Lorraine Jenkin aims to make her characters different to the ones she’s read about before.
I was doing a book signing and an ex-colleague came into the shop: Bingo, I thought, no way will she be leaving without at least two under her arm.
Her boyfriend looked disinterested as she and I chatted, me biding time until I went for my sales kill. “What sort of book is it?” he asked in the end, picking up a copy.
“Chick lit,” she said. “You know: ditsy female working in marketing with a weakness for shoes fancies Josh from accounts, but is having trouble getting over her ex?” The boyfriend looked unimpressed and put the book down.
“Whoa! Hang on,” I said, picking the book back up and thrusting it at him, “this is situated on a farm and has nothing to do with Josh from accounts – I’ve got a character called Mansel BigFace for goodness sake and he works in the Parks department!”
But of course, therein lies the problem. The basic premise of chick lit is boy meets girl. Of course there are infinite ways in which this plays out, but there is a difficulty in making sure that the reader doesn’t think, “Oh, not this again,”and put the genre down, as I did many years before I had my own books published.
I used to devour chick lit; I liked light-hearted, fun, happy-ending kind of books, but then one day I started a new one and lo and behold there was yet another female character who felt she needed to lose a few pounds, had a friend in need, a credit card racked up to the hilt and an unworthy boyfriend. It felt like the day that marked the end of my Catherine Cookson phase: I had been faced with another waif-like heroine with green pools for eyes, but it was one waif too many and so became all over for Catherine and me.
When I started writing my first novel, it wasn’t a conscious decision to go chick lit, it was just the way it panned out, but I made it one of my rules that every character would be someone I had never met in a book before. If I found myself drifting into cliche characteristics, I would stop and rewrite until there was a quirkiness to each person. For example: for my story-line, I needed Mansel BigFace to work for the council. He could have worked for Accounts and looked good in a white shirt, instead I had him as the duck n’ dog-sh*t officer who on finding he had no clean clothes for a first date, went dressed in a superman outfit. Oh, and I made the girl he was wooing obsessed by hamsters.
I still read chick lit – I returned after a couple of year’s break – but I am a lot more discerning now. If I get that “Uh-oh,” feeling by the end of chapter two, back on the shelf it goes. My quest as an author, is to make sure it never happens to someone reading a book of mine…
Lorraine Jenkin is an author of three contemporary women’s novels: Chocolate Mousse and Two Spoons, Eating Blackbirds and Cold Enough to Freeze Cows. She sets her stories in Mid Wales where she lives with her partner, Huw, and their three young daughters. She spends her days trying to write whilst pretending to be folding washing.