Thursday, September 28, 2017

Cart before the Horse?

As a writer, what do you make of readers who flip to the end and see what happens last first?

Hmm. This is something I doubt I would ever do. I like the journey a story tells and wouldn't want to arrive before I've left the station. We’ve even coined a phrase that demonstrates our passion for being surprised by an ending: spoiler alert. But people like to do things their own way, and I get that. As a matter of fact, I hate it when others comment on, say, what I like to eat and when. So vive la diffĂ©rence, I suppose.

But as a writer, I will comment on the implications of reading the ending first. First, the whole plotter-vs.-pantser issue. For writers who outline and plot out their books extensively, a reader jumping to the ending and ignoring all the narrative gymnastics the author has gone through seems disappointing. And for the pantser, who followed instincts and flashes of imagination along the way, then painstakingly revised to make sure everything was neatly woven together and makes sense, it also seems unfair. But who said the world had to be fair to writers?

Second, I've said many times in public settings that I believe writing a novel is an exercise in putting off the ending for as long as possible, while keeping the reader entertained along the way. So in that spirit, reading the ending before its time is a circumvention of my wishes as an author. But you know what? If you've paid for my book, you're free to use it any way you please. Read it backwards. Read every other page. Read with one eye closed. Listen to it, wait for the movie, or—better yet—the Blu-ray. Hell, wait for the VHS if you’re so inclined, I don't care. The important thing is to enjoy the experience.

And that's what should be at the core of reading, after all. Enjoyment of some kind. I have a terrible fear of heights. That means I do not enjoy Ferris wheels or roller coasters or looking over the lip of the Grand Canyon from behind a sturdy barrier. It's a visceral reaction that I cannot control or intellectualize beyond the obvious: falling from great heights is not advised.
"Gravity unleashed is a risky proposition at best," as one of my characters observed in HEART OF STONE.
But would I dictate that buildings be limited to two stories? That amusement parks stick to spinning tea cups and kiddie trains? Or tightrope walkers be institutionalized for their own protection? No. Live and let live, I say. Or better yet, given my fear of heights, live and let die.

I'd like to make one last observation in the form of a question: Does anyone skip to the end of a movie or a television show to watch the ending first? I may be wrong, but I don't think people do. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Closing thoughts on opening lines

by Dietrich Kalteis

As a writer, what do you make of readers who flip to the end and see what happens last first?

Flipping to the end of a novel to find out how it ends is like reaching under the Christmas tree when no one’s around and unwrapping a present, getting a sneak-peek, then rewrapping it, and trying to act surprised Christmas morning. To me, that just ruins the moment. 

The ending to a good novel is the wrap up of everything that came before. At times the author may hint at several possibilities to a story’s ending, or throw some last minute twists and surprises to keep the reader from predicting the ending. Maybe for some people, novels should come with spoiler alert stickers. 

William Goldman said, “The key to all story end­ings is to give the audi­ence what it wants, but not in the way it expects.”

While the ending to a good story is like the punchline to a good joke, I’m more interested in the first few pages of a book — the opening. If it doesn’t grab me, I may not read much more before putting the book down. If it doesn’t grab me, I won’t keep turning pages to see what the ending holds in store.

There’s a lot of promise in a strong opening, and it’s hard to imagine putting a book down that starts like this:

Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern.
Dennis Lehane, Live by Night

As Roy Dillon stumbled out of the shop his face was a sickish green, and each breath he drew was an incredible agony. A hard blow in the guts can do that to a man, and Dillon had gotten a hard one. Not with a fist, which would have been bad enough, but from the butt-end of a heavy club.
Charles Willeford, Miami Blue

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. — James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss

Dennis Lenahan the high diver would tell people that if you put a fifty-cent piece on the floor and looked down at it, that's what the tank looked like from the top of that eighty-foot steel ladder. — Elmore Leonard, Tishomingo Blues

Great opening lines are real grabbers, but a great book is a combination of all the story elements that have to work together to keep me turning the pages. It’s the writer’s voice, the pace, plot, conflict, setting, and the characters and their dialog. And when it’s all working together, it’s like magic. I recently finished The Force by Don Winslow and it was like that for me, the story just fired on all cylinders. Another one I just read that was hard to put down was Trouble in Paradise, Robert B. Parker’s second Jesse Stone novel, and one of his best.

While I love to discover authors I’ve never read before, the greats are always worth revisiting because they just did everything so well. And although I already know the story’s outcome, I like to reread classics by Hemingway, Steinbeck and Salinger from time to time — those rare authors who mastered every aspect of a great story, from the opening line to the final scene. And there are great crime writers who I’ve read more than once authors like Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, James Crumley, and Charles Willeford.

So, if a novel can be this great adventure, with a killer opening, interesting characters and dialog, with exciting and unexpected twists, and told in a voice that resonates, why flip to the last few pages to see how it ends?

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Like eating dessert before the meal

By R.J. Harlick

As a writer, what do you make of readers who flip to the end and see what happens last first?

It’s a little like having the lemon meringue pie, profiterole or whatever your favourite dessert is, before savouring the other equally scrumptious dishes of a meal.  It spoils your taste buds. A good meal is designed to gradually build up your taste buds until they explode with the piece de resistance of dessert.

A good book, be it a crime novel or other kind of fiction, works much the same way. Each forward progression of the story line increases the tension until it is released with the grand finale of the ending, leaving the reader with a satisfying sense of completion.  If a reader knows the ending from the start, this is lost as is all the effort the author went to in trying to build up this tension and lead the reader astray.

I, for one, can’t imagine sneaking a peek at the ending before reading the entire book. I will even close my eyes if I accidentally open it at the ending. But that said, I do re-read books, ones I have particularly enjoyed and of course I know the ending at the outset. But usually I re-read them because I enjoyed the journey in getting there. And if a book is especially well-written I will glean more information about the characters and the story with each successive re-reading.

Nonetheless I can’t fault a reader for checking the ending first. Many readers do it because they have difficulty dealing with the suspense that is created. I’m that way with key games of my favourite hockey team. I want them to win so much, that I can’t bear to watch the play-by-play of the actual game. I’d much rather pretend there is no game happening and be pleasantly surprised when they win.  I also understand those readers who are so totally engaged in a series character that they have to assure themselves at the outset of a book that their favourite character survives to continue on into the next one.

As for readers that flip to the end with my own books, I really don’t care.  They are reading the books. That’s all that matters.

And now for the latest happenings in Meg’s world. A little over two weeks to go before Purple Palette for Murder is released in Canada.  In the US, it will be released Nov. 7. But if you are coming to Bouchercon, you will be able to get a copy before your friends and a signed copy at that.

Speaking of Bouchercon, I am on the Friday at 2:00 panel, Mysteries steeped in different cultures. I will also be participating, I hope, in the Speed Dating fun, bright and early Thursday morning at 8:00.  I will also be hanging out in the hospitality room on Saturday at 10:30 and 2:30 as part of the Canadian Crime Writers initiative. 

I'm looking forward to seeing many of you in Toronto!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Skipping to the End

As a writer, what do you make of readers who flip to the end to see what happens last first?"

As a mystery writer, I work diligently to set up clues, red herrings, and relationships among my characters to keep readers guessing, but also so they can play along with the game. I want readers to be intrigued by the journey to figuring out whodunit. I want them to be satisfied that when they end comes, they have been able to participate and that they “should have” or “could have” guessed the solution.

So it came as a surprise to me to find out that a friend of mine often reads the end first to find out what happened before she gets involved in the story. At first I was appalled. The element of surprise is important to me, especially in crime fiction. As a reader I like to match my wits with the author and with the detective, amateur or professional. I like to follow the clues and even if I guess the end, it’s satisfying when I find out if I’m right or wrong.

My friend explained to me that she could not enjoy the story if she didn’t know how it ended. It didn’t so much matter whether it ended well or not for the characters. Even if it ended badly, at least she wasn’t anxious while she was reading. That way she could enjoy the language and the nuance in the author’s work.

She made a good case. I have occasionally had a similar impulse, but it involves watching sports. Sometimes I get so caught up in a basketball game—my sport of choice--that I’m nervous about the outcome. My husband and I always tape the games so we can watch them without commercials. Sometimes I go on-line and sneak a look at the final score—not so I can stop watching, but so that I can enjoy the nuance of the game—who played well, who was having an off night, how the team developed the game. Like with my friend the reader, when I skip ahead it doesn’t matter so much who won. I want to watch the beauty of the game.

I think my friend can make a good argument that we sometimes miss a deeper reading of a book because we are so caught up in how it turns out. That’s why I sometimes read a book again. I know I have rushed forward wanting to know the fate of the characters. I’m reading a Tana French book right now, and I have to make myself slow down to appreciate her astute descriptions and observations about the world of cops.

To me, it would feel like cheating if I skipped to the end. But I can’t fault other readers for how they read. I’m the writer and when I put a book out there, I have to let it go into the world and hope it stands up on its own—no matter how anyone tackles it.