• Sounding Real

    I wasn’t eavesdropping…at least not intentionally. But this lady (mother of another teenager, maybe?) was talking so loudly to this group of kids that I couldn’t help but hear.

    She was really pretty, mid-thirties, well-dressed.  And the boys were…you know…floppy-haired, sixteen-ish, typical. 

    I’m not sure about the context of the conversation, but I hope she was asking for the boy’s phone number for her daughter, not herself. 

    The lady patted the least-pimply (I don’t dare say cutest…ew) of the boys on the arm and giggled.  Then she said, “I mean, seriously!  Awkward.” The last word was in a sort of high-pitched, operatic vibrato. 

    A couple of boys at the back of the group exchanged looks and their shoulders started shaking with silent laughter.

    The conversation went on for a few more uncomfortable minutes that I did not stick around to overhear.

    As I drove home, I couldn’t help but think about how hard the Cougar/Mom was trying to sound like a teenager, to speak to the kids on their level.  And failing. Miserably.

    The effect was both creepy and forced. 

    Luckily for readers, the creepy-factor doesn’t usually carry over — I try not to imagine the unshowered bathrobed-wearing, over-caffeinated author who wrote the hot make-out scene between two sixteen-year-olds (again with the ewwww). 

    But sometimes the voice of a character sounds similarly forced or inauthentic. The writer’s mistake can be obvious because of poor word choice or vocabulary.  Other times the character’s tone is off or their knowledge/outlook isn’t appropriate for their age category.  

    What do you do make sure the voice of your characters are right for their age and background?

    To try avoid cringe-worthy mistakes, I try to stay on top of trends, music, movies, media.  But when my efforts fall short, I turn to my siblings who have recently left their teens. They are a great source for voice-confirmation. (The conversations with my brother are hysterical!  Thanks Joel!)

    Some of my writer friends have teenage betas, besides their kids, nieces and nephews, or neighbors. I might have to get one of those; someone who isn’t going to protect my feelings because their afraid I’ll take it out of their Christmas present/babysitting fees. 

    Then there are, of course, my wonderful CPs.   Even though some of us have very different styles, they never hesitate to call me on the carpet when something doesn’t ring true.

    Lastly, I read my entire ms out loud.  If stumble over sentences or phrasing, it’s usually because the wording is wrong for the character or situation.

    I’m certainly not a pro in this area, and would love to hear your ideas about how you make your writing sound real. 
  • No Need to Shout: Lesson from Gone With the Wind

    So I’ve got this case of Laryngitis Extraordinarus (I’m sure that’s the technical term) and can barely speak at a whisper…which makes for an interesting school morning.  Usually I spend a lot of time screaming, “Get your shoes!” or “Where is your backpack?” or “How long does it take to eat a bowl of cereal?” But this morning, my kids had to stop and look at me to figure out what I was saying.  Here’s the kicker: they actually listened.

    Best morning ever.

    We got out the door on time with hair done, coats on, backpacks zipped.  No frantic shouting, no sad kids.  I need to whisper more often.

    It got me thinking about voice.  The trend in YA is for loud characters with a distinct sound. In most cases that translates to tough, sarcastic and sometimes bitter (or other b-word) voices.  I get it. We like characters who don’t hold  back, who take action — like Scarlett O’Hara. 

    I remember finishing Gone With the Wind for the first time and thinking, “Scarlett is such a witch.  I LOVE her.”  She’s the first female main character (in modern publication) who held up her middle finger and told the world to go fiddle-dee-dee itself. 

    I can’t think of a contemporary novel with a female MC who compares.

    And while Scarlett rocks my socks off, she isn’t the character who makes Margaret Mitchell’s writing extraordinary.  It’s Melanie.

    For those of you who haven’t read Gone With Wind (fools), Melanie is sweet, innocent, and undeniably good.  The reader loves Melanie because all the other characters adore her (even if Scarlett hates, envies and ultimately wants to steal her husband).  Melanie participates in very little dialogue, but every word she utters is potent.

    She whispers and every other character leans in to listen.

    We all want to write a Scarlett, a memorable, fiery character.  But Scarlett wouldn’t be as appealing without the masterful juxtaposition of the nearly-voiceless Melanie.