Natasha Oakley - British Romance Author

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

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There comes a moment in every unpublished novelist's life when she wonders, is it time?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.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home