Shelley Widhalm

Archive for February, 2014|Monthly archive page

Finding a Good Writing Space

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Discipline, Writing Spaces on February 23, 2014 at 11:00 am

One of my characters in my literary fiction novel “Fire Painter” works in a coffee shop, something I haven’t yet put on my resume.

I do most of my writing in coffee shops, so through observation and my own restaurant experience, I can write about the job of a barista. In other words, I spend more time than I should with a cooling mug or paper cup of coffee as I draft and edit short stories and chapters for my novels.

Why has this writing space become sacred, almost like the routines athletes might do before performing? Does it stimulate or is it overly familiar as if taking the same streets every day to get to work or the grocery store?

If I leave my day-job newsroom cubicle, I don’t automatically sink into writing articles, using my notes and imagination to come up with interesting leads and transitions. Instead, I’m more aware of my surroundings because the noises, smells and colors redirect my attention outward.

I approach my personal writing space in nearly the same way by turning public places into fancy wall-less cubicles with large windows, pretty, colorful décor and bright interior lighting. I sit at the same tables at my favorite local coffee shop or the couple of Starbucks within five minutes of driving.

While I know that I spend too much money on expensive coffee, I desire escaping the quiet of my apartment to provoke new ways of imagining. In my apartment, nothing changes around me, so I feel an exterior boredom.

I need sound and movement, so that I can glance up and see the baristas gossiping or a man still dressed in business attire reading a book, looking inquisitive. I hear the grind of the espresso machine, cell phones beeping and the rhythm of conversation as it dips and rises.

It’s like reading, I can pay attention to the exterior world or get lost in my own, and when I need a break, pause and look around.

What is your writing space like? Do you go to the same places every time? Or do you need variety? Do you have a ritual that you engage in before you sit down with pen and paper or in front of a laptop?

Establishing a writing space presents routine, comfort and familiarity, while also being stimulating if it is the right fit for you.

(Check out how Zoey the Cute Dachshund describes “A Dog’s Space” at


The Joy of Reading

In Reading, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on February 16, 2014 at 11:30 am

What comes first, wanting to be a writer or being a reader?

My guess is the second, or if not, wanting the glamour or the passion of the first.

I started with reading, loving the escape of books. I made sure I understood the meaning of words individually and together in sentences and paragraphs, and then could picture each detail from the landscape of setting to the psychology of character.

Over time, I became less of a careful reader, going for the movie screen effect, so that the words fly by into a colorful unrolling of setting and action. I want to read fast to feel the characters and the world of the book come alive, but doing this, I lose the individual words.

Reading multitudes of books (for me, about one a week) offers a way to absorb how other writers approach description, character development, dialogue and storytelling. It’s a way to experience different styles, or ways of using language through word choice and sentence structure.

Alternatively, by reading slowly, you can be more conscious of how you evaluate the writing. You can look at how the writer specifically employs each element of writing and assembles sentences and paragraphs, instead of doing so at the subconscious level.

As you read, slow down and ask these questions:

• Does the plot maintain your interest? Are there transitions, or does the storyline feel episodic and choppy?
• Are the major characters realistic? Do the minor characters serve a role in the story without drawing too much attention to their identities?
• Does the description of the setting make you feel like you’re there or do you trip over the words, because it’s too flowery and long?
• Is the dialogue how people talk without everything spelled out but with underlying meaning and an unspoken understanding between the characters?
• Is the theme played out in a new and interesting way, or do you feel like you’ve read the book a hundred times over?

Sometimes if I don’t like a book, I don’t just put it down. I try to identify if it is the style I dislike, or if it something about the storyline or the character development that bored me.

Reading makes for better writers, and writing makes for better readers as you learn about and develop a better understanding about what constitutes a great novel.

Making the Best of Not Being a Paid Novelist

In Motivation, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on February 9, 2014 at 11:00 am

Imagine in flashing neon the highlights of your writer resume.

You’ve made the New York Times best-seller list (over and over), sold a screenplay and watched it on the big screen, accepted a Grammy or two, and traveled the world, attending packed book signings.

Yep, you’re a dreamer, a dreamer of the type that can’t give up.
But you have to do this thing called work that takes time, energy, talent and effort away from what you really want to do.

That’s my story as a journalist who wants to be a novelist and can’t think of anything else to do but write. I go to my steady-paycheck job, trying not to feel resentful that my dreams didn’t arrive by courier, handed over just because I want instant publication, fame and money.

A coworker has taped to her desk, “Focus on what you have control over, and enjoy the crap out of it,” an attitude adjuster for when we want to complain about our dismally low paychecks and wacky hours.

I took a photo of that saying, which my coworker copied down from another journalist friend.

So, here’s how I’m enjoying the crap out of one writing job (journalist), when I want the other one (published novelist):

• I get to experience things that I wouldn’t get to in most other jobs, such as sitting in a Cessna, riding in a fire truck, traveling on a three-seated airplane, taking the passenger seat on a combine, hanging out on roofs to learn about new technology, and riding a hot air balloon (and getting paid for it).

• I get to interview people in all different types of jobs, getting a glimpse into what their work lives are like, information that comes in handy for character development.

• I practice my writing daily. I interview. I research. These are things novelists also do.

• I get bored with my work writing. I get writer’s block. I can’t think of a lede. All for about five minutes. There’s deadline. Translate: I try to treat my after-work writing life like a job, so that I can’t come up with loads of excuses.

• I absorb how other reporters approach their jobs, because we’re all in one large room where we can overhear each other. I compare how they ask interview questions to my own methods, adding to my repertoire, and I pick up on their comments about interesting and annoying assignments.

• On occasion, I can sneak in some of my own research. For instance, I wrote about an apartment fire in one of my novels and asked the American Red Cross, when I was writing about disaster response, if the nonprofit goes to individual home and apartment fires.

The Joy of Writing

In Motivation, Passions, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on February 2, 2014 at 11:00 am

The Joy of Writing may not be as enticing as The Joy of Sex or as yummy as The Joy of Cooking.

It doesn’t require pictorial diagrams or recipes with ingredient lists and step-by-step directions.

I haven’t opened a copy of The Joy of Sex, though I’ve seen it in bookstores as I browse for other less sexy books.

As for The Joy of Cooking, I have a copy in my kitchen cupboard, mostly unused because I stick to my mother’s recipes the few times that I cook.

However, if The Joy of Writing existed, I would buy it to find out the secret to achieving a state of joy in writing, just like I’ve been trying to figure out the meaning of life since I understood that there was meaning to it.

Writing is work. It takes discipline. And it takes time away from real, three-dimensional living.

It takes motivation.

It requires sitting in a chair.

And it can cause pain from unbidden emotion, or pride in something finished.

Joy, according to my Webster’s thesaurus, means mirth, cheerfulness, delight, pleasure, gratification, revelry, frolic, playfulness, merrymaking, high or good spirits, jubilation and celebration.

It’s opposite is complaining, weeping and wailing.

Writing causes me to experience both, except maybe for the wailing bit.

The Joy of Writing, if such a book existed, would let writers know that first they need to understand the elements of storytelling and the structure of a short story or novel; ways to develop plot, character and setting; and where and how to find their voice before they can get comfortable in writing.

Once the writing becomes comfortable but not easy because it never is, the writer can get lost in the process. It’s like learning to read where seeing and then understanding the meaning of each individual word is difficult, but with practice, the individual words aren’t required to get that meaning. Instead, the mind makes a moving picture from the words so that each one loses its rigid structure on the page and becomes part of a visual and sensual world.

The same thing can happen in writing.

After a great deal of practice and fast fingers on the keypad (or a fast hand with the pen or pencil), the words disappear into thought, and then into full scenes that are unfolding with the typing. It’s as if, for me at least, the subconscious mind comes forward with memory, imagination and a touch of soul to connect the known physical world and the physical words describing that world with the undefined – writers describe this as their characters taking over.

Is it inspiration? Is it creativity? Is it something that’s plotted and planned with room for what’s not understood until the writing happens?

For me, when I enter my writing and lose the words – the fact that I’m typing, the noises around me, that I’m in a different room than where I am in the story – this is when I experience joy, mirth and play. I feel childlike in this purity of experience, the running wild with the words.

(See next week’s blog on how I try to practice this joy, despite …)