TOK Ottawa: Writing the Future – KidLit and YA

TOK Ottawa Symposium program (a paper booklet)

Last week I shared my notes from the TOK Ottawa panel on Writing in the Age of Netflix. This week, I’m continuing to share what I picked up at this wonderful symposium with my notes from Writing the Future: KidLit & Young Adult.

Writing the Future: KidLit & Young Adult

Moderator: Idil Mussa

Panellists: Writers L.L. McKinney, Tochi Onyebuchi, Nadia Hohn, and Zoraida Córdova; literary agent Carolyn Forde; senior editor Jen Knoch

This KidLit and YA panel focussed on instilling a love of reading and literature in young readers. It acknowledged the need for diverse KidLit and the challenges facing marginalized writers in the United States and Canada.

Key Points

Publishing Is Not a Race

Every single one of the authors on this panel had a long history of writing; no one got published immediately after writing their first story. They each spent time developing their writing skills and honing their voice. And then, they spent time submitting to agents and waiting for book deals.

McKinney said that it took six years to get A Blade So Black published and added that if she were given the chance to talk to her younger self, she would simply reassure her by saying “it is coming, hold on.”

Work and Perseverance Pay Off

Getting published isn’t just a matter of waiting for your time, of course. These KidLit authors all put in a tremendous amount of work. For example, Onyebuchi’s first published novel was actually the sixteenth he had written. Sixteenth!

He said that he would write and then submit until he ran out of people to query. (Let’s not forget that writing query letters is also work.) Then, when the novel wasn’t accepted, he’d decide to write a better one. With each novel, he got better, until finally, he got that acceptance letter! (One of the things I liked about Onyebuchi’s tale of perseverance was his discussion of rejection letters. He said that he knew that his writing was getting better because the rejection letters got longer.)

McKinney said she reached 250 rejections before she stopped counting. And still, she continued.

The others had similar experiences, and this all goes to show that perseverance is just as important as skill when it comes to getting published.

Finding Your People Is Necessary

The idea of community came up a couple of times during the conversation.

McKinney talked of joining a writers group with people who understood what she was trying to do. This helped her get through rejections and keep writing.

Onyebuchi was in an online writers group that included both new and established authors. He was able to get feedback through this group, helping him further develop his skills.

Hohn actually met her publisher at a writing workshop (she says most picture book authors in Canada don’t have agents).

Córdova talked about making friends at conventions and festivals and how participation in the KidLit community has helped her sell books and build a following.

These different stories show how important it is to find your people—your fellow writers, book nerds, and readers. Finding trusted friends helps you write, gives you support when facing challenges, and gives you a fan base to sell to. All necessities when it comes to making a career out of writing.

Trends Shape How Things Get Bought

Literature does have trends, but how do they influence who and what gets published?

Córdova said that trends affect what publishers choose to publish, citing her mermaid book as an example; the year her book sold there were three other mer-books. However, trying to follow a trend doesn’t usually work.

Knoch furthered the discussion of trends speaking from the editor’s perspective. She said that it’s hard to follow trends simply because most don’t last long enough. In fact, Knoch said that trends often affect what publishers choose not to publish. It takes about one and a half years to publish a book, so there’s not usually a point in chasing trends.

We Still Need To Work Toward Diversity in Publishing

Most of these authors talked about writing as POC authors. A few talked about originally writing white characters because they didn’t realize they could do something else. McKinney started writing POC characters when her sister had kids so that her nieces and nephews would have characters that looked like them. Hohn also wanted to give Carribean kids characters that reflected themselves.

Others said that writing casts that looked like them was liberating and it improved their craft.

But writing POC characters comes with systemic challenges. Both Knoch and Forde admitted that despite efforts, their companies are majority white. That means that those deciding what to publish can reject things they don’t identify with or put up barriers through their own ignorance. For example, Córdova said she received a rejection for her first novel because the publisher already had a Latina book.

Even once a deal has been signed, POC writers face opposition. McKinney talked about how the African American Vernacular English she’d included in her novel was marked as incorrect by a copyeditor. Luckily, McKinney had a woman of colour editor who rejected the copyeditor’s changes.

Onyebuchi said that he found his writing improved when he wrote POC characters and that his editor (also a WOC) encouraged him to lean into his Nigerian-ness. His and McKinney’s positive experiences show that diverse publishing staff is as important as diverse books.

Queries and Submissions Should Captivate

During the Q&A at the end of the session, the matter of queries came up. Knoch and Forde approach submissions different ways, with Knoch saying she often skips the query letter to read samples first and Forde saying she always tackles the query letter first.

Both agreed that a query letter should be succinct. The main thing it should contain a logline or elevator pitch that reflects the kind of synopsis you’d read on the back cover of a book.

The authors on the panel added their advice as well. Onyebuchi said that your letter shouldn’t be more than ¾ of a page and said that as you’re writing it you should assume the person you’re querying (agent or editor) is having a bad day. Be gracious and respectful of their time.

McKinney said one way to sharpen your query letter writing skills is to open up Netflix. Seems a bit counter to the point of writing, doesn’t it? Well, she didn’t mean to watch Netflix. Instead, she said to spend some time going through the show/movie descriptions and ask yourself which ones would get you to click and why. Then try to emulate what works in your own pitch.

This was such a fun session and I hope TOK comes back to Ottawa in the future. I loved hearing from these authors!

If you couldn’t make it to TOK Ottawa, follow TOK because the sessions were recorded and should come out as podcasts.

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