YOU THWARTED ME BUT I DID IT ANYWAY! SO THERE!

Note: This summer, we’ll occasionally be bringing back some of our favorite posts.

Enjoy! 🙂

~ By Michelle Cunnah

If you have kids (or know any kids, or have been a kid yourself) then you know that telling them not to do something is an absolute-sure-fire-100%-guaranteed way of making them try do exactly what it is you are trying to discourage them from doing. I am living proof of this.

I’ve loved reading and writing since I was very young. I really can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in a quiet corner reading, or making up stories, or adapting well-known tales into scripts for my friends and I to act out. But my love of romance novels (and later Chick Lit novels) began with my maternal grandmother, one of the nicest people I’ve ever known.

In my teens I spent a lot of time at her house, and because she was such an avid reader of Harlequin Mills & Boon books I decided to try one myself. If they were good enough for Nan Mary, they were good enough for me.

The book was “The Bartered Bride” by Margaret Rome. I devoured it. I was totally hooked. I felt like I’d come home. Many weekends of blissful reading with Nan Mary, and accompanying her to the book exchange in the market to get more books, ensued. And when the movie of Anne Mather’s “Leopard in the Snow” was released, Nan Mary and I went to the very first screening. And then we went again.

I promised Nan Mary there and then that one day I would write a romance book, too. And have it made into a movie. She believed in me completely. She was the only one, as I was soon to discover.

You see, about the same time as I made this promise I discovered a treasure trove of Mills & Boon romances in the school library. It even had my favorite book, “The Bartered Bride.” I was thrilled, because Nan Mary’s copy of that same book had long since gone to the book exchange. Many hours of reading ensued. And then disaster struck.

One day, just as I was checking out my latest stash, the school librarian (who also happened to be one of the English teachers) pulled me to one side. She told me that she’d looked at my reading history. She thought that I should add different genres for balance. But I already read different genres, I wanted to say. What about all the D.H. Lawrence, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Hardy I am studying in English? What about all the Albert Camus, Emile Zola, Gunther Grass, and Annette von Droste-Hülshoff I am studying for French and German? But I didn’t.

She took my romance books away from me and told me that I had to read “proper” books. Then she selected some “proper” books for me. Books by Catherine Cookson and Emily Bronte. And although I have nothing but respect for these authors, it has to be said that their books aren’t exactly the lightest, happiest of reads. I reinforced my promise to myself and Nan Mary. I would write an “improper” book. I would show that librarian!

Sometime later my English teacher (not the librarian/English teacher) set us a piece of homework. To write a short story about anything we wanted. Anything at all. I took a deep breath and plunged into writing my first ever romance. After all, I might as well make a start on that promise to Nan Mary.

I sweated blood over that short story. I edited it. I rewrote it, and then I rewrote it some more. Bear in mind in those days all homework was done by applying pens to paper. And then the deadline date arrived, and I handed it in. I was so nervous, because I thought it was the best thing I had ever written. Surely I would get at least an A-?

I scored a B. I was gutted. What had I done wrong?

Turns out that this teacher was also intent on thwarting me. She pulled me to one side and told me that she couldn’t give me an A because, although my story was imaginative and well written, it was too “women’s magazine.” How unfair was that? Who knew that there was so much discrimination against romance stories? This stiffened my backbone even more. Too “women’s magazine?” Pah! I would show that English teacher.

More discrimination followed .

In the green room at the theater where I worked part time, the front-of-house manager (usually a kind person) asked me what I was reading. When I showed him my Mills & Boon he laughed and poked fun at me for reading “that kind of rubbish.” My other coworkers thought that it was okay to laugh and poke fun at me, too. “That kind of rubbish,” indeed! One day, when I had a romance book with my name on the cover, I would show them all!

Fast forward a few years. Finally, after my family moved to the Netherlands, I had time. I wrote my first romance and sent it off to Mills & Boon, along with a fifty-page synopsis. Yes. That’s right. Fifty pages of synopsis. Unsurprisingly it was rejected. I think maybe having the heroine look at herself in the mirror in chapter one (you know, so that I could tell the editor what she looked like), and had her whole back story in chapter one (you know, so that I could tell the editor what a terrible life she’d had), might have had something to do with it. I don’t think having the heroine go to bed at the end of chapter one helped, either (I was clueless–I didn’t realize this would also send the editor to sleep).  Also, maybe I should have written the whole book before sending off the first three chapters.

So I wrote another story, and over a period of years I wrote another eighteen or nineteen stories in total for Mills & Boon, along with eighteen or nineteen more fifty-page synopses. All were rejected. I can’t remember how many heroines looked at themselves in mirrors or went to bed at the end of chapters.

By this time we’d moved to New Jersey. So I joined RWA, found my local chapter, learned a lot about the business and craft of writing (no mirror descriptions or heroines falling asleep at the end of chapters!), and synopsis writing (and that a synopsis should not be fifty pages long), and decided to try my hand at chick lit. After all, if it was good enough for Jane Austen, it was good enough for me. Plus writing it was great fun, and meant that there was more than one publisher who I could send it to. And receive even more rejections.

And one day I got the call. I had an agent! Yes! And not long after that (although ten years after my first Mills & Boon rejection) my agent sold 32AA to Avon, and I had a three-book deal.

One of the first people to receive a copy of that book was Nan Mary. I had done it, and she couldn’t be prouder. Even though it wasn’t Mills & Boon.

Of course, I’m still living in hope that one of my books will be made into a movie.

Michelle is the author of three women’s fiction and two Young Adult books. She is currently at work on a new women’s fiction story and can be found just outside London, England, where she spends her time either attached at the hip to her computer, or struggling to remember the UK English words for cell phone, sidewalk and spackle. If you’d like to find out more about Michelle’s antics with “improper books”, travel, telephones, red tape and other little life disasters, check out her blog, michellecunnah.com/blog.