Shelley Widhalm

Posts Tagged ‘Writing Processes’

Writing Out Your Soul

In Reflections on Writing, The Writing Life, Writing, Writing Inspiration on June 18, 2017 at 5:00 pm

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Writing is a way to craft internal processing into interesting stories and content.

Writing is like confronting your soul.

It digs to let the subconscious come forward, while the conscious part of the mind thought it simply was taking notes and plotting out the story. The subconscious has things to say you didn’t necessarily know about or were too busy to give any attention to … until you have no choice but to listen.

The inside stuff comes out in unexpected ways exposing what you won’t admit in your head. Even if your writing is all about the characters, plot and setting that doesn’t seem like you, there is a piece of you in the words that unravel into the form of story.

The unraveling happened to me when I wrote my young adult novel, “In the Grace of Beautiful Stars.” Fifteen-year-old Grace Elliott, my main character, faces impeding homelessness and tries to save her family through money finding. She wonders if her ability to find fives, tens and twenties is a gift, a coincidence or something she’s manifesting.

While writing the book, I consciously looked for money and found coins and dollar bills, but afterward realized I was searching for more. I’d let life dictate how things happen to me, taking jobs and making decisions because I thought that was all I could get. I wasn’t confident even if I had a mostly comfortable childhood.

At a young age, Grace worked hard to save herself and her younger sister, who she’d protect to the death like the sister pair in The Hunger Games. I feel guilty I had teased my younger brother—I dressed him up in girl clothes and made him play my girly games. I left him out when my girlfriends came over. I sent him away with candy.

The brother who as an adult I adore married last weekend, and the time leading up to it, I felt jealous and sad and questioned what our family will be like now.

I thought about my mother, too, and how I’d been angry with her when I was a teen and then in my thirties and for a spot in my forties. She didn’t deserve my dragging up the past, but like Grace, I had mother issues over things that, really, had more to do with me. And then once I realized what I was doing, I had to forgive myself for being angry with her.

I realized as I wrote Grace and revised her story, my subconscious wanted to come out and tell me to collect, not money, but self-love, self-worth and self-value despite what life does on the outside. It let me know I don’t have to be an adult with mommy, money and fear issues.

What I’d done is “Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. … Tell the truth as you understand it. … Truth is always subversive,” as Anne Lamott said in Bird by Bird.

Writing is an emotional experience that causes joy and pain and love, and as you write, or after, you wonder what exactly happened. You ask yourself, “Why do these words cause me to feel things I didn’t know where inside and now are outside?”

Writing gives you the ability to see new things. And to feel, and to describe and hear and absorb.

Writing is emotional, intellectual and an interior process. We, as writers, need to tell our truths and our stories. We need to be at a place of perspective, so we can write about it, even if it’s fiction, because writing comes out of that center and our knowledge and experience.

Note: My blog appeared as a guest blog on June 14, 2017, at the Writing Bug, a blog by writers for writers published by Northern Colorado Writers, at http://www.writingbugncw.com/2017/06/writing-out-your-soul.html.

 

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.

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.

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.

Coming back to incomplete stories

In Getting Unstuck in Writing, Reflections on Writing, Writing, Writing Discipline on July 10, 2016 at 11:00 am

Writers can get those thorns in the side, or what I call incomplete works that have potential coupled with a big black lack.

The lack, or “lack” because it’s temporary, is like a flaw that through some thought can be worked out.

Maybe the lack is from a dip in motivation to return to the starter idea, because it’s moved from a small rip to a hole.

Maybe it’s from not knowing where to go next, or from stitching that’s uneven from not seeing the thread to move it along.

Or, maybe it’s from having too many ideas that cannot be sorted out in immediate thought but needs some subconscious work, achieved by getting in front of the story and doing some pantsing, freewriting and exploring. It’s from too much thread covering up the hole, so that the material becomes tough, needing some of the stitches let loose.

It also can be, instead of from a lack of direction, the result of trying to be too perfect, trying to come up with the whole product without seeing the small steps, or stitches, needed to get to the seam.

That’s because it’s hard to hold the whole story in the head.

What I’ve found is that it’s okay to not know where the story is headed.

Earlier this week, I returned to a short story hanging out with the gap of a middle and the lack of an ending. My story only had a beginning. It had a protagonist who made me uncomfortable—he was male, not my usual point-of-view, and he had a rough, sardonic voice.

I’d wanted to fix and find the rest of what I’d started.  I decided, I’m just going to finish this thing.

To do so, I had to let go of my planning, controlling thoughts and go deeper into the mind where raw stories can emerge. I had to let the characters take over, setting aside plotting and planning, and also my ego, so I could immerse in the story.

I filtered out the rest of the noise, outside and inside, thus increasing my focus.

And I allowed my mind to go free, so the subconscious could solve the plot and characterization problems I’d launched into that left me temporarily directionless. I took the material that I had and found that as I let my mind go, I was solving problems and coming up with new material.

I found that my writing became about risk taking, surprises, making it up and letting go. I found, too, that I hadn’t wanted to leave the story for too long, abandoned, because it would become unfamiliar and not me.

I came back for my middle and The End.

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.

Short stories vs. novels

In Writing Flash Fiction, Writing Novels, Writing Short Stories on May 15, 2016 at 11:00 am

I find writing short stories more challenging than going for the long haul of writing a novel.

A short story requires you to get in, get out and do it in a way that brings in all of the story elements—plot, character, setting and dialog—without boring the reader. With a novel, you can take your time—but not too much—setting up the igniting spark, storyline, theme, character identities and other story elements.

The length of a short story varies from 1,000-5,000 words or anything or up to 10,000 words, depending on the publication or publishing house doing the defining. Generally, anything less than 1,000 words is considered flash fiction.

Novels are 50,000 words or more, or average 75,000 to 90,000 words.

Because of their length, novels need to sustain readers’ interests over several reading sessions, while a short story can be consumed in one sitting in a few minutes or a couple of hours.

Because of limited space, a short story focuses on a specific time, place, event and interaction. The timeframe typically covers days or weeks, and the setting cannot be in too many places.

Short stories typically begin with a crisis or conflict, getting to the point right away, lacking the time or space for long setups. They have one or a few characters and present a snapshot into the lives of those characters, avoiding long character histories and descriptions.

Also when writing short stories, consider the following:

  • Show, don’t tell with the action.
  • Use first or third-person, or two characters shifting point of view.
  • Express a single theme, or message to get across to the readers.

Essentially, think of a short story as a scene or two that tells an entire story in a quick-to- consume fashion.

Flash fiction vs. short stories

In Flash Fiction, Short Fiction, Short Stories on May 8, 2016 at 11:00 am

I love the term flash fiction, because it makes me think of storytelling that is quick and flashy.

It’s writing that is short, descriptive and to the point but deceptively complex in its tightness.

Flash fiction is 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: I recycled this blog from a year ago, because I am so behind with my personal writing and editing projects that I didn’t have time to blog this week. I have a deadline for one of my projects at the end of May.)

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.