Where do you get your ideas?

With three different novels in the works, in three different worlds, covering widely different ideas, people ask “where do you get your ideas from?” For me, this comes back to why I write. If you don’t understand the why, you won’t understand the source of my inspiration.

I write to explore real world issues. I just happen to explore them through the lens of soft science fiction, but I could write the same story through the lens of fantasy or noir crime drama. I think an example is helpful.

I was thinking about a debate I heard on the radio. It might have been pro-life vs pro-choice; it might have been death penalty; or it might have been euthanasia. I honestly don’t remember. But I do remember thinking “what if you took that side to the Nth degree? What if life was so precious that we would do anything to protect it. What would a culture look like where murder and death were unthinkable and why would that culture exist?”  I also started asking the opposite. “What is life had no value? Death was without emotion. It just was, just another piece of existence.”  Then I thought about bringing those two worlds together. The result is Project Dandelion.

The why of Project Dandelion is a far more interesting question.

Look for Project Dandelion to be published in 2016.

Write Something That Matters.
D.G.Rettig

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Why I Write?

“Why do you write” might be a more important question” than “what do you write” even though you will seldom be asked this as an author. The “why” is powerful.

“To be sell books”, “to make money”, or “to be discovered” are not valid answers. Let me explain why. You could sell anything. Why do you write?  You could make money working at a McDonald’s.  Why do you write? You could be discovered as an actor, singer, or artist. Why do you write?

The way you answer this fundamental question tells me a lot about the quality of your product.

Before I share my motivation, let me share some answers I’ve heard and what these answers mean to me:

  • I want to tell my family about my life. I actually love this answer and it tells me your specific audience. If I don’t get your book, that’s okay. It was never meant for me anyway. 
  • I love writing. Again, also a great answer. You can do something simply because you love it and no one can judge you for expressing yourself simply for the joy of it. I might love cooking but I will never be Bobby Flay; that’s okay. I’m not cooking (or writing) because I need to be a professional.

“Why do I write?”

I feel there are important real world issues that can best be explored through science fiction. For example, Project Dandelion examines how we place value on life and asks the question “does life have value outside of culture?”

I’m currently writing another novel examines discrimination and asks “what makes you human?”

I write because I believe these are important issues and science fiction provides vehicle for discussing them.

Write Something That Matters.
D.G.Rettig

The Only Appropriate Response To Criticism

“[A]s far as I’m concerned, a good beta reader is like proof that there’s hope for humanity.” – Fellow blogger Cathleen Townsend

It’s surprisingly hard to find beta readers who will actually read and then critique your work which is why I love my writers groups so much. It’s sincerely difficult to get honest, constructive feedback. This afternoon, I just helped a fellow writer out with a beta read. I spent several hours wading through passive voice, filler words, and vague language. I deleted 1,000 words just by removing the words: really, much, in order, actually, just, basically, that, and very. I sent the revised book with inline comments on the content.

Here’s the response verbatim: “I really don’t need or want an edit. I just need feedback on the content.”

Oh. Okay.
facepalm

This reminded me of a Grover Levy song released in 2007 called “Tell Us What We Want To Hear”. You can buy his CD on Amazon for $3.99. 

The lyrics were

“Won’t you tell us what we wanna hear?
Tell us we’re the victims, play on our fear,
Won’t you tell us what we wanna hear?
Tell us that we’re blameless,
We’ll make you rich and famous, and cheer for what we wanna hear.”

When you receive feedback, positive or negative, there is only one appropriate response.

thank-you

Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith wrote a great article and book on receiving feedback.  You can read the entire thing here. Let me quote just a touch “The next time someone gives you an idea or counsel, listen without judgment, try to find value in what you’re hearing, and say: “Thank you””

If you want to only hear praise, let your mom read your book. She’ll love it.

Write Something That Matters.
D.G.Rettig

 

My House, My Rules

I participated in an author critique of a book this week. Details changed to protect the innocent. The book had a supernatural element, let’s say fairies. The author said fairy magic couldn’t work on banana-flavored pudding and those critiquing the book said “that wasn’t how fairy magic worked” (errr… you know there is no real fairy magic, right?) and cited other fairy magic books where the fairies did their magic to destroy an ogre made of banana-flavored pudding (note to self…fairy war against banana-flavored pudding ogres…).

When I was growing up, my parents said “my house, my rules” as justification of what at the time seemed incredibly arbitrary rules such as “you can’t eat a gallon of ice cream for dinner”, “your girlfriend cannot stay the weekend”, or “don’t stab your brother with a knife”.

parents

Here’s an important thing to remember: it’s your world. If fairy magic doesn’t work on banana-flavored pudding in your world, cool. It doesn’t have to be logical but you must be consistent.  You can’t suddenly have the hero destroy the Bobbo The Banana-Flavored Pudding Wizard with magic because it’s cool. You made the rules; you have to live with them.

In Life of Death: Book 1 of Project Dandelion, I function within a normal physics universe for space travel. Space travel takes time. Long periods of time as the speed of light is still the speed limit of the universe. At high speeds, relativistic time applies so to those aboard the Kharon-Obol (the fastest ship in the book), time passes more slowly but on their respective home worlds, years peel away like days. Now, if I violate this rule you should cry “foul” but you shouldn’t say “In the future, people will be able to travel faster than light. Look at Star Trek and Star Wars and H2G2 and Futurama…” (mostly because I will smack you for comparing Futurama to Star Trek. Futurama is clearly superior science fiction on every conceivable dimension.)

 

Mmmm Leela.

leela

Build your world. Establish your rules. Follow your rules. And screw the haters.

Write Something That Matters.
D.G.Rettig

What’s a beta reader? Why do I need them? How do I use them?

Q: “I’ve completed my first draft. I’ve revised the first draft and feel like I have something ready for human consumption. What now?”

A: Find Beta readers.

A beta reader is someone who can read your book with a critical eye and provide insight into your book. A beta reader is not your best friend or co-worker who will fawn over your book like you are Charlton Heston coming down the mountain.

(Not you. Not me either.)
moses

When I was preparing Project Dandelion for my beta readers, I did research on good questions for beta readers. There’s a fair amount of sample questions out there. I took over one hundred different questions and divided them into five categories:

  1. The Introduction
  2. Pacing
  3. Characters
  4. Clarity
  5. Close

Q: “How many questions can I ask my beta readers?”

A: As many as you want; however, remember they are people with lives, families, and jobs and they are doing this as a favor.  So try to be respectful and reasonable.

An interesting study on surveys showed that if a survey takes longer than 8 minutes, the completion rate drops to <20% (at low as 5%).  So if you ask too many questions, less than 1 in 5 of your beta readers will complete your questions.  This same study shows that 15 questions takes 5-7 minutes to complete.

Guess how many questions I ask my beta readers?

14

Q: “Only 14 questions? What do you ask?”

A: I ask what I care about. I want my story to make you feel something, I want you to want to read my story, I want you to not feel confused or bogged down, and I want you to enjoy yourself.

“Life of Death: Project Dandelion Book 1” is about a young woman on a planet full of danger and death and her encounter with another planet, where war and death are nearly unknown, and people live nearly a thousand years.

“Life of Death” is currently being reviewed by my beta readers and here are the specific questions that I ask.

Question Regarding Intro

  • How did you feel about the  story when you first started reading?
  • At what point did you first stop reading?
  • When did you feel like you understood whose story is being told, where, and when it’s taking place?

Question Regarding Pacing

  • Where did you get bored?
  • Which parts resonated with you and/or moved you emotionally?
  • Which parts needed more details? Which parts needed less?
  • Which scenes/descriptions/paragraphs/lines did you really like? Which needed improved?

Question Regarding Character(s)

  • How did you feel about the main characters?
  • How did you feel about the dialog between characters?

Question Regarding Clarity

  • Which parts are confusing? Which parts did you re-read in order to better understand them?
  • Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, etc.?
  • Did you notice any obvious, repeating grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors?

Questions Regarding Close

  • How did you feel about the climax and resolution?
  • What questions are unanswered at the close?

Write Something That Matters.
D.G.Rettig

Maximizing The Value of A Writing Group

Why do you need to meet with other authors? That’s actually a valid question. After all, isn’t the archetypal author a lone wolf, pounding out his or her genius out on to the blank pages, like a Benedictine monk copying the Bible?

Me writing this morning. (Not really)
monk

I don’t think this is even close to accurate.  Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Maynard Keynes, Robert Frost, Rupert Booke, Harpo Marx, George Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Truman Capote all were members of writing groups (source: https://www.inkedvoices.com/writing/famous/).

My writing group is Broad Ripple Morning Writers which is a great group of peers. I visited a few groups before settling here.

What I was looking for

  • People who were actively writing.
  • People who welcomed new writers.

That’s it.  I didn’t need people in my genre or published authors or people with MFA degrees. I needed to be around other writers.

But “why?” you may ask.

I think humans excel at self-deception.  We are the center of our own universe; the star of our own play. Our own personal Truman Show

28truman-600

Having someone who can look at our work and offer a constructive critique is important.

I’m stealing this story from an executive coach who I met last week.  He talked about a client who walks into a meeting and says “Here’s my idea. I’ve been thinking about this idea for a while and I think it’s a good idea. If you agree, I don’t need to hear from you. We are on the same page. But I really want to hear from anyone who disagrees with me.

I think this is an incredibly healthy way to approach your writing group.

“I wrote this. I think it’s good. If you think it’s good too, thanks but I really want to hear about what doesn’t work.

I have a group of people who push me to be better. You need one too.

Write Something That Matters.
D.G.Rettig