Thursday, May 31, 2012

Love is Murder: the Art of the Short

This week is the release of the International Thriller Writers' ITW’s  new romantic suspense anthology Thriller 3: Love is Murder.



Edited by Sandra Brown and Allison Brennan, featuring stories by Lee Child, Heather Graham,  Sherrilyn Kenyon, several authors some of you will know from Murderati: Allison, Rob Browne, JT Ellison, and a whole lot of other great authors.  And me.

As you can see from that lineup, it’s going to be a bit more heavy on the suspense than on the romance!

I’ve said here before I very rarely write short stories. For me it’s every bit as hard to come up with a great idea for a short story as it is for a novel, so my feeling has always been: why not push through and MAKE it a novel (or script) which will serve as an income stream instead of just a fun advertisement for your books that ARE income-producing?

That may sound pretty crassly commercial, but writers have to be practical if we want to eat.

(And I don't think that it's a coincidence that the art of the short was at its zenith back when short story authors were paid an actual living wage for their efforts. An older author friend told me what she was paid for a short story in the 60's and OH MY GOD. Seriously.)

But maybe I’m just a long-form writer by nature. I wrote my first short story, The Edge of Seventeen, only because I was asked to contribute to an anthology I thought was a really cool idea – stories about marginalized superheroes (people of color, women), and I thought I could probably manage a dark story about an alienated high-school girl who has to become a heroine in horrific circumstances. She’s dreaming about a terrible massacre at her school, and becomes convinced that she can stop the shooting with the help of a popular boy, her secret crush, who is having the same dream. I wrote it, loved it, and it went on to win a Thriller Award for Best Short Fiction. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and the situations and it just kept nagging me that there was a lot more to it, and last year I finally just gave in to that pull and adapted the story as a VERY dark YA thriller, The Space Between.

I was right – there was a whole hell of a lot more to it, including quantum physics and parallel universes, and I’m actually now going to have to continue the whole thing as a trilogy.

And now that I’ve written my dreamlike Bahamian cat-and-mouse encounter In Atlantis for the Love is Murder anthology, I’m having the same thing happen – I can’t stop thinking about the characters and what happens for them next, and I know I’m going to end up expanding the story into a novel which may actually turn into a series.

So my very infrequent attempts at short stories seem to turn out to be springboards for future novels.
Yet people are always asking me to talk about how to structure a short story. And even though I don’t have much experience writing them myself, I can look at them analytically and come to conclusions that may be helpful (you know my prescription for everything by now – MAKE A LIST of ten of your favorites and see what the storytellers are doing and how they do it.)

I don’t read many short stories these days but I grew up compulsively reading Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthologies, and actively sought out stories by my favorite authors: Shirley Jackson, Daphne Du Maurier,  Ray Bradbury, Poe of course, and Stephen King.

The ones that spring to mind instantly are the horrific "They Bite", by none other than Anthony Boucher, for whom the unpronounceable Bouchercon is named;"The Yellow Wallpaper" - even more horrific in a feminist kind of way, by Charlotte Perkins Gilmore; "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, to which The Hunger Games owes, well, just about everything. "The Birds" and any number of shorts by Daphne DuMaurier, she is just electrifying. Just about everything in Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. And Stephen King's "The Mist", really more of a short novel, but we've already established that I like long. In fact, every single one of my list (except, I think, The Lottery) are shorts that have been adapted into full-length movies, so it's pretty clear what my taste is. 

I've noticed that ones that I love not only have enough going on to make a whole full length novel - they also have that great high concept premise, which usually includes a huge twist.  I really think that the essence of a short story is the twist, and once you have that, you can set up the story with a basic three-act structure: You have someone who wants something very badly (The Act I setup) who is having trouble getting it (The Act II complications) and eventually DOESN’T get what they think and say want, but they get what they really need instead. (Which creates the Act III twist.)

Because of the restriction of length, often all a short story really does is take a premise and set it up (Set Up is generally just Act I of a novel or film) and pretty much cuts directly to the chase: the final battle and TWIST. The Edge of Seventeen was basically that set up and then the twist. As a matter of fact, when I actually sat down to write the first draft of the novel, I found I used most of the story almost directly as written as the first act!

So with a short story, you have a beginning and an end, but not much of the vast middle section that comprises a full-length novel or film.

I think that's why shorts are so seductive (and arguably good practice) to more beginning writers.  It's pretty easy to write a first act.  It's the middle that's hard. (I may just have gotten myself in a world of trouble, we'll see!)

Another thing I think a short has to deliver - every bit as much as a full-length novel does - is the genre EXPERIENCE (or maybe you've noticed  I'm just a little obsessed with this aspect of writing, these days).

I had no premise at all in mind when I was asked to do a story for Love is Murder. I said yes because - well, seriously! It's not like I could turn this opportunity down - with that lineup of writers, I was going to do whatever it took.  But when I actually had to sit down and write something, I was in a very difficult place emotionally and I wasn’t feeling very romantic. Suspense I can do in my sleep, but love wasn’t the first thing on my mind. So I asked myself what would be a romantic escape, the kind of fantasy setting that I think really helps deliver the experience of romantic suspense? And the first thing that came to mind was my first trip to the Bahamas. We Left Coasters don’t generally do the Bahamas – we tend to go to the far closer paradise of Hawaii if we’re in the mood for an island, so the first time I was in those other islands it was truly an overwhelming experience.

I knew I could do the sensuality of that setting justice, and then I decided not to fight the emotional place that I was in, but rather use the experience of heartache and devastation as a jumping off point for the story. And once I’d put a wounded character into that lush setting, everything started coming alive – it’s just the magic of the process. I also took a huge hit of inspiration from the image of the Tarot Queen of Cups – that card was a touchstone for the main character, the Macguffin, and the whole story.



I layered water imagery and the theme of Atlantis and precious objects and art throughout, to make a kind of dreamnlike  modern fairy tale (which I won't talk too much about because it's too easy to give away a short.). I did structure the story in three acts (I'd actually say that ALL stories are three acts, that's what makes them stories), but I'm very aware that the first two acts of the short would be no more than a first act in a full length novel, and that the third act of the short would still be the third act of a novel - with many more twists and action, of course.

But I'm perfectly aware that I may just be looking at the structure of a short that way because it allows me to fit the longer-form ideas that I have into the format of a short.

I know that there are others here who are far more experienced at writing shorts than I am, so I'd like to hear from you all. Do you read a lot of shorts? Do you write them?  How do you write them?  Is my "Act I set up, then cut to the Act III chase" resonating with you (as a reader OR a writer) or do you find yourself doing something completely different?

- Alex


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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Are you a Cumberbitch?


Alexandra Sokoloff

If you know what I’m talking about, you know what I’m talking about.   If you don’t, you’ve somehow been missing out on the biggest thing since Jesus.  I mean, you know, since the Beatles.

So (in honor of the last episode of Season 2 this week) I'd like to talk today about the new Sherlock Holmes.  Those of you who know can just scream and faint in the background, there, while I fill the others in.  And for the hopelessly straight men (you know who you are) you’re just going to have to endure a little erotomania.

Once in a while there is in film or television or music what has become known in technology as a Black Swan.  Something that defies all expectations at the same time meeting all the expectations you never actually knew you had.  And that's a good enough definition for the Masterpiece Mystery! TV series, Sherlock.




The series is brilliant – a redefining of Sherlock Holmes exactly as he would present himself in modern London, complete with e mailing, texting, GPS—and blogging by his faithful Boswell, John Watson, a veteran doctor who was wounded in Afghanistan, just as the original Watson was (I mean, when something is right, it’s right, right?).  And Sherlock is as he is depicted, an unfettered and unrepentant autistic-slash-high-functioning sociopath.

And a rock god.

An unfettered and unrepentant autistic-slash-high-functioning sociopath of a rock god.

The tagline for the show is “Smart is the new sexy.” And that pretty much sums it up.  This is not just a modern imagining of one of the - or is it THE? - world’s most popular and enduring detectives.  It’s a sexual fantasy for smart people.  And may I say it’s about bloody time we got one?

This is the unlikely catnip at the heart of this show:

 

A truly incredibly actor with the unlikely name of Benedict Cumberbatch (who is now banking upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars, or at least tens of thousands, for every time he was ever called Cumberbitch as a kid. It’s revenge of the geeks in spades).

You really need to see the real-time reactions of women, girls, men, boys, dogs, horses to this actor to understand the physiological phenomenon going on here.  There are fan groups that call themselves Cumberbitches.  There are cat fights over him on Facebook (think Dionysus, Maenads...) Mention his name or the word Sherlock to a girl (or boy) of fifteen or a woman (or man) of fify and you will get the same helpless, delirious giggling.  That’s actually part of the appeal, the group experience, the knowing that you are not the only one dissolving into goo over this man and this show. And if you are not a fan, you might as well move to Antarctica, because you are going to be seeing Cumberbatch in every movie that Hollywood can cram him into for the next fifty years (fortunately, I think he’s beyond smart enough to choose his roles and limit his exposure.)

I admit that I become flushed and breathless when he launches into one of his twenty-pages-in-a-minute and-a-half-monologues about who ate what pastry at which Tube stop after whichever assignation with whatever coworker that is a trademark of the show.  But my actual fantasies about Cumberbatch are not exactly sexual; they’re more about going back to school in lighting design just to be able to properly light the man’s face.  These are the cheekbones that launched a thousand ships. He is literally golden-eyed.  And I say “man”, but one of the guilty pleasures of the show is that this is a thirty-five-year-old man who looks and acts like the world’s most precocious fourteen-year-old; you feel as if you’re committing a felony just watching it.

One of the delicious ironies of the show is that all of this extreme sexual response from TV fans all over the world is occurring over a character who is not only massively socially incompetent but patently asexual.   The character is explicitly referred to as a virgin, although the gay subtext is – not subtextual at all. This is a love story. But still, clearly unconsummated. (Or is it? It's your fantasy, after all...)

All this sexual confusion I think is one of the delights of the show.  It is polymorphous perversity in the flesh. Well, in the flesh on screen. The creators even make Doyle’s Irene Adler character a dominatrix (not the world’s most convincing one, in my opinion, but anything further I could say on the subject will only get me in trouble so I’ll refrain) who is just as fritzed out by Sherlock the virgin as he is by her.

But there's more to it than the sex, I swear. This is a truly perfect melding of an actor and a role.  Cumberbatch is a star, period - I loved him as Stephen Hawking in Hawking, he conveyed not just brilliance but a heartbreaking sweetness and innocence as the young Hawking. But Sherlock is a career-defining role. It reminds me a bit of Cary Grant, before and after Hitchcock got hold of him. Grant was clearly one fine hunk of actor even in the fluffy romantic roles he did early in his career, but it was the darkness and edge and ambiguity that Hitchcock saw and encouraged (or should I say demanded?) in him that made him an iconic, archetypal movie star. (Take a look at Cumberbatch in Masterpiece's pre-Sherlock miniseries The Last Enemy. There are hints of Sherlock, there, in the irritated monologue the character finally explodes into on national television, the kind of monologue that makes you say THERE.  Do THAT. Much more of THAT.  Please forget the love plot and just let this guy talk, and visibly think, on screen.)

Clearly creator/writers (of Dr. Who fame) Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (who also wonderfully portrays Sherlock’s fussy and hovering older brother Mycroft), have that masterful Hitchcockian understanding of the material and their star. They saw it, and they gave him what he needed.  It's filmmaking collaboration in its most perfected state, the stuff that dreams (and smart people's sexual fantasies) are made on.

The writing is stellar, wicked and joyous and - I'll say it again, unrepentant; I’ve had whole years of my life that haven’t given me as much pleasure as the scene in which Sherlock compulsively corrects a convict’s grammar.

And yes, there is a Team Watson, and I don’t at all mean to give Martin Freeman short shrift; he is the perfect, earthy, touchingly maternal counterpart to Sherlock (talk about catnip, I so LOVE that adenoidal British voice), and I’m also thrilled to have Rupert Graves as Detective Inspector Lestrade.  (Graves is a former punk rocker I’ve adored since he made his sizzling acting debut as little brother Freddy in Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala’s swoony Room with a View).  I wasn’t quite as thrilled with Andrew Scott as little-boy-psychopath Moriarty in the first season, but he grew on me in season two; there was just a certain way he bared his teeth that was endearing enough to make me stop hating him for the two seconds required to commit to an arch villain.

You’ll notice I’m not expounding on the plot lines (I’m too busy designing lights over here....).  I confess, it’s been a long time since I’ve read anything in the Sherlock canon, but the episodes are surprisingly true to the plot lines of the Sherlock stories I remember from my childhood. The episodes are not strict adaptations, but there are plenty of clever-to-brilliant references and homages for those in the know. The plots work just fine, and there are always wonderful setpieces (the Chinese circus setting in Episode 2(?) is truly dazzling), but it’s the character interaction, chemistry, and the dialogue that provide most of the breathtaking suspense. And to be perfectly honest, I’d have to watch every episode again to be able to focus on the plots because I simply DON'T CARE; I am way too busy being dazzled by - other things (and remember, I TEACH structure,  I’m telling you, this is how bad it is!).

As for social and cultural relevance, Sherlock makes Asperger’s both normal and attractive, which in an age driven by minds like the late Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg makes the whole show not just topical but inevitable. There is something uncannily true about the series.  We KNOW this Sherlock; he is the natural, timeless, entirely present-tense incarnation of an immortal character.

He is US.

So— those of you who don’t know Sherlock like I know Sherlock, go treat yourself to a little Holmes crack, available on Netflix and Amazon and iTunes.   I dare you not to get hooked.

And for all you Cumberbitches, pull up a chair, grab the riding crop, slap on a couple of nicotine patches and let’s dish.  What is it about this show?  What does it do for you?

And yes, let's hear about other perfect portrayals of classic characters, too.

- Alex


_________________________________________________
My spooky thrillers The Unseen and Book of Shadows are now available in multiple e versions:

Amazon bestseller! For Kindle, Nook and Smashwords for $2.99

After experiencing a precognitive dream that shatters her engagement and changes her life forever, young California psychology professor Laurel MacDonald decides to get a fresh start by taking a job at Duke University in North Carolina. She soon becomes obsessed with the long-buried files form the world-famous Rhine parapsychology experiments, which attempted to prove if ESP really exists.

As she teams up with another charismatic professor, they soon uncover disturbing reports, including a mysterious case of a house supposedly haunted by a poltergeist, investigated by another research team in 1965. The two professors and two exceptionally gifted Duke students move into the grand, abandoned mansion to replicate the investigation, unaware that the entire original team ended up insane... or dead.

Inspired by the real-life paranormal studies conducted by the world-famous Rhine parapsychology lab at Duke University.

$ 2.99 US, €2.99 Europe. Also available in Amazon's lending library.

Click to download:  

Amazon US
Nook
Amazon UK  (paperback/e book from Little Brown)
Amazon DE
Amazon FR
Amazon ES
Amazon IT

"Destined to become a horror classic." 
- Romantic Times Book Review

"Gave this reviewer a bad night's sleep - what more could you ask of a horror novel?" - SFX

___________________________________________________

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.


Amazon bestseller!  $3.99      Also available in Amazon's lending library.

Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon DE
Amazon FR
Amazon ES
Amazon IT

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

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

"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

_________________________________________________

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Free at last!

I finally, finally, finally have the rights back to Book of Shadows and The Unseen in the U.S. and can offer these spooky thrillers as e books at the infinitely more reasonable price of $2.99 (as opposed to the publisher-set price of $11.99.  I mean, truly, does ANYONE pay $11.99 for an e book? Even your most highly prized authors? I was about to kill myself).

Oh, you thought I meant FREE.  Well, what I meant was LIBERATED, but all right, today (Wednesday) and tomorrow (Thursday) you can also download  The Harrowing for free here.

But I can't tell you how excited I am to have these rights back. The absolute worst thing about being a screenwriter was having studios and production companies hold my original scripts hostage - it's like the physical pain of having a loved one imprisoned, and knowing there's nothing you can do about it. I've contemplated murder more often than I like to think.

It's the same with book rights. That really is a post of its own, one that I need to do here, because these days it's critical that authors think clearly before they sign away their rights, especially e book rights. In the exhilaration of being offered a contract, it's far, far too easy to just say yes to whatever a publisher is proposing.

A mistake you may well regret for longer than you ever want to think.

But we'll talk about that in depth some other time. Today, I'm celebrating Liberation Day.

So tell me - DO you pay $11.99 for e books from your favorite authors? Because myself, at that price I will just pay $26 for a hardcover.

- Alex
 

_________________________________________________


Now available on Kindle, Nook & Smashwords, $2.99!

After experiencing a precognitive dream that shatters her engagement and changes her life forever, young California psychology professor Laurel MacDonald decides to get a fresh start by taking a job at Duke University in North Carolina. She soon becomes obsessed with the long-buried files form the world-famous Rhine parapsychology experiments, which attempted to prove if ESP really exists.

As she teams up with another charismatic professor, they soon uncover disturbing reports, including a mysterious case of a house supposedly haunted by a poltergeist, investigated by another research team in 1965. The two professors and two exceptionally gifted Duke students move into the grand, abandoned mansion to replicate the investigation, unaware that the entire original team ended up insane... or dead.

Inspired by the real-life paranormal studies conducted by the world-famous Rhine parapsychology lab at Duke University.

$ 2.99 US, €2.99 Europe. Also available in Amazon's lending library.

Click to download:  

Amazon US
Smashwords (multiple formats, inc. e pub)
Nook
Amazon UK  (paperback/e book from Little Brown)
Amazon DE
Amazon FR
Amazon ES

"Destined to become a horror classic." 
- Romantic Times Book Review

"Gave this reviewer a bad night's sleep - what more could you ask of a horror novel?" - SFX

___________________________________________________


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.

$ 2.99 US, £2.14 and €2.99 in UK/Europe. Also available in Amazon's lending library.

Click to download:  

Amazon US
Smashwords (multiple e formats, inc. e pub)
Nook
Amazon UK
Amazon DE
Amazon FR
Amazon ES
Amazon IT

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

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

"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

_________________________________________________

$3.99 on Kindle


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 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.

Nominated for the Bram Stoker Award (horror) and Anthony Award (mystery) for Best First Novel.

“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

“The Harrowing is a real page-turner, a first novel of unusual promise.”

-- Ira Levin, author of Rosemary's Baby

Also available in Amazon's lending library.

Click to download:  

Amazon/Kindle
Amazon UK (paperback/e book from Little, Brown, NOT free)
Amazon DE
Amazon ES
Amazon FR
 
Amazon IT    


Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sample Sunday: Book of Shadows


I'm thrilled to finally be able to offer my spooky crime thriller  Book of Shadows as an e book in the U.S., just $3.99 on Kindle:

Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon DE
Amazon FR
Amazon ES
Amazon IT



And for the reading phenomenon known as Sample Sunday, here are the first two chapters of the book.




 

Chapter One


September 22

It was a vision of hell.
A dismally foggy day over stinking heaps of refuse—a city landfill, the current euphemism for an old-fashioned dump. Caterpillar trucks and front-loaders crouched with metal jaws gaping, like gigantic prehistoric insects on the mountains of trash, an appalling chaos of rotting vegetables, discarded appliances, filthy clothing, rusted cans, mildewed paper: the terribly random refuse of a consumer society gone mad. A lone office chair sat on the top of on one hill, empty and waiting, its black lines stark against the fog.
And below it, tangled in the trash like a broken doll, was the body of a teenaged girl.
Stiffened…naked…bloody stumps at her neck and wrist where her head and hand used to be.

Homicide detectives Adam Garrett and Carl Landauer stood on the trash hill: Garrett, with his Black Irish eyes and hair and temper, hard-muscled, impatient, edgy; and chain-smoking, whisky-drinking, donut-eating Landauer, a living, breathing amalgam of every cop cliché known to man: middle-aged spread, broad sweating face, and bawdy, cynical humor—a lifer who used the caricature as a disguise. The partners were silent, each taking in the totality of the scene. The landfill was a succession of hills and pits and carefully leveled ground; rutted roads wound up the hills to the fresh dumping mound on which they now stood. A strong, cold wind whipped at their coats and hair, swirling plastic carrier bags across the trash hills like ghost tumbleweeds and mercifully diffusing the stench. On a hot day the smell would have been beyond bearing.
On one side of the summit a forest stretched below, startlingly green and pure against the chaos of human waste. On the other side the city of Boston was a hazy outline, like a translucent Oz in the bluish fog. Far below at ground level were smaller hills of gravel, sand, broken chunks of concrete, logs and stumps, wood chips, various earthy colors of mulch, a black pile of tires. A corrugated tin roof sheltered an open-walled recycling center.
A row of BPD cruisers lined the dirt drive up to the landfill’s main office trailer. The temporary command post had been set up beside the trailer, and two dozen mostly African-American and Latino workers huddled beside it, waiting to give statements to a couple of uniforms, while other patrolmen walked the periphery of the fence. A long line of city sanitation trucks was stalled at the front gate, being diverted by traffic control. The first responders had done their best to establish a perimeter, considering the crime scene was a joke: how do you begin to process a mountain of refuse a hundred yards high?
Landauer looked over the reeking heaps of garbage, shook his head gloomily. “Shit.” He spat the word. “I don’t know if he’s the smartest perp I’ve ever seen or the dumbest.”
Garrett nodded, keeping his breathing even, trying not to suck in too deep a lungful of the sulfurous stink. Smartest—because any trace evidence would be completely lost in the junk heap. Dumbest—because the unsub must have driven straight in past the office trailer and paid the attendant for the privilege of dumping his terrible cargo. Garrett lit a mental candle, half-thought something like a prayer. Please let there be a record.
The partners turned away from the dismal panorama and climbed over trash to where Medical Examiner George Edwards, a stocky Irish banty rooster of a man, stood looking down at the body. Seagulls circled sullenly high above, their breakfast taken from them.
Two crime scene techs were extracting and bagging one piece of garbage at a time from around the corpse, meticulously preserving as much evidence as possible in the hope that the refuse in which she lay might yield some personal connection to the killer. A videographer documented the original placement of each piece. All three technicians stood and moved back in solemn simultaneity so Garrett and Landauer could approach.
It was Saturday, which meant Garrett was the lead on the case. Department protocol was that partners alternated leads, but Garrett and Landauer had found through long experience that if they took regular days of the week and flipped for Sundays, it all evened out anyway. Garrett nodded to Dr. Edwards and crouched beside the body.
The girl was as stiff as a Barbie doll, still half-buried and splayed on her stomach; a handless arm, a curve of buttock, one leg visible in the bed of trash. Garrett’s face tightened as he stared down at the jagged red stump of the neck, the gleaming white nubs of cartilage, the black stream of ants swarming over the gaping wound. The gulls had also been at it. But there was shockingly little blood; none at all on the trash below the severed neck and very little congealed around the stump. A small blessing: the decapitation had occurred after she was dead.
Garrett pulled a micro-recorder from his suit coat pocket and clicked it on. “Killed elsewhere and dumped,” he said aloud. “Decapitation was post-mortem.” Above him, the M.E. grunted affirmation, before Garrett continued, “Head and hands probably removed to prevent identification.” It happened more often that anyone would want to think.
Garrett studied the visible arm and leg. Despite a fashionable slenderness and gym-enhanced muscle tone the girl’s limbs were rounded, and silky smooth, the heartbreaking plumpness of baby fat. Garrett felt hot and cold flashes of anger. He spoke aloud, biting off the words.
“Eighteen, nineteen years old. Twenty-five at the most, but I doubt it.”
Landauer shifted behind him grimly. “Yep.”
Garrett swallowed his fury and continued his visual inspection. He was fighting his assumptions, fighting to keep his mind clear. A naked girl on a trash heap; so often these miserable victims were prostitutes. Sex killers notoriously trolled highways and rough neighborhoods for these easy, anonymous targets. But there was not that sense about this one.
Okay, why?
He looked her over, looking for the facts. He gently used a latex-gloved hand to lift a stiffened forearm. No track marks, no cuts or bruising, no ligature marks—although telltale abrasions might have been cut off with the hand. “No defensive marks, and it doesn’t look like she was bound.” Someone she knew? Or just someone with the element of surprise?
Garrett was about to set the arm down, then noticed a trail of six black dots along the partially exposed shoulder, about the diameter of a pencil eraser. Hard, smooth, shiny, irregular…
Scabs?
He used a fingernail to dislodge one of the drops and examined it on his thumb, held out the dot to Landauer, then Edwards. “Wax, I think.”
“Black wax? Kinky.” Landauer commented.
Garrett nodded to a tech, who crouched with an evidence bag to take samples of the dots.
Garrett turned his gaze to the exposed leg—not just smooth, but hairless—a salon wax, and fresh pedicure. The skin was healthy and blemish-free.
This was not a runaway, not a heroin addict, not a prostitute.
“Not a hooker,” Garrett muttered.
“Not any I could afford,” Landauer agreed.
Garrett stood, and the detectives watched as the techs resumed clearing the trash around the body like archeologists uncovering an ancient skeleton, painstakingly removing trash one piece at a time, placing beer bottles, fast food wrappers, orange rinds, a stained lampshade, into various sizes of labeled paper evidence bags. Garrett turned to the medical examiner.
“What do you say, Doc?”
“Livor mortis is fixed and she’s in full rigor. I’ll have to wait for the vitreous potassium tests to confirm, but given the temperature I’d put the time of death at no more than twelve to sixteen hours.”
The techs cleared several more pieces of refuse to reveal her back. Between her shoulder blades there was a single stab wound, in the vicinity of the heart. The slit was narrow and practically bloodless.
“Could be the fatal wound.” Edwards said, neutrally. The photographer clicked off photos.
Garrett’s attention was suddenly drawn to the right arm, still mostly buried. “Look at that.” He crouched beside the body again, lifted a wet clump of coffee filter and grounds so the other men could see. The right hand was still attached to the right arm, intact.
The detectives looked at each other. “He takes the left hand but not the right?” Landauer said, perplexed. “S’up with that?”
Garrett stood to let the techs back in. “Maybe he was interrupted. Didn’t get to finish.” But it sounded wrong as soon as he said it aloud.
With enough trash now removed from around her, the techs rolled the stiffened body onto its back.
“Holy shit.” Garrett heard Landauer breathe out behind him, as all the men stared down.
There were dark streaks of blood on her thighs, and the sight was a sick stab, though hardly unexpected.
The true shock was higher, in the pale flesh of the girl’s chest.
Someone had carved into the torso with a knife, cruel red slashes against the young skin: the number 333 and a strange design, three triangles with the points touching.
Looking down at the crude slashes, Garrett felt his stomach roil with apprehension, even as his investigative mind registered details. No bleeding from the cuts; they were done post mortem. So why the looseness in his bowels, the tightness in his scalp, the overwhelming impulse of fight or flight?
Landauer was speaking, the hoarseness in his voice hinting that he was struggling with a similar reaction. His eyes were fixed on the bloody carvings. “That s’posed to be satanic?”
Garrett found his own voice, tried to breathe through the constriction in his throat. “Or someone trying to make it look that way.”
“Three-three-three?” Landauer blustered, some of his panache returning. “The fuck is that? The Devil Lite? Satan can’t count? I say someone’s messin’ with us.”
Garrett stood slowly, an anvil in the pit of his stomach. It didn’t feel like a game. Not at all.
The three men, and the techs behind them, stood looking down at the girl’s corpse, puzzling over the design. The three triangles were maddeningly familiar, and ominous. Garrett was fighting a creeping dread, a feeling of imminent danger. All of the men had moved slightly back from the body. Garrett realized what he was thinking at the moment that the M.E. spoke it.
“Radiation,” Edwards said suddenly.
The three crime-scene techs drew back, more noticeably this time.
“That’s it. The radiation symbol,” Landauer said, his voice thin.
“It’s not exactly, though. There’s something different about it. The fallout shelter symbol?” The M.E. frowned, thinking.
“Do you think she’s hot?” Landauer said. For once the morbid double entendre was completely unconscious. The wind gusted around them. All the men shifted slightly, uneasily.
“I don’t think so,” Garrett said, only half aware that he spoke. The whole damn thing is weird enough already.
“I doubt it,” Edwards agreed. “I’ll call HazMat, but I don’t see any burns or inflammation.”
Radiation or not, this was a bad one. And the acid feeling in Garrett’s gut told him it was going to get worse.




Chapter Two



The men split up to do other work until a Hazardous Materials team could arrive to take readings. The detectives left the crime scene techs behind to walk the grid, and unhappy uniforms to start the odious process of sorting through refuse looking for the missing head and hand. An exercise in futility, Garrett was sure, but it had to be done.
Landauer lumbered down toward the trailer set on blocks that served as the landfill’s office to question the attendants, lighting up a Camel nonfilter as he went.
Garrett shouldered the backpack he carried at crime scenes, filled with the bags and flags and miscellany of evidence-gathering, and took off in the opposite direction, along the road, walking the curve the killer must have driven to access the dump site. The road was gutted and gouged, a bitch to drive even in a heavy truck. On one side there was only the flimsiest of fences between Garrett and a sheer drop to the valley below, thick with green trees. On the other side of the road, gripping the hill, was a wide shoulder of startlingly luxuriant weeds. There had been a full week of rain just days before and now ferns and grasses and golden black-eyed Susans and feathery white Queen Anne’s Lace rippled in the wind, which still carried a surprising chill—a fall day with the underbite of winter.
Garrett shivered slightly, found he was wishing for a cigarette himself. The carvings in the body disturbed him. Ritualistic elements almost always meant multiple killings. And if he really analyzed his feelings about it, there was an unease that went deeper, back to childhood, to the huge and dark mysteries of the masses that were an unquestioned part of his early years, the enforced service as an altar boy.
But along with the disquiet there was a thrill: the strong sense that this was a big case, huge, maybe the case that cops dream about, with all the mediagenic elements that made careers. Along with the shifting uncomfortable memories, Garrett felt the stir of ambition.
He stopped at a turnout to look out over the entire dump, the consecutive hills of refuse. The property was circled in fencing, and patrolmen had already been all around the perimeter; nothing had been cut, making it likely that the killer had driven straight in through the gated entrance to dump her.
Why would he risk it? Why not dump her out in the forest somewhere?
He. Another assumption. But the chances of a woman doing this to another woman were microscopic.
Garrett took in the scene again, and couldn’t help feeling that the unsub had chosen the setting deliberately, had reveled in the filth and chaos and ungodly waste; had sought the ugliness like a civilized person seeks beauty.
He turned back toward the road and was startled by movement in the sand right in front of him. A horned beetle the size of his kneecap was creeping across the road, shiny black carapace gleaming. Garrett felt a shudder of revulsion, moved sharply aside to avoid the thing.
As he circled the creature at a good distance, he eyes were drawn to a bare patch in the green shoulder beside him. He moved closer to the clump of weeds, staring over the small field.
There were irregular oval brown marks in the wild grass, the size of footprints. The wildflowers around the marks were shriveled and blackened, as if by fire. Through his initial confusion, Garrett thought immediately and oddly of the three triangles.
Could it really be? Radiation?
What in God’s name would make footprints like that?
A feeling of dread rose up through him, from his legs through his groin and spine, up to the top of his head. The hair was standing up on his scalp and arms.
He gasped in, sucking breath, inhaling a rotten egg smell…
Sulfur.
He wheeled in place, staring around him.
Nothing but piles of gravel and crushed concrete, tangled heaps of rebar.
After a long moment he turned back to the dead flowers. He fumbled his digital camera from his backpack and snapped a few shots, then took a plastic evidence bag from a side pocket of the bag and broke off several of the burned flowers, slipping them into the plastic sheath. He stepped back and scanned the dirt road. It was criss-crossed with tire tracks, an amorphous mess, but he pulled a handful of colored flags from the pack and flagged the brown scorch marks in the grass, and the multiple tire marks in the sand of the road.
On his way back toward the body, he stopped a tech beside the parked crime scene unit van and pointed out the flags he’d placed. “Get impressions of the treads in that area. And there are some burn marks in the grass—get some photos of those, too.”
Landauer met him on the road, his big face flushed red with heat despite the chill, and sucking smoke from probably his fifteenth Camel of the day. “See no evil, speak no evil,” he grumbled, exhaling and jerking a thumb back down the road toward the office trailer. He lit a second cigarette from the one he had burning, carefully dropping the butt into a metal Band-Aid box he carried around at crime scenes for that precise purpose. “These bozos don’t record names or plates, just vehicle size and classification of load. ‘Sanitation Truck, Pick-Up, Trailer, Truck, Dump Trailer.’ ‘Refuse, Stumps and Brush, Concrete, Rebar, Dirt/Asphalt, Brick.’ The attendant doesn’t even leave the trailer—just eyeballs the load through the window, weighs the truck on the in and out, and collects the cash. Next time I got a body to dump, I’m a comin’ here too.”
“How many customers today?”
Landauer grimaced. “They average 2,250 a day.”
Garrett’s heart sank. “So this morning…”
“Over nine hundred by noon. Got a patrolman getting Closed Mouth Mary to write down every make, model and color she can remember, but we’re not talking rocket scientist here. And yeah, she collected a few checks, but it’s mostly a cash business. I don’t think we’ll be pulling devil-boy’s name and coordinates off one of those stubs.”
The big detective paused, puffed in smoke. “There is something, though.” He exhaled a noxious cloud and nodded up the trash mountain in the direction of the body. The sun was sinking in the sky, throwing long shadows over the hills. “That whole area was scheduled to be capped this morning. They bulldoze dumploads of dirt, cover it up, level it off.” He indicated a high heap of dirt on the flat road above the trash pit. “Thing is, this morning the front-loader broke down, threw the schedule off.” He pointed to the gigantic vehicle next to the pit.
“So she would have been completely covered if there hadn’t been that glitch,” Garrett said slowly. She wasn’t meant to be found. And that means carving the numbers and symbol was a private ritual, not done for anyone else to see.
“He’s familiar with the operation and schedule of this particular landfill, then,” he said aloud with cautious excitement. “A worker, or landscaper or contractor.”
“That’s the best case,” Landauer nodded. “The catch is, a lot of these loads that get emptied are from Dumpsters that get picked up all over the city. Someone coulda just tossed her in the nearest one of those, it gets picked up, and she gets dumped out with the rest of the trash. The Dumpster trucks back up to the pit and are emptied hydraulically, so the driver wouldn’t even see what he was dumping.”
Garrett fought a wave of disappointment. “What about the guy who found her?”
“Worker who came up to repair the dozer.”
Garrett’s eyes immediately traced the distance between the bulldozer and the body far below. A hundred yards, minimum.
Landauer watched him calculating.
“Guy’s got good eyes,” Garrett said slowly.
“Says he saw seagulls fighting over something.” Landauer offered, his voice flat.
Garrett glanced at his partner sharply. “You don’t believe him?” In fact the gulls were still circling above, hoping to return to their interrupted meal.
Landauer spat. His face was neutral. “Guy’s skittish, is all.”

Garrett found the mechanic in the office trailer. He sat in front of a raggedy corkboard bristling with invoices and flyers, his hands tearing apart a whitefoam coffee cup a precise quarter inch at a time. He was short and built like a bull, with dark copper skin and an Aztec nose. He hunched in the metal folding chair as if trying to disappear into it.
Garrett’s Spanish was serviceable, but the bilingual version of Severo’s story was identical to what Landauer had related in English. Landauer was right, though; the Mexican was decidedly jumpy—eyes shifting around the room, sweating profusely even in the cold of the underheated trailer.
Tienes calor?” Garrett asked. Are you hot? The lone space heater was on the other side of the room; Garrett couldn’t feel any heat coming from it at all.
Poco,” the mechanic said, and his eyes shifted away again. His fingers found the cross at his neck.
You seem nervous.” Garrett remarked in Spanish.
The mechanic half-shrugged. “It is a terrible thing,” he answered.
It is,” Garrett agreed. Una infamia.” An outrage. It was one of the first Spanish words he’d learned on the street and it seemed to express what he felt better than any English word that existed.
Pero—es todo?” Garrett pressed. Is that all? The mechanic dropped his eyes. Garrett looked at the litter of white chips at the man’s feet. “I think you are afraid.” Garrett challenged.
The mechanic stiffened, but said nothing.
Porque?” Garrett demanded. Why?
The mechanic glanced toward the screened front window, in the direction of the trash hill. The sun was a bloody crimson ball on the horizon.
Bruja,” he mumbled, and Garrett’s flesh rippled again.
Witch.





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



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.


“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

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Setpiece Scenes - the unlimited production budget

I’m headed off to teach a Screenwriting Tricks workshop in Cleveland (open to all, if you’re in that part of the country, see here).

So of course my head is in craft mode.

I sit on the plane thinking about what is really essential that I want to get across in an always too-limited time to talk about our craft, and also about what people are hiring me in particular to teach.

One of the things I always hope people get out of my workshops and writing workbooks is the concept of setpiece scenes. I try to hit that hard up front in a workshop, and keep going back to examples during the day.

There’s a saying in Hollywood that “If you have six great scenes, you have a movie.” And I’ve said before that these six great scenes are usually from that list I’ve given you of the Key Story Elements.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? Scenes like The Call To Adventure and Crossing the Threshold (and on the darker side, the Visit to Death or All is Lost scene) 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.

Filmmakers take that “six great scenes” concept very literally.  These scenes are often called the “trailer scenes” or the “money scenes”  (as opposed to “money shots”, which is a different post, with a different rating!).  As incensed as I am personally about how trailers these days give every single bit of the movie away (I won’t even watch them before a movie I’m interested in seeing), I understand that this is essential movie advertising: those trailer scenes have to seduce the potential audience by giving a good sense of the EXPERIENCE the movie is promising to deliver.  The scenes that everyone goes into the theater to see, and that everyone comes out of the theater talking about, which creates first the anticipation for a movie and then that essential “work of mouth” that will make or break a film.

And do not for a second think that directors aren’t putting excruciating thought and time and detail into designing and staging those scenes.  There’s not a director out there who is not in the back of his (or her, but statistically mostly his) mind hoping to make cinematic history (or at least the Top 100 AFI Scenes of All Time list in whatever genre) with those scenes. These are scenes that often cost so much money that producers will not under any circumstances allow them to be cut, even if in editing they are clearly non-essential to the plot.

The attention paid to these critical scenes is not all an ego thing, either. We are not doing our JOB as storytellers if we are not delivering the core experiences of our genre. Genre is a PROMISE to the audience or readers; it’s a pact.

And a setpiece doesn’t have to cost millions or tens of millions of dollars, either, although as authors, we have the incredible advantage of an unlimited production budget. Did you authors all get that?  We have an UNLIMITED PRODUCTION BUDGET. Whatever settings, crowds, mechanical devices, alien attacks or natural disasters we choose to depict, our only budget constraint is in our imaginations.  The most powerful directors in Hollywood would KILL for a fraction of our power. Theoretically, they can’t even begin to compete.

However, directors can and do compete and top most authors on a regular basis because they know how to manipulate visuals, sound, symbolism, theme and emotion to create the profound and layered impact that a setpiece scene is.

So how do we take back that power? By constantly identifying the setpiece scenes in film and on the page that have the greatest impact on us personally and really looking at what the storytellers are doing to create that effect and emotion, so we can create the same depth on the page.

I’ve compiled some examples (and categorized them by story elements they depict) here and in my second Screenwriting Tricks workbook.

But just in the last week I’ve come across some great examples that have really stayed with me.

I’m on an Edith Wharton tear at the moment, and it’s striking how beautifully she sets her love scenes, on every visual and sensual level, like this setup from THE HOUSE OF MIRTH:

Selden had given her his arm without speaking. She took it in silence, and they moved away, not toward the supper-room, but against the tide which was setting thither. The faces about her flowed by like the streaming images of sleep: she hardly noticed where Selden was leading her, till they passed through a glass doorway at the end of the long suite of rooms and stood suddenly in the fragrant hush of a garden. Gravel grated beneath their feet, and about them was the transparent dimness of a midsummer night. Hanging lights made emerald caverns in the depths of foliage, and whitened the spray of a fountain falling among lilies. The magic place was deserted: there was no sound but the splash of the water on the lily-pads, and a distant drift of music that might have been blown across a sleeping lake. 

Selden and Lily stood still, accepting the unreality of the scene as a part of their own dream-like sensations. It would not have surprised them to feel a summer breeze on their faces, or to see the lights among the boughs reduplicated in the arch of a starry sky. The strange solitude about them was no stranger than the sweetness of being alone in it together. At length Lily withdrew her hand, and moved away a step, so that her white-robed slimness was outlined against the dusk of the branches. Selden followed her, and still without speaking they seated themselves on a bench beside the fountain.

On a different note, in the romantic comedy FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (a younger audience would call it a “lude comedy”, and I don’t disagree!), the hapless hero has his first kiss with the love interest at the Midpoint, of course, a classic “sex at sixty” scene (sixty minutes, that is, halfway through the film.).  Every kiss in a romance or romantic comedy is, or should be, a setpiece and the filmmakers give the lovers a typically gorgeous romance setting, in this case a cliff overlooking the ocean in Hawaii. But being as this is a comedy, the reckless heroine tells the hero, quite rightly, that they’re both in ruts and need to take a leap of faith, which she promptly does, off the cliff.  The hero doesn’t land quite so well, but after narrowly escaping death and possible castration on his slide down, he ends up in the water with her, for a beautiful backdrop to a sensual first kiss that is also a baptism that the hero has been sorely needing.

On the nose? Yes, but well-played and effective, and it does what the Midpoint is supposed to do – it kicks the second half of act two up to another level.

In the film of MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, over and over the filmmakers use images of bridges and interesting corridors, or stepping stones in a creek, to underscore significant moments. The heroine first meets her love interest, The Chairman, on a bridge over a stream, with cherry blossoms in the background. Now, those of you with jaded eyes might look at that and think, ‘Oh, right, another “lovers meet on a Japanese bridge in an explosion of cherry blossoms’ scene, but the setting is utterly gorgeous, and I would be very surprised if most of the moviegoing audience even notices the bridge or the cherry blossoms – except subliminally, which is how these things are supposed to register.

And in a subsequent scene, the nine-year-old heroine has just realized what the desire of her life is to be, and runs through a long, curving passageway, another classic symbol of transition and birth, but the scene is filmed as an endless following shot in the psychedelically orange gateways of the Fushimi Inari shrine (just click through and look!), and truly delivers on the sensation of transformation that the moment is.

Now, filmmakers have location scouts to find these perfect physical settings for them, but I think it’s one of the great joys of my job as an author (as it was when I was a screenwriter) to be constantly on the lookout for perfect locations to use in current and yet-to-be-conceived storylines.  And they're all ours for the taking.

So you know the question.  What are some of your favorite setpieces and locations in films or books?  Come across any good ones lately?  Or – what is a location you’ve always thought would make a great setpiece scene in a film or book?

- Alex

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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.

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- Amazon UK

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