Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

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.

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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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To Pitch or Not To Pitch – Lessons from the Slush   Leave a comment

Rissa - from cover art I’ve had a busy few months between edits of the novel I wrote last year, pitch contests and, oh yeah, my regular job. I don’t usually blog about the writing process, but I have some thoughts on the subject of writing and pitch contests for completed novels that I’d like to share.

This story begins last September, when I finished my novel, SONGS OF CHANGE. I thought it was good and showed it to a few people. The response was not quite what I hoped – good, not great. Certainly not as compelling as it should be.

Like any sensible person I began editing. I’d updated the novel twice when PitchWars, an online pitch contest for completed novels managed through Twitter, began in late November. For this contest, participants submitted a query letter and the first few pages of their novel. Mentors went through the submissions and choose a mentee and two alternates. They worked with their mentees for a month, helping them make their manuscripts shine. Agentslooked at the revised pitches and pages and made offers if they liked what they saw. Entering seemed like a good idea. I thought my novel was ready and was looking for validation. Again, I learned a hard lesson. I still wasn’t ready. Fortunately for me, a couple of the mentors to whom I submitted my pitch generously gave critiques to all their submitters, not just their mentees.

Don’t get me wrong, it was depressing. But I learned from it. I discovered I needed to understand more about writing queries. Even more important, I learned that I needed critique partners (CPs). I found some through PitchWars. They helped me tighten up some parts of my novel and expand others. They also helped me learn how to write pitches. My CPs entered some contests in January and February but I passed. I knew I wasn’t ready.

In March, I decided to enter PitchMadness. This contest required submission of a 35-word pitch and the first 250 words of the novel. Writing a pitch in 35 words or less is hard. I didn’t realize how hard until then. It’s especially difficult when you have a sweeping fantasy novel with various twists, turns, and sub-plots. Still, I tried. I didn’t make the cut but one of my CPs did. Instead of submitting my own novel, as I’d hoped, I helped her. That was fine. She deserved the nod. But I didn’t come away with nothing. I asked a few reviewers for comments on my pitch and listened to the feedback. The biggest problem was that my stated category/genre (Adult fantasy) no longer matched the start of my novel, which looked more like YA. I finally got it. I realized the pitch needed to be tightened. But more than that, the novel was starting at the wrong place with the wrong character. There were two very significant characters in the story, a mother and daughter, and I had simply started with the wrong one.

I pulled back again, this time more briefly. Most of the novel was still appropriate. But I needed a new chapter for the beginning. Oddly enough, about half of the new chapter was already written. I’d deleted it from later in the book because it was slowing the story. In the end, the problem was less the material and more the positioning.

Those issues fixed, I entered one more contest in early April. NestPitch was another 35-word plus first page effort. I was ecstatic with delight when I was selected by Jeffe Kennedy for her blog page in the agent round. I was over the moon when I received an agent request: a query + a one page synposis + the first twenty-five pages. I sprang into action. My synopsis was too long given the requested format so I tightened it. I worked with one of my CPs to get my query in shape. I was finally ready to send the requested material.

That was yesterday. I double and triple checked it but my mail program still put some weird formatting text into the submission. Fortunately it was between sections so it shouldn’t interfere with readability. I have to hope Camilla will understand. Now I have to wait. That’s the hardest part of all. I hope she loves it as much as I do. If not, I hope to at least gain more insight into any issues with the novel and into the process of submission and selection.

While I wait, I’m working on a new novel I started for CampNaNoWriMo this month. It’s a New Adult thriller that I’m very excited about. I’m on track to meet my goal of 40,000 words this month but that will be at most half of it. I’ve also submitted SONGS OF CHANGE to one last pitch contest (for now), PitchSlam. Win or lose on that one, after it I’ll set that novel aside for a little while to let it gel. Unless, of course, I gain an agent. If that happens, all current plans will be readjusted.

My purpose in writing this blog wasn’t just to catalog my adventures with pitches There’s a lesson here as well. Actually, several lessons.

  1. If you enter a pitch contest and don’t make the agent round, don’t stress over it too much. Follow the twitter feeds, paying special attention to the comments made about flaws in pitches and learn from it. Make your next entry better.
  2. You’ll find a lot of great people on the pitch twitter feeds. Engage them. Learn from the ones that know things you don’t. Try to help the ones that know less than you. Ask the evaluators for comments on your pitch if you don’t get in. Lots of them are willing to give them after the selections are finished.
  3. If you get a request for pages from a contest and the end result is a rejection, as it was recently for a friend of mine, don’t let it destroy your confidence. Sometimes “It’s just not for me” means exactly that. It wasn’t what that particular agent was looking for at the time you submitted. It may be exactly what some other agent seeks.
  4. Most importantly, don’t give up on yourself. Just keep working to get better.

Posted April 22, 2014 by Leoma Retan in Writing

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