Reflections on Writing for Tough Audiences: Them, and Me

One of the primary tenets of writing that I’ve learned over the last few years is the importance of writing for yourself, first. Good readers can tell when a book or a short story is written out of love and interest and dedication, and one that is forced, contrived, or tossed out to meet someone else’s expectations.

When I first started working on this snowmobiling story, the intent was to provide a short novel for my reluctant teenage readers that was based on their interests: snowmobiling, outdoors, survival stories, true stories. I’m using Crabbe and Hatchet a little as models, as well as my observations of local teenage individuals and their experiences.

Yesterday, I had some of those reluctant readers take a look at the unfinished draft, both to get their feedback AND because they’d forgotten their independent study novels at home.

Their first and main reactions were dismay at the pages of words I’d given them — “Aw, man, so many words. I don’t wanna read words.” They enjoyed seeing some of their slang in print — “Look, she’s been listening!” — and liked some of the descriptions, but they lost interest by page three. One said there was too much talking, and another said too much happening, and a third said not enough.

As disheartening as this was, I realized today that I’m actually really invested in this story, now. As difficult as it was for me to get into at first, working with a genre and style that’s unfamiliar to me, I really want to know how it turns out. I’m not sure how well any of it is working — the voice, the details — and I want it to be something that my former teacher and the esteemed writer William Bell would enjoy reading and recommend to people who like his books. I want Gary Paulsen to read it and say, “Yes, this works.” I guess I’m looking for reassurance that I’m on the right track.

I’m also about 5,000 words behind in my word counts at this point.

So, I guess the bottom line is this: I started writing something for others, and it’s turned into something for myself. Despite the change in my goal, I’m still feeling nervous and inadequate on this, even more so than with other works I’ve done. It will feel good to finish this. Even better if I can get someone in my class to read it and tell me they like it. Hell, if the kids I’m writing for are able to read it from start to finish, without giving up, I’ll have done something right.

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Ravings and rantings on blockages and teenagers (really just another Tuesday night)

I have broken my rule on writing breaks, and lost some momentum in the snowmobiling story. I didn’t make my word count yesterday, and I’m out of ideas and steam for tonight. The best I’ve got so far is another animal threat — a lynx, this time — and I might work on a conversation between Adam and the old man. Try to find some answers.

One of my students (I’ll call him Benny) wanted to know whether I blog about their antics in my writer’s craft class — I’ve shared with them this 365 Days of Blogging project I’ve given myself — and my response was no, not usually. See, by the time I get home and transition back into mom and partner, and then into writer mode, much of what has happened in the day is tucked into a file in my head, unless it’s something upsetting or troubling (in which case my anxiety is heightened and I have a hard time letting go). However, since I said I would talk about shenanigans, here are a few for your enjoyment:

  • One day, a few months ago, Benny found my stash of Hallowe’en decorations and props from the haunted house in October. Included was a broomstick / mop handle without bristles or mop head, which we’d thought about using for the Snow Queen performance. He rather enterprisingly found a way to poke a hole in a prop severed hand and pushed it onto one end of the broomstick. It has stayed that way ever since. Very interesting, too, as the mop handle has white and black polkadots on it. I now call it my Handy Stick and it gets used for various means, such as pointing, in the classroom. Benny also likes to twirl it around his shoulders until I see that he’s doing it and I make him stop. I have to remember to bring in a light sabre for him to fiddle with instead . . .
  • My seniors noticed, at the start of the semester, that I keep a kettle in my classroom. They started a hot chocolate fund and brought in their own mugs. They don’t have hot chocolate every day, but some of my juniors have begun following suit, dropping twenty-five cents in the jar marked “Help the Writer’s Craft Ballers” or whatever they’ve put on the jar . . . I should take a picture of it and update this post tomorrow.
  • You remember, of course, that I wrote a song about cellphone rudeness in the classroom and posted it. Now I get frequent requests to sing the song, and not just in my classes — I had to cover a colleague’s period 3 the other day, and some of the kids who were in it are also in my period 2, and they’d told their friends about the song. I didn’t have my lyrics with me, sadly, so I didn’t regale them with my glorious musical skills. I did enjoy moving around the art class, though. And taking a few phones away from those who were misusing them . . .

I will try to jot down other interesting anecdotes as they come up. Some of my grade 9 boys tend to try play-fighting or tickling or other rough-housing activities on occasion, stopping when they’re told. Some of my grade 9 girls try to make trick shots with balled up paper thrown over their shoulders. I’ve picked up on something interesting with that group: they do tend to be more productive as a whole when the class divides off, with a small group of girls in an empty classroom next door, a small group of boys (/wrestlers) on the couches in my classroom, and maybe a very small group of three or four in the hallway or stairwell. When the genders are separated, they become competitive with each other, in fact, each accusing the other of slacking off, when they’re actually doing about the same amount of work.

And to help motivate them, heaven help me, but I’ve been playing them off each other a little bit. “Girls, the boys next door think you’re not doing any work in here. Prove them wrong!” “Boys, the girls think you’re slacking right now. Show them you’re doing better than they are!” It’s sneaky and underhanded, but it’s working. And despite the wrestling (mainly boys) and high-pitched-giggle-shrieking (mainly girls), I think I’m seeing a lot less showing off and open flirting with the groups separated. If I were to do a debate with them, I’d ask them how they’d feel about gender-segregated schooling, but they’re not ready for an activity like that.

After days like today, wrangling hormones and sugar rushes into corrals of knowledge and skill, writing fiction gets a little harder. I’m feeling worn out. I spent time with my kids, but only after I had a nap to recharge. There are some days where I come home and I don’t want to talk to anyone or have any demands on me for a week. The good news is that we’re halfway through the semester. The bad news is that this week the weather is going to be crummy, and that’s not going to help anyone.

Meanwhile, my daughter has come down for the third time since I put her to bed — has to pee, is thirsty, wants crackers (crackers!!!) — so I have to summon up the flickering remnants of my patience and make sure she stays in her room this time. I also want to get further in the damned WIP but uuuuunnnngggghhh.

At least I know I’ve been at this point in Camp NaNoWriMo before. This is the wall. I can get through it. I’ve done it before. If only I could type in my sleep — that would be nice. Why can’t I be a sleep-writer? Or a sleep-cleaner? Imagine that: waking up having cleaned the house while dreaming! Come on, scientists, let’s get to this!

A song parody about confiscating cellphones in class

I confiscated a student’s phone today (grade 9), and she told me I was rude. So I started singing, “Why you gotta be so rude?” and I morphed the chorus into something about her phone. (I enjoy making up song parodies on the spot.) I don’t have a decent singing voice, generally speaking, so the kids advised me to keep my day job. But that song and the situation has been on my mind all day. Here, then, is my parody of “Rude” for your enjoyment!

Original lyrics by Magic! Adapted by me just for fun:

On Monday morning crawled out of bed and got ready for school,
Got in my car and bought a java, all to teach you.
Learning goals on the board and lesson planned;
I ask you a question . . .
I know that you’re a good student if given a chance!

Would you put your phone down for the rest of our class? Say yes, say yes,
‘Cause you need to know.
You say you’re multitasking but you need to pass.
Tough luck, Padawan, but the answer is no!

Why you gotta be so rude?
Don’t you know I’m human, too?
Why you gotta be so rude?
I’m going to take your phone anyway.
Take your phone . . .
Get it back when class ends.
Take your phone . . .
Should be paying attention.
Take your phone . . .
End of discussion.

Why you gotta be so rude?

I hate to do this, you leave no choice;
Can’t give instructions!
Gaming or watching videos
Is a distraction.
I need your attention
To explain these new skills and concepts.
Make sure all your work gets done.
Learn cellphone etiquette!

Would you put your phone down for the rest of our class? Say yes, say yes, 
‘Cause you need to know.
Get off Instagram, kid, you need to pass.
Tough luck, young one, ’cause I’m taking your phone!

Why you gotta be so rude?
Don’t you know I’m human, too.
Why you gotta be so rude?
I’m going to take your phone anyway
Take your phone . . .
Get it back when class ends.
Take your phone . . .
Should be paying attention.
Take your phone . . .
End of discussion.

Why you gotta be so rude?

Would you put your phone down for the rest of our class? Say yes, say yes,
‘Cause you need to know.
Stop SnapChatting, I want to help you to pass;
Tough luck, young one, ’cause you’re losing your phone!

Why you gotta be so rude?
Don’t you know I’m human too
Why you gotta be so rude
I’m going to take your phone anyway.
Take your phone . . .
Get it back when class ends.
Take your phone . . .
Should be paying attention.
Take your phone . . .
End of discussion.

Why you gotta be so rude?
Why you gotta be so rude?
Why you gotta be so rude?

———————–

It’s not always easy figuring out how to show students the right ways to behave in a high school classroom. Certainly cellphones on their persons add another dimension to the challenge. I don’t mind if they have them, and I’ve learned to work with devices, integrating them into my lessons, but the students who can’t keep them out of their hands for longer than five minutes — or who have difficulty in just turning them over so the texts can’t be read immediately, or there’s no temptation to look at Facebook — they’re a huge source of concern. I keep looking for ways to teach cellphone etiquette, but that only works if the individual is willing to work with me in changing a bad habit. And that requires the individual to put the phone down and give me attention.

Maybe we need interventions for cellphone addiction? I’m only partially kidding . . . I ought to try a restorative justice circle, sans cellphones, to talk about their impact on the classroom and what good and bad manners looks like. To some degree, it’s also a maturity issue. For a few students, using cellphones to rebel a little bit is about social status and reputation. For example, what if a very smart girl doesn’t want others to think she’s a brain, so she’s a little silly with her phone to de-emphasize her intelligence? What if an interested boy with a plan for the future doesn’t want to be laughed at, so he sticks to sharing videos and funny snap chats to throw his friends off the scent? I think there is more than one reason why teenagers have a hard time letting go of their cellphones — it has to do with feeling connected, feeling rebellious, establishing rep and saving face. The devices are security blankets, of a sort, and shields, and lifelines. And I’m not afraid to admit that if they’d been around when I was a teenager, I would have done the same out of shyness. After all, I used books, magazines, and my Gameboy, for very much the same purposes.

I used to try keeping cellphones out of my classroom completely, but it seemed more logical to me to find ways to include them. This semester, I’ve been making up online quizzes that kids can complete on their devices, assigning blog posts (same thing), and developed lessons in photographic composition that only need the use of a simple camera, such as those in most smartphones. The challenge is in helping the students to understand when to listen by putting the phones away, or at least down. I’ve done a lesson on active listening techniques and posted key points in my classroom. Provided frequent and daily reminders on what active listening looks like. I seem to be at the phase where, for some, confiscation is the tactic that will prove most effective in changing their focus, but it’s like that old saying about trying to force a horse to drink.

So instead of focusing on angst and frustration, I make up songs in the classroom that lighten the mood a little and deflect a power struggle. The next stage is to phone homes and meet with parents, something I really dread.

The Snowmobiling Story — this time in first-person and with the vernacular

Bah! I missed my self-imposed deadline — it’s exactly 12:00 am. But technically I DID post on March 17 with my update on Crystal and Wand. So, you know . . . we’re good. 

I’m applying some of my student’s suggestions here, and I’ve changed the narrative to a first-person  so that the vernacular works better with my grammatical sensibilities. What do YOU think, dear readers? Which version do you like better — this one or the first one?

——————-

I glanced down at the gas needle and wished I’d had enough money to put more than half a tank in before hitting the trails. I had a good half of a tank in my snow machine, but my buddies weren’t following the plan we’d all agreed on, turning left at the fork behind Northern College instead of looping around the lake in one quick trip. Danny was up front, leading the rest of us, and he had a habit of making changes on the fly. They might have been going halfway to Rouyn for all I knew.

Danny kind of pissed me off when he did stuff like that, but my heart was pumping and I was grinning from ear to ear, just the same.

If I’d only put more gas in the tank . . . I swore under my breath, adjusting my speed while leaning into a curve on the track. I had shit to do that afternoon, stuff that required money. My next paycheque wouldn’t come for another week, so I was trying to be good and make the cash last. Danny, Steve, and AJ didn’t have to worry about working; their dads all had good jobs and gave them money pretty much whenever they wanted. They didn’t have to think about budgeting. Maybe that explained why they could just change their minds at the last second and do whatever the hell they wanted.

I looked at the needle again and decided that as soon as they stopped for a break, or if I went down to a quarter of a tank, I’d turn back. No sense in being stupid.

My mind made up, I focused on keeping pace with my friends. It was a perfect day for a rip, so no wonder they wanted to do more than a loop and back to town again. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, just an expanse of deep blue overhead that reached from one side of the snow-covered forest to the other. It was damned cold out, but thanks to my mom landing some good deals during Boxing Day sales, my new Skidoo suit and gloves kept me from feeling the worst of the chill. -35 C was too cold for downhill skiing, which is what my girlfriend Penny would have liked to have done that afternoon, but it was perfect for hitting the trails: the Arctic temperatures made the snow sparkle in the sunlight, especially those crisp bits that flew away from the speeding vehicles’ tracks and blades. It was absolutely gorgeous.

Too bad Penny didn’t like hopping on the back and going with me. It was the one thing — well, maybe not the one thing, there were other things we didn’t have in common — but the main thing that we had different between us. I wished she was with me now, riding behind me, but I understood that I couldn’t force her to like it. Maybe, eventually, she’d want to try it out and I could take her for a ride.

Just not with Danny around. That guy was my friend, but also an idiot.

Case in point: Danny never stopped flirting with Penny, even when he knew it pissed me off. Or maybe he did it even more when I got mad. My gut twisted thinking about it, and my hands tightened on my risers. Penny didn’t say that she minded it, but every now and then I’d seen a shady look on her face when she moved away from Danny’s hand on her shoulder, pushing him back when he was begging for a hug, or when she caught him staring at her as he sipped from his drink. I would shove him or give him a semi-playful smack on the shoulder and tell him to stay away from her, but the guy just laughed it off.

“I’m just kidding! Relax, man!”

Sometimes I wondered why we were friends. Or, rather, still friends. We’d known each other since we were two, been to each other’s birthdays every year since then, learned how to fish and shoot together, and Danny had helped me to rebuild my old Skidoo practically from scratch. The hours we’d spent, hunting through the junkyard and picking through yard sales and Auto Trader magazines for the right pieces . . . And even though she was pretty ratchet, the snowmobile ran pretty good. Danny never bugged me about the way she looked, either. It was enough that I could match his speed.

I could see him up ahead, veering his 2016-model Summit X T3 880 up the drifted slopes and taking jumps that left wings of powder hanging in the air. What Danny wanted, he got, and so a lot of kids wanted to be in his circle.

It just sucked that being in this particular group meant you had to show you had balls. Turning around halfway through a run did not show anything but being a pussy. I sighed, anticipating the chirping I was about to get. But there was no help for it; the needle had already moved on the gas gauge, giving him about ten more minutes before I’d have to turn around.

The good news was Danny had already started slowing down, signalling a stop. If I was really lucky, I wouldn’t be getting back on fumes.

I parked my snowmachine in beside the other three and raised my helmet so I could speak clearly. ” ‘Sup, buds?”

“Smoke break,” Danny told him, grinning. “Want a dart?”

“Naw, you know I’m quitting.” Adam waved him off and looked away.

“Yeah, you keep saying that,” Steve said. “But I keep seeing you in the smokers’ pit at school.”

“That’s ’cause that’s where all you losers hang out, dumbass.” I propped one knee on my seat. “Listen, what’s the plan here?”

“We’re heading to Rouyn, gonna pick up some two-fours and head back to AJ’s for a party,” Danny said. He exhaled a long puff of grey-white smoke mixed with the condensation of his breath. 

“Seriously?” I looked away so I wouldn’t have to breathe in the stink of his tobacco, focusing on adjusting the velcro belt on the wrist of my glove. Normally the guys only smoked at the parties, passing around cigars, but Danny had decided for some reason that he needed regular smokes, too. I pulled the velcro back and pressed it down again in an awkward rhythm. “I got plans with Penny tonight.”

“Yeah, your plans include bringing her to AJ’s.” Danny jerked his chin and then glanced at the other guys, grinning.

“Honestly, I don’t think she’ll want to go,” I said. The noise of the velcro on my gloves was hard to hear against the growling of the engines. I slapped the strap down and took off my helmet to mess around with the padding, pretending to fix the way it sat on my head. “Kind of off parties right now, you know?”

Steve laughed, swaggering over to bush half-covered in snow with his gloves held under one arm so he could unzip his suit. “What, you afraid she’s gonna check out the competition, see somebody better, and ditch your ass? Bro, just bring her to the party. Don’t be a pussy.” The thin yellow stream steamed and crackled in the hollow it made under the bush. “Shit, I think I might have gotten piss on my boots again . . .”

Danny neatly tossed his cigarette butt in the snow at his feet. “Listen, bring her or don’t bring her, but you’re coming out. You need to relax, buddy. Way too tense. Am I right, AJ?”

AJ shrugged, his face still obscured by the mirrored visor of his helmet. He revved his engine, turning to the east, then took off suddenly, leaving an impressive spray of white powder in his wake.

“Whoa, nice boondockin’” Steve shouted, waving one arm. He zipped up and strode back to his machine,  looking at Danny as he straddled the seat. “Let’s go, we’re wasting daylight. If he wants to wimp out, let him.”

I felt a hot glow deep in my chest, watching Steve slam his visor down and zoom off without another word. Why can’t I just tell them I haven’t got enough gas?

“So you coming or not, Adam?” Danny asked. He checked to make sure his pocket flap was down over his cigarettes and lighter. “We can carry more booze with four machines.”

“Yeah, I’ll be right behind you,” I said, slowly. “I thought I heard a knock in the engine. Need to check it out first.”

“Hey, want me to stay and give you a hand?”

At least the kid actually sounded concerned. I took my gloves off, flipping them at him. “No, I got this. Like I said, I’ll catch up. See you in Rouyn, okay?”

“Okay. And remember what I said — bring Penny tonight!”

There was that look again, damnit. Danny was gone before I could ask him what the raised eyebrow and crooked grin was all about.

The last echoes of the Skidoos racing eastward faded. I had turned off my ignition, so the quiet was absolute. Even the wind had died down, and it was too cold even for the ravens to squawk. I opened the engine compartment, closing my eyes for a minute to appreciate the odours of gas and oil before I started fiddling with some plugs. I checked over my shoulder a couple of times, listening for any signs of my friends coming back. Not that I really expected them to do that . . . well, maybe Danny would, if only to ride my butt about his old machine and my girlfriend.

The silence didn’t stop a bunch of thoughts from cycling through my head. In fact, it was hard to ignore them. I checked the oil, shoving the wire harder than necessary back into its slot, willing my brain to stop thinking.

I should just catch up and borrow money from AJ for some gas.

I should just go home right now. The hell with this.

Danny has the hots for Penny.

It was in his eyes when he watched her coming to sit down next to me in the caf, the way he looked her up and down, his gaze settling on her chest until someone yelled at him to pay attention. It was in those stupid jokes

Something in that shit-eating grin Danny had on his face just before he’d zoomed off was really bothered me. Maybe it was how he’d sounded when he’d said I should bring Penny to the party.

I could already predict what that party was going to be like. It would be the same as always: loud music that would get louder as people got drunker, a bonfire in a home-made fire pit that some fool would try jumping over and end up wiping out next to on the ice that formed from the melting snow (next to the fire, if he was lucky — more likely to wipe out on the fire pit), Danny hitting on every girl until he got one who was drunk or stupid enough to think he was actually funny. And if Danny scored with a girl who actually had a boyfriend, there would be a fight.

Come to think of it, Danny would probably focused on girls with boyfriends just so that he could get into a fight.

Me and Danny had never been in a real fight. We’d goofed around, just being idiots and re-enacting MMA bouts and hockey fights, tossing each other off of docks in the summer and into snowbanks in the winter. Hell, we’d thrown each other off of any surface we could climb onto: the roof of the bottom-story addition of my house (winter), the railing of Danny’s back deck (winter), the flat top of AJ’s boat house (summer), the flat top of AJ’s grandparents’ garage (winter) . . .

Of course, we didn’t need a bit of high ground to throw each other down. Back in grade five, Danny’d taught me how to sweep a leg out from under my opponent, passing on whatever he’d learned in the karate classes that my parents couldn’t afford. And then I’d shown Danny how to pile-drive, what it took to do a decent sleeper hold that could really knock somebody out, and the pressure points I’d learned from my dad. Danny loved finding out about those, just little sensitive spots between thumbs and forefingers that could keep a kid on the ground for as long as you wanted, if enough you pressed hard enough.

Good times.

But we’d never yet taken a swing at each other. Hadn’t had a reason to. Especially not over a girl.

And I honestly didn’t want to do that. Not that I’d ever tell anyone, out loud.

It wasn’t that I was scared. I could take Danny

It was just . . .

I slammed the cover back down on my snowmobile. The bang startled a distant raven into cawing loudly as it flew away.

Guys fought, didn’t they? They fought and then they got over it. Fighting cleared the air. Girls, they snuck around and bitched at each other and sent nasty texts until they were ripping at each other’s hair and rolling around school hallways. Girl fights lasted for weeks, or even months.

When Danny went after some other guy’s chick, the guy would call him out either at the party where the thing happened, or at school the next day. I kind of thought it was stupid to do it at school, but there had to be an audience. My mom once said, after she’d heard about one of these fights, that it had to do with something called ‘saving face’. Whether Danny and whoever went at it right away depended on the other guy’s temper — or fear.

I sat on my snowmobile and stared at the remains of Danny’s cigarette in the snow, my nostrils crinkling in the cold air. The grey ashes looked like dead snowflakes. Zombie snowflakes.

Sometimes, after Danny had a fight with a guy, and there was snow on the ground, there would be blood spattered on it. He only ever needed to fight a kid once and then the problem would be over. Nobody ever challenged him twice.

If Danny was going after Penny now, I would have to fight him. Guaranteed.

Damnit, why couldn’t all of this be as simple as gliding over drifts and along the edges of embankments? It wasn’t Penny’s fault that she was pretty and smart; I was lucky to have her as my girlfriend, and I knew it. How long would it be before someone better than me came along and we broke up?

It might as well be Danny as anyone else. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with wondering who she was with. Then again, I might have to stop being friends with the jerk.

The ticking of the engine as it cooled off brought me back to reality. It was too confusing to just sit there and think; easier to ride. Pivoting on my heel, I threw my other leg over the seat, rammed on my helmet and started the motor. It was satisfying to lean into the curve as I turned my Skidoo around and headed back down the trail — better than thinking and thinking and not having any good answers.

It felt better, too, once I’d picked up speed. The dark trees whizzing past me on either side, but the sky didn’t seem to move at all. I relaxed my body into the seat, enjoying the way my shoulders and arms were feeling the strain of the drive and how my legs were working to mould him against the machine. The heavy vibration blended into my muscles until I felt like me and the Skidoo were almost connected, working together to virtually fly over the contours of the trail. All at once, like the driving was blowing cobwebs out of my brain, I saw clearly what I needed to do: warn Penny that Danny was going to hit on her, and then tell Danny to back off. It was as simple as that. I could even run our conversation through my head — mine and Danny’s, not the one with Penny — and predict how it was going to go.

I never had trouble talking to Penny. With her, I just felt comfortable. But Danny had a way of twisting other people’s words that was fun to watch, when it was happening to other people.

I gunned the engine as I approached a hill, catching air over the crest and bracing myself right before the impact seconds later.

“Dan,” I’d say, keeping my voice serious and low to keep from attracting attention. “Lay off of Penny, okay? She doesn’t like you like that.”

“Lay her? Sure, I’ll lay her for you!” Danny would probably laugh, and he’d do it loudly too, making sure everyone could hear. “I know you’re still saving yourself for marriage.”

The trail forked just up ahead, with the main branch — the official path — leading off to the right and back to town by following the uneven shore of the lake. I bent my left elbow and knee to direct the snowmobile over the rough pile of snow toward the southeast, relishing the thrill of the machine diving into deeper powder. The shortcut over the lake would save me five, maybe ten minutes if I really pushed it. Just had to watch out for patrols, but I could just explain that I was running out of gas and needed to get home fast.

“Dan, I need to talk to you,” I’d say instead, so that my long-time friend would know I was serious. “It’s important. Penny wants you to leave her alone.”

“I’m sorry if I freaked her out,” Danny would shrug, his eyes all innocent. “I was just joking around. Maybe you shouldn’t be with her if she can’t take a joke.”

I shook my head, gritting my teeth. The snowmobile shuddered over a patch of rough ice as I zoomed onto the lake. I had to come up with something to say that Danny couldn’t turn around on me, something that the asshole would respect.

What if I told him that if he kept harassing my girlfriend, we couldn’t be buddies anymore?

Did guys even do that sort of thing?

————

So, keep going with the first-person?  Or back to the third-person narrative?  Comment below!

Unexpected Challenges of Writing for Today’s Teenagers

I showed one of my Writer’s Craft students what I have so far of the snowmobiling story, and she gave me some excellent feedback, including some information on current slang being used by teenage boys in our area:

  • “He had stuff to do that afternoon . . .” — my source said the boys she hangs out with would say “shit” instead.
  • “Maybe that explained why they could just change their minds at the last second and do whatever suited them.” — kids up here would say, “whatever the hell (f@#$) they wanted . . .”
  • “It was a perfect day for snowmobiling, so no wonder they wanted to do more than a loop and back to town again.” — “. . . day for a rip, so no wonder . . .”
  • “. . . his hands tightened on the handlebars of his Skidoo.” — apparently they’re called “bars” or “risers” . . . the more you know!
  • “I’m just kidding! Relax, man!” — should be “I’m just kidding! Relax, bud!”
  • “Turning around halfway through a run did not show anything but being a wuss. Adam sighed, anticipating the bad-mouthing he was about to get.” — my first instinct to use “pussy” instead of “wuss” was correct, but I missed the fact that they refer to bad-mouthing as “chirping” or “chirps“, so it should be more like:

    “Turning around halfway through a run did not show anything but being a pussy. Adam sighed, anticipating the chirps he was about to get.”

  • “Smoke break,” Danny told him, grinning. “Want a dart?”

    “Naw, you know I’m quitting.” Adam waved him off and looked away.

    “Yeah, you keep saying that,” Steve said. “But I keep seeing you in the smokers’ pit at school.” — my source says that a lot of the kids she knows who are into snowmobiling only smoke cigars, and then, only when by the fire pit and/or at a party. Again, something I didn’t know, and it’s rather interesting, a reality I didn’t expect.

  • “He exhaled a long puff of grey-white smoke mixed with the condensation of his breath.” — I have been advised to describe the cigar smoke as white and sweet-smelling. Confession: I actually do enjoy the scent of a good cigar, although I’ve never smoked one myself.
  •  “It was in his eyes when he watched her coming to sit down next to Adam in the cafeteria . . .” — I didn’t use the popular vernacular, “caf” instead of “cafeteria”
  •  “They’d goofed around, just being idiots and re-enacting MMA bouts . . .” — her suggestion here was to refer to hockey fighting.
  •  “Girls, they snuck around and snarked at each other and sent nasty texts . . .” — I should use “bitch” instead
  •  I have to remember, also, not to use the terms “snowmobile”, “snow machine”, and “Skidoo” interchangeably, since the latter is a brand and not a generic reference to the thing
  • I’m sorry if I made her uncomfortable,” Danny would shrug, his eyes all innocent. — the suggestion here is to be more meh: “Sorry if I freaked her out . . .

These are all fantastic suggestions, and it was interesting to ask one of my seniors to read it through because we have just done an assignment on appropriation of voice, which is pretty much what I’ve been attempting to do with this story. That being said, when my target demographic read the first page or so, they didn’t pick out any of my errors at all — not even the bit about the gas tank. Did you know that snowmobiles aren’t supposed to have full tanks, like, ever? Never underestimate the value of research, fellow writers!

But as I read through her remarks, I started to wonder whether I should be writing this in first-person instead of the third, to really get into the use of the slang. Should the vernacular stay in dialogue only? Doesn’t it isolate out-group readers who may not understand chirp or dart? I’ll admit, that’s why I made reference to cigarettes and smoke deliberately in the narrative, to help provide the context for the reader. It feels awkward and strange to try mixing slang with regular prose. However, if I move into telling as the character — if I try to become Adam while I’m working on this — maybe it won’t seem so unnatural.

If I do that, I might take some risks with the spelling and grammar. For example, many of these kids forget to capitalize their proper nouns, or drop the ends of their words. (The Grammar Nazi within is cringing, pleading with me to stop it already.) But then . . . if I abandon the rules of grammar and spelling, leave aside my cherished language conventions to adopt the relaxed style of an average 16 year old Northeastern Ontario boy, is that a good thing because it gets them to read? Or a bad thing, because at that point it’s no longer modelling effective language?

Not only that, if I move into Adam’s voice, it makes this story even tougher to write. I will have to ignore my instincts. Adopt local youth culture as my own, for a little time each day. Do more research on snowmobiling and local terminology, because it seems as though each region has its own set of slang vocabulary for the sport (although some overlap). Honestly, it’s really like learning a second language. And the old stand-by words like cool and bro — they’re not going to cut it.

So, I guess I’ll sleep on it for now. I might make a copy of the draft as it is so far, revising the narrative into the first person, and maybe even toy with making it present-tense. I’m also going to have to continue interviewing my story subjects, to really make sure I’m getting the vernacular and conversational tones right. It’s almost like a sub-culture’s time capsule. Like Professor Higgins tracking the particular vocal habits of unfamiliar communities. Like, some of their terms I get because I hear them a lot in class — chromeburntbuzz, etc. — but they’re very much background noise. If I’m going to get this right, I need to pay closer attention. Make notes. And ask lots of questions.

Back to the Snowmobile Story, WITH sensory details this time!

The last echoes of the skidoos racing eastward faded. Adam had turned off his ignition, so the quiet was absolute. Even the wind had died down, and it was too cold even for the ravens to squawk. He opened the engine compartment, closing his eyes for a minute to appreciate the odours of gas and oil, and fiddled with some plugs. He kept checking over his shoulder as he listened for any signs of his friends coming back. Not that he really expected them to do that . . . well, maybe Danny would, if only to ride Adam’s butt about his old machine and his girlfriend.

The silence didn’t stop a bunch of thoughts from cycling through his head. In fact, it was hard to ignore them. He checked the oil, shoving the wire harder than necessary back into its slot, willing his brain to stop thinking.

His buddy never said it directly, but Adam knew Danny had the hots for his girlfriend. It was in his eyes when he watched her coming to sit down next to Adam in the cafeteria, the way he looked her up and down, his gaze settling on her chest until someone yelled at him to pay attention. It was in those stupid jokes

———-

Okay, so I know I’m breaking a cardinal rule here by going back through the draft before it’s done, and adding stuff. I’m wondering now, though, whether I should have more conversation earlier in the exposition, showing Danny’s attitude toward Penny. Hmmm . . . (glances back at the complete draft) — How about this? 

———–

Something in that shit-eating grin Danny had on his face just now really bothered him, when he’d said Adam should bring Penny to the party.

He could already predict what that party was going to be like. It would be the same as always: loud music that would get louder as people got drunker, a bonfire in a home-made fire pit that some fool would try jumping over and end up wiping out next to on the ice that formed from the melting snow (next to the fire, if he was lucky — more likely to wipe out on the fire pit), Danny hitting on every girl until he got one who was drunk or stupid enough to think he was actually funny. And if Danny scored with a girl who actually had a boyfriend, there would be a fight.

Come to think of it, Danny would probably focused on a girls with a boyfriends just so that he could get into a fight.

Adam and Danny had never been in a real fight. They’d goofed around, just being idiots and re-enacting MMA bouts, tossing each other off of docks in the summer and into snowbanks in the winter. Hell, they’d thrown each other off of any surface they could climb onto: the roof of the bottom story addition of his house (winter), the railing of Danny’s back deck (winter), the flat top of AJ’s boat house (summer), the flat top of AJ’s grandparents’ garage (winter) . . .

Of course, they didn’t need a bit of high ground to throw each other down. Back in grade five, Danny’d taught Adam how to sweep a leg out from under his opponent, passing on whatever he’d learned in the karate classes that Adam couldn’t afford. And then Adam had shown Danny how to pile-drive, what it took to do a decent sleeper hold that could really knock somebody out, and the pressure points that Adam’s dad had showed him. Danny loved finding out about those, just little sensitive spots between thumbs and forefingers that could keep a kid on the ground for as long as you wanted, if enough you pressed hard enough.

Good times.

But they’d never yet taken a swing at each other. Hadn’t had a reason to. Especially not over a girl.

And Adam honestly didn’t want to do that. Not that he’d ever tell anyone, out loud.

It wasn’t that he was scared. He could take Danny.

It was just . . .

Adam slammed the cover back down on his snowmobile. The bang startled a distant raven into cawing loudly as it flew away.

Guys fought, didn’t they? They fought and then they got over it. Fighting cleared the air. Girls, they snuck around and snarked at each other and sent nasty texts until they were ripping at each other’s hair and rolling around school hallways. Girl fights lasted for weeks, or even months.

When Danny went after some other guy’s chick, the guy would call him out either at the party where the thing happened, or at school the next day. Adam privately thought it was stupid to do it at school, but there had to be an audience. His mom once said, after she’d heard about one of these fights, that it had to do with something called ‘saving face’. Whether Danny and whoever went at it right away depended on the other guy’s temper — or fear.

Adam sat on the snowmobile and stared at the remains of Danny’s cigarette in the snow, his nostrils crinkling in the cold air. The grey ashes looked like dead snowflakes. Zombie snowflakes.

Sometimes, after Danny had a fight with a guy, and there was snow on the ground, there would be blood spattered on it. He only ever needed to fight a kid once and then the problem would be over. Nobody ever challenged him twice.

If Danny was going after Penny now, Adam would have to fight him. Guaranteed.

Damnit, why couldn’t all of this be as simple as gliding over drifts and along the edges of embankments? It wasn’t Penny’s fault that she was pretty and smart; he was lucky to have her as his girlfriend, and he knew it. How long would it be before someone better than him came along and they broke up?

It might as well be Danny as anyone else. Then he wouldn’t have to deal with wondering who she was with. Then again, he might have to stop being friends with the jerk.

The ticking of the engine as it cooled off brought Adam back to reality. It was too confusing to just sit there and think; easier to ride. Pivoting on his heel, he threw his other leg over the seat, rammed on his helmet and started the motor, leaning into the curve as he turned his snow machine around and headed back down the trail.

It felt better once he’d picked up speed, the dark trees whizzing past him on either side. He relaxed his body into the seat while tensing his shoulders and arms, his legs working to mould him against the machine. The heavy vibration blended into his muscles until he felt like he and the skidoo were almost connected, working together to virtually fly over the contours of the trail. All at once, like the driving was blowing cobwebs out of his brain, he saw clearly what he needed to do: warn Penny that Danny was going to hit on her, and then tell Danny to back off. It was as simple as that. He could even run their conversation through his head — his and Danny’s, not the one with Penny — and predict how it was going to go.

He never had trouble talking to Penny. With her, he just felt comfortable. But Danny had a way of twisting other people’s words that was fun to watch, when it was happening to other people.

Adam gunned the engine as he approached a hill, catching air over the crest and bracing himself right before the impact seconds later.

“Dan,” he’d say, keeping his voice serious and low to keep from attracting attention. “Lay off of Penny, okay? She doesn’t like you like that.”

“Lay her? Sure, I’ll lay her for you!” Danny would probably laugh, and he’d do it loudly too, making sure everyone could hear. “I know you’re still saving yourself for marriage.”

The trail forked just up ahead, with the main branch — the official path — leading off to the right and back to town by following the uneven shore of the lake. Adam bent his left elbow and knee to direct the snowmobile over the rough pile of snow toward the southeast, relishing the thrill of the machine diving into deeper powder. The shortcut over the lake would save him five, maybe ten minutes if he really pushed it. Just had to watch out for patrols, but he could just explain that he was running out of gas and needed to get home fast.

“Dan, I need to talk to you,” he’d say instead, so that his long-time friend would know he was serious. “It’s important. Penny wants you to leave her alone.”

“I’m sorry if I made her uncomfortable,” Danny would shrug, his eyes all innocent. “I was just joking around. Maybe you shouldn’t be with her if she can’t take a joke.”

Adam shook his head, gritting his teeth. The snowmobile shuddered over a patch of rough ice as he zoomed onto the lake. He had to come up with something to say that Danny couldn’t turn around on him, something that his friend would respect.

What if he told him that if he kept harassing his girlfriend, they couldn’t be buddies anymore?

Did guys even do that sort of thing?

Snowmobile Story continued: trying to stay in a 16 year old boy’s head

The last echoes of the skidoos racing eastward faded. Adam had turned off his ignition, so the quiet was absolute. Even the wind had died down, and it was too cold even for the ravens to squawk. He opened the engine compartment and fiddled with some plugs, checking over his shoulder as he listened for any signs of his friends coming back. Not that he really expected them to do that . . . well, maybe Danny would, if only to ride Adam’s butt about his old machine and his girlfriend.

The silence didn’t stop a bunch of thoughts from cycling through his head. In fact, it was hard to ignore them. He checked the oil, shoving the wire harder than necessary back into its slot, willing his brain to stop thinking.

He could already predict what that party was going to be like. It would be the same as always: loud music that would get louder as people got drunker, a bonfire in a home-made fire pit that some fool would try jumping over and end up wiping out next to on the ice that formed from the melting snow (next to the fire, if he was lucky — more likely to wipe out on the fire pit), Danny hitting on every girl until he got one who was drunk or stupid enough to think he was actually funny. And if Danny scored with a girl who actually had a boyfriend, there would be a fight.

Come to think of it, Danny would probably focus on a girl with a boyfriend just so that he could get into a fight.

Adam and Danny had never been in a real fight. They’d goofed around, just being idiots and re-enacting MMA bouts, tossing each other off of docks in the summer and into snowbanks in the winter. Hell, they’d thrown each other off of any surface they could climb onto: the roof of the bottom story addition of his house (winter), the railing of Danny’s back deck (winter), the flat top of AJ’s boat house (summer), the flat top of AJ’s grandparents’ garage (winter) . . .

Of course, they didn’t need a bit of high ground to throw each other down. Back in grade five, Danny’d taught Adam how to sweep a leg out from under his opponent, passing on whatever he’d learned in the karate classes that Adam couldn’t afford. And then Adam had shown Danny how to pile-drive, what it took to do a decent sleeper hold that could really knock somebody out, and the pressure points that Adam’s dad had showed him. Danny loved finding out about those, just little sensitive spots between thumbs and forefingers that could keep a kid on the ground for as long as you wanted, if enough you pressed hard enough.

Good times.

But they’d never yet taken a swing at each other. Hadn’t had a reason to.

And Adam honestly didn’t want to do that. Not that he’d ever tell anyone, out loud.

It wasn’t that he was scared. He could take Danny.

It was just . . .

Adam slammed the cover back down on his snowmobile.

Guys fought, didn’t they? They fought and then they got over it. Fighting cleared the air. Girls, they snuck around and snarked at each other and sent nasty texts until they were ripping at each other’s hair and rolling around school hallways. Girl fights lasted for weeks, or even months.

When Danny went after some other guy’s chick, the guy would call him out either at the party where the thing happened, or at school the next day. Adam privately thought it was stupid to do it at school, but there had to be an audience. His mom once said, after she’d heard about one of these fights, that it had to do with something called ‘saving face’. Whether Danny and whoever went at it right away depended on the other guy’s temper — or fear.

Adam sat on the snowmobile and stared at the remains of Danny’s cigarette in the snow. The grey ashes looked like dead snowflakes. Zombie snowflakes.

Sometimes, after Danny had a fight with a guy, and there was snow on the ground, there would be blood spattered on it. He only ever needed to fight a kid once and then the problem would be over. Nobody ever challenged him twice.

——————————-

Okay, faithful readers — yes or no? Is this sounding like a 16 year old’s thought processes? 

Once again, night is defeating me, and it’s a bad one because we’re losing an hour of sleep with the stupid time change. I wish I could write through until I can’t form words anymore. I wish I could pound this story out in a whirlwind of writing, because tonight, at this moment, I’m convinced I could get it done in a week. Sadly, that’s not reality. 

But guess what? Tomorrow I’m testing my limits in a downhill ski race! So I’d better get some sleep. 

But do tell me what you think of this part of the story, please? I’d love the feedback.