Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Reunion Voice in YA

I had time over the break (break for the teachers, I made enough pizza rolls and bagel bites to feed a sub-Saharan village)to look over some of the manuscripts I tell people I'll never get a chance to read. I explain that I teach writing and don't want to see any additional typed pages in my spare time. But writers are either gamblers or terrible listeners and they send them anyway. Usually, I glance at them and put them on the recycle pile. But with one kid sick the entire break, I got sort of bored and snooped through a few of them.

One of the reasons I dislike looking at manuscripts is because if I were an editor, I would send back acute observations such as: I don't like this and I don't know why. Something's just off...

Mostly, I can't articulate why I don't like someone's work, but I'm pretty good at saying why I do. You can guess which category most of the manuscripts I get fall into. But this time was different: this time I could put my finger on exactly what was "wrong" with the three manuscripts I leafed through. They were all YA, and the voices were, to borrow a highbrow editorial term, daffy.

Somewhere out there this snarky, sarcastic, wise cracking, semi cynical teen voice has emerged, and it's just awful. After a few pages, you recognize the the voice of an adult looking back on his/her teen years. I call it the "reunion" voice, that nostalgic remember-how-we-were-then voice, full of poignant memory and a kind of subtle admiration for your younger self. It's really fine for reunion weekends, but teens would tolerate it for about two pages before moving on.

The part that bugs me about about these stories (and you were thinking you already knew what bugged me) is that so much else about them had potential. The plot was well thought out, the characters were involved in intriguing situations, and there were truly funny scenes. It's just that the voices were not authentic, and that kills a story before it begins.

It's really hard to pin down what makes for good voice in a story. In the movie, Juno, when she says, "Silencio, old man," while buying a pregnancy test, I thought,
"Yik. Wrong." Most teens I know verge on hysterical if their hair straightener shorts out. But in Napoleon Dynamite, when he figures out his salary at the chicken farm and says, "That's like a dollar an hour..." it just sounds right. I can't explain why, but I can say that if the voice is right, probably a whole lot of other things about your manuscript are, too.


Marcia said...

So often editors say a book can have everything but if it doesn't have voice it's not fixable.

I wonder -- do you suppose there's so much stress on voice today that some people are just trying too hard with it? That everything else is okay with their story, but it's off because they're obsessing over a one-of-a-kind voice? That may not be the case specifically with the nostalgic voice, which seems more clueless, maybe, but I wonder about that in general anyway.

Anne Spollen said...

I think the reunion voice is most common with people starting out on their very first YA -- just go back to when I was a teen kind of thinking.

Yes, I do think all the emphasis on voice makes for strange sounding novels. Overwriting and inconsistency in the voice make the whole structure seem wobbly.

The voice is kind of the soul of the story, and I think it has to emerge naturally from your character. When you try for any kind of effect, it comes off as just dreadful.

Mary Witzl said...

My kids both went over one of my MG ms one day and made more than a dozen 'change this' notes. Invariably, I'd used a word or phrase that they knew, but would never be caught dead saying. A few examples are: 'wax lyrical,' 'pernickety' and 'total non sequitur.' I feel embarrassed just recalling.

I think you can have a precocious teen character, but you have to be very careful to make him or her completely consistent -- and establish reasons for their precosity. Obviously, I hadn't. Thank God for kid beta readers...

Anne Spollen said...

Right, when my boys begin smirking, I know I'm in trouble. It's like, "Mom, we like you and all, it's just that you're...so uncool."

In one of the YA mss, a writer said he was looking over the "...ubiquitous artifacts of his youth." Never out of the teen mouth, never. (And it's clunky language besides) Even I stopped reading there.

Colorado Writer said...

This is like one of my biggest fears in my writing.

Great post!