I took Megan Atwood’s Y.A. Fiction class at the Loft Literary Center a few years ago with my sister, and her writing advice has stayed with me for years. Not only does she teach at the Loft and Hamline university, but she’s published lots of books, started a Y.A. imprint and worked as an agent. Plus, she’s super funny! I asked her to come on my podcast this week to share her wisdom, and I recommend anyone interested in writing Y.A. or getting an agent listen up. If you want to get more of her advice, I highly recommend taking a class with Megan at the Loft or at Hamline University. You can also hire her to edit your manuscript before you send it out. We chatted about everything from the significance of The Hunger Games to how to write a cover letter to why teenage girls who fornicate get killed off in scary movies. Phew!
Where do you think YA lit is in culture right now? Do you think our understanding of it is evolving?
Y.A. lit is in a great place, I think. We get to be more imaginative and bolder with our choices and experimental writing because there is actual money in this publishing subsection that supports this; and we get to really work to correct the representation problem in lit in general and in children’s lit specifically, which is the best goal to have, I think. How cool is that?? The fact that some people’s understanding of Y.A. lit will remain static works in our favor, actually. I don’t believe the modern “literary” establishment is going to let Y.A. into the literary canon any time soon. Which is fine! Because then we can keep experimenting, keep trying things out, keep emotionally resonating with a huge audience without the pressure to conform to the typical type of writing expected in that canon. I love it!
What are your go-to tips for writing YA fiction that will truly resonate with people?
Well, I can talk about what resonates with me when I think of writing YA fiction! 🙂 I try to always get to the emotional crux of my story and the growth of my character and make sure that is what I’m writing toward. Understanding character is key, which means understanding the experience of teens today–but making sure not to generalize or stereotype. What I always tell my classes is to live with your character for a while; take them with you to the drive thru, watch a movie, set up a Twitter account and tweet from their perspective. Get to know them! Make sure, too, unlike this very preachy paragraph, that you’re not trying to impart a lesson. That’s not your job. Your job is write a compelling story that resonates. Themes happen–let your writing speak for itself and the theme will come.
Did I just get all Field of Dreams??
You were an agent for awhile. What’s your advice for people who have a manuscript and want to know what to do next?
Right. First, is your manuscript done? Make sure! Of course, there comes a time when you can’t look at it any more and it’s just a bunch of static noise. 🙂 Been there. But try to get it as polished as you possibly can, even hiring an editor if you have the money. Or buying many, many drinks for a beta reader or your writing group. Next, do your homework. Go to Agent Query to get a sense for who is looking for work right now and check out the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market (check it out from the library–that sucker’s expensive) for the genres and types of lit an editor or agent is seeking. Do a Google search on children’s book agents and research their guidelines and who their clients are. Who is looking for what you have? Make sure it’s a good fit! One of my biggest turnoffs as an agent and editor was when I would explicitly state what I wasn’t looking for and still get a whole bunch of submissions in that vein anyway. Network–talk to people and find out who they have for an agent and if they like them. (Though, be very careful about using people’s names and asking to use them!) Attending conferences and taking classes will help you with this. Finally, when you’re writing your query letter, make sure to mention why you think that specific agent is a good fit and to keep your synopsis to manageable levels. 🙂
I want to say: a lot of this mirrors the sort of inequity in society, right? The more money you have, the more likely you’re going to be able to go to conferences and meet others or to take classes . . . So look for those places that give scholarships or have sliding fee scales. The thing is, the children’s lit community is a really awesome place and I think a lot of people want to make this part better. Take advantage if you can!
Can you also list the books you recommended at the end?
I have SO MANY. I’m sorry. This is just a tiny, tiny bit of what I am loving lately. Some are old and some are fairly new!
by Laura Ruby
Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass
by Meg Medina
Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty
by Christine Heppermann
by Brandy Colbert
by M.T. Anderson
New one coming out: Assassin’s Heart