Shelley Widhalm

Archive for June, 2013|Monthly archive page

Getting Inspired by Interns

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm on June 30, 2013 at 11:00 am

Shelley gathers notes at an annual toy show while working as a reporter. (Photo by Steve Stoner)

Shelley gathers notes at an annual toy show while working as a reporter. (Photo by Steve Stoner)

I moonlight as a poet and writer, but during my day job I work as a reporter, writing features articles

My problem is I experience the occasional burnout or writer’s block.

I get burned out because news writing involves a great deal of brainwork.

There’s critical thinking, numbers analysis, writing, explaining, putting difficult concepts into simpler terms and organizing notes into something logical and readable that follows the structure of news or features stories.

The burnout comes when I can’t think of how to be creative or tell the story or figure out what to do with my notes.

So I look to the interns in our office.


They are excited about the fact they are in the newsroom. They are eager to cover each and every story they are assigned. And they want to work, and for free.

If I’m feeling a little tired from the daily grind, I pretend I’m an intern with that same level of enthusiasm. I get to cover this or that, how lucky for me!

I pretend I have not experienced the fire or the event I’ve covered a million times.

What is different that I have not seen, heard or felt before? Is there a new way of looking at the story’s setting, a detail I hadn’t noticed before or a question I didn’t think to ask? Is there some angle I haven’t covered, or a story I haven’t told because it wasn’t immediately apparent?

Telling myself this is new, as it is for interns, opens my vision so that I notice and experience things in a different way.

I become curious and questioning, explorative and wondering.

In other words, I become a fully engaged reporter, loving the process of interviewing, researching, learning, reporting and writing.


Clues to Pacing in Writing

In 52: A Writer's Life, Pacing, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on June 23, 2013 at 11:00 am

Pacing is one of those writing concepts that took me a long time to grasp.

At the simplest level, the pacing in a story or novel involves various levels of speed from fast and quick to slow, careful and unhurried. It is a text’s rate of movement or momentum.

The variations in the movement are the result of how words are used and sentences and paragraphs are structured. Concrete words and the active voice, as well as short sentences and lots of white space on the page, speed up writing, while long sentences and paragraphs slow it down.

Pacing is the tempo or rate of the story’s unfolding and how quickly the reader is pulled through the events of the story. It should be smooth and not scattered, jerking the reader from one time and place to another or by switching from fast to slow without reason, especially at the paragraph level.

Structurally, pacing needs speed in the opening of a story, in the middle and at the climax. It is the weaving of action, dialogue and narrative in each scene.

A slow pace uses large amounts of narration, description, digressions, small distracting actions not related to the main action, flashbacks and introspection.

A fast pace involves little description, as well as:

• Dialogue that is clipped, pared down and rapid fire with little extraneous information.
• Lots of action, such as a series of incidents in quick succession or conflict between characters.

A fast pace is a quick jump into the action, while a slow pace involves a more leisurely telling. It is about the character doing stuff, or the character thinking about things, observing the environment and possibly getting distracted or off course.

Pacing, in essence, is the rhythm at which the story gets told.

Poem Finding

In 52: A Writer's Life, Poetry, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on June 16, 2013 at 11:30 am

I love the idea of a poem finding the poet rather than the poet, through the process of writing, creating a poem.

One poet describes this process of poem finding as literally chasing it down in its whole-poem shape. The poems she meets as she works outside rumble through the fields coming toward her. She has to run toward paper to capture each one, or the poem will go onto the next person. If she gets to the poem barely in time, it comes out backwards.

I write poetry using poetry exercises, an image that excites me or that magic I can’t understand. I experience a poem feeling that causes me to drop what I’m doing and grab something to write with and something to write on, whether it’s paper, a napkin or a paper towel.

The poem that arrives, giving me this poem feeling, usually is rough and just the start of something that needs revision, but it’s as if it came from elsewhere or from within my subconscious, arising suddenly. If I don’t listen to the poem feeling’s voice calling to me, I lose the poem.

I believe that poems are of the moment. If you wait two seconds, the poem will come out slightly different because your thoughts have moved slightly forward in time and space, the air has slightly changed, the sunset has shifted or disappeared and the moment is just that, a moment, here, then gone.

It’s like photography, where the professional photo takes rapid fire photos of the same image, but with each frame, the lighting, position of the body and the expression change.

This magical type of poetry that arrives with the message, I’m a poem, is like Michelangelo’s carving out the preexisting shape to free it from stone.

I am the lucky recipient of these few poems that find me.

And in the process, I have found a lightning blast of excitement, passion and energy in that zap that turns a moment into a word dance.

Revision Headache

In 52: A Writer's Life, Revising, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on June 9, 2013 at 11:00 am

I’ve avoided the dreaded revision process for long enough.

It’s time for me to return to “The Fire Painter,” an account of a 35-year-old artist named Kate who loses everything in an apartment fire and tries to paint her way back to new meanings.

I’ve been separated from my manuscript for two months, filling my life with enough other stuff to tell myself, I’m too busy to edit.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about my manuscript, especially because I keep meaning to crack down on the third revision.

During my mini-break, I’ve spent more time reading than writing. As I read, I analyzed what I liked about each book that I could apply to my own writing. I realized I need to ask myself:

• How do I make Kate’s voice more interesting and distinguishable, like that of Pat Peoples in “Silver Linings Playbook?” Pat is obsessive about getting his ex-wife Nicky back into his life, using the phrase “apart time” for their separation in an excessive, compulsive manner. His voice is witty, endearing and hard-hitting.

• How can I tighten the plot and dialogue, plus individual scenes, to increase the pace? I realized from feedback on my own writing that I’m giving too much detail about Kate’s every thought and action. Though I want to delve more into her thoughts, I also need to choose when, where and how to keep the story moving.

• How can I improve my descriptions by keeping the best phrases without slowing the pace? For instance, one of my writer’s groups said I need to cut the bolded words from this sentence phrase: “as if throwing bedroom clothes from fat cloud bellies.” This is just one example of where I need to tighten up the descriptions to get to the action.

Needless to say, this revision is focusing on pacing and tightening up anything that slows down the pace, unless I want the pace to be slow for a specific reason.

To put it another way, I need to be conscious of the why in pacing.

What causes writing to go bad

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on June 2, 2013 at 11:00 am

Can a writer of fiction still read just for pleasure?

I don’t think so, at least not entirely.

The more I learn about the writing process and what makes for good writing, the harder it is for me to glide over errors.

The most obvious – grammatical errors – can be annoying.

But what really gets me is a poorly set up first chapter, the use of clichés and dialogue that goes on and on without hinging on the plot or character development.

I read these bad books because if I bought them or they were given to me, I feel obligated. I agonize that if I get rid of the book, there might have been some gem in it somewhere, even though I have to drag through most of the staccato sentences to find the shine.

Some of these annoying errors occur in best-sellers (I won’t name any because I’m trying to keep my blog mostly about happy, good writer thoughts) and in books published by major houses.

The errors that make me, the reader, want to take out the red pen include:

• An opening with a scene in bed or with sex if the book is not erotica.
• Sentences of similar structure without any variety and repeating words and phrases in the same paragraph or paragraphs next to each other.
• Scenes that make logistics unclear, including flashbacks that whip the reader from one time period to another without stop.
• Dialogue with back story, especially if the background facts go on for paragraphs as if the characters are on stage acting before an audience. They wouldn’t be having these conversations in their worlds, because who talks to their friend, “Remember when” and gives all the details, unless the friend has a memory disorder.
• Dialogue that sounds like real conversation with all the pauses, inanities and back-and-forth interactions but without saying anything important to the setting, plot or character development. I read this bit of dialogue in the back I’m trying to finish because it was one of those given-to-me books:
“See you when I see you,” I say.
“See you when I see you,” he says at the same time.
“Jinx,” we both say.
Seriously? This is not good writing.
• Lack of plot even if the novel is supposed to be literary or a memoir, so that it reads like scenes stacked on each other or stretched out going nowhere. Add in memoirs that read like essays trying to pull off the interesting plot that’s not there.
• Plain writing.

However, however, however, I repeat, reading bad writing can be a good exercise to identify what you hope never shows up in yours.