Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"Wow, I really like your scrunchy," said the YA protagonist as she tugged up her leg warmers.

Ooh, side ponytail!
If you read this posts title and didn't see anything wrong with it, you really need to read this. I'm going to go out on a limb though, and guess that most (if not all) of you know that scrunchies and leg warmers aren't cool anymore, right? Right?


But there are other, more subtle ways that an author can get it wrong when writing YA. And it all comes down to the YA voice.

The YA voice is an elusive and difficult thing to get right. As a writer you need to know what young adults are wearing, what they're NOT wearing, what they're saying, what they're drinking, eating, THINKING! All the while keeping that magic thread that is you as a writer and that is your character's voice, because that's what makes your writing unique.

If you slip up, even if you don't notice, young adult readers will. I notice, and I'm not even a young adult for genre defining purposes anymore (I'm 24).

As writers we're always talking about avoiding things that are going to jolt the reader from your story. Well, this is one of those things. If I'm engrossed in a story and next thing I know the YA protag is whipping out her hot rollers (yes, this just happened in a book I was reading) instead of GHD hair straightener, or saying 'bloody' as a swear word* instead of using any number of other options that YAs actually say (or if you're avoiding the swear words, at least use 'damn' or 'crap'), I'm going to be yoinked right from the plot and thinking, "Wait a second..." And then, because I'm a nitpicky reader, I'm going to be noticing every little thing that doesn't sit right from there on out.

If you're really unsure how young adults dress and talk then it's time to do some spying. We writers are good at this. Visit places teens like to hang and you can watch without looking like a stalker. Malls are a good place to start. I've also discovered recently that the train at around 3:30pm is perfect if you can handle being stuck for an hour with a hundred or so teens crammed in and discussing who's dating who at the moment and awkwardly flirting with each other. Another good place to check out, Authoress Anon's new blog Write On. It's for teens, and there's a forum full of teens. I'm sure they wouldn't mind if you wanted to pick their brains.

Also, find out what movies, tv shows, actors and bands teens are interested in today. A big cliche I see in YA books is the character (or characters) who are obsessed with something from the past (like maybe when the writer of said book was young), like an old band (The Beatles) or old movies. Yes, this happens. No, it doesn't happen as often as the YA writer world seems to think it does. I don't know anybody my age or younger who is obsessed with The Beatles. I would struggle to name more than two of their songs (no judging zone, ok?).

Last thing: READ. Read. Read. Read.

Read as much YA as you can get your hands on. Read the good stuff and the bad stuff so you get a feel for both (gotta love Amazon ratings for that).

If you want an awesome example of contemporary YA voice, check out 'Anna and the French Kiss' by Stephanie Perkins. Amazing. Finished it in a day. So gutted that it's over and I want more. Admittedly, the book does have two characters who are obsessed with something old (where I got the two examples from actually - old movies and The Beatles) but the rest of the book is so great that I forgave it ten times over.

* Unless they're British, but even then I'm not sure a British teen would say that. And besides, it's cliche.

How do you feel about YA voice? Do you read YA? Do you think getting the little things right is important, or would you not notice them at all?


  1. Basically all I read is YA. I've read my share of adult books, but even at 27, YA has never stopped fascinating me. It's easier for me to get into, easier for me to read, and easier for me to write. I agree that it's important to get the modern voice right (at least when writing contemporary--there's some leeway when you're writing a lot of genres). But I also know that in five years, it's going to be outdated. This doesn't stop me from trying to get today's lingo right, nor does it stop me from reading YA books that were written years ago.

    I think it's hard to write a contemporary book without having something in it that will date it years down the road, but that leads into a whole different topic. ;)

  2. What do you mean 24 isn't young adult?! I consider myself a very young adult! Though when I buy YA at my local bookshop they usually ask whether I'm buying it for my sister...

  3. To which I would reply, "If my sister wants these books she can buy them herself."

  4. Great post! I loved Anna and the French Kiss, too. I think it was agent Sarah LaPolla who recently said she sees lots of queries for mss set in the 1980s and 1990s, when the authors were teens. Not such an interesting time to today's teens. The YA voice is so important in writing YA, and must be authentic because teens see through weak attempts in a flash.

  5. Good observations, Sari. Those of us who write YA novels do have to keep up with current trends and rethink stuff that might not gel with what's happening in the here and now.

  6. I don't think we should actually try to exploit the latest trends when we write. Trends change so quickly that our writing then becomes dated before anyone has a chance to read it. Trying to be trendy then becomes a way to alienate the audience. Pop culture reference are fine, but they should be more generalized or from things that everyone will recognize not appeal to what's hot this particular 5 minutes.

    As for the Beatles, I've never cared for them. Ever. However, my 15yo loves them. I don't think any of his friends are as into The Beatles as he is, but a lot of his friends are into "old" bands, so that might not be as uncommon as you think. I'm not sure, though; he may just be part of an odd subgroup.

  7. I read as well as write YA. Gulp, I HOPE I have authentic voice/dialogue/characters. To be safe, I make up most slang (except I admit I do use "cool"--I THINK that's still ok these days) and also make up band names and stuff. That way I'm not "dating" my novels, or making it incomprehensible to any reader. :)

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  8. I totally agree with you! There are few things that pull me out of books faster then weird/wrong slang or dated item or fashion.

  9. Very true, Brooke. People have mentioned that including details from today will date the book, but we still have to consider that the majority of readers will be the teens of today.

  10. I agree that what's hot RIGHT NOW should be avoided. Things change too quickly and the publishing industry moves too slowly. I do think it's worth keeping up with the longer lasting trends though, and making an effort not to date a book while it's still being written by using words/fashions/pop culture that's already 10-30 years out of date.

    That's interesting that you know so many teens that like The Beatles. I know plenty of people who still love bands like The Chilli Peppers (myself included) but they are still part of todays music scene. The are a looong lasting trend.

    And I actually think a quirky interest like that can add to the character (as in Anna's obsession with older movies in Anna and the French Kiss) but unless it's necessary to the character I'd probably leave it out because it is something that gets done a lot in YA books.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Andrew!

  11. You have some great advice here. And Anna and the French Kiss was a great read for sure! I have to say though that if a character likes leg warmers or Beatles, I think it can totally play on their character. This may sound crazy but I've actually seen leg warmers and scrunchies coming well as the whole shirt falling over the shoulder with sports bra strap showing underneath. And I do know teens that love the Beatles. I mean, Bieber has nothing on them really, right? Anyway, just my two cents. But I do like your comment below that things that are hot right now should be avoided. So true. Some things never die, much as we want them too.

  12. Great advice and I'm bookmarking this site. I'm starting my YA adventure by sitting in at my cousin's Spanish classroom at a local high school for a day. I can't wait for all the spying to ensue!

  13. Great advice here!!...and great post :)

    I definitely read YA, and I Skype with my teenage cousins. It's, as you pointed out, invaluable to stay "up-to-date" with how they communicate (or don', texting?), things they like, words they use.

    Hot rollers--awesome.

  14. Bieber... don't get me started. Lets just say that that is a fad I will never write into a book.

    I think that *sometimes* a teen's like of something old school definitely adds to that character. If you can't imagine the character without that particular obsession/passion it's gotta stay. The reason I mentioned it in this post is because I've seen it in so many YA books lately that it's at risk of becoming a cliche. I guess what I'm saying is to treat it like any other story element. Does the character like The Beatles because it is essential to him or her as a person? Or is it just because the author likes The Beatles and wanted to include them in the story?

  15. Glad it was helpful, Kari Marie! Wow you're brave hanging out at a high school for a day O.O Good luck!

  16. Lol, yea... hot rollers O.O I actually kept reading that author's books (it was a series) and it was so interesting to see how the writing improved from the first book.

    And yes, so true about the NOT communicating! I'm always so surprised when I read a contemporary YA book these days where the MC doesn't have a mobile. Everyone has mobiles now, don't they?