The heart of editing a romance
(This talk was given to the NSW Branch of the Institute of Professional Editors on 3 May 2022.)
All romance stories are the same, right? Because come on, everyone knows they are written to a formula.
Besides, they’re a tad smutty, read by bored housewives and preteens—mostly in secret too. And let’s face it, romances are more than a little below par when it comes to the quality of the writing and the story.
So, editing a romance can’t be that hard, can it?
I’ve heard these opinions expressed so many times I can’t help but assume this is what most people believe when it comes to romance stories. And I’d really like to test those assumptions tonight.
First, let’s define what a “romance” actually is.
What's a romance anyway?
Basically, romances are all about the relationship between two people.
And when I say ‘people’ I use that term in the broadest sense possible. Romance stories are not just between a man and a woman; they can be between two different species, two people of the same gender, or with multiple partners, and anything else you can imagine. They can be set in any era—from the distant past all the way through to the far future. They can occur in any place—real or imagined. And they can contain lots of action. And I’m not talking about sexual action here, either, although many do have that.
On top of that, romances are one of the highest selling genres in the world. The next highest—crime—doesn’t even come close.
And that’s why Romance Writers of Australia encourages beginner writers to get published, and published writers to maintain their writing careers. We also champion excellence within the romance writing genre.
About Romance Writers of Australia
Let me tell you a little bit about my organisation, the Romance Writers of Australia.
We’ve been in existence for just over 30 years. Our 700-odd members come from all levels of society, experiences, and backgrounds. They write stories from full on erotic right through to those with just a touch of romance within them. And every single one of our members will need to engage an editor at some point during their writing career.
I’m happy to tell you more about my organisation. Or you can check out our website for more information: Romance Writers of Australia
But right now, let’s talk about what editing a romance is really like.
What's different about editing a romance?
Romance stories are fiction, just written in a way that is as true-to-life as possible. And regardless of the sub-genre, they thrive on emotion. The deeper, the more intense this emotion is, the better.
Which is pretty much the opposite of any corporate or non-fiction documents I’ve ever worked on. Sure, these may have had a few persuasive phrases; they certainly had a call to action; but they hardly ever contained deeply emotional words or sentiments—words that hit your heart and mind. Indeed, when I worked as the Senior Online Editor for the Victorian Education Department, any emotional response we received from our online articles was an unexpected consequence … and usually not a particularly pleasant one either.
So, transitioning into romance writing—and editing—was an eye-opener because of the level of emotion within the writing and the story. Remind me to tell you about my experiences of writing my first kissing scene! [shakes head] So, so, embarrassing.
Like most fictional stories, romances have universal themes, something that every human being will instantly recognise—like belonging, acceptance, courage, and redemption. Even our romantic science fiction and paranormal stories have a universal theme at their core.
All romances have a plot, but they also have an emotional arc that takes us from the moment our characters meet, all the way through to their happy ever after or happy for now. It’s this love story that underpins everything else and defines the story as “a romance”.
Romance stories also have an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.
And that’s what makes them so enjoyable. The way the story sucks us in, with characters we cheer for as they struggle with their own demons and flaws as they fall in love. They are uplifting, hopeful, and nothing like real life; but somehow feel as if they could be.
Oh, and by the way, romance writers and publishers are a little less rigid in applying grammatical rules. That doesn’t mean anything goes. It doesn’t. Correct grammar is still an important aspect for any story, fiction or otherwise. The same goes with romances. However, there are a few things that can be overlooked or ignored. For example, romance stories rarely have semi-colons. Sure, they have short sentences and long ones – something that dictates the pace and rhythm of the story; some even begin with a conjunction. And recently, the use of pronouns—especially ‘he’ and/or ‘she’, and even the use of the traditional ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’—has caused quite a few very heated discussions indeed.
Fair warning—you’ll hear me talking about heroes and heroines tonight because I’m more along the traditionalist line – it’s just how I think and has nothing to do with the gender debate whatsoever.
And the editor's role is...
So, what’s the editor’s role in all this?
I like to think we’re like the romance industry’s code breakers. We do vitally important work that has the potential to save the day – or in this case, the story – making things better, while remaining unseen, hidden almost, in the background. Which is as it should be.
But for the editor, this also means maintaining the author’s voice. By that, I mean the way the individual author expresses themselves on the page. Because let’s face it, this isn’t our story but the author’s. So, our role is to improve how the author has written the story, not how we would write it ourselves.
It also means paying attention to the pace of the story – is it too fast, or too slow?
And weeding out any unnecessary scenes. You know, the ones that are fillers and do nothing to push the love story forward.
But the most important thing we editors do is help the author create the best story they can while maintaining grammar, spelling, and continuity throughout.
So, what do you need to know if you want to edit romances?
Things to look for...
So, so much. I’ve been editing romances for five years or so, and there’s still a lot I need to learn. But here’s a few things that will get you started:
Identifying and understanding the character’s goals, motivation, and conflict.
Ensuring the plot and our hero and heroine’s emotional arc are closely entwined so that their love story remains centre stage.
Making the hero and heroine as real-to-life as possible by having deep, three-dimensional characters that readers identify with.
Showing emotion as much as possible, but particularly at the story’s major turning points, with telling being utilised only when necessary.
Let’s jump in and discuss these in a bit more detail.
Goals, motivation, conflict questions
I have several questions I ask as I’m editing with regards to the characters goals, motivation and conflict. I even sometimes find myself asking these questions as I’m reading a story, or watching a movie now, too!
Are the character’s goals and motivations clear right from the start?
By the end of the first chapter—preferably earlier (as in the first few pages)—you should have an idea of what the characters wants—that’s their GOAL—and why they want it—that’s their MOTIVATION. And let me tell you, characters rarely want to fall in love. In fact, they usually want the exact opposite.
Anyway, the goals and motivations need to be believable. They need to be true to the character and be deep enough to be sustained throughout the story. Okay, sometimes what the character wants changes during the story, but their motivation—why they want it—usually doesn’t.
Is the conflict strong enough? Is it believable?
We should also know what’s stopping them from achieving what they want—the CONFLICT—by the end of the third chapter. Like the goal and motivation, the conflict needs to be believable – and not easily solved. Conflict is usually conveyed through our characters actions, decisions, and thoughts. This, in turn, is usually found within the lie the character tells themselves; the things they believe without question. Like they don’t have time to fall in love, or that love only leads to pain and abandonment. This causes them to act, think and behave in ways that only reinforces the lie, making it even more difficult for them to overcome their fears and fall in love.
Do the characters change and grow?
Throughout the story, characters need to learn and grow and change in some way as they face their biggest fear, or finally understand the lie they told themselves is just that, a lie. This is what I mean by the characters emotional arc—it takes their emotions, and often how they see themselves, from one place to another, hopefully better place. And no-one likes change; in fact, most people will do everything they can to stay within their own comfortable bubble. So, our character’s conflict needs to be such that without overcoming their demons or fears or perceived disadvantage, it’s virtually impossible for them to gain their happy ever after.
It's this aspect—the overcoming of obstacles, both big and small—that gives romances their optimistic and happy endings. It’s what most readers love about our genre, and what keeps them coming back for more.
Now, I’m going to give you an excerpt from my small-town romance, Good Enough for Love. Yes, this is the story that won the Emerald Award way back in 2017 and was the very first romance I ever wrote. Anyway, this will hopefully give you an example of how goals and motivations may appear in a story, because sometimes these are not stated explicitly, but simply implied.
Amber tilted her chin in stubborn defiance. She wasn’t going anywhere. Certainly not anytime soon.
While she’d love to head back to Melbourne, to all that was familiar and comfortable, she had a good reason for being in Willow’s Bend. The hotel. A business she could improve, at least she hoped so, until she sold it to fund her future. One of her own choosing this time.
She squeezed her arms even firmer across her body. “I’m here to make this hotel a success,” she claimed.
“Sure you are,” Zach responded.
Now I know you know nothing about this story, or the characters in it. But hopefully you can see that Amber wants to make the hotel a success. This goal is stated very clearly. And her motivation for wanting this is so she can sell the hotel and make her future financially secure, something that is also stated reasonably clearly.
The conflict is only hinted at here and isn’t at all obvious. You see, Amber doubts her ability of achieving her goal because of her past experiences. But this is something you obviously are not aware of, because I didn’t tell you, and you haven’t read the story.
Plot and emotional arc questions
Here’s some of the questions I have regarding how the plot and emotional arc of our characters are handled when I’m editing a story.
Is the plot believable? Are the emotions realistic and appropriate?
Most times it’s the love story that dictates the plot in romance stories. The only exception are the romantic elements stories, where the developing love story takes second place to the unveiling plot.
Anyway, for the plot to work, it needs to be believable. And for most stories it needs to underpin the developing love story. Every scene needs to pull its weight and push the love story forward, otherwise it has to go.
Expressing emotion is nowhere near as easy as it might sound. I’m not just talking about the kissing or sex scenes here. I’m talking about everything our characters struggle with and experience throughout the story. And these emotions and reactions need to stay true to who the characters fundamentally are.
Do they fall in love at the right place and at the right time?
There’s also a time and place for when our characters reveal their inner most feelings. They’re unlikely to reveal their deep dark secrets until they know each other better and begin to trust each other. Nor should we have a hot steamy, drawn-out sex scene while they’re in the middle of running for their lives.
But when they’re safe? Go to town.
And while we’re at it, let’s make their sexual encounters as meaningful and deep and varied as possible. Because sex scenes should change the way they view each other in some fundamental way. It should deepen their connection, even if it complicates their relationship ten-fold.
Do the characters suffer the consequences of their actions and decisions?
Let me explain why characters need to be accountable for their actions by giving you a story.
Our hero—let’s call him Jack—is an honourable but slightly shy guy who’s been badly hurt by a woman in the past. When Jack meets our heroine—let’s call her Sandra, a dedicated editor who lives for her job—he’s immediately intrigued and more than a little attracted to her, something he’s totally unprepared for.
Sandra, for her part, is equally smitten, even though she’s denying any attraction to him at all. Sure, she’d love to spend more time with him – who wouldn’t? He’s handsome, and gentle, and is basically everything she’s ever wanted in a man. But the timing is all wrong.
Anyway, they go on a few dates, getting to know each other a little better, and Jack’s fascination with Sandra grows—she’s all he can think about. But this scares the life out of him because he’s been there, done that, and has the battle-scars to prove it. So, he hesitates to ask her out again. Falling for Sandra will destroy him. Besides, she’s cancelled on him more than a few times already. And when she does turn up, she rushes back to work like spending time with him is an imposition.
Likewise, Sandra’s kind-of avoiding Jack. She’s too busy. She’s being torn between wanting to win that promotion that’s almost within her grasp, and spending time with Jack. She’s confused, but more than determined to keep doing what she’s always done – put her work before her own happiness and wants – because it’s always worked well in the past. Still, she can’t help wishing she’d met Jack after she’d been promoted, or much earlier. Why did this have to happen right now? She wasn’t ready, and had no time, or energy, to figure things out either.
If nothing happens, the story’s over, right? They’ll go their own way and will never get past this hurdle, let alone fall in love.
So, something has to give.
There needs to be some consequence that forces both Jack and Sandra to interact – and what that something will be depends on the author and how well they know Jack and Sandra. Anyway, they both need to face their inner-most fears before they can reach their happy ever after.
What often sets the romantic genre apart is how deep characterisation is embedded within our stories.
What I’m talking about here is making the story as immersive as possible for the readers. To making the characters as realistic as possible. The more real-to-life the characters are, the more our readers become invested in what happens to them. And that’s exactly what we romance writers want – readers who love our characters and care deeply about them.
For characters to resonate, to stay with the reader long after the story is over, they need to have deep problems with good points and bad points and everything in between. They should experience hang-ups and concerns and worries, just like we all do.
What’s often needed for the characters appear like ‘real’, three-dimensional people is for the author to go deeper. To practically become the character. To live within their head so they can portray the emotions, feelings, and thoughts adequately and believably. And sometimes, all that’s needed is a little tweak – maybe by inserting a deeper emotional response just when it’s needed.
And it’s our job as editors to encourage our authors to do just that – to dig deeper, to get to know their characters better almost than they know themselves.
Deep characterisation questions:
I have even more questions I ask as I’m editing a romance, specifically around how the author tackles characterisation.
Has a combination of the senses - touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste – been used when describing the character and their situation?
I’m not saying all five senses need to be in a scene. But there should be at least two; three would be even better.
Do the characters have understandable problems and worries and issues?
Are the reactions appropriate for where they appear in the story?
These questions often help me determine the exact spot where things need to be deepened or strengthened. They can also help pinpoint scenes that are not needed or are simply there to pad the story out.
And now I’m going to give you a chance to apply these questions to a bit of my own writing.
An example of deep point of view:
This excerpt comes from my romantic suspense, Loyal at Heart, and appears very early in the story. Yep, that’s the story that is currently a finalist in the Sapphire Award, so you guys are getting a sneak preview.
Every atom of her body strained forward. Every crunch. Every thud hit her right between her shoulder blades. She accelerated recklessly. Keep running. With her vision restricted to a few feet in front of her, Alice ran as fast as she’d ever run. Don’t stop. Her heart pounded. Her bound hands bounced uncomfortably. She gasped in stale air whenever she could. The sack over her head slipped, obscuring her vision further.
The sound of pursuit became clearer. Nearer. She dodged to the side, stumbled a few steps, then took off again like her life depended on it.
Yes, this IS a love story. I just happened to have chosen an action scene, not a romantic one. But how do you think I did? Hopefully I answered all but the last question we just asked.
You’ll notice that deep characterisation has a lot of emotion in the writing. It’s showing us intimately how the character feels, thinks, and reacts. This is what readers of romance stories expect.
So, our job as editors is to help ensure the story delivers, especially during the major turning points. That means it’s vital to show our characters emotions during their first kiss. And when they are facing their first setback. It’s especially important when all seems lost and the chances of them ever getting together is almost zilch. It’s also nice to have during the resolution when they’re heading towards their happy ever after.
Let's talk about showing emotion...
As we’ve discovered, romance readers expect an immersive story. And one way of achieving this is to show the emotions our characters are feeling right then, not just telling the reader about them.
But what am I really talking about here?
Well, here’s how Wikipedia defines “showing”:
…a technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author's exposition, summarization, and description. It avoids adjectives describing the author's analysis, but instead describes the scene in such a way that the reader can draw his or her own conclusions.
Which doesn’t help all that much, does it?
Believe me, I barely understood this ‘showing, not telling’ mantra everyone was rabbiting on about when I first started writing romances. Let alone being able to identify it when it came to editing a romance story – unless it was blatantly obvious that is.
But I think this this definition—taken from Reedsy’s blog—makes a lot more sense. At least to me … because once I read this, I had one of those lightbulb moments where it all became perfectly clear.
In short: showing illustrates, while telling merely states. Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass."
No matter what, there needs to be a balance between showing emotion and telling the story. No story can be ALL showing. There has to be some telling, otherwise the story would be so long no-one would probably read it. Telling comes into its own when writing description or transitioning from one scene to another. Though less is more here, too.
As I’ve already said, showing should always be employed during the major turning points of the story.
Okay, let’s see how good you guys are when it comes to identifying the difference between showing and telling within a piece of writing.
Test your showing/telling expertise
Yes, I am going to test you.
I’ll give you three examples. Hopefully easy ones, because honestly, I’m not that mean. But the best way of getting your head around this is to show you.
Our first example is taken from my small-town romance, Good Enough for Love.
So, of course Amber had jumped at the chance of securing her future, despite oscillating between anger and hopelessness, while wondering what she’d done to get sacked from her previous position in the first place. It was still surprising how easily she’d allowed her own complacency to lull her into a false sense of security. She shook her head. Not something she wanted to dwell on. Like at all.
Now, at last, she had a chance to make things right. To save her pride and get her life back on track.
Who thinks this is this showing? Who thinks it’s telling?
This is telling. You can identify it as such because of the language I’ve used. I’ve told you she’s oscillating between anger and hopelessness, I haven’t described those emotions, or allowed her to react in a way that you were able to work it out yourself.
Don’t worry if you didn’t get it right. Even I have a tough time picking up this up within my own writing. [And I can tell you honestly, that I really struggled when it came to selecting these excerpts from my own writing! I guess that’s just another reason why editing your own work isn’t easy.] Never mind. We still have two more examples to get our heads around this tricky concept.
Showing/Telling Example 2
This next example is from my romantic suspense story, Loyal at Heart and you guys are getting yet another sneak preview here.
A tsunami of fear swept over her. Time slowed. Her surroundings wavered. Her instincts screamed get away, escape, but she couldn’t move. Her heart jack hammered. Her skin tightened, shrinking around her bones. Her breathing was as erratic as her heartbeat.
Oh, hell no. This was so not happening. She was on an island, inside a secure military base, for heaven’s sake. This couldn’t be happening.
Again, who thinks this is showing? And who thinks it’s telling?
Think back to our deep characterisation discussion. Were you immersed in what was happening? Could you understand what she was thinking and feeling? Because that’s one sure way of knowing you’re dealing with showing. Again, it’s the language I used, and the way I’ve written the scene, that identifies it as such.
Showing/Telling Example 3
This last example also comes from Loyal at Heart. Hopefully, it will have you thinking hard … and be a challenge, too. This is a bit longer, so I’ll read it to you:
Alice moved, bringing them impossibly close, lifting her chin, her brown eyes sparkling. “You seem pretty confident I’ll relent, Lieutenant Commander.”
“I live in hope, Miss King,” Nelson replied.
“What if my forgiveness has a price?”
“I’d ask what it was, and then give your proposal due consideration.”
Nelson only had to wait three heartbeats for her reply. “I’ll consider forgiving you,” she whispered, “for a kiss.”
He gazed into her wonderful brown eyes, longing to pull her closer. To have her delicious scent enveloping him, encouraging him to do exactly what she asked. Something he couldn’t wait to do. His orders, the base, her father’s driver waiting for them, all disappeared. All that existed in that moment was her.
“The price of forgiveness is kissing you?” he asked, sounding way huskier than normal.
She nodded once more, sending his heart soaring. Warmth flooded his already-heated body as his heartbeat accelerated.
Okay, what do you think? Is this showing, or is it telling?
No, it isn’t all that obvious, and as I said, even I sometimes get confused when it comes identifying showing—and telling—in my own writing. But in this instance, it’s a bit of both, but mainly showing. … Maybe.
Some final words...
We’ve covered a lot this evening.
We’ve touched on characters goals, motivations, and conflict. We’ve looked at how entwined the plot and the emotional arc should be; and how essential it is to have deep, meaningful, and realistic characters. Then we delved into the mind-boggling concept of showing, not telling.
Your heads should be spinning.
Because all these individual topics have whole courses dedicated to them. Indeed, RWA offered our members an online course dedicated specifically to ‘showing not telling’ which lasted the entire month of March. And we have another one coming up that looks at creating page-turning stories with deep characters lasting way longer than a mere month. Just saying…
What I haven’t touched on is some of the mistakes authors make. Things like overloading the narrative with backstory. Or having so many characters that the love story gets lost in the crowd. Or the characters aren’t very believable, or they overcome their obstacles way too easily.
As an editor, dealing with these can be like walking a tightrope, with the risk of falling flat on your face increasing with every comment or suggestion you make.
But we’ll leave that for another day.
As for romances all being the same – they’re not. They are as different as every person here. And the quality of the writing is well above par too. It has to be just to survive in this crowded marketplace.
Sure, romances do have similar themes and tropes and structures, but so do other fiction stories. It’s the way the story is told, the characters the author uses, and how they interact with what’s going on around them that makes romance stories so endlessly fascinating. And that means they are read by virtually everyone – men and women of any age, affiliation, and ideological persuasion – not just bored housewives or preteens.
So, if you want to get into editing romance stories, I highly recommend you read some romances, if you’re not doing so already. This will give you an excellent foundation because the more you read, the better you’ll understand and appreciate the romance genre, and all the numerous sub-genres that go along with it. I’m not suggesting this should be a chore. I want you to enjoy the experience, because if you don’t, you’ll hate editing romances.
Finally, romance writers are generally a passionate bunch. We want to learn; we want to improve our craft so we can produce even better, higher quality stories for our readers.
And working alongside equally dedicated, highly professional editors who get us, and our genre, will always be valued and appreciated.
So don’t worry, you’ve got this.