Shelley Widhalm

Posts Tagged ‘Writing Process’

The Advantages of Writing Groups

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on August 4, 2013 at 11:00 am

Joining both a book club and a writer’s group cross pollinates the writing process.

This I have found from my membership in two writer’s groups – Rocky Mountain Christian Fiction Writers and Our Weekly Writers’ Workshops meets … Under the Cuckoo Clock – and a book club that holds monthly meetings at Barnes & Noble in Fort Collins.

The Weekly Writers’ Workshop, which I joined in 2008 to get back into writing, starts each meeting with a writing prompt, followed by a group edit of the work we bring in.

From being a part of this group, I learned new concepts, such as the definition for character arc and what is a word echo (the repetition of a word or phrase within the same paragraph or on the same page).

I improved my editing skills by observing how other writers’ edited each other’s work and also by doing the editing, because practice leads to skill improvement.

And I kept to a writing schedule, wanting something to submit each week for our accountability reports.

At the RMCFW group, which meets monthly, we read a chapter or two from a writing book and then the next month bring in a response to a writing assignment related to the book or a few pages from our current project.

Because of the assignments, I’ve written stories that I would not have thought of without the prompt. I’ve seen how other writers interpret the chapters, expanding what I notice and recall from each chapter. And I’ve remembered the material, because learning new facts and ideas is easier through repetition.

By being part of these two groups, I’ve also realized:

• Words and phrases said out loud read differently than they appear on the page, helping identify where things are stated awkwardly or fail to read smoothly.
• Hearing writing read aloud helps catch grammar mistakes and missing words or grammatical marks.
• Other writers can help point out any weak areas in plot and character development that you may not notice, as well as problems with pacing. For example, my writers’ groups have helped me tighten dialogue by deleting unnecessary pieces of conversation that don’t move the plot forward.

By joining a writers’ group, you can get help with brainstorming plot or other elements and hear a variety of perspectives on what you’ve written. Each writer notices different things, doubling or tripling your editing effort.

A writers’ group serves as a writing community, providing you with people who care about your successes and commiserate with you when you run into obstacles with the writing and getting-published processes.

Next week, I’ll look at how book clubs can improve reading but also writing.

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Top 12 Writing Tips

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Processes on July 28, 2013 at 11:00 am

Over the years, I’ve collected notes about writing habits and the process of writing that I use for inspiration, especially when I feel discouraged.

Here are my top 12 writing tips:

• Write as much as you can, but not necessarily every day, especially if writing isn’t your full-time job. Set a writing quota with daily, weekly or monthly goals, such as writing three to four times a week, two hours each time (which is my new goal now that I’m almost finished with my latest novel writing project).

• Get rid of distractions in your life while you’re writing, and don’t invite in the critic. Both can keep you from writing by serving as excuses to not write or to invite in writer’s block.

• Don’t wait for inspiration. It can come to you when you’re already working. The more you practice writing, the easier it is for words and ideas to come to you.

• Have more awareness, using all the senses when making observations and creating scenes.

• Write when you’re not writing by describing what you see, hear and feel as a running mental description. Write down whatever seems compelling.

• Figure out what is most essential, most loved for you to write about. Write about what interests you, what you want to learn about and, of course, what you know.

• Cherish silence even in noisy environments to let the words come.

• Think about where your writing wants to go, realizing that, with fiction and poetry, 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 unfolds and isn’t readily formed until it’s written. Get the story down, then fine tune it with details, nuances and deepening of the plot, character and setting. 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.

The fun side of writing (plus a little structure)

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on July 14, 2013 at 11:00 am

Sometimes I wonder why I write when I could be out playing.

As a journalist by day, I conduct research, interview sources and write feature and news articles, spending at least half of the 40-hour work week writing.

After work, I want to write some more, or at least I think I do. I have the usual excuses of I’m tired, I don’t know what to write about, I’ve already been writing all day and I want to be doing something else. Anything.

Recently, I’ve learned two things about writing outside of the work life.

First, it’s important to schedule time for writing. One of my writer friends came up with a great plan that isn’t stressful, while freeing her of the guilt of not writing. She agreed to write for one hour two times a week and for two hours once during the weekend, or four hours a week.

“You can get a lot of writing done that way,” she said.

I am trying that plan, writing or editing three times a week. As for hours, I let it be open.

Second, writing should be entirely about having fun, at least before you’re published and have to consider the needs and requirements of your bosses that include your agent, editor, publishing house and readers. A published writing friend told me that though she still gets joy out of writing, she has deadlines and has to treat her writing like a job.

So, when writing is just about the process, here is what I consider makes writing fun, a joy and my passion:

• I get to use the thesaurus, think about word usage and play around with language.
• I come up with ways to describe things that I wouldn’t normally think about through simple observation. When I write down words for a description, they build on and contrast against each other, so that I discover something in the object, landscape or whatever else that I wouldn’t have noticed through only my senses.
• I learn things about human interaction and behavior I wouldn’t have otherwise through only living life without the written reflection. I get to pause and reflect on how people act and engage in dialogue with each other and spend time alone in order to develop my plot and character arcs and storylines. (For example, dialogue in writing requires conversation to be shortened to quicken the pace of the story by leaving out the uninteresting, non-telling bits that slow down the telling.)
• I learn new facts in a variety of subjects, from history to biology, as I research details for my stories.
• I experience life in ways that are different from three-dimensional living by going into two dimensions, writing out what could be lived if the characters I created were real.

Finally, the more I write on paper, the more I go about living writing in my head, so that my thoughts are richer, more interesting (at least to me) and help me grow into a more reflective, thoughtful, creative and imaginative person.

What causes writing to go bad

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on June 2, 2013 at 11:00 am

Can a writer of fiction still read just for pleasure?

I don’t think so, at least not entirely.

The more I learn about the writing process and what makes for good writing, the harder it is for me to glide over errors.

The most obvious – grammatical errors – can be annoying.

But what really gets me is a poorly set up first chapter, the use of clichés and dialogue that goes on and on without hinging on the plot or character development.

I read these bad books because if I bought them or they were given to me, I feel obligated. I agonize that if I get rid of the book, there might have been some gem in it somewhere, even though I have to drag through most of the staccato sentences to find the shine.

Some of these annoying errors occur in best-sellers (I won’t name any because I’m trying to keep my blog mostly about happy, good writer thoughts) and in books published by major houses.

The errors that make me, the reader, want to take out the red pen include:

• An opening with a scene in bed or with sex if the book is not erotica.
• Sentences of similar structure without any variety and repeating words and phrases in the same paragraph or paragraphs next to each other.
• Scenes that make logistics unclear, including flashbacks that whip the reader from one time period to another without stop.
• Dialogue with back story, especially if the background facts go on for paragraphs as if the characters are on stage acting before an audience. They wouldn’t be having these conversations in their worlds, because who talks to their friend, “Remember when” and gives all the details, unless the friend has a memory disorder.
• Dialogue that sounds like real conversation with all the pauses, inanities and back-and-forth interactions but without saying anything important to the setting, plot or character development. I read this bit of dialogue in the back I’m trying to finish because it was one of those given-to-me books:
“See you when I see you,” I say.
“See you when I see you,” he says at the same time.
“Jinx,” we both say.
Seriously? This is not good writing.
• Lack of plot even if the novel is supposed to be literary or a memoir, so that it reads like scenes stacked on each other or stretched out going nowhere. Add in memoirs that read like essays trying to pull off the interesting plot that’s not there.
• Plain writing.

However, however, however, I repeat, reading bad writing can be a good exercise to identify what you hope never shows up in yours.

The Revision Commitment, Take 2

In 52: A Writer's Life, Editing, Revising, Shelley Widhalm on March 10, 2013 at 11:00 am

Revising a novel is like making a long-term commitment to someone you kind of love but maybe find a bit tiring.

In other words, revision is an obligation that, unless you’re a one-draft wonder, is part of the process of writing.

I am in midst of that obligation editing my nearly 90,000-word novel that was, at one time, 92,000-plus words. I didn’t just cut 2,000 words but cut much more, including partial scenes, repetitions and unnecessary descriptions. I also added words by fixing missing logistics of where or when, holes in the plot and character development, and word-heavy dialogues that didn’t make it clear who was speaking.

At 11:59 p.m. Sunday, I made the last red mark in my second revision of “The Fire Painter,” which is about a 30-something artist who loses everything in an apartment fire and searches to replace her lost things.

I like to think of myself as a quick editor, mainly because I want to get in and out and go on to more writing. It’s called diving in, using any and every free moment to heal my pain (pain is editing, healing is finishing editing).

My first revision, which I started Jan. 23 and took two weeks, was a read-through on the computer to fix any areas where the scenes seemed choppy or something didn’t make sense.

The second revision took three weeks and involved a printout and my red pen. In this revision:

• I deleted scenes that partially repeated other scenes.
• I removed facts or information I mentioned earlier in the draft.
• I checked for inconsistencies, such as switching eye or hair color, which I did do without the convenience of new contacts or hair dye.
• I reread the thoughts of two of my characters who tend toward self-pity to avoid making them too whiney.
• I made sure I referred to important objects in the story in a consistent basis, such as the doggie piggybank, instead of dog bank.
• I tightened the language by removing adjectives, details that didn’t push the story and any over-done descriptions.
• With my descriptions, I listened to how the language sounds, as well as to how each sentence builds on the previous sentence.
• I changed areas of dialogue that didn’t sound like how real people talk.
• I filled in words I accidentally left out and fixed any grammar errors I identified, plus added a few missing periods.
• I realized I named two minor characters Linda, so I left the more minor of the two nameless.

I also plan to remove my tics, which I will do with my “search and find” function. I noticed that I love the words “OK,” “nods” and “shrugs.” Picture me nodding and shrugging and saying, “OK, whatever.”

As for other revisions, I know there will be more but as to how many, that depends on how long it will take me to say this is the best I can make my work. And then I’ll be looking for a literary agent. Wish me luck and bon voyage as I travel yet again through my story.

Revision Procrastination

In 52: A Writer's Life, Revising, Shelley Widhalm, Writing Processes on January 27, 2013 at 11:00 am

Normally, I’m not a procrastinator, except when it comes to the revision process.

I had planned to take one month off from my novel, which I finished in early December, and at that time, I wanted to keep on working. That month turned into five weeks and then six and I still have not begun to edit.

A writer friend told me that a first draft needs to sit for awhile to give the writer some distance and time to forget every line written. She recommended not looking at the draft for at least one month but preferably three, except I can’t wait that long with plans to attend a writer’s conference in late March.

So, I have a personal deadline, and yet I haven’t opened the document called Novel, nor printed it out. Instead, I’ve been packing my life with other things, like going to the movies, eating out, seeing friends and reading.

Luckily, reading is the best tool for that in-between time of writing and editing. That’s where writers can analyze how other writers approach storytelling, use the elements of writing and engage a distinctive voice.

Procrastinating editing has a few advantages:

• It’s a way to not actively think about the rough draft, letting some thoughts and processing happen at the subconscious level. Likewise, if writers know all the elements of writing and approaches to telling a story, they may make new connections by not doing everything by rote on a daily basis.
• Writers get a break from their own way of writing and may, from their reading, ponder how other writers use language, choose words and describe the story world.
• Errors are easier to catch with some distance. The idea is to read each word, instead of filling in what should be there, both at the sentence level and the level of character and scene development.
• Writers can be more of a reader, noting where they get bored or their minds wander. They can read the opening scene and, hopefully, be more honest about whether it’s the right place to begin the story, if there is too much backstory early on and if there’s reason to read on to the next chapter.

Finally, procrastinating allows writers to experience life without thinking that they should be writing. Both are necessary and should be kept in balance.

So … I will start editing on Monday, I promise!

Happy New BLOG Year

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on January 6, 2013 at 11:00 am

Blogging is tricky.

A blog needs focus and to have a point, something that draws in readers week to week. But blogging also is a conversation, where bloggers read other blogs, make comments and hope those others will be encouraged to read their blogs.

I haven’t done so well on the conversation front and end up filing away blogs I mean to read. I tell myself I’m busy with work and writing a novel, which I finished in early December and started editing this month. But those are just excuses.

This year, I plan to read those blogs and others to engage in that conversation.

As for my own blog, I will continue to write about the writing process and topics of writing I didn’t explore in last year’s blog, “52: A Year of Writing Basics, Beliefs and Beauty.” I originally wanted to come up with something new and different that I (and few others) have not blogged about, but after some reflection, I decided I should keep blogging about my passion, that of writing.

I approached last year’s blog in a textbook format, trying to cover the writing elements in a somewhat orderly fashion – moving from plot, character, setting and dialogue to different types of writing, such as poetry and short stories. I researched each topic, taking notes and compiling information from my writer’s books and magazines.

This year, I will be more freeform in my choice of topics and will write about my own experiences editing my novel and preparing for my next writing project. I also plan to continue writing poetry and a few short stories, as well as enter contests. This, too, I will blog about.

I plan to leave my blog open ended, so that if I try skydiving or ice fishing (I am afraid of heights and hate being cold, btw), I will blog about it.

This year’s blog is called 52: A Writer’s Life.

Writing Group Rules

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing group on November 11, 2012 at 11:00 am

Joining a writing group is like frosting.

A chocolate cake is just fine plain. Add rainbow confetti topping with the multicolored chocolate chips for that flavorful burst of zing.

That’s what writing groups do for your writing – give it the zing that takes your skills and abilities to the next level.

I joined the Weekly Writers’ Workshop meets Under the Cuckoo Clock more than two years ago. The group of a half-dozen writers meets weekly to do a writing prompt and critique each other’s work.

Through the feedback I’ve received, I better understand how to successfully (or not so successfully) employ the elements of writing, like plot, character, dialogue and setting. I have a visible example of what works and doesn’t work, both at the sentence level and at the level of the overall story structure.

The essential idea of a writing group is to give the writers in the group feedback on their work.

To be most effective, the members should point out both what they like and where the work could be improved with suggestions for revision. The members should keep a balance between positive and negative comments, so that the criticism is constructive.

Writers groups also help to:

  • Point out where the pacing is too slow or too rushed.
  • Indicate areas that need to be cut, expanded or further developed. Is there anything that is glossed over or lacks focus?
  • Give line edits of grammatical errors, awkward phrasings or anything that seems confusing or does not make sense.
  • See the  overall story picture, including the development of character, the weaving of plot threads, the description of setting and the implementation of the other writing elements. Does the plot have tension? Is the dialogue interesting, or is it flat, making you want to skip the quote marks? Do the characters speak in the same voice, or is there variety?
  • Mark the places that seem boring or exciting, as well as any expressions that stand out or seem bothersome.
  • Identify anything missing in the telling of the overall story.

The members can only respond to what’s on the page and should ignore their own reading preferences. They should remember that a writers group is a give-and-take relationship. They should be kind and encouraging and keep all discussion within the meeting room.

Pain-Free Revision

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on October 7, 2012 at 11:00 am

This is my least favorite part of the writing process and the part that requires the most discipline.

It’s revision.

I wouldn’t mind if revision involved reading over what you wrote once, but it takes many reads – and by the time you read your work the sixth time around, you can figure out the ending.

I’ve revised many of my works and still find achieving that objective eye a challenge.

Revising with some objectivity, as well as subjectivity, is a multi-step process that requires several steps and a few tricks.

Writers vary in how they revise their work, but I like to give a first read through for obvious errors in spelling and grammar, words that are missing or misused, and sentence structure that is awkward or clumsy.

I like to ask if the overall story make sense. Is there enough at stake in the plot? Are there any boring parts or parts that are over-explained?

Are there areas that are exciting, but feel too rushed?

Does the story end, or simply drop off, because the concluding pages were rushed or forced?

Are the characters well-developed, and do they seem real not two-dimensional?

In additional reads, I find it helpful to find the areas that need more detail or explanation. I remove unnecessary backstory and any passages that slow the pace. Doing this allows the characters and the conflict to be more evident.

Also when editing, I recommend:

  • Looking for needless repetitions, awkward transitions and poor word choice.
  • Cutting unnecessary words, sentences and even scenes that do not move the story forward or clutter what you’re trying to say.
  • Using the active voice whenever you can.
  • Varying the sentence structures, so that not every sentence reads subject-verb-object.
  • Getting rid of clichés, unless used for a specific purpose or as a character trait.
  • Writing visually and making sure some or all of the senses are used, including sight, sound, touch, hearing and taste.
  • Tightening the dialogue, cutting unnecessary conversation fillers like, “How are you doing?” and areas where conversation seems to repeat.

And most importantly, make sure your showing and only telling when necessary.

Roughing it with First Drafts

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on September 30, 2012 at 11:00 am

Expecting a perfect first or rough draft in writing is like expecting a perfect first date.

First drafts are for getting the story in your head onto paper, just as a first date is getting how you imagine it will go into actuality. You can’t tell if your writing is good or bad while you’re writing, only after reading and rereading your words when you’re finished.

The second and third drafts are for editing, rewriting and polishing. (As for dating, you might not want to edit or polish your date.)

As I write my first drafts, I’ve learned to silence the inner critic, or editor. I have to let go and let the words, plot lines and characters have some of the control. I have to let my writing free and write freely.

If I start worrying over sentences and paragraphs, I stall on what to say next. I am unsure if what I write will be as smart and smooth as what I had spent several minutes fine-tuning.

Writers, as they write, need to relax and trust the process and their ability to write, imagine and create.

A few things I’ve learned about first drafts include:

* Write who you are and what you know.

* As you write, try things out and see what works and what doesn’t.

* Realize the draft can be messy and sloppy with fill-in-the-blanks.

* Realize that some of the pieces may not fit together, because you may change your mind as the story evolves.

Write the first draft as quickly as possible, which will give your narrative a cleaner trajectory. You won’t have complete mastery of that trajectory until you’ve written the final word.

Set the draft aside for a few days and then read it over for content.

The second draft is for adding details and deleting heavy description and unnecessary dialogue that doesn’t move the story forward. It’s for digging deeper into your characters’ identities and motivations now that you know what will happen to them.

As you edit, look for grammatical mistakes, spelling errors your Spellchecker won’t catch and word echoes.

And as you edit, realize that you can’t catch every mistake the first time round. That’s why most writing requires several drafts before “perfection” is possible.