I am a Mills & Boon junkie in the making. It is inside me and I fear it – the urge to retreat into a dreamscape of thighs and kisses and happy endings, and never come back. I am very close to being one of those women who have 408 Mills & Boons under the bed. I am on the brink.
Not that I read them constantly. Sometimes I go for six months without even touching one. But inevitably, when I am loveless or annoyed, I think – yes, I can have a Mills & Boon. I can have virtual sex with a non-existent man who is made of paper. So I retreat to my bed with The Venetian's Moonlight Mistress and live in a perfectly etched fantasy world where I get everything I want. Passion. Palaces. Punctuation. Then I feel sick and get up, and don't tell anyone what I have done.
Why do I feel shame? Romantic fiction is the biggest publishing sector in the world. It outsells true crime, and science fiction and God. It has much to tell us about women's internal lives. But still it feels taboo, in a way that reading about Klingons blowing up spacecraft does not. So I decide to try to write a Mills & Boon novel. I want to know if, behind the awful titles – The Surgeon She's Been Waiting For, Doorstep Daddy – there are any insights. I want expiation.
A few weeks later, I am walking down Paradise Road, in Richmond, London, looking for the Mills & Boon office. I imagine I am going to arrive at the Disney castle or at least a building studded with neon hearts. But when I arrive I find an ordinary office block with tinted windows.
Inside it is like any other open-plan office, except there are piles of paperbacks everywhere. The staff is almost entirely female and young. I am asked to sit in the boardroom, under a portrait of Charles Boon, who co-founded the company 101 years ago. The Canadian publishing house Harlequin ate Mills & Boon in 1971, but Charles Boon is still watching from his frame. I am waiting to be told the secret Mills & Boon formula.
Clare Somerville, the marketing director, walks in. She is blonde and warm. "Our books appeal to average women," she says. "They are exhausted looking after everybody. The hero is a nurturer who lets you be yourself, while someone off stage does all the crappy stuff. I get very cross when people say we denigrate women. I think we are one of the most feminist publishers in existence." How so? "We don't trailblaze but we do talk to women about their emotions and their feelings and their dreams. We talk about relationships in the way that women really want them to be."
Then Somerville smashes my preconceptions. Preconception One – in a Mills & Boon novel you get an overpowering hero riding up on a white horse and saving the heroine. This, Somerville explains, is not true. They used to publish books like that, but no more. They've moved on. "The Mills & Boon heroine," she says, "has changed from a cipher that is in every way inferior to the man to being the dominant force in the relationship." Nowadays, she explains, the woman is in control. The heroines used to have terrible jobs but today you find them running companies. The woman doesn't leave her job to marry the man. She keeps her job and marries.
Baby of shame
Mills & Boon Preconception Two – the heroines are always beautiful virgins. "Virgin is still popular," says Somerville, "But she could be divorced. She could have a child out of wedlock. The heroine is quite often voluptuous [she means fat] or a bit plain." She tells me about a book where a waitress and a foreign prince have sex on a table. The heroine hates her bottom – she thinks it's too big – but he is overwhelmed by it. "Quite often a woman is made to recognise her own beauty through a fulfilling relationship with a man," she says.
Mills & Boon Preconception Three – nothing really terrible can ever happen to the heroine. Again, wrong. "There is divorce," says Somerville, "bankruptcy, bereavement and they have been left destitute. Baby of Shame is quite common." What is Baby of Shame? "A baby that is a secret baby that the male protagonist doesn't know about." She sighs. "There are many obstacles in the voyage to happiness."
The more I listen, the more I realise that every possible combination of romantic stories is for sale here. If you want to read about a gynaecologist who has lost his arms, there will be a book. If you want to read about a typist who has lost her legs, there will be a book. They publish 720 novels a year.
Some things in Mills & Boon land are eternal. The hero will always be attractive. He will always have a basic integrity because he has to be a man the reader can love. He is always difficult initially but there is always a reason why he is difficult. But, prodded by the heroine, who cannot smoke or admit to multiple lovers, he will be redeemed. And so she is empowered. She is a saviour.
I still keep expecting to be given the formula. Where is it? But the staff at Mills & Boon say the best Mills & Boon writers are the ones who tweak the conventions and come up with something new. "Stay away from cliches," they say. "Believable is the key. The scenarios can be outrageous. But they must be characters the readers can believe in."
My hero is a prat
Then I have a mad conversation with some women from the editorial department. First I say I want a war correspondent hero who doesn't trust women because the girl he loved was blown up in Sierra Leone. They blink politely. Then I say I want a billionaire newspaper proprietor who my journalist heroine falls in love with but they can't be together because he votes Conservative and she votes Labour. More blinks. Then I want to set something in rehab. I want to call it They Met in Rehab or Love Reunited. "Well," says one, "if that story gives us a good love story, fine, but we don't want rehab for rehab's sake."
I feel they are knocking my ideas down. They take this incredibly seriously. They say things like "Mediterranean hero equals passion" and "Billionaire sells" in the same tone you would say, "Your father is dead." They are not really selling romance, I decide. They are selling dried goods. There is nothing romantic or fantastical about the Mills & Boon office. In fact, the managing director, Guy Hallowes, is leaving soon, to be replaced by Jane Ferguson, the woman who runs Ryvita. Which kind of makes sense to me because you don't really read Mills & Boon books. You eat them.
I walk out of the office and ignore everything they have told me. I don't read 50 current books. I read three. I read them critically, as if I were reading Mills & Boon for the first time. And I realise I hate the characters. I have a brief fantasy about writing a book in which a Mills & Boon heroine escapes from her novel, and ends up dying in a crack den. I call it Abducted by Reality.
The men are appalling. They are always saying things like, "You are a stupid little fool!" And I end up thinking women who read these books – including me – are incredibly stupid.
So I decide to talk to some. I go to a Mills & Boon fan page and ask fans to call me. One of them says she has five university degrees. "I quite like the idea of curling up to a Viking," she says. "but in real life he would be untidy." Another says, "When you are reading the novel you are the heroine. You escape to another place and another world." She describes her life to me – she is single and a full-time carer for her disabled son. "I love it when the women stand up to the heroes, even if they have money," she says.
I am now a little chastened. So I sit down to write. But I find I can't do the sample chapter and synopsis. I know I am supposed to write about a believable heroine falling in love with a believable hero and having a believable happy ending. This is what the experts have told me; this is what the readers expect. But, to my surprise, I simply cannot do it. I can't even begin to write a woman I like enough to give a lover to. Begin with myself, you say? How? There is nothing heroic about me. I am bilious and I smoke. I suddenly become convinced that I am too cynical to write this proposal properly and, in the pantheon of Mills & Boon readers, I am not quite sure where this leaves me. Ready to become a 60-book-a-month girl? Or does this self-loathing in itself make me a Mills & Boon heroine? A woman who does not believe herself loveable enough to write a hero for? Nah. Pass the axe.
So I borrow a pair of cliches and swim into pastiche. I write a prim, virginal heroine. Her name is Lucy and she grew up in a mining town. Her chain-smoking mother worked nights at a toy factory to send her to private school.
"I'm right proud of you, girl, and no mistake," said her mother, sucking on one of the Silk Cut Ultras that would eventually kill her.
Lucy works for the Guardian, where she dreams of being taken off the dressing-up-as-a-fairy-for-Glastonbury rota, "and given a shot at a real story!" She is partly the opposite of me and partly the woman I wish I were. Either way, I hate her.
And my hero is just a prat. He is called Darcy and he is a billionaire media tycoon. He hates women because his mother died of a diabetic fit, when he was supposed to be looking after her. But he went out riding instead.
Once I have Lucy and Darcy, I begin to write a ridiculously hackneyed plot in which my cliches get on and off aeroplanes and my cliches have sex and my cliches cry and my cliches get drunk and roll about on the floor, moaning and saying things like, "I always believed in you." I sit there cackling at them and changing their eye colours every other paragraph. When I run out of eye colours I stick in all this sub-Bette Davis dialogue and when I run out of sub-Bette things to say I just write, "How dare you?" That, in my mind, is a possible title. How Dare You?
Protecting the slush pile
I am pleased with myself when I have finished. I am particularly pleased that at the end Darcy buys Lucy the Guardian and she installs herself as editor, with a pro-shoes agenda. I send it in to Mills & Boon and they email me to say they love it. I cannot believe this. Mills & Boon makes millions selling women fantasies and I can't believe that my pitch would convince anybody. It didn't convince me. I decide they said they loved it because I am a journalist. Because the most important thing in the Mills & Boon office is the slush pile. All Mills & Boon writers were formerly Mills & Boon readers. They get 4,000 submissions a year – and 10 will make it. The slush pile has to be protected.
I need a second opinion for my manuscript. So I send it to Michelle Styles, the author of Taken By the Viking and Sold and Seduced. Michelle is revered in romance fiction circles for her blunt advice. The next day, I telephone her. She speaks in a low American accent; she sounds hesitant. Bad news? "If you had sent it in to Mills & Boon normally, it would have been rejected," she says. Why? "You decided not to respect the reader," she says. "It's easily done." So they didn't tell me the truth at Mills & Boon? "They don't," she says. "They are nice. Or they don't tell you in a way you can understand."
Not losing the plot
She has a list of defects that throws my sad little manuscript into the Mills & Boon grave. "You want the reader to fall in love with him. I don't think you even like him. How can the reader fall in love with him if you don't? Your heroine is too damaged. She went to Cambridge and never had a boyfriend?"
Ah. This is called The Heroine Problem. It is much harder to write the heroine than the hero, apparently, because she has to be bland enough not to offend millions of readers and interesting enough not to offend millions of readers. Mills & Boon heroines are like madams in brothels. They essentially have to facilitate a sexual encounter between two other people – the reader, and the hero. They are the third person in the romance. And my heroine is mental.
Anything else? "The plot is too contrived," says Michelle. "You seem to have written a plot and then tried to shoehorn your characters into it. She ends up with a Nobel prize for literature? What has that to do with how she has grown as a person? You need to assume the reader is intelligent. Readers buy these books when they are waiting for chemotherapy or are housebound, or finding out their husband has left. You have to respect them."
Everyone said it would be so easy to write a Mills & Boon. Well, actually, it is incredibly difficult. I couldn't do it.
If only this article were a Mills & Boon book. If it were, not only would I have written the entire novel beautifully, I would have ended up a better person for it. And then – then! - Rupert Murdoch – but young again and kind! - would descend from Olympus, and claim me as his bride. Mills & Boon – you broke me.
The Wealthy Greek's Contract Wife. The Prince's Chambermaid. The Italian Billionaire's Secretary Mistress. Mentioning the titles of Penny Jordan and Sharon Kendrick's latest novels for Mills & Boon draws embarrassed chuckles from both of them.
"Titles are contentious, I tell you," says Kendrick. "[Mills & Boon] want the title to reflect exactly what's in the book" – the subtext being that the authors might prefer something a little more subtle. "I never bother about the title," agrees Jordan. "When I buy books I buy by author. But Harlequin must know how to run their business."
In Kendrick's and Jordan's cases, they clearly do. Jordan is the acknowledged queen of Mills & Boon. She's been writing for the publisher since 1981, has produced more than 170 novels and sold more than 70m books around the world. Kendrick, meanwhile, has just delivered her 75th book. That's 75 heroes, 75 heroines, 75 all-consuming love affairs and an estimated 150 sweaty sex scenes – Mills & Boon couples usually do it at least twice in the course of their 55,000-word romances. How, exactly, do these authors keep it up?
"It is very difficult to have a new take on an old story, and romance is an old story – it's been there forever. It has to ring true to the reader but at the same time you have to write in a way that keeps them turning pages," says Jordan, who churns out 5,000 words a day, writing four Mills & Boon novels a year, as well as two sagas for HarperCollins as Annie Groves. "You know you've got to grab their attention by the end of the first page." In fact, in her romance A Bride for His Majesty's Pleasure, the scene is set by the end of the first paragraph: "'And if I refuse to marry you?' Although she did her best not to allow her feelings to show, she was conscious of the fact that her voice trembled slightly. Max looked at her. 'I think you know the answer to your own question.'" The reader knows what they'll be getting – ruthless ruler, virgin bride – right from the start.
Jordan always begins, she says, with the issue the characters have to overcome in order to be together. "Romance is romance. For me a lot of the fun of writing comes from the problems I give the characters. They have to deal with them in order to feel confident with the relationships they have," she says. "I start with the central conflict, with the problem, then I build characters who will enable the problem to work from the readers' point of view. In the book I've just finished, neither the hero nor the heroine want commitment. He's a bit of a playboy, she's quite withdrawn. It goes back to them both feeling abandoned by their parents."
Maisey Yates, who landed her first contract with Mills & Boon in December, agrees. A "stay-at-home mom" in southern Oregon, Yates produces around 2,000 words a day. At the beginning, she went out to write in a coffee shop when her husband came home, but now she knows what she's doing, she'll write at home with the kids. Five books a year, she thinks, "is doable for me". "Usually I'll get a vague idea of a conflict, then I'll start to think of a character," she says. "Once I've got my first character, and it can be the hero or the heroine, I try to figure out their issues. Then I think about who could come along and mess things up." In The Virgin Acquisition, which will be published in August, Yates's heroine is trying to win back her father's company from the hero. In another of her novels, yet to be published, a career woman who wants to be a mother goes to a sperm bank, and mistakenly ends up with the hero's sperm – it was meant to be a sample for his wife, but she's passed away.
Kendrick, who writes four romances a year, admits to getting ideas "all over the place", even through reading the Daily Mail. "Let's be honest: you have to have some kind of vehicle, and that's the real challenge. Everyone knows the hero and heroine are going to end up married so really the only reason to read them, like all good books, is a compelling story." She insists that, in order to write with integrity, "You have to believe." If people approach them cynically, or try to write tongue-in-cheek, it doesn't work.
She explodes the myth that Mills & Boon writers are provided with templates for their stories. "The structured plan is rubbish. We are allowed as much artistic freedom as will work," she says. "Obviously there are things that work and don't work. The plotline where the hero is trying to build a factory and the heroine is trying to save a rare toad is not a very sexy premise. And you wouldn't want a short fat balding hero – women know too many men like that. Mills & Boon is about escapism and fantasy. It drives me mad when people say 'don't you think you're deceiving women?' I don't think we're completely thick." Although Jordan is clear that she doesn't "get given a tip sheet" for her books, she acknowledges that "every genre has its own little rules". "They're not written down, but if you diverge from reader expectations they won't read your second book," she says.
Once the conflict is in place, the writers look to identify their heroine. While Kendrick admits that "It doesn't matter how you describe her, you'll always have a dead-ringer for Angelina Jolie minus the tattoos on the front cover," her heroines, she says, "are not always beautiful, and like most women are plagued by insecurities. I'm not very good at writing high-powered career women. It could be because I haven't had a high-powered career myself. But if she's a barrister or a newspaper editor, it wouldn't really be feasible – I want her to be spending time with the hero. She tends to have to be flexible. And if she's a chambermaid, if she's sacked it's not the end of the world."
Jordan isn't so sure. "I'm always interested in giving them interesting careers", she says. "There was a fad for Cinderella-type heroines. I've tried them, but it doesn't fit me so well. I have had them with money problems, but with careers prior to money problems. I want them to assert themselves when necessary." Yates agrees, saying she likes to go for "feisty career women". However, Jordan, who's been writing romances for 33 years, usually makes her heroine either a virgin, or inexperienced. "I think of it as a shorthand for me," she says. "It's always by choice. When my heroine meets the hero, she wants to go to bed with him. For the reader, that's the mark of the effect he has on her. Because you've only got so many pages, it would be very difficult for me to create a heroine who's had lots of partners and immediately knew there was something different about this one."
Then comes the hero. Sheikhs are popular, Jordan and Kendrick say, as are Italian billionaires, Greek tycoons and princes. The sheikh, Kendrick says, "represents the ultimate female fantasy – dark, autocratic, completely powerful, outrageously chauvinistic". However, she says, "he often isn't predatory, as he doesn't need to be. In the 70s and 80s the Mills & Boon hero was putting it about, then with the advent of Aids we had to make slowly sliding on a condom part of the love play."
For Jordan, the hero also has to have a charitable side. "He's obviously got to be sexy and high powered because they go together. And they always like them to be well off. But for me he has to have some interest in charity, to do something for the good," she says. "Often when my heroines discover that, their animosity is melted. I don't like a hero without a softer side. He's often damaged by something that's happened in his life, often to do with money. He will be more outrageous to the heroine, and harder on her. He realises he is beginning to feel, he has to resolve that conflict."
And Yates, who at 23 is the publisher's youngest author, says she likes "to play with the conventions a bit. He's still an alpha male, but he's maybe a little more willing to talk about things at times". Her characters are usually pure imagination, but sometimes, she says, she'll "grab a picture, usually of a model, not someone well known" as a template. "I'm really picky about my heroes though, they're a little more perfect in my head," she adds. Kendrick doesn't "do the picture thing. Others put up pictures of actors or models with awful overdeveloped six packs. [But] imagination is much better."
Once the two central players, and their issues, are in place, then, of course, comes the sex. "It is very, very difficult to write about sex," admits Jordan. "You think, did I say that before? I don't have a set of actions, one to five, but there are only so many variations. I try to make it unique for each set of characters, but obviously I must go over the same territory. Straight sex is straight sex. It's more really trying to capture the emotional intensity."
Over the years, Jordan says, more sex has crept into her books. "There is more now, and it's more detailed," she admits. "But I've always wanted my heroines to enjoy sex. Perhaps in the earlier books they were more reluctant to admit they enjoyed it. Now it's a battle within them – they're enjoying sex with someone they might be falling in love with, but they don't like." She never, she adds, writes abusive sex.
Kendrick insists that, no matter how many times you've written one, it's important not to be blasé about sex scenes. "That might imply I'm complacent and that does not make a good bedfellow," she says. "Some writers will go through and leave gaps. I won't do that. It's all the flow of the story. I have to write sex knowing how they're feeling. I have to be her, and imagine him – by that time I will be in love with the hero so it's not that difficult to write." It's a similar process for Yates. "Maybe I was embarrassed afterwards, reading them, but at the time, because I'd spent so long building up all the tension, those scenes came the fastest."
All three authors are adamant that this is a great way to make a living – although Jordan is a little shocked to discover she's written quite so many. "Have I? I probably have. I've been writing since just after my 30th birthday and I'm 63 now. Should somebody my age still be writing romances? Am I still on trend with things? I don't know. I still love writing them. It's the readers' decision," she says with rather touching concern – the readers are still buying her books in their thousands. "The best way," she muses, "to describe the difference between now and then is to say, in the words of Mrs Patrick Campbell, that it's like 'the deep, deep peace of the double bed after the hurly-burly of the chaise longue'."
What Jordan loved – what she still loves – when writing, is "learning about the character, what prevents them from reaching happiness. There comes a point when the character becomes real. It still delights me," she says. "At the end of the day everything I write is about relationships. I'm never going to be a great big famous writer because I don't write great big famous-making scenes, more the nitty gritty of everyday life. And that's what I really enjoy."