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Scarily Good: meet the Young Writer’s Competition Finalists

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This year’s diverse group of Young Writers Competition finalists vindicate the power of imagination and demonstrate the power of creativity. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

Ask Around DB and Life on Lantau Young Writers Competition (YWC) entrants Renee Tan, Millie Zoë Tarrant and Hermione Barnes-Clay if they believe in ghosts and the response is three blank faces and cricket-level silence. Ironically, the trio are the finalists in this year’s contest, which demanded a ghost story. So much for writing what you know.

“When I was little and played around with friends asking if you believe in ghosts I was always ‘Yes – and no,’” says Hermione, 13, who attends Discovery Bay International School (DBIS). “I don’t know. I would say no but I guess it could be possible.” Possibility is good enough for Discovery College’s (DC) Millie, 12, who chimes in with an answer that hints at her active imagination and engagement with the written word. “I used to read a lot of ghost stories when I believed in them, when I was, like, seven. But anything’s possible, I guess.”

DC’s Renee, 15, is the most cautious of the three, finishing with an answer that hedges all bets. “I don’t know about ghosts, but maybe something like spirits. I’m not sure. If you don’t know then maybe you just don’t say absolutely ‘No.’”

This year’s competition once again put a call out to all secondary school writers currently attending school or living on Lantau for creative writing to be judged by a trio of author-mentors: Peter Sherwood, Trisha Hughes and new recruit John Saeki.

The finalists’ stories went to an online vote on Facebook from June 7 to 14, with Renee placing first, Millie second and Hermione third. The runners-up, Rebecca Tilbrook, 15, DBIS; Ada Arho Havren, 15, DC and Kayla Adara Lee, 15, YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College, as well as the finalists, each received a selection of books from Bookazine at a prize-giving ceremony at DBIS on June 19.

Books proved the perfect gift for Renee, Millie and Hermione, each of whom is an avid reader – if not on a career path to authorship. Ask what the girls plan on doing with their lives (bear in mind, the oldest is 15), and only Hermione can see writing playing a part.

Renee Tan

At 15, Renee is oddly elegant for her age; she’s well on her way to becoming the woman she’s going to be. Born in the SAR to a Malaysian mum and Singaporean dad, she’s slower to open up, but when she does her words are considered while also being searching. “I might be interested in law, but I’m not sure. I don’t want to set my mind on something I don’t fully know about.

Watching is Renee’s second go at the YWC, though last year’s entry was more of a school exercise (nonetheless she finished in the top six). “This year, I wanted to do something that seemed ordinary at first and surprising towards the end. I wanted to work with someone who could improve my story. I wrote specifically for the competition and to learn from someone with more experience, to help me in the future.” Mentor Trisha Hughes was a good fit, providing the feedback Renee wanted. “I was really happy she was willing to give up her time. I really like her,” Renee says.

Trisha, who has a string of publications to her name including the V2V series of historical fiction and bestselling memoir Daughters of Nazareth, says the strength of Renee’s story made her job easy. “All she needed was a few suggestions to make it more suspenseful and a bit of editing to finish it off. And she didn’t let me down. She listened to everything I suggested and she has produced a remarkably polished story.”

With Watching, Renee switches up the point-of-view so that the story is told from the ghost’s perspective and she actively hopes to make a connection between the ghost and the reader. “A true horror story is not one where a zombie or a vampire jumps out at you with gnashing teeth,” says Trisha. “There is nothing more scary than a story written about every day occurrences that leaves the reader in suspense, then concludes with a dramatic ending.”

Millie Zoë Tarrant

This year’s youngest finalist, Millie is a bundle of giggly energy, with a mind obviously always on the go.  She declares, “I’m so bad at talking in public,” but launches into a detailed breakdown of the origins of her story.

Like Hermione, Millie’s parents relocated from England to Hong Kong roughly 25 years ago, and also like her co-finalist she has an older sister. “My mum and dad moved here without knowing each other. They went back to England for the wedding and to have my sister,” she sniffs. “They couldn’t be bothered to go back the second time. I would have preferred they did.” Millie’s surety should serve her well if she studies law at Oxford, which is her goal right now.

To most, law and creative writing are worlds apart, so what was it that spurred Millie to enter the contest? “I’m not really a writer. I don’t think of myself as a writer. I did this to give me some confidence; you guys liked it, obviously… I did this for the experience, and I didn’t expect to get this far.”

Her story, The Night My Brother Returned, about teen suicide stemming from bullying, was vivid enough to warrant a flurry of emails between our editor, DC and her parents, though Millie assures everyone she’s fine. “Because of my reading, I kind of have a lot of experience – not experience but knowledge – about cyber bullying and people who have suicidal thoughts,” Millie reasons. “I wanted to raise awareness. So yes, I did have a message.”

Mentor John Saeki, the author of The Tiger Hunters of Tai O, agrees, and notes, “Millie’s story jumped out at me. I found it absolutely gripping and it moved me strongly. I believe bullying and social-media harassment are deeply disturbing realities of our time and it affects everybody, whether they be children, parents, teachers or family members.”

Hermione Barnes-Clay

“I think I’ll probably go to an art college or something,” Hermione says of her possible future. “My sister’s probably going to an art university, since our dad’s an artist and a storybook writer… I’m considering a degree in English, or at least an A Level,” she adds with all the weight any 13-year-old should give major life decisions.

Hermione might rethink the writing thing considering she’s clearly better at it than even she thought. “When I heard about mentors and photo shoots and interviews, I was a bit surprised,” she says with a laugh. Until the last minute, she didn’t even know who her mentor was. “Is it Rachel?” No, that’s our editor. “I really didn’t expect to get this far.”

Born and raised in Hong Kong to parents from the UK, Hermione is almost typically arty, reading and drawing since a young age, and making up stories. She admits to a fondness for horror and gothic horror, though currently she’s reading science fiction in the form of Jessica Khoury’s Kalahari. Fifty-eight was born from those tastes, and pivots on an apparition that hangs around some train tracks, to dire consequences.

“I always liked dark stories. They interest me,” she explains. “The story was inspired by a childhood story that I can’t remember where from, about this girl who draws children in, and to their deaths.”

Mentor and Around DB columnist Peter Sherwood picked Fifty-eight for its fright factor – and its pace. “A wonderful build-up, slowly increasing the interest and tension, and ending suddenly in horror. Pretty simple and not at all easy to achieve, particularly for one so young,” he says.

Hermione’s youth only reveals itself when she admits she didn’t intend a message for Fifty-eight: she just wanted to creep readers out. Mission accomplished.

You can read Renee’s, Millie’s and Hermione’s stories at the links below.

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