YALLFest Notes: Wrap-Up

This is my last of three posts reflecting on what I learned at YALLFest a few weeks ago. I’m sure I could go on for the foreseeable future, but I’m going to stop at three. I’m not focusing on one or two authors here, but overall takeaways from the weekend.

  1. YALLFest was a really radical place to be. I somehow managed to forget that last year, YALLFest proved to be a verbally acknowledged space for mourning and hope post-election. This year, every panel was on top of social issues, every author that spoke talked about changing the world through literature, and Libba Bray kicked off the end party by singing “Born this Way” with a rainbow flag cape. That pervasive sense of hope and, yes, activism and revolution through YA, was tangible and amazing. It made me think, yes, this is where I need to be, what I need to strive for.
  2.  Strong characters make strong stories, and weak characters break stories.
  3. From Soman Chainani: You have to be in love with your story. IN LOVE. That will hold it together when things get messy. Write with love and the honesty of your on experience of being.
  4. From Patrick Ness: Write the books you should have had. Write the books that you needed.
  5. From Cassandra Clare: extreme pain in a book can clear the way for great happiness.
  6. I can’t wait for YALLFest 2018.

⚔ Victories ⚔

I’m taking a brief break from my YALLFest reflections to report on two recent triumphs: finishing my NaNoWriMo novella and getting a piece published! (Also, apologies for the missed post last Saturday. Was traveling, eating, and binge-playing Pocket Camp.)

My goal for National Novel Writing Month was not, in fact, to write a novel, but a novella. 50,000 words just isn’t feasible with six classes and a thesis, but 500 words a day is. I overshot my goal by about 5,000 words but did manage to wrap the story up by November 30–huzzah! Its narrative quality is not overwhelming, but it’s something to work with.

Some surprises I encountered while writing:

  • I do not know my protag’s backstory past 4 years before the story happens…oops
  • I pulled a deus ex machina at the end by turning a character into an exiled demon prince (It’s not as middle-school-fantasy as it sounds though, because it’s a giant lizard)
  • My protag’s love interest is more bloodthirsty than anticipated
  • And the god is more bashful
  • Aforementioned god still, 20,000 words later, has no name (have been calling him ‘O’ in desperation)
  • It was heck of a lot of fun to write, and 500 words a day is so doable I’m going to keep doing it

Secondly, I’ve been published again!!! It’s my second piece to be published in my university’s literary magazine, a flash fiction piece like the first one. It’s called Descent, and details the strange descent of a submarine crew. I was honored to be asked to read it at the release party last night, and it was a blast, even though I messed up a couple of times.

All of these writing-related victories have left me despondent in the face of exam week, in which I must put aside major creative projects in favor of endless academic writing–which I still enjoy, but not when nine hundred essays are due in the same week.

submarine edit

Pictured above: either the crew of Descent navigating the deep sea or myself navigating through finals week. Both options equally perilous.


YALLFest Notes: Angie Thomas

This is the second installment in my reflections on YALLFest, this time feat. Angie Thomas, who I got to hear speak twice–once in a panel called “The Here and Now”, focused on bringing contemporary issues into ya fiction, and again in the closing keynote with Cassandra Clare. Angie Thomas is not just a hell of a writer, but brilliant and insightful. She said a lot about what writing can do that really resonated with me and made me consider why I write.

The Here and Now Panel consisted of Angie Thomas, Nic Stone, Patrick ness, Zac Brewer, and Kekla Magoon moderating, a frankly astounding array of people. That much awesomeness in one room is practically revolutionary.

“Through fiction we build empathy.” Thomas said this early on during the panel, and it turned into the theme for the hour. Reading a book makes alterity personal. It’s probably the closest you can come to actually living someone else’s life. You have no choice but to walk away from a book with some understanding of the perspective you were immersed in for the duration. This is something that I have long believed to be the prime directive of reading, and why diverse reading is so important, especially for young children.

Thomas also spoke about hope: how hope is not always found in happy endings. Hope can be found in the narrative itself, hope in the fact that change will happen because of this book, hope in someone seeing themselves where they didn’t before. Personally, unhappy endings make me feel like a pillbug caught in the sunlight. But I take her point.

Near the end of the panel, the question was posed: if writing is creating change, then are you [the authors] activists?” The answers that everyone gave were poignant and resonated with me, as this is exactly what I have been struggling with: bridging the gap between activist and author to author as activist.

The response of Nic Stone, author of Dear Martin, was incredible. Activism, she said, is about agitation: it has always been incendiary. Her writing is deliberately inflammatory–she wants people to be uncomfortable reading it. That’s activism: change through uncomfortable confrontation with reality. The discomfort is necessary. Had it been appropriate, I would have been applauding in the theater.

As I was trying to focus and scribble down as many notes as possible, I was also critically examining my own writing. ] What is its purpose? If someone asked me if I was an activist, I would say “I’m trying to be.” If someone asked whether my writing was activism, I honestly don’t know what I’d say. I would want nothing more than to say “yes: I wrote this book to provoke change in the minds of those who read it”. But I don’t know if I’ve earned that through my narrative. And I want to earn it.

*This is the second post in a series reflecting on what I learned at YALLFest, author by author. Stay tuned for next week.*

YALLFest Notes: Patrick Ness

Whooboy. Seven hour drive down on Friday, 8 am to 8 pm on the ground on Saturday, and a seven hour drive back today. Am I exhausted? Yes. Subhuman? Also yes. Was it worth it? YES.

YALLFest was perhaps more incredible this year than last year, which is hard to believe! I saw so many author panels, took so many notes, and managed to have composed conversations with two separate authors, which is frankly a miracle. Perhaps one of the best moments of the day was when my friends and I, who had been standing in line for an hour and a half to have donuts with some authors, found out that we had actually been standing in line for that as well as THREE FREE BOOKS and a tote bag. That was when the adrenaline hit, and it never really wore off throughout the day.

I think the person who impacted me the most was Patrick Ness, which is surprising. I went in as a casual fan of his books, and left with the profundity of his wisdom echoing around my body. I didn’t expect to be so impacted by what he had to say, but every other sentence out of his mouth was a pearl. One of the things he stressed was how he doesn’t see a real divide between “fantasy” and “realistic fiction”. Every story is fantastical, with its contrivances, coincidences, and destiny that work to make the story happen. And truth occurs in every story, regardless of genre. “Truth anywhere.”

During the opening keynote Ness said “if you don’t see yourself in a book, you are implicitly harmed”, because the intrinsic message is one of exclusion. He spoke at length about his newest book, Release, and his words really hit home, especially when he spoke about hoping that the book would undo shame in the people who read it, shame that is generated through each instance of exclusion, literary and societal.

Listening to what he had to say really shone a light on what I need to work on in my own practice, and that is honesty. Honesty with my narrative and with myself. I think I have attempted to sanitize my writing too much and distance it from raw, emotional, human experience, and I need to bring that back. I know I had it before–I tend to edit it out a bit more with each draft. I need to focus on being honest with myself about who I am, and honest with my writing about what it is and what I want it to do.

*This is the first post in a series reflecting on what I learned at YALLFest, author by author. Stay tuned for next week.*




NaNoWriMo Progress

Four days into my truncated version of NaNoWriMo (500 words a day) and I’m feeling the urge to say to hell with that and go for the full 1,667/day. I have to talk myself down by smacking myself with the absurd stack of books waiting to be read for my thesis.

That said, this novella is practically writing itself. Maybe because it’s been marinating in my head for a good year or so, maybe because I actually managed a full outline before starting, or maybe the writing gods are just smiling on me (looking at you, Seshat, Nabu, Itzamna). I am getting a crash course in Japanese language structure, which is much more complicated than I had initially thought. Luckily I have a friend studying Japanese who can walk me through the basics or I’d be struggling.

For some reason, however, I’ve slipped into a mode of narration that feels very distant from my main character. I’m trying to bring it in closer, but we’ll see what happens. Maybe it’s because I accidentally didn’t have any dialogue for the first thousand words? (oops.)

In other news, YALLFest is next week! I’m driving down to Charleston Friday morning with two friends. We’re staying in two different hostels over the weekend, which is bound to be an adventure. Who am I most looking forward to seeing, you ask? Well, everyone, but especially Alex London, Maggie Steifvater, Angie Thomas, and Patrick Ness. Stay tuned for next week’s report on all the sweet writing knowledge I’ll be accumulating.

Report from a Literature Symposium

What a day! I spent 9 am to 3 pm at a Children’s Literature Symposium held at my university! In attendance were Heather Bouwman, stupendous author of A Crack in the Sea, Allan Wolf, poet extraordinaire, Alan Gratz, author of The League of Seven, and Donna Washington, world-travelling storyteller. I spent the day absorbing some sweet, sweet knowledge from some amazing teachers. Here are some take-aways from each person:

Heather Bouwman: the heart of a novel is in the story, not the plot. The story is character growth, emotion, and connection to the reader. When you draft, draft the story, not the plot. The way we teach fantasy is not the way we read it–so draft with the reading experience in mind, not analysis and themes. Fantasy allows a temporary escape from which we return stronger and smarter.

Allan Wolf: the importance of interaction with a story, as regards to education (the conference was geared towards educators), and thinking about hard questions through fiction. There are so many ways to engage with fiction.

Alan Gratz: poetry isn’t about reading or writing poetry but rather about seeing the world through a poet’s eyes. See the world as if seeing it for the first time. Once you realize the ordinary is extraordinary, the whole world cracks open for you. Don’t let someone else write your story. And you have to boil a lot of sap to get a little maple syrup.

Donna Washington: story-telling is visual. It is about emotion, expression, voices, and audience participation. To be honest I’m having a hard time putting what I learned from her in words, because I haven’t processed it all yet–it was such a spectacular experience to hear her tell stories.

All in all, it was an amazing day. I have never experienced a story told as amazingly as Donna Washinton told them (she told us three), nor poems recited so enthusiastically as Allan Wolf. It was a privilege to meet H. M. Bouwman, whose book is indescribably beautiful, and I discovered I really need to read Alan Gratz’s books…

The whole day made me more and more excited for the rapidly-approaching Yallfest!


I’m plotting up a novella for November and remembering how to actually construct a story. One of these days I’ll figure out how to use those story arc diagrams during the process, but I’m secretly afraid of them. So far I’ve had to resist throwing in a random princess which, for some reason, and along the way I’ve actually come to know my protagonist better. She’s pessimistic, missing an eye, and handy with a spear.

I’m using my free NaNoWriMo trial of Scrivener, which I have pretended not to need for years. I have won NaNo several times and felt no need to actually use the 50% off discount I get for the program, and now that I am in the throes of editing The Book of The Dead (my current novel WIP), I have been wishing desperately for it.

My plotting involves writing out plot points in a notebook, doodling characters, becoming frustrated with my own inaccurate portrayals of those characters, and then drafting an outline in a document. Somehow I now have a complete outline that I think will take me to a 15,000 word novella, but we’ll see come November.

Pictured Below: my characters and I agreeing to collaborate for the next month