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


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.

Happy Thanksgiving – Please Stay Safe   Leave a comment

SafeAndHappyThanksgiving1b - 450 w - Ray

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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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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Remembering St. Patrick   Leave a comment

Happy St Patricks - 15Mar14

St. Patrick’s day is coming. For many Americans that means parades, parties, and green beer. Maybe corned beef and cabbage. But what about St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland and namesake of this day? He’s often lost amid the revelry.

The historical St. Patrick was born in Britain in the fifth century. Kidnapped and taken to Ireland when he was about sixteen, he didn’t hate those who enslaved him. Instead, he escaped after six years and became a priest. He returned to Ireland to bring the word of Christ to those who had once harmed him.

Some say he chased the snakes out of Ireland. That seems unlikely. According to Nigel Monaghan, keeper of natural history at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, there is no evidence among the vast collections of Irish fossils that snakes ever existed there. The land link between Britain and Ireland was broken two millennia before the retreating cold of the Ice Age allowed the return of snakes to northern Europe. Ireland’s isolation protected it, not the esteemed saint.

What is true is that by the seventh century he was revered as the “Apostle of Ireland.” He is generally credited as being the first bishop of Armagh.

Since the early seventeenth century, 17 March, the date of his death, has been celebrated as the feast day of St. Patrick, or St. Patrick’s Day. It is celebrated as a Christian feast day by Catholics, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, and perhaps others of whom I’m unaware. Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking alcohol are lifted for the day. It is also a public holiday in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Newfoundland, and Montserrat and is celebrated around the world.

Celebrations often involve public parades and festivals, parties, and the wearing of green clothing. My husband, who grew up in Ireland, remembers the religious aspects of the celebrations and was stunned at the lack of this when he came to the United States. Sadly, I only remember parties, green beer, and random people wearing green clothing for the day. Poor St. Patrick was forgotten in most of my memories.

This St. Patrick’s day, while you celebrate with your friends and drink you green beer, please remember to give a toast to the one who started it all: St. Patrick, Bishop of Armagh and Apostle of Ireland. He left us with a prayer whose power may be felt even by those who don’t believe.

St Patricks Breastplate excerpt-15Mar14

St. Patrick’s Breastplate

I rise today
in the power’s strength, invoking the Trinity
believing in threeness,
confessing the oneness,
of creation’s Creator.

I rise today
in the power of Christ’s birth and baptism,
in the power of his crucifixion and burial,
in the power of his rising and ascending,
in the power of his descending and judging.

I rise today
in the power of the love of cherubim,
in the obedience of angels
and service of archangels,
in hope of rising to receive the reward,
in the prayers of patriarchs,
in the predictions of the prophets,
in the preaching of apostles,
in the faith of confessors,
in the innocence of holy virgins,
in the deeds of the righteous.

I rise today
in heaven’s might,
in sun’s brightness,
in moon’s radiance,
in fire’s glory,
in lightning’s quickness,
in wind’s swiftness,
in sea’s depth,
in earth’s stability,
in rock’s fixity.

I rise today
with the power of God to pilot me,
God’s strength to sustain me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look ahead for me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to protect me,
God’s way before me,
God’s shield to defend me,
God’s host to deliver me,
from snares of devils,
from evil temptations,
from nature’s failings,
from all who wish to harm me,
far or near,
alone and in a crowd.

Around me I gather today all these powers
against every cruel and merciless force
to attack my body and soul,
against the charms of false prophets,
the black laws of paganism,
the false laws of heretics,
the deceptions of idolatry,
against spells cast by women, smiths, and druids,
and all unlawful knowledge that harms the body and soul.

May Christ protect me today
against poison and burning,
against drowning and wounding,
so that I may have abundant reward;
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me;
Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me;
Christ to the right of me, Christ to the left of me;
Christ in my lying, Christ in my sitting, Christ in my rising;
Christ in the heart of all who think of me,
Christ on the tongue of all who speak to me,
Christ in the eye of all who see me,
Christ in the ear of all who hear me.

I rise today
in power’s strength, invoking the Trinity,
believing in threeness,
confessing the oneness,
of creation’s Creator.

For to the Lord belongs
and to the Lord belongs salvation
and to Christ belongs salvation.
May your salvation, Lord, be with us always.

Not all disabilities are visible   1 comment

Yesterday at the market my husband made a remark about the handicapped spots in the parking lot that got me thinking.

Many people resent those legally mandated handicapped parking spots as “political correctness” or “pandering to people who should just let others take care of them”.  I am not one of those people and become annoyed when I hear those comments.

I used to have a good friend (used to because he died 8 years ago) who suffered from a severe form of schleroderma (http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Scleroderma/scleroderma_ff.asp).  In Michael’s case it caused scarring of his internal organs, leaving him with only 18% of his lung capacity.  On his good days it didn’t look like anything was wrong with him.  People would glare at him for using the handicapped spots, probably assuming he was using someone else’s placard.  He wasn’t.  On his bad days he could only walk very slowly, with extreme pain.  He would be exhausted just by walking from the bedroom to the door.  He never knew when a “good” day would change to a “bad” one.

The point is, not all disabilities involve wheelchairs or crutches or guide dogs.  Besides diseases that affect the organs, as in Michael’s case, various stress disorders, such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be far more debilitating than many people realize.  These are people who need your support, not your scorn.

Bottom line – Next time you see someone using a handicapped parking spot, don’t assume they are “sponging off the system”; don’t assume they are using someone else’s placard.  Instead, be happy that you are healthy enough not to need a placard and give them a smile instead of a glower.  Not all disabilities are visible from the outside.

Posted December 15, 2013 by Leoma Retan in Uncategorized

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The 10 Days of PitchWars   2 comments

The following should be sung to the tune of “The 12 Days of Christmas”.  This is offered with a special thanks to Brenda Drake and to all the mentors who are working so hard evaluating queries.


On the first day of PitchWars the mentors gave to me,
and the chance to become a mentee.

On the second day of PitchWars the mentors gave to me,
two big bags of stress,
and the chance to become a mentee.

On the third day of PitchWars the mentors gave to me,
three g-mail fails, two big bags of stress,
and the chance to become a mentee.

On the fourth day of PitchWars the mentors gave to me,
four cryptic tweets, three g-mail fails, two big bags of stress,
and the chance to become a mentee.

On the fifth day of PitchWars the mentors gave to me,
five helpful thoughts,
four cryptic tweets, three g-mail fails, two big bags of stress,
and the chance to become a mentee.

On the sixth day of PitchWars the mentors gave to me,
six twitter replies,
five helpful thoughts,
four cryptic tweets, three g-mail fails, two big bags of stress,
and the chance to become a mentee.

On the seventh day of PitchWars the mentors gave to me,
seven massive migraines, six twitter replies,
five helpful thoughts,
four cryptic tweets, three g-mail fails, two big bags of stress,
and the chance to become a mentee.

On the eighth day of PitchWars the mentors gave to me,
eight notes on requests, seven massive migraines, six twitter replies,
five helpful thoughts,
four cryptic tweets, three g-mail fails, two big bags of stress,
and the chance to become a mentee.

On the ninth day of PitchWars the mentors gave to me,
nine hints of choices, eight notes on requests, seven massive migraines, six twitter replies,
five helpful thoughts,
four cryptic tweets, three g-mail fails, two big bags of stress,
and the chance to become a mentee.

On the tenth day of PitchWars the mentors gave to me,
bad indigestion, no hints of choices, no page requests, the last massive migraine, six twitter replies,
five helpful thoughts,
no more cryptic tweets, no g-mail fails, no more bags of stress,

Posted December 5, 2013 by Leoma Retan in Writing

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