Sunday, March 19, 2006

Is Chick Lit Dead?

The third weekend of the month is always a busy one for me. Both of my local writing chapters (RWA and Sisters in Crime) meet that weekend. Today was RWA's turn.

Our featured speaker was Shanna Swendson, a chick lit writer whose most recent books are Enchanted, Inc. and Once Upon Stilettos. Shanna was a delightful speaker who clearly knows her genre. I am not interested in chick lit and was surprised at how much she had to offer writers in general.

She started by talking about the three essential elements of chick lit. Quick: name what you think those elements would be.

My choices would have been: a 20-something heroine, a complicated dating life and a funny manuscript.

Shanna's choices were: An interesting, sympathetic heroine with a growth arc; female relationships; and a wry or sarcastic voice.

She spent some time differentiating between the typical romance and a chick lit:

**Central Conflict
Romance: Central conflict is between hero and heroine
Chick Lit: Central conflict is between the heroine and some aspect of her life (job, family or her own attitudes). The heroine's journey is the focus, not the romance

Romance: Hero is a main character with his own story and growth arc; makes immediate appearance in first chapter
Chick Lit: Hero may be a secondary character with no growth arc; may not appear until late in the book; heroine may have multiple romances with other men

Romance: A HEA--happily every after--is necessary (meaning hero and heroine get together)
Chick Lit: The happy ending may be the heroine learning to live without a man

Shanna was quite frank about the glut on the chick lit market. She said that the publishing houses that had been releasing four books a month had cut back to one or two. She said it was much harder to get a contract on a chick lit book today than it was a year ago.

One of the things I found most interesting was that she described the early chick lit books as "coming of age novels" in which the heroine learned survival skills and found her place in the world much as an aborigine would go on "walkabout." She said, as the books became popular and everyone jumped on the bandwagon, later writers copied the superficial elements of the books and turned those very obvious elements into cliches. As examples, she pointed to the following: lots of bad dates; shopping as an obsession; the gay best friend; the job in publishing or a low-level job in a glamorous field. Shanna's editor recently said that her publishing house would no longer touch a book with those elements because they had been so overdone.

So, is chick lit dead? Shanna doesn't think so. She believes that the genre is consolidating and exporting its voice to other genres. She pointed to Janet Evanovich (mystery) and MaryJanice Davidson (paranormal) as prime examples.

Shanna offered the following advice: If you want to write a mystery with a chick lit voice, write it in first person (or deep third person), with a real "attitude." However, it is VITAL that the mystery be the prime focus with the chick lit voice as the filter. A lot of voice and no mystery cannot sell in today's tighter market.

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