Shelley Widhalm

Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

Where to Get Story Ideas

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on October 28, 2012 at 11:00 am

Finding story ideas can be as easy as searching for a penny on the sidewalk.

Just spend a little time looking and there’s bound to be one, shiny and heads up or dull and dirty, heads down.

Story ideas can come from what you observe in the exterior world, or start internally, building outward.

As I mentioned last week, story ideas can be gleaned from human nature, watching how people behave and interact with one another, and from the natural world, such as weather events or natural disasters.

The human interactions can give an idea for a character, whereas the natural world could provide a setting, invoking the question of how a character would, for example, respond in a flash food or a forest fire.

This week, I’ll focus on finding stories from the inside out.

Go somewhere – a coffee shop, bar, restaurant or mall – and take notes on the furnishings, lighting levels (bright in stores and low in some bars) and atmosphere or mood of the place. How does the setting make you feel? Comfortable or edgy? Overwhelmed or energetic? Think about why and use this as a starting point for character development.

Or write out a negative emotion, transforming hurts, frustrations and fears into creative expression. What did you come up with? Is this the start of a story or notes on a character’s identity?

Here are some other ways to look inside for writing sparks:

  • Write about struggles in your life and what you learned from them.
  • Write for revenge or to prove someone wrong, not to blaspheme that person on paper, but because writing well is the best way to get back at someone. If you want to write about a hurtful situation caused by another person (let’s      call her the B), then change a few details so the B and her friends can’t      identify the source of your inspiration.
  • Write about an issue you care about through the perspective of a character you  develop, hopefully not with your exact traits to avoid turning preachy.

Here are a few more ideas for finding stories:

Look in newspapers and magazines for story sparks.

Eavesdrop on the conversations around you and pick out an interesting line or exchange.

Think of a first line. Or start with a list or an image.

Journal or freewrite.

And there’s doing some another creative exercise, such as drawing or knitting, to get into a creative mood.

Whatever method you pick, realize that writing is about exploration, a treasure hunt that leads you to that brilliant idea if you stick with it.

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Sources of Writing Inspiration

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on October 21, 2012 at 11:00 am

If you’re bored with or tired of writing, or don’t know what to write, how do you get started?

There are multitudinous ways to find inspiration, or that little push to ignite your pen, or laptop, or whatever tool you use.

But if you wait for inspiration, you’ll never write.

Or almost never.

With me, a snippet of a certain song, the twang of leaves caterwauling down the street or a brush of sunset colors over the mountains excite the imagination. I write the first line and the next, almost as if I were diving into a poem or a description to capture that brief feeling.

These small moments, however, prove unreliable, so I turn to my tools of searching out the initial spark or toe bounce for the word dive.

Inspiration can come from books, music, the natural and manmade worlds, and human nature.

With books, a description or the way something is phrased can give you a starting point. How could you describe the setting or character differently from the writer? What words would you use that he or she didn’t? Take this description and turn it into a basis for a scene or character identity.

Music of all genres also can be inspiring, both through the moods the songs evoke and the words, beats and melodies they express. I don’t know how but certain songs of Enja’s compel me to write poetry – I like the lyrical style and repetitive phrasing, making it easy for me to get lost in my own writing while being observant of the music’s rhythm.

To find inspiration from human nature, try hanging out where people like to congregate and do some eavesdropping. Try coffee shops, restaurants, malls, lounges, airport terminals and beaches.

As for finding inspiration in nature, sit next to a flower bed and describe what you see, the weather and the look of the sky, using all of the senses. Try a mini-writing field trip in the mountains, an arboretum or public garden, or the city streetscape where there are benches, potted plants, trees and sidewalk gardens.

While you stage your inspiration, amplify your awareness of what’s around you, using all of the senses – sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell – when making observations. Describe things around you as you see them or as they are happening. Or make a list of descriptive words, and then play around with the individual words to see if maybe a poem will result.

Writing often can show you that you have more to say about a topic than you realized, releasing you from that feeling of being stuck. Instead of waiting for inspiration to give you something to write, write to discover what you have to say.

Beating Writer’s Block

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing group on October 14, 2012 at 11:00 am

As a writer, this is my worst enemy – not fast-approaching deadlines, picky editors or a lack of time. Nope, it’s the dreaded writer’s block.

Writer’s block is the state of writing that involves the opposite, or the state of not writing caused by fear, laziness or lots of excuses.

In cases where the block isn’t full on, it can involve slow, methodical writing that causes agony as each word is crafted as if penciling the individual dots of the letters.

When writer’s block occurs, your conscious mind informs you that you can’t get started writing, you have nothing to write or you need inspiration to write, but it’s not there. Or your conscious mind is too controlling and doesn’t accept or believe that your subconscious mind knows what it’s doing with something in there worth getting out.

Writer’s block can be a way to avoid digging too deep. Facing your pain – such as anger, hurt, sadness or frustration – can help you discover the truth about yourself and your experiences. Your conscious mind would rather you not go there.

To combat block, realize that writing requires organization skills, time management and discipline, plus drive and motivation. Keep a routine and don’t wait for the muse or some form of inspiration to begin writing. Inspiration can occur as you start writing, losing yourself in the process instead of worrying about the outcome.

To beat writer’s block, there are a few other practices I try:

  • Write daily, or at least a couple of times a week, scheduling a specific time or place to write; i.e. keep office hours. For example, two of my friends and I meet once a week for a write-in, ensuring that we have at least one writing day in our planners.
  • Treat writing like a job and clock in the hours you write, both for accountability and to acknowledge what you’ve accomplished.
  • Stick to a schedule, but allow for risk and freedom and for imagination and play, so that writing remains fun.
  • Write a writing action plan or goals for the year and check in every few weeks to mark your progress.
  • Take a writer’s retreat, even if it’s in your hometown, setting aside a weekend to focus on writing.

While working on a writing project, end you’re writing session mid-chapter or mid-paragraph, or jot down a few notes to start the next chapter to avoid facing the blank page the next time you write.

If there is something that requires research or is a sticking point leave a blank space and return to it later.

Lastly, write from within yourself, tapping into your creative unconscious and staying there. Discover what comes out of your writing as you let loose and experience the wonder of being lost in the process.

Pain-Free Revision

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on October 7, 2012 at 11:00 am

This is my least favorite part of the writing process and the part that requires the most discipline.

It’s revision.

I wouldn’t mind if revision involved reading over what you wrote once, but it takes many reads – and by the time you read your work the sixth time around, you can figure out the ending.

I’ve revised many of my works and still find achieving that objective eye a challenge.

Revising with some objectivity, as well as subjectivity, is a multi-step process that requires several steps and a few tricks.

Writers vary in how they revise their work, but I like to give a first read through for obvious errors in spelling and grammar, words that are missing or misused, and sentence structure that is awkward or clumsy.

I like to ask if the overall story make sense. Is there enough at stake in the plot? Are there any boring parts or parts that are over-explained?

Are there areas that are exciting, but feel too rushed?

Does the story end, or simply drop off, because the concluding pages were rushed or forced?

Are the characters well-developed, and do they seem real not two-dimensional?

In additional reads, I find it helpful to find the areas that need more detail or explanation. I remove unnecessary backstory and any passages that slow the pace. Doing this allows the characters and the conflict to be more evident.

Also when editing, I recommend:

  • Looking for needless repetitions, awkward transitions and poor word choice.
  • Cutting unnecessary words, sentences and even scenes that do not move the story forward or clutter what you’re trying to say.
  • Using the active voice whenever you can.
  • Varying the sentence structures, so that not every sentence reads subject-verb-object.
  • Getting rid of clichés, unless used for a specific purpose or as a character trait.
  • Writing visually and making sure some or all of the senses are used, including sight, sound, touch, hearing and taste.
  • Tightening the dialogue, cutting unnecessary conversation fillers like, “How are you doing?” and areas where conversation seems to repeat.

And most importantly, make sure your showing and only telling when necessary.