Ah, summer. When the days are long and that sacred stack of summer reading is just waiting for us to curl up on a porch or balcony, swing gently in a hammock, or lounge on some hot sandy beach with the waves lapping in the distance.
Unlike the other seasons, summer has its own genre that's often instantly recognizable. Likely a trade paperback with a bright, flirty cover, it’s just the right size to fit comfortably in a tote bag.
The cover is potentially illustrated with the promise of entertaining and sweet escapist fiction that plays like a mental movie, filled with action, atmosphere, and people living the kind of lives we sometimes long for ourselves.
But a summer read isn’t just a fun escape for the reader. Oh, no. They aren’t the only ones filled with joy and contentment from those books.
Summer reads could be a vacation for authors, too. I mean, obviously there is work because writing is . . . well, work. But imagine a book where you’re free from your writing’s normal everyday reality or routine. What if we stopped trying to write the Great American Novel (or screenplay, poem, essay, or even blog) and instead took a summer vacation from the demands and expectations we set on ourselves?
We could simply transpose ourselves into the book and give our minds the creativity to have fun, silly, and unexpectedly transformative adventures. We don’t have to worry about realism or anything that looks like real life. We could—through our keyboards—escape to the same world so many of us slip into. We can create those adventures and experience them through the eyes of our character. No judgement, no expectations. Hell, you don’t even need to use your real name.
If you decide to dive into this new world, there are a couple of things you should keep in mind.
“I want to be able to understand the novel half-drunk on rosé,” writes Celeste Ballard in How to Pick a Good Summer Read. “The sentences should breeze by like a handsome man on a Vespa on the Montauk Highway . . . My ideal summer novel is delicately balanced on the edge of frivolity. And if I’m not genuinely moved at least once, I will chuck your novel at one of the non-bougie stops along the L.I.R.R.”
Often spanning the course of a summer in itself (funny, that), these novels usually feature romance, friendship, adventure, and journeys of self—all in some summery setting, such as a resort, a beach house, a cottage, or even a romantic overseas getaway.
“These books didn’t just offer a vicarious adventure for those who longed to spend their summer caught up in a whirlwind seashore romance,” writes Jennifer Harlan in A Brief History of Summer Reading. “They also acted as a kind of how-to guide for middle-class Americans who were traveling in the summers for the first time, and who were eager to prove they belonged in this vacationing echelon by mastering the etiquette of resort life. The genre also provided an entry point for many female writers, who penned some of the most popular summer novels.”
For most readers, summer novels are the perfect escape—not only from the humdrum routine of their lives, but also the aches, pains, and hurts that come with just getting through the business of life. Do we want to read about an underpaid and undervalued employee who trudges to work every morning and goes to bed at 9:30 p.m. after yawning through another episode of Friends? Not really.
But if you take that employee, get them fired, and then send them off on a ridiculous summer adventure filled with new places, new people, and a complete life reboot? Well . . . yes please. Just make sure that your character is fully invested in it. Remember, there’s a difference between laughing with and laughing at.
“The drama should feel VERY real to the characters but be very silly in contrast to anything you read in the world-news section of the New York Times,” says Ballard. “Speaking of the Times, I need you to flip to the most e-mailed section—yes, see the article about how Rossos from the Etna region are becoming popular at farm-to-table restaurants? That most-e-mailed article is something the characters in your novel would send each other.”
Ballard agrees that a good summertime read should have some relatable aspects. But making it too real is just like work. And work is what we save for our winter reads.
“Imagine that a summer novel is a home—what kind of kitchen would it have? Subway tiles? YES, I will read you. Anything involving a stove with an electric range? ABSOLUTELY NOT. Take your ugly stove and no-back-splash sink and get thee to the winter months. I’m looking for the novel version of a Nancy Meyers movie—all whitewashed, with the majority of the action taking place around a beautiful center island.”
And remember: it has to end, and not necessarily in the dignified way we might expect.
“Brevity is key,” says Ballard. “I’m reading this book for a day, day and a half, max. Anything longer will be dropkicked into fall. When I’m passed-out drunk on the beach, half buried in sand and getting a nasty sunburn because I forgot to reapply expensive sunblock, these are the sorts of books I want covering my face.”
This summer might be the creative escape you’re looking for. No one needs to know. Just keep it short. Keep it fun. And don’t panic about your expectations. It’s OK to have a summer fling with your writing.
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.