Editing for satisfaction
As a long-time romance reader, a romance author, and a publisher, I figured I had a pretty good handle on what constituted a good romance, so when I was asked to be the guest editor of Best Lesbian Romance 2009 (Cleis Press), I expected the task to be straightforward. I’ve just recently turned in the manuscript for Best Lesbian Romance 2013, and for each of the last five years, when faced with choosing and editing 16 short stories from the 80 to 100 submissions for the annual anthology, I’ve asked myself two sets of questions: First, what do readers expect from a romance? Second, what is my responsibility as the editor in making the selections?
My answer to the fundamental question of what readers want from a romance is simple: pleasure. But of course, the pleasure gained from reading an effective romance is multifactorial—intellectual, emotional, physical, and sensual—and will not only be different for different readers but also might be different for the same reader at different times. There is no one-size-fits-all romance. My answer to the second question is slightly easier. Since the popular romance became “popular,” there have been written and unwritten rules regarding what was appropriate for a romance and the rules have in part been determined by what readers will accept. These rules have changed over time, primarily as a result of the changing roles of women in society.
Until the late 20th century, heroines—generally virginal, and sexually unsophisticated—were often dominated by the hero. There was no sex for the heroine before marriage (and no graphic sex for the reader), no didn’t always mean no, and ménage wasn’t even a word in the glossary. Naturally, the hero and heroine were heterosexual.
In the post-feminist era, real and fictional women have thrown off the yoke of virginity and enjoy sexual experiences outside of marriage or even choose not to be married and on occasion may have sexual relationships with two men or another woman. Even the HEA has undergone some transformation, in that happy-for-now endings are acceptable. There are still some rules, although they exist in a gray zone especially in newer sub-genres such as urban fantasy and erotic romance where heroines tend to be boundary pushers, but generally anything that breaks the bond of trust between the hero and heroine undercuts the romantic dream and is still rarely seen—lying and cheating being the two biggest infractions.
Given the flexibility of form, how do I make my selections? I select and edit the submissions on the basis of the written and unwritten rules of romance, the sine qua non being a happy ending or HFN. No matter how compelling the story or how beautifully written, if one of the lovers dies in the end or the lovers separate, it doesn’t make the cut.
The next requirements for inclusion are readability (which implies sound technical craft) and a high romance quotient—meaning the story has to contain an intense emotional connection between the two characters, a challenge to be overcome or a turning point for one or both characters, and a cathartic resolution.
After the basics are met, I select for stories in popular sub-genres (including at least one YA story and one paranormal) with classic themes such as first love, reunion, and a longtime couple’s story. At least a quarter of the selections are highly erotic.
As a group, the stories demonstrate various stages of the romantic journey, including the meeting and attraction, the conflict, the resolution, the declaration, and the consummation. When the anthology is complete, what I hope I’ve achieved for the reader is a total picture of romance, not only as a human experience, but as a genre.