About twenty years ago, my mother-in-law suggested that I submit some of my short stories to women’s magazines. My typical venues before that had been the small literary publications usually associated with an English Department somewhere, edited by a professor, or an MFA candidate, with a pitifully small circulation. Redbook was a women’s magazine, so was Family Circle, Ms., Good Housekeeping, Seventeen, others I can’t remember, and as far I can recall, only Redbook, Ms., and Seventeen published fiction. I don’t think any of them do now.
I didn’t think of myself as a women’s fiction author, yet I realized that I almost always wrote about women, often despairing over a bad relationship with a husband, boyfriend, or parent. One protagonist, Nina, appeared over and over in settings that differed very little, in circumstances that usually had her isolated, depressed, on the verge of taking a drastic step to save herself by throwing in the towel. She was a dreary soul, and I eventually tired of her.
This guest post is by Anne Leigh Parrish, author of Women Within. Her previous titles are By the Wayside, stories (Unsolicited Press, 2017); What Is Found, What Is Lost, a novel (She Writes Press, 2014); Our Love Could Light The World, stories (She Writes Press, 2013); and All The Roads That Lead From Home, stories (Press 53, 2011).
What, then, is Women’s Fiction? Before I answer that, let me say that I’m always suspicious of putting titles into neat genres. Identifying genres is useful for agents when they’re pitching your manuscript to a publisher. It’s also helpful for bookstores who need to know what shelf to put your book on. Mystery? Thriller? Science Fiction? I write literary fiction, and that’s hard to devote an entire shelf to, though I could easily fill one with titles from my own private library.
Accepting that we sometimes must think of our work as belonging to one or more genres then, Women’s Fiction is fiction by women, about women. That covers a lot of territory, and yet has traditionally been looked down on by the publishing world as having less merit than what men write about. What else is new?
But, if you know Women’s Fiction is for you, here are my five tips for crafting a good story:
1. Embrace the genre.
Never see it as less worthy than a high-stakes political thriller or murder mystery. Consider the fantastic female protagonists you’ve met in the pages of powerful novels—Jane Eyre, Olive Kitteridge, Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, Jo in Little Women, and even Gone With Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara and her sidekick, Melanie Hamilton. These aren’t weak women. Their lives are far from dull. They take matters into their own hands and shape their own futures. Often compromised by men, they ultimately prevail. Read some women authors you don’t know. Some of my recommended titles, in addition to those mentioned above are Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf; The London Train, by Tessa Hadley; LaRose, by Louise Erdrich; and the short story collection, Mendocino Fire by Elizabeth Tallent. Believe me, these will inspire you!
2. Focus on setting.
For my heroines, this tends to be the home. Houses are important to me—how rooms are arranged, what the windows are like, what one sees out those windows. I prefer a suburban or rural setting, but a cityscape is interesting, too. Consider a single protagonist, living in an apartment building, lying awake, hearing footsteps on the ceiling. Wherever you put you character, know what she finds important in her immediate surroundings and why. Be as detailed as you can without overwhelming the reader with things she doesn’t really need to know. Having a garden says a lot about someone, but whether she plants dahlias or lilies doesn’t really matter. Decide if she’s tidy, or neat, since these habits say a lot about how she feels about the place she lives in. And lastly, how much does she share that space? If she lives alone, does she have people in? And if she doesn’t live alone, has she carved out a room or nook that is hers alone?
3. Be a psychologist.
Women may not have trouble getting in touch with their feelings, but they often are reluctant to express them. Consider a woman who’s been taught not to contradict her husband, or her parents, or anyone is a position of authority. How will she make herself understood? What happens when resentment informs even the smallest decisions? Imagine a dinner scene. There are people around the table. Your protagonist has tried to make the atmosphere pleasant, inviting, and relaxed. But then, something that’s been on her mind for a long time just won’t stay quiet, and with a few sharp gestures, perhaps, or a quiet, sarcastic remark, everything changes. You have to explain her unexpected behavior. Here’s where you have to really delve, and learn how she gets her point across without raising the roof, walking out, or filing for divorce, because she doesn’t want any of those things, she just wants to be heard.
4. Check on the kids.
Most women have children, and at least for a while, they occupy the center of just about everything. The way we feel about our kids makes a great source of conflict, and can produce guilt, anguish, rage, and sometimes, with a difficult teenager or young adult, self-imposed apathy. Having very young children, and being a stay-at-home-mom, is a situation rife with possibility. Who hasn’t wished that their adorable toddler would stop crying long enough to hear yourself think? And when your two-year-old has finally fallen asleep, what then? Sometimes all the things you were going to cram into that silent period of time seem overwhelming. Then there’s the emotional conflict of having a good day-care, or a nanny, so you can keep on building your career—but wait, what about those precious developmental milestones you miss out on because you’re stuck on a conference call, in traffic, or a late meeting with the client?
5. Nail down the key relationships.
In this case, I’m talking about men, but in any event, one’s significant other. Women define themselves by their relationships a lot more than men do, I think, and how a female protagonist sees herself as a partner is fundamental to a good women’s fiction novel. Is she supportive, or quietly competitive? Or both? Does she put herself second and the other person first? Does this come naturally, or is it a role she was shoved into from an early age? Maybe your main character suddenly finds herself alone. Her back-up, and support have vanished. Did she get walked out on? Or did someone die? How has her identity changed, now that she’s alone? Do people treat her differently without a man around? Are they sympathetic, or predatory?
I like thinking about all these issues, and tweaking them for excellent effect. And I’m proud to be called a Women’s Fiction author, because I stand in such good company. I hope to find you there.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.