Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sucking the Sexy out of Spying: 5 UnFunny Facts About U.S. Intelligence Agencies

I've read quite a few books about espionage and spying in the thriller genre. And no matter how outlandish some of the stories may have been, they are still enjoyable because of the great writing that goes into it. How "real" the situations matter less than how much I connect to the character and want to follow them through their journey. So, in no way am I "dissing" the genre. As a matter of fact, in order to thrill and delight my audience, I've written a number of scenes and broken a lot of rules I swore I'd never break because the truth of the matter is--real intelligence can be UBER boring...except when it's not.

When you've actually worked in the intelligence community, you tend to read stories with a different eye than most only because you kind of know what goes on behind the scenes. So when you read  certain scenarios, some tend to make you laugh, while others tend to make your eyes roll...all before the story yanks you back in and you finish read the darn book as fast as you can,  of course.

So, today I thought I'd share a blog about some of the Intelligence Community fallacies that tend to make me chuckle or give me a quick eye roll when I see them in fiction.

1. Gun Play? No Way

I'm always amazed at the number of guns in espionage/spy novels--especially those stories that take place in the United States. Firefights galore, bombs, bombs, bombs.Ummm...not so much. FBI Agents are law enforcement and thus carry guns. CIA? NSA? Uh-uh. Some DIA personnel carry sidearms if they're operating forward in war zones. But in the United States--nope. Of course there are special operations groups and covert operations conducted  all over the place and the personnel involved do a lot of cool, dangerous, stuff in some parts of the world. But the truth is, the real purpose of the Intelligence Community is to prevent that kind of crazy chaos from happening waaaaaaay before an international villain can get their hand on a gun or a bomb and they do a good job MOST of the time. It's not a bad record if you think about the enemies Americans face today. 

2. Spying = Schmoozing

As I said before, while there's a lot of sexy stuff going on in the intelligence community the overwhelming majority of spy work is, well, kind of boring. If you're a CIA Case Officer without the big recruitment, your days are spent trying to find one. You know how they do that? Talk to people. Wine and dine. And talk. And wine and dine. Schmooze. And talk some more. Then they get the thrill of going back to the station and--wait for it--writing it all up in cables and reports. Exciting, right? I'm exaggerating a touch Just a touch. Of course they meet a lot of interesting people and some of those interesting people turn out to have big secrets to sell. But getting to that point is a long slow process of talking to people and eliciting information.

3. NSA = Nerds

Nothing brings a chuckle faster than a BADASS No Such Agency Agent. In 20 years, I've never met one. Nope. Who I have met are the nerdy computer geeks who speak "code" and "signals" and a bunch of other stuff I'd need to be a rocket scientist to even slightly comprehend. We're talking ultra smart, MIT-graduating, pocket protector people. Not bad ass killer agents. But the idea that they could be is an entertaining thought in an of itself.

4. C.I.A. in the U.S.A.

The CIA doesn't operate in the United States...much. The U.S. is the FBI's sandbox. Everywhere else in the world is the CIA's sandbox. There are some few exceptions (which I will not go into here) but suffice it to say, if you see a CIA case officer running around with a gun, chasing suspects on U.S. soil--either he's really FBI or he's crazy...and you should call the  

5. No, the FBI isn't really Big Brother, Father, or Mother.

The FBI isn't watching everybody for two key reasons: There are too many friggin' people in this country and their budget is too small. There aren't enough personnel. Plain and simple. They can't be everywhere all the time, so they tend to focus on the high-level bad people who are operating in multiple states. Terrorists, spies, criminal organization, white collar crime (like the show), bank robberies. Stuff like that. Uncle Joe's murder? Nope, that's for your local police. Or county police. Or state police. Not the FBI.

So, now that I've sucked the fun out of your view of the intelligence community, what are some of your misconceptions? And does it matter how "plausible" a story is?

I just wanna be entertained. But the more plausible the more I'm entertained. :)

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Monday Morning MUGShot Part Deux

Okay. Hmm. This is embarrassing. My communist is showing. hehe. No, no. Not really.  I may or may not have purchased this from the gift shop at any agency I may or may not have worked with in the past.


NO! I have never worked FOR the organization represented on this coffee mug. EVER. NO, I did not visit their gift shop. However, the people employed with this organization may or may not have been a part of my former the past...way back when.


And the successor organization may or may not be featured heavily in the J.J. McCall series, beginning with book 1--The Seven Year Itch.

If you like a good old fashioned spy story, you may or may not be interested in and enjoy this page-turning novel sometime in the near future.


The first reader to leave a comment with the three-letter acronyms representing the old and the new organization will receive a FREE ADVANCED COPY of The Seven Year Itch (as soon as they're ready).  (No time limit for responses. New blog. New author. I get it.)

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

3 Must-Read Books On the Craft of Writing Mystery, Suspense & Thrillers

Although I'm not new to the publishing world, I am very much new to the suspense/thriller genre. Just after I finished writing The Seven Year Itch: A J.J. McCall Novel and started getting feedback from the Beta readers, I realized I might have some major revisions. While the readers said they "love, love, love" the story and couldn't wait for the next installment (and one of the Beta readers didn't know me), an agent had a less than pleasing reaction. He said that it was well written but it didn't have the same feel that other books of this ilk usually have. And so I really took some time to chew on his comments.

Fact of the matter is, I'd never written one. And understand that as someone who works in the law enforcement business, it is very difficult to read some thrillers, not because they aren't wonderful, entertaining books that shouldn't be on the NY Times Bestseller list, but because of the "eye-roll" factor. I can't tell you how many times it makes my eye-roll when people write FBI and CIA characters who operate so much differently from the people you've worked side by side with for almost 20 years. I can't control the "eye-roll" and it's hard to find books that don't make that happen. So, I can't say I'm a carnivorous consumer of the genre. But when I do find one that I like...I really like it. I just couldn't always figure out the why?

Why did the book draw me in? Why did I keep turning the pages? Why did I stay up until three am when I knew I had to get up at 5? Whyyyyy?

I'd written romantic comedies and romance novels that were page-turners but the stories were far less complex, involved fewer characters and they were written in first-person. If a reader empathizes and connects with the character, it's not hard to figure out why they want to find out what happened to them.

In this case, I couldn't write the book in first-person to get that connection so I had to figure out another way to make the story work. At first I was determined to "figure it out" on my own, doing several blind revisions based on the less than an ounce of knowledge I had about writing these kinds of novels.


After that didn't work, I decided to get some help from the experts. I bought just about every book on writing mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels that I could find and read all of them within a few days. Maybe a week. What I didn't know about the craft could fill Yankee Stadium. LOL  I had no idea how clueless I really was. Sometimes, you can't (and shouldn't) just wing it. Sometimes you need a little guidance to lead you in the right direction. Here are the books that gave me the most effective advice.

This was a really good book. I thought it might be a little dry and tough to choke down but I was very wrong. Entertaining and informative (or the other way around), this is well worth the money. It really hammered home the idea of ensuring each scene has some conflict. If everything is going your main character's way, there is no suspense. No, for the better part of your story, things my not go well. Even if there are small victories, the big ones must not be one until the end.

If there was one book that kind of hammers home the lessons of the above AND goes more into detail about the chapter and book structure AND characterization, this is probably it. I would recommend this book if your book buying budget is tight and you could only buy one. The tone is entertaining. The voice isn't preachy. It's a really nice easy read and I finished it in about a day. this isn't EXACTLY a book on the thriller writing craft per se. This is actually a book on writing screenplays if you didn't know. But what I loved about this is that he gives a great lesson how to make your unlikable heroes and heroines likeable. For example, why do we love bad guys like in the Oceans movies? Okay besides George Clooney. And Brad Pitt. And, well, need I go on? But the point is that these are people who steal for a living. So why do we connect with the characters, particularly Ocean, who has orchestrated this whole deal. Midway into the movie we find out he has a more noble mission--to save the wife he loves from a man who doesn't really love her so that he can love her. From that point on you're  totally rooting for the success of the heist--a crime. Save.The.Cat.

So these are my must-reads on craft. I bought a few others but these are the ones that really stood out as helping me make the best revisions.

What books on craft have helped you write/revise your story?

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Monday, July 16, 2012

Monday Morning MUGshot

Over the years, I've collected mugs from every single agency I've worked for or with. Sometimes they're funny. Sometimes they're quite official looking. Sometimes they're just kind of cool. 

So I'm going to share a few with you over the coming weeks leading up to the release of my novel, The Seven Year Itch: A J.J. McCall novel (release date to be announced). I may not post every Monday for the sake of spreading them out, but you'll see them often enough.

As an added bonus, I'll do book giveaways. So for the first giveaway, guess which agency I collected this one from. The first two people to leave comments with the correct answers will receive a brand new autographed copy of the first book in the series when it's published.  (No time limit). 

Guess away!

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Moles over Murder: Why Write Espionage?

As a voracious reader, I've read a lot of romantic suspense and thriller novels. One thing I've noticed is that there seems to be a formula. Stories usually began with a dead body and the rest of the book took the reader on a journey to find out how the body got that way. And it's a formula that works and has worked for years with good reason. But when plotting my upcoming J.J. McCall series, I had to figure out something different because I discovered an aversion that would make the usual formula difficult for me to follow.

When I first started working at the FBI in 1991 (right before the what could be termed "The Decade of the Spy Catcher" in which the likes of convicted spies Ames, Hanssen, Nicholson, and others were arrested), I served a short stint in the unit that covered a potpourri of jurisdictions--everything from air plane crashes to violations under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. If you Google RICO and La Cosa Nostra you will see that it was a very powerful tool in bringing a lot of mafia-types to justice.

In both types of investigations, the files contained lots of pictures from the various crime scenes. Of course in air plane crashes, you can imagine the gruesome pictures. And in RICO, well, lets just say they didn't get much better. It was then I realized I have an aversion to death, especially gruesome ones. I hated to see people die horrible deaths. I didn't want to explore that or think about it. It's even tough for me to read or see in movies. I really internalize deaths  (real or imagined) far more than a normal person should. I couldn't even imagine working in units conducted murder investigations. Ugh.

So, I went in search of a kinder gentler kind of crime, where people didn't much.

A year or so later I ended up in the Intelligence Division (later known as the Counterintelligence Division, National Security Division, and now known as the Directorate of Intelligence) where I started working espionage cases. What a relief! We didn't deal in dead people. We dealt with live people. They started out alive and left alive--even if they ended up dying when returned to their own countries. And as a certified "Geek" what I loved most about counterintelligence and espionage is that every case was a like a puzzle that you built ambiguous piece by ambiguous piece until you compiled enough of a picture that you could employ more aggressive investigative tactics and hopefully get less ambiguous pieces that would eventually lead to an arrest. Only after an arrest did you get a full picture--or at least you hoped a plea deal with the suspect would result in debriefings that would get you a fuller picture if not the whole enchilada. .

These cases require LOTS of analysis--Geek heaven! I really enjoyed this work.

Most new agents hated CI because they'd never have an opportunity to fire their guns. Older agents loved CI because they'd never have to fire their guns. 

Anyway, for my J.J. McCall stories, I had to figure out something a little different...because of my aversion to death and all.I didn't want to spend an entire book exploring how someone died. Or creating really gruesome deaths in my head all the time. No, those would've been short books. Over in chapter one. 

Now this is not to say there are no deaths in my novels, or the game of espionage. Of course there are. In classic espionage, when sources are compromised by moles (i.e., an FBI or CIA employee working on behalf of a foreign intelligence service while still employed in their govie position), sources are murdered. Has happened more times than I care to even think about. And some foreign intelligence services have been particularly torturous and brutal. Brutal in a way that a shot to the back of the head or poison seemed kind. So, you can't get past these kinds of deaths and they do help raise the stakes in the novels. Because real or imagined, espionage puts real lives at risk in addition to the security of our nation.

But the plots focus on finding the SOB mole who sold out his country--which is HARD. For example, an FBI mole often has the same training, access to systems, and access to files as his colleagues who are trained to find him. They know FBI methods of operation, they know how to cover their tracks. How do you find one of your own? Not an easy task at all. But one explored in the first installment of the series--The Seven Year Itch.

Will my plots be based on real cases? Nope. I signed a non-disclosure agreement with the Bureau when I left so I can't speak on specific cases on which I worked. However, that does not mean I cannot draw on my 12 years of experience and make up stuff. This is why we love fiction. And trust me, working in the Bureau during the "Decade of the Spy" I have some experiences that will hopefully translate into great stories for the readers.

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Character Development: Who is FBI Agent Antonio Donato?

FBI Special Agent Antonio Donato is special indeed. The second part of J.J. McCall's love triangle, his character based on my 20 year love affair with all things mafia related (thanks to an obsession with The Godfather I and II and The Sopranos) and an FBI Agent I met once while visiting the FBI's NY field office on a case and later for an intra-agency counterintelligence conference.

Drop. Dead. Gorgeous. Body. Hair. Skin. AND Personality. One of the nicest (and sexiest) agents I've ever met.

He was Italian through and through. From his sunkissed skin to his dark curly tresses to his straight-out-of-Sicily name--which I will, of course, not divulge here. A fellow analytical colleague and I regretted, with all the smart wardrobe choices that we'd made, that we had not brought bibs to catch the drool. He was so gracious. Helped us on the case we were working, took us on tours of the city and through Brooklyn, where he would later purchase from a corner bakery one of the most perfectly addicting canolis I'd ever eaten in my entire life. I never forgot him, but I never forgot that canoli either--proof of its deliciousness. Just thinking about it now, I wish I had a bib to catch the drool.

For obvious reasons, he stuck in my mind.

So, when I started developing characters for this series, for me, basing one of J.J.'s love interests on this agent was an easy choice. I gave him a background full of conflict that would not only add challenges to his desire to have a relationship with J.J. but also in his family life. And eventually it will come to head in his professional life.

Antonio Donato, as I've written him, is the son of a jailed Capo in the Bonnano family. But Tony  rejected the family business. Not only did he reject it but he did the worst thing the son of a Capo could do--he became a cop. Not just any cop, but a Federal cop. Tony's choice of occupations, despite the fact that he's deliberately avoided working organized crime, has made things difficult on himself and on his biological family. Thus, he's estranged from his father, brothers and sisters, who are still in "the life." The only person who he's in touch with is his mother who is mob-weary and thankful one son chose another path for his life. But she wants him to marry a good Italian girl; Sicilian is even better. Can you imagine what will happen if he brings this African American woman home to meet Ma? I could.

You can imagine the conflict that will arise under these circumstances. Add to that the fact that J.J.'s father is a former Black Panther. Their family ties alone could make love all but impossible. Yet, love usually demands to have its own way.

The best part of the story line is that in a future book, I will be writing a mafia-based story as J.J. and Antonio must contend with a Russian mafioso (already introduced in the first book) and the Italian mafia, including Tony's family, inadvertently gets pulled into the fray. I have lots of plot notes and I'm so looking forward to writing that book in the series. It's sure to be a page-turner.

More Characters to Come...

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Spy School 101: M.I.C.E Make RATS!

I haven't had many opportunities to talk about what I term "my former life" as an FBI operations specialist working in counterintelligence. I tend to not spread that around. But now that I'm writing this new J.J. McCall series, all those years of experience have really become part of my writing craft, especially in terms of character development. I think it will ultimately help bring a more authentic experience to the reader.

What's Counterintelligence at the FBI?

When foreign intelligence agencies send their spies to the United States to collect information (yes they still do that--even some of our so-called allies), it is the FBI's job to thwart their efforts. Hence, the Counterintelligence program. Our job was to identify spies and neutralize them (but not in a bang bang shoot 'em up way like you see in the movies). Through a variety of methods, we tried to make sure they had a damn tough time accomplishing their missions.

One of the best ways for intelligence officers to gain classified information is to recruit human sources--or even better if they volunteer.

From M.I.C.E. to RATS!

I think one way some stories really miss the mark on telling spy/espionage tales is in the motivation. What is the motivation that makes someone betray their country? No, it's ususally not avenging a murder of a loved one or friend. This motivation will draw eye rolls from anyone in "the business" because spies (at least the ones serving under diplomatic cover in their U.S. Embassies) do. not. carry. guns! I know an FBI Agent (several actually) who used to forget theirs in their desk drawers. The spy world not about gunplay. It's more like an intriguing game of chess. With that said, there are deaths in my upcoming book The Seven Year Itch, A J.J. McCall Novel, but not due to FBI agents and spies shooting at each other. Just. Doesn't. Happen. That's so Hollywood.

In the CI world, we use the acronym M.I.C.E. to characterize motivations.

Money. Ideology . Compromise. Ego.

Usually people spy for a combination of these reasons. But, in my experience, one usually tends to dominate.

Money. Aldrich Ames, a CIA case officer in the Russia program, would probably be the best example of this. He had a wife who liked the finer things in life. He got in big financial trouble trying to give it to her and needed a fast way out. So he sold out for what, in the big scheme of things, doesn't seem like a lot of money--but it was enough to get him into trouble.

Ideology. Ana Montez, a former DIA analyst, is probably the best current example of this. She spied for the Cubans because she didn't think the U.S. treated Cubans fairly. If I'm not mistaken, I don't think she received payment, certainly nothing significant enough to make money a motivation. She was a classic example of ideological motivation.

Compromise. Clayon Lonetree, a Marine serving at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, who fell in love with a Russian woman. It started with a little violation of the no-fraternization rules (which he didn't report to the security officer), and he eventually ended up spying for "Uncle Sasha." A very slippery slope. Compromise occurs when an intelligence agency gets some kind of negative information on you (i.e., homosexuality (if you're not out and don't want to be out), gambling problem, drug/narcotics using/dealing, breaking no-fraternization rules) and they use that information to coerce you into providing classified information. In my experience, coercion is rarely used.

Ego. Best example is probably convicted spy former FBI Supervisory Special Agent Robert Hanssen. Although he turned for a combination of reasons--money being another one. To those with whom he worked that he considered to be "minions" (like analysts...and mostly everyone), he was just a plain flat out narcissitic the tenth power. He thought himself more intelligent than...well...everybody. And the FBI, indeed no one in the world except the Russians, appreciated him for the genuis he was, so he licked his underappreciated wounds and sold secrets to the Russians. Genuis.

So that pretty much sums up my blog on spying motivation. Identifying authentic motivations for your characters in ANY GENRE is important to character development. The more informed you are about their true motivation and the more detail you can provide, the better your story will be for your audience.

What motivates your characters? Any questions?
More Spy School to Come...

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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Sh*t My Characters Say: A Word or Three on Dialogue

I see dead people.

Okay. So not really.

However, I do hear imaginary ones. Lots of them.

They talk in my head.

All. The. Time.

I can barely hear myself think with the incessant jabbering going on inside my head. Characters come out of nowhere and invade my mental space. And most of them don’t pay rent. So, I carry with me, at all times, my special writing tools (fine tip Sharpie writing pens) and a variety of notebooks (one for each story idea floating around in my head) in order to transcribe their ramblings in a place where I can access them when I’m ready to write the story.  

Each of them has a different story, a distinctive voice that scratches and claws to be heard. For many people that would be cause for great consternation (and possibly medication). For most writers, those voices are welcome sounds and a great cause for celebration. Those voices are the seeds from which great stories are born. From those ramblings I usually get the best ideas and the beginnings of the all-important dialogue.

I love writing dialogue. I’m often told I have an ear for it. I learn more from my characters through dialogue than narrative. And my characters are usually nothing short of spunky and this side of hilarious.

When I first started writing novels, just a few short years ago (and without the forethought to purchase a book on the craft of novel writing), I didn’t really understand the purpose of dialogue so it read more like purposeless witty bantering.  

For this, I would like to apologize to my early readers. I was stupid. I didn’t know. As Oprah says, when you know better, you do better. Now I do better. Writing compelling dialogue isn’t easy. Now that I’m a writer, I think I read with a new eye. And the fact of the matter is I’ve read (and written) a lot of eye-rolling, crap dialogue in my days. So right now, I’m not gonna give you the standard blow by blow on dialogue, we've heard most of it before. I just want to share a few notes that have popped into my head through my own writing journey as I've started yet another edit of my J.J. McCall novels.  

1.       Effective dialogue will move the story forward.

Nothing makes my eyes roll faster than useless conversation that serves no purpose other than to show off a writer’s “little darlings.” I’m SO guilty…but I’ve learned. Understand this one key point: Dialogue is conversation with a purpose. And the purpose is to take the reader on a compelling journey from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. Sounds easy enough, but it’s not. If you have any conversations between characters that don’t fit that bill—delete and try again. I didn’t instinctively know how to tie the dialogue to the plot or how to use these seemingly random conversations to move my story forward when writing my first book. This is a skill I’ve learned through a lot of trial and error. One of the best pieces of advice I can give you is to find one of your favorite books, one with dialogue that made you green with envy, and then dissect how the author used the dialogue to move the story forward. Assess how it sounded. Ask yourself why it rang true. Reading cream of the crop novels in the same genre you write in is one of the best learning tools you will ever leverage in your career. 

Onto my observations...

2.       Allow your characters to speak—you know—like people

When I’m in reading mode, I can usually tell which authors have “an ear” for natural speech and the way people speak in every day conversations versus those who almost seem to force a voice onto their characters. Yes, your dialogue should have a purpose, but it should also sound like sh*t your characters would actually say. This isn’t an easy feat. One of the key things I notice in dialogue that throws me out of a story is that some writers tend to use more proper English when they write than one would use when they speak, which isn’t bad in English 101. But in entertaining literature, it can tend to make the dialogue sound stilted and the characters sound disingenuous which could cost the story a reader. My advice is always to just dial it down a notch. Know the rules of grammar so that you can understand when it’s okay to break them. There isn’t a rule of grammar I won’t break for the sake of delivering a great story to my readers. 

Another pet peeve: the author who stops using contractions when they write books. Why? Contractions are your friend. They are part of the natural way we speak. Use them in your dialogue. It’s okay. Be at one with your contractions.
           Read the Rhythm. 

One of the best ways to avoid stilted dialogue is to read your dialogue aloud. One thing I’ve learned about great dialogue is that it has a distinctive rhythm or a beat. When the rhythm is on the story reads like a dream—readers usually call these “easy reads.” Doesn’t give them headache or heartache. When the rhythm is off, it feels like a car sputtering to a breakdown three blocks from the gas station. It almost made it—but not quite. Painful.
In order to check the timing and rhythm of my passages, I usually read my dialogue out loud. If I’m stammering or can’t read through a passage smoothly, then I will tweak the dialogue until I can. 

4.       Shut up and listen! Let your characters speak for themselves. 

Don’t impose your will on a character or his/her story because you have a design. I try really hard to allow my characters to tell the stories the way they want to tell them. And I tend not to force my way into their conversations. They usually have a level of honesty that I personally do not. They often say things I wouldn’t or couldn’t say. They are often wiser than I could ever hope to be. 

As an author, my writing truth is that my best story ideas and scenes have come from just shutting the up, stepping aside, and playing voyeur (but not in a creepy, stalking way). I simply allow them to present me their story in their own way and in their own time. I have a simple rule. I listen to my characters banter back and forth. And about a quarter of the way into the conversation I start transcribing. By then, they’ve dispensed with the greetings and superfluous pleasantries and they are ready to get to down to the real communication. And ten times out of ten, it usually ends up a thousand percent better than anything I could ever think of. It’s not easy giving up control of a story to those voices in your head, but it’s usually for the best. 

5.       Humor is hard (and subjective)—we all need practice!

Humor is a huge part of my brand. When people pick up one of my novels, they expect to laugh. Not only do they expect to laugh but they expect to laugh out loud—often. And thank God I can usually deliver. When I do interviews for blogs or internet radio, I’m always asked, “Were you a comedian or class clown while you were growing up?” And my answer is not really. The truth of the matter is that I believe being funny is different from having a sense of humor. 

People who try to be funny can sometimes fall flat. It is your sense of humor that will allow you to see the comedic possibility in a scene or a line and deliver the joke in perfect time. I have been blessed with a great sense of humor (God-given gift, I take no credit)—and I can convey what makes me laugh on paper. And the beauty of writing is that I can be as funny as I want to be because I have time to plan it --as opposed to comedians who have to go off-the-cuff.. But it’s important for writers to understand where they stand on the  funny spectrum. Not everyone has that comedic talent. And nothing falls harder or splatters than a joke #fail. 

Comedians learn timing through practice. As writer, you have to do the same thing. Practice, practice, practice. And it won’t hurt to find a few very honest beta readers to help you find your funny…and who won’t be afraid to tell you when you don’t. 

Learning to write dialogue is one of the most difficult skills a writer must learn. If you think it’s easy, you’re probably not doing it as well as you could. But, as with anything else in this writing game, perfect practice makes perfect…or at least something deliciously close to it.     

What are your dialogue rules or tricks of the trade?

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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Who is FBI Agent J.J. McCall?

I always draw on my life and career experiences when developing new characters for my novels. The main character from my upcoming FBI Thriller series, FBI Agent J.J. McCall, is no different. She's actually very loosely based on an FBI Agent I worked with during my 12 year tenure at the Bureau. Of all the agents I worked with, and I worked with quite a few, she always stood out in my mind for many reasons.

One reason she clings to my memory is that she was, at least at the time, the only African-American female agent assigned to catch Russian spies. The only one I'd ever seen. She was maybe 5'2 or 5'3--completely unimposing. She was like a doll who you wanted to sit next to a fluffed pillow and comb her hair--but ALWAYS wearing a really sharp pantsuit. And she looked like she was about 12 years old. Okay, not 12, but not much older. Certainly she looked as young as I was at the time and I was in my late 20s. I would see her walking in and out of the Russian operational units and wondered why she was there. She seemed completely out of place.Understand, Russian counterintelligence at the FBI has generally been dominated by white men and a few white women. African-Americans usually served in clerical support positions.That's just a statement of fact. So, to see this petite 12 year old African American female FBI agent wandering around the halls of the Hoover Building was in and of itself an anomaly. Imagine my shock and surprise when I found out that not only was she an agent, she was a SUPERVISORY SPECIAL AGENT assigned to work ESPIONAGE cases.


Had I been dropped into some alternate universe? From that point on, I wondered what must she have endured to get into that position. How many jerks (and the FBI had more than its share) did she have to endure? How many slots had she been passed up on before she got this one? How many snide remarks did people squawk behind her back? How many people told her  (or at least thought) she'd have problems recruiting sources because of the color of her skin? How did she persevere to get into a position coveted by so many white male FBI agents?

Then one day I found out. As an analyst, I had been assigned to work on a joint intelligence community task force which was formed to find the source of some intelligence compromises. And the agent assigned to the case was the 12 year old. Only she wasn't. I remember, we stepped into the State Department lobby for the meeting and she tried to whisper her birth date--which was in the 1950s!

I caught myself saying out loud, "Are you f*cking kidding me!!"

Trust me, if I looked her age and had a birth date in the 1950s I would print it on a T-shirt and proudly prance around with it on every moment I could. As it turned out, not only was she a lot older than I thought but she was also one of the sharpest agents I'd ever met--man or woman, black, white, or otherwise. She walked into the meeting and commanded it. Not in a "step out of my way I'm FBI" kind of way, but in a "this issue is too important to dilly dally with, let's get to business" kind of way. And she had an innate ability to drill through the sea of BS floating about the room to get to the point.

Somewhere, in the far recesses of my mind, I told myself that I would write a story about women like her someday. Even though I'm not sure I could conceive that I would be a published author just a few years after leaving the Bureau or writing a series for publication, she sowed a seed in me.

The character's name--J.J. McCall (Jasmine Jones McCall)--actually came to me in a dream. I woke up and yelled it out one morning a few years ago not long after I finished my first novel. And it stuck with me, even as I kept putting the idea for this novel on the back burner. I didn't immediately plan to give the FBI Agent character this name but when I would think about it, I thought it just sounded perfect for the person I'd planned to write. She's kind of Salt meets Alex Cross.

As I spoke to before, the agent's innate ability to cut through the BS really impressed me, so I wanted to make that part of J.J.'s character. I didn't want to write anything paranormal or sci-fi, so I came up with the idea to give her a physiological response to BS or lies. However, I wanted some kind of reaction that would lend itself well to humor because humor is such a significant part of my brand. Eventually, I decided that the reaction would be an itch--and that just brought to mind so many potentially hilarious scenes. Can you imagine the problem of lies making you itch--in today's world?

The complexity of her "gift" also lends itself to some great story twists. For example, knowing someone has told you a lie gives you only a small window into the truth. A little white lie told to protect someone will give her the same physiological response as someone who is telling a bold-faced lie to be deceitful. J.J. will have to do a lot of analysis and investigation to determine which is which. So while her "gift" of lie detection gives her an insight that no one else will have--it also complicates her job and love life in more ways than not.

Ahhh...her love life. Also very complex. She has two suitors. One is her co-case agent (partner) Antonio Donato. He's a Italian and a gorgeous one at that. They share a mutual attraction but fight their feelings because of the family histories--both have parents who don't believe in mixing races. You would think in this day and age race would no longer be an issue but in some circles, it still very much is. Then there is Grayson "Six" Chance. He was named by my readers. Six is a sexy African-American CIA case officer/counterintelligence officer who broke J.J.'s heart but wants to give their relationship another try. And unfortunately J.J. hasn't quite let go of him to allow herself to fall for anyone else--including Tony.

So this series, while focusing on a different page-turning espionage-related case for each book, will follow the relationships between these characters. Right now, I have no idea who J.J. will end up with --if she ends up with anyone at all. What I do know is that it will be a fun, suspenseful ride until we get to the end..

Are you in? 

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Check out my new release: The Seven Year Itch (A J.J. McCall Novel).

The Seven Year Itch - Kindle ($2.99)
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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

My "One Thing"

Welcome to my new blog. I hope you'll stay a while.

Movie goers may recognize my City Slickers reference to the "one thing." You know, the "one thing" in your life which brings you the ultimate fulfillment. For years I wondered what my "one thing" might be. I didn't know.
Then it happened--no small thanks to Oprah.
My friend...writing.
Oh, we’d been first acquaintances and then casual friends for decades. At the age of 7 or 8 my mother gave me a world of possibility—otherwise known as a diary with a key lock. Back then I was na├»ve enough to believe that a key lock would be sufficient to keep my mother from being nosy. So, I unleashed my soul onto the pages of my diary, each day journaling the good the bad and the ugly--and sadly there was lots of ugly.
My diary was a friend in which I could share all of my deepest dreams and desires.
Like most kids at that age, I always believed life was hard (although in my case it was true to some extent, another story for another day), so whenever I endured some particular hardship, I would convey my thoughts in my diary. It was pretty freaking depressing. And living was depressing enough. So, I made a change. Instead of disclosing the full truth, I started writing happy endings. If someone read those diaries today, they would think I had a childhood filled with happy endings. And thus I began to develop my almost innate ability to stretch the truth just slightly beyond the bounds of reality--my formal introduction to fiction. 
To this day, some degree of the truth underlies every single story that I tell which helps breathe life into my characters and is probably a reason why my readers find the characters so real and relatable. 
Ahhhh...writing. A true friend that indulged my lies and supported my dreams, even when I was full of crap. 
Then we fell in love. 
Fast forward three decades and dozens of journals later.
After a heavy dose of Oprah, those stories in my diaries and journals began to haunt me. Why? Because I would re-read my writings months, sometimes years later, and would sometimes laugh myself to tears when I should have been crying buckets at the ridiculous relationships I fell in and out of. Part of me wanted to bury the journals six feet under. Another part of me, the insane part, thought the journals would make the basis of a great story.
So I wrote my very first novel over a four-month period in late 2008. No training. Didn't read a single instructive book. I just puked words all over the pages. Day and night, night and day, I slaved over the story--only the funny thing was, it NEVER FELT LIKE WORK. Never once. At least not until I began editing.
We spent every waking moment together and got to know each other intimately. Admittedly, I shared the most but I got a lot in return--what could be better than the sense of finally finding myself. When I finally emptied my soul into each and every page, I realized nothing had ever brought me more pleasure. Nothing had ever given me more fulfillment and satisfaction. Nothing else had ever made me feel as if I had found my life’s purpose.
Then it dawned on me, I’d met my soul mate.
I'd found my “one thing.”
I suppose all things happen in the time their due course. If we'd fallen in love earlier in my life, I'm not certain I'd have the same appreciation for the craft. And I certainly wouldn't have lived long enough to tell the stories with the wit and wisdom I can share today. Nor could I develop characters as rich as the ones I portray in my novels. So while I wish I had found my calling sooner, sometimes I believe I found it in perfect time.
Anyway, I hope you will enjoy my new blog. I have two other blogs, but this will be the first in which I explore the craft of writing, in addition to my new J.J. McCall series and all the work/fun that has (and will go into) developing it. I plan to post once or twice a week when I have something of use to talk about.
I’m not certain this blog will contain any particularly groundbreaking nuggets of wisdom—at least not for fellow journeyman. Perhaps for very new authors, it may. I plan to share my journey and writing tips that I've learned along the way. My hope is that the audience finds some consolation in the fact that I, even as a published author (in my other writing world), face many of the same challenges as every other writer when crafting stories. I’m learning as I go along—and maybe, through the open exchange of ideas, we can learn some stuff together.
I hope you'll check out my next post:  Sh*t My Characters Say: A Few Observations About Dialogue...

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