It’s a Saturday morning and the Canyon Crest Academy campus is quietly empty except for an auditorium filled with writers, pens in hand, awaiting inspiration.
“I’m looking at a room full of teen writers, how incredible is that?” asked New York Times bestselling author Jonathan Maberry.
Maberry was on stage Feb. 20 at the fifth annual CCA Writers’ Conference, the only free writing conference for high school students in the country, put together by the CCA Creative Writing Club with help from the generosity of sponsors such as Chipotle, Summa Education, Hamilton College Counseling, Wells Fargo and High Bluff Academy.
“This is quite an amazing thing, nobody gets anywhere in this business without help,” Maberry said, noting when he was a kid he got to meet some of the most important writers in the science fiction and fantasy fields and they helped him to believe in his skills as a writer. “They believed that writers should help other writers and they shouldn’t ask for anything in return for it. But there is a selfish component to it. If we help other writers, we get to read more good stuff.”
“I feel like a kid in the playground and I want other kids to come and play with the toys,” Maberry continued. “ I know how hard it is out there and I know that there are solutions to everything, why not share it? This conference is an incredible example of why this mentality works so well.”
Led by CCA Creative Writing Club President Julia Camilleri, the conference included a day’s worth of workshops featuring over 20 published authors. Workshops offered encouragement and advice on writing horror, writing for TV, songwriting, character building, getting published, playwriting, poetry and journalism.
In addition to the workshops, the conference featured a keynote address to kick off the day with the New York Times bestselling author of “The Program” series, Suzanne Young.
Young talked about her origins as a teenage writer, in an era before the internet and cell phones.
Young grew up in Utica, New York, “a tough little place,” splitting time between living with her mother and her grandparents as her father had left her family when she was small. She said they never had a lot of money and all of her clothes were second-hand, but she never knew it was something to be ashamed of as everyone in the neighborhood was living the same way.
When her mom remarried, they moved to a nicer neighborhood and a new school where she tried to fit in, but Young said she could never really change where she came from.
She never really fit in but she found a way to settle in because of her reading — her favorite authors were Stephen King and V.C. Andrews.
“I devoured books, I read all the time, I read through all of my classes,” Young said.
In seventh grade Young wrote her first horror short story and her friends loved it. In ninth grade she wrote her most popular story, a 1980s-style slasher comedy called “School Daze.”
“It was really bad. Mary Kay was tweezed to death, Joe was suffocated with a jock strap in the locker room. I won’t go on, it gets worse from there,” Young said. “It was a hit though.”
In the story, she wrote her first fictional character, not based on anyone she knew — a character named Brad. Some classmates made her feel like she was weird for making people up so she decided to keep the fictional world in her head and the stories she wrote to herself from then on.
In college, she decided to major in creative writing but she still cringed whenever she had to share her stories out loud. However, in college she met other like-minded writers for the first time.
Young moved to Arizona after college and became an English teacher.
“I loved teaching. As an English teacher I’m able to talk about books all the time like it’s my job because it’s my job,” Young said.
On breaks she wrote short stories and was still embarrassed to share them with others.
It wasn’t until she moved to Oregon — writing during the extended periods of being “indoors with wet socks” while it rained and rained outside — that it occurred to her that her books were young adult novels. She had found what she was missing and wrote her first book, sharing chapters with the encouragement of a reader in her family.
She had just began the process of learning about how to publish her work when her grandmother got sick with cancer and she went home to take care of her for the last weeks of her life.
“In my whole life she was the one person who believed I could do anything. She thought I was special. She didn’t have more than an eighth grade education, she never read a single story I wrote and yet she believed in me with her whole heart,” Young said.
When she visited, Young told her grandmother that she had finished a book and her grandmother was so excited — she took her hand and asked that when it came out, she dedicate it to her.
“Her death ruined my life,” Young said. “I was lost. At the time I was teaching part time but I was only going through the motions of my life. I escaped into books. I wrote when I woke up, on my lunch breaks, after school, all the time. I lived in my books. All of my friends were fictional. I wrote three full books in six months.
She sent queries out to literary agents, “all bravery” with nothing left to lose. In 125 queries to agents, she got all “no’s.” Getting published was “hard, fearless” work — she got a lot of rejections, some maybes, got an agent who then dropped her and she questioned whether or not she should continue.
She fought on and decided to set out on her own without an agent and sold her first series, “The Naughty List,” and eventually got an agent, whom she still works with today.
“I’ve published 12 novels, two more to come this year, and every one of them is dedicated to my grandmother,” Young said. “I cry every time I write her name but it makes me deal with that pain rather than run away from it.”
The more books she writes, Young said the harder it is, because her standards get higher. She detailed her writing process to the students — how she gives herself a deadline and locks her self in her office with her dogs.
“If I’m writing, I’m not doing anything else and that includes grocery shopping, cooking, showering,” Young said.
Young said her new book coming out in the fall, “All in Pieces,” is her favorite piece she’s ever written. It’s about a girl named Savannah who takes care of her little brother who has special needs and attends an alternative high school for stabbing her ex-boyfriend. While none of her books are autobiographical, she draws on some of the aspects of her challenging youth in this work.
“I’m really excited to get it out there because it heals some of my wounds,” Young said.
Her most popular series, “The Program,” is about a teenage suicide epidemic and the government’s response to take out triggering memories as a form of therapy.
It took awhile for Young to be comfortable with the criticism she receives for writing about “dark topics”— she said it is not easy to write about suicide and depression. She said she tries to learn from some criticism, to do a better job the next time. Other times, like when she receives mean rants from people, she just has to delete that email and never read it again.
She is a fiction writer but emotions such as loss, sadness, happiness and love in Young’s books come from a real place and from real moments. She encouraged the young writers to always be observant, always be empathetic and see how other people are being treated.
Whether they feel misunderstood as a writer or are held up in class as a true talent, Young urged the teenagers to learn to stop running from criticism or a fear of being different and find a way to tell their stories.
It took awhile for her to stop running but she did and now has a stack of books to show for it.
“I wrote,” Young said. “I used my whole heart and I wrote my way through.”