Friday, February 26, 2010

The elusive "teen voice"

Before you read this post, check out my pre-famous author interview on Anne Riley's blog

This post is for my YA writer friends, or anyone who puts teen characters in their novels. If you don't, you can feel free to skip this in your Google reader line-up, blogger dashboard, or whatever other method you use to enjoy the fuzzy goodness that is my blog.

About two weeks ago, I won a contest on the lovely Ms. Myra McEntire's blog for a copy of Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins. But the day before I found out I won, a friend of mine, who had read the book and was dying to discuss it with someone, offered to send me her ARC, on the express promise that I return it to her when I was finished. By the time I found out I won, the other copy was already in the mail. So I told my friend that I would read her copy until my copy arrived, then return her copy and finish up whatever was left with my own copy (and if I say "copy" one more time in this sentence I think my blog is going to explode). Needless to say, I devoured my friend's copy of the book in a few days, and it is already in the mail back to her. I am so thrilled to have my very own copy of this book on my way to me so that I can add it to my collection and visit it over and over again, not only because the story and characters are fun and engaging, and the plot quite brilliant, but because Rachel Hawkins has mastered something that most YA writers agonize over trying to perfect - the teen voice.

Hex Hall is narrated by Sophie Mercer, a 16-year-old who found out three years ago that she's a witch. And even though I love that aspect of the book (and the fact that Hawkins freely references Harry Potter in an extremely appropriate way), what I love even more is that, by the end of the book, I felt as if I knew Sophie and all of her quirks. More than that, I wanted to be her friend. I found her hilarious and sarcastic and smart, but not in-your-face about it. I felt like I was really reading from a teenager's point of view, but not once was I annoyed with trivialities, and I don't remember there being an "OMG!!!" or a "like, totally!" to be found. (Although "like, totally!" might be very 1999 of me. I have no idea. I am old and out of touch. Well, not really old, but old enough for the kiddos to think I'm out of touch, anyhow.) But not for one second did I doubt that Sophie was 16. She made me laugh with her quick-witted retorts. She was genuine. She gushed over boys in almost the same breath that she condemned them. She simultaneously hated her mom and loved her. Her vocabulary was appropriate for her age, and she didn't talk down to the reader. I honestly can't remember the last time that I thought a first-person contemporary teen narrator was this genuine, believable, and just plain fun.

I know this book is on a lot of people's radars, but if you're writing a contemporary YA with a teen narrator, especially a female teen, this book is a must-read. Hawkins completely nails the teen voice. I can't believe she's a debut author, and I look forward to seeing more of both her and Sophie. Rachel Hawkins is also on Twitter, and you should follow her there, because she's fabulous. 

OK, now that I've totally gushed over a book given you some required reading, here are some tips to help make the teen voice in your YA novel more genuine:
  1. If you are old and crotchety out of high school like me, go somewhere and just listen to the way teenagers talk. There's nothing worse than an adult trying to pretend they know what a teenager sounds this means watching lame sitcoms doesn't count. (Although you should definitely watch Degrassi: The Next Generation, just because it's awesome, it's Canadian, and it has given us such stars as Nina Dobrev of Vampire Diaries fame and Shenae Grimes, current star of the new 90210.) I'd suggest going to the mall or other public places and listening to how various groups of teens interact with other people - with their parents, their friends, their boyfriends, etc. Notice the differences when it's just two teens talking than when there's a larger group. This might make you a creepy stalker, true, but it's excellent research. 
  2. Here's a radical idea...go find a teen and, uh, TALK TO THEM. You should probably be doing this anyway if you want to write YA. For this one, though, I don't suggest heading to the mall, because while slurping on your Starbucks and window shopping with your ears open is one thing, approaching teens for a casual conversation is another, and is a sure-fire way to get you arrested. But I'm sure most of you have a teen in your life, a sister, daughter, niece, nephew, student, cousin, SOMEone, who falls into your target demographic. And if not? Volunteering would be a great opportunity to give back to the community and get to know a young adult. Plus, Disney is giving out free passes this year to people who spend just one day volunteering. Novel research, volunteering, and free passes to Disney? It's like the Trifecta of Win.      
  3. Finally, try to get a teen beta reader or two. Most teens will be up-front with you and tell you if they think your teen-aged MC sounds like an adult in teen clothing. Gather those teens I mentioned in number two and ask them to read your manuscript, or find some volunteer teen betas through writing groups such as YALitChat
What about you, readers? What's the best book you've read recently with a believable teen voice? And what tips do you have for making the teen voice more authentic?


  1. In order to talk to them you have to be part of their world. I cheat because I teach high school and talk to teens all the time. You can volunteer to coach a team or be a driver for a team's away games and meets or you can volunteer to work with them through a church or community group.

  2. sarahjayne - I definitely agree! That's why you can't just walk up to them in the mall (aside from the whole getting arrested for being a total creepo factor). Big Brothers, Big Sisters or working at a local rec center could be another way to find some great volunteer opportunities. I'm sure anyone's city center/council can set you up with some great opportunities! But lucky you for having teens to tell it to you straight every day!

  3. I can't wait to start Hex Hall tonight..I was so excited to find as many copies in the bookstore as I did.

  4. I totally agree about Sophie's voice - it was so natural and never felt forced at all. And I feel very lucky to get to talk to teens on a daily basis. It's a nice perk of my job!

  5. Hello! I found your blog by way of Abby Annis' -- it's so nice to meet you!

    I'm a literary fiction writer, but I've been putting my nose in more YA books lately. I just finished Hush, Hush, but I didn't like the teen MC, Nora's voice at all. I thought she should have assumed and predicted more about what was happening around her. I didn't find her believable.

    When I read The Hunger Games, I also thought the MC, Katniss should have deduced more, in particular about Peeta's feelings for her. But I wasn't put off by her voice, and I found her authentic and exciting -- someone I really rooted for.

    Great post! I look forward to reading more from you!

  6. What an amazing post!!! I really enjoyed your views for Hex Hall. I have my pre-ordered copy and can't wait for March 2nd to roll around!

    I am currently reading Heist Society by Ally Carter and she plays a 'grown-up' teen roll and I enjoy how she still keeps it very kid like, even though she has very grown up responsibilities!

  7. Oh geez. One more book to add to my mountain of TBR list!! :)

  8. I agree heartily! (And found you through Anne's interview--it was great!) I ended up becoming a youth leader at church because my natural inclination was to giggle in the corner with the HS girls (though I'm old enough to be their mother).

    I think when you go the volunteer route, it's also important to sustain a friendship in which you aren't so much an authority figure as a buddy. Send them silly bling on facebook. E-mail them links to Youtube videos that crack you up. Take em out for ice cream. Go to their school events, games, plays, etc. and cheer them on. Learn the kids' world and try to be part of it. It's fulfilling and fun and yes, puts you in touch with real readers and how they understand the world.

  9. I'm so happy I stumbled upon your blog! Hex Hall sounds like a book I need to check out. Thanks for the tips!

  10. great review, I'll have to check out the book. Rachel Cohn (Nick & Nora's Infinite Playlist) gave an awesome talk on creating the authentic "teen voice" at SCBWI last year....Are you part of the organization? Contact me if you want any info!

    I would say "Hunger Games" tops my teen-voice list.

  11. Heather--nice post. Thanks for putting this up.

    I included this one in my Friday Link Love roundup this week. Nicely done.


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