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Monthly Archives: January 2012

Guest Blogger: Lori Andrews Talks About Social Networks and Thriller Plots

As cops and criminals use social networks, potential thriller plots abound

Murder.  Mayhem.  Betrayal.  Sounds like your typical thriller, right?  But it’s just an average day on a social network.  As both cops and criminals turn to social networks to do their jobs, the real life incidents provide potential plotlines for thriller writers.  Already, writers Harlan Coben (Caught), Jeffrey Deaver (The Broken Window), and Scott Turow (Innocent) have woven internet issues into their thrillers.   In my latest non-fiction book, I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did:  Social Networks and the Death of Privacy, I talk about scores of real criminal cases involving social networks that could provide inspiration for thriller writers.

Facebook posts can provide the motivation for a murder—such as the 34-year-old British man who hacked his estranged wife to death after she changed her Facebook status to “single.”   Posts can also provide ways to uncover crimes.  The IRS searches social network sites for evidence of taxable transactions and the whereabouts of tax evaders, while Homeland Security searches certain people’s emails for 350 red flag terms, including the phrase “social media” itself.   Posts can be used to intimidate witnesses—such as when a killer’s girlfriend posted, JUST REMEMBER SNITCHES GET STITCHES!!  Virtually every aspect of crime and punishment can include a social network twist.

Cybercasing:

When a woman advertised a diamond ring for sale on Craigslist, the people responding to the ad robbed and beat her and shot her husband. She’d posted her address in the ad, but sometimes people unwittingly reveal their location and information about their possessions. Photos taken with most smartphones, for example, have embedded in them a string of digital data known as a geotag. When a woman posts a photo of her new engagement ring or her new baby, the geotag reveals the physical location where the photo was taken. Free software programs can readily decode the information and provide a Google map of the location, leading security analysts to warn about a new problem, “cybercasing,” where anything from a theft to the kidnapping of a child can be planned based on data people unwittingly reveal.

Checking in on Facebook or Foursquare can also create risks.  In New Hampshire, a burglary ring hit more than fifty homes when people posted status updates on Facebook indicating that they weren’t home.

Virtual deputies:

Social networks have become a cop’s best friend.  A survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police of 728 law enforcement agencies from 48 states and the District of Columbia found that 62 percent of the agencies used social networks in criminal investigations. Thieves have been identified when they’ve posted photos of themselves with stolen goods. Search requests, too, have helped to identify offenders. Nearly half of the law enforcement agencies said that social media had helped them solve crimes. Robert Petrick’s conviction for murdering his wife, for example, was secured through evidence from his Google searches, including “neck,” “snap,” “break,” and a search for the topography and depth of the lake where his wife’s body was found.

When police responded to a burglary call in Martinsburg, West Virginia, the robber had done more than steal two diamond rings and ransack some cabinets. In the middle of the heist, he’d checked his Facebook page on the victim’s computer and then forgotten to close the page. The cops knew exactly who to arrest.  In another case, a female criminal had fled the jurisdiction to evade arrest.  Cops monitored her high school reunion’s Facebook page and snagged her when she came back to town to party.

But offenders have also turned the table on cops.  In New York, a defendant in a felony weapons case subpoenaed his arresting officer’s Myspace and Facebook posts. The day before the trial began, the officer had set his mood to “devious” on his Myspace page and the defendant used that post to persuade jurors that the cop had planted the gun on him.

Social networks tainting trials:

In Georgia, a 54-year-old judge “friended” an attractive 35-year-old defendant in his court and offered her advice on her case—a breach of judicial ethics. Jurors have also misused Facebook, Twitter, and Google, leading to dozens of mistrials and overturned verdicts. In 2009, in a single court, six hundred potential jurors were dismissed when prospective jurors mentioned they’d Googled information about the case and discussed it with others in the jury pool.  When Reuters monitored tweets over a three-week period for the term “jury duty,” it found that tweets from jurors or prospective jurors pop up at the rate of one every three minutes. Ignoring their legal duty, some jurors make up their mind before all the evidence is presented. “Looking forward to a not guilty verdict regardless of evidence,” one person tweeted. Another said, “Jury duty is a blow. I’ve already made up my mind. He’s guilty. LOL.” Yet another man, in a jury pool, hadn’t even been selected for the trial. Yet he boldly tweeted, “Guilty! He’s guilty! I can tell!”

Some people are so dependent on social networks that they can’t make a decision about anything—whether to buy a certain car or break up with a boyfriend—without doing internet searches or running a poll of their friends. When faced with the evidence in a British sexual assault and abduction case, a juror posted the facts on her Facebook page and said, “I don’t know which way to go, so I’m holding a poll.”

With the click of a mouse or a simple search on their smartphones, criminals, cops, judges, and jurors can turn the justice system upside down.  As a thriller writer, social networks can be your new BFF—not just to promote books your current book, but to inspire your next one.

 

About the author:

Lori Andrews is a law professor and the author of three Alexandra Blake thrillers published by St. Martins Press:  Sequence (2006), The Silent Assassin (2007) and Immunity (2008).  Her nonfiction book I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did:  Social Networks and the Death of Privacy will be published January 10, 1012.  You can reach her at www.loriandrews.com and www.socialnetworkconstitution.com

 

Really? This Is a Legitimate Lawsuit?

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”  From Shakespeare’s Henry The Sixth

Old William was on to something there. Case in point:

Back in 2008, in Chicago, 18 year-old Hiroyuki Joho was rushing through a pouring rain to catch a train. He didn’t make it. Somehow he stepped into the path of an Amtrak clocking 70 mph. Not a pretty sight. Apparently a chunk of his torso flew a hundred feet and struck 58 year-old Gayane Zokhrabov, fracturing her leg and wrist and injuring her shoulder. Joho’s mother filed a suit against the Canadian Pacific Railway, claiming that they were negligent for not warning Joho that his Metra train was actually as Amtrak express. Okay, maybe she has a case, maybe not.

Zokhrabov then filed a civil suit against the estate of the splattered Joho, but it was tossed by a Cook County judge, who reasonably asserted that Joho could not have anticipated Zokhrabov’s injuries. You think? But now an appeals court has reinstated the case, stating “it was reasonably foreseeable” that a high speed train could kill him, shatter his body, and that his body parts could then harm someone else. I’m sure that’s exactly what he was thinking about as he raced to catch his rain.

I wonder if THIS tragic, bizarre, and, of course, accidental and unforeseeable case will lead to a lawsuit against the other driver’s estate/family or maybe the deer herd.

Whatever happened to common sense?

 
7 Comments

Posted by on January 26, 2012 in Interesting Cases, Trauma

 

Q and A: Can My Character, Who Has Been in a Prolonged Coma, Awaken, Fake His Coma, and Commit a Murder?

Q: I plan to have someone awaken from a coma to commit a murder. My current thinking is that the subject will have been in a genuine coma but awakens and, with the help of an accomplice, decides to carry on as if they are still in the coma.

Is it possible to fake a coma and fool the staff looking after them? Can a coma patient be cared for at home and simply have visiting medical professionals? This would obviously make it easier to carry on the deception when required. Is it plausible that someone could surface from a coma, carry out the murder, and still maintain the wasted appearance of someone who hasn’t moved in several years?

T. Cartledge

A: All this works except for your time frame.

Comas are funny things. They can last for a few hours or many months, even years and decades. When someone begins to awaken from a prolonged coma they usually do so gradually and in fits and spurts. That is, they will begin to become restless, open their eyes off and on (at first unfocused and then more focused), move their extremities (initially without purpose but gradually progress to more purposeful movements), and then speak (progresses from non-sense or just random words and sounds until they gradually begin to communicate). Though it is possible that someone in a long-term coma could suddenly awaken and be fully alert, the progression I described above would be more likely.

He would have no memory for the time he was comatose and might or might not remember what came before. This is called retrograde amnesia. This loss of memory could go back any period of time before the incident that caused the coma—a few minutes, a few hours, days, months, years, or forever. And his memory of previous events might be partial, spotty, or complete. It may return slowly over days, weeks, or months or very quickly. All is possible.

This is very general and each person reacts differently. This process from first arousal to full wakefulness might take a few hours, days, weeks, or months. This process is highly variable, but in general, the longer the coma, the slower the return to normal.

Yes, he could fake the coma but the problem is that with his slipping out of the coma slowly and erratically, he would not be “with it” enough to fake it and to enter into a conspiracy with another person. This takes full control of his faculties and that’s just not the case with long-term comas. But once he was fully awake and ware he could fake his coma.

Yes, a coma victim could be treated at home and this is not uncommon. It often requires special care but this is available. The main thing is that he is fed, kept well hydrated, moved frequently to prevent bed sores.
If he were indeed in a long-term coma, he could not simply wake up, get out of bed, and go kill someone. It would take weeks before he could even walk. That’s the problem I have with your time frame. Besides all the things above about awakening from a long-term coma, a coma of several years would cause severe muscular wasting in the victim. It would take weeks or months of physical therapy and strength training before he could go out and harm someone.

But, if you make the coma only a few days or a few weeks, then he could awaken quickly, fake his coma, and then have the strength to sneak out and do the deed.

 
6 Comments

Posted by on January 23, 2012 in Medical Issues, Q&A

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Tension on Every Page. Part III

Tension on Every Page, Part III

In parts I and II of this series, we discussed the importance of showing tension on every page of your novel; specifically, creating a gripping opening, using bridging conflict, leaving out the boring bits, and making every scene compelling. Here, we’ll take it one step further to give tips on creating complex characters with complex problems, continually complicating the issues and raising the stakes, and writing a satisfying conclusion.

Create a complex, many-faceted, determined, sympathetic protagonist

Readers won’t start to worry about a character they don’t care about. Make your main character interesting, multidimensional, determined, clever, and likeable – but with inner conflicts – and give readers enough detail about him early on to make them empathize with him and start to bond with him.

Create complex problems with escalating conflict
The more complex and challenging the problems your protagonist faces, the more compelling a read it will be for your readers. And as your hero struggles to overcome the odds, raise the stakes even more. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “As your protagonist becomes more and more entangled in obstacles, make certain that what he fears most is on the stage. […] Then, as these fears are exposed, toss a wrench into his plan.”

And his problems and conflicts need to be difficult and complex enough so readers don’t see an immediate solution, which would dissipate all the tension. As Donald Maass says, “Easy-to-solve problems are easily forgotten. Complex conflicts, on the other hand, stick in our minds, nagging for our attention.”

Also, in terms of fiction technique, Maass specifies, “conflict must undergo complication. It must twist, turn, deepen and grow. Without that constant development, a novel, like a news event, will eventually lose its grip. To break out, simple plot structures need high stakes, complex characters, and layered conflicts.”

So how can you improve the plot of your breakout novel and make it more compelling? According to Maass, the solution is to “make conflict deeper, richer, more layered, more unavoidable, and more inescapably true.”

“In breakout fiction, the central conflict is as deep and as bad as it can possibly be.” – Donald Mass

 


The problems also need to be serious enough, and the antagonist clever, determined, and nasty enough that they’re worthy of your hero, so he’s sufficiently challenged to create a compelling story, and his struggle results in definite character development and growth. (See my article, “Creating a Worthy Antagonist”.)
Conclusion

In summary, Donald Maass spells out in detail the kind of ongoing, deepening tension needed for creating a page-turner, a breakout novel: “Conflict that holds our attention for long periods of time is meaningful, immediate, large scale, surprising, not easily resolved, and happens to people for whom we feel sympathy.”

On the other hand, “Problems that are abstract, remote, trivial, ordinary, easily overcome, and/or happening to someone for whom we feel little … cannot fuel a gripping novel.”

The five essential plot elements, according to Maass, are: sympathetic character, conflict, complications, climax, and resolution.

And of course, in fiction, we want all or most of the problems and conflicts to be resolved at the end, for greatest reader satisfaction – but preferably in a surprising way, with an unexpected plot twist, and resonance. As James Scott Bell say, “The key is to leave readers satisfied in an unpredictable way.”

Maass sums it up: “So, what is it about conflict that makes a story a story?

* It makes us care by bonding us to a character.
* It sustains our interest through constant development and escalation.
* Finally, at its unavoidable peak, it brings us face-to-face with our deepest anxieties.
*If we face them and prevail, our anxieties are relieved. In the resolution, we enjoy peace.”  (Jodie’s bullets)

Resources: James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing; Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel; Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us.

Copyright © Jodie Renner, January 2, 2012

 

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor who is always looking for another good fiction manuscript to help take to the next level. Her tagline is “Let’s work together to enhance and empower your writing.” Please visit Jodie’s website at www.JodieRennerEditing.com.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on January 17, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Tension on Every Page, Part II

Tension on Every Page, Part II

In Part I, we talked about the importance of including conflict and tension of some sort on every page of your novel. Why? Because in fiction, “the best times for the writer – and reader – are when the story’s main character is in the worst trouble. Let your character relax, feel happy and content, and be worried about nothing, and your story dies.” (Jack M. Bickham)

 

Referring to Alfred Hitchcock’s well-known quote about effective film-making, “Drama is life with the dull parts left out,” James Scott Bell says, “You don’t want dull parts in your fiction, and dull parts are those without trouble. The greater the trouble, the greater the intensity.”

Bell goes on to advise us, “You want to have some sort of tension in every scene, though it doesn’t have to be of the highest sort. That would wear out the reader. Modulating tension is one of the keys to writing fiction. You give your readers some breathing room, too. But when they breathe, let it be with a tight chest.”

And as we said in Part I, you need to include tension right from in your opening paragraph, in order to hook your readers in. Donald Maass says, “Bridging conflict carries the reader from the opening line to the moment when the central conflict is set.” Then you’ll need to continue to include tension and conflict, whether external (arguments, fights, verbal sparring, threats) or internal (worry, anger, hurt, indecision, fear, angst, frustration, regret) on every page of your novel.

What are some techniques for achieving this? Here are some practical tips from writing gurus for revising your WIP to add more tension and spice up the scenes.

Create conflict between two people, not just accidents

Jack Bickham insists that effective tension in fiction involves conflict between two people, not just random accidents and bad luck for your protagonist. Give your hero or heroine something they can fight against, to challenge them and help them grow and develop their character and inner strength.

 

Conflict, according to Bickham, is “active give-and-take, a struggle between story people with opposing goals. It is not, please note, bad luck or adversity. It isn’t fate. It’s a fight of some kind between people with opposing goals.”

Why not just have your character get into an accident? That works well once in a while to throw a wrench in the works, but, as Bickham says, “Adversity in all its forms may create some sympathy for your character. But your character can’t reasonably try to understand it, plot against it, or even confront it in a dramatic way.

“Conflict, on the other hand, is a fight with another person. It’s dramatic, onstage now, with the kind of seesaw give-and-take that makes exciting stuff. When in conflict, your character knows who the opponent is and has a chance to struggle against him. In conflict, your character has a chance to change the course of events.”

“Never duck trouble – conflict – in your story. Seek it out,
because that’s where excitement and involvement – as well as
reader sympathy for your character – lie.” – Jack M. Bickham

How do you make sure you have the protagonist involved in real, compelling conflict, and not just some blind bad luck? According to Bickham, here is the recipe for effective, page-turning conflict:

* You make sure two characters are involved.
* You give them opposing goals.
* You put them onstage now.
* You make sure both are motivated to struggle now.

Pay attention to pacing and scene structure

The above is also the perfect recipe for writing a scene. Don’t start out your novel with your protagonist getting out of bed in the morning. No need to tell us what she had for breakfast, or her drive to work – or her drive home later (unless something significant and tense happened during the drive). Just use a sentence or two to mark transitions, or jump right to the telling scenes, the scenes with tension and conflict, scenes that drive the plot forward and contribute to character development.

“Virtually all the high points of most stories involve conflict. It’s the fuel that makes fiction go. Nothing is more exciting and involving.” – Jack M. Bickham

Pay attention to the structure of every scene you write. As Maass says, “A well-constructed scene has a mini-arc of its own: a beginning, a rise, and a climax or reversal at the end.”

Maass is not a big fan of the reaction-type scenes in which nothing new happens: “The so-called “aftermath” scene, in which the hero digests what has happened to him and settles on his next step, is an outdated technique.” Today, breakout novelists frequently use interior monologues instead, to deepen dilemmas and increase tension.

Irresolution and mixed feelings are by definition tense, but, Maass says, “if your protagonist is merely going to wallow or rehash what we already know, I suggest leaving such passages out of your book.”

Part III will discuss creating complex problems with escalating conflict.

Resources: James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing; Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them); Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel; Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us.

Copyright © Jodie Renner, January 2, 2012

 


Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor who is always looking for another good fiction manuscript to help take to the next level. Her tagline is “Let’s work together to enhance and empower your writing.” Please visit Jodie’s website at www.JodieRennerEditing.com.

 
7 Comments

Posted by on January 14, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Tension on Every Page, Part I

To kick off your 2012 writing, Jodie has kindly written and new 3-Part series on adding TENSION to your writing. Here is Part 1.

 

Tension on Every Page – Part I

What makes you, as a reader, put down a novel after only reading a few pages or a chapter or two? It’s almost always because, rather than getting hooked in, you’re getting bored. Your mind is wandering because the writing lacks tension. Tension and conflict are the essential elements that drive fiction forward. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “Happy characters are boring, and if there is no conflict, there is no story.”

“Drama is life with the dull parts left out.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Highly respected literary agent Donald Maass tells us, “Conflict is the magnet that draws reader interest, the discomfort that demands our attention.” As Maass counsels aspiring authors, “Without a doubt, the most common flaw I see in manuscripts…is the failure to invest every page of a novel with tension. Low tension equals low interest. High tension equals high interest.”

Jessica Page Morrell agrees. “There is nothing as unsatisfying and lacking in suspense as a story line where problems are easily solved, clues appear is if by magic or intuition, love is instantaneous and seldom rocky, people always agree and are agreeable, and everyday conditions never interfere with the protagonist’s comfort.”

“Plot is characters under stress.” – Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”

James Scott Bell concurs: “Every scene in your novel should have tension, whether that comes from outright conflict or the inner turmoil of character emotions.” So it’s not necessary or even desirable, to show nonstop edge-of-your-seat high-tension conflict – that would wear your readers out. But, as Bell says, “Even in scenes that are relatively quiet, characters can feel inner tension – worry, concern, irritability, anxiety.”

What is conflict in fiction and why do we need it? According to Maass, “Conflict is the unsettling core of events that makes us stop and look, wanting to understand, wondering what will happen, hoping for the best, fearing the worst. When the conflict level in a novel is high –that is, when it is immediate, credible, personal, unavoidable and urgent – it makes us slow down and read every word. When it is low, we are tempted to skim. We do not care. We wonder, what’s on TV?”

Your opening, and bridging conflict

Today’s best-selling novels almost all start with tension and conflict, right from the opening paragraph. This initial tension may not – and probably won’t – be the main conflict of the story, but it needs to be meaningful and intriguing, in order to draw the reader in long enough to lead up to bigger problems the protagonist faces. As Morrell points out, “The inciting incident, the first threat, sets the story in motion and tilts the protagonist off balance.”

Maass calls this initial opening tension a “bridging conflict”: “There is, in any great opening line, a mini-conflict or tension that is strong enough to carry the reader to the next step in the narrative. Its effect lasts, oh, perhaps half a page, a little more if it is really good. After that, another electric spark of tension needs to strike us. If it does not, our interest begins to weaken and will pretty quickly fade out.”

So, to use this technique of bridging conflict, it’s best to hook the reader in right away with a series of smaller conflicts that serve to capture and keep their attention until the main conflict or first large event of the story arrives.

As Maass reveals, “The number one mistake I see in manuscript submissions is a failure to put the main conflict in place quickly enough; or perhaps, a failure to use bridging conflict to keep things going until the main problem is set.”

Give them someone they’ll want to worry about

But in order for readers to invest any interest or concern about what happens to the protagonist, they first need to actually care about him. So it’s critical to present your main character as a likeable, resourceful, smart, strong – but vulnerable and conflicted – basically warm person the readers will want to root for. And make it clear early on what he really wants or needs. Then start to set up obstacles in his path that force him to reach down deep inside himself to find inner resources and hidden strengths in order to overcome them. His ongoing struggles will form your compelling plot and will contribute to his growth as a person, making him ultimately stronger, wiser, and even more likeable.

So if you want to write a novel that sells, remember Maass’s words of wisdom: “Tension on every page is a technique that keeps readers glued to a novel…. It is a key breakout skill.”

Resources: James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing; Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel; Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us.

Parts II and III will discuss practical strategies for making your novel more compelling by ratcheting up the tension on every page.

Copyright © Jodie Renner, January 2, 2012

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor who is always looking for another good fiction manuscript to help take to the next level. Her tagline is “Let’s work together to enhance and empower your writing.” Please visit Jodie’s website at www.JodieRennerEditing.com.

 
7 Comments

Posted by on January 11, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Footprints as Accurate as Fingerprints?

I don’t mean the friction ridge patterns on the soles of our feet. We know these are as individual as the ridge patterns on our fingertips. But what about the pattern with which our feet strike the ground? Could these also provide individualizing evidence? The answer just might be yes.

 

 

 

Each of us walks with a different gait pattern, meaning that our footsteps are aligned and spaced in a unique pattern. Some people march, others swagger, and still others shuffle along. Also the way our foot strikes the ground is unique. If a method can be devised to analyze heel strike, foot roll, and push-off then perhaps this might be useful evidence. In a recent paper published in the British Journal of the Royal Society Interface a group seems to have developed a process for obtaining three-dimensional images of footprints and their studies have revealed that this analysis is highly individual. They quoted and accuracy of 99.6%. If this turns out to be the case, then the analysis of footprints left in sand, soil, or another soft material might prove to be a useful forensic science technique.

 
 
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