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Jan 25

I Want to Read Real People and I Want to Write Real People

Ruthie Knox recently wrote a fabulous post about her frustration with editors who insist they know what readers do or do not want in romance novels. A lot of editors seem to think that what romance readers definitely do not want is anything too close to real life:

We romance writers … get these edits that say, “No, this isn’t the fantasy, that is.” Edits that say, “Readers don’t want this. They want that.”

We get edits that say women don’t fall in love with men who cry.

Edits that say women don’t masturbate.

We get edits that say women with unapologetic sexual agency are sluts, so can you make it so she’s been in love with him forever, maybe? Or else have her thinking about how she doesn’t usually get horny like this, but this guy is special?

. . .

We get edits that say penises must be very very large, and vaginas must be very very tight, and very very wet, but not in a gross way. Never in a gross way. Here is the list of things that are gross. Note the placement of armpit hair (female).

The post is too good to excerpt so really, you should just go read it. She makes some excellent points. (Especially about heroes carrying condoms in their wallets–a very unwise practice.)

Now, I haven’t dealt with editorial gatekeeping of this nature, but I’ve had editors flag stuff that I thought was just fine. A copy editor questioned something Taran said in Kiss and Kin – I honestly don’t remember what line it was — but the copy editor thought it was sexist. And I responded that yes, it was. My werewolves are kind of sexist. That’s not exactly positive, but it’s believable and it makes sense. Sexism is a character flaw–though as long as it’s not accompanied by contempt or violence, it’s far from the worst character flaw and besides, who said protagonists had to be flawless?

We kept the line.

I don’t want to write a perfect hero or heroine. I want my characters to have believable personalities, believable problems,  believable motives–whether they’re werewolves or rock stars. And of the very few people I’ve known with very few flaws, none were interesting and all made me feel uncomfortable. Probably because I have lots of flaws.

I feel that way as a reader, too. Perfect characters are boring. It’s disappointing to hear of editors who want perfect characters–or characters with “flaws” that aren’t really flaws in any true sense of the word. I don’t trust editors who insist that readers won’t accept the flaws, bad decisions, and messy lives that make characters compelling and give a story depth and texture.

The heroine in Yours, Mine and Howls is nosey–she asks questions about things that don’t concern her and if she stumbles upon a private conversation, she sticks around to listen. The guy she falls in love with, Cade, takes an instant dislike to a friend of hers for no good reason, and has kept his four-year-old on his ranch all her life instead of sending her to school in town so she could make friends. He did it out of loving protectiveness, but it was a shortsighted thing to do.  That doesn’t make him a bad person overall, or unlovable.

Cade’s second, Michael, is a grumpy bastard. And Michael’s little brother, Nick, is promiscuous–a slut, really. If a guy is deeply in love with someone he thinks he can’t have, and yet goes around banging every woman who wants him–which is, like, every woman–is he a horrible person? Can he still deserve love?

Readers frequently complain about romance novels that sound and feel just like all the other romance novels. Readers like complicated characters and unusual stories. Readers can handle characters who’ve made bad decisions or say stupid things or act from less than noble impulses.

My last editor at Samhain–and I loved her, I really did–wanted me to remove a couple of lines from Yours, Mine and Howls that I didn’t think readers would have a problem with.

There’s a scene towards the end of the book, when Cade and Michael go looking for the creepy guy who Ally briefly dated back in Texas. They toss his hotel room and find a bunch of pictures he took of Dylan, Ally’s 18-year-old cousin. Ally quit seeing this guy just a few months ago because he seemed way too interested in Dylan; she thought he might be a pedophile. Michael laughs when Cade repeats what he’d said to Ally: “Baby, if that guy was really into Dylan he wasn’t a pedophile, he was just gay.”

The humor isn’t aimed at gay people; it’s aimed at Ally, who still thinks of Dylan as her little boy when he’s actually a young man (okay, werewolf.) My editor thought readers would think Cade was laughing at gay people, whereas I thought the point of the line was pretty clear. I cut it anyway, because it wasn’t integral to the scene or the overall plot and I see no reason to argue over small stuff like that. Still, it kind of bugged me because I really thought readers would get the point.

Wouldn’t they?

I’m on my third or fourth editor at Samhain (this is not unusual — there’s a high rate of turnover in the publishing industry, and editors move around a lot). “My” editor now is someone I’ve never worked with, and I do wonder what she’ll think of the rock star story I plan to submit. Having followed her on Twitter for a while now I don’t think she’ll want to change my characters too much, but who knows?

My hero is a rock star who’s been sober for five years. Back in the day, he was a junkie of epic proportions. He’s not proud of the things he did. There’s a lot he doesn’t remember, and there’s even more he wishes everyone would forget. He hates the way many of his antics passed into legend and get repeated with something close to admiration, because when your addiction is so bad that Nikki Sixx wonders how you’ve managed to stay alive, that’s not an impressive thing. That’s a horrible thing. He should be dead, and he knows it, and it makes him ashamed.

The heroine is a fiddle player and a successful songwriter. Her last relationship ended three years ago because her (ex-)boyfriend cheated on her. She hasn’t dated anyone seriously since then because she’s on the road or in the studio so much. But a girl’s got needs, and she finds herself waking up next to the cheating ex-boyfriend more often than she’d like. She’s caught in this cycle of ex sex, and she knows it’s unhealthy.

Will my editor tell me readers won’t accept a heroine who’s doing booty calls with her ex, or a hero with a truly sordid personal history? Probably not.

What if she does–will I change the characters, clean them up?

Definitely not.

 

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