Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Outside References and Dating

A lot of people worry about adding real life references to their books in fear of dating them. Others don't have that fear at all.

I'm somewhere in the middle.

I like references to the real world in novels. It makes the characters and the plot more relatable. This is especially true for contemporary novels where creating a story that is relatable for teens is one of the most important things.

The problem for me is where the references become so prevalent that they actually draw me out of the story. For example, I read a novel last year where the main character literally lists off every song she listens to during certain parts of the story. There is no plot reason for her to list off all the songs, she just does. I had no idea what any of the songs were, or their artists, and I didn't love the book enough to have the interest in looking them up. A year later and that's the main thing I remember about that book.

Occasional song references are good things. They give the story depth and if I like the character or the story well enough, I might even take the time to look them up and gain a new favorite song. The same goes for book, TV show, and movie mentions. Just make sure that the reference doesn't have to be understood for the reader to enjoy your book.

Also, don't be so worried about dating a story that you make all your character's favorite books classics. Unless your character is actually the kind of person to read 1984 or War and Peace or *cough* Wuthering Heights. *cough*

Lately I've seen several contemporary releases dealing with Twitter as a main plot point. I want to pick them up, but I worry about them for two reasons.

One, Twitter will eventually be obsolete. All technology has its time and no one can tell when the next big thing will come along and sweep everything else aside.

Two, when I see a book that deals directly with something in modern teenagers's lives, I wonder if the author was trying too hard to be modern. I read a book a couple months ago that had so many references to Youtube and Google that it hurt my perception of the story. It felt like the writer had been trying too hard to "get" teenagers.

The same thing goes for teenage slang. It is possible to try too hard to capture that elusive teen voice. Especially considering teenage slang not only changes constantly, it's also regional. Two of our favorite words around here are "epic" and "legit." A school in, say, California might not even know what "legit" means the way we use it. Even abbreviations like FTW can mean different things to different people. To me it means For The Win. To one of my guy friends it means F The World.

My favorite references are the ones that only people that are "in the know" will understand. For example, in Rick Riordan's The Red Pyramid he mentions that "Manhattan has different gods" as a reference to his other series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Now if you'd never read Percy Jackson, you wouldn't understand the reference but you'd still be able to enjoy the book. If you had read Percy Jackson, you'd catch it and laugh. Apparently Despicable Me is full of references. I missed...all of them, but I still loved the movie.

In short, IMHO:

  1. References are good, but in moderation.
  2. Don't try so hard to have your teenagers be like normal teenagers that you risk alienating readers.
  3. Be careful with plots that revolve around something that could be obsolete before the book is published.
  4. Hidden references are the best kind.
  5. Try not to worry too much about dating a book.