Monday, May 9, 2016

No Copy Cats Allowed

Q: "When you are writing, do you read other mysteries? Or are you afraid it will affect your own voice?

-from Susan

What one reads while in the throes of writing is a bigger issue than voice. And I’m guessing the answer may be different if you’re working on the fourth in a series or your first stand-alone thriller.

When I was working on Murder in the Abstract, my first attempt at a piece of fiction, my first novel, and my first challenge after quitting my day job, I was easily spooked. What if my plot was the same as someone’s whose book just came out? What if my protagonist had the same name as some other author’s? What if the setting was the same? Could I be accused of copying even if I had come up with my ideas long before the other writers’ books had been published? Because it was my first book and I didn't have a contract deadline, I wrote the darn thing for several years, far too long to stay away from my favorite genre. But I stayed away from books that struck me as tempting fate, authors with distinctive female voices. And no books about art and crime, just in case.

The second in that series featuring Dani O’Rourke, The King’s Jar, was less worrisome. Her voice was now her own, the plot was unusual, and the setting in San Francisco’s high society world wasn’t echoing anyone. Then, I stayed away from books I thought were outstanding because their excellence made me feel “doom, doom, I’ll never write that well.”

By the time I was deep into the third in the series, Mixed Up with Murder,” I had gotten past all of those self-defeating behaviors. The first two books got good critical reviews and I was comfortable slipping into Dani’s skin, a real author now with enough confidence to plow ahead without dragging little clouds of self-doubt. Now my distraction was writing a better book, and not outfoxing myself with plot twists and turns. At some point many authors realize we’ve gotten ourselves a wee bit tangled in plot tricks and our real fear has nothing to do with losing our literary voices, it’s more like losing our minds or 20,000 words that turn into a blind alley!

There’s always something to worry about, always moments when I wonder if my manuscript will stand up to scrutiny, an editor’s approval, readers’ reviews. But I’m comfortable now that whatever I publish is mine for better or worse.

P.S. As I write the second in the French village mystery series my reading list includes Sarah Caudwell’s eccentric, tongue-in-cheek British legal mysteries, Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone, Snow Blind by Ragnar Jonasson, The Man on the Washing Machine by Susan Cox, and The Child Garden, by Catriona McPherson. If I add any French mysteries, they’re likely to be Fred Vargas’s right now.


Art Taylor said...

Hi, Susan --
Great post here about the anxieties that loom over us--and about letting go of (some of) those anxieties as we gain more confidence about our work.

And love that Sarah Caudwell has ended up on your reading list these days--coming out of Malice discussions about her? She's one of my own favorites.

And great seeing you at Malice too!

RJ Harlick said...

I agree, Susan, that with the first book I too was worried about being unduly influenced by my reading material, so I did stay away from mysteries for awhile. But like you, now that I am firmly into my series and know the voice of my protagonist so well, I am no longer concerned and happily read whatever I want to. I suppose where I am at this point is often finding myself reading a nicely crafted piece of prose and wishing I could write so well.

Susan C Shea said...

Yes, Art, I was already a fan of Caudwell's, had read the 4 novels, but had no idea she was such an eccentric person until I went to that Malice session and heard about her from people who knew her. Now, I'm rereading the novels with that in mind. P.S. I always thought Hilary was a man. You?

Susan C Shea said...

Robin, your sure touch with your series character is a pleasure to read - no chance you weren't authentic!

Art Taylor said...

I went back and forth on the Hilary question--but ultimately just marveled that Caudwell could pull off the ambiguity as well as she did!