With the success of “The Pocket Wife” and the recently released “The Other Widow,” Atlanta-based psychological suspense writer Susan Crawford showed she really knows her way around writing a riveting suspense novel with strong female characters. She spent some time with The Open Mic recently talking about those books, her path to success and the fine art of not writing women as victims.
Open Mic: The main character in your first book, The Pocket Wife, is bipolar. You write it from her point of view. How did you go about writing a character like that? Was it difficult for you?
Crawford: Sadly, it wasn’t. I’ve been really close to people who are bipolar, so I’ve had a very close perspective on what it does to people. If I wrote a scene that I wasn’t sure about, I was able to go to them and ask, ‘does this sound real to you? Could this really happen?’ Otherwise, it wasn’t that difficult to write. I felt like I was in her head. That was difficult at times – it wasn’t always a comfortable place to be.
Open Mic: Does that happen to you a lot, where you get so involved in a character that it affects you away from the writing?
Crawford: Yes, that happens to me a lot!
Open Mic: Is that a struggle for you?
Crawford: No. It’s just what I do. I can turn it off. It’s not like I’m at a party and suddenly hallucinating or something. But I dream about the characters and I am always constructing the story on some level even when I’m not actually writing. For me, a book is about the characters. In any book I read I care about that more than even the plot. So I think it is a good thing to think about the characters even when you’re not writing about them. It’s a good thing to sort of absorb them so you can present them more fully.
Open Mic: Writers sometimes fall in love with sentences or language and forget about moving the story forward. In your work, do you focus on character development first and work the story around that or do have stories that you then develop your characters to fit?
Crawford: Suspense is much more plot driven than, say, literary fiction. So I have to always have at least some idea of where I’m going with the plot. That said, generally I see the characters in situations. If they’re developed well enough, they’re going to do certain things in certain situations. When they bounce off of each other they are going to react in certain ways. In essence, you have to have a framework, but within that framework there’s a lot of leeway for the characters to move around. Too much character development is like too much of anything, and it will bog down the story. But if you can bring the reader into the character without too much description – if you can make them empathize with that character – then you can move your story along through your characters. Every writer wants their readers to relate to the characters. That’s the whole trick. If the can identify with or feel something from those characters, they’ll follow them anywhere. So character development is key.
Open Mic: So many of us struggle with the business side of writing, particularly the process of getting an agent. Was that process difficult for you?
Crawford: Yes and no. I always wrote. It was always an escape for me, even while I was working and raising three children. You know, writing in the middle of the night after everyone had gone to sleep – the same things we all do. When it came to publication, I would send out a query letter and if it got a negative response, my thought was that I had better write another book. I just had no idea how the publication process worked. I wanted to be a published author but I didn’t take the time to investigate how that happened. Once my kids were grown I joined the Atlanta Writers Club, where I heard speakers talk about being rejected 65 times! That opened up a whole new world of information to me. The club started having conferences twice a year, and they brought in agents from all over. That’s where I met the woman who is now my agent, who really is top notch. She said she would consider representing The Pocket Wife, but only if I did a lot of re-writing. She said if I was willing to do these various things she would take another look. I’d always heard that if you get rejected by an agent you should look elsewhere, but I really wanted to work with her so I followed her suggestions and rewrote and rewrote until we were both happy with the manuscript. We had an initial offer within hours, but I think I was a little scared of it all and wanted to drag the process out a bit so we went to auction. Eventually we signed with Harper Collins, which was great.
Open Mic: Eight hours? That’s a writer’s dream.
Crawford: It was. It was really like a dream to me.
Open Mic: Back to character development for a second, it seems to me that in general we still tend to portray women in fiction, be it books, movies or TV, as victims or just as ancillary to a male lead’s story. Your books of course feature strong, competent female characters – do you find yourself in any way thinking about this issue as you develop your characters?
Crawford: I agree that far too often we still portray women only as damsels in distress. But it is also reality that women are victims of a lot of violent crime. We generally are smaller and not as physically able to be combative, so there is some truth to that narrative. That said, I don’t like to write passive characters. I like to write what I know, and the women I know are all pretty strong. They’re not victims, and I try not to write victims. They might be victimized – the main character in my first book is the victim of her mental illness – but they are not victims.
Open Mic: What is your perspective on self-publishing industry these days?
Crawford: I never really considered self-publishing. It wasn’t because I felt it was beneath me, I just didn’t really understand the process. I knew it involved a lot of selling, which I’m not very good at.
Open Mic: In that regard, we definitely have more options for getting work published but legacy publishing seems harder than ever. So are things better for writers now or worse, particularly for new writers?
Crawford: It is the best of times and the worst of times for writers. It’s good in that I think the publishing industry is sound. After the initial e-book rage, I think people are turning back to traditional books. The balance has at least evened out. But it’s also a difficult time for writers because there’s so much competition. It seems that everyone is writing a book. All those self-publishing options means there are a lot more people putting books out there, so the competition is really intense.
Open Mic: It seems to me that at times there is an element of luck to all of this.
Crawford: Well, it is difficult, even if you have a good book. You have to hit the right agent at the right time when he or she is interested in what you are writing. And you can’t write for trends. A few people who reviewed “The Pocket Wife” accused me of copying “Girl on the Train,” but I hadn’t even read it until my book had been out for a while. You can’t write for trends because it takes so long to get a book out there the trend might be long over by the time your book is published. So yes, you need talent and skill but you also need some luck to find the right agent who is looking for your kind of work at that time.
Open Mic: Do you have any advice for new writers?
Crawford: Open your mind. Think outside the box. Seek out particular agents. Go to conferences, but also don’t stop sending query letters. I’ve had agents tell me that they feel they are more likely to find something good in their slush pile than at a conference.
Open Mic: Most of us are involved in critique groups or have beta readers of some kind. One of the trickier bits in this business is knowing what advice to take and what advice to graciously acknowledge and then not act on. At some point, we have all have to live or die with our story as we want it to be.
Crawford: I absolutely agree. Everybody has a different story and a different way of writing. I belong to two critique groups, and if I let them dictate my style then it wouldn’t be my book, it would be their book. We all need to find the right critique group, one that understands our style. Our rule of thumb is that if two or more people have a problem with the same thing then I’ll go back and take a look at it. If it’s only one person, it could just be a matter of taste.
Susan Crawford’s latest book The Other Widow is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers.