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Chick Lit: The Hottest Trend in Publishing
by Kelly James-Enger

Chick lit. No, it’s not a gum. It’s the hip, sassy name for the equally hip and sassy publishing trend. Launched in the United States by Bridget Jones’ Diary, chick lit titles have gathered momentum and show no signs of slowing.

Don’t confuse romance and chick lit—they’re two different beasts. For one thing, romance novels are almost nearly always written in the third person, while many chick lit titles are first-person books. Romance novels traditionally feature a girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-gets-boy storyline, but chick lit novelists have more latitude in terms of subject choice, romantic storylines, and subplots. It may be their very range that makes them so popular among readers.

Better yet, because chick lit has been so lucrative, many publishers have chick lit imprints are seeking manuscripts. What makes chick lit different from romances? And how can you break into this exciting new market? Read on for what you need to know about this popular genre.

Chick Lit: A Name for a Niche

While women’s fiction has been around for years, readers have been snapping up books about the issues women in their 20s and 30 face since the late 90s. These books are usually set in big cities, and feature a character who’s struggling to find her way in the world. She’s often searching for the right guy or the right job while looking for meaning in her life.

But chick lit isn’t just for the 18-34 city-dwelling woman, and it doesn’t have to shy away from more topics more serious than diets and dating, says Margaret Marbury, editor of Harlequin’s Red Dress Ink imprint, which publishes chick lit. "I often hear that hear the books are shallow and the characters are shallow, and I think that’s a misconception," says Marbury. "And I think people automatically assume that the storylines are limited, that they’re all going to be the same. I think we and other publishers are trying to show that it doesn’t have to be limited. There are many different areas you can go into."

While traditional romance novels have long offered escapist reading to the 50 million plus readers who buy them, they’re somewhat formulaic. The main storyline of any romance will feature the love relationship, almost always between a man and woman, whether the story is set in nineteenth century England, a modern-day hospital, or a futuristic universe. Chick lit novels can explore broader themes and feature wider-ranging storylines.

"I think what distinguishes chick lit from romance is that it’s not all about a relationship between a woman and a man," says Allison Dickens, an editor at Ballantine, and co-creator of the XYZ program, a line of books aimed at 20-something and 30-something readers that launched in the fall of 2001. "A large section of each [chick lit] book is usually girl finds boy, girl loses boy, girl wins boy back, but there’s a lot more to it than it. The ones that are really successful and have broken out also deal with friendships between girlfriends and identity questions."

Take the heroine of Bridget Jones’ Diary. "She’s looking for Mr. Right, but she’s also looking for the perfect job and she’s also got her three best friends who come over for cooking and all those other aspects," says Dickens. "I think sometimes those [other] aspects are not in romance."

Writing for Chicks (Whether You’re a Chick or Not)

If you’re ready to tackle a chick lit title of your own, make sure you’re up on the market. While at least a dozen of publishers produce chick lit titles, each differs in terms of what they’re looking for. At the least, writers should be familiar with some of the best-selling titles including Bridget Jones’ Diary (Helen Fielding), Good in Bed (Jennifer Weiner), The Nanny Diaries (Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus), and The Devil Wears Prada (Lauren Weisberger). A strong voice and good writing are essential, but you needn’t set the book in Manhattan. In fact, a different city may catch an editor’s attention. "A lot of the books are set in New York or London," says Dickens. "I think it’d be fun to see some other types of settings."

While some books are written in third person, most chick lit novels use a first-person narrator. "I think there is an immediacy with first person. It draws you in and you instantly connect with that character," says Dickens. "That’s a key part of the very commercial chick lit."

Finally, remember that a good chick lit story entails more than just a comic retelling of dating disasters. A unique voice, strong supporting characters, unpredictable plot twists and a compelling theme can set your book apart and catch an agent’s or editor’s attention.

© Copyright 2003, Kelly James-Enger

Kelly James-Enger has authored more than a dozen books, including Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success (Writers Digest, 2012) and Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: The Writers Guide to Making Money Ghostwriting and Coauthoring Books (CreateSpace, 2010). Check out her blog, Dollars and Deadlines, for practical advice about how you can make more money in less time as a nonfiction freelance writer.

Other articles by Kelly James-Enger :

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