Teen fiction can be more vulgar and sexual than you might expect: judging from the snippets read by nine young adult novelists at the Chatham Square Branch of the New York Public Library on East Broadway last night, it often leans more CW than ABC Family. (That is, the characters sound more like teenagers than an adult’s sanitized fantasy version.) The panel, moderated by David Levithan, himself a noted YA author, had gathered to kick off New York’s Teen Author Festival, which continues all week with events throughout the city. Except Staten Island, which has canceled its participation in what was intended to be a five-boroughs-wide read aloud. “Fuck Staten Island,” Levithan said with a smile. Foul or frank language likely did not offend anyone present: unaccompanied minors peppered the crowd of a few dozen, which was constituted primarily of college students and other YA authors.
As such, the discussion tended toward insider baseball. The writers, who agreed as often as they disagreed, compared their writing styles as they explored matters of Character and Voice. Cathleen Davitt Bell, the author of Little Blog on the Prairie, said that, for her, voice comes first, and character emerges from that. “For me it’s the exact opposite,” Brian James (The Heights) said, adding that characters begin for him with interesting faces, usually from photographs he has tacked up above his desk. “Before I start writing, I have to know this character.” That was a sentiment with which many of the authors agreed, to varying extents: Bell said that, as she tosses a story around in her mind, she often waits for a spark of inspiration, for when she’s sitting on the bus and suddenly hears that one line that defines the character. “I don’t start writing until I know that line,” James added. But Levithan works differently. “I have to write [several] chapters,” he said, “until I get to that line.”
Several authors mentioned sudden visits from The Muse: Elizabeth Eulberg (The Lonely Hearts Club) has had them in the shower; Marie Rutkoski (The Cabinet of Wonders) has had them tossing in bed. But Rutkoski admitted such flashes were rare, and noted that writing doesn’t depend upon them: more important is the craft, the construction. A character’s voice might just come to a writer, but many depended upon external forces to help shape it: Melina Marchetta (The Piper’s Son) and Cecil Castellucci (Rose Sees Red) use lyrics from songs on playlists they instinctually craft around a character; Jen Calonita (Secrets of My Hollywood Life) would draw from her past experience at Teen People, as well as from watching E! and reading Us Weekly; Rutkoski said she is drawn to strange turns of phrase, like Renaissance slang. These crafted voices then need to be perfected upon endless revisions: every author admitted to reading aloud at least some part of their work, tinkering with the wording. “You work until it sounds authentic to you,” Marchetta said.
Brent Crawford (Carter Finally Gets It)—who said, “I write for guys, but guys don’t read, so I write for girls, I found out”—noted that it’s a struggle to capture such authenticity. “I could record a conversation and write it down verbatim,” he said. “And it still sounds phony.”