Learn How to Write a Young-Adult Novel — With Help from Bill Konigsberg and ASU

Bill Konigsberg, award-winning author of young adult novels and assistant professor of practice at the Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University, where he coordinates the Your Novel Year online certificate program.EXPAND
Bill Konigsberg, award-winning author of young adult novels and assistant professor of practice at the Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University, where he coordinates the Your Novel Year online certificate program.

"This is the best-kept secret," Bill Konigsberg says. The award-winning young-adult author, who recently received both a Stonewall Book Award and a PEN Center USA Award for his YA novel, The Porcupine of Truth, is referring to Your Novel Year, the only online certificate program in the country for those looking to write young adult novels.

It's housed at the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University, and Konigsberg is the program's coordinator.  

"There's a huge YA community here," Konigsberg says of the Phoenix area. "It's remarkable. We have this whole world here."

And he wants to see that community grow. 

During Your Novel Year, students write and polish a full-length manuscript with the support of instructors, a mentor, and a cohort of eight to 12 fellow writers.

"Teaching writing a novel is hard," Konigsberg says. "There really isn't a road map." That's why, in most MFA programs, the focus is on the short story. So Konigsberg got together with Jewell Parker Rhodes (artistic director of the Piper Center and author of children's books Ninth Ward, Sugar, and Bayou Magic) and YA author Tom Leveen (Party; Zero; Manicpixiedreamgirl) to figure out how to make an online certificate program work. 

What they developed is a structured environment combining six workshop courses with two periods of one-on-one mentorship to take students from the first words to final manuscript, emphasizing the importance of having people around you who are also writing. 

Though it's called Your Novel Year, the program is actually an 18-month commitment. The first 12 months are spent writing a draft, while the following six months are for revising and preparing the work for submission to agents and editors. 

Katie Donahoe finished the program in May and is busy polishing her novel. She says the most surprising thing about her writing journey was "how much I did not know before I started the program. You think it's just getting words on the page, but even if you're really good at words, learning to think as a novelist doesn't always come super naturally."

She says she learned things such as "how to write satisfying conflict, ending each chapter on a tantalizing moment," and so on. Not to mention, she says, "the program gave me a huge step up in terms of learning how the publishing industry works."

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According to Konigsberg, there is no difference between writing a YA novel from a regular novel except for one specific challenge: You need a teen protagonist. So students talk about teen psychology and what's realistic in terms of teen behavior and thought.

Your Novel Year draws students nationally, and admission is competitive. But according to Konigsberg, about 50 percent of students are local writers. He adds, "we're looking for an ability with voice." 

In addition to the talents of Konigsberg and Leveen, instructors at Your Novel Year include local YA author Amy K. Nichols (Now That You're Here and While You Were Gone) and Barry Lyga (The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl and Hero-Type) as well as a roster of top-notch mentors. "If you look at our mentors, we have some superstars of young adult literature," says Konigsberg. This is echoed by Donahoe, who says, "They are really, really good at what they do."

Donahoe lives in Phoenix but found the online format convenient. "So much of what we do is workshopping our writing, and we are on the computer anyway," she says. But there were opportunities for face-to-face interaction. "We could always arrange to meet up at a coffee shop or plan a happy-hour get-together if we wanted to."

Your Novel Year might be a well-kept secret, though likely not for long. Both Konigsberg and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing think the Phoenix area could be a hub nationally for young adult authors. As Konigsberg points out, "We have some amazing students. This is only year three of the program, and it takes time to bring a book into the world. But by year six, we'll be looking at the first novels [by our students] coming into the marketplace."

Applications for Your Novel Year 2017 are currently being accepted through October 31, 2016. Applicants must submit a creative writing sample of 20 to 25 pages and a two- to three-page essay about background, goals, and interests in the program, along with a $50 general application fee. For more information, and for complete program fees, visit piper.asu.edu/novel.

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