Susan Cox

Mystery Novelist

Luddite Rant — June 30, 2013

Luddite Rant

I TRY NOT TO BE a Luddite, I really do.  I have a laptop and use it daily to write my mystery novels. I have a cell phone and even take occasional photos with it, although that still seems wrong somehow. I communicate with friends via Face Book.  I own a Kindle and download books. I use Wikipedia. And hey, look—I write a blog.

And yet, all of my electronic marvels are like the bastard child of Marvin and Arthur Dent in the Hitchiker’s Guide–they only use about 5% of their brain capacity because I’d really rather be making a cup of tea.

It’s not that I despise or fear technology (although, truly, SkyNet and the Clone Wars seem only moments away most days) I’m just frustrated by the necessity of learning about all this crap, then re-learning it when the newest iteration is “released,” and then listening to people talk about it constantly. Seriously–when did “app” become a word? Worse–when did we all learn what it meant? Even worse–when did we start hearing people talk about the latest ones? Did you know you can “download” an app that allows you to pretend to pop the bubbles on bubble wrap?  I kid you not.

If the internet is the 21st century equivalent of the telephone—meaning that it changed the way we wish each other Merry Christmas, learn about revolutions and the latest fashions, research our term papers and contact each other from vacations in Australia and Bora Bora—then why is so dam’ difficult to use?  Every new tool to access it seems to require a skill set tantamount to running a nuclear power plant (and don’t get me started on actual nuclear power plants).  If telephones had been this complicated in the beginning, we’d still be using semaphore flags. Or maybe telegraphs—which was another simple-to-use technology that changed the world.  Tap a button, send a message. What could be easier?

You know what I miss?

I miss picking my photos up from the drug store and then sticking them in actual albums. And then turning the pages of the albums and enjoying the photos.

I miss people dropping in.  Remember that?  Until about ten years ago (not that long ago really) people used to visit their friends because they hadn’t been in touch for a while.

I miss calling people on the ‘phone and actually reaching them and talking to them. And then picturing them in their living room or bedroom or kitchen and not interrupt them hanging from the side of a cliff somewhere or worse. When did “How are you?” get replaced with “Where are you?”

I miss handwriting.  It’s been a long time since I received any kind of hand written note or letter or card. Hell, it’s been a long time since I sent any.

I miss feeling smart because I know the difference between pica and elite.

Yeah, yeah, it’s all great.  GNP is up; information has largely replaced extractive and industrial production; standards of living have risen all over the place; no parent ever needs to lose a kid because they can “track” them with their iPhones; lovers can break-up without having to meet face-to-face (ye gods); plagiarists have an easier time of it (ye gods again).

We’re all in touch constantly and seem more detached from each other than ever, mostly because we’re so busy trying to figure out the latest version of whatever amazing thingy we’re using to keep us in touch.

I’m never out of touch, and yet sometimes, just sometimes, I wish I was. Maybe I’d feel more connected.

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Alternate Realities and MapQuest — June 9, 2013

Alternate Realities and MapQuest

I had an epiphany this week as I was struggling with one of my novels.

I often stop writing for a while—for an hour, a day, anything up to a week or more—when I’ve reached some sort of impasse. In the past I’ve told myself it’s because I don’t know what to write next, that I don’t have a clear idea of the plot, so I don’t know what should happen. But now I think it’s something different: I stop because I don’t know how to move my characters away from the scene they currently inhabit, even when it’s clearly necessary.

I’ve already admitted that I polish my prose too much in the early stages of the game. It can feel productive, when I don’t have anything original to write, to smooth over the rough spots in the bits I’ve already written. This has another downside in addition to postponing the moment when I get on with the new writing: By the time I’ve read and re-read, and polished and refined a scene it becomes more and more imbedded in the “reality” of the novel and thus much harder to change.

If, until the 20th reading, Miss So-and-So and Mr. Whatzit have arrived at the baker’s, chatted with the baker and picked out some pink-topped cupcakes, it is really, really hard to have them by-pass the baker and walk into the hardware store instead. For one thing, all the conversation they had with the baker about sprinkles and chocolate ganache doesn’t translate well to the hardware store clerk, and instead of cupcakes they would need to buy wrenches or something instead. And that feels “wrong,” because I’m so emotionally invested in them having that conversation with the baker and buying those dam’ cupcakes.

In a way, by trying to change the scene I’m changing a reality that’s become as real to me as the real world. (Do I get points added or taken away for using change, changing, real and reality so often in the same sentence?) I’ve come to believe in the world the characters inhabit just a little too much.

All right, that’s one manifestation of the problem, and I should be able to take it in hand by not re-reading and revising my early drafts so much. I’m working on that although, truth to tell, I’m not getting very far. Sometimes my re-reading is almost a compulsion. It starts as a way to remind myself of what led me to where I’m about to pick up the story, but then it becomes an end in itself (Hey, this is pretty good; I’m liking what I did there, what if I change the order of these two sentences . . .) and a substitute for writing, and that can’t be good.

Note to self: Don’t begin your writing day by reading.

The other manifestation is a tradecraft issue: the inability to envision how the characters get from here—the corner of Ninth and Main, to there—a penthouse apartment on Parkside. Do they walk? Take a cab? Fly through the air on gossamer wings? And whichever way they travel, does the reader need to take the trip with them or can the next scene open with them sitting comfortably on a sofa in the penthouse, sipping martinis?

Experienced novelists solve this problem all the time and for us readers, its seamless. But the ragged seams showed plenty while it was being written, believe me.

Most often I manage to open the next scene with my characters already relaxing in the penthouse. But every now and again I get tangled up in what I call the MapQuest version: They strolled down Ninth Avenue, turned right and crossed the street at Pelican, stopping for the light at Parkside before . . . etc.

Note to self: Forget MapQuest; go straight for the martinis.

Novelists? Women Novelists? (Shrug) — June 4, 2013

Novelists? Women Novelists? (Shrug)

LIKE ALL WOMEN, I’m accustomed to, and have learned to ignore or rise above, the low level hum of misogyny in daily life. But to have some of the most significant writers in the English language considered inferior in some fundamental way is really too puzzling to shrug off. It strikes at the heart of what we all want to believe–that quality work will be appreciated, valued and rewarded.

Want some specifics? Agatha Christie and J. K. Rowling are two of the most popular writers in the English language. (While popularity is no guaranteed indicator of quality, Christie isn’t just “popular.” She is more popular than any other writer since the invention of movable type.) They have been translated into dozens of languages where they are just as beloved as in their native tongue. Why? Because the work of these two women speaks to universal conditions of the human heart and experience.

The lack of respect for their work isn’t simply a matter of masculine vs. feminine subject matter: more men than women write about wars, it’s true, but Christie wrote about murder and the triumph of justice. There’s nothing gender-specific about that.  J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about wizards and elves and he is revered. J.K. Rowling writes about much the same thing and she earns smirks.  (Go ahead; feel whatever you are feeling about that statement and then give me your best arguments for the quality of one over the other, untainted by gender scorn.)

Tastemakers with an intellectual reputation share some of the blame: In 2012, the New York times Review of Books reviewed 316 books.  Only 89 were written by women*.  Being frustrated by this goes far beyond a desire for liberte, egalite, sororite. It should leave any reading, thinking person breathless over the “Aha” moment. The trouble is, knowledge of the Times’ perfidy more often just garners a shrug.

And so a recent occurrence, proving once again that misogyny is casual, pervasive and unremarkable in our culture, earned yet more shrugs.

Wikipedia recently divided their former category of American Novelists into two: American Novelists and American Women Novelists. (Please tell me you see the fallacy there.)

Under this new categorization Wikipedia users searching for  American Novelists reach an exclusively male list. The other novelists can be reached only with an additional, more gender-specific search.

News of this segregation of women writers caused a s**t storm of protest and irritation (mostly from women) and the process is still under review.  But what interests me is not that it happened, because that can be undone, but WHY it happened, which really can’t until our entire culture is picked up by the scruff of its neck, shaken soundly and yelled at until it gives in.

The man (and it was a man) who felt Wikipedia needed to categorize American novelists by gender defended his methodology by explaining he was trying to make the very long list more manageable.

Seriously?

Setting aside for a moment the triumph and glory of having a long, rich “unmanageable” list of American novelists to be proud of, isn’t there an easier way to “manage” it?

A solution so simple and so basic that it should have occurred to anyone?

A solution which goes back almost as far as Gutenberg?

The fact that it wasn’t his solution is sort of dumbfounding, and the lack of awareness behind his solution all the more disheartening. But for the record, and please feel free to use it any time a similar problem presents itself, here’s my gender-free suggestion:

American Novelists A-M    and    American Novelists N-Z

 

* VIDA Women in Literary Arts

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