Recently I finished revising the YA Contemporary novel I’m writing. I was excited for about five minutes. Then I freaked out. I’m thirty-seven-years-old. What the heck do I know about kids these days?
I had just finished reading The Beauty That Remains, a YA novel by Ashley Woodfolk about a handful of high schoolers: one an Internet famous video blogger and another a music blogger. And I thought, oh man, do I really understand what it’s like to be a young person in 2018?
When I was in high school, kids were photocopying zines at Kinko’s, and our use of the (dial-up) Internet was mostly AOL chat-rooms and Mapquest. How can I write a contemporary YA novel and not have it sound like it was written by an old person?
In a panic to wise-up to the current teen experience, I went to see the movie Eighth Grade because, from the previews, it seemed to be about adolescence in the age of social media and cell phones. And it was. But, I found, it was also about being thirteen, period.
That’s when I realized: yes, teens today have youtube and Instagram and a whole bunch of other stuff I probably don’t know about. But the feelings are the same.
Teens are still trying to find their identity, their niche, their place in the world. They are still self-conscious and moody. They are still looking for love and acceptance and independence. The essential experience of being an adolescent hasn’t changed.
That made me feel more confident. I still remember what it was like to be a teenager (plus I’ve got stacks of old diaries to remind me). And when it comes to writing a YA contemporary, what’s more important than feelings?
Still, I want to make sure I’m not alienating potential teen readers. I want to make sure my YA contemporary actually feels contemporary and my characters are realistically living in the now. (The now being whenever my novel finally gets published – and that’s the extra tricky part.) So read on for suggestions I’m using in my own manuscript.
1. Don’t mention the year if you can help it.
When you mention the year in your manuscript, you automatically date it. You’re writing your manuscript now, in 2018, but maybe you won’t get an agent until 2020, and maybe your book won’t get published until 2023. Will a book set in 2018 still seem current in 2023?
Though I don’t say it’s 2018 in my manuscript, I did have the main character mention that a boy had a crush on her “in the summer of 2016.” I changed it to “in the summer after seventh grade.” Now it doesn’t matter when the book is published because I haven’t mentioned any years.
2. Be mindful about music (and other pop culture)
Bands and musicians that are cool/popular/current right now may not be in a few years. And bands/musicians that seems cool/popular/current to you may not seem that way to teen readers. Same goes for TV shows and celebrities. So you have a few choices:
–Don’t mention music at all (or don’t mention specific artists) if it’s not that important to the story.
–Just be mindful. A character in my book is obsessed with the band Nirvana. I’m fully aware that I’m risking making my manuscript seem too nineties, but at least I chose a really famous band that, even if teen readers aren’t fans of, I’m almost positive they will have heard of. (It helps that the 90’s is sort of “in” right now… I think?)
3. Think about the technology and social media you include
I recently read a brand new YA contemporary in which the characters used facebook regularly. And I cringed. Even I know teenagers don’t use facebook anymore.
It’s so tricky because social media and the Internet play big roles in the contemporary teenage experience, but things change quickly, and in the few years (or more) it takes to write your book and get it published, the specific sites and apps that teens are using today will likely have changed. Of course, you can’t just act like tech and the Internet don’t exist because that’s not realistic either.
My suggestions are this:
—Unless tech, social media, Internet, etc. is a big part of your story, downplay them. Have it be like using the bathroom: we know the characters in the book do it, but it’s such a normal part of every day life, it doesn’t need to be mentioned much or dwelled upon.
–You’re probably safer to talk about generic “texting” than more specific apps like Snapchat or Instagram
–You can always invent an app or social media site that the characters in your novel use (similar to inventing a band or musical artist). That way, no one can say “teens don’t use that anymore!”
4. Don’t make the character names sound dated
One or two old-fashioned names, fine, but if the characters in your book are all named Sally, Susan, Debbie, and Barb then you’ve got a problem.
In my manuscript, the names of the parents were Gary and Cheryl. A friend pointed out, “Eva, the parents of our generation might be named Gary and Cheryl. The parents of current teens would be named something like Chris and Ashley.” And she was totally right.
If you’re writing YA Contemporary, your characters were born in the early 2000s. For name inspiration, look online to see what the most popular baby names were by year. (In 2002, for example, Emily, Madison, Jacob, and Michael topped the list.)
5. Be careful about the slang your characters use
Obviously, you don’t want to use outdated slang in a YA contemporary. So, again, even though teenagers are saying something now, it doesn’t mean they’ll be saying it five years from now when your novel is published.
I’m not saying you can’t use slang at all, but try to use something that seems like it has staying power.
6. Be mindful of the ways the teen experience HAS changed
Yes, the feelings are the same. Yes, the essential experience is the same. But thanks to the Internet, teens today tend to be less naïve and more outspoken about things like sex, identity, diversity, and many other topics. If you are writing a YA Contemporary novel and there are no LGBTQ characters, for example, you might want to rethink that.
That’s not the only way things have changed, either. Kids today are more likely to have a diagnosis of some kind (ADHD, dyslexia, etc.) than they were thirty years ago. A lot of kids are also over-scheulded and stressed out by our busy-busy world (at least I find that to be the case here in the DC area).
I’m sure I’m leaving things out about how the teen experience is different these days, which is why you should go ask some teenagers… see #7!
7. Do some research!
Read other YA contemporary books (ones that were published in the past couple of years. (Might I recommend anything by Becky Albertalli). Watch current teen movies. (Might I suggest the new movie version of Jenny Han’s book, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Alex Strangelove). Talk to teenagers (but don’t be creepy about it). Look around on the Internet and see what you can find that might give you a clue about current teens (like Rookie Magazine).
At the end of the day, remember that all (or almost all) of the YA contemporaries on the shelves were written by adults. If they can capture the current teen experience, so can we! Let’s do it!
How are you making sure your contemporary novel doesn’t seem dated? Let me know in the comments below!
For more tips, see my post: 6 Teenage Truths That All YA Writers Should Know