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Writing What You Know About YA

This past weekend, I attended the DFW Writers’ Conference in Texas. Extremely well organized with surprisingly tasty conference food, it made for a great atmosphere in which to hear pitches—lots and lots of pitches, most of them for YA. Perhaps best of all was keynoter Deborah Crombie, who did a great job of reminding the audience that “write what you know” is nonsense—as a native Texan, if she’d listened to that, she’d never have come up with Scotland Yard superintendent Duncan Kincaid and hit the Times bestseller lists year after year.

Well, in a perverse way, Crombie’s speech hit home for me with a lot of the pitches I heard. SO many of them were fantasy of one sort or another—high fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian, historical, mythic, you name it, I heard it at least twice. I guess you could say these writers were not writing what they knew, in that none of them had lived in outer space or fought with witches. But by following so many of the genre conventions and storylines that have dominated YA over the last five years, I’d venture that these writers actually are very much “writing what they know”, i.e., writing in the same book worlds they’ve lived in for so long now.

So, here’s the plea I’ve made before on this blog—how about some realistic YA fiction for a change? I’d suggest that realistic YA offers writers a way to avoid both sides of the “write what you know” trap. For one, realistic YA has been in such short supply lately that there aren’t a lot of people to slavishly imitate. And second, as adult writers, viewing the “real” world through teen eyes is a total act of not-knowing. I’d particularly make this plea to my new friends in Texas, which is such a fantastic setting for realistic YA—hey, all you need to do is look to S.E. Hinton’s nearby Oklahoma for proof!

6 Responses to Writing What You Know About YA

  1. Chantilla the Nun says:

    When John makes a plea, we listen. However, it’s nice if the plea comes with an offer of representation if the manuscript of the realistic YA fiction set in Texas is at least 80% good. Asking an author to spend about a year to write a manuscript and then to reject her YA realistic fiction because it’s not 100% good is devastating. Assuming that you have an editor waiting to purchase such a book, let many authors know about it on other blogs and twitter and help them to improve it from being 80% good to being 100% good. Good luck to you and to the author that you will represent her YA realistic fiction set in Texas.

  2. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    Hmmm…Since CNN is reporting that the paranormal and dystopian markets are flooded and editors are stranded on rooftops waiting for help to arrive, I have to agree with you. I’ll make some calls and see what kind of rescue vehicle we can slap together. Hang in there, and try not to learn any Serious Life Lessons till we get there, OK?

  3. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    Well, since I’m apparently the only realistic pitcher to get past the large crowd of teen zombies, witches, and modern-day descendants of various mythological characters cluttering up the waiting room, I suppose I have the floor pretty much to myself… I think a lot of the problem behind the realistic fiction drought in YA is both the rather narrow parameters that gatekeepers set on this category and the pedestrian efforts that writers put forth to make sure they don’t push any envelopes. So, while all our fantasy crowd is trying their best to imitate the over-the-top CGI effects of the big screen, the realistic market (such as it is) is crowded with earnest young girls having humorless coming-of-age experiences in Nowheresville, Kansas, downtrodden teen boys who should have killed themselves a month ago, and of course, any number of fashionable disability infomercials. With the exception of that one Sick Lit book sitting on top of the NYT list, (and I still have my doubts as to how many actual kids are reading this treacle) none of this stuff sells all that well. I think you’re right, John-realistic YA could really take off. But not until somebody has the stones to take it out of Park and step on the gas, eh, what?

  4. Kevin a. Lewis says:

    Well, since I’m the only one who managed to fight his way past all the teen vampires, witches, and modern-day descendants of various mythological characters cluttering up the waiting room, I guess I’ve got the floor all to myself… OK, so while our fantasy pluggers are busy imitating big-budget Hollywood CGI potboilers, a lot of them at least come up with a decent afternoon at the amusement park, even if it is the ten-thousandth time kids have ridden on that particular roller coaster. But on the realistic side, we (not always but usually) have a pedestrian smorgasbord of earnest teen girls having humorless coming-of-age experiences in Nowheresville, Kansas, downtrodden teen boys who should have killed themselves a month ago, and any number of fashionable disability infomercials. With the exception of that one Sick Lit blockbuster at the top of the NYT list, (and I’m very agnostic about how many actual kids are buying and reading this treacle) this stuff really sells in any great numbers. Now, I think you’re right, John, about the potential for realistic YA, but until somebody takes it out of Park and steps on the gas, it’s not going much of anywhere. Gotta go-a teen zombie just ate the modern day descendant of Cleopatra and it looks like we’ve got a riot on our hands…

  5. Kevin a. Lewis says:

    OK, your Captcha feature is malwaring, hence the double post…

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