I’m pleased to welcome Aexandra Sokoloff to the blog today to answer questions about her first draft process.
Alexandra is the bestselling, Thriller Award-winning and Bram Stoker and Anthony Award-nominated author of eleven supernatural, paranormal and crime thrillers. The New York Times has called her “a daughter of Mary Shelley” and her books “Some of the most original and freshly unnerving work in the genre.”
As a screenwriter she has sold original suspense and crime scripts and written novel adaptations for numerous Hollywood studios. She is also the workshop leader of the internationally acclaimed Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshops, based on her Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks and blog.
Her Thriller Award-nominated Huntress Moon series, following a haunted FBI agent on the hunt for a female serial killer, is out now.
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
I would say “Drink heavily” – but I bet you hear that from all the writers! No, after the drinking, I proceed on two fronts:
1. I throw myself into research – reading everything I can about the crime and/or arena I’m going to be writing about, doing the police or FBI procedural research I need to get going on the subject, and taking a trip – or at least planning one – to the locations I’ll be using.
2. I use index cards and a three-act, eight-sequence story structure grid to start brainstorming a plot. I was a screenwriter for ten years before I wrote my first novel, and the index card method is a very common plotting technique in Hollywood because you have to come up with full story ideas so quickly, sometimes literally overnight.
It’s fun, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. All you do at first is write down all the scenes you know about your book or movie, one scene per card. You don’t have to put them in order yet, but if you know where they go, or approximately where they go, you can just pin or tape them on your board in approximately the right place. (You can always move them around!) Your big, dramatic game-changer scenes will tend to fall at the sequence or act climaxes. And just like with a puzzle, once you have some scenes in place, you will naturally start to build other scenes around them.
It’s both the fastest and deepest way I know to outline a novel, and a lifesaver if you’re writing thrillers with lots of subplots. I teach the method in my story structure workshops, on my blog, and in the two writing workbooks that I’ve written, and I definitely practice what I preach.
Tell us how that first draft takes shape. Do you have a set routine approaching it?
It’s pretty free-form at first. I find that ideally I’m working on four piles of material, or tracks, at once:
1. The index cards I’m brainstorming and arranging on my structure grid.
2. A notebook (or Word file) of random scenes, dialogue, character descriptions that are coming to me as I’m outlining, and that I start to put in chronological order as this notebook gets bigger.
3. An expanded on-paper (or in Word) story outline that I’m compiling as I order my index cards on the structure grid.
4. A collage book of visual images that I’m pulling from magazines (or posting on Pinterest!) that give me the characters, the locations, the colors and moods of my story.
In the beginning of a project, I’ll be going back and forth between all of those tracks as I build my story. And at a certain point I’ll feel I know enough about the characters, the world, and the plot to launch into writing the first draft.
Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?
You can see from the above that I’m all over the map! But I do I like pen and paper brainstorming in the beginning stages. Once I start the draft, it’s on the computer all the way.
How important is research to you?
It’s my favorite part of writing by far! And it’s hugely important to my style of writing. When I write supernatural thrillers, I like to walk the line between reality and unreality – keeping the reader guessing about what’s really happening, so I am constantly creating story situations in which there are multiple plausible explanations for the weird stuff that’s going on, including mental illness, drug-induced hallucinations, and outright fraud. The way I achieve that suspension – and terror – is to dig into the specifics of what supernatural experiences actually feel like to people who have experienced them in real life, so I can create that experience for the reader.
And with my crime thrillers, I want to know enough about the specific police procedure of the state and department to make it all feel real.
How do you go about researching?
Well, Google, Google Maps, YouTube – all that random Internet surfing. But I also very early on go to the places I’m writing about. I think it’s my job as a thriller writer to give my readers a sensory experience and I want to be very specific about what a location looks like, sounds like, smells like, and FEELS like.
There’s also ongoing genre research that I’ve been doing for years. I go to citizen’s police academies and Lee Lofland’s great Writers Police Academy, which is a weekend of hands-on classes in various aspects of law enforcement specifically tailored to writers. I go to forensics and firearms training workshops. There’s all the random reading on mental disorders. And my Huntress Moon series came specifically out of the years of research I’ve done into serial killers, including interviews with FBI profilers. I’d been studying all that for a good ten years before I came up with the idea for the series. I could never have written those books just by doing a month of two of internet reading. You have to be constantly studying your genre.
How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?
I think I answered that earlier! Everywhere. And I lose a lot of that material, all the time. Luckily the subconscious holds on to what it needs.
Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?
No rituals, really, but I have a long habit of starting work pretty much as soon as I wake up, really before I’m even awake. Items, no. Coffee, definitely.
Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?
What is this “outside world” of which you speak? Look, I grew up in Berkeley, there’s no real world for me! And I don’t think any writer is ever completely “present”. But that’s not to say I just sit at the computer. The whole world is part of the writing process. You go out for a drink, and a character you need will walk into the bar. You’re on the train and you pass your main character’s house. You have to get out there and interact with the universe. That’s when the real magic happens.
What does your workspace look like?
Um… I move around to all the rooms of the house. I can only stay about two hours in one place and then it feels like there’s too much energy in the room and I have to go somewhere fresh. And of course, change clothes. I change clothes four or five times during my writing day.
Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?
Write to the end without going back. Like a shark – keep moving or you sink and die. I think of the first draft as the bash-through, and it’s absolutely the hardest part of the process for me. Anything after that is golden.
I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?
I count pages instead. That’s from screenwriting: you’re always aware that one written page equals a minute of film time. That’s not so true in novels, of course, but still, being aware of page count keeps me conscious of pace. I just write the page count down on a page in my journal at the end of every day, and in the middle of a project it has to be a minimum of five pages a day.
So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?
It really varies. In the days that I was able to work on just one book at once, it would take about three months. Or four. Now I’m always working on multiple projects and I might put a draft of a book aside for quite a while before I go back to it. As I get more experienced at books and more ambitious with my plots, I find that some need longer to “cook”.
The shape the first draft in is always the same: completely and utterly unreadable to anyone but me. But I can take that and know what the shape of my book is, and build from there.
In what format do you like to read it through, e-reader, paper or the computer screen?
I used to have to do it on paper, and I still think that’s the best way to do it, but now I always read on my laptop screen. It’s just faster to edit that way. And greener!
What happens now that first draft is done?
After I’ve written that first agonizing bash-through draft of a book, I read, cut, polish, put in notes. And then repeat. And repeat again, until it’s readable and even maybe starts to feel like a book. Then I start doing dedicated passes through, focusing on key elements: a pass just to amp up the suspense, a pass on the main character, on the antagonist, on the emotional throughlines of all the characters, a subplot pass, a sensory pass to make sure the reader is fully engaged in the experience I want them to have. I think of all that as directing onto the page. You have to design it, act it, light it, score it. That’s the best part of writing… coloring it in until suddenly – it’s there, a fully realized story that will read as if you’re putting a movie into the reader’s head. And then it goes out to beta readers for feedback and notes so that I can make sure it’s working for other people besides me!
Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you.
The hunt for mass murderer Cara Lindstrom is over. FBI Special Agent Matthew Roarke has been working for this moment: the capture of a killer who savagely hunts the worst of humanity. But Roarke remains traumatized by his own near-death at the hands of the serial killer who slaughtered Cara’s family…and haunted by the enigmatic woman who saved his life.
Then the sixteen-year-old prostitute who witnessed Cara’s most recent murder goes missing, and suddenly pimps are turning up dead on the streets of San Francisco, killed with an MO eerily similar to Cara’s handiwork.
Is a new killer on the loose with a mission even more deadly than hers? In the pulse-pounding third Huntress/FBI Thrillers book, Roarke will have to go on the hunt…and every woman he meets, even those closest to him, may prove deadly.
You can read other Q&A’s in the First Draft series, Here. If you want to let us know how you work through your own first draft, just get in touch.