For more than three days last week, 12,000+ writers and other book people from all over the world descended upon Minneapolis for the Association of Writing Programs & Writers’ annual conference. Officially it took place April 8-11 at the convention center there -- but in reality AWP took place all over the city; residents brushed shoulders with visiting literati in the hotels, restaurants, bars, even on the city’s public transportation system. The mayor of Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges, made an appearance at AWP at the opening night's keynote, where she recited a poem by Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer.
“Professionally, I wanted to welcome the conference because it is a big, big deal for the city of Minneapolis to have that many people from around the country come and around the world come and see how great Minneapolis is,” Hodges told PW in an email, “Personally, I am someone who never stopped reading YA novels and who reads poetry every morning and every evening before bed.”
And, she added, “I wanted to do the introduction to have a reason to be there and geek out with all those amazing, talented people.”
While AWP panels emphasize literature written by and for adults, there were plenty of panel discussions appealing to writers interested in children’s literature, beginning with one that took place the morning of the first day of the conference, entitled “Plot IS Character, Character IS Plot,” in Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction. The panelists included children’s authors Jewell Parker Rhodes, William Konigsberg, Varian Johnson, and Nova Ren Suma.
“Writing for youth is the highest calling,” Rhodes told the audience of about 250 people before the discussion moved to plot and character in children’s books. “The characters come first,” Suma said. “Character is what the plot becomes.” In her novels, Suma said, her characters are presented with “opportunities and obstacles” that move the plot along, as YA readers are “iwanting and expecting more things to happen.” Konigsberg, noting that “rumination is part of the process,” discussed his technique of developing biographical back stories to his characters that might not make it into the finished novel, but are nevertheless essential to the story line.
“You cannot put a random character into the plot,” he explained, “Each character has needs and wants.” Johnson, who writes what he described as action-packed heist novels, agreed. “History creates character,” he noted, “That’s where the plot takes off.” Explaining that he starts writing with “What if?” on his mind, Johnson asked, “What if a girl grew up without a father?” His stories proceed from there, “making shit happen” to characters he tries to make really life-like.”
Subplots and secondary characters are as essential as the main plot and primary characters, Johnson said, as “secondary characters inform the main characters.” Sometimes, however, Suma noted, one has to “struggle” to fit together characters and plots. “But the struggle is worth it,” she said.
Rhodes, who explained that she started writing for adults, with novels that she called “Anne Rice meets Toni Morrison meets Charles Dickens,” noted that historical events help her develop story lines for her character-driven novels. Her protagonists, Rhodes said, “come to me like magic” and “perfectly fit the story.”
Konigsberg noted that it is difficult to “live in the real world if you are a writer,” because one is living in “an alternate universe for four to six hours of the day.” He emphasized that while his family members enjoy reading the finished product, they don’t want to hear him talking about what fictional characters have done each day that he is writing about them. Suma agreed, explaining that she often becomes so embedded in her characters that it’s “hard to find the way out.” Rhodes said that it takes her “years” to write each book, because she “goes deeper and deeper into the layers” of her characters.
“I’m comfortable with being slow,” but publishing is not so comfortable with me being slow,” Rhodes said. But then, she noted, she does her best writing when she doesn’t worry about getting published. “I just delve into that world,” she said.
In response to an audience member’s question about taking advantage of what was trending in children’s publishing, Rhodes urged the audience to write what appeals to them, not what they think will appeal to the market. “Follow your particular dream,” she said. “If you want to write fiction, write fiction. If you want to write short fiction, write short fiction.” It’s all about focus, she explained. “A writer writes. Get someone else to manage your business.”
Speaking of the business of writing for MG and YA readers, Saturday’s afternoon’s panelists on the “Coming of Age: Choosing to Write the Young Adult and Middle Grade Novel” panel, one of AWP’s final sessions, which included Rhodes, demonstrated the point she’d made two few days earlier. M. Evelina Galang, Nicole Helget, Mick Cochrane, and Rhodes, talked about writing for adults versus writing for children. Galang noted that she wanted to “write a good story” when she wrote Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery, which was published by Coffee House Press in 2013. She intended it, she said, to be a novel for adults, but CHP suggested that it be marketed as young adult, and she “gave in.” Helget, who launched her career as an adult novelist, submitted a manuscript that she intended to be a YA read, but her publisher suggested that be marketed as MG.
“’This is going to be a great middle-age novel,’ my editor said,” Helget recalled, “And I asked, ‘What’s that?’” That novel, Wonder at the Edge of the World, will be released April 14 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
After Cochrane wrote his second novel for the University of Minnesota Press, he was approached, he said, by an editor with one of the Big Five in New York, who asked if he would consider writing in the YA genre. Cochrane drew laughs when he recalled asking, “Isn’t that all vampires and wizards?,” to be met with the response from the editor, “I hate that shit.” Cochrane has written two YA novels, besides the two adult novels.
Echoing Rhodes’s point in the panel that took place earlier in the week, Galang told the audience of 200 people that filled the small room and spilled out into the hallway, “Writers should be concerned about the craft of writing. If you focus on trends and platforms, you’ll get distracted from writing a good story.”
Writers have to trust that their publishers are making sound marketing decisions, Galang added, noting that CHP is a small press that doesn’t just care about sales, “they really care about books; they care about the life of the book.” After all, she said, “Their motto is, ‘where good books are brewing.’ ”
“Everything I wrote about race, class and gender I wrote in my novels for adults,” Rhodes said, “I’m saying in my novels for children. The trick is to find the right way to say it.”