Writing for the 21st Century

I represent Adult fiction and YA & MG fiction, but I talk more about the latter. I know I do this, and it’s not because I don’t have a lot to say about Adult fiction. It’s that YA, and especially MG, are still new. They are still evolving. Adult genres get redefined every once in a while, and audiences grow, but mostly, adults are adults and their writers know who they’re writing for.

I talk more about YA because the category itself is known for jumping from trend to trend, being super enthusiastic and supportive, yet misunderstood (and often disrespected) by mainstream literary culture. Its target audience can relate, and they aren’t known for standing still either. Adults age at a much slower pace. The difference between a 32 year old and a 36 year old is barely a blip compared to that of a 13 year old and a 17 year old. Sometimes writers laugh when I say things like, “this character should be 16 instead of 15,” as if one year could possibly make that much of a difference. But when you’re a teenager, it can and it often does.

With adults, whether they’re 52 or 27, they have at least one thing in common: they can look back on their adolescence as adults. Teens can’t. They only know their own worldview and the here-and-now. This is one of the main reasons I love YA and want to bring more of it into the world. Teens are full of possibilities. They have more ahead of them than behind them, and their stories often reflect that.

A less idealistic reason I love teens, though, is their ability to see through adults’ bullshit. They know when they’re being pandered to. They know when you clearly don’t understand them. They know when you don’t care about their lives – meaning, their actual lives and not the silly or melodramatic ones adults think they have. Teens are tricky and they are wonderful. If you’re choosing to write for them – and not just about them – then you should know why you’re doing so.

When I read submissions, I see writers succeeding in storytelling and realistic characters and good ideas… what I see failing in MG & YA lately is setting. It’s not hard to see why. Setting is generally only considered when physical place has a major focus. What I see writers ignoring more and more is that setting also refers to time. Contemporary/realistic fiction is becoming very blurry, time-wise, and doesn’t feel as authentic. We’ve gotten so used to each decade being “similar enough” in the late 20th century that it seems we’ve failed to notice it’s over.

Recently I tweeted a reminder to MG and YA writers that made many writers feel “old.”

@sarahlapolla · Aug 26: MG/YA writers: If your pub date is 2015 or 2016, no one in your target audience was born in the ’90s. Use this info while you write. [1/2]

@sarahlapolla · Aug 26: Think of the world they were born into, how they are growing up, & keep in mind what concepts/politics would be irrelevant to them. [2/2]

My point is that the 21st century is a teenager now. What’s more, it has a shorter attention span than its predecessors. It’s not going to slow down and wait for writers to catch up.

So, who are the teens living in this century? Why is our late 20th century mindset no longer cutting it?

Today’s teens are not 20th century teens in a way that goes deeper than simply pop culture and fashion. Plot and character should be the first things you have in mind when you sit down to write, but once you know what those are, go back to that question of why.

Why did you choose to write for teens? Why will today’s teens care about this story? Even if you write historical fiction, there should be a reason you think modern teens will connect with the time and story you’ve chosen. Otherwise, why make it MG or YA? The reason you chose to write for this audience should be based on more than YA being popular in publishing right now. Think of who your audience is and what they care about. More importantly, remember what they don’t care about.

There’s a huge difference in cultural and political attitudes from the 19th century to the 20th. Think, for example, how folks growing up in 1890 differ from the folks who came of age during the Roaring ’20s. They’re only one generation apart, and yet seem like a completely different world if you look at the history books. This is where we are now. The new century has taken shape and 20th century attitudes are becoming less and less relevant – a big part of that is because of the very tangible world-changing event that kicked off the new century, 9/11.

Want to go back and watch 9/11’s influence on pop culture? Aside from the many “post-9/11 novels” that came out around 2005-2008, and our desire to bring back superhero movies in a big way, take these examples of my two favorite shows:

– The West Wing was largely about the staffers of a liberal president who never went to war, and who’s biggest problem was that he didn’t disclose an illness before the election. After 9/11? Bartlett becomes increasingly more willing to take strikes on foreign land, the show itself becomes darker and more high stakes, and suddenly “the day in the life of a White House staffer” wasn’t a strong enough premise to compete against the real world drama of the early ’00s.

– Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is full of ’90s optimism, fashion, and attitude; it was often campy along with clever, and full of righteous heroes who believe the world is worth saving – a lot. By Season 6 (after 9/11 happened in real life), Buffy no longer knows who she is or what world she’s even trying to save anymore. The whole season is about feeling lost and hopeless. By the end of Season 7 (when we 1st invaded Iraq in real life), the Scooby Gang goes to war, refers to it as such, and is aware there will be casualties.

What those TV shows turned into are now what shows begin as – dark, gritty, in need of an anti-hero because all the “real” heroes have left the building. The real world influences pop culture all the time, and it often defines a generation in the process. We’re not as lost as we were in the early ’00s, but life didn’t go back to how it was either.

The teens reading YA only know about 9/11 from history class. They have no concept of what life was like in the 20th century. The way Americans live and think changed after 9/11. Imagine what your perspective might be like if you didn’t remember September 10th.

Someone on Twitter asked what I meant by “concepts/politics” in my tweet, and, in addition to major world events, I mentioned race and gender. I used the “Long Duck Dong” Syndrome of ’80s movies as an example. Movies geared toward teens are by no means perfect, and definitely not always politically correct, but overt racism is no longer mainstream comedy. Nor is language used to hide rape references, like in movies like Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds. For every “boys will be boys” attempt in modern teen movies, there’s a smart, sassy girl ready to shoot them down and make them the butt of the joke. 21st century teens still see horrible socioeconomic disparities, gender roles being challenged and disputed, and racial equality taking leaps forward and backward at the same time, but having more of a voice and reach because of the Internet. (The 21st century is, after all, still a teenager… it has a way to go before it reaches mature adulthood.)

These are ideas that go beyond whether your character uses a cell phone or says, “totally buggin’.”

We don’t all need to be scholars or philosophers. I still want fun, commercial stories about teens being teens, and I am a firm believer that teens are teens are teens. Meaning, their circumstances and perspectives change, but they don’t. Not really. That’s another reason why I love YA. I don’t need to be a 21st century teen to remember what it felt like to be a teenager. The heart of your stories – the emotional arcs of your characters – should be timeless. That doesn’t mean you can ignore a changing world that influences how your audience relates to your novel.

Another reason I’m elaborating on these tweets is because a lot of replies had to do with pop culture, which I understand. But, pop culture shouldn’t be given more of a focus than worldview, in my opinion. There were jokes about not mentioning certain bands or making their characters accidentally wear outdated styles.

Technology was another big concern. Teens text, not call. Teens use social media, but only some of it. Do they still blog? What’s a snapchat? How do we handle the rapidly changing trends that will likely be different before we even finish reading this blog post?

As an agent, I am concerned about these things when I read MG and YA. As a reader, I cringe at real-life pop culture references and technological fads that give your book a shelf life of about two years. These are things to keep in mind when you write, but don’t give them more power than they’ll actually have on your reader. At the end of the day, these things are superficial. Teens might roll their eyes, but they’ll keep reading if the story is compelling enough.

Sure, they can Google that band from the early ’00s and, yes, they’ve heard of VCRs before, but do they care? If they look it up online, will their understanding of the book as a whole really be effected? Probably not. So why risk interrupting the narrative? When I tell my authors to delete certain references, it’s not because I think teens won’t understand them. It’s because I know the reference isn’t really for them.

Besides, those surface-level references are easy to fix anyway. You don’t need to study modern teens or be up-to-date on the latest trends. You just need to remember it’s OK to be non-specific and embrace fiction. You’re writers; this shouldn’t be difficult.

For example:

“Low-rise skinny jeans” = jeans

“Smartphone/”cell phone” = phone

“Facebook” = some made up social media site that involves status updates and photos

“Taylor Swift” = fictional pop star

See? Easy.

Honestly, unless your plot is heavily dependent on whether your main character tweets, listens to Justin Bieber, or uses their phone, you probably don’t need to call attention to it at all. The best uses of setting are the ones you barely notice because you’re already fully immersed in it. Trust your reader. They can assume your characters do “normal teen things” even if it’s not directly written on the page. Don’t over-think it. (I mean, it’s not like you’re writing an episode of The Vampire Diaries or anything.)

We don’t need to envision the future, or even make a comment on it, in order to write about the present. We just need to remember what the present is. We may live in the future, but teens only know this world. As writers, we need to respect that world and let them trust we can see things from their point of view.

You should write the story you want to write. But if you query an agent, be prepared for a lot of questions about why it should be published. You owe your readers a story they can connect with. Your readers, however, owe you nothing. They don’t need to buy your book just because you really, really wanted it to be published. So remember the Who and What come first, the Where and How should come next, but don’t forget the Why. And don’t forget teens love asking that question much more than agents do.

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14 thoughts on “Writing for the 21st Century

  1. Great post! Reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock. He always strove for 'timeless' over fashionable. In the 70s he once shut down the set for a day and sent all the extras home to change clothing because too many of them were wearing bell-bottoms. He didn't want to date his films in this way. Teen trends change so quickly, I like the suggestions you made for keeping it simple. In the end, it doesn't really matter if someone texted or tweeted, teens will get where your going without spelling it out for them.

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  3. I loved reading your specific suggestions. Funny, too, that a lot of people who aren't around teens daily now would have a really hard time with the dialogue. Teen speak has changed massively, not just related to electronics, but daily life. Thanks for sharing your insights!

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  4. That's exactly why I referred to this type of “dating” as superficial because, in the end, those things can be changed or can be Googled. Like I said in the post, sure they've heard of things before their time, but that doesn't mean they need it in a book supposedly written for them. Pop culture and technology need to make sense for modern readers, but to me, they shouldn't be given more weight than cultural attitudes, social politics, and a worldview specific to the 21st century.

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  5. I once had a reviewer say that I shouldn't have assumed a teenage music buff would know who Leonard Cohen is just because he was popular when I was in high school. That kinda made me chuckle. I knew the NAME Leonard Cohen, and knew he was a well-regarded songwriter, but he wasn't on MTV, didn't tour while I was a teenager, his CDs cost 17 bucks and you couldn't listen to them first. Teenagers today are more likely to have heard of him (what with all the Hallelujah covers) and they can get his whole catalog with a touch of a button. There's no obscure music anymore.

    What'll date a book in the end isn't what references you put it, it's what you don't. When I look back at my early stuff, what makes it dated is that they don't have youtube. The pass around hard copies of movies. They use video cameras that are standalone devices. Even being vague about the specific technology they were using didn't save it. Older books wouldn't have thought twice about licking stamps, flipping channels, conspiring to get porn, or finding a pay phone… a great many plots from before about ten years ago could have been resolved if one person had a cell phone. You never know what's gonna become dated. This is part of why I just don't mind books taking place in the time they take place in – the industry thrives on “new” books enough that few books have a long shelf life to start with, if I read a book from twenty years ago now I HOPE that they talk about grunge rock and the X-Files. The trick is not using them to show how hip and contemporary you are. Fads, slang, and technology change, but the reason we get involved in them really doesn't. I feel as though we get so caught up in trying not to seem dated that we end up creating strange worlds where teenagers don't really react to pop culture much.

    Of course, then again, references to fads from two years ago and slang words people have stopped using WILL turn off a lot of readers, so. There's a Roger Ebert review out there where he says that “the trouble with a movie that's five years old is that it isn't fifteen years old.”

    I can ramble on this stuff a while.

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  6. This is eloquently put. You perfectly captured the things I struggled with in my own manuscript – how to get across a sense of 'the now' that would be both immediate and relatively timeless.

    Thank you for posting this!

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  7. This is an awesome post. It reminds me of a talk Jay Asher gave where he talked about using tapes in Thirteen Reasons Why, and how he crafted it so it fit and would't feel dated. I think he really accomplished what he set out to do. Thanks for the great tips!

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  8. A must-read post, I think, for all YA and MG writers! I especially love how you illustrate the balance between a story that teens can enjoy, where they can relate to characters, and the timeless nature of YA, which can be read and enjoyed by readers of all ages.
    Do you mind if I link to your article on my blog and translate some parts of it into French ?

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