Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Sexual assault, fraternity culture, and judges - in Hunger Moon

Readers are writing in to me this week to comment on the eerie similarities between the plot of my last Huntress novel, Hunger Moon, and the sexual assault accusations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanagh.
That book focused on the rape culture in fraternities that teaches privileged white boys that they can sexually assault girls and young women with impunity, and speculated that the accused sexual predator in the White House might well try to appoint a frat boy sexual predator to the Supreme Court.
And here we are.
Here’s a scene from the book, in which Special Agents Roarke and Epps question a Santa Barbara attorney they suspect of organizing a nationwide rash of vandalism against fraternities.
It’s looking pretty relevant, if I do say so myself.
Please don’t forget to register to vote. And may actual justice prevail.
-       Alex

Andrea Janovy wore fingerless athletic gloves and navigated her hand-powered wheelchair expertly, taut shoulder muscles straining under her tank top. Her auburn hair was cropped close to her head, just a fuzz. 
The agents followed her up a ramp to a sleek, wide-open living space. She had gone to considerable expense to make the house wheelchair accessible. There were ramps everywhere, an elevator up to the second floor. Of course the open floor plan was to give her as much room as possible to negotiate in the chair.
 “I did go through all of this with your Agent Singh a few weeks ago,” she said over her shoulder, then spun the chair around to face a sofa, gestured for Roarke and Epps to sit. “As I told her, I don’t know who was using my ID to get into a Bay Area prison.”
  “What we’re really interested in is your expertise,” Roarke said.
            “Expertise in regard to?”
            Her gaze narrowed.
   Epps expanded on the question. “In many of the instances of vandalism last night, fraternities were specifically targeted for threats. We’d like any insight you can give us about why that would be.”
“In general, you mean.”
“In general, of course.”
She shrugged. “You asked for it.” She leaned forward in her chair. “If your goal is to dismantle the patriarchy, fraternities are a good place to start. That’s where all our best misogynists get trained. And of course, they’re bastions of white male privilege as well.” She looked straight at Epps as she said it. “Fraternities represent an almost cult-like white-cis-hetero-patriarchy  a closed chute that exists to isolate the sons of the privileged among their wealthy peers and keep them moving straight into the highest echelons of society. Fraternities are where the one percent systematically consolidate their wealth and learn how to keep the rest of society enslaved.”
            “Sororities are a chute into the upper echelons of society, too. The difference is sorority girls aren’t being groomed as power brokers. The Greek system propagates and normalizes female inferiority. Sexual assault is a routine part of Greek life and Greek culture. Bluntly, the Greek system is a hunting ground. We are breeding entitled racist misogynists in a petri dish of rape culture. These thugs go on to make laws and enforce laws that perpetuate rape culture.”
She looked Roarke in the eye, and then Epps. “It’s not accidental, lads. This is a finely-honed system of oppression. It’s taken thousands of years to build it. And it’s not going away without all of us using our skill sets to bring it down.”
Roarke took that in. “So your goal is to dismantle the patriarchy.”
She smiled grimly. “You bet your ass my goal is to dismantle the patriarchy. But obviously–” she gestured to her legs.  “I’m not going around scaling university clock towers to do that. I wanted to pick the biggest offender I could go after with my skill set. And that’s fraternities. I’m a fraternal plaintiff’s attorney.”
“Which means – you sue the frats? The universities?”
She grimaced. “That’s an uphill road. College administrators are incredibly reluctant to discipline Greek houses or to publicize the crimes of individual members. They’re much more likely to close ranks around them, block any outside investigation, because universities depend on rich Greek alumni. Also there are very powerful political lobbying groups aimed at protecting fraternities’ interests.” She paused. “So I go after the parents.”
Nothing she had said so far had surprised Roarke. That last did.
“I’ve recovered millions and millions of dollars from homeowners’ policies. That’s how many of the claims against boys who violate the strict policies are paid: from their parents’ homeowners’ insurance.”
Roarke and Epps stared at her, unnerved. “You don’t feel the slightest bit guilty about penalizing the parents?” Roarke asked.
Janovy turned cynical eyes on him. “Did you happen to read the letter the Stanford Rapist’s father wrote to the judge, pleading for leniency for his rapist son? Arguing that his precious boy shouldn’t be penalized for ‘twenty minutes of action?’”
Her loathing was palpable in the room.
“Yes, Agent Roarke. I go after the parents. It’s proved pointless to ask them to instill basic decency in their sons. They won’t lift a manicured finger to stop rapist attitudes, rape culture. So I go after them the only place it seems to hurt them. Their bank accounts. Enough high-profile lawsuits and they might just start getting the message.”
Roarke had to admit it made sense. But he was after something more specific.
“Have you had, or heard about, any complaints about the Kappa Alpha Tau house in particular?”
She went still for a fraction of a second, but Roarke caught it. Then she spoke. “Specifically K-Tau? Not that I know of. Why? Do you know of something?” 
Roarke felt a warning stab at her interest. “Just asking.” 
She regarded him, unsmiling.
Roarke veered quickly to his last question. “Just one more question, if we may.
I’m wondering about the timing of all this. This huge, coordinated action. Why now? It doesn’t seem to be a reaction to anything in particular.”
            She tilted her head. “You don’t see anything significant about the timing?”
            Roarke glanced at Epps. “What timing is that?”
            “We’ve been sitting here for fifteen minutes talking about fraternities. The demonstrations targeted fraternities specifically, if not exclusively. So the Taylor Morton rape trial? It’s going to verdict any day now. Down in San Diego.”
            Taylor Morton? Roarke scrambled to identify the name. She gave him a cold smile. “Can’t quite place it? Maybe because there are so many of these cases out there. Here’s your brief. The accused is a star runner. White, upper middle class, frat boy. The judge is a white middle-aged man, Princeton law school graduate. Oh, and by the way – a Kappa Alpha Tau alum.”
“Kappa Alpha Tau,” Roarke repeated. He and Epps stared at each other.  Coincidence? Or something more?
            “Put all that together – and do we realistically think Morton is going to get jail time?” Her voice shook. “Brock Turner. Austin Wilkerson. These guys are convicted rapists and we can’t get judges to sentence them. At a certain point, you have to start asking yourself how to actually solve the problem. Because a two percent conviction rate doesn’t even begin to count. How long until we have an equal number of female judges? How long before we make even the slightest dent in rape cases? Given the political nightmare we’re now living in, what hope in hell do we have of that happening now?”
            She paused for breath.
“So yeah. I’d kind of expect something to happen around that verdict and sentencing.”
Roarke turned that over in his head for a moment. “So all of this vandalism was, what – anticipatory outrage? Or are you saying that someone has gone to great lengths to set up some dominos to make them easy to knock over when the verdict comes in?”
            Janovy leaned forward. “You keep asking me what I think. What I think is that something’s going to blow. There’s just nothing left to lose anymore. The U.S. government has declared open war on women. Officially, these fuckers are going to try to take away every right we’ve ever fought for. Women are more angry than you can possibly imagine. All we need is one last straw. It could happen any second. And then there’s going to be rioting in the streets. There’s going to be bloodshed.” 
            She sat back. “And that trial? People are watching it. You know why? That misogynistic joke of a judge is on the predator-in-chief’s short list for the Supreme Court.”

Hunger Moon is the latest in the series, but The Huntress series is written to be read in order! Book 6, Shadow Moon, will be out in January.


                                                            ---- SPOILERS ----

In Hunger Moon, Roarke and his FBI team are forced to confront the new political reality when they are pressured to investigate a series of mysterious threats vowing death to college rapists... while deep in the Arizona wilderness, mass killer Cara Lindstrom is fighting a life-and-death battle of her own.

For thousands of years, women have been prey.

No more. 


Thursday, July 19, 2018

Notes and links for #RWA18

Thank you all for a fantastic mile-high workshop yesterday! As promised, here are some links to buy Stealing Hollywood at the convention discount, to get the full story breakdown of The Hunger Games and to get other free story breakdowns as I do them.

Buy Stealing Hollywood print workbook:

                    e book     

                    print workbook   (apply convention code at checkout)

                    Writing Love  e book:

I’m currently breaking down the structure and story elements of the first The Hunger Games on my blog, if you’d like to drop in and follow along:

Get on my free Story Structure Extras list to get the full breakdown when I'm done!

        - Alex

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Hunger Games: Sequence Two Breakdown (Gathering the Team, Mentor, Into the Special World)

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I'm finding my breakdown of The Hunger Games scarily relevant in this week of forcibly taking children from their parents and incarcerating them to use as pawns in a chess match of authoritarian control. And other dire consequences of giving power to insane game show hosts.

If you missed Sequence One, here it is.

And on to Sequence Two, which begins 20 minutes in.


In a sequence that begins with very strong echoes of the first Harry Potter book/movie, Katniss and Peeta journey to the Capitol (sic) by high-speed train. 

Katniss and Peeta are escorted by armed guards to the train, and we get another image that echoes the Holocaust: they first enter into just a metal box/boxcar – an ominous, fear-filled moment. That entry then opens up into a luxuriously appointed lounge car. Stepping into this lounge is the first INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD moment: we see Katniss and Peeta reacting the shocking luxury of the car, the gleaming metal and saturated colors, the sumptuous food (however, we can still see the stark metallic walls; the luxury is just set dressing for the cattle car that train is.).

This visceral moment is especially effective because of the deliberate visual CONTRAST to the ORDINARY WORLD, the bare-bones, subsistence-level poverty of District 12 that we saw in Sequence 1. Remember, drama loves contrast, and visual contrast is a great technique for engaging the interest of your reader or audience.

Just as in the first Harry Potter, this train scene GATHERS THE TEAM: Haymitch, the MENTOR, Peeta, the ALLY, and the ever-unhelpful magenta nightmare, Effie, who will nonetheless be able to help with endorsements.

And Peeta vocalizes the next element of the PLAN: he and Katniss need to get as much information out of their designated MENTOR as they can. After all, he did once win the Games.

MEETING THE MENTOR: One of the many, many things this story does well is develop a unique and memorable mentor character, that often-crucial character archetype - so-called for the original mentor, named Mentor, in the Odyssey.

Haymitch is a past (distant past) winner of the games who is supposed to guide the two sacrifices—I mean Tributes—from his district to victory in the Games. But in this scene on the train, Haymitch is clearly hungover and goes straight for the alcohol on the bar. (In the book he’s even more pathetic: we meet him as he falls off a stage, stumbling drunk. In fact, he vomits all over himself on national TV. He has a reputation as a complete buffoon.)

Peeta makes a valiant try to get some helpful information out of Haymitch, but Haymitch responds violently and gives them mocking advice instead: “Accept the fact that you’re going to die and there’s nothing I can tell you to help.” Then he stalks off to drink alone in his room.

Not a great omen for his protégés, right? But doesn’t that up the SUSPENSE incredibly? How are Our Heroes Katniss and Peeta supposed to survive the Games with only this antagonistic loser to guide them?

[25:00] Peeta goes after Haymitch to try to reason with him, and Katniss goes to her own room, where she watches footage of an old Hunger Game being broadcast and analyzed by the commentators on TV (continuing the THEME of the Games being broadcast and analyzed as reality TV and the prescient condemnation of evil reality TV hosts). One tribute kills another to win the game, and we see Katniss’s INTERNAL CONFLICT: she is sickened by the idea of having to kill. This raises the question and FEAR: Can she kill to survive? And the important moral question: Do we actually want her to?

The next morning she leaves her room and finds the dining car, where Peeta is deep in conversation with Haymitch. Katniss has another brief flashback of the rainy day, Peeta feeding the pigs. He sees her shivering in the rain, and turns his back on her to go inside the house. Again, Peeta is being set up as a potential OPPONENT (which he literally is, because only one tribute will survive the Games). 

Haymitch taunts Katniss by telling her the most important skill in the arena is making people like you. This introduces another key point in the PLAN (and SETUP for PAYOFFS down the line): Katniss and Peeta must win endorsements in order to get emergency deliveries of food, equipment, medication during the games. Katniss finally gets Haymitch’s attention by flaring up at his dissolution, grabbing a cheese knife and plunging it into the table between his fingers. We see Haymitch is impressed.

This is the beginning of an important SUBPLOT: Haymitch realizes he might have a couple of survivors on his hands, and Katniss will learn at key points that she can actually rely on Haymitch’s sponsorship and guidance. They will develop an almost psychic bond, and Katniss comes to understand through her own growing success in the Games exactly what would have turned Haymitch into an alcoholic: she can see herself going down exactly the same road if she survives/wins (MENTOR AS MIRROR). In the end, Haymitch is the first one she will run to embrace, showing how deep the relationship has become.

Then we get another CROSSING THE THRESHOLD/INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD moment as the train enters of the Capitol – the contrast of city to village, hugeness to shacks, garish color to earth and natural tones.

And we see the aspect of celebrity, a running THEME in the story: citizens of the Capital are lined up to catch a glimpse of the tributes. Peeta shows his SPECIAL SKILL of evaluating a situation and working it to his advantage as he smiles and waves to the crowd, making them like him, and setting himself up as an OPPONENT to Katniss, who lacks social skills (her WEAKNESS, and SET UP of her CHARACTER ARC). Peeta encourages Katniss to join him, but Haymitch hands her back the knife and says, “Better keep this. He knows what he’s doing” – underlying the threat Peeta is to Katniss’s survival.

[28:00] There are more ESTABLISHING SHOTS of the Capital, emphasizing the decadence in fashion and people. The architecture and set design is Romanesque, harking back to the gladiator games and also the fall of a corrupt society.

Now we have a MAKEOVER SCENE (very common in the TRAINING SEQUENCE, especially in romance genres) in which along with the other tributes, Katniss is primped, coiffed, and beautified by a team of stylists. But the laboratory setting and the cold, clinical efficiency of the technicians make the obviously painful beautifying seem a bit more like assault than a trip to a day spa.

Finally Katniss is left lying on a table, alone in an exam room.

She meets her key stylist, Cinna, who will become another MENTOR and ALLY, perfectly played by the beautifully empathetic and Lenny Kravitz. There’s an otherworldly kindness here that makes Cinna a true fairy godmother. He immediately apologizes to her, that this his happening to her, and praises her bravery in volunteering to save her sister. We see Katniss soften for the first time as she realizes he means it.

Cinna is there to dress her for the opening ceremony, the Tribute Parade. It’s customary to dress tributes in costumes of their districts, but Cinna has something bigger in mind. He’s going to help her make an impression. (He repeats an important aspect of the PLAN: to stand out so she can get endorsements).

30:48 The CLIMAX OF SEQUENCE TWO is the Tribute Parade, with the chariot ride and the flaming costumes. Again, the Roman columns and decoration, and the chariots in which the tributes ride are visual echoes of the gladiator games. Also all of this is broadcast over huge screens with elaborate multi-camera shots, continuing two VISUAL AND THEMATIC IMAGE SYSTEMS. One emcee trills: “The importance of this event cannot be overstated!”, announcing the STAKES for the scene.

And this climax employs other climax-building techniques we saw in the climax of sequence one: a huge crowd gathered, an elaborate set, special costuming, a long preparation for the event, the spelling out of the stakes (Katniss must win over the crowd to get endorsements and improve her chances of winning).

We get brief glimpses of the other Tributes who will be Katniss’s OPPONENTS (and one ALLY, Rue).

And we meet a key ANTAGONIST, President Snow, in person as he is introduced at the ceremony. He watches the parade of chariots imperiously as the MCs babble excitedly. And then everyone sees the final chariot. Katniss’s and Peeta’s capes look like they’re on fire.

The emcees are thrilled with the spectacle. But Snow is disturbed by it, and by the crowd’s ecstatic reaction. He knows he’s got a problem on his hands. It’s always a powerful moment when the antagonist of a story recognizes the strength and implicit threat in the heroine (see The Silence of the Lambs for another great example.)

Again showing his media savvy, Peeta grabs Katniss’s hand and lifts it in triumph. When she tries to pull away, he says, “They’ll love it”, and she reluctantly goes along. And as they ride to the cheering of the crowd, Katniss looks up into a reflective banner (or maybe it’s a screen with a close-up on her face, I’m not sure) and sees herself as regal, surrounded by flame: a SET UP of who she is to become, and a great glimpse of her inner power.

The chariots come to a halt in a semicircle (and the fire of the capes goes off) as Snow gives his speech. Note that Katniss is carrying a red rose, which puts her in visual opposition to Snow, who is visually associated with white roses. Red roses vs. white is a historical reference to the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars in the 1400’s for control of the throne of England between the House of Lancaster – red roses – and the House of York – white roses. Also symbolically, fire opposes snow. Snow is filmed from high above, looking down on the tributes and the entire arena, magnifying his power.

In the tag to the scene, Effie is effusive about how they’re in the game, now. Katniss makes a barbed joke about Haymitch’s drunkenness and Haymitch is about to scathe her back, when he catches a glimpse of Cato, one of the professional tributes, who train their whole lives to win these Games. Cato’s arrogance and Aryan looks make him an obvious SECONDARY OPPONENT (and his Roman name aligns him with the Capitol and Snow). Instead of disparaging Katniss in public, Haymitch opts to take them up to their suite (CHARACTER ARC).

In her high-tech room (more luxury), Katniss uses a remote control to change the wall-sized screen to various views of locales. She stops on an immersive video of a forest, and we see her homesickness (but also are reminded that she is at her best in a forest). Then emotionally, she turns off the screen. [36:45]


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.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 13.99.

                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

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Friday, June 15, 2018

Sexual harassment at book festivals and conferences

Conference season is almost upon us, with Harrogate, Thrillerfest and Romance Writers of America National Conference next month, Bute Noir in August, Bloody Scotland and Bouchercon in September (please add other conferences!). You may be aware that there is a fierce debate going on in author circles and on festival boards over the need to have sexual harassment policies in place. 

The book world is a warm and intimate community, and it’s easy to feel safe at conferences because the vast majority of authors, readers, publishers, bloggers, etc. are genuinely wonderful people.

But there are a few predators who do routinely attend these conferences and who use their standing in the book world to harass and prey on vulnerable members of our community. 

Many festivals have no anti-harassment policy in place whatsoever, and no place for conference attendees to report predatory behavior. 

The boards are queasy about legal issues, obviously, but authors and readers are arguing that festival organizers also have a duty to provide as safe a space as possible to conference goers.

Several conferences have put anti-harassment policies in place: here are links if you’re interested in reading:

Authors and other book people who have been around for a while have another dilemma. We KNOW who some of these habitual predators are, and we can talk to each other and warn our friends, but unless a conference has an anti-harassment policy (including meaningful repercussions) and clear guidelines about who to report to, we have no way of reporting past predatory behavior and repeat offenders to anyone of authority who can or will do anything about it. The more we talk about it amongst ourselves, the more alarming it is that we are just about to launch into these festivities and there is still no way to warn first time attendees about the dangers that we know exist.

I’d like to ask for feedback and suggestions. Were you aware that there are known harassers and predators on the festival circuit? Were you aware that there is no policy in place against sexual harassment at many of the conferences and festivals, and no way of reporting these behaviors that result in consequences?

Authors, publishers and festival organizers know specifically about authors and publishers who are harassing people, touching aggressively/inappropriately, pressuring other attendees for sex, lying about marital status to rack up conquests, spreading STIs, aggressively hitting on younger attendees obviously too drunk to make consensual decisions (these are just a few of the behaviors that are well known).

Here is a partial list of specific situations I and female author friends have experienced at various crime conferences.

Each one of these was a different man – either an author or a publisher. Some of the behaviors have been reported about more than one man.

I’ve included nothing that I haven’t personally experienced, witnessed, or been told by the woman/women involved, and I haven’t included some of the more serious accusations I know of. And I’m going to phrase this as a question to men, because I think part of the problem here is that even the most woke of our male friends and colleagues have no idea what goes on, and are putting themselves through emotional contortions thinking, “Wait, have I done it?”  My answer to the good guys is NO, you haven’t done it – just check yourself against this list.

At a conference, have you ever….

-       Stayed late in the conference bar chatting up the youngest and drunkest woman in the place, to the point that other authors have had to intervene and escort her home safely?

-       Taken photos of a woman’s body parts without her knowing?

-       Stood outside the hotel window of a woman who just turned you down at the conference bar?

-       Stroked the leg of a woman you’ve just been introduced to, saying you like her tights?

-       Had a conversation with a woman without once lifting your eyes from her chest?

-       Followed a woman you were attracted to around a conference telling everyone “She’s so sexy” and trying to talk to her even when she is in the middle of a conversation with others, on the phone, or obviously otherwise engaged?

-       Shoved a woman up against a wall, held her there and kissed her without her consent?

-       As a publisher, told a female author who just won the Edgar that "women belong barefoot and pregnant"?

-       Comforted a friend going through a nasty divorce when she’s broken down sobbing at the bar - by walking her up to her room, then closing and chain-locking the door and trying to kiss her?

-       Draped yourself over a woman, just to be friendly?

-       Touched the arm of a woman you don’t know two dozen times during a group conversation about sexual harassment and rape?

-       Pursued and started relationships with three different women you met at a con without telling any of the others about the others – or informing any of them that you have a wife, a steady girlfriend on the side, and a serious STD?

I’m asking you all as members of this community – how would YOU want to be informed about these dangers? Do you have suggestions about how we can make our community and these occasions safer for everyone?

Thanks so much for your comments!

-       Alex

And on the subject of sexual abuse:

All five books in my Thriller Award-nominated Huntress series are also on sale for $1.99 US - a perfect chance to catch up before Book 6 comes out this fall.

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

If you buy the Kindle versions, you can also add RC Bray’s fantastic, award-winning narration for just $3.99, a great Audible bargain.