Thursday, August 25, 2016

Bugs, The Beatles and staying relevant


 
When my daughter was about three we took her to see her first “rock” concert – a local singer/songwriter who writes and performs music for kids. He’s kind of a big deal in central Jersey, performing in schools, at libraries, town festivals etc. On the drive home, we asked her what she thought of the show.

     “He sings very good songs,” she said. “Especially that one about the sun.”

     He does write and sing very good songs – clever songs, about a boy named Roy G. Biv and the rainbow, a Zebra named Zibby, and Ellie the elephant who gets bullied. His songs are a few cuts above the usual fare that gets categorized as kids’ music. But that day, he happened to include a cover of “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles in his set and that’s the song that stood out to my child.  

     I’ll leave that observation right there for the moment.

     When we first decided to blog about staying relevant, I began wondering what exactly that means to a YA author. Is “relevant” code for “young” or “youthful”? Do authors of adult fiction or picture book writers worry about their age and whether or not they have enough knowledge and insight about the cultural touchstones of their audiences?

     There are quite a few rules surrounding YA fiction, especially contemporary YA romance, which is what I write. For instance, the love triangle is a big “no,no”. Wish I had gotten that memo. Was being relevant one more thing I needed to be mindful of during the conception phase of a project?

     Then I started thinking about music. In my mind, I’m always drawing parallels between music and writing. Classical musicians, opera singers, and to some extent country artists probably aren’t all that worried about staying relevant. This is just a guess on my part; I have no hard evidence to back it up. But it’s quite possible that rock, pop, and rap stars do worry about whether their music will literally strike a chord with young people. They’re writing and performing the music of now and with each year that passes by, while it might be possible to keep their old fans, it probably becomes increasing difficult to reach the next generation of teens. I once read an interview with Bono in which he said he’d stop making music when he thought he was no longer relevant. To that I would say, relevant to whom? To me? A lifelong fan who grew up with U2? Their music will always be relevant to me but mention the band to my daughter and she’s like “U Who?”

     So then I started thinking that maybe relevance is relative and I still had not idea what to blog about.

     But then this morning I turned on the news and saw there’s going to be a new animated series on Netflix based on the music of the Beatles. It’s called Beat Bugs and despite not being part of its intended audience, I’ll be tuning in. Did I mention James Corden, Pink, and Eddie Vedder will all be voicing characters?

     That brings me back once again to Paul, John, Ringo and George and the day my toddler decided that the Fab Four trumped Zibby the zebra. She loved “Here Comes the Sun” and not because it was being sung by a cartoon grasshopper. So what is it about the Beatles’ music that makes it relevant to a three year old?

     It’s everything my fellow authors here on YAOTL lines have been saying all month.

     It’s about creating characters that embody “the truth of the life experiences and values real people have,” like Bill said.

     It’s about remembering who we once were, like Holly said.

     It’s about authenticity and digging deeper, like Joy said.

     It’s about telling universal stories, like Jody said.

     It’s about transcending a time and place, like Alissa said.

     It's about being original and staying open, like Kim and Patty said.

     It's about connecting with your audience, like Cat said.

     It's about elevating universal themes, like Tracy said.

     It's about knowing all this and at the same time not letting it get in the way when it's time to sit down and write.

 

Monday, August 22, 2016

I'm so relevant, it hurts (by Patty Blount)

All this month, we're blogging about staying relevant.

I laughed out loud over this topic. Why? I'm so glad you asked.

Because I feel like I'm about 95 years old. I just returned home from buying orthotics, people! Yes, I spent over $200 on a pair of ugly-as-dirt shoes with enough arch support to hold up a small building inside them.

But that's not why I laughed. You see, the first thing I did before writing this post was a Google search and found an article on the Huffington Post. One of the first things this article suggests is never talk about your aches and pains.

*coughs*

Okay, so staying relevant... Here it is. Are you ready? It's super-simple. Don't close your mind. That's it. That's all the Patty Pearls of Wisdom I got for you.

Stay open.  I began writing seriously when my sons were still in elementary school. In a very real sense, my author career has grown up along side them. I paid attention when their friends visited or when I was ferrying them all over Long Island. I heard the topics they discussed, the things that worried them.

The things that mattered to them.

My oldest son asked me to buy him a CD of some metal band I'd never heard of. There was a warning label on the back that made my hair curl. So I listened to the CD first.

Every song.

I'm now a pretty big hard rock fan myself and my sons think that's pretty damn cool.

Learn new stuff.

My day job is corporate training, so I love learning. I just taught myself how to code in Swift, Apple's coding language. Before that, I learned how to use a tool called Adobe InDesign. Am I ready to hang out a shingle? No. But I achieved my goals for both.

And maybe that's the rub.... you achieve one goal. You set a new one that's maybe a bit higher. And along the way, you figure out that staying relevant is just another way of saying you're still willing to try.





Thursday, August 18, 2016

Out of Touch (Alissa Grosso)

A few weeks ago my sister and her kids came for a visit. They live in Maine, where life moves at a slower pace and things are always just a bit behind the times. One of our excursions was to a local park with a boulder field and as we were traversing the boulders her kids said that it would be great for parkour. My sister said she had no idea what they were talking about. For about five seconds or so I felt amazingly up on things because I actually knew what parkour was. Then I remembered that the whole parkour thing probably hit its popularity peak ten or so years ago and that I was as always someone who is slightly out of touch with things.

My sister and her kids in the boulder field where for five seconds I felt like I was cool.


I haven't watched over the air television in years. I don't think I can tell the difference between any of the Kardashians and I'm not entirely sure who they are. It was only in the past year that I learned that Taylor Swift is not a country music singer. She started out as one, right? (Side note: I don't know a thing about country music, but that's because I'm from New Jersey, where it doesn't exist. By the way, proof that my sister has lived in Maine for entirely too long she has now started listening to country music and tried to convince me that some country singer/band/whatever was actually good. It wasn't.) My mom had a Facebook account before I did, and I only signed up for one because it was supposedly a good way to promote my books. I'm still trying to figure out how it works.

When I found out that this month's topic was on staying relevant, a shiver of fear ran through me. What on earth do I know about being relevant? Have I ever been relevant?

I know YA authors who subscribe to and read teen magazines to stay up on things. I know others who live with actual, live teenagers whose brain's they can pick. Me, I'm relying on the fact that I once was a teenager (albeit an especially uncool and out of touch with reality one) and have read a few books with teenage protagonists. Most of the time I feel like the out of touch Hillary Clinton character that Jenna Marbles played to perfection in her "Hello Young People" YouTube video. (Side note: I feel like I should get some bonus points on the relevancy meter for subscribing to and watching Jenna's channel.) The truth is that I completed a first draft of my first novel (Popular) before realizing that what I had written was technically a YA novel. Think about that for a second, I wrote a whole YA book without even knowing I was writing a YA book. I am literally, the last person to know anything.

My most relevant book? It's gone on to have 3 foreign editions, which is pretty cool, since I didn't even know that I was writing a YA book.


The thing is being relevant doesn't necessarily mean being up on things, because we are now in a Snapchat world (know vaguely what it is, don't have an account) where trends move so quickly that it's next to impossibly for anyone to keep up with all of them, and if you are in the business of writing books for a living, forget about it. The whole book publishing process moves way too slowly to keep up with things. Relevant can also mean timelessness.

There are reasons that we continue to read certain books and watch certain movies decades after their initial popularity. It's because the stories and characters transcend time and are still relevant to those of us living in radically different times. Some of those works even focus on the particular time period in which they were written, make it a vital part of that story and yet still manage to be relevant to today's readers. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few are writers who perfectly capture a particular time in history while still somehow managing to be relevant to today's readers.

So, there's hope for me, yet. Maybe it doesn't matter that I've never seen a single episode of The Bachelor, I can still write a book set in the twenty-teens that will be relevant to today's (and with any luck) future generations of readers as well.




Alissa Grosso is a the author of the YA books Shallow Pond, Ferocity Summer and Popular even though she has been out of touch with teens at least since her own teens, if not before that. You can find out more about her and her books at alissagrosso.com.


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Power in Telling Your Story by Jody Casella


A few years ago my husband and I were visiting his parents and I picked up a glossy book off their coffee table.

The book was a compilation of stories and photographs of my father-in-law's family. A genealogist relative had interviewed several elderly family members and this book was the result. A transcript of childhood memories, bits of family and geographical history, funny and heart-breaking anecdotes.

And one jaw dropping confession.

The basic family story was this:

Around the turn of the last century an enterprising young man from Denmark sailed over to America, settled in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, married and had fifteen kids.



Then his wife died, and he went back to Denmark, married his wife's sister, brought her back to Michigan, and they had seven more kids.

The sprawling family lived on a farm in the near-arctic boonies, with the many kids hunting and fishing, tromping off to school and overseeing the younger kids, and life was difficult, but decent-ish until tragedy struck--

The barn burned down.

No one ever knew how the fire started, but the family fortunes, such as they were, took a turn for the worse. The second mother's health failed. A few of the boys ran away from home. Some of the girls had to drop out of school.

These story-tellers were in their eighties when they were interviewed, and they seemed eager to share their stories of their father's crossing over from the Old Country. The hard, but fun times on the farm with their siblings. The barn burning. The aftermath-- when things fell apart.

But life went on, and each person told their personal slice of it. Growing up. Moving into an apartment in town. Joining the army. Getting married. Fighting in a war. Having children of their own.

And growing old and looking back.

Oh, one more thing, said the final man interviewed in the book. Something I've never told anyone...

When I was three years old, I was playing in the barn, and I started a fire. 

It was me. I was the one who burned down the barn. 

When I read this page, I gasped out loud.

I wanted to reach through the pages and hug the man, this clearly lovely person who'd led a long eventful life. A soldier. A husband. A father. A grandfather. But all this time holding onto a secret, until now, finally, finally, he was able to tell someone.



I have no idea how to stay relevant as a writer.

I have no idea what stories are relevant or not relevant.

All I know is that each one of us has a story that is burning inside us, a truth we yearn to tell, and what we wish for is someone to hear it, to hear us. 

to say, I understand.

to say, Thank you for sharing your story.
















Friday, August 12, 2016

Finding ways to reconnect with readers through mentorship - Cat Scully

One of the ways I've stayed relevant in my fiction for teens and pre-teens was by being so much older than my two younger siblings. When I was in college and just getting the first inkling of an idea that I wanted to write novels, my younger brother and sister were in middle school. When I was out of college, they were in high school. Now, they are both in college and I listen to their problems when I see them, which is frequent, and remember all too well what I felt at that age. But now that they are a bit older, I needed to find new ways to connect with teens.

I love to give back. I try to help other writers out whenever I can and it's part of why I do Pitch Wars every year. In recent years, I've started to find opportunities to mentor a high school student writer or artist that wants to get into writing books or illustration. Some of these opportunities found me and other I applied to be a part of. I once had a high school student work with me on how to write a full novel and I found out about the opportunity through a local association emailer for writers in my state. They usually include job and non-profit opportunities for writers locally.

One way to stay relevant is absolutely by finding ways to volunteer locally. Get involved with teens through your local arts center, library, or just plain contact the high school and ask for opportunities to volunteer. Another method is doing what my screenwriting professor in college advised - eavesdrop and jot down conversations. Still, I think the best way to stay relevant to your readers is to actively engage with your age group you're writing towards whenever you can. The time I spent as a bookseller for teens and kids was invaluable because I actively got to ask what they were looking for and see what their parents wanted as well.

Either way, put yourself out there! You'll never know what sort of unexpected story might come from it.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Staying Relevant . . . to Bronze-Age Teens?


by Tracy Barrett

You might think that writers of historical fiction don’t have to worry about relevance. Not so! We do, however, have a different set of problems in this area than do authors of contemporary fiction.

Unlike writers of contemporary fiction, we have the luxury of not worrying about whether our use of slang will be dated by the time the book is out. But we still have to be concerned that perfectly normal (for its day) slang used by our characters will sound weird to our readers, removing them from the world we’ve so carefully constructed.

Bronze Age
Iron Age
If details about daily life in our chosen period are little known (Bronze-Age Crete, anyone?), we can make things up, but then we risk having someone catch us in a factual error.

Medieval
On the other hand, when we’re writing about an era where a lot is known, there’s always the chance that our readers (or editors, sometimes!) will believe something about the past that just isn
t true.* This will make them think we’ve made a mistake when actually we havent.

Actually, by removing the reader from the world she’s familiar with (removal to a different era, a different place, a fantasy world, a science-fiction setting), the relevance of the story to the reader’s life can actually be enhanced. Since the trappings of daily life in our created world are different from what the reader knows, they become less relevant, and the universals stand out.

It’s a cliché that people are the same everywhere. That might be true (some clichés are, after all!), but all societies aren’t all the same. Expectations, customs, habits, beliefs—humans have come up with endless varieties.

Sometimes using the differences between us and them as backdrop to our story is the best way to make the parts of human life that are universal stand out in relief. When that works, then historical fiction (fantasy, SF, etc.), while seemingly the least relevant genres, can in fact be the most relevant.


*For example, if you say that in 1492, people had known for 2,000 years that the world was round, and that they even had a very good idea of its size, some readers will dredge up elementary-school memories of Christopher Columbus and think you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Originals--Kimberly Sabatini

I think there are a million and one things you can, and probably need to do, to be relevant in the young adult writing space. I'm already seeing some fabulous posts on the topic by my compadres here at YAOTL. But what I love the most about this blog is how we all arrive at our blog posts in original ways. Currently, I'm reading a very interesting book called, ORIGINALS by Adam Grant, that made me think about how being relevant in the YA space requires us to also be original. I'm not done with ORIGINALS yet, but I already want to share it with you. If you're a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, you will probably find this one an interesting read. 




With Give and Take, Adam Grant not only introduced a landmark new paradigm for success but also established himself as one of his generation’s most compelling and provocative thought leaders. In Originals he again addresses the challenge of improving the world, but now from the perspective of becoming original: choosing to champion novel ideas and values that go against the grain, battle conformity, and buck outdated traditions. How can we originate new ideas, policies, and practices without risking it all?

Using surprising studies and stories spanning business, politics, sports, and entertainment, Grant explores how to recognize a good idea, speak up without getting silenced, build a coalition of allies, choose the right time to act, and manage fear and doubt; how parents and teachers can nurture originality in children; and how leaders can build cultures that welcome dissent. Learn from an entrepreneur who pitches his start-ups by highlighting the reasons not to invest, a woman at Apple who challenged Steve Jobs from three levels below, an analyst who overturned the rule of secrecy at the CIA, a billionaire financial wizard who fires employees for failing to criticize him, and a TV executive who didn’t even work in comedy but saved Seinfeld from the cutting-room floor. The payoff is a set of groundbreaking insights about rejecting conformity and improving the status quo.
 


The reason ORIGINALS has connected with me so far, is the way it debunks some of the myths of originality. We always think being first and the most unique is the only way to be original and successful. 

Not necessarily true. 

There is also a section that references the making of the Lion King and it talks about how some of the most successful projects start with an original idea, but that idea may be too "out there" for the mainstream. Once you have a unique concept, it's helpful to then see if you can get it to fit into a construct that is familiar and relatable. With the Lion King, early drafts weren't going well. But when the writers realized the story could be Hamlet, the whole thing came together. 

This revelation on how to manage your originality has been super helpful for me in my writing. 

It's clear that being relevant in the YA world requires us to be originals. All the stories have been done before. Success comes to the person who can write one of those stories in a unique and relevant way.  Originals is a great book to read if you want to explore this area.

Hope you enjoy this one. I'd love to hear what you think about Originals and I'm also always collecting new reads to fuel my brain and my creativity. Let me know what you've got!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Relevance Equals Authenticity by Joy Preble


When I teach writing to adults, I frequently hear a version of this question: “How do I know if a teen character would use this word?”

My answer is always the same. You’re not asking the right question. The real question is: “Would my character in this book use this word?” Because that’s the key. Creating someone you know inside and out. And yes, you have to tap into your inner teen. And yes, you need to observe the world around you. And yes, if you have no sense of what you were like at fifteen or sixteen then maybe you need to rethink who and what you want to write. But after that, you need simply to stay authentic to the truth of the character on the page. If you can do that, then your writing will be relevant because it will be an honest insight into what it’s like to be human on this planet. And all the pop culture references in the world won’t achieve that for you unless you know that person whose story you are telling.

Plus, pop culture and slang go stale fast. The less the better unless you feel a true need. The very talented Becky Albertalli talks about this oh so thoughtfully HERE in a post about her 2015 debut novel. And of course my guru of how to tell a story, Joss Whedon, solved the problem by creating his own slang and language rhythms for his characters in the now iconic Buffy the Vampire Slayer series. Which, btw, is a grand thing to do and is why we all can recognize Olivia Pope-speak on Shonda Rhimes's Scandal.

All that said, if you haven’t walked in a school in twenty years, I would say that maybe you should. As someone who still subs frequently in public high schools and does a fair amount of school visits, I can definitely say that while the basic emotions of being a human teen have not changed, the particulars of school—the lockers and schedules and policies-- have. So if you’ve got a very school-centric story and you haven’t been inside a school lately, then it’s like anything else. You better research and get it right. Interestingly, Hollywood loves to stick to ancient, outdated school tropes, which often drives me crazy. For what it’s worth, in my entire teaching experience, I’ve never—and I mean NEVER—seen any student fight tooth and nail for things like student council president elections or Homecoming Dance themes. And cliques aren’t like all those John Hughes movies. Seriously. Nope. It’s never that simple in real life. So if that’s your only frame of reference, likely you are getting it wrong.


So dig deep, my little writers. And the dig a bit deeper.
And then just for grins, pick up my SWEET DEAD LIFE series and see how main character Jenna talks. Then re-read this post. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

YOU MAY ALREADY ACTUALLY BE RELEVANT (HOLLY SCHINDLER)



I took the headfirst plunge into full-time writing straight out of grad school. In order to pay the few bills I had (I’d never taken out a student loan, so I had no school debt), I decided to teach music lessons out of the house. It was the perfect setup: I’d write in the morning and early afternoon, then when the kids got out of school, I’d start teaching. 

I was still pretty young when I started teaching (about 25), so it wasn’t like there was a ton of age difference between me and my students. BUT: we’d had a technological revolution. When I started high school, we didn’t have an answering machine in the house. I typed my earliest college papers on a Smith Corona. Computers were for university computer labs. They certainly weren’t something you were glued to, toted everywhere…

I was sure the kids who showed up would be savvier. More worldly, somehow. They’d be different than the kids I went to school with. I was sure that, even at 25, they’d see me as kind of an old-timer.
And then…they showed up. And after a while, once they got to know me, they just started talking. They’d tell me about teachers. Or friends. And the crazy thing was, they were still going through the same things my friends and I went through when we were ten, or twelve, or fifteen. The fashion had changed. They listened to digital music instead of CDs. They carried phones instead of fighting over the family landline. But sixteen was still sixteen.

So while it’s important to stay (or get) current—to know what kids wear, how they talk, what they’re into—you already know what it’s like to be a teen. Because you were one once. Reconnect with that person. Dig through any high school stuff you might have: flip through yearbooks. Listen to your favorite songs from high school. Even reconnect with an old high school friend on Facebook. If you’ve got an old diary or journal, that’s a goldmine. Remember who you were, at the core, when you were fifteen. I guarantee that there are fifteen-year-olds who feel just like that today…