About one of every five books sold in the United States is a romance novel, and annual sales for the genre add up to more than a billion dollars, not even counting those that are self-published. That’s a lot of books—and they all need copy editors.
I’ve been reading romance novels for twenty years and copy editing them for the past ten, and in that time, I’ve worked in all five of the major subcategories: contemporary, historical, young or new adult, paranormal, and inspirational. At its simplest, the only thing a story needs to be a romance is a central relationship and a happy ending. (This is why Nicholas Sparks, despite what Amazon may try to tell you, is not a romance novelist.) Everything else—time, place, whether there’s sex on the page, behind closed doors, or not at all, and the age, gender, orientation, and even species of the characters—is up to the author.
But a couple of things are consistent for the copy editor, and they can set working on romance novels apart from editing in other genres, such as mystery, thriller, or nonfiction.
The first is series continuity. Romance readers love series—Nora Roberts, one of the top-selling authors of the last thirty years in any genre, has been writing a future-set, murder-mystery series about a police detective and her billionaire husband since 1995. Writers love them because readers clamoring for Heroine A’s twin brother or Hero B’s best friend to find their happily-ever-after are committed customers who’ll keep coming back. It’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe crossed with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
In my experience, though, publishers don’t always keep the copy editor’s convenience in mind when sending out the next installment in a series. It’s not unusual to get the third (or seventh or twelfth) manuscript in a series without a series bible or continuity style sheet. So when it comes to enforcing continuity about everything from a character’s eye color to their place in the birth order, I find myself querying. A lot. For phrases like “her sister Hyacinth,” I have auto text set up to fill out the following query: “Is TK TK’s only TK? If so, there should be commas after ‘TK’ and ‘TK.’” (Make sure you catch Rhonda Bracey’s Friday session at the 2018 ACES conference for more on auto text. She’s a lifesaver.)
Sometimes I do a little digging in previously published books, if the text is searchable on Amazon or Google Books, but that depends on how much time I have on the project. Sometimes I shrug and lift it up to the god of hair dye. (Sure, they were blonde twenty pages ago, but why can’t they be a redhead now? Maybe the character’s a shapeshifter.)
Another romance-specific issue that comes up a lot is editing sex scenes, and I don’t just mean remembering the past participle of thrust. (It’s thrust.) The level of explicitness in romance novels ranges from absolute zero, in books written for religious readers who don’t want characters going much farther than cheek-kissing before they exchange vows, to a discreet fade-out as the bedroom door closes, to full-on, four-way bangfests. (And in between, there are polite and not-so-polite euphemisms and the occasional bit of purple prose that would make Alfred Hitchcock blush.)
My guidelines for editing sex scenes usually include making sure various items of clothing come off only once (otherwise, how many blouses was she wearing?), verifying that each character has the established number of hands (can he possibly be touching her face and two other areas of her body at the same time?), and querying if the author has used lathe as a verb, because she almost always means lave. (Ow.)
Historical romances pose their own challenges, and the most prominent ones I run into are related to anachronisms, both linguistic and otherwise. In a book I worked on a few years ago, a character decorated her unborn baby’s room with teddy bears. The only problem was that the book was set in eighteenth-century Ireland. In another, set in ancient Rome, a character used the word doublespeak, which according to Merriam-Webster was first used in 1952.
Some of the sources I find most helpful for tracking down the origins of words, consumer products, and concepts include:
But as Christine Ma has noted, bringing these kinds of details to the author’s attention is the best we can do. Ultimately, they have to make their own call if it fits their particular universe for a gladiator-turned-equestrian to be using stirrups.
When it comes to editing paranormal romance, I’ve run into the same kinds of continuity problems that can happen with contemporary or historical series, with the added twist that the author may have invented a whole society with its own customs, terms, and languages. When I can, I like to ask the author for the noun and adjective forms of any terms that are specific to the world of the book, but if contact with the author isn’t an option, I tend to fall back on what I know about the genre. In books about werewolves, for example, authors often like to capitalize Alpha when it’s used in lieu of a name, and sometimes whenever it appears. In witch and fairy books, authors might have a tendency toward spellings like magick and fae. And yes, sometimes the vampires sparkle, which luckily has very little bearing on the punctuation.
I could—and will—go on about editing romance novels pretty much forever, so if you’ll be at the , my session, The Tycoon’s Secret Werewolf Bride: Copyediting for Romance Novels, is 2:30 p.m., April 28.
Sara Brady (@sarrible) is a semi-freelance editor with experience in magazines, books, and web-based publications. By day she focuses on higher education news as the copy editor for Inside Higher Ed; by night she works with individual book clients and publishers such as Harlequin, RosettaBooks, Entangled, and Kirkus Media.
Headshot photo by Joanna Muenz.
Header photo by Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash