Thursday, June 19, 2008

Book Report: The Essence of Chick Lit

I've now written the first chapter and part of the second chapter of The New Project. Where I left off is a perfect chapter cliffhanger, but it's only five pages into the second chapter. There's a scene I've realized I need to add before it that might add a few pages, and then a bit more detailed description might add another page. I'm still not sure if that's too short for a chapter. I tend to be very regimented about chapter length in the first draft, aiming at 20-page chapters in manuscript format, but the book I'm reading now does chapter breaks instead of scene breaks, so each scene is its own chapter, and there are some two-page chapters. Maybe a mix of chapter lengths won't kill me. I'm terrible about wanting to rebel against externally imposed rules, but practically being a Nazi about my own weird little "rules" that only I care about.

Meanwhile, the law that the more you exercise your creativity, the more creative you become is still in place. As soon as I started seriously working on The New Project, a silly little idea floating in the back of my head that started as a wacky, totally unrealistic hypothetical example I was going to use in a discussion (but that I ended up not using because I decided it was a pretty good idea) fleshed itself out entirely just as I was trying to fall asleep last night. It's in roughly the same genre as The Book In Search Of A Good Home (as in, it would sell to the same editors), so I'm pondering writing up a quick synopsis in case my agent wants to try to sell it as a two-book deal. I have a sequel in mind for The Book In Search Of A Good Home, but this idea is currently a lot more vivid to me than the sequel, and it might not hurt to have a mix of things out there instead of putting all my eggs in the basket of a single series (as I learned the hard way).

On Tuesday when I was ranting about things I haven't liked about recent chick lit, it seems I totally forgot to talk about the two books I read recently that I liked and that made me realize what was bothering me. I think they both captured the essence of what I've liked about the genre without falling into the so-often-mocked cliches. I think the best chick lit at heart is a female coming-of-age story, which may be why the genre is so looked-down-upon, since female experiences are so often trivialized in cultural expression. If it's about stereotypically female stuff, like falling in love or raising a family, it's considered meaningless fluff (unless a baby dies, and then it's Literature). It's only Big and Important if it involves stereotypically male stuff like going to war or going to sea. The heroic journey is essentially about separation from society so the hero can find out who he really is. In male coming-of-age stories that tends to involve going to war or being kidnapped by pirates, but chick lit still fits that theme and structure because it's about a woman building her own life and identity separate from her birth family and figuring out who she really is and what she really wants once all those decisions are truly hers to make. I think in the recent backlash and market bust authors and publishers have been far too eager to distance themselves from everything traditionally associated with chick lit, but they've lost sight of that core essence that made it resonate, so some of the supposedly deeper, edgier stories being published now actually have less universal resonance than the supposedly shallow, cliched classic stories.

But I digress, and I can geek out about that topic for centuries.

The first book I read was actually one from the classic era, published in the US in 2002 -- One-Hit Wonder by Lisa Jewell. It fits that core coming-of-age theme into an unusual plot. Ana's much-older, estranged sister was a one-hit wonder pop star in the 80s, but has faded into obscurity. When she dies unexpectedly, Ana has to go clear out her apartment and settle her affairs, and when she does so, she learns that her sister's life was nothing like what she thought -- and she finds a few things that make no sense. She tracks down her sister's friends, who also knew nothing of those odd little mysteries, and together they set out to solve the mysteries of what went wrong in the sister's life and what she's been doing about it. Along the way, Ana starts to figure out who she really is and question some of the assumptions her family made. So, no shoe obsession, bad boss, gay best friend cliches, but it's still that coming-of-age story. Because of the mystery structure, it was a real page-turner. I'd read some of Jewell's other books, but I like this one best. She can have a habit of relying far too heavily on alcohol and drug use to further the plot, and that wasn't so much the case here. For Doctor Who fans, Billie Piper gets name-checked, but in her pop princess persona, as this was years before she showed up as Rose.

Then there was Remember Me? by Sophie Kinsella -- that library wait list was shorter than I thought it would be. Oddly, I'm still waiting on a book where I was supposedly next in line, but I was number fifteen for this one and got it much faster. And Mom even got to it first, from their local library system. This one also had the classic chick lit essence within a mystery-like structure. One night, Lexi is out with her friends, and then she falls and hits her head. She wakes up in the hospital -- only she's not waking up after that accident. It's three years later, and she was injured in an entirely different accident she doesn't remember. She's lost three years of her life, and in those three years, things seem to have changed radically. She's had an extreme life makeover, with a better body, straighter teeth, better hair, a better job and a wealthy husband. On the other hand, her old friends all hate her. She can't figure out what happened to her, why, or how to get her in this situation, and it doesn't help that she can't entirely trust what people say to her, since they seem to be relying on her memory loss to paint those missing years to their advantage. While trying to fill in those missing years, she has to figure out who she really is and what's important to her. It's funny that most of Kinsella's non-Shopaholic books are about realizing that material things and the usual markers of success aren't what's important in life, almost like she'd finding some kind of karmic balance to make up for the shallow, silly materialism of the Shopaholic books (which I'm too frugal and practical to enjoy). I just about stayed up all night finishing this one, and it actually made me think about my own choices and priorities. It's not quite as funny as The Undomestic Goddess, but it was a real page-turner.

While I've been reading these, I've also been on a strange Star Wars kick, reading the tie-in novels I've found in the library, but I think that's fodder for another rant.

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