Where I muse on chick lit, writing and accepting feedback

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There’s a bit of a rumpus in chick lit world at the moment. Earlier in September the author, Polly Courtney, publicly dumped her publisher, Harper Collins, ostensibly for marketing her books with what she felt were misleadingly chick lit-ish covers. She explains in her own words more fully here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/16/chick-lit-womens-fiction

This was closely followed by a flurry of news stories detailing the fall-off in chick lit sales (for example http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/have-we-fallen-out-of-love-with-chick-lit-2361445.html), and topped off by this delightfully reasonably headlined piece by Harriet Walker in the Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/harriet-walker-saccharine-silage-that-fails-women-2361506.html

Obviously, what this debate needs is another random internet opinion, so here we go. To start off in any sort of half intelligent debate, it’s important to agree about what your terminology actually means. Doing so can avoid a lot of unneccessary bickering over stuff it turns out everyone actually agrees about. So what do we mean by chick lit?

Probably most of us who frequent bookshops or spend inordinate numbers of hours browsing on Amazon can bring a picture into our minds of what we perceive as a classic chick lit novel. You’re probably picturing a pink, or predominantly pastel coloured, cover with sparkly writing and a semi-cartoonish picture of a woman wearing shoes. Alternatively, you might be picturing one of those stylised photo covers showing just a woman’s legs, or a pair of hands entwined. But that’s just the cover. What makes a story chick lit?

Again, the classic understanding would probably suggest that we’re talking about a youngish single-ish female protagonist, a plot that’s heavy on romance, a contemporary setting, a good dash of humour, and usually a story that involves some sort of self-discovery or self-development on the part of the heroine. So let’s look at a couple of those writers that the Independent cites as being emblematic of the fall-off in chick lit sales. Do they match that template?

We’ll start with Dorothy Koomson. I would suggest that Koomson’s early work fits well into that classic chick lit template. The Chocolate Run, for example is a story laced with humour and centred around a heroine learning to trust rather than run in a developing relationship. But Koomson’s work has shifted and developed over time. Her more recent novels, notably The Ice-cream Girls (which is fabulous – you should all definitely read it) would probably be better described as psychological thrillers. The cover art, though, remains stylised and heavy on the pastels.

Marian Keyes is another interesting author. Often described as one of the first chick lit writers, she has been seen as one of the big players in the genre for over 15 years. Her work is certainly funny, and generally follows female protagonists. However, in a number of her novels, for example This Charming Man  or Rachel’s Holiday, any romance is a secondary plot, while the story’s main focus is on an issue such as addiction or domestic abuse.

So, it looks like it’s actually kind of tricky to define what we mean by chick lit, and that’s before we even start to try to unpick the broader term used by some booksellers, “Women’s Fiction.” What is, perhaps,even more fascinating is the level of vitriol towards what is perceived as light entertainment aimed at women. You don’t generally see a lot of newspaper opinion pieces arguing that the wide availability of action thriller novels has stunted male intellectual development, so it makes me uneasy that female writers are expected to in some way represent their whole gender.

There are essentially only two types of book that matter to me as a reader or writer. There are good books, and there are lousy books. There are lousy books in most genres, and chick lit is by no means exempt from the lazy and the formulaic, but there is also some really classy and interesting work out there. (I’m particularly liking Sarra Manning at the minute). Being light, being funny, and being by and about a woman, does not make your story intrinsically inferior. Suggesting that it does was daft when people did it about Jane Austen and it’s still daft now.

Which shouldn’t be taken to imply that I have no issues with the way that fiction by women, and about women, is sold and marketed at the moment. Here I can only write from my own prejudices and opinions, so please jump into the comments and argue with me if you don’t agree.

About 3 months ago, I attended a talk by a editor from a very large mainstream publisher of popular fiction, who said that they were looking for chick lit that was lighter, frothier and more escapist. That made my heart sink a little. There is absolutely a place for those books, and for writers and readers who love those books, but looking at writers like Marian Keyes, tells us that in the past chick lit was a much broader church. It does worry me slightly that publishers aren’t seeing a place for more issue-led or just slightly edgier romantic comedy. And it’s also concerning that books like Dorothy Koomson’s more recent work might be being marketed in such a way that is making it harder for them to reach the widest possible potential readership. The pastel cover will attract Koomson’s existing readers who recognise her “brand” but will it encourage regular readers of crime and thriller novels to give her work a go?

It’s also interesting, I think, to look at another standout successful romance novel of recent years, this time by a male writer. David Nicholls’ One Day was a huge hit with readers, and spawned the obligatory bestseller’s movie. The book was published under a very gender-neutral orange and cream cover, the colours and artwork being striking but very un-girly. My guess it that the same book, by a female writer, would have been marketed quite differently, in a manner that could have alienated a potential wider audience, including a lot male readers.

And this brings me onto my own writing. Now I don’t normally blog about writing. I do have a slight sense that writing about writing is a tad on the self-indulgent side, which given that in this sentence I’m now writing about writing about writing, probably means I’m about to drown in a torrent of my own self-importance. Moving on…

I have just received my feedback report from the RNA New Writers Scheme on the current draft of my first novel, which would probably fall under the broad heading of “chick lit”. There were some really positive comments, and some really useful feedback about plot and pacing which has got my head buzzing with rewrite ideas. I am, though, unsure whether those ideas will ever make it into the manuscript, as there are elements to the book, which I’m starting to feel are too fundamental to change, but really weaken the chances of interesting an agent or publisher in the finished manuscript.

For example, the story is told from the point of view of four different first person narrators, a technique which I now realise was quite ambitious for a first novel! I also now realise that a lot of readers (and writers) just don’t like first person narration. So do I rewrite the whole thing in the third person, as my feedback report suggests? I’m unenthusiastic about the idea at the moment, partly just because that’s a massive job, but also because I, personally, really like the different narrative voices, and do I really want to end up with a novel that I don’t like as much?

So, what to do next? Redraft using the feedback on pacing/plotting but leave the narrative style alone, accepting that the chances of publication in that form are beyond super-super-super-slim? Redraft fully into a third person narrative, and risk losing part of what I love in the manuscript? Or just chalk this down as novel writing attempt number 1 and move onto something else? At the moment that last option seems to be beckoning. I have an idea for novel number 2 which is buzzing at my brain, but would that be “giving up” too easily? Would it be better to do another redraft of number 1 and try to follow through with that piece of work? Decisions. Decisions. Comments about chick lit and suggestions on the writing both welcome – do you always take all feedback on board, or do you make decisions about when to accept feedback points and when to stick to your guns? And when do you walk away from a work-in-progress?

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12 thoughts on “Where I muse on chick lit, writing and accepting feedback

    suefortin said:
    September 29, 2011 at 11:09 am

    Hi Alison firstly – what a great piece of writing about chick lit. You may want to have a look at Nicky Wells’ blog as she too brought this subject up.
    With regards to the feedback from the NWS I fully sympathise with you, having had my own critique from them earlier in the year. Initially I was a bit fed up, I hadn’t produced the perfect novel (lol) but I mulled over the comments for a few weeks. It was suggested that I needed a big rewrite and at the time I didn’t know if I had the enthusiasm or the energy and perhaps I should move onto my next idea. However, after a couple of weeks I began to see the light and realised that yes a rather large rewrite was needed. In fact I rewrote pretty much the first 50% and then tied up bits and pieces of the remaining 50% to fit in. I have to say it made for a much better novel and I am really glad I did it. However, there were some bits that I didn’t change as I felt they really fitted, they had a purpose and they had a place.
    I’m no expert by any stretch of the imagination but I would urge you to take time to consider the ways round the perceived ‘problem’ if indeed it is that at all and to remember that your critique is just one person’s opinion. We’ve all read books where we don’t quite like the way something has gone, a character, the ending or how a loose end has been tied up, it doesn’t mean the novel is no good, it’s just down to personal preference.
    You could always consider having it looked at by someone else either a professional company or somebody you could trust to give an honest opinion who reads and/or writes a lot in your genre.
    Best wishes
    Sue

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      alisonmay responded:
      September 29, 2011 at 11:15 am

      I think you’re absolutely right Sue. I may well see if I can get a fresh pair of eyes to have a look at it before I make any definite decisions. I agree as well that sometimes you have to give feedback a bit of time to sink in and permeate through your brain. Not going to rush into decisions, and it’s useful to hear other people’s experiences toox

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    Neeks said:
    September 29, 2011 at 11:34 am

    I think a second opinion is a good idea here as well, multiple people (hopefully) are going to be reading it, why not have several points of view beforehand?
    You’re right about the disparity between chick lit and others – there is a definite bias. Even I have to admit I’ll pick up a thriller/mystery before I will a chick lit, even though I have nothing against them.
    Good luck with the book, I hope you don’t give up on it 🙂

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    John Harrison said:
    September 29, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    I say do the rewrite for plot and pacing and keep the first person. I like first people! If you’re then happy with the novel and it gets rejected by publishers then write something else, get that published, and then resubmit your first work. I’m sure they’ll look more favorably on it when you’ve already been published once and have proven that you know what you’re doing!!!!

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    Anna-Marie Bailes said:
    September 29, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    Great article on Chick Lit. Penny Vincenzi is another interesting women’s fiction author who I feel should not be stereotyped.
    As for your work in progress, I would definitely recommend taking a step back from it for a couple of weeks and mull it over. I find that reading books like Hooked by Les Edgerton or Revision & Self Editing by James Scott Bell provoke lots of ideas during a gap from writing. Good Luck and don’t give up!

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      alisonmay responded:
      September 30, 2011 at 10:20 am

      I think the way authors are categorized is fascinating. As a writer I do think you need to be aware of it, certainly if you are aiming to write something that can be sold/marketed. But I also don’t think you should sacrifice invention to genre norms. That way you do end up with very formulaic fiction. I’ve not really read Penny Vincenzi – would you recommend her?
      Thanks for the editing book suggestions too.

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        Anna-Marie Bailes said:
        September 30, 2011 at 9:57 pm

        You’re welcome. Penny Vincenzi creates very gripping and gritty storylines, rather than the traditional light hearted and funny ‘Chick Lit’. I probably wouldn’t class her as a romantic novelist as such, but worth a read for plot and pace as her novels are definitely page turners!

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    Mandy Baggot (@mandybaggot) said:
    September 30, 2011 at 11:40 am

    Hello!! Don’t be disheartened!! I think I told you I had feedback from a literary professional who told me my book would never work with the hero being a well known musician and it would be far better if I made him a reclusive novelist. Hmm I thought about that for about 2 seconds! It just didn’t work for my character! I created him, he was a person who performs, he was a well known musician and there was no way I was changing it! I stuck with it, you can follow him on Twitter @quinnblakemusic and Strings Attached is officially launched on 1 November 2011.
    My advice would be to put that manuscript down for a few months and work on your new idea. It will always be there and you can go back to it. I always leave a few months between edits or I end up hating the story I am so sick of it! But don’t stop writing – work on something fresh and then refocus xx

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      alisonmay responded:
      September 30, 2011 at 11:44 am

      I’m not disheartened. The instinct to walk away isn’t simply a response to the nws comments. It also comes from my own feeling that I might have pushed this particular idea as far as it can go, and it’s my first attempt at writing a novel, so I’ve learnt a vast amount, and will definitely be approaching number 2 in a different way.
      Think I’ll might play about with the feedback, trying different edits etc. on first few chapters to get a feel for what might work/be worth pursuing but then possibly put it to one side for a while and work on number 2. Still musing, and not rushing decision making, so please keep the comments/suggestions coming!

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    Helen Harron said:
    September 30, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    Was going to write a longer comment but has already been said really. I know I’m guilty of saying ‘I don’t read chicklit’ which is probably closed-minded of me. I guess I’ve read too much that is formulaic but as you say that can apply to all genres. For whatever reason I find formulaic crime readable in a reading something bog standard cos I’m too tired to think kind of way wheras I find reading formulaic modern girl romance irritating but that’s just me. I do like Marion Keyes and will try Dorothy Koomson on your recommendation.

    As to your novel, I think getting further opinions definitely worthwhile – the next person to read it might love the first person thing. Then I was going to suggest re-writing the first chapter/ section and giving both versions to someone for a compare and contrast type opinion. As you seem to have come to this opinion yourself already I’ll go and eat my tea instead 🙂

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