NPR is in the middle of Round 8 of their Three Minute Fiction contest, which my daughter and I are both entering. If you’re not aware of it, the basic idea is to write flash fiction: a story that can be read in under three minutes. That translates into 600 words or less. While the basic rules don’t change, each round features a different way to write the story. For instance, Round 7 had to have a story where one person came to town and another left. There was a round where a photo was the prompt. This time around, your story has to start with the sentence She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.
I don’t usually do well with short fiction. My ideas are too big. Even my “short” fiction isn’t very short. My first attempt ended up at over 11,000 words, a novella entitled “The Voices of Angels.” Subsequent stories have ended up shorter, but 600 words? Man, I’m just getting started with 600 words. Getting wound up, setting the atmosphere for the next scene.
But I digress. The reason I’m bringing up Three Minute Fiction is something that happened over the past weekend. On Saturday’s broadcast, when Weekend All Thing Considered reached their Three Minute Fiction segment, they talked about an eleven-year-old girl who’d emailed them, asking why you have to be eighteen to enter the contest. She’d written a story that met the standards, but because she isn’t eighteen, she couldn’t enter.
So, they brought in one of NPR’s legal eagles to explain that, by entering the contest, you are also engaging in a contract—I believe they called it a continuous use contract—with NPR, and that state laws specified someone under eighteen couldn’t do that. If a minor enters a contest on a cereal box, that’s different. It’s not a continuing use contract, and therefore is perfectly legal. But, because you can go to npr.org and read the winning stories from past rounds, you are entering into one of these contracts with NPR. (As an aside, I’m curious to know if you can resell the story later, or if you give up all rights.)
NPR interviewed the girl, and I have to say that she sounded awfully mature for an eleven-year-old, but so many of them do these days, at least to me. I don’t remember any of my eleven-year-old contemporaries sounding that way, but then, I don’t remember a lot about being eleven years old, either.
The girl—and I wish I could remember her name, but I’m horrible with them, can’t even remember my own characters half the time—said that she wrote the story in about half an hour, that she’d been writing since she was “young,” but that she mostly wrote stories for school assignments and that was more or less it.
NPR decided that, even though she couldn’t enter the contest, they’d go ahead and give her a signed copy of the latest book by the author judging the contest (can’t remember his name, either. I’ve never heard of him before), and they read an excerpt of her story on the air. The grand prize, besides being able to put the win in a query letter, is a signed copy of the author’s book, an interview, and having your story read on-air. So, in essence, this girl got the grand prize already—and the contest doesn’t end until this coming Sunday.
At first, I was a little miffed at this. Sure, okay, she’s eleven, she wrote a good story (I guess—I haven’t been able to read the entire thing), and it’s a bit of a rip that she can’t enter her honest effort because of her age. But, c’mon, man. This is the kind of thing I hate to see: letting someone get something just because they complain.
But I’ve thought about it since (I’m writing this on Sunday the 18th), and now I have to agree that it was the right thing to do. Why? Well, the girl, while she made it clear that she thought she should be able to enter the contest, wasn’t actually complaining. She was asking why she couldn’t enter. She just wanted a good explanation for why she couldn’t submit her honest effort. And when it was explained to her, she accepted it without complaint.
Bravo. Means she’s not a spoiled brat who’s been getting her way with everything. She sounded like a young lady who’s been encouraged by her parents without being coddled. Of course, I’m basing this off a two-minute or less segment. For all I know, she’s a perfect terror most of the time.
But here’s what made me change my mind about what I thought: my daughter has been writing stories since kindergarten. I haven’t had the privilege to see any of those early efforts because I wasn’t in her life then. I won’t go into that story. It’s not germane to this post. But, I have to say, when your kid wants to do the same thing you’ve always wanted to do, and she wants to do it with no influence from you, that’s…gratifying? Amazing? I’m not sure how to describe the emotion I feel. Proud, I guess, is the closest.
Even though I’ve wanted to be a writer for a long time, I can’t claim that I’ve wanted it since kindergarten. I’ve admired good writing for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t become a serious reader until I discovered The Hobbit in fifth grade. And I didn’t entertain the idea of telling my own stories until sometime in my teens. That’s just how I developed. Jesi figured it out sooner than I did, but I’m also convinced she’s quite a bit more intelligent than I ever was or will be.
For instance, when I critiqued her ms for The Doc is In, there were times when I’d suggest a way of rephrasing a sentence. I thought that, even though my suggestions were made off the cuff and never edited (except for typos and clarity), I made pretty decent suggestions. No, I didn’t want or expect her to write them exactly as I did—last thing I want is for her to turn her writing voice into mine. And she knows this. But when I got the edited ms back for another going over, I was flat-out amazed at how she’d made her changes. She took what I’d suggested and made the sentences somewhere around 1000% better than what I’d written. I know cause I compared my suggestions with what she’d done.
Thinking about that and about the girl from the NPR story, I had to rethink my original opinion. Jesi is a great writer, and I say that without fatherly bias (well, mostly). I give her my honest opinion on her mss, because to do less would not be true fatherly love. Writing is her dream. I have to be encouraging, but I’m one of her few critics who’ll give her an opinion tempered with love. I know her, and I want her to be the best she can be. I just won’t do it in as cold a manner as editors and agents will as she goes through the submission process.
But what if it had been Jesi, at age eleven, who’d wanted to enter this contest? And what if NPR had ignored her? Would she give up? Eleven can be a tender age, and the age where you can get thrown off pursuing your dream. Jesi is twenty-three now, and she’s handling the rejections pretty well. Not perfect, but who does? It’s discouraging to get rejected time and again, and anybody who tells you different is either lying or pulling a get-rich-quick scam.
Possibly, by acknowledging this girl’s question, NPR has played a part in nurturing a young writer. I can’t tell from her interview if she wants to be a writer the way my daughter and I want it. We want to have writing as a full-time job (and I’ve achieved that, in a manner of speaking, even if my only pay so far is one contributor’s copy), not just as something we do occasionally. This girl sounded like writing is more hobby than occupation, but there’s nothing wrong with that, either. God knows there can be worse hobbies than writing. John Wayne Gacy and Henry Lee Lucas had some pretty bad hobbies, you know. So did Charles Manson.
But maybe, because of what happened, the girl will go from being a casual writer to one who loves the craft and becomes one of our next great writers. They really liked her story at NPR, and whether I agree with their standards of what constitutes a good story or not (they have a very literary bent, to say the least), that should say something about her writing. And it might be the factor that turns her into someone passionate about wordsmithing.
And there ain’t a thing wrong with that.
Writing is a lonely art. We all know that. It’s not self-pity that makes us say that. Most of us long for more solitude to write, even on the days when the last thing we want to do is pound the keyboard. Any encouragement is a good thing for us, because, while we look at our writing as a good thing, at the same time we often doubt if it’s good enough for anyone else to read. We’re our own worst critics.
So Support Your Local Writer. He or she needs it. If they’re published, buy their books, even if they seem expensive (printing costs are crazy). Who knows but what some kid might pick one of our books and become a writer because of it? And that kid might just be yours.