Marked in ink: the Younger Young Writers’ Program
This interview is cross-posted from NYWF where I’m one of the official bloggers this year.
When I walk into the launch of the Younger Young Writers’ Journal on the final night of NYWF, the young writers are covered in blue paint, faint blue marks smudged on their cheeks from journals recently printed, the ink not yet dry. It has the unintentional effect of looking like an initiation ritual, a physical sign of their admission into the world of writing and publishing.
They each walk up to the microphone and read the first sentence of their stories – sometimes as little as four words – and they’re incredibly evocative: ‘It took Samuel Fredrickson two minutes to die’, ‘Allie hated this’, ‘Hooves beat down on the earth behind me’, ‘The world is full of things.’
The YYWP runs annually as part of the National Young Writers’ Festival and this year, thirteen young writers were selected to work across the four days to produce a published chapbook of their stories, Wasted on the Young, working with volunteers on everything from editing to layout to design.
Following the readings they stand at the back of the venue, giggling and signing each others’ chapbooks and I wade amongst them to find a few to interview: Kiralee, Rosie and Mitchell. Later, when I read their three bios at the back of the journal, freed from the listings of publications in which their work has appeared, they’re funny and revealing: Mitchell Waller (17) ‘is a Newcastle student who writes about life, the universe and explosions’. Rosie McCrossin (14) ‘public transport is where she finds most of her good characters. She’s the one sitting in the corner with the notebook’. Kiralee Roscoe-Bynon (13) ‘dedicates most of her time to writing and in 2011, she won an international competition on an public writing website called “Wattpad”.’
They chat with me about how they came up with their stories – Rosie talking about listening to anecdotes and scribbling notes in her journal when her friends tell her stories. Kiralee draws on dreams and uncomfortable life experiences, Mitchell works from the central idea, the climax of the story and then fleshes the narrative out from there.
Their influences are varied and suited to their writing styles: a mixture of YA novelists, film directors and some of the writers they’ve met through the program. Kiralee likes Becca Fitzpatrick, Richelle Mead and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series. Mitchell lists Chuck Palahniuk, and screenwriters / directors like Quentin Tarantino and Chris Nolan. While Rosie likes Sonya Hartnett, Wells Tower and Benjamin Law – who launched the journal that night.
When I ask what sorts of writers they want to be they are unanimous in their answer: novelists. ‘That’s the dream,’ says Mitchell.
Their answers are insightful and show how advanced they are at their young ages, especially when I ask them what they got out of the YYWP: Kiralee says she’s learnt the importance of ‘showing not telling’, and of how to strike a balance between the two. Mitchell describes the importance of structural editing, ‘they’re not just editing the words or mistakes, they’re editing the concepts.’ Rosie explained that there were so many more job opportunities she didn’t know about outside the twin paths of author or journalist.
I feel inspired by them, who will have had ten years of writing on me by the time they reach my age, and it’s a feeling I know was shared by many of the other older writers who worked with them over the four festival days. None more so than Chad Parkhill who was their mentor and Program Coordinator for the YYWP.
I spoke with him about this year’s project and how other young writers can begin publishing their work too.
How was the Younger Young Writers’ Program structured this year?
This year we produced a chapbook over the three and a half days of the festival. Younger young writers are usually very familiar with the process of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard—most writers I know were perpetual scribblers at that age—but the publication process can remain something of a mystery. What we wanted to do is crack open the black box that is the publication process and feast on the knowledge, wisdom and experience provided by a team of excellent publication professionals.
You lowered the age bracket for YYWP this time around – dropping it to 14 and also capping it at 17 years. Why did you want to focus on this age group rather than the slightly older writers of previous years?
Young writers under 25 and older emerging writers (25–35) are already well-served by the National Young Writers’ Festival. But we haven’t traditionally reached out to the 14–17 age group, and we found that writers of this age are truly excited to be part of the festival. While the intensive nature of the program meant that many interested parties couldn’t participate—it’s hard to spare three and a half days in the school holidays, especially for young writers who live outside of the Hunter region—we had a huge response to this program. In fact, not one but two of our participants are actually thirteen (and a half)—these writers were sufficiently plucky to email me and ask if I could bend the age rules slightly, which I was happy to do (with their parents’ permission, of course!). I think that speaks a lot about the passionate interest that this project has attracted—and that interest makes me feel as though lowering the age range was the right move to make.
The project this year was creating a chap book. What was it about this aspect of the writing process that you felt was important to show to young writers?
The reason we wanted to actually create a chapbook—rather than simply running workshops and seminars—is because there’s something immensely satisfying about learning through work. The chapbook isn’t “pretend”—it’s going to be available for purchase both in print (a first edition of 100 copies) and online. Along the way the younger young writers have seen editors and other publications professionals in action, working with them, so it’s not an abstract thing, either: they know all about copyediting, for example, because they have seen copyeditors transform the work in front of their eyes. We’ve had a few of the problems and setbacks that plague other print projects, too—and these are learning experiences, too, because we’re giving the younger young writers an insight into the unvarnished world of publication, where tight deadlines and unforseen setbacks sometimes mean that you need to make do and be resourceful.
The participants had to have pieces written before beginning the program – what sorts of writing did they produce?
I’m really thrilled to say that it’s impossible to sum up the diversity of this chapbook in a sentence or two. The submissions are restricted to fiction and poetry, but within that you have a remarkable spectrum of topics: from speculative fiction about a reanimated Hitler to a thoughtful, meditative piece about the desire to break free from everyday routines. Some themes have emerged organically: more than a few submissions focus on illness, for example. But all in all the final chapbook is a real potpourri of styles and subject matter—in the best possible sense.
What other opportunities are there for younger writers wanting to begin publishing their work?
Two that are worth mentioning are Voiceworks and The Line. Voiceworks is of course a tremendously important part of the Australian literary scene, and remains the only magazine in the country to give feedback on every submission—which means that even if you don’t get published, you do get editorial feedback that can be used to strengthen the work. Adolfo Aranjuez from Voiceworks helped out with this project and we’re really glad to have him on board. The Line is a Federal Government initiative and they are really excellent at giving young writers a voice online—and their pay rates are excellent, too.