Friday, May 31, 2013

Want to Write a Book? Let Your Yes Be Yes and Your No Be No

I've been reading an interesting little book called Chapter By Chapter by Heather Sellers. I call it a little book because it is compact in size, but there's nothing small about the impact it's been having on my writing life. As writing-advice books go, Chapter By Chapter is not so much about how to write a book as it is about how to set up the rest of your life to make book-writing possible.

One section has set me to squirming, though. In a chapter called "Limits," Sellers writes, "The number once reason books don't get finished is this: Writers say yes to other things." [emphasis hers]

That got my attention, champion yes-sayer that I am.

Sellers continues, "Successful book writers are very rarely also: historical society presidents, garden club secretaries, book group members, room mothers, rumba instructors, feng shui consultants, yoga expert students, and leaders of the town's spring clean-up committee. When you're writing a book, you do not have time for: meetings, grant writing, sonnet competitions, sprawling vacations, breeding dogs, renovating a bathroom, honing your poker skills for the circuit, or starting a nonprofit. . . . Most of the book authors I know limit themselves to one 'extracurricular.' The key difference between successful book writers and failed, not-finishing book writers is this: When they're struggling with the book, the successful writers let the extracurriculars go, not the book-writing effort."

Wow, says I, wincing at my scribbled-on calendar where, in a typical week, choir practice vies for space with critique group and book group and museum volunteer work and church activities and manning phones at a telethon, not to mention fun things like Bunco and movies and lunch with friends, and emphatically not mentioning un-fun but necessary things like weeding the garden and scrubbing the tub. And I don't even have kids!

Let us be clear. Typically, writers don't write well in a vacuum. To write about life, we first need to experience life, which doesn't happen when we're glued to our computers.That said, when is enough enough? When is too much, too much?

I say that writing is one of my highest priorities, right after God and husband. Yet when I see a calendar filled with non-writing-related obligations and commitments, leaving little time to write more than a brief jotting here and there, I have no one but myself to blame. Me and my people-pleasing, agreeable, yessir-you-can-count-on-me ways. And my slothful "you-deserve-a-break-today" ways.

And yet, when I survey the calendar for places to cut back, there is nothing that I want to drop. Everything seems So. Very. Important. Or So. Very. Fun.


What do you think about Sellers' advice, recommending that a writer stick to one "extracurricular?" Reasonable? Extreme? What are your best tips for juggling myriad obligations and also getting your writing done?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

WNI Writing Contest: Tips on Writing From a Photograph

Photo source:

The photograph at the top of this page is the launching point for the current Writing North Idaho writing contest, called "A Picture is Worth 500 Words." (Go here for details about the contest.)

Recently Jennifer Rova gave some great tips on how to write a short, short story. Today I'll talk about some ways to brainstorm story ideas, starting with a photograph.

First, study the photograph and jot down all of your sensory impressions:

*Notice the details of the house. The peeling pain, the sagging porch, the broken windows . . . what do these tell you about this house? How might it have gotten in this condition?

*What kind of people are the current owners? Are there any current owners? If not, why not?

*Think about the house when it was newly built. Who lived in it then? What happened to that person or family? Do the current owners have any connection to the original owners? If so, what is that connection?

*How old is the house? What was happening in the world at the time it was built? What has happened in the world since then? What changes have taken place: politically, economically, societally, culturally? How might those events have affected the people living in the house?

*Where in the world is this house located? How might the geographic location have influenced how the house got in this condition?

*Who are the neighbors? What are they like? What are their houses like? If you knock on their doors to ask about this house, what is their reaction? Are they welcoming and chatty, full of information? Do they shut the door in your face?

*How did you come upon this house? Did a real-estate agent show it to you? Were you driving past and just happened to notice it? What captured your attention?

*On the other hand, did you purposely seek out this house? If so, why? Was it difficult to find? Did you have to ask someone for directions? If so, what did they say about it--or not say about it?

*Imagine yourself walking up to this house. What do you smell?

*What does the air around you feel like?

*What do you hear?

*Does walking up to the house bring up any particular emotion(s)?

*Are you going to walk up the front steps to the porch? Why or why not?

*Are you going to go inside the house? Why or why not?

*Are you going to explore the grounds, the backyard, the garage or outbuildings? Why or why not?

*Are you going to turn right around and get back in your car? Why or why not?

*As you explore the house and grounds, do you encounter anyone? Who? What might they say to you?

You get the point. After fully immersing yourself in the photograph and letting your imagination roam free, your next step is to draft a fictional story based on what you've experienced. Not an essay, not an article, but a work of fiction, using the details brought out on your imagination's journey.

Your third step is to revise and polish the story and winnow it down to 500 words or fewer.

And your final step is to e-mail your story to, adhering to the contest rules.

See? It's not so daunting to write a story. Any questions? Post a comment below, or contact us at Also feel free to post any additional suggestions you may have for turning a photograph into a story.

Good luck!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day: War Stories

For many Americans, Memorial Day means the unofficial kickoff to summer, a three-day weekend, possibly a picnic or a trip to the mall to scour the holiday sales. Not to put a damper on the fun, but let's not forget the real reason behind Memorial Day: to remember and honor those who have lost their lives serving their country.

I've compiled this short, completely subjective list of my "favorite" war literature. I put "favorite" in quotation marks because I can't say that a war novel is the first thing I reach for when hunting down a good read. Yet for one reason or another, each of these stories etched images on my heart that have haunted me for years and shaped how I think about war.

This is by no means a comprehensive overview of war fiction, just a smattering choices to consider this Memorial Day as we remember the fallen:

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Laugh if you must, but the Civil War as experienced through the eyes of that Southern belle with a spine of steel, Scarlett O'Hara, affected me deeply as a young teen.

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
Like many high-schoolers, I read this book on assignment, not long after reading Gone With the Wind.  Henry Fleming dreams of the thrill of battle and performing heroic deeds in the American Civil War. But his illusions are shattered by the reality of war, and he experiences both fear and self-doubt. Interestingly, Stephen Crane had never fought in a war. (Neither, of course, had Margaret Mitchell.)

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
An American ambulance driver and English nurse find love and heartache on the battlefields of Europe, based on Hemingway's experience in World War I.

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
A haunting, almost poetic rendering of the Vietnam War, based loosely on O'Brien's own memories of combat.

What are some of your favorite or most memorable war stories or poems?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Memoir: A Historical Backbone

(Note: This is a re-post, originally posted on October 3, 2011.)

October is National Family History month—a great time to think about ways to share your family stories.

Anne Bradstreet was the first woman to have her book published in the United States. And like Bradstreet, who documented the difficulties of being a Puritan wife and the hardships of life in colonial times, we each have a basic human desire to leave a piece of ourselves behind before we depart this world. We want others to know how we lived, our achievements, our tragedies, our lessons learned.

This desire can manifest itself through oral communication such as the family stories told to us by our parents and grandparents. Before my father passed away he began telling me stories of his childhood he had never shared, not because they were unusual or extraordinary, but simply because of his desire that they not be lost with his passing.

The desire can also manifest itself through tangible items such as the special rings, dishes, photos, recipes, cookbooks and other items passed down to us, as well as in a written form such as letters, diaries, and journals. Our family has been given detailed journals written by both my father-in-law and a distant cousin who were compelled to write about their experiences during WWII and share them with family.

It is that need to leave a part of our lives behind by sharing our experiences and memories—whether those experiences include overcoming tragic circumstances, healing from a tragic childhood, surviving the battle field, or simply sharing our optimism for life—that drives our desire to let others know.

There are several ways to share family stories, one of which is currently popular: writing a memoir.

As we can see from the books published today, memoirs are no longer only for past presidents and the famous. Readers have a hunger for the interesting stories of ordinary people. After publication of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes in 1996, sales of memoirs spiked and before long, more memoirs were being sold to publishers than fiction.

If you plan to write a memoir, regardless of whether you intend it for mainstream publication, it can be a valuable gift for your family.

There doesn’t have to be a tragedy or an extraordinary event to write your family history. One of my favorite memoirs is Annie Dillard’s, An American Childhood, in which Dillard’s beautiful prose leads readers through her keen observations of the world around her as she grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.

With today’s self-publishing print and digital options, it is easier than ever to document your history and share it with others. But although many memoirs are published today, there are still millions of pieces of family history that never make it to the press, yet are passed down from family to family to be reread and retold.

It seems to me that if history represents the body of human experience, these stories of ordinary people would be the backbone of that experience.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Story Structure: Internal vs. External

(Note: This a re-post from an April 18, 2011 entry.)

The Ospreys returned to their nest last week. At first I noticed only one. A few days later I saw the pair sitting atop the nesting platform, surveying their domain.

So, what’s their story?

When I saw the Ospreys had returned, I thought about the long journey they had made from their wintering grounds along the western coasts of Central and South America, to the nesting platform alongside the Pend Oreille River near our home in North Idaho. I also thought about the instinct that drives them to make such a remarkable journey.

I thought about these things because of a recent conversation I had with a writer friend. Over coffee, one of the topics we talked about was how well-written stories always contain two stories: an external story and an internal story.

As a writer, understanding how to bring out the internal story in my writing is something I have had to learn, and continue to study. Even though I feel the internal story was probably lurking somewhere in the things I wrote, I hadn’t learned to recognize it, define it, and focus on making it a more effective.

The external story is the tangible story. It is the action a character takes to fulfill the need of the internal story.

The internal story is the intangible, abstract story. It is a character’s yearning for something that comes from within. It reflects a basic human need, a desire, a belief, or inner turmoil in a character’s life. It comes from a need for love or respect, a yearning for adventure, the desire to right a wrong, or to fulfill certain long-term hopes and dreams. These internal goals are what drive characters to act.

Here are examples of the general internal need that drives the characters of three famous stories:

The Grapes of Wrath: Tom Joad is driven by the instinct to survive; the urgent need to protect his family during the Great Depression.

To Kill a Mockingbird: Atticus Finch is driven by the desire to fight social inequality.

The Old Man and the Sea: Santiago is driven by a desire to secure the honor and respect of the village fishermen.

Freelancer Mary Lynn Mercer writes the following in her article, Five Keys to Effective Internal Goals:

“Readers are interested in characters whose external goals, motivations, and conflicts move the plot, but they care about characters whose inner landscape is vibrantly developed. Internal goals, motivations, and conflicts weave together the foundation of larger-than-life characterizations--the kind of characters readers remember long after the story ends.

Whereas external goals are physical and photographable, internal goals are born of intangible, universal human needs. Some examples of human needs include: intimacy, acceptance, identity, mastery, security, fulfillment, survival, harmony, and integrity. Usually, one need dominates a character for his or her life. The selection process is a blend of motivations planted in the character's backstory and individual personality.”

And later…

“An internal goal is the dominant landmark on the inner landscape of a multidimensional character. Around it revolves the internal conflicts and motivations that make characters feel real and make readers care.”

So, what about the Osprey? If I were to write about them, their journey—year after year—would be the external story. The unbendable need for the pair to return to their nesting place, reestablish their bond and raise their young would be the internal story, driven by instinct. And, of course, there would need to be conflict, such as how the Ospreys would boot out the Canadian Goose I sometimes see in the nest before the Ospreys arrive.

With a little research, writers can find several writing-related books and blogs that cover this topic of internal and external plots. But here is a bare-bones definition: Wanting a candy bar is an internal story. Eating the candy bar is an external story. Yum.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Breaking up with the word can't.

Waiting in our car while my husband chatted with a Priest Lake business owner a couple of weeks ago, I began reading an essay by Richard Nelson from a book I had tucked into my bag before leaving home. Nelson’s writing quickly drew me in, enveloped me, yet, at the same time, gave me that sudden itch I sometimes get when reading at home—that itch to close the book and head to my computer with a mad desire to emulate and learn from what I have just read, thinking…THAT is how I want to write, THAT is how I want MY readers to feel.

I love the fact that one writer can inspire another to such a degree, that a writer’s carefully chosen words can make one want to jump up and begin working; can spur another writer to wonder—what words did the author use that brought about that specific emotion? How did the author place that particular phrase on the page to make it work so well? What came before it and what came after it that made it effective? How did the author end the paragraph? How did he transition into the next?

As writers we often study the work of others, a key element to understanding voice, style, tone, and how one constructs stories and articles. Mystery writers read mysteries. Memoirists read Memoirs. Poets read poetry. Freelancers read, well, everything. It all becomes part of the learning process, which brings to mind a comment I heard someone say on a television commercial the other day: “Education means breaking up with the word can’t.”

To me, that education includes self-education. It means tackling what you don’t know with a robust desire to know; to have a thirst for knowledge that drives you to look into all of the corners for what you need. It means reading, researching, connecting with other writers, and paying attention to the methods of those who came before you. Other writers make me want to write better. They motivate me with their knowledge and confidence, with their hard work and push to follow their dreams and to get their stories onto paper. I admire those who treat their writing not only as a business, but as a necessity.

In his book Writing Naturally, David Petersen expresses the idea that, yes, a formal education, writing workshops, and how-to publications can help you write better, but then adds:

“Yet the best any and all such external aids can do is to help you help yourself. What makes good writers isn't nearly so much teaching as it is learning...learning via reading, studying and dissecting the work of other writers, good and bad; learning by writing and revising and getting rejected and revising some more and weighing informed criticism and eventually getting published and never-ever fooling yourself into believing you know it all. These things, such self-directed educational struggles, adapted as a lifestyle, make good writers."

For me, breaking up with the word can’t means taking my education as a writer fully into my own hands, then learning what I need to learn on my own and from others in an effort to consistently and purposely improve my skills and advance my work.

But the hidden, unfortunate, part of such education is that most of those writers from whom we learn, like Nelson who made me want to leap out of my seat with enthusiasm, will never know the impact of their work on writers like myself who, in this case, quite simply, became inspired while waiting in a car near the forested shore of a North Idaho lake.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Writing a Short, Short, Short, Short Story

Writing North Idaho is sponsoring another contest with a new element. Not only are prizes awarded, but also entrants will receive written critiques of their stories from our professional judges.

Write a short story based on this picture. It can be a comedy, a tragedy or a moment in time.
The contest theme is "A Picture is Worth 500 Words."

Tips for Writing a Short Story

1. Plot should be simple. Create conflict and resolve it. As per any story, write a beginning, middle and ending. Write an interesting story that engages the readers and gives them a satisfactory ending.

2. Limit the number of characters.

3. Choose a point of view.

4. Choose the setting (inside the house, outside, from across the street, from a photo album, or...).

5. Write the first draft without worrying too much about the word count. In the rewrite, look for sentences that are too wordy. Analyze whether you have too many characters. Does the story starts too early leaving little room for the "meat?" Do you need to eliminate some topic? Is there too much development or dialogue?

6. Write a catchy first paragraph or a sentence with a good "hook" to get the reader interested immediately.

7. Vary the length of the sentences.

8. Try using one or some of the five senses: taste, sight, touch, hearing and smell. 

9. Choose strong words; write using few adjectives and fewer adverbs.

10. Keep in mind that you are to provide a direct, brief story from which the reader gleans something---a laugh, a tear, a memory, a "wonder what I would have done" ending, or some other emotion.

Look at the upper right section of this blog for "WNI Contests" and click on it for contest details. The contest ends June 21, 2013 at midnight. Good luck!

Blurbs for Success: Loglines & Elevator Pitches

Charlie Brown is finally invited to a Halloween party; Snoopy engages the Red Baron in a dogfight; and Linus waits patiently in the pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin. - Logline for It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown**
 Logline:  A log line or logline is a brief summary of a television program or film, often providing both a synopsis of the program’s plot, and an emotional “hook” to stimulate interest. – Wikipedia

Elevator Pitch: An elevator pitch is a short summary used to quickly and simply define a product, service, or organization and its value proposition.  Salespeople use well-rehearsed elevator pitches to get their point across quickly. - Wikipedia

Learning to write a powerful and persuasive logline or elevator pitch may not seem important, but in truth, these short pitches are powerful marketing tools; and learning to master the technique of writing them may get your foot in the door when you’re ready to look for an editor, agent, producer, or publisher. 

During a recent screenwriting workshop we were asked to write a logline for a project we were working on.  We were told to keep it to one sentence.  

A young man and woman from different 
social classes fall in love, must outwit her abusive fiancĂ©, and find a way to survive aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea. 
     - Logline from Titanic.   

Although it sounds simple, synthesizing your entire screenplay or novel into 25 words or less can be intimidating – or seem downright impossible.  And boy, did some of us create the longest, most run-on, convoluted sentences you ever laid eyes on.  I have never seen so many commas, semi-colons, dashes, hyphens or parentheses.

It was then I realized I’m not alone in finding it tough to tell the entire plot of my 110-page screenplay in one sentence, let alone worry about grabbing the interest of a potential producer at the same time.
Log Lines are critical. These are the short blurbs you see in the TV Guide, telling you something about the program listed. You'll also find Log Lines beside the title of books in book club brochures. These words are the real marketing tools.
You may have thought it was difficult to reduce your screenplay to a One Page, but squeezing it into a Log Line that is so exciting, so well-stated, that a reader will want to invite you to submit a script, is a real challenge... everyone finds it difficult, though. Esther Luttrell 
When professors discover that an aimless janitor is also a math genius, a therapist helps the young man confront the demons that are holding him back.
         -  Logline from Good Will Hunting
Loglines must include some very specific information.  One good online guide to logline structure I found online was written by Christopher Lockhart in his essay, I WROTE A 120 PAGE SCRIPT BUT CAN’T WRITE A LOGLINE: THE CONSTRUCTION OF A LOGLINE.  
His entire piece is insightful and well written.  It is well worth reading in it’s entirety, but I’ve included a few helpful tips below for your use.  I especially like his three formulas for a successful logline.

LOGLINE TIPS from Christopher Lockhart 

A logline should be 25 words or less and must express the core of the story without excess details.  The best loglines include as many of these elements as possible: hero, flaw, life changing event, opponent, ally, and battle.

A logline must answer these questions
            1.  Who is the main character?
            2.  Who or what is standing in the way of the main character?
            3.  What makes the story unique?

Use action words when writing your logline.

Add descriptive words to create an image that will stay in the mind of your reader. 
Here are three basic logline formulas. They're pretty simple and that allows you to put your focus on presenting your story, instead of trying to figure out some brilliant, but complicated logline structure.

1. Protagonist (has problem) and (must achieve goal) to solve that problem.
     Example: THE FUGITIVE
     Protagonist: A prominent doctor...
     Problem: ...wrongly convicted of killing his wife...
     Goal: ...escapes custody to find and expose the real killer.

2. Protagonist has (a goal) but (major obstacle) stands in his/her way.
     Example: THE MUMMY
     Protagonist: An archaeologist...
     Goal: ...seeks the treasure hidden inside one of the great pyramids...
     Obstacle: ...but must fight off thousands of mummies to get it.

3. (Situation) causes (main character) to face (largest obstacle) and (outcome)
     Example: LIAR LIAR 
     Situation: Son makes birthday wish...
     Main Character: ...shyster attorney...
     Largest Obstacle: ...must reveal the truth...
     Outcome: ...reveal the truth to everyone, including his son.
Writing something short and exciting is never easy. It takes practice. A lot of it.  Read and study professionally written loglines in TV guides (sometimes “iffy), newspapers, Variety, Internet film reviews… anything you can that will help you express your story concept in one sentence. - Christopher Lockhart
After writing dozens of loglines for a screenplay I’m working on, I decided to follow Lockhart’s advice and began researching loglines online, on Netflix, etc.  I also recently shared my logline with a screenwriter's group.  I've found some helpful examples and the feedback I received helped...but I'm still searching for the perfect wording.  

How about you?  Do you have a logline or elevator pitch you used or use when pitching your book or screenplay?  What logline did you use to sell your project to a publisher or producer? 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Secret Behind Critiques

Critiques are part of a writer’s life. Through this process our writing projects become tighter, stronger, and more sellable. Through this process we learn how to become better writers.

If you are a student, not to worry, your instructor will review your work and offer advice on improvements. If you are a published writer, you may hire editors to perform those duties. But for the rest of us interested in honing our writing skills, finding a critique group or another writer willing to critique our work is vital.

Accepting criticism is never easy, but finding a practiced critique partner will ease the process. Keep looking until you find someone able to offer constructive criticism buffered by positive feedback and encouragement.

Once you’ve found a critique partner you’ll need to learn two things in order for your relationship to flourish:
1. How to gratefully and gracefully accept criticism.
2. How to critique another’s writing.

These steps take personal commitment and effort, but once mastered, you’ll discover the remarkable secret behind critiquing: whether you are giving or receiving a critique, you strengthen your writing skills.

The importance of critiques has been on my mind lately because I’m currently involved in a rewrite with a professional who is offering critiques of my work on a regular basis, and several critique projects with fellow writers.

I’m actually enjoying the rewrite. I’m lucky to be working with a professional I admire and respect, and have found his suggestions both insightful and enlightening. I know incorporating his ideas strengthens my storyline and I find myself eager to receive each new comment (critique) even though it means another rewrite.

In January I took on the role of chairperson for a screenwriter’s group in Coeur d’Alene. I was surprised by the insightful and valuable critique that followed our first “read” in February. How exciting to find a powerful writing tool right in my own Idaho backyard. I’m anxious to hear their input on the screenplay I’ve been working on for a couple of years.

I’ve also been busy working on critiques for others. I recently finished the critique of a fairly lengthy project. I completed comments on the project, even suggesting ways to tie up some loose ends in the final chapter which strangely had not been completed. I spent several hours working on my comments.

I was thanked for my work and told it was both insightful and helpful. But later, when this project was presented to the critique group we both belong to, not one of my corrections or suggestions had been addressed. The project even contained misspelled and missing words I had pointed out.

I’m unsure whether the writer was too busy to make the corrections, didn’t find my suggestions useful, or was just plain unwilling to take constructive criticism.

Although not a notable success, I took the time to realize the critique had not been a complete waste of my time because I learned a few things from the time I spent reviewing the project. And, most gratifying to me, many of the comments during the group critique were similar to those in my original critique, giving me confidence in my critiquing ability.

Then, just a couple of days ago, an instructor asked me to critique a screenplay written by a group of students. On first glance the story is strong, but I do see room for improvement in format, story structure and dialogue. One thing I noticed right away, the students used a lot of clichĂ©s. I think I’m going to enjoy this one.

On Wednesday's blog, I'm going to share the 4 steps to a successful critique. In the meantime, if you are searching for a place to give and receive feedback on your work, be sure to consider online critique groups or critique opportunities. Just do an Internet search for "critiques for writers" and check them out.

One last thing! Don’t be afraid to share your expertise. If someone asks you to critique their writing, take it as a compliment and share your knowledge and advice. Chances are you’ll strengthen your own writing skills in the process.

Have you experienced any critique nightmares?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Spiritual Nourishment From A Lilac Poet

Yesterday four inches of snow covered the view outside my window and the forecast called for more. But my thoughts were of spring and the sun-warmed fragrance of my lilacs.

Those lilac-colored thoughts turned my mind toward one of my favorite poets, Jessie Cameron Alison, who was given the title of “A Lilac Poet" during her writing career. Jessie Cameron was born in Kingston, Ontario, Canada in the mid-1880s. Her father, a well-known Canadian poet, lawyer, and journalist, died shortly after her birth. His poetry was later collected and published by her uncle who encouraged Jessie's budding talent.

Following her graduation as Valedictorian at Coldwater, Michigan high school, Jessie attended Michigan State College; graduating with a teaching degree. She followed her profession to Spokane, Washington, where she taught until her marriage to local banker, Charles E. Alison. Upon his appointment as manager of Idaho First National Bank, the couple moved to Coeur d'Alene, where they settled permanently.

"She writes with the beauty and simplicity of lilacs abloom."
Editor, Poetry Scribes.

Jessie was an avid writer, pianist, song writer, speaker, and organizer; and a member of numerous writing, society, and community organizations. In 1943 she organized and was the first president of the Coeur d'Alene Chapter of the Idaho Writers' League. Today the organization continues to inspire writers and poets in the area.

Jessie Cameron Alison is a rare, fine lady...her presence at our meetings adds a distinct touch of elegant creativity that we all appreciate. - Paula Barnhart, 1965 Leaguegazette
She received many awards throughout her writing career, including national and international recognition. In 1956 she was awarded the title of Spokane Lilac Poet and also was given the title of Poet Laureate by the Washington Fine Arts Federation that same year.

The Lilac Blooms Again
The lilac is abloom beside my door! –
May’s treasure – each year lovelier than before –
Its scented clusters swaying in the breeze,
Inviting roving butterflies and bees;
From tree and bush I hear an unseen throng
Of feathered singers, bringing gay new song…
I know that Spring has come at last to stay:
The lilac blooms beside my door today!
Sweet Lilac! What dear memories you bring
Of childhood hours – your fragrant blossoming
By homelike cottages, and country lanes,
Or formal gardens where your beauty reigns!
Recalling joys of home, of church, of school,
I breathe deep of your fragrance, pure and cool!
From laden brush I break a scented spray –
And welcome Spring! – since you have bloomed today!

- Jessie Cameron Alison

I purchased Jessie’s book of inspirational poetry “Sharing The Song; Selections of Verse by a Lilac Poet” several years ago. I keep it on a handy shelf and pick it up every now and when I need to beam some sunshine on my soul - on a day like today. Reading Jessie's poems about our little corner of the world: Spokane, Coeur d'Alene, Washington, Idaho; and the flowers, lakes, and mountains that we see daily, adds a depth of perception to her poetry that I cherish.
When Lilacs Welcome
When lilac buds have burst to bloom
On hills and valleys of Spokane,
When larks are trilling roundelays
More sweet than fabled notes of Pan,

The River rushes joyously,
The tumbling Falls lift rainbow spray
in welcome to each visitor
and native son, for festal day.

The Queen of Spring holds Royal Court,
When lilac fragrance fills the air;
Our chosen Princess brings her throng
Of maidens -- fairest of the fair:

A Theme of Beauty and of Home --
No sweeter song the heart can sing! --
No other song can quite compare:
SPOKANE -- and LILACS -- in the Spring!
-- Jessie Cameron Alison
Although I've focused on Jessie's lilac poems, her poems offer spiritual nourishment that touches on many subjects including friends and family, God, patriotism, nature, and home. I especially enjoyed one she addressed to a Russian astronaut:
To Titov, Astronaut
("Not God, nor any angels?")
Titov: As you were orbiting through space,
You say you found not God in any place? --
Nor angels?...Is it strange you were denied
Vision of Him you have so long defied?

God is a Spirit -- you, of mortal mold;
No man can see Him...flesh cannot behold --
And yet His Presence was surrounding you
Through all your flight: the God you never knew!

The blazing Sun, that gave your daytime Light --
The Moon -- the scintillating Stars of Night:
Their ageless orbits speak a Power Divine --
Intelligence surpassing yours and mine.

Think you this Universe was formed by Chance?
Science but uses God's sure Circumstance;
Upon His certain Laws, your flight was planned...
By His Laws you were held as Earth was spanned.

What countless galaxies! -- Earth, but a dot! --
And yet -- there is no place where God is not!...
You, Titov, of all others should proclaim
Creator's marvels -- and revere His Name.
- Jessie Cameron Alison

"Her poems stand the test of time...carefully thought out and faithfully composed. Optimistic, emphasizing the love of the good, the beautiful, nature, and closeness with God. The thoughts are straightforward, Clean and clear...the very image of a dear person."
- Florence Boutwell, Spokane Poet & Spokane Valley Historian
Jessie Cameron Alison died in 1968 following a brief illness. At her request, her family put together a collection of her poetry and published her book, "Sharing The Song." It contains only a portion of the many poems she wrote during her lifetime. At the time of her death in her early '80s, there were unfinished poems on her desk.

Notes: The photos of lilacs were taken at my home. To my knowledge, the only place Jessie's book is available is through the Coeur d'Alene Chapter of the Idaho Writer's League. The biographical information included in this post was gleaned from the Biography printed in "Sharing The Song."

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Writing Contest for you!

Writing North Idaho is sponsoring another writing contest: A Picture is Worth 500 Words. Entry is free and prizes are awarded. For the first time, writers will be given written feedback on their entries from professional writers. Entries will be published in this blog if you consent. Writing five hundred words is easy especially when you have a great picture as inspiration. The contest ends at midnight June 21, 2013. Three prizes will be awarded.

Please go here to read entry rules:

 Contests are excellent ways to improve your writing and add substance to your platform. With a written critique added, you will benefit from professional assessment of your story. Good luck!

Happy Mother's Day!

Friday, May 10, 2013

New Contest! A Picture is Worth Five Hundred Words

Hello, scribes! We're thrilled to announce a brand-new writing contest, starting today and running through June 21.

Simply look at the photo below and write a story about it in 500 words or less. Then e-mail your entry by midnight on June 21 to

New this contest: Not only will entering put you in the running for a cash prize and posting of prizewinning entries on Writing North Idaho, but all entrants will receive copies of the judges' comments--a WNI first! So whether or not you win a prize, you'll receive valuable and thoughtful feedback on your writing from experienced, published writers.

As always, this WNI contest is free to enter. Check out the complete contest rules here, and start scribbling!

Here is the photo that you are to write about:

Photo source:

If you have questions, post in the comments or send an e-mail to We look forward to reading your stories!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bon mots ('bon mo', from French meaning witty saying) about writing

Writing North Idaho will announce another writing contest on Friday, May 10, 2013. Read this blog Friday to find out details about this fun contest challenging our creatives talents. 
                                                          Prizes awarded.

These posters are from, subject: writing. If you are unfamiliar with Pinterest, it offers wonderful boards you can follow regularly or just browse for twenty minutes to, um, three or four hours. My rational is that it is inspiring even when I look at knitting projects, perusing gifts for my writer friends or travel pictures rather than writing my book.



Monday, May 6, 2013

Avoid Redundant Phrases

Thomas Jefferson: "The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do."

A redundant expression (pleonasm) is a group of words, usually a pair, in which at least one word is superfluous. Some expressions are used colloquially while others are down right silly no matter where they are uttered. Many have come into standard use through repetition or as part of a vocation. Null and void, cease and desist, honest truth, terms and conditions, and sworn affidavit are pleonasms in the legal field. 

Some pleonasms have become used often as to become “correct”: joined together (in holy matrimony), safe haven, PIN number (Personal Identification Number number), ATM machine (Automated Teller Machine machine), heat up and mental telepathy. 

Some humorous expressions are: hot water heater (shouldn’t it heat up cold water?), bare naked (if you are naked, you are bare), armed gunman (versus a gunman without arms; how does he hold his gun then?), temporary loan (all loans are temporary otherwise is it not a gift?), true fact (are there false facts?), end result (is there a beginning result?), foreign imports (versus domestic imports?), tuna fish (are tuna anything but fish?), and my favorite, free gifts. Writing using redundant expressions is not better writing, only longer writing.

Here are some redundant expressions to be avoided, and forever, and ever never used.

month of June/ July                          clearly evident                     first began
postpone until later                           no way, shape or form        balsa wood
evolve over time                               strangled to death                new beginning
final outcome                                    tiny bit                                advance warning
introduced a new                              refer back to                        usual habit  
consensus of opinion                        brief moment                       eliminate altogether
final conclusion                                fellow teammates                 hopeful optimism
definitely decided                             evil fiend                              poisonous venom  
thoughtful deliberations                   utter annihilation                   sum total          
no trespassing allowed                     past records                          old proverb          
my personal opinion                        past experience                    closed fist    
added bonus                                     current trend                       future plans
different varieties                              already exists                      kneel down
permeate throughout                         reason why                         rise up
close proximity/scrutiny                   proceed ahead                     general public
visible to the eye                              usual habit                           hurry up
reason is because                              proposed plan                     frozen ice
disregard altogether                          wept tears                            filled to capacity
new recruit                                        exactly identical                  but nevertheless
evolve over time                               absolutely necessary            passing fad
please RSVP                                     ask the question                  pre-recorded
illustrated drawing                             revert back                          reason why
different kinds                                   exact identity                       cheap price
write down                                        absolute given                     safe sanctuary
permeate throughout                          proposed plan                     honest truth
brief moment                                     personally I                         lag behind
re-elect for another term                   complete monopoly             head up 
spell out in detail                              unexpected emergency        still persists                                                                                                                       

“How often have you heard a friend say something like this: ‘It was an unexpected surprise when a pair of twin babies was born at 12 midnight’? What is a surprise if not unexpected? What are twins if not a pair? Who can be born but a baby? When is midnight if not at 12? The expressions we use are full of redundancies. Your friend could just as well have said: ‘It was a surprise when twins were born at midnight’ with far less repetition.” (           

This site list many redundant phrases.