Category Archives: Alexandra Sokoloff

On Style

Raymond Chandler wrote:

“The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It pays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you have never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off.”


I came across that quote this week and have been brooding over it ever since, as I (you’re going to get sick of hearing this) struggle with my third novel.

I thought it was worth posting about, so that you all can explain it to me.

In fact, what I really wanted to do was just post that quote and type “Discuss” below it and let you all go to town, but that’s probably some kind of cheating, so I’ll try to turn my inchoate brooding into a coherent post.

I’m sure you all read as much as I do and probably discard at least as many books after the first few chapters as I do.   I will sometimes skim a badly written book for story, but far too many books these days are written far too quickly, and don’t even approach a level of basic good writing, let alone a distinct style.    I know we’re all trying to make a living here, and it takes a lot more time to write a book with style, and it’s a lot harder, but I have no patience with writers who don’t go that extra mile (or continent).   So I’m stuck – if I won’t READ a book without style, then I can’t really write one without it, either.

So these are some of the things I’m wondering.

(And for the purposes of this discussion I’m going to confine my examples mainly to the mystery/suspense genre, because yeah, Joyce has a distinct and groundbreaking style, but I never even seriously tried to get through FINNEGAN’S WAKE)

1.   First of all, when you think of writers who have a distinctive, landmark STYLE – who of your favorite writers, especially those who influence you, would that Chandler quote apply to?

2.   And what’s the difference between a distinctive, landmark style and just plain great writing?   

3.   And what’s the difference between a distinctive landmark style and a specific writing device or gimmick that you use to tell a certain story?

I’ll take a stab at my own questions, to get the ball rolling.   

(1)  I’m not a hardboiled writer so, though I appreciate Chandler and Hammett and Spillane and I understand how that quote applies to them, I’m not interested in writing that way. 

But I do know that I’ve been influenced by the Gothic, sensual, and I would say uniquely feminine styles of Mary Shelley, Sheridan Le Fanu, Bram Stoker, the Brontes.   

Ray Bradbury is a stylist who just does it for me – again, emphasis on the sensual and fantastical.

Anne Rice – ditto.   I think the lush eroticism of her prose and the fantastical nature of her subject matter takes her (at her best) beyond simply great writing to great style.

(2).  Now, this is something I’m also wondering: are stylists different from just plain brilliant writers?

Stephen King is a brilliant writer.   No one can hook me into a story and keep me riveted and engaged the way he can.   But I’m not sure in his case I’d call it style… I think he’s a phenomenal, addictively wonderful storyteller.   And he’s written some stylishly interesting books, like CARRIE – but I think the style of that book was more a device to tell that particular story than a groundbreaking style that defined him as a author.

Ayn Rand is another addictively brilliant storyteller, for me – but I don’t think she created a new style with her books.

Larry McMurtry, whose stupefyingly wonderful LONESOME DOVE I am now reading for the first time (thanks, G.! ) – is another phenomenal storyteller – but I don’t think he’s creating a new style.

And I don’t think the stylists I’ve mentioned are any more brilliant than the storytellers – I’m just trying to distinguish style from general writing brilliance.  In fact, most of the authors who have most influenced me in my particular genre – like King and Ira Levin and F. Paul Wilson – are more what I would define as brilliant storytellers.    But actually, now that I think about it, maybe Levin’s subtle irony and satire make him more of a stylist.

(3)  Now, to my third question – style vs. a storytelling device.   I’m also reading THE BOOK THIEF, by Markus Zusak – there’s a very interesting device there in that the book is narrated by Death.  Very stylish, because of the unique POV Death has.   But it’s a device for this particular story… we’ll have to wait and see if it turns out to be Zusak’s patented style.

The great Barbara Kingsolver I think is a stylist but her POISONWOOD BIBLE is more a great example of a literary device: a single story told by six sisters (if I’m remembering correctly, not good with math) all in very unique first person voice.

Another example of a literary device would be the one in Christie’s THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD…  (you know!).   I’m thinking that’s not style, it’s a storytelling device that makes that a standout book (though Christie hit that standout mark pretty regularly).

And while we’re on the subject of style, I’m also on a Ken Bruen tear – my new literary crush.   Oh, all right, I also have a crush on Ken.   But enthralled as I am, I’m certainly not the first one to call him a unique stylist, as well as just a brilliant writer, and I think it’s because his Jack Taylor character and his stories so completely reflect Ken, who is even more poetic than the average insanely poetic Irish – poet.  Amelia Barr said about writing – "I press my soul upon the white paper."  Ken does that with such devastating honesty that it becomes its own style.   

And that – we all have the capability of doing.   If we take the time and trouble to get our unique souls onto the page, it becomes style.

So… examples, anyone?   And who do you think are our new stylists?   

– Alex   (Obviously desperately seeking procrastination suggestions…)

Free movies… and CAPOTE

Yes, boys and girls, it’s awards season in Hollywood.   For screenwriters, this means one thing above all:

                                                  !!!!!  –  FREE MOVIES – !!!!

At theaters all over LA and NY, and a few selected in San Francisco and a couple other lucky cities, you present your WGA (Writers Guild of America) card for just about any showing and get in free.   

Now, this is a joy.   Because not only do you get in, but if you’re going in with another WGA member, you can get a whole two other people in free.   You can feel like Santa, or God, simply by turning to the most lovely (In spirit, of course) moviegoers behind you in the cinema line and asking, oh so casually – “Are you going to BABEL?   Do you want to get in free?”  And watch the faces light up like Christmas….

Even better, we screenwriters get DVDs of the Oscar hopefuls IN THE MAIL.   Now, that’s the kind of thing that makes you feel like a professional.  Free stuff. 

There are some really great films up for Oscars and various awards this year.   And I’m thrilled that as a WGA member I’m getting so many more awards screeners this year than last.   Last year, in a fit of piracy paranoia, the studios sent a bare minimum of free DVD screeners out to writers.   CRASH was one of the only free screeners sent out to voting writers last year.   CRASH won every major award for Best Screenplay.   Coincidence?   Oh, I think not.   

Studios are arguably moronic, but they’re not stupid.   

Suffice it to say the studios realized that after the CRASH sweep, they’d better start sending the freebies out if they wanted the writing awards this year.  Result?  More DVDs in the mail than I’ve had time to watch.

And I’m sure I’ll get around to talking about all of this year’s fine screeners – I mean films – because there are some really good ones out there.    But not this week.

Because I finally saw CAPOTE  this week (I know, I know.  A year late.  It’s ridiculous.  I was BUSY last year, okay???)



A Dan Futterman screenplay based on the book by Gerald Clarke, directed by Bennett Miller, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote

This film is a must-see for writers.   Stunning – from the first second: the opening image, the cinematography, the pace, the writing…

All of which get dwarfed by that incredible character and performance. 

You watch Hoffman/Capote breathlessly as he seduces what he wants out of Perry Smith, lying left and right…   

And you’re thinking – “That is one ice-cold bastard…”

And in pretty much the same thought I was also thinking –

“God, I am JUST like that.”

Now, people who know me would disagree.  Most of them would, anyway.   A few who REALLY know me, like my brother and sister, would say – “Well, not exactly like that, but I know what you mean.”

For all our sensitivity and empathy and wit and charm, which we also do have in spades… there is a ruthlessness about professional writers, combined with the thickest skins you’re ever going to find – that makes us, well, let’s just say – different.

That’s not all there is to me, of course.   I love puppies and kittens and I do ridiculous amounts of volunteer work for worthy causes and I stand up to bullies and bigots and you would definitely want me around if your small child needed saving from drowning or a burning building.   

But when it comes to my writing?   Just back the fuck off.

When Capote says, “I’m here working.   That’s all this is.   I have work to do.”   

That is so me it’s scary.

I really do find myself doing appalling things when I’m working, and justifying it all to myself because, after all, if it’s going to get me that scene or lock in that character, then how can I not?   And I don’t just mean that you better not even think of trying to talk to me when I’m writing.

If there’s some part of you that I want for a character?   Watch out.

Do not leave your diary unlocked around me.  I’m not saying I’d for sure read it, but I’m not saying I wouldn’t, either.   Letters?  E mails?   Lingerie drawer?   Depends on what I need.  I’ve slept with all kinds of people I shouldn’t have because it’s about the fastest way to get to the heart of someone.  Really, I have no shame.   Complete and total vampire.

But what I thought was especially stunning about the writing and the characterization is that at the same time that Capote was milking Perry Smith for every bit of humanity he could squeeze out of him – he was also completely and totally and honestly falling in love with the man – not as a mere sexual object, but falling in love with his soul – wanting to know him in a way very few of us are ever known by anyone.   How thrilling.   How vampiric.   How very much like a writer.   What we want is to know you.   Is that so wrong?

So, fess up now, writers.   Did you recognize yourself in Capote?  A little bit of the vampire going on?  Or am I the only sociopath here?

A Very Good Year

Simon made me do it.

I had another post all set to go today but Simon’s post wrapping up
his year has compelled me to do my own, because I’m just, you know,
obsessive that way.

The thing is, I know a recount will be good for me.  I’m a
workaholic (oh, just admit it, THIS crowd?  You all so are too…).
I’m always focusing on what I NEED to do, rather than what I’ve done.
More than that, I beat myself up about what I haven’t done.   For a
non-Catholic, non-Jew, I have the guilt thing down to a science.

But when I look back on it, it really was an amazing year.   Let’s see now…

– My first novel, THE HARROWING,
was published by St. Martin’s Press in September.   Now, that alone is
a year’s worth, right?  I’m an author now.   And having lived a good
long time as a professional writer, slave to Hollywood, I can tell you
that author is something else, entirely.   

– I joined Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, Horror
Writers of America, Romance Writers of America and the International
Thriller Writers as a published author – and met hundreds of the most
incredible authors, readers, librarians, bookstore owners/staff, all
over the country.    (And let me tell you, the librarians have the best
parties of ALL…).

– I went to PLA in Boston, Malice Domestic in Arlington, ThrillerFest in Phoenix, BEA in DC, World Horror Con in San Francisco, ALA in New Orleans, Bouchercon
in Madison, World Fantasy Con in Austin, SIBA in Orlando, NCIBA in
Oakland, the LA Times Festival of Books in Los Angeles, Cape Fear Crime
Festival in Wilmington, Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans
in Paris (just kidding – I got to go to New Orleans again for that
one…).  I’m always saying I want more travel in my life – well, I’ve
got it now, in spades.

– I debuted with the Killer Thriller Band as
a Killerette and got to sing and dance with some of my all-time
favorite authors who are also kick-ass musicians.   Yes, I am a rock
star as a hobby.   Clearly I’m doing something right….

– I went on a nine-state book tour: North Carolina, South Carolina,
Georgia, Florida, California, Arizona, Louisiana, Texas and Wisconsin.
See travel fetish above.

– I finished my second novel, THE PRICE, also a supernatural thriller, which will be out from St. Martin’s at the end of 2007.

– I wrote my very first short story, “The Edge of Seventeen”, for THE DARKER MASK,
an illustrated anthology of, well, dark, superhero stories, which will
be out from Tor in January of 2008.   I am beyond thrilled with how it
came out and how fast and fun it was to write (I did a whole rough
draft on the plane from Raleigh to L.A.) and it made me realize that
there’s something to this short story thing after all.

WriterAction, the website
and union Town Hall I founded for professional screenwriters, hit 1900
members in our third year.   I am in my small way following in the
pro-union, Commie footsteps of giants: my idols Dorothy Parker and
Lillian Hellman.   The people united will never be defeated.

– I joined this horrifying, reprobate crowd at Murderati – the blog
I most wanted to be a part of but never dreamed I’d actually be asked.  Now THAT’S what I call a Christmas present!!

– I made the most amazing friends.  Truly.  I already have the most
amazing friends on the planet and now I have this whole new crop of
miraculous, witty, sexy, talented people in my life.   In one year I
feel completely part of this incredible mystery community – it’s like
family, and like heaven… and enough like hell to give it that edge,
you know?

I am so grateful.

And I am so ready for 2007.

And now I want to hear about your 2006!

Happy New Year to all…

Alex XX


Miss JT Crankypants started this, so okay, my turn.   I admit to some holiday blues here.   


– Probably all the staggering amounts of food, for one thing – always makes me nervous and irritable.

– People like Pari with her latkes and  JT with her Christmas cards, making me feel guilty and inadequate.   😉  There’s no one I want to poison – yet – but the fact is that I am JUST NOT a homebody, so any holiday that revolves around decorating, baking, shopping, and obligatory writing of greeting cards is bound to give me the hives.  My friends know I love them.  I hope.  They know I love them enough not to cook for them, anyway.   

– Another anxiety creator – that feeling of the year suddenly ending with so many things undone (and yeah, okay, a couple of things done that shouldn’t have been done, and no way to undo without becoming a Catholic).

– Some vague unresolved tax issues, undoubtedly. 

– And surely there’s more, deeply buried, requiring years of expensive therapy to unearth.

Truthfully, I grew up with not much religion.  At all.   My parents, both of the scientific mind (despite some pretty typical religious training for their generation) are two of the most agnostic people you are ever likely to meet.   My siblings and I were not forced to any particular church as children; instead, our parents encouraged religious promiscuity – meaning, whatever friend’s house was the slumber party for the weekend, we’d end up at that friend’s house of worship in the morning, whatever that was.   Or – not.

Little did our parents know how broadly we would apply that theory…

Well, never mind that.

I was really a lot better about Christmas when I had singing to do.  When I was in middle school, through college and those undefined and fucked up but kinda great years after college, Christmas was all about choir rehearsals and holiday performances, the obligatory but ecstatic gang-bang Messiah, and all that endless caroling, including impromptu a cappella breakouts into song on San Francisco cable cars, magical!!! I didn’t have to THINK about Christmas – I just FELT it, in the music.

Nowadays, I don’t have any formal singing to do, I don’t have any children to create a Christmas myth for, and there’s just too damn much chocolate around, leering and beckoning.  (“Everyone’s wearing sweaters this time of year anyway… no one’s going to notice…”  Oh yeah, right.)

Luckily, the antidote is clear.  The best thing about Christmas, besides champagne, is Christmas movies (and okay, what I really mean is HOLIDAY movies, but when I say Christmas I say it as a total pagan, so just back off). 

Here are mine:


Used to show it to my gang kids in prison school – it remains one of the all-time highlights of my life to see those kids start out whining that I was showing them a black and white film and then watch them fall under this movie’s spell.   Oh man, did they GET it.


The ultimate escapist fantasy.    Yes, let me make a living doing 12 live shows a year, simultaneously keeping two men at my beck and call, one who sings, one who dances.   Where do I sign?    Best line:   “But I do love you, Jim.  I love everybody.”   Best song:   “Be Careful, It’s My Heart”.   Best dance – Fred and the firecrackers.   Best moment: Marjorie Reynolds trying to look contented with Bing Crosby while Fred is dancing up a storm with Virginia Dale.


George Cukor directing a Donald Ogden Stewart & Sidney Buchman adaptation of a Philip Barry play starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.   Anything else you need to know?


See above, plus Jimmy Stewart, and the brilliant and under-known Ruth Hussey  (“Oh, I just photograph well.”) and Virginia Weidler as the weirdest little sister on the planet (“I did it.  I did it ALL.”)   Not a holiday movie, per se, but if you’re looking for cheer…


Best Christmas musical soundtrack there is – one great song after
another – only the whole thing makes me cry so hard I generally end up
avoiding it.


BBC series written by and starring John Cleese and Connie Booth, with Cleese as the most incompetent innkeeper in the history of innkeeping.  The entire series is genius, every single episode – not exactly holiday themed, either, but guaranteed healer of depression and all other ills.   Be prepared to laugh until you’re sick. 


My brother turned the fam onto AB FAB and now it just wouldn’t be a holiday without Patsy and Eddy and Saffy.   Sin is in, sweetie.


Okay, so I’m not technically a Christian or anything, but I can see God in those two shows.

Hah!  I’m feeling better already!

So give.   What movies mean Christmas, or the equivalent, to YOU?

Whose POV is it, anyway?

I’m struggling with point of view this week… and realistically I can look forward (!!!) to struggling with it for the rest of the writing of THE TRAVELLER’S TALE, since the POV is so intricate with this one that I have half decided to just bash it out any way I can think of for the first draft just to get the story down, and then start assigning POV in the next pass.

I think writers in general are fairly obsessed with point of view.   Like dreamers (meaning, people literally in the state of dreaming) we are promiscuous about jumping from one POV to another because we have to play all the characters in anything we write. 

Kristy Kiernan has a great blog  over on THE DEBUTANTE BALL this week about her first experience of that kind of real-life POV shift.

I have this sneaking suspicion that those are the moments that make us writers – those moments that we completely leave ourselves and inhabit another human being.

Example.  Some musician friends of mine live in this great, appalling house – you know the kind of party house I’m talking about – they’re musicians. There’s a basement with a full bar and a sound studio and all kinds of decadence going on at all hours. The couches in the living room are like enormous Venus Flytraps – people come over for a party and wake up three days later and still have no inclination to leave – and they don’t have to, because no one will mind, it’s all part of the flow.

Their house is the one blot in a very, very PROPER neighborhood.

And right next door to them is a very New England brick structure. SO well tended. Very nice family. Very nice.

Okay, so it’s party season, and this one day not so long ago I stumble out of the House of the Rising Sun at four in the afternoon on the way to some kind of caffeine… God only knows what I was wearing… and here are this very proper father and his maybe eight-year old son oh-so-diligently raking fall leaves off their lawn.

And this little boy looks at me.

Well, so does the father.

And I’m suddenly outside of my own body and inside that little boy, looking at me.   And okay, yeah, also inside the father.

And I suppose I keep moving, because I REALLY REALLY need coffee, but I’m not aware of it.  The synapses are firing and the questions are popping.

What the HELL is it like to live next door to a house like that, with longhaired great-armed boys toting guitars and cases of just about anything and marginally-dressed women going in and out at all hours, when you’re trying to be an upstanding citizen?  And more importantly, whose POV do you tell this story from? Is it a mid-life crisis in the making, or a coming-of-age story, or both? And what about the wife?  Who is she? What does she think about all these sexy Dionysian boys living right next door, when THAT’s her husband?  How long before one or all of these people snap?

These are the kinds of things that keep writers up at night.

There are stories, and then there’s the whole other issue of Whose Story Is It?

And just when you think you’ve got one of them down, the other one becomes the real issue.

So these are my questions for all you all (I have not been in the South long enough to be able to say “all y’all” with any kind of authority, and to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I’ll ever get there).

In your own writing, do you favor a certain POV: first person, third person, close third, omniscient?  And as readers, do you have a preference?   And what, in your opinion, are some great multiple POV books?  (especially on the dark suspense side… )

Because I could use some help on this one, for sure.


Remain sitting at your table…

It seems to be a law of writers’ blogs that you must have an essay on that perennial question: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?  So I thought by way of introduction, I’d start with that one, since, frankly, it’s so easy.

Franz Kafka offered this advice to writers (I guess to writers – I can’t imagine who else he would have been talking to):

You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

I’m here to say that that Kafka really knew what he was talking about.

In one of my multiple, bicoastal lives I own a house in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in the South, an historical district with gorgeous old houses (huge wraparound porches, five-story high old growth trees, azaleas, hydrangeas, hyacinths – fireflies, for God’s sake) – some of which have been redone to perfection, others (fewer and fewer) of which are, well – crack houses. Not to put too fine a point on it.

It makes for some interesting traffic on the streets, let me tell you.

My house is between two rental houses – grand old places that were split up some time ago into various small and in several cases, disreputable, apartments. In the house on the right are student types and young recent graduates. In the house on the left are crazy people and criminals.

And all this makes for some interesting viewing, during those long, long days when I’m staring blankly out of whichever window I happen to be working in front of.

There’s a very, very cute twenty-something in the student house. Very cute. Very smart. Long hair. Great, probing eyes. Sits on the porch alone and smokes and thinks. Dead end job. Did I mention cute? And who lives with his very sweet, very straight girlfriend. And I’m very nicely taken care of myself, thank you very much. I’m just saying.

In the crazy house, there is a crazy girl. Young woman. One or the other. You must use words like "spitfire" and "floozy" and "lolls" and "prowls" to describe her. She throws anything within reach when she’s angry, which is often. She screams. She sobs. She constantly locks herself out of the house and asks the nearest passing man to boost her up to the second story window so she can get back in. She is often in just a – very short -bathrobe when she does this.  And I do mean – just the bathrobe.   I don’t actually think she works, but if she did work, she’d be a "dancer". You know. Not quite exactly the way I’m a dancer. Sex just rolls off her in waves. I’d sleep with her. Well, I wouldn’t really, but I certainly don’t have the slightest trouble imagining it.

Oh yeah, and she’s married. Young husband. Clueless.

Now, this whole situation is ripe. It’s practically oozing. There will be all kinds of sex with the wrong people. There will be scheming, and cross-scheming. Someone will die. Horribly. There will be betrayals and reversals that will make your head spin.

And you know, I don’t have even the vaguest idea what part of it I’ll end up writing. The whole Hitchcockian thing? Or just one character who shows up fully formed in some other story when I least expect it? I have no idea. I just know it’s growing.

I remain sitting quietly at my table, and wait for the world to roll at my feet.

So, brand new Murderati pals – what’s rolled at YOUR feet lately?

(And it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway – I am just so honored and thrilled to be here!  XX)