the story of the lost bet

Buy Lovers - Nadja Bernhardt - at AllPosters.comHow I lost a bet and changed my life…

Back in late 1990s I had a bet with one of my work colleagues that I could get a book published by one of the romance publishers – for example, Mills and Boon. My theory was that all I had to do scan in a book, OCR it so that it was editable, replace George with Fred; Cynthia with Gladys; and Rome with Sydney; and the job was done. The stories are all the same.

“I bet I can get a romance novel published.”

“Have you ever read one – a Mills and Boon book?”

“Er, no, of course not.”

“Well, I think you should, I, um, might have one at home, I’ll bring it in for you.”

And so the story began…

The book (that coincidentally did ‘happen’ to be at home) arrived on my desk when Anne got back from lunch. “Don’t forget your bet!”

I took one look and thought, “Oh good grief – what have I got myself into?”

I found the book completely unreadable – everything I thought it would be. Why would women read this pap?

The next day I told Anne that the book was utter pap, and there was no way I could write anything like that. It’s not about being a snob, I just can’t write like that. Anne just laughed at me and said, “I knew that story was crap, but if you’d said it was fine I’d know you hadn’t read it. Here, try this one instead – it’s three books in one.”

I tried again. The first story was at least readable, but the female character was just – well – stupid is harsh; but after travelling first class to a private Greek island, courtesy of a rich, good looking man; she was surprised that he wanted to show her something other his collection of seashells. Omigod – who would’ve guessed? Anyway, after a few trials and tribulations she decides he is quite sexy, and as he was an extremely successful rich gorgeous hunk of man flesh in the sunset on his private Greek island, yeah, he’d do. Being a cynic, I figured at least until the ink dried on the pre-nups…

The second story involved an older pair who eventually found each other and fell in love. Not a snappy story, but not hideous either. Two out of three was as much as I could withstand. I was a Mills and Boon virgin no more, but that’s not exactly something you tell the guys down the pub.

I was kind of hooked. I couldn’t bear the stories. I couldn’t believe women would buy them. But they did. They do. I wondered why women were so shy about it. It was a kind of little secret – no one would admit to reading them, yet I could remember seeing at a garage sale how Barbara Cartland books roared out the door long before anything else went. Bizarre behaviours. No one admits to it, but secretly these books were big sellers – or so I thought. I better find out some information.

I checked the net – and while surfing around trying to find if Mills and Boon had any writers’ guidelines, I discovered that there were very few web sites dedicated to romance, and the romantic genre. Sure, lots of sites dedicated to what happens after a drink and/or a burger has been consumed, but very little about romance. I was intrigued. I abandoned the bet – I admit, I cannot write of the style required by Mills and Boon (basically I figure the women characters are smarter than that) and so the bet was lost… I discovered from somewhere that 60% of all the books sold in the USA were romantic novels. That’s a huge market. I discovered that most New Zealand read a number of romantic novels each year. The market is huge. And the books all follow a formula – beyond predictable – it is what is required; in fact, demanded.

But now the challenge was on for me to write my own romantic web site. I was already chipping out code for my employer’s web site, so there was no big issue for me to write a site. Except I had to write the content. The code. Create and manage the images. And tie it all together in a congruent form. It was a huge amount of work – I started writing code or romance every hour I had to spare.

I discovered New Zealand authors were very successful in the romance novel market. I joined Romance Writers of New Zealand and I received my very own M&B-oid book (unreadable) and my very own heart shaped mouse mat. Things were beginning to get disturbing. I was beginning to get RSI/OOS from the 18 hour writing days. But my web site was live – and I was learning not only the technical aspects of running a large site, but the practical issues – the content, the issues of versioning, the management of time and resources; and content – did I mention content? I discovered I could write, not in the M&B style, but I could write romantic themed short stories – 1,000 – 1,500 words. I liked strong characters – women and men able to take some power and control in the worlds I created for them. I liked the way the stories would take on a life of their own – and the endings would change during the writing. This character would do this – or that – according to their motivations – and their lives would change.

So – how did my life change? A telecommunications company arrived in town with a road show, including a representative from Victoria University. I learned I could undertake study toward a Masters degree, from home. I needed a computer, an internet connection, and, oh yeah, “you need to prove you have some experience in developing communication using the internet”.

Sure, no problem. I invited the selection team to check out words-of-love.com (long since gone offline), and this, along with some other conditions being fulfilled I found myself enrolled in the Masters of Communication programme. Shortly after I met the woman who was to become my wife, and along the way I discovered that although I’d lost the bet, romance had changed my life. And for fun, I’ve dug out some of the short stories, and every now and again, I’ll share them here.

PS – we invited Anne and her husband to our wedding. I wonder if he knows about the M&B collection stashed away…

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