Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Chick Lit and Self Esteem

I didn't get all of The New Project plotted yesterday, but I've figured out enough to write the first three chapters or so, and from there I may have more ideas of where to go next with it. I will likely do a full rough draft (though possibly very, very rough) before trying to do a proposal because I want the proposal to really reflect what the book will be (and having something so good that publishers fight over it is part of my Grand Scheme For World Domination).

Plot has always been one of my struggles. I was usually good at coming up with interesting situations and fun characters, then didn't really know what should actually happen to those characters in those situations. Starting out writing category romance was good for me because there's such a specific plot structure, and I could figure out events to fit within that structure, which gave me a better sense of how to plot. Then I discovered the Hero's Journey framework, which totally makes sense to me. I was able to thoroughly plot my books, even before I wrote them. I wrote a synopsis for Enchanted, Inc. after writing three chapters, and the final book is very close to that synopsis. But since then, I've been getting further and further away from that, where I don't know for sure what the book is really about until I've written it, though I can't start writing without at least a rough outline. It's like I'm regressing. Or maybe my story ideas are becoming more complex, so they don't fit quite as readily into any structure. At any rate, today's goal is to write the first chapter. This is the fun/scary part of writing a book, when it's all pure potential.

Meanwhile, I mentioned when I was talking about my summer reading plans that I seem to have gone off chick lit lately. Since then I've read a couple of chick lit books, one very recent, one from the heyday, that I really liked, so it's a relief to find that I haven't soured on the entire genre. It's just that there's a lot being published now that I'm not crazy about (in other words, it's not me, it's them), and I think I've figured out what's been really bugging me. It's all about self-esteem. The recent books I've hated have all hinged on issues that demonstrated (whether the author meant to or not) that the heroines had pathologically low levels of self-esteem. The underdog heroine is a staple of chick lit, but ideally more in the Spunky Kid sense, where she's aware that she's not the prettiest or most talented, but she tries to keep her head high and overcome the situation. What I've seen is more of the "I'll just lie here in the gutter so the more worthy people can step on me without getting their feet dirty" variety.

There are two primary plots that seem to happen with these heroines, the "leaping to conclusions" plot and the "return of the lost love" plot. With the leaping to conclusions plot, the heroine is with a really great guy, but because of her horribly low self-esteem, she can't believe someone like him would really be into someone like her, so when a third party tells her that he's cheating on her (or cheating with her on someone else), she instantly believes them and breaks things off without discussing it or even explaining it (because she can't bear to hear him say he loves someone else). And then, of course, she finds out that the person who told her had their own agenda and it was all a lie -- something she might have learned in the first place if she'd even tried to talk to him. That's pretty much a book-meets-wall moment for me because there's no real coming back from that. Why would he take her back if she was so willing to believe he was a cheater that she didn't even do him the courtesy of verifying whatever she'd heard about him? And why would he want to be with someone whose self-esteem is so low that she can't believe he'd be into her in the first place? If he does take her back after she's realized she was lied to, then I have to wonder if he's on some kind of power/control kick, where he knows he'll always have the upper hand in the relationship, since she thinks she doesn't deserve him and she's having to atone for believing the worst about him earlier.

In the return of the lost love plot, the heroine has a pretty good life and is with someone who loves her and treats her well -- and then her bad-boy past (often first) love, who broke her heart when he dumped her, mistreated her in general, and left her in a downward spiral of despair that she's only just now starting to recover from, shows up, and she falls right under his spell again. It's actually painted as a real dilemma whether she should go with the bad boy who makes her whole body zing (even as he emotionally abuses her) or stay with the good guy. Her self-esteem is so low that she can't believe she really deserves the good guy and that she's willing to do anything to get the attention of the bad boy. It doesn't matter if he dumped her in a publicly humiliating way, slept with her sister and her best friend, stole her favorite CD, killed her puppy, burned down her house and drained her life savings. All he has to do is give her that look again, and she goes into "Yes, Master" zombie slave mode. Of course, she always ends up realizing that the good guy is the one for her, but, again, I wonder why he'd be bothered if she was so willing to rush off with the bad boy.

A related subset is the alcohol-fueled plot, where the heroine's response to any crisis is to have a drink or thirty, to the point she goes through a bottle of wine just reading her e-mail, and most of the major plot events happen because she's drunk enough to do things she wouldn't do otherwise. And yet the author doesn't seem to look at this as a problem. There's no "yikes! I'm drinking too much" realization. It's just a normal part of life to drink a couple of bottles of wine a day.

I somehow managed to get into a reading rut where every book I read had one or all of these plot elements. I don't know if that's what publishers are looking for, if that's what counts as "edgy," if the spunky kid underdog type heroine is considered cliche, or what. I guess this only matters to me as a reader now, as I'm not even trying to write chick lit. I'm full-on in fantasy for a while. But I do like reading these books, and it's getting harder to find chick lit books I can enjoy.

And, wow, it suddenly started raining, and it's so dark I may have to turn on a light in my office that has one wall of sliding glass doors and a skylight.

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