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The Importance Of An Authentic And Unique Voice In Teen Novels, by Monika Schroder

Among the different elements of writing, voice is hardest to define. One could say that voice is the style in which the story is told: the syntax, the diction and the poetry of the narrator. It is through the voice that we experience the story. The narrator’s voice is often the first element that attracts us to a book. The appeal of many good YA novels comes from an authentic, often raw voice.

Teenagers have limited life experiences, yet their emotions and opinions tend to be firm and at times dogmatic. In order to authentically express the character’s emotions, the narrative voice needs to use the vocabulary and diction of the time in which the book is set. In a contemporary novel the young narrator can use colloquial or even foul language. E. M. Kokie’s novel Personal Effects starts like this: “Of all the lame s*** on Pinsher’s Backback, his War is not the Answer sticker p***es me off the most – even more than his Practice Nonviolence button, which makes me want to practice some violence on his face.” We immediately feel the narrator’s anger and expect that there will be an altercation soon after these opening lines (and there is). Kokie also uses voice to demonstrate the character’s development over the course of the story as he slowly learns to deal with his pain, anger and loss.

By expressing a protagonist’s emotions, observations and reactions to the events in the story, voice also becomes a tool for showing a character’s development. As the character changes over the course of the story, so does his or her voice. Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira,Kira is told from Katie’s perspective. She is a naïve 6-year old at the beginning of the book and the author reflects the young age of her protagonist in the speech pattern of the narrative, including simple syntax. Katie matures over the course of the story and so does her language.

Style and tone of voice are unique by definition. Some writers take the reader even further by creating a new kind of speech. These are often science fiction novels where readers must infer meanings of words and expressions from the context they relate to in the reality unique to the particular novel. This is masterfully done in Adam Rapp’s futuristic novel Copper Elephant or by M. T. Anderson in Feed where he invents a future teen slang where ‘null’ means ‘boring’ and kids call each other ‘unit’ while one character’s father still addresses him as ‘dude.’

Another example for a story told in a distinct, and dystopian, dialect, is Adam Rapp’s futuristic novel Copper Elephant.

Teenagers can be full of angst and self-doubt. Their sexual desires can be overwhelming and the cause of painful insecurities. Many YA novels express the teenage protagonist’s lack of confidence regarding his or her love interest with frankness and humor. Here is a quote from John Green’s Looking for Alaska:

“I wanted so badly to lie down next to her on the couch, to wrap my arms around her and sleep. Not f***, like in those movies. Not even have sex. Just sleep together in the most innocent sense of the phrase. But I lacked the courage and she had a boyfriend and I was gawky and she was gorgeous and I was hopelessly boring and she was endlessly fascinating. So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was hurricane.”

In A. S. King’s, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, the heroine struggles with her feelings toward her dead former friend. “Because with Charlie, nothing was ever easy. Everything was windswept and octagonal and finger-combed. Everything was difficult and odd, and the theme songs all had minor chords.”

Sexual insecurities and other aspects of teenage angst are often covered by self-deprecating humor. This mixture of vulnerability and self-deprecation makes Vera Dietz so appealing. Likewise, readers of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian will commiserate with the self-deprecating voice of 14-year old geek Arnold as he tries to find his way out of the Indian reservation.

By employing a distinct and authentic voice the author signals confidence and authority, promising the reader a unique ride in someone else’s head. The reader knows they are in good hands and willingly follows the narrator into the story. As Jennifer Donnelly, author of the wonderful YA historical romance The Northern Light says, “Voice is not just the sound that comes from your throat, but the feelings that comes from your words.”


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The Dog in the WoodMy Brother's ShadowSaraswati's Way     TracksWinter TownNecromancing the Stone

Writing Teen Novels

Finding The Right “Voice” For Your Novel, by Carolyn Meyer

Finding a “voice” that enables a novel to connect with teen readers requires skill. Even the most fascinating characters and the most intriguing plot will fall flat without that voice.

Finding it begins with the narrator. An older adult, looking back over his life? A young person, telling her story in a voice that changes as she ages? Or a third-person narrator, recounting the story from a distance? Tense also affects voice; present feels different from past.

Victoria’s diaries and Darwin’s correspondence were invaluable in finding the voice in Victoria Rebels and The True Adventures of Charley Darwin.

Cleopatra Confesses was harder. She spoke ancient Greek and a number of other ancient languages, including Egyptian. None of this helped. I decided to use first person present tense, but I knew that if she sounded too “modern”, the effect would be jarring, and a formal voice felt too mannered and off-putting. Contractions have been common in English for centuries; not using them makes for a formal voice. Assuming there must have been similar grammatical constructs in ancient Greek, I used contractions when Cleopatra speaks to her sisters, brothers and servants, and more formal language when she speaks to her father.

Voice also involves the length and complexity of sentences. Generally a mix of short, simple sentences with some compound and complex sentences feels right. Choice of vocabulary is critical, especially in writing for teens. I avoid passive voice and replace weak-verb-plus-adverb with a strong verb: “gobbled” or “gulped”, rather than “ate hungrily.”

When a certain word or phrase may be unfamiliar to a teen reader, I explain it, directly or by context. When Darwin meets the captain of the ship on which he will sail around the world, the captain says, “I’m an ardent believer in phrenology, and I hold that a man’s character is revealed nowhere so strongly as in his face. I doubt whether anyone with a broad, indelicate nose such as yours could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage.”  Concerned that young readers would not know anything about phrenology, I included the phrase about “a man’s character is revealed…” to explain it.

White Lilacs is narrated by a 12-year-old African-American girl in the 1920s. I didn’t use dialect; Rose Lee’s voice is simple and direct. I must have gotten it right, for many teen readers were surprised when this white author showed up for school visits.

Beware the dreaded anachronism. When I wrote Loving Will Shakespeare I used a dictionary to determine when certain words came into common usage. But I missed one, and was nailed by a reviewer who noted that I had referred to Anne Hathaway as a “spinster”; in Shakespeare’s time a spinster was a woman who spun wool or flax and did not yet mean “an older unmarried woman” for another half century or so.

At some point I read aloud what I’ve written and listen to the voice, trusting my own ear to detect anything that sounds a bit “off”. It’s not a perfect detector but it’s usually good enough to send me back for a rewrite – especially when I’m writing about spinsters.


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Cleopatra ConfessesMary, Bloody MaryThe Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-AntoinetteVictoria Rebels     Shades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)My Brother's ShadowWinter Town

Writing Teen Novels

Voice In My Teen Novels, by Kashmira Sheth

When I first started writing I had a hard time understanding what voice was and how I could give distinct voices to my characters. Should I have them talk with an Indian accent? Would that be enough? I didn’t think so.

I read more books, looking for voice, and as I wrote my first novel the concept became clearer. Voice is how people express themselves. It has to do not only with accent, but also with word choice, with sentence structure, with figure of speech, and most importantly with how a character views the world and themself. Beyond all that there is time, place and culture to consider.

There are regional differences in how any language is spoken. Characters speaking in English from the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States or India sound different from one another. They pronounce things differently, greet each other differently and put emphasis on different syllables. In some parts of the world, people may spit sentences out so fast you wonder how they were able to keep them from getting tangled up.  In others, people may draw out their words slowly and carefully like each sound is a nugget of gold that they have to weigh precisely.

Depending on their age or background some characters use short, simple sentences. Some use long and convoluted ones that go on and on, with the help of punctuation, and if you are not paying attention, their meanings could be lost.

Then there are figures of speech. Our inner world is colored with our outer world. The physical surroundings, including weather, seasons, terrain, plants, animals, and people have a profound impact on how they express themselves. For example, a character living in a desert might use a spiky cactus to describe a prickly personality, while a character living near a rocky beach may compare it to sharp rocks. A character’s profession will also shape the way they talk and think.  A poet may describe a sunset differently than a scientist, even though they are both watching the same sunset at the same time and same place. The metaphors and similes our characters use or don’t use reflect their environment and their backgrounds. This makes up part of their voice.

Our character’s position in life will influence how our character views the world, which in turn will impact their voice. If she is a princess she is going to view world differently than if she is a chambermaid. They both may be living in the same palace but they view it differently, they express their thoughts differently and they expect others to communicate with them differently. Again, who they are will give each of them a unique voice.

Time, place and culture will also impact our character’s voice. A modern day princess will express herself very differently than, say, a princess in the 14th century.  Also, a 14th century Indian princess might talk differently to her father than a Russian princess during the same time.

What has worked for me is to know my characters well. Then I concentrate on the scene. Once I have a scene in my mind, and see my characters moving and interacting with other people in their physical space, the voice comes out naturally.

Voice was not as elusive as I had thought.


Kashmira Sheth’s author website:

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Keeping CornerBoys without Names     GlowGenesisSaraswati's WayThe Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)The Night She Disappeared

Writing Teen Novels


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