Thursday, November 10, 2011

#WhyIWrite: Jenna's two cents

Hello, everyone! Patricia has the lovely new guest series called “Why I Write” and was kind enough to let me add my two cents.

I can’t say that I have as much experience as last week’s poster, Kaje Harper, who’s already been published and is making money. Instead, I’ll speak from the point of view of an unpublished writer. There are lots of us out there!

Sure, when I was in 6th grade I wrote a poem about a pig in a typhoon that got published in two books (I can still recite all five stanzas to this day!). Since then, I haven’t won any writing contests (excluding a Christmas carol one about final exams that our principal held). I’ve received fourteen rejection letters from agents. Does this stop me from writing?

Is that a real question?

Words move people. They have the ability to change a decision or a person’s entire life. How can I not write when my prose might someday touch another person in a significant way?

If no one ever reads my work but my mother, my critique group, and my best friend, that will be enough. Writing is extremely personal, so much so that it’s sometimes hard to let others see our work for fear that it’s not good enough. We probably all hope to be published at some point, but writing needs to be more than the want for money (I’m laughing as I type this!).

I write because I need a place for my ideas to live. I choose life instead of death. Where else will my new ideas go if my head’s full of old ones?

As Kaje said, the ability to control a situation or a character is extremely appealing. All those times your book report could only be a diorama or your high school English paper had to follow a five paragraph format—guess what? You have the ability to make up your own rules because it’s your story. 

The curse and blessing of the writer is that any little noise, smell, or event can put a pesky idea into our heads—one that won’t go away until we record it. I keep a notebook by my bed. Sometimes it’s to write the first paragraph of a story that has completely formed in my mind; to risk losing the words during sleep would be tragic. Other times, it’s to scribble details of a nonsensical dream before the memory melts away with the morning. It doesn’t matter if my words are choppy; the idea that blooms from those words might be more tantalizing than chocolate covered strawberries (and I am a sucker for chocolate!). A twisted plot, witty dialogue, characters who could either be my best friend or worst enemy—those are the moments of discovery and satisfaction I long for between my first draft and final edits.

As an English teacher, I not only recommend books, I encourage my kids to write. The first paragraph my sophomores had to write this year was any short story that included masks somewhere in the plot. My example was two kids whose job it was to save the world by finding the last two time-travelling masks on the planet. Whenever the owners of these masks put them on, disappeared, and came back, they never spoke again. The heroes had to figure out what the masks allowed people to see.

Many wrote about bank robberies or costume balls. But one student wrote about a world where masks were required to ensure equality. Another wrote an action sequence in which a CIA agent had to pick up his target at a daycare. Two girls confided they were going to continue writing their stories. That’s two out of 130 kids, but it’s a start. As writers, I think it’s important that we pass on positive wishes to others of the craft. For all those voices that might be telling someone he can’t do it, our voice might be the one that shines through and cements a confidence in his abilities.

In the spirit of being open with critiques, I’ve included a little of my first chapter, Accepting Ellie, because it needs work. I’ve been writing and revising the story for about a year and a half, and my characters recently pulled me in a different direction than what I’d originally planned. Let me know what you think. Because the first paragraph or two is what could make up an agent’s mind, it needs to come across as both strong and interesting. It’s a realistic YA novel about a girl who loses her best friend in a car crash their senior year. A diary is involved that reveals interesting truths about their relationship. Though I often discourage disclaimers, I promise that it gets more interesting than what I’ve included here!

Chapter 1
21st century technology and Mr. Sandman aren’t exactly skipping through the park with fingers intertwined. The people I know who go to sleep are constantly on call so that they’re napping with a cell phone, able to sit straight up when the first piercing ring escapes, ready to shout “Hello?” at whoever might require their presence. Twenty-four hours is not enough time to meet deadlines, and the first thing people sacrifice is rest.

Luckily, I don’t have that problem.

I’ll give up fixing my hair before school just to hit the snooze button twice. If you put me on a moving train and let me doze, I won’t wake up unless you shake me. How many hours of my life will I never get back because I was unconscious?

Since early afternoon I’ve been sleeping on our cozy couch the way a person does when she’s bored and lazy, drifting in and out, not quite comfortable, mind blending the noises of reality into fuzzy dreams, thinking about the importance of sleep but not quite slipping under.

My mood transitions from peaceful to confused to just plain pissed as a sharp sword slashes through those dreams in the form of a telephone ring.

Mom brandishes an iron in her right hand, which really means “I’m away from my head right now; please leave a message.” Not a phone, not an exploding microwave, not even a brick through the window would tear her from her task. I shake off the clinging bits of drowsiness and answer the landline. We need a maid for this.
To all aspiring authors: never let anyone tell you that you can’t write. There is a creative genius longing to burst forth from every one of us.

Thanks, Patricia, for letting me guest post about my passion!


  1. Thanks for being my guest, Jenna. I enjoyed the excerpt from your story. =)

  2. Of course! Thanks for having me. Today I shared the first two chapters of my new fantasy YA novel for NaNoWriMo without telling the kids I was the author. I got awesome feedback (and then I told them). It was a helpful lesson in honest critiquing.

  3. What a great lesson for the kids, and what a great way to get feedback from your target audience!

  4. What an awesome assignment! I love seeing other encourage writing and creating. I commend you for that.

    And I completely agree with the statement about touching lives. Even if only one person is encouraged or inspired to do something, it is a complete success. An idea to live by.

    Thanks for linking this up!

  5. Patricia, this was a great post to share with Story Dam...loved it!

    Thank You :)

  6. Bridget, Brandon and Brandi, thanks for stopping by.

  7. I really enjoyed this. So many great points were made. We write to be read, and influence with our writing. Changing one person's outlook can be incredibly amazing. Thanks for sharing your perspective. It's a great post.

  8. Patricia,
    Thanks for sharing your story. You are obviously a wonderful and caring teacher. Your students are lucky to have you.

    Really enjoyed the sneak peek at your story. Your words flow beautifully.

    All the best and keep us posted on your progress. I'm mostly a non-fiction reader but I've been reading so many great snippets lately from indie authors that I may have to convert!

  9. Nice to meet you, Jenna. Thanks for sharing that!