Category Archives: Alexandra Sokoloff

A Very Merry Solstice

by Alex

(Everyone out shopping? Yeah, I thought so…)

Ah, the holiday season. What better way to spend the end of the year, than in spiritual reflection, decorating trees, buying perfect presents for loved ones, sending out cheery holiday cards and newsletters, drinking champagne and eating fabulous little cookies, indulging in the free DVDs that the evil corporations continue to send striking screenwriters because force majeure be damned, the Oscars must go on…)

Right?

Um.

Wrong.

This Holiday season, if I don’t do at the very least five pages a day WITHOUT FAIL I will not make the deadline of my next book. Not even Christmas Day off for me.

(Michael says – “How long are you going to keep doing this to yourself? “ But how am I doing this to myself? Nobody tells a grocery store clerk or a bank manager or postal worker – “Oh, you don’t have to work today. Why do that to yourself? Let’s go see a movie.” Well, actually, people probably DO say that, but if such advice is actually followed, the result is dismissal and disgrace and homelessness).

Now, in some ways it’s not such a loss, for me. For one thing, I’m not actually a Christian, and I don’t have children that I need to halt everything for, and my family is very laid back about all holidays in general, and I hate malls, and as long as we see Sweeney Todd this weekend, Michael’s not going to complain too much (mostly because I can keep him quiet with all the free DVDs). I must say it’s annoying to have to do the more obligatory Christmas things without getting the benefit of time off from work like everyone else, but I knew this job was dangerous when I took it.

But there is one part of the holiday season that I can celebrate at the same time that I’m doing my pages, and that doesn’t grate on me because I’m missing out on all the fun. And that’s today. It’s Winter Solstice.

As we all probably know, technically, the solstice is the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and summer in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s the longest night and the shortest day of the year.

We also all probably have heard that ritual celebrations practiced at Christmas go back to pre-Christian times, and we’ve co-opted many solstice traditions (like Yule logs and Christmas trees and the lighting of candles and the birth of the sun – or son) for Christmas. The celebration of solstice extends across pretty much every culture.

But I particularly like the magic aspect of solstice. In pagan tradition, the year is divided into quarters, and the two solstices and the two Equinoxes are the most powerful times of the whole year. Whatever you do during these times gets a certain extra push from the universe. I find that invariably to be true. Your dreams are more powerful, money arrives in the mail, you solve that problem in Chapter 10.

Seriously. For authors, for example, this is a fabulous time to write – your productivity is through the roof. I didn’t just get some kick-ass pages done on my book in the last few days – I also have been cranking the pages out on the novella I’ve been putting off because of panic about the book. Every research book I’ve picked up has been THE EXACT BOOK with the EXACT information I needed to move to the next chapter. I just feel stronger and more capable about everything.

Running around buying gifts is one thing, fine, but the days just before and just after Solstice will invariably turn up some real gifts, cosmic gifts. Pay attention and see what shows up for you, and if you feel like it, share.

I wish everyone Happy Christmas and everything else that you celebrate, but especially this year, an extra Solstice something for all.

Now, back to work.

Or, you know – shopping.

Agentspeak

by Alex

As Dusty and I are apt to joke, we (and JT and RGB) share the most awesome and the most laconic agent in New York. Scott can say “I’m excited” (and mean it) in the deadliest deadpan you’re ever likely to encounter. I often wonder if he makes such great deals for his clients because editors assume from his tone that he’s so underwhelmed by their initial offers that they panic and double the price before they lose out on the deal completely.

This can be a disconcerting thing about Scott, until you get to know him. Because as we all know – writers need feedback, they need enthusiasm, they need approval, they need validation, they need, well, love.

And the truth is that we spend so little time with our agents, even on the phone, much less in person, that we tend to obsess over and parse every word they utter. And if that’s true of published authors, it seems even more true of authors seeking representation. Every rejection letter is mined for that hint of gold that means you really are the next Stephen King, or that spot-on criticism that will take the book to the next level.

Because I’m so used to working with my film agent, who is a prince among men and a gentleman among agents, I think I’m somewhat less likely than most new authors to assign baroque interpretations to what Scott has to say. It’s pretty much face value. When he says he likes something, he likes it. When he says he’s excited, he’s excited, even if his voice never rises above a monotone.

Sometimes in workshops people ask me about my first phone call with Scott, what was the most thrilling thing he said to me about THE HARROWING. And everyone is always shocked when I say the most thrilling thing he said was, “Yeah, I think I can sell this.”

But you see, I know agentspeak. It’s a very refined code, and you need to be able to interpret the nuances. And in agentspeak, “I think I can sell this” means – “I think I can sell this.”

And that’s what you want your agent to do, right? That’s their job, and you want them to feel they can get their job done with your book.

In general I find communication in the book world pretty low stress, mainly because agentspeak in publishing (and pub-speak in general) is so much less florid than Hollywoodspeak. Screenwriters are regularly assaulted with phrases that seem to be passed around in a secret manual for producers, executives and agents. Every so often there’s a new phrase that gets added to the manual and you will hear it in every meeting and on every phone call you have for months. “I have to run this up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes.” “What’s our way in?” “We need that character to have a sexier profession” (“sexy” having nothing whatsoever to do with sex). “It’s time to start thinking outside the box.” “Let’s make Chicago (Austin, Cleveland, St. Petersburg) a real character in this script.” “We’re looking for a Hallmark ending for the fly-overs.”

My theory is that editors generally know what they’re talking about, therefore they don’t have to use cryptic phrases or words du jour to communicate with their authors.

But lately a word keeps coming up from the agent and editor front that has thrown me.

The word is “fun”. As in “It’s a fun book.” “Wow, we love it, what a fun story.”

Now, I guess that wouldn’t bother me, except that I write pitch-black suspense. So “fun” isn’t a word I immediately associate with my writing, or that I would want associated with my writing. I have found myself obsessing over this word, to the point of slipping back into screenwriter neurosis. Do they mean that they want a more fun story here? Are they gently urging me toward a lighter tone? Did they actually read my first two books as comedic romps?

I know this is mental craziness. “Fun” is in all likelihood the word du jour in publishing circles. But since as authors we don’t have constant contact with a wide variety of agents and editors in the way that screenwriters have a constant contact with numerous producers and executives, we might not be as aware of the industry buzz words.

So I wondered if you guys could give me any buzz words that you’ve been picking up from your peeps. Is there a secret manual of pub-speak?

Or… gulp… do they really mean “fun” when they say “fun”?

Beyond Four Walls

I wanted to follow up JT’s powerful post with something concrete to do.

A lot of you know that I taught for a time in the Los Angeles juvenile court system. But here’s something you probably don’t know.

In all the juvenile detention centers across the United States – the prisons for people under the age of 18 – there are only six staffed libraries. Six in the entire US. (And I can tell you – the books on those shelves are rarely what contemporary teenagers would choose to read).

Here are some statistics from a panel of five librarians who have worked in three of California’s juvenile detention centers, speaking at the annual California Library Association Conference in Long Beach, CA:

The State of California has more prisons than universities:

17 youth authority sites
33 adult prisons
29 state universities

At any time, in Los Angeles County alone, between 1,650 and 2,000 youth are serving time in the county’s three juvenile detention centers. Another 15,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are serving time in L.A. County jails.

Now project that across the country and you begin to get an inkling of the problem.

I know I don’t have to tell anyone here about the power of reading and books. Books aren’t just an escape – they can be a WAY OUT. Statistics have shown time and time again that literacy reduces recidivism.

So this holiday season please join me in supporting one of my favorite efforts:

The Beyond 4 Walls Book Drive for Incarcerated Youth

Buy books from the AMAZON.COM WISH LIST for kids at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Detention Facility in Sylmar, California

Nidorf houses 600+ children and teens ages 10-17 who are awaiting adjudication. Some cycle in and out in a matter of weeks, while others are detained for years. There is no access to a library. The Nidorf Collective, a group of librarians and masters students at UCLA’s Library Information Studies school, initiated a program of book giveaways and book-talking groups at the facility; this book drive is to supply the books the kids have requested and would like to read. Free voluntary reading has proven to have a salutary effect on school performance, personal attitudes and behavior; we hope you will support this important outreach program by donating books.

Click here for the Nidorf Wish List

or just search “Nidorf” on Amazon (Click “Gift and Wish Lists,” then “find someone’s wish list”, then search “Nidorf” or “Beyond 4 Walls”)

To donate new or gently used paperback books directly, please send to:

Beyond 4 Walls
c/o Lisa Lepore
3254 Kelton Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90034

Sponsored by THE NIDORF COLLECTIVE – founded by students in the UCLA Masters, Library Information Studies Program, and including students, librarians, and interested others.

For more information, email Melissa Elliott, melielliott@earthlink.net, or Monti Lawrence, mlawrence@ucla.edu

You can also donate books to a detention center near you. Call the front desk and tell them you have books to donate and ask where to bring or send them. You can use the wish list above to get an idea of the most coveted books. Also please note that it’s best to send paperback books. Some facilities do not allow hardcovers, which, yes, can be used as weapons.

Thanks for helping.

Update on the Writers’ Strike

by Alex

On November 29, the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) disseminated this press release:

The AMPTP today unveiled a New Economic Partnership to the WGA, which includes groundbreaking moves in several areas of new media, including streaming, content made for new media and programming delivered over digital broadcast channels. The entire value of the New Economic Partnership will deliver more than $130 million in additional compensation above and beyond the more than $1.3 billion writers already receive each year. In response, the WGA has asked for time to study the proposals. While we strongly preferred to continue discussions, we respect and understand the WGA’s desire to review the proposals. We look forward to resuming talks on Tuesday, December 4.

We continue to believe that there is common ground to be found between the two sides, and that our proposal for a New Economic Partnership offers the best chance to find it.

Golly, sounds great, right?

Wrong.

When the WGA Negotiating Committee reported back to us, what we learned was this:

“In fact, for the first three days of this week, the companies presented in essence their November 4 package with not an iota of movement on any of the issues that matter to writers.

Thursday morning, the first new proposal was finally presented to us. It dealt only with streaming and made-for-Internet jurisdiction, and it amounts to a massive rollback.

For streaming television episodes, the companies proposed a residual structure of a single fixed payment of less than $250 for a year’s reuse of an hour-long program (compared to over $20,000 payable for a network rerun). For theatrical product they are offering no residuals whatsoever for streaming.”

— Let me repeat that. The current residual rate on a TV show is $20,000 for a year, and they’re offering $250. That’s if it’s not deemed “promotional.” If it’s promotional there’s no payment at all. And the residual on movies is still $0.—-

“For made-for-Internet material, they offered minimums that would allow a studio to produce up to a 15 minute episode of network-derived web content for a script fee of $1300. They continued to refuse to grant jurisdiction over original content for the Internet.

In their new proposal, they made absolutely no move on the download formula (which they propose to pay at the DVD rate), and continue to assert that they can deem any reuse “promotional,” and pay no residual (even if they replay the entire film or TV episode and even if they make money).”

How did the writers respond? We’re furious. And galvanized. We had 90% membership support for the strike to begin with, and after that “proposal” I’d say it’s more like 99%. I haven’t heard a single voice saying that this was an acceptable offer in any way.

Let’s just compare some numbers from the writers’ side. The WGA has prepared a comprehensive economic justification for our proposals.

“Our entire package would cost this industry $151 million over three years. That’s a little over a 3% increase in writer earnings each year, while company revenues are projected to grow at a rate of 10%. We are falling behind.”

This is the part I want you to read closely:

“For Sony, this entire deal would cost $1.68 million per year. For Disney $6.25 million. Paramount and CBS would each pay about $4.66 million, Warner about $11.2 million, Fox $6.04 million, and NBC/Universal $7.44 million. MGM would pay $320,000 and the entire universe of remaining companies would assume the remainder of about $8.3 million per year.”

We all know those numbers are a drop in the bucket compared to what those corporations make on our work every year. We will never back down from our goal of getting a fair share of the internet.

And if the AMPTP thinks we’re tired, they’re asleep. At the latest membership meeting members yelled at the board for cutting back the picketing hours. One writer shouted, “This is a strike, not a vacation!”, and got thunderous applause.

It’s our future, and we’ll keep fighting for it until we win a reasonable share.

Now, here’s some good news:

Out of 180 TV shows being tracked, only 12 are still in production.

Advertisers are starting to realize that they’re not going to be getting much bang for their buck with the whole regular TV season shut down.

And if you’d like to help put pressure on the companies to start negotiating seriously and fairly, this site, Consumers Support the WGA, has links to feedback forms for major advertisers and is conducting an organized effort to push major companies to help end the 2007 writers’ strike.

The User Information link on the page tells you everything you need to know about the project. (Direct link to instructions here

Thanks, as always, for listening.

(More background on the Writers’ Strike and actions you can take here:)

The Kindle (part one of two million)

By Alex

It probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to post a blog on something I have so little experience with. I guess in this particular case, as a new author, I’m desperate for other people’s thoughts and experience.

I’ve always steered away from e books and have never even tried an e book reader. For a touch-based person the very idea is anathema. But my objections crumble in the face of a delivery system like this:

There’s a very wide-ranging Newsweek article on the Kindle “> here.

View the Kindle promotional video here.

Best marketing tip – LA style

by Alex

Pari asked for our best marketing ideas this week and I’m a little late on this one, but one of the most effective things I’ve done is something a lot of California authors and beyond are getting wise to: a drop-in bookstore tour with Ken Wilson. Naomi Hirahara interviewed Ken here last year, which is how I learned about his services, and mostly I’m going to link to that article for the full scoop.

What Ken provides is a fast and furious full-day drop-in tour of Los Angeles bookstores. You hit the stores, meet the managers, sign stock and chat while they order even more of your books. The signed books often get moved up to front tables and endcaps, and the managers usually take the time to introduce you to their best hand-sellers in your genre. You cover 10-12 stores in a day, depending, of course, on traffic, and Ken has a full-day Orange County loop you can do as well.

This year for the paperback release of THE HARROWING I’m doing both loops with Ken and two of my favorite authors, Sarah Langan and Deborah LeBlanc. There aren’t that many women out there writing supernatural suspense as dark as we do it, so we’ve teamed up, along with British novelist Sarah Pinborough, to do some touring and other events together.

We had a massively productive day yesterday, and will be out and about Orange County on Monday. Today we get a bit of a rest – just two stores and then a full signing at Dark Delicacies in Burbank at 2 p.m. (I plan to do all my Christmas shopping for my horror-loving friends this afternoon – in addition to a staggering collection of the best horror, new and old, Dark Delicacies has the best – weird – gifts ever).

Yes, you can do this kind of drop-in tour yourself, a la the indefatigable Joe Konrath, but there’s nothing like having a professional take you straight in to the right people and do most of the selling for you, and Los Angeles is such a huge market that it’s pretty much a miracle to get this kind of coverage in just two days.

So click through and let Naomi introduce you to Ken Wilson – a marketing treasure you can’t afford not to know about.

LA Mix Profile: Media Escort Ken Wilson

Why We Strike

By now all of the country and half of the world knows that the U.S. screen and television writers are on strike. This weekend Toni and I are both going to write about it. Toni is in Norma Rae mode and will no doubt be interestingly passionate tomorrow. Because of my work with the WGA, I’ve been living with strike plans and strike talk for three years, now, and my outrage is more quiet. This has been a long fight, and it will be longer – as long as it takes for us to win. What we’re fighting for is the future.

Every three years the Hollywood creative guilds – actors, directors, and writers, renegotiate their contracts – that would be the MBA, the minimum basic employment agreement – with the studios who employ us. The contract includes among many, many other things: minimum payments, residual rates (this is the screen version of royalties), and pension and health contributions, as well as creative concerns. If we don’t reach a fair and acceptable agreement, then really our only tool to sway the studios is to strike – to refuse to work until they negotiate fairly.

I say studios, but the fact is, the old style Hollywood studios no longer exist. Vertical integration has been a fact of Hollywood for going on twenty years now and the creative guilds are actually being forced to negotiate for fair payment with enormous, multibillion dollar, multinational corporations. There is a good argument being made that by now this is in violation of anti-trust laws.

There has not been a writers’ strike since 1988 – before I was in the guild. There has not been a strike in large part because for various reasons, in the years when we needed to negotiate hard, the WGA has not been strong enough to even threaten a strike.

But this year, this contract, we needed all the strength we could get. There are dozens of important issues, but we are really only striking about one: internet downloads.

Anyone with half a brain knows that internet is the future of everything in entertainment. The corporations don’t want to pay writers, directors or actors for reuse of their work through the internet, and they think that if they squeeze us out of that now, that they’ll never have to pay us for that again.

That’s the bottom line.

Not only did the companies come to the bargaining table with a proposal that completely eliminated payment on internet reuse, but their initial proposal had 76 rollbacks of our previous contract, including separation of rights. Separation of rights is what screenwriters have instead of copyright: for example, it allows me to retain the right to publish a novel based on my original screenplay. It is one of the most cherished creative rights we have as screenwriters.

That’s just one of the proposals the corporations lay down which made it quite clear that they were not intending to bargain seriously or fairly.

That’s how weak they thought we were. We haven’t struck in twenty years and they probably assumed that we couldn’t pull it off this time. They thought this would be an easy win and they would be able to cut us out of internet profits once and for all time.

They were wrong.

As a former member of the WGAw Board of Directors, I have had the great pleasure of working with all of the current WGA west officers: President Patric Verrone, VP David Weiss, Secretary-Treasurer Elias Davis, WGAw Executive Director David Young, and most of the current WGA Board of Directors, and a great number of the WGA Negotiating Committee, East and West members, and they have been smartly and inexorably working toward this moment for three years, now.

Here’s when I knew we were going to win.

The strike of 1985 was a huge setback for the WGA in terms of residuals. Back then the issue was videotape residuals – videotapes were an emerging market and the WGA was striking primarily to get a fair share of the profits from videotapes. The WGA had previously agreed to a temporarily lower residual to help the companies build this “emerging market”. The “emerging market” had taken off for feature film releases and accordingly the WGA asked for the higher residual rate in the 1985 contract. The companies refused – making that issue a strike issue.

But the WGA has traditionally been deeply divided between screen and television writers. There are many, many more TV writers than screenwriters, and our issues are different. In 1985 there were no TV shows being sold on videotape yet, and the television writers perceived the videotape issue as a feature writers’ issue. A group within the television writers persuaded the other TV writers to cave on the issue and the WGA didn’t get the residual rates it wanted on cassette tapes. Two months later the original STAR TREK series was released on videotape and the TV writers realized just how badly they had miscalculated.

This year we have the same situation with the internet.

But we no longer have the divide between TV and feature writers. This is EVERYONE’S issue.

Three years ago I saw the current WGA leadership begin a massive courtship of the most powerful TV writers we have, the showrunners – the producer/writers who create and control the shows. The studios can keep pumping out feature films indefinitely – they have a huge backlog of scripts that they can pull out of their vaults while the writers are on strike. But television is much more in the moment. A TV show needs product every single week to stay on.

The showrunners are overwhelmingly united this time around. And they’re not working, period.

More than thirty TV shows currently have no more than one episode left to air before they will have to shut down production. We’ll be going into reruns and reality momentarily.

The corporations have billions and billions of dollars to wait us out. But they have no stories without us. And without our stories, they’re going to be losing money faster and faster.

How long can this go on? As long as it has to.

What we’re asking for, as the creators of television and film content, is a tiny fraction of profit from internet use of our work.

That will be our living, in the future, and we’re not giving that up.

And now I’ll post some links to far more eloquent summations of the issues
———————————————————————————————————————-

FAQ:

WHY ARE YOU ON STRIKE?

Payment for reuse of our writing has been a key part of our earnings for half a century. Now the studios are using the growth of the internet as a tool to take that away from us.

WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT MORE MONEY FOR SPOILED, RICH WRITERS?

True, some writers are paid very well — but in any given year, almost half of the Guild’s active writers go without any employment at all. They count on residuals to pay their mortgages and feed their families between jobs. These new pay cuts will be particularly devastating to our most vulnerable members. And right now, most of the writing for new media isn’t even covered by the Guild at all — which means no minimums or pension or health insurance. That’s not fair, and it needs to change.

HOW LONG WILL YOU BE ON STRIKE?

Until we get a fair deal. Because the future — the internet — is at stake, this is the negotiation of a generation.

AREN’T YOU HURTING THE REST OF THE COMMUNITY BY STRIKING?

This concerns us deeply. But remember, we didn’t want this strike; it was forced upon us by management. In fact, we even went so far as to take off the table one of our most important issues — DVDs — in hope of averting it.

ISN’T IT TRUE THAT IN A STRIKE, NOBODY WINS?

We’re fighting not to lose. Management is trying to take so much away from us that if we don’t dig in and defend what we have, next time around they’ll be coming after our pension and health benefits. So we need to draw a line and stand up to them. In that sense, we’re fighting not only for writers, but for many others in our industry as well. We’re all in the same boat, and if we succeed, the pattern we set will benefit every other guild and union in Hollywood.


Strike Captains’ blog: United Hollywood

http://unitedhollywood.blogspot.com/

YouTube videos explaining the strike:

Why We Fight

Fade to Black:

Heroes of the Writers’ Strike

My hero – Howard Michael Gould

Jon Stewart on The Daily Show:

http://www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?videoId=127766&title=moment-of-zen-torture


SNL writer Tim Kazurinsky on Chicago’s WGN explains the strike:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qd_x_ivCSKw

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Vicky, Zachary, and the ghost in the closet

by Alex

Appropriately for this week, I am at World Fantasy Con in Saratoga Springs, where the theme is “Ghosts and Revenants.” I did a ghost walk night before last. There have been a lot of sightings here. It doesn’t feel as resonant as, well, New Orleans! – but there’s definitely stuff around.

I’ve had three ghost encounters in my life.

I wrote THE HARROWING about a haunted college, with a ghost apparently from the 1920’s, and it never occurred to me the whole time that I was writing it that I was writing it because I went to a haunted high school, with a ghost from the 1920’s. I was a theater kid and the greatest thing about my high school was this beautiful, decrepit old auditorium from the turn of the century. It was a real, fully equipped theater and all of us drama kids LIVED in that place – not just for classes and rehearsals, but we were always cutting other classes and hanging out there. It was just live. There were places that you simply would not go alone – under the stage, up in the conference and storage rooms at the top of the building – because there were cold spots and breezes from nowhere and a feeling that you were just not alone. The lights would go off at odd times and props disappeared from the prop table and ended up in unlikely places. Of course those last two kinds of occurrences were undoubtedly sometimes or always the work of pranksters, but that kind of thing only added juice to our feelings of being haunted.

The story was that back in the 1920’s a student named Vicky died in a car accident on the way to her senior prom. The next day was Baccalaureate, and when the class was photographed in their gowns, standing lined up on risers, Vicky appeared in the back row in the photo.

I never saw a shred of evidence to support this story, and of course you may recognize this as a classic urban legend, but we teenagers didn’t know it was an urban legend, and we all believed in Vicky.

THE HARROWING is also based on another spooky incident I experienced in high school. I had another crowd I ran with that was into those classic teenage rites of passage – séances with a Ouija board and breaking into graveyards at night. One of my girlfriends had a single mother with a boyfriend and was often not home for days, and so of course her house was the gathering spot. For a time we were really into playing with the board. And that escalated, as these things do, and we decided to try a séance at a local cemetery. Of course sneaking into a cemetery at night is going to get you jacked up, and we had all those teenage hormones going on to begin with (there were six of us, three boys and three girls.), so we were pretty well flying on our own expectations as we settled down on a likely grave to try making contact. It was always me and my friend, D., who sat with the planchette, and I was quite sure that D. was moving it, but the messages were often perceptive so I always went along with it.

That night the planchette had just begun circling when one of the boys suddenly bolted up in terror and screamed, “OH MY GOD. RUN!!!”

Which we did, screaming all the way to the car, and there, freaked and panting, demanded to know what he saw. He turned and pointed back to the cemetery and we saw that the automatic sprinkler system had gone on. We all could have killed him right there, but instead we went back to D.’s house and jumped right back in to another séance. We always had candles lit in these glass candleholders on the wall, and we were so completely wired from the cemetery that things started getting weird right away. We “contacted” a spirit named Zachary who claimed to be the son of Hitler and was saying some really profoundly nasty things. There was a weird tension in the room – I’m sure all of us thinking at the bottom of it that my friend was actually saying these things and being uneasy about that, but not quite willing to put a stop to it.

And then in the middle of the board spelling out a sentence, one of the candleholders shattered on the wall.

(Mass hysteria, screaming, running from the house, hours to calm down again…)

We never played with the board again after that. I never believed that we actually contacted a spirit, but I was very affected by that demonstration of collective psychic energy: I thought that the combination of all our intense focus on the board had actually effected a physical manifestation. It’s a classic poltergeist situation, and pretty much hooked me on the supernatural for life.

My third experience was much more recent. When I moved into my house in LA, there was a front bedroom that just didn’t feel right. It was fine in the day, but as soon as it started getting dark, I had an enormous reluctance to go into the room. The middle of the room was also weirdly cold. It was the best bedroom but I wouldn’t sleep in it, until someone moved in with me and we started sleeping in it. But on several nights I had the same dream or not quite dream – of a small, very angry woman rushing out of the closet, just a ball of fury. My partner had the same dream.

And then I got my cats, and the ghost completely disappeared. The sense of the room totally changed, no more cold spot, no more dreams. And yes, the cats have been controlling the rest of my life ever since as well.

But that haunting felt the most real of the three of them, because I was so sure of an imprinted presence.

The best thing about having written a ghost story as my first novel is that now everyone I meet always tells me their ghost stories. And I’ve heard way too many not to believe – something.

Cape Fear Crime

by Alex

Today I’m reporting from the Cape Fear Crime Festival, a small but lively festival put on by the New Hanover Library in Wilmington, North Carolina.

As It happens I am not the only Rat here – Dusty Rhoades will be here any second now (in fact we have a drink waiting for him) and Stacey Cochran is here with his minii traveling production studio.

We just finished up a panel on the paranormal. I am beginning to feel less like an impostor, being a supernatural writer on the mystery circuit, as there always seems to be a paranormal track. In fact I feel much less like an impostor at Cape Fear. Wilimington is a port town that I love for its gorgeous historic downtown and boardwalk, and its obvious presence of ghosts. (I have come to believe that Spanish moss is a major indicator of paranormal activity – it even looks like ectoplasm).

Water, of course, is a standard component in hauntings, and psychic trauma (there was a devastating race riot in Wilmington in 1898). I’d venture to say that some locations suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder just as some people do.

Conference magic is working in full force, as a surprise last-minute addition to our panel was Brooks Preik, the author of HAUNTED WILMINGTON, a collection of true local ghost stories. That book has been on my to buy list for weeks, as it’s germane to my next book, and so not only do I now have a freshly autographed copy of said book, I also got to hear the real stories from the font, including a story about a character in my own book. Nothing like research doing itself for you.

And Joe Konrath is a featured conference guest, which in my experience always leads to spirits.

The conference even started out creepily, last night with author Jon Jefferson talking about his and Dr. Bill Blass’s books about The Body Farm in Tennessee, with appropriately trauma inducing slides.

Maybe I’m out to scare myself, but the high rise condo on the beach I’m staying in this weekend is practically deserted. I was having thoughts of THE SHINING on the beach, you know, bad relationship breaks up, take a condo off-season to go get healed, hurricane cuts off road… this weird fog starts rolling in… (anyone else see the trailer for THE MIST, yet? Cannot freaking wait.).

Of course, it is Halloween so I’m allowed to have all these thoughts. Oh, right – it’s my job to have all these thoughts.

Stacey did REALLY scare me during that paranormal panel, though. We were talking about historic trends in supernatural and paranormal literature and he made the very valid and eloquent point that realistic modern ghost stories like THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE came about simultaneously with the rise of Freudian psychology – and explored the concept of ghosts being the past traumas of troubled people. Then he went on to the frightening part. He said that the current trend in psychology is not to focus on trauma or the unearthing of psychic ghosts, but to explore peak experiences and how human beings can live optimal lives.

Well, you see why that unnerved me. That’s a thought that could put me right out of business. Accentuating the positive is no way to scare the pants off of people.

But, as this is a conference, I have no time to obsess on that potentially career-ending thought. It’s on to a panel, Wild Women of Mystery, which, being moderated by the inimitable Konrath, promises to live up to its title.

More later if possible!

Spiders from Mars

by Alex

Ah, October. My favorite time of year. I love the wind. I love the leaves changing (even when it’s only about a half a percent of the trees in Southern California.). I love the lengthening shadows. I love the feeling of urgency and anticipation. Fall winds bring me great things, and this year is no exception.

I don’t love the sudden emergence of spiders, but aside from the year that we had an hysteria-inducing giant red spider invasion in LA due to El Nino, I have learned to deal with it, in my way. Um… most of the time. There is one particular spider which has made a gigantic nest (and I do mean nest, this thing is as big as a small bird) in between a window and a storm window in the living room. It rarely ever emerges into sight but when it does I am either mesmerized or paralyzed with terror – I haven’t been able to identify which. It is behind glass, and so far I have not prevailed on the Alpha Male in my life to DO SOMETHING about it, because…

Well, to be honest, I’m not sure why. For one thing, I know he’d just kill it. Alpha Males are all about the direct approach. But it’s more than that. I leave it because it’s some kind of self-test, I think. Of nerves. Maybe it’s partly a research experiment – I’m taking note of my overwhelming emotions toward this creature to use them later in my writing.

But even more than that – this – thing – is just too big, and black (did I mention it was black? Black as tar. And it has the thickest legs I’ve ever seen on an arachnid – legs perfectly capable of kicking through a storm window…) for me not to think it’s some kind of cosmic sign, some vital life lesson to be learned.

(It really is walking the edge, though. I feel certain I would not survive a face-to-face encounter. If I ever suddenly disappear from Murderati, now you’ll all know why. The glass broke.)

The point is, spiritually, I have something to learn from this spider.

But what?

There are certainly no end of spider myths in world mythology. It’s one of humankind’s most enduring archetypes. You all probably remember (at least vaguely) the Greek story of Arachne, the weaver who challenged the goddess of weaving to a weaving duel.

So is it a lesson of vanity? I’m challenging the goddess? Or doomed to live forever in my own web (caught up in another book, that’s just a sounding a little too familiar…)

Witches talk about all things being connected by the web of life, an analogy that has always seemed to me a little, well, sticky, but maybe it’s something I should pay more attention to.

Carl Jung’s interpretation of a spider (he was speaking about spiders in dreams) is “a symbol of wholeness due to its circular shape.” “The spider and his web may be calling for an integration of the dream[er]’s personality leading to greater self-awareness and resulting in feelings of completeness”.

Spiders are also traditionally a symbol of feminine power – both constructive and destructive feminine power – the weaver of the world in India, the Spider Grandmother in Native American mythology, and of course the black widow as the ultimate expression of destructive femininity in our own culture.

I know some women who embrace the image… but I’ve never felt very comfortable with it. Frankly, I think I scare enough men already. But perhaps comfort is not the point. In fact, I’m assuming it’s not the point, because we’re talking about a SPIDER. Comfort has nothing whatsoever to do with it.

In Native American spirituality, a power animal, or Medicine animal, or Guardian Spirit, is one that has made itself known in dreams or visionquest at least four times, each time in a significant way.

Well, I haven’t had any dreams about the – you know – and I haven’t been on any visionquests lately, but I’d say I’ve seen the – it – at least four times, and every time is certainly significant if you count my elevated pulse.

So I think I’m going to take a deep breath and accept it as my power animal, for now, and see what I can learn from it.

That is, as long as the glass holds.

What about you all? Any unlikely guardian spirits, or interesting archetypes, visit you lately? Do you ever pursue them and see where they lead?