Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Authentic teen voice?

Voice has always been one of the most fascinating parts of reading, and writing, for me. Many YA books have slight variations on the same snarky voice. But every once in a while I run across an original one, which immediately draws me. Burning, by Elana K. Arnold, was one with an analytical and powerful voice belonging to a gypsy girl. The Secret Ingredient by Stewart Lewis is another great example:  Olivia's teen voice is not snarky at all. She's what I call "all over the place" - observing everything around her with blend of curiosity, naivete and a touch anxiety.

But by and far the most common voice in teen lit is the snarky one (with minor variations), and it's become my default writing voice, too - which I'm not keen on. So whenever I discover a non-snarky voice I take the time to really break it down and analyze it. For instance, in The Secret Ingredient, Olivia's "all-over-the-place" voice, broken down, means that in one paragraph she's talking about Skid Row, in the next paragraph talking about food, in the next she's musing about learning to read "the maps of people's faces". Some readers might find this jumping from subject to subject confusing, I suppose, but it's such a female thing, finding connections everywhere (or randomly making them).

Recently I went back and re-read my own teen voice in my journals. I had a distinct voice, though WAY too wordy for good fiction, and not entirely original either. Whenever something fascinated me I would go off on these long, detailed, intensely opinionated riffs in my journals. Sometimes I'd go off on a philosophical riff prompted by some required reading at school (The Stranger, by Albert Camus, really fascinated me at the time). Sometimes I'd go off on a detailed description of a beautiful natural setting and my emotional reaction to it (senior year camping trip in the Allegheny hills).

I was heavily influenced by the Lord of the Rings in high school, and in my journals, where I was free to be myself, I would try to (maybe subconsciously) imitate a Tolkienish voice... but much more emotional and opinionated, like a young know-it-all female version of Gandalf before experience taught better wisdom.

Here's the part where I segue my way from musings about voice to a review of The Secret Ingredient. My full review is on Goodreads, but the skinny version here is parts of this book I loved, just loved: the characters and the voice and the perfect pacing.

A big draw for me with this book was a contemporary story with a historical story paralleling it, when Olivia finds a cookbook with personal notes from its original owner in the 1960's. I love these types of stories within stories. 

But it turned out the best part of the book was in the little details (and great voice).  This is a fun trip through a girl’s life in L.A. with a little bit of what we all crave from this setting: run-ins with actors (Jude Law – nice!) and a few insider peeks into movie biz, as Olivia works at a casting agency and gets to meet some, um, interesting clients. But mostly it’s a frolic through the ups and downs of adoptive, non-traditional family relationships, food (oh my where are the recipes! - my mouth watered the whole time), and quirky romance.  

Opening quote: Food is our common ground, a universal experience. - James Beard.

First line: Every day is sunny in Los Angeles, but it’s not exactly paradise.

When I got hooked:  on page 1, when Olivia suggests a name for a laundromat: “Not Responsible for Lost Socks". I knew for sure I was hooked a couple pages later with this observation about her dad in the morning: “His hair seems to be living in a different area code than his head.” 

 The whole book is filled with fun observations like this. And sometimes with writing that crosses over from fun, to really lovely:
I look down at the photo he handed me. It looks a little retouched, but his gaze covers me slowly, like sheets falling from a clothesline.

If you could label a distinctive voice from a favorite book, what would it be?


  1. I've noticed that my main character is not particularly snarky, but her best friend is. Maybe that evens out? Huck Finn is the first to come to mind for me, but I think Scout Finch is a close second.

    Writing Through College

  2. Bewildered! I like the one that just wants a quiet life but can't because of external forces and temptations! Like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit! Take care


  3. Wow. Thank you. You just hit upon a vice I've only noticed I possess. Although I've been told I write 'snark' quite nicely, I can't allow ALL my characters to carry that sheen. I have tried to explore different voices through some characters, which ends up being more me finding out about me than me discovering more about my world. :)

  4. A female version of Gandalf! That would be great! I think I'd enjoy this book, I wouldn't mind the way her thoughts seem to be "all over the place"--I can even relate to that now.

  5. Authentic teen voice? I am glad to catch idea from your article. It has information I have been searching for a long time. Thanks so much.

  6. Those are awesome book tidbits--the name of the laundromat and the hair living in a diff area code!! Love it. And yeah, snarky is way overdone. I've done snarky, but my WIP has a more thoughtful and almost old-fashioned-sounding MC (by design/necessity). :)

    SAVVY by Ingrid Law has a fantastic voice, though it's middle grade rather than YA. You can read the first pages of it on Amazon and see for yourself. :)



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