Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Social Hack

  By Daniel Palmer

I start every new book project by searching for a big idea to ground the narrative. With DELIRIOUS I wrote about schizophrenia, while in HELPLESS the topic was sexting. With my third novel, STOLEN, I decided to write about computer hackers; more specifically, I wanted to write a story about identity theft. 

Only, I didn’t want to write a book where the bad guy steals the good guy’s identity and madcap trouble ensues. I think that’s been done enough and with mixed results. What interested me more was the idea of a good person making a bad decision by stealing another person’s identity.

Here’s the story problem: it’s hard to root for a criminal. For my protagonist to be a good person he needed a compelling reason for committing his crime. I was stuck a bit here, searching for inspiration the way a fisherman might chum the water looking for a catch.

As it turned out, inspiration found me.

It all began when I needed a new health insurance plan for my family.

What I soon discovered was a maddening system of policy options more numerous than the precious stones in the Crown of Queen Elizabeth. With each new tier of coverage came new services, enticing new benefits, all of which (surprise, surprise) came with added costs. I began to wonder, what if (most of my story work begins with those two words, what if) a young couple just starting out bought cut-rate health insurance and one of them got very sick?

They would need to raise a lot of capital or go bankrupt, that’s what. Sure, they could tap into friends and family, but what if the costs of care exceeded hundreds of thousands of dollars? What if after they explored every possible avenue, turned over every life-giving rock, this lovely couple was forced to settle for some drug, and not the best drug for treatment?

As the saying goes, desperate times might call for desperate measures. In the case of STOLEN, it’s motivation enough for John Bodine, the protagonist of my tale, to engage in identity theft for the purpose of committing medical fraud.

Here, I came to my next obstacle. I needed to know how one might go about stealing an identity. The process of writing, I’ve discovered, is overcoming one obstacle after the other until there is no more tale to tell.

After a bit of Google searching, mostly about computer hacking, using keywords I’m sure placed me on somebody’s naughty list at the FBI or NSA, I stumbled on a convention in Las Vegas put on by, and almost exclusively for, computer hackers. The conference is called Def Con®. When I attended last August, 25,000 computer hacker types converged on the Rio Hotel for three days of mischievous computing fun. Def Con has no age requirement, but it is clearly an adult event. Goons (yes, that is their official name) run security for a conference that, at its soul, is all about breaking security.

For the record, as a first time attendee I was considered a “n00b”, which is Def Con lingo for newbie. Many attendees shunned given names for handles like Dark Tangent (he’s the founder of Def Con), Lost, Ripshy. and Dr. Tran. My hacker handle, which I bestowed upon myself, was 1Z8N (get it? ISBN). I haven’t used it since.

I spent my time at Def Con living the Vegas life, and by that I mean I never saw the sun. When I wasn’t attending a workshop about breaking wireless encryption keys, or listening to a lecture on the joys of hacking Excel, or watching a light and breezy presentation about the operational use of offensive cyber warfare, I was chatting up the hackers, looking for insights into how they think, feel, and plan for a hack. I saw lots of examples of hands-on-hacking and even a massive room dedicated to different hacking competitions—an ignoble digital Olympiad of sorts.

The conference was good fun, but my personal payoff came when I attended a live demonstration of social engineering. Social engineering, I learned, is nothing more than the con artistry of manipulating people into performing actions or divulging confidential information. The technique exploits a weakness in one of humanity’s greatest strengths: our inherent desire and ability to trust. I sat in the audience slack-jawed, watching a hacker seated in a soundproof booth work his telephone magic.

Two minutes into the call I got the sense this was who Sade had in mind when she wrote her hit song “Smooth Operator.” I believed him, and yet I was watching him lie to the unsuspecting person on the other end of the phone. He was talking to an employee from a major airline. In the span of ten minutes, he learned what version of the Windows operating system airline employees used. He obtained this highly useful (at least useful to hackers) data point by pretending to be an airline IT manager conducting a survey as part of his job. He was chatty, pleasant, and utterly believable. His mark never questioned his credentials or motive.

IT experts have spent countless billions beefing up their computer security infrastructure. They’ve brought in meatier computers, state-of-the-art virus protection software, firewalls, and various tools of the trade to keep the hackers out. What they can’t upgrade are the people who work in their call centers. This weakness can’t be fixed with code or by upgrading to a smarter model. People will do what people will do.

When a hacker gets a customer service representative on the telephone—or even better, a salesperson who thinks money is on the line—common sense vanishes like a reality star’s fame, and the real magic happens. It’s the moment a dedicated employee becomes the unwitting accomplice of a hack.

At last, I knew how my character was going to steal an identity. He was going to use social engineering to commit medical fraud to save his dying wife. You’ll have to read the book to see just how he pulls it off. Unfortunately for my well-intentioned albeit misguided hero, he unwittingly steals the worst identity imaginable.  For new writers out there, what’s most relevant is how I arrived at this story. So let’s review the key points:

1.      Come up with a big idea to ground your narrative. For STOLEN it was identity theft.

2.      Always have a good “What If” question. I keep mine to a max of 28 words, two sentences at most. Write it many times, revise it, and make sure it’s tight.

3.      Writing is about overcoming obstacles. Your characters have to do it, so it makes sense the writer has to do it as well. When you don’t have the information you need, seek it out and often what you find will shape your story in unexpected ways. Sometimes you can’t get what you need from the glorious Internet. Sometimes you have to leave the house and get out into the big real world.

Stolen was published in early May 2013 from Kensington.

Daniel Palmer spent a decade as an e-commerce pioneer, helping to build first generation Web sites for Barnes & Noble and other popular brands. 

Daniel’s three novels of domestic suspense, DELIRIOUS, HELPLESS & STOLEN, explore the hidden dangers and vulnerabilities of an increasingly tech-centric world. Daniel lives in New Hampshire with his wife and two children.

Connect with Daniel:

Web site

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Adding Suspense, Tension and Intrigue to Your Story

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

All genres of fiction, not just thrillers and action-adventures, need tension, suspense, and intrigue to keep readers eagerly turning the pages. And of course, you’ll need to ratchet up the tension and suspense a lot more if you’re writing a fast-paced, nail-biting page-turner.

Some “Big-Picture” Techniques for Adding Suspense:
~ First, make your readers care about your protagonist by creating a likeable, appealing, strong, smart and resourceful but vulnerable character, with some inner conflict. If readers haven’t bonded with your main character, they won’t care what happens to him or her.
~ Create a cunning, frightening villain. Your villain needs to be as clever, determined and resourceful as your protagonist – or even more so. Make him a serious force to be reckoned with!
~ Threaten your protagonist. Now that your readers care about your main character, insert a major threat or dilemma within the first chapter that won’t be resolved until the end. Create an over-riding sentence about this to keep in mind as you’re writing your story: Will (name) survive/stop/find/overcome (difficulty/threat)?
~ Establish a sense of urgency, a tense mood, and generally fast pacing. Unlike cozy mysteries and other more leisurely genres, thrillers and other suspense fiction generally need a tense mood and fast pacing throughout most of the novel, with short “breathers” in between the tensest scenes.
~ Show, don’t tell. Show all your critical scenes in real time, with action, reaction, and dialogue. Show your character’s inner feelings and physical and emotional reactions. Don’t have one character tell another about an important event or scene.
~ Use multiple viewpoints, especially that of the villain. For increased anxiety and suspense, get us into the head of your antagonist from time to time. This way the readers find out critical information the heroine doesn’t know, things we want to warn her about!
~ Keep the story momentum moving forward. Don’t get bogged down in backstory or exposition. Keep the action moving ahead, especially in the first chapter. Then work in background details and other info little by little, on an “as-needed” basis only, through dialogue or flashbacks.
~ Create a mood of unease by showing the main character feeling apprehensive about something or someone or by showing some of the bad guy’s thoughts and intentions. 

~ Add in tough choices and moral dilemmas. Devise ongoing difficult decisions and inner conflict for your lead character. Besides making your plot more suspenseful, this will also make your protagonist more complex, vulnerable, and interesting.
~ Withhold information. Don’t tell your readers too much too soon. Dole out information little by little, to tantalize readers and keep them wondering. Keep details of the past of both your protagonist and antagonist hidden, and hint at critical, life-altering experiences they’ve had that are impacting their present goals, desires, fears, etc. Add one tiny detail after another as you go along, or maybe a short flashback here and there.

~ Delay answers to critical plot questions. Look for places in your story where you’ve answered readers’ questions too soon, so have missed a prime spot to increase tension and suspense. Draw out the time before answering that question. In the meantime, hint at it from time to time to remind readers of its importance.

~ Use dramatic irony. This is where your readers know something critical and scary that the protagonist is not aware of. For example, your heroine is relaxing after a stressful day, unaware that the killer is prying open her basement window.
~ Add a ticking clock. Adding time pressure is another excellent way to increase suspense.
~ Use the setting to establish the mood and create suspense. This is the equivalent of ominous music, harsh lighting, strange camera angles, or nasty weather in a scary movie.
~ Use compelling, vivid sensory imagery to take us right there, with the protagonist, vividly experiencing and reacting to whoever/whatever is challenging or threatening her. And appeal to all five senses, not just the visual.
~ Put some tension in every scene. There should be something unresolved in every scene. Your character enters the scene with an objective and encounters obstacles in the scene, so she is unable to reach her goals.
~ Vary the tension. But of course, you can’t keep up tension nonstop, as it’s tiring for readers and will eventually numb them. It’s best to intersperse tense, nail-biting scenes with a few more leisurely, relaxed scenes that provide a bit of reprieve before the next tense, harrowing scene starts.
~ Use brief flashbacks at key moments to reveal your main character’s childhood traumas, unpleasant events, secrets, emotional baggage, hangups, dysfunctional family, etc.
~ Keep raising the stakes. Keep asking yourself, “How can I make things worse for the protagonist?” As the challenges get more difficult and the obstacles more insurmountable, readers worry more and suspense grows.
~ Plan a few plot twists. Readers are surprised and delighted when the events take a turn they never expected. Don’t let your readers become complacent, thinking it’s easy to figure out the ending, or they may stop reading.
Do you have any other techniques for building suspense to add to this list?

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, with the updated, expanded edition now available in e-book and paperback on Amazon; and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER, available in paperback, for Kindle, and in other e-book formats.

For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

New Debut Authors - New Releases

While we feature new releases from debut authors on the first Thursday in every month, sometimes people don't join until after their book has launched into the reading world. The social media team put our heads together, brainstorming ways we could continue to support our members, and decided to do a twice a year "catch up" post. This post features releases from Debut Authors whose book released during the first half of the year.

Let's celebrate their accomplishments!

Lisa von Biela - The Genesis Code (DarkFuse) April 29, 2013

Obedience and submission…uploaded directly to the brain…

When Mark Weston is hired by OneMarket, the prestigious and premier supplier of global equity trading systems, owned by international business tycoon Simon Harris, he thinks he's found his dream job. Great pay, amazing benefits—and sure, the hours are long and the demands on his time are often extreme—but it means financial security for him and his wife Sheila, a new life and a new beginning, a fast track to success with a great company.

But deep within the walls of the enigmatic OneMarket, there is something unthinkable happening that only a select few are aware of, the development of a new kind of invasive technology dubbed THE GENESIS CODE, that could not only expand Simon Harris' empire, but create a new, more efficient and obedient workforce. Mark and his coworkers have unknowingly become part of a horrifying experiment they may never be able to escape, and time is running out.

A new kind of worker…a new kind of hybrid…a new kind of corporate slave…

Leslie Borghini - Angel Heat  (Suspense Publishing) February 18, 2013

The two most powerful entities in the universe have a meeting, and it does not go well. The fate of all humanity is at stake. God and Lucifer remain at odds on how best to deal with mankind. 

While the Prince of Darkness’ minions continue to do his bidding, Heavenly angels have their own agenda. Only seven days remain before all life on Earth will be extinguished. Angels, witches, and demons must somehow set aside their differences and join forces to save the planet. Going against their masters, they struggle to save all of creation from a fiery destruction. God, who is frustrated and has lost faith in humanity, and the Father of Lies, who sees only opportunity, come to blows, and a powerful witch becomes the unlikely key to mankind’s survival. Lines between good and evil become blurred in a frightening tale of horror and betrayal, love and redemption. When neither God nor the Devil can foresee the outcome, what hope is there for the human race?

 “Angel Heat” is a roller coaster ride through Heaven and Hell, and readers are given a seven-day pass to buckle up and hold on for dear life.

Marjorie Brody - Twisted (Bell Bridge Books) March 20, 2013

Timid fourteen-year-old Sarah Hausman wants her controlling mother to stop prying into what happened the night of the freshman dance. Confess to the police? No way. Confide in her mother? Get real. The woman is too busy, too proud, and jealous of Sarah to really care if her life disintegrates. Besides, her mother will say Sarah is totally to blame for what the boys did--which Sarah believes is true. So she doubly needs to shield the truth. Not just from Momma. But from everyone. Including herself.

Beautiful, confident, eighteen-year-old Judith Murielle lives the ideal life. She has college plans, respect from family and friends, and a fiancé she adores. But as a mysterious connection pulls her toward Sarah, Judith's perfect world unravels. Acting as Sarah's sole confidante, Judith gains the power to expose her secret. Will the truth be worth the sacrifice? Or will Sarah stop at nothing to keep Judith quiet?

Sarah Castille - Legal Heat  (Samhain Publishing) April 2013

Katy Sinclair made it to the brink of partnership at her high-powered law firm with hard work, dogged determination, and the ruthless self-discipline to cultivate a conservative public image. But when she follows an evasive witness into a sex club, she can’t deny herself a red-hot sexual encounter with the seductive bartender who sets her body on fire. She’s sure no one will ever know about her indiscretion—until she walks into the courtroom to find her dirty little secret is the opposing counsel in the most important case of her career.

As the managing partner in a struggling law firm, hot-shot attorney Mark Richards can’t afford any mistakes that might cost him his biggest client. Like getting involved with his beautiful, determined opponent—the mystery woman he hasn’t been able to forget. But when Katy’s quest for justice leads to death threats, Mark will sacrifice everything to protect her.

Now they’re risking their hearts…and their lives…in a race to catch a killer. Little do they know, the greatest danger lies closer to home.

Warning: This book contains explicit sex, light bondage, violence, murder, steamy shenanigans in the courtroom, naughty sexytimes in the boardroom, and an exceptionally hot hero with a versatile tie. Any objections will be overruled.

Linda Stasi - The Sixth Station (Forge Books) January 22, 2013

Some say Demiel ben Yusef is the world’s most dangerous terrorist, personally responsible for bombings and riots that have claimed the lives of thousands. Others insist he is a man of peace, a miracle worker, and possibly even the Son of God. His trial in New York City for crimes against humanity attracts scores of protestors, as well as media and religious leaders from around the world. 
Cynical reporter Alessandra Russo heads to the UN hoping for a piece of the action, but soon becomes entangled in controversy and suspicion when ben Yusef singles her out for attention among all other reporters. As Alessandra begins digging into ben Yusef’s past, she is already in more danger than she knows—and when she is falsely accused of murder during her investigation, she is forced to flee New York.
On the run from unknown enemies, Alessandra finds herself on the trail of a global conspiracy and a story that could shake the world to its foundations. Is Demiel ben Yusef the Second Coming or the Antichrist? The truth may lie in the secret history of the Holy Family, a group of Templars who defied the church, and a mysterious relic stained with the sacred blood of Christ Himself.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

June Debut Releases

It's the first week in June and that means new debut releases. 

Please take a look and let’s celebrate their success!

Piper Bayard - Firelands (Stonehouse Ink) June 2013

Eighty years in the future, America has devolved into a totalitarian theocracy. The ruling Josephites clone the only seeds that grow in the post-apocalyptic climate, allowing their Prophet to control who eats, who starves, and who burns in the ritual fires that atone society.

Subsisting on the fringes, Archer risks violation and death each day as she scours the forest for game to feed her people. When a Josephite refugee seeks sanctuary in her home, Archer is driven to chance a desperate gamble. A gamble that will bring down the Prophet and deliver seeds and freedom, or end in a fiery death for herself and for everyone she loves.

Seeds are life . . . Seeds are power . . . Seeds are the only hope of a despairing people. What will Archer do for the seeds of freedom, and what will she justify in their name?  

Alan Lee - Sandstorm (Forge Books) June 4, 2013

Lurking in the shadows, away from any government oversight, a secret partnership has been formed between an Israeli spymaster pulling the strings of the most efficient killing machine the Mossad has to offer and an exclusive billionaire boys club that wants to dictate the New World Order. In their pocket is a powerful U.S. senator who aspires to the presidency. 

Success means vast wealth and increased power, and they’ll stop at nothing to succeed.
CIA operative Nora Mossa is trained to kill when the situation calls for it. She’s also capable of disappearing into thin air. Being efficient, deadly, and beautiful, however, won’t be enough to protect her after her mentor Erica Janway is assassinated in her Maryland home. With everyone in the Agency suspect, Nora turns to the only person capable of keeping her alive while she uncovers the truth behind Janway’s demise—her former lover and ex–CIA agent Alex Koves. That is, if he will even speak to her.

With danger lurking in every corner of the globe, Koves and Nora must stay alive long enough to piece together the clues to a deadly plot capable of killing thousands in the Middle East. And the clock is ticking….

Mary Louise Kelly - Anonymous Sources (Simon & Schuster Digital Sales Inc) June 18, 2013

An intriguing thriller from a former NPR correspondent about a reporter who must match wits with spies, assassins and a terrorist cell targeting the very heart of American power.

Alexandra James, devoted reporter for the New England Chronicle, is attractive, exceptionally smart, and used to getting what she wants. When she is assigned to cover the death of a Harvard student, the whirlwind investigation takes her from Harvard Yard to the courtyards of Cambridge, England, to a clandestine rendezvous in London, to the inside of a nuclear terrorist network.

But nothing is what it seems. Alex the hunter soon becomes Alex the hunted. An assassin is dispatched...Her laptop disappears...Her phone is tapped...And Alex begins to grasp that the Harvard man may have been killed to hide a terrifying conspiracy within the White House itself. Former NPR Intelligence correspondent Mary Louise Kelly has turned her own real-life reporting adventures into fiction with this stylish spy thriller.

Kristen Kittscher - The Wig in the Window (Harper Collins) June 18, 2013

Best friends and seventh graders Sophie Young and Grace Yang have made a game out of spying on their neighbors. On one of their midnight stakeouts, they witness a terrifying, bloody scene at the home of their bizarre middle-school counselor Dr. Charlotte Agford (also known as Dr. Awkward).
At least, they think they do. The truth is that Dr. Agford was only making her famous pickled beets. But when Dr. Agford begins acting even weirder than usual, Sophie and Grace become convinced that she’s hiding something—and they’re determined to find out what it is.
Soon the girls are breaking secret codes, being followed by a strange blue car, and tailing strangers with unibrows and Texas accents. But as their investigation heats up, Sophie and Grace start to crack under the pressure. Will solving the case destroy their friendship?

Robert Rotstein - Corrupt Practices (Seventh Street Books) June 4, 2013

A Los Angeles church, considered by some to be a powerful cult, charges Rich Baxter with embezzling millions. Rich reaches out to former colleague and star trial attorney Parker Stern to come to his defense. Parker despises the cult, but he hasn’t entered a courtroom since developing severe stage fright after his mentor, Harmon Cherry, committed suicide. Rich claims that Cherry did not kill himself—he was murdered by someone connected to the church. At first, Parker doesn’t believe it… until disturbing events force him to question what’s really happening.

As the case takes an unexpected turn, Parker surprises himself and agrees to take on the church. But to represent his client and uncover the truth he must overcome his own long-buried secrets.