Thoughts from the Intern Slush Pile: Is Your Voice Up to Snuff?

Photo credit: justine-reyes on Flickr
As I’ve been going through the intern slush, I’ve noticed that many times, when I recommend a rejection, it’s largely because of voice. Voice, to me, is one of the most important elements in a novel, because if it’s wrong on the first page, it’s usually wrong throughout the whole manuscript.

Being that I read a lot of YA submissions, this post is largely centered on voice-related problems I frequently see with YA submissions. But many of these issues can also apply to NA by looking at the points with a slightly older cast in mind.

YA Voice Red Flags:

  • Lack of contractions. This can actually be a problem in any category, but it’s especially important in YA manuscripts—a voice without any contractions always sounds stiff. This is one of the easiest (and often one of the first) voice-related red flags I pick out. Why? Because we speak and think with contractions, so when they’re absent, the writing becomes stilted and loses a great deal of flow, making it extraordinarily easy to pick it out. “I am not feeling well so I can not go,” for example, doesn’t sound nearly as fluid as, “I’m not feeling well so I can’t go.” Agreed? Good.

  • Outdated slang. If you’re writing YA, you need to be current with the language—no exceptions. For examples, teenagers today don’t really say “talk to the hand” or “phat” or “what’s the 411” anymore. (Note: those weren’t taken from actual submissions, I’m just giving outdated examples). Outdated slang, to me, is an enormous red flag and tells me the writer isn’t reading enough YA. 

  • Forced (current) slang. This is an equally problematic, but harder to spot problem. Sometimes I see submissions that use current slang, but the way they use it feels…off. This is a little harder to describe, but the easiest way to ferret them out of your manuscript is to have critique partners and/or beta readers who are up to date with the current slang read your manuscript. 

  • Corny curse substitutions. This is a biggie. While not all teenagers curse, many of them do—and when they don’t, they don’t often use corny substitutions. “Frickin’” for example, could work as a substitution for a particular four-letter word, but “french fries” probably won’t.

    Note: UNLESS your character makes a point of being corny, or it fits with your voice. I won’t say this never works (because I’m sure there’s a book out there that can make it happen), but to be honest, I’ve yet to see it work successfully with exception to “D’Arvit” in Artemis Fowl, which mostly worked because it wasn’t corny—it was a made up gnomish word. 

  • Teenager stereotypes. This is huge. When I see teenager stereotypes blended into the voice or the characters, it almost always puts me off. Teenagers are not a sum of their stereotypes, and relying on them in your writing, quite frankly, is lazy. You can do better—and teenagers deserve better. 


  • Listen to teenagers talk. A lot. Don’t have a teenager in your life? That’s fine—watch YA-centered TV shows and movies. They tend to feature teenagers who are effortlessly up to date with current slang, references, etc. Or go to your local mall and do a little (subtle) eavesdropping. Yes, really. It’s research. 

  • Read YA. By and large, the YA that’s published today (especially if it’s relatively recent) have great examples of successful YA voices. Read them. Learn from them. Write your own. (This step by the way? Not optional if you’re writing YA). 

  • Get critique partners. This is so ridiculously important—make sure you have beta readers and critique partners look at your work. I personally recommend having several rounds of betas and CPs, so you can see if the changes you made in the first round, for example, were as effective as you hoped. 

Would you add anything to either list? Unmentioned problems? Solutions? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
Editorial intern @Ava_Jae shares some YA voice-related red flags. Does your MS have any of these issues? (Click to tweet
Working on a YA MS? Writer @Ava_Jae shares some voice-related red flags to look out for in your WIP. (Click to tweet)


Fida Islaih said...

Thanks for the tips!

Ava Jae said...

Sure thing! :)

Karyne said...

These are all great! I would add to your CP/beta reader suggestion that if you're able to have a beta reader be a teen, that can be a huge help, too! They have no problem telling if you if wrote something cheesy. =)

Ava Jae said...

For sure! Teen beta readers are especially great for letting you know when you're off the mark, voice-wise. Fantastic suggestion! :)

Hannah Hunt said...

I've had so many issues with the voices in ya novels recently. I think your tips are wonderful and everyone who writes the genre should read what you have to say.

As a young adult I can tell you, I swear. I use slang. I text more than I speak sometimes, and I am NOT--in any way--a culmination of stereotypes. Neither is anyone else.

What like to add though is the need for questions. People question and doubt themselves all the time. They consider situations before diving in head first, and I think some of that cautionary action is what makes us human. It's instinctual.

So what I want more of in the ya voice is that consideration of the consequences of ones actions. I want characters who find holes in other peoples plans. Instead of running head first into a firefight or something. Because when I was sixteen, I questioned everything. Even if I didn't do it outright, I still thought about it. And so does everyone else. So that's the only thing I'd like to add is that teens are constantly battling one internal conflict after another as well.

Ava Jae said...

Thank you so much, Hannah! I think internal conflict is definitely a big part of a young adult's life, and I agree that I love seeing it in fiction (not only is it great for added tension and conflict, but it's realistic). Definitely a great point—thanks for sharing! :)

Melissa Albert said...

Great article! Though, I just have to say that I read a lot of YA books and, as a teenager, even the published ones lack an authentic voice most of the time. And, once again, as a teen, it's completely obvious right away and can make me put a book down. So I would say, yes, read YA books to see what's being published, etc., but don't always rely on them to show you a good example of voice. I would rely more on finding CPs that are teens or recent teens or people who spend a lot of time with teens. If you can find a teen that loves to read, even if they don't write, they can be a great asset and I would say definitely let them read the book and tell them to give you an honest opinion of whether or not the voice was believable.

Funny story about using current slang and how off it can sound if not done right: I just read a story and the writer literally used the line "Oh swag." Like, really? Please don't. We don't say that. Ever. I promise.

And the eavesdropping at the mall suggestion is fantastic haha!

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Melissa! That's a good point that not all published YA has a perfect voice—I tend to rely on reviews when choosing books to avoid the ones with obvious problems, like the voice issues you mentioned. Generally (though not always) those rated highly on the YA shelf have pretty decent examples of effective YA voices.

That being said, you're absolutely right that teen CPs can be especially effective at helping writers develop a YA voice, especially teen CPs who read a lot. At the very least, they should be able to point out sections that don't sound genuine or realistic.

"Oh swag"? Ha ha ha. Oh my. That is funny.

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