RNA Conference 2008: The Craft. Harlequin Mills and Boon Editors


I still find it amazing that SO many professional, hard working people are willing to give up their weekend to come to talk to Romance Writers like me at the RNA Conference.

Two of these people are Kimberley Young and Joanna Carr, who are both Editors at the Mills and Boon Richmond Office. Their presentation was upbeat and full of positive energy – and the information was exactly what anyone with aspirations of writing for this publisher needed!

Including me.

Apologies for not taking more notes, but my brain was jazzed with all the lateral thinking that was going on as the ladies were speaking. Any mistakes and omissions are mine.

It is not often that you have the opportunity to ask questions from the Senior Editor of the Line you hope to write for. So thanks again to Jan Jones and HMB for making it possible.

Fan girl? Moi?


Don’t Let the Plot get in the Way of the Story!


Speakers: Kimberley Young, Senior Editor at Harlequin Mills and Boon Romance, UK, and Editor Joanne Carr

The Top 10 Opening Scenarios, the editors see in Submissions to the Richmond office




Doom and gloom. Down trodden.

Romances are meant to be uplifting and powerful expressions of hope and love and escapism. Especially in times of economic recession.

Why would a reader choose to read on, if the opening is depressing?


Meeting up again by co-incidence

e.g. Casablanca. Must be interesting. Have a logical reason for these two people to be there at the same time. Work conference etc then someone transfers to another office. The coincidence has to be effective.


Car crash. Angry first meeting.

Anger is not conflict, and is not interesting.

Think ‘Notting Hill’ – she is a film star, he is a bookseller. He spills juice on her. Suddenly opposites attract scenario, and it becomes interesting.

Show a realistic response to the situation.


Your boss. That one night stand.

Must be believable. This is one of the most popular themes and there are some authors who are experts. Must be fresh and new.


Heroine off to start a new life – on a plane or train etc

This is often just a setting – unless of course she meets someone on the flight. Do you need this scene?

One line is enough. She had emigrated or moved away. Why did she leave everything behind? The reader will fill in the rest.



Difficult balance. Overcoming grief vs Romance.

Can be a very effective and powerful scenario to manipulate your reader’s emotions, but hard to pull off.


Reading of a Will

This can be a very contrived way of showing the reactions of a character, and is best kept simple – one line. Useful as a turning point in a historical setting, or creates a conflict later – but must be credible.


The Death Bed Scene

Has to be completely part of the story, or used as a plot device e.g. Aging king calls his sons together – starts a series where there is a different character arc for each of the princes.


Stranger in your bed

Why would you jump on him, instead of calling the police?

Understand why you are using this scenario – there must be very powerful motivation in your set-up


Jilted at the altar.

Unless handled well, can lead you to negative thoughts  – why does the bride or groom not know their fiancé and why would they fall for someone else so quickly?


When and why DO these clichéd Romantic Conventions work?


·        they give a short cut to characters and emotions, and bring the couple together. E.g. Secret Baby story, Marriage of Convenience

  • the reader jumps into the heart of the story with the heroine – the emotional conflict is clear. Births, marriages and funerals – the key emotional time points in people’s lives
  • the plot gives an immediate event to pull the reader in – starts with an action and reaction sequence.
  • Reader recognition – they know what kind of read they are getting when they see recognise the plot device
  • When the individual voice of the author shines through
  • When the clichéd opening is the spring board to a complex or simple plot
  • When talented writers make these opening seem fresh and appealing.
  • When the author understands the romantic convention – BEFORE they twist it.
  • When the author has used their strengths to create a compelling read.


Character Cliches


  • Do not use clichés as an excuse for unoriginal characterisation
  • Ensure that the characters, settings and themes are up to date. E.g. Cinderella can work well depending on the series
  • What makes you respond to the character no matter what their traits are? E.g Lack of trust in their partner is the character’s problem.
  • Characters behaving badly for the sake of the plot – out of character. This is a no-no. Motivations are key. Never let the plot get in the way of the romance.
  • Use the backstory for the characters as ammunition – especially in dialogue and dramatic moments where it can cut straight to the heart of their conflict. Then show the reaction of the other character as max emotional impact.



Can often be backstory which does not add anything for the reader. Can the same information be shown through dialogue?

As far as editors and readers are concerned, the story starts at Chapter One.


Cliffhangers at the end of Chapters.

Ask how the romance has evolved in that chapter.

Don’t end the chapter on a flat note, but if the turning point comes mid-chapter, leave it rather than force an artificial break.



Make the Black Moment an emotional moment, not a plot device.

It does NOT have to be built up so that the emotional burden is all on ONE specific moment  which has to carry a HUGE emotional burden. Too much pressure – and it is risky.

The reader is interesting in Reaction as well as Action.



The Pitfalls of Plotting Tip Sheet.


  • Plot is about character, character, character! [ Get the hero and heroine on the page asap]
  • Choose your set-up carefully – if it is a conventional one, make sure that you are bringing unique elements through character and voice. 

Why are you using this scenario? Is this the best way to bring your characters together?

  • Understand why the convention works before you twist it
  • Make sure your characters are driving the plot
  • Characters must be well motivated
  • Do not use clichéd characters
  • Never EVER let the plot get in the way of the romance – change the plot, not your characters
  • The reader is interested in Reaction not just Action
  • Know what the plot needs to be on the page
  • The black moment should never be a plot device or there just for dramatic effect
  • Be wary of using secondary characters to move along your plot
  • Prologues and Epilogues – use with care
  • Choose a plot that is suitable for the series you are targeting
  • Your reader will believe in any plot IF they believe in your characters
  • The characters are going on a journey – think of the plot as the road, not the destination!


 [ This last line has stuck with me. Cool.]


Go here for the extended writing guidelines on what the Harlequin editors are looking for in each series: http://www.eharlequin.com/articlepage.html?articleId=538&chapter=0,  and here for the UK office – www.millsandboon.co.uk



 Now I know what I have to achieve – so back to the writing. GULP.