Tag Archives: judging

YA fiction: The dark side

It’s a perennial yarn. Someone easily shocked or offended picks up a work of Young Adult fiction and reels at the contents. Horrified that their innocent young darling could be corrupted by such truth-telling, they quickly fire off a complaint to the library/school council/education department/all of the above. A cranky letter to a local newspaper follows and before you know it there’s a story cobbled together asking whether YA fiction is too dark and dangerous for young people to read.

As a journo and YA author I follow these stories with particular interest. These days I’m more author than journalist so I was amused/bemused by a recent media request to discuss this exact topic. The piece was due to run in a Fairfax weekend mag but I’m yet to spot it. (Please shoot me a link if you’ve seen it.)

One of the points I failed to make during the interview is that I grew up in an era where there was no YA section in bookstores or libraries. In the school libraries I frequented, once you were beyond Enid Blyton and had scaled the heights of Ivan Southall and Colin Thiele, you were fast running out of options. In town, the library bus visited fortnightly. While my younger siblings pillaged the limited children’s selection I was free to range the semi-trailer and make my own choices. Invariably I returned home accompanied by Stephen King, James Clavell or James Herbert – guys who didn’t exactly bubble wrap the darkness and violence in their stories. I don’t believe I’m any the worse for reading their work before I turned 18 or 21 or whatever age you’re allowed to know the world isn’t entirely Blyton-esque.

My own YA novels draw heavily on my experiences as a journalist and subsequently contain dark matter. I make careful choices about what I include and how explicit I should be. I also borrow from history as true stories often can’t be topped. It’s rare that I get a complaint. (For the record, I did get one a few weeks back from a reader disturbed by one of the historic elements I used in Five Parts Dead. I’d forewarned him the books were intended for older children and told his parents to read ahead of him… Interestingly, he preferred Game as Ned, which I feel is even more confronting. We clearly have different sensitivities.)

One of the things I did refer to when interviewed was the short story competition I judge annually. The entrants are 12 to 18 years of age and heavily skewed towards the 13-14 year old bracket. The topics are of their own choice – serving as a free window into teen thinking. Having just finished the judging, here are the topics covered this year and the number of young people who tackled them:

A favourite from my adolescent years. I've read this many times.
A favourite from my adolescent years. I’ve read this many times.

  • Bullying (4)
  • Cancer/disease/mental illness (5)
  • Divorce/family breakdown (6)
  • Family/travel/good times (7)
  • Heartbreak/love (8)
  • Horror (8)
  • Murder/kidnapping/crime (4)
  • Natural disaster (1)
  • Road fatalities (5)
  • Sci-fi (5)
  • Suicide (3)
  • War (6)

I could rail on about fiction being a safe space to explore and gain insight into the dark side of life but I think that list renders my comments redundant. Many young people portray a world that is considerably crueler than I could dream up.

So I’ll keep on writing the stories that feel right to me. Hopefully, to quote one of my former editors, my stories will show that even in dark places the light can shine through.

No rest for the weekend

Cue nefarious laugh. Weekend… wicked, geddit? Sigh. OK, I apologise for the bad pun to launch this post. It seems that one of the unspoken rules of ageing is that your humour takes a hook turn toward Dodgyville.

Then again, perhaps it’s a sign of stress. Busy I am. This week, extraordinarily so. Here’s a sample of the current and prospective action along the Thunder Road.

  • Sun: Cycle 110 km as part of a training ride for the Ride to Conquer Cancer
  • Mon-Tues: Work on a massive project for the federal government, deadline mid-November
  • Wed: Research/writing time on TWO book proposals. Exciting stuff! Then off to the State Library to discuss the future of the Dromkeen Dragons.
  • Thu-Fri: Back to the aforementioned mega-project. Pressure on, big time. Lots of stressed people. Also, judge the short story competition for the Whittlesea Agricultural Society annual show.
  • Sat-Sun: Riding to Conquer Cancer, approx 100 per day, raising money for the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. Camping overnight in the chilly Yarra Valley.
  • Mon: Back to project land, briefing a crucial agency on the action so far.
  • Tue: As above but throw in a panel discussion with two brilliant bookish people at an eastern suburbs school.
  • Wed: A return to research & writing.
  • And on it goes.

Better to be busy than bored, yes? Man, I should not be posting, Yoda-style, on a Friday night. It’s three parts tripping, one part blogging.

OK. Deep breath. There were, cough, three valid, rational reasons for attempting this post.

1. My annual short story competition them round-up.

I’ve been judging the WAS competition for umpteen years. I see the topics year 7 to 12 students tackle in their stories as a geiger counter for the issues occupying teen minds. For all those people who say my books are too dark, check out what the kids are writing about this year:

Dementia; disobedience; detention; death; parenting (good & bad); death; birth; bullying; ageing; Rhonda & Katut; drought; fire; manslaughter; domestic violence; murder; alien invasion; asylum seekers; poverty; death; racism; divorce; disability; murder; murder; murder; dystopia; fast food containing rats tails; fire; domestic violence; refugees; dementia; dystopia; alien invasion; fairytales; road trauma; racism; bullying; corrupt religion; broken hearts; dishonesty.

It’s a good thing that stories are a safe place for young writers to explore the dark and the light in their lives.

2. Big news. Five Parts Dead is now available on iBooks, Amazon Kindle, Google Books, ebooks.com. Kobo and ReadCloud. That makes me very happy. Tree-books are good too, though.

3. I wanted to tell you about my recent experiences crash-testing new work with real live, Impro Melbourne actors. Blimey those people can think fast. Way faster than me, late on the eve of a big bike ride. So, I’ll end with another apology. My time on stage with the actual actors will have to wait for a future post, sorry. Good night.

Spell check fails

Time for a shocking confession. I make mistakes when writing. Good thing you were sitting down, right? I consider myself reasonably competent at spelling but far from infallible. Grammar and I don’t always see eye to to eye. (There’s a ‘Dad joke’ begging for attention here but I’m going to step away quietly…)

Most of my (real, non-blog) work passes by at least one proof reader and editor. And, most of the time, they detect and delete my errors, flawed logic, typos and grammatical anarchy. But not everyone has this back up to make their writing, you know, read good.

That said, (nudging soapbox forward) I’m still dumbstruck by some of the mistakes I find in entries to writing competitions. I’ve just finished judging an annual competition for secondary students and there were some classic bungles this year. Yes I know, they’re students not professional writers. But proof-reading should be a basic skill for anyone beyond Year 9, shouldn’t it? And if you’re going to enter something in a competition (or your teacher is), surely at least a veneer of polish is worthwhile?

Maybe I’m kidding myself.

Anyway, here are a few of the spell check fail highlights from 2012:

‘She couldn’t stop imaging…’ (Imagining, anyone?)

‘Her grandmother spoke of angles and spirits.’ (Did she use a spirit level to measure the angels?)

‘He adorned a pin stripped suite… Other men in suites stood nearby.’ (Sigh. This author was a recidivist and it wrecked a decent yarn.)

‘He leaned over and spoke to the closet person.’ (One little letter, one huge leap for logic.)

‘I couldn’t stop shaking my hand when I was eating breakfast.’ (Pleased to meet you, Mr Typo.)

Best in show

I’ve been judging the secondary schools short story competition for the Whittlesea Show for half a decade (or longer). There have been some brilliant stories over the years and it was fantastic to hear that the student I awarded Best in Show to in 2009 went on to win more prestigious competitions.

Some of the students write on topics set by their teachers and this year “outside the square” seemed to have been prescribed by at least two schools. Thankfully, it was a starting point that allowed plenty of latitude and generated fun stories.

The range of topics covered is always a taste of teen zeitgeist. As I blogged in 2008, the subjects can be very dark. This year was no different.

Horror x 11*
Dystopia x 7
Travel/adventure x 7
Dreams/fantasy x 6
Love/friendship x 5
Military x 4
Murder/death/kill x 4 (*The death toll in horror is high, but the setting and characters are different.)
Refugees x 3
Environment x 3
Sport x 3
Stalkers x 3
Tragedy/medical x 3

Other topics included music/talent quests, agriculture, humour, philosophy and child abuse.

I’m thinking the Twilight phenomenon might have been an influence this year, along with Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series.

Other observations:
– At least two entries this year were plagiarised. Unless teachers have asked you to do so (and there’s no way I can know this), rewriting other people’s stories doesn’t count as your own work.
– Homophones cause a lot of kids trouble. Maybe this reflects poor use of software spell-checks – students often use words that sound correct but have the wrong meaning, with unintentionally comic results. I’m tempted to cite some appalling examples this year but will stick with one from years past, where a student used ‘delicates’ instead of ‘delegates’. Ouch.
– Using a big word backfires if you don’t know what it means. An example this year was “incendiary” which is a great word but was so, so wrong in the context it was employed.
– Fancy fonts are a bad idea.
– Proof read your work. Read it aloud and see if it makes sense to you. If you get tongue-tied or confused, you can guarantee the judge will, too.
– Younger writers seem to embrace story-telling risks more than senior students. I wonder if this is because the older students are being funnelled into the VCE machine where results might count more than imagination. I hope not.

Congratulations to the 2010 entrants. I was impressed by the quality, particular in the Yr 7 to 10 age-groups. To sign off, here’s a clip that’s nothing to do with short stories and everything to do with good writing. It’s from the dog fanciers flick, Best in Show.