Monday, February 21, 2011

First Chapters

I’ve learned a lot from reading a bunch of first chapters in a row. (I started this discussion here. ) I maintain I can’t teach anyone to write, but I sure can point out the problems I’m seeing over and over and over again. So here’s a brief list.

1. Inexperienced writers almost inevitably START THEIR STORIES IN THE WRONG PLACE.

Now, please, please remember – I am not talking about first drafts, here. As far as I’m concerned, all a first draft has to do is get to “The End”. It doesn’t have to be polished. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. At the Southern California Writers Conference this weekend screenwriter and novelist Derek Haas referred to his first pass of a story as “the vomit draft”. Exactly. Just get it all out – you’ll make sense of it later. (for more on this: Your First Draft Is Always Going To Suck)

BUT - when you’ve gotten to the end, you will probably want to start your story 20, 30, 50 pages later than you do. And this is partly why:

For some reason newer writers think they have to tell the whole back story in the first ten pages. Back story is not story. So -


With almost no exceptions, you should start your book with an actual scene, in which your main character (or villain, if that’s who you start with) is caught up in action. You should put that scene down on the page as if the reader is watching a movie – or more specifically, CAUGHT UP in a movie. The reader should not just be watching the action, but feeling the sweat, smelling the salt air, feeling the roiling of their stomach as they step into whatever unknown.

We don’t need to know who this person is, yet. Let them keep secrets. Make the reader wonder – curiosity is a big hook. What we need to do is get inside the character’s skin.

Here are two tips:


I cannot possibly stress this enough. We read novels to have an EXPERIENCE. Make yourself a list of your favorite books and identify what EXPERIENCE those books gives you. Sex, terror, absolute power, the crazy wonderfulness of falling in love? What is the particular rollercoaster that that book (or movie) is? Identify that in your favorite stories and BE SPECIFIC. Then do the same for your own story.

Now that you know what the experience is that you want to create, start to look at great examples of books and films that successfully create that experience FOR YOU. In other words - Make A List.


A great exercise is to make sure that every three pages you’ve covered specific details of what you want the reader to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense. All six categories, every three pages.


This is one of those notes that always annoys me until I have to read 15 pages of “telling”. Then I realize it’s the essence of storytelling. If your character has a conflict with her brother, then let’s see the two of them fighting – don’t give me a family history and Freudian analysis.


You don’t need to detail the family tree or when they moved to whatever house they’re living in or their great love for their first stuffed animal.

What we need to know their DESIRE and WHAT IS BLOCKING THEM. We need to feel HOPE AND FEAR for them. We need to get a sense of the GENRE, a strong sense of MOOD and TONE, and a hint of THEME.

And -


You can do this to some extent by setting mood, tone, genre, hope and fear, and an immediate external problem, but also I mean you should get to your INCITING INCIDENT and CALL TO ADVENTURE as soon as possible. Especially if you are a new writer, you cannot afford to hold this back. It can make or break your submission, so find a way to get it into the first few pages or at the very least, strongly hint at it.

And for more discussion and examples of all of these terms, see ELEMENTS OF ACT ONE.

In the next few posts I'm going to get even more detailed about these story elements.

Hope everyone has a great holiday. I'm - well, obviously - working.

- 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, February 16, 2011

That elusive voice

I've decided for the next month or two to go back into some of these posts and revise and expand them with some of the things I've been learning over the last year from writing and teaching, starting with expanding the Story Elements Checklist.

But even before that, I wanted to post about VOICE, especially because of the last couple of articles I've posted on rewriting a screenplay into a novel.

For Screenwriters Who Might Be Wondering

How To Turn Your Screenplay Into A Novel

Voice is definitely an element of screenwriting as well, but it's much, much more prominent in novels.

I accidentally agreed to read some first chapter submissions for an upcoming conference (or the conference organizer figured out I’m a Pisces and just pretended I agreed to it so I’d have to do it, which actually would work like a charm. Hmm… and that would be just like him, too.)

This is not something I ordinarily do because I’m so much more comfortable teaching plotting and structure – and rewriting! – than I am teaching more basic writing writing, which I tend to believe can only be self-taught. I know how to write because I spent however many dozens of years journaling, starting at age four (my mother was a teacher and insisted that my siblings and I write every day. First a sentence, then a paragraph, then a page. Let me tell you – it worked.). That’s not something you can recreate in a workshop, any more than you can teach someone to play the piano in a workshop or teach someone to dance or paint in a workshop. The authors I know ARE writers; they may just have gotten around to writing a first book, but inevitably, in whatever way, they have been writers for dozens of years.

So I am reading these first chapters, and realizing that I am absolutely right – I cannot teach these people to write. Some of them can write already, and some of them can’t. I can make suggestions to all of them to improve what they have handed in to me. And actually the suggestions would pretty much be along the same lines to all of them. But the ones who can write will take my suggestions and end up with better first chapters – or they’ll ignore me completely and their chapters will still be good, possibly better than they would be if they tried to rewrite them.

And the ones who can’t write can take those suggestions and incorporate them until the cows come home and – I’m afraid – they are still never going to have chapters that would be of any interest to any editor.

These are not terrible writers I’m talking about, either. The writing is not uneducated, or laughable. That’s sort of what makes this kind of thing so painful to see.

And it occurs to me that this is mainly what editors are talking about when they talk about VOICE. I think there’s some confusion on this issue because a lot of times when people talk about voice they’re talking about how a character narrates a story – especially those first-person narrations. If they’re clever and witty and self-deprecating or use a lot of hip words, then a lot of people call that “voice”. I also hear “voice” used to describe an author’s unique storytelling –I mean the author’s character, or persona, as it comes through the story.

But there’s a more important voice that makes a book – and I mean literally MAKES a book. And that is the way an author puts a bunch of images, actions, thoughts, emotions and sensations into an order, in words, that puts a reader into the action and makes a reader have the exact experience that the characters are having – just like being inside a dream or a movie.

That is the real and completely elusive magic of storytelling – that an author can make all those disparate elements play as an engaging, unbroken whole – that literally becomes more important to the reader than their own consciousness. Because it’s true, isn’t it? When we read, we give up our own consciousness, our ego awareness, to the book, to the story.

I don’t know if this makes any sense at all, but voice is like the unspoken narrative that makes a dream seem to make sense at the time that you dream it. It gives the action cohesion.

Okay, here's another analogy. I was a theater director, mostly musical theater, and I've sat through many an audition. This is always an excruciatingly tense thing in the first couple of seconds of a song, because you do not know if the person in front of you is actually going to be able to sing or not. You are bracing yourself - physically bracing yourself, for the very real possibility that this person will not be able to pull off a song at all, which is actually very sad and painful.

Most of us now get to have this special experience with televised American Idol tryouts, right?

And when that person starts the song, and they really can sing, there is first a relief, and then a relaxation, a giving over into that person's hands, because you know they're not going to drop you. You can commit to that song, that performance, because of the singer's confidence. They're going to do the work and make it not seem like work, and carry you along.

Same with writing. The first page, the first chapter, has to convey that confidence in storytelling that will make the reader relax and give herself or himself over to you. They are putting themselves in your hands. But the thing that makes them have that trust is VOICE.

I would not exactly say that ALL published authors have this skill, or gift… not as far as I’m concerned. But they obviously have that gift enough to make other people (agents, editors, readers) give their consciousness up to their stories. And most of the time, annoying as I find these authors, I would have to reluctantly concede that they have at least that much skill – compared to unpublished authors.

I’ve taught enough now to know that some things about writing CAN be taught successfully, so I find this question of voice very interesting, and, like most unknowns - scary.

Is there a way to teach it, I wonder? Or is it like perfect pitch – you can fine-tune it, but if you don’t have it, you don’t?

Now, there are obvious, easily definable problems with some of these first chapters I'm reading. I think a first chapter carries the whole weight of the book with it. It has to convey mood, tone, genre, foreshadowing, stakes, urgency main character need and desire, setting, theme (especially, especially, ESPECIALLY theme) – and a dozen other things I’m not awake enough to list - and the absolute sense that this is a journey that we want to take. (Note I didn't mention "a great first line". I am not one of the cult of the first line).

And a first chapter doesn’t have to be explosive or perfect to convey those things, either. If an author has written a book worth reading, the first chapter will communicate that (partly because if it hasn’t, the author will have rewritten the chapter or started over with a new chapter that introduces the book convincingly.)

So I can tell these writers that they need to be conveying mood, tone, genre, foreshadowing, stakes, urgency, main character need and desire, setting, THEME, etc., in their first chapters. And I can make very concrete suggestions about how to bring those things out.

The problem is, I don’t think that’s going to do a thing to improve the voice of a book.

And – I’m not sure if I’ve ranted about this before, here, but I think contests put far, far, far too much emphasis on endlessly rewriting the first three chapters when there’s no book there to begin with.

Maybe the only advice to give people who haven’t discovered voice is – keep writing. Write whole books. And find a critique group that will let you read your work aloud, where it becomes immediately evident if voice is there or not.

Except that even in that situation, if a writer doesn’t have voice, it doesn’t seem evident to them at all.


So here’s my question. Authors, can you actually tell us how you learned voice? Have you ever encountered a teacher who was able to teach voice (or even adequately explain it)? How do you define voice? Readers, do you read for voice, and how would you define or explain it?

If you're in So Cal, I'm doing some Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workshops and signing at the Southern California Writers Conference in San Diego this weekend.

Info and Schedule


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, February 13, 2011

Turn your screenplay into a novel

Ten easy steps for screenwriters to turn that unproduced script into a novel.

Well, okay, not entirely easy, but doable.

(Previously published in Written By, the journal of the WGAw, as How To Become A Novelist In Your Spare Time.)

1. I bet you have that unproduced script that you’ve always secretly thought would make a great novel. Pull that out and let yourself remember everything you loved about it. If it’s been sold or optioned in the past, consult with your lawyer and the guild Contracts Department to make sure you have the unencumbered right to write a novel.

2. Now, take that script, and format it as a Word Document, double-spaced. Look at that! You have 80 (rough) pages of a novel already!

3. Now, start at page one and start adding words, images, descriptions – all that stuff that we have to compress and combine and edit and shorthand when we’re writing a script. When I was writing The Harrowing and The Price I really did think of the process as directing onto the page (Cast it, production design it, light it, score it, edit it…). You will be shocked at how quickly in this process you will find the point of view and the voice of your narrator or point-of-view character – which is truly the most fun part of writing a novel. You’ve read a million books – the fact is you actually know how to do this already.

4. Work on the novel every day. Even if it’s only five stolen minutes at a time. Commit to it and your creative mind will realize you’re serious and work overtime to make it happen.

5. Start to familiarize yourself with the publishing industry through the vast number of internet resources available to you. I’ve compiled a list, with links, of everything I wish I had known about publishing before I broke in, and tons of free resources available to authors (I've compiled some links on my website.)

6. Find a great critique group or a critique buddy. It’s a sad fact that overworked and underpaid editors don’t edit much any more, and they expect authors to get intensive editing notes from critique groups or beta readers.

7. Read your work aloud. Your entire book. To yourself or others. There is no better way to catch errors and awkwardnesses, and polish the flow and pacing of a novel, than reading aloud.

8. When the book is wonderful and amazing, the best you can make it, use your film agent to help you get a literary agent. That’s your fastest route in. But also, literary agents are far more accessible than film agents; they actually go to writing conferences specifically to meet aspiring authors and hear pitches.

9. Network in the genre community (ies) that suits your book. Authors are mindblowingly supportive of up-and-coming authors, and there are blogs and message boards where you can meet authors who can do worlds to help you, from passing your book on to their agent (really!) to providing you with those all-important blurbs for the cover.

10. Know that you can do this! There is nothing different about it but the medium – it’s all writing. At the very least, you owe it to yourself to try.

- Alexandra Sokoloff

Thursday, February 10, 2011

For screenwriters who might be wondering....

I did a publishing panel at the Writers Guild this week and people have been asking me for the article and steps from a Written By article I wrote, so here it is. I'll find the sidebar of steps/process for rewriting a script to a novel, and post that, too.


Bottoming Out... For Good

I was having too good a time to realize I was miserable.

For a while it was great – on the surface. My screenwriting partner and I wrote original scripts - thrillers, which mostly sold, and got hired to do assignments, sometimes off original pitches, some novel adaptations. I was getting paid well to do what I love, working with wildly talented people – and some assholes – but mostly, truly, incredibly talented and passionate and fascinating people.

Yes, I was getting frustrated about writing so much and not having anything made. Yes, it was always devastating to be fired off an original script. But we were taking steps to take more power.

We’d figured out that the best possible working and creative circumstance was to have a director attached from the beginning, so I had written a low-budget original script, a ghost story (or maybe not!) set on a college campus, that we kept control over to attach our dream director, and we got him right out of the box. He loved the script, and got it; it was a perfect working relationship. I hadn’t been so psyched about a project… maybe ever.

That original script also got us hired on an adaptation of a book my partner and I were both very excited about, a supernatural thriller based on a famous parapsychology experiment that had always compelled us. Two dream projects. I was on top of the world.

And then things started to go south. We lost our director to another movie that got its financing together first. And the production companies attached to the book we were adapting reversed power roles and suddenly we were faced with starting over, a page one rewrite, with no extra money offered for the extra work (a situation that seems to be happening alarmingly frequently these days, the “one-step deal” that turns into a neverending nightmare).

Coming on top of losing our director, it was just too much. I was crying every night, and I’m not a cryer. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so completely low and lost. I’d done everything I knew to do to take control of my career and creative happiness… but now here we were, slogging away at this book, on a subject that we easily could have written ourselves, and the author was collecting option checks while we were in the depths of development hell…

And I knew we would never get a director I loved as much as the one we had just lost…

But this is what was really killing me. What had become clear to me, through all of that despair, is that we only have a certain number of years to do our work. And so far, as a screenwriter (unlike when I’d been in theater), I was doing work that never saw true completion. My characters and worlds were languishing in some kind of limbo, unheard, unseen, unrealized. I owed them more than that.

That’s when I snapped. In the best possible way.

Okay, fine. We lost our director? I’d direct the thing myself. And I wouldn’t be begging anyone to please let me do it. I’d do it on paper. As a novel.

And so while we pounded out that adaptation that wouldn’t die, I took my original script, The Harrowing, and started adapting that - into a novel. Even if I could only write a paragraph at the end of the day, I would force myself to do it. And that paragraph would turn into a page, or two, or five… and in a shockingly short number of months, I had the first draft of the book. People always ask me if it was hard to make the transition from screenwriting to novel writing, but it was no harder than any writing ever is. Writing is writing. We screenwriters know all that internal stuff about our characters anyway – now I didn’t have to hold back.

I got myself into a great novel critique group and rewrote the book several times with their excellent feedback, and when I was making them gasp when I read certain chapters aloud, I knew I’d done it.

So I gave the book to my infinitely patient and supportive film agents at The Gersh Agency, and they hooked me up with a great New York literary agent within a week, and he sold the book to St. Martin’s Press in a two-book deal two weeks later.

That part was so fast and effortless I knew I had done precisely the right thing. And from there a whole new world opened up to me. I am so much happier writing novels. It’s grueling, brain-draining work, but the payoff is tremendous. Now the work I do is complete when I finish it, and every time a reader writes me about one of my books, it gives me the energy to keep plowing through the next one. All that rage that I was not even aware I had has disappeared, because I’m doing the work I was meant to do.

I can do the best writing I know how to do up front, undiluted. I learn and get better with each book I write. And my timing was – fortuitous, to say the least. I locked in my book contracts, plus multiple foreign sales, before the strike, so I had lots of work mapped out for me without having to worry about not being able to take film jobs. And I got three more book deals and more foreign sales before the, uh, global financial collapse, so I am peacefully, if judiciously, making my living writing while the economic situation gets better, which I know it is.

My only regret about it all is that I didn’t do this years ago.

From my time on the WGAw Board of Directors and various guild committees, and on the message board, I know that screenwriters often feel powerless. We’re not. We have the ultimate power – we create worlds. And these days we have more media than ever to work in. The film industry is changing, the publishing industry is changing, and it all seems scary and chaotic - but we have the keys to the kingdom. We’re storytellers.

I know now that sometimes you have to bottom out to realize that even if things seem to be going along fine on the surface, what you are doing is NOT WORKING. Those moments of despair force you to confront what you really want, and to take responsibility for your own happiness, creative and otherwise.

No one can keep you from telling your stories but you.

Now I’ve written the book about that parapsychology experiment that’s always fascinated me. And anyone who wants it - can come to me.

- Alexandra Sokoloff

Former WGAw Board member Alexandra Sokoloff is the Thriller Award-winning author of the supernatural thrillers The Harrowing, The Price, The Unseen, Book of Shadows, and The Shifters. Her novels have been nominated for Bram Stoker, Anthony, and Black Quill awards; the New York Times Book Review called her books “Some of the most original and freshly unnerving work in the genre."