Natasha Oakley - British Romance Author

Writer of tug-at-the-heartstrings, feel-good romance for Harlequin Mills & Boon

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The deed is done!

Decision made - and thoroughly unpleasant it was. But here, after much angst, is the newest addition to my family.

At the moment, my love for it is not unconditional but we're working at the wrinkles in our relationship.

You'd think, wouldn't you, that a new laptop would be exciting, but actually it's *really* irritating. I suppose it all comes down to wanting it to 'just do'. There's not the smallest part of me that enjoys customising it or discovering how to do something a new and better way.

I miss my old laptop, so loved I'd worn the letters away with use.

I miss my floppy discs. I like them sitting, colour coded and labelled, in my box. Easy to find everything I've ever written. What is it with these memory sticks????? Already I have no idea what's on them. What's worse is the time it takes to safely remove them when you get the wrong one. Bah!

Also, the 'edit' button is on the top left of the screen, but the 'find text' one is then over on the top right. Who thought that was a good idea???? I'm sure there will be an easier way of doing that, BUT I DON'T KNOW IT.

I hate transferring information from one machine to another. *Such* a waste of time. And after I've done it I'm only where I was before I started.

But, enough, it is mine and we will work through these things.

In the end I narrowed the decision down to a 'Toshiba' because it has a curved front edge. Good for the wrist I thought. And I sacrificed size for lightness. Trish Wylie swung me in that direction. She's still not recovered from lugging her laptop around the States last summer. No doubt she'll be doing it again and I can feel smug that, should I go, I would find it much easier. :)

I'd love to go to the RWA conference this year, but I doubt I'll be able to find the time or the childcare. This year, fellow Harlequin Romance authors, Jessica Hart, Barbara Hannay and Barbara McMahon, are giving a workshop. The working title is "Emotion, Emotion, Emotion: Writing Romance with Global Appeal". Lovely choice, I think. The 'Romance' line really does have global appeal. Anyone have any good ideas what to do with the foreign copies I get sent??? The novelty has already worn off and I'm rather overrun ....

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

My laptop has died!

And that's all I have to say, really. Humph.

Oh, and if Ms Johnson is around anywhere and would like to order me a replacement that'd be great. I swear it's worse than buying a car. That's so much it's easier, don't you think? Obviously colour is the most important factor, then a place to put the coffee cup while waiting for children to finish assorted clubs.

The thing about a laptop is I JUST WANT IT TO WORK. How difficult is that??? I don't find them intrinsically interesting. I don't want to spend half a day discussing it. I just want it to handle text in Word. Producing text being my job. Light would be good, since there are times when I've lugged my old laptop around and wished it didn't weigh as much as my eldest son's school bag, but it's not essential. I probably won't even put it on the internet because I have a 'big' computer for that. I certainly won't play games. Might be tempted by DragonSpeak at some point.

Of course there isn't a sales person in the country who believes me and I'm convinced they haven't really grasped the complexities of what they're selling anyway.

I've just spent the longest time looking up differing specifications on the web (big computer) and I've decided it's a degree subject. Anyone care to tell me what the difference between a DVD-SuperMulti Dual Layer Optical Drive is as compared to a DVD SuperMulti Dual Layer. And do we care anyway??? (No please don't! My will to live is ebbing ....)



Monday, January 28, 2008

Courtesy of the Times ...

I give you India and some Fun Facts! The links are here and here.

I've known about the India market for quite a time, but this is what appeared in the Times (on the 24th I gather). The 'Romance' line is likely to feature quite heavily, apparently.

Mills & Boon starts a local love affair with India
Rhys Blakely in Bombay

It is the consummation of one of the longest — and most breathless — romances in global publishing: a new chapter will start for Harlequin Mills & Boon next month when it sets up shop in India. Readers in the sub-continent — including, apparently, a significant number of men — have been swooning over the romantic novels since the days of the Raj. However, the Mills & Boon books found piled high on India’s bookstalls find their way into the country even though the publisher has never had a long-term distributor.

All that will change on February 4, when titles such as the recent Virgin Slave, Barbarian King begin to print in India for the first time and Mills & Boon, which celebrates its centenary this year, becomes the latest Western publisher to target India’s 300 million English-reading consumers. In 2005, the Indian Government allowed foreign groups to own non-news publications wholly for the first time, triggering a rush of interest. Last October, Condé Nast, the American publisher, launched Vogue India, the first 100 per cent foreign-controlled magazine. GQ, its men’s equivalent, is expected in a matter of months.

Mills & Boon, which sells nearly 200 million romantic novels a year, believes that its wares — with their virginal, vulnerable heroines and tall, dark heroes — hit a unique chord.

“India is crazy about true romance,” Andrew Go, the head of the Indian operation, said. “Look at the basic Bollywood plot: boy meets girl; conflict; happy ending. We carry across that trend. We say we sell four books a second, Actually it’s 4.4. If I can take that to five, I’m a hero.”

India has the potential to hit Mr Go’s target: the popularity of the country’s lending libraries is declining as India’s burgeoning middle class opts to buy rather than borrow.

The full Mills & Boon portfolio will not be unleashed. Steamier series will be held back, but there are also suggestions that titles will be tailored to India, which Mr Go says represents “a new pool of creative talent”. Mills & Boon “has never been prejudiced” on where its writers hail from, he added — which some would say is an understatement. To feed its readers’ voracious appetites, the company carries formulaic advice on its websites for aspiring writers to follow (If only it were that simple, Mr Blakely!). Mr Go expects more Indian authors to join the Mills & Boon ranks this year.

Nevertheless, success in India carries its challenges. Mills & Boon will sell books for just 99 rupees (£1.30) each. “The margins here are lower than anywhere else,” Mr Go said. “No one rushes into India. This is a long-term project.”

And on the 25th came Eight Fun Facts:

1. Thirty five million Mills & Boon titles are sold each year worldwide. Think we have a stiff upper lip? Seven million romantic novels are sold in the UK alone . . .

2. . . . which translates into a Mills & Boon book being put through our tills every 3 seconds.

3. But it’s not just us: Harlequin publishes the books in 26 different languages and they are sold in 109 countries.

4. Over the past 50 years the characters have had phenomenal luck in love. There have been 10,325 weddings (latest statistics show there were 244,710 non-fictional marriages in England and Wales in 2005), a lip-smacking 29,500 kisses (real-life statistics unavailable) and 35,250 hugs (a paucity considering the number of marriages).

5. Some 1,300 authors are employed by the publisher, approximately 200 of them through the UK office.

6. With its monthly readership of more than 1 million, Harlequin Mills & Boon is a UK Top 10 adult fiction publisher.

7. Enduring love? We’re a fickle lot. Mills & Boon series books have a shelf life of only one month. To keep up with demand, they are released in two shipping cycles each month (the first and third Friday, should you be waiting). (Though available from M&B/Harlequin websites and Amazon much longer ...)

8. There are, therefore, approximately 70 titles published every month in the UK

That aside, I'm blogging over at the Pink Heart Society today. My turn to nominate a Male on Monday. Hot on the heels of Burns Night I've picked Ewan McGregor.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

And the Daily Mail has us too!

Help! I'm addicted to Mills and Boon
Daily Mail

Racing around Tesco the other day, my trolley dash was brought to an unexpected halt by the sight of a striking couple whose compelling appearance snagged my attention. The man was tall, lantern-jawed (hollow-faced??? Is she sure????), the expression on his ruggedly handsome face unreadable but utterly mesmerising. Edging closer, I could see the fragile blonde by his side thought so too; for though the upward tilt of her delicate chin hinted at defiance, the way she leaned into his muscular body was suggestive of a woman almost liquid with desire.

The chemistry between the two was so electrifying that suddenly all thoughts of my weekly shop were abandoned and replaced instead by a desperation to know how such a captivating partnership had come to pass. And so with one fluid movement, I grabbed the Mills & Boon paperback on which they were cover stars and quickly concealed it in my trolley as though it were a topshelf magazine. (Now, Liz Fielding would be proud of me because I don't do that. In fact, I invariably end up giving the lady at the checkout my business card. :) )

Wedged in the cart between a multi-pack of loo rolls and a bag of King Edwards, the passion fuelled pair looked terribly out of place (after all the man on the cover, I was soon to learn, was a Greek shipping magnate who made Bill Gates look like small change). But at least my embarrassing purchase could be hidden from view.

Yes, my name is Angela and I'm a Mills & Boon addict. I've tried to suppress my shameful obsession for more than 20 years. But as the world's most famous purveyor of romantic fiction celebrates its centenary - founded by Gerald Mills and Charles Boon in 1908, the firm began to concentrate on romantic fiction in the Thirties - I feel it's time to come clean about my craving.

I know what you're thinking, that I'm just a sad, romance-starved fantasist, incapable of appreciating good writing. But I'm actually an emancipated woman with a frisky, adorable husband and a degree in English literature which enables me to quote vast tracts of Shakespeare.

How, then, could my literary heritage and position as postmodern woman have been supplanted by an obsession with these soufflÈ-light, sausage machine fantasies? (Hmmmm. Thanks, I think ....) Well actually, the genesis of my addiction was profoundly ironic. Having spent my years as a student ploughing through mountains of classics at break-neck speed, ("read David Copperfield for Thursday" was a typical task), I couldn't face reading anything which smacked of high art or serious scholarship for years after I graduated.

And so, while on holiday, to enjoy my freedom before I joined the rat race, and in a state of acknowledged literary burn-out, I found myself picking up a dog- eared Mills & Boon romance from the shelf of my rented apartment. With patronising amusement I challenged myself to survive the first chapter. I ended up devouring the entire book, as well as the other yellowing M&B titles around the flat.

Reader, I was hooked.

After that, whenever I stumbled upon one of these paperback romances I couldn't resist flicking it open. In fact, when I began work as a trainee reporter a couple of months later, I found myself buying dog-eared copies from the open-air book stall near my office, hiding my furtive purchases behind my newspaper on the train home. As an intellectual snob, I was hideously embarrassed by my addiction. Yet still, I couldn't help myself.

So I raced through Darkness Of The Heart, pored over The Passionate Lover, and lapped up No Longer A Dream. It was an unfathomable compulsion. Particularly since I quickly discovered the narrative in each book observed the same pattern: young, spirited virgin collides with rich, successful sexually magnetic older man in a story seasoned with succulent adjectives.

They fight, they deny, they smoulder and despair before acknowledging their lifechanging attraction in a blizzard of passion and an inevitable marriage proposal. And yet the more I read, the more I found there was something sweetly addictive about the crisp writing style, the restrained glamour of the settings, the slightly out-of-date attention to detail found in the heroine's Broderie Anglaise bolero or her lover's avocado hors d'oeuvre.

This was a world which nudged reality but filtered out its grimier details.
Above all, I couldn't resist the hero.

A character flawed by his desire to possess his unsuitable conquest. Not such a stretch from Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, I weakly told myself. I even tried to write one myself, inspired to make an attempt after interviewing a matronly M&B author who spent her days as a shorthand typist and her nights decanting her wild imagination onto sheets of A4.

How difficult could it be? It was only when I found it impossible to stretch the uncompromising passion between "Rex and Jacey" (my hero and heroine) beyond the first two chapters that I realised writing for this publishing institution demands a rare touch.

Though I've long since returned to reading "good books" as well, I still can't resist my fix of Mills & Boon and often have two disparate titles on the go. Which is why, after yesterday's spontaneous purchase, my Greek millionaire and his conquered blonde were nestling together underneath Tess Of The D'Urbervilles. Now there's an eye-watering image - and perhaps the starting point for yet another bodice ripper. (We were going so well, but that term 'bodice ripper' is annoying. Who writes that???)

As below, the pink is me!

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And we're in the Observer ...

And here it is:

Who said romance was dead?

In the time it takes you to read this page, Britons will have bought 100 novels by Mills & Boon, now in its centenary year

Francesca Segal
Sunday January 27, 2008
The Observer

'Men are so beaten into submission these days,' says Jilly Cooper. 'They're so wet and worried and confused that one simply has to reach into romance novels to find a proper hero.'
That prince of sales figures, Harry Potter, has shifted 400 million books in his 11-year career. But when you realise that 200 million Mills & Boon novels are sold worldwide every year, it's all too obvious that Jilly Cooper has a point. (Don't you just love that paragraph!!)

A Mills & Boon paperback is sold in a UK bookshop on average every 6.6 seconds. Compare this to our domestic market for literary fiction, where some critically acclaimed novels sell so few copies that the author might well have been better to bypass the publishers and knock them off on a photocopier. As it reaches its centenary, Mills & Boon is a truly astonishing phenomenon.
In 1908, the company was launched as a publisher of general fiction, as well as etiquette guides and manuals for modern living. One contributor wrote under the rather progressive pseudonym of 'Gentleman With a Duster', but its list also featured Jack London, PG Wodehouse and Hugh Walpole. It became clear very quickly, however, that romances outsold all else. The character of the list has changed immeasurably, but if the company has retained anything from those first years, it is its policy of encouraging new writers alongside its stars.

It was Charles Boon who realised that the future of the company lay with women's fiction and during the First World War, as life became harder and men more scarce, he began to focus on the escapist romance novels for which the house is now known. And yet there has always been a pervasively sneering attitude to them, the name synonymous with saccharine sentiments, prehistoric gender roles and risible sexual euphemism. Why, with 3.2 million devoted readers in the UK and 50 million worldwide, has such snobbery persisted?

'I think it's partly because they're cheap,' says Joanna Bowring, co-curator of the Mills & Boon centenary exhibition at Manchester Central Library, 'and also because they're considered disposable literature. And they're almost exclusively read and written by women and so have never been taken very seriously.'

Mills & Boon is a very serious business. Its highly stylised category romances are published in 12 distinct series, whose content ranges from the innocent to the explicit; from cosy, domestic love stories to glamorous international dramas. A reader picking up a hot-pink Romance novel will never be subjected to the graphic, lust-fuelled scenes in a flame-covered Blaze story. Some follow the quaintly traditional path most associated with the novels - virgins, chaste kisses and wedding bells, while others have evolved to represent their current readers and show single mothers, divorcees and mistresses, the complex structures of modern families and relationships.

Their specificity is astonishing - one series, Medical Romance, is peopled entirely with hunky doctors and pretty nurses, while Modern Romance is filled with an alternating catalogue of Greeks, Italians and Arab sheikhs. Nocturne, launching later this year, will focus on the improbably narrow niche of paranormal passions.

Read one you enjoy and the colour of jacket will guide you to the others in the same series, sharing enough elements that you will never be disappointed. It is this repetition of both plot and characters that inspires criticism, but it is also what keeps readers reaching for the shelves or, in the case of subscribers, the letterbox. Committed readers receive up to 70 books a month by post and such is their faith in the consistency of the brand that they simply take what's new rather than selecting individual titles.

Like Disney, everything in the Mills & Boon universe is tightly controlled. Fans have learnt that they can depend on them completely for the security of a happy ending. As one subscriber from Fort Worth, Texas, explained: 'They give faith when you need it. You know everything will be all right and the man is not a swine.' They tap into a fundamental need for reassurance, a small domain of predictability in a world where bad things happen. This is the awesome power of the romance novel and the reason why the relentless attacks of literary snobs on both the prose and the frequent use of cliche is redundant. No one believes they're great literature, nor do they need to be. They're cherished for their simplicity. Sometimes, all we want is a break from wondering what's going to happen next.

'Romance novels provide a glimpse of what we feel life could be,' says another fan from Australia. 'The heroes are always thoughtful and confident and can always take care of the women they love.'

Over the years, a frequent objection has been that romance novels cause women to become dissatisfied with their lot, encouraged to expect a Lancelot when they ought to be happy with a more readily available Don Quixote. It is only when talking to Kate Walker, one of the company's most successful authors, that I notice the subtle sexism implicit in this concern and, indeed, in many of the oft-repeated attacks on the novels. Does romance encourage women to foster unrealistic expectations? Does science fiction give men unrealistic expectations about inter-galactic space travel?

'I think,' corrects Walker, 'that the readers are aware of their escapist value - and that we've never actually met a sheikh or a Greek billionaire. And in any case, the problems that I give the characters are familiar ones that can't be solved with money or power. In that sense, it's the same issues your plumber could have with his missus, but in a glamorous setting.'

Walker has been applying this formula since 1984 and in that time has sold more than 12 million copies of her books in 67 different countries. But, like a great many Mills & Boon writers, she began 'because it's a job that a woman can do to support herself for independence while having a family. There are very few publishers that have such a strong female history. Even the heroines have traditionally been working women, not housewives. Yes, it was a company started by men, but the women have sustained it'.

Just as, in turn, it has sustained the women. 'A friend of my mother's had been abandoned by her husband,' says Walker, 'and she made a life for herself and her two kids by writing Mills & Boon novels. As a company in which women have always been so important, strong and professional, there isn't one to match it.'

But feminist critics have long attacked the books, citing retrogressive plots, passive women and the reinforcement of the dominant male. 'It means they haven't read one since the Sixties,' explains Walker. 'I couldn't write a passive woman if I tried. Yes, the men are strong, but my heroines give as good as they get.' (Hurray for Kate!!)

While the heroines have evolved since the early days, the heroes remain much as they were a century ago. 'There's always been a subtle undercurrent of force throughout the books and that's never changed from the earliest ones. Even later, when other aspects are influenced by feminism and the shifting attitudes outside the novel,' observes Joanna Bowring, 'the men are masterful and stern.'

This was expressed rather less subtly by Violet Winspear, a popular writer who caused a furore in 1970 when she declared that her male characters 'must frighten and fascinate. They must be the sort of men who are capable of rape'. (How many times to you reckon we're going to read that quote this year???) A shy spinster who lived with her mother and a cat, it's easy to dismiss Winspear as out of touch with her contemporaries and her books did have unusually darker elements. But a quick glance at the titles of current releases in the racier and more cosmopolitan Modern Romance series suggests that dominance is still dominant. The Greek Tycoon's Unwilling Wife; The Billionaire's Captive Bride; The Desert Sheikh's Captive Wife; Surrender to the Sheikh; Taken by her Greek Boss - all of these are 2007 publications.

Stories in which male dominance remains the norm stand accused of setting back women's emancipation, our hard-won rights to a partner instead of a ruler. They are considered outdated, no longer representing what women of today really want, but none the less encouraging such desires to linger. The fundamental flaw to such an argument is that Mills & Boon has always been a minutely sensitive gauge, polling relentlessly and reacting instantly to the changing tastes of their readers. Whatever appears on the pages is there because the readers want it. (Oh yes!!)

This goes to the heart of what makes Mills & Boon's success so remarkable: while many of the details have evolved over the years, the core of the stories has remained the same. Every reader I spoke to expressed a similar sentiment - they reached for a romance novel for its promise of a happy ending. It's all there on the back of one of their earliest paperbacks - 'Your troubles are at an end when you choose a Mills & Boon novel. No more doubts! No more disappointments!'

It has been calculated that dedicated modern Mills & Boon readers will have seen their characters sharing some 30,000 embraces and tripping merrily to the altar at least 7,000 times, more than enough happily-ever-afters to cheer the most jaded of readers. Jilly Cooper puts it best: 'After all, life's bloody tough. Mills & Boon is much better than binge drinking.'

· Readers, Writers and Romance, an exhibition celebrating Mills & Boon's centenary, will be staged in Manchester Central Library from June, before touring the north west into 2009

And, in case you haven't guessed, the bits in pink are all mine!

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

M&B in the papers again ...

Can I just say I don't actually search these things out??? They are sent to me, usually by people who see 'Mills & Boon' and "know" I'll be "interested". Of course, I am! Even if they make me splutter in inarticulate indignation.

This one doesn't, apart from the first paragraph.

'Melissa Katsoulis learns to write a Mills & Boon novel' for the 'Times' (one of the UK's broadsheet newspapers). As ever, here's the link if you'd like to see the piece in situ, otherwise it's below with their choice of picture. Not so sure about that. I think she'll end up with all kinds of back problems if writes like that.

There comes a moment in every unpublished novelist's life when she wonders, is it time? Time to change her name to Valerie Lafayette, take to bed with a box of chocs, a dreamy smile and a big pink notebook and begin her career as a romantic novelist for Mills & Boon.

And why should she be ashamed to admit this? Perhaps because Harlequin Mills & Boon, which celebrates its century this month, is considered by most to be pretty much the lowest form of novelising.

But this is the publisher that launched P.G.Wodehouse and Jack London. An M&B is bought in the UK every few seconds and its books are devoured by millions of women the world over. Plus, it allows readers to stipulate the kind of stories they want and supplies tailor-made multipacks of books to their homes - usually four a month. How democratic can you get?

The readers and writers of romance are, of course, women. And herein lies the politics. Critics argue that supplying conventional love stories to non-literary readers is not the best way to empower them. That the writers of such titles as The Playboy's Plain Jane are reinforcing an outmoded version of femininity and oppressing their sisters. Others just think the writing's bad. But they probably haven't read one recently.

Kim Young and Tessa Shapcott, senior editors of Mills & Boon's Romance series, are visibly riled by these “patronising” views. When I meet these two warm, friendly (and decidedly romantic-looking, with their tumbling tresses, pink jackets and flowing skirts) ladies at their HQ in Richmond, they present a united front against those who seek to tell their readers what not to read.

“It's like the Gothic romance boom of the 18th century,” says Tessa, “with everyone getting in a twist about what women should be reading. We have a unique understanding of how women operate emotionally. Our writers tap into thoughts you don't admit to having. And the fact is, you can think like that. You can! And you won't die!”

She also points out that their millions of readers are not stupid. They are simply women who want to escape to somewhere lovely. “Escapism is absolutely key. You can take risks, too - writing about child loss or illness, for example. But there's always a happy ending.”

If you've never read a Mills & Boon, you may not know that they do not read like Roy Lichtenstein cartoon bubbles. Nor are their heroines weak, humourless Barbie dolls. The Millionaire Tycoon and his English Rose, for example, stars a blind woman who runs her own PR company and has many a witty observation to make about attitudes to disability in the workplace and the bedroom.

So I was emboldened to have a go. Choosing the right genre is crucial if I am actually to enjoy writing it (as I must if I expect anyone to enjoy reading it). “Medical” was a no-no (how can anyone find hospitals alluring? I'm loath to touch so much as a doorknob in those places these days, let alone a man). “Blaze” - the explicitly sexy series - was out, too. To sit at my desk thinking up new euphemisms for erections is not my idea of a relaxing afternoon. “Modern” takes us into a world of A-list glamour, and I'm not sure I have the credentials. Historical was tempting, but in the end I decided to go for good old-fashioned “Romance”. The real deal. Books in this series concentrate on the interior obstacles to love, rather than exterior ones. They are about feeling emotions, not each other.
But there are rules I must adhere to if my story is to make the grade. The hero, for example, can have a few endearing imperfections, but could not have a murder conviction or occasionally use cocaine. “Yes, he has to be perfect,” says Kim. “The one you deserve. Immediately you see him you fall in love with him.”

Ah, him.

With trepidation, I present my opening chapter and synopsis to my prospective editors. My story, The Oligarch, His Wife, Their Yacht and His Lover, is about Lucy, a twentysomething from a country village who goes out to stay with her retired parents on an idyllic Greek island. The previous summer she had had a wonderful romance, with a local lad, Costas, but the affair had ended badly after he disgraced himself with a local good-time girl, claiming temporary insanity caused by a batch of dodgy ouzo. But morally robust Lucy refuses to take him back. Swearing off romance for the summer, Chapter 1 opens with her staring out to sea from her bal-
cony, vowing to let no man turn her head as long as she is on the island ...

“At that moment, several miles out to sea, Nikolai Alexievich swept his thick black hair out of his icy blue eyes, leant on the polished oak rail of his massive yacht and trained his binoculars the balcony of a little pink house on the shore. ‘Darling,” he called to his wife in Russian, “we're going ashore - there's a little property I want to add to my portfolio ...'”

My instructors liked my scene setting (I'd furnished the balcony with some nice geraniums in terracotta pots, and Nikolai's binoculars with a crystal monogram). But I'd made two schoolgirl errors: my characterisation of Nikolai as a philanderer and unscrupulous businessman (he goes on to ruin the island with a new super-yacht marina for his coarse billionaire mates) is, well, a bit racist. Point taken. And I certainly can't have “something stirring under the crisp white linen of his monogrammed robe” when he sees Lucy in her bikini. “But I meant his heart!” I half-heartedly profess, before being reminded that in the Romance series, sex takes place strictly behind closed doors.

Finally, Tessa told me a thing or two about female character development: “She's on a journey - there might be moments when you think ‘No! What are you doing!' But ultimately she's going to do good. And show, don't tell. We don't want long passages of introspection.”

Heading home from my day at Romance HQ, I feel cheered by democratic literary sisterhood that Mills & Boon espouses. And, making up love stories is fun. And after three or four years, they tell me, you can expect to earn a nice living from it. With their policy of encouraging promising authors to branch out into mainstream publishing, I'm wondering: could this be a whole new way forward for me as a writer?
Will I, as they suggested I should, write some more of my story and send it back to them? Watch this space ...

Tips for aspiring romance writers:
Many Mills & Boon books have an aspirational, international location. So have fun choosing a location, but don't get bogged down in local politics. And don't drown the reader in facts - you're not writing a travelogue.

Base your story on universal emotional truths. Not just love and death, but renewal, justice, truth, strength, contentment, passion and tenderness.

Tie in these truths with the desires that are common to most women: unconditional love, safety, affluence and success.

Make your characters resonant and believable as well as aspirational. Have them communicate with plentiful dialogue, and motivate their actions soundly.
Be very careful to conform to the sexual mores of your chosen series - nipples at dawn are not right for Romance but for Blaze, they're a prerequisite.

Who is driving your story? Make sure the conflict always comes from the main characters and their emotions - not from the supporting cast.

But remember: conflict isn't a continual argument between the hero and heroine!
Layer the drama with highs and lows, advance and retreat.

There should be more internal than external drama between the hero and heroine - devices such as unexpected pregnancies (“secret babies” in M&B speak) are good. They're a way of creating sustainable conflict that is emotional for the couple yet easy for readers to relate to.

To develop your heroine convincingly, feed her backstory through the action of the book, avoiding “chunking” - shoving in lengthy chunks of interior monologue.
Last, but not least... have fun!

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the web, Trish Wylie is busy defending our choice of career. There are phrases in there I just love! Go see.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Mills & Boon

Michelle Monkou is the second person this week to ask me what's the difference, if any, between Harlequin and Mills & Boon - so here goes.

Mills & Boon began in 1908 here in the UK. It published all kinds of fiction, including P G Woodhouse and brought Leroux's 'The Phantom of the Opera' to the UK.

The First World War brought about a market for an escapist romance read, which was consolidated during the depression and then then Second World War. By the 1960s Mills & Boon were publishing eight romance series titles every month.

It's in the 1970s that the Mills & Boon story becomes entwined with that of Canada's Harlequin as the two companies merged.

These days Harlequin and Silhoutte are both divisions of Torstar, which is a Canadian publishing and media company.

What we have is branding.

Here in the UK Mills & Boon brand recognition is incredibly high, so that's what they use. In fact, 'Mills & Boon' is even in the Oxford English Dictionary as 'a (type of) popular romantic fiction'.

Following this???

In the UK our shelves have both Silhouette and Mills & Boon books on them. My books have the Mills & Boon logo (above). In Australia my books are marketed as Harlequin Mills & Boon and in North America I'm simply Harlequin (right).

In the lead up to the launch of the new Romance line my 'Millionaire Dad, Wife Needed' was released in NA as a Silhouette Romance.

Globally it gets even more complicated, but it's all the same parent company.

And then we have the lines. I write Mills & Boon 'Romance' in the UK, 'Harlequin Romance' in NA, Harlequin Mills & Boon 'Sweet' in Australia, but my latest release, 'The Tycoon's Princess Bride' is Mills & Boon 'Modern' in the UK, Harlequin Presents in NA and Harlequin Mills & Boon 'Sexy' in Australia.

Clear as mud, isn't it. :)

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Monday, January 21, 2008

I still hide the cover when I read a Mills & Boon

That's the title of author Fay Weldon's piece on Mills & Boon in today's Telegraph. And it made me smile because ... so do I. I've just received my hardback copies of 'Wanted: White Wedding' and I've got the most beautiful cover. I think my favourite so far. Both my hero and heroine are perfect. If Freya's dress is not as I described it I'm prepared to accept I'm being picky. But ... I'd still hide the cover if I were reading it in a public place.

For me, being in the UK, it's the very lurid pink flashes across the front. These pink flashes being the result of a hugely expensive marketing process when the Romance line launched back in September 06. For others, I know, it's more about what they think other people will think if they're seen clutching a small romance.

Anyway, here's what Fay Weldon has to say. I did warn you it was going to be that kind of a year.

Well, good for them. Mills & Boon have made their centenary - 1908 to 2008 - and are still going strong. They endure literary and intellectual scorn, provide women with what they want, and it pays off.

Only love me, love me, love me and how happy we will be! sells 200 million books a year worldwide; that's six books every second from bookstall and corner shop, seldom from "proper" bookshops. And just as the 19th century saw Penny Dreadfuls - lurid tales for boys - blamed by the magistrates for the rise in crime, so feminists will blame the Mills & Boon romances of the 20th century for spouting "patriarchal propaganda" and even encouragement to rape.

I daresay it is true of Mills & Boon tales that they perpetuate female folly by suggesting that love and marriage is the answer to a woman's problems, and not the beginning of them, but I hardly think it is any worse than that. Are we not entitled to a little wishful thinking? Is it not better anyway to read, than to sit in front of TV watching East Enders shout, snarl and rape?

Shrewdly, Mills & Boon have kept up with the times. Since the Thirties, when they abandoned "proper" publishing and concentrated on romance, the nature of the heroine and the lover has changed. It started as pure romance - poor girl gets rich man; then in the Forties, and wartime, there was a boom in medical romance which still flourishes today on TV. The Fifties meant Hollywood glamour, with girls swooning in the embrace of exotic men, while the rebellious heroines of the Sixties are leaving home - in the arms of the right man, of course.

In the Seventies the girl becomes career-orientated; the Eighties and Nineties we find more open sexual content - and yet more feisty heroines. And where next? I suspect heroines, exhausted by too much multi-tasking, may just want to stay home and have babies.

There are two puzzles here: why does the success of Mills & Boon so incense some, and what is there about them that so attracts others? I, too, reading a Mills & Boon novel on a train, am tempted to hide the cover from public view. But why? They are often well enough written, if on occasion littered with exclamation marks. They are sanitised - but that in itself is an attraction. The reader of a modern Mills & Boon romance is in charge of her own responses. In the text the hero's "thigh muscles strain beneath tight jeans" - but it is left to the reader to decide whether that means an erection, or just tight jeans.

If the tension between potential lovers is that the girl "lost her innocence" to the suitor's father, the reader can interpret that as she wishes - rape, seduction or just a sexy conversation. And, my theory is, it's for this very reason the books appeal so: the books are interactive, so the reader is in control of the fantasy.

As Chesterton put it in 1901, writing about the rise and fall of the Penny Dreadful, "The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such invisible dramatis personae, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac." Nor should we literary folk try comparing Come Back to Me with Atonement.

Any novel takes a certain slice of life and deals with that. No novel can take on the whole pie chart of our existence and deal with all human experience. The more "literary" the novel, the wider the slice that is attempted, and the more likely it is to fail - and bore. The genre novel contents itself with dealing with a certain slice: the thriller deals with that part of our experience that involves danger; the detective story with our curiosity; sci-fi echoes out alienation in space and time - and so on. The genre novel "takes us out of ourselves" while the literary novel keeps us firmly and sometimes painfully in our own lives, informing us as to our own natures - which is why it is taken seriously and gets reviewed. The Mills & Boon novel takes a peculiarly narrow slice of female life, and so tends to get despised. But it sells.

My mother made a good living for a time writing romantic novels. People queued round the block for the next instalment of Velvet and Steel, by Pearl Bellairs. And my, it packed an erotic punch. Alas, she was one day struck by a pang of conscience: was it right, she wondered, to fill the heads of young girls with pernicious nonsense? She decided the answer was no, stopped writing romances, took a job in a biscuit factory and the family lived in righteous poverty thereafter.

And here's the link if you want to read it in situ and/or leave a comment.

So what do you reckon???

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Still feeling bouyant!

And just look at what the lovely Kate Walker sent to help us celebrate. I still feel fairly shattered, but I suppose that's to be expected, and it's going to take a bit of time to sort out all the consequences from the last year and a bit. We'll get there and meanwhile I'm smiling!!

Which I think is pretty darn good considering I was the guest author at a book group this week. It was an .... interesting experience. I don't think there was a reader of romance there. There certainly wasn't a reader of series fiction in the room and I felt the full force of that. :)

I think my favourite question of the evening was, 'Before you wrote for Mills & Boon did you *actually* know anyone who read them???'

Er .. yes, I must have because there's a Mills & Boon book sold every five seconds in the UK alone. We're published in 26 different languages and sold in over 109 international markets. It's impressive stuff and it honestly mystifies me as to why people are so sneering.

It's almost as though they make an assumption that only ignorant women would choose to read series fiction when, actually, the statistics show something else entirely. Moreover, scratch beneath the surface of these 'intellectuals' and you often discover avid viewers of soaps and reality TV. Not exactly high-brow viewing, is it!

I think most women read different things at different times in differing moods. It's all about choice. What's truly wonderful about category fiction is that in the space of a long hot bubblebath you can experience the rush of falling in love. There are days when I really really want that. Other days I'll go for the book about the one legged lesbian who robbed a bank and then murdered her lover. Not often I admit. :) But you know what I mean.

This almost constant criticism was the reason why Trish, Ally, Nic and I set up the Pink Heart Society. Tomorrow I'm blogging over there. It's my turn to write the Weekend Wind-Down. Come and find me.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

I think I'm going to like 2008

I was beginning to wonder whether my blog was forever destined to be the depressing corner of the romance writing world - but it would seem I'm to have a break. I'll try and pass that on in your direction. :)

Yesterday was a turning-point day for me and mine. Scan results day. You'd think I'd be used to it all now. My husband was first diagnosed in 2000 and 'scan results days' have been a regular part of our lives ever since. But they really do loom on the horizon. Pressure building. All the different possibilities and outcomes swirling around your brain.

Actually, I think I probably handle it very badly. I seem to live all my troubles twice over. Once in my head as I imagine what might happen, and then again when they actually do! Must try not to do that!!

Last year, whenever there was the chance for things to go well or badly, they went badly. Like a pack of cards house everything has been falling down around me.

But this time it was all good.

The chemo has worked better than expected. And my husband has been put on a two year maintenance programme. MabThera isn't yet licensed by NICE for that use in England so the fact there's funding for it is amazing. For the moment I'm going to set aside any altruistic concerns about how unfair it all is and just be grateful.

Permission to get on with our lives.

Today I've let myself sleep. Not the most writerly of pursuits, perhaps, but it was necessary. And now I need to re-focus on my Sheikh.

Actually, I have two of them, Hamza and Rashid, on the go. I also seem to have created a nice future heroine in the shape of Minty. She would take over Rashid's story if I let her. And I'm wondering whether she might do very nicely for Nick, the close friend of Seb in 'Crowned: An Ordinary Girl'. Just a thought!


Sunday, January 13, 2008

All About Romance

Here's a nice bit of news ....

All About Romance have their interim results up for their Readers' Poll Awards and my Crowned: An Ordinary Girl has been nominated. That means a few people will have voted to say it was their favourite series read of 2007. How lovely is that!

Donna Alward is there as Best Debut Author. Trish Wylie's 'Bride of the Emerald Isle' has appeared in the Second Interim Votes.

Voting is taking place here.

Meanwhile I'm trying to keep relaxed and write a bit. Tomorrow is a big day for us as a family. Yet another oncology appointment, but this one will determine whether my husband needs more treatment or whether we get a breather. Difficult to type when you've got all your fingers crossed.


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Ally Blake

My fellow Pink Heart Society editor and writing pal, Ally Blake, is on YouTube.

I hate the fact she's so thin after having given birth so recently. Bah!

Brilliant job, Ally!

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Monday, January 07, 2008


I seem to have been working on my current wip for the longest time. I swear it's not my fault. 2007 was the worst year I've lived yet and I'm now in that miserable limbo time while we wait for scan results to see how successful my husband's chemo has been.

But what does seem to have happened recently is the shock of having my blessed life unravel rather spectacularly has receeded. It just 'is'. Considering I'm a natural 'fixer' it's a little strange to be in a position where there's absolutely nothing I can do to make anything better.

And with acceptance has come the head space to get writing. So many people have said I must find it helpful to be able to disappear into a fictional world. Well, I'm here to tell you I think it depends how pressing real life is. This year there have been times when I've been so physically and emotionally shattered I've had nothing left to give to my fictional world.

But, now, yes. Disappearing into a world I'm controlling is delightful. Long may it last!

One of the negatives about writing a book over a long period is it can feel stale. So for the first time I've really bought into the collage idea. I'm surrounded by fantastic pictures that click me into the mood with a look. Yesterday, Trish gave me a present of my very own soundtrack - and do you know it works!

I'm a little amazed because I love quiet. There's something about this soundtrack which is working for me. Best not question it, eh!

So ........ here's what I'm listening to! Or part of it, anyway. The whole thing is 50 minutes long.

'Amazing' is kind of directional. It's where I'm headed. 'High' is more of a mood piece I think.

Picture me now with my headphones on looking a complete twit!!

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008


I wish you and yours the loveliest 2008. May enough of your dreams come true to make you believe the rest will follow in 2009. :)

Am I the only person to dislike New Year??? Honestly, I find it a little scary and given the choice I would take to my bed and let the new year arrive all by itself. One thing I'm certain about - I'm absolutely thrilled to see the back of 2007. I can't imagine a more horrendous year and I can't quite summon up enough confidence to look ahead with unalloyed optimism.

But since I've been force feeding my daughter 'Anne of Green Gables' I've been reminded of Marilla's wisdom. When faced with Anne's 'Have you ever been in the depths of despair?' Marilla replied, 'No, for that would be to turn your back on God.' So, we'll go with that.

It's all started well. Committed foodie that I am I decided the year needed to start with a feast and I slow roasted a leg of lamb as instructed by Rachel Allen in 'Rachel's Food for Living' which I was given for Christmas. It's fantastic. Will absolutely do that again. And probably most everything else!

Plus I've just watched the first part of Andrew Davies's adaptation of 'Sense and Sensibility'. It's wonderful. I'm afraid I've already indulged my Amazon habit and pre-ordered it which I may end up regretting because Andrew Davies sometimes takes liberties with much-loved books in a way I hate. The opening scenes tonight were a little questionable.

I was watching with my daughter who doesn't know the story and they mystified her. Currently, as she should be, she's falling completely in love with Willoughby and identifies absolutely why Marianne wouldn't want a man of 35. I certainly don't want to spoil the experience for her by explaining what actually was going on in that first scene!! (Which if you didn't see it was a man's hand undressing a young woman ...)

I do wonder why someone doesn't reign Andrew Davies in at times. I found his recent adaptation of 'A Room With A View' annoying. It was so lovely and then, for reasons I simply don't understand, he killed the hero in the first world war. Why????

But, enough already. I have a words to write before I'm allowed to go to bed.

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