The Edge of Seventeen: My YA Voice -- Jen Doktorski
About ten years ago I attended the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature. It’s a wonderful writers’ conference for those looking to break into the industry. I highly recommend applying. www.ruccl.org
At that time, after years of writing non-fiction, I’d finally found the courage to attempt writing fiction and had accumulated a handful of amateurish picture books, one middle grade novel with POV problems, and my first young adult novel, a sample of which I’d used as my conference application.
At the conference, one of the guest speakers mentioned something that resonated with me – with most of the room, in fact. He told us that all of us have an emotional age, the age we feel on the inside. He told us to think of that age without stopping to give it too much thought. A gut reaction. “I’m five years old,” said a picture book writer sitting near me. “I’m not quite seventeen,” I thought. With an August birthday, I turned 17 during the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. I don’t suppose it’s any coincidence that my first three novels take place during that same time period.
With me, I don’t think it was ever a matter of finding my YA voice, it was more like I never lost it.
Still, that doesn’t exactly explain how I developed that edge-of-seventeen voice to begin with. Or discovered that “voice” was something I was good at when it came to writing. But maybe this does.
During my senior year in high school, I took a humanities course—my school’s version of honors English. One of our first assignments was to write an autobiography. I remember taking a light-hearted approach to mine, focusing on the idiosyncrasies of my Italian-American family, like the way we called any red pasta sauce “gravy,” and our tradition of meeting at my grandmother’s house for an early dinner after the noon mass every Sunday. (Attendance at either wasn’t optional.) I had grown up worshipping at the altar of Erma Bombeck, Judy Blume, S.E, Hinton, and Joan Rivers (Can we talk?) and my early writing style very much reflected my need/want to be any and all of those great women. Add a heavy dose of Jersey, more specifically north Jersey, and voila, Jen’s early writing voice is born.
When it came time to hand back our papers, the teacher walked up and down the aisle explaining her disappointment with our autobiographies. (How can you screw up an autobiography? one might ask). When she got to my desk she stopped and said. “I read yours late at night after I’d already given up hope.” On the front was an “A” with the words. “Finally, a real person speaks out!”
Her comment stuck with me and eventually it figured into the way I created characters as I transitioned from non-fiction to fiction writing. It doesn’t matter if characters are made up, they still need to speak out as real people, and not just through dialogue but in their narrative voice as well. Not surprisingly, my novels come to me by way of my characters speaking out. Rosie, from How My Summer Went up in Flames said to me, “I wasn’t always the kind of girl who wakes up to find myself on the receiving end of a restraining order,” and Quinn, from my upcoming novel, August and Everything After, said “I started wearing my grandmother’s cat-eye glasses after my last crush nearly crushed.”
After some tweaking, those became the first lines in their respective novels. So yeah, seventeen-year-old characters chat with the 17-teen-year old in my head. We start the conversation and keep it going until it’s a finished novel. I enter their worlds and live their lives and when it’s time to say good-bye, I’m heartbroken.
For the first time I’m working on an adult novel and I have to say, the conversations in my head have been different. It’s more like I’m eavesdropping. I’m not sure if I’ve created an emotional distance by writing in third person—my YA novels are all in first—or if my grown-up characters don’t bring that raw, teenage emotion to their interactions. Are my adult characters holding back? I welcome insights from those of you who write both adult and YA novels. Is your process different?