Shelley Widhalm

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

Achieving Focus in Writing

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing Processes on October 20, 2013 at 11:00 am

Being a writer can be lonely and frustrating, requiring solitude for the physical act of writing, and motivation, inspiration and discipline for the mental aspects.

When writing is the main part of a job that pays the bills, there’s no room for not being in the mood to write, because there’s the looming deadline.

As a reporter, I write in a noisy newsroom, though the writing act remains solitary. What differs is the adrenaline that pushes the writing and forces discipline and focus. I may spend an extra five minutes to come up with the lead, but after that, I mentally organize the article and write according to the inverted pyramid of placing the most important information on top with a quote high up.

It helps that I’ve done this hundreds of times and so, even though the subject and quotes may vary, I speed through my highlighted notes to assemble a story, followed by editing to make sure it flows, has a good structure and says what I intended.

I try to apply this same “stress” to my personal writing, even if I’m not accountable to anyone except myself. I often face a blank screen for my blogs or a short story I want to write, so without thinking too hard, I grab words or a visual image. Just go, I think. The clock is ticking.

My start might be rough, just like the squealing of tires as I rush off from the green light, but then I become absorbed in what I’m doing.

This absorption is a matter of focus, which, according to the thesaurus, is to draw toward a center, attract, converge and convene. The process of writing is a way to draw you into your mind, where your subconscious can be at play and you can experiment with ideas not fully formed by trying out various ways to express them on paper (or the screen).

Through the process, you are focusing to make an image clear, bring it out or give details.

By being focused, you enter into the writing, bringing your mind and body wholly there.

Writing focuses thoughts and ideas, while setting a schedule focuses you into the process. It’s a good idea to create a schedule with small chunks of time set aside dedicated solely to writing.

And then give deadlines for the projects you want to finish of one session, a week or however long you think you need.

And then acknowledge those accomplishments; just like seeing an article in print, this will give validity to your own writing.

Motivation to Revise

In 52: A Writer's Life, Editing, Revising, Writing on October 13, 2013 at 11:00 am

Normally I’m not a procrastinator until it comes to editing my own work.

But once I start editing, I want to get to the end of it, so that I can say I’m finished. To complete my self-assigned task, I put in the time just so I can be done.

My problem is that editing a novel isn’t a one-time affair. It requires several revisions from the overall structure down to the grammar.

That means nine months later I’m still editing my nearly 90,000-word novel, “The Fire Painter,” about a 30-something artist named Kate who loses everything in an apartment fire and tries to get back her lost things.

In my fourth edit, which I finished in early July, I revised directly on the computer screen, reading the manuscript from start to finish. I noticed where I got bored and asked way.

I tightened up description to speed up the pace. I slimmed down the dialogue, noticing where it got repetitive or boring or included conversational fillers. And I looked at the beginnings of each paragraph to look for variety, cutting any repetitions of “the,” “I” or other words.

I read through Kate’s sections first to keep her story whole, seeing that there was a plot gap when I assumed a mention in the secondary character’s section was enough. I also noticed that I started two scenes one after another with Kate looking in her wardrobe deciding what to wear.

Nice catch there, I have to admit, because a wardrobe malfunction isn’t good, on stage or in a book.

I then took two months off before my edit on hard copy, where I tried to be a picky reader. I looked for missing elements and things I liked and didn’t like. I looked for inconsistencies. And I evaluated the depth of my main characters, adding to their voices.

Editing on screen allowed me to immediately make changes as I edited, while the paper version doubled the workload – I had to type in all the changes after making them in pen.

But editing on paper makes mistakes more glaring – black against white instead of on a computer screen with the programming tags on the borders. For me, editing this way feels more natural, growing up in the paper-and-pen world of the 1980s.

Procrastinating in Writing

In 52: A Writer's Life, Revising, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on October 6, 2013 at 11:00 am

I used to consider myself a non-procrastinator, but maybe my self-view is a bit inaccurate.

In December 2012, I finished my literary novel “The Fire Painter” and set it aside for a month before my first revision. I figured I could finish the revisions by late spring, but now it is fall 2013, and I still have a couple more revisions to go.

To say that, for me, it takes a year to write and a year to revise isn’t entirely accurate either. Rather, I spent a year on my rough draft and another year – or close to it – avoiding the revision process.

I love my novel (I may be the only one who does so), but I really don’t want to read it again. I’ve read (and revised) it four times, more than any of my favorite novels, such as any of Jane Austen’s, Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” or “The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” by Jamie Ford.

My not wanting to encounter the same story a third, fourth and fifth time could be yet another excuse.

Revising is painful, tedious and not-writing (unless you’re rewriting a scene or the whole book). It’s a matter of editing, copy-editing, fact checking, checking for accuracies and consistencies, and evaluating all the elements of story, including plot, character and setting.

It’s making sure the voice is compelling, the story is amazing and the plot falls together perfectly.

And it’s trying to craft that next breakout novel that makes the bestseller list with an original story, a new twist on a trend or a character not yet seen in literature.

At this stage of the writing process, revising and editing is work that takes a lot of time, motivation and effort.

And the motivation is where I find a personal lack. I can think of other things to do (even organizing something that doesn’t need organizing), as well as reasons why now isn’t the time to edit.

My excuses include:

• I should wait some more time because, as they say, you need to set your book aside.
• I already know the story too well, so I won’t find anything to change.
• I wish someone else would tell me how to fix whatever is wrong.

Despite these excuses, I eventually will go through yet another revision, set my book aside for a long period and make more excuses before returning to it again.

Why?

Because I’m a writer, and part of writing is revising, whether I like it or not.

(See next week’s blog on how I faced this next revision.)

Giving a Good Reading

In 52: A Writer's Life, Poetry reading, Shelley Widhalm on September 29, 2013 at 11:00 am

(Photo by Steve Stoner/Loveland Reporter-Herald)

For some reason, I’m not nervous when I give a reading, but that doesn’t mean I connect with the audience either.

I gave a reading during the Loveland Loves Literature event Saturday, Sept. 21, at the Loveland Feed and Grain, a depilated monster of a building that will become part of ArtSpace, a live-work center for writers and artists.

More than two dozen literary and performing artists took the stage over two days for half-hour or full-hour slots. My slot was a half-hour, which I shared with a poet friend of mine, Ravitte Kentwortz.

Before I read, I talked with another writer, who recommended grounding my energy by imagining my feet as connected to the floor. She suggested I throw my energy to the back of the room to include everyone in the audience.

But once I was at the microphone, I rambled more than I wanted to about each piece. I read a short story called “Tainted Proposal,” based on a coin toss, as well as three poems and a two-page excerpt from my novel, “The Fire Painter.”

As I read, I kept reminding myself to look at the audience. I forgot to make eye contact, too focused on reading slowly as if I was doing a book-on-tape to add personality to my words.

On hindsight, I wish I had reviewed my collection of articles on giving a gogod reading. Here a few of the suggestions:

• Vary the pace or content, choosing work that differs in subject matter, length, pacing and tone. Make sure what you choose is not all exposition and includes some dialogue, imagery and a strong story line. Edit out the “he said” and “she said” markers. (I did all of this.)
• Mark your text for voice and emphasis. (I highlighted my dialogue blue for the male character and red for the female character.)
• Think of your reading as a performance. (My short story character, Jane, was a librarian, so I dressed conservatively, wore glasses and had my hair in an updo.)
• Select pieces that relate thematically. (Umm, I didn’t do that.)
• Explain the context of what you’re reading, such as summarizing the plot for an excerpt from a novel, or the inspiration for a poem. Write this out ahead of time.
• Rehearse, reading the work out loud and enunciating clearly. Practice in front of friends.
• Time yourself. (I never could figure out the length, but somehow I kept my reading to 15 minutes.)
• Publicize your reading via social media, Flyers and emailing friends.

Writing Beautiful

In 52: A Writer's Life, Good Books, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on September 22, 2013 at 11:00 am

There are two levels of writing: the craft of writing and the beauty of writing.

In the first instance, books successfully execute plot and character arcs to tell stories with beginnings, middles and ends.

They fulfill all of the craft elements with an engaging plot, interesting characters who talk in entertaining dialogue and settings that set the story in a particular time and place, balancing detail with story.

These books offer a satisfying read through a character’s compelling personality and behavior patterns, plus at least one quirk, and a plot that balances pace with tension. The pace slows or speeds up where necessary to bolster the tension among characters, forces and the ticking clock of time’s forward movement and suspense of what happens next.

The story moves at a nice clip without dragging along and boring the reader with the beat of a metronome.

Perfectly crafted and executed writing, however, can lack magic, or the ephemeral within and arising out of the beauty of writing. Beautiful writing starts at the sentence level and unfolds out to character, story and message.

A radiant and clever sentence inspires awe, stopping the reader for a second read to comprehend all of the nuances of language and meaning. Such a sentence could compare unlike objects in a new way with unusual details, but not too many to the point of being flowery.

For example, this sentence stopped me in my reading:
“The sweet, cotton-candy scent of a hundred blooming irises rides the breeze.” (“Such a Pretty Girl,” Laura Wiess)

A beautiful sentence could capture a life lesson in a few words, known, unknown or something the reader already knows but doesn’t fully understand.

I was caught by this sentence: “It seems to me that growing older means a growing collection of paths not taken. More and more ‘what-if’ left behind. (“Real Life and Liars,” Kristina Riggle)

A sentence with beauty could give an unexpected detail: “There was avocado, wrinkled and grumpy on the outside …” (“The School of Essential Ingredients,” Erica Bauermeister)

Beautiful stories enlarge upon the craft elements of writing through a balance of literary, poetic sentences with text that tells, without exaggerating that beauty and, thus, exhausting the reader with endless strings of neon bright words. The characters, the story and the setting resonate, echoing into readers’ other lives, making them think, reflect and mentally return to the story time and again.

These stories have a message that changes readers, giving them new experiences, life lessons and ways of seeing the world that they can tuck into their hearts as they search for, and hopefully find, the next breath-taking book.

Voice vs. Personality in Writing

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

Writers often talk about voice and style in writing, but there also can be a third element of personality.

A writer’s voice, which is recognizable and distinct, is how the writer sounds and appears on the page.

Voice is an overarching term that includes a writer’s style, or the way she uses words to describe things. It’s how she handles language, the words she chooses and her techniques for putting together sentences and paragraphs.

But voice extends beyond language.

It is how a writer tells a story. It’s her worldview, or the way she sees the world and interprets events. It’s the feeling and tone of what she writes.

The writer’s personality comes across when the reader can see the writer, as narrator of the story, as a real live person.

Generally, personality is evidenced by how people hold themselves and their gestures, facial expressions and choice of words, as well as what they talk about and what they like to do.

According to the American Psychological Association, personality refers to the individual differences in how people think, feel and behave, such as being an introvert versus an extrovert or being methodical versus impulsive.

In writing, the writer’s personality comes through in her voice, style or word choice, and her approach. Does she write out of emotions, logic, intuition and/or her senses? Does she write in isolation or as a collaborator? Is she an outliner? Is she a procrastinator or results-oriented? Is her writing descriptive and wandering (does she fail to stay on topic), or witty and snappy? Is it overly sentimental?

The writer’s personality is that list of traits you would use to describe her as a person, as well as a writer, so that they are almost one and the same.

The Fearful Writer

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on September 8, 2013 at 11:00 am

The general question is: Without fear can there be passion?

Or, more specifically: Can a writer write from the heart, soul or whatever that magical place that allows words to come forth without some insecurity?

These questions touch on the notion that love borders hate, so that a (passionate) love affair can turn into an acrimonious breakup, one that may or may not induce fear.

For a writer, or at least for this one, passion carries a bit of fear, because the moment I am perfectly confident in my abilities, I get bored. Ironically, I become scared that I have quit growing as a writer.

This imperfect confidence is tarnished by a larger fear: not of rejection specifically but of being rejected from now to my grave.

I question my purpose, given that I am in love with writing, want to write, need to write and do write, when I have yet to publish, at least significantly. I question why I have been given what I consider the gift of writing when my words echo without a listener.

My answer simply may be I have to wait and live and experience and write and be for awhile longer until I figure out why I do write. Or maybe I don’t need to figure out anything because the need is just there, like my need to eat, breathe and sleep.

It is all a bit philosophical, a conundrum of being and identity.

I have had several “non-writers” who want to write tell me, “I have a great idea for a story, but I don’t know how to write.” Or … “how to get started.” Or … “what to write about.”

Writers or so-called, self-labeled non-writers need to realize that they do not need to be perfectly confident in their abilities to write. They need to start with one word on the page. Add another word. And another … Like knitting, or painting, one stitch or one brush struck, mistakes will be made, but so there will be discoveries.

Fear of doing the writing keeps you from moving forward and believing that something great can happen. The great can be believing in yourself as a writer, other people thinking of you as a writer and then the public and the NYT bestseller list stating that You. Are. A. Writer.

What is the strength of your passion to want to write and be a writer? How long before you give up? And if you do, what do you give up? If you are restless elsewhere in your life, could it be because you are not doing this thing you love? Do you begin to hate that other thing because it becomes not-you, keeping you from your love affair with words, or stories or characters?

When you do something you love, despite your fears and insecurities, it shows. Others will respect you for it because your energy becomes positive and affirming, not draining and the stuff of lover disputes.

Doing what you love is a test that requires faith. It is a belief in your work and in yourself.

See Zoey the Dachshund’s perspective on being a dog at zoeyspaw.wordpress.com

The Confident Blogger

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on September 1, 2013 at 11:30 am

I wanted to take a step back from blogging about the writing process to reflect on why I blog and what blogging has to offer a writer.

In June 2008, I started blogging to build a platform, taking the advice of my writers’ magazines that having a Website and blogging are important prior to and after publication.

Blogging and platform-building are part of branding yourself, establishing an identity for you as a writer. I write under the moniker, “Shell’s Ink,” while Zoey the Dachshund, my four-legged, furry co-blogger, writes as “Zoey’s Paw.”

Blogging every week about writing – from elements of writing to the life of a writer – has made me evaluate my own writing processes, putting into words what I normally take for granted, such as how I write, rewrite, edit, revise and come up with ideas. I no longer just do but analyze what I’m doing and why, adding depth to the process.

I increase and reconfirm my knowledge about writing by studying writing. I conduct online research and review my notes, magazine clippings and books about writing, taking notes to gather material for my blog of the week. I write on a variety of topics from the elements of writing, or plot, character and setting, to the steps of writing from rough draft to revision.
As a result, I’m clearer about what I need to do when I write, making sure I include all of the story elements, while also thinking about the plot and character arcs. I am more cognizant of every step of the process of writing, editing and revising.

Blogging has:

• Taught me a new style of writing that is different from writing novels and short stories, news and feature articles, and essays.
• Helped me search out ideas and subjects for my blogs, expanding my understanding of and knowledge about the concepts and vocabulary involved in writing, such as “word echo,” “heroic journey” and “pacing.”
• Made me a better writer, because I write every week, fine-tuning my skills.

Zoey’s blog can be found at ZoeysPaw.wordpress.com

Next week’s post will be about “The Fearful Writer,” or the fear of not improving and succeeding as a writer.

Unlimited with Shrinkage? (plus thoughts on writing)

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on August 25, 2013 at 11:00 am

(My slightly off-topic rant from my regular exploration of writing, the writing process and being a writer)

The rant part: A couple months ago, I bought an Android smart phone with unlimited text and talk, but the salesperson “forgot” to mention my plan was unlimited with shrinkage.

Quite convenient for the corporation to be unethical and employ bait-and-switch practices, while also claiming that I had been informed via the sales call and a text message that my unlimited plan (i.e. infinite, boundless, unending and unrestricted, according to Webster’s) is not actually unlimited but carries with it the conditions of shrinkage, or that of growing smaller.

Granted, the word “shrinkage” was used in my welcome-to-your-lovely-new-plan message, but I hadn’t been smart enough to notice the word or the lie. I unwittingly took my place in the line of customer victims of corporate greed.

Shrinkage, in fact, is a product of the recession: food portions have shrunk, while prices have escalated (no free enterprise system is at play here, but that’s another topic of corporate greed and dishonesty); quality has decreased, particularly for fall-apart clothing from big-name retailers; and electronics and appliances have been designed to slow down or break, coupled with the constant need for upgrades.

What I’m talking about is products with poor quality, while the process is that of ___ (fill in the blank with “greed,” “money hunger,” “power hunger” …) to fill CEO and stockholder pockets.

Few strongholds remain against this voracious exploitation of humanity – everyone ends up being someone else’s customer.

The writing part: One stronghold against this shrinkage is the process and product of writing. Writers, or at least the ones who aren’t pumping books solely for profit, care about both product and process (see last week’s blog, “The Process vs. Product of Writing”), the result of which is an industry that isn’t out for power, profit and prevarication.

That is, we are unlimited in our desire to write when it is a passion, even during episodes of writer’s block, when there is no shrinkage (because we eventually will return to writing).

Writing is a process of a first draft, followed by several revisions, as well as of reading, living, experiencing and doing other writing to feed our main writing projects – for example, journaling and writing down inspirations and thoughts can inspire and lead to larger projects.

As for product, we aren’t trying to sell someone short but work hard to find an audience; after publication, we promote our product, do readings, continue building our platforms and write some more.

We do this, because we love both the process of writing and of reaching our readers, or customers of words and stories. We’re not trying to rip them off as the experience of both the process and product of writing becomes shared.

The experience is unlimited, without condition, because when good writing is being written and then read, a multitude of meanings and understandings unfold. This product is one that allows readers to read it once, come back to it again, ponder upon it, and not feel rejected, ripped off, used, manipulated or any of that, because it’s about being real, honest and true.

The Process vs. Product of Writing

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Processes on August 18, 2013 at 11:00 am

What is more real, the process of writing a novel or short story collection, or the book that results from having written, found an agent and gotten published?

For readers, that final product is the definable hard object, but for writers, especially for those not yet in print, I would guess that writing is both process and product.

Writing, and creativity for that matter, isn’t linear with the story coming out according to what happens next to fit perfectly into the traditional novel structure, as if all you had to do was fill in the blanks. Novels, excluding those that are experimental or on the extreme end of literary heavy in character’s interiors and light on plot, have an inciting incident that drives the main character(s) into loads of trouble from chasing after a want that can’t be had, at least not until the end.

Writing begins as thoughts, ideas and inspiration that, until spoken or written, consist of words, pictures, images and impressions. Writers can’t expect to fully form these musings before putting down some words and working through the various story elements of plot, character and dialogue.

Even during moments when the words flow at a rapid beat, pouring off the end of your fingers, the writing is in process without a clearly defined end. The writing happens almost as if you’re not consciously working through the unfolding of sentences and paragraphs.

In this way, one idea can generate other ideas, so that the writing builds toward something. You’re getting your thoughts down, while also thinking, pondering, questioning, discovering, planning, and considering and reconsidering. You’re trying things out, seeing what works and doesn’t work.

Thesaurus definitions of process include “to unfold,” “to bring forth,” “to bring out” and “to create by mental effort.” Product, alternatively, is “the thing that’s produced.”

But is the product final considering that agents, readers and the writer all will interpret and understand the writing, and hence the story, differently? Is the product when you know it’s ready and that nothing else can be changed, or is it when it has two covers and an imprint?