Archive for June 2016

Why #OwnVoices & #OwnYourOwn Matter to Me   Leave a comment

Expanding world-r1.jpg

I’m not part of the demographic for #OwnVoices and #OwnYourOwn, but I strongly believe in their message. Why? Because books open worlds to anyone who reads them.

Think about the voices that shaped who you are today. When you’re very young, your parents and teachers begin to mold your view of the world. As you become a teenager, your friends and social networks took on ever-increasing importance. That’s enough for some, but what if the box society chose for you doesn’t seem to fit? If you’re like me, you turn to books to explore a larger world, always searching for one that does fit. You look for role models, real or fictional, to provide the pieces that seem to be missing.

When I was a teenager, I was fortunate that my parents encouraged reading anything and everything I could lay my hands on. What spending money I had generally went towards buying more books, the public library sustained my need for more than I could afford. Mysteries, thrillers, and coming-of-age stories introduced me to new ways of looking at life and other people. Historical fiction taught me that social expectations were far different even a hundred years ago than in modern society. Science fiction and fantasy opened brand new worlds for me to imagine living in. All of them opened my mind to possibilities that I wasn’t likely to see otherwise.

One of the books I’m currently reading is “The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu,” by Joshua Hammer. It’s about successful efforts to first preserve thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had been collected and handed down through generations, and then save them from Al Qaeda, who sought to destroy them. Because the book is both well-researched and engaging, I’m learning a lot about a part of the world I know very little about (specifically Mali and generally the Middle East), but I can’t help wondering how the narrative might have been different if it was written by someone native to the area.

That is not to say that Joshua Hammer should not have written this book—I enjoy it far too much to say that. I believe there is room for books from the point of view of BOTH visitors and natives to every area. Without such a mix, how are people like me to ever achieve the balanced viewpoint that leads to true understanding of complex events?

I support #OwnVoices and #OwnYourOwn because I believe writers from within under-served groups can open their world so that people like me can better understand it. And I WANT to understand.

Whether they write fiction or fact, memoir or biography or history or worlds that have never been, they can bring their unique perspectives to everyone. Including them detracts nothing from those already writing.

The maps at the start of this article were made just over a century apart but they show a vast expansion in the known world. Hearing from more voices expands our world view in an even more substantial way. And that can only be good for us all.

Posted June 24, 2016 by Leoma Retan in Uncategorized

(Belated) Eulogy for my Father   2 comments

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This picture from 1978 was the only one I could find. All the better ones were used at his memorial and I never got them back.

My father died of brain cancer in 1998, eighteen years ago. This is my eulogy to him—good times I remember, things I should have said when he was alive, and what he meant to me.

Quite simply, I loved him. So why did I wait so long to write his eulogy?

Because when my mother told me she’d asked my niece to give the eulogy it broke my heart, but I said nothing. I didn’t want to push my feelings on her then. I only know that my soul twisted into a tiny ball when my niece started with, “I didn’t really know my grandfather very well.” I knew him, I cried to myself; I could tell a thousand stories about him. But I didn’t tell my stories. For years I carried anger at my mother’s decision, but I never told her. It didn’t seem right. The truth is, it’s my fault, not hers. I should have told her how I felt; she would have listened.

I delayed because even thought I’ve thought about writing this eulogy every time in the past few years that his birthday, or his anniversary, or Father’s Day passed, I knew the memories, even the good ones, would hurt more than anything I’ve ever written.

Now I can only I hope that the heaven I believe in truly exists, and that he can hear my long-delayed words.

My father’s name was Harold… never Harry, not even within the family. He was the most honorable man I’ve ever known and I loved him. Everything else is secondary to that.

To understand my relationship with my father, you have to know that my family has never been the sort to show feelings openly. We don’t hug and kiss. If we’re hurt, physically or emotionally, we don’t talk about it. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about each other. We simply decline to show anyone the cracks and buckles and scars inside. I know my father loved me, though he only said so a handful of times. I know I loved him, though I’m not sure I said it to him at all.

I know he loved me because he let me stand on his feet to walk and dance with him when I was small; because he was always ready to pick me up at whatever airport, train, or bus terminal I happened to arrive at; and because he and my mother flew from Wisconsin to California on a few days notice (super expensive) for no other reason than that I told them it was important to me.

This is who my father was to me, the happy and the sad of my memories.

My father was a man who loved knowledge but despised what he called ‘educated morons,’ people with lots of book knowledge but less common sense than God gave ants.

I remember that He and I both tried to get to the daily crossword puzzle first—whoever didn’t would find at most a letter or two still to be filled in.

My sister once commented that debate was our family sport. She wasn’t wrong. If you made a point with which my father disagreed, you’d better be able to back it up with a good source (which did not include tabloids or hearsay) or you’d be treated to a lecture on all the reasons you were wrong.

On the other hand, when I was in college he once commented that he didn’t think I was studying hard enough. Since my tuition was provided by loans and grants, not by my parents, I proceeded to outline how little they’d been asked to pay towards my college education. Once that point was clarified, he said “OK” and never raised the subject again. His view was that if I was the one paying for it, how much or little I studied was entirely up to me. He was always fair that way.

My father firmly believed that you should should see what your own country had to offer before exploring other places. Because of our annual trips around the country, always with some form of trailer or camper, and his refusal to stop before we reached our chosen destination (except for gas), I now steadfastly refuse to pack sandwiches and eat lunch at the side of the road. That was his way—one I prefer not to repeat. I pull off at rest stops or restaurants and take a proper break.

Most of our early trips were in our home state of Wisconsin. One of those taught us all that guinea pigs and car travel are a bad mix. On later trips, my father, sister, and I hiked up and down trails from the Midwest to the Rocky Mountains, scrambled over rocks in Yellowstone and Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks (I won’t dignify it by calling it rock climbing), and on several occasions took ten-hour horseback rides in Wyoming. I was nearly fearless about physical challenges back then.

Somehow in recent years I’ve grown more timid, which makes me sad. Far sadder are the missed opportunities, the things left unsaid, the interests we could have shared. ‘If only’ must be the two most heartbreaking words in the English language.

When I was a teenager I developed an interest in auto racing (I suspect after reading a story called “Green Racer”). I never told him or anyone else because I was afraid others would find it silly. I was as frightened about emotional hurt as I was brave about physical risks. I only learned years later that he would have been happy to teach me about cars and engines; if only I’d asked.

I nearly made the same mistake with guns. My father was an expert marksman and had trophies to prove it; at one time he was captain of the pistol team at the Air Force base where he worked. He would have been delighted to teach me to shoot, but I never asked about that, either.  I finally took lessons when I lived in California, a few years before he died. I used shooting at innocent paper targets as a way to relieve stress but the best part was that it gave us a shared interest.

The fall before he died, when cancer already had an irrevocable hold on him. I brought my guns home, he collected his, and we went shooting at his local gun club, just the two of us. That day is the most bittersweet of all. Sweet because we spent it together, shooting each other’s guns and talking about everything. Bitter because that was the day I understood how far the cancer had progressed. I was out-shooting him with every weapon. Not because I was that good; but because he could no longer hold them steady. Still, I cherish the memory that day as few others in my life. It was the last time we had together when he could still walk.

As I said at the start, I have a thousand memories of my father—full of laughter and tears, and sometimes anger. I could have had so many more if I hadn’t been afraid to talk about the things that mattered most. I think he might have liked my writing, but I was too afraid then to write my stories on paper, let alone show them to anyone.

This Father’s Day, talk to your father if he’s still alive. In the words of Sara Bareilles’ wonderful song: “Say what you want to say, and let the words fall out, honestly.” Don’t leave yourself saying ‘if only’ when it’s too late.

Posted June 17, 2016 by Leoma Retan in Family, Holidays

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My Zero Moment is at Hand   Leave a comment

End is the beginning r2

Zero Moment – when you create the future

Zero Moment: The point in your career where you start from doing nothing to begin to build something (Gabriela Pereira, DIY MFA book, Chapter 23, DIY MFA pre-order).

My website will be three years old this August. Fortunately for me, very few people have ever seen it. I built it as I was finishing the first draft of my novel, the time when I said: “How the heck do I get this published?” All the books said I needed a platform, so I created one—website, blog, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. I had no clue what to do with it. In retrospect, that was a very good thing.

I realized my site needed a massive overhaul over a year ago. I still thought it looked pretty but the included stories, written several years ago, did not represent my best writing. Nearly all of the information about my current novel was obsolete due to the extensive changes I’ve made since the first draft. Worst of all, or maybe best, the website had no contact information, let alone a picture of me. When I recognized its serious flaws, I stopped putting its URL on my correspondence but didn’t take it down. That wasn’t a priority given that  I was only occasionally updating my blog and I’d decided my novel needed an even bigger overhaul than the site.

Fast forward to 2016. January found me in a bit of a funk. My novel needed work but, despite my best effort, I had no clue how to fix it. Two messages, when combined, completely changed my perspective.

Message 1: A Tweet about Pitch to Publication 2016 (p2p16)—a contest in which writers submit a query letter and the first five pages of their manuscript in the hope of getting the help of a professional editor to polish it in a month; and then submit revised queries and pages to the agent round (similar in concept to Pitch Wars but not the same). I’d decided not to enter any contests until I had a new manuscript, but this seemed perfect—the only drawback was that the submission date was less than a week away by the time I learned about it.

I frantically prepared my material and stalked Twitter for news, but wasn’t selected by any of the editors. I did get positive e-mail feedback, including one message which mentioned potential themes in my work that even I hadn’t noticed. As I investigated the editors and watched the Twitter feed, I decided that what I needed get past my funk was the help of a developmental editor; I was ready to hear the best and the worst about my work.

I received the first set of comments from my chosen editor in late April and will return my first rewrite to her at the end of June. The changes were extensive, but for the first time in a long while I am confident that I can make this book that I love so much truly ready to query. That means I need to fix my platform sooner rather than later, which is what makes the second message especially important.

Message 2: An e-mail that Gabriela Pereira, creator of the DIY MFA (Do-It-Yourself Master of Fine Arts) program was putting together a ‘Street Team’ to help get out the word about her new DIY MFA book. I’ve followed her since I attended one of her lectures at the Writers Digest Conference in New York City last year and was excited about the prospect—but I wasn’t at all sure she’d want me.

As much as I wanted to be on the team, I didn’t feel as though I had much to offer: fewer than 400 Twitter followers, a blog I seldom updated, and my enthusiasm. As far as I could see, apart from enthusiasm (which I was sure everyone else had as well), the only thing that made me slightly interesting was my participation in the organizing committee for a small annual writers conference in central Massachusetts, Write Angles, so I mentioned that. I have no idea if it made a difference, but in the end I was accepted. I waited with growing anticipation for the release of the advanced reader copy of the DIY MFA book and read it cover-to-cover within a few days of receipt.

The last section was pure gold for me. That section talks about social media, websites, and the importance of the Zero Moment—that golden, early moment when you don’t have many followers and can afford to make mistakes in creating your image as a writer. Gabriela’s words encouraged me. I still had a chance to fix my early false start. I responded by reactivating my long-dormant blog and committing to writing weekly posts, committing also to releasing a few writing-related Tweets daily and tracking the effects on my follower numbers, and spending time thinking about what public image I want to project.

Present Time: At the end of June, my editors will have my manuscript for a week to review my updates. That’s enough time to redesign my website, to fix the mistakes I made with the first version (fortunately my husband is experienced at building websites and I have some knowledge as well). I can link my blog to the website properly, update all the text and pictures, and add contact information. If I don’t get everything perfect, it’s OK; I’ll fix it.

This is my Zero Moment, the time that I get to fiddle with my public image without serious consequences. It may never come again.

The DIY MFA Book & Me   2 comments

DIY MFA Book - purple bgThis book would be an asset to any writer’s collection. In fact, I believe it can help anyone involved in creative pursuits. Why? Because it’s not JUST about how to write; it also includes sections about community, reading in a way that helps your writing, and how to balance all three—as a traditional Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program would.

As a member of Gabriela Pereira’s “Street Team” I received an advanced review copy of her Do-It-Yourself Master of Fine Arts (diy MFA) book (DIY MFA pre-order). I intend to buy a hard copy version as soon as possible.

When I started the book I had an fairly good idea what I would find in the writing section because I attended Ms. Pereira’s plotting session at the 2015 Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City. I was sure it would be both clear and concise. It didn’t disappoint. The section includes the chapters about character and world building, generating ideas, plotting, and outlining, among others. It shows several alternatives to traditional outlining. Mind Maps (a way of organizing topics and subtopics graphically to more easily see connections), are mainly useful for organizing prescriptive non-fiction (how-to). Story sketches and story maps, are helpful in all story development.

The parts I personally found most helpful, since I’ve read numerous books about writing techniques, were the sections about self-motivation, how and why to build social networks, and reading with purpose. These apply to any creative activity, not just writing.

I won’t use all of the techniques suggested, nor does the book recommend doing so. Unlike many writing craft books, DIY MFA acknowledges that there is no one writing process that works for everyone. Instead, it provides a variety of methodologies along with the caveat that a writer should find their own “best practice” by changing one thing—just one—about their writing process for a few weeks, tracking its effectiveness, and then either adopting it permanently, revising it for a new trial, or abandoning it.

I’m currently trying three suggestions from the book. Since only one is directly related to writing I don’t think that violates the “just one change at a time” principle.

First, I’m strengthening my motivation by telling people my plans and my progress, as the book suggests. I tweet my progress relative to my goal every few days, knowing that my editors follow me on Twitter. In order to accomplish this, I actually have to keep track of how how many chapters I’ve edited every day and check that I am still on track to finish the project in early July, as I promised I would do. Last week I discovered that even though I’d completed, or exceeded, the expected number of chapters each week I was still behind because the massive re-organization of the first half of my novel resulted in more chapters than I had in the last version. I worked hard over Memorial Day weekend and am pleased to say I’ve nearly caught up.

At the same time, I’m trying to increase my social connections without taking too much away from my writing time. To that end, I committed myself on one of my Facebook groups to writing at least one blog every week and tweeting daily. That’s a big step given that my blog production in the past two years has been sporadic at best. When I started this effort in May, I was stunned to realize that although I’d planned at least a dozen blogs I hadn’t actually posted one since December 2014. I write my blogs only after I’ve reached my novel editing target for the week. I avoid letting my commitment to daily tweeting from becoming a massive black hole of time by limiting myself to no more than 10 minutes at a time on Twitter. The result of posting less than 10 tweets per day, half original and half re-tweets, is a 7% increase in followers after 11 days—not too bad.

The DIY MFA Book directive to “read with purpose” is the hardest task for me to accomplish. Reading is not the problem. I’ve always read widely and voraciously. But I’ve never spent much time analyzing what the author has done that makes me love, tolerate, or dislike their work.

Currently I have two books started. The first is a fantasy, my own genre, that I bought in the hope that it might provide a suitable competitive title for my own novel. The first chapter drew me in. After that, I was pushed away by too many character and place names and far too much back story in the opening chapters. By chapter 6, I was wallowing in confusion. The second is a cozy mystery that I came upon in my house and didn’t remember reading. It’s not technically as well written as the first but I’m enjoying it a good deal more. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish the first book. I may return to the far more engaging “Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu,” the non-fiction tale of a successful effort to preserve thousands of Islamic documents from the ravages of ISIS, instead.

What I need to do now is to look at both carefully and understand what’s good and not-so-good in each of them, why one draws me forward and the other is easy to put down after reading a single chapter, and how to implement the good and avoid the bad in my own novel.

I’ll let you know how these three experiments work out in a couple of months. (Another public commitment–see how easy it is?)

The book, DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community (DIY MFA pre-order), is currently available for pre-order. The official Amazon release date is 8 July 2016 but you may find it in brick-and-mortar stores as soon as late June.

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