"The teen voice is not stupidity," YA author Robin Wasserman said to a crowd of aspiring writers and voracious readers at Brooklyn's Powerhouse Arena bookstore earlier this week.
"The teen voice is youth, and immediacy. It's not dumbing things down; it's remembering."
Robin was one of five YA authors in attendance at this special reading/conversation panel, bringing some humor and optimism to a drizzly November night under the Manhattan bridge. During a post-reading Q&A, the award-winning cadre of wordsmiths touched on everything from the importance of writing from outlines (or not), finding and killing your nasty writing habits, and why it's hard to write a YA novel about a monkey species that has freaky chimp sex, like, all the time.
Intrigued? Here's the SparkNotes rundown of the most interesting things we saw and heard from these professional pen-wielding panelists...
- David Levithan is the author of Boy Meets Boy, and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, among others. He's worked in publishing since he was 19, when he helped work on the Baby Sitter's Club series at Scholastic, and is the founding editor of the Scholastic young-adult imprint, PUSH. He read a bittersweet passage from his new novel, Every Day, told from the perspective of boy named A, who wakes up in a different body every day (and eventually falls in love with a girl who doesn't).
- Adele Griffin has written hella books, including Sons of Liberty and Where I Want to Be, which were National Book Award finalists in 1997 and 2005, respectively. She read this passage from her new sibling jealousy dramedy, All You Never Wanted, and recited the best one-liner of the night's reading portion: "This year for English I had Dr. Dandridge, who fetished the letter C worse than Cookie Monster."
- Eliot Schrefer is a Harvard alum and contributor to USAToday and The Huffington Post, where he sometimes masquerades as a teenage sociopath and re-takes the SAT. He read an early passage from his new research-saturated novel, Endangered, which details a half-Congolese girl's journey to save a group of endangered Bonobos from violent revolution. David is Eliot's editor, which made for some hilarious tension on the panel (more on that below).
- Robin Wasserman, like Eliot, is a Harvard alum and research junkie. She has written several YA series including Seven Deadly Sins and Chasing Yesterday, and has worked as an editor in children's publishing. Robin read a spooky passage about Prague from her newest mystery, The Book of Blood and Shadow, about a teen girl who uncovers a centuries-old, continent-hopping conspiracy. Blood, shadows ensue.
- Alyssa Sheinmel is a self-proclaimed California Girl who hopped the great plains to work in New York City publishing. She read a visceral passage from her third novel, The Stone Girl, about a teen's self-destructive struggle through love and eating disorders.
The authors, by the numbers:
Average age of authors: 37.5
Authors who live in New York City: 5
Authors in spectacles: 1 (Eliot)
Authors in rubber rain boots: 2 (Alyssa and Robin)
Authors with text on their shirts: 2 (Eliot's shirt read "98.7% Bonobo," referencing the genetic similarity between humans and bonobos explored in his book. Robin's shirt read, in white font on a black background, "Also I can kill you with my brain.")
Authors who read from works with female protagonists: 4.5 (David's protagonist, A, is a male spirit who sometimes inhabits female bodies)
Authors who used silly voices when they read: 1 (Adele, invoking English teacher cliche, Ms. Grange)
Number of teens in attendance at the reading: 0 (hey, it was a rainy school night)
After each author read an excerpt of their new novels, they took turns answering questions from the audience and a Powerhouse moderator. Here's some of the most interesting things they said…
"I used to think writing without an outline was like jumping off a cliff and building a parachute on the way down."
"I never use outlines…I write the story to find out what the story is about."
"The best endings come from books that have a plan."
"This is Eliot's way of saying he hates my books."
On self-conscious writing:
"I go through the self-loathing in the revision."
"Really? I go through the self-loathing on the first draft! This is the worst crap I've ever written!"
On "killing your darlings" (cutting chapters, characters, words you love):
"The words 'just' and 'really' are the darlings who must always be killed in every first draft I write. Just know for every one that gets through, there's seven more I had to cut. I really just don't see them!"
"That's actually weird, because the words I always have to cut are 'actually' and 'weird.'"
On research inspiring fiction:
"Instinct pulls you in certain directions, and you'll find you like to write the same kinds of stories over and over. Research drops in these inorganic moments that you have to steer around, and things will happen that an author wouldn't normally put you through. It's almost more open that way, constricted by actual events."
"I don't want your story to get in the way of my story."
-David (can you tell he doesn't research much?)
On teen versus adult thinking:
"As you get older you realize some loops of thought are not profitable, so you stop thinking them."
"A lot of adults have lost the emotional connection to their teen self…that sense that every moment would last forever. The teen voice is not stupidity—it's youth and immediacy. It's not dumbing things down; it's remembering."
Have you read any of these authors? Do you want to?
Do you think YA is a female-dominated readership?
Do you think outlining is important in writing?
How would you describe the teen voice?
Does the phrase "chimp sex" bother you?