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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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

Big mistake. Big. Huge.

Last night, I turned down an offer from a publisher. I’ll give you a second to pick up your jaw off the floor.

Turning them down was not the “big mistake.”

The entire affair gave me a “Pretty Woman” flashback, I think there’s an important lesson in the transaction, and so I’ll walk you through the events.


I write about the big questions (life and death, individualism, what makes us human, discrimination) through a lens of soft science fiction. And then I stumbled across a call for short stories outside of my genre; they wanted ‘zombie apocalypse’ flash fiction (5,000 – 10,000 words). I’m always up for a challenge, thought it would be an interesting distraction, and so I worked up an idea.

I wrote something about the evil men do to one another in tragic times, imagine “Masque of The Red Death” meets “Dawn of The Dead” and a touch of “Eyes Wide Shut”. Trust me, I hit some social mores that made me flinch as I wrote.

So I sent a sample to this independent publishing house and got an offer. They had very nice things to say, wanted a five-year exclusive to the story, and asked me if I could do a minimum of 10,000 words.  Home run, right? The Lotus has pulled up to the curb.

lotus-esprit-pretty-woman

So we emailed back and forth, I agreed to the word count and 5-years exclusive,  but asked for some controls on the promotion channels and a slightly larger advance.

I got some of what I asked for, some not everything, and then he broke my only rule.

No. Not no kissing.
nokissing

They asked for me to ghostwrite.

ghostwrite

So you like my story, enough that you want more, and are willing to pay for it… and you want to take credit for it?

My response: “I appreciate the positive feedback and the offer but I don’t ghostwrite.”

If it’s good enough to print, it’s good enough for my name. Now you’ve forced me to turn this story into something so incredible that I can come back and say…

bigmistake

Update 11/21/2015: If you would like to read this story, I’ve released it as a serialized novel using Channillo.

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

I Want To Be A Writer.

There are two types of people in the writing community. It’s pretty easy to sort the wheat from the chaff. See if you can figure out the difference. I’ll explain at the end.

Here’s a typical conversation for me.

Fred introduces me to Cindy. “Cindy, this is David. He’s writing a new science fiction novel.”

Me: “Nice to meet you, Cindy.”

Cindy: “Cool. I love science fiction. I want to write a novel.”

“That’s interesting. What are you writing?”

Cindy: “I have this idea for a book about time travel and aliens made out of banana flavored pudding.” (note to self: Banana Pudding Aliens)

“Could have potential. There are some interesting ideas there. What have you written so far?”

Cindy: “Oh…nothing really.  But I think a lot about how the aliens would look and how they think and what if the humans ate them!?!”

“Mmm. You should write some of this down.”

Cindy: “Yeah. I’m busy. Work you know. I don’t have time like you.”

“I have three kids and a wife. And a cat. And a job. And am pursuing another master’s degree. All while I write. Just write something. Anything. If you write one sentence a day, that’s one more sentence than you have now.”

Cindy: “Maybe. I don’t know. I’m really busy. But I really want to be a writer.”

“Nice meeting you, Cindy.”

It should be pretty clear but if it’s not…

There is a profound difference between “I want to be a writer” and “I write”.

Write. Write a novel. Write a sentence. Write a word. Just write.

Write Something That Matters.
D.G.Rettig

Addendum: the tongue in cheek note reading “note to self” was not implying that I would steal Cindy’s idea. There is no Cindy; therefore, Cindy did not suggest Banana Pudding Aliens. I did, merely for purposes of illustration in this article. If I ever write a story about aliens made of Banana Pudding, please promptly have me shot.

What is your story about? The difference between situation and story & the problem with fan fiction

“…good SF is usually about something (and often something very profound, such as whether or not God exists).” – Robert J. Sawyer

When I meet other authors, one of the first three questions I ask is “what is your story about?” (We can discuss the other two another time.) This generally turns into a description of the environment and the characters. Then I follow up with “That sounds like an interesting character/world/time/situation, but what is your story about?

Let me expound on the difference. Lois Lowry could have described “The Giver” as “It takes place in the future. Every one is assigned a job for their entire life. One person can absorb all the memories from the people and there’s an old man and he’s going to die and pass all his memories on to a teenage boy.” When you read “The Giver”, you know that it’s about life being full of pain and joy, and Jonas’s loss of innocence as he discovers the human cost of freedom from pain.

How about a book about a military training ground in space preparing for a battle between humans and bug like aliens?  This is an accurate description of “Ender’s Game” but Ender’s Game is about more.  Ender’s Game examines humanity desire to destroy that which it doesn’t understand and the sacrifices we will make in the name of war.

World War Z (the book, not that terrible movie) is not about zombies.

Hamlet is not about a prince in Denmark.

You get the idea.

My own novel, Project Dandelion, is about the value of life. I try to examine the value of life from two wildly different cultures, mostly through the eyes of a young woman trying to define herself. One culture is from a world where life is cheap and expendable; one culture lives in a world where life is rare and precious. It just happens to be in future and on two different alien worlds. I could have written the same theme as fantasy or historical fiction or a horror book because Project Dandelion is not about space; it’s about life and death and love.

Now let’s briefly look at the problem with fan-fiction.  An author writes a book. The book is about something say “self-sacrifice”. A wizard or robot or knight in shining armor gives up their life to save an enemy (hmmm… note to self…wizard robot knight…).  Someone thinks Bobbo The Robot-Wizard-Knight is a cool character and so they write a fan-fiction about Bobbo.  But the original story was not about Bobbo. The original story was about self-sacrifice. You end up with a story with all of the characters and environment but none of the meaning.  Empty calories. Brain candy.

As an author (and as a thinking human), you have a unique perspective, opinion, and value system. Express those perspectives, opinions, and values through whatever genre you want but remember…Write Something That Matters

Write Something That Matters.
D.G.Rettig

Developing Depth In Your Characters

Two dimensional characters are prevalent in stories.  They make your stories flat, uninteresting, and predictable.

2D

One cause of two-dimensional characters is lack of well-thought out character motivation. Authors can become so focused on driving the action forward that they inadequately develop character motivation to make the character believable.

In my novel, Project Dandelion, the protagonist, Krysia, wants to join an elite group of militia who protect her home from a dangerous predator.  I could simply say “Krysia wants this because I want a tough female character.” And throughout the novel, she acts out the part of “tough female character”. Krysia is no longer real; she is simply a caricature. She is generic and completely uninteresting.

To delve into character motivation, I stole an idea from Six Sigma (or TPS) called root cause analysis.  The idea is that if you ask “why?” five times, you actually get to the root (or fundamental) cause of a problem.  Wikipedia has a great example:

The vehicle will not start. (the problem)

  1. Why? – The battery is dead. (first why)
  2. Why? – The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
  3. Why? – The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
  4. Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (fourth why)
  5. Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)

Let’s apply this to Krysia:

Krysia wants to join an elite group of militia.

  1. Why? – Krysia respects the militia members.
  2. Why? – Because the militia members are strong and Krysia wants to be seen as strong.
  3. Why? – Because she believes she is not strong.
  4. Why? – Because she is smaller than average and being small makes her feel weak.
  5. Why? – Because she has always been told that being small means being weak.

Sudden Krysia is not just “a tough female character”; she is a young woman, who lives in a world where she is struggling to against her self-image of weakness to be strong. She wants people to believe she is tough because she believes she is weak. She’s always been told she was weak and she refuses to accept that definition of herself.

Which character are you more interested in?

By performing 5 Why’s analysis on all of your characters you will have stronger more interesting characters with more emotional depth. Your readers will believe them and want to know more about them.

Write Something That Matters.
D.G.Rettig