Tuesday, October 27, 2015

SiWC 2015 Workshop #5 Writing YA Fiction Panel

Writing YA Fiction
Moderator: kc Dyer (writer)
Carrie Mac (writer), Kat Brzozowski (editor), Eileen Cook (writer)

KCD: Kat, what’s hot in the acquisitions world?

KB: Contemp YA is still hot, one coming out in January about a girl de-virgining the boys of her school called ‘Firsts’, so Contemps with a romance & strong voice are still really working.

KCD: If you were going to define the difference between NA and YA?

KB: I think it started out as one thing, but transitioned into more romance for 18-25ers.

EC: A YA novel spans a lot of different things, easier to say what it isn’t. It’s not an after-school special. Usually a teen dealing with issues. MG is how you fit into the world, YA is how you’re going to stand out in the world. That’s how I approach that.

CM: Generally the protagonist are going to be a little older than your readers, and there tend to be more gatekeepers tog et through, due to content, etc.

KCD: MG is generally bought by parents, but YA is bought by the teens, can you comment on that?

KB: I think often it’s editors/etc trying to guess what teens want to read versus what the actual teens want to read. Like we may be sick of seeing vampires, but teens are still eating them up.

KCD: Have you ever changed what’s in your book because parents might be buying the books?

CM: My books have lots of stuff in them, sex, drugs, language, then it gets to the editor/publisher, and based on the audience they are targeting, they start softening and taking them out. So, I try not be be offended, wanting those f-bombs and sex where they are, but I think regardless how I wrote it, every sex scene (for example) has been edited down to ‘fade-to-black’. Even my book on teenage prostitution.

EC: Also, different publishers have different personalities where one would be fine with sex and language, and another one wouldn’t be okay at all. I don’t change what I’m writing, and there is a big range of what’s out there. 

KB: I will say that adding swearing and sex if it’s appropriate for the story is great, but cleaner books also sell great. Don’t throw it in just to make it edgier. 

Audience question: I want to backtrack a bit, Kat, is urban fantasy coming back, I’ve seen witches come in recently.

KB: I think in fantasy, magical realism is starting to come up, and stuff like fairy-tale retellings, and witches are just cool.

EC: Witches are also really strong female characters.

KCD: I’d like to ask you about reading. How important to you is reading in your genre, what have you read lately that’s exciting, do you read while writing?

EC: If you aren’t reading YA, don’t write it. I read really widely, and I’d encourage you do do it as a study. Take index cards and for every chapter, who’s in there, what’s the point of it, what subplots are there, etc and colour coded them afterwards to see how/why it was written the way it was. The difference is learning to read critically. When I’m writing, I tend to read outside the genre. Right now I’m reading a lot of non-fiction.

CM: I read everything, and I always have read YA, except when I was a teenager. What I read now is, I’m a library shopper, so I pick up the ones on the front shelf for YA ‘fast reads’, where you have to have it back in 1 week max. “I’m Home” is one I just read recently that’s really good, and that’s actually how I found my agent I read a book, looked in the back. “Everything Feels Like the Movies” is a really interesting book. Either it’s really disgusting, or really important. I also read a lot of MG, because there’s o much that’s so good out there right now. “The Thing about Jellyfish” is excellent, “Walk Two Moons” as well.

KCD: Let’s talk about research.

EC: I do a lot, foe example, the last book I worked on was in Italy, so, darn, I had to go and eat gelato so I would know which flavour would be my character’s favourite. I wrote a book about adoption and spend 5 months online on adoption boards asking questions, and I was really gratified to have so many teens share their experiences.

KCD: Carrie, can we talk about your ex-day job as a paramedic in terms of research.

CM: Oh, for sure, like there wa sa real case where a man lost an ear in an accident and they regrew it, so researched all this magical stem cell stuff that I can’t even articulate it properly, and took a course on Neuroscience & Theology about what might happen to the soul if you can regrow a human body up to three times.

KCD: Can we talk about issue books that are out there to say,”don’t do drugs!”

KB: Yeah, I think adults and “romancing…. in the city of light”, great voice is depressed, but light 

EC: I think you need to give readers credit, no, “ as you know Jill, your life isn’t going well since you started doing drugs.” If you remember when you were a teen, you hated when people talked down to you, so remember that and treat them with respect.

CM: I think you can break them into different boxes, the foster-kid book, the alcoholics parent book, the drugs book, but you don’t have to bring it all together and tie it into a neat knot. I think the publishers want to have a glimmer of hope, so the ending is more satisfactory than ‘happy’.

KB: Giving the reader credit, that goes beyond just issue books, it’s true with everything. Let the reader full in the blanks and tell less history/etc.

CM: “Resist the urge to explain.” They never explain in movies.

KCD: Reading aloud is just an important way to tell if you are front-loading your story with pre-story information instead of starting where the story begins. The SiWC Idol panel has been really interesting because the quality keeps getting better every year. Way less characters standing in front of mirrors describing themselves or waking from a dream, or starting in a dream. When you hear other people’s work real aloud, you can hear, which is so important to read their own work aloud.

EC: Pick a scene with dialogue. Write down what the character is trying to communicate, and then rewrite the scene so that ti’s obvious that’s what they are wanting to say, but without saying it.

CM: I record everything I write three times and play it back through my headphones and I guarantee, you can hear where it’s smooth and where the blips are. I highly recommend doing this.

KCD: That’s where I catch when I use the same word three times in the same paragraph, where my dialogue is inauthentic, etc.

Audience question: How long is a YA novel usual?

KB: 60-80,000 is about the average.

CM: 75-100,000 for mine, but I expect by the time it’s published to get pared back to around 85. I write for Orca publishing which are 16-18,000 for reluctant readers.

EC: And I think you have not know yourself as a writer, some write short where they have to go back and flesh it in, or you write long and then pare it back.

KCD: There are story lengths from fairly short to long, so write your story how it needs to be written and figure it out later. Kat, how often does something show up on your desk and it needs work, or they’re not sure where it belongs.

KB: Now, agents to so much more development work, so we now expect books to show up that’s almost there. I find it easier to edit structure, like plot, rather than prose.

CM: I had the privilege for my last book to go to auction, so more than one publisher interested in buying the novel, so I spoke to 6 big imprints and had amazing conversations with my agents and an editor from each imprint and they all came with comments of what they wanted to do with the book, and I was surprised how varied the responses were.

KB: yes, I think it’s really valuable to get different eyes and different opinions and then choose which works best for you. It’s good for the author to work, but also push back if there’s something you’ve put in there for a reason.

EC: I always tell people, if someone gives a comment that you stop and and immediately get your back up, that it’s important to ask why they are offering that opinion.

KB: I always say if they want something changed, they have to have a reason. I don’t care if your neighbour doesn’t like the cover of your book, no, that’s not a good reason. To say you don’t like it and not have reasons to back it up isn’t good. You have to be your own advocate.

CM: Editors/etc know how to get the books off the shelf, that’s their job, so you do have to trust in the process.

KCD: Let’s talk about how to get your books ‘found’. In Canada, you don’t need to have an agent to submit, while in USA it’s normal, often required.

KCD: My first 4 books were published without an agent, because our market is 1/10 the size of the USA market, we can’t sustain more than a few agents.

CM: I have fired 2 Canadian agents because they did f-all. Then I published a few without an agent. Now I have an American agent. There are about 3 in Canada, they’re all in cahoots with each other, so I went to the USA to get to a publishing agency that took itself seriously. We don’t have the people to sustain a robust publishing market.

KB: It’s really hard to negotiate a book contract without an agent because there’s all the language rights, movie rights, etc and what are you going to do as one person? Fly to every country and try to sell them on your own, or to movie production companies?

CM: In Canada, since it is such a small industry, the contracts are pretty much boilerplate.

SC: Also, the advances in Canada is really low, 

KCD: My first book which was published in Canada in 2001, my advance was $700, paid in three instalments. So understand what we’re talking about when we compare USa to Canada.

EC: I did a little more homework and targeted a USA agent, but my first advance was $10,000.

CM: My first book was $8,000, my trilogy was $25,000 each, but that was just before the economy slipped and all the e-book stuff happened. After then, my next book was $20,000.

EC: Also, my publisher wanted world rights, and my agent said no, and later, my agent made me another $70,000 selling those separately around the world.

CM: I’d like to say, I like those small advances because they pay out quickly and you keep getting a royalty cheque over and over and over.

KB: I think there is a lot of pressure to get that big advance, so if you sell a book for 1 million dollars, that might be the only book you make because it’s really hard to make money on top of that. If you get a smaller advance, it’s easier for a publisher to make money on your book and is more likely to buy another. You don’t get a royalty cheque until you’ve sold enough to ‘earn out’ your advance.

CM: Be cautious about tiny advances because that means they have no commitment and will not market your books.

Audience question: is there a niche for YA non-fiction?

KB: I think it’s tough, I would love it to have a moment, but if it’s good story, write it.

CM: MG is much more open to non-fiction books because teens think they know everything.

KCD: If you could give one piece of advice for these writers, what would you give?

CM I have a binder at home with 250 rejection letters. Don’t take them personally, don’t contact the people who reject you.

EC: Someone told me, you’re already not published, so the worst thing that will happen is you’re still not be published. You can live through a ‘no’ and if you keep trying, 

KB: Follow up with every editor, agent, etc you met up with. Engage everyone in conversation, we all know each other, and be kind. Be proactive. By pushy. If someone says, ‘not for me’, ask, well, is there someone else in your house who would be interested?


  1. This was brilliant! "Resist the urge to explain"—that's a gem right there. It applies way, way beyond YA (or NA)... And it's also really, really hard to do :) And "You're already not published, so the worst thing that will happen is you'll still not be published; you can live through a 'no' if you keep trying"—another diamond. The bits on advances were really perspective-giving. Oh, and what distinguishes MG / YA / NA... Loved that. That's always stumped me :)

    Thanks so, so much for sharing!
    Guilie @ Quiet Laughter

    P.S. — your comment over on my blog made my day, Ms. Monkey. THANK YOU!!! <3

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the notes, AND that I made your day ;)

      You have such beautiful writing, I know I'm going to enjoy reading it :)

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