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 What’s cutting edge one day is outdated the next.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?