Category Archives: writing

Romantic Fiction Rocks! But Respect?

Busy fizzRomantic fiction rocks, judging by the enthusiastic turn out at this year’s Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards. Roars of delight, from the home team (publishers, friends, fellow writers-in-the-genre) greeted every winner’s name. Celebration was definitely the key word of the night.

Romance even made it into The Economist last week, (11th March 2023, p23). Although I have a couple of issues with the piece, it’s mostly good news. They report that sales of romance and saga fiction in Britain have risen by 110% in three years, to £53mn annually, their highest figure for a decade, according to Nielsen BookData.

Regency reading woman

print courtesy of 2023 Award Winner Louise Allen

Publishers, they say, “are starting to take notice.”

Well, some of them were cheering their lungs out the Monday before this article was published (see above) so that’s fair enough far as it goes.

Only – call me picky if you will – but even in my experience, they’ve been doing that for a good twenty-five years before the pandemic shut down the RNA annual thrash. Started to take notice?

To be fair to The Economist, their three quarter page report is illustrated by a Regency lady listening to a gentleman pontificate, while waving the book from which he has presumably been reading aloud. She looks weary. Could it be that she has heard it all before and would rather be reading?

Oh, the Shame!

As you would expect from The Economist, the research is exemplary, the style clear and, as a bonus, it’s damn funny. A couple of the jokes made me laugh out loud, even while I winced. And I think those jokes (and those winces) are the root of my other problem with the piece.

The first example is from TikTok. “where once people merely read a category called ‘books’, now they read categories called ‘#friendstolovers’,” laments author. They take particular exception to ‘#billionaireromance’; “there is no category named ‘#earningsparity'” they point out.

I snorted coffee, reading that and wheezed with laughter for several minutes afterwards. Like I said, they do their research, those Economists.

They take aim at a similar, and certainly connected, target: the Mills&Boon title. When it comes to naming a book, Sheikhs have a solid back list. A search offered 282; ‘Doctor’ produced 380 but ‘Billionaire’ hit the jackpot with 754.

“‘Middle Manager’ returned the pitiless phrase, ‘Sorry, no product matches the Keyword,'”reports The Economist sadly. (“I could DO that,” said the author, when she stopped giggling like a loon. “I could so DO that one.”)

Romantic Fiction and Branding

Moth Anniversary memoir of RNA

Fabulous at Fifty edited by Jenny Haddon and Diane Pearson

Romance has had an uneasy reputation in the UK, certainly since World War 2. When Alex Stuart co-founded the RNA in 1960, one of the reasons she gave for it was that her sort of novels were no longer reviewed, although they had been – even in the TLS – right through the thirties.

Long-serving RNA President Diane Pearson (1985-2010) was not only an acclaimed author in her own right but a Senior Editor at Transworld. As evidence of her eye for popular fiction, her stable included Kate Atkinson, Frederick Forsyth, Jilly Cooper, Terry Pratchett and Joanna Trollope. In her speech of Welcome to the RNA Awards every year she pointed out the size of the global market for romantic fiction and the loyalty of its readers. All were backed up by the latest statistics.

But when she and I collected the RNA’s 50th Anniversary Memoir, even Di had to admit that sometimes we were our own worst enemy. She called her end piece Moi? A Romantic Novelist? Barbara Cartland and Mills & Boon, two mega brand identities, between them had overwhelmed the image of romantic fiction. “It is like saying all crime writers are the same as Mickey Spillane,” she wrote, with some feeling.

Romantic Fiction: the Wider Landscape

But romantic fiction is more than a single brand. And it is where The Economist ventures into a one paragraph analysis of a romantic novel that I really stopped laughing. For some reason they have chosen an example of “Jihadi chick lit”, a sub-category previously unknown to me. It doesn’t sound a barrel of laughs. I can’t see many romance readers spitting on their hands and getting stuck into it, frankly.

Why didn’t they go for one of the RNA’s previous award winners? Or a proven best seller, like Katie Fforde or Jill Mansell? Think their usually impeccable research dropped a bit of a clanger there.

Similarly I do not recognise the landscape they identify as “the novels that straddle the romance best-seller charts” especially those claimed to be “modern and American”.

Readers - murder your darlingsCan it be that they have mistaken one exceptionally successful outlier for an example of the population? Much of what they say may well be true of the phenomenon that is Colleen Hoover. She is undoubtedly worthy of The Economist‘s attention in her own right. At one point she had six titles in the top ten, I’m told.

But that is not representative of the whole romantic fiction landscape. Go look at the wide variety of titles that emerge from the RNA Awards every year! They are voted for by Readers.


And this where I take my hat off to the excellent people who are trying to rebalance the scales of justice when it comes to romantic fiction, especially Sara-Jade Virtue of Simon and Schuster. It’s a hill we’ve been climbing a long time. And not, I think, just because, over the last 50 years, the genre’s image has been highjacked by the super brands.

Is there an inbuilt recoil from romantic fiction in the British psyche?

Joanna Trollope, in a thoughtful address at the RNA’s 50th Anniversary Conference, thought that it was a sort of snobbishness and arose “as all snobberies do, out of fear – a fear of emotional display, a fear of emotional vulnerability, and also a terror of humiliation and rejection.”

She also said, and I agree with her, that romantic fiction “is not escapism, in the sense of trying to avoid what must be faced, and it is not trivial. It is, instead, crucial for the richness of our imaginative lives and for the optimistic health of our hearts and minds.”

It seems to me that, as most crime fiction says “there can be justice,” most romantic fiction says, “love will find a way.” Once we have that imagined possibility we can set out, with open heart, in search of a following wind to bring us safely into port anywhere.

Respect Romantic Fiction! We need it.

Sophie Weston Author


Formatting Back Matter : hints for Independent Publishers

fanfare of trumpetsBack matter is where the independent publisher can blow their own trumpet. It’s a great PR opportunity for an author to get readers involved and, crucially, buying more of the author’s books. So it’s worth doing it as well as you possibly can.

Back matter is probably the second-last thing an author needs to do before uploading her ebook. (The last thing is to update the Table of Contents.) Before doing back matter, you should have done all in the following list (click to see my previous blogs on how to do them):

What should be in back matter?

Back matter is very much at the discretion of the author but the following are often included: Continue reading

Female Power, Assumptions and the Novelist

After Joanna’s mind-bending jaunt through French and Female Language last week, I’ve been pondering Female Power and the Would-be Regency novelist. Or pretty much any sort of historical novelist, I suppose.

Today’s assumptions are different from those of the past, any past, and never more so than on the issue of female agency. In general we assume that such women of the past as are now largely invisible to history were also invisible in their own time, at least outside the domestic sphere. Basically men had cornered the market in how the world was run and women had no alternative but to do what they were told.

But assumptions are dangerous. Continue reading

Female language: English and French differ. Or do they?

woman against background of questionmarksRecently, I was stopped in my tracks over female language. Specifically French female language. And then I thought about English, and how different it is. Or is it?

What do I mean by “female language”? Well… I suppose I mean the words and phrases used to signify that we are referring to someone female rather than male. It’s an issue in French, because it’s a gendered language. In English, we’re increasingly moving away from gendered language. For example, we don’t talk about actors and actresses any more, just about actors. And in cricket, we have batters, not batsmen. In the fishing industry, we have fishers, not fishermen. Back before the war, the women who painted china were called paintresses. I can’t imagine anyone using that word now, can you? Or—pace Jane Austen—authoress.

The issue arose because, in the book I’m currently working on, there is a reference to a female examining magistrate in Paris. Now, the French for judge is “le juge” and an examining magistrate (the one who oversees the pre-trial enquiry) is “le juge d’instruction”. So far, so fairly OK. One would address such a magistrate as “monsieur le juge”. But what if he is a she? Continue reading

I’ve got a little list for when I’ve finished the book

When I say I’ve got a little list, it’s growing longer by the day.

Obviously, I always have lists of things I have to do – last month it included “Pay My Tax”, but also check my Public Lending Right statement, to see how much I’ve earned from the wonderful people who borrow my books from libraries.

Times are tough. Your library is a free resource and they’re under threat everywhere, so do make the most of them.

Public Lending Right for those who have never heard of it – and if you’re not a writer, why would you? – was spearheaded by the Society of Authors, an organisation that offers advice to, and lobbies for the interests of authors.

If you’re an author but not a member, Writer Beware gives information about scam merchants who try to rip off authors with fake competitions and dodgy publishers – the people who ask you to pay vast sums of money to publish your book and, having pocketed it, do nothing to sell it. Check them out before you sign a contract.

But back to my list

Continue reading

Heroines, Heroes, Failure and Jacinda Ardern

New Zealand map with pinThis blog doesn’t normally touch politics but today (Friday) I learned that Jacinda Ardern is resigning as Prime Minister of New Zealand. She has decided to leave the job after more than five years because, she said, she “no longer has enough in the tank to do it justice.” It’s a frank and honest statement. Possibly even heroic? But is it failure?

Can heroes admit to failure?

handsome dark-haired young man with beard and faraway gazeAnd then I started thinking about the heroes we write and wondering whether any of them would get away with making a statement like Ardern’s. Does an alpha hero (say) ever admit that he’s no longer up to whatever it is he does? That he’s a failure? Or that he would be if he continued?

Can’t say I’ve met many in the fiction I read, especially not in contemporary romances. Romantic heroes may occasionally fail at some task, sure. But don’t they usually learn from their failure and go on to bigger and better things?

And, even when they do fail, do they confess it to the world at large? Or do they keep that chiselled jaw suitably clamped and say nothing?

The key question, I suppose, is this:
is a hero a failure—unheroic—if he admits he is no longer up to the job? Continue reading

What Writers Read

This Christmas a writer friend has given me a fascinating little book called What Writers Read. It’s one of those charity collections – in this case to support the National Literary Trust – in which a bunch of supporters get together to produce something to promote the cause and raise funds.

This time it is 35 essays by various writers, some of whom I have been reading most of my life, some I’ve never heard of, about their experience of reading their favourite book. And most of the pieces I have read so far are genuinely about the experience.

What Writers Read –  Discovery

Oh, they talk about their chosen book, of course they do. But these are not puffs for the beloved tome. Even less are they weighty reviews, weighing plot, character and impact.

For instance, William Boyd on Catch 22 assumes we will already know the book. And on that basis, he  gives us a chilling insight into his teenage self going home to a war zone. I sat up straighter in the chair, gripped by anxiety, as he described going round the book store at Heathrow. Continue reading

Research Pitfalls and Pleasure

I have always found researching the back ground for my stories to be the greatest fun. But it is not all joy. Worse, it can be counter-productive.

As this year is on the brink of turning, I have been taking stock of my writing habits and also my output. Well, a little. Not the full audit, you understand. Just a gentle canter through those things that I have done, and those that I have left undone. And why.

And the reason, I fear, is often Research.

So I thought some people might be interested in my conclusions on research, its pitfalls and pleasures.

Pitfall 1  Getting Lost in Research

Continue reading

Off-Putting Endings — how not to finish a book?

Inspforget the starsired by Joanna’s recent blog on ways to put a reader off at the start of a book, I thought it would be interesting to discuss a few pet peeves about off-putting endings.

Call it book-ending Joanna’s post 😉

For me, there is nothing more disappointing than settling down with a book, enjoying the story and investing in the plot and characters. You read to the last page…  And then it leaves you flat.

I have to confess to a vested interest here – a book I read recently which turned out to be one of a series.
Nothing wrong with that, I hear you say.

Female climber clinging to the edge.No, only the cliff-hanger ending left so many loose ends in the main romance and the plot that I felt thoroughly let down. I also felt I was being hustled into buying the next.

I didn’t.

Having invested quite heavily in the story so far, I wasn’t prepared to have it happen again.

Solutions to off-putting endings

Continue reading

A pearl anniversary…

One score and ten years ago…

Busy fizzWith apologies to Abraham Lincoln – I couldn’t resist – it is thirty years ago, almost to the day (it was actually December 2) when my first book, An Image of You, was published.

It was my fourth attempt to write a book for Mills and Boon. I do, somewhere, still have my first rejection letter. I seem to recall the word “wooden” used to describe my characters, and a suggestion that I read books by Elizabeth Oldfield and Vanessa Grant. As you can tell, it is ingrained in my memory.

The book…

I later had the enormous pleasure of meeting Elizabeth at author lunches, along with so many fan-favourite romance authors. But back to that precious moment. The arrival of my first box of books. I’d been out somewhere and when I came home the box was sitting on my desk, with my husband and daughter staring at it, waiting for me to open it. Continue reading