Wednesday, March 12, 2014

NoVaTeen Book Festival

Last weekend I was able to spend a day indulging in my recent love of YA fiction with NoVaTeen Book Festival sponsored by One More Page Books and Arlington County Library. Held at the local high school, the festival included an amazing lineup of 23 Young Adult authors, featuring Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Marie Lu.

Inside the event, the festival had tables set up from One More Page Books with books from the authors, free swag, and most importantly snacks. This last bit can't be overstated because the high school, while easily within walking distance of Metro, is pretty far from restaurants and cafes. So it was good to be able to grab a quick bite and hydrate before the next panel. Unfortunately the initial part of the event was a comedy of errors as the poor OMP booksellers valiantly tried to get wifi to work so they could sell all those books in their nice piles. You were allowed three outside books, so I brought my copy of Victoria Schwab’s Unbound and bought Meagan Spooner and Amie Kaufman's These Broken Stars and Marie Lu's Legend. The event ended with a mass signing at Arlington’s Central library.

The opening focus panel was on Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, author of the Alice series and Newberry-award winning Shiloh. I had heard the name before, enough to be impressed, but had never had occasion to read her books. Checking her bibliography suggests I was just off the generation for her books.  By the time she was popular, I was at college and discovering new science fiction authors. She talked about growing up in the Great Depression and how it impacted her family and how much she'd look forward to "story" time where her family would read from the classics. She's had such a wide career from writing little short stories for a church magazine to her novels to even her autobiography. She'd never intended the Alice books to become the long ranging series, covering 28 books! She talked about how they'd become the most challenged and banned books in the country, because she covered topics that were considered taboos. As an example, Naylor picked a sequence from "Alice in April" where she is struggling with the changes of puberty and the cruelty of boys.

After the Naylor speech, I went to the first breakout panel. These were smaller focus panels where two authors would talk and answer questions, held in one of the classrooms. Each breakout panel was named after a song title, so Victoria Schwab and Marie Lu's was "Wrecking Ball". Schwab and Lu both described at length how they'd become writers and their respective publishing careers. Their trajectories were eerily similar in some ways.

Victoria Schwab came from a poetry background originally and discovered writing novels when she was trying out other forms of writing. She also changed majors SIX times in her college career, which makes my one switch pale by comparison. But she'd taken classes in nearly everything and discovered  narrative in all of them. Her first book had sparkling prose that everyone loved, but no plot. This confused people no end. Near Witch, Schwab’s first published novel, was a dark fairy tale where all the children disappear after a stranger comes to a town. Setting wasn’t a focus in fairy tales. They could literally happen in any little village or any forest. Marie Lu had thought about becoming a lawyer or doctor, a nice stable career, which her family heartily approved of, until she had the opportunity to get a video game internship and took a chance on the creative side.

Lu also gave a wonderful final speech as the featured author, so I learned even more about her background. She learned to write because her mother made her to improve her English after they’d emigrated from China. Their first experience of American culture was seeing Mardi Gras in New Orleans! But I felt very old when Marie Lu described living in Beijing at a tender age of five and seeing the "local" Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. I was graduating high school two weeks later. Perspective.

 I laughed a little learning that Marie Lu had written fanfiction in her youth. She loved animal stories, so her favorites were Brian Jacques' Redwall and Sonic the Hedgehog. As a sf/fantasy fan of Eddings and Tolkien, Lu wrote her own horribly bad books, including the dread behemoth book of a party going after the shiny object and… even she willingly admitted "okay, yes, it was Lord of the Rings."

One piece of writing advice I heard repeated throughout the day was that you often didn’t need just one spark of an idea, but several, often combining in ways you hadn’t imagined. Her Legend series came from two sources : rewatching the old Les Miserables movie with Liam Neeson, thinking a detective vs thief would be a fun idea. And a map showing the world would look if the freshwater ice melted, including destroying her hometown of Los Angeles. Rather than be horrified, she reacted like most writers "Oh cool I can use that!"

Schwab and Lu answered questions from the audience. Some questions were process related, others for encouraging aspiring writers. We were cautioned not to ask spoilerly questions, which was a relief from my perspective. We had a nice discussion about Word vs Scrivener. Scrivener worked wonders for Schwab with her multiple documents and windows – although she admitted it worked only when she started the project there, rather than import an existing one.

After the first breakout session, I grabbed a bite to eat and then headed into the auditorium for the next panel. "The Scientist" was all about the intersection of science and technology and morality. Jon Skovron was co-moderating. He'd been at the library's Shut Up and Write event I had attended last year. Fascinating topic. I wish I’d been more familiar with the authors to appreciate their answers more.

In between the panels, I was amused when the auditorium played music, including "Carry on My Wayward Son". I half expected to hear discussions of demon hunters in the next panel.

Instead the “Survivor" panel showcased authors with characters in difficult situations. Again I appreciated being introduced to authors I had not encountered and hearing more about their writing process. Meagan Spooner’s These Broken Stars proved a particular challenge, since it was written with her writing partner Amie Kaufman in Australia. One wanted to write about a shipwreck and one wanted a space story, so they combined the idea. What surprised (and gratified) them was hearing that one particular character was embraced by readers rather than ripped to shreds. Kirsten Simmons was imagining a world without the Bill of Rights and other statues. Simmons’ character remembered the way it’d been before, so there was a tendency to survive by just getting by, put head down and don’t attract attention, and whether that was the right way. Both Jessica Spotswood and Claudia Gray wrote about witches, but approached them differently. Spotswood’s books were about the power also of sisterhood and their combined strength. Claudia Gray’s witches had to maintain their secrecy, even when it prompted awkward questions. How do you tell that local boy that well… yeah, actually he *was* cursed.

The only thing that bothered me in the Q&A session was the question about world building. To me, just because something is set in the “real” world doesn’t mean I have to research or think it through any less than if it’s a Middle Earth style fantasy. There was, though, a hilarious sidebar on the research questions you’ve had to ask your friends in the course of writing. For instance, how *do* you explain to the State Department your fascination with dead bodies and massive injuries? And how your friends go from “Why do you need to know this?” to “Oh, it’s for a book, isn’t it?” in the course of knowing you as a writer.

The second breakout session featured Diana Peterfreund and Meagan Spooner discussing science fiction in YA. This was more low key and informal than the earlier breakout session. Lu & Schwab were very business-like in their approach, but quite fun and personable, where Peterfreund and Spooner gabbed like old best buddies having a grand old time. At length they discussed the covers for their books and the market struggles, especially the boy book vs girl book demands. Peterfreund had a librarian tell her that she loved her second Star book, but she couldn't get boys to read it because of the cover. Spooner admitted asking the publisher if they realized the cover for These Broken Stars would turn off potential boy readers. Publishers didn't care; they were perfectly okay with losing that potential market. Another unfortunate side effect of the pretty covers: you might not guess they’re set in outer space.

Markets and labels was another common refrain I’d heard throughout the day. Some writers were not allowed to call their books “science fiction” or “dystopia” because the Trend was over. Yet Jenna Black truly believed her “Replica” series where you can create a duplicate of yourself if you have enough money was a *true* dystopia, in that her science was intended towards “the good” and went horribly horribly wrong. But her publisher wouldn’t call it that.  It’s a bit of quandary for writers. But all of them dissuaded wannabe writers from “chasing the trend” because by the time your book is out the trend may be long over.

In the end, the first NoVaTeen Book Festival was a great success. I was exhausted by the end of it, but I quite enjoyed the book festival and meeting all the authors and hearing their experiences.  If I have a regret for NoVaTeen, it was that I wasn’t more daring.  I do lean more heavily towards science fiction and paranormal sides of YA in my own reading. Ah, well, judging by the bookshelves, there is plenty of time to learn.

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