Another YA panel? Yes, but just as we've learned with the sex panels, each time a writer or group of writers tackles this subject, the information rendered is unique. Enjoy!
* * *
Beyond the Children’s Section: Writing YA
Aaron Michael Ritchey, Holly Black, Lisa Mantchev, Rachel Hartman, Arwen Elys Dayton
Moderator: John Lovett
What are the characteristics that you’ve found that make for a YA market?
AD: Wrote a book and paid no attention to genre; it happens the four main characters at the centre of the story are teens. It’s a minefield that we go through in life and a very interesting part of life to examine.
RH: YA for her has to do with the themes. The time in your life when you’re stepping out, emerging, coming out and trying to figure out who you are, all the possibilities ahead of you. As opposed to adult lit where you’ve made your mess and must lie in it.
LM: Similar experience: wrote the story she wanted to write. It just happened to be YA. Now she knowingly writes YA as a theme, the coming of age story, foundation issues for a YA novel.
HB: What defines a YA novel is a teen protagonist. Certain themes and characteristics throughout, but there are outliers that don’t have those things. It really does come down to a teenage protagonist.
AR: Wanted to write YA. Yes, it’s a teen protagonist going through teenager things, but also dealing with other things.
HB: YA didn’t used to exist the way it did now. Most people just transitioned to writing adult novels. Remember that you’re competing with adult books. You’re writing the experiences of a teenager. Otherwise, they’ll go read adult books.
AR: It’s the emotional vibrancy.
We’ve talked about the characteristics of this market. Are the characters supposed to be two years older? Are the sentences longer (as per Stackpole)?
RH: It’s not our job to plan that.
LM: It may be a 10-year-old advanced reader or their grandmother who bought it for them. Lots of people read YA. Not just kids or the target audience. Syntax, etc, are editorial decisions.
AD: People are more willing these days to talk about what happened when they were teens. But don’t write down or talk down to a teenager. You don’t dumb it down.
RH: When you were young, you were used to learning new words through context.
HB: Idea of aging up the character: most of the time, readers like reading characters a little bit older than them, to tell whether they like it or not to figure out whether a character is right for them. If you get asked to age up or down a character by the publisher, you don’t have to. And making sentences shorter. YA allows for more complex sentences. MG wants more simple sentences. And when people are talking about YA, they are often thinking about MG. HP and Percy Jackson behave like seventeen year olds in a middle grade.
AD: Problem with Harry Potter – Rowling made no distinction between MG and YA. She had the luxury of working between both.
LM: She deliberately did not choose to focus on teen issues. Partly because the aspects of being teens were not important when dealing with the world-at-stake issues.
AR: What it really comes down to is the sex stuff. You can kill, but the moment you add the sex stuff. There are no rules; what works, works.
Speaking of the Harry Potter series – YA used to be Burroughs and Tarzan. How has the YA market fundamentally changed, and how do you think the Harry Potter series has influenced the YA market, and where is it going?
HB: HP is not YA. Has changed the MG market, adding younger middle grade and older middle grade. Big series that affected things: Gossip Girl, Twilight, the Hunger Games. What we see as YA has shifted. And it’s still in flux. It’s way different than it was a few decades ago. And some YA back then would be considered MG.
LM: Write what you really want to write; don’t chase a trend. The digital revolution has now found new homes for books. As YA authors it’s now limitless possibilities as for what you want to write and how you want to get it out there.
RH: Agrees that HP is MG. But it is directly responsible for YA authors being able to publish600 page books. Twilight, too. Opened doors for longer manuscripts being accepted.
AD: YA used to be less about how old you were than what you were interested in reading. Now kids have very big books. Write what you want to write; it finds the audience.
LM: Also, YA saved the industry. Parents would still buy their kids books even when the economy tanked. YA was the one category that outperformed every age group every year.
AR: One of the reasons why is that you have this emotional vibrancy in teen fiction. You get that in YA books because it is such a vibrant part of our life. And an emotional vibrancy in the fan base. Also, the coming of age story is so great because it’s such a hopeful arc. Madeline L’Engle: If you really want to write complex stories, don’t write for adults, write for younger stories.
HB: Not just page length or series length. Release dates, midnight releases, now have become a thing.
LM: This is how big it’s become.
AD: Entirely new territory.
In the context of writing a YA novel, are there stereotypes of characters and tropes you’d suggest that authors avoid? What would be the least and most successful?
RH: Use any trope you want, but you have to earn it, own it, make it yours. They’re not bad in and of themselves. You use them and think about them and be aware of when you’re doing them. Stereotypes arise from a lack of understanding. Notice how you use these building blocks, try not to fall into the traps before.
AD: You can’t come up with something wholly original; it’s about the story, lets it grow in its own space as its own story.
LM: Just because something has been done already doesn’t mean you can’t do it better. You get your craft to the point that you know what you can do with a story. Make it worth reading. Uses TV tropes.
HB: Write a book that you the reader would truly love. Then hope other people will love that too. Try not to write nostalgically about childhood/youth. Remember what it was truly like to be there. Write for yourself then and yourself now.
AR: It takes courage and bravery to do that. Being a writer is an act of absolute courage and daring. And what you write can have an impact on a writer. Write the books that will save someone else’s life.
Audience question: What is your research process when writing a marginalized character?
HB: It’s the iceberg. You’ll have to do a lot of research that won’t show up in your work. Make sure that you do this respectfully and well. Have folks of that marginalized group read it for authenticity. You’re creating a character with the weight of representing that. One of the ways to do that well is to hopefully not have that character be the token, only person of that marginalized group.
LM: Have your ducks in a row, use beta readers to get feedback. Some will not be offended, some will be very offended. And you will still screw up. No way to write a perfect character. And you’ll still get feedback about how folks feel you represented that character. And it’s important that you do it well because kids will see themselves in that character.
RH: Whatever their backgrounds are, it’s about extreme empathy, finding the part of that character somewhere inside yourself to be able to write them. And then, when you do receive criticism, find a way to deal with it and empathize again.
AR: And be courageous. It will happen. If you start doing stuff out of the norm, you will get attacked. We have to have diversity. It’s our job as authors to show it.
AD: If there’s someone in your life that you get to know and research it that way, great. Research with love. Once you capture that you have a fairly good chance of the words coming out right, the story heading in the right direction.
When you start outlining a story, do you focus on certain parts specifically?
AR: Goes through the 14 points in Save the Cat. Has to have the beginning hook and the climax, then follows the 14 beats.
HB: All over the place. We talk a lot about plotters and pantsers and it’s very clear but experience is that most people exist on a spectrum. Even plotters don’t stick to their outlines. Everyone has the process that they’ve come to.
LM: Everyone does it differently. No one can turn in a perfect draft. Everything good in a draft happens in revisions. All of us have files of versions of the books that will never see the light of day. Also, keep your ducks in a row for book 1 so that the details for book 3 are consistent and don't contradict book 1.
RH: Process for each book is different in each book.
NG: You never learn how to write a book. You learn how to write *this* book.
AD: A method you learn is likely only applicable to the book you are working on. Updates outline to match what she’s written. If an outline helps, go with it, otherwise throw it out. Whatever gets the book written is the process that works.
When do you share excerpts with others, who do you share with?
AD: Shares it with only a few close first readers, and watches their body language.
RH: Has two beta-reader friends.
LM: Shouts ideas through the shower to husband and daughter. If their reactons are good, that works for her. Also has done collaborations with others and working together, having someone immediately looking over your shoulder that’s as invested has been very interesting, both invigorating and challenging.
HB: Mostly shares with author friends, and formal critique group when done.