When Writing, Assume Your Reader is a Woman

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“Try to write for a single reader who’s sitting across the desk from you…and if you’re smart, make that reader a woman…women buy 70% of the books.” – James Patterson

Currently I’m listening to James Patterson’s master class. I’ve just gotten started, but I think this is probably the most brilliant thing he’s said so far.

Why? Because with so much of the media I, as a 31-year-old woman, have grown up consuming, (TV, Movies, Video Games), has been made assuming that the target viewer is male (although that’s definitely changing).

Back in the 1930s, Hollywood made their basic formula for selling movies. They assumed that the average person buying movie tickets was going to be a white male.  Movies were made predominantly to target the male ticket buyer, and to treat the female viewer as accessory, with the exception of the occasional “chick flick.”

And even in very recent times (like this decade) many Hollywood producers refused to make movies with a female superhero, or female lead, claiming that it would get low viewership, never mind the fact that Wonder Woman was a box office success. Marvel CEO Doesn’t Believe in Female Superheroes

What’s interesting is that there is a tendency to see the under-representation of women as the norm, and to overestimate the presence of women when they’re actually being underrepresented, or normally represented. For example, there was a study that found that even when women did 50% of the talking in a group, they were perceived as talking too much (PBS).

The tendency to see the under-representation of women as the norm, and to underestimate the value of their contributions, is due to longstanding exclusion. When a group has been excluded from representation for a long time, this exclusion becomes seen as normal. And thus we are trained to see the male experience as the norm, and to see the female experience as accessory.

I think when many men write (and many women too), they automatically think their reader is going to be a male, because male is the lens we’ve all been subconsciously taught through which to view the world. People don’t think this way for malicious reasons, these are just very deeply ingrained stereotypes that are difficult to dismantle.

But the literary world is not like Hollywood. As James Patterson said, women buy most of the books. According to Author News , women buy 60% of books, and 65% of ebooks. Also, I’ve noticed a vast majority of literary agents are women, and most of the people who are going to be involved in producing a book are women.

Does this mean that men shouldn’t write, or that there shouldn’t be male characters, or that there shouldn’t be books with a more gritty, masculine vibe? No, I think people should write what they want to write, and anyone who feels compelled to write should do so.

But I think the point is that when people write, they shouldn’t do so assuming their reader is only going to be male. Writers can’t afford to think like that if they want to be successful.

I think what many people, male and female, need to realize, is that if their book has language that turns off women (because it’s overtly chauvinistic, or seems to go over the top in promoting sexual violence against women), it’s going to be a hard sell.

As a beta reader, I had an experience with reading a scene where the male lead character (who was supposed to be the good guy) committed an act of sexual violation against the female lead, an act that made me (as a woman) very uncomfortable. When I told this to the author, and then told him he should change it, someone else said, “Well maybe he just won’t write it for women.”

Well…maybe he just won’t get published then.

And what about those who self-publish? That’s hardly a loophole. Women are buying most of the ebooks, so trying to self-publish a sexist manuscript probably won’t go over that well either.

I’m not saying there can’t be books with sexual violence and chauvinism. Those are challenges that people deal with everyday. And in particular, when writing about an older time, chauvinistic ideals may simply be part of the time period.

But the point is that a writer shouldn’t write a story that seems to promote these ideals. The main character (if they’re the hero) shouldn’t be making sexist comments against women, or sexually violating women, unless he’s some kind of antihero. But that’s a balance that should be handled very carefully. If the antihero’s sexism is supposed to be a negative aspect of their personality, that should be made very clear.

Long story short. Write what you want, but make sure it doesn’t alienate women. And value the opinions of the women who beta-read your material. 

What I Learned in Dan Brown’s Masterclass

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By the end of this, I’m going to tell you something about myself that no one else on Earth knows…

See that, that’s an example of hooking the reader and generating suspense. This is also how Dan Brown started his Masterclass on writing, which hooked my attention immediately.

Even though I’m a Sci-Fi writer, and not a Thriller writer per se, I think there are lessons about Thriller writing that all authors can benefit from. Thrillers tend to have faster pacing and more tension than other genres, but honestly, I think all stories need tension and good pacing. It’s just a question of degree. All I know, is that when I pick up a Dan Brown novel I can’t put it down. Sometimes I’ll have issues with the characters or plot, but the man is a master of tension and pacing, there is no doubt about that.

So here is a short summary of some of the key things I learned. I’m not going to say everything, because you should pay for the Masterclass to get everything. And there’s a lot of great stuff in the class. But these are just a few of my favorite topics.


THE THREE C’S OF THRILLER: 

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When writing a Thriller, or really…any novel…keep these three C’s in mind.

The Contract, The Clock, The Crucible. 

The Contract is the implied promise you make to the reader about what they’ll discover by the end of the book. For example, in Moby Dick, the promise is that the reader will find out whether or not Ahab catches the whale. It would be very disappointing if Melville left that question unanswered.

The Clock refers to the fact that adding time pressure to the character’s struggle will create higher stakes and more tension. A lot of thrillers do this by having a bomb, so there is a literal ticking clock the protagonist is working against.

The Crucible refers to your character’s struggle, a box you put them in so they have a difficult time getting where they need to be. Whenever I beta-read a story that ends up being really boring, it’s because the character doesn’t have enough (or any) struggles. Happy people doing happy things isn’t interesting. Don’t just put your character in a tree and then let them climb down to safety without struggle. What are the obstacles that make climbing down difficult for your character? Is there a beehive? Are they getting splinters? Is it a long way down if they fall? Is there something scary, and ominous waiting for them at the bottom?


GENERATING A SENSE OF MYSTERY AND SUSPENSE

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Dan Brown spoke a lot in his class about raising questions that you don’t immediately answer. Of course, there has to be a balance. Not all of us can pull a George R.R. Martin and say that “winter is coming” for like six seasons of a show before finally paying off that promise. (Does it ever get paid off in the books?)

A big mistake I see new writers doing is that they try to immediately answer every single question that pops up, or tell you everything about a main character as soon as they arrive on the page. First chapters like this read as infodumps and don’t pull me into the story. The process of pulling someone into a story is raising a question, with the tacit promise that the question will be answered in an interesting and exciting way as the reader progresses through the story.

As Dan Brown says: “Suspense is all about making promises. It’s about telling a reader, ‘I know something you don’t know. And I promise, if you turn the page, I’m going to tell you.’”


THE PURPOSE OF POINT OF VIEW (POV) – PULLING YOUR READER INTO THE STORY

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One thing Dan Brown said that I really like is: (I’m paraphrasing right now) well written POV makes your reader feel like they’re a character inside your story, and the reader forgets that they’re reading.

Another mistake I see from new writers is that they write in POVs that bounce all over the place. This can give the reader whiplash.

If your story needs lots of POV characters, try to have one POV per chapter, or per scene.

Personally, I like it better when there’s only one POV the whole book, but that’s just me.

If you give your POV character a strong voice and personality, this can really help to draw in the reader and provide a more colorful depiction of the world you’ve created.

Also, when choosing a POV character consider the following: Who has the most learn? Who has the most to lose? Alice in Wonderland is interesting because Alice is a stranger in a strange land. But if Alice in Wonderland was written from the perspective of the Rabbit, or the Queen of Hearts, it would be a completely different story.


HOW MANY CHARACTERS SHOULD YOUR STORY HAVE? AS FEW AS POSSIBLE

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Once again, not all of us can be George R.R. Martin with a cast of like a hundred something characters with impossible to remember names. It seems that High Fantasy can get away with this a little more than other genres, but most readers don’t want to think too hard, and they definitely don’t want to read a story that feels like a homework assignment.

And if one character already accomplishes a certain thing, why have two that do the exact same thing?

For example, if one character is a quirky wizard who makes sarcastic wisecracks, having two characters exactly like this would just seem redundant and unnecessary.

Or maybe you can economize. Have one character who accomplishes multiple things to downsize the need for further characters.

Too many characters is actually in the “17 Reasons Why Book Manuscripts Are Rejected.


THE NUMBER ONE MOST IMPORTANT THING – PROTECT THE PROCESS!!!

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“Writing a novel is not all about inspiration and craft. It is about process…about making sure that you set aside time every day to do your work.” – Dan Brown 

Protect the process and the rest will follow. 

What does Dan Brown mean by protect the process? Every successful writer has their own process. And not every writer’s process will be the same. Dan Brown’s process is that he sits down from 4am-11am everyday to write, with no connection to the internet, no distractions, and he forces himself to get up every hour to do a few brief exercises, so that he keeps himself energized.

Your process doesn’t have to be like this, but this is a process that works for him. Your job is to find what process works for you. Do you like writing in the early morning when no one else is awake to distract you? Do you like to write late at night for the same reasons? Do you jot ideas down on toilet paper and shove them into your pocket?

There’s no writer’s block. There’s simply failure to put your butt in the chair and write.

Writing is like going to the gym. We don’t always feel like doing it. But if you’re someone who is serious about getting published, you can’t just write only when you feel like it, or treat it like a hobby. You have to treat it like a job.

Also, be fiercely protective of your process. Sometimes the people you love the most will be the ones to (inadvertently) undermine your process (because they love you!). I suppose this is why a lot of writers like to write in the early hours of the morning, or late hours of the night, or go to a location where there won’t be any friends and family members around to distract them.

Of course there has to be a balance. You can’t ignore your responsibilities to your family, spouse, and friends. But if you’re serious about being a published author, you should probably try to set aside some amount of time each day (or five days a week) that are your writing time.

Dan Brown suggests committing to an amount of time rather than a word count. Some days you might feel drained, and struggle to put a mere 100 words on the page. Other days you might feel super inspired, and whip about 6,000 words together in no time flat. It’s going to vary day by day, based on your energy and creativity levels. So, it’s more important to commit to X hours, rather than X words.

Also keep in mind that it’s okay to make mistakes. You might write a scene that sucks. You might end up writing a book no one wants to read. That’s okay. You learn from your mistakes. You be kind to yourself. Reflect. Move on.

Yet the time to be tough on yourself is when it’s time to protect the process, when you wake up at the appointed time and think, I’d rather sleep in. Or when you’re struggling to write, and are tempted to binge watch the entirety of The Punisher in a single weekend. (No…I didn’t do that…Of course not.)

Mistakes will happen. And there’s no guarantee your writing will even be good. But if you commit to a habitual process, you’ll at least become a better writer than you were yesterday, and have something to show for your efforts.


If you like what you’ve read, consider getting a Masterclass subscription so you can see the rest of what Dan Brown has to say. Because he discusses much, much more, than what is merely summarized here.