While the pandemic has made it challenging to engage in the broader writing community in person, virtual events have opened up new opportunities to hear from writers and learn new skills, all from the comfort of home.
Last month, the charming seaside city of Salem, Massachusetts hosted an event with ample opportunity to tap into authors’ minds. A 3-day celebration of reading and writing, the Salem Literary Festival featured in person and online content focused on adult, young adult (YA), and middle grade (MG) stories.
Of course, the MUG couldn’t pass up the chance to hear from published authors, delve into new genres, and sharpen our writing skills. From YA-centric panels on historical fiction to compelling villains to creepy suspense, the weekend provided a variety of content and helpful insights.
Here are five takeaways from the Salem Lit Fest we’ll be incorporating into our writing.
1. Research and Organize Your Way
Regardless of genre and focus, every story requires a different amount of research. Sometimes that means walking through a city looking for the perfect date spot for your characters, or zooming into landmarks on Google Maps. Sometimes it means digging into public library archives on microfiche, or trying a new activity, like pottery or archery.
Conducting research can be a challenge, and not everyone finds the experience enjoyable. Historical research can be particularly difficult, depending on the era, subject matter, and access to resources.
In a session on historical YA fiction, author Stacey Lee shared that while she enjoys uncovering underappreciated historical stories to bring to light, she is a “reluctant historian” and finds it overwhelming to dig into historical research. Once she has a more specific focus, then the process becomes enjoyable.
A different panel on YA suspense also echoed the theme of finding the right information. June Hur, whose most recent mystery novel takes place in Joseon Korea, shared the challenges of locating resources due to language barriers and the historical suppression of certain information. She uncovered insights and information during a trip to visit family in Korea that were otherwise unavailable online or in libraries.
And then there is the question of organization. Once writers sift through information and find what they need, what is the best way to keep track of research?
Historic YA panelists Stacey Lee, Malinda Lo, Randi Pink, and Amy Trueblood shared a few strategies:
- Randi Pink is a fan of trapper keepers to collect information.
- Malina Lo has tried digital solutions such as Evernote and OneNote.
- Stacey Lee takes notes by hand, hangs index cards on the walls, and uses pocket folders to store information.
- Amy Trueblood relies on an old fashioned composition notebook, sticky notes, and folders.
While every author had a different approach and method of organization, they had one thing in common: their tactics worked. They all produced novels set in historic settings.
Our takeaway: do what works for you. At the end of the day, each story’s setting will drive research needs, and any system for keeping track of all the dates, details, and minutiae needs to serve your ability to write.
2. Even the Bad Guys Should be Interesting
Sometimes it’s all too easy to like the villain of a story, perhaps even more than the protagonist. Why do we love—or love to hate—characters like Hannibal?
I Heart Villains panelist Victoria Lee theorizes it’s because in the most compelling stories, villains are incredibly competent in a way protagonists simply cannot be. After all, if a protagonist is too good at everything, plot and tension fall flat. Stories are exciting when villains are always one step ahead of the protagonist—until the end, of course.
Panelists Lyndall Clipstone, Victoria Lee, Krystal Sutherland, and Tori Bovalino all enjoy writing villains, and throughout the panel they shared some secret sauce on writing a compelling nemesis:
- Avoid cartoonishly evil villains by giving them layers and complexity.
- Humanize your villains for readers with their motivations and intentions.
- Play with what villainy means within your story.
- Explore the difference between reparation and redemption, determining which (if either) serves your story and will be satisfying for readers.
Whether or not the villain of the story has a redemption arc, there is one core takeaway: a compelling villain isn’t evil for the sake of evil. They often believe they’re doing the right thing or their actions are justified. So make them believe their motivations completely, just as your protagonist believes their perspective is correct.
3. First Drafts Are Really, Really Hard
Looking at a first draft and comparing it to a published story is a quick way to despair. By the time a story gets published in its final form, many people have touched it: workshop participants, writing groups, agents, editors, even more editors, and more.
Panelists on the Spine-Tingling Suspense panel—June Hur, Jennifer Moffett, Goldy Modalvsky, and Katie Zhao—discussed their approaches to first drafts. The universal response: first drafts are really, really hard.
Every panelist spoke to the stress and difficulty of getting the first incarnation of a novel onto the page. One panelist even compared it to the unpleasant, uneasy urge to throw up.
But there is light at the end of the writing tunnel. Each panelist agreed that revision is where the fun begins. June Hur shared that revising is “…when I really catch the glimpses of magic and the reason why I’m even writing books at all. I love revision because that’s when all the foundation you laid out messily starts coming together, and the story you envisioned starts building, and the puzzle pieces start fitting together.”
So keep powering through that gloriously messy first draft. And then get ready for story magic.
4. Know As Much As You Need to Know—And No More
Writers often classify themselves as a “pantser” or a “plotter,” depending on their propensity to go with the flow or meticulously plan each element of their story.
In the YA suspense panel, authors discussed their approach. While Goldy Moldavsky puts together a general structure based on the norms and beats of a specific genre, she doesn’t have a full outline at any given time. She shared a famous E.L. Doctorow quote to explain this approach: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” As she writes, Goldy fills in the details and plot surprises.
Meanwhile, June Hur starts her murder mysteries with an idea of who the killer is, so that she can plant hints (and red herrings) accordingly. As she drafts and revises, new possible killers and plot twists reveal themselves. The broader plot and story emerges based on the clues and how the character discovers them.
Jennifer Moffett and Katie Zhao both “pantsed” the first drafts of their first novels to find the voice of their story and key characters. Afterwards, they refined and rewrote until they reached a final draft. However, Jennifer gave a nod to more plotting and outlining key beats for her second book.
Pantser, plotter, or somewhere in between, it was clear each writer found a balance between plotting and diving right into the feel of their story. They knew exactly as much as they needed to—and no more—to write and complete their story.
5. Understand What Serves Your Audience and Your Story
Love. Grief. War. YA novels often tackle serious subject matter, some of which can be very dark. While younger readers are capable of understanding many difficult elements of life and no one wants to talk down to their readers, there are differences between YA and adult fiction.
When writing about intense subject matter, authors balance their audience’s needs with portraying an authentic piece. But how do writers know how far is too far?
On the suspense panel, authors shared their thoughts on walking that line:
- Lean on your agent or editor for their opinion and judgement.
- Hope is powerful—add in optimism or social commentary to balance out dark themes or elements.
- Tone down the level of detail on intense or scary content.
- Consider whether you might actually repel readers with a level of content that is too intense, rather than engaging and carrying them along in the story.
- Understand why you’re writing this content and what purpose it serves the story and your readers.
Authors on the YA villains panel echoed this theme in a discussion of whether villains—and especially villain love interests—need to be redeemed in a story. Similarly, the panelists noted that it’s all about what works best for the overall story.
Compelling stories deal with real life issues, and life can be painful, messy, and difficult. When writing intense content or in darker genres—such as thrillers, suspense, murder mysteries, etc.—balance your audience’s needs with what serves the narrative and the story’s message.
Just Keep Writing
Tapping into the broader writing community can be difficult when readings, workshops, conferences, and other events have been put on pause. But virtual events like the Salem Lit Fest enable readers and writers worldwide to glean insights and the inspiration to keep going.
That was my biggest takeaway: the sense of community and purpose behind writing. Creating even the briefest short story, poem, or piece of flash fiction takes considerable time, energy, and effort. And yet, writers—including me—keep on writing despite the challenges and sheer amount of work it takes to do so. Why?
As Randi Pink said of writing YA fiction, her genre of choice: “It’s a longing that I cannot release.” And at the end of the day, with all the advice, tips, and tricks jotted down, it all comes down to that—the irrepressible desire to write stories.