The Best Time I Published With Harlequin
by Mia Crawford
My road to smut-selling began in a used bookstore in Sydney, Australia. I was Down Under (hold your horses, I haven’t got to the dirty bit yet) to backpack for six weeks before starting my Masters in English Lit. Being the freckly little keener that I was, I’d decided to get a jump on my fall semester reading list, so I sashayed into the store to buy The Sound and The Fury. Obviously nothing would suit the beach-side lolling and hangovery mornings I was anticipating like a breezy romp through Modernist stream-of-consciousness familial turmoil.
I’d grabbed the book when a giant bin of used Harlequin romances caught my eye. These were old-school romances from the ’70s and ’80s. Covers featured soft-focus drawings of pensive ladies in pastel with angry looking sheiks, or pipe-smoking doctors looming behind. These were the Harlequins I grew up on. Reading them as a kid I’d had no idea what a gold-digger was and never managed to successfully visualize a pantsuit, but I had sighed over all those jerky men being redeemed by a lady’s love.
Once I started rooting through the bin, I knew there was no going back. Because they were fifty cents apiece, I could buy 20 romances for the cost of my Faulkner. Benjy and Caddy were discarded in favour of The Taut Tycoon and Her Dark Desire. It was the best $10 I ever spent. My travelling buddy and I read Harlequins all the way up the east coast of Australia, making friends wherever we went by giving away books and then happily comparing incomprehensible outfits, sex scenes, and degrees of passive uselessness in the heroines.
By the time we’d reached Cairns, the farthest point of our journey, we were convinced we could write our own. We came up with the title (Love’s Bouquet) and plot on the back of a napkin — Wendy Blake, plucky florist, spends years delivering “Love ’em and Leave ’em bouquets” for entrepreneurial cad James Crofton. When a series of events force them to work together, Wendy finds herself wildly attracted to the autocratic industrialist, until, against her own instincts for self-preservation, she sleeps with him. A misunderstanding drives them apart, and only when James realises he can’t live without Wendy, and makes a determined effort to win her back, are they reunited.
I flew back home and set to work. I loved writing dialogue, hated descriptions, and glossed over the one sex scene as quickly as I could. I found writing about sex surprisingly difficult … how do you talk about all of the licking and thrusting and het-up-ness without sounding like a tool (tee hee)? Plus, I kept thinking how embarrassing it would be if my mother or brother ever read it.
Over the next couple of years, between drinking too much, reading too much, kissing too much, causing an accident with a friend’s dad’s car, leaving the oven on for my entire week-long spring break, discovering Goldschlager, eating canned oysters, after drinking too much Goldschlager and failing to get “up” while waterskiing, I got my Master’s and finished my first novel.
I was cocky and obnoxious and figured that if I, a person who (eventually) studied Faulkner and had a GRADUATE degree in English Lit, wanted to get a Harlequin published, it would be a doddle. It wasn’t. My book was terrible, of course. Also, the romance field had changed since those 50-cent Harlequins had been published. Category romance was no longer the domain of drippy women and masterful men; rather, the stories were more complex, the characters more rounded, and while a happy outcome was guaranteed, the writing was much better. I soon learned it was a tough field to break into.
I took some writing courses, found an amazing group of critiquers and made the book better. I researched the romance market (one of the few consistently booming areas of the publishing field) and came to respect the professional (mostly women) authors who wrote and published romances. Eventually I submitted a much revised draft of Love’s Bouquet to Harlequin and an editor liked it and requested a few tweaks. When I finally sent it back to her, the romance/humor line the novel was aimed at had been discontinued, and there was no place for it. (Harlequin has tons of different lines — everything from very chaste romances with Christian themes, to full on erotica where the romance takes a backseat to the bawdy.) After spending years revising god-damned Wendy Blake and her god-damned plucky personality, I gave up.
My failure to get published had been humbling, but all was not lost. In addition to getting my richly deserved comeuppance, I had begun to think of myself as a writer.
Cut to a couple of years ago. A new mother in the glorious Socialist regime of Canada, I was off on a year’s paid maternity leave. For the first three months, I was the stereotypical breast-milk leaking, hormonally crazed, sleep-deprived nightmare. I wore enormous underwear, timed the length of the baby’s naps, worried that I’d have hemorrhoids until the day I died, and was generally off my rocker.
After the craziness subsided, it turned out I had a really good kid, who was a champion napper. This meant that I had huge chunks of time to myself. In my newfound baby bliss I fantasized about the fabulous, latte-sipping, Lululemon-wearing freelance writing life I could have, where I would bake free-range organic hemp-carob cookies for the child while engaging in dynamic, fulfilling work.
The first step in this new life goal was to find a way to make writing pay, so I returned to Harlequin. From their website I learned they were actively seeking contributions to their “Spice Briefs” line. According to the style sheet, Spice Briefs were erotic novellas with the emphasis on sex over love. Swooning at the sight of his “pillar of manhood” was out and explicit raunch was in.
In the interest of research, I downloaded a bunch of Spice Briefs and confirmed what the style sheet said: these stories had nothing to do with fluttering hearts, or lip-biting heroines, and everything to do with horny people banging. They were full-blown (hee!) erotica, and I was game to give it a whirl.
I’ve never really thought of myself as a particularly sexual person. I mean, I certainly enjoy it when it’s going on; and if you give me two glasses of wine, I’ll definitely start getting frisky, but my need for sex has never defined me. What I discovered is that writing about sex is actually, very, um, stimulating. Suddenly I had to think about what it meant to kiss and to lick and to bite and to grab. I had to analyze what those sensations felt, tasted, smelled, and sounded like in order to describe them in a realistic and compelling way. It turns out that thinking about sex for hours at a time is a sure-fire way to pique your libido. Fantastic bonus to the whole “pursuing my dream” angle.
While plot sometimes appeared secondary to the sex in the Spice Briefs I’d read, I was committed to coming up with decent characters and some kind of story. I don’t remember how I hit upon archaeology amongst Egyptian ruins — maybe I was looking for somewhere hot so I could work in a lot of sweat? At any event, after a week or two of writing, I had crafted a decent little novella … The usual girl meets boy, really … Young archaeology student falls into a hole while working on a dig, gets dominated and spanked a bit by some kind of fantastical ghost-Pharaoh-god, gains valuable sexual mojo from the whole experience, and goes on to bone her hot boss. Done and done.
My next step was to get a few other pairs of eyes on my novella, to make sure it was half decent. I couldn’t bring myself to ask my usual critiquing group. While they’d earnestly parsed my every sentence in the past, I wasn’t sure how they’d react to me deploying “erect nipples” and some harmless S&M into our next conversation. Luckily, I’m blessed with an overabundance of sisters, so I hit up two of them. The older one had some good insights, but I really scored with my little sister. Generally not the most communicative person, her critique was succinct and to the point: “rougher, more sweat, more cock” … Alrighty then.
When I had made the alterations, I fired the novella off to Harlequin and then promptly forgot about it. Months later, when the baby was in daycare, delightedly eating Oreos rather than Hemp-E-os, and I had returned to my office job, my dream of living a fabulous, champagne and feather boa freelance existence a mere memory, I got the call (email). Harlequin wanted my book!
From that moment everything was very straightforward. My editor didn’t ask for a single editorial change to the manuscript, so obviously my research into Egyptology and archaeology (not to mention the finer points of ear-licking) had paid off. She didn’t like my title, though, and suggested one that I thought was much better, anyway. Thus, Carnal Punishment (hot, right?) was born. I signed a lot of papers, had zero input into the cover (but I like it) and used the pseudonym I had picked out back when I thought Love’s Bouquet was going to make my fortune.
The pseudonym raises a tricky point, because it turns out I’m not the liberated lady I thought I was. While I could deal with the thought of my mother and my brother reading it (sort of), the idea of colleagues seeing what I’d written was terrifying. In the end, I didn’t tell many people about finally getting published. I’m not ashamed, far from it; I’m proud of what I wrote. I think my novella is funny and sexy, and it’s been legitimized by the biggest publisher in the world. On the other hand, my book is called Carnal Punishment, and I’m not sure how having it on my resumé would go over in my next salary review.
In the end, I’m hiding under a thin veil of anonymity, pondering my next foray into smut … Watch this space, ‘Pinners … maybe the steamy story of a randy astronaut who discovers galactic orgasms in zero gravity …
Mia Crawford is not this author’s real name. Check out her blog at miacrawford80.blogspot.ca/.