Romance sells. (Or, as they usually say, sex sells.) And now more than ever, sex is being introduced into young adult literature every day. But that’s another debate for another day. Instead, I wanted to focus on the overall umbrella term of romance in YA.
Is romance necessary in every YA book?
The short answer is no, of course not. But the long answer is a lot more complicated.
If you’re a first-time author, then you probably already know the struggles of completing a manuscript, editing one, joining the query trenches, and understanding the marketplace.
More often than not, romance sells better than anything else.
Why? Well, we have to consider our buyer.
Ten years ago, YA literature was widely bought by the YA crowd (ages 14-18), but more recently, the average age of the YA buyer has increased to 20-25. (Hey, look! There’s me!) Granted, there is a lot of debate about this—and it’s hard to prove, considering adults can buy books as gift or teens can borrow books—but I love speaking to teens at my signings, and have listened to them say the same thing. A lot of young adults are reading fanfiction online instead, and hey, no shame! That’s awesome. I’m just happy when people are reading. But this fact has changed the marketplace, and I honestly believe that’s why we’re seeing more sex in YA literature, including less “fade to black” scenes. As an example, a YA book I just read had a one-night-stand between two inexperienced strangers, where both acted as if they were cool with it. Nothing wrong with that. Don’t get me wrong. But I cannot imagine reading that at 14 and feeling like I could relate, even though the characters were that age. However, I know some 14-year-olds can relate, and that’s fine! No worries. Just be safe. 🙂
That being said, at 14, I wanted to hang out with friends. I wanted to read books (and write them), and other than that, I ran around with my husky or my brother or studied a lot.
I particularly loved Ally Carter’s The Gallagher Girls books, because the romance was few and far in between. Same with Meg Cabot (specifically when she was known as Jenny Carroll and wrote the 1-800-Where-R-You series and the Mediator series). Oh! And Lynne Ewing’s Daughters of the Moon series. All of their YA books featured kickass, often hilarious, and always intelligent girls living life, figuring out a mess, and defeating any enemy they came across. Friendship mattered. Family, too. And, sure, sometimes a kiss was shared here or there, but romance never seemed to be the focus. Being a heroine was.
Granted, I must clarify that you can be focused on romance and still be a heroine. Please do not get me wrong. But I wish there were more YA books (in all genres) that allowed the characters to explore space, chase enemies, and save the world without falling in love, too.
Out of the last ten YA books I’ve read, the only one who featured no one falling in love was This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab. Definitely recommended. (By the way, if you have suggestions, feel free to leave them below. I LOVE suggestions.)
Granted, I can admit I’m a hypocrite. I write YA, and every single one of my YA books has a romance subplot in it. That being said, my romantic plots are hardly romantic in comparison to popular YA books today. In Bad Bloods, Daniel and Serena kiss….twice?…in 600 pages. And that’s it. But hey, they’re trying to protect their families and survive a government out to kill them, so I think they have a lot on their hands.
They can always kiss later. If they even want to.
That being said, almost every editorial letter I’ve received included the suggestion of getting my characters “closer” or focusing more on their romantic endeavors rather than their friendships or families or fighting for the world they live in. And I find it increasingly frustrating.
While I can see the market value in focusing on these tropes, I feel an increasing value in the opposite of those aspects as well.
It’s okay to focus on studying and family and friendships instead of love. It’s a personal choice. But more than ever before, I feel pressured to include romance where romance isn’t necessary. Because of that pressure, I actually set out to include more romance in my latest, but sure enough, I found myself following the same pattern I always do: There is a romantic interest, but he’s on the sidelines while my protagonist is striving to…I don’t know…save the world or her sister or her friends. She’s too busy studying to think about some boy’s smile or (insert jewel description) eyes. But she does have her moments, albeit they are few and far in between, and at this point, I doubt they’ll survive my editing process. And I’m so torn about it.
I wanted to write romance. I tried. But I can’t. And I’m trying to be okay with that. I am trying to be okay with me.
I love romance. I enjoy reading it, and I sometimes seek it out. But I wish there were more books where girls (and boys) were simply living life or saving the world without romance. It’s okay not to date when you’re a teen. It’s okay not to have romantic feelings. It’s okay to be focused elsewhere.
I wanted to read about girls like that when I was 14, 15, 16, and even now, so I guess that’s why I write my books the way I do. It’s that fact that made me accept myself again. (Oh, and talking to a bunch of my fellow writer friends. They helped, too.)
Romance will definitely help you sell your book—be it to an agent, a publisher, or a reader—but don’t force it. The most important aspect of any book is to be true to your work, and if that means avoiding crushes and angst-ridden kisses, then so be it.
I will continue to have romantic subplots, because that is my style, but as of today, my protagonist will focus on her studies more. She might not even kiss anyone at all. And that’s perfectly A-okay with me. (And more importantly, okay with her.)
If one day she changes her mind, I will listen to her, and if she doesn’t, I will continue to listen to her. Why? My answer is simple.
A protagonist is enough without a love interest to back them up. So is a story.