Shelley Widhalm

Posts Tagged ‘Writing Tips’

Transitions in Seasons (and How it Relates to Writing)

In Transitions, Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Tips on October 14, 2018 at 5:00 pm

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The table centerpiece is a perfect way to transition into fall with fresh-picked apples mixed with the colors of autumn.

The change from summer to fall or fall to winter is more gradual than the calendar indicates.

In Colorado, there’s often an afterthought of heat in late fall or an early snow before summer ends. The change occurs like sliding down a hill with some going back up until the season feels like, yep, it’s fall, or yes, time for the winter jackets.

An abrupt change in season can be compared to writing without transition—it’s hot and then it’s cold without anything in between.

Transitions in Story

Transitions are essential to keep the direction of the storyline clear, instead of skipping without explanation from one time or place to another, confusing readers as they try to figure out where exactly they are in the story. For instance, they might think they are in a coffee shop and suddenly they are in some memory about traveling to another country.

Transitions serve as a bridge that signals a shift in the story, such as a change in time, place, mood, tone or point of view. They mark a scene break, ideally at the moment of heightened suspense, causing the reader to want to know what happens next.

The point-of-view character’s physical environment, or what’s happening around her, can transition into her internal thoughts, memories or reflections. The character may see an object or hear something that triggers recollections of some event from her past. The recalling of past events in the present through flashback interrupts the flow of narrative. The tense can be changed—such as present to past or past to past perfect—to indicate her entry into or exiting out of the memory or flashback. Sensory impressions can be used to take the character out of the memory and return the character to the present moment. Or dialogue can cause the character to come back to the present, though she might ask, “What? What are you talking about?”

Transitions as Roadmap

Transitions serve as that roadmap, or weather guide, keeping the reader within the story world, so that moving between time and place seems natural without suddenly needing to change clothes or pull out the umbrella, wondering what to do next.

I prefer my summer to spill into fall, winter to be short and spring to arrive quickly. But I appreciate all four seasons because sameness would not give that excitement of change, or transition!

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How to Train Your Writing (and Your Puppy)

In Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Discipline, Writing Motivation, Writing Tips on August 5, 2018 at 5:00 pm

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Zoey the Dachshund demonstrates Up as one of her obedience tricks.

Improving writing skills and training a puppy have some similarities.

I got Zoey, a long-haired miniature dachshund, nine years ago when she was nine weeks old. I started writing when I was eight or nine—short stories and cute poems—becoming serious about it in college.

With both, I had to train my puppy and I had to train my writing. Neither came naturally to me, so I had to become a student to learn the essentials and then become more proficient with practice.

Training Writing, Training a Puppy

I found that to do either well requires research, experience and knowledge—and, of course, patience. I read about a dozen books about dog training, dog behavior and the dachshund breed, and with writing, I read close to 50 books about the writing process and various elements of writing, along with two monthly magazines.

I took Zoey to puppy kindergarten and through intermediate training to provide her with skills in basic obedience. She received a certificate and had her photo taken with a mini-dog graduation cap.

To make sure there isn’t slide, we practice those skills on a daily basis—commands like sit, down, stay, shake and come and walking on a leash. We, however, haven’t got past the treat effect—Zoey expects and requires a treat for each skill she demonstrates. For her shakes, she rapidly waves her paw as she tries to be patient. I touch it and give her what she wants.

We go on walks, and I learned that I shouldn’t pull her on her leash but patiently wait for her to understand what I want through treats and praises. I praise her when she walks and wait her out when she sniffs. I praise her when we return to walking. She gets a treat when we get home.

She especially likes it when people want to stop and give her attention—dogs are social animals and need to have comfort and routine.

How to Improve Writing, Dog Behavior

Here are a few things I learned about maintaining good behavior in a dog (and how it relates to writing):

  • Provide at least 30 minutes of exercise a day to keep the dog healthy and to release energy that when unused can result in poor behaviors (write at least once a week to keep up the routine and practice of writing; more if there is time).
  • Do obedience training to improve the dog’s mental stamina and prowess (do writing prompts, even for five minutes, to stimulate the mind and promote larger pieces of writing).
  • Do obedience training on a consistent basis to turn a dog’s good behaviors into a habit (write on a consistent basis, such as once a week, to turn that practice into a habit).
  • Offer regular playtimes, so the dog can build a relationship with you and also have fun (think of writing as a hobby and something that is for after work or playtime).
  • Pet the dog through belly rubs, head patting and massages to create an emotional bond (think of your writing as a relationship between you and your words).
  • Set the same time every night for bedtime, so that dogs have an expectation of when to settle down (write at the same time and in the same place to create an expectation that now is the time to write, even if the writing may not seem good or out of flow, or at least at first).

These are just a few ways to provide a pattern to let the dog (and your writing self) know what to expect, thereby establishing a good routine to follow. The result is a well-trained dog and a well-trained writer, eager to get to the work and fun of both.

Writing with a Bang (even during holidays/vacations)

In Vacations, Writing Advice, Writing Discipline, Writing Tips on July 1, 2018 at 5:00 pm

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This is called bun chasing. Check out the shorebird at Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, Fla., with the bun on the run.

Getting back to writing or blogging can be a bit difficult if it’s sunny out and you’ve just been on vacation—add in that Independence Day is quickly approaching, giving you another reason to let your brain keep on being on holiday.

Yep, I’ve got the holiday/vacation motivation and discipline problem.

First off, I returned to a pile of work, a tad tired from riding the rollercoasters at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens during my early June visit to Clearwater, Fla. I had so much fun, six days into my trip, when I went to Howard Beach and collected a few seashells, I came home to a big long afternoon nap.

Writing Reality

Two days later, I had to re-shift to reality, though I had a load of memories to use for my writing. I have a couple of favorites, including seeing a shorebird grab a hamburger bun at Busch Gardens and run about, but not able to take a bite for all the other birds ensuing in a hungry chase. I also loved riding the Manta at SeaWorld and feeling like I was flying, twirling in loops and going upside down. (I must have a thing for birds.)

As I got back to my work routine, I thought about how I lost track of what I love—writing though it oftentimes feels like work.

Writing requires time, energy, thought, discipline, motivation and desire. Writing isn’t always easy even for a writer, while being on vacation or holiday is easy. Just relax, have fun, and go places. One of my friends kindly reminded me that the other place you visit becomes mundane once it is your every day. I’d put some magic around Florida, thinking I’d been in heaven with all the fun. Writing seemed not so heaven-like, requiring sitting in a chair and not running about. But from my vacation, I collected new images and new ways of seeing, and thus, describing things. I had something to compare the old with the new.

Writing Return

I figured if I want to write, I have to sit in a chair and treat it seriously. Here’s a few ways to get back to writing (without it being too much like work):

  • Identify your goal or what you want to accomplish.
  • Develop a writing routine, setting aside time each day or week to help you reach the goal.
  • Find a special place to do your writing, so that it gives you inspiration and comfort.
  • Keep track of the time you dedicate to writing, demonstrating your work toward your goal.
  • Take credit for each accomplishment toward the goal.
  • Don’t allow for excuses, at least most of the time, while also realizing that setbacks will happen.
  • Forgive yourself if you get sidetracked or frustrated.

And as you engage in writing, remember to keep the commitment and to keep going, no matter what. For those who like writing, writing is fun (and, if treated right, it can feel like vacation!).

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Shelley Widhalm poses by the Manta ride at SeaWorld, which feels like flying.

Comparing Coffee and Writing

In Description, Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Discipline on February 18, 2018 at 8:00 am

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Coffee and writing are two loves that go well together.

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.

Why Description is Important

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.”

What to Avoid in Description

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.

A Final Thought on Description

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.

Top 10 Tips for Writing Poetry

In Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Poetry, Writing Tips on January 28, 2018 at 6:00 pm

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Shelley Widhalm of Shell’s Ink Services reads her poetry during a poetry reading in November 2016 to launch “Sunrise Summits: A Poetry Anthology.”

Poetry is an art and a discipline that ranges from whatever goes to the very specifics of form and use of language.

It can take many shapes from free verse that is open in structure to a fixed form that follows specific rules to the semi-fixed form of prose poems. The fixed forms include sonnets, sestinas, villanelles or haikus that have specific meters, syllable counts and rhyming schemes. Prose poems combine poetry and prose through a block of text written in poetic language.

Free verse poetry doesn’t have a specific meter or syllable count or a consistent rhythm and sound. This form is open but still engages one or more of the poetic devices that add musicality to the words.

Some of the poetic devices include alliteration, the repetition of initial consonant sounds; consonance, the repetition of internal consonant sounds; and assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds. There also is onomatopoeia, or words that imitate the sounds they stand for, such as hiss, buzz or squawk, and slant rhyme, the similar sound of two words that are nearly identical.

Poems, no matter the form they take, are about feeling, emotion, stories and moments. They have tempo, rhythm, color, sound and movement as they capture an experience, thought, idea or observation.

To Write a Poem, Here are Some Things to Think About

  • Think of the intent of the poem and what it is you want to express.
  • Use the senses—seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting—to capture your thoughts, ideas, feelings and observations.
  • Play around with words and descriptions, or simply put words on the page and rearrange them.
  • Decide if you want your poem to be lyrical or narrative. A lyrical poem is a snapshot or a fixed moment of time; it is a poem of a single image, thought or emotion. A narrative poem tells a story and has a plot with beginning, middle and end.
  • Avoid using clichés, generalities and vague concepts, like love, hope and war.
  • Avoid overusing trite words, such as tears and heart, opting for comparisons and concrete language instead.
  • Avoid overuse of the words “and,” “that” and “the,” which often are not needed. Cut unnecessary words to tighten the poem’s language.
  • To get to the concrete, describe the specifics, such as how a sunflower lowers its seed-filled head to show change from day to night.
  • Once the poem is written, reread it to cut excess words to get to the heart of the poem.
  • Explore what your poem is really saying and look for ideas that can be further explored. Your subconscious may have made connections your conscious mind doesn’t readily see. This can happen as you surrender to the writing and the beauty that comes out of the unfolding of words.

One Final Thought About Poetry

Poetry, no matter its form, shape or the devices it uses, becomes art as it uses language to create something of beauty, and its craft through the employment of those devices to make that beauty.

Finding Work-Life Balance with Writing

In Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Inspiration, Writing Motivation on November 5, 2017 at 6:00 pm

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Balancing writing with the rest of life is important to avoid too much time in front of the computer and to gather experiences for even more writing.

I don’t like sitting, and I don’t like being in front of a computer—at least for long periods of time.

But I used to not even think about my tools of writing. They were just there for me to use—and replace every so often when they got old and nonfunctional.

I write for a living, and I write for fun with the goal to make the writing I want to do—writing novels—full time. It’s a lot of writing, as a result, but I try to balance it with daily exercise—running and lifting weights—and doing social things.

Balance, how do you achieve it when you work life and dream life both involve computers?

Finding the Work-Life Balance:

  • First of all, make sure you read.
  • Set aside certain times for writing, but don’t guilt yourself if you don’t write.
  • Vary where you write, such as at home, a park, a restaurant or a coffee shop and find something stimulating in that environment to think about or absorb—such as the grinding of the coffee beans or the way the air feels as time shifts from high noon into the afternoon.
  • Take breaks every few minutes to stretch, or take a mini-walk for a mind refresher.
  • Make sure you have free time to do whatever you want that gives you a break from the routine, particularly if it doesn’t involve writing.
  • Try writing in a notebook if computers are your normal tool, or vice versa. The switch may cause you to see and write differently—handwriting slows you down, while typing causes you to lose the pen-hand connection and get lost in the writer’s world.
  • Find a new interest or hobby, or even forge a new friendship, to learn something new or see things from a new perspective.
  • Congratulate yourself when you write when you don’t feel like it.

One Final Note:

Lastly, realize it’s the writer’s life, that constant need for discipline, motivation and encouragement. Make sure to get out to the 3D, real world to gather those experiences that are much needed for the writing life.

 

Why Exactly is Editing Important?

In Editing, Editing Advice, Editing as Part of Writing, Writing, Writing Advice on October 29, 2017 at 5:00 pm

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Once the writing is done, it’s time to take out the red pen!

Editing is part of the writing process, or most definitely should be, even for emails.

Too many errors, and expert status is lowered, and writers look careless, as if they do not know what they’re doing. It gives the message that it’s OK, because everyone else is doing it, so why not join in? There isn’t enough time, or it’s not necessary. It’s just a rough draft, but it needs to be sent off anyway.

If it’s fiction, it won’t get a read if there are too many glaring errors, despite the content. Or if it’s self-published, the writing looks amateurish, making it hard to trust the story and stay on the page—errors cause the eye to stop and notice them instead of the plot, characters and setting.

Editing and a review process are important for all writers, no matter the skill level, because no one can write anything great and perfect the first time. In the least, there could be a typo or a missed word.

Before editing, set aside the writing (unless it’s an email or communication that needs to be immediately sent off) for a day or hire a third party to review the work.

Here are a few reasons why editing is important:

  • To ensure what you wrote matches what you intended to say and that your message gets across.
  • To ensure what you wrote is what you meant to write, instead of what is actually there, such as saying “their,” instead of “there.” It’s harder to see your own mistakes.
  • To tighten up what you wrote, so that there are not repetitions of material or awkward transitions between ideas or paragraphs.
  • To add missing information or to correct factual errors.
  • To make sure the flow of thoughts and ideas is logical and that there is a good structure to how the material is presented.
  • To make sure everything is understandable with the right amount of detail, but not too much detail that attention is lost.

Hiring an editor to do that editing:

Writers can start off by doing a round of their own editing to fix anything they find before hiring an editor. Manuscripts with lots of errors or sloppy writing take longer to edit and, if the editor charges by the hour, cost more.

Or, hire the editor right away, but realize that editing is best done in at least two rounds, one for general editing and a second for proofreading to catch additional errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation and mechanics.

Longer manuscripts generally go through multiple stages of editing, including structural or developmental editing that looks at the entire manuscript, line editing at each individual line of text and then final proofreading to check for any missed errors.

Editing from an outside perspective can be more objective—writers get stuck in their own writing and love it because it’s their work.

The readers, too, will appreciate the editing, showing them that what they’re reading is worth their time and energy. An error won’t make them start asking questions about the meaning, the content or the writer.

 

Editing 101: The Multiple Forms of Editing

In Editing, Editing Advice, Editing as Part of Writing, Writing, Writing Advice on October 22, 2017 at 5:00 pm

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Editing is not a simple, one-step process, especially if the goal is to achieve clean, compelling writing that keeps readers wanting to read to the end.

Editing involves multiple layers from revising the overall structure of the manuscript to slow reading and evaluating at the individual line level. Editing has multiple names for those layers from the big picture of the rough draft to the small picture of proofreading of the nearly clean copy.

The Positive of Editing

When it comes to my own work, I wish I could read it once and think, “Oh, that’s nice,” and go on to more writing. But I know, too, that what I write is a rough draft and not close to the final product.

I find slight comfort in the fact that editing can be similar to writing as sentences, paragraphs and new ideas are added or removed to get to the core of the topic or story, so that there isn’t anything extra or boring or any mistakes detracting from the message.

Editing fiction can add a layer of entertainment with new scenes, sections of dialog or character qualities. For nonfiction, layering in details or inserting additional quotes can bring in more complexity, as long as the addition is tied smoothly to what comes before and after.

Levels of Editing

Here are a few different types of editing from the big picture down to the small detail, along with the tasks of each type:

  • Structural or Substantive Editing: Reorganize the manuscript for content or structure; make sure there are transitions between ideas; and clarify any areas of confusion or lack of data or a missing scene.
  • Stylistic Editing: Clarify meaning; eliminate jargon or awkward word usages; make sure the writer’s voice is consistent throughout; and make sure the entire text and the language within reads cleanly and smoothly.
  • Copy Editing: Edit for grammar, spelling, punctuation and other mechanics of style; make sure details and descriptions are consistent; and make sure the use of language and mechanics are consistent.
  • Fact Checking: Check for accuracy of facts by checking various original sources.
  • Proofreading: Read proofs of edited manuscript or give edited copy a final read-through for errors not caught in previous editing rounds.

Error-Free

The aim of the multiple layers of editing is to achieve clean copy that reads smoothly without too many extraneous details or detracting thoughts, ideas or information. By editing in layers, the idea is to catch all or most errors. This is difficult to do if you’re trying to understand the overall content at a quicker reading pace, while also reading slowly at the line level. The two levels of reading need to be separated into different steps.

Reading in layers allows for different attention levels to the text, so that all of the pieces come together in something that is interesting, readable and compelling from the first line to the end.

The Social Media Side of Writing

In NCW Writers Conference, Northern Colorado Writers, Writers Conferences, Writing, Writing Tips on May 14, 2017 at 11:00 am

Going to a conference or networking event is the three-dimensional side of social media.

How? Attendees are trying to get likes, fans and friends, and they’re trying to build an audience.

I attended the Northern Colorado Writers Conference in Fort Collins earlier this month to pick up tips on writing, editing and publishing but found myself drawn to a couple of the social media and marketing sessions.

The conference, carrying the tagline “Imagination: The Alchemy of Writing,” offered 32 one-hour sessions over two days taught by agents, editors and authors on the craft and business side of writing. More than 130 writers and authors attended the conference May 5-6.

“The small size makes it a very welcoming conference, and the people that come to this conference want to see everyone succeed,” said Kerrie Flanagan, creative team member for the conference and one of the presenters on self-publishing and magazine writing.

Some of the sessions focused on elements of writing, like plotting, developing a hero character and writing sex scenes. Other sessions gave tips on the various forms of writing, such as screenplays, personal essays and flash fiction, which are really short stories.

Social Media and Marketing

I attended a session on “Social Media & Marketing: Navigating the Event Horizon,” presented by author J.C. Lynne.

Lynne recommended writers develop a platform to increase visibility and accessibility to actual, potential and future readers and to make it authentic.

“Authentic platforms take time and are about quality relationships,” Lynne said. “You’re fooling yourself if you think you won’t have to market your book, no matter if you’re traditionally, independently or self-published. … Even big publishers aren’t willing to spend money on marketing.”

A platform demonstrates a writers’ expertise, while also serving as virtual word-of-mouth to grow an audience. It can include things like a website, regular blogs and social media channels, such as GoodReads, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Putting content on the various outlets lets readers get to know and interact with the writer and keep up to date with the writer’s activities, involvements and publications.

“People don’t go to book signings anymore,” Lynne said.

More Marketing Tips

Other sessions included a guide to creating marketing materials, building an author website and the differences among e-publishing, print-on-demand and other self-publishing options.

I attended writer and editor Jessica Strawser’s session on “How to Be a Writer Editors Love,” where I picked up additional tips on marketing and social media.

“Editors today are looking for the total package: good, talented writers informed about the market,” said Strawser, Writer Digest Magazine editorial director.

Editors look for writers with platforms and who are consistent and prolific in their work, Strawser said.

“Editors like to work with writers who are savvy about the industry,” she said.

Strawser recommended writers build their platforms through websites, social media channels and local networks to build a larger base and collect more followers. A local network can be expanded by sending emails to acquaintances or people met through networking events and by asking them out to coffee.

“It will happen organically,” Strawser said.

Fiction Writing Tips (that make writing fun)

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

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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.