Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing

Elmore Leonard, one of America’s recognized masters of thriller/suspense fiction, primarily in the crime genre, wrote a piece for a New York Times column, “Writers on Writing,” in July 2001.

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He since published it in book form as Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, which you can get here on Amazon.

Leonard got his start by scraping out a living writing short stories and westerns (one of which, Valdez is Coming, is now considered a classic of the genre). He grew up in the Detroit area, and it’s only natural that he transitioned to writing crime fiction, where he displayed an unmatched virtuosity in capturing authentic street characters and slang in his novels.

Over 20 of his stories have been made into movies or TV shows. Westerns: Hombre and Joe Kidd, starring Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood, respectively, and more recently 3:10 to Yuma starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. Crime: Get Shorty starring John Travolta and Gene Hackman; Out of Sight starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez; Killshot starring Mickey Rourke and Diane Lane; the FX series Justified starring Timothy Olyphant; and so on.

Leonard didn’t achieve that kind of success because he was lucky; he earned his chops the hard way, from the ground up, and as he says about his little book: “These are the rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what's taking place in the story.”

Anyone who writes fiction, or aspires to, will benefit from the advice based on his experience.

Here it is in summary form:

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
I encourage you to read what he has to say about each of those rules, sparing as it is.
I keep a hardcover copy in my living room so I can read it from time to time. I find it always helps keep me on track.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Gravy Train


My novel, The Gravy Train, is the story of a novice banker who tries to help an aging chairman buy his company back before the Wall Street sharks who drove it into bankruptcy can carve it up for themselves.

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Finn Keane is a starry-eyed, freshly-minted MBA who lands a job at Abercrombie, Wirth & Co., the hottest firm on Wall Street in a red-hot market. He’s assigned to work on his first deal under the firm’s biggest producer, Jack Shane. Finn is thrilled. The deal is an ambitious acquisition by northeast regional department store chain Kristos & Co. of the high-end retailer, Milstein Brothers Stores, that will create a nationwide retail department store juggernaut. Finn immediately bonds with Nick Christanapoulas, the chairman of Kristos & Co., who has handed the day-to-day reins of the 160-store chain he built to his idiot son-in-law, Stanley, who Shane talked into the ill-conceived deal.

Shortly after the deal closes, the economy tanks and the markets crash. The merged company defaults on the junk bonds that Shane orchestrated to finance the deal even before it makes its first interest payment.

It’s at that point that Finn learns that Shane isn’t only ABC’s biggest producer; he’s also its biggest SOB.

Immediately after the company is forced to file for bankruptcy, the Wall Street sharks close in, led by Shane, and things move quickly after that. Finn gets fired by Shane and he aligns himself with Nick. Finn and Nick team up with a streetwise old bankruptcy lawyer in an effort to help Nick buy the company back out of bankruptcy.

Finn and his rag-tag group face off against Shane, the creditors and their battery of numbers crunchers, led by one of the most sophisticated and brazen bankruptcy lawyers on Wall Street, who knows all the dirty tricks of the trade and then some.

As in all minnow-versus-whale stories, you wonder how the good guys can possibly win because the odds are so stacked against them. But even if they can’t, half the fun is seeing if they can at least land a few solid punches against the bad guys before they go down swinging.

The book is based in part on the first bankruptcy deal I worked on early in my career, and it has some colorful characters based on a number of the oddballs and SOBs I encountered in the course of it.

And the title of the book is taken from real life as well: it’s the nickname of the Amtrak train from New York to Wilmington, Delaware, the site of the court where many of the main bankruptcy cases are decided. It’s on the cars of The Gravy Train on the way to court where the lawyers, bankers and creditors committees who populate the bankruptcy world huddle together. They posture, haggle and yell at each other to cut the deals they present to the judges.

I hope you’ll give The Gravy Train a try. It’s a fast-paced read that will give you some insight into how the bankruptcy game works, and hopefully entertain you.



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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Bull Street - My White Collar Crime Thriller #1


Bull Street is the the first of my White Collar Crime Thrillers. It's the story of Richard Blum, a freshly-minted MBA who goes to Wall Street as a naive, novice investment banker and soon discovers he’s landed smack in the middle of an insider-trading ring. As Richard peels away the layers of the skulduggery he's uncovered, he finds out that all the insider trading surrounds the deals of his firm’s largest client, Harold Milner. Milner is the takeover maven of his generation who Richard has idolized for years. In fact, on Richard’s first big deal on the Street, Milner has taken him under his wing. So Richard can’t believe Milner is involved in the insider trading, but stops short when he thinks of telling Milner what he’s discovered.

What if Milner is part of the ring? What if he isn’t but if Richard’s disclosure to Milner leaks to the traders and triggers them to come after him because he knows too much? And then what about the Feds he finds out are sniffing around? Will the footprints he’s left with his own digging cause the Feds to think he’s a participant in the ring and put him in their crosshairs?

Not only does Bull Street have those thriller elements, it's a coming of age story about Wall Street told from an insider's perspective. That's because I wrote the first draft of it when I was a freshly-minted MBA who landed on Wall Street as a naive, novice investment banker. As such, the novel includes many of my jarring learning experiences as I cut my teeth in Wall Street's sharp-elbowed world. I started my career there in an era that saw major insider trading and securities fraud scandals: the likes of Ivan Boesky, Marty Siegel, Dennis Levine and Mike Milken paid huge fines and went to jail in those days.

And so among the usual outsized personalities, misfits and oddballs I encountered in my early days on Wall Street, I also met a number of crooks from that era, a few of them high-profile. Bull Street is fiction, but the grandiose egos, the bare-knuckles negotiating tactics and the questionable ethics of many of the men and women of Wall Street portrayed in the book are true to life.

I hope you’ll give Bull Street a try. It's the first of my White Collar Crime Thrillers, and like all of the books in the series, it offers a window into the world of Wall Street’s financial gamesmanship from the perspective of one who’s been there.


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Monday, April 18, 2016

The Saudi Religious Police

Saudi Arabia recently announced that it had stripped its religious police of its power to arrest people when carrying out its duties to enforce sharia, Islamic law. It's a subject I've researched and written about throughout my Sasha Del Mira espionage series—Trojan Horse, Sasha Returns, Arab Summer and my most recent novel, On Home Soil. The Saudi religious police, known variously by the names the Mutawwa’in, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (I’m not kidding), and Haia, enforce the strict rules of the Islamic code of behavior as outlined in sharia.

For example, the religious police will arrest women who are not "properly" clothed. That means not wearing an abaya—a formless black robe concealing any aspect of her anatomy—or a hijab—a head scarf covering her hair. Or caught driving a car. Or not accompanied by a male family member or husband; male friends or boyfriends won’t do. Or anyone, man or woman, caught drinking alcohol, using drugs or smoking tobacco in public. That’s not an exhaustive list.

What the new Saudi directive means is that the religious police will have to report those violating sharia to the police or the drug police instead of making the arrests themselves. It's not clear what that means in practical terms, but it doesn't sound like much of a change.

The Saudi regime, which has been led on and off by the Al Saud family for centuries, and which passes down its leadership exclusively through members of its royal family, was founded and is still firmly rooted in the Wahhabi sect of the Sunni Muslim faith. Wahhabism is an especially strict and reactionary interpretation of the Muslim religion, very similar to that of ISIS’ interpretation of it.

That's a scary concept, although the Saudi regime learned decades ago to pacify the Saudi masses with generous social welfare programs to keep the peace and tamp down any potential uprisings that could unseat them. That's also a fundamental element of my Sasha Del Mira series.

Lately, with the collapse of oil prices from over $100 a barrel in 2014 to the mid-20s per barrel in the first quarter of 2016, recently recovering only to the $40 per barrel level, the Saudi regime is under increasing pressure. It’s consuming its financial reserves to maintain funding of its social programs. That is it’s only means of keeping the average Saudi schlub from rising up against the Saudi royal family billionaires who live in the gilded Royal Palace and spend indiscriminately on anything and everything they want.

Think the Saudi 1% trying to placate Bernie Sanders by stuffing billions of dollars worth of caviar and fine French pate down his gullet.

So rather than looking at this recent curtailment of the powers of the Saudi religious police as a major social change, see it only as another means of the Saudi royals placating a restive Saudi public. A Saudi public that feels ever more oppressed by its elitist regime that’s been dominating the Saudi economy and culture for generations.

The situation isn’t stable.

It makes a good backdrop for thrillers.

Stay tuned.