Recently I finished the YA novel The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli, award-winning author of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (which recently came out as the movie Love, Simon).
Albertalli knows what she’s doing. YA contemporary romance may or may not be your thing, but either way, you have to admire Albertalli’s ability to capture the emotional, mental, and social landscape of her seventeen-year-old protagonist, Molly, a girl who crushes hard but never puts herself out there… until now.
Reading The Upside of Unrequited made me take a hard look at the YA manuscript I’m currently working on. Now I’m concerned it doesn’t have enough interiority. I worry I’m not sharing enough of my protagonist’s thoughts, feelings, and raw, teenage angst.
Speaking of teenage thoughts, last year, I started plodding through the self-imposed task of typing up all my old diary entries (from age 10 to 27) so I’d have an electronic copy. I have since let this task fall by the wayside, but I need to get back to it, because those diaries are full of ALL THE FEELS, and reading my own emotional outpourings from high school might help me better understand what my YA protagonists are thinking and feeling.
So far I’ve only typed up the first half of freshman year, and I know that a 14-year-old protagonist is in the dead zone (too old for middle-grade, too young for YA), but still… some of the stuff in my 9th grade diary is solid gold angst. Reading the entries, and thinking back to high school, has helped me remember a few of what I think are universal truths about being an American teenager. And definitely important points to keep in mind while writing my YA novel.
(Note: These truths apply to teens who aren’t in situations threatening their survival or safety. Obviously, there’s a hierarchy of needs.)
6 Teenage Truths That All YA Writers Should Know
#1 Teens experience their emotions intensely.
In my freshman diary, everything was either awesome or terrible because teenage life is a sine wave of thrilling highs and devastating lows. Because they experience so many firsts, teenagers are filled with excitement, dread, and stress over things us jaded adults have grown blasé about.
Not to mention the hormones. I don’t know about you, but I definitely remember being sixteen and crying for no reason. Like, all the time. (Not to mention the emo poetry in my diary that I wrote through my own tears.) I also remember feeling angry or depressed and not really knowing why. And I remember laughing so hard with my friends I thought my face would fall off, even when we weren’t sure what was so funny in the first place.
Excerpts from Eva’s Freshman Diary (note: names have been changed):
Guess what! This is so terrible! Today we have a scrimmage at Heritage – an hour or more away!! We leave school at 1:15 pm and won’t be back until 9:00 pm and tomorrow is orientation. Doesn’t that suck?! I’m under so much stress!! I still have to do my family history paper for Center.
Friday was awesome! We went for a walk in gym. In World G we did a map. After school, I went to v-ball, which was great, then I met Dana. She was talking to this guy who was standing outside the library smoking. His name was Jeremy, and he had graduated. He thought I looked older than 14!!!
On the way I saw Ray and Tony Granada. They actually said hi to me, after Ray screamed, “It’s Eva!” out the car window… I felt at one with the world. So far, high school is just about awesome.
#2 Identity-defining choices are very important.
In my ninth grade diary, there’s one entry in which I list every single outfit I own. Not just every article of clothing, mind you, but every single combination, including what earrings and shoes I wore with each. I also listed my friends’ outfits, although I wasn’t quite as thorough with that.
The high school years are a time of figuring out who you are, and one of the ways that teens do this is through their appearance – clothing, make-up, jewelry, hair. In high school I wore everything from mini skirts with leather stiletto boots to purple plaid old-lady pants to jeans that were more hole than jean — outfits that I thought announced to the world that I was eclectic and creative and non-confomist. Maybe not what I was exactly, but certainly what I wanted to be.
My husband, on the other hand, says that when he was in high school he wore a white t-shirt and jeans every day because he didn’t want people making assumptions about him based on his clothes. Instead, high school was when he started getting interested in his Italian heritage — because it was a way for him to define his identity.
Teenagers don’t get to make a lot of their own decisions, which is why they take their clothing and music and other identity-defining choices very seriously.
#3 Relationships are a big deal.
And by that I don’t just mean dating. Friendships and fitting in socially are also really important at this age.
These days a lot of YA authors are writing with a more empowered-girl message: you don’t need a boyfriend to be happy or confident or complete. And I one hundred percent agree. In fact, when I got my first boyfriend in the ninth grade, it was not as great as I thought it would be, and I spent most of the time we were together trying to figure out how to break up with him.
Still, the fact of the matter is: most teens are very interested in dating and sex (not necessarily having it, but thinking/talking/wondering/worrying about it.) I work at a middle and high school, and I overhear a lot of conversations about who likes who, and who’s texting who, and who is mad at who.
Relationships are another way teens figure out who they are. Who you’re friends with and who you crush on says a lot about who you are. Dating can also, unfortunately, be related to their self-esteem, which I think was the case with me. I wanted someone to like me because then I thought I’d know I was worth liking.
Excerpts from Eva’s Freshman Diary:
We are trying to get this shy golfer guy to ask Nina to Homecoming and hopefully he will. He’s just shy. I know he wants to. What guy wouldn’t? She is, hands down, the prettiest girl in the 9th grade, and I’m not just saying that because she’s a sweetie and my friend. It’s true.
I think I’m fairly pretty; I don’t see why nobody’s asked me to Homecoming. I know why nobody’s asked Nina. It’s ‘cause she’s so gorgeous and sophisticated, all the guys are like, “she’d never go out with me.” So no one ever asks her out, and she gets low self-confidence. I’m pretty much positive that’s not the case with me because I’m not drop-dead gorgeous like Nina is. So somebody should ask me out.
#4 Even the smartest teenagers make dumb decisions.
I’m sure by this point you’ve heard about the new research that says the brain doesn’t fully finish developing until around age 25. According to an article by Debra Bradley Ruder in Harvard Magazine, teen brains “have both fast-growing synapses and sections that remain unconnected. This leaves teens easily influenced by their environment and more prone to impulsive behavior.”
There’s a reason why people say teens think they’re invincible. It’s actually in their brain chemistry. Because of the way the teen brain is developing, teenagers are less likely to connect cause with effect, and more likely to engage in risky behavior.
I was a straight A student, but I still did so many stupid and dangerous things in my teens and early twenties it’s amazing I’m still alive and intact. Playing on roofs, getting rides from strangers, underage drinking… just to name a few.
#5 Teens care immensely what others think of them.
High school is one part academics mixed with two parts social interaction. And again, this goes back to identity. Do others see you as you want to be seen? Do people like you? Who are your friends? Who do you hang out with? As much as teenagers might not want to care what other people think of them (because it’s exhausting!), chances are they do care. And think about it. Probably a lot.
I know I did. See below.
Excerpts from Eva’s Freshman Diary:
Me and Dana tutored after school. My mom was supposed to come pick me up but she forgot, so I ended up outside the library with Ella, this girl Jami, and Sharon. Sharon had cigarettes, so Ella and Jami bummed off her, and Sharon offered me one.
If I told anybody (except Dana, ’cause she knows) that I have never tried a cigarette in my life, they would never believe me. Not that it’s something every kid tries, although it kinda is, but I guess people see me as the type of person who would smoke, or at least have tried it.
P.S. I hope Dana isn’t the only reason people like me. I don’t think it is, though. Sometimes Dana can be too much. I think I’m nice and funny. I hope other people think so, too.
#6 Teenagers want to be loved and accepted (and respected).
I know there’s this stereotype of the surly or sarcastic teen, but I think deep down teenagers (and I’d argue most every human) just want to feel loved and accepted by their peers, by their family. It’s the reason why they make a lot of the choices they do. And it’s the reason why, as a teen, a break-up or a fight with a friend can feel like the end of the world.
Teenagers also want to be respected. As a teacher and tutor of teens, I try very hard not to talk down to my students, and to let them know that I value and appreciate their thoughts, opinions, and feelings. Because I know they get tired of adults treating them like second-class citizens.
I won’t include this in my official list, but here’s another thing I remembered after reading my freshman diaries: 9th Grade is awkward AF!
In my diary, there was a lot of drama about who would ask me to the Homecoming Dance. My friends forced the boy I liked –- we’ll call him Matt — to ask me, and then he did, but then he backed out a few days later and asked someone else, and I was devastated. I ended up going without a date, in a big group of friends. Despite being date-less, I danced my first-ever slow dance, which is described in painfully-awkward detail below:
I was having a lot of fun ‘cause I love to dance. Then, Trip Warren asked me to dance, so I did. I danced a couple songs with him, but then I didn’t want to dance with him anymore. I just wanted to dance in a circle with my friends. He kept cornering me, though, and holding out his hand. I didn’t want to be mean, but I didn’t want to string him along either ‘cause I don’t like him in that way, and after a while he was really starting to freak me out.
He’s not bad looking, but he’s really not my type. He’s got long, curly, light brown hair, and he’s really tall. After a while I was getting tired of dancing with him. I did dance my first two slow dances ever with him, though. I put my arm around his neck and he put his arms around my waist. He kept sweating and having these spazzes, and I could feel him breathing on my head.
During the second song he kept trying to pull me closer and closer until my head was on his chest. Then the song was over and I ran away. He kept following me, and I kept telling everybody, “if you see me dancing with Trip, come rescue me. I want a Trip-free environment.”
I spent the second half of the dance avoiding him like the plague. He’d ask me to dance (or hold out his hand or say “let’s go, Eva.”) and I’d ignore him. He’d tap me on the shoulder and I’d walk away. I’d start dancing with him, and after a few seconds I’d say, “I’ll be right back,” and run away. It was getting really old, and he was scaring the shit out of me.
I really wanted to dance with Matt. That’s one of the reasons why I didn’t want to dance with Trip. I didn’t want anybody, especially Matt, to think I was going with him. I fast-danced for a few seconds with Matt. It was a thousand times better than any of my dances with Trip.
So did this help you remember what it’s like to be a teen? The awkwardness, the agony, the awesomeness. The highs and lows. The figuring out who you are but still not being quite sure.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to go harness these memories and emotions and go write me some YA!
Adults: what do you remember from high school? Teenagers: what did I get wrong? Everyone: what do you think are the major hallmarks of being a teenager? Let me know in the comments below!
Check out my other posts about writing for Young Adults: 10 Tips for Crafting a Teen Suspense Novel and 5 Challenge to Writing a Diary Novel.
Josie Beth says
As a writer who’s in her freshman year of high school, I agree with these points. Things that don’t seem like a big deal to adults are a big deal to us, because they’re shaping who we are, but that’s often mistaken in fiction as “teen angst” and “moody” and “rebellion”. However, as most of my friends are Christians like I am, there’s less talk about sex and more about who’s taking who to prom. Another important thing to remember is that in earlier high school years, there will be a blend of girls who have matured and girls who haven’t (not sure about where guys land :P), so that can definitely impact how people view teens.
Thank you SO much for your feedback! It’s really important to me since it’s been awhile (16 years!!) since I was a teenager, and I want to make sure I’m remembering correctly. Maybe I shouldn’t have used the word “angst” in my post; it does have a rather dismissive connotation, and I definitely don’t mean to be dismissive. I think the teen years are SO important — like you said, they really shape who you are (at least I feel that way), and that’s part of the reason I want to write YA.
I was like you — I was definitely less interested in sex and more interested in who I was going to go to prom (or Homecoming) with. Did you read my diary entry about my first slow dance at freshman Homecoming (at the end of this post)? I’m curious to know what teenagers think about my teenage diary! High school is far enough in the past now that I’m not embarrassed to share it. 🙂
Josie Beth says
Yeah! I actually had my first slow dance the other night — it wasn’t nearly as dramatic, though. 😛 That definitely seems like something that would happen in freshman year.
First slow dance — omg! Write about it in your diary. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did! 🙂
Kelly - A Side of Sweet says
Even though I’m not a writer, I found this reflection about teenagers a really fun read, thanks!
Love this! I tend to want to avoid these emotions in my writing… But honestly, the emotions of teenagers are beautiful when you stop and think about where it is all leading. I was laughing through this because so many of the diary entries made me think of my own at that age. I was a dramatic teenager, plus I received a brain injury when I was 13, which made every emotion heightened – teenage years were NOT a cool time for me. I was homeschooled and come from a strict family, so I didn’t have the everyday interaction with others my age, I had little control over music I listened to, clothes I wore, etc., and any little attention from guys had me scribbling in my diary (my best friend) wondering if he was “the one.” I agree with what Josie Beth says about the blend of maturity in groups. People thought I was mature but only because I was shy and quiet, whereas my best friend was a mature teenager and I always felt behind or that people liked her better than me. On the outside, that can have such a strong impact on how people view a teenager, and there are a lot of comparisons and assumptions that follow which puts pressure on those who may appear less mature.
Oh wow. It sounds like you had an intense adolescence! But you also sounds like you have a lot of emotions from your teenage years that you could use in your writing.
Jennifer Penas says
I couldn’t agree with your pointer more! Our oldest is 19 and I can relate to a lot of this!
I suffered from health conditions that caused me to come across as a hypochondriach so teenage years were rough for sure. I definitely remember worrying all the time about what people thought of me, especially when I’d suddenly get sick.
Oh, that sounds so terrible — both the health problems and the social anxiety it caused you! (But it also sounds like a good premise for a YA novel…just a thought.)
Kirstyn Todd says
“Teens care immensely what others think of them.”
Aha… Aha… Ahahaha… Ha…
Not all teens, apparently. 😉 (My fancy way of saying I don’t.)
Good for you! Stay that way! I’m 36 years old, and I still care way too much what others think about me. It’s exhausting. 🙂
Joanna Clute says
There really is so much going on in a teenagers short years. This post has some very valuable info for YA writers.
Denay DeGuzman says
These teenage truths bring back memories of growing up and also of raising children who are now young adults. Teens’ emotions run deep and strong, and they struggle to identify who they really are and what they stand for. There’s also what I call the rubber-band effect. They pull away from parents sharply to find their own identity, but return just as quickly to the family unit with greater self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment and direction in their lives. Growing up is hard, fun, painful, happy, bittersweet.
Wow, this was really interesting and took me back to when I was a teen! It’s true, relationships are EVERYTHING and teens definitely care about what everyone else thinks of them! I remember those days…and I can see it in my teenage cousins now!
Harley Brooks says
Stumbled across your post from a page on Pinterest and as a YA author, I was immediately intrigued. This is great, and just what I was looking for. Loved your diary pages, especially the awkward dance scene. Zapped me back to my own experience – the sweaty feel of the guy’s shirt on my cheek because he held me so close, and also not the boy I wanted to dance with. Great post. Thanks!
Thanks so much; I’m glad it was helpful! I just checked out your site — your books look so fun! Maybe I’ll have to do more of these posts where I share excerpts from old diary entries…
Chelsea R.H. says
As a teenager and an aspiring YA author, I really enjoyed this post! I thought it was quite accurate too, I definitely do care more about what people think about me now than I did when I was younger, and sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes it isn’t. And the emotions is also so very true. Everything is either amazing, or it’s awful. I think we tend to be seen as melodramatic, and I guess to a certain extent, we are, but it’s also…just the way teens cope I think 😀
(The Homecoming dance seems really awkward. I’m grateful that I was not there :P).
Thank YOU for your feedback!! I love hearing from ACTUAL teenagers. 🙂 You know, I think the intense emotions are probably part of the reason why even adults like to read YA — it makes for a good story!
I love your tips! I’ve always stayed away from writing about teens because despite having been one, I try not to dwell on my own past experiences. Your tips, though, make me think that I could actually try again to write a YA story.
LOVED this post! It made me wish SO HARD that I’d kept a journal in my teen years. (Also, your entries are adorable!)
As a YA writer myself, these types of posts are invaluable. Sometimes it’s hard to remember what it’s like to be young, and to still have first to look forward to. So thank you for the reminder! I know I’ll put it to good use in my story. 🙂
Thank you, fellow YA writer!! Just checked out your site, which looks amazing. 🙂
Thanks! It’s brand new. I have lots of goodies planned, though. 🙂
As a junior in high school, I definitely agree with this list. Dating especially is exhausting. Does anyone like me? Is he cheating on me? Why can’t I get a date?
To go along with this list, a lot of teens are struggling with their sexuality/gender. Being a LGBT teen especially if you come from a religious household creates a LOT of internal and external conflict. I know a lot more YA authors are writing about this and I think that they should continue. No matter what you decide to do about who you like or who you are, it’s helpful to know that you’re not alone.
Thanks for this! I love when teenagers let me know whether or not I’m on the right track. And I think you’re totally right — sexuality/gender is definitely a big part of identity, which is a big part of what teens are trying to figure out. I remember being in high school and having some friends who were wondering if they might be gay or bi, but it wasn’t talked about as openly as it is now — which is a good thing!!