29 Apr

YA Cafe: 3 Tips for Capturing the Teen Voice

Posted in Literature, Reading, Teen Lit, YA Cafe

Welcome Back to YA Cafe, where book lovers can gather and chat about teen literature.  I’m your barista, along with Ghenet from All About Them Words.

Each Friday we pick from a menu of topics and share our thoughts on our respective blogs.  We’ve also got plans brewing for interviews, events and even some exciting giveaways, so stay tuned!  Join the discussion by responding in the comments, on your own blogs or on twitter using the hash tag #yacafe.

Today’s Special: What’s your favorite YA voice?

Just as I couldn’t decide on a favorite YA character, I also can’t pin down one YA voice that I love because there are so many good ones out there.  Instead, today I thought I’d talk about ways to capture that teen voice.  As many of you have said in the comments voice is one of the main things that differentiates teen literature from adult fiction.  Sure, there are other considerations (like the age of the main character) but voices is generally what makes YA stand out from other categories.

So how do you get that teen voice?  There are no hard and fast rules, but here are a few tips that have helped me nail down the voice of my own characters.

1. Listen to how teens talk.  Ever done that eavesdropping exercise where you go somewhere and listen in on people talking?  You can learn a lot about teen slang and the rhythm of how they speak just by listening.  Whenever I ride the subway or bus, the temptation is to zone out but listening to how teens talk can give you insight about your character’s voice.  (They say Nabokov nailed down the teen voice for Lolita by riding the TCAT bus in Ithaca and listening to local high school kids.)  When you listen–really listen–to teens talking, you’ll notice things: not just what they talk about but how they talk about it.  Here are a few examples:

     “Did she tell you we used to play checkers all the time, or anything?”
     “I don’t know.  For Chrissake, I only just met her,” Stradlater said.  He finished combing his goddam gorgeous hair.  He was putting away all his crumby toilet articles.
     “Listen.  Give her my regards, willya?”
     “Okay,” Stradlater said, but I know he probably wouldn’t.  You take a guy like Stradlater, they never give your regards to people.

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

     “Oh.”  Her voice was mock-pouty.  “Are you sure?  He’s no trouble.  He hardly takes up any room.  All you have to feed him is a Mini Wheat.  Or two grapes.  And he won’t poop on your rug.  Will you Cinnamon?  Go ahead, stand up and tell him you won’t.  Stand up, Cinnamon.”
     Cinnamon stood on my sneaker.  His eyes shone like black pearls.
     “Doesn’t he have the cutest ears?”
     Who notices a rat’s ears?  I looked.  She was right.  “Yeah,” I said, “I guess he does.”

Jerry Spinelli, Stargirl

2. Don’t be afraid to add imagery.  Just because the voice captures the way teens speak doesn’t make it any less sophisticated in terms of imagery and language than adult fiction.  Teens respond to beautiful imagery, as long as the language fits the style of the voice.  Don’t be afraid to use metaphors or similes either, if it fits the voice you’re going for.  Some examples:

     Cassie killed the snowmobile engine.
     Total silence, her favorite sound.  Ice crystals sun in the Arctic air.  Sparkling in the predawn light, they looked like diamond dust.  Beneath her ice-encrusted face mask, she smiled.  She loved this: just her, the ice, and the bear.

Sarah Beth Durst, ICE

     Then the worst thing happened.  A boy noticed me.
     He was the most unattractive boy in the room, a dog-face, a Poindexter, the one who hadn’t asked any girl to dance, because he knew that no girl wanted him to.  But I was a stranger so he figured, why not?

Judy Blundell, What I Saw and How I Lied

3. It’s OK to break the rules.  Some YA novels do a great job capturing not only the voice, but the vernacular of teen speech.  To write in vernacular, not only must the author have a great ear for dialogue, but depending on who’s narrating the story, the vernacular can carry over into the narration as well.  In Coe Booth example below, the vernacular is not over-powering, but it’s carried through out the book both in the narration and dialogue.  Even just a touch of vernacular in this book gives us a better look into the protagonist’s world than if the book had been narrated in standard English.  In the M.T. Anderson, the vernacular is completely made up, invented by the author for this futuristic society, but it fits the characters and gives us an idea of what this society is like.

     I mean, she the one that called my cell this morning and told me she needed to talk.  Then all the way to her place it’s like she wanna say something but don’t know how to tell me.  Se we just walk without saying a whole lot, which is alright ’cause I got a lot on my mind anyway.

Coe Booth, Tyrell

     Everything at home was boring.  Link Arwaker was like, “I’m so null,” and Marty was all, “I’m null too, unit,” but I mean we were all pretty null because for the last like hour we’d bee playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall.  We were trying to ride shocks off them.  So Marty told us there was this fun place for lo-grav on the moon.

M.T. Anderson, Feed

Now I want to know, what’s your favorite YA voice?

Want to hear more about voice?  Fellow barista, Ghenet shares her thoughts on her blog: All About Them Words.  Check it out, then tell us what you think!


Comments on this post

  1. Cat says:

    Great post! All very true things.
    As a teen reader of A TON of YA lit I have to mention, PLEASE TRY NOT TO USE OUT OF DATE SLANG UNLESS IT'S IN JEST, and don't use it (even current slang words) ALL THE TIME. No one does that. Sorry, but it's a major pet peeve when I read a book that came out last year and there are people saying, 'dude' at the beginning of every sentence, or people say 'forshizzle' because no one has said that in a few years, etc…. I think that's an important thing that falls under 'listening'.

    1. Ghenet Myrthil says:

      It's so fun to eavesdrop on people's conversations to improve your writing. 🙂 I agree with Cat that you shouldn't date your book with slang.

      I like the selections you've posted!

      1. flywingslikelace says:

        Right, there are certain ways that teens speak that don't rely heavily on slang and that would work best to keep your book as accessible as possible. Of course, that's not to say you can't use slang at all, but yes, be aware of how fleeting slang and fads are and how long it might take those "now" words to get published. Will they still be "now" words then?

        1. Gabriela Pereira says:

          I completely agree with the comments about using out-of-date slang. In fact, slang in general can be dicey because the trends change so quickly and publishing moves so slowly that a book could be perfectly with the trends when it's written and be out of date as soon as it's published.

          Maybe slang words should come with a warning label: Writers, use at your own risk!

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