Women’s Fiction

Please Note: This article first appeared in RWA’s official monthly newsletter,
Hearts Talk, in April, 2010. Due to the passage of time, some information in the
article may no longer be relevant. Please ensure you research your chosen genre
thoroughly before submitting.

Women’s fiction – Wow! We could write a 100,000 word thesis debating what the words, Women’s Fiction mean. It’s a tricky category because while Women’s Fiction appears broad, many writers don’t like being pigeon-holed, I guess for fear of alienating potential buyers and readers of their books.

 New York Times Bestselling author Nora Roberts says, ‘Women’s Fiction is a story that centres on a woman or on primarily women’s issues, not necessarily the romantic relationship based books that I do, but the women’s story.’

Broadly speaking, Women’s Fiction is an umbrella term for a wide-ranging collection of genres including romance, chick-lit, mystery, fantasy and hen-lit. However, Jessica Faust, a literary agent with Bookends LLC, says that genre definitions are ‘fluid’ and that definitions change with the market and the times. ‘Years ago, there was a very clear line between what was considered romance and what was considered fantasy,’ Faust says. But now, ‘books that were previously considered strictly fantasy are now finding their way into the romance section at bookstores and vice versa.’

Bearing in mind fluid definitions, what does it take to write a Women’s Fiction novel? Let’s start with chick-lit.

Chick-lit:

It’s widely accepted that Helen Fielding kicked off the modern day chick-lit phenomenon in 1996 with the publication of  Bridget Jone’s Diary, a witty, first-person look at single life told through the eyes of twentysomething Bridget. Since then there’s been a flood of chick-lit books, the most popular of these being made into movies. Examples include Sophie Kinsella’s, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Lauren Weisberger’s, The Devil Wears Prada, and Jennifer Weiner’s, In Her Shoes.

Generally, these books have several of the following elements:

  • The heroine, usually in her twenties, is either looking for Mr. Right or getting over Mr. Wrong.
  •  She’s looking for the perfect job.
  • The tone is often light and funny.
  • The story usually is told in the first person.
  • By novel’s end, the heroine usually has worked out all (or most of) her problems and has learned important lessons about life.

As for the term ‘chick-lit’, it has its fair share of fans and detractors. Jennifer Weiner says that chick-lit is ‘something that says chicky, fluffy, inconsequential, of no importance and no literary quality.’ While Shopaholic series author, Sophie Kinsella, who has more than 7 million copies of her six books in print, says she’s not bothered by the label. ‘To my mind, it means a fun, light book, often with humour, often featuring a contemporary heroine that women of today can relate to, often addressing an issue of today.’

What’s In A Name?

Regarding chick-lit, Jessica Faust says, ‘A few years ago it was the hottest thing going and every bookstore displayed a sea of pink martini glasses. Now, just a few short years later, the term chick-lit is taboo and not to be spoken of ever again. However, that doesn’t mean you still can’t write a light, humorous book about a young woman in an urban setting.’

Confused Yet?

Marian Keyes, an Irish novelist often dubbed the ‘reigning Queen of British chick-lit’, has written ten novels including The Charming Man and Anybody out there? and has sold over twenty-three million copies of her her books world-wide.

Her tone is chatty, conversational, funny and generally written in first person but I wouldn’t say her books are primarily set on finding Mr. Right, or about losing weight and finding the perfect shoes.

Keyes books deal variously with modern ailments, including addiction, depression, domestic violence, theglass ceiling and serious illness, but they’re written with compassion, humour and hope. Keyes says, ‘Rachel’s Holiday is about someone coming to terms with addiction, and Anybody Out There? is about bereavement.’ She says, ‘okay, so this doesn’t exactly sound like a laugh a minute, but in my experience the best comedy is rooted in darkness. All ten of my books are different but share a common theme of people who are in The Bad Place, and who achieve some form of redemption.’

 Beyond Chick-lit:

I wouldn’t call Jodi Picoult’s novels a rollicking laugh but she does write compelling Women’s Fiction even if she prefers not to be labelled. Picoult, who has written seventeen novels and tackles hard subject matter in her books such as Nineteen Minutes and My Sister’s Keeper, says, ‘I hate being pigeonholed…you can legitimately label my novels as legal thrillers, mysteries, romances, or plain old fiction. Marketing departments like to label authors with just one tag, so that they know how to promote a book, but I think the best books straddle genres and attract a variety of readers. I’d like to think this is one reason my books appeal to people—because I give them something different every time.’

For want of a better word, Chick-lit has spawned spinoffs including lad-lit (Nick Hornby, About A Boy) and hen or lady lit, which is where I see my books, Lucy Springer Gets Even and What Kate Did Next, sitting.

It’s here that we find relationships, but not necessarily, romances, are at the core of the plot.

Bridget has grown up and is now in her 30’s or 40’s and is perhaps married, had a couple of children and is struggling with issues such as infidelity, divorce, a career slump, as well as raising a family. Characters are asking themselves, ‘what happened to the dreams I had?’ and ‘how did I get here?’.

These stories tap into the hopes, fears, aspirations, dreams, and fantasies of women the world over. You name it and women’s fiction deals with it because women’s fiction touches on subjects women can relate to in real life.

There may be an element of romance but it doesn’t make up the entire focus of the story. It is much more about the heroine’s journey and the heroine finding herself rather than finding the man of her dreams.

Happily ever after?

In women’s fiction, you might not get the ‘happy ever after’. More often, the end, if not happy, at least is hopeful. The heroine does tend ‘find herself’ by the end of the book. Even if the story is tragic, (think of most Jodi Picoult novels) there is generally a life-affirming resolution by the story’s end when the character has confronted and settled conflicts, even if only in her mind.

Point of View:

A lot of women’s fiction is written in first person. Why? So that the action can be told through the main character’s eyes. The reader learns their thoughts, feelings and reactions to events.

In my books, the reader only knows what the main character is thinking and I like to think that the reader assumes her role. For example, in What Kate did Next, the POV doesn’t suddenly shift to Kate’s best friend, her mother or her children. The reader is only told the story through Kate’s eyes. I like writing in first person because it gives me an instant connection with my character, which hopefully the reader feels as well.

Occasionally, you’ll pick up a women’s fiction novel written in second person, such as Anonymous’s The Bride Stripped Bare (by Nikki Gemmell) but it’s very difficult to get right and can quickly become irritating for the reader.

Word length:

Most women’s fiction novels tend to be between 80,000—100,000 words but can be in the 50,000 range. For example, Nicholas Sparks’ phenomenally successful, The Notebook (made into a movie of the same name) a love story about an elderly couple coping with Alzheimer’s disease, was only 52,000 words.

As I mentioned, my two novels have been called chick-lit, lady-lit and contemporary women’s fiction. I didn’t set out to write to a particular category, I write stories that I think I’d enjoy reading…stories about real women in their thirties triumphing over adversity in real settings overcoming real life dramas. The stories don’t necessarily have happy endings but they’re realistic and hopefully resonate with readers. I write to entertain and at the end of the day I don’t care what people call my books as long as they read them.

Labelling the various sub-genres in Women’s Fiction is subjective but whatever you choose to call them, publishers are clamouring for well written engaging stories that women the world over will connect with.

Lisa’s latest book is What Kate Did Next. You can visit her at: www.lisaheidke.com

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