Young Adult is a genre rich with innovation, and by reading and reflecting on recently published Young Adult titles, we can learn a lot about good writing of any genre.
Over the next two weeks, I’m going to be sharing some approaches to writing Young Adult Fiction, especially Young Adult Contemporary. To go along with the Genre Map metaphor, I’m calling these suggestions “guideposts.” They aren’t rules. Instead, I’m imagining myself coming upon various crossroads in my Young Adult writing, and needing to make choices about the path I want to take through this area of the Genre Map. The guideposts are there to—you guessed it—guide those choices, with the ultimate goal of writing my best Young Adult Contemporary book.
Here’s the first:
Young Adult Contemporary Guidepost #1: How contemporary is contemporary?
Get Hip to the Times
You’ll notice that some Young Adult books try hard to “fit in” with their audience. They name-check celebrities, use of-the-moment brand names, and all the latest “lingo” in hopes of appealing to ultrahip teens. I learned my lesson about this the hard way: The most glamorous character in my own contemporary YA book toted a BlackBerry with her everywhere. By the time the book hit shelves, the iPhone had just been released, and “anyone who was anyone” carried that instead of a BlackBerry (or so I’m told—I still don’t have an iPhone). So that small detail aged the book to “not quite contemporary.”
I’ve noticed that some writers avoid this problem by avoiding those super-specific cultural markers. They simply say “phone” instead of “BlackBerry” or “iPhone.” When the books reference a band in a Contemporary YA book, they make up the band and the names of the songs (this is what John Green does in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, for example).
The Nostalgia Effect
Another strategy is that you can write the story in a very, very distinct time and place: In THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER*,Stephen Chbosky makes it clear from the first page that the novel is happening during the 1991-1992 school year. That means his references to the Smiths make sense, because to be a teen listening to the Smiths in 1991 tells us something about these characters that is important to understanding who they are and how they see themselves. The references to the Smiths take us to a particular point in the American cultural history. It’s okay to take your reader to 2013, of course, and have your book be a document of all that was cool right at this moment in time, but keep in mind that your young readers might not read your book until 2014, 2015, or 2016. And to try to encompass all that is “cool” right now might just make it feel like the book is trying too hard—something teen readers can smell a mile away. It’s sometimes a better strategy to set a book even just a few years earlier than the writer’s present so that the distance between “then” and the reader’s “now” will feel intentional, and kind of vintage and hip.
Many Young Adult Contemporary novels have a certain timelessness to them, and this always feels like an elegant strategy to me. Maggie Stiefvater’s SHIVER, for example, evokes so beautifully a contemporary high school in remote Northern Minnesota. Physical description is one of this author’s greatest strengths: the landscape, the woods, the way things look, smell, and feel. You know that it’s set in modern times (there are cell phones, cars, etc.), but almost no material signifiers. Stiefvater’s strategy here really helps to reinforce the haunting, timeless paranormal romance that she develops in SHIVER.
Similarly, in YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS by Meg Medina, Piddy, the main character, is being randomly bullied by a hard-edged girl from a very specific neighborhood in Queens, NY. We can see Yaqui so clearly: her hair, her eyebrows, and her clothes. But we don’t hear about the music she listens to or the brand of her sneaker. By avoiding a lot of pop culture references, Yaqui will never lose her frightening qualities as a character, even if you read about her in ten years, when tough, street-smart girls like Yaqui are listening to completely different music and wearing a completely different look. This strategy helps Medina keep Yaqui from becoming a caricature, and instead she becomes representative of something even more universal.
How are you dealing with issues of “Contemporary-ness” in your writing? What do you prefer when you read? Head over to the Book Country discussion boards to weigh in on the topic.
*THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is also our inaugural #BCReadalong from August 18-31, 2013. Go here to find out more and join the discussion!