[These responses are from three writers, excerpted from THE SECRET MIRACLE, THE NOVELIST’S HANDBOOK, edited by Daniel Alarcon. Interesting, but very different]

DINAW MENGESTU: The hardest material is always the material that I fought and struggled to arrive at. There were chapters that I had spent months writing, that I had revised and edited until I thought they were nearly perfect. The problem, however, was that they no longer fit into the novel. They had no purpose, or in one case took the novel in a direction it could no longer sustain, so they had to be cut, or saved under a different name so I could always find them again, just in case.

MICHAEL CHABON: As much as possible. I love cutting. It hurts for a second but it immediately feels great afterward. You feel lighter, relieved of bad dreams and heavy burdens. 

I can watch two or three hundred pages go down the tubes with the equanimity of a lab assistant gassing a rat. 

ANNE ENRIGHT: Some evening, toward the end of the process, I drink a lot of whiskey and go through the damn thing with a red pen. The question, in the morning, is not what I have cut but what I have left in.  ###


Michael Connelly, the crime-mystery-thriller author, did it again. 

I’d already read twenty-nine of his books. Loved them all. But I hadn’t read The Late Show, published in 2017. Put it off, probably thinking,  save it for later,  know his  formula. It will be good, but let me read other stuff.

But, the book sat there,  an unspoken invitation. So, I opened the cover. Kidnapped me within six pages with an-all-too-familiar experience that left me as frustrated as the cops.

The two officers roll up on a call from a seventy-seven year old woman who received a fraud alert e-mail on her credit card, which is missing. Looks like it’s been stolen. Officer Renée Ballard tries to help the aged female in her fraud phone call followup, after the woman is stonewalled.

“The system only works if we catch the guy,” Ballard said. . .  .

“I am sorry,” the supervisor said. “I cannot help you without documentation from the courts. It is our protocol.”

“What’s your name?”

“My name is Irfan.”

“Where are you, Irfan?”

“How do you mean?”

“Are you in Mumbai? Delhi? Where?”

“I am in Mumbai, yes.”

“And that’s why you don’t give a shit. Because this guy’s never going to come into your house and steal your wallet in Mumbai. Thanks very much.”

Connelly’s protagonists can be cynical, weary, overworked, take short cuts, but they are trying to fight the good fight against long odds. They are in the arena, and I always respect that. 

One thing for sure, they are real, just like Connelly describes “out there” with his authentic, fast-paced detail. 



I am a big, big fan of Gillian Flynn. Her writing captivates and terrorizes with insights into the darker side of human nature, beyond any Hannibal Lecter.  I re-read her GONE GIRL three times and studied it to death, so to speak.

I had to digest her work SHARP OBJECTS, in a number of sessions. Too much reading at once would require swallowing a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor.

Anyhow, I came across this paragraph, remarkable for its smooth authenticity in breaking all the writing rules. You are supposed to be “in the head” of only one person in a chapter, or in a scene. If you present more than one character, it’s called “ head hopping”—a big no-no that leads to reader confusion. 

Here, Flynn head hops with a vengeance in story and dialogue. But, so well done. Camille is the female protagonist of the book, visiting Katie in her home town after the murder of two young girls.

     Katie Lacy Brucker didn’t seem to care why I was in her home this Friday morning. There was talk of a celebrity tell-all she was reading, and whether childrens’ beauty pageants were forever stigmatized by JonBenet. Mackenzie is just dying to model. Well she’s as pretty as her mother, who can blame her? Why, Camille, that’s sweet of you to say—I never felt like you thought I was pretty. Oh of course, don’t be silly. Would you like a drink? Absolutely.  We don’t keep liquor in the home. Of course, not what I meant at all. Sweet tea? Sweet tea is lovely, impossible to get in Chicago, you really miss the title regional goodies, you should see how they do their ham up there. So great to be home.


Len Deighton–spy thrillers.

Len Deighton—spy thrillers. Leiter Writing Tips
[writing as Ben Leiter]

This guy holds a top spot for being one of my favorite spy- thriller writers. Right up there with John LeCarré.

Not a writer. No training. Wrote like writing to a friend in 1st person. Read a lot before in his life. Made it all up. …likes the idea of making his readers “jump about: as they try to work out whether his characters are telling the truth, half-truths or downright lies.”

Excellent at building subtle conflict.
I really enjoy his first person point of view.
It’s easy to relate to his intelligence agent, series protagonist, Bernard Samson: middle-aged; worries about his job, his wife, the kids, and life. Knows there is something wrong in his marriage, but not quite sure what.

Sample excerpts:

“Fiona was very beautiful, especially when she smiled that sort of smile that women save for men who have lost their woman.”

“Beside the bed, my photo stared back at me from its silver frame. Bernard Sampson, a serious young man with baby face, wavy hair and horn-rimmed glasses looked nothing like the wrinkled old fool I shaved every morning.”“…he kept his voice flat, and contrived the casual offhand tone in which Englishmen prefer to discuss matters of life and death.”

“He liked clichés. They were, he said, the best way to get simple ideas into the heads of idiots.”

“Brett had spent his life in swivel chairs, arguing with dictating machines and smiling for committees.”

“…where Hitler had fought his last battles against marriage and the Red Army and, defeated by both Venus and Mars, blew out his troubled brains…”

“I am beginning to think that Christianity has a lot in common with Marxist-Leninism…God is dialectical materialism; Christ is Karl Marx; the Church is the Party, the elect is the proletariat, and the Second Coming is the Revolution.”

“The truth was that I didn’t know whether I loved her or not; all I knew was that I missed her dreadfully when I wasn’t with her. If that wasn’t love, I’d settle for it until love arrived.”

“All around me there were the “over” people: overanxious, overweight, overbearing, overeducated, overrated, overweening, overachieving, overselling, overspending, and overproducing.”

Eastern Europe had not yet discovered orthodontistry. With no proper elections to contest, its leaders did not need teeth and hair.”

“Anyone who’d read a history book could see that Hitler gained power by wooing the German middle classes while the communists disdained them.”

“But love is like the measles; the later in life it afflicts you, the more severe the consequences.”
“Is there anything you can take for it?”
“Only wedding vows.”

“He was wearing gloves, I noticed. That was encouraging. Men wearing gloves are not quick on the trigger.”

He said in uncertain English, ‘We Germans are so very like you Americans! That is why there is this constant friction. Both our countrymen respond to ideology, both seek always to improve the world, and both often want to improve it by means of military crusades.’


EYES. [Leiter writing tips]

EYES. [Leiter writing tips]

An interesting take on “eyes,” so different from the usual clichés. From the action thriller, White Plague, by James Abel.

…Whoever said, Eyes are the windows of the soul, didn’t know what he was talking about. Eyes are curtains to prevent you from seeing. They’re rabbits that climb out of a magician’s hat. Eyes are the last thing you see smiling before a bullet slams into your midsection. I’ll take pulse rate over eyes as clues any day of the week, and my rate was up.
She slid closer.

JAMES PATTERSON: interview excerpt

[excerpts from interview with James Patterson in BY THE BOOK]

Re his favorite novelists: “Gabriel Garcia Marquez, James Joyce, and Gunter Grass are important to me because their writing made it crystal clear that I wasn’t capable of the write stuff. Those dream killers are still among my favorites. So is George Pelecanos in the thriller-mystery game. Also, Richard Price, who seems to remember every good line and phrase he ever heard. ]

Patterson: “I avoid the same kinds of books I do people—long-winded, sanctimonious, goody-two-shoes, self-important…”

N.B. Like Patterson, I don’t have “the write stuff” either; or the Patterson stuff. But, I’m working on it with two California Writers Clubs: The Tri-Valley Writers; and The San Joaquin Writers.
Ben Leiter. http://benleiter.com

Last Days of the Donald


By Ben Leiter.

[Author note:  This prophetic story came to my attention because I know people who know people, from my eighteen years of government service in Washington, D.C. But I worry. Did someone feed me “fake intelligence?” While I am not sure events will unfold as described, I believe these are the options.]

Speaking into the hi-tech, encrypted cell phone, impervious to miscellaneous Russians: “Carrie Homeland here for Bourbon.” She stood looking out the seventh floor windows of the large complex ringed with a forest of Northern Virginia green.

“Bourbon here, eighty-proof,” came the clear audio back through the small speakers built into the iPhoneX which Carrie held in her hand. 

“Thank you, sir. We need to meet. Secure room here at The Campus. Anytime this evening.”

“Okay. I’ll be there at 6:45. We have to do this?” Bourbon asked, clearing his throat from the surprise of the call he had been dreading all week. 

“Yes, sir. I promised I’d ask for this meeting only if we were at a certain point. We’re there. Time for patriots to step forward, and you’re one of them.” We’ll see, thought Carrie.

“I’ll have a uniformed Marine guard meet you at the entrance and transfer you to his vehicle and bring you in through the underground garage. Someone will park your car and return it when you leave. 

The CIA facility in Langley, Virginia often carried the moniker of a college facility, “The Campus.” Eight of the best bourbons are produced in the Bluegrass State, represented by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. 

“Bourbon,” a more respectful code name than the staff suggestion of “M&M.” Carrie  Homeland smiled to herself. Her code name was pretty cool and and easy to remember if you subscribed to Netflix. No convoluted words or letters. It contained sufficient deniability, always necessary for a CIA Director.


In the specially constructed secure-room with the interior plastic laminate, and the low level electronic pulsing buzz within the wall, a cocoon against cell phone signals, Carrie Homeland shook hands with the Senate Majority Leader, aka “Bourbon.” 

“No one else, sir. Just us. Complete deniability.” Except for the videotaping, she thought.

Except for the videotaping, Bourbon thought.

“I don’t mean to be abrupt, sir, but please let me brief this quickly. I know you don’t want to be missed at your residence since your wife is in his cabinet.

“There are options. The easiest resolution—the President resigns for health reasons and to spend more time with his teenage son, usually the most difficult years for kids anyhow. In return, the Vice President, after he is sworn in, will pardon Trump and his family for all crimes, including the Russian money laundering and previous tax evasions. 

“They all get to move on with get-out-of-jail-free-cards, if they are family. If not family—collateral damage. Maybe not fair to non-family members, but Trump always treated others as disposable anyhow. This moves us past the Donald Trump national debacle and stops further decline of the country. It brings Putin’s winning streak to an abrupt close. Allows us to start fence mending with NATO and others. If Trump fights option one, the next option will be impeachment and conviction.”

“But would it get through the Senate? asked Bourbon. “You know you need sixty-seven. Sixty seven isn’t my head-count.” 

Bourbon, always the master of the needed number. His voice-waver said he wanted to be wrong on this tally and Carrie to be right with her numbers.

“Yes, sir, we’ve locked up the votes. Got the forty-seven Democrats of course, and we’ve got commitments from twenty-one Republicans.”

“Sixty-eight total? That’s cutting it pretty close isn’t it?” worried Bourbon, “and however did you get twenty-one of my people?” 

Carried responded, “Well, there’s another two who will come on board if absolutely necessary. Total of seventy. We’ve promised lucrative private sector employment to anyone defeated in their primary because of the impeachment conviction. Our contacts pervade all industries. You know that—including the liquor industry.” Point taken?

“The deal we made with Trump’s silent, big money backers is they get to keep Pence and he can run in 2020. You know how Pence was so ready to substitute as the presidential candidate in 2016 when the Billy Bush tapes broke. Pence will play ball. If not, he’ll be dragged in as a co-conspirator for not honoring his oath to defend the constitution and for by-stander abuse.”

“By-stander abuse?” said Bourbon. 

“I’m entering it into our secret, spy-crime-book as a new felony,” Carrie said. Intelligence humor.

Bourbon’s face scrunched up and he said, “What if neither option works?” 

Carrie realized Bourbon’s face hadn’t scrunched. It always looked collapsed. 

An uneasy quiet filled the room.

“Sir,” Carrie said, with practiced, professional gravitas, “there’s real powerful people out there. Think back. JFK let the Russians build that damned wall in Berlin, lost Cuba—did you know there were still missiles in Cuba after the Russian ships turned back? And, he was getting ready to pull out of Vietnam after his reelection. Kennedy’s family money was chump change compared to our big oil and the military-industrial complex back then. And, behind the scenes, influentials knew about his shared mistress with the Mafia guy and his other reckless sexual antics. Even Joe Kennedy’s money couldn’t keep the lid on all that forever. JFK became too unpredictable with some very risk-averse players. I’m not advocating this option . . . merely an historical observation. Even the CIA can’t control everything everybody does.”

Carrie Homeland sensed she was talking too much and needed to turn it over to Bourbon—better psychology. She made a verbal pivot. “We need to assess who can be most effective in delivering the got-to-go message to Trump. Who will he listen to? Option one is the best way for him, his family, and the country. We’ve already done it once, with Nixon. Messy, but it worked.”

“Hmm. I’m probably the one who has to tell him the Senate is lost, but who can go with me that he’ll believe?” Bourbon said. 

“How about Hannity?” Carrie said.

“Would he do that?” 

“He would, if I ask him.” Carrie said. 

“How do you know?”

“Not to be a smart-ass, sir, but I’ll ask Sean to read my lips as I form the words: ‘aiding and abetting the undermining of American institutions;’ ‘collusion to commit fraud;’ ‘facilitator of treason;’ and ‘fake news.’”

“Fake news?” Bourbon asked.  

“Yeah. Don’t you agree?” 

Carrie continued the assessment, unable to put the verbal ball in Bourbon’s court. Bourbon probably does some of his best work by keeping his mouth shut. 

“North Korea is now stronger than ever. Trump has betrayed NATO and the Middle East and Putin keeps Trump’s decades-old money laundering secret. Trump also agreed to cripple China. Putin’s worried, like all the Russians, about the 1.4 billion Chinese on the border of their  vast Russian open spaces. More Chinese speak English now than Americans. Russia’s whole economy is only the size of the GDP of Texas. Texans will brag about how big that is, but it ain’t country-big.”

Bourbon knows all this, but I need the videotape record. 

“Senator, it’s not just about Trump agreeing to option one and resigning; he has only a brief window to bring art to this deal, the most important of his life. He cannot afford to go bankrupt on this one. Dad’s not around to bail him out. The Mueller report is due in three weeks. Once it hits the streets, and it will—we’ve taken measures—we’ll have all the votes we need and more for conviction. No one escapes, only Barron.”

“You know what’s in the report?”  asked Bourbon.

“Of course, all primary source-work. We’ve got wires inside the Kremlin and electronic gremlins in their Moscow computer servers they’ll never find. We know everything. We just don’t want to expose our surveillance hand. Need to milk it as long as we can. They’ll eventually figure it out, even if they can’t find our technicals. Our eavesdropping enabled Mueller to make his initial case, flipping witnesses close the President. It you had them all at the same Mueller deposition, you woulda thought you were in a room full of birds.”

“Room? Birds?” Bourbon questioned.

“Yeah, canaries singing their heads off.”


And so it came to pass that the forty-fifth President of the United States resigned from office due to his dangerously high blood pressure, brought on by the political stresses of the job to make America great again. “I’ve given so much to this country. Huge contribution,” he said to Sean Hannity before he boarded the helicopter with a farewell wave.

His alleged crimes were dismissed with the announcement that Trump had been an undercover Frank Serpico among Presidents, secretly advancing U.S. interests the entire time, while advising the intelligence agencies. 

After resigning, Ex-president Trump attended an unpublicized meeting at CIA Headquarters, The Campus, in Langley, Virginia. He was awarded a coveted hero’s star on the wall in the CIA lobby. 

Twenty minutes after he left the building, Carrie Homeland directed staff to remove the star and send it to Hillary.


Twenty months later, the Ex-president visited Trump Tower in downtown Moscow, staying in the Putin Executive Suite on the top floor for a two week getaway. It contained a fabulous spa designed by Ivanka. 

The huge residential tower had been constructed at remarkable speed with no red tape inspection-hassles. The architectural drawings had been completed in early 2016 and then shelved in the fall.  

Trump spent an hour each day, after a room service lunch including a cheeseburger and two scoops of ice cream, dictating his coming tell-all memoir with its working title, The Art of When to Leave. The guaranteed bestseller would divulge names, dates, and specific tactics to support the authors’s claimed reputation for masterful negotiations. It might even hint at certain payoffs, but his mind wasn’t made up on that, yet. 

His New York literary agent pressed him to finish quickly, providing additional hand-held recorders in every room to encourage more productivity. The Donald, at seventy-five—well, anything could happen. 

Something did happen. The one day Donald Trump decided to walk downtown Moscow, instead of using his assigned limo, he was struck by a large refuse truck and died at the scene, in the crosswalk. 

The truck’s VIN was filed off and the listed driver, Ivan Ivanovich, did not exist on the City of Moscow employee roster.