Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Book of Shadows FREE this week (Happy Beltane!)

by Alexandra Sokoloff

May 1 is the pagan holiday of Beltane, for fire, fertility and the abundance of spring. You all know how I love those witchy celebrations, so I've made my spooky thriller Book of Shadows free in the US this week! 

Grab it and add Audie and Voice Arts Award winner RC Bray's narration 

"A wonderfully dark thriller with amazing "Is-it-isn't-it?"suspense all the way to the end. Highly recommended." - Lee Child

"Fast-paced with strong characterizations, fans will enjoy this superb thriller, as Adam and the audience wonder if The Unseen could be the killer." - Publisher's Weekly

Book of Shadows is about a cynical Boston cop who reluctantly teams up with a mysterious Salem witch to solve what looks like a Satanic murder. 
It’s fascinating to me how when you write a book, everyone always assumes it’s about you. Few people get that sometimes, if not most times, when you write a book it’s about getting OUT of you. Just like reading is, right?

So naturally everyone who reads it assumes that I’m a witch (that’s with a "w"). Oh, the interviewers don’t come right out and say it, but you know that’s what they’re asking.

Well, I’m not. Really. Not really. No more than any woman is a witch.
But I can’t deny that writing Book of Shadows was a really excellent opportunity for me to indulge some of my witchier nature. I wanted to dive right in and explore some of those things that make some men – and a lot of women – uncomfortable with feminine power, and feminine energy, and feminine sexuality, and feminine deity.

I was working up to this book for quite a while. I’ve been around practicing witches most of my life. That’s what happens when you grow up in California, especially Berkeley. Actually the Berkeley part pretty much explains why I write anything supernatural to begin with, but that’s another post. Those of you who have visited Berkeley know that Telegraph Avenue, the famous drag that ends at the Berkeley campus, is a gauntlet of clothing and craft vendors, artists, and fortunetellers, forever fixed in the sixties. Well, look a little closer, and you’ll see just how many pagans, Wiccans, and witches there actually are.

I’ve walked that gauntlet thousands of times in my life. It does something to your psyche, I’m telling you.

There was also the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, where I spent many summer days in my interestingly misspent youth. Renaissance Faires are teeming with witches (check out the Fortune Tellers’ Grove next time if you don’t believe me).

So even though I don’t actually practice, not in an organized covenish kind of way, I’ve been to a ceremony or two, and you could say I’ve been researching this book for quite some time. In fact, I think I’ve known I was going to write this book ever since I first saw a "Calling of The Corners," a Craft ceremony which is one of the ritual scenes I depict in "Book of Shadows." It’s one of the most extraordinary spiritual experiences I've ever had -- such elemental, feminine power.
And in everyday life, there some things that are just useful to know about the Craft.
I’m not much one for spells, I’m more of a meditator. But when I had to kick my evil tenants out of my rental house? A cleaning service was just not enough. You better believe that the second the locksmith was done changing the locks, I was down at the witch supply store, buying black and white candles (for protection and cleansing), and sage (smudge it for purification). I opened every window and swept the whole house widdershins (to the left, to dismiss) with a new broom dipped in salt and rosemary to dispel all lingering energy. Ritual works, and it doesn’t really matter what accoutrements you use; it’s really about the intention: in this case to cleanse, heal, and start over fresh.

Another concept of the Craft that I’ve always found particularly useful is Maiden, Mother, Crone. Those are the three aspects of the Goddess, and also the three phases of the moon, corresponding colors white, red and black. They represent the three cycles of a woman’s life – youth, womanhood and age – but women also pass through all three aspects every month when they’re menstruating, and knowing that has saved my life (and the lives of many of those around me) many a time.

The time right after your period is Maiden: you have a rush of estrogen, so you’re glowing, you’ve just dropped all that water weight, you have a ton of energy, and you’re – well, up for it. And men can sense it. Best time to snag a partner, although your choices might not be exactly the best in this phase of the cycle.

The Mother (also called Queen) phase of the month is around ovulation. You’re powerful, grounded, and can get a lot done, especially creatively, because of the pregnancy connotations. It’s a sexy time in a different way than Maiden, because there’s the extra knowledge 
that yes, you really can get pregnant right now.

The Crone phase is raging PMS and the "death" that a period often feels like. Wise people know to avoid you at this time unless they really want a faceful of truth, and I try not to schedule meetings, especially with men, when I’m in this phase. Best for me to be solitary and contemplative. And contain the damage.
But the things that come out of your mouth during this phase are the deep truth, even if they’re not pleasant, and if you remember to breathe, put the knife down, and pay attention to what you’re feeling and saying, you can learn a lot about your life and what you really need to be doing. Also your dreams will tend to be the most powerful, vivid, and significant in this phase. I know mine are.

I appreciate the earth/nature centeredness of the Craft. I like to be aware of whether the moon is waxing or waning, and focus on bringing things into my life during the waxing, and letting go of things (or people!) in the waning. And I like knowing that there is extra power and magic at the Solstices and Equinoxes; that knowledge makes me stop at least four times a year to consider what I really want to manifest in my life.

(Obviously I used all of that Moon knowledge and more in the Huntress Moon series, too…)

Let’s face it: I also like the clothes. With my hair, I’ll never be able to pull off the tailored look. I love lace and fishnets and velvet and sparkles and corsets and big jewelry. I love the candles and the scents and that every day has a color (today is white, if you’re wondering).
And there is another aspect of the Craft that has been truly important to me, spiritually. It’s about balance. I have never, ever bought the idea that God is male. It runs contrary to my entire experience of reality. I love you guys, really I do, but you’re only half the equation. I can’t see how an ultimate power could be anything but BOTH male and female. So the notion of a Goddess, in all Her forms, to me, completes the equation.

And a Supreme Being who likes velvet and fishnets? Even better.

So how about you? What’s your take on witches? Are you familiar with the way witchcraft is actually practiced, or is that whole world completely mysterious to you? Or do you do the odd spell or two yourself?

-- Alexandra Sokoloff

Book of Shadows

Homicide detective Adam Garrett is already a rising star in the Boston police department when he and his cynical partner, Carl Landauer, catch a horrifying case that could make their careers: the ritualistic murder of a wealthy college girl that appears to have Satanic elements.

The partners make a quick arrest when all evidence points to another student, a troubled musician in a Goth band who was either dating or stalking the murdered girl. But Garrett's case is turned upside down when beautiful, mysterious Tanith Cabarrus, a practicing witch from nearby Salem, walks into the homicide bureau and insists that the real perpetrator is still at large. Tanith claims to have had psychic visions that the killer has ritually sacrificed other teenagers in his attempts to summon a powerful, ancient demon.

All Garrett's beliefs about the nature of reality will be tested as he is forced to team up with a woman he is fiercely attracted to but cannot trust, in a race to uncover a psychotic killer before he strikes again.


"Sokoloff successfully melds a classic murder-mystery/whodunit with supernatural occult undertones." - Library Journal

"Compelling, frightening and exceptionally well-written, Book of Shadows is destined to become another hit for acclaimed horror and suspense writer Sokoloff. The incredibly tense plot and mysterious characters will keep readers up late at night, jumping at every sound, and turning the pages until they've devoured the book." - Romantic Times Book Reviews

"Fast-paced with strong characterizations, fans will enjoy this superb thriller, as Adam and the audience wonder if The Unseen could be the killer." - Publisher's Weekly

"A wonderfully dark thriller with amazing is-it-isn't-it suspense all the way to the end. Highly recommended." - Lee Child

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

What is a mentor?

My mentor died last week.

It was not unexpected. In fact, it was one of those long goodbyes. But the loss cuts deep. There are some people who, no matter how much water under the bridge, will always have that tidal effect.
Shireen Strooker

I use water imagery for a reason, but what’s more immediately appropriate is – she was and is a star. The writer/director/producer/actor of hundreds of plays in the Netherlands, Europe and the US, some with the radical theater company Het Werkteater, many after that with her own company and others.

I was in my last year at Berkeley, and two of my actor/director friends, Karl Hamman and Andy Myler, had gotten a grant to bring Shireen over from the Netherlands to teach a company acting class, culminating in a play. The demand was so high that two classes were formed. We were theater students. Ridiculously young, impressionable, ambitious, pretentious. It was ages ago, now. Many of us are best friends to this day. Those of us still in theater and film trace our inspiration back to that class. No one who took it was not transformed in some way.

I’ve always loved that Kafka quote: “A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”

Shireen was an ice-axe.

She was brutal.

Like many great artists, she didn’t have the time or the patience to be encouraging or supportive. She didn’t sugarcoat anything. She went straight for the jugular.

The very first day she walked into our company class, the very first improvisation she had us do, she cast me as a child molester.

I’ve written before that one of the defining and traumatizing moments of my life was being approached at nine years old by a sexual predator who tried to grab me off the street.

Did she know this about me? Of course not. We’d never met, and it wasn’t something I could articulate at the time. That took a lot of therapy, later.

But I did the scene. You didn’t say no to Shireen.

After the improvisation, which I don’t remember much about except that it didn’t go well, she yelled at me for facing upstage for most of the scene “So we couldn’t see your ugliness.”
It became a theme between us. I’m not sure if that was a theme of hers in general or just what she was determined to bring out in me, particularly. But I heard it over and over from her. “Where’s the dirt?!” “Show me your ugliness!”

Or this gem: “You sit there like a giant spider in your web, always watching everyone.” I was twenty years old. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear about myself.

I hadn’t grasped the concept of Beauty and Truth.

Shireen demanded Truth.

Would she finally have been satisfied with the dirt in the Huntress series? Or am I still not being quite ugly enough? I’m getting enough hate mail these days from people who are disturbed by my last book. But still, I wonder.

I do know that however far I’ve gone in the Huntress series, she wouldn’t think it was far enough. For her, that was the whole point of theater, of play-making. To cross every line and shatter every barrier.

And to that effect, she wanted her players raw.

I don’t know if it was a deliberate strategy or an unconscious one: to break actors so that they would do ANYTHING you told them to do on command. Much like the military.

I teach, on occasion, and some of my students see me as a mentor. I ask myself sometimes if I am being too easy. If I wouldn’t do better for promising students by being more cruel. Being easy is the easy way out. Cruelty is no way to raise children - but maybe it’s the way to shape a professional artist.

It’s definitely what she did. She said horrible things to us. Horrible because we believed in her so absolutely. We wanted so desperately to please her. And the lessons weren’t all brutal, though they were always shattering.

One priceless lesson I learned from her is synchronicity. That when you start a play (a book, a film, a dance piece) – EVERYTHING that happens is relevant and belongs in the play. I heard her say hundreds of times, “But we MUST have THAT in the play!” And so it was.
"Dare to be bad" was another concept. When you think about it, what's the worst that can happen on stage, or on the page? You can suck. Furthermore, you're going to suck. Guaranteed. Sometimes you just suck. But once you get over your fear of sucking? That fearlessness translates into a confidence that takes you places you were always afraid to go, before. And once you've made a bad choice, you've eliminated something that doesn't work and are one step closer to finding something that does work.

She taught me not to care about what anyone else thought. She was loathed and mocked by the mostly male and casually, devastatingly sexist professors of the Department of Dramatic Art. It was abundantly clear that they were terrified of this feminine force. It made us love her more.

Everyone else around her was profoundly influenced.

My friends Jess Winfield and Reed Martin – Jess, author/screenwriter, tv and theater producer, one of the creators of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Reed, who became part of the later RSC company and went on to co-write, produce and star in numerous other RSC shows. Phil Abrams, an actor all of you know from television, whether or not you know his name. Nina Ruscio, my brilliant production designer friend (currently designing Shameless and Animal Planet), who taught me one of the most career-making lessons in visual storytelling that day when I tagged along with her into the depths of Zellerbach Hall, to the prop warehouse, to create the look of our play Ondine. Stan Lai, now the most famous theater writer/director/producer in Taiwan.

We were a cult, really.

Shireen and I became very close that year, which was in a way unlikely.

Our company class was rehearsing an improvisational adaptation of Jean Giraudoux’s Ondine.

I was quite possibly the worst actor in the class. I just never cared as much about what I was doing in my own role as I did about the big picture. I’d wisely given up acting completely for writing the year before, and was only reluctantly persuaded into the ensemble by Andy and Karl (for which I owe them more than I will ever be able to repay).

But Shireen needed an assistant (actually she needed as many as she could get) and I knew I needed to hear – or observe - WHY she was doing what she did.

I didn’t get praise from her. I got assignments. But for Shireen to turn to me and say – “You will write this for us to do tomorrow” was better than praise. It was a specific acknowledgement of what I could do.

And the lessons went on and on.

Including one I teach in all my own workshops: The Dark Moment. All is Lost. The Dark Night of the Soul. In other words, you must lose everything before it all comes together.

And in almost all mentor narratives, in Act II:2, the mentor goes away.

Which is what Shireen did, a few weeks before Ondine opened. She had another play on in Amsterdam that she had to get back to. But we all threw ourselves into rehearsing ourselves.

The night she came back and saw our run-through, she ripped into us as I’ve never been ripped into before or since. She ranted at us for what seemed like an eternity, saying we’d unraveled all the work she’d done with us. She told us we’d have to cancel the performance.

I’ll never be sure if that was what she really thought or if it was another way of getting what she wanted from us.

Because in effect, she terrified us into working 24/7 for the last week before the show. (I’m remembering now that for the first and only time in my college career I told one of my drama professors I’d have to turn my final paper in late because of rehearsal. This highly mediocre professor was one of Shireen’s detractors and told me that if I didn’t get the paper in on time I’d fail the class. I was pretty much a straight-A student, Phi Beta Kappa, and I’d seen him give extensions for performance to any number of his students - it was a theater department, after all. He refused. I told him to fail me. It didn’t occur to me to take the issue higher – I simply didn’t care. I don’t think he actually failed me, but I do have those dreams, you know… that you realize you never actually graduated from college….)

We lived in that theater for that week. We slept there, some nights.

And the show was – beautiful.

Shireen's 210 company class in Ondine

For all Shireen’s talk about ugliness (maybe only with me), Ondine was a shimmeringly romantic fairy tale. There were moments so poetic I heard audience members gasp aloud. There are whole scenes from that show I will remember in entirety for the rest of my life.

My favorite moment was neither artistic nor poetic. Among other roles I played the Queen, and there was a royal court scene that the whole cast could never, ever get through without collapsing into hysterical laughter. A lot of this was because of the King, Reed  (he of the Reduced Shakespeare Company), a brilliant comedian who every rehearsal went out of his way to find new ways to make the rest of us break.

But of course you always somehow pull it together for opening night, and we did several  performances without a hitch. And then - one night when King Reed stood in all pomp and circumstance from his throne, one of the pearls from his ermine robe caught on the mesh train of my gown. And as he started walking downstage, both our robes rose, grandly enormous, filling the stage like the wings of giant swans.

Well, the courtiers almost lost it. The audience totally lost it. But we were professionals, or aspiring, anyway, and the courtiers got hold of themselves and somehow Reed and I did a little shimmy and two-step to get unhooked, shooting each other marital looks of annoyance, and we resumed the scene. 

And it happened again. Same pearl, same mesh, same swan wings. 

It was pandemonium. We could not stop laughing. Literally. Could. Not. Stop. I know from this moment what it means to be rolling on the floor laughing, because half of the actors on stage were, literally. I was doubled over on my throne, laughing my guts out. Reed was collapsed in my lap. The audience was shrieking. We could hear Shireen out in the house just wailing with laughter. It went on for minutes, which on stage is eternity.

I don't know how we finally pulled ourselves together, but somehow we did. And after the show I have never had so many people thank me for the best laugh of their lives.

And Shireen told us backstage, “That is the BEST gift you could have given me.” It was the most pleased I ever saw her.

That moment was something so much more than theater. It taught me that precision is nothing, compared to the truth of a moment.

I can only remember one spoken compliment I ever got from her. Not a compliment, really – a validation.

It was when I sold my first screenplay, for an enormous amount of money to me, and enough fanfare that I, a complete Hollywood outsider (and a woman, one-fourth as likely as a man to get paid for it) suddenly had a screenwriting career.

I visited Shireen that winter in Amsterdam and she said to me, “I knew you had this in you. From the first day, the moment I saw you, this was all there.”

Was that true? I wonder. It’s so easy to say in retrospect. But I like to think that she saw that in all of us.

Because we do all have that in us. I will always believe that.

But some of us are lucky enough find a Shireen to hack it out of us.

With an ice axe.

-       Alex

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Camp Nanowrimo, anyone? Answer these 3 questions first!

Who’s doing Camp Nanowrimo?

I’m not being official about it, but the lure is too great to resist. If I do 1000 words a day for the month of April, I should have a rough first draft of the sixth (and last!) book in my Huntress series by May 1.

Well, who could pass that up? And it’s totally doable.

I bet some of you are doing Camp. I know some of you are having a resentful wave of panic at the very thought, possibly because you still haven’t even started your freaking taxes yet, and what sadist from hell ever thought APRIL was a good month for this anyway?

Oh, believe me. I know.

Still. You don’t HAVE to complete a draft (which I would contend is not all that possible in a month, anyway). You don’t HAVE to write 1000 words a day. How about starting with 15 minutes a day and see where that goes?

And you could start today by not writing a word, but simply answering, or starting to ponder these essential questions about your story:

1.     What does your main character WANT?
2.     What is her or his PLAN to get it?
3.     Who or what is standing in her way?

Most people leave out the most essential element of all: #2: THE PLAN.

So if you are not familiar with this concept of THE PLAN, we’ll talk about it this week!

Meanwhile, have a great holiday weekend, whatever you’re celebrating.

-       Alex


Want more? Get full story structure breakdowns of ten movies in each of my workbooks.


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Saturday, March 24, 2018

Stealing Hollywood - Character Introductions

There are so many tricks that authors can take from filmmaking to help with character.

Today’s example is the CHARACTER INTRODUCTION.

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I’ve been breaking down HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE for the online class I’m teaching and that movie is superb for this character technique. Every major character has a fantastic character introduction.

Character introductions are painstakingly developed by screenwriters because the making of a movie (at least in the past) almost always hinges on attachments – that is, attracting a star big enough to “open” the movie – that is, bring in enough box office on the opening weekend to earn back production costs.

When you have an actor like that, the studio will finance the movie.

(Okay, now we could go into the fact that lately studios are less and less willing to rely on stars to open movies and why, but this isn’t an article on film financing, it’s an article on character).

And since the character introduction is the first thing an actor will read in the script, and may be the one thing that makes him or her decide to keep reading, that character introduction may be your one shot at the actor who will make your film or consign it to that grim warehouse (one of many grim warehouses) where scripts with no attachments end up.

Actors don’t always read the whole script. I am absolutely sure that all your favorite actors do. And there are actors who convince great directors to sign onto scripts that they love. There are actors who love a script so much that they produce it themselves, without even taking a role in it, to get it made.

Still, and I know you may find this hard to believe - some actors only flip through the script reading all their own lines, and make the determination of whether or not they will play a part from that.

And so no matter how brilliant the rest of your script is, an irresistible character introduction may be your one shot at getting an actor who can get your movie made.

But what does all this have to do with writing novels, you ask?

Well, what I’m saying is that even as a novelist, it doesn’t hurt to think of character in terms of casting. I know some of you design characters (in novels as well as scripts) with actors in mind. I certainly do. You may start writing a scene imagining a certain actor playing the role of the character you have in mind, and use that actor’s voice. I do this, not all the time, but fairly often. I can feel myself writing for an actor, and imagining an actor saying the lines – but then ALWAYS, at a certain point, the character just takes over. Everything I do with character until that point is just treading water until the REAL character shows up.

Then I forget all about actors and creating and designing - I’m really just following the character around taking dictation.

But – until that point, imagining an actor, and writing for that actor, can be a real help in attracting that mysterious being called character.

(I would be worried about sounding completely psychotic at this point except that I’m talking to a bunch of writers and I KNOW YOU KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT.)

So, if you’re willing to buy into this metaphor I’m working on, that characters are much like actors, and you have to design parts that will attract them to your story and convince them to take on the role…

A really good way to do this is to create an irresistible CHARACTER INTRODUCTION.

Let’s take a look at some great ones.

- Rita Hayworth throwing back her hair in GILDA.

- Dustin Hoffman on stage playing a tomato in TOOTSIE (and then the equally classic introduction of “Dorothy”, struggling to walk down a crowded NY street in high heels and power suit.)

Hoffman as a tomato tells us everything about his character, both his desires and problems: we see the passion he has for acting, the fact that he’s not exactly living up to his potential, and how extremely intractable he has, basically unemployable. It’s also a sly little joke that he’s playing a “tomato” – a derogatory word for a woman.

- Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. I want a BIG one.” And freeze frame on that handspan… fabulous, funny, sexy introduction. (That big, huh? Mmm.)

This intro also tells us something about George Bailey’s outer DESIRE line – he wants to do big things, build big things, everything big. In fact, the story will be about how all the LITTLE things George does in his life will add up to something more than simply big, but truly enormous.

- Mary Poppins floating down from the sky holding on to that umbrella.

- Katharine Hepburn in PHILADELPHIA STORY, throwing open the window shutters on a gorgeous day and exclaiming, “Good going, God!”

- And okay, let’s just look at the mother lode of brilliant character introductions:  HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE.

- Dumbledore: an elderly, medieval looking wizard regally walks down a modern street, using some flashlight-like device to kind of vacuum the lights from the streetlamps into this tool.

- MacGonegal: A cat on a porch meows at Dumbledore, then the shadow of the moving cat turns into the shadow of a witch in pointed hat, and MacGonegal walks regally into frame.

Hagrid: first appears as a glowing light in the sky, very conscious reference to Glinda’s magical appearance in the glowing bubble in THE WIZARD OF OZ (and Hagrid will be the fairy godmother to Harry). Then the Wizard of Oz reference has a humorous twist – Hagrid descends not in a shimmering bubble, but on a Harley.

But the introduction of Hagrid is more than humorous – it tells us a lot about the character. First, the debate that Dumbledore and MacGonegal have over whether Hagrid should have been trusted with the baby tells us a lot about this character we’re about to meet. And when we see Hagrid carrying the baby this hulking giant is as tender as a mother.

Harry Potter: we see him first as a baby in swaddling clothes, left on a doorstep (like every fairy tale changeling and also Moses in the bulrushes, the child who grows up to be the leader of his people), while the witch and the wizard talk about how important he’s going to be - then the scar on the baby’s forehead is match cut to the scar on 11-year old Harry’s forehead to pass time and introduce Harry again.

Again, note that this introduction of Harry tells us a lot about this character – in pure exposition and also by using the visual, archetypal references to Moses – and, let’s face it, the baby Jesus with the three kings (wizards and witch).

Olivander, the wand master: John Hurt slides into frame on a ladder, slyly glowing as only John Hurt can glow.

Nearly Headless Nick: pops his head right through the dinner table.

Of course, having actors like all of the above has more than a little to do with the power of those introductions – obviously we’re talking about screen royalty here.

But those introductions were also specifically designed to be worthy of those stars.

So add character introductions to your list of things to watch for when you look at movies and read books. Note the great ones. The more you become aware of how other storytellers handle this, the better you will be at writing them yourself, for your own characters.

You know the question by now. What are YOUR favorite examples of character introductions?

- Alex

 PS - I'm now microblogging on my Facebook page. Check out how Lee Child introduces Reacher in 61 HOURS!


Want more? Get full story structure breakdowns of ten movies in each of my workbooks.


                     Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns

                                            STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.


STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 


Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)


Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


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My Thriller Award-nominated Huntress/FBI Thrillers are ON SALE on Amazon UK.
 All five books 99p each. 

A haunted FBI agent is on the hunt for a female serial killer.
This time, the predators lose.