Friday, May 27, 2016

The Great River Writers’ Retreat Experience [2013]

“How is going to a writer’s retreat different from going into your room and closing the door?” my husband said.
“Well, duh. I didn’t have to clean anything.”
Long ago, I developed a ritual where I had to clean and straighten things up before starting a new craft project. For better or worse, I’ve extended that process to my writing.
When I checked into the Benet House Retreat Center in Rock Island, I had a sunny, clean room all to myself. One barrier down to guilt-free writing time.
Another bonus, absolutely no unnecessary clutter, no great masses of important things collected over a lifetime and carried along with every move. I have precious items tucked into every nook and cranny available in my personal space at home. They all have a story and meaning, and can be quite distracting at times. My retreat room came with two twin beds: one to sleep in and one to serve as an EFS (Exposed Flat Surface). That meant I could fill it with all the essential stuff I had brought with me, a manageable amount of clutter, since I had to carry it in by myself. Second barrier down.
Then there’s the treat of not having to cook any meals for six days. Sure, I had to make my own breakfast: brew some coffee, tea, unwrap a cereal bar. Letting someone else cook the rest of the time has always been pretty high up on my wish list for luxury. Sharing the buffet with the sisters two times a day was fine. I had enough good food to choose from and never felt hungry. If I had, the little kitchen area came stocked with microwave popcorn. Another distraction out of the way.
The solitude the retreat offered was calming and soothing, but, for me, it felt good not to be totally alone. A poet from Chicago occupied the room next door. We saw each other briefly in the mornings, shared a table at mealtimes, and occasionally passed each other on the nature trails. The rest of the time we, as writers, went our separate ways. 
The grounds of the monastery contained a small lake and ninety acres of woodland and prairie. Deer could be seen by day and coyotes heard at night. I haven’t had that kind of park-like experience in ages, so much the better not to have to pitch a tent to do it. I took the sidewalk down to the lake for morning and afternoon breaks. From the dock, I stared into the depths to see what creatures lived down there and watched birds skim over the water’s surface. It felt awe-inspiring to have the natural world so close at hand.
From the edge of the lake, a network of enticing paths took off into the woods. They were nicely mown and wide. On my first day, I took a leisurely walk and came back with four pages of observations. My notes provided some much needed detail for a scene in my novel.
So much for the easy part.
A much more difficult task was the main reason I had listed on my application for wanting to be chosen for this retreat. I had hoped for a private, safe place to work on a short story begun over a year before during a workshop at the David R. Collins Writers’ Conference. The class assignment had been to write something personal to a person no longer around. I had written to my recently deceased mother.
I had come up with a reasonable first draft. The instructor had read it aloud to the other workshop participants. I wouldn’t have been able to read it myself; my grief was still too fresh. It had remained untouched since then. But now, I knew I’d have to read it at the end of the retreat week; the prospect was unnerving. I only had a few days to prepare for something that, for me, might be impossible.
I made my revisions and began to practice reading it aloud. The first day went badly, but the next one went well enough to give me hope. I kept practicing. I whispered it softly to myself in my room. I read it louder if I knew for certain that I was alone. And finally, I took it down to the dock and offered it to the fish. My public reading at the Midwest Writing Center was barely adequate, but I got through it and that counted as a success in my book.
A few of the things that I took away from the 2013 Great River Writers’ Retreat: the honor of being the first local writer chosen to participate, the validation that my writing has steadily improved over time, the ability to cope with fear and anxiety, and the commitment to continue writing.

In short, I have a new way of seeing myself thanks to the Midwest Writing Center, its volunteers, and its sponsors.

(More information on the Retreat and the application process is available on or by calling Ryan Collins at 563-324-1410.)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Shedding Secrets

After a week of rewrites: I’m done! I’m happy! (I’m mega relieved!)

I finished within the time limit I set. (Pretty much….)

It feels good to be finished and have it really FEEL finished. (This time.)

I’m happy with the results … more than the other times I thought I was finished. (YES!)

The thing that surprised me the most was how well the basic core, or structure, of my book held together. I changed a character, added lots of information, and generally tried to clear things up in the storyline. (Hopefully no more loose ends.)

Basically, I was getting rid of the secrets my characters were hiding from each other. (And the reader.)

Sad part: I had to cut out my biggest Easter egg. (Cute or not, I was told it was too confusing.)  

It’s not all sad … I still have the tomato shirt. (Providing its share of color.)

Bonus: I now know the difference between recreation and re-creation. (Hyphens are sometimes sooo important.)

P.S. Since I was late last week, I will be posting early this week. (Providing balance to the blog life.)

Saturday, May 14, 2016


Last week I created a new character to replace a problematic one.

This week I began to implement all the changes that come with inserting the new guy into my story. Sort of like introducing him to the neighborhood and see if he makes friends.

Well, maybe not friends, but he does have to fit into the scheme of things and behave himself and accomplish the mission. The mission: to clarify and connect and reveal the motives behind the actions of the other characters. And let’s not forget the plot. I have been guilty of leaving too much to vague innuendo. Some of that came from years of tip-toeing around the real Erik Jansson. Some comes from this being my first novel—I’ve rewritten it so many times that I wonder if it is still my first novel. I suppose that it always will be the first until it is officially finished.

It has taken time and a few different attempts at organization to actually get started with the writing. First up: I made a list of the names I would use with the Microsoft Word editing feature “Find.” Yes, I needed a list because changing one name meant I had to change another for continuity. I used my list to search for and change whole names and partial names and to leave one name unchanged.

Secondly, I made a list of the chapters I thought needed changing. I came up with 12 chapters out of 40. My plan at that point was to make the changes and then go through the manuscript from the beginning and smooth things out. I would read every word out loud because it does work to speak and listen and not give the brain a chance to automatically fill in the gaps and gloss over the mistakes.

So, I had a plan but I couldn’t get myself started. The clock was ticking. People were waiting for me. In an effort to get going, I tried starting from the end in the hope that working backward would make the beginning easier. No luck.

I ended up at the beginning and reading every word out loud … making changes along the way working from a list of my goals.

I’ve been amazed at the kind of things I’ve found so far: a name change that was missed, a present tense verb that had to be past tense, a third person pronoun that should have been first person, a misspelling that was also missed by a “search.” Reading the work out loud was definitely one of my better decisions.

Some days went better than others, and after a couple of really good days I confidently announced that I would make my deadline of Monday. I am on track to finish.

However, my weekly blog post had to wait a day.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Goodbye to Erik Jansson

My parting with Erik Jansson was stressful—but necessary—and easy thanks to the “find” feature in my word document menu. I was able to locate all versions of Jansson and replace it with the name of my new character.

You see, the real Erik Jansson was too tied up with my fictionalized guy. Too many times I found myself in the awkward position of answering questions and explaining facts about the historical Jansson or Janson. (He dropped an s after coming to America.) This became a problem because I’m not an expert on the real Jansson or Janson.

I simply needed a heavy, someone who could provide a reason for a painting to be hidden for 90 years or so.

So enter Karl Hemson. A brand-new guy with a backstory completely made up by me. I know where he’s been, what he’s up to, and why he wanted to remain incognito. He can be good or bad as needed and not ruffle any feathers.

Coming up with names has always been a problem for me. I settled on Karl Hemson for the following reasons: Hem in Swedish means home, I like the idea of a home boy, a favorite son so to speak; the name Karl is because I simply liked the K; also hem reminds me of a song that Morris Nelson used to sing at the VASA smörgåsbords.

Hemson and Jansson will probably have to briefly cross paths in Sweden. And Hemson’s journey to America will have to be similar. After all, he does end up in Bishop Hill. That doesn’t change.

Bonus: Adding Hemson should make a change in the ending easier and more natural.

So, I have some work to do.