Monday, July 25, 2016

Was that really the end?

How do you feel about ambiguous endings?

by Meredith Cole

It depends.

Endings are tough, but important. They need to feel satisfying and right to the reader so they don't go searching for the next few pages, wondering if the printer screwed up somewhere. And sometimes their ambiguity can inspire lots of discussion about what people think happened after the end. So I can't say that I mind an ambiguous ending.

Most crime novels have endings that neatly tie up all the bows in the story and take you to a place where there is truth and justice and crime always pays. Some of them don't end quite so cleanly, and are statements about how life is not always neat or just, and there isn't a moment in time where we can declare that this is the end. But I occasionally find that problematic as a reader.

Donna Leon is one of those interesting crime writers who often has ambiguous endings. Her sleuth figures out who did the crime (the mafia, etc.) but in the end there is nothing the police can do to bring the perpetrator to justice. The books end in frustration and despair about the corruption of Italy. Although I love her books (who wouldn't want to spend the afternoon in Venice?), I made the mistake of reading too many all in a row. I started to feel as despairing as the Italians and had to take a break.

As a writer, heading to the end can be both scary and exhilarating. I have yet to serve up an open ended ambiguous ending in one of my book, but perhaps I will be inspired to do so one day. And hope that the reader goes along for the ride and finds it as satisfying as a neat bow.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Sic transit gloria mundi

Which would you choose? Fame or fortune?

by Paul D. Marks

How 'bout we go 50-50 on this one.

Seems a lot of people want to be famous these days…but not for doing much worthy of fame: Paris Hilton, a whole family tree of Kardashians, the bling ring. I address this issue to some degree in my novella Vortex and Broken Windows, the upcoming sequel to White Heat. But before I get to them:

Sure I want to be famous. And I want to be rich. But I’d like to be those things for doing something worthwhile…and that can be entertaining people. Because as John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) learned in Preston Sturges’s “Sullivan’s Travels” that’s what people really want.

I keep telling my wife that I’m semi-semi famous, though my goal is to be semi-famous. The truth is I’m probably more like semi-semi-semi to the 10th degree famous. But the goal is still to be semi-famous. I don’t think I could ever be as famous as the Real Housewives of Here, There and Everywhere for doing nothing or even less than zero to paraphrase a great novel, or Snooki for tanning and Mike the Situation for adoring his own body. But if I can take people away from their world and their worries for a few hours, I’m good. Even if it’s into a much darker world of noir and mystery, at least it’s away from their day to day problems.

As for being rich, I’d settle for a house on each coast (that includes the West Coast, the East Coast, the Gulf Coast and the Amalfi Coast), a private plane, a yacht, a decommissioned missile silo for a very private writer’s retreat. And an endless supply of pizza and M&Ms – peanut only and no blue ones – they’re unnatural looking, how much blue food is there? – and hey, if Van Halen can do it, so can I.

Other than that I don’t really have much to say on whether I’d rather be rich or famous. It would be nice to be both. But I do have some thoughts on our fame-obsessed culture and address these issues in my writing.

In Vortex, a noir thriller, Zach Tanner is an Afghan war vet. Before and during the war he and his buddies have big plans to get rich and famous quick. Maybe by not quite doing the right thing. Being wounded in the war has given Zach time to think about it and he has a change of heart. Here’s a couple excerpts from Vortex:

It sounds corny, but I did want to be somebody. Didn’t really care how I got there either and maybe that was my problem. Maybe I should have cared. Back then I didn’t really care about much, fucked around and just wanted to be famous—rich and famous. And I thought if I could get my hands on some money that could help me on the road to fame.

Fuck, everybody I knew wanted to be famous. Everybody but those wanna-bes like George who were actually studying and heading somewhere. Some people have a road paved with gold. Others have a dirt-road, lined with ruts and potholes and IEDs, and they’re lucky if they can reach the next milestone before getting waxed. I had every advantage a person could hope for, but I couldn’t have gotten into UCLA or USC if my life depended on it. I was just lazy, especially when it came to studying. Nah, I wanted a faster road and a furious rod.

And from another part of Vortex:

Jess was still where I was before I deployed, still wanting the bling, but I’d moved on. Being a soldier, being in a war and being wounded changed me. She was just where I’d left her. Still wanting the brass ring but not wanting to do much to get it. The problem is, no matter how much you have, it’s never enough.

In Broken Windows, Duke, the P.I. from White Heat, who solved a case and got his “fifteen” minutes
of fame doing so, says:

Ever since my seven minutes of fame with Teddie Matson’s case, I had every two bit producer who needed the goods on his wife or girlfriend or boyfriend, or all three, or had to know what the competition at the other studios were up to, wanting me to work for them. I had no end of cases to work. A lot of Hollywood riff-raff; the fact that they might be worth a hundred million dollars didn’t make them any less riff or raff. I was making good money for a change. And I hated every minute of it.

So many people in our society want to be famous these days. They don’t realize they’re making a bargain with the Devil when they ask for that. When they do realize it it’s too late. But most famous people aren’t famous for doing anything important. I didn’t want to be one of them. And fame is a double-edged sword. Sometimes it opens doors, but you also can’t be anonymous. Some people ask for it—movie stars, then resent the price that goes with it. I hadn’t asked for it. But maybe it was part of my penance.

I think there’s a recurring theme going on here, so that hits on how I feel about fame and fortune.

I’ve met many famous people in one capacity or another. Some were nice, some not so nice. Fame doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a good person or happy or even prosperous. And when I think of fame I’m reminded of this line, paraphrased from the Jose Ferrer version of “Moulin Rouge”:

One should never meet a person whose work one admires. What they do is always so much better than what they are.

I hope if I ever do get beyond semi-semi-semi to the 10th degree famous that I will still be humble and share my M&Ms with the little people who helped me get where I am. (It’s a joke – okay, you people who take things too seriously.)

To me, fame without purpose is pointless and fortune without respect for others is meaningless.


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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Secret option C.

by Catriona.

"Would you rather have fame or fortune?"

I'm assuming that "as a writer" is understood, and that changes everything.

For one thing, the most famous writer in the world isn't all that famous anyway. J.K. Rowling can still sit typing in the cafĂ© in Edinburgh undisturbed. Really. I've seen her there. Of course, she does it with some kind of magical facial expression. If she could bottle and sell that "don't even think about it" look she'd be a rich wo- Oh.

And even if a famous writer gets recognised and mobbed by fans, they're book fans. They're readers. They're not natural mobbers. I'm trying to imagine a crowd of readers screaming and fainting and snatching the clothes off the back of . . . Stephen King. But I'm failing.

I got a bit flummoxed when I first met Mary Higgins Clark, but all that happened was I stepped back in case she thought I was standing too close and I tripped over the tripod stand that the "Mary Higgins Clark" poster was propped up on. It made a clatter but no security was involved.

So, all in all, I think extreme fame for a writer isn't enough actual fame to spawn a monster. I'm going to Harrogate today and I'll be seeing Simon Brett, who has just been awarded an OBE and a diamond dagger and is having a special reception thrown for him. If he expects me to curtsy and/or is now travelling with a personal grape-peeler, I'll edit this blog to reflect it.

How about fortune?

We hear a lot about people whose lives are ruined by lottery wins but, again, I think it's different for writers. I don't know anyone who does it for the money and I don't know anyone who would stop doing it if they suddenly had a wet ton of money. And money wouldn't really help with any bit of the core of what being a writer is. It wouldn't bring ideas, or a publishing deal, or a sympathetic editor, or readers, or good reviews, or an extension on the next hand-in date.

Of course, a huge steaming heap of filthy lucre would bring some incidentals: a hired publicist, a PA, freedom from a day-job, research trips with leg-room on the plane and a posh hotel room . . . but those things don't bring ideas or readers either.

So I'm going for secret option C. I'd rather have writing. If that's guaranteed I'll take the lie-flat plane seat and PA, please. (But I want to keep going to the Post Office myself because I like the people who work there and I'd miss them.) And then if I had to accept being so famous that klutzy fellow authors backed into tripods, I'd cope with that too,

"Show me the money...." by Cathy Ace

Fame or fortune – which would you choose?

I agree with Susan and Rachel that this conditional question allows me to choose only one of the two options on offer, and, assuming “fortune” means pots and pots of dosh (money, lolly, lucre, cash, spondoola, bread, dough, bucks), I would unequivocally choose fortune over fame.

Not short of a bob or two, but her fame caused challenges
Fame is capricious and depends on others; fortune can be managed, overseen, curated.

Fame means nothing except maybe annoyance to those who share your life; fortune can be shared with those about whom you care.

Fame becomes a burden; fortune can offer freedom.

Fame feeds the ego; fortune can feed the soul.

Fame cannot be kept from those you meet; fortune can be private, so you’ll be more likely to be able to have “real” human relationships based upon “real” responses to you as a person, rather than as some sort of icon.

For those who gain fame, for whatever reason, often the opportunity to amass a fortune follows, so you might think I’d prefer fame so that I'd, ultimately, have more of a chance of access to a fortune. But that’s not a choice on offer here.  In any case, honestly, I’d rather be a completely unknown millionaire, able to live the life I choose without a worry about money for myself or those I love, than have to constantly pander to the fame-granters whose criteria for allowing me to be “famous” would shift in any case. I should add, in case you're wondering, that I'm not afraid to work hard to amass my fortune in any field where fame doesn't have to be a part of the achievement system involved - for example, so long as there's no photo on the jacket, a book that garners millions of dollars doesn't have to make one famous, as let's go with that as an option, eh?

Not a retirement plan, but a dream!

Or, yes, let me win the lottery, anonymously, and I’ll be as happy as Larry (assuming Larry had anonymously won the lottery).  

Cathy Ace writes the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (book #2 THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER will be available in trade paperback on August 31st in the UK, and in November in the US/Canada, and the Cait Morgan Mysteries (book #7 THE CORPSE WITH THE GARNET FACE was published in paperback in April). Find out more about Cathy and her work, and sign up for her newsletter at   

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Fame or Fortune??

Which would you choose, fame or fortune?

by RM

I'm stuck on this question, and can 't wiggle out of it. It's obviously an either/or, so BOTH!!-- which springs naturally to mind -- isn't an option.

Can't have both. Okay. If I'm famous but poor, that means I've either been swindled by my accountant, or incarcerated, or I'm dead. So that's no good, so I guess I'd rather have fortune.

But fortune without fame could only mean one thing: that my books have bombed, and that's depressing. So I'd rather have fame, even if it means I'm in jail or dead. But more likely I've been swindled and have had to sell my house and am living in my brother's basement suite.

In photo L to R (I hope nobody minds) Cathy Ace, Donald Hauka,
Debra Purdy Kong, JG Toews, RM Greenaway, JT Siemens,
Allan J. Emerson, Owen Laukkanen
There are steps I can take, I guess. I can go to the police and have my accountant investigated. But I won't get my money back, obviously, in keeping with the above question.
So maybe I will just be happy with my fame and poverty.
Being famous, I've got lots of friends, and I can couch surf if my brother needs a break.
When I think about it, what do my friends and I do all day? Sit around reading and writing, or talking about reading and writing -- so who needs a fortune to do that?

* * * Definitely I'm going for fame * * *

Still, it burns me up about my accountant. Next time I hire anyone to take care of my fortune I'm going to vet them properly.   

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Gemini Tackles the Big Issues

Q: Which would you choose? Fame or fortune?

-from Susan, who is a Gemini and therefore unable or unwilling to choose

A:                    Artificial dichotomy.

A#2:                Why do I have to choose?

A#3:                Define ‘fame’ for this mid-list author.

        Fame = Someone - one person - told me I looked a little like Princess Diana

A#4:                Can fortune be defined as enough money to live on until I die?

A fortune is in the eyes of the beholder....

A#5:                I notice the conditional in the question, which suggests the questioner doesn’t think I’m likely to have to make this decision.

A#6:                Let me go back to daydreaming I could make a fortune by becoming an author famous for my French village mysteries, debuting in 2017. A girl can dream, can’t she?

Friday, July 15, 2016

Seriously, I can't count that high...

By Art Taylor

This week's question has tongue firmly in cheek: "How long did it take for you to become an overnight sensation?"

Bob Newhart
I'm not sure I'd be considered an overnight sensation even now, but I understand the question: Success and recognition may seem to arrive suddenly, but they do so only after a lot of hard work—days, months, years, many years. And often the author or artist who's stepping into the spotlight is one who has already established a career beforehand. I'm always intrigued by the Grammy Awards for Best New Artist—whose winners and finalists are sometimes musicians that don't strike me as new. Backing me up on that sense, Wikipedia quotes the criteria for the award as follows: "For a new artist who releases, during the Eligibility Year, the first recording which establishes the public identity of that artist"—then notes that "this is not necessarily the first album released by an artist." And in another side note, an interesting bit of Grammy trivia: Did anyone know that Bob Newhart—yes, the comedian—won the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1961, the second year it was presented, beating out now-renowned opera singer Leontyne Price? The things you can learn....

In a recent interview with The Digest Enthusiast (such a fine publication; check it out here), I was asked a question about when I first started writing, and I reached way back to elementary school to answer it. Here was my response:

I think the idea of writing always went hand in hand with my love of reading—that desire to create on the page for another reader the kind of experiences I was enjoying as a reader myself. Sometime in fall when I was in the third grade, I announced to my English teacher that I was going to finish my first book over Christmas break and she should look for it in the bookstore after New Year’s; it was about a country mouse and a city mouse, as I recall. I remember a year or so later adding my pen name, Anthony Twig, to a novel I’d started; I’m sure it’s in a box somewhere now, and I need to look for it one of these days. And then another night—what year I can hardly remember now—staying up late furiously working on an epic poem called “The War of Damascus”—writing lines, crossing out words, working and reworking, reading it aloud to see how it sounded, in love with the act of writing in a way I wish I still felt so consistently now. I do have that poem still on hand, just found it in the back of a filing cabinet; here’s the opening stanza:

There once live a man
  By the name of Belon,
Who was swindled by
  A most masterful con....

So to match that question from The Digest Enthusiast with the question at hand here on Criminal Minds, I'd need to reach back to when I was, what, 8 years old? somewhere in there?

Should I pick a date that year and start counting?

Maybe. But there might also be other milestones to start from—my first publication as part of a county-wide elementary school contest, my first publication in a high school literary journal or my first serious writing workshop in high school, my debut in Ellery Queen's Department of First Stories, or my decision to enter a graduate school writing program. When did I become serious about this writing thing?

Even harder to pinpoint would be that notion of success, even without the "overnight" caveat. I'm very grateful for my track record of short story publications and with all the award attention I've received, of course, but maybe in following some of those Grammy guidelines, I could point to the publication of On the Road with Del & Louise last fall as a debut on a bigger stage: September 15, 2015.

OK, now can I start counting? somewhere in there?

Truth is, regarding success, I still feel like I'm stumbling toward some notion of it. Each day's writing lately sometimes feels like learning to write all over again—puzzling out which word might be best next, and then next, and then next. Day in, day out, writing for me feels more like struggle than success, no doubt about it.

I'll end, though, with something that happened recently that did make me feel some level of fame. My wife, a friend of ours, and I were in the Zoe's Kitchen in Fairfax, VA earlier this week, and after placing our order (pimento cheese and tomato soup in my case) and putting our order number on the table we'd picked, I went back to the drink and condiment area to get a pile of napkins. I ended up getting in the way of another customer doing the same thing, and as we tried to navigate one another, he said, "Excuse me, but are you Art Taylor?"

I am, of course, and told him so—and he explained that he'd heard me read from On the Road at the Conversations and Connections conference hosted by Barrelhouse back in the spring. He'd enjoyed my reading and my book.

I asked about his own writing, how it was going—asked if he lived nearby, but he didn't. It turned out he had driven out from DC to have some work done on his car, was having lunch while he waited. I asked if he had a card, but he didn't, and I tried to look for one myself—in vain and awkwardly since I still had all those napkins in my hand. Neither of us had a pen handy to exchange information. I ended up telling him thanks and good luck with his own work.

Thinking back on it, there it was—there alongside a couple of big containers of tea and a napkin dispenser and an array of silverware while I waited for some pimento cheese: On Tuesday, July 12, 2016, someone I didn't know recognized me in public, said he liked something I'd written.

Honestly, could you ask for any better success?

Thursday, July 14, 2016

If at First, You Don’t Succeed…

by Alan

How long did it take for you to become an overnight sensation? (How many days/months/years after you began seriously writing a novel did it take for you to get published?)

If I ever become a sensation—overnight or otherwise—I’ll be sure to let everyone know. (Of course, if I become a sensation, then everyone will already know. Hmm…)

My novel publishing history, in brief:

My fiction-writing career began in 2004 when I took a Fairfax County Adult Ed class on genre writing, taught by the wonderful Elaine Raco Chase. I remember writing a story, and although it contained about 80 semi-colons, it didn’t stink.

Which was encouragement enough.

So I kept at it, taking a few writing workshops at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD (from the terrific Ann McLaughlin and the fabulous Noreen Wald). I wrote some short stories, then began a novel, and my work continued “not to stink.” I plugged away, improving my craft, and eventually hooked up with a critique group. I finished a manuscript and revised it, but I could tell it wasn’t “publishable” quality. (Right now, that manuscript is stored in a lead-lined container which is buried in my backyard, posing no threat to society.)

I wrote another manuscript. My writing was getting better, but it still fell short of where I wanted it to be. So, after attending a Citizen’s Police Academy, I began a third manuscript based on an experience during a police ride-along.

I finished that manuscript, then revised, edited, and polished it until I was pleased with the result. I took a workshop on how to write query letters and wrote a killer query. In my bones, I knew I had a winner! Over the course of several months, I sent out about 100 queries to literary agents.

Over the course of those same several months, I got about 100 rejections.

Clearly, my idea of a winner differed from the agents’ ideas. (By the way, I self-published a revised version of that novel, called RIDE-ALONG. Available on Amazon!)

But I was not deterred.

I wrote another novel, FIRST TIME KILLER (for those keeping track, this was manuscript #4). Queried it, and this time, I landed an agent. He sent it around, but no editor bought it. (I ended up revising and self-publishing that novel, too. Available on Amazon!)

My agent wanted to concentrate on non-fiction, so we parted ways.

Again agentless, I went to work on manuscript number five. Finished it and queried it. Found an agent (for those keeping score, this was agent #2), and the novel found a home some months later (at Midnight Ink). That book, DIAMONDS FOR THE DEAD, was a finalist for the Best First Novel Agatha Award. After that, I published two more books with Midnight Ink.

DIAMONDS 72From first workshop to publication: about six years (and it was my fifth manuscript).

To date, I’ve published seven novels—three and a half “traditionally” and three and a half “self-published.” I’m also on my third agent. It’s a wacky business!

Lesson learned: Don’t give up!

(*And don’t throw away your early attempts—some of them may, one day, see the light!)

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Persistence Eventually Paid Off

By R.J. Harlick

How long did it take for you to become an overnight sensation? (How many days/months/years after you began seriously writing a novel did it take for you to get published?)

Let me see. I tapped the first words of my first novel into the computer in the summer of 1996, after deciding it was time to put my dreams into action and see if I could become a fiction writer. Eight years later in 2004, I finally had the thrill of holding the published book in my hands.  Eight long years of hard work, stubborn persistence but most importantly fun.  The book by the way was Death’s Golden Whisper, the first in the Meg Harris series, which has just acquired a new cover as it goes into its third printing.

My first goal was to see if I could actually write a full length novel. With little idea where the story was headed I started writing the opening scene, which evolved into the next one and so on. They soon formed a chapter, followed by another chapter, which in turn led to another. About halfway through I knew I was going to be able to finish the book. I also discovered one other thing. I really enjoyed writing.

Although I was an avid fiction reader I knew nothing about the writing of it. The writing I did in my work as a consultant was business related, like reports and proposals, though some of my clients might have thought it creative writing. I soon learned the writing of fiction was completely different. So while I wrote this first book I was also learning the art of writing fiction. I took a few courses, read a number of writing books, practiced on short stories, joined a writing association, became a member of a critique group and ended up rewriting the book four times.

You’d think that by the time I reached the fourth rewrite I would’ve tossed it into a drawer and started on another book. But I guess this is where my stubborn persistent took over. I was determined to make it the best book I could write. I also discovered I enjoyed the rewriting. It enabled me to get to know the story and my characters that much better which allowed me to refine it into a better book.

My next goal was to get it published. When I started on this writing venture, it was early days for electronic publishing and having it self-published wasn’t an option other than through vanity presses, which charged a fortune and had no distribution. I soon developed a thick hide as rejection letter after rejection letter fluttered in from agents and publishers alike. Ever persistent, I would rewrite it and send it back out again. Finally, after the third rewrite a publisher said yes.  It took another two years and another rewrite before I could hold it in my hands as a published book. I tell you that was one very special moment.

I suppose a question you might ask is whether I would be so persistent if I were starting out today when self-publishing is so readily available. I think the answer would likely be yes, because I am inherently lazy. I want to concentrate on the writing and would rather a publisher handle book design, printing, promotion, distribution, soliciting of reviews and sales.

As for the length of time it took for me to become an overnight sensation. I’m still waiting…

What about you? How long did it take for you to get your first book published?