Kirsty McKay is the author of Undead and Unfed, two wickedly funny zombie-comedies for teens. Now a full-time writer, Kirsty originally started out as an actress. She went on to write for the theatre and has written extensively for commercial theatre both in the UK and North America. Kirsty was born in the north-east of England, but currently lives with her husband and small daughter in the United States.
Thoughts on Voice when writing for Teens
by Kirsty McKay
My Inner Teenager. That’s what I was tempted to call this post, but I stopped typing mid-way through as I thought, ‘how bloody patronizing.’
That’s the fear, isn’t it, when you’re north of 21 and are writing books for teens? How to have an authentic teenage voice. All of my novels thus far have been written in the first person, so when you’re reading UNDEAD or UNFED, or my new book, KILLER GAME, you’re reading everything from the point of view of my main character. In the case of KILLER GAME, it’s Cate. She’s a bona fide teenager. Me, I’m a little older than that. Even though I occasionally get asked for ID when I buy a bottle of wine, I can assure you I’m actually old enough to be Cate’s mum. Wow. That’s kind of frightening, now I come to think about it.
So what gives me the right to think I can voice a convincing teenager? Well, here’s the thing. I think in many ways, I have arrested development. (This would be a negative trait in many – OK, most walks of life, but for a writer of lit for kids and teens, it’s a positive boon.) I think that, although I’ve done many things over the years that broadly qualify me as ‘adult’ – having a bunch of birthdays, living alone, running a business, getting married, having kids and learning not to care too much about a glut of things that would have upset me as a teen – something in me just stopped around the age of sixteen.
Is it how I look at the world? If so, that’s probably a good thing – to maintain the confidence of youth, to look questioningly at things, not accept the status quo. These are good traits to have. But I have to admit I can be pretty jaded at times, and pretty comfortable, and kind of cynical, so maybe that’s not it. I know emotionally I’m much older than sixteen. Thank goodness for that, because otherwise I’d be pretty unbearable. Often, what is an attractive quality in a teenager soon gets extremely tiresome once you’re in your fourth decade. And you know what? Many aspects of living get a lot easier the more years you have tucked under your belt, and once you’ve been around the block a few times it’s so much easier to keep things under control. Or put a good game face on, same diff.
So what stopped for me? Is it the language I use, or the people I surround myself with, or my interests and hobbies? I must admit, at a dinner party the other night with a group of my fellow authors, I was barely moved to contribute to a conversation about the finer points of the craft of writing , and yet I was disappointed when my friends didn’t know about the MTV show CATFISH. My tastes are still, in many ways, teenage – is that sad? And yet, just because I tend towards the lowbrow, that doesn’t make me teenage. Many sixteen year olds would have plenty of intelligent thoughts about BIRD BY BIRD, and wouldn’t give a toss about the latest reality show .
I’m left with the idea that this voice is just me, or at least a version of a fifteen or sixteen year old me, a voice that is still important to me to express. That sixteen year old? That’s who I write for. I’m true to that girl. Yes, I listen to the voices on the bus, or in the street or on the TV shows. I pick up the language, and I use the words that tickle me, resonate with me, ring true with me. I love Urban Dictionary. I read blogs, I enjoy popular, youth culture – it’s part of my job, and I have a passion for it. I don’t try and imitate that voice. I own that voice, and now I have the power and the right to give that voice an audience. Maybe I didn’t always feel I had the right back then, so maybe the voice never went away.
So writing for teens isn’t about finding my Inner Teenager, it’s more about putting my Middle-Aged self – THANKFULLY – to one side while I write. It’s fun! What a privilege, what a joy. Sometimes, yes, it’s painful, because being a teenager is painful. Sometimes it’s indulgent (and that’s what editors/crit groups/long suffering husbands are for.) But writing as a teen I get to revisit that time when everything’s ahead of me, and anything is possible. That is pure gold.
At Cate’s isolated boarding school, Killer Game is a tradition. Only a select few are invited to play. They must avoid being killed by a series of thrilling pranks, and identify the murderer. But this time, it’s different: the game stops feeling fake and starts getting dangerous and Cate’s the next target. Can they find the culprit … before it’s too late?