Last week I wrote about the three keynote addresses at the Ontario Teen Book Fest on March 9, 2019. (See that post here). The day continued with more advice from and fun with multiple YA authors in breakout sessions as well as speed dates with the authors. The following is a potpourri of publishing advice, publishing experiences, and elevator pitches–a task all authors are required to complete and that most emerging writers dread.
Advice and Hints for Character Development.
While most of the authors whose sessions I attended said that their protagonists’ lives have elements from their own, none claimed to write autofiction. They found it funny that interviewers sometimes mixed them up with their characters and called them the characters’ names rather than their own.
Developing Personal Identity and Life Transition Points
In a session entitled “I Contain Multitudes,” authors answered questions about the transition points in their characters lives as well as in their novels. Isabel Quintero’s protagonist Gabi in her novel Gabi: A Girl in Pieces is afraid of the same things that Quintero feared as a young girl, primarily that her dad would die of his addiction. Quintero asked audience members to think of the adults in their lives and to consider their faults and struggles. “They are all you know” when you are young. Considering how you can become something else is a way to engage the writing imagination. In her earliest ventures to find her voice, Quintero read a lot of poetry and learned the weight of words in her writing, to be able to cut them and not feel terrible about it. Gabi, too, is a poet.
Quintero claims that she was not as brave as her character. “She’ll talk to a boy. I used to hide in the bathroom.” She finds it difficult to write some of the emotional things in her work. Her advice to teens: Do whatever works for you. You can’t escape how terrible life can be sometimes, so find your passion, something that fulfills you; within that lousy life, grab hold.
You Can’t Always be Who They Want (But if You Try Sometimes, You’ll be Who You Need)
Amy Spaulding, the author of The Summer of Jordi Perez also has some character traits (size, sexuality, and fashion sense) in common with her protagonist, Abby. Here, too, is a parent who makes life difficult for her daughter. Mom is a nutritionist and Abby is her “fat, gay daughter”—which makes Abby’s life difficult. Spaulding reminded audience members that while nuclear families might try to do their best, teens may never get their parents’ full acceptance. Abby’s journey helps readers to move beyond their parents’ visions for them and to become the center of their own stories for the first time. (Note: I was happy to learn about The Summer of Jordi Perez since, in my role of teacher librarian, girls would often ask for a f/f romance. Once, when I was giving a presentation on the history of LGBT YA literature during LGBT History Month [October], a girl who was attending threw up her hands and in mock-lamentation wailed, “Where are the girls?” There were girls; there just weren’t enough of them.)
The Kids Are Not Alright (Even if the Parents Are)
Kayla Cagan’s eponymous protagonist Piper Perish has a supportive family, good friends, and a helpful art teacher. But the issues of her domineering, mentally-ill sister are ruining her life. Rather than having to come to terms with flawed parents, Piper comes to realize that she can have a life without her sibling dominating it. She also explores her need to understand the world outside of art. Cagan’s personal connection to the story is in her own life with a mentally ill brother. Her advice to teens: Follow your passion; make sure what matters to you is central.
More Experiences from the Authors’ Own Lives
Nicole Maggi: People read the character Lise in What They Don’t Know and said, “Oh, she’s you” because of her strong feminism. She continued to work to make Lise a three-dimensional character rather than one that existed only to express a point of view. The reader learns that you can’t judge someone until walk in their shoes.
Demetra Brodsky: The novel Dive Smack is a love letter to her male friendships when she was growing up. The setting and some character habits are from her life. The church, the quarry, and the haunted areas are places she knows from youth. Her advice to teens: Keep your circle tight and small; be careful who you trust.
Speed Date the Author
Authors have only a few minutes to talk up their books in speed dating sessions. A few had great elevator pitches:
Jeff Sweat, author of Mayfly
–Lord of the Flies meets Mad Max
Cindy Pon, author of the Want series
–An Oceans 11 heist crossed with Blade Runner
Some Publication Paths that Confirm a Need for Endurance
Mary Weber, author of To Best the Boys: Her first book was rejected eighty-seven times. Weber rewrote over and over and got better rejections. Finally, an agent told her that they couldn’t sell the book, but to send her next project.
Nicole Maggi, author of Forgetting met agents through a conference and queried one–who is still her agent fourteen years later. However, that first book never sold. It took ten more years to get published. Her second book sold, but went through contract cancellation. She advises writers to go to conferences. She has learned to get work done much faster through outlining.
Stephanie Garber, author of the Caraval series had no requests on first book that she queried. She did get requests on her second book, but no agent; her third book found an agent, but didn’t sell (the agent left the business). Caraval got offers from eight agents (!) and is a New York Times bestseller. Garber recommends making contacts through friends and conferences– to “put yourself out there.”
Kayla Cagan, author of Piper Perish and Art Boss. (Forgive me if this is a bit off–the story took a few funny digressions including the fact that Cagan grew up in a funeral home that her grandparents owned.) Cagan had a theater/editor friend was looking for a book, so she got her idea for her novel. She found an agent who was a gambler and later chased out of New York City. So many people who worked on her book were fired that the book wasn’t published. She recommends that writers write consistently. By writing thirty minutes a day, she had a draft at the end of the year. She queried five favorite agents. She also recommends following protocol–an agent tweeted negatively about her when she didn’t understand ‘the rules’ and pulled her submission. It’s also important to know what the agent represents and only query those who represent your genre.
Cindy Pon, author of the Want series received 121 rejections. She queried her work as adult fiction first, but later as YA when it was suggested to her. She recommends a willingness to accept rejection. “Your writing will get better and better. Every journey is a surprise.” It’s best to be able to roll with it.”
OK, It’s Not All that Bad
Jeff Sweat, author of Mayfly had a published friend who took his book to her agent. The agent didn’t want to read it because there were already so many dystopian works on the market, but finally did, loved it, and signed him. He recommends having contact with authors and people in the community.
Mary Weber, author of To Best the Boys, recommends supporting others on social media because they will then recognize you and support you when you’re ready.
What Makes a Good Story–More Advice
- Write for yourself, care about writing rather than publishing. Get into writing to find yourself.
- Create a character who is trying to make the world better.
- Think about how we pull ourselves back together, about what’s worth saving.
- Write about something that helps readers understand that they’re not the only person in the world with their feelings (good and bad)—that they are not alone.
- Write what reminds you of why it’s good to be alive.
Advice on the Synopsis
- Look up Susan Dennard and sign up for her newsletters. (Note: this advice came from everyone!)
Advice on Using a Pen Name
- If you are putting out something that you don’t own (the company owns the name and the series).
- If you write both adult and YA (or erotica)