YALLFest is a Young Adult book festival in Charleston, SC that I had heard about a while ago, and managed to talk my fellow author friend, Jen Mann, into coming to with me this year (admittedly, it wasn’t all that hard to do). Both of us are big fans of YA and hope to some day see books we’ve written on that shelf in bookstores.



YALLFest2014 by Kim Bongiorno

Also, can you say, “GIRLS WEEKEND AWAY”? Heck yeah.

I stepped away from my family, my blog, and my work to focus on emerging myself in the world I desperately want to be a part of. This would be my first YA festival or conference, so I didn’t know what to expect, but I was ready for anything.

I was also ready to sleep in a big, comfy bed all by myself without any of my offspring asking me really hard elementary school math problems for a few days.

We flew in from our respective homes to sunny Charleston and immediately got to pre-gaming: Book shopping at Blue Bicycle Books–sponsor and official book store of YALLFest.

Starter kit for all the book signings that weekend.
Starter kit for all the book signings that weekend.

Then we did a little shopping, a little eating (S.N.O.B. was delicious and had a lovely staff), and maybe a little goofing around. MAYBE.

We cannot resist photo booths. It is impossible.
We cannot resist photo booths. It is impossible.

Soon it was time to start waiting in lines to get our books signed, so we hopped on over to meet the adorable Kiera Cass (along with a bajillion other people about 20 years younger than us).

Worth the wait!
Worth the wait! Yes, I am tall! Thanks for asking!

That done, we rushed down the street to meet James Dashner to get copies of The Maze Runner signed for our sons. At first we were told we were too late, but then they opened the line back up. Thank goodness, because my 9yo pretty much told me not to come home unless I had a special book for him. Mission accomplished!

We walked around a bit after that, soaking in the excitement in all the tweens’/teens’ eyes around us as they met up with friends to squeal about who they met, took pictures with, and so on. Man, we are such moms. Ready to have a little celebration of our own, we stopped into Basil for delicious Thai and to have a champagne toast in honor of Jen recently becoming a New York Times Bestselling author for her recent humor collection.

Cheers to Jen!
Cheers to Jen! Thanks for the excuse to drink!

Because we are wild women out on the town, we went back to our hotel room, jammied up by 7:30pm, and got to writing and talking for a few hours before getting a much-needed good night’s sleep (thank you, Holiday Inn Express, for your scrumptiously comfy beds).

Early Saturday morning we powered up with a well-rounded (sugar is round, right?) breakfast and headed out for a long day of learning.

I power up with cinnamon rolls whenever possible.
I power up with cinnamon rolls whenever possible.

Throughout the day there were book signings, but we skipped those in order to attend the sessions filled with panels of experienced writers. Here are the ones we chose to attend.

TheYALLFest Opening Keynote was James Dashner getting interviewed by his good friend Sara Zarr. I want to invite them out to dinner. Seriously. They are so funny, but also shared some helpful advice and James’ journey from accountant to extremely successful full-time author. His top three tips for those who want to write are:

1. Write every day.
2. Interact with other writers.
3. Always practice. Just like a sport or an instrument, you need to play it to get better at it.

YALLFest2014 James Dashner and Sara Zarr
I was laughing too much to take a clear picture. Sorry!

Next up we went to the panel Assassins, Secrets, and Spies with Alexandra Bracken, Libba Bray, Ally Condie, Becca Fitzpatrick, Kami Garcia, Brendan Reichs, Morgan Rhodes, and Scott Westerfeld, moderated by Michael Johnston.

For a bunch of suspenseful writers, they sure gave away a lot of secrets.
For a bunch of suspenseful writers, they sure gave away a lot of secrets.

They talked a lot about revealing secrets, twisting plots, what defines genre, and what their writing process. I LOVE getting into other writers’ brains. It is a very happy place. For example, Scott thinks that bad guys are scarier when they don’t want to hurt someone, but they are willing to if  they had to. It adds an element of suspense. He also likes to play with genres, doing something new within the constraints of one genre that give it the flavor of another–but not quite enough to re-catagorize it. I ate all of this up, furiously taking notes.

By lunchtime I was shoving protein bars down my throat, wondering why I never realized there was no break for a meal during this festival (I eat every 2.5 hours or else I get hangry, which is not safe for anyone around me), but I rallied on.

We stayed where we were for All in the Family with Sarah Dessen, Adele Griffin, Ellen Hopkins, E. Lockhart, Lauren Myracle, Jennifer E. Smith, and Maya Van Wagenen, moderated by Aaron Hartzler (who I kind of shouted at with love in the hall later that day, quite possibly scaring him when I was trying to show adoration–sorry, Aaron!).

Don't tell our families, but we're totally writing about them.
Don’t tell our families, but we’re totally writing about them.

As writers, we can’t help but weave our personal experiences into our stories. This is where family comes in. Their characteristics tend to pop up in our characters–whether or not it is intended.

I raised my hand during Q&A to ask whether they realized they were “writing about” their family members as they went along, and how that went over. Adele answered me right away. She works a lot of the issues she dealt with in her family growing up into her stories, and it’s hard to ignore, but it’s her story. If you’re going to do it, you need to own it and be willing to risk your family not being happy with it. Going from a private to a public person was hard–for many reasons–but she makes a point to stay authentic and it helps her in these types of situations. They also got into talking about how all but one of the panel members is no longer a teenager, yet may of them write in the voice of one.

Ellen used the snarky voice of her 17yo kid in Rumble, Lauren explained that it’s interesting to see how teens create identities that are a pushback against what they don’t want to be vs what they do want to be, and Sarah talked about how familiar that teenaged voice/experience is because, “those were the first roles you knew.” It is such a volatile time in our lives, no wonder there is such a draw! I know I felt very comfortable writing in the voice of multiple teenagers, which always seemed odd to me. They made it all make sense. Thanks for making me feel less crazy, author peeps!

The My Name is [Writer] and I Am a Basket Case panel was Libba Bray, Sarah Fine, Lauren Myracle, Lauren Oliver, Stephanie Perkins, Veronica Roth, and Sara Zarr, moderated by Margaret Stohl.

YALLFest2014 I Am a Basket Case Panel
Proof that none of us are alone.

This session felt so personal. In short, everyone on the panel was open about the mental health issues they have deal with–or are currently dealing with.

The ladies talked frankly about how our brains are wired how they are wired, and that we need to find a way to work with that. Yes, there will be dark times, but that just makes it even more important to reach out to others, to connect, to tell people when you need help. There is always hope. There are always others out there who do, in fact, know how you feel.

The Publishing Trends panel was David Levithan, Emily Meehan, and Sarah Burnes, moderated by Rose Brock.

So trendy!
So trendy!

Right now my first YA novel‘s manuscript is being reviewed by some publishing houses, and I’m about to start on its sequel, so I was really curious to see what this group had to say.

I loved how they talked about diversity in all aspects, how books are categorized, and named some books they thought are truly special. During Q&A I asked what the deciding factor was for people in the industry to move forward on a query, buy a manuscript, or (for librarians/book stores) put that book on shelves. David said that it has to be exciting, something an acquisitions editor wants to work with for the next year-and-a-half. I can only hope mine does that for those who are reading it right now–I can only wait and see!

Next up was She’s Kicking It with Sarah Mlynowski, Marie Lu, Ryan Graudin, Alexandra Bracken, Sarah Fine, and Leigh Bardugo, moderated by Jocelyn Davies.

Girl power!
Girl power!

Right off the bat, the panel pointed us to the article “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” which questions why male characters are always assumed to be strong but female characters need to be defined as such. A perspective I found so intriguing, for, as Leigh points out, the heroine is the one who moves the story forward. Doesn’t that automatically mean she’s “strong,” since she’s the reason the book exists?

They covered likability, being generous with characters who annoy you, back stories, plausibility, and diversity. Mostly, though, they discussed the important of agenda: that of your character and the author. I loved when Marie spoke up to say she’d like to see more female characters like Loki and Magneto. I absolutely agree! And now I adore Marie even more than I did before the session!

My last session was Hollywood Stories. The panel was made up of YA authors whose books/characters ended up on film, such as Kathy Reichs, Ann Brashares, James Dashner, Melissa de la Cruz, Gayle Forman, and Veronica Roth, moderated by Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia.

Hooray for Hollywood!
Hooray for Hollywood!

While I was writing my book I could see it playing in my head as I typed. I can’t imagine it not being something others could see as ripe for the screen, so I really wanted to hear about their experiences. I’ve seen many a book made into a movie that–quite frankly–flopped. Disappointed. I really liked what Veronica and James had to say about the differences between their books and their films. Essentially they agreed that movie versions of books are like an artist’s interpretation, another medium through which we can experience their original story. Yes, there will be differences, but it can be a lot of fun to see it with those changes. I think that is a great attitude, and might even have made me become a bit less of a purist when going in to see such films.

The Closing Keynote with Sarah Dessen and Ally Condie was in a huge theater, yet felt fun and intimate because of moderator Brendan Reichs.

I want all three of these people to come hang out at my house, please.
I want all three of these people to come hang out at my house immediately, please and thank you.

I laughed, I got emotional, I got to know these two women better. But what really struck me was something kind that Ally said about past books she has written, which she now sees weren’t very good: “They represent the best work I could do at the time.” This hit me hard because as I move forward, I worry the work I have done last month, last year, five years ago is almost embarrassing. She’s making me think that maybe I shouldn’t be, because it simply shows how I am always growing, getting better–and isn’t that exactly what we hope for, as writers?

All good things do, eventually, come to an end. Jen and I stuffed our faces at the amazing 39 Rue de Jean (OMG CREME BRULEE HEAVEN), then waddled back to our hotel for one last night.

As I took many car rides, long airport walks, layovers, and cab rides home to New Jersey the next day, I tried to put my finger on what, exactly, it was that I got out of this weekend at YALLFest (other than more rest than I’ve had for a long time and many laughs with Jen). I only got a couple of the six books I had with me signed. I didn’t speak one-on-one with any of the YA publishers there who might be interested in my manuscript. I didn’t swap phone numbers with any other bloggers or writers (most of them were so young that’d feel inappropriate!). Then I saw this tweet by Divergent series author Veronica Roth and realized she just summed up exactly why I was walking around with a smile on my face all weekend long:

I feel energized, ready to dive into the sequel to my first book. I feel confident that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I feel like there is always more for me to learn, and people willing to teach it to me.

Maybe I’ll see some of you at YALLFest 2015. Maybe even from the other side of the table in a few years. A girl can hope, right?

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