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Guest Dabeagle

Why I Write Teens

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Guest Dabeagle

I was visiting my mother last night and describing the two stories I'm currently working on. She said to me, "I've noticed your characters are mostly teenagers. Why do you think that is?'

I have a few reasons for that:

1) That is the time in my life I'd most like to have a 'do over'. I'm the kind of person who, during High School, watched things happen and felt that when I tried to make things happen, they didn't turn out well - usually through a lack of forethought. I think I was a cowardly teen that lived in my head far too much and pissed away the things I could have had as advantages. I had a lot of anger, as well, and a low self esteem. I was never made to follow through and know the satisfaction of a job well done and even now it can elude me. By writing these characters, frequently, there is an internal element of 'what if?' I would have loved to have had a friend like Alec Kutsenko because I love to laugh. I would have loved to have known a Jake Tull as I love music. I would have loved to have connected with a lot of the characters I've made - my very own imaginary friends.

2) Laziness. We frequently, at least I do, write what we know. When it was fresher in my memory I had tid bits about submarines, having been a submariner in the US Navy. High school, or it's non-US equivalents, is a shared experience for many, many people so it makes it easier to find common ground or memories. When I first started posting my stories had a setting reminiscent of Nevada, because that's where I was. When I moved back home to New York, so did my locales. My two instances of retail management are obsolete and limiting, respectively. I managed a video store, who have gone the way of the Dodo, and a GameStop which is a video game retailer. Getting into anything specific with video stores relegates the story to the near past and is alien to modern teens. The other eliminates non-gamers, and I don't know enough about games to speak all that intelligently or deeply. If I were to choose to follow an adult over the course of a story I think I would choose something with limitless variety, like working in a hotel or spa. The people watching and limited interaction, allowing them to pass through and keep going from the main perspective would provide, I'd think, endless opportunity - like a soap opera. For me what the character does is important, as a big chunk of time spent, and so I need to make it believable. Adults, typically, have jobs and so that's included. If I wrote a story about a main character who was, let's say, a lawyer then I should know something about what he does and how that works so that it doesn't destroy the suspension of reality as it pertains to that character. I know High School, or my miserable experience of it, and so I can work from that place and make other experiences out of it.

I have limited my readership before, with items not related to something like the main characters job. In stories where I have made one of my musical interests a main focus, for instance. One may have had their experience diminished with 'Jack in the Green' by the Jethro Tull references, with 'Mansfield' with the Elton John background, or 'Long Day' which had a mish-mash of my musical interests. I may not have realized it with Long Day, but I knew going into the other two that I may be cutting off a chunk of my potential audience.

Adults need jobs, they pay bills, they are supposed to be responsible and in some sort of control - or give that appearance. High Schoolers have more freedom of movement and time (in general, in theory) and are generally less in control of their environement and thought processes. Who would want to read about a workaholic accountant that comes home and keeps working while hoping to find love in his ledgers? In this it feels like I can express more with kids than adults, overall. One thing that I find troubling about writing like this is the assumption some make that you are sexualizing and attracted to teens. I know there have been issues with that, pedophiles aren't as obvious as - say - race. The small minded will quickly point and say 'if he writes about it, he must want to' or something equally shallow. I wonder if Nabokov was a pedophile, or if 'Lolita' was simply a story, then?

Teens are sexual creatures, much as it makes some of us squirm to accept. I know it makes me squirm. Never have I squirmed more than when a teen I mentored told me he'd lost his virginity, at 15. He was a very handsome boy who probably could have had his pick at school, but he was lacking in self worth and was atypical in that he didn't attempt the alcohol/group function things that allow one to meet others. It fell to me to have the conversation about safe sex, alternatives to penetrative sex and express my worries about pregnancy and what that could do to both of them at their age. All the while it forced me to confront that this boy was now a sexual creature and that I could no longer hold to the idea of a mischievous boy that I so loved - he had left that behind.

Many people's idea of 'sexy' is different. For some it's boobs, others like hair, others like bare. Some like short, others tall. Some like 'more cushion for the pushin' and some prefer to see hip and rib bones. Some want intelligence, others a sense of humor, others compassion - maybe a mix of all the above. Teens can be pretty, attractive, but for me they lack essential qualities to make them more than that (were I single. Being a married man and all that entails, this is purely hypothetical). While I think some teens display some of these attributes, most still aren't done yet.

When I worked at the game store there was a guy that came in, about my height, but with a more exercised body. He had a scruff of a beard - really a day or two growth, maybe - and runners legs poking out of cargo shorts for the summer weather. More hair than I usually like, as I find skin attractive, but he was very attractive. He wore a pack pack like many younger people that came to the mall - perhaps a computer inside, etc - and looked to me like someone who had come from the local community college. People watching is a fun pastime, especially if they are good looking.

So he says to me, in a deep voice, "Could I have a minute of your time?" Seemed an unusual way to phrase it, very formal, and I was intrigued. He wanted to pick games for a handheld system that was popular at the time - even my mother had one. He made several selections that made the cost expensive, to me, and I took him to the register to check out. We had a light conversation and then he declined a bag, electing to put it all in his pack. He then said:

"This way my mom won't see it and bitch, but you know what? I figure, I'm 16 and work for my own money, I should be able to buy what I want. Right?"

Admittedly I felt a little uncomfortable that I'd found him as attractive as I had, and that served to cool me off immensely. However, in later reflection, I find that young men like he was - right up through to the late 20's I guess (again, were I single) - are like TV characters or models. They are attractive, but nothing more than that because there are too many intangibles that make them transition from 'object' to 'person' and then enable that 'person' to transition to some kind of relationship - platonic, romantic, whatever.

So I find that, in the end, teens are a real 'sandbox' of a character type that provide me with situations that haven't bored me yet.

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Thanks Dabeagle, that was an illuminating and delightful insight into your writing and motivations.

As a part owner in a now defunct video rental store, I can certainly relate to your experience in that.

We nearly lost everything we had including our home, but we managed to climb out of the abyss created by the video store going broke.

I remember standing outside the store looking at the various teenage highschool kids waiting for the bus in the afternoons. Some were very cute and as they got older they became handsome, and cheeky. Some of them winked at me, and others smirked. I can't say I wanted to do anything more with them, such as helping them discover a transition from youth to young adult, but there was almost an unspoken imparting of knowledge which came from them knowing that I was admiring them.

Like the assets of a video store, youth catches the bus to adulthood, granting me only fleeting memories of beauty.

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I think you're writing coming-of-age stories, and I'm attracted to those - whether the male protagonists are gay or straight - for the same reason you appear to be saying you write them: my own coming-of-age didn't happen right; in many ways I never really did come of age. So I can't help but identify and empathize with people of the age I was when I was not coming-of-age when I should have been. And, of course, rooting for them when things start going right.


Your having been through this kind of thing yourself is a good example of "writing what you know about." But that in itself isn't what makes your stories stand out, in my opinion, as among the best of their kind. I've said this before, but the knack you have of conveying the issues through effective and believable characterization and incident rather than through authorial pronouncements, oblique or otherwise, is what makes them so powerful and affecting.


I also appreciate that though you rightfully do not ignore the concept of sexual attraction, you don't engage in explicit descriptions of or references to specific activity. I find such to be of virtually no value, and always outright intrusive, in stories that purport to deal with the broader issues of achieving a sense of self-worth and discovering how one fits into the world. To me, such content, especially with teens, can't help but convert characters from real people into objects. To be perfectly blunt, I think of it as the "eww..." factor.
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I just write what I know. Throw in a bit of dream and I can come up with something. Sex is something I don't bother with. It's behind closed doors so it goes unsaid. There will be some double entendre in there but the reader can figure it out easy enough.

I'm simple. No huge cast. I have my own genere.

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Stephen King has been asked many times, "why do you write these godawful horror stories?" And he shakes his head and answers, "do you think I have a choice?"

I agree with DB that sometimes, we're trying to recapture a moment in our lives and examine a "what if" scenario (or a "do over" as he puts it). For me, I like to think I got that out of my system, and now I'm examining different characters and totally different scenarios that are completely removed from who I was and what I was back when I was a teenager. My observation is that the very first loves you experience as a teenager are some of the most powerful feelings you'll ever have in your life, so that's one of the reasons why I'm fascinated with the coming-of-age story.

I do think there's a danger of falling into a rut in this kind of plot, particularly when the characters run around in circles anguishing over what's gonna happen if somebody finds out they're gay. Partly for this reason, I've abandoned that and went with a new character who came to terms with being gay when he hit adolescence, and has friends at a modern, contemporary school where being gay isn't that big a deal. (I don't dispute that this is very different in different parts of the U.S. or the world.) Cutting that angst out opened up a lot more potential plots for me.

The other kind of plot that makes me crazy is the "is he or isn't he" plot, where our lead character is head over heels in love/lust with another character, one who puts out mixed signals. I liked this the first 4000 times already, but I kind of think this has been exhausted to the point where nothing new is happening in this direction. I do think there are always new spins that can be placed on old ideas, but it takes a lot of skill and time to pull that off.

I don't worry about why or where the ideas come from. I'm just grateful for being able to sit down in front of a keyboard and come up with a story that satisfies me (and sometimes, a handful of readers as well). God knows, I had some hellacious moments as a kid, but there were good times in there, too; as dorky as I was, I still had some occasional affairs with schoolmates going back to the 1960s and early 1970s, when being gay was as far submerged in the closet as it could be. I figure, if I could get laid a dozen or so times in junior high and high school, damn near anybody could (given the right circumstances).

But I agree with DB's point that we kind of live vicariously (to a point) through our characters, and all of them -- even the really bad ones -- represent a tiny piece of who we are.

I also appreciate that though you rightfully do not ignore the concept of sexual attraction, you don't engage in explicit descriptions of or references to specific activity. I find such to be of virtually no value, and always outright intrusive, in stories that purport to deal with the broader issues of achieving a sense of self-worth and discovering how one fits into the world. To me, such content, especially with teens, can't help but convert characters from real people into objects. To be perfectly blunt, I think of it as the "eww..." factor.

We've had some raging debates about sexual content, pro and con, before on AD. I find that if you get reduced to describing how "part A gets inserted into slot B," then it descends into pornography. I like to think that what I write are adventure stories that have layers of romance and occasional erotic moments, but it's more about the characters and story than anything else. But I won't hesitate to write a detailed sex scene if I think the story warrants it. I think it's insane to believe that two healthy kids thrown together for X number of days, who get romantically involved, aren't going to at least talk about sex or even have sex at some point. To ignore that seems very foolish, even priggish to me.

I do agree that there's a line to toe in terms of getting very explicit to the point where it becomes an anatomy lesson. The essay I wrote more than ten years ago (along with my fellow authors Nick Archer and Keith Morrissette, neither of which are around these days), pointed out that the key is to isolate how the characters feel, rather than what their bodies are doing. I think it's possible to write an entire sex scene without using a single four-letter word, and it's also kind of interesting to keep things a little vague. But the sex is gonna be there, simply because I think it's part of life.

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Thank you for that last bit, Pecman. Too many writers shy away from teens and sex in their stories, I believe to appear more PC, or maybe from fear of being thought pedophiles. But, just to be honest, we teens think about sex, and/or do it, about 80% of our lives... got to have time to eat. To completely cut that part of us out is to lose the flavor of our beings.

Oh, I am not promoting pornography, well maybe a little, but more to include all parts of the teenaged animal. Besides, I seldom even use four-lettered words in my everyday speech... much less write them. The writing about such things without being graphic, that really shows talent.

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Seems to me the following conversation is relevant, but that might be because I'm not so young anymore.

An 85 year old man went to the doctor to ask for his sex to be lowered.

The doctor looked at him quizzically and asked, " How old are you?"

"I'm 85," replied the man.

"Well," said the doctor, "At your age, sex is all in your mind."

"I know," said the man, "That's why I want it lowered."

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