The YA Masterclass

On Thursday 15th June, 2017, I attended the YA Masterclass as part of The Emerging Writers Festival. It was damn exciting.

We listened to lectures, interviews, panels and had a 2 hour work shop.

One panel discussed finding voice in YA. They spoke about how young adult readers know what they like and they know what they don’t like. During your teenage years is when you feel things the most intensely. They compared adulthood against youth. When you are an adult you have so many walls. There are the day-to-day responsibilities that weigh you down, and you express yourself less. There is a raw truth in youth.

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This is why I write young adult. Teenagers are freer. Everything is being learnt for the first time. There are possibilities. There is hope.

YA is character driven. You start from the inside and worry about the exterior later.

Mark Smith, newly published author of “The Road to Winter” said, “Don’t let the story get slow. Kids don’t reflect. They keep going.”

My favourite part of the day was the panel on “Darkness in YA: Sex & Death”. Three award winning young adult novelist, and a woman whose thesis was on darkness in YA, led the discussion. They encouraged the use of darker themes in your novel, as long as it develops the character and plot. You can speak about sex and death, but you may have to gloss over it or pull back on the explicit parts. Kids can get porn on their phones, so why not show them a healthy relationship instead. “Serve the story. Make the reader turn the page.”

They pointed out some taboos that are rarely seen in YA:

  • Child sexual abuse
  • Looking critically at religion
  • Rate of drug abuse
  • Abortion

We were told to explore new ground. That YA is an accepting readership.

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The book may have darkness, but give it some hope. The ending may not have a resolution, but a feeling of hope keeps the story going. They spoke about the emotional impact of reading a book. Show the character’s highs and lows. Have the ending ring true to the overall feeling of the book.

Our workshop was on developing character; “People of Substance”. Authors Simmone Howell and Penni Russon ran us through three main points to connect with a character:
1. Interest – they are compelling, take action and are entertaining.
2. Endearment – you really like them and want to hang out with them, they’re not perfect, they are a little blank so you can project yourself on to them.
3. Identification – by their emotional state, the questions they have, they might be a little aimless, they’re diversity.

They said the last one can be tricky.  You don’t know who is going to pick up your book, or how they will identify with your character.  By giving the story a defining YA voice you can counter this.

They went on to discuss the most common brainstorming questions on developing characters.
1. What does your character want? (Goal)
Food, shelter, water? Community, belonging? Success?
2. What is stopping them from getting what they want? (Conflict)
Where action, connection and interest come in.
3. What happens if they don’t get what they want? (Stakes)
Make sure it feels authentic.

“Find your inner teenager, and talk to them.”

We had two exercises in the class. One was to think of someone who was a bullied you when you were younger. You had to write about the experience and then develop that person’s character and write them ten years on.
The second exercise was a visual prompt. There was a photo from the 1970’s of some kids in front of a milkbar. In groups, we had to discuss who the characters were and begin to develop them. This was so much fun. I absolutely love building stories with other people. Unfortunately I don’t have anyone in my life at the moment to do this with. Our story snowballed. We had to write individually the story of one character.

In our groups we had to read out one of our stories out loud. I read out the one from the first exercise. I have to say it was a little emotional for me to get raw with strangers. But an exhilarating experience. I had visions of my future author readings. I’ll post my story from the first exercise. The second I am keeping to myself. I see a potential story in it.

After the story I will say why I it is important.

When I was 14 a girl and I were in the midst of a bitchy fight.  the girl was a bit too chicken shit and would get her older sister to do her bullying for her.  her sister didn’t stand up, but she had friends who didn’t mind being a nasty to a shy, young girl.  One girl came up to me in the playground in front of all these kids from my class, and asked, “Do you shave off your moustache?”  I was totally embarrassed.  I didn’t care that I had hair above my lip.  I cared that everyone would be thinking about it.

This girl didn’t know me, and I didn’t know her.  I still can’t recall her name.  Ten years on and she is still a follower.  She does whatever society deems as right and the best choice.  She got married two years out of high school, and just popped out baby number three.  Her husband doesn’t help at all.  She never liked the idea of working and thought babies were a good distraction.  Her house is always a mess and it is a struggle to find an unstained shirt.  She goes to coffee with her friends and boasts about how great and wonderful life is.  But she is lonely.  When her kids are screaming she uses it as a sound barrier for her own tears.  She never found that something that was just hers.  Who even is she?

My group seemed to like it.  They asked me to read out my other story.  What I found most helpful about this story was the voice.  Reading it over I had a lightbulb moment.  I had written in first person.  And I liked it.  I liked how short the sentences were.  That there were no flowery descriptions getting in the way of the story.  We had a ten minute timer to write this, and I put my pen down with two minutes to go.  I had created my character.  No need to go further.  It was a powerful feeling.

I had last week off work.  In that time I tasked myself with getting my outline fully buffed out by the Monday deadline.  I hit the finish line at 7pm on Sunday evening.  Phew!  With my new epiphany, I went on to rewrite the first four chapter in first person, present tense.  I had already written 45,000 words.  All in third person.  All in past tense.  I have my work cut out from me.

OMFG, best decision I have made in my writing journey.  I am better connected with my protagonists now.  I can fully convey their emotions.  I was so lost before as a voice on the sidelines.  Now I am in the action.  I no longer have the fear that a scene sounds boring.  The suspense has been amped up.

On little trigger from my past and my world has opened up.  I’m more passionate and excited about “Brittany & Charli” than I ever have been.  I can’t wait for you to read it.

One book I can’t wait to read is “Beautiful Mess” by Claire Christian.  It will be released end of August.  Claire was our last speaker.  She won the Text Prize which is awarded by Text Publishing.  Text Publishing award an emerging writer with a $10,000 advance and a book deal for the best manuscript in the competition.  “Beautiful Mess” is a story about a girl dealing with the loss of a friend by suicide, and a boy dealing with his own depression.  Claire spoke about some themes I want to work on in my upcoming stories.  She was a real inspiration.

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I hope in what ever field you are working in or towards, you can find some inspiration and motivation as well.  Please let me know in the comments if any one has touched you in the same way.

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