“Alphabet Games” by Brenda Scott Royce is the grand-prize winning manuscript (available here) in the 84th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition, besting more than 5,700 entries across 10 categories. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, check out the November/December 2015 issue of Writer’s Digest. For a list of competition winners, click here.
Brenda Scott Royce’s childhood ambition to study chimpanzees in Africa with Jane Goodall eventually gave way to “more realistic” goals of becoming either an actress or a writer. With auditions few and far between, writing won out. Her published credits include books about the entertainment industry (the result of watching too much TV as a child) and two novels.
Can you provide a brief summary of your short story?
It’s Mother’s Day and ten-year-old Charlisa Watkins is waiting for the “Slammer Van,” her friend Sari’s nickname for the bus that takes them to visit their mothers at the women’s state penitentiary once a year. Run by nuns, the program focuses on kids like Charlisa, whose families can’t afford the long trip to Chowchilla, and Sari, whose father would rather let her mother rot in hell than allow her to see her daughter. Thanks to a lucky box of Cheerios, Charlisa’s day gets off to a good start, but will her luck hold through the journey ahead?
Describe your writing process for this piece. What inspired it?
This short story is a piece of a larger project—an as-yet-unpublished novel about two childhood friends who reconnect again as young adults, as both are struggling to deal with tragic events of their youth. For Sari, the female protagonist, it was the events leading up to her mother’s incarceration.
At one point, I was hopelessly stuck, unable to move the story forward. Around that time I attended a dinner honoring Sister Suzanne Jabro, one of the founders of Get on the Bus, a program that brings children to visit their mothers and fathers in prison. I wasn’t feeling well, and only grudgingly attended the dinner to support my husband, who served on the commission presenting the awards. Boy, was I glad I went. Sister Suzanne gave a moving speech, and they showed a video about the program. Seeing the kids’ excitement on the bus ride to the prison, their range of emotions during the visits, and the anguish and heartache when they had to say goodbye again left an indelible impression.
Soon thereafter, I decided to incorporate a fictional version of the Get on the Bus program into my novel, and give Sari a companion on the bus. Thus Charlisa Watkins was born.
I gave Charlisa my childhood habit of searching for the letters of the alphabet on the sides of a cereal box for good luck. I don’t remember what I was wishing for as a kid, but for Charlisa, the stakes are clearly much higher.
Why do you write?
When I was born, my mother wrote in my baby book that my name would look good on the cover of a book one day. So maybe it’s her fault.
How long have you been writing? How did you start?
I originally set out to be an actress, but wasn’t getting anywhere. Then I wrote an original monologue for my acting class and got more praise for my writing than I ever had for performing! Soon classmates were asking me to write scenes for them. It was like the universe tapping me on the shoulder and giving me a message. So I listened.
From there I wrote articles for small magazines, usually for low or no pay. Things like Llamas Magazine, which I’d never heard of before or since, but I gained experience and built up my credits. I gradually got more and better work, writing movie reviews, encyclopedia essays, and eventually, books—all while holding down a succession of day jobs. I also found work as a freelance proofreader, copyeditor, book indexer, and audiobook abridger—all of which helped make me a better writer.
What do you do for a day job?
Until recently, I worked full-time at the Los Angeles Zoo, where my primary responsibility was editing the quarterly zoo magazine. It was the perfect gig for a lifelong animal lover, but between the demands of the job and my soul-crushing daily commute, I had little time left for family and even less for writing. For a while I tried to do it all—writing during lunch hours and at night, balancing a finicky baby on one knee and my laptop on the other—but it took a toll on my health and relationships. I couldn’t afford to quit the day job, so for the next several years I put writing on the backburner. I watched authors whose first books came out the same time as mine go on to write their eighth, ninth, and tenth novels while mine quietly went out of print.
Several years passed, my toddler morphed into a tween, and I started itching to resurrect my writing career. So I took a big leap of faith, leaving the stability of a full-time job for the freelance life. My last full day at work was March 6, and two weeks later I entered this competition!
Have you published any stories? Won any other competitions?
I entered the Writer’s Digest Short Story Competition in 2004, getting an honorable mention for that story. I’ve had two novels—both romantic comedies—published by New American Library. Monkey Love is about Holly Heckerling, a single New Yorker whose already hectic life is complicated by the arrival of a mischievous monkey. The sequel, Monkey Star, follows Holly to Hollywood, where she lands a job wrangling animals on the set of a major motion picture. Monkey Star won a Book Buyers Best contest, sponsored by the Orange County chapter of Romance Writers of America.
Who and what have inspired you as a writer?
My literary idols are mostly women, and the two that top the list are Jennifer Weiner and Laura Zigman. Both write books brimming with humor and heart and populated by rich, nuanced characters. Cannie in Good in Bed and Jane in Animal Husbandry are less like characters to me than old friends who, due to the laws of physics, are not able to meet up for coffee. My newest writer-hero is Jojo Moyes. I wanted to crawl inside One Plus One and live within that novel forever; it was tough to let go of Jess and Ed and Tanzie and Norman when the story ended. I long to create characters that have that kind of enduring impact on a reader.
Describe your typical writing routine.
I do most of my writing in coffee shops—there are too many distractions at home. I tend to sit for two- to three-hour stretches and write. I start by reading over the previous day’s work, which I invariably tweak a bit before moving on. I’ll go home to eat lunch, do office work or household chores, maybe get in a little exercise. If my schedule allows, I’ll do another coffee shop session in the afternoon before picking my son up from school.
Every few days I’ll upload my manuscript in progress to my Kindle, and use its text-to-speech function to have it read the draft to me while I’m driving. This allows me to put the time I spend stuck in L.A. traffic to productive use. Hearing your work read aloud is really helpful—in catching typos, mulling over word choice, or just listening to the flow and pacing of the text. At red lights, I jot notes on what’s working and what’s not, and start the next day’s session by making those edits.
Where do you get ideas for your writing?
Everywhere except where I look for them. It’s like love—they say don’t go looking for love, it will find you when you least expect it. When I struggle to think of “what’s next” in a story, I draw a blank. But then I’ll be listening to NPR or shopping for groceries or having a random conversation with a stranger, and something sparks an idea. Meeting someone with an unusual occupation always makes me wonder, could one of my characters do that for a living?
What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing short stories?
Telling a story with an emotional arc and three-dimensional characters in a short format is exceedingly difficult. It’s much easier to write long! I seldom set out to write a short story. I have turned aborted novels—or excerpts of novels in this case—into short stories.
Do you write in any other genres?
It’s easier to list the genres I haven’t tried! Meditators often experience “monkey mind,” when you try to clear your mind but it jumps from thought to thought like a naughty little monkey. My writing brain is like that easily distractible simian. I’ll finish a novel and decide I want to try writing screenplays. Next I get an idea for a children’s picture book or a young adult novel. Someone asks if I want to pitch an idea to a kids TV show or submit an essay to a nonfiction anthology. Yes, and yes! I’ve done screwball comedy and angst-filled drama. Experts say to build a career platform you should pick one niche and stick with it, but I feel like I’m at a big Vegas-style writing buffet; I want to try a little bit of everything.
What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities?
My early writing was safe and formulaic, but as I’ve gained experience and confidence, I’ve grown more willing to take risks and make bold choices. I don’t outline; I start with a key character or two and a rough idea of where I’d like to take them. Then I improvise. And I’m not afraid of the delete key. If something is not working, not advancing the plot or laying the groundwork for a future revelation or plot twist, I cut it—no matter how many days I’ve spent on it.
What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?
I’m a painstakingly slow writer. I wish I could write a quick, down-and-dirty first draft and then go back and revise, but instead I tend to work and rework each sentence to my satisfaction before moving forward. I sometimes put Post-it notes on my computer monitor reminding me to JUST WRITE. I’m still working on that.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
In Norman Lear’s excellent autobiography, Even This I Get to Experience, he shares advice given to him by a therapist that helped him overcome writer’s block. Imagine someone yells “fire” in a crowded room with only one exit. If everyone charges for the door, many won’t survive. But if they file out one or two at a time, everyone will make it. That image really resonated with me. Now when my brain is bursting with ideas, plot twists, to-do lists, and a million worries, I try to slow down, line them up mentally, and let them come out the door in an orderly fashion.
What’s your proudest moment as a writer?
Getting the call from Writer’s Digest about winning this competition ranks very high on my list of proud moments! I’m still pinching myself. Is this for real?
Another unbelievable moment happened in 2008 when I got a call telling me to turn on the television—Regis Philbin was reading my story on air. My mostly-true essay about my mother’s misguided attempts to fix me up with Michael Gelman, producer of Regis & Kelly, had been included in an anthology called Have I Got a Guy for You: What Really Happens When Mom Fixes You Up. On the show, Regis and Kelly teased Gelman about the story, reading several excerpts. It was a total trip to hear Regis reading my words, and even better because they put the spotlight on my mother, a terrible matchmaker but a great lady. In fact, my name was never mentioned in the segment, but Mom got her five minutes in the national spotlight.
What are your goals as a writer?
My goal is always to write something that will move readers, whether to laughter, tears, or action. Isn’t that why we all write?
Any final thoughts?
I feel incredibly fortunate at this point in my life to have the opportunity to reboot my writing career, which I couldn’t do without the support of my husband, family, and network of friends. I’m also grateful to Writer’s Digest for this award and for providing a forum for myself and other writers to learn about and explore our craft.