The Romance of Editing

By Aden Rolfe

Aden Rolfe is not your average fiction editor. His job is to fix the mechanics of writing, like any good editor … but editing romance novels comes with its own specific set of occupational hazards. He suddenly strides into the Wheeler Centre and throws himself at the keyboard to determine to share his tricks of the trade with us.

There’s a sketch from the British comedy show, The Mitchell and Webb Situation, featuring a proofreader for a pornographic magazine. He corrects a split infinitive and a misused pronoun, and questions the house style of cum rather than come. When I signed up to edit romance novels, I thought this might be the kind of thing I was in for.

It wasn’t.

This was before Fifty Shades was a glimmer in Christian Grey’s eye, but I still had carnal hopes. I was poised, ready to restructure sex scenes, sub in synonyms for throbbing, and conduct any extracurricular ‘research’ the job warranted. Then the first manuscript arrived in the post.

My expectations were based on a common misconception: that romance novels are all about sex. It’s certainly the most newsworthy aspect of the genre, and any commentary involving E.L. James would have you believe it’s all porn for a female audience. But that’s not even true for Fifty Shades. Rather, it’s about romance (I know, right?), or put another way, emotional journeys. To quote the genre’s leading light, Mills & Boon, ‘Emotional, character-driven conflict is the foundation of a satisfying romance’.

Contrary to popular belief, romance fiction is not a singular, formulaic genre. No, romance fiction is several formulaic subgenres, each with its own rules and predictable devices. Mills & Boon is divided into about ten such series, including Medical, Romantic Suspense and Blush. There are different rules for these, and the imprint famously provides aspiring writers with guidelines, including do’s (‘I ♥ dialogue’) and don’t’s (‘I :( secondary characters’).

These series have different levels of sexual detail too, with Blaze at one end of the spectrum (the tone of which ranges from ‘fun and flirty to dark and sensual’) and Sweet Romance at the other (‘no explicit sexual detail’). I had my fingers crossed for a Blaze. The Express Post bag contained a rural romance.

Rural romance is a branch of romance fiction that’s, well, about finding love in the bush. It eschews city-living, romances the country, and follows a typical trajectory from single and disheartened to married and contented.

Like some of the more conservative Mills & Boon novels, rural romance (also known as farm-lit and RuRo) isn’t about making your eyes bulge with lascivious detail. You can count on one hand how many times these books describe something as pulsating, and safely leave them around for your grandma to find. Sex plays a part, sure, but think less bondage-in-the-bush and more McLeod’s Daughters or The Farmer Wants a Wife.

More important in a rural romance is the emotional arc of the female protagonist. We spend a lot of time in her head, unpacking conflicted feelings amid an atmosphere of melodrama. We know she’s going to hook up with the station owner for a happily-ever-after, but we don’t yet know how. That’s the beauty of genre. Readers have expectations, and writers fulfil these in creative ways. One of the drawbacks of genre, however, at least from an editor’s point of view, is distinguishing between the conventions of the formula, and what is simply bad writing. When is the melodrama perfect for the genre, and when is it going over the top?

As an example, lots of things happen suddenly in romances. This is fine if it’s a surprising action or occurrence, like Todd bursting into the room to profess his love. Not so much if it’s Kendra realising she’s out of milk. Suddenly you have to remove 50 instances of suddenly from the book.

Another issue I come across is that of characters throwing themselves into things. Jaydrian doesn’t just have a shower, he yanks off his shirt before striding to the bathroom. If I had a dollar for every time a character strode somewhere, I’d be the best-paid editor in the business. In the meantime, I need to decide whether Chantelle is heartbroken enough that she forces herself out of bed, summons the strength to answer the phone and throws herself into the task of making breakfast.

I also find romance writers have the problem of being too specific. Jamie doesn’t just act normal, he determines to try to act normal. And as the emotional backstory becomes more complex, the sentences get longer and, somewhat ironically, more vague and uncertain. ‘The things Grant said had made Elise begin to think that maybe they’d have a chance together, but now she didn’t know if she were so sure.’

These might seem like minor offences and I might sound like a pedant, but en masse, they’re a serious occupational hazard.

But so what? It’s romance fiction, right? It’s not that it can’t be better written, it’s that people don’t want it to be. Sparkling prose isn’t a hallmark of the genre, and the plainspoken approach has garnered a readership of millions. And as someone who doesn’t read romance outside of my professional responsibilities, it’s important to remember that I don’t necessarily know best in all this (as has been documented elsewhere).

Romance publishers, on the other hand, know what their readers want. Across the board, romance fiction is bucking industry trends, increasing its market share and finding ways to integrate new distribution models with current ones. Although detractors still make convincing arguments against the quality of the writing, the genre continues to sell beyond expectations.

So despite what I might have hoped to be doing, or what my friends and colleagues imagine that I do, rural romance is a very traditional, often conservative, subgenre with some sexual content. It’s also the most successful literary enterprise I’ve ever been involved with.