Wednesday, June 2, 2010

How long, oh Lord, how Long? by Alex Sokoloff

Alexandra Sokoloff is a California native and a graduate of U.C. Berkeley, where she majored in theater and minored in everything that Berkeley has a reputation for. After college she moved to Los Angeles, where she made an interesting living doing novel adaptations and selling original suspense and horror scripts to various Hollywood studios. Her ghost story, THE HARROWING, debuted from St. Martin's Press in 2006, and was nominated for Bram Stoker and Anthony awards for Best First Novel. Her supernatural thrillers THE PRICE, and THE UNSEEN are out now; BOOK OF SHADOWS is coming in June 2010, and THE KEEPERS in fall 2010. She's a Thriller award winner, a former Director of the Writers Guild of America, west and a current board member of Mystery Writers of America. She is also the founder of, a large and unruly cyber-community of professional screenwriters.  

How long, oh Lord, how long?
by Alex Sokoloff

I’m about to go on tour for my newest book, which means that I actually have to start talking to people coherently about the whole process of writing.    And I’m remembering that one of the questions I most often get at book signings and panels is, “How long does it take you to write a book?”

Well, my feeling is what’s always being asked is not how long it takes ME to write a book, but how long it would take the person asking to write a book.   Which of course,  I have no way of answering, unless it’s to cut to the chase and shout,  “Save yourself!   Don’t do it!”    But that’s never the question, so I don’t say it.

What I usually answer instead is,  “About nine months.”     Which, from Chapter One to copyedits, I guess is true enough.    But the real answer is almost always:   “Decades.”

Because honestly, where do you even start?   I’m quite convinced I’m a professional writer today because my mother made me write a page a day from the time I could actually hold a pencil.   At first a page was a sentence, and then a paragraph, and then a real page, but it was writing.   Every day.    It was an incredibly valuable lesson, which taught me a fundamental truth about writing:  it didn’t have to be good, it just had to get written.   Now I make myself write however many pages every day.    And now, like then, it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to get written.   Some days it’s good, some days it’s crap, but if you write every day, there are eventually enough good days to make a book.

Then there were all those years of theater, from writing and performing plays in my best friend’s garage, to school and community theater, to majoring in theater in college, to performing with an ensemble company after college.   Acting, dancing, choreography, directing – that was all essential training for writing.

And then the reading.    Again,  like probably every writer on the planet, from the time I could hold a book.    The constant, constant reading.    Book after book – and film after film, too, and play after play – until the fundamentals of storytelling were permanently engraved in some template in my head.

Hey, you may be saying,  that’s TRAINING.   That wasn’t the question.    How long does it take to WRITE A BOOK?

I still maintain, it takes decades.     I think books emerge in layers.    The process is a lot like a grain of sand slipping inside a clamshell that creates an irritaion that causes the clam to secrete that substance, nacre, that covers the grain, one layer at a time, until eventually a pearl forms.    (Actually it’s far more common that some parasite or organic substance, even tissue of the clam’s own body, is the irritant, which is an even better analogy if you ask me, ideas as parasites…)

My fourth supernatural thriller for St. Martin’s,  BOOK OF SHADOWS, comes out next week, June 8.    When did I start it?   Well, technically in the fall of 2008, I guess.    But really, the seed was planted long ago, when I was a child growing up in Berkeley.   Which pretty much explains why I write supernatural at begin with, but that’s another post.    Those of you who have visited this town know that Telegraph Avenue, the famous drag ending at the Berkeley campus,  is a gauntlet of fortune tellers (as well as clothing and craft vendors).

Having daily exposure to Tarot readers and psychics and palm readers as one of my first memories has been influential to my writing in ways I never realized until I started seeing similarities in the two books I have coming out this year (the second, THE SHIFTERS, will be out in November) and discovered I could trace the visuals and some of those scenes back to those walks on Telegraph Ave.

Without mentioning an actual number, I can tell you, that’s a lot of years for a book to be in the making.

Over the years, that initial grain of sand picked up more and more layers.   BOOK OF SHADOWS is about a Boston homicide detective who reluctantly teams up with a beautiful practicing witch from Salem to solve what looks like a Satanic murder.   Well,  back in sixth grade, like a lot of sixth graders I got hooked on the Salem witch trials, and that fascination extended to an interest in the real-life modern practice of witchcraft, which if you live in California – Berkeley, San Francisco, L.A. –is thriving, and has nothing at all to do with the devil or black magic.    Hanging out at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire (more Tarot readers!), I became acquainted with a lot of practicing witches, and have been privileged to attend ceremonies.  So basically I’ve been doing research for this book since before I was in high school.

And my early love of film noir, and the darkest thrillers of Hitchcock, especially NOTORIOUS, started a thirst in me for stories with dark romantic plots that pit the extremes of male and female behavior against each other.   BOOK OF SHADOWS is not my first story to pit a very psychic, very irrational woman against a very rational, very logic-driven man; I love the dynamics – and explosive sexual chemistry - of that polarity.

So to completely switch analogies on everyone, this book has been on the back burner, picking up ingredients for a long, long time.

Now, what pulls all those ideas and layers and ingredients into a storyline that takes precedence over all the other random storylines cooking on all those hundreds of back burners in my head (because that’s about how many there are, at any given time), is a little more mysterious.   Or maybe it’s not.   Maybe storylines leap into the forefront of your imagination mostly because your agent or editor or a producer or executive or director comes up with an opportunity for a paycheck or a gentle reminder that you need to be thinking of the next book or script if you ever want a paycheck again.   I know that’s a powerful motivator for me.

But the reason a professional writer is able to perform relatively on demand like that is that we have all those stories cooking on all those back burners.    All the time.    For years and years, or decades and decades.   And if a book takes nine months, or six months, or a year to write, that’s only because a whole lot of stuff about it has been cooking for a very, very, very long time.

A long time.

If there are other writers reading, today – how long does it take YOU to write a book?   Or your latest?   How many stories do you figure you have on the back burner at any one time?

And readers, do you ever notice certain themes – or recurring scenes or visuals - in your favorite authors’ books that make you suspect that story seed was planted long ago?


Vicki Lane said...

Hey, Alex -- what a good and thorough answer to that inevitable question!

For me, I find that it take nine months to a year -- sometimes my brain just needs extra time to process the mass of ideas and turn them into something usable. A lot like a compost heap, I always think

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Vicki! I've never heard the compost heap analogy - that's great. Very earth/mountain of you, I love it.

But it's true about the processing. I think anything less than nine months results in something more raw than I really enjoy consuming.

Sarah Shaber said...

As you said, the words "how long" need definition! From idea to manuscript can take years, and some of the time you don't even realize
you're working on it. The actual writing, these days, should take a year, although I tend to take 14 to 18 months. I'm slow.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Slow but worth waiting for, Sarah!

And are we, ahem, finished with the new one?

Bo Parker said...

Oh, Alex. Where were you four years ago when I decided to take “historical” and “non” out of my approach to writing only to realize I couldn’t run to some archive and take notes on who did what to whom back when.

It took this old dog a while to get into the mindset of digging through the compost heap, as Vicki calls it, and using those parasites, as you call them. Does that make creative writing a form of recycling?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I love it, we've now reduced the process of writing to parasites in a compost heap.

But it couldn't be more true - writing IS recycling.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Alex - Thank you!!!! You are always a treat to hang out with - even virtually! Can't wait to read this newest one!!!!!!!!!