Shelley Widhalm

Archive for March, 2013|Monthly archive page

Writing Clean-Up

In 52: A Writer's Life, Editing, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on March 31, 2013 at 11:00 am

Cleaning out a storage unit parallels editing a novel.

Storage units can be messy, piled with too many unlabeled boxes or organized with nice pathways and everything catalogued.

Mine falls somewhere between the two.

I didn’t want to touch my unit, except I promised my mother, who needs to store a few things. I made the promise in late January and somehow didn’t find time to start until last weekend.

Call it avoidance.

The same thing is happening with the third revision of my novel, “The Fire Painter,” which is about a 35-year-old artist working in retail who loses everything she owns in an apartment fire. She tries to replace some of her belongings only to learn that things aren’t what matter.

I learned the same lesson as I sorted through belongings I held onto for sentimental reasons or possible use later.

In one area of my belongings, that of books, I got rid of more than half of the boxes.
As a journalist at a metro newspaper, I received dozens of freebie books and kept them, but I could never read all six boxes worth considering everything else I want to read. I looked at their covers and thought, “That book’s nice, but why do I need to keep it into eternity?”

I reduced to my book core, keeping the classics, a few reference materials that are useful to my writing life and personal interests, and the books I know I’ll read.

Not just books, I found I had extra clothes, kitchen and bathroom items, and household decorations. I didn’t need any of it.

Likewise, I don’t need the extra words and scenes that add fluff to my novel. The words I wrote, even if I think they sounded pretty, didn’t matter if they weren’t part of the story’s core.

I got rid of half of the things in my unit but only about 4 to 5 percent of my novel. It took me four hours to sort through the boxes, but 50 or so to cut out 4,000 words.

Editing books takes longer than editing life, I suppose.For one, my editing process isn’t organized. I read the novel over and over, cutting and adding until I feel like the language is clean and the storyline has a good arc with compelling dialogue, character development and interesting setting. I read it until I’m sick of it.

Just like I’m sick of my things, I edited out the fluff in my life down to the essentials.
However, I wonder why it takes me so much longer to get sick of my own work. Is it because it’s more directly connected to the inner-me than stuff ever could be? Is it because words have more lasting power than material, the spoken, airy stuff versus the hard surfaces that confine meanings into the objects they are?

My Love-Hate Relationship with Writing

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on March 24, 2013 at 11:30 am

My relationship with writing seems to be hot and cold.

I have a daytime writing job as a newspaper reporter and moonlight as a yet-to-be-published novelist. I love writing, getting lost in putting sentences together and finding the right words to express my thoughts and ideas, but I also hate it.

Writing can seem like an ongoing chore that never gets done, a homework assignment with a scary deadline or a puzzle with the pieces anywhere but nearby. It is something that I have to do but don’t want to do, am tired of doing or don’t know how to do beyond what I’ve already been doing.

In other words, I get stuck in my own writing habits and approaches to crafting sentences toward the finished product, experiencing a bit of burnout.

When this happens at work, I can’t think of how to write the lead (I have a mental block of needing the lead first to organize the unfolding of the rest of the article); I don’t know how to be original about something I’ve written before; or I can’t figure out the best way to organize my notes from multiple sources providing a vast amount of information.

My burnout at home comes from finishing a project and not knowing what to write next or feeling tired from writing at work and wanting a break.

The constant immersion allows for something that I wouldn’t get from writing only news articles or only novels and short stories. It cross-pollinates skills from one type of writing to the other.

I’ve learned how to apply the elements of writing, such as plot, setting and character, to what I write in the newsroom. I try to pick out the most exciting aspect of a story, select a few details of the environment in which it takes place and figure out who I’m interviewing by what they keep in their office, as well as how they use language and interact with me.

I try to avoid word echoes, or word repetitions, which journalists tend to do, and search for a better word choice if my sentences have the echoes or sound too similar to one another.

And I listen to how the language of my story sounds, concerned not just with the message but how the words feel on the tongue and in the ear.

With my fiction writing, I write as if on deadline as quickly as I can just to get the words out. Journalism writing is fairly formulaic, so the organizational tools I use in writing news articles comes out in my other writing. I think of what I want to say first and let the rest unfold from there, not trying to over think descriptions and character interactions.

Plus, all of the writing is becoming a habit. I write like I eat. I know how to do it, but when I stop to think about each bite, I enjoy the savoring of it.

Deadline Wrecker

In 52: A Writer's Life, Editing, Revising, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on March 17, 2013 at 11:00 am

Pushing deadlines is something I’ve learned to avoid during my daytime job as a reporter, not wanting to annoy my editors.

My nighttime job moonlighting as a yet-to-be-published writer is quite a different matter.

I usually don’t have deadlines except for those that are self-imposed.

I had one Monday at midnight for the Top of the Mountain Award novel contest offered through Northern Colorado Writers, which honors a fiction and a non-fiction manuscript at the group’s annual writer’s conference.

I filed my five-page synopsis and the first 25 double-spaced pages for “The Fire Painter” at 12:00, which actually was Tuesday morning. My heart pounded as I tried to add the attachments and write up an email in three minutes.

When I hit “Send,” I barely made it in time.

Too late for a correction, I noticed a repetition in the last section of nearly the same phrase, not surprising because I wrote my synopsis up to nearly the last minute.

Though I wanted to enter the contest, I wasn’t quite ready for the synopsis stage.

A synopsis is a one-page, five-page or other number of pages summarizing the plot of a novel that includes the hook, the character and plot arcs, and a sense of the setting and other writing elements. It’s told in present tense, includes very little dialogue and gives away the ending.

Given that I’m methodical in my writing habits, I freaked out when I tried to write the synopsis while editing my novel. I couldn’t mentally process how to do things out of order.

I knew about the contest’s extended deadline for two weeks, during which time I painstakingly input the red marks from my marked-up second draft into my third draft. I spent 15 hours a week for two weeks doing the input, which I finished at about 3:30 p.m. on Monday (my Sunday).

I could have skipped most of the input because the contest submission required just 25 pages, not all 283 of them.

Because I didn’t, I ended up limiting my time to write and edit the synopsis. I worked on it for an hour, and then feeling quite tired from sitting too long in a chair, I did errands, ate dinner and got coffee. I then got back to work for a few more hours until, well midnight.

Though I hit “Send,” I’m not done. I’ve got two more drafts to go, then it’s the big sleep for the manuscript where I won’t look at it for a few months. Call it Cinderella meets Sleeping Beauty (or the midnight pumpkin meets girl needing a break).

The Revision Commitment, Take 2

In 52: A Writer's Life, Editing, Revising, Shelley Widhalm on March 10, 2013 at 11:00 am

Revising a novel is like making a long-term commitment to someone you kind of love but maybe find a bit tiring.

In other words, revision is an obligation that, unless you’re a one-draft wonder, is part of the process of writing.

I am in midst of that obligation editing my nearly 90,000-word novel that was, at one time, 92,000-plus words. I didn’t just cut 2,000 words but cut much more, including partial scenes, repetitions and unnecessary descriptions. I also added words by fixing missing logistics of where or when, holes in the plot and character development, and word-heavy dialogues that didn’t make it clear who was speaking.

At 11:59 p.m. Sunday, I made the last red mark in my second revision of “The Fire Painter,” which is about a 30-something artist who loses everything in an apartment fire and searches to replace her lost things.

I like to think of myself as a quick editor, mainly because I want to get in and out and go on to more writing. It’s called diving in, using any and every free moment to heal my pain (pain is editing, healing is finishing editing).

My first revision, which I started Jan. 23 and took two weeks, was a read-through on the computer to fix any areas where the scenes seemed choppy or something didn’t make sense.

The second revision took three weeks and involved a printout and my red pen. In this revision:

• I deleted scenes that partially repeated other scenes.
• I removed facts or information I mentioned earlier in the draft.
• I checked for inconsistencies, such as switching eye or hair color, which I did do without the convenience of new contacts or hair dye.
• I reread the thoughts of two of my characters who tend toward self-pity to avoid making them too whiney.
• I made sure I referred to important objects in the story in a consistent basis, such as the doggie piggybank, instead of dog bank.
• I tightened the language by removing adjectives, details that didn’t push the story and any over-done descriptions.
• With my descriptions, I listened to how the language sounds, as well as to how each sentence builds on the previous sentence.
• I changed areas of dialogue that didn’t sound like how real people talk.
• I filled in words I accidentally left out and fixed any grammar errors I identified, plus added a few missing periods.
• I realized I named two minor characters Linda, so I left the more minor of the two nameless.

I also plan to remove my tics, which I will do with my “search and find” function. I noticed that I love the words “OK,” “nods” and “shrugs.” Picture me nodding and shrugging and saying, “OK, whatever.”

As for other revisions, I know there will be more but as to how many, that depends on how long it will take me to say this is the best I can make my work. And then I’ll be looking for a literary agent. Wish me luck and bon voyage as I travel yet again through my story.

Starving Artist Poem

In 52: A Writer's Life, Poetry, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on March 3, 2013 at 11:00 am

The question of being who you are is more difficult if you are afraid, both of uncertainty and of starvation. This poem reflects that question I find to be a constant struggle.

Becoming, or Not

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.