When I accidentally started writing my first novel (see my post The name of the scalp), it wasn’t long before I realised the protagonist was a teenage boy. I was alarmed at first; where had he come from, I wondered, and could I write him? It didn’t feel as though I had much choice, however. He had started something and I went with it.
I did have to make some conscious choices though, and the first proper decision I made about the book was to write using language and phrasing that were not too literary. Relative to my default style, I wanted to keep it simple and hopefully elegant, but without sacrificing interesting imagery. I wanted to make it accessible to younger readers. I found myself telling people I was writing a novel for teenagers, and soon I believed it.
A completed first draft came with me when I travelled to a course on writing for children a few months later. Residential writing courses are often revelatory in a positive sense. This one was a very positive course attended by enthusiastic, supportive people, but the revelations that followed for me were not quite so comfortable.
Firstly, ‘teenage fiction’, for many successful writers and publishers working in this category, seemed to be a secret synonym for ‘teenage thrillers’: action, romance, horror, fantasy, combined with furiously fast-paced plots deploying young characters.
Alright, I thought; perhaps this is down to shrinking attention spans and competition from flickering screens all around the stereotypical teenager. Anything less than a Bond film in book form and they’ll drop it in favour of Facebook.
But that image is indeed a stereotype; the range of reading attitudes and tastes among teenagers is just as broad as it is among adults. Many young people don’t need to be persuaded, or tricked, into reading by gritty or violent content; some will eschew books with these features altogether. Indeed, a swathe of contemporary teenagers is as allergic to novels written especially for a teen audience as I was at that period in my life. They leap straight to adult fiction, unfazed by difficult language or mysterious nuances.
The last part of this realisation was good for me; revelation number two did not come as such as relief. I had written a novel I would have enjoyed reading at age 13 or 14, but I did not fit the demographic of teenage thriller readers that are now making those kinds of books into big sellers. Neither did I read the teenage versions of chick-lit or toned-down Mills & Boon that were prevalent even then.
All well and good, but I had attended that course in order to hear from two writers who were managing to make a living out of novels aimed at teenagers, hoping to follow in their footsteps. I came away with the impression that actually, the reason their books sold was not because of some special insight that they had into teenage tastes, but because they were writing in genres that, regardless of intended audience age, were firmly within the realm of commercial fiction.
The commercial/literary fiction distinction is clear amongst novels for adults. I don’t disparage commercial fiction but I don’t read it either, and this put me in an appalling position when it came to tackling that kind of writing. I tried: I gathered what I thought were some sure-fire themes, made the protagonist of my new novel a mouthy, sardonic girl disguising her fear of the unknown with derision, and set off in the first person.
All the joints showed. Fifteen thousand words in, I felt more uncomfortable than ever with the voice, and writing became a chore. This, coupled with the realisation that the teenage me would not pick this book up, drove me to set it aside. I intend to let it slip out of shape like a lump of wax by the radiator, and go back to it when I can reshape a set of good ideas in a way that pleases me. This will be in the form of a book written for no age-group in particular, but rather for people sharing a bent of mind across as many generations as possible.
Writing for teenagers is like writing for anybody: write what you can have faith in and someone, somewhere, will love it.