Advice from Authors at the National Book Festival

Last week I wrote about the history and importance of the National Book Festival. The National Book Festival was created as “an opportunity not only to reaffirm America’s love of reading and learning, but also to share that passion with the next generation.” This week I thought I would share some of the stories and advice that three authors who participated in the festival—Holly Black, Margaret Atwood, and Veronica Roth—shared with festival goers.

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Author Holly Black reading an excerpt from her newest book, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.

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After Holly Black’s talk, I ran into another festival goer, Megan Whalen Turner! Megan Whalen Turner is the Newberry Honor-winning author of The Thief. If you love fantasy and political intrigue, you should most definitely check out her books! I may have fangirled. A little. And creepily asked for a picture with her. All for you, dear readers. All for you.

Holly Black is the award-winning author of the children’s series The Spiderwick Chronicles and the young adult novels Tithe, Valiant, and the new book The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. At the National Book Festival, she read an excerpt from her newest book and answered questions from the audience. During her talk, she said something that really struck me, that “being a writer is something you commit and recommit to a million times.” She talked about how when you’re a kid, everyone wants to be a writer, but then one day you look around and realize that you are the only one still standing. She also does not like zombies, as they “smell, shamble, and scare [her]”. Her three tips for aspiring writers are: (1) to reading everything and to read things outside of your normal genre, (2) write and revise a lot, and (3) to find a critique partner who likes what you like and is honest.

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Margaret Atwood was so funny. She had everyone in the audience laughing throughout her entire talk.

Margaret Atwood is one of the most-honored writers of fiction in recent years, and has written novels, books of poetry, short stories, and is even working on an opera. One of her most famous works is The Handmaid’s Tale. During her panel, she said that “we enjoy stories, music, and food—we learn these things naturally, but other things like dentistry and accounting we have to learn another way.” She also talked about how there was a time when people wrote books that they thought were interesting, a time when there were no genres. “Every time we try to make a box and put something into it,” she said, “people dismiss the box or put the wrong things into it. We should only be worried about whether a book is good or not.”

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Veronica Roth at her panel.

Veronica Roth is the bestselling author of the Divergent trilogy, a series that she started writing in college instead of doing her homework. She talked about her frame of mind while writing Divergent, saying that just as Tris, the protagonist, decides to go into an unknown, she was also about to go into an unknown, as she was about to graduate from college. She said that Tris’ journey in the book is about realizing how small she is in the world but rediscovering her own power. Roth also talked about developing a heroine, particularly about how people  use the word ‘strong’ to talk about YA heroines. She thinks that this phrase is frustrating because it is unclear what it means—does it mean eschewing feminine characteristics for masculine ones? She said that Tris is described as ‘strong,’ but that she tried to expand the definition of this word because Tris “makes big mistakes. She has unnecessary bravado and heroics, and should have admitted she needs help. I tried to develop her strengths as well as her weaknesses.” Roth’s tips for aspiring writers are to (1) write a lot, (2) follow your gut with what interests you, and (3) to show your work to people you trust who will be kind when they criticize your work. She is not sure of what she will write after the third book in the trilogy, Allegiant, comes out, but it will be YA and most likely science fiction or fantasy.

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I waited in line for a few hours to get my copy of Divergent signed. More than 500 people waited in line to meet Veronica Roth!

I had so much fun at the National Book Festival this year, and learned a lot of valuable information from so many authors. These are just snippets, but the Library of Congress should have videos from the weekend up on their website soon. It was a wonderful weekend of talking about books with other people who are passionate about books, and I am already looking forward to next year.

Part One: What is the National Book Festival?

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A beautiful sunset on the National Mall.

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