Thursday, March 28, 2013

What Do You Mean No One Calls Anymore? Why We Need Young Betas...

My fifteen year-old babysitter must be saving up for something really good because she keeps coming back.  I say this with some surprise because her gig usually begins with me administering a pop quiz as I race around the house looking for matching shoes, appropriate outdoor gear and children to hug goodbye.

Usually our exchange goes something like this:
Me: So by any chance to do you know who Led Zeppelin is?
Babysitter: Um, I think a band?
Me (clasping heart): How about Nirvana?  Ever heard of them?
Babysitter: Oh, yeah, my boyfriend’s mom had them on in the car once.  They were kind of whiny.
Me (sending “I told you so” tweet to CP with results of unofficial teen poll): Hey, have you ever seen Pretty in Pink?
Babysitter: No.
Me: Ugh- how is that possible? It’s so good. You should definitely watch it! In fact, please promise me you’ll watch it this week.
Babysitter: O-kaayyy
Me: So, what is your favorite show?
Babysitter: Awkward.
Me (exhale, finally on common ground): What did you think of last week's episode?

I do have a point to this ramble.  I’m a product of the 80’s. In my first MS, I was crushed when my teen beta reader circled a Bobby Brady reference with a big “Who???” in the margin.  Same thing with a reference to Wonder Woman’s invisible jet.  Sigh.  I was recently re-reading a Meg Cabot novel and laughed when one of the characters (portrayed as a mean girl type) was driving a white Cabriolet convertible.  I’m willing to guess Meg watched Can’t Buy Me Love, which made that THE car of cheerleader-types everywhere.  No disrespect to the one and only Meg Cabot, but I’m not sure most teens today would even recognize a Cabriolet, much less associate it with cool.  Likewise, in my day (and in many YA novels I read) the cool guys always drove Jeeps, but is that still the case?  I don’t see a one in the parking lot of my town’s high school.  But if you asked ME to picture a car the cool guy would drive, I’m immediately picturing either a Jeep or the Trans Am Jake Ryan is leaning against at the end of Sixteen Candles.  But I’m not my target audience and what reads as “cool” to me, is not going to resonate with my readers. 

So, I’ve now taking to harassing my babysitter and taking swings through the high school parking lot and becoming generally stalkerish when teens are anywhere near me on the escalator in the mall. There's a Dunkin' Donuts right next to the high school in our town and at 2:20 every afternoon, it's like hitting the eavesdropping jackpot.

As much as I rely on my CP’s to point out plot gaps, bad dialogue tags and overuse of adverbs, I rely just as much on my teen beta readers to tell me things like “Uh, sorry, but NO ONE calls anyone on the phone.  You should change that whole phone call to a texting scene.” and "Twitter isn't really a thing for us.  We use Instagram." And they really don't care that I've just mastered Twitter.  And the really, really don't care that the mean girl in my high school was named Shannon and that's why my mean girl in my ms is Shannon, because no one under the age of 30 is named Shannon these days.  My adorable teen beta said "Try anything ending in the -ey sound instead: Lyndsay, Chelsea, Kelsey- you know.  Yeah, I pretty much love her. AND she always returns her printout of the manuscript with a one-of-a-kind hand-drawn cover.  

How do you find teen beta's?  In my instance, my own children are in a charter school that goes through high school. I was able to post a request on the PTA's Facebook page.  However, most states have community service requirements built into graduation requirements and you could try approaching a guidance counselor or English teacher at your local high school to see if reading for you could count towards that requirement.  Your local librarian may also be able to suggest avid teen readers who enjoy your genre.  

As far as connecting with your target audience beyond harassing the babysitter? Online sites like Teens Can Write and WriteOnTeen offer forums where you can politely ask questions of teen writers (What is a typical curfew? Where do you shop for clothes? How would you write "later" in text speak?). Just remember to pay it forward by helping them achieve their writing goals in any way you can. Beyond that: Read, read, read across a wide spectrum of YA and, when all else fails, there are always Awkward marathons!

Do you use YA-age beta’s?  What other ways do you make sure your work is resonating with teen readers?


  1. I just sent my wip to a teen beta reader. My story is set in 1992. Will be fun to see what she has to say.

  2. Oooh, so fun! My next YA is going to be set in 1990, and it's freaking me out that it will be considered "historical fiction"! Good luck with your teen beta!!!

  3. Eeek. Historical fiction. You're right. Didn't realize that. I'm olde.
    Can't wait to read your next one in 1990 -- so my era!

  4. Yoiks. Your post made fear run cold through my cockles... (That is, I have any.)
    I have just recently used a scene from "Back to the Future" as a reference in my MG Fantasy novel about a young girl who time-travels. I had to describe the scene where Marty puts the head-phones on George, claims he's Darth Vadar from the planet Vulcan and blasts Van Halen with his Walkman. (Whut? Who? Where?) Something so rich in meaning to us elderly folk is pointless to these young whipper-snappers today, so I made my MC describe it like she saw it--without any reference to the particulars.
    I wonder if it will fly in the end or (sniff-sniff)--what's that I smell? Massive rewrite!!!
    Sign me the class of '84. (That's 1984 for all you whipper-snappers.)
    ~Just Jill

  5. Excellent post. So true! This is one reason why I usually write historical fantasy. :-) The constantly shifting slang and technology are the primary reasons for having teens vet your manuscript.

  6. I've always been way outside of current trends and typical interests for someone my age, so I've always far preferred historical and literary fiction to contemporary. (I honestly draw a blank at most currently popular actors and singers.) A lot of once-contemporary books now feel rather stale and dated, because of all the topical references. On the other hand, I know I'm not alone in hating this current trend of "updating" books that were published a generation ago. Do people really think modern young people are too stupid to know what a VCR or Atari is? Why pretend a book from the Seventies or Eighties is a product of the 21st century?

    I personally consider anything 1990s onward late contemporary historical, and contemporary historical about 1960s-1980s. Even if a book is set then, it's still not a good idea to overwhelm it with period references.

  7. YESSSS!! Technology is something that dates manuscripts so clearly, and it's so very easy to slip into what was current when we were the age of the protagonists...