Shelley Widhalm

Archive for the ‘Writing Advice’ Category

How to Train Your Writing (and Your Puppy)

In Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Discipline, Writing Motivation, Writing Tips on August 5, 2018 at 5:00 pm

ZoeyBegs2 09-2014

Zoey the Dachshund demonstrates Up as one of her obedience tricks.

Improving writing skills and training a puppy have some similarities.

I got Zoey, a long-haired miniature dachshund, nine years ago when she was nine weeks old. I started writing when I was eight or nine—short stories and cute poems—becoming serious about it in college.

With both, I had to train my puppy and I had to train my writing. Neither came naturally to me, so I had to become a student to learn the essentials and then become more proficient with practice.

Training Writing, Training a Puppy

I found that to do either well requires research, experience and knowledge—and, of course, patience. I read about a dozen books about dog training, dog behavior and the dachshund breed, and with writing, I read close to 50 books about the writing process and various elements of writing, along with two monthly magazines.

I took Zoey to puppy kindergarten and through intermediate training to provide her with skills in basic obedience. She received a certificate and had her photo taken with a mini-dog graduation cap.

To make sure there isn’t slide, we practice those skills on a daily basis—commands like sit, down, stay, shake and come and walking on a leash. We, however, haven’t got past the treat effect—Zoey expects and requires a treat for each skill she demonstrates. For her shakes, she rapidly waves her paw as she tries to be patient. I touch it and give her what she wants.

We go on walks, and I learned that I shouldn’t pull her on her leash but patiently wait for her to understand what I want through treats and praises. I praise her when she walks and wait her out when she sniffs. I praise her when we return to walking. She gets a treat when we get home.

She especially likes it when people want to stop and give her attention—dogs are social animals and need to have comfort and routine.

How to Improve Writing, Dog Behavior

Here are a few things I learned about maintaining good behavior in a dog (and how it relates to writing):

  • Provide at least 30 minutes of exercise a day to keep the dog healthy and to release energy that when unused can result in poor behaviors (write at least once a week to keep up the routine and practice of writing; more if there is time).
  • Do obedience training to improve the dog’s mental stamina and prowess (do writing prompts, even for five minutes, to stimulate the mind and promote larger pieces of writing).
  • Do obedience training on a consistent basis to turn a dog’s good behaviors into a habit (write on a consistent basis, such as once a week, to turn that practice into a habit).
  • Offer regular playtimes, so the dog can build a relationship with you and also have fun (think of writing as a hobby and something that is for after work or playtime).
  • Pet the dog through belly rubs, head patting and massages to create an emotional bond (think of your writing as a relationship between you and your words).
  • Set the same time every night for bedtime, so that dogs have an expectation of when to settle down (write at the same time and in the same place to create an expectation that now is the time to write, even if the writing may not seem good or out of flow, or at least at first).

These are just a few ways to provide a pattern to let the dog (and your writing self) know what to expect, thereby establishing a good routine to follow. The result is a well-trained dog and a well-trained writer, eager to get to the work and fun of both.

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How Writing Groups Improve Writing (and make it fun)

In Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Discipline, Writing Groups, Writing Motivation on July 22, 2018 at 5:00 pm

Birthday(WithSarah)2 04-2016

Shelley Widhalm’s write-in group gets together once a week to write, but also celebrates birthdays to add fun to the writing venture.

A big part of writing discipline is showing up. You already may have picked a favorite spot and best time of day for optimal energy.

Accountability can add to that discipline, while also making it fun, both from setting up a date and time to meet but also wanting to have some work to show at that meeting.

Writers gather in four typical ways: writing groups to critique each other’s work, write-ins to work on individual projects at a set time, writing planning or accountability groups to check on each member’s progress on writing plans and projects, and writing partners to share the experience of writing.

I’ve belonged to all four types and find that each has its benefits.

Right now, I’m part of a planning group that meets monthly, and we talk about our accomplishments, what we’re working on, what we plan to work on over the next month and any obstacles we face.

The few times I didn’t make much progress on my novel revision, I realized I wanted to return to the next meeting with something to report. I also saw that at each meeting, which began in late 2017, I had the same excuse: not enough time or energy for writing and too many time wasters keeping me from it.

Takeaways for writing accountability groups:

  • Have writing goals to give you something to move toward, but don’t make them unreasonable. Remember you can try again tomorrow.
  • Acknowledge your accomplishments, even if they seem small to you. (I kept up with my daily poem challenge, worked on my novel revision and wrote a short story.)
  • Look at what you’re achieving versus what you’re not achieving, while having compassion for yourself.

I also am a member of a weekly write-in that I joined two years ago. Currently, we have three members, and we meet at a local coffee shop and work on our personal writing projects. We talk for a little bit about our work and writing lives and do a couple of social things, such as going out for each other’s birthdays, and then focus on writing.

I’ve also met one-on-one with other writers and like the experience of sharing a writing table and find the experience to be similar but in a smaller format.

Takeaways for write-in groups (or one-on-one meetings):

  • Work on your personal writing projects, not work, because then you did not set the boundary with work and gift yourself with that time.
  • Realize that showing up for writing for two hours a week (or whatever you choose) adds to an accumulation of words and material over several months. You make progress toward your goal.

I’ve also belonged to several writing critique groups, which have varied in format. We either exchange a section of our work ahead of time and bring our revision suggestions to the meeting or revise on the spot. We then discuss our suggestions, going around the table for each critique.

Takeaways for writing critique groups:

  • You can get a variety of perspectives on what you’ve written, since each writer will notice different things.
  • You get a better understanding of what works and doesn’t work, both at the sentence level and at the level of the overall story structure or in the storytelling.
  • With the help of other writers, you can identify weak areas in plot and character development that you may not notice, as well as problems with pacing, setting, logistics or dialog.
  • If you choose to read the work aloud, you can notice grammar mistakes and missing words that you might not notice with silent reading.
  • You improve editing skills by observing how other writers’ edited each other’s work and also by doing the editing, because practice leads to skill improvement.
  • You can brainstorm plot or other elements within your story to help improve your writing.
  • You can deepen your knowledge of writing and writing techniques, because each writer has a different understanding of and experiences with the same writing concepts.

With all of these groups, I’ve worked hard to keep to a writing schedule, wanting a project to work on and to demonstrate I’m making progress on that project. I want to be a writer after all, not wishing I were a writer. That means I have to show up and be accountable, both to myself and to my fellow writers—and, of course, to my projects!

How a Daily Challenge Improves Writing (and makes it fun)

In Poem a Day Challenge, Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Goals, Writing Poetry, Writing Tips on July 15, 2018 at 5:00 pm

GeeseSummer5 2016

The ducklings at a neighborhood lagoon provide poetic inspiration.

Writing on a daily basis is like committing to running or some other form of exercise.You start to need it and don’t feel as energetic without that routine. Plus, practice improves skill, and experience builds knowledge.

In September 2017, I committed to the Poem a Day Challenge, an idea I learned about from Placerville, Colorado, poet, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer . The result is I’ve written 318 poems since then, but I also learned some valuable lessons about writing.

The Results of Daily Writing

First, writing comes easier and the skills learned in one format are transferable to other types of writing from fiction to nonfiction.

The crisp simplicity of poetry—leaving out unnecessary words like “the” and choosing nouns over adjectives—can be employed in blogs, articles and other writing. Poems typically aren’t wordy and don’t wander from subject to subject but need to tell a story or display an image in a few words. The same goes with blogs and articles that need to have a clear focus, be concise and have transitions, so that the writing is smooth and appears simple but can be complex.

Also:

  • Daily writing doesn’t actually have to be daily—days can be skipped and the blanks filled in. For me, poems seem to pile up and wait for the writing—I make sure to have time for them, even if I skip two weeks. I don’t want to get too far behind and have to play catch up, so that it feels like a chore. I make sure to do the poems, because I don’t want to break the commitment.
  • Writing can become more present in your life. Now, I am looking for poems, and when I see something that I could turn into a poem, I describe it in my head and remember it for later. I write the poem based on that memory and call up visual impressions to add even more detail. Or, I take a few notes and use them later to prompt the writing.
  • Poetry can make you think of how to use language in other places, such as in details and paragraph breaks. A poem changes in meaning or rhythm by altering where the lines end.

The World as Poem

With daily writing, the world becomes a poem—I am constantly describing nature, sunsets and other things as I observe them, not simply in the seeing but in hearing how the words feel in my head.

I essentially look both outward and inward to the world and within myself. The poems cause me to turn my emotional responses and thoughts into language that normally would be kept inside. By writing daily, or nearly so, the inner world becomes more outward in a more automatic way.

Writing daily poetry also is a way to practice poetry. It doesn’t have to be good, but it has to be real to the moment. I let my mind go and start writing, letting the poems come as they want to.

Sometimes, I produce good work, and sometimes, I have sketches—the starts of poems with a good line that can become more if I play with it later. Within the not-so-great poems, there will be those good ones.

Plus, I’m writing more than I would have without the challenge. I’m feeling like I need it, just like I need my one hour of daily exercise of running alternated with weight lifting to get my day going. Poetry does that for me, too.

An Example

Here’s an example of one of my daily poems about one of my favorite topics and observation points, the ducks at a neighborhood lagoon.

        Duckling Safety
              By Shelley Widhalm
Ducklings at the sculpture
sailboat sings off the middle
jump toward Mom
bedtime home in the stone
two already made it
four swim
stretching necks toward
safety.

 

Add Snap to Your Writing (with a few simple tricks)

In Grammar, Grammar Advice, Grammar Tips, Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Tips on July 8, 2018 at 5:00 pm

Zoey'sFootprints 02-2015

Don’t let your writing get disorganized like these puppy paw prints in the snow.

Shorter writing needs to have some snap—what you say is important but how you say it is even more important.

That “how” is style—or your voice and the way you structure sentences and lay out the overall content. Writing that is wordy, wanders off topic or lacks transitions can lose readers, as can a first sentence that uses clichés, doesn’t set the scene or fails to make a point.

Writing, whether it’s a short story, a blog or an article, can become simple, clean and crisp by following a few steps.

First off, use straightforward language and simpler words. Simpler words have broader connotations, while longer, complicated words tend to have more specific meanings.

One way to do this is to use fewer adverbs—an adverb, which often ends in “-ly,” is used to modify a verb, an adjective or another adverb, often to show degree, manner, place or time. For instance, saying, “it’s very hot” is unnecessary when “hot” will do. Adverbs end up filling space without adding to the sentence’s meaning. Instead, choose a stronger verb, such as replacing “the dog barked loudly, lifting its snout” with “the dog howled.”

Ways to Simplify Writing

There are a few additional grammar tricks to simplify writing that are easy to employ, resulting in something that is easier and more appealing to read.

  • Cut the long sentences and use varied sentence lengths and structures; plus, mix in short and long paragraphs to keep the reader’s eye moving. Avoid writing every sentence as subject and predicate—the subject is who or what the sentence is about and the predicate tells about the subject. For example, in the sentence, “The dog ate my sandwich,” the dog is the subject, and the act of eating is the verb and the sandwich is the object.
  • Avoid redundancies and using the same word twice in nearby sentences and paragraphs, though meanings can be different. For instance, don’t say, “She backed up into her parking space, noticing how her back hurt from twisting in her seat.”
  • Use the active voice over the passive voice. For example, say, “The dog ran after the cat,” instead of “The cat was chased by the dog.”
  • Use parallel forms in sentences, lining up verb tenses and other parts of the sentence in a consistent way. For example, say, “I went to the store, bought some chocolate and ate it before I got home,” not, “I went to the store, chocolate caught my attention and buying it, I couldn’t help eating it right away.”
  • Eliminate prepositions and filler words and phrases. Prepositions show direction, location or time or introduce an object and include words like “at,” “by,” “for,” “in,” “of,” “on,” “to” and “with.”
  • Use specific and concrete language, not general terms, favoring “long-haired miniature dachshund” over “dog,” to give a clearer image of meaning.

Ways to Improve Content

As for the content, be clear on the concepts you want to address, bringing order to the thoughts or story. Be clear on what you want to write about, thinking about the different angles the topic might take and sorting out the main ideas from asides and trivial details. Explain at the right level without over-explaining, saying the same thing more than once, or under-explaining by leaving out crucial details. Avoid redundancies, needlessly repeating a word or phrase, and going off topic with more details than are necessary.

Too much or too little can lose readers, and the idea is to get readers engaged and to make it fun for you, as the writer.

Writing with a Bang (even during holidays/vacations)

In Vacations, Writing Advice, Writing Discipline, Writing Tips on July 1, 2018 at 5:00 pm

BuschGardensShorebirds1 06-2018

This is called bun chasing. Check out the shorebird at Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, Fla., with the bun on the run.

Getting back to writing or blogging can be a bit difficult if it’s sunny out and you’ve just been on vacation—add in that Independence Day is quickly approaching, giving you another reason to let your brain keep on being on holiday.

Yep, I’ve got the holiday/vacation motivation and discipline problem.

First off, I returned to a pile of work, a tad tired from riding the rollercoasters at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens during my early June visit to Clearwater, Fla. I had so much fun, six days into my trip, when I went to Howard Beach and collected a few seashells, I came home to a big long afternoon nap.

Writing Reality

Two days later, I had to re-shift to reality, though I had a load of memories to use for my writing. I have a couple of favorites, including seeing a shorebird grab a hamburger bun at Busch Gardens and run about, but not able to take a bite for all the other birds ensuing in a hungry chase. I also loved riding the Manta at SeaWorld and feeling like I was flying, twirling in loops and going upside down. (I must have a thing for birds.)

As I got back to my work routine, I thought about how I lost track of what I love—writing though it oftentimes feels like work.

Writing requires time, energy, thought, discipline, motivation and desire. Writing isn’t always easy even for a writer, while being on vacation or holiday is easy. Just relax, have fun, and go places. One of my friends kindly reminded me that the other place you visit becomes mundane once it is your every day. I’d put some magic around Florida, thinking I’d been in heaven with all the fun. Writing seemed not so heaven-like, requiring sitting in a chair and not running about. But from my vacation, I collected new images and new ways of seeing, and thus, describing things. I had something to compare the old with the new.

Writing Return

I figured if I want to write, I have to sit in a chair and treat it seriously. Here’s a few ways to get back to writing (without it being too much like work):

  • Identify your goal or what you want to accomplish.
  • Develop a writing routine, setting aside time each day or week to help you reach the goal.
  • Find a special place to do your writing, so that it gives you inspiration and comfort.
  • Keep track of the time you dedicate to writing, demonstrating your work toward your goal.
  • Take credit for each accomplishment toward the goal.
  • Don’t allow for excuses, at least most of the time, while also realizing that setbacks will happen.
  • Forgive yourself if you get sidetracked or frustrated.

And as you engage in writing, remember to keep the commitment and to keep going, no matter what. For those who like writing, writing is fun (and, if treated right, it can feel like vacation!).

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Shelley Widhalm poses by the Manta ride at SeaWorld, which feels like flying.

Writing While on Holiday

In Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Discipline on June 10, 2018 at 5:00 pm

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Shelley Widhalm stands by a stone lion at Busch Gardens during her trip to Florida in early June.

Writing during vacation definitely takes discipline—and a loose plan with room for improvisation.

I traveled to Clearwater, Fla., in early June planning to write one to two hours a day during my eight-day trip. I did what I could with fun getting in the way—but, as my brother reminded me, it’s important to either work hard and play hard or work steadily with fun included. My visit to Florida with my brother and his wife included that fun of Busch Gardens, Sea World Orlando, Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks and, of course, the ocean (we went to Fred Howards Beach), along with lots of eating out.

The Amusement Parks

During our first venture at Busch Gardens when we tried to fit as much food and upside-down rollercoasters in one day as possible, I realized I’ve been sitting at my desk too much without enough outside, 3D time. Every experience was new and vibrant—the shorebirds hopping by begging for crumbs and the chameleons crawling sideways on fences and drains were fascinating, and I kept stopping to stare. I loved the rides and seeing all of the greenery with palm trees and feathery leafy bushes, while walking through wet air.

When I rode Falcon’s Fury, a 335-foot rollercoaster that at the top tips 90 degrees and drops 60 miles per hour, I kind of panicked, thinking about my seatbelt busting within the harness, but it was a matter of an overactive imagination. I got used to speed and seatbelts by the time of our final ride, the Kumba, which became my favorite with 100-foot plummets along a smooth track.

At SeaWorld the last full day of my trip, I encountered more fascinating things, such as the penguins on the Antarctica: Journey of the Penguin ride. I liked how the penguins held their flippers straight out as they wobbled. I particularly liked the Rockhoppers with yellow feathers that look like hair ribbons and the Adelies with large eyes, like the trendy stuffed animals with bugged-out eyes.

Since we went on a Sunday, the lines were an hour long, so we could only fit in a couple of rollercoasters, a raft ride and experiential rides to see the sea animals, including whales, sea lions, seals, stingrays, dolphins, sea horses, sea dragons and fish of all colors. I loved the Mantra, a rollercoaster that makes you feel like you’re flying. We ended the day with a show, Light Up the Night, featuring four orcas, or killer whales, doing performances for fish, jumping through the air and splashing the audience with their tails. A long-legged white bird, probably a crane, hung about, waiting for free food.

Writing Accomplishments

As for my writing, here’s what I achieved during my vacation week:

  • I caught up on my daily poem challenge—I was about two weeks behind.
  • I wrote in my journal, adding in extra detail.
  • I wrote a short story, something I haven’t done in months.
  • I wrote this blog.
  • I read part of a book, “One Plus One,” by Jojo Moyes.
  • I sat beside the pool or at Starbucks doing my reading and writing exercises, thinking about how hard it will be to go back to routine.

As I learned, writing and being disciplined during vacations is a bit hard, especially when I’ve been putting off the fun. This time, I embraced the exciting side of life, realizing I’m a big child who loves to play.

How to Write during Vacation (and still make it fun)

In Staying Motivated, Vacations, Writing, Writing Advice on June 3, 2018 at 5:00 pm

GeeseSummer5 2016

Ducklings swim at a Northern Colorado lagoon, which is a drop in size compared with the ocean. The ocean makes a great travel spot and a place to fit in some writing, while keeping vacation fun.

Going on a summer vacation is all about fun and taking a timeout from routine.

But for writers, bloggers and those who need to post a weekly or monthly blog or article, can the serious work of writing be included in a travel itinerary to make the break still exciting?

Yes, in small chunks so that it doesn’t feel like work.

To accomplish this, plan a time for writing, but do just a little bit at each sitting, and then congratulate yourself for accomplishing something practical without it being too painful.

If travel plans are overbooked, write ahead and schedule the blog online, or turn in the article early before deadline. And then don’t open the laptop or notebook unless there is free time, or inspiration or motivation gives a reason to write—and let it become all about the moment and not an obligation.

Writing Opportunities

For those who like creative writing, think of your vacation as an opportunity to delve into travel writing. Collect notes and quick descriptions of the places you’re visiting to use for future projects—the details can serve as a referral source for settings, plot details and character profiles. Or try writing a poem in free verse without counting syllables or lines. Write a few sense impressions and cut out filler words, like “a,” “an” and “the,” to create the shape and feel of a poem.

Make the work, whether notes, a poem or a full story, a small endeavor to still allow for downtime, created in snippets between the fun moments. Vacations are about relaxing and not working, as my mother told me. She said I always have some personal project, or work—and back in college, schoolwork—that I have to do. She reminded me to have fun during my weeklong trip to Florida with my brother and his wife—we’re heading to SeaWorld Orlando, Busch Gardens and some other amusement parks (but not the big one), plus the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks and, of course, the ocean.

I told my mother I wanted to do some writing—I plan to write a couple of short stories, keep up my daily poem challenge and edit my novel (just a tiny bit). She said to not work too hard, and I promised to not spend more than one to two hours every other day on writing.

I figured I can do both—achieve concentrated and quick writing, like flash mobs that appear suddenly and are gone, and still enjoy the vacation cheer. I’ll think of it as mini moments of work with a reward.

Ways to Write Effectively

Here are a few tips for quick, but effective writing.

First off, commit to writing while waiting at the airport or for transit to get into the mindset that you will do some writing over the next few days.

And then:

  • Schedule an hour or two for writing every other day or every three days.
  • Do the writing in the morning by getting up extra early (or just before going to bed) and treat yourself to the rest of the fun vacation schedule.
  • Acknowledge the accomplishment, such as by tracking it on a spreadsheet or a check-off list. (I’ll put it in the timesheet that I keep for work.)
  • Break it up into smaller tasks. Write for a few minutes and then set it aside to make it feel like less work.

On a Personal Note

I plan to write about the ocean and the different animals and sea creatures I don’t encounter in Colorado. I love watching the ducks and geese at the lagoon a half-mile from my house, especially the ducklings, but the venue is quite a bit smaller—I run around it four times for a mile, and, of course, I can see the other side.

Basically, I plan to write as if it’s a hobby and also a tiny part-time (and fun) assignment, while sitting on a beach blanket, exploring new things to put in my notebook.

The Long Climb (to Publishing Success)

In NCW Writers Conference, Northern Colorado Writers, Writing, Writing Advice on May 27, 2018 at 5:00 pm

Writing and trying to get published can be like climbing a sheer ice cliff.

That’s the takeaway I got from Fort Collins, Colo., author Jim Davidson’s closing speech May 5 during the 13th annual Northern Colorado Writers Conference “Much Ado About Writing” at the Fort Collins Marriott.

Davidson told the back story of his memoir, “The Ledge: An Inspirational Story of Friendship and Survival,” published in 2011, which he co-authored with investigative journalist Kevin Vaughan. He wanted to encourage the more than 100 writers who attended the two-day conference to persevere in order to reach their goals of writing and publication.

“By challenging yourself, you’ll find a better version of you,” Davidson said.

At the Ledge

“The Ledge” tells Davidson’s story of surviving being trapped 80 feet inside a glacial crevasse. In 1992, Davidson and his best friend, Mike Price, stood atop Washington’s Mount Rainier at the end of their climb when a cave-in dropped them onto a narrow frozen shelf of crumbling ice and snow in a pitch-black ice wall.

Price died in the tragedy, and Davidson had to fight to escape, coming up with an immediate tactical plan and using his few tools to slowly climb out to sunlight.

Davidson didn’t give up climbing despite the setback. He is a high-altitude climber and expedition leader for more than 35 years who scaled mountains worldwide, including Mount Everest and peaks on five continents. He survived earthquakes and avalanches on Mount Everest in 2015 and helped conduct multiple rescues of climbers. Previously, he worked as an environmental geologist and science writer with 40 publication credits.

“When things go wrong, how will you respond?” Davidson asked the other writers at the conference.

Finding Resilience

Davidson defined resilience as bouncing back from challenges and learning from mishaps. Normal reactions can include fear, doubt, dread, inaction, insecurity, anxiety and exhaustion when change occurs but may not be what is wanted or desired, he said.

“Plain old-fashioned perseverance … is a slow grinding process,” Davidson said. “It’s tiring, and you may have doubts.”

Davidson said personal resilience occurs through accepting that change occurs and doing something about it. It’s embracing the challenges, persevering through uncertainties, redefining the self and coming up with new techniques.

Davidson’s book from the accident in 1992 to publication took 19 years. He met Vaughn, a writer for the former “Rocky Mountain News,” at the Northern Colorado Writers Conference in 2007, and Vaughn wanted to do a news series about him, which later became a book project.

Davidson provided an outline of his writing experiences: from 1992 to 1995, he’d journaled and did some early writing. From 1996 to 2002, he made no progress. From 2003 to 2007, he spoke about his experiences. And from 2008 to 2011, he worked with Vaughan on the book.

Becoming Stronger

Davidson learned how to take a horrible life event and turn it around. He became stronger and instead of PTSD, he experience PTG, or post-traumatic growth.

“It doesn’t make the trauma go away,” Davidson said, adding that he still struggles with the “mess and the meaning.”

Davidson forged a new reality out of what had happened to him and distilled it down into a few lessons.

“Try to help somebody else learn from your experience,” Davidson said.

I definitely did learn from Davidson’s experience, walking away from his speech motivated to climb to my publication goal, no matter what it takes. I’d hate to give up now. I, too, have had my almost 19 years.

I wrote my first novel in 2000 and have since written a few. I’ve written a hundred short stories. I’ve had a few publications but not the big climb of traditional publishing. I’m still working on that goal keeping resilience and perseverance in mind.

 

Conferences Offer Writing Crash Course

In NCW Writers Conference, Writing Advice, Writing Conferences on May 20, 2018 at 5:00 pm

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Kerrie Flanagan, a member of the Northern Colorado Writers Creative Conference Team for the 2018 conference, left, gives writing advice May 4 during the two-day event.

Going to a writing conference is like taking a semester class in college, but cheaper and faster.

I attended the 13th annual Northern Colorado Writers Conference “Much Ado About Writing” May 4-5 to pitch my young adult novel and to get quick writing tips. The conference was set up classroom style at the Fort Collins Marriott with one-hour workshops taught by agents, editors and industry professionals on various aspects of writing. The topics included the elements of writing, different genres from young adult to memoir, self-editing, traditional and self-publishing, and platform-building and social media.

“Number one, write,” said Kerrie Flanagan, a member of the NCW Creative Conference Team. “Just Write. To be a writer, you must write.”

Top 10 Writing Tips

Flanagan and the team talked about the top 10 writing tips during the banquet dinner May 4 that included studying the craft, honoring the writing and killing the darlings, those bits of writing that might be pretty or interesting but do not move the plot along. The team dressed in high collars and used “thy” and “though” to add a Shakespearean flair to their tips in line with the conference theme.

I collected hundreds of writing tips from the workshops I attended on writing a memoir, writing a book proposal, worldbuilding, and writing and selling short stories and personal essays. This time, I chose topics for my future projects of writing a memoir and some personal essays; plus, I want to sell some of my short stories.

The First Day: To Pitch and Tell the Story

After pitching my novel, the first session I attended focused on “How to Write a Captivating Memoir,” presented by Kristen Moeller, a literary agent at Waterside Productions and author of three books. Moeller explained how to structure a nonfiction story and decide what to include and let go.

“Everyone has a meaningful story to tell. Not everyone has a story or voice that sells,” Moeller said.

Moeller advised:

  • Writing it all out, but don’t include every single detail beginning to end in the final draft.
  • Identifying the narrative arc with a beginning, middle and end with something at stake for the narrator that opens up the question of what’s next? The reader has to wonder if the narrator will be OK.
  • Including fiction elements, such as scene and dialog, while also showing not telling.
  • Creating a character for the self with a distinct narrative voice.

The Second Day: Prepping and Publishing

The next day of the conference, I attended four sessions, the first on “Five Steps to Publishing Success: Get Your Short Stories and Essays Published in Magazines,” presented by Windy Lynn Harris, author of “Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays.” She gave tips on strategizing publishing in magazines and sending work to the right editors in the right way.

Personal essays are the most saleable thing writers can write because of the large market, Harris said. Essays typically are something reported or a first-person account of a life event with a narrative arc and a takeaway for the reader, she said.

“If it’s well-written, you can find the right place for it,” Harris said.

Harris advised:

  • Submitting to at least five publications, starting with the largest, most desired markets.
  • Realizing that getting several rejections is to be expected, but after 30 or so, go back to the piece to identify the issues.
  • Making a spreadsheet of submissions that lists publication details and dates and the acceptances and rejections.

More Sessions

My next session was on “Writing the Nonfiction Book Proposal,” presented by Stacy Testa, a literary agent with Writers House, on the basic components of a book proposal. The proposal gives an overview of the project showing there is demand for it and a fresh idea.

“Keep it simple to the point,” Testa said. “Who will read your book? Be specific. The more potential readers, the better.”

Testa pointed to a few issues with proposals, including:

  • The-need-to-see-more problem, where there is not enough material for a full book with depth and breadth of topic.
  • The platform problem with too small of a following.
  • The niche problem with too small of an audience.

The other sessions I attended were on “Two Kinds of Worldbuilding and Why You Need Both,” presented by literary agent Angie Hodapp with the Nelson Literary Agency, and “How Editors Decide What (and Whom) to Publish,” presented by editor Bruce Bortz, founder of Bancroft Press.

“It’s hard to sell your own product, but figure out what makes it special,” Bortz said.

I walked away from the conference motivated to return to my projects with a clearer sense of direction and an excitement for what’s next.

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.