Practical solutions for writing problems
An effective setting for her teen novel was close at hand.
Author found that her wacky, nonexotic New Jersey had just the right stuff.
by ROBIN FRIEDMAN | The WRITER | Writer at Work | November 2007
Most teen fiction is written by adults. And therein lies the problem. Many of us do possess spirited inner teens — just ask our spouses — but they tend to be stuck in the age of Flashdance rather than Facebook.
Crafting a novel—whether for teens or adults—is like operating machinery.
A satisfying story is greater than the sum of its moving parts—but the moving parts have to work together perfectly to be a well-oiled narrative. Plot, characters and setting are the essential gears that propel a tale forward.
To write authentically for young adults means to be absolutely meticulous about portraying their world in genuine, bogus-proof fashion. After all, teens famously prize “keeping it real.” (A phrase that soon will be so last week.)
Teens are veritable sniffer dogs when it comes to exposing insincere put-ons.
It was the title for my book that first inspired me: The Girlfriend Project (which came out of the blue). An amusing plot magically derived from there: a humorous account of 17-year-old Reed Walton, who’s never had a girlfriend or even kissed a girl, but whose life changes drastically during his senior year, thanks to the high-tech efforts of his two best friends, the White twins, Lonnie (a boy) and Ronnie (a girl).
Reed’s over-the-summer metamorphosis from ugly duckling to swan (dork to hottie in today’s teenage vernacular) would emerge on a Web site, thegirlfriendproject.com, which would also exist in real life.
I was exuberant. After all, my writing to-do list was shaping up quite nicely:
Title, check. Plot, check. Characters, check. Internet tie-in, check. All that was absent was the setting.
To say it is challenging for a thirtysomething author to create a realistic, detailed universe where her teenage characters can play out their plot lines, is an understatement worthy of the worst writer’s block. Not only did I have to create a setting that would be believable to my demanding audience, I had to be comfortable with that setting myself in order to manipulate it intimately and knowledgeably.
It had to ring true to a fault, it had to be contemporary, it had to incorporate the up-to-the-minute teenage culture of texting, ringtones and school lockers.
(Did they even have lockers today?)
A severe case of Setting Envy set in. I’ve always envied authors who grew up as military brats in exotic locales such as Guam and the Philippines. Unlike me, they had lush story wells to draw from. Likewise for authors whose parents were zoologists or missionaries in Tanzania or Zanzibar, or coal-miners in West Virginia, cowboys in Montana, or lighthouse-keepers in Maine.
What did my plain-vanilla, suburban New Jersey upbringing—full of strip malls, congested interstates and unabashed odes to chain-store America give me but an encyclopedic knowledge of turnpike exits, a love of Italian hot dogs, and jokes about big hair?
As writers, we always hear about “writing what we know,” but it had actually never occurred to me to set any of my books in the Garden State.
So where was my lush story well? It was in place so bizarre it was comical. It resided in such state statistics as:
- New Jersey is the Diner Capital—and Car Theft Capital—of the United States.
- It has the most toxic waste dumps of any state (108 at last count).
- It invented pork roll, baseball and college football.
- It has more racehorses than Kentucky.
- It has the highest cost of living, and the lowest gas prices, of any state.
That exasperatingly capricious muse once again emerged at my keyboard.
No matter how ordinary it seemed to me, what screamed “teen” more than the burbs? My humble backyard offered the stuff of teen existence—malls, chains, suburban angst—and it teemed with Jersey freshness. The state known for its attitude not only gave me the perfect anchor for my story, it gave me a self-deprecating edge to infuse into my plot and characterizations.
The story well turned out to be bottomless. It didn’t just enrich the personality of my narration and give me a Jersey-friendly license to freely use lingo such as yo, youse guys and fuggedaboutit, but it furnished me with a fun subplot revolving around New Jersey’s stranger-than-fiction state motto contest. That allowed me to weave the themes of identity and image throughout my story.
Consider these passages:
Grandma’s latest interest is our state motto contest.
“New Jersey,” she says as she slides in front of her laptop. “More Than Just the Turnpike.”
“New Jersey,” I say. “At Least We’re Not Delaware.”
“New Jersey,” Grandma retorts. “We Have Farms Too.”
“New Jersey,” I reply on cue. “Turn Signals are for Wimps.”
“Maybe ... it’s sort of like that contest,” I venture.
“You know, the state motto contest. New Jersey: We Have an Image Problem and, Thanks, We Know That.”
Lonnie grins. “New Jersey: Jersey Guys May Be Messed Up but They’re Hot.”
I thought Marsha broke my heart when she squashed me four years ago. But that was nothing compared to this.
Grandma kisses my cheek. “New Jersey: We May Look Tough on the Outside but We’re Soft as Salt Water Taffy on the Inside.”
Publishers Weekly commented that “Friedman adds some clever touches here: she blends Reed’s own identity search with his home state’s search for a motto, which leads to some fun exchanges between the characters ... ”
My crush on my home state also inspired my publisher’s art department to design chapter openers for my book to resemble highway exit signs.
Choosing to embrace my wacky, wondrous state energized me, my plot, my characters, my publisher’s art department, a reviewer and, most importantly, my readers. Teenage readers who have e-mailed me about The
Girlfriend Project tell me not only how much they enjoyed it, but how realistically — and delightfully — I depicted the setting of their world.
Did I mention my next teen novel is set in a certain state I know oh so well?