How brilliant it was to have a whole day of the MWF dedicated to YA. The two events I went to were held in the Isabella Fraser Room at the State Library Victoria on September 1st. Not only was it a spectacular venue, but it also had the added bonus of a Readings bookshop on site… where I may or may not have added to my already bursting TBR pile.
The first talk I attended was called ‘Why YA?’ and featured authors Randa Abdel-Fattah (When Michael Met Mina, Does My Head Look Big in This?) and Melina Marchetta (The Place On Dalhousie, Looking For Alibrandi), moderated by Melissa Keil (Life in Outer Space, The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl).
The second talk I went to was ‘It’s Complicated’, featuring authors Nina Kenwood (It Sounded Better in My Head) and Jodi McAlister (Valentine, Ironheart), moderated by Michelle Smith. This panel was about romance, relationships and friendships in YA.
Everyone was wonderful to listen to and had so many gems of wisdom and advice. Here are dot points from each author on topics ranging from the publishing industry, POV, the importance of strong friendships in novels and even how romance is portrayed in The Bachelor!
- Randa received rejection letters from publishers in the beginning that “were lovely!” and even kept some of them. She didn’t want to let the opportunity to get published pass her by, so she had a manuscript assessment done and rewrote the POV.
- There was an audience question on writing 3rd versus 1st person POV & Randa said that 1st person has a greater immediacy and is more intimate. It draws you in and she likes the rawness of it, but it’s always important to experiment with voice.
- Randa thinks about universal emotions when she’s writing. There is an intensity and vulnerability in that for teens and the experiences they go through. She also runs lines of dialogue by her 13-year-old who soon tells her if they’re “lame” or not!
- Randa is currently turning her novel, Does My Head Look Big in This? (published 2005) into a script. This is the book synopsis from Randa’s website:
“I’m Amal Abdel-Hakim, a seventeen year-old Australian-Palestinian-Muslim still trying to come to grips with my various identity hyphens. It’s hard enough being cool as a teenager when being one issue behind the latest Cosmo is enough to disqualify you from the in-group. Try wearing a veil on your head and practising the bum’s up position at lunchtime and you know you’re in for a tough time at school.”
- The process of writing gives Randa a lot of joy and she’s trying to work out what book she wants to write next as well as continuing to work in academia.
- Melina said she wrote Looking For Alibrandi because she wanted to know she existed in the world beyond her own family and school. When she first sent the manuscript out to publishers it was double the size and in both 1st and 3rd POV.
- Melina agreed with Randa that there are universal themes in life that everyone shares, age doesn’t have to define an experience. But she’s found through her years of teaching that teenagers have a particular rhythm in how they speak and she tries to capture that in her work.
- Editing is something that Melina looks forward to because she knows the best is yet to come. The excitement never goes away! Over time, Melina has also become more aware of the dialogue in her novels and feels that less is more for her now.
- She said she still gets shocked when teenagers come up to her and say how much they love Alibrandi, considering it was published in the 90s and doesn’t have things like social media in it.
- On the topic of 3rd versus 1st person POV, Melina enjoys the dynamic, raw voice of 1st (which is what she changed Alibrandi to). She mentioned when she was writing her YA novel Saving Francesca, she was three chapters in when she realised it didn’t feel right. Melina ended up changing the tense (and the main character’s name) as she wanted the reader to feel like they were there with the character.
- Melina likes that Looking For Alibrandi inspires people to tell their own stories and wants to see more opportunities in the arts for people’s work to be nurtured.
- When Nina was writing It Sounded Better in My Head, she thought about how to keep the plot interesting without making anyone the villain. She also explored the way internal fears, like vulnerability and emotions, can work as plot obstacles.
- A question was asked about what anxieties there are about dating in the modern world. Nina pointed out that at least teenagers don’t have to call landlines anymore and speak with the parents first! There are so many avenues of communication these days and it’s interesting that couples may portray themselves differently online as opposed to real life.
- Friendships between characters are just as important as the romance. In Nina’s novel there’s a cute romantic plot between the protagonist, Natalie, and a boy called Alex. But Nina said the most important person in Natalie’s life is her best friend Lucy. They’re solid all throughout because Nina wanted a calm, supportive presence in Natalie’s life in amongst the drama.
- The hate-to-love/bad boy tropes were brought up by an audience member (who wanted to know if they should be considered toxic or not). Nina said that when writing characters like the ‘bad boy’, it’s important that they’re authentic and well-rounded not just a stereotype. She also said if the character does something problematic then it’s important to call them out on it in the story.
- In terms of ‘complicated’ relationship portrayals in other mediums that may influence their writing/way of thinking, Nina loves watching teen dramas like The 100 and Veronica Mars. She also watched Dawson’s Creek growing up and was definitely #TeamPacey! (me too!).
- When it comes to writing romance, Jodi said it has to be sincere. She spoke about the external and internal obstacles too, mentioning that in her novel Valentine, a huge external obstacle her main character has to face is her destiny. Having said that, though, Jodi isn’t always a fan of the destiny route as it can remove the character’s agency.
- In terms of relationships and sex in YA books, Jodi said that people can be flooded with information/choice now (Forever… by Judy Blume was one of the few choices in play when she was younger!). It’s important to show the decision-making process when characters want to have sex, especially if it’s for the first time. Communication, consent and romance are all important elements too, as well as showing that desire can be something incredibly positive.
- Jodi writes friendships in a similar plot structure to her romances (with the obstacles as well). The most emotionally intense relationships she had as a teenager were with her friends. She noted that it’s interesting we don’t have a word for when we break up with a friend.
- With the ‘bad boy’ trope Jodi said it’s fun to subvert it and have them learn from the consequences of their actions. In Valentine, the main character Pearl has a hate/love relationship with bad boy Finn, but Jodi wanted to undercut the trope by having Finn be the more sensitive one.
- Jodi brought up The Bachelor as another medium of the romance genre and said it was interesting how love stories are shown in different cultures. For example, she noted that the Aussie version is more about communication and emotional intensity. Whereas the US Bachelor is more intensely passionate. (Jodi also writes Bachelor recaps that have such an interesting, and fun, academic deep dive into all things love and romance if you want to check them out!)
Thanks so much to Randa, Melina, Nina and Jodi for their time – and to Melissa and Michelle for being superstar moderators! I’m hoping the Melbourne Writers Festival has another YA day (or even a whole weekend!) in their schedule next year too.