Flashback – Coming to Grips with the Genre I Write

Originally written for a grad school assignment back in 2009.  Thought it would be fitting to kick off this year’s NaNo pursuit with a look at how I came to write the types of novels and stories I write.

August 2009 I get up the courage to enroll in graduate school. Little did I know I’d be taking a class that would bring me face to face with my nemesis, that great and wonderful literary genre known as Chick-Lit.  She’s all the rage, you know. You can’t be in a circle of women without hearing about the latest tome. It was bad enough having to listen to women go on and on about this or that “Chick Flick” but to have my bookstore, my last refuge, taken over by shelves and shelves of “what every woman should be reading at the beach this year” was too much to bear.  As if I had ever had the time or the money to vacation at a beach long enough to read a book. Humph!

chick-litPassing through the Chick-Lit section to get to the books I LIKED was torture. I would walk through the shelves casting disparaging glances at the smartly, oh so fashionably jacketed books. I hated the colors, the jaunty font of the titles. I felt as if she were mocking my relatively drama free, financially insecure, tom-boy lifestyle. She sat there on the shelf, promising me stories about women with fabulous clothes, living ultra fabulous lives, and making fabulous money. Gag. I had spent my entire life working to be the antithesis of “every woman”. I hated pink because girls are supposed to like pink. I liked snakes and lizards, monster movies, playing in the dirt and climbing trees. I was as close to being one of the guys as you could get without testosterone injections and extensive surgeries.

UntitledSo, you can imagine my surprise, when I sat down to write my first real manuscript and Chick-Lit proceeded to flow onto my computer screen. I had only read one Harlequin Romance novel ever. I’d begrudgingly watched (and secretly enjoyed) Bridget Jones’ Diary, Two Week’s Notice and 27 Dresses (Chick-Lit on film). But my literary life otherwise was a never-ending stream of nightmares, from vampires to werewolves, ghosts, goblins and the supernatural. My first real book that I remember checking out from the library in grade school was a collection of ghost stories. I’ve read Poe, Lovecraft, Matheson; watched almost everything Hitchcock ever produced and just about everything that Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and John Carpenter have made. How in the world did my first character turn out to be a woman in her mid 30’s, struggling with life after a divorce, all the while learning to love herself, and of course, ending up with the true love of her life? There wasn’t a vampire or zombie in the whole story.

After finishing that manuscript, I cast it aside, dubbing it a freak of nature. The story must have come from memories of my divorce and the dating I had done since. Having it out of my subconscious must have surely cured me of this affliction and my next manuscript would reinstate my tom-boy sensibilities. But alas, even my action characters seem to be Chick-Lit-esqe. Oh sure, they are hard-core, kick-ass women who fight demons, monsters and rude men; they can drink with the best of ‘em, and curse like sailors when provoked, but underneath it all they still share that Chick-Lit heroine longing for love and acceptance.

Midway through the class though, once I stopped reading my assignments with my eyes half closed, set in my mind that I wouldn’t like them no matter what, I realized why Chick-Lit and I weren’t getting along. It wasn’t as if she was constantly shooting me dirty looks across the room or even snubbing me with a “I’m better than you” attitude. The problem had been that my experience with her had been limited to the fluffy stories that mainstream had thrust into the lime light. The books everyone was singing praises about struck me the same way as Disney films where the Prince Charming fantasy was being forced down girls’ throats. The idea that Prince Charming was going to ride up on the fabled white stallion and whisk the heroine away from the bad things in her life – the evil boss and rotten job or her extremely dysfunctional family, or from being fat and unhappy – was more “girly” than I could stand.

Ultimately, the class reading list and discussions were so varied that I had no choice but to see the deeper connections and ideas that Chick-Lit produced. The saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover” was never so appropriate. Sure, the formula didn’t much change. Typically the heroine was unhappy with something, had an “a-ha” moment, then goes on to happiness be it with or without Mr. Right. But we read stories where the term “happily ever after” was a question not a definite ending. Heartburn by Nora Ephron, ends with the heroine snuggling up to her cheatin’ husband, not quite happy, but at least coming to a point of acceptance.

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The in-class exercises, reading assignments and the main text-book, See Jane Write, by Sarah Mlynowski and  Farrin Jacobs, combined to teach me valuable lessons. For example, I don’t have to follow the Bridget Jones’ Diary formula to a tee to produce quality stories about strong female leads. My characters don’t have to shop, be fashionable, have shoe addictions and spend their every waking moment looking for Mr. “Right.” My characters can tote guns, chase monsters, and stumble upon Mr. “Can Keep Up and Not Get Himself Killed” because in their worlds, it’s do or die. My characters can want companionship, not saviors, and decide not to give up what they do for love or children. They can do all these things and still find their happy endings because ultimately, Chick-Lit is more about women finding and falling in love with themselves first. And who wouldn’t want to do that?

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