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They take this incredibly seriously. They say things like "Mediterranean hero equals passion" and "Billionaire sells" in the same tone you would say, "Your father is dead. They are selling dried goods. In fact, the managing director, Guy Hallowes, is leaving soon, to be replaced by Jane Ferguson, the woman who runs Ryvita.

You eat them. I walk out of the office and ignore everything they have told me. I don't read 50 current books. I read three. And I realise I hate the characters. I call it Abducted by Reality. The men are appalling. They are always saying things like, "You are a stupid little fool! So I decide to talk to some. One of them says she has five university degrees. You escape to another place and another world. I am now a little chastened.

So I sit down to write. But I find I can't do the sample chapter and synopsis. I know I am supposed to write about a believable heroine falling in love with a believable hero and having a believable happy ending. This is what the experts have told me; this is what the readers expect. But, to my surprise, I simply cannot do it. I can't even begin to write a woman I like enough to give a lover to. Begin with myself, you say?

There is nothing heroic about me. I am bilious and I smoke. Ready to become a book-a-month girl? A woman who does not believe herself loveable enough to write a hero for? Pass the axe. So I borrow a pair of cliches and swim into pastiche. I write a prim, virginal heroine. Her name is Lucy and she grew up in a mining town.

Her chain-smoking mother worked nights at a toy factory to send her to private school. Lucy works for the Guardian, where she dreams of being taken off the dressing-up-as-a-fairy-for-Glastonbury rota, "and given a shot at a real story! Either way, I hate her. And my hero is just a prat. He is called Darcy and he is a billionaire media tycoon. He hates women because his mother died of a diabetic fit, when he was supposed to be looking after her.

But he went out riding instead. Once I have Lucy and Darcy, I begin to write a ridiculously hackneyed plot in which my cliches get on and off aeroplanes and my cliches have sex and my cliches cry and my cliches get drunk and roll about on the floor, moaning and saying things like, "I always believed in you. How Dare You? I am pleased with myself when I have finished. I am particularly pleased that at the end Darcy buys Lucy the Guardian and she installs herself as editor, with a pro-shoes agenda.

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I cannot believe this. It didn't convince me. I decide they said they loved it because I am a journalist. They get 4, submissions a year — and 10 will make it. The slush pile has to be protected. I need a second opinion for my manuscript. Michelle is revered in romance fiction circles for her blunt advice. The next day, I telephone her. She speaks in a low American accent; she sounds hesitant.

Bad news? Or they don't tell you in a way you can understand. I don't think you even like him. How can the reader fall in love with him if you don't?

Your heroine is too damaged. She went to Cambridge and never had a boyfriend? This is called The Heroine Problem. It is much harder to write the heroine than the hero, apparently, because she has to be bland enough not to offend millions of readers and interesting enough not to offend millions of readers.

They essentially have to facilitate a sexual encounter between two other people — the reader, and the hero. They are the third person in the romance. And my heroine is mental. Anything else? She ends up with a Nobel prize for literature? What has that to do with how she has grown as a person?

You need to assume the reader is intelligent. Readers buy these books when they are waiting for chemotherapy or are housebound, or finding out their husband has left. You have to respect them. Laurey Bright. Diana Hamilton.


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