Shelley Widhalm

Posts Tagged ‘Reading’

The Joy of Reading

In Reading, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on February 16, 2014 at 11:30 am

What comes first, wanting to be a writer or being a reader?

My guess is the second, or if not, wanting the glamour or the passion of the first.

I started with reading, loving the escape of books. I made sure I understood the meaning of words individually and together in sentences and paragraphs, and then could picture each detail from the landscape of setting to the psychology of character.

Over time, I became less of a careful reader, going for the movie screen effect, so that the words fly by into a colorful unrolling of setting and action. I want to read fast to feel the characters and the world of the book come alive, but doing this, I lose the individual words.

Reading multitudes of books (for me, about one a week) offers a way to absorb how other writers approach description, character development, dialogue and storytelling. It’s a way to experience different styles, or ways of using language through word choice and sentence structure.

Alternatively, by reading slowly, you can be more conscious of how you evaluate the writing. You can look at how the writer specifically employs each element of writing and assembles sentences and paragraphs, instead of doing so at the subconscious level.

As you read, slow down and ask these questions:

• Does the plot maintain your interest? Are there transitions, or does the storyline feel episodic and choppy?
• Are the major characters realistic? Do the minor characters serve a role in the story without drawing too much attention to their identities?
• Does the description of the setting make you feel like you’re there or do you trip over the words, because it’s too flowery and long?
• Is the dialogue how people talk without everything spelled out but with underlying meaning and an unspoken understanding between the characters?
• Is the theme played out in a new and interesting way, or do you feel like you’ve read the book a hundred times over?

Sometimes if I don’t like a book, I don’t just put it down. I try to identify if it is the style I dislike, or if it something about the storyline or the character development that bored me.

Reading makes for better writers, and writing makes for better readers as you learn about and develop a better understanding about what constitutes a great novel.

Writing Beautiful

In 52: A Writer's Life, Good Books, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on September 22, 2013 at 11:00 am

There are two levels of writing: the craft of writing and the beauty of writing.

In the first instance, books successfully execute plot and character arcs to tell stories with beginnings, middles and ends.

They fulfill all of the craft elements with an engaging plot, interesting characters who talk in entertaining dialogue and settings that set the story in a particular time and place, balancing detail with story.

These books offer a satisfying read through a character’s compelling personality and behavior patterns, plus at least one quirk, and a plot that balances pace with tension. The pace slows or speeds up where necessary to bolster the tension among characters, forces and the ticking clock of time’s forward movement and suspense of what happens next.

The story moves at a nice clip without dragging along and boring the reader with the beat of a metronome.

Perfectly crafted and executed writing, however, can lack magic, or the ephemeral within and arising out of the beauty of writing. Beautiful writing starts at the sentence level and unfolds out to character, story and message.

A radiant and clever sentence inspires awe, stopping the reader for a second read to comprehend all of the nuances of language and meaning. Such a sentence could compare unlike objects in a new way with unusual details, but not too many to the point of being flowery.

For example, this sentence stopped me in my reading:
“The sweet, cotton-candy scent of a hundred blooming irises rides the breeze.” (“Such a Pretty Girl,” Laura Wiess)

A beautiful sentence could capture a life lesson in a few words, known, unknown or something the reader already knows but doesn’t fully understand.

I was caught by this sentence: “It seems to me that growing older means a growing collection of paths not taken. More and more ‘what-if’ left behind. (“Real Life and Liars,” Kristina Riggle)

A sentence with beauty could give an unexpected detail: “There was avocado, wrinkled and grumpy on the outside …” (“The School of Essential Ingredients,” Erica Bauermeister)

Beautiful stories enlarge upon the craft elements of writing through a balance of literary, poetic sentences with text that tells, without exaggerating that beauty and, thus, exhausting the reader with endless strings of neon bright words. The characters, the story and the setting resonate, echoing into readers’ other lives, making them think, reflect and mentally return to the story time and again.

These stories have a message that changes readers, giving them new experiences, life lessons and ways of seeing the world that they can tuck into their hearts as they search for, and hopefully find, the next breath-taking book.

Book Clubs: For Readers/Writers

In 52: A Writer's Life, Book Clubs, Shelley Widhalm on August 11, 2013 at 11:00 am

Readers who love books and talking about books join book clubs, but writers who do so can double dip, literally.

They can improve their analytical skills in reading, while also discovering what makes for good writing that appeals to a cross-section of readers.

I discovered this fact after I joined a book club that meets monthly at the Barnes & Noble in Fort Collins.

We each make a recommendation about what we want to read, and as a result compile a laundry list of titles. Since I’ve joined, we’ve read “The Forgotten Garden,” “Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English,” “The Language of Flowers,” “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” and “Falling Together.”

Book clubs are a way to discover books and authors you wouldn’t find on your own and to sample new genres, particularly if you’re part of a general club that tries to appeal to all of the readers in the group.

In my group, the members ask questions and notice aspects about the book that I didn’t catch, because everyone, of course, has a different perspective and worldview. For instance, one of the members is from England and brought in her own experiences with English tea time when we discussed “The Forgotten Garden,” by Kate Morton.

I’ve seen what life elements, including personal, social and political, readers will bring to a discussion, adding to the background of what I know about the book’s setting and circumstances.

All of this together enriches my reading experience, causing me to look deeper at what I read, as well as pay closer attention to plot and character development, so that I know what the other readers are referring to in the discussion.

In addition to improving reading skills, being part of a book club can help a writer:

• Learn what readers of different interests like that’s the same or different.
• Identify the types of characters they like and what, to them, makes for a good character description.
• Pinpoint where they get bored in the plot.
• Find out if they like how the dialogue is carried out and if it’s realistic to them.
• Figure out what they like about each writer’s style and voice.
• Discover what they first notice about the book.
• Find out why they dislike certain books and love others.

At the end of each hour-long discussion, the members rate the book on a sale of 1-10. A good book gets mostly 9s and 10s, while a mediocre book gets 4s to 7s. A book also can get mixed reviews.

After the discussion, I like to ponder the ratings to figure out why the book got that rating. This helps me get a peek into the reader’s mind, though, as a writer, I won’t write to that reader unless I’m starting with something already within myself that needs expression.

Theme in Writing (Reading)

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on March 18, 2012 at 10:00 am

Though it seems so basic to me now, I used to struggle with identifying the theme in the books I read.

A definition of theme is that it is the main message of the story or the central idea the writer is expressing. It is what the story really is about and why the story matters.

In other words, it is the deeper layer of meaning running through the story’s surface.

Theme is the glue that holds together a story. Otherwise, the story consists of this happening and then this and that and lacks that meaning.

As an early reader, I identified several “themes” in the text that, for me, added many layers through my interpretation of the unfolding events. But I couldn’t say what the main theme was, such as good versus evil or overcoming some difficulty to achieve success. I couldn’t narrow what I read into a few words, though I could summarize the plot from the beginning through the climax to the end.

The same goes with my writing. I just want to tell a story. I come up with character identities and a brief plot outline. It’s not until I start writing and thinking about my story that themes arise, usually more than one.

Theme is not just a simple idea fleshed into story; it is how the writer interprets the world. It is how the writer explains what people do as they interact with that world and with each other.

The writer doesn’t have to come up with some great revelation about human behavior but simply can offer some insight or comments. The writer can achieve this without being overbearing, preachy or heavy handed.

Readers, in turn, interpret the theme, or themes, differently by noticing different aspects of the story. The theme makes them think and ask questions about what they’re reading but also about their own lives.

It is the lesson or conclusion that can be drawn from the story that adds value to the greater world.

* See Zoey’s blog on the same topic at

Reading to Write Better

In 52 Writing Topics, Reading, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on March 11, 2012 at 10:00 am

In my chase of 52 writing topics in 52 weeks, I am pausing on reading as a type of prewriting.

At least this is what I tell myself. I am a bibliophile addicted to reading and have to read at least every other day. I can go without reading for one day, but not two in a row.

I can give up caffeine easier than books, and when I do – usually when I’m sick in bed or trying to be healthier – I get the withdrawal headaches. I don’t get headaches when I don’t read, but I’ll start plotting how I can get my next reading fix.

Like caffeine giving energy, reading is essential to becoming a better writer. It is a way to experience different styles, or ways of using language through word choice, sentence structure and description.

The words are absorbed like anything wet into something dry, expanding the dry object so that it has more heft. So will your vocabulary, giving you more options in how you describe the people, places and things of your fictional, or nonfictional, world.

Another aspect of reading toward writing is thinking about what you read. This can be done by analyzing the different elements of how the story is put together, looking at the plot, characters, setting and dialogue and the author’s voice.

Here are some possible questions to ask while reading:

* Does the plot maintain your interest? Are there transitions or does the storyline feel choppy and lack transitions?

* Are the major characters realistic? Do the minor characters serve a role in the story without drawing too much attention to their identities?

* Does the description of the setting make you feel like you’re there or do you trip over the words, because it’s too flowery and long?

* Is the dialogue how people talk without everything spelled out but with underlying meaning and an unspoken understanding between the characters?

At first, I used to read just for pleasure, but now I engage in reading analytically, asking what I like about the story elements. If I don’t like a book, I don’t just put it down. I ask why and try to identify if it is the style I dislike, or if it something about the storyline or the character development.

As a final note, I think to become a better writer, read on a regular basis. Take your book with you wherever you go.

* See Zoey my dog’s blog on reading at Zoey’s Paw.

A Writer’s Santa Wish List

In Frustration, Passions, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on December 25, 2011 at 10:30 am

I’m long past the time of believing in Santa Claus, but like a few adults, I wish I could believe in the Christmas wish list.


Faith carries the writer through the frustrations of sitting on piles of completed but unpublished manuscripts.

And faith is what is required for believing in the North Pole resident who delivers wishes in exchange for milk and cookies.

If I were to mail off my wish list for writers, it would contain some essentials, including:

* A room of one’s own, or a place to write that is comfortable but also fosters excitement and imagination.

* Time to write in that place.

* Some sort of financial backing that allows for that writing (juggling a full-time job with writing doesn’t open up the space for creativity but limits it to certain hours, likely when the writer is tired, at least for me).

Beyond the essentials of who, what and where, there is the how of being a writer.

A writer, I believe, needs to constantly observe and participate in life, both through being there and a part of things and reading about it.

This gives the writer something to write about, at least from external influences, added to the given internal dialogue, reflections and thoughts.

Studying through reading writers’ magazines, taking classes and attending conferences also adds to what a writer knows about the process.

But what is absolutely essential is that snap-and-pull attraction toward words without which there wouldn’t be anything to who you are. Words and how they sound and feel in the mouth and the ear are the foundation of the passion, at least for me.

The salt is the way I am lifted out of myself into the beauty of letting my fingers trill over a keyboard as I create out of the rhythm of my breath.

Dear Santa,

Please do not let my frustration break my heart.
I guess that is my only real wish.