”Fourth Wind”

“If an unusual necessity forces us onward, a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain point, then gradually, or suddenly, it passes away and we are fresher than before! We have evidently tapped a new level of energy. There may be layer after layer of this experience, a third and a fourth wind.

“We find amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own, sources of strength habitually not taxed, because habitually we never push through the obstruction of fatigue.” William James

Wow, I’ve heard of a second wind, but never a third or fourth wind. But since William James is considered the father of American psychology, I’m willing to give this a go.

How about you? Chances are, you’re going to hit a wall sometime soon. I’ve hit one right now, today. I can feel that I’m flagging a bit, even after a good night’s sleep. I’ve been firing some brain cells recently working on a project and I’m feeling a bit tapped out.

But I’m going to take William at his word. I’m going to go forward with velocity and see what happens—I’m going to see what’s on the other side of the fatigue I’m feeling. If I can catch a second wind today during my writing time, I’ll be happy. But maybe, there’s a third or a fourth wind just waiting to be caught—wouldn’t that be wonderful!

Just imagine, if we caught a second wind—an unexpected burst of energy, and then caught a third or a fourth wind! Just think how high we’d be flying! What marvelous ideas might be within our grasp.

So often, we sell ourselves short. We retreat when we hit a bit of rough weather on the writing front. It’s encouraging to think that there may be sunshine on the other side of our decision to keep going. Write on!

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Roving Reading

“There is more treasure in books than in all the loot on Treasure Island…and best of all, you can enjoy these riches every day of your life.” Walt Disney

“If you don’t have time to read, you on’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that.” Stephen King

Walt said it more graciously than Stephen, but as writers we all know how important reading is. It’s one of the key tools in our writers kit bag. We read, not just to lounge around and be entertained, b;it to learn—to discover how other writers do what they do as a way of improving our own craft.

With lots to do and limited time, it’s easy to spend our reading time staying “close to home” in our own genres, rather than ranging farther a field. But sometimes getting out of our comfort zone on the reading front can be energizing and enlightening. Here are a few ways to expand our reading range:

Read books on writing: I have a shelf or two of writing guides that I turn to again and again for ideas and guidance. Sometimes we forget about these old friends, but they are always waiting for us. Why not make it a point to dip into one trusted guide every week?

Read articles outside of your personal interests: There’s nothing like reading an engaging story about a topic you have no interest in and seeing how author managed to entice and hook you just through the sheer writing skill.

Read books outside your genre: It’s safe and easy to read inside our genre to see what other authors are doing—how they construct their plot lines and use accepted tropes. But genre jumping as a reader can also be valuable. If you’re writing a fantasy, spending some time reading, say, a mystery, can be instructive. You may learn how to raise more questions in your readers’ minds by planting clues in your story.

Read books on self-help: Even here, we don’t have to limit ourselves to personal growth guides. We can also venture into unfamiliar territory. Reading about entrepreneurship, for example, can help us understand how to navigate the business side of writing.

Writers are readers. So let’s be adventurous as we all write on!

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Kind Critiquing

What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

We’ve all been on the receiving end of criticism that was harsh or inconsiderately expressed — and it’s no picnic. Writing is tough enough: Putting our work before others’ eyes with the goal of improving it should be a positive, encouraging experience, not a discouraging one. Discouraging is the perfect word here because it means to lose heart. When feedback has a tactless or even worse, a mean-spirited, tone to it, it can make us lose heart and deflate us rather than inspirit and motivate us, which to my mind, is the whole purpose of giving and receiving a critique.

My good friend and mentor Coach Mike Tully says that “feedback is the breakfast of champions.” Why? Mainly because at its best, it’s an invaluable tool in our writing arsenal — one that points the way to improvement and provides a springboard for pushing our work to the next level. 

Taking all this to heart, let’s all keep in mind a few easy-to-use critique concepts:

• Accentuate the positive: No matter how much work you think a piece needs, there’s always some strength that you can point to — even if it’s just a powerful theme it’s addressing. If you lead off your critique suggestions with some positives, it can make your insights into a piece’s weaknesses a lot easier to handle. As Mary Poppins put it, “A little bit of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

• Watch your wording: We’re writers, after all, and we know what a difference the right words can make. There’s a big difference, for instance, between describing a character as “flat” or “lifeless,” and saying that he or she could be “fleshed out more fully” or “more dimensional.” 

• Talk about what works for you and what doesn’t: This is a helpful way of giving feedback that several of my writing buddies passed on from their MFA critique sessions. This approach has a neutral tone to it that makes it easy for people on the receiving end to consider. 

In short, let’s all keep in mind what the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Junot Diaz once told me. When I asked him what advice I could pass on from him to my KWD readers, he simply said, “Be kind to yourself. Writing is hard work.” How true — so let’s be kind to ourselves and to any other writers we meet — and critique. Write on!

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Author’s Journey

It’s always inspiring to hear authors talk about their writing life—its ups and downs, its rewards and joys. That’s why I was excited to hear my dear friend and gifted writer Nancy Burke (nancyburkestories.com) share her story in an event hosted by the Montclair Write Group, a community of writers spanning all genres, ages, and experience. A few highlights:

Be flexible: Nancy’s three books all took different paths to publication. “From the Abuelas’ Window,” her first novel, was self-published. Her second book, “If I Could Paint the Moon Black,” recounting the World War II story of Imbi Peebos, reached readers through a small indie publisher. Her latest novel, “Only the Women are Burning,” found a hybrid publisher, Apprentice House at Loyola University.

Be ready: New ideas come from everywhere. “I have a journal I carry around in my purse,” Nancy noted. One book idea was sparked by the gift of a bicycle to her young daughter, another by a feisty speaker at a conference, and the third when the line, “the women began to spontaneously ignite…” floated into her mind. When wisps of ideas come, catch them.

Be persistent: With a full time job and a family, Nancy had to find ways to keep her writing a priority. One book took her seven years, on and off, to write. “Only the Women Are Burning” went through five drafts.. Keep moving forward, revising and sharpening.

Be coachable: “I learned to write a novel by writing one,” Nancy commented. At one point, “Only the Women” mushroomed into a 1,000 page manuscript which she had to cut and hone. By working with a critique group, taking classes, and experimenting on her own, Nancy’s craft developed and deepened.

Be adventurous: Now that “Only the Women” is in novel form, Nancy’s working on adapting it as a screenplay—a very different form of writing. “What is the audience seeing? What is the audience hearing?” A new set of challenges has emerged. After taking a screenwriting course to reorient herself, Nancy is diving into a new genre.

Be ready for inspiration. Be flexible and adventurous. Be coachable. Inspired advice from a talented author. Bravo, Nancy! Write on!

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Something Wonderful

These I’ve Loved

These I’ve loved since I was little:
Wood to build with or to whittle,
Wind in the grass and falling rain,
First leaves along an April lane,
Yellow flowers, cloudy weather,
River-bottom smell, old leather,
Fields newly plowed, young corn in rows,
Back-country roads and cawing crows,
Stone walls with stiles going over,
Daisies, Queen Anne’s Lace, and clover,
Night tunes of crickets, frog songs, too,
Starched cotton cloth, the color blue,
Bells that ring from white church steeple,
Friendly dogs and friendly people.

Elizabeth-Ellen Long

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Mrs. Pumpernickel

This Saturday, January 8, is my father Albert’s birthday. His encouragement is one of the reasons I became a writer. Here’s how it all started:

In our apartment on Ft. Washington Avenue in Manhattan, the dining room was my father’s office. In one corner loomed a big black desk anchored like a ship in a small ocean of papers and books. My dad was a writer when I was little and that was where he worked. I didn’t know what working was, but I knew it was important, because when he did it, we had to be quiet.

At four or so, I was just tall enough to peek over the edge of his desk and survey its exotic treasures: Pens! Pencils! Paperclips! Pudgy pink erasers! Pads of yellow paper! Writing had to be fun, that much I knew. Because when you were doing it, you could be very messy and no one gave you a hard time about it. In fact, the messier you were, the more you were working and the harder you were writing.

One day, a miracle occurred. My dad handed me one of his beautiful, brand-new yellow legal pads – the golden fleece, it seemed to me – and a shiny yellow pencil with its very own round pink eraser on top. “I want you to write a letter to my editor, Mrs. Pumpernickel. Tell her I need more money!” my father said.

No matter that I didn’t know what an editor was or what money was or where to find Mrs. Pumpernickel. No matter that I didn’t know the alphabet or how to read. I was writing! I took my shiny pencil in hand and set to work, covering page after page of my yellow legal pad with bold, confident squiggles. 

I finished my letter and handed it to my father. He looked over my chicken scratches carefully, nodding as if he understood every word perfectly. I couldn’t have been prouder if I’d won the Pulitzer! Then he fished in a desk drawer, pulled out a gleaming white envelope, and tucked my letter inside. “We need to mail this right away,” my dad said. What a thrill! I was hooked and I’ve been writing ever since. Write on!

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Sometimes Late

Sometimes, I’m late in sending out my KWD posts. Today, for example, it’s after 10 and I’m just getting started.

To be honest, I overslept. I’ve been burning lots of brain cells pulling together a new revision of my children’s novel and I was tired, so I ignored the alarm. It happens.

I’m sorry this is getting to you later than usual. I do my best to have a new post ready for you by 9 or 9:30. But sometimes I slip up, like today. I know some of you count on KWD to help you jumpstart your day. All of you are my cherished and beloved KWD readers and I do my best for you. I wish there were more of you, because I feel these KWDs are inspiring and helpful. But whoever you are and wherever you are, thank you for joining me and sharing your writing journey with me.

I’m totally committed to these daily posts sand to giving us all, myself included!) fresh ideas and insights and writing tips that will help us all get to the next level. This is my intention and it’s hasn’t wavered since I began this blog in honor of my beloved mom, Dorothy and my beloved sister Judy, and my beloved dad Albert, of “Mrs. Pumpernickel” fame (see tomorrow’s post.)

But sometimes, I miss the mark. Sometimes, I’m late or distracted.

Sometimes, I have an idea for a KWD that I think is absolutely fabulous, but it fizzles. It doesn’t really sing and dance.

Sometimes I feel completely empty and tapped out. But I fight through it and write something that amazes me. I surprise and surpass myself.

That’s how it goes. I make the effort to be kind to myself if I miss the mark. I don’t beat myself up, because my commitment and my intention are there. I can always do better and I vow to myself that I will, and I keep going.

And that’s exactly what we have to do with our writing. As the great Babe Ruth once said, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.” Someone once asked the Great Bambino what he thought about after he struck out. His answer, “I think about hitting my next home run.”

Great advice for us all! Sometimes we’re going to get a hit, sometimes we’re going to strike out, and every once in a while, we’re going to score a home run. As long as we’re up at bat and keep swinging, we’ll get where we want to go.

So I’m going to keep on swinging and do my best to inspire you to do the same. And if you feel there are others out there who might benefit from KWD, please share it with them. I’d love to have many more players in the stands as we all push our craft to the next level and write on!

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Pacing Yourself

“If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to is keep on walking.” Buddhist saying

A few fast facts to inspire and energize us:

Jack Kerouac took notes and traveled for seven years on his epic journey, but it took him only a month to write On the Road.

Charles Dickens penned his classic A Christmas Carol in six weeks and self-published it.

Victor Hugo, best known for Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Norte Dame wrote 20 pages a day.

The story for Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr.. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came to him in a dream and he wrote it in two weeks.

As all this suggests, when it comes to prose, anything goes. Some writers, like Dickens, wrote some of their classics quickly—and other novels took years to pen. Some took notes, like Kerouac, and others fashioned stories out of a dream or by writing 20 pages a day, like Stevenson and Hugo.

But however quickly or slowly writers write, they pace themselves: They understand their own writing rhythms and use them to best advantage. It’s not the speed that counts, it’s the momentum and the intention— the drive to keep going.

The same is true for us. By moving steadily in the right direction, we can get where we want to go. So let’s not worry about how anyone else works, let’s figure out what works for us and then keep doing it.

Once, when I was lost on my way to a bookstore in Brooklyn, I stopped and asked directions. A kindly fellow told me: “You’re on the right track. Keep going. You’ll get there.” A great mantra, as we all write on!

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Conflict Creates

There’s a brook not far from my house with a little bridge over it. On my daily walk, if my path takes me to it, I often stand for a few moments and listen to the brook burble. Most of the time, it just flows away from me in one gentle, continuous sweep. Very placid and mellow. But if there’s been a heavy rain, it rises dramatically.

Watching second stream made me think of the value of conflict in writing. We can create a story that flows along based on character, setting, and plot. But if we don’t have conflict, nothing really happens.

Not long ago, I stood on the bridge, watching the waters flow. It had rained for a few days—chilly, winter rain that didn’t quite freeze into snow. The brook was higher than usual, but still calm. Then, I looked to the right and saw a second stream. It was pouring over a pile of rocks and because of this obstacle, it was rushing more swiftly and energetically than the main stream, enlivening it.

Conflict is like that second stream—encountering an obstacle, creating friction, and fueling forward motion:

Conflict creates energy: It stirs a story up and enlivens it. When a conflict occurs, it can reignite a plot and make it come alive.

Conflict creates confusion: It can take readers by surprise, raise questions, and introduce unexpected narrative twists and turns.

Conflict creates opportunities: It can provide fresh options for character development, new characters, and backstory reveals.

Conflict creates momentum: It steps on the gas and drives a story forward. Without it a story can languish, stagnate, and puddle.

So let’s remember that second stream, flowing into the main one, energizing and enlivening it when we think of conflict. Write on!

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Joyful Year!

As we enter a New Year fresh with opportunities, may these writerly reflections inspire us and spur us to new heights:

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier.’”   Alfred Lord Tennyson

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something … Make. Good. Art.   Neil Gaiman

“Take a leap of faith and begin this wondrous new year by believing. Believe in yourself. And believe that there is a loving Source — a Sower of Dreams — just waiting to be asked to help you make your dreams come true.”   Sarah Ban Breathnach

“Your success and happiness lies in you. Resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties.”   Helen Keller

“The joy that you give to others is the joy that comes back to you.” John Greenleaf Whittier.

“I will honor Christmas in my heart and keep it all the year.” Charles Dickens

“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

We writers have so much joy to share — let’s make this a wondrous year! Write on!

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