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Getting Old. Writing Young. Staying Sane.

As I get older, I realize how far out of touch I am getting with what's "hot" and "now." Some days I feel completely in the dark. (Mom, I now know how you felt when you had to learn how to use a computer in your 40's!)

Technology is moving so fast, something is "out" even before it's "in" so how in the world do we account for this while writing for young people? Do we have them use iPads and iPods and Twitter and Facebook, knowing that in a few years, those things may be totally obsolete? Cell phones have progressed from devices you use to make calls, to things that control your garage doors and home security, for goodness sake. It seems we are all about convenience, so what will be next? Jetson style insta-meals and hovercars? (See, I totally dated myself right there. How many teens even know who the Jetsons are!)

I'm am very curious to know, for those of you who write straight up contemporary, how do you decide what to include to make your story feel "real" but relevant?
Lee Bross

Lee lives her happily ever after on the coast of Maine where she has written Tangled Webs, her historical YA debut, and fantasy YA books Fates and Chaos under pen name Lanie Bross. She also writes contemporary books for New Adult under the name L.E. Bross, debuting with Right Where You Are.

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  1. I volunteer with my church's high school youth group (we have about 70 teens), and my husband works for XBox, so he keeps me up to date on the technology end. That and just keeping in contact with old students on FB and seeing what they're up to and what's on their minds.

  2. That is a great question. And really it's a two-fold problem. One is how do you keep current on what's hot, (and yeah, I totally got your Jetson's reference so I'm in the same boat).

    But the other is how do keep from dating your story, even if you're using the latest and greatest technology of the day? Or do you even try? When I started writing my latest contemporary novel, ExtraNormal, I tried to avoid attaching it to a specific year by not naming specific technology. But I had my characters flipping their phones open when they used them. Seemed pretty normal just a couple years back. Then as I was getting it ready for publication I had to go through and just have them push buttons. A year or so from now maybe use of the word "phone" will sound outdated. Odds are good that some day Facebook or Twitter will go the way of MySpace, or texting and (now) facetime will go the way of instant messaging. There's just no way to truly stay current when technology changes every month. I think the best you can do is hope that any particular technology isn't so ingrained in your story that the entire story becomes outdated along with the technology. But that's not easy to do when writing about teens who are all about their technology.

  3. I don't mention the device or the social networking service by name. No iPhone, just phone. Phone keep changing, but they're still called phones. No Wii, Xbox, or PlayStation, just "game" or "game console". No Facebook, just "friending" or "following" people because the terms can be applied to multiple services. I mention cars by name, but they've got a bit more staying power, even when they're "old".

  4. I think I'm lucky because I teach highschool. I'm surrounded by teens everyday! Although I think watching shows that feature teens can help least that's my arguement for still watching MTV...however bad that programming is!

  5. Hey I'm only 23 and I totally rocked out to the Jetsons. That being said it's hard. But I have to share this little story about a series I read last year. I read L.J. Smiths 'The Secret Circle' trilogy before the show came out as it looked interesting. I was reading them and I enjoyed the books so much more than the show (funny since I like the Vampire Diaries show better than the books). I did randomly find myself thinking why of 12 teens does no one have a cell phone and they always have too look for one another. Then in the 3rd book I believe they mentioned something about stung out cassette tapes and I had a moment of pause. So I checked the publication the late 90's. So that explained the lack of cell phones. But I never noticed the books were 'out of date' really while reading. So I guess my point is that if the story is good then it doesn't matter if the technology is absolute.

  6. So far I've limited myself with just iPods and cell phones.

  7. I guess the question is how important to the plot is that technology? Do you have to name the online service, or the type of phone? If you do, then your story probably has a particular setting and you might just have to live with that. THE FUTURE OF US assumes AOL is old and Facebook is relatively new. In 20 years, when Facebook has evolved (or is no more), will that story still resonate? Considering we still read and enjoy novels from the 1980s, 1970s, 1960s, 1850s--some of which assume technology that is now obsolete (e.g., rotary phones, telegrams, horse-and-carriage transportation)--I think it's safe to say that a good story will always win out.

    Just my thoughts.

  8. I was just thinking about this the other day, when I was rereading part of the YA book I initially wrote in 2008 and now (still?) revising.

    "I snapped my phone shut and..."

    Wait, what? She wouldn't have a flip phone anymore!

    Now, I make sure my characters end calls instead of snapping phones shut, update their profiles or status instead of logging onto Facebook or Twitter, and play video games instead of PS3.

    I know that some writers get around things like this by inventing their own versions of technology (e.g. Sarah Dessen's "UMe" Facebook/Myspace clone that shows up in a couple of books), but as a reader, I sometimes find that takes me out of the story.

    (Don't get me wrong, I freaking love Sarah Dessen.)

  9. Working with teens helps keep me up to date, but every now and then I'll be shocked by the stuff they aren't familiar with.

    Colin's comment made me think of Jay Asher's other novel, 13 Reasons Why, and the conscious choice he made to have everything be slightly out of date. In that context I think it kinda works. If everything is out of date to start with, and everyone acknowledges that it is out of date, then the story stays relevant for longer. It's an interesting answer to the problem.

  10. This was just something I was thinking about today when I was contemplating whether or not to include "Kodak moment" in my current project. I quizzed my 16-year-old daughter and some teen bloggers who assured me they understood what it meant, but I still wonder how relevant the phrase is to a generation who uses digital cameras and cell phones to take pictures.

  11. I guess that teen characters who text and chat and Facebook all day long are not that interesting. With a few exceptions, the interesting things in teen life happen in the in-between moments where technology is not relevant. In bed, on the sports field, at dinner with their family, grandma's funeral, on stage of the high school musical. My books have some "tech" but don't rely on it. It's a contemporary historical detail just like a corset or ration card would be.

  12. I have a flip phone! But I'm a cheapskate. (And buttons are new and cool? Cool phones don't have buttons anymore.)

    Really, it's the degree of communication that changes things. If you can always get in contact with someone, there are a lot of plot obstacles that are no longer believable.

    I love Connie Willis, and she writes science fiction, but if anything, her world has more of an alternate history sort of feel, telephone exchanges, and paper files, and turning off your pager. Some people find that sort of thing really irritating and unbelievable, but for me it's part of the humor of her writing. Yes, they have time travel, but they don't have the internet. And some things are universal, beaurocracy, academic infighting, getting annoyed when someone isn't where they said they'll be.

    The truth is, we don't really understand the internet. We spend so much of our lives hooked up to this machine, but we don't know how it works or how it affects us. And there are so few books that really show the internet as an integral part of people's lives. In contrast to Gabrielle, it really is. If kids are being driven to suicide by actions taken on the internet, then yeah, it is one of the 'interesting' things. The whole idea of instant, inescapable communication, it cuts both ways.

    And here's a way to get a character to turn off her phone: creepy texts from an unhinged stalker.


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Item Reviewed: Getting Old. Writing Young. Staying Sane. Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Lee Bross