Shelley Widhalm

Archive for the ‘Writing Processes’ Category

Pacing novels at the structural level

In Pacing, Writing, Writing Processes on August 28, 2016 at 11:00 am

Readers read stories and novels for the story and character, but what pulls them through to the last page is the pacing.

Pacing is the tempo or rate of the story’s unfolding and how quickly the events of the story occur. It varies from a fast and quick speed to slow, careful and unhurried.

It is, in essence, the story’s rate of movement or momentum, and it is carried out on two levels: structurally or the entire framework of the story, and at the line level in individual words, sentences and paragraphs.

Throughout the novel or in a scene, pacing shows the passing of time, or how much time elapses. Pacing is particularly important in particular places of the novel: the opening of a story, in the middle and at the climax that all need a fast pace to pull readers in, get them through the hump and make them want to finish to the end.

To get the story moving, the scenes and chapter beginnings need to introduce change and conflict. The main character encounters setbacks and failures meeting the main need or desire set up in the story’s beginning.

The story gets a push, too, when new characters arrive, characters receive new information, or the characters experience emotional turmoil, engage in an intense conversation or have an emotional reversal and see things in a new way.

Here are a few ways to quicken pace at the structural level:

  • Begin in the middle of the action.
  • Create scenes high in action with little description, few character thoughts and no tangents or back story—what happened before the current action.
  • Make sure the action in the scene unfolds as a series of incidents in quick succession or conflict between characters.
  • Shorten scenes, removing what doesn’t belong down to the essential details. Make sure the scenes fit and are important to the entire storyline.
  • Add cliffhangers at the end of scenes or chapters.
  • Make the dialog quick without any extra information, reactions, descriptions or attributions. Dialog with conflict and tension speed things up as characters banter, argue or fight.

To slow the pace:

  • Have the main character make observations of the environment or deep in thought or become introspective.
  • Engage the character in a flashback, which retells what happened before the story’s action begins and should be triggered by something specific, such as seeing an object and remembering something because of it.
  • Use large amounts of narration and description.
  • Describe the setting in detail.
  • Summarize action and dialog.
  • Employ digressions and small distracting actions not related to the main action.

Overall, as the story unfolds from the point of the opening scene, the pace needs to steadily increase toward the climax. If it slows, there needs to be a reason.

(Next week, I’ll talk about pacing at the line level.)

Annoying first pages

In First Page of a Novel, Writing, Writing Processes on August 21, 2016 at 11:00 am

Novels that start with a quote or a dream usually don’t make me want to read anymore—maybe because I’ve been told that agents reject first pages for this reason.

But I think it’s a whole lot more.

There’s something about a first page that makes or breaks the contract between writer and reader. It’s the initial tease, the hook, the pick-me-up line, and it’s what promises the reader something slightly new and different and a reason to keep turning the pages.

I’ve slogged through a few classics, not liking the first page but knowing I should read them because they’re on the lists of what every English major reads. The ones that particularly felt like a chore had too much detail in the first page (and chapter) about the setting with just as lengthy character descriptions, as if setting the stage for the plot to get started pages later.

A great first page has to capture the reader—and it needs to happen in the first paragraph or line, particularly to reel in those who peruse the flap copy and glance at the first few sentences to make a decision on what to read next. The first page needs to hint at the inciting incident, what propels the action of the story forward, and it needs to set up the character’s big unanswered question.

To do this, a good first page needs to have tension, the stretch between what the main character wants but can’t have—at least not yet. The story holds the want back, so the character has to keep striving, resulting in conflict internally and/or externally. The tension increases as the character keeps hearing “no” but can’t give up the desire, though the desire may not be the need, or what that character needs for the world to return back to normal.

Here are other things to keep in mind for a great first page:

  • Avoid back story, but weave it in later in the novel. This moves the story backward.
  • Don’t have the character just reacting, but show that the character will act and take charge in future scenes and conflict. This gets the story moving forward.
  • Involve the reader emotionally, showing what’s at stake for the character. When the character faces difficulty, the character will emotionally respond to those events and situations. If life’s easy, the character will be bored or pleased at the same-old stuff, but there won’t be a story.
  • Set up the conflict, both internal and external, to create the tension.
  • Hint at the character’s fatal flaw, or what will make achieving the desire even more difficult. This provides even more tension.

A great first page gives character and situation, while grounding the story in a setting, including time, place, season and even weather. The basics need to be provided alongside the difference—or what makes this page, and this novel, worthy of hours of investment.

Running and Writing (and getting inspired)

In Writing Discipline, Writing Goals, Writing Inspiration, Writing Processes on August 14, 2016 at 11:00 am

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.

Writing and Coffee (and providing good descriptions)

In Writing, Writing Processes, Writing Tips on August 7, 2016 at 11:00 am


My cute dog, Zoey, likes coffee, too!

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. 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.”

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.

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.

(Note: This is my 300th blog post!)


Assembling a short story collection

In Writing, Writing Processes, Writing Short Stories on July 17, 2016 at 11:00 am

I’m trying a writing experiment, where I’m setting a dozen short stories in the same setting, hoping that the stories tie together toward some big climax and disaster.

Instead, I’ve gotten very observant about the coffee shop that serves as my setting and the characters in each individual story. The coffee shop is real but everything else is made up pantser style.

Each story has a nice little plot with the arc of beginning, middle and end.

Each story has a regular cast of characters with the dialog, dialog tags and interactions carrying the plot forward.

And each story has a narrator with a distinct voice, some in first or third person.

The problem is the stories aren’t coming together in a nice, pat plotline.

Instead, they are acting as separate stories not wanting to hang out with my other stories.

I’m a pantser writer, but I’d planned to have my stories move toward some great explosion at the end.  I’ve written 11 stories for the “collection” ranging from 700 to 15,000 words.

I set one of the stories around a barista who regularly shows up in several of the stories, but he became someone else, and I had to change his name from Aaron to Alex. Alex wasn’t such a nice guy. Aaron was, for the most part. Shana is another barista who regularly appears in the collection, retaining her B-word-iness throughout, so I’m happy about that. We’ve all got to have a B.

Here’s what I learned—and still need to do—about writing and assembling a collection of short stories:

  • Aim for at least 40,000 words.
  • Focus on a genre and stylistic approach, such as literary or commercial.
  • Keep the tone similar from story to story, or mix them up so something dark is next to something light.
  • Choose the best stories and don’t put in everything, because maybe the stories don’t fit or need more work.
  • Try to get one or two of those stories published.
  • Give the collection a title that shows how the stories tie together, such as using the title of the strongest story.
  • Start off and end with the strongest stories.
  • Mix the lengths from one story to the next, putting long next to short.

And write some more if there seems to be gaps in the unfolding of the stories, which need to have some element tying them together.

For me, that means getting back to writing and figuring out the great disaster.

Revision: Heaven? Hell?

In Revising, Writing, Writing Processes, Writing Tips on June 26, 2016 at 11:00 am

Is revision heaven or hell?

I used to think it was hell, a form of sitting-in-front-of-the-computer torture, even though I knew it was part of the process of writing. I didn’t understand the writers who loved, liked or even tolerated that process.

And then I did the 12th or 13th—I’m not sure—revision on the young adult novel I finished a couple of years ago. Something clicked, and I began to enjoy what I read, fixed, edited, changed, added and cut. I’d set it aside for a few months, and instead of seeing it as lines to edit, I saw it as a story outside of myself.

I moved from subjective to slight objective as I evaluated my work. The “objectivity” resulted from taking on the imaginary perspective of the agent or editor, and not the writer, as I looked at and evaluated my work. I pretended I was a first-time reader.

I’ve learned that when it comes to revision, there are multiple approaches to take, such as starting from page one and reading to the end, looking for glaring errors in plot and character development, or focusing on different elements of the story, such as voice, character, plot, setting or theme, one at a time.

With either approach, here are some questions to ask:

  • Is the voice of the main character consistent; does it have enough depth; and does it show who that character is? Are there different voices and ways of talking among the different characters?
  • Does the plot make sense, or are there any holes or places to add in transitions? Do any of the characters get to place B without getting there physically? Are the characters acting consistently in the moment as they sit, stand, talk and gesture, so that they aren’t suddenly standing without a mention of the movement?
  • Do the main characters change from the beginning to the end of the novel? Do they get what they want? Is what they need different from what they want?
  • Is there a way to add a symbolic layer, such as carrying out an image throughout that has additional meaning to the characters or to the unfolding of the story?
  • Are there enough setting details to give a good picture without slowing the pace?
  • Are there cuts you can make of unnecessary details to tighten the writing, or scenes that aren’t necessary to carry the story forward?
  • Is the pace consistent with the action of the storyline, or does the story drag in places?
  • Are there repetitions in character thoughts, facts and description, making the reader wonder, “Did I already read that?”

There also are some line level edits to look for:

  • Get rid of as many “that’s,” “was/were’s” and adverbs and uses of the passive voice.
  • Remove word echoes, or the same words that appear too close together.
  • Look for missing periods, commas and quotation marks.
  • Look for compound words that have been divided and any misused/misspelled words.

Taking these steps, plus a few others, will help produce cleaner copy that will be even more entertaining to read the next time, because with each revision, there are fewer errors to interfere with the process. Revising a million times turns a work into something that becomes something to read and enjoy.

Novels vs. novellas

In Writing, Writing Novellas, Writing Novels, Writing Processes, Writing Short Stories on May 22, 2016 at 11:00 am

I wrote a short story I intended to be a short story, but then I thought when it kept going on and on, it might be a long short story.

Now, at 15,000 words, it’s anything but.

Nor, is it a novella.

That means I’ll have to cut a few thousand words or add a few scenes and more words, develop the characters more deeply and add to the plot strands.

So, what makes for a novella and is it a viable option for storytelling?

Novellas are typically 20,000 to 50,000 words or 17,500 to 40,000 words, depending on the definition you find.

Comparatively, novels can be 50,000 to 90,000 words (or more), or an average of 80,000 words, and short stories can range up to 10,000 words (though I’ve seen some literary journals accept longer short stories).

A novella, intended to be consumed in a single sitting, typically has fewer conflicts than a novel but is more complicated with more scenes than a short story. There is more time to develop those conflicts and the characters engaged in or instigating the conflicts.

The conflicts are part of one storyline, instead of part of several subplots which can be developed in longer works but are difficult to fit into the framework of a short book. There also is typically one point of view, though there is space for more details and description than in a short story.

And the setting can be varied that unlike a short story is best confined to one time and one place or a couple at most.

In essence, a novella is a shortened novel or a very long short story that isn’t here or there, but there are a few that have had success, like Edith Wharton’s “A Lost Lady.”

As for mine, I will review what I’ve written and see if it fits the arc of a complete story, or if I stopped early because I’d set my mind to writing a short story and had just gotten carried away.

On to editing and revising and reconsidering the next step for my short story-novella-novel, or whatever it will be.

Conquering the sucky first draft

In Revising, Writing, Writing Discipline, Writing Processes on March 27, 2016 at 11:00 am

I love writing, and I love having written.

But when it comes to revising my writing, I kind of, sort of don’t have as much fun with the whole being a writer thing.

Revision takes work, discipline and hours of time—for me, more hours than the first draft when you get to sit and spill. You get to think, I’m a writer. I’m writing. But when you’re revising, it’s not as fun to run to your manuscript and think, I’m looking at you, you big unwieldy thing.

The first go around with the very rough, very messy draft, however, can be interesting. Sometimes.

It’s when I get to wonder what it was I actually created at the meta-level. I remember the overall story, but sometimes the details slip my mind. I turn into a reader albeit with my figurative big red pen (since I edit my first draft on the computer to save time on a ton of cutting and pasting and adding and rearranging).

As I read, I sometimes think, oh, I wrote that? And then the whole cumbersome process of looking at my manuscript seems kind of fun, because I like surprises. I like seeing I’ve accomplished something. And I like making my writing better.

Revision takes work and multiple drafts to get to clean, tight copy.

To revise, a writer can look at the overall writing elements individually, such as voice, dialog, setting, character and plot. Then, there’s the level of transition and flow, so that scenes are complete without holes, followed by grammar, sentence structure and missed periods, misplaced and misused words and misspellings Spell check didn’t catch.

Here are some questions to ask during the revision process:

Is the point of view consistent? Or, if there are several point of views, do the characters get their own space? (Changing point of view in the same paragraph is jarring for the reader.)

Is the voice the same for the main character, or does it show change, such as insecure to confident or angry to acceptance? How are words used to show voice?

Is there an inciting incident that sets the story in motion?

Are there holes in the plot? Are there dropped elements? Is there too much space or time spent on the beginning, middle or end? Does the middle sag? Does the end disappoint? And do the plot strings tie together by the end?

Do the characters have physical features, introduced the first time they appear in the story?

Does the dialog move the plot?

I find that by the time I’m sick of my 12th or 15th draft, my novel’s ready to go. I’ve read it so many times I’m not editing anymore but changing unnecessarily. That’s when it’s time to say, it’s my best.

It’s time for a new project and to market the current one.

Basically, it’s time to move on.


What writers need to survive writing

In Writing Goals, Writing Processes, Writing Tips on March 6, 2016 at 11:00 am

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, a hard schedule to follow year round.)
  • 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 coach and cheerleader.
  • Congratulate yourself when you write.
  • 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 string or personally. 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 caffeine. Pair your writing routine with your favorite treat, so that when you write, you get your treat.

Getting out of writer’s block with freewriting

In Writer's Block, Writing, Writing Discipline, Writing Processes on February 28, 2016 at 11:00 am

DinneratHouse3 12-15I love to write, but it can be a struggle.

Writer’s block is the common term for not being able to write as the writer faces the black page or the middle of a project. Is it a matter of losing the inspiration or motivation to write, or not having the time and space? Is it wanting to write but not being able to access the words? Is it not having anything new to think about or ways to describe things? Or is it not knowing where to go next?

Every time I face writer’s block, I engage in a little bit of B.S., my form of freewriting where I don’t care about anything but putting one word after another, placing speed above content.

Over the past week, I wanted to write a couple of short stories after finishing a novel in January and not wanting to edit/revise it—not my favorite part of the writing process, though I love to edit other people’s work. So, I made up my own prompt—I’ve used prompts multiple times as a freewriting, block-freeing exercise—and found it to be particularly successful.

I picked a setting and a situation and started writing. Twice, I selected a coffee shop and for the situations, a bad date gone worse and a mother-daughter argument turning to forgiveness. For the third prompt, I engaged in freewriting with another writer—she picked the setting of a forest, and I picked a camping trip.

With all three freewriting exercises, I let go of my editor self and just started writing, not thinking too hard with my characters already in a situation and not having to come up with some great plot idea. I let them act and talk, not analyzing what they said and how their words and gestures revealed personality, behavior and motivation.

Freewriting allows for free association as you let the mind go. It’s a way to get ideas for a short story or a novel you’re already working on. It’s a way to think of new ways to describe your characters and come up with new plot elements or snippets of dialog. It’s a way to get into a scene but not worry about its importance to the overall story, or if what you write can stand up as a short story.

When the prompts have nothing to do with your current project, it allows you to think of your writing in new ways. Sometimes ideas come, and you discover where and how you can use those ideas. If you get something down, it can be rough, and then with the editing and revision process, you can give it shape.

It’s process, then product.

It’s at the subconscious level coming out, then the more careful conscious cutting and pasting and crafting into the shape of story.