How to be both

Anya Lipska wonders why literary cross-dressing gets us so hot under the collar…

There’s a great moment in the movie As Good as it Gets when a breathless fan-girl buttonholes Jack Nicholson, playing the curmudgeonly writer Melvin Udall.

‘How do you write women so well?’ she gushes.

‘I think of a man,’ he replies, ‘and I take away reason and accountability.’

Whether an unreconstructed sexist like Melvin could actually write a believable woman is perhaps questionable, but in the real world, how successful is literary cross-dressing? Can a male author capture authentically how a woman talks, and more importantly, feels? Equally, can a woman convincingly reproduce a man’s inner world?

I’ve written three books in which the dominant voice is that of Polish fixer Janusz Kiszka: a man’s man, and one with no qualms about using a bit of ‘justified’ violence. My current project is a standalone written from the viewpoint of a middle class, middle aged professional woman – in other words, someone quite a lot like me. Guess which character has caused me the biggest grief? You got it. I found it far easier to create Kiszka than my female character, who ought to be a breeze, right? (In fact, his Polishness posed a far bigger challenge than the gender switcheroo – although I’m lucky enough, if only from the research point of view, to be married to a grumpy Pole…)

I suspect that inhabiting a gender 24/7 isn’t the advantage it might seem: perhaps information overload makes it harder to whittle a character who is compelling and authentic. Writing is, after all, an act of imagination, and the writer’s first and most important job is to put ourselves in the shoes – or size ten boots – of people who are nothing like us. I’m not a Polish man, but neither have I beaten the crap out of a villain, taken a good kicking, dodged bullets, suffered interrogation by Communist milicja, parented a teenage boy, lost a best friend to murder, or confessed to a priest… I am, however, a human being, and therefore have some understanding of the fundamental forces that drive us, whether we are male or female.

So which sex is better at crossing the literary gender divide? In crime fiction, female writers certainly appear to have no qualms about creating male characters – possibly because we’ve been brought up on novels written primarily by men and about men. The successes include Patricia Highsmith with her brilliant creation Tom Ripley, PD James’ Inspector Dalgleish, and more recently Val McDermid’s Tony Hill, and Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie. Men appear to be less inclined to make their central characters female – and some have argued that they struggle to get women right. In The Silkworm (by Robert Galbraith, aka J K Rowling), a male author is described as creating women who are ‘all temper, tits and tampons’, while a recent Guardian article complained that although Tolstoy and Flaubert created terrifically authentic heroines, they then went on to ‘kill’ them for being sexually adventurous. Perhaps the reluctance I sense among some male author friends to attempt the female perspective is an (understandable) fear of getting it in the neck?

And yet it was Stieg Larsson who created Lisbeth Salander – a candidate for the most memorable female character in modern crime fiction. Then there’s Ira Levin’s Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby, Peter Hoeg’s Smilla in Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, Precious Ramotswe from the pen of Alexander McCall Smith, and above all, Thomas Harris’s outstanding Clarice Starling – perhaps my favourite fictional woman in any crime novel, ever.

So my advice to all the talented male authors out there who back off from creating female characters?

Come on boys, grow a pair.

author image: martyna przybysz
author image: martyna przybysz

 

Anya Lipska writes the Kiszka & Kershaw books, a detective thriller series set in East London.

Her latest book is A Devil Under the Skin

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Do’s and Don’ts of Co-Writing

 Louise Voss, who has co-authored several thrillers with Mark Edwards, gives her advice on how to create the perfect writing partnership

  1. DO find the right person to work with. Most of the other writing teams around, especially in the crime-writing world, are husband and wife – but I can’t imagine writing with someone I share a bed with. I think one of the strengths of mine and Mark’s partnership is that our personal lives are completely separate. We live hundreds of miles apart, too, so there is a lot of Skyping/emailing/texting involved when we’re working on a novel. Admittedly there are times when it would be really useful to be able to get together more frequently to brainstorm, but we usually factor this in and arrange to meet up at the start of the project, and towards the end when we usually get stuck with the plot.
  1. DON’T commit to the relationship without first testing each other out. For the first 18 months of our friendship, before we’d even met in person, Mark and I emailed each other our individual work in progress. From there it seemed a natural progression to make editorial suggestions, and we both found the process really constructive. So if you’re thinking of co-authoring this might be a useful exercise to try, to see if you can work with the other person.
  1. DO look for someone with similar tastes. Mark and I don’t always enjoy the same books and authors but nine times out of ten, if Mark raves about a new release, I know I’m very likely to love it too. I can only think of one novel that he loved and I loathed (naming no names, obviously!).
  1. DON’T co-write with someone whose work you don’t respect. I contacted Mark in the first place because I thought his work was really strong and he has always been very supportive of my solo books too. Sounds obvious, but you have to respect any potential co-author’s writing and editing abilities!
  1. DO be prepared to compromise and adapt. When we first started writing together, Mark used tons of sentence fragments and loads of swearing, neither of which I was a fan of, and similarly, he couldn’t tolerate my predilection – back then – for semi-colons and more flowery descriptions. In the interests of consistency we’d edit each other’s chapters then send them back, so that the overall voice would be unified. Weirdly, these days we don’t even have to think about this anymore. We always say that we still have our individual voices, but have together developed a third ‘Vedwards’ voice that we use for the joint books.

 

Louise Voss haMark Edwards and Louise_BW_edits published eleven novels in both the crime and contemporary fiction genres. She is best known for her collaborations with Mark Edwards. The Blissfully Dead, is published by Thomas & Mercer on September 29th 2015

Anti-social media?

Erin Kelly asks: Are Facebook and Twitter killing writers’ careers?

I never thought I had an addictive personality. Cigarettes, alcohol, gambling? Water off a duck’s back. And then along came social media.

A novelist’s life is pretty isolating; I spend up to eight hours a day in front of my computer, creating imaginary worlds. I mostly love it, but sometimes solitude tips into loneliness. From the moment I joined to Facebook in 2006, I was hooked. Status updates, baby photos, jokes, kitten videos, news stories, pokes and secret groups – I loved them all, measuring my life in ‘likes’. Then, in 2009, I fell for Twitter, an even faster, pithier network where I could follow not just my friends but my literary heroes. Check me, hanging out (sort of) with Jeanette and Salman.

Then, this spring, things got out of control. I found I was checking my timelines before I’d even brushed my teeth. I could spend up to four hours a day surfing social media. I felt like something out of a science fiction dystopia. And my novel seemed to be going round in circles. I was stressed rather than inspired; I was starting to resent my dream job. The hard graft of writing a 350-page novel seemed too much hassle compared to the instant gratification of harvesting ‘likes’ on a 20-word status update.

Social media had become an endless vortex of procrastination and brain-melt. I found that I was able to write for shorter and shorter periods before my brain started to fidget. I would pop into Twitter to see if anyone had been in touch, and look up an hour later, brain scrambled, unable to get back into the scene I’d been writing. Sometimes, worryingly, I’d open Twitter without even realising I’d done it, and wake as if from a trance staring not at the expected page of text but at a scrolling list of tweets. I was tweeting to promote the novels I was too busy tweeting to write.

Then I read an article – on Facebook, naturally. The headline said: This is what Facebook is doing to your brain. And it’s terrifying. I read it with a sickening sense of realisation that said the relentless click-and-refresh nature of social media is frazzling our neural pathways, causing the same kind of damage frequently found in heavy, long-term cannabis users. I didn’t think about it for too long, because someone had posted a really cute video of babies in car seats going through tunnels, and my mind was soon wiped clean of anything but the need for the next digital hit. But I couldn’t forget what I’d read. And the next day, I quietly deactivated all my social media accounts.

In the three months since I did this, I have pretty much written my book. I’m not talking about word count.  I had 70,000 words down already. But without the constant distraction of social media, I’m back to the real writing; the kind of involvement that sees the author up to the elbows in the entrails of her own novel, every conversation, book read, radio programme listened to, song heard, fuel for the novel. I am inspired, and I have fallen back in love with what I do. Am I cured? Not entirely. I still have the instinct to post, on social media, how much I’m enjoying not posting on social media. I still automatically think in Tweets rather than sentences. Maybe I’ll never quite restore the factory settings on my brain. And I know I’ll be back the day I press ‘send’ on my novel. But regular digital detoxes are going to become an important part of my writing life. I have learned that the only  thing more important than sitting in front of my screen is knowing when to walk away from it.

Erin Kelly has written four psychological thrillers including The Poison Tree, which was an international bestseller and a major ITV drama, as well as the official Broadchurch novel. Her latest book is The Ties That Bind

 

 

 

Is The Psychological Thriller Dead?

Tammy Cohen asks if it’s a genre running out of steam…

Hands up who can work out this formula. Main character (flawed but decent) + dodgy event + limited number of other characters (ideally with something to hide) + suspicious glances across the breakfast table + danger + more danger + twist + even more danger + OMG, it’s not the one you thought + dawning horror + massive twist (it’s the one you least expected) + maximum danger = ?

If you said Psychological Thriller give yourself a pat on the back (although it’s worth bearing in mind this sort of gentle gesture is almost always a sign of hidden psychopathy in psych thriller land).

Some genres have always stuck to a tried and tested formula because that’s what readers expect. Who wants a traditional romance without a happy ending? But in the case of psychological thrillers, isn’t there a danger that once you’ve worked out the formula, there’s really not much point in reading the book?

As a writer of psychological thrillers, as well as a reader, I’m overly sensitive to the mechanics of the genre – sometimes I can sense a twist approaching from a few scenes away, and too often work out the villain by the end of chapter three by a process of elimination. Unless it develops organically from the story, so-called High Concept (the quick-pitch idea so beloved of acquisitions boards) too often peters out into Low Tension.

So is the writing on the wall for the psychological thriller?

Thankfully not. The fact is psychological thrillers, or domestic noir or whatever the current term is, are nothing new. Othello was an early example of ‘can you really trust your spouse’ lit. Mauriac’s Therese Desqueyroux and du Maurier’s Rebecca also feature the psych thriller’s trademark qualities of a small cast of characters in a claustrophobic, domestic setting. But there’s nothing formulaic about these books. The characters make sense in their own right, they’re not there to fulfil a set role: the suspicious spouse, the best friend (usually gay but sometimes a smug-but-harried suburban housewife), the person whose sole role is to look least likely but who turns out to have a hidden agenda. The stories are just that, stories, rather than plots you can put together with a ‘build your own Psychological Thriller’ set.

The runaway success of books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, ensures that psychological thrillers still dominate bestseller lists, and those that eschew formula and place the story and the characters firmly at their heart still have the capacity to surprise and delight and astonish and appal and excite. Caroline Kepnes’ You, Louise Candlish’s The Sudden Departure of the Frasers, Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm all thrill without following a checklist.

In this era where the most popular books are adult colouring books, it’s perhaps not surprising that some novelists choose to follow suit – stick to what’s familiar, stay between the lines, don’t go off piste. Thrill By Numbers. Sometimes it’s publishers who shoehorn authors into a particular mould, ordering up a psychological thriller in advance as if choosing a burger off a menu. But the writers who are allowed to sit down to write a story first and foremost, only realising at the end that they’ve written a psychological thriller, they’re the ones who genuinely push the boundaries and ensure that the genre will survive and thrive.

The psychological thriller may appear in danger, but don’t forget, there’s always a twist.

_MG_8897.jpg.t  Tammy Cohen, who also writes as Tamar Cohen, is the author of six novels including First One          Missing, which is out in paperback on 6 October 2015.

 

 

 

 

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