Something Wonderful

As we relax and restore ourselves, a gentle reminder of some of the season’s pleasures:

The Mist and All
Dixie Willson

I like the fall,
I like the mist and all,
I like the night owl’s
Lonely call –
And wailing sound
Of wind around.

I like the gray
November day,
And bare, dead boughs
That coldly sway
Against my pane.
I like the rain.

I like to sit
And laugh at it –
And tend
My cozy fire a bit.
I like the fall –
The mist and all–

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Secret Minds

“Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”

“I don’t understand writers who have to work at it. I like to play. I’m interested in having fun with ideas, throwing them up in the air like confetti and then running under them.”

“I’ve never worked a day in my life. I’ve never worked a day in my life. The joy of writing has propelled me from day to day and year to year. I want you to envy me, my joy. Get out of here tonight and say: ‘Am I being joyful?’ And if you’ve got a writer’s block, you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else. You picked the wrong subject.’

Ray Bradbury

Ray, Ray! What a ray of sunshine you are! A writer who loves writing and crows about it!

Ray Bradbury is most widely known for his jarring science fiction novel, Fahrenheit 451, but he was truly a Renaissance writer: He penned novels, plays, poems, essays, film scripts, and hundreds of short stories. Ray said he wrote every day of his life for 69 years — and loved every minute. He was a big believer in getting out of your own way as a writer and letting stories bubble up from the subconscious.

Here’s an example from his own storied life: Ray spent a very wet, lonely winter in Ireland writing a film script adapting Moby Dick. He was miserable, and vowed that his time in Ireland would never find its way into fiction. Only a few years later, however, what he called his “subliminal eye” triggered a memory of an Irish taxi driver that led to a play. He went on to write several short stories, poems, and essays, all fueled by his brief stay on the Emerald Isle.

As Ray recalls, “I found myself blessing the secret mind,” that inner eye that had “observed when I thought I was sitting this one out. We never sit anything out. We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.” Finding ways to tap inner creativity is a major theme in his wonderful guide, Zen in the Art of Writing. I had a copy once, but gave it to a writer friend. Reading his beautiful musings on writing has inspired me to get another one and share its wisdom. Stay tuned — tap your own secret mind — and write on!

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Upcoming Contests

As we move toward the holidays, there’s still time to pull those novels, stories and poems
out, polish them until they sparkle, and then submit them to one of these contests for potential publication. Who knows how far a work you love and have labored over can go!

St. Martin’s Minotaur/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition: Free contest gives $10,000 advance for a crime novel written by an author with no previously published books. Entries should be at least 220 double-spaced pages (60,000 words). Co-sponsored by major publishing house St. Martin’s Press and nonprofit Mystery Writers of America. Deadline December 15 (Entries must be uploaded by 11:59 pm).

Robert H. Winner Memorial Award: Sponsored by The Poetry Society of America, the nation’s oldest poetry organization. Free to Poetry Society of America members; $15 entry fee for nonmembers. Provides $2,500 for unpublished or published poetry by a mid-career poet who has not had substantial recognition and is open to poets over 40 who have published no more than one book. Send brief but cohesive manuscript of 10-15 pages. Include year of birth on cover page. Each entry should have one cover page and two collated copies of your poem(s). Deadline December 22.

Little Red Tree: International Poetry Prize: Little Red Tree Publishing is sponsoring its 5th International Poetry Prize, with a first prize of $1,000, runner-up $250, and $50 to five finalists. The prize winner, runner-up, and third-place poet will all be featured with full biography in a special collection called “The Little Red Tree International Poetry Prize 2015 Anthology.” The book will also include a selection of poetry from among those submitted those that did not make the final selection but were considered worthy of publication. The book will be published in the summer of 2015. Deadline: December 31.

L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest Short Fiction: Free contest for emerging writers of short science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Awards quarterly prizes of $1,000 plus an annual $5,000 grand prize for one of the four winners. Send only one story per quarter, maximum 17,000 words. See website for eligibility rules. Entrants may not have professionally published a novel or short novel, or more than one novelette, or more than three short stories, in any medium. Next deadline: December 31.

Write on!

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Economical Urgency

Hearing industry pros talk about book publishing always proves valuable. Time and again, the news is heartening even if the hurdles are high: Agents, editors, and publishers are all looking for wonderful, page-turning stories that will transport them. Isn’t that what we all want from a book we love?

At a recent panel co-sponsored by The New School and the SCBWI, three children’s book agents offered insights and craft tips we can all use to sharpen our stories:

Suzie Townsend, New Leaf Literary: To push your manuscript from “good” to “better than good,” you need a strong voice that’s attuned to your readers and strong pacing. Finding a balance between showing and telling is key: Stories with a “telling quality” can create a distance between the reader and the main character. While a story has to keep moving, don’t let pacing get in the way of your story: Create quiet moments where characters can reflect and show their emotions. Frame your chapters with care; use cliff-hanger endings to keep readers asking, “What’s next?”

Heather Alexander, Pippin Properties: Guard against telling readers information they should be able to discover themselves through action and character. Read through your draft with an eye toward eliminating repetition: Readers don’t want to learn the same thing twice. Rhetorical questions often have a hollow ring and rob readers of the chance to ask them on their own.

Alexander Slater, Trident Media Group: Editors buy books when they can’t stop turning the pages. An irresistible first sentence with rhythm and music is worth all the effort it takes to craft. Your opening should be like a short story: It should stand on its own. Every word matters: Be economical and urgent. Engage the reader in the action right away; convey what’s at stake early in the story. Voice is key to a story well told: it expresses originality, sympathy, urgency, desire. Find a voice that’s fresh and unexpected.

A few final tips: Polish and repolish your manuscript until it’s the best you can possibly make it before launching your submissions. Keep your query letter concise: 200 to 250 words. Don’t give your whole plot away, just reveal the first act. And write on!

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Olympian Thinking

One of the joys of having a sleepover with my darling sister and editor Stephanie is that there’s always lots of new fodder for the reading mill over at her place. I catch up on old issues of “Vanity Fair” and dip into a fresh pile of books — always fun. In a guide called, better than Perfect by Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, I came across this inspiring story:

Marilyn King was on the U.S. Olympic team in the 1972 and 1976 games where she competed in the pentathlon. As she began devoting six-to-eight hours a day preparing for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, she was in a terrible car accident. During her months-long recovery, she was unable to train physically.

As she lay in bed, she kept thinking, “I’ll be I the top three at the Olympic trials and I’m getting better every day.” She practiced mentally for seven months by watching films of world-record holders and standing on a track envisioning herself competing. At the trials for the 1980 games, with no physical training, she placed second (but never competed due to the 1980 U.S. boycott). While disappointed, she was also amazed by her trial results: “I was just an ordinary person who had something extraordinary happen that was impossible to explain.”

After researching high achievers, she came to see that, “There are three things that are always present when people achieve extraordinary things.

“The first is passion. Successful people are passion-powered. It is never about things they ‘should’ do or are supposed to do. It’s not willpower; it’s ‘want power.’ Passion is what gets you out of bed, what makes you become a creative problem solver.

“The second is vision. High achievers think in a very particular way. I call it vision-guided. We all do it sometimes; Olympians do it every day.

“The third is action. Olympians and other high achievers are action-oriented. They have daily practices that move them step-by-step toward their goal. But not just physical practice; achieving at the highest levels requires mental practice as well. Mental practice provides the critical difference for high-level success.”

Marilyn calls this trio “Olympian Thinking” and believes anyone can apply it to whatever they want to achieve (waybeyondsports.com). Passion + Vision + Action: Something to ponder as we write on!

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World-class Noticer

“All I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that
I love the world.”
E.B. White

“He was a world-class noticer.”
Roger Angell on E.B. White

“Early summer days are a jubilee time for birds. In the fields, around
the house, in the barn, in the woods, in the swamp – everywhere love and
songs and nests and eggs.”
Charlotte’s Web

What could be more wonderful than an evening spent listening to a lovely stream of words pour over, around, and through you? Words so simple and pure and touching and funny that sitting in an audience listening to them you feel that you and everyone else there with you are in on one of the biggest, sweetest open secrets in the world: A good story has a soul, a life of its own. And it can live on and on in the hearts of those who hear it.

E.B. White was not only a gifted essayist and stylist, he’s also the author of several beloved children’s classics: Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. How lucky I was to have spent an evening listening to a gifted group of actors and actresses bring scenes from these enchanting stories to life. It was an event dedicated to helping to help First Book, a nonprofit created to provide new books and educational resources to children in need.

Here’s one thing I loved best about the evening: It was a celebration of words. There were book covers, charming line drawings, and a few pictures of E.B. White projected on a screen. There were actors standing up and reading and a quartet singing a couple of clever songs from the film made of Charlotte’s Web. That was it. No light shows, ginormous flashy sets, or jittery, frenetic multimedia shows. Just words – and the images they inspired. How refreshing! What a delightful evening!

Listening to E.B.’s masterful storytelling, I was reminded how important it is let a story tell itself – to give it the freedom to unfold and find its own pace. Hearing his lyrical prose is like a peering into a beautiful crystal with the sun inside it: something universal runs through it. What a gift to his readers, young and old. What an inspiration to us as we craft our own worlds from words. Write on!

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Something Wonderful

As we relax and restore body, mind, and spirit, windblown thoughts to savor:

Combed by wind and rinsed by rain, 

or stepping into dew among the stars,
I sifted through our shallow thoughts

and left their tight compass behind.
Without shell or stalk for divination,

I picked out the fine and wondrous,
cut thornwood staffs and blazed trails

in my search for boulders and cliffs.
Here, four mountains circled round,

a pair of streams winding through,
I soon had a library facing south ridges

and a teaching hall against north slopes,
a hall for meditation
 among sheer peaks
and huts for monks along deep streams.

Verse 29 of the poem “Dwelling in the Mountains” from
The Mountain Poems of Hsieh Ling-yun (385-433 C.E.)
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