Being Barbara Cartland by Virginia Heath
Stereotypes are funny things. For the last year, I have been compared to Barbara Cartland by both the people who know me and the people who don’t. Please don’t get me wrong. I have a great deal of respect for Babs. Anyone who can write over seven hundred bestselling books deserves nothing but admiration, as far as I am concerned. However, it is not really her talent for prolific and popular romance writing to which I am compared to (I wouldn’t mind that), rather the image of her dressed in floaty pink chiffon, reclining on a chaise lounge, dictating flowery words to a dutiful secretary that I take issue with.
Almost everyone assumes writing a romance is that simple and that I live a charmed, stress-free existence. “Oh, I’ve often thought I should write a Mills & Boon…” is a sentence I probably hear once a fortnight and it always sets my teeth grinding. The other is, “It must be lovely having so much free time…”
Free time? I wish. Writing is a full-time job. I work Monday to Friday, nine till five thirty, sat at my computer constructing my stories because the house is empty then, and quiet. There is no chaise lounge. I’ve already cleaned the house by that time, driven Mr H to the station, breakfasted and showered. When the writing is finished for the day, I shop for dinner, cook, do laundry, be Mum to my seventeen-year-old son and nineteen-year-old daughter. I’m a taxi service, counselling service, PA to the family and housekeeping/concierge service, which basically means I nag them. A lot.
But I love the fact I can do all this and still do the job I love. Being a writer is the absolute best thing ever. I get to invent stories, for goodness sake! How cool is that? Romances filled with laughter and with happy endings, which for me are the best kind of books in the world.
I have written five for Mills & Boon so far and each time I finish a book I say I will take some time off. But then I inevitably get a new idea, wander into my office and start ‘making notes’. More often than not I have written two chapters before I realise it, fallen in love with my characters and then I forget about promising myself that well-deserved time off because I have to write their story too.
And don’t get me started on the suggestion writing for Harlequin Mills & Boon is a bit like doing a dot-to-dot! For the record, NO! There is not a template we have to write on or rigid guidelines which, once mastered, allow a person to churn out book after book like a factory production line of identical cherry bakewells. The silly people who think such rubbish have clearly never read one and insult the intelligence of the millions of readers across the world who buy one of their books every four seconds.
I write for their Historical line and have one guideline: each book has to be between seventy-three to seventy-five thousand words. That’s it. Every story is my own. I don’t have to write a particular theme or trope. I don’t have to insert a kiss onto page 53 because that is where the publishers want the first kiss to happen. They can kiss on page 1 if they want to, or not till page 285 if they can contain themselves for that long!
Creating believable, likeable characters, building their world, allowing them to gradually fall in love whilst getting the history correct and weaving a page-turning story in 75,000 words is no mean feat. In fact, it’s really difficult. You have to cut all unnecessary waffle and over-long description in order to focus on the characters. You have to show what is going on in their minds, describe their emotional and physical reactions to an event so that your reader sees them falling for each other rather than be told they have fallen. You have to think carefully about what your characters do, what they say, what barriers and obstacles you throw at them and how they overcome them. And you have to be original and use your imagination to tell a story which hasn’t been told before.
Every single word matters. Which is why Harlequin Mills & Boon sell so many books! In fact, they get approximately 300 submissions a month so they can be very particular about the stories they choose to buy and take on less than twenty new authors a year. I am immensely proud to be one of the few, in a world where a traditional publishing contract is a rare beast.
But almost every day, I envy Barbara Cartland that chaise lounge though…