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Tip Tuesday #83

Tip Tuesday is a recurring feature where blog readers send in tips for fellow writers. If you'd like to send one in, please do! E-mail me at agentspotlight(at)gmail(dot)com.

Laura Lascarso, whose debut YA comes out in 2012, sent in today's fun tip about slang. It's actually more like a guest post, so I think I'll leave it up through tomorrow. You should check out Laura's blog where she talks books, music, and all sorts of other fun stuff (even emo hair!). Here she is:

“Thank you for not using the word ‘bling’ in your story.”

A Discussion on Slang in YA

By Laura Lascarso

So said my critique partner to me when reviewing my last manuscript. Why? Because I *heart* slang and tend to sprinkle it throughout my stories, not just in dialogue but sometimes in narration as well. I find it hard to restrain myself from using words like “bling” because “jewelry” sounds so gosh darn bourgeois.

Disclaimer: I have no literary degrees to back up my claims. All subject matter is extremely subjective and open to interpretation.

So, what do we demand of our YA writers? We want dialogue to be authentic, snappy, true-to-life, but we want our stories to be timeless, classic, universal. The two goals seem to be at odds with each other. How can I write a timeless story without it feeling old fashion? What technology should I choose to include or exclude? How can I be authentic to the teen voice without trying too hard?

In attempt to address these concerns and/or foster a dialogue about it, I’d like to introduce a couple questions to ask yourself when dealing with the use of slang.

Will ‘bling’ last?

Slang is an ever-changing organism and the shelf-life of words is shortening all the time, so think about whether your words will even be recognizable in a couple years. Some words, like “cool” and “awesome” have stood the test of time. Others like “radical” and “cowabunga” are only appropriate for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

In some cases, having the slang date your story might be beneficial. In historical fiction, you’ll want to include colloquialisms specific to that time period to lend authenticity. On the other side of the spectrum, dystopian, futuristic stories, such as Scott Westerfeld’s SO YESTERDAY and MT Anderson’s FEED, make up their own set of slang words that enhance the satirical voice. They are used repeatedly throughout the story to give readers definite context. It also serves to invite the reader to be part of the “in” crowd, by assuming the slang is universally accepted.

But as a general rule, for a realistic story set in modern times, less is more.

Who said it?

Are all your characters spitting rhymes or is it just one character who tends to wax the vernacular? Consider using slang as a tool for revealing character and a way to analyze your dialogue on a deeper level. Each character’s dialogue should be unique and specific to them. Also, try to avoid stereotypes (the farm boy who says aint, the inner-city kid who flosses the ice) unless, of course, you’re going to develop that character fully and give us snippets of their lives that makes them more (or less) than a stereotype.

Is there a better word?

You might find after a little thought, that there is a more accurate and universally known word that will be just as effective. A good experiment would be to hand off your manuscript to your mother or someone in the generation above you. Ask them to highlight words they don’t understand. Another exercise would be to give your manuscript to a teen beta reader and do the same. You might find that your slang is dating you, to your high school years and the slang that was popular then.

As an addendum to this point, think about your curse words as well. There are words that are hot buttons for librarians and teachers, the list is amorphous and ever changing, but it’s good to be aware that it exists. If you’re going to use profanity, do it with intent, and if not, consider toning it down so that your book will have a wider market appeal.

What about technology in YA books?

The kryptonite of all YA writers has to be the continual introduction of new technological gadgets. This brings on a whole host of concerns in and of itself, but for now, I’ll just say, a cell phone is a cell phone. If you want to call it a Smartphone or a BlackBerry or an iPhone, you run the risk of that technology being outdated before your book even hits the shelves. At the same time, technology can’t be avoided and if you try, then your book will be dated to the point of being unrealistic.

In conclusion…

The best advice I can give is to go back through your manuscript and highlight all your slang. When you do, you might find that you’ve used it more than you intended. You may also find that you used the wrong words (Some slang words that you think are one thing, are really something else). Treat slang like adverbs and try to reduce as much as possible, and the ones you keep, use with intent. Because sometimes bling is best.

I’d love to hear comments on this subject, any tips you’ve learned or mistakes you’ve made, because like the world of YA, it’s a continually changing rulebook.


Sarah Gagnon said...

Thanks for the discussion. I'd been wondering if my lack of slang made my characters seem too mature. But for now I've decided to leave it out.

Unknown said...

Great advice. The technology thing is difficult especially since kids have access to so many gadgets.
I also think this advice could go for references to people in pop culture.

Matthew MacNish said...

This is such a great post. I do use slang and curse words, but I do it on purpose, and I think it works. At least I hope it does.

I don't use technology, but I have a great excuse, because my characters are at reform school in the wilderness.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great tip. I'm going to be starting a YA manuscript soon and am wondering about the slang/cursing issues. This is so helpful. Thanks.

Laila Knight said...

You writers of YA books, hats off to you. I'm not so sure that what I've learned from my step-kids is suitable to put on paper.

Paula said...

Great post. I like your idea of trying to find another way to say the same thing. Perhaps the slang that makes the cut will hold more weight in the end, too. Thanks.

Beth said...

Terrific post. One of the tough things about writing for the YA market is that they're often defined by the slang they use and music they listen to, yet it's difficult for writers to use either because of how it dates our writing.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Excellent post! I think slang can really add a lot to voice. I love the tips you've given! :-)

Liz Reinhardt said...

So true! I read a YA book where the character flipped her phone open. It's not like that's unheard of, but the way phones are designed now, the newer models don't really flip open anymore. Just that single verb sent a really dated image, and the character was supposed to have all the newest stuff. It can be really tricky to walk that line between current and almost expired!

The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

I agree. Slang is very hard to get right. It looks like "wicked" has also been in vogue since the early eighties. That one may hold up. I need slang for my characters and spend quite a bit of time on slang dictionary sites.
Did you know that "ain't" was slang in Louisa May Alcott's novels?

Munk said...

An option is to make up your own slang. Even if your setting is in the now. We created our own slang in high school.
I am not above self promotion... my blog this week deals with a similar subject. "When Good Words Go Bad."

When did "being the shit" actually become a good thing?

Staying on theme, your blog post is "sick".

The Writer Librarian said...

Probably leaving brand names out is a good idea anyway...so one can just say "cell phone" and not worry about any other vernacular...but I agree, overuse of slang (like overuse of dialect) can grate the narrative.

Theresa Milstein said...

Yesterday morning my students were taking a state test. A 7th-grade girl called me over and asked, "Is this an old test?"

"What do you mean?" I asked.


She pointed to words like "rad" and a mention of the movie "ET". Yeah, they recycled something from more than 20 years ago.

My daughter and I are listening to "Down the Rabbit Hole" audiobook. Chris Farley is mentioned. He's dead as are some of the other references in the book.

In my own writing, I try to replicate patterns of teen speak, which I think will last longer than references to technology, stars, and use of slang.

lena said...

Munk--your post made me laugh, which isn't an easy thing as of late. so thanks.

and while being 'the shit' is a good thing, being 'a shit' is still a bad thing.

Laura Lascarso said...

Ha ha, you guys are funny. A website I forgot to mention in my post... urbandictionary dot com. You can find defs to just about any word as well as synonyms and date of origin.

Ishta Mercurio said...

MT Anderson does a great job of inventing his own slang in FEED. I think that's a good way to go - teens have always used slang and will continue to do so, but since it will change, you can invent your own.

Ishta Mercurio said...

Another thought: if you're writing something that is edgy and snappy and "now," you want to avoid feeling "dated." But if you're writing something more "classic" in style, then using lingo of the present (sparingly) could actually add to the book. Just a thought.

Lisa Nowak said...

I try to avoid slang that isn't so common it will never go out of style, like the word "cool." It's amusing to read books by authors who crammed all this slang into their books, and a couple years later they already sound dated. If slang is too unusual, no matter how great it sounds, I avoid it.