Friday, November 26, 2010

It's Black Friday - Don't Forget Your Notebook

I hope you enjoyed Thanksgiving and are ready to jump into the holiday season with both feet - both as a shopper and as a writer. Today is Black Friday - the day American shopkeepers look forward to going "into the black" on the books. With stores opening at 3:00 AM this year, and thousands of bargains out there, it's a terrific day to support our drooping economy and grab up some super deals. But don't leave your pencil and notebook at home. With jostling crowds, limited specials, frazzled clerks, and tired shoppers, the day (and the season) holds great promise for writers. Jot down notes on an overheard conversation, the vision of an exasperated shopper, a poignant scene, or your insight into the lack of manners in today's society. Just keep your writer's ears and eyes open and you'll discover limitless bargains on the kind of details that add strength, depth, and character to your writing.

Oh, and if you're traveling, keep that notebook handy. You're in high cotton!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Jump-Start Your Writing With Internet Contests

Practicing writing doesn't have to be boring, and the internet is rampant with writing opportunities. I've been getting into the habit of Googling "writing contests" every once in awhile, and I always find something that sparks my creativity. If you check out the Folgers Coffee contest (Great prize - a trip home!) be sure to take a peek at the Missoula band that won their 2010 Jingle Contest - they're great!

Folgers Coffee Home for the Holidays Essay Contest - Share your Holiday Story in a 200 word, or less, original essay answering the question, "What is the best part of wakin' up at home for the holidays with Folgers Coffee?"

Folgers will award five contest winners, plus up to three family members or friends, travel to and from their destination. Entries will be evaluated based upon their relevance to Folgers Coffee theme, creativity, and clarity of expression.

Entries are accepted from October 1, 2010 at Noon to November 30, 2010 at Noon. For more submission information:

The First Line Writing Prompts for 2011 - The purpose of quarterly magazine The First Line is to jump start the imagination - to help writers break through the block that is the blank page. Each issue contains short stories that stem from a common first line; it also provides a forum for discussing favorite first lines in literature. The First Line is an exercise in creativity for writers and a chance for readers to see how many different directions we can take when we start from the same place. There is no entry fee for submissions to this quarterly magazine.

Spring 2011: "Sam was a loyal employee." Submissions due February 1, 2011.
Summer 2011: "We need to talk." Submissions due May 1, 2011
Fall 2011: "Edwin spotted them the moment he stepped off the train." Submissions due August 1, 2011.
Winter 2011: "It had been a long year." Submissions due November 1, 2011
For more information:

Affordable Insurance Essay Contest - The Affordable Insurance Company is sponsoring an essay contest (200-350 words) open to anyone who has a true story to tell about how any type of insurance policy made a big impact on their lives and financial well being. Judging criteria: Importance of insurance coverage: 50%, Creativity: 30%, and Grammar: 20%. There will be cash awards. Deadline for online submissions: Monday, December 13 at Noon. For submission information:

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sharpening the Axe. Never Stop Learning Your Craft: Guest Blog by Spokane Author T. Dawn Richard

The other day I was at the farm where I keep my horse. One of the workers there passed by me on his way to the barn and in way of conversation told me he and the owner had plans to transfer some cows from one pasture to another.

"How many cows, er, cattle, er, cows?" I asked.

He answered with a kind smile, "You know the rule. Never ask a cowboy how many cows he has, how many acres he owns, and never pet his workin' dog."

I had been schooled. And no, I didn't know the rule. More like a form of cowboy courtesy I guess and a little funny I'd never heard it because this wasn't (pardon the pun) my first rodeo. I've been around horses most of my life, and growing up in Montana it seemed everyone had a farm. But this was the first time I'd heard the expression.

Writing is much the same. We can spend years learning the craft, but then there's that moment when you hear or read something that will improve your writing and you wonder - why haven't I ever heard that before?

While I believe there is no better teacher than practice, there are a few books I have in my own library which I have found to be invaluable as teaching tools when learning to craft a story, book, or screenplay.

One of my very favorites is a book called Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Be sure to check out Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet. While the book was written for screenwriters, it works just as well for novelists. And it's a very fun read.

Another book which should be on every author's shelf is Make Every Word Count by Gary Provost. This is an older book and as far as I know, no longer in print, but you can find it on Amazon. It's a great reminder that every word, every sentence, and every paragraph in your writing must do the job it's meant to do.

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman is one I give to friends as gifts. Without strong first pages, it's doubtful any agent or editor will be encouraged to read your entire manuscript. This book is written for the novelist, but screenwriters will also benefit from learning the importance of opening with strong images.

My last recommended read for now is Syd Field's The Screenwriter's Problem Solver. Are you stuck? Does your writing need something but you just can't identify the problem? This works both for the screenwriter and the novelist. It's a detailed step-by-step troubleshooting tool that takes the guesswork out of what should be changed, added, or deleted from your work.

So, I'll leave you with this - something a very wise man told me when I was learning everything I could about writing, but not putting much on the page. "While learning is good, don't be so busy sharpening your axe that you don't have time to chop wood." So true.

Keep up the writing!
T. Dawn Richard

Spokane author T. Dawn Richard is a full time writer and author of the May List Mystery Series. Her first book in the Amateur Sleuth series, Death for Dessert, was published in 2003, followed by Digging up Otis, and A Wrinkle in Crime. Dawn completed two screenplays in 2009 and has several other projects in the works.

Her books are available on

Friday, November 19, 2010

TGIF: Local Books for Holiday Gifts

It’s a great time to begin stocking up on books signed by area authors for Christmas gifts to friends and family. Below are book events happening in the North Idaho area taking place this weekend and the coming week:

This evening at Aunties Bookstore in Spokane, inspirational speaker Therese Marszalek discusses her book, From the Wilderness to the Miraculous, in which she describes how the reader can persevere through difficulties and find God's path out of all uncertainties.

Saturday evening at Aunties, local musician, d.j. and music producer Kenny Knight signs copies of his memoir, Unknown Rock Star.

Sunday afternoon local authors will be on hand to autograph and sell their books for an event titled Stories on the Mountain, a meet-the-author gift fair taking place at the historic Pleasant View School in Post Falls. Three authors will read excerpts from their work during the event: B.J. Campbell will present her book, Cougar Bob; Michael Marsden will present his book, Sam d'Bear; and Nancy Owens Barnes will read from her book, South to Alaska.

Next week, a mother/son holiday book signing featuring two of Sandpoint's beloved teachers, Marianne Love and son Willie Love, will take place at Vanderford’s Books. Marianne Love is the author of three books, including the most recent, Lessons with Love, in which son Willie contributed. Marianne was an English teacher at Sandpoint High School for many years, and now her son is a teacher at Sandpoint High School. Enjoy meeting these two well-known local writers.
Vanderford's Books, 201 Cedar St., Sandpoint
3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Check the times, locations and details of these events and others on the Events page of this blog.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Gender free writing

Gender free writing is a hot topic these days. The English language is androcentric because for centuries it has been evolving in a society dominated by men. Men made the decisions and the laws; they were in charge of the government, the work force, education and religion. They shaped the course of history and were the subjects of history with relatively few exceptions.

Sex versus gender identification has developed through the onset of women’s studies classes and the continuing force of feminism. There is a difference between an individual’s sex (biological) and the person’s gender (a social construction based on sex). Our understanding of “to be a man” is different than “to be a male.” To be a male denotes having a chromosomal makeup of X and Y while females have only X. To be a man is to exhibit socially desirable traits usually associated with males (trust, strength, ability to get the job done, powerful, etc.). Are not these traits also desirable in the female of the species?

Sexism in the English language may be difficult to recognize because it is so embedded in our speech. Advocates of gender-neutral language are making an impact that started most recently in the business environment. More women perform jobs formerly thought as being handled only by the males of the species (airplane captain, ranch foreperson, automobile designer). “Man” is reverting into the context of a sexual male and not a generic word for mankind or humans.

What does it mean to have a gender-neutral language? Gender-neutral terms apply to “someone” and “anyone” versus just to a woman or a man. Continuing to use sexist language supports bias and implies irrelevant gender classification and negative stereotypes. Thinking only women can be nurses and only men can be electricians is outmoded.

Business manuals and job titles are pushing this change. “Best man for the job,” “workmen,” “waitress” and “freshman” are being replaced by “best person for the job,” “workers,” “server” and “first year student.” Instead of “The programmer should use his laptop for…” try using “The programmer should use a laptop until the end of the month.” Instead of “Men must store their tools in their lockers,” substitute “Workers must store their tools in their lockers."

For pronoun use, “s/he” is going out of favor. Instead, alternate “he” and “she” throughout the article or manual. An author may choose to use a single pronoun throughout but should then include a disclaimer stating that the article is intended to be gender neutral.

  • Use plural nouns
  • Substitute one, you or us
  • Write Dear Professor, Dear Editor, or Dear Loren Thames instead of Dear Sir or Madam
  • Do not stereotype roles or jobs
  • Research in-house guidelines and follow them
  • Edit your work specifically for gender bias

I can hear you saying “But…” If your novel is set in an earlier time, use the common practice for pronouns and language that matches the era and the locale of your work.

Monday, November 15, 2010

How to increase your 20%

The average American has a vocabulary of 10,000 words, more heavily divided in favor of words read versus words spoken. Magazines like Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly assume their reader has a vocabulary of 20,000-25,000 like that of college students. Newspapers write to people with a third grade level of education (and they wonder why they are failing). One thousand words make up 80% of words used in common speaking and in writing American English. The other 20% differ widely depending upon education and vocation. As writers, we should constantly be working on expanding our vocabulary. I intend to, really intend to work on it, daily, starting tomorrow, unless I am writing in which case I cannot take time to increase my vocabulary. Or can I afford not to?

There are many exercises to increase our average recall vocabulary and vocabulary recognition in a context. Studying the dictionary is the least effective and reading is the most effective approach. Read all genres at all levels. Sit with a dictionary, notebook and pen beside you. Circle the words in the dictionary that you have to look up. Write them in your notebook. When you look up more words, your eye will catch the circled or highlighted word which reinforces its meaning and you will have a greater chance of using it later.

Get in the habit of using your dictionary and thesaurus together when you study. Buy a good dictionary and not a pocket version. Invest in one that will help you understand the phonetic spelling versus one of those that prints an “e” upside down followed by some gibberish with accent marks. Buy a word-a-day calendar and put it where you will use it every day for instance beside the bathroom sink, coffee pot or your favorite chair. Build a list of new words that you review 15 minutes a day. Familiarity with a word aids in being able to recall it more easily when writing or speaking. Make three sentences in your notebook using the word in various contexts or tenses.

Playing games like Hangman and Scrabble, work crossword puzzles or find-a-word puzzles are fun ways to broaden your stock of words. Subscribe to a “word-of-the-day” delivered to your computer inbox or iPhone where a word, its pronunciation, definition and origin are displayed. I use Merriam Webster’s Word of the Day. Sometimes they email obscure words that only writers of medieval novels about outer Siberia would use but the word origin is always interesting.

Additional ways to increase your vocabulary are to study the roots of words, which are mostly from Latin and Greek, and understand prefixes and suffixes. Develop lists of synonyms and antonyms from your new words list in your notebook. Try your hand at the “Word Power” section of Reader’s Digest magazine; go to the library and peruse old copies. Play games on the computer that are word puzzles. Use these new words in your writing.

Two fun books are Random House Webster’s Word Menu by Stephen Glazier and The Bibliophile’s Dictionary: 2,054 Masterful Words and Phrases by Miles Westley. The former is part thesaurus, part dictionary, part glossary, part vocabulary builder, part logophile’s phrases, part easy browsing and wholly delightful. The Bibliophile’s Dictionary includes atypical but not obscure words with definitions categorized by subject that you might use to enliven your writing.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

TGIF: Prompt: Get Busy & Write

Looking for something to do this weekend? Why not follow Jennifer's advice and get into the mood of writing by simply writing. Writing prompts offer cheap, easy entertainment; and, who knows, a prompt just might inspire you to write a fantastic story that lies hidden within.

While looking for inspiration online earlier today, I found one prompt that suggests writing about, "Who's at the zoo?" I pictured the giraffes I watched at the San Francisco Zoo just a couple of months ago. I remembered being entranced by their graceful, slow-motioned walk; their towering height; the arc of their necks; and their peaceful demeanor. Maybe I could write an essay - maybe a poem. Then another prompt caught my eye, "What's under my bed?" Oh great, from graceful giraffes gamboling on green grass to dirty dust bunnies promiscuously procreating under my bed.

Well, the writing prompts aren't working for me this time...all I was inspired to do was quit writing and go dust under my bed. But, I bet you'll have better luck. Give it a try!

Stories on the Mountain - A Meet-the-Author Gift Fair
Start your Christmas shopping early by attending the Meet-the-Author Gift Fair at Pleasant View School in Post Falls on November 21. Local authors will be on hand to autograph and sell their books, and three authors will read excerpts from their work during the event. B.J. Campbell will present her book, Cougar Bob; Michael Marsden will present his book, Sam d'Bear; and Nancy Owens Barnes (one of our fellow bloggers) will read from her book, South to Alaska.

All local authors are invited to participate in the Gift Fair, but space is limited. If you would like to participate, contact B.J. Campbell as soon as possible:

Sunday, November 32, Pleasant View School
18724 West Riverview Drive, Post Falls, ID
Program: 2:00 - 4:00 pm
Gift Fair: 2:00 - 5:00 pm

Be sure to check out other writing related events on our Events page.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Strong characters and strength of characters

A recent blog talked about good books for writing. It got me thinking about what makes a book satisfying and memorable. Obviously excellent writing and an interesting theme are on the list but a strong character is what makes a great book.

Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play by the same name has become world renown. He was a character with many flaws. He displays revenge in thought and deeds, and insanity, which Shakespeare uses to advance the play to its tragic end.

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most believable protagonists in recent literature. He seems like he should be a real person. Even though the location and time of Doyle’s stories are foreign to us, Arthur Conan Doyle lays the plot enabling us to follow Sherlock in his efforts to solve a crime. We can admire Sherlock’s uncanny ability to reason out a problem and solve the mystery. The same could be said for Miss Jane Marple.

Catcher in the Rye is banned in some cities and touted as one of the best coming of age novels in others. The author has made Holden Caulfield a combination of youthful exuberance and ignorance. We receive glimpses of the man he is to become by his intolerance of “phonies” and cheer him on. We cry when he does.

Scout and Atticus Finch are a memorable pair of characters. To Kill a Mockingbird is told from Scout’s perspective but Salinger cleverly depicts the prejudices toward black people in south through his marvelous protagonist, the father, Atticus Finch. We loved him for his standing up as a moral leader and teaching his two children courage and compassion along the way. Boo Radley, although a minor character, was so well drawn in our minds, that we felt like he was our neighbor instead of Scout’s.

Tarzan and Superman spurred the imagination of young children and filled our lives as adults with pleasant memories. Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, although appearing a quiet, conforming character displayed strength when he would not tell where the brave, run away, female slaves were hiding. Tom was pivotal in bringing to the forefront the horrors of slavery and the injustice to another human being. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are still teaching us lessons today.

Two fictional characters you may not have thought of are Dick and Jane of learning to read textbooks in early elementary school. The author did not tell us much about these siblings but they gave a lot of us a pleasant start to reading on our way to writing.

Lucy Pollard-Gott has written a fascinating book on the topic of memorable fictional characters, 100 Best Fictional Characters; Ranking the Most Influential Characters in World Literature and Legend. It is an engaging book where each chapter is devoted to a fictional character. Not only is it interesting, it makes the reader think of strong protagonists and antagonists. The real exercise is to contemplate what made those characters unforgettable and transfer that to our writing.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Are writing prompts of value?

It never seemed of value to me to take advantage of writing prompts. I have dozens of ideas in my brain waiting for transfer to the written page. Another writer cannot think of an ending to a book or how to integrate a subplot. After reading a plethora of web sites on writing prompts, I can see the advantages.

Authorities say writing prompts can meet various needs for both new and experienced writers. For new writers, it gets them into writing mode by producing a subject immediately without having to think up a topic. “I saw a bumblebee…” should send a writer off into any number of scenarios such as killer African bees building a hive, a child in danger or nature at its most interesting. Experienced writers can use the same prompt to write in a new genre. We can create a science fiction story based on bees as the main characters, a children’s story or a nonfiction article on how to treat bee stings.

The goal when writing in response to a prompt is not to end up with a grammatically perfect, ready-to-print essay or story. I don’t have to use spell check or write full sentences. The goal is to give me experience writing. The goal is to take me outside my comfort zone and into a different genre; the goal is to force me to write. The goal is to enhance my writing skills with no competition or stress associated; the goal is for me to learn. Stress free. No consequences. Forgiving. It is as fulfilling as a piece of Godiva chocolate.

The web site gives a writer excellent prompts for all genres. The author, Mary Deal, categorizes prompts by genres: romance, mystery/suspense/thriller, science fiction/fantasy, historical fiction, horror/dark side, and fairy tales/folk tales/tall tales. She lists specific ideas for each category. This allows a writer to use the concrete ideas as the beginning of a story, the theme or opening sentences. It takes the burden off of thinking what to write so that you can write.

Web sites suggest using pictures as writing prompts. Does the Eiffel Tower make your creative thoughts flow? Or does an email showing pictures of cowboy stars like Roy Rogers or Gene Autry generate an idea? Maybe a picture of the damage of earthquakes in Christchurch, NZ tips something in your brain. Bookmarking web sites related to writing prompts or keeping an ongoing list on your desk can spur you to follow through. We often hear the excuse, “I don’t know what to write about.” Your problem is solved. Well-established authors tell us to write every day. They do not say you have to work on your now five-year-novel-in-the-making. They say write!

Remember the book and movie Julie and Julia about a young woman in New York who challenged herself to cook one recipe every day for a year out of Julia Child’s cookbook, Julia Child and Company? Maybe that is the prompt we all need to improve our writing: decide to use a writing prompt every day for 365 days and see if it helps our creative flow and expands our writing abilities. We do not have to write for an hour but the results of fifteen minutes may surprise us.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

TGIF: It's open season . . . on books!

Here in North Idaho, some of us hunt for deer and elk. Others stalk the next fabulous political thriller or historical epic. It's no secret that most writers are also avid readers. But constantly buying books has an alarmingly slimming effect on the wallet, especially in this current economy. That's where used-book sales come in. To refresh your memory, here are five reasons to love a used-book sale:

(1) It’s like a treasure hunt. You never know when you’ll stumble across the book or author that will change your life—or at least brighten a few of those dull winter evenings that will be upon us soon.

(2) You can experiment with unfamiliar genres or unknown authors without shelling out major bucks. Whether your choice turns out to be a hit or a miss, your investment has been small, and no matter what, the funds go to a worthy cause.

(3) You can study the competition on the cheap. Want to write mysteries? Bring home a whole bagful of them and analyze what makes each story succeed or fail. (And unlike library books, you can underline, highlight, and scribble in the margins.)

(4) At a used-book sale, you’ll mix and mingle with like-minded people—your “tribe”—which is great fun until you notice someone reaching for the exact same volume that you have your eye on. In which case,

(5) You’ll sharpen your competitive book-browsing skills and enjoy the thrill of the chase when you bag that favorite book before anyone else does.

If you’re a used-book enthusiast, you're in for a treat this weekend! Check out these sales, all taking place on Saturday, November 6:

The East Bonner County Library Book Sale, 1407 Cedar St., Sandpoint, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., 208-263-6930

The Friends of the Library Fall Book Sale at the Hayden Library, 8585 N. Government Way, Hayden Lake, 208-772-5612

The Priest River Library Book Sale, 205 High St., Priest River, 208-448-2207

Also be sure to click on the Events tab above to learn about area book signings and other events.

Happy hunting!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Beyond This Blog: For the Love of Words

Had I taken a different path in life, I think I could have been quite happy as an etymologist (which is, of course, one who studies words. Once when I mentioned my interest in etymology to a friend, she thought I wanted to study insects. Um, eww. That's ENTomology.) All my life I've fallen in love with certain words, just because of how they sound or the way they roll off the tongue when you say them, or even how they look on a page. "Flourescent" is one. "Tangerine" is another. There's no logical reason for my love of these words; they simply make me happy. So I was gratified to stumble upon a blog called, which is described as "a playground for the love and enjoyment of words." Here I've found my tribe! Blogger Monica Welch not only explores the origins of certain words or sayings, she's an astute observer of how words and language are used--and abused--in modern culture.

For example, if you're a writer who values finding fresh ways to say things, you've gotta love a blog that points out the empty phrases that we're all guilty of using from time to time. (Do the phrases "it is what it is" or "at the end of the day" bring a blush to your writerly cheek? They should!) And the reader comments are worth reading, too. If you're a lover of words, you'll find a kindred spirit in Come join the conversation.