PopGurls Guide to Writing Chick Lit

July 20, 2005 No Comments »

Chick Lit. It’s everywhere. It and its hordes of sassy, well-dressed late-20 to early 30-something heroines have taken the world by storm, redefined clichés, and spawned a predictable movie or two. All this while making real life 20/30-somethings feel like colossal losers for not finding their own happily ever afters. You want to cash in with — but where to start? Once you’ve got an ideal, how does one keep all of the complex plot twists, tertiary characters, and romantic interest requirements straight? A daunting task, we agree. The risk of failure if you mess with the formula is so great, the punishment so severe, that no one would blame a neophyte Chick Lit author if they found themselves frozen with paralyzing writer’s block before the first sentence even made it to paper. Leading someone to their prince via comical mishaps and fashion faux pas is no easy task, and not to be taken on by the faint of heart.

Now, with that said, relax. Unclench. Breathe. Because we’ve broken down each stereotypical character, every predictable plot twist, and any ludicrous happy ending you could possibly need to pound out that bestseller we all know you have in you. Just be sure to thank us in that dedication page, okay?

Now, before you even begin to type that first, riveting sentence, take a moment to flesh out your characters. Is Mary Sue, aka The Heroine, a blonde? Brunette? Does she have unruly, curly hair that she hates or too-straight hair that she abhors? Is she perhaps a few pounds overweight (all the better to fill her with lovable neuroses)? And what about her friends?

What, you ask? Why should I worry about all this? Do I really need to delve this deep, you ask? Hell yes, you do. The characters and their quirks that you fill your novel with are very, very important to the Chick Lit genre. So important, in fact, that most novels tend to recycle the same characters. (Though we do suggest at least changing their names. They can’t all be Bridget, now can they?) To this end, we have broken down the important stock characters necessary for your novel to be a smash.

The Heroine, aka Mary Sue

Mary Sue should be young, vaguely dissatisfied with her life and either embroiled in a dead-end relationship that will be ending shortly (ideally in the first 10 pages or so) or fresh out of a long-term relationship and feeling extremely miserable about herself. Her job should be non-glamorous and one that leaves the door open for embarrassing soul-sucking situations, such as a debasing job on the sidelines of a glamorous career (i.e. copy editor at a magazine, actress who spends more time as a waitress, assistant to a television executive, etc): Any job that illustrates how close, yet so far, Mary Sue is to the glamorous, fulfilling life she craves. This also allows for Mary Sue, somewhere around page 145 or so, to step up the glamour ladder a bit when her editor/director/television executive/short order cook recognizes her true potential.

If you feel the character is lacking a little something, try making her a bit overweight (though not too overweight), as this not only leaves the door open for dieting and exercise-related hilarity, sure winners both, but for a young man to find her and love her as she is. After she loses all that weight.

She should also have at least three* of the following “cute” issues/quirks:

 

      • Feelings of inadequacy should permeate her being – in a cute and quirky fashion

 

      • Her biological clock should tick loudly and her fear of never finding a man to have a child with should influence every decision she makes and every conversation she holds – in a cute and quirky fashion

 

      • She should not trust her own instincts or immense talent – in a cute and quirky fashion

 

      • Insecurity about her looks abound – in a cute… yeah, we think you’ve got it by now

 

      • She should have poor judgment where men are concerned, leading to cute, yet quirky, incidents of soul-crushing horror

 

      • She quite often speaks before thinking about how non-cute and non-quirky she will sound (except to her knight, who will of course be the only one to understand how cute and quirky her little slips of the tongue are)

 

    • She is as graceless as an emu on rollerblades – a cute emu on rollerblades

We would usually remind you to make Mary Sue likeable, but if you look at the heroines in the successful novels by Jennifer Weiner, Marian Keyes and Jane Green, that doesn’t really seem to be necessary.

(*If you’re feeling particularly bold and make your Mary Sue not only skinny but also attractive – a tricky plot twist that should only be attempted by one with experience under his or her belt – Mary Sue should have no less than five quirks and a complete inability to have a relationship longer than two dates, thereby balancing out her untapped glamour and making her relatable to your readers.)

Sassy as your heroine may be, she is never complete without the ultimate accessory required of all 20/30-something neurotics, her gay best friend.

The Gay Best Friend, aka the Confidante

He knows Mary Sue better than she knows herself, as he’s a long-term friend. She tells him everything, even her most soul-crushing, embarrassingly deep, dark secrets. He’s always there for her, even if he’s got himself a man. (Unless he’s a flake.) Speaking of men, he never has a lack of men, thereby contrasting severely with Mary Sue’s constant lack of men, though he never feels the need to rub this in. Also, as we all know, all gay men in the Chick Lit world are skilled in the ways of making hair look pretty. Whenever Mary Sue finally accepts that, like Angela Chase, her hair is what’s holding her back, the Gay Best Friend is there with sharp scissors and the perfect number of highlights.

He is, in other words, your sassily dressed and well-coiffed plot-forwarding/recapping BFF.**

If you feel very strongly about not having a Gay Best Friend, as perhaps he doesn’t fit the décor of your book, you are allowed to merely give your heroine a Gay Wise Mentor (i.e. manager at work, next door neighbor, trusted psychic, etc.), as long as her best friend is properly wacky enough to fill the void.

(**Best Friend Forever)

Alternate BFF: The Wacky Best Friend

She should be roughly the same age as your Mary Sue, and probably hails from as far back as high school. Interests of the wacky best friend should include, but are by no means limited to: supernatural beliefs (Nothing strictly or overtly religious – too serious for the genre. Try something lighthearted, like Wicca, or maybe she merely lives her life by the Tarot deck), wacky art, babies (the making of, the having of, or just general obsessing over), etc. She may or may not be in a steady relationship, but she is Mary Sue’s grounding force and voice of wacky wisdom. Think of her as your straight, walking, talking, plot-forwarding/recapping fortune cookie.

The Ex-Boyfriend, aka the Schmuck

Yes, you need one. Not only must he be there for comparison purposes when The One rears his perfect head, but even the most losery losers in Chick Lit have an ex-boyfriend. Mary Sue may be a neurotic mess of a slacker, but she’s been in a relationship before. Someone, as socially inept as he might be, once loved her – and she can be loved again! No matter what her mother says.

Feel constricted? Trapped by all of the rigorous plot/character requirements of what you assumed was a light-hearted, easy going genre? Well stop your moping, because now’s your chance to make some serious artistic choices that could affect your story. That’s right, it’s time to decide: Will it be Ex-Boyfriend Type A, or Ex-Boyfriend Type B?

A.

      After a relationship of two years or more he broke her heart and stomped it into a million pieces. He occasionally returns to reopen the festering and ego-killing wound with false promises of reconciliation (Read: He needs to get himself a piece) or to rub her nose in his new found love (Read: He’s getting a piece, and wants his ex to know this). It is permissible to have her catch him sleeping with her best friend as an impetus to breaking up. (Preferably not the wacky one. Perhaps more of a peripheral friend? Or maybe the slut she hates at work? She always knew that bitch would stab her in the back.)

B.

    After a few years things turned mind-numbingly dull, and after realizing he was holding her back from her potential she left him. Nowhe’s so madly in love that he’s gone a bit obsessive, realizing what he had been taking for granted (in a cute, non-threatening fashion, of course).

Either way, about three-quarters into the story, Mary Sue will make the Big Mistake of hooking up, or almost hooking up, with the ex-boyfriend. (If you’ve made your Mary Sue a little randy, you can substitute The Ex-Hookup with The Mistake – see below.) After getting over the ensuing mortification, this will only strengthen her realization that The Perfect Man is The One.

The Mother, aka the Cold-Hearted Harpy

The relationship between Mary Sue and her mother should be fraught with difficulties – her mother should not understand her, nor should she approve of Mary Sue’s choices in life in general. Wacky hijinks, like constantly bringing food because she believes her daughter cannot cook and sending her clippings of more successful people Mary Sue’s age, are encouraged. Acts of maternal sabotage, i.e. sharing embarrassing stories of Mary Sue as a child to The One (see Bridget Jones), are recommended. But don’t forget that deep, deep down? She loves her little girl like the dickens.

The Dad, aka the Voice of Reason

It is highly recommended that Mary Sue have a good, close, or at least functional, relationship with her father to counterbalance the non-functionality of the Mother. He should not, however, be too far in the forefront as to not detract from the mother’s constant haranguing. Advanced writers who feel up to the task can give him some sage advice to share every 50 pages or so, to show what a rock of stability he is to his non-stable progeny. Or if you simply do not have room for this character, consider a few poignant sentences in passing describing how great their relationship is/was.

Siblings

Siblings are not necessary and will just convolute your story. If you feel very strongly about your character having a sibling or two, it is best if they exist only to make Mary Sue feel small (i.e. overachievers, child prodigies, rocket scientists, perfect marriages with four smiling children, etc).

Random Friends and Acquaintances

Mary Sue should have a small posse of friends, to ensure she is not ever viewed as a totally irredeemable loser. Suggested friends include The Floozy (a safe way to add some hetero sex to your book – you can’t have Mary Sue being too slutty now, can you? What will your readers think?), The Ex-Cheerleader (her perkiness will lighten even the darkest Mary Sue mope), and The Married One (preaches that all of life’s problems are solved via marriage, though secretly hates her friends for their freedom and just wants her friends married so they are as miserable as she is).

Work colleagues should also have names and enough familiar quirks that your reader can identify with them (The Oversharer, The Asskisser, The Backstabber, The Arch Nemesis – all self-explanatory). Don’t forget to give her someone to lock horns with on a semi-regular basis, even if that character’s only the crazy lady in the grocery store who constantly fights her for that last cantaloupe. It gives Mary Sue a human side we can all relate to.

The Mistake, aka Oops

No path to true love ever did run smooth, and Mary Sue makes mistakes. Usually in the form of a handsome rogue she should know better than to touch with a ten-foot pole, yet she does anyway. Since Mary Sue will inevitably hook up with a boy, sex with The Mistake can take the place of sex with the The Ex-Boyfriend, especially if he’s used to make said Ex jealous. However, there’s usually lousy sex involved here, despite all the handsomeness, making Mary Sue wonder why she left her favorite vibrator at home.

Oh wait. Mary Sue would never own such a thing as a vibrator because that would never sell in the Midwest. The Floozy can mention hers though, much to Mary Sue’s chagrin.

The One, aka The Perfect Man, aka the Knight in Shining Armor

The Perfect Man should show up relatively near the beginning of the book, though he should by no means be attracted to Mary Sue from the get-go. If you’re a romantic fool who just can’t help yourself from working the love-at-first-sight angle, substitute an awkward past for the awkward first meet (brother of best friend, ex-boyfriend of peripheral friend/co-worker, her new boss, man she attacked with a grocery cart three weeks in a row because he tried to take the last cantaloupe, etc). If they are not previous acquaintances, he should slowly and antagonistically get to know her, ideally by outwardly mocking/annoying Mary Sue when inside he’s crying for her love. A cute first meeting is required – like him ramming her with the grocery cart – at which he must behave like a jerk. Also, he must be successful. We’re talking wicked successful – TV executive, random millionaire, high powered CEO, etc. Mary Sue’s not going to settle for the guy who bags her groceries, you dig? (Unless he’s written The American Novel that’s about to sell for two million.)

Got all that? Good. Now that the characters have been established, it’s time to work out the plot. The characters aren’t going to put themselves in those wacky situations, you know. While the below might seem a bit too by-the-book for you, remember that to divert from the tried and true is disastrous, and if you attempt it we will say we told you so. To this end, we provide you with the following outline of salient plot points necessary to the genre. What happens in-between? Is entirely up to you.

      • Mary Sue is unhappy with her life/career/family/relationship/lack of relationship

 

      • Mary Sue has an Event (a break-up, loss of her promotion to the Arch Nemesis, wakes up in bed next to some guy after mixing Jaegermeister and Red Bull, etc.)

 

      • Mary Sue vows to change, declares to everyone that she’s on a diet/giving up sex/turning over new leaf

 

      • Mary Sue encounters The One, dislikes him enough to vow he could never be The One

 

      • Mary Sue makes unrealistic, very detailed no sex/diet/new leaf wagon plans and promptly tips over her little red life-wagon

 

      • Friends cheer Mary Sue up

 

      • Mary Sue meets cute with The One. Does not think it’s so cute at the time, nor does he

 

      • Mary Sue back on diet/no sex/new leaf wagon

 

      • Mary Sue falls off diet/no sex/new leaf wagon – The Mistake is somehow involved

 

      • Friends cheer Mary Sue up, Mary Sue crawls back on wagon

 

      • Run-in with Mother, leaves Mary Sue demoralized and tumbles her off the wagon she had just crawled back on to

 

      • Various wacky hijinks involving friends, family, ex-boyfriends, alcohol, wagons (the falling off of and the climbing on to), and random encounters with The One

 

      • The One realizes potential in Mary Sue

 

      • The One and Mary Sue hook up

 

      • Various hijinks of the misunderstanding variety between The One and Mary Sue, causing traumatic break up

 

      • Hijinks and comical misunderstandings resolved, The One and Mary Sue return to getting it on

 

    • Happiness abounds, The End

What kind of happiness? Do we need to come up with everything for you? Well, okay. Obviously the major part of the happiness is about The One. Mary Sue is finally loveable again and redeemed in her mother’s eyes! Oh joyous day! The second part needs a little more finesse and you’ll be happy that we insisted that you give Mary Sue a hidden talent that just needed a little brushing off. If she’s a writer, she gets a book published or a column in a magazine. An editor? Well, she gets that position that she never even dreamed she could score, making her Arch Nemesis seethe with envy. Did you make her an assistant to a producer? You can go either way here, with her landing an amazing gig in LA or NY or having Mary Sue decide to go back to her hometown and be a big-hit-on-a-local show fish in a small pond. If you’ve really challenged yourself and given Mary Sue a particularly non-Chick Lit occupation, just make sure that she has somehow achieved fame and (relative) fortune in her chosen field.

Now go! Run! Take your Mary Sue – whether she be blonde, brunette, neurotic or border-line alcoholic – and help her find her happily ever after. Someone’s got to, after all.

(Don’t forget to thank us in the author’s note. Royalty checks also encouraged.)

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