My Harlequin novel
It had a flame-haired heroine, suggestive euphemisms, and the steamiest 'clinch' scene my 16-year-old imagination could muster. Nearly two decades later, I set out to learn why they never published it.
AT HOME FOR MY PARENTS' 40th wedding anniversary not long ago, I came across a yellowing manuscript and a faded letter in a dusty storage room. ``I am a young writer interested in having Harlequin Presents publish a novel I have recently completed," the letter began. It was dated July 6, 1989, making me 16 when I wrote it. Though it made me cringe, I couldn't help but read to the bottom, where I concluded with the declaration, ``I am and will remain an avid reader."
It was true. I had started reading trashy novels when I was 9, and I didn't stop until my mid-20s. I first discovered them when an older cousin arrived from England, bringing with her a handful of Mills & Boon books full of brooding men and windswept women locked in what's known in the industry as ``the clinch."
It wasn't long before I ditched Nancy Drew and Louisa May Alcott. When I'd run through my cousin's stash of Mills & Boon, I helped myself to her growing collection of Harlequins. Based in Don Mills, Ontario, Harlequin Enterprises got its start in the romance industry in 1957, reprinting Mills & Boon novels, but it was so successful it eventually took over its British counterpart.
Harlequin has long dominated what insiders call the category romance-a paperback meant to last on bookstands and in book club circulars for a month before being replaced by another paperback with different names, different places, and a very similar plot. It was Harlequin that came up with the strategy of selling their books in drugstores and supermarkets, where they could twirl around on stands, their distinctive covers (white, with the clinch framed in an oval) catching the attention of homemakers in need of an escape.
But the Harlequin readership has never quite fit its desperate housewife stereotype. Nearly half of romance readers are college graduates, according to Romance Writers of America, a trade group, and they have sex 74 percent more often than their nonromance-reading counterparts, according to a study reported in Psychology Today. (The reason, the researchers postulated: an active fantasy life.)
The heyday of the category romance was in the `80s, when I did the bulk of my Harlequin reading. A decade later, however, Harlequin began losing readers to single titles-books that come out in hardcover first and have a longer shelf life. Readers, it seems, were ready for more complex story lines, and they were willing to follow their favorite writers like Catherine Coulter and LaVyrle Spencer to the hardcover stands.
Yet Harlequin, ever savvy when it comes to marketing its product, has changed its approach. ``Read what Harlequin is publishing today," Gayle Wilson, the president of the Romance Writers of America, told me recently. ``The novels have changed enormously in 20 years."
She was right. In the `80s, the prototypical hero was a playboy, ripe for the reformative power of love; today, there's a prototype to suit all tastes. The Red Dress Ink imprint is basically chick lit (``Girls Night Out," the much anticipated sequel to ``Girls Night In"); Spice gets kinky (``Tease" is a ride into the ``dark heart of the most breathtakingly erotic S&M club in Manhattan"); Steeple Hill keeps it pure with Christian love stories; and Luna represents dark otherworldly forces. The vampire-lover, in fact, is today's hottest hero, according to Romance Writers of America, though NASCAR drivers, a recent entry, also show promise. The only love Harlequin hasn't yet probed is the same-sex variety.
Harlequin has kept pace with its readership, recognizing that it is far more diverse than the stereotypical homemaker. Yet the company's most ingenious marketing device might be one that dates back to my teenage years: Unlike most publishers, Harlequin goes out of its way to encourage Harlequin readers to become Harlequin writers, urging them to master the form by devouring as many of the books as possible. Which is how it came to pass that I sent that letter to Ontario.
. . .
Much of Harlequin's website, eharlequin.com, is dedicated to aspiring Harlequin authors. The site prods readers to ``commit to submit," and each month tackles a different writerly challenge. (Recent topics include ``archetypes" and ``motivation and stamina.") For a fee of $1 per page, eharlequin.com even offers ``professional, experienced critique editors to assess the romance novel manuscripts."
The Harlequin website didn't exist back in 1988 when I called the company for information on how to submit a manuscript. But I did receive, by mail, detailed submission guidelines for the seven series Harlequin was publishing at the time. I debated whether my book met the specifications of a ``Romance" or a ``Presents." The former was limiting. ``Descriptions of sex or sexual feeling should be kept to a minimum in Romances. . . Leave a lot to the imagination." I opted for Presents, which despite discouraging ``an excess of clinical detail," allowed for ``a high degree of sensuality."
Structure, I knew, was key, and I consulted my source materials to remind myself of the template: The first kiss came early, and ended with the heroine recovering her sense of decorum, and often proceeded to a second, interrupted interlude, which built anticipation for the big night, when the heroine, nearly always a virgin, was euphemistically initiated into the joys of sex.
My flame-haired heroine, Brooke Wilkins, was feisty, yet demure, ``with ivory skin reminiscent of a china doll" and a ``flashing pair of blue-green eyes." Unable to resist her manifest charms, a manager at the multimillion dollar Cavens Corp. hits on his employee, and then fires her when she rejects his advances. (Cavens Corp. had something to do with fashion, since Brooke was developing a clothing line called ``Silent Fire," but I didn't have much work experience to draw upon, so the details were vague.) But Brooke needs her job (whatever it was) to pay for a life-saving operation for her ailing father, so she appeals to the company CEO, Derek Cavens, whom she meets, kisses, and slaps by page 11.
Despite-or perhaps because of-the smack, Cavens is so taken with this ``green-eyed angel" that he proposes marriage, though rather than confess his love (which would have ended the book at page 46), he tells her, ``I need a wife because I want a child to take over Cavens before I die." If Brooke doesn't agree, he threatens to see to it that she never works again.
To save her father, Brooke is forced to accept his proposal, a decision she later embraces as her feelings for Cavens deepen. Their marriage is consummated in metaphors of celestial explosions. ``They reached higher and higher for the heights of heaven until in one shining moment, they were one being. Suddenly, a million shards of joy shattered through them as they reached fulfillment."
I finished the 53,000-word manuscript-right in the middle of the 50,000 to 55,000 requirement-in three weeks. As instructed, I submitted the query letter to Karin Stoecker, then a senior editor at the company's headquarters. ``Over the years, romance has come to mean a great deal to me," I wrote. ``I have watched others my age become disillusioned about love. I hope to instill a new faith and anticipation into romance."
I never heard back. I was already debating which nom de plume I would use to preserve my reputation for the day when I would write my great American novel-but Ms. Stoecker didn't even bother to reply.
Harlequin and I parted company after the rejection. I never really liked their thin plot lines and prudish sensibilities anyway. I quickly graduated from their books to the fatter historical novels with steamier clinches that promised, and delivered, more detailed sequences, replete with ``thrusting manhoods" and ``quickening insides." Eventually, I abandoned the genre altogether.
. . .
By the time I found my old manuscript, I had gotten past my anger, but my curiosity was piqued. I resolved to figure out why my letter had been ignored, and set out to find the elusive Karin Stoecker.
Stoecker, it turns out, is still with the company, and is now the editorial director of Harlequin Mills & Boon in London. She agreed to talk to me.
``The company prides itself as a publisher who reads every submission," she told me, adding that Harlequin has discovered some of its current stable of 1,300 writers in just that manner. (``How many?" I asked. Well, maybe 1 percent, she replied.) She rattled off some of the authors her office had rejected in the past-Nora Roberts (who went on to become the best-selling romance writer of the decade) and Helen Fielding (of future ``Bridget Jones's Diary" fame.) At least I was in good company.
Stoecker admitted that my query probably never made it past the person opening the mail, which apparently satisfied the company policy. Besides, she added, ``I'm not convinced the query letter tells you anything about a writer's style." It was as if she were goading me to resubmit my manuscript. Which, of course, I did, faxing her a copy of my query letter and my opening chapter.
I didn't fare any better on my second try. ``We have read this with interest," Stoecker wrote to me in a formal rejection letter, ``but regrettably have decided not to pursue this project further." She continued: ``You have employed explanatory narrative at the expense of allowing the characters to show the story happening. . ..For example, there is no real reason, other than plot device, for Derek to demand Brooke marry him."
She elaborated in an e-mail, noting that my submission was ``a story of its time (although perhaps more `70s than `80s)." She went on to imagine how the plot might unfold today: ``Brooke would have filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Cavens for sexual harassment and unfair dismissal. To escape the media attention surrounding the trial she accepts the offer of a friend's remote cabin in the Poconos. However she arrives to find the cabin already occupied by a friend of the owner's brother, the mysterious owner of Cavens. . ."
Yes! Yes! I could see the fire crackling and hear the wind thumping against the log doors of the cabin. This woman was good. A yearning to give my story another try, to update it for the Harlequin of today, came over me. But then I reread the last line of my rejection letter, and thought better of it.
``We would not recommend that you attempt to revise this story," the letter advised, ``but suggest that you read as many of our current titles as you can."
Nadya Labi is a freelance writer based in New York.