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Practical Advice from the AWP Conference

Today, we have an awesome guest post from my agent-sister, Samantha Mabry:

Samantha Mabry is the author of the YA novel, May the Stars Fall Down on You Like Rain. She's represented by Michelle Andelman of Lynn C. Franklin Associates.

Practical Advice from the AWP Conference

Last weekend, my friend Lori Ann Stephens and I joined roughly 6000 other writers in Denver at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. Here’s an excerpt from my diary with helpful writing and business tips. The extended version, featuring legless mannequins, stranger danger, and prolonged gushing over Michael Chabon, can be found at my blog, Stars Like Rain. Thanks YA Highway for allowing me to be a guest blogger!

“What’s Your Platform?” - Business

The first panel I attended, “What’s Your Platform?” was about the business side of things and was headed up by a genius of a woman named Christina Katz. Her advice to all writers: you need to develop a platform, which is an “ongoing effort to connect with your readers.”

Here are some ways to do that, even before your book is sold: start a website/blog, publish an e-zine, give public talks, engage in social networking, start a reading series at a local bookstore, give interviews, make online book trailers, get professional photos taken, don’t say “no” to anything. In short, the panel urged everyone who wants to sell books to get out there and become “the Poet Laureate of your neighborhood coffee shop.”

There are, however, some challenges that a writer must overcome in order to create a successful platform: you have to carve out time (ideally, you should devote 10% of your writing time to writing about writing – make sense?). You also have to get familiar with technology, overcome the attitude that self-promotion is “vulgar,” avoid making your blog too “self-focused,” and avoid coming across as if you have a bad attitude.

In short, the job of any writer is to communicate and connect with people, to “stand out” and “become known.”

“Voice in Middle Grade and YA Fiction” - Writing

Authors Swati Avasthi, H.M. Bouwman, and Julie Schumacher talked a lot about the abundance of first-person narratives in YA fiction these days. Their words (crudely paraphrased): the first-person narrative allows the reader to “try on” another identity. There is also an immediacy to the first-person narrator, especially in the parentless novel. A character who speaks in first-person does so because his/her support system has been cut off, and first-person is an immediate way to deal with the situation.

The first-person narrator can also be an unreliable voice, but that doesn’t mean that the narrator has ulterior motives or is duplicitous/evil. He/she might, rather, not know how to interpret his/her situation (think practically every YA novel ever written or the novel/film Atonement).

If you’re writing YA, you can experiment with narrative voice by fiddling with your characters’ vocabulary and their range of language (Swati suggested an exercise in which you take a character and have her write a letter to a grandparent, explaining a mistake she made. Then have that same character write an email to her friend, explaining the same mistake - then compare the different “voices”). You can also experiment with way that you write your sentences (long and rambling v. short and choppy). Most novels will exhibit some of change in voice by the end of the story due to the fact that the character inevitably changes!

The next day at the Bookfair, I met and chatted with YA author Ricki Thompson. She gave me her novel, City of Cannibals, asked if I’ll read it and write about it. I told her I would. Then I talked more to Swati Avasthi and Heather Bouwman as they did their book signing. They are wonderful people that tell wonderful stories. Read their novels.

That night, I finished City of Cannibals a little over twelve hours from the time the book was placed in my hand. All the while I was hoping that Lori had fallen asleep alright in the other bed, because I was refusing to turn the lamp off until I had finished the book. I dreamt that night of living and falling in love in Renaissance London.

I flew out of Denver four mornings after I arrived, with the knowledge that great writers write with unwavering ferocity, relentless joy, and without fear. But most of all, they write. And write. And rewrite. And write. A great writer’s life is spent swimming with, against, and through a current of words.

Reading List:

Get Known Before the Book Deal by Christina Katz (non-fiction)

Summerland by Michael Chabon (YA)

The Remarkable & Very True Story of Lucy & Snowcap by H.M. Bouwman (middle grade)

Split by Swati Avasthi (YA)

City of Cannibals by Ricki Thompson (YA)
Kirsten Hubbard

Kirsten is the author of Like Mandarin, Wanderlove, and the middle grade novel Watch the Sky.

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  1. Wow, great stories Samantha, thanks so much for sharing.

  2. I've heard Christina's book mentioned before. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Thank you Samantha!!

    Hooray for visibility :)

  4. Great post, Samantha! Thanks for guest blogging :)

  5. Thanks for the awesome summaries! Definitely some good stuff to mull over.

  6. Thanks for posting this info, my cuz (Pamela Harris) and I were supposed to go to this conference, but we canceled the trip after being drained from going overseas to England earlier this year. It seems like we missed a lot :( But I am grateful to get the goods from you!

  7. Great stuff! I love that exercise of writing a letter vs an email to find voice, that's really interesting. Thank you Samantha!

  8. I loved that YA session as well. So disappointing that there were so few YA sessions at AWP in general, though. I hope they have more next year (and hope that I'll be there!)

    Thanks for the summaries of those sessions!


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