Recently I finished revising a YA Contemporary novel I wrote a few years back. I was excited for about five minutes. Then I freaked out. I’m forty years old. What the heck do I know about “kids these days”?
Plus there’s COVID to consider, which makes writing contemporary fiction all the more complicated. Should I do another revision, putting my characters in masks and online school? Do I set the novel in the near pre-COVID past or near post-COVID future? Of course we don’t know what post-COVID life is going to look like, or when we will be able to confidently say the pandemic is behind us.
I’ve read various advice on the subject. Some agents/editors say to avoid COVID because no one wants to read about the pandemic while we’re still living through it. Others say to include it if it’s important to the story. And then there’s the catchall advice to “do what feels right to you.” I think no one quite knows. My plan is to not mention the year and let people assume what they want: that my novel is set in 2019, or perhaps in an alternate-reality present in which COVID never happened. (God, I wish I was living in that timeline!)
But even WITHOUT the COVID situation, it can be tricky to write YA contemporary as an adult. After all, 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?
A few years ago, in a panic to wise-up to the teen experience, I went to see the movie Eighth Grade. (Remember that? When we used to sit in crowded movie theaters without fear?) From the previews, Eighth Grade 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 cell phones and social media. But the feelings are the same.
Teens are still trying to find their identities, their niches, their places 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.
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 teen readers. I want to make sure my YA contemporary actually feels contemporary and my characters are realistically living in the now. (Or, at least, living realistically in a now where there’s no COVID…) But how do I do that, especially given that anything I’m writing now may not be published for several years or more.
It’s almost enough to make you want to give up and write YA fantasy instead so you don’t have to worry about whether or not your characters should wear masks or use Instagram. But if you’re committed to writing YA contemporary, here are a few tips.
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 2021, but maybe you’ll finish it in 2023, get an agent in 2024, and the book will finally come out get in 2027. Will a book set in 2021 still seem current in 2027?
If you find you’re mentioning years in the manuscript, try to swap them out for other ways of describing time. For example, “the summer after Freshman year,” or “two years ago, when I was sixteen.”
Again, COVID makes this more complicated because maybe you want to set your novel in 2019, to avoid having to write about the pandemic. In which case, mention the year all you want. I’ve seriously looked for guidance on this, and the most I’ve found is agents and editors suggesting that writers “do what feels right for their manuscript.” (I don’t think anyone has a good answer.)
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 important to the story.
—Make up the names of bands/musical artists. Lots of YA Contemporary books do this. (The Beauty That Remains by Ashley Woodfolk and Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and Girl, Unframed by Deb Caletti are some examples.)
—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’ve heard of. (It helps that the 90’s is sort of “in” right now… at least according to a few teenagers I asked.)
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 act like tech and the Internet don’t exist because that’s not realistic either.
My suggestions are:
—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” or “messaging” than more specific platforms like TikTok or Instagram. For example, in my book I’ll mention that a character posts a picture, but I don’t specify the social media site.
—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!”
—According to some teenagers in my neighborhood, teens don’t use hashtags when they post on social media. Not sure why, but that’s what my sources tell me. Just a little tip from me to you.
4. Don’t make 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 the original draft of my manuscript, the names of the main character’s 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 mid 2000s. For name inspiration, look online to see what the most popular baby names were by year. (In 2005, for example, Emily, Madison, Jacob, and Aiden 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, social equity, 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).
And now, COVID-19 is completely changing the teen experience. You may or may not want to have COVID be a part of your novel, but we’ve now been living in pandemic times for a year and a half. If things continue like this for much longer (god help us!) it means there will be kids who experienced the majority of their high school lives doing online school, wearing masks, and limiting their social experiences. I know a teenager who had her senior “prom” in her backyard with her parents, her siblings, and her boyfriend as the only attendants. I mean, dang. COVID has already severely altered the high school experience for current teens, and I honestly don’t know how that’s going to affect YA contemporary fiction in the long run. But it’s something to think about.
7. Do some research!
Look around on the Internet (youtube, Instagram, etc.) and see what you can find that might give you a clue about current teens.
Finally, talk to teenagers (but don’t be creepy about it). Ask your younger cousins, nieces/nephews, neighbors, students (if you’re a teacher) about what their life is like. There are some girls in our neighborhood who babysit for our kids, so I sometimes ask them questions that I think might help me with my novel. And, I had one of them read the first ten pages of my novel! (I was sort of terrified, but she really liked it and had some good/helpful comments.)
At the end of the day, remember that all (or almost all) of the YA contemporary books on the shelves were written by adults. If they can capture the current teen experience, so can you!
How are you making sure your contemporary novel doesn’t seem dated? What are you doing about “the COVID dilemma” as you write your YA contemporary?
Let me know in the comments below!
For more tips, see my post: 6 Teenage Truths That All YA Writers Should Know