Susan Cox

Mystery Novelist

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

Paying Attention. It Builds Character — May 27, 2013

Paying Attention. It Builds Character

I SPENT A DAY recently hiking with a friend. We were taking it slow and enjoying the day when a Park Service truck pulled up next to us and the guy inside stopped to chat.

He had what is sometimes described as “a shock” of white hair and a white beard.  He’d have no trouble playing Santa Claus is all I’m saying. He was wearing a Park Service Smokey Bear hat and one of those bright orange safety vests and the passenger seat of his pick-up was filled with loose rolls of toilet paper. A lot of them. Maybe two dozen.

My first thought was: what kind of person buys loose rolls of toilet paper by the dozen? And then I realized he was probably making the rounds of the park’s outhouses to re-stock them, which was just as interesting in its way. I’m not sure I’ve ever given a thought to that particular job, or that it would be Santa Claus in a pick-up truck who did it.

Our conversation, which started with a discussion of my red hair and his formerly red beard, quickly moved to the Vikings (who had red hair) the design of the keel on Viking ships and the contributions to sailing technology by the ancient Phoenicians.  In short, our conversation was a tribute to the efficacy of the History Channel.

Our hike that day was within easy reach of the city, but it occurred to me that in a different kind of park, perhaps more like the national park where my heroine finds herself, he would probably not only pick up his toilet paper in bulk, but his evenings would be long and dark and tv would be a welcome diversion.

I happen to be building a new character into my novel.  I want him to be a bit of a mountain man, but not uncouth or strange enough to cause anxiety, and I want him to have an unexpected hobby or interest to give him some depth.

My Park Service friend had quite a number of interesting quirks I could borrow for my mountain man. For one thing, those rolls of toilet paper are hard for me to relinquish. Or maybe my new character has made a study of Viking and Phoenician ship building. Or maybe he just watches a lot of the History Channel during the long dark evenings. Or maybe all I’m taking away from the encounter is that my mountain man has a white beard.

This is what fiction writers mean when we say our characters are not real people.  We pay attention and we use bits and pieces of real people. A white beard. An interest in ancient history. Buying toilet paper in bulk.

These are real things to build a fictional character on.

Do You Like It? I Made it Myself. — May 22, 2013

Do You Like It? I Made it Myself.

THE UNEXPECTED is one of the joys of writing fiction and one of the most mysterious.  Where the heck does all that stuff come from, anyway?

I’m a voracious reader, so I guess some of it comes from the minds of other writers. It floats around in my unconscious mind like a little life raft, unneeded and unheeded until one day I’m in desperate need of a new simile or a phrase to describe someone or something and it pops up, bright and yellow in the murk, ready for me to leap aboard.

But other stuff really does seem to come out of the ether: surprising, delightful, mysterious.

For example: I was a nail biter for years and then, with no small amount of concentrated effort, I stopped. So I coddle my nails with clear nail polish twice a week to help them stay strong and long.

I file them into gentle ovals (stick with me here) because the shape takes advantage of every micro-millimeter of length, and I do this even though it’s more fashionable to file them straight across, leaving the nails squared off and blunt.

So there you have it. Twice a week I pay particular attention to my fingernails for five minutes, shaping them and polishing them.  For some reason a couple of weeks ago I was having a bit of trouble getting the oval shape just right and I thought: The heck with it; I’ll just file them straight across.

And in my head I suddenly saw a woman getting her nails done in a new salon.  She normally has them filed into ovals followed up by a discreet French manicure. But her new manicurist files them straight across, and paints them iridescent green with purple daisies. My heroine hates them. (As who wouldn’t?)

Now why would she hate them and yet make no objection to the manicurist’s flight of fancy? Because, of course, she is in a witness protection program. She’s been moved far from home, told to dye her hair, quit her job and dress differently, and because she’s a thorough sort of girl, she’s decided her camouflage must extend to her manicures.

The manicurist, for no explainable reason, is a Native American. Aha! She’s Shoshone or Arapaho from the Wind River Reservation near a  small town in Wyoming. I’ve vacationed there in a river-side log cabin belonging to friends. So suddenly I have two characters, a home for my heroine (she’ll live in the log cabin), a small-town setting and the beginning of a plot.

These details, including the colors of her nail polish, all came to me as I was writing, with no forethought at all. I was describing the manicure, then I was explaining why she hated it, then she was talking to the manicurist about life on the reservation, then I showed her reaction to the small town, and finally went along on her difficult drive to the log cabin as she revealed the bare bones of her troubles with evil men who want her dead.

Before I knew it I had 3,000 words and I swear to God it all began with me sitting in my study, thinking of nothing except brushing clear polish on my fingernails.

I’m not saying all of these things individually were conjured out of thin air. I’ve seen manicures like that; I don’t hate them, but I’m not a particular fan. I’ve visited the Wind River Reservation, I’ve vacationed in that small town, and–this is the capper–I know the town has a branch office of the FBI.

So these things were floating around in my unconscious when I sat down to write about a manicure, but the way I put them together was new and wholly my own. I wrote an outline for the novel starting with that scene which led to where I am now, at 15,000 words.

But here’s the punchline, which will come as no surprise if you’ve read Outline or Mishigas:

The scene isn’t in the book.  I decided that the manicure was a bridge too far, even for someone in the witness protection program. My heroine is smart and she’s scared and she’s careful, but she’s not an obsessive nut. If I wanted her to be an obsessive nut I might have left the manicure in place as written.

The manicure in any case had served its purpose–I’d climbed aboard a life raft from my own unconscious and paddled like hell for shore.

Writing and Relativity — May 20, 2013

Writing and Relativity

IS IT POSSIBLE that time is flexible rather than fixed?

I know. The idea flies in the face of everything we think we know about—-for example—-astrophysics, Carbon 14 dating and the mechanics of clock-making.

But how often have you complained to someone about how slowly the day is passing only to have them say “I was thinking the same thing.”  And we all know how slowly time passes when we’re waiting for an oil change, or how quickly an hour turns into two (or three) when we’re fooling around on-line.  Our language even has common words and phrases to describe the phenomenon. Time “flies” or it “drags;” an event “seems to last forever” or it “passes in a flash.”

I started wondering about this because May has been the most social my social life has been since before Christmas and yet I’ve done a lot more writing than I did in April, when I didn’t have much going on.

My guess is that most writers, being solitary folk, have social lives somewhere between “retiring” and “moribund.” Speaking for myself, unless I make an effort, I can find myself at the end of the week having barely left the house. Because I’ve set aside a few months to write; I feel, dammit, as if I should be writing.

But this month, for no particular reason, I made an effort, and my friends seemed to have the time and interest at the same time. I went on a garden tour, the ballet, several lunches and brunches and an art show. And the dissipation continues: I’m going to a decorator showcase (tomorrow) and the newest Star Trek movie (on Wednesday), a hike (on Thursday) and another brunch this Saturday.

Through all this, instead of having less time to write because I spent time with friends, I seemed to have more.  I would come home from whatever I’d been doing and I’d write for the same amount of time as I normally do on a day when all I’ve done is walk the dog and have a peanut butter sandwich for lunch.

I’m just not sure how this happened unless time isn’t a constant. Same number of hours in a day. Different amount of stuff getting done. My new model has time resembling a length of elastic, with the same number of inches as an equivalent piece of string, but able to flex in places along its length.

Someone call Princeton and the New York Times.

Every Delicious Byte — May 16, 2013

Every Delicious Byte

IT’S PART OF THE WRITING GAME that every word, every keystroke, feels important and deathless, at least for a while.

I don’t spend my days in a struggle to the death over every word, but there’s no doubt that’s how it feels for me sometimes. Writing can be less like Robert Browning’s “first, fine careless rapture” and more like carving words into stone with a rubber mallet. Thomas Mann said it well: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.”

After struggling in the first place to wrestle them onto the page, it’s another struggle to cut these precious words and phrases, even when I know they have to go to make room for better things.

I had a good writing week–a couple of very productive writing days and a couple of so-so ones.  Most important, I made a significant change I’d been postponing for some time in my murder mystery.

I resisted doing the deed in part because it required some confusing restructuring and editing. I hate doing that stuff because the opportunities to mess things up are rife; I even color code at-risk passages so I know which ones still fit together before doing the dreaded cut-and-paste. At times I resort to actual cutting and pasting–I print out the pages and have at them with scissors and a glue stick.

This week, the result of all this meant cutting (and not re-pasting) about 2,000 words from my tale.

I  like to know a lot about my characters; I write biographies for them and fit the details into the narrative. This is helpful to me, but the reader doesn’t need it all. Some of the eliminated words were this kind of back-story, not really critical to the action of the book.  But most of it was good material that just didn’t work.

When Word tells you to the byte how many words you’ve written so far and you know how many words you need your book to be (65,000, give or take) it’s really tough to dump the equivalent of a full day’s work with one keystroke and feel good about it.

But when I was done, and I’d written new words, I did feel good about it. The new stuff I wrote was better than the words I’d cut. Much better. The resulting passages got into the action more quickly without leaving the reader confused. They’re good.

As usual, I was sorry I had waited so long, and agonized so hard, over changes that turned out to be for the best.

Alas, this is a lesson I’ve learned many times and so I have every confidence it won’t stick with me. The next time I am poised with scissors and glue stick (either literally or virtually)  the angst will be the same.

It’s not all time wasted.  At some level the “bad” passages are due a kind of respect. They have the right to stay if they can persuade me they are value added to my book.  And persuasion takes time.

Outline Or Michigas — May 13, 2013

Outline Or Michigas

Thanks to my friends Graham Beattie and Lia Matera for this wonderful quote from Raymond Chandler which fits so well with my thoughts today:

“I am having a hard time with the book. Have enough paper written to make it complete, but must do all over again. I just didn’t know where I was going and when I got there I saw that I had come to the wrong place. That’s the hell of being the kind of writer who cannot plan anything, but has to make it up as he goes along and then try to make sense out of it. If you gave me the best plot in the world all worked out I could not write it. It would be dead for me.”

**

IF WRITERS ARE TELLING THE TRUTH about their process—always a risky bet—then a lot of us develop an outline before we begin to write, while an equal number eschew the restraint that an outline imposes and just wing it. (Can you tell I’ve always wanted to write a sentence containing ‘eschew’? The opportunities are less common than you might think.)

For years I was a dedicated camp follower of the wing it brigade.  It felt more creative to just let things happen. I’m not such a devotee nowadays, but I still jump-start a new novel by writing a dramatic scene for my heroine without bothering with context. This isn’t necessarily the opening scene; it can eventually end up anywhere in the book. Sometimes, it doesn’t make the cut at all. But  I develop the story and characters organically using that scene as a platform. And then I reverse engineer an outline to guide the rest of the novel.

This is a result of techniques honed during my master’s degree in writing and afterwards, teaching writing to others in a workshop setting. Writers throw challenges at each other as part of the learning process: “Invent a new god for Greek mythology. Two minutes”  “Write a scene with your main character eating a meal alone. Five minutes.”  “Describe a Christmas tree. Three minutes.”

Unfortunately, when applied to a novel this method tends to produce a series of unrelated scenes, character sketches and plot lines which then have to be linked into a coherent whole.  No carefully-drawn outline survives the mishigas when the book can go off in any direction at any moment.

I’ve worked like this, (Chandler, too, apparently) but it’s not ideal for me.  It was fun and challenging in its way, but it was a bit like doing a jig saw puzzle with the pieces turned over. I had the shape of the pieces as a guide but no idea where I was headed. The “picture” at the end was a surprise to the reader (a good thing) and to me (less so).

For a murder mystery (almost always a highly disciplined type of novel) I really need to work from some sort of outline.  Sure I always have at least one corpse, which makes the dramatic center of the novel a sure thing. But it’s a good idea to know how it got that way and why and by whom before I get too far in. I can still incorporate unexpected characters, scenes and action I run into along the way.

It’s a bit like having a sculptor’s steel armature; when it’s rock steady I can be as carefree as I like throwing clay at it—the thing will stand up and hold together.

Indecisive? Maybe. — May 11, 2013

Indecisive? Maybe.

HONESTLY, THE DAY AFTER I began this blog didn’t go well for me in a writing sense.  I’d spent the best part of a day setting up the site, writing the first post, then blabbing about it on Face Book.  There was no writing getting done on the novels, but I felt as if I was priming the pump, which felt good.

The blog was serving one of its purposes; it was keeping my writers’ muscles flexible. And of course I got the strokes of having written and published, no matter in how limited a fashion.

But the next morning, instead of leaping to my laptop to work on one of my novels, I found myself practicing some fairly advanced avoidance techniques. On-line shopping, Face Book, gardening, checking out my first blog post in case something had changed since the last time I checked it, and then admiring how it read and how it looked on the page.  (Very cool actually.)

A trip to the drug store was suddenly imperative.  It’s important to have two extra tubes of toothpaste and some hair conditioner in case you run out. A read-through of the past week’s work to date—this is one of my best avoidance techniques—gave me another hour’s distraction.  And then suddenly it was time to get ready for a dinner date with friends and the opportunity to crow in my next blog post about how productive I’d been was lost.

The truth is, I’m at the stage with all three novels when I have to buckle down and get serious about the next stage in the action and I’m postponing the commitment. I’m facing a junction with multiple roads heading off to all points of the compass.  Almost any journey is possible now, but the next step will limit the roads I can travel, and the step after that will narrow down the route even more as I get closer to my destination.

I can’t decide if I’m excited and enthralled by the number of paths open to me, or if I’m just really, really indecisive.

In one view I’m empowered by the possibilities; in the other I’m sort of a coward, unwilling to commit, right?

Difficult to decide which.

Kindling — May 8, 2013

Kindling

THIS WEEK I WAS without my Kindle for three days because I left it in a friend’s car. The fact that I had it with me in her car may give you some idea of how attached I am to it. Maybe its enough to know that being without it was like being without, say, my crack pipe.

There was a time–about 18 months ago–when I didn’t have a Kindle. Whenever I finished a book, in common with nearly everyone else except the truly geeky, I went to a bookstore to buy another. There were limitations, because bookstores weren’t open 24/7, and no bookstore contained every book I wanted, so sometimes I had to order it and wait. And those limitations provided their own limitations on the amount of reading I could do.

Now of course those limits are gone. Setting aside the disdain with which Amazon is viewed by a lot of my thinking friends, I’m a good customer. When I finish a book at 1:30 in the morning, I press a couple of buttons and–lo and behold and voila–I have a new supply of crack… er…reading material. This has played merry hell with my credit card balance, and also with my ability just to put the dam’ Kindle down. I have no reason any more to ration my reading. I can read 24/7 if I want to. I’ll never run out of things to read.  Unless I lose my Kindle.

How does this affect me as a writer? Well, apparently our appetite for reading is more voracious than ever. We are all reading more, not less, than we were before the e-books revolution. This seems to bode well for me finding a receptive audience for my work when I’m a published novelist.  Also, e-readers can pick up material that is self-published on the web, so that if I don’t have a traditional publisher for my work I may find a virtual one.  That seems to bode well for me, too.

All of which should encourage me to write my novels and, in fact, being without my Kindle this week has meant that I have additional hours to devote to writing.

But here we run across the dichotomy: Owning and using a Kindle has meant that I’m contributing to the possibility that my own writing will find an eager market. But, owning and using a Kindle has meant that I’m devoting more hours to reading and fewer hours to my own writing, opening up the possibility that I won’t have work ready to publish any time soon.

Having lost it–even temporarily–has made me very uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that I doubted the wisdom of getting it back.  Fortunately my friend returned it today and so the decision was out of my hands.  It’s sitting on my nightstand as I write.

So far, I haven’t turned it on.

But the night is young.

The Art of the Deal — May 6, 2013

The Art of the Deal

BEING A WRITER, and a narcissist, it feels like long past time for me to begin a blog. I write genre fiction–murder mysteries mostly (hence the blog name) and also romances, thrillers, that kind of thing.   Those of you who know me well know that I had a contract with Bantam Books a number of years ago, which was the victim of a corporate merger and the consequential cutting back on their stable of new writers. I allowed that set-back to derail me. Clearly, (in addition to being a narcissist) I’m easily discouraged.

So now I’m several months into a leap of faith: I’m taking a year off to write some new things, get a new literary agent, and see if I can get into print. The blog will be some random thoughts on how I write, what I write and (the nature of creativity being what it is) how I don’t write.  Fair warning: this won’t be the useful kind of blog which links you to all sorts of other helpful blogs. It will be mostly a way for me to chronicle my writing life and, if I’m lucky enough to have anyone else read it, to share some of my journey with you.

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Monday, May 6, 2013

I FEEL AS IF I PAY for every productive day with at least two days of wandering around the house lamenting that I’m not writing.  I envy writers who say they write for (add number here) hours a day, or until they’ve written (add number here) words in a day.  I make deals like that with myself all the time.  The trouble is, I’m not trustworthy; I renege on the agreement before the ink on the contract is dry.

A usual day for me begins with a brief work-out; that’s one deal I’m trying to keep.

My mantra is EEDD:

On days when I feel like exercising the initials stand for: Exercise Every Delightful Day

On days when I don’t feel like exercising, they stand for: Exercise Every Damn Day

I drink my breakfast, not in the old-time private eye tradition with a shot of rye, but in the New Age California tradition of kale, apple, strawberries, blueberries and anything else I can find in the fridge whipped up in the blender into a sort of smoothie that’s really closer to a sludgie, but which usually tastes great.

I feed and walk Picasso. On days when he’s feeling a bit frail this might be a turn about the garden. On days when he’s feeling up to it, we take a 30-minute walk around the neighborhood.

When we come back I have a cup of tea and a biscuit and then I have a choice: Laptop or Kindle?

When I choose the Kindle, the day is pretty much over since I often only come out of my reading coma in time for Picasso’s early evening walk.

If I choose the laptop I check my e-mail, then open FaceBook and fool around there for twenty minutes, then I check my e-mail again, delete the junk and write responses to anyone who needs an answer.

I leave the laptop turned on, as a sort of pledge that I’ll return, and go and get another cup of tea.  When I come back I check in on Face Book again. Usually something catches my eye or piques my interest and I wander around on strange Face Book pages for a while, enjoying the sense of learning something new even when the something new is just funny photos of moose up to their knees in snow in Saskatchewan.

When I’ve had my fill of moose photos and I really can’t postpone it any longer, I open one of the three novels I’m currently working on.  On a good day, this is the beginning of four or five hours of productive work. On a not-so-good day I don’t write anything new; I polish and re-write the passages I’ve already written. This is where my genius lies: I can actually postpone writing by writing.  It’s really incredibly clever.  I work at my laptop, my fingers are flying over the keyboard and anyone watching me (not that anyone is) would assume that I’m being as productive as all get-out. But they would be wrong. I know the difference.

There is a time and a place for re-writing and polishing of course.  That time is when the main body of the work is done. But I can polish and polish until the original is completely worn away.

Sometimes my ability to procrastinate amazes even me.

Time to make a new deal: No more polishing for at least another 5,000 words.

I’ll let you know how it works out.

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