Shelley Widhalm

Archive for July, 2014|Monthly archive page

Benefits of writers groups

In Shelley Widhalm, Writers groups, Writing, Writing Processes on July 27, 2014 at 11:00 am

I seem to love this topic, but because I want to talk about the writer’s group that I joined three months ago, the Mountain View Authors, I have to be a bit repetitive.

For awhile, I was considering dropping out of the group, because it meets on Mondays (which is my Sunday because it is a day off), and it requires a great deal of work. There are six members in the group, and we rotate sharing our work every other week, submitting 15 pages of our manuscript or a short story or two that the other members have to read by a Sunday midnight deadline.

It felt like I was receiving homework.

But after a few weeks, I saw that getting feedback that had a deadline of a few days—instead of on-the-spot where members make suggestions the day of the meeting—gave me something to work with that was more in-depth.

The members make comments on two levels. They edit grammar issues and point out awkward sentences, but they also look at character, plot and scene development, setting descriptions, and the purpose or theme of the work.

I work through the comments, about 30 to 50 in the “insert comment” function, improving my manuscript from several sources, and layers, of feedback. The members offer different perspectives and levels of experience and understanding of the craft, pointing out different, and sometimes, the same areas of my work that need tweaking, fixing or redoing.

We talk about the comments during the meeting and, in some cases, start debating aspects of the work, such as whether characters respond in believable ways to their circumstances and if we find the story world to be consistent, accurate and compelling. I can see the areas of my work where the members are interested in my characters and story, and where they lost interest (indicated by pages of no comments, good or bad) and where they want to see and learn more about this world I created.

As a result, I am becoming a stronger writer after each meeting through seeing my work through the eyes of other writers, but also by analyzing what they write. When we talk about each other’s comments, I pick up hints about being a better writer, adding to my writer’s identity pieces of what make the other writers who they are when they face the blank page and begin to imagine and create and devise and live out new possibilities.


Recovering from mistakes in writing (and life)

In Editing, Shelley Widhalm, Uncategorized, Writing, Writing Discipline on July 20, 2014 at 11:00 am

When I make a mistake in my writing, I get to revise, edit and ask for advice, either through my writer’s group or my writing/reading friends.

But a mistake in life doesn’t give you a do-over (or a revision), particularly when you are dealing with other people, businesses and employer/government rules and regulations. My largest mistakes in life, so far, include:

• Taking my car to a particular brand-name dealership and believing (at least initially) in the list of non-necessary and expensive repairs, instead of finding a trusted, local mechanic. I should have clued in on the first bogus set of repairs, but I had a warranty and very little knowledge about what is important to keep the vehicle fully operational, versus those preventative maintenance and repair items that sound plausible, but are not needed.
• Hiring a national mover and not pursuing the BBB when the company lost and broke some of my items, and then charged nearly double the initial estimate.
• Believing people in positions of authority instead of questioning their motives, such as making money, using others as their lab rats and trying to get something for the price of dishonesty, greed or some other poor behavior.
• Not considering how to word written memos or handle phone conversations when I need to make a change to a place, thing or device that I rent or own, such as a housing unit, cell phone or electronic device.

These life mistakes, if I were to ask around, are most likely pretty universal. We all meet less-than-questionable and power/money-hungry people and deal with businesses with non-customer-focused practices out for the bottom line.

The problem with making a life mistake is it usually costs you time, money and even self-confidence. You usually don’t get a redo, editing what you said or did or didn’t do.

But in the writing world, mistakes (such as incomplete drafts, not gathering enough writing experience before trying to publish and sending your work off too early) can be remedied by researching what agents and publishers want, writing a pithy pitch and query letter, learning what other writers do to get their work out there and accepting rejection as part of the process. I have my own personal rejection pile from short story submissions, contest entries and query letters.

But I don’t beat myself up for these “mistakes,” because I consider the arc of the writing life a learning process. I become better because of my mistakes by fixing what I did “wrong” and carrying that lesson into my next writing project, so that with each novel my plots are tighter and more closely follow the story arc, my characters are more fully developed and my setting is better tied to plot and character.

That’s because with writing you get to start again and again and continue trying until you get published or meet your other writing goal. There’s Writer’s Market; there are thousands of agents and places to get your work out there, including blogs, magazines, journals and writing contests; and there’s the comforting stories of how many times the now-famous writers had to get rejected before their work was considered: Karen Stockley, Stephen King and James Michener.

The only costs I’ve found with my writing mistakes are the contest fees, the price of paper for mail-ins, and time. But it’s worth it. I don’t have to beat myself up over my list of mistakes, thinking only if … after the fact when it’s too late.

Writing and Moving

In Moving, Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Discipline, Writing Processes on July 13, 2014 at 11:00 am

This summer, I moved from one apartment to another to not even the opposite side of town, but one block north and a half block east.

This move’s like my writing life: I took chances but not huge ones, and I packed to unpack.

I relocated to move in with my fiancé, but I didn’t want to let go of my old apartment: the high ceilings, tall windows and hard-wood floors. To put it another way, I was having a difficult time killing my darlings, meaning my darling apartment decorated exactly how I liked it with all of my stuff.

Welcome the man with his geometric style of decorating, decorations that didn’t mean anything to me and way of putting together stuff that clashed with my sense of style.

How does one compromise: Argue, debate, talk, give in a little, accept, let go, pack up a few things.
I packed a dozen boxes of the few dozen I had unpacked, labeled them and took them off to storage. I had to reduce what I thought I needed, get rid of stuff I didn’t need and rethink my (our) space. I went from three closets (front, walk-in linen and bedroom) to a shared closet in the bedroom.

In other words, I had too much stuff for our shared 600 square feet of space. Through the process of repacking, I realized I didn’t need extra sets of towels and sheets, an extra set of bedding, three extra pillows, winter pajamas in the summer, baskets to store stuff now that I had less storage space and my collection of Starbucks teddy bears.

I had to fit what I wanted to keep into smaller bathroom drawers, fewer kitchen cabinets and half a closet (actually three-fifths from my crossing over to his side). At first, I didn’t think I could find space for and reassemble my belongings to work within the geometric shapes of drawers, shelves and cabinets, while also keeping it all assessable in case I wanted any of those things.

This reconfiguring is like how I pack and unpack with my writing.

When I write news and feature articles, I follow a loose formula, writing my lead and basing the rest of what I write on the first graf or two, followed by a quote and narrowing in on the information I provide from the most important to least important. I write in a box with some sense of freedom when I choose the lead, pick out the best and sparkly quotes, and find the best descriptions for the five W’s and H.

Writing a novel, I follow the outline, venturing off here and there, but still keeping within the parameters of my story.

With short story writing, I sit down for a session or two and let my mind burst out of the parameters until I figure out the story, and then I pack my words into the framework I’ve created.

And for poetry, I wait for inspiration, feeling the freest in this form because I am not thinking about story structure, setting and character identity but writing out of feeling, allowing that later I will edit.

The editing part is getting rid of the junk you don’t need, storing away great sentences and paragraphs that don’t fit the scene or the page, and coming up with a new reality from what you thought was in your head. It’s now on paper with a shape that you can see, feel and almost touch.

That’s what moving does to you: it makes you reshape and re-see what you own and what you really need and don’t need. Editing gets down to the most essential of what you’re writing, and that’s what living should be: the best and the important, not all the stuff, the junk and the unnecessary things.