Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dating Yourself

Back when I talked about my YA Pet Peeves, one of the things I mentioned was the fact that so many MCs have fave bands and books from a million years ago. I theorised that they did this either to pay homage to their fave bands and people, or to avoid dating themselves. It seems that back in August I promised a post on dating your work. It also seems I didn't write that post. But looky-look! I'm here now! Yay me!


People jump through all sorts of hoops not to date their work, but I can't help wondering how much it really matters. When is the last time you bought a book that was more than 5 years old, but less than 20? What percentage of your recent book purchases were published between 1991 and 2006? I've read 79 books this year, 2 were fiction published in that period. One was THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS by John Connolly, the other THE BAD BEGINNING by Lemony Snicket. 2% of my reading this year was fiction between 5 and 20 years old.

Is this trend of leaning towards "the book for all times" hurting literature for future generations? Literature from the 1800's is a snapshot of what it was like to live at that time. But there are so many books today with no mention of current artists, tv shows, pasttimes, etc. If they analyse YA contemporary works 100 years from now, what will it say about today's teens? They all loved Wuthering Heights and The Clash?


I've heard a few arguments about the number of teens who DO happen to love The Beatles or Led Zeppelin or Patti LaBelle or Journey. There are two things to be careful of when making that argument.

I can think of more books where the teen's favourite book/artist etc, is from before my time, than books where the teen's favourite artist is current. I might be wrong, but I don't feel like that's representative of the real situation. I'm not saying that sort of teen doesn't exist. I'm saying that teen probably doesn't exist in anywhere near the proportions we see in YA.

If something is going to be overwhelmingly present in YA, it should at least have the decency to also be overwhelmingly present in real life. Like paranormal romance, where a girl falls for an 'unattainable' guy, but attains him anyway. Or the love triangle where a girl has an entire trilogy to debate between two guys. These trends are both annoying, especially when they're not done well, which is way too often. But even if I hate them, I know that the majority of teen girls probably do have a crush on someone they consider unattainable. And they probably do dream of two amazing guys fighting over them.

And that brings me to the second point, stuff gets old. If 50% of the YA contemp books that come out next year have MCs who love Justin Beiber, that will be annoying. Despite the fact that it's quite possible that 50% (or very much more) of REAL teen girls love JB.

So, I don't think reality is a good enough excuse in this case, but that's just my humble opinion, based on the 2 points I gave. Also, I'm not American/British, etc, so it is quite possible that in an American JHS/SHS or British secondary class of 15 girls, there are 10 who love really old bands and books. I've only got widespread experience with Barbadian and Japanese teens, and it's quite possible their norm of liking contemporary stuff is not the norm in other places.

If, however, you still want to avoid dating your novel, here are a few quick tips for doing so.


If I mention Bug-a-boo, we're talking Destiny's Child, circa 1998. But if I say Beyonce I could be anywhere in a 15 year range.


Another consideration is to use an established artist who's cracked the top 10 more than a few times. If you use an artist who's only got one hit song, you're never sure they won't be a 1 hit wonder.


If you're really afraid of your work being dated, you can make stuff up. Invent a band, or a book, or a social networking site.


If you're afraid that specificity will date you, stay as vague as possible. One warning about being vague though, it has to fit the voice/character. No teen would say "I logged on to a social networking site, to update my status." They'll say Facebook or Twitter or Blogger. A teen wouldn't say, "We jammed to the latest hot up-and-coming emo band." Not unless they hated or were indifferent about emo. Or there were too many emo bands to keep track of. (And if that's the case, why not just fake it?)


When I was born, the World Wide Web did not yet have any applications to the public. Since then, the internet has rolled through several things that were the "hotspot" of communication.

When I was a kid, it was email. I didn't get an email address until I was 16, back in 1998. But it was still kind of pointless because most of my friends didn't have one, and the phone was still a more common way to chat. I think Geocities was also the 'ish' back then.

In 99'ish, I made the transition to Instant Messenger (AIM, Yahoo, MSN). Then there was social networking, hi5, myspace.

2007ish, I finally dragged myself onto Facebook. And I've only joined Twitter this year.

In that same time period, we've moved from two-way pagers to cell-phones to smart phones.

Ditto for slang. If you think slang changes fast in your corner of the world, you want nothing with the Caribbean. We use BOTH British and American slang. And we adapt slang from reggae and calypso songs. And then there are words that just pop up everywhere. When I was a teen, everything was "sick". You could dress sick. You could dance sick. You could get on (act) sick. The new word these days in Barbados, is "jones". It's a verb. Hell if I know what it means- lol - but every now and again I'll again I'll see on facebook, "We was jonesing all day yesterday."

Technology and slang are both liable to change in a blink. But I think it's unrealistic to avoid technology in this day and age, and I think that books with no slang at all (especially in YA) are stilted.

So how do you insert them in a way that won't make your novel completely unreadable by next year?

Leave out the nitty gritty. Don't talk about the interfaces, the concepts stay mostly the same. So if facebook flies off into the sunset on the back of a pteradactyl, noone's going to freak out that your MC used facebook to say something. On the other hand, if you get into description minute details of whatever technology's going on, then it'll draw attention to the technology. Ignore this, if it's your aim to draw attention.

Sprinkle it in. Pick a few things, and spread them throughout the book. You know how weird it is reading Ye Olde English, if you try to include every piece of slang, so that your dialogue is EXACTLY like it would be in real life, then it will probably be fairly indecipherable or sound ridiculous in a few years time. Remember when rappers did that "-izzle" thing, and everybody was, "in the hizzle fo' shizzle my nizzle?" Man, I can't even type that without laughing.

How do you feel about dating yourself? Does it matter to you? If it does, how do you avoid it?

PS, Every time I write "dating yourself" I keep remembering that time Mr. Bean took himself out to dinner. lol.


Liza said...

I'm trying to not date my dating my characters. I'm writing a story that takes place in the 80's. No email, cellphones or social networking. We'll see if it works.

Sophia Richardson said...

I have no idea if your teens are using jones the same way some people do over here, but I've heard jonesing used to mean 'to be in a state of craving' e.g. I'm jonesing for some fries. I'm trying to think if it was middle-aged people saying it, because I have a feeling it's old school. Fun with slang!

Marsha Sigman said...

LOL. I totally thought this was going to be a post about loving you for who you are (enough to date yourself).

I use slang all the time and I try to be careful in my writing. But I also think certain terms cycle back into style. Like bellbottoms...and jonesing. I totally still say that and we did as kids too.

Kate Scott said...

I tend to read more "old" books than you. So far this year I've read 104 books. 13 of them were published between 2001-2006 and two were published in the 1990's. So 14.4% of the books I've read this year are between 5 and 20 years old.

The Wuthering Heights obsession thing does annoy my. And I really don't mind when there is old slang our out of date technology in books that came out a few years ago. When I read older books it's normally because I read something new by that author and loved it so I want to read their older stuff. Or because a friend recommended the book to me. I can often tell that it's older but if it's a good book, I don't care.

Claire Dawn said...

Sophie, I realised after publishing that people might think of that meaning. It's not that though. I think it has something to do with a dance.

Kate, I forgot to mention, that to me it's even less relevant in YA. Unless a book is a super best seller (a la Twilight) it won' t be on a shelf for 5 years. And I don't know how many teens buy their books outside of bookstores.

jbchicoine said...

To be honest, I’ve never really given this much thought. I think 'dating yourself' is more of an issue if you're writing about 'now'—we run the risk of doing all the annoying things you mention.

Quite a bit of what I've written takes place some 30 to 40 years ago. I suppose that allows me the liberty of choosing only the details that have become commonly understood and recognized by society in general.

At some point, even the annoying things that you mention will become nostalgic for the generation that ‘comes of age’ and rules the media—but they’ll have to wait another 20-30 years!