Friday, January 15, 2010

Do teens still say/do/wear....

I frequent a couple of writing boards, and consistently hear a question like:

Do teenagers still say, "That's RAD!"? or whatever. It can be anything from slang, to ways of classifying relationships, to just general terms of excitement. (Note: Teenagers do not say That's the Bee's Knees, Homey! I'm just saying.) Each time I read one of these posts, I'm not sure how to respond.

First, I'm a youth pastor by day (fabulous ninja by night... and writer.) So I'm around teenagers every day of the week. I hear everything they say (unfortunately) and most of the time, they don't use particular slang. I feel like I can enter into these discussions on the boards and give some fairly accurate information - even more so than parents, because I see and meet these kids in an entirely different place.

However, part of me wants to scream every time I see something like this. Why? Because it. doesn't. matter.

No. Really. It doesn't matter if a kid says they're going out or dating. Because I think everybody knows what it means. It especially doesn't matter if you're trying to tap into what's cool right now, because by the time your book comes out it's going to be completely irrelevant.

I don't want to sound like some crotchety old man here, but I think it's important. As the author, you're supposed to create a 'culture' for your book. What do teenagers say in your world? Even if it's contemporary, you still have free reign to decide the speech patterns in your story. And, in my opinion, this makes for a better and more nuanced narrative. I look at M.T. Anderson's FEED as an example of a writer/book that does this perfectly.

Not doing this, I believe, sterilizes your writing. It strips everything out of your voice as you're trying to latch on to the cool words, or the most current phrases. Of course, you shouldn't have some teenager speaking in Old English all, Thou hast forsaken me, thou shalt be smited!

But, then again, how funny would it be to have a contemporary teen who decides to speak only in Old English?



  1. That would be hilarious, if not difficult to follow, but I definitely agree about, "it. doesn't. matter."

    The vernacular an author chooses should be part of the character profiling stage. It's not important that a YA novel taking place in 1950 includes the word swell on every page, but it can enhance the book if it is done in a humorous way.

    My current WIP has a flamboyantly gay boy, named Moxie, as a secondary character. He is overly trendy and ahead of the times, but uses words like tubular and fantastic, because he likes the way they sound (I do too, see one of my recent posts for a fun exercise).

    In The Maze Runner, by James Dashner, he creates slang that developed within a well-controlled experiment and he explains the practical, if not funny, reasons for these new words. You're not stuck trying to figure out why these unfamiliar words are thrown into the book, but instead, you start to feel like a Glader yourself.

    Another author that cleverly uses 'slang' words, without making them too cheesy, is Trenton Lee Stewart, who wrote The Mysterious Benedict Society. He uses words as part of his character's personality, and while this can often be a precarious thing to do, he is somewhat of an artist at it.

  2. When I was at a conference, Linda Urban (author of A Crooked Kind of Perfect) said that you don't need to know how kids speak today--you just need to know how YOUR character speaks. Simple, but very helpful.

    My daughter (four yrs old) speaks like a teenager now ("Mom--that's TOTALLY true!") and I imagine, she'll speak completely different when she actually is a teen. Just sayin'

  3. Party on, Wayne.

    That's still cool, right?

  4. Um, I think the only person I've heard say "rad" in the last four years was that Kat chick on L.A. Ink.

  5. You haven't been in my sister's presence.

    Actually now that I think of it, my sisters and I all have our own word.

    Kerra - Rad
    Marie - Fabulous
    Me - Superfly
    Michelle - No way!

    We each call each other out on the lameness and out-of-dateness, but fail to remember our own word is dumb.

    We have a lot of fun with each other!

  6. I've been told to update the voice and dialogue in my novel. How can that be done without using
    lingo from today that will sound strange in a
    few years?

  7. I don't think you need lingo, per se. Just have them talk normally...well, as normal as a teenager usually speaks. I'd say avoiding words like 'dude' and 'groovy'. Or maybe 'phat' or 'sick' (as in, "That's sick, dogg!")