distraction no.99

Nova Ren Suma | On Writing & Writing Distractions

Not an Author Newsletter… something else.

Please Do Not Send YA

I had a wonderful, inspiring time at the Tin House Workshop in the summer of 2008. So much so, that I considered applying again for this summer. Then I read the application guidelines. They say: “Please do not send newspaper articles, genre fiction, or children’s or young adult literature.” Funny, because the story I workshopped the summer I was at Tin House became the YA novel chapters that got me an agent and then sold at auction months afterward. No one called it YA in the workshop. Why the distinction on their application? I don’t think YA literary fiction is easily distinguished from adult literary fiction, do you?

So then I think, wow, I’d really like to go to Bread Loaf, and I wonder if I qualify for a scholarship since I have a book out and another coming out in 2011. Guess what their guidelines say? “Please do not send children’s or young adult literature, newspaper journalism, co-authored work, or self-help literature.”

Clearly, I am looking in the wrong places. But all these closed doors to YA make me wonder what will happen when I land at Yaddo this spring. What the admissions committee read and accepted was an excerpt from the novel Dutton will publish as YA in hopefully* 2011.

I think the question is why would I want to go to an adult workshop and conference when I am now writing YA. I talked a little about why I’m writing YA for now and for the foreseeable future, and probably forever, in this interview on the B&N Book Club blogs. Here’s an excerpt that speaks to it:

JD: How do you switch gears between YA and adult fiction?

NRS: I used to write only adult fiction, but switching gears to YA was far easier than I expected—and felt so natural. For me it’s two things: Being true to the voice, and the point from which the story is being told. If I’m writing an adult character, I’m writing an adult story. If I’m writing a teenager, it’s likely I’m writing YA. I always write in first person—it’s my favorite voice to try to capture as a writer, and also my favorite voice to read—so it’s my characters who decide what I’m writing more than I do.

But there’s more to it than the voice. For me, when I’m writing for adults I feel more removed—I tend to write those stories as if looking back from a distance. I think I could set out to write the same coming-of-age story about the same girl, but if I decided to write it as an adult story it would have a far different flavor than writing it as YA.

Dani Noir, for example—which is technically tween, not YA—was so in the moment, it came out in present tense. There’s no sense of the future, no perspective, and I think that speaks to my character more than anything else. You watch her make her mistakes as she makes them; only later does she gather any wisdom about what she’s done.

Right now, I’m still all about writing in the moment. The novel I’m in the midst of writing, called Imaginary Girls, is YA and it feels so alive, so exhilarating to put down on the page, that sometimes I think I’ll never go back to writing adult fiction. Not to mention that the YA community is so phenomenal, I can’t imagine living without it. So we’ll see. I’m happy here, so I think I’ll keep my gears where they are for a while.

Knowing that I have a whole new audience now feels freeing to me, more honest, more clear. I’m not writing with any message in mind, I’m writing for the 16-year-old me, from that point in time, from that moment, which is more real to me now than the moment I happen to be sitting in at an age I won’t mention.

But I have to say, I think the craft of writing fiction translates whether you are writing for teens or for adults. Characters are characters. Story is story. Pacing and scene development and dialogue and subtext and all that—it’s in my writing now, just as it was before. It’s fiction, same as before. At Tin House what I learned and absorbed has carried over into my writing in general—Aimee Bender on the different shapes of stories; Peter Rock on character development; Dorothy Allison on setting—and does it matter if my story is YA? I still have a plot, I still have characters, I still have a setting. I actually feel like I have more flexibility now than I would have before. Doors opened to me that didn’t before. And, of course, my audience is different, and as I said above my sense of “writing in the moment” feels different, but my interest in the craft of writing my story hasn’t changed. I am not dumbing down my writing. I’m just writing and being true to my character’s voice.

So why can’t I go to Tin House? Sure, a YA author wouldn’t find an agent there, but that’s not why I’d go. And a YA author wouldn’t be as interested in publishing short stories in litmags, but that’s not why I’d go. What I loved was the weeklong writing workshop and especially the week of craft classes and lectures and readings.

Am I wrong in thinking this way? There must be another place for me that I’m just not seeing. So, please, tell me: Where is the Tin House or Bread Loaf or Sewanee for YA authors? Because I’d love to go.

[ETA: Just to clarify, I’m not seeking an MFA program—I already have an MFA in fiction and I don’t want another. I just want a summer conference that’s the YA equivalent to the ones I mentioned above. Does that exist? SCBWI NYC excluded; I’m already headed there this January.]


* I say “hopefully” 2011 because I am still writing the manuscript and it all depends on if I make my deadline and how I do with revisions and how good it is and no pressure or anything, right?

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22 responses to “Please Do Not Send YA”

  1. As someone who works in an English department with a lot of creative writing professors, I would say your frustration is valid and the problem stems from a variety of factors. First of all, most people who teach in MFA programs and at these workshops are they themselves trained in MFA programs. The type of writing they read and are taught to write is literary fiction. While I agree that both YA lit and genre fiction have literary merit (as I read both voraciously), they do contain conventions that these types of instructors are not familiar with.

    Also, frankly, there is an unfortunate stigma that comes with writing YA and genre fiction (a stigma placed on it by “The Academy”) as well as other types of popular or “pulp” fiction. This stigma comes from both ignorance, as well as the unfortunate fact that every new up and coming writer seems to want to make millions writing these types of fiction.

    If you want to write and get feedback on YA lit, your best bet is to attend a writing conference. A good friend of mine who is chick lit writer/romance writer AND who has an MFA says she has gotten much better feedback, help, and networking at these conferences rather than at workshops or in her MFA program.

    Sorry for the long-winded answer! I guess what I really meant to say was, I agree, and it sucks. 🙂

    • Thanks, Sandy! Sorry for not clarifying at the start (I added in the note later), but I do already have an MFA, for adult litfic, and I don’t want another. Yes, I’m looking for a summer conference/workshop/whatever it’s called.

      I’d love suggestions! On Twitter I was told about these places: Kindling Words (which I’ve heard about and will try next year), Oregon Coast, and PCCWW.

  2. I cannot understand the anti-YA sentiment that I see EVERYWHERE. Readers consider it a guilty pleasure, up there with romance novels, when it is no different than any other fiction–at least in my experience of reading, you know, a lot. It is not considered real writing, and it is excluded from nearly every workshop, contest, et cetera. I think the fact that it is grouped with children’s literature says it all. Sandra Boynton is no different than Courtney Summers. You know, because THAT makes sense. (I like Sandra Boynton books a great deal. But she’s not exactly writing the same kind of literature as Courtney.)

  3. I write speculative fiction (which is the fancy literary term for sci-fi and fantasy), so I can sympathize. I’m lucky enough to be a student in an MFA program that accepts genre fiction as a valid writing form, but I’ve seen a lot of MFA programs, scholarships, and workshops that deny entry to genre writers and YA writers. There’s still a big gap between what is considered Literature and what is considered…everything else. But I think that the gap has been closing in the past few years, and hopefully it will continue to do so.

  4. I think you nailed it—the craft of fiction translates, but these conference organizers don’t get that, which is a downright ignorant attitude if you ask me. As I see it, the only difference between good YA and good adult fiction is the age of the main character, but there seems to be this attitude that “YA” means crushes on boys and pep rallies and passing notes in geometry class.

    Even the audience is much the same—because a lot of adult readers love YA, and I still feel like I’m 15 anyway (so maybe I count twice?)

    I like to think the powers that be at Yaddo don’t subscribe to this ignorant attitude; but even if they do, with your successful writing sample you’ve already proved to Tin House (et al.) that quality fiction is quality fiction, no matter how it’s marketed.

  5. Seriously, if there is still so much ‘stigma’ tied to the genre that people will actually hang a “No YA Allowed” sign on the outside of their clubhouse, the only clear solution is to start your own club–or your own workshop. Guidelines will say, “Please do not send ADULT fiction, newspaper journalism, co-authored work, or self-help literature.” And I’ll help you run it. 😛

    Seriously though, the divisive nature of publishing can be so mind-blowing sometimes. I guess that’s to be expected from any industry that’s been around as long as this one, but you’d also think people would open their eyes and SEE the exciting things happening and YA and want to be a part of it too.

  6. First, I’m going to write a blog about this….

    Second, I have no explanation or answer. I do, however, have a rather large and obnoxious opinion on the subject. I will share that now.

    I recently read a copy of The New Yorker, flipping back to the fiction piece. I got through the first paragraph and it was…okay. The second was about the same. By the time I got to the third or fourth, I had to put it down. While the writing was obviously good, it was boring. as. hell.

    I think the anti-YA slant has to do with professors/writers holding on to a faulty assumption: that kids/teens will eventually grow out of YA and into ‘serious’ fiction. What is happening (I think) is people are rejecting ‘serious fiction’ and heading over to the YA section.

    I don’t read to have a message drilled into my brain. If that comes, bonus. I read to find a means of escape, to be entertained – to connect with another person on a very meaningful level. YA accomplishes this, I think, because the writers are writing novels for consumers that have a very…ahem…limited attention span.

    For teenagers, everything is at stake. They line in a constant state of transition and crisis. And if that doesn’t make for good fiction, I don’t know what does.

    At the very least, being a YA writer has given me a bit of joy recently. In a room full of smug, adult/literary/serious/boring writers, I got the, “Oh, you write YOUNG ADULT books”-look.

    Then I dropped Michael’s name.

    And guess what? I was the only one with an agent.


  7. It’s interesting that you want to attend these workshops.

    Because in all honesty, at this point in your writing career … you could probably teach one of the sessions. You have an MFA, a placement at Yaddo, and you’re a published author. You’ve graduated!

    I do understand the desire to discuss craft with other authors, and soak up the wisdom of talented, inspirational speakers. I found that at SCBWI in LA this August. You can’t get much better than Sherman Alexie, Karen Cushman, Holly Black, et al. For an author of tween/YA fiction, SCBWI and other regional conferences might better suit your needs. Organizers do their best to feature great speakers who are PASSIONATE about children’s literature. You will find that you are with “your people” there. 🙂

    Hmm, maybe this would have been better in an email than your comments …

    Just my $.02.


    • L.K. Thank you! And you know, I don’t know; I’ve been trying to think up an answer to your question. I was most interested in the scholars and fellows possibilities, where you have to have a book published in order to qualify, like at Sewanee, and you don’t pay the tuition. As I remember, when I went to there years ago, the fellows help contribute to the running of the workshops. So it’s not the same thing as going as a beginning writer.

      I do hope that the SCBWI conference I’m headed to this winter will be similar, but it’s only two days, and it’s not held on a college campus the way the summer workshops I mentioned are… I think it will be fun and I’m looking forward to it, but I don’t think it’s the same thing.

      Maybe I want to go to a summer conference because I miss college? Hmm. Tin House was held on the Reed campus—it was amazing. And Sewanee was at the University of the South, truly beautiful. I don’t mind living in a dorm for a week or two… maybe I even like it!

      Is this very strange?

  8. Thanks for your comments, all!

    I just realized that I _could_ still go to Tin House, as an auditor, which is maybe what’s best for me since I don’t know if I need a workshop now anyway. So… if I’m in Portland, OR, this July maybe I will try that.

    And if anyone is interested, Tin House is a great summer workshop: 1 week long, amazingly inspiring, no hierarchy, such great writers leading workshops and doing lectures… I encourage you to apply, just not if you’re writing YA or for kids. 😉

    Clearly it inspired me. I don’t know if IMAGINARY GIRLS would have existed without it.

  9. I got into an MFA program for poetry and got a contract for my YA novel a month later. When I explained to the head of the fiction department that I had a novel contract and asked if I could double-major (so to speak), she said absolutely. Then she found out it was a YA novel, and rescinded the offer. In the end, I had to submit my first ten chapters to her in order to be deemed worthy of entry into the precious fiction classes. I still get angry thinking about it.

  10. I wonder if some of it comes down to the academic-types running these conferences and screening applications: if they don’t “speak” YA, they can’t know how to judge what’s good or holds promise or how to workshop it–so they just remove the “problem” altogether. I’m NOT saying that’s right (obvs, I don’t think it is!) but I’m just trying to understand it from a practical standpoint. Or maybe they think of YA as more commercial than the kind of literary writing they’re all about? (Again, if so, they’re wrong.)

    Honestly, Nova? I think you should write to Tin House, in a non-confrontational way, and ask them WHY. Explain that the story you workshopped there went on to get you a YA contract, explain a bit of why you’ve found your voice in YA/MG, but how the skill set is the same. Maybe point out the Yaddo thing as a counterpoint to their rules. You never know–maybe you’ll be able to start a dialogue there that will benefit future YA writers.

    Or maybe you and E should buy yourselves a beautiful little piece of land in some interesting corner of the world and you should start running a writers’ colony of your own….

  11. Ohhh, I love Molly’s suggestion. Especially since Tin House was clearly so helpful to you and your career, I think they would be interested in your opinion and perhaps it would give them an opportunity to seriously consider whether they have any preconceived notions.

    Though I must say, I would SO come to the Nova writers’ colony! =)

  12. This is fascinating and frustrating on so many levels. I once applied for an MFA in Poetry program and made the mistake of mentioning in my application the possibility of a YA novel in verse. I had no idea that would make me a pariah.

    If you start the Nova Colony, I’m there! (Perfect name for it, btw.)

  13. Well, there you go… I just wrote a whole long comment and somehow deleted it. Probably for the best – as I was finding nothing to great to say about academia and writers! lol

    Suffice it to say, Nova – you start a writers’ in-depth workshop & I’ll be first in line to apply for a spot!

  14. The Nova Colony is the best idea. I will run it for you! And could offer an expressive therapy creativity block

  15. So far as I’m concerned, a good story is a good story, and YA readers can be just as sophisticated as adult readers. Heaven knows I’ve found any number of YA books that I think are better written and more tightly plotted than some of the adult fiction I’ve read, so clearly writing good YA is just as hard as writing anything else. The only real difference I find in the two categies? The age of the main protagonist, and the (usual) absence of explicit sex and violence.

    As to the writing programs? I can only imagine it has something to do with the alleged “quality” of YA books … just like science fiction and comedy categories rarely win the Best Picture Oscars. They’re just not serious enough, or prestigious enough, or something.

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