Bring on the bling

2009-05-20 00:00

ONCE upon a time, Mills & Boon’s tall, dark and handsome heroes and demure but sexy heroines firmly closed the bedroom door on the last page. The readers knew what was going on in there — well, of course they did — but nothing was spelled out.

It’s not like that now, especially in the Mills & Boon romances with the blue covers. “These days, the bedroom doors are wide open. The blue ones are much racier; you can have a bedroom scene on page 3, if the couple have had a previous relationship,” says Naseema Rahim from Umhlanga Rocks who was one of the finalists in the recent competition to find new romance writers for Mills & Boon, run by the publishers and Essentials magazine. Although not the ultimate winner, Rahim reckons she has learnt a lot from the competition, and is now busy creating romances to be submitted to Mills & Boon in the hope of landing herself a contract. From sending off your manuscript until you hear whether the publisher is interested takes six months, but Rahim is happy to wait — and continue writing in the meantime.

Rahim’s venture into Mills & Boon territory began when she sent a chick lit novel she had written off to a publisher. The editor liked it, but suggested that Rahim might like to try a Romance Writing course, so she went off to a Writers Write workshop in Johannesburg. “For the first two hours, I just giggled — I said to the coach that I couldn’t believe he wanted us to write this rubbish. But it’s more than just salacious writing. You have to study the genre.”

And the genre says that heroes must be very rich, very handsome and have dark hair. No blonds or redheads — it seems the readers would reject them and put the book down. And not just a bit rich, says Rahim. They must be billionaires, not millionaires, and have a private jet, a private island and homes in three different countries. Italian counts are good. Heroines are allowed one little flaw. “And it all has to be very emotional; you need to amp it up.”

For the blue-covered books, marriage at the end is not essential, but there has to be a promise of commitment. And forget ordinary lives — Mills & Boon readers don’t want to read about what goes on in their neighbourhood. They know that already. They want to read about the hotels they can’t afford; the places they will never see.

“You must colour within the lines, but very creatively,” says Rahim. “Characters have to be unusual, and so do the stories and circumstances.” Her latest idea is for a Hollywood director who is also an Italian count and a heroine who is a Hollywood wild child.

It’s easy to snigger at Mills & Boon. The stories and characters are outrageous, and noone behaves as the rest of us do. But don’t snigger too hard. The company publishes an astonishing 40 books a month, and have a turnover of $1,4 billion annually. That is major publishing.

“It’s pure escapism,” says Rahim. “And it’s not chick lit. There’s no room for comedy or wry humour — the things that chick lit delivers. If something funny comes into Mills & Boon, it breaks the mood. It means that in the middle of all this conflict and emotion, the reader can hear the writer’s voice coming through, and they don’t want it.”

Writing for Mills & Boon is no pushover. The writer must be committed to taking the reader on the emotional journey they have signed up for. They don’t want surprises, and they don’t want to be disappointed. And the research must be meticulous. Rahim has travelled a fair amount around the world, and can use places she has visited in her writing. And, she says, she loves bling, knows about the top designers and the fancy car makes. But she still has to do the research.

Many bookshops don’t stock Mills & Boon, but they offer an amazingly large readership what may be the only escape available to them from humdrum lives. And, while, when the genre was first explained to her, Rahim didn’t believe she could write that “rubbish”, she now can’t believe how much fun she’s having doing just that.


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