How To Write YA Fiction with Samantha Shannon, Melinda Salisbury and Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Photo credit to @medievaljenga

On Wednesday 19th of April, I took a road trip to Oxford and visited Blackwell’s book store for the first time. I only discovered that this event was happening the morning it took place – I recommend wasting all of your time on social media for this reason – so I dropped everything and managed to make it. I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to meet these three inspirational (and very lovely!) ladies.

The discussion between the three ladies and moderator Peter Meinertzhagen – founder of the Oxford Writing Circle – went on for well over an hour. Instead of recapping everything that was said, I’m going to choose my ten favourite things that happened at this event (including some inspirational advice for aspiring authors).

10. Name dropping galore
Peter introduced all three of the authors at the beginning of the night, sharing that they’d all participated in Oxford Writing Circle events in the past, and when they started discussing other talks they’d done they quickly came to realise that they’d all been on panels with Alwyn Hamilton, almost gushing over how much they enjoyed working with her.
Later on, discussing literary writing in YA, Melinda claimed that Laini Taylor is the “master”, proving that there’s “room for beauty in YA” (also recommending ‘The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender’ by Leslye Walton).
There’s more than enough love to go around when it comes to YA!


9. Don’t tell Samantha Shannon that YA is “too gloomy”
Peter referenced an article in which someone referred to young adult literature as “too gloomy”, and Samantha was very passionate in her disregard for that mindset.
“Books are dark because the outlook is bleak,” she began. “I’m scared a lot of the time, and I’m not a teenager.” She shared the fact that she’s often “overwhelmed with darkness” and awfulness when she encounters the news and understands that young people feel the same, which is why they need to be able to read realistic books. “Dark things are happening. There’s nothing dark in young adult fiction that hasn’t happened in real life”.


8. Sarah J. Maas is changing the YA game
When asked what makes YA, there was a bit of a debate. Shannon said it was harder for her to know, because ‘The Bone Season’ is actually marketed as adult more frequently than YA (because Paige, the protagonist, is 19) so she’s “not asked to tone down” her writing often.
Kiran shared a story about ‘The Island at the End of Everything’ – her recently released second novel – in which she was “asked to tone down some of the more overt nastiness” because of the age of her readers. She laughed as she admitted that her editor told her that the end of the novel “left [her] with a profound sense of hopelessness”.
But while they couldn’t definitively state what made YA, all three authors agreed that the use of sex in YA is changing rapidly.
Shannon referenced Sarah J. Maas, saying that she’s “pushing boundaries of what can and can’t come into it” with her sexually charged scenes in ‘A Court of Mist and Fury’. Melinda agreed, but also nodded her head towards fanfiction, claiming it’s “changed the rules. Teens want to read about sex scenes, not fade to black, but sex they’re actually having,” and the popularity of fanfiction that features those scenes shows there’s a demand for sex in books for teenagers.


7. YA is more plot driven that adult fiction
The debate about how young adult and adult fiction differ continued later in the night.
Samantha told us how the editor who worked on ‘The Bone Season’ and ‘The Mime Order’ was on maternity leave during ‘The Song Rising’, so she worked with Melinda Salisbury’s editor instead. Her aim was to “slim it down and make sure it’s focused”, which led to a book that’s so fast-paced it’s exhausting: a direct contrast in her experiences with the adult and young adult editing procedures.
Melinda agreed, stating that young adult is more plot driven because “life as a teen is more plot driven” so “more happens in less pages [at a] slightly faster pace” because the teenage years are a “very definitive fast lane for a short length of time”.

6. Every author’s “first book is the book [they] needed.”
When Peter mentioned that statistically, 80% of YA is acquired by people aged 25 and over, Melinda was quick to respond. She shared that the only YA she had when she was growing up were books written by R.L. Stine, and the Babysitter’s Club, which is one of the reasons she can’t get enough of it as an adult.
Kiran agreed, saying that her favourite novel as a teenager was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ because there wasn’t really any fiction aimed at teenagers (apart from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials). To this, Melinda shared that ‘The Sin Eater’s Daughter’ is “the book [she] desperately needed as a teenager”, stating that “every first book is the book you needed”.


5. YA fantasy is vastly under-appreciated
Melinda quipped that “as a YA genre writer, I might as well be dead sometimes”. She celebrated ‘The Hate U Give’ and ‘Asking For It’, both contemporary YA novels that have broken into the mainstream with a huge impact, but Kiran agreed that for YA to be thought of as necessary it “must be issue driven”.
“YA fantasy is doing so many important things and not getting noticed,” Samantha added. “If they were adult fiction, they’d be heralded as ‘the next big thing'”.


4. Melinda. Salisbury.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Kiran and Shannon too. But Melinda Salisbury is absolutely hilarious, and she stole the show at this event. I’ve wanted to meet her for so long (mostly because of Steph from A Little But A Lot, who is her biggest fan) and I was blown away by how down to earth she is: I was shaking with nerves before approaching her, but she quickly put me at ease and I didn’t feel like an idiot even though we were talking for quite a while!
Mel came out with a lot of brilliant quotes throughout the night, but my personal favourite was when she admitted that if she didn’t write YA she’d be writing “raunchy, Mills and Boon nana stuff”. Well, someone’s got to do it!

For the last question of the night, Peter asked all three authors if they could offer one piece of advice for writing YA, so their responses have to make up the top three:

3. Kiran Millwood Hargrave: “Write the book that you need to write. Leave the marketing to someone else.”
Having shared that she started writing ‘The Girl of Ink and Stars’ with no idea who she was writing it for, it really doesn’t matter if you don’t have a target audience in mind as soon as you pick up your pen or start typing.

2. Samantha Shannon: “Don’t be afraid to experiment. Write weird stuff. It’s important that we keep breaking boundaries.”
‘The Bone Season’ sounds like it’s impossible to compare to any other book out there, so it’s important to think outside the box when you’re writing.

1. Melinda Salisbury: “Finish your book. Just finish it! You can’t be a writer if you can’t finish a book.”
Melinda was almost shouting as she cajoled the aspiring authors in the room, and she’s not someone you want to disappoint! She also shared a second piece of advice, saying “Don’t compare your first draft to a published book,” admitting, “I would be nothing without my editorial team”. Roughly finishing your story is much better than completely polishing just a chapter or two.

I’d like to say a big thank you to Melinda, Kiran, Shannon and Peter for having such an insightful and thought-provoking discussion, and to Blackwell’s for being so welcoming. I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for more events there in the future.