From Romance to Chick Lit
by Sophie Page
In late November 2010, a publisher approached me: would I be interested in writing a novel about an ordinary girl marrying a prince, to celebrate the UK’s royal engagement? “We want the fairytale in 80,000 words,” she said.
Oddly enough, I was already pondering a short story on the subject. I even had the Cinderella heroine, a young woman returning to London after a romance-and-career choice which had gone badly wrong. “Done,” I said.
With a heroine I knew, a hero I didn’t yet, and a very tight deadline, I plunged straight into writing. Most of my life, I’ve written category romance, as Sophie Weston, published by Harlequin Mills & Boon but recently I’d been experimenting with other genres. But To Marry A Prince, written as Sophie Page, was as exciting as my first novel. The characters carried me along in a spontaneous surge.
During the last frenzied pre-deadline week, however, I realised that I was overshooting the 80,000-word limit big time. Used to the strict word count of HMB, I rang my editor. “I’ll find a way to lose 10,000 words from the first half,” I promised. “Don’t do that,” she said. (Oh, wonderful woman!) “A book is as long as it needs to be.”
I did find some over-writing and one superfluous incident which I cut— just as well as, when the editor’s and copy editor’s comments came back, they both wanted a little expansion in a few places. Category romance teaches you to write very tight, and comedy romance/chick lit seems to demand the same skill, though for a different reason. As an actor friend of mine used to say, “Get your laugh and get off the stage; you can’t milk comedy. Tragedy yes. Comedy no.”
The fairytale element, also common to category romance, was part of the original publisher’s brief. But is not, I think, intrinsic to chick lit, which is as much about the stresses and support groups of contemporary life (shopping, fashion, career versus commitment and hanging out with the girls) as it is about archetypes and Happy Ever After.
What was profoundly different was the freedom I had to explore the world of my story and, in particular, the other people who are important to my hero and heroine. (I can’t bear to call them minor characters.) Category romance necessarily focuses the spotlight on the lovers. In this book I could follow my Bella into her fractured but affectionate family, her job (she’s efficient and she doesn’t take any nonsense) and the deep bond between her and her very best friend. And I would never have found the core to my hero if I hadn’t been able to explore his work, his family and, above all, his lack of privacy.
So – chick lit gave me more room, both to have fun and to explore other dimensions to my main characters and their world. But it shares with category romance the need for emotional truth and pacy, accessible narrative.
Sophie Page is the new pen name of author Jenny Haddon, for her alternative reality chick lit. As Sophie Weston, writing for Harlequin Mills & Boon, she has books in 25 languages and over 100 countries. She’s also co-written a guide to punctuation for the petrified and edited a memoir of the first 50 years of the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association. A hopeless romantic and passionate fan of P.G. Wodehouse, she’s done a load of jobs, travelled a lot and has a not very well-controlled tendency to nerdish research, witness her blog about Henry Fielding.