Tag Archives: critique

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?




Back at the Beginning Again!

PJ Sharon, here. Actually, I’m at the beach today celebrating the completion of my first draft of WANING MOON with a few of my very best young friends (my twin nieces and my godson).

 After many months of clawing my way through that manuscript, I needed to take a day off and have some fun before diving totally into revisions. Admittedly, I’ve already begun the process, and have moved through the first ten chapters with relative ease. I was excited to get started, but felt I also needed to take a day and acknowledge my accomplishment—something that I often have trouble doing.

 Once I started back at the beginning, it wasn’t hard to see where the story went off track and needed to be trimmed–sections where delving deeper is necessary. I can clearly see some missed opportunities to address the lack of multidimensional depth of character. But the most important revision I will make will be with my opening.

 I believe it is Orson Scott Card, in his book THE FIRST FIVE PAGES, who says that how you open your story can make or break your chances at publication. If you don’t grab a reader/agent/editor in the first five pages—or dare I say, even the first paragraph—they may never get to page six waiting to find out what the story is about. One of the most common comments I’ve heard from being on both sides of the contest fence (both judge and entrant) is that the story often doesn’t begin until page seven or eight. That is a sure sign there is too much backstory. Of course, you have to ground your reader in a setting, but you can push them over the cliff with those first few paragraphs and they will enjoy the ride down as they figure out what’s happening along the way. It requires a delicate balance and some hard earned skill, I think.

My goals with those first five pages are to:

 1) Pull the reader in by connecting them emotionally to the main characters.

2) Introduce at least one or all of these: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.

3) Set the scene by “showing” the environment in relation to the story and how it goes to show either the central conflict of the story, or what motivates the character to take action.

These are lofty goals for sure, but I’m willing to write and re-write until I meet those goals and create the strongest opening I can. Take my other works for instance. In HEAVEN IS FOR HEROES, the story begins with Jordie attending the funeral of her brother, the point where her world changes forever. There, she sees her childhood crush wounded and blaming himself for her brother’s death and we show the underlying conflict that Jordie has with feeling so responsible for her mother as well as her brother. Lots of emotion/empathy for both Jordie and Alex, and the story question is posed at the end of the first chapter.

ON THIN ICE began a bit differently. I wanted to show Penny in her world, which included figure skating lessons at the rink, and how she viewed her life and her peers. I was able to quickly show why skating was so essential to who she was throughout the story. It set the scene for her goal, (to live up to her mother’s dreams for her), her motivation (intro to her mother’s cancer), and her conflict (knowing that her heart really wasn’t into competing). It might have been a bit slower opening, but I would argue that it gave the character more depth to do it that way.

In SAVAGE CINDERELLA, I chose to use a prologue. I don’t like or dislike prologues per se. If one is needed to show the passage of time or to set up a pertinent scene that sets the tone for the story, I say, go for it. My three page prologue in SC did several things. It gave us a compelling and creepy snapshot into the mind of our psycho villain. Since he was off page until almost halfway through the story, I needed to make him real, frightening, and believable right off the bat. It also gave an indication of the passage of time when chapter one begins eight years later and we see the world through Brinn’s eyes after overcoming and surviving. If I didn’t have that prologue, I don’t think we would connect or identify with Brinn as quickly.

Today’s unlocked secret: I think as long as you keep in mind those few goals I mentioned above, start your story with a compelling scene that quickly leads to the character’s call to action, and write the most powerfully engaging first five pages you can, your reader will gladly read on to page six.

 Good luck with polishing those pages! I’ll look forward to seeing how some of you did when we go to our CTRWA writers retreat in September. Until then, happy revising!