I had the great pleasure of being the short fiction judge for Burlington Public Library’s Take Flight & Write Teen Writing Contest. I read some incredible submissions – stories with such breadth of imagination and emotional depth that very often I engaged with them less as a judge and more as a swept-in reader. I chose a first and second place winner in three different age categories (Grade 7 & 8, Grade 9 & 10, and Grade 11 & 12). These winning stories are all striking in their ability to elicit emotion; all of them resonating with a kind of maturity, understanding of form, and uniqueness of voice, style, and character. So inspired, I wanted to learn more about the authors who wrote them. Below is a series of interviews done with each of the first place winners – Julia Marin (Grade 7&8), Kirsten Marquez (Grade 9&10) and Becca Lawlor (Grade 11&12), as well as the second place winner in the Grade 11&12 category, Brendan Bevan. Under each photograph, you’ll find a link to his/her winning story.
CATEGORY: GRADE SEVEN AND EIGHT
First Place: Julia Marin, Them
1) What is on your bookshelf, and what books are you currently reading? My bookshelf is mostly realistic fiction. Books about mental/physical health, family problems, social problems, things like that. There’s some dystopian fiction and sci-fi in there as well. I am currently re-reading Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, in preparation for the movie.
2) Do you keep a specific writing routine? How does a story typically come to you? Routines don’t work for me; I can only write properly when I get inspired. Ideas and inspiration can come from anywhere; from a good book or video, to things that happen in my own life. They usually come to me in sections, like smaller ideas and events that eventually develop into something bigger and better. Also, Shane Koyczan, a spoken-word poet, is a huge help for my writing, especially during writer’s block. His work helps me organize my thoughts and ideas, and he never fails to get me in the mood to write.
3) Which authors are most influential to your writing? Laurie Halse Anderson’s book “Speak” is probably the greatest influence on my writing style. I love the analogies, the metaphors, how the book is both sarcastic and powerful. The way it was written is so unique, and I like to think it inspired my writing style. There’s also Shane Koyczan, whom I’ve mentioned in the previous answer, who really inspires me, especially since I’ve been trying to incorporate more poetic qualities in my writing as of late.
4) Your story Them captures the paranoia, delusion and self-loathing of a narrator alienated and trapped in her own head. What inspired you to write a story that articulates this type of experience? Where did the idea come from? The topic is something I always found thought-provoking and extremely interesting, and I’ve written some things along these lines in the past. Around the time I actually came up with the idea of “Them”, I was listening to a lot of spoken-word poetry. The poetry is probably what inspired me the most to build on my old work, and from that I eventually came up with a concrete idea, which quickly became something I thought was worth sharing.
5) What is your favourite word? Travesty or Reminiscence.
Read Julia’s winning story here: Them
CATEGORY: GRADE NINE AND TEN
First Place: Kirsten Marquez, Silent Soldier
1) What is on your bookshelf, and what books are you currently reading? My bookshelf is mostly filled with young adult series. I really enjoyed the ‘Delirium’ trilogy by Lauren Oliver. The ‘Divergent’ trilogy is also a favourite of mine. I also enjoy books by John Greene and Stephanie Perkins. I’m currently reading the last book in the ‘Divergent’ trilogy, ‘Allegiant’.
2) Do you keep a specific writing routine? How does a story typically come to you? I wouldn’t say I have any sort of routine, other than staying behind the laptop screen for a few hours, coffee in hand. A story usually comes to me whenever I’ve read a really great book or watched a movie where the plot is very captivating. It usually inspires me to think about my own writing and different ideas that could bloom into a novel.
3) Which authors are most influential to your writing? John Greene is definitely an inspiration to me since he’s an author who’s been able to create such compelling plots with unconventional characters, yet makes his stories relatable to teens today. Lauren Oliver has also been a large inspiration because I love the way she’s able to flawlessly depict an image in the reader’s head. While her writing can be very descriptive, there are simplistic sentences that manage to create a huge impact on the reader’s emotions and opinions. I like the way she keeps readers on their toes, which is something I strive for in my own writing.
4)Your story Silent Soldier is evocative of the heartbreak that comes with departure. What compelled you to write about this particular topic, and what inspired the overarching metaphor of ‘the silent soldier’? I noticed that many authors have written novellas for readers to be able to experience thoughts from a secondary or minor character. When you read stories about tragic events, the person going through it themselves are often the main protagonist. For my story, I wanted the protagonist to be in the perspective of someone who wasn’t directly experiencing an event themselves but was just as largely impacted, because it’s often the struggle of these people that we forget about. I wanted the readers to understand my character and others like her. By using the metaphor it helped emphasize that although you may not see or hear about it, they are fighting their own battles just as desperately.
5) What is your favourite word? Serendipity.
Read Kirsten’s winning story here: Silent Soldier
CATEGORY: GRADE ELEVEN AND TWELVE
First Place: Becca Lawlor, A Confession
1) What is on your bookshelf, and what books are you currently reading? I usually gravitate towards romance or fantasy in my reading and therefore love J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter novels (which I am currently re-reading for the third time) and all twenty of Richelle Mead’s books. I have stepped outside of my norm and enjoyed historical fiction by Diana Gabaldon, though. I typically only read books-series because I get really attached to characters I do not want to say goodbye too soon.
2) Do you keep a specific writing routine? How does a story typically come to you? It takes me a very long time from when I think up the idea to when I put it down on paper. I mull it over for a few months or sometimes years and, keeping a journal with me at all times, I jot down important notes and passages. I find moving vehicles while listening to loud music or watching emotional movies very inspiring and typically have a flood of ideas preceding such events. The “writing in my mind” as I call it is such a lengthy period because I want to gather and puzzle out as much as I can. When I feel I finally have enough information and decide to start writing it out, I can get lost in my thoughts and the words seem to pour out of me.
3) Which authors are most influential to your writing? J.K Rowling has definitely been a huge influence and motivation. She creates such strong female leads and has deep life messages in those words. It is not just a fantastical story; everyone can draw from the humility and bravery of the characters that do good in the face of adversity. Not to mention, she managed to make millions of children read in a time where children are not reading. Her writing has made a difference in people’s lives. It would a privilege to do a fraction as much good as she has with her writing.
4) Your story A Confession is a powerfully written and brave piece about a young man struggling to accept his sexual identity (an identity that challenges his values). What inspired this story? I have faced many challenges in life, particularly recently. For years now I have struggled with my own sexual identity and the difficulties in coming out to my parents. I have met many young people along this journey and unlike my parents, who are my number one supporters, my friends have faced unfair judgment and ostracism due to how they identify themselves. Seeing the horror around me and ultimately, a friend taking their life is what drove me write this story which is very close my heart.
5) What is your favourite word? “Um” is my favourite word. Although it is actually not a word, but a sound, when one says, “um” it shows consideration of thought. Also, for someone to say it aloud reveals a hesitancy which is a vulnerable characteristic, an attribute that is admirable.
Becca’s winning story can be found here: A Confession
Second Place: Brendan Bevan, Caps
1) What is on your bookshelf, and what books are you currently reading? On my bookshelf is an array of Steven Erikson novels, and few books from A Game of Thrones. Currently, I am not reading a book as I have just finished Erikson’s This River Awakens.
2) Do you keep a specific writing routine? How does a story typically come to you?I don’t actually write that often, rarely writing outside of school assignments – “Caps” is one of these. As for generating story ideas, I start with the theme, the core of the book. I don’t worry about the plot or characters at all. Then once I have a theme, I think of how I would like it to end. After I develop a rough ending, I start from the beginning and everything else comes as I write.
3) Which authors are most influential to your writing? Steven Erikson. The way he can make literally hundreds of memorable characters is extraordinary. He also mixes meaning with action better than any other authors I’ve read, creating a page-turning that also keeps you thinking and pondering life. He’s also very poetic and utilizes sentence structure and length and paragraph length to do amazing things.
4) Your short story Caps highlights the reality of elementary-school alienation, bullying and indifference. I found your character Willow extraordinarily memorable. What inspired him and his bottle caps? The story was based off of a prompt received from school regarding how society reacts to marginalized individuals, and the controlling idea I chose was one of indifference and unreasonable alienation. I needed a very strange and unique character who would be alienated due to some sort of strange habit that made sense if one cared to look beneath the surface. The idea of popping caps actually comes from an episode of the cartoon Arthur which I watched ten years ago and somehow still stays in my mind. After I decided with the caps, I needed a way that causes Willow’s habit to make sense yet not to those who do not know the full story – thus the little side thing with his deceased mother. The personal characteristics of Willow come from my own imagination as I tried to create a heartwarmingly strange individual that would draw sympathy from the reader.
5) What is your favourite word? Sloth
Brendan’s winning story can be found here: Caps