A Students’ Journey Through Literary Submissions

By Anna Lindwasser

It was the end of a long day at the summer school program I taught middle school students in Bensonhurst. That day, we received copies of our spiral bound in-class publication, which featured every student’s best piece from the past six weeks. As a celebration of their hard work, I had the kids write compliments for their classmates’ works on sticky notes. While I made sure that everybody got a compliment or two, Liam Zhang’s short piece of science fiction was by far the most popular.

Liam stood out from the very beginning. I remember the day I asked the class about their personal goals for our summer writing class and Liam told me he wanted good grades. Throughout the summer of 2019, as he became a rising 8th grader, both his writing and motivation were constantly improving. Essays that were once light on details became robust and comprehensive, and short stories that were once loosely connected strings of action were now intricate depictions of science fiction worlds. 

Most importantly, he’d gone from being largely disinterested in writing to absolutely loving it. He was writing short stories at home, of his own volition.

Although I cannot take credit for Liam’s evolution, there were a few things I did that may have helped contribute to this turnaround.

During class, I talked about how much I love writing. As a kid, I had a math teacher who made it very clear how much he loved his subject. Despite attending a school that was heavily focused on math and science I was atrocious at math and hated doing it. My teacher’s enthusiasm made me want to try. While I never became a math maven, the subject was a lot less frightening because of his enthusiasm. 

Following this teacher’s example, I tried to be visibly excited when a student wrote something cool. I talked about the books I was reading, or how I looked forward to meeting up with my best friend so we could write together. My hope was to help kids who weren’t excited about reading and writing feel less intimidated and even become enthusiastic about it, and for those who were already interested to feel validated.

I also tried my best to expose students to fiction that matched their interests. In Liam’s case, that usually meant science fiction like All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury and Barney by Will Stanton. When the kids weren’t working on literary response and analysis, I would often ask them to try out the writing style the author used, or to write their own story in the same genre.

I hoped by consistently asking them to tell their own stories rather than solely focusing on interpreting the words of others, I could help them see themselves as people whose voices matter. 

As Liam’s interest in writing grew, he began regularly asking me to read the fiction he wrote on his own time, and to provide him feedback. While he wasn’t my only student to get hyped about the craft of fiction, he was the only one I had during that time who showed a serious desire to pursue creative writing outside of the classroom. Usually, my kids only wanted this kind of help when we were actively working on a creative writing assignment in class, but Liam was still asking about dialog and characterization when we were working on argument essays. Driven by memories of past teachers who took the time to read over my own neophyte work, I was happy to offer whatever support I could.

My hope was to help kids who weren’t excited about reading and writing feel less intimidated and even become enthusiastic about it, and for those who were already interested to feel validated.

But there was one problem. Liam was clearly seeking my approval, and while I was happy to praise his work, my goal wasn’t to tell him my opinions on writing and have him replicate them. My goal was to give him the tools to make his own decisions and express his own thoughts.

I would remind him of concepts we’d been over in class. I asked questions, such as “do you think this could use more sensory detail?” and “Tell me about your protagonist’s personality.” “Is there evidence for that description in the text? If not, let’s talk about how to make his personality clearer.” At times, he’d ask whether he was “ready” to try a more ambitious project. I’d always tell him there was no way to be ready without experience and he should try if he felt inspired to do so.

As I watched him leave the classroom that afternoon in summer school, smiling over his handful of complementary post-it notes from his classmates, I realized that Liam could experience that kind of validation outside of our little school. His work, while still developing, was about as good as some of the stories I’ve come across while volunteering to read a literary magazine’s slush pile.

I thought he stood a chance, and even if he didn’t succeed, the process of putting together a submission package was still a worthy endeavor. I decided to ask Liam if he was interested in trying to get his work published but stressed that if he preferred to keep honing his skills in private, that would be fine, too. When he responded with an enthusiastic “yes,” I got to work figuring out how to help him. 

While I’ve successfully published several of my own short stories, I figured out how to do so largely through trial and error. Most of the advice out there is contradictory: some people say you should target your story toward specific publications, while others say you should find the publications that suit your work. Some tell you to submit your work to ten or more publications at a time while others advise avoiding simultaneous submissions. Every publication has a different requirement for cover letters and submission methods. The information was difficult for me to sift through as an adult, so I could only imagine how confusing it would be for a kid. I suggested that he submit to Culture Cult, a publication that was currently soliciting sci-fi stories by young people. Out of all the publications I’d found that accepted work by kids, this one seemed like the best option. It specialized in his genre of choice, the requirements seemed easy to follow, and he wasn’t required to make an online account or send anything through the mail. But most importantly, there was a deadline to help keep him motivated.

I went over the basic process, which involved sending the story as an attachment to the email address found in the submission guidelines, and writing a cover letter, for which I provided a template. I also defined a few potentially confusing terms, such as ‘simultaneous submissions’ which meant sending your work out to multiple publications at once. I emphasized that if a piece was accepted by one publication, it would be important to inform all the others to which he’d submitted this same piece. Liam decided he wanted to write a new piece for each individual publication. It was his own personal challenge. I told him that only sending his piece out to one publication decreased his chance of acceptance, but wanted him to do as he saw fit. I didn’t want to discourage him from writing more.

For this publication, he wrote a story and sent it to me for feedback before submitting. When I asked him what he found challenging about writing the story, he said One, motivation and inspiration is a primary driving point that captures my free time. Two, without a consequence for not completing or perfecting the piece, often I am relaxed to the point of laziness. Self-discipline was not my strong point and many attempts had been made to make it a strength.” Liam is just about the most motivated kid I’ve ever worked with, so the fact that he described himself as ‘lazy’ took me by surprise. He’s a diligent student who not only does everything he’s assigned, but spends class time helping the other kids without even being asked. But while I didn’t agree with his unkind assessment of himself, I liked that he noticed what did motivate him – a consequence. Having a deadline to work towards got his hands on the keyboard. 

I hoped by consistently asking them to tell their own stories rather than solely focusing on interpreting the words of others, I could help them see themselves as people whose voices matter. 

The story was ready to go. Before he sent it out, I made sure to prepare him for the very real possibility of rejection, and encouraged him to view it as a badge of honor for having tried in the first place. Unfortunately, Liam didn’t hear back from the publisher. This was basically a soft rejection. He had this to say about that realization: “…My proudest work was denied. It happens, though I still didn’t get a response to this day. I was hiding my pride for a while as I didn’t want to be an arrogant person like one of my characters. This was also the same when I hid my disappointment and limited my complaints to two. One was that it may have been passed and the other that they may have not cared. It was something I got over in a few days. A publisher rejecting your work usually doesn’t mean that the work is bad, it may not fit their tastes.” This was exactly the attitude I hoped that he’d adopt. Although he didn’t achieve what he wanted, he was not devastated. After the summer ended, I stopped teaching on a daily basis, and moved to my fall schedule of freelance writing during the week and teaching on the weekends. Meanwhile, Liam was taking a Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) prep class at the same school where I taught. 

I didn’t see him often, but when I did, he told me that he wasn’t writing much, that he didn’t have enough time. When he asked for it, I gave him advice on fitting writing into his everyday life that I had used for myself: set a timer for five or ten minutes and write without stopping, then get on with your day. But I also told him he shouldn’t sacrifice other important things like sleep, exercise, his social life, and his studies. Liam continued writing, but put his energy into other things for a while. Once the SHSAT was over, Liam was back in my writing class. I’m starting to get more requests for feedback on sci-fi stories again, even though we’re working on comparative essays during class time to prepare for the looming ELA exam. While he isn’t writing with the abandon that he did over the summer, he’s still going strong. I don’t know how his fast-approaching high school life will impact his publishing ambitions, but, I think there’s a chance that he’ll keep trying. 

When asked about his intentions for the future, he said that “…if I had a chance to write for a competition, I would, although I need some preparation.” To me, that implies a willingness to continue striving towards his goals, with a nod towards a pragmatic approach.  Whether he chooses to keep trying to get his work published or just wants to write for himself, I hope he’ll continue to pursue creative writing, and have fun doing so.

Anna Lindwasser teaches ELA and Writing at an extracurricular program for middle school students in Brooklyn, NY. She holds a Masters in Adolescent English Education. When she’s not teaching, she is a freelance writer who has published everything from business copy and listicles to short stories in literary magazines like Verdad, Adelaide Magazine, The Charles Carter, and more. 

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