Friday, September 08, 2006

Michelle Styles: Call Story

Back in March 2003, I read a report about how Mills and Boon Historicals were expanding their offering to include ancient civilizations and up to WW2. Immediately I thought about Rome and how I had always wanted to read really romances set in the period but had been disappointed about the one or two I had read.
Some people even said that there was no demand for such a time period. One of the reasons cited was the preponderance of arranged marriages. This was a total red herring in my opinion as for most of civilization, arranged marriages were the norm.
But at the time, I had revisions to do for a marriage of convenience story that was aimed at Tender. In the end, the mss was not strong enough (a view that I now utterly and wholeheartly agree with) and M&B passed. That particular manuscript was eventually cut from 55k to 30k and sold to My Weekly Story Collection as a novella and then to Lindford Romance as The Marriage Inheritance. It was, however, my first complete manuscript.
One thing I did acquire from the experience was an editor -- Helen French -- who thought I had promise and was willing to work with me. I happened to mention to Helen that what I was really interested in doing was writing historicals, and maybe set in Rome. Was I correct in thinking they wanted to see such a thing? The answer came back a resounding YES. So I started researching. I also knew that I had to put in a manuscript or partial for the RNA New Writer's Scheme.
I duly put in a partial of a Roman set one. The response was immediate from the NWS -- my writing was good but M&B are not interested in publishing such things and if they did, they would use an established writer.End of story, aim it at somewhere else, had I thought of crime? Anyway, I asked Helen who exploded and said basically who did these people think they were -- Historicals was very interested in going into new time periods and she thought I would be good at Rome.
I explained that the report had also said that she thought the partial had too much suspense, so I was going to write that one as a crime novel but I would like to write one about gladiators. Would they be interested as we were talking professional sports heroes here? Helen went and asked at a meeting and the answer came back -- a resounding yes from the both sides of the Atlantic. Once again well meaning friends and fellow writers said -- be cautious, don't get your hopes up.
Anyway, I did my research (including visiting Rome) and submitted the partial in March 2004 and Helen was busy and I didn't hear much. At this point, I thought -- maybe everyone was right. Then Kate Walker who is a truly marvelous person was sitting next to Linda Fildew, the senior editor of Historicals at lunch and decided to ask once and for all -- were they interested in Rome? Answer:YES and please tell your friend to send it. I contacted Helen again who apologized and requested the full -- like most editors she was snowed under.
I then submitted the full and one of the last acts Helen did as an editor at M&B was to hand carry the manuscript over to Linda. (Helen's husband had another job and she moved) This was in June 2004. And an agent I was trying to interest in my work said -- nice but HM&B will never buy such a thing. Several other agents said the same thing. One said to me -- my gut instinct is that this is a no-goer. There is no market for it. Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings. All the while, I kept clinging on to the fact that Helen had hand-carried it and it was sitting on Linda's desk. Surely it had to be good enough for revisions.
Fast forward to May 2005, after following up to reassure myself that the manuscript was still in house, I finally received an email from Linda saying that she had read it and could I do a few revisions. Linda has a very good eye, and I learnt a tremendous amount from her letter. I did the revisions and sent them in and then felt like I was on a roller coaster. Had I actually done them correctly?
Now, I had done my research and it seemed to me that The Call came on a Thursday. Three Thursday came and went. Nothing. Late on Friday 10 June 2005, the phone rang. It was Linda Fildew. Did I have time to talk? Yes, I gasped, thinking I must be very close but this won't be The Call because that ALWAYS happens on a Thursday. Her next words were basically that they had read and loved Gladiator's Honour and wanted to buy it. I believe I started crying and we chatted for awhile. Linda is lovely to chat with. I did ask her about the Thursday thing and she said that she ALWAYS called on a Friday to ensure the writer had a wonderful weekend which I duly did.
As you can see from this story, there is a reason why Gladiator's Honour is dedicated to Helen French.
Since Gladiator's Honour, HM&B Historicals have bought three other Roman manuscripts from me (the next one comes out in paperback in January for M&B) as well as purchasing at least two other writers' stories. They wanted to publish the time period but no one was writing the stories.
And I am here to say -- go to the source, believe the editors and the guidelines. If you have a strong enough story, a good story well told, that fits the guidelines the editors will be interested. Agents and others writers may know a lot, but they are not the editors. Trust the editors to know their own minds.
If you believe and follow your dream, sometimes it happens.


Laura Vivanco said...

I sometimes think that Mills & Boon/Harlequin doesn't get enough recognition for the innovations it does try out. I have the impression that some people are a bit dismissive of 'category' romances (I might be wrong about that, and it's just an impression I have). Sometimes the innovations don't work out (e.g. Bombshell), but they do at least try. And yes, in the historicals I can recall reading about all sorts of different periods and locations.

Michelle Styles said...

Yes, I do agree. HM&B do try out a lot of different things.
I have found my editors to be very receptive to any ideas I have.And also they have not confined me to just about the Roman period. Currently I am doing a Viking, and after that a Victorian Christmas one.
My advice to New Writers to write the time period where your heart is. Is there a period in time that you think is crying out for a good romance? If so, give it a try and you never know -- you too may prove the doubters wrong!