Sunday, February 7, 2010


Gae Polisner is the exciting new author of THE PULL OF GRAVITY (Farrar Straus and Giroux), a Frances Foster Book for Young Readers, Spring 2011.

Gae noted that “I have written since I was little. Then I went to law school and thought I wanted to be a hotshot lawyer, until the writing pulled me back again.”

   Writing Teen Voice     by Gae Polisner

When writing teen voice, I have first learned to listen to how teens talk. I constantly check in with my sons and their friends regarding ‘teen speak.’

In a draft of my manuscript of THE PULL OF GRAVITY, I had the kids referring to their friend’s deadbeat dad as a dirtbag. Who doesn’t know the term dirtbag? Suddenly, in a fit of self doubt, I asked my son what he would call a guy who ditches his family, pays no child support, etc. A dirtbag, right? I asked.

He stared blankly at me. Never heard of it, he answered. I had to try ten words before settling on lowlife, a term he had apparently heard.

The other thing I keep in mind is that when kids think and speak, they have a no-holds-barred honesty. Teen boys, especially, rarely mince words. Even when they should. I have 11- and 14-year-old sons. Trust me, I know this first hand.

Brutal honesty is a hallmark in writing authentic young adult voices.

And then there is the endless editing and restraint that must be exercised. Again, especially when writing boys. Boys may have a long, detailed exposition in their heads, but when it comes out in words (or on paper) it’s usually little more than a grunt.

I recently edited a friend’s manuscript for her, the main character being a 17-year old boy. As he watched a girl he liked sleep, the thoughts in his head were along the lines of, “I watched her sleep, her long, blonde hair splayed across her pillow, her soft lips red and heart-shaped. She was beautiful…”

In providing feedback, I wrote, “Take everything out except, ‘I watched her sleep. She was beautiful,’ and even the ‘she was beautiful,’ can probably come out.”

The point is, teen boys are especially limited with both their descriptive thoughts in their own head, and their expressed emotions. Even if they feel it – or, god forbid, think it – they don’t readily communicate it.

[ Please see Part II of Gae’s guest post for additional examples of Writing Teen Voice. ]


Alissa said...

Great tips! I love that you have first hand experience with boyspeak. I had no idea that dirtbag is antiquated term. I'll try and keep that in mind.

gae polisner said...

Thanks, Alissa, the thing I wished I added was that this too could be regional. I wonder whether dirtbag is used elsewhere, outside of New York, or even Huntington, NY... Lots of teens come up with their own teenspeak! Especially now, it's big for teens to make up their own words. Lots of thought needs to go into things like this if one wants her writing to be truly authentic feeling.

I remember in high school, we all used the word 'mint.' Everything good was 'mint!' My boys think that's the stupidest thing they've ever heard. Good things now, momentarily, are 'ill.' Everything is ill.

I secretly think they are stupid back. ;)

(I love my boys. I am ony kidding...). :)

Megan said...

Great stuff Gae. And I mentioned nothing of her soft red lips >:( (kidding). It's so hard to write in authentic teen voice. I have to go to my girls all the time for advice, and more times than not they will laugh at me and say, "No one talks like that, mom." :) Keep up the good writing. And thanks to Randy for the blog.

Tracy Walshaw said...

Great post! It is so important to get that voice right. I think different regions do differ a bit. My sons use 'sick' instead of 'ill'. :)

I try to say 'that's HOT', being all Paris Hilton-like. They look at me like I've lost my mind. :D

gae polisner said...

Tracy, I live my life for those looks. I'm gonna give those looks right back at them when the movie of my book hits and I bring someone else's kids to the premiere.

Megan, I disclaimed that I was paraphrasing. And I exaggerated for the example. I would never have ratted you out. Plus, i've written some doozeys of my own. We ALL have. :)

J. Allen Fielder said...

Interesting stuff. As teenspeak evolves, how do you make your writing (especially dialogue) authentic, yet timeless?

My teens speak in the bastardized language-mix of text and something distantly related to English. I rarely understand them. "For cereal? That's sick! That's how you do work in the streets!"

I have no idea what any it means.

In ten years, the kids reading the book probably won't know what it means either. It seems using it in a manuscript today would put a shelf-life on the book.

Megan said...

I think another point to make is how hard it is for a woman to write in a male voice and vice versa. Like Gae pointed out, where we as females would take three paragraphs to say something, it would take a male three words, and maybe a grunt ;)

I learned a lot writing in a male voice, don't say too much, describe too much, try not to sound too feminine. It's work, that's for sure.

Lea said...

Awesome post! Teen voices are definitely difficult, because it changes so much (like slang, which seems to change every year in my city).

I can't believe he hadn't heard of "dirtbag", but I'll admit that I never say it, nor do my friends.

gae polisner said...


While your bit of "inventive" teenspeak is hilarious and brilliant (er), i think it is the themes that need to be timeless more than the language itself, of course. You can pick up A Wrinkle In Time or The Outsiders or The Pigman today and the language, clothes, and even social mores will obviously be dated, and yet the stories still resonate today. I hope that will be the case with mine. And yours, when you're done.

J. Allen Fielder said...

Sadly, Gae, my bit of "inventive" slang was not invented by me. These are real things my teens say. They are highly intelligent, but I don't understand a word they say.

gae polisner said...
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gae polisner said...
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gae polisner said...


Well, quick write it down and add it to your book.

Sometimes it's better if we don't know either of what we are writing or what it is they are saying. :)

*did any of you see that I had to edit? Wrote "right it down" instead of write it down. I are good righter. :)

Kathy McCullough said...

These were great tips -- especially on writing about boy characters, which can be challenging for some female authors (me). I'm writing them down...

ali said...

I loved the simplity of your advice (haha pun intended *grin*)

My boys are still a bit young, but I can see that they will only become more calcitrant as they grow older, so your advice makes sense. I'll have to slap my writer-self around a bit to get her to behave when writing boys ;)

Thanks for this!

annerallen said...

Useful stuff. Especially good to remember how non-verbal male teens are.

FARfetched said...

Great tips, and timely. I have a teen male character in my current serial… he's a little different, but from what you've said I'm not too far off the mark.

Thanks Gae & Randy for bringing this along! Now I need a quick guide for writing girls' teen voice…

gae polisner said...

thanks, ALL, for your great feedback and for telling me I'm useful. Will someone send a letter to my family? ;)

Steffan Piper said...

Nice article and comments, Gae. Love it and I look forward to reading 'The Pull of Gravity' and part two of this.

'Teenspeak' is a really difficult thing to master without doubt. I'm continually baffled by finding out words and expressions that I love have gone by the wayside and replaced with real oddities that I daren't repeat here lest ears and eyes bleed.

There was once a day when 'Homeskillet' was taking over the world. I won't be sad to see that one fade.

K.L. Brady said...

Great article, Gae! At somepoint, I'd like to write a story for my son who has high-functioning autism. He's the exact opposite of most boys (and teen boys) he says EVERYTHING that's on his mind and it's ALL honest--brutally so at times and usually at the worst time. LOL I'm so excited for your success. Can't wait for the release! :)

Terry said...

Enjoyed this. I'm writing for adults but I'm having fun reading Randy and his guest's posts about writing for a younger audience.

It seems to be more difficult, just because of the lingo, never mind the thought processes. And every few years it all changes.

gae polisner said...

Steffan, Karla, thanks. Check in the mail.

Terry, don't know who you are but your photo (or is that an avatar?) is hilarious. Do NOT write YA! ;)

This thing is at 21 comments. If we get it to 50, i send the 50th poster a slinky. Trust me, this has something to do with my book. I don't own stock in Slinky.

Been great fun. Thanks for all the feedback!

Terry said...

Good tip Gae ;)I don't think I could if I tried.

オテモヤン said...
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