Sydney Story Factory takes teens from playground to published authors

Young talent time:  First time published students (L to R) Finbar Clayton, Phoebe Lu, Briana Terman, Bindi Mutiara; ...
Young talent time: First time published students (L to R) Finbar Clayton, Phoebe Lu, Briana Terman, Bindi Mutiara; (Back) Grace Chen, Lisa Choi, Sebastian Wooldridge and Luka Bakota. Photo: Steven Siewert

A published book for any first-time author is a bright and shiny thing.

To the graduates of the inaugural year-long novella workshop of the Sydney Story Factory, the not-for-profit creative writing centre for young people, it is playground bragging rights and career possibility all rolled into one.

Since February, nine students have met weekly to develop original story ideas and seven of them – the youngest 12 and the oldest 16 – have become published authors with their finished novellas printed for sale.

Looking back on the year of Thursdays, the Story Factory's storyteller-in-chief, Richard Short, feels much like an embarrassingly proud uncle. "It just makes me wildly, wildly happy to celebrate these works," he said at the launch.

"I think we all know that it's got more to do with hard work than miracles. What we saw all do was struggle through the early attempts to come up with the ideas rich enough to develop and to get through to the final phase of editing that was so difficult, heart-rending but necessary to create a good piece of writing." 

The goal was to extend the young writers, many of whom had been coming to the Story Factory since it opened four years ago. 

At the finish line the novellas are of varying lengths and genres, ranging from a fast-paced, military adventure to a witch's magical quest in ancient Egypt and gritty tales of teens losing their way.

Students had been selected less for their sophisticated writing skills than because they would stick with the challenge. 

Editorial teams from Penguin Random House and Allen & Unwin took the manuscripts from drafts to the polished, published copy.

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For Year 7 Newtown Performing Arts student Finbar Clayton, 13, writing a novella proved way harder than he thought.

His first idea was to write a story of magical powers and cliched villains but he got bored so switched to a story featuring vampires and ghouls. "I thought it was brilliant and I wrote a page of that until I realised it was terrible and I hated that."

He finally settled on the idea of a "plain old, run-of-the mill mouse".

"As I was writing all these other fantastical stories I started realising that I was writing the same stuff I always write, and I had this idea what if I write something I have no experience of, something outside my comfort zone that would keep me engaged to the end."

The youngest author Phoebe Lu, 12, took her inspiration from a class history lesson on ancient Egypt to write her novella of a witch who brews a potion and finds herself a key ingredient short.

Luka Bakota, a Year 7 student from Dulwich Hill High School of Visual Arts, had the toughest learning curve of the group. He lost 20,000 words of his draft science fiction story when his computer died.

"I lost all of it and I had no back up." Bakota started again and his darkly humoured portrait of a cussing 15-year-old teen, Danny, carries the only "mature content" warning.  

Sebastian Wooldridge was in Year 4 when his mother forced him to attend the Story Factory's very first workshop.  "I was good at comprehension, my writing was terrible. I used to hate reading, now I love it." His action packed novella was inspired by a viewing of American Sniper.

The quality of writing is, says volunteer proofreader Alison Lyssa, impressive. "There's a freedom to the young people's work – vivid, rich vocabulary, rich imagery.

The Story Factory's primary aim is to help children from Indigenous and non-English speaking backgrounds find their writing voices. Whether these students become full-time writers is beside the point, says Short. 

"Some of these kids have gone from being interested in writing, to people who identify themselves as writers. That's a massive leap as well as a difficult leap. Even novellas are big and imposing things."