The teen voice

I think the biggest challenge for me, writing YA fiction, is making my character’s voice(s) sound authentically teen. I received my first feedback on Secrets last week, and one of the things my critique partner commented on was the voice. Secrets takes place in a contemporary setting with a modern teen heroine; and while epic fantasy and other non-contemporary stories can get away with the voice being perhaps slightly more mature than the average teen, it stands out more with a modern story.

Meanwhile, I’m nearly twice as old as the heroine in Secrets. I’ve had a lot of life experience in the fifteen years since I was her age, which is reflected in a changing vocabulary and voice. It’s hard to think back to how I sounded when I was a teen, half a lifetime ago for me. So in an effort to familiarize myself with an authentic teen voice I dug out a bunch of projects I’d saved from my creative writing class back in grade 12, when I was 17. I also found a huge pile of notes I’d exchanged with my friends during grades 10 and 11 (including a couple of love notes to and from my then-boyfriend).

It’s been somewhat illuminating to read. One of the most interesting things about them, I’ve found, is seeing the foundation of my current writer’s voice laid out on the pages from then, recognizably me but a slightly different me, less practiced and refined I guess. The notes have been perhaps more useful for getting a sense of teen voice because they weren’t crafted, they were just written; but even there I seem to have had a fairly mature writing style. Perhaps not surprising; I was a rather atypical teen, old for my age.

This is one of the creative writing assignments; about two and a half pages, handwritten and single-spaced. I’m not sure what our task was… from the teacher’s comments, perhaps writing in first person, showing conflict? Whatever it was, I got 100% on it. I might change a few things if I was doing it now, but I’ve transposed it here exactly as I wrote it then. I get a kick out of the names – a clear reflection of the epic fantasy phase I was in with my reading during high school.

I knelt on the bare granite slabs forming the outcropping that overlooked the village. Or had overlooked the village. All that remained were the charred remains of the longhouses, and the bodies of those who hadn’t escaped in time. In fact I was one of a very few who had escaped from the blaze. The neighbouring tribe had lit the fire. They’d snuck in during the night. I sat here now, my emotions and thoughts in turmoil, half of me hating the tribe for doing this, and half of me hating myself for this. My best friend was part of that tribe. No one had known this, and now no one would. I sat in the dust and dirt, my face in my hands, listening for the step that heralded my friend’s coming – I knew he would.

And as I suspected, he wasn’t long. This was my favourite spot, I could always be found here when I wanted to be alone. His feet made little noise as he tread over the fallen needles to approach me. He laid a hand on my shoulder.

“Thēkamau?” His voice was soft, questioning.

I closed my eyes. “Go away. Leave me alone, Jhonicher.”

He paused. I knew he was watching me. Since we’d first met, seven winters ago, Jhonicher had always been by my side. I had never asked him to leave me alone. This was a shock to him.

His voice was hesitant as he spoke again. “I… I didn’t want them to, Mau. I would’ve stopped them if I could, you know that.”

“Sure I do, Jhon. Just like I know you didn’t mean to kill my ‘coon.” I stood up, and turned to face him.

“It was an accident, he ran right into it.”

I glared at him. I didn’t believe him. “I know you didn’t like him. You were always complaining.”

“No, Mau, listen. I couldn’t stop the elders from making that decision. They would’ve killed me if they found out why I didn’t want the village attacked. It was me or your tribe. I don’t know your tribe–”

“–and so it’s okay to let them die,” I broke in.

“No! That’s not what I meant!”

“I know it’s not. What you meant is that you didn’t even try, that you don’t care whether or not they died, they’re not your family. Well listen to this, Jhon. They’re my family, and I care if they die. You don’t know how it hurts to see your family die and you’re helpless to do anything. Well, go back to your tribe, your unfeeling tribe, and tell them this is how it hurts!”

And with that I reached out with the hand that held the stone I’d picked up, a sharp one with a lacerating edge, and cut a line across his cheek. His face registered alarm, surprise and pain as I turned heel and left him.

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