Writing Tips

Page 1 of 812345...Last »

10 Clichés and Misconceptions about the FBI

This is an an excerpt of an original article. For the full post or podcast episode, click here.

On my podcast — FBI Retired Case File Review — I've conducted more than 50 interviews with my former FBI colleagues about the high-profiled cases they worked while on the job. In almost every interview, one of us comments about some aspect of the case or an investigative method that has been portrayed in books, TV and movies as a cliché or inaccuracy. With the recent major hit on the FBI’s reputation because of issues related to the election, a transparent look at the real FBI is needed more than ever, don’t you think?

1. There Are Teams of FBI Profilers Hunting Serial Killers. Currently, there are approximately 13,500 FBI agents, and I can assure you that 99.9% of them are not hunting serial killers. There is a team of profilers in the Behavioral Analysis Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico. But at any given time, there are only 15 to 20 full-time special agent profilers assigned to the BAU, and they work on developing criminal profiles for people accused of all of kinds of violations. The primary goal of criminal investigative analysis is to examine the behavioral information submitted to the unit and provide advice to the requesting agency, rather than actual investigative process.

2. The FBI Doesn't Play Well with Others. How many books have you read where a local detective or sheriff is working on a case and the FBI shows up and is rude and condescending? That storyline has been portrayed for so long that it’s self-perpetuating. In real life, FBI agents meeting local law enforcement for the first time often have to deal with those stereotypes and the resulting resentment and suspicion. Agents respect and value the contributions other agencies bring to the table and strive to maintain collaborative relationships with all law enforcement partners.

3. There is One Central Database. Believe me, it is impossible to type in a person’s name into a database and have everything ever known about that person pop up a few minutes later. The National Computer Information Center is an electronic clearinghouse of crime data, but its records are only as up-to-date as the numerous agencies responsible for making submissions. An endless number of databases must be searched to get a somewhat full and complete profile on an individual. It could take an analyst days if not weeks to gather a comprehensive file on a subject.

4. FBI Agents Work for Federal Prosecutors. The FBI is its own entity. In some, local municipalities, detectives are assigned to the district attorney’s office and work under the direction of an assistant DA. But in the federal system, the FBI investigates and the United States Attorney’s Office prosecutes. Now, before an agent goes too far into a complicated matter, he may consult the USAO for an opinion on the prosecutorial merit of a case.

5. All FBI Agents Work on Task Forces. To the contrary, for most violations, agents work alone. They’ll team up with a squad mate for corroboration or safety concerns; however, the FBI requires agents to assume an almost entrepreneurial ownership of their cases. Agents must figure out the manpower and resources needed, and there’s no one standing over them checking on their daily progress. Every 90 days the squad supervisor reviews the agents’ case files, looking for documentation that they are pulling their weight.

6. FBI Senior Executives Are Out in the Field. FBI management does not go out in the field to participate in searches or arrests. The last place the Director of the FBI, an ADIC (assistant director in charge), a SAC (special agent in charge), or an assistant special agent in charge (ASAC) wants to be is in the field. What if something goes wrong? The name of the game in moving up the ladder in the FBI is plausible deniability.

7. Agents Use Intimidation and Threats during Interrogations. The appropriate FBI term is "interview," not "interrogation," and agents prefer to rely on their charm and skills of persuasion, not force, to convince subjects and witnesses to cooperate. In most instances, adversarial confrontations are avoided, because in addition to conducting interviews, agents are always looking to develop informants.

8. FBI Agents Are Perfect and Never Get in Trouble. This one is kind of true. For the most part, we leave bad behavior to the Secret Service (just joking). Unfortunately, a few FBI agents have made some serious mistakes and boneheaded transgressions. But, there is a saying in the FBI – “Don’t embarrass the Bureau” and the core belief that behavior of each special agent is a direct reflection of the agency. It’s expected that everything an FBI agent says and does will project a positive image and mirror the viewpoint of the “front office.”

9. Agents Have No Sense of Humor. FBI agents are assigned to squads based on related violations. Because of the often-dangerous mission and the long hours, squad members develop close personal relationships. Practical jokes are pulled on a frequent basis. A common prank is when an agent leaves his credentials out on his desk and his official ID photo is covered with a photo of, say, Mickey Mouse or Homer Simpson. FBI agents take their jobs seriously, but not necessarily themselves.

10. All FBI Agents Are White Males. While recent books, TV shows, and movies portray the FBI as a highly diverse organization, approximately 70 percent of special agents are white males. However, the FBI agents workforce does include women (20%), minorities (17%), and individuals of different religions and sexual orientations. All law enforcement agencies should reflect the population they serve, and the FBI is actively recruiting more minorities to apply. Black women account for only 1 percent of the special agent workforce, so I’m always in recruitment mode. If you or someone you know meets the qualifications, please consider applying for the Special Agent position.

—Jerri Williams

Jerri Williams, a retired FBI agent, author and podcaster, attempts to relive her glory days by writing crime fiction and hosting FBI Retired Case File Review, a true crime podcast available for subscription on iTunes and Stitcher. Her debut novel—Pay to Playabout a female agent investigating corruption in the Philadelphia strip club industry is available now.

The Shadow Knows: The Secret of Chiaroscuro Writing

Way back in 1930 the biggest show on the air — the radio air that is — was a show that started with the chilling refrain, “Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men? The shadow knows . . . ”

Secrets are the dark side of our portraits. First, the Dutch Masters created this nuance in oil, and later photographers recreated it on film. What they discovered was that showing less light on one side of the face or subject, brings out depth and dimension. It’s how they created the realism of a three-dimensional image when, as you know, the paintings or film were two-dimensional rectangles. They call it “modeling.” It makes a picture more interesting, less flat.

In writing, characters need shadow too. And for the same reason: to make them more interesting. Only in this case,  the shadow must come from within the character, not from external shading. The source of this darkness is usually the secrets a human shares with no one but themselves, the kinds of awful internal things that only self-love can abide. Call it the darker side of our humanity. Since without dark there can be no light, then it follows that there can be no enlightened humanity without the penumbra of our darkest inner thoughts. The literary opportunity here is that these very same secrets could also generate self-loathing.

Characters can be defined not only from what they love, admire, and respect, but also from what they fear, loathe, and hate. The most intimate of these are self-doubt, self-loathing or even self-hate. Often when a character conquers, masters, or gives in to this most personal fault, it becomes the climax of the character’s internal struggle. I believe this makes a character more human, memorable, and ultimately real.

In photography, contrast ratio is defined as how much light is employed against how much dark. In literary characters, how much light they emit is also a ratio between their secrets, baggage and internal weight – against their lighter natures. This is a very essential tool in deep character analysis. That analysis, by the way, is always best done after the character has taken form. In my opinion, these character elements should be discovered as you are writing your story and not pre-engineered into their DNA before you start to write. That way these foibles become more organic to the flow of the story and don’t stick out like —  “And now a word from the character building department.”

So, shading a character in prose is akin to utilizing “Rembrandt Lighting” in art, film, or photography. The ten-dollar word for this technique is “chiaroscuro,” which Merriam-Webster defines as: the quality of being veiled or partly in shadow. How many of us live behind a veil or know folks who are hiding some deep dark secret that is bending or shaping their personality. As an author, you may choose to reveal the secret(s) to the reader or not, but as a tool for having the character act and behave in a certain way, knowing this part of your character’s make up will guide you in SHADING or COLORING your character’s actions, reactions, and observations at any point in your story.

As in all things, too heavy a hand, too much obvious contrast, and our work, and our characters, start to look stagey, overdone. But the right balance of contrast and dimension, brought on by the shadow of secrets, will make our character’s inner struggle fit seamlessly into the canvas of the story.

—Tom Avitabile

Tom Avitabile is a senior v.p. in advertising, as well as a writer, director, and producer with numerous film and television credits. His recent trilogy of novels chronicle the exploits of Science Advisor to the President “Wild” Bill Hiccock. The first of this series, The Eighth Day, became a Barnes and Noble #1 bestseller. His latest hardcover novel, Give Us This Day, also became a number one best seller. 

How to Write When the World Is Too Much With You

Worried young woman at computer

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
—William Wordsworth

For me, the past few years have been tough ones on the writing front. I lost my editor and then my publisher. Lost my agent. My family had crisis after crisis and the political situation in the world today is not helping my mental state.  If that sounds familiar to you, maybe you, too, have struggled with how to write at all when your brain is “otherwise occupied” and how to imbue your characters with emotion when your own are wrung out.

Bad news: I don’t have all the answers.

Good news: I have a few suggestions that might help.

1) Consider how long the problem you’re facing will continue and whether there’s anything you can do about it. In the case of losing my publisher and agent, I sat down and considered what it meant. It was permanent, which was pretty chilling, but it also meant that I had the ability to try some new things. The family crises were more debilitating and there was nothing I could do about their emotional toll, but I managed to figure out a way to alleviate their physical toll.

2) If it's going to be a long road and you can’t fix it (major health crises in your family, politics, etc), see if you can schedule your way around stuff. For example, maybe you only write 3 days a week and give the others over to dealing with whatever is pressing on you. Think about what’s realistic for you in the situation and plan around it.

3) If the problem comes from the world around you, like politics, etc, download a program (I use Freedom) to block access to the internet to allow you to shut it out on the days you need to work. It’s okay. I promise. The good and the bad will both still be there  when you get back. If you’re the kind of person who can write half a day and concentrate on the things that worry you half a day, set up that kind of schedule. I can’t do it. I have to focus on one thing per day. (But I do allow myself to focus back on the distractions in the evening.)

4) Get out. Literally and figuratively. Walk outside for at least fifteen minutes. Come back inside, write for an hour, and go back out. You’ll feel better and you’ll give yourself time to process what’s going on in your manuscript while you walk.

5) Sometimes, even when the words just won’t come, you can still outline. Not a plotter? I recommend Rock Your Plot by Cathy Yardley. I have a brief review here. Can’t even plot? Try journaling or other forms of writing not related to your current work just to keep the habit of writing fluid.

How about you? Do you have any tips for writing when your brain won’t cooperate?

—Laura K. Curtis

Laura K. Curtis is the president of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America. She has written romance, romantic suspense, and crime fiction. She is currently working on a contemporary Gothic-style ghost story.

Panster vs. Plotter: The Definitive Answer

flying_pants-2“No one can write a book without an outline,” the New York Times #1 Bestselling author said to the assembled audience of mystery/thriller novelists, aspiring writers, and fans. There was not the slightest provisional hint in his tone. He was speaking ex cathedra. This was the first line of his papal encyclical on how to write a novel.

The interviewer tended to agree with him. Said that one could never get anywhere unless he (sic) knew his destination.

“And had a map to get there,” Mr. Smug Bestseller added.

I have 17 years of Catholic school education and an upbringing of excellent lessons in politeness from my parents and grandparents. I flew in the face of it all. I could not stay in my seat. From the last row in the auditorium, I stood, looking as good natured as ever, and striking a jocular, arms-akimbo pose, I called out the names E.L. Doctorow and John Fowles. And retook my seat.

Mr. Bestseller looked confused. Mr. Interviewer offered that E.L. Doctorow had said something about writing being like driving at night. I held my tongue while they continued to insist that no one could write a novel without a very detailed outline. They both accused “pantsers” of secretly writing outlines and just not admitting it.

How dare they accuse us pantsers of being either incapable or lying about not using outlines?

For those of you who don’t know the terms: In writing circles, a plotter is an author who writes an outline of the story before beginning to draft the scenes of the book. A pantser starts with a few ideas or characters and jumps right into telling the story without knowing exactly what is going to happen.

Outliners, not always with the above self-satisfied attitude, often say that their way is the right way. I have never heard a pantser say such a thing. At that conference, I did not shout out more than the two author names above. But I have been ruminating about this off and on ever since. Here is what I would have said had I been in a position to do so.

Okay, Mr. Interviewer and Mr. Smug Bestseller. You plotters need a map. We pantsers are the explorers, the mapmakers. We journey forth and draw the map as we go along. We trust that some of those dark alleys we wind up in have the potential of leading us to the most creative ideas we ever have.

Here is how I think we can put this subject to rest forever. The overriding most basic fact: Unless an author is telling the same old story, all novelists are pantsers when they start a book. How else could the plotters write an outline, except by pantsing their way to the end of the story? Answer me that!

Plotters begin by writing down, in shorthand, the story they are pantsing. When they are done, they use the result of their pantsing as an outline for fleshing out the story and making it into a book. Pansters do the same thing, except that we write in longhand from the beginning, so that when we are done, so is the book. One way is NOT better than the other. All writers have to find their own way to a process that yields a good book.

—Annamaria Alfieri

Originally published on Murder Is Everywhere.

MWA-NY Chapter President Emerita Annamaria Alfieri’s first novel, City of Silver, was named one of the best debut mysteries of the year by Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine. Her short stories have been published in Queens Noir and Sunshine Noir. She is the author of Blood Tango and two other historical mysteries set in South America as well as a new series set in East Africa in the early 20th century, beginning with Strange Gods. Its sequel, The Idol of Mombasa, was published this fall.

Page 1 of 812345...Last »