Shelley Widhalm

Archive for the ‘52 Writing Topics’ Category

Cluttered Inspiration

In 52 Writing Topics, Poetry, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on April 14, 2013 at 11:00 am

I’ve let things and clutter get in the way of poetic inspiration and writing discipline.

Two things I let slip: my third revision of my novel, “The Fire Painter,” and my goal to write a poem a day for National Poetry Month.

I wanted to set aside my novel for two weeks after the second revision, which I finished in mid-March, and do another revision before attending a local conference at the end of April.

And I wanted to be a poetic genius able to write sparkly, beautiful poems at my own bidding.

But I guess I don’t work that way, especially when I have clutter in my head and in my life.

When I write poetry, I get this feeling – usually caused by music, a memory or an observation – and have to grab a napkin, receipt or newspaper scrap and start writing. The poem unravels out of something within me, almost uncontrolled except for the words playing off one another and some central idea I begin to grasp as I write.

This method of writing poetry is in direct opposition to how I approach physical stuff.

I have to have everything in my environment, organized, clean and in categories. (I hope I don’t have OCD, but I am admittedly a neat freak).

My neat freak-ness got disrupted.

A family member is moving and some of my stuff is mixed in with hers, plus she has given me boxes and bags of things she thought I might like or could use. I reorganized my pre-existing things to fit and make room for these new things, plus spring cleaned through my own belongings, getting rid of what I no longer wanted or needed.

The result was three boxes of books for trade-in and four boxes of stuff to donate. The cleaning out and getting rid of stuff, while bringing in new stuff, took up my free time and energy, leaving nothing for writing. I needed space, time and inner quiet to write, while time was all I needed for editing.

As I sorted, I got so focused on objects and the stories associated with some of them that I became too close to process those feelings. I didn’t have room for anything else, as if the clutter of my personal life cluttered my mind, leaving no room for anything but thinking about physical things.

I simply let things cause a form of writer’s block.


Revision Part II

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on January 20, 2013 at 11:00 am

The novel is written and, if you’re like me, you want to set it aside with the belief it’s ready to go.

But, for most writers, revising is a crucial part of the writing process.

My writer friends advised me to set aside my novel for a month or even three months to give distance and a keener eye.

I’ve done that and now it’s time for the fun stuff.

Revising or editing a manuscript, whether it’s a novel, short story or collection of writing, is not a one-time thing and requires several drafts toward the final draft. Each time you revise, you get closer to the story’s core and essential components.

It’s best to start with the overall structure before getting down to the sentence level.

To do this, there are many approaches to take, so many that you could spend months just reworking your drafts. I think it’s best to pick and choose what works best for you.

I compiled a list of revision and self-editing tips for looking both at the big picture of the manuscript, as well as the small picture, or the details.

For the big picture revision:

• Revise the manuscript for overall structure.
• Ask if the opening scene grabs the reader.
• Cut any unnecessary scenes and strengthen weak ones. Look for scenes where there is not much action or characters do a lot of talking without conflict. Look for too many similar scenes in a row. Make sure each scene has a clear objective for the character and that there is conflict, or opposition, to the objective.
• Check that the setting is not just an external location but is integral to the story.
• Do an edit for language and imagery, as well as for tone, mood, cadence and voice.
• Make sure all the plot threads come together. Does the story have a beginning, middle and end? Are conflict and tension sustained throughout the telling? Does the story build with tension at the end of each chapter? Is each scene personal for the main character?
• Make sure the characters are realistic with good and bad features and that they are distinguishable from one another. Are they fully fleshed out with personalities, backgrounds and unique physical characteristics? Does the reader care about these characters?
• Ask if the dialogue is realistic and if the characters speak in ways that are distinguishable from one another.
• Make sure there is subtext, something happening beneath the surface of the text. The subtext could come from a character’s hidden agenda, the setting as foreshadowing or an image carried throughout the story.

To get down to the details in your editing:

• Omit needless words to get to the essential core.
• Identify areas where transitions are needed.
• Look for misspellings, lapses in grammar and usage, consistency in verb tense and anything that is missing. Also look for sentences that don’t make sense.
• Whenever possible, use the active voice and avoid the passive voice, such as “there was …”
• Replace adjectives and adverbs with nouns and verbs.
• Vary your sentence structure.
• Avoid repetition of words, facts and details.
• Do a fact check on weather, season, month, chronology of events and setting.
• Identify passages that are telling, instead of showing, and decide if they should show, instead of tell.

Writing 52: A Year in Review

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on December 30, 2012 at 11:00 am

Writing the last sentence of my novel in early December is similar to concluding a year of blogging – there’s a sense of letting go that isn’t easy and simple.

Finishing the rough draft of “The Fire Painter,” which I started in January, is only the first step. And so is picking up a blog. I will have to edit, and I will have to come up with a new idea for 2013’s blog.

I already miss the surprises from my characters and plotting and the fact that I have a huge project in my life. And I will miss researching about different writing topics and ideas for my 2012 blog, “52: A Year of Writing Basics, Beliefs and Beauty.”

Though my blog didn’t leave much of a mark on the blogosphere, I think I’m the one who benefitted the most from my goal to write about 52 different writing elements, types of writing and tools for writers.

I explored what’s involved in structuring plot, developing character, coming up with original themes, developing intriguing settings and using imagery, metaphors and similes.

By writing about each of these and other elements, I expanded my understanding of all that is involved in the writing craft. Explaining something to someone else is the best way to review and see things slightly differently than before; teaching is a form of learning.

I am debating what to write in 2013, something I believe I need to continue doing to maintain my “platform.” Platform is what authors and aspiring authors develop through their websites, blogging, twitter feeds, book tours and other ways they make themselves present to the audiences they already have or want to grow.

A few ideas have come to mind for my 2013 blog, such as:

  • 52 writing prompts that I also will respond to, using them in my own writing.
  • The secrets of a writer’s life and what is involved in writing and editing a novel (but this is kind of like 52 writing topics in 52 weeks).
  • The secrets of a journalist’s life who writes at night (except I’d probably get in trouble by my bosses).
  • Bad girl writer tells all (except I don’t do anything bad, except drink caffeine, and that’s not very exciting).
  • Writing about whatever comes to mind 52 times.
  • Trying 52 things I haven’t done before and writing about them (except this one has been done before).

Hum, what do you think?

A Writer’s Library

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on December 23, 2012 at 11:00 am

A writer should have a few reference materials, preferably on a bookshelf or within easy reach.

A dictionary, thesaurus and a couple of style guides are essential for grammar reminders and finding the right word or phrase. Also, subscribing to a monthly writer’s magazine, like the “Writer’s Digest,” “The Writer,” and “Poet & Writer,” keeps writers up to date on writing and publishing trends, different aspects of the craft and writing contests, residencies, retreats and conferences.

In addition, I found these seven books to be incredibly helpful in improving my writing craft. (Note: This list will continue to grow as I continue to read other books on the writing craft. I have a half-dozen in a box yet to read):

  • Creating Poetry, John Drury – A complete guide to writing poetry, this book includes poetic terms, poetic forms and advice on writing.
  • The Novel Writer’s Toolkit, Bob Mayer – This guide to writing fiction and getting published covers the elements of writing, writing techniques, where to get ideas and the business of publishing.
  • The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass – The most informative chapter, “Tension All the Time,” explains how to create tension in individual scenes and within th entire novel. The book covers every element of structuring a novel from plot and setting to character.
  • Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass – This book explains what you need to do to amp up all aspects of your writing to make it bestseller quality.
  • Writing Alone and With Others, Pat Schneider – This book in two parts provides tips for sparking creativity, understanding the writer’s mind and starting a writer’s group.
  • Write That Book Already, The Tough Love You Need to Get Published Now, Sam Barry and Kathi Kamen Goldmark – This book explains the writing process, the steps to take to find an agent and what happens to your manuscript from the agent to the finished product.
  • How to Get Happily Published, Judith Appelbaum – This provides a complete guide on self-publishing and publishing through a traditional publishing house.

12 Good Books

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on December 16, 2012 at 11:00 am

In my quest to write about 52 writing topics in 52 weeks, I can’t leave out my 12 favorite books. Part of being a good, or even a great, writer is to read voraciously and in many genres, as well as the genre you plan to write in.

Here are my favorites that I’ve read in the past 20 years:

  • The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway – I love Hemingway’s crisp writing style and sparse dialogue that carries multiple messages underneath the surface text.
  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald – The story of the rich Jay Gatsby and his love for Daisy Buchanan is tight without anything extraneous or unnecessary to the telling.
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austin – The dialogue is witty, and Elizabeth Bennett is a complex, emotional and smart character that you can’t help but love.
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez – This is the best      example of magical realism I’ve ever read told through the lives of the Buendia family.
  • Lolita, Vladimir Nobakov – The language is beautiful, though the subject matter is grotesque.
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran, A Memoir in Books, Azar Nafisi – Beautifully told with rich themes, this book made me realize how lucky I am to have an American sense of freedom.
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being – I read this so long ago, but I do remember the contemplation of existence and being that makes the reader think on a philosophical level.
  • Enchanted Night, Steven Milhausen – On a summer night, the characters of the story leave their beds in search of a better life. The story is told with a      touch of romance and whimsy, and the language is magical and poetic.
  • The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford – This World War II story with modern day elements perfectly connects the beginning to the end through the use of symbolism.
  • The Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins – Fast-paced with compelling characters, this dystopian series describes an alternate world that actually is closer to reality or potential realities than at first appears.
  • In the Drink, Kate Christensen – This is chick lit at its finest with well-developed characters, those of Claudia Steiner and her love interest William, great dialogue and an interesting story that isn’t boring and fluffy.
  • Thanks for the Memories, Cecelia Ahern – Take a fairy tale and combine it with a few what-if questions and you get an exploration of the heart, memory and déjà vu.

Writing Arc

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Processes on December 9, 2012 at 11:00 am

The scaffolding for a novel’s structure is the arc, or the beginning, middle and end of the novel. Without this seemingly simple progression of storytelling, the novel becomes a collection of scenes or episodes that easily collapse like a house of cards.

The term “arc” can refer to the novel’s structure as well as to the development of character. The point-of-character, and even other major and secondary characters, go through some kind of transition and learn something in the process. The arc of each character undergoing change has a beginning, middle and end.

Likewise, writers go through an arc through their writing careers.

Just like a novel’s arc, where characters and plot are introduced, the writer is introduced to writing in school, through another person or by discovering they have an interest.

The aspiring writer reads and writes to learn the craft.

The writer needs to put in at least 10,000 hours to reach the professional level, as stated in “Outliners,” by Malcolm Gladwell. Or they need to write a million words, or 100 words an hour to reach the 10,000-hour mark.

I usually write 1,000 words in one to 1 ½ hours, and I’ve put in more than 10,000 hours between my writing career as a journalist and my side job as a yet-to-be-published novelist.

The storyline is complicated through the character wanting something, but plot complications stand in the way. Writers have to withstand the rejection, the hard work of submitting their work to contests and literary agents, study the field and write to get what they want – to be a better writer, a published writer or, most desirable, a bestselling, award-winning writer.

At the resolution, the character either gets or will not get what she wants. But for writers, if they get what they want – publication or some kind of recognition for their work – it’s likely they’ll start a new arc in their career, pursuing even greater things.

The climax of a novel is the moment of greatest tension and excitement for the reader, but for a writer, hopefully that climax doesn’t turn her into a one-hit wonder.

As writers march toward 1 million words, they learn from their mistakes, experiences and discoveries. They improve their craft through hard work and discover their talent by learning the basics first.

It’s like building a skyscraper. You start with the scaffolding and go from there until you have a beautiful, sky-reaching building. Writing needs the scaffolding of experience to turn writing that is mechanically correct into something with soul, magic and heart-stopping beauty.



Writing Organics, or the Case of Outlining or Winging It

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Processes on December 2, 2012 at 11:00 am

There are two types of writers, those who outline and those who don’t.

The outliners plan out each chapter, as well as the entire structure of the novel from the beginning to the end. Their planning can include character biographies or sketches, storyboards of plot elements, and research notes of setting, character identity and the other elements of fiction.

Organic writers write as they go, letting the characters or storyline lead the way as the telling unfolds.

I’m an organic writer who needs a rough outline.

For my novel, “The Fire Painter,” which I am editing, I came up with an idea spark as I was sitting in a coffee shop nearly one year ago. I had thrown away a doggie piggy bank my late grandmother had given me because it had a crack, and then I had grieved the loss of a gift coming from love.

I took out my laptop and began writing about a character losing more than just one thing, but everything she owns in a house fire. I wanted to explore what she would do to retrieve her lost things and wrote out some random ideas on one page of paper.

A couple of weeks later, I began to write without knowing exactly where I was heading. A quarter of the way in, I figured out a possible ending without knowing exactly how I’d get there.

Halfway through, I wondered what I could possibly write next. I experienced the middle-of-the-novel slump that outliners, I believe, probably do not encounter as frequently or as deeply. They know where the novel is heading, as well as the purpose of each chapter that carries the plot to the ending.

Unlike the pure organics, I do some planning. At the end of each writing session, I sketch ideas for a few chapters, using the rough notes I initially wrote and add to them as well.

With outlines or rough notes, I find it best to think of them as a suggestion. I want to make sure to think through my main characters and plotlines, so that the story can be sustained over the span of a novel.

I basically want to get from here – an idea of the piggy bank – to there, or my 90,000-page rough draft that I finished in early December. It took me 11 months to turn a visual image into a story that, for me, means so much more than the gift from my grandmother, now that I’ve recreated it in words.

Transitioning to Transitions 101

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on November 25, 2012 at 11:00 am

Transitions are the go-between, the white space surrounding dingbats and a way to get from here to there.

I realized in my quest to write about 52 writing topics in 52 weeks, I forgot about this writer’s tool.

There’s a reason for that – transitions are one of my least favorite things in my toolbox, though they are a necessity.

Readers notice the lack of transitions and quickly become annoyed if the story’s direction is unclear. The writing skips awkwardly along from one time or place to another, confusing readers as they try to figure out where exactly they are in the story.

They might think they and the point-of-view character are in a coffee shop and suddenly they are in some memory about traveling to another country.

Transitions serve as a bridge that signals a shift in the story, such as a change in time, place, mood, tone or point of view.

They mark a scene break, or a change in scene, which can be indicated with dingbats, asterisks or extra space. The break in scene ideally cuts at the moment of heightened suspense, causing the reader to want to know what happens next.

The point-of-view character’s physical environment, or what’s happening around her, can transition into her internal thoughts, memories or reflections. She may see a type of flower or a ceramic vase that triggers recollections of some event from her past.

The recalling of past events in the present through flashback interrupts the flow of narrative.

Changing the tense – such as present to past or past to past perfect – is a way to enter and exit out of the flashback.

Using sensory impressions is another way to invoke a memory, such as Proust’s tea, or to return the character to the present moment, such as the howl of a coffee grinder.

Or dialogue can cause the character to come back to the scene at hand, though she might ask, “What? What are you talking about?”

DIY Writing Retreats

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on November 18, 2012 at 11:00 am

In the home improvement realm, being a do-it-yourselfer is par the course.

Writers can do the same, but they won’t need to shop at home improvement stores, buy how-to books or draft complicated plans.

All they need is a little bit of time and a simple plan.

Writers wanting to participate in a writing retreat – the ultimate, prestigious way to get some writing done – can blueprint the cheaper home version.

They don’t need mountain cabins, peaceful lakes or fancy hotels.

For a mini-retreat, all writers need is a quiet place where their work will not be interrupted.

Ideally, set aside a full day or a weekend for this retreat.

Pick a spot to write, free of distractions and the normal routines, such as a coffee shop, mall, library, community part, hotel lobby or bookstore.

Commit a certain amount of time to writing, such as three hours, but allow for 10-minute breaks every hour, or whatever meets your needs. Take a lunch break and return for another writing session.

Set a goal for what you want to achieve by the end of the retreat, such as writing a certain number of chapters in your novel, writing a couple of short stories or working on some other writing project.

Take a portable writing kit, so you have your tools on hand, such as a dictionary and thesaurus, books on the craft, notebooks, journals, pens and music.

And remember to clock in how many hours of work you accomplished, your word count and any other measures of achievement. Compare what you achieved with your regular writing session.

This self-assessment will determine if your DIY retreat (except the cost of coffee or lunch) was productive.

Writing Group Rules

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing group on November 11, 2012 at 11:00 am

Joining a writing group is like frosting.

A chocolate cake is just fine plain. Add rainbow confetti topping with the multicolored chocolate chips for that flavorful burst of zing.

That’s what writing groups do for your writing – give it the zing that takes your skills and abilities to the next level.

I joined the Weekly Writers’ Workshop meets Under the Cuckoo Clock more than two years ago. The group of a half-dozen writers meets weekly to do a writing prompt and critique each other’s work.

Through the feedback I’ve received, I better understand how to successfully (or not so successfully) employ the elements of writing, like plot, character, dialogue and setting. I have a visible example of what works and doesn’t work, both at the sentence level and at the level of the overall story structure.

The essential idea of a writing group is to give the writers in the group feedback on their work.

To be most effective, the members should point out both what they like and where the work could be improved with suggestions for revision. The members should keep a balance between positive and negative comments, so that the criticism is constructive.

Writers groups also help to:

  • Point out where the pacing is too slow or too rushed.
  • 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.
  • See the  overall story picture, including 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?
  • 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.

The members can only respond to what’s on the page and should ignore their own reading preferences. They should remember that a writers group is a give-and-take relationship. They should be kind and encouraging and keep all discussion within the meeting room.