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Teenage Dreams

One of the most important things an agent or editor values in a work of fiction, and something you’ll hear talked about ad infinitum is a resounding and real “voice” to a novel. Able writing, beautiful imagery or ingenious plotting are all well and good, but if a reader can’t connect to the protagonist and his or her voice, then a novel is left feeling flat, distant and, well, forgettable.

In reading queries and even published books, I find that the voice authors most seem to struggle with is the teen narrator—and this, of course makes sense. Most published authors and hopeful queriers have left their teenaged selves behind some (or many) years ago and so a lot of the thoughts and dialogue are supposed, remembered or possibly observed if the writer is lucky enough to hang around teenagers with some regularity. (Oof, did I say lucky?) The most impactful YA novels are those that have really captured what it’s like to be a teenager, the feelings, the impulses and the intense passion that can arise from those years. The slang needs to be perfect and not overdone or cliché and the same can be said for the characters’ predilections, motives and inner thoughts.

The best and worst part of reading good YA writing always hits me when I’ve been cringing at some of the supposed thoughts of teen girls thinking, “oh, god, who does this person think teenaged girls are, this is ridiculous,” and then I realize that the author is right and that’s what makes it so hard hitting. I was visiting my hometown last weekend and dug around my childhood bedroom a bit, unearthing the journal (I was too cool to ever call it a “diary” even though that’s exactly what it was) I wrote in faithfully when I was sixteen. As much as I wanted to punch/hug/kick/shake/comfort/congratulate the girl who was writing those words, I also had to admit that god, sixteen-year-old girls are annoying sometimes and yes, they do write and think and talk like those characters I had been scoffing at only hours before.

Herein lie the dreams of a sixteen-year-old.

Herein lie the dreams of a sixteen-year-old.

With this artifact, a true relic of my teenaged years in my hands, I realized something like this could really help a writer capture the youthful voice that may be escaping them in a current work in progress—an unmanufactured, unedited transcript of high school. Is this something that any of you YA writers do? If not, and if you don’t happen to be the parent or teacher of a teenager, then how are you able to write in a voice that is so far removed and so easily, tritely overdone and keep it sounding real? It’s something I’ve always had difficulty with, myself.

2 Responses to Teenage Dreams

  1. Simone says:

    I write YA and the most tempting thing is to make the characters much cooler and smarter than I was as a teen (which is not hard anyway). I still remember intensely what the general feeling was like at that age and I try to draw on that as much as I can. I think that not using super current slang is actually best because then the dialogue can be dated quickly, and also some of that is regional, so I stick with the timeless stuff as much as possible, such as “cool” and “like”, both of which will probably never die. I like to mention books assigned at school and bands (which can get dated too), and describe characters’ clothes in a significant way, because those things mattered so much.

    There is a lot of analyzing, worrying, wondering what other people are thinking, insomnia, boredom, misunderstanding… Thank god it’s all over now, but it’s still there to dive back into temporarily and it’s a great atmosphere for magic of any kind to happen.

  2. D. C. DaCosta says:

    This is a great topic. Credibility of the narrator is essential, regardless of genre. The trick always is to get inside your character’s head: What are his priorities? his fears? his ambitions? Where does he come from? How has he been influenced? But I think you’re correct in thinking that the challenge is greater in YA than elsewhere, perhaps because too many of us are unable (unwilling?) to recall with complete honesty our adolescent selves.

    I don’t often write teen characters, but when I do I find that the biggest challenge is to eschew the idioms and colloquialisms that come naturally to me — because my own speech is more like my parents’ and thus is a good 50-70 years out of date! I do have the advantage of still having teens at home, so listening to them and their friends helps a lot.

    Off the top of my head, I can think of two YA books whose “voices” I did not find convincing: “The Outsiders” (narrator is supposed to be a boy but is obviously written by a girl) and “Code Name Verity” (character is supposed to be British/Scottish but it’s obviously written by an American). Even my 17-year-old boy-girl twins told me they had no faith in these narrators or their characters. Isn’t the editor supposed to catch things like this?

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