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


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

Thursday, March 08, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time for International Women's Day

--> Today is International Women’s Day. And tomorrow A Wrinkle in Time opens in theaters nationwide. So I thought I’d combine those topics and write about the book, before I line up to see the movie tomorrow. And then of course I can talk about the movie adaptation!

But first, the book. And women. And writing.

 A Wrinkle in Time is the story of thirteen-year-old misfit Meg Murry, who on a dark and stormy night is visited by three mysterious and iconically eccentric women who transport her, her child prodigy brother Charles Wallace, and her high school crush Calvin O'Keefe, on a cosmic adventure to rescue her scientist father from the evil forces holding him prisoner on a distant planet.

Famously, when author Madeleine L’Engle finished the book in 1960 (pre-YA is putting it mildly!) it was rejected by at least 26 publishers, because it was "too different", and "because it deals overtly with the problem of evil, and it was really difficult for children, and was it a children's or an adults' book, anyhow?" Oh, and “It had a female protagonist in a science fiction book.”

I’m eternally grateful to whatever forces of light were looking out for it.

When people ask me why I write what I do, or even just why I write, instead of rambling on, I could just as well just say A Wrinkle in Time. Countless female author and screenwriter friends, and a good number of the men as well, have said the same thing to me over the years—I suspect just about every woman genre writer who came of age pre-Harry Potter. Meg Murry wasn’t just our Hermione – she was our Harry Potter, too. She is every smart girl who ever lived. We didn’t just read that book—we lived it. We are Meg. And I’m thrilled that through the casting of Storm Reid, the new movie is bringing even more girls into the universality and outsiderness of Meg.

I’ve read just about everything L’Engle ever wrote, fiction and non. Once in a while I realize I’ve missed something and it’s always a treat to add that book to my shelf. She was a huge part of my extremely random spiritual education… in fact she might have been singlehandedly responsible for any spiritual sense I did have in my childhood and early adulthood. I was raised with both no religion and a smattering of a large number of religions. My parents took me and my siblings to Native American ceremonies, Orthodox celebrations, and Hindu holy days. If I spent a weekend night with a friend whose family had a religious practice, they’d drag me along to church or temple. But I was never sold on the idea of a single male God (I mean, come on, really? I love men in general, but omniscient? Let’s just look at the facts, here!).

Then A Wrinkle in Time introduced me to the concept of the Goddess, in the three “witches”: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and the very intimidating Mrs. Which. That powerful, eternal feminine triumvirate, whether you describe them as former stars, guardian angels, messengers, centaurs (don’t you love that scene where the three children try to explain them to Mr. Murry?) —is to me the Triple Goddess. It was the most positive depiction of spirituality I’d ever encountered, and the one that made the most sense to me: that the universe manifests itself in guardians, and we are watched over, and we are loved.

(L’Engle herself was a devout Christian, yet the book often appears on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books, because of references to witches and crystal balls, because it "challenges religious beliefs", and because Jesus appears on a list of “names of great artists, philosophers, scientists, and religious leaders".)
L’Engle’s equally profound influence on me (it’s inseparable, really) was as a genre writer. I always gravitated toward the spooky, the thrilling, the fantastical, the twisted, in my reading. I discovered A Wrinkle in Time when I was in sixth grade and something in my mind said – “THIS is what a book is supposed to be, do, feel like.” It’s a thrilling adventure with flawed but deeply moral characters, fighting for cosmic stakes. While you’re reading you experience it as a breathless, nail-biting ride, but the moral implications imprint on your soul.

In fact, I was so obsessed with the book the year I first read it that I wrote a movie adaptation of the book. This was a pretty radical and prescient thing for me to have done (at age ten!), considering a lot of adults don’t even understand that there is such a thing as an adaptation process from book to screen. I had no inkling at the time that I would grow up to work as a screenwriter and make a living adapting novels for screen. And no desire to, either.

It was just that book. I wanted to live in that book. I wanted to somehow create the world of that book around me. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything ever since (except, um, Hamlet) that feels as perfect in every way – character, theme, structure, dialogue, action, spectacle, catharsis – every single layer and detail.

I’ve read it dozens, maybe hundreds of times, and I learn something new about how to tell a story every single pass. And not just about the how of it, but the WHY as well. It makes no sense on the surface to write as dark as I do and say that I aspire to the spirituality of that book, but it’s true.

As L’Engle said:

“Why does anybody tell a story? It does indeed have something to do with faith, faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.”

I struggle with every book of my Huntress Moon series (currently on Book 6, somewhere in the swamps of Act Two, Part 1…). These are very dark books. They confront crimes so heinous that I think they can only be called evil. My FBI protagonist is often on the verge of giving up entirely; he feels so powerless in the face of what he’s being exposed to. But these crimes exist. Someone must face them and fight them. And once again, I’m looking to A Wrinkle in Time to remind me that even in the darkest abyss, the universe manifests itself in guardians—and we are watched over, and we are loved.

There are other books of L’Engle’s that shaped me as a writer, an author, a genre writer. She wrote thrillers: Arm of the Starfish is a wonderful YA spy thriller, again with a profound spiritual dimension, and even her dramas have such an thriller edge – I’m thinking specifically of A Ring of Endless Light – that I’d almost call them cross-genre. She put urgency and cosmic stakes into everything she ever put on paper.

But A Wrinkle in Time is a masterwork… and I guess it’s always in the back of my mind, the question – will I ever be open enough, focused enough, skilled enough, mature enough… enough anything – to write something that is everything I could write, in a perfect world?

I don’t know. But at least I have a light to guide me on that path.

So how about you, readers and authors? Do you have A Wrinkle in Time experiences? Or was there another book that most influenced your childhood and/or writing?

Are you seeing the movie this weekend?

-        Alex


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