Friday, July 25, 2008

Trouble in Computer Land and the Voice of Teens

My computer is blitzing out now, so posting on my crit group's site and even checking email has been a huge pain for me right now. Maybe this is God reminding me to get back to work on editing my book instead of playing around on the internet....once I've done backing up my novels to my web space, I'm going to try shutting the thing down and not opening it back up for several hours to see if it fixes the problems.

I've got my first fifty pages as short and concise as I can without my crit group's consultation, so I've begun moving on to what happens after that big turning point. I've also focused on how the teen characters voices sound. My beta readers for the first fifty said they felt that my portrayal of teens was very accurate (considering I wasn't a teen that long ago and considering that I teach teens, I'm really glad that I didn't screw that up!).

Writing in a teen's voice is difficult because of slang:
  1. Teens use slang constantly, but that slang changes constantly--depending on where the teen is from and what's popular at the time.
  2. Using slang incorrectly makes your character look unbelievable and stupid.
  3. Slang goes out of date quickly. If you have the best, most current slang coming from your character's mouth, then by the time the book is published, there is every likelihood that the slang will not be popular any more.
Now, some slang is universal and really shouldn't be avoided. "Cool" is a part of everyday vocabulary and would be entirely safe to use. You know this because it is such a part of everyday vocabulary that adults can use it without being mocked by teens--that's a pretty safe sign that it's acceptable from any character and doesn't risk being out of date. Unfortunately, there are very few words that fit that label.

Last school year, there were a few very popular phrases with my students. Here's some examples:
  1. "Beast" as a verb. Example: "I beasted that test!"
  2. "Fail" as a noun. Example: "You are fail." (Win can also be sometimes used)
  3. "FTW" as an abbreviation for "For the Win." Example: Someone says they are going to do something either really awesome or really stupid, and the other person responds "ftw!"
  4. Speaking in LOLCat language. This is basically broken grammar--see for examples of LOLcats. The most common example would be a student using the "I can has" phrase; "I can has a Dorito?" Also common was "kthxbai" as in "I'm going to the bathroom now, kthxbai." (This is basically "okay, thanks, bye" said very fast)
  5. "Made of" with a noun. Example: "That movie was made of awesome!"
As I focus on revisions in my novel, which focuses on three teens, I do keep teen slang in mind. However, I also keep in mind that what's popular now won't be soon, and I don't want to make my characters caricatures of themselves.

In general, I have relied on tone more than words to express my teens. Instead of a slang word, I italicize a word to show what the tone was (because while slang changes, tone and sarcasm doesn't, not in the teen world). So, instead of saying, "Wow, she totally beasted that test!" I have my character say "She did so good on that test." The important thing is the tone, not the word, so whenever possible, I try to express the tone before including a slang word.

On the other hand, making teens believable requires them to have some sort of slang. Here's an original passage I had without slang, where one character is trying to convince another to go to a club meeting with them:
"Come with us, Esperanza. What else are you going to do, just go home? Boring."

After thinking about it, I decided to change the passage to this:
"Come on, Esperanza, just come with us. What else are you going to do, just go home? That's a huge pile of fail."
The meaning is the same. I think the first one actually does show some tone (using one word "Boring." at the end is pretty typical). However, the next one adds a lot more tone: italicized "on" and added the slang use of "fail."

This is a bit dangerous, but not much. Even if "fail" isn't popular any more by the time the book is published, the meaning is still obvious. And "fail" is starting to catch on more and more--I've seen it on more blogs recently, and, unliked "beasted" it's not faded from the teen vocabulary. It's starting to hit mainstream, at least a little. And even if it does fade, it still has the classic teen tone. It's not that gimmicky (like LOLspeak), it's not difficult to understand if it disappears from teen language (like FTW).

Adding just a touch of teen slang will enhance a text--just walk the line between what's going to last and make sense versus what's just a passing fad.


TerriRainer said...

And here I thought the Scottish vernacular was daunting!

Good luck with teen slang, having them, I know it's hard to keep up, and I've noticed that slang varies in different parts of the countries, yikes!

:) Terri

PJ Hoover said...

I think your example is safe, though. The slang is totally get-able from the context.
you know what "slang" I loved. The Uglies/Pretties series when stuff was "happy making". It totally worked for me.

Unknown said...

Terri, having done Scottish dialect as well, I'm not sure which is really harder!

In some ways, I think making up a new slang is easier than working with real slang, PJ...but then I think about how brilliant Scott Westerfield is in the Uglies series, or Joss Whedon in Serenity, and I know that I couldn't do something that great!