Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Morality of Pocket Novel World By Sally Quilford

The first exercise and discussion in my pocket novel workshops involve the morality of pocket novel world. I spend a long time on it because, as my fellow Pocketeers will tell you, it is something that is so easy to get wrong.
We’ve all discussed at some point that pocket novel world is a rose-coloured world where nothing really bad ever happens. Even in my romantic intrigue where a murder takes place, it is all done ‘offstage’ and no one the reader may have come to like dies. I’ve heard that People’s Friend are looking for crime stories, but have no idea whether murder might be included in that. I suspect not, and that we’re looking more at cosy, victimless crimes.
It goes without saying that neither the hero or the heroine can be promiscuous, or ever have been, and neither should either be married or involved in a relationship with someone else during the course of their romance. I have to say I don’t like virgin heroes (preferring a man who knows what he’s doing), so I may hint that my hero is not inexperienced in matters of the bedroom … ahem. On the other hand, I don’t like a male slut either, so I also make it clear that he respects women and hasn’t slept around. Other times I don’t bother explaining it at all, and let the reader make up their own minds.

Of course he's a virgin ...
(apologies for the lack of vest, fellow 'Bruce in his vest' lovers, but I think the chest more than makes up for it)

Sex should always remain behind closed doors in My Weekly novels. In People’s Friend novels, don’t mention it at all, especially outside of marriage. Think waves crashing on the sand, or trains going into tunnels (okay, perhaps not the latter if you’re prone to the vapours). Kisses can be ‘passionate’, but don’t include tongues, and never overtly mention sexual arousal or use sexual language, not even euphemism.

Well I never...

I was asked whether the heroine could be an unmarried mother. In this instance, I would always err on the side of caution. It takes only a couple of sentences to turn her into a young widow, and she is still coping with the demands of single parenthood, plus you have that extra bit of depth to her character.
Can the hero or heroine be illegitimate? I think this could be done in a subtle way. If you have them brought up in an orphanage or a children’s home (or with relatives) you don’t have to explain their parentage at all. Leave it to the reader to fill in the gaps. A lot of my heroines are orphans, though mainly because it saves me having to create a family for them, and also gives her a certain pathos as she sets out alone in the world.

I was also asked whether one character (not a main character) could be an alcoholic. I don’t think there’s a problem with My Weekly Pocket Novels as long as it is again done with subtlety and it’s made plain that the behaviour is frowned upon.
As the novels are meant to be warm-hearted and rose-tinted, it’s really best to leave things like drugs and alcohol out if you can. This doesn’t mean that your hero and heroine can’t go out for a meal and a glass of wine. Just don’t show them overindulging.

Maggie at My Weekly doesn’t mind a paranormal romance, but prefers there to be a rational explanation, and also that the story is historical. I’d avoid paranormal completely for People’s Friend. They don’t like spooky stories in their weekly magazine and I’m pretty sure they won’t like them in their pocket novels (unless anyone can tell me any different?)
One good source of guidance is the Hays Code, which used to govern film-making. It’s an old joke about the hero having to keep one foot on the floor during a love scene, and I’m sure we’ve all seen films set in the 40s and 50s, where husbands and wives sleep in twin beds.

The details of the Motion Picture Production Code (to give it its official name) are on Wikipedia and are a useful guide to what the readership of MW or PF pocket novels are comfortable with. I am very relieved to say that the rules governing interracial romances don’t have any place in pocket novel world. One of my heroes was part-Cherokee and I was delighted last year when I saw a People’s Friend Pocket Novel with a very pretty black heroine on the front cover. More recently the heroine on the cover of a My Weekly novella set in the civil war was mixed race, and I have an idea for a story featuring my own mixed race heroine, Rachel Jensen who starred briefly in Mistletoe Mystery.

Whilst the Hays Rules may sound Draconian, they can actually lead to some very subtle writing. It’s well known, I think, that I am a big Hitchcock fan. But I always contend that Hitchcock’s films were much better when he had to stick to censorship rules. You only have to compare a film like Psycho (where you only think Janet Leigh is naked in the shower) with the dreadful 1970s film, Frenzy, (which has a gratuitous and almost titillating rape scene), to see why. When the Hays Code was in force, writers had to be more creative about dealing with sensitive subjects. This subtlety can actually add to your writing, rather than detract from it. I actively encourage my workshop participants to watch films from the 30s, 40s and 50s to see how this is done. As it says on the Wikipedia page, Casablanca would have been a completely different film had Rick and Ilsa and run off together, instead of him doing the noble thing and giving her up to the greater good.

Besides, the brims of their hats would soon stop any shenanigans in the kissing department.
Much depends on the imprint you’re writing for. I think my fellow Pocketeers would agree that People’s Friend tend to be far stricter about morals than My Weekly. And if any of them know any different, I’d like to hear it. A fellow writer told me that her 90 year old grandmother loves the novels because of the world they present. There’s enough nastiness in the real world, without it turning up in the books that people of her generation love.
However, things they are a-changing and I've heard that the My Weekly Pocket Novel editor is asking for slightly stronger storylines, with lost babies etc. My advice, however, would be to err on the side of caution, and let the editor be the one to ask for changes. That way she can advise you how to pitch it correctly, and you won't make any mistakes.


  1. Excellent post Sally, and I think your advice about subtlety in writing is a great point for any type of writing - make the reader think rather than handing it to them on a plate. As a reader I find that far more satisfying.

    1. I agree, Shauna, though sometimes publishers and film producers/tv executives treat readers/viewers as if they're too dumb to get the subtleties.

  2. Fabulous post, Sally - thanks for highlighting the differences. I love escapism of all kind (and those old films) so maybe this market would suit me fine! Must finish a possible storyline I'm working on, now that you've motivated me again.

    1. It is a lovely market to write for, Rosemary. With all the sex and violence on tv (not that I'm averse to watching either!) it's really nice to write stories that have a moral centre to them.

  3. We asked Maggie about the following: Our two main characters are in a situation where it would be sensible for them to share a bed simply to keep warm. We have put one of them in a sleeping bag, but it is quite near the beginning of the story where they don’t know each other very well. Would that be acceptable or not?
    Her reply was: I feel that if something is well written, then almost any outrageous scenario is possible. If you make it fun then that is fine. If you think there is a hint of eroticism going on then I just wouldn’t bother with the scene at all, because it just raises questions we don’t want to answer.

  4. Oh that's interesting, Patricia. One of the things I discussed on the online workshop and in the face-to-face class was the idea of doing a trade off. That is, if you start with a seemingly outrageous scenario, keep working on it until it becomes less outrageous. In the novella I've had accepted by People's Friend (Our Day Will Come out in August) I originally started with the idea of someone slashing ladies' stockings. Realising that was too sexual and violent a crime, I played with the idea for several days before deciding on having the criminal stealing the stockings off lines. It put a distance between the perpetrator and his or her victims.

  5. I have touched on both alcoholism and anorexia in My Weekly PNs that were accepted by Maggie for publication. I tried to deal with them sensitively and they were problems for secondary characters, not the hero or heroine!

    I agree that the My Weekly plot lines appear to be becoming more modern and realistic and that's quite exciting for writing future stories.

  6. Great post Sally and a lovely picture of Bruce (I prefer him without the vest actually). I tend to veer away from anything morally challenging in PNs although I've had a main character in a modern day (not historical) who was illiterate, a suspected marital affair (which wasn't) and crime in the form of a burglary. I rather like the 'safe' world of the pocket novel and I know that's why many readers like them. I once asked a girl in a shop who was buying one what she liked about them and she said that other edgier storylines in books worried her and kept her from sleeping at night!

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  8. Sorry folks. Messed up first time!
    Another wonderful post, Sally. Thank you.
    The line between the racy and the milk sopsy, as far as My Weekly PNs are concerned, is a fine one.
    In a past novel, when I involved my hero in smuggling (well it was 18th century Cornwall) Maggie said she was “shocked” and advised I steer him back to the path of righteousness.
    My latest PN is a gentler story, which Maggie doesn’t feel is adventurous enough.
    Striking the right balance can be such a tricky thing

    1. That's interesting, Rena. Have you thought of sending your latest pn to People's Friend? They like a gentler story, whereas Maggie does like a bit of swash and buckle.

      Your smuggler might have been alright if he'd turned out to be working undercover or something.

  9. Great post! As a reader of pocket novels, I know what I am looking for. I already know that there will be a happy ending and no sex whatsoever. However, after reading many similar stories, this kind of structure begins to bore me and I have to read a total different kind of book after coming back to pocket novels.

    What the readers want are twists and surprises during the reading. And humour! Witty lines are very important. We don´t want boring couples.

    If you add a crime, a baby switch or an evil twin of the heroine is a plus!

    1. Hi Soapfan. Actually twins is one of the taboos of PNs and other womag style stories. It's probably because they've been overdone, though I imagine that a new take on the twins story would be welcomed. It's all in the execution.

  10. Wow, Sally, what a lot you've covered here.
    Things are definitely moving on at MW. Maggie's just accepted my latest, complete with bedroom scenes. No descriptions of actual sex but as this quote shows, the results:
    >>> ‘Oh Jen, I’m in a terrible mess.’
    ‘Georgie .. What’s happened? Are you all right?’
    ‘What’s he done to you?’
    ‘Made me pregnant and now he’s run away.’
    ‘What do you mean? Run away?’
    ‘I told him and he was furious. Said terrible things like it couldn’t be his. Said “not again” and I don’t know what that means.’
    ‘Oh Georgie. I take it you are definitely pregnant?’
    ‘Oh yes. Test is positive and I’m still getting morning sickness. What am I going to do?’
    ‘You could go home. Whatever they say, your parents would take you back, without a doubt.’
    ‘I couldn’t. I can’t go back. Not like this. My father would be furious and never let me forget it.’
    ‘There’s the other solution of course.’
    ‘You don’t have to keep it.’
    ‘Don’t be ridiculous. I couldn’t. No, never. Whatever the problems, I couldn’t possibly get rid of it. No, I’ll have to find a way of coping on my own.’ <<<<<
    Maggie liked the way I handled the bedroom scenes, "with tact". It isn't realistic in these times to think that nobody ever has sex before marriage but it doesn't have to be too detailed or describe the mechanics of it all.
    Having said all that, I do think the romance always has to be there. The drama can have its place but we still need a bit of rose tinting.

  11. Sally, Brucie is a hunk but not personally my "thing". :) Although the lengths he went to for his family in the Die Hard movies was admirable.

    Oddly, Maggie had more concern for my heroine Summer in my last MWPN Wombat Creek going barefoot and suggesting she at least wear sandals, than the fact that she was an unmarried mother with a 4 year old daughter.

    I agree with others in that I love a traditional and respectful romance. I realised the gist of my writing after a workshop at last years Aussie RWA conference when we had to devise a tagline for our own author image and PR. I eventually worked out mine is "Love for a life time" because that is exactly my premise for my own life and marriage, and what I assume will be for my characters' lives as well. When I write a romance novel, it is always with the background understanding in my mind that this couple are made for each other and will be together for life.