The tale slapped – Scot Gardner on writing for teenagers
Writing for young adults can be fraught – how far can you go before your book is quietly removed from library shelves? And who are you writing for – teenagers or adults? Scot Gardner, author of Changing Gear, tackles the question of how to get fifteen-year-olds to sit up and take notice.
I have voice recognition software that I use to transcribe my handwritten manuscripts. It’s about 98% accurate now, after six novels. It learns as it goes along and I’ve had to teach it how to swear and speak Straya, but it still struggles with homophones. While transcribing Changing Gear, I said ‘The tail slapped full stop’, and it came out as ‘The tale slapped.’
I quite like a story that slaps; in fact I think all stories should slap – if they’re not slapping then you’re not doing it right. When I write ‘slap’ I’m thinking of that open-handed smack to the cheek my mum gave me when I got lippy and refused to get my hair cut in grade three. She would have smacked my bum, but I was sitting down and refusing to move. Life was not endangered by the ‘assault’ and I didn’t get lippy again. We’ve found other ways of resolving conflict since then. It’s a metaphor. I want what I write and read to make fifteen-year-old me sit up and take notice.
Confession. I was a rough-arsed country kid. Maybe I still am. I hung out with other rough-arsed country kids and we fished and hunted and lit our farts with gay abandon. (Am I allowed to write ‘gay’ in this context? A few of us were literally gay, but in this case it means ‘exuberant’.) I had more interest in boobs than books back then, but I have changed. Now it’s about 50/50. Fifteen-year-old me was a bit of a knobhead. He was not politically correct, but he was respectful. I wouldn’t talk to my nanna the way I talked to my mates, but equally, I wouldn’t talk to my mates the way I talked to my nanna. That would have been weird.
Writing for a young adult audience is fraught for a number of reasons. Young people are seen as impressionable, so we employ due diligence when choosing themes and content from the adult parts of the world. Language, sex, violence, suicide and drug use are the points of tension. Not all young people are experimental or in crisis and there’s a huge variation in the levels of maturity in our audience, meaning something that slaps for a sheltered eighteen-year-old might barely raise a thirteen-year-old knobhead’s brow. Is Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut our best piece of OzYA yet, or adult fiction with a young protagonist? Perhaps both. YA might be in the eye of the reader.
I came to writing through work with kids at risk. I met my mate Peter at men’s group and for the best part of a decade we ran a program called Footy, Beer and Girls. It was designed to engage young men who were at risk of hurting themselves or hurting others or at risk of falling off the map. We did ‘narrative therapy’ where we put the chairs in a circle and told stories from our lives – a facilitated men’s group for young men. It was harrowing work, full of heartache and triumph. I realised that growing up was still a messy business: that the drugs and the toys were different to my day, but the core challenges and questions were the same. Am I pretty enough? Am I normal? Will anyone ever like me? (YES, YES and YES, even though it doesn’t feel like it some days.) The first books I wrote were for those boys.
I have a strong sense of audience when I write and it’s different for every book. For Changing Gear my inner audience was my son Bryce and my nephews, Josh and Dougal. Bryce held his head and forged through Year 12. Josh stood strong while his parents battled. Dougal managed to find an identity swinging between two loving parents who were poles apart. I wrote for them, to let them and all the young people like them know that they were not alone. I wanted the characters to sound like people they could know, do things they might do and react to adversity in ways they might. The bottom line though is that all this characterisation is just window dressing to make universal stories palatable. Story is god. Pete and I could have called our group Love, Loss, Family and the Things That Make Us Laugh and Cry, because that’s where the sessions ended up, but how would our target audience engage with that?
So who will engage with this blog post? 0.9% are here by accident—lost scammers, spammers and porn surfers (‘What’s this shit?’). 2.6% of the visitors are young people, at school, here under duress, Snapchatting beneath the desk with this page open. 96.5% of the audience are tax-paying adults who are interested, involved or invested in YA. Of that 96.5% – my brothers and sisters – 92.7%*are sisters. To you, sisters, I want to offer my heartfelt thanks. I love you and I love your work. While your bosses, CEOs and principals might statistically be blokes, you hold the balance of power in this industry and I couldn’t do this thing I love so much without your support and encouragement. I wouldn’t be here if you didn’t care.
To this end, I’d like to offer a blanket apology for the potty-mouthed and sex-obsessed characters you have to put up with. IRL and in fiction. I hope you always remember that I never intended to slap you; I’m trying to slap that dozy knobhead up the back there. I’m making sure she/he’s awake before I try and match my tale to their vibrations. To slip between the buttons on their thick coat of indifference. To slide between their ribs and hopefully explode a rainbow of story somewhere near their world-weary heart. Knobheads are people too; they just don’t know it yet.
I believe in narrative. Story is the electrical impulse that animates the neural network of humanity. It’s how we connect and how we differentiate. It’s the tool by which we reframe the past and sculpt a future for ourselves. It still amazes me that we can stare at some random squiggles on a page for a few hours and have our lives changed – sometimes deeply and permanently – by the experience. Everybody deserves a free subscription to that magic, even the knobheads up the back so desperately in need of a slap.
*data from randomhyperbole.com, but you know what I mean
Scot Gardner became a writer after a chance meeting with a magazine editor while hitchhiking in eastern Australia. Magazine articles led to op-ed newspaper pieces and eventually novels. More than a decade later, his many books have found local and international favour and garnered praise and awards for their honest take on adolescent life.