Shelley Widhalm

Archive for December, 2012|Monthly archive page

Writing 52: A Year in Review

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

Writing the last sentence of my novel in early December is similar to concluding a year of blogging – there’s a sense of letting go that isn’t easy and simple.

Finishing the rough draft of “The Fire Painter,” which I started in January, is only the first step. And so is picking up a blog. I will have to edit, and I will have to come up with a new idea for 2013’s blog.

I already miss the surprises from my characters and plotting and the fact that I have a huge project in my life. And I will miss researching about different writing topics and ideas for my 2012 blog, “52: A Year of Writing Basics, Beliefs and Beauty.”

Though my blog didn’t leave much of a mark on the blogosphere, I think I’m the one who benefitted the most from my goal to write about 52 different writing elements, types of writing and tools for writers.

I explored what’s involved in structuring plot, developing character, coming up with original themes, developing intriguing settings and using imagery, metaphors and similes.

By writing about each of these and other elements, I expanded my understanding of all that is involved in the writing craft. Explaining something to someone else is the best way to review and see things slightly differently than before; teaching is a form of learning.

I am debating what to write in 2013, something I believe I need to continue doing to maintain my “platform.” Platform is what authors and aspiring authors develop through their websites, blogging, twitter feeds, book tours and other ways they make themselves present to the audiences they already have or want to grow.

A few ideas have come to mind for my 2013 blog, such as:

  • 52 writing prompts that I also will respond to, using them in my own writing.
  • The secrets of a writer’s life and what is involved in writing and editing a novel (but this is kind of like 52 writing topics in 52 weeks).
  • The secrets of a journalist’s life who writes at night (except I’d probably get in trouble by my bosses).
  • Bad girl writer tells all (except I don’t do anything bad, except drink caffeine, and that’s not very exciting).
  • Writing about whatever comes to mind 52 times.
  • Trying 52 things I haven’t done before and writing about them (except this one has been done before).

Hum, what do you think?


A Writer’s Library

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

A writer should have a few reference materials, preferably on a bookshelf or within easy reach.

A dictionary, thesaurus and a couple of style guides are essential for grammar reminders and finding the right word or phrase. Also, subscribing to a monthly writer’s magazine, like the “Writer’s Digest,” “The Writer,” and “Poet & Writer,” keeps writers up to date on writing and publishing trends, different aspects of the craft and writing contests, residencies, retreats and conferences.

In addition, I found these seven books to be incredibly helpful in improving my writing craft. (Note: This list will continue to grow as I continue to read other books on the writing craft. I have a half-dozen in a box yet to read):

  • Creating Poetry, John Drury – A complete guide to writing poetry, this book includes poetic terms, poetic forms and advice on writing.
  • The Novel Writer’s Toolkit, Bob Mayer – This guide to writing fiction and getting published covers the elements of writing, writing techniques, where to get ideas and the business of publishing.
  • The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass – The most informative chapter, “Tension All the Time,” explains how to create tension in individual scenes and within th entire novel. The book covers every element of structuring a novel from plot and setting to character.
  • Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass – This book explains what you need to do to amp up all aspects of your writing to make it bestseller quality.
  • Writing Alone and With Others, Pat Schneider – This book in two parts provides tips for sparking creativity, understanding the writer’s mind and starting a writer’s group.
  • Write That Book Already, The Tough Love You Need to Get Published Now, Sam Barry and Kathi Kamen Goldmark – This book explains the writing process, the steps to take to find an agent and what happens to your manuscript from the agent to the finished product.
  • How to Get Happily Published, Judith Appelbaum – This provides a complete guide on self-publishing and publishing through a traditional publishing house.

12 Good Books

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

In my quest to write about 52 writing topics in 52 weeks, I can’t leave out my 12 favorite books. Part of being a good, or even a great, writer is to read voraciously and in many genres, as well as the genre you plan to write in.

Here are my favorites that I’ve read in the past 20 years:

  • The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway – I love Hemingway’s crisp writing style and sparse dialogue that carries multiple messages underneath the surface text.
  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald – The story of the rich Jay Gatsby and his love for Daisy Buchanan is tight without anything extraneous or unnecessary to the telling.
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austin – The dialogue is witty, and Elizabeth Bennett is a complex, emotional and smart character that you can’t help but love.
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez – This is the best      example of magical realism I’ve ever read told through the lives of the Buendia family.
  • Lolita, Vladimir Nobakov – The language is beautiful, though the subject matter is grotesque.
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran, A Memoir in Books, Azar Nafisi – Beautifully told with rich themes, this book made me realize how lucky I am to have an American sense of freedom.
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being – I read this so long ago, but I do remember the contemplation of existence and being that makes the reader think on a philosophical level.
  • Enchanted Night, Steven Milhausen – On a summer night, the characters of the story leave their beds in search of a better life. The story is told with a      touch of romance and whimsy, and the language is magical and poetic.
  • The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford – This World War II story with modern day elements perfectly connects the beginning to the end through the use of symbolism.
  • The Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins – Fast-paced with compelling characters, this dystopian series describes an alternate world that actually is closer to reality or potential realities than at first appears.
  • In the Drink, Kate Christensen – This is chick lit at its finest with well-developed characters, those of Claudia Steiner and her love interest William, great dialogue and an interesting story that isn’t boring and fluffy.
  • Thanks for the Memories, Cecelia Ahern – Take a fairy tale and combine it with a few what-if questions and you get an exploration of the heart, memory and déjà vu.

Writing Arc

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

The scaffolding for a novel’s structure is the arc, or the beginning, middle and end of the novel. Without this seemingly simple progression of storytelling, the novel becomes a collection of scenes or episodes that easily collapse like a house of cards.

The term “arc” can refer to the novel’s structure as well as to the development of character. The point-of-character, and even other major and secondary characters, go through some kind of transition and learn something in the process. The arc of each character undergoing change has a beginning, middle and end.

Likewise, writers go through an arc through their writing careers.

Just like a novel’s arc, where characters and plot are introduced, the writer is introduced to writing in school, through another person or by discovering they have an interest.

The aspiring writer reads and writes to learn the craft.

The writer needs to put in at least 10,000 hours to reach the professional level, as stated in “Outliners,” by Malcolm Gladwell. Or they need to write a million words, or 100 words an hour to reach the 10,000-hour mark.

I usually write 1,000 words in one to 1 ½ hours, and I’ve put in more than 10,000 hours between my writing career as a journalist and my side job as a yet-to-be-published novelist.

The storyline is complicated through the character wanting something, but plot complications stand in the way. Writers have to withstand the rejection, the hard work of submitting their work to contests and literary agents, study the field and write to get what they want – to be a better writer, a published writer or, most desirable, a bestselling, award-winning writer.

At the resolution, the character either gets or will not get what she wants. But for writers, if they get what they want – publication or some kind of recognition for their work – it’s likely they’ll start a new arc in their career, pursuing even greater things.

The climax of a novel is the moment of greatest tension and excitement for the reader, but for a writer, hopefully that climax doesn’t turn her into a one-hit wonder.

As writers march toward 1 million words, they learn from their mistakes, experiences and discoveries. They improve their craft through hard work and discover their talent by learning the basics first.

It’s like building a skyscraper. You start with the scaffolding and go from there until you have a beautiful, sky-reaching building. Writing needs the scaffolding of experience to turn writing that is mechanically correct into something with soul, magic and heart-stopping beauty.



Writing Organics, or the Case of Outlining or Winging It

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

There are two types of writers, those who outline and those who don’t.

The outliners plan out each chapter, as well as the entire structure of the novel from the beginning to the end. Their planning can include character biographies or sketches, storyboards of plot elements, and research notes of setting, character identity and the other elements of fiction.

Organic writers write as they go, letting the characters or storyline lead the way as the telling unfolds.

I’m an organic writer who needs a rough outline.

For my novel, “The Fire Painter,” which I am editing, I came up with an idea spark as I was sitting in a coffee shop nearly one year ago. I had thrown away a doggie piggy bank my late grandmother had given me because it had a crack, and then I had grieved the loss of a gift coming from love.

I took out my laptop and began writing about a character losing more than just one thing, but everything she owns in a house fire. I wanted to explore what she would do to retrieve her lost things and wrote out some random ideas on one page of paper.

A couple of weeks later, I began to write without knowing exactly where I was heading. A quarter of the way in, I figured out a possible ending without knowing exactly how I’d get there.

Halfway through, I wondered what I could possibly write next. I experienced the middle-of-the-novel slump that outliners, I believe, probably do not encounter as frequently or as deeply. They know where the novel is heading, as well as the purpose of each chapter that carries the plot to the ending.

Unlike the pure organics, I do some planning. At the end of each writing session, I sketch ideas for a few chapters, using the rough notes I initially wrote and add to them as well.

With outlines or rough notes, I find it best to think of them as a suggestion. I want to make sure to think through my main characters and plotlines, so that the story can be sustained over the span of a novel.

I basically want to get from here – an idea of the piggy bank – to there, or my 90,000-page rough draft that I finished in early December. It took me 11 months to turn a visual image into a story that, for me, means so much more than the gift from my grandmother, now that I’ve recreated it in words.