What’s a Young Adult Romance?

Tomorrow Americans head to the polls to choose our next president (as well as a bunch of other elections and ballot initiatives).  For me this holds another milestone…8 years since I started writing my first manuscript!

But I’m not going to talk about politics today. I’m going to talk about something equally controversial — the change to the Golden Heart and RITA category known as “Young Adult Romance.”

The Romance Writers of America board recently made waves in the writing world by rewriting the category definitions for the prestigious Golden Heart® (for unpublished manuscripts by unpublished writers) and RITA® (for traditionally-published books).

It’s long been understood that a genre romance novel required a happily ever after (HEA), and that the main plot focused on the romance. Other elements could be at play, but the story was the journey of the hero and the heroine as they overcame obstacles together to grow in their relationship and end up together.


Within the larger genre of Romance, there are many subgenres (contemporary, historical, suspense, paranormal, inspirational, etc), but at focus, a romance required certain elements. RWA has also long acknowledged that much of women’s fiction could have a strong emphasis on romance, but that the heroine’s journey might be primary, with the romance playing an important role, what used to be termed Novel with Strong Romantic Elements. This category was eliminated entirely from the Golden Heart® and RITA® categories.

But the Young Adult category has also been changed drastically, with a lot less fanfare than the elimination of the Romantic Elements category or the combining of Regency with Historical.

Here’s what it used to be:

“Novels with a strong romantic theme geared toward young adult readers. In this category, the love story is an important element of the novel, and the end of the book is emotionally satisfying and optimistic.”

Here’s what it is beginning this coming year:

“Romance manuscripts geared toward young adult readers. In this category, the love story is the main focus of the manuscript, and the resolution of the romance is emotionally satisfying and optimistic.”

(Emphasis mine.)

That’s actually a pretty big difference. With the stroke of a pen and the change of just a few words, RWA has essentially eliminated the vast majority of published and unpublished young adult novels from eligibility for either of their awards. Though there are some YA books that are straight-up pure romance, that’s not the typical YA story these days.

Let’s face it. Teens are busy. They have school, jobs, friends, battles with their parents, and oodles of personal growth going on. While love and romance is undeniably important to this age group, it’s rarely the most important thing going on in their lives.

And do we really want to be telling a bunch of 12-to-18-year-olds that romance should be the central focus of their lives? Seriously?

I think Beth Langston said it best in the discussion on the Ruby blog back in August:

“I don’t want the 2 young adults at my house to view romance as central to their lives. And I don’t want my fictional heroines to do that either. I want them to be multi-faceted. I want them to have qualities and interests that make it likely they could be a strong partner in a romantic relationship.”


Anyway, apparently I don’t write YA Romance after all, despite finaling twice in the YA Romance category in the Golden Heart. At least according to RWA — this week. But neither do the vast majority of YA authors in today’s market, even many of those with a traditional romance arc in their books. And frankly, I think readers are better off when there’s diversity in our stories.

What do you think of this change? Good? Bad? Indifferent?

Remember: The Golden Heart opens for entries on Thursday, November 15, 2012 and closes on Wednesday, January 2, 2013.

33 responses to “What’s a Young Adult Romance?”

  1. I wonder how much difference the changes will make to how people score the YA category of the GH. Because people that routinely *read* YA will recognize that romance is most often NOT the focus of the genre.

    Of course the changes will probably discourage some people from entering because they don’t think they meet the guidelines. And that’s disheartening. I understand the other changes RWA has made to categories, but I think in this instance they should’ve sought out someone who was extremely knowledgeable about the genre before making the changes.


    • Vivi Andrews says:

      I have to wonder how many of the people judging will be people who routinely read YA – since now judges can only opt OUT of categories we don’t want (and only two) rather than opting IN to categories we routinely read.


      • Amanda Brice says:

        Yikes, I hadn’t even thought about that, Vivi. So if you don’t read 3 categories, but you can only opt OUT of 2, then you could conceivably end up with categories you don’t read at all.


        • B. A. Binns says:

          Frankly, that’s why I have chosen not to judge this year. I routinely read YA. With a little romantic suspense and contemporary romance. There is just too much that I don’t read, don’t find enjoyable, and want to be fair to for me to chance judging and getting nothing in any genre that I care about. I decided that the best thing for the contestants was for me to stay out of judging this year.


  2. Hear, hear! But I will say that I don’t think of YA as fiction FOR young adults as much as ABOUT young adults. I still think it should in general present a world in which love isn’t everything. I know that as a teen, I put way too much stock in TV shows about teens, like beverley Hills, 90210, which was actually filmed at my high school, which didn’t help me view it as fictional. I should not have been taking moral cues from that show, but I’m afraid that I did!

    (I just typed that whole thing on my new iPhone! I’m like a real American now.)


  3. Thanks for this post Amanda. This issue has been weighing heavy on my heart. My 2012 YA debut, WELCOME, CALLER, THIS IS CHLOE, is not a romance. It’s a coming of age story about a girl who learns how to be alone without being lonely. There is a love interest, but from a technical standpoint, the romance can be taken out, and CHLOE’S story arc can still be realized.

    CHLOE was one of my 2010 Golden Heart finalists. My agent received interest from multiple houses because of the Golden Heart. I can say unequivocally that this ms sold because of the Golden Heart.

    So, yep, Cynthia, a bit disheartening…

    Shelley Coriell
    WELCOME, CALLER, THIS IS CHLOE now available
    GOODBYE, REBEL BLUE coming Fall 2013 from Amulet Books/Abrams
    THE BROKEN, THE BURIED, THE BLIND coming Spring/Summer 2014 from Grand Central Forever

    “Debut novelist Coriell shows sparkling wit and great skill in creating complex characters with memorable personalities.” – Publishers Weekly


    • Amanda Brice says:

      In my Dani series, the romance can definitely be removed and her arc will be realized. It adds to the journey however (and forms the basis of the SERIES arc, although not the book arc). I have varying levels of romance throughout the books (Book 2, Pointe of No Return, has the least), but the romance will be resolved at the end of the series.

      My 2008 Golden Heart book, Party Like It’s 1899, most definitely is a YA Romance. If you remove the romance, her arc doesn’t hold up. However, I still worry that it wouldn’t qualify under the clause “the love story is the main focus” because I’d argue that the time travel adventure and her coming of age growth is equally important to the plot. In this case, I’d say that there’s an equal focus, so how can it be the “the main” focus?

      As I stated below, under this new definition, even Twilight doesn’t count as a YA Romance, however, because of the lack of resolution of the romance arc in a single book.


  4. June Love says:

    I don’t write YA and haven’t read that many, so I’ll leave comments on the changes to those who know more about it. The ones I have read, and loved, weren’t focused so much on romance, but rather on peer pressure, parent understanding, and finding where they belong. Yes, there was a love interest, but it was minor to the plot.


  5. Rhonda Helms says:

    Hm. I agree with you, Amanda. I don’t get why there can be a “romantic elements” chapter, yet YA can now only be solely focused on the romance. Meh.


  6. Lori Wilde says:

    I totally agree with you about teenagers, heck about everyone. We are multi-faceted people. I want to read stories like the one you write. But it is called ROMANCE Writers of America, not Coming-of-Age Writers of America. They are being true to their message. The big question, should there be another writers organization that is much more inclusive?


    • Amanda Brice says:

      Good point about the mission of the organization. And I definitely think a coming of age tale with no romance would have no place in the contest. However, under the new rules, arguably even Twilight doesn’t qualify as a YA Romance.

      This is the new definition: “Romance manuscripts geared toward young adult readers. In this category, the love story is the main focus of the manuscript, and the resolution of the romance is emotionally satisfying and optimistic.”

      I read this to say that the romance must be resolved in a single book, meaning that the overwhelming bulk of the YA out there these days doesn’t qualify, because trilogies and series rule the Teen shelves. In most of these books, the romance arc is the overarching arc for the series, and if you take the romance out, the series doesn’t hold. However, the romance arc is not resolved until the final book, meaning there’s no resolution to the romance (as required in the new definition) in any given book (well, yes, in the final one).

      My Dani series is a romantic mystery (not YA Romance), where the romantic element is a series arc. In this series, the romance is a subplot rather than the point of the series, and the romance arc adds to the series. However, there are many other YA series where the romance arc IS the point of the series, but because it takes several books to be resolved, it wouldn’t qualify anymore.

      And I think this shows a serious misunderstanding of where the YA market is at the moment.


  7. Laurie Kellogg says:

    I suspect RWA didn’t give this revision to the qualifications for YA category much thought, because I doubt there’s a single member that believes teenagers should be obsessing about their love lives. At the same time, I believe there should be a fairly strong romantic element in order for a novel to qualify, and not just a brief mention of some boy in school the heroine likes. I think the love interest should be one of the main characters in the story, whether it’s as the heroine’s mentor, antagonist, or partner in her adventure.


  8. As another past Golden Heart YA finalist, I hate seeing this change to the YA category. While my finaling manuscript had a teen romance developing in it, it was about so much more. Peer pressure, learning to be happy with who you are, true friendship. This story wouldn’t meet the requirements to enter as the GH now stands. With teen reads, it shouldn’t be all about the romance. So sad to see this change.


  9. I guess my definition of romance is much broader than RWA’s. I was very disheartened when they made these changes. To me, if there is a romantic subplot, I think of it as a romance at heart. That is my OPINION. It’s just the way I see it. So when RWA changed the wording, well, disheartened isn’t really the right word. Livid might be more appropriate. Are there even YA’s out there that fit this definition? Okay, I’m certain there are, but I would guess it’s just not many. As in less than 5% of what we consider YA romance.

    Anyway, I try not to weigh in because I always stick my foot in my mouth. I will just say I personally am NOT a happy camper about these changes. And the reason is to keep their/our non-profit status????? Please.


  10. Kimberly MacCarron says:

    I’m super torn about this issue in the Golden Heart. Although I realize that a love interest in a teen’s life shouldn’t be all-encompassing, I will say that I think there HAS to be a romance in the story that is strong. I’ve judged several contests where I didn’t even see a romantic element in it at all, and I think that’s unfair as well. You can’t enter a “Romantic Writers” contest and not have romance in your book.
    And speaking for my pre-teen, she is done with the whole series thing. She absolutely loved FLAWLESS, and was so excited that the book actually had an ending at the END!
    I think, in that regard, your series story can have an optimistic ending with the teen love angle. The second one can take your story elsewhere, where the boy and girl have to figure things out again. With that in mind, I think TWILIGHT was solely a romance. I thought the vampire and werewolf story only supported the romance. To me, it was all about the love and how Bella couldn’t even function without Edward. Not that that is the way I think teens should view love, but that’s the way it’s portrayed. Which I didn’t quite like for girls, but that is a whole other comment.
    I think there will be many who will enter the contest anyway because they do have romantic elements in it. Most judges–I believe–will judge on the story and then give what they think are fair points to the romance. So, if you write a story about a girl trying to come to terms with her mother’s death, and somewhere in the story a boy comes along and plays a minor role in the character’s development, maybe they should think about not entering. However, if that boy is very key to getting the girl through her crisis and teaches her how to love again and not be afraid of losing someone you love, then ENTER!!! It’s all how you write the book. Same story line, different emphasis.
    But, people, please…if you’re entering a ROMANCE contest, please have there be some romance in it. That’s what I want to read. That’s what I want to judge. Not a story where I can’t even tell who the hero is, and the synopsis only suggests the romance briefly. That’s not a romance and shouldn’t be entered in the contest.


  11. Shea Berkley says:

    I am completely confused by what RWA is doing in regards to their contests. Eliminatating a vast majority of stories from the mix makes no sense. I want to compete with the best of the best, not the stories that just so happen to follow a very tightly defined definition of romance. The board has successfully taken away the prestige of their contest in one arbitrary move that few, if any, of its members support. So sad.

    But it’s not too late. They can and should reverse their findings. It would be the right thing to do, though I’m afraid they won’t do the right thing because they are scared others will think poorly of them, as if admitting to a mistake is wrong. Honestly, I’d have more respect for what they’re trying to do (whatever that is) if they would admit they messed up, reinstated the Romantic Element category and redefined the YA category to include the Romantic Element factor.

    But again, I think fear of admitting they made a mistake, by defining what a romance is into such a narrow, tiny cubbie hole, that it will stop them from doing the right thing.


  12. Gwyn says:

    I don’t read YA, as a rule, so don’t feel qualified to comment. However, as a parent and member of a large, extended family currently overflowing with 12-18 year-olds, I can say I wouldn’t want my girls or my nieces obsessing about finding their lifelong HEA at that age. Does it happen? Of course it does. I was still in HS when I fell in love with Hubble. But doing so wasn’t on the radar. It simply happened. I support letting young people find out who they are as individuals lest they loose their personal identity in order to make a relationship work. As I told my children back in the day: You can’t complete a whole unless you are, in and of yourself, complete.


  13. Rita Henuber says:

    Of all the changes RWA made this is the most worrisome for me. Romance manuscripts geared toward young adult readers. In this category, the love story is the main focus of the manuscript, and the resolution of the romance is emotionally satisfying and optimistic.”
    While I understand in a romance novel the love story should be the main focus but in a YA, Young Adult, aimed at six grade readers and up we want a emotionally satisfying and optimistic resolution of the romance? Really???? Has anyone figured out how that would be accomplished with a 13 year old? Does anyone want to see it accomplished? Isn’t it illegal in most places? It’s true I don’t have a dog in this hunt as I don’t write YA and only seldom read it. But I do have an investment in the young women of the world. I think they are faced with far more challenges than an emotionally satisfying and optimistic resolution of romance until they are well into their 20s.I could go on and on here. Bottom line. RWA, I think you mucked this one up.


  14. Elizabeth Langston says:

    I plan to interpret the description of YA Romance a bit loosely. It seems a little vague… and I wonder if that is on purpose.

    “Resolution to romance” – My debut, WHISPER FALLS, is the first book in a trilogy. Each book has its own romantic subplot/stage: budding romance, struggling romance, maturing romance. The romantic-subplots resolve in a satisfying/optimistic way at the end of each book. Each stage contributes to a larger/longer arc. I think that complies with RWA’s description.

    “Main focus” – I battle this part a bit more. As Amanda mentions in the included quote, I don’t want my daughters to see romance as central to their lives. I don’t like the idea of a YA having romance as its main focus. So I visited Mr. Webster to look for interpretations of “main” and “focus” that I could live with. I like the Physics/Geometry definition that says the main focus is “the point where all lines [‘themes’] intersect.” In photography, it’s the “point that naturally *attracts* the eye.”

    These definitions work for my trilogy. The relationship between the hero and heroine is where all of the major themes intersect. Most reviewers find scenes where the two of them are alone together, whether sparring or kissing (and there is very little of that in book 1), the most memorable of the book, even though it takes up so little real estate.

    I hope that RWA will lighten up the definition for YA Romance, because members shouldn’t have to be tying ourselves up in knots to interpret meaning and analyze words. But until RWA does, I would plan—both as a writer and contest judge–to interpret the definition the best way I can for readers and contest entrants.


  15. Elisa Beatty says:

    Sigh. Yeah, I don’t like this change either.

    The outside consultants RWA hired seem to have had a very ham-fisted notion of what “romance” is, and as others have been saying, they’re really out of touch with what actual readers in the actual market want in their books. (I’m burning about the elimination of NSRE….many of my favorite books, ones that EVOKE the most powerful feelings of romance and longing, fall into that genre, even if the romance isn’t technically “central” to the story. So, so, so sad to see them disqualified!!!!!)

    I know RWA is trying to be responsible and have a contest that ‘makes sense,’ but defining YA Romance as something that scarcely exists (and most of us are glad barely exists) makes no real sense, just like it makes no sense to be so literalistic about the definition of “romance” in NSRE books.

    Well, hopefully the Board will keep their ears open about the complaints and update the revisions for 2014. I sympathize with them, really–it’s hard to get changes right on the first try, and I know their hearts are in the right place. I’m hoping for more flexibility in the future!!!!


  16. Hope Ramsay says:

    I don’t write YA so I have little skin in this game. But I have read quite a few YA novels. Most of them fantasies. And most of them with strong romantic arcs.

    For example, one of my favorite YA authors, Juliet Marillier, writes loves stories. There may be other things happening in her books, but at the core of each one is a really good romance. The heroine in these stories is often a teenager first person narrator, and she will often end up married by the end of the book. But these novels are all fantasy or historical fantasy! Set in time periods where teenagers getting married was perfectly normal and accepted because people didn’t live as long as they do now.

    I would be turned off by similar stories set in a contemporary world. Teenaged girls in the 21st Century have better things to think about than marriage.

    So this change in RWA’s rules seems to cut most deeply against stories featuring contemporary teens living in the real world. (As opposed to the Twilight world where there are vampires and werewolves.)

    It really feels as if RWA didn’t fully think this one out. I recognize why they did it, but the unintended consequences, particularly for authors of contemporary YA, are pretty serious. I see many authors abandoning the contemporary YA in order to write something that meets RWA’s definition. And I just hate that.


  17. Carey Corp says:

    Great post Amanda! I feel like RWA has demoted my genre – unfortunately, I think they will lose a lot of loyal, energetic,romance-centric authors. Thinking about walking away from my local chapter makes me feel sick – but leaving RWA, not so much.


  18. Shoshana Brown says:

    I’m definitely not a fan of this change. I know RWA is ROMANCE Writers of America, but I feel like romance means different things at different stages in our lives. A YA romance is different than an adult romance, and I’d like to see it defined differently.


  19. Kate Parker says:

    I remember reading Romeo and Juliet as a HS student and thinking the great tragedy of the story is these two kids killed themselves, and Juliet was only 14. By the next week, she would have been on that balcony calling for Mercurio. Life is too short to have young ladies, the main readers of YA, think that lasting romance should be the central point of their lives.

    I’m glad I don’t write YA romance. I’d be beating my head against a wall to fit my idea of a plot into the standards RWA has set.


  20. Late chiming in here, but I too am so sad/angry about this change.
    RWA has meant so much to my career to date and I was really looking forward to entering the RITA this year.
    My book has a romance, but it spans 3 books and while it’s important to the story, it’s not the focus. And (spoiler alert) the romance arc doesn’t end well at the end of the first book.

    What shocked me most was the lack of consultation… and how soon they made these changes after approving both the YA and WF chapters… Why approve the chapters if you won’t accept their members or the books they write?


  21. […] Novel with Strong Romantic Elements is gone for good.  Regency has been eliminated as a separate category, though you may enter Regencies romances under the Historical category. (And yes, many of us are still crying in our teacups over that.) The definition for YA has changed significantly, as discussed in Amanda Brice’s recent post here. […]


Subscribe to the Blog

The Latest Comments

  • Lana Pattinson: OMG Janet, that’s awful! See, it’s prevalent in many industries…not a great thing. 🙁 But I’m...
  • Janet Raye Stevens: Hi Lana! Great interview–and loooove your story idea, it sounds like so much fun. Shocked...
  • Lana Pattinson: Ooh well you’re going to the right place! Speyside – which is where Jamie is from – is...
  • Addison Fox: EXCELLENT advice, Elisa!! My CP lives in Denver and every time I go visit she insists on my drinking...
  • Addison Fox: EVERY time I hear a story like this, I’m like…it’s 2018. Can we all just move...