Shelley Widhalm

Archive for the ‘52: A Writer’s Life’ Category

Finding a way back to writing

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on August 16, 2015 at 11:00 am

Though I have writer’s block (or did), I decided I needed to be writing. I needed to be writing something, because without writing, I feel pretty lost.

Being lost is worse than writer’s block, because during block, the words don’t come, while the other state is a loss of purpose (even if temporary) that, for artists, is anchored by the art and producing the art (and hopefully then selling the art).

To get un-lost, I started my sixth, yet-to-be-published novel, which doesn’t have a title yet. It’s about a waitress dealing with trauma unable to play her music (kind of like me, at least for awhile while I was unable to write after dealing with upheaval in my personal life).

In mid-June, I started writing a short story, feeling pretty useless I hadn’t been writing much except a few (a very few) poems. I saw the story could be a novella or a novel, so I figured I’d keep going with it and began writing a couple of times each week. I dived in, but not so deep, taking a no-commitment approach as far as days and times. It was a whatever-happens approach.

Now, I’m at 12,000 words, not actually sure what the arc or climax is, but I have a sense of the ending. I’m not a pantser writer, but like to have a plan, if not exactly an outline. It’s become a matter of what comes out when I sit down to write, and taking this approach, my subconscious seems to be doing more of the work, and the characters seem to be taking over.

However, when I’m away from the work, I get afraid I won’t know how to get back into the story. I’ve become a little insecure because things aren’t laid out with a big grid of what to do next.

Despite the lack of a plan, during each session, I write 300 to 2,000 words (with past books, I required myself to write 1,000 words before I could stop, and would write more if I could). I feel good I’m writing words and adding them up toward—something, I hope.

At the start of the novel, and sometimes now, I struggle with getting into the writing, like a lawnmower needing several pulls to make the engine go. Once I forget I’m writing, I get lost in the scene, almost like I’m reading. I lose the noises of the world around me and the keyboard under my fingers and become absorbed in storytelling, character development, laying out the scene and describing what’s going on in my imagination.

I become what I am, a writer in love with writing, wanting nothing more than to be doing the writing. That’s why I become lost when I’m not writing, because it’s like I lose part of me. It’s like my blood and bones escape out of my body, and I can’t breathe.


Writing Resolutions

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on January 5, 2014 at 11:00 am

I love the hoopla surrounding New Year’s Eve, the countdown to midnight, the noisemakers and the playing of Auld Lang Syne – all of it a boisterous farewell to a year, whether a personal success or not.

New Year’s Day is a more serious day, at least for those of us who feel obligated to make those annual resolutions.

It took me four tries to go to the gym, but in the middle of 2012 (not on Jan. 2), I started going twice a week, and by early 2013 amped my effort to every other day of weight lifting. I was motivated because I started seeing results – fewer body inches and smaller clothing sizes.

It took me three tries to do NaNoWriMo. I said I’d do it, but then came up with avoidance excuses until 2013, when I wrote 51,000 words in November. I told enough writer friends, posted it on Facebook and blogged about it that I felt obligated. Once I started, I was motivated because my daily efforts resulted in the words I needed to reach my goal.

And it took my two tries – it would be convenient if I could think of something – but I have to diverge.

I found I was never good at following through on New Year’s resolutions, at least those that required me to change a behavior immediately on Jan. 1. Change takes time and adjustment, motivation and discipline.

This year, I’m taking a new approach to annual goal setting, thanks to advice I got from an interview I conducted last month with Joan C. King, a writer, coach and speaker who works in the field of neuroscience.

King recommends coming up with a theme or idea for the year, such as finding ways to make things easier, doing things to be more expansive or choosing a state of mind of joy, calm or curiosity.

In 2012, I wrote out a writing contract outlining my year-end goals with smaller monthly/weekly progress goals. I asked two questions for my check-in progress report: Are my weekly and monthly goals being met? And do any adjustments need to be made?

The problem was I filed away the contract and didn’t look at it all year. I should have printed it out, laminated it and put it in my laptop sleeve.

That’s what I’ll be doing for my 2014 contract. Taking King’s advice, I will carry out my writing goals around the theme of joy. That way when I sit down to write, edit or do the other work of the writing life, I won’t think of it as work. I will look for ways to make writing joyful, changing how I approach writing to keep it fun, interesting and challenging.

Thinking of joy, not goals, makes me want to start in on my list of five: writing another novel, editing my current novels, conducting research for my memoir, writing and publishing my short stories, and finding a literary agent all seem exciting to me now.

Blogging: 2013 in Review, 2014 Plans

In 52: A Writer's Life, Blogging, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on December 29, 2013 at 11:00 am

I love and don’t love the end of a calendar year.

I love the fresh start, the new planner with blank pages and the resolutions that still hold promise.

What I don’t love is those resolutions that remain in my head as things I should do but that never get done.

This year, I had resolved to read more blogs and to promote my own blog, but what I ended up doing is a blog binge. That is, I filed away blogs to read and read them all at once every couple of months, never reading as many as I wanted or intended to.

Nor did I get into SEO, content optimization and building my reader numbers.

Instead, I wrote and threw my writing out into the blogosphere hoping that my blog would get attention all on its own.

I wrote about the writing process, the different elements of writing and the writer’s life, posting 50 blogs over 52 weeks in 2013. I had planned on 52, but had a couple of nice, pat excuses, like being sick or overwhelmingly busy.

As for 2014, I don’t know what my blogging goals are: maybe doing the same, or taking the advice of a writer friend, who suggested I come up with an area of expertise.

Hmm … I do want to rewrite my memoir about growing up with learning disabilities, but I’m not planning on doing that this year.

It will take a lot of internal digging (I blocked out a lot of things), typing up and then analyzing my diaries and journals (I’ve kept a daily journal since second grade), and interviewing family members and experts in the field.

This process will cultivate a lot of emotion, which I’ll have to process and sort through. I’ll have to translate what I feel, experience and remember into the story arc.

In my first attempt, I tiptoed around my emotions and told the wrong story (which bored my initial readers, including one who kept my manuscript for an entire year and read 20 pages).

At this point, my goal is to start that digging in baby steps, while also continue to write about writing.

Tips for Entering Writing Contests

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Contests on December 22, 2013 at 11:00 am

I gleaned a few tips for entering writing contests from articles I’ve clipped, conversations with writer friends and personal experience.

Most important when entering a writing contest is to only show your best work and work that has been polished.

Be selective on which contests you enter and enter those where winning guarantees publication in a reputable journal. Avoid contests that only consider winning entries for publication and contests that lack a website or mailing address.

Winning a writing contest or getting a story or poem published demonstrates to literary agents or publishers that someone other than family and friends sees merit in your work. It gives you an accolade to mention in any query letters you submit to literary agents for longer work. Plus, it gives you a shot of confidence to know that your hard work is acknowledged.

Before entering a writing contest, it’s important to:

• Get a sense of the taste and style of the magazine or journal.
• Follow the contest guidelines, themes and rules for entering.
• Research the final judge and read his or her work.
• Avoid entering simultaneous submissions; save them for non-contest entries.
• Keep track of your submissions on a spreadsheet, including contest name, entry date and deadline, title of the work and the entry fee, if required.
• Submit early and, if allowed, often.
• Avoid contests with large entry fees and low payouts to the winners.

Most of all, remember that contests are one of many paths to publication. Submitting to a journal or magazine during regular submission periods also can earn you those publication credits.

My (Writing) Contest Problem

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

I think I have a contest problem.

My problem is not the kind where I enter so many contests to the point where I’m a contest-aholic, gambling away my money in entry fees.

It’s a matter of my attitude toward winning and losing.

I enter the occasional writing contest, hoping to get the big prize (money, an all-expense trip to a writer’s conference or a meeting with agents and editors). I enter to seek recognition for my writing through publication in a magazine or journal.

When I was a young writer, I expected to win every time I entered after receiving high praise from my secondary and college teachers for my academic writing – a least for the first two to three entries.

It didn’t take me long to realize contests are a matter of the publication’s style, the editors’ personal taste and competition among a multitude of talented writers, so that losing a few isn’t a reflection of writing quality and originality.

When I don’t win a contest and have the opportunity to read the winning submission, I don’t read the work fairly. I don’t allow myself to get lost in the story but immediately start evaluating style, use of language and voice. Oh no, I think, the writer used a cliché here, or wasn’t creative in expressing an idea or action there. Why did that writer get picked and not my wonderful short story or poem?

Earlier this year, I entered two nonfiction pieces in the Chicken Soup contests and thought, Oh, most certainly I have to win, because some of the entries are from non-writers who have amazing life experiences. But I’m a writer, and my life has had some interesting moments, so what I enter will have to wow the editors. The opposite happened. I didn’t get selected, so I asked, How come? How come!

I don’t intend to have a big ego – I actually don’t from getting lots of rejection slips – but I do try to protect my ego by putting down other writing. Of course, this is all in my head and never something expressed out loud. Does that make me a bitter writer? Or wishful? Or protective? I still want to think of myself as the nice girl. Hmm …

(See next week’s blog on tips for entering writing contests.)

Reflections on NaNoWriMo (and Writing in General)

In 52: A Writer's Life, Blogging, NaNoWriMo, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on December 8, 2013 at 10:00 pm

Every year, I come up with an excuse explaining why I don’t want to do NaNoWriMo, or participate in National Novel Writing Month in November.

The main hangar for me is I work and after work, I like to do a little writing, read and play. At the same time, I want to be with all the other writers meeting together to write like crazy or working alone, writing like crazy.

So this year, I told enough friends that I’m doing NaNoWriMo and put it on my Facebook account, so that I would be accountable. I didn’t want to tell people, “Oh, I quit after Day 2.”

First, I decided to write 50,000 words, cutting down my normal aim of 75,000 to 90,000 words for a full manuscript. However, I am back at the 70,000, maybe 80,000, words for my young adult novel, because I either write short – i.e. short stories – or long up to 100,000 words.

I usually don’t write with much of a draft either, but this time I planned ahead, mentally sketching out plot, character and setting. I wrote a 3,000-word short story for a 10-week Meetup class I took this fall that served as a starting point, so that I could fill in areas where I alluded to or glossed over possible action and character interaction.

I came up with a title, so that I already had a topic and an identity for my writing.

Add in that I didn’t have to find different subjects to blog about for a month, so I liked the idea of already having a template to use.

Now, I’ll return to blogging about writing and the writing life.

(Check out Zoey the Dachshund’s reponse to NaNoWriMo at

NaNoWriMo: Not the Finish Line

In 52: A Writer's Life, NaNoWriMo, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on December 1, 2013 at 11:00 am

I arrived at the NaNoWriMo finish line on Nov. 29, one day before the end of the 30-day challenge to write 50,000 words in one month.

As of Friday, I wrote 51,004 words in my young adult novel and am about two-thirds of the way through. I estimate that my novel will be 70,000 to 75,000 words and that I’ll finish it before Christmas Day. (I’m continuing NaNoWriMo into December until I reach the end of my very rough draft.)

I got so caught up in meeting my goal, I gave up a few things for the month, such as going out with friends (I went out once to see “Catching Fire” on opening weekend), spending lots of time with my dog, Zoey (she is mad at me), and blogging. I skipped two weeks of blogging despite my goal to blog weekly in 2013.

Anyway, here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of writing daily:

• I actually wrote every day, except for five days of the 30, something I never do because I write for a living and come up with lots of excuses.
• I didn’t forget the beginning part of my novel, my character identities or the plot strings after setting aside my draft because I got busy with life and excuses.
• I got excited about writing after work and couldn’t wait to find out what would happen with my plot and characters.
• I focused on word count, instead of on the story elements, and got lost in the writing, so that it felt like I was just typing away without worries about what I was producing. I just didn’t care, because all I cared about was getting to at least 1,600 words each day. Oddly, by not caring, I had more fun and let the characters take over.
• I operated on adrenaline because I had to write my daily dose of 1,600 words, but I could take off a couple days because a few days I wrote 2,000 up to 3,500 words (well, that happened once).

My least productive day was 700 words.

As far as the disadvantages, I can only think of one: I didn’t have time for much else. I made sure I went to the gym every other day – I wanted to be in physical shape for all the time I spent sitting in front of my laptop.

NaNoWriMo is now a yearly mission.

Next time, though, I’m sending my dog to my father’s house, where she’ll have a big back yard for a month. That way I won’t have to feel guilty when I look at her pouty face.

See Zoey’s blog:

Loving, Hating NaNoWriMo

In 52: A Writer's Life, NaNoWriMo, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on November 10, 2013 at 11:00 am

I’m having a love-hate relationship with NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.

Initially, I wasn’t sure I wanted to participate in the annual novel writing challenge during the month of November to write 50,000 words in 30 days, or an average of 1,666 words a day.

The love part is I’m doing it, while the hate part is I have to do it. I told my family and friends about my challenge goal, plus announced it on Facebook and in my blog. I don’t want to report at the end of the month that “Oh yeah, I just didn’t feel like writing after all.”

On the first day of the challenge on Friday, Nov. 1, I had a bit of a head start with a 3,250-word short story that I plan to expand into a 60,000- to 70,000-word young adult novel, a genre I haven’t tried before.

The first three days went perfectly, when I wrote 1,300 words the first day and another 1,300 words the second day, followed by 2,500 on day 3.

I turned off the self-editor and simply wrote, knowing I had a goal of 1,666 words, even if I didn’t reach it initially. I got absorbed in telling the story, developing my characters and carrying along the plot I briefly had sketched out, thinking, “This is a really good book that I’m writing.”

On Day 4 I had excuses for not writing: 1 million errands to do, a day with my mom and a birthday dinner with my brother; plus, I felt too tired to open up my laptop after a dozen hours of constant moving.

Day 5 was better. I wrote 1,800 words, feeling the vibe of my continual writing flow. There wasn’t any time lapse between writing episodes (like a few days or weeks filled with excuses, as is my normal routine), so I had my plot, characters and setting forefront in my mind. I wrote fast in two hours and felt quite proud.

And then on Day 6, I wondered if what I was writing actually was crap. Did I really understand how a 15-year-old thinks, and did I know how being a teenager has changed over the years? Why was I working in a genre I hadn’t studied seriously enough, only reading a few young adult books and being a reporter in schools, but only occasionally?

I still wrote anyway, because I had 1,666 words to write. I wrote 1,800 because I wanted to finish the scene I somehow had developed. I closed my computer, hoping that what I wrote wasn’t really awful.

I kept on writing through the rest of the week, logging in a total of 17,348 words for days 1-9. I figured I had started, so I wasn’t going to stop because of a few insecurities.

After one week and a couple of days, I get the purpose of NaNoWriMo. It’s about discipline and just doing it, not worrying about the final draft when it’s a rough draft with lots of potential. Writing daily, or nearly every day, allows the story to unfold more organically, one scene leading to the next as you let the subconscious and your speedy fingers take over.

Because it’s all about the numbers after all. And, of course, the words.

The NaNoWriMo Challenge

In 52: A Writer's Life, NaNoWriMo, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on November 3, 2013 at 11:00 am

For the first time, I am taking on the NaNoWriMo challenge.

Every year I come up with multiple reasons why I don’t want to participate, such as: I work; I’m tired; I’m not disciplined enough to write daily; and, best of all, I’m already in the middle of a novel.

This year I am not writing a novel, because of the pleasure of procrastination and the excuse that I’m editing another novel. I’ve convinced myself that I can only work on one major writing project at a time.

Hardly true, considering that as a reporter, I don’t write one article, then go onto the next, but write several articles at once – otherwise, I’d be given one of those pretty pink slips.

Throwing all excuses and insecurities aside, I am committed to write by the end of this month a young adult, coming-of-age novel that I’ve been pondering for months.

I’m participating in the annual novel writing project that brings together writers worldwide who aim to write 50,000 words in 30 days. That is 1,666 words a day, totally doable, because when I write I aim for 1,000 to 2,000 words.

The goal of NaNoWriMo is to do fast writing, not actually to write something perfect. You can write a crappy first draft and just let go, expelling the cranky editor, procrastinator and creative excuse maker.

So far, I’ve written 6,017 words, but 3,249 words were from an outline and short story starter I wrote last month.

Each Sunday, I will check in and let you know about the process of daily writing, as well as give tips on daily dedication, motivation and inspiration.

So, here’s to NaNoWriMo!

Blogging Honor

In 52: A Writer's Life, Blogging, Writing on October 27, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Here’s the blog I wrote that ran as a guest blog Oct. 24 on mystery writer Patricia Stoltey’s blog,

Each Thursday, Stoltey, who lives in Northern Colorado, features a guest author who writes about writing and the writing life. The rest of the week, she blogs about the same topics, as well as getting published or whatever is on her mind.

Her books include “The Desert Hedge Murders” and “The Prairie Grass Murders.”

My blog is “On Finding my Words.” Please check it out.