Thursday, August 31, 2017

If I had all the time in the world, would I like to read my own books?

James W. Ziskin

I adhere to the old saw “Write what you would like to read” and not “Write what you know.” So, yes, I would like to read my own books if I had the time…and—I can’t stress this enough—if I hadn’t written them myself. Here are both sides of the argument.

1. Pro: I love books that transport the reader to another time and place. Set in the early 1960s, my books follow a twenty-something reporter named Ellie Stone as she investigates murder for her local paper. There are five books out, with a sixth (A STONE’S THROW) on the way in June 2018. Reading about another time grips me in ways that contemporary fiction does not necessarily. All things being equal, a story set in the past appeals to me a mite more because of that added element of time and distance. As in a dream, it whisks me away, makes me the passenger, and I like that.

Con: I know the endings of my books already.

2. Pro: I love the main character in my books. Ellie Stone is a mashup of the best and worst characteristics I admire/lament in people. She is smart, wickedly funny, and empathetic. She is also a drinker, a modern girl, and alone. For the most part. She does have her one great friend, Fadge, of course.

Con: The hay’s in the barn. I might cringe at something I wrote, and it’s too late to change it.

Me reading one of my own books. Tinker (left) is also a fan of my books.

3. Pro: The cast of characters in Ellie’s world. Ellie lives and works in a small upstate mill town in decline. Its best years behind it, New Holland, NY, is struggling to cope with the loss of the once-powerful carpet mills that moved south and orphaned the town. Like the residents of many small towns, the New Holland locals provide fascinating examples of quirky, lovable folks. Some are odious, too. Ellie’s nemesis at the paper, George Walsh, for instance. But she moves around, too. I try hard not paint New Holland as murder capital USA, so Ellie has investigated murders in New York City, the Adirondack Mountains, and Hollywood, CA. Those locations allowed me to introduce a totally different set of secondary characters. My favorites include the diminutive police sergeant, Jimmo McKeever (STYX & STONE); Ellie’s aunt and elderly cousin, Lena and Max (HEART OF STONE); and the chillingly scheming studio executive, Dorothy Fetterman (CAST THE FIRST STONE).

Con: I might find previously undiscovered errors in the book.

4. Pro: The mysteries I enjoy the most are the ones that need solving. I like to imagine the clean slate detectives encounter at the start of an investigation. They know nothing and must piece together the puzzle, one clue at a time. Some readers find that kind of journey tedious. We all have our own tastes, after all. That’s what makes a horse race. For me, it’s the journey to discovery that keeps me turning pages.

Con: I actually do not have the time to read my books. So many other voices to discover.

Someone else reading one of my books

But the reality of the situation, of course, is that I do read my own books. Many, many times during the revision and editorial stage. By the time I’m finished doing that, I don’t want to look at the book again. Except perhaps to admire the covers and remember that I wrote them once upon a time.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Never go back

by Dietrich Kalteis

Pretending there are no time constraints, would you ever get the urge to sit down with your own published work and read?

I went on a trip last year to visit family and went through the reading material I brought along very early on. Being with family, naturally I found a couple of my novels on the bookshelf next to some vintage Reader’s Digests. So, I reread my first one, Ride the Lightning. It did cross my mind that I might find some error that slipped past me back when I wrote it. Happily, nothing glaring jumped out at me, and since the book came out in 2014 I was long-finished with writing it, and I was able to just sit back and kind of enjoy it.

Would I do it again? Since I know the outcome of my own stories, the thoughts and feelings of each character, their arcs, etc., what’s left? Time to move on, and to become inspired by somebody else’s writing. And there are more great books than the hours I have to read them. My own to-read list is pretty long, and the unread books I own could tower to the ceiling, So, why read my own? 

I do re-read novels I loved the first time around — classics mostly. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Catcher in the Rye, Get Shorty and just about anything else Elmore Leonard wrote. It’s not so much about revisiting the stories, but hearing those great voices that I never tire of. 

I read a novel a week, sometimes more, and I like to take my time and really drink them in. Reading inspires me to write, and if it weren’t for time constraints, I’d read even more. I’m always interested in authors who write in the same genre and discovering voices I’ve never read before. Reading a great novel inspires me to write.

And I like to read novels in German from time to time. It’s my first language, and reading in German helps keep me fluent. And there are many talented contemporary writers as well as greats like Günter Grass, Hermann Hesse, Erich Maria Remarque, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann and Edgar Hilsenrath. And there’s something special about reading the books in the language in which they were written: Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, The Tin Drum, Death in Venice and All Quiet on the Western Front, The Reader, and more. And I’m thrilled that my second novel The Deadbeat Club will be released in German early next year by Suhrkamp. It will be called Shootout, and that’s one of my own stories that I am looking forward to re-reading.

If I wrote a series, I would likely go back and revisit my early work from time to time, just to keep things consistent. I’d be looking for new ways of growing the characters, revisiting their motivation, and checking that I was keeping to the general thread of the original story. 

On occasion, I’ve dusted off some of my old unpublished short stories to see if there are possibilities to bring them to life or expand on them. I have given a couple a new twist and finally seen them published. And a while ago, I dusted off a novel I had written many years before to see if I could revive it, but it was pretty terrible. Some things can’t be rescued and are best left to serve as a reminder of how far one’s come. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Would I read my books?

Terry Shames answering this week’s perplexing question: if I had all the time in the world, would I like to read my own work?

I assume the question means would I pick one of my books out of all those wonderful books at the bookstore and read it. The answer is yes, and here’s why:

1)       The covers. I love the cover designs on my books. I love the colors, but even more I like the idea that they present: there is a certain desolation that each depicts that I like. The old, rusted car grill, the deserted stadium, the field with a crushed can. The last cover presented to me gave me a problem: it featured a beautiful field of bluebonnets. My objection? The book is set in dreary November (no bluebonnets blooming then), and it is a tough read, probably the hardest to write because it has some teeth-gritting scenes. Pretty bluebonnets? I don’t think so. Luckily, I know what the book after that is about, and the bluebonnet cover will fit beautifully. After I described the forthcoming book to the designer, she came up with a fitting cover—a field full of weeds and brush.

2)       The protagonist. I admit to not being drawn to cozy amateur detective books—with some really, really good exceptions. Although my books don’t have a lot of overt sex and violence, they aren’t cozies. If anything, they fit into the police procedural category, which means I would love it.

3)         The publisher. Seventh Street Books puts out some dynamite books. I am proud to be associated with authors like James Ziskin, Adrian McKinty, Susan Spann, Larry Sweazy, Mark Pryor, and Jennifer Kincheloe to name a handful. I know when I pick up a book published by Seventh Street that it’s going to be a book of substance, well written, and (especially!) well edited. These days, with so many publishers not putting a lot of effort into editing, it’s a pleasure to know that SSB puts a priority on that.

4)       It’s what I know. I grew up in Texas, and still have the sights and smells in my mind--the desolate landscapes, the Gulf Coast, the oil wells, the sandy west Texas desert, the glorious wildflowers (thank you, Lady Bird Johnson), and the dusty small towns. I have the sounds of Texas talk—different accents for different parts of the state. Even though the state of Texas politics these days stuns me, I maintain an affection for my roots. And it seems, these days, that Texas mysteries are popular. From relative newcomers Reavis Wortham and Melissa Lenhardt, to the tried and true Bill Crider and Joe R. Lansdale books set in Texas are having a heyday.

5)       Reviews. If I looked up the professional and reader reviews of my books knowing nothing about them, I would snap them up. I have been really lucky to have a following of people who write humbling reviews—ones that would compel me to read my books….if I hadn’t already read them too many times when I wrote them.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Good Life, The Bad Life and the Writing Life

(Besides getting rich) how has the writing life changed you as a person?

by Paul D. Marks

Rich is the only way I’ve changed from the writing life. The Porsche. The yacht. The jet. The castle next to George Clooney’s on Lake Como. Am I leaving anything out? Oh wait, I jest.

My castle is right next door to George Clooney's house 😉

For me the question is more like what I would have been like if I hadn’t embarked on the writing life. In a word, Crazy! Though some may think that’s the case anyway. What I do know is that when I’ve had to have a “day job” of the 9-5 variety I’ve hated it. So luckily I’ve had to do that very little and not in a long time. Got into arguments with the boss. And once, when I had a day job I got proposed to – or should I say someone laid a proposal on me. To marry a friend of theirs from Lebanon so she could become a citizen. They offered money and no strings attached. I turned them down but maybe that would have made me rich. Nah. In fact, it probably would have landed me in jail and then I could have written a best-selling memoir about my life of crime.

One of my many Porsches 😉
And luckily most of my “day jobs” have been at writing/script doctoring. Though even there I got into arguments with the boss, producers, directors, whoever. One even threatened to send his friends in the Mossad after me, as I may have mentioned previously. But I guess it was a better day job than some.

If I hadn’t been a writer I’m not sure what I would have done. Lawyer maybe. A different gig in the film biz. Go to work in the family biz. And maybe it all would have given me stuff to write about but I’ve had plenty of adventures to write about anyway.

I’m really not sure how much I’ve changed as a person since becoming a writer since I’ve always been a writer to one degree or another. Amy, the wife, says maybe I’ve become more empathetic, but I think I’ve always been that way and she never knew me as not a writer. She also says, if I’d become incredibly wealthy by going into the lucrative sticky note business like I’d planned, I’d be a spoiled, out of touch asshole. Having to sacrifice for art builds character. And maybe when I was young/younger I was somewhat of an asshole, but an empathetic one. I’ve mellowed, but that could be age as much as being a writer. And I’m still not all that mellow, ask said wife.

The Egg and I, where Bouchercon was held in Albany, NY

One thing the writing life has changed is that I travel to places I might not have gone to. When there’s a convention, like Bouchercon, in a city we wouldn’t necessarily have gone to, like Albany or Raleigh, it gives us a chance to see those places. And what we generally do is book 2-3 extra days after the convention so we can see the city. When I was nominated for the Shamus and found out the awards ceremony, which is usually held in conjunction with Bouchercon, was in Albany I turned to said wife and said, “Albany!?” Because it’s not a place I ever thought I would go…or want to go. But go we did, attending Bouchercon and the Shamus ceremony. And then taking a little time to explore the area, which we ended up liking. It’s sort of like a quaint New England town, even though it’s the capital of the state with the busiest city in the world – or one of them.

Quaint neighborhood in Albany, NY
And, as Cathy mentioned, there’s less time for pleasure reading. In fact, I get asked to blurb so much that I have next to no time to read for pleasure. And to that end, I’ve put up on Café Noir, my personal blog page (, and have been telling people that I’m instituting a (long) moratorium on blurbing. I’m also putting a moratorium on judging awards. I enjoy it, but it’s really time consuming, especially because I try to read every word of every story.

So, as they say, the more things (me) change, the more they stay the same. And the bottom line is it hasn’t helped my hair grow back. What about you – how has the writing life changed you as a person?


And now for the usual BSP.

I’m happy to say that my short story “Bunker Hill Blues” is in the current Sept./Oct. issue of Ellery Queen that hit newsstands Tuesday of this week. It’s the sequel to the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll winner and current Macavity Award nominee “Ghosts of Bunker Hill”. And I’m surprised and thrilled to say that I made the cover of the issue – my first time as a 'cover boy'! Hope you’ll want to check it out. Available at all the usual places.

My story “Blood Moon” appears in “Day of the Dark, Stories of the Eclipse” from Wildside Press, edited by Kaye George. Stories about the eclipse – just in time for the real eclipse on August 21st. Twenty-four stories in all. Available on Amazon.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Happy Book Birthday to Me!

I'm going off-piste because THE WEIGHT OF ANGELS is out today in the UK. (HOUSE. TREE. PERSON as it's called in the US is out on the 8th of September).

I'm going to answer the question: "Where do you get your ideas?", since for once I actually know. The premise, plot and title of HOUSE-TREE-PERSON fell into my head in one piece. Okay, that plot is now only one strand of the story, but it's the main one.

I was at the Writer's Police Academy in Wisconsin in 2015, at Katherine Ramsland's session on the psychology of child serial killers. She put up some slides of "the house-tree-person test", which is a (discredited, I must say) method of diagnosing personality disorders and scoring general mental health. Quite simply, the clinician asks the subject to draw a house and a tree and a person and then interprets the picture.

Dr Ramsland showed pictures by healthy members of the general population, with no psychiatric diagnoses. These were . . . normal (boring). She also showed us pictures by some quite unwell people, which were . . . far from normal. Poor wee scones; I can't think of many things more frightening than full psychosis, can you? To be in such distress, with the added horror of other people not believing that the monsters are real?  Dreadful.

Setting aside all sympathy, (writers are allowed to have a sliver of ice in the heart, right?) what interested me most was the question of the pictures people draw when they're deliberately trying to mislead the doctor. When they're faking.

Presented without comment


My book had arrived. I spent the rest of the hour in Dr Ramsland's class furiously scribbling the bare bones of a tale about two women, one who draws ever more baroque houses (and trees and persons) and one who only ever draws, in the top left-hand corner of the paper, a tiny square bisected by a vertical line and a horizontal line.

If you want to find out what this picture means . . . as I said, the book is out today in the UK and coming to the US on the 8th of September.

What do you think of the two covers and titles, since we're on the subject of interpreting pictures anyway?

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

In for a Cathy Ace

(Besides getting rich) how has the writing life changed you as a person?

Now I’ve stopped laughing at the first bit of the question, I’ll admit this is an interesting one. The first thing that comes to mind is that it’s changed me as a reader. And I don’t think in a good way. Why? Well, I read a lot less these days (my TBR pile is a disgrace), and when I do read, I read differently.

Why don’t I read as much? It’s not because I’m afraid that I’ll suddenly begin to write like the author I’m reading, or that I’ll become enraged if I stumble across a plot device I imagine I’ve just invented for the first time EVER . . . no, it’s because – simply – I don’t have time. I know, I know, we all lead horrifically busy lives these days, so I really should explain what I mean. I’m supposed to be a “full time author”. What is that? Well, if you know, please tell me . . . because, as far as I can see it means I “work” all day at my desk doing stuff that’s related to, but not, writing . . . then I’m up until 2am doing whatever actual writing my feeble brain is capable of. My days and nights, indeed I would say my every waking hour, are full of words. If I try to stuff any more in there, in the shape of those put on the page by others, I suspect my head might explode.

Checking final proofs on the back deck
Reading was always a form of delightfully engaging entertainment, escapism, relaxation (even when pounding through a thriller) and – yes – even indulgence, for me. Since I was a child the worlds in books are those I’ve chosen to inhabit when I need my “own space”. Now? To relax, I watch TV and movies, where I know I can allow an entire tale to flow over me in an hour or two, without me having to clamber through grammar or constantly worry about pace (see below). The only time I read now – in anything like the way I used to – is on holiday. Then it’s two weeks of books, books, books! I love it. I even manage to get back to the way I used to read . . . almost.

I used to read in a way that allowed the book to flow through me and over me, enjoying the story as well as the storytelling. Now I cannot help myself but stop to consider the construction of sentences, paragraphs and chapters. I’m always niggling about pacing, and I find it increasingly difficult to “lose myself” in a book. It’s truly annoying. 

Apart from that, how has the writing life changed me? It’s allowed me a really good excuse to live life the way I prefer it – in solitude. It’s allowed me to have an absorbing focus when I finally get around to domestic chores (which I hate) or gardening (which I love) – plotting. It’s allowed me to become involved with a community of like-minded people who are the only ones who know what it’s like to feel the bottomless void open beneath you when you know another revision is needed, and the stomach-churning terror when you have to press “Send” two minutes before your deadline knowing it’s not perfect, then telling yourself it never will be, because perfection isn’t possible. 

The writing life has changed me in too many ways to count, I suppose. In fact, it’s changed me in probably every way. Why? Because when you are a writer, being a writer becomes your entire life. It has done for me, in any case. It’s changed everything except the essence of me. I've always been a "200%" person, and that's never going to change. So my life is "200%" writing, and writing-associated effort. I just have to try to squeeze in some more reading along the way! You know what they say: "In for a penny, in for a pound." 

Cathy Ace is the Bony Blithe Award-winning author of The Cait Morgan Mysteries and The WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (#4, The Case of the Unsuitable Suitor will be released in hardcover in the UK in September 2017 and in the USA & Canada on January 1st 2018).  You can find out more about Cathy, her work and her characters at her website, where you can also sign up for her newsletter with news, updates and special offers: