Sounding Good, Correct, Da Boss, Right: Authenticity in YA Fiction, by Ben Chandler
You are not smarter than your readers. You’re not necessarily wiser, either (it’s a halfway bet at best). You don’t know more than them, and you certainly don’t know more about them. You are a fraud, an impostor, a poorly disguised frump in an outfit you’re far too old for, trying to score a table with the cool kids, the rebels, or the in-betweens, but you manage to stand out, even amidst the diversity of the high school cafeteria. Maybe it’s the notebook and pen in your hands, or the way you keep stealing their sentences. It doesn’t really matter, though, and while you may have seen it all and been there and done that, you are not smarter than your readers.
So, how do you sound like one? How do you keep from coming across as their well meaning but clueless uncle? The one in the toupee who pulls coins out of their ears while they roll their eyes and turn their iDevice up too loud. How do you sneak past the gatekeepers? No, not the teachers and parents, but the readers themselves. The young adults. The ones who, let’s face it, don’t want you sitting down at their table (notebook in hand) just chilling (is chilling still a thing? Do people still chill?). In short, how do you write authentically for teens? A topic covered on this blog already, I believe, but isn’t that what it’s for?
There are two pieces of advice I can give you here. 1) You are not smarter than your readers, and 2) Do not, under any circumstances, try to be relevant. By relevant I mean hip, cool, down or up with it, of the times, etcetera. One in a million authors can pull this off (Rick Riordan is one). Many more try and fail. The thing about being relevant is that it’s like being the Fonz (NB: if you get that reference, you are no longer relevant). You can’t pretend to be the Fonz and hope people will think you’re cool. Coolness cannot be faked, and the most uncool thing you can do is to tryto be cool. If you happen to be cool – fantastic! You don’t even need to read this post.
The problem with relevancy is that it’s ephemeral. Trends change, often, and attempts to keep up with them might make your work seem fresh one day, but completely dated the next. There’s a dangerously thin line between sounding like a teen and sounding like an adult trying to sound like a teen. One works. The other invites further eye rolling.
Remember that you are not smarter than your readers. I cannot stress this enough. You must imagine me waving my arms emphatically in your face while you’re reading that sentence. The worst thing a YA author can do is to patronise their readers. YA readers are not stupid. They’re savvy, they know what they want, they know what they like, and they have no interest in you telling them what they like or what they know (or what they don’t, for that matter). If you try to lecture them, or speak down to them, or assume even for an instant that you are smarter than they are, they will know you are doing it and put your book down.
So, what can you do to make your writing sound authentic? Go for natural. Get a teen to read your dialogue and punch holes in it, if you can find one willing to do it. Weigh your slang usage carefully. Swearing doesn’t make you instantly cool, but if used wisely can enliven a conversation or heighten a moment. When slanging or cursing, aim for timeless rather than timely. Invent your own phrases, if you can, but make them a natural progression of everyday language. The use of shiny in Joss Whedon’s Firefly is an example of how to do it right.
Finally, try to recall your own young adulthood. All of the YA authors I’ve spoken to about this say roughly the same thing, that their teenage years still loom large in their imaginations. Avoid trying to capture someone else’s young adulthood and reflect instead on your own experiences. That’s the only way to make it truly genuine, and authenticity is one of the things YA readers look for. Or it’s not. I wouldn’t know. I’m not smarter than they are.
Ben Chandler author website: www.benchandler.com.au