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:
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.
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.
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.