Writing for teenagers: On being the "cool" mom

This article first appeared in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Online Workshop Newsletter for December, 2012 as the author Interview.

I have two pieces of advice for people who want to write for teens. The first is: Remember your own teen tears vividly. You know what? That was a completely Freudian typo, so I’m going to let it stand. Tear years. No, seriously? I did it again, I swear. Teen years. Teen years. Teen years. That’s what I was trying to type. Holy subconscious, Batman. Now that I’ve got that straight, on to number two: Have some of your own, so you can observe them and their culture at close quarters.

Let’s consider the first—tapping your inner teen. If you were a journal keeper, lock yourself into a private place where no one can see you blush or hear you scream and delve into your old journals. If you received letters from a long distance boyfriend (Letters? What are they?), take off the rotten rubber band and look them over. Even if you lack documentation, you can make a list of the five most humiliating moments in middle or high school. Now a list of the five happiest. The five grossest. The five most self-pitying or depressed. The five most dangerous. Invent categories. Carry-on. You may have in front of you fodder for a memoire, a character, a scene, an entire plot. Or you may only have put yourself back into that mental landscape of emotional extremes and vulnerability so that you can write a story that speaks with authenticity to teens. But that was the idea of the exercise.

Let’s consider the second—tapping teen culture through familiarity. Unless your story is set during the decade of your own teens, nostalgia for such delightful chick flicks as “Sixteen Candles” will only speak to middle-aged moms. The go-to movies for my fourteen-year-old daughter’s cohort are “Mean Girls,” “Clueless,” and for the edgier ones, “Zoolander.” I wouldn’t know this if I hadn’t watched thirty-nine reruns on channels you’d probably never turn on for “market research” without a teen in the house. There are plenty of teenagers who have NEVER seen Star Wars. Their references are not ours. “On Wednesdays we wear pink” is more relevant than “May the Force be with you.” A further advantage to owning teens is that you have a much better shot at engaging teen voice throughout your writing. Unless the cadences of their conversation and tone are part of your daily vocabulary, it will be hard to fake.

If you are a young writer, still closer to 19 than 39, without preteen or teens in your life, the best preparation for you may be turning on the favorite teen TV channels that make you cringe and/or hanging out with a notebook at the mall.

The corollary to number two is, if it is in your nature, be the Cool Mom. You’ll be the go-to house for gatherings. Kids will talk freely in front of you in the car. You’ll have access to a larger circle of teens, their voices, their hopes and dreams, struggles and triumphs and disasters. What does it mean to be cool? Talk to the kids like a slightly older peer. Be authentic, which can occasionally be embarrassing. Understand their references, but don’t force it. Share your own teen experiences in a story-telling way, not a preachy way. Acknowledge that they are likely way more worldly than we were at their age. Don’t be shocked or prudish. Appreciate the crushing depth of everything they are feeling. Don’t try to soothe them with decades-out perspective.

My upcoming novel, Pretty Girl-13 (releases March 19 but available for pre-order) is a teen book for mature audiences. In fact, the overseas versions will be sold primarily as adult with crossover to YA. Sixteen-year-old Angie has been missing for three years, but her memory of those years is so blank, she believes she is still thirteen. Even though Angie is dealing with terrible questions about her identity and with uncovering secrets that she can’t even tell herself, she still goes to high school, eats in the cafeteria, thinks about boys, wonders what to wear to the dance. The authentic teen life needs to be superimposed over the darker story so that readers of all ages can slide back into their teenage avatars and live the story through Angie’s eyes.