Friday, May 25, 2012

You Show Me Your Royalty Advance Cheque, And I’ll Show You Mine!

Or Why You Should Never Be Embarrassed About Writing What You Love

In my teenage years I was made to feel that it was somehow shameful and extremely uncoool to either read or write romances. Particularly of the Mills & Boon variety. And not just by that school librarian who confronted me in the school library and forcibly took away my current stash of Mills & Boon stories, replacing them with “proper” books, or by that English teacher who marked down from A to B the short romance I’d offered as my creative writing project because it was “too women’s magazine.”
My peer group, my school friends, also found it pretty hilarious and would tease me mercilessly. At my part-time job (I was an usherette at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield) the front-of-house manager and my coworkers also took great delight in laughing at me for my choice of reading matter. Not because any of these people were bullies, or somehow bad, because they weren’t. They were good people. But in those days the reading or writing of romances was perceived as being somehow less worthy, not literary, too trashy. And anyway, so went the common wisdom, how easy these books were to write. Anyone could write one!
I got the message. I felt named and shamed. And peer-group pressure is a tricky thing to deal with when you are only sixteen or seventeen years old.
I still went to the second-hand book exchange in Sheffield market with my grandmother, where we would exchange a bag of Mills & Boon books we’d already read for a new stash. I still devoured these romances with eagerness and delight. But I did it in secret.
And from that moment all reading I did on the bus or anywhere else in public comprised only what was considered to be worthy literature written by “real” writers, like E. M. Forster, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence. And so on. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed reading all kinds of books of many genres, whether they were fictional or not (and still do), but I still loved romances.
What was wrong with me? The answer to that was absolutely nothing. It was society’s perception of what was considered good reading that was wrong, but I had to grow up a bit more and develop a thicker skin before I could work that out.
Several years later, when my children were small, I decided to find out just how easy it was to write a Mills & Boon romance. The answer to that: not at all easy. Over the course of ten years I wrote about twenty stories for Mills & Boon, and they were all rejected. And after some time spent attending professional writing workshops, and time spent honing my craft, I submitted—and had accepted for publication—my first romantic comedy.

And if anyone derides me these days for writing trashy, worthless books, my answer is this: “You write a romance, get a literary agent, have the book published, and then come back and tell me how easy it was for you.”

Thanks Michelle Cunnah!


  1. Well said! I've had a try at writing for Mills and Boon and been turned down, it is not an "easy way in" at all. And when I was about eighteen one of my very favourite books (and bear in mind that I went on to study English literature to degree level) was a Mills & Boon. I wish I could remember what it was called now, or get hold of a copy, because it was beautifully written.

  2. I think it goes further than romance - as a fantasy afficionado I can attest to similar experiences in my younger days. Most people seem to confuse 'easy to write' with 'easy to read' - and I am firmly of the opinion that it is the author's job to make fiction easy to read - if something has to be explained to me then the author has failed, not me. And that's the hard part. Writing is not easy at all, although we (writers) manage to convince ourselves that it is. I'm sure if we accepted just how much hard work it is we'd all stop... then again maybe not :)

  3. Anna, if you can remember the story line I know a group of smart women who may be able to help you. They have a very high readership and often post story lines to see if someone can identify the book/author. Check out:

    Kevin: how true! But I bet we keep on writing, anyway. :)

  4. If getting published was easy, everybody would be doing it.
    Oh, wait. They're doing it.
    Let me rephrase this...if getting published was easy, it would be hard to find really good books to read without wading through some pretty bad books.

    But we must keep on writing, mustn't we?

  5. Writing a complete novel of any genre or topic is hard work, and should never be disdained - it is no small achievement! Neither is writing something that entertains people, which for some reason gets looked down on as "unworthy". Writing to entertain can be just as challenging as writing to provoke. Like Kevin said, "easy to read" does not equal "easy to write"!

  6. Well done for sticking to your guns, Michelle. I think you write best when you write what you enjoy most. Often people are critical because they have no concept of the challenge you have set for yourself. And there is complete snobbery about what 'we are supposed to read'. I am usually way behind in book-fashion and always read what appeals to me, not what's in at the time. I agree with Kevin, a well written book is one that's easy to read - and that applies to any genre. And anyway, I love romance :o)

  7. I've just had the bad news that my third story for Mills & Boon has been turned down. I don't really know where to go from here. I really thought I'd cracked it this time...

  8. Cathy, I am sending you hugs and hoping that you read this response to you. It took me 10 years and at least 20 stories submitted to Mills & Boon before I got anywhere. And then it was with HarperCollins. But M&B were also interested and bid on me at auction.

    Keep the faith, keep writing!