Monday, March 14, 2011

How I Got Hooked on Writing YA

“Historical fiction set in America doesn’t sell.”
This is what we kept hearing.  It was the Historical Novel Society conference in Albany, New York, and this is what every editor was telling me.  My first novel, an American historical, had failed to sell the previous year, and I was pitching a half-finished novel set in 1830’s Nantucket.  While editors liked the concept of the book, they said American historicals just don’t do well.  Americans like to read about European history - the Tudors, medieval France, Renaissance Italy - but not about their own history.  (This is true for fiction.  Americans love US History non-fiction.)
My agent Irene was also attending the conference.  She and I sat down in the lovely courtyard of the hotel where the conference was being held and had a long conversation.  “You’re so close to being published,” she said.  “Why do you want to give yourself another hurdle to get over towards that goal?  Write about Europe.”
I love European history.  I always loved it more than American history in school.  When I was writing my first novel, I tried to send my characters to Europe.  I really tried.  They just wouldn’t do it.  So I set the novel in early America, in the days when the country bordered the Atlantic Ocean and was just finding its footing in the world.  And in the process I fell in love with American history.  Now I couldn’t imagine writing about anything else.
But, I wanted to be published, so I started to look for ideas for a novel set in Europe.  One day I fell down the rabbit hole that is Wikipedia and found a page on European witch hunts - a subject that has always fascinated me.  On that page was a link to something called Benandanti.  I followed it.
And WINTER FALLS was born.
One of the other comments we got from editors about my first novel was that it felt like YA.  I hadn’t written it as YA, but the two main characters were young women and it was a bit of a coming-of-age story.  We did submit it to YA publishers but it still didn’t sell (see American historical = hard sell above). 
This was just at the burgeoning boom of YA.  Harry Potter was sweeping the bestseller list, but Twilight was barely a blip on the radar.  Irene encouraged me to go in the YA direction.  I had tried with my second novel, the Nantucket one, but the voice that came out of that main character was wiser and a little world-weary.  Then I found the Wikipedia page about the Benandanti.
When I first started writing WINTER FALLS, it was set in 16th century Italy.  (Talk about a hard sell!)  But the voice that came out on the page was young, naive…definitely YA.  After several months, I could tell something just wasn’t working.  In a conversation with my husband about it, I said off the cuff, “Maybe it just doesn’t need to be set in the 16th century.”
Once I started writing in a contemporary YA voice, I knew I had come home.
Supernatural and Fantasy YA was the genre I came of age with, reading Jane Yolen, Lois Duncan and Tamora Pierce.  I don’t think anyone else in my middle school ever read Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series while I was there because I always had it checked out.  My stepmother finally took pity on me and bought me the series - first edition hardcovers - for my Sweet Sixteen.
Maybe it’s because those years were so tumultuous for me that I can settle into that voice so easily.  Maybe I never really grew up.  Maybe it’s because that even though I love Victor Hugo and Jane Austen and Tolstoy whenever I pick up a YA book I feel like I’ve returned to an old friend.  Who knows the reason?
Someday I might return to historicals, but for now, YA is where I belong.  

1 comment:

  1. Yay for coming home to YA! It's the funnest and most exciting place to be, I've always felt. There's so much ethos and delicious melodrama to be explored as teenager busting out of old norms and starting to really see the world for the first time. I could write about this over and over and over. Which, yeah, is YA and me are cuddle-buddies :) SHIFT sounds awesome too, by the way!