Let's start with the obvious: most people love a good sub-plot romance. Broody villains, nerdy awkward boys, and best friends who share 'a look'. Plus, there are the classic tropes to fuel them: enemies-to-lovers, there's only one bed at the inn, friends-to-lovers, love triangles, will-they/won't-they, and more.
Especially for young adult novels, for teenagers who are starting to figure things out, romance is often a key part of that exploration. On top of all of that, American mainstream culture abides by a classic marketing mantra: sex sells.
One can imagine, then, how a six-figure book deal for a young adult fantasy novel would almost certainly have those classic sales-earning love tropes. And when my first book, NAMELESS QUEEN, sold, it did. There was a character called Ren who was Coin's long-term best friend and who she loved dearly. Throughout the story, Coin's relationship with him didn't change a lot, but it did grow. She grew to acknowledge that she cared deeply for him and she fought hard not to lose him as she entered into the Royal life that awaited her once the city learned about the crown tattoo on her arm.
The revisions I did on Nameless Queen took a long time. We did several rounds of massive rewrites and tweaks. Then, in early 2018, I had a phone call with five industry folks. Two folks from my agency and three from my publishers. The conclusion of the call was clear: I should re-outline the entire book with one of the core plot elements changed. I had resisted making this change for a few reasons, but their arguments for nixing it were sound. One of the other changes they suggested was to cut a character in the story called Hat, a young 12-something girl who Coin had recently started taking under her wing. The reason, they said, was that her character and Ren's character (the love interest) were kind of doing double-work and could be consolidated into one character.
So, I did what any reasonable person would do. I made a pro/con list. Cut Hat or cut Ren? Ren was a best friend and love interest, and Hat was a representation of Coin's younger self. Ren's character offered an arc that led to Coin realizing she should accept her attachments to others and lean on them for support. Hat's character offered that as well a foil for Coin's cynicism, a mentorship/responsibility driver as Coin was thrust into a life of large responsibilities, and Hat's character also resonated better with the other supporting characters who came into Coin's life.
So I made a 20-page outline that was still pretty close to the original plot (but without that pesky plot element that was giving everyone grief), and it also eliminated Ren's character entirely. (It also changed some key things about the antagonists in a way that I don't think they expected, but I don't want to spoil the story for you!)
When I sent the outline back to my editor, I included a big old warning at the front. "I've gotten rid of Ren's character and kept Hat, because it was better for Coin's character arc." Something like that. Basically a small note to give them a heads up as well as give some of my reasoning up front.
My editor's response (paraphrased) was "Hmmmmmm okay, that's probably not going to fly, but I'll let you know." She was pretty upfront that teen readers will probably prefer the romance to a mentor-sisterly relationship between Hat and Coin. I wasn't surprised—I knew the change I was making was big and was pulling away from typical commercial selling points.
When I tell you I was nervous, I WAS NERVOUS. I knew I was doing something that went against typical marketing strategies. I knew I was going to lose some of my favorite scenes in the book because of this change. But I also knew it was the right choice to prioritize Coin's growth as a character.
When my editor responded, she started off the email with "We LOVE the revised outline! And I stand corrected. We don’t need Ren!"
When I tell you I was ecstatic. ECSTATIC.
I got to work right away, and over an 8-week period, I rewrote 80% of the book. It was intense. It was a lot. But all the while, I knew that it was working, and that the revisions were making for a better story. Then we quickly went to line edits after that, and the book took shape. With those few changed elements, much of the story had to be rewritten. But the heart of the story and the essence of the plot and characters remained.
Now, that's not to say that my next book will or won't have romance (it will—the book starts off with the main character casting a curse on her ex), but it does go to show how much can change during revisions and how anything can be done in a book, as long as it works.
On a more personal note, I didn't know at the time of writing and revising NAMELESS QUEEN that I was asexual (not sexually attracted to any gender) and aromantic (not romantically attracted to any gender). I knew I didn't feel attraction to others in the way that other people clearly did. What I thought at the time and for most of my life, was that I was broken. But that wasn't true—there is no such thing as a broken person. I just didn't have the language yet to describe what I was, language that would affirm that what I was feeling was perfectly acceptable and that there were others like me. I think that my sexual and romantic orientation made it easier for me to be objective about whether or not the romance aspect of the story was pulling its weight in terms of my character's development. I spent most of my life confused by the status quo, so challenging it was the natural next step.
I've been consuming media for my whole life that tells me that Love is The Answer, particularly Romantic Love. So, one thing I'll make clear is that my books may or may not have romance in them, but the character's independent identity and growth will never hinge on that aspect. True Love will never save the day, unless the main character's arc and plot require it. Platonic relationships are just as important, if not more-so, than this idea we idolize romantic love. Human beings, as well as the characters we build in books, will always have complex natures, wants, hopes, and fears. That's what makes storytelling so amazing.
For those of you that love a good romance in a book, my next book will certainly have it! For those of you who want a break from the steamy tropes, NAMELESS QUEEN has your back!