Rejection! Rejection! Perhaps you’re not meeting reader’s expectations…
By Beverley Oakley
A forbidden love, insurmountable odds and an angst-ridden ending. The first “romance” I wrote had all these elements. I’d thrown my heart and soul into my 587-page masterpiece, so why did Star-crossed Lovers keep getting rejected?
It wasn’t until my sixth rejection that I got editorial feedback clueing me into the one essential that Star-crossed Lovers lacked: the happy ending.
When I was a child, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women were passionately re-read favourites. As a teenager, I loved Georgette Heyer and Victoria Holt. Yet, despite being a devoted and avid romance reader, I failed to pick up on what these books delivered: a happy ending to follow all manner of trials and tribulations, reassuring the reader that, come what may, there is always hope.
I started writing Star-crossed Lovers when I was 16, pounding the keys of the yellow typewriter I’d been given for my 12th birthday, long into the night. A year later, and with a pile of nearly 600 pages, I’d exhausted all plot avenues – and myself.
How would I end my story?
The romances I most loved reading had always reduced me to tears. This, obviously, was the benchmark of a truly good romance and I was determined my readers, too, must be equally moved to tears by my words.
I already had a monumental love story. One only had to look at that nearly 600-page pile to see the evidence. But perhaps, I wondered, it would really up the ante to throw in real, heart-rending tragedy to wring from my readers the maximum emotion I desired my book to evoke.
And what better way to do that than to drown my heroine in a dam in country Australia on the last page? Angsty and epic!
So, that’s what I did.
After five form rejections following an undertaking with Australia Post that depleted much of my pocket money over those next few months, I finally got advice offering more than just a hazy understanding of what a romance novel really required. “Unfortunately, your ending is not in line with the expectations of romance readers so I regret to inform you that on this occasion we must pass,” wrote editor number six.
Apparently, I gathered, when a writer puts a book out into the world, that writer has a contract to deliver. While a mystery requires something to solve, a romance requires a happy ending.
The lightbulb moment had come not a moment too soon.
Nevertheless, though I learned these basics at seventeen, it was still another twenty-six years before I got my first publishing contract with Robert Hale (UK).
By now I was more than ready to right past wrongs.
Therefore, in the first of three books written under my Beverley Eikli name, I joyfully delivered literary compensation to poor Emily, the heroine of Star-crossed Lovers, drowned in 1901 in a farm dam in South Australia’s Clare Valley.
Emily, of course, was forever consigned to the murky depths of literary obscurity, but her successor, Sarah, in Lady Sarah’s Redemption – my first novel written under my Beverley Eikli name – was plucked from the North Sea. Yes, Sarah was rescued from a watery grave, thus delivering atonement and recognition for poor Emily.
And if that alone doesn’t make you weep, perhaps the beautiful ‘aaah’ moment on page 300, will, as my hero Roland proposes to the now redeemed spoiled rich girl.
It’s the happy ending to end all happy endings.
Except, of course, for the ending in my latest romance, The Duchess and the Highwayman.
A duchess disguised as a lady’s maid; a gentleman parading as a highwayman.
She’s on the run from a murderer, he’s in pursuit of one…
In a remote Norfolk manor, Phoebe, Lady Cavanaugh is wrongfully accused by her servants of her brutal husband’s murder.
There’s little sympathy in the district for the duchess who’s taken a lover and made clear she despised her husband. The local magistrate has also vowed revenge since Lady Cavanaugh rebuffed his advances.
When Phoebe is discovered in the forest wearing only a chemise stained with the blood of her murdered husband, she persuades the noble ‘highwayman’ who rescues her that she is Lady Cavanaugh’s maidservant.
Hugh Redding has his own reasons for hunting down the man who would have Phoebe tried and hanged for murder. He plans to turn ‘the maidservant with aspirations above her station’ into the ‘lady’ who might testify against the very villain who would see Phoebe dead.
But despite the fierce attraction between Phoebe and the ‘highwayman’, Phoebe is not in a position to admit she’s the ‘murderous duchess’ hunted across the land.
Seizing an opportunity to strike at the social and financial standing of the man who has profited by her distress, Phoebe is drawn into a dangerous intrigue.
But when disaster strikes, she fears Hugh will lack the sympathy or understanding of her unusual predicament to even want to save her a second time.
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“The doctor doubts Ulrick will make Michelmas.” The lazy drawl of her husband’s cousin punctuated the silence as Phoebe resumed her position in an armchair by the fire.
Wentworth raised his cut glass tumbler to the light as he sighed in appreciation of Ulrick’s best brandy. He took a sip and smacked his lips, meeting Phoebe’s eye across her sleeping husband whom she’d made more comfortable in his large leather armchair with the tasselled cushion Phoebe had embroidered to support his neck.
The odious creature could not help but interpret Phoebe’s critical expression correctly, but there was no defensiveness in his tone as he chuckled. “The old bastard can’t enjoy his riches when he’s gone.” His teeth were white; sharp and wolfish beneath his black moustache and Phoebe looked away, pretending concentration on her handiwork while her stomach clenched with revulsion and fear. She would not dignify Wentworth’s grasping remarks with a response.
For a few minutes Ulrick’s wheezing, rattling cough and the hiss of the fire broke the silence. The harsh caw of a raven in the darkness made Phoebe jump but she kept her fingers busy with her embroidery and her head averted from Wentworth’s hard stare.
Tonight? Would Wentworth insist on claiming her tonight, with Ulrick so very ill and likely to need her?
Wentworth drained his glass, placing the empty vessel clumsily upon the low table beside him. Empty vessel. It’s what she’d always been made to feel as Ulrick’s wife. “Ulrick was always mean with his liquor. A good supply for his heir, then, eh, Phoebe?” Ulrick’s Heir. Wentworth imbued the word with the disgust he’d always felt for the fact that Wentworth was not Ulrick’s heir. It was hardly better than the reproach that had always hardened Ulrick’s tone in the days he could speak and implied that Phoebe had failed in providing him with a son to continue the family line.
Phoebe glanced up and saw Wentworth’s thin lips were pursed, observing fleetingly that he looked like a malevolent raven, his dark eyes glittering in the face she’d once thought so handsome. She tried not to show her fear.
“How long do you suppose it’ll take my brother to drink the lot once he inherits?” There it was. The bitterness he didn’t bother to hide.
“Hush, Wentworth. You’ll wake Ulrick.” Phoebe cast the sleeping invalid a nervous look.
“The doctor opines that our poorly Lord Cavanaugh will not last three months.” Wentworth didn’t trouble to lower his voice. “My guess is he’ll be gone long before Michealmas.”
Phoebe could bear it no longer. She dropped her handiwork into her lap and sent her husband’s regular and increasingly unwelcome guest an imploring look. “Please, Wentworth. He’s not dead yet. Have the good grace to keep such thoughts to yourself. What if he hears you?”
Wentworth gave a short laugh. “What do I have to lose by my graveyard talk? It’s not as if Ulrick’s in any position to deny me what my imbecile brothers already have simply by virtue of them being alive.”
How many times had she heard the same complaints? Phoebe forced aside her weary frustration and rose. “I’m going to bed.”