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Guest Author: John DeDakis — A Man Writing as a Woman

A couple of weeks ago I attended the grand opening of the American Women Writers National Museum. While I was there, the founder of the museum asked me if I would sit on a panel on the topic of men writing from the female POV, and play Devil’s Advocate. Sure!

The panel is today from 11:30-1:30 and consists of CNN Senior Copy Editor John DeDakis and Amanda Brice. In honor of the event, the Rubies are hosting John DeDakis today on the blog. Enjoy!

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I’m a guy, but I write in the first person as a woman.

When my first mystery/suspense novel FAST TRACK was published in hardcover in 2005, one of my male friends said in astonishment to one of our mutual female friends, “I didn’t know John was a closet woman!”

I inscribed his book: “Welcome to my closet.”

My CNN colleague and cone-of-silence friend Carol Costello once told me after reading an early draft of the manuscript, “You have a very well- developed female side.” I suppose some guys might be freaked to be told that, but Carol meant it as a compliment, so I accept it, even though I’m still not totally sure what she means (but I think it has to do with nuanced emotional depth, or something).

Writing as a woman started when I first began toying with writing fiction nearly twenty years ago. Someone suggested that I choose a point of view that would be different for me — and a challenge. It was only later that I realized that most people who buy books are women. Cool.

I found that writing from the female perspective hasn’t been as tough as I thought it would be, for a number of reasons:

• I had a great relationship with my mom (a third grade school teacher, incidently) — I could talk with her about anything

• Cindy, my wife of 33 years, is one of those quality people who have a lot of substantive things to say. She’s smart, compassionate, articulate, and never boring

• My 30-year-old writer/daughter Emily is never shy about offering an opinion on just about everything. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland and edited both my novels.

• I work in a newsroom surrounded by twenty-something young women who tell me about their boyfriend, career, and family issues, probably because I’m much more comfortable asking questions and listening than pontificating.

I asked a lot of women to read the FAST TRACK manuscript before I found my agent — also a woman (Barbara Casey) — and their feedback helped me make tweaks that rendered the text authentic to the female psyche. For example, I had a line of dialogue in which Lark Chadwick, my protagonist, says, “I’ll just jump into the shower.” The women of the Princeton Lakes Book Club in Marietta, Georgia, who let me sit in and listen as they critiqued the manuscript, said, as one: “Women do NOT just ‘jump’ into the shower. We savor the sensuality of the experience.”

Got it. Lark no longer jumps into the shower.

After FAST TRACK came out, Kris Kosach of ABC Radio wrote, “DeDakis crawls inside the mind of a twenty-something female, authentically capturing her character, curiosity and self-expression in this can’t-put-down thriller.” Nice.

And I continue to be amazed at the numerous 5-star reviews I get on Amazon from women who don’t seem to mind that a man is writing as a woman. See for yourself.

BLUFF, the second novel in the Lark Chadwick series, came out a year ago. Veteran investigative journalist Diane Dimond (NPR, NBC, and now Newsweek/TheDailyBeast.com) writes, “Lark reminds me of me in the early days of my career…. DeDakis can so accurately write from a woman’s point of view — with all the intrinsic curiosity, emotion and passion — [that it’s] nothing short of astounding.”

Conversely, I think it goes without saying that women, too, can effectively write as men. In fact, I would venture that all authors have at least some experience writing characters of the opposite sex because most novels contain male and female characters.

Yes, there is probably still plenty of prejudice out there among people who don’t believe it’s possible for a writer to be able to bridge the gender gap, but I’ve found that emotions are universal. Women, as well as men, experience fear, joy, anger, and sadness. No one gender corners the market on having feelings, it’s just that I’ve found women express them more interestingly and articulately.

So, I’m proud to be a woman — if only on the printed page.

John DeDakis is a Senior Copy Editor for CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” and the author of the Lark Chadwick mystery-suspense series “Fast Track” and “Bluff.” www.johndedakis.com

44 responses to “Guest Author: John DeDakis — A Man Writing as a Woman”

  1. Liz Talley says:

    Welcome, John, and thanks for visiting us today with such a fascinating topic.

    I agree – emotions are universal, but that being said, I do think it takes particular talent to see the world from a different gender. I love the differences between men and women, and as a writer, I often pay close attention and dissect the differences. My poor husband probably gets tired of me saying, “Why did you say that?” “I don’t understand,” and “Let’s rewind.”

    Because I grew up in a neighborhood of boys, with two brothers, I find myself capable in writing the male POV. So I get it. It can be done so well that readers don’t think twice about it. Not so controversial in my opinion.

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  2. Tamara Hogan says:

    In the romance genre, the ability to write from both the heroine’s and hero’s point of view is pretty much a job requirement. That said, it’s not necessarily easy to accomplish with authenticity.

    I love writing from male characters’ POV, in dungeon-deep third person POV. Heroes, villains, secondary characters, it doesn’t matter – I just love writing dudes. One of the things I’m very attuned to when writing in male POV is an awareness of internal physical reaction, but of sometimes not being able to connect the dots emotionally. But the woman reading the book usually can connect the dots, creating a kind of secret that the reader knows before the character does.

    Thanks for spending time with us today, John, and congratulations! Those are some killer blurbs and reviews. 😉

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  3. Elisa Beatty says:

    Thanks so much for being here, John! Fascinating topic, indeed!

    It’s really interesting how the gender “divide” still feels so big to so many people. (I live in the very gender-flexible Berkeley/San Francisco area, where we tend to downplay it).

    Of course, fiction is always an act of imaginative generosity–unless we all just write ourselves over and over and over (and even *I* don’t want to read books in which all the characters are 40-something lefty California English teachers).

    Could I successfully write in the POV of a Southerner, or
    of a brilliant, super-logical microbiologist or a Tea Party conservative?

    The key, I think, is being truly opening to LISTENING to people who are different from you. It sounds like you’ve been very willing to do that with the women in your life, and it’s paid off…and probably in ways beyond just getting that fictional voice right. It sounds like you have strong relationships with women.

    I’m curious–other than the not-jumping-in-the-shower thing, what other gender differences have you found? (I have to say, I ALWAYS say I have to “jump in the shower,” but then I have to leave the house before dawn most days.)

    I’m eager to check out FAST TRACK!

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    • Amanda Brice says:

      I started reading FAST TRACK a few days ago in preparation for the panel he and I are going to be on, and it’s REALLY good. I haven’t finished — having a 3-month-old and a manuscript deadline really eats into my reading time — but I’m really liking it so far.

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    • John DeDakis says:

      Hi, Elisa….. Thanks for your comment. It’s good to know that Lark isn’t the only woman who tends to jump into the shower. She’s obviously in good company here. In answer to your question, I’m finding it more valuable to focus on the similarities rather than the differences between men and women. Certainly, there are differences galore, but as soon as we point to one, an exception is sure to pop up. So…..how’s that for an artful dodge?

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  4. Amanda Brice says:

    Thanks for visiting us today, John and I’m looking forward to our panel.

    You’re totally right about the little nuances and differences. That’s so funny that Lark no longer jumps in the shower.

    I already know my limitations. I can’t convincingly write a guy’s perspective to save my life, which is why I write in 1st person female POV. It’s also why I write books with “strong romantic elements” rather than actual “romance” (even if Janice referred to me as a romance writer in the bio on the museum website).

    but you’re right that some things are universal.

    Great topic!

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  5. Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

    I feel ripped off that I do not savor the sensuality of my showers. I’m not a jumper either. I hop in the shower, like a bunny, I guess. Anyhow welcome to the sisterhood. I also love to write in first person and I have a story set in the man’s POV. Not sure if the world is ready for that, the the story wanted to be written that way.

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  6. Thank you for being here today, John. Fabulous discussion.

    I love writing from my the male perspective. (I generally have 3-5 POVs in my books…hero, heroine, and villain are the key ones, then a couple secondary characters.) But the hero is always a special challenge because, as someone commented above, it’s interesting to show the emotional development without the hero connecting the dots. Of course, I’m being general here…there certainly are emotional guys out there, but my heroes tend to be the alpha male type. I’m writing more of a beta male now, and he is a psychologist as well, so he’s going to be an interesting challenge.

    Thanks again for being here today! (And I forgot to add that I find first person POV challenging, too – kudos to you for getting both 1st person and female perspective!).

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  7. Thanks, John. Really enjoyed your post. Wish I could hear the panel–what fun! Look forward to reading Fast Track and congrats on your books and capturing a woman’s POV.

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  8. Shea Berkley says:

    I’m thrilled you agreed to talk to us today. Thank you.

    I have no problem with men writing from the female POV, mostly because I’m a female writing from the fisrt person
    male POV. I write young adult books, so I have the added carnival-ride factor of getting to wallow in my pubescent inclinations. Thank God it doesn’t come with acne.

    You said you started writing from the female POV 20 years ago. How long did it take you to get comfortable writing from that POV? And I suppose I’m also asking you about your confidence level. I know I have to search quite a while before I can nail my characters down and feel comfortable living in their skins. And with the male POV I’m always striving for a balance of what I have them say and what I don’t.

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    • John DeDakis says:

      Hi, Shea…..

      Thanks for your question. But first, let me tell you how much I loved the Q&A portion of your Web site. Thoroughly captivating.

      Now to your question about how long it took to feel comfortable and confident living in Lark’s skin. At the risk of sounding conceited, not that long. But, that said, it’s also been a growing process — probably not unlike what it’s like to grow and mature as a human being. We’re all still works in progress, right?

      One interesting insight I got into myself during today’s panel discussion, however, happened when the discussion turned to race. I found myself saying that I wouldn’t dare write from the POV of an African-American, for example. I grew up during the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King, Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech still brings tears to my eyes. But I feel it would be presumptuous for me to believe I can effectively put myself into the shoes of someone who has that kind of painful heritage. As I said during the panel discussion, it’s not because I don’t have Black friends — I just don’t have enough of them. But if I did create a Black character, I know I would certainly do my best to get as much knowledgeable critical feedback as possible.

      Thanks again for your question.

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      • Shea Berkley says:

        You went to my website? How sweet of you! I wish I could say I completely made all that stuff up, but sadly, I didn’t. Most of it is true, though I do love a good lie or two. (grin)

        Interesting comment about race. I get why so many people hesitate to write outside their race, but don’t you think it limits the stories we can tell? Sometimes, it takes someone looking in to reflect and bravely say what sometimes we of that culture/race can’t or won’t admit. It would definitely be a fine line to walk and treating that culture/race with respect would be a must. With that said, I believe the human experience has more commonality than differences to it.

        I would have loved to hear that discussion yesterday. Thank you so much for dropping by, John.

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  9. Kate Pearce says:

    What a great interview-thanks for being on the blog, John. Having occasionally been mistaken as a gay man masquerading as a female romance writer, I love that you can get into the opposite sexes head so completely. 🙂

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  10. Really interesting blog post! Even though I love writing from my heroes’ and male villains’ POVs, I find I can’t just jump in and out of them at will. I’ll sometimes write several of the male POV scenes at one time so I can stay in the zone.

    Thanks for coming by today, and congratulations on the books. Can’t wait to read Fast Track.

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  11. Vivi Andrews says:

    As another chick who has been known to just jump in the shower, I’m curious if you ever worry that you could end up with a stereotypical heroine by being hyper-aware of making her authentically female. Anytime someone says “A woman would never…” I cringe because we don’t all use the same rulebook. Gender is more a spectrum to me than a fixed and polarized position.

    I don’t tend to think so much of whether my heroes POVs are authentically male so much as whether they are appealing to my predominantly female readers. Which raises the question of audience expectations – how it isn’t always about accuracy so much as what the audience wants – and what they want to believe is accurate.

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    • Amanda Brice says:

      Interesting point, Vivi, and one we discussed at the panel (how romance writers in both POVs and are our male characters authentic or rather merely an idealized fantasy of how women wish men would act).

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    • John DeDakis says:

      Hi, Vivi……

      Yes. The idea of writing a stereotypic female (or any character, for that matter) makes me cringe. And, sadly, my first drafts probably are fairly cardboard-cut-outy. Fortunately, I’m blessed to have women in my life who agree to read those early drafts and kindly provide me with saving-grace mid-course corrections.

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  12. Amanda Brice says:

    I’m back from the panel. John said he’s going to try to stop by sometime this afternoon or evening.

    Anyway, it was a great discussion, delving into issues of gender identity, race, and societal norms. I think it really helped to have an academic on the panel to keep us on track.

    One thing we discussed is how it seems women will read books written by women or by men, but men in general tend to shy away from books written by women. So years ago women took pen names, and even still today many women who write more mainstream thrillers or fantasy or science fiction might use initials if they want to avoid their book getting pigeonholed as something just for women to read. Ex: J.K. Rowling, J.R. Ward, and even my Pixie Chick friend T.R. Ragan publishes her mainstream thrillers under an initial pseudo (she writes romance as Theresa Ragan).

    Yes, there are some men who use female pseudonyms but in general they’ll just publish under their own name regardless of the gender of their protagonist and don’t worry about whether their name will “turn off” a certain segment of buyers. Why do you think that is?

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Yes, it’s so frustrating that women have been socialized to reading books by men, but so many men are still resistant to reading something by a woman.

      I can’t tell you how many male high school students I know who complain about how we’re “always reading books by women!!” when in fact typically only one or two books classes cover all year are by women. (Which, of course, is a problem in and of itself!!)

      Again, we ALL need to be willing to listen to one another!

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  13. Great post, John!

    Add me to those who jump/hop in the shower. Sometimes I savor it (mostly when I’m cold or really dirty), but usually I resent the time it takes out of my day. As was mentioned, generalities can be pitfalls! LOL (Another example: I never understood the whole women/shoe thing.)

    So you said you started writing from a female POV because someone told you to try something different, challenge yourself. What made you decide to stay with it, and not just chalk it up to a successful craft exercise? Have you since written anything from the male POV? If so, do you have a hard time switching back and forth?

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    • Diana Layne says:

      yep, Natalie, I agree showers are time consuming. In the winter, if I don’t have to go anywhere for the day, I skip ’em. (freezing in my house in the winter anyway so they’re no fun). also agree with you re: shoes. I go barefoot as much as possible…could be that’s why I have six kids? lol

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    • John DeDakis says:

      Hi, Natalie…. First… you are probably the first woman I’ve run into who doesn’t get the shoe thing. Why don’t you get it? (I’m not complaining; I don’t get it, either.)

      Why did I stick with writing as a woman? I enjoy doing it, primarily because I’m getting to know Lark better. I’m working on book three in the series, have outlined book four, and books five and six are somewhere in the back of my head. Right now, I’m in no hurry to write anything different, but I’m sure that will change.

      I have tried to write fiction as a man (first person, again). Here’s a link to a short story I wrote a few years ago: http://www.authorsden.com/visit/viewshortstory.asp?id=23557
      Your honest feedback is welcome.

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  14. Diana Layne says:

    I’m an only child, but I have 4 sons and 2 daughters. One of the daughters, after screaming the first year of her life, is now more like me and is rarely emotional. (she’s also a writer) The other one has mercury quick moods and cries at the slightest provocation. She leaves me puzzling. I think in my writing I probably capture the male POV better–at least as Vivi mentioned, for my female readers and their expectations. But I do struggle with my women characters, I tend to make them too stoic. Always having to work on that.

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  15. I’m one of those jumpers and hoppers, too. I’m usually too busy to take anything but a quick shower. Thanks for sharing with us, John. And thank you, Amanda for bringing us such an esteemed guest.

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  16. Elise Hayes says:

    Thanks for posting the blog, John! I actually had a lot of fun with gender with my last manuscript. It’s a medieval setting, with a heroine who was raised as a boy/man…and is then exposed and has to live as a woman. When I first wrote her, my critique partner said, “no, no, she doesn’t feel right.” And she didn’t. So then I started thinking of her as a male character…and suddenly everything flowed. But I literally had to continue envisioning her as a man throughout the manuscript to get her “voice” right. I hadn’t realized before that experience how gendered my characters were. Who knew?

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  17. John DeDakis says:

    Hi, Everyone…..

    Thanks to all of you for your generous comments. And thank you to Amanda for the opportunity to introduce myself to you. A few of you have asked specific questions, so once I’m finished here, I’ll loop back and answer you individually. I enjoyed sitting to Amanda’s right on today’s panel. You would have been proud of her — a smart and engaging representative of The Sisterhood. But you already know that.

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  18. Tom Attwood says:

    It’s nice to meet another gender-jumper. I too write from a female POV (third person, though), for a variety of reasons, and it has been a lot of fun. I get a lot of kidding at my local RWA chapter where, as you can imagine, there are few men (5 of us in a membership well over 100), and I am occasionally called by my pen name, which baffles the hell out of newcomers.

    The thing I like best is that women are inclusive, helpful, and nurturing. Only once, in all the interactions I’ve had, have I felt discriminated against. As far as most people with whom I have only a virtual relationship – as far as they’re concerned, I’m a girl. It works, and I can bash men with the best of them – after all, generally we make an easy target…

    One of the reasons I started with the female name was to increase privacy – an issue with both my family and my profession. When someone starts pushing to read my latest (I write romantic erotica) I just say “I write under a pen name” – that seems to be enough to divert people’s attention. I’m passably sure they’ll never figure out who I am.

    I’ve had a lot of relationships with women – among others I have three daughters, and we’re close, which means I got to watch the transition from vulnerable girl to ass-kicking woman. Whether I’m sensitive enough is an interesting question – but outside of technical experts my beta readers and critique partners are all female. Occasionally I’ll miss something similar to jumping in the shower, but not often, and when I do it’s usually pretty subtle.

    If nothing else, this has been a whole lot of fun. Good luck to you, and I’d love to see that panel discussion. Stand up for all of us.

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  19. June Love says:

    John, thank you so much for visiting with us. I loved what you said about emotions being universal. Men do have them, but they just don’t always know how to or care to express them. I grew up during a time and in a location where boys were encouraged to keep their emotions under lock and key.
    Oh, I a shower jumper, too. I lounge in the tub, but jump in and out of the shower.
    Thank you again for joining us today. Amanda, thank you so much inviting John to visit with us.
    I’m sure the panel was wonderful.

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  20. Terry Odell says:

    I’m another romance writer, so being able to handle both males and females as POV characters is part of the learning curve. I had my husband vet the first scene I wrote from my hero’s POV. His first reaction — “He needs a bigger truck.” Then, later, he came in and said, “You know, when he was in her apartment and she tucked her legs under her? He’d have looked.”

    I’ve been told by many of my readers that I get the XY thing ‘right.’

    JA Konrath was advised to use his initials because he wrote a female protagonist.

    And I just take showers … how dull.

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  21. I’m late, and I’m sorry. I did the FB & Twitter thing before we left, but didn’t get to comment.

    Growing up in a large family, extended as well as immediate, and having four younger brothers gave me an interesting perspective on the maturation (or, on occasion, the lack thereof) of boys to men. When the guys let their inner child out to play, getting him back inside can be daunting.

    Women have an entire wardrobe with which men are often unfamiliar—perhaps not of the items, themselves, but of the physical and psychological aspects. For instance, since you mentioned shoes, the right shoes can give a real psychological lift, a sense of power even though no one may notice them in more than passing. The same for certain lingerie that, while hidden (one hopes), adds another layer of power or confidence. Men rarely get it (I know my sweetheart is still clueless after 30+ years), so I’m wondering how you’ve dealt with these very real psychological boosts in your novels—or do you even bother to use this layering element?

    Thanks for being here with us today. Another perspective tends to open doors not noticed before.

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    • John DeDakis says:

      Hi, Gwyn….. Thanks for your insights. I have to admit that I wasn’t as clued in about shoes and undies when I wrote “Fast Track” then I’ve become since. I think I managed to work around my ignorance in the first book, but now that I’ve had several meaningful conversations with women about the other stuff (especially about shoes), I plan to add that kind of valuable psychological texturing to future books.

      Just a quick FYI: I’ll be speaking at the upcoming Pennwriters Conference May 18-20 in your hometown of Lancaster, PA. http://www.pennwriters.org/prod/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=278&Itemid=121
      Hope to see you there.

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      • I’m afraid that will be impossible, John, although I’d love to go. We haven’t lived in Lancaster since ’86, so it’s a good two hours from here and I dare not leave my sweetheart for that long at this time. I miss the PA Ren Faire! When we lived in Columbia, they held a Faire near the mall (Merryweather Post, I think?), but the children were babies and we never went. Lancaster, however, they were older, and that became a yearly pilgrimage until Hubble got hurt. You’ll enjoy Lancaster, I think. It’s lovely.

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    • Liz Talley says:

      Spot on with the shoes – I love the way a certain pair can make me feel. And not just powerful, but sexy, playful, Bohemian, etc. As far as I’m concerned, they are a statement onto themselves. 🙂 Oh, and I’m okay with gals who don’t “get” the shoe thing. Because they’re usually the ones with the bag problem. As in they can’t resist a new purse every other week. Or maybe pens (I know Natalie’s weakness for particular writing instruments).

      I love the differences between women and men, but I think it’s the best intention to strive for what is similar between us. Loved this conversation today.

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    • Diana Layne says:

      Gosh, I get neither the shoe or lingerie thing. Maybe I did in high school, but I seemed to have outgrown it.

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