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 différence, 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?

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.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Rainy Day Rewind

If you were kitting out a holiday cottage (vacation rental) what would you put on the bookshelf for rainy days?

by Paul D. Marks

Rainy days and reading just seem to go together, don’t they? Besides the obvious of being stuck inside I wonder why, something about atmosphere and ambience. I’m going to talk about books that I’d like to re-read. There’s an argument to be made for not re-reading but only reading new things, but you get more out of something the second time. You already know the plot so you can pick up on the nuances. Plus, I almost never like to talk about contemporary writers because I know many of them and if I were to leave someone out I wouldn’t want to engender hurt feelings, so I’ll stick with the tried and true.

Rainy weather’s always good for reading mysteries, so I’ll start with some of those. But it’s good for other things as well.

So, in no particular order, books for a rainy day to re-read:

The first thing that comes to mind for a rainy day in my kitted out cottage would be Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, of course. I’m always up for re-reading both of them, maybe The Long Goodbye and The Galton Case respectively. And the atmosphere in Chandler’s books seems to beg for a rainy day.

Another book I would love to re-read is Down There by David Goodis. I’ve probably talked about this before, but I discovered Goodis through the movies. (That’s how I came to Chandler as well.) I love the Bogie-Bacall movie Dark Passage. After having seen that movie several times I decided to look up the writer who wrote the book it’s based on. It was Goodis. So I gave Dark Passage a read and the rest, as they say, is history. I loved the dark vision of the “poet of the losers”. My fave of his is Down There, on which the Truffaut movie Shoot the Piano Player is based. But I don’t like the movie very much at all.

Monte Walsh by Jack Schaefer, the guy who wrote Shane, and The Shootist, by Glendon Swarthout. Both are about people who’ve outlived their times. The world is changing, passing them by. A theme I both like reading about and writing about.

Double Jeopardy by Martin A. Goldsmith. This is the novel that Detour, the quintessential B noir movie, is based on. It’s the only book on this list that I haven’t read already. It’s my understanding that it’s somewhat different from the movie and I’m curious to see how. I love the movie, abbreviated as it is, and I really want to check out the novel.

Tapping the Source, by Kem Nunn, is a cult novel that the term “surf noir” might have been invented for. A young guy goes to Huntington Beach to find his missing sister. Simple enough. He soon becomes involved in the surfing lifestyle and the rivalries between surfers and bikers…and surfing bikers. I absolutely love this book! So much so that I checked into the film rights for it, but they were taken. So apparently I’m not the only one. And it’s my understanding that the movie Point Break is a consolation prize of sorts for those filmmakers, who also wanted to do Tapping the Source, but couldn’t.

The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati, is a novel about waiting for something that never happens – and no, it’s not about waiting for your clams in some snobby restaurant so you can put tartar sauce on them. And no, it’s not about waiting for some guy name Godot. A soldier is posted at the Tartar Steppe, hoping to be called upon to show his courage and bravery in the glory of battle. Time slips by – he grows old – and the wished for attack is always just beyond the horizon. Lots of subtext here.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (père): The ultimate revenge novel needs no description. But I believe this is what led to the saying “revenge is a dish best served cold”. I love revenge stories and this is the Big Daddy of them all. And the way Edmond Dantes gets revenge on his nemeses is clever, brilliant and very satisfying.

Ask the Dust by John Fante is a must read for any writers living in Los Angeles. If for nothing else but to marvel at how someone could still eke out a living writing short stories. It’s also a must read for anyone interested in L.A. The setting is Los Angeles in the 1930s, in the “shabby town,” in Chandler’s words, of Bunker Hill. I discovered Fante and this book before the new surge of interest in him and was so impressed that I wrote to him at his home. Unfortunately he was already so sick by then that I didn’t hear back, or maybe I wouldn’t have anyway after some of the things I’ve heard about him.

World’s Fair by E.L. Doctorow (or maybe I should leave the periods out of his initials…). Probably my favorite coming of age story about a boy growing up around the time
of the 1939 World’s Fair.

And, of course I would want to re-read my favorite book: The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. A book which is, at the risk of sounding corny, about a man seeking the meaning of life. But a book that I could relate to on many levels and which deeply affected my life in many ways.

What about you? What are you packing off for your holiday rainy days, to read anew or re-read?


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. 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 Ellery Queen, newstands and 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. Twenty-four stories in all. Available on Amazon.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Great Idea Robbery

Catriona writes: I am on a fortnight's holiday  (US = two weeks' vacation) but with fortunate timing, my friend, writer and Bloody Scotland organiser Gordon Brown, is here in my place, talking about a sequel I'm delighted to be hearing about, an idea decades in the making, and  - you don't see these every day - an actual honest-to-goodness McGuffin.

Take it away, Gordon.

On the 8th of August 1963, the most famous robbery in UK history occurred when a Royal Mail train, running from Glasgow to London, was raided. The robbers got away with £2.6m (worth about $60m in today’s money). The robbery has achieved almost mythical proportions in the intervening years. The audacity and scale of the raid has engraved the episode in the British psyche. For the older generation, the phrase ‘The Great Train Robbery’ conjures up a mixture of emotions and still serves as a go-to phrase when they want to describe any theft that falls short of being spectacular – ‘It’s hardly the Great Train Robbery.’
It was far from the perfect crime. Most of the perpetrators were caught - amazingly some of the crooks decided to play Monopoly with real money while hiding out at a farm – leaving their fingerprints all over the cash – no need for the services of Sherlock Holmes on this one.
Over five decades later you would have thought that every detail about the robbery would have been exposed. Only this isn’t the case. Of the eighteen gang members, the identity of three is still not known. It took until 2014 to identify the insider, nicknamed ‘The Ulsterman’, as a guy called Pat McKenna. Most of the money was never recovered and conspiracies abound as to where it all went. There have been countless books written about the robbery and every so often Hollywood play with making a movie about it.

So why in the hell am I droning on about a crime from the sixties? I was a year old when it happened. I probably sat in front of the TV and watched the news that night, sucking a rusk and drinking my milk. Back then the whole world was open in front of me. I could have been an astronaut. Maybe a stellar entrepreneur? Or what about lion tamer? Truth is I wasn’t clear on what I wanted to do but I knew what I liked – music and books. It never occurred to me that this was any more than a personal interest. Something I indulged in when it was ‘me time’.

Roll forward to 2009 and I’m sitting in a book shop signing copies of my first novel ‘Falling’.
Who knew that I could eke a living from people who wanted to read what’s in my head? Tumble forward to 2010 and I get a chance to be a DJ on a local radio station? Who knew I could subject the masses to my own favourite tunes?  Keep moving in time and we arrive at 2016. Eric Campbell of Down & Out Books, whom I’d met at the Left Coast Crime Festival in Colorado a few years earlier, published Falling for the US market. The following year I’m in the final stages of launching three thrillers, the Craig McIntyre series, in the UK when Eric Skypes me and says, ‘Gordon are you up for a sequel to Falling?’

Falling was never intended to be a series. Set in Scotland, it stars Charlie Wiggs, a quiet, unassuming accountant who falls into the world of crime and is faced with three simple choices – go on the run for the rest of his life, fight back or die. At the end of the book he was supposed to retire to the backwaters of the accountancy world and live happily ever after. But now he’d have to be pulled, kicking and screaming, into the limelight once more.
This is where the Great Train Robbery rears its head. I was walking in the hills above the River Clyde with my wife Lesley. The panorama laid out before us was stunning. The isle of Arran lay in the distance, snow still covering the top of Goat Fell. The Bute ferry was ploughing white foam in front of it as it slid across the river, and the sky was the sort of blue that winter can only bring.

I’m bouncing ideas around for the new Charlie Wiggs book around with Lesley when I mention that Alabama 3, a country/blues/electronic band I like, are on tour. I mention that I had only just found out that Nick Reynolds, the band’s harmonica player, was the son of the Great Train Robbery gang leader Bruce Richard Reynolds (they even have a song named after Bruce). With so much mystery surrounding the robbery I had an idea - what if the real mastermind behind the robbery had never received the credit? What if, after all these years, he now wants to show the world that he was the man behind it all? Next I put a crime lord on the run, a man who claims that he came up with the idea for the robbery. I place his worldly goods on a train as he flees the country, pursued by the police, and I ensure that train will cross the same bridge where the Great Train Robbery took place. Then all I have to do is place a stolen object on the train -  an object that Charlie Wiggs simply has to get back – and the only way he can retrieve it is to be part of the Great Train Robbery 2. And what  ill I call this new book – Falling Too – why not? after all it’s a sequel to Falling. 


Falling Too is published by Down & Out Books and for a limited time Down & Books have reduced Falling to 99 cents for the eBook copy. Click here for both.

You can also find out more about Gordon at 

Bio: Gordon Brown lives in Scotland but splits his time between the UK and Spain. He’s married with two children. He also helped launch Bloody Scotland - Scotland’s International Crime Writing Festival.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Sweet Sixteen! by Cathy Ace

“If you were kitting out a holiday cottage (vacation rental) what would you put on the bookshelf for rainy days?" 

1) There’s ONE bookshelf in this place??? What sort of a rental service am I running??
2) If space is tight, I’ll have to go with a small but wide(ish) selection
3) I’ll assume I’m only going to rent the place to people who like to read what I like to read!

In no particular order (and hoping you like crime, spies and mythologies):

Agatha Christie: “And Then There Were None” – a lot of people have seen a TV or stage production, but many haven’t read the book! They should :-) 

Colin Dexter: “Last Bus to Woodstock” – written during a rainy holiday in Wales, this is the first Inspector Morse book…as with Christie’s book, above, I find many people have watched Morse but fewer have read the books. They are excellent!

Elly Griffiths: “The Chalk Pit” – any Elly Griffiths book is a joy to read, but this was the last one I read, so it’s on the list!

Lee Child: “Worth Dying For” I enjoy all the Reacher books, but this is the most recent I read

PD James: “The Murder Room” – same as above (though in this case it was RE-read!)

The Mabinogion – Welsh mythological tales, which take a LONG time to read (just in case it’s raining for weeks!) 

JRR Tolkein: “The Lord of the Rings” – it’s always worth having this book around, because it’s a wonderful read from cover to cover, and takes a long time to get through!

John le Carré: “A Legacy of Spies” – I haven’t read it yet, but George Smiley is back and I cannot wait….so I’ll buy it, read it and pop it into the cottage

Len Deighton: the Bernard Samson trilogy “Faith”, “Hope”, and “Charity” – I cannot get enough of this man’s writing, hence needing three books of his on the shelf…besides, it’s only fair to allow a reader to finish a trilogy.

Linwood Barclay: the Promise Falls trilogy – same as above!

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: