Prairie Writers’ and Illustrator’s Day 2014: YA Is Not the Easy Way to Publication

A few days before heading to SCBWI-Illinois‘ regional conference, an acquaintance of mine mentioned how many of his MFA classmates are writing YA. “It’s what’s getting published,” he said, by way of explanation. Yes, the market is booming. Yes, the genre is getting more respect and recognition than before. Yes, those who make it big are reaping in insane amounts of accolades, book deals, and movie contracts.But what bothered me about his comment, or about his classmates’ attitudes to be more exact, is that there is the underlying assumption that it’s somehow easier to be a writer if you choose YA. It wasn’t the first time I had heard something like this. Usually, when I mention I write YA, I hear something about its trendiness, its market share, its accessibility compared to adult, literary fiction.

In other words, I hear a lot of remarks that are rarely based on any real knowledge of the YA industry.

Prairie Writer’s Day was the last of the three SCBWI conferences I attended this year. All of them have been wonderful, informative, and inspiring. And all have also stressed the difficulties of trying to break in. There are hundreds of pre-published writers (as SCBWI likes to call them) furiously writing down every single tip the can get. All the speakers–award-winning, crazy successful writers–mention they 1, 10, 100 rejections they received. There are talented people who have been at if for most of their adult lives, and still haven’t been anointed the next Rowling/Myer/Green.

Why? Because it’s NOT an easier way of becoming a writer.

This year’s theme at Prairie Writers’ Day was “From Inspiration to Perspiration to Publication.” The vast majority of it was focused on the  part where you use blood, sweat, and tears to shape your writing. Much like adult writing, sitting your butt in a chair and coming out with something of worth is the hardest part. But I learned a little bit about each of those phases,and it makes me wonder if these fair-weather YA writers are even aware of them:

Inspiration

Ideas can come from nowhere, but do they know that many of us work within a rich tradition? That we actually draw from it, respond to it, poke at it, the same way literary writers work within a canon? Of the many things that were discussed in Caroline Abbey’s session, “A Hook for Every Reader”, the importance of being able to insert your own piece within the marketplace and how it differs from what’s out there was stressed. It’s the same thing I’m sure they repeat in MFA programs all over the country: If you want to be a good writer, you must learn to be a good reader.

Perspiration

Jordan Brown’s talk on revision was everything I needed since I’m about to embark on pretty lengthy editing process. He mentioned so many great ways of tackling an unruly manuscript, but the first one is that your character must be the sun around which all your editing decisions revolve.On the one hand, that’s good writing. On the other hand, YA is one of the few genres where treating your reader with respect and awareness is paramount. Kids can smell phoniness from thousands of miles away.

Publication

Um, yeah, even if you get that first book out the door, all the industry experts said that it better sell. If not, your second book might never see the outside of your desk drawer. Whatever hustle you were expecting to avoid by writing YA, is going to be there waiting for you.

Let’s say you somehow manage to game the system. You write a novel that appeals to teenagers, parents, teacher, librarians alike. You find an agent and an editor that believe in it. Your writing is place between two professional covers. Congrats, you’ve succeeded at getting published. But have you really succeeded as a writer? This is a legit question. Isn’t writing, in the end, about discovering, honing, and exposing your own vulnerable voice? If so, then what’s the point of hiding it behind a story that was used as an easy way out instead of as a well-earned destination? These writers that choose projects based on market trends feel sad, in the way the wannabes at high school did: needy, a tad desperate, and with a very blurred sense of who they are. They were sad because they were scared of their own identities. If you’re one of these writers, then I do suggest YA: reading it, not writing it. After all, the protagonists are going through similar growing pains. Hopefully, by the end of their journey, they’ll be a little wiser and a little more grown up.

Things I’m Thankful for During a Thankless Year

1. Therapy.

2. My ability to gawk at the Tribune Tower from my cubicle window.

3. Falling asleep to Gilmore Girls because Netflix is nothing but sorcery.

4. Nick Jonas’ rebirth.

5. The three-hour stew I made last week, which keeps getting better with age.

6. The simple existence of bulldogs: aberrations of nature, thieves after my own heart.

7. Only having to hide 3 people and unfriend one after Midterm Elections, Immigration Reform, and Ferguson. Progress?

8. Having a short commute when I’m tired.

9. Taking long treks on the CTA when I need to get some reading done.

10. Renewing the same eBook from the library, over and over and over again.

11. Vanderpump Rules‘ capacity to make me feel like a functioning adult when everything else is falling apart.

12. “You Learn to Live Without” from If/Then.

13. 2014 being almost over.

 

Three Moments At CWC 2014 That I Can’t Get Out of My Head

I must miss fall’s back-to-school vibes because I attended not one, but TWO writers conferences this season: Chicago Writers Conference and Prairie Writer’s and Illustrator’s Day. The latter was held by the Illinois chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and I will talk about it on a future blog post. For now, I want to focus on CWC.

I had the great pleasure of working for Chicago Writers Conference in the past, and I was more than happy to be invited back as a moderator. The best part about being a moderator: I get to ask questions that have been burning in my soul. The second best part: Getting to attend the other panels and talks, and CWC had a wide variety to choose from. What I truly appreciate about this conference is that its main focus is the career side of writing, as opposed to craft. My delusions of grandeur are such that I’m not terribly worried about developing my talent as a writer–at the end of the day, it’s something that’s within my control. But the industry part of the whole experience? Yikes! CWC helps to unveil the mysteries that lie behind the closed doors of literary agencies, publishing houses, readers tumblrs and what-nots. With panels like “Ask the Agents” “Breaking Into (and Getting Paid) for Online Writing” “Successfully Submit to Literary Magazines” and others, the conference is a crash-course on how to turn your writing dreams into reality.

There were a lot of juicy, practical, hands-on tips I learned over the weekend, but here are three moments that I keep turning to, again and again for their ability to reassure and inspire me to do more.

1. Eric Charles May and his writing journal full of questions. 

One of my favorite talks at the conference was given by Eric Charles May, author of Bedrock Faith. on the topic of cohesive plot. May read passages of his writing journal that described a scene he was having trouble visualizing. His entries were mostly a barrage of questions about character intentions, reactions, future plot points, past set-ups, and so on. It hit me: Keep moving forward with the story, even if you haven’t quite figured out how every scene fits. Just never stop asking questions about it. The answer will eventually come.

2. Dana Norris and her 100 rejections. 

Dana Norris, non-fiction writer and storyteller extraordinaire, made me a believer in the power of literary journals. That’s not the best part. The truly miraculous transformation was turning me into someone who wants to actively seek rejection. She mentioned how she once heard another writer say that their goal is to receive 100 rejections a year. That’s how you should view the job: produce and submit so much that you hear the word “NO” 100 times. If you do the math, that’s two query letters/pitches/submittables a week, which is totally doable. The best part is that you are freed from the pressure of actually being successful at it. Simply doing it is already considered a win.

3. Sara Paretsky and the joys of sisterhood.

Trailblazer and best-selling author Sara Paretsky spoke candidly about her journey from aspiring writer into total badass in a genre that was still considered the domain of the Menz. She minced no words about the fact that second-wave feminism helped her carve out the opportunities to achieve her goals. And since she’s one classy lady, she decided to pay it forward by founding Sisters in Crime, an organization to support women crime writers. Her story, and that of many others, is a welcome reminder that other writers might be competition. More importantly, though, they are friends and colleagues that can cheer you on in this difficult path.

You too can have epiphanies next year! CWC is an annual event. I encourage you to check out their website and consider attending the conference, or any other. You’ll come out feeling a little less lonely and a little less scared.

 

“Planet Middle School” or How Puberty Means Alienation from the Body

10636878The emergency-room doors

crack open

and I feel my heart split.

Thus begins Planet Middle School, a middle grade novel in verse by the wonderful Nikki Grimes. The 12-year-old girl at the center of the book is Joylin, a basketball star who is lost in her own ever-changing body. Aren’t we all? Our relationship with our physicality is probably one of the most important ones we’ll have in our lifetime. Some of us have a pretty easy-going one, some of us have an incredibly dysfunctional one, and for a lot of us it’s a dynamic that changes on a day-to-day basis. It’s safe to say, though, that puberty, across the board, is a period that is usually fraught when it comes to the body. In fact, it sometimes feel like we are in a Twilight episode about body-snatchers, never quite sure what it’s doing, why it’s reacting, and how to control it.

Planet Middle School puts the issue of our inner-outer struggle at the front and center. It’s very telling that the novel opens with a focus on an internal organ in a location that is dedicated to corporal ills–the novel’s plot basically consists of a series of “attacks” either thrust upon the body or coming from within it. In small poems, we see Joylin cringing as she goes bra shopping, wishing her chest would disappear when she plays basketball, dreading the pains of her first period, yearning to be more of a girly-girl, feeling uncomfortable when she tries to be one, and lusting after a boy who won’t even give her the time of day. These are all pretty standard tribulations for her age-group, but what drew me into Grimes’ story was how effectively she describes how our interior world is forever shifted by our physical experiences. And vice-versa.

The story also makes it a point to note that the estrangement one feels with their physical exterior is something we all experience. KeeLee, Joy’s best friend, feels constrained by the expectations of what a preacher’s kid should look like or act like. Jake, her other best friend, has no idea of how to react to Joy being an ACTUAL girl. One of the most heart-breaking moments comes when Caden, Joy’s brother, is chastised by his father for not being as athletic as his sister. Oh boy, you’re almost overwhelmed by the social expectation of masculinity with that simple scene.

Throughout all this, Joy knows that the answer is to be herself. But, of course, that is easier said than done, especially when you feel that your body is turning against you every single day. It’s only when one of her loved ones faces mortal peril, that Joy begins to understand that the point is not to overpower your body or let your body overpower you. The only real solution is to see it as a vessel for your own empowerment.

On Reading and Guilty Pleasures

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I’m convinced I’m the lone wolf who ever bought a single copy.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about guilty pleasures. This may be in part due to this month’s Is This a Thing’s theme, “Musical Guilty Pleasures.” What is Is This a Thing?, you ask. (WARNING! SHAMELESS PLUG AHEAD!) It’s the monthly Live Lit show I co-produce, and I’m beyond excited that I’ll be hosting it for the first time on Monday. Inspired by October’s event, I was originally going to write about my own embarrassing predilections for Euro-trash dance hits. But the whole topic got me thinking about other areas in one’s life where indulging in the low-brow can cause others to raise their eyebrows. (Could not resist the pun.)

Which is why I decided to write about literary guilty pleasures. More specifically, YA guilty pleasures.

The debate as to whether reading YA as an adult is a source of embarrassment bubbles up every now and then like a particularly bad Ebola outbreak, and I have zero interest in rehashing it. Most of us have made up our minds about that one and, um, considering I’m a 32-year-old woman who reads and writes YA, it’s easy to tell what side I’m on.

No, I’m talking about reading books as a wee gal that you knew, just knew, were not the most impressive of choices.

It’s weird how that happens. For most of my elementary school years, I read with wild abandonment and my insatiable appetite for books was met with great admiration and pride from grown-ups. It was a simpler time, when it seemed that the content of what I read was nowhere near as important as the fact that I read (barring crazily inappropriate material for my age group, obviously.) But at some point in 5th grade,which coincidentally is around the time The Puberty starts to hit, I became very much aware that there were “smart” books and “dumb” books, “serious” books and “dumb” books, “instructive” books and “dumb” books. And even though I got the same type of satisfaction from either kind of book, the “dumb” books were also accompanied by a very, distinct feeling: Shame.

So many period costumes! So many exotic locations! So many blondes! Who could resist?

So many period costumes! So many exotic locations! So many blondes! Who could resist?

Which is how I ended up reading Sweet Valley Saga: The Wakefields of Sweet Valley hiding. Since I couldn’t bring myself to put the book down, lest I never find out what happened to Jessica and Elizabeth’s great-great-great grandmother during Prohibition, I must have disappeared for a total of five days, four hours, and 32 seconds. My love for The Babysitters-Club was a bit more palatable to those around me, though I always made sure to buy a classic next to the latest edition of their Super Specials. I read those damn travelogues so many times that several lost their covers and a few had holes from underlining the passages that I particularly liked. But the series that probably made me scorn my truncated taste-levels more than any other was the Girl Talk books. Don’t ring a bell? I’m not surprised. I’ve literally never met anyone else who has ever heard of them. I couldn’t even get them at bookstores. The only place that seemed to carry them was Toys “R” Us, that shoved them somewhere between coloring books and despair.

Look, I’m not about to defend the artistic merits of any of these publications. They were formulaic in every sense of the word, each one following a predictable pattern (the descriptive 2nd chapter in all Babysitters Club books, the phone call chapters in Girl Talk, Elizabeth and Todd’s ancestors never getting to live happily ever-after) and ending in a nice, tight, wrapped little bow. Character development was non-existent and, I would say, an anathema to their very spirit since each girl had to fit their given parameters. Kristy can’t NOT be a tomboy who knows when to keep her mouth shut!

I still want to go on a cruise.

I still want to go on a cruise.

But that’s not what was embarrassing about them. What really, truly, made me cringe was that they were “girly.”

And therein lies the problem.

Because while the entire fifth-grade class was devouring Goosebumps, The Hardy Boys, and Michael Crichton novels as if they were laced with crack, the only books that were seen as “dumb” were the ones that talked about, like, boys and stuff. I was supposed to be ABOVE it. My heart wasn’t supposed to sing when Mary Anne and Logan finally got together, I wasn’t supposed to gasp when one of the Wakefield twins cheated on their paramour du jour, or obsess over the many-tensioned layers in those damn Girl Talk phone conversations. We are conditioned at such a young age to believe that anything feminine is considered less-than, that even the act of reading is filled with strife.

But I did. And adult-me really wants to tell 11-year-old me, “OF COURSE, YOU DID. And that’s ok.”

So though the writing quality might be lacking*, I would argue that “dumb” books are an important part of any person’s personal literary history. At its most basic, it keeps kids reading. Knee-deep into my Babysitters-Club obsession, I started reading Dickens and Singer and Garcia Marquez and other literary greats. Dawn’s annoying environmentalism was a welcome respite from, um, 19th Century French politics. Even further, I find it one of the safest spaces to explore burgeoning sexualities, as cheesy and slightly-gross as that sounds. We were all thinking about s-e-x, but no one wanted to admit we were actually terrified/worried/curious/weirded-out/attracted/insert-hormone-induced-feeling about it. Finally, at a time when your insides, your outsides, your universe, is shifting, it’s nice to go to a world that is easily accessible, familiar, and static. Sometimes 8th grade needs to last for 342 books, dammit!

“Shame” and “reading” should rarely be paired in the same sentence. It leads us to limit our scope. We become suspicious to ourselves, making us doubt our very own sources of joy and interest. Banned Books Week happened not too long ago, and it was a sobering reminder that there are still folks out there who while use institutions to silence others. But sometimes, the worst kind of censorship is the kind we inflict on ourselves.

*That’s pretty debatable, if only because both Ann M. Martin and K.A. Applegate are Newberry honorees.