Thursday, May 5, 2016

Tapping Into Your YA Voice

by Alexandra Alessandri

If you’re like me and you write across age categories, you might sometimes find yourself muddling up the different voices in your head—even if your characters come in loud and clear. It’s only natural, I suppose. Spend enough time with one age group and you start sounding like them even if you’ve officially moved on to another. (This happens to me in real life, too, by the way!) And even if you don’t write across age categories, sometimes the voice just. Isn’t. working.

So what’s an author to do when they need to get back in touch with their YA voice?

Here are some things I do (not necessarily in this order and definitely not exclusively):

I remember my teen years
I might start with tapping into my memories. Most of us probably have pretty strong reminiscences of our teenage years. After all, it’s a time when we’re really figuring out who we are and what our place in this crazy, hectic world is. For me, those years play in the background like an old black and white film, sputtering at times, and at others, complemented by photographs and stories.

Sometimes these memories need some help getting dislodged from my brain, so I journal. I do simple prompt exercises, geared at remembering that specific time period. One of my fave memoir writing books is Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend From Far Away. I skim through it, choosing prompts that might target memories and experiences from this specific time. Then, I write for about 10 minutes per prompt, trying to really embody my teen self. The first exercise might feel like adult me remembering the past, but the more I write about those years, the more my teen voice becomes discernable.

If you don’t have the book (or you’re struggling finding some prompts online), here are some good and useful ones:
  • I remember and/or I don’t remember
  • Where is home?
  • The first time you fell in love
  • First kiss
  • First heartbreak
  • Who was your best friend?
  • Your best and/or worst teacher in high school
  • A moment you thought you were beautiful
  • A moment you thought you were ugly
  • A moment you were in trouble in class
  • Write about a time you lied
  • Write about your biggest mistake in high school
  • Write about a relative during your teen years

The idea is to let your brain focus on a memory specifically during the teen years that fits the prompt and to write for at least ten continuous minutes without worrying about spelling, grammar, cohesiveness, etc. Just write the memory down, trying to be as detailed as you can in the voice you remember.

That wasn’t so painful--er hard, was it?

I also look at old journals
When I was a kid and all through my adolescent years, I was an avid journaler. I wrote everything down in general spiral notebooks, and when I ran out of space in one, I’d move on to another. I’m lucky I still have those spiral notebooks with my scribbles, secrets, and poems, and if I’m particularly stuck, I revisit those memories.  

I might also revisit old photo albums or yearbooks, triggering memories of my high school years.

I observe and record
Tapping into my memories is great, but it’s been (!&^*%$&#%@*^#%@) years since I was a teen.

While experiences and themes can be universal and span generations, if I’m writing about teens today, I need to be familiar with teens today. If you’re a teacher or a librarian, or if you work with teens in any capacity, then you have a golden opportunity to observe and record things teens might do or say and what technology they might use (though not actual names and specifics because laws!). You can get a sense of what rings true with today’s teen that might be different from when you were that age, or on the flip side, what holds universally true. You’ll get phrases and slang and attitudes that might escape you. And in doing so, you embrace the teen voice.

Even if you don’t work with teens, there are plenty of places you can go to observe and record. Head to the mall or the park or the movie theater or anywhere in your town/city where teens meet regularly.

Another place you might be able to observe teens (albeit in written form) is online. Social media sites like Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and Snapchat are great. Public online forums also work, especially if you’re looking for testimonies of teens going through specific experiences, like illnesses.

Finally, I read a lot and watch movies
As Stephen King has said, “If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write.” This is just as important to your craft as it is to your genre and age category. Read YA. Lots and lots of YA. Don’t just stick to the classics; read newly released YA and read a variety of it. If you have teens within your circle of family and friends (or within your workplace), ask them what books they’ve read recently they loved—and then go study those.

Similarly, watch movies or TV shoes that feature teen characters and read magazines tailored specifically toward teens. Study these. Compare and contrast them to the novels you’ve read and the teens you’ve observed or know.

The thing to keep in mind is that there is no one right way to tap into your teen voice and most often, I do all of the above until I feel the voice coming to me easily. I might start with remembering and journaling, but I’ll also read and observe the teens around me. I’ll also talk with teens in my life and I’ve found that they are almost always happy to answer my questions. They want us to get it right!

Happy writing!

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