Ask any agent and they’ll tell you the trick to nailing young adult writing is in the voice. And even though I spend my workdays with teens, I heard it countless times when I was looking for representation for my failed first YA novel. So, when I finally buried that novel for good and moved on to what became Don't Get Caught, I was determined to make sure the voice was right.
It took more than eight drafts and constant revisions, but ultimately, I signed with an agent who sold the book in a little over a month. The trick, I’ve found, is first to get yourself back to thinking like a teenager again, and once there, writing your novel as a teenager would. Here are 10 practical tips on how to do just that.
How to Write for Teens Without Sounding Like an Adult Writing for Teens
For getting into the right frame of mind:
1. Time travel.
To sound like a teenager, you need to become a teenager again. Here’s what I want you to do: Spend a week or longer solely writing out your teenage memories. Start it as a list at first—naming friends, enemies, teachers, adventures you had, successes and screw-ups, choices you had to make, etc. Next, choose the memories that stand out the most to you, and write about them. The important part here is to focus on how you felt during these experiences. This is definitely a dam-opening type of exercise of memories and feelings.
2. Relive the terror of your yearbook.
Yearbooks are essentially monsters collecting dust in your closet. Open one up and you can’t escape seeing people who didn’t want to see ever again, reliving moments it took a team of therapists for you to forget, and being filled with all of the confusing emotions high school fills you with. But it’s also a great way to get in touch with those emotions, which is essential to writing authentic voice.
3. Listen to the music.
I got this trick from fellow YA author Josh Berk who once told me when he needs to return to thinking like a teenager, all he has to listen to is Green Day’s “Dookie.” For me, I use my youthful obsession with R.E.M. To this day, I can’t hear any of their songs without being transported back to my high school bedroom or cruising around in my beater of a car. Other bands also transport me to other times in my life. It’s an odd trick, but it works. If you listened to anything obsessively in high school, or if there’s a movie you watched endlessly, revisit them and see what place they take you to. Write down the feelings you get from them.
4. Contact your old high school friends.
This is a simple one: Get in touch with old friends and you’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll revert back to sounding like you’re a teenager again. Failing that, eavesdrop shamelessly on teenagers. It’s not hard—they’re not usually the quietest bunch! Plant yourself at the places they hang out—the mall, coffee shops, school sporting events, etc.
5. YouTube it.
Teenagers broadcast their lives these days to the nth degree. Take advantage of that. YouTube is full of videos of teens talking, giving advice, and just being plain. Tuning in is a great way to pick up the flow of their language. Search: “Teen YouTube Stars” to get started.
For getting the voice on the page:
6. Find a picture and make it talk.
Once I have a clear image of my character, I have a good idea of how that character sounds. Do this: Image search high school photography studios. Search the results until you find your character—you’ll know him when you see him. Now, what does he sound like? Copy and paste the picture onto your document and have this person introduce himself to you. This likely won’t be the finished voice of your novel, but it’ll let you get started.
7. Write for plot first.
More so with YA writing than with other genres, I suggest writing the complete story out first, then worrying about revising the voice later. This is so you can focus on one thing at a time, instead of plotting and getting the voice right at the same time. Try to write it in a voice close to what you want, but focus on getting the story down first with no pressure of getting the voice right.
8. Loosen up.
Something about being an adult just tightens you up. To write YA with authentic voice, you need to loosen up. With Don’t Get Caught, when I knew I had the story I wanted, I revised (and revised and revised) with a relaxed, devil-may-care attitude—one that eventually helped me find my MC’s real voice. Do this: Take a paragraph you’ve written and are unhappy with voice-wise. Now, stand up, walk around the room maybe while chewing a piece of gum (always good for loosening up!), and type the idea of that paragraph again, but faster and looser, telling yourself no one will ever see it but you. When you’re finished, do it again, maybe after some jumping jacks this time, or blasting a pop radio station. (Really. Try it.)
When you’re doing your voice revision(s), it’s the asides, apparently meaningless observations, and throwaway conversations that will help you hear your characters. Teenagers have opinions on everything, so put them into your draft. Don’t worry about word count at this point; that’s for later. You can trim back an overwritten passage much more easily than you can add voice to a sparse one.
10. Shorten It Up.
OK, so your novel-in-progress is now full of lots of teen thoughts in just the voice you’ve been looking for. It’s time to cut it way back. Because here’s the thing—teenagers don’t speak in long, drawn-out monologues (hint: Don’t use “Dawson’s Creek” as an example). They generally don’t describe things that way either. Their vocabulary is common and accessible. Before you send out the book to your critique partners, cut way back on the paragraphs, descriptions, dialogue, and change any adult verbiage to more common language.