Shelley Widhalm

Archive for the ‘Writing Advice’ Category

Peter Heller and His Stuffed Dog (at the NCW Conference)

In Northern Colorado Writers, Writing Advice, Writing Conferences on May 13, 2018 at 5:00 pm

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Denver, Colo., author Peter Heller signs copies of his books May 4 during the Northern Colorado Writers Conference in Fort Collins.

When best-selling author Peter Heller put his stuffed dog on the podium at a recent writing conference, I knew I was in for a good tale.

“I’m in my home territory,” Heller of Denver, Colo., said about the more than 120 writers in the audience.

Heller, author of “The Dog Stars,” published in 2012, was the keynote speaker during the banquet dinner May 4 at the 13th annual Northern Colorado Writers Conference “Much Ado About Writing.” The conference brought together writers with agents, editors and industry professionals for two days of writing and publishing advice May 4-5 at the Fort Collins Marriott.

“I did everything I could to be a great writer,” said Heller, longtime contributor to National Public Radio, a contributing editor at Outside Magazine and National Geographic Adventure, and author of six books.

Heller’s Back Story

Heller recalled being 11 years old and having a crush on a New York City librarian, who’d asked him, “Peter, are you looking for something to read?” At her suggestion, he took home Ernest Hemingway’s “In Our Time.”

“My heart leapt off the page,” Heller said about the descriptions of fishing and other adventures in the collection of short stories. “I adored the prose. … It goes through the skin straight to the heart.”

Heller also read the dictionary and majored in English with a minor in biology. He wanted to be a poet and a writer but delivered pizza and taught kayaking.

“When you’re young, you don’t know what you can’t do,” Heller said.

Heller entered the journalism field, writing for adventure and other magazines. He saved up enough to take off nine months for writing in a coffee shop and wrote “The Dog Stars,” but then he faced the second novel syndrome. He was advised his job was to ensure his writing did not suck, and he wrote “The Painter,” something his agent made him rewrite three times before it was published in 2014. He then had a conference call with his agent and editor, who told him he was 80 percent there but needed a prologue and epilogue, plus another scene.

“I figured out the cathartic scene all by myself,” Heller said.

Heller’s Writing Advice

Heller found that, unlike with magazine writing, he likes not knowing what happens next with his fiction writing. He follows another author’s habit of writing 500 words a day and stopping at that exact count. He instead writes 1,000 words a day, spending one to three hours on it, and also stops mid-scene leaving it open for the next day.

“You might as well as come back and start the book every day,” Heller said. “What that does is I can’t wait to get up in the morning.”

Heller had one last piece of advice about channeling, something some writers claim they can do, getting a download of material from the universe that flows through them as the medium direct into text.

“Everyone is lying,” Heller said. “It’s not helpful to say it’s magic. It’s not magic.”

Instead, writing takes practice, work and discipline and making micro decisions along the way, Heller said.

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Conferences add Wow! to Writing

In NCW Writers Conference, Northern Colorado Writers, Writing Advice, Writing Conferences on May 6, 2018 at 5:00 pm

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Loveland, Colo., writer Shelley Widhalm attended the Northern Colorado Writers Conference in May 2017 with Abii Franke, a student she mentors about writing.

Every industry has its conferences with fancy hotels, nice dinners and lots of networking, but for writers, there’s an added bonus.

The one, two or more days of immersion in writing offer up inspiration and motivation to get back to the craft. Often, I tell myself I’m too busy to write or can only do it after I get my work, chores and other tasks completed.

But if I pay for a conference and sign up to pitch to agents, I have a deadline for my current writing project, because writing novels involves multiple revisions (and, for me, a bit of procrastination).

Northern Colorado Writers Conference

I attended the 13th annual Northern Colorado Writers Conference “Much Ado About Writing,” on May 4-5 at the Fort Collins Marriott in Fort Collins, Colo.

Attendees could pitch their novel or nonfiction project in individual agent sessions—you only get five minutes!—and get feedback from agents and writing professionals at the critique round tables on the first page and book concept.

To prepare, I revised my novel “In the Grace of Beautiful Stars” after figuring out, with a few of my writing friends, the missing element to my then 92,000-word novel (now at 88,000 words). My beginning dragged and my protagonist’s core problem needed more tension, so I had to make lots of cuts (which I dumped in my cuts file because of my problems with letting go).

I also revised the first page and logline—a one- to two-sentence description of the project focused on the main characters and core conflict. I cleaned up the synopsis, a one- or multiple-page detailed summary of the project.

And I planned which of the eight sessions I wanted to attend on elements of writing, social media and platform building, publishing options and different genres from flash fiction to romance.

Conference Advice

Here is some of the advice I’ve gathered about making the most of attending a conference (next week, I will blog about what I got out of the conference):

  • Plan ahead on which sessions you want to attend; and don’t forget a notebook to take notes.
  • Know which genre your work fits in; don’t just say fiction or nonfiction.
  • Prep for the pitch session or agent roundtable: research to find the best fit for your work; check the agent or editor’s websites, social media and other material online to identify what kind of books and writers they represent.
  • Prepare your pitch with a logline and synopsis. If you get a request, ask when and how you should submit your proposal or sample chapters and how best to contact them.
  • If you learn that your work isn’t right for the agent or editor, don’t take it personally.
  • Plan to network, which includes bringing business cards (preferably with your photo), and don’t stay tied to your friends, because you might miss out on meeting new connections.

One Last Thing

Don’t forget to take photos and post them. Tweet, blog, Facebook and engage in other types of social media to promote your writing and the conference.

Blogging Blunders (and how to get motivated)

In Blogging, Blogging Advice, Blogging Tips, Writing, Writing Advice on April 1, 2018 at 5:00 pm

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Blogging on a regular basis takes motivation (and discipline).

I fell off the blogging bandwagon last month, skipping my blog for three weeks and feeling guilty about it.

I wrote a blog about this experience but lost it through some stupid copy-and-paste move. I’d written about how I’d failed to blog and also was excited about spring, but got too busy to actually write my blog. I said I thought about my blog late at night but was too tired to pop out of bed to write.

Finding time to blog in the busyness of everything, especially with that lost hour with the transition out of winter, can be difficult. I wrote something about finding the motivation to blog and the steps to go about it.

I wrote how motivation’s opposite is frustration, the result of encountering obstacles to a goal or project—like losing your work. It can be a feeling of being stuck, of not getting anywhere no matter what you try to do. Motivation, on the other hand, is the desire to do something and the drive to carry out a goal. It is what causes you to act.

Finding Motivation

Here are some other thing to do to keep up the motivation to blog, write or do something you feel like you should (or want to) do.

  • Remember your original goal or what you want to accomplish.
  • Set aside time each day or week, even five minutes at a time, to help you reach the goal.
  • Keep track of the steps you take and time you put in toward the goal.
  • Realize that setbacks will happen (I wanted to cry when I accidentally deleted what I wrote, but instead I rewrote my blog, even if it might not be the greatest piece of writing).
  • Take credit for each accomplishment toward the goal.
  • Don’t allow for excuses, at least most of the time.
  • Forgive yourself if you get sidetracked or frustrated.
  • No matter what, retain the commitment.

What Exactly is Motivation?

I looked it up and found that motivation, which can be intrinsic or extrinsic, has three components, that of:

  • Activation, or the decision to initiate a behavior.
  • Persistence, the continued effort toward a goal even though obstacles may exist.
  • Intensity, or the degree of concentration.

The key is to remember the goals and the eventual rewards and that, even with setbacks, things can get crossed off of that to-do list. And maybe you’ll get a like or two or a comment, like the old days of putting things on the fridge.

Running and Writing (and getting inspired)

In Running, Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Discipline on March 4, 2018 at 6:00 pm

Going for a run and sitting down for a writing session require the same grit.

The obvious reason is the discipline, showing up day after day to get fit and maybe lose weight or to sharpen skills.

Various writers approach that grit in different ways: by writing 1,000 words a day or for a certain length of time, going for writing sprints, setting writing goals and incrementally meeting them, and doing things like writing a short story a week or the rough draft of a novel in a month.

Writing the first few times may be crappy—for new writers, figuring out how to translate what’s learned about the elements of writing into structure or overwriting or underwriting a messy first draft. The first draft can be too much with too many details, repeated scenes, dialog that drags and too many characters not doing anything; or, it can be too little with scene jumps, jumps in logistics, a lack in transitions and underdeveloped plot, character, setting or dialog.

Running daily incrementally builds muscle, increases metabolism and improves lung capacity, while doing it here and there is nice, but won’t change the body in any noticeable way. I ran my way three sizes smaller and wrote my way into lots of copy, noticing how both become easier through time and practice.

The less obvious similarity between running and writing is that it can be a real pain to do both. I don’t always want to go for a run, particularly at the end of a long work day when I’m already tired. I feel like I don’t have any energy until I get into the third, fourth or fifth lap, and then muscle memory takes over. Oh yeah, this is how running works.

I don’t always want to write, particularly after coming off of a sprint, such as a National Novel Writing Month activity in April, July or November.

I have to force myself into the chair and say just write. It doesn’t matter the result, and then the looseness of freewriting without the annoying boundaries of the internal editor or the need to write something good fall away. Muscle memory takes over, and I count the laps and the words, getting somewhere just because I showed up.

It’s habit, discipline, practice and wanting to change shape—fit in body and fit in my writer’s hand—that gives me that running and writing grit.

Join in on National Fairy Tale Day (plus other national days)

In Fairy Tales, National Fairy Tale Day, Writing, Writing Advice on February 25, 2018 at 6:00 pm

There seems to be a national day for everything, so every day could be a holiday.

The National Day Calendar identified 1,500 national days, weeks and months, giving writers and bloggers plenty of topics for writing.

Pick a day, and automatically there is a subject.

Here are a few from the month of February that have to do with dogs and friendships, two subjects I favor.

National Days in February:

  • 7: National Send a Card to a Friend Day
  • 11: National Make a Friend Day
  • 20: National Love Your Pet Day
  • 23: National Dog Biscuit Day

Also on Feb. 26, it is National Tell a Fairy Tale Day, a perfect topic for conversationalists, storytellers and writers. The unofficial holiday encourages reading, telling and listening to fairy tales.

Fairy tales are a genre of children’s literature featuring fantastical and magical characters, such as fairies, elves, trolls and witches, and usually are told in short story format. They follow what once were oral histories, myths and legends told around the fire or by traveling storytellers.

Before the 17th century, fairy tales were mainly written for adults. Over time, they became a way to get children to behave or to teach them a lesson, but many would be considered too violent and inappropriate for current standards.

Today, using the term fairy tale refers to happy events and happenings, such as a fairy tale ending or fairy tale romance or weddings.

To celebrate fairy tales:

  • Reread a favorite fairy tale or watch a movie based on one.
  • Write a fairy tale with a fantastical or magical character, a lesson and a happy ending.
  • When writing or telling a fairy tale, be sure to engage the audience and invite children to participate in some of the motions of the story.
  • Use repetition, which is key to children’s stories to get them engaged and help them remember the story. The repetition prepares them for the next round of repeated phrases.
  • Use different voices for each character to create drama for the character interactions and action of the story.
  • Ask questions to retain attention and to offer opportunities to review the story and expand on the lessons and information there.

One Last Note:

Share your favorite fairy tales with family and friends or post, blog or send them your creations. Use #TellAFairyTaleDay to post on social media.

Comparing Coffee and Writing

In Description, Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Discipline on February 18, 2018 at 8:00 am

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Coffee and writing are two loves that go well together.

I hate when I order a fancy coffee drink and the cup gets bathed in the overflow.

But I love that my drink has a flavor, an appearance and a texture inside the cup and that observing those details gets rid of the annoyance.

Observing, absorbing and noticing details are essential to writing, giving a caffeinated thrill to the development of plot, character and dialog. Describing the details is essential to storytelling instead of hurrying the story along through the action of the plot.

Why Description is Important

Description brings to life what happens along the storyline.

To provide that description, use the senses and choose words carefully, making sure every word has a purpose. That purpose can be establishing setting, developing character or moving the plot forward.

Verbs are a key component of description, much less so than adjectives, which qualify a noun or noun phrase to provide more information about the object being described. The river spit onto the rocks is more descriptive than the bubbling river.

Adjectives, when used, should be kept simple and not layered, such as the “blue-eyed, blonde-haired, tongue-tied girl.”

What to Avoid in Description

There are a few other things to avoid in descriptions, such as:

  • Using adverbs, which weaken writing when they are not specific. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. For example, saying that your character slowly walked across the room (here “slowly” modifies walked) does not give the reader as good of a mental picture as: “She shuffled to her bed, falling into it after working 12 hours.”
  • Writing in the passive voice, using “he was,” “they were” and the like. The passive voice slows down the action, while distancing the reader from what’s being said.
  • Using general words, instead of concrete details and specific nouns and verbs. Tree and bird are general nouns, as opposed to a birch oak or maple and a cardinal or robin.

A Final Thought on Description

Description is what fills the pages of a story. Without it, action would fall flat, simplified into an outline of this happened, and then this and this.

That’s why I like my coffee fancy.

Top 10 Tips for Writing Poetry

In Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Poetry, Writing Tips on January 28, 2018 at 6:00 pm

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Shelley Widhalm of Shell’s Ink Services reads her poetry during a poetry reading in November 2016 to launch “Sunrise Summits: A Poetry Anthology.”

Poetry is an art and a discipline that ranges from whatever goes to the very specifics of form and use of language.

It can take many shapes from free verse that is open in structure to a fixed form that follows specific rules to the semi-fixed form of prose poems. The fixed forms include sonnets, sestinas, villanelles or haikus that have specific meters, syllable counts and rhyming schemes. Prose poems combine poetry and prose through a block of text written in poetic language.

Free verse poetry doesn’t have a specific meter or syllable count or a consistent rhythm and sound. This form is open but still engages one or more of the poetic devices that add musicality to the words.

Some of the poetic devices include alliteration, the repetition of initial consonant sounds; consonance, the repetition of internal consonant sounds; and assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds. There also is onomatopoeia, or words that imitate the sounds they stand for, such as hiss, buzz or squawk, and slant rhyme, the similar sound of two words that are nearly identical.

Poems, no matter the form they take, are about feeling, emotion, stories and moments. They have tempo, rhythm, color, sound and movement as they capture an experience, thought, idea or observation.

To Write a Poem, Here are Some Things to Think About

  • Think of the intent of the poem and what it is you want to express.
  • Use the senses—seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting—to capture your thoughts, ideas, feelings and observations.
  • Play around with words and descriptions, or simply put words on the page and rearrange them.
  • Decide if you want your poem to be lyrical or narrative. A lyrical poem is a snapshot or a fixed moment of time; it is a poem of a single image, thought or emotion. A narrative poem tells a story and has a plot with beginning, middle and end.
  • Avoid using clichés, generalities and vague concepts, like love, hope and war.
  • Avoid overusing trite words, such as tears and heart, opting for comparisons and concrete language instead.
  • Avoid overuse of the words “and,” “that” and “the,” which often are not needed. Cut unnecessary words to tighten the poem’s language.
  • To get to the concrete, describe the specifics, such as how a sunflower lowers its seed-filled head to show change from day to night.
  • Once the poem is written, reread it to cut excess words to get to the heart of the poem.
  • Explore what your poem is really saying and look for ideas that can be further explored. Your subconscious may have made connections your conscious mind doesn’t readily see. This can happen as you surrender to the writing and the beauty that comes out of the unfolding of words.

One Final Thought About Poetry

Poetry, no matter its form, shape or the devices it uses, becomes art as it uses language to create something of beauty, and its craft through the employment of those devices to make that beauty.

Top 10 Tips for Writing

In Writing Advice, Writing Discipline, Writing Goals, Writing Motivation on January 14, 2018 at 6:00 pm

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A new year is a great time to think about your writing plans and goals.

Lists are a great way to get motivated and to turn desires into habits—and to get motivated to write, I resort to my top 10.

Over the years, I’ve collected notes about writing processes and habits from magazine articles and books on writing, writing conferences and workshops, and my own personal experiences. I find these notes to be helpful, especially at those times when I feel discouraged, unwilling or stuck.

From these notes, I’ve generated my top 10 tips for writing and rules to live by to make writing a routine and, over time, a habit that I do without thinking or agonizing about it. I don’t want to have ideas and put them on hold because I’m busy, tired or overwhelmed. Instead, I want to show up for writing, finding that once I got started, I have something to say, a poem to write, or descriptions and storylines to add to a work in progress. It can be sticky or rough at first, but once I write, it seems easier to continue and I’m glad I put in the effort.

Top 10 Writing Tips

  • 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. For example, make it a goal to write for two hours or 1,000 words in a session.
  • Get rid of distractions and the inner critic, which can keep you from writing by serving as excuses to not write or to 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.
  • Figure out what is most essential for you to write about. Write about what interests you, what you want to learn about and, of course, what you already know.
  • Have more awareness, using all of the senses when making observations to add details to your descriptions. Take notes for later use.
  • Think about where your writing wants to go, realizing that 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 or message unfolds and isn’t readily formed until it’s written. Get the sentences down, then 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.

Writing in the New Year!

The start of a new year is a great time to reflect on the best writing advice to find the time, discipline and inspiration to do the hard work of sitting down to write. It’s a great time to make writing a habit through the year of 2018!

Writing in the New Year (to make it fun!)

In New Year's Resolutions, The Writing Life, Writing, Writing Advice on January 7, 2018 at 6:00 pm

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Zoey the Cute Dachshund poses by a 2018 planner to welcome a new year of writing.

The best part of the New Year is the new planner and seeing all of the blank pages to fill in plans for the next 12 months.

This year, I got the same purple one as I did last year. I tried to go with another color, like pink, but the brand I like didn’t have the nice little silver bookmark, only in the purple and red versions. I don’t want red because it makes me think of fancy dinners and fast cars. I needed a serious color, so really I should have gotten black.

Writing Resolutions for 2018

As I look at my planner with 2018 in gold letters, I think about my resolutions and big plans to make my writing more of a priority, instead of fitting it in when I have time. I plan to work on some novel revisions, giving my young adult novel one final editing pass and one of my literary adult novels two passes, including one through my writers group. I plan to keep on the daily poem challenge. And I plan to continue writing short stories and start drafting a new novel for 2019.

What are your writing resolutions for 2018? To join a writers’ group and stick with it, to write a novel or a few short stories, or to participate in NaNoWriMo, a month-long challenge to write 50,000 words during the month of November? Or if writing is something you don’t like to do and would like to try, start with a class or one-day workshop or meet up with a writing friend to get some tips.

But keeping to a resolution can be difficult—according to the latest statistics, only 8 percent of those who make resolutions follow through. Research shows that the top resolutions are to lose weight, get organized and spend less money.

Sticking to Your Resolutions

Here are a few ways to stick to those resolutions:

  • Pick a resolution that you want to do, instead of something that is good for you or is something everyone else is doing (like writing novels when writing short stories is your preference).
  • Pick one, two or three resolutions instead of a long list that will be difficult to manage or even remember. That way you can focus your efforts on what you really want to accomplish.
  • Write down your goals and visualize what you want to accomplish and how you’ll do it. Put your goals in a prominent place, such as on your desk or the fridge.
  • Make a plan to carry out your goals with smaller steps that can be accomplished each week or month. If writing is one of your goals, start out with 500 words or a half hour and build from there.
  • Be specific, such as planning to write two days a week for one hour each time, or to write 2,000 words three times a week. Set aside a certain time for writing or for your other goals.
  • Check in every so often to make sure you’re meeting your goals and ask if any adjustments need to be made.

As you work on your resolutions, reward yourself as your efforts lead toward tangible results. Writing consistently to make that progress takes some adjustment, motivation and discipline. But then it will become habit and easier for 2019!

Adding Fun to Holiday Blogging

In Blogging, Blogging Advice, Holidays, Writing Advice on December 17, 2017 at 6:00 pm

Birthday(WithSarah)3 04-16How does blogging fit in with Christmas lights and letters, holiday get-togethers and the office lunches with all of the fancy foods?

Blogging weekly, every other week or monthly is a commitment, and the holidays should be a way to celebrate the desire to blog—even if champagne, ice cream or truffles sound more fun. Do both—write quickly and efficiently (or hire someone else to be your ghostwriter/ghost blogger) and still enjoy the holiday cheer.

Regular blogging gives you expertise, and your readers look to your blog and expect to see your content, even during busy times. Blogging is a way to spread your thoughts, ideas, opinions and knowledge and can be used to promote your project, event, company, service or topic of interest.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about blogging:

  • Blogs should follow a schedule. Weekly is best, but monthly is OK. Inconsistent blogging causes you to lose readers and get lower rankings from the search engines. Consistent blogging is a way to give updates and provide new material, while pleasing the engines that prefer fresh content and will give you a higher ranking.
  • Blogs can vary in length. Blogs are considered short at 300 to 500 words and optimal or medium length at 500 to 700 words. Blogs that are 1,000 words or more are considered long or article length.
  • Blogs should have short paragraphs—usually one to three sentences—with lots of bullet points and subheads within the content.
  • Blogs should have original content targeted to a specific audience with new, updated and engaging material. Make sure to follow a theme and focus on a topic or set of topics to sustain reader interest.

How do you make “the rules of blogging” fun? Think of it as work with a reward. Literally, do the writing and then get the truffle or ice cream. Acknowledge the accomplishment, such as by tracking it on a spreadsheet or a check-off list. Make it part of your routine.

Break it up into smaller tasks. Write for a few minutes and then set it aside to make it feel like less work. Write about something that interests you or find an angle that is interesting within the subject that may not be as compelling.

And, best of all, create a blogging editorial calendar with a weekly, bimonthly or monthly plan to identify what you covered and would like to cover. Do this for 2018, turning your holiday cheer into a New Year’s resolution.

Happy Blogging in 2018!