Shelley Widhalm

Archive for May, 2014|Monthly archive page

Where do you find ideas for stories and poems?

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing on May 25, 2014 at 11:00 am

Like many writers, I get ideas for stories and poems at very inconvenient times.

Ideas come to me when I’m at the gym or out walking, running or doing something where I’m not actively thinking. I carry paper and pen wherever I go, but what about those inconvenient places, like the shower or in bed—because if you’re like me, there’s no getting up after the lights go off.

The obvious solution is getting more notebooks to put in more places: I have mine in my purse, my workbag, my desk, the living room, the kitchen, the car and wherever else I go. Plus, there’s plenty of napkins, paper scraps and that Memo function on my smart phone in case I don’t have ready access to paper.

Despite all my paper hot spots, the problem I encounter is the (mistaken?) belief that I will remember my idea, the idea isn’t that interesting and worth writing down, or the idea is one I’ve had before and, of course, I’ll recall later on.

But, as experience shows, this approach doesn’t work. I lose the idea and get mad at myself for being too lazy to take one or two minutes to write it down. The idea gets lost in a story cloud, that mental space where imagination can be accessed but not in precise words. It takes pen, pencil or a keyboard to discover the details of the idea.

Finding, capturing and writing down an idea starts with recognition: this thought isn’t mind filler but something that can become a story. There’s enough of a plot or setting to work with, or there’s an interesting character. It could be a snippet of a dialog. The way someone looks or talks. How the air feels or the sunset looks. It could be the inside of a bar, a restaurant, a mall.

There are lists of inspirations for getting story ideas, but the story cloud is inspiration that comes without trying. It is part of the mental processing of the interior and exterior environment.

For instance, I wanted to go to a fancy art show but didn’t have an expensive ticket or my reporter’s notebook, so I wasn’t “invited.” Instead, I was hanging out with my boyfriend and mind-created a couple arguing the merits of art show window shopping or staying home and watching a movie like they do every Saturday night. This idea went into my purse notebook before I could say, “There’s not enough tension.”

Making excuses for not jotting down an idea causes it to be lost or to change, even if slightly, to become something different the next time it comes to you. It’s the process of writing the ideas down that gives them form and shape, so that next time you think about the same thing, it’s already there “captured.” It’s the beginning of the writing process.


Writing from big-wheels to Big Wheels

In Freewriting, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on May 18, 2014 at 11:00 am

Mastering something like writing is like mastering the wheels of your life.

Once you know how to ride a bike, you don’t forget—and the same goes with writing. The old skills are stored away as you move on to the bigger wheels, except in those cases where you get stuck, or experience writer’s block or burnout.

For me, I started with a big-wheel bike—a four-wheeled, pedaled toy I rode in the driveway because the road I grew up on was on a hill.

By four or five, I upgraded to a tricycle and then to a bigger tricycle, which now hangs upside down in my younger brother’s garage, a sentimental reminder of our childhood. We both rode the red trike, and we both started with training wheels on our bicycles—a step up in our wheels with our father running behind us, yelling to keep straight, turn, pedal or brake.

At 17, I got “real wheels” with my first car (a bright orange Mustang), followed by a pickup truck and a trailer, but never equipment, semis or boats because of fear and a lack of desire and skill. I arrived at a stopping point in my growth, similar to how I got stuck by writer’s block or writer’s burnout in a creative shutdown.

These shutdowns caused guilt, fear and curiosity about why it was I couldn’t write. I stopped and reflected, questioned, got edgy and waited, eventually learning that I could take steps to get out.

Writer’s block—temporarily being unable to produce new work or come up with new ideas—can stem from a sudden lack of confidence, a fear of completion, the seeking of perfection or taking on a project that seems too daunting.

Alternatively, burnout is long-term exhaustion in writing, work or even a hobby involving disengagement, a lack of energy, diminished interest and a reduced sense of accomplishment. In a job situation, it can be caused by constant stress and feelings of helplessness, such as working for low pay without hope of a raise or promotion.

The key is to realize that writing is a process of discovery. It’s a growth of experience—taking on larger and larger wheels as you put in the hours—and it’s a relationship between you and your world, you and your characters, and you and your creations. A blockage or burnout, once over, can help you feel revived and re-energized to return to writing, having stepped back to think about why you couldn’t do what you loved and figured out a few methods and techniques to go forward.

Focus on the process, not on the final product through freewriting, journaling, brainstorming and engaging in nonjudgmental writing with the inner editor turned off until the editing stage. Focus not on writing to get published but for the internal rewards.

Just like riding each level of wheels, realize it was all about play until you got to the vehicles that require state-issued licenses, or the Big Wheels. Enjoy the little wheels as you experience them, instead of putting so much expectation on each word that you write, type and think out during the process.

At the end, you’ll have both the little and the Big Wheels, the process and the product.

Writing eye-catching press releases

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing on May 11, 2014 at 11:00 am

(I’m diverging from my usual writing topics to discuss press releases after receiving several requests to explain what they are during my day job as a journalist.)

To write an eye-catching press release, there are a few standards and tips that will get your story noticed by your target news publications.

Newspaper editors and reporters scan through their emails, paper mail and other sources of communication looking for the stories that will inform or interest their readers. When you pitch your story idea, you need to get their attention right away about your event, an update to your business, a new service or product, an award, a people item or a milestone.

A press release is a written statement announcing your news item that includes facts, any important statistics and at least one or two quotes from the key players in the story. Start with the date and city, so that the journalists you send the release to can make sure the story is relevant to their publication.

Follow with the headline, which is the title of the piece. The headline, as well as the lead or first paragraph of the release, should be clear, concise and to the point and contain the most important information. It should briefly explain the 5 Ws and the H, or who, what, where, when, why and how.

Specifically, the 5 Ws and H ask:
• Who is the story about?
• What is the news topic?
• When will this happen?
• Where will it take place?
• Why is it newsworthy?
• How is this happening?

The lead is the first sentence that summarizes what’s happening in the rest of the release. The body should be concise with short sentences and paragraphs, backing up what was said in the headline and lead.

At the end of the release, you should include your contact information in case the journalist wants to contact you for additional information. Make sure there is an About Us paragraph at the bottom of the page that gives a synopsis of what your business, organization, church or group does in one or two sentences.

Here are a few additional tips on writing and sending press releases:

• Send it in the morning and not at 4 p.m. or later at the end of the workday.
• Don’t address the journalist with dear sir/madam, or reporter/editor; find out names if possible.
• Keep it to one page.
• Write in third person, using he, she and they.
• Avoid clichés and avoid exaggerations, such as unique, breakthrough and special.

Benefits of Writing Prompts (+ Examples)

In Prompts, Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Discipline on May 4, 2014 at 11:00 am

Writing prompts are an effective way to spark your writing session and to get you in the mood for writing.

Prompts can help you establish a writing routine if you do them at a set time or day of the week.

You can make up your own and keep them in your writing space or in a notebook. You can find them anywhere or everywhere, such as outside on a walk, in a coffee shop or browsing through a book, looking for a sentence or two that strikes you.

Write for 5 or 10 minutes, or for a set time that works for you. Go for longer if the idea is unfinished and you don’t want to stop.

Use the senses as you write.

Describe something in your immediate environment.

But don’t force creativity. Just write and see what happens.

Here are a few prompts I’ve developed and compiled from my writing materials:

• Randomly read a line from a book or look up a word in dictionary.
• Pretend you’re a waitress and use the order pad to write a different type of story. Or try using the form of a grocery list.
• Recall a childhood place and describe it.
• Grab a snippet of conversation and use it to start a dialogue between characters.
• Read a poem and use the mood it creates to start writing.
• Write about an old object. What does it make you think about and what emotions does it evoke?
• Walk down the aisles of a toy store and see what happens.
• Write about something you lost and want back, and then imagine what you would do if you had it back.
• Write about your secret wish (mine is to be a full-time novelist married to the hottest man on the planet).
• Read a couple of horoscopes and the weather report together.
• Write about a bad gift you gave or received.
• Read a billboard and start writing based on the corny or cute saying.
• Write about a new pair of shoes. (I had to include shoes, of course!)

Feel inspired, yet? If not, see what Zoey the Cute Dachshund has to say about writing prompts.

See Zoey’s blog at