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Writing romance


So you want to be a romance writer?

You’ve made an interesting choice because, although a lot of people scoff at romance, it is the most stable genre of all and has continued to keep its faithful readers when other categories have changed radically and sometimes lost their audiences.

Romance has changed a bit in recent years and embraced a more complex story, sometimes with more explicit sex in it, but essentially this is a category which marches on, providing happy endings, when all around it the world has changed.

To an unusual degree which is not mirrored in any other category, the current romance category is ‘owned’ by one publisher, Harlequin Mills and Boon, with very little input from elsewhere, although the HarperCollins Avon imprint is competing in both the US and the UK and new publishers are now springing up.

When Gerald Mills and Charles Boon launched a little company with just £1,000 just over a hundred years ago, they can have had no idea of the industry they would spawn. Mills and Boon merged with Canadian romance publisher Harlequin in 1971 and was later bought out by Toronto-based conglomerate Torstar.

These days Harlequin Mills and Boon publish romances in a remarkably commercial and effective way. Not hugely stocked in the shops, the books are bought as sets on a subscription model and vast numbers of copies go straight out to the faithful readers who subscribe to get their regular clutch of their favourite books. They can also buy them as e-books for the same price, and romances are extremely popular in e-book form. So, what do these readers want? Escapism mainly, but above all it’s a formula which readers find relaxing because it is familiar. These days it's a big business because no less than one-third of all fiction titles sold fall within the wide classification of ‘romance'

The company publishes 700 new titles a year in the UK, the USA and Canada. Some imprints travel, others do not. The books come out in 26 different languages in 109 markets. (These figures are out of date but appear to be the latest available.) The company publishes an astonishing 1,300 authors worldwide in six different series.

Enough statistics, but they should have convinced you that this is a huge market, expertly served by Harlequin Mills and Boon, and that if you want to write for it the first thing to do is to spend some time studying the company’s approach.

Essentially, everything is based on their ‘brands’, so the first thing to do is to study these and read some of the books, to get a good idea of what the sub-categories are. Whether it’s Modern, Medical, Historical, Heroes, True Love or Desire, each one will have its own conventions, and you need to work out which one you are comfortable with. Study each one before you start thinking about writing anything. If your manuscript is written already, then research carefully to see which sub-genre it might be suitable for.

Bear in mind that you do have to choose which sub-category you are pitching to and will need to observe the conventions of that one. If you find this idea unappealing, then perhaps romance is not the right category for you.

Study the guidelines on the North American website or the UK one (which is better laid out and more informative). Make sure you follow the submission guidelines exactly, in terms of the amount of material to submit and in what form. If your manuscript does not fit easily into their guidelines, give some serious thought to whether this is the right place to be thinking of sending it.

If you’re still keen to proceed, please bear in mind that you may still not make it, even the right submission is not a dead cert and the company gets a very large number of submissions, so it can pick and choose.

So what about the writing itself? Once you’ve understood the conventions, are you ready to have a go? I would advise spending some time reading books in your chosen genre first. Pay special attention to Mills and Boon stars, such as Lynne Graham, author of chart-topper The Greek Tycoon’s Defiant Bride. She wrote her first book at fifteen and was initially rejected by a number of publishers, but now has millions of books in print.  Look at what interests you, and see what you might feel like writing.

There’s a theory that anyone can write a romance, but this is far from true. It is hard to be a successful romance writer unless you are genuinely keen to make your mark with this genre. This may require writing to a bit of a formula but make sure you obey all the usual conventions relating to the sub-category in question, as that’s an essential part of getting yourself taken on.

Cynicism is a big no-no and if you really want to poke a bit of fun at the whole genre, be careful, as it’s extremely hard to write these books unless you believe in their romantic vision. The characters and story are important but Mills and Boon Harlequin will also expect you to write to the required length and obey their other rules, so research all this first. The fact that your manuscript is a romance doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be well-written and properly presented, so bear in mind that professional presentation also matters.

Finally it’s worth checking out what the Romance Writers of America and the UK’s Romantic Novelists Association are up to. You will certainly find that romance writers are far from the cliché of what they might be like, but are hard-working, pragmatic, keen to promote their writing - and often extremely successful.

Mills and Boon UK

Mills and Boon’s submission pages

Harlequin North America

Romance Writers of America with more than 10,000 members

The UK Romantic Novelists’ Association with around 1,000 members

Other articles in this series:

Writing Crime Fiction

Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy

Writing Non-Fiction

Writing Historical Fiction

© Chris HolifieldManaging director of WritersServices; spent working life in publishing,employed by everything from global corporations to start-ups; track record includes: editorial director of Sphere Books, publishing director of The Bodley Head, publishing director for start-up of upmarket book club, The Softback Preview, editorial director of Britain’s biggest book club group, BCA, and, most recently, deputy MD and publisher of Cassell & Co. She is also currently the Director of the Poetry Book Society; During all of this time aware of problems faced by writers, as publishing changed from idiosyncratic cottage industry, 'occupation for gentlemen', into corporate business of today. Writers encountered increasing difficulty in getting books edited or published. Authors create the books which are the raw material for the whole business. She believes it is time to bring them back to centre stage. 2009