JOANNA ELM, Author, Journalist, Attorney

September 23, 2017
by joanna
8 Comments

How To Survive Five Days Alone With A Bad Guy

I don’t know what other authors do, but when my husband, Joe, recently left for five days on a trip to Florida, I spent that uninterrupted, quality writing time with another man.

What can I say? The guy’s good-looking, smooth-talking, and in great shape, although he’s obviously a bad-ass. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about him lately; it’s not an exaggeration to say he intrudes into most of my waking moments.  So, as soon as Joe left me to my own devices, I let this bad guy move right on into our happy home.

The Other Man

Hey! Just kidding. For starters, this guy is not a real, live person!  Of course not. The man I’m talking about is the antagonist in my third thriller (Book 3). I’ve invented him — totally. The image I’ve imported into my Scrivener software to give me a little idea of what he looks like is this photo of actor Matthew McConaughey. My antagonist’s good looks, however, mask some deeply disturbed and disturbing thoughts and actions which he directs at my protagonist, a former New York tabloid reporter whom he blames for a big tragedy in his life. I’m almost done with the first draft, and some chapters are already in the second draft phase. However, even at this stage, I’m still not completely sure how things are going to end for him.

Ever since I returned from the Algonkian novel workshop in February, my antagonist has been my main focus. Before the workshop, I knew what he was doing to my protagonist, and why he was doing it, but I  focussed on her reactions to his “misdeeds”  and her efforts to track him down and stop him.

Bad Guy “Needs Work”

On the porch of our workshop beach cottage

During the workshop, however, mentor and Pulitzer prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler suggested that my antagonist’s story was “the story” to tell.  And, workshop director, Michael Neff suggested I restructure my thriller using dramatic irony, a classic literary device, where readers will know almost from the outset who the “bad guy” is, but will be in a state of suspense wondering if the protagonist will uncover the truth in time. For a while, I couldn’t figure out how to write the story that way, but then, after weeks of “noodling” and thinking, I did. It’s been quite an experience.

I drafted entire new chapters from my antagonist’s POV (point-of-view.)  Now, I understand him so much better, and there are moments when I even like him ( which is a good thing I’m told: antagonists should have humanizing qualities.) But I came to a point where I had to be clear in my own mind exactly what my antagonist wants/expects to gain from his misdeeds, and how far he’ll succeed in getting what he wants?

It’s not as simple as it seems: As Robert McKee, author of Story teaches at his screenwriting seminars: the best characters in fiction have a conscious desire which appears to drive their actions, and a subconscious desire which is what they really want, and which sometimes contradicts their conscious desire.  So, five days of solitude and isolation seemed like a godsend at this stage of my manuscript. This is what I did to make the most of it:

Alone With A Bad Guy

 Got all necessary supplies in so that I’d have all essentials at the ready. That meant a “wine run” as well as shopping for paper, pens, notebooks, and post-its — without anyone hovering over my shoulder, asking : Do you really need 24 liquid gel pens???

Answer: yes, I do. They’re not all the same color; twelve are black; twelve are blue (and there’s always Book 4 to think about !!!!) Anyway, I love shopping for stationery supplies, probably more than I love shopping for anything else (except, maybe shoes.)

 Bliss of Alone Time

For five days:  I stacked dishes in the sink instead of putting them straight into the dishwasher; and kept the lights on in the whole house all night so I could move from bed to couch or desk to write (or read) without banging into the furniture in the dark when I woke in the middle of the night .

Took all my notepads, notes, laptop, iphone and ipad to bed with me so that I’d have my books and notes and scribblings at hand at all times.

Ate leftovers straight from the refrigerator for lunch, and prepared only the simplest dishes like cacio e pepe (pictured) for dinner. It takes six minutes to cook the pasta, a minute to mince garlic and melt butter, and a minute to grate parmigiano cheese and grind black pepper over the pasta. (When Joe’s home, he likes pasta with a homemade sauce, preferably authentic bolognese.)

Made copious notes about my antagonist’s thoughts and motivations, and left them in little piles dotted all over the TV room without worrying about someone else (Joe) stepping on them, or tidying them up before switching on the TV.

Spoke to no-one (except the plumber who came to fix a toilet); slouched around the house channeling my inner slob while trying to download Poetics, a book by Aristotle — which screenwriter Aaron Sorkin swears tells you everything that’s required of protagonists and antagonists.

I wish I could say five days of “alone” time was enough time to nail down my antagonist, and finish the manuscript. It wasn’t — but at least it seems like the pieces are finally taking shape and falling into place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

September 16, 2017
by joanna
4 Comments

A Comeuppance For A Dastardly Device

The “dastardly” device in question is the sort of gadget that bestselling author, Karin Slaughter might allow to fall into the wrong hands in one of her dark thrillers; or that my antagonist, a tech-savvy Peeping Tom, might have used in my last crime thriller, DelusionHowever, when Delusion was published twenty years ago we were barely aware of a future with cell phones, never mind smart phones with apps that would allow a partner or spouse ( even when in a different country) to remotely control your vibrator.

Suing A Smart Vibrator

I first wrote about this “wondrous” invention last year when I read a news story in the New York Law Journal about a lawsuit against We-Vibe, the manufacturers of the vibrator and the app. At first, I thought the news item was a belated April Fool’s joke since I’d seen no reference to such a story in any other newspaper or magazine to which I subscribed. I suppose it wasn’t the type of story any “family” newspaper wanted to splash across its front page.

Settling With A Smart Vibrator

However, I also missed the news items about a settlement in the lawsuit (probably because for the last seven months once I’ve finished reading all the news stories and op-ed pieces about the “doings” of the current occupant of the White House, I’m too exhausted to read anything else.) But there was a settlement in the case.

So, below I reproduce part of the “squib” I originally published about the lawsuit against the smartest vibrator in the world, followed by an update on the settlement of the case earlier this year:

Seal of Approval

apple-and-htc-phone Good Housekeeping magazine rated the We-Vibe 4 Plus the “best sex toy for couples.”

Why? Because the vibrator works off a smartphone app so that a partner/lover/spouse can operate it by remote control — “even from another continent.” We-Vibe users can download the We-Connect app from the Apple App store or from Google Play, and install it on their smartphones allowing them and a partner remote control over the vibrator’s settings and features. The We-Connect app is apparently also programmed to allow partners to exchange texts and video chats while using the remote control.

Class Action

United States Court HouseSeal of approval, notwithstanding,  an Illinois woman who doesn’t want the whole world to know that she was using one, is now using the initials N.P. in a federal class action lawsuit brought against Standard Innovations Corp., the Canadian company that produces the We-Vibe 4 Plus and other “sensual lifestyle products.” She claims that the company designed the vibrator and app to “secretly collect and transmit highly sensitive personally identifiable information” about consumers using it.

Hacking Possibility

Two hackers attending Def Con, a hacking conference, in Las Vegas in August revealed that the app was transmitting information back to the company’s servers. The manufacturer has reportedly acknowledged collecting data, but has stated that it is encrypted and protected during transfer and storage. The two hackers also raised the specter of the vibrator being hacked into by strangers, and thus the possibility of sexual assault by someone intercepting the internet connection between the vibrator and the controlling device.

Invasion of Privacy

The class action lawsuit was filed a month ago in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago and alleges that the information includes “time and date of each use [ along with] the selected vibration settings” including desired intensity level, and the user’s personal email address.  N.P is suing for consumer fraud, unjust enrichment, and violations of the Federal Wiretap Act and the Illinois Eavesdropping Statute. She is also seeking an injunction, and damages arising from the invasion of personal privacy.

Oddly enough, the plaintiff does not seem too concerned about the personal privacy of  “all others similarly situated” on whose behalf she is suing. She contends that it is likely the class consists of tens of thousands of individuals who “can be easily identified through Defendant’s records and/or Defendant’s retail partners’ records.

No More Spying For Smart Vibrator

As Forbes.com reported earlier this year:  “Standard Innovation, which produces the We-Vibe line of vibrators, has reportedly agreed to pay out close to $3 million as part of a settlement agreement with customers. The proposed settlement would establish the multimillion-dollar pot for device owners who’d downloaded the control app, We-Connect, and used it with their toy—or up to $10,000 each. The company agreed to set aside another $750,000 for those who’d bought toys but never messed with the app, or a possible $199 each.

Under the settlement, which awaits court approval, the firm also agreed to cease collecting personal user information and email addresses from device users, and to destroy related data it’s collected to date. It further stipulates that Standard Innovation will inform users about any anonymized data collection in the future, and allow them to opt out.”

By my calculation, that means there were approximately 300 plaintiffs who bought the vibrator and used it with the app — and agreed to be part of the class action. Hopefully, when their checks arrive in the mail, they’ll have no problem explaining it to any significant others.

 

 

Photos credit: Bigstockphoto.com; We-Vibe.com

September 9, 2017
by joanna
4 Comments

Remembering Andrew — & One of Its Heroes

 

Irma compared to Andrew Credit:Joel Nihlean

Homestead 1992

As I write this blog, Irma, Category 5 monster hurricane, is barrelling toward South Florida. Anyone in South Florida who was living there 25 years ago, like I was, no doubt has spent the last few days telling war stories about how they survived Hurricane Andrew — the last Category 5 hurricane to hit the US mainland — in August 1992. Andrew made landfall in Homestead, and devastated the area.

 

 Cats disappeared

Heather, 6 and Danny 4

Shirley (left) with my Mom in our Boca back yard

Back then, I was living in Boca Raton with my husband Joe, and our son Danny who was four years old at the time. Staying with us that summer was Joe’s granddaughter Heather, aged six, and my mother and stepfather. Joining us when they were evacuated from their Delray Beach home on the Intracoastal were our best friends, Phil and Shirley Bunton with their two mutts, Honey and Benji. Their cats Squeaky and Mr. T. took off at the first growl of thunder, and did not return till several days after the hurricane moved on.

Waiting For Andrew

Phil (left) and Joe in our Boca kitchen

We had no idea what was coming, or what it would look like. We were five miles inland. We’d heard that hurricanes run out of steam once they make landfall. Other than that, we had no idea what to expect. The Weather Channel’s hurricane specialist, Bryan Norcross cut his teeth on Andrew. He was on a Miami TV news station back then telling us to fill our bathtubs with water for the flushing of toilets when the power went out; to throw our outside furniture into the pool, and to tape our windows and sliding glass doors with duct tape in the shape of an X so that glass wouldn’t go flying all over the room if something crashed through the window.

We made makeshift beds for the kids in the only windowless area of the house, and then the adults sat down to listen to the pounding rain, and howling wind, and to party.

Devastation of Andrew

Hurricane Andrew made landfall near Homestead, 80 miles from Boca, with winds of up to 165 mph. It caused  approximately 65 deaths, and $25 billion dollars worth of damage. It destroyed more than 60,000 homes, and left only 9 mobile homes standing in Homestead. Outside our backdoor a huge tree fell. Nothing compared to the devastation we began to see on a TV set we hooked up in the kitchen with rabbit ears.

Joe Takes Up A Collection

Joe loading up the truck

With two kids in our home, my husband Joe’s first thought was for all the children and young families left without roofs over their head, or food or water — or, worst of all — diapers. At the office the next day, as   Chairman of Globe Magazine, he organized a collection among his staff. Our friend, Phil, then Editor-in-Chief of the magazine, organized a similar collection among his editorial staff. Both Joe and Phil individually matched the collections from their departments, and then asked the owner of the magazine to match the total collected, which he did.

 Joe Rolls Up His Sleeves

Today, neither Joe nor Phil can recall exactly how much money was raised, but agree it could have been around $50,000. Joe then contacted the local magazine wholesaler, also a friend, for the loan of one of his trucks. Through his connections with the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain, he arranged a deal with the supermarket to buy infant formula, diapers, water and baby food at cost. With the help of other Globe magazine employees, he  loaded up the truck and set off to reach Homestead before the curfew.

Recently, when Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas, we received an email from Phil. He wrote, with hyperbolic flair:  “Reading all about the Texas hurricane reminded me of Joe’s superb work sending an army of trucks into Hurricane Andrew. That was a great move. I’ve always admired Joe for that.”

Me too, Phil. Me, too.

Photo Credits: Scott McKiernan

 

September 2, 2017
by joanna
4 Comments

Eight Great Websites for Authors

Me reading under my favorite tree at home in New York

This was a great week: A recent blog of mine was included  as a guest post on one of the great websites for authors, thebookdesigner.com (see below), and my British bestie, Julie, arrived for a visit so I took some time off from writing. We are both voracious readers, and we both love tennis, and we indulged in both activities this week.

Julie arrived bearing gifts: two thrillers by favorite author Sharon Bolton, Little Black Lies and Bolton’s latest thriller, Dead Woman Walking. In hardcover! A book I could actually hold! And five days ahead of US publication!

On Wednesday, it was off to the US Open in Queens. We had grounds admission tickets which proved to be a great way to spend the day at the tennis event when we went three years ago. But not so much this year.

 

Big Dude Tennis

Nick Kyrgios

John Isner

We headed for Louis Armstrong stadium where Australian Nick Kyrgios (6′ 4″)  was slated to play against fellow Australian John Millman. The stadium is under construction , so we sat on uncomfortable metal bleachers in the hot sun, and left before “bad boy” Nick became unruly, dropping an F-bomb, and smashing his racket while losing in four sets.

Crowds & Lines

It was also dismal trying to get back into the stadium to see Coco Vandeweghe (6’1″) play and win against Alison Riske in three sets The crowds were so much bigger than I remembered from 3 years before, and the lines for food and to enter the stadiums were horrendously long, snaking back and forth, reminding me of a nightmare weekend at DisneyWorld when my son was four years old. Nevertheless, we stayed long enough to see American John Isner (6′ 10″)  pound his serve in to win his match against Korean Hyeon Chung in three straight sets. Next year: reserved seats for us!

Great Websites for Authors

Bestselling mystery author, Hank Phillippi Ryan

Back at home, more time for reading meant I had more time to surf the web to find new websites with useful blogs for authors as well as finding new authors with interesting websites. I’ve chosen the following eight to share here:

Careerauthors.com is a totally spanking- new website for, as it says, authors (self-publishing as well as traditional) interested in perfecting their craft, and getting insights into publishing and marketing. The launch is scheduled for this Wednesday, September 6. A preview of articles includes these intriguing titles: Making the Bad Better: Humanizing your Antagonist; Your Author Platform: the Hub and Spokes; What Your Genre Association Can Do For You. Among the contributors are: bestselling author Hank Phillippi Ryan, super agent, Paula Munier, and Dana Isaacson, a former senior editor at Penguin Random House.

Creating  Memorable Characters

Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin has written some of the best TV series. Recall The West Wing, The Newsroom, and the movie, The Social Network. Screencraft.org has a fabulous video interview with this writer extraordinaire and master of dialogue in which he talks about creating memorable characters (“what a character wants, and how they go about getting it defines a character”) , and how characters do not resemble real people (“people don’t speak in dialogue” and “their lives don’t unfold in narrative arcs.”) I already know that Aaron’s MasterClass is the next writing class for which I am signing up.

 

 Indie Author’s Editing Secret

Rachel Abbott (whose thriller, Stranger Child, I just purchased) has been the UK’s #1 bestselling indie thriller author for years. On her website, she writes about the craft of writing, about books she enjoys reading, and she conducts interviews with favorite British authors. One of her most informative blogs reveals her secret to successful editing. I was surprised when I found out what it was, but it makes a lot of sense.

In skimming through Rachel’s blogs, I also found her interview with Alex Marwood, UK author of The Wicked Girls, one of Stephen King’s Best Books of 2012. Alex Marwood is a pseudonym for author/journalist Serena Mackesy whose About Me page on her website is one of the funniest and most creative I have read in a long time.

Basics of Story Structure

Historical fiction author K.M. Weiland’s website, Helping Writers Become Authors has solid and sound advice and tips on all aspects of novel writing. Specifically, I found her blog on the basics of story structure particuarly useful since a distinctive color chart (at the very end of the blog) highlights necessary events and plot points. If you know story structure inside out, this is still a useful guide for checking that you’ve got it all covered. If you don’t know anything about story structure, this chart is a perfect starting point.

Forensics Expertise

Here’s a website that includes a fabulously rich resources page for any writer who needs one of his/her characters to sound knowledgeable on CSI-type forensics. It’s the website of Victoria M. Patton, an indie author who holds a BS degree in Forensic Chemistry, and served a stint in the Coast Guard as a Search and Rescue/Law Enforcement Petty Officer. Links can be found here to information on, among other things, forensic anthropology, poisons and deadly chemicals, bones, weapons, cyber crime, and dental evidence

 

For Indie Authors

The Carnival of The Indies feature on thebookdesigner.com website continues to be a fount of information for indie authors. This month Carnival #83 includes blogger posts on My Fourth Year in Self-Publishing; The Quick and Easy Guide to Using Beta Readers; 5 lessons I Learned About Blogging; How I Accumulated 38,000 Twitter Followers by social media expert, Frances Caballo, and my recent blog, Before You Hit the Publish Button.

An Indispensable Writing Tool

Grammarly is a recommended website for authors by publisher Penguin Random House. It is #1 on Penguin’s list of 15 Top Creative Writing Blogs That Are Actually Helpful. Penguin describes it as a “beautifully presented and engaging blog.”  The website touts itself as the “world’s most accurate grammar checker,” and can apparently identify correctly spelled words that are used in the wrong context. That means no more errors using “there” instead of “their.” It’s free and it scans your writing for “proper use of more than 400 advanced grammar rules” including subject-verb agreement, article use and modifier placement.

 

 

Photo Credits: Aaron Sorkin by theindependent.co.uk

 

 

August 26, 2017
by joanna
2 Comments

Writer’s Funk: What It Is — And Why It’s Good

Straight off, let me be clear: writer’s funk is not writer’s block. The latter, “writer’s block” is the “condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with your writing.” Writer’s funk, on the other hand is the situation where you have churned out your target number of words, had no trouble at all– well, hardly any trouble — getting them down on paper and then you read them, and re-read them — and then you want to vomit, and throw it all in the trash.

 

Writer’s Funk in a Nutshell

As Paula Zimlicki, one of my writer friends from the Algonkian group, lamented a couple of weeks ago: “I’m in a writing funk. You know the scenario: nothing you write pleases you; you think it is all shit, and you despair of writing a novel worth being published. Writing hell in other words. Ugh!”

Yep. That’s writer’s funk in a nutshell. Know the feeling well!  I also know that Paula, who is working on her first novel, In The Summer of Defiance, and I are in good company.  We are not talking here about those people who blithely and fearlessly sit down to write a book without the faintest idea of structure or genre, or even grammar or punctuation. No. Writer’s funk arises out of self-doubt, and fear, and an anxiety about mastering the craft of writing. It’s a condition that flares up in new, unpublished writers striving for the publication of first novels as well as those who are already professionally published authors.

 

Bestselling Authors Get Writer’s Funk

Bestselling author of medical thrillers, Tess Gerritsen (Playing with Fire, and the Rizzoli & Isles series) wrote a whole blog about it a few years ago after a friend, Sandra Scoppetone, also a best selling author (Too Darn Hot) wrote this about the novel she was working on at the time: “I hate it. I don’t want to write it anymore. It stinks.”

Gerritsen said that she understood completely: “While writing my books, I’ve hated every single one of them, she wrote. “Felt they were doomed, that they’d reveal I was a no-talent fraud. That there was no way I’d be able to save the sucker from certain disaster.” She added that these feelings of self-doubt increase — not lessen–  with every new published book. “You question every word you write. You actually become less confident because you grow more exacting and more critical of your own work.”

It’s Good to Hate Your Writing

And, therein lies the conundrum: the more you hate what you’ve written, apparently the better writer you are, or will become. Robert McKee, world-renowned screenwriting guru, and author of Story, announced it at a three-day seminar I attended a couple of years ago. He said:

 

“Real writers hate writing, and hate everything they write.”

 

Publishing industry expert, Jane Friedman agrees. In a guest post titled, “You Hate Your Writing? That’s a Good Sign!” for Writer Unboxed she wrote:  “You have to produce a lot of crap — stuff that you know is crap– before you can produce anything good. Your taste is good enough that you can tell what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you[…] Great writers will always be critical of their own work because they have good taste.”

 

Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro, an author who appeared on a  Palm Beach Book Festival panel earlier this year to talk about memoirs echoes these views. In Still Writing, The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life she observes “It seems that every really good writer I know is plagued by self-doubt. A writer who is overly confident will not engage in the struggle to get it exactly right on the page.”

Overcoming Writer’s Funk

So, how does an author overcome writer’s funk and “get it exactly right” when faced with words on a page that look nothing like the thrilling prose that coursed through his/her head in the shower that morning?

Fortunately, for those writers who are determined to publish a novel, whether as an indie author, or through a traditional publisher, there is no shortage of advice. Unfortunately, all the advice can be boiled down to a couple of words and phrases of which the most widely used are: “rewrite, rewrite, edit, and then rewrite again” because your first draft is always going to suck.

First Drafts

That’s right. First rule: Accept the fact that your first draft is going to be vomit-inducing for the most part. Joanna Penn, a wildly successful indie author and marketing guru has said on her website that the feeling that your writing is terrible “happens to everyone.” In a video, she explains: “If you think your writing is bad, you’re probably right[…] but don’t censor that first round of writing. Keep writing down what’s coming out of your head. You can edit when you have something to edit.”

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, her bestselling “instruction manual” on writing, puts it more poetically: “All good writers write shitty first drafts […] The first draft is the child’s draft where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no-one is going to see it.” She continues: “There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful and wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about […] but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.”

Do Not Wait For The Muse

It’s hard work. As Stephen King confirms in his primer, On Writing: “There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy dust all over your typewriter (quaint!) or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there […] you have to do all the grunt labor.”

Or as the late bestselling author Michael Crichton of Jurassic Park fame used to say: “Writing is rewriting; it means going over and over and over the same material, and making it better.”

Angela Slatter, an Australian award-winning writer, in an interview for an article titled “Dealing With Self-Doubt: Tips From 7 Popular Authors” puts it this way: “I look at the story itself. Why is it failing to develop the way I want it to? Generally, because I’m trying to jam it into the wrong shape[…] I’m trying to make it grow up to be a doctor when it really wants to be a tattoo artist.  I need to be fluid enough in my thinking not to try to shape the idea too harshly or rigorously. I talk to friends about the tale and sometimes that shakes loose the things that are stuck.”

Steven Pressfield in his classic The War of Art writes: “The process of self revision and self correction is a miracle […] Insights pop into our heads while we’re shaving, or taking a shower, or even amazingly, while we’re actually working.”

False Beliefs

Writer’s funk mostly arises from “attempting to make the first draft the best [you] can write. Some believe it’s the way real writers write which is generally not true, and some believe that perfecting each chapter will relieve them of the need to rewrite, which is also not true,” says Susan Reynolds, author of Fire Up your Writing Brain. “Good books are not written, but rewritten and rewritten and rewritten.”

Specifically, as-yet unpublished authors should take note of what sci-fi Campbell Award-winning author ( Six Wakes, Book Burners) Mur Lafferty has to say in an article in Scott Nicholson’s Write Good or Die:  “You will never be perfect. You will eventually finish stories and novels and achieve a sense of accomplishment […] But the story will never appear on the page the same way it did in your head. Writing is a skill.

“The closer you are to your first day of writing , the more likely you are to suck.”

 

Coming Out of A Writer’s Funk

And, maybe after you’ve written a second draft, and then a third, even after the fourth, you may still feel in a funk; you may still feel that your writing sucks. Well, sometimes what you think is shit, really is shit. Put it away in your bottom drawer, and give yourself points for having the good taste to recognize shit when you see it. One day, you’re going to see something in the pages of your first draft that looks half-way decent, maybe even looks like a gem or a gold nugget of a sentence or paragraph or page that gives you a springboard to a decent scene, or a great chapter, and when that happens you’ll feel you’ve come out of your funk. At least for a while.

 

Photo Credits: bigstockphoto.com