Authentic Dialog In YA

authentic dialog in YAOkay, let’s get this out there: I can’t give you the secret to writing dialogue for teen characters – especially your characters. I mean, they’re you. You’re creating people from nothing and giving them thoughts. Feelings.


But you, yourself, may not be a teenager. You may not have been a teen for many, many years, so asking your brain to think and speak like someone who hangs out in a completely different social circle is a pretty massive challenge. It can be kind of intimidating – asking characters to speak in a way you don’t.

But I have good news! Teens are people. They’re individuals, just like everyone else. So, there’s no one way to write teen dialogue, because there’s no one way that teens speak. You can be creative here, and I can help you with it.

I mean, helping is kind of what I do. And in doing so, I get to talk to a lot of teens. And listen to them talk to each other. As a high school teacher, I spend more time in dialogue with teens than I do with adults. My entire week is filled with authentic teenage dialogue, and I promise that it’s not scary.

It’s just talking.

If you treat your dialogue in YA as though teens are people rather than “teenagers,” you’re off to a good start. But I can give you a bit more insight. Some things to make your teens sound like teens without resorting to stereotypes. Because there’s nothing better than reading YA and feeling like the characters have produced their dialogue themselves – that they’ve agonized over the words, or spurted them out without considering their impact.

But that takes work. A whole lot of work. And it starts with acknowledging that dialogue in YA can never actually be truly authentic.

A major reason for this, in my experience, is that teens swear. A lot. And I’m not talking just the bad kids. I’m not referring to a strangled f-bomb when they close their binder rings on their fingers. I’m talking four letter words so frequently integrated into their regular conversations that many teens actually don’t know what I’m calling them on when I comment on it.

I’ve had teens swear while talking to me – not at me, just in conversation. And they didn’t even realize. I’ve had others swear during oral presentations. Words that were once vulgar or rude have just become, well, words.

I’m sure this generalization doesn’t apply to every teen, and won’t apply to every character. But are you using fluffy words like “gosh” or “crud” with your teen dialogue? Because if you are, it’s sure as hell not going to ring true.

Now, I’m not suggesting that your teen characters have to swear. But you probably don’t want to alienate your audience by having words they would never say come out of your characters’ mouths.

On that note, I recently read a YA novel where one character’s identifying phrase was “[insert noun] is my jam!” And I almost couldn’t finish it. Because every time I read it, I knew it wasn’t a teen saying the words.

Sure, I’ve heard teens use that expression. A lot. But not in a long while.

Publishing is such a slow industry that any slang in dialogue dates itself really, really fast. That means that it’s hard to make slang-infused dialogue authentic since it just comes off sounding like your character is behind the times instead of living in them.

I mean, if you’re writing a character who’s always two steps behind their peers in the coolness department, then go for it. Sling that slang. Otherwise? You don’t need it.

Instead of using slang, try sticking to more slow-moving colloquialisms. I know it sounds like such a small distinction, but it’s the difference between a character saying “Your dog is sick” and “Your dog is awesome.”

And, well, one of those is going to age a lot better than the other.

Okay, so there you have a couple of things to avoid, so when I bring up hedge words, I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to scroll right on through. I mean, you’ve likely come across some piece of advice somewhere that suggest you do a search and destroy of every “just” or “like” or “kind of.” But this isn’t that kind of advice.

Teens use these words. All the time. So, although dialogue that doesn’t include them is more concise and could read as more emotional, it also comes across as inauthentic. Maybe it has to do with the fact that teens are still figuring out what they’re emotional about, or that they don’t want to tie themselves too closely to sentiments that others might not agree with – I couldn’t tell you. But what I can say is that a few well-placed hedge words in YA dialogue can actually increase its effectiveness – not decrease it.

That said, I’m not claiming to be a know-it-all when it comes to the way teens talk. Really, I can only speak as to how the teens I teach, well, speak. Things might be different where your characters live, but there’s a very simple way to test it out: listen to teens.

Seriously. Next time you’re at the movies or walking down the street, keep your ears open. Forget that you’re not supposed to listen in on conversations and pay attention instead. I’m not suggesting that you creep on groups of teenagers, just that you be present in the moment and tune in to what’s going on around you. Because teens aren’t an unknown species. They’re pretty cool people. They have a lot to say. And, chances are, they’re saying it while you’re around.

So listen.

Crafting Your Book Pitch

Crafting Your Book Pitch

So you’re a writer with a polished manuscript, you keep hearing about these pitch contests on Twitter, and you want to try your hand at one. Or maybe, when someone asks you that dreaded question, “What’s your book about?” you want to be able to respond simply and succinctly instead of stammering through some half-baked answer that goes on forever and ends up totally confusing and/or boring the question asker. (I’ve totally been there. It’s not fun.)

Good news though! I’m here to show you how to craft a simple, hook-y book pitch in less than 140 characters. One that’s easy to memorize and have ready to rattle off when someone asks you The Question.

Let’s get to it…

There are only two rules for constructing a compelling book pitch:

1. It must contain three components: character + conflict + stakes.

2. It must be as specific as possible.

Got it? Great.

Using those two rules, I’ve constructed a formula:

Compelling Book Pitch







Or, to be more specific:

Compelling Book Pitch


[character description and/or motivations]


[character’s specific goal]


[the horrible thing that will happen if she doesn’t achieve her goal]

Your pitch doesn’t have to follow this formula exactly. You can move all these things around if you want. I’ve even seen some excellent book pitches that only have two of the three

components, but they’ve managed to get their unique voice across, or something cool about the setting or magic system. That’s totally fine. Feel free to break the rules if it makes the pitch stronger.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. How do you boil your entire novel down to just these three things? I’ve come up with an easy way to do just that. Go ahead and answer the following questions (the more succinct your answers, the better):

Who is your main character, what does she want, and why?

What is your inciting incident/what kicks off the action?

What’s your character’s goal and what will happen if they fail to achieve it?

I’m going to use my own book to answer these questions and show you how I arrived at the pitch I used for Pitch Wars last fall:

Who is your main character, what does she want, and why?

Asha is the king’s prized dragon hunter. She kills dragons because a particularly deadly one burned her as a child and brought destruction and death down on her home.

What is your inciting incident?

My inciting incident is when the dragon who burned Asha as a child reemerges for the first time in 8 years and her father makes her a deal: bring him its head and he’ll cancel the marriage he arranged for her.

What is her goal and what will happen if she fails to achieve it?

Her goal is to kill the dragon. If she fails, she’ll be forced to marry someone she doesn’t want to marry.

Now that we have our answers, let’s break them down into each category


-burned by a dragon as a child, Asha is now the king’s prized dragon hunter


she must hunt a deadly dragon


if she fails to kill it she’ll be forced into an unwanted marriage

And now let’s put those all together….


Asha, the king’s prized dragon hunter, must hunt a deadly dragon and bring her father its head or be forced into a political marriage. #NAMEOFPITCHCONTEST

That’s it! Easy peasy, right? 😉

If you have questions, ask them in the comments and I’ll answer there.

If you want to read more about pitch construction, here are some extra resources: (Take #2 with a grain of salt, since some agents say they want character names in a pitch.)

Pep Talk: A World of Endless Insecurities

*clears throat*

*grabs megaphone*





Okay, cut me some slack. I was homeschooled. I have no clue what a pep rally looks like and this is how I imagine it, okay?

In preparation for drafting this talk of the pep, I asked my fellow writers on social media a question: As a writer, what are your biggest insecurities? What do the voices in your head try to tell you?

Well, it turns out there’s a lot of insecurity and fear in the writing world. (You’re shocked to hear this, I’m sure.) The responses were varied, though many shared common themes, and most (if not all) sounded very familiar as I read them.

“That it’s not good. And alternately, that if it *is* good, it’s the last good thing I’ll write.”

“Boring. Boring. You’ll never figure out what comes next…you’re a disappointment.”

“I fear never finding an agent. Or, finding an agent but never selling a book. Or publishing a book and no one buys it and I get dropped by publisher, editor, and agent.”

“…that I’ll never be able to competently convey the richness of the stories in my head because I’m not a strong enough writer.”

“That the world doesn’t need my perspective. That it’s all been said and said better than I could say it.” 

“That it’s just a guilty pleasure, not good enough to warrant all the time I spend away from family…”

Lastly, one of my favorites (and probably the one that best conveys my own current insecurity):

“That I will lose my mojo and suck.”

As I thought about what sort of encouraging, highly inspirational words I could shower upon all of you to ease your fears, I realized something.

No matter what I say, these fears and insecurities are never going to go away.

I know, I know—PEP TALK.


Before you go all Inigo on me, hear me out…

Too often we think that once we reach a certain point in our writing journey, our fears and insecurities will magically disappear. I can tell you from experience, they don’t. Change focus? Yes. Disappear? Unfortunately, no. Before I had an agent, I worried that I would never get an agent. Now that I have an agent, I worry I’ll never snag a publisher. Or that the ability to write the words has escaped me and I’m nothing but a one-hit-wonder. And I’ve seen enough chatter on Twitter and Facebook to know that even published authors struggle with fears…that their book will bomb, that no one will show up to their book signings, that they’ll fall short of expectations…and the list goes on. If there’s even the slightest possibility of it happening, let’s face it, we writers will fret over it.

Now, I can tell you I’ve been there (I have). I can remind you of how many times famous authors have been rejected (but is that encouraging or just depressing?). I can advise you to find a community of people—writers and friends—who believe in you and your stories even when you’re not sure you believe in them yourself (seriously, do it). But the best way to defeat the voices of doom is to drown them out with the scratching of your pen.


Just because we love writing doesn’t mean it’s easy, but (in my humble opinion) it IS worth it. Think about your favorite book. Maybe it’s the one that made you want to be a writer yourself. Maybe it’s one that got you through a terrible time in your life. Maybe it’s one you go back to again and again, reading it for the millionth time for the sheer joy of revisiting the characters and places you love.

Now think about this: At one point in time, the author of that book faced the same fear and insecurities you’re facing.

And all those authors who so kindly bared their souls and answered my question? They are all incredibly brave, marvelous, wonderful people.

Because despite all those fears and insecurities, they’re writing anyway.

So write. Don’t worry if the words aren’t perfect yet. It’s okay. They’ll get there. Because your voice is unique. Your story does matter. There is a reader out there who needs your book. And the world is full of creative inspiration to replenish your mojo.

And then…

Keep writing. Even when it scares you. Even when you’re 99.9% sure it’s crap. Even when that rejection comes. Even when someone else makes a cutting remark about your “hobby.” And when fear and insecurity tell you to stop…

Write some more.

To The Shelves Coming May 1

To The Shelves is a collaborative blog developed by a group of writers who all participated in the Pitch Wars 2015 writing contest.

The blog will launch May 1 with a Pep Talk because encouraging yourself and other writers is an incredibly important part of the writing process for me, and I want to make sure it is something we take seriously here on the blog! That post will soon be followed by posts on craft, writing as a business, writing process, and writers talking about books!

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