Tuesday, June 3, 2008

"Why Can't a Woman Be More Like A Man?"

RO: I'm not sure I could write a main character from a male point of view. My pal Jon McGoran writes his Madison Cross series from a female POV. Let's see how he does it.

Jon: When I first started writing Body Trace, the first book in the Madison Cross series, I was somewhat intimidated at the idea of writing from the point of view of a female protagonist. I had written parts of novels from the points of view of female character’s, but the idea of an entire novel, or even a series, was something different. In the back of my mind, I wondered if I’d be able to pull it off (so to speak).

Certain aspects of Madison’s character made it easier, like the fact that she is not the type of woman to obsess over shoes or make-up – not that she doesn’t consider those things or take pride in her appearance, but she’s not always thinking about those details, and thus, neither am I. Madison has tragedy in her background, and she has built barriers to protect herself. That sense of reserve may have helped as well. Writing in the first person – or even too close of a third person – would have violated Madison’s sense of personal space, but it also might have made establishing her voice more difficult.

Another thing that helped me to a surprising degree was the extent to which I outline. Yes, I wrote plenty of notes on character, and I gave Madison and the other characters plenty of thought, but the plot outline helped a lot as well.

I have always been an outliner. I think when writing something with a mystery at its core, it is particularly important, because you’re not just concerned with the structure of the plot, you also have to think about how you reveal information, both to the characters and to the readers. When writing a forensic mystery, an outline is even more important, because much of the time you are not just gleaning information from witnesses or informants, you are diriving it from forensic techniques. Evidence has to be discovered, then interpreted, and often reinterpreted. The revelation of that information is part of the pacing of the story, and I think it’s almost impossible to do it well without a solid outline.

So what does all this time spent outlining have to do with being a man writing from a woman’s point of view? Well, by the time I started writing the first draft, I had already been so immersed in the outline, and so immersed in Madison, that her point of view was already second nature for me. I was no longer worried about, “Is this how a woman would think or act,” I was thinking “Is this how Madison would think or act.” And by outlining so extensively, I had already answered many of those questions for myself, which helped define Madison in my mind.

At one point about halfway through the first draft, I remembered my earlier concerns, but by then I felt like I knew Madison so well, it wasn’t really an issue for me. A little later in the book, toward the end, there’s a scene where Tommy Parker is about to put a wire on Madison, and she realizes that for one reason or another she is wearing a particularly skimpy, sexy bra, as opposed to the sturdier, more utilitarian one she might have chosen if she had known how her day would turn out. That’s not really a thought process that a guy ever really has to go through, but by the time I was writing that scene, I knew exactly how Madison would think and speak and act, not because I knew how a woman would react in that situation, but because I knew how Madison would react in that situation.

Writing a detailed outline helped me in the ways that a detailed outline always helps, but I addition, that added time spent living in Madison’s world before I starting the first draft helped me to become completely comfortable with Madison’s point of view, and her voice. By the time I started writing the first draft, I had a fully-formed character to occupy – a character for whom being a woman is just one of many defining characteristics.

Writing as D. H. Dublin, Jonathan McGoran is the author of a series of forensic crime thrillers from Penguin Books that includes Body Trace and Blood Poison.

Freezer Burn, the third book in the series, hits stores Tuesday, June 3.


  1. Welcome to Jungle Red Jon! Wow, you make that sound so easy. There's a good lesson there for writing ANY characters, regardless of your sex or theirs. Get to know them well and the story flows.

    thanks for coming to visit! I'm off to work on my outline:)

  2. Thanks, Roberta!
    Yeah, the more I write, the more I realize how important the outline is. I wonder if we called it something else, people wouldn't think of it as such drudgery. So go have fun with your outlining!

  3. Hey Jon! Love to see you here.

    I just read a book written by a man with a woman main character,and she didn't think about how she looked once in the whole book. She didn't worry what someone else thought. She didn't try to make someone happy. Yes,she was hip and tough and independent, but she always just felt to me like a man in a dress.

    Anyway! Outline. Yay for the pro-outliners. My 'outline' for Drive Time (book 4!) is 70 pages.

    (It was SUCH A DRAG to write it. I complained for two solid weeks.) But since I was required to do the stupid outline, I at least wanted to make sure everything worked, and that the plot twists were logical.

    Now that I'm actually writing the book, it's so lovely to know where I'm going. I'm sure the story will evolve, but I'll never (cross fingers) have one of those 'holy moley' moments where I have no idea what to do.

    I hope.

  4. Hey Hank,
    Thanks. Yes, I'm sure there's a whole sub-genre of transvestite POV books out there. I hope not to be one of them.
    My main character, Madison, is attractive and she knows she's attractive, but she also has her insecurities, about her appearance and everything else. I think if she was absolutely drop-dead gorgeous (or thought/knew she was), she would have been much more difficult for me to write.
    As for the other benefits of outlining, when you're under a deadline and just trying to finish writing a scene or chapter, bleary eyed at 3 a.m. and you're starting to totally lose focus on where you are, there's nothing better than having an outline that you know has taken (almost) everything into consideration, and that it's all been thought out. It's a great thing when you look at it the next morning and see that yes, it all fits together.

  5. I love outlining...just a chapter or two ahead to make sure I know where I'm going.

  6. Me too!

    Outlines are required of us narrative nonfiction folk -- it's part of the standard book proposal -- and though the outline can be a malleable beast, I love it also because I write every single day, and when I go a bit stuck on a section in sequence, I have no excuse not to write that day. I just look at the outline and find a sequence five chapters ahead that I know I *can* write and it keeps me productive. No setbacks. No excuses.

    Great post, Jon.

  7. I need to weigh in on this as well.

    Susannah - That's great. I hadn't thought of the power of an outline to break any writer's block that might show up. Having an outline sure focuses the attention on "I can write all the time, no matter what!" It stops cold those demons that can sometimes arise.

    Jon - I never realized fully the power of an outline until I wrote my first screenplay. When you have 120 pages to complete the job satisfactorily, it is not only important, but mandatory. Another benefit is the three act sequence that is argued and talked about for screenplays. That just lends itself to story structure and is a great way to begin to organize your story structure. For my next fiction I may do my initial outline using a 3 act sequence and then embelish from there.

    My transformational novel has a female protagonist. While I didn't have a formal outline, I did have an extensive dossier on each character. In effect, much of this overlapped and formed the back story. Because of that, it was always easy to flesh out who the central character was.

    Unfortunately, in the first version of the story the central character was not vulnerable enough and I needed to add elements that showed her vulnerability. Because it is transformational fiction, much of it is about what is going on in my central character's head. That actually makes it more difficult, because not only is she feminine, but she struggles with the very life she is immersed in. Fortunately she is human, so that aspect predominates.

    After the screenplays, I vowed never to begin a story without an outline.

    Great post!

    Thanks Jon for the comments and to the "Jungle" for providing the space!!


  8. I've often wondered if I came to a book without knowing the name of the author whether I could tell if a man or a woman was writing it. Aside from typical subject matter, I'm not sure I could spot any clues, at least if the protagonist was a woman.

    How well do you think Rowling did with depicting the male mentality in Harry Potter? I thought she did a good job.

  9. Thanks! So it's agreed, Outlining Is Good.
    I just ran into a friend of mine with whom I had done a joint appearance couple years ago. One of the questions from the audiece at that event was about outlining. I gassed on for five minutes about the importance of outling and then turned to him.
    He said, "No, I don't really outline at all."
    I ran into him last week at an event and the subject of outling came up. I turned to him and said "You don't outline at all, right?"
    He looked down and said. "Actually, that was just for my first book. I outline everything now."
    I felt totally indicated.

  10. I'll confess, I haven't read any Rowling. Not to start a tempest, but I wonder if it might be easier for a woman to write a man, not just because we're simpler (which we probably are) but more importantly, because the male point of view has historically been so much more prevalent in fiction. There's more to draw on.

  11. Jon,

    Excellent entry on character and outlining. I didn't outline my first book. I don't exactly regret it - I stumbled across some ideas that ended up being significant to my plot and characters - but it did lead me into revision hell for a while. I outlined my second book, which at least gave the book a shape a work with, even though I am STILL finding significant things in the writing. Maybe some people are just better or more thorough at outlining (like Jon), and some of us are just too, um, let's call it 'spontaneous' to really get all of the benefits of outlining.
    Yeah, I like being 'spontaneous,' rather than 'disorganized' or 'sloppy,' don't you?

  12. Hey Dennis,
    I am living proof that you can outline your butt off and still be sloppy and disorganized.
    But didn't you find that as you were outlining you stumbled across ideas that you weren't expecting? You can still have unexpected discoveries and revelations, but it's nice to have them before you've written 200 pages that you must now revise. And you can always revise your outline. In fact, it's a lot easier to revise an outline than a draft.

  13. I know we've talked about GPS's in other posts, but I think of the outline as a GPS. It gets me where I'm going, but it can be fluid. Recalculating route - my favorite phrase from Samatha, my PN, personal navigator.

    That's how I look at the outline. I layout the story, then make decisions as it unfolds. This works, this needs tuning, if I do this it accentuates the boldness of my character and that may be too early. It allows very conscious choices.

    Writing and story development is such a creative process that you don't want to lock it.

    Mystery writing on the other hand may require a little more discipline because of the introduction of clues along the way and to build to excitement and turn the plot at critical moments.


  14. No, I agree, you have to be flexible. And the GPS analogy works (not that I have one). There are definitely times when you get to an intersection in your outline and find the road closed (especially when dealing with forensics and that third or fourth round of research reveals a problem ...or when dealing with Mapquest). You have to be flexible enough to find another way, but even then, you can look at the rest of your outline and get a sense of what other changes you will need to make, instead of just trying to write by the seat of your pants from that point on.

  15. I think it's fascinating that a post initially about gender and POV has generated comments mostly about outlining...

  16. Yeah--me too. Maybe it's because it's so annoying to do an outline, and yet, after the torment and hair ripping, it's a good thing. So we're all reassuring ourselves and each other that it's not a hideous and disastrous waste of time.

    That said: have you read any mysteries written by a woman with a male protagonist where you think--geez: that's not what a man would do.

    I can't...think of one with that particular problem.

  17. I always thought Peter Wimsey was rather a wish fulfillment of a man.

    Love him, but come on.