What is ARWD in YA Lit?

PJ Sharon, coming to you on this fine Tuesday from the Northeast Hills. I hope you’re all well and ready to celebrate Thanksgiving. Today, I’d like to share a few new tidbits I learned last week. I just finished taking a YARWA sponsored online workshop , Sex in YA, with the fabulous and talented Heather Howland, editor at Entangled Publishing, who cited ARWD as one of the main problems she sees with YA manuscripts. So what does this strange acronym stand for?

Adult Romance Writer’s Disease. That’s right, it’s that inadvertent adult voice that seeps into YA manuscripts, especially when writing sex or sexual tension scenes. She noted that this seems to happen most often when writers of adult romance make the leap to writing YA. She also noted that she sees this as a problem in many indie-published YA titles. I would agree, and think this is possibly due to the fact that indie-authors are not working with “commercial” editors and aren’t worried so much about fitting into the trad-publishing mold, which has some pretty strict standards about what is marketable fiction. It may also have to do with the fact that YA has a huge cross-over market with adult readers these days, so the language has become more sophisticated. Whether this is intentional or simply an oversight because of the ARWD problem is anyone’s guess.  

There are many levels of steaminess in YA, and Heather has seen it all. But what separates YA from adult romance is the subtle, or not so subtle nuances in voice, word choice, and knowing how far is too far for the story. I saw many awseome examples during the workshop and Heather’s critiques were invaluable.

For instance, if you’re writing about a teen pregnancy, as I did in ON THIN ICE, you’ll likely have to account for the “deed” and will want to make it real to readers…along with the consequences. But we as authors might just need to be sensitive to our audience and take some responsibility for HOW we make it real. Of course this is up for debate, but in my opinion, you have to consider whether you want 12-14 year-old readers (the lower end of the demographic for YA these days) getting a head full of “on the page” description of body parts and anatomical functions the way we see it written in most adult romances. Or is it oh-so-much better to be in the character’s head, experiencing not only the physical, but the emotional impact of the scene from that “first” time POV, which is usually less about the act and more about the feelings involved and all the crazy thought processes that interfere with the actual event.

 I thought I had handled this pretty well when I wrote about Penny and Carter’s first time, but alas, Heather rightly diagnosed me with ARWD. I submitted this particular scene, because it was the steamiest I’d written in any of my books–the only time any of my characters have gone “all the way,” and I knew something wasn’t right. Heather was kind enough to critique our scenes and underlined the sentences that came across as “adult” language. It’s been two years since I wrote this passage and I’ve learned a lot since then, but when she pointed out the problem, I saw it clearly for the first time.

Like any good critique, she started with a positive:

My first impression was that you have a strong, smooth voice. Very easy to read. I can definitely appreciate this as an editor who sifts through a lot of submissions!

Thank you so much for saying so, Heather! And here’s the part of the excerpt that she found problematic, followed by further critique:

As for the intimacy itself, there are some ARWD moments:

A large sleeping cat awoke deep inside me, ready to make its escape. My body purred in response to his flushed face and blazing eyes. His fingertips scalded along my cheek. He wanted me. I could see it, feel it—even taste it in the air.

 As our lips touched, my heart fluttered madly in my chest. I felt the power of his desire, the confidence of his touch. He wasn’t like any other boy I’d known or kissed. He was gentle and sure, and he knew what he wanted. He laced his fingers into my hair and pulled me closer, his lips parting. His tongue felt soft and warm against mine, not demanding, but giving and taking equally. Beyond the saltiness of potato chips and the shared bitterness of Budweiser, I tasted a unique flavor that was his and only his. I wanted to drink him down until I was drunk with it. I wanted to drown in the sensations and smells, the sounds of our mingling sighs and the feel of his hands on my skin.”

Heather’s critique:

With minor exceptions, these are the exact descriptions I’d expect to find in an adult romance novel, not the observations of a 16yo virgin. That’s problematic in and of itself. Your heroine is very aware of her body, his body, her body’s reaction to his body, and all the back and forth physical actions of the kiss—none of which I’d expect to see from someone with her experience. I think this can be tweaked by remembering how you felt about sex at her age. While times have changed and sexual attitudes have relaxed a bit since most of us were 16, I think a lot of the same fears and maturity issues are the same. Teens really do think of everything in a self-oriented light, and when they experience something like this for the first time, it’s hard to be in the moment for them. Their minds are rioting with new information and observations. (There was some confusion about Penny’s age…she was actually 17 in the story, but I agree with this critique on all counts).

This was enormously helpful feedback and made me wish that Ms. Howland was one of my editors. I’d love to see what she would do with my more recent work. Hopefully, I’ll manage to avoid the ARWD trap now that I know what it is and can hopefully spot the signs and symptoms.

Do any of you YA writers out there have this problem? Have you seen it in the YA lit you’ve read? How do you like your YA sexiness…sweet or spicy?




31 thoughts on “What is ARWD in YA Lit?”

  1. As a writer of neither YA nor Romance, I still find your article incredibly helpful. I’ve been having trouble in my last two stories; strangely, third person narratives. The question of voice, of the narrator’s proximity to the events and characters that are being narrated, and the complexity of the narrator’s vocabulary are all questions that this blog has reminded me that I needed to concern myself with.

    Great read. Thanks for posting!

    1. Hi Greg, I feel your pain! I struggled through four full length novels of various genres having the same difficulty. Getting into “deep” POV is very tricky. It wasn’t until I tried writing in first person POV that the “narrator’s proximity to the event” and my writer’s “voice” appeared. That’s also when I began writing YA, since the first person narrative came so naturally and the story unfolded from Penny’s POV so smoothly. What I was apparently still lacking was the ability to stay in an “authentic” teen voice throughout. Most of my readers, though, are adults who love to read YA, so I think the “older” voice has not been such a noticeable problem.

      It is, however, a likely reason that this manuscript was rejected by traditional publishers. There are also numerous sub-plots to the story that makes it unappealing to traditional publishers looking for “marketable” fiction. Thus, my choice to indie-publish this story. Do I regret that decision? Nope! Penny’s story is what it is and needed to be told–including the many layers and a more mature voice–because that was right for this character, this book, and this author:-) I’m just happy to still be learning and growing as a writer.

  2. Paula, although I don’t write ya, the subject of sex in the venue has had me wondering. Recently I met a writer of ya, but hesitates to inject those sex scenes. Her editor told her that the story is wonderful but w/o sex or conflict in her natural family it is less believable. She asked what did I think, do I believe that ya should include those parts. I do, a teen w/o sex is like a kitten w/o a ball. No conflict in the family would be everyone’s dream, but alas, it is rare. Great post Paula, thank you.

    1. Such a good point, Gail. The market and the genre scream to explore teen sexuality, and some authors are diving into the nitty gritty details more than others. One point that came up in the workshop was that it also depends on if you want your book to be accepted in schools and libraries. If so, the sex needs to be toned down some–although they are accepting more and more sexy teen reads these days and it’s probably for the reason you cited. Sex is a natural part of growing up and to NOT write about it in teen stories would be disingenuous.

      What it seems to come down to, though, is word choice and how the act (and all that leads up to it) are viewed and expressed. Teens are very internal in their processing and extremely “self” centered, so as Ms. Howland pointed out, a 17 yo virgin probably wouldn’t use words like “desire,” or “my body purred in response.” They would say, “holy crap, that feels good.” We as writers just can’t help ourselves but try to pretty up the details to make it more romantic. For a teenager, just the brush of a hand or a look is enough to get their hormones firing on all cylinders. Some of the steamiest YA scenes happen without the actual sex happening on the page. Similar to how Kristan Higgins writes. She keeps the sex behind closed doors, but there is oodles of romantic and steamy lead up that is swoon-worthy and sweet.

      I think I managed this much better in Heaven Is For heroes where Jordie and Alex have LOTS of sexual tension, but never actually have sex. Those “almost” moments and all of the teen angst that goes with them are still very satisfying if you get the emotions and the reactions on the page well.

  3. Hmm, this is interesting. I guess I need to start reading middle grade fiction then. I loved Harry Potter, now loving Gregor the Overlander series (by Suzanne Collins author of Hunger Games, which I have yet to finish) and I loved Twilight tho I know there are many Twilight haters. I loved the sexual tension in Twilight but loved, too, that it was never consummated until after the wedding. I recently read a YA book I’d gotten at the RWA conference and was shocked at the level of sex-so how do I find YA books without sex? Is there some code to look for?

    1. Hi Diana, I wish there were a code. It really is hit or miss. I put a 14+ rating on my books mostly because of the mature themes. There is no graphic language and the steaminess level is pretty tame, but my characters are older YA and therefore I think the stories will be more interesting and suitable for older readers. However, I’ve had several 12-13 yo girls read and love the books. I think it depends on the maturity of the reader. There are books listed as “clean teen” or “sweet romance” that are probably up your alley:-)

  4. I think your description could be written by any age person. The thing I’ve noticed about my 16 year old acquaintances–nd I have plenty since I’ve got teenage boys–is that there’s no generalizing about them except they do go on and on and tend to be dramatic when an older person like me would just move along.

    Some of the girls I know in particular love descriptions and that cat awakening thing would fit them beautifully. Others would try very hard to pretend what was happening was no big deal (sophisticated) while later on going OMIGOD a lot. A whole lot. I’m friends with a 16 year old who shows up to tell me about her life every few days and the word “omigod” is her conversational version of “you know” Just thinking about her makes me laugh. Omigod, I freaking love teenagers.

  5. Thanks for saying so, Kate. I did try to put myself in Penny’s head and remember my first time. It was a long time ago, but some things you never forget. I was a very mature teen in some ways and as a 16-17 yo, I was way ahead of the pack in terms of life experiences, so even then, I had “adult” thoughts, which is not to say I was thinking clearly or making mature decisions. I do think the language of teens is subjective, though and as varied as the individual.

    I hang out with some teen girls at my public library for a writing group and they are remarkably well-spoken, brilliant and very descriptive, although they do like the “omigod” and “totally” phrases. But they don’t hold anything back–even to the point of being graphic when it comes to their love of horror and mayhem in their stories. A couple of the girls seem to write a lot about thievery, murder and general antisocial behavior, and yet they are the sweetest kids. They do seem to shy away from sexuality in their writing and would likely die of embarrassment if I brought it up for discussion.

    I think the scene worked in ON THIN ICE because of the maturity of Penny’s character, and all of the difficult circumstances of her life. Heather only had access to a page or so to critique from, so she had to take it out of context, but her critique was extremely helpful, nonetheless.

    Thanks for stopping by and chiming in. Congrats again on your son’s accomplishment. It’s so fulfilling as a parent to see them succeed. My oldest son was featured in this month’s Hot Rod magazine for a custom interior he did. I have it posted as my screensaver:-)

  6. Thanks for this, Paula! I wasn’t able to get into the workshop this time around, so I’m glad you were willing to share.

    I’ve DNFed (did not finish) a few “YA” romances lately because of ARWD. Some have been self-published, some have been from romance publishers who apparently decided “Hey, YA’s big lately, we should give it a try” and apparently had no real clue about the differences between teens and adults. I actually tried to read one “YA” romance that read exactly like an adult romance except for the characters’ ages, which were mentioned so frequently I had to wonder whether someone had just taken an adult manuscript and changed the ages without changing anything else.

    I write both YA and adult romance, but I started writing YA long, long before I wrote any romance. (I”ve been writing YA since I was a teen myself, back in the 1980s; I didn’t start writing romance until 2007.) I’ve also worked with a lot of teens as a teacher or school staff, and I have teenage kids. I don’t usually even have sex in my YA stories, for various reasons, but when I do, I try to write it as teenish as possible. Teens are definitely not adults and are not going to see/feel/experience things the way adults do. I’ve been fortunate to have teenage beta readers, and one of my YA editors was just barely out of his teens. When those folks tell me my teens sound authentic, I know I’m okay.

    1. Thanks Jo, I’ve seen that too, and I think that was Heather’s point. “Teens are definitely not adults and are not going to see/feel/experience things the way adults do.” She said it pretty much the same way. It’s a great observation and one that we YA writers must constantly remember.

      1. Exactly. If you’re writing about teens for adults, there might be a little leeway with ARWD, but if you’re writing *for teens*, your teenage characters had better sound like teenagers. Teens are not afraid to call BS if something seems unrealistic to them. Sex definitely happens among teens and belongs in YA fiction if it’s appropriate for the characters; the problem isn’t whether there’s a sex scene but in how it’s written.

  7. Great post PJ but I also disagree with Heather but would like to point out that there is a vast gulf in the age range for YA. When I was a teen (15-16) I was reading Anne Rice and I was actively engaging in sex play – yes, I said it. The one thing I don’t like is when editors say teens can’t talk about the elements of that “play” that feel, that intrigue, that gut wrenching self-discovery – why the heck not? This is when most teens are experiencing this and all these emotions for the first time. Now, I’m a mom of four so I’m keenly aware of YA books but heck look what’s on TV on prime time these days – SEX is everywhere and shying from it in YA books often feels to me not real. I write YA and I’ve just finished “revisions” yes for my edgy, paranormal YA for Etopia Press and yes I had to tone down the “elements of sex play” but the tension had to be evident in the book and throughout the series. Do I want my 14 year-old reading the “adult” language of sex in his YA books, no, but I just finished Wither by Lauren DeStefano and there were parts throughout this book I found frustrating – like the known fact they had sex but no feeling anywhere of what that meant and when I asked the teens who I knew were reading this and who were (16 year-old girls) they said it was okay but sort of lame. I almost wish the YA genre could be divided more evenly because by the time a lot of teens are 16 they are seeking those edgy books for a reason. Again great post.

    1. Thanks for your insights, Renee. One thing that Ms. Howland stressed was that it wasn’t about avoiding talking about sex, or even avoiding “doing it” in YA lit, but it was more about keeping the language real for the character and true to the story. I was a bit of a wild thing myself at 15-16, sex being a drug of choice for many teens from dysfunctional families who are trying to escape, and Penny’s story has many true-to-life elements. If you don’t think its believable for a 16-17 yo girl to hop into bed with a 19-20 yo guy, then you might be a bit out of touch, but we’re talking about fiction, and IMO, were also talking about meeting reader and industry expectation. The notion that there is an “ick factor” because it is still considered statutory rape in most states for a young woman under the age of 18 to have consensual sex with an adult male over the age of 18, is as much of a moral dilemma as anything else. It seems to be one of the “rules” in traditional publishing–at least for genre fiction–that unless it is part of the story (abuse, incest, rape, or possibly in historical novels) that age appropriateness is a determining factor for publishability.

      I agree that there should be lines drawn so that readers will know clearly what they are getting, but the YA genre has exploded in its diversity and scope over the past few years and I think the industry is trying to catch up. I believe there is a general consensus but one that is not formally in place, such as calling 12-14 yo protagonists upper middle grade or lower YA, 15-17 yo protagonists in the YA or upper YA category and anyone in the 18-20 age range in the New Adult genre. As far as keeping authors boxed into those categories by creating Industry standards, that simply won’t happen with the Indie’s who don’t have to conform. It seems it would be impossible to regulate such a thing. Just as it would be impossible to regulate who is reading the books. Teens generally like to read about characters a few years older than they are, so it isn’t uncommon for a 13 yo to read about 16 yo protagonist. Look at the popularity of The Hunger Games. Ten yo read those books and frankly, I think they are unsuitable for that age due to the graphic nature of the story and the level of violence. Series like that transcend genre and age because of the universal themes of good against evil, triumph over tragedy, and an underdog hero taking on the world. The love triangle, though not so steamy is romantic and tragic enough to draw in romance lovers of any age. The bottom line is that we need to be true to our characters and our stories and try to write from an authentic “voice.”

  8. This a wonderful article, PJ. Thanks. I can see Heather’s point. I love your books and many adults do read them. But I will keep this in mind if I ever decide to write YA. Twenty years on you makes a difference if I had to go back to my first time (21). See the difference already. LOL

    1. Yes, perspective of time certainly does change the way we view our teen experiences and times have changed in terms of how teens view sex and sexuality. Education, for one thing, has brought “sex talk” to the forefront with today’s teens, where back in the late 1970’s when I was heading into my teen years, no one was talking about birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, or God forbid having a frank discussion about sex. I had four older sisters and though everyone was “doing it,” no one was talking about it. Being from a Catholic family made it even less likely that honest and open communication was an option. Three out of five of us girls were pregnant under the age of 18. Not a ringing endorsement for having been raised “properly.” Clearly us girls had “issues.” It’s why I write YA. So that maybe those teens who are struggling to figure stuff out and feel they can’t talk to their parents will have stories like Penny’s, Jordie’s and Brinn’s to look to for answers–or at least a kindred spirit that makes them feel less alone.

  9. Unfortunately, I’m finding sex written in most of the top selling YA books to be full of ARWD. It’s unsettling to read, and I hate that this is what’s driving the sales. I also find they are making the “love scenes” appear lengthy with descriptive settings, etc. Come on. We’re talking teenage boys, car backseats, and basement sofas. It’s all about not getting caught in the act. Even the party scene with all the noise and limited “bed space” puts the “moment” on fast-forward. Nothing “slow and sensual.” Personally, I thought you did a great job with the scene in “Ice” but, alas, I took Heather’s class last spring and was found guilty of ARWD in my work as well 🙂

    1. Thanks Harley. I am seeing the same thing and it is disconcerting. I’m glad I took the workshop to bring the problem to clarity for me. When I’m writing, I’m in my character’s heads and thinking from their POV, but on a first draft, much more of my adult language filters through. On subsequent revisions, I look for specific areas where the language is too “old” for the character and try to infuse more of a teen vibe without sacrificing good quality writing. Good editors are great for pointing out those things, but they can’t catch them all, anymore than we can. Hopefully, if enough people reviewing these books think it’s a problem, we’ll see more authors paying closer attention to finding that authentic teen voice in their stories.

  10. I don’t read a huge amount of YA, but I have to say I prefer a fade to black kind of scenario. Not that I’m a prude, or ignorant that teenagers think about and engage in sex, but it just feels wrong to me to see the full dirty details. (I have NO such problem when it comes to adult romances:) ) I will also say that creating distinct, authentic voices for my characters is one of my special challenges. This sounds like it was a very valuable course, PJ. Thanks for sharing your impressions with us.

    1. I’m with you, Suze on the fade to black preference. It can come across as being exploitative unless there is good reason to have it spelled out on the page.

  11. Interesting post. I never heard of ARWD but I can see how this can happen. Thanks for the pointers. I’ll keep them in mind when some of my writer friends, who write YA, read portions of their stories during our group meetings.

    1. Thanks, Donna. I believe it is an acronym coined by Ms. Howland, but rightly so. It’s definitely an issue in the current YA books coming out. I guess the more writers who know and understand the problem, the less we’ll see it, right?

  12. A friend sent me the link to this post during a discussion about romance in YA. I have to say–your advice is spot-on. And it is NOT limited to sex and romance in YA. I write YA, (fantasy, not romance) but I also read YA almost exclusively, and I’ve found that with YA being so popular these days a slew of adult writers are jumping on the bandwagon–and I can spot them as soon as I open the book. Nine times out of ten, there are key things an author does wrong, and when I flip to their bio I inevitably see, “So-n-so is the author or (insert title of adult book/books) and this is his/her first YA novel.” Sigh.

    The voice in YA is key. It is different than adult, and too many adult fiction writers (and apparently their publishers) do not get this.

    What Heather said totally hits the nail on the head: “Teens really do think of everything in a self-oriented light…” THAT is the crux of it. Their voice is hugely because the teen world is seen through teen eyes, which tend to be very self-oriented. I’m NOT saying that as an insult to teens–it’s just that they are hitting an age of discovering where they fit in the world at large, and are moving out of that “I am my own universe” stage. It’s a wonderful stage! But what many authors don’t get is that teens aren’t children, nor are they little adults. They are both and neither at the same time. Writing for them cannot be simply dumbing down adult books, nor adding grit to kiddy tales.

    Anyway, great post!

  13. So helpful, PJ. Especially since I’m in edits with a YA novel right now. I will definitely be looking back at how I worded the kissing scenes. (There isn’t really sex, but making out is laced with sexual tension.) I agree that most teens–especially with first experiences–have an OMG sense about them that some YA novels completely miss.

    1. I think so too, Julie. The hard part is in getting enough OMG sense without resorting to too much teen speak, “like” “you know” “um.” Or getting so into the head of the character that it slows the pacing. Striking just the right balance is so important and it can really make or break a good YA novel. Good luck with your edits:-)

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