Will Your Book Be Dated in Five Years?

Almost any time people make lists of suggestions for aspiring writers, one of the bullet points is "avoid current slang, pop culture, or technology. This will make your book seem dated in five years."

This much is true: if you're using slang and "modern" references in attempt to connect your book with "today's teens and tweens" (or using the phrase "today's teens and tweens" at all), you're picking the wrong way to get readers to connect with your book.

But as long as a writer understands this, I think that leaving pop culture out altogether is fairly bad advice. If your main character is a teenager, then slang, pop culture and technology is probably a big part of their life and will probably heavily influence the way they see themselves and the world. Characters in historical fiction have no problem using the slang of their day and dealing with current events - why shouldn't modern characters? And, most importantly, you need to know that leaving that stuff out won't protect your book against being dated in five years one little bit.

Making up your own slang and pop culture (as I usually do) might buy you a couple more years, but slang isn't the only thing that's going to go out of date in five years. I originally planned to make this post into a list of things I took for granted as a teenager that are out of date now (or about to be): things like licking stamps, getting chicken pox, seeing people smoking at the mall, scouring used book stores for a book I can't find a copy of anywhere, renting a video at a video store, buying film for a camera, missing a TV show and being unable to see it the next day, watching TV for hours trying to see a certain video or commercial, or having my parents have no way of getting in touch with me when I'm not at home... but the list was just too long in the end.

There's no way we can predict which slang terms will last, or which facts of life of today will soon go the way of the milk man, "going steady," and worrying about getting drafted during peacetime. Even more importantly, we can't imagine what sort of things will be facts of life for people in 10 years. Having instant access to nearly every piece of music ever recorded, reading a book on your phone, and pushing a button on your phone to identify a song playing on the radio would have seemed like science fiction when I was a kid. It's all totally normal now.

So I say to go ahead and use slang and pop culture if you feel like it. Just remember: this stuff is a part of your characters' lives, not the way to make them seem relevant to your readers. As long as you know that it won't make readers connect to your book automatically, even on the day it's printed, using "modern" references can keep you in mind of the fact that the world of your book will seem dated one day, and force you to focus on the important stuff that will help it stand up for readers who have never licked a stamp, made a "long distance call," or met a person who didn't have a chip implanted in their to download news and the weather to their brain every morning.

Interesting characters will stay interesting for years - maybe for centuries if you play your cards right and get lucky. Engaging, surprising plots should still hold a reader's interest for years to come (there are plenty of still-great books out there with plots that couldn't happen in a world with cell phones). It's all about the stuff that WILL last: loss, longing, heartache, identity, growth, disillusionment, hope, fear, love. Pop culture can shape your characters - it shapes every generation. But it's how your characters deal with growing up and with the world around them that will make your book stand up long after it becomes a period piece. Make your characters humans, not just blank slates that will seem equally blank in ten years.


Lee Wind said...

Great advice - you have to tap into the emotional truth in you and channel that into your characters, for it to seem "real" and relevant to kids today. (and hopefully into the future...)

Dave Johnston said...

Ten years ago, Jerry Seinfeld wondered what we'll be telling our grandchildren about the "old days" that will seem so odd to them, such as: "You know, when I was your age, dogs couldn't vote. We kept them on leashes and everyone accepted it."

Chantal said...

Such an awesome post. I was just told last night in writer's workshop in Dallas to lose the word 'snap' for the same reason. I can't take it out though--it's what my MC thinks and says--that's who she is. I can't help but think: if it's dated in 5 years, is that so bad? If it still resonates with the reader, do I really care?

Adam Selzer said...

Right you are, Chantal - there's no escaping being dated, and in the best cases it can become part of a book's charm over time. A lot of the "rules" you hear in writers' workshops are better left ignored.

Emily said...

Everything in moderation, I say. And I agree, pop culture references are SO MUCH a part of how teens (and many grown-ups) view the world. But I've read a few books with way too many passing references to Beyonce and iPhones -- I think it truly needs to be organic, and, like you said, not just a way of seeming 'current' and 'hip' in the eyes of young readers.

I've also heard to keep pop culture references 10-20 years old. Like you can mention Buffy but not the Vampire Diaries. The Foo Fighters but not Paramore. I think it all depends on the context.

On another note, I always forget that teens have cell phones these days, and have to go back and edit cells in to keep the plot believable. My younger brother briefly had a neon orange pager in like 1997, but I didn't have my own cell phone until 2004, my senior year in college. And a world without mix tapes? Breaks my heart. All my characters drive really old cars with tape decks that their friends don't understand.

Adam Selzer said...

Definitely on the moderation. Throw in too much of it and it just looks like you're showing your readers how current and relevant you are, and GOOD readers will see right through it. Others will fall for it, but then you really ARE out of date in six months.

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Adam's New Book: Sept 2013