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.