Sunday, March 29, 2015

Revised Story Elements Checklist

Welcome to the SAW writers who took my workshop this weekend! I hope you all had as good a time as I did. You're a fun group.

You can find the Story Structure articles here, and pick up where we left off. I've also added a Q & A page to the blog to make it easier for people to ask questions (and for me to find the questions you ask!). And those who are interested in indie publishing can find posts on that indexed here. Other topics are also linked at the top of this page.

And just a quick note to everyone, new and old, to let you know - I've revised the Story Elements Checklist for the new Story Structure textbook, and I'm sending it out to my Story Structure Extras mailing list this week. If you haven't signed up for this free subscription list, you can do it here:


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(This is a new list and is NOT the same as receiving the blog by email or RSS feed. You must opt in with your email address to receive Story Structure Extras.)

Happy Spring!

          - Alex

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Artist's Way

You haven’t heard much from me for a while. I’ve been insanely busy - emphasis on “insane” - with all the preparation and marketing involved with the Huntress series, relaunching Huntress Moon and Blood Moon and launching Cold Moon with Thomas & Mercer in a rollout over just five months.

But that’s not all there’s been to it. The last part of last year was really hard, in a professional sense.

The delays in the release of Cold Moon made me anxious and depressed. At the same time that I was grappling with that, I committed myself to a complete overhaul of Screenwriting Tricks for Authors before taking it to print - and ended up doubling the material in the book. I’m thrilled with the result and I know you all will be, too, but it took time away from my fiction writing and stretched me more thin than is really healthy for me, or anyone for that matter.

Also, I’m writing Book 4 in the Huntress series and I seem to be writing three different books at once, which, while it is probably exactly the process I need to be going through, is also hugely confusing.

And oh yeah – I started Book 1 of a new series set in Scotland and in LA.

All of this while I have been adapting to life in a new country. That marginally speaks English, but not always. Especially after a few pints.

Are we starting to get what’s wrong with this picture?

It was time to stop the madness and reassess.

The good news is, I didn’t have a complete nervous breakdown.

The better news is, I knew how to heal myself.

Some of you may be familiar with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Waya classic on creativity, spirituality, and recovery. It’s a twelve-week program sort of based on twelve-step programs, but for artists and creativity.

The Artist’s Way is a huge commitment. You do Morning Pages every day (three mandatory pages of free form writing) and an Artist Date every week, plus numerous assignments on top of that. This is what I decided to do on top of everything else I was doing. Crazy, right?

But I knew I had to do something.

Workaholism is a big problem for me. Let's be blunt - I get a lot of rewards from it. Certainly it pays off in a career sense – it’s kind of the job description for a screenwriter and pretty much for an author, too, if you want to make a living at it. There’s another big payoff, too. When I’m insanely busy I don’t have to think about myself much. Or at all.

But you know…. that’s maybe not so great.

The Artist’s Way is designed by someone who has had all those issues and knows the score, including all your sneaky little tricks.

The first time I did the program, I didn’t make it all the way through the twelve weeks. I rarely did the Artist Date. I openly scoffed at and ignored most of the suggestions for fun stuff. And I certainly didn’t do some of the scary deeper work – like the week of reading deprivation. (Yes, that means an entire week of no reading. I know some of you out there just stopped breathing at the very thought).

But even not doing it full out, the breakthroughs that happened for me at the time I was working the program and in the year or two after I did it were extraordinary. I finished Huntress Moon, decided to e publish it instead of going for another traditional publishing deal, and did it to big success. I got back all of my backlist of traditionally published books and launched those books as e books. I wrote my YA thriller The Space Between, and wrote a romance version of Screenwriting Tricks for Authors. I started teaching a college film class, which I loved. And, oh yeah - I met this guy Craig Robertson…

This time through, the breakthroughs are already coming fast and furious. Sometimes I’m taking two weeks to do the work suggested for a week. Sometimes I’m skipping stuff. I put off the reading deprivation while I was doing copyedits, but I did it last week, a full week, and WOW. (I’ll write about that in a separate blog.).

I already feel so much more aligned and focused. I can’t wait to get started with my day in the morning. In the midst of some pretty dangerous burnout, I am healing.

It is an immense relief.

So a huge thank you to Julia Cameron, for saving my skin - and soul - again.

And for you all, some questions. Did you know about The Artist’s Way? (It’s not just for artists and writers. It’s for everyone. We’re all creative beings at our core.) Have you ever worked the program?

Or is there some other way you’ve found to take stock and heal yourself in times of burnout? I’d love to hear!

      - Alex

Some great giveaways are ending soon:

            1, First, this month, to celebrate the rollout of the Huntress/FBI series, Thomas & Mercer is giving away 50 audiobooks, a set of all three Huntress books signed by me, and a Kindle Voyage!  You can enter on my Contests page.  

            2. Homicides of March:  You can enter here for a chance to win 41 paperback thrillers, including Huntress Moon. Yes, 41!!!   

            3. And finally, if you’re not already on my mailing list, you can get a free e book by joining here.  


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Scottish Association of Writers - Story Structure workshop

I'm at the Scottish Association of Writers conference the weekend of March 26-28, as the keynote speaker and teaching a Screenwriting Tricks workshop.

Here are the questions I always ask workshop attendees to answer when I teach -  for those attending, or for anyone who wants to play along with the workshop at home! Hopefully all you blog regulars have done this already, but it's always good to do it for each new project:

The whole principle of what I teach is that we learn best from the storytellers and stories (in any medium) that have most inspired us, and that we as authors can learn a whole new dimension of storytelling by looking specifically at films that have inspired us and that are similar to what we're writing. So here are a few questions/exercises to get you thinking along those lines:

     1. Tell me what genre you're writing in.

     2. Make a list of ten movies and books - at least five movies - that you feel are similar in genre and structure to your work in progress or story idea (or if you don’t have a story idea yet, ten movies and books that you WISH you had written!)

     3. Write out the premise of your story. If you're unclear on what a premise sentence is, here's a practical explanation with examples.

     4. And it can't hurt to review the Three-Act Structure.  But we'll be going over all of this in class!

If you're new to this blog, you can take a browse through the Table of Contents.

And if this way of looking at story appeals to you, all the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT

If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE

Monday, March 09, 2015

New Story Structure Extras List: The Wizard of Oz

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Okay, okay! I'm getting a lot of impatient emails wanting to know the release date of the new Story Structure workbook (in e formats AND print).

It's done and it's coming, I swear. I'm just not sure of the exact release date yet because it's tricky slotting it in between the rollout of the Huntress series. So many books coming out this year! So the textbook may be out as soon as the end of this month, or I may have to wait until June to release it.

In the meantime, I'm implementing a subscription list for free Story Structure Extras This is a separate mailing list that will receive free mailings of extras like full movie breakdowns and advance copies of books.

If you'd like to start receiving extras like that, you can sign up here or on the popup form that should have come up for you when you clicked on this post. (Yes, I'm experimenting with lead pages, too, which will be the topic of another blog for those author/marketers out there!).

If you sign up for the list, you'll only get emails with free materials and news of my new book releases.  If you're already getting news of my new book releases, you won't get double emails. I hate spam as much or more than anyone. (If you do get a double email this month, please let me know and I'll get that resolved - this system is still in beta.)

This month's movie breakdown is The Wizard of Oz.

And if you're wondering why I don't just post the full breakdown here on the blog, well, a couple of things.

I've been troubled by the discovery that some people are using this blog and then posting in writing forums or in Amazon reviews things like "You don't need to buy the books, it's all on her blog. Just print it out."

Yes, seriously.

Now, first of all, the Screenwriting Tricks workbooks are written in an order, for a reason.  I've put a LOT of time into structuring the books to take reader/writers through a process that introduces concepts for maximum understanding. Yes, you can get the same information by trawling through this blog, but it's NOT the same as working through one or the other of the books in order.

Second, the workbooks are $3.99.  That's less than a latte at Starbucks. Printing out separate blogs is going to cost you at least ten times that in printer cartridges alone, not to mention the cost of the time it takes to do that. And I, the author, get nothing for it when you do that.

If you don't want to pay it, that's fine, that's why the information is all here on the blog. But when people are going out and telling other people NOT to buy the books because it's all free on the blog, I start to wonder why I'm blogging at all.

There's a serious mental disconnect going on if people who say they want to be authors are taking the information I'm giving them to help them do that - and then sabotaging my living that way.

Karma generally sorts out that kind of behavior. :) And my overwhelming experience with this blog is that you guys are honestly appreciative and generous in your feedback and support.  Not to mention that I learn as much from your comments and questions as you're learning from me.

But it's made me think a little about how to proceed.

I want to do more movie breakdowns - I'd really like to work up to doing one a month. But it's a grueling thing to do.  Every one of them means several weeks of work, on and off, that I don't really have time to do, since my core living is as a thriller writer.

So I'm experimenting, here, and for now the movie breakdowns I do are going to be for this new subscription list, so I know they're going out to people who have at least enough commitment to this blog to subscribe to it.

But I'll be re-posting part of the breakdown here so that people who want to discuss the movie can ask questions in the comments of that post.

As always, all feedback appreciated!

Hope you're enjoying your Spring!  I'm sure we'll get it in Scotland eventually….

-   Alex

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The indie publishing journey

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Thomas & Mercer and Amazon KDP both did a series of video interviews with me a couple of months ago.  In this first one I talk about how I started writing and why I moved from screenwriting to traditional publishing to indie publishing - and then partly back again! It's actually an amazing lot of information in a short piece; they did a brilliant job of sketching out the transitions of my writing journey and the reasons I switched media each time.

The shoots were done over two days by a couple of wonderful production teams, and included a ton of still photograph (you can see some shots below….)

Upcoming interviews will include pitches of all my books in 15 seconds or less, a piece on Dangerous Women that gets more thematic, and more individual interviews, all of which Amazon is giving me to use in my own promotion.

Traditionally published authors may have had to read that last bit twice.

I never had a traditional publisher do that level of promotional work for me. But that's the way Amazon thinks. It's smart business and shouldn't be so shocking, but in traditional publishing authors are usually left to do and pay for the bulk of promotion on their own.

Just something for the authors out there to consider when making those publishing decisions. Of course, the bottom line is that we have more choice of how we get our books to readers than ever before, and that's only good!

     - Alex

Photo credit: Israel David Groveman

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Women in Horror

This month is Women in Horror Month.  Don’t ask me how these things get decided!  But since February has Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras and Leap Day, and is also the shortest month of the year and the only month of the year that actually changes in number of days – and is closest to a true moon cycle! - I guess there’s some kind of psychic sense to it.

Actually I never remember it’s Women in Horror Month until I start getting Google Alerts because I’m showing up on the lists of female horror authors to read.

Obviously this is something I’m very grateful for, but it always surprises me these days, because I’m not writing horror any more – something I’m not really sure people in the horror community know, because that community tends to be sort of insular. Maybe all genres are sort of insular.

As a matter of fact, I had a very short tenure writing horror. My first two books, The Harrowing and The Price, are really the only books I’ve written that I could classify as horror. My third book, The Unseen, was really a mystery/suspense - with poltergeists. My fourth, Book of Shadows, was when I really started moving into crime, although there is a strong possibly supernatural element in that book as well.


I started moving away from horror as a genre because I didn’t feel comfortable being associated with a lot of the books in the genre. I was actually having this conversation quite recently with another one of the female authors who always gets on those lists this month. We had the exact same very strong feeling about it: the horror genre – in all media - has been brought to a very low, base level by torture porn and rape, with overwhelmingly female victims.

I find it disgusting and harmful and it doesn’t deserve to be listed with the true psychological horror of Jackson, Lovecraft, Shelley, DuMaurier, King, Poe – the great explorers of the dark side.

(I am often asked to blurb books and I find it surreal that I have had to start telling male writers up front: “I won’t read or review anything with rape scenes - unless you’re honestly exploring your own fear of male-on-male rape.”  Same goes for torture. There is somehow not even the basic awareness that scenes like that would bother me.)

There’s also a widely acknowledged bias in the industry against female horror authors (probably one of the reasons there’s a Women in Horror Month to begin with.) That bias didn’t ever affect me in a practical sense because I quickly moved into writing and publishing very dark thrillers rather than overt horror. Quite possibly being a female author in a male-dominated genre got me more attention for my first two novels than I might have gotten if I were writing straight mystery or crime, because so few women were writing full-length horror at the time. But that attention was probably cancelled out by the fact that horror is a lesser-read genre which doesn’t pay as well as the crime/thriller genre.

I love both genres. I went back and forth and crossed the two as a screenwriter, too. But I’m a full-time writer, so I’m not going to struggle against a genre that brutalizes women AND doesn’t pay as well as the thriller genre.  What possible sense would there be in that?

And practicality aside – I find the crime genre a better fit for my own themes as a writer. My writing is largely an exploration of good and evil, and nothing supernatural could possibly be more horrifying to me than the evil that people do.  And I mostly mean what MEN do: serial killing, rape, child molestation, torture, genocide, war crimes. These are largely male crimes – so why aren’t we being honest about that fact? How can we prevent and heal the ravages of those crimes without being honest about root causes?

Those are questions I’ve found I can explore more fully in a crime novel. I can use the examples of real crimes. I can hint at practical societal solutions.

But I also think that my tenure as a horror writer taught me how to bring that sense of true evil into my crime novels, and continues to help me provide a touch of the sensual thrill of the uncanny – that sensation I love in a good psychological horror tale. It was the right place to start, and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before I’ll be tempted back to the dark side again.

So readers – do you read in the horror genre as well as in crime, suspense, mystery and thrillers? Or does the genre give you pause, maybe for the same reasons I wrote about above?

And authors, have you dabbled in the dark side? Or, horror aside, have you made a genre switch for practical or thematic reasons?

     - Alex


For Women in Horror month, my boxed set Haunted is on sale - three complete scary novels for $5.99.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Top Ten Romantic Movies

by Alexandra Sokoloff

And no, That Movie is not one of them. Although it's hard to ignore it skulking around out there in the zeitgeist. Knowing a bit about that world, I can't help but ponder the statistic that 90 percent of people are actually sexually submissive - only 10 percent are naturally dominant. So who exactly is going to be doing all of the tying up, duct taping and handcuffing that is supposed to be happening all over the world this weekend?

Anyway, for Valentine's Day, I thought I'd do a romantic but useful post and talk about some filmic alternatives for your VDay movie bingeing pleasure.

As many of you know by now, the first assignment I lay out in my Screenwriting Tricks workbooks, and the first exercise I make any class or workshop I teach do right up front, is a Top Ten List of favorite movies.

Because, yes, I teach story structure, but what works for me structurally is not necessarily going to do it for you. My primary goal is to teach you how to do this for yourself.

If you take the time to list, study and analyze the books and films that have had the greatest impact on you personally, or that are structurally similar to the story you’re writing, or both, that’s when you really start to master your craft. Making the lists and analyzing those stories will help you brainstorm your own, unique versions of scenes and meta-structures that work in the stories on your master list; it will help you figure out how your particular story will work. And doing this analysis will embed story structure in your head so that constructing a story becomes a fun and natural process for you.

Making a genre list is particularly useful for brainstorming and analyzing the elements of a genre or sub genre that your reader or audience will be expecting in any book or film of that genre.

So in honor of the day, I'm going to do a favorite love story list.

• Four Weddings and a Funeral
• Lost in Translation
• Next Stop Wonderland
• Notorious
• Bridget Jones’ Diary  (the book more than the movie, for me)
• Notting Hill
• When Harry Met Sally
• Philadelphia Story
• Rebecca
• Bringing Up Baby
• Much Ado About Nothing
• Casablanca
• Sleepless in Seattle

(That’s a list of more than ten, just to demonstrate that the list is whatever you want it to be!)

So what can I learn about my own love story themes by looking at that list?

Four Weddings and a Funeral, Philadelphia Story, and Lost in Translation are probably my favorites of that list.

Four Weddings appeals to me on a very personal level because writer Richard Curtis, as is his wont, is not just exploring love relationships between two people, or several sets of two people, but also the group love dynamic of a posse of friends. In fact, in that movie, the group dynamic is one of the factors keeping the hero, Charlie (Hugh Grant) from settling down to marry — and has kept every single one of the others single, except for the one truly married couple in the group, the gay couple who can’t legally marry. (Wonderful, scathing truth there).

That group dynamic has always resonated deeply with me, and I imagine it struck a chord for a lot of people. Also, in terms of high concept, the film is great because most of us have experienced that totally exhausting year that every single person you know gets married and your entire social calendar revolves around weddings. I certainly could relate to Hugh Grant groaning and burying his head under a pillow as yet another embossed linen envelope arrived in the mail.

But the real beauty of Four Weddings is the underlying theme that there is something magical about a wedding that opens the door to love, not just for the couple involved, but potentially for everyone who attends. The structure of the film is a round-robin, where at each wedding at least two people find the loves of their lives, and we see one of those weddings next, or the preparation for a wedding, or at least the deepening of the relationship with a promise of marriage. This is something I think most of us would like to believe about weddings: that there is an encompassing magic there, a kairos, that invites something life-changing. That story truly delivered on that theme.

When Harry Met Sally is an enduring romantic comedy not just because of the great chemistry between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan and the charming documentary clips of elderly couples talking about how they met and fell in love, but because it explores a strong theme: Can a man and woman ever really be friends? And we experience the great treat of watching Billy and Meg first becoming friends and then  falling in love.

Next Stop Wonderland and Sleepless in Seattle are examples of the theme of the soul mate — that there is someone out there who is destined for you, and that the Universe will guide you to that person. Next Stop Wonderland shows two people whose paths cross over and over again, with all kinds of attendant signs that these two people are supposed to be together — but they don’t meet until the last few seconds of the movie. Sleepless in Seattle explores the same kind of fatedness, and similarly keeps the hero and heroine apart until the end of the movie. I admit, this kind of thing just turns me inside out. I would love to believe that there is one person who is all that, and that all of life is conspiring to help you find that person.

Lost in Translation is a bittersweet variation on the soul mate theme: Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are two married people (married to other people!) in spiritual crisis who meet each other in a posh hotel in Japan. They are drawn to each other despite their marriages and the big age difference between them, and we feel a simultaneous HOPE and FEAR that they will get together. We want it at the same time we sense it’s wrong. But the story is really about — to me — the concept that we may have lived multiple past lives, with multiple lovers, and sometimes in the midst of a crisis, one of those soul mates will show up to guide you through the dark woods … but not necessarily stay with you. In the Final Battle (the film’s climax), Bill does not sleep with Scarlett, and they part ways, but their lives have been transformed by each other nonetheless.

Notting Hill is an interesting story because there’s no one person who’s the antagonist (even though Alec Baldwin does a charming turn as the rival, the movie star boyfriend). The real obstacle to Hugh Grant’s and Julia Roberts’ relationship is her fame, and each sequence explores a different aspect of that celebrity and how it keeps the couple apart.

Philadelphia Story has a very sophisticated underlying premise: Cary Grant knows that Katharine Hepburn will never be able to love him fully until she steps off her pedestal and has a roll in the mud. It’s only after she abandons herself and sleeps with Jimmy Stewart (oh, come on, you know they did!), that she is fully human to love Cary.

Try it with your own list!

Every time I teach a story structure class it’s always fascinating for me to hear people’s lists, one after another, because it gives me such an insight into the particular uniqueness of the stories each of those writers is working toward telling. The list tells you who you are as a writer. What you are really listing are your secret thematic preferences. You can learn volumes from these lists if you are willing to go deep.

I really urge you to create your list, and break those stories down to see why they have such an impact on you — because that's the kind of impact that you want to have on your readers.  Why not learn fron your favorite storytellers how to do it?

So of course, what I want today is love stories! What are yours? What romantic themes particularly resonate with you?

Happy Valentine's Day!

      - Alex


The writing workbooks based on this blog, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are available for just $3.99 and $2.99.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT

If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


Sign up for my Story Structure mailing list to receive movie breakdowns, story structure articles, and other bonus materials.

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