In the course of my reading this past week, I’ve encountered a number of . . . attractive people. To be more specific: A whole lotta hot guys, who have a number of anatomical things in common. I’ll list a few: rippling six packs; rock-hard abs; sun-flecked blond hair; emerald-chip eyes; square jawlines; strong chins; cute grins. These guys are invariably ‘jocks’, and invariably quarterbacks. However, given they are clearly God’s chosen ones (being a jock and a quarterback seems to guarantee that apparently; all so hard for a British girl to grasp . . . ), these hunks of walking perfection are invariably Not Very Nice. Or if they are, well, frankly, they’re a bit dim. Or maybe they’re even trying to break out of their own stereotype because they’re just plain misunderstood. And what is the point of all those muscles, of being ‘drop-dead gorgeous’, if you’re Mr Misunderstood? Yes, it’s very hard being beautiful!
But their female counterparts also stride sassily into my life at times. Girls with lean, tanned limbs; endless legs; sun-flecked blonde hair that is subject to much tossing; big blue eyes (huh! Guys get the emerald chips, girls get the ‘bottomless pools’ of blue. Call that fair?), and cute smiles (it seems that girls can smile – grinning clearly unfeminine). These visions will usually be loaded with cash. A lot of them will be athletes who think nothing of running marathons; some of they may even be cheerleaders. But once again, these beauties are invariably Not Very Nice – because with great beauty comes a lack of moral fibre, it seems. Except in those who are simply too sweet, too genuine, too distracted to recognize their own beauty – which may then have to be pointed out to them by their much frumpier, fatter, less desirable/socially successful friend.
Invariably, these characters share a certain vocabulary. There will be a touch of ‘Earth to Cassie/Sophie/Amy’, a hint of ‘OMG!’, a dollop of ‘Like, hey, oh yeah, kinda’.
And meanwhile Sarah sits at her desk, glasses perched on nose, paper stacked in front of her, sliding steadily downwards as she loses her tenuous grip on sanity and finally slumps to the floor. It’s not always easy reading work for teens in an age where CLIQUE, A-LIST, GOSSIP GIRL, and many more sit pinkly on the shelves of Barnes & Noble. Because unless you are a real whiz at bringing fresh life to characters we feel we’ve met before, it can be very tough to make an impact.
There’s nothing at all wrong with writing for a cool teenage audience, but somehow, if possible, you’ve got to overturn the stereotypes and do something new and funky of your own with the genre. However you hear kids speak out there on the streets, in the schools, in Starbucks, you’ve got to capture that in a way that’s going to be arresting and different and set you apart from everything else out there. And however kids actually speak, it all stands out far more on the page than it does in real life. That is, there’s a BIG difference between the impact of the written word and the impact of conversation (hence one swear word has vast impact in a text, whereas you may not even notice it in a verbal exchange). Try to find a new concept for your story, a fresh voice, a more distinct and fully realized set of characters (as three dimensional as possible), and don’t try to emulate successful series that are currently selling out in the shops because that is surely going to be derivative writing.
Is it possible to do something new with the ‘high school novel’? Well yes, it is. I read one manuscript this week that hit a really fresh note for me. I can’t tell you too much about it, and it was far from perfect, but there was something structurally, linguistically, and stylistically different that made me stop in my tracks. I don’t know yet if it will be something I’ll represent, but I do know it gave me hope that there really ARE new ways to evoke that contemporary teenage world and make me see it in a different light.
So give it a shot and see what happens. And meanwhile, hey, OMG!, I’ve like gotta go, guys, yeah?. I’m off to the pool with a hottie jock!*
*Aka, the Greenhouse Husband. 🙂