After the discussion exploded on Twitter and Facebook yesterday, I felt I would be remiss if I didn’t include a more in-depth analysis of the issue here. I think there are some who are misunderstanding the complaint of the YA writers who feel the category has been underserved by its description.
HOW THE RITA WORKS
The way the RITA award is structured
is messed up is that you pay $50 to enter your book (and $150 if you aren’t an RWA member), and when you enter you pick the category you are entering your manuscript in. There are nine subject/subgenre categories, plus a “best first book” category that debut writers can check in addition to the category they are also entering. Most of the categories are subgenre related, such as “best historical romance” and “best paranormal romance”. (It would be like the Nebulas had a best space opera, best steampunk, best dystopian, etc. category. It would also be like the Nebulas was a pay to play award, but that’s a whole OTHER discussion.)
There are two length-based awards: “best novella” (romance doesn’t publish a whole lotta short stories), and “best short contemporary romance” (by which the denizens of romancelandia mostly mean category romance as published by Harlequin, though in this brave new world of ebooks, there are lots of titles that now fall into the “under 65k” rubric.
So basically, when you enter, you, the entrant, decide which category your book fits best into. Your historical paranormal romance could be entered into either category, for example.
In the decade or so I’ve been in RWA, they’ve rejiggered the categories and their descriptions several times. Like they used to have a category called “single title romance” by which everyone in the industry understood meant NON-Harlequin-category contemporary romance, but no one else understood the jargon, so they axed it. They had to change the descriptions of their “short contemporary” and “long contemporary” requirements every time Harlequin changed their word counts. They added in a “fiction with strong romantic elements” category at one point [read: women's fiction/chick lit]. Then, two years ago, in an attempt to rebrand RWA as being for ROMANCE writers, they axed that one and wrote new descriptions and judging guidelines and decided to focus heavily on the romance.
Which is fine. I cannot stress this enough. If RWA wants to be an organization that focuses solely on its mission of romance fiction, I think that’s GREAT. It doesn’t need to have women’s fiction in its organization just because some of its members also or mostly or even only write women’s fiction (raises hand). I published “women’s fiction” for years and I didn’t enter it in the RITA because I didn’t think it belonged and I’m fine with that. I don’t need RWA to cater to me when I’m not writing romances. But, you know, sometimes I write romances, too.
Now, in order for your category to “make it” into the contest, it needs to comprise 5% of the entries, which are capped at 2,000 (so, 100 entries in any given category). This year, YA didn’t “make it” which means that there weren’t 100 YA entries. YA entrants got the option of having their book switched to another category or having their entries and fees returned.
ISSUES WITH THE CATEGORY DESCRIPTIONS
Here’s why I think that happened. If you look at the category descriptions of each category, they are far, FAR more restrictive for YA romance than for any other category of its nature. Because they are so restrictive, many people who would have entered their books in the RITA did not (I heard from nearly a dozen yesterday.)
Most of the subgenres of romance have crossovers. For instance, you can write a historical paranormal, or an inspirational [read: Christian] suspense, and you have to choose where your book best fits. When they redesigned the RITAs two years ago, due to a huge, years-long outcry by the erotic romance community about how they were being judged too harshly in their respective categories by judges who didn’t like sex, they chose to institute a special “erotic romance” category. Erotic romances can be any other subgenre of romance (historical, paranormal, etc.). Same with “inspirational romance” which also doesn’t always get a fair shake in say, the straight up historical category.
[Please note that in every single category of the RITA, the judging guidelines that appear below the category description require that "the love story is the main focus of the novel, and the resolution of the romance is emotionally satisfying and optimistic." This appears in every single category, because it's a romance contest, and the books should be romances.]
So let’s play a game. Here are some category descriptions:
- Paranormal Romance: Novels in which the future, a fantasy world or paranormal elements are an integral part of the plot.
- Romantic Suspense: Novels in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot.
- Historical Romance: Novels set in any historical time period.
Okay, fair enough, right? They focus on the specific elements that make those romance novels fit into those categories. Now, here’s the description for YA.
- Young Adult Romance: Novels that focus primarily on the romantic relationship between two adolescents. These novels are marketed to adolescents and young adults.
One of these things is not like the other. Compare that YA description to the description for the two “contemporary romance” categories:
- Short Contemporary Romance: Novels that focus primarily on the romantic relationship and that are less than 65,000 words in length.
- Contemporary Romance: Novels that focus primarily on the romantic relationship and that are greater than 65,000 words.
Gee, nearly identical, huh? Reading that, you’d think that “YA Romance” was just another kind of contemporary romance, wouldn’t you? Like “contemporary romances” (i.e., now-set romance novels with no strong paranormal, mystery, thriller, religious, etc. plotline) YA romances are required to “focus primarily on the romantic relationship.”
Except, we all know that’s not what all YA romances are. Sometimes they are contemporary romances that focus primarily on a romantic relationship (Anna and the French Kiss, Eleanor and Park, Perfect Chemistry, etc.) Sometimes, in addition to the romance, there’s a lot of other stuff going on, like saving the world from a demon invasion (The Mortal Instruments), or running away from home and falling into a magical addiction (Valiant), or trying to survive on an alien planet after your spaceship crashed (the upcoming These Broken Stars).
Because of this description, a lot of people didn’t enter their YA romances. I still entered Across a Star-Swept Sea, though it also does not “focus primarily on the romantic relationship between two adolescents.” What it is is a futuristic spy thriller. Yes, there is a romantic relationship that is a “main focus” of the novel, but there’s also a revolution and genetic engineering and court politics and all kinds of stuff, much like there would be in an adult romantic suspense novel (i.e., they fall in love while also catching the serial killer). I mean, let’s be honest here. It’s inspired by the Scarlet Pimpernel, which is one of the ur-books of the romance genre and inspired countless of the romance novels published. It’s definitely a romance.
HOW CAN THIS BE FIXED?
Since YA Romance, like erotic romance and inspirational romance, also exists in every other subgenre of romance, I feel the description of YA Romance should mimic that of those categories. Here’s the description of “erotic romance” in the RITA Awards:
Erotic Romance: Novels in which strong, often explicit, sexual interaction is an inherent part of the story, character growth, and relationship development and could not be removed without damaging the storyline. These novels may contain elements of other romance subgenres (such as paranormal, historical, etc.).
Why can’t the YA description be similar? Something, perhaps, like this:
“Novels in which a romantic relationship between adolescents is an inherent part of the story. These novels are written for and marketed to adolescents and young adults and may contain elements of other romance subgenres (such as paranormal, historical, etc.).”
And then they can have your whole “love story must be a main focus of novel and ending must be satisfying and optimistic” bit in the judging guidelines, just as they do now and as they do for every single category in the entire contest.
What I’m not saying: That RWA should open up the YA category to books that aren’t romances. That’s silly. Of course not all YA novels are romances. Not all erotic novels are romances, either.
As for me, I chose to have my entry fee returned to me rather than choose an alternate category for Star-Swept. I did this because I didn’t feel like “paranormal romance” (where RWA lumps the tiny, tiny percentage of futuristic SF romance that is published along with a ton of vampire and werewolf books) was a suitable category for my story. Luckily, there are still other genre awards this book may be eligible for. There are lots of awards and other honors for young adult lit given out by librarians (hi, librarians!) And as a science fiction novel, it has options that my fellow disappointed entrants writing, say, historical YA, may not. If you are a SFWA member and liked Across a Star-Swept Sea, you can vote for it in the Nebula Awards (Norton). (Hi, SFWA folk!)
And, if you are an RWA member, please consider writing a letter to the board to ask them to revisit the YA descriptions, so what happened this year does not happen again.
For more excellent coverage on this issue, check out blog posts by Marni Bates, who discusses her disappointment in the category and why the awards are important (and there’s some great points in the comments section), and Bria Quinlan, who is posting covers of books that didn’t make it into the RITAs this year because of the cancellation.