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Writing Across Gender: How I Learned to Write From a Female POV

Categories: Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Craft and Story Beginnings, Guest Columns, What's New.

I write like a girl. More precisely, I write as a girl. My novel, Styx & Stone: An Ellie Stone Mystery, features a main character/narrator who is a woman. A young woman. And a smart, resourceful, pretty young woman at that.

Ellie Stone is a self-described “modern girl” in 1960′s New York. In the days before feminism, she plays like a man, but make no mistake: she’s all woman. A Barnard graduate from a cultured family, she’s determined to have a career that doesn’t involve fetching coffee for a boss who pats her rear end when she’s done a good job. Or even when she hasn’t. She’s a realist, though, aware that a woman can go only so far in a man’s world, so she accepts a lowly position as a fledgling reporter for a small upstate daily. Her beat includes Knights of Columbus Ladies’ Auxiliary meetings and high school basketball games. But Ellie’s the smartest person in the room, a quick wit, and one of the fellas when it comes to holding her drink. She’d better be able to hold her drink, or be prepared to defend her honor.

(Should you start your novel with a prologue?)

 

Screen Shot 2013-11-08 at 1.14.43 PM       Screen Shot 2013-11-08 at 1.14.29 PM

A linguist by training, James Ziskin studied Romance Languages and
Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. After completing his graduate
degree, he worked in New York as a photo-news producer and writer, and
then as Director of NYU’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò. His international
experience includes two years working and studying in France, extensive
time in Italy, and more than three years in India. He speaks Italian and
French fluently. James now lives in the Hollywood Hills with his wife
Lakshmi and cats Bobbie and Tinker. His first novel is STYX & STONE:
An Ellie Stone Mystery (Nov 2013, Oct. 15). Library Journal calls the
book “An engrossing debut in what promises to be a fascinatingly
complex series set in the 1960s.” Find James on Twitter.

 

 

We’ve read about smart, resourceful, pretty, young women before. Even ones who like men and booze. Nothing new there. But Ellie Stone seems to anger some readers, and not because she drinks and occasionally ends up in bed with a man. Rather, it’s her sex that gets under some readers’ skin. Or perhaps it’s her writer’s sex that gets under their skin.

Writers populate their stories with all manner of characters: men, women, children, vampires, animals, aliens… A mix of genders (and species) is usually necessary, unless you’re writing about a prison or an all-girls’ school. Most novels have characters of both sexes represented, and readers generally don’t complain when a female writer includes male characters in her story, or even when a male writer sprinkles a few females in his. The grumbling starts when the writer and the narrator are of different genders.

“Sure, give her a ride in your car, but for God’s sake don’t let her drive!”

Given that it’s generally acceptable for writers of either sex to include characters of the opposite gender in their stories, the idea that one sex cannot know the inner workings of the other well enough to narrate a novel seems arbitrary. It’s also anecdotal, with no basis in research or science. Proponents of this belief surely must see that such logic can backfire and risks validating the most ignorant stereotypes and prejudice about gender and abilities. Women aren’t good at math, they can’t drive, they’re too emotional… Men are brutes, they don’t listen, they they don’t ask for directions…

(How should you discuss a book’s series potential in a query letter?)

All this does not mean that I have created a good or believable female narrator. That’s for others to judge. But the judgment should not be framed by my gender, anymore than a young girl’s math skills, good or bad, should be defined by hers. The discussion should be about the writing. Of course I hope Ellie Stone comes across as more than just a man with breasts (think Michelangelo sculpture of a woman). Ellie has some so-called feminine traits and behaviors, as well as other more “masculine” ones, e.g. her libertine attitudes toward drinking and sex. (It is, after all, a well known fact that women neither drink nor enjoy sex.)

Humans come in many varieties, all shapes and sizes, with different ways of thinking and acting. Women do not constitute a monolith; there’s not just one model. Like men, they span a continuum of personalities, peccadilloes, and emotional temperatures. I’ve met some pretty tough women and some sensitive men. And I’ve met everything in between, which is where — somewhere in the gray of the continuum — I believe Ellie Stone falls.

 

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5 Responses to Writing Across Gender: How I Learned to Write From a Female POV

  1. theconq says:

    Huh. Maybe that’s my problem. Writing from a female perspective on a first novel. I dunno. All I can tell you is I tried it with a male protagonist and it just didn’t work. He was whiny, annoying, and dull. The female secondary character was much more fun, so I just bumped her up to star-player status. Work went much easier. And I managed to work the guy back in as well, albeit in a different role with a revamped personality (so not the same guy at all, really).

  2. jdtappero says:

    While interesting enough, the article “Writing Across Gender: How I learned to write from a female POV” didn’t actually explain ‘how’. It did raise the question of ‘why not?’, but gave nothing in terms of methodology on how Ziskin put himself into the opposite gender’s frame-of-mind. The catchy title of the article caught my eye–and my interest–but ultimately only raised more questions.

  3. kblenkush says:

    A friend and I were discussing the novel Ender’s Game, and I said that his female characters were flat stereotypes. My (male) friend said it was difficult to write characters of the opposite sex. Know what I told him? Write your female characters as you would your male characters. Women are people, too, and aren’t singularly defined by their gender. The “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” mindset just restricts your characters to tiny boxes.

  4. RASlater says:

    Great, now I’m wondering how I did writing from my lead male’s POV cuz I’m a woman lol

  5. LeftWrite says:

    In my last novel I also masqueraded as a woman — two of them, and in first person. Making their voices unique was difficult, but what made the masquerade easy was the fact that I like these women. I still send out queries, but I’ve become less defensive about presenting myself as a male writer. I used to send out queries à la J.K. Rowling, using my first two initials in the hope that agents would be fooled into thinking the novel had been written by a woman. I no longer use such subterfuge, and though I have yet to receive a nibble of interest, I remain confident that I will soon connect with an agent who appreciates the honesty.

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