Category Archives: Alexandra Sokoloff

ALA – the American Library Association Conference

I’m in DC this weekend for ALA – the American Library Association Conference.  But this time, I’m not even going to try to pretend that I might report back later today on how the day is going.   It’s a CONVENTION. 

Instead, for the moment, I’ll talk about my library conference experience last year, and about why these things should be on every author’s radar.

But first I must report, to set the scene, that the weather is SPECTACULAR.   A fantastic warm dry wind and explosions of flowers everywhere you look.   I of course will be in a convention hall for three straight days, but it’s theoretically gorgeous here.

I must also take a moment to express my complete fascination with how bizarre DC is.   I truly enjoy the capitol, except for the driving, which is psychotic (and please remember, I’m from LA) – and the unnavigable streets and incomprehensible road signs, which truly were designed by a young nation in deep and constant paranoia of imminent foreign invasion…

And this architectural mix of military industrial complex and esoteric Masonic edifices… it’s a little unnerving to think this place is the symbol of the entire US.   I don’t really even want to start to think about what all of that means for us as a people, not to mention the most powerful nation in the world…

Um, where was I?  Oh, yes, right.   I’m here for ALA, which I said – I think just last week – is in my opinion one of the two unmissable conferences of the year for new authors. 

Because, let’s face it.   As authors, and yes, as human beings, we’d be up that proverbial creek without a paddle without librarians, wouldn’t we?

My very first conference after I sold my book was the PLA (Public Library Association) conference, last May, in Boston.

I did it because I happened to be in Boston anyway, doing research for THE PRICE.   I was completely green at the time, but I just had done that magic thing – I’d joined Sisters In Crime and
Mystery Writers of America, and the very first newsletter I got from each organization had an announcement that Sisters in Crime and MWA would be sponsoring a booth at PLA where their authors could volunteer and meet librarians.

Well, this instantly caught my attention, because THE HARROWING is actually the book I was always looking for on the library shelves when I was a high school Goth girl reading Madeleine L’Engle and Stephen King, Shirley Jackson and F. Paul Wilson, Ira Levin and Lillian Hellman; Leonora Mattingly Weber and Poe and Shakespeare and Ramsey Campbell and Sheridan Le Fanu and Anne Rice and…

Bottom line – more than just about anything else, I wanted THE HARROWING in libraries, for Goth girls (and boys) like me to discover on rainy days. It’s an adult title but these age distinctions never stopped me from reading when I was — well, basically from the time I could read. So I thought, well, if I want to meet librarians…  and I volunteered.

Sisters in Crime library events are run by the SinC Library Liaison,  Doris Ann Norris, self-styled 2000-year old librarian (as she’s known on Dorothy L), revered by Sisters in Crime and MWA as "The Patron Saint of Mystery Writers" – and that’s no lie.

I stayed in that booth for pretty much the whole conference and Doris Ann took me under her wing and gave me a personalized crash course in publication, conferences, librarians, and life.

You know those moments when you feel like you just don’t have to do anything, because the Universe is in charge?

That PLA conference was one of those times.   It completely hooked me on the conference experience.

It was the greatest learning experience to watch Doris Ann in action, along with  Dan Hale (there to represent MWA, and now the MWA executive VP)  and the entire raucous chapter of the New England Chapter of Sisters in Crime (who hosted the booth): the most fabulous Dana Cameron, Clea Simon, Linda Barnes, Donna Andrews, Kate Flora, Hallie Ephron, Roberta Isleib, Sarah Smith, Susan Oleksiw, Toni and Steven Kelner, and Julia Spencer Fleming.

This is networking at its most painless.  All you do is sit (or stand) there in the booth.   Librarians FLOCK to the Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America booths – they LOVE mysteries (and that’s an interesting question right there – just who are librarians so eager to see killed?  Enquiring minds want to know….)

I stopped counting how many times people ran up to the booth exclaiming:  “Sisters in Crime!!!  I’ve been looking for you!”

Librarians love to hear about new books and they are fantastically supportive of new authors.   At the time THE HARROWING was five months away from publication but I talked to literally hundreds of librarians about the book that weekend and put myself squarely on the library radar (Doris Ann kindly reported my growing library orders back to me in subsequent months.)   I got requests for library appearances, got featured in the Brodart book catalogue, and did a podcast for a university library – that day – and all I did was sit there.

That weekend I was also privileged to attend a book club meeting at Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge with the great Margaret Maron, queen of Southern mysteries and one of the most gracious and wickedly entertaining people on the planet.

If all that weren’t enough, the whole weekend culminated in an absolutely stupendous party at the BPL (that’s the Boston Public Library, to non-Bostonians). Now, I have to say I’ve been to some pretty amazing parties in my life – from seven-day Irish weddings in decrepit Irish castles where the roof literally collapsed on the dancers, to special-effects artists’ otherworldly extravaganzas, to of course Mardi Gras, to the most ridiculously decadent Hollywood premieres (not to mention any given Halloween in San Francisco’s Castro District – if you’re ever looking for a really WILD party…)

But that party at BPL was in a class of its own. A salsa band in one wing, a jazz pianist in a marble hall, a costumed fife and drum ensemble on the front steps, a live gilded Statue of Liberty at the top of a sweeping staircase, a dozen different islands of spectacular food and drink, the fantastic exhibitions (1000 Jeanne d’ Arcs)… the courtyard of the library just all on its own under a nearly full moon… and that building, that building, that building….

I’m here to tell you – librarians could teach authors a thing or two about how to party.   Librarians get out there and DANCE, people.

So get thee to a library conference.

You won’t believe what you’ve been missing.

(And if you’re at ALA, too, I’m signing at the MWA/Sisters in Crime booth at 3 pm today, Saturday, and at the St. Martin’s (Holtzbrinck) booth tomorrow, Sunday.   Come by and join the party!)

Are you from a writing family?

It being Father’s Day tomorrow, I thought I’d ask a family-related question. 

Someone posed this question on my screenwriter board:  Do you come from a writing family?

His hypothesis was that most writers actually don’t.   And the responses certainly bore him out – there was only one out of the dozens of screenwriters who answered him who had a writing pedigree.

I didn’t, either – my parents are scientists. They’re educated and literate but neither has much flair for writing, and even though my mother had us going to dance lessons and piano lessons and museums and galleries all the time, both of them – as most parents! – were dismayed when I went into theater after college, and are still a little stunned that I’ve made a living at writing all this time.

BUT – my parents also are huge readers. There were overflowing bookshelves in every room of the house when I was growing up. My father was a huge genre reader, specifically, and he had, randomly, collected just about every sci fi and horror classic out there.  So his reading taste had just about everything to do with my writing education.

And Mom did make me and my siblings write something every single day for a long time, even before kindergarten.   That enforced habit was a critical factor in my writing training.   And not just for me- my sister and brother also are great writers – my artist sister has a true genius for it, and my brother is a songwriter and very good with prose as well.

There were other things my parents did that prepared me for a writing career, but I think that the most important one was about gender.  They were both incredible role models for me as a woman.  My mother was fearless.    Definitely not the cookie-baking kind of mom.   Very early on I saw her going head to head with city councilmen and the mayor over community political issues and the message I got was very clear – women can do anything.

I got the same message from my father – he never made me think that I couldn’t do as well, as much, and more than any boy in any class.    He expected me to make a living with my brain – and I never had any doubt that I could.   Other girls my age were definitely NOT getting that message from their parents.

And maybe even more important than that – they both were passionate about their work.   It was very clear to me from their example that you’re supposed to do what you love for a living. And although they may sometimes have regretted sending that message – I think it was the greatest gift.

Because it’s not just writing training that makes you a writer, is it?

So how about you all?   What lessons did you get from your parents (whether intended or not!) that made you the writer – or other profession – that you are?   Let’s see what patterns might emerge.

And Happy Father’s Day to all our fathers!

More BEA

by Alex

I think we’re not done talking about BEA (Book Expo America) yet.

I’ve been to a LOT of conferences, workshops, and conventions this year and it’s my impression that the two most useful/important for debut authors are ALA (the American Library Association Conference) and BEA. I am happily accepting arguments to the contrary today because I think it would be an extremely valuable discussion to have here (I’m sure not for the first time!) – for all of us to talk about the conferences we think give authors the most bang for the buck.

Also, Toni and JT were both at BEA so I’d love to hear more of their impressions, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

BEA and ALA have a tremendous lot in common (well, I say this mostly because of their size and because they’re both trade shows.) These shows are huge. HUGE – I heard 30,000 attendees for BEA this year. Publishers and distributors set up corporate booths in rows of aisles and aisles and aisles and aisles across a massive convention hall (there were 4500 distinct booths in one hall alone, which gives you some idea), and booksellers and librarians and authors wander the aisles doing business, taking meetings and grabbing bagload after bagload of free books, ARCs and SWAG.

This was my second BEA – I signed ARCs of THE HARROWING last year, and this year I could sign actual books. I remember my first impression of BEA last year as total overwhelm – so many people you could barely get around in the aisles, so many booksellers and librarians to talk to, so many authors to meet. I wasn’t the only one with a completely glazed look in my eyes within an hour. And this year, the first day (Friday) was even more insane, as Toni and JT can attest. There was something seriously wrong with the air conditioning and the wall-to-wall people in each aisle turned the whole place into a tropical nightmare. Luckily I knew to layer and instantly stripped down to bare arms and sandals, but other people were really suffering and I think the next two days were much lighter than they would have been because so many people weren’t up for a repeat of Friday (plus, you know, all of New York was out there singing its siren song…)

But (atomospheric conditions aside) Book Expo America is self-billed as “The Premier Event Serving the Book Publishing Industry”. And this year Heather Graham told some new authors bluntly that BEA is the most important thing you can do all year for your career.

So what does a new author do there, exactly?

Well, first of all, if you’re lucky, your publisher takes you and you do signings in the publisher’s booth. Not every debut author gets to go – not by a long shot. For one thing, BEA is mostly to introduce the fall line of books, so if you’re coming out in a different season, you’re not necessarily going to be on the list.

But that’s not the only way to do signings and appearances at BEA. JT said yesterday how essential it is to join an authors’ group, and I’d like to second that in spades. One of the greatest things that Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and Romance Writers of America do for their authors is sponsor booths at BEA and ALA (and PLA, the Public Library Association conference, held every other year). You can sign up to sign (you or your publisher have to provide the books, which are given away – there’s no selling on the convention floor). You can also in some cases volunteer to staff the booth, which is a fabulous way to meet hundreds of librarians and booksellers. These book professionals know and love Sisters in Crime and MWA and RWA and go out of their way to find these booths and see what’s new in the genre.

I’m new to RWA and didn’t do a signing there this time, but Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America made me and all of their other author charges feel completely at home and looked after. Sisters in Crime runs an always-hopping booth that acts like a combination lounge and oasis for members and dazed convention-goers alike.

The MWA booth is as organized and professional as it is inviting, thanks to the amazing Margery Flax, Executive Director, without whom the organization would collapse within a half hour.

These booths are home base – I could venture out into the fray, journey the miles of booths and always find safe haven back with SinC and MWA.

And this year, I have to say, the Harlequin booth (booth doesn’t really begin to describe it – it was more like a posh club) was another haven. I know so many HQ/Mira authors now that it was a great place to stop by and find friends and actual chairs when my legs were giving out.

THE PRICE isn’t out until January, so this year I signed THE HARROWING in two different sessions, with Sisters in Crime and MWA, and the rest of the time I just wandered the floor, meeting and chatting with literally hundreds of great booksellers and librarians and reviewers (I’m starting to recognize a lot of people now, booksellers I’ve done signings for, librarians I’ve met at other conferences, reviewers who have been very supportive – it’s really fun.) I had meetings with my agent, with various people from St. Martin’s – you do a tremendous amount of business in those three days. And then of course there are the parties afterward (thank you, Harlequin!!).

BEA is huge, but it’s essentially like any other conference in terms of working it – all you have to do is relax and walk around and just run into the people you need to run into. Really, it works. Reviewers, booksellers, your publishers, extraordinary friends you haven’t seen in ten years – they’re all there in a very contained space and you will drift into them if you just go with the flow.

In the end you have dozens and dozens of buyers reading your books. You get dozens of requests for bookstore and festival appearances and can get a much clearer picture of where you want to tour, and in what order. You make new friends, and get reunited with very dear old ones. And let’s not forget the SWAG. Remember – no selling on the floor – it’s all giveaways!.

It’s crazy, but I really think, bottom line, it’s invaluable and unmissable.

Now – others? Can we get some more impressions of BEA? And what are the unmissable conferences for you?

Does it have to be this hard?

by Alex

In between catching up on all the STUFF that piles up when one is finishing a novel…  taxes, vet appointments, eye exams, thank you notes, gardening…

I’ve been letting myself do a lot of reading.  (So nice, to be out on the porch, in the Spring, in one of those classic rocking chairs, just – reading… watching plants grow and the world go by…)

This time, uncharacteristically,  I am not reading with a particular project in mind.   See, I’m not one of those writers who can’t read other authors while I’m starting/in the middle of/finishing a book or script.   I don’t tend to pick up on other authors’ styles.   Not at all, actually.   I have too many of my own special issues which color every word and character and theme that I put to a page to worry about duplicating anyone.   It’s just not really conceivable.    I wouldn’t be writing anything, at all, if there were already something out there that I could read instead of having to write it.   To be blunt (and not for the first time) I just don’t like writing that much to bother, if it already exists.

So I tend to read a LOT of similar books in my genre when I’m writing on a project, for many reasons, not the least of which is to remind myself that if I don’t write this, I’ll never be able to read it,  because no one ELSE would be fool enough to write it.

And because I’m not officially working, I get to read ANYTHING this week.   I have let myself be very eclectic… very, very eclectic… what some writer friend of mine refers to as foraging…  because I want to be absolutely sure what I want to write next before I commit to it.

I wrote something really hard this last book.   It’s a great idea – high concept premise, great characters (“So CASTABLE!!!!  as we say in Hollywood…).  But very difficult emotionally.   I had to go to very dark places.  It wasn’t a lot of fun.   I’m writing something at least as hard this next book.

And I was kind of wondering if it really had to be this hard. 

So I’m reading a wide range of books, including a lot of books that are bestsellers, but not particularly hard books.  Those I’m not going to name so that I can be more honest about them.    As usual I didn’t find much that gripped me, and as usual I didn’t bother finishing most of them because I wasn’t engaged enough to care.   Out of probably four dozen books there were only two that I really read:  Barbara Kingsolver’s PRODIGAL SPRING and Denise Mina’s THE DEAD HOUR.  I’ve read a lot of Kingsolver, I’m a huge fan.   I’ve never heard of Denise Mina, but I’ll for sure be reading her again.

Now the bestsellers I read are all recent titles by established writers –  not the breakout books that made these authors bestsellers to begin with.   Still, I understand why the books sell.   It’s pretty much about premise.   The books have big, thriller premises.   You can pitch them in a logline and GET what the story is and think, “Yeah, I’ll try that story.”    There’s a fairly unique hook.   The books are also competently plotted – the stories are taut, and flow well, there’s (on the surface) a good cast of characters with good balance between protagonists and antagonists). 

But.

I just didn’t care.

I like reading for premise and plot.   I do it often.   But what was missing was actual empathy with the characters.   What was missing was a sensual feeling of actually being INSIDE the story, of having it happen to me, too, instead of just watching.   Very bad things happen to the people in these bestsellers I was reading, including to children, but I shed not a hint of a tear for them.

In PRODIGAL SPRING, on the other hand, Kingsolver had me weeping – I mean completely dissolved – over a lost duckling.   I’m STILL mourning that duckling and it’s been over a week and it’s barely a paragraph of the book.   But the effect on the characters was devastating, and because I was completely devoted to those characters it was devastating to me, too.

In THE DEAD HOUR, a co-worker of protagonist Paddy Meehan’s is seriously injured and the scene where the Paddy walks into the hospital to visit her friend, not knowing what she’s going to find, is excruciating. 

I’ll remember those characters, because those authors made them live, and made me feel what they were feeling.   I can’t walk even around the neighborhood now without being acutely aware and exhilarated by the lushness of Spring all around me, because Kingsolver just made me see and feel and smell and pay attention to it it all in such intricate detail.

It’s an extra layer of complexity and emotion that makes most other books look like mere outlines of books in comparison.

So I guess (she said gloomily) I’ve got the answer to my question.

Yes, it has to be this hard.

Because anything less, and you’ve missed an opportunity to touch readers in a way that won’t be forgotten – that might actually change them a little.    A way that means something.

So how can we not?

Damn it.

So I want some more books that are not just outlines of books.   Genre or non-genre (well, preferably genre!)   Read anything realy good lately?   Something that maybe even made you cry?

Burnout

by Alex

“Honey, you’re overextended.”

I can’t tell you how many times I heard that from my mother when I was growing up.

She was right, of course, but I never listened to her, of course, because what could a parent know about a teenager’s needs and capacities?   I could do it all.   Of course, I might get sick and have to drop out of a play, or have dreams about climbing a ladder which started to disintegrate in my hands, but that happens to everyone, right?

Well, it’s taken a while, but I think I finally understand that my mother was right.   For whatever reason – and maybe it’s an occupational hazard, you tell me – my tendency is to overextend, to do too much, until I’m compromising my relationships, and at least my quality of life (I would say my health but my health has always been good enough to make me think I’m more okay than I probably am) in my obsessive doing.

And when you’ve been self-employed for basically all your life, there’s no federal agency that steps in and demands overtime and vacation pay.   There’s no one who turns out the lights in the office building at night, forcing at least a change of scenery.   You, the boss, can pretty much work you, the employee, into the ground, with no recompense or repercussions.

So last week, after pretty much killing myself to get my book revisions in, in between traveling to Romantic Times in Houston, back to LA for the LA Times Festival of Books, then straight on to Virginia for Malice Domestic, I stopped.

Completely.

I don’t know how conscious a decision that was.   What happened was that my mind said – “Uh uh.  That’s it.”   And this time I actually listened, instead of doing what I usually do and barreling on ahead to the next few dozen things.

So I’ve been doing nothing.

Doing nothing is hard.  It’s been interesting.  It’s not as much of a joyous relief as you would think because you’re too tired to really enjoy it.

I’ve been sleeping a lot, so there are not as many hours in a day as you would think to do nothing.   There are things that got backed up over the last few months that simply had to get done – cats to the vet, two months of laundry, that kind of thing.  Obviously I’m writing this blog… obviously I’ve done other things like that, which are not doing nothing.  And I did make a stab at doing my taxes but realized that was NOT doing nothing, even though it was not writing, so I am not going back to them until I have another week off).

I joined a new gym with a staggering number of classes throughout the day, so I’ve been doing one or two of those every day (too much, really, but after all these months of sludge…)

I know some people would take this opportunity to travel but I HAVE been traveling.   I don’t want to travel.   I don’t want to do anything.

What I do most of the day is read, of course.   But even this is strangely exhausting – I guess reading is always going to be work, for a writer.   I have quiet, tentative thoughts about it, like – “Why don’t YOU base the next book on a true story…”  – you know, that kind of thing.   I try to allow myself to have the thought without grabbing a notebook and acting on it.

But even though I’ve started tp read dozens of books over the last week, I haven’t read much all the way through, and I haven’t been very happy with anything I have managed to read (that is until yesterday, Louise will like this – Barbara Kingsolver’s PRODIGAL SPRING).

It’s a very uneasy vacation, that has turned into a kind of experiment, along the lines of metaphysical directives like – “When you don’t know what to do, STOP”  and ”When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

Well, I’ve stopped.   And already I wonder how long I can keep all this up.

This afternoon I actually have a book signing that’s been on the books for months – it’s just not possible to go on complete hiatus, unfortunately.    And of course there’s an ulterior motive to all this – I want to stop for long enough to feel that surge toward the next book.

But this time I really did overextend myself, and I think I had to go down to as close to nothing as I could manage to figure out what I can cut out, or more gently, let go.   Because something’s got to give, or it’s going to be me.

So I know you all can relate… I’ve seen versions of your meltdowns and enforced vacations here on this very blog.   Do you have any advice on how to get the most out of doing nothing?    Or, hmm, am I already trying to overextend myself again?

Romantic Times

by Alex

Burned out as I am (and I am) I am going to take a deep breath and try to give a report on the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention.   I think it’s important for people in the mystery, thriller and, yes, even horror genres, to hear this because Romantic Times is a convention that may not be on the radar for other genre writers – but it should be.

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

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

I’d also heard what you’ve probably heard about Romantic Times, if you’ve heard anything at all – that it’s full of women dressed as vampires and fairies and half-naked male cover models slinking around.   Well, I’m from Hollywood, so this is a normal party for me, and secretly (or not so secretly) I miss that kind of hedonism at the more sedate conferences, so I was all for THAT part of it.

I mean, here was my packing list for RT:

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

You have to admit – it’s a hell of a lot more fun than “business casual”.

I was ready to party, and I was REALLY ready to perform.   One of the features of RT is Heather Graham’s Dinner Theater, an original musical review written by Heather and her longtime, comically brilliant collaborators, writer/director/performer Lance Taubold and writer/manager/performer Rich Devin, always featuring several of Heather’s charming and multitalented offspring.  This year the show was “Vampires of the Wild Wild West”, and this year all three Killerettes were in the cast – Heather, Harley Jane Kozak, and me.   There simply is no more fun to be had with clothes on.   (Slideshow here).

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

The conference also features some unique ways of handling reader/author interaction.   Apart from outside bookseller events, there is only one mass signing – that takes place in a HUGE convention room on Saturday, after all the authors have already done their panels.   The authors are lined up alphabetically at long rows of tables, and the readers just walk up and down the aisles.   There are drawings for dozens of author-donated gift baskets going on throughout the whole three hour signing, and video screens project book trailers through the whole event as well (THAT was fascinating).   I sold dozens of books, and I’m still in hardcover and not nominally a romance writer.

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

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

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

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

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

Collecting characters

by Alex

I’ve had a couple of interviews in the last couple of weeks in which I was asked a question that completely threw me for a loop. The same question. “How do you create character?”

Now, you’d think that would be the easiest thing in the world for a writer to answer, right? As essential skills go, that’s about as basic as it gets. But being asked the question makes me realize I don’t think about it, I just do it.

Surely I have techniques that I’ve just internalized to the point that I am having trouble breaking them down.   So as soon as I get THE PRICE in  (Tuesday, and yes I am completely psychotic, thanks!)  I will put some serious thought into what those actual techniques are, since people are apparently going to be asking from now on.

But this is my theory for the day.   I think all writers are always collecting characters as we go along.   Not just characters of course, but bits and pieces of story. An interesting dynamic between people.  A theme.  A great character back story.  A cool occupation.  The look of someone’s eyes.  A burning ambition. Hundreds of thousands of bits of flotsam and jetsam that we stick in the back of our minds like the shelves full of buttons and ribbons and fabrics and threads and beads in a costumer’s shop.  Or like the prop warehouse that was in the vast basement under the theater at Berkeley – cages and cages and cages of (somewhat) categorized props – medieval, Renaissance, Greek, sci fi, fantasy.

To completely shift metaphors, I could also say that we take clippings of people, like you take clippings of plants, and grow them in a vast mental greenhouse until they’re fully formed or at least formed enough to plant somewhere where they will take root on their own.

The truth is I rarely start a story from a character – it’s usually more a situation, although the situation will usually dictate quite a bit about the characters involved.  If I want to write a story about a haunting in an old Victorian college dorm, that dictates that the main characters are going to be college kids. College kids have to have majors and it’s more interesting to have contrasting characters so assigning contrasting majors is going to further define character. I think books without sex are pretty much useless (at least to me) so that means at least some of these characters are going to be what I consider sexy, and my odd and eclectic personal tastes in all that is going to give at least some of these people an edge.   Also my personal theories about how a haunting happens is going to have a huge influence on the psychology of these characters, and so on, and so on.  So, yes, I can sort of fake an explanation about how I build characters from scratch.

But I think what happens more often than not is that at a certain point in outlining a plot, some of these characters I have growing or cooking back there in the costume shop or green house or prop warehouse or whatever you want to call it just step forth and take their place in the situation.    Not only that (to confuse the metaphors all to hell), I think I have some actual ACTORS back there in my mental wings who are able to play different parts.   There are certain characters who keep showing up in my writing, maybe heavily disguised and people don’t even necessarily recognize that they’re the same character, but I know it’s the same entity. Actors.

So yes, there are techniques you can use – give a character a burning desire (in the story AND in each scene) and a terrible secret, give them an arc, give them good scenes to play, give them dialogue tics, use shadow forms of mental disorders to define them, use Greek and other archetypes to define them…

But the real secret for me is – always be collecting.   Like those feral kids I was rambling on about last Saturday. You have to invite those potential characters in and let them live and grow inside your head. Yes, it gets pretty crowded in there after a while… but it’s all worth it when that perfect character for a scene or the perfect villain or protagonist just walks out onto the page, fully formed.

And now I’m almost afraid to ask, but  – is that just me?   What do YOU do?

(I will be at the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention in Houston this week, doing signings, panels, and a performance of Heather Graham’s Vampire Dinner Theater.   Then in an act of sheer lunacy even for me, I’ll be flying back to LA Saturday night to do the LA Times Festival of Books on Sunday, signing at the Mysterious Galaxy booth at noon, Sisters in Crime from 1-3 pm, and the Mystery Bookstore at 3 pm – and possibly back to Sisters in Crime at 4 pm.   Hope to see some of you there!)

Branded

by Alex

It sure is Spring.   That brilliant green grass, the burgeoning blossoms, explosions of color, those maddeningly delicious fragrances wafting in the breeze…

Beautiful.   Uplifting.   Rejuvenating.

Here’s a thought.  As soon as I turn in my book, I’m going to write something happy.  A love story.  A whimsical comedy.   Something light.  Something lovely.

Right.

I can already hear the stereophonic bicoastal hysterics of my agents and publishers…

Sigh.

No, It’s not a real thought.  Well, all right, it was a real thought, but a very fleeting thought.   

It’s a question of "brand".  I know my brand.  I don’t even have my second novel out yet and I don‘t just know my brand – I work my brand.  I work the hell out of my brand.  I write spooky, sexy, dark and eerie.  There might be some uplift going on there as well, but never at the expense of thrills.

And even though I’m having this momentary longing to do something not QUITE so dark next time (that or run away to a tropical island and never write again…) dark is not just my brand, it’s who I am.  It’s a brand in a much more metaphysical sense – it’s a brand on my character, on my soul.

I have a writer friend who is always saying that I should write my OWN story – like autobiographically.  I keep telling her that what I write IS my own story.  This is how I see things.

Here’s a perfect example.  I’m on deadline and have been housebound for what seems like months, but my next characters have already come to me.  Physically.   Like, on the sidewalk outside the window where I work.   I see these four kids every day now, two or three times a day, walking by, always together,  a strange collection.  A very short, slim, animated black girl.  A very large redhaired white girl with doughy skin and flat eyes.  A small, wiry black boy with a loud laugh.  A talk, dark-haired, spacy white boy. 

They are not your normal teenagers.  They are a pack.  They are always together.  They even move together – walking in a clump, closer than ordinary people stand to each other   It is very strange to see four people so near to each other and so synchronized.  They don’t seem dangerous as in violent, but dangerous nonetheless.  Though they chatter and caper like teenagers, there is a heaviness about them.  They stick together for protection, and it’s not hard to imagine what they need protection from, or why they’re on the street.

I have become obsessed with them.  I think they are homeless and now that it’s getting warm they have come out from some shelter and are sleeping under the railway bridge down the street.  But they’re clean, and they’re not obviously stoned.  What they are is feral.

They have noticed me, too, behind my window – at least one of them has – the redhaired girl.  She was as startled to see me in the local grocery store as I was to see her, because, you see, I was thinking about them at the very moment that they appeared around the end of the aisle.  They were shoplifting, I’m sure, tucking pizzas and cokes into their oversized jackets.  It was overwhelmingly odd to see them in the store.  It was even odder to come home from the store and see them walking on the sidewalk past my window the second I walked into the house.  I left the store before them and I have a car.  They could not possibly have beaten me home.

Definitely not the stuff of romantic comedy.

Zombies, revenants,  creatures of the night….  perhaps.  We’ll see. It’s inevitable.

You see, I AM writing my own story.

I’m branded.

Are you?

Masters of the Craft (World Horror, Part II)

by Alex

Writing conventions are always invaluable on so many levels it’s hard to quantify.  But there’s often, or maybe always, one particular thing that happens that is worth the whole cost and effort of attending – that may actually cause a paradigm shift in the way you approach your writing and/or your career.

I was at the World Horror Convention in Toronto last weekend and for me that life-altering event was the “Masters of the Craft” panel, with F. Paul Wilson, Ramsey Campbell, Gahan Wilson, Joe Lansdale, Robert Sawyer and David Morrell.

It’s always wonderful to see Paul, Ramsey, and David, who have not just been inspirations, but also extremely generous and supportive mentors (and in the case of Paul and David, bandmates…)   But the combination of these author/artists in conversation together was truly transcendent.

It’s possibly impossible to distill a panel like that into anything useful for people who weren’t actually there, but I’m going to try to pass on the highlights anyway because I was so struck by the synergy of what these guys were saying about what it takes to make the kind of lasting career they all have.

Artist of the Macabre Gahan Wilson was so charming and funny and earnest when he went off on this rant: “When you start you have to have a mad conviction that you’re going to succeed.   It has nothing to do with logic because the chance of succeeding in any art is hopeless.   And you have to love it, be absolutely crazy about it.  Don’t do it unless you’re nuts.”

Lansdale seconded him (and you must imagine this in a thick West Texas drawl):  “You’ve got to be obsessed with it at first.   It’s like being in love – at first you never get out of bed – but after a few years you find you’re able to do a few basic other things, like take out the garbage once in a while.”

(I think all of us who have been published, or are about to be, know this.  In fact we’re so obsessed we don’t really notice how obsessed we are, and when you finally get to a point that you can lift your head up and look back on what you did to get where you are you’re pretty stunned at how insane it all seems.   Thank God we don’t seem to notice when we’re actually doing it, and thank God we don’t realize how long it’s going to take when we start out, or I don’t think there would be any books published, ever.)

Then there was this:

“Writing is like a parasite.   It never quits.    It’s wearing.   The wires are always firing and you don’t get to rest like other people.”
— Joe Lansdale

I can’t tell you how good it feels to hear that from people.   I never tire of hearing it.   It makes me feel not so completely freakish.   Or maybe I’m just clinging to that thought in order to justify acting like a completely insane person.

Gahan Wilson had another reason for never allowing himself to turn  off:

“Some nights you wake up all of a sudden and God is in the room and telling you what your story needs and you better write it down,  or God will get pissed and go away.”

The panel spent a lot of time talking about what makes a breakout success.   Joe Lansdale said:   “It’s about voice and capturing what real human beings think about.   I’ve read all the clever stories and can pretty much guess an entire story from the first chapter, so what keeps me reading is the voice, the style.”     He went on to say that Stephen King was the first author he read who wrote in the voice of their (Joe’s and King’s) generation – the voice of the Sixties, with all the asides and a particular kind of stream of consciousness and incorporating so many references to music and popular culture.   I’d never heard it put exactly that way before, but it made absolute and total sense.

Paul Wilson agreed, but added there was also a certain element of luck involved.   “The right story at the right time will hit in a way that can make a career for life.” He referenced his own THE KEEP as an unpredictable success that made his career.

All the authors talked about how unnerving it was to them that so many people they started out with at the same level of writing just dropped off along the way.   Lansdale said,  “This is not a romantic profession.  It’s more like boxing.  You get knocked down and what keeps you in the game is that you keep getting back up.”

David Morrell warned,   “Don’t chase the market.   It will never work.   It’s better to be a first rate version of yourself than a second rate version of anyone else."

And Paul Wilson said the most important thing is – “You have to write what you love to read.”  

The darkest moment of the panel for me was when Ramsey Campbell and Joe Lansdale both said bluntly – “No wife, no career.”   Obviously that’s not going to happen, so I’m ignoring it.

But the most important moment of the panel for me was when the authors were talking about genre, and crossing genres, and Joe Lansdale swept all of that aside impatiently and said:

“Real authors create their own genre.   Stephen King is his own genre.   You have to throw out your conceptions of genre and develop a voice and an honesty about the human condition that becomes its own genre.”

Now THAT – is a career-defining concept. 

I’m a genre author and a cross-genre author but I do think it’s true – that my favorite authors, the authors I read over and over again –  King, Shirley Jackson, Paul Wilson,  Daphne Du Maurier, Ira Levin, Anne Rice, the Brontes… really are genres unto themselves.     And this may be one of Gahan Wilson’s mad convictions that have nothing to do with logic, but I believe that (maybe through sheer stubbornness or insanity) I have the possibility of doing that – of being my own genre.

After this weekend I am no longer spending any time thinking about what’s out there or what I’m writing compared to what other people are writing.   I’m just going to write it, whatever the hell IT is.

And now that I’ve had that epiphany I have to say I am exponentially thrilled that we have an author joining us here at Murderati who IS his own genre – the indefinable and incomparable Ken Bruen.   I don’t know if you’d call what he does Irish Noir, or even more specifically Galway Noir, or Benign Thuggery, or simply Bruenesque, but Ken has a style that is impossible to copy, because anyone but the original would immediately sound like a cheap imitation.    There’s just too much pure soul going on in what Ken does to make it copiable (if that’s a word).  If you haven’t read him, never mind commenting today, just run out and get THE GUARDS, to start, and you’ll see what I mean.

That Masters of the Craft panel at World Horror was a career-defining experience for me.   But I’m thinking there are going to be some career-defining experiences right here for more than just me, now that Ken is aboard.

I can’t wait.

The Horror….

by Alex

I’m in Toronto this weekend for the World Horror Convention.   So is
Simon, but he threatened me under pain of death and torture not to talk
about what HE’s been doing.

(Come to think of it, threats of pain and torture are probably de rigeur at a horror con anyway, so perhaps I’ll just spill.)

Toronto is a beautiful city.   Huge.   I had no idea.   We’re right
downtown attached to the Eaton Center, a mall that is so big that even
five minutes inside is too overwhelming – I’d rather walk around it. 
The interesting thing is that the mall and the hotel have grown up
around a very Gothic 1847 church.   I have stained glass right outside
my hotel window.   It sets a cool mood for all of this.    I went
inside yesterday and it seems homeless people just live there – there
were a good dozen people asleep in different pews and chairs. 
Somewhat like the courtyard scene in Sleeping Beauty after the whole
kingdom has been put to sleep.

There are other enormous churches every block or two, interspersed with
all the skyscrapers..   It’s also surprisingly warm (I was prepared for
sub zero and the lakes were still quite frozen flying in, so the
walking temperature is a welcolme surprise.

World Horror is a professional con, which means you’re not running into
The Grim Reaper and various Pinheads and the two little girls from THE
SHINING walking around as at fan conferences, which I kind of miss. 
But it’s been a great con so far.   Lots of Brits – I finally got to
meet Ramsey Campbell and Tim Lebbon, two writers I’ve been a fan of for
ages (well, Ramsey for ages, Tim for years).   It’s always the greatest
pleasure to hang with F. Paul Wilson and Tom Monteleone and David
Morrell – not just three of the most charming men on the planet, but
like a constant master class in – mastery.   Joe Landsdale is here and
is my new favorite icon (all these guys could just as easily have been
actors as writers – it’s constatnly amazing to me how multitalented
authors are).

I had a fabulous day yesterday signing with Sarah Langan, who is also
up for a Stoker for First Novel – and we did our own mini-drop in
bookstore tour yesterday (both sleepless and like the walking dead, but
that made for some hilarious and appropriately Twilight Zone moments).

And I’ve been completely adopted by a group of WHC professionals –
Eunice Magill, Maurice Broaddus, Chesya Burke, Michelle Wilson and
Lucien Soulban, who are making everything very easy and comfortable.

Panels all day today and then the awards ceremony at night.    Lots of
interesting programming on crossing genres so I really will try to
update some of the highlights during the day today but of course have
had maddening Internet access.

And of course, a full report on Simon.   You’re just never going to believe it.    😉