Writing Novels About Teens For Teen Readers, by Bernard Beckett
When writing a piece of fiction, we try to do something more than achieve an external description of the world. We want to engage with it in a way that feels like a depiction from the inside. We’re digging, if you like, towards that which is essential. If you write about teenage characters for a teenage audience, you are backing yourself to be able to tell them something both fresh and authentic about their own experiences. That’s not without its difficulties. They are, after all, the world experts on being teenagers in the twenty first century. They know the quality of their experiences better than adults do and for as long as there have been teenagers there have been words to describe the way they feel about the adults who don’t understand them: phoney, bogus, try-hard, fake, lame… Clearly my own list stalls somewhere in the nineties, but you get the idea.
So how are writers to bridge this imaginative gap and capture something of the rawness and immediacy of the teenage years? One obvious way is to do your writing while you’re a teenager. The Outsiders stands as one of the enduring titles at the junior end of this genre. As a school teacher I’m amazed to see how well fourteen year olds still respond to it. To an adult reader the cliché and sentimentality can get in the way but to the teen they translate readily into truth and drama. Nick O’Donnell’s Twelve is another book written by a young author that catches some essential quality of being young that perhaps is out of reach to the older writer, ditto Less Than Zero. For all their flaws, they do smell like teen spirit (and again, see how quickly our references age us).
There are other ways around the problem. One doesn’t turn twenty and magically lose all recollection of the previous decade. Adolescence passes more quickly for some than others, and I don’t mind admitting that I actively resisted adulthood well into my twenties. Many fine writers – I think, for instance, of John Green – have managed to stay in touch with the energy and quirks of the teenage mind, at least at first. Aging slowly does appear to be a feasible strategy, and one I’ve certainly leaned fairly heavily upon, but time is insistent and sooner or later both these strategies are doomed to fail. No matter how you dress or how carefully you keep up with the language and musical trends, one day you’re going to be an old person writing about young people. Then what? A popular option is to rely upon memory, or up close observation of teenagers. How many writers of YA come to the genre from a background in school teaching, or are prompted to write in the genre as their own children hit the teenage years? The trouble is, and I speak as a writer who has worked in high schools for the last twenty years, I don’t think this approach actually works.
Memory is not a static thing. We don’t recall events, we interpret them, and next time we try to access the recollection it will have been tainted by the previous interpretation. As we grow old, we lose touch with our youth. That’s just the way it is. In its place, we construct a story, and for all the many things such stories have going for them, authenticity isn’t one of them. So too with observing teenagers. You’re watching from the outside, focusing them through the adult lens, and no matter how bang on your external representation might be, that’s not the yardstick against which the novel will be judged. My interactions with students now are different than they were twenty years ago. Not necessarily better or worse, but different.
This is not to argue that older writers shouldn’t write for teens, but to do it well I think an important truth needs to be faced. The further we move from our own teen years, the less capable we will be of capturing their essence. To ignore this is to pour forth into that already overflowing pool of inauthentic, patronising and disconnected YA fiction. If I look back over my own novels, the ones I wrote in my mid twenties when I was just starting out as a school teacher have a particular energy I’ve never been able to recapture. When I wrote about the hopeless infatuations, the social fears and longings, I was writing about something that still lurked within. This is not to say they are my best novels; all the flaws of early apprenticeship are there to see. However, they had something that is lost to me now and understanding that is, I think, crucial to continuing to work in the genre.
Luckily, teenagers don’t wish to read exclusively about the teenage experience any more than teachers are going to limit themselves to reading books set in schools. A great deal of writing for teens sits within other established genres, be it supernatural romance, fantasy, sci-fi or crime. While they will still mostly feature teenage characters, the issue of authenticity is less pressing, the success of the story doesn’t hinge upon it in the same way. The very best of it produces work of depth and beauty without pretending to reflect the teenage world back at its readers (think Mark Lanagan’s books or MT Anderson’s Octavian Nothing books). Part of the reason I’ve moved into sci-fi/metaphysical novels for a bit is to do with these different demands. Similarly, at the higher end of the teen range, those novels that explicitly retell the teenage experience through the adult voice have an absolute place and, for my money, represent the finest pieces of YA writing. So there’s hope.
Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org
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Writing Teen Novels