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