I just finished reading a novel on Kindle that I got for $1.99. It’s called Vintage, and it’s written by a practicing lawyer named Susan Gloss. The book as a whole was pretty good; I’d give it a 3.5 out of 5. However, I can’t stop thinking about it, as the author did many smart and unique things. Frankly, it’s a pity that smart and unique are what separates a good book from a mediocre one, because in my opinion all fiction should be smart and unique.
I need to give a basic story line as well as reveal a few things in order for you to understand why this book spoke to me so much as an editor and the owner of a writing blog (but not so much as a reader), so I apologize at the outset.
The book explores three women: a pregnant eighteen-year-old whose boyfriend just broke their engagement, a thirty-eight-year-old divorcée who owns a shop selling vintage clothing, and woman in her late fifties whose marriage might or might not be falling apart. Their lives intertwine and they end up helping each other grow.
Now here’s the thing: the story line is not unique at all, right? Pretty stock-like characters, no? How many novels have you read where people are struggling with relationships? Where a group of strangers are thrown together and end up making an impact on each others’ lives? Where boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back? No doubt you have concluded that Vintage is typical women’s fiction, or as I refer to this genre, “good trash.”
So how did Gloss take this overdone, boilerplate-of-a-storyline and make it unique?
1. She chose something she knew and used it as her backdrop
Just because you aren’t a) a pregnant teenager who had a clinically depressed mother, 2) a childless divorcée with a tattoo, 3) an Indian immigrant with a super-American daughter, or even 4) a woman, doesn’t mean you can’t write about it. How can you ever hope to grow as a writer or explore anything outside the four walls of your home if you don’t stretch your boundaries?
On the other hand, you must make your book sound authentic, and you must create a unique backdrop into which to drop your boilerplate story line. Here is where you should go with what you’re familiar with. Gloss, for instance, aside from being a lawyer, has a lifelong fascination with vintage clothing and in fact runs an Etsy shop to sell her finds. She also lives in Madison, Wisconsin, which is the setting of the story. This is how she made her story different and convincing. We could see, hear, and smell downtown Madison, and none of the vintage clothing details felt artificial.
2. She didn’t give in to clichéd situations
And believe me, she had many opportunities. Here’s one: The vintage store owner’s ex is an alcoholic, and he breaks into her apartment one night. And then of course her new significant other shows up in the middle of the confusion. Can you get more clichéd than that? Gloss steered clear of three typical outcomes:
- He starts beating her up and the new SO gets there just in time
- He tries to rape her and the new SO walks in on them and thinks she’s two-timing him
- She decides to give her ex another chance
Here’s another one: when they’re driving home from the motel the new boyfriend asks calmly, “Is there anything still between the two of you?” And he actually believes her when she says no, and that’s the end of it. In fact, the couple, are, refreshingly, totally open and honest with each other. The conflict, which by the way must exist in any novel, has nothing to do with a misunderstanding that almost ruins everything but is righted just before the point of no return. Nice one, Gloss.
3. She kept a bit of mystery
The pregnant teenager is obsessed with finding out whether her mother’s death was a suicide. We never really find out because the daughter realizes she herself will never be sure. By keeping the answer to the suicide question a mystery, Gloss not only turns a “formula” story line on its head, she forces us to focus on a different issue: whether it matters. The daughter receives reassurance, but not of the type she thought she needed in order to move on. The result is that we gain a different perspective on “need to know.”
Does the shop owner have more heartache from her ex? Does the Indian woman’s marriage sew itself back together? I don’t know, and neither will you. And that’s fine, because neither do the women themselves. And that is real life.
4. Her dialogue is character-specific
Gloss has the rhythm and tone of each of her characters down. She was able to give each and every one a completely unique voice. This is no small feat. The dialogue felt authentic.
The Indian woman, for example, has the exact cadence and uses the exact diction of someone from that region of the world. I could literally hear her in my head. Think The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. (Gloss thanks two Indian women in her Acknowledgements, i.e., she did her homework. Being authentic sometimes requires serious research.)
Did I like the shop owner’s potty mouth? No, but if she sounded like Tinkerbell I wouldn’t have believed her character. (Gloss gave it a nice touch, however: she has the character reminding herself not to use language in front of her customers. Now that’s realistic.)
5. She created unique supporting players
There are several more minor but pivotal characters in this novel. One noteworthy example is a soccer mom who gave up an acting career in New York City in order to get married and have kids. Total cliché alert. Gloss chose not to create an embittered has-been. This woman is happy with her life. If I were to typecast, I’d say she’s one of the two fairy godmothers in the book. Her spunky kindness, her love for her family, and her mini-midlife crisis combine with Gloss’s unique plot to make her an extraordinary character.
6. The characters don’t get everything in the end, and if they do it’s because they themselves made it happen
When Ms. Shop Owner and her beau break up, it’s for a well-thought-out reason on the part of the former. As I said above, there are no angry misunderstandings here. She gets on with her life, not expecting to get back together with him, and leaving things fully in his court.
The Indian woman, too, goes about her business with integrity. She might or might not go back to her husband, and she has created new rules. This feels so much more real than taking back the rapscallion who has seen the light and is groveling and weeping before her on one knee, begging for another chance. And by the way, she created an atypical wandering husband, too. Bonus points.
Keep these devices in mind and you too can craft a unique story even out of an overdone formula. Because the truth of the matter is: how many different story lines are there — ten? Twenty? I doubt there are even six. The trick is to use what you know, combined with outstanding research about what you don’t, and produce something that is entirely new.
How many formulas can you come up with? I’m interested to know how many we can come up with together. Start brainstorming, and put your offerings in the Comments below.
I’ll start you off with one: Coming of age. Now it’s your turn!