Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Writers need toys

(No, I don’t mean that kind of toy. Although we need those, too… but all right, that’s another blog.)

The point is, you are going to be working SO HARD for the next two months (and I hate to be the one to break it to you, but for the rest of your lives, as well…) So I really encourage you to splurge on a nice big beautiful notebook to brainstorm and outline ad write your novel in (outside the laptop, of course). We poor writers live so much in our heads it’s important to give ourselves toys and rewards to make the work feel less like work, and also to cut down on the drinking.

We start October Outline month tomorrow, so do it.

Go to an office or stationery store, or shop on line, and find yourself a wonderful notebook to work in, something worthy of this story you’re about to create.

And let us all know some of your favorite writing toys!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Write that novel NOW! Nanowrimo

I’m sure many here are aware that November is Nanowrimo – National Novel Writing Month. As explained at the official site here, and here and here, the goal of Nanowrimo is to bash through 50,000 words of a novel in a single month.

I could not be more supportive of this idea – it gives focus and a nice juicy competitive edge to an endeavor that can seem completely overwhelming when you’re facing it all on your own. Through peer pressure and the truly national focus on the event, Nanowrimo forces people to commit. It’s easy to get caught up in and carried along by the writing frenzy of tens of thousands – or maybe by now hundreds of thousands - of “Wrimos”. And I’ve met and heard of lots of debut novelists, like Carrie Ryan (The Forest of Hands and Teeth) Sara Gruen (Water For Elephants), and Lisa Daily (The Dreamgirl Academy) who started novels during Nanowrimo that went on to sell, sometimes sell big.

Nanowrimo works.

But as everyone who reads this blog knows, I’m not a big fan of sitting down and typing Chapter One at the top of a blank screen and seeing what comes out from there. It may be fine – but it may be a disaster, and it doesn’t have to be.

If you’re going to put a month aside to write 50,000 words, doesn’t it make a little more sense to have worked out the outline, or at least an overall roadmap, before November 1? I am pretty positive that in most cases far more writing, and far more professional writing, would get done in November if Wrimos took the month of October to really think out some things about their story and characters, and where the whole book is going. It wouldn’t have to be the full-tilt-every-day frenzy that November will be, but even a half hour per day in October, even fifteen minutes a day, thinking about what you really want to be writing would do your potential novel worlds of good.

And let me just say right now, for the sticklers: in Nanowrimo rules it is NOT cheating to have an outline before November 1. As you can read in the FAQ, outlines and prep work are encouraged.

So throughout October, in between some pretty crazy Halloween touring for THE UNSEEN, I’m going to revisit some of the key story structure concepts we’ve been talking about on this blog, the stuff I think would be most helpful in prepping for the marathon writing session that Nanowrimo is, and people who want to do more than fly by the seat of their pants come November 1 can maybe get a jump start on their novels by following along with some fun prep work, which I will actually try to spell out in assignments.

Come November 1, you can throw all that prep work out the window and just go for it with all of the other crazy novelists.

But you know what? Even if you never look at that prep work again, your brilliant subconscious mind will have been working on it for you for a whole month. (Cause let’s face it – we don’t do this mystical thing called writing all by ourselves, now, do we?).

And the work you do today will make the work that you do in November really fly, and – I hope – really count.

- Alex

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Octorber events and FREE Screenwriting Tricks class!

Okay, it’s officially the witching season, which for me means appearances and workshops in six states and I don’t even know how many cities in between now and Halloween.

- Friday September 25 through Sunday September 27, I will be in Greenville, SC, at SIBA, the Southern Independent Booksellers Association Trade Show. I’ll be signing and giving away free books at the Sisters in Crime booth on Saturday at 2:30.


- Then next week, a FREE Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop, brought to you by the Mystery Writers of America:

Saturday, October 3
Cameron Village Library, Raleigh, NC
10:15 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.

Room 202

Sponsored by the Southeast Region chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, this day-long workshop will help you to sharpen your writing skills.

Workshops include:

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors (and screenwriters!)
with Alexandra Sokoloff

Build Setting and Mood to Take Readers to Another Place
with J.D. "Dusty" Rhoades

Develop Your Voice and Survive the Submission Process
with Chris Roerden

What Else You Need to Know About Writing and Selling Your Work
with all the authors

The workshop is free, but registration is required. To Register: Put Oct 3 in the subject line of an email to, and a registration form will be emailed to you.

For more information, please call 919-856-6703 or email
Or, visit


Then, on another coast entirely, I’m going to be on a Ghost Writers tour with the lovely, brilliant, talented, and terrifying Sarah Langan (Audrey’s Door) and Rhodi Hawk (A Twisted Ladder).

Come talk to us about women and horror, or better yet, buy us drinks, at these fabulous venues near you:

October 8, Las Vegas, NV
Las Vegas Clark County Library
1401 E. Flamingo Road
Las Vegas, NV 89119
Thursday, 7 pm

October 9, Scottsdale, AZ
Poisoned Pen, Scottsdale
7 pm

October 10, San Diego, CA
Mysterious Galaxy
Saturday, 2 p.m.

October 11, Burbank, CA
Dark Delicacies
Sunday, 2 pm

October 14-18

Next comes Indianapolis, IN
, for Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, where I will be misbehaving – I mean, signing and paneling - with all my favorite authors, readers, agents and editors. More fun than I think is legal in some states…. this is the one unmissable event for mystery writers of the world.

October 29 through November 1

And if anyone’s looking for a writing intensive in a fabulous setting, I will be teaching Screenwriting Tricks for Authors as part of a four-day, all-day Jump Start Master Class, in Charleston, SC, at this lovely mansion on the beach, sponsored by the LowCountry Romance Writers.

Happy Fall, from the road!

- Alex

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Plan

I don’t care what the plan is as long as we have one.

-- Kevin Bacon in Tremors

I was teaching last weekend, another one of my patented how-to-use-film-techniques-to–craft-a-killer-novel in one impossible hour workshops, and I found myself focusing on a plot element that I haven’t spent all that much time talking about here, so I thought I’d blog about that today.

You always hear that “Drama is conflict”, but when you think about it – what the hell does that mean, practically?

It’s actually much more true, and specific, to say that drama is the constant clashing of a hero/ine’s PLAN and an antagonist’s, or several antagonist’s, PLANS.

(Oh, you thought this blog was going to be about life plans? Hah. Like I have a clue.)

In the first act of a story, the hero/ine is introduced, and that hero/ine either has or quickly develops a DESIRE. She might have a PROBLEM that needs to be solved, or someone or something she WANTS, or a bad situation that she needs to get out of, pronto.

Her reaction to that problem or situation is to formulate a PLAN, even if that plan is vague or even completely subconscious. But somewhere in there, there is a plan, and storytelling is usually easier if you have the hero/ine or someone else (maybe you, the author) state that plan clearly, so the audience or reader knows exactly what the expectation is.

When in JAWS, Sheriff Brody is confronted with the problem of a great white shark eating people in his backyard (ocean), his initial PLAN is to close the beach to swimmers. He throws together some handmade “Beaches Closed” signs and sticks them in the sand. Problem solved, right?

Yeah, right.

If that initial plan had actually worked, JAWS wouldn’t have made a hundred zillion dollars worldwide, not to mention cinematic history. The whole point of drama (including comedy) is that the hero/ine’s plan is constantly being thwarted: by the main antagonist, by any number of secondary and tertiary opponents, by the love interest, by the weather, or by the hero/ine him or herself (because you know we’re all our own worst enemies.).

So almost always, the initial plan fails. Or if it seems to succeed, it’s only to trick us for a moment before we realize how wretchedly the plan has failed. That weak initial effort is because it’s human nature to expend the least effort possible to get what we want, and only take greater and more desperate measures if we are forced to.

Now, in JAWS, the primary antagonist is the shark. The shark’s PLAN is to eat. Not just people, but whatever. (Interestingly, that plan seems to evolve…)

Brody’s initial plan of closing the beaches might actually have solved his problem with the shark, because without a steady supply of food, the beast probably would have moved on to another beach with a better food supply.

But Brody’s initial plan brings out a secondary antagonist: the town fathers, led by the mayor (and with a nice performance by co-screenwriter Carl Gottleib). They don’t want the beaches closed, because the summer months, particularly the fourth of July weekend, represents 70 percent of the town’s yearly income. So the town fathers obliquely threaten new sheriff Brody with the loss of his job if he closes the beaches, and Brody capitulates.

This proves disastrous and tragic, as the very next day (as Brody watches the water from the beach, as if that’s going to prevent a shark attack) another swimmer, a little boy, is killed by the shark, practicing its plan.

The town fathers hold a town meeting and decide on a new plan: they will close the beaches for 24 hours. Brody disagrees, but is overruled. Eccentric captain Quint offers his services to kill the shark – for 10 grand. The town fathers are unwilling to pay.

In response, Brody develops a new plan, one we see often in stories: he contacts an expert from afar, oceanographer Matt Hooper, a shark specialist, to come in and give expert advice.

Meanwhile a new antagonist, the mother of the slain little boy, announces a plan of her own: she offers a bounty for any fisherman who kills the shark who killed her son.

The bounty brings on a regatta of fishermen from up and down the eastern seaboard. One of these crews captures a tiger shark, which the mayor is quick to declare the killer shark. Case closed, problem solved, and the beaches can be reopened. Hooper is adamant that the shark is far too little to have caused the damage done to the first victim, and wants to cut the shark open. The mayor refuses, and is equally adamant that there is no more need for Hooper. We see Brody agrees with Hooper, but wants to believe that the nightmare is over. However, when the dead boy’s mother slaps Brody and accuses him of causing her son’s death (by not closing the beaches), Brody agrees to investigate further with Hooper, and they cut the shark open themselves to check for body parts. Of course, it’s the wrong shark.

Brody’s revised plan is to talk the Mayor into closing the beaches, but the Mayor refuses again, and goes on with his plan to reopen the beaches (and highly publicize the capture of the “killer” shark).

The beaches reopen for 4th of July and the town fathers’ failsafe plan is to post the Coast Guard out in the ocean to watch, just in case. While everyone is distracted by a false shark scare, the real shark glides into a supposedly secure cove where Brody’s own son is swimming, and kills a man and nearly kills Brody’s son. (And it’s so diabolical in timing that it almost seems the shark has a new plan of its own – to taunt Brody).

At that point the Mayor’s plan changes – he writes a check for Quint and gives it to Brody, to hire the captain to kill the shark. But that’s not enough for Brody, now. He needs to go out on the boat with Quint and Hooper himself, despite his fear of the water, to make sure this shark gets dead.

This happens at the story’s MIDPOINT, and it’s a radical revamp of Brody’s initial plan (which always included avoiding going in the water himself, at all cost). And it’s very often the case that at the midpoint of a story, the initial PLAN is completely shattered (a great example is in THE UNTOUCHABLES, which I’ve talked about here:

And yet, Brody is still not ultimately committed. For the next half of the second act, he allows first Quint and then Hooper to take the lead on the shark hunt. Quint’s plan is to shoot harpoons connected to floating barrels into the shark and force it to the surface, where they can harpoon it to death. But the shark proves far stronger than anyone expected, and keeps submerging, even with barrel after barrel attached to its hide.

And now a truly interesting thing happens. The shark, supposedly a dumb beast, starts to do crafty things like hide under the boat so the men think they’ve lost it. It seems to have a new, intelligent plan of its own. And when the men’s defenses are down, the shark suddenly batters into the ship and breaks a hole in the hull, causing the boat to take on alarming quantities of water, and making the men vulnerable to attack.

Brody’s plan at that point is to radio for help and get the hell off the boat. But in the midst of the chaos Quint suddenly turns into an opponent himself by smashing the radio – he intends to kill this shark.

Hooper takes over now and proposes a new plan: he wants to go down in a shark cage to fire a poison gun at the shark. But the shark attacks the cage, and then as the boat continues to sink, the shark leaps half onto the deck and eats Quint.

Brody is now on his own against the shark, and in one last, desperate Hail Mary plan (the most exciting kind in a climax), he shoves an oxygen tank into the shark’s jaws and then fires at the shark until the tank explodes, and the shark goes up in bloody bits. As almost always, it is only that last ditch plan, in which the hero/ine faces the antagonist completely on his or her own, that saves the day.

I hope this little exercise gives you an idea of how it can be really enlightening and useful to focus on and track just the plans of all the main characters in a story and how they clash and conflict. If you find your own plot sagging, especially in that long middle section, try identifying and tracking the various plans of your characters. It might be just what you need to pull your story into new and much more exciting alignment.

And of course the question is: any favorite examples of plans for me, today?

Related posts:

Elements of Act I

Elements of Act II

Elements of Act II, Part 2

Elements of Act III



I am thrilled to announce that the The Harrowing finally gets its U.K. release this Thursday, September 17, with this fab new cover, one of my favorites - I guess I mean favourites - ever:

"Absolutely gripping…It is easy to imagine this as a film…Once started, you won’t want to stop reading."

- The London Times

Watch the book trailer

Buy here!

Friday, September 11, 2009

UNSEEN events in Triangle this week

I'm doing two more talks about the Rhine Lab, parapsychology, and THE UNSEEN this week in North CarolinaL

Saturday, Sept. 12, 7:30 pm

All Booked Up

Book Club Featuring Author Alexandra Sokoloff

Description: Join us for a private discussion and book signing with author Alexandra Sokoloff. Her latest book, The Unseen, is an exciting and thrilling novel: a story of deceipt, attraction and the unknown. Your book purchase is your ticket to this interactive event. Light refreshments will be served.

Location: 123 B North Salem Street, Apex, NC 27502

Monday, September 14, 7 pm

East Regional Library

946 Steeple Square Court
Knightdale, NC 27545