Shelley Widhalm

Archive for the ‘Writing Processes’ Category

Outfitting the Writer’s Tool Kit

In Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Discipline, Writing Goals, Writing Inspiration, Writing Motivation, Writing Processes, Writing Tips on August 30, 2020 at 11:00 am

My writer’s tool kit includes my bookshelf of writing reference books, which help spark the passion engine.

Every writer’s tool kit has different tools, but the most essential is the desire to write. It’s what keeps the passion engine going.

Learning about the elements of writing—storytelling, story structure and word usage—is similar to using an instruction manual to fix a car without the wrenches, pliers and other tools.

Diagnosing the problem, looking at a chart pointing out the parts of the car and reading about the necessary steps doesn’t mean the problem will be solved. The missing element could be the desire to do the work, or the confidence and skill to complete it so the car runs. Even if that passion is there.

The Work of Writing

Writing requires work, and to do that work, there needs to be motivation, discipline and, I believe, a love for some or several aspects of creating or the final creation. Do you love words, individually or how they sound in sentences? Do you love telling stories? Do you love solving story problems? Do you want to make readers feel? Do you want to feel?

Or maybe you like to see your name in print? Or to have finished something?

Writers need spark, just like cars need spark plugs to fire the ignition. For me that spark is a passion for words and getting lost in the story or poem I’m writing, so that what comes out feels like dancing and breathing and living, while I lose awareness of my physical self.

Setting Aside Writing Time

Like cars that need gas in the tank, writers need the space and time to be present for writing. If the tank drops toward the E, writers need to ride out their writer’s block or frustration with the knowledge that these emotions are not permanent.

I find that I get frustrated having so little time for writing.

The result is I save up words, emotions and ideas like money in the bank for when I do get to hang out with my laptop. I let go of my editor and inner critic, plus any negative emotions I have, because now it’s time for my date with QWERTY.

I schedule my writing time, not to specific days but to two to three times a week. I log in the hours I write, so I can see that, like an odometer marking the miles, I am making progress toward a goal. I get excited about every 5,000 words I finish in a novel’s rough draft.

The Writing Fuel

All of this is my fuel for not giving up when I am unpublished with a burning, driving, raging yawp to get my words out into the world. I want my words to be heard, read and even sung.

I don’t necessarily have a map with every step plotted out, but what I do have is a giant imagination, a spark of creativity without which I would fade and a passion for this art I cannot stop loving.


Fiction Writing Tips (that make writing fun)

In Outlining a Novel, Writing Goals, Writing Processes on April 23, 2017 at 11:00 am


Outlining a novel can be as fun as a dog with a lollipop by taking the right approach.

There are two ways to write fiction: write and see what happens, or do an outline and plan what you write.

The planning involves coming up with a plot outline, character identities and the backstory, or what occurred before the story begins. In the very least, writers need a premise, the basic concept of what the story is about, or what the characters undergo as a result of what happens in the story. It’s the underlying idea or the foundation that supports the entire plot.

8-Point Narrative Arc

To do that planning, I like using Nigel Watt’s 8-point narrative arc, as explained in his book, “Writing a Novel.”

The 8 points are Stasis-Trigger-The Quest-Surprise-Critical Choice-Climax-Reversal-Resolution. The main characters experience something that upset the status quo, sending them on a search to return to normal, but they encounter obstacles along the way. They have to make a critical choice that leads to the story’s climax and eventually their return to a fresh stasis.

In three plot points, it’s the inciting incident, rising arc and falling action.

Outlining a Novel

To outline, here are a few things to think about:

  • First, think about what your basic premise or idea is for the story. What will be your hook? How will you introduce your main character or characters? What will be the inciting incident?
  • Identify a few of the big plot moments and what character actions or settings could complicate them. What does the character want and what plot complications stand in her way from getting that one thing?
  • Think through characters and plotlines to see if you can sustain both to the end of the story.
  • Consider the point of view, and think about the character’s back story.
  • Find a setting that cannot be separated from the plot and eliminate any extraneous settings.

Just a Suggestion

Finally, think of the outline as a suggestion that can be changed as you figure out what your story actually is about. Writing is a process and not a final product until the story is written and edited. Even with that outline, there’s that element of seeing what happens until you get to the story you love and want to share.

Flash Fiction and Speed Dating

In Flash Fiction, Writing, Writing Processes on April 9, 2017 at 11:00 am

Shell+ZoeyFlash fiction is like speed dating—it’s storytelling that is quick and to the point.

Speed writing is short and descriptive, while being deceptively complex in its tightness.

It’s a micro or mini version of a short story, though the length varies depending on the publication. It can be anywhere from 100 to 1,000 words or even 1,500 words, while short stories are defined as 1,000 to 10,000 words.

An ultra short story, flash fiction is a style of fiction of extreme brevity with a definable plot pared down to the core of the story. It’s called micro-fiction, micro-story, skinny fiction, fast fiction, furious fiction, postcard fiction, short short, short short story and sudden fiction. It’s part poetry and part narrative.

To successfully write flash fiction, avoid fragmented storytelling. Tell a complete story with the traditional format of beginning, middle and end, making every word essential, without the extras. Retain the elements of storytelling, because otherwise it will become a snippet of a moment of a larger story or an episode without a theme or story.

I find that it’s best to write flash fiction in one sitting with one idea for a character or plot and work from there. Ask if there’s a point to the story, but don’t get too focused on theme. And write when you are in your own emotional moment, getting words out without worrying about word count.

Begin at the moment of conflict when most of the action is nearly complete, avoiding any kind of introduction or back story. Make sure every conversation, action and gesture is important to the telling of the story. Focus on powerful images. And end with an emotional impact.

Once the piece is finished, here are some tricks to tighten and polish the work:

  • Get rid of adjectives and adverbs.
  • Get rid of unnecessary sentences and descriptions.
  • Make sure every conversation, action and gesture is important to the story.

And remember, what’s left out is just as important. Be concise. Keep the essential details. Cut the rest.

(Note: My flash fiction piece, “Points for Senior Citizens,” has been accepted for publication in the forthcoming FLASH!, the second anthology in a series of collections of 100 short-short stories. The anthology is a Kickstarter project at

Writing as puzzle solving

In Freewriting, Writing, Writing Novels, Writing Processes on December 4, 2016 at 11:00 am

Writing is like solving a puzzle, at least when approaching the story or novel without planning or forethought.

I’m a pantser writer, but I’ve decided for my next novel, I’ll engage in the planning approach. I’ll come up with an overriding idea, a beginning and an ending, and a few of the character sketches, instead of writing and seeing what happens.

Why am I going to the other side?

Writing’s become a bit painful and an emotional experience for me, where I have to face myself and how I write and process the story. I get lost in where to go next and don’t know where I’ve been. I just keep writing like I’m in a speed writing contest, when what I really want to do is write with purpose and direction. I want a plan.

By freewriting my stories and letting what happens happen, I’ve noticed how I’m trying to solve a mystery, though I’m not writing a mystery. I write myself in a corner, or multiple corners. A short story becomes a novella. A piece of flash fiction becomes a short story. A novel goes on too long past the 100,000-word mark when I want to write 80,000 words.

This get-myself-in-a-corner writing is the result of my main character needing to solve something, but I don’t let her solve it because all these other characters prop up and she has to interact with them and get through her own plot, because if I say, “Magic. Problem solved,” the reader won’t buy it.

I have to get her to the end of the story.

I have to solve how she and the characters interact to carry the plot forward through the middle all the way to the end.

But instead, I’m mired in the story, so I have to look back at what I wrote and figure out where the story is headed, picking up clues in what I’ve already written. I have to figure out the plot strands and bring them together, knowing my one basic question, while also wondering, but how do I get there?

I’m stuck in the middle and have to move backward, do some planning and thinking, and then I can get back to writing. What I do is stop, plan, and write. So am I really pantsing my novel, when I really had to middle-plan? The arc has to come full circle, not move in a straight line of writing whatever pops into my head.

That’s where the pain comes in. I’m in the middle of writing, and I have to throw my nature aside and start planning.

What is it like for you? Are you a pantser or a planner?

Balancing back story in novels

In Back Story, Writing, Writing Novels, Writing Processes on October 9, 2016 at 11:00 am

A member of my writers’ group helpfully pointed out how my short stories have too much back story.

I wanted to tell her, but my stories need all those details! And right now!

But, she was right … writers shouldn’t front load the opening of a story or novel with back story, which literally takes a story backward out of the present moment into the past. The details of back story need to be revealed throughout the novel and not in large chunks of description and exposition.

Back story, which is everything that came before the novel’s opening, can be in the form of flashbacks, character musings and recollections, and descriptions of character history. It can be details about the setting and plot that came before now. And it can be an explanation about why the characters behave and act as they do in the present moment and how they came to that moment.

The problem with back story, especially if it’s laid on too heavily particularly in the beginning, is it slows the pace or forward momentum of the novel, causing scenes or the entire novel to drag.

A novel that has a strong opening is cinematic with the story playing out moment by moment. It sets the story in motion while also establishing scene and introducing characters.

Leaving out details of the back story, or past, helps create tension for readers, who don’t need everything spelled out but want to guess the reasons for plot action and character motivation and to put together the clues as they read along. The tension is created between what readers know and don’t know, pulling them into and through the story.

Here are a few approaches to adding back story to give the clues readers need without giving them too much information:

  • Figure out the back story that’s necessary to the plot of the story and cut what the reader can figure out from dialog and action.
  • Reveal character through action and dialog and less through description.
  • Rewrite a scene heavy with back story as a play or screenplay, using only dialog and brief descriptions of action, setting and characters.
  • Weave in back story into the narrative of the entire story, keeping the immersion of details and descriptions short; or use the back story to provide a timeout or sense of mental relief for the reader in a scene with heavy action, quick pacing and a great deal of tension.

Back story, especially in the beginning or told in long descriptions or tangents off of other tangents, causes the tension of the story to slacken. It becomes something to read and less of a story. Back story is a literal pause in storytelling and plot. It’s the then, not the now.

Balancing description in story

In Writing, Writing Processes, Writing Tips on October 2, 2016 at 11:00 am

Description in a novel or short story, if not handled correctly, can slow the pace or movement of the novel from start to finish.

Action keeps the story moving, while description gives story place and setting. It identifies character. It adds layers of meaning.

I’ve read books heavy in back story and detail, with some of the descriptions leading to tangential thoughts and more description, so that I lose the sense of the story. I’m working too hard at reading with little plot to pull me along.

At the other extreme, if there is too much action, I don’t get a sense of the world of the story, feeling like I’m reading a white canvas with too little to absorb.

Description is necessary to flesh out the story, moving it from an outline of this happened and then this happened into something three-dimensional and real. Description adds life through the use of the senses of seeing, tasting, touching, feeling and hearing.

To provide a balance in description versus action, 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 important in description, much less so than adjectives, which qualify a noun or noun phrase to provide more information about the object being described. Adjectives, when used, should be kept simple.

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

  • Using adverbs, which weaken writing when they are not specific. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs.
  • 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.

Description can, just like action, add excitement to a story if the language is crisp, purposeful and intriguing.

Getting that action in novels

In Writing, Writing action, Writing Processes on September 25, 2016 at 11:00 am

Writing action into novels isn’t all about kicks and punches but is what gives the novel pacing, tension and movement.

Without action, the novel is reduced to description, character, setting and dialog full of meaningless talk, going nowhere. The action needs to have a purpose to the development of the plot, while also making sense to the main character or protagonist’s goals that push the story forward.

The action doesn’t have to focus on a high stakes fistfight or an escape but can involve a surprise phone call or visit or a dose of bad news that forces the protagonist to quickly respond, rather than reflect. She not only responds but also acts, so that she’s taking control of her situation.

If she’s reactive, the protagonist bores readers, because she becomes a victim of her circumstances, letting things happen to her. If she acts, she is showing her capacity to deal with her problems and the conflicts she encounters.

If she gets involved in a fight, whether physical or verbal, she isn’t that victim if she resolves the conflict immediately, creates more of it resulting in even more tension or continues on in the same vein, planning her next move.

To write a good action scene, here are some techniques to keep the protagonist moving and the pace at a quick tempo, while avoiding disrupting the flow of the story with unnecessary distractions:

  • Use short sentences that include high-energy verbs, like zap, whip and snap, and the subject-verb-object, the simplest form of construction in English. Also, use simple words and choppy sentences that keep the beat moving, instead of longer, more descriptive (and slower) phrasing.
  • Keep dialog to a minimum, so that’s it short and snappy. Use few descriptions and dialog tags, such as “she said, while looking into her coffee cup, contemplating how the ice failed to melt in the overly cool room.” When characters are excited with the adrenaline flowing, they aren’t going to use long sentences or philosophize about their situations; they won’t have time to think but will be acting and reacting.
  • Avoid long descriptions of character and setting. The setting, however, can be described if it’s exciting, such as a roof’s edge or a dark alley where a false move or lurking danger makes it more difficult for the characters to act and move about. Putting in a “ticking bomb” creates a deadline for the characters’ needs to accomplish something or to get away. If the characters fail, there will be consequences.
  • Make sure to keep actions in chronological sequence and in real time. Don’t put in any back story.
  • And don’t analyze what’s happening. Just explain the “what” without the “why” or “how.”

In essence, an action scene ends up revealing character in how the protagonist responds and the choices she makes without time to think. It gives her identity.


Improving a novel’s subplots

In Subplots, Writing, Writing Novels, Writing Processes on September 18, 2016 at 11:00 am

A single plotline typically isn’t enough to carry a story to the end, so complications in the subplots are employed to add depth, complexity and tension to its unfolding.

The subplots aren’t separate from the main story, but often involve characters and action close to the point-of-view or main character. They are the stories within a story that support or drive the main plot. The smaller stories are woven into the main story, moving back and forth from one to the other, not parallel with one forgetting the other.

In one of my young adult novels, the main plot follows the course of a teen girl seeking to belong at home and in school, while two of the subplots involve her neglectful father who engages in part-time parenting and an alcoholic mother who has reasons, or excuses, for drinking. As I tell their stories, I add depth to the teen’s story by explaining why the family is falling apart.

The subplots in a novel involve less action and present less significant events than does the story of the main plot. They have to have a purpose and affect the outcome of the main plot, connecting in time, place or thematic significance.

My subplots in the YA novel demonstrate neglect and the resulting feelings of not being accepted or wanted on multiple levels. How the character handles her responses will show her growth.

Subplots enhance a novel in various ways, such as by:

  • Adding an idea.
  • Impacting the novel’s resolution.
  • Introducing secondary characters or depicting characteristics of the main character readers otherwise wouldn’t see.
  • Underlining the storyline’s actions or providing relief from the story if it’s heavily packed with action or is dark in mood.
  • Serving as a way to complicate the main character’s life—private, personal or professional—such as through a budding romantic relationship or a complication in the workplace from a jealous co-worker.

If the subplots have other characters, called supporting or minor characters, the subplot characters need to interact with the main character at some point in the telling of the story. Otherwise, the different stories remain separate.

If there are too many subplots, they distract the reader from the main plot. The subplots have to contrast with the plot but not repeat or compete with it, taking away too much attention or scattering reader’s attention.

They also need to be complete stories with a beginning, middle and end, just like the main plot.

Escalating tension in stories, novels

In Writing, Writing Novels, Writing Processes on September 11, 2016 at 11:00 am

Like pacing, tension in a short story or novel is what compels readers to turn the pages.

Pacing is a structural and line-level element of the writing process, while tension centers on conflict.

Tension, according to the dictionary, is the act of stretching something tight, or the condition of being stretched or taut.

A story that is taut does not have extraneous words, characters, dialogue and plot elements. Every aspect of the story is directed toward the climax, the peak or most intense part of the telling. The drive toward that climax is the point-of-view or main character’s unmet goal or need, moving the story forward.

Stories with a good level of tension make the reader want to find out what will happen next and next and so on. Will the romantic girl get her guy, despite all the obstacles to their love, or will the (fill-in-the-blank) solve, find, resolve or get something?

The main character faces external and internal opposition through the story’s beginning, middle and end in the story’s movement. External opposition comes from life events or the other characters blocking the main character from getting the main want. Internal opposition comes from the character’s negative thoughts, insecurity, lack of focus or other emotional state.

The opposition is the result of both internal conflicts, which are about characters, and external conflicts, which are about plot.

As the story progresses, the tension escalates. A story doesn’t advance by events happening one after the next, but by this escalation. The tension, however, should not follow a constant upward line where things get more and more intense.

Instead, the tension needs to vary, as well as the pace, to add interest and intrigue to the unfolding of the story. Changing the pace—the tempo or rate of the story’s progression—shows the different moods and action in the story.

A slow pace includes narration, description and digression, while a faster pace uses action and short, clipped dialogue, creating a lot of white space on the page. A slow pace

emphasizes important moments in the story; a quick pace hurries it along.

Tension is what keeps the story tight through those slow and fast movements.

Pacing novels at the line level

In Pacing, Writing, Writing Processes on September 4, 2016 at 11:00 am

I’m reading a book right now that has beautiful descriptions and amazing characters but is a little boring.

It takes me forever to get through a page. My mind wanders. I get up to get a snack. I put the book down and do laundry.

The reason is the pacing.

A book that isn’t paced well goes too slow, and readers lose interest. At the opposite end, if the pace is too quick with all action and little description, the readers can’t catch their breath and get headaches. They need a break, but it’s more out of frustration than wanting to do something boring like chores as in the case of too slow of a story being dragged out in very long, long paragraphs.

Pacing is the story’s tempo, or how quickly the story moves from event to event. It needs to vary from fast to slow, balancing external action with internal reflection, description and narration.

Quickening the pace moves the action of the story, while slowing it shows the impact of what is happening or has just happened.

To get the variation in pacing, the pacing can be handled structurally (which I blogged about last week) and at the line level.

Pacing in the lines of the page result from how words are used and sentences and paragraphs are structured.

To quicken the pace:

  • Make sure there’s lots of white space on the page.
  • Use lots of verbs, concrete language and the active voice.
  • Use sentence fragments and short paragraphs and sentences.
  • Remove extra information, reactions, descriptions or attributions in dialog.

To slow the pace:

  • Make sentences and paragraphs long.
  • Use description to describe the setting and details of the action.
  • Provide exposition with data and facts, information about the story world and references to the time element.
  • Use flashbacks, retelling what happened before the action of the story began.
  • Have the character reflect on what happened just then or in the past and sort through associated feelings, assess the situation and try to decide what to do next.
  • Use distractions with small actions away from the main action, such as cooking dinner or putting on makeup.

Pacing is a literal concept, but it can be a reader’s trick, too.

For me, once I start reading a book, I can’t not finish it. So, to quicken my pace to get to the end, I force myself to read so many pages a day and say, when I’m finished I get to read my faster, happier book lying in wait on the nightstand.