This month, we asked five talented youth writers to share their worlds and their writing. Four of these young writers have been short-listed two years in a row, and one – who entered the national competition for the first time this year – placed third in the 2018 competition. Our hats are off to these hard-working and dynamic young writers. We hope you enjoy their insights.
Age 17, Year 13, St Andrew’s College, Christchurch
Age 14, Year 10, Tauranga Girls’ College
Age 13, Year 8, Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu
Age 17, Year 12, St Cuthbert’s College, Auckland
Age 17, Year 13, Diocesan School for Girls, Auckland
Russell Boey: I’ve been writing since I was something like seven years old, although there was a fairly long hiatus between then and getting into it again more during high school. I think the first story I wrote at that time, was, embarrassingly, terrible fanfiction for a terrible science fiction franchise (Alien vs Predator, the black sheep of not one but two fairly respectable sci-fi universes). I historically have an unhealthy obsession with trashy action movies, and telling my own take on those stories was probably what started me off. Needless to say, my writing has matured since then, into work that doesn’t embarrass me to think about.
Asha Clark: I have always loved writing and reading as a little girl so when I was very young I would buy many empty books and write (and never finish) stories. My first piece was an extremely gruesome story called ‘The Dark Forest‘ and… I never finished it!
Jana Heise: One of the first pieces I ever wrote was a haiku about fantails when I was seven or eight. Then a year or two later I made friends with a ten-year-old girl who was writing a novel and I got super excited at the idea. I told her about this dream that I had, I said it would make a great book and then I asked if she’d write it, the epic story of teenagers and dragons and gods. She said, “Why don’t we write it together?” That particular story has been set aside but that was really the launching point from which I started writing more seriously.
Joy Tong: I’m not actually sure when I first started writing. In all honesty, I’ve likely been writing ever since I was taught enough letters to do it, but I started off hating it – all those shudder-worthy reports and recounts at school – and I enjoyed reading stories rather than writing my own. I think it was in Year 5 where I first actually (miraculously) liked the process of it. It was a short, adventurous, crazy little story lasting about four pages with, in hindsight, some probably truly terrible grammar and handwriting. I’d just finished a series set in an incredible fantasy world and I was still in denial that it had come to an end, so I invented my own characters and wrote about their adventures to stay in that glorious headspace for a bit longer.
Emma Uren: The first piece I can remember writing is a limerick about a snail, with help from my mum, when I was about 4. I can’t remember it all, but I learnt the words ‘gastropod’ and ‘hermaphrodite’. However, I’ve been writing my whole life, and I’ve found stories about my imaginary duplicate in Russia from when I was much younger.
Russell: What I most enjoy about short fiction, I think, is the way that the limit prevents some of my own shortcomings. I have a tendency to turn to waxing lyrical in my longer stories, often losing the initial purpose of the story, and I feel like short fiction helps me to overcome this tendency, since there’s no room for wasted words and purple prose. I thought, initially, that this would make my stories much less pleasant to read, but what I’ve found is that often, losing some of the excessive language, however enjoyable it might be to read, makes a story much more powerful.
Asha: I love it because you can tell a whole story and finish it with just a certain amount of words and it can create the same impact that a big story would create!
Jana: I love the fact that everything matters. I think the beauty of a novel is how well constructed the storyline has to be and the amount of commitment and love it takes to write something so long and so whole. I think the beauty of a very short story is the same in reverse – it has to be well constructed and filled with commitment and you spend an enormous amount of time on it polishing and roughing and polishing again with care and love all with the goal of creating something so small in reality and so colourful and large in mind.
Joy: Writing smaller pieces gives me, personally, less commitment and more freedom. I’m sometimes intimidated by the planning and fleshing out involved in longer stories for them to succeed. Character development, plot holes, relationships… those can be pretty exhausting. I like that flash lets you take an idea as it comes, letting it blossom into its own story and only having to sand down the rough patches at the end. It lets me pursue the moods and create images without feeling like they have to be forcibly driven somewhere. You give meanings and messages within a smaller space, but they are just as powerful. After all, isn’t much of life made up of moments of inspiration? I also feel I can express myself in a sparser, more simplistic style. These same reasons are also why I’m usually drawn to poetry, but prose feels more candid and intimate, especially when many of my pieces are self reflective and tied to my identity.
Emma: This competition was the first time I’ve written a very short story. However, I like the format because it challenges you to get right inside a character’s head or a setting within such a small space. As Blaise Pascal would say, it takes longer to write a short piece than a long one!
Russell: I don’t really know how much I can talk about the themes I enjoy exploring in my writing. Themes have never really mattered as much to me as stories do; I’ve always felt that it’s from the stories that themes should come. My favourite genre is fantasy, though, and I like that the best when it’s fairly subtle, character driven work. So I guess you could say that I like to explore the human condition, because I think it grounds a fantasy into something more relatable and marries the wonder of a high fantasy world with the familiarity of this one.
Asha: I love storytelling. Mostly I love emotional storytelling like teenage problems these days rather than fantasy stories about dragons and princesses. I like to write stories that move people or make people think about different things people can feel.
Jana: Many of my stories have links to water or colours or music. I love all those things for different reasons but the one thing that I think they all have in common is power. I think water and colours and music are some of the most powerful and moving things and I love trying to convey the feeling that each envokes in me in my short fiction.
Joy: Much of what I write stems from an exploration of who I am, or things I notice around me – there’s a few on prejudice, struggle, love, life, identity, that usual sort. I find I’m always looking for something below the surface, or trying to depict reality through a different coloured lens. In a way, trying to write about something helps me make sense of what it means to me, from the stars in the sky to that weird tree I like in the front yard. Lots of my writing deals with the unknown, but also of different, beautiful things. I find that much of it is very heavily sensory, especially visually, because I always write with a vivid picture in my mind.
Emma: The cool thing about writing is that you can really explore so many different themes and styles, and I find it important to branch out and try new things. Recently my mum has complained that I’m always writing about death, so I’d better try out something different next! The thing about difficult emotions like those caused by death is that we don’t really understand them, and there are so many levels that you could go on exploring them for years. Emotions can be so complex – even smaller emotions have many different forms that we don’t even have names for.
One subject I’ve been recently intrigued by is how we seem to live such short lives with no way to make a genuine and lasting impact forever, and we are each individually so tiny and worthless in terms of the entire universe, and yet, illogically, our lives are so wonderfully, mysteriously and infinitely valuable – and I think the answer to this puzzle is in our emotions and the ability to make a difference, however small, to just one other person. So I guess I could say that what I like to explore is humanity – interesting characters and complex emotions that make us human, and that make this strange period of time called living worthwhile.
‘Free Fall‘ was also the first story I’ve written that deals with time in quite a different manner, so since then I’ve started to explore time and our perception of it, and how I show that perception, in a novel way.
Russell: I think the biggest change in my writing over the last year has been in terms of scale. My story last year was a sort of a much grander sort of thing than what I wrote this year – it was more philosophical, perhaps a little less poetic, and overall, much larger scale than my entry this year. If I had to sum it up concisely, last year’s story was about the world, and this year’s story was about a person. I wouldn’t call it more personal, exactly, but it was certainly more localised, and I think that’s a trend I’m continuing. I’ve felt more and more that short fiction is at it best when it explores something small, a human story, and I have every intention of continuing in this way.
Asha: In 2017 I had just moved to where I live now in the hopes of becoming happier so I made my story “Dear Satan…” which was a comedy. But after the year I realized where I lived wasn’t the place for me. I was getting bullied and having problems. Writing was my only escape and helped me but as I became more dependent on it my writing became more about my feelings and sadness than ever before. So what changed were my feelings and how I wrote about them.
Jana: I think my two pieces Cake and Ice Cream (2017) and Timber (2018) are both very different, done in different styles with different ideas but I don’t think my approach has really changed much. With that said, I think the amount of time I spend editing has certainly grown.
Joy: I have always had a terrible eye with my own work: I never seem to notice any changes and it’s a genuine problem sometimes! Both last year’s and this year’s story are small snippets of an ordinary day, a turning point that reveals something more. I feel like my writing style has become more vocal, closer to how someone might speak, but also a bit more clipped and straight to the point. I suppose it’s helped move the story along yet at the same time I feel I’ve lost some detailing and intricate imagery. I can definitely say one thing has changed in my approach, which has helped shorter fiction come easier to me. I’ve realised that flash isn’t just trying to squash a bigger work within a tiny word limit. It’s letting your style become more meaningful and articulate, focusing on what you want to say and going deeper rather than broader. Unfortunately that’s one lesson that still hasn’t made its way into my blathery and waffley essay writing!
Emma: I’ve been writing pretty much my whole life, and I started entering competitions in Year 10 under the guidance of my incredible English teacher. In 2017, I’ve written for the Warren Trust Awards for Architectural Writing, Signals and The New Zealand Poetry Society International Competition, in which I tried out writing haiku seriously for the first time, as well as school competitions and awards. I really like trying new things in my writing, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed entering the NFFD competition.
The piece I wrote for the competition, Free Fall, was actually inspired by a piece of art. We had an English creative writing trip to the Auckland Art Gallery near the start of the year, and, in the first activity we did, we were asked to discuss the painting Free Fall by Shane Cotton in groups. One of the other girls explained her interpretation of the painting to the group, and then afterwards our guide read out the artist’s own intention. I was shocked by how different my interpretation of the painting was from both of these, and since I’m a great believer in there being no wrong answers or wrong interpretations in art, regardless of the intended meaning, and art being what you make of it, I decided right then and there that I had to put mine down on paper.
My interpretation was a narrative, or at least a frozen piece of a narrative, and, as my art interpretations usually are, it felt immediate, intuitive and emotional rather than analytical – not so easy to put into words. Although it was inspired, I felt as though it was separating from the painting to become its own thing. I wrote Free Fall all once that evening, and after I had written it I absolutely loved it, and felt it was a finished and complete work. However, it struck me as being quite different – as well as dealing with time in a way I hadn’t tried before, it seemed to be a poem written in prose form. This was a little problematic because I wanted to enter this work in a writing competition, but every competition I knew of was divided into either prose, or poetry. When I discovered the Flash Fiction competition, I was ecstatic because I knew I had finally found the right place for Free Fall. To this day, it is probably my favourite piece of writing that I have produced so far.
Russell Boey, Pooh Sticks: To me, ‘Pooh Sticks’ is grey, no question about it. I wrote it with a certain sequence from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh in mind, the moment that Pooh comes up with the game. It’s a beautiful scene from one of the best animations ever, in my opinion – the forests are gentle green, orange leaves blow across the frame, the sun shines brilliant yellow, and the river such a bright blue that it warranted a mention in the story – I think I said that it ached with colour. And I remember thinking to myself that colours like that don’t really exist. And so the world I thought of was one where none of those colours existed anywhere except in Jack’s head, and maybe they died with him, drifting in a grey river.
Asha Clark, I Own a Dog: Black, because black is an extremely depressing color. Although it is one shade it can express so many things and that’s what I feel this story can do.
Jana Heise, Tinder: Grey. I think this story deals in monochromes.
Joy Tong, Lines: I think there are two distinct colours: a washed out lilac and a yellow like a dim, musty living room light. Lilac gives me a feeling of freshness, appreciation of beauty, of the stunning evening sky that inspired this piece and doing unconventional or spontaneous things. The yellow is the colour inside the house – stark, stifling and stale. I think it encapsulates the idea of conformity to the status quo, even if it results in lovelessness at its core.
Emma Uren, Free Fall: I visualise grey when I think of the story – a swirling, pale grey – perhaps because of the setting in a storm, and perhaps due to the inner turmoil of the character and the callous indifference of the world around him.
Thank you – all of you! – for sharing your writing and a glimpse at your creative worlds.
Readers: You can find the youth stories from the 2018 NFFD competition here.