Tag Archives: competitions

Encouraging the young wordsmith

Dear Mr Peg, 11 year-old A is forever filling up notebooks with stories she has written. Are there any tools or apps we can use to encourage tweens to keep on writing? Thanks, Risky Business.

Dear Risky Business,

Thanks for your question. It’s excellent that Miss A is shaping as a spinner of yarns. As you know well, storytelling is a skill for life. I can’t think of any job where the ability to connect with people and communicate clearly isn’t a massive advantage. From where I’m sitting, (oddly enough, in a parked car, in a narrow, one-way street near a hockey ground, where someone just called me a strange man… OK, maybe a tale for another day…) these are vital skills to encourage.

Like Miss A, I was an early bloomer as a writer. I have exercise books filled with primary school tales of superheroes, explorers and magic. Then there are the excruciating, angst-ridden adolescent-era diaries, and the gnarled notebooks containing tertiary level crimes against poetry. Decades later, the ideas are captured in electronic notes and, hopefully, the maturity is honed, but the ideas still flow freely.

So what can you do to keep Miss A writing?

#1 Read, read, read
I know you’re already onto this but aim to read with/to Miss A daily. Every book is a lesson in writing and an invitation to imitate and improve. I’m grateful to my parents for giving me this advantage.

When Miss A finishes a piece of writing, encourage her to read it aloud. This is one of the best ways for her to learn about punctuation, language and dialogue. We want to train her ears to hear what works and what needs work. Even if you don’t like everything she’s written, pick something you did enjoy (an image, a character, a sentence…) and praise it.

#2 Train the storytelling muscles
Just as you might throw random times tables questions at the kids to improve their multiplication skills, toss questions at Miss A to feed her imagination. ‘What are those people doing over here? Why? What might they do next?’

Use art works or stories in the news to get started. Why do you think a 12 year-old-boy wanted to drive across Australia?

Take a line from a song and ask Miss A to build a story around it. For example, there’s a Paul Kelly song that says, “I’ve done all the dumb things’. What dumb things did the person do and why?

If you can’t keep up with Miss A’s appetite for ideas, search the Apple AppStore for ‘prompts’. There are plenty of options, including some tailored for young writers. You could also try this website with child-friendly jump-starts.

#3 Go for gold
Google writing competitions for Miss A’s age bracket. They’re not easy to find but they’re out there and they offer cash prizes, opportunities to be published (sometimes) and, best of all, a chance to build confidence and writing fitness. Try libraries, local councils, schools and writing groups. Even supermarket competitions that call for an answer in 25 words or less can be exercises in disciplined creativity.

If she wants to develop endurance and spend a month on one story, there’s a youth edition of National Novel Writing Month (or Nanowrimo).

#4 Find her tribe
As Miss A gets older, there are writing communities to explore. Apps like Wattpad and Tablo are for people who write and want to link with willing readers who consume and comment on their material. I’ve been researching these options since I received your question and I wouldn’t want my 11-year-old hanging out here yet. Not unless she’s into erotic fan fiction about boy band members…

But if she’s willing to travel south for a school holiday workshop, I would highly recommend the 100 Story Building.

And when she’s a little older, you could check out these options:

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#5 Be boring parents
It’s easier said than done in a busy household but try to create opportunities for Miss A to find time and space to listen to her imagination. Actively seek silence or give her a nook to retreat to. Boredom can be beneficial. It gives an active mind a reason to go solo and find its own adventures.

Help her to be resilient, too. I’m sure you’re already on to this but she’s going to need this quality to survive as a creative soul. Because writing is a matter of taste and tastebuds differ from reader to reader. Everyone is a potential critic and the WWW and social media are overpopulated with cowardly trolls.

Even away from these toxic influences, confidence dips, soars and disappears for long stints. She’ll need lots of love to help her find her way back to trusting her storytelling instincts. But when she gets back there, it will feel sensational.

Sorry I took so long to answer. And good luck.

Mural photo by Tim Pegler
Keep your eyes open for inspiration

Young writers

I’m always telling young/aspiring writers that they should enter competitions. Why? Because not only can you attract accolades, gain experience and sometimes get published, there can be some BIG BUCKS up for grabs, too.

I recently received an email asking me to promote the State Library of Queensland Young Writers’ Award 2012. I’m only too happy to do so. You have to be a Queenslander aged 18 to 25 to enter. You could win up to $2000. That’s got to be worth a crack, right?

Given that the newish Queensland State Government couldn’t wait to axe its Premier’s literary prizes, other Sunshine State initiatives that promote writers and writing should be sung from the rooftops.

For all of you lucky young Qld writers, the competition details can be found here. There are some valuable tips for writing short stories on the page, too. Good luck.

Are librarians an endangered species?

Let’s hope not. Actually, let’s not leave it to hope. Let’s campaign to ensure librarians aren’t casualties of over-stretched school or council budgets. Kids need books and librarians know books best. A recession without good books is a depression, from where I’m sitting.

I reckon I owe a lot to librarians. Partly because I was an advanced reader in primary school and therefore annoying to the teacher flat out dealing with the kids under the bulk of the bell curve. So I regularly got shunted off to the library. There the librarian would match books to my interests or suggest new ideas for me to explore.

This is why I had the title character in Game as Ned spend so much time in the library. I was interested in the idea of stories as a source of courage – so there was no better place to put Ned.

During secondary school and early university I entered some writing competitions and, at one point, ended up getting second prize from a local library. Funnily enough, almost 20 years later, after being made redundant from a full-time job and returning to creative writing part time, I entered the same competition at the same library … and came second again. I prefer to see that as consistency, rather than failing to make progress. (Smiling)

You can find the New York Times article that inspired this post here.
Like every good library, it’s worth a browse.

How to make judges smile

I started entering writing competitions when I was about 17. The encouragement I got from even the most obscure of commendations helped build my confidence, little by little. It was enough to keep me writing, even when I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.

After the dust had settled from a competition, I always found it useful to hear what the judges were looking for and what they enjoyed. What gets published in an anthology and what misses out is always fascinating too. (Just don’t get sucked into buying a book on the hope that your work is in it. Unless you have confirmation you’re being published, wait and look at it in a library.)

Anyway, as mentioned previously, I have been judging a secondary school short story competition for several years now. I never meet the winners or their teachers so it is all very impersonal – but if I had the chance to chat with the entrants here are the tips I’d pass on:

1. Proof-read your work for spelling and grammar errors. Spell-check software doesn’t always work (e.g. someone had “delicate” when they meant “delegate”) and is set by default to US English rather than Australian. I’d rather read Aussie English than Bill Gates’ best guess.

2. Reading your work aloud is the best way to check how it will sound to other readers.

3. Strive for unique humour, situations or insights. Taking a character on a journey only to conclude with “it was all a dream” is … yawn … a tired idea. But perhaps the dream changed the character in some way … Perhaps the author has a new spin to put on this old idea.

4. Let your character grow or learn. When you put yourself in the character’s shoes, ask how the events of the story would have changed them.

5. Surprise me. Knock me off balance. (Read Roald Dahl short stories for some classic examples.)

6. Think about descriptive language and be innovative and fresh. “Ice cold”, for instance, is unnecessary; everyone knows that ice is cold. In what other ways could the cold be described? Cold as the footy clubroom showers? Cold as my sister’s glare? Cold as an empty bed. Create an image that works for you and then sell it to your reader.

Get all or even a few of these right and you’ll be a contender!

Oh, and fancy fonts and silly stationery just annoy judges. Stick to something that’s easy on the eye!