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How hard can romantic writing be?

Image My life as a Mills and Boon novelist began when I decided I wanted to leave work and stay at home to have children. ‘How hard can it be?’ I told a friend. ‘After all, the world is wall to wall with romantic novels. They can’t be that fussy about how you write something so trashy.’

And so, dear reader, I uncapped my biro and began. An hour later I was sure I had written at least 5,000 words (a romantic novel is between 50,000–55,000) but when I counted up, there were only 1,000, in which the hero and heroine had already had a row, made up, had sex, and got married. I realised I was going to have to spend some time chewing the end of my biro over the next 49,000 words.

Two years, and many, many revisions later, I sent off my ms, and the editors at M&B (or Harlequin if you are in the US) liked it enough to meet me, but not enough to publish it. I also got a grilling about my casual way with facts. ‘How does the hero know she has concussion?’ I was asked. ‘Does he have medical training?’

‘No, he’s a pirate,’ I admitted.

‘Maybe he was forced to join the St John Ambulance at an early age,’ suggested the editor, with a sardonic lift to her eyebrow. (You see what I did there? People in romantic novels are always lifting their eyebrows sardonically).  If you become an author with Mills and Boon, you are expected to get things right.

I went home, polished up my facts, corrected my spelling and got my first book accepted. I went on to have five books published by the firm, and when I later wrote books for other publishers I realised what a brilliant grounding I had been given, and just how highly respected Mills & Boon are for their professionalism and knowledge of their market.

They do give advice on what they want, but not explicit instructions on plots. The style is generally to tell the story in the third person through the eyes of the heroine (a style invented by Jane Austen) as in ‘she could feel her heart thumping wildly as he entered the room’, but there are authors who tell the story through the eyes of the hero, or both. The hero has to be an alpha male, and the heroine a strong feisty woman, someone with whom a modern woman can identify.

And when you’ve finished it, your reader should be able to consume it without ever needing to pause for thought. ‘It should be as easy as eating blancmange,’ my editor told me. In fact, as easy as having children. And how hard is that?

 This article was first published in the Daily Express in July 2011

About elainecanham

I started blogging because I'm a writer, and I thought I ought to. Now I realise that I blog because I like to; even when I can't think of much to say.


5 thoughts on “How hard can romantic writing be?

  1. There’s a tricky question – when to stop editing. It’s possible to pare down too far and to take all the joy out of a piece of writing. With all things… balance, moderation. 🙂

    Posted by Jools | September 17, 2013, 10:06 am
  2. I don’t know that you have to expect to take great chunks of it out. I think it’s just, that once a copy editor, always a copy editor. We can’t help fiddling. And it is better than just writing great streams of consciousness and being blind to the fact that they might utterly bore the pants off your reader. Mind you, I have a friend who spends all his time editing his stuff, to the point where you feel it could have been written by a robot.

    Posted by elainecanham | September 16, 2013, 11:54 am
  3. I know exactly what you mean. With a career full of commercial copywriting (and mainly for IT companies too), I know all about paring down, presenting ideas succinctly. But that’s part of the fun of getting into fiction writing for me… the totally different approach required to write a novel. And yet… and yet… you write it in, then you have to expect to take great chunks of it out again. How is that? 🙂

    Posted by Jools | September 16, 2013, 11:10 am
  4. Actually, in many ways being a journalist hampered me, because I was so used to writing everything in a maximum of 350 words. So, as I say in the piece, upping my game took a long time

    Posted by elainecanham | September 16, 2013, 11:02 am
  5. I’ve heard before, that writing for M&B isn’t the walk-in-the-park that one might imagine it to be. There are plenty of people who think that *any* kind of fiction writing is easy… just a case of picking up the pen or opening up ‘new document’ on MSWord. The world is full of those that claim, ‘I’m going to write a book one of these days’ but somehow never find/make the time. Journalism might prepare you in some ways, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that writing anything is tough, and those of us that make it all the way to a finished manuscript have properly applied themselves to a challenge.

    Posted by Jools | September 15, 2013, 12:52 pm

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