Writing a novel for young readers can feel like a juggling act. But even if you manage to keep the balls of plot, character, pace and setting in the air, your hard work will be undermined unless you learn to sweat the details.
The little things–the slang your characters use, the clothes they wear, the items they abandon on the bathroom floor–must be chosen with knowledge and care. If they aren’t, you risk getting a guffaw when a groan is what you’re after.
Of course telling details are important to all fiction. Think of the way Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot primps his “magnificent moustache” or how Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat craves rock ‘n roll. These peculiarities make the characters who possess them as real as the eccentric woman who lives next door. Details chosen with care whisper secrets about a character, inform on her weaknesses, herald her strengths.
Unfortunately, picking revealing details for juvenile fiction can be a challenging task. As an adult, you’re writing for and about kids as an outsider. Creating a character who’s a different age than you are is similar to creating one of a different sex or race: One sour detail and you’ve blown your cover.
Detailing in Three Steps
Let’s start with a few assumptions. The first is that your story takes place in the present. Most mass-market juvenile fiction published today isn’t set in a specific year because it strives to be timeless.
We’ll also assume you’ve finished the first draft of your story and it works well. Only one small problem still bothers you: While your character’s character is cool, her clothes, speech, even the posters on her wall scream “loser!” Or, conversely, you’re trying to convey geekiness, but you’re afraid the details you’ve chosen might have a perverse kind of charm.
But take heart: No matter how out of touch you think you might be, you can give your kid character a successful makeover. All you have to do is take these three steps: research, generalize and analyze.
Margaret Mead at the Mall
The best way to research what kids and teenagers are saying, wearing and munching on is to spend time with some real-life specimens.
Successful writers make time to answer fan letters, sign books and visit schools because it helps them stay in touch with their audiences. Francine Pascal, who created the Sweet Valley series, says: “When I speak at schools or sign autographs, I learn more about the kids from the questions they ask than they learn about me.”
Even if nobody is sending you fan mail or asking for your autograph yet, you can still set up a visit to a classroom. Usually all that’s necessary is a call to the principal’s office to ask permission. The teacher whose class you visit may ask you to talk to the students about your writing. Accept. You’ll learn a lot from the give-and-take. (Besides, being put on display as a “real writer” will give your ego a boost!
A great way to develop a more significant relationship with a group of children is through volunteering. One writer I know donates her time to the Girl Scouts and says the troop is the primary source of her story ideas.
You can find the number of your local Girl and Boy Scout councils in the White Pages. Today’s Scouts perform such service activities as visiting the elderly and promoting healthy lifestyles–activities that will offer you an up-close view as the kids interact and learn.
There are many other organizations, of course, that can offer you this opportunity. Contact your local chamber of commerce; staff members will steer you toward appropriate groups.
You should also subscribe to one or more teen magazines. Sassy, YM and Seventeen all arrive at my door once a month. (Remember, magazine subscriptions are tax deductible for working writers.
One note of caution: Teen magazines are produced by grown-ups who live in major urban areas. They may or may not accurately reflect the nation’s teenagers, so read with a skeptical eye. And make sure you don’t skip the letters to the editor. These are written by real teenagers who often criticize the magazine’s editorial content and give advice on what’s really hip.
You can also speak to and learn from teens online. Many young adults belong to CompuServe, America Online and other online services. Many conference rooms are set aside just for teens. Consider lurking (cyberspeak for “eavesdropping”) there. However, be aware that nobody cheeks Ids at the door. It’s possible that the “14/M” (14-year-old male) you find so intelligent is really a 37-year-old with a PhD in child psychology. Unlikely, but possible.
Finally, observe kids and teenagers wherever you see them: at the mall, in restaurants, at the gym and the movies. If you don’t want to go through life scribbling in a notebook, mentally jot down a description of people you notice. You’ll remember more about them later.
Living by the Bell-Bottom Rule
Let’s say you’ve visited a school, subscribed to Sassy, and spent hours online. All of your homework is complete. You’re now at a dangerous crossroads. You want to show off your new knowledge, so you plan to pepper your book with mentions of Tori Spelling, The X-Files and Doc Marten boots.
Don’t. Teen trends and kid fashions have the shelf life of milk. If you succumb to temptation and flaunt your knowledge, all you will succeed in doing is dating your work.
The bell-bottom rule is this: One year’s coolest trend is next year’s nerdiest affliction.
Don’t fret that all your research time is wasted time. You’re still going to use what you’ve learned. But, first, you must employ the second step of our three-step program: Generalize.
Say you noticed that stone-washed blue jeans were cool a few months ago. But now the magazines are showing everyone in black jeans. Once you’ve generalized, it’s all the same: Kids are wearing jeans. Simply have your character throw on a pair, and let your readers supply their own adjectives according to current fashion.
Let’s try it. The following paragraph contains several details that will quickly become dated. Your job is to generalize them.
Sue put her Grand Cherokee in park and jumped out. As soon as her platform Converse hit the ground, she was running. She couldn’t wait to get in the house, flip on her Macintosh and dial up Prodigy.
Your version should look something like this:
Sue put her four-wheel-drive vehicle in park and jumped out. As soon as her fect hit the ground, she was running. She couldn’t wait to get inside, flip on her computer and get online.
In dialogue, generalizing means avoiding a word if its meaning will be unclear to someone who isn’t aware of its current vogue. Gnarly haircut will look strange a decade from now, but excellent haircut will still read well. If you feel it’s important for your characters to have their own slang, create it.
Nor should you use the real names of movie, television or rock stars. They disappear (or disgrace themselves) faster than you can save the words on your word processor.