Boston Teen Author Festival 2018 Recap, Part 1: Series Writing and Change in Fantasy
Updated: Sep 28, 2018
Saturday, September 22, 2018, I had the pleasure of attending the Boston Teen Author Festival (BTAF) at the Cambridge Public Library. At the festival, readers, authors, editors, and fans of all things young adult (YA) gathered for a series of panels discussing fun yet critical topics related to the genre. Although I’m a big fan of YA and a native New Englander, I didn’t learn about the festival until this past summer. As a BTAF newbie, I wasn’t sure what to expect, though my enthusiasm and anticipation for the event were high.
BTAF is known as “The Heart of YA in Boston,” and I’m happy to say that the event was not a disappointment: the panels were informative; the authors were funny and engaging; the swag bags were chock full of book-ish goodies; and the BTAF staff were kind and helpful hosts. Additionally, I was able to bond with fellow book nerds—including some familiar faces as well as new acquaintances—which is why it’s unsurprising that I had a blast!
Also, did I mention that this event is totally free? Yes, free. How awesome is that?! If you are a fellow New Englander or thinking about visiting the Boston area this time next year, I definitely encourage you to check out BTAF.
BTAF has a total of four 45-minute sessions with multiple panels being conducted at once (four authors per panel), and concludes with author book signings. Each of the panel members relayed valuable information from their perspectives. I am happy to share some of the key points that were insightful and beneficial to me.
Session 1: “To Be Continued”
On varying approaches to writing a series and the challenges that come with them.
Moderator: Patrice Caldwell
On structuring a series:
Sometimes authors have a duology or trilogy in mind but are not sure whether the publisher will green light the entire series. The publisher may choose to purchase the book as a standalone. As a result, when planning the story’s structure, authors should make the first book feel like a satisfying and complete story to readers.
Planting seeds known as “throwaway details”—details that hint at a future plot point—in the first book can be used to discreetly set up the possibility of exploring more of the story in subsequent books—should the author get a series deal.
In a series, it can be a challenge to weave the characters into certain situations or points in the plot. When a character no longer fits or serves a purpose, the author may consider killing it off.
On cliffhangers and keeping the momentum going:
In book one of a duology, the author asks a question. In book two, the author answers it.
Trilogies have parallels and progressions. In book one of a trilogy, the author establishes the characters and gives them what they want. In book two, the characters learn they don’t actually want whatever they’ve gained and face consequences. In book three, the characters finally discover what they want and go after it.
Readership drops with each book, so it’s important to make each one satisfying to readers.
On what’s rewarding and/or challenging about writing a series:
The author becomes invested in the characters; on the other hand, the author can become sick of the characters and be ready to move on to other stories by the end of the series.
During a YA series, the author brings the characters to the cusp of adulthood and by the end leaves them at the edge of adulthood.
Writing book two is a difficult experience for many authors. There is pressure to move the story forward while keeping the writing consistent. Although it’s good that an author’s writing style is evolving, it can be jarring how much it changes between books.
In book two, the author must also follow canon and facts that were established in book one. There are rules that can’t be easily broken or plot points overlooked.
With book three, the pressure is mostly to not “mess it up,” because it’s what readers will remember.
On character or plot backstory:
It’s hard to balance what should be added and what should be taken out.
The backstory should always move the plot forward. It shouldn’t just give information, it should add momentum. If it is not moving the story, then something is wrong.
On keeping track of series details:
Some authors create a series bible to keep track of details such as character names, city names, languages, etc.
The series bible can be handwritten or typed (using Word, Excel, etc.); it’s whatever works best for the author.
On the length of time needed to plot first drafts:
Kiersten White said her longest draft took one-and-a-half years to write; the shortest took six days to write. She calls writing a draft as fast as you can a “mad draft.” Quicker drafts usually result from months of plotting or prior failed attempts at writing a draft.
Julie C. Dao said the faster she writes a draft, the more fixing it usually needs later.
Session 2: “New Rules”
A discussion on power struggles between stasis and change in fantasy, and how fantasy can be a commentary on real life.
Moderator: Lyndsay Ely
On putting aside your own beliefs when writing:
An author must always know why the main character is doing something. The choices have to make sense on the page so the reader understands them.
How the reader interprets the choice depends on perception, life situations, and where s/he is coming from.
Sometimes people—and characters—don’t act the way they’re supposed to. According to Adrienne Young, “They do weird crap sometimes.”
There are times the writing doesn’t feel like it comes from the author. The author is not the character and must follow the story arc, because the character doesn’t have the author’s worldly knowledge yet.
A different fictional world has its own set of rules. The author must write from the character’s perspective and what s/he would do.
On peer conflict:
Peer conflict is often generated by assumptions about others.
Younger characters are being put into situations where they’re questioning their beliefs, where they come from, and whether they will change.
Conflict also originates from whether the character feels that other people in their life are being truthful.
On why the younger generation wants to shake things up vs. the older generation that believes in status quo:
Teenagers have to find their own identity and do it in their own right.
Young characters try to balance the scales and set things right.
The older generation may have fought back at one point but stopped being bold with age, or was punished and the passion was snuffed out by other forces. Younger characters haven’t faced those challenges yet.
On how to reference contemporary events in fantasy:
If the character sounds too much like the author, then the message is probably overdone. The author should explore the story with an open mind.
It’s helpful to deconstruct the idea in the story so characters and readers can form their thoughts on the matter. The purpose is to make both the characters and readers ask questions.
On how the authors’ world views have influenced their work:
Makila Lucier placed details related to her life in her book. The island in Isle of Blood and Stone is shaped like her original home and birthplace, Guam. Family members’ names are also used for characters and names of things.
Mary E. Pearson explores real-life issues that she finds upsetting.
Heidi Heilig puts her own real-life obsessions into her books.
Check out Part Two of this post, which features highlights from panels discussing the “unlikeability” of ambitious female characters and the foundation of creative world-building.