by Brenda Copeland
“Women’s Fiction” is an umbrella term used to describe fiction written by women for women. The hallmark of this category is an emotionally authentic examination of women’s lives. When done right, this is the sort of book that readers talk to each other about and recommend widely. Here are four things to bear in mind if you want the novel you’re writing to be shelved alongside Kristin Hannah and Jodi Picoult.
1. Find a Framework
Think of the framework as the set-up for your story, the situation you put your characters in to test their relationships and explore the themes that will give your novel texture and heart. The framework isn’t the plot, but the structure that surrounds it and the setting in which it is located. In Mary Alice Munroe’s The Book Club, a monthly book group is the proving ground for five friends in suburban Chicago. In Nine Perfect Strangers, Liane Moriarity tests her characters during ten days at a luxury spa.
When coming up with your own framework, think of a situation or place that will draw your reader in.
You can complicate something familiar—subvert the predictable as Munroe does—or offer your reader a more aspirational setting … and then dismantle the dream.
2. Don’t Neglect the Minor Characters
You’ve probably spent a lot of time charting the journey of your main character. Rightly so. But a strong supporting cast is also necessary to create an emotionally satisfying narrative, which is why it’s important to pay attention to so-called “walk on characters.” Patti Callahan Henry did this in The Stories We Tell by dreaming up a straight talking older woman with a fondness for pound cake and bourbon. Readers were smitten with the feisty Mimi, especially since she offered a welcome offset to protagonist Ella, a dreamy young woman character with a tenuous grasp on the truth.
When populating your novel, think of balance and counterbalance.
Your minor characters should not be complex, but they should be satisfying in their own right and help to underscore the personalities and motives of the major players.
3. Spill a Secret or Two
Secrets offer two opportunities for narrative complexity as characters struggle to keep a confidence, then deal with the consequences as the unknown becomes known. Authors can have fun sharing the secrets with their readers while withholding the same details from other characters. Amy Sue Nathan did this in The Good Neighbor when the newly divorced Izzy Lane invents a boyfriend to impress her ex-husband. That one lie spawned several others, tying together plot and character to form an engaging and emotionally relatable novel.
Secrets don’t have to be big to play a major role in a book.
It fact, your character’s relationship to the secret—is she trying to protect herself or someone she loves?—is much more important. Make sure to give the secret room to breathe and time to unravel.
4. Don’t Forget the Quiet Moments
Every good book is propelled by drama and conflict, but that doesn’t mean you can overlook the more pensive moments in your fiction. Make room for your characters to step away from the action to ruminate on what’s going on. In Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us, the beautiful Anna is given space to consider the perils of her loveliness in a micro scene which also serves to strengthen the tension in the plot.
“Anna would pay a high price to be plain, for her looks pose an over-greater danger to both herself and Max. If only she were ugly, Gerhard would not persist in bringing this new species of suitor to the house, hoping to further his own ambitions by pawning off to a high-ranking Nazi husband.”
As much as your story has to fully inhabit the physical world, make sure to give your characters a rich inner life, one which plays into and off of the larger story.
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Brenda Copeland is an editor with more than twenty years’ experience at the big five publishers and over ten years’ experience as an adjunct professor in the graduate publishing program at NYU. She has published a robust list of fiction and non-fiction, quality books with strong commercial appeal, including The Good House by Ann Leary, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks, and A Big Little Life, Dean Koontz’s first non-fiction book. Now an independent editor, she works closely with authors through all stages of the writing and publication process, helping them reach their creative potential.