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References and Dating Your Manuscript

Leona asks an interesting question that I’ve actually been thinking a lot about recently:

I’ve often read that children’s books should be timeless. That addressing current technologies, trends and even political situations should be avoided because it dates the material. Yet, I’ve picked up a lot of books that don’t hold to this. What’s your take on it?

First, before I give you more thoughts, I wanted to point everyone to a great article that WoW Women on Writing did about the issue of technology references. I was interviewed and quoted in it a few times, but it gives a really comprehensive stance on this issue. You can find it here.

I’ve always told writers to take it easy with technology and pop culture references. They’re not my favorite part of a story anyway, and my gut feeling is always “less is more.” It does tend to date your manuscript if you’re using slang, references, technologies, brand names, movies, websites, etc. that may go out of style before your book is even published. There are lots of YA books out there that talk about MySpace…and MySpace has really fallen out of favor these days for a lot of teens.

For my taste, references like this are akin to slang. You can use them to pepper the story, but too much will make your writing feel forced and perhaps even cheesy, especially after a few years go by.

A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of seeing Ben Folds and Nick Hornby do an event at the Housing Works in NYC. You see, Ben, of musical fame, and Nick, of literary fame, recorded an album together: Nick wrote the lyrics, Ben crafted the melodies. And if you’re familiar with Nick Hornby’s work — most notably, probably, HIGH FIDELITY and the YA novel SLAM — you know that he is a bit of a pop culture junkie. His books are full of references.

At the event, someone posed Leona’s question to Nick. While I don’t agree with him — again, I think less is more — I found his answer very interesting. He said that pop culture and references and technology and all those specifics are crucial to fleshing out a novel’s world. He said that we know so much about past cultures and eras and people because their writing is full of period details. He doesn’t want the cultural anthropologists who are reading our literature a hundred, two hundred, five hundred years from now to be alienated from the specific details of our time. So he advocates that writers take full advantage of pop culture and not sterilize their work.

While children’s books should be timeless, timelessness comes from the themes and characters and experiences more than from references or other small details. Regardless of dated elements, we still read the classics because they’re good stories and great voices…those will always be the key to staying relevant.



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