Shelley Widhalm

Archive for August, 2012|Monthly archive page

Writing Poetry 101 (plus some fun!)

In 52 Writing Topics, Poetry, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on August 26, 2012 at 11:00 am

When I find a good one of these, I am awed and often inspired, but doing the required reading is a lack in my writing toolbox.

I write but fail to read poetry. I feel my way along, thinking when I’ve typed up my scribbled notes and made a few edits, the poem is finished.

Likewise, when I think about reading poetry, I don’t because I’d rather hang out with fiction – a poor attitude for an aspiring poet.

Even so, I want to improve my poetry.

What I’ve learned about this form of writing I’ve gathered from my writer’s magazines, poetry textbooks and attending monthly poetry workshops hosted by the Matter Bookstore in Fort Collins.

Poetry can be free verse without a specific meter or syllable count, or it can follow any of dozens of forms, anything from sonnets to haikus.

With or without form, poetry can engage a variety of poetic devices to add musicality to the words.

Examples include alliteration, or the repetition of initial consonant sounds; consonance, the repetition of internal consonant sounds; and assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds.

There can be onomatopoeia, employing words that imitate the sounds they stand for, such as hiss, buzz or squawk.

Or there can be rhyme and slant rhyme, rhyming between two words that are identical or nearly identical.

There are two realities in a poem, the internal reality of the poet – his or her thoughts, feelings and imaginings – and the external realities in the poet’s world. This can be political or social circumstances, time period, time of day or night, weather, season, landscape and location.

Poems typically fall into two categories, lyrical or narrative. A lyrical poem is a snapshot or a fixed image at a single moment of time; it is a poem of a single moment. A narrative poem tells a story and has a plot with beginning, middle and end.

Poems have tempo, rhythm, color, sound and movement as they sprawl across or slide down the page.

As you write a poem:

  • Think of the intent of the poem and the thoughts or feelings you want to express in a fresh way.
  • Avoid using clichés and overusing words that have become trite in a poem, such as tears, heart and from the bottom of ___.
  • Use concrete terms, not generalities and vague concepts, like love, hope or war.
  • Describe the specific, such as how a butterfly constantly shifts direction, unsure of where it heads to show uncertainty, instead of saying “uncertainty.”
  • Use the senses to make the objects and ideas you want to express take on dimension. The senses include sight, smell, hear, touch and taste.
  • Cut excess words to get to the heart of the poem.
  • Think of line breaks. In the case of end jambs, where a line continues to the next line, there is no need to capitalize the first word in the new line unless done intentionally.

Here’s a poem I wrote a few months ago:


I am not what you say:
I become what you want
you with a capital
I could not begin
to write my letters
how I feel them
pump through my thoughts –
Go away, I must shear
each one off to make
myself simple, a 9-to-5 girl
with a lost heart.


Avoiding Cliches like the Plague

In 52 Writing Topics, Cliches, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on August 19, 2012 at 11:00 am

Bottom line, using clichés in writing makes readers’ eyes glaze over.

At the end of the day, writers want to turn the page, not get all bent out of shape over trite words and phases.

A cliché is an expression that lacks originality and impact because of frequent and prolonged use. The expression that is overused becomes meaningless and, unlike a metaphor or simile, requires no mental effort.

Clichés, in fact, can be a metaphor or turn of phrase that, at one time, was clever. Think pretty as a picture, smart as a whip and not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Over time, these phrases become blasé chatter.

In writing fiction, clichés should be avoided, except when they are used deliberately as sarcasm or to reveal character.

A few clichés that do not say anything, except point to unoriginal thinking, include: because I can, it’s the way it is, live and let live, let’s get to the bottom of this and give it up.

Literally, give up the clichés.

How about: he left his mark, it made her blood boil, he was in a pinch, she’s cold as ice, he let the cat out of the bag, and curiosity killed the cat (after it was let out of the bag? so, does this cat now have eight lives?)

Here’s a nice pearl of wisdom:

Avoid saying something like “she felt …” in place of showing the reader the character’s emotions or response to a situation. Don’t say, she witnessed, observed, wanted … These all are vague words that tell, instead of show, as do clichés.

Even the writer’s mantra, “show, don’t tell,” is a cliché, except writers need to engage in that type of writing to maintain readers’ interest.

As you write, question any comparison or image you use and check if the words sound familiar. Clichés can sneak in when you try to be descriptive. Ask if the word or phrase has been used in conversation, books you’ve read or in advertising.

After invoking your personal cliché fighting task force, be creative in how you assemble words to capture moments, thoughts, actions and expression. Clichés are never too much of a good thing, and that’s final.

See Zoey’s take on clichés at Zoey’s Paw,

Writing with the Senses

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Uncategorized, Writing on August 12, 2012 at 11:00 am

Writing that uses the senses is easy to read and hard to write.

What is hard, I find, is using words in such a way that the reader can see, smell, taste, hear or feel what you are describing.

When using sensory writing, let the reader experience things, rather than telling them what they should be sensing.

For instance, instead of saying the wine smells fruity, the writer could say it has a light, crisp aroma with a hint of spice riding alongside the sweet dip of cherry.

Or, a bird sings could become the plump house sparrow chatters a high-pitched melody of wonder as it pecks for bread crumbs.

Use concrete details and specific nouns and verbs. Say, chokecherry tree instead of tree, or hot green tea instead of a drink.

Avoid using adjectives, such as the pretty girl or the cute dog.

And do not rely only on sight, the most immediate sense that is the easiest to use.

Engage all five senses, those of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, writing down your individual sense impressions.

To do this, notice and observe and get deeper into the subject, paying attention to the smallest details in your environment.

Ask what sounds you hear, what colors you see and what the air feels like as it rubs against your skin.

Find that one detail or cluster of details that makes reader see all of the others.

Writing with the senses in mind makes the words come alive, giving a clear image of the character’s environment and what he or she is experiencing. Think of the character’s dominant sense. Does she love to touch fabrics? Does he like smelling a campfire?

Know when to use descriptive scenes, or how to show the reader what is happening right now, and when to use narration, or to tell.

Finally, try to feel what you are writing, putting all of yourself into your words.

See Zoey’s blog, Zoey’s Paw, at

What Motivates Character

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on August 5, 2012 at 11:00 am

Identifying character motivation can be compared to that moment before a dandelion puff bursts apart.

It’s that inner drive that keeps all the white fuzz attached to the seed. Hundreds of tiny ray flowers forming the white fuzz fuse around the central column of the pistil.

I like to think of motivation as that fuse of identity. It’s what a story or novel’s main character has to have above all else, the burning, constant desire that drives all of her actions.

This driving need informs everything else about her. Her need helps determine the story goal, or what she wants as her outcome – to find, preserve, replace, create or do something to better things for herself, her family and friends, or the world.

If she tries to fill the need without knowing what she requires, she will feel empty. She will fail to recognize what she has at stake in the story’s central conflict and not know what she has to win or lose.

The self-aware character will learn the difference between her need and what she thinks she wants.

For instance, my character Kate in “The Fire Painter” (I changed the title from “Dropping Colors”) thinks she needs to replace the things she lost from an apartment fire. This is her initial driving need, but it’s actually a want that ends up damaging her.

What she needs is the sense of security she had from those things, something she will get from her dog, Flame, her friends and her family. She will realize that things don’t matter, but the people in your life do.

Characters like Kate aren’t necessarily going to get what they want, but they will get their needs met – either how they originally planned or in an entirely unexpected way – by the story’s resolution, unless the story has a sequel or an open ending.

The needs are what characters have to have to be safe, secure and fulfilled in their worlds.

When writing, think of these needs and how they determine how your character will react to the major events in the story. Her motivation will fuel her intentions in every scene and help give purpose to her actions. She will transform as a result and get what she needs.

This is her inner journey or character arc.

See Zoey’s blog, Zoey’s Paw, at