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YWC countdown: tips from the Young Writers Competition mentors

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With the deadline for this year’s Around DB and Life On Lantau Young Writers Competition fast approaching, Trisha Hughes sits down with fellow mentors Peter Sherwood and Sharon Le Roux to provide some tips for wannabe finalists.

Last year’s entries to the Around DB and Life on Lantau Young Writers Competition (YWC) were exciting and enthralling, and we mentors loved every minute of the experience. We were astounded at the level of talent, imagination and creativity displayed, and, if this year is anything like last year, we are going to have a hard time picking the three finalists.

young writers competition

With this year’s subject – Lantau life in 2030+ – we can expect a lot of powerful stories about the island’s ongoing development and, of course, a lot of mind-blowing science fiction. As mentors, each of us is going to be looking for something special that grabs us personally; something that makes us feel an emotional connection to the subject and transports us into the story. That’s not an easy thing to do but we know it’s possible.

Last year’s winner, Kayla Lee, did  this for me. Her amazing thought- provoking story on Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele had all of those qualities, and I was stunned by her ability to write such a powerful story from his point of view. Stories can start and end in countless ways and no one can tell you which one is the right one. Sometimes you can even start at the end. This worked beautifully for Kayla and she wrote a story that was hard to beat.

How to start your story

Not all of us are like Agatha Christie who was able to sit down and write a story from beginning to end without too much effort. Knowing where to start is always a challenge. Sitting down and getting that first sentence on paper can seem like an insurmountable task. Most of us need guidelines.

I always use the ‘Five Ws’ method: what, where, when, why and who. Where are you and when? What can you see? What can you feel? Is it hot? Is it cold? Who are you and why are you there? It’s a very simple start and it gives you a basis from which to begin your story. Using these simple guidelines, you can expand and take the reader anywhere you want.

Always the pragmatist, Peter advises: “The key is just to write, remembering it takes 10,000 hours to get professional – at anything. I always tell entrants that if we’re serious there is only one way to learn to write, and that is to write a lot and read even more. “

It does not matter how we do it, or where,” Peter adds. “The great novelist John Le Carré writes his brilliant bestsellers by hand. When I interviewed novelist Frederick Forsyth, he told me he writes on the portable typewriter he bought in Paris in 1961! And the best English ever written was with a quill pen.”

When I start writing a story, I normally have the setting, main characters and plot already mapped out in my mind, but you may find that your ideas only start flowing once you begin.

“Write a ‘what if’ first sentence… and keep going,” Sharon advises. “‘What if my character met a dragon, or woke up in a place completely different to where he fell asleep, or…?’ Write whatever comes to mind, until you are literally buzzing with excitement about what is happening. Continue to write how your character solves the problems he encounters, and how he proves himself the hero.”

Sharon is also quick to point out that, these days, readers have short attention spans, so you need to draw them in with the first sentence or two. “One way to do this is to drop the character (and the reader) straight into the middle of the action,” she says. “This will interest the reader straight away (as any sudden action does) and will serve to hook him because he will ask who is this happening to… and why. The same thing can be achieved by using a short piece of unique dialogue or description.”

Creating a fictional world

In story writing, whether plot or character comes first is sort of like the chicken and egg thing, and it greatly depends on your point of view. The way I see it is that you can have a story idea without characters, but it’s hard to have an actual plot without characters. To develop a story of any length, you need first to understand thesecrets, faults and dreams of your characters. And of course once you know your main character inside out, you can make sure the reader is connected to him.

“A story is something happening to someone we care about,” Sharon says. “Something may well happen, but unless the reader has been led to care about the character first, what happens will be irrelevant or – worse – boring! Make the character likeable in some way – kind, funny, fallible – someone like us, who we can immediately empathise or even sympathise with. This way, by the time something goes wrong, the reader is already hooked; he is emotionally connected with the character, concerned for him and hoping things will turn out OK.”

When it comes to picking a location for your story, it’s tempting to choose a new and exciting place, somewhere you’ve never been before – a Bedouin market, for example. But Sharon warns against this: “To hold the reader’s attention, you have to make the setting feel real, and if you’ve never actually been to such a place (and can describe it – the sounds, smells, colours etc.) that might prove difficult.

“The best thing to do is take a setting that is familiar to you (e.g. a café), and write about what you personally connect with in that place,” Sharon advises. “Don’t over describe – remember a reader knows what a café looks like – just point out a unique feature or two to make this particular café different from any other, so that it’s believable and interesting, familiar and yet different.

“Don’t focus exclusively on what a character sees or hears,” Sharon adds. “In a café setting,  for instance, smell and taste adjectives can evoke a mental picture, taking the reader out of his chair and placing him firmly in your fictional world.”

How to handle rejection

We mentors are always impressed, not only by the quality of entries to the YWC, but by the courage it takes to submit them to scrutiny and possible publication. Showing your work for comment and criticism – not only to a panel of judges but to the whole community (during the online vote) – is a great way to learn, but it can also be very daunting.

If you are put off by this aspect of the competition, remember that all writers experience criticism and rejection. Eventually we develop a thick skin but it still hurts. It truly does. We pour our hearts and souls into our projects, not to mention endless days and nights, and the last thing we want is to be rejected… So do you want to know my fool-proof method of handling rejection? It’s quite simple really – tear your hair out, howl and cry, and then head straight back to the computer.

“Rejection is part of writing and partof life,” Peter says. “We should learn to love it, learn from it and move on. I suggest you get your article finished, leave it for a week, then go back and read it as if someone else had written it. The process can help you see flaws or inspire you to make changes or do a rewrite.

“Above all, be yourself,” Peter adds. “Remember, whatever you write is yours alone, it’s unique. No one can ever do it the same. The reason to write is to find your voice; to express yourself in a new and refreshing way. The excitement lies in uncovering ideas and expression from our unconscious mind as we write – one idea leading to another. Like peeling an onion, there is always another layer.”

So, with the March 7 deadline fast approaching, my fellow mentors and I wish you great fun writing your stories, and the best of luck in the competition.


All secondary school students living and/ or studying in Lantau are eligible to enter the Around DB and Life on Lantau Young Writers Competition. Students are asked to submit an account of 600 to 700 words describing Lantau life in the future – in 2030+. Be sure to check the YWC guidelines here, or the Around DB and Life on Lantau Facebook pages, and submit your article by March 7 to [email protected].

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