Monday, November 21, 2011

On Writing the Angsty Teenager Well

For writers, it's much more difficult to write (well, at least) something he or she knows very little to nothing about than it is to write something he or she knows very well. If, say, a writer has never owned a cat, the collection of original humorous stories he writes about the funny things cats do will probably fall flat with avid cat lovers. The only way to make it work would be go out and do the leg work to actually get real-life anecdotes from those crazy cat people.

Writing believable characters is essential to telling a good story. Even if your character is a two-headed pig-frog hybrid creature from the planet Ultron, it still needs to be believable in the context and environment it lives in. We've all had those moments watching a television show when we said to ourselves, "That newborn baby is NOT a newborn baby!" or "Who are they kidding!? Those are NOT teenagers!"

When you throw teenage characters into the mix things become even more complicated. Anyone who has spent any time with teens--either their own or someone else's--knows that attitudes, even personalities, seem to change on a daily basis. And that is exactly what is happening, too. The teen years, according to psychologists, is a time when humans subconsciously "try on" different personalities to see the types of reactions they'll receive. Of course, very few teens themselves know this is happening. All they know is that they are different people at home, school, with friends, and with other adults. This makes writing a truly believable teen difficult, but there are ways to help you get the best teen character.

Of course, if you are a teen (or just out of your teenage years), write what you know; write your teen characters as you think/thought and feel/felt. This is the easiest way to write believable teens.

If, however, you're like most of humanity, you are not a teenager. While that's a fairly high hurdle to overcome, there are still ways to get around your adult-type thinking. Simply going to where youth hang out and listening in on conversations will not get you the point of view you're seeking, especially if you're writing form a first person or omniscient point of view and want to include realistic inner dialogue. Even with their friends, few teens open up and share their innermost thoughts. Simply going to where there are a lot of teenagers and listening in will not give you the inner dialogue you want.

The best way to write a teenage character--even if it may take months to even years--is to get to know a teenager enough that he or she trusts you enough to let you in and really talk to you. Because of the teen's inner struggle, opening up and showing "the real me" is difficult for them. They will not easily trust someone if they suspect that trust will be violated. To show yourself worthy of their trust, you must get to know them. You need to be willing to listen to the inane prattle and the surfacey fluff and not pass judgement before they will open up and show you how they really think (within reason, of course--you shouldn't, by your lack of judgment, be seen as encouraging dangerous, destructive, or illegal behavior).

Volunteering in a youth program is one of the best ways you can accomplish this. If you are religious, ask your house of worship's youth director if they need help (as one myself, I can tell you with absolute certainty: they will always need someone to help, especially with middle schoolers). If you are non-religious, there are still plenty of places to go to begin relationships with youth. You could be a Big Brother or Big Sister. Police departments in cities usually have teen outreach programs. Volunteer at a school or the YMCA. If you already have a book published, ask school librarians if they would like you to come in and do a reading. Build relationships with the kids. Take them (with parental permission of course) out to a game, or for a coffee, or just out with you running errands. Any time spent with them one-on-one or one-on-two will be good for not only you, but for them as well.

Speaking from personal experience, once the relationship is built, you will be able to pick their brains, and they can even help you with your story. Young Adult Fiction authors have some of the best resources (and story editors) available in the angsty teenager. Few, however, take the time to mine this resource, and many times, characters simply come out sounding like adults.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Why I Hate Twilight

At the recent Idaho Book Extravaganza, I came out of the vampire closet. More specifically, in a workshop hosted by StoneHouse Ink CEO Aaron Patterson and author Estevan Vega (authors of Ariel and Arson), I came out in front of about 30 people that I was ashamed to admit that I had read the entire Twilight series.

If something is trendy, I will naturally rebel against it. If everyone is saying "You have to see/wear/read this, it's AWESOME!!!" chances are good that I never will. So, I would have lived a long and happy life without ever reading the Twilight "Saga" (you know something's trendy when they tack on archaic Greek and Nordic words like "epic" and "saga"). But I have. And it's 48 hours of my life I'll never be able to get back.

I have never been one anyone would call a trend-follower. When I was growing up in the '80s and '90s we didn't have much money, so I was unable to follow the fashion and toy trends until the tail-end of their long, or short, trend-lives. This is probably what instilled my somewhat-overdeveloped sense of individuality. I know what I like, and I know what I don't like, and I usually know why I do or do not like them.

When I was in high school and had a job and should have been spending my money buying things like the "right" clothes and going to the "right" movies, I was spending my money on things that interested me--things like office supplies (can't write well without something to write on and write with) and my first computer (a used 486 with hardly any memory that I ended up naming "George" because while it always meant well, it crashed a lot). So, since I was spending all my money on worthwhile things, and saving for college, I had little money for trendy things--like GAP and Ambercrombie and Fitch clothing and going to the "in" movies such as Titanic. (To this day, I have not seen Titanic, nor do I have any desire to do so. I already know how the movie ends--the boat sinks, "Stick Boy" dies--so why do I need to go see it? My brother, on the other hand, saw the movie about a dozen times in the theater.)

So, of course, when Twilight first debuted and became a best-seller, I had absolutely no clue about it. I was busy with my son and writing my own Young Adult fiction. But, when I was contacted about 18 months ago to ghostwrite "something like Twilight" I had to break down and read the books. My husband and his best friend made fun of me for even thinking about reading them and told me I would hate them, but--purely for the betterment and honing of my craft--I put in my request at the library (there was no way I was actually going to spend money following a trend) for the four books and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And a pit in my stomach began to form. These things really were trendy.

And then I got the books, read them, and found all new ways to despise them.

A good read will leave you wanting more. You are able to savor the story; get more out of the story each time you read. You should be left wondering what will happen to the characters every time the book is put down. You should always be kept on your toes. A good read, really, is like an episode of 24. Just when you think it's done, and are about to wonder what the writer did to fill up the rest of the pages (or the next 18 hours) here comes a new twist straight out of left field, forcing Jack Bauer to break a lamp over someone's head to get at the wires inside in order to extract needed information--or making you promise yourself "okay, only one more chapter, then I'll go to sleep." Twilight, however, is not one of those stories. It is entirely predictable; there are no twists and turns and things coming from any field, let alone the left one.

A good book, especially in a series, should be meaty. It takes a while to prepare and enjoy a beef wellington; much less time to prepare and eat a microwave cube steak dinner. Twilight is cube steak. I read all four books (over a few weeks; it took a while for the last two to come in after reading the first pair) in under 48 hours total; I'd say it may have been under 40. It should not take that short amount of time to read that many pages! The whole "saga" is over 2500 pages long, for crying out loud! For that many pages, I should have had to renew at least one of the books in order to get it all read. But no. Nope. Uh uh. I was able to read one book (I forget which one; they all kind of run together after a while) in under 16 hours.

A good story should have believable characters that you want to root for. The more I read the saga, the more I got the same sense I did when watching Saved By The Bell on Saturday mornings growing up--namely, an overwhelming sense that, "These are not high school students." I began siding with Bella's parents (some of the only believable characters)--her obsession with a boy, leading to such self-destructive behavior, is not healthy and should not be glorified.

I won't necessarily get into the story itself because epic love stories are timeless. Love triangles are timeless. The paranormal is timeless. (Of course, one could also substitute "timeless" for "overdone.") The actual content of the story--and an author's writing style--is purely a matter of personal opinion. (If you're wondering, I did not like either--especially the infantophilia prominent in the last book--but I'm not going to fault someone else for liking it.)

I also have a lot to say about the movies (which I did not pay to watch), but that's another blog. Let's just say that I enjoyed the movie Vampires Suck so very much more than Twilight, New Moon, and Eclipse. And I enjoyed Vampires Suck so very much more than my husband, who has never read the books nor seen the movies.

Update: Now, with the whole broohaha over Kristin Stewart and Robert Pattinson... yeah, my world has not been thrown upside down. My life has not been changed at all. Neither should anyone else's. My heart, of course, goes out to the kids affected by their father's stupidity--and them only--but I really couldn't care less about one Hollywood star doing what Hollywood stars do absolutely best: Cheat on her Hollywood star boyfriend.