AWP 2014: Writing for Young Adults and The Author-Editor Relationship

In addition to the panel on unsympathetic characters, I attended several other panels while at AWP 2014. A few of these panels focused on writing Young Adult books, while most of the others dealt with the relationship between an author and editor. I learned different things from each panel.

The YA panels I went to focused a lot on how it’s okay to write about serious topics in YA literature—topics like politics, loss, abuse. These things are no less real for young adults than they are for the rest of us. As one panelist said, “Dying is the end of all of our stories.”

The authors discussed the “absent adults” in many YA novels. It’s a genre trope, but one that allows the author to get the parents out of the way so the young adult protagonist can live their life. At one point, the moderator asked the panelists why they write YA that is arguably dark. If you’re a writer who also tends to write darker pieces, this may be something you even ask yourself. Why are we attracted to sadness? The panelists agreed that young adults are looking for solace in the midst of chaos—to recognize that we are not in control. According to one panelist, they are looking to answer the question, “How do you walk around as if every thing’s normal?”

There were multiple panels on the relationship between an author and editor, one of which featured Chuck Palahniuk and one of which featured Sherman Alexie. Sadly, I was unable to attend the panel with Chuck Palahniuk. Although, I was able to catch him afterward so I could 1) have him sign my book and 2) take this blurry selfie.

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The author-editor panel with Sherman Alexie was led by Grove Atlantic’s publisher, Morgan Entrekin. Grove Atlantic editor, Elisabeth Schmitz, and several of their authors, including Alexie, Margaret Wrinkle, and Jamie Quatro, were also on the panel.

Grove Atlantic has a particularly hands-on approach to the author-editor relationship, forging lasting friendships with their authors whenever possible. Elisabeth has worked as an editor for all three authors and occasionally goes jogging with Jamie. Alexie has published the majority of his work, except for his Young Adult books, with Grove Atlantic since the 90s. Morgan, reflecting on a conversation he had with an editor at a larger house at a previous book fair, said, “I stepped away from the author, and he came up to me. ‘You shouldn’t be such close friends with your writers. They’ll only break your heart.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Does that mean you shouldn’t fall in love?’”

Today, many publishing houses—especially big New York houses—often aren’t able to maintain this sort of relationship with their authors. While it’s custom for an author to offer the house that published his or her previous book first look at a manuscript, publishing houses don’t always acquire these manuscripts, and authors often jump from house to house.

For a while, the same applied to editors. “Traditionally, editors stayed with one publisher,” Morgan told the audience. “Then that changed, but I do think it’s starting to slow down.” Elisabeth, for instance, has been with Grove Atlantic for almost twenty years.

I took a lot away from this panel, even if much of it was a lot of great quotes of Sherman, saying things like, “We were at the Chateau…These are the things you get to say when you’re published. So fuck you all. Sorry. That was the Valium.” Proving that he is just as awkward, gleefully inappropriate, and funny as one would think. (In case you were wondering, the Valium was for his back, which he hurt the night before playing basketball.)

Mainly, I learned how important the role of trust is between author and editor. Sherman, candid as always, recalled a time where he vehemently fought with Elisabeth to keep a chapter in his novel Flight that involved the time-traveling protagonist fighting a saber-tooth tiger. Elisabeth won the fight. It’s been seven years since Flight was published, and after rereading that chapter, Sherman, who now calls the chapter “horrible,” is grateful that Elisabeth fought so hard to cut it. “That kind of relationship,” Sherman said. “Can only occur over the long-term and through trust.”

Sherman went on to say, “In the midst of all the sorrow, pain, rejection, the review you didn’t get, the sales you didn’t meet, the awards that slipped by, the shitty person who said the shitty thing, you’re sharing it all with your editor.”

Melanie Figueroa

Melanie is the Editor in Chief at The Poetics Project. Having earned a masters in writing and book publishing from Portland State University and gained experience as an in-house editor, she now works as a freelance editor and writer. Her favorite book is The Bell Jar. You can follow Melanie on Twitter or Instagram @wellmelsbells.

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