Shelley Widhalm

Archive for March, 2015|Monthly archive page

How to remain encouraged as a writer, despite rejection

In When Your Work Gets Rejected, Writing, Writing Processes on March 29, 2015 at 11:00 am

Every time I enter a short story, poetry or book contest or anything else having to do with writing, I wonder if I’m wasting my money.

Yet again.

And then I tell myself that’s not a good attitude and that you entered the contest for a reason: the hope that you will win or receive an honorable mention. There’s also the possibility of receiving feedback as is the case in some contests or if an editor likes something about the piece, though it wasn’t the winner.

The thing to remember is that rejection is part of the process.

When it occurs, grieve through it, talk about it with a friend, learn from it and don’t take it personally. Reframe it as not being about you or your writing but about the interests of the magazine, journal or contest.

There are some things to realize about rejection:

  • Getting rejected is part of the process of putting your work out there, because it’s virtually impossible to win everything all of the time. It’s never about you but about your work, which you can improve for the next contest.
  • When your story or novel is rejected, it may mean you may need to do some more work on your writing or the piece, such as improving how you employ the writing elements, how you set up the structure of the story or even how you understand grammar and the use of language.
  • Rejection teaches you about you as a writer and your work, what’s marketable and how the writing business operates.
  • Getting rejected is a mostly subjective process, falling to the opinions of the judge or judges, even if they are informed opinions.
  • You may have submitted a story that doesn’t fit what the contest or publication was looking for, including your style, the story you told, the voice you used or anything else about your writing.
  • If you submit the same story over and over and it continues to get rejected, look for a pattern and the reasons for your work being rejected. Work on those reasons.
  • Have another project underway and employ what you learn from your first piece as you work on the next piece.

Keep every rejection you receive, because they’ll come in handy someday, such as when you do get published and you can physically count how long and how many rejection letters, slips, checked off submission-forms and returned SASEs it took you to get there.


How to sneak in writing (and where to find good writing spots)

In Writing, Writing Processes, Writing Spots on March 22, 2015 at 11:00 am

Part of the writing process deals with the “what” and the “where.”

The “what” is doing the actual writing and the “where” is the physical place you, the writer, feel most comfortable sitting down and getting lost in the words. But this comfort shouldn’t limit you to writing only when you can show up to your special spot.

Make writing more entertaining by sneaking it in, knowing where to find a few good spots. Don’t let the excuse of not having the space or a short amount of time prevent you from starting. Realize where you write doesn’t have to be perfect and that you can make do just so you can write, even if it’s not at a desk or table.

Start by carrying a notebook wherever you go, except maybe the gym or the swimming pool. Inspiration can hit at unplanned or even awkward moments, such as when you’re out with friends or in a public, non-coffee shop place where pulling out a napkin or scrap of paper isn’t the norm. But do it anyway.

To find a good writing spot, ask yourself a few questions, making sure you’re ready to write elsewhere, too. For instance:

  • Do you need quiet or activity around you?
  • Do you need background noise—such as conversations, music, doors opening and closing and the sounds of food or drinks being made?
  • Do you want an area that’s open or cozy? Do you like working outside or in a small room, such as a closet converted into an office?
  • Do you need bright lights or sunshine, or do you need cloudy weather and low lighting?
  • Do you want to write alone or be around other people?
  • Do you want your things around you set up in a special way?
  • Do you want to go somewhere away from home and the excuses of chores and whatever else can distract you?
  • Do you have a time of day when you do your best writing? Do you need a routine, or a schedule?

Here are a few places you can try: a desk in the bedroom or living room, the library, coffee shops, restaurants, the mall or a porch, deck or patio as long as the weather is warm and the wind isn’t blowing.

Once you find a spot you consider inspiring, yet comfortable, make that your go-to, your office, your special place to engage in and do your writing. It will then become that room of your own.

Dealing with Writer’s Block

In Not Giving Up, Writer's Block, Writing on March 15, 2015 at 11:00 am

When writer’s block occurs, does that mean you’re no longer motivated to write, or is it that you want to write but can’t access the words?

I find writer’s block to be trying and a chore and more difficult to deal with than having the words pour out, even though a writing session where I’m blocked lasts a few minutes and a productive session can last two to three hours.

What causes writer’s block? Is it fear, laziness or lots of excuses? Or is it not having anything new to think about or ways to describe things? Is it a matter of being stuck at the place you’re at as a writer, not knowing where to go next?

Writer’s block is a state of insecurity where the mind plays tricks on you. When it occurs, you tell yourself you can’t get started writing, you have nothing to write or you need inspiration to write, but the motivation is lacking. It’s a way to avoid digging too deep, especially if there is pain to be faced, such as anger, hurt, sadness or frustration, though facing the pain can help you discover the truth about yourself and your experiences.

Writer’s block is like hitting the snooze button, a way to avoid waking up to what’s really there that, with some work, can come to the surface.

To combat writer’s block, realize that writing requires organization skills, time management and discipline, and drive and motivation. Keep a routine and don’t wait for the muse or some form of inspiration to begin writing. Inspiration can occur as you start writing, losing yourself in the process instead of worrying about the outcome.

To beat writer’s block, here are a few ways to get engaged in the process of writing:

  • Write daily, or at least a couple of times a week, scheduling a specific time or place to write; i.e. keep office hours.
  • Treat writing like a job and clock in the hours you write, both for accountability and to acknowledge what you’ve accomplished.
  • Find a special writing spot, such as a coffee shop, the park during the warmer months or a place where there’s lots of activity or no activity.
  • Stick to a schedule, but allow breaks, so that writing remains fun.
  • Write a writing action plan or goals for the year and check in every few weeks to mark your progress.
  • Take a writer’s retreat, even if it’s in your hometown, setting aside a weekend to focus on writing.

While working on a writing project, end mid-chapter or mid-paragraph, or jot down a few notes to start the next chapter to avoid facing the blank page the next time you write.

Write continuously, marking any places where additional research is needed or cause a sticking point, so that you don’t get sidetracked.

And write one word after the next, even if you don’t like what you produce, because at least you are writing. Once you get started, it’s easier to keep going. And it’s easier to come back to it again the next day with the words already there, offering an anchor for your next spilling out of sentences, paragraphs and hopefully stories.

(Check out how my dog Zoey the Cute Dachshund deals with no-treats block at

How do you center yourself in writing and life?

In Finding Life's Meaning, The Writing Life, Writing on March 8, 2015 at 11:00 am

I used to think the question “what is the meaning of life?” was huge with an all-important answer that I couldn’t figure out.

The answer, I believed, was in tomes, churches and the sky.

But it’s more personal than that.

The meaning of life is what we make of it. It’s how we find our importance. It’s our passion. It’s how we spend our time when it’s purposeful with direction.

That question also is important for writing when you ask, “why do I write and what is the meaning that I get out of it?” There is a reason and a motivation to write, or it becomes a chore and an attractor for writer’s block or stucked-ness.

I’ve written without passion many times, such as college essays, cover letters, news articles when I did a quick interview or didn’t go to the scene, and short stories or novels when I got too focused on a word or page count. Technically, I could do the writing, but that unexplainable being in love, being in the moment, being totally there for the words was missing.

So, how do you keep the passion going, especially when frustration, boredom, loneliness or the not-wanting-to-work feelings arrive? It’s like with running, where that first half-mile seems painful and annoying, but then when the first or second mile is completed, the runner’s high kicks in and there’s a pattern to the movement, making the rest of the laps seem easier.

Do the same with writing.

Be awkward at first, not knowing where you’re heading, except around the track of possible words and ideas, but build momentum from there. Let yourself become centered in the moment, drawing into the task and the words that result. Reward yourself once the task is completed by marking in a log how many hours, words or pages you wrote or doing something you enjoy but is a guilty pleasure (so you’re doing the work, then the play).

Schedule certain times or days to write to make it a regular habit, like going to the gym every other day or running daily for a half-hour. Let the writing give outline to this schedule. Make it something to look forward to, to get satisfaction from, to know you accomplished something. Let it be a hobby, a love or even more.

Adding solidity to how you write gives it an anchor, because without scheduling time for your passions and what motivates you, the desire becomes stuck in the headspace without an outlet. It’s like making the New Year’s resolution and going to the gym once or twice and then giving up.

How to Give a Fair, Effective Critique

In Critiquing, Writing, Writing Processes on March 1, 2015 at 11:00 am

Part of the reason I like being part of a writers’ group is the feedback I get in the form of critiques on my writing—but I also inadvertently increase my writing skills when I give critiques in exchange.

The critiquing process helps both the writer and the one giving the critique slow down and analyze the elements of writing, like plot, character, dialogue and setting, and gain perspective on what works and doesn’t work, both at the sentence level and at the level of the overall story structure.

Giving a good critique requires an understanding of the craft but also sensitivity toward the process.

First off, be sure to direct comments at the writing, not the writer. Start with the positive, pointing out what you, the critique-giver, like and what works for you in the piece before moving to the areas where the work could be improved with specific suggestions for revision. Maintain a balance between positive and negative comments to keep the criticism constructive.

Realize some writers will only want to hear the positive and will defend their work no matter what you say, and you, in turn, may end up having to defend your comments. Most writers will want the feedback to identify where they can improve their piece and their writing skills.

Critiques can be done at the line level, noting grammar, spelling, transition and pacing and flow issues, and at the structural level for the story and elements of storytelling. They can help with brainstorming plot, character development and other story elements.

To give a fair, affective critique, find out what kind of feedback would be helpful and try to provide that, keeping in mind the writer’s genre and audience. Read every line, making notes as you go and jotting down your immediate thoughts after you finish reading the piece. Give the piece a second read-through to identify further details and to get a closer look at the development of the writing elements, knowing the story from the get-go.

Here are some other things to help you give a good critique:

  • Avoid using negative phrases, such as this is weak or this doesn’t work, and instead use positive language that points out how to improve the piece, while offering concrete suggestions.
  • Indicate areas that need to be cut, expanded or further developed. Is there anything that is glossed over or lacks focus.
  • Give line edits of grammatical errors, awkward phrasings or anything that seems confusing or does not make sense.
  • Analyze the story structure, looking at the development of character, the weaving of plot threads, the description of setting and the implementation of the other writing elements. Does the plot have tension? Is the dialogue interesting, or is it flat, making you want to skip the quote marks? Do the characters speak in the same voice, or is there variety?
  • Point out where the pacing is too slow or too rushed.
  • Mark the places that seem boring or exciting, as well as any expressions that stand out or seem bothersome.
  • Identify anything missing in the telling of the overall story.

After you give the critique, ask if your comments are helpful and offer to read the piece after it’s been revised. And when you receive a critique, be sure to keep track of the feedback you receive and look for any patterns of problems and strength areas in your writing. That way you’ll be improving your writing as you help others improve theirs.