When I heard about the Writer’s Digest Annual Competition awards, on the advice of a friend who’s known for having brilliant ideas about social media, I decided to contact all the first place winners in the other categories and try to find out more about them — the story behind the winning story, what else they’re writing, and where they are on this path. I’ll be posting these interviews periodically. Please check out each of these writers’ blogs and writing. Some truly amazing people. Including — especially — Julia Byers. I can’t believe how good and how accomplished she is — period — and it’s even more remarkable when you consider that she’s 19 and is squeezing this stuff in around college life. I cannot wait to read her winning story (in the category of children’s/young adult fiction). I’ll post a link to the WD competition collection once it’s available for purchase — maybe you can join me in reading the work of all these really interesting, talented people. In the meantime, check out their blogs and FB and Twitter, and join me in learning more about them.
1. Tell me about your winning story.
I wrote my story “The Things I Leave Behind” this past spring, during my freshman year of college, for an introduction to short story writing course. It was the first story I turned in for class, back before I’d really had any official instruction in creative writing, so I was extremely nervous about whether or not my professor would like it. (What if he told me I was a terrible writer and should go study accounting or something instead, right?) I spent a good week and a half freaking out about what to write about when—while trying to distract myself from the assignment by searching for a location to hold a future writing retreat at—I stumbled upon the image of a backyard in Colorado Springs. Colorado Springs is an absolutely gorgeous area, but it also suffers from frequent wildfires, so that created an interesting juxtaposition. I began writing right away, with a peaceful home in the mountains about to be ravaged by a fire as my backdrop, and the rest of the story sort of just flowed from there.
“The Things I Leave Behind” is a standalone short story.
The narrator—a teenage girl who recently moved from New Jersey to Colorado—spends the majority of the story packing up her things to evacuate from a forest fire. In her bedroom, she has a rocking chair that her grandparents passed down to her when they died, and it’s something she has a very strong emotional attachment to, but she knows her family doesn’t have the space to take with them as they leave. The moment she finds the strength to leave the rocking chair behind—to accept the situation at hand, even though it’s a terrible one, and make the best of it—is one that I think a lot of people can connect to, and it’s my favorite for that reason.
The story will only be available when the competition collection comes out in November.
2. When did you decide you wanted to write, or that you were serious enough or good enough to call yourself a writer? What do you love about YA/ how did you choose a genre/ how did you know what to write?
Honestly, writing has never been a decision for me—it’s just something I’ve always done. My mom can tell you how I used to follow her around, badgering her to write down my stories, back when I was three years old. I think it was second grade when I began trying to write novels. Some people are born with silver spoons in their mouths—I was born with words.
YA has always been the genre I’ve tended towards (yes, even back in second grade); I find that period really interesting, since so much of the identity and values you carry with you for the rest of your life develop when you’re fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old. I like exploring the challenges in finding and defining those values, so YA is the natural category for me to write in. (Plus, at nineteen, teenagers are the age group I understand best.)
3. What are your goals or current projects? Where are you on your path to being a published writer?
I’m currently in a creative writing class, which means turning in or revising short stories every week, so that keeps me pretty busy. Outside of that, I’m also querying a YA spy-thriller with literary agents and preparing to write my next novel (either a YA contemporary or scifi) for NaNoWriMo. My ultimate goal is to publish a novel.
4. Tell me a little about the writing conference you founded — and how that came about.
I founded and run the Chapter One Young Writers Conference, which is a writing conference by and for teenagers who are passionate about writing, especially novels. As someone who grew up in the writing community, it was important for me to find other young writers who understood what I was going through—writing under my desk during algebra; revising on Friday nights; figuring out how to participate in a world meant for adults between orthodontist appointments and theatre rehearsals. I did find those young writers online, through the Scholastic’s Write It online forums for kids, but the moment I began looking for in-person opportunities to bond with them—through conferences and retreats—it became apparent that the opportunities were scarce. Everything was meant for adults. And as someone who attended her first writing conference at sixteen, I can tell you firsthand that being a kid amongst a sea of grownups is about as daunting as it gets.
In 2012 (with a lot of help from my unreasonably but wonderfully supportive parents), I put on a small conference in Chicago for a group of my friends from Write It—an event that taught the sorts of things we had all learned at events meant for adults, this time targeted to teenagers. It was a great experience and a ton of fun. So, in summer 2014, we’re opening the conference to other young writers as well, middle school through undergraduate, who would like to come together to learn more about writing, publishing, and supporting one another in the industry.
It’ll take place just outside of downtown Chicago on Saturday, June 14th and Sunday, June 15th. More details are available at: www.chapteroneconference.com
5. Who we are and what we believe often comes through in our writing since it influences our world view. Does your faith (whatever it might be, or even a lack of faith) play any part in what you write?
I’m Presbyterian, with a sort of weird mixture of values from other religions and influences that I’ve picked up, and it definitely comes through in my writing. I don’t drink, so my protagonists generally don’t drink; I try not to swear in my day-to-day life, so my characters only swear when the situation calls for it. At the same time, I’m big on not judging people for believing different things than I do, so I try to remain open-minded about other values and ideas, both in my writing and life in general. When it comes down to it, I’m not a big fan of the institution of religion, but I am a big fan of God, so I try to honor Him with my writing.
6. My blog and book are about prayer, but focused more on creativity and about new ways of looking at things. Do you have any interesting or unusual approaches to writing and/or your writing process? Or anything to say about the connection between your music and writing? Or any advice for someone who has the desire to pursue this passion? Or would you like to share the best writing advice anyone gave you? (Or any other semi-related topic?)
My writing process is pretty simple—I just do whatever works (which generally involves being a hardcore pantser rather than plotter).
I generally write songs when I’m at the height of an emotion, so a lot of the time lyrics will come first, and then once I’ve calmed down more and can rationally view my situation again, a short story or novel will follow, in which I try to better understand and handle what’s happening in my life emotionally. For example, while I’ve never had to evacuate from a forest fire the way the protagonist in “The Things I Leave Behind” does, I did have to pick and choose what to bring with me when I moved to college—making the decision of what to allow to continue to be important in my life, and what to stop caring as much about—so I understand the feeling.
The best advice anyone has ever given me comes from Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo. William G.T. Shedd said it originally, but Chris Baty is the one I heard it from and who first applied it to writing, so: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.” Basically: It’s easy to be scared of sharing your work with the world—of rejections and bad reviews and poor sales—but when it comes down to it, writers write to share their words. So even when I’m worn down, doubting myself, and terrified of what might happen next, I continue to share my work, because I’m a writer and that’s what writers do. It’s what we have to do to keep going.
7. Quick — don’t stop and think about it — can you name five books you’ve read fairly recently that you loved and would recommend that others read?