Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The genesis of a short story

One question I get asked all the time is "Where do you get your ideas?" Usually by people that have read some of my darker stuff, and usually as they glance around uneasily, trying to remain casual while they map out an escape route while trying not to be too obvious about it.

You might think it would be an easy question to answer, but just the opposite is true. Many of the stories I write started out going one way before being hijacked by the characters or the situations, and moving off in an entirely new direction, with me simply scrambling to keep up. Sometimes they start out as snippets of song lyrics, or snatches of overheard conversation, less often they're inspired by news stories or personal experiences.
The one thing they usually have in common is that when I'm done, they rarely resemble what I envisioned when I started.

Every once in a while, though, the genesis of a story is perfectly clear. My story in the latest issue of Needle Magazine, "The Ticket," is a perfect example.

You may or may not know - or care, for that matter - that in my second job (AKA, The One That Pays The Bills) I am employed by the FAA as an air traffic controller. It's a job I've been doing for nearly thirty years, and one which I enjoy, because it keeps my interest while I'm working position, and especially because it affords me a fair amount of time to devote to writing while on my breaks, away from the radar scopes.

About a year-and-a-half ago, one of my coworkers took a few days off suddenly. Why? He was celebrating winning half a million bucks on a lottery scratch ticket! I'm not the most knowledgeable gambler in the world (Buy me a beer if we ever meet up and I'll tell you my Las Vegas slot machine story - I guarantee you can't top it for sheer embarrassment value), but I had no freaking clue you could win that much on a scratch ticket.

I don't play them very often, maybe three or four times a year at the most, and probably the biggest jackpot I've ever scratched off is five bucks. My daughter won $75 on a scratch ticket a couple of years ago and I was blown away by that. So when I heard this guy had won five hundred grand I immediately thought two things:

1 - That lucky bastard, why couldn't it have been me? and,

2 - How can I use this in a story?

Or maybe it was the other way around, I can't really remember. Anyway, out of that serendipitous event, "The Ticket" was born. Beyond the circumstances of the jackpot - a scratch ticket - there's not really any resemblance between the real-life event and the story.

I embellished the jackpot amount in "The Ticket," figuring if a half-million dollar scratch ticket was cool, a million would be even cooler, and in my story the air traffic controller suddenly became a guilt-ridden gangland enforcer who views his unexpected windfall as the perfect opportunity to leave his old life behind and go straight. Unfortunately, his sense of timing sucks, and he scratches the ticket in the presence of his boss, Fat Tony Filichiccia, who decides he deserves a cut, too.

How my lottery winner works out his dilemma is something you'll have to buy Needle to find out. I can tell you my coworker didn't have to go through anything close to what my character does. Unless his wife is particularly greedy.

And that's the genesis of a story.

Strange but true addendum: About a year later, the same coworker won another hundred grand. On, you guessed it, a scratch ticket.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Interview with bestselling author Robert Browne

"I wouldn’t want to drop dead and leave behind a manuscript full of holes."

It's always interesting to me to discover the different routes authors take to publication. In the case of Robert Browne, this meant chucking a career writing screenplays to sit down half a decade ago and pound out his first novel, KISS HER GOODBYE, on nothing but faith.

Four more novels have followed, each garnering sales and acclaim, including Browne's latest release, THE PARADISE PROPHECY, which for my money qualifies as the thriller of the year.

In addition to being a kick-ass writer, Rob's extremely approachable and a truly nice guy. If you're not familiar with his work, you need to change that, and as soon as possible.

He agreed to wire himself up to my lie detector and answer every ruthless question I threw his way. Here is the result:

Your background is in writing screenplays. What possessed you to leave an established career and embark on another path as a novelist, when you had no clue whether you would be successful? Did you just wake up one day and decide to write a book?

Well, the first mistake is assuming it was an established career. I had been knocking around Hollywood for over a decade taking pitch meetings, doing the dance, but after a sale to Showtime and several close encounters that fell through at the very last moment—as is typical of Hollywood—I found myself writing cartoons like Diabolik and Spider-Man. Not that this wasn’t fun and fairly lucrative, but it just wasn’t what I had envisioned for myself.

Ever since I was thirteen years old I had wanted to write a novel. I had a few aborted attempts in the drawer, but figured at my advanced age it was time to do or die. So I sat down and wrote KISS HER GOODBYE, never believing for a moment that it wouldn’t sell. I don’t know why I felt that way, but fortunately, I was right.

Along those lines, I picture authoring a screenplay as being a much more collaborative process than authoring a novel. Is that the case, and did that play any part in your career change?

There are pluses and minuses to collaboration. When I was writing cartoons, I collaborated with a great guy and showrunner named Larry Brody. Brody and I hit it off and became friends and the collaborative process was great. He plotted and outlined the stories, I wrote the scripts, adding dialogue, etc. We were both, essentially, doing what the other guy didn’t want to do, so it worked out well.

With movies, the collaborative process can be great until you disagree. Then screenwriters are fired and replaced. They’re disposable. Most screenwriters understand this going in, however.

The only thing that really played a part in the career change was the desire to finally sit my butt down and write what I’d always wanted to write: novels.

Would you ever consider returning to your screenwriting roots?

Sure. I enjoy writing screenplays. I also think they’re relatively easy to write. Certainly a lot easier than novels. For me, at least. When the pilot for KISS HER GOODBYE was shot for CBS, the producers asked if I was interested in writing any episodes if it went to series. Any guesses what my answer was?

Your latest novel, THE PARADISE PROPHECY, is a sweeping supernatural thriller that takes the reader on an adventure through the centuries and around the world. Having read it, the book strikes me as potentially career-defining. Do you agree, and did you originally intend for THE PARADISE PROPHECY to be such an ambitious project?

The Paradise Prophecy was not really a book I had planned to write. It came about through conversations with Dutton, in a discussion about the ultimate bad guys. The fallen angels from Milton’s Paradise seemed to fit the bill and it took off from there.

The funny thing is, I was slowly gravitating away from doing supernatural stuff and suddenly here I was writing a book that’s more supernatural than anything else I’ve ever written. A big, rousing epic about angels and demons and a conspiracy to destroy the world.

You told me once that you spend as much time as it takes to make your work as clean as possible on the first go-around, and rarely write more than one draft. This is exactly opposite how I write, so I find it fascinating. Did you really write a book as complex as THE PARADISE PROPHECY in a single draft, and if so, how long did it take to complete?

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t think THE PARADISE PROPHECY is all that complex. Complex emotions, maybe, a lot of history and intersecting storylines, but if you step back and look at it, the story is pretty straightforward.

But Paradise is the exception to my usual rule, because it took two drafts. I wrote the first one is four months and wasn’t happy with it. And when I turned it in, I knew my editor would request changes. It was great to have his objectivity, because I went back and spent another four months completely rewriting the second half of the book. I had the story down, but what I needed was more historical and emotional depth—and I worked hard to include that.

And when I say draft, by the way, a draft for me is probably about ten drafts for someone else. I don’t leave a scene or a chapter until I’ve rewritten it a dozen or more times and feel it’s ready for the printing press. My mother always told me to wear underwear without holes, to avoid embarrassment in case of an accident. I guess I took that advice to heart. I wouldn’t want to drop dead and leave behind a manuscript full of holes.

I read on your website that Batty and Callahan will be returning in future books, making this your first series after authoring four stand-alone novels. Can you drop any hints as to where the reluctant partners will be heading next?

If and when they do return, I’m sure it will be to explore some of the things left open in the first book. Like the mysterious D.C. connection. But it’s all up in the air at this point. I won’t put a word to paper until I feel I have an idea that warrants it.

Can you name some of the authors who have influenced you as a writer? When did you know you wanted to devote your life to the written word?

The two writers who have influenced me most are William Goldman and Donald Westlake. I read a Westlake novel when I was thirteen and was so enthralled that I immediately knew this was what I wanted to do for a living. Tell stories. A few years later I read MARATHON MAN by Goldman and was completely blown away. If you compare my style of writing to either of theirs, you’ll definitely see the influence.

Hypothetical situation #1: You are marooned on a desert island, but before your ship sinks, you can grab any one book of your choosing. What book would that be, and why?

I’m going to cheat and say it would be my Kindle, with several books on it by my favorite authors like Westlake, Goldman, McBain and Donald Hamilton—to name just a few.

Hypothetical situation #2: You are given a choice by the Gods of Publishing. Your books can either bring you tremendous monetary wealth or they can be universally acclaimed as outstanding by the critics. Which do you choose, and why?

The money. Critical acclaim doesn’t pay the mortgage.

While I do enjoy reading a good review, I honestly couldn’t care less what the critics think. The only reviews I’m interested in are reader reviews. There’s nothing more satisfying than an email from someone who responds positively to your work. If I can give to them what my favorite authors have given to me, I’ll be a happy man.

I do care about money, however. Quite a bit.

What are you reading right now? What’s next on your “To Be Read” list?

Right now I’m reading OBSESSION by Debra Webb, which hasn’t been released yet. Next on my list is THE HYPNOTIST by Lars Kepler, which I’ve heard good things about.

Thanks very much for taking the time to visit A Thrill a Minute. Any last words of wisdom you’d like to share with my thousands hundreds dozens handful of readers?

Words of wisdom would require me to be wise. But the truth is, I’m just struggling to figure it all out like everyone else—especially with the rapid and radical changes the publishing industry is facing right now.

I’ll let you know if I succeed.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

I'm on Twitter and the world will never be the same

A couple of years ago, in July of 2009 to be precise, I wrote a blog post in which I questioned why in the hell I would ever join the Twitter craze. "Why would anyone care what I've eaten for lunch?" I wondered.

I still wonder that, especially since I often just have black coffee for lunch. I admit it, my diet is horrendous, but my point is this: What could be more boring? What's kind of funny about that post, though, is that in it I said, "Maybe the light bulb will go on with me someday, typically a couple of years after everyone else, and I will begin tweeting like mad, updating my thousands of followers on every facet of my fascinating existence."

Well guess what, folks? That day has arrived, roughly two years later, as I so presciently predicted back in July, '09.

That's right, I'm now broadcasting live on Twitter, @AllanLeverone, allowing my thousands hundreds dozens of followers to learn my every waking thought, from what I'm having for lunch (again, coffee, probably) to the latest review of one of my books (but only if it's a good one, probably), to whether I have any chance at all of getting that suddenly available Red Sox managing job (not freaking likely).

As I said at the end of that post two years ago, "...maybe I'll get the attraction of Twitter in a few years. When I do, watch out; you're going to learn my every waking thought. Yikes."

All I can say is I apologize, because here it comes.

But if you'd like to be on the cutting edge of learning about my coffee addiction or being among the first to know when I have a new book coming out (hint: it might be sooner than you think), I invite you to follow me and if you do, I'll likely follow you back.

Every once in a while I get a flash of inspiration and actually say something interesting. And you can always ignore all my other tweets.