The YA Masterclass was moderated by Dave Rudden (author of the newly released Knights of the Borrowed Dark), featuring Sarah Crossan (who has just been nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal for her amazing novel in verse, One), Sheena Wilkinson (author of Taking Flight, Still Falling and most recently, Name Upon Name, and a past winner of the CBI Book of the Year), and Deirdre Sullivan (author of the Prim Trilogy and Needlework, and the only YA author ever nominated for European Prize for Literature). A distinguished group.
Masters' degrees in writing
Interestingly, all four authors at the event have worked as teachers and three have completed Masters' degrees in creative writing (Deirdre Sullivan holds a Masters' degree in drama). They assured us that neither was mandatory. On this subject, Sarah Crossan had a lot to say - that while doing a Masters' degree validates you as a writer, there is a sense of pressure to do a Masters and that most Masters' degrees in writing focus heavily on writing literary fiction for adults and can be at risk of genre snobbery. Sheena Wilkinson agreed that her Masters was not the most crucial step in her journey to becoming a professional writer and stressed the influence of the Arvon Foundation.
Deirdre Sullivan says that it is very possible to take your writing seriously while alone in your bedroom - and she wasn't accepted on to a Masters' degree in writing because "they knew what I was at. . ."
All three panelists agreed that writing books primarily to tackle an issue generally led to difficult writing and not necessarily good books. Sheena Wilkinson says that even when her books deal with issues, they are grounded in characters - one of her novels features a teenage pregnancy, but she says she didn't decide to "handle" teenage pregnancy as an issue; when she pictured her character two years on from the first book, she had a baby bump.
Sarah Crossan said that we don't care about issues as much as we care about people, and Deirdre Sullivan stressed the importance of empathising with your characters, even when you disagree with them or dislike their actions.
Deirdre Sullivan was commissioned to write her first novel, so her experience wasn't typical. As she wrote, she sent her chapters to her editor and later they worked on the entire novel. She points out that for most writers, the fantasy of writing your novel in your friend's villa in Tuscany and high-fiving John Banville when you write a particularly great sentence is not what happens.
Sheena Wilkinson's process has changed over the years - her first published novel, Taking Flight, wasn't the first novel she finished but she calls it the first good novel that she finished, which gives me hope :) She wrote while working full-time, commuting, and dealing with an illness in her close family - she even wrote next to a hospital bed. It was an escape, she said, but also it illustrated how seriously she took her writing.
She also researched, wrote and edited Name Upon Name in three months by planning it carefully - one month each for research, writing and editing, and a retreat for a portion of the editing phase.
Sarah Crossan noted that you only know how to write the books that you've already written - the next one may be very different. She wrote The Weight of Water in bursts, Breathe and Resist involved heavy edits, and with Apple and Rain she perfected the first three chapters - defying a lot of conventional writing advice - and then the rest flowed.
She also talked about hitting the wall with a book (Dave, our genial host, said it happens to him at 41,000 words) and how it is like a marathon runner hitting the wall - you need to keep going.
Dave Rudden then shared that he once wrote 21,000 words in a single weekend and was hospitalised with a stress-related illness. None of the panel recommended this approach, thankfully.
Deirdre Sullivan likened her editor's role in her first book to a doula - coaxing her gently through the book's birth. Sheena Wilkinson described various edits she has experienced, from the light to the harrowing, but the whole panel agreed that the ideal editor guides and steers the book without impacting upon the author's vision. Sarah Crossan said that it is possible to over-edit a book and lose something of the book's magic in the process.
Deirdre Sullivan said that as a writer, you can fight for things in your book that your editor doesn't like, and that if you're not willing to fight for something, it shouldn't be in your book.
Sarah Crossan hates research, which shocked me because her novel One seemed so meticulously researched. . . turns out that she did hate research until One, when her research into the lives of conjoined twins was so compelling to her that she loved it.
Deirdre Sullivan's first trilogy, the Prim series, required light research, and her most recent novel Needlework required research into tattooing, her main character's passion. She raised an excellent point - she researched the topic using mostly sources to which her character would have had access. I hadn't thought of that before, but it's incredibly important when writing young characters especially.
Sheena Wilkinson loves research and her difficulty can be knowing when to stop. She raised the issue of tone versus details, saying that the protagonist of Name Upon Name (set in 1916) can't just be a modern teenager in a long dress - as a product of her time, she may have thoughts and ideas that seem alien to modern readers, but that this kind of authenticity is more important than details (although details are also important!).
The Business of Children's Books
This panel was moderated by Grainne Clear of Little Island and featured Hilary Delamere, a literary agent with The Agency in London, AJ Grainger, YA novelist and editor at Walker Books, David Maybury, Media Development Director at Scholastic, and Charlotte Eyre of The Bookseller. Another distinguished group.
Hilary Delamere discussed the role of an agent, which she feels is to build relationships, to support authors and to decode communications between all of the key players. She added that agents' opinions are subjective and can be affected by issues like their career stage - their openness to growing their list may change.
AJ Grainger advised that writers should do research and know the market, but not chase trends, as they're usually 'over' by the time they hit the shelves!
Use the warm and supportive children's books community - especially in Ireland, David Maybury noted, organisations like Children's Books Ireland run great events and access to authors and professionals is quite available.
Grainne Clear noted the difficulties of marketing books aimed at younger audiences (pre-YA) when the purchasing decisions are not being made by the readers themselves but by parents or other adults in their lives.
Charlotte Eyre said that the digital revolution hasn't had the impact on children's publishing that as feared in the past, as parents remain committed to reading as a pastime for their children, and to reducing screen time.
Hilary Delamere also mentioned the paradox of large advances - on the one hand, they're considered a marker of success but the hype can build expectations to levels that an author can't meet, and so they are almost a failure before they start. An interesting perspective on the classic author dream! She also talked about career longevity and how writers don't need to reinvent themselves, but to renew - to do new things but remain recognisably 'them'.
Social media as a tool for selling books was seen as a mixed blessing - while effective in many cases, it was pointed out by several panelists that social media hype does not equal book sales and that time spent on social media must be weighed up against the opportunity cost of writing time lost. David Maybury pointed out that many social networks are closed to younger people so authors can't connect directly with their readers.
Looking to the future, the panelists suspect that faith in domestic YA writing talent will overtake keenness to buy major American titles, and that books for Middle Grade readers will increase in popularity (possibly as YA plateaus). Hilary Delamere said that the 'next big thing' is very often a surprise.
As to advice for new authors, the usual advice surfaced - follow submission guidelines, research the market but don't slavishly follow it, a social media presence is a positive thing but it shouldn't detract from writing.