Sunday, January 6, 2013

Revising Your Teenage Voice: Lauren Morrill

It's A Delicate Balance...

...between how teenagers really talk and how interesting your writing is going to be. You have to walk the line, and it's not something you're likely to get on your first draft. The biggest piece of revising into that perfect balance is to recognize where the lines are. So first of all...

Don't Have Dawson-itis  

I remember when Dawson's Creek first hit the airwaves, and all the reviews remarked on the unique way the characters spoke, as if in between chemistry and study hall, they're brokering peace treaties for the U.N. It was cute and interesting... for a minute... but even for that minute there was never any idea that teenagers actually talk like that. Because they don't. In fact, no one talks like that. And nothing will make your writing more put-downable than overly articulate, overly introspective teenagers. 

Avoid a Case of the OMG SHOES  

It's possible, though, to go too far the other way. Every time I read a book with too many "likes" and "OMGs" all I can think about is Kelly from the (sorta nsfw) YouTube video OMG Shoes. When people talk (and not just teens are guilty of it), there are a whole lot of "likes" and "ums," along with overuse of "so," "just," "really," and "very." I'm guilty of it for sure, I bet you are as well, and in your quest to be realistic, you may be tempted to use them liberally. Don't. Overuse in an effort to develop a voice will trip up your reader, take them out of the story, and possibly give them an OMG SHOES impression of your character that you don't want to be there. If you use those typical dialogue tics sparingly, your reader will get your character's voice in their head enough that they'll start assuming those every time they hear that character speak.

Be Nosey   

This one is probably the oldest advice on the planet, but I'm going to repeat it here because it works. When I lived in Boston, I loved listening in on conversations at local coffee shops and diners. You'll get a sense not just of what people say, but the way they say it. But your character's voice doesn't just come from their words. It comes from the way they express themselves. This includes tics, body movements, and facial expressions. What does your character do with her hands while she's talking? Does she tap her foot? Play with her fork? Is she scrolling through her phone mid-sentence? Gazing out the window? Looking her companion dead in the eye? All of these things matter, and they all paint a picture of a certain kind person. So when you're at your local Starbucks, don't just listen in. Watch a little (not too much, you don't want to freak people out!). Make notes of some of the physical characteristics you see, and if they fit your character, start working them in.

Read The Masters

As soon as I saw the title for this post, all I could think about was Megan McCafferty's Jessica Darling series. Jessica's voice leaps off the page from the very start of Sloppy Firsts. 

That series also gives us another great point of reference in the way Jessica grows over the course of five books. Comparing the voice of Sloppy Firsts, when she's 16, to the voice in Perfect Fifths, when Jessica is 25, gives us an excellent picture of the way voices can mature. For example:

“Right now I feel guilty to be alive. Why? Because I’m wasting it. I’ve been given this life and all I do is mope it away.
What’s worse is, I am totally aware of how ridiculous I am. It would be a lot easier if I believed I was the center of the universe, because then I wouldn’t know any better NOT to make a big deal out of everything. I know how small my problems are, yet that doesn’t stop me from obsessing about them.
I have to stop doing this.
How do other people get happy? I look at people laughing and smiling and enjoying themselves and try to get inside their heads. How do Bridget, Manda, and Sara do it? Or Pepe? Or EVERYONE but me?
Why does everything I see bother me? Why can’t I just get over these daily wrongdoings? Why can’t I just move on and make the best of what I’ve got?
I wish I knew.”

“The stories teach them valuable life lessons. That good things happen to bad people. That it’s possible to make a bad situation even worse if you don’t think it through. That parents are clueless except when they’re not. That it’s good to try new things even when a new thing is kind of disgusting, because new experiences make you a well-rounded person. That art can be transcendent. That lust is all-powerful, that drugs are fun, and that not everyone who does them is a loser. That losing people is part of life. That where comedy goes, tragedy isn’t far behind. That everyone has issues with their bodies, but some take it too far, almost to death. That fear can be exhilarating. That boys are assholes. That it’s important to look forward and never look back…”

In the first passage? Lots of questions. Lots of emphasis. Lots of feeling like you're at the end of your rope, like you're going to pinch a fit maybe, but possibly not because you might be too old for it. Lots of thinking externally as a way to thinking internally. And the second? It's someone with a bit more knowledge. Someone with perspective. Someone who feels a bit more comfortable with like, someone who feels like they might know a little bit about what it's all about.

Read Out Loud

My last tip is another one that a lot of people share, but again, I'm going to repeat it here because it's uber-helpful. I read all my writing out loud to see if it flows off the tongue the same way it rolls through my brain. This is especially important for dialogue. If it sounds strange coming out of your mouth, it probably sounds strange coming out of your main character's mouth, too. 

LAUREN MORRILL grew up in Maryville, Tennessee, where she was a short-term Girl Scout, a (not so) proud member of the marching band, and a trouble-making editor for the school newspaper. She graduated from Indiana University with a major in history and a minor in rock & roll, and now lives in Macon, GA with her husband and their dog, Lucy. When she's not writing, she spends a lot of hours getting knocked around playing roller derby. MEANT TO BE is her first novel.

Meant to be or not meant to be . . . that is the question.

It's one thing to fall head over heels into a puddle of hazelnut coffee, and quite another to fall for the—gasp—wrong guy. Straight-A junior Julia may be accident prone, but she's queen of following rules and being prepared. That's why she keeps a pencil sharpener in her purse and a pocket Shakespeare in her, well, pocket. And that's also why she's chosen Mark Bixford, her childhood crush, as her MTB ("meant to be").

But this spring break, Julia's rules are about to get defenestrated (SAT word: to be thrown from a window) when she's partnered with her personal nemesis, class-clown Jason, on a school trip to London. After one wild party, Julia starts receiving romantic texts . . . from an unknown number! Jason promises to help discover the identity of her mysterious new suitor if she agrees to break a few rules along the way. And thus begins a wild goose chase through London, leading Julia closer and closer to the biggest surprise of all: true love. Because sometimes the things you least expect are the most meant to be.

Find MEANT TO BE in the following stores!



Katrina L. Lantz said...

LOL-ed at 'Dawson-itis.' We do love making kids sound like adults: Little Rascals, 10 Things I Hate About You.

Point taken, though. And I love the reading aloud idea. That has definitely saved me from a few awkwardly phrased sentences.

Thanks for coming to NYRC! I'll be referring back to this post often, I'm sure!

Theresa Milstein said...

I cringe when a book sounds too in the moment. That gets dated as quickly as using musical references Great examples. Thank you.

Angelica R. Jackson said...

I had to laugh at your OMG example: I had a much-older writer friend write a short story with exactly that problem, but I wasn't able to completely articulate why it wasn't working. The argument was that "this is exactly how I hear my grandkids talk!"

Well, it might be, but that doesn't mean anyone wants to read pages of it.

Unknown said...

I grew up on the Dawson generation, and I only wish we all talked like that! Great points about capturing the teen voice.