Saving Face? Or Losing My Mind?

I’m going to try to write a chick-lit novel in real time. In less than a month. And I really need your help.

Read Saving Face  as it unfolds.

Next month, I will start covering my 10th Supreme Court term for Slate. That seems an apt time for some very serious reflection. Or maybe not. When we were told to take time off from our everyday beats to do some kind of ambitious, long-form journalism, my first instinct naturally was to do something legal. Then I thought I’d like to do the hardest thing I could imagine. Which is writing a novel and filing it chapter by chapter as I go. And that’s what I’m going to do, with you watching and helping. And I’m going to try to finish in less than four weeks.

Some folks think writing fiction is easy. And as I started to describe my fiction-writing project to people, I discovered that at least a quarter of my friends indeed have an unfinished novel someplace on their hard drive. This astounds me because as my kids will tell you, my idea of plotting fiction is to just keep talking until they’ve fallen asleep.

After much thought, I decided that the best genre for me to attempt is post- Bridget Jones, oops-there’s-my-underwear-on-the-outside-again chick lit—because I’m a sucker for it and also because it seems slightly more doable than vampire erotica, about which I could not hope to become an expert in a matter of weeks. (For years, the joke around my house has been that there are two stacks of books on my side of the bed: One pile is about torture, Guantanamo, and military tribunals. The other is bright pink.) I am fully aware of the raging battles between those who take pink books seriously and those who do not. This project seeks to sidestep that entire literary debate by being fun for its own sake.

Of course chick lit is not a single genre. So I aspire to produce a book belonging to the fraught subgenre that’s come to be known as “mommy lit.” This subgenre is a cross between Bridget Jones and The Bell Jar. At its best, mommy lit is warmhearted escapism with a subtle poke at women who try to “have it all”: Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It and Fiona Neill’s Slummy Mummy are classics for good reason.At its worst, mommy lit is just another volley of back-and-forth sniper fire in the mommy wars—a prettily wrapped admonition to quit your job, if you have one, or get back to work, if you don’t.

One of the things I want to probe in this month of writing is the question of why we see chick lit as an escape. What is it about women who are overscheduled, underappreciated, and who at some point become invariably compromised by an undergarment, that appeals to us? What does it signify, if anything, that men prefer to read about protagonists who slit terrorist throats from the deck of a yacht anchored off the Maldives while sipping a Makers Mark out of the navel of a pole dancer?

There are some mommy-lit conventions I will try to embrace—the humor, because funny women writers are, I believe, the book world’s greatest gift to 21st-century women; the generous girlfriends; the kids; the tilting-at-perfection; the Legos. But there are some others I may try to subvert: the plot arc that holds that women always want too much and always have to settle for less; the cliché that armed with nothing but her grandma’s Grand Marnier cheesecake recipe, any woman can start a profitable small business from her own suburban kitchen; and the notion that every woman in America is married to a worn-down and beleaguered 36-year-old male who dedicates what little energy he has left to being a more intuitive parent than his perfectionist wife.

A note regarding shoes: I can make no promises.

My plan is to write at least a chapter a day, probably more if I want to finish this. Because I am, first and foremost, a Supreme Court reporter, I turn back into a pumpkin on the first Monday in October, whether I finish this book or not. In addition to writing the book itself, I am going to annotate as I go along. To follow along, just look for this symbol:   That means that in addition to reading the novel, you can also read about how I came up with ideas, why I am abandoning a character, or what chick-lit convention I might be honoring or jettisoning. I will also try to file something longer at the end of each week, detailing how the project is going, what I am struggling with, and whether I have yet taken to drinking at noon.

Is it completely insane to try to finish a first draft of an entire novel in three weeks? I think so. Have I mentioned that as of this writing, our child care situation has gone from bleak to hopeless? Is there something quintessentially chick-lit-ish about trying to do something patently impossible and overreaching? Yes! But that’s where you come in. This project will rise or fall with your reader feedback: plot ideas, character ideas, funny stories about your nanny, funny stories about your wife or your e-mail. Suggestions for names, locations, twists, and resolutions are desperately sought. Send me your thoughts, encouragement, or dire warnings via e-mail, or post to our Facebook page. For instance, the first person to e-mail me the (not patently absurd) name of the protagonist’s divorce-lawyer husband at  gets to name the guy. Seriously. It will appear in Chapter 1. Same for the family pet. First name gets it. I am leaning toward a cat or a rabbit. (Your name will be published unless you specify otherwise.)

Also, I will have questions. Like, given that virtually every chick-lit novel is set in New York or London (or has a protagonist who jets merrily between New York and London), what does a writer do if she lives in a small college town with only one escalator? Do I set the book in Manhattan and fake it? Or do I put her in a small college town and acknowledge upfront that to the extent there’s an obligatory shopping spree chapter, it may have to happen at Old Navy? (“Oh,” sighed Eleanor, shrugging into the soft folds of her ancho chili belted cardigan, “do you think I can wear this to Davos?”)

One other thing: I am hardly the first to observe that there is a bizarre trend toward decapitation in chick-lit cover art. The standard mommy-lit cover happens in silhouette, from behind, or, more and more in recent years, artfully lops off the protagonist’s head. (Click at the bottom right for a slide show on the subject.) I don’t have a clue why so much of women’s literature features women without faces, but I did pick my working title, Saving Face, with a mind toward some kind of corrective.

The whole purpose of these Slate sabbaticals is to drive us out of our comfort zones, and I confess to being deeply uncomfortable. And also crazy excited. The only hard and fast rule about chick lit I have learned while researching this enterprise is that the happy ending is absolutely nonnegotiable. So perhaps we can all be assured that this will turn out OK. For at least one of us.