Archive for the ‘writing’ Tag

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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Words have power   2 comments

Saigonsays recently posted a blog about the use of jargon in our speech (http://tinyurl.com/l8mgxab) – at least he started that topic before digressing into the issue of what sustainable development is / should be (an interesting but entirely different topic).  I’d like to add to that beginning and talk about both jargon and the power of words.  Using the right words – or the wrong ones – doesn’t only matter for professional writers.  Anyone who communicates verbally or in writing needs to be aware and use them carefully.  Words can illuminate or confuse. The right words at the right time can heal, the wrong ones can hurt, even when no hurt was intended.

Words matter

Acronyms and jargon can join us or separate us.  If you understand a term without asking, you are part of the “club”; if you don’t, you are marked as an outsider.

This gets more difficult when an acronym is used to mean different things.  For instance – RAM means “random access memory” to people familiar with computers; but it can also mean “Rolling Airframe Missile”, “Reliability, Availability, and Maintainability”, or “Rad Academica de Mexico” in different contexts.  In fact, a quick google search resulted in 126 potential meanings for that acronym.

Jargon can be even trickier. As an example, at one time I was in a position requiring evaluation of computer systems that could provide displays in response to controls in an automobile simulator.  This display was to provide the equivalent of the scenery outside the car window.  The system needed to provide the capability is generally described as a real time simulation – the core component of any effort to create virtual reality.  When I met with prospective vendors, the first thing I would ask them was: “What is your definition of real time?”  If they couldn’t give me an answer or if they described it as “providing a response quickly enough that a human user wouldn’t notice”, I strongly suspected they could not provide an acceptable solution.  “Quick enough for the human not to notice” is fine if you are creating a computer application for text, or even graphics, entry by a person.  It is not sufficient for virtual reality systems, which need to provide a seamless, high resolution display all of the time.  The definition I needed from them, my “real time”, was that all operations would complete within a specific, fixed period of time.  Anything less tends to create distracting “glitches” in the video.

You might notice that, even though I tried, I was not able to completely eliminate jargon from my previous paragraph.  I attempted to compensate by explaining terms but I suspect I was not entirely successful.  Terminology like “glitch” is too deeply embedded in my brain – it has become natural for me to use – causing me to struggle to find better alternatives.

The problem with acronyms is easy to resolve in writing – just define your use of the acronym the first time you use it.  In the case of jargon, my only advice is to know your audience.  If the terminology will be clear to most of them, go ahead and use it.  If you have a general audience, such as a popular magazine, you must spend time explaining your terms.

You might wonder why I included the other phrases in my graphic: “I love you”, “I hate you,” “what are you doing?”  Aren’t they simply phrases to use or avoid?  I don’t believe so.  Those phrases are among the most highly charged words I can think of.

“I love you.”  Say it to someone who returns your love and you will make them happy.  Say it to someone who only likes you and you may make them uncomfortable.  Say it (as an adult) to a child you are not related to and you may hear from the police.

“I hate you.”  How many times have you said this to someone you love when you were angry?  You don’t mean you hate the person in the greater scheme of things, just that you hate what they are doing right now.  Still, it can hurt the other person.  At the very least, you will owe them an apology later.

“What are you doing?” If your friend says this, it is probably a matter of genuine interest.  If your boss says it, he may be asking if you have time for a new project or accusing you of doing something wrong. The problem is, whether verbally or in writing, the phrase itself can set a reaction.  If that reaction is strongly negative, viewing the question as an accusation, the remainder of the context may be lost entirely because the recipient has simply stopped listening (or reading).

My message here is simple – Be careful about the words you use.  Words have far more power than you may realize.  Using the right words can make someone’s world feel better, bring them back from a dark place.  The wrong words, even if not intended to hurt, can cut like a knife.  If they bring back past memories, even the most innocent seeming words can have disproportionate effects.

By the way, to me the acronyms I used in the graphic are: NGO (non-governmental organization), ROI (return on investment), SAR (search and rescue), and TLA (three-letter acronym).

 

I am a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and poetry. If you are interested in learning more about me or my work, check out my website at http://www.leomaretan.com.

Posted September 14, 2013 by Leoma Retan in Writing

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