Key Essentials for An Authentic YA (Or Adult) Voice

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane



Purchased from Fotolia by Jordan Dane



On Oct 17th at the KILL ZONE blog, I critiqued the first page of an anonymous author’s work –A Game of Days. Some interesting comments on the YA voice came from this post and I wanted to share more on what I’ve learned from writing for the teen market. My personal epiphanies.
 
Writing for the Young Adult (YA) market and capturing the voice of YA is less about word choices (and getting the teen speak down) than it is about getting the age appropriate decisions and attitude right. Urban fantasy or post apocalyptic plots can build on a world that is unique and unfamiliar. Books like the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins or the Divergent series by Veronica Roth can have its own voice, so teens are familiar with reading books like this.
 
When I went looking for solid examples of teen dialogue or introspection to share at a workshop, I searched some top selling YA books, only to find the voice I expected wasn’t there. Sure there are YA books where authors can sound authentically teen, but to keep up the realism for a whole book can be a challenge and an overabundance of “teen speak” can date the banter or be too much for adult readers to catch. (Yes, adults are HUGE readers of YA.)

As you read through this list, think about how each of these tips might also apply to writing ANY voice, even book intended for adults. Many of these tips work for cross-genre writing.
 
Key Essentials for An Authentic YA Voice:
 
1.) Use First Person or Deep Point of View (POV)—This technique of “deep” POV, or “close third” person, is used in fiction writing as a glimpse into the head of your character. In YA, I think of deep POV or close third as conversational thoughts deep inside your teen. First person POV is like reading someone’s diary.

2.) Don’t be afraid to mix POVs—You can mix POVs (for example, first person for your storyteller and third person for other characters), but since it’s your story, only you can decide how you want it to be told. Many YA stories are in first person, but more authors are exploring a mix. By adding in the element of third person for other characters, you can let the reader in on what is happening outside your character’s head and add twists to your plot more effectively. Plus if you have secondary characters or villains who may threaten your protagonist, letting the reader in on what’s in their head can make the reader more fearful for your hero/heroine. (Most adult books are not in first POV, but first POV is very intimate and fun to write. My current adult book project has first POV for the main character, but third for everyone else. Very liberating.)

3.) Don’t worry about your vocabulary. Today’s teen reader can handle it. There’s no need to simplify your choice of words or sentence structure if the character warrants it. Just be mindful of the experience level and education of the teen in your story. A homeless kid without much education won’t have an extensive vocabulary unless there’s a good reason for it. If you’re writing a futuristic dystopian book, you’ll be world building and perhaps coming up with your own vocabulary or teen life choices or social customs that would be different from a contemporary YA.

4.) Character first or story first? In my adult fiction thrillers, characters usually come at me first, but in YA I think it’s important to conceive a plot then fit the best characters to the premise. This may help you conjure the most fitting character and voice for the story, without creating a cookie-cutter teen that follows you from book to book.

5.) Don’t force it. As many kinds of teens there are, that’s how many varied “voices” you can create. As long as the story is compelling and the characters draw in the reader, the voice of YA only needs to match the tone, age, and character of that story. Don’t force voice or language that doesn’t seem real to you. Your protagonist’s voice should come naturally from the story premise and the conflict, filtered through your head as the author. If you force it, it will show.

6.) How does the story and character motivation affect your storyteller’s voice? One of the biggest mistakes writers make in YA usually has to do with the sarcastic voice. Biting sarcasm alone does not make a YA story. Without a reason for this behavior, the author runs the risk of making their character unbearable, unlikeable and a real turnoff for the reader. The manuscript must have a cohesive story with solid character motivation to go along with the attitude. Even if the voice is great, what happens? Something needs to happen. And if your character starts off with a good reason to be snarky, give them a journey that will change them by the end of the book.

7.) Know your character’s motivation. Sarcasm, voice, and maturity of your character must be driven by a reason in your story to add depth. Provide a foundation for the “attitude” your character has and don’t forget a liberal dose of poignancy. A reader can tolerate a sarcastic teen if a scene ends with brutal honesty or catches the reader off guard with something gripping to make the whole thing come to a real point.  

8.) Beware of stereotypes—Avoid the cliché character (the geeky nerd, the pretty cheerleader, the dumb jock). This doesn’t only apply to YA.

9.) Can you relate to your storyteller? Peer pressure, dating, zits, kissing, sex, being an outsider, not fitting in—these are teen concerns that, as adults, we have to remind ourselves about. With each of these words, what pops into your head? Does it trigger a memory, good or bad? Sometimes the best scenes can come from these universal concerns that haven’t changed for decades. Filtered through your own experiences, a scene can carry more weight if it’s still relevant and relatable.

10.) What is your storyteller like emotionally? What effect can raging hormones do for your character? Is everything a drama? Not all teens are like this. Some are withdrawn in front of adults or in social situations. It’s important to ask yourself: What are they like around their friends and who are their friends? I would resist the urge to create a character based on a teen you know if it’s at the expense of your plot. Certain aspects or perceptions of “your teen” can influence your character, but your book is fiction. That’s why I recommend devising your plot first before you place the right teen in it.

11.) Who or what has influenced your storyteller most? Like in the movie, JUNO, the teen girl had a dry wit that sometimes referenced an older person’s humor. Not everything was “teen speak.” She was influenced by the adults in her life, using references she heard from her dad and step-mom. Her pop culture references were peppered into the humor of another generation. She still sounded young, but her dialogue appeal was more universal. Don’t be afraid to make up a word or phrase to suit your character’s world.

12.) What journey will your storyteller take in your book? Getting the voice right is only half the challenge. Your YA book must be about something—a plot, believable world building, and the reaction and journey of a real teen amidst it all.

13.) Don’t forget the imagery. Teen readers have great imaginations and can picture things in their heads like a movie. Give them something that triggers and engages their imaginations. Picture your book scenes on the big screen and write them that way, but don’t go overboard and slow your pace. Teens get it. Give them a glimpse and move on. They’ll roll with the imagery.

14.) Turn off your parent switch—If you’re an adult and a parent writing YA, you may find it difficult to turn off your mother or father switch, but you should consider it. Kids can read between the lines if you’re trying too hard to send them a “universal parental” message about conduct and behavior. Simply focus on your story and tap into what your teen experiences were—without censorship—and without the undertone of sending kids a special message. Your story will read as more honest, without an ulterior motive.

HERE is a link on a video about one teenager’s story from The Onion News (DISCLAIMER: I had nothing to do with making this video):


 
For Discussion:
1.) Any other writing tips to make your YA voice read as authentic?

2.) What books have you read where the teen voice seemed very real and please share why you thought so?

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Hunting Down The Muse

By Boyd Morrison

I’m in a situation that I haven’t been in for four years. Now that I’ve delivered my latest book, I’m no longer under contract to a publisher expecting my next novel. This is the first time since I signed my first publishing contract in 2009 that I don’t have a hard deadline. It’s both a scary and liberating scenario because I have to decide what to write next.

Like every other author, I often get the dreaded question, Where do you get your ideas? I can usually come up with a response that sounds reasonable and interesting, but the real answer is that I don’t know where they come from. I wish I did. It would make everything so much easier. I wish I could flip a switch in my mind that goes, “Okay, Brain, time for the next idea. What sounds good to you?”

Instead, Brain usually tells me to buzz off. It’s much too busy forcing me to watch TV or worrying about whether I forgot to lock the car when I left it in the mall parking lot. Other times, Brain is throwing ideas at me left and right, many of which are versions of stories that have already been done, but dumber.

Brain: Hey, what about a book about a sea creature that terrorizes a small coastal town, but this time it’s a crazed man-eating jellyfish?

Me: I hate you.

But ideas typically aren’t a problem for an author. I’ve got plenty of ideas. I just have no clue whether any of them will make good stories. I’ve started at least eight books that never made it past page 150. A few of them never made it past page ten. Some of them may grow into full novels one day, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if none of them did.

The question for me is, how should I get started on the next book? Do I need a breather to gather a bunch of new ideas and select the right one or should I plunge back into it and trust that the alchemy will produce something worthwhile?

Some authors, like Stephen King, stick to their word count every day no matter what. They force themselves to hunt down the muse and throttle it until it gives up the goods. Other authors, like Chuck Palahniuk, can take a year off to recharge and explore the world until the pressure builds up so much that they have to sit down and write the story. The muse tells them when the story is ready to go.

I think Stephen King’s process works well for “pantsers,” authors who don’t outline and write without knowing where the story will take them. But I don’t know how that can work if you are a “plotter” and you outline and research to see how a story fits together. How can you write to a word count that day if you haven’t plotted out how the next scene contributes to the story?

One technique that I’m trying was suggested by my agent. It’s called the List of Twenty. You come up with a list of twenty of ideas for a novel. The first ten or so will be obvious, so obvious that someone else may be having the same idea as you’re typing (which is why we end up with situations like two movies this year about the White House being taken over by terrorists).

But when you exhaust those first ten ideas, you start having to come up with more unusual and off-the-wall ideas, and that’s where you find the gold. Those are the ideas likelier to be unique and amazing.

Even then, you may still come up with an idea similar to someone else’s, but your spin on it might be so intriguing that it’s worth doing anyway (look at how Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games explored a different take on the kids-fighting-to-the-death scenario that Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale had already established).

After having completed six novels, I thought this process would have gotten easier. It hasn’t, and I don’t think it ever will. But when that inspiration does strike and the muse becomes your partner in crime, the exhilaration makes all of the struggle worth it. For me, that’s the thrill of the hunt.

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The Hunger Games: Entertainment or Addiction?

By Kathleen Pickering http://www.kathleenpickering.com

Saw The Hunger Games this weekend.

hunger games

Wished I had not.

You know when Joe Hartlaub last blogged about addiction, it set my mind going on how addicted we are as a culture. (For example, I’ll bet you know EXACTLY where your cell phone is.)

I’m thinking folks don’t quite realize how over-stimulated we are. And, how for the love of another dopamine rush, we may be sacrificing human dignity for entertainment.

Movies and videos with their cinematography are so amazing these days that graphic portrayals can be so very vivid and real.

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They overload the retinas with sparkly, colorful, gorgeous or gruesome, oversized images. These images excite our receptors causing a chemical reaction in the brain of either excitement, pleasure or fear.

After a while, the baseline for tolerance rises and we need more stimulus just to maintain the status quo. What can we create to bring the next thrill level in our entertainment? We chatter about books, movies, video games and crave more, and more and more. While we’re briefly on the topic of video games, it is safe to say many of us do enjoy escaping from the real world and playing a couple of games on the computer or even on the Playstation. With this being said, everything in moderation is fine. If you’ve realised you spend too much time playing these sorts of games, then it is recommended you read these reviews, especially if you feel like you have tried everything to help with your back pains. Not even The Hunger Games is worth experiencing this sort of pain.

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The subjects we choose for audio/visual absorption directly relate to the heightened physiological surges we experience.

Man, oh, man, while viewing The Hunger Games I realized I’d reached my limit. I just couldn’t stomach watching beautiful young men and women accepting the order to kill each other for entertainment’s sake.

I had a really hard time with the premise of kids forced to kill or be killed. Harry Potter is fantasy. Twilight is fantasy. Walking Dead is fantasy. Avatar is fantasy—with a message against war/greed/bigotry through animation. (I LOVE James Cameron’s work.)

Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games is a parody of humanity gone animal. Fully Ego driven. Get them before they get you. Control the masses by entertaining them with the deaths of others while viewers thank their lucky stars it wasn’t them—this year.

Sorry. My visual absorption hit overload.

I’m not into censoring or anything. But, as writers, screenwriters, etc., I think we have an obligation regarding the topics we choose to call entertainment. I just wish we would stop cannibalizing humanity for entertainment’s sake.

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Folks say The Hunger Games is a lesson in ensuring we never allow too much government. I say, bull****. Kids aren’t seeing a political message as much as they are wondering if their world–now and in the future–is really safe.

Will The Hunger Games motivate them to be better human beings, or ignite their craving for more ‘shock’ stimulation, whether they know it or not? (Anybody remember Lord of the Flies? Didn’t see any huge social shift from that one, either.)

Lord of theflies

Suzanne Collins’s suggestion of our culture accepting sanctioned murder as ‘reality’ entertainment loosely disguised as political control triggered a profound sense of shame for me. I can not believe that after these thousands of years we still haven’t left the coliseum. All to stimulate our addiction. Our sense of thrill. The adrenaline or dopamine rush to escape . . . what?

I’ll be the first to say I’m a movie addict. I love the stimulation. I love the art and craft of creating words into visuals. I crave the opportunity to lose myself in make-believe worlds. But, after watching The Hunger Games—despite the fact that the acting was excellent, I think I need Stimulus-Anonymous. I’ve hit rock bottom with this one. My psyche and my soul can’t take anymore.

I’m going out to sit in the sun for awhile . . . soak in the fresh, tropical air. Meditate.

Why?

Because I know it’s only a matter of time before I get over the shock from The Hunger Games. The TV will announce the release of another heart-stopping movie. I will resist at first, but not much. I will put on my jeans and perfume, take my glasses and get to the movies early enough to catch all the upcoming trailers before my next thrill hits the silver screen. And, sadly enough, I won’t even need popcorn.

How about you?

xox, Piks

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