Creating an Authentic Teen Guy's Voice



How can we top off a week of fabulous guest bloggers? Well, duh, invite my friend and soon-to-be debut YA author Julie Cross to hang with us.

Julie and I met in bloggy land early on, and I've had privilege of both beta-ing some of her work and having her beta mine. And let me tell you--this girl knows voice. No matter what story excerpt I read of hers, that's the thing that came shining through in every piece. I'm half-convinced she's not a fellow mom like me and is secretly a high school student. :) 

So, I hope you'll take the time to absorb this terrific post and if you're not already doing so--go follow her blog. She's going to be the next big thing, people, with her debut YA time travel novel Tempest coming out next year.
First of all, I just want to come right out and admit a couple things:
1)      Roni’s blog totally rocks and I’m totally nervous to be guest blogging today. I’ve got butterflies just thinking about all the amazing people who might read this post.
2)      Until very recently, I completely stunk at writing real teen boys. My guy characters were basically girls in cute boy bodies. Seriously. I’m so not kidding.
Okay, on to the real information
**feel free to skim this if you want to get on to the information, I felt obligated to establish credibility so you all weren’t like, “Who the freak is this lady and why is she telling me what to do?”
In the past year, I’ve written 7 young adult novels (5 girl MC’s and 2 boys). All of them are written in first person. All of them have some kind of romantic element and I made the mistake of assuming if I’m writing for a female audience, my guys have to be perfectly caring and sensitive or complete a-holes (which leads to a sensitive girlie-boy, who’s of course totally cute, sweeping in to rescue the girl from the manly a-hole).
When I started creating TEMPEST with my editor Brendan Deneen, we both knew the concept was big enough to reach a larger audience than just teen girls. So, the real challenge was creating a guy that girls enjoyed reading and boys could read without gagging.
Not as easy as it sounds. At first, I didn’t over-think it. I wrote one chapter at a time and just before I’d hit the send button to pass it along to Brendan, I’d chicken out and remove at least half of the sappy, over dramatic crap. That was my only motivation in the beginning.
The second person to read TEMPEST was my agent, Suzie Townsend and the very first thing she said to me in an email and then again on the phone was how much she loved Jackson. And I’m seriously not trying to toot my own horn. I was completely shocked to hear this was what stuck with her most. And it kept on coming from all the readers that followed. I would get words like, “Swoon” and “Major swoon.” This is straight from Suzie’s notes on Draft 2 (and Suzie has a well-deserved reputation for giving kick-ass notes): I love Jackson from the first time we meet him. He has a great voice, I was rooting for him the whole way through the book – and he is rather swoon-worthy. (ah, sa-woon!)”
Okay, so here I am, ready to write the next draft which required some MAJOR revisions and I’m all full of warm fuzzies because everyone loves my nineteen year-old time-traveling guy.
Great, right?
I get everything ready and start to attack the MS for the next draft and then I get really freaked because I knew Jackson was the favorite, but I hadn’t figured out exactly how I got it right. How I got him right. It was completely on accident (mostly because I hated sending Brendan the mushy-girlie stuff) and now I had to write new scenes and not turn him into something different. Major, major freak session followed along with writer’s block (that I completely denied).
The first thing I realized and was pretty shocked with, was the fact that Jackson is never really described physically and neither is his main love interest. Her height, hair/eye color are noted, but Jackson never comes out and says she's the hottest girl on the planet and every guy wants her (I made that mistake in a very early version—readers don’t like that). Jackson doesn’t have girls falling all over him either. He comes across as fairly polite when compared to an insensitive horn-ball character. He has a few moves, but kinda bombs with them. Readers interpreted him as “swoon worthy,” but I never came out and said he was a Mr. Gap model guy or anything.  
After careful analysis, I figured out a few things about my MC that anyone can apply to help create an authentic teen guy. Even if your audience is mostly female, they still want the guy to seem as close to real as possible with just a hint of something amazing. And I swear you can do this without mentioning the word erection or boner and without sessions of “guy talk” involving embellished (or completely made up) sexual experiences. My guy is nineteen, so a younger guy (13-15) may have more mention of those things in the internal dialogue. If it’s important, don’t skirt around it. My book just happens to have life threatening events on every other page so there’s not much room for mention of every moment of arousal or time spent looking at internet porn. 
** keep in mind, writing a teen boy is SO hard for me. When I work on my character development journals and I get to write from Holly’s POV (my female MC) the words just fly onto the computer like the most natural thing in the world. Don’t expect it to come too easy (unless you’re actually a guy, but grown men sometimes forget what’s it’s like to be a teenager, more so than women). 
EMOTIONAL PACING (No Crying on page one!!)
n  Where your boy is, emotionally, in the beginning of the book has to escalate enough to show growth and keep him from being a flat character.
n  If you start at 8 and 10 is the goal, you’ve got a problem.
n  With TEMPEST, you know just from the short description, Jackson witnesses his girlfriend’s murder and gets stuck two years in the past. In my very earliest version, Jackson was hopelessly, forever and ever in love from page 1. Which is really sweet, but then what?
n  The new and improved Jackson isn’t an asshole, just less focused, not completely sure why he likes being around Holly, just that he usually does. For him, that’s enough. For her, it isn’t always, which is an awesome conflict you in the first 2 pages.  Here’s a little sample of Jackson’s internal dialogue  in the opening pages during a fight with his girlfriend:
It would have been impossible to insert even one more drop of sarcasm into her voice. And it hit me like a gust of icy air. I ran my fingers through my hair and tried to come up with something decent to say. Or to decide if I should run. Instead, I went for a change in subject.
**If you’re worried about your character coming off as jerk in the beginning, then maybe, instead of saying something mean or insensitive, you can use the technique I used with Jackson and have him either not know what to say or be completely unaware that he’s even said the wrong thing.
This method = imperfect yet likable guy.
n  And it’s not just kissing, but a physical action that shows the reader his emotional response without having your dude talk about his feeling.
Guy MC doesn’t get along with his dad. Dad wants him to play football and he wants to join the GLEE club. Kid lets Dad know he wants to quit playing football after practice one day. They have a big argument outside, right in front of their car. Dad finally admits that his dead Grandpa’s dying wish was for his grandson to play in a state championships. Kid stares at Dad for a second, thinks about how Grandpa let him smoke a cigar when he was 10 and told him not to tell his parents, then he gets in the car without another word or complaint.  
                **So, even though no one sobbed or said I love you, a scene like this can carry a TON of emotional weight and works great with pre-teen/teen boy MCs. Even Dad’s confession can be subtle, “It’s the last thing grandpa said to me. ‘Damn, I would have loved to see Joey kick some ass in the state championships.” Seriously, people will cry. Trust me.  
n  But if we ARE talking about love stuff, kissing might be the way to go. Just when you’re about to have your 17 year-old guy give a speech equal to the worlds’ greatest wedding vowels, stop and ask yourself, “Could he just kiss her instead?” The answer is usually yes and your readers will probably LOVE it because it flows naturally rather than some awkward sentimental speech.
n  I know what you’re thinking, if I’m writing a real guy does that mean he has to play sports, sweat a lot, scratch his balls, sniff under his arm pits, drink out of the milk carton, have porn movie marathons. The answer is: NO, he can do essentially anything. Seriously, there are ways around any hobby or characterization.
n  Would you believe me if I told you that my realistically boyish and very likable MC does all of the following things:
1)      Recites poetry in French
2)      Performs a waltz to the song, Come Away With Me
3)       Recites several pages of Dickens
4)      Sits in a famous art museum in his free time to sketch things
5)      Willingly volunteers at a day camp and is very good with kids
**Did any of you roll your eyes? I totally would if I read this list without reading the book. It’s hard to explain the exact technique for achieving this so I’m just going to give you an example. Again, my motivation began with writing something my editor, a guy who loves action/thrillers, wouldn’t put the red lines through. This little mini-scene made it through without a mark. It follows an argument Jackson and his girlfriend Holly have at the beginning of the book. Jackson offers up a “Make-up gift” and Holly makes a request he’s not excited about granting.
 “You’re turning me into a complete freak. Or worse -- a chick.” I made the mistake of turning my head. One glimpse of the tears still drying on her cheeks and I caved. “If you tell anyone, I will kick your little ass. Got it?”
She mimed zipping her lips, then snuggled up to me. “Do you think you can manage a British accent this time?”
I laughed and kissed her forehead. “I’ll try.”
“Okay, on with it.”
I rolled my eyes then took a deep breath. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness. . .”
My ninth grade English teacher always made us recite Dickens while standing in front of the class. I hated it. For Holly, I didn’t mind too much, but I’d never tell her that.
“Do you think he did the right thing?” Holly asked after I’d recited the first few pages.
“You mean Sydney? Getting his head chopped off so the woman he loves can be with another man?” I said.
Holly laughed and her lips vibrated against my chest. “Yeah.”
“No, I think he’s a complete moron.” I kissed the corner of her mouth and she grinned at me.
“You’re lying.”
I pulled her closer and kissed her again, ending the discussion that would inevitably lead to spilling out more secrets than I cared to share.
n  Give us only a little, tiny insight into the guy’s real feelings. This makes your readers crazy for more, which is a really awesome thing. Besides, readers love to read between the lines and interpret a simple moment into something bigger.
n  Like with the fake example from above, the kid could be imagining his Grandpa carrying him in the house after he fell and broke his leg, or when his grandpa told him how much he loved him. But instead, he’s thinking about how cool it was to smoke a cigar like a man. What it tells the reader is, “Joey” and his grandpa shared a special moment that no one else knows about. Everyone will go “Aaaww” when they read that. And it’s about a ten year-old smoking a freakin’ cigar.
n  Think about how powerful those “Almost kiss” scenes can be. It’s hard to pull off a teen guy voice that gets all sappy. But what if your guy, “Almost” says something sappy, but can’t quite go through with it. This especially works well in first person because the reader knows what he almost says and then we just feel sorry for him and we’re swooning at the words that were never actually spoken. It’s enough that he wants to say it. Actually, most of the time is more than enough. Less is better.
I’ll leave you with one more example of how this could work in your favor:
 That was the first time I really wanted to say it… I love you. It would have been perfect, just melting into the moment. Not like some overplayed drama. But my tongue tied up just thinking it, so instead I said, “Did you know you have a freckle on your-”
She put a hand over my mouth. “Yeah, I know.”


So, have you struggled with writing from the male POV?  Which authors have you read that have nailed the guy perspective?

Thanks so much, Julie! And for even more information on how dudes think, I did a post on adult male POV here.


**Today's Theme Song**
"Teenage FBI" - Guided With Voices
(player in sidebar, take a listen)