Writing Women’s Fiction

When new writers don’t get taken on by literary agents, they often complain, “So-and-so never even read the whole thing.” Whenever we hear that, we know that person hasn’t understood some basic truths about the whole literary business.

Of course agents make their mind up quickly – it’s their job. And it’s not hard to do. At the Writers’ Workshop we can tell within a minute whether a manuscript is a possible contender for publication or  not. Naturally there are things that matter with every novel that comes our way (is it well written? is the concept sound? etc) but with women’s fiction / chick-lit, there are a few critical areas you simply have to get right.

One, you need to be intimate with your characters. We need to know their thoughts, feel their feelings. We also need to know their vulnerabilities. Maybe they look great but worry about their looks. Or maybe they worry about their career or their parenting – or whatever. Writing for women means that you have to deal intimately and honestly with these things.

Secondly, you need to have warmth. It’s all very well to expose genuinely difficult things or portray genuinely unlikeable characters. (And some books – The Devil Wears Prada – revolve around such characters.) But there needs to be an inner heart of warmth. Without that, you’ll lose your reader.

Thirdly, you need to get the comedy right. There are two common mistakes here. One is to write a whole novel without wit or lightness. The second is to keep your foot so hard on the comedy pedal that the effort ends up feeling grating and dull. The first error is easy to identify – just ask yourself if there are jokes and humour in your book. The second error is harder to locate. Are you writing like the wonderful Helen Fielding / Bridget Jones? Or are you aiming for that and missing? It’s hard to say. On the whole, I’d say that (from the work we see) writers are more often guilty of trying a bit too hard. Remember that it’s OK to have whole passages that are not particularly funny – that are touching, or sad, or scary, or whatever. Those things will keep a reader glued to the book.

Fourth, it’s OK to be girly. A book that’s full of shoes and handbags will likely get dull, but a good sprinkling of these things is probably required by your audience. But at the same time …

Fifth, stay true to your character. If your central character is obsessed by make-up and accessories, then you need to stay with that truth. If your character is more of a free spirit and your book has more of a romantic theme, then centre on that. Don’t drag your book away from your character’s essence because you think you need to chase the market. Character must always come first.

Sixth, make sure you understand the market. The market for women’s fiction is very broad. It can move from quite serious semi-literary novels through to mysteries and psychological suspense stories through to real girly stuff, like the Shopaholic series, for example. You need to read enough to understand the terrain and your niche within it. That also means reading a lot of contemporary novels. Reading the classics is fine, but it doesn’t tell you what editors are buying today – or what literary agents are looking for.

And finally, seventh, most women’s fiction, however broadly defined, will have a relationship at its centre. Sometimes that’s a family one; most often a romantic one. So make that relationship genuinely touching and moving. Don’t be scared to make your guy gorgeous, successful, tall, charming, funny. Yes, I know those things are cliches, but they’re cliches that sell books! You need to make sure your guy feels real – feels unique, in fact. (Stephenie Meyer’s vampire hero, Edward Cullen, succeeded in large part because he was both Mr Gorgeous & Talented, but also Mr Oddball.) Again, getting character right is the secret.

I know I’m a guy, but I do as it happens read quite a lot of chick lit. The best of it is terrific. Bridget Jones is a wonderful book by any standards. So get inspired and get writing. Get help when you need it. If you want to build your skills with other writers, then take an online course. And above all, best of luck.

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  • It is such a broad field, isn’t it? Would you say it’s better to try and specify a sub-genre when submitting to agents – i.e contemporary, suspense – or would the preferred option be to mention authors whose work occupies similar territory?

  • Harry

    You can do either. Truth is, you don’t always have to pigeonhole your work at all. If you explain the nature / plot / theme / setting of your book in a simple paragraph, agents will understand what you’re offering them, Most fiction, after all, is just fiction: contemporary, general fiction. A large chunk of that market will have a primarily female audience, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to categorise it as women’s fiction. Truth is, if you describe the book honestly & succinctly, using whatever means seem right to you (eg: genre / author comparison / simple description of the book), you’ll be doing fine!