I write books for teenagers. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that the characters who come into my head and beckon to me tend to be in the youthful demographic. So, they call, I follow. And I listen. I listen to what they say. How they talk. Which isn’t such a stretch for me either. For though I am 40 years old, and am apparently an articulate person, to my ears I still talk like the Valley Girl I once was. (Woodland Hills, CA 91364, if you must know; San Fernando Valley all the way!)
But as I write my characters, there is one thing I don’t do. I don’t teen-talk them. I don’t use slang, the latest jargon, or, heaven forbid, that text argot that the kids are working these days.
This is me, however. There are plenty of young-adult authors who will eavesdrop on teens, hanging out at malls or schools or skulking online to get the latest terms. To me, this is a wee bit creepy, the equivalent of being a leering old man at a playground. I’m not 18. I shouldn’t pretend to be. Besides, it almost always backfires. With technology the way it is, if I went and put “<3," which is a popular abbreviation of "love" (yeah, I don't get it either) in a book that I was writing right now, by the time the book was published, that term (emoticon? symbol?) would be as dated as that spaghetti sauce in the back of my fridge that I'm too scared to do something about. Make it up yourself
Of course, in the world of YA, sparkling banter and lively language are the lifeblood of the novel. And you need to make the teen characters feel authentic. But that’s where the fun part of being a writer—an inventor—comes in. Rather than copy existing slang, if you find yourself in need of slang, you can simply make it up. Take Jandy Nelson, author of the outstanding recent YA novel The Sky Is Everywhere, who must win the best neologism award for her creation of the word dildonic (adj.: incredibly lame). In my ideal world, dildonic (such a good word!) would become so popular that it will eventually be part of the vernacular, the way that all that amazing slang from the movie Clueless (“whatever”; “as if”; “I’m outie”; “bettys” and “baldwins,” etc.) became so mainstream we now forget it was an invention of the director, Amy Heckerling.
In my writing, there have been a few cases where I’ve felt the need to invent some slang—and here, having young children has proved so helpful for inspiration. In one book, I had a character curse in abbreviations: “Oh, C the F D!” she would tell her friends dismissively when they were overreacting. (Please tell me you can figure this out, smart reader.) I used to tell my screaming toddler the same thing.
But more often than not, I find I don’t need to make up slang to have my characters sound like teenagers. The thing is, when I’m writing, I feel the emotions of my teens. I feel those teenagery feelings (yes, pity my husband). And those feelings are transferred to the page. That is what my readers—most of whom are less than half my age—connect to. That’s what resonates. Not the fact that I know what CTKYOL means.—GAYLE FORMAN