Writing for Teen Boys

Here is the general outline for Kicking Butt & Chewing Bubble Gum: Writing for Teenage Boys, a workshop I taught at Wordstock in 2011. I’m posting it here for anyone to use or disregard as they see fit.

The Somewhat Generalized But Otherwise Absolutely True Realities of Writing Books for Teen Boys

REALITY #1 – Girls WILL read books written for boys.
REALITY #2 – Boys will NOT read books girls.

Knowing these realities, there are some things you must seriously consider when setting out to write for teen boys, the first of which is this…You are writing to a smaller, more specific audience because as we already know teen girls will read anything (generally speaking, of course). Teen boys will only read specific things.

10 Rules of Writing for Teen Boys*

*These 10 rules are not the only requirements in writing for teen boys. You also will need compelling characters, good story, and all the other things that go into well-crafted writing. And there are actually 12 rules.

#1 – Identify your age group. Seems obvious, right? Wrong! Age groupings for Young Adult, Middle Reader, Teen Reader and whatever other labels being currently used today are confusing. Although it might not seem like it, the Harry Potter books are intended for readers age 9-12. Knowing the age range you’re writing for is crucial. Read various books from different age grouping to get an idea for what is appropriate. For our purposes, we are talking about teenage boys.

#2 – Know what you’re writing about. If you don’t know anything about sports, don’t write a book about sports just because teen boys like sports. Not all boys like sports. Some, like the fat kid who is always picked last in gym class, hate sports. He won’t read your book and neither will the jock who realizes you don’t know a bunt from a short stop.

#3 – Study the competition. Video games, movies, sports, music, and comic books are all potentially vying for the attention of your reader, and at least one of those competitors is always winning. Understand what it is that the competition is offering teen boys, and put it into words.

#4 – Action. Boys like action. Hence the popularity of things like video games, movies, and comic books. Give your reader lots of action. Then give them more action. And after that, give them some more action. This is not cheating, pandering or catering to the lowest common denominator. This is engaging teen boys with what they like. And after you’ve done that, throw in some extra action.

#5 – Violence. This is not the same as action, so don’t treat the two the same. A car chase is action. A fight is action AND violence. Some parents, teachers, and librarians will get upset by excessive violence, so be careful about gore. Keep it PG-13 as much as possible and if you need to chop off heads or disembowel anything, make it an extra terrestrial, zombie, or vampire.

# 6 – Determined uncertainty. The best heroes are the ones who have an important mission and even more important lessons to learn, even though they don’t understand either. A great hero is one whose inner mantra is “I have a mission that I don’t understand, but I’m going to do it anyway.”

#7 – No whining. When sending your hero off on his mission of determined uncertainty, do NOT have them whine about it. And don’t have him cry more than twice in the book. Boys are afraid of crying, and don’t want to read about other boys who cry too much. Excessive crying is the domain of girls (as far as boys are concerned). Understand the difference between how boys and girls express and deal with emotions.

#8 – Love interests. Having a love interest is acceptable, but no prolonged descriptions of “dreamy eyes.” Boys hate romantic stuff like that.

# 9 – No Romance. Again, having a love interest is fine, but nothing will stop a boy from reading quicker than romance. Boys want to read about heroes fighting supernatural monsters or saving the world. The only mushy thing they want to read about is the mushy brains of a zombie as its skull is caved in.

#10 – Keep it short? Some parents, teachers and even readers say that boys are hesitant to tackle books that appear to be “too long.” This seems to be truer for long paragraphs and chapters than overall page-count, although long page-counts can be intimidating as well. Don’t let this dictate what you write or how you write it, but keep it in mind.

#11 – Don’t be a parent. The average parent has no clue what their teens are really into or what their teens actually want. Do not write something that you as an adult think teenagers will find cool. There are few things sadder than a middle age adult trying to be hip and cool. You will fail every time. Simply write a good book with compelling characters.

#12 – Prepare for rejection. The common mantra in the publishing world is “teen boys don’t read.” If you write to this audience, chances are very good you will be rejected. Know this going in. Have a back-up plan. Don’t be afraid to consider self-publishing. Commit yourself to find your readers.

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