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Language In Teen Novels, by Diane Lee Wilson

Early in my career I regularly participated in read-and-critique groups. Each of us took a turn reading aloud from one of our own newly completed chapters and then accepted verbal comments from the other aspiring novelists. More than once someone would tell me that my vocabulary was too difficult for my teen audience. It was suggested that I use simpler words.

I bridled at that and still do. I firmly believe that authors of teen novels can use rich, complex language if done in context and with purpose. It is not necessary to “write down” to readers. My goal is to produce the best writing I can, and if a reader is unfamiliar with the occasional word (even though I’ve used it in context) then I expect them to look it up in a dictionary, be it one from a bookshelf or an electronic one on a computer or phone.

Nurturing language has never been more important now that we have the widespread use of electronic communication – texting, tweeting, tagging – where minimal space takes precedence over clarity, a great number of teens are allowing their writing and reading skills to diminish.

A professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University recently warned that rampant texting is exacting “compromises on traditional, cultural writing” abilities of today’s teens. “Routine use of textual adaptations by current and future generations of 13-17-year-olds,” says S. Shyam Sundar, “may serve to create the impression that this is normal and accepted use of the language and rob this age group of a fundamental understanding of standard English grammar.” Teens who took the professor’s grammar test, for example, couldn’t discern the difference between “lose” and “loose” or “accept” and “except”.

At a writing camp held at the University of Central Florida, another professor also bemoaned the negative effect that instant communication is having on writing skills. “Social media takes out all the imaginative threads, descriptions and interesting parts of a language,” said Terry Thaxton. “I find that troubling.”

The argument can be made that language is dynamic, always evolving (or for the cynical, devolving) and that teens are communicating in a language that they understand. Today’s teens will not always be talking among themselves. They will be speaking with future employers, potential partners, perhaps world leaders. They will need to understand the difference between “nonplussed” and “nonchalant”. From “accepting your proposition” to “taking exception to your proposition”. They can begin to master language painlessly and even pleasurably in a well-written novel with a rich vocabulary.

No, teen readers do not have to limit themselves to “serious books” only. Just as there is always room for a little “junk food” in one’s diet, there’s a place for the “summer beach read”, the “guilty pleasure” or the book that “everyone’s talking about”. But these stories will never be as satisfying as time spent with a complex fictional character in a colorfully drawn world.

Tweets and texts are fine – and fun – in day-to-day life. Instant communication can bring us closer as a society. However, language is what defines our society and I urge every writer to access its riches.


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Writing Teen Novels

On Age Ranges For Novels, by Andy Briggs

In the UK, publishers had a terrible idea: why don’t we age-range the books? What this meant was a book for a 14-year-old would have a large 14 on the back so everybody would know, and the poor uninformed reader would know that they’re not reading a book for a 15-year-old lest their head explodes.

It also meant that a 15-year-old would pick up the book, get interested in the blurb and then put it back on the self because it’s aimed at younger kids. Telling a child a book if specifically for them is not necessarily the correct thing to do because you are now ruining a world of literature they may no longer bother accessing.

Harry Potter was so successful because it was suddenly okay for adults to read children’s books. When was it never okay to do so? If a child has a strong reading ability, they should read any age group they can. There is more gore in a Darren Shan book than Stephen King – both are great authors, and both can and should be read by all ages.

So, that was my rant about the readers but how does this translate into writing?

I write for just one target audience. Me. Sometimes stories simply work better because the protagonist is a child, other times an adult is an equally appropriate lead character. I don’t write with my readers in mind, because I want readers of all ages to enjoy my work. Of course, some adults won’t want to pick up my superhero books. They are probably the same people who won’t read a Spider Man comic either, but, oddly, still go the cinema to watch the film.

I believe writers should concentrate on getting the story onto the page to the very best of their ability. Not once should they worry about who is going to read it. I don’t use swearing very much – none in my books, and only a trickle in my screenplays (some of which are quite gory horror). I do this, not because I am a sensitive soul, but because my characters never feel the need to curse. Does that make my books children’s books? I have just read BZRK by Michael Grant which has more swearing than a recent Clive Cussler novel I finished. Grant’s novel was a teen book, Cussler’s an adult one. In fact, there was more sex in BZRK too.

Teenage readers are much more sophisticated than many people (read that as parents and teachers) often give them credit for. As long as the story is strong and the characters fascinating, they will read. Of course, it’s nice to read about people just like you, but that doesn’t mean you have to exclusively do it every time. Teenagers don’t have to read about teenage protagonists – younger or older characters are all equally enjoyed.

Write stories that you enjoy. Don’t force them to be teenage books or adult books. They will find their own path and their own audience.


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Writing Teen Novels


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