Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Writing Like A Man

Friends, Romans, Readers & Writers,  please welcome author Kristen Elise.

“How do you write women so well?”

“I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”

Jack Nicholson’s line from As Good As It Gets was met with laughter by men and cringing by women (as we concealed our inner laughter from the men in our lives so as to not publicly condone the statement.) Of course, Nicholson’s character was a romance writer. Had he been a mystery writer, the line might have gone something like this:

“I think of a man, and I take away action and add sap.”

I have been accused of “writing like a man,” a comment I took as a major compliment. Now, before readers and writers of both genders take equal offense and burn me at the stake, please allow me to explain: it’s a fact that author gender matters to some readers. Specifically, it matters more to men.

Attached are a few statistics from Bowker’s publication of “The Mystery Consumer in the Digital Age.” The stats I have are from 2010, but let’s face it, ladies, we haven’t advanced that much in the last three years.

The good news is that to ~90% of women and ~80% of men, author gender makes no difference in how likely the reader is to read a book. The bad news is that 21% of men and 7% of women are less likely to pick up a mystery based solely on the fact that it was written by a member of the opposite sex.

That’s a little disturbing if you’re a female mystery writer: you might presume that 10.5% of all mystery readers already don’t like you, and therefore that maybe you should write in drag. But it’s not really as bad as that. The majority of mystery readers (68%) are women, so we level the playing field a little bit by sheer number.

In the end, male and female authors share almost equal success. If you look at the top 15 mystery writers for readers of all ages, they’re 40-47% women. As for the all-time, hands-down fave – Madame Christie, bested only by Shakespeare and the Bible.

So what makes that 21% of men and 7% of women automatically judge a book by its cover (and by that, I mean the name on the cover?) The answer is: a personal preference for a writing style automatically associated with one gender or the other. And there might be something to the stereotype. Here’s a little experiment:

Below are two randomly selected excerpts from novels I have recently read. And I do mean randomly selected: In each case, I opened the book to a random page and then copied verbatim the first two complete paragraphs. Here they are: 

Excerpt #1:

Turbulence is still turbulent, whether one is flying first class or coach. 

The plane bounced and threw hot tea into my lap. I sat in the exit row in the first class cabin, on the upper deck of a 747, traveling from Los Angeles to Edinburgh. It was my first time in first class, and definitely my first time to enjoy a port tasting at 35,000 feet. However, port and turbulence don’t mix. My stomach danced first with queasiness, then with fear of meeting my Scottish relatives for the first time. To add to my anxiety, my beige cotton khakis were now stained Earl Grey. 

Excerpt #2:

Hugo shrugged. “I’m not paying your salary, so do whatever you like, Boss.”

“Just make sure you do your shit right. That’s all you need to worry about.” Tom reached for his wine glass but, when he saw it was as empty as the carafe, he grabbed at Hugo’s, spilling half on the paper table cloth before getting it under control.

Who wrote each of these? If you guessed #1 Woman, #2 Man, you’re right. The excerpts are from #1 Whisky Descent, by Sara McBride, and #2 The Crypt Thief, by Mark Pryor (and I thank each of them for playing along in this exercise.) 

Did you think the author’s gender was obvious? What gave it away? Do you think your gender comes through in your own writing? And, is that a good thing or a bad thing? I hereby present a fun challenge: In the comment box below, write a line or two under a fake or androgynous name (Kris is always a good one…) Feel free to pull a short excerpt from your own WIP, if you’d like. And let’s see if we can guess your gender.

Statistically, in the mystery market it might be in one’s interest to write like a man. But I’d settle for the success of Madame Christie.

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and long-time resident of San Diego, California. She lives with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. Please visit her websites at www.kristenelisephd.com and www.murderlab.com.

Back cover copy for The Vesuvius Isotope:

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that increasingly pervaded his behavior in recent weeks. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the esoteric life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague, introducing it into the twenty-first century.


Anonymous said...

The language of the first piece is far more feminine. I don't think I've ever heard a man say "I feel queasy".

Also, a man probably wouldn't admit it is his first time in first class - a man would probably like everyone to think that's his natural place as generally speaking (and it can only be a general statement) a man places quite a lot of importance on his status. It would have been better to have shown this was his first time in first class by having him fumble with something or having to ask for something he should already know about...

A man would probably use stronger language rather than saying port and turbulence "don't mix" but, of course, that might depend on characterisation but for your classic thriller hero probably stronger language would have been appropriate.

"Stomach danced", "queasiness" -again descriptions men are not likely to use.

A man who admits to fear AND anxiety about meeting relatives? C'mon! Is this a romance novel or an action novel? This guy sounds like he'd pass out if he saw a mouse:)

A man probably wouldn't describe his trousers as beige AND cotton. He might say "beige" in this incidence so the reader knows it looks like he's pissed himself but he probably wouldn't say cotton. Most male readers and writers would probably consider "cotton" completely superfluous information.

Ditto Earl Grey tea. "Tea" would suffice or something even more direct like " the wet patch made it look like I'd pissed myself."

Obviously, a lot depends on character, objective and genre in which case my thoughts might be completely irrelevant.

Charles Gramlich said...

Since I like a lot of action in my fiction, I do sometimes get wary of women writers in certain genres. I'll certainly give them a try, but if there isn't action I am likely to move on from that author, no matter the genre.

Kris said...

Anonymous and Charles - yep, you guys nailed it. Personally, I do see a major difference. Men use a lot less emotion and a lot more profanity haha

Mark P said...

We also drink alcohol, not tea. :) Actually, that's not true, I like both. I even take a mug of tea with me to the library where I write (as an Englishman, that shouldn't be too shocking!).

I try very hard not to discriminate according to the sex of the author. I do see a tendency towards more romance and less hard-and-fast action, but those are my personal experiences. Some of the best crime fiction I've read lately has been by female authors (Jamie Mason and Elizabeth Silver, for example).

Also, as a male writer, I've been poked and prodded by a few female readers to up the romance factor, or at least hold it consistent. But even more than that, I've had female readers appreciate the strength and independence of my main female character, Claudia. That makes me happy. :)

Kris said...

Haha, Mark, I was going to say, if it were a guy it would have been whisky and not Earl Gray. I forgot to account for the English haha.

Personally, I'm a woman and don't mind if romance is left out of a story entirely, when it's not necessarily part of the story. But maybe that's just me.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I knew the first was a woman. The Earl Grey description of color was a dead give away. Most male writers I have read would have just written "grey".

The rather brash language of the second one sounded like it was written by a man.

Of course it's all stereotype because I've read some romance and was shocked after reading the author bio that they were men.

Sara McBride said...

This is a fascinating discussion! Thank you Anonymous, Charles, Mark and Jewel for your comments. Now I must reveal that the character in the opening of Whisky Descent is actually a woman, so YAY! Your comments give me some confidence that it sounds like a female voice.

Question to you boys: I've altered the opening of the novel. Now the lead female is found running stark naked through the Scottish Highlands in the rain. Does that sound better?

Liane Spicer said...

Welcome to Novel Spaces, Kris!

Fascinating indeed. Stereotypes are stereotypes because there's some truth behind them: it was easy for me to tell which was which.

I appreciate the perspectives/styles of both genders but I have to admit to a certain bias: most male writers don't write women very credibly. OTOH, I've been told by a male member of this blog that men don't read romance novels because the men are not written realistically. So I guess we're quits.

Kris said...

I'm so glad we posted this - I love the comments that have come forth. I agree with both Jewel and Liane that sometimes, genders don't write each other as credibly.

I think it's also worth mentioning that women tend to (more often, generally speaking, and other disclaimers) have female protagonists and men male protagonists, which makes a big difference. For example, The Vesuvius Isotope is first-person from a female POV, so that is how it reads. My second book, The Death Row Complex, is third-person and this is the book where beta readers say they would never believe it was written by a woman. Guess what? It's FULL of bad language and extremely dubious characters. Not so much Earl Gray LOL.

Anonymous said...

Call me Pat and I am taking Kris' challenge. Excerpt from the unpublished novel "Firmus of Yahweh"

"The police report stated that she found him dead on the floor. The truth was that she sat down next to him on his couch. She took his hand, caressing his check as he always did to her. She felt her face beam when she told him that his oxygen machine was unplugged. She cherished the revelation that flashed across his face. She noted the time; it took her dear uncle two hours and thirteen minutes to die. As he expired, she spit in his face damming him to hell for his sins."

Am I male or Female. All comments are welcome.

rob akers said...

Great Post Kris. I think you are a wonderful writer and person, regardless of your personal plumbing.

I think it shouldn't matter what the gender of the writer is, good writing is good writing. But there is something about how we express ourselves with words that is different because of our individual voice.

Thank you for bringing this topic to the forefront. I cant wait to read your book. I just have to finish what I am working on first.

rob akers

Kris said...

Thanks so much Rob, I hope you love the book! And whatever you're working on first :)

Liane Spicer said...

Anon-Pat, I'd guess the writer is female, but I'd need to read more of the writing to be sure.

Kris said...

Pat - I'd guess female. I'd also guess this is a book I want to read!

rob akers said...

Hey Y'all,

I would guess that Pat is a guy. My reasoning is that I'm looking at him in the mirror.

Liane and Kris, thanks for the guess. That is a excerpt from my unpublished book Soldiers Of God. Deborah is one of the main characters.

Thank you both again for taking a guess.

Kris said...

Rob, you had me fooled. Cool book!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous (No 1) returning to answer Rob Aker's post.

Of course I have now read, Rob, that you are a man -however I was almost 100% certain your excerpt was written by a male.

Reason - women do not not spit on people. At least none that I've ever met. Spitting is a man's way of expressing dislike not a woman's. Of course, if the character is meant to be some sort of lowlife sadist then maybe that's what they do -I can't be sure - but I'd still bet good money a woman would find a much subtler way to express her distaste rather than spitting. Also, "Damning to hell" is not feminine language at all. Just sticking my oar in:))

Kris said...

To anonymous...
I guess I should stop spitting on people.

(totally kidding)