Before 2019, I hadn’t attended any writing events.
Then in May, I went to the KidLitVic writers conference where I spent a day listening to panels about publishing and agents (read about it here). It was both informative and addictive and I wanted to go to more! Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long.
The chance to go to a YA masterclass day at the Emerging Writers Festival came up a few weeks later and here’s an overview of the best bits…
What Grabs A Publishers Attention
According to Text Publishing, it’s a unique voice and characters they feel could be their friends. This was driven home on their panel, which provided a case study of the 2018 winner of their Text Prize.
For those not familiar, the Text Prize is a competition open to YA books where the winner gets a publishing contract (fun fact, the first and only competition I’ve ever entered was the Text Prize).
Text Publishing literally said the chosen book, It Sounded Better In My Head by Nina Kenwood, has nothing happen in the plot (i.e, no big life change or tragedy), but that the MC was fantastic and the writing voice so outstanding they couldn’t put the book down. Having been handed a copy proof of the book, I can agree. Even just the first page sets the tone of who the MC is.
The takeaway: unique writing voice and relatable, memorable characters are what stands out to publishers.
Most authors throughout the day were asked about rejection and they recounted their tales before being published—and after (yep, doesn’t end with the first “yes”).
One rejection story I was struck by came from author Eleni Hale. Her debut, Stone Girl, deals with kids in state care and drug use. She faced rejection after the book came out from school librarians who didn’t want to put it on the shelves even though its content reflects the truth for many children. I have read Stone Girl, and it’s a gripping book that should definitely not be kept out of reach of YA readers, but used to open a dialogue about its themes.
Amongst the tales of rejection, all the authors spoke about it not being personal and just something that has to be dealt with as a writer, and that it doesn’t get any easier (fun!).
The takeaway: rejection doesn’t stop just because you’re a published writer, and it hurts every time.
The Writing Process
Another topic discussed across the panels was the writing process. Even though every writer has their own, some universal truths were stated, such as using the first draft to tell the story to yourself and then using the other drafts to fix everything else.
YA writer, Shivaun Plozzaz mentioned that she writes a draft until she gets to the end. If she comes across a problem that requires major changes, she’ll note those changes in the chapter she discovered them, and keep writing forward with those changes in mind. She’ll only go back to the first chapters to rewrite and reflect the new changes in the next draft. For her, the most important thing for the first draft is to just get it down.
As for the other tips, these quotes say it all:
- “All the mistakes showed me what I didn’t want to do.” – Eleni Hale
- “You have to write it wrong to write it right.” – Nicole Hayes
- “For a long time, I wasn’t sure what I was writing would be read.” – Eleni Hale
- “Trust yourself. You do know what you’re doing.” – Alison Evans
- “The Learning process happens in the mistakes.” – Eleni Hale
The takeaway: do what works for you to get the words written.
Diversity is filtering into YA books. As is consent, the #MeToo movement, and #OwnVoices. It’s important to write stories for all types of kids. This was backed up by Alison Evans who writes books featuring queer and gender non-conforming teens.
This topic had a range of questions asked from the audience, mainly how to include diverse characters when you’re a straight white person. Rebecca Lim, who gave an excellent keynote speech about diversity and writing own voices, answered those questions. Her advice? Really think about if you’re the right person to write about a story or culture that isn’t yours. Research can only get you so far. Contact someone who has lived it and ask them to verify its truthfulness. It’s important to get it right. She also advised writing about diverse characters naturally, putting them in your story world like they are in the real world—just people going about their life.
The takeaway: research diversity, don’t assume you know anything about a culture that isn’t yours. Back it up with feedback/advice from a person who has lived it.
Bad drafts are something every writer has, and three writers read theirs out. Katya de Becerra’s opening chapter was so bad it was actually cut from her first book, What The Woods Keep. Her second book also cut the first chapter, so she said it’s important as a writer to get those things out to learn them for yourself, but if they don’t serve the story, they need to go.
As for darlings, Michael Earp suggested that killing them may be too strong, so euthanize them instead. Some writers will resurrect them in other books or short stories, others will put them in a word document that will never be opened again (I keep mine in a Scrivener file).
“Let your first draft be bad. That’s what first drafts are supposed to be.” – Astrid Scholte.
The takeaway: we all have bad drafts. At the end of the day, it’s your story, you know how you want to tell it and you need to work your way through the words until you can. Even on those days and drafts when it doesn’t feel like you know how to write.
One highlight of the day was an editing masterclass with Shivaun Plozza. She walked us through some editing exercises and provided plenty of tips. These are the ones that resonated with me (and ones I’m pretty guilty of in my own writing)…
- When it comes to settings, shy away from describing the literal “she saw two chairs and a table.” Instead, use setting to reveal character and what they think about their settings.
- Also, use the settings to keep the plot moving forward. Instead of a character walking into a kitchen and describing seeing an island bench, have them “stumble into the kitchen, bumping into the island bench as they dive for the cupboards and raid them for food.”
- Don’t forget to think of your main character as a character and not just the narrator of the story (this one really hit home for me).
- In YA books especially, it’s important to have characters the readers care about and high or intense stakes. That’s what keeps readers reading.
- Show character relationships on the page. Don’t gloss over them or tell the reader how characters are best friends or falling in love. You need to show it on the page.
- Edit the big picture stuff (structure, character, arc, plot, etc) first. Line edit (typos, grammar, etc) last.
- Start each editing pass with one clear focus and concentrate on that before moving on to the next pass.
The takeaway: identify your writing weaknesses and improve them. Edit in passes. Work out your own process.
Another question asked throughout the day was regarding content warnings on books. While some writers said content warnings could help people who might be triggered by certain themes, everyone agreed that putting warnings on books could lead to censorship on art, and asked the important question of who then decides on the level of that censorship and what should be censored.
The takeaway: leave content warnings to other media, like films.
So, that was the Masterclass: YA day at the 2019 Emerging Writers Festival. Definitely an event I would attend again. Thanks go to the authors who shared their wonderful knowledge, and Belinda Grant for being my fellow #FrontRowNerd.
Now to leave you with one final quote from Astrid Scholte:
“Every bit of writing advice, take with a pinch of salt and work out what’s right for you.”
— K.M. Allan