This week I attended an event hosted by Oxford Writing Circle featuring Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Melinda Salisbury, and Samantha Shannon. The event was titled “How to write YA fiction” but covered so many aspects of reading, writing, and publishing YA.
Before I start, a short disclaimer: Whilst I did furiously take as many extensive notes as I could nothing below is a direct quote, and I have sometimes shortened a longer point to address the overall idea of what was said for brevity. Any errors are my mistake and unintentional, please let me know if I’ve got anything incorrect.
Some highlights of the evening were Mel introducing herself with reference to her super cute brace-induced lisp; Mel expressing an interest in writing raunchy Mills & Boon Nana stories. There were things other than Mel being adorable though, of course.
I should start by saying a thank you to Blackwell’s Oxford for hosting, and Peter Meinertzhagen for hosting and asking the questions.
The panel started by bragging about all having been on panels with Alwyn Hamilton so I believe this is now the benchmark for success as an author. Have you spoken alongside Alwyn? Yes? Then you’ve made a successful career!
On a panel about YA writing you may have noticed that not everyone’s books are always categorised as YA. While Samantha’s books are published by the adult arm of Bloomsbury in the UK, in some countries they are classified as YA and often deal with YA themes (more on that in a bit). Kiran’s books are sometimes classified as Middle Grade (MG) or YA, and Mel’s books are strictly YA.
Peter started by asking all three about how they got into writing YA/Children’s, and if it was deliberate.
Kiran didn’t know she wanted to/was writing a children’s book from the start. As part of her masters in creative writing she started off writing poetry, but also had to write some prose and it was in this that she first wrote the story of a young girl. This character stuck with her and she kept on writing. It was whilst doing this that realised perhaps she was writing a children’s book (or a YA/Childrens cross-over). Her agent was the one who suggest a shift toward MG but Kiran just wrote what she wanted to, without a strict adherence to what one market wants.
Samantha isn’t technically a YA author but everyone in YA is happy to steal her and claim her as one of their own. The main character of The Bone Season books, Paige, is 19 and this is an awkward age for YA (a little too old) but also awkward for adult books (a little too young). In YA a story is oftentimes about a protagonist discovering what makes them different, finding their place in the world, and this is why The Bone Season books fit so well into YA.
Mel wrote YA on purpose and it’s her favourite kind of book to read because YA is the category that pushes forward the most. YA is the most exciting, diverse, innovative area of publishing. Adult publishing is so far behind, YA is the one pushing boundaries. YA is about the immediacy of life because that’s what being a teenager is like. I was struck by Mel’s obvious adoration of teenagers, especially teenage girls, and her respect for them.
Kiran said that the age of her protagonist in The Girl of Ink and Stars was changed by the publishers, from 12 to 13, as the publishers thought it was the most appropriate age for what the character goes through. In her new book, The Island at the End of Everything, the main character’s age was changed from 10 to 12, Kiran doesn’t have a problem with this. It is important you trust your publisher, and that you can talk to them and you know you can push against things – but they know what they’re doing so if you trust them, go with them.
Peter then asked how important the age of the protagonist is in YA.
Samantha talked about The Priory of the Orange Tree and how all the characters are different ages, the oldest being a 64 year old. She hopes it still appeals to lots of people as she’s never had problems relating to characters who were younger/older than her. When she started writing The Bone Season she made Paige the same age as her, 19, and thought it would be nice for them to grow up together. However, she’s since overtaken Paige because she underestimated how slow publishing moves.
Mel talked about how marginalised teens are and how important it is for them to see themselves reflected in YA. Mel hates it when adults who review YA books say the teen characters are making bad choices. YA needs to reflect teens and there is so little space for teens (especially girls). So often the things they’re interested in get devalued, it’s important for YA to validate them.
Peter noted that some claim YA is read mostly by the over 25’s, do YA authors have a responsibility to write what teens want to read, rather than adults?
Mel said that people over 25 didn’t have YA which is why they read it now. The Sin Eater’s Daughter is the book she wanted to read as a teen. Mel’s theory is that the first book you write is the book you needed as a teen.
Kiran‘s favourite book when she was 13 was I One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez and this style and use of language informs the way she writes now.
Samantha said that adults connect with YA because at any age the issues are relevant. There are always debates on twitter about YA but it’s important not to forget the teen readers in all that.
Peter then asked the panel if they find it easy to get feedback from teens.
Mel said that Twitter is for old people, but she gets a lot of interaction from teens by using Instagram and Snapchat (but not Facebook).
Kiran does a lot of school visits which is great for immediate feedback. It’s hard to know how successful you are with children because they’re not on social media. So much marketing is the author self-promoting and social media is a big part of this.
Samantha gets a lot of feedback from reviews, although these are mostly done by adults. It’s a shame the Guardian books website shut down, because that often had content written by teens. Her books are in the limbo between YA and adult but she feels that she has more freedom with what she can write in an adult book. While some of the more adult content makes it better as a adult book, a lot of the themes are very YA.
Everyone then went on to discuss what the themes of YA are.
Kiran said that for The Island at the End of Everything she was asked to tone down certain aspects (of a sexual nature) which she is happy to do as long as it doesn’t change the heart of the book.
Mel and Samantha talked about how YA and Children’s books are often categorised together which is why sometimes it can be difficult to know what’s appropriate. Sex in YA is fine.
Kiran identified hope as a theme in children’s books, a book must have hope at the end. In YA this isn’t as necessary, hope can be turned down a notch.
Mel spoke passionately about fan fiction – it’s changed the rules. Teens seek out what they want to read – they want sex scenes. Mel is glad that the era of preachy YA books that are toned down has gone – it’s not what teens want. We owe teens some damn good fiction after this week!
Peter talked about a recent Daily Mail article (to sighs from the room) which said that YA books are too gloomy, and asked what the panel’s thoughts were on that.
After Kiran pointed out how dark Watership Down is, Samantha talked about how much light there is in YA, as well as the dark, but YA writers are pushing boundaries. Books are dark because they reflect the world, and the outlook for many is bleak at the moment. Sam quoted Neil Gaiman when he said that fantasy exists to show us that dragons exist and that they can be defeated.
Kiran said that being a teen has always been hard but YA is writing a way out of the darkness. There is kindness in YA, good doesn’t always prevail but it teaches teens to stay true to yourself and find your people in the darkness.
Mel said that hope is continuous, YA is full of it, just not packed in a friendly way that lies, it gives bites of hope instead.
Peter then started a discussion of the craft of writing and what makes YA different to adult fiction.
Samantha said that YA is slightly more plot driven than some literary fiction. When she was editing The Song Rising her usual editor was on maternity leave so she worked with a someone different who was a YA editor. It was a very different experience, with more cutting, the book was slimmed down so that it was more focused. She found it an exhausting process to write a fast-paced book and would be happy not to do it again.
Mel noted that life as a teen is more plot driven, adult life is more meandering, and that this is reflected in the differences between the types of books. Things happen quickly to teens, they live life at a faster pace, they’re asked to be adults so quickly. As an adult you get more room but teens are asked to make decisions quickly. There is an immediacy to being a teen that seeps into writing. There are more emotional milestones to tick off, as well as life milestones (exams, school, etc). Teens are asked to define themselves quickly.
Kiran pointed out how the first draft of The Girl of Ink and Stars was over 100,000 words long, but the final published version around 50k. There was lots of landscape description which was the first thing to go, it was originally in the third person now in first person. Kiran said it’s important not to get too hung up on differences between YA and adult or on writing to type, just write what you want to.
Peter then asked what could adult fiction writers learn from YA to which Mel immediately responded with “humility”. She went on to say that some adult fiction talks down to you and there is a lot of peer pressure to be living a certain life that is presented in adult fiction (general and literary – not in genre). Kiran agreed and noted that in adult literary fiction there can be a tendency to lie to yourself about what you enjoy so that it says something about you. Some literary authors aren’t earning the attention they get, adult authors are sometimes told they’re great and we’re supposed to believe that without them having to work for it.
Mel then talked about how YA books are rarely seen as “important” or game-changing, but recent exceptions to this are The Hate U Give and Asking For It. Despite the great attention and praise these books have received, they would probably be getting a lot more attention if they weren’t YA. There was a general agreement from the whole panel with Samantha when she said that YA fantasy is doing so many important things that are being ignored, even within YA. The contemporary issue books are the ones given the most attention and praise.
Peter asked if it can sometimes be damaging for a book to be labelled YA? Does it change who reads it and how seriously it’s taken?
The whole panel agreed that YA is taken less seriously. Mel said it becomes seen as frivolous precisely because teen girls like it. But is there a better way of marketing it? Mel doesn’t think so. She said that publishers are passionate about YA and getting it out there, they think it matters.
Kiran agreed, YA is not institutionally supported, children’s authors are not taken seriously, “commercial” is a dirty word. YA and Children’s books are the ones that are making the money but they are not getting the credit they deserve.
Samantha said that how we talk about YA needs to change. In interviews or at events she is never asked questions that adult/literary authors get asked such as “tell us about your character, what are their motivations”. Instead, YA is talked about in simplistic ways – if YA was talked about and reviewed as adult then things would change.
The event finished with Peter asking everyone on the panel what one piece of advice they would give about writing.
Kiran: Write the book you need to write, leave the marketing to someone else. Don’t worry, good writing will out. Focus on the writing and leave everything else to someone else.
Samantha: Don’t be afraid to experiment. Marketing of books is category driven but leave that for someone else to worry about. Keep breaking boundaries. If what you’re writing is a mix of genres that’s fine – it’s okay to write weird!
Mel: Finish your book! You can’t be a writer if you don’t finish. Don’t start planning your career without a finished draft. First drafts are shit, they’re rubbish, they make no sense. Once your first draft is finished you can work on it. Don’t compare your first draft to a published work, there is no comparison. Publishing is what happens when a bunch of experts come in and tell you how to make it possible, they make it good.
Thanks for reading this excessively long post. I know many people were unable to make it so I wanted to cover as much as possible of what was said without interjecting my own thoughts.
This was a fantastic event and it was inspiring to hear three authors I admire so much talking so passionately about the respect we owe to teenagers. Thanks to Oxford Writing Circle for organising and to Kiran, Melinda, and Samantha for such a great evening.