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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Capturing the Elusive Teen Voice

Please welcome guest blogger Jana Oliver

The explosive growth in young adult fiction (ages 14+) has fueled many an author’s desire to pen a book in that vibrant niche. However, as authors dip their toes into the YA world, they’re quickly learning that writing for the teen market is not as simple as “dumbing down” the language, brewing up a stew of angst and hormones, or writing a vampire, angel or a moping girl into the storyline.

Teen fiction is not monolithic: just as with the adult market younger readers’ tastes are wide and varied, ranging from sweet romance like ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS (Stephanie Perkins) to the gritty, dystopian tales of SHIP BREAKER (Paola Bacigalupi) and HUNGER GAMES (Suzanne Collins). All of those different stories require finding the right “voice.”

I Hear A Voice

By definition, a young adult book features a younger protagonist. That youthful aspect necessitates the author “hear” that protagonist’s voice so that readers can easily resonate with the character. Unfortunately, finding the heroine’s voice for my Y.A. Demon Trappers series wasn’t as easy as harkening back to the speech patterns of my teen years. If I’d relied on slang or dropping name brands (Twister anyone?) I’d have quickly dated myself and the story.

Instead I tapped into the memories of my high school days, all the heartbreaks (real or imagined), the fears (there were so many) and the endless angst. Everything was raw-edged when I was seventeen as I had yet to develop that thick set of calluses that come with age and maturity. Events that adults would shrug off were life-threatening landmines in my teen world and felt very keenly. As to make it worse, my parents seemingly had no clue what was going on inside my head.

Though teens care deeply about their friends and family, for the most part they are mono-focused, still exploring their place in the world. That internal focus leads a tendency to interpret events as “How does this affect me?” No matter how well adjusted the teen, they often feel like aliens, outsiders, yearning to fit in. How your character plays out those yearnings is just one part of the package. In that sense, a teen’s voice is more than just what comes out of his/her mouth, but also encompasses how the fledgling adult thinks, feels and reacts.

Not Hard-Wired (Yet)

The other issue with teens is their ability to make solid, well-thought-out decisions. According to behavioral scientists, that ability develops as the mind matures (some say the process is not complete until the old age of twenty-five). As an adult who has a tendency to think through every decision, I had to get in touch with my inner teen to ensure Riley (my heroine) wasn’t quite so methodical. She needed to be impulsive on occasion, jump into situations where older adults would fear to tread, so that she’d make mistakes and have to live with the consequences. It was also vital that she learn from those mistakes so she didn’t veer into TSTL (Too Stupid to Live) territory. This impulsiveness does not give an author license to fill every page with stupid decisions. Teens may feel immortal, but deep down they know when they’re doing something that might not be totally sane. It’s their immature brains which allow them to override the bells, whistles and the internal “Ah, maybe this isn’t a good idea” warning.

All That Emo

Angst often appears to be a teen’s default setting and because of that finding the right balance of angst and action in your story can be difficult. Too much moping and the reader will skip pages or set the book aside. Too little and the protagonist may come across as cold and unfeeling. If you’re not sure if you’re overdoing the drama, try highlighting those passages that are particularly emo. If you edit on paper, a marker will do the trick. If on-screen, use the Highlight function in MS Word. Then go back and see just how much of your manuscript is colored and that will tell you if you’re tipping too far in either direction.

The Journey is the Thing

Finding the right teen voice is important, but ultimately the story will be about the hero or heroine’s journey, their first encounters with love, loss, good and evil. If you can develop a genuine feel for the protagonist’s inner conflicts, hidden fears and dreams, the voice will come naturally. If you don’t push too hard, the character will sound genuine. And your inner teen will thank you, then ask if you’d be willing to cough up an advance on his/her allowance.

Jana Oliver has the perfect job—she listens to the voices in her head and then writes their stories. Her latest creation is the young adult DEMON TRAPPERS series (St. Martin’s Press) set in a dystopian 2018 Atlanta populated by Hellspawn, Deaders and scheming necromancers.

Jana’s foray into time travel and alternate history resulted in the multi-award winning Time Rovers Series (Dragon Moon Press). Set in 1888 London, the series deftly blends time travel, shape-shifters and Jack the Ripper

Visitors are always welcome at her website: www.janaoliver.com

The Demon Trapper’s Daughter (St. Martin’s Griffin)

Demon Trapper Riley Blackthorne just needs a chance to prove herself—and that’s exactly what Lucifer is counting on…

It’s the year 2018, and with human society seriously disrupted by the economic upheavals of the previous decade, Lucifer has increased the number of demons in all major cities. Atlanta is no exception. Fortunately, humans are protected by Demon Trappers, who work to keep homes and streets safe from the things that go bump in the night. Seventeen-year-old Riley, only daughter of legendary Demon Trapper Paul Blackthorne, has always dreamed of following in her father’s footsteps. When she’s not keeping up with her homework or trying to manage her growing attraction to fellow Trapper apprentice, Simon, Riley’s out saving citizens from Grade One Hellspawn. Business as usual, really, for a demon-trapping teen. When a Grade Five Geo-Fiend crashes Riley’s routine assignment at a library, jeopardizing her life and her chosen livelihood, she realizes that she’s caught in the middle of a battle between Heaven and Hell.


perisquire30 said...


Thanks so much for these points of the components of teen voice. It really helped me to see these reminders laid out in black and white. I know that in my first drafts, I often get away from the teen voice because I'm so focused on getting the scenes on the page. For me, teen voice is something that gets layered in during the 2nd or 3rd pass.
Both of your series sound INCREDIBLE to me!! I'll have to add them to my TBB (to be bought) list!

~Roni Lynne
YA Adventures in the Paranormal...and Beyond!

Jana Oliver said...

I layer in more of the teen voice later during editing as well. I do try to keep an eye on my heroine's intentions/reactions/actions as I'm doing the first draft so she doesn't go too "old" on me. She'll do that sometimes and then I have to rethink the scene.