People have been falling in and out of love since the beginning of time and telling stories about it just as long. Think Romeo and Juliet. For young people, love often first comes at a time when they are already awhirl with conflicting emotions. Books that contain a romantic element can help them make sense out of their own love life or lack of one.
“As long as humans experience emotion, romance will play a role in our reading,” explains Karen Grove, Senior Editor of Harcourt Books San Diego. “This is especially true for the teen reader who is just beginning to experience romance. Romances allow teens to experiment with feelings without fear of rejection, being hurt, or harmed. It offers teens a glimpse of different ways to handle real life situations they may come up against; ways to socialize; ways to express their feelings; even ways to avoid certain situations. And it helps teens to see that the feelings they may be experiencing are universal; they’re not alone. This is something that I believe is very important; it gives validity to their thoughts and feelings.”
David Gale, Editorial Director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, says, “Some readers today, like some readers of yesterday, and I’m sure, some readers of tomorrow, want to explore the emotions they are going through and anticipate what may happen to them in the future. Romantic involvements are a part of teens’ lives, so they should be a part of their literature”
In the past, sweet stories that focused almost totally on the romance were very popular. Today a romance could easily be braided into a mystery or fantasy or be set a thousand years into the future.
According to Susan Knopf, Senior Vice President of Parachute Publishing, “Readers of all ages respond to romance and look for it from a variety of sources. We try to acknowledge the power of romance in the books we do for teens and adults.”
Romances today may be less sweet, turning to darker or offbeat themes, but they will always appeal to some teen girls in their more innocent form as well.
Grove says, “I think romance will always be popular with teens, though I believe the genre has changed dramatically over the years. Gone are the simple, sweet romances and in their place are stories that are more multi-layered, with twists and various other issues that often play as much of a part, or even a greater part, than the romance itself.”
At the evangelical Christian publisher Tyndale House, young adult books focus on a wide experience. However, Jan Axford, Acquisitions Editor, Children & Youth at Tyndale, says, “Our line for teens/young adults does focus on all the relationships in their lives. With all the reality shows on TV, it seems that teens are inundated with the message that you can figure out who you want to marry in 10 hours or less. The authors writing our fiction (such as Dandi Daley Mackall and Melody Carlson) want to encourage readers to look for well-rounded relationships to fill their lives.”
Axford continues: “The Christian market also has a very unique slant to romance for teens. While the market does not discourage it entirely, it does encourage teens to focus on friendships rather than romance.”
Romantic stories are also being published for gay and lesbian teens who struggle with many issues, in addition to the ups and downs of falling in love. Alyson Publications caters to this market segment. Dan Cullinane, Marketing Manager, explains, “Gay and lesbian teens often face larger, more serious issues then their peers—violence at school, violence at home, rejection by friends and family, oppression either direct or indirect by teachers and school administrators, homelessness—so the genre they are looking for is often rather different. They gravitate more towards stories by writers who can accurately reflect the physical and emotional reality of their lives while also giving them a sense of hope. Sweet Valley High is not terribly relevant to these kids.”
Cullinane adds, “What is key for us is that the story be well-told and reflective of the reality of the world it is portraying. Romantic stories between two teenage boys or two teenage girls are as real and valid and appropriate as any other.”
But how much is too much when writing about love, sex, and relationships for teens? According to Knopf, “Any element of a story—romance, language, degree of scariness—can be elemental to a story or extraneous. In a sense, the story itself dictates what is appropriate and what is not.”
“This really depends on how we envision the readership,” says Lexa Hillyer, Editorial Assistant at Harper-Collins. “More nontraditional issues are appropriate for older teen readers, but in general we like to keep the content as accessible to a wide range of readers as possible, while still making it unique and intriguing?’
Story is still all-important to editors. While romance is a very distinct genre in some ways, it still can’t be forced into standing alone. And romance is also simply an element in other genres, other storytelling forms. The romantic elements that are appropriate and necessary must flow naturally within the remainder of the story. Some publishing houses have limitations on what can be included—such as explicit sexual involvement—but much is dependent on the needs of the story line. Christian publishing houses, for instance, have definite parameters.
Gale leaves the decision about what elements to include up to the author ultimately. “We are publishing for a broad spectrum of readers, so there is a need to portray many sorts of relationships; along those lines, I’m less interested in publishing ‘more of the same’ if I can publish something that is original. I don’t think in terms of appropriateness so much as I think in terms of what sorts of things—content, language, etc.—can limit sales. If I think a book has an audience but that sales would be limited because of some element, I generally discuss it and let the author decide whether it’s more important to tell the story in that way or to reach a wider readership.”
“Each book is so different in its tone, message, audience, and setting that it’s nearly impossible to say what is and isn’t appropriate in a book,” adds Grove. “If the emotions, actions, and consequences are real—if they take into account the background of the character, the time period, the setting, the audience that will read it—then the romantic elements will follow naturally. If you censor a book in language or content when that language and content are appropriate to the setting, characters, and situation, then you have lost your authenticity Your readers won’t believe in the story. Yet, if your story rings true without being graphic, then I think it’s best to leave the graphic elements out. Your audience will be much wider and a reader’s imagination often fills things in with what feels right or appropriate to them personally.”
Stupid, Thrilling, Messy, Delirious
Falling in love is sometimes easier than writing about it though.
Knopf shares this story. “Earlier in my career, I edited romance fiction for a big paperback publisher, and one of the problems that I often encountered was the tendency for writers to separate love scenes from the story line. The effect was that the story would stop dead, then there’d be a love scene, then the story would resume. Integrating the story into the love scenes, and the romance into the story, makes the book a more satisfying read.”
“One pitfall is bringing up any of these things in a blase manner,” says Hillyer. “Young teens often approach our books during a time of curiosity and discovery—many ideas about love, sex, or relationships may be new and surprising and we try to make sure the characters in the books are working through them so readers can too. Many of our books with romantic elements involve first kisses, but even in less innocent books it’s nice for the characters to reveal lots of details about their experiences and their feelings, because younger readers are less likely to make assumptions (or wouldn’t necessarily know what assumptions to make) than a more mature reader who already gets what’s going on.”
“Writers have a tendency to idealize and romanticize when in actuality what makes a good read is realizing that everyone’s love life (male, female, gay, straight, old, young) is stupid, thrilling, messy, transformative, exhausting, ecstatic, ridiculous, delirious, and ordinary,” adds Cullinane.
Other common mistakes when writing a romantic story include forcing actions or events that are not believable to readers, such as pairing characters that are obviously wrong for each other, or forcing events through coincidence, speeding them up too much. Some writers also don’t do enough to see the perspective of the opposite sex, psychologically, emotionally, socially, physically.
Axford reminds writers to remember their audience. “Teens don’t process the world through the same eyes. They aren’t necessarily able to make the same choices adults can make in regard to future consequences. The adult dating experience should not be the teen dating experience. Our culture today continues to push kids younger and younger to be adults earlier and earlier.”
Grove cautions writers not to go for the shock value when writing a sex scene or go so far the other way that the story becomes saccharine. “Teens take love, sex, and romance very seriously and the writer needs to capture that without going too far beyond or too far below a teen’s sensibilities.”
Today’s books with romantic elements are as varied as the teens who read them and editors are looking for more variety.
Cullinane says, “We are seeing more romantic comedy elements and they are welcome, particularly in gay and lesbian fiction, which has in the past had a tendency to be somewhat pedantic and preachy and, frankly, boring. For teen readers, YA series books are still very popular, but they have begun to be much more empowering of girls, which is also very welcome.”
“We’ve seen a more accurate reflection of what real teens are like, how they talk, what they actually say and do. We’d like to see even more of this realism and less of a naive or moralistic slant on teen life,” says Hillyer.
It’s too easy in romances, or romantic parts of other stories, to go over the top or sentimentalize. Editors, and readers, want real. That’s true even in fiction of other kinds: Mysteries with romance seem to be a trend. Historical fiction and adventure can embrace romance as well. And in contemporary fiction, readers often want to read about romances in a society and time when they can be more and more difficult to find. A writer can give readers hope that there is romance no matter what the life situation.
“Stories are becoming more gritty and edgy, though they still having a romantic element,” says Grove. “Characters are dealing with larger issues—illness, criminal acts, fear, dysfunctional families—while the romance is relegated to the background of the issues. This doesn’t mean that the romance is not important. I think kids actually read for the romance, but it becomes part of a whole picture.”
No matter how you choose to develop a romantic story line, editors all agree that every story needs a strong main character with a driving need and a desire for change.
“I look for great characters—characters I can hear speak to me, characters with strong voices, characters I could easily imagine walking down a street,” says Grove. “If a writer can capture a character, all other elements, in my opinion, can be worked out. You can put that character in any setting, any situation, and know how he or she will react. If a reader can make that necessary emotional connection with a character, you can take that reader anywhere.”
Hillyer agrees, listing the qualities needed: “a winning main character, a sense of humor, a strong narrative arc with elements of tension driving the plot forward, hurdles that an average contemporary reader can identify with, surprises, and a satisfying conclusion—the elements of any good book.”
At Tyndale, Axford wants to “produce stories that are authentic in respect to story line and voice.”
“As a book packager,” says Knopf, “we often hire writers for ideas we’ve developed in house, and we look for writers who have a keen sense of story, good character development, and finesse with dialogue. A good romance invites the reader to share the main character’s experiences—the highs and lows—in a personal way. Not unlike any other good story, really.”
Cullinane wants a good story told well. “That’s the bottom line,” he says. “And if it’s a romance, then there better be a couple of shiver moments where your heart gets squeezed in a really nice way.”
—Susan Taylor Brown
NOTE: This article first appeared in the Children’s Writer Newsletter. Editors may have moved to a different publishing house and editorial needs may have changed. Please do your own research before submitting.