In this episode, Belinda Pollard, Alison Young and Donita Bundy interview Kristen Young, author of speculative fiction and non-fiction, whose debut novel Apprentice won the 2021 Realm Award. Kristen has abundant insight to share into the writing and traditional publishing process, and how we can make a difference with our words, no matter how we might struggle.
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In conversation in this episode:
- Belinda Pollard, author of mainstream crime novels, writing coach, accredited editor with qualifications in theology, and Gracewriters founder
- Alison Joy, romance author, former early childhood teacher and mother of 4 adult children
- Donita Bundy, writing teacher, preacher and author of young adult urban fantasy
- Kristen Young, Realm Award winner and author of non-fiction and speculative fiction
Topics covered in this episode:
- Why story sometimes trumps sermon.
- Who is currently shaping the world’s view of Christians via popular culture?
- How and why Kristen moved from non-fiction writing to fiction, and how she found her publisher.
- How Kristen’s writing process has developed over time, and influenced her relationship with God as she seeks to transmit truths.
More about Kristen Young at https://krisyoungwrites.com/
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Belinda Pollard: Welcome to the Gracewriters Podcast – Christian Writers Changing Popular Culture. Hit subscribe on your favourite podcast player so you never miss an episode and find show notes, useful links and a full transcript at gracewriters.com.
Today on the podcast, we welcome Young Adult Christian Fantasy author and youth worker, Kristen Young.
I’m Belinda Pollard. I’m an author, editor and writing coach with a theology degree and 20 years in the publishing industry. Find links to my blogs, books and online courses at belindapollard.com.
Alison Joy: Hi, I’m Alison Young. I’m a former early childhood teacher. I have four adult children and I live in south-east Queensland. I write romance under the pen name Alison Joy and you can find all my information on alisonjoywriter.com.
Donita Bundy: Hello, I’m Donita Bundy and for the last 20 years I’ve been using my theology degree to inform my preaching and teaching and more recently my writing and blogging. You can find out more about me at donitabundy.com.
Belinda Pollard: Kristen Young is an author of fiction and non-fiction, a ministry worker and a speaker. Her speculative fiction debut, Apprentice, won book of the year in the 2021 Realm Maker Awards. Yay! And her book on doubt, What If? was shortlisted for Australian Christian Book of the year.
Welcome to the Gracewriters podcast, Kristen.
Kristen Young: Thanks for having me.
Belinda Pollard: We’d like to ask you the rapid-fire five to start with. Are you ready?
Kristen Young: Yes.
Belinda Pollard: Who is your target audience?
Kristen Young: My target audience tends to be young adults and teens although my writing gets shared by people of many age groups. So, whoever enjoys reading the words really.
Belinda Pollard: And what is your main genre?
Kristen Young: I started in non-fiction. My first writing was devotions and books for Christian teens in that genre.
Five years ago, I switched across to fiction and so my current main genre is young adult speculative fiction. The series at the moment is science fiction dystopian.
Belinda Pollard: When is your optimum time for writing?
Kristen Young: I’m a morning writer. I live at home with my husband and three kids, dog and multiple budgies and the best time for writing is in the morning before any of them wake up!
Belinda Pollard: That sounds fair. Where is your favourite place to write?
Kristen Young: My desk I’m sitting at the moment. Yes. It faces a window and it’s a beautiful space to write. I love that.
Belinda Pollard: That sounds lovely. How did you get into writing? Now, this is just the short answer because I’m sure we’ll hear a bit more about this as we go on.
Kristen Young: I’ve always loved writing but I, for many years, felt that there was no future in it and so I went off and did something else for a while. But it’s been a passion for a long time.
Belinda Pollard: That’s speaking to me!
Alison Joy: So, Kristen, how did you decide what you were going to write. Like, you’ve got fiction and you’ve got non-fiction so how did they come about?
Kristen Young: The non-fiction started from a pastoral perspective. So, I was working with a group of teenage girls mostly and the cohort of them all hit the HSC, their final-year exams, and so the first book that was published was aimed at helping them to survive through the final years of high school with their faith intact.
The fiction kind of grew as I was watching society. I was noticing that sermons and non-fiction works were less persuasive on our psyche than story. Stories fly under the radar. They encourage us and while we’re being entertained, they actually model and shape us.
Belinda Pollard: I love what you’ve raised there about the storytelling and the power of storytelling. And one of the things that I’m constantly recalling is that we worship a storyteller.
Kristen Young: Yes, absolutely.
Belinda Pollard: Jesus told stories all the time.
Kristen Young: Totally. Yes. And we turn that into sermons where we talk about the parable of the sower and we then break it down into its little component parts but the things that actually captivated people’s hearts were the stories. It was a case of whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.
For some people they were just entertaining stories. For other people they were life-changing and life-giving. I’m not the Son of God but I would hope to be able to point towards Him in that same life-giving way.
Belinda Pollard: That’s kind of a parable carrying a message.
Kristen Young: My story is a very parable-like story but I think sometimes even just the characters that we watch in our entertainment help to shape our opinion of different things. Yes.
Belinda Pollard: That’s one of the reasons that I actually founded Gracewriters initially because I see the power of popular culture to shift… society is like the Battlestar Galactica and you can’t turn it on a dime but a few little thruster boasts here and there and you can gradually over time change the direction of it.
And we have seen popular culture change the direction of society in profound ways certainly in the past couple of decades. I think it’s time, as people of the Book, that we can take some of that back.
Kristen Young: I think for a long time we’ve lagged behind popular culture in many ways because within the church particularly I think there’s been a devaluing of story that’s allowed mainstream culture to overtake us.
There’s a lot to be said for systematic theology and making sure that our theology is truthful and correct and all that sort of thing. But I think while we’re focusing on dogmatic statements and doctrinal issues, the popular culture has basically done evangelism for us. If you look through popular culture the stories that people have been engaging with have told them what Christians look like. They’ve told them what to expect from the church and so when we step up and say, “Actually, that’s not correct. What you expect from the church is this,” they’ve already had their hearts captivated by the stories and so they’re not listening because the stories have shaped their worldview.
You watch TV, murder mysteries, who are the church people? They’re the crazy ones or the boring ones. Even if they’re side characters within popular storytelling mediums, they’re still shaping people’s understanding of what the church looks like. What Christians look like. What matters to Christians.
A lot of the mainstream messages that are coming out about Christians, about Jesus, about the Bible, nobody’s actually listening to the actual Christians. The stories are telling them what to think.
Belinda Pollard: They’re caught up in the stereotype.
Donita Bundy: Yes. They’re creating stereotypes.
Alison Joy: So, Kristen, what process do you follow for your writing?
Kristen Young: My main process, I generally start with like a seed of an idea which is the conceptual idea that then develops into a vague plot which then develops into a more structured plot. And then when I start writing, the characters decide to do their own thing and I throw out the structure and I end up trying to wrestle it back. So, we do get there in the end but it’s a little bit of a hybrid process between plotting and pantsing!
Belinda Pollard: Which one do you think you lean more towards?
Kristen Young: I think I prefer the structure. I can’t sit down and just write anything. I need to have a structure and I guess I renovate the structure as I go through.
Donita Bundy: I actually heard someone describe it as patchwork quilting.
Kristen Young: Yes.
Donita Bundy: So, you’ve got the structure and then you just chop it up and you mix and match it and that you actually are a quilter.
Kristen Young: That’s good. I like that. Yes.
Alison Joy: So, how do you fit your writing process around your life and your career?
Kristen Young: It’s been fun and interesting. The Lord blessed me with the opportunity to hone my writing skills for a couple of years. I was fulltime as a mum and volunteer in church circles and I wrote, I’d say, three or four practice novels that I look back now and think, “Oh my goodness.”
Belinda Pollard: Do you think you might resurrect any of those?
Kristen Young: Yes. The next series is a resurrection of the concept of one of them but not necessarily the writing because it’s horrible! Yes, but the concept’s still coming back.
I’ve had part-time paid work for the last couple of years and so my writing processes had to be flexible to fit around the edges of that. So, it’s been much more of a battle to set up appropriate boundaries to give me the time to write.
I’ve had to learn how I work and what conditions I need to organise so that I can have the creative juices flowing. And I think that getting up early in the morning is one that’s actually really helped. But I work three days a week for a gap-year program at the moment with young people and that’s quite full-on for those times so I try and carve out the other days to be able to write around the edges.
Belinda Pollard: When it comes to publishing, how did you go about finding a publisher? Do you have an agent? You’ve published in multiple genres so could you maybe give us a little outline of how that worked for each one?
Kristen Young: Sure. The first one was a happy accident. I’ve realised one of the ways I work is that I’ll put together a first draft of something and then I’ll think it’s the most fabulous thing that’s ever been seen. In my early years I would just send it off to everybody going, “Hey, I’ve done a thing. Do you want to look?” And most of the time people will go, “No. I don’t. No. I don’t like that!”
I think this is one of the pitfalls that early writers often fall in because you’re just so excited that you’ve actually completed something that you just think, “I’ve now got to shop it around to all of the publishers immediately” without taking the time to make sure that it’s actually worth reading.
The devotions, I sent to a publisher and there was a wonderful woman who was working there at the time who said, “I actually really like this concept. I think that’s really nice. Can we work together and put it into something?” And so that kind of happened.
I think it fit a niche at that point. There wasn’t really anything for late high school people surviving exams and how to deal with that and so it managed to find that happy accident of need and opportunity.
The fiction was a longer process. Apprentice, while I was writing it, I did some investigations of what was actually out there, the publishers out in the mainstream. Because it’s overtly Christian, the first one’s kind of crossover but then later on it becomes very, very overtly Christian in terms of the messages that it gives. I knew that it had to find a Christian publisher and the only place for those is the US and so I did research, found out and even while I was writing it, Enclave seemed to be the best fit as far as publishers go.
But I thought, “I’m never going to get it in front of them properly.” They had submission processes but I thought, “I’m never going to get it in front of these guys properly unless I go to the US but I can’t afford to go to the US.” So, I kind of just handed it over to the Lord and said, “Well, I’ll just keep writing. See what happens.”
It won the Omega prize for best unpublished manuscript which got me a free manuscript assessment and Iola, who was the editor who did it for me, she sent it back saying, “It’s kind of good. It starts a bit suddenly. Have you thought about changing the beginning so it has a back story.” And that then turned into two books beforehand. So, what was supposed to be book 1 ended up being book 3.
Belinda Pollard: Wow!
Kristen Young: Yes. And so, by the time I finished book 1, I was at the point of thinking this could actually be something and I was just praying at that point about what to do and thinking, “I know that I need to get it to Steve Laube but I can’t get to America. What do I do?” And that’s when God brought Steve to Australia to the Omega Writers conference that year.
So, I jumped on board and I went, “I’ve got to go!” So, I pitched it to him then which is another whole story! But at that point, he gave me poker face and said, “Sure. Just send the pitch to us. We’ll see what we do about it.” And I sent it off and six weeks later got an email saying, “We’d like to publish this?”
Yes. And I wasn’t quite as controlled then. There might have been screaming in the house but it was happy screaming. Yes!
Belinda Pollard: That’s wonderful! You’ve talked about the fact that you got the Omega Unpublished Manuscript which gave you developmental editing on it.
Did you do other phases of editing that you had to pay for before you submitted it or was it more that they did it afterwards?
Kristen Young: What I realised over doing all of the practice novels that failed was that my perception of my writing wasn’t the best of gauge of whether something was ready to be published or not. And so, from an early point I decided that before I even started presenting manuscripts to publishers what I actually needed was objective eyes on the manuscript to be able to give me feedback that wasn’t from my family who were invested in being nice to me. That was able to actually look at the words and say, “Are these worth it? Is anybody going to think it’s worth reading?”
So, I paid for a manuscript assessment before it even went to the publisher. And that’s something I’ve tried to maintain. The publisher themselves, they have inhouse editing, both developmental edit and copyedits, and there’s multiple phases before it gets into a book.
So, strictly speaking I could get away with not paying anybody but I feel like it’s a really important investment in the quality. If people are going to put their money into a book, I want to make sure they get one that’s worth reading. I’m all for getting editors to look at it before it goes to the publisher.
Belinda Pollard: How much creative control did you have after it went to the publisher?
Kristen Young: A lot. The design on the front cover was based on a sketch that I put together of a concept that I had in the middle of the novel. But Enclave are brilliant. They’re just amazing. They’ll give edits and I’m able to say, “No,” or “Yes,” to what’s sent but it’s a partnership process, I think. There’s a lot of consultation there in the way that I’m allowed to put forward concepts and ideas.
I mean, I’ve never had to put my foot down about anything because I just trust them so much in terms of their ability. They know the market better. Particularly in the US, they know the US market way better than I do.
Belinda Pollard: It sounds like you’ve got a really good relationship with them which is wonderful.
How much of the marketing side of things do you have to look after versus how much they do?
Kristen Young: I have to look after the social media. Well, some of the social media. There is a social media arm of the publisher and they advertise things but after the first one came out, I had to learn how to use Instagram properly and all of that sort of stuff and I’m still learning. But they put me through a bit of social media bootcamp at the beginning and got me moving on that!
They work with the distributors and all that sort of thing. So, I think that’s one reason why I made the choice of going with a traditional publisher rather than self-publishing. At that point I wasn’t up on the business side of publishing books. Yes. I didn’t feel qualified to be able to take on that part of the business as well as the creative side.
Donita Bundy: You said that Steve Laube took your manuscript on and represented you for your first manuscript or first book. Does he represent you for the whole series?
Kristen Young: Steve is actually the owner of Enclave Publishing and so when I said he took me on, he’s taken me on as the publisher and so I received a contract for a trilogy.
Donita Bundy: Okay. And so, through that process you’ve been telling us that you’ve got a lot of autonomy in regards to the cover and things like that. What about the gracenotes? Those things in there that are getting your message across. You said it started out as a crossover and then became overtly Christian later on. Have you had any trouble hanging on to those things that are important to you in that aspect of your writing?
Kristen Young: Not at all. And I think that’s one reason why I spent so much time trying to find the right publisher. Enclave is a Christian publisher and they have a statement of belief on their main web page saying that this is their focus. Their desire is to print Christian fiction in the speculative genres. And there are different levels of what Christian means in those situations but I think because there was a really definite Christian faith component, I knew that it wasn’t ever going to find a proper place in a secular publisher and so I specifically looked for a publisher who would provide that kind of space.
Yes. I guess it was more in terms of seeking out a business relationship where you and the publisher were in alignment in that respect.
Donita Bundy: So, obviously your faith played a major part in your writing. You’ve said you prayed through it. It’s a big part of the research and the avenue you took. I was just wondering, on this journey of being published has your faith developed or grown or changed at all in this adventure?
Kristen Young: I think there were various challenges along the way in terms of making my decisions about, first of all, what sort of things I wrote and how I write them. There’s the temptation, I think, to seek after the material success of publishing.
There are lots and lots of schemes out there that are saying, “You follow this scheme and you will earn this much money after this many books. So do it our way and you’ll be successful.” And there are secular publishers out there that are offering monetary prizes and all sorts of things for works of fiction and the question at each point, as I was looking through changing from non-fiction to fiction and then thinking about what I actually write, it was always a question of am I willing to trust God with the writing process and persevere even if it doesn’t necessarily mean that I will make money out of it. That sort of thing.
Fiction these days is not the lucrative option that it was many years ago. I was reading a biography of a women who was born in Kirribilli, married an English lord or something and through her writing bought a mansion in Switzerland. I was like, “Alright for some!”
Belinda Pollard: I’m still waiting for my mansion in Switzerland, myself but…!
Kristen Young: I can buy a cup of coffee!
Donita Bundy: Nice! Doing well!
Belinda Pollard: Perhaps a jigsaw puzzle featuring a mansion in Switzerland.
Kristen Young: Aww, that might be pushing it! No! Those puzzles are expensive!
So, there’s the question of working through the issue of what writing do I feel that I’m called to do and then being faithful to that particular kind of writing. I think there are some people whose gifting and whose ability actually fit the secular space.
Donita Bundy: Yes.
Kristen Young: I guess because my first published works were Christian non-fiction, they were always going to be there with me. So, if I went into the secular marketplace, my back catalogue was incredibly overtly Christian and there was a question of whether secular publishing houses would even be okay with that. I didn’t know. That was all I’d known.
I think one of my goals was I wanted to write a story that while it was entertaining and while it kept people’s attention, I wanted to transmit the beauty of the Gospel and demonstrate how captivating it can actually be without being corny or cheesy or schmaltzy and in a way that helps young people to see that following Jesus is actually a life-giving thing.
It’s an alternate universe and so instead of God the Trinity, I’ve got composer, lyric and muse. That’s tricky as well because you’re trying to write a piece of fiction and avoid getting into heresy.
Donita Bundy: I hear you!
Kristen Young: But you’re trying to transmit truths while you’re trying to do entertaining plots and you’re trying to avoid all the tropes and failing. All that stuff. It’s much easier to write non-fiction. I can write a Bible study way before, in much shorter amount of timem than write a novel simply because I’m actually trying to weave all these different things together in a coherent package that people can listen to or read just as entertainment but is also actually something that gives us eternal truth and points to the Bible.
There are cases where the mythology that has been put up has been so persuasive that it’s actually taken the place of the Bible. People read Tolkien even though Tolkien would be horrified that people were treating his work as a Bible, because of his Christian faith. It’s so persuasive that people got focused on the art.
Donita Bundy: Sidetracked the message underneath it.
Kristen Young: There’s all of these things… and I can overthink things all over the place!
Belinda Pollard: Overthinkers Anonymous!
Kristen Young: Yes, totally. I’m trying to put together a decent plot.
Belinda Pollard: Welcome to the writers group!
Kristen Young: I know. It’s wonderful!
I’m trying to put together a decent plot and trying to have it exciting and interesting and young adultish enough that it doesn’t sound like a middle-aged person saying, “Hello, young fellows! Let’s be hip!” And at the same time trying to talk about God when I’m not God but I’m acting as God because I’m the narrator and the writer of this. There’s all of these faith related tensions that make the writing process harder in a sense but worth it.
Donita Bundy: Yes, absolutely. So, just finally, where to from here?
Kristen Young: I don’t know. I’m praying that the Lord lets me write more. I’ve just handed in book 3 of the trilogy.
Donita Bundy: Congratulations!
Kristen Young: Thank you. Much blood, sweat and tears in that one.
Yes, because I think I said earlier that book 1 ended up being book 3 but then again, the trajectory of books 1 and 2 changed and so I thought, “Oh, it’s alright. I don’t have to do much,” but I had change everything.
Donita Bundy: I hear that!
Kristen Young: It’s a completely different book anyway. At the moment, where I’m now thinking, “Well, I’ll move on to the next project and the next.”
I’m getting more familiar with the process of writing. I’m enjoying it. I love creating stories. I love melding together faith and stories so I would love to have the opportunity to keep being able to write captivating stories that are not just safe places for Christian teens to read but also investigate the big issues along the way without being preachy.
If you want to set yourself up a really different task, attempt to write a fiction book that talks about the Gospel in a way that doesn’t preach. It’s hard. I think, if you had to give yourself a challenge in writing I would have to say that’s probably the hardest challenge I’ve ever faced in writing a book with putting a Gospel presentation into a story without it turning into a, “Okay, I’m just going to take you out of the narrative for a second so you can sit and watch a Billy Graham crusade and then we’re going to insert you back into the plot.”
Belinda Pollard: You trust your reader to pick up on the subtleties of what you’re saying. That if God wants a particular person to get that message, then He will speak to them through our faltering words.
Kristen Young: And I felt the faltering a lot.
Belinda Pollard: Thank you so much for all of these insights, Kristen. How about I pray for you before we finish.
Kristen Young: Thank you.
Belinda Pollard: Heavenly Father, we thank you for Kristen and we thank you for the vision and the equipping and the possibilities that you have brought into her life. We thank you that she has been faithful to that and that she has stepped forward and written these books for you.
We pray that you will continue to encourage her, that you will continue to use her words in the ways that you are planning to use them and in the people that you are preparing to read them. And we entrust it to you in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Alison Joy: Amen.
Kristen Young: Amen.
Belinda Pollard: Kristen Young, thank you so much for joining us today and thank you, Alison Joy and Donita Bundy, as well. I’m Belinda Pollard and we will see you next time on the Gracewriters podcast.
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