From heroes and heroines to infinity and beyond: writing for the mass-market with Susan Wilson – 31 March 2021

I’m still reeling.

I’m wondering where on earth to start. I know, Susan would have emphatically told me to start in Irvine because that, she told us, is the centre of the universe. However, picking through my notes from last night there are so many other places I could begin this blog:

NASA; The White House; a late-night ward round at Ayrshire Central; an Australian neo-natal unit; a Canadian film-lot; the bookshelves of any one of thirty club members

And, with so many themes to choose from, which do I highlight? On what snippet of advice should I dwell? Which seed of inspiration kept me awake? Again, a surfeit of riches:

Read the sort of stuff you want to write; purloin the poolside reading of fellow holiday makers; consider a synopsis the work of the devil; accept the advice of your critical readers and editors; welcome with open arms the support offered by writers’ networks; follow the guidelines publishers issue; if it suits you, do what you do best: just write

Following Susan’s example, by now I should have managed to snatch an hour and easily bashed out a thousand words that would have captured the essence of what she shared with us. However, I can’t even attempt to replay the most valuable bits of an information-packed evening. The best way I could do Susan justice is by advising anyone to spend an hour watching the recording of her session on our website: see if that style of publishing suits you. Then, get on to the Harlequin Mills & Boon website and wander round their pages under the “Write for us” tab. It’s a goldmine of sound advice for the romantic fiction genre and others beside. It’s all about knowing your readership and writing to it. Once you’ve done that, maybe you too could be Googling the New Writer’s Scheme of the Romantic Novelists Association.

With over fifty titles to her name (or names), and with sales of over 1.7 million copies, Susan (or Scarlet, or S M) must have been one of the most prolific authors to accept an invitation to visit our club. In doing so, she lifted the veil on the romantic publishing powerhouse that is Harlequin Mills & Boon. Statistics often stick in my mind. Try these for size: HM&B sell a book every six seconds, in thirty languages, in a hundred and fifty countries, across six continents. With up to a dozen distinct series, each publishing between four and eight titles a month, she described their voracious and unrelenting appetite for material and a business model that allows their authors to simply write. Not into social media? Can’t face the challenge of selling? They’ve got the machine that does it all. Sound attractive?

Yet Susan still had the capacity to write young adult fiction as well – having to wrestle with another pseudonym, book covers and titles. I admired her perspective when she declared that “dinosaurs existed to be in my young adult stories.” Another 90,000 words squeezed into what must already be a hectic life.

And manage a vaccination programme. Can we please have a bottle of what she must be on.

We weren’t allowed to just bask in her reflected glory though – we had to work as well. And so, after penning an opening line or two set in luxurious five-star accommodation, wintry castles or remote, dilapidated homes, Susan wanted advice on what she should add to her own growing to-read pile.

What followed could be the basis of a quiz or party game: match the member to the title. For those who weren’t on Zoom, or haven’t watched the recording, who is:

  • Enthralled by Alan Cumming or coming late to the entertaining writing of Clive James?
  • Getting close to the end of Mantel’s Mirror and the Light, or the final volume of a mega-Sister saga?
  • Seeking solace in The Organised Writer, or paying an annual visit to an Enchanted April?
  • Following Errol Flynn’s Wicked, Wicked Ways, or delving into a Motherwell girlhood??
  • Immersed in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago?
  • Owning up to a Discovery of Witches or returning to the fantasy adventures of Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series?

We really are an eclectic bunch – as readers as well as writers. By the end of the evening, it wasn’t just Susan who would have closed their Zoom screens and ached for a real local bookshop to open.

But already, someone has broadened their reading horizon and Susan / Scarlet’s sales’ total has increased by at least one.

Nigel Ward

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