YALLWEST 2019: Super Senior Year
I went to YALLWEST for the fifth year in a row this year, and after a few years off from blogging about it, I decided, what the hell. I’ll blog about it. Sure. I’ll do it.
And then at about 4pm on the day of, I regretted my choices because I forgot how hard it is to scribble notes and listen at the same time. I guess I haven’t been that college student writing short stories in the back of a USC lecture hall in a long time.
Anyway, on Saturday, May 4, I arrived at Santa Monica High School at the actual crack of dawn, which was approximately SEVERAL hours too early, but I’d panicked because of a “heads-up-we’re-low-on-parking-this-year” email from the YALLWEST crew. Of course, this means that I overcompensated and ended up sitting in my car for way too long, listening to the entire Broadway cast recording of Be More Chill.
When the festival opened at 9am, I was ready. Prepped. Seasoned. I’m an old pro. This was year five, baby. I looked so comfortable as I walked in with my camera that people actually started waving at me as I took pictures, apparently thinking I worked there.
And then I realized that they changed the location of the morning keynote, which has traditionally been in the big auditorium in Barnum Hall, but this year was in a mysterious Greek Amphitheater I’d never actually seen in all five years??
So yeah. I got briefly lost, okay. As a super senior.
And then I basically wandered in the direction of the crowd, which was slowly filtering into an opening in a large concrete wall.
AM KEYNOTE: Angie Thomas + Nic Stone
Along with hundreds of other people, I found myself sitting in the living room of keynote speakers and authors Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give, On the Come Up) and Nic Stone (Dear Martin). At least, that’s what it felt like. The way those two talked with each other felt exactly like I was sitting on their couch with them, which was kind of awesome. Also, this:
Stone: “I just want to say that Miss America, Miss USA, and Miss Teen USA are all black women right now. And us hosting this keynote is basically the same thing.”
They talked about dreaming, and the four things you need to be a dreamer: resilience, integrity, self-care/self-love, and excellence. And because they’re writers, they couldn’t resist but point out the very appropriate acronym.
“Dear dreamers,” said Thomas, “R.I.S.E.”
In between all of this, Thomas told a wonderful story about how she wanted to be the fourth member of TLC when she was a kid, and was obsessed with Left Eye’s rap in the group’s song “Waterfalls” because it helped her through a difficult time when she was bullied in school. Her mom, she said, somehow managed to get Left Eye’s home phone number, and a teenage Thomas ended up talking on the phone with Left Eye about everything she’d been through with bullying. And Left Eye told her, “I don’t know you, but I think you can do something amazing someday. I need you—we need you more than you realize.”
And then Thomas performed one of her characters’ raps from On the Come Up while Stone hyped her to one side, and it was perfect, and we all fell more deeply in love with this friendship.
A few more tidbits from the keynote…
Stone on revision and being satisfied with her work: “I have never read my own [published] books. I refuse. Because books are never done. You just decide at some point to stop.”
Thomas on self-care: “Sometimes self-care can be cutting the toxic people out of your life. You need people around you who are making you aspire to be better. People who challenge you, because then, by seeing them succeed, you can know what’s possible.”
Stone on success: “My first agent fired me. So I went and wrote another book. And I got a new agent. That’s resilience.”
PANEL: If Nobody Dates IRL, Why are Romcoms on the Rise?
Mary H. K. Choi, Melissa De La Cruz (moderator), Sarah Dessen, Sandhya Menon, Adam Silvera, Jennifer E. Smith + David Yoon
First of all, this panel name is ridiculous and sounds like an cranky old film critic wrote it and I kinda love it.
The panelists opened up by going around and introducing themselves and how people fall in love in their books, and Adam Silvera (What If It’s Us) immediately pointed out that he never gets to be on these “fun, romance panels,” because his books are always about pain and suffering. David Yoon (Frankly In Love) piped up, “Yeah, this is the guy who wrote They Both Die at the End.”
And then Mary H. K. Choi got the mic and took. Us. To. Church. From calling out the myth that the way the various generations fall in love is radically different, to defending millennials and the technology we use to have community with each other, to talking about mutual, enthusiastic consent… I’m SERIOUS, I could have listened to Choi talk romcoms all day.
When asked about how he thinks falling in love has changed over the years, Silvera said, “The last person I dated slid into my DMs, which, don’t do that. It’s not appropriate. But the point is that meet-cutes have changed as a concept. We now have dating apps that we didn’t have before, but I think it can be equally romantic to meet someone online and strip away the digital persona they’ve created for themselves to find the person underneath.”
Yoon added, “I think in the future, we will all be balls of energy and we will goggle in and when we fall in love, the balls will just… merge.”
We laughed nervously.
A question about how they create “attractive” (in all senses of the word) characters in their work prompted Sarah Dessen (The Rest of the Story, Saint Anything), the YA romance queen, to say that she has to fall in love with a character for them to fall in love on the page. Sandhya Menon (When Dimple Met Rishi, From Twinkle With Love) said that for her, it was about passion, knowing that teens are very passionate people.
Choi responded, “What’s attractive to me is when you’re noticed with accuracy. It’s that thing that you like most about yourself but never talk about… it’s when a person becomes the best mirror for reflecting that back at you.”
At this point, everyone described their ideal prom-posal. And then the married people on the panel described their actual proposals. Silvera described a fantasy in which a boy sings a song in his face and specified that that song must have been covered by Lea Michelle. And it was all quite swoony and delightful and I wanted to stay longer, but the volunteers kicked us out.
PANEL: AMA Basketcases Edition
Charles Beacham, e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, Bill Konigsberg, Mallory Schleif, Victoria/V.E. Schwab, Margaret Stohl (moderator), Andrea Towers + Kiersten White
I go to this panel every year. Every year, it is a balm for my damn soul.
This is the Basketcases panel, where authors open up about the mental illnesses they struggle with, cope with, and survive every day. They talk about anxieties, depression, disorders, and the journeys they have been on just so that they can continue to live happy lives.
It’s frickin’ astonishing. Every year.
And this year was no different, except this year there were a lot of new faces for me. Margaret Stohl (co-founder of YALLWEST and author of many things) moderated, but I only knew two of the other authors on the panel—Victoria/V.E. Schwab (the Shades of Magic series) and Kiersten White (And I Darken trilogy). I think it’s incredibly brave to stand in front of an audience of any size and talk about your deep traumas or struggles, and the fact that there are more people who want to be on a panel like this is crazy to me. But the vibe in the room was just as supportive and loving and overly applaud-y as we always are.
The panel this time was entirely run in Ask Me Anything-style, so Stohl kicked it off by going through pre-written audience questions, but—as she predicted—the hour quickly spiraled into the panelists riffing off one another, which was just as great.
Some notes I took:
Mallory ‘Z’ Shleif (video game writer at Bungie): “It is so important that we realize that we can remove ourselves from a stressful environment.”
Andrea Towers (Geek Girls Don’t Cry): “My resolution this year was to take more mental health days and to put myself first.”
White: “I think the reason why it can be harder to talk to people that you love about what you’re going through is that the intensity of that relationship can actually make it more difficult to be open. When I had a miscarriage and my mom called, I told her that I was fine, but I published a blog post later about how it was so hard and I was crying all the time, and it really hurt my mom’s feelings. It was easier for me to talk to strangers on the Internet who I knew would just leave me a nice note saying, ‘I’ve been through this too,’ than someone who actually knew me in real life.”
Schwab: “When things feel overwhelming for me, I break my writing tasks down into their smallest possible increment. I take it from a thousand words, to five hundred words, to one hundred words, to a sentence, and if I can’t write a sentence that day I know that I need self-care.”
Stohl went on a long tangent/pitch? for something called Woebot, which is, in her words, an “A.I. therapist.” It’s an app developed by Stanford, she said, that checks in on you daily and takes the data that you provide to it to show you your patterns and ask you pointed questions about how you can readjust your thinking, based on what you’ve told it previously.
“I love this Woebot idea,” Schwab remarked, “because it genuinely cannot judge you.”
“But it can track you!” Stohl said cheerfully.
BREAK: Book Shopping
I actually had two panels scheduled for this time, but I ditched both of them to meander around and look at books. And buy some. Because I lack self-control. I bought another pirate book (Dark Shores by Danielle L. Jenson), and also a new gem from Tahereh Mafi.
I sat on the quad for a little while, crowd-watching and eating the pretzels I brought, and it occurred to me that this was the first time I’d been alone at YALLWEST for many, if not all the years I’ve been going. Last year, I was with Lydia Albano (author of Finding You) and we met up with our friends Emily Warren and Kristin Yuki. Every year prior I’d seen at least one person I knew. But this time, I was by myself, left to muse over everything I heard in my own head.
And then, as I was walking to my next panel, I heard someone screaming, “Sam. Sam! SAAAAAAM.” And turned to see Camille Smaby and Makena Crowe, two friends from college, trying to flag me down as I walked right by, oblivious af.
PANEL: Mechanics of Magic + Power
Tomi Adeyemi, Susan Dennard (moderator), Jennifer Donnelly, Gerry Duggan, Alex London, Victoria/V.E. Schwab + Kiersten White
I went to this panel with Camille and Makena, and it ended up being my favorite panel of the day. This is because I’m a huge nerd.
The panel was all about fantasy world-building and the rules of magic systems and I had a freaking meltdown listening to so many of my favorite authors talking about their process of creating genre fiction. Pretty sure Makena (who was sitting next to me) and I were taking notes faster than we had ever taken notes before in our lives.
How do I even… describe to you this panel? There were just so many gems that I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up, and I wanted to listen so bad that I sometimes stopped writing in the middle of a note to go, “MMMMM,” or shake my head and whisper, “Wow,” to Makena, and completely lost my train of thought. And on the stage, Tomi Adeyemi (Children of Blood & Bone) was literally doing the same thing, complete with her phone out so she could type notes to herself.
On the cost of magic:
Schwab: “I don’t like to limit the potential of power itself in my stories. I like to limit the potential of the people who wield it. All my books are about the concept that power makes us worse."
White: “I’m interest in the concept of being Chosen. It’s not something that you would have wanted for yourself, and it can be a huge burden. One of my favorite parts of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was watching her struggle with that burden. I mean, not now. I’m such a mom now. I just want her to have financial stability.”
On creating their fantasy worlds and the rules:
Adeyemi: “Things don’t matter unless you have rules. Having rules skyrockets the stakes of the story.”
Jennifer Donnelly (Stepsister, Deep Blue): “The heartbeat of the story comes when there’s that moment when a character breaks the rules. It’s so cathartic.”
Schwab: “I don’t think it’s about breaking the rules so much as it’s about opening up the magic. It’s like that one-room house you thought you were living in is actually a three-room house. Introducing a new element is not necessarily breaking the world, it’s expanding the world.”
White: “Magic is about amplifying, and it should reveal something about the characters.”
Adeyemi: “That’s why we all love the Patronus* charm in Harry Potter!” *Side note: these writers went on a very long rant about how the magic in Harry Potter is so much fun but it makes approximately zero logical sense, which I had never actually thought about until I heard them start picking it apart piece by piece, and now I’m fully on board with Team HP Magic Is Confused. But the one thing they all agreed on was they love the Patronus charm, because it’s the only magic in the series that makes magic personal.
On magical pet peeves:
Adeyemi: “Black magic or dark magic being evil. It plays into a convention that, in a way, throws shade at you! I don’t want to reenforce that convention.”
Alex London (Black Wings Beating, Proxy): “When the magic isn’t in any way connected to the way the world works or the history of the people.”
Schwab: “I don’t think anything is possible. Ever. If ‘because magic’ is the way something is explained, that’s just lazy writing.”
On favorite magic systems that they scrapped:
Susan Dennard (Witchlands): “I know I’m moderating, but can I say mine? In Witchlands, I came up with so many different kinds of witches, and at one point I had a barley witch. Who could make beer.”
Schwab: “In the Shades of Magic series, I had multiple scrapped Londons. In my notes I think I have scribbled, ‘Blue London? Green London?’”
Donnelly: “I find it so hard to cut things though! It’s like your baby, and you just want to hug it close.”
Schwab: “This is the difference between us. If earlier you noticed that when we were talking about characters suffering I had a bit of a manic gleam in my eye, it’s because I was thinking about how when you kill a character it’s not interesting anymore because then they can’t suffer anymore.”
(At this point, everyone on the panel scooted their chairs away from Victoria Schwab.)
PANEL: Writing Brain Difference
Brandy Colbert (moderator), Spencer Hyde, Mindy McGinnis, Matt Mendez, Leila Sales, Lauren Shippen, Audrey Coulthurst + Paula Garner
This panel was about writing characters with mental illnesses and brain differences, but it also happened to be one of the only panels I went to where I knew practically no one. I’ve only ever read Brandy Colbert’s book Pointe (Little & Lion is on my TBR list), so it was interesting to learn more about these author’s books and the kinds of self-described “cracked” characters they write.
Listening to them discuss made me think about my own manuscript, in which I’m writing a secondary character with a mental illness. One of the things that several authors touched on was writing empathetically and sensitively, incorporating proper research, and I thought about how true that was, not just when writing a character with a brain difference, but when writing anything.
Spencer Hyde (Waiting for Fitz) also mentioned how difficult it was separate his own experience of obsessive compulsive disorder from his character with obsessive compulsive disorder, because everyone experiences mental illnesses differently, often with different symptoms and personal anxieties. For me, as I am writing a character that I feel very close to, it was helpful to hear his advice: “Give the character space, and ask yourself if you’re writing with enough distance to know that you’re exploring their story, and not yours.”
PM Keynote: victoria/v.e. schwab + Lilliam Rivera
At this point, I realized that I had essentially followed Victoria Schwab around from panel to panel all day. It was honestly not my intention, but I can’t say I regret a single damn thing; Schwab is a brilliant writer and possibly even more brilliant in person, talking about writing, which makes me SO bitter, because it’s totally unfair when writers who are eloquent on the page are also incredibly well-spoken. UGH. Can you please save some communication skills for the rest of us.
So anyway, this keynote was Schwab in conversation with Lilliam Rivera (The Education of Margot Sanchez, Dealing in Dreams), and it was truly fascinating. I love listening to writers who are planners talk about their novel-planning process, because I’m a planner in my bones and listening to pantsers makes me anxious.
Schwab to Rivera: “Tell me how much time you spent planning Dealing in Dreams, because before I start writing any one of my books, I’m probably spending anywhere from six months to a year just planning and figuring out the world and the voice.”
Rivera: “Oh, I take about the same amount—six months to a year.”
Schwab: “I also need to know my ending.”
Rivera: “Yes. Because then I know I can go towards that light. If not, I’ll just blindly write.”
Schwab: “It’s the difference between a desert and a field. With a field, you can see the end and you’re less likely to quit as you cross.”
AH. YES. My people.
It was also interesting to hear about the starting points for their books. For Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, something odd (for her) happened in that she had a “still frame” in her head of a guy in a fabulous coat walking through a wall and running into a girl dressed as a boy. She said she loved the image so much, but she put it away for a while because she didn’t know what the story was about yet. It was only when she was talking to someone about how she wanted to write an ode to fantasy, sort of her love letter to magic and other worlds, that she realized that that image of the man in the coat was actually her next book. It became A Darker Shade of Magic, in which a magician who can travel between worlds.
For Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams, she said she also started with an image. She saw a world in which Latinx girl gangs rule the streets, a vibrant night life in the clubs of Mega City, and a gritty, surrealist landscape. I was fascinated by this; as a very visual writer myself, Pinterest is my god, and I love that an image can spur the creation of an entirely new world in our heads. Schwab and Rivera discussed this, saying that as the writer your responsibility is only to provide “half the experience.”
“We have to make space for the readers to bring their own experiences to the page and inform the world,” said Schwab. “Give faith to your reader. Don’t hold their hand and walk them through it.”
And that was the end.
Another successful YALLWEST in the books! Not sorry for that pun.
Until next year…
Did you go to YALLWEST this year? What was your favorite moment/panel/memory? Also, did ANYONE SPOT THE GRILLED CHEESE TRUCK because I suspect that it was conspicuously absent* this year which is positively HEARTBREAKING.
*Update: I have been told that the Grilled Cheese Truck was indeed present at YALLWEST, which means I’m just the sad panda who didn’t catch them before they drove away, taking their cheesy mac n’ rib glory with them. Sigh.