Lots of times, first-time novelists, i.e. me, will write a book thinking it will be consumed by one group of readers, i.e. adult ladies, but an agent, i.e. all of those I queried including the one I landed, will tell you that in fact you have written a book for Young Adults. Then the first-time novelist will have to admit the last time she read definitively shelved YA books was some time in the 80's, and they were written by Judy Blume. And Cynthia Voigt. And Lois Lowry and Katherine Patterson and...that's pretty much it. I was more a Stephen King gal. Johan Saul. Laura Ingalls Wilder. Like that. Because I wrote this book without the YA genre in mind, I missed the apparent now-a-days required inclusion of a ton of YA tropes. Which, aside from the protagonist's age, left me baffled about why everyone kept insisting my book was YA, what with it's lack of those key elements; such as an externally action-filled plot. Or scenes at school with friends. Or, the big one, capital R Romance.
I was a late bloomer. As a teenaged reader I was all into introspection, tragedy, overcoming adversity, murder, scariness, ghosts, bonneted girls on the American Prairie, blah dee blah dee blah. When I wrote this book my main character and the plot were based on what I knew and would like to read myself, and it really made me frustrated to hear from vying editors that the story held no potential interest or validity for Young Adults without a (heterosexual, of course) romance in it, as 'Every Teenager Deals With It!' which, sure, I guess...except me and all my friends but maybe we didn't count.... but I kept thinking, Ugh! Sticking a romance in my book would have nothing at all to do with the narrative, why must that be the focus, why is that the only thing that draws readers?
I'm kind of sick of YA readers (girls particularly) being offered, almost exclusively, what seems lately (based on the jacket flap copy I read) an avalanche of books and resulting films pounding in the notion that if said readers do not have a boyfriend, if they are not preoccupied with sexual desire, romantic entanglements, that there is something wrong with them. If, as a teenaged girl, every book you read aimed for your demographic is all about I must get a boyfriend I have no value unless I am defined by some dude it could seriously mess you up. That is ridiculous! There are already a million books for Young Adults that prominently feature romance, romantic triangles, blossoming sexual desire - couldn't there possibly be any room in the entire canon of YA Literature for a story focused on the OTHER areas of brain/physical/emotional development that YA humans go through? As long as, of course, it's a decently written book kids would give a crap about reading. But that was the thing, editors kept saying how much they loved the prose, the basic plot - it just needed romance. Really? I thought. It Needs it? I asked one editor if the narrative clarity be improved with some sexy times, or was all this romance insistence simply about selling books and she answered, "No, the clarity is fine -it's about about selling books. Of course it is. But isn't that the point?"
And yes, of course, the YA authors I loved included plenty of making out and Business Time in their books (Hey there, Forever), but it often wasn't the entire focus of the plot. I loved Tiger Eyes so much, Davey sure made out with her boyfriend in flash backs and had a crush on Wolf but really, she was more trying to not die of the agonizing sadness and confusion wrought by watching her dad die in her arms. Kind of makes the romance seem beside the point - but an interesting thing to be dealing with, right there swimming in the grief.
So how this all went down with my book is that my agent loved that my plot didn't go down that well-worn path - but she also gently reminded me that digging my heels in and petulantly refusing to acknowledge the very existence of romantic/sexual inklings in a fifteen-year-old protagonist was just as dumb as insisting it is the ONLY thing that matters. "It doesn't have to define her," Agent Of The World explained, "But if it's there, it complicates things. Which creates conflict. Which is a good thing in a story. Right?"
So I got off my 'No Romance!' high horse, took a good look at my plot and figured out it really did seem odd none of those notions ever entered my protagonist's existence. At all. I understood there was a way to make it part of, while not defining, the story. And once I figured out (with pitch-perfect agent-suggested ideas) the way to do that, an editor fell in love with it, and I in turn fell in love with her when she spoke the following words:
"What I really love is that she's not boy crazy - it never goes down that road and that is a relief. Makes it more true."
Lesson Learned: If every single editor and agent are giving you the same advice again and again, it may be a clue that you might want to take an objective look-see at what they're suggesting. Not to abandon your principal beliefs about what your book is or isn't, or what is totally horrible for female YA readers to get barraged with just to sell books, of course not - No, it is about not being an immovable dumbass who misses an opportunity to make your story better. To, in fact, make the point that not being boy-obsessed and instead having other important revelations and growth as a young human being is just as normal, as valid and true as the alternative, maybe more so - and to make this clear in the narrative by including elements of normal human developing sexuality and the ensuing conflict without having them take over the whole plot - That is the magical dream land of remembering that Hey, I Am A First-Time Novelist. I Want To Write Good Stories For People That They Will Feel Comforted/Challenged By. And also, I Need To Remember I Am Not Hemingway. Get Over It. Listen To Smart People.