March 27, 2013

Writing Club Wednesday: Keeping the "Contemporary" in YA Contemporary Novels

If you’re a writer of contemporary YA novels, it’s your goal (and mine) to make your manuscripts feel as relevant and “now” as possible. We don’t want people to read one of our stories and think, wow, whoever wrote this obviously hasn’t been a teenager in a looooong time (*cough* Bella’s non-digital camera in the Twilight books *cough*)

Of course, it’s difficult – more like impossible – to make sure a contemporary novel *feels* contemporary to everyone, especially future generations of readers. Things like social networks, technology, and lingo are constantly changing. What’s cutting edge one day is outdated the next. But I’ve found that keeping a few key things in mind when writing contemporary might help your novel stay relevant longer:

-         Avoid Too-Recent or Too-Specific Pop Culture References

It’s super tempting to reference the things we can’t imagine our lives without right at this minute, like Twitter or Facebook.

But my advice? Don’t do it. Or make up a fake site if you have to.

If my characters are on the internet, I always generically reference them being “online” or checking e-mail, and even saying that much may make my book feel ancient by next year.

To cite specific examples, does everyone remember AOL and MySpace?



Both of these things were all the rage when I was in high school and college, but I can barely think of anyone who’s still using them today. Facebook and Twitter have taken over, but I’m willing to bet their reign can’t last forever. If you read a book today with an AOL reference (and a dial-up connection at that) it would pull you right out of the contemporary feel of the novel, even if everything else about the story felt universal.

The same applies to mention of flash-in-the-pan movies or celebrities. You’re better off mentioning something that’s a classic, because it’s already stood the test of time.

After all, how much longer will people really be “Twihards?” (I don’t mean to pick on Twilight, but it’s a good reference point for this post.) Who could've predicted Robert Downey Junior's stellar comeback when he was in the grip of drug addiction? And who would’ve known that Brad Pitt would morph into a scruffy hippie when he used to be so smokin’ hot? But morph he did, and the same thing could happen to Robert Pattinson next week, if he’s even still on people’s radar at that point. So having a character love, hate, or make an inside joke about a "celeb du jour" could easily backfire.

-         Give Your Characters Less Common Names

Since names trend just like anything else, this is another area where it's good to be careful. Personally, I don’t want to give my characters names that are “out there,” (please don’t call your mc Humidity if you’d never give that name to a human being in real life. If you would… alrighty then.) but I also don’t want them to be run-of-the-mill.

Growing up, I was surrounded by Jennifers and Melissas and Amys. If I gave these names to one of my characters, I feel like I’d be screaming, “I was born in the eighties!” All three names are lovely, but they’re also very familiar, and the last thing you want is for your characters to blend into the woodwork.

I’m not saying you have to get crazy – just get a little creative. And BTW, I can’t think of *any* YA novels with a mc named Gina. Just sayin’.

-         Talk to Actual Teenagers, Assuming You Aren’t One

Even though we’re all still seventeen in our heads, the reality is that most of us have left those days behind. In a world of full-time jobs, spouses, children, and maintaining homes, it’s easy to lose sight of evolution and write teenagers the way you remember them as opposed to the way they actually are. For me, this is where it comes in super handy to have a sister who is a high school teacher.

Not sure if “awesomesauce” is so yesterday? Ask.

Wondering if that declaration of undying love your mc just uttered makes him or her sound prehistoric? Ask.

After all, if a teenager can’t identify with a YA novel, we haven’t done our job as YA writers. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the details, but having a story readers can relate to and fall in love with - and stay in love with - is the most important thing of all.

Do you have any rules about referencing pop culture when you write? Have you ever encountered any that pulled you out of a story?


Jaye Robin Brown said...

I think it's easy to want to get caught up with current teen lingo - when I think what's more important is the rhythm of the dialogue. Rapid fire, incomplete phrases, words trailing off - quick banter - sure sprinkle a few in, but contemps loaded down with lingo are as awkward as those loaded down with cultural references. Although, I will say when I read phrases like "his U-Me page" it will throw me out of the story even further than saying Facebook.

And, wait a minute, what's wrong with hippie Brad Pitt?

Nicole River said...

For the last point-- this is why I love writing teens who are counter-culture. It's not as hard to stay current. Today's goths still love their Anne Rice, old horror movies and eighties alternative music. In addition to other, newer stuff of course, but the pop culture references still work.
(Hence "Lullaby" by The Cure in Ch 1 of my WIP:)))

Gina said...

Jaye Robin - I just meant that Brad has had a gazillion looks and talking about him as if he's still the guy in Thelma & Louise or Legend of the Falls will easily date the book. Though I confess - those are the looks I'm partial to for Mr. Pitt!! I also fully agree that it's more important to capture the essence of a teenager than anything else.

Nicole - good point. I just wrote a novel that references a couple of 80's songs, but I did it in a way that the mc acknowledges that they're older. Some things just have staying power ;)

rlynn-solomon said...

Love this post. I read a fantastic book that came out only a few years ago, and a reference to AOL totally took me out of it for a second. I always prefer the vague, just like you -- online, checking email, etc.

Sometimes I try to come up with my own slang. And definitely when I reference "old" music or other aspects of pop culture, I make sure the character is acknowledging that it's old...even if it kills me a little bit! I did laugh when I read a book that came out this year that reference "that really old band the Pixies."

Philip Siegel said...

I had written a post about this a while back, and like you, I try to be as vague as possible w/ online mentions. Except for Facebook. I feel like that site is big enough that it will be around for a while, even if its appeal to teens is waning. They made an Oscar-winning movie about it.

Also, my pet peeve in contemporary books is when characters don't have cell phones. I've even read recent books where teens use pay phones. No! This is 2013. 99% of teens have cell phones. I know being reachable at all times may ruin a plot twist, but find a way around it.

Maggie Hall said...

Damn. There goes my WIP where love interests Jennifer and Humidity tweet each other on their iPhones while in line for Twilight...THANKS A LOT, GINA.


tawney13 said...

This was great blog! Mine and my sister's WIP is our first YA contemporary. These pointers will help out very much. I just have to ask my teenage cousin to see if something sounds ridiculous. I watch teen shows and movies just to get some advice. Thanks Gina! This will help immensely.

Dahlia Adler said...

Yessss I have totally made these mistakes in manuscripts of mine and then finally I read a book last year that was SO reliant on MySpace (which was NEVER big in my social circle, ever) that it cured me of ever wanting to reference things like social media in my books. I do my best to either invent my own or just reference them really, really vaguely.

This week I've been revising a manuscript of mine I wrote in the mid-2000s and was dying at some of my pop culture references. Let me tell you, Paris Hilton does NOT stand the test of time. I will definitely be making that change!

Anonymous said...

I had a tough time reading contemporary novels as a kid for this very reason: I was living way outside of my age-group's popular culture, and had no idea what these characters were talking about, as often as not. Not fun. It made me so wary, my writing won't even reference McDonald's (and if *that's* not here to stay, what in the world is?). I figure, hey, we're authors; we can come up with a fake name for a burger joint, right?

@Maggie Hall's comment: I am laughing too darn hard...

Carrie-Anne said...

I've read so many once-contemporary books that now feel hopelessly dated, like books that were written about people in, say, the Seventies or Eighties instead of being a story for all time. I expect references to pop culture, news stories, and such if I'm reading a contemporary (1960s-1980s) or late contemporary (1990s onwards) historical, but if the book is intended as pure contemporary, too many references to modern life tend to annoy me.

However, it saddens me when I reread a book I loved as a kid and find period references replaced with modern things, or hear that's been done to a book I loved. If a modern child, preteen, or teen genuinely doesn't know what a VCR or cassette tape is, or has never heard of a certain show, s/he can always look it up or ask someone. There's no reason to pretend a book written in the Seventies or Eighties was written in the 21st century. I really hate this trend of "updating" older books.

I totally agree about using less-common names. One of the worst pieces of writing advice I ever saw was to give your characters names in the Top 50, or names used by your friends for their children. That's a surefire way to quickly date a book, and to make the characters indistinct. I also hate predating of naming trends. Yeah, like I'm going to believe a modern teen's mother is named Madison or that a college-aged boy is named Kayden! Eyeroll.

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