He touched her cheek gently. She was quivering and her eyes were glittering with expectation. This time it would have to be different, he told himself. Hard but soft, tender but firm, strong but gentle. And above all, sweet but sour.
It was my sex scene and I was sticking to it.
After all, the flowery language had not come easily to me during this five-day romance writing course at the historic Castle of Park, an eight-bedroom, salmon-pink 16th-century stronghold on a 35-acre estate in northeast Scotland. I have always wanted to write a great love story—Jane Eyre is my favorite book—and I’d hoped this would inspire me.
For more than six hours on each of the five days, ten other wannabes and I, a retired journalist, learned from a master: Sharon Kendrick, a fast-talking, enthusiastic former nurse who is a prolific author for the Harlequin-owned Mills & Boon, the UK publishing powerhouse that sells more than 100 million romance books a year. So far, Kendrick has written 65 titles.
To enter the emotionally charged world of Mills & Boon is to suspend belief in civilization as we know it. Heroes are arrogant, insensitive, strong-willed, impossibly handsome globe-trotting billionaires (millionaires being a dime a dozen these days). Heroines are young, irresistibly beautiful, virginal, and softhearted. The relationship between the two is always turbulent, the dialogue sparky, and the lovemaking the best either has had. Add a few plot twists, such as the ever- popular secret baby who turns up mid book, and before you know it the man is a changed person and the couple is living happily ever after. "These books are not real life," Kendrick said, "which is why so many women read them."
Our goal was to create a chapter-by-chapter outline for a Mills & Boon novel, a challenge made tougher because laptops were banned (too distracting, Kendrick explained), forcing us to write in longhand. With Kendrick’s guidance we managed to get the job done—and develop thicker skins. In class, which started promptly at 10 a.m., we read our work aloud and Kendrick weighed in. She tried to be encouraging but didn’t hesitate to pronounce our prose "boring," "predictable," or "schmaltzy." By the end of day one, there were plenty of bruised feelings.
"Everyone thinks these are easy to write," she said. "But they’re hard work, intense, draining."
On day two we shrugged off our wounds with help from our fellow students. The good-humored mix of smart, savvy women (men are welcome to take the course, but none have so far) were all avid Mills & Boon readers with hopes of getting published. Several were moms and most had high-powered jobs; there was a partner in a global accounting firm, an engineer, and a portfolio manager. Meal conversations in the castle’s cozy dining room were loud and lively and covered everything from politics to child-rearing. At the end of the day we retired to rooms that were comfortable if not luxurious—no telephones, TVs, or Internet—and scattered with antiques.
Our last session was devoted to the art of writing explosive sex scenes. Nobody was late for class. "We all know the mechanics," said Kendrick. "The trick is writing about sex as an expression of emotion." (Kendrick said my scene, excerpted above, "had too much going on.") "Somebody fan me!" a classmate pleaded.
The course ended that afternoon with each of us getting a private assessment from our instructor. Competition to get published is fierce. Mills & Boon receives 6,000 unsolicited manuscripts annually. Of those, six might be chosen "in a good year," according to Kendrick. In other words, I have as much chance of writing a Mills & Boon romance as I do of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Only one student seemed to be a natural, Kendrick thought, and she was deemed most likely to succeed.
I was not discouraged. There’s still a great love story in me waiting to get out. It just won’t include a secret baby.
Five-day course, from $1,295, which covers six nights, meals, and airport transfers; 44-14/6675-1111; castleofpark.net. —Carol Wallace was managing editor of People from 1997 to 2002.