Why Do I Write Chick Lit?
by Melissa Westemeier
Sure, the genre sounds sappy–it shares a name with a type of candy, for Pete’s sake! Yet chick lit isn’t typical romance writing, it’s a little less formulaic and it has broader appeal. I wrote my first novel, Whipped, Not Beaten, a few years after Oprah started her book club. I loved Oprah’s picks–at first. But after a while they all seemed the same: stories about abusive people, people who’d survived terrible hardships, people who faced injustices, depression, addiction, assault. After a while all of those sad stories start to wear on a reader. I wanted to read something lighter, brighter–a palate-cleanser, if you will. That type of book wasn’t easily found, but chick lit consistently provided me with a good story and characters I could root for. There weren’t many chick lit writers at the time, so I decided to write what I craved: a feel-good story with a happy ending.
The first trick with chick lit is to create a character with flaws. This makes them personable, relatable and genuine. In Whipped, Not Beaten Sadie Blair is a bit of a klutz, she has money trouble and she’s emotionally wounded from a bad break up. All of these are problems typical to young women, but they aren’t the kind of flaws you read about in a typical romance novel. In those the heroine never gets a pimple, always has a fortune and their biggest problem is somehow being misunderstood. Boo-hoo, right? In real life people screw up, fall down, go broke and spill their drinks. When writing about characters that do these things, there’s opportunity for humor and for moments when the reader nods and thinks, I feel you, Sadie.
The second trick–and biggest trick–is plot. Trouble has to heap up and rain down on the protagonist. Guess what? Creating a character with real-life problems makes it easy to advance the plot. Sadie’s broke. She recognizes the potential in home party sales. She signs on to sell Coddled Cuisine. She can’t cook. She has to build an independent business against the odds. She has to build that business while still performing at her day job at Wisconsin Public Radio. More trouble? She shows up to do a party for a bridal shower and learns the guest of honor is her ex-boyfriend’s fiancé! In his apartment, no less! In a lot of ways writing chick lit storylines comes easy because daily struggles do snowball into bigger problems. We’re all crawling our way out of some mess or other–why not mine our own disaster zones for the purpose of great plotting? (And on the outside chance that you’re blessed with a drama-free life, you can always mine your friends’ lives!)
The third trick is adding humor. Bridget Jones’ Diary, The Shopaholic series and Simply Divine gave readers reasons to laugh. Everyday problems often are funny–“Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse.” Add it in. Sadie’s come under pressure to attend a co-worker’s scrapbooking party. She doesn’t scrapbook. She can’t cut a straight line. She gets assaulted by the family dog, spills chips and dip on the hostess’s shag carpeting and ends up yelling at the hostess’s bratty kids when she snaps. At the end of the chapter she rides the bus home, stained with sour cream and onion, tears and slobber. Amping up the drama in chick lit always brings the laughs.
I write mainly for a female audience–women like me who have normal lives and problems and need to read the literary equivalent of a hot fudge sundae. But my audience is much bigger than that, a lovely discovery that came from my husband’s co-worker. She’d bought Whipped, Not Beaten for her mother, who brought it on vacation to read. When the co-worker asked her mother how she liked the book, the mother replied, “I haven’t read it yet. Your father won’t put it down!” Here’s the deal: MEN like chick lit, too. They like it for all of the same reasons: it’s relatable, plot-driven and funny. They like the happy endings, when each character gets their just desserts, ala Jane Austen. Many of my biggest fans are men, something I never would have expected, but it stands to reason because chick lit truly is good lit.
Melissa Westemeier teaches high school English, tends a huge garden, raises three sons and writes. Her published novels include: Whipped, Not Beaten, Kicks Like a Girl, and Across the River. Coming out in April is the sequel, On the River. Westemeier leads workshops about writing humor, using Wisconsin as a setting.
Her next appearances will be at the Green Bay’s Book and the Author Festival UntitledTown, April 19-22