I’ve written a few sub-genres, but the most different or diverse ones I’ve attempted were writing mainstream thrillers and young adult novels. I’ve always loved reading crime fiction (my big umbrella), so my comfort reads were always any sub-genre of adult crime fiction novels from espionage thrillers to police procedurals to romantic suspense. Although my YA books were suspense oriented, the YA voice was a real departure for me. It took quite a bit of reading it and researching the craft, but since I had grown to love these cross-genre books as a reader, the idea of writing them hit me hard and influenced me. More on that later.
When I first started writing in 2003, my main characters were in their thirties and maybe edged into their forties when I first wrote original mystery suspense novels. The first books I sold were in my comfort reads of crime fiction, yet with a cross-genre approach because that’s the kind of stories I liked to read. With as many books as I devoured as a reader, I figured I was the market. I wanted to write the books I would read.
In 2009-2010, as I sold my first YA novels and series, writing for teens influenced even my adult writing and my characters drifted downward into their mid to late twenties. Of course, my YA books covered teen protagonists, generally 16-18+. I’ve never written New Adult (characters in their early twenties or college age). I’m not sure why that is, except to say that I can relate more to my teen formative years (my rebellious teen self) and writing my other characters to be 25-35ish years old. (It’s like the lens of my creative world had focused on an age I had fun living.)
I had many ways to research my teen voice, including eavesdropping on teens in groups and using my nieces and nephews as lab rats. My aspiring author niece worked with me on my first YA novel – In the Arms of Stone Angels – and we had a blast. But that writing definitely influenced my other suspense books and I noticed the ages of my characters had dropped. On gut instinct, I was targeting the ages I thought my readers wanted to read about so I could bridge the gap between those reading my YAs and the ones who had transitioned into my adult books. From what my readers have said, that plan worked and my YA readers transitioned into my adult books and my adult readers seemed to enjoy my crime fiction YAs. Win-win.
I wrote one novella length story from the perspective of an older woman in her late 50s. I wrote her with an honest truth and I loved being in her head, but I wasn’t sure how readers might take her so I never wrote a repeat.
I’d like to hear from you, TKZers.
1.) Have you ventured out of your writing comfort zone with trepidation only to learn something new where you grew as a writer? Please share and explain.
2.) What character ages do you find the most challenging as a writer? How did you get better at it? What resources or advice can you share?
3.) Is there a main character age that you DON’T like to read about? Do you find that your reading preferences gravitate toward a certain character age?
Great post; great questions. In order:
1.) I’ve been threatening to write a Western for years and I’ve about run out of excuses for delay. There are challenges here my usual crime stories don’t have, not the least of which I didn’t live in Wyoming in 1884. It’s going to be a learning experience.
2.) Kids. I cheated with my PI’s daughter by basing her so closely on my own daughter, but I’m painfully aware of the perils of trying to capture the zeitgeist of youth. Fortunately my stories tend to focus on adults and I can work around it.
3.) I like characters of any age so long as the author respects the age. Overly precocious kids or geriatric ass-kickers can turn me off pretty quickly unless they’re extremely well done. That said, my reading does tend to gravitate toward characters between 30 – 60, as that’s where the bulk of crime fiction is written.
I sure do miss reading Westerns. They were the reason I became a voracious reader in elementary school when I read any book with horses in it. Go for it, Dana.
I just finished my first novel with historical elements, something I never thought I’d do because the research on historical seemed daunting, but I’m glad I tackled it, Great fun & a feeling of accomplishment.
Interesting. I don’t really tend to think about age in specific terms when it comes to my writing. I guess because I’ve always been interested in stories of the American West & that’s what I like to write and generally speaking, those protags are, while not explicitly stated, usually in the 30ish years of age category.
As I’m thinking about it, I’m in contradiction with myself. If in a casual conversation, I would be likely to say I don’t gravitate toward child ages. Then I realize one book series I’m working on has a protag who, for most of the series is indeed in that “30ish” category, but starts out as a kid. AND, come to think of it, I almost always have a kid somewhere in the mix. Which makes sense, since fatherhood is a fairly common theme in my writing. I guess with a story that moves me enough, I don’t care about the ages of the characters.
It’s interesting how our world views influence our writing, even when we’re not aware of it until we examine it, after the fact, Thanks, BK.
I’ve found it easy to write about teens. I just use their slang:
“Wanna go to the mall?”
“Groovy, let’s do it. Maybe we can meet some hunks.”
“Gag me with a spoon!”
Oh, Lordy. *snort*
I’ve wanted to write a YA mystery novel since I so liked Harry Potter, but I’m not around kids at all and I don’t know their language. I have a 14-year-old in one of my current series and every time I have her say “cool” I wonder if that’s a word the average kid uses today?
Can anyone recommend any books that uses today’s teen language? I want the average kid, not gamer or skateboard speak or any other sub-genre of teenage speak, lol.
If you’re hesitant on teen speak, try giving that teen a reason for speaking a certain way. If you ever saw the movie Juno, you saw a believable teen influenced by her quick witted & smart-mouthed “hippy” dad & step mom. Kids will be influenced by their parents or the kid’s education level. They could be swayed by books they read.
It’s important to read a good book on the psychology of teens to see if you can tap into your life experience in order to write your character.
Bottom line is that your character must feel real to readers in actions & motivations. The “lingo” is not as important as their actions. You can always infuse any relevant lingo later in edits.
Read YA books. They’re a great resource. But once you read popular YA novels, you’ll see most don’t use teen lingo. When I worried over this, I researched popular HAs & found few examples of teen speak.
Your mystery plot & a believable teen (in actions & motivation) will be the most vital part of your story. Take the plunge, Alec.
Thanks. That’s good advice “it’s more important what they feel than the actual words”.
The problem with reading a book to get the flavor of kid language is that you don’t know if the author got it right. It’s better to hang out near some kids in a setting where they aren’t influenced by adults. Eavesdrop at the mall, the basketball court, the public swimming pool, or a fast food joint. Check with the park department to see when and where youth sports practices are held. You’ll find the language varies depending on the social status, ethnicity, or region, so base your character on a group that you can observe, and don’t assume you can apply your learning to a character from a radically different group. And don’t be surprised if you can only understand one word in three. 🙂
When I was researching YA writing, I watched a lot of strange reality TV shows focused on the drama of teens, as well as eavesdropping & studying my teen family members. I was completely immersed in that age while I wrote it.
I even had a young friend with a pop punk band who stayed at our house whenever he was on tour & he brought his band mates in the wee hours of the morning. We had a blast hosting them. They were often more shocked by me than I was of them. I understood a great deal of their lingo but didn’t use much of it. I figured if the average adult reader wouldn’t comprehend any unique lingo, I would lose them anyway. I tend to go overboard on research, but often only use what makes sense. Less is more.
OK from the beginning.
1.) I’m an Aussie living in the US. My books are based in the US as are my characters (but I have US, Canadian, Russian – they’re good guys – and Australian characters in the stories) so understanding the US viewpoint was a challenge on some levels. However, the stories are largely plot driven with a good smattering of political corruption & intrigue (which the US is in a league of its own) and with my own research into this area over many decades, I was able to avoid many challenges.
2.) Teenagers most definitely. As we get older the distance grows wider. The new “in thing” the new “lingo” all passes us by. And I think its dangerous ground if we try to write like we know about it when we don’t. Authors with teenage children will have a leg up here.
3.) And that would be teenagers again. And particularly in current times. A recent video survey asking teens on the street who their favorite author was or fav book, left blank stares or immature chorus’ of giggling but thats the state of play with teenagers. Books, authors, the time of day, something that matters besides the Kardashians, Beiber, Cyrus? Sorry, you need an education for that.
The average reader of YAs are adult women. Mothers read with their kids and/or librarians want to read books to recommend to their reluctant readers. In general, women read more, from stats I’ve seen.
Kids who LOVE to read don’t often write reviews. Adults do most reviews, but when I attended teen day at the Texas Library Association annual conference, I felt like a rock star when kids followed me through the event or they came to my signings. I got to know some of them over the years & tried to nurture young writers. It can be a blast writing YA.
Since I’m still in my twenties, teens are my main character pool. I haven’t tried anything else, so I don’t know what will be challenging.
Cool is a perfectly fine word and it doesn’t look like it’s going out of style anytime soon. And always make the kid say yeah instead of yes. I find tha you don’t really need the current lingo, it actually intrudes in the story. I’ve watched my younger sister laugh at books for using outdated references, even if it’s only last year’s stuff. So as long as you can capture the style of talking kids use over adults, which is no easy task, the slang doesn’t matter.
Exactly. It’s more like capturing attitudes rather than memorializing phrases or lingo.
I also liked watching my nieces & nephews body language for signals on whether their engaged or not, but observations don’t require lingo.
I’ve never attempted YA or kids books, but I do like writing them as characters in my adults series. I don’t know why. Perhaps I should analyze this. 🙂 But I don’t think I have what it takes to sustain an authentic voice for a YA novel. Ditto for comedy. I can’t write humor to save my soul. I tried one once, even finished it, but it kept veering off into the serious. My writer’s heart is dark and ancient. I could probably take some advice from Picasso: “It takes a lifetime to become young.”
What’s even worse for me is that I can do comedy in real life–haven’t done it officially but ask anyone and they’ll say I have a response for everything–but my characters just get way too serious and dark. When I try writing funny, it just comes across as corny.
I can relate to this. I add humor a lot, even in my suspense books because that’s how life is. There’s always a funny guy or even a funny villain.
I’ve found that keeping the humor to short one liners, without explanation, is the best way to insert it. I see it like a movie & sometimes add short body gestures as punch lines. I don’t “try” to be funny. If you have to over write it or explain it, it’s best to delete it.
Even in my darkest books, I find ways to insert a few zingers. I do this through a character, often a secondary one. I do it as a release of tension for me & I hope my readers too. You have to pick your spots & keep it simple. Less is more.