On Saturday I attended my third writer's conference. Well, technically it was conference number two and a half. The half was a two hour talk given by a literary agent at a coffee shop, so I don't know if that counts as a conference, but I'm at a loss as to what else it would be called. Besides, three makes me sound more dedicated and cool. So, I'm going to call it three.
The other two conferences focused on publishing and the different paths available in this day and age. Saturday's conference was about the writing side of things, which was a nice change. It was titled Genre Con and focused on, you got it, genre fiction. The conference was hosted by Kristin Nelson and Angie Hodapp of Nelson Literary Agency. Kristin gave an inspiring keynote speech and Angie gave a presentation about how to start a story in the right place, and what distinguishes each genre.
This is the first conference I did not attend alone. My friend and fellow writer, Elly, came with me. I couldn't resist passing notes to her, which gave me some nostalgic high school flashbacks. When they were talking about YA and described it as the genre of firsts (first love, first death, etc.) I got really excited (because I've been worried my YA novel might be too dark/"adult" to be YA) and wrote an excited note saying "My story has those!" The hotel provided us with pens and pads of paper. What else could those have been for other than to pass notes to one another?
Kristin and Angie also provided the wonderful (and nerve-wracking) service of reading aloud and critiquing the first page of manuscripts for those who submitted them. I submitted the first page of New Year's Revolution, my vampire novel. This opening has been done to death. It has been changed, reinvented, changed back, given minor alterations, revamped entirely, and changed back again. So I figured, why not do it to death some more? Because that's what you do with a first page. And writers are masochists.
It was a bit funny when mine was read, because earlier they'd listed things agents are getting tired of seeing on the first page, and mine had two of these (waking up, and a bodily function--vomiting.) I did get some good feedback from them, though of course I was hoping for, "Wow! This is amazing! I've never in my life read anything so spectacular! My life is forever changed! Please submit this now!" Of course, I knew that wasn't actually going to happen. I'm grateful for the feedback. It is a rare opportunity to get feedback from agents. They literally (and I mean that in the actual, literal sense of the word) do not have the time. So, thank you, Kristin and Angie.
In the afternoon, we split into groups based on our individual genres. My group was led by YA author Aaron Michael Ritchey, who did a wonderful job. Thank you, Aaron. He was open, funny, and informative. He led an open discussion, rather than just talking at us. The most important thing I learned is: I am in fact writing a young adult novel. Yes! Yippee! Hooray! Yay! Woohoo! Weeeee!
I was worried my story was too dark. Well, I wasn't the only in the group worried about this, so we had a long discussion about it. Now, if your story has sex and the F word and even an abundance of shit and ass and damn you will not be loved by parents, but this is acceptable. Why? Because no matter you do, you will never be universally liked. I am a firm believer that you have to write the story you want to write. Aaron is also a firm believer of this, and left us with this message. Now, some authors (like Aaron) do like to follow the MPAA (movie) rating system as a guide to let people (parents) know what they are getting, but you don't have to.
I don't want to follow it. It's not because I want to write a bunch of gratuitous sex and violence and strong language in my story, but I want my story and characters to be real. There are some instances in which nothing other than the F word feels correct, at least in my story. (In a PG-13 rating, you are allowed one and only one F word). I want my teens to talk about sex, and maybe even have it. Am I going to write a descriptive sex scene? No, of course not. That's why I also write adult novels. But I've read a lot of YA, and some of them ignore the issue of sex to the point where the characters don't feel real, at least to me. I'm not saying that all teenagers are having sex. They aren't. But nearly all teenagers are at least thinking about it and probably talking about it. To pretend otherwise just feels fake to me, and I honestly feel like it's an insult to the target honest, and hey, guess who that target audience is? Yep. Teens. (Although the target audience issue does get complicated because many adults love YA and many teens love adult fiction.)
I'm risking a tangent here, and I'm about to move on. Before I do, I want to be clear that these are my choices. I have enjoyed a variety of YA books, many that follow MPAA guidelines and I believe there is a place for "tamer" (for lack of a better word) stories. It's just not what I want to write at this point in time. I wasn't insulting any authors, stories, or opinions.
Okay, moving on. So, if it's not lighter subject matter, lack of sex, cussing, and violence, then what does make a YA a YA? Well, first off the main character needs to be a teenager. This is usually high school age, though for some reason the magic, most popular age is 16. What's most important is the nature of the conflict. It needs to be something personal, and something that teens can relate to. Again, it's the genre of firsts. That's why romance in YA is so popular. (Me, I'm a fan of having a love story as a subplot, not the main plot.) With teenagers, everything is always amped up. Everything is the end of the world. Everything is very self-focused. This is why a lot of YA is done in first person--first person makes it more personal. (Though it doesn't have to be.) An even newer trend is first person present tense (Hunger Games, Divergent), which most people either love or hate passionately. I'm not a huge fan of it, but once I get into the book, I get used to it. I can also see why it works for YA, because it adds to that sensation of everything being in the here and now.
So, to sum it up, I enjoyed the conference and learned a lot. I also feel motivated (not that I wasn't motivated before) to get going on City of Secrets (formerly Caribou Canyon) and put it out there for the world to see. I have begun the outlining process, which means it's only about another week or two before I start revising. I've also got a rough book blurb written. I don't want to give a time frame yet on when I will start releasing chapters, but the date is definitely nearing. (Yay!)