Something Wonderful

Rain in Summer

How beautiful is the rain!
After the dust and heat,
in the broad and fiery street,
In the narrow lane,
How beautiful is the rain!

How it chatters along the roofs,
Like the tramp of hoofs!
How it gushes and struggles out
From the throat of the overflowing

Across the windowpane
It pours and pours;
And swift and wide,
With a muddy tide,
Like a river down the gutter roars
The rain, the welcome rain!

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Story Stream

I love  dipping into random piles and finding a book filled with helpful writing ideas. Writers at Work, a collection of Paris Review interviews, is chock full of writing tips. In the introduction, Malcolm Cowley identifies “four stages in the composition of a story”– here’s an overview:

1) The “germ” — Something heard or heard about or remembered: a passing remark, a chance encounter — “something that serves as a focal point” … Henry James once described this as “the precious particle…the stray suggestion, the wandering word, the vague echo, at a touch of which the novelist’s imagination winces as at the prick of some sharp point.”

2) “More or less conscious meditation” — “The book or story shapes up — assumes its own specific form…during a process of meditation… This may be a conscious process, where the writer asks questions: “What should the characters do at this point? How can I build to a climax?” Or, Cowley notes, “most of the process, including all the early steps, may be carried on without the writer’s volition. He wakes at dawn with the whole story in his head…Or again — and I think most frequently — the meditation is a mixture of conscious and unconscious elements, as if a cry from the depths of sleep were being heard and revised by the waking mind. Often the meditation continues while the writer is engaged in other occupations…”

3) “The first draft” — Some writers draft at top speed: Says Frank O’Connor, “Get black on white used to be Maupassant’s advice — that’s what I always do. I don’t give a hoot what the writing’s like, I write any sort of rubbish which will cover the main outlines of the story, then I begin to see it.” In contrast, William Styron once said, “I seem to have some neurotic need to perfect each paragraph — each sentence, even — as I go along.”

4) “The revision” — Frank O’Connor may have breezed through his first draft, but in this stage, he would rewrite, “endlessly, endlessly, endlessly.” James Thurber would revise his stories by rewriting them from beginning to end — one story was revised completely fifteen times. Georges Simenon, on the other hand, spent exactly three days revising his short novels and Francoise Sagan spent very little time revising what she’d written.

Four stages — and many different strategies for navigating them: All of which shows that just about anything goes that gets you where you want to go. Write on!

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Contest Alert

If you have a self-published book you’ve labored long and hard on, you may want to consider entering the well-established sixth annual North Street competition for self-published books, sponsored by Winning Writers and co-sponsored by BookBaby and Carolyn Howard-Johnson, the author of The Frugal Book Promoter.

One book will receive a grand prize of $5,000, and the winner of each category will receive $1,000. In all, $12,500 will be awarded and the top seven winners will receive additional benefits to help market their books. Any year of publication is eligible. Entry fee: $65 per book. Deadline: June 30.

Choose from six categories:

  • Mainstream/Literary Fiction
  • Genre Fiction
  • Creative Nonfiction & Memoir
  • Poetry
  • Children’s Picture Book
  • Graphic Novel & Memoir


One grand prize winner will receive $5,000, a marketing analysis and a one-hour phone consultation with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, a $300 credit at BookBaby, and 3 free ads in the Winning Writers newsletter.

Top winners in each category will receive $1,000, a marketing analysis and a one-hour phone consultation with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, a $300 credit at BookBaby, and a free ad in the Winning Writers newsletter. One honorable mention in each category will receive $250.

Excerpts (1,000-6,000 words) will be published online from all prize-winning entries. Length limit: 200,000 words maximum. You may submit a collection of short stories or essays as a single entry. No restriction on age of author. No restriction on year of publication. Submit an ebook or a printed book. All contestants receive a free PDF download of How To Get Great Book Reviews Frugally & Ethically by Carolyn Howard-Johnson and free guides from BookBaby.

If you have a book that fills the bill in one or more of these categories, this can be one way to give it more exposure and recognition. Write on!



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Mood Boosters

In these trying times, finding ways to keep ourselves uplifted and energized isn’t easy, but it’s more important than ever for our work and our mindset. A few easy energizers:*

Stretch slowly:  Moving even just a little more than usual will make you much happier, researchers from Britain’s University of Cambridge have found. Even simple, gentle movements like stretching release mood-boosting endorphins. To get the most benefit from a quick joy jolt, push yourself to stretch farther than you normally would. Lift each knee to your chest, for example or twisting your upper body from side to side. Stretching also enlarges the part of your brain that activates your memory. In one study, women who stretched regularly but didn’t change anything else in their daily routines found that their scores on memory tests soared.

Dance around:  You’ve probably heard that song, “Dance like no one is watching.” It’s not just fun, it’s a great way to give yourself a brain boost. Dancing by yourself or with others is proven to slash stress and boost your happiness IQ. Just the simple act of remembering dance steps as you move and groove supercharges your neurons and exercises your brain.

Enjoy nature:  While many of us are still sheltering at home, we can still reap the benefits of nature by spending just 20 minutes a day outside near trees, grass, and flowers – whether in a park, on a neighborhood stroll, or in a garden. In a recent study by the University of Rochester, people who sent more time outside near nature reported feeling not just more energetic physically, but more sharper mentally. Being around nature triggers activity in your brain that boosts focus and alertness, and banishes fatigue. If you can’t get outside, just visually a pleasant scene in a park or on the shore can also relax and recharge you.

Pick proteins:  If your energy tends to nosedive in the afternoon, a sugary snack can actually make you feel more tired. On the other hand, there’s plenty of proof that eating a protein-rich snack like hummus or a hard-boiled egg will help pick up your pep by stimulating brain cells that make you feel more alert. Protein-rich foods also release brain-boosting chemicals that contribute to mental stamina.

Snack smart:  If you’re feeling sluggish and need a quick boost, here are a few easy fixes: Snack on walnuts, one of nature’s “super foods.” Walnuts have the highest levels of omega-3 of any nut – a key to boosting energy. Edamame is another snack which quickly helps refuel you. Check out dried edamame seasoned with sea salt. If you’re on the go, fill a small bag with bran cereal and yogurt chips for a quick pick-me-up.

When we’re we’re energized and more alert, our “little gray cells” are primed to give us all the ideas and creative thoughts we need as we all write on!

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*These energizing tips come to us via Woman’s World magazine.


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“Miracle Fiber”

“Human beings are made of flesh and blood, and a miracle fiber called courage.”   George Patton

“All serious daring starts from within.”   Eudora Welty

Wow! Bringing together General Patton and the diminutive, elfin Eudora Welty on the same page – that’s quite a feat! Still, it makes perfect sense, since, to my mind, they are both talking about the same elusive quality: courage.

Right now, most of us are probably associating courage with people on the front lines battling the pandemic or facing down rioters or simply standing up for what they believe in a time of confusion and division. Yes, yes, yes! All this takes courage.

But let’s also remember Eudora’s inspiring words, “All serious daring starts from within.” Let’s also remember that it takes courage to do what we do: to write. And that it’s more true than ever now, when so much is happening beyond our computers and pages and outside our doors that seems beyond our ability to process and understand.

It takes courage to come to the page and battle with words when everything that’s going on around us seems to be telling us that we’re “nonessential” workers.

It takes courage to believe, along with Margaret Atwood, that, “A word after a word is power” – that words matter. That they can change things and have in the past.

It takes courage to struggle to stay focused on work that we care about in the face of so much doubt and destruction.

It takes courage to stay committed to goals we set for ourselves when the world was a very different place and when we ourselves had a very different mindset.

It takes courage to continue to create – hopefully, something wonderful — at a time when many people are tearing thing down.

It takes courage to think, to write with the goal of understanding something that you believe may be important to you and to others, when there’s so much mindless chatter and chaos.

It takes courage to remember that as Keats said, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” – that striving to bring beauty into the world is a worthy, incredibly valuable endeavor.

Yes, we writers may not always remember it, but we’re also made of that miracle fiber: courage. So, in the face of all that’s happening, let’s be daring — seriously daring — and all write on!

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Heartfelt Hugo

An encore presentation of the musical Les Mis on PBS reminded me just how enduring Victor Hugo’s story is. The performances were stunning and the songs — by turns quiet and stormy, uplifting and heartrending. I love this musical. I’m not alone: To date, various productions have been seen by 70+ million people. Now that’s a lot of theater tickets!

What is there about this musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s sprawling, unruly novel that makes it so enormously popular? Why have millions of theater goers made it a global juggernaut? Here are a few ideas to stoke our own creative fires:

It sounds timeless themes: Hugo tackled big issues in his novel, Les Miserables, and the musical touches on many of them: love, hate, redemption, revenge, forgiveness — they’re all in the mix. Any story that’s strives to be big has to go big — it has to embrace universal chords that bind us all together — that make us flawed and human.

It entwines individuals and history: The story of Jean Valjean unfolds against the backdrop of a critical moment in 19th century France. Enmeshing these personal and political moments creates compelling theater because it makes the personal stories that unfold feel “bigger” and more dramatic while it makes the historical events that take place seem less grand and more personal.

It offers us a worthy villain: Javert, the policeman who hounds Jean Valjean is a worthy opponent. He’s relentless, yes, but he has a strong moral compass of his own. He may be benighted, but he’s not purely evil because he believes in the importance of upholding his moral code unflinchingly.

It provides comic relief: I haven’t read all of Hugo’s novel, so I don’t know whether humor is part of his repertoire. But the musical has several lighthearted moments provided by secondary characters who leaven an otherwise somber story line.

It captures emotional highs and lows: Throughout the show, there are enormous mood swings — from hopelessness to escape, from unrequited love to redemptive love. These constant emotional shifts give the story momentum, propelling it forward.

It elevates secondary characters:
There’s a huge cast in Les Mis and many of the secondary characters are given hugely dramatic and emotional moments in the sun. They shine brightly, if briefly.

There’s so much to be learned from trying to figure out how and why a classic story why it pulls our heartstrings — and why it endures across time and space. Write on!

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Something Wonderful


What is this life, if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like stars at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this, if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

— William Henry Davies

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