Tuesday, September 29, 2015

October is Nanowrimo PREP month!

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Fall really started off with a spectacular sky show, didn't it? Full moon, supermoon, Blood Moon, eclipse - and last night one of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen!

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

I’m sure practically everyone here is aware that November is Nanowrimo – National Novel Writing Month. As explained at the official site here, the goal of Nanowrimo is to bash through 50,000 words of a novel in a single month.

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

Nanowrimo works.

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

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

That makes no sense to me.

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

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

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

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

I know it's not QUITE October yet, but before we even get started, here's something to consider.

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

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

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

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

That's a lot to ask of a story.

So how does that decision process happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now let's just think about it, and discuss if you feel like it:

     - How DO you decide what to write? Do commercial concerns factor into it?

     - And, do you know what you're working on for Nano?

Happy Fall, everyone...

      - Alex


If you'd like some in-depth help with your prep, here are the writing workbooks based on this blog and my workshops:

                                          STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.




STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 


Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)


Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE

You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here:

               Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns

Friday, September 18, 2015

STEALING HOLLYWOOD, available now in print and ebook!

Yes, the long-awaited PRINT textbook of my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop is now available. Just in time for you to start prepping for Nanowrimo!


STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries

And I must say this book turned out beautifully – it’s  a nice big 8 x 10 workbook, so well laid out! And it even lies flat for easy highlighting and scribbling in margins.

This book updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.

There’s also a companion ebook that you can buy separately – or can get for just $1.99 as a Kindle Matchbook if you buy the print workbook. But let’s face it–I know print is what people have been waiting for.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with my writing workshops, workbooks and blog, here’s a bit about what I teach.

Many of you know I was a screenwriter for ten years before I wrote my first novel (and despite all my complaining about it, I am back into it now that my Huntress Moon series has been optioned for television!).

But in between that and my full time – more than full time – job as a mystery and thriller novelist, I also teach my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop all over the US and internationally (last week as a master class for the Bloody Scotland Crime Festival) as well as to film students in Los Angeles.

The key to the story structuring technique I write about and that everyone's always asking me to teach is the Three-Act, Eight-Sequence structure. Most writers are at least vaguely familiar with the concept of the Three Act structure (but it never hurts to review – and this post may give you a better idea of why it’s so important!).

But the real secret of film writing and filmmaking, that I teach authors to steal for their novel writing, is that movies are written in a Three-Act, Eight-Sequence structure. Yes, most movies can be broken up into eight discrete 12-15-minute sequences, each of which has a beginning, middle and end.

I swear.

The eight-sequence structure evolved from the early days of film when movies were divided into reels (physical film reels), each holding about ten to fifteen minutes of film (movies were also shorter, proportionately). The projectionist had to manually change each reel as it finished. Early screenwriters (who by the way, were mostly playwrights, well-schooled in the three-act structure) incorporated this rhythm into their writing, developing individual sequences that lasted exactly the length of a reel, so that as the reel ended, the sequence also ended, on a cliffhanger climax – so that as the projectionist was scrambling to change reels, the audience was in a state of high anticipation about WHAT HAPPENS NEXT – instead of being frustrated and pissed off about having their moviegoing experience interrupted in the middle of a key scene. Nobody likes having a climax interrupted, right?

Obviously these days we have digital projection and no one is up in that projection booth scrambling to change reels, but modern films still follow that same climax-every-15-minutes storytelling rhythm. Because - what storytelling form came along mid-twentieth century that really locked that cliffhanger rhythm into place?

Right! Television! Network TV writers always end a sequence on a cliffhanger before the station cuts away to a commercial break. It’s just too easy to change channels, otherwise

And the eight-sequence structure actually translates beautifully to novel structuring, although we have much more flexibility with a novel and you might end up with a few more sequences in a book. But watching movies with the eight-sequence structure in mind is an excellent way to get familiar with this storytelling rhythm, and once you’re able to spot the sequence and act climaxes in movies, they’ll start becoming very apparent in the novels you read as well (you’ll be seeing these climaxes about every fifty pages in a 400-page novel.)

If you’re a writer, you are probably already unconsciously following this structure – that’s what most people in my workshops discover! They just needed someone to point it out to them and show them how to make the most of their climaxes (sorry, it’s impossible to talk about this without sounding like the non-fiction version of 50 Shades…).

Think about it. How many movies and TV shows have you seen in your lifetime? I’m willing to bet it’s thousands. You know this rhythm. Your readers know this rhythm. And here’s the thing: your readers unconsciously EXPECT this rhythm, and if you’re not giving it to them, they’re going to get worried that you’re doing something wrong.

So it’s very, very useful to get conscious about the eight-sequence structure yourself, so you can use it most effectively.

If you’re new to story breakdowns and analysis, then you'll probably want to check out my sample breakdowns (full breakdowns of different movies are included in the workbooks) and watch several, or all, of those movies, following along with my notes, before you try to analyze a movie on your own. You can also sign up for my Story Structure Extras list and get free sample movie breakdowns.

But if you want to jump right in with your own breakdowns and analyses, this is how it works:

       -- Take a film that is similar in structure to your own WIP (work in progress), and screen it, watching the time clock on your DVD player (or your watch, or phone). At about 15 minutes into the film, there will be some sort of climax: an action scene, a revelation, a twist, a big SETPIECE. It won’t be as big as the climax that comes 30 minutes into the film, which would be the Act One climax, but it will be an identifiable climax that will spin the action into the next sequence.)

Proceed through the movie, stopping to identify the beginning, middle, and end of each sequence, approximately every 15 minutes. Also make note of the bigger climaxes or turning points – Act One at 30 minutes, the Midpoint at 60 minutes, Act Two at 90 minutes, and Act Three at whenever the movie ends.

NOTE: You can also, and probably should, say that a movie is really four acts, breaking the long Act Two into two separate acts. Hollywood continues to use "Three Acts." Whichever works best for you!

So how do you recognize a sequence?

It's generally a series of related scenes, tied together by location and/or time and/or action and/or the overall intent of the hero/ine.

In many movies a sequence will take place all in the same location, then move to another location at the climax of the sequence. The protagonist will generally be following just one line of action in a sequence, and then when s/he gets that vital bit of information in the climax of a sequence, s/he’ll move on to a completely different line of action, based on the new information. A good exercise is to title each sequence as you watch and analyze a movie – that gives you a great overall picture of the progression of action.

But the biggest clue to an Act or Sequence climax is a SETPIECE SCENE: there’s a dazzling, thematic location, an action or suspense sequence, an intricate set, a crowd scene, even a musical number (as in The Wizard of Oz and, more surprisingly, Jaws. And Casablanca, too.).

The setpiece is a fabulous lesson to take from filmmaking, one of the most valuable lessons for novelists, and possibly the most crucial for screenwriters, and I talk much more about them throughout the Screenwriting Tricks workbooks.

But me talking about it is not going to get you anywhere. You need to DO this. Watch the movies yourself. Do the breakdowns yourself. Identify setpieces yourself.

Screening one movie looking for this structure one will get you far, three will lock it in, and as you continue to practice looking out for it, this new awareness will open new worlds in your writing.

Eventually, it will be as natural to you as breathing, and you will find yourself incorporating this rhythm into your storytelling without even having to think about it. 

So go, go, watch some movies. It's WORK (don't you love this job?)

And here’s where you can learn more:

STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries

And remember – I always do a month of prep for Nanowrimo here on this blog in October. Come join me for brainstorming and feedback on your story before you launch into your Nano writing frenzy!

Happy Fall….

- Alex