First published in HeartsTalk Magazine, 2010
It could happen to you.
It could! It happened to Melissa James, Michelle Douglas, Barbara Hannay and— more recently—me! We are four of the ten Down Under authors writing for Harlequin Romance—known as Mills & Boon ‘Sweet’ in Oz and NZ—and each of us was once exactly where you are, trying to write the sort of book we thought the market was looking for.
We came together for a virtual cup of java to talk about what makes the Sweet line such a sweet line to write for.
“It’s difficult to pin down the line because there’s so much variety within it,” says RITA award winner and author of 34 novels, Barbara Hannay.
She’s right, and so a lot of people tend to define the line by the urban myths surrounding it because it’s easier.
There are no Alphas in Sweet and the heroines are more passive, right?
It’s got to have a bride or a baby in it, right?
It’s the wholesome line with no sex and no swearing, right?
Right? Erm… Not so much, no. Let’s take a look at these one by one…
HEROES: HARLEQUIN SWEET STYLE
Sweet heroes come from all walks of life and it’s the line where you’ll discover beta and gamma heroes mingling amongst all those high-profile alphas. But that doesn’t mean they’re sappy.
“One thing is sure, a Sweet hero isn’t actually sweet,” Barbara says. “He can be a leader and boss but doesn’t have to be super-rich or super-powerful. He should be confident and successful and at ease in his own skin, even if he has inner demons preventing him from declaring his deepest feelings. He can laugh at himself but, when the time is right, he is desperately serious about his feelings for the heroine.”
Michelle Douglas believes a Sweet hero is the kind of man women aspire to be with. Mr Right. “He can be an alpha, but he will never use his power to coerce the heroine. He’s protective, but not a pushover. He has a strong sense of right and wrong, and of honour. He always considers the heroine his equal.”
2009 RUBY nominee, Melissa James, believes Sweet heroes must always be heroic. “They can thinklike a human but they must do the strong thing.” She says the line has all sorts of heroes, but the reader favourites—as in other lines—appears to be the alpha. “To me, alpha males are the ultimateprotectors. That does not mean abusive, self-protective or selfish. Their demons are inner—self-punishing, only taking it out on the heroine incidentally—their one clear goal is usually to protect her.”
Writer Tip Beware the subjective line between flawed and unheroic. It’s essential to give your hero a well-motivated and real-world flaw that contributes to the conflict in the story, but it shouldn’t lead him to demonstrate unheroic or irredeemable behaviours. Even in the line that’s all about emotional growth.
THE SWEETEST HEROINES
Michelle says it’s the heroine that drives a Sweet romance. ‘She’s modern, strong and equal to the hero in every way that counts.”
“Sweet romances are heroine-centred and the reader experiences the rush of falling in love through her. This means the heroine must be likable and her goals need to be easy for the reader to relate to.”
Ah. Should she be perfect, then?
Cue aghast faces.
“The reader wants to see and experience the heroine’s character growth during the course of the book,” Michelle says. “Perfection will alienate her from readers.”
Barbara Hannay believes the key to writing a Sweet heroine is to remember your reader wants to walk in her shoes, metaphorically. “Being someone we can relate to and care about is most important of all, but beyond that there are no strict rules. She could be a genius as long as she’s a likeable genius. She need not be as glamorous as a Presents heroine or as down-to-earth as a Medical.”
But she should be in trouble.
“In Sweet romance we want to engage the readers’ emotions,” Barbara says, “so give her the kinds of problems that women all over the world might experience. But make sure she doesn’t sit around waiting to be helped. She should be actively working at solving her own problems.”
Melissa agrees. “A Sweet heroine is a strong woman who makes the best of her life and takes the consequences for her actions. Often she’s the one who heals the hero’s inner torture with her strength and love.”
TWO LINE NON-NEGOTIABLES
“Emotion, emotion, emotion.” It’s a Melissa James mantra and the most fundamental feature of the line. “Remember that an editor can reel in over-the-top emotion but they can’t manufacture emotion that isn’t there to begin with.”
“The best emotion comes from genuine, believable conflicts between your characters,” Barbara says.
Sweet readers want to be emotionally aroused above all else. For me, the best kind of emotion comes from simple, realistic conflicts that make you bleed inside rather than from overly complicated melodrama. Having your characters wave their arms around and make much ado about nothing is not a convincing substitute for true emotional punch.
Writer Tip If you’re not yet convinced by the women writing the books, here’s a comment from the woman buying them. Harlequin Senior Editor, Kimberley Young, says her office is looking for “real-world, contemporary issues that affect the lives and loves of modern men and women. As long as the conflict is solidly rooted in emotion, almost any story can fit.”
Which brings us to the second Sweet non-negotiable—motivation.
Kim Young said to me once “Readers don’t have to agree with your character’s choices. They just have to understand them.”
The best stories will have characters making impossible choices in difficult situations and the best motivations will be universally credible. A heroine could work in a strip-club to support her disabled child…but not her drug habit.
Okay, maybe a stripper heroine might be pushing the Sweet envelope, but it certainly would make readers stop and think about how far they would go to protect a child. And understanding her takes you a long way toward liking her.
BUSTING SWEET MYTHS
1. ‘No sex, please, we’re Sweet readers!’
It’s important to respect the fact that most Sweet readers aren’t choosing the line because they’re prudes, they’re choosing it because they’re more interested in what’s going on in their characters hearts and heads than in their bedroom. Or kitchen. Or hot-tub.
Which is not to say there can’t be heat in a Sweet; some positively sizzle and characters do have sex where it suits the story, but it’s never explicit, gratuitous or token.
I had a light bulb moment one day when I realised I was using sex to avoid the emotional intimacy between my characters. It was so much easier (and still is!) to imply emotional intimacy because they were physically connecting than to show it emotionally through their interactions and conversations with each other. Such a cop-out on my part!
2. Confessions of a potty-mouth
Peppering your story with swear-words won’t help build you a loyal following amongst readers in more conservative communities around the world (including middle USA) where strong language is not quite as normalised as it might be in other communities and where the greatest
sales are generated. This doesn’t mean you need to have your characters communicate like the Amish. Passionate, expressive language is an important tool in romance, but—much like sex—it can be easy to use a swear word to short-cut the emotion.
If a (lower-level) curse truly serves a narrative purpose, leave it in. Let the copyeditors decide.
3. Happily Ever After
Must a Sweet must have a wedding to be a true ‘happy ever after’?
“This line goes beyond a merely optimistic ending,” Melissa says. “Sweet likes a clear and unequivocal HEA with reader question-marks neatly resolved. But, no, there doesn’t have to be a wedding if it doesn’t work for the story. Then again, brides are a major reader hook, so if it can work why wouldn’t you include it?”
4. SmallTown, USA. Population 350.
No, Sweet stories aren’t relegated to small towns and ranches just because Sexy and Sexy Sensation dominate the metro-urban settings although suburbs and small towns do fit well with the line’s realistic, ‘It could happen to you’ promise.
Sweet romances have unfolded deep in the Outback, in the villages of India, in a Mediterranean royal principality, on a Montana ranch, in a wilderness resort, in the glassy, glossy high-rises of Sydney and even underground in an Inca ruin where the whole story happens entirely in the dark.
The Sweet line is defined by its authors. There’s a world of give in the accepted conventions which makes sense because there’s a world of difference in the tastes and interests of the women reading the line. Exploit that elasticity to write the sorts of stories, characters and settings you’d like to read.
The fastest way not to get noticed is to submit a story that is carefully constructed to be just like the published authors already in the line. This doesn’t mean you should toss the accepted line conventions entirely out the window but it does mean that you should write the story your way, write something different. Something you. It’s your editor’s job to patrol the convention fence-line. Don’t get hung-up trying to ‘fit’. Apart from anything else, you’re going to spend ten years trying to replicate that so if you’re faking it it’s going to get tough.
SWEET AUTHORS DOWN UNDER (as at time of print) Jennie Adams | Claire Baxter | Ally Blake | Michelle Douglas | Barbara Hannay | Melissa James | Marion Lennox | Nikki Logan | Nicola Marsh | Margaret Way |