Tag Archives: young adult

Madonna = Lady Gaga: Writing with an authentic YA voice

I want all of you YA authors to pay very close attention to what I’m going to tell you now. If your story is populated with today’s teenagers in today’s world you must get your middle-aged (or 30-something or 20-whatever) sensibility out of the story. “But, what do you mean, Linda?” you may say, “My teen characters are very accurate representations of today’s teen.” Well, let’s get one thing straight right off the bat:  Most teenagers don‘t use e-mail. “Wait. What?” you’re saying. “I thought that’s all they did. I put that in to show that they’re a teenager!” WELL, THEY DON’T!!!! They text, tweet, use Tumbler, FB, BBM… We old fogies use e-mail. Teenagers, not so much.

Second of all, unless your character is quirky in this particular area, when making cultural references they should be from today‘s culture, not from when you were a teenager.  No Cheers, Seinfeld or Bugs Bunny references. No Billy Joel songs. No Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, or Star Trek movies. Do your homework! Talk to  your kids, or your nieces or nephews, or your siblings, or your friend’s kids, or that sullen looking person serving you coffee at Starbucks. Sheesh! If you’ve mentioned Madonna (the singer, not the mother of Jesus) just change it to Lady Gaga, ok? Do you even know who Death Cab for Cutie is? Please tell me you’ve watched Modern Family

I know it’s hard to accurately capture a YA voice when you’re no longer a teenager. What often ends up happening though is the teen character becomes an interpretation of a teen as seen through the eyes of an adult. That doesn’t capture an authentic YA voice! So rather than mentioning that your character rolled their eyes at their mother, mention that the mother is so effing irritating. If you’re writing for a YA reader, you have to be on their side. That’s usually not very understanding of how hard it is to be a parent, how hurt mom or dad is that their spouse has divorced them or died, how scary it is to not know if you can make a mortgage payment. Even the greatest teenagers on the planet usually have their heads up their own asses. It’s part of where they are developmentally. Include that in your story.

Take your memories of your own teen angst and put them through a 21st century filter. Then stand in the shoes of your teen characters with all those feelings and write. When you do, you will be closer to capturing that elusive YA voice. Your characters will ring more true and sound more authentic.

What do you do to create authentic characters? How do you maintain a credible narrative voice?


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Palimpsest: In whose voice do your characters speak?

Let’s talk about “voice.” Way back in the Paleolithic era, when I was in graduate school, I had a professor whose area of research was the poet, H.D. Ok, it wasn’t the Paleolithic, it was the 80’s, and evidently it was hot to study H.D. back then because she was some big pre-feminist icon who hung out with Freud. Be that as it may, I learned nothing about H.D. or her poetry but I did learn the word “palimpsest.” Apparently H.D. wrote a poem using imagery of the palimpsest. (Or a collection of poems, or a whole book… I don’t know. See I really didn’t learn anything in graduate school!) “What, pray tell, is a palimpsest?!” you may ask. Well, a palimpsest is a page from a scroll or book made of parchment, where the writing has been removed in order to use the parchment again. (Recycling is not a new idea.) Parchment is made from animal skin and the original text was scraped and washed off using milk and oat bran. What makes it unusual and interesting is that over the course of time the original writing kind of resurfaces. Cool, right?

So now you’re probably saying to yourself, “Interesting, but why is she talking about this when she said we were going to be talking about voice?” Well, the palimpsest imagery can be pretty powerful when thinking about creating an authentic voice in fiction. The question becomes, “How much of the author‘s voice should surface through the voice of the created characters?” I’m currently reading a young adult manuscript and it’s so clear to me that the 7th graders who populate this story just would not say the things they are saying. Or thinking. Or even doing. The voice of the (probably middle aged) writer, who has written a great YA book, keeps materializing through her characters. Bits and pieces of someone who is not 13 years old keep shining through. The way a girl describes a boy’s body. The response to the self-righteousness of the bitchy step-mother. The understanding of why a bully bullies. All the author not the characters.

Of course some of the things we like about certain writers is their unique voice (think the inestimable talents of say, John Green, John Irving or Amy Tan). It’s a tricky dance. How much of ourselves can we allow to surface through our fictional characters? At a certain point, if too much of ourselves as people, our life experiences, our personalities, peek out of the characters, it becomes obvious. The character palimpsest can become unintelligible, indecipherable. Unless your character is a person just like you, they really need to speak for themselves. Our job as writers is to let our characters do that. In my (not so) humble opinion, that is what creates an authentic voice. Maybe I should go back and try to read H.D.

How much of yourself do you write into your characters? How do you think you are doing in maintaining an authentic voice in your writing?



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