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.”
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?