New Lit On the Block :: The Prose Train

The Prose Train is a unique online publication that is more than just a place to find great reading, it is also a place for young writers to engage in the writing process with other writers. The concept is in the name, according to Founder and Executive Director Irene Tsen, “’Prose’ refers to the short stories we create, and ‘Train’ refers to the collaborative aspect of how writers add sentences sequentially. Our slogan, ‘train your prose,’ is a rearrangement of our name, encapsulating how writers who join The Prose Train improve their skills with a different type of writing.”

The Prose Train welcomes all high-school-aged writers to sign up to join a new project. When 12-18 writers have ‘boarded,’ a Project Manager will assign the group to a shared Google Doc. Each writer will then take their turn to add 2-15 sentences to the story draft as it circulates through the group. The group then suggests and votes on a title, and the work is published on the website.

While the collaborative aspect might sound unwieldy, Tsen assures that there is a strong editorial framework to guide the process. “During the collaborative writing time frame—usually twelve to twenty days, depending on the number of writers in a project—peer writers and the Project Manager can all edit the story draft for grammatical and spelling correctness (and occasionally clarity). Once a story is complete and all writers have written, we send it to our advisor-editors for a final proofread. Faculty Advisors and Editors Katherine Ja and Tarn Wilson give edits and general comments on the stories, which the Project Manager resolves before publishing the story on our website. Stories are published first on our website, with all writer names quoted, and we may submit stories to writing contests and literary magazines.”

Because of the nature of the process, Tsen notes that publication takes place “whenever we finish a collaborative story, usually every two to three weeks. Each project takes about four weeks from start to finish, and we may run concurrent projects based on the number of sign-ups.” Readers to the site can count on finding fresh new stories and perhaps even some never before configured styles. “We have no restrictions on genres,” Tsen says, “and writers decide what direction they want to take a story in. Our past stories range from realistic fiction to dystopian to fantasy, and stories that start in one genre can quickly vault into another.”

The inspiration for such an innovative project started at Gunn High School, California in February 2021 “to amplify literary, creative voices in a heavily STEM-focused environment,” says Tsen. “We wanted to bring together writers’ minds in a time of physical separation. We see ourselves as a ‘writers’ workout group’ where writers ‘train their prose’ through the challenge of artistic constraints and a different creative process. We seek to redefine the bounds of high school writing by expanding what it can be, taking a fiercely independent exercise and turning it into a communal one.”

Among their team of nearly a dozen staffers are Gunn High School teacher advisors, Katherine Ja and Tarn Wilson. Katherine Ja is a graduate of De Anza College, UC Berkeley, and UC Davis and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Tarn Wilson is the author of three books: the award-winning memoir-in-essays In Praise of Inadequate Gifts (Wandering Aengus Press, 2022); the forthcoming 5-Minute Daily Writing Prompts: 501 Prompts to Unleash Your Creativity and Inspire You to Write (Rockridge Press, 2022), and the memoir The Slow Farm (Ovenbird Books: Judith Kitchen Selects, 2014). Her personal essays have been published in numerous journals, including Brevity, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, River Teeth, Ruminate, and The Sun. She is a graduate of the Rainier Writing Workshop and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Starting a new publication is a joy and a challenge, and Tsen shares what has been the greatest satisfaction thus far: “Every story, I am awed by the imagination and talent of different writers as they take the story in a completely different direction than I imagined. It’s also been incredibly rewarding when writers tell me how collaborative writing has resonated with them. One Prose Train writer has reconnected with ‘the girl who’d sit on her stomach and scrawl out stories about magic ribbons and pieces of gum.’ Another has enjoyed ‘writing in a variety of genres [they] normally wouldn’t undertake, with protagonists [they] normally wouldn’t choose, and sometimes halfway through (or even at the end) of a story [they’re] not at all familiar with.’”

“And the greatest challenge—and a source of fun at the same time—has been figuring everything out from scratch since there’s no precedent for a project like this. The Prose Train is driven by a completely new concept: it’s not quite a literary journal, a writing club, or nonprofit teaching students to write. It’s taken a lot of trial and error to find the words to present this novel concept, figure out how to run projects seamlessly, and untangle the legal side of things.”

Challenges aside, The Prose Train has successfully published dozens of writers and to date – a dozen stories. “Readers will find short stories that speak to the ingenuity and creative potential of fifteen minds working on the same story,” Tsen offers. “Different paragraphs have slightly different writing styles and take their inspiration from vastly different backgrounds, but still form a cohesive, compelling story. Our themes and plots are as varied as the writers who create them, and all readers will find a story that they can connect to.”

Off to a great start already, The Prose Train is just gaining momentum. Tsen says, “We continue to work to grow beyond our current geographical borders to bring The Prose Train to high school writers all over the United States (and eventually outside the US too!). We also have plans to unveil other unique collaborative writing projects (like creating collaborative blurbs for student artwork) and expand to different mediums (like podcasts).”

Finally, Tsen offers this encouragement to writers, “We’re always accepting sign-ups and operate on a rolling basis of about twelve to twenty writers per project. When you sign up, you’ll be part of a new project, not one that’s already started. As one of our writers has said, it’s ‘low effort and high reward,’ and if it isn’t what you expect, it can be a one-time commitment.”

Find The Prose Train online where all stories are published in full and free to read.

Visit the NewPages Guide to Publications for Young Writers for more resources for young readers and writers.

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