Sunday, December 28, 2014

THE UNSEEN on sale, 99 cents for Kindle!

For everyone who got Kindles for Christmas, or anyone who's planning to read in bed until the New Year, my parapsychology thriller The Unseen is on sale this week for just 99 cents for Kindle.  So if you're looking for a cheap thrill.... :)

The Unseen is fiction, but there's a lot of reality woven in, in history and location.

I have a posse of mystery writer friends (I should say goddesses!): Margaret Maron, Sarah Shaber, Diane Chamberlain, Katy Munger, Mary Kay Andrews and Brynn Bonner.  Several times a year we go on retreat to the beach or the mountains or some generally fantastic place. We work all day long by ourselves and then convene at night to drink wine and brainstorm on any problem that any one of us is having (and of course, compare page counts!).

And one of our favorite retreats is the Artist in Residence program at the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines, NC.  

Weymouth is an amazing place – a 9000 sq. foot mansion on 1200 acres (including several formal gardens and a 9-hole golf course) that’s really three houses melded together. It was what they called a “Yankee Playtime Plantation” in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the fox hunting lodge of coal magnate James Boyd.  James Boyd’s grandson James rebelled against the family business to become - what else? - a novelist. Boyd wrote historical novels, and his editor was the great Maxwell Perkins (“Editor of Genius”), and in the 1920’s and 30’s Weymouth became a Southern party venue for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Thomas Wolfe. That literary aura pervades the house, especially the library, with all its photos and portraits of the writers who have stayed at the house.
It’s a fantastic place to write – pages just fly.  

It's also notoriously haunted.

When you write ghost stories, PLACE is hugely important - it's got to be absolutely a character in the book, just as much as the human characters are.  
And The Unseen  is a haunted house story – two psychology professors take a group of psychically gifted students into a house with a history of poltergeist manifestations, to replicate a controversial experiment from the 1960’s.  I was inspired by the real-life, world famous ESP testing and poltergeist investigations that took place at the Duke University parapsychology lab, headed by Dr. J.B. Rhine.



Zenercards

You probably recognize those cards, which were used in laboratory tests to determine through statistical analysis whether ESP really occurs.   Two test subjects would sit at a table divided by a screen, and one subject, the sender, would flip through a deck of 25 cards, concentrating on one card at a time, while the receiver would write down her or his guesses about what that card was.
Pure chance is 20% right, so any score significantly above chance was considered to be an indicator of some psychic ability.   And if you want to try it for yourself, here's an online version of the test! 
As the daughter of scientists, I was always completely fascinated by the idea of testing something as spooky cool as ESP in a laboratory setting.   But what really hooked me about the history of the Rhine lab was that in the sixties, the researchers started doing field research of haunted houses and poltergeists.  
Poltergeists!
I know what a ghost is, kind of, but a poltergeist is such an elusive - creature.   Is it the random sexual energy of an adolescent gone wild?    Is it a particularly noisy and mischievous ghost?   Is it an otherworldly entity?   Or is it just a teenager faking spooky effects for attention?
The mystery of it has always fascinated me.  
Now, I truly believe that when you commit to a story, the universe opens up all kinds of fantastic opportunities to you.   And I started writing THE UNSEEN at the same time that our group had its first trip to Weymouth. In fact, we came down to the house on the very day that my characters were moving into THEIR haunted house.
(I’m telling you, writing is a little scary.  More than a little scary, in this case…)
Some of us had some truly spooky encounters in that place.   Every time I turned around there was knocking on the walls (the pipes in the kitchen), weird manifestations (a ghostly team of horses trotting by with a buggy on the road outside) and rooms that were just too creepy to go into after dark.  One night I had to go all the way back upstairs, across the upstairs hall and around to the front stairs to get to a room I wanted to go to because I was too freaked out to cross the Great Room in the dark.   And another one of us had the classic “Night Hag” visitation:  she woke up feeling that someone or something was sitting on her chest.  Brrrrr…..
One prevalent theory of hauntings is that a haunting is an imprint of a violent or strong emotion that lingers in a place like an echo or recording.   I’ve always liked that explanation.
Well, this house was imprinted, all right, but far beyond what I had expected.
Because besides the requisite spooky things… that house was downright sexy.  There’s no other way to say it.   Seriously - hot.
I had ridiculously, I mean – embarrassingly -  erotic dreams every night.  There were rooms I walked into that made my knees go completely weak.   The house, the gardens, even the golf course, just vibrated with sex.
Now, maybe that was just the imprint of creativity – the whole mansion is constantly inhabited by writers and musicians, and as we all know, creativity is a turn-on.
But also, consider the history.   As I said – Weymouth was a “Yankee Playtime Plantation”.   Rich people used that house specifically to party - in the Roaring Twenties, no less.   (Think THE GREAT GATSBY!).   God only knows how many trysts, even orgies, went on.   So could sex imprint on a place, just as violence or trauma is supposed to be able to imprint?
It makes sense to me.
That sexual dynamic surprised the hell out of me, but it completely worked with my main character’s back story - she’s a young California psychology professor who impulsively flees to North Carolina after she catches her fiancĂ© cheating on her.  (Actually, she dreams her fiancĂ© is cheating on her, in exactly the scenario that she catches him in later.)    So her wound is a specifically sexual one, and one of her great weaknesses is that she’s vulnerable to being sexually manipulated.  
Add to that that the most prevalent explanation of a poltergeist is that it’s hormones run amok:  that the projected sexual energy of an adolescent or young adult can randomly cause objects to move or break.
So of course I went with it.   It wasn’t anything to do with my outline, but California girl that I am, how can I not go with the obvious flow?
I think it adds a great dimension to the story, in a way I never could have anticipated, and I’m pleased to have been true to the - um, spirit - of poltergeists.
So first, I’m always interested in hearing your ghost and psychic experiences.  Come on, I know you have them.  And then of course, there's the "How far will you go to research?" question!  Do you all take this to the same extremes I do?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Top Ten Christmas Movies


To me, the best thing about Christmas, besides champagne, is Christmas movies. And you all know how I love lists, so here it is, the Top Ten Holiday Movie List.



IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE

A non-escapist fantasy that puts you through the emotional wringer only to emerge the feel-good - that's, feel GOOD - film of all time.

Used to show it to my gang kids in prison school – it remains one of the all-time highlights of my life to see those kids start out whining that I was showing them a black and white film and then watch them fall under this movie’s spell. Oh man, did they GET it.








HOLIDAY

George Cukor directing a Donald Ogden Stewart & Sidney Buchman adaptation of a Philip Barry play starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Anything else you need to know?

PHILADELPHIA STORY

See above, plus Jimmy Stewart, and the brilliant and under-known Ruth Hussey (“Oh, I just photograph well.”) and Virginia Weidler as the weirdest little sister on the planet (“I did it. I did it ALL.”) Not a holiday movie, per se, but if you’re looking for cheer...





HOLIDAY INN

The ultimate escapist fantasy. Yes, let me make a living doing 12 live shows a year, simultaneously keeping two men at my beck and call, one who sings, one who dances. Where do I sign? Best line: “But I do love you, Jim. I love everybody.” Best song: “Be Careful, It’s My Heart”. Best dance - Fred and the firecrackers. Best cat-fight moment: Marjorie Reynolds trying to look contented with Bing Crosby while Fred is dancing up a storm with Virginia Dale.  (But be sure to get the one with the appalling Lincoln's birthday sequence edited out...)






RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER

Best Christmas musical soundtrack there is – one great song after another - only the whole thing makes me cry so hard I generally end up avoiding it.



FAWLTY TOWERS

BBC series written by and starring John Cleese and Connie Booth, with Cleese as the most incompetent innkeeper in the history of innkeeping. The entire series is genius, every single episode - not exactly holiday themed, either, but guaranteed healer of depression and all other ills. Be prepared to laugh until you're sick.









ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS

My brother turned the fam onto AB FAB and now it just wouldn’t be a holiday without Patsy and Eddy and Saffy. Sin is in, sweetie.



GODSPELL and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR

Okay, so I’m not technically a Christian or anything, but I can see God in those two shows.



So what movies mean Christmas, or the equivalent, to YOU?

Have a wonderful holiday!!!

- Alex

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Nanowrimo Now What? Lessons from Musical Theater

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I know, it's Panic Sunday, four days to Christmas, and nobody is writing this week except me, right?

Well, but here's a little exercise you could do to hone your story structure skills and get into the holiday spirit at the same time.

Last week I went to see Wicked and was reminded once again that the best training I ever got for writing novels, and screenplays, was my musical theater background (acting, directing, choreography).

Looking at musical theater is an excellent way to learn how to present key story elements like Inner and Outer Desire, Into the Special World, the Hero/ine’s Plan, the Antagonist’s Plan, Character Arc, Gathering the Team – virtually any important story element you can name. Musical theater knows to give those key elements the attention and import they deserve. What musicals do to achieve that is put those story elements into song and production numbers. They become setpiece scenes to music. And you know how I’m always encouraging you all to SPELL THINGS OUT? Well, there no better way to spell things out than in song. The audience is so entertained they don’t know you’re spoon-feeding them the plot.

Yes, I know, you can’t put songs on the page. But - you can most certainly learn from the energy and exuberance of songs and production numbers, and find your own ways of getting that same energy and exuberance onto the page in a narrative version of production design, theme, emotion and chemistry between characters, tone, mood, revelation – everything that good songs do.

So in the spirit of the holidays, how about finding 90 minutes to screen The Nightmare Before Christmas? We'll take a look at the songs in that piece one by one and identify the key story element, or elements, that each song is dramatizing.


• Overture –

(An Overture does what an opening image or credits sequence does: it establishes mood, tone, theme and expectation. In this film the Overture ends with the Opening Image shot of the circle of trees in the woods that turns out to be a portal to all the different holidays. An important set up and a visual depiction of the premise of the entire movie, really.

• "This is Halloween" – The Nightmare Before Christmas cast/ choir

The opening number is big production number, as befits a musical, which sets up THE ORDINARY WORLD of Halloween Town, and almost all the principle characters (except Santa Claus).


• "Jack's Lament" – Jack

Nothing is better than musical theater for externalizing character’s needs, desires, plans and wishes. But there’s often more to a Desire song than that.

As I am always saying, a great deal of what creates dramatic conflict and character arc comes from the conflict between a hero/ine’s Inner and Outer Desire. For MOST characters, what they think they want is not what they actually need, and during the journey of the story, they will come to realize that they are WRONG about what they want. This musical is a strong example of that storytelling principle in action. “Jack’s Lament” is a Desire or Want or Wish song; he’s tired of doing the same thing every year (basically, he puts on Halloween) and feels there’s something missing. He is going to seize on Christmas as the answer to that desire, when very soon we realize that what he really needs is Sally. Jack’s Character Arc has to do with realizing that very thing himself, as well as realizing that he’s good at what he does, he’s supposed to be the Pumpkin King, and thus finding new excitement in his life and life’s work.

A Desire song is very, very often a “Careful what you wish for” moment. It certainly is, here!


• "What's This?" – Jack

Here we have a song of Jack exploring the Special World, after he’s gone through the door to Christmastown (The Passageway to the Special World – which is also the Opening Image of the film: the circle of trees in the woods, with each tree having a door to a different holiday. This passageway scene has elements of C.S. Lewis’s The Mageician’s Son, The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, and probably a whole slew of other classics I’m not thinking about.)

• "Town Meeting Song" – Jack and Citizens

Here is a GATHERING THE TEAM song; Jack calls a town meeting to try to explain Christmas to the Halloween people, and rally them around this exciting new idea. Unfortunately, the team doesn’t get it.

So Jack’s first PLAN is to figure out Christmas so he can rally Halloween Town behind a new and exciting celebration, but the more he studies it, the more it eludes him.

• "Jack's Obsession" - Jack and Citizens

A musical depiction of the HERO’S PLAN and OBSESSIVE ACTIONS (Obsessive and/or Immoral Actions and Crossing the Line are key elements of Act II, part 2).

• "Kidnap The Sandy Claws" – Lock, Shock, and Barrel

A PLAN song: in this case it’s Jack’s Plan, but carried out by these three villainous henchmen, which turns it more into a Villain’s Plan without making us completely hate Jack. However, Jack has definitely Crossed the Line with this plan, as illustrated by the song, which should cause some recoil in the audience!

This song is also a SIDEKICK song; one of the perennial delights of musical theater, which often, as here, employs the RULE OF THREE (even the names of the characters, Lock, Shock and Barrel, are a classic Rule Of Three pattern: same, same, different. In straight musical theater this is often a tap dance song; tap epitomizes playful exuberance and some comic slyness as well.)

(Of course one of the most wonderful examples of the Allies’ Song or Sidekick Song
and the Rule of Three is the three choruses of “If I Only Had a Brain/Heart/Nerve) in The Wizard of Oz, which also serves as the Gathering the Team Sequence.)

• "Making Christmas" – The Nightmare Before Christmas cast:

This is the production number that dramatizes the Storming the Castle scene; Jack Storms The Castle (Christmas Town) by reindeer and sleigh, and proceeds to terrify the sleeping citizens of Christmas Town by delivering horrifying and in some cases, vicious presents.

• "Oogie Boogie's Song" – Oogie Boogie

Meanwhile back in Halloween Town we get a classic Villain’s Plan song: main villain Oogie Boogie is going to torture Santa Claus. This is a down and dirty New Orleans- style song, which musical theater loves, especially as a musical style for the villain. It undercuts the villainy by making it seem sexy and appealing and danceable, which in a children’s film takes the edge off the scariness of this monster.

• "Sally's Song" – Sally

The love interest’s DESIRE SONG comes quite late in the film, but her desire for Jack has not only been clear from the beginning, it’s actually been the emotional core of the whole film. We get completely behind Sally’s Desire at the same time that we’re getting more and more uneasy about Jack’s Desire. Here her Desire song is actually used as a Black Moment or All Is Lost scene for her, too; she does not believe at this moment that she’ll ever be with Jack (which makes us WANT that for her even more.)

• "Poor Jack" – Jack

Jack’s All Is Lost Moment comes as he has been shot down from the sky by the police of Christmastown, and has fallen onto a cross in the cemetery. He sings as he hangs from the cross that he has failed utterly at his attempt to take over Christmas. But in the middle of the despair of this song, he also finds a Revelation: that he is good at exactly what he does, and he becomes excited about planning for the next Halloween. He races off with a New Plan, to save Santa Claus and restore him to Christmastown before it’s too late. He Storms The Castle again, this time Oogie Boogie’s castle, to fight Oogie and rescue Santa Claus and Sally in the Final Battle.

• "Finale" – Jack, Sally, Citizens of Halloween Town

Besides the production number of the finale (in which Halloween Town citizens frolic in the snow that Santa has sent as a gesture of forgiveness), Jack and Sally’s final love song at the end is a REPRISE, another favorite trick of musical theater. A Reprise is a great way to show Character Arc and a change in the hero/ine’s core philosophy or life outlook, as the second or third version of the song changes in lyrics and tone/mood (often with key changes from minor to major) to show progression. The love song is the same as Sally’s lament in Act II:2, but the words change from “Some things will never be” to “Some things are meant to be”. Of course, this and the kiss out on the frozen wave under the moon show us their NEW WAY OF LIFE: happily in love.

The point I’m trying to make here is that whether or not you’re using music, song and dance in a story, you can learn volumes about creating emotionally effective scenes from looking at how musical theater handles key story elements. Take a favorite musical and watch it with that idea in mind. I think you’ll be amazed.

So today, I’d like to brainstorm other great examples of Key Story Elements in song. I’ll start it off:

PLAN songs: “Follow the Yellow Brick Road/We’re Off to See the Wizard” in The Wizard of Oz. “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” in Oklahoma (hey, I’m always saying, dating is a Plan.) “Don’t Rain On My Parade” from Funny Girl. "Tevye's Dream" - Fiddler on the Roof.

Interestingly, “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King is a PLAN song: Simba’s Plan at the moment is just to have a good time (like Prince Hal in Henry V). Of course, we know that Plan is not going to save the Kingdom from Scar! We want Simba to get his act together and do the responsible thing. I would also say “Luck Be A Lady” from Guys and Dolls is not just a Desire song but also a Plan song; often songs fulfill several story element functions.

Oh, and let’s not forget dark PLAN songs! One of my favorites is the duet between Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett: “Have a Little Priest”. Their PLAN is for Sweeney Todd to butcher people in his upstairs barber chair, and send the bodies down for Mrs. Lovett to bake into her pies, thereby fulfilling both their Desires: ST’s for revenge on humanity (especially the Judge) and Mrs. Lovett’s: to have a thriving pie shop and get closer to Sweeney Todd.

DESIRE songs:

Too many to even name! – there’s at least one in every musical. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” (My Fair Lady), “Reflection” (from Mulan – also a great Inner/Outer Desire song)”. “Corner of the Sky” (Pippin). “If I Were A Rich Man”. “I’m The Greatest Star” from Funny Girl. . .

When you have a character cluster such as the three oldest sisters in Fiddler on the Roof, they will almost always sing the Desire song as a group number as in “Matchmaker” (again, also, the Rule of Three). The male soldiers of Mulan (one set of her allies) express their own desires in “A Girl Worth Fighting For”.

It's also very effective to use a group number to express a group Desire: as in "God I Hope I Get It", in A Chorus Line. Every single one of those auditioning dancers wants the same thing: the job.

Sometimes instead of or along with a DESIRE song, the Hero/ine has an I AM song, in which s/he expresses a belief or philosophy that will be challenged during the course of the musical. A great, hilarious recent example: “I Believe” from The Book of Mormon.

I AM songs also can be, and often are: WE ARE songs: ensemble numbers in which a town or a group sings together about a group philosophy. "This is Halloween", from Nightmare, is one of those, and there are some great ones throughout musical theater: “When You’re a Jet” and “America”, from West Side Story (which expresses battling philosophies within the culture and the song), and “Tradition”, from Fiddler on the Roof, also “Officer Krupke” from West Side Story, which is simultaneously a “We Are” song, a comic male specialty number, and a searing statement of the societal FORCES OF OPPOSITION in the story.

VILLAIN’S PLAN:

Scar’s song in The Lion King: a production number that climaxes Act One. We see exactly what will happen to the animal kingdom if Simba doesn’t get his act together and defeat Scar.

The Villain’s Plan song also expresses our FEAR of what will happen, and concurrent HOPE – that the Hero/ine will prevent this dire vision from happening.

I want to point out that very often in musicals and especially in film musicals and animation, the Villain does NOT have a song; he or she will express the plan in words and action, not music. Except in the rare case like Sweeney Todd, music tends to undercut the impact of the villainy – you wouldn’t want to see the Wicked Witch of the West burst into song, now, would you? The fact is that absence of music is suspect and scary, as Shakespeare said so eloquently:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.
(The Merchant of Venice, 5.1.91-7)

However, as we see in Nightmare Before Christmas, having a scary villain sing can make him or her less threatening to children, which is an important consideration.

Also, secondary villains are often given the songs so you can have a vicarious musical delight in the evil, before the real evil kicks in. Herod’s flashy honky-tonk song in Jesus Christ Superstar is a good example.

TRAINING SEQUENCE songs:

“I’ll Make a Man Out Of You” – from Mulan. Some great irony, there, as the song also expresses the hero’s philosophical flaw as well as the theme of the movie.

MENTOR SONGS

This is also a kind of training sequence song. “On the Right Track” from Pippin (also could be read as a Temptation Song) “True to Your Heart”, from Mulan, “Hakuna Matata”, from The Lion King, Aunt Eller’s “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends” in Oklahoma! "Bear Necessities" from Jungle Book is both an I Am song and a Mentor song. Most of the songs in the first half of Godspell are Training/Mentor songs, as befitting one of the ultimate Mentor stories.

The TRIUMPH or BREAKTHROUGH song:

“The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly In The Plain.” “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”. This number is often at an Act Climax or Midpoint.

The Triumph can be and often is the realization or reciprocation of love: “I Could Have Danced All Night”, “If I Were A Bell” (from “Guys and Dolls”), "Now I Have Everything", from Fiddler.

ALLLIES’ SONGS and SIDEKICK SONGS.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a very streamlined story, so subplots are sparse, but in full-length musicals some of the best numbers are ALLLIES’ SONGS and SIDEKICK SONGS. Allies’ Songs very often, if not almost always, express the Ally’s Desire, and are often a comic counterpoint to the hero or heroine AND also the hero/heroine love relationship (Ado Annie and Will in Oklahoma!) These songs are also often character dances such as tap, hip hop, regional dances. modern, swing, salsa, samba, tango, etc.).

I have to add that my absolute favorite kind of musical theater song is the SPECIALTY DANCE NUMBER, a group of usually five to seven women in a song and dance showstopper like the ones Bob Fosse is so famous for: numbers like Steam Heat, Big Spender, Mein Herr, He Had It Coming. At the moment I can’t think of any equivalent in film; it’s much easier to find specialty showstoppers with a small group of men, the classic tap numbers you see time and again both on stage and in film and the breathtaking gang numbers of West Side Story, but I wanted to bring the female equivalent up as an example of subversive female empowerment.

Okay, I could go on and on, but I’d like to hear some examples from you guys! And by the way, I've made up a lot of those names for songs and dance numbers, so I'd love to hear other names for them.

- Alex




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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.



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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.


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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Rewriting: Something has to happen


by Alexandra Sokoloff

For those of you who are into the rewriting process, now, I want to do a few posts on some key elements of Act I.

Of all the many things I love about e books, I may love this feature the most: sampling. I'm a voracious browser and when I want something to read, unless I know exactly the book I want, I'll often go through a few dozen first chapters of a few dozen books in a row to find something that grabs me.

This is a fantastic exercise when you're struggling with a first chapter of your own.

I read through a bunch of first chapters last night, a couple dozen books at least, and it was pretty shocking how few of them grabbed me enough for me to want to keep reading.

Now, I'm not saying these books are badly written. The prose is fine, really. I'm just like everyone - there are very few books out there (proportionately) that I'm actually going to take the time to read. I like certain things in a book and if they're not there, I'll move on. Nothing wrong with that AT ALL - the wonderful thing about books is that there ARE books that deliver the exact or almost exact experience we're looking for. So of course we look for those over less satisfying ones. I'm perfectly aware that just as many people discard MY books after the first few pages because I'M not delivering the experience they're looking for. I'm certainly not for everyone's tastes.

But there was something I was noticing in book after book that I started and then discarded last night that was just a structural error that could so easily have been fixed to - I think - increase the number of people who would want to keep reading. It's pretty simple, really.

I couldn't figure out what the book was about.


Or why I should care, either.

What was missing in the first ten, or twenty, pages I was reading was the INCITING INCIDENT (or the term I prefer - CALL TO ADVENTURE).

The Inciting Incident is basically the action that starts the story. The corpse hits the floor and begins a murder investigation, the hero gets his first glimpse of the love interest in a love story, a boy receives an invitation to a school for wizards in a fantasy. (More discussion on this key story element coming up this week.)

SOMETHING HAS TO HAPPEN, IMMEDIATELY, that gives us an idea of WHAT THE STORY IS ABOUT.


You can do this to some extent by setting mood, tone, genre, hope and fear, and an immediate external problem, but there is something about that first action that lets us know, at least subconsciously: "Oh, I get it. That teenage girl was murdered and that cop is going to find the killer." "Oh, I get it. There's a shark out there off the coast eating tourists and that police chief is going to have to get rid of it somehow."

And once we know that, we can relax. It is a very disorienting and irritating thing not to know where a story is going.

Which means in general you should get to your INCITING INCIDENT and CALL TO ADVENTURE as soon as possible. Especially if you are a new writer, you cannot afford to hold this back. And I would argue it's critical to get it out there if your book is or has any chance of being an e book, too, because it's just so easy to go on to the next e book on your reader.

Genre fiction is popular because we go in knowing pretty much what the story is going to be about. The kid is kidnapped and the detective has to get him back. The house is haunted and the new residents are going to have to fight to survive. But setting your book in a certain genre does not always guarantee that the reader is going to know what the story is going to be about (as evidenced by what I was reading last night.)

So I'm suggesting - find a way to get that critical inciting incident into the first few pages or at the very least, strongly hint at it right up front.

Reading a bunch of first chapters in a row points out a lot of common errors, actually. So here’s a brief list.

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

Now, please, please remember – I am not talking about first drafts, here. As far as I’m concerned, all a first draft has to do is get to “The End”. It doesn’t have to be polished. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. Screenwriter and novelist Derek Haas refers to his first pass of a story as “the vomit draft”. And that's what Nano is about.  Exactly. Just get it all out – you’ll make sense of it later.

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

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

2. NEVER MIND THE FUCKING BACKSTORY!!!!!

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

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

Here are two tips:

3. IDENTIFY THE SENSATION AND EXPERIENCE YOU WANT TO EVOKE IN YOUR READER – AND THEN MAKE SURE YOU’RE EVOKING IT.

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

Now that you know what the experience is that you want to create, start to look at great examples of books and films that successfully create that experience FOR YOU.  Make that Top Ten list!

4. USE ALL SIX SENSES.

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

5. SHOW, DON’T TELL.

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


6. DETAIL THE INTERNAL DRIVES OF YOUR CHARACTER AND SET THE GENRE.

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

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

So while you're writing your brains out today, take a few minutes to ask yourself these key questions:

Do you know where your inciting incident is? Is it soon enough? Honestly?

Do we KNOW where your story is going by page ten of your book?

Can you maybe do a little rearranging to make sure this happens, before you move on?

And for more discussion and examples of all of these terms, see.Elements of Act One.

- 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


Sunday, December 07, 2014

Live chat tonight: 9 pm EST

I forgot to say that I'm going to be chatting in the Writerspace chat room tonight (Sunday, 12/7)  at
9 pm EST.

That's 2 am Scottish time, so I can't promise complete clarity (!) - but I will be up and talking about whatever anyone wants to talk about: the Huntress series, indie publishing, Scotland, story structure, movies, Deadwood, Amazon, the space-time continuum...

I'll be giving away a couple of books, and anyone who stops in will automatically be registered for my monthly contest - to celebrate the rerelease of the Huntress series I'm giving away a Kindle in January. (If you can't make it to the chat you can still enter by signing up for my mailing list.)

Come on by!                                  Link to chat room

Nanowrimo Now What? - Rewriting


by Alexandra Sokoloff

All right everyone, break's over! Back to work!

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.

This is assuming two crucial things:

       1. You have FINISHED your draft. If not, keep writing to the end.

       2. You have taken enough time off from that draft to clear your head.

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.


STORY ELEMENTS CHECKLIST

ACT ONE

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

___________________________

ACT TWO


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


THE MIDPOINT


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


______________________________
ACT TWO, PART TWO


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

THE SECOND ACT CLIMAX

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


_______________________________

ACT THREE

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

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


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

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

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

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


PS:  You may have noticed I've added several tabs at the top of the blog. It's a work in progress, but you can now more easily access posts on Indie Publishing, Nanowrimo, Story Structure, my book/film/life essays, my monthly giveaways, etc. Any comments/suggestions gladly accepted!



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

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

Monday, December 01, 2014

Nanowrimo Now What?

by Alexandra Sokoloff


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.

In the next month I'll be posting about rewriting. But not now.

Today, no matter where you are in the process, celebrate! You showed up and have the pages to show for it.

Then - 

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.

Alex


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

All the information on this blog and more is in the writing workbooks. Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are available for 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, and more full story breakdowns.


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE







Friday, November 28, 2014

Nanowrimo: Act Three questions and prompts

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Black Friday! But I know none of you Nanos are out shopping, oh no. Not when there is climaxing to be done.

Yes, we're into Act III, now.  Or maybe you're not that far yet, which is all perfectly fine. As long as you're writing, it's all good.

But if you are into Act III, here are the prompts for that last act. Hope everyone is having a wonderful and productive long weekend!

- Alex


ELEMENTS OF ACT THREE

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

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

1. Getting there (Storming the Castle): Sequence 7.
2. The final battle itself: Sequence 8.

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

• There may well be DEFEATS OF SECONDARY OPPONENTS

Each one of the secondary opponents should be given a satisfying end or comeuppance. (This may also happen earlier, in Act II:2.)

THEMATIC LOCATION

This is often a visual and literal representation of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare.

We see:

THE PROTAGONIST’S CHARACTER CHANGE

• THE ANTAGONIST’S CHARACTER CHANGE (if any)

• Possibly ALLY/ALLIES’ CHARACTER CHANGE and/or GAINING OF DESIRE(s)

• Possibly a huge FINAL REVERSAL OR REVEAL (twist), or even a whole series of PAYOFFS that you’ve been saving (as in Back to the Future and It’s a Wonderful Life)

RESOLUTION: A glimpse into the NEW WAY OF LIFE that the hero/ine will be living after this whole ordeal and all s/he’s learned from it

• Possibly a sense of coming FULL CIRCLE

            Returning to the opening image or scene, and is a great way to show how much things have changed, or how the hero/ine has changed inside, which makes her or him deal with the same place and situation in a whole different way.

CLOSING IMAGE

What do you want to leave your reader or audience with in the end?


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

All the information on this blog and more is in the writing workbooks. Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are available for 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, and more full story breakdowns.


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE