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The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
vol. 4 no 1 (1990)
The Media of PublishingEdited by Albert Moran
Emma: I had no ambition to be a writer. I was always an avid reader and interested in drama. At a certain point in my life, I was bored. I read a library book which was so poor that I thought: surely I can tell a better story than that. Out of interest I decided to try to.
Darcy: Emma had a lot of confidence about using words. She had been a high school English teacher and an Honours graduate in Latin. Emma also had a lot of confidence in her ability to start something and finish it - she was a top level computer programmer - the first woman programmer in the southern hemisphere.
Moran : Were you in contact with any other writers at that stage?
Emma: Never met one, never spoke to one, never had anything to do with writers. I just sat down and wrote a political thriller entitled Secrets Are Never Safe. Michael Joseph in London promptly rejected it.
Moran: Did you have any input into that book Darcy?
Darcy: Yes. I told her it was hopeless. I asked her why she was wasting the money on the air mail to London! This was being supportive. Let me explain. It is easy to delude yourself. I think one of the things we have cultivated among ourselves is the feeling that we don't delude ourselves about anything. That is why it is so important for us to interact with our readers. If you think you are a good writer - buy a stopwatch, write something that makes you cry. Go out and give it to somebody who reads the thing. Time them for how long they cry while they read it. If they don't cry, go back and say: "how do I develop the technique to effect people emotionally?" The one thing you don't do is delude yourself saying: I am a WRITER.
Emma: I still believe that the first story, Secrets Are Never Safe, was a very good story. But I did not know how to tell it. The trade I needed to learn was how to tell a story for maximum impact. I could sit down and write grammatically and lucidly without spelling errors but I did not know quite how to tell a story with maximum impact for the reader, how to drag the reader off into another world, how to grip them and how never to let them go. That is what we had to learn. If you don't learn it, you will never get published.
Moran: What did you do after the rejection?
Emma: By that time, I was halfway through the sequel. I put that aside and said: "Right, where did I bomb out?" It was then I asked myself: "What was the simplest, easiest story to tell? Maybe I can get one of those published." I picked on Mills and Boon romance. It was a misconception. But as an outsider, just looking at things, it seemed the bottom rung of the writing ladder. I thought I would start at the bottom and work my way up. So I went to a second hand exchange shop and bought close to 100 Mills and Boon romances. Having been a computer programmer and aware of structure, of building from one thing to another, I analysed those books for how they put their story across. I made various notes on their structure, on what I perceived as their story requirements, on how these books were written - emotional intensity, and on their phrasing. I made lists of words. Coming right down to, for example, replacing 'said' with the thousands of replacements like 'rebuked', 'elaborated', 'revived' etc. This adds an emotional quality to the writing that 'said' does not. On the other hand, you can go overboard in which case you get a fruity result. There must be a balance kept between emotional verve and simplicity.
Moran: Did you differentiate between those 100 romances, noting for example that some were better than others?
Emma: Yes I did. Some authors' stories appealed to me far more than others did. There were some authors that I thought: "yes, they are putting this across more efficiently, more powerfully than others have".
Darcy: Emma distilled what was in those 100 books into a book that was published. Your first step as a writer is reading a lot, writing an average book and getting published. But the result was a book which was completely average. When you start off with something like that, and certainly a program like that, you yourself go average, even sub-average. As an author, you drop. But the advantage is that you get a leg in the door by being published for the first time. That is very important because it establishes your relationship with the editor and the publisher. It is very hard to get published. Mills and Boon say that if they get 10 or 12 new authors a year, they have had a bumper year. That's out of 6,000 submissions. But it is no good writing just one book a year. You need to try and get at least four out per year. If you are good enough you can get to six or eight a year - with that number you are starting to get to the top of your field.
Moran: Did you feel the story was average at that time?
Emma: My aim then was to simply write something acceptable. I was not at that point aiming to write the best novel Mills and Boon had ever seen. I was more concerned with telling the story in those 186 pages to best advantage. It was not until it was accepted that I felt: "Now I will write the kind of book I really want to write within this genre". So getting published was a hurdle to cross before I could free myself into feeling "Now I will go for this!"
Darcy: At the time, we both felt the novel was above average. All writers have at first this self-delusive quality. Some never get over it. You always think you have done better and that readers will get far more out of your book than actually happens. On the other hand, if you aren't over confident, perhaps you would never write the book or even submit it.
Emma: We had to rewrite our book before it was accepted. Oddly enough, when I finally met our editor, Jacqui Bianchi, I said to her (I could then look back and see the terrible flaws in it): "What possessed you to pick that book out and give encouragement for it? What did you see in it?" She said: "The one thing about your work was that it was never raw." I think that is a reflection on all the homework I did. She didn't buy that story, she was buying the author for what would come. Jacqui Bianchi was the pre-eminent editor in this genre over the last decade before her death. She had no peer, and her death has left a great void for us.
Moran: Can you tell me about the second and third romances?
Emma: By the time we got an answer to the first we had completed and sent three books. Our editor, Jacqui Bianchi sent back criticisms on each. The first could, I thought, be rewritten. I looked at the second criticism and I thought that the book was not worth going on with. The concept was wrong. She was very pleased and excited with the third. There was not a great deal of revision required for it more a question of technique. She said: "Stop telling the reader these things, make them feel it, show it." I looked at some sections she had picked out and inserted more personal involvement. This was a big lesson to learn. I knew then how to stop the flat spots. What an amazing editor! The most valuable lesson she gave was with that first book. She said: "Too long, you need to cut 50 pages out." Darcy wrote back - s/he does all the correspondence - and said: "But we don't know how to do that. Could you please show us where we should cut?" Jacqui went through the whole manuscript. What was most fascinating for us was that she didn't cut 30, 40, or 50 pages. She cut a paragraph here, a phrase there, a sentence here. On practically every page there was a cut. In doing that she showed us how to tighten up the writing, and move forward more quickly. We learned so much from her on that first book.
Darcy: And we have never stopped learning. We learn something new on each book. The last one was more complicated and longer (15-20%) than anything else we have done. Mills and Boon tend to produce a certain number of pages per book. But we never consciously think about length - we have written some of the shortest books they have published; and we have just written one which may be amongst their longest. We start from the premise that you must let the story tell itself: if it is too long for Mills and Boon, we will go somewhere else with it. If it is too short, we will put it into a magazine.
In writing for the reader, you have to be sincere. Yet you have to be prepared to change whatever is necessary in order to suit them. The way to keep learning is to find more and more effective ways of doing the things that you are trying to achieve.
Moran: Where did you go after the first three books? Do Mills and Boon operate with a three book contract?
Darcy: They may have a preference but basically they will work in with what the author is producing. If they see you producing one book a year then you will probably get a contract for one book; if three, then a contract for three. From our experience the company tends to look at a year's production. The number of books in a contract is really immaterial for the company. But it is totally material for us. We always finish a quota of books before we sign a contract. We don't tend to have anything waiting in the wings. Whatever they sign for, that is what they have already got.
Moran: Did you become part of the stable then with those first books?
Emma: With the third one. From our conversation with Jacqui, she thought at that point that we had the potential to become one of their leading ladies. The next two books certainly did very well.
Darcy: There are three people you can write a book for. You can write for yourself, you can write for an editor and publisher, or you can write books because you want readers to enjoy them. What Emma was doing in taking that huge sample of books was eliminating those things that just pleased her but would not please the reader. We didn't understand this fully at the time. There was no way we could ask: "What do a million people not like?" So while Emma says she absorbed techniques and so on, she was also eliminating unpopular elements.
We know some authors who write books so as to express themselves. This brings them a lot of anguish and misery because they can't understand why other people do not relate to what they are writing. As a popular writer I think you have to learn to be unselfish. You have to give readers those parts they want to read and suppress the rest.
Emma: I ask: "How will this particular story best satisfy the reader?" I had that approach from the start - how to get maximum response from the reader in every scene, every word and sentence. For a successful finish you have to be aware all the time of how you are presenting your dramatic building from one scene to another. The important part is mixing the elements together, and getting the best mix.
Darcy: It is a thing we call tone. You can write a page. Then by taking out or changing a few words, you can alter the tone of it. By itself it doesn't mean very much. To build - as Emma says - might take 10 pages or more. Overall though, through the whole book, it does make a difference to the book's impact. There is a lot of learning that has to take place to reach the right tone. You can give different versions of a book to a reader and ask: "What is the difference between the two versions of the same thing?" And they come back to you and tell you there is none! You may have rewritten it trying to make it better (or worse) by doing a lot of things that our peers tell us will make a better book. But when you go back to the reader and say: "that's a much better book because we have improved the techniques, put in more pace, tension thrown in an extra sex scene etc. etc.. What do you think of it?" They answer inevitably: "It's exactly the same book. I don't like it any better or any worse." Finding out how to make a book appeal more to a reader was one of our most illuminating discoveries. Some of the appeal is in the elements and the way one uses them.
Emma: So when we plan a book, our initial aim is to work out what elements we are going to use. There will be the heroine's internal personal conflict, perhaps the conflict with the hero, the conflict of the situation, and perhaps what we call an external force factor (which is either driving them apart or pulling them together). To have a good meaty book, you need to have all those elements. How you mix them and get your dramatic scenes, work up the climax affects the quality of your work. We are really looking towards the end of a book before we start. We ask: "What is our climax?" To keep your readers, they have to finish that book saying: "Wow. That was terrific." While they are reading the book they need to turn the pages compulsively. That is the art of story telling.
Darcy: We see this quality in other authors. Jack Higgins, for example, has deliberately added to his technique - by ending his books with an emotional scene. He can write emotionally and they are very emotional scenes. For some reason he has found that something is working for him here. Conceptually he is doing this with each book and it's terribly effective. Take Sidney Sheldon. Somewhere along the line I think he has had feedback that says: "readers would like to see happier endings". He is now not as negative as he used to be. I think he has deliberately changed his approach to the marketplace. In making these changes we see these popular writers reacting to reader responses and so market forces.
Emma: We have always tried to be like that. If anyone says: "there's something wrong there" - then you've upset your reader. We are always prepared to change, accommodate, and modify on the basis of readers' advice. That doesn't always apply to editors ... only to readers.
Darcy: We have made every mistake there is - and then invented some more. This is why it is important for us to go out to our readers and be told what the reader thinks we have achieved. Not what we think we have achieved. If it's shit, OK. We have got to learn to do better.
It's not that you just go and do what any reader tells you to do. It's that you cannot trust your own judgement. We have written scenes which to us are the funniest things ever written. We now realise that if we want to write a funny scene, we have to be so serious. You can't write something funny while you are laughing yourself. One of the pieces of advice you get from experienced romance editors is: "go out and write what is in your heart". But there is probably no more certain way of failing than doing that. In fact one of the most experienced editors in London said to us that when a book comes in with a note: "I have written this from the heart", she automatically reaches for a rejection slip before she even begins to read. The reason is the author's judgement has gone out the door.
There is a real paradox here. You've got to be intensely involved in your writing. But you need to be able to step back and judge your work dispassionately.
Moran: Can you tell me about what kind of feedback you get from the company?
Darcy: The feedback from Mills and Boon is terrible and always has been. Even their senior management has spoken to their senior editors trying to tell them that what they were doing is wrong. They are really doing damage to their business. Speaking to one of their older authors who has not probably written anything in the past 8 years, she said that what upset her more than anything else was the lack of feedback. They treat the industry as a cottage industry and they run it in a very power-based way. If our basic premise that the only person who is important is the reader is correct then for a writer to perform to their utmost capacity, she must have feedback. Otherwise all you are doing is taking something out of yourself. If you are lucky enough to churn out something that everyone else wants to read that is fabulous. But most of us are not that lucky. We all have to learn. That is one of the reasons why they have editors.
One of the things editors have to learn is what people want. They are told which books were popular and which were not, and they then need to distil the essence of which was and was not popular. And then the company tries to use that editor to guide the author, but they do not give the author the same information. The error made was because the editors are people doing a 9 to 5 job, they just don't have the same commitment that authors have. It's a very clumsy set up and it docs not work in a business-like way. It's my guess that there would be no other publishing house or business in mass communications which docs it so poorly. They do not give out information. At one stage they did not even tell the author when they had written a very successful book. That situation is getting a little better. If an author goes and asks: What was my best book? They will now tell them. M & B are their own worst enemy in a business sense. If they were giving feedback then the authors could afford to be more adventurous and make their own decisions. It is just too late to do that after the book is completed. For most of these people, writing is their livelihood. If they don't have an income, they will have to get another job. You are inhibited because you are afraid of hurting your income by being adventurous. This lack of feedback keeps authors in a constrained mould.
Moran: In response you have then attempted to create your own feedback environment for yourselves. You read other Mills and Boon authors and you send your manuscript out to a team of readers before submission. Could you tell me something about your approach to both?
Emma: In terms of our Mills and Boon reading: in Australia, they release 12 titles a month, 6 of which are the "Present" series and 6 are the "Romance" series. [This has now been changed.] Most of our books fall into the "Present" line. We aim our books there. They define these as a more sophisticated story with the main characters actually changing their perceptions or what have you. A deeper exploration of the characters. Not all our books fall into that category. The Romance series tends to be lighter stories. I read the 6 Present books each month just to see what other authors are doing, if there is some new technique that we may be able to incorporate. In the Romance series, I will buy any new author that comes out and any author that particularly interests me for one reason or another. But I don't buy the 6. One only has so much time.
Darcy; I read selected ones. I have favourite authors who are interesting. Basically from the point of view of technique.
Emma: I will read the books and say: Look at this. It expands your horizon. You think: how could I apply that?
Moran: What kinds of things do you learn?
Darcy: 99% of the things you learn you can't use. It is like putting tools into your armoury. There are books that we have done that do not work as successfully as others have done but we don't regret writing them. Because there was so much to be learnt in actually writing it. If we had not done it, we would have been less competent - however incompetent we are today. One of them we spent over two years on, on and off. I don't know how many rewrites. Trying for a certain effect. It is very hard when you are planning a book. When you start you have so many choices to make. You can do it seriously, humorously. You have all kinds of characters. The possibilities are infinite. As you write, you narrow down your choices. You get to a stage where the pieces have to fit together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. When you get to that last section, that's the last piece of the jigsaw. It spoils others' books for you because you anticipate better than most readers what has to happen. You pick them up and you can say: Oh yes I know what that book is all about.
Moran: You have readers read your books before you submit them to your publisher. Can you tell me more about this?
Darcy: We have assembled a team of readers to comment on our work prior to submission. Our aim with our reader panel is to have as large an age group and range as possible - from 18 to 70 years old. This feedback is very useful to us; it at least helps replicate the situation that is happening in England with our M & B readers. It gives us confidence in what we are doing.
But there is a problem with getting that feedback. A lot of people do not like reading romances in manuscript form. They are just too unwieldy. And then people are very kind and do not like telling you the bad news that you need to hear. Putting together a big enough team has also been a continuing problem. I don't think we will ever solve it completely. But we have got to a stage where we have great confidence in the readers we do have.
But we are not happy at all with our understanding of the American situation. These reading groups cannot tell us much about the American response to our book. As far as we know there is no market research done there at all. There is none, at least, that we can get our hands on. We think this is a disastrous situation for authors writing for this market. Any feedback from there would be useful. Australian books go well over there.
Darcy: They have actually got to be readers. It is no good getting someone who does not read Mills and Boon. There would be no point in us giving you one of our books for evaluation, Albert. They have got to be people who read them regularly or have read them and have given them up. Those who have given them up might give us some insight into why they stopped reading them. Or maybe somebody who some day will read Mills and Boon can be good. But you have to tailor it to each person's age, status, social and economic situation, etc. You must try to get as wide a spectrum of readers as possible.
Moran: How many do you have now who will read a new manuscript - or even a new Mills and Boon where you want to check your reaction?
Darcy: At any one time it's fairly limited. But if it was a really critical situation, we would try to get it out to anything from 50 to 100 people. But overall we cannot do that with everything. It just takes too long even though we print out multiple copies. Just physically getting them around is difficult. So sometimes we have to be content with the reaction of 25. It is a terribly small sample. But we have found this out. If you have written a bomb you only need one honest reader. To tell how good a book will do really needs 1,000 readers over a multitude of countries and cultures.
Emma: In some cases, as I said, you put them out from an 18 year old to a 70 year old age group. Your first feedback may be from 5 in the 18, 25, 35 age group. If all those five are very positive, you can start to feel confident about the manuscript. Certainly with our latter books that has been the case. It is very interesting when the reactions vary from the young people to the old people. You try to think of how to marry those two reactions together more.
Darcy: We post the MSS to people and then ring them up - or let them ring us back reverse charges. We have always sent our books out and got reactions to them. What we did not know was whether these would match with the reactions they were getting in Europe and Britain. Eventually we found they did match closely - most of the time. There have been one or two exceptions but nothing highly significant.
Moran: This is to you as readers rather than as writers - what do you think is the typical life cycle of a Mills and Boon author?
Emma: It's variable. There are some who only write only one book. There are a few who write 50 to 100. That is just it. I guess it depends on what you have to give.
Darcy: Let's talk about Ann Mather. She is the most successful author - 100 plus books. Basically she uses two patterns. Perhaps she is losing her younger readers. That is where you expect to find a lack of rapport as your writing career ages. With her output and the money she has made, she might think: "I will keep going for as long as I can, but I am happy with where I am." We know authors who have thought that. But Ann Mather and Janet Daley are two authors who could change with society as it is changing. They have lasted much longer than most other romance authors and they are probably among the most successful. The romance revolution started in 1971 - this was when it became a really big mass market. 1 After Ann Mather, you probably have Penny Jordan, Carole Mortimer and a few others as major writers.
Mills and Boon writers are very skewed in terms of their economic, social and cultural base. There are a few American, Canadian, Scots, and Irish authors, one South African, and a great number of British. British writers have got an enormous proportion of the romance market. They are being sold in countries where sex is not so important like Islamic societies. We think Australian and New Zealand writers have a disproportionately higher number of writers than probably any other country because readers react well to our culture and values. In Australia almost all of the authors have come from Queensland. This is because certain people from certain kinds of backgrounds are giving readers what they want. As Australian based Mills and Boon writers we are writing not just for Australia but for a large part of the world.
Moran: Many of your recent books involve you deliberately trying the limits, exploring the edges of situations. When did you decide to try this?
Emma: You have a certain number of easy stories within you - out of your own experiences, life or social situation. The first 8 or so books were mostly my ideas with Darcy's input. The next four or so s/he had more input. I was running out of ideas. Then you start thinking seriously. The easy stories have gone. You start thinking: "Now we are going to have to construct stories completely out of our imagination. What concepts are we going to use? How are we going to construct something totally new?"
Darcy: I think we were always a little bit game, apart from the first few books where we were just trying to get published. Going back to Song of Wren which we would call an absolute disaster (but it still fell in an above average category for Mills and Boon), it didn't meet what we were trying to achieve with our readers. That was something I wanted to do, call it author indulgence. I thought: this is what Romance is all about so we wrote the book. In that sense, we were still using our own experiences. It didn't work as well as we wanted it to work. The two man story- one has to choose who the hero is - was innovative. To us anyway. There is a sense in which everything has been done before. What we found was that by getting bolder and bolder, trying new things, we not only pleased the reader, but it stretched us to the limits.
But, all the same, the "two man" stories were a "disastrous" error for us! That is how we talk about that period in our writing. Yet in other people's terms, it was a successful period. These books did well by Mills & Boon standards. The company was putting them in their Above Average to Good category - placing us at the top of Mills and Boon's second rank. But we wanted to be much further up. When we spoke to the editors of our sense of failure here, they said to us: "You put degrees of pressure on yourselves that to us is just unbelievable." We had a dispute with one of their editors when Jacqui was sick. The editor advised us not to continually worry about writing books of the highest possible standard all the time. We said something like: "We don't want to write books of lesser appeal to the readers.."
Emma: We were not quite understanding our feedback from our reader panel on these books. Some absolutely adored the "Two Man" stories and others got mixed up, saying: "I would have preferred the other man to be the hero." We interpreted those responses wrongly. It was not until the fourth book, that we got the message we should have been getting all along: "Hey let's get out of this situation altogether." We are now far more aware of the kind of elements that readers like to read.
Darcy: At that time, we didn't know the right questions to ask. You have got to ask a question which the reader can give you an answer to that you can understand.
Emma: I think we were innovative from early on. As I had read all these books in a lot of them there were story devices which seemed to me to be unsatisfactory. The jealous woman coming in, telling lies - that kind of thing. As a reader I could see straight through them. I'd ask: "why can't the hero see straight through them too?" "Is the hero some kind of dill?" Early on, we said: "Let's not use devices, let's go on a different path. Let's play it straight. Let's have confrontation. Let's have relationships. No more virgins. A bit more reality." As a reader, I was tired of these things. From the sales figures, the readers were also tired of them too.
Darcy: You can see from Emma's words why they want new authors. New authors bring that little degree of freshness in as social, cultural and economic values are changing in society. We said: "No more virgins". To us that sounded like a boundary breaker because at that time every other book you were reading had virgins. But by the time our book with the non-virgin came out, somebody had already published this. This is because of the gap between writing, getting the book published, and getting it out into the marketplace. We took a very definite decision around about book 8 to 12: "We have got to go further than where we are going and we have got to go faster." We were being beaten to the punch all the time. We decided: "Let's get out there on the boundaries. Let's not stay with what has been done before. And let's see what happens." It was very exciting for us.
Emma: And this was where we began our series of 12 new books. Each book was written to answer a specific question about our mass readers. One question invariably was: "Can we do this, will our readers respond to it?" Some were worked brilliantly, others fell into the just above average category. So, some results you felt: "Yes, I have hit a chord here that really goes with readers" but other ideas were not so successful. You take the lessons from the ones that have made impact and think: "How can I work this into my next book?" You gradually harness what you see from the results. The plus factors. So that as we go on, we try to include more and more plus factors within the elements of the story. Try to make fewer mistakes.
Moran: You thought that Carole Mortimer was one of the few authors who really varied their books at this time. Where do the new authors come into this picture?
Emma: Usually with new ones, their first books are doing what I did and trying to get an acceptable book published. It will be their second or third book that I find more interesting. Their first indicates their writing style. This month, they have just put out ten new authors as a special promotion. I have read seven. One is brilliant. I think her first 100 or so pages is magic. In her last 80 pages it's as though she had cold feet and tried to fit it back into what she sees as the Mills and Boon mould. It would have been far more compelling if she had ended the way she started. But she was probably frightened. She would have got away with it. I could have told her: "You will get away with it, this is terrific, keep it going. But you are cautious when you are new."
Moran: How do you work?
Emma: We may have the idea for a book but it may be years before we sit down and write it. Or an idea might come to us one night and by the next morning after various bottles of wine or whatever we might have lots written down. It can take six weeks just to think about something. Then I go at it, like a bull at a gate. We have pretty much crystallised the characters and situations before we start. And although we might change things a bit as we go along, the basic concepts are there. That is made clear before we start.
My normal working day when writing is, I get up at 9 o'clock. By 9.30 or 10am, I am at the computer. I will break sometime and have some lunch. If I am in the middle of a scene, I will carry it straight back to the computer. Then a five, or ten minute break to make a sandwich and a cup of coffee. I usually halt about 5pm to come down from the office and make dinner. Usually at that time I will talk over with Darcy what I have been doing that day and how to continue on with it. I am usually back at the computer by 7.30pm and will work through until at least 1 am. Sometimes if I am really on the boil with something, very intensely involved with it, that can go as late as 5am until I am reeling from the computer. Whatever I have done that day is printed out and left down here for Darcy.
Darcy usually rises early, about 5am. So usually by the time I get up at 9am, s/he has done all the changes, all the additions, ideas have been melded into that. In actual fact, when I go to the computer, the first thing I do is to revise everything from the day before using all the new information before I continue on. That can sometimes take all day before I can continue on to the next thing. Darcy's changes are there. Most of the time I will develop these more so that when that is printed out Darcy needs to go over it again because it's new. There is a constant to and fro-ing between us. We never argue over the changes. If Darcy has put in something which I am not comfortable with, we will have a chat. Either it will not go in or I will change it to something we are both comfortable with. Sometimes there can be ten drafts before we are both satisfied.
I think this editorial intervention is innovative and particularly effective. Darcy has been good for me insofar as there's a laziness on my part to go for the obvious thing. He'll say: "No let's not do that, let's surprise the reader, let's do this". And I love it. I grab it and say: "Yes". And off we go. It's so exciting to get a new idea.
Moran: How long would it take to finish, to the point where you were reasonably happy?
Emma: Three or four weeks - up maybe to six weeks. It depends. You can go out for lunch one day and that may cost you three days before you are back into the book's rhythm. We have done a small number of books exceptionally quickly. We can do six books a year comfortably. Probably more now even with taking a month off here, and a month off there. This year, 1990, we have written seven which brings us up to our 39th book.
Darcy: Emma used to say that first chapters are hell, second chapters are not quite so bad but there is no problem finishing as you have gotten to the stage where it takes over.
Darcy: Sometimes when you're painting something you get a juxtaposition of shapes and colours which you hadn't expected. You'll start off with an idea but every so often you'll fluke something. This happens in our writing. Every so often we'll get a fluke effect something is working far better, the potential of a situation is far wider, even though we never thought of the thing. When the writing develops into something you didn't originally plan, it's better to alter the plan. Sometimes it doesn't work out. But these days we tend to have a somewhat surer step even though we still slip up.
Emma: Take our second last book. Virtually in mid-stream, we changed part of the concept. There was a crucial chapter from which everything would then run. It wasn't a mid-chapter, it was more like chapter seven. At that point we could then have gone about three different ways. Darcy said: "This was the way". But it involved extremely tricky handling of the scene to capture what we wanted to capture and to continue on that run. So which chapters are the hardest to write will vary. Don't get me wrong. None of them are easy. Nothing comes easily to me. I work very hard at it.
I remember going along to a writers' seminar and a lady telling me that her thoughts come so fast that she could barely get it down on the typewriter quickly enough. She asked: "How do you cope?" I said: "With one finger." Although my thoughts come quickly, the selection of the words to express the thoughts come very slowly and painstakingly. One finger is quite enough for me to get it down.
Moran: Do you have any particular favourites among the books you have written?
Darcy: There is a sense in which they are all favourites. How do you get a favourite child? Sophie's Choice. If you had to choose one and see the rest destroyed, which one would you choose? There are obviously some that you would let go. Like the first book. An editor once put down how she thought our books would go with readers and how she personally liked them. They were two different lists. But she didn't get it right with the readers. And of the books she chose there was at least one which other readers would rate as among the worst we have written.
Emma: It's a very difficult question. Because each book you're on, you're hoping it will be your best. And you are very involved in it. So it would be very easy for me to say: the last book I've written. If we call it a particular fondness for a book - and it has flaws - I would probably select The Unpredictable Man. For the sheer challenge of technique and the satisfaction I had from bringing it off I would mention Bride of Diamonds. Extremely difficult to write with a complex story, I had enormous satisfaction from that book.
Darcy: I think a reason for our books' acceptance in the market is they are 'serious' in the sense that they deal with substantive issues in non-didactic ways. People don't buy our books in order to be taught something. But if something is fairly painlessly inserted, it tends to work for you. And I think that in all our novels we have tried to pick on a piece of knowledge that most people would not have. As an author I think you do better if you deal with the subject more seriously and with more insight than if you take a more superficial approach. But obviously you cannot take it too far because people will find it turgid.
Moran : In your books, do you think there is anything that makes them synonymous with Emma Darcy?
Emma: Because it's hard to see your own things objectively, I'll give you another person's answer. My brother gave a would-be author five of our best books to read. She came back and said: "You're very different from most of the other Mills and Boon authors. In each one of your books your characters are striking. They are strongminded people. They are not wishy washy. They are on a collision course." Now whether that's true for other readers - I don't know.
Darcy: It's probably not true because we have changed as writers. To try to create stronger characters was a difficult change to make. At times in the past, some of our heroines were not as in control of their lives as much as we wished. That was a deliberate choice to make our heroines more in control. It reflects too the temper of our times. It also comes out of our interactions with readers. As to whether our readers are really like those heroines I am not sure. But they do like to identify with this lady who is taking more control over her life. I hope we're identifying and being part of a social change in this respect.
Emma: I think of ourselves as writers with a particular aim. We always try to write our story with integrity. The seeds are there. We don't throw in devices. That's our aim. We like to get away from the obvious.
Darcy: We try to be imaginative. Sometimes we fail and just can't think of anything. Six years ago I thought the worst storyteller in the world was myself. I don't think I'm the worst now. You can learn these things. You tend to think that these are gifts that people are born with. They are not. They are things that you learn. It's hard work. I've learnt how to tell a story. I've learnt so much from Emma. She's been a great teacher.
Moran: What do you notice about other Mills and Boons authors? Do you chart their stories?
Darcy: No. There's no point. You have to invent your own stories. You invent characters and characters do things. There will always be new romances because there will always be new characters. There is an infinite number of stories.
Some romance authors once got together. But they deliberately decided not to talk about their work in case their plots might be stolen. I cannot understand that. I will tell any of our plots that we are working on to anybody. If they want to use them that's fine. There is nothing to fear in this. The story they will end up producing will be quite different to ours. Because it is your own individuality that is going into it. You are creating your own individual characters.
There is a sense too in which there is no such thing as a new plot. I think someone once said that there were seven plots with every story being a variation of those plots. But all the same there is an infinite number of stories. One author we were speaking to said: "I have no trouble with plots at all. I just take all mine from Shakespeare." What a wonderful idea! We must do that ourselves. But all the stories will be different. And you would not even recognise them as the same. Because the individualising part is not the plot. It is the characters and what you do with them. That is why we have got in Australia something like a quarter of a million readers a month reading totally new romance stories.
1. Janice Radway, Reading the Romance (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1984).
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