Shelley Widhalm

Archive for September, 2012|Monthly archive page

Roughing it with First Drafts

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on September 30, 2012 at 11:00 am

Expecting a perfect first or rough draft in writing is like expecting a perfect first date.

First drafts are for getting the story in your head onto paper, just as a first date is getting how you imagine it will go into actuality. You can’t tell if your writing is good or bad while you’re writing, only after reading and rereading your words when you’re finished.

The second and third drafts are for editing, rewriting and polishing. (As for dating, you might not want to edit or polish your date.)

As I write my first drafts, I’ve learned to silence the inner critic, or editor. I have to let go and let the words, plot lines and characters have some of the control. I have to let my writing free and write freely.

If I start worrying over sentences and paragraphs, I stall on what to say next. I am unsure if what I write will be as smart and smooth as what I had spent several minutes fine-tuning.

Writers, as they write, need to relax and trust the process and their ability to write, imagine and create.

A few things I’ve learned about first drafts include:

* Write who you are and what you know.

* As you write, try things out and see what works and what doesn’t.

* Realize the draft can be messy and sloppy with fill-in-the-blanks.

* Realize that some of the pieces may not fit together, because you may change your mind as the story evolves.

Write the first draft as quickly as possible, which will give your narrative a cleaner trajectory. You won’t have complete mastery of that trajectory until you’ve written the final word.

Set the draft aside for a few days and then read it over for content.

The second draft is for adding details and deleting heavy description and unnecessary dialogue that doesn’t move the story forward. It’s for digging deeper into your characters’ identities and motivations now that you know what will happen to them.

As you edit, look for grammatical mistakes, spelling errors your Spellchecker won’t catch and word echoes.

And as you edit, realize that you can’t catch every mistake the first time round. That’s why most writing requires several drafts before “perfection” is possible.


News Writing 101

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on September 23, 2012 at 11:00 am

As a journalist by day and starving artist the rest of the time, I can’t leave out news writing from my little black list.

The list covers poetry, short stories, personal essays, novels and memoirs, or the few types of writing I’ve tried. I call the list “little,” well, because it’s short, and “black,” because it grabs attention.

The lead of a news or feature article needs to give the most important information first, while engaging readers to read on to the second and third paragraphs to find out the details. The lead answers some or all of the W and H questions, or who, what, where, when, why and how.

As the article unfolds, one paragraph leads to the next with the most important information at the top and the least at the bottom, following the inverted pyramid format.

In other words, blah, blah, blah.

That’s what I learned in the four journalism classes I took while earning my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English. But after 15 or so years working at newspapers and popping out news and features articles, I’ve developed my own theories about journalism writing.

First, it can be poetic, magical and heart-quickening, or it can be standard issue, something you would see in any newspaper, anywhere.

It can be stylistic and have a strong voice, or it can be weighted with clichés and journalese, those phrases that journalists find to be clever but, really, aren’t. I hate to see boards, councils and commissions engage in a collective sigh, hold marathon debates and hammer out decisions, especially 11th-hour decisions.

Journalese is hyperbolic, sensational and a lazy way to sound authoritative; it isn’t jargon to a special field or a cliché, because who else would use these phrases?

I like journalism writing that makes me jealous of how the writer constructs sentences, uses descriptions, provides an unexpected detail and tells a story.

I like writing that has personality and is original and engaging.

I want to see that each paragraph has a clear purpose. The quotes aren’t excessive but give readers a glimpse of the different speech patterns, perspectives and experiences of those involved in the story. There are transitions, so that two unrelated paragraphs aren’t jammed together without a sentence explaining how the ideas in each relate.

I like writing that doesn’t echo words within the same paragraph or from one paragraph to the next.

And I like writing that is a bit poetic, uses literary devices and sets the scene with plot, character and setting, giving readers the sense that they are part of the unfolding story. This is my little black book of journalism that adds the elements of fiction (while, of course, being truthful, accurate, concise and clear) into writing that, otherwise, would be straightforward, without any kind of voice.

In other words, I want to have fun when I sit down to write about the Five W’s and H. I want my journalism writing to carry the mark of me.

Memoir Writing (or Artistically Telling Your Story)

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on September 16, 2012 at 11:00 am

Writing a memoir, if it’s about something painful from the past, is like doing a handstand.

There’s reliving what had happened, trying to remember what the conscious mind has forgotten and hoping to make sense of it all.

But once you flip upside down, or see your world from a new view, there is the relief that comes from healing, if only a little, and letting go.

I wrote my memoir, “Michele’s Pearl,” about growing up with learning disabilities, shy and scared of the world, but I didn’t dig deep enough into my subconscious. I had forgotten a lot of my story, so I will be rewriting the memoir, or basically starting over after setting it aside for four years.

A memoir takes the writer on an autobiographical journey, but is not like a biography from birth to now. It typically follows a particular theme or subject with a couple of subplots, focusing on the part of the writer’s past that has universal appeal.

The subject can be transformational or inspirational, coming of age or overcoming a hardship. What in the writer’s life was difficult to work through and gave insight? What had some kind of emotional impact, so that readers care?

Find the theme by looking for any underlying patterns, behaviors or ways of approaching the world. Or identify what changed you, hurt you or caused you to feel, whether it was rage or sadness.

The best memoirs, in my opinion, follow a story arc or compile several short stories with a related theme.

To write a memoir, start from a riveting point in your story employing the elements of fiction, such as plot, character, setting and dialogue. Show your personality as your write, using an identifiable narrative voice. Give some resolution of the theme, so that the reader knows why you had to tell your story.

When writing a memoir, here’s some advice I find to be helpful:

  • Organize a timeline, identifying the big moments, events and turning points in your life that relate to the theme or subject. Select out and compress what you will tell.
  • Realize there may be memory gaps, but don’t fabricate what happened. Instead, remember what you can as accurately as you can. Memories can differ for those involved, so you could interview them and compare notes to come to some kind of truth.
  • Be honest and truthful, avoiding holding back a truth or the reader will detect the omission. Tell how you feel about what happened and how you changed because of it.
  • Get some distance from the painful situation and write from a position of healing. Don’t write right after the situation occurred, because insight likely will be lacking.

Finally, remember that reliving trauma or something negative from the past requires forgiveness and acceptance of the self and others.

The Trick to Writing Personal Essays

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on September 9, 2012 at 11:00 am

Writing personal essays requires honesty above all else, whether telling something personal or expressing an opinion.

Personal essays represent what a writer thinks or feels about a topic, or they can describe thoughts, feelings and emotions related to a personal experience.

The essay about a personal experience is a type of creative nonfiction that is autobiographical and written in the first-person point of view. Describing the personal experience, the writer provides meaning through a lesson learned or the outcome of his or her personal growth and development.

A personal essay can be about reaching a milestone or overcoming an adversity or life-altering event.

It can tell an anecdote or reflect on a memory in a way that other readers can relate.

Or it can be about the writer’s obsessions, favorite things or likes and dislikes.

The story told in the personal essay needs to have a point, or a message or theme, and everything needs to be factual and true.

The structure of the essay can be a list, a question-and-answer form, a story or a scattering of musings. The writer can wander in the telling, getting sidetracked from the main ideas as long as there is a personal story supporting those ideas, connecting with the readers.

The essay that tells a story uses the elements of fiction, including plot, setting, conflict, characterization and dialogue, to give a response to an idea, topic or question.

Personal essays that give an opinion are more relaxed than formal essays that have an introduction, supporting paragraphs and a conclusion. Opinion essays do not have to prove a point, but they do need to introduce a subject and theme, or a reason for writing.

The opinion essay can ponder a question or express a response to a political, social or any other type of issue. The essay can be one-sided or give both sides to the issue and let readers come to their own conclusions.

There often is a controlling idea that lets readers know where the essay is heading.

The writer can include an element of surprise, unlikely comparisons, opposing viewpoints and unexpected groupings. But the writer shouldn’t lecture, sermonize or moralize, all of which are off-putting to the reader.

Like a personal essay, opinion essays do best with a few exciting stories or moments of reflection, while letting the reader know why the essay really does matter.

Writing Short Stories Simplified

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on September 2, 2012 at 11:00 am

Deciding among the shoes to pack for a trip requires the same approach as does writing short stories.

Take only the essentials and not a pair for every possible season and whimsy.

Writing short stories, like packing shoes, is done in a small space confined to the basic elements of storytelling.

The length of a short story varies depending on the writer, editor or publishing house doing the defining. The definitions I’ve found describe short stories as 1,000-5,000 words or anything up to 7,500 words or up to 10,000 words.

Because there are fewer words, a short story has to be limited to a specific time, place, event and interaction.

Whereas a novel can span a day or a year or more, a short story’s timeframe typically covers days or weeks. The short story cannot include too many places or events without feeling strained or scattered, or like a list.

A novel, because it is larger scale, offers more pages to develop ideas, plot, character and theme. At most, a short story can handle a plot and a small subplot, or a plot and a half.

Short stories get to the point and don’t have the time or space for long setups. They begin with a crisis or conflict right away and avoid describing how the conflict came about.

Stories, as a snapshot into the lives of the characters, avoid long character histories and descriptions. They have a few characters, so that the reader can identify with each character and keep them straight. Too many, and the story can become confusing.

Here are a few other rules about writing short stories (though rules are made to be broken, of course):

* Show, don’t tell with the action.

* Use one or very few settings.

* Use first or third-person, or two characters shifting point of view.

* Express a single theme, or message to get across to the readers.

Novels, which are 50,000 words or more from the definitions I’ve seen, include more material – characters, settings, plots and details – to sustain readers’ interest over several reading sessions, unless they are willing to sit for hours or an entire day. A short story, alternatively, can be consumed in one sitting in a few minutes or a couple of hours.

(Note: Last week, I talked about poetry as I spend a few weeks on different types of writing for my blog, 52: A Year of Writing Basics, Beliefs and Beauty. I won’t cover the types of writing I haven’t tried, like screenplays and plays, but will touch on my favorites, including personal essays, memoirs and news articles.)