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Why I Love Twitter and Facebook

As 2010 draws to a close, we’re seeing a lot of “Best of” lists, not only for the year but for the decade. “2011” still looks like science fiction; we are living in the future.

I’ve always been a gadget guy, but I think back ten years and can’t believe the technology that’s part of my daily life today.
Information moves faster and more easily now than at any time in history, for better or worse. This new world of instant information changes the subjects I write about, but that’s a topic for a future blog post. What I’m thinking about today, in this holiday season, is how important the online communities of Twitter and Facebook have become for me, and for any author who wants to reach the widest possible audience.

Some of my writer friends ask why I love Twitter, and what I get out of it. First of all, and most important, I enjoy it. When you work alone at a desk all day, Twitter is a virtual coffee break, a chance to catch up and see what the rest of the world is talking about. 

But Twitter and Facebook are both perfect illustrations of Malcolm Gladwell’s theories at work in the real world. Malcolm and I are mutual admirers; we had a long conversation that became part of the audiobook for KILLER INSTINCT. (You can listen to short excerpts of this conversation here and here.) In his book THE TIPPING POINT, he writes (among other things) about how ideas and products can spread like viruses, through the interaction of "Connectors," "Mavens," and "Salesmen." "Connectors" are people who know lots of other people, and help spread the word about things; "Mavens" are the experts among their friends; and "Salesmen" are skilled at persuading others.

As many books as I might sell, my Twitter and Facebook friends are the front line, the first group of people giving me immediate feedback and spreading the word. They’re the ones who tell me what they’re interested in, what they like, what they don’t like — and they’re telling all of their other friends, as well. I’m constantly gathering information and processing ideas, and many of those show up first on Twitter or Facebook. I’m always fascinated to see what catches people’s imagination, and what other people are talking about that catches mine.

This week my Twitter community passed 10,000 followers. That’s the population of a small town, and I am happy to be part of it. Thanks to everybody who makes my online life so interesting, whether it’s on Twitter or Facebook, and very happy holidays to each and every one of you.
 

What I Learned at the Movies: How to Talk Like a Tough Guy

It’s getting to the end of another year, which means it must be time to go to the movies. I’ll say this with a straight face: it’s research for me. If an author’s job is to “show, not tell,” the movies have a lot to teach us about the economics of storytelling.

Although storytelling through dialogue is an important skill — and I’ll discuss this at greater length in a future post — sometimes it’s equally important just to have something cool to say.
 
Want to talk like a tough guy? Go to the movies. The heroes of my books are seldom at a loss for words. When I go to the movies, I’m always listening for the catchphrase, the next “Hasta la vista, baby” that becomes part of our general conversation. 
 
A few immortal lines that tell us everything we need to know about the characters, and quite a lot about their stories:
 
“Say hello to my little friend.” Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in Scarface (1983). One of the taglines for this movie was “He loved the American Dream. With a vengeance.” It’s all right here, in this line; Tony Montana, wretched refuse of the Mariel boatlift, figures out a way to get what he wants. Who needs Harvard when you’ve got an automatic weapon?t
 
"You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?" Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) in Dirty Harry (1971). This movie has five credited writers, four for the screenplay and one for the story. I don’t know which one of them wrote this line, but it’s genius. Think about what this line tells us: Harry Callahan is a guy who cares more about justice than the law, and has a deeply twisted sense of humor. Not to mention some anger issues.
 
“Is it safe? Is it safe?” Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) in Marathon Man (1976). Keeping people out of dentist’s chairs for more than 30 years now . . . William Goldman’s line, pulled straight from the book, is chilling because it illustrates the character’s complete, deadly obsession with a secret the rest of us don’t know anything about. Anyone who’s seen this movie will shudder at this line forever — and if you haven’t seen this movie, what are you waiting for?
 
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in Goodfellas (1990). It’s the first line of the movie, and everything follows from here. It’s not just a line of dialogue, it’s the movie’s log line, its capsule summary; it tells us everything we need to know about Henry Hill and the world he lives in.
 
“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” Cody Jarrett (Jimmy Cagney) in White Heat (1949). How crazy is Cody Jarrett, the psychopathic, mother-loving gangster Jimmy Cagney plays in White Heat? Very crazy indeed. Faced with apocalyptic disaster, Jarrett’s going out like a winner, and he wants us all to know it.
 
They get addictive, these movie quotes. Leave your own favorites in the comments section.

Why Write a Serial Thriller?

Today marks the paperback publication of WATCHLIST, the print edition of two serial thrillers I had the honor of participating in — THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT and its sequel, THE COPPER BRACELET. Both books were based on ideas by Jeffery Deaver and edited by Jim Fusilli, and a total of 22 authors participated in the projects, including genre masters such as Linda Barnes, Lee Child, David Liss, and Lisa Scottoline.

The books have been successful beyond all expectations. Not only were they bestsellers in audio format, but THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT won the Audie for best audiobook of 2008. It’s always a great feeling to be part of a successful project, but as I’ve given some interviews and participated in a roundtable discussion about these books, I’ve realized that I got some big benefits from the projects as well.

First, the process gave me new insights into my colleagues’ imaginations. One of the main attractions of writing a novel is the control it gives you over the world you create. I get to decide who the characters are, what they do, and what happens to them; I might never rule the world, but I rule my worlds. But it was exciting to see what Jeff Deaver came up with, and riff on his ideas. Likewise, especially in THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT, I was almost overwhelmed by the variety of ideas and plot threads jammed into those first eight chapters.

Second, I got some new insights into structure and pacing, or at least was able to use what I knew in a different way. I wrote Chapter Nine of THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT. So much had happened by that point that I had to work hard to make my chapter fit into the different storylines — not only from the writer’s point of view, but from the reader’s. By the time I got the story, other authors had given the reader several terrific action sequences. I wanted to write an action sequence, too, but I stopped myself; it would have been overload. What the book needed, at that point in the story, was something quieter. (I learned another lesson from that, too. When it came time to write the second book, I asked editor Jim Fusilli for an earlier chapter, and got Chapter 6 of THE COPPER BRACELET.)

Third, I got to use some ideas and material I hadn’t been able to fit into any of my own books. Every author has more ideas than he or she will ever have time to write, and I do so much research that I’ll never be able to use everything I know about a given topic. For THE COPPER BRACELET, I got to use research I’d done for VANISHED, and explore a subject that’s always fascinated me: how someone would get into Russia secretly. It had been much too long since I’d set anything in Moscow, which was my first love and my first area of expertise. I jumped at the chance to set a scene there, using both old memories and information from a more recent visit. I set a scene in a club for retired KGB officers that’s based on a real place, a place I was invited to. Few Westerners have ever been in there, and I was delighted to be able to write something based on the experience.

It’s been great to see these books have such a long life, and find their way to readers in both audio and print formats. I’m glad to have been involved, and I hope they’ll send readers to other works by all the authors who participated.
 

Nick Heller and WikiLeaks

Read a short story in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal. Nick Heller tries to stop a WikiLeaks employee from publishing classified photos in Waiting for the Train to Minsk.

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