Shelley Widhalm

Archive for the ‘Writing Discipline’ 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

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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

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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!

Writing with a Bang (even during holidays/vacations)

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

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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.

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.

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

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!

The Writing Puppy Challenge (or getting yourself to write during the holidays

In Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Discipline, Writing Goals on December 10, 2017 at 6:00 pm

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Zoey the Cute Dachshund opens her presents every Christmas and wants more!

Every year, I write a Christmas letter, and every year, I wrap Christmas presents or put them in gift bags with fancy ribbon.

For the first task, I go it alone, but for the second, I have a little helper.

My helper is my miniature dachshund Zoey, who will be nine years on Dec. 20—I got her when she was nine weeks. She grabs at the wrapping paper and shreds it with her teeth, so after a couple of years of this, I came up with a plan—distraction. I gave her vet-approved rawhide that she could chew, while I wrapped presents, including hers of more rawhide, treats, toys and re-gifted teddy bears (she has too many!)

Distraction, especially if it becomes a daily occurrence, doesn’t help with retaining a writing routine. During the holidays, there are the holiday parties and dinners, family get-togethers, shopping, writing Christmas letters and other time-filling activities. Without balance, discipline and a plan, these activities can become a distraction from the main goal—keeping the writing momentum going.

Writing Routines

Here are a few ways to be disciplined in writing no matter the time of year:

  • Buy a planner or use a phone app for 2018 and schedule specific writing days.
  • Write daily, or at least a couple of times a week, selecting a specific time or place to write; i.e. keep office hours.
  • Clock in the hours you write, both for accountability and to acknowledge what you’ve accomplished and add up the hours every week or month and compare them over time.
  • Write for five or 10 minutes in between other activities, using a notebook that you always have with you. Those minutes will add up.
  • Write a writing action plan with goals for the year and check in every few weeks to mark your progress.
  • Take a writer’s retreat, even if it’s in your hometown, setting aside a weekend to focus on writing (maybe as a reward for surviving the holidays or just before everything gets busy).

The Writing Reward

Writing can be a reward once you get started as you mark progress toward your goals and reach those accomplishments, while also being able to engage in holiday fun. I like to see how many hours I spent on writing my novels, writing poetry and revising my work over the course of a year. I can tell when I’ve gotten distracted, and this year, I put in fewer hours, spending a great deal of time building my business.

But this holiday, I’m getting back on track and returning to my original goal of writing at least two times a week and fitting in writing whenever I can. That, to me, is a great present, just as is Zoey in her cute Christmas shirt with a bow in her ears!

Keys to Writing Discipline

In The Writing Life, Writing, Writing Discipline, Writing Motivation on November 12, 2017 at 6:00 pm

Writing can be many things: a profession, a hobby, a necessity, a companion to reading.

But whatever form it takes in your life, it requires discipline.

Writing can feel like a friend, or not so much a friend, especially during the infamous, dreaded writer’s block.

So, here are a few tools to survive writing (and keep it fun):

  • Develop a writing routine, but not so strict that you can’t take breaks. (I like to write one to two times a week, or every day when I take on the National Novel Writing Month challenge in November to write 50,000 words in a month.)
  • Keep track of when and how long you write, such as in a spreadsheet, so that you know you’re committed and are making progress.
  • Vary your writing by trying something new, like writing a personal essay or taking on a setting or type of character that you normally wouldn’t choose.
  • Share your writing with friends who also write and will give you compliments, like “Great job!” while also giving you some constructive feedback. They can be your coaches and cheerleaders.

And, lastly, congratulate yourself when you write.

But don’t berate yourself when you experience writer’s block. It’s natural and may mean you have something to work out with a character, plot strand or other element of the story. Or, it may be you need to gather up more experiences to have something to write about.

Get those experiences. Eavesdrop. Observe. Hang out in unfamiliar places to gather up dialog bits, new descriptions and different ways of observing.

Lastly, eat some chocolate. Or drink some caffeine. Pair your writing routine with your favorite treat, so that when you write, you get your treat!

 

Finding Hope in the Poem A Day Challenge

In Poetry, Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Discipline on September 17, 2017 at 5:00 pm

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The Poem a Day Challenge provides a simple method to accumulate a large number of poems.

Writing a poem a day sounds easy.

Just sit down and make up rhymes, rhythms and line breaks—and fill the page, because a poem is just a few words.

Right?

But for me, it isn’t that simple.

During the month of September, I’m taking on the Poem A Day Challenge, an idea I learned about from Placerville, Colorado, poet, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer. Ten years ago, she decided to write a poem a day for one month but extended her effort to a daily, lifelong practice, so far producing more than 3,650 poems.

Wahtola Trommer, Colorado’s Western Slope Poet Laureate, gave a 2 ½-hour workshop, “Rigorous Willingness: Writing from the Unconstricted Throat,” in early August that included poetry advice and writing prompts at the Loveland Museum/Gallery in Loveland, Colorado.

Not Good, But True

Wahtola Trommer said her poems don’t have to be good but do have to be true. For the challenge, she lowered her standards in order to produce a large volume of writing, seeing her poetry as practice.

“You get in your own way thinking it has to be good,” she said.

So far, I’ve written 18 poems and have 12 to go—or thousands if I make writing poetry a daily habit. I, too, lowered my standards, but unlike Wahtola Trommer, I didn’t let any of them go. They all ended up in my long poem file where poems unfold chronologically as I write them, waiting for me to organize and put them into collections for chapbooks—something on my projects list that I keep avoiding.

Share the Poems

In other words, the poems are that practice because they haven’t become product. I haven’t followed through with Wahtola Trommer’s great, yet simple advice: share the poems.

But I will—soon.

I’ve learned that writing daily is a way to get past the fear of rejection that comes with putting work out there, because within the not-so-great poems, there will be those good ones. Produce a lot to find the good poems through being available to them and what they have to say.