Saturday, December 29, 2012

Rewriting: act and sequence bridges

I don’t know what it is, but my family’s Christmas gatherings always seem to  involve aliens in some way. Possibly stems from all those years we spent road-tripping on (the former) Route 66. 

This year it was watching CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (again).

I haven’t seen the film in a while and it turns out to be a great example of a concept I’m always trying to get across to this college film class I’m teaching: act and sequence transitions. To get across the idea of the Three-Act, Eight Sequence structure, I show them films to illustrate that accomplished filmmakers often use a recurring image or device to indicate the end of one sequence and the beginning of another (not always for every sequence, but VERY frequently for the transitions between the four acts). 

Some are very obvious, like:

- The still shots of wedding invitations that set up each act of FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL

- The six stages of a con that set up the sequences of THE STING: The Set-Up, The Hook, The Take, The Wire, The Shut-Out and The Sting ... and which are delineated by still paintings on title cards.  (Yes, that’s just six – the first sequence is the incident that compels Hooker to want to do the long con to begin with, and the eighth is the wrap-up.)

- The old newsreel-style shots of the map of the globe with the superimposed plane flying and the red line marking the journey and the sequence transitions in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

Others are more subtle but easy to spot if you train yourself to look, like:

- The long overhead shots of Jamie Foxx’s cab cruising through the streets of L.A. between each sequence of COLLATERAL. (There are similar long shots of the spaceship Nostromo gliding silently through the vast emptiness of space that mark the sequence breaks in the first ALIEN)
- The shots of seasons (fall, winter, spring) and specific holiday decorations in the Great Hall that delineate the sequences and acts in HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE.

- Another film I just love, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, cuts away from the main story of Westley and Buttercup to the framing story of the grandfather reading the book to his grandson at each sequence and act break - slyly demonstrating the power of cliffhangers.

- And in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, after the climax of each sequence, there is a cut to a short scene of the team of scientists, led by a mouth-watering Fran├žois Truffaut (just saying) racing to yet another spot on the globe to investigate another UFO sighting.  These scenes appear every fifteen minutes like clockwork – not as blatant as still shots and title cards, but equally effective as the demarcation between sequences and acts.

Personally, I just love how these bridges, or markers, or transitions, or whatever you feel like calling them, create a symmetry and forward momentum to a story. It signals an audience that the story is moving into a different phase, and gives the audience a chance to take a breath and mentally prepare, even for a second, for the next stage of the journey.

I’m bringing this up today because we’re talking about rewriting tricks and techniques, and I think it’s really useful to train yourself to look for how your favorite storytellers might be using these transitions, on screen and on the page. It will get you thinking about how you might use some kind of bridge scene yourself. It’s not that you HAVE to do it, not at all!  But maybe there’s a hint of some perfect recurring transition scene already in your first draft that you can build on to create a whole series of transitions that will give your story that perfect symmetry and momentum.

Something to think about!

So do you have any examples for me?

And Happy New Year to everyone!  May all your writing dreams come true this year.

- Alex


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE

Saturday, December 22, 2012

E Publishing - the Boxed Set

One of the things I most love about e publishing is the absolute flexibility and speed of it.

You all know I've been toiling away on my sequel to Huntress Moon - I'd hoped to have Blood Moon out this month, but I WOULD have to be writing a police procedural where forensics have to be - well, not perfect, but realistic. It's just taking longer than I thought.

But that's okay. A great thing about e publishing is that I CAN take that time, and know when I do release the book it is the book I want it to be.

In the meantime, I have two more e books I've put together this month, just in time to load up that holiday e reader that I'm sure Santa is bringing everyone this year.

Yes, you read that right - I put together two more books this month.

Because once you get the hang of it, that's not just possible with e publishing, it's sort of what e publishing is all about.

Both of these books can be classified as part of an e publishing phenom called the boxed set, and you need the visual to see what I mean.

First, I’ve put together this boxed set of three of my spooky thrillers called Haunted. It contains the full texts of The Harrowing, The Unseen, and Book of Shadows. Anyone who doesn’t already have these books can now get them all for just $5.99, and give themselves or special friends nightmares for days!  It's a great deal on the books, and they're all in one place on your e reader (which in itself is a reason I find myself buying more and more boxed sets).  And for me, it's another way to catch a reader's eye. I think the 3-D look of the boxed set stands out on a page, and compels a browsing reader to give the book a second look.

 On Amazon, $5.99

And I also have a brand new anthology out this weekend: Apocalypse: Year Zero, with four end-of-the-world novellas by me and my award-winning dark fantasy friends Sarah LanganSarah Pinborough, and Rhodi Hawk. We cover 9/11, tsunamis, Hurricane Katrina, and The Big One — as well as, in no particular order, Hollywood, sex, rage, and the Four Horsemen, who turn out to be not men at all.  
(So if like so many people you feel a little let down by yesterday's non-Apocalpyse, no worries - we’ve got you covered!).


Now obviously, this whole collection of novellas didn't magically write itself overnight. This is something that my very good friends Sarah, Sarah, Rhodi and I have been cooking up ever since we were first thrown together on a panel at the World Horror Conference in Toronto. Women are scarce in the horror genre and we have a very different take on the genre than men do. As I've said here before, women have to live with horror on a much more intimate, daily basis than most men (in non-warring countries) will ever have to, and that intimacy is reflected in our writing. 
The four of us bonded immediately, and have enjoyed each other's company whenever we can ever since. We've appeared together at different conferences and bookstore and library signings and panels, and Sarah Langan, Rhodi Hawk and I had the immense fun of doing a mini tour together through the Southwest (you can watch the three of us on a Poisoned Pen panel here).in four separate novellas.

In a promotional sense, teaming up with other authors this way can be really productive. It's more cost-effective and a hell of a lot more fun to tour together. And - especially for women writing in a male-dominated genre - I think it's been helpful for us to share the limelight. At the end of this blog I've included some excerpts of what the American Library Association has to say about us in its Readers' Advisory Guide - if you take a look, I think you can see the practical effects of that limelight. 

It was pretty inevitable that we'd decide to collaborate. Apocalypse was conceived first as a graphic novel, but it turns out that the best way to protect your underlying rights to a graphic novel is to start with a book, first.  But writing a novel with three other people who have, you know, actual LIVES, is a daunting task, so what we did instead was create an umbrella story that would give us a format to write four separate novellas, each exploring the origins of four main characters, urban fantasy antiheroines who are forced into superheroine status through four apocalyptic disasters.

While we were writing, though, the publishing industry sort of - imploded - and  I convinced the others that we could very probably do better for this collection by e publishing it. Also, this way, our rights are completely unencumbered if we do decide to do a graphic novel.

All these two boxed sets cost to put out were the formatting and cover design fees, which are about what I make from ONE e book every month.  After that, it's pure profit, and it gives readers another option for reading. The format is eye-catching, and might attract people to try a book just for the novelty of it. 
And it gives an author what Joe Konrath calls "shelf space": every book you have out gives you more exposure, a visual demonstration to a reader that you're a solid presence, not a one-hit wonder.

So I'm curious - are you familiar with this phenomenon of the boxed set?  Authors, have you, or do you see how you might, put together a boxed set of your own to give your readers another option for reading your books?

Readers, do you like/buy boxed sets?

Hope you had a great Solstice - that energy is still very powerful for a few days after, so make your wishes now!

- Alex


From The American Library Association's Readers' Advisory Guide to Horror:  

Ladies of the Night

Horror is still a widely male-dominated world, but that does not mean there aren't good female writers producing top-notch horror, namely Sarah Langan, Alexandra Sokoloff and... Sarah Pinborough. What unites these women is more than their gender; they are all known for creating entertaining, terror-inducing novels, but with a lighter touch. The horror here is quiet. There can be gruesome scenes, but it is the creation of the unsettling atmosphere that rules the works of these women.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Nanowrimo Now What? - Rewriting

Yes, I disappeared!  I do that! 

I disappeared to New Orleans (I love my job, I get to call that "work".  I will be talking about that this week on my new blog, where I get to be personal.)  And also, as many of you know, school shootings are one of my issues and I have been too sad and angry to post.

But writing MUST go on, and now that we've had some time off from the frenzy of writing that was November we need to get back to those drafts and - yike - see what we've got.

Remember, the most important thing is taking enough time off from that draft.  But now that 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.



* 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



* 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.


* 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


* 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)


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



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 Three: Elevate Your Ending

Elements of Act Three: What Makes a Great Climax?

Act Climaxes and Turning Points

And I'll be posting more about how to do different kinds of passes for particular effect. But for now, I think all of the above should keep you busy for a few days...   

- Alex


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT

If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE

Monday, December 03, 2012

NaNoWriMo Now What?

YAY!!! 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 breakAs 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 if you MUST think about writing, maybe start thinking about another project.

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

Me? I bashed my way through a second and third draft of Blood Moon, my sequel to Huntress MoonOf course it's not as done as I want it to be, but I managed to get through that "I will NEVER finish this bloody thing" stage into the "Wow, I may not be done yet but this is way too good to abandon now" stage, which is not exactly the home stretch yet but it is a major corner to turn.  A good month!

- Alex


The writing workbooks based on this blog, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are available for just $3.99 and $2.99.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT

If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories, and more full story breakdowns.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE