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What Do You Know About Forty-Year Old Men?

My mother asked me this question when I was giving her a synopsis of the book I am currently working on. It’s actually a question I have been asking myself ever since I sat down and began to plot this thing out instead of letting it circle around my head. I am a twenty-one-year old girl; my main character is a forty-year old man. The question is really, if we break it down to its core: can you convincingly write about something outside of your personal experience?

A lot of the authors I meet are writing very close to home. Many are writing memoirs, or semi-autobiographical works. Women are writing women, men are writing men. Twenty-somethings are writing about other twenty-somethings. If a writer steps outside that bubble, are they suddenly in a danger zone? Is there a certain limit to how far they can go before everything comes tumbling down around their ears?

I do think it is possible to convincingly write a character that is nothing like yourself. After all, how would we ever write villains if it were not true? Most of us do not traipse around killing people, yet the best horror authors can get inside a killer’s head. How would we write about a different gender? Men have proved they can write strong, realistic women; I just finished reading the first novel in Mike Shepherd’s Kris Longknife series, and there was nothing in the book that made me think “that’s not how a woman would think.” C.S. Friedman’s novel, Black Sun Rising, has a great male protagonist, as well as a wonderful male villain. There are many examples of authors who have transcended many borders to tell a story.

That brings us to the second question: is there a limit to how far a writer can go? Is there a boundary set purely by experience? Where I have actually seen this argument most poignantly was in a conversation between role-players. Now, I have role-played for over half of my life now (pretending to be a Pokemon trainer in my backyard notwithstanding). I am not talking the Dungeons and Dragons sort of playing, but what I’ve always referred to as free-style role-playing: both my friends and I would decide what characters we wanted to play (often our favorite characters from television shows, movies, or books), and, using MSN Messenger or AIM, we would throw them into “scenes.” There are entire forums where you can have your character, whether he be original or from a media source, “write” a post and have conversations and scenes with others. It is a lot like a collaborative writing process.

The argument came up after someone bemoaned the fact that there were not a lot of role-playing characters of color around. Some people said that it was because that forum mainly had characters from television shows and that there weren’t a lot of prominent black character out there. Some said it was because the majority of the role-players were white and frightened of playing a black person, in case they might somehow get them “wrong.” That brought up the questions of: should white players play black characters? A lot of people said yes, but there were those that said no, that white players could never “correctly” write a black person because they’d never experienced life as one.

I would elaborate more on this issue, but to tell the truth I am extremely upset by my mother’s words. As someone who is already afraid of showing my work to others, to be told that I do not have enough skill as a writer to place myself in someone else’s shoes and write a story from their perspective brings up a lot of those feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness I know every writer struggles with from time to time. I’ve already put a lot of love and time into this tale, and I want to tell it; no, I will tell it. But for now I think I need sit back and lick my wounds.

Dirty Dishes, Messy Desks, and Organized Writing.

No one in my life speaks as honestly about me as my desk. While its sturdy mahogany-colored structure surely hints at some subconscious feelings only a trained therapist can make up, it is really the surface that explains much of anything. It is covered in all sorts of oddities: a carved elephant huddles in between a bottle of lotion and an misshapen ceramic ball left over from my childhood; a ceramic cup full of pens, markets, and paintbrushes holds various papers captive against the computer; a faux-suede journal sits atop a book on learning French; a glass and a mug sit side by side, the glass for Mountain Dew and the cup for coffee; stuffed animals spill over from their perch on speakers to litter the back of the desk, watched over by an action figure of Mr. Spock; a book on punctuation has its place marked with a utility envelope with notes for an online game scribbled on the back. Even the bulletin board, bought for the sake of to-do notes, is now covered in sketches, work notes, a voter’s registration form, even a Christmas ornament.

Needless to say, I am not the World’s Most Organized Person. Just keeping a regular sleep schedule is difficult enough for me. While normally I can get by with my less than stellar organizational skills, it has provided a large roadblock between me and my goal of finishing a novel. I cannot just throw myself into a project so big, start typing, and work out the kinks later. A good story has cohesion throughout its entirety, and I cannot foreshadow and imply events, characters, or traits that I do not know about. I need, at the very least, to have the skeleton of my story crafted before I can begin putting proper words to paper.

The only question is: how does one conquer a messy desk, an even messier mind, and somehow pull out an organized novel plan? My current plan of attack is to use a series of note cards. I began with a set and wrote, in purple pen, a major event on each card. These are things that have to happen for the story to go along: a kidnapping, a change in location, the meeting of two people. I placed these in order. Now, as I have a tendency to imagine scenes in the terms of a line or two, I wrote each quote on another note card in green pen. This way, even though I am not technically “writing” anything, I still save initial sentences or paragraphs that might end up in the first draft. On a third set of note cards, in bright red pen, I have started to write plot holes or important notes for myself. One such card reads, “The red head is Chekov’s gun. She must do something important.

Then, I took all of my cards and placed them together in the order they needed to appear in the story. Already this stack has been reshuffled several times; new cards have been added as I find large blank spaces in the plot, and no doubt by the end of it other cards will be thrown away. Along with the visual aid of placing them all out in rows, their fluid nature makes it easy to change the orders of events, quotes, and at the same time keep me from dwelling too long on one point. This is a process still in its infancy. I have approximately fifty cards right now; that number is growing exponentially.

This idea came from Joesph Heller. In The Write Type by Karen Peterson, he is quoted as saying:

I keep a small sheath of 3 x 5 cards in my billfold. If I think of a good sentence, I’ll write it down . . . Of course, when I come back to it, the line may change considerably. Occasionally, there’s one that sings so perfectly that it stays, like, My boy has stopped speaking to me and I don’t think I can bear it. I wrote that down on a 3 x 5 card, perhaps on a bus, or after walking the dog. I store them in filing cabinets. The file on Something Happened is about four inches deep, the one on Catch-22 about the length of a shoebox.

This idea obviously stuck with me. I have attempted many ways of organizing my writing: I have folders of notes stuffed on my computer, everything from outlines to pages of scenes; the faux-suede journal I mentioned earlier has at least twenty pages of mixed-up notes and sketches on at least three different story lines. Why I have not gotten further on any of my ideas is quite obvious. I find hope, however, in the little stack of index cards that even now I am adding to, as each disjointed thought joins the pile and begins to form part of a whole.