Monday, January 18, 2021

For Martin Luther King Jr. Day: SELMA story analysis

 It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Why not celebrate this American hero and work on your storytelling craft—by watching Selma?


Let’s look at the Set Up in Sequence One.





I’ve been doing a breakdown of the movie for my online Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop. The film has a wildly ambitious goal: to depict the monolith of U.S. racism; to educate its audience about King, a key civil rights battle, and the history of voter suppression in America; to break the history down into understandable segments to change the hearts and minds of its audience; and to prompt present-day action by awakening both rage and inspiration.


Director Ava DuVernay brings not just her brilliance but some serious documentary chops to this movie. Her films 13th and When They See Us are also must-sees for this moment.


Screenwriter Paul Webb was inspired to write the script from talks with Dick Goodwin, a speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson (and husband of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin).


When I do film breakdowns in live workshops or class, I screen the film and talk over it. What I suggest here is you watch the whole film just to experience it, and then watch it again 15 minute sequence by 15 minute sequence.


In this post, I’ll jump-start that process for you by breaking down Sequence One.


First I want to point out two general techniques that the filmmakers are using to accomplish their huge goal of portraying the evil of racism and effecting intellectual, emotional, and political change.


1.    UNITY of time, place and action. I’ve always thought biopics are maybe the hardest genre to get right. But this isn’t a biopic, and it announces that in the title. It’s not called King, it’s called Selma.


The filmmakers have chosen one event to illuminate King’s life. That is classic UNITY: a storytelling technique detailed by the first story structure guru: Aristotle, in his book The Poetics. Selma focuses on one representative event to illuminate King’s life, the civil rights battle, and the ongoing historical struggle against racism.


2.   The KIND of story it is: they filmmakers have chosen the structural form of a war story and used storytelling conventions of great war movies to keep the stakes high and emotional tensions fraught.


And it also deftly presents a dystopian society, as we see in dystopian fiction like The Hunger Games. But in Selma this dystopian society is real, and we’re all living in it.


- Alexandra Sokoloff


Want more? There's more:

STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook, $3.99    

How to write a book or script using the Three-Act, Eight-Sequence structure of filmmaking, with ten full movie breakdowns and tons of movie examples.

WRITING LOVE ebook, $2.99

All the basics of Stealing Hollywood, but focused on the elements of romance and love stories, with ten full romantic movie breakdowns and tons of movie examples.





And if you prefer video lessons with personal feedback:

Write a Book in the New Year - online workshop



Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Don't start a new book. Finish the old one!


I know it’s the New Year, and the temptation to start completely fresh is huge


But hear me now. That does not apply to writing books. 


If you're in the middle of a book, you DO NOT WANT to stop to run after a shiny new idea. That is a great way not to ever get published.


I am pretty sure that what most aspiring authors need to be doing for the New Year—or wherever you are in the year, is to finish an old book.


I recently did a Zoom session with a writing group, and I started it as I always start a workshop, with these questions: 


     1.  The genre of your WIP (Work in Progress)

     2.  The premise of your book - the story in one or two sentences.  

     3.  A list of ten films (a few books, but at least five films) in your genre that are somewhat similar to your book structurally.    


Just that bit of information on my audience or students helps me focus the session or class so that everyone gets the most out of our time together. And you know what I find over and over?


Very few people can tell me about their ONE book.


Because most of the participants have five, six, seven, even eight (I’m dying here…) book or story projects going at once.


Oh. My. God. 

Over the years I have been astonished at how many people in my workshops have multiple projects in various stages of completion. Now, as a professional writer, I often have to work on multiple projects, but that’s the job. I’m talking about unpublished writers. It's not astonishing at all that most of these people remain unpublished. 


Because published authors are writers who suck it up and FINISH their books. 


They COMMIT. They deal with the reality of what they have written instead of the fantasy of what they thought they were writing. They develop the Teflon skin that allows them to put their work out there to be criticized—and yes, rejected. Lots of rejection.


Some of these unfinished projects will never be good enough to be published. The unfortunate truth of writing is that you won't know that until you finish. But you have to become a writer who finishes what you start, even if you then have to throw a whole completed project away once in a while. That is part of the process of becoming a professional writer. You must figure out how to FINISH every book you write.


So here’s the takeaway.


     DON’T start a new book. FINISH the old one.


Part of the writing process is picking the right premise to begin with, which we'll get into soon. But another critical part of that process is ramming your head into a concrete wall (metaphorically speaking) until you're battered and bloody but you finally figure out how to make that particular book work. Some books are just harder than others, but you must demonstrate to the Universe that you are willing to do whatever it takes to make ANY book work. It's a trust thing. Your books must trust you to fully commit to them.


And that time is never wasted, even if you never make money off that book. It is professional—and more importantly, creative—development. 

I have a book hidden in my files in the Cloud that I could be making quite a lot of money on if I just self-published it, or even had my agent go for a traditional publishing deal on it. People would buy it and a lot of readers would enjoy it. One of my trusted Beta readers says it’s her favorite of all my books.


I know all that.


But for me—it's not as good as the rest of my books and I don't want it out there. It just doesn’t have the theme, the meaning I want in my books.


I finished it, evaluated it—and then put it away and wrote another. 


That was a big gap in my publishing schedule, let me tell you. Good thing I had some savings.


BUT—my next book was Huntress Moon, a real breakthrough in my writing. It was the book and series I was meant to write. The Huntress series combines my political and social activism, my rage at the abuse of children and women and the plain fact that we are not yet as a society committed to ENDING that abuse, and my skill at working those issues into highly readable thrillers. Because I’ve written this series, I honestly could die right now and feel that I’d fulfilled one crucial thing I was meant to do on this planet.


The series has made me a mint. It was nominated for a Thriller Award and won an Audie Awared (Best Audiobook, Crime & Thriller). And, oh yeah - it was bought for television, too.


So my putting that other book away? I don't think that's a coincidence. I think my creative mind and the Universe understood that I was finally ready to do more, mean more, with my writing.


So I beg you all, just as I am begging my workshop students. If you haven't finished the book you're on, DON'T start a new book for the New Year (or Nanowrimo, or Junowrimo) just because.


Commit to the book you're already writing, in whatever stage of the process you're at, and finish THAT one.


And then go get published.


- Alex


(This week I heard from a good friend, a fabulous director and writing professor, who says she passed an earlier post of mine like this on to a student of hers - who took the advice, FINISHED her book, and just landed an agent! Just saying....) 



STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook, $3.99    

WRITING LOVE ebook, $2.99


Friday, January 1, 2021

5 minutes of writing per day for a year equals a book

2020 was a hell of a year. I know I’m not the only one to be glad for a chance to take out the trash and start fresh.

I actually got a lot done last year. I launched an online writing class. I had Covid in the spring and recovered, although it took a while. I did everything I could do from a distance to help save democracy.

And I wrote a book. Not just a book—the biggest book I’ve ever written. The first of a new series that’s different from anything I’ve ever written before.

How did I do it? By writing five minutes a day. I never stopped writing. Even if I only spent five minutes a day on it. I don’t think it’s said often enough that you CAN write a novel (or a script, or a TV pilot....) in whatever time you have. Even if that’s only five minutes a day. If you have kids, if you have the day job from hell, if you are clinically depressed, if there’s a pandemic, if democracy seems to be crumbling around you— whatever is going on in your life, if you have five minutes a day, as long as you write EVERY DAY, to the best of your ability, you can write a novel that way.

Five minutes a day for a year equals a book.

I’ll say it again.

Five minutes of writing a day for a year equals a book.

I wrote my first novel, The Harrowing, by writing just five minutes per day. My day job was screenwriting, at the time, and yes, it was a writing job, but it had turned into the day job from hell. But fury is a wonderful motivator and at the end of the day, every day, I was so pissed off at the producers I was working for that I would make myself write five minutes a day on the novel EVERY NIGHT, just out of spite.

Okay, the trick to this is – if you write five minutes a day, you will write more than five minutes a day, sometimes a whole hell of a lot more than five minutes a day most days. But it’s the first five minutes that are the hardest. And that often ended up happening. Sometimes I was so tired that all I could manage was a sentence, but I would sit down at my desk and write that one sentence. But some days I’d tell myself all I needed to write was a sentence, and I’d end up writing three pages.

It’s just like the first five minutes of exercise, something I learned a long time ago. As long as I can drag myself to class (or now, to the living room) and endure that first five minutes of the workout, and I give myself permission to leave after five minutes if I want to, I will generally do the whole class, and usually end up loving it. (There are these wonderful things called endorphins, you see, and they kick in after a certain amount of exposure to pain...)

The trick to writing, and exercise, is—it’s STARTING that’s hard. I have been writing professionally for . . . well, never mind how many years. But even after all those many years—every single day, I have to trick myself into writing. I will do anything—scrub toilets, clean the cat box, do my taxes, do my mother’s taxes—rather than sit down to write. It’s absurd. I mean, what’s so hard about writing, besides everything? But I know this just like I know it about exercise. If you can just start, and commit to just that five minutes, those five minutes will turn into ten, and those ten minutes will turn into pages, and one page a day for a year is a book.

Think about it.Or better yet, write for five minutes, right now.


It’s the New Year. Write a book.

Happy 2021, everyone!

- Alex