Pub Rants

Generic YA First POV

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STATUS: Today was a non-day for work. My tech person came to boot up the new network so I pretty much had no access to the computer for most of the day. In good news, I did stand in line for an hour to early vote (and good news for the voting part—not the standing in line part). Don’t forget to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2006.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? HEY JEALOUSY by Gin Blossoms

I’ve been noticing something in the Teen Chick Lit submissions I’ve been receiving so I’m finally going to talk about it. It’s tough though because taste can be so subjective and what one agent dislikes, another agent loves.

Same with editors for that matter.

But I think there have been enough examples of late to merit a blog entry and this pretty much applies to what I call Teen Chick Lit, which, as many of you know, is mainly done in a young girl’s first person point-of-view.

Now don’t worry. I don’t think there is anything wrong with first pov; I like it just fine. What’s bothering me is what I’m calling a rash of generic first person narratives (despite good hooks or an original story line). The main narrator ends up sounding just like the main narrators of the 30 plus Teen Chick Lits I’ve read in the last 3 months. There’s no differentiating.

Now the tricky part. What’s generic for me? A couple of things.

1. A Valley-girlish type narrative voice

This is for lack of a better description. I don’t mean strict Valley Girl like, oh my gosh, from the 80s. I know YA writers are trying to capture that teen speak, slang, and quick dialogue so true to life. But what I’m seeing is this narrative voice and the absence of crucial things like character development. A narrator’s voice should be instrumental to showing character depth and complexity. Lately, it seems to be missing. Not to mention, not all teens speak that way. Surely we can have some variety. I have two teenage nieces and they don’t talk in this same rhythm that I seem to be seeing over and over in sample pages I’ve been reading.

2. A dialogue-heavy scenes

This in itself is not necessarily bad. Most YA novels tend to be pretty dialogue-oriented. It picks up the pace etc. I have a problem with it when scenes are dialogue-heavy to the exclusion of everything else, like setting the scene. I’m seeing this often.

3. Misconception that a good hook can carry average writing

Yes, a good hook in Teen chick lit goes a long way but I have to say that I’m an even harder judge when reading YA. I really want the writing to be top-notch, literary commercial, can hold up even on an adult level but has the right pace for YA.

It’s one of the reasons why I had not taken on a YA-only writer until just last week. I’m looking for something that can really hold its own in the market. It’s not generic in any way.

Whatever that means, right?


21 Responses

  1. Kimber An said:

    Oh, yes, this can be so tough, especially if your story is set a couple of centuries in the future, like mine, and you have to invent slang. My advice is to experiment and then run it by real teenagers. I have three wonderful Crunchy Critters over at Critique Circle who never hesitate to set me straight. But, it’s definitely something a writer has to work on. I’ve found the most important factor is that the writer has to genuinely like and enjoy being with teens to begin with.

  2. laurie_ saloman said:

    Kristin, have you seen many queries for YA that aren’t in first person? I wrestled with whether to write my YA novel in first or third person but decided to be “different” and go with third. Do you think it can help or hurt the story in any way?

  3. Shesawriter said:


    Sorry about the above deletion. Had to make the other comment go *poof* because I spelled your name wrong. My cousin’s name is spelled “Kristen,” so I’m really used to spelling it that way. 🙁 I was typing so fast I didn’t check.

    Anyway, thank you for posting this. I am struggling with writing my first YA with a 21 year old male protagonist–first person. Being a female, it’s a huge challenge for me.

    I’ve been reading books like mad to try and get the feel of the genre, and I started noticing the same thing you mentioned. Somebody even mentioned the Valley Girl (same exact name) phenom on my blog a couple weeks ago during one of our discussions.

    Anyway, I noticed in many of the books that the narrators were beginning to sound the same. I thought it was just me. Guess not.

    Now I’m listening to my teens and their friends talk. I mean, really listening for the subtle nuances and stuff. Thanks for sharing your insight.

  4. Kimber An said:

    I’m not Kristin, but I’ll chime in. I think it really depends on your story. Experiment, have critique partners read it and give their opinion, and try reading it out loud.

  5. katiesandwich said:

    YA writers, I might have just the thing for you. Recently, I’ve started going to a nearby McDonalds to do my writing one or two nights a week. (Because the sound of deep fryers beeping and grease bubbling is more inducive to creativity than my children screaming for me to pay attention to them!) The only seat near an electrical outlet happens to be right near the counter. And after you become a regular at a place like that, people start to talk around you without censoring themselves. I’m telling you, this is the best way to learn how to write teen dialogue! And it’s so much fun. I love teenagers. I know lots of people think they’re just a bunch of punk kids, but they are such interesting people, and they say some amazing things. Plus, sitting there eavesdropping on their conversations really brings back memories.

  6. Anonymous said:

    The actual conversations of teens where I work (in a library) is so laced with swear words that we have to clamp down on them so as to stop offending the rest of the people using the library. And the sad thing is — the don’t even know they are using offensive words. They’re just talking normally.

    So why is it up to us to help them out with this? Because many of them come from families where this is ‘normal’ conversation.

    And this isn’t a ‘race’ thing. In fact, it’s the ‘white’ kids who are the most offensive.

    So to be realistic would a writer need to insert more swear words?

  7. Kimber An said:

    Brilliant, Katie! Of course, we have to bear in mind that teen slang changes constantly. If you use what they use today, by the time the book comes out the teens who actually read it won’t have any idea what you’re talking about.

  8. Darynda said:

    Thank you so much for these comments, Kristin. I wrote my first YA in third person. Sadly, it peaked no one’s interest. I had two agents tell me I was an excellent writer, but I didn’t have the YA voice. So, after much research, I decided to change it to first person. Bingo. I started winning contests and getting requests for the full which are with agents and editors as we speak.

    In one way, I felt like I lost some of the depth of the original story. In another, however, I felt like the story changed in a positive way. It was a hard decision to change it, but it does seem to be paying off for me. And it was quite the challenge, which I loved.

    I work in a high school, so I hear all kinds of conversations and I agree with the comment about swearing. Kids do it like it’s nothing, just part of the conversation. It’s very interesting. But you are right in the fact that not all teens talk “Valley Girl.”

    One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the sharp wittiness of high school students. They are hilarious, very intelligent, and quick-witted.

    The thing that turns me off completely is, as unpretenscious said, “bitch fic.” That is why I have never picked up a Gossip Girl. Has anyone read GG, and if so, would you care to comment? Just curious about the series.

    Thanks again, Kristin!

  9. Diana Peterfreund said:

    I’ve read some bitch fic that blew my mind — what about Meg Rosoff’s HOW I LIVE NOW? That girl has some serious chips on her shoulder — but then, she needs them to survive her ordeals.

    Holly Black’s VALIANT is also has some serious attitude.

    I also liked Simone Elkeles HOW TO RUIN A SUMMER VACATION.

    Cecil Castelucci’s THE QUEEN OF COOL.

    One of the characters in Tanya Lee Stone’s A BAD BOY CAN BE GOOD FOR A GIRL.

    All bitches you can’t help but love.

  10. Anonymous said:

    I’m an actual teen (Gasp! Who knew they loitered around the blogs?) but I still have trouble finding a strong, “teenage” voice for my novel. Most of us teenagers talk a lot like you guys, except with a LOT more swearing. And in YA… well, you have to be careful (or so everyone keeps telling me.)

    But in response to anonymous, who said that teens swear all the time, I may swear around my friends but I certainly don’t in a library or when I’m around adults. I have learned the hard way that even when you call an adult “bitch” in an AFFECTIONATE way, they tend to get irritated. Go figure. 😉

  11. katiesandwich said:

    Hmm. All very interesting. You know, the person who said that teens swear a lot, that’s not necessarily true. In fact, I was terrified to swear as a teen because I was afraid my parents would somehow find out. Now that I’m not a teen anymore… well, bad habbit, I know, but I swear all the time. And I used to work in a library as a teen, and I didn’t swear there. Also, this whole thing about swearing being so negative, that we have to “help” teens learn not to talk that way… I really don’t agree with that. I understand that some people are offended by swear words, and that’s okay, but I hate this attitude that you’re a bad person if you say “damn” or “hell” every now and then.

    To the teenaged anonymous who has trouble writing from a “teen” point of view: Weird, isn’t it? Go figure. My main character is a year younger than me, and someone who critiqued my work said she didn’t sound her age.

    And “bitch fic.” Lol. That’s why I usually despise chick lit, because so much of it reads that way to me.

    Whew! That was long-winded! I’ll be quiet now.

  12. Kimber An said:

    I have a character, Isaiah, in my story that people thinks a teenager until I allude to his true age, 60something. He sounds young because he’s young at heart. He’s never lost that to the cynicism of adulthood. As a result, he’s the actual teen character’s biggest advocate and her honorary grandfather. He’s the sort of person every child or teenager needs in life, the one person her parents will listen to when they go a little nutty. My teen critters love him! All this to say you don’t have to be young to think young or feel young…or talk young.

  13. Elektra said:

    This happened to me with historicals–ever historical woman’s voice started to sound the same in first person (Marie Antoinette was no diferent than Anne Boleyn, for example). Jst made me stop reading them altogether.

  14. Fourteen Year Old Writer said:

    I’m a year older than my characters, and I did most of the writing when I was the same age, same grade, going through many of the same experiences. Someone said I didn’t capture the voice of kids. Well, they weren’t your typical kids. They were certainly abnormal.

    My next book, well, the character starts out sort of annoying. Popular, pretty, goes from guy to guy, but she develops, even if it’s a little bit, and her priorities change. She has to go through some tough things. She has a nerd and a regular guy for a best friend, who she would never ditch for her popular crew.

    Like many of you, I would never EVER pick up Gossip Girl or Clique. I just don’t get it. They glorify stuff like being catty and mean.

    Many of you say teens swear. Many of us do, but some of us don’t. I don’t curse, ever, and most of my inner circle don’t curse. And most conversations I have with people, even those that curse on occasion, have no cursing in them.

  15. Michelle said:

    Wow…it’s been interesting reading this morning on the comments. I personally try to avoid slang as it dates the work. As to the cussing theme with teenagers, some do, but there are a lot of others who don’t. Maybe this is due to the fact that I live in the Bible belt, who knows. I know that I get in trouble because of my “foul” mouth. My daughter hates it when I or her father cuss. She says it sounds crude. But when she is with her friends who knows what she does…LOL

  16. pennyoz said:

    I agree with Michelle. Slang would tend to lock you into a very rigid time frame. I think that the skill should really stem from strong characters and good plot.

    I once picked up a book in a used book shop. It was the diaries of a young girl called Blanche Mitchell. She was 16 at the time. I was bowled over by this book and I think it changed my whole life.

    Not because this girl was any different to any other girl who is sixteen. She was very much the same as any other girl with the same feelings and concerns as a girl in our time. Only her time was mid 1800’s in Sydney, Australia.

    I think that in youth fiction it’s important to keep the language contemporary – using speech patterns rather than absolute slang. The customers change so quickly as they grow up, but there are also those that are arriving behind them – and this happens so quickly!. Adult fiction is more stagnant.

    I’ve seen parents that are more juvenile than their kids. I’ve seen them smoke inside the car with kids in the back seat passive smoking! Same thing with swearing which is passive swearing. Language moves and attitudes with it. One of the most effective illustrations is a word that once was “to dig” – moved to the biggest no no word of all time and now is used both on film and literally out of the mouths of babes – and these days nobody really blinks an eyelid.

  17. The Bims said:

    Kristin (and others), thanks for your insight on this. I read a lot of YA and it’s true – so many of them sound alike, written in a voice that’s either bland and pollyanna-ish, or completely over the top (e.g. GG – I can’t even get beyond the jacket copy on that series!).

    I’m almost finished with my YA novel / first person POV, and I’ve spent a long time honing the voice of my narrator and other MCs – teens and adults alike. For both a reader and a writer, the voice must be absolutely authentic or you lose your audience and credibility quickly.

    However, there are many other factors, as lots of you have pointed out – strong plot, great writing, hook, etc. Even if the voice is strong, it takes skill and patience to edit and present that voice on the page. Not only do we have to consider cadence and word choice, but we also have to chose when to go into the MCs inner monologue, vs. dialogue, backstory, scene – everything necessary to moving the action forward.

    Related to slang – I also struggle with including technology (cell phones, IM, MySpace – which so many YAs have incorporated into their lives but could be meaningless in 10 years) or pop culture references (bands, current events, etc.). I like Sarah Dessen’s approach to music – she just makes up song and artist names as she goes. 🙂

    If one POV doesn’t work, definitely experiment with others. Another excercise I’ve found useful – try re-writing the scene from the other characters’ POV. Sometimes it can help define who should be telling the tale. Not that you want to give yourself more work! 🙂