The romance genre is one of the most prolific there is, and more and more authors are self-publishing. We spoke to three editors with experience in the romance genre, to find out what it takes:
- Jacquie Doucette, a fiction editor operating as Expert Proofing
- Lori Paximadis, an editor and production specialist operating Pax Studio
- Jessica Swift of Swift Ink Editorial Services, who provides editorial services to writers of all genres
What errors do you look for routinely in romance novels?
JD: I watch for changes in character descriptions: body type, hair color, name (that happens a lot!), actions that really don’t make sense, and setting. Descriptions of the location and timings are often messed up.
LP: The most common errors I see in romances are timeline problems and inconsistencies in physical descriptions: for example, our heroine goes to the Saturday farmers market then the next day to her Wednesday night bowling league, or the hero’s eyes are emerald green in chapter 1 but are chocolate brown by chapter 6. These of course occur in other types of fiction, too, but seem to be more prevalent in the romance genre—perhaps because the characters’ looks seem to play a more important role in romance than in other genres, and perhaps because the author’s focus tends to be more on the developing romance than on the underlying structure of time passing. As an editor, you need to keep track of the timeline and character descriptions to make sure they are realistic and consistent.
JS: The most routine errors I look for are during the sex scenes, frankly. Sometimes there are oversights, physically speaking. For example, we have to make sure that positions make sense as they’re described, that a person doesn’t have more than two hands (sometimes we might not notice, for example, when our hero is propped up on both hands, he can’t caress the heroine’s face until he shifts position).
Additionally, though, it’s important to ensure that the plot is true to the formula. Yes, there’s a formula. We are GOING to have a happy ending. No one has to wonder about that. Readers expect it, writers deliver it. But the editor’s job is to make sure it’s delivered well, with interesting plot points, that there is enough conflict as to be believable, and that the resolution also makes sense.
Do you have any unconventional resources on your reference shelf?
JD: I’ve actually used books like the Joy of Sex when descriptions get weird.
LP: No references specifically devoted to romance, but I’ve given up my guilt about reading more chick lit and romances since it’s in the service of having a better handle on the genre.
JS: Not an unconventional resource, but my thesaurus is lovingly bookmarked for easy referencing of words like “stroke,” “caress,” “lick,” “warm,” “moist,” and “gentle.”
Is work ever a steamy experience?
JD: Yeah, it can be “interesting,” reading the sexy scenes. You can’t help but imagine what’s going on!
LP: Absolutely! It’s easy to get caught up in the steamy bits and forget about the language. I find it best to read through those parts to get the anticipation out of the way, then go back through and pay special attention to the sentence structure, and then once more for realism.
Regarding realism, you can allow a bit of leeway with physics for dramatic/romantic effect. But you always have to keep an eye out for what my fellow editor Amy Schneider calls “the third breast”—keep track of all the body parts and what is where at any given time, and make sure there aren’t any extra bits.
That said, not all romances are steamy. I’ve worked on a range from the chaste kiss being the climax of the novel to out-and-out detailed sexual description every other page, it seems. And then there was the dragon sex in that one series …
JS: Of course! When I mention that I both edit and write romance I’m often asked (with a smirk), “So, do you draw from your own experience?” I suppose the answer is yes, in some ways, but oftentimes we’re editing for logistics and conformity with a certain formula that readers expect from a romance novel.
Would you recommend working in this genre?
JD: I really enjoy it. There are lots of laughs, believe it or not, and it’s fun helping the authors “expand” their repertoire so they aren’t repeating the same scenes.
LP: I love it. Most of the time, the stories are relatively simple and straightforward, and they tend to follow one of several basic formulas, but the authors I’ve worked with put heart and soul into their characters and build their worlds with care. I especially love working on series, where a minor character becomes the major character in the next book, and so on until the end of the series, all set in the same place.
JS: If you’re an editor who doesn’t embarrass easily and is comfortable querying [explicit content] then, by all means, go for it!
Sometimes an editor really needs to be able to analyze a scene or situation and offer feedback that may be disregarded. For example, in one of my sex scenes [in the novel I wrote] a beta reader suggested that the Hero take his shirt off BEFORE his pants. When I realized that I had a hot man standing next to a bed with only a shirt on, I laughed out loud. Had she not pointed it out, I wouldn’t have even seen it since I was so close to the material. I provide this example as a way to point out that some of the querying may feel like it’s motivated from a subjective standpoint. For my beta reader, a man standing there naked except for his shirt wasn’t sexy. I could have looked at her feedback and said, “Hey, that’s hot to me!” and left it alone. But that wasn’t the case.
Are there special skills or experience that publishers look for in a romance editor?
JD: I haven’t come across anything special yet … but I’ve only worked with online publishers, so it might be different in print.
LP: To succeed in the romance genre, you have to know when it’s okay to break the “rules”—if sentence fragments or “who” where strict grammarians would use “whom” bothers you, this is not the genre for you. You also have to have an ear for dialog and be able to juggle all those little details. Just because the stories tend to be simpler doesn’t mean the editing is easier.
JS: I don’t work for publishers of romance, I work for writers who either intend to publish themselves or are thinking about submitting their work to a publisher or agent and want to make sure the manuscript is in the best shape it can be.
Diplomacy, honesty, objectivity, and not being inhibited are some of the traits my clients appreciate in me. In my experience, it’s important to query and point out anything that reads awkwardly. If you as the editor can’t make sense of it, then readers likely won’t be able to, either.