Are You Feeling Anything Yet? (Or, Cheers to These Teenage Years and How to Portray Them So You Don't Piss Us Off)
I go to the movies often, more with my friends than with family or the nonexistent boyfriend. I also seem to arrive first. Once, after I texted one of said friends about her whereabouts, I received: I'll be there in five minutes. If not, read this again.
On other occasions, I've received quick replies quoting THE DIVINE COMEDY or Lord Nelson or Thackeray or Humphrey Bogart or Marilyn Manson or Miley Cyrus. These are average teenage girls. They pierce bits of their bodies and gossip and whine and flunk maths tests and drink and attempt to drive. Their parents still treat them like they're eight, then tell them to act like a grown up. They curse and scream and bitch. They hate their bodies, their man hands their fat thighs. They obsess over films and people and move on to something new tomorrow. They're hot and cold and you shouldn't call them on it. They are the greatest liars and con artists in the world.
And that is why you cannot possibly con a teenager into believing your flying by the crotch of your pants structuring and referencing and patronising in your YA novel.
You can say that the lives and societies of teenagers is shallow and in dire need of maturing. But what you don't know is that they know. Yeah, they know. They know that it is all bullshit, that people say they care when they couldn't care less. They know that facing that truth hurts, that everyone is one mistake away from being ostracised, that everybody doesn't want to be alone. And so they deal with it, and they adapt. Because teenagers are brilliant at adapting. Stephen King once said something that was a little like if you enjoyed being a teenager, there is something wrong with you.
The teenage years are a psychedelic strobe-light Picasso painting of pain, tears and laughter that is constantly spinning so that every time you place your finger on it, you touch something different. Every teenager is different, undergoing different pressures and expectations, is accumulating different experiences and ambitions, and has a different perspective on the world. Unfortunately, a lot of the collective perspectives are warped; because the teenage years are also the years where you're the most susceptible to outward influences. The way we are supposed to be, that complex, forms from the mediums we take in. Every girl has something they hate about themselves. Thunder thighs, man hands, unibrow, moustache, mountain-range acne, etc. The ugly duckling personification is beloved because we relate to it. But at the same time, we are highly critical. If we hate something, we hate it. And originality, brilliance - we gush and love and obsess.
You you search the tag teenager in tumblr.com you get a lot of crap, but you also get a lot of amazing quotes and photo-quote mashups.
Love in YA is the big money-maker. Well, that's what it seems like anyways. And I must admit that if I get attached to a couple, every intimate moment between them makes me clutch at the pages and read more carefully. It's built into us. We want the fairytale. We want that other half that loves us and adores us. We want that love and happiness. I couldn't have been the only person cheering for Ron and Hermione or Alec and Magnus.
I know that some people hate this thought, but for some teenagers (and I mean some), sex is not directly related to love. For others, they go hand in hand. But for some, you'll get their approval from meaningless sex in one character and the chaste reasoning in another. They do not like to be preached at.
I haven't read Alexandra Adornetto's HALO, but from what I hear, her being an avid Christian has come through in her novel and has made a lot of teenagers very angry. If you're going to send a message, make it subliminal. Make it very, very subtle. Teenagers can be some of the most proactive people, and even if they're not active or supporting, they have this ability to know what is going on. If you preach to them about how bad something is (ie. smoking, drinking, premarital sex, whatever) all you're going to get is a snort and your unfinished novel in the recycling. But if you want to take the James Patterson MAXIMUM RIDE: THE FINAL WARNING approach and lose all respect from more than half of your readership from preaching global warming to them...Go ahead. Teenagers have adults telling them left and right to do things to help themselves, their environment, their planet - they do not need you to.
Alright. Time to get dark. Voldemort dark. Dark like the dark humour one of my characters continually dishes out. Dark like what's the difference between a pile of dead babies and a Prius? I don't have a Prius in my garage kind of dark. Namely, dark urban fantasy. I've had a couple forum discussions here and there about the web on this.
Put it this way: regardless of writing capabilities and the end result, the most exciting books for me of late have been THE REPLACEMENT (snatching kids out of cots and replacing them with creatures), WHITE CAT (mafia and con men with cursing), NEVER LET ME GO (children cloned in order to die in their early thirties via transplanting vital organs) and, believe it or not, THE HUNGER GAMES (children killing each other gladiator-style in a dystopian setting). Now, I might've been a little more than disappointed in some of these books, or well, one, but the premise for each of these made me sit up and go I want. Now. I speak purely for the other teenagers who find this kind of brutality and violence and edgy darkness more exciting than sliced bread (which I find very exciting).
The concept of teenagers not being able to handle certain things is ridiculous. For the love of all that is good, don't be their mother, as in don't censor their intake. Don't underestimate what they can handle. Have you seen their TV shows of late? Sex, drugs, and rock n roll (though they really need to get rid of this techno crap and bring back rock n roll.) I read FIGHT CLUB when I was eleven, MADAME BOVARY and Anne Rice when I was twelve. Right now, I'm juggling YA between Russian lit and teaching myself Latin. I watched Hellraiser and all that shit when I was seven and Mum didn't think I was looking. I watched Scarface and Pulp Fiction when my friends were still watching Winx Club. My first hero was Batman, the old Batman cartoon, who beat villains to a pulp with his fists. ...You know, it's a miracle I'm not some sort of serial killer, a la Se7en, of course. I can take mutants, I can take gladiators, I can take genocide and I can take whatever the hell you want to throw at me.
I can take it, but you don't need it. My point is that you shouldn't second guess yourself when considering whether or not to drop the F-Bomb, or whether or not to black out before your MC goes overkill on their tormentor, Evil McWasshisname. But just because teenagers can deal with the scourge of the world doesn't mean you should just put it in because you can. If it doesn't advance your plot, then don't use it. You should also know that even if you target 16 year olds, teenagers are notorious for assuming they're maturer than their age (Hi, yeah, me again) and you're going to get 14 and even 12 year olds too. Just a fact. And there was some study that said besides sleeping, between the ages of 8 and 18, kids spend more time in front of a screen, mainly a computer screen. Teenagers Google everything. Everything. Seriously. If they don't understand a word, or a reference or a concept you're talking about - Google. They will do it because they don't like not understanding. Thereby, do not dumb it down for those members of your audience that are going to Google something. You will only piss off the members that already understand you perfectly. And they are the ones you don't want to piss of. At all. They are the ones that go to the bookstore every week and have decided to pick your book off the shelf because you managed to win their attention.
Do not piss them off.
Realism. What I also don't get is the number of girls in YA who are so willing to dish out every itty-bitty part of their souls and lives their to their magical boyfriends. One of my friends goes through waves of really bad breakouts, yeah? And there was one time that people were actually coming up to her and going "Ooh, so you breaking out? Yeesh, that's got to hurt. Do you know why?" Her face is a part of her life that she gets stressed and insecure about. She turned to me and said: "Shit. I didn't realise my skin problems weren't my business anymore, but a public concern." Then she did a "mind ya business" impression from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. You know what I'd like to see? A girl who gets touchy, not about her vamp-boy batting his eyes at someone, but about her vamp-boy telling her to pluck her eyebrows or something, or inadvertently enforcing the customs of his true culture on her. I mean, come on, a Victorian-age sweet heart isn't going to be gun ho! on his girlfriend going to university, much less killing werewolves with her bare hands. Teenagers have mood swings and the simplest of things to you can set them off. I find that I'm reading novels at the time and wondering why she didn't throw a fit at something and then raising my eyebrows over what she does throw a fit about.
I think John Hughes' The Breakfast Club had a pretty good grasp on teen life. But at the same time, when I think about all the iconic teenage experiences, I recall my own experience pretty much like this:
And for the love of GOD. For the amount of time I waste in my life doing homework, I would like at least one scene per YA novel where they are in high school with some reference to doing homework. Or, or how about this: a family that is actually close-knit. Parents that aren't conveniently out all the time and who the kid actually gets along with. Instead of neglected child #783 to the nth million, how about kid who needs to find a real way around their parents or a kid that has parents that allow them one night out a week as long as they do their homework and chores and whatever?
Do not use slang. Ever heard that saying "You had to be there"? It usually follows an explanation of something that was crying-of-laughter good but when time has passed, it loses nearly all of its brilliance. And by slang, I mean the current stuff. By all means use the universal things, the stuff that's been around for ages: damn, shit, crap, fuck. But it's the things like LOL and ROFLCOPTOR that if put into print looks ridiculous. The too-cool-to-care teens and well-read teens will only roll their eyes and second-guess you from then out. Remember when saying dope was cool? I don't. Went out of fashion before I knew what a trend was. If you hear a teen say it now, they're being ironic. Yeah, seriously. If you want to go ahead and date your novel, slang is the best way. You know, if you've got a this happened in 2006, it's a pretty good way of maintaining authenticity.
And do not smart it up. If you've got a 13 or 14 year old, don't have them tossing around "I acquiesce" unless they've reason to. Reasons? Big readers, writers or clever kids. JASPER JONES had one flaw in my opinion: Charlie was too mature for a 13 year old. Hell, I only know about four or five people in my entire school who would talk like him. Yes, being well-read is one thing, but his understanding of situations was well beyond any scope a 13 year old could hope to achieve in the suburbs. But then again, if you've got a 16 or 17 year old going through their SATs or SC or HSC, then they're going to be loaded with all sorts of weird words from school - and having them implement the odd word is clever.
Even if you target girls, for God's sake, make something blow up. They don't separate books in stores by gender. And with all the sappy romance floating around, people are wondering why boys in general aren't latching onto the reading craze. Suzanne Collins had kids killing each other - she could've done with a little less kissing, but still, people were dying. I was grinning. PERCY JACKSON, according to my younger brother, had monsters and battles; those are the only books I've ever seen him reading in less than three days. My brother is a jock, a sixteen-trainings-a-day-and-still-not-doing-enough jock. That's a big thing. A little bit of excitement isn't going to kill you. There is a reason why you are writing about creatures instead of normal people. It's not for glamour. Creatures have mysterious and violent pasts for a god damn reason. Use it people!
This post is getting on the long side, so I'm going to end with: make your MC liveable. You want to take time from teenagers which they could be using to do any number of other things. They are going to spend x number of hours with this character. They'll only do this happily if they like them, or tolerate them. I seldom love a POV character. You want to make them a shell - which SMeyer did well and which some authors who've copied her outline failed to do. Or you want to make them real, and someone that these teens would want to deal with. They usually read up, as in their MC is usually 2 or 3 years older. But at the same time, don't accommodate for every taste. Take into consideration your genre and your sub-genre. You already have a certain audience. Don't accommodate for people who aren't reading. Stop trying to make your MC vapid so that anyone can try them on.
I read somewhere that the average child asks 400 questions a day. Quadruple that and you've got the number of questions that are unvoiced by teenagers every day. They are critical and they are imaginative. If there's loophole you're praying they won't see...They're going find it and go insane because it's a loophole.
So yeah, that's me. Procrastination at its fullest.
Anything further? Comment below.