Category Archives: Alexandra Sokoloff

Arsenic and…. well, mainly arsenic

by Alex

This author life takes you into some weird places. One place I never thought I’d end up is on Court TV. But this week I did a segment for that show, with two of my favorite mystery authors, Margaret Maron and Sarah Shaber – we were interviewed discussing a recent, notorious arsenic poisoning case, which I really have to share with you.

Here’s the story, ripped from the headlines:

In 2000, Eric Miller, a 30-year old pediatric AIDS researcher at UNC Chapel Hill with a lovely wife and one-year old daughter, went out bowling with three other men, including Derril Willard, Miller’s wife’s supervisor at Glaxo Smith Kilne laboratories in Raleigh. The four shared a pitcher of beer, after which Miller complained of stomach pains. He kept bowling, but later that night was in such pain that his wife, Ann Miller, took him to the hospital, where he was kept overnight. Miller was released from the hospital, but continued to sicken, and died a few days later.

An autopsy revealed significant levels of arsenic in his system.

(Okay, we’re mystery writers and readers, right? I’m sure your little twisted minds are racing.)

Now, apparently arsenic is not just a powerful, if illegal, pesticide, but also historically a popular spouse removal compound in North Carolina, and so there’s actually a state law that any arsenic poisoning that a hospital comes across must be turned over to law enforcement for investigation, as this case was.

So fairly quickly, police found:

– quantities of arsenic at the laboratory where Ann Miller and Derril Willard worked and

– phone records that showed over 50 calls between Ann Miller and Derril Willard (also married, also with a baby daughter) in the two weeks before and after Eric Miller’s death and

– e mails on both parties’ hard drives at work that strongly suggested a “romantic relationship” between the two.

Police went to Willard’s home to question him, and after they left, he shot himself to death.

That’s not too vague, right?

Now, that week, before the questioning and suicide, Willard had hired a prominent attorney, and had apparently implicated “a third party” in the death of Eric Miller. The police not unreasonably suspected the widow Miller had some part in this whole tragedy, especially, let’s face it, considering that for hundreds of years arsenic has been the murder weapon of choice for women who did not at the time have the option of divorce, and also, it had been uncovered that Willard had not been Ann Miller’s first infidelity, but that she had had at least two affairs since her marriage.

But – Willard’s attorney, Richard Gammon, refused to divulge what his client had confided to him on the grounds of attorney-client privilege.

Thus began a three-year court battle that worked itself slowly up to the North Carolina Supreme Court, over whether or not attorney-client privilege extends beyond death.

Finally, the NC Supreme Court ruled that since the confidences of Willard neither implicated him in the murder nor jeopardized his family nor his estate, that the attorney, Gammon, was compelled to divulge Willard’s statements.

And Gammon’s statements revealed that Willard had confided that Ann Miller had injected arsenic into Eric Miller’s IV while he was in the hospital.

Meanwhile, Ann Miller had moved to Wilmington, on the coast of North Carolina, and married a Christian rock musician (somehow I especially like that part).

Now, even though Gammon’s recitation of Willard’s statements was hearsay, it was damning enough to arrest Ann Miller on $3 million bond. She had engaged the top defense attorneys in the state, Wade Smith and Joseph Cheshire. And finally in 2006, after negotiations with the state prosecutor, she pled guilty to second degree murder and received a sentence of twenty-five to thirty-one years, which she is currently serving.

Now, this whole story is one of those that, as a mystery writer, you read and think – “WOW”. And then – “No way. No one would ever believe it – it’s almost too – TOO.” But then as you keep reading, it sort of works on you.

I mean, first of all – WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?

Okay, so there was a hot affair (at least I hope so, sheesh.). But, um, why in the name of heaven did they feel they had to kill this guy? This was the year 2000. Raleigh’s a blue city. These were educated, well-employed people. Wasn’t divorce invented so women wouldn’t HAVE to kill their husbands?

And I haven’t dug so deep I can confidently answer this, but there really doesn’t seem to be a money motive.

So – what? It was pure lust? Pure, murderous lust? Or maybe this is me, but I keep thinking that both of these people had very, very small children. Were the stresses of early parenthood so great that they went a little, well, insane? And could only think of the most direct way out?

Certainly they were not thinking this thing through. At all. They were having an affair, not covering their phone or e mail tracks, and POISONING HER HUSBAND. Over a period, of, it’s been speculated, looking at the levels of arsenic in Eric Miller’s body – months. Maybe as long as six months.

Were they sociopaths, just unable to think of anything but their own immediate gratification? Narcissists, thinking they couldn’t be caught? Just plain lazy, thinking arsenic was easier than lengthy custody battles? Was she an evil and hypnotic Black Widow who lured men to their deaths? (Apparently the lead police investigator called her “mesmerizing.”)

And, let’s just consider this. The new husband? The Christian rock musician? He marries a woman suspected of multiple infidelity and poisoning her first husband?

And oh, even better in some ways – when the police come to arrest Ms. Miller-Kontz– she has a new job at…. A pharmaceutical company.

A suspected poisoner. At a pharmaceutical company.

I just don’t get it. Really. On any level.

But I think it’s stories like this that might make us into mystery writers, and readers. Because the really frustrating thing is that – we’re never going to know. This whole mess will remain a mystery. On the other hand, the ironic and truly satisfying thing about a mystery novel is that at the end – it’s not a mystery at all, anymore. Everything has been examined, clarified, and revealed. You know EVERYONE’’s motivation. You understand EXACTLY why, how, and when things happened, and in what order. It is such a relief and release to KNOW. So very much more satisfying than life.

I’m sure I’ll use some piece of this case in my own work, eventually. It will probably be something about the daughters. (Can you imagine finding out that your mother poisoned your father? Or that your father killed himself after he’d helped poison his lover’s husband?)

It won’t look anything like reality, but I can feel it in there, like a grain of sand… waiting to be layered into a pearl.

And so, if you’re inclined… how would YOU treat this story, or like to see it? A thriller? A comedy? THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWIICE, or TO DIE FOR? Whose POV would you tell it from?

And for the love of God, Montressor… tell me WHY.

On the road

by Alex

One thing I particularly love about this new author’s life (there isn’t really much that I don’t love, except the stress…) is the traveling. That’s something I never expected. I’ve always traveled a lot for research (have to, since I can’t seem to set anything anywhere that I actually LIVE). But the business traveling you end up doing as an author is a whole other dimension.

I don’t know how the convention system evolved… that would be interesting to research for another post, actually… but I have to say it’s pure genius on someone’s part. Every quarter, or two months, or if you’re really insane, and some of us are – every month) – you go to some interesting city in some different state to meet up with other authors and readers and publishing people and crime experts, for education, promotion, business, networking and partying.

There are so many great and life-saving things about this system I don’t even know how to start. For one thing, It’s a perfect balance to the rest of the author’s life, which consists pretty much exclusively of sitting in a chair and moving your fingers and stretching once in a while and letting strange things happen in your head. After two or three straight months of that, you need the sensory, visual, emotional, social stimulation of a con. I mean, think of what we would be like if we DIDN’T have that kind of balance? Oversized fungi, that’s what I think.

The promise of conventions is the carrot that keeps me in that chair, writing. But a con is not just a physical and social blowout (although it certainly is that!). It’s also pure business, in the most pleasurable way it can be done. We meet hundreds of people who are there for the precise purpose of meeting new authors and finding new books to read – in the genre that we write in. We go to different regions of the country (and different countries), so we’re expanding our readership and recognition in different areas. Our editors and agents and other members of our publishing teams; and bookstore owners and reviewers are all there, too –everyone we need to check in with on a regular basis is right there – in the seat next to you, in the elevator, across the table, in the bar.

It’s of course a mega-relief to be around other authors, who think nothing of your strange behavior because they’ve got all the same quirks of their own, and who can solve your story and business problems almost by osmosis – just about anyone you meet at one of these things has been through the precise struggle you may be going through at the time and is happy to share wisdom. They’re equally willing to stay out with you all night and perform criminal acts of Karaoke, if that’s your particular pleasure.

And more and more I’m starting to appreciate the educational aspect of these cons. This first year I was so busy meeting people that I rarely made it to any workshops and panels. But in Anchorage, this Bouchercon, there was such a great lineup of forensics experts in the “CSI Alaska” track (and I’m writing a police procedural, now) that I just had to take advantage. And yes, true to convention magic, I got every single bit of the information I needed for my next chapters just by randomly going to these workshops…

But the other side of conventions that is truly genius is that we end up going to so many different places, all over the country. I was going to write about Alaska, today, but I’ve got such a bad head cold I was resisting it. Then when I sat down to write I realized the problem wasn’t my fever, but that I’m not ready to write about Alaska yet. It made such a huge impression on me I’m still processing, and will be for months. It is so different from anywhere I’ve ever been before – a bizarre and astoundingly beautiful mix of Gold Rush, frontier anarchy and shamanic spirituality and criminals and seekers – in this breathtaking world of ice and Alp-like peaks and endless expanses of water and very, very large creatures. There’s no place like it anywhere, and what an amazing setting for a book.

We only get a taste of these places at conventions, but I think we get enough of a taste for an idea to take root, and possibly grow into a future story.

So all hail to whoever dreamed up this convention circuit, and to everyone who’s built it into the support system and inspirational/educational experience that it is. If it did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.

Now, I’ve covered a lot of ground this year, and have the Frequent Flyer miles to prove it, but I’m still so new to this that I thought I’d ask everyone – what have been some of your favorite cons and workshops, for the overall experience or for the setting or the quirkiness or for whatever?

That’ll give me something fun to read while I’m languishing in bed, today, thanks!

There is such a thing as a tesseract.

By Alex

I know, I’m late to this memorial, and stalling, because I already know anything I say today will be inadequate. I lost two great writer/teachers this month and I’m wrung out. But this belongs on Murderati.

From Publishers Weekly, 9/7/2007

Madeleine L’Engle

Children’s book author Madeleine L’Engle died on Thursday, September 6, in Litchfield, Conn. She was 88.

Over the course of six decades, L’Engle authored over 60 books for adults and children, which often melded elements of science, religion and fantasy and have been treasured by generations of readers.

L’Engle published several novels before her best-known work, A Wrinkle in Time, which won the 1963 Newbery Award. But it was that book and its sequels about the Murry family that earned her widespread acclaim, along with another series that began with her 1960 book, Meet the Austins. Holtzbrinck’s Square Fish imprint reissued two new editions of the Time Quintet, A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters and An Acceptable Time this past spring. A forthcoming young adult book from L’Engle, The Joys of Love, is scheduled for spring 2008 publication, from L’Engle’s longtime publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

L’Engle was born on November 29, 1918 in New York City. She attended Smith College, and went on to marry actor Hugh Franklin. She volunteered as a librarian and served as a writer-in-residence for many years at New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Along with her husband, she founded the Crosswicks Foundation, Ltd., which has given money to community and arts organizations in New York and Connecticut for over 20 years. She is survived by two daughters, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

When people ask me why I write what I do, or even just why I write, instead of rambling on I could just as well just say A WRINKLE IN TIME. A surreal number of my female author and screenwriter friends, and a good number of the men as well, have said the same thing to me over the years. I could win a fair amount of money if someone would pay me a dollar to guess every regular Rati reader and writer who would make the same claim – in fact, I suspect just about every woman genre writer who came of age pre-Harry Potter. Meg Murry wasn’t just our Hermione – she was our Harry Potter. She is every smart girl who ever lived.

I’ve read just about everything L’Engle ever wrote. Once in a while I realize I’ve missed something and it’s always a huge treat to add that book to my shelf. She was a huge part of my extremely random spiritual education… I was raised with both no religion and a smattering of a large number of religions, but once I was in college and away from any friends who would drag me along to church or temple when I spent the night, I developed my own ritual. When I was down, or lost, I would find myself heading to a bookstore on Telegraph Ave. called Logos. It took me about two years to realize it was a Christian bookshop – it was pure Berkeley. It had crystals in the windows and rainbows on the walls and was just – light. And peace. And it had every Madeleine L’Engle book yet published, all in the same section, and I’d go and stay and read there until I felt better and then I’d buy the book to take with me and go on, comforted.

But her equally profound influence on me (it’s inseparable, really) was as a genre writer. I always gravitated toward the spooky, the thrilling, the fantastical, the twisted, in my reading. I discovered A WRINKLE IN TIME when I was in sixth grade and something in my mind said – “THIS is what a book is supposed to be, do, feel like.” I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything ever since (except, um, HAMLET) that feels as perfect in every way – character, theme, structure, dialogue, action, spectacle, catharsis – every single layer and detail.

I’ve read it hundreds and hundreds of times and I learn something new about how to tell a story every single pass. And not just about the how of it, but the WHY as well. It makes no sense on the surface to write as dark as I do and say that I aspire to the spirituality of that book, but it’s true.

As L’Engle said:

“Why does anybody tell a story? It does indeed have something to do with faith, faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.”

I am grateful for every word L’Engle ever wrote. There are other books of hers that shaped me as a writer, an author, a genre writer. She wrote thrillers – ARM OF THE STARFISH is a wonderful YA spy thriller, again with a profound spiritual dimension, and even her dramas have such an thriller edge – I’m thinking specifically of A RING OF ENDLESS LIGHT – that I’d almost call them cross-genre. She put urgency and cosmic stakes into everything she ever put on paper.

But A WRINKLE IN TIME is a masterwork… and I guess it’s always in the back of my mind, the question – will I ever be open enough, focused enough, skilled enough, mature enough… enough anything – to write something that is everything I could write, in a perfect world?

I don’t know. But at least I have a light to guide me on that path.

To make up for everything I would like to say and haven’t, here is a constantly updating roundup of the coverage on L’Engle.

I hope others here will share L’Engle stories, and maybe thoughts on other authors’ masterworks.

In eternal gratitude.

The Dirty Little Secret (Screenwritng, Part 3)

by Alex

Sorry to everyone showing up expecting Guyot today, but that’s Hollywood for you – hurry up and wait! Tune in next week for his essay and insights on the TV business.

So I was going to write today summing up the differences between writing novels and doing film work as a career. Instead I ended up writing mostly about the one difference that ultimately drove me to novels. I didn’t even want to write about it because I find the whole idea so repellant, and just wrong, but it’s something a lot of people aren’t aware of about the process and reality of film writing and it’s something that novelists contemplating screen work need to know.

Well, what is the difference? Really?

In terms of the creative process – not all that much, really. A story is a story. There are many different ways to tell it. The format is different. Some emphases are different (screenwriting is very visual, novel writing is generally much more internal..). But dramatic structure, characters, dialogue, theme, subplots, action, pacing, business, sensory detail, the world of the story… the major building blocks are all there in both. Even, to some degree, voice. Much more noticeable in a novel but undeniably there in any good script as well, and, I would argue, just as crucial. Every script I’ve ever written could be a novel. With my scripts, I’ve had to leave out more of the story than I actually knew about it, going in. With my novels, I’m having to discover and work in more of the story than I actually knew about it, going in. But the story, in every case, is still the story.

But which should you do?

Well, the question is, what do you WANT?

No one can decide that for you.

If you find yourself going around saying “I just want to get PAID to write” (and I hear that constantly from aspiring writers) – then you probably want to think about screen or TV writing. Or technical writing, or journalism, or speechwriting, or nonfiction, or advertising (because, notice, that sentence doesn’t specify what KIND of writing you want to get paid for. When you make these kinds of life-altering wishes, you must be SPECIFIC.)

But odds are, if you’ve got the talent, and the drive (and that’s an enormous if), you can probably make more money in film or TV than in novels. I have no statistics to back me up about that, it’s completely and totally anecdotal. But I suspect the cold hard steel of truth in this quotation (if someone can provide the author, I’d be grateful): “You can’t make a living writing books – but you can make a killing.” This isn’t true of Hollywood. You can make a living, and you can make a killing.

If you do decide to go for the money in Hollywood, what you give up is creative power. What you give up is unique voice. What you give up is copyright. What you far too often give up is your soul.

Oh, right, I’m exaggerating.

No, really, I’m not.

I love film. I do. I love the form, I love the power of it. A great movie makes me want to drop to my knees in gratitude. When a movie actually hits that groove, it’s transcendent. But there are so many stupid, unnecessary complications ingrained in the business. I have seen so many great scripts mutilated, stripped of all power and individuality, ground into meaningless pablum… and I’m not even talking about my own, I really thank whatever gods are out there that the some of the scripts I’ve written HAVEN’T been made – I’m talking about the scripts of other writers I know, and writers I don’t know. When I think of all the brilliant movies that could have been made simply by shooting an even fair approximation of the original scripts, I just want to kill myself.

There are exceptions, of course – good movies do get made, and the exceptions are what keep passionate writers working. Sometimes miracles happen.

But less and less. I think – for two basic reasons.

One – the increasing vertical integration and corporatization of Hollywood. Novelists worry about, for example, Walmart’s increasing influence over what books get ordered, bought and sold, right? Well, that kind of thing has been happening in Hollywood for years, and it’s not pretty.

Two – is rewriting.

And I don’t mean rewriting as in “Writing is rewriting.” I don’t mean, rewriting your own work. I mean, rewriting other writers.

Rewriting is a concept that is alien to most novelists. After all – when JT turns ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS in to Mira, Mira doesn’t turn around and say, “Great story, has potential, we like it… but we don’t love it. Let’s get Lee Child in to do a pass to beef up the male characters, maybe bring in some international intrigue to help with foreign markets. Actually, female protagonists don’t do well in the foreign markets so let’s also have him switch the genders of the characters.” And JT is fired off her own book (her agent will deliver this news to her, because her editor (producers) and publishers (studio/executives) certainly won’t take the trouble to do it themselves. Then after Mr. Child has done his rewrite, the conversation might go like this: “International serial killer books are just not doing well right now, but medical thrillers are off the charts. Let’s make the detective a doctor and get Tess Gerritsen to do a pass. Oh, and also, 80% of books this year were bought by women so let’s make this doctor female.” And after Ms. Gerritsen has transformed this police thriller cum international serial spy actioner into a sexy medical thriller, the conversation might go something like this: “Stephanie Meyer’s fourth book has been #1 on the NYT bestseller list for a year and a half now, and Stephanie has a window. Let’s get her in to revision this puppy as a teenage vampire story, and get this – the vampire is in med school! You know, a protégé. Um, prodigy.”

Repeat two dozen times until the final version, whatever the hell that is, is slapped up on screen, or in this hypothetical, print – or (as in the vast majority of cases) until everyone is so sick of trying to make the story “work” that they just shelve it. And no, I’m not kidding.

I wish I were.

Now, I love all the authors I’ve mentioned above. But I love them for their unique voices. I don’t want to read their half-assed attempts at trying to “fix” someone else’s writing, which in all likelihood wasn’t even broken to begin with.

Can you imagine? Barry Eisler being hired to layer some martial arts into the Irish tragedies of Ken Bruen…. Dennis Lehane being hired to pump up the urban reality in Neil Gaiman’s mythic fantasies… Heather Graham to weave a paranormal subplot into PD James’ psychological mysteries…

You have to understand this, though. That’s the main money that’s out there to be made in screenwriting – rewriting other writers’ work, to studio specifications.

And then there’s another factor. I said before that only three writers (or writing teams) are allowed to be credited on a movie. But if three dozen writers have done a draft, or two or three, on this movie, who decides who gets credit? And how?

Well, that’s a huge subject, but basically, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has the sole power to determine credits. Studios may submit who THEY would like to see credited on the movie (guess who they’d prefer – the brand new writer or the multimillion dollar writer?) but the WGA has that call, through a process called credit arbitration, in which writers submit their own drafts of the script and their arguments about why they should receive credit, and a panel of writer/arbiters reads all the drafts and makes the determination whose names go on the movie.

And here’s the really troubling thing. Back end compensation for writers, a huge part of the money you potentially receive for writing a movie, is completely tied to credit. No credit, no back end money. So a lot of the rewriting that gets done has nothing to do with what would be good for the story, but has to do with deliberate shifts in character and plot that will change the script enough for the rewriter to get credit. Writers go through and change all the names of characters, change characters’ professions, change locations, combine characters – and that’s just for starters.

(I won’t even go see a movie if I see more than two writers listed on the poster, because I know all too well the kind of mess that signifies.)

So screenwriters are not just in constant competition with each other for jobs – they’re often engaged in battles over credit.

I myself couldn’t do it. I think it degrades writers – both the rewriter and the writer being rewritten. I think it dilutes or outright destroys the original and unique power of the story. I think it’s the prime factor in the reality that feature writers have no power in Hollywood.

And I think it’s a major reason that movies are so bad, these days.

It’s something to think about.

So what am I saying? I guess my advice is, if you just want to make money, be an investment banker.

Well, no – I have no idea how to make money. I’ve done okay, but real money? I don’t have a clue. Investment banking might not be such a good way anymore. Real estate certainly seems to be tanking. The stock market – well, surely you’ve noticed. Truly, I’m not the one to ask. That’s not the point.

The point is, if you just want to make money writing – go to hell. Really. I absolutely believe authors should make a good living. But books and films and television and games are too precious a resource to be left in the hands of people who are only doing it for the money. These are dreams we’re dealing with, here. As writers, we dream for other people. And if you’re not passionate about your writing, your OWN writing, the dreams you dream, I have nothing to say to you.

In terms of working for Hollywood, though, in the present climate, this is what I will say, and this is just completely my own opinion.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a new movie that enthralled me as much as some recent television: DEADWOOD, THE WIRE, and my current obsession, ROME. (I was not a SOPRANOS junkie but yes, I understand, it was brilliant, too.) I believe that great television is happening right now, and if you want to work in moving pictures, that’s probably the place to go. The writer has power in television – the screenwriter does not have power in features. And HBO, in particular, has vision. I think it shows. And I believe television writing is a more honest and effective writing process because – at least – it’s collaborative up front. (But Guyot will certainly have his opinions on that, and I’ll leave it to him.)

Otherwise, if you care about what you do, and what you are putting out into the world, I hope you’ll keep writing novels.

No matter what – be very specific about what you are aspiring to. If your dream is to make a great movie, make sure you understand what that takes and consider how you might be able to do it in the present corporate climate. Can you do it as an independent, instead? Can you do it as a TV series? Can you do it as a novel? If this for some reason was your one shot, how could you bring your story to fruition and die satisfied with the result?

Know what you’re getting into – and go for it.

Good luck.


Part One of this series (The Job) is here.

Part Two of this series (The Craft) is here.

Screenwriting, Part Two (Craft)

by Alex Sokoloff


I hear a lot of people say that screenwriting is a harder form than novels. This perplexes me. It’s definitely a more restrictive form than novels, and you really have to KNOW your story – you can’t throw dazzling and evocative prose at the reader to cover up the fact that your story doesn’t actually end – but I think it’s much harder to write a good novel.

What I think is, people are intimidated by the form because they’re just not used to reading it. Think about it. We’ve been reading books since we were four or five years old. We (well, the people reading this blog, anyway!) have read not just thousands of books, but probably into the ten thousands. Okay, I’m wretched with math, but I don’t think that’s an unreasonable figure for this crowd. We’re voracious.

And how many screenplays have you all read?

Exactly my point.

That’s why starting as a story analyst is such good training for a screenwriter. You read dozens of scripts a week. You absorb the form through osmosis.

So if you want to be a screenwriter, start reading scripts. Tons of them. And start doing the same kind of analysis that you do as a novelist. Barry Eisler does a great motivational seminar on writing – well, I’m sure he does any number of them, but in the one I saw he really, really emphasized the point that writers are primarily self-taught: they have to be constantly reading and analyzing what other writers do to make a story work.


(remember, the writers don’t get any money from these sites, so if you enjoy a script, why not write to the writer and let her or him know it?)…g/home.cfm…ndex.shtml ( Enter Keywords: movie scripts online.)


Unfortunately there’s not one book I can really recommend on film writing, but it is useful to read Syd Field’s SCREENPLAY. It’s groaningly simplistic, but it will teach you very general basic movie structure and teach you how to work by putting your scenes on index cards, which is a great method of developing a story, especially a movie.

Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY is also worth reading. I’m sure other screenwriters here have useful suggestions, but I’ve read a lot of the how-to books and have really never have found anything like a definitive text on the craft.


The best screenwriting course I’ve ever come across is John Truby’s Story Structure class, which you can get in its entirety on DVD or CD online: (The master class is the one called “Great Screenwriting”).

It’s not cheap but I don’t think there’s a film school in the entire country that is as good.

I do recommend taking classes, but I don’t recommend paying too much for them. Some of the people teaching out there don’t have any experience whatsoever in the business, so go to the first class, see if you think you can actually learn something from either the teacher or the other students, and if not, opt out.


After you have at least read SCREENPLAY I would recommend that you take 10 movies you love in the genre that you want to work in and watch each one – first all the way through, then again, this time starting and stopping so you can write down every scene and what happens in it. Then look at your scene outline and identify the three acts and the turning points, or climaxes, of each. Then see if you can identify the 8 sequences that make up the movie (almost every movie at least roughly follows an 8 sequence structure – each sequence being 10-15 minutes long. The first act has two sequences, the second act, four, and the last act two shorter ones, or one continuous sequence and a capper. Do that with 10 movies in a row and, again, you will have gone through better writing training than most film schools will put you through.


Here’s a crash course in script format: pick a movie you particularly like and would like to have written, get yourself a copy of the script, and type the whole script from beginning to end, in the same screenplay format the script is in. That exercise will teach you what you need to know about script formatting and pacing.


High concept is a whole other column! But if you can tell your story in one line (this is called a LOGLINE) and everyone who hears it can see exactly what the movie is, that’s high concept. (Name this movie: A shark terrorizes a beach town during high tourist season).

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

I highly recommend you try the same exercise – make yourself come up with three story ideas a week, and try to make some of them high concept. You’ll be training yourself to think in terms of big story ideas – extremely useful for novelists, as well.

And now go here and read this essay on “Mental Real Estate” on

It’s vitally important if you want to work in Hollywood that you understand what a premise and what a high concept premise is, and that article does a great job of explaining it. Then take some time (got a few years?) and explore the rest of the site. It’s a free mini-film school by two of the best in the business – Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott.

And for television:

So I guess I will be continuing this series next week! Yes, yes, I’ll post a list of the questions I’ve gotten so far with answers, and I’m very pleased to announce that Paul Guyot will be back to guest blog about the TV side of the business, to further everyone’s educations in his inimitable – uh – style. Tune in next Saturday.

So again – ask away.

(Part One of this series is here.)

Yoga Los Altos

by Alex

I did an interview yesterday with Murderati regular Stacey Cochran for his upcoming Raleigh-based author interview cable program, THE ARTIST’S CRAFT.

It’s been my experience with interviews that you always, always learn something about yourself and your work and specifically your relationship to your work, and yesterday was no exception.

The very first question Stacey asked was, “How did growing up in California influence you as a writer and your decision to become a writer?”

Now, I don’t know if I’ve talked about this with Stacey before or if this was some conclusion he came to on his own because he’s sharp that way, but of course growing up in California had worlds to do with my becoming a writer, and I’ve been aware – maybe not for always, but for a very long time – that I was incredibly lucky to have been born there. Actually, I was incredibly lucky to have been born in the US to begin with, and to my particular parents, but today I’m going to talk about California, and I hope the rest of you will see where I’m going and be moved to talk about your home states/cities as well.

Except for short (a year or less) forays living in different states and cities, which I find an extremely inspiring and important thing to do, regularly), I have lived all of my life in California. Berkeley, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, San Francisco – alternating large stretches of time between Northern and Southern California (which are different universes, at least to Californians. I won’t even get into the “What is Northern California, Middle Calif., Southern California?” debate).

I’ve also been lucky enough to visit every state of the Union (except for Alaska, actually, but now, of course….!!!!). And it struck me from the time I was a very small child, on our yearly family cross-country road trips, that states in the US are really almost like different countries are on other continents. Every US state has a mythos, carefully crafted by tourist boards and state and local governments and its special geography and sheer weight of history. Each has its own dialect, its own political philosophies, its own way of dress, its state birds and mollusks and legends.

When you think of California, what do you think? The Gold Rush, the Hollywood dream machine, “fruits and nuts”, hippies, free love, beaches, granola, feminists, surfers, yoga, cults, movie star politicians (sorry about that last one, people, not MY fault).

Those are the legends, but it’s all true.

If you want to be a movie star, come to California. If you want to be a movie writer, come to California. If you want to strike it rich, come to California. If you’re gay you most definitely want to come to California.

Now, my parents are scientists and they didn’t want me to go into the arts any more than any loving and caring parents ever want their child to go into the arts. But we were living in California and alongside my parents’ parental messages (“Go to college, get a degree, find a steady profession, save for retirement”) were all of these ever-present California messages: “Follow your dreams”, “Be yourself”, “Do what you love and the money will follow”, “Question authority”, “A woman’s place is in the House – and in the Senate”, “Free your ass and your mind will follow…”

Well, you know. When those things are constantly projected all around you, you believe they’re possible. It’s like hypnosis.

So yes, while I had the challenge that every aspiring writer or artist has in breaking free of loving parental messages, I also had a lot of cultural programming – make that countercultural programming – in my favor. There’s no question that made the whole career path easier.

After I graduated from Berkeley (and THAT is a place unlike any other, the People’s Republic of Berkeley – it’s like living in Wonderland, or Oz. It’s no wonder at all that I can’t write straight reality to save my life, because Berkeley is simply supernatural), my idea of a practical career plan was to move down to LA to become a screenwriter.

But in California moving down to LA to become a screenwriter WAS a practical career plan. I had a degree in theater. I had a resume of production experience three yards long. I’d written, directed and produced full-length, large cast musicals.

When you’re a writer no one ever asks to see those things, of course, but it all meant that I had trained for the job – I wasn’t some naïve, flying in on a wing and a prayer.

And in California, the movie industry IS an industry, just like any other industry. You are paid to do the work you do because if you’re good at it, it makes the corporation money. It doesn’t get any more practical than that.

But – writing – all writing – is also a dream job. And I believed I could do it because my state taught me to follow my dreams.

So I’m wondering. What are your state legends? How did your state and/or city influence your career path? Did it help or hinder your personal dreams?

PS – for those who were wondering, the state mollusk of California is the sea slug.

But that’s another post entirely.

So you want to know about screenwriting

by Alex

I know, I know, it’s the dog days of summer and I’m sure – I hope! – everyone is at the beach this weekend.

But JT has been after me to do this column for ages and I just happen to have gotten a lot of e mail and MySpace questions on screenwriting lately and, always one to go with the flow, I thought I’d at least start this discussion, and maybe make it a two-parter, so that people can come back (from the beach) next week with all their questions.

And maybe RGB will be inspired to do his own column with his perspective, and Toni will jump in with hers, and maybe we can even entice Guyot back to share some of his experience as well.

First, a brief background (and of course you can read more in depth at my website.). Before I sold THE HARROWING, I worked steadily as a screenwriter for ten years. I had a pretty typical screenwriting career, actually – I worked for every major studio (except Universal, for some reason) and some independent production companies, I sold original scripts and got hired on assignment to do novel adaptations, I made a good living, and in all that time I had one movie made (depending on who you talk to, it’s estimated that somewhere around 400 scripts are bought or commissioned for every one that gets made. Not good odds.) Which is the second reason I started writing novels. The first reason is that I’m passionate about my work and not only was I sick to death of having things I wrote not made – I was sick to death of having things I wrote butchered – and THEN not made. I was sick to death of seeing other people’s great scripts butchered, too, but that’s another column. I’ll try to keep this one in focus.

For the purposes of this column, I’m going to be talking primarily about feature screenwriting, although I will mention television writing as well. (And I’m talking specifically about Hollywood feature screenwriting, not independent feature screenwriting, which is a completely different animal.) Feature writing and television writing are structured very differently, but what I want to point out right up front is that in television, writers have the power (not at first, but once you get into the higher ranks). In features, directors have the power and writers most assuredly do not.

We’ll get back to that, though.

I’ll start with the first thing you need to know about screenwriting, and the biggest misconceptions I find people have about it.


Authors – and aspiring screenwriters – rarely seem to know this about screen work. It’s a job in a way that writing novels just isn’t. Employers (studios, producers) are looking for writers who are committed to doing the screen thing as a living, full time (double full time, is often the real case). They don’t want to just buy your fabulous spec (meaning original script), pay you big money and never hear from you again. The chances are infinitesimal that they’ll ever make your movie at all. Your script is just a sample to show that you can write the movie THEY want to make, which they will dictate to you, and which probably won’t make a whole lot of dramatic sense, but they’re paying you to do it.

So, speaking now to authors who are thinking of toying with screenwriting – unless you’re willing to move to LA (and it has to be LA, unless you want to do independent film, which pays even less than novels!) – and really go for it, it’s probably not what you want to be doing. A lot of your time as a working screenwriter is taken up trying to GET jobs, and that in the end was the most frustrating thing to me – how much wasted time and writing was going on with nothing to show for it. Except, of course, I was making a living.

For the vast majority of novelists, it’s a much more viable idea to work on optioning your novels and getting some money from Hollywood without having to pursue a screenwriting career. On the other hand, if you’re fairly young and film or television is your passion, and you want to make a living exclusively at writing, it’s a really viable job. You can get paid for writing, you can support a family, you can work in a glamorous business with wildly talented people (and a lot of jerks, too, but truly, a lot of brilliantly talented people) and once in a while you can get something done.

Another thing novelists never seem to know about screenwriting is that screenwriters are union workers. Working screenwriters belong to the Writers Guild of America – WGA – East or West, depending on which side of the Mississippi you live on. The WGA is a federal labor union and handles collective bargaining for screen, TV, game and news writers. The WGA has negotiated, through long activism, a very good MBA, minimum basic agreement, which ensures that WGA members get paid certain minimums for their work, including pension and health benefits. That’s why screen and television writers are paid so much more than novelists, on average.

But what, you ask, is the catch?

Yes, there is a huge catch. We got the contract, and salary minimums and benefits – but in order to do that, we gave up copyright. When studios buy your script, they buy your copyright. It’s their project. And from then on, you are an employee, and you can be fired off your own script at any time, for any reason or no reason, but the reason is almost always the same – the studio/producers will want a bigger writer on the project. In fact, they will want a whole series of bigger writers on the project, the more the better, somehow – it’s not unusual for two or three dozen writers to work on a single project (although only three writers or teams of writers are ever allowed to be credited on any one movie) and that, in a nutshell, is why movies are so bad these days. And that’s another column, too.

But I’m sure you’re not here to read about collective bargaining (even though it’s kind of crucial). I’d like to say, though, that I’ve not just been a working screenwriter – I’ve also been tremendously active in the WGA, including a 2 year term on the Board of Directors, and administering a private message board for WGA members only. So when I speak in sweeping terms about what makes a screenwriting career, I’m not just speaking about how I did it, personally – I actually have had a ringside seat from which I see very specifically who does break in to the business and how they break in and how they sustain their careers.

Now, on to what you really want to know, what everyone wants to know:


The way you break in is: write a great script (and having a male lead doesn’t hurt), get a great film agent and have that agent market your script as a weekend read and hopefully get into a bidding war. I’ll get into more details later, but that’s the process in a nutshell. Chances are you won’t sell that script, especially because the spec market has been depressed for years (although RIGHT now is a good time to sell a script – more on that later, too).

But whether or not you sell the script, if it’s good, even if all the studios and financing companies pass (and there are only about 10 real sources of money in Hollywood at any given time), you will be flavor of the month and they will want to meet you and you will then go through a couple dozen meet-and-greet meetings in which execs and producers will tell you the projects they’re trying to get going and you can potentially get an assignment out of that – or you can work harder and go in with a pitch of your own that you might sell and be hired to write.

That is how the vast majority of screenwriters get started. That is precisely how I got started – great script (I thought!) got me great agent who sold it to Fox in a bidding war. Script never got made, but I was “in”. I got an assignment off that, and kept getting from there.

So, next question.


This is how I got my film agent. This is how most screenwriters I know (and I know a lot) got their film agents.

First, they lived in Los Angeles.

Second, they worked as story analysts, or readers, for a studio or agency or production company. A story analyst reads scripts and books that are submitted to companies for consideration for film or TV development, and writes “coverage” – a 2-10 page synopsis of the book or script (depending on the company’s requirements) and a one-page evaluation of the material’s potential as a film, complete with a grid that scores the script in terms of character development, story, dialogue, action, and other narrative elements.

People get those jobs by living in Los Angeles, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting someone who works in the business.

I didn’t get my first job as a reader by throwing rocks at my neighbors, but I did get the job through a neighbor who was working as a reader herself and had too much work to handle. I ghosted some of her scripts, and when a reading job came up at her company she recommended me, and I got the job – it was that easy.

Working as a reader is tremendous training for screenwriting because you learn the format, you learn what works and what doesn’t, you learn how the business really operates from a writing point of view, and you learn who the agents are, out there.

When I was a reader I kept file cards on every single script that came in to my company and every single agent who submitted. So when I had my great script finished, I knew exactly which agents I wanted to approach. I made a list and cold-called those agents, and explained that I was a reader at this company and I’d read these scripts of the agent’s by these clients and I had a script that I thought that agent would respond to.

Every single one of the agents but one said to send the script. I got multiple offers of representation and picked the best one of the bunch, and he sold that script to Fox.


Well, as I said above, if you’re not willing to move to Los Angeles, you’re probably not going to have a career as a screenwriter. It happens, but rarely. At least in the beginning, you have to actually be there.

But – there is a tried and true way to get an agent and break into the business if you don’t live in Los Angeles. You will still have to move to Los Angeles to sustain your career, but you can take this road to break in without actually moving yet.


There are some established screenwriting contests and fellowships that have launched many a writing career. There are a million writing contests out there and most of them will not help you to a screenwriting career at all. But the following contests have consistently gotten the winners and placers good agents, writing assignments, or TV staff jobs:

The Nicholl Fellowship – the most prestigious and best breakthough screenwriting contest out there. Many pros say it’s about the only contest that can lead to a professional career.

– The Disney Fellowship and Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship – winners get an actual job and hands-on training. The Nick Fellowship grooms writers to work on one of their shows.

– The Warner Bros Drama Writers Workshop and Comedy Writers Workshop – a fast-track way into TV staffing. You write your hour spec and submit. They get about 600 scripts a year; they pick 25 to interview, and choose 13 for the program. You write a second spec under their supervision, and they get you interviews with current CW network and studio projects. About half of any given class gets hired on staff out of the program. Being in the program can get you a good agent if you don’t have one.

– For University of California students and alumni, the Goldwyn Award is also major. There is huge industry competition for the first-place winner, and the Goldwyns heavily promote the winners. Just about every winner becomes a WGA member and is working in the industry within a year of winning.

– and WriteSafe contests: I know winners of these contests who have gone on to industry jobs. is also just an excellent resource and community for aspiring TV writers. The film equivalent is Wordplay – – about which more next week.


… because even though I’ve not even scratched the surface of this subject, I think I’d better let some of this stuff absorb and pick it up again next week. But since I’m on the subject of breaking in, I might as well say this.

It’s a hard time to be breaking in to screenwriting because, as I said the spec market has been dismal for quite a while, and also the WGA contract with the studios expires in October and we are very possibly going to have to strike. But that means – if you have a great script, RIGHT NOW is a very good time to get it out there, because the rumor is studios are starting to stockpile (meaning buying scripts to tide them over if there is a writers’ strike). But then starting in November, the town might shut down.

However, if there is a strike, the few months right after the conclusion of a strike has always been the very best spec market, with the very best prices paid. So IF the pattern holds, if you can write yourself a spec script and plan to take it out right after the strike, lockout, or whatever the hell happens, you are in a really good position to sell/break in. (See, I told you collective bargaining was important!).

I hope some of this has been helpful. Please feel free to deluge me with questions. The ones I don’t answer today I’ll address next Saturday, and the Saturday after that if it’s warranted, and I hope our other Rati screenwriters and others out there will jump in with their experiences as well.

Next week I’ll also talk about the craft of screenwriting.

And now – everyone get to the beach.

RIP… not

I suppose everyone’s expecting me to download about ThrillerFest today. And I’d love to, really. I’m sure I will, maybe next week. But this is the truth. How I spent my Thrillerfest was – in mourning.

A very great friend of mine died suddenly the day before TF. I can’t say it was totally unexpected. I can say it was totally devastating.

I did all my Thrillerfest things, and it was indescribably wonderful, as last year, but at the same time, I was somewhere else, somewhere halfway beween life and death, because I do think a door opens in the cosmos when someone you love dies. I so understand why they cover mirrors in the Jewish mourning tradition. For a week or so, the door is wide open, and it’s seductive, the other side. It seems so much more real than reality.

I’d known Q since college – he didn’t go to Berkeley with the rest of my posse but he was part of that extended, incestuous, amorphous, theatrical, Renaissance Faire group we had.

I really started to know him when I moved down to LA.

Q was always, always, outside the box. On and off a professional stage actor, more regularly a fine art photographer, but more encompassingly – he was a master of the art of living. And I mean, Living.

When I think of Q I remember a dashing man brandishing one of those long screen idol ivory cigarette holders – dazzling in an antique red silk smoking jacket – and nothing on underneath.

I remember his gleaming powder blue Packard (“the Paquahhhrd”, we called it) – which was our Cinderella’s carriage to the wildest Hollywood clubs. We could fit a dozen people into that fabulous car, all decked in our thrift store confections and on fire with our youth and imaginations… and when we stopped at traffic lights people on the street would literally throw themselves onto the car and kiss the hood, it was that lovely.

I remember the pool parties in which Q would dress in whatever elaborate theme costume fit the party specifications – then shed all to swim – then return from his shower in a silk slip. He was rampantly heterosexual but there’s no way around it – he looked ravishing in a slip.

I remember the Bickle… that would be short for Cubicle – or Q-Bickle: a completely enclosed, luscious bed that he built into the wall of his living room that was the best night’s sleep I’ve ever slept – and the wildest party I’ve ever been to (which is saying a lot) – and the best dreams I’ve ever dreamed. Practically everyone I know has slept – or not slept – in the Bickle in various combinations, over and over again, and all of that amazing magical energy is there every time anyone sleeps in it. It is extra-dimensional. One windy, witchy night I and six of my best women friends collapsed into the Bickle after, well, enhancements, and laughed ourselves sick for hours and hours, telling stories and playing with each other’s hair, while our boyfriends and husbands sat around the pool drinking and gritting their teeth at each new wave of laughter from all of us female types below and pretending they were having just as good a time as we were.

It wasn’t all decadence. I often spent the night – um, wherever – after a party and then got up early in the morning to find Q already dressed and caffeinated, and we’d hike with the dogs up Runyon Canyon to the grounds of the Errol Flynn estate and we’d sit and watch LA waking up. He could talk about any and everything – I loved his mind.

And oh, he could dance. Not cotillion-style partner dancing, mind you, and definitely not for the faint of heart – I mean, you could start a dance with Q in a tango clinch, complete with rose in teeth, and end up rolling around on the floor like Martha Graham at her most dramatically modern, but it was unforgettable, for you and for everyone watching. It was art.

That was what Q was. Art.

Coyote, Trickster, Loki, The Fool.

There are some people who just open that door – to creativity, to possibility, to chance.

I’m blessed to have had such a teacher and friend.

– Alex

Christians And Anxiety Attacks

by Alex

No, I don’t mean THAT secret – the one that you would never ever in a million years spill on a public blog.   That one I’ll buy you a few drinks sometime and try to get it out of you that way.

But I was thinking about this as I’m realizing after JT’s post that Thrillerfest is THIS week, good grief, and am now frantically trying to remember the things that I need to do to get ready for this conference, at which I will be performing in the Killer Thriller Band with a dozen other authors who also happen to be outstanding musicians and singers.   

Which really isn’t all that surprising.   Very few authors just write.

I know authors who are doctors (F. Paul Wilson, Michael Palmer, Tess Gerritsen, Phil Hawley), musicians (John Lescroart, Tess Gerritsen, Michael Palmer, Blake Crouch, Scott Nicholson, David Morrell, Ridley Pearson), martial artists (Pari Noskin Taichert, Barry Eisler), dancers (Pari again, Heather Graham, Harley Jane Kozak, Toni Causey) and even debutantes.  😉   

We’ve all had a bunch of professions.   We all seem to have any number of surprising talents.   I don’t know if that’s a balance to writing, or part of the basic training of a writing career, or simple financial necessity – or if in fact it’s true of every human being – that every single one of us has surprising hobbies and talents.

This is obviously a useful character exercise for authors: to ask yourself what avocations and secret pleasures each of your characters has – to design these revealing characteristics and plot where and how in your story to reveal them.   Some of the best characters have a wide range of conflicting interests – take my favorite example, Hannibal Lecter (before the onslaught of too much information), with his cannibalism AND exquisite taste, his acute sense of smell, his eidetic memory, his penchant for collecting news articles about natural disasters.

There are also characters with supposedly character-revealing hobbies that for whatever reason just don’t work for me… I won’t be specific, but often the reveal of a musical talent in a hard boiled detective just falls flat for me, for example.

There’s an art to finding the right avocations for your characters, and an art to depicting them, and I think part of it is practice – we need to be constantly probing people we meet for their secret talents and passions, to see how these details fit into the whole of a soul.

All of which is to say I’m not just being nosy when I ask you this: 

What’s your secret?

Here at Murderati, we know a lot of interesting and surprising details about each other by now.   We know JT is an oenophile, we know Simon’s an engineer, we know Pari’s a belly dancer, we know Dusty is a lawyer, we know Ken has a PhD, we know Mike teaches high school (”Oh, Mr. MacLean!!!”), we know Toni has a construction company, we know Louise was an ad exec, we know Rob knows his way around a camera, we know Naomi did volunteer work in West Africa, we know Billie’s a Jungian therapist, we know Stacey’s a professor…

But I’m talking about something that no one here knows about you – something really surprising.

Here’s something you don’t know about me.

I’m a minister.

Yeah, really.    Church of Mick Jagger.   No, actually, Church of Universal Life, which you too can join – details in the back classifieds of any issue of Rolling Stone.

I got my minister’s license about six years ago when all of my friends started getting married, and heathens that we were, no one was all that comfortable with a traditional marriage ceremony, or a male officiant.   That is, the women were not comfortable with a male officiant, and the men weren’t all that opposed to having TWO women up there on that dais with them.  One set of my friends asked me if I’d perform their ceremony for them, which pretty much shocked the hell out of me, but they were serious, and so I got the license, and we all wrote the ceremony, and it came off surprisingly well, so well that another couple asked me to do theirs, and then people I didn’t know who saw me officiate asked me to do theirs, and I ended up doing half a dozen  (all couples still happily married, thanks for asking).  When the father of one of the brides asked me if I would do his funeral I decided I needed to evaluate my ministerial calling, because it was getting confusing.   It’s also an incredible amount of preparation, quite a demanding avocation when my vocation is already stretching me to the limit.

So, my children, watch your drinking at these cons, because I might just sneak up behind you and marry you off when you’re not looking.   I have the power, vested in me by the state of California.

No, really – what’s my point?

My point is, I – the horror writer, Berkeley radical, actress dancer singer slut who wouldn’t be allowed burial in hallowed ground in some cultures, make a pretty damn good minister, and I bet NO ONE here would have guessed that about me. 

My point is – it’s our job to know these quirky things about people and about our characters.   The more we know about other people’s secrets, the more capable we are of designing complex and unforgettable characters.

So it’s your turn.

What’s your secret?

And what are some of the best – and worst – character secrets/avocations you’ve read?

(Hope to see so many of you at Thrillerfest! – I”m on a panel Sunday morning at 9 am:  "CLOAK OF DARKNESS – Is Horror the Original Thriller?", and of course performing at the banquet Saturday night with the Killer Thriller Band.)

So what about self-publishing?

by Alex

This week I’m going to be on a panel called “How to Get Published” on which I am the representative for traditional publishing – as opposed to self-publishing.

Sometimes I’m not so sure I should be doing panels like this until I get another year or two’s worth of experience under my belt – I am still so new to publishing in general and a little terrified of saying the wrong thing.  We are, after all, talking about people’s dreams.

On the other hand, as a lot of you know, I have been OUT there on the circuit a lot this year, and arguably have crammed much more than a year’s worth of experience and observation into that year.

But in this case I thought I’d try soliciting as much information from you all on this subject as I can coax out of you so I can go into this panel at least a little more informed than I am.   Maybe we can all learn something.

In my experience and observation, the steps to publication, likewise the steps to a script sale, are really pretty simple.

!.   Write a great book (script).

2.    Get a great agent.

3.    Agent sells book to great publisher (studio/prodco).

4.    Repeat, hopefully minus step two, since you’ve already got that covered.

Now, of course, none of that is simple at all.   (It’s like Steve Martin’s advice on how to become a millionaire:  “First you get a million dollars.”)

But those really are the steps, and they make utter sense.   First you have to write something good enough to publish.   You have to get an agent because so many people write so much that is NOT good, and agents are one of the key filters for all that bad stuff that’s out there that we really don’t ever want published.   On one very important level, agents are quality control.

A good agent also serves the very important purpose (among many others I won’t be going into today) of matching material to publishers.    Your book has a much better chance of success if it’s placed with a house that is enthusiastic about it and is capable of putting it out to its specific market.

Now, I went the above very traditional route to sell my first script (and each subsequent script) and I went that very traditional route to sell my first two books, and it really never would have occurred to me to go any other way because I always figured those established routes were there for a reason.   Self-publishing perplexes me, because it seems a much, much, MUCH harder way to go, with about a million times more chance of failing utterly in what you’re trying to do.

That was my unschooled feeling about self-publishing even before I started getting out there on the convention circuit and hearing the vitriol directed at self-published authors from professional authors’ organizations and traditionally published authors and booksellers, many of whom will not deal with self-published books at all (“That’s not self-publishing, that’s self-PRINTING.”)  That’s already a huge reason not to self-publish. 

My own impression is that some people self-publish because

1)    They don’t know enough about the publishing business and don’t understand the logic and benefits of following the traditional routes to publication

2)    They’re too impatient or too afraid to follow the traditional routes

3)    They actually have a vision that might be a little ahead of its time and instead of taking no for an answer they take on the vast task of publishing and marketing themselves.

I don’t have any statistics to give you but the anecdotal evidence points to the first two reasons are responsible for MOST of the self-publishing.    And I can’t see anyone who self-publishes for one of those two reasons ever having an actual career as an author.   I understand that there’s an instant gratification about self-publishing, a feeling of self-determination about it – to barrel through and get your manuscript into a book form, choose your own cover, be able to hold it in your hands.

But then what?

Then you have to market the book, and there is no way that most individuals have the same capacity, resources, experience or savvy to market the way a publisher can.   Self-publishing seems like a short cut but in reality, much more often it’s a dead end.

Still, there are situations which absolutely call for self-publishing.   Family histories, local histories, community cookbooks – these are valuable records and resources for limited but avid audiences which a traditional publisher would probably never touch, but which should absolutely be collected and printed, and which might enjoy quite a lot of local success.

And there are those breakout exceptions, like THE CELESTINE PROPHECY, which really was a landmark New Age book that traditional publishers didn’t “get” at the time the author, James Redfield, shopped it.   But he had a vision, and the requisite passion to market it himself.   He self-published, got the book into New Age bookstores himself, and the book became an international phenomenon and cottage industry (over 20 million copies sold worldwide, translated into 34 languages, independent film adaptation, workshops, classes, lectures….)

And bestselling fantasy author Sherrilyn Kenyon started in e publishing with a series that was ahead of the paranormal curve – and got picked up by St. Martin’s after she clearly demonstrated that there was a huge audience for what she was doing.

And I can imagine that if marketing is a forte of yours, you could self-publish a specialty book (on, for example, ordinary household spells and love charms) that you could market online  to a target audience and make a bundle.    If you’re willing to work it.

I believe success in writing has a great deal to do with being very specific about what you want and about what you yourself are willing and capable of doing to get it.

I don’t think I have the skill set to succeed as a self-published author, but I’m quite sure there are some people who do.

Now I’m interested in hearing other perspectives on self-publishing, pro and con.    Scourge of the industry or viable option?   Any other examples of great – or moderate – successes, or great failures?