Wednesday, August 11, 2010

WWTD: What Would Teens Do? Writing Authentic/Edgy Teen Literature by author Kody Keplinger

I could go all fangirl on you here about The DUFF and how amazing it is. I could, but I won't. Instead, I'm just going to go double fangirl over the fact that the equally fabulous Kody Keplinger is here to clue us in on how to write authentic/edgy teen literature!

*fangirl scream*

Okay, here she is. Listen up, peeps!

Writing Authentic/Edgy Teen Literature

When it comes to YA novels, there is a difference between authentic and edgy.

A novel can be authentic without being edgy.

A novel can be edgy without being authentic.

Obviously, authenticity is the most important part. When it comes to writing for teenagers. As both a writer and a teenager myself, there is nothing I hate more than an inauthentic look at the teen life – and usually, an edgy and inauthentic look is the worst.

The best way to start is by deciding what both words mean. Authentic, to me at least, is how real everything is. From the voice to the dialogue to the setting – it all needs to ring true to teenage life. Even if your novel takes place on another planet or in a fantasy world, a reader needs to feel like everything taking place is real.  The emotions, especially, should feel authentic, and sometimes that is the hardest part. Because whether you live in America, on Mars, or in Middle Earth, being a teenager is going to be one of the most emotional times of your life.  Everything is new and raw, and those emotions need to feel real for a reader – especially a teenage reader – to relate. The phrase “keeping it real” comes to mind here. That’s authenticity.

Edgy, however, is a much, much harder concept to put into words. There’s no clear definition, and everyone has a different take on what is “edgy” in young adult literature. For the purposes of this post, we’ll define it as “anything that pushes the boundaries.”  That could be sex, drugs, violence, or even just some seriously dark concepts. (Example – sex and drugs didn’t make CRACKED UP TO BE edgy, it was the overall theme of the book that was edgy).  Edgy is not a genre. Edgy changes. I love edgy fiction, but my definition of what’s edgy may not match yours.  That’s okay. But the point here is, edgy doesnot mean the same thing as “authentic.”

Now, with those little issues out of the way, let’s discuss writing edgy and/or authentic YA, shall we?

Again, I think “authentic” is so much more important than “edgy.” As a teenager, there is nothing I hate more than a book that is edgy for the sheer sake of being edgy without a grain of truth to how teenagers live.  Edgy without authenticity is just going to upset both teens and parents. Upsetting parents may be inevitable depending on your content, but you definitely don’t want to upset the teenagers who buy YA books.

So how do you avoid this? How do you write something both edgy and authentic (or authentic with the possibility of being edgy)? Well, you have to remember WWTD.


Scary question for some, I know. But that’s what you have to ask yourself when writing YA fiction. You have to think like a teenager when you write.

Not like a parent – even if you are one.

Not like a teacher – even if you are one.

Not like a big sister or brother or aunt or uncle worrying about the lessons you are teaching today’s youth and what not.

No, you have to think like a teenager.  Plain and simple.

But what does this mean?  Well, first of all, teenagers are not thinking about morals or life lessons as though go through their day to day lives.  Besides, it isn’t your job to teach a lesson or to moralize. It’s your job to tell a good story. If in the midst of that story a character learns a lesson, so be it, but it needs to be natural. If your story involves sex or drugs or violence – don’t stress over it! Don’t worry that you’re setting a bad example for the youth of our society. Trust me, the youth of our society know what’s out there.  Ever been in the back of a school bus? Yeah, we hear things. We know what’s up. Your book mentioning sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll won’t do any extra damage. And the fact is, some teenagers deal with sex, drugs, violence, and darker issues. Like I said, think like a teenager. If mature issues play a part in your story, how would a teenager feel about it? Not a mother or a father, but a teenager caught in the midst of everything. WWTD.

Which brings us back to “edgy.”  I said that if your story involves sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, don’t be afraid to include them or deal with them like a teenager would.  However, if these elements aren’t a part of your story, don’t force them in just for the sake of being edgy. A good YA novel doesn’t have to include these things.  Some of my favorites don’t! Like THE TRUTH ABOUT FOREVER by Sarah Dessen. One of my favorite books, and yet no sex, drugs, or violence. If your story doesn’t need these elements, don’t feel obligated to put them in. “Edgy” only works if it really fits with the story. Forcing it will only weaken your manuscript and damage your authenticity.
And, hey, not all teenagers’ lives involve the edgy stuff. Mine most certainly did not!  You can be completely authentic without pushing the boundaries.

So, again, WWTD – What Would Teens Do?  The answer to this is going to be different for every story and every character, but thinking like a teenager is essential. Sometimes you have to put your adult worries and views and wisdom aside and just remember what it was like to be in high school.

I’m a teenager, yes, but I’m not in high school anymore. Just this past year has taught me a lot about the world and now there are so many things I wish I’d known at sixteen. But I didn’t. My sixteen year old characters are sometimes going to do things that make me cringe – things that I would never do at nineteen – but they don’t know the things I know. Maybe my characters will learn these things along the way, or maybe they won’t. But I have to be authentic – ‘keep it real’ – and think like a sixteen year old again.  It’ll get harder as I get older, I’m sure, but as long as you can remember what high school was like, and put yourself in those shoes again, you can do it!

On a final note, I’d like to remind you of an old saying your mother probably told you as a child. “Honesty is the best policy.”  When it comes to being authentic or edgy, you need to be honest. Tell the truth, and don’t be afraid to hold back. My writing icon, Judy Blume, wrote a brutally honest and, even thirty years later, edgy middle grade called ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET.  What makes this book so edgy is it’s honesty. It’s bluntness. And its authenticity. That’s why girls are still reading this book – because it was so real, and that’s what made it edgy.

Be honest. Be real. And don’t worry so much about the “edginess” of your story. Just tell the story you want to tell, and do for the story what has to be done, always asking yours What Would Teens Do?  Your readers will thank you for it – and, as a teenager, so will I.

Kody Keplinger is a student at Ithaca College (originally from a tiny town in Kentucky) and a writer. Her debut YA novel, THE DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) will be released September 7, 2010 by Little Brown/Poppy.  She is represented by Joanna Volpe.

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