September 21, 2018
By Ekta R. Garg
I used to wonder, when the kids were younger, whether they’d love writing as much as I do. They’re certainly enthusiastic about books and good stories. I’ve recounted here on Growth Chart how Twelve reads aloud to Ten and me in the car as we drive around town. We’re working through our third series this way, and it’s been a treat to listen to her do voices and try to match quips with Ten as we comment on character quirks.
Writing, however, is a different matter.
A few years ago my parents got Twelve a subscription to Cricket, the literary magazine for middle grade and early young adult readers. Twelve devours every issue as I did when I was a child; that is, she’ll finish it in a day and then wait for the next 29 days to pass until the new one shows up. Unlike me, however, Twelve pays attention to the call for submissions for the themed writing contests.
The first time Twelve told me she wanted to enter the contest, my heart leapt and then sank. Entering writing contests requires that one put a rock on the corner of their spirit to keep it anchored. Rejection hurts and discourages a person, sometimes to the point of keeping them from trying again.
I said none of these things to Twelve; instead, I edited her story as she asked and helped her send it in.
When the rejection came, Twelve’s disappointment radiated off her but she didn’t let it show much. She turned right around and entered another contest. Once again, I offered my comments and suggestions, signed the bottom of the page guaranteeing the story was her own, and we mailed it in.
Then came the rejection. She may not have noticed the difference in the wording of the notes she received, but I did. The first one came as a generic postcard thanking her for her entry. The second one reassured her that her story was “one of the better ones” they received.
The biggest obstacle Twelve has faced thus far is time management. Crafting a story and getting it just right takes time, energy, and, most of all, patience. I tried to make her understand that and got the blissfully naïve head bob that so many tweens offer in return to life advice.
Two weeks ago she came to me with another story she wanted to submit to the latest contest. With the submission deadline of September 25—as in, that’s when the hard copy has to be in their office—I was proud of her for thinking ahead and promised to help her out. Once again I read her draft and made some suggestions. This time I gave her concrete advice.
“Write a one-sentence summary of the story you want to tell,” I said, “and put it in a place where you can see it. Look at it as you’re writing and ask whether what you’re putting on the page is supporting your original idea.”
She gave me this funny look that said, “More work?” She didn’t voice the sentiment aloud, however, just followed my advice. Then she proceeded to change almost nothing in her story.
In the normal course of events, I would have spent last week mentoring her through revisions. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans. Hurricane Florence began its rampage, and we had a houseful of wonderful people running away from the storm. I forgot about the story and helping Twelve with it.
She reminded me again on Monday, and after I dropped her off at her music lessons I took my laptop to Starbucks and settled down with my tea and her Google doc. I went through her piece line by line, entering comments and suggestions to make her story better. I wondered a few times whether I should be a little more mother’ish and less editor’ish in how I approached her work. In the end, I knew I had to be the professional first. If she’s serious about getting published, she needs to experience the revision process that will help her succeed.
“So, how did it go?” she asked when I picked her up.
“I don’t want you to get discouraged when you see all the comments I made,” I said. “You just need to drill down into the actual story. It needs a definite beginning, middle, and an end.”
“I thought it was perfect just the way it was,” she said with a grin.
“Even J.K. Rowling’s stories weren’t perfect in the first draft,” I said. “No story in the history of the universe was ever perfect in the first draft.”
She sighed. “Maybe I should just forget about it.”
“Don’t do that,” I said. “This is part of writing. And maybe—”
“I mean, I don’t have to enter the contest at all, really.”
“Well, maybe you won’t be able to enter this one,” I said, “but think of this—”
“I was actually pretty happy with the story the way I had it. I don’t know why I would have to change anything.”
“You could always set your own deadline and keep working on it,” I suggested. “That way you could see what it’s like to—”
“It doesn’t really matter anyway, it’s just a contest.”
I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Are you going to let me finish what I’m saying, or do you just want to keep talking?” I said, my voice ringing inside the car.
She didn’t respond for a few minutes, and neither did I. I’d tried to stay patient, really, I had. After staying quiet for a little while, Twelve answered she was ready to listen.
“Writing is hard,” I told her, “and it isn’t perfect the first time you do it. It needs time. If I’m giving you feedback, it doesn’t mean the story’s bad. It just means it needs more work.”
I paused, but she didn’t respond so I kept going.
“Now, maybe we won’t be able to finish this story for this contest, but you could just keep working on it on your own so you can see what the revision process is like. That’s important too. And you can look at the list of contests I gave you a few months ago.”
“I looked at them, and none of them were any good.”
“Did you do any research on them?”
“So basically you just read the list and decided they weren’t good.”
I was glad she couldn’t see me rolling my eyes. “If you want to enter writing contests, you have to do some research. Cricket isn’t the only one holding contests out there, but you have to spend some time looking into them. Okay?”
We didn’t talk about it again after that, not on the ride home or during the week. I knew she had plenty of tasks to keep her busy, and as the week progressed I assumed she’d given up on the story. My usual brand of encouragement comes with positive feedback cushioning the negative, but this time Twelve’s constant interruptions had pushed me to cut to the chase. Had I discouraged her from entering another contest ever again?
Last night, I got my answer.
As I worked in the kitchen, cleaning up after dinner, Twelve came downstairs.
“I worked on the story,” she said. “I won’t make the deadline, but I wanted to keep working on it.”
“Good!” I said.
“This time I added names [for the characters],” she said, wiggling her fingers as if performing a magic trick. “But I left the old [story] up.”
I lit up; I knew I did.
“That’s great! Now you’ll be able to see how much you’ve improved, and the names will make a huge difference,” I said and promised to look at it.
This morning I did, and I see vast improvement. The story is more concrete, draws the reader into more conflict right away, and has gotten closer to what a good story always does: it makes the reader feel something. With a little more tweaking, the reader will feel sympathy for the main character as well as the antagonist.
I don’t know if Twelve will continue writing in the future, if she considers it a hobby or actually wants to pursue something more serious with it. Either way, I’m thrilled to help her with the process. So maybe this time, she didn’t need all the cheerleader tricks I use to bolster spirits. Maybe it was enough to lay it on the line so she could toe it and discover another layer to her story.
In the end, that’s what the best writers do anyway: learn the rules like a master so they can break them like an artist.