Familiarity Breeds Contempt – An Authors Confession

Chaucer recorded this proverb in 1386. It means knowing someone or something intimately exposes its flaws. I am starting to feel that way about my story. I’m hoping this confession is cathartic, giving me strength to keep writing.

My first draft was brilliant (in my mind). Then I started editing. A painful process that felt a bit like pulling my heart out of my chest. Using tweezers. Through my eye socket. Tiny bleeding piece by tiny bleeding piece.

bloody_heart.jpg_480_480_0_64000_0_1_0

Then the beta readers. Accolades and praise mostly. Constructive feedback. More editing.

Another rewrite. Then another. And another.

Today, as I edit, I hate every chapter. Every sentence. Every word. Every fucking letter.

Familiarity breeds contempt.

I don’t know if this is a healthy place to be at or a dangerous plan. Does every artist grow to loathe their ineptitude? Or have a polished this story past my own veneer to the point that I see the pressed board underneath.

I don’t know if I’ll ever publish this post. I guess that reticence represents a spark of hope that I think this book is still worth reading. I’d hate to throw this confession out into the sea of the anonymous faces hiding behind the internet, salivating at the weak, waiting to pounce, drawing faux strength from reinforcing one’s own self doubt.

Maybe I will. Maybe my own self doubt will encourage someone to keep writing past their own fears.

If you are reading this, you know my decision.

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Editing: Call Me Sisyphus.

Writing is easy. Step 1: Sit down. Step 2: Type. Step 3. Repeat.

Editing writing into a novel is harder:

Step 1: Realize that all the work you put into writing a novel is shit.

Step 2: Die a little inside.

Step 3: Hunker down and polish that turd into something worth reading.

But I produced a brilliant novel without editing, you may say. I’m going straight to Amazon Kindle or Goodreads or whatever ebook du jour is hot.

I challenge you to give that first draft to an author’s group.  One with real published authors. One that will destroy your illusions and let you move on to editing. A writer’s intervention of sorts. “I love you, but your first draft is destroying our marriage and our children are embarrassed when you tell people you write.”

Meeting Of Support Group
Meeting Of Support Group

Anyway, this is about me, not you.  Here’s the stages of editing that I went through for Project Dandelion.

1.  Mechanical: This was simply looking for things like ‘be’ verbs (indicative of passive language), -ly adverbs (indicative of poor verb choice), punctuation errors, and typos.  There were a ton of these problems.

If I start to read your book and find that you have these kind of mechanical issues, I assume that you didn’t think the book was worth editing. I, in turn, will assume the book is not worth reading.

2.  Matrix of Character Actions: A writer friend suggested that I create a matrix (grid) with a row for each character and a column for each chapter and writer what was happening to each character each chapter. This revealed several pacing issues.  Rewrite #1.

3.  Beta Read 1: Several beta readers told me that they lost track of where they were. Each chapter bounced between two different worlds. I reordered the chapters to eliminate that issue. This revealed several pacing problems.  Rewrite #2.

4.  Beta Read 2: Several beta readers pointed out POV problems, self-serving story lines (that didn’t contribute to the overall story) and some heavy “tell, not show” issues.  OH — and ineffective use of past perfect tense. More editing.

5.  Rewrite #3: This is where I am now. I deleted 16,000 words and am adding several new chapters to make my book worth reading. Just because I write a book does not mean it’s worth reading and I want to write something that matters.

I should finish this rewrite in December. I’m going to go through line by line with another mechanical review and making sure my word choice is exactly what I intend to say. I’m then hiring an editor to do some of the grammatical heavy lifting.

The moral: Writing is easy. Editing feels like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill of Hades.

Look for Project Dandelion to be published in 2016.

Write Something That Matters.
D.G.Rettig

 

Write. Revise. Repeat.

Some people have asked about my writing process. I’ll give you a high level overview of the creation of Project Dandelion: Life & Death, from inception (the word, not the movie.)

I started thinking about the “why” of Project Dandelion about ten years ago; it was not called Project Dandelion but I’ll use that name throughout this post, just for reference. At that time, it was more of a futurist murder mystery but nothing (and I mean zero words) was written. It was a concept of the nature of life and death and the conflict between two people with far different conceptions of the meaning of life and death.

Last year, my daughter and I were driving to Chicago. She wants to write professionally and I said “you can steal my idea. I’m never going to do anything with it.” and shared the concept of Project Dandelion. She said “you should put those two species on other planets” and I thought “holy shit! That’s it!” and started writing.

The first draft was pure shit and took five months.

first-draft

I edited the draft (grammar and getting rid of that dreadful passive voice) in another four weeks. Now I had refined shit.

Then I created a matrix of all of the timeline and character events throughout all of the chapters. This revealed several pacing problems and a real issue with chapter length. I combined several chapters and reordered about 20% of the rest.

Then another edit (two weeks)

Then I found some beta readers. They came from two of my authors groups. They read the book over a month and provided some feedback, some very helpful. Based on that feedback, I am currently doing a major rewrite. I’ve eliminated a major story thread and completely reordered the first half of the book. This reorder exposed more pacing problems and required several additional chapters.

I’m about 50% of the way through this edit. The last feedback that I received (yesterday) said “this is a very strong piece”.

After completing the rewrite, I have lined up three more (different) beta readers and I suspect there will be one more edit.

Look for Project Dandelion: Life & Death in 2016.

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

 

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