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.