WFC Notes: YA Panel

These are notes from the second panel I attended at the Writing For Charity conference, the Young Adult Panel. Up front we had Kristen Chandler (Wolves, Boys, and Other Things That Might Kill Me) as the moderator, with Shannon Hale (Austenland) and Carol Lynch Williams (The Chosen One).

Kristen asked some questions as well as pulling questions from the audience. Here’s what our ladies had to say. I’ll put an SH for Shannon Hale, CW for Carol Lynch Williams, and KC for Kristen Chandler according to answers.


SH – I think the thing is that we couldn’t do anything else. I spent a few years trying other things. I really wanted to know, is there anything else I could do? When I exhausted everythingโ€”and I mean everythingโ€”I realized for me the answer was being a writer.


SH – I’ve done all categories. I write the story I want to write and I don’t decide what the age group will be and then someone tells me what it is.

CW – My characters aren’t much older than 14, but I tend to write it in such a way that it reads up.

SH – By the way, if you’re ever thinking, Man, I could really do with a full on hard, girl cry, read The Chosen One (Carol’s book).

KC – YA offers something special, it offers voice. We should think about our character’s voices and focus on voice.

SH – When I was writing the Goose Girl, I was writing a story to please me. I don’t write for a certain age groups, I write a story that pleases me and figure out which market it’s for afterward.

CW – We have the most responsibility of any genre to make sure we’re telling truths, even if it’s sometimes ugly or beautiful. It’s a huge responsibility.

SH – In YA you can tell the truth, whatever that may be.


SH – No. The minute you think your audience isn’t capable… the thing is, kids are so smart. I don’t think every book is ready for every kid, but there’s a book for every kid.ย  The impact of what you write about depends on how good of a writer you are (or how well of a story you write).

CW – I remember for one story I told my teens, I’m going to write a story with sex scenes in it. (Which I thought was a weird thing to say to her teens, but whatever). But when I tried, it just didn’t work out the way I had intended, 1) because it wasn’t the way the story was going, and 2) I didn’t feel like I could tell it the way it needed to be told to be written that way. There are boundaries as a writer you’re not going to cross and be okay with that. If you can’t tell it well the way it needs to be told, don’t do it.

SH – I don’t know any writers that write for shock value.You hone your ear to know what the story needs. I write for myself, to amuse myself.


SH – It depends on the book. Sometimes I feel like it varies story by story. I don’t have a definite process.

KC – I try not to overthink it. I write at 4 in the morning, I figure if I’m delirious my internal editor will be asleep.

SH – (When asked specifically about synopses.) I’ve sold a story based on a synopsis before, but I don’t sell synopses anymore. I want the editor or publisher to love the story and know what they’re getting.


I should note at first I didn’t know what they meant by “the murky middle.” For Carol and Kristen I believe it meant that somewhere toward the middle of writing their first draft they feel a kind of drag or insecurity. Shannon had a differing opinion on it. I’ll be curious to know how all of you think the “murky middle” should be defined.

SH – I like rewriting. I know going into it that I’m going to write something really bad and I’m going to give myself time to make something really good. The future drafts are when you get to play. For me, writing the first draft is terrifying. Then when I do the second draft I already have stuff, I get to be a writer and a reader. A lot of my rewriting is cutting things.

CW- The first 20 or 30 pages I think it’s the best ever, then after that I start the complaining. I think I don’t know what I’m doing, this it the hardest novel I’ve ever written. I just sit down and do it. There’s no magic seed or formula, it’s just doing the work. If you never finish you never get a book published. I will have an idea in my head, and then I just let my character live the novel. I never go in thinking I’m going to teach anything, I just go in telling my story.

SH – A story can teach if it’s not trying to. I wouldn’t go into something trying to preach a certain ideal or philosophy because readers will see that. But I think if you just show us a story that embraces the sort of philosophy you’re after without preaching it can still teach us something about that philosophy whether or not we agree with it.


That brings us to the close of the notes for this panel. More to come on Tuesday.

How about all of you? Why are you a writer? Why do you write the genre you do? Is there anything you wouldn’t put into a story? How do you start (writing) your stories? What do you do when you get to the murky middle? Or how would you define the murky middle?

EDIT: Okay, since I asked the questions I should probably answer them (Thanks Kate!).

I write, much like Kate, because I can’t not write. The stories won’t leave me alone. They’re like the IRS looking for money or the Red Cross looking for blood. They’ll hound me until they get what they want. Even if I never saw one shred of worldly success, I’d still be writing. It’s in my blood (maybe why the Red Cross wants it so badly?)

I’m currently in Fantasy, but my very first novel was mild sci-fi, and a side project I’m working on now is contemporary fiction. I think I’ll always lean toward fantasy and sometimes sci-fi because I like the endless possibilities they offer, but I feel like the stories just tell me what they want to be and I write them down.

As for anything I wouldn’t put into a story, I think it comes back to the kinds of stories you read and are comfortable with. I don’t think I would do anything erotic or too sensual because it’s just not something I read and I doubt I could write it in a believable fashion anyway. I tend not to put too much strong language in my stories either because for me they too often seem like cheap shortcuts to emotion. I think there can be moments when those words are the right words, but usually it’s overdone. I want to make sure every word is the right word for that moment.

I start writing my stories usually by pondering on an idea until scenes start to erupt. That can take a day, weeks, months, years, it really depends on the idea. I’ve got some ideas still marinating that aren’t ready to be written and others that are knocking at the door. Once the idea has gelled sufficiently I tend toward outlines, although I do occasionally free write. But I’m most comfortable outlining. It brings out my creative juices at a more rapid pace. I feel like it’s a rough draft in itself, where I can try out plot and character in a quicker way and perhaps eliminate some things that don’t work before putting prose to page. Then it’s bust out a rough draft and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

I’m not sure what the “murky middle” is. When I’m rough drafting, I have an outline that I loosely follow to the end. It’s usually in rewrite and edit mode where I have any sort of worry about the story and where it’s going. If I get stuck, I take a break and work on something else. I tend to write chronologically on a first draft. I push myself through less interesting scenes rather than write the ones I want to write. For me, I feel like they’re motivating me to get through and write what I’m less interested in to get to the scene I want to write.

I’m not saying this is the best way for everyone, but doing it that way works for me. I have tried writing the scenes I want to write, but I usually don’t end up using them. I feel like for the first draft I need to journey with my characters chronologically and get frustrated with them and see what comes of it. It’s rewrites where I fix scenes out of order.

Okay, now that I’ve gone through all of that, I fully expect you all to do it. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Thanks Kate for inspiring me!


18 thoughts on “WFC Notes: YA Panel

  1. Where are your answers? I want to know. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I’m a writer because I write. I can’t not write. It’s who I am, it’s what I do, sometimes to the point where I neglect other things, but I feel like I’d shrivel up and die without my stories. Is that sad?

    I write Fantasy because there’s room for the unexpected, and there are ways to look at our own lives and situations in the real world through a different lens. We all have our own dragons to slay in real life; Fantasy (urban, epic, or otherwise) lets us see that from another angle.

    I’d put anything into a story that it needed. Nothing goes in just for shock value or because it’s popular. The only thing worse (to me) than forcing a trend into a story is forcing a moral into it. UGH.

    I start writing when an idea has festered in my mind for a while and it won’t leave me alone. I’ll usually let as much come out as wants to, then I’ll step back and take a look at where things are going.

    I think the murky middle comes when you have a strong vision of how the story begins and how it ends, but you’re not completely sure how it gets there. My rough drafts are often missing things in the middle, or have other things that need to be cut later. It is murky; I can’t see it clearly until I re-read and revise. During the first draft, I just push through.

    Did I do it, did I answer all the questions? Do I get a gold star? ๐Ÿ˜€

    • Gold star awarded. Unfortunately I bought it at Rossy, so it says on the back: Your best dream can wishes if you believe. But hey, it’s still a nice gold star. I’m going to edit in my answers in the post here… *editing post*

        • Hahahaha! You’re getting pretty good at that. Maybe if our writing gigs don’t work out we can move to China or wherever and help them write the text for these toys (the same way of course).

          My answers are up. Thanks for the nudge. ๐Ÿ˜€

  2. I’d never hear of the Murky Middle before. Well… I cheated and just skipped an entire section in the middle of my novel. I’ve now written the end and just need to finish off that middle section to complete the first draft. I’m still struggling with it but at least I’m coming at it fresh – plus I know that when I’ve done that then the first draft is done!

    • I guess you’ve found the Murky Middle. I love hearing everyone’s different processes. But if you’re struggling, take that as a good thing. I always take struggle to mean something awesome is fighting it’s way out. I’m sure you’ll get your middle soon. ๐Ÿ˜€

  3. Nice write-up Jae! I agree with a lot of what you say here, especially the careful use of sex scenes and language. So many times, both are taken to the extremes for shock value and they have the opposite effect, because they’re so overdone.

    It’s like using spices in your food. A little goes a long way.

    And the murky middle, that’s a dreaded area for me that I’m slowly coming to grips with. I can get the beginning down, I can get the climax and resolution down… what happens in between is the hardest thing for me to think of.

    I’ve found that it’s really a matter of spending a lot of time brainstorming. Another concept I’ve learned to think about more is character arc. It helps me figure out what type of events need to happen to get my character feeling one way or another.

    • These are all great tips! I especially loved your analogy of spice. Sorry you have a tough murky middle sometimes. Sounds like you’re finding great solutions for it.

      Seriously, love that spice analogy. So simple, so effective.

      • I’m so glad. I just thought a report from the front might help clear things up. ๐Ÿ™‚

        The cocktail helped. I’m closing in on it from both ends. Still a bit murky, though.

        • I’m glad things seem to be turning around. I’m practicing my verbal pitch for a conference next weekend. It’s about the same amount of fun as writing a query letter. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ I’ll get there, it’s just I’m in the murky middle of it. Where’s the flippin’ waiter with my cocktail?

        • It has. In fact, with so many versions I was able to pull from old ones and use the format of newer ones to help things gel a little more. I’m still not there yet, but at least I have an idea of what I should be saying/doing. Plus it’s given me more succinct phrases to fall back to.

          It’ll be an interesting experience either way.

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