Houston, We’ve Got a Problem (RWA, Please Fix This!)

Hey everyone,

So yesterday I received the following email from the Romance Writers of America:

Dear Marni Bates,

Due to the failure to obtain the minimum number of entries (5 percent of total contest entries) required by the contest entry deadline, the Young Adult Romance category of the 2014 RITA® Contest has been canceled.

I’m not going to lie, I’m really disappointed.

Awards are important. And I’ve spent the past hour staring at my screen trying to figure out how to discuss them without coming across as narcissistic. Here’s a sad truth: It requires bravery for a female author to say that she believes her work to be worthy of consideration. It’s a whole new level of scary. It’s the kind of statement that you instantly want to take back before somebody says, “You aren’t a real writer! Your stories are light fluffy things of absolutely no consequence!” because that would make you want to crawl up into a very tight ball in the back of your closet.

Which is why I still feel obligated to preface this post with something self-depreciating.

Not that I expected to be nominated…

Not that I had a shot at reaching the finals…

I’m mostly disappointed that so many of my peers won’t get the recognition they deserve…

And yes, I absolutely believe that gender plays a large role in this. If you want to read an amazing article on what it’s like to be a female YA author, I highly recommend this piece by Sarah Rees Brennan. It’s spot on.

Here’s a small excerpt from her article:

Common Responses To Female Authors Promoting Themselves I Have Seen, Over and Over Again.

“Why do you think you are so great? You are not so great.” (By promoting yourself/talking about yourself or your work, you indicate that you do think you, and/or your work, has some value, and there is so much pushback, conscious and unconscious, to that.)

“Don’t reblog fan graphics/talk about your characters/talk about your MALE characters (what do you think you are, some sort of harlot?)/be so smug about your books as if you think they might be any good. It makes it seem like you think you’re so great!”

“Do you expect PRAISE?” (I don’t! I never do. Most ladies I know don’t, being accustomed to expecting constant negativity. But it would be nice if people didn’t talk about praise as if it is some incredible, celestial prize that a women should never even dare to dream of getting, and the very idea of them getting it is to be scorned.)

“She’s writing romance and that’s girly and it sucks./She’s writing YA and that’s girly and it sucks./She’s writing literature and men write it better and she sucks./She’s writing about a girl and girls are annoying/shallow/not literature.”

So I repeat: Awards are important. Why? It’s a source of validation. And for a whole bunch of us, it means that we will feel valued instead of dismissed. Especially if you write books that end with a happily ever after.
Now I will always love the Romance Writers of America. I’ve met so many unbelievably talented people through that organization. My life is a hundred thousand times more awesome because of the friendships that have formed, too!
But they have made a huge mistake.
The Young Adult community within the RWA first began to feel alienated last year when the organization decided that all books in that category must “focus primarily on the romantic relationship between two adolescents.”
Here’s the problem: YA is all about coming of age. It’s about figuring out your own identity at a time in life where everyone has an opinion about your future. And yes, YA protagonists often navigate complicated romantic relationships, but the happily ever after is usually built on the character’s ability to know what they believe in. Young Adult fiction can also mean just about anything. Historical. Suspense. Horror. Sci-fi. Contemporary. Humor. Drama. There are YA books that include all of those elements…and have a romance too!
So here is the position that most YA writers found themselves in. Do I really want to spend fifty bucks when I’m pretty sure my book is going to be instantly disqualified? Do I want to feel guilty about focusing more on the growth of a primary character instead of an overarching romance?
And for a bunch of people the answer to that was a resounding, “Oh, hell no!” Some of my friends are going to leave the organization because they feel so frustrated/alienated by these policy changes.
Now that whole category has been eliminated.
I know you might be sick of hearing this, but…AWARDS ARE IMPORTANT!
This community is important! This is our refuge when the rest of the world tells us that we are girly and that we suck. So I hope the RWA will remove the problematic language and consider opening the category to late submissions.
I’d love to hear your opinions!

35 thoughts on “Houston, We’ve Got a Problem (RWA, Please Fix This!)

  1. I was shocked to learn this. I’ve read more YA than this year and the romantic focus in YA novels is different than in adult novels. Does it make this perspective of romance less valid? Of course not — it strengthens romantic fiction to have different approaches, angles and executions. Sad about not having YA or Strong Romantic Elements in the RITAs. 😦

    The YA cancellation is just for this year, I hope?

    • Hi Jeannie!

      I totally agree with you about the importance of having different approaches to romance. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful comment! As for the YA cancellation…I’m worried that they won’t change the policy. I suspect that this shut-down is only going to further alienate the YA authors. But who knows? Maybe this will be a wake-up call for the organization. 😀


    • Hi Karen!

      It’s definitely disappointing. I’m hoping that the organization will rethink their stance on this. I totally understand the urge to leave, but I’m not quite there yet. Emphasis on the yet. (Thanks for leaving such a great comment, by the way!)


  2. I also got that email. Marni, and I’m also saddened.
    I think it’s really frustrating because I think there are a lot of authors who write books like mine, which do not “focus primarily on the romantic relationship between two adolescents” but where the romance is a central and vital part of the story.
    And then compare that to the way they describe categories that would describe a lot of YA romance, just plus the YA bit:
    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.

    You know what my book is? It’s a YA futuristic romantic suspense. It’s a futuristic spy thriller and the romance is DEAD important. And I entered, despite their stupid description. But I bet a lot of people woudln’t, because they look at that description and they go, oh, my book is a vampire adventure/spy thriller/dystopian… even though there’s a romance and it’s dead important.

    • EXACTLY! Okay, I will be directing people to your comment because you just masterfully explained the problem. My books are contemporary romances…but my most recent one involves rescuing a teacher from a Cambodian drug lord! So…there’s that. 😀


  3. Marni,
    I was terribly saddened when I got that same email last night. I entered my debut novel Doon which is romance/adventure set in a historical fantasy world but with two contemporary heroines. For me it embodies the unpredictable, diversified nature of what makes YA amazing. BUT it would never fit into any other category.

    I was so excited to finally be able to enter the RITA’s. It’s like a rite of passage for a debut romance author and now I feel like that chance has been ripped away from me.
    Thanks for being brave and writing this post. I agree that contests are needed for validation in an industry that makes you need it and feel guilty about seeking it at the same time.

    • I totally agree, Lorie. On my FB page, I’m being told to stop whining, I could have entered my book into paranormal or Suspense. But I don’t think they would have worked there at all. Erotic romance gets its own categories for years because judges were repeatedly prejudiced against books with lots of sex. But my futuristic spy thriller retelling of the Scarlet Pimpernel was supposed to compare to women-and-their-navy-seal stories or vampire boyfriends?

      • I’m sorry you’ve been told to stop whining. You have a valid opinion and every right to express it. We should be supporting each other in this. It’s something we can band together on and present to RWA as something we feel strongly enough about that they should consider changing it.

  4. Thank you for expressing this so well! I am not eligible for the RITAs but as a YA writer part of RWA, this hurts us all. To know how booming the YA market is and to see that they are cancelling due to low entries…something does not compute. Like Diana, I was not deterred by RWA’s tweaking of the definition, but I heard many voices speak up that they no longer felt welcome by RWA even though I think what they are writing is still YA romance. It’s a perception thing. Perhaps over-tweaking the definition (perhaps–and I don’t know this–without consulting industry pros who work in YA, like agent, author, editors, who could have provided education on the category and subgenres to the RWA board) we now have limited the opportunity for a lot of authors.

    I agree, awards and recognition are important. The intention of the RWA rebranding was to sharpen the focus on romance. But that focus shouldn’t be exclusionary. YA books need those coming of age elements and an EQUAL focus on things other than the romance, even if the driving force of the plot is the romance, otherwise we open up to reinforcing potentially harmful stereotypes for young women.

    • Hi Stephanie!

      I’m so glad you enjoyed my post. I’m not a morning person (at all) so I’m glad that this is even coherent! I think you are absolutely right about the RWAs attempts at rebranding. I just think that they managed to alienate a community by creating the perception that not everyone was welcome. There also seemed to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of YA. If you don’t want to perpetuate harmful stereotypes for young women (thanks for bringing that up, btw!) then you need to make sure that the female has an arc independent of a love story. I personally don’t believe that means it is any less of a romance.

      Hopefully the RWA will work with us to fix this problem. It’s entirely solvable. So I hope that happens!


  5. Thank you for this. I hadn’t read that article about female YA authors, and it hit home. I actually write adult romance, and I try to be fairly open about it, but I still find myself telling strangers that I write trashy romances, and basically dismissing myself before I even start. It’s a terrible habit and one I keep trying to break, but I meet someone new and they ask what I do and…the self-deprecating, genre-deprecating words just come out.

    YA and YA romance are an important genres, and I hope these policies get changed to help make you feel more welcome.

    • Hi Jeanette!

      Isn’t that article incredible?! I honestly think that we dismiss our work because it seems less painful to make light of ourselves than it would be to hear a stranger call it worthless. That’s part of why I fell in love with the RWA. Nobody there would ever tell me that I couldn’t write teen romances since I didn’t have a high school boyfriend (true story, btw!). Everyone was just warm and smart and funny and….well, you know what I’m talking about! They were as delightful in person as you are online!

      Thanks for leaving such a wonderful comment!

      P.S. People have told me that you are made of awesome. So you might want to keep that in mind the next time you meet a close-minded stranger.

  6. Yep, I got the same email. Very disappointing. I, too, had decided to ignore the definition and entered anyway. Because even though the romance is a huge part of THE RULES, as in the story wouldn’t function without it, it’s a story about a girl who’s an alien/human hybrid, you know? Which is technically science fiction before it’s romance. Sigh. I hope they get this figured out. I completely agree with your point about awards and validation.

    • Hey Stacey!

      I’m totally not allowed to read THE RULES. After hearing you discuss it in Vegas I was like, “Oh no, Marni. If you pick that up, you’ll be sucked into her world, and you will NEVER want to leave!” But I really, really hope that the RWA changes their mind because this new series sounds amazing. And you totally deserve recognition. Y’know, from normal people who don’t ban themselves from reading killer YA. 🙂


  7. This is an excellent analysis of the issue, and I do hope that the RWA will take notice. Because clearly the issue is not insufficient interest in the category, but the narrowing of the definition to exclude YA’s in which a romantic relationship between two teens is a key element, but not the sole or primary element. I

    t seems important to mention, here, that while romance between two adults is often envisioned as a relationship moving toward a wedding and permanence, romance between teens is a different animal. It is often a transitory (and, one hopes, delightful) experience on the path to self-discovery as opposed to the first step in bonding with a lifetime partner.

    There are, of course, many wonderful YA’s out there that “focus primarily on the romantic relationship between two adolescents.” I love these books and the next sentence is not a sneaky way to disparage them. However, since the late 20th century, society has moved toward a stance that encourages young girls NOT to focus primarily on romantic relationships, but to use that period of their lives to develop as independent, self-sufficient individuals. (The protagonists of adult romances have, in general, reached this point in their lives; teen protagonists are still on that developmental journey.)

    Clearly, learning how to navigate romantic relationships can play a significant role in this development. But just as we’ve reached the point of encouraging girls to think beyond their boyfriends, and for their romantic entanglements to be one element of their lives but not their central preoccupation, it feels somehow regressive fo the RWA to declare that a teen novel in which the female protagonist’s story contains a significant and meaningful romance, but not a be-all-and-end-all-whole-point-of-the-story romance, is outside their parameters.

      • I totally agree with Ann about the focus in YA vs. adult romance, but I’m not 100% convinced that RWA should change their guidelines. There was a similar controversy when the Strong Romantic Elements category was eliminated. It doesn’t seem fair to make an exception for YA novels that aren’t primarily about the relationship unless the SRE category is reinstated. These issues are connected in my mind. However–the description could easily be changed to “Novel that focuses on a teen protagonist” or something. As long as the novel fits the other guidelines (central love story, hopeful ending) no problem.

        Great post & discussion, Marni! Hope to see you again soon.

    • I agree, Ann! These developmental and cultural factors are unique in YA, and I think understanding that will embrace YA rather than turn it into something it shouldn’t be. I don’t think there are that many RWA members writing YA that are not legit romances, but now everyone is questioning their own novels because it might not be “enough” romance due to way the definition is worded. If the romance is a central factor factor driving the plot, among other coming of age details, that to me qualifies. We need those other details. RWA’s job is to make sure their intentions are clear, and I truly don’t believe it is to exclude this many writers.

      • Well, I’ve written plenty of books that aren’t romances, I just don’t enter them in the RITAs or expect RWA to cater to them. I have chosen not to enter books.of mine in the Rita’s even if they do meet the definition because o don’t think.of them as romances and don’t think they belong. But I also have written romances, I’ve even written romances ive entered in the rita that are very much happily ever after and central. But sole and primary focus? Eh. Not so much.

      • YES! You phrased that perfectly, Stephanie! I know a whole bunch of RWA member authors whose books qualify, but who didn’t enter because they began to question their own work. It’s such an easy fix, too!

        *Bangs head against keyboard*

  8. Thank you so much for this post Marni. I am one of the YA authors in RWA who didn’t enter the YA category because of the description. It’s my first year being eligible for the RITA, but I felt like my brand of YA (paranormal coming of age with a strong romance) wasn’t included. With the “adolescent” age restriction, my New Adult 19 year-old romance didn’t fit either. It was very alienating and disappointing, but it’s even worse now that the whole category has been cancelled from low entries.

    Like you, I still love RWA. I’ve learned more from the members of RWA than any other organization. I felt alienated for a few years due to the restrictions against self-published authors, but RWA came around and recognized that self-publishing is a valid part of our publishing world now. I hope they come around with this as well and understand that while romance is extremely important in a lot of YA novels, it isn’t often the singular focus. Please, RWA, reopen the category, change the wording, and allow late entries!

    • Hi Sarra!

      Thank you for writing such a wonderful comment! I hope the RWA comes around on this issue, too! There’s no reason for authors to be feeling alienated from the organization. I’ve got my fingers crossed that they’ll change their mind! 😀


  9. I understand the disappointment folks are feeling with the RWA, these days. I too write YA, but don’t follow the RWA creed in plotting, satisfying ending, and other nefarious rules. Most of the YA I’ve read have strong romantic elements, which adds tremendous depth to a story. If anything, I’ve sometimes felt YA has perhaps been a tad strong on the romance, which honestly, caters well to the 85% readership that craves it, not to mention one of the largest growth segments in literature today. You’d think the bastion of romance reading would encourage and foster the genre. You’ve called it true, Marni, Houston does indeed have a problem.

  10. It’s unbelievable! Right now about 95% of the authors I read are women! About 10 years ago it was about 50%! And I’m reading a lot of YA because they have strong stories. And in passing Jeannie Lin is awesome!

  11. Marni –
    You totally don’t suck. Your books do not suck. People; however, often suck. I also think that people completely underestimate the value of light-hearted stories and the amazing ways they can improve your mood and disposition. My days are filled with reading about complex issues, depressing fact scenarios and and poorly written documents, so few things make me happier than getting home and losing myself if a fun book (ie, Awkward, anything by Stephanie Perkins, Jill Shalvis, Janet Evanovich, etc). My point being, thank you for putting up with sucky peoples’ attitudes and continuing to write stories that make my life better.


    • Hi Michelle,

      Um…you totally just made my day. Seriously. I don’t even know to respond to your awesomeness right now. So…I’m just going to do my happy dance all the way to the nearest coffee shop.

      Thank you so much!

  12. If they want to cancel it, fine, whatever. But you shouldn’t feel like you need an award to validate why you’re writing. You should feel that way regardless of what awards are available. Really, you should feel validated as an author when you have fans that just can’t wait to get their hands on your next book, and love your writing.

    • Hi! I think you raise some really interesting points. And while I totally agree that it’s important to value your work and your fans independently of all accolades, I do care about awards. Especially when they acknowledge excellence in a field that is usually met with derision. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t write for the RITA. I write because I’m a writer. But this situation is alienating due-paying members of the RWA, and that totally doesn’t need to happen. Especially when it’s such a simple fix. 😀


  13. Pingback: Diana Peterfreund Blog | The RITA Awards and YA Romance

  14. Coming late to this discussion because I just discovered it, but I want to add my thanks, Marni, for such a great post! I’m another who received that VERY disappointing email about the category being canceled. STARSTRUCK is my very first YA and I’m more excited about it (and the series) than anything I’ve written in many, many years. It’s also my first indie book, and I was over the MOON when RWA changed the rules to make it eligible, since it’s been 8 years since I had anything to enter in the RITA. I was so worried they’d find some way to disqualify it (because of being indie, not for being YA) that I quadruple-checked every rule before entering. But I somehow missed the rule change that now each category has to have 5% of total entries (with the new cap of 2,000, that’s 100 entries!) to be an eligible category. That’s a LOT of entries, considering last year the cutoff was 25.

    I also agree about the new definition for YA being very shortsighted. My book does happen to be a strong romance (though it’s also sci fi) but some of the best YAs I’ve read could easily be disqualified under that definition even though they had strong romantic threads woven in. (I also think dropping the SRE category was shortsighted, but that’s a different discussion.) One HUGE reason this decision is shortsighted is that YA romances (no matter how prominent the romance) bring in new readers who may become lifelong readers of the romance genre, which benefits every writer of romance… you know, the people RWA is supposed to be serving. Disenfranchising the authors who bring in our next generation of readers seems very much like RWA cutting off its nose to spite its face. Just sayin.’

  15. Pingback: 2014 RITA Contest cancels young adult romance category

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