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My #UtopYA2014 experience

A few months ago, I received an unexpected honor. Publicist KP Simmon and writer Kallie Ross had nominated me to participate on a panel they would be moderating at the 3rd annual UtopYA Con. Though the convention is themed around supernatural Young Adult and New Adult literature, it’s actually open to all kinds of readers and writers, and my panel was not genre-specific. Through my participation with We Heart YA and #NALitChat, I had been tapped to speak about trends in the YA and NA categories. My fellow panelists were Chelsea Cameron and Rysa Walker.

Nashville is only a 4-hour drive from where I live, so two Fridays ago, I headed down the interstate, singing along to the radio and watching the beautiful Kentucky farmlands and Tennessee forests pass me by. I actually thought I would be arriving too late to see one of the panels that I was most interested in, but it turns out I had forgotten about the time zone change. Lucky me, I made it just in time!

The first day took more out of me, emotionally, than I had anticipated. It was a combination of that high I always get around people who are passionate about stories, and the overwhelmingness of so many new faces. I usually enjoy traveling alone, but in this case, it felt like everyone already knew each other — from previous conventions, or at least from social media — and I was the awkward new kid trying to figure out how/when to jump in.

Fortunately, Magan Vernon recognized me from Twitter and said hello, and her warm, welcoming nature encouraged me to be more outgoing on the second day. For several hours, I set up shop between Tammy Blackwell and Keary Taylor, and the three of us had a nice time chatting while we sold our books. (Or in my case, gave away download keys for Twenty-Somewhere.)

My panel was one of the last of the convention, and I think it went really well. Kallie did a fabulous job moderating, and KP, Chelsea, and Rysa had so many smart things to say. The audience asked great questions, and one woman even came up to speak with me afterward.

I had been live-tweeting throughout the weekend, sharing the best tips and observations, but sadly I couldn’t do that for my own panel. The next day, I noticed that a couple people had quoted me — yay! — so I’ve included those below as well.

My highlights from UtopYA Con 2014:

From Gennifer Albin’s keynote on Saturday morning:

From my panel:

Overall, the convention was a really good experience for me, and I’m so glad that I was invited to participate. From what I saw, the organizers did a great job — it’s no surprise UtopYA has been basically doubling in size from year to year.

I feel like I learned and grew quite a bit over the short weekend. And if nothing else, I got a big laugh out of what happens when 99% of your convention attendees are women:

utopya con 2014 011

Stretch your wings

In my opinion, one of the best things creative people can do is partake in creative work outside their chosen field. Because art sings to art.

For me, that usually means practicing photography, going to an art exhibit, or even just watching a great TV show. (Battlestar Galactica, anyone?) But this month, it mean drawing bugs.

Yeah, bugs.

Friend, fellow writer, and all-around-awesome-dude Dustin Hansen decided to start this thing called #MayAlphaZoo — a daily “sketch” exercise, guided by the alphabet. For a couple days it was just me and him, but quickly enough, other artists of all kinds were joining the ranks.

Designer Loel Phelps works with rich colors and textures. Children’s illustrator Amanda Erb draws critters that kill me with their cute. Musician/sound editor Jason Robison is composing short original scores to accompany Dustin’s animals, while Alternative9 Comics is “robotizing” them. Ben Brooks is making a codex of all the creatures in his Middle Grade fantasy work-in-progress. And like I said, I’m doing bugs. The ants and bees were a coincidence at first, but everyone encouraged me to keep with the theme. What can I say? I bowed to the (positive) peer pressure.

What I love about the #MayAlphaZoo project is how I’ve fallen in with this group of amazingly talented artists that I normally wouldn’t have reason to work with. I’m pushing myself to draw better and stay committed every day. And I’m purposely limiting myself to the Paper by 53 app on my iPad mini, because it’s efficient, because I’ve had the app forever and never use it, and because my design classes taught me that constraints boost creativity.

Maybe none of this will directly impact my writing, but I think it’s improving me — as a problem-solver, as an artist, as a person — and I have to believe that trickles through.

Anyway, here are a few examples of what each of us is doing. Hope you enjoy! And if you want to join in, just tweet your work and hashtag it #MayAlphaZoo. The more, the merrier!

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