Continuing the discussion from two weeks ago, I started a post about tropes in another genre near to my heart: women’s fiction. But no matter how I tried, I couldn’t seem to phrase it in a way that wouldn’t hurt the feelings of certain people whose feelings I did not want to hurt. It ultimately boiled down to my critical thoughts about a certain world view.
No, not politics—I’m talking about issues like victimhood, agency, self-advocacy, passivity, resilience. I couldn’t express my frustration with certain types of female protagonists without coming across as dismissive of women who’d suffered greatly at the hands of others, and that was not my intention—so into the trash can that post went.
Instead, as an exercise in positivity, I compiled a list of what I do want to find in a novel I read. This also serves as a checklist for my own writing.
- For me, realism and believability are key. This doesn’t exclude magical, made-up worlds: I’ve read historical and fantasy fiction where I completely bought into the actions and motivations of the characters. Likewise, I’ve read contemporary fiction where I’ve thrown down the book in disgust, exclaiming, “No way anyone would say/do that!”
- a protagonist who’s brave, audacious, resilient, creative, flamboyant, funny, smart
- a protagonist I’d want to spend time with. She needs to be passionate about something other than just a guy, her kids, shopping, a corporate job. Not that family and jobs aren’t important, but I want to see substance beyond those basics.
- a protag who thinks before she acts. If she makes an obviously bad decision, I want to see her reasons as she decides, and they’d better make sense in the moment. If later she learns something that reveals her reasons to be invalid, that’s okay. But if she allows herself to be buffeted about by strong emotions with no thought to consequences–meh.
- sparkling, funny, biting dialogue
- sensory description that allows me to peer over the characters’ shoulders and experience the scene as if I were there.
- lots of scenes. Yes, narrative summary has its place, but I most enjoy stories I can experience as if I were watching a movie, but with a great sound system, vibrating seats, and Smell-o-rama.
- Lots of riveting plot action but—and this is tricky—a minimum of obvious, formulaic manipulation. If every scene ends with a melodramatic cliffhanger, I feel like I’m watching a badly-written TV show. I like a break every now and then, a funny or reflective scene that lets me catch my breath.
- This one is especially important for me to remember as a writer: a character who learns something about herself and/or others as a result of the plot events.
- Of course, recipes are a plus.
How about you? Do the items above resonate with you? Care to add an essential of your own to the list?
The novel I’m currently shopping around to literary agents is best described as women’s fiction, a genre I haven’t read as widely as I should. I’m working (well, it’s fun, really) to remedy that. “What is women’s fiction? you ask. “Don’t you mean romance novels?”
Women’s fiction may contain romantic elements, as can sci-fi, fantasy, horror–just about any genre you can name. But the central focus of women’s fiction is women’s personal growth, transformation, and relationships–often family relationships or friendships. There is not necessarily a “happy-ever-after” ending, but there will be a life-affirming message in there somewhere. Chick lit fits nicely into this category but, thank goodness, the protagonist need not be young, chic, and living in NYC for a novel to qualify as women’s literature.
Jennifer Weiner’s name comes up on several lists of recommended authors of women’s fiction. This is the first of her novels I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Weiner’s protagonist is a very sympathetic character–mother of a difficult child, wife of an indifferent husband, daughter of a helpless mother and a father with dementia, and author of a wildly popular blog. I squirmed and winced and even teared up a bit as I watched her life unravel due to her addiction to painkillers. Weiner gives us an insiders view of rehab–very gritty and frustrating. Though the subject matter is grim, Weiner writes with humor and touching insight. Read this!
Continuing my education in the genre of women’s fiction:
I absolutely loved this book. Antalek takes us from adolescence through early adulthood and beyond in the lives of a group of friends. Her tightest focus is on Sam, Suzie and Bella, but we also get to know the rest of their group, along with many of their parents. It’s impossible not to care deeply about these three characters as they scrabble over the knee-skinning boulders of messed-up families, broken relationships, coming apart and together again. Antalek takes us through the trials of teenaged lust, misunderstanding, ambition, lack thereof, thwarted ambition, unused talents, sibling love/rivalry, addiction, and parental decline: the ordinary stuff of which life is made, and all of it deeply resonant without lapsing into schmaltz. An outstanding book.
(Just trying out the copy-this-review-to-my-blog feature of Goodreads.)
The novel I’m currently working on would be best described as women’s fiction, so I’m reading lots of same to learn about the genre. I found Elizabeth Buchan on a must-read list of women’s fiction authors. The recommended book, Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, wasn’t available in my library, so I picked up this one, and I’m glad I did. Buchan handles smoothly the transition from POV to POV in this tale of a British family’s near dissolution, making each character at least partly sympathetic–a difficult task in the case of the critical, crotchety grandmother. All members of this family are deeply flawed, but I found myself rooting for all of them…well, perhaps not one, but I was deeply curious about what would happen to her. An engrossing read for anyone who enjoys a relationship-centered tale.