Elmore Leonard

Posted by on Sep 6, 2013 in Blog Post | 0 comments

Elmore Leonard

“Hey. Can I share something with you?”

 

Writing dialogue takes years of practice. I developed the ear during an experimental theater workshop during my English undergraduate studies at Queens College (that’s Queens as in New York, not England). My professor, Richard Schotter, himself a playwright, taught me to let loose, not limit myself, and to, in essence, not be afraid to let the dialogue roll from my fingertips as I hear it in my head. Of course, the “hearing it in my head” part took years of practice to hone. But when I look back on the writings from that class, I see the germination of my dialogue writing style—seeds for what was to come when I started writing professionally.

Why did it take years to hone? Good dialogue is not recording what two people say to one another, typing it up, and calling it good because it’s “real.” It’s real, all right, but so what? Think about what a typical exchange sounds like between you and a friend:

“Hey.”
“Hey.”
“How’s it going?”
“Good. Been busy. Sorry I haven’t called you.”
“Yeah, me too. The year’s flying by. Can’t believe where the time’s gone.”

Borrrring. But we’ve all had that conversation with friends. It’s real. But it’s not real good, is it? No, not for dialogue in a novel, or a thriller, where every word counts. If it’s not important—if it doesn’t serve a purpose, or at least move the story forward—it needs to be deleted.

There’s a lot more to writing dialogue than what I’ve shared above, but you get the point: done well, it looks easy, but like any art, it takes time, practice, and effort to make it look effortless.

I’ve always prided myself on writing good dialogue in my novels. As my professor told me, I hear it in my head—then let my brain transform it into a realistic exchange between two individuals that fits those characters. To use an example from my new novel, No Way Out, FBI Profiler Karen Vail character speaks differently from the Scotland Yard inspector she partners with—as she should, for a number of reasons, some obvious and some not so obvious.

I always edit my work later—and dialogue is no exception—but it usually comes out relatively clean in the first draft. That said, I’ve been writing professionally for twenty years. I “get” the concept of what good dialogue should be—and what it shouldn’t be.

Alan Jacobson, Elmore Leonard '10 (3)_smThat’s not to say it’s perfect. It’s not Elmore Leonard dialogue. I’ve always yearned to create the kind of dialogue that Elmore has written his entire career. A master at using dialogue to convey shades of meaning, character nuances, and dialect, I once asked Elmore how he does it. How did he learn to write dialogue that way?

His answer did not surprise me, but it did make me laugh. (Actually, I laughed in his face.) So what was his answer? “I hear it in my head.” After I guffawed—and apologized—he said, “What, don’t all writers just hear it in their heads?” I told him, “Some hear it better than others. Let’s just say it doesn’t come as easy to others as it does to you.” Disappointingly, he said he had no tips to offer on how to develop that ear. His point was that you either hear it or you don’t.

That made me recall a conversation I had with James Patterson regarding how he wrote the dialogue of black people so well. Patterson, in case you don’t know, is white—but you’d never know that from his writing (at least, the novels he personally pens). He explained that he grew up in a black neighborhood and played basketball daily with his friends. He developed his ear for dialogue at a young age and it remained with him—and it translated beautifully onto the printed (and electronic) page.

I believe that Elmore was so adept at writing dialogue because he knew people like the characters that appeared in his books. His brain absorbed their intonations and cadences in ways most brains can’t; and he was able to assimilate that knowledge into the written word, into the people he voiced in his novels. It was a true talent, and, sadly, it died along with Elmore yesterday, at age 87. He was unique and we—writers and readers—will sorely miss his talent.

Tracking license plates: no outrage?

Posted by on Jul 20, 2013 in Blog Post | 0 comments

In an almost prescient news story, it was disclosed this week that US citizens have been tracked using license plate data by private companies. As I stated in my earlier blog post regarding former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the metadata collected by the NSA for counterterrorism purposes pales in comparison to the information amassed by private companies (see my former post for a much more comprehensive discussion on this).

First, the good news: the “MVTRAC” is an LRP (license plate recognition) system that captures passing license plates of millions of civilians’ vehicles and compiles them into a database. According to an NBC News article, the system is often used in the automobile repossession industry and to find stolen vehicles. At Arden Fair Mall in Sacramento, where I did many book signings over the years, there were 77 car thefts in 2007. After deploying the license plate cameras, there were only a dozen thefts in 2012, and two through the first six months of 2013. “We’re getting the word out: Don’t bring your stolen cars here, and don’t steal cars here,” the mall’s security manager said. In five years, they have captured more than eight million license plates—in the mall’s parking lot alone.

But now the bad news: as you can imagine, there are privacy concerns because the system can track an individual with accuracy. As the NBC News article noted, an MIT study published in March showed that having just four points of mobility data about a person was enough to identify that person with 95 percent accuracy. Think about the location data your cell phone is constantly throwing off. Or, this LRP system.

In accordance with what I wrote in my former post, per the NBC article, Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit focused on free speech, privacy and consumer rights, said that metadata can be used to learn about specific people, especially as more and more of it is amassed. And she noted there’s no oversight over companies in how they set privacy and retention policies. Then there’s the multiplying factor of LPR data, cellphone data, Facebook posts, tweets and other sources of information about an individual. Lynch said:

“This information gets combined with other information and there’s quite a portrait painted of this person.”

Indeed. So where is the outrage? So much was made of the Snowden release of confidential government documents, why not the same reaction to this license plate tracking by private industry? Or the private info aggregated by companies about what we buy, where we shop, where we drive, who we do what with, and when. This is much more damaging to privacy than mere metadata that’s used to keep us safe.

Incidentally, regarding the NSA’s metadata collection, former Rep. Jane Harman, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called Snowden “totally self-centered and narcissistic” and said his disclosures had done damage to national security.

“It’s not just the information about these (NSA) programs, much of which was in the public domain: It’s a whole bunch of other stuff which compromises ongoing investigations, which I think is way off.”

As do I.

Giving publishers a Kickstart

Posted by on Jul 9, 2013 in Blog Post | 0 comments

When Norwood Press first told me they were thinking about doing a crowd funding campaign for my next hardcover, I knew nothing about Kickstarter. During the next several months, they concluded it presented an extraordinary opportunity to remake the publishing landscape.

Next year I mark my twentieth year in the business. These past two decades have seen the most turbulent years publishing has known since the mid-1400s when Johannes Gutenberg started the Printing Revolution: large publishing houses devoured smaller ones like sharks in a food-starved ocean and equals merged to eliminate competition, attain economies of scale, and preserve their profit margins at a time when commodity prices of publishing essentials—ink, paper, fuel, and real estate—rose precipitously.
Competition for eyeballs increased thanks to the Internet, blogs, game consoles, texting, smartphones—you know the deal. Readership declined, publishing costs continued rising, and the industry was left with an inefficient business model: middle men and distributors added substantial cost to the books you buy in the store—and booksellers and publishers consolidated further to try to stay afloat.

All the while, Amazon rose from nothing and changed retailing, lowering the prices of books; independent booksellers couldn’t compete and many closed their doors. Borders stumbled repeatedly with catastrophic business fumbles before ultimately going out of business, and Barnes & Noble struggled to weather the recession, closing dozens of stores and firing scores of community relations managers. The rise of eBooks put additional pressure on publishers and remaining independent booksellers.

Against all this, Norwood’s John Hutchinson presented the idea of Kickstarter. For a novel by a national bestselling author? I’ve seen it all in my 19 years in this business, but I hadn’t seen that. John was on to something. Once eBooks and digital readers entered the realm of publishing and became mainstream, I knew that publishing was going to change every six months—because the technology behind it changes every six months. New things would always be lurking around the corner. So why not use Kickstarter to publish a first-rate novel?

As John said (have you seen his brilliant video? If not, watch it here), this is a chance to give the reader a say in what gets printed. To those of you who haven’t yet backed the campaign, give it another look. The perks for supporting it are phenomenal, and even if you’ve already bought my books in the past, a signed collector’s edition like Norwood publishes make an awesome holiday gift come December—which will be here before you know it. So sign on and give this “revolutionary” campaign a Kickstart!

Snowden: hero or traitor?

Posted by on Jul 3, 2013 in Blog Post | 0 comments

I’m going to come right out and say it: Edward Snowden is a criminal. Now, some may argue, he’s concerned about America and the government’s violation of our privacy, so he’s a hero, standing up for the average American who’s been violated.

But Snowden, himself, has stated there were political reasons for his actions: he was angry. Angry at Barack Obama because the president didn’t keep his campaign promises to run a more transparent government. This admission aside, evidence of his true motives consists of his assertions that the US has attempted to infiltrate China’s computer networks (returning the favor, though China–despite proof to the contrary–denies hacking US servers). And then, a couple of days ago, Snowden asserted that the US has spied on its European allies.

Maybe it’s me, but how do such revelations further Snowden’s goal of “exposing” the NSA’s privacy violations of US citizens? If that is, in fact, his goal.

As Snowden spends his days in limbo—looking for some country to grant him asylum, he has found a fellow criminal bedfellow providing financial aid and legal assistance: Julian Assange. Assange, the man behind Wikileaks, did irreparable damage to US national security by leaking confidential cables and other diplomatic documents that were stolen by Army Pfc Bradley Manning. I’ve written in my novels about serial killers who work in tandem and admire one another’s work. Looks like Assange and Snowden are likewise two peas in the criminal pod.

Some can argue that serial killers are violent offenders, and Assange and Snowden committed no acts of violence; they’ve caused no deaths. But let’s examine that assumption for a moment. The NSA Director stated that their surveillance program has helped prevent fifty terrorist attacks on US soil. Fifty. If only ten of those attacks had succeeded, how many people would’ve been killed? If exposure of the NSA program causes a rethink and reboot—or cessation—of a successful program that’s protected American citizens, and Snowden is the reason for this, I would argue that he alone is directly responsible for any consequences, and deaths, that arise from his actions.

But let’s look at the surveillance program itself. Does Snowden have a point? Was our privacy violated? Putting Snowden’s anger—his attempt at political revenge—aside, is there a problem with what the NSA has been doing? There was initially some confusion, on the part of senators and congresspersons, the media, bloggers, and foreign governments, as to what data has been collected.

A worthwhile read is The Wall Street Journal’s article, US Collects Vast Data Trove, from which the following quotes are taken:

“…every time the majority of Americans makes a call, NSA gets a record of the location, the number called, the time of the call and the length of the conversation…. NSA has established similar relationships with credit-card companies, three former officials said.” But, “It couldn’t be determined if any of the Internet or credit-card arrangements are ongoing, as are the phone company efforts, or one-shot collection efforts.”

The president, as well, has said that the government is not listening in on our phone conversations and not reading our email. So what exactly does this data collection mean to the average citizen? It doesn’t appear to mean as much as one would think:

“the data collection effort doesn’t entail monitoring the content of emails or what is said in phone calls…. Investigators gain access to so-called metadata, telling them who is communicating, through what medium, when, and where they are located.”

Further, the Obama administration has also stated that the surveillance efforts are a vital tool in the protection of America against terrorists: Former Pentagon chief of staff Jeremy Bash explained,

“The database allows investigators to ‘map’ individuals connected with that information…We are trying to find a needle in a haystack, and this [database] is the haystack.”

The administration maintains, apparently against popular impression, that there are checks on the government’s authority. In addition to the “secret” FISA court (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) that reviews requests for such data, the data collection program comes under periodic congressional review.

According to the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper,

“the phone data surveillance program…is governed by a ‘robust legal regime.’ Under the court order, the data can only ‘be queried when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization.’ When the data is searched, all information acquired is ‘subject to strict restrictions on handling’ overseen by the Justice Department and the surveillance court, and the program is reviewed roughly every 90 days.”

One problem with Snowden’s (at best idealistic and at worst vengeful) actions is that he had effective means at his disposal to report his concerns to the government oversight panels that were specifically set up to monitor and review the NSA’s surveillance program. He chose, instead, to go the sexier route—where he would inevitably become the focus of international attention—and (for some) a sympathetic media darling.

Another problem is that he was one worker who obtained knowledge of one part of a vast intelligence network (though calling the United States’ intelligence network “vast” is a monumental understatement). Yet Snowden has taken this comparative morsel of information and extrapolated it into believing he knows how the data is used as part of the larger picture of homeland security. He has taken his crumbs and tried to push them into a pile and claim that it represents a dozen pies. That’s dangerous for all of us who rely on law enforcement’s efforts to keep us safe because we can’t cut the legs out from our police and still ask them to still keep us safe.

If the NSA was forced to cease and desist, and Americans were suddenly the victim of, say, suicide bombings and had to pick pieces of flesh and vital organs off the streets of New York City like Israelis have had to do in Jerusalem, very few civil libertarians would be reasonably claiming that Edward Snowden is a hero or that his actions were admirable. Or wise. Or necessary. Conventional bombs are bad enough, but the numbers of victims get scary if we’re talking dirty bombs—which, given how far Iran has progressed toward securing nuclear capability, is possible given its terrorist proxies at work at home and in the US.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, in this worthwhile read from The New York Times, said of Snowden’s actions, “I think it’s an act of treason.” This is significant for two reasons: first, she’s chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and thus has detailed knowledge of the NSA’s efforts and successes, as well as the challenges the country faces in combating terror attacks; second, she’s a staunch Democrat and die-hard liberal. She went on to say:

“What do you think would happen if Najibullah Zazi was successful?” she asked, referring to the man who pleaded guilty to plotting to bomb the New York City subway. Intelligence officials have said N.S.A. e-mail surveillance helped them catch Mr. Zazi. “There would be unbridled criticism,” she said. “Didn’t we learn anything? Can’t we protect our homeland? What good is intelligence if we can’t stop this?”

Another, overlooked, aspect of the NSA’s data collection efforts is that we are perfectly fine with such “intrusions” of our privacy if it’s not the government doing it. To wit: for years I told friends and relatives that, through its search service, Google owned more data about US citizens than the government did. Nowadays, we’re no longer just talking about Google. Facebook and other social networks of all kinds like LinkedIn, Goodreads, Reddit have amassed their own vast troves of personally identifiable data on us; the list of providers compiling our information expands monthly and their stockpiles grow by terabytes on a regular basis. This says nothing of a company like Amazon, where we search, shop, and buy products—and then comment on them. All our transactions are compiled and stored on their servers for the foreseeable future.

These companies collect information on our shopping habits and web surfing behavior; the personal comments we make to and about family members and friends; anti-government sentiments that we share with others, and so on. This data is compiled and sometimes sold to other companies targeting you for specific products. There have been times when I’m looking up something on my phone and when I get back to my office, there’ll be an ad for that item when I open my PC’s web browser. Creepy? Yeah. But no one complains. Some say it provides a valuable service. Maybe, but that’s not really the point, is it?

Here’s a news break: at least one email provider “reads” the email traffic of its customers (as well as those people who emailed these customers) to build a database of interest on each of them. This information is then aggregated and compiled with their web search habits. Isn’t this more intrusive than the government collecting metadata on how long a phone call lasted and which number was dialed? Yet again, aside from some complaining years ago from civil libertarians when the email scanning practice was started, there has been near silence about it in the US.

So is Snowden is a hero or a traitor? Heroes don’t put average citizens in danger; they take the lead in protecting them from those who would plot and do harm. Our first responders are heroes. I believe the difference is obvious.

Edward Snowden got his fifteen minutes of fame. He got his revenge. Now it’s time for him to get what he deserves: justice for his criminal acts.

Robert Ressler RIP

Posted by on May 7, 2013 in Blog Post | 0 comments

It’s with deep sadness that I share the news of Robert Ressler’s passing, who died in his sleep this morning at the age of 76. Officially, Robert was known as a “former FBI agent, author, and lecturer,” but he was so much more than that: he was a founding father of what’s now known as the Behavioral Analysis Unit. He was instrumental in constructing, and contributing to, the knowledge base of serial offender behavior in the early days of criminal profiling.

While Robert coined the phrase “serial killer,” to me his most significant contribution was the creation of VICAP, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program. VICAP is a computerized database designed to link seemingly disparate crimes across the United States; law enforcement agencies, large and small, are encouraged to complete a multipage form detailing aspects of the homicide they are currently investigating. This data is then correlated with other, similar crimes in other cities. The significance of this is that a violent murder committed in a small town in Idaho, for example, can be linked to another murder that occurred in New Mexico ten years earlier. Prior to the creation of VICAP, a killer who killed in one town and then moved to another to evade detection could remain at lodge for decades, continuing to claim victims, because important clues he left behind at one crime scene would never be associated with other evidence he left at another.

I only spoke with Robert twice, but he worked with my friend, FBI profiler Mark Safarik, for many years. For the two decades that I’ve known Mark, he’s spoken very highly of Robert, both as a person and as a criminal profiler. He was an irreplaceable talent. After learning of his passing, I suggested that the FBI name a wing of the Academy after him–or perhaps change VICAP to the “Ressler VICAP.” Whatever they decide to do, something should be done to memorialize the groundbreaking work that Robert Ressler did in the field of violent crime–and criminal apprehension.

On a personal note, I will always cherish his comments about The 7th Victim: “As one of the founding fathers of the FBI profiling unit, I can unequivocally state that The 7th Victim sets a new standard for serial killer novels. Like Silence of the Lambs did 20 years ago, The 7th Victim redefines the genre and brings it into the 21st century. With meticulous research and dead-on accuracy, Alan Jacobson has not only written a gripping, twisting thriller, he’s created a must-read book.”

Back in the blogosphere

Posted by on Jul 27, 2012 in Blog Post | 0 comments

We’ve finally launched my completely redesigned website, which has been months in the making. I came to realize that over the past 14 years I’ve amassed a lot of content. For “Alan Jacobson fans,” there’s a plethora of information on each of my novels, including reviews, interviews, reading guides for book groups, book trailers, video interviews with my buddy, FBI profiler Mark Safarik—and lots more.

For aspiring writers, there are pages of articles on choosing an agent, the business of publishing, what to look out for in contracts, how and when to apply for a copyright—and other topics of interest to those trying to get published.

We’ll also be rolling out my newsletter, which has been years in the making. Wait, that sounds too impressive. Basically, I’ve had fits and starts in getting it off the ground, mostly due to having to stop all work on it so I could focus on finishing the novel I was writing at the time, and the technical issues involved in managing email addresses for those readers who signed up over the past 14 years. But we’re finally going to do it this time. It’ll be another opportunity for me to stay in contact with my fans. If you haven’t yet signed up for my newsletter, click here to go to “Connect with Alan”; on that page you’ll also find an opportunity to follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

Enjoy the site—we’ll be making further improvements over the next several weeks, so please let us know what you like, and what you’d like to see.

Alan

Promoting Crush…and: what else have you been doing?

Posted by on Sep 10, 2009 in Blog Post | 0 comments

You’re now caught you up on what happened after I handed in my copyedits for Crush. But what else have I been doing? Well, LOTS. To borrow from a cliché (because I can’t use them in my novels, and sometimes they’re fun to throw around), it’s been pedal to the metal. Here’s what’s been going on, in a nutshell (and I’m leaving stuff out because I can’t remember it all!)…

With Crush now “in the can” and rolling off the printing press, the task of promoting it—letting people know it’s out there—is crucial. My publisher is unusual in that it encourages (and requires) authors to be involved in the promotion process. In sum, promotion has been going on for months. I’ve written material that’ll be used to promote the novel…for websites, like AuthorBuzz, for blogs, and other web-based venues; I’ve worked with my publisher to rewrite and finalize the jacket text (the descriptive passage that’s on the book flap); I worked extensively with the Audio publisher to select the best voice actor, listening to clips of actresses who’d make the best Karen Vail (talk about tough!); I’ve notified key people of Crush’s release and had galleys sent (or sent them myself) to reviewers, booksellers, and others; worked with one of the Napa Valley wineries mentioned in Crush to coordinate our big book launch event.

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The 7th Victim is now in Paperback

Posted by on Sep 5, 2009 in Blog Post | 0 comments

The mass market paperback for The 7th Victim is now available. I’ve made a few minor corrections to the text and helped with tweaks to the interior layout design. Mostly, however, this is a process that’s handled by the publisher, particularly my project editor, who oversees the production and printing. The 7th Victim paperback is available in bookstores nationwide, at your favorite online retailer, and on Kindle. For those who don’t know, The 7th Victim was named to Library Journal’s “Best Books of the Year” list—a tremendous honor, considering it was chosen from amongst 7,000 entries.

In my continuing blog series of an author’s behind-the-scenes life (actually, it follows the process from the time a novel is readied for submission through publication and book tour) it’s only fitting we talk now about the next step that happens in a novel’s life: the paperback edition.

Sometime around the point I was handing in the final tweaks to the galleys for Crush, I had to submit changes I wanted made to the text for The 7th Victim.

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Reviews of “Crush” flowing in

Posted by on Sep 3, 2009 in Blog Post | 0 comments

The reviews are arriving—and I’m very, very pleased. I wanted to share them with you. I won’t bog you down with the full text, which repeatedy recaps the storyline, so here are pertinent excerpts:

Crush is “addictive…(with) a shockeroo cliffhanger.”
Publishers Weekly

“As a bookseller, reviewer, and avid reader of thrillers, this novel blew me away. (It’s) the best the industry has to offer…from one of the very best writers in the industry today. In these uncertain times, getting lost in the grips of the best thriller to come along in years is just what we need. Be one of the first in line when Crush hits the stores; it is sure to be a HUGE contender for major awards.”
–BestsellersWorld.com (Russell Ilg)

“Told from the viewpoints of the protagonist and the antagonist, readers see fascinating perspectives of a predator and a hunter challenging one another. CRUSH is a very exciting and chilling thriller.”
Midwest Book Review (Harriet Klausner)

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No, I haven’t been tied up in a shack with rats at my feet

Posted by on Aug 12, 2009 in Blog Post | 0 comments

Forgive me…it’s been four months since my last post (sounds like a confession). But I haven’t been off in blog vacationland. I’ve been researching and writing the next Karen Vail novel, which will follow Crush (due out NEXT MONTH!!). That’s the other thing I’ve been doing—getting ready for Crush’s launch.

So let me briefly bring you up to date on what happened since I last posted on the process of publishing a novel. When we last spoke, I’d handed in my Crush copyedits (see post of 4/2). The project editor reviewed all my notes and changes—I’d “touched” 130 pages of Crush, and made about 200 changes. Some of those were formatting (incorrect quote mark, missing period, improperly formatted paragraphs)—stuff that happens when a Word document is digitally converted into publishing software. But a lot of it consisted of contextual changes. This can be merely polish (fixing repeated words) or seeing something I (or my editor and copyeditor) hadn’t seen earlier when the novel was in manuscript format. There’s something about seeing it printed like a book that makes the eye and brain see the text differently.

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