Saturday, July 5, 2008

Ladies, How Do You Write A Man’s Voice?

© Marta Stephens 2008 all rights reserved
When I began to write my series, I asked several friends and co-workers to read excerpts from my manuscript and asked for their honest feedback. I was particularly interested in their reaction to my protagonist, Sam Harper. They assured me that women would like him. The question was could I sell Sam Harper to men?

I’ve attended numerous workshops and conferences over the years in which the different personality types were discussed. Twenty-eight years of marriage have also taught me that men and women don't always communicate effectively. In real life, I tend to let some of that roll off my back, ignore it most of the time, and move on. But I can't do that in my writing. In spite of my life experience, it wasn't until a critique partner read an early draft of the manuscript that the difference between writing the male and female voices sank in.

Let’s face it, women tend to explain every detail. We think, talk, and write with our emotions. Let's see, how many times has my husband said, “Get to the point.” A million and one times, I’m sure. Not because he wasn’t interested in what I’m saying, but because he was dying for me to skip over the needless details. All he was interested in was the meat of the story. I suspect “need” is so he could determine if he wanted to list to the rest of it.

In writing the male voice, the character will only give the straight-forward facts in short, abrupt sentences--you know, the ones that drive us crazy in real life! He should come across as logical; analytical, systematic. The male character will want nothing but the hard facts. He will hone in on the subject and take the most direct course to get his message across. He will shoot at the heart of the matter and be decisive. His speech will be curt, clipped, and concise. And, of course, he’s going to hold back on details.

It was during this time that I was in my office at work looking over the shoulder of our IT guy while he fixed my computer. I suspected he was close in age to Harper so when he hit a snag and needed to consult with someone from his unit I decided to pay attention. After listening to the first few seconds of his conversation, I put this male/female voice theory to the test and took notes. This man's side of the conversation went something like this: "Yup. Okay. Yup. Gotcha. Yup okay ..."

I had no idea what information the two were discussing. They could have been talking about last weekend’s ball game or the making of an atom bomb for all I knew. Had I been in on that conversation, I probably would have repeated everything the other person told me and then would have gone into a ten minute explanation of my frustrations with my computer and technology in general.

I’ve been writing the Sam Harper character for five years now so, yup, I know him well. But there are no short cuts to getting it right. I still have to make a conscious effort to not let my female voice slip in. The following is a snippet from chapter one of SILENCED CRY. The police department psychiatrist wants Harper to talk about his feelings after his partner’s murder. He’s forced to answer the doctor’s questions, something he doesn’t freely do, but knows that if he wants to keep his job, he has to go through the session. Here he does his best to be as evasive as possible. After several attempts to get him to talk, Dr. Brannon says:

“You have a problem with authority?”

“Just you.”

“Interesting. Let’s get back to what you were thinking a minute ago.”

He hated her self-assurance. He frowned — wished he could run. He glanced at the door then turned to focus his sight on the wet bark of the maple tree in front of the window.

“It’s spitting snow.”

“Damn it, Harper. I’m sworn to secrecy. Nothing you say leaves this room.” She paused for a moment. “I am not going to risk your confidence unless you give me reason to think you are capable of hurting yourself or others.” Again, she waited for a response. “Did you hear me?”

“Guess it’s only rain.” Guilt continued to eat at him. If only he’d shot sooner. If only he had known. If only. The questions outweighed the number of plausible answers. He rose to his feet again and paced.

I’m not saying that a female police officer in the same situation would have cried and poured out her feelings, but I know how much more difficult it would be for a woman (profession aside) to hold back the emotions.

Keep in mind that writing the male voice does not apply only to the character’s dialogue but how he reacts--his actions/movements. His action verbs should be as abrupt as his speech. Here's a comparison between an early draft of SILENCED CRY and the final version:

Before: He wiped his eyes and thought back to each detail leading up to Frank’s death.

After: Harper leaned forward and dropped his head. Fists jammed against his eyes as if to rub out the intruding images. He had spun the moment any number of ways, but the outcome never changed.

Then to add a little spice to things, Harper will vary his approach depending on who he is talking with. The way he communicates with his father, who is a retired police detective or his partner will be far more open and revealing than when he communicates with a love interest. His dialogue will change again in a very drastic way when he interrogates a suspect. He'll shoot one question after another at the accused without answering any. So for me, it’s not just a matter of getting the male voice right, but giving it the right fit.

After five years, writing Sam Harper’s voice has gotten easier to do, but it’s not an automatic thing. I have to make a conscious effort each time to make his dialogue true to his nature and make it sound as natural and easy-flowing as I can possibly make it. Imagine my thrill (okay, I'm getting emotional here) when I received several comments from both men and women who said if they didn't know I was a woman, they would have sworn a man has written SILENCED CRY. Music to my ears! See what you think. You’ll find an excerpt here.

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Marta Stephens writes crime mystery/suspense. SILENCED CRY is available online at familiar shops such as all the Amazons, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million, and Powells. Other locations include, but are not limited to those listed on her website.

Honorable Mention, 2008 New York Book Festival
Top Ten, 2007 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery)

Look for THE DEVIL CAN WAIT in the fall, 2008.

1 comment:

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

I love your Sam Harper voice, Marta. It is authentic and very male. I think someday soon I need to try to write with a woman's voice - it would be a great challenge! Maybe I'll give myself a contest - flash fiction with a lady's twist. Hmmmm....