for authors who actually take time every week to input their mailing lists and that kind of left-brained thing that authors are not likely to be genetically programmed to do.   

Authors like me, for example.   

But, you know, I did a Vertical Response mailing list a year ago when THE HARROWING came out and lo and behold, I still have an imported list of e mails from people who actually care about me and so I can build a newsletter with cool images and links and everything and automatically send it off to those saved lists with one click, and theoretically I can also build more lists out of the five zillion business cards I traded with people on my promotional trail this last year, and everyone in the free world will know about my book release by the time I’m done…

That is, if I had either an assistant or the kind of time to input all those new addresses.

Which I don’t.   But, still, I’ll do what I can, and Vertical Response helps.   Once you get over the sheer overwhelming panic about having to sit down and DO it.. you realize what a godsend it is.

It’s MADDENING, though – the technical stuff.   I’ve recently switched back to Mac from PC, which meant I had to download Firefox to use instead of my more familiar Internet Explorer to even be able to use Vertical Response, and at one point I thought I’d lost my entire newsletter that I’d been building for the last two hours because I clicked the wrong whatever and forgot where Firefox keeps previous open windows…

At which point, everything went black for a minute…

You know, Jane Austen didn’t have to deal with this kind of thing.

(Then again, we don’t have to deal with primogeniture, so… I’ve got to admit we’re ahead.)

Okay, this is the point.   (Hah – you didn’t think I had one, did you?)  You know what I would like to see?   Never mind all the panels and workshops on where stories come from and how to create character.  Anyone who’s ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard knows all that already.   You just DO.

Give me a panel on how to do tags, all right?  A workshop on Top Ten Technology Tips.   How do you change the background color on your MySpace page?   How do you do that thing to hook up all your blog sites so you only have to post a blog once?  Or just even show me how not to lose my newsletter on Vertical Response.

And while we’re here, what are YOUR techno rants and tips? 

And for bonus points, you guessed it – what ARE tags, and why exactly should I care?

What dreams may come

by Alex

I always tell the students in my writing workshops that if they’re not writing down the dreams they have, every morning, they’re working way too hard.

I’m starting to do interviews about THE PRICE, which comes out next month, and I got that question yesterday: “Where did the story come from?” And because you tend to forget how you started your last book, and pretty much everything else about it, when you’re tearing your hair out over the new one, I had a moment of, “What the hell?” And my mind was scrambling for some intelligent thing to say about my thematic obsession with the secret deals that we make with ourselves about the things we want, but what came out of my mouth instead was, “I dreamed it.”

Which shocked me speechless for a second, and then I remembered. That’s right. It did start with a dream. A series of dreams, actually.

I love that about interviews… they teach you so much about what you’ve written and why you wrote it.

I didn’t dream the whole book, or even the whole idea of the book, which I understand happens to people all the time – and I believe it. But certainly I dreamed the seed that grew into the book.

This is an extremely sad story, but this is what happened (in real life). A friend of mine and his wife had just had their first child, and she was born with a hole in her heart. She lived the whole of her two months of life in the children’s ward of a Boston hospital, and her parents moved into the hospital to be with her. When she died, her parents were too distraught to come home to all the unused baby furniture and clothes, so a bunch of their friends packed everything up for them, and because I have a huge attic, we put it all upstairs in my house. That night I started having dreams of a beautiful little five-year old girl who was not alive but not dead, either – somewhere in between. And that was the beginning of the book – that little girl haunting me in my dreams.

Now, who’s to say why it was that little dream girl who crystallized all the rest of that heartbreaking real-life situation into a book? No one would read the dreams I had and recognize them as the book that came out of that, which really isn’t about that little girl at all, important though she is in it. Maybe I needed to feel the girl first because I don’t have a child of my own and I needed to put myself in the position of her parents to write the book I was going to write.

But there are certain dreams you have that are just so vivid that you KNOW they’re the start of a book. I don’t know if this is true of all authors or artists but it is true of many of the writers, musicians and painters I know: your dreams work just as hard on your ideas as you do at your desk in waking life. And particularly as a writer of the supernatural, I depend on those dream images to give a certain unreality to real-life situations – and to give a certain inevitability to my unreal situations.

I know that this new book is finally clicking into place because I’m starting to dream it, or rather dream I’m in it, and let me tell you, it’s a relief to have my subconscious take over for me, because I was getting tired of doing all the work myself.

I meet a lot of people who say they don’t dream. Well, that’s impossible – dreaming is a vital life function. What they mean is they don’t remember their dreams. Since dreams are so elusive, you need to actively court them to keep them on the surface long enough for you to remember. I’ve kept a dream journal since I was fifteen or sixteen. The more you write them down – even just a word or a feeling that you remember – the more they will start to stay with you. And this sounds strange, but it really works – if you wake up from a dream that you can’t remember, but you know you were just dreaming – try rolling gently back into the position you were actually sleeping in. Many times the entire dream will pop right back into your head, like magic. I don’t know how that happens, but it works like a charm.

And I swear, if you don’t keep that pad and pen, or tape recorder if you prefer, right next to your bed, you will not remember as much. Your dreams seem to need to KNOW that you are committed to remembering them, or they won’t let you remember.

In fact, if I get on a kick of writing every dream I remember down, then I remember pages and pages of dreams, six or seven a night – so many it would start to cut into my work time if I wrote them down.

So you have to find a balance. Or maybe I could get my dreams to do entire books for me if I wrote all that stuff down. Who knows? I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

So of course my questions for the day are – Do you remember your dreams? Can you share an example of a book or story that came from a dream? And do you have any tips about dreamwork in general? And for bonus points – have you ever had precognitive dreams?

What do you teach?

by Alex

I thought I’d continue JT’s topic from yesterday because, well, there’s a lot to say about it.

Instead of asking the question “Do you teach?” though, I’d like to focus more on “WHAT do you teach?”

It seems to me that we are recruited to teach these workshops and we have an appallingly limited time in which to do them. What can you really teach anyone in an hour?

I had a conversation with an author friend recently and she said she doesn’t even do any teaching or even speaking on the subject of writing or getting published, anymore. She feels strongly that until the business model changes, we shouldn’t be encouraging people to go into writing at all.

Well, yeah, it’s rough, no doubt!

Still, I told her that I had taken scads of screenwriting classes when I first moved down to LA, some good, some bad, but almost all useful in some way, and in every class, when the Jaded Screenwriter would look out over a class of fifty or a hundred people and say, “Realistically, only one or two of you will ever make a living at this,” I would think to myself – “Well, that’s me.”

My point in telling her this was that it’s always worth it to teach just because there MIGHT be the real writer in that room who can benefit from what you say.

But looking back, I wonder if I was also making another point, which is that it really didn’t MATTER who was up there teaching or what they were saying. The critical factor wasn’t the teacher, it was ME – and what I was getting out of the class for myself. And when not in class, what I was getting out of books, and movies, and my own false starts and dead ends.

I could be inspired by just a sentence, really.

But when you agree to do a workshop, you’re committing to teaching SOMETHING. So what can you teach in an hour?

I have stolen my foundation for teaching anything craft-related from Barry Eisler. To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure that he really has ever said this – it might have been my own interpretation of what he was saying. I tend to do that. But I think what he said was that “All writers are essentially self-taught, and you need to be able to break down everything you read to figure out what that author is doing and how s/he’s doing it.”

Well, that’s really all you need to know, as far as I’m concerned.

So when I walk in to teach a one-hour class, on suspense, on character, on theme, on story structure (which is my favorite thing to teach), I always start by saying exactly that: that you have to teach yourself to analyze how other writers create the elements of a story, and then I have them write down ten books (or movies, or a combination of both) which are in the genre that they are writing in and which are similar to the movie or book that they are trying to write (and GOOD, of course). It has to be ten, no less. Then hopefully there’s some overlap in the lists – that there are a number of people who name the same work, and we can use that one to analyze. I’ll also bring in a few of my own favorites as examples. So if I’m talking about story structure, I’ll walk them through a quick analysis of, say, the three act structure of a book or movie, including the stakes, the central question of the story, and the hero or heroine’s desire (external drive) and need (internal drive).

Then I’ll have them do another one or two together as a class, and then I’ll have them take one of their own and do it on their own, and have a few people share their analyses.

Same with breaking down suspense. Write down ten books/movies, choose one that a lot of people have listed, have them break down the elements of suspense that are set up and played out in that story.

Once they get the method, I tell them what they have to do is break down ALL TEN of their listed works in the same way. And then they have a template for creating the structure, or suspense elements, or whatever, in their own story.

People get it (and it’s exciting to see them get it!), I can do it in an hour, and I know that people will walk out with a practical method that they can use for virtually any element of story.

So, kids, if you feel like it – tell us what YOU can teach in an hour, or what you’ve been successfully taught in an hour.

(It’s supposed to snow in Raleigh today – fingers crossed!!)


by Alex

I’m out of town this week at this writers’ retreat: www. RGB was talking about synchronicity this week – here’s one for you.

I’ve been to this retreat once before – it’s a fantastic thing. Any North Carolina writer who applies for the Artist in Residence program can spend up to two weeks a year at Weymouth. (Sorry, no photos – there’s only dial up, here! Which means much, much more writing gets done, of course…)

I got sucked into this wonderful program by the Raleigh mystery writers (I should say goddesses or divas!) I hang with: Margaret Maron, Sarah Shaber, Diane Chamberlain, Katy Munger, Kathy Trocheck and Diane Chamberlain. We’re more a regular lunch group than a critique group, but when we go on retreat, which we’re starting to do frequently, we convene at night to brainstorm on any problem that any one of us is having (and of course, compare page counts).

Weymouth is an amazing place – a 9000 sq. foot house on 1200 acres (including several formal gardens and a 9-hole golf course) that’s really three houses melded together. It was a “Yankee Pleasure Plantation” in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the fox hunting lodge of coal magnate James Boyd. James Boyd’s grandson James rebelled against the family business to become, what else? – a novelist. Boyd wrote historical novels and his editor was the great Maxwell Perkins (“Editor of Genius”), and in the 1920’s and 30’s Weymouth was a Southern party venue for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Thomas Wolfe. That literary aura pervades the house, especially the library, with all its photos and portraits of the writers who have stayed at the house.

It’s a fantastic place to write – pages just fly. And for me it’s particularly great to be here because I’m presently writing another haunted house story – two professors take a group of psychically gifted students into a house with a history of poltergeist manifestations. And Weymouth is the model of the house I’m using, so here I am, inside my own novel.

The synchronicity I mentioned before is that the other mystery writers scheduled a Weymouth retreat months ago, and we came down to the house on the very day that my characters were moving into THEIR haunted house.

I’m telling you, writing is a little scary.

More than a little scary, in this case. My pages are going well, but I am writing about a haunting, after all, and every time I turn around there’s knocking on the walls (the pipes in the kitchen), weird manifestations (a team of horses trotting by with a buggy on the road outside) and rooms that are just literally too creepy to go into after dark. Last night I had to go all the way back upstairs, across the upstairs hall and around to the front stairs to get to a room I wanted to go to because I was too freaked out to cross the Great Room in the dark.

It’s good, though – I wake up with whole scenes in my head. And given my deadline (talk about scary) it’s being lifesaving to have this turbocharged atmosphere to work in.

I’m lucky – unlike authors with children and day jobs, I don’t have that much to have to escape from in my regular life – I write full time and theoretically I can do just as much or more at home as I could on retreat, because I have all my books and files and library all around me. But this whole experience has sold me on the writers’ retreat thing. There’s nothing like committing to nothing but writing for a certain number of days. The work you get done is exponential, and your subconscious gets loaded up with all kinds of new images that will undoubtedly work their way into some other story.

But if you don’t hear from me next week, you’ll know why.

The house got me.

What’s your personal mythology?

by Alex

There was recently some cyber question somewhere, I think on Backspace, I swear I can’t remember where I’ve been lately, about whether the authors there consciously considered theme when they were working on their books.

I was startled, maybe even stunned, to see anyone at all answer that they didn’t.

Personally, I will abandon a book very early on if I can’t see or feel a theme building in it. And I’m mean, as a writer OR a reader. I’m not interested in books that have no clear, dynamic, fascinating theme.

But how do you build theme?

Obviously this is going to be a topic that requires more than one column, but I think I’ll have a crack at it, because it’s winter, and time for introspection and reflection and those bigger, underlying ideas.

Now, first, let me say I don’t think that you have to necessarily know a theme from the inception of a story, but I think that’s true ONLY because – we all come with our own themes built in, and pretty much ready to force their way into a story whether we like it or not. And once you see a theme working, I think it’s both crazy and a betrayal of your story and audience not to work it.

About ten years ago, I think, there was a cocktail party question going around in LA about “personal mythology”. Now that I think about it, it might have been after some broadcast of Joseph Campbell’s THE POWER OF MYTH, or maybe just after the great man died.

The idea was to get to know a person quickly by asking them what their personal mythology was, and people would answer – “Well, I’ve always felt a little like Charlie Brown.” It was a bit of a misleading term, “personal mythology”, because the questions and answers focused around literary or film characters, and it sounds a little coy when I write about it now, but you could get some startling insights into people from their answers, and it sure as hell beat “What’s your sign?” as a pickup line, because the first thing that comes out of a person’s mouth when they’re not anticipating a question like that is very revealing. For example, knowing that a boyfriend had always seen himself as Luke Skywalker, and why, gave me a lot of perspective into his relationship with his father and what he expected of himself. I think we all see ourselves as mythic figures, and project our myths onto the world. And as authors, it’s a great starting point for building character to identify what personal myths our characters have.

Like, at the time that question was being asked I would say I’ve always felt a lot like Alice in Wonderland – yes, part of it was the enormous squiggly hair and long legs and small feet and the fact that half the people I’ve ever met assume my name is Alice because they’re not really listening when I say Alex (or I’ve never quite learned to pronounce it, maybe….)

And then of course, there are the mushrooms —

Well, all right, never mind that.

And then I could go a little deeper and say that Alice is my personal myth because I always feel like this logical little girl in the midst of a bunch of completely colorful and whacked-out characters. I mean, look, I did grow up partly in Berkeley, after all. My first images of adults and the world were pretty crazy.

And I’ve used Alice in Wonderland imagery countless times in my own writing – I often write from the point of view of a feminine observer who ends up in a special world, trying to make sense of a chaotic Wonderland of over-the-top characters around her, who ultimately has to take charge of those characters and that world. When I write a story like that I don’t necessarily think at the time, “Oh, this is another one of my Alice stories” – it’s so ingrained a theme that I don’t have to think about it, but I sure can see it in retrospect.

That wasn’t my only personal myth, either. Meg Murry in A WRINKLE IN TIME was a big one (after the great Madeleine L’Engle died, the women on WriterAction, our screenwriter board, got into a knock-down drag-out brawl about which of us was REALLY Meg Murry. When you think about it, Meg and Alice have a lot in common – they both go into fantastical worlds and end up – sort of – saving the day. The stakes are much higher for Meg, of course – it’s the whole planet she has to save. But the point of view is startlingly similar in many ways.

While I still deeply relate to Alice and feel all the time that I’m living in Wonderland – a fantastical, not quite real world – I’ve moved on from Alice as a core myth (maybe because I’ve become much less an observer and more one of those characters I used to watch, which I’m not sure is completely a good thing…).

I’ve cycled through other myths, of course – there are really dozens when you start to list them. Ophelia is a big one. I’m obsessed with HAMLET (yes, I know, how original of me!) but it’s not Hamlet I relate to in that world, it’s Ophelia. I’ve always found it fascinating that while Hamlet postures and anguishes and pretends and finally works himself into a state that he can have his archaic and pointless revenge, Ophelia just does everything Hamlet is pretending or struggling or agonizing over. Hamlet pretends to go mad over the death of his father – Ophelia does it. Hamlet ponders suicide – Ophelia does it. While I’m not as self-destructive as Ophelia (although I can’t deny I’ve had my moments in the past), I can absolutely relate to her quiet, unobtrusive determination. Because of the profession I’ve chosen I’ve always been in the midst of a lot of mainly men trying to do what I’m trying to do. In high school I was the only female director in the theater department, in college I was one of very few women director/playwrights, and in my screenwriting career I was often the only woman in a room in development meetings. And while a lot of my male college friends strutted and postured about writing, and got a lot of attention for it, I just quietly did it.

In a very dark way I was thinking of that dynamic for my husband and wife in THE PRICE. The husband agonizes for the entire book over what he knows he needs to do, and creates all kinds of sidebar plots for himself about it – but the wife just does it. (Because you know, that’s what women do).

I could go on and on about how I’m also Persephone, and Beatrice from MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, and Cassandra, and Dorothy Parker, and Galadriel, but I think you get the drift by now.

And obviously, the point of all these examples is to get you thinking about how considering your own and other people’s personal myths is a great basis for developing deep and interesting and thematic characters, and how that can be a good start on overall theme.

So here’s the game for today.

What’s YOUR personal mythology?


I suppose, given the timing, this should be one of those year-end summary, New Year’s resolution blogs.


JT (see yesterday’s blog) is in the holiday spirit (that is, the spirit we’re supposed to be in during the holidays). By now I highly suspect that’s her natural state.

I am – not so much.

I’m very glad she said all those nice positive things yesterday. In fact, if you’re in a positive mood I highly recommend that you just read or reread her post. Really. Please. Here.

Now, I couldn’t agree more that this is an amazing community, and we all should be grateful every day. Coming from screenwriting – well, just the fact that authors don’t cannibalize each other’s work for rewrite money would be enough, and what you get on top of that is like a free lifetime pass to Mt. Olympus.

No, the community is just fine. Everything’s fine. It’s me.

I have always had trouble with the few days between Christmas and New Year’s Day. I always feel like there was something crucial I was supposed to do this year that I forgot. When I was a child this was more a metaphysical state. As an adult you discover there actually are things you have to do within a specific (tax) year that can really mess you up, which compounds the more metaphysical angst.

I have this angst every year, regardless of the world situation (which I’m not even going to get into – I’ve been in a state of suspended animation since the year 2000) or other factors like the writers’ strike (which is a constant cloud these days, even though I myself am most fortunately contracted for another two books, for which I am grateful beyond words).

This angst has nothing to do with the year I had, which was unbelievably wonderful, for all those reasons that JT wrote about yesterday. And chances are, if I were writing this post in the middle of a conference or tour, or even farther along in my current book, I’d be really up. But I am not farther along in my current book. I’m in the state that even the staggeringly prolific Mary Higgins Clark calls “trying to claw through a mountain of solid rock with my bare hands.”

Yeah, that about covers it.

And the really scary thing is, this particular part of “the process” can go on for months.


(Have I said Happy New Year, yet? Yay!!)

Anyone who’s read my posts for any period of time quickly picks up that I’m one of those authors who really doesn’t like writing all that much. It has its moments, sure, I’ll give you that, but I don’t skip to my computer every morning with a smile on my face and a song in my heart. Like Dorothy Parker, what I really like about writing is finishing.

Yet, I choose to do this impossible and not very fun thing. The thing I’ve found is that if you just start, you eventually find the hypnotic state in which pages get done and the story progresses and if you do that for a few months in a row, books somehow get written.

I’m partly saying that to myself, not you all, because I’m at the point that I’m not entirely convinced that (this book getting written) is going to happen, and I have to keep reminding myself how it works. But I’m partly saying it because maybe it’s important to say once in a while that writing isn’t necessarily a fun thing to do. It can be done when you’re low energy and full of metaphysical angst. It can be done when you’re angry and in despair. It can be done when you don’t feel at all connected to what’s coming out on the page. The number one rule of professional writing is that to get it done, you have to do it.

(Good God, what was I trying to say, here? Oh right. Year-end summary. Resolutions.)

I know the resolutions I’m supposed to make. Do more yoga. Update my website. Be a better daughter/partner/sister/friend. Get on the NYT bestseller list. Save the world.

You know. Like that.

But as an author, the one resolution that I can’t get out of my mind, that sums up what I’ve learned this year and feels like the sort of guidepost for next year, is – Write Faster.

Maybe what I mean is “Write More” – as in, DON’T do so much promotion. Now that you know what’s more effective, do half of what you did and spend that time writing. Less marketing, more product.

But when I think about it, it always comes out “Write faster.”

Because what I’ve realized, this debut year, is: for readers, a year is too long between books. By now there is no way to misinterpret that feedback. Unlike with screenwriting, there’s a compact between an author and readers. While as an author (as opposed to a screenwriter) you have more freedom to write what you want, you are also writing to reader demand in a much more intimate way.

Bottom line, what I’ve learned this year is that writing more, writing faster, is part of the job. That’s what’s going to take me to the next level of this new career I’ve chosen. It’s going to keep me the readers that I’ve been privileged to get, and get me more. If that sounds acquisitive, it’s because another thing I’ve learned is that readers are amazingly acquisitive people. They’re possessive of their books and of their authors. And why not? Books are just as much material as they are immaterial – which is why even an amazing device like the Kindle is a long way from winning readers over. They want their books, in their hands. Now. And that’s a fact.

So I guess the cause of my metaphysical angst this almost-New Year’s is that even in the middle of the clawing-through-a-rock-mountain-with-my-bare-hands-state, I am aware that I have to do more, faster, if I’m going to thrive as an author.


Well, not really. Impossible, maybe, but not depressing.

Despite my metaphysical angst, I know what I need to do. I don’t know how yet, but the first step is acknowledging the facts.

Can I do it? Sure I can. All writing is impossible to begin with, so all I’m doing is adding another level of impossibility. No problem.

It’s going to be an interesting year.

Wishing everyone every good thing.


Love, Alex