Monday, December 26, 2011

E books for your Kindle!




Did you get that Kindle Fire for Christmas?

If you're in the mood for something spooky (hey, I know it's the holidays, but I just watched thirteen episodes of The Walking Dead back to back. Not all of us are in the Miracle on 34th Street mood)...

THE HARROWING, THE PRICE, and BOOK OF SHADOWS are now available as e books in various territories.

(Remember, you don't need a Kindle; you can download a free Kindle reader to your PC or Mac or i pad or phone).

For more information about all the books, and links to order, see below.

And Merry Merry Happy Happy everything to all!

- Alex


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BOOK OF SHADOWS


Synopsis:

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.

Reviews:

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

"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, 4 1/2 stars

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

"The discovery in a landfill of the mutilated corpse of Erin Carmody, the 18-year-old daughter of a prominent Boston businessman, presents homicide detective Adam Garrett with a particularly sensitive case. Marks on the body suggest the killer was conducting Satanic rituals. When Adam and his partner, Carl Landauer, question the prime suspect, Jason Moncrief, a college friend of Erin's, Jason chants the name of the demon Choronzon, then assaults Carl. Despite what appears to be an open-and-shut case, Adam can't discount the claim that Jason is innocent made by Tanith Cabarrus, an attractive witch who comes to police headquarters to report that she dreamed of other murders—and who believes that supernatural forces are behind the slaughter. As usual, Sokoloff (The Unseen) does a good job keeping the reader guessing whether a supernatural agency is really at work." - Publishers Weekly

(Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.)

BOOK OF SHADOWS is now available on as an e book in the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Spain: just £2.14 on Amazon.uk, and €2.99 on Amazon.de, Amazon.fr, Amazon.it, and Amazon.es.

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THE HARROWING

Synopsis:

Baird College's Mendenhall echoes with the footsteps of the last home-bound students heading off for Thanksgiving break, and Robin Stone swears she can feel the creepy, hundred-year-old residence hall breathe a sigh of relief for its long-awaited solitude. Or perhaps it's only gathering itself for the coming weekend.

As a massive storm dumps rain on the isolated campus, four other lonely students reveal themselves: Patrick, a handsome jock; Lisa, a manipulative tease; Cain, a brooding musician; and finally Martin, a scholarly eccentric. Each has forsaken a long weekend at home for their own secret reasons.

The five unlikely companions establish a tentative rapport, but they soon become aware of a sixth presence disturbing the ominous silence that pervades the building. Are they the victims of a simple college prank taken way too far, or is the unusual energy evidence of something genuine---and intent on using the five students for its own terrifying ends? It's only Thursday afternoon, and they have three long days and dark nights before the rest of the world returns to find out what's become of them. But for now it's just the darkness keeping company with five students nobody wants and no one will miss.

Reviews:

'Absolutely gripping...It is easy to imagine this as a film...Once started, you won't want to stop reading'
---London Times

"Poltergeist meets The Breakfast Club as five college students tangle with an ancient evil presence. Plenty of sexual tension... quick pace and engaging plot."
--- Kirkus Reviews

'Sokoloff's debut novel is an eerie ghost story that captivates readers from page one. The author creates an element of suspense that builds until the chillingly believable conclusion."'
--Romantic Times

What better thing could strangers isolated in a big, near-deserted building while a raging storm takes out the electricity and compels the use of flickering candles possibly discover than an ancient, charred Ouija board? The previously unacquainted in question are five students sitting out Thanksgiving weekend in a 100-year-old residence hall. And that Ouija board turns wicked, of course, when it manifests a ghost named Zachary, who turns the place into a chaotic battleground for the forces of evil versus cosmic goodness and light. What seemed a sick joke one of the five was playing on the others has morphed into a situation in which no one can be trusted. Sokoloff sustains pace and suspense while encouraging the reader to identify with Robin, a young woman from a poor, alcohol-ravaged family, who yearns for acceptance. Will she get it from the all-American jock she lusts for; the slutty tease; the quiet, intellectual rabbi's son; and the brooding musician who are her companions for this scary ordeal? Good, engrossing fun.
--- Booklist, Whitney Scott
(Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved)

"The Harrowing is a real page-turner, a first novel of unusual promise."
---Ira Levin

"The Harrowing is a find: fast, original, and genuinely creepy."
---F. Paul Wilson,

"Alexandra Sokoloff conjures up a demon older than time and humanity and yet rooted in modern psychology. She brings all her skills as a screenwriter to a tale of supernatural terror as swift as a film."
---Ramsey Campbell

"Sokoloff's debut novel is a furiously paced, deftly plotted joy, bursting at the seams with disquieting imagery and carrying a disturbingly dark undercurrent. It gave me a nightmareÂ…and that's rare."
---Tim Lebbon


THE HARROWING is now available on as an e book in various countries, just €2.99 on Amazon.de, Amazon.fr, Amazon.it, and Amazon.es.
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THE PRICE


Boston District Attorney Will Sullivan dreams of becoming the next governor of Massachusetts. With his beautiful wife, Joanna, and adorable daughter, Sydney, Will seems destined for greatness…until Sydney becomes seriously ill. Now both parents resolve to do anything to save their daughter’s life.

But in the twilight world of Briarwood Medical Center, nothing is as it seems. Patients on the brink of death are not only surviving but thriving, while others wither away…and the recoveries all revolve around the ministerings of a mysterious counselor, who takes an unsettling interest in Joanna. When Sydney’s health miraculously improves, Will suspects that Joanna has made a terrible bargain to save their child. Now Will must face a powerful, unknown evil before he loses... everything.

Reviews:

"Some of the most original and freshly unnerving work in the genre."
—The New York Times Book Review

“A heartbreakingly eerie page turner…”
—Library Journal

"Sokoloff is simply amazing"
—Bookreporter.com

"A sublime second novel . . . Her gooseflesh-inducing imagery jumps right off the pages, and her rich, graceful prose calls to mind names like King, Saul, and Levin."
—Dark Scribe Magazine

“A medical thriller of the highest order... a stunning, riveting journey into terror and suspense.”—Michael Palmer

"Beyond stunning. It is harrowing in the true sense of real art.” —Ken Bruen

"A psychological rollercoaster that keeps the reader on edge with bone-chilling thrills throughout. I couldn't put it down." —Heather Graham

THE PRICE is now available on as an e book in various countries, just €2.99 on Amazon.de, Amazon.fr, Amazon.it, and Amazon.es.

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THE SPACE BETWEEN

Sixteen-year old Anna Sullivan is having terrible dreams of a massacre at her school. Anna’s father is a mentally unstable veteran, her mother vanished when Anna was five, and Anna might just chalk the dreams up to a reflection of her crazy waking life — except that Tyler Marsh, the most popular guy at the school and Anna’s secret crush, is having the exact same dream.

Despite the gulf between them in social status, Anna and Tyler connect, first in the dream and then in reality. As the dreams reveal more, with clues from the school social structure, quantum physics, probability, and Anna's own past, Anna becomes convinced that they are being shown the future so they can prevent the shooting…

If they can survive the shooter — and the dream.

Based on the short story "The Edge of Seventeen," winner of the ITW Thriller award.


"Filled with vivid images, mystery, and a strong atmosphere of danger... Sokoloff interlaces psychological elements, quantum physics and the idea of multiple dimensions and parallel universes into her storyline; this definitely adds something different and original from other teen horror novels in the market today. Highly recommended."
-- Seattle Post Intelligencer


THE PRICE is available on as an e book, just $ 2.99 on Kindle, £2.14 on Amazon.uk, and €2.99 on Amazon.de, Amazon.fr, Amazon.it, and Amazon.es.

Amazon/Kindle
Amazon UK
Amazon DE
Free in Kindle lending library!

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Rewriting: Expanding on Key Story Elements

There’s a saying in Hollywood that “If you have six great scenes, you have a movie.” Well, very often these six great scenes are off that list I gave you of the Key Story Elements. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Scenes like The Call To Adventure and Crossing the Threshold are magical moments: they change the world of the main character for all time, and as storytellers we want our readers or audiences to experience that profound, soul-shattering change right along with the character. These are numinous events, and we crave scenes that are worthy of them.

And I think it’s useful to study the more blatant examples — the way these scenes are depicted in fantasies like Harry Potter and The Wizard of Oz — so you get the full-on, literally magical experience of a Call To Adventure or Crossing the Threshold scene first, and then start looking for more subtle variations in less fantastical stories.

Just as filmmakers consciously design some of these key story scenes for maximum emotional and visual impact, we as novelists can be doing the same thing on the page for our readers — making the most of critical scenes such as ESTABLISHING THE HERO/INE’S GHOST, THE CALL TO ADVENTURE, CROSSING THE THRESHOLD, ESTABLISHING THE PLAN, and so on.

So a very effective rewriting pass is to take a look at all of your key scenes and see if you're doing those moments justice.

In the next few posts I want to look more closely at a few of those key story elements (and that’s key to ALL genres) and detail some examples of how filmmakers create these beats as setpiece scenes.

And of course, these key scenes are very often used as act climaxes or sequence climaxes — we’ll talk about which elements are generally used as which act climaxes.

Let's start at the very beginning.

OPENING IMAGE

In a film you have an opening image by default, whether you put any planning into it or not. It’s the first thing you see in the film. But good filmmakers will very consciously design that opening image to establish all kinds of things about the story: mood, tone, location, and especially theme. There can be more than just one image or shot at work, too; sometimes it’s more like a whole opening scene.

Well, novelists, instead of (or in addition to) killing yourselves trying to concoct a great first line which will just as likely annoy a reader into throwing your book against the wall as make them keep reading, how about giving some thought to what your opening scene looks like? It takes a lot of the pressure off that first page anxiety — because you're focused on conveying a powerful image that will intrigue and entice the reader into the book.

What do we see? How does it make us feel? How might it even be a miniature code of what the whole story is about?

Take a look at a few of the films on your master list and see what they do with the opening image. Again, bear in mind that the opening image may be more of an opening scene — and the key image may not be the very first thing we see. For example, in Casino, the film starts with DeNiro walking out to his car, with narration over. Then as he gets in, the car explodes in flame — and the credits sequence begins, the visual underneath which is a long, long take on a cut-out of a man falling slowly through flame: a descent into hell. That falling through flame, with the blinking neon of the casino all around, would be the opening image, what Scorsese has chosen to fix in the audience’s mind — it is exactly what the story is about.

One of my favorite opening images/sequences is the credits scene of The Shining. I don’t think there’s a creepier opening to be found anywhere in film. It’s all aerial camerawork of those vast, foreboding mountains as that tiny little car drives up, up, up toward what turns out to be the Overlook Hotel. It’s vertiginous, it’s ominous, it emphasizes the utter isolation of the hotel and the circumstances, and somehow, through the music and the visuals and the constant movement, Kubrick establishes a sense of huge, vast, and malevolent natural forces. As a thriller writer (or whatever you want to call me), I am constantly looking for ways to convey all those things — that experience — on the page. Mo Hayder’s The Treatment is one of my favorite recent examples … when she focuses on a murder of crows strutting on the grass of a crime scene, evil just rolls off the page, and you start to wonder if you really want to keep reading the book. (It’s worth every shudder, but don’t say I didn’t warn you).

Here’s another great film technique to be aware of: The opening image will sometimes —often — set up a location that will return in the final battle scene or in the resolution scene of the story — only at the end there will be a big visual contrast to show how much the hero/ine has changed. A fantastic recent example of this is in the truly lovely animated film How to Train Your Dragon. It opens with a long aerial swoop down into the Viking village. It’s dark, torchlit, forbidding … and then smashes into the opening attack by dragons, a scene of chaos and violence. And we hear young protagonist Hiccup’s wry narration over it.

In the RESOLUTION, we see the same aerial swoop into the village, but now it’s daylight, sunshine, flowers — and instead of attacking, the dragons are flying with their new — well, not owners, but partners: the same Vikings who were fighting them in the beginning. And Hiccup’s wry final narration is the same as his opening narration, with only a few key words changed. The whole village has been transformed by Hiccup’s personal journey; it’s a magnificent visual of not just character arc, but also of the change in philosophy of the whole Viking society.

Here are some more romance-friendly examples:

The opening image of Romancing the Stone is a small, stuffy cabin — which quickly opens up to a classic, gorgeous Western landscape of magnificent buttes in a desert setting; the heroine of the opening scene is a voluptuous buckskin-clad heroine straight from the old bodice-rippers. It’s adventure and romance, which the voice-over narration also establishes as comic and tongue-in-cheek. It’s a great miniature of the whole story — this is protagonist Joan Wilder’s fantasy, which quickly becomes her not-so-appealing reality.

The opening image(s) of Notting Hill is a montage of movie star Anna Scott’s career: newspaper headlines, magazine spreads, photo shoots, paparazzi tailing her at premieres and the Oscars. This montage sets up this story’s unusual antagonist; it’s Anna’s fame that is the constant opposition to Will and Anna’s love, and the storytellers make that fame concrete and vivid in these images.

The opening image of New in Town is a frozen, wintry landscape, symbolizing the heroine’s frozen emotions, and then the first scene shows a group of three women scrapbooking and talking about the fate of the new plant manager, a scene that brings to mind the three Norns, or Fates, of Scandinavian myth.

Now, look, I’m not at all saying that an opening scene has to be visual to work. I had a student in a workshop recently who opened her romantic comedy with a series of dueling press releases. It was hilarious and perfect for her very funny book. As authors we have the luxury of not having to convey things purely visually. I’m just saying, if you’re struggling with an opening, this could be a technique that might help you pull it all together. It works wonders for me. And thinking of the opening visually instantly solves the problem that I’ve become increasingly aware of in the opening chapters of newer writers: they fail to set up the visual in any way, which leaves the reader floundering to figure out where the hell they are. Not an auspicious way to begin, let me tell you.

As human beings, we are primarily visual creatures (and no, I don’t just mean men. All of us.). So? Use it.

1. Make a list. Visual or not visual — what are some of your favorite book and movie openings of all time?

2. Now look at your own opening pages. Are they visual? Do we know where we are? Can you make that location, and the things we see in it, thematically meaningful?

- Alex

=====================================================

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)




- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Rewriting: the Genre Pass

In my recent Rewriting blog I advocated doing several dedicated revision passes through your book focusing on particular elements of storytelling. One of the most critical of these passes is The Genre Pass.

Whatever your genre is, do a dedicated pass focusing on that crucial genre element.

I’m sure you regular readers have already gotten this message, but I’ll say it again anyway: whatever genre you are writing in, your JOB as a writer is to deliver the promise of that genre, the EXPERIENCE of it, to your readers/audience: comedy in a comedy, action in an actioner or action thriller, romance and sex in a romance, romance and sex and comedy in a romantic comedy, romance and sex and comedy and action in a romantic comedy/adventure (see ROMANCING THE STONE for an excellent example of delivering all the promises of those genres in one seamless gem of a movie).

So today we're going to talk about the Genre Pass.

Of course, for my money, your first step is always to make a master list – ten movies and books in the genre you’re writing that you can look at to see how the master storytellers deliver on the promise in the genre.

A great exercise is to go through a movie or book minute by minute, or page by page, and literally count the genre scenes. List each one and how many minutes, seconds or pages there are between each genre scene or moment. At the end of this exercise you should be able to say with confidence, for example, in GROUNDHOG DAY, there is a laugh-out loud moment every 4 minutes (or however many minutes it is) Seriously. This is a great way to internalize the rhythm of a particular genre.

I must confess, I personally believe that if you’re not a comedian right here, right now, you’re never going to be a comedian. BUT – if you are not a born comedian but are writing a romantic comedy, and you know need to get more laughs in, this a great way to do that. Other genres are, I believe, more forgiving than comedy and easier to learn how to do.

Another good method is to lay out your story on index cards or Post Its again, and this time use a particular color of card or Post It to signify a comedy (action, sex, suspense) scene. If when you step back and survey your story board and you see a long sequence of scenes with none of that color, that’s a good indication that you need to work that sequence and those scenes to layer in genre elements.

The other thing that is essential to look at is how the act and sequence climaxes in a good movie or book are almost always genre scenes. In a love story, these turning points are emotional or sexual. In an action story, they are action scenes, with the essential revelations occurring within the action (Think of the climax of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – Darth Vader didn’t reveal Luke’s parenthood to him while they were washing dishes, now, did he?). Even if you don’t quite pull off every single act climax and sequence climax as a rip-roaring genre scene, it’s not a bad idea to shoot for that, because then at the very least you will know that you have eight scenes that deliver on your genre promise, and that’s a really solid foundation for a successful story. And when you get yourself to think specifically in terms of genre scenes, your mind will be automatically looking for other places to insert genre moments.

While we’re on Act Climaxes, I just wanted to mention the concept of multiple climaxes (in storytelling; hopefully we’re all experts at the other). Some people make themselves crazy looking for the exact scene that is the Act Climax. Well, if it’s not obvious, then chances are you’ve got multiple climaxes, or what I like to call a “rolling climax”. ROMANCING THE STONE’s Act I climax is a perfect example of several different scenes that fulfill the genre promises of comedy, action, romance and sex, which all work togther to make up the act break – take a look at the discussion here:

And here are some posts to help you with identifying Act Climaxes:

- Identifying Act Climaxes

- Raiders of the Lost Ark - Act Climaxes

The good news here is that – you don’t have to get all of this into your first draft! These are rewriting tricks. Write out the bones of your scenes and the story, first, and then start to layer in these genre elements. Take a look at where you might combine two completely different scenes so that you get a big revelation or plot twist inside of a comic or fight scene, or in the middle of sex.

This is the fun part of writing – everything after the first draft is icing. So enjoy!

- Alex

=====================================================

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in e formats and as pdf files. Either book, just $2.99.



- Kindle

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)





- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE

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Monday, December 05, 2011

Nanowrimo Now What? - Rewriting

Okay now, remember, if you just finished your draft on Nov. 30, taking time off from it before you jump into revisions is far more important than anything else I’m going to say here today.

But once you have taken the time off… how the hell do you proceed with the second draft?

Well, first you have to read the first draft. All the way through. Not necessarily in one sitting (if that’s even possible to begin with!); I usually do this in chunks of 50 pages or 100 pages a day – anything else makes my brain sore.

(And yes, if you’ve been paying attention (The Three Act Structure and The Eight Sequence Structure), that would mean I’m either reading one sequence or two sequences a day).

I picked up a tip from some book or article a long time ago about reading for revisions, and I wish I could remember who said it to credit them, because it’s great advice. Grab yourself a colored pen or pencil (or all kinds of colors, glitter pens - go wild) and sit down with a stack of freshly printed pages (sorry, it’s ungreen, but I can’t do a first revision on a screen. I need a hard copy). Then read through and make brief notes where necessary, but DO NOT start rewriting, and PUT THE PEN DOWN as soon as you’ve made a note. You want to read the first time through for story, not for stupid details that will interrupt your experience of the story as a whole. You want to get the big picture – especially – you want to see if you actually have a book (or film, if that’s what you’re writing).

If your drafts are anything like mine, there will be large chunks of absolute shit. That’s pretty much my definition of what a first draft is. X them out on the spot if you have to, but resist the temptation to stop and rewrite. Well, if you REALLY are hot to write a scene, I guess, okay, but really, unless you are totally, fanatically inspired, it’s better just to make brief notes.

When you’ve finished reading there should - hopefully! - be the feeling that even though you probably still have massive amounts of work yet to do, there is a book there. (I love that feeling…)

Once I’ve read through the entire thing, I make notes about my impressions, and then usually I will do a re-card (see The Index Card Method). I will have made many scribbled notes on the draft to the effect of “This scene doesn’t work here!” In some of my first drafts, whole sections don’t work at all. This is my chance to find the right places for things. And, of course, throw stuff out.

I will go through the entire book again – going back and forth between my pages and the cards on my story grid - and see where the story elements fall. There is no script or book I’ve ever written that didn’t benefit from a careful overview once again identifying act breaks, sequence climaxes, and key story elements like: The Call to Adventure; Stating the Theme; identifying the Central Question; Central Action and Plan; Crossing the Threshold; Meeting the Mentor; the Dark Night of the Soul - once the first draft is actually finished. A lot of your outline may have changed, and you will be able to pull your story into line much more effectively if you check your structural elements again and continually be thinking of how you can make those key scenes more significant, more magical.

(For a quick refresher on Story Elements, skip down to #10 at the bottom of this post, and the links at the end for more in-depth discussion.)

Also, be very aware of what your sequences are. If a scene isn’t working, but you know you need to have it, it’s probably in the wrong sequence, and if you look at your story overall and at what each sequence is doing, you’ll probably be able to see immediately where stray scenes need to go. That’s why re-carding and re-sequencing is such a great thing to do when you start a revision.

Now, the next steps can be taken in whatever order is useful to you, but here again are the Top Ten Things I Know About Editing.


1. Cut, cut, cut.

When you first start writing, you are reluctant to cut anything. Believe me, I remember. But the truth is, beginning writers very, very, VERY often duplicate scenes, and characters, too. And dialogue, oh man, do inexperienced writers duplicate dialogue! The same things happen over and over again, are said over and over again. It will be less painful for you to cut if you learn to look for and start to recognize when you’re duplicating scenes, actions, characters and dialogue. Those are the obvious places to cut and combine.

Some very wise writer (unfortunately I have no idea who) said, “If it occurs to you to cut, do so.” This seems harsh and scary, I know. Often I’ll flag something in a manuscript as “Could cut”, and leave it in my draft for several passes until I finally bite the bullet and get rid of it. So, you know, that’s fine. Allow yourself to CONSIDER cutting something, first. No commitment! Then if you do, fine. But once you’ve considered cutting, you almost always will. It's okay if you bitch about it all the way to the trash file, too - I always do.

2. Find a great critique group.

This is easier said than done, but you NEED a group, or a series of readers, who will commit themselves to making your work the best it can be, just as you commit the same to their work. Editors don’t edit the way they used to and publishing houses expect their authors to find friends to do that kind of intensive editing. Really.

3. Do several passes.

Finish your first draft, no matter how rough it is. Then give yourself a break — a week is good, two weeks is better, three weeks is better than that — as time permits. Then read, cut, polish, put in notes. Repeat. And repeat again. Always give yourself time off between reads if you can. The closer your book is to done, the more uncomfortable the unwieldy sections will seem to you, and you will be more and more okay with getting rid of them. Read on for the specific kinds of passes I recommend doing.

4. Whatever your genre is, do a dedicated pass focusing on that crucial genre element.

For a thriller: thrills and suspense. For a mystery: clues and misdirection and suspense. For a comedy: a comedic pass. For a romance: a sex pass. Or “emotional” pass, if you must call it that. For horror… well, you get it.

I write suspense. So after I’ve written that first agonizing bash-through draft of a book or script, and probably a second or third draft just to make it readable, I will at some point do a dedicated pass just to amp up the suspense, and I highly recommend trying it, because it’s amazing how many great ideas you will come up with for suspense scenes (or comic scenes, or romantic scenes) if you are going through your story JUST focused on how to inject and layer in suspense, or horror, or comedy, or romance. It’s your JOB to deliver the genre you’re writing in. It’s worth a dedicated pass to make sure you’re giving your readers what they’re buying the book for.

5. Know your Three Act Structure.

If something in your story is sagging, it is amazing how quickly you can pull your narrative into line by looking at the scene or sequence you have around page 100 (or whatever page is ¼ way through the book), page 200, (or whatever page is ½ way through the book), page 300 (or whatever page is ¾ through the book) and your climax. Each of those scenes should be huge, pivotal, devastating, game-changing scenes or sequences (even if it’s just emotional devastation). Those four points are the tentpoles of your story.

6. Do a dedicated DESIRE LINE pass in which you ask yourself for every scene: “What does this character WANT? Who is opposing her/him in this scene? Who WINS in the scene? What will they do now?”

7. Do a dedicated EMOTIONAL pass, in which you ask yourself in every chapter, every scene, what do I want my readers to FEEL in this moment?

8. Do a dedicated SENSORY pass, in which you make sure you’re covering what you want the reader to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense.

9. Read your book aloud. All of it. Cover to cover.

I wouldn’t recommend doing this with a first draft unless you feel it’s very close to the final product, but when you’re further along, the best thing I know to do to edit a book — or script — is read it aloud. The whole thing. I know, this takes several days, and you will lose your voice. Get some good cough drops. But there is no better way to find errors — spelling, grammar, continuity, and rhythmic errors. Try it, you’ll be amazed.

10. Finally, and this is a big one: steal from film structure to pull your story into dramatic line.

Some of you are already well aware that I’ve compiled a checklist of story elements that I use both when I’m brainstorming a story on index cards, and again when I’m starting to revise. I find it invaluable to go through my first draft and make sure I’m hitting all of these points, so here it is again, for those just finding this post.


STORY ELEMENTS CHECKLIST

ACT ONE

* Opening image
* Meet the hero or heroine
* Hero/ine’s inner and outer desire.
* Hero/ine’s problem
* Hero/ine’s ghost or wound
* Hero/ine’s arc
* Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure
* Meet the antagonist (and/or introduce a mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end)
* State the theme/what’s the story about?
* Allies
* Mentor (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story).
* Love interest
* Plant/Reveal (or: Setups and Payoffs)
* Hope/Fear (and Stakes)
* Time Clock (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story)
* Sequence One climax
* Central Question
* Central Story Action
* Plan (Hero/ine's)
* Villain's Plan
* Act One climax

___________________________

ACT TWO


* Crossing the Threshold/ Into the Special World (may occur in Act One)
* Threshold Guardian (maybe)
* Hero/ine’s Plan
* Antagonist’s Plan
* Training Sequence
* Series of Tests
* Picking up new Allies
* Assembling the Team
* Attacks by the Antagonist (whether or not the Hero/ine recognizes these as being from the antagonist)
* In a detective story, questioning witnesses, lining up and eliminating suspects, following clues.


THE MIDPOINT


* Completely changes the game
* Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action
* Can be a huge revelation
* Can be a huge defeat
* Can be a “now it’s personal” loss
* Can be sex at 60 — the lovers finally get together, only to open up a whole new world of problems


______________________________
ACT TWO, PART TWO


* Recalibrating — after the shock or defeat of the game-changer in the Midpoint, the hero/ine must Revamp The Plan and try a New Mode of Attack.
* Escalating Actions/ Obsessive Drive
* Hard Choices and Crossing The Line (immoral actions by the main character to get what s/he wants)
* Loss of Key Allies (possibly because of the hero/ine’s obsessive actions, possibly through death or injury by the antagonist).
* A Ticking Clock (can happen anywhere in the story)
* Reversals and Revelations/Twists. (Hmm, that clearly should have its own post, now, shouldn't it?)
* The Long Dark Night of the Soul and/or Visit to Death (aka All Is Lost)

THE SECOND ACT CLIMAX

* Often can be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is
* Answers the Central Question


_______________________________

ACT THREE

The third act is basically the Final Battle and Resolution. It can often be one continuous sequence — the chase and confrontation, or confrontation and chase. There may be a final preparation for battle, or it might be done on the fly. Either here or in the last part of the second act the hero will make a new, FINAL PLAN, based on the new information and revelations of the second act.

The essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and antagonist. It is often divided into two sequences:


1. Getting there (storming the castle)
2. The final battle itself

* Thematic Location — often a visual and literal representation of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare
* The protagonist’s character change
* The antagonist’s character change (if any)
* Possibly allies’ character changes and/or gaining of desire
* Could be one last huge reveal or twist, or series of reveals and twists, or series of final payoffs you've been saving (as in BACK TO THE FUTURE and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE).

* RESOLUTION: A glimpse into the New Way of Life that the hero/ine will be living after this whole ordeal and all s/he’s learned from it.

If these story elements are new to you, you’ll want to read:


Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two, Part 1

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Elements of Act Three

Elements of Act Three: Elevate Your Ending

Elements of Act Three: What Makes a Great Climax?

Act Climaxes and Turning Points

Part 1:

Part 2:

And I'll be posting more about how to do different kinds of passes for particular effect.

- Alex


=====================================================

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)




- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Nanowrimo Now What?

Okay, so you survived! Or maybe I shouldn’t make any assumptions, there.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say you survived and now have a rough draft (maybe very, very, very rough draft) of about 50,000 words.

What next?

Well, first of all, did you write to “The End”? Because if not, then you may have survived, but you’re not done. You must get through to The End, no matter how rough it is (rough meaning the process AND the pages…). If you did not get to The End, I would strongly urge that you NOT take a break, no matter how tired you are (well, maybe a day). You can slow down your schedule, set a lower per-day word or page count, but do not stop. Write every day, or every other day if that’s your schedule, but get the sucker done.

You may end up throwing away most of what you write, but it is a really, really, really bad idea not to get all the way through a story. That is how most books, scripts and probably most all other things in life worth doing are abandoned.

Conversely, if you DID get all the way to “The End”, then definitely, take a break. As long a break as possible. You should keep to a writing schedule, start brainstorming the next project, maybe do some random collaging to see what images come up that might lead to something fantastic - but if you have a completed draft, then what you need right now is SPACE from it. You are going to need fresh eyes to do the read-through that is going to take you to the next level, and the only way for you to get those fresh eyes is to leave the story alone for a while.

I am tempted to jump write in and post the blog I am thinking about on a process for reading and revising, but I will resist, at least for today, so that you really absorb what I’m saying.

1. Keep going if you’re not done –

OR -

2. Take a good long break if you have a whole first draft, and start thinking about another project.


And in the meantime, I’d love to hear how you all who were Nanoing did.

Me? I had my usual Nano, which is to say I was working on multiple projects, one in a later draft so page counts were useless or impossible, and then the order of two of my contracted books got switched in the middle of the month so I ended up starting TWO first drafts of different projects this month (!!!) but I am MUCH happier with the new order one of those. But I did get a ton of editing done on my new crime thriller, and am loving the new paranormal thriller, and I got final edits for three e books done. And I survived that incredible So Cal windstorm, too. A good month, I'd say.

- Alex

Monday, November 21, 2011

Nanowrimo: the third quarter drop-dead

Home stretch!

Well, theoretically, anyway. But I find that right about now is when people tend to start dropping during Nano. First of all there's, well, Thanksgiving. Which even though it's a holiday, involves family, and family is never conducive to marathon writing. (They don't like to lose us to a book, it's just the truth. It brings up all kinds of feelings of abandonment and inadequacy. So - pretend you're going shopping and go to a cafe to write, that's what they're for.)

But also, let's face it, it's EASY to write a first act. It's new, it's fresh, it's exciting, it's like the first flush of being in love. You're so high you don't stop to think, and that means you don't get in your own way.

It can even be not so hard to get through Act II, part 1 to the Midpoint. But it's that third quarter where things get murky. You feel like you're not getting anywhere. In fact, you have no freaking clue where you are, or why in the hell you're wherever the hell you are to begin with, and you just want to give up and sleep for a week, or eat turkey and chocolate for a week, or all of the above.

I had a friend in movie development who called it "the third-quarter drop dead."

Well, here's an interesting thing. Structurally, this is EXACTLY the point in your story that your hero/ine is feeling those exact same things. In other words, it's the BLACK MOMENT, or ALL IS LOST MOMENT, or the VISIT TO DEATH, which almost always ends up as the climax or just before the climax of Act II.

It's as if we as authors have to work ourselves into the exact same hopeless despair as our characters, as if nothing good will ever come out of this situation and we might as well give up right now - in order to convey that emotion on the page and feel that exhilaration when the character SOLVES the problem and gets that final revelation and makes that final plan.

So if you find yourself in this situation, you might want to review the elements of Act II: Part 2, and take a look at some of these questions to see if they might help you find your way.


ACT II:2

In a 2-hour movie this section starts at about 60 minutes, and ends at about 90 minutes.

In a 400-page book, this section starts at about p. 300 and ends toward the end of the book.

Now, remember, at the end of Act II, part 1, there is a MIDPOINT CLIMAX, which I'll review briefly because it's so important.

In movies the midpoint is usually a big SETPIECE scene, where the filmmakers really show off their expertise with a special effects sequence (as in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and HARRY POTTER, 1), or a big action scene (JAWS), or in breathtaking psychological cat-and-mouse dialogue (in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). It might be a sex scene or a comedy scene, or both in a romantic comedy. Whatever the Midpoint is, it is most likely going to be specific to the promise of the genre.

And I strongly encourage you as authors to pay as much attention to your midpoint as filmmakers do with theirs.


THE MIDPOINT –

- Completely changes the game
- Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action
- Is a point of no return
- Can be a huge revelation
- Can be a huge defeat
- Can be a huge win
- Can be a “now it’s personal” loss
- Can be sex at 60 – the lovers finally get together, only to open up a whole new world of problems

(More on MIDPOINT).


Act II, part 2 will almost always have these elements:

* RECALIBRATING– after the shock or defeat of the game-changer in the midpoint, the hero/ine must REVAMP THE PLAN and try a NEW MODE OF ATTACK.

What’s the new plan?

* STAKES

A good story will always be clear about the stakes. Characters often speak the stakes aloud. How have the stakes changed? Do we have new hopes or fears about what the protagonist will do and what will happen to him or her?


* ESCALATING ACTIONS/OBSESSIVE DRIVE

Little actions by the hero/ine to get what s/he wants have not cut it, so the actions become bigger and usually more desperate.

Do we see a new level of commitment in the hero/ine?

How are the hero/ine’s actions becoming more desperate?

* It’s also worth noting that while the hero/ine is generally (but not always!) winning in Act II:1, s/he generally begins to lose in Act II:2. Often this is where everything starts to unravel and spiral out of control.

* INCREASED ATTACKS BY ANTAGONIST

Just as the hero/ine is becoming more desperate to get what s/he wants, the antagonist also has failed to get what s/he wants and becomes more desperate and takes riskier actions.

* HARD CHOICES AND CROSSING THE LINE (IMMORAL ACTIONS by the main character to get what s/he wants)

Do we see the hero/ine crossing the line and doing immoral things to get what s/he wants?

* LOSS OF KEY ALLIES (possibly because of the hero/ine’s obsessive actions, possibly through death or injury by the antagonist).

Do any allies walk out on the hero/ine or get killed or injured?

* A TICKING CLOCK (can happen anywhere in the story, or there may not be one.)

* REVERSALS AND REVELATIONS/TWISTS

* THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL and/or VISIT TO DEATH (also known as: ALL IS LOST).

There is always a moment in a story where the hero/ine seems to have lost everything, and it is almost always right before the Second Act Climax, or it IS the Second Act Climax.

What is the All Is Lost scene?

* In a romance or romantic comedy, the All Is Lost moment is often a THE LOVER MAKES A STAND scene, where s/he tells the loved one – “Enough of this bullshit waffling, either commit to me or don’t, but if you don’t, I’m out of here.” This can be the hero/ine or the love interest making this stand.

THE SECOND ACT CLIMAX

* Often will be a final revelation before the end game: often the knowledge of who the opponent really is, that will propel the hero/ine into the FINAL BATTLE.

* Often will be another devastating loss, the ALL IS LOST scene. In a mythic structure or Chosen One story or mentor story this is almost ALWAYS where the mentor dies or is otherwise taken out of the action, so the hero/ine must go into the final battle alone.

* Answers the Central Question – and often the answer is “no” – so that the hero/ine again must come up with a whole new plan.

* Often is a SETPIECE.

More discussion on Elements Of Act II:2

And here are the elements and questions for Act Three:

ACT THREE

The third act is basically the Final Battle and Resolution. It can often be one continuous sequence – the chase and confrontation, or confrontation and chase. There may be a final preparation for battle, or it might be done on the fly. Either here or in the last part of the second act the hero will make a new, FINAL PLAN, based on the new information and revelations of the second act.

The essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and antagonist. It is often divided into two sequences:

1. Getting there (Storming the Castle) (Sequence 7).

2. The final battle itself (Sequence 8)

* In addition to the FINAL PLAN, there may be another GATHERING OF THE TEAM, and a brief TRANING SEQUENCE.

• There may well be DEFEATS OF SECONDARY OPPONENTS (each one of which should be given a satisfying end or comeuppance. (This may also happen earlier, in Act II:2).

* Thematic Location - often a visual and literal representation of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare
-
* The protagonist’s character change
-
* The antagonist’s character change (if any)

* Possibly ally/allies’ character change (s) and/or gaining of desire (s)

* Possibly a huge final reversal or reveal (twist), or even a whole series of payoffs that you’ve been saving (as in Back to the Future and It’s A Wonderful Life)

* RESOLUTION: A glimpse into the New Way of Life that the hero/ine will be living after this whole ordeal and all s/he’s learned from it.

• Possibly a sense of coming FULL CIRCLE – returning to the opening image or scene and showing how much things have changed, or how the hero/ine has changed inside, causing her or him to deal with the same place and situation in a whole different way.

* Closing Image

More on Act Three:

Elements of Act Three

What Makes a Great Climax?


Elevate Your Ending


Now, I'd also like to remind everyone that this is a basic, GENERAL list. There are story elements specific to whatever kind of story you're writing, and the best way to get familiar with what those are is to do (or take a look at story breakdowns on three (at least) movies or books that are similar to the KIND of story you're writing.

What KIND Of Story Is It?

I hope that there's something there to get you through that third quarter, but I'll post a few more brainstorming tricks this week.

In the meantime, good luck with the family! I mean, Happy Thanksgiving!

- Alex


=====================================================

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)




- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Nanowrimo: Best writing advice

Okay, this has probably been going on forever and I’m just catching on. But I just discovered that the Amazon pages of my books are continually compiling the most highlighted quotes from my books.

To explain for those of you who might not have an e reader - yet - you can highlight passages of books that you read on your Kindle to refer back to at your leisure. Whether or not you, the reader, know that this information is being compiled online is a different question. Some books you might not want to have those special passages highlighted, if you see what I mean.

But the Big Brother aspect is a different post. This highlighted quotes feature is actually totally EXCELLENT news for me because it means today, instead of a long blog post on what I think is important advice, I can just give you a pithy list of what readers think is the best advice in my Screenwriting Tricks books. and you all know how much I love lists.

So here you go:


Top Ten highlighted quotes from Screenwriting Tricks for Authors.



On LOGLINES/PREMISES --


- The premise sentence should give you a sense of the entire story: the character of the protagonist, the character of the antagonist, the conflict, the setting, the tone, the genre.

- All of these premises contain a defined protagonist, a powerful antagonist, a sense of the setting, conflict and stakes, and a sense of how the action will play out.

- Write a one-sentence premise that contains all these story elements: protagonist, antagonist, conflict, stakes, setting, atmosphere and genre.

On a character’s GHOST or WOUND

- We all unconsciously seek out people, events and situations that duplicate our core trauma(s), in the hope of eventually triumphing over the situation that so wounded us.

On CHARACTER ARC:

- The arc of the character is what the character learns during the course of the story, and how s/he changes because of it. It could be said that the arc of a character is almost always about the character realizing that s/he's been obsessed with an outer goal or desire, when what she really needs to be whole, fulfilled, and lovable is _______ (fill in the blank).

On HOPE and FEAR

- Our fear for the character should be the absolute worst case scenario:

- The lesson here is - spend some quality time figuring out how to bring your hero/ine's greatest nightmare to life: in setting, set decoration, characters involved, actions taken. If you know your hero/ine's ghost and greatest fear, then you should be able to come up with a great setting (for the climax/final battle) that will be unique, resonant, and entirely specific to that protagonist (and often to the villain as well.)

On PLAN (and ACT II)


- This continual opposition of the protagonist's and antagonist's plans is the main underlying structure of the second act.

ON CONFLICT/ANTAGONISM

- STACK THE ODDS AGAINST YOUR PROTAGONIST. It's just ingrained in us to love an underdog.

---------------------------------------------------------------------



- Top ten highlighted quotes from Writing Love


- “Every genre has its own game that it’s playing with the audience.”

- The game in the romance genre is often to show, through the hero and heroine, how we are almost always our own worst enemies in love, and how we throw up all kinds of obstacles in our own paths to keep ourselves from getting what we want.

- A great, emotionally effective technique within the final battle is to have the hero/ine LOSE THE BATTLE TO WIN THE WAR.

- This continual opposition of the protagonist’s and antagonist’s plans is the main underlying structure of the second act.

- I’m a firm believer that just ASKING the questions will prompt your creative brain to leap into overdrive and come up with the right scenes. Our minds and souls long to be creative, they just need us to stop stalling and get our asses in gear.


- So once you’ve got your initial plan, you need to be constantly blocking that plan, either with your antagonist, or the hero/ine’s own inner conflict, or outside forces beyond her or his control.


- Very often in the second act we will see a battle before the final battle in which the hero/ine fails because of some weakness, so the suspense is even greater when s/he goes into the final battle (climax) in the third act.


- The final battle (climax) is also a chance to PAY OFF ALL YOUR SETUPS AND PLANTS. Very often you will have set up a weakness for your hero/ine. That weakness that has caused him or her to fail repeatedly in previous tests, and in the final battle (climax) the hero/ine’s great weakness will be tested.


- “Get the hero up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Get him down.”


- After I’ve finished that grueling, hellish first draft, the fun starts. I do layer after layer after layer: different drafts for suspense, for character; sensory drafts, emotional drafts, each concentrating on a different aspect that I want to hone in the story, until the clock runs out and I have to turn the whole thing in.

---

And that happens to be the step I'm on right now, pass after pass after pass. But it's coming together! How's everyone's Nano going?

- Alex

=====================================================

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)




- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Ready, Set, Nano!

It's here - the big day. Big month. Big everything.

The queen of suspense, Mary Higgins Clark, said about first drafts:

Writing a first draft is like clawing my way through a mountain of concrete with my bare hands.

Isn't that the truth?

Well, the point of Nano is to write so fast that you - sometimes - forget that your hands are dripping blood. It's a stellar way of turning off your censor (we all have one of those little suckers) and just get those pages out.

I'll be posting Nano prompts throughout the month, but here's a list of helpful hints if you find yourself stuck.


1. Keep moving forward – DO NOT go back and endlessly revise your first chapters. You may end up throwing them out anyway. Just move forward. If you’re stuck on a scene, just write down vaguely what might happen in it or where it might happen as a place marker and move on to a scene you know better. The first draft can be just a sketch – the important thing is to get it all down, from beginning to end. Then you can start to layer in all the other stuff.

2. Keep the story elements checklist close at hand for easy reference.

- Story Elements Checklist for Generating Index Cards

Or if you prefer the elements in a narrative:

Narrative Structure Cheat Sheet



3. Review the elements of the act you're stuck on.


- Elements of Act One


- Elements of Act Two, Part 1


- Elements of Act Two, Part 2


- Elements of Act Three

- What Makes A Great Climax?


- Elevate Your Ending


- Creating Character


4. As you're writing, you will find out more about your story. Write the premise again, and make sure you have identified and understand the Plan and Central Story Action.

- Plan, Central Question, Central Story Action

- What's the Plan?

- Plan, Central Question, Central Story Action, part 2


5. When you’re stuck - make a list.

- Stuck? Make A List.

6. Do word lists of visual and thematic elements for your story to build your image systems. Start a collage book or online clip file of images if that appeals to you.

- Thematic Image Systems


7. Remember that the first draft is always going to suck.

- Your First Draft Is Always Going To Suck


8. You can always watch movies and do breakdowns to inspire you and break you through a block.

Good luck, everyone - and feel free to stop in and gripe!

- Alex


=====================================================

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)




- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Monday, October 31, 2011

Writing the Dark

I know, we're in the middle of the story elements for Nano, but it's HALLOWEEN, people!

I love - not just the day. October is my favorite month of the year. Always has been – the wind, the lengthening shadows, that subtle chill in the air. I guess that speaks to an early taste for the dark. Is that nature or nurture, I wonder?

I suspect that pretty much every single darker writer of us has at some point gotten the question: “What’s a nice girl/boy like you doing writing stuff like THAT?”

Well, first of all, “nice”? Um… responsible, sure. Compassionate, empathetic, thoughtful. Kind, even. But “nice” isn’t the first word that comes to my mind.
Still, much as I may disagree with the word choice, I know what these nice people are trying to ask.

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm big on identifying THEMES in your work. This is hard to escape when you write horror and crime fiction and are always being asked what life incidents led you to choose this dark genre of ours (some of us darker than others….).

For instance, I realized after seeing the movie ZODIAC that the Zodiac killer was a huge early – influence? Inspiration? Impression? What I mean is, I grew up in California and even years after this guy had dropped off the map, we kids were scaring ourselves senseless by telling ourselves Zodiac stories around the fire at Girl Scout camp. He was our Boogey Man.

A lot of the blame I can put squarely on my father. Dad loved horror and suspense -- books, movies, plays, anything – the house was full of mystery and horror and sci-fi classics, so early on I developed a taste for being scared senseless – possibly in self-defense. Also, Dad grew up in Mexico and that country lives with spirits in a much different way than we do (don’t you just love this month for all of the Dia de Los Muertos art?) Dad had a passel of terrifyingly realistic ghost stories that he’d pull out around the campfire to scare us with. Come to think of it, I had a lot of campfires in my childhood…

Also, since Dad was a scientist and Russian, and attended a lot of scientific conferences that got turned into family road trips, I have early memories of us in the family station wagon being followed by the CIA because, you know, Russians were out to destroy the world at the time. All that ever happened was that they followed us around but naturally I’d spice the whole thing up in my imagination – my first attempts at thrillers.

It’s also only recently occurred to me that perhaps I write ghosts because I went to a haunted high school – specifically, the grand and decrepit old auditorium where I spent most of my high school, rehearsing choir programs and plays, was supposedly haunted by a girl named Vicki who died the night of her prom back in the 20’s. Yes, yes, I know that’s a classic urban legend, but we all believed in Vicki, and there were parts of that auditorium where you just didn’t want to go, alone or with others. Cold spots. Strange noises. Disappearing props.

(But somehow it never once crossed my mind while I was writing THE HARROWING that I was writing about a haunted school because I went to a haunted school. And THE SPACE BETWEEN features a school haunted in an entirely different way.).

Also when I was a teenager I experimented with the paranormal, as teenagers do - ESP, dream interpretation, Tarot, spending the night in graveyards, all that fun stuff (that shows up in everything that I write: And you know, there's a lot more in heaven and earth, Horatio! It never ceases to fascinate me.

I have to admit, though - to me those otherworldly experiences are never as horrifying as the evil that people can do. From the time I was a very young child I was very sensitive to the fact that there's a lot of weirdness out there, and a lot of danger from unstable people. My family did quite a bit of traveling, so along with all the good stuff - great art, ancient cultures, different mores and political beliefs - I was exposed to disturbing images and situations: poverty, desperation, oppression, madness.

I had some pretty scary experiences early on in life that made me convinced that there is actual evil out there – in the form of people who have something terribly wrong with them, who actively want to hurt and destroy. A child molester who’d been trolling the streets around my elementary school tried to grab me one afternoon when I was walking home from school. He was a small and creepy man, and even though I didn’t have any concrete sense of what child molesting was at the time, I knew there was something wrong and dangerous about him and I ran. That was my first full-on experience of what evil looks and feels like, though certainly not my last - and it’s not something you forget or let go.

And I had friends, as we all do, who were not so lucky about escaping predators, and I’ve taught abused kids in the Los Angeles juvenile court system, and my anger about what I’ve seen has fueled a lot of my writing.

There’s more, of course, and once you start thinking of influences, it’s pretty fascinating how much you uncover about your motivations.

But the great, cathartic thing for me about good mysteries, thrillers, horror, suspense - is that you can work through those issues of good and evil. You can walk vicariously into those perilous situations and face your fears and - sometimes - triumph.

So, all, I wondered - what kinds of experiences from real life have made the dark writers of you the dark, twisted souls you are? And for the readers of you – why do you think you seek out this dark, twisted genre?

And it you AREN'T one of those darker souls, have you spent some time thinking about the themes of your work and why you write what you do?

As it's Halloween, there are treats. I just got my author copies of the UK version of my poltergeist thriller, THE UNSEEN, with this fabulous cover (It actually gave me a bad nightmare, and I almost never have nightmares.)

And in anticipation of the e book release, I'll also give away a signed copy of THE HARROWING to a random commenter. Yes, the comment can be a question about Nano!

Happy Halloween, everyone!

- Alex

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Nanowrimo: Elements of Act Two, Part 2

MIDPOINT

All of the first half of the second act – that’s p. 30-60 in a script, p. 100 to p. 200 in a 400-page book, is leading up to the MIDPOINT. So the Midpoint occurs at about one hour into a movie, and at about page 200 in a book.

The Midpoint is one of the most important scenes or sequences in any book or film: a major shift in the dynamics of the story. Something huge will be revealed; something goes disastrously wrong; someone close to the hero/ine dies, intensifying her or his commitment (What I call the “Now it’s personal” scene… imagine Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis growling the line). Often the whole emotional dynamic between characters changes with what Hollywood calls, “Sex at Sixty” (that’s 60 minutes, not sixty years!).
The Midpoint is also often called the MOMENT OF COMMITMENT or the POINT OF NO RETURN or NO TURNING BACK: the hero/ine commits irrevocably to the action.

Often a TICKING CLOCK is introduced at the Midpoint, as we will discuss further in the chapter on Creating Suspense (Chapter 31). A clock is a great way to speed up the action and increase the urgency of your story.

The Midpoint can also be a huge defeat, which requires a recalculation and NEW PLAN of attack. It’s a game-changer, and it locks the hero/ine even more inevitably into the story.

In Sense and Sensibility, the Midpoint is the emotionally wrenching scene in which Lucy Steele reveals to Elinor that she has been secretly engaged to Edward Ferrars for five years. We are so committed to Edward and Elinor’s love that we are as devastated as Elinor is, and just as shocked that Edward would have lied to her. The Midpoint is even more wrenching because Elinor’s sister Marianne has also just been abandoned by her love interest. It’s a double-punch to the gut.

In Notting Hill, Julia Roberts has asked Hugh Grant up to her hotel suite for the first time, and Hugh walks in to find that Julia’s movie star boyfriend, Alec Baldwin, whom Hugh knew nothing about, is already there with her. We know that Hugh’s GHOST is that his ex-wife left him for a man who looked just like Harrison Ford (Alec is pretty close!), and to add to this blow, Alec mistakes Hugh for a room-service waiter and tips him, asking him to clean up while he takes Julia into the bedroom. Total emotional annihilation.

In a romance, the Midpoint is very often sexual or emotional. But the Midpoint can often be one of the most memorable visual SETPIECES of the story, just to further drive its importance home.

Note that the Midpoint is not necessarily just one scene; it can be a double punch as I just pointed out about Sense And Sensibility, and it can also be a progression of scenes and revelations that include a climactic scene, a complete change of location, a major revelation, a major reversal, a cliffhanger – all or any combination of the above.

One of the great Midpoints in theater and film is in My Fair Lady. Talk about a double punch! There is not one iconic song at the Midpoint curtain, but two: first “The Rain In Spain”, in which Eliza finally starts to speak with perfect diction, and Professor Higgins, the Colonel, and Eliza celebrate with wild and joyous dancing: a moment of triumph. Then when the housekeeper takes Eliza upstairs to bed, Higgins privately tells the Colonel that she’s ready: they can test her out in public. He intends to take her to an Embassy ball and pass her off as a lady to win his bet with the Colonel, which Eliza knows nothing about. Meanwhile upstairs, giddy with happiness, Eliza sings “I Could Have Danced All Night”, and we realize she has fallen in love with the Professor.
Not just two of the greatest songs of the musical theater in a row, but all of this SETUP, big HOPE, FEAR, and STAKES. Eliza is in love with Higgins and he’s just using her for a bet. There’s a huge TEST coming up at this ball, and we saw excitable Eliza fail miserably in her first public test at the Ascot races. There’s a penalty of prison for impersonating a lady, so there are not just the emotional stakes of a possible broken heart, but possible prison time.

Do you think anyone was not going to come back into the theater to see what happens at that ball?

Asking a big question like that is a great technique to use at the Midpoint.
A totally different, but equally famous example: in Jaws, the Midpoint climax is actually a whole sequence long: a highly suspenseful setpiece in which the city officials have refused to shut down the beaches, so Sheriff Brody is out there on the beach keeping watch (as if that’s going to prevent a shark attack!), the Coast Guard is patrolling the ocean – and, almost as if it’s aware of the whole plan, the shark swims into an unguarded harbor, where it attacks and swallows a man and for a horrifying moment we think that it has also killed Brody’s son (really it’s only frightened him into near-paralysis). It’s a huge climax and adrenaline rush, but it’s not over yet. Because now the Mayor writes the check to hire Quint to hunt down the shark, and since Brody’s family has been threatened (“Now it’s PERSONAL”), Brody decides to go out with Quint and Hooper on the boat – and there’s also a huge change in location as we see that little boat headed out to the open sea.

But a Midpoint doesn’t have to be a huge action scene. Another interesting and tonally very different Midpoint happens in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’m sure some people would dispute me on this one (and people argue about the exact midpoint of movies all the time), but I would say the Midpoint is the scene that occurs exactly 60 minutes into the film, in which, having determined that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place in the archeological site, Indy goes down into that chamber with the pendant and a staff of the proper height, and uses the crystal in the pendant to pinpoint the exact location of the Ark.

This scene is quiet, and involves only one person, but it’s mystically powerful – note the use of light and the religious quality of the music… and Indy is decked out in robes almost like, well, Moses. Staff and all. Indy stands like God over the miniature of the temple city, and the beam of light comes through the crystal like light from heaven. It’s all a foreshadowing of the final climax, in which God intervenes in much the same way. Very effective, with lots of subliminal manipulation going on. And of course, at the end of the scene, Indy has the information he needs to retrieve the Ark. I would also point out that the Midpoint is often some kind of mirror image of the final climax; it’s an interesting device to use, and you may find yourself using it without even being aware of it.

(I will concede that in Raiders, you could call the Midpoint a two-parter: Indy’s discovery that Marion is still alive is a big twist. But personally I think that scene is part of the next sequence).

It really pays to start taking note of the Midpoints of films and books. If you find that your story is sagging in the middle, the first thing you should look at is your Midpoint scene.

I know this and I still sometimes forget it. When I turned in my poltergeist novel, The Unseen, I knew that I was missing something in the middle, even though there was a very clear change in location and focus at the Midpoint: it’s the point at which my characters actually move into the supposedly haunted house and begin their experiment.

But there was still something missing in the scene right before, the close of the first half, and my editor had the same feeling, without really knowing what was needed, although it had something to do with the motivation of the heroine – the reason she would put herself in that kind of danger. So I looked at the scene before the characters moved in to the house, and lo and behold: what I was missing was “Sex at Sixty”. It’s my heroine’s desire for one of the other characters that makes her commit to the investigation, and I wasn’t making that desire line clear enough.

The Midpoint often LOCKS THE HERO/INE INTO A COURSE OF ACTION, or sometimes, physically locks the hero/ine into a location.

A great recent example is Inception: at the Midpoint, there’s a big action sequence, ending in a gun battle in which one of the allies, Saito (who hired the team to break into this dream) is badly wounded, and the team discovers that they can’t get out of the dream while Saito is unconscious. They’re stuck, perhaps forever, which forces them to devise a new PLAN.

There’s a not-so recent movie called Ghost Ship, about a salvage crew investigating a derelict ocean liner which has mysteriously appeared out in the middle of the Bering Straight, after being lost without a trace for forty years. At the Midpoint, the salvage crew’s own boat mysteriously catches on fire and sinks (taking one of the crew with it), forcing the entire crew to board the haunted ocean liner. They are physically locked into the situation, now, and their original PLAN – to tow the ocean liner back to shore – must change; they now have to repair the ocean liner and sail her out of the Strait. This development also solves the perennial problem of haunted house – or haunted ship – stories: “Why don’t the characters just leave?”

It’s a great Midpoint scene for all of the above reasons, plus it’s a great visual and action setpiece: the explosion of the salvage boat, the rescue (and loss) of crew members, and the suspense of who will get out of the water and on to the ocean liner alive.

RECALIBRATING THE PLAN

The game-changing action of the Midpoint will very often cause the hero/ine to have to recalibrate the PLAN.

In Sense And Sensibility, the PLAN was for Elinor and Marianne to marry well (hopefully for love), and secure their family’s future. At the Midpoint, their initial hopes for marriage are crushed, and immediately afterward the Mentor character, Mrs. Jennings, proposes a NEW PLAN: to take the sisters to London for “the Season”, where she is sure she can marry them off.

In While You Were Sleeping, Lucy’s PLAN is to continue pretending to be Peter’s fiancée to keep his family happy while he’s in the coma (partly to keep his grandmother from having a heart attack). At the Midpoint, Peter wakes from the coma, and now Lucy plans to confess the ruse to the family (but it’s complicated…)

As always, however the hero/ine decides to change the plan, it’s useful to state it aloud.

ESCALATING ACTIONS/ OBSESSIVE DRIVE

Now the actions your hero/ine takes toward his or her goal will become larger and increasingly obsessive. Small actions have not cut it, and there may also have been a big failure at the Midpoint, so it’s time for desperate measures.

In fact, I’ve noticed that in a lot of stories, the hero/ine tends to be winning throughout Act II, part 1, but after the Midpoint, in Act II, part 2, the hero/ine suddenly starts to lose, and lose big.

Losing leads to escalating actions by the hero/ine, and these escalating actions will often lead to HARD CHOICES and CROSSING THE LINE: The hero/ine actually starts doing things that are against character, self-destructive, or downright immoral. You see Bill Murray start to self-destruct and lash out at everyone around him in Act II:2 of Groundhog Day after Andie MacDowell rejects him (and rejects him again, and again, and again!) at the Midpoint.

And often the hero/ine will LOSE SUPPORT FROM KEY ALLIES when s/he begins to cross the line.

ESCALATING ACTIONS/ATTACKS BY ANTAGONIST

In Act II:2, the antagonist is escalating his or her actions as well – because of course, s/he hasn’t won yet, either, and is getting frustrated, and probably tired. The attacks are more brutal, and often more lethal. In suspense, very often the most intense action sequences happen during this third quarter, and this is another place that the hero/ine’s ally or allies may be killed. In a romantic comedy, this is where everything starts to spiral out of control (Tootsie is a great example, as we see Michael’s double life start to run him ragged).

THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL (ALL IS LOST)

This third quarter of your story is almost certainly going to contain a scene or sequence which since the ancient Greeks has been called THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL, also known as ALL IS LOST, or APPARENT DEFEAT, or THE BLACK MOMENT, or VISIT TO DEATH (which may also be a separate scene). The detective is thrown off the case, the crucial lawsuit is dismissed, a key witness is killed, an ally walks out. In The Wizard of Oz it’s when Dorothy is locked in the witch’s tower with that huge red hourglass. The hero/ine metaphorically dies in this scene, and often it’s because a loved one has actually died.

Yet like the phoenix, rising from the ashes, the hero/ine also formulates one last desperate plan, or figures out the missing piece of the puzzle, and comes out of the long dark night even more determined to win.

In lighter romance, the All Is Lost Scene is very, very often a scene I call THE LOVER MAKES A STAND. In this scene the Lover, the one who loves most deeply, basically says to the Loved One: “I’m not going to take your bullshit any more. Make up your mind. Either commit to me or don’t, but if you don’t, I’m out of here.”

In It’s Complicated: Steve Martin tells Meryl Streep that she’s not done with Alec yet, and Steve doesn’t want to see her while she’s still emotionally involved with him. In Notting Hill: Hugh Grant tells Julia Roberts in the bookstore that between her “foul temper” and his far less experienced heart, he doesn’t think he would recover from being discarded again, and turns down her offer to date. In When Harry Met Sally, Sally refuses Harry’s offer to go to the New Year’s party as a friendly date: “I’m not your consolation prize, Harry.”

In all of the above scenes, the Lover’s Stand forces the Loved One to step up and commit just as deeply as the Lover is committed. But it seems that very, very, very often, it’s one character, the Lover, who has to force the issue.

Also in romance, the All Is Lost moment is often the scene in which the WRONG PERSON PROPOSES (or the hero/ine proposes to the wrong person!) and All Is Lost because the hero/ine, for whatever reason, foolishly accepts.

This scene is usually very near the climax of the second act (either right before it or right after it) because it’s such a boost of energy to go from losing everything to gaining that key piece of knowledge that will power the hero/ine through the final confrontation to the end. In fact, the All Is Lost Moment is so big it often serves as the Act II Climax (page 90 of a script, page 300 or so of a novel).

But the Act Two Climax can also be a final revelation before the end game.

In suspense, it’s a very common storytelling device that the hero/ine’s main ally is revealed to be an enemy, or the main enemy, and it also often happens also that the hero/ine’s enemy is revealed to be more of a friend than we ever suspected (a classic example of this is Chief Renault in Casablanca, who not only covers for Rick’s murder of the Nazi Strasser, but junks his post to go fight the Nazis with Rick). This device can work just as well in romance, as we see in New In Town, when Lucy realizes her real antagonists are the executives of her own company, who are about to close the factory that Lucy has come to love. This is quickly followed by a great revelation that Lucy might be able to save the factory, and all the workers’ jobs, by using her ally Blanche’s secret tapioca recipe. And shortly after that, her biggest antagonist, the factory foreman, becomes her biggest ally in revamping the factory.

The second act climax is another place that you might start a TICKING CLOCK (although a clock can begin at virtually any time in a story).

Also usually at the climax of Act Two, the CENTRAL QUESTION of the story, that was asked in the first act, is answered. And here’s an interesting structural paradigm to consider. In a lot of stories, the answer is often: No.

In The Proposal, the Central Question is: “Will Margaret and Andrew be able to successfully fake a marriage and pass the INS test on Monday?” But at the Act II Climax, as Margaret prepares to walk down the aisle in front of Andrew’s family, she realizes she can’t go through with it. Andrew deserves more than a fake marriage. She confesses the ruse, apologizes to the family, and walks out on the wedding to surrender herself to the INS.

This is a good example of how the hero/ine is often pursuing the wrong goal, and has to give up on what s/he thought she wanted in order to get what she truly needs. If you put that moment at the Act Two Climax, it plays as a TWIST, which is always a great thing in storytelling.

There’s one more general point I’d like to make about Act II, Part 2. In shorter films and stories, this is the section that is most often shortened and compressed. There’s a big buildup in Act II, Part 1, and then after the Midpoint reversal, a quick slide into chaos and an All Is Lost moment in Act II, Part 2. And very often romances are shorter stories than other genres, and from what I’ve seen, it definitely holds true that Act II:2 is the section that is most often shortened.

Just something to keep in mind!

Next, Act Three – the FINAL BATTLE and RESOLUTION.

- Alex

And if you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, I strongly recommend that you watch at least one and much better, three of the films I break down in the workbooks, following along with my notes.

I do full breakdowns of Chinatown, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Romancing the Stone, and The Mist, and act breakdowns of You've Got Mail, Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, Raiders of the Lost Ark in Screenwriting Tricks For Authors.

I do full breakdowns of The Proposal, Groundhog Day, Sense and Sensibility, Romancing the Stone, Leap Year, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, While You Were Sleeping and New in Town in Writing Love.


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- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE

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