This month we’re talking about a Category Fiction class I took last fall, and some of the things I learned from reading eleven novels along the way. The novels, I should mention, were hand-picked by our professor.
She said she wanted us to see published books — successful books, many of them books with movie deals — that were still flawed. She wanted books where “the seams were showing,” and believe me, she found ’em.
The first two books I wanted to talk about were her two selections for the category “Women’s Fiction,” which is a euphemism for “Romance Novels.” I already gave it away yesterday, but I didn’t like them.
Before I explain why, let me tell you a little bit about the books themselves. The Cinderella Deal by Jennifer Crusie is the story of a spunky leading lady who finds herself trapped in a life she doesn’t want. On an impulse, she escapes her drudgery for a brief fantasy vacation in a pretend life that more than makes up for the aggravation of sharing it with a fellow she doesn’t like too much.
Over time, she realizes not only that the loves the guy, but that she really could have this life. All it requires of her is a little sacrifice, and a little courage — and in exchange, she gets her happily-ever-after.
First Lady by Susan Elizabeth Phillips is, by contrast…well, it’s exactly the same thing. That’s not really much of a surprise in an industry that obsoletes it entire stock on a monthly basis. With that kind of churn, there’s bound to be some heavy repetition.
As a matter of fact, according to our lectures, that plot structure is virtually required in Women’s Fiction novels. That’s not to say they’re all carbon copies, though. In fact, the reading experiences between these two books were vastly different.
The Reader’s Experience
The Cinderella Deal made for a light, quick read. I didn’t like the book, but it was easy to read because it made a smooth path through the story. At every stage in the story, in every scene, the writer was doing precisely what the story structure called for.
First Lady, by contrast, faltered often. The hero and heroine were shallow caricatures at times, their flaws too superficial, and the conflicts between them often felt contrived. Worse, though, the child characters distracted from the love story. Or, rather, the love story distracted from the book.
First Lady doesn’t read like a romance novel, but like a really interesting travel novel interrupted by its own plot. I might not have noticed that if not for the contrast to a textbook-perfect romance story in The Cinderella Deal.
But in that context, it’s clear to see where one writer wrote to a category, and the other tried to shoehorn a category into a story that didn’t really match with it.
The lesson we need to take home is an easy one: write with your readers in mind. It’s not enough to just write the story the way it first occurs to you (which we’ve all come to terms with), and it’s not enough to just pack in the extra bits and pieces Writer’s Digest tells you will make it sell better.
At the end of the day, a novel is a medium for communication. I’ve been saying that of writing all along. If you want to get it right you have to consider your readers’ experience, and write for them. Write something that will be fun to read, regardless of the genre.
(I really wouldn’t recommend buying either of those books, but just in case you decide to disregard my advice, the links above are all affiliate links. That way at least some good will come of your misguided choices.)