This month publishYOUth spoke with Kaya Dierks, an acclaimed youth writer and playwright from California! As a two-time YoungArts Finalist and five-time Scholastic Art & Writing Awards National Gold Medalist, Kaya has incredible advice for crafting and sharing your stories. She was also a Writing Mentor & Intern with Writopia Lab, and a member of the esteemed 2020 Adroit Mentorship Cohort. Here we spoke with Kaya about her unique writing process, how she got into playwrighting, and her advice for her young writers!
What fuels your passion for writing?
It’s actually hard to answer this question! But if I had to boil it down to one thing, I’d say love for my characters pushes me to write. I feel committed to my characters and their stories – which means, of course, that I have to write those stories!
You’ve won a plethora of awards for your writing, such as the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, Adroit Journal Prize for Prose, and Columbia College Chicago Young Authors! How did you prepare to submit for these competitions, and what is something you learned from these opportunities?
When preparing for contests, I might keep in mind deadlines or word count requirements, but other than that, I block out thoughts of competition when I’m creating. I have to write from an internal place. Whenever I try to cater to a competition’s aesthetic – or even just get wrapped up in the idea of submitting – the quality of my work suffers. So I just try to block everything out and write for myself. What kind of writing evokes joy in me? What internal bar do I have for my own work? My number one goal is always to write stories that I’d want to read.
I’m so grateful to the readers and judges who have connected with my work. However, I’ve also received a TON of rejections (I just don’t advertise them)! The number one thing I’ve learned from submitting to competition is to write organically, striving to meet internal standards instead of external ones. If you’re writing to please yourself, even if your work doesn’t resonate with one judge or one contest, you always know that you produced something that made you happy – which is a victory in itself.
One of the things we most admire about your writing is how captivating it is. How do such ideas come to you, and are there any strategies you utilize to make them come to life?
I don’t think I’ve ever had a full story idea all at once – usually, I’ll start out with a character or a place, or even just an opening line. But the second I feel that tickle of a new idea, I grab my laptop and start banging out copy.
I write a LOT, but only a tiny fraction of what I write is any good. So, after I write a few drafts, I go back and scrap and cut and purge. I’ll even re-write large chunks from scratch. All of the stories I’ve submitted come with this big backlog of Word documents – chock-full of stuff I’ve scrapped.
In this process of cutting and re-writing, I only keep the parts of the story that are strictly, absolutely knife-to-your-throat necessary. Every line should be doing some narrative work, whether it be setting the tone or revealing character or moving along the plot. My hope is that this strict editing practice produces stories that are engaging and fluid reads!
In 2020 you became a YoungArts Finalist for Short Story and Play/Script, the only double finalist in the nation that year! How was that experience, and what advice would you give to students in being chosen for such opportunities?
YoungArts was such a powerful experience! I’m so, so grateful to have had the opportunity to join their cohort of writers, artists, and creators. While I didn’t write either piece with YoungArts in mind, one thing I’ll say is that I was scared to write both pieces. I held them inside me, but they scared me. And when I wrote them, I felt relief. I think that’s one piece of advice I have – lean into the things that scare you. If you’re writing something and feel like you’re balancing on the edge of a blade, I think you can feel that energy in the work. And it’s exciting to read!
How did you get into playwrighting?
I got into playwrighting because I was struggling to write dialogue! Every time a character would speak, the prose would come out tinny and flat and mechanical. I started writing plays to target this weakness.
Your captivating 10-minute play, “Forward”, was a winner in the California Young Playwrights Contest. How do you go about crafting scripts, and what is your advice for writing pieces with authentic dialogue and emotions?
I write scripts the same way I write stories: I write way more than I need, then go back and purge. The emphasis on dialogue in plays was daunting at first, but I got used to it! My advice for writing dialogue is to practice as much as you can – try out a play (like I did)! Or even just scribble imagined conversations into the margins of a notebook.
I also sometimes “people watch” – eavesdrop on the people around me and mine their exchanges for ideas. This is especially helpful for dialogue; as someone who had to work hard to make dialogue feel natural, I found that critically analyzing how real people speak helped me enrich my fictional characters’ voices.
You were a Writing Mentor at Writopia Lab, and a part of the 2020 Adroit Mentorship Cohort! How would you juxtapose learning and teaching writing, and how can youth get involved with such opportunities?
Actually, my experiences at Writopia Lab and Adroit were more similar than different. Through both mentoring and being mentored, I found myself discovering new facets of writing. The writers around me inspired me to create.
To me, both experiences highlight the importance of a writer community. Whether it’s teaching younger writers or receiving mentorship from an established author, I found myself driven and electrified by the diverse voices of those around me. I highly recommend that everyone apply to community-building programs like these (Adroit, especially – I couldn’t recommend applying there enough!). I think that most applications (including applications for both programs I did) can be found online – Yejin Suh, an established teen writer, has a great list of writing programs up on her site, which is a fantastic jumping-off point.
Now that you’ve graduated and are on your way to university, how does it feel to look back at your high school writing career? Is there anything you’d change, or what would you say to your younger self?
To be honest, when I look back on my writing career, I’m just grateful. I attended an insular, provincial high school nestled in a very rich, white suburb – it was a place where I struggled to fit in and feel safe. Writing gave me an incredible outlet. The writing community was the only place I had to share my voice and feel accepted for who I am. I guess if I had a chance to talk to my younger self, I’d just say: Keep writing. Keep submitting. Don’t lock your voice in your throat.
And to any other emerging writers out there: The teen writing world can be an incredible community. I hope you all keep sharing your stories.
You are currently working on a contemporary fiction YA novel! How has that process been and what can you tell us about the book?
It’s been fun – and challenging – to attempt to write a novel. There’s so much more outlining, structuring, and drafting that goes into producing a full-length work compared to producing a short story. The process has been grueling and rewarding. I’ve learned so much about my writer voice and writer values through this project – though there have been more than a few late nights where I want to rip out my hair in frustration.
My contemporary fiction YA novel is tentatively titled “Crushed,” and it’s loosely based on a short story of the same name I wrote last year. It’s about an introverted teen grappling with his sexuality as his homophobic father deteriorates from lung cancer. I’m aiming to finish my first draft by the end of summer, and we’ll go from there!
Finally, what advice do you have for youth writers in believing in their skills, regardless of publication?
Each publication and contest has a different ‘aesthetic’ or sense of literary values. For example, one contest might only care about the plot of a story, while another might only look for excellent, crisp language. If a contest rejects you, it might just indicate a mismatch of values – that your work, your aesthetic, just doesn’t jibe well with theirs. It might not be an indication of the quality of your work at all.
So keep submitting. Keep writing with confidence and with grace. Keep pushing yourself to produce your best work. Eventually, when aesthetics align, external validation will come.
And even if validation doesn’t come: In my opinion, the simple act of bringing new words into this world is always something to be celebrated and deeply respected.
Special thanks to Kaya Dierks for her participation in this interview and the writing community! Feel free to follow her work online, and stay tuned for her upcoming contemporary fiction YA novel!