Friday, December 16, 2011


It's always a pleasure to introduce a new academic work that seeks to reveal the true nature of romantic fiction.

It's been nearly fourteen years since jay Dixon's seminal work,The Romantic Fiction of Mills and Boon, 1909-90s was published, but now Laura Vivanco - familiar to many of us through her Teach Me Tonight blog - has published her new scholarly look at the genre with  For Love and Money: the Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills and Boon Romance

Laura gave me the opportunity to read a pre-publication copy of her book and it's an engrossing read for the lover of the genre and an essential for the writer, but I'll leave her to give you a taste of her book.

Welcome, Laura...

Hi Liz! Thanks so much for welcoming me to your blog.

I was introduced to romance via Georgette Heyer so long ago that I can't remember exactly how young I was at the time. I got my PhD from the University of St Andrews where I studied death in fifteenth-century Castile but after I discovered Harlequin Mills and Boon romances and started blogging about them from an academic perspective (at Teach Me Tonight) I decided to apply my literary criticism to analysing (and defending) HMBs. The result is For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills and Boon Romance.

In Liz’s short story, "Secret Wedding"

"the heroine is “bestselling romance novelist Mollie Blake” and the text of each chapter puts into practice the advice contained in its epigraph, excerpted from “Mollie Blake’s Writing Workshop Notes.” (Vivanco 110)

Mollie writes in her notes that “The romance reader is looking for warmly observed characters and deeply felt emotion.” Rachel Anderson, author of The Purple Heart Throbs: The Sub-literature of Love, concurs with this assessment of the importance of emotion: “It is emotional intensity which makes a good romance”. The primary quality of a good romance, then, is that its readers become emotionally involved in the story.

Of course, that’s not the only criterion on which romances can be judged and as I hope I’ve demonstrated in my new book, For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills and Boon Romance, these are novels which can be considerably more complex and well-written than many of their detractors are aware. Nonetheless there are, as Mollie acknowledges, “some cliché-ridden romance[s]” and even she “couldn’t escape the clichés. Even in the darkness of the car park she could see that he was tall, with mile-wide shoulders.” That’s probably because, as the hero of Sally Heywood’s Steps to Heaven (1991) observes, “When emotion runs high, cliché comes into its own. [...] The point isn’t whether it’s cliché but whether it’s genuine” (49-50) and with HMBs it is of paramount importance to evoke genuine emotion in the reader.

Daphne Clair and Robyn Donald, who are both HMB authors, write that

"Emotional impact (also called emotional punch or emotional intensity) is the heart of romance. It can make the difference between acceptance and rejection. If there is a ‘secret’ to romance writing, this is it."

"There are writers whose technical skills may not stand up to stringent literary criticism but who are instinctively able to deliver this magical experience. This is why you will occasionally see books that ‘are not nearly as well-written as mine’ on the shelves when your carefully crafted manuscript has been sent back with a polite letter."

I, however, wanted to apply some “stringent literary criticism” to romances in order to demonstrate that it is wrong to label them all as “sub-literature.”

Writing a good romance involves learning rules, such as those contained in Mollie’s notes, because it’s important to understand the genre’s conventions and sources of inspiration before attempting to innovate and push boundaries. As Gert de Geest and An Goris have observed,

"...handbooks take care not to create the impression that romance writing is merely a mechanical process—an automatic repetition of invariable formulas and previous examples—since this impression would fundamentally conflict with readers’ and potential authors’ experience of new romance texts. On the contrary, the emphasis is placed on the way the “spontaneous” aspect of the writing process remains dominant: the suggested tips and guidelines are mainly presented as strategies that enable and even optimize the spontaneity and individuality of the writing process."

The author of a “self-reflexive” or metafictional HMB such as “Secret Wedding” runs the risk of pulling the reader out of the story each time she draws attention to the strategies she is employing. In Secret Wedding, in which the structure of the story is deliberately signposted and the tricks of the romance-writer’s trade are revealed at the beginning of every single chapter, Liz is therefore testing her skill to the limits. I think she passes the test with flying colours: I enjoy the self-aware observations about romance writing, but every time I’ve re-read the novella I’m pulled into caring about Mollie and Tom’s relationship and by the time I reach the end, I have a silly, happy grin on my face.


Anderson, Rachel. The Purple Heart Throbs: The Sub-literature of Love. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974.
Clair, Daphne, and Robyn Donald. Writing Romantic Fiction. London: A and C Black, 1999.
de Geest, Dirk, and An Goris. “Constrained Writing, Creative Writing: The Case of Handbooks for Writing Romances.” Poetics Today 31.1 (2010): 81-106.
Fielding, Liz. “Secret Wedding.”
Heywood, Sally. Steps to Heaven. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 1991.
Vivanco, Laura. For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills and Boon Romance. Tirril, Penrith: Humanities Ebooks, 2011.

For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills and Boon Romance is published by Humanities Ebooks in pdf format. It is also available in paperback and in Amazon’s Kindle format. More details can be found on Laura’s website.


Vince said...

Hi Liz:

I’m just shocked reading this!

I just wrote a romance, “The Captain Stranded in a Cabin With a Romance Writer” (55,000 words). I described it as a self-reflexive, metaromance (a romance about a romance). I didn’t think this had been done before.

I just downloaded “Secret Wedding” and "For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance" and I have to read them today! Immediately!

I just can’t believe this. I have to share a little of my book so you can see what I am talking about.

My hero and heroine are set-up by her agent and his wife so that they have to share a mountain cabin for ten days. The hero’s sister is a romance writer and the heroine is also a romance writer. The hero edits his sister’s military romances and is very ‘romance savvy’. When the hero and heroine first meet at the cabin, each thinking they have the place all to themselves, they decide to agree to ‘rules of engagement’ to protect themselves from getting a broken heart. They eventually agree to 15 rules. Here is part of that agreement from the book:

“Rule 1: I’m not going to marry you after the ten days is up. So don’t get any fancy romantic ideas,” Eric said.

“Oh, don’t flatter yourself. I’m not one of those women who goes all jelly-kneed looking at a hunk in a uniform.”

“That’s good because I don’t want you going all weak on me provoking my protective instincts.”

“I have a rule of my own”, Diana said.

“Rule 2: if we happen to kiss, you absolutely can’t say ‘that was a mistake and it won’t happen again.’ I could not stand that kind of rejection.”

“I’ll agree to that,” Eric said.

“But there is also a corollary, Rule 2 ½,” Diana said. “If I’m the one who says ‘it was a mistake’, because it really was a mistake, and as the woman, I’ll know if it really was a mistake, you must not say something like: 'I won’t kiss you again until you beg me to…no that’s too strong…until you ask me to kiss you'. Also, and this is very important, if you happen to find me weakening and you know I really want you to kiss me, I don’t want you to hold back from kissing me until I weaken and say, ‘Oh, please kiss me.’ You have to be more of a gentleman than to do something like that.”

“That’s easy to agree to because I don’t intend to ever kiss you. Moreover, I don’t intend to even touch you which gets us to rule #3,” Eric said.

“Rule 3: We must always stay a few feet apart at all times. I don’t want you to accidentally grab my hand reaching for the butter sending an electric shock up my arm and setting off alarm bells in my head.”

She looks at him like he had two heads. “You actually think accidentally touching my hand would send thrills up your arm?”

“I don’t want to risk it. Chemistry is very powerful and unpredictable.”


The book is written. I wrote it before I ever heard of “Secret Wedding” or ”For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance”.

While I am a little shocked, this also makes me think that someone might actually publish my book. : )


P.S. The 15 Rules are not the book. They appear in Chatper 1. The book covers the entire genre.

Liz Fielding said...

Oh, that's hilarious, Vince. I'm seeing a cute 1940s romantic movie with the giddy one (Myrna Loy?) and Cary Grant. Perfect. :)

Laura Vivanco said...

I hope you find For Love and Money interesting, Vince.

While I am a little shocked, this also makes me think that someone might actually publish my book. : )

Yes, I'm fairly sure that a romance wouldn't get rejected because it's a metafiction. Liz's "Secret Wedding" is one of the most metafictional romances I've come across, but there are quite a lot of others. One I don't mention in the book is Dixie McKeone's The Harlequin Hero, published by Harlequin. The hero and heroine try to get tips from a romance novel on how to behave. The results are quite humorous.

Vince said...

Hi Liz:

I just read “Secret Wedding”, which I’ll review soon, and I’m very relieved. “Secret Wedding” is a wonderful self-reflexive romance in that the story repeatedly references the romance genre. This would ordinarily alienate the reader by reminding the reader she is reading a romance and thus break the magic spell that the story is really happening.

However, the story rings true because there really are romance writers giving romance workshops. So the “Secret Wedding” has a firm basis in reality. The story could be true. To make this kind of alienation work the author must make the story authentic and plausible. This is very hard to do in a self-referential romance but it is done to perfection in the “Secret Wedding”.

Now my book, “A Captain Stranded in a Cabin with a Romance Writer” is not only self-reflective it is also self-aware. That is, the characters suspect that they are characters in a romance so they make deliberate efforts to thwart the author.

For example: early in chapter one, when the hero and heroine meet at the cabin, the first thing the hero wants to know is if the heroine has a ‘hidden-child’ in the cabin.

The heroine is outranged!

“Have you had so many lovers that you wouldn’t remember if we’d made love?”

“You bet I have. But look at the bright side. I’m probably the best, most experienced, lover you’ll ever meet.”

“There’s no hidden child! I’m a virgin!”

“A virgin? What are you forty years old? Are you a nun?”

“I’m thirty-six and I was a nun for over ten years!”

The hero is flummoxed and says:

“You mean I’m stranded in a cabin with a 36-year old, virgin, ex-nun? I can’t stand that much conflict!”

You see what I mean?

My assignment today is to read “For Love and Money: the Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills and Boon Romance”.

I’ve also written a book on the romance genre. “A Random Walk Through Romanceland.”, which I have been tweaking for years. I better send it in soon. : )


P.S. Right now I’m listening to Leicester City play Doncaster and if they can’t beat Doncaster, it will ruin my whole weekend!

Liz Fielding said...

This sounds fun, Vince. I did once consider writing a romance where the hero of the book kept contacting a blocked writer. Might still go there if I can figure out some of the problems!

And def get your book out soon.

Swansea are having a mixed season but it's a tough move up to the Premier league. Hope Leicester won - that part of the UK is the best beloved's home territory.

Michelle Douglas said...

Laura, I've ordered "For Love and Money" and I can't wait for it to arrive -- it sounds like a must read!

And now, Liz, I'll have to order "Secret Wedding." Hmm, that will be such a hardship. :-)

LOL, Vince -- do send in "A Random Walk in Romanceland." I want to read it!

Vince said...

Hi Liz:

I see two ways to deal with reader alienation.

1) make the alienation itself so interesting and entertaining that the reader is happy with it. I do this with humor, satire, irony, genre insights, and many of the other ways of rewarding a reader for reading.

2) have a shadow character. I had a plot for a Presents story in which the heroine’s boss is an alpha male who she considers the kind of Presents hero she hates. (She is a big critic of Presents). To get even with her boss she writes him into her romance novel (she still needs her day job) to make his behavior look bad.

Since she is tremendous attracted to him, which she does not want to admit to herself, she gets writer’s block whenever she tries to make him look bad in the novel.

When she gets seriously blocked, her boss does something in real life that unblocks her. At these times her creativity flows and for a while she writes in ‘the zone’. This infuriates her because it is his worse characteristics that make her boss the best Presents hero. His chauvinistic behavior is going to win her a RITA!

Of course, he stumbles upon a copy of her manuscript and the sparks really fly! This story might better be placed in the Blaze line.

I think this is a great plot but I don’t think I could write it. I think this is the perfect plot for Kate Walker. (She is an alpha male expert!)


P.S. I hope you write that story. I’d love to see what you do with it.

Vince said...

Hi Liz;

It seems I am very much in sync with the subject matter of this post!

In my book, “Stranded”, I have a scene where the heroine has to deal with the ‘fan from hell’. One of the things this ‘fan’ says is: “I was going to write a romance but I decided to skip the learning phase and instead go right to writing a real book from the start.”

From the dedication of, “For Love and Money”:

To every Harlequin Mills & Boon author who has ever been asked “When are you going to write a real novel?”

Also, I ordered “The Harlequin Hero” Saturday night from Amazon,on Laura Vivanco’s advice, and it arrived at 9:00 am this morning! I didn’t think that was possible by ordinary mail.

Things are going very well except Leicester found a way to lose the second worse team in the Championship. : (


Liz Fielding said...

Vince, I fear the problem with complex writer plots is that that writers love them but readers don't get it. Suggesting a "writer" hero or heroine is one of the things that tends to make an editor sigh, sadly. :)

I'm always suggesting things that make my editor sigh.

Liz Fielding said...

And the learning curve with writing... all you can do is dive in and start writing. It's a bit of a learn-on-the-job vocation; sadly no one will pay you while you're learning.

Some people abandon it after the first rejection. Some abandon it when they realise that they're not going to become millionaires overnight.

Bravo Amazon, must try harder Leicester. :)

Like a comedian whose life was featured on the television this week - it took him 35 years to become and overnight success.

Fiona Marsden said...

This is hilarious. As a reader who loves Mills and Boons from the sixties and seventies and before and has a three a day habit I guess formulatic romance is my favourite genre. But to tell you the truth. I actually like it. Like reading an Agatha Christie and guessing the villain before anyone else. I like knowing that there is a happy ending even if I have to blubber my way through the tragedies and misunderstandings to get there. Knowing is empowering.

Liz Fielding said...

Glad you're still enjoying the romances, Princess Fiona! As you so rightly say, it's not about the ending, it's about the journey.