Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How To Write For Teenagers

If you're an adult writing for teenagers, good for you.  That's awesome.  And yet...I see problems in thse adult-written YA books way too often.  Intentionally or not, some adults tend to portray teens unrealistically.  If you think teens readers won't catch it--they will.  Here are some pointers on writing for teenagers: (By the way, I'm a teenager, so I live that life all day long, so I'm more than qualified to write about this.  Also, this list is not all-inclusive.) 
  • Don't call them 'children'.  Or 'youths'.  You may think of teens as children, but we don't think of ourselves like that.  No teen is going to call him/herself or her friends "children".  So don't refer to them as children in your book.  It's condescending, because most people think of children as people in the 2-10ish range.  We're older than that.  And we don't use "youths" either, because we just, well, don't. 
  • Slang rule: if it sounds weird to you, it sounds weird to teens (generally).  We don't talk in acronyms, we don't call each other "homedogs", unless we're joking.  Or "homeslices".  "IDK, my BFF Jill" is not typical teenage slang.  It's not a "cell", it's just a "phone".  Again, if it sounds bizarre to you, there's a really good chance it also sounds weird to a teenager.  Make an effort to learn how teens talk, but don't overdo it and don't throw in every slang term you've ever heard from the eighties to now.    
  • We are not all rebellious, sarcastic, smart-alecky people.  I do know some smart-aleck teens, and some teens that are sarcastic all the time.  The problem is, the ratio of sarcastic teens to non-sarcastic ones in books is much, much greater than that ratio in real life.  In books, it seems, half of the teenage characters are always using sarcasm, all the time.  In real life, this is not the case.  I do know some people that are like this, but not all that many.  Every teen uses sarcasm at times, but not to the extent that authors like to think they do.
  • Don't write your book solely to prove a point/teach a lesson/get your political agenda across.   Nobody wants to listen to an author get up on their soapbox and preach.  That's not what a novel is for.  If start writing a book with the mindset of "I want to teach teens a lesson", it WILL show through.  And the average teenager will be annoyed and bored and will think that you are really full of yourself.  So don't do it.  It's perfectly fine to weave themes into your novel, but if you set out to write propaganda rather than a story, it will show through no matter how good you think you are.  I won't name any names, but *coughcoughcough*
  • We're not all hipsters.  I think this one stands on its own. 
  • Driving is still new and sometimes scary.  Also, we don't all have cars or ways to pay for gas.  For some reason, in YA books, 16-year-olds tend to drive around freely, all by themselves.  For the 16-year-old, though, driving is new.  We're not quite used to it yet.  For example, I'm not comfortable driving on the freeway by myself, even though I'm a licensed driver.  Also, keep in mind that the majority of new drivers don't have their own car.  Therefore, their driving is limited by the availability of their parents' car. 
  • Some teens actually are responsible.  Some of us can keep track of our lives and go to bed at decent hours and be all around...responsible.  Yes, there are plenty of irresponsible teenagers, but it's an unfair stereotype to the rest of us.
  • Most of us don't fall in love in 2.5 seconds.  I could write half a dozen blog posts on how annoying and unrealistic "insta-love" is.  It's so, so frustrating.  When will authors learn to just skip the insta-love?
  • Crushes, boyfriends, romance, etc. are not the only things we are capable of thinking about.  We are also capable of thinking about school and music and narwhals and the price of tea in China and Pokemon and church and books and computers and the macarena and mousetraps and politics and food and Ikea and sleeping and basically everything an adult is capable of thinking of.
  • We like our electronics.  In all honesty, our iPods are our constant companions.  We use them quite often throughout the day.
  • We're not all about partying.  Since I started high school, I haven't been to a party with my friends that had more than six people.  At these parties, we don't drink or pass around drugs.  We generally...watch movies.  And eat too many sweets, and spend a long time talking. 
  • We don't think we're invincible.  I don't know where the idea that all teens think they are invincible came from.  Some do, I'm sure, but do we all?  No.  I know that if I drive 110 miles per hour down the freeway, I'm probably going to crash and get killed.  I'm aware of that fact, so I don't do stuff like that.  Do I think that if I do meth, I won't get addicted, because "that kind of thing doesn't happen to me"?  No.  I think most teens understand the basic concept of "if I do this I might get injured or killed, so it's probably best not to".
  • If you think you know what it's like to be a teen because you've "been there, done that", you need to rethink.  Yes, you were a teenager once.  That's fantastic for you.  Bravo.  *slow sarcastic clapping*  If you think you know all about teenagers and are a complete expert on today's teen because hey, they can't be any different from when I was a teenager in the 19whatevers, you're wrong.  I completely agree that at the core, teenagers today have the same general hopes, fears, responsibilities, etc. as they have for years and years.  Still, there are differences between the '60s teen and the 00's teen.  They might be major, or they might not be that prevalent.  These teens grew up in different eras, so there will always be differences on some level.  Take some time to get to know someone who is a teenager today--don't assume all teens are the same across the board.
  • Teens are people, just like you!  We have memories and fears and hopes, etc.  *gasp*  It's shocking, isn't it?  We don't have underdeveloped emotions!  Wow!  *headdesk*  Just because a person is a teenager does not mean they are not capable of feeling strong emotions.
  • NEVER, EVER "TALK DOWN" IN YOUR WRITING.  Don't simplify things for your younger audience.  Don't sugarcoat anything.  Teenagers can handle it, okay?  I can't believe the number of times I've wanted to seek out the author of a YA book I was reading and give them a nice long lecture on how no YA reader wants to be treated like they are somehow a lesser reader because they're reading YA. 
Yes, I have seen at least one example (unfortunately, in most cases I've seen far too many examples) of each of the above things.  My main advice for writing for teens is this: Get to know a teenager.  Or three, or twelve, or twenty.  Get to know a lot of teenagers.  Before you write, spend time with them.  Learn about them.  If it's been a few years since you've talked, and I mean really talked, to a teenager, you're going to write a bad book.  I guarantee it.  If you take the time to get to know the age group your characters belong to, you'll come out with a much more realistic book.  And teens will appreciate your writing much more for this. 

PS: It's also worth pointing out that so many fictional teenagers have problems with the fact that they were picked on as a child.  Don't get me wrong--there's a huge difference between being picked on, and being outright bullied.  I'm not talking about bullying, because that is a serious issue and it's a whole different story.  The thing about being picked on as a child is this: everyone was picked on as a child, in one way or another.  I believe that there are few exceptions to this rule.  At one point throughout their childhood, a kid will be picked on.  It's a fact of life; it's a part of growing up.  We get over it.

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