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Write Chick-Lit

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Joan Didion

Women are the biggest target audience for publishers.  Women purchase more books than men.  We read more fiction than non-fiction.  We read for enjoyment.  When we’re young, we embrace stories that speak to the nature of who we are as individuals.  We immerse ourselves in the pages of these favorite books, creating powerful visual images that no one else can ever see in exactly the same way.  As we grow up, this connection with fiction remains with us. 

So why not take it a step further and become a creator of the same kind of fiction that swept us away from our cares and our worries so many years ago?  All you have to do is begin with a daydream and use the right tools to enable that daydream to take on a life of its own.  Before long, your daydreams could become a story that fits into the same category as classic chick-lit authors like Jane Austin.   

 It’s easy to write Chick-lit!

My screenwriting teacher and mentor, Samson Raphaelson, began every class with the same simple observation: “A story is about people and what happens to them.”  This observation reduces the process of writing a story to two simple steps.  These two simple steps are so simple that you’re already doing it!  That’s right – you’re telling this kind of a story nearly every time you have a conversation with another female.  Typically, it begins like this: “Ellen called me this morning to see if her kids could stay with us over the weekend because she has to go to Pittsburgh.  Apparently, she got a call from an attorney saying her uncle – who she hardly knew – passed away.  She’s his only relative and he left her his house and everything in it, so she and her husband have to go sign some documents and see the house.” 

Here’s how to turn this kind of a conversation into the basis of Chick-lit:  in this scenario, the story would be about how Ellen prepares herself – and her family – for this weekend journey.  On both a physical and emotional level, Ellen is preparing to go through the house of someone she hardly knew.  Her thoughts and feelings about this would be scattered with one or two memories about this uncle from her childhood.  There should also be a hint of possibility that there was a “an incident” that distanced him from her parents.  Throughout all of this, she discusses how there is another aunt and uncle – her father’s siblings – that were also estranged from her family.  These thoughts combine to create a blend of fear and excitement as she imagines what she might discover.  Once in her uncle’s house, Ellen would see photos and furniture that she recalled seeing in her grandmother’s home.  As the exploration progresses through her uncle’s drawers and closets and bookcases, Ellen starts to like her uncle very much.  Then, some of her uncle’s friends and neighbors drop by to express their condolences.  Each of them has wonderful stories to tell about her uncle.  All of them also seem to have heard wonderful stories her uncle would tell about when she was a little child.  Gradually, Ellen begins to mourn the loss of this uncle she hardly knew, along with the realization that his absence in her life was a missed opportunity for her and her children.  She starts to think about how her own children relate to each other and forms opinions about how that may extend into their adult life.  Finally, Ellen discovers the reason her uncle became estranged from her parents.  There was a dispute about a minor amount of money.  One thousand dollars was the wedge that ripped her family apart for nearly 30 years.  Through this series of events, Ellen starts to realize the importance of forgiveness.  She returns home to her children, firmly resolved to find her other aunt and uncle and reconnect with them so that her generation can stop the cycle of dysfunction. 

Write the kind of story you like to read!

In the early stages of writing your chick-lit story, you should take a quick inventory of the chick-lit stories you have enjoyed reading.  Perhaps you are drawn to the racy kind of story that Jackie Collins has mastered in so many of her bestsellers.  Or, if you’re younger, you might have been caught up in stories like Sex in the City, The Nanny Diaries or The Devil Wears Prada.  Moms in mid-stride might have a special kinship with The Starter Wife. 

Each of these chick-lit stories has had a successful screen life because we were able to enjoy them first as books.  There is something about each of these stories that speaks to the collective experience so many of us are sharing at this particular point in time.  These are stories about women who are just like us!

Take a good look at the books you’re reading and ask yourself what it is about those stories that appeals to you.  That understanding will give you a great basis for beginning your own chick-lit story. 

All stories fit into a specific genre.

Like any other story in modern popular culture, you can’t write chick-lit without following the rules of a specific genre.  However, it is clear that most chick-lit falls into a smaller sub-grouping of genres.

Stories about romantic love can fall into the traditional “Harlequin Romance” style, or take the higher ground of a historical setting.  It is also interesting to note that Harlequin has established a separate publication imprimatur for a more youthful telling of “humorous” love stories.  With or without a historical background, most of these stories tend to involve Adventure.  The love interest may be a pirate, soldier, or archaeologist – but he will assuredly pursue an exciting occupation.  There will be a clear villain that seeks to hurt the heroine and/or her love interest, and/or to separate the lovers forever. 

Often, a chick-lit story will involve a mystery that must be solved by our heroine.  There will undoubtedly be something great at stake.  A true identity might have to be revealed, or a secret discovered.  Friendships are essential – the lifeblood of heroines – which makes betrayal all the more brutal to discover. 

Frequently, chick-lit stories will focus on “accessory” characters – the husband, the first love, the children, the mother or the baby.  It is fascinating to note how many soap operas – which fit into the classic chick-lit model – are about The Baby.  Somebody wants one, somebody took one, or somebody had one and didn’t tell the father – or told the wrong father.     

Chick-lit is about emotions!

It should go without saying that chick-lit is always written by women, about women for women.  It is an extension of how our ancestors sat around the campfire or hearth fire and told each other stories about their own experiences and the second-hand experiences they have heard from other women.  These stories are how we support each other, encourage each other and inspire each other.    

Chick-lit heroines suffer through ordeals that would challenge the best of us.  They learn from their experiences.  They grow – intellectually and emotionally.  They change their minds, they change their appearance and they change the way their world looks at them.  They struggle to connect with their past and create their future.  They challenge themselves and those that are close to them.  They bond with each other.  Most important of all, at the end of the story they survive. 

And, throughout it all, they talk.  They talk to each other.  They talk about each other.  They talk about themselves.  Through the narrative, they talk to themselves and they talk to us.  This emphasis on emotional experiences is what differentiates chick-lit from the same story told by a man for men. 

Chick-lit is about relationships!

Women are always focused on populating their world with family, friends, neighbors, professional colleagues and guest stars.  We keep an ever-changing seating chart in the back of our minds, along with file cabinets filled with information about everybody else’s lives, goals and relationships.  We can tell you who said what and when they said it and who they said it to.  Then we eagerly speculate on why they said it and what could they possibly have been thinking at the time. 

Your character has to juggle the same relationships that we do.  In order to provide her with this opportunity, you must create the characters that fill these roles in her life.  More important, you have to create them as plausible characters that have dimension and entire worlds of their own – worlds that include your heroine in a supporting role.   

Relationships are a primary factor in the success of chick-lit.  Someone “like us” is surrounded by a storm of chaos they must quell – or at least tame – while protecting the relationships that support her. 

Who is your story about?

Every story has the same basic requirements.  No matter what medium you employ for your storytelling, your story must have a beginning, a middle and an end.  Some people feel most comfortable referring to the three act structure.  No matter what terms you use, you are still talking about a beginning, a middle and an end. 

Remember Sam’s mandate – “a story is about people and what happens to them.”  No matter what story you are going to tell, you must always begin with your primary character.  She will be your protagonist, your heroine, your narrator or the focus of your omniscient narrator.  This character will have an “arc” throughout the story.  That is to say, the story will begin at the point where everything in her life is stable and under control.  We will get to know her and how she reacts to her surroundings and how she feels about her surroundings.  You must create this character as a whole human being with strengths and failings.  She is the star of your story.  In many ways, no matter how different she is from you, your heroine is an extension of who you are and/or who you aspire to become.   

Then what happens?

Suddenly, there will be an inciting incident that changes everything.  Something happens to shake up your heroine’s life and force her to start a journey that will enable her to grow.  She will be challenged and she will face physical or emotional odds that seem insurmountable.  In the end, she will be transformed into a better version of herself.  In essence, you will be taking your heroine on a journey of growth, delivering her to a point where she has a better understanding of herself and others. 

Since you began your story by creating the world your character lives in at the moment the story begins, you have laid the groundwork for everything that will follow the inciting incident.  Every scene will be determined by a series of small questions that keep recycling over and over:

Then what happens?
How does she feel about that?
What does she do about it?
Where does that leave her? 

The answers to all of these questions will comprise a chapter.  At the end of the chapter, your character will have accomplished the task she faced and will be moving to the next step.  That’s where you recycle the questions and ask: Then what happens? 

Begin at the beginning.

The best way to fail at writing is to just sit down without a firm plan and start writing.  Some writers will tell you that they “like the character to take me on a journey.”  That’s like thinking you can drive from Los Angeles to New York by getting in your car and going east.  Chances are you’ll get somewhere on the east coast – eventually.  But you’ll have a much faster, productive and enjoyable trip if you take the time to sit down with a map and make decisions about which highways you’re going to take, which cities you’re going to stop in overnight and how far you can go without stopping for gas.  If you just keep driving with the sun as your guide, you can wind up stranded in the middle of nowhere with an empty gas tank. 

As a seasoned veteran of lengthy road trips, I can assure you that if you have a plan you can still be as spontaneous as you want to be.  Meanwhile, you can enjoy the comfort of knowing that you’ll have a warm, dry place to sleep at night.  Writing is just like that.  If you begin the process by designing a detailed outline, you can solve the problems with the story before you begin writing.  That means you won’t have to do as much RE-writing when you’re finished.     

Once you’ve created your heroine and the people that surround her, you can start to plan the plot points of her story.  As you outline the sequence of events your character will experience, you can add in the emotional touch points that will contribute to the growth in her character arc.  You can step back and decide if your middle has enough ups and downs to keep the reader interested.  You can see if there are any loose ends that have to be tied up in the ending, or set ups that have to be established in the beginning.  In other words, you can fine tune your story so that when you sit down to start the actual writing process you don’t have to worry about whether or not you have designed the map that will take your heroine from the beginning of her story to a satisfying ending. 

What’s in a name?

One of the interesting things about chick-lit is that a huge part of the sales potential comes from the name of the book.  Looking back at the aforementioned chick-lit bestsellers, the names serve as a quick synopsis that seduces us into picking it up.  Could The Devil Wears Prada be named anything else and still set the tone for what the book is about?  How about The Starter Wife? 

In many ways, the title of a chick-lit novel is the most important creative element in the process.  When it appears in a thumbnail photo of a publishers catalog, the title must jump off the page and catch the bookstore buyer’s attention.  Once they stock it on their shelves, it must jump out at the reader who can select from thousands of books to make just one purchase.  Unlike other art forms, this might be an instance where you should formulate the title of the book before beginning to write it. 

Sometimes you CAN tell a book by its cover.

There is one more element of the book that is essential, although you will most likely not be responsible for its creation.  The cover art of your book jacket will play an essential role in its sales.  Next time you’re in a bookstore, take a quick stroll through the aisles and just look at the cover art.  If something stands out and catches your attention, pick it up and read the back of the book.  Is this something you might actually choose to purchase and read?  If not, you’ve just had a visceral lesson in the power of cover art.

Some book covers waste a huge opportunity by using graphic design with letter fonts that are less than extraordinary.  These are the books that we find when we’ve gone into the store specifically to purchase them.  They are never the books that jump out at us and make us feel that we absolutely must hold the book in our hand and flip through the pages.  The Devil Wears Prada is an amazing title – but coupled with the simple design of a stiletto heel whose point is shaped like the devil’s pitchfork, well, it flew off the shelves. 

I am delighted to say that the next time you find yourself looking at one of those “bodice ripper” pictures on a romance novel – the kind where the heroine and the swarthy pirate with the long, dark hair and his shirt open to reveal his perfectly formed pectoral muscles – give a moment to take note that this kind of cover art is called “Clinch Art.” 

Write Chick-Lit!
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