Shelley Widhalm

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Chugging along with NaNoWriMo (and finding inspiration!)

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing Discipline, Writing Motivation on November 14, 2015 at 9:00 pm

During the second full week of NaNoWriMo, I had taken a week of vacation, meaning I could dedicate at least two hours a day to writing (or that was the idea). I planned one of my weeks of vacation to align with the month, just so I could have a week of living the writer’s life without having to go to a day job.

Though I wasn’t sure if I was going to take part in National Novel Writing Month, I knew I wanted to do some work on my literary novel, “The Heat of Trouble.” I decided to go for it and do NaNoWriMo after getting encouragement from some of my writer friends.

I found during the first week of NaNoWriMo I liked how it gave me a goal to keep me on track, even if I fell behind in word count toward the goal to write 50,000 words in 30 days, or 1,667 words a day. I wrote 8,240 words up to that point, but to be on track, I needed to have written 11,669 words, so I was short 3,429 words as of Sunday.

Here’s what I wrote during week two to try to catch up (and maybe even get ahead):

Day 8 (Sunday): I wrote 2,608 words, bringing the total to 10,848 words. (To be on track, I needed to be at 13,336 words). My word count was a personal record, besting out the top of 2,182 words from last week.

Day 9 (Monday): I wrote nothing, like 0 or zilch. I had plans all day and not a moment for writing.

Day 10 (Tuesday): I wrote 2,245 words in one-and-a-half hours, bringing my total to 13,093 words.

Day 11 (Wednesday): I wrote 631 words in an hour in the early afternoon and another 2,114 words in one-and-a-half hours in the evening. My total reached 15,838 words, still short of the on-track word count of 18,337 words.

Day 12 (Thursday): I wrote 3,352 words in two-and-a-half hours. My total reached 19,190 words, short 814 words for the goal of 20,004 words. I threw my arms in the air, at least mentally, exclaiming, “I’m almost there!” and “I beat my best!”

Day 13 (Friday): I didn’t write a thing, instead spending the entire day with my mother, which was totally fun. When I got home, late, I felt like I should write something, so I wrote my Christmas letter.

Day 14 (Saturday): I wrote 1,759 words in one-and-half hours in the morning and another 1,022 words in the afternoon.

By the end of the day Saturday, I needed to be at 23,338 words to be on track. I was at 21,971 words, short 1,367 words, so not too bad, though I would have actually liked to have pulled ahead.

As I worked all week, I found NaNoWriMo gave me something to work toward, and a community as a source of motivation to put in the daily hours toward the same goal. I thought about the writing as work, or fun-work, because in my day job, I write daily, so I figured I could write almost every day for NaNoWriMo and set aside the project for a couple of weeks, as recommended, edit it and start the sequel to my young adult novel about a 16-year-old girl who works in a coffee shop to save her and her sister.

In other words, I found the inspiration and motivation to continue with a project I’d set aside to work on something else. With that extra push, I expect by the end of NaNoWriMo, I’ll be done with my first draft or close to it.


Getting behind on NaNoWriMo (but still feeling good about it!)

In NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, Shelley Widhalm on November 8, 2015 at 11:00 am

I actually hadn’t planned to do NaNoWriMo in 2015, but enough friends asked me if I was doing it I felt like I should at least try.

In 2013, I attempted NaNoWriMo for the first time, writing 51,004 words during the month of November, but in 2014, I didn’t have an idea for a project, so I decided to skip—plus achieving the writing of 50,000 words during National Novel Writing Month is a big commitment, requiring lots of time and energy.

This time around, on Nov. 1 during the first day of the month-long endeavor, I had other plans that didn’t involve writing—excuses, excuses—but on Nov. 2, I procrastinated but by 5:30 p.m., I was ready to go and wrote 2,182 words in one-and-a-half hours, making up for a few words from the day before (the idea is to write 1,667 words a day). It felt good to write, especially since I hadn’t touched my novel since mid-October while working on editing another novel.

On Nov. 3, I planned to put in another day of writing, but I worked nine hours and got off at 6 p.m. when it was dark. I was so tired all I could think about was going to the gym and to bed. Then on Nov. 4, I returned to writing, feeling way behind. By that day, I should have been at 5,001 words and by the end of the day at 6,668 words.

Instead, I was at 2,043 words by the time I finished my one-hour, 15-minute writing session, bringing my total to 4,225 words, short by 2,443 words. But I knew I’d catch up soon.

By day 5, the on-track count would have been 8,335 words. I wrote 1,904 words in one-and-a-half hours, bringing my total to 6,129 words. On day 6, I wrote 1,058 words, and on day 7, 1,053 words, almost the same as the day before.

My writing for the first week totaled 8,240 words. To be on track at the same daily word rate, the number of words would be 11,669 words, so I’m short 3,429 words (though it’s the work and sense of accomplishment that really counts).

With each day, I found the writing becoming easier and easier. Maybe because I allow myself to make up whatever comes along, not worried about the outcome.

Writing daily and fast turns off the editor, causing me to get lost in the story, almost as if my fingers aren’t typing. By writing daily, I become immersed in the story, not having to go back and review what I wrote the day before or in earlier chapters.

The flow becomes more immediate by taking on consistency from the continual input, instead of from a scattered, occasional approach. I’m more cognizant of my story and the story details, so I don’t mix up names and places, even though I do write them in a separate notebook. And I take on a more consistent tone, pace and voice.

Though it’s a lot of work, NaNoWriMo helps the writer get into the story quickly from the focus on word count, instead of thinking of excuses or getting that separation of time and space from a work drawn out over months or years.

Gearing up for NaNoWriMo (with some hesitation)

In NaNoWriMo, Shelley Widhalm on November 1, 2015 at 11:00 am

Welcome National Novel Writing Month, when first-time and seasoned writers write 50,000 words in 30 days, which equals to about 1,667 words a day.

I debated whether or not to do NaNoWriMo again this year and hesitated doing so, because I’m in the middle of a project and have to get surgery on my hands in December. But then I decided to do what I can—50,000 words or half that, as long as I keep plugging away at my literary, character-driven novel, “The Heat of Trouble.” It’s about a waitress who can’t play her music because of underlying trauma.

As of mid-October, the last time I worked on my novel, I was at 34,302 words (plus another 820 words of planning, though this is a pantser novel despite my tendency to plot). I worked steadily on the project since I began in June, putting in one to three writing sessions a week, but in October, I began editing my young adult novel, “In the Grace of Beautiful Stars,” for about the 12th edit, though I’ve lost count.

I became focused on the editing and just wanted to finish, so I put my writing on hold. I completed the nearly month-long project on Oct. 28, three days shy of two years when I started writing the young adult novel about a 15-year-old girl who relies on money finding to solve her family crisis. I wrote the novel, which I originally called “The Money Finder” and later realized the title didn’t quite fit, during NaNoWriMo 2013, plus another two weeks in December, finishing the first draft in six weeks. I worked on editing over the next 22 months.

In 2014, I decided not to do NaNoWriMo, berating myself a little for not participating, but I didn’t have an idea for a new project, though I do plan to write a sequel to my YA novel and redo my memoir about growing up shy and awkward. Instead, I did more editing.

By 2015, I felt like something was missing—that was writing—and so I returned to my love of writing (editing is fun for the first couple of drafts, but after that, it feels like more work and less play). Being in the middle of a writing project, I can’t start a new one (with a full-time job, I need to focus the few free hours I have each week on one project, or I feel distracted, scattered and unfocused). Hence, my goal is to reach 84,302 words by Nov. 30. (Or at least 59,302 words.)

Why? Because the novel will be done, or close to it.

And then it will be back to editing. And more editing.

When enough is enough (editing wise), and thinking NaNoWriMo

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Processes on October 25, 2015 at 5:00 am

I am taking notes with the help of my dog, Zoey.

I am taking notes with the help of my dog, Zoey.

Part of the writing process is editing and revising, but how does a writer know when to stop perfecting the work?

For me, I would say it has to do with boredom.

After spending two years on my 2013 NaNoWriMo book, “The Money Finder,” now renamed, “In the Grace of Beautiful Stars,” I am done.

I wrote the draft in six weeks, barely making it to 51,000 words in November 2013 and tacking on another two weeks to write another 20,000 words and finish the story. I set aside the manuscript for two months, and then I made a revision, loving reading my story for the first time to see what I’d created. I’d written blind, not going back over my manuscript as I wrote, unless it was to fact check.

In the following months, I picked it up and set it aside, losing track of how many times I edited and revised my young adult novel about a 15-year-old girl who tries to use her money finding abilities to solve her family crisis.

If I had to guess, I would say it’s been at least a dozen. Timing myself, I know I spent an average of an hour per 10 pages (at a space and a half), clocking in an hour-and-a-half for that number of pages in the early part of the book and getting through 15 toward the end. It’s that way with everything I write. Could it be that once I get rolling and into the storytelling, I know what I’m doing? Or maybe it’s a matter of my becoming impatient and wanting to be finished with yet another revision.

Instead of cutting during the past couple of revisions, like editing is supposed to do, I ended up lengthening my manuscript each time. In the latest revision, I made a few cuts, but then I found gaps in scene, description and dialog markers (such as who’s saying what and the speakers’ gestures and expressions) and started filling them in.

My last three edits went from 79,100 words to 86,100 words to the most current of 91,500 words. I have 40 pages left on that edit and am anxious to get it done and not look at it again for a few months (except to start that long process of looking for a literary agent).

I found I’m doing more reading than work.

There were a few factual errors and gaps in scene. My characters magically got transported from one place to the next, or they didn’t do something necessary to carry forth the rest of the scene.

There were areas needing transitions and a few gaps, or those little spaces of writing I’d still hadn’t filled in as I hastily wrote and then revised for the writing elements of plot development, storytelling, arc, setting and character. I’d already looked and evaluated and analyzed all that stuff.

This time, it was down to the details.

And at that level, after all the larger picture work, it’s time to let go and realize the work is your best.

Of course, in a few months, maybe I’ll change my mind.

Or not.

There is “The End” after all, both for the story and the telling of that story.

Enough is enough.

Top 10 writing tips

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing Tips on October 11, 2015 at 11:00 am

Nature can be an inspiration for writing, such as this baby rabbit at the library.

Nature can be an inspiration for writing, such as this baby rabbit at the library.

Every writer I meet has their top tips for writing and the rules they live by to make sure they write, both in the sense of discipline and inspiration.

Writing takes both, because there has to be a little bit of the spark, as well as the willingness to show up and do the work. Granted, I’ve felt a flutter of an idea only to tamp it down, because I was busy, tired or overwhelmed. I didn’t want to write.

And then there have been times when I made myself write and produced terrible work, forcing out each word, deleting, starting over or focusing on anything that provides distraction instead of getting out the words.

But these are the exceptions.

So, too, are those occasions when I start and stop just as suddenly. I tried and then didn’t try, giving up too easily.

For example, earlier this week, I wrote for 15 minutes because I felt inspired and then stopped at 200 words, because I did enough, right? I didn’t feel like writing. I made up an excuse, because I wanted to work on editing my novel—for me, editing is work and effort, so what I want to do when it’s time to revise is be finished.

I don’t want to do the work. I want to have the work done.

But to write requires work and lots of it, so:

  • Write as much as you can, setting a writing quota with daily, weekly or monthly goals, such as writing three to four times a week. Write for two hours or 1,000 words, reasonable goals I’ve heard from other writers.
  • Get rid of distractions and the inner critic, which can keep you from writing by serving as excuses to not write or invite in writer’s block.
  • Don’t wait for inspiration, because the more you practice writing, the easier it is for words and ideas to come to you.
  • Have more awareness, using all the senses when making observations and creating scenes.
  • Cherish silence even in noisy environments to let the words come.
  • Think about where your writing wants to go, realizing that, with fiction and poetry, you’re not in total control of it. Trust your subconscious to make connections your conscious mind isn’t ready to or won’t necessarily be able to make.
  • Realize that rough or first drafts aren’t perfection on the first try. As you write, the story unfolds and isn’t readily formed until it’s written. Get the story down, then fine tune it with details, nuances and deepening of the plot, character and setting. Revise and revise again.
  • Accept that writing is supposed to be hard.
  • Focus on the process instead of the results. Enjoy that process.
  • And, last but not least, read. Reading makes you a better writer.

Work-life balance (or write-write balance)

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Processes on October 4, 2015 at 11:00 am


I don’t like sitting, and I don’t like being in front of a computer—at least for long periods of time.

But I used to not even think about my tools of writing. They were just there for me to use—and replace every so often when they got old and nonfunctional.

I write for a living, and I write for fun with the goal to make the writing I want to do—writing novels—full time. It’s a lot of writing, as a result, but I try to balance it with daily exercise—running and lifting weights—and doing social things.

Balance, how do you achieve it when you work life and dream life both involve computers?

  • First of all, make sure you read.
  • Set aside certain times for writing, but don’t guilt yourself if you don’t write.
  • Vary where you write, such as at home, a park, a restaurant or a coffee shop and find something stimulating in that environment to think about or absorb—such as the grinding of the coffee beans or the way the air feels as time shifts from high noon into the afternoon.
  • Take breaks every few minutes to stretch, or take a mini-walk for a mind refresher.
  • Make sure you have free time to do whatever you want that gives you a break from the routine, particularly if it doesn’t involve writing.
  • Try writing in a notebook if computers are your normal tool, or vice versa. The switch may cause you to see and write differently—handwriting slows you down, while typing causes you to lose the pen-hand connection and get lost in the writer’s world.
  • Find a new interest or hobby, or even forge a new friendship, to learn something new or see things from a new perspective.
  • Congratulate yourself when you write when you don’t feel like it.

So, for me, congratulations are in order—I turned my feeling like not writing into a blog, and now I’m motivated to return to my other projects—a novel to edit and another novel that I’m a third way in.

It’s the writer’s life, a constant need for discipline, motivation and encouragement (even if it’s from the self to the self).

(See Zoey the Cute Dachshund’s take on this subject at

Proud Poem Owner

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing Poetry on September 26, 2015 at 11:00 pm

My father is hanging out with my cute dog, Zoey.

My father is hanging out with my cute dog, Zoey.

This past weekend, I visited my father and saw the poem I wrote for him and had framed was displayed on a bookshelf on the top shelf.

I’d won third place in the Poudre Library District’s Battle of the Bards poetry contest earlier this summer and for Father’s Day bought a frame to show off a pretty version of the poem with fancy fonts. I gave it to my father a week later when my brother and I visited him in Northeastern Colorado. On our second summer trip, the poem got a special place, and I felt honored.

While we did some stuff around town, I ran into a couple of my father’s friends, and they both said my father was proud I won and that I’d written a poem for him. That, for me, was the real honor, having my father being proud of me.

Here’s the poem:

          Dad’s swing sets

          Shelley Widhalm

Under an oak tree

is where Dad built the swing,

two ropes and a board.

Dad’s hands on our backs,

feet touching the sky,

or seeming to,

matched with giggles

“More, more,”

Dorothy’s red shoes

lighten my feet.

At our next house

when we’re too big for pushing,

he gave us two swings,

cross bars, a rope, a trapeze.

Hours we laugh,

sunshine to our growing.

Dad digs all of it out,

four yellow grassy spots a reminder

of his building, fixing

swings wherever we live

to take us up to the sky

and back again to his hands,

long fingers, calloused,

strong, beautiful

to me.

(See Zoey the Cute Dachshund’s blog at

Inside look at a writer’s writing process

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Novels on September 20, 2015 at 5:00 am

Typically, I blog about writing processes and the elements of writing and storytelling, as well as what I think about the writing life and my reflections on writing.

I thought this week, I’d do something a little different and reveal snippets of my journal on my reflections of writing my current novel project, which is about an unhappy waitress who wants to be a musician but is stuck from underlying, ignored trauma.

In early June I journaled: I want to write another novel, but I’m a little stuck. I know I’ll work through this and will figure out the steps I need to take. I feel a little lost. I feel like I need to be writing, but specifically, what do I write?

June 29: I ended up writing 650 words in my novel, if that’s what it is, and reached 2,000 words (including a few notes). It was a struggle to write, but I made myself keep going, and I came up with a few words.

June 30: I wasn’t going to write, but I figured I should try. I wrote 300 words.

July 1: I finally got past my writer’s block. I didn’t even know if what come out was any good, but here it came, all at once, the sound and feel of the words carrying the fury of the soul. I wrote 1,050 words, and I loved it.

July 2: I worked on my novel (I wrote 425 words).

July 5: I sat out on the balcony with my dog, Zoey, to work on my novel and wrote 1,750 words, feeling like I was done and couldn’t write more without forcing it. It’s the most I’ve written in one sitting for this novel. I’m now at 6,000 words. It seems like it’s a slow process, and I’m not sure, exactly, where I’m going with this one, but I do feel more anchored when I write.

July 9: I met my friend, Sarah, at the Coffee Tree for a write-in, where I worked on my novel. I wrote 750 words.

July 15: I wrote 1,000 words. I felt better about myself and life, because I could do it and feel like I had a purpose and a direction, even if I’m still not exactly sure where my story’s heading.

July 23: I worked on my novel, but only had 45 minutes. I wrote 560 words.

July 24: I went to the LoCo Artisan and wrote 830 words and now am at 10,000 words. I figured out a couple of the scenes and felt better about where I was going with the novel.

July 25: I took Zoey with me to the Coffee Tree to work on my novel. I stayed for three hours, spending one-and-a-half hours on the novel and writing 1,900 words.

Aug. 4: I met Sarah at the Coffee Tree and worked on my novel. I wrote 1,650 words, and it felt like the words were flowing, and I had fun writing. I felt more centered and calmer after I wrote, and it felt like I was heading somewhere with my novel.

Aug. 5: I wrote 400 words, because I didn’t have much time, maybe about 45 minutes. It was nice to sit outside on a slightly cooler day and be next to Zoey, just doing writing. That’s the life I really want.

Aug. 9: I went Dazbog to work on my novel. I wrote 1,500 words in two hours.

Aug. 10: I went to the LoCo Artisan with Zoey along and worked on my novel. I wrote 1,100 words in one-and-a-half hours.

Aug. 12: I went to the Coffee Tree to meet Sarah and worked on my novel. I wrote 1,250 words in one-and-a-half hours, bringing me to 18,000 words.

Aug. 16: I worked on my novel. It was a struggle, but I kept pushing through. I wrote 445 words in 30 minutes and then figured I’d do better at it the next day (I just didn’t feel the magic but was able to leave off at a good starting place).

Aug. 17: I went to the LoCo Artisan, where I worked on my novel by identifying character and setting traits because at nearly 20,000 words, I’m forgetting little details. I then realized the work I struggled to do yesterday was lost. This is the third time I lost stuff with this computer. I wasn’t happy about it.

Aug. 19: After work, I took Zoey out and met Sarah at the Coffee Tree for our write-in. I wrote 440 words, basically the same number I lost, and I recalled most of the scene, so I felt better about things.

Aug. 20: I went to the LoCo Artisan to work on my novel. As I wrote, it felt like my novel was slowly unfolding where I just sat down and wrote, writing one thing after another. Things were getting set up, and then the spilling out of one thing after another guided me, and I imagined my setting, and it all started coming out. I wrote nearly 1,000 words in one-and-a-half hours.

Aug. 23: I took Zoey with me to Starbucks and worked on my novel for two-and-a-half hours, stopping for pet-Zoey breaks, because she’s an attention magnet. I wrote 2,150 words, feeling good about letting it pour out and unfold as the characters worked out the storyline. It’s like you write something and then you think of what to write next, and on it goes as words or images pop in your head to be written down.

Aug. 24: I went to the LoCo Artisan to sit outside to work on journaling and my novel. I wrote 1,500 words in one-and-a-half hours. It’s odd how fiction bubbles underneath with truth. It’s like I’m telling the truth of my story with lots of made up characters and plot happenings.

Working around writer’s block

In Freewriting, Shelley Widhalm, Writing Processes on September 13, 2015 at 11:00 am

Let your imagination go as you kick past writer's block.

Let your imagination go as you kick past writer’s block.

Writer’s block: my big dread. It’s not just the blank page and the start of the project. It’s being in the middle of something.

Like right now. I set aside a couple of hours to work on my novel about an unhappy waitress who wants to be a musician, but instead I’m checking my email, writing about my blockage and thinking about how nice it is outside.

I know that once I start writing, I’ll get into the process. I’ll lose track of time. I’ll absorb into the story.

That’s because writing is a type of unfolding. It’s a creative process, just like painting with one brush stroke being added to the next and the next until line and form begin to emerge.

How does writing let one thing lead to another? If you lose your conscious, self-editing self and just write, not caring about the result, there will be some possible sloppiness that can be edited out later. The sloppy can be at the grammar level or in character or plot development.

But the idea is to get something down, which can lead to more writing and then to form, as one description opens into the next. It’s a matter of jumping in without caring or worrying over product.

For example, I’m writing my novel as a seat-of-the-pantser writer, instead of writing from an outline, though I know the end scene. I don’t know the arc or how my scenes will lead up to the end.

Each time I sit down to write, I face the blank page and not a specific part of a scene to move the story forward, making me a little insecure. I immediately ask where my book’s heading? Sure, there’s The End, but what about the middle?

Not knowing about the middle is like not knowing what is in the subconscious mind, but interestedly enough, once I start typing wanting to reach 500 or 1,000 words, things bubble out that I don’t expect. I’ve freed up my writing, but because I still have an idea of the ending, I have a framework, but one that is loose.

As a result, I’m writing from another part of myself, one with fewer boundaries and fears because it just wants to push the words out. The scenes are there, but with more of my memory and thoughts and passions embedded in the words.

Magazine Obsessed

In Reading, Shelley Widhalm, Writing Processes on September 6, 2015 at 11:00 am

I am magazine obsessed, at least when it comes to magazines for writers.

I subscribe to “Writer’s Digest,” “The Writer” and “Poets & Writers,” but unfortunately, I’ve fallen behind. I have about a dozen issues to catch up, because I wasn’t reading magazines for a few months.

Life happened. Writing didn’t, or not so much. And the magazines remained in my closet.

To get myself back on track, so that I’m reading two months ahead of the publication date (I love how publications send you your subscription before it hits the stands, so you’re smarter and ahead of the trends), I stuck magazines in my book bag, my work folder and anywhere else I could stash and carry a copy. Basically, I wanted to go to the post office, get my magazine and start reading, instead of thinking, “Oh no, I have to add to my magazine pile!”

In fact, I used to be two dozen copies behind, and I entered a magazine reading frenzy at the beginning of the year. Appointments, breaks and spare moments became a time for reading about writing. What resulted is a kind of dialog, where I kept absorbing new angles, new ideas and new information about the elements of writing, the craft of storytelling and the life of writers and how they approach writing discipline, motivation and craft.

As a writer, I can’t stop learning about the craft, because even if writing stories and novels follows structure and form, ways of understanding and approaches differ. Reading magazine articles layers in details of understanding the craft, so that it’s a constant learning process.

I made my work breaks a focused way of working my way through the magazine pile. I write as a journalist and spend two or three evenings a week working on my novel, editing other novel projects and writing the occasional short story or poem. I write and write some more; i.e., it sometimes seems like too much.

But if I spend a half-hour flipping through the pages of a magazine, reading about writing, I relax, especially if I’m outside in the sun absorbing the rays and the words. I get inspired to go back to work, thinking about what I learned about writing and the writing life.

The reading causes me to be more absorbed in the process, because I’m not just writing after work but constantly refreshing and reading new material.

So, I don’t know what I’ll do when I get through my pile.

Maybe I’ll have to return to eagerly awaiting my next issue, ready to read every article, but slower to make it last.