Archive for the ‘Shelley Widhalm, Writer’ Category

Giving a good reading

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

For some reason, I’m not nervous when I give a reading, but that doesn’t mean I connect with the audience either.

I gave a reading during the Loveland Loves Literature event Saturday, Sept. 21, at the Loveland Feed and Grain, a depilated monster of a building that will become part of ArtSpace, a live-work center for writers and artists.

More than two dozen literary and performing artists took the stage over two days for half-hour or full-hour slots. My slot was a half-hour, which I shared with a poet friend of mine, Ravitte Kentwortz.

Before I read, I talked with another writer, who recommended grounding my energy by imagining my feet as connected to the floor. She suggested I throw my energy to the back of the room to include everyone in the audience.

But once I was at the microphone, I rambled more than I wanted to about each piece. I read a short story called “Tainted Proposal,” based on a coin toss, as well as three poems and a two-page excerpt from my novel, “The Fire Painter.”

As I read, I kept reminding myself to look at the audience. I forgot to make eye contact, too focused on reading slowly as if I was doing a book-on-tape to add personality to my words.

On hindsight, I wish I had reviewed my collection of articles on giving a gogod reading. Here a few of the suggestions:

  • Vary the pace or content, choosing work that differs in subject matter, length, pacing and tone. Make sure what you choose is not all exposition and includes some dialogue, imagery and a strong story line. Edit out the “he said” and “she said” markers. (I did all of this.)
  • Mark  your text for voice and emphasis. (I highlighted my dialogue blue for the male character and red for the female character.)
  • Think  of your reading as a performance. (My short story character, Jane, was a librarian, so I dressed conservatively, wore glasses and had my hair in an updo.)
  • Select pieces that relate thematically. (Umm, I didn’t do that.)
  • Explain the context of what you’re reading, such as summarizing the plot for an excerpt from a novel, or the inspiration for a poem. Write this out ahead of time.
  • Rehearse, reading the work out loud and enunciating clearly. Practice in front of  friends.
  • Time  yourself. (I never could figure out the length, but somehow I kept my reading to 15 minutes.)
  • Publicize  your reading via social media, Flyers and emailing friend

The Benefits of Book Clubs

Friday, September 6th, 2013

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.

The advantage of writing groups

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

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 – Northern Colorado 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 NCCFW 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.

The importance of Character Arc

Saturday, July 6th, 2013

After reading “Twilight” by Stephanie Meyer, I couldn’t figure out why some of my writer friends called it popcorn, poorly written material.

At a party last month, I asked one of those friends to explain, particularly because I had gotten caught up in the young adult story and liked the characters, though now I can’t remember their names and had to look them up (Bella Swan and Edward Cullen). That should have been a clue right there. Memorable characters have memorable names, like Scarlet O’Hara, Scout, Jay Gatsby, Elizabeth Bennett and the couple Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley.

One writer friend said that the point-of-view character, Bella, who falls in love with Edward, a sexy vampire whose extreme beauty is almost un-human, doesn’t change.

In other words, there is no character arc for her where she undergoes some kind of transition and learns something in the process. She’s just a pretty girl who ends up with the vampire boyfriend.

A character arc demonstrates the point-of-view character’s growth process through the unfolding of the story through beginning, middle and end. Without a character arc, which is graphed as a curve alongside the plot, the story becomes a series of events lacking anything tying them together.

The character has to want something, or she already has what she wants and loses it. She has a certain viewpoint at the onset that changes by the end. She is impacted by the plot, and as a result changes and grows.

The character arc is the line of movement in the story as this character faces her flaws, fears, attitudes and limitations and overcomes them to get what she wants or needs but does not initially recognize or acknowledge. When she faces her flaws, she is forced to face the truth about herself and as she does so, is able to consciously choose to change or not to change.

The inner or outer journey she undergoes from beginning to end causes growth and transformation of who she is. A negative arc will take her from a good place to bad, while a positive one takes her from bad to good. An arc that isn’t so clear cut allows her to achieve some of what she wants or needs, but not everything.

Regardless, she is a different character at the end of the book and not the same old Bella, or beauty, she was at the beginning.

Writing Quality vs. Product Quality

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

As the quality of everything else declines, writing quality remains high for writing contests and publishing houses.
This is an interesting consequence of the Great Recession.
Fewer buyers in the market decreased demand, but companies and CEO’s wanted to retain profitability. Buyers, who are not ignorant though treated as such, were forced to purchase lower-grade items, do without or pay high-end prices for items that also have declined in durability and appearance, but not as much.
This quality has plummeted in two noticeable areas, that of clothing and food. Both have gone up in price, while becoming low-grade.
In the area of clothing, jeans now include 1 or 2 percent spandex, so that they do not have to be cut for each size but can use one pattern. Cotton looks nappy in the store, as if the threads are popping out. And material is thinner, sometimes almost see through, seams are poorly stitched, and zippers and other notions are flimsy.
As for food, portions are smaller, ingredients are cheaper lacking taste, and prices are higher.
We are wearing clothes that look used when just purchased, hang sloppily and don’t fit properly. We’re eating food that’s practically doubled in price. And we’re putting up with this.
Yet, we are the readers who demand high-quality literature from a shrinking publishing market. And we get this quality, because literary agents and publishing houses have more to select from with less room to publish.
Alternatively, retailers, restaurants and grocery stores aren’t catering to anybody but their own bottom line.
So I ask, why the difference?

Understanding Your Canine Friend

Monday, May 6th, 2013

I need smells, lots of them, because I’m a dog, but not just a dog, an extraordinarily cute miniature dachshund.

Call me Zoey.

Understand me as a complex animal that sees, smells and knows the world differently than humans.

My BFF Shelley is reading “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know,” by Alexandra Horowitz, but I don’t think she needs to read a book to get how I operate.

The book advises Shelley to read my behaviors and not to anthropomorphize me and to consider my unwelt, or my subjective, or self-world. To understand me, Shelley’s role is to figure out what’s meaningful to me, or what I can perceive, plus how I act in the world.

Anywhere where I can’t sit, lie down or eat food is not part of my world and blends into my background. Take food, for example. It comes from some place with a door (a cabinet) and automatically appears in my bowl. I am handed pieces of it when I use the potty box, do something good or sit or obey other obedience commands.

I act, or behave, according to my desire to receive the food, so I sit even though I want to snap up the treat instantly and chow down.

When I go on walks, I smell my way with my nose toward the ground, trying to figure out the news of my environment. I’m a sniff-a-vestigator.

Ms. Horowitz states that dogs make eye contact with humans to look to them “for information, for reassurance, for guidance.” I stare down the hallway at Shelley when she’s in the kitchen without food smells, trying to figure out if she’s going to leave, take me with her or head to the couch, where I can curl up with my favorite human. She doesn’t tell me what her plans are, which I think is unfair. I have to sit there and figure it all out.

What’s even more unfair is Shelley reads all these books to figure me out when I’m right here available for reassuring her that I’m all love and friendship.

(This is from Shelley Widhalm's blog Zoey's Paw on WordPress.)

Poetic Inspirations

Monday, April 8th, 2013

The idea of writing a poem a day is a bit daunting.

First, where does the inspiration come from, especially if you write poems as they come, even when the writing space is awkward on napkins or receipt tape? Do you have to try poetry exercises to get the spark started? Or do you just sit down and write whatever spills out?

Second, where do you find those special sparkly moments to condense into a few magical words if you’ve got work, chores and life? Or do those things feed into experience that in turn gives you ideas, thoughts and emotions to smooth like peanut butter into cadence and meter?

It’s National Poetry Month, when poetry is celebrated and poets undertake the challenge to write a poem a day during the month of April.

To write poetry, I listen to music or observe something around me, such as the way a budding tree (I can’t identify the type outside the coffee shop window) zigzags its branches across the street, a skeletal umbrella against the fading blue night.

When I’m listening to music, I filter out some of the words for a starting point, or I match the rhythm of what I hear into the feel of language as I write. The words rumble through my chest, causing my heart to speed up as if I were running, when all I’m doing is chasing beautiful language.

Sometimes what I write is nonsense, though I try to find a line or an idea to play with later.

I don’t pick a form to follow, unless I’m writing from an exercise or trying out the directions for writing sonnets, haikus and sestinas and the like. I might write in blank verse, a type of unrhymed poetry written in regular meter, which is the stress on syllables. Or I might write in free verse that does not contain a consistent meter pattern or rhyme.

These various forms I will try during my poem-a-day challenge, as if sorting through a pile of clothes in the dressing room.

As I do this, I will take five to 15 minutes from my busy, pushy life to notice what I haven’t before, searching out inspiration, hope and poetry love.

Revision Commitment

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

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.

Golden Dog Books, Book 3

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

The Tale of Zoey Dog (Zoey’s version of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”)

Once upon a time there were four little dogs, and their names were Pansy, Poppy, Mopsy and Zoey. They lived with their momma in a big dog bed in the den.

“Now, my dears,” said Momma Dog one morning, “you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into the garden. Now run along and be good puppies.”

Pansy, Poppy and Mopsy were very good indeed and went down the lane to sniff for treats. But Zoey, who has a naughty streak, went to the garden, where she ate carrots and tomatoes until she felt rather bleak.

That is, until Ms. Humbledum, the garden’s owner, yelled, “Stop, thief.”

Zoey was dreadfully afraid and forgot her way back to the den. She lost a shoe and started to bawl until she collided with a net and ripped her hoodie, feeling very much the fool.

After what seemed to be hours and hours, Zoey found her paw print at the gate. She ran as fast as she could go, even though Ms. Humbledum caught sight of her.

Zoey didn’t care and slipped underneath to escape.

“I’m safe,” she yelped.

Zoey ran the rest of the way home, so very tired, that she flopped down in the den and shut her eyes.

Momma wondered what had happened to Zoey’s one shoe and hoodie. Zoey, who was a wee bit sick, wouldn’t say. Momma sent her straight to bed, while Pansy, Poppy and Mopsy got treats. Those three stayed up very late eating, playing and having fun.

That’s what happens to naughty dogs. They don’t get treats, or to have fun.

Zoey sighed, falling into a long, sleepy pout, feeling very sick indeed.

Planning vs. Organic Writing

Sunday, December 9th, 2012

There are two types of writers, those who outline and those who don’t.

The outliners plan out each chapter, as well as the entire structure of the novel from the beginning to the end. Their planning can include character biographies or sketches, storyboards of plot elements, and research notes of setting, character identity and the other elements of fiction.

Organic writers write as they go, letting the characters or storyline lead the way as the telling unfolds.

I’m an organic writer who needs a rough outline.

For my novel, “The Fire Painter,” which I am editing, I came up with an idea spark as I was sitting in a coffee shop nearly one year ago. I had thrown away a doggie piggy bank my late grandmother had given me because it had a crack, and then I had grieved the loss of a gift coming from love.

I took out my laptop and began writing about a character losing more than just one thing, but everything she owns in a house fire. I wanted to explore what she would do to retrieve her lost things and wrote out some random ideas on one page of paper.

A couple of weeks later, I began to write without knowing exactly where I was heading. A quarter of the way in, I figured out a possible ending without knowing exactly how I’d get there.

Halfway through, I wondered what I could possibly write next. I experienced the middle-of-the-novel slump that outliners, I believe, probably do not encounter as frequently or as deeply. They know where the novel is heading, as well as the purpose of each chapter that carries the plot to the ending.

Unlike the pure organics, I do some planning. At the end of each writing session, I sketch ideas for a few chapters, using the rough notes I initially wrote and add to them as well.

With outlines or rough notes, I find it best to think of them as a suggestion. I want to make sure to think through my main characters and plotlines, so that the story can be sustained over the span of a novel.

I basically want to get from here – an idea of the piggy bank – to there, or my 90,000-page rough draft that I finished in early December. It took me 11 months to turn a visual image into a story that, for me, means so much more than the gift from my grandmother, now that I’ve recreated it in words.