November 26 – December 2: “Which comes first, the reader or the story?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5The reader or the story? Which comes first and why? This week we’re joined by ITW members Jon Land, G. A. Chamberlin, DiAnn Mills, Judy Penz Sheluk, Tom Pitts, Vicky Delany, Bruce Robert Coffin, Lynn Cahoon, Jay Gertzman and Roger Angle. Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along!


Lynn Cahoon is the author of the NYT and USA Today best-selling Tourist Trap cozy mystery series. Guidebook to Murder, book 1 of the series, won the Reader’s Crown for Mystery Fiction. She also pens the Cat Latimer series available in mass market paperback with Slay in Character coming in late 2018. In addition to releasing Who Moved my Goat Cheese in March as part of the new Farm to Fork series, Killer Green Tomatoes released July 3rd, 2018.


Jon Land is the award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of 45 books, including nine titles in the critically acclaimed Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong series, the most recent of which, STRONG TO THE BONE, won both the 2017 American Book Fest and 2018 International Book Award for Best Mystery. The next title in the series, STRONG AS STEEL, will be published in April. MANUSCRIPT FOR marks his second effort writing as Jessica Fletcher for the MURDER, SHE WROTE series.


Roger Angle writes novels and short fiction but started out life as a poet. He has published more than 20 poems and short prose pieces in literary journals, in addition to thousands of newspaper stories and dozens of magazine articles. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter in 1967 and won the Random House short fiction contest in 1999 with “Casualty of War” about a narcissist in a relationship. Recent publications include a comic thriller “The Hit-Man” in Murder at the Beach, published by Down & Out Books in 2014. THE DISAPPEARANCE OF MAGGIE COLLINS is his first published novel. Angle lives in Southern California.


Bruce Robert Coffin is the bestselling author of the Detective Byron mystery series and former detective sergeant with more than twenty-seven years in law enforcement. At the time of his retirement from the Portland, Maine police department, he supervised all homicide and violent crime investigations for Maine’s largest city. Following the terror attacks of September 11th, Bruce spent four years working counter-terrorism with the FBI, earning the Director’s Award, the highest honor a non-agent can receive. His short fiction appears in several anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2016.


DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She creates action-packed, suspense-filled novels to thrill readers. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. She is co-director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writer’s Conference and Mountainside Marketing Conference


Judy Penz Sheluk is the Amazon international bestselling author of the Glass Dolphin Mysteries and the Marketville Mysteries. Her short stories appear in several collections. Judy is also a member of Sisters in Crime International, Sisters in Crime – Guppies, Sisters in Crime – Toronto, International Thriller Writers, Inc., the South Simcoe Arts Council, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and Crime Writers of Canada, where she serves on the Board of Directors, representing Toronto/Southwestern Ontario.


Tom Pitts received his education on the streets of San Francisco. He remains there, working, writing, and trying to survive. He is the author of American Static, Hustle, and the novellas Piggyback and Knuckleball.




Vicki Delany is one of Canada’s most prolific and varied crime writers and a national bestseller in the U.S. She has written more than twenty-five books: clever cozies to Gothic thrillers to gritty police procedurals, to historical fiction and novellas for adult literacy. She is the author of the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop cozy mystery series, from Crooked Lane books, featuring Gemma Doyle, an Englishwoman with a mind much like that of the Great Detective, who owns a Holmes-themed bookshop on Cape Cod. She also writes the Year Round Christmas series for Penguin Random House and, under the pen name of Eva Gates, the Lighthouse Library series for Crooked Lane Books. Vicki lives and writes in bucolic Prince Edward County, Ontario. She is the past president of the Crime Writers of Canada. Her work has been nominated for the Derringer, the Bony Blithe, the Ontario Library Association Golden Oak, and the Arthur Ellis Awards.


Jay Gertzman has spent half a lifetime thinking about the distinctions between “art” or “literature” and popular entertainment. From what have artists graduated when their erotica or thrillers are published by Penguin or Vintage or produced by Paramount? Gertzman has published books on the distribution and censorship of erotica in the 1920s and ’30s, and on the poet and pornographer Samuel Roth. His Pulp According to David Goodis was published on  October 29.


G. A. Chamberlin is the author of the Amanda Wells Series of thrillers under the imprint Crown Eagle Publishing. Her latest, The Kneeling Woman, is her ninth in the series. She is an indie-published author under the imprint, where she also wrote one non-fiction title, Kathleen The War Years — a scholarly account of U.S. overseas diplomacy during WWII.



  1. I’m a Libra, I try to see both sides of an argument, but I’m having difficulty seeing the other side here. I’m sure my co-bloggers this week will be able to show me the way so I’m jumping in with an answer.

    The story always comes first. Even if you have no readers. I’m a genre whore, in a nice, pleasant way. I love writing in different genres. I have a horror short story on my desktop. Along with a woman’s fiction, a thriller, a witchcraft cozy, a contemporary (think modern western) romance and a witchcraft romantic suspense. The last two are published under my pen name, Lynn Collins. Why am I all over the board? Because the stories spoke to me.

    I may never write horror, but this short has been calling my name forever. Or at least it was until I spent a week of lunch hours finishing it.

    The woman’s fiction story, I can feel the first chapter calling to me. I can hear the waves lapping on the boat dock, the trees whispering in the gentle wind around my character. But it doesn’t fit my brand right now and I have other stories with louder voices. And some with deadlines.

    So I’m not writing to market, I’m writing to brand. And hoping there’s a market out there for the stories I want to tell.


  2. This is a great question. I had to stop and think about it.

    My answer is: The reader. These days.

    I’ve written more than 30 published books and the subgenre of the mystery novels I write has changed over my career. In the beginning I had “something to say”. Whether about life in families, the refugee experience, the changing role of women, police corruption, in earlier books the story came first. What I had to say. I wrote three standalone suspense novels and an eight-book police procedural series. I hope I never preached in those books, but I might have had a point or two to make. So, I guess you’d say I came up with what I wanted to say and I wrote about it. And then I hoped readers would like it.

    But these days I’m writing cozy novels, and the experience is different. Cozies, almost by definition, don’t address sweeping themes and they rarely, if ever, have a political or social message. I try to write my cozy novels to meet the readers’ expectations of what that means.

    So the reader comes first.

  3. In my opinion, it is the story.

    In each of my novels I seek to write a very specific story. The decisions I make are based solely on whether or not they will enhance the story I want to tell. I think the only time I pause to consider reader reaction is when I’m plotting the mystery aspect. I never want the reader to feel like they know what is coming next.

    As a writer I feel it is important to trust your instincts. If you’ve already built a readership following then the readers must already like what you are serving up or they wouldn’t return to the table. You must continue to trust that and put the story first.

  4. When I started writing, I wanted write a book that I would enjoy reading. I still do that, though I probably think more about other readers (based on reviews) than I used to. But in the end, I write the story I’d like to read, and hope others will feel the same way.

  5. “Which comes first, the reader or the story?”

    That’s always an interesting question: Since the publishing industry creates both content at the top end, and a consumer market at the bottom end, the answer is largely found in the space in-between. If the culture is driven exclusively by sales and readership, then the reader comes first. If its occupied by information, wonder and story-telling then…well, that’s the magic of what publisher’s do, isn’t it?


  6. —————————–
    Which comes first, the reader or the story?
    I’m a reader of noir mysteries not a writer of them. From my perspective the story comes first. Readers of Chandler, Hammett, McCoy, Goodis, Highsmith and Dorothy Hughes (to name a few noir scribes) like crime stories in which the human motivations that started the narrative are still present at the end. They are perhaps mutated into other characters–or, as Jim Thompson put it, into “all of us.” The archetype of such stories is the Old Testament (Jeptha and his daughter, Saul and his son, David and his). The noir writer’s story contains elements that, liberated in his imagination, bring to readers’ consciousness unarticulated nightmares or stifled needs. They are universal, and were deep in the human animal since the days when the bible was written.
    One long-used element of mystery is Grand Guignol. The pulp publishers of the 30s discovered this entertainment in Paris, and imported it to found the “shudder,” or “weird menace,” pulps. Grand Guignol is rampant in the bloodletting not only in Spillane, but of course in Thompson. The gang boss in Goodis’ STREET OF THE LOST is called “a walking slaughterhouse,” and at the end his victims literally slaughter him. Adults’ fascination with violence is a constant. It was especially the case after a war, where returning vets found themselves addicted to avoiding being slaughtered themselves.
    Another staple is sexual violence. Three of James M Cain’s most famous passages describe a wife and her lover making violent love immediately after the killing of her husband; another couple making love on the altar of an abandoned church; and a third, estranged, pair jumping over the side of a ship as sharks await. American and British literary critics explain wild landscapes, ghost towns, decrepit mansions, and low-life dives of southern and Western Gothic as essential to finding a sense of identity, the price being “a foretaste of hell.” That’s what we see in writers like Poe, Flannery O’Conner, Robert Bloch (PSYCHO), Barry Gifford (PERDITO DURANGO), Daniel Woodrell (WINTER’S BONE), and Harry Crews (A FEAST OF SNAKES).

    Readers have also found “FEEL-GOOD”) story elements to have timeless appeal: the tough but tender hero (as a Black Mask editor suggested), help from an unexpected source (the sidekick or the quietly principled man or woman in the precinct houses, thieves’ dens, long distance buses, taxis, tenement kitchens, or hash counters), and law-abiding citizen’s secret desire for assertion. The latter is perhaps the most ubiquitous sign of the “passive adventurer” for whom the crime novel has always been irresistible. Mickey Spillane addressed them from the get-go: “You’re doing it now, getting ready to fill in a normal life with the details of someone else’s experiences. . . . . Oh, it’s great to watch all right. Life through a keyhole. . . .” And he had all the tools to do it.

  7. Okay, this may sound like a cop-out, but I’m going to say that it’s both because it’s impossible to disconnect the story from the reader, just like you can’t disconnect a film from the audience. Writers are like film directors in that our content is based on trying to illicit a certain response. So when I conceive a story, I’m not necessarily thinking of the reader other than in the broad sense of will the concept appeal to a broad audience. But once I start writing, everything I do–from my “hook” chapter openings to my cliffhanger chapter closes–is with the reader in mind. I’m always asking myself WHAT IS GOING TO MAKE THE READER KEEP TURNING THE PAGES and that’s why it’s impossible to disconnect the reader from the story. Make sense?

  8. Interesting discussion. When I start a story, I never think about the reader, because I don’t know who the reader is, or what the reader likes. There are so many different types of readers with so many different tastes.

    If you look at the reviews on, no writer pleases everyone. One of my family members didn’t like my short comic mystery story “The Hit-Man,” published in “Murder at the Beach,” the Bouchercon 2014 anthology. But it is one of my favorites.

    I guess in a way I write for myself as a reader. I assume the reader is seeking the same things I am: excitement, a world I can believe in, characters I give a damn about, a moral dilemma or dangerous problem that lures me in and pulls me forward, a story that will sweep me away.

    And the first reader I try to please is me.

    My goal is to keep you up all night. I love the kind of book you can’t put down. I don’t always get there, but I try.

  9. Roger raises some excellent points, as everyone has been doing so far! I’d like to raise something, though: Would any of us actually write a book if we didn’t feel confident it would appeal to readers as much as it does to us? In other words, doesn’t an idea need to be saleable/marketable? This is why I say it’s impossible to separate story from reader, since we all want to write what gives us the best opportunity to maximize our audience. Remember, we are all the first to read what we write, our own initial audience. And one of the keys to being a great storyteller is to be able to objectively view our work from the outside looking in as well as the inside looking out.

  10. I’ve wrestled with this for days, and I think I have an answer. At least for me, the two occur simultaneously. I know my brand and what kind of story my readers expect. So my imagination spins off into a storyline that incorporates my type of story woven with what my readers anticipate. And it must be a story I’d enjoy reading.

    The process must have both elements. But I’m also a bit adventuresome. The challenge of venturing into a tough plot or adding more complexity to a character makes the writing exciting for me—and I hope the reader.

  11. Without question, the story. I learned from rock n roll that the audience can tell if the artist is second-guessing the audience. However, this doesn’t mean that the reader doesn’t get consideration. The whole piece, after all, is for the reader. I think if you are preoccupied with what the reader requires, then your story isn’t direct, pure, if you will. And I think the reader senses that. Respect the reader enough to give them the best story you can, from your heart, uncensored.

  12. Films are produced and released often after exhaustive research into what the audience for that film is and how best to reach them. Books seldom if ever enjoy that kind of marketing research, but the principle remains the same. Films are made with the expectation of attracting an audience and books are published with the expectation of attracting readers. In both cases, that process starts with story and we as authors are no different than filmmakers in the sense that we want our to be accessible enough to reach the widest possible audience.

    1. I think perhaps it’s a blessing authors aren’t subjected to research and focus groups. One thing that’s true of film making, because of it’s very nature, is collaboration. It requires a lot of collaboration, and that often gives birth to compromise. An author gets to wear all the hats when he creates a story: director, screenwriter, editor, and actor. I think that’s a great advantage the writer has over movie makers.

  13. Tom, I think you’re on to something. Given that publishing material is oxygen to any free society, we do have to recognize its orchestrating role as filter while developing something worthy… and staying in business as an enterprise!

  14. The freedom of writing for pulp paperback “throwaways” in the 1950, as opposed to writing for movies, is very interesting, esp when considering the paperback originals. A hired screenwriter created a “treatment” and hoped the the team of writers, directors, and producers would like it enough to turn it into a script. For a screen writer, the “credit” for a movie was essential to future success. Writers of paperback originals, people like Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Peter Rabe, or Elliott Chaze were free to consult their unbridled imaginations.

    Theyneeded to work with editors, sometimes from provided outlines, but they worked alone and sometimes, they got away with mailing in their typescript. Goodis did this, successfully, on two occasions. One of these started as a script for an un-produced 1947 film and ended up as the 1954 classic, _The blonde on the Street Corner_.

  15. For me, one of the most memorable moments of books goes back to when my two children were young. We picked one story each night from our book club collection. Septimus Bean and His Amazing Machine by Janet Quinn Harkin was a favorite (E.F. Dutton, 1980).

    There we sat in large wicker rocking chair by the soft glows of a bedside light, reading pages illustrated art by Art Finkle as Septimus Bean built his big blue machine…

    ”But what does it do?…” asked all the Princesses…

    We puzzled and wondered as Septimus took flight – the words in rhyme and the story compelling. Septimus crashed and was found up a tree, his machine all in parts…

    ”Oh Look!” said the princesses “You’ve invented a playground for children to play…”
    As working adults, I wonder if somewhere in the hearts of both my children Septimus Bean and his amazing machine is remembered. I’m sure he is.

    Merry Christmas.

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