Sunday, September 30, 2012

October is Nanowrimo PREP month!

Oh my God, October tomorrow, how did that happen? (Did you see the Huntress Moon last night? Still huge this morning...)

So do you remember what October is? Yes, right, Halloween.  But it's also the month before Nanowrimo, which means it's Nanowrimo PREP month.

(This is actually the one thing I hate about Nano - why did it have to be in November so if I do a novel prep series it has to be in October, the busiest month of the year for me and all my, you know, supernatural thrillers?)

But that's okay, I'm psyched anyway. Fall is my favorite season. Maybe it’s that Halloween thing, maybe it’s the “back to school” energy, maybe it’s the Santa Ana winds (that were so much a part of my life growing up in Southern California that I made them a character in The Space Between), maybe it’s just that you get a jolt of ambition because it gets cooler and your brain returns to some functional temperature.

Because it’s sort of ingrained in us (whether we like it or not), that fall is the beginning of a new school year, I think fall is a good time for making resolutions. Like, if you're an author, about that new book you’re going to be writing for the next year or so.

I’m sure many if not most here are aware that November is Nanowrimo – National Novel Writing Month. As explained at the official site here, and here and here, the goal of Nanowrimo is to bash through 50,000 words of a novel in a single month.

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

Nanowrimo works.

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

I’m always asked to do Nanowrimo “pep talks”. These are always in the month of November.

That makes no sense to me.

I mean, I’m happy to do it, but mid-November is way too late for that kind of thing. What people should be asking me, and other authors that they ask to do Nano support, is Nano PREP talks.

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

Because even if you never look at that prep work again, your brilliant subconscious mind will have been working on it for you for a whole month. Let’s face it – we don’t do this mystical thing called writing all by ourselves, now, do we?

So once again, I'm going to do a Nano prep series and hopefully get some people not just to commit to Nano this year, but to give them a chance to really make something of the month.

Here's the first thing to consider:

How do you choose the next book you write? (Or the first, if it's your first?)

I know, I know, it chooses you. That’s a good answer, and sometimes it IS the answer, but it’s not the only answer. And let’s face it – just like with, well, men, sometimes the one who chooses you is NOT the one YOU should be choosing. What makes anyone think it’s any different with books?

It’s a huge commitment, to decide on a book to write. That’s a minimum of six months of your life just getting it written, not even factoring in revisions and promotion. You live in that world for a long, long time. Not only that, but if you're a professional writer, you're pretty much always going to be having to work on more than one book at a time. You're writing a minimum of one book while you're editing another and always doing promotion for a third.

So the book you choose to write is not just going to have to hold your attention for six to twelve months or longer with its world and characters, but it's going to have to hold your attention while you're working just as hard on another or two or three other completely different projects at the same time. You're going to have to want to come back to that book after being on the road touring a completely different book and doing something that is both exhausting and almost antithetical to writing (promotion).

That's a lot to ask of a story.

So how does that decision process happen?

When on panels or at events, I have been asked, “How do you decide what book you should write?” I have not so facetiously answered: “I write the book that someone writes me a check for.”

That’s maybe a screenwriter thing to say, and I don’t mean that in a good way, but it’s true, isn’t it?

Anything that you aren’t getting a check for, you’re going to have to scramble to write, steal time for – it’s just harder. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, or that it doesn’t produce great work, but it’s harder.

As a professional writer, you’re also constricted to a certain degree by your genre, and even more so by your brand. I’m not allowed to turn in a chick lit story, or a flat-out gruesome horrorfest, or probably a spy story, either. Once you’ve published you are a certain commodity. Even now that I'm e publishing, too, and am not so constrained by my publishers' expectations, I have to take my readers into account.

If you are writing a series, you're even more restricted. You have a certain amount of freedom about your situation and plot but – you’re going to have to write the same characters, and if your characters live in a certain place, you’re also constricted by place. Now that I’m doing my Huntress series, I am learning that every decision I make about the books is easier in a way, because so many elements are already defined, but it’s also way more limiting than my standalones and I could see how it would get frustrating.

If you have an agent, then input from her or him is key, of course - you are a team and you are shaping your career together. Your agent will steer you away from projects that are in a genre that is glutted, saving you years of work over the years, and s/he will help you make all kinds of big-pitcure decisions.

But what I’m really interested in right now is not the restrictions but the limitless possibilities. I'll get more specific next post.

For now let's just think about it, and discuss:

- How DO you decide what to write?  And do you know what you're working on for Nano?

- And even more importantly – How do you decide what to READ?

Because I have a theory that it’s actually the same answer, but we’ll see.

Now, a couple of announcements:

1. This week I'm off to Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention - I'm absolutely thrilled to be doing a panel with my idols Val McDermid and Elizabeth George, and also to be performing with Heather Graham, F. Paul Wilson, and the Slushpile band at the House of Blues on Friday night (e mail me at alex AT alexandrasokoloff DOT com) if you want a free ticket). And of course partying the rest of the time. I mean, you know, networking.


Date: Friday, October 5, 2012

Time: 1:30 p.m.-2:20 p.m.

Location: Ambassador Room- double check the program book before your  
panel as a location could change.

Subject: How can an author convincingly write from the point of view  
of the opposite sex?

Book signings will be held in the bookroom immediately after the  

2. If you DO NOT have the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbook and you want it for Nook, this is your last day to get it for the next three months.  I'm very sorry about that, but as I've blogged about here, it's costing me a fortune not to have at least one of the workbooks in the Kindle Select program. However, all the story structure you could ever need is in the second workbook, Writing Love, available in all e formats, so I refuse to feel guilty about it.

Happy Fall, everyone...

- 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.

- 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

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Getting Real - the Writers Police Academy

I love the smell of cordite in the morning.  

Okay, someone just had to scrape Lee Lofland off the ceiling. NO. You DO NOT smell cordite after gunfire. Not since WW II, anyway. I know that now because last weekend I attended Lee's Writers Police Academy.

Lee Lofland, a former police detective and author of the Writers Digest bestselling book Police Procedure and Investigation (a must-have!) is not only a law enforcement professional who knows the job inside and out, but a writer who understands what other writers need to learn from law enforcement professionals in order to do OUR best work. And knowing that, he's assembled a cast of characters any one of whom could easily be the star of their own series. Because it's not about the facts, it's about the people. And wow, the people.  (Photos by Patti Phillips and Julie Goyette.).


So I walk into my first forensics investigation workshop and the incarnation of my agent from Huntress Moon turns from the whiteboard.  I thought I was hallucinating, or having one of those dreams where... well, never mind that.  Dave Pauly, forensics professor at Methodist University in NC, has a resume that’s half Indiana Jones, half Jack Reacher. He team-taught with Robert Skiff – two of these for the price of one! (When I first arrived at the conference I wondered why 90 percent of the attendees were women. That got cleared up for me in the first hour. Testosterone was rolling down those corridors in waves...)

Skiff is more of a scientist, the training manager at Sirchie, a leading manufacturer of fingerprinting and forensics supplies. I may not know every single detail I need to know about blood spatter, print impressions, cold cases, and alternative light sources to finish my sequel - but let me tell you, after a day of forensics classes and demos with these two instructors, I am a lot closer than I was a week ago.

Then there was Corporal Dee Jackson, of the Guilford County Sheriff's Department. A former Marine, one of the very first women to go into combat in the Gulf War, and if anyone ever thought a woman isn't capable of the most intensive combat duty? Look no further than Dee, here playing a bad guy in a simulated shootout.

She is hilarious, profound, such a great comic and physical actor it floors me she hasn't been scooped up by Hollywood, and committed to her mission in a way that literally halts your breath. The whole room - male, female, animal, vegetable, mineral - just stops when she walks in.
Katherine Ramsland. My first time meeting this powerhouse after reading a half-dozen of her forensics psychology books (and her brilliant biography of Anne Rice, Prism of the Night).  This woman has LIVED with death in a way most of us will never comprehend, and she is deep, funny, philosophical and mesmerizing.

And talk about powerhouse women.... I lived in L.A. during the Simpson trials and meeting Marcia Clark was like meeting a movie star. Her lecture on putting a case together for the prosecution was stellar, and she is a warm, witty, encompassingly charismatic human being. Thrilled to know her!

Andy Russell, one of the main organizers of the conference, was one of our Firearms Training Simulator (FATS) instructors. Somehow he managed not to break into hysterical laughter at my first attempts to heft a handgun, and in fact gave me some useful tips ("Try not to drop the magazine") with a straight face. 

On a later panel he kicked off a series of stories that made me understand that people go into law enforcement mainly because every other call or traffic stop turns out to involve a naked perp.
Marco Conelli, a retired NYC undercover cop (now YA mystery author) is such a doll I was in total fear for him just listening to his buy and bust stories (narrated in a voice just like Woody Allen's). You could see him slipping back into his junkie persona as he described the scenes. Fascinating. 

This was my schedule:

Thursday night: Jail Tour (a post in itself)

Friday: Impressions Evidence, Cold Case Investigation, Building Searches, Blood Spatter Analysis, Forensic Anthropology.

Saturday: Anatomy of an Undercover Detective, FATS Training, Arrest and Handcuffing Techniques, Personal Survival Training for Women, Building a Case for the Prosecution.

The only frustration was not being able to take absolutely every workshop on offer. 

Probably halfway into the second day, a lovely and radiant EMS technician, one that I can tell you for sure you would want there with you if you were, you know, dying, turned to me in the elevator between classes and said, "How can you possibly describe any of this?"

And I really wanted to answer her, and it's a hard answer.  What I said was something like - "You have to put across enough of the science for a reader to kind of understand but it's not ABOUT the science.  It's about making the science real enough that readers will give themselves over to the EXPERIENCE you're trying to create for them, which is about the searing passion of wanting to help people and the live wire adrenaline rush of fear and danger and commitment, and the intimacy of doing this job with people who are as skilled and committed as you are and who understand good and evil and pure life force the way you do and the way that no one who hasn't done the job will ever know. It's not about the science practically at all, it's about the way you guys move, and the way ninhydrin crystals look in the light, and the things you say to each other and your twisted sense of humor and your absolute radiant love for all of it."

I said some of that, not enough of it, because you can't possibly say enough.

Some of these courses redefine the concept of adrenaline rush.  Lt. Randy Shepherd (aka Honeybuns, and yes, the moniker is accurate) put a squad of fifteen of us through our paces during Building Searches.  We've all seen this on a million TV shows, but now I have some grasp of the choreography and the constantly changing, split-second decision/dynamics of a bust like this - I have the flow of it in my BODY, and because it's my own particular job as a writer to do so, I know I can put the experience of it onto the page for someone else to live through. I have been menaced and I have been shot at and I know the exact weight of the shield and the vest and the gun and I know the paralyzing fear of having to grasp ALL possible dangers behind ALL doors and windows and fireplace screens (even when there was no real danger there for me) and I know for damn sure that I am hopelessly inadequate and yet that I may still somehow survive... somehow... if I can manage not to kill anyone on MY OWN SIDE.

That is a hell of a lot to learn in a two-hour class.  And that's just two hours of a non-stop marathon of police academy training.

There's a saying in Hollywood that "Nobody knows anything." Well, I'll tell you what you don't know.  You don't know how you or anyone you know is going to react in life-threatening situations, even simulations of them, until you're right there.

My five-foot tall (and that's on a good hair day) roommate earned the title of "Killer" from the Firearms Training Simulator instructors when she put down every bad guy in the training DVD without even breathing hard.

While I seem incapable of shooting at anyone under twenty years old (although I also managed never to get killed or to kill a fellow officer). But - I was the only person in the Handcuffs Techniques workshop flexible enough to slip my body through my handcuffs back to front, putting me in a prime position to choke my arresting officer to death before she realized I was relatively loose (all right, so I'm more experienced with handcuffs than guns...)

And in Women's Personal Survival Training, it was pretty clear how many women in the room had never actually let themselves think about what would happen to them if they LET a stranger force them into a car, or van, and why it is essential to make the choice to fight BEFORE anyone ever gets you into the car. Or at least understand the consequences of not fighting. Not many people in that class slept that night, I'd wager.

In fact, it's five days later and I'm still not sleeping all the way through the night. The adrenaline is that powerful.

You cannot research those things by READING about them, or interviewing people who have lived it. I'm not saying it's at all the same to go through simulations, compared to the actual experience.  But compared to reading about it?  No contest.

Do we want to be better mystery and thriller writers?  Or what?

If you do, you owe it to yourself, your books and your readers to make the WPA a MUST DO event in your year. 

I've written more about it here, and plan to do more posts as I'm processing everything I learned for myself, but here's a better taste of the weekend on Lee's blog.

My deepest thanks to Lee, all our superb instructors (ALL of whom volunteered their time) and to Sisters in Crime, who generously underwrote a large portion of the event to keep the tuition at rock-bottom.

And the question of the day is about research. Authors, how do you do the research that you need to do to write your books? Tell us some stories! And readers, how detailed do you like your police procedure? Who do you really think gets it right, in fiction?

- Alex


Huntress Moon, an Amazon bestseller

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Writers Police Academy (and preemptive research)

 I just got back from an amazing four days at Lee Lofland’s Writers Police Academy, a marathon of forensics workshops; hands-on training in firearms, building searches, jail searches, handcuffing techniques; demonstrations of police/criminal shootouts; lectures in court proceedings and the life of an undercover cop – all conducted by top experts in their fields, interspersed with inspirational talks by the likes of Lee Child, Marcia Clark and Katherine Ramsland.

The WPA is a goldmine of practical story information.  My head is about to explode with scenes and clues for my new book and the real-life details I needed to make them play. It’s going to take me the whole next month to sort through even a fraction of what I learned. But there was much more more to it than that. Being a writer himself, Lee Lofland has assembled a cast of characters - instructors – every one of whom could be the star of their own series. These are brilliant, funny, dedicated, passionate professionals - the real good guys. I’m still high from the sheer crackling energy of the weekend.

I’m going to blog in detail about the WPA because I think every author and aspiring author in the genre needs to know about this incredible resource. But it’s going to take me some time to get the photos and links together, and calm down enough to do it justice, so today I wanted to start by talking a little about the process of research.

Every author is constantly doing what I think of as “preemptive research”. We all forage widely in the fields that we write in so that when we sit down with a new story we already have some general knowledge of the arena. Then we have to do specific research to get the details of each particular story right, or right enough.

So I’m constantly reading psychology, especially abnormal psychology, criminal statistics, true crime, books by police officers, federal agents, lawyers, sex workers – and interviewing all of the above every chance I get - so I don’t have to start from scratch every time I sit down with a new book.

We are really blessed in the mystery and thriller community that conferences and conventions generally have a law enforcement track, where authors can take workshops and go to panels and demonstrations with various law enforcement officials in the particular communities where the conferences take place. I try to go to every law enforcement workshop offered at any given conference.

The Writers Police Academy is the ultimate in preemptive research.

It’s a godsend for me, especially because I’m in the middle of Book 2 in the Huntress series and the forensics are killing me. Almost every day that I sit down to write I feel like what I really need is to go back to school in forensic science. Also every day I feel like even if I did I could never get it right enough to pull this story off.

And that’s the point at which I have to remind myself of what I’m actually trying to do, here. 

Thrillers are an incredibly visceral genre. The promise of a thriller is about sensation. So the research I do for a thriller is not really about getting the science of it right; it’s about getting enough details RIGHT ENOUGH for a reader to buy into the story and give themselves over to the experience. 

In my supernatural thrillers I am very scrupulous about research, constantly reading about and interviewing people about how certain supernatural phenomena present themselves, so that as much as possible I can give readers the actual experience of a haunting as people have consistently reported it.  It is that feeling of suspense, wonder, anticipation, and sometimes deliciously terrified submission that I need to create, and I need to be as detailed as possible AND as credible as possible in those details to get people to suspend their disbelief and give themselves over to the experience.

With Huntress Moon I wasn’t setting out to write an FBI story at all. I had a core premise about a woman who is killing like a serial killer, when arguably, in reality women don’t commit sexual homicide. Not on their own, anyway. That’s what I wanted to explore, and I wanted to do it with a The Fugitive type of structure, in which the pursuer of this killer comes to empathize with the killer.

And unfortunately for me, especially because I wanted to cross a lot of state lines and jurisdictions, an FBI agent was the most logical character for me to use to achieve that structure.

But it’s not a story about the FBI.  It’s a story that uses the device of the FBI to put the reader through a roller coaster of emotions, sensations, and moral dilemmas. Which meant that I had to create the illusion of a real FBI agent and bureau, with enough realism to allow a reader to suspend their disbelief and commit to the roller coaster.

Anyone with real knowledge of the FBI would probably throw the book against the wall (a more forceful image than deleting it from a Kindle...), but I think those people mostly know to avoid FBI novels, anyway, just to keep their blood pressure down. But so far so good - apparently I’ve created a true enough illusion to get a lot of readers committed to the ride.

Now I have to learn enough forensics to get enough readers committed to the ride in the second book. 

Thanks to Lee Lofland, Denene Lofland, Prof. Dave Pauly, Cpl. Dee Jackson, Robert Skiff, Andy Russell, Lee Child, Marcia Clark, Dr. Katherine Ramsland, Lt. Randy Shepherd, Retired Detective Marco Conelli, Jerry Cooper, and Dr. Elizabeth Murray, I’ve got at least a start on that process.

More later, but here are some photos on Lee's blog. 

- Alex

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Book industry scandal: paid and fake reviews

I posted about this on Murderati earlier in the week, and am not crazy about the idea of getting into the topic again, but I know a lot of readers of this blog don't have time to read Murderati, too, and I wouldn’t be doing my job as an author community blogger NOT to report on the scandal du jour (or de semaine, or du mois, probably.)

The subject is paid and fake Amazon reviews, and the internet is burning up with outraged posts, petitions, and condemnations against several authors:

- Stephen Leather and Roger Ellory and Sam Millar for creating sockpuppet accounts to praise their own books and trash those of competitors.

- John Locke for paying for at least 300 Amazon reviews and then – what I personally find even more reprehensible – writing a book on “How I Sold a Million E Books in Five Months” and charging $8.99 for it, while OMMITTING the fact that he paid for at least 300 Amazon reviews, which surely had a great deal to do with his sales success.

I’ve linked to some main articles below so you can catch up.

Go read here and here and here and here, and then if you feel like discussing, meet me back here.

There is a lot of sadness and discomfort mixed with my own outrage.

I like Roger Ellory very much as a person and I actually agree with his own reviews of his books, they’re some of the best crime fiction I’ve read in recent years.  Why he thought that he had to pump up his already stellar reputation by creating fake reviews and trashing other fine authors like Stuart MacBride and Mark Billingham is beyond me.

Except that it’s not.

I have done many stupid, regrettable things in my life, and paid dearly for those things, too. Usually when I have been completely out of my mind with – something – grief over a dying parent, grief over the loss of a loved one or a loved project, fear over my financial situation, fear over just about anything.

As completely unchristian as I am I can’t help thinking of that little verse about “she who is without sin” and “casting the first stone.”

It’s very easy to get caught up in the maelstrom of  - well, anything, really, but publishing is what we’re talking about - and do stupid things we wouldn’t ordinarily condone or be caught dead doing ourselves.

When we can see other authors blatantly gaming the system: racking up success after success by faking reviews, publishing fan fiction that skirts or crosses the line of plagiarism which turns into a series of multimillion dollar bestsellers and a major movie deal, hiring other authors to write books for you and slapping your name on them while grossly underpaying the authors who actually WROTE the books - there’s a huge temptation to jump on one of those bandwagons because, hey, everyone’s doing it.  And while I’m able to flatly say that the above practices are wrong – what about tagging parties?  What about asking friends to bury nasty one-star reviews by clicking “unhelpful” on Amazon?  Is that gaming the system?  Is it wrong?

BUT - even as I am remembering that I'm fully capable of doing stupid and condemnable things myself, I do very strongly believe that we authors have to police ourselves as a community.  We need to talk, to debate, to develop standards and be able to say when required: This is wrong, this is duplicitous, this is unacceptable.

Whether that will stop the behavior, I have no idea.

But I also believe authors are for the most part an empathetic and moral lot.  I really do believe that.  I hope that all of these authors who have been caught out and are being held up as examples will take all this furor and censure to heart, self-correct, make appropriate amends to anyone who has been wronged, and go on to use their influence to do better. Much better.

So far Roger Ellory seems to be the only one of the four authors in the spotlight willing to step up and say, "I fucked up," but I hope that the others will, too.

And I would hope that friends of authors who are drifting toward moral gray areas would be the first ones to speak up and say - WTF - what are you thinking?  Stop that shit NOW before you do somethiing you'll regret for the rest of your life.. 

I SERIOUSLY hope that my author friends would step up and say it to me.

I hope we ALL will. Because we need to remember how easy it is to get caught up in the desperation of trying to make a living at this very tenuous profession and how easy it is to fall into behavior that serves no one.  We ALL need a little help from our friends.

So, I have a lot of questions today. Were you aware of the blazing heat suddenly surrounding this issue of paid and fake reviews?  Are you feeling outrage about any of this behavior, and if so, or if not, what are you feeling? Do you believe that given all the success ladled on cheaters, you have to cheat to remain in the game?  Or do you believe in karma?  Or do you believe that a belief in karma is the modern opiate of the masses?

And here’s another question – who should be policing reviews and author behavior, if anyone?

And another - how do you feel about one-star reviews in general?  Would you post one? Do you find them accurate and helpful?

- Alex