Shelley Widhalm

Archive for September, 2013|Monthly archive page

Giving a Good Reading

In 52: A Writer's Life, Poetry reading, Shelley Widhalm on September 29, 2013 at 11:00 am

(Photo by Steve Stoner/Loveland Reporter-Herald)

For some reason, I’m not nervous when I give a reading, but that doesn’t mean I connect with the audience either.

I gave a reading during the Loveland Loves Literature event Saturday, Sept. 21, at the Loveland Feed and Grain, a depilated monster of a building that will become part of ArtSpace, a live-work center for writers and artists.

More than two dozen literary and performing artists took the stage over two days for half-hour or full-hour slots. My slot was a half-hour, which I shared with a poet friend of mine, Ravitte Kentwortz.

Before I read, I talked with another writer, who recommended grounding my energy by imagining my feet as connected to the floor. She suggested I throw my energy to the back of the room to include everyone in the audience.

But once I was at the microphone, I rambled more than I wanted to about each piece. I read a short story called “Tainted Proposal,” based on a coin toss, as well as three poems and a two-page excerpt from my novel, “The Fire Painter.”

As I read, I kept reminding myself to look at the audience. I forgot to make eye contact, too focused on reading slowly as if I was doing a book-on-tape to add personality to my words.

On hindsight, I wish I had reviewed my collection of articles on giving a gogod reading. Here a few of the suggestions:

• Vary the pace or content, choosing work that differs in subject matter, length, pacing and tone. Make sure what you choose is not all exposition and includes some dialogue, imagery and a strong story line. Edit out the “he said” and “she said” markers. (I did all of this.)
• Mark your text for voice and emphasis. (I highlighted my dialogue blue for the male character and red for the female character.)
• Think of your reading as a performance. (My short story character, Jane, was a librarian, so I dressed conservatively, wore glasses and had my hair in an updo.)
• Select pieces that relate thematically. (Umm, I didn’t do that.)
• Explain the context of what you’re reading, such as summarizing the plot for an excerpt from a novel, or the inspiration for a poem. Write this out ahead of time.
• Rehearse, reading the work out loud and enunciating clearly. Practice in front of friends.
• Time yourself. (I never could figure out the length, but somehow I kept my reading to 15 minutes.)
• Publicize your reading via social media, Flyers and emailing friends.


Writing Beautiful

In 52: A Writer's Life, Good Books, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on September 22, 2013 at 11:00 am

There are two levels of writing: the craft of writing and the beauty of writing.

In the first instance, books successfully execute plot and character arcs to tell stories with beginnings, middles and ends.

They fulfill all of the craft elements with an engaging plot, interesting characters who talk in entertaining dialogue and settings that set the story in a particular time and place, balancing detail with story.

These books offer a satisfying read through a character’s compelling personality and behavior patterns, plus at least one quirk, and a plot that balances pace with tension. The pace slows or speeds up where necessary to bolster the tension among characters, forces and the ticking clock of time’s forward movement and suspense of what happens next.

The story moves at a nice clip without dragging along and boring the reader with the beat of a metronome.

Perfectly crafted and executed writing, however, can lack magic, or the ephemeral within and arising out of the beauty of writing. Beautiful writing starts at the sentence level and unfolds out to character, story and message.

A radiant and clever sentence inspires awe, stopping the reader for a second read to comprehend all of the nuances of language and meaning. Such a sentence could compare unlike objects in a new way with unusual details, but not too many to the point of being flowery.

For example, this sentence stopped me in my reading:
“The sweet, cotton-candy scent of a hundred blooming irises rides the breeze.” (“Such a Pretty Girl,” Laura Wiess)

A beautiful sentence could capture a life lesson in a few words, known, unknown or something the reader already knows but doesn’t fully understand.

I was caught by this sentence: “It seems to me that growing older means a growing collection of paths not taken. More and more ‘what-if’ left behind. (“Real Life and Liars,” Kristina Riggle)

A sentence with beauty could give an unexpected detail: “There was avocado, wrinkled and grumpy on the outside …” (“The School of Essential Ingredients,” Erica Bauermeister)

Beautiful stories enlarge upon the craft elements of writing through a balance of literary, poetic sentences with text that tells, without exaggerating that beauty and, thus, exhausting the reader with endless strings of neon bright words. The characters, the story and the setting resonate, echoing into readers’ other lives, making them think, reflect and mentally return to the story time and again.

These stories have a message that changes readers, giving them new experiences, life lessons and ways of seeing the world that they can tuck into their hearts as they search for, and hopefully find, the next breath-taking book.

Voice vs. Personality in Writing

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Processes on September 15, 2013 at 11:00 am

Writers often talk about voice and style in writing, but there also can be a third element of personality.

A writer’s voice, which is recognizable and distinct, is how the writer sounds and appears on the page.

Voice is an overarching term that includes a writer’s style, or the way she uses words to describe things. It’s how she handles language, the words she chooses and her techniques for putting together sentences and paragraphs.

But voice extends beyond language.

It is how a writer tells a story. It’s her worldview, or the way she sees the world and interprets events. It’s the feeling and tone of what she writes.

The writer’s personality comes across when the reader can see the writer, as narrator of the story, as a real live person.

Generally, personality is evidenced by how people hold themselves and their gestures, facial expressions and choice of words, as well as what they talk about and what they like to do.

According to the American Psychological Association, personality refers to the individual differences in how people think, feel and behave, such as being an introvert versus an extrovert or being methodical versus impulsive.

In writing, the writer’s personality comes through in her voice, style or word choice, and her approach. Does she write out of emotions, logic, intuition and/or her senses? Does she write in isolation or as a collaborator? Is she an outliner? Is she a procrastinator or results-oriented? Is her writing descriptive and wandering (does she fail to stay on topic), or witty and snappy? Is it overly sentimental?

The writer’s personality is that list of traits you would use to describe her as a person, as well as a writer, so that they are almost one and the same.

The Fearful Writer

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on September 8, 2013 at 11:00 am

The general question is: Without fear can there be passion?

Or, more specifically: Can a writer write from the heart, soul or whatever that magical place that allows words to come forth without some insecurity?

These questions touch on the notion that love borders hate, so that a (passionate) love affair can turn into an acrimonious breakup, one that may or may not induce fear.

For a writer, or at least for this one, passion carries a bit of fear, because the moment I am perfectly confident in my abilities, I get bored. Ironically, I become scared that I have quit growing as a writer.

This imperfect confidence is tarnished by a larger fear: not of rejection specifically but of being rejected from now to my grave.

I question my purpose, given that I am in love with writing, want to write, need to write and do write, when I have yet to publish, at least significantly. I question why I have been given what I consider the gift of writing when my words echo without a listener.

My answer simply may be I have to wait and live and experience and write and be for awhile longer until I figure out why I do write. Or maybe I don’t need to figure out anything because the need is just there, like my need to eat, breathe and sleep.

It is all a bit philosophical, a conundrum of being and identity.

I have had several “non-writers” who want to write tell me, “I have a great idea for a story, but I don’t know how to write.” Or … “how to get started.” Or … “what to write about.”

Writers or so-called, self-labeled non-writers need to realize that they do not need to be perfectly confident in their abilities to write. They need to start with one word on the page. Add another word. And another … Like knitting, or painting, one stitch or one brush struck, mistakes will be made, but so there will be discoveries.

Fear of doing the writing keeps you from moving forward and believing that something great can happen. The great can be believing in yourself as a writer, other people thinking of you as a writer and then the public and the NYT bestseller list stating that You. Are. A. Writer.

What is the strength of your passion to want to write and be a writer? How long before you give up? And if you do, what do you give up? If you are restless elsewhere in your life, could it be because you are not doing this thing you love? Do you begin to hate that other thing because it becomes not-you, keeping you from your love affair with words, or stories or characters?

When you do something you love, despite your fears and insecurities, it shows. Others will respect you for it because your energy becomes positive and affirming, not draining and the stuff of lover disputes.

Doing what you love is a test that requires faith. It is a belief in your work and in yourself.

See Zoey the Dachshund’s perspective on being a dog at

The Confident Blogger

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on September 1, 2013 at 11:30 am

I wanted to take a step back from blogging about the writing process to reflect on why I blog and what blogging has to offer a writer.

In June 2008, I started blogging to build a platform, taking the advice of my writers’ magazines that having a Website and blogging are important prior to and after publication.

Blogging and platform-building are part of branding yourself, establishing an identity for you as a writer. I write under the moniker, “Shell’s Ink,” while Zoey the Dachshund, my four-legged, furry co-blogger, writes as “Zoey’s Paw.”

Blogging every week about writing – from elements of writing to the life of a writer – has made me evaluate my own writing processes, putting into words what I normally take for granted, such as how I write, rewrite, edit, revise and come up with ideas. I no longer just do but analyze what I’m doing and why, adding depth to the process.

I increase and reconfirm my knowledge about writing by studying writing. I conduct online research and review my notes, magazine clippings and books about writing, taking notes to gather material for my blog of the week. I write on a variety of topics from the elements of writing, or plot, character and setting, to the steps of writing from rough draft to revision.
As a result, I’m clearer about what I need to do when I write, making sure I include all of the story elements, while also thinking about the plot and character arcs. I am more cognizant of every step of the process of writing, editing and revising.

Blogging has:

• Taught me a new style of writing that is different from writing novels and short stories, news and feature articles, and essays.
• Helped me search out ideas and subjects for my blogs, expanding my understanding of and knowledge about the concepts and vocabulary involved in writing, such as “word echo,” “heroic journey” and “pacing.”
• Made me a better writer, because I write every week, fine-tuning my skills.

Zoey’s blog can be found at

Next week’s post will be about “The Fearful Writer,” or the fear of not improving and succeeding as a writer.