Author Archive

ICE FLIGHT is live   Leave a comment

mooney-image

My flash memoir piece, ICE FLIGHT, is now live on the new WriteAngles Journal site, along with several other new entries. Right now it’s 4th from the top, but that will change as more stories and poems are added. Check it out!

If you’re a writer and live in or near Massachusetts, check out the rest of the conference site. The one-day WriteAngles Conference, now in its 30th year, will be held on 29 October 2016 in at Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, MA. Conference registration is open and one-on-one agent meetings are still available.

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

Dad-Xmas 78- 20160617_093305_cropped-color correct

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.

Take a Risk – Reach for your Dreams   Leave a comment

Fear. It can hold us frozen in place, deny our dreams. Recasting it as a challenge can drive us forward beyond our wildest imaginings.

Gabriela Pereira(diymfa.com) views fear as resistance to change in her new DIY-MFA book (DIY MFA pre-order). She sees it as a compass that leads you to growth.

 

Dog sees steak

Dog sees a roast – Resistance blocks him from reaching it

 

For years I was paralyzed by resistance. When I was young, I wrote myself into a thousand worlds created by others, but they never left my head. I feared that if I put them on paper, someone might see them and laugh at my innermost thoughts and dreams, maybe say they were stupid.

I wrote about business processes and technical details but I seldom shared my inner thoughts, even after I was married. I never shared my precious fiction–not with my family or my friends, certainly not with strangers. I wouldn’t, couldn’t take that risk.

 

Dog settles for dogfood

Resistance wins: Dog settles for dog food

 

Seven years ago I started role playing in the virtual world of Second Life. The owner of the Alinar sim had created a deep history into which individuals were encouraged to write their own stories. I relished the immersive play, which aroused the creative side I’d suppressed for so long.

I submitted a backstory for my character, the first crack in my resistance. Another player told me that the reviewer provided extensive comments and update requests when he sent his story to her. I expected the same. Instead, she added my story, unchanged except for formatting, to the Alinar history book in the library.

 

Dog pushes against resistance

Facing fear: Dog tries to penetrate the resistance barrier

 

My heart sang. A stranger read my fiction and liked it. I wrote more stories and read them at online gatherings, always concealed behind the face and name of one of my avatars. Never as myself.

I was devastated when the Alinar sim folded. I wanted to write more Alinar stories, but Alinar was someone else’s creation. I needed a new background and setting for my work.

I explored other sims. I moved from Second Life to the new virtual world of inWorldz, writing new stories in each place I tried. I even started a novel based in a fictional version of pre-Christian Ireland but I didn’t find a place that resonated with me until I built my own sim.

Together with a friend, the Isles of Gedwimor were born in inWorldz. We created a history and started building some role play but never achieved enough traction to sustain it. My friend eventually pulled out. My own participation in inWorldz dwindled.

By June of 2013, when the concept for my first novel trickled into my brain, I was seldom active in any virtual world. Resistance made me try to push the idea away but it grew larger and stronger than the resistance. After three weeks of trying to ignore the brain worm, I began writing. I was 10,000 words in before I realized I only had a beginning. My planner’s heart insisted I spend a week creating a rough outline. Gedwimor became Fyrnlosing. I realized that the story I wanted to tell was too vast for a single book–it needed to be broken into parts. My first draft was nearly complete when I realized I had no idea how books got published.

During the three years and nine major revisions since that highly flawed draft was completed, I’ve learned more about writing than in all the years before. I still encounter internal resistance sometimes, but my confidence has grown enough to allow me to move through it to the next level and the next.

 

Dog reaches goal

Resistance overcome: Dog reaches the delicious roast

 

This spring I took my biggest leap yet when I hired a professional editor, Sione Aeschliman, to help me turn the book into what I’ve always believed it could be. I trusted her to tell me both the good and the bad of my entire manuscript so I could make it better. She didn’t disappoint. Three years ago I couldn’t have taken such a risk. I wouldn’t have taken her suggestions as they were meant. Now I can. Because of them, the book is getting better each day.

For most of my life, resistance kept me from the joy I feel as I deepen my characters and plot their futures. Accepting the challenge opened new worlds, brought new friends, and generally enriched my life. I’m still working on my ultimate goal of seeing my book in print; I’m no longer afraid to try.

If resistance is holding you back from your dreams, take a risk. Accept the challenge to reach for greatness.

Posted May 27, 2016 by Leoma Retan in Fear, Writing

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Unleash the Creator Within   Leave a comment

Doodle 1

Creativity: Inborn or learned? I believe it’s within everyone but needs exercise and continuous practice to develop.

Developing technical requirements, which is not inherently creative in nature, is one of the more interesting parts of my day job. The basic task is to derive detailed requirements from a customer’s high level needs with no additions or subtractions. That being said, anyone who thinks I’m not creative has only to glance over at my notebook when I’m in a boring meeting—the margins are filled with sketches and outright doodles.

My day job exercises my intellect. I write fiction to satisfy my need to create. I believe the same need exists in everyone, though the means for releasing it may vary.

 

In her soon to be released DIY MFA book, Gabriela Pereira(diymfa.com)talks about Myths of Creativity, including:

  • Creativity is all about getting one “Big Idea”
  • Creativity is focusing on an idea until it’s perfect

 

In truth, ideas are everywhere. I’ve been known to go into a lecture and come out with two or three; a cool concept may come to me when I’m driving or showering or walking; I look at the headline news feed always scrolling in the lower right corner of my screen and see new possibilities.

Are all those ideas worth basing a book, or even a short story around? Hardly. Ideas by themselves are like a bag of random objects—you may or may not be able to build something useful from them. Some ideas are no more than possible settings or conversations. I write them all down in a small notebook because, quite frankly, I don’t accept the “big idea” concept of achieving success.

High concept ideas make it easier to describe a project. They may initially get an agent’s attention. But unless the writing is good (not necessarily great or perfect), the characters are interesting, and the plot holds together, agents and publishers will most likely pass. They might pass for other reasons even if a story has all those things.

Doodle 2

Doodle 3

As to focusing on a single idea until it’s perfect… First of all, what is perfect? Perfect is always in the eye of the beholder. It is not possible to achieve every person’s idea of perfection at the same time.

It is worthwhile to spend time looking for twists on the idea that will make it fresh and new. That’s what every writer who enters prompt-based contests does, or should do.

It’s equally useful to spend time developing background for characters that informs how they behave—what they like and hate; what they eat for breakfast; what background caused them to be as they are. I spent the month of April working on short stories featuring various characters in my novel. Little or none of that work will appear in the novel but most of it will influence my character development.

Creative ideas are necessary to writing but any story or novel, good or bad, is far more than one “big idea”. It’s a collection of little ideas, little choices that support an overarching concept. When those little ideas work together to form something fresh and new they can create genuine magic.

Accomplishing that takes effort. It takes thought and practice. If you’re willing to capture the little ideas you have every day and put in the work to unite them, you can unleash the creator within yourself.

Posted May 21, 2016 by Leoma Retan in Creativity, Writing

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Whose Practice is “Best”?   Leave a comment

Best Practices

Whether the subject is writing, business, or losing weight, chances are that somebody has a “best practice.” Bookstores and corporate websites describe them in exuberant prose. The authors of books about best practices make big money training others in their nuances. Gabriela Pereira, creator of the Do-It-Yourself Master of Fine Arts (DIY MFA) program (diymfa.com) and author of a new DIY MFA book due out in June (DIY MFA pre-order) says there’s no such thing.

Wait. What? No such thing as a best practice? Actually, I get her point. There are practices that work well for individuals or for particular types of groups. There are none that work for everyone in all circumstances. That would be the equivalent of a single pill that can cure all diseases.

Many writing best practices focus on doing something every day–writing 2000 words or 500 or some other number, always writing at the same time, writing for one hour a day. The problem is that real life tends to disrupt intentions and carefully laid plans. Most of us have other commitments that sometimes need to be our priority.

Some years ago I hit on a compromise that works for me. At that time I used it to maintain a diet so I could lose 30 pounds. I’ve found the same technique works for writing. What is it? I focus on progress over a week rather than a day. During the week I’m an engineer. Sometimes my days run long; sometimes they’re so frustrating or chaotic that I want nothing more than to watch a little television and go to sleep at their end. On those days I simply do not have the energy to write before I go to sleep, as is my usual practice. I may or may not have the energy in the morning before work. That’s OK because my “schedule” for writing is based on weeks, not days. The trick is to not let the writing lapse happen for more than a day or two in a row. I have more time to write on the weekends and I know I can catch up then. Making sure I do it is a matter of discipline. It only works because I want to write badly enough to make it a priority.

The tricky part of this plan is figuring out how much writing to schedule for each week. All the books about planning and self-motivation I’ve read say that you should set a goal that’s a little bit of a stretch but not so large you get discouraged. For instance, if you’re trying to diet you might set a goal of one pound of weight loss every two weeks and tracking that, rather than immediately worrying about the 30 pounds you really want to lose. The same thing applies to writing. You might have a long-term goal of writing a 90,000 word novel but that’s so much effort it paralyzes many people completely. Instead, you might focus on a number of chapters to write in a week. Or a number of scenes or of words. The words don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be written. You can edit and refine them later.

I’ve tried a few ways of tracking progress. When I do the National November Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) or its associated Camp NaNoWriMos I use word counts because that’s how those events are structured. I tend to prefer the Camps because I can set my own goal for the month rather than tackling 50,000 words every time. The NaNoWriMo tools give you a daily progress graph, which I make use of by putting in my additional words every day. Most of the time I’ve written between 30 and 50 thousand words in NaNo months. In April I planned and wrote only 10 thousand. Why? Because I knew I had an exceptionally busy month. I spent nearly a week in Norway on business, exhausted at the end of each day, and another four days in New York City on vacation. I nearly missed my conservative (for me) goal when I came down with the mother and father of all colds immediately after my return from New York but pulled it off in the last few days. Even without a special tool, I find it helpful to track my weekly progress in a table. That way I can see how much I’ve accomplished when I hit a low point (and that happens to us all from time to time).

Right now I’m trying a different form of progress tracking. I received feedback from a professional editor on my 92,000 word novel and promised her I’d have the rewrite done by early July–eight or so weeks from my start. The version she saw had 85 chapters so I set a goal of completing 10 chapters of edits per week. Some of those are new material, I will delete other chapters to make up for them. Now, at the end of the first week, I’ve completed rewrites of 12 chapters based on her notes and our discussion and have a plan for the next several. I created a table in Microsoft Word to keep track of my daily and weekly progress (yes, I track progress daily even though my goal is weekly). Writing this blog, my first in a very long time, is my “treat” for completing my planned work.

Is my technique a “best practice?” All I can say is that it works well for me. It may well be disastrous for people who prefer a less structured sort of writing.

The bottom line is that your “best practices” are whatever works best for you, whether your’re writing or involved in some other endeavor. Feel free to try the practices of others. But feel equally free to ditch them if they’re not working.

Posted May 13, 2016 by Leoma Retan in Best Practices, Writing

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Carry On, Santa   Leave a comment

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Years ago, a few weeks before Christmas, a colleague sent me a story about Santa and a soldier sitting alone. At least that’s the way I remembered it. There was no attribution on the e-mail and I never knew its source, which made it hard to find after I lost track of the original post.

This year I thought of it again, as I have every year since I first received it. I checked the internet once more and was pleasantly surprised to find it on Snopes.com (www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/soldier.asp), this time with attribution.

I remembered a story but it was actually a poem written by former Marine Corporal James M. Schmidt in 1986 and was originally published in the Marine Corps magazine, Leatherneck. The poem has been distributed in different forms since then, sometimes modifying it to honor other services. I think the message is as powerful today as when it was written.

At this time of year it seems especially appropriate to remember our troops, whether they are serving far from home, have completed their service and retired with our thanks, or lost their lives through their service. The world can be a dangerous place. They risk their lives trying to make it safer for us and deserve our thanks.

Without further ado, I offer you Corporal James Schmidt’s fine poem. I hope it touches you, as it did me all those years ago.

Merry Christmas, My Friend

‘Twas the night before Christmas, he lived all alone,
In a one bedroom house made of plaster & stone.
I had come down the chimney, with presents to give
and to see just who in this home did live.

As I looked all about, a strange sight I did see,
no tinsel, no presents, not even a tree.
No stocking by the fire, just boots filled with sand.
On the wall hung pictures of a far distant land.

With medals and badges, awards of all kind,
a sobering thought soon came to my mind.
For this house was different, unlike any I’d seen.
This was the home of a U.S. Marine.

I’d heard stories about them, I had to see more,
so I walked down the hall and pushed open the door.
And there he lay sleeping, silent, alone,
Curled up on the floor in his one-bedroom home.

He seemed so gentle, his face so serene,
Not how I pictured a U.S. Marine.
Was this the hero, of whom I’d just read?
Curled up in his poncho, a floor for his bed?

His head was clean-shaven, his weathered face tan.
I soon understood, this was more than a man.
For I realized the families that I saw that night,
owed their lives to these men, who were willing to fight.

Soon around the Nation, the children would play,
And grown-ups would celebrate on a bright Christmas day.
They all enjoyed freedom, each month and all year,
because of Marines like this one lying here.

I couldn’t help wonder how many lay alone,
on a cold Christmas Eve, in a land far from home.
Just the very thought brought a tear to my eye.
I dropped to my knees and I started to cry.

He must have awoken, for I heard a rough voice,
“Santa, don’t cry, this life is my choice
I fight for freedom, I don’t ask for more.
My life is my God, my country, my Corps.”

With that he rolled over, drifted off into sleep,
I couldn’t control it, I continued to weep.

I watched him for hours, so silent and still.
I noticed he shivered from the cold night’s chill.
So I took off my jacket, the one made of red,
and covered this Marine from his toes to his head.

Then I put on his T-shirt of scarlet and gold,
with an eagle, globe and anchor emblazoned so bold.
And although it barely fit me, I began to swell with pride,
and for one shining moment, I was Marine Corps deep inside.

I didn’t want to leave him so quiet in the night,
this guardian of honor so willing to fight.
But half asleep he rolled over, and in a voice clean and pure,
said “Carry on, Santa, it’s Christmas Day, all secure.”
One look at my watch and I knew he was right,
Merry Christmas my friend, Semper Fi and goodnight.

Posted December 23, 2014 by Leoma Retan in Christmas, Holidays, Marine Corps, military service, Poetry, U.S. Marines

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Happy Thanksgiving – Please Stay Safe   Leave a comment

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Thanksgiving is nearly here. If you are like me, that means stuffing yourself with turkey (or some alternative protein) and pie in the company of your family and friends. Most of us go to great lengths to be with family for the day.

This year the National Weather Service is predicting snowstorms across the northeast. They’re warning about eight to ten inches of snow. It reminds me of another Thanksgiving, many years ago.

The Weather Service predicted huge snowstorms across my native Wisconsin that year and Mother Nature delivered. The state was covered in white.

That’s when I got the call that a small airplane was missing. Back then I was part of a Civil Air Patrol (CAP) Land Rescue Team. In most states CAP is the primary organization providing search coordination and teams for civilian aircraft missing on land.

We were told that a young man took off from a neighboring state. Iowa, I think. He knew there was a storm coming but chose to fly back to his home in Wisconsin to be with his fiancée for Thanksgiving. He called her before leaving but never arrived.

I don’t remember if the plane had an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) or not. They were new at that time and far from universal. Unlike modern systems, early ELTs had no satellite connections and were generally found by flying over a crash site listening for their distinctive oscillating tone. I doubt that it mattered much that first day.

The weather was not our friend. Snow continued on and off, limiting search support from the air to the brief periods when the storms abated. Our ground team and the others did their best, following every clue received and searching area after area. There were no cell phones then–no way for him to contact anyone if he survived the crash. His last contact with flight service was near Spring Green, Wisconsin, west of Madison, so that’s were we concentrated our search. We heard that based on his radio capabilities he could be anywhere in the lower half of the state. We heard that he’d diverted to northern Illinois once before due to a problem. Disheartening. We searched all through the long weekend with no result.

The worst was that his fiancée was in our headquarters. She looked hopeful every time she heard we had another lead. We couldn’t tell her that by the end of the weekend we were looking for a body. Nobody could have survived the exposure in that weather.

On Monday the search largely stopped. We were all volunteers with school or jobs requiring our return. The teams returned to the search for the next few weekends, then ended the effort. There was nothing more we could do.

I’m not sure what happened to that young man. We heard that the wreckage was found in northern Illinois the next spring but I never saw confirmation.

This Thanksgiving, as you struggle to reach your families through the storms, remember that young man. Don’t take unnecessary risks to get there. Hold back if you need to. It’s far better to be late for your holiday dinner than to never arrive. There will always be more dinners.

To those who must work during the holiday–the hospital staffs, police, emergency services personnel, members of the military, and everyone else who works to keep us all safe–I say thank you. Your choice of service and your dedication is not unnoticed.

To everyone else– Enjoy your families and a day of parades, football, and stuffing yourself but above all, stay safe.

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

Posted November 26, 2014 by Leoma Retan in Holidays

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