Shelley Widhalm

How to Train Your Writing (and Your Puppy)

In Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Discipline, Writing Motivation, Writing Tips on August 5, 2018 at 5:00 pm

ZoeyBegs2 09-2014

Zoey the Dachshund demonstrates Up as one of her obedience tricks.

Improving writing skills and training a puppy have some similarities.

I got Zoey, a long-haired miniature dachshund, nine years ago when she was nine weeks old. I started writing when I was eight or nine—short stories and cute poems—becoming serious about it in college.

With both, I had to train my puppy and I had to train my writing. Neither came naturally to me, so I had to become a student to learn the essentials and then become more proficient with practice.

Training Writing, Training a Puppy

I found that to do either well requires research, experience and knowledge—and, of course, patience. I read about a dozen books about dog training, dog behavior and the dachshund breed, and with writing, I read close to 50 books about the writing process and various elements of writing, along with two monthly magazines.

I took Zoey to puppy kindergarten and through intermediate training to provide her with skills in basic obedience. She received a certificate and had her photo taken with a mini-dog graduation cap.

To make sure there isn’t slide, we practice those skills on a daily basis—commands like sit, down, stay, shake and come and walking on a leash. We, however, haven’t got past the treat effect—Zoey expects and requires a treat for each skill she demonstrates. For her shakes, she rapidly waves her paw as she tries to be patient. I touch it and give her what she wants.

We go on walks, and I learned that I shouldn’t pull her on her leash but patiently wait for her to understand what I want through treats and praises. I praise her when she walks and wait her out when she sniffs. I praise her when we return to walking. She gets a treat when we get home.

She especially likes it when people want to stop and give her attention—dogs are social animals and need to have comfort and routine.

How to Improve Writing, Dog Behavior

Here are a few things I learned about maintaining good behavior in a dog (and how it relates to writing):

  • Provide at least 30 minutes of exercise a day to keep the dog healthy and to release energy that when unused can result in poor behaviors (write at least once a week to keep up the routine and practice of writing; more if there is time).
  • Do obedience training to improve the dog’s mental stamina and prowess (do writing prompts, even for five minutes, to stimulate the mind and promote larger pieces of writing).
  • Do obedience training on a consistent basis to turn a dog’s good behaviors into a habit (write on a consistent basis, such as once a week, to turn that practice into a habit).
  • Offer regular playtimes, so the dog can build a relationship with you and also have fun (think of writing as a hobby and something that is for after work or playtime).
  • Pet the dog through belly rubs, head patting and massages to create an emotional bond (think of your writing as a relationship between you and your words).
  • Set the same time every night for bedtime, so that dogs have an expectation of when to settle down (write at the same time and in the same place to create an expectation that now is the time to write, even if the writing may not seem good or out of flow, or at least at first).

These are just a few ways to provide a pattern to let the dog (and your writing self) know what to expect, thereby establishing a good routine to follow. The result is a well-trained dog and a well-trained writer, eager to get to the work and fun of both.

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How Writing Groups Improve Writing (and make it fun)

In Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Discipline, Writing Groups, Writing Motivation on July 22, 2018 at 5:00 pm

Birthday(WithSarah)2 04-2016

Shelley Widhalm’s write-in group gets together once a week to write, but also celebrates birthdays to add fun to the writing venture.

A big part of writing discipline is showing up. You already may have picked a favorite spot and best time of day for optimal energy.

Accountability can add to that discipline, while also making it fun, both from setting up a date and time to meet but also wanting to have some work to show at that meeting.

Writers gather in four typical ways: writing groups to critique each other’s work, write-ins to work on individual projects at a set time, writing planning or accountability groups to check on each member’s progress on writing plans and projects, and writing partners to share the experience of writing.

I’ve belonged to all four types and find that each has its benefits.

Right now, I’m part of a planning group that meets monthly, and we talk about our accomplishments, what we’re working on, what we plan to work on over the next month and any obstacles we face.

The few times I didn’t make much progress on my novel revision, I realized I wanted to return to the next meeting with something to report. I also saw that at each meeting, which began in late 2017, I had the same excuse: not enough time or energy for writing and too many time wasters keeping me from it.

Takeaways for writing accountability groups:

  • Have writing goals to give you something to move toward, but don’t make them unreasonable. Remember you can try again tomorrow.
  • Acknowledge your accomplishments, even if they seem small to you. (I kept up with my daily poem challenge, worked on my novel revision and wrote a short story.)
  • Look at what you’re achieving versus what you’re not achieving, while having compassion for yourself.

I also am a member of a weekly write-in that I joined two years ago. Currently, we have three members, and we meet at a local coffee shop and work on our personal writing projects. We talk for a little bit about our work and writing lives and do a couple of social things, such as going out for each other’s birthdays, and then focus on writing.

I’ve also met one-on-one with other writers and like the experience of sharing a writing table and find the experience to be similar but in a smaller format.

Takeaways for write-in groups (or one-on-one meetings):

  • Work on your personal writing projects, not work, because then you did not set the boundary with work and gift yourself with that time.
  • Realize that showing up for writing for two hours a week (or whatever you choose) adds to an accumulation of words and material over several months. You make progress toward your goal.

I’ve also belonged to several writing critique groups, which have varied in format. We either exchange a section of our work ahead of time and bring our revision suggestions to the meeting or revise on the spot. We then discuss our suggestions, going around the table for each critique.

Takeaways for writing critique groups:

  • You can get a variety of perspectives on what you’ve written, since each writer will notice different things.
  • You get a better understanding of what works and doesn’t work, both at the sentence level and at the level of the overall story structure or in the storytelling.
  • With the help of other writers, you can identify weak areas in plot and character development that you may not notice, as well as problems with pacing, setting, logistics or dialog.
  • If you choose to read the work aloud, you can notice grammar mistakes and missing words that you might not notice with silent reading.
  • You improve editing skills by observing how other writers’ edited each other’s work and also by doing the editing, because practice leads to skill improvement.
  • You can brainstorm plot or other elements within your story to help improve your writing.
  • You can deepen your knowledge of writing and writing techniques, because each writer has a different understanding of and experiences with the same writing concepts.

With all of these groups, I’ve worked hard to keep to a writing schedule, wanting a project to work on and to demonstrate I’m making progress on that project. I want to be a writer after all, not wishing I were a writer. That means I have to show up and be accountable, both to myself and to my fellow writers—and, of course, to my projects!

How a Daily Challenge Improves Writing (and makes it fun)

In Poem a Day Challenge, Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Goals, Writing Poetry, Writing Tips on July 15, 2018 at 5:00 pm

GeeseSummer5 2016

The ducklings at a neighborhood lagoon provide poetic inspiration.

Writing on a daily basis is like committing to running or some other form of exercise.You start to need it and don’t feel as energetic without that routine. Plus, practice improves skill, and experience builds knowledge.

In September 2017, I committed to the Poem a Day Challenge, an idea I learned about from Placerville, Colorado, poet, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer . The result is I’ve written 318 poems since then, but I also learned some valuable lessons about writing.

The Results of Daily Writing

First, writing comes easier and the skills learned in one format are transferable to other types of writing from fiction to nonfiction.

The crisp simplicity of poetry—leaving out unnecessary words like “the” and choosing nouns over adjectives—can be employed in blogs, articles and other writing. Poems typically aren’t wordy and don’t wander from subject to subject but need to tell a story or display an image in a few words. The same goes with blogs and articles that need to have a clear focus, be concise and have transitions, so that the writing is smooth and appears simple but can be complex.

Also:

  • Daily writing doesn’t actually have to be daily—days can be skipped and the blanks filled in. For me, poems seem to pile up and wait for the writing—I make sure to have time for them, even if I skip two weeks. I don’t want to get too far behind and have to play catch up, so that it feels like a chore. I make sure to do the poems, because I don’t want to break the commitment.
  • Writing can become more present in your life. Now, I am looking for poems, and when I see something that I could turn into a poem, I describe it in my head and remember it for later. I write the poem based on that memory and call up visual impressions to add even more detail. Or, I take a few notes and use them later to prompt the writing.
  • Poetry can make you think of how to use language in other places, such as in details and paragraph breaks. A poem changes in meaning or rhythm by altering where the lines end.

The World as Poem

With daily writing, the world becomes a poem—I am constantly describing nature, sunsets and other things as I observe them, not simply in the seeing but in hearing how the words feel in my head.

I essentially look both outward and inward to the world and within myself. The poems cause me to turn my emotional responses and thoughts into language that normally would be kept inside. By writing daily, or nearly so, the inner world becomes more outward in a more automatic way.

Writing daily poetry also is a way to practice poetry. It doesn’t have to be good, but it has to be real to the moment. I let my mind go and start writing, letting the poems come as they want to.

Sometimes, I produce good work, and sometimes, I have sketches—the starts of poems with a good line that can become more if I play with it later. Within the not-so-great poems, there will be those good ones.

Plus, I’m writing more than I would have without the challenge. I’m feeling like I need it, just like I need my one hour of daily exercise of running alternated with weight lifting to get my day going. Poetry does that for me, too.

An Example

Here’s an example of one of my daily poems about one of my favorite topics and observation points, the ducks at a neighborhood lagoon.

        Duckling Safety
              By Shelley Widhalm
Ducklings at the sculpture
sailboat sings off the middle
jump toward Mom
bedtime home in the stone
two already made it
four swim
stretching necks toward
safety.