Become a Writer Today

Using Personal Experiences in Your Writing with Brett Godfrey

January 19, 2021 Bryan Collins
Become a Writer Today
Using Personal Experiences in Your Writing with Brett Godfrey
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Become a Writer Today
Using Personal Experiences in Your Writing with Brett Godfrey
Jan 19, 2021
Bryan Collins

Brett Godfrey is a multitalented author of the thriller Black Sunrise.
He's worked as a lawyer, an engineer, and a pilot, which has given him some hair raising experiences.

In this episode, we discuss those experiences and how Brett draws on them to help write his thriller books. He also talks about his writing process and how he spent many years developing the premise for Black Sunrise until he was happy to publish it, and he also touches upon his approach to self-censorship.

In this episode we discuss:

  • Why you should hire both a developmental editor and a copy editor
  • Going back through your manuscript to hone and refine the story 
  • Drawing on your own personal experiences
  • Referring to old diaries and journals for inspiration
  • Using vivid language to express emotions
  • Staying faithful to a character
  • Learning to turn off your inner censor and let the writing flow

Resources:

brettgodfrey.com
Black Sunrise

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/becomeawritertoday)

Show Notes Transcript

Brett Godfrey is a multitalented author of the thriller Black Sunrise.
He's worked as a lawyer, an engineer, and a pilot, which has given him some hair raising experiences.

In this episode, we discuss those experiences and how Brett draws on them to help write his thriller books. He also talks about his writing process and how he spent many years developing the premise for Black Sunrise until he was happy to publish it, and he also touches upon his approach to self-censorship.

In this episode we discuss:

  • Why you should hire both a developmental editor and a copy editor
  • Going back through your manuscript to hone and refine the story 
  • Drawing on your own personal experiences
  • Referring to old diaries and journals for inspiration
  • Using vivid language to express emotions
  • Staying faithful to a character
  • Learning to turn off your inner censor and let the writing flow

Resources:

brettgodfrey.com
Black Sunrise

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/becomeawritertoday)

Brett :
If you're going to write from experience, that fallibility that you have built into yourself that makes you real, makes you human, understanding where your pain came from, understanding where your fears lie, that's what you're tapping into.

Bryan:
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast with Bryan Collins. Here you'll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.

Bryan:
How can you use personal experiences in your writing or in your books? Hi there, my name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast. That's the topic for this week's podcast episode, where I interview Brett Godfrey. He's the author of the thriller book, Black Sunrise. I've always been interested in using personal experiences in my writing. At the time of recording this interview with Brett, I'm actually editing a book of parenting essays and advice that I've spent the last year or so writing. I draw a lot from personal experiences because I've got three kids. I've gone through old journal entries and old diaries that I've kept over the last 10 or 15 years with the kids to see what stories I can take out and use in this particular book, and it's been an interesting exercise.

Bryan:
Another way I've also approached using personal experiences is through writing a short entry every day, where I use bits of dialogue and the conversations that I've had with people or where I reflect or describe something that happened. Rather than just providing an inner monologue about my thought process, I'll actually write it up as a little story that's only a couple of hundred words long. A lot of the entries aren't great. There's not much I can do with them. But what I found is if you do this for awhile, there's invariably a couple of different stories that I can extract, and then insert into longer pieces that I'm working on.

Bryan:
The reason why I started this approach is I took a masterclass awhile ago by David Sedaris. If you're not familiar with David Sedaris, he's the famous American humorist. Well, I think he's actually from the UK, but he's based in America. He talks about his journaling process in his masterclass. Basically, he writes up conversations that he's had with people every day in his journal. His journal entries are several pages long. And then he'll turn those journal entries into essays and then he'll refine and edit those essays and then he'll perform them live, and then eventually turn them into one of his books. So it was mind blowing to see that something you put in your journal can actually be reworked into a story. And then that story can be refined into something that you can publish. So, that's something I've really doubled down on.

Bryan:
Now, of course, many newer writers often worry about what those close to them will think when they read themselves in the author's work, and that's certainly something I worried about. I know when I put a sex scene into some short stories and fiction I wrote a few years ago, I was worried about what my parents would think at the time. But I've since realized that your problem isn't really what people will think, it's actually getting people's attention in the first place. And by people, I mean, readers. Anyway, you can always write without censoring yourself in the first or second draft. And then if you're reading a later draft and you really believe that what you said is unfair to those in your life, you can take out controversial, personal details. You can change names and you can play around a little bit with the biographical data in your article or in your story so it makes more sense for the reader, but also so that it protects the people in question.

Bryan:
Another good rule of thumb, and this is something that I got from David Sedaris' masterclass is to always make yourself look the worst. So if you try to portray yourself as the hero of the story and how great you are and everybody else falls, well, the readers will see through that, and then you will invariably come out looking like somebody who's probably a little bit full of it, I guess. So if you make yourself look the worst in your personal stories or worse than other people, then you can probably get away with this. And that's something David Sedaris talks about in this masterclass, which I would really recommend taking.

Bryan:
But I also recently had the chance to catch up with Brett Godfrey, and he's a multitalented author. During his career, he's worked as a lawyer, an engineer and a pilot, and he's had some hair raising experiences, which we talk about in this week's podcast interview. Brett also gets into how he uses personal experiences in his thriller books. He talks about his writing process of how he spent many years coming up with the premise for Black Sunrise and turned it into something that he was happy to publish. He also talks about his approach to self-censorship. That was really interesting interview and I hope you take something from it. If you do, please do a short review of the podcast episodes, excuse me, on the iTunes store or wherever you're listening, because more reviews and more ratings will help more listeners find the show. Now, with that said, let's get over to this week's interview with Brett.

Bryan:
Brett, it's very nice to talk to you today. You're a multitalented author. You've worked in a number of different careers as a lawyer, engineer and pilot, but what I wanted to talk to you about today was how authors and writers can use their personal experiences for their work. But before we get into all of that, would you be able to maybe introduce yourself and provide a bit of information about your background and various careers?

Brett :
Sure thing. Well, I'm Brett Godfrey and I wrote a book called Black Sunrise. I'm 61 years old. I have worked as a pilot, particularly in the United States Air Force and Air National Guard. I have worked as a chemical engineer for the Williams Companies in Wyoming and Oklahoma. I've logged about 2,150 competitive and recreational skydives. I have flown lots and lots of different kinds of airplanes. I'm a martial artist and a trained combat shooter. I've been to the best school in the world many times, which is Gunsite in Paulden, Arizona. I've also trained with some other very highly rated instructors around the world, like Rob Leatham and Larry Vickers and Ken Hackathorn. I have a definitive love for creating things. I like to paint and I like to write, and I'm very excited about how my first novel is doing.

Bryan:
Wow. How long have you been writing?

Brett :
Well, I started working on my first novel when I was about 19 years old. I actually finished it and shopped it around. It got nowhere. When I go back and read it now, I understand why.

Bryan:
So, that's quite a gap between your first novel and Black Sunrise. So, did you keep writing over the years?

Brett :
I did. I've rewritten Black Sunrise several times. But once I realized how bad the first book was, I knew I had to go back to square one.

Bryan:
Was there anything in particular that you improved? It's just I know when I look at some articles and books that I tried to write when I was younger, I can clearly see some of the mistakes that I've made. For example, I didn't have any stories in them and some of the sentences were quite clunky. Was there anything in particular in your early books that you look back and say, "Maybe that was what I was doing wrong"?

Brett :
Oh yeah. The way I upped my game was I joined the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Association and worked with a critique group for several years. That was such a watershed event for me because I got live feedback every week from other people who also want to write or who have been accepted as good writers, and that gave me sort of a boost.

Bryan:
Yeah, I was in a creative writing group as well. I certainly found it helpful to get feedback from other people who weren't my immediate friends or family, and just being around the company of other writers as well is often really helpful, especially when you're starting out. So would you be able to explain what Black Sunrise is about and how you came up with the idea for the book?

Brett :
Well, sure. One of the things that I've noticed in my ratings on Amazon and Goodreads is that people wonder how I predicted current events, because the premise of the book is that we have a biological weapons researcher who has created the deadliest engineered bioweapon in the history of man. He smuggles it out of the lab. He's committed a lot of other crimes, including a kidnapping of two young women from a shopping mall and he hopes to use them for human experiments and psychological experiments. But the problem is that because of the national security implications of things involving this man and the fact that the North Korean government is trying to blackmail him, he's been siloed off by American law enforcement, which leaves one of the kidnapped victims fathers with a situation that he's just going to have to figure out a way to solve it. So he goes to an aging CIA officer who owed his own father a debt way back in the '50s and asks for help, and he gets help. It's a real adventure from there.

Bryan:
Did it take you long to refine that premise?

Brett :
Quite a bit. It did. I'm working on the sequel to that book now, and I'm making incredibly rapid progress because the story just flew into my mind. But with Black Sunrise, I had to go back and rewrite lots and lots of chapters. I didn't start with an outline, which is an interesting dichotomy between authors that I speak to. Some outline thoroughly before they start, and some just write and I can tell you who's who, but I found that for me, just writing is much more productive than trying to do a detailed advanced outline.

Bryan:
Oh, that's interesting. Yeah, I know a lot of thriller authors, like James Patterson, outline in advance, sort of use co-writers. So, did you sit down in front of your computer and just free write about the story or did you use some other process?

Brett :
No, it was what you just said. I started to write. I had a lot of momentum until I got to the middle of the book and I high centered myself, if you can imagine that. I had to go back and delete about eight chapters once I realized how I painted myself into a corner, and then I rewrote those chapters to go down a different road. And then once I was down that road, things just float.

Bryan:
It must have been hard to delete eight chapters.

Brett :
Well, the truth is the Black Sunrise is about 450 pages long. In terms of the number of pages that I wrote, it's probably well over 2,500 pages that a couple thousand pages did not make an end of the book.

Bryan:
Wow. That's a lot.

Brett :
That's the way it is with your first novel.

Bryan:
Yeah, certainly. So when you finish the first draft, was there a long gap between the first draft and editing?

Brett :
There was. It sat on the shelf for a while. When I started trading text messages with Andy Weir, who self-published The Martian, it got me enthused to self-publish Black Sunrise. So I went back and gave it a thorough, thorough edit and rewrite. And then I had two professional editors go over it after that.

Bryan:
Is Andy a friend of yours?

Brett :
No. When he first came out with The Martian, I was the seventh reviewer of his book and I couldn't believe why it wasn't selling. It had been on the Amazon list for probably 10 months. So I emailed him because he puts his email on his book and I said, "I can't believe this isn't doing better." We went back and forth two or three times. I wouldn't say he's a close friend or anything, but we did communicate. He said he just was mystified because he thought it was a better book than that. And then not long after that, it went viral.

Bryan:
Fantastic. Yeah, I've read The Martian. It's really engaging. So Andy's editor worked on Black Sunrise as well.

Brett :
That's right. A fellow by the name of Michael Rowley from England.

Bryan:
Did he have much feedback about your draft that you submitted?

Brett :
Yes. Rowley is a developmental editor. For those in the audience that don't know what that means, it's somebody who looks at the overall storyline and the overall flow of the book, as opposed to a copy editor who does a lot of proofreading, punctuation, grammar, and so forth. But of course, Michael Rowley took weeks and weeks going through it. I had a huge amount of feedback from him by the time he finished his work.

Bryan:
Could you give listeners an example of how he presented that feedback or what type of feedback he gave you?

Brett :
Well, yeah, I think that's great question. The kind of things that Michael Rowley caught were sub-plot lines that didn't complete themselves or wind back into the main story, sections of the book that were too verbose or too technical because I did an awful lot of research when I was writing the book, or things that just didn't flow right. Maybe a section is campy. This is a thing authors always struggle with when they're starting is they're power hungry on the fact that they're writing their own book now and they can't help but have some inside jokes between themselves and themselves. And so they have sections that get campy and they think the readers will think that's cute or funny, and they don't. So, Rowley caught a lot of those. Okay.

Bryan:
Okay. Okay. So, did that mean you had to go back and do a big rewrite or was it a case that you're just going through the copy, you had to move on to big rewrite?

Brett :
Yeah, just processing the input I got from Michael Rowley took about three months.

Bryan:
Okay. Okay. So, did you find that process difficult? Because some authors, when they get feedback from an editor, they don't know where to start.

Brett :
No, I found it incredibly helpful. It was solid gold. It's the kind of thing that I had been craving. I had gotten some of that when I ran chapters of the book through the critique group and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, but I got so much more concentrated and focused analysis from my developmental editor that I'm very proud of how the book is doing right now. I think that without that kind of input, it would not be getting the number of five star reviews that it's getting now.

Bryan:
Yeah, it's got quite a lot at the moment when I was looking at it on Amazon. So when you completed the developmental edits, did you then send it to a line editor or a copy editor or what was the next step you took?

Brett :
I sure did, and I got a good one. I found my copy editor through Scribendi. We talked back and forth before I decided on her, but she went through it and cut out thousands of little errors that I thought I had already scoured out of the manuscript, but she caught them. That was also fantastically valuable. So anyone who edits or anyone who finishes their first book, they edit it themselves maybe several times through, but then you have to get that developmental editor involved. And then after you process that feedback, you have to get your good copy editor to make one last pass through it.

Bryan:
Was that the final step? Would that mean you're ready to publish it?

Brett :
Well, yes, except for I did some formatting. One of the things that comes up is how you self-publish a book on Amazon. There's multiple ways to put the copy up into the system, but I created my own imprint with pages and Adobe Acrobat Professional because I wanted to do my own typography, and I'm very happy what that came out.

Bryan:
Yeah. Well, that's quite a big project. Yeah, I normally use Vellum for preparing books for self-publishing. I haven't looked at using Adobe. So I'm also curious, one of your, I suppose, unique selling points as an author is you draw a lot from personal experiences from the different careers that we talked about at the start of the interview. Could you maybe explain some or how you've used personal experiences in Black Sunrise?

Brett :
Well, sure. One of the primary characters in the book is an attorney who used to be a military pilot. He's very prominent. He's very wealthy. He has two daughters. And so, I am an attorney with 98 jury trials under my belt as lead counsel to verdict. I have thousands of hours of flying experience. I also have two daughters. So it was easy for me to write that character straight out of my own life experience. His reactions and responses to things are the same that mine would be. So, at the early stages of development of the story, he was the main character. And then he still is prominent character. He's not the main person anymore, but that's a start.

Brett :
When we meet the hero of the book, he's in the middle of a recreational skydive in Eloy, Arizona with Arizona Airspeed, the world champion team, and he has a terrible parachute malfunction. I write the detail of that malfunction, I think, pretty accurately because the day before I wrote the chapter, I had had the same exact malfunction. So I took all the details and I went through it again. It's got a certain realism to it that some of my reviewers have commented.

Bryan:
It sounds like something you remember quite vividly. Did you have notes from that experience or did you just draw on your memories?

Brett :
Well, the next morning, it's very indelibly in your mind. As years have passed since then, I maybe don't remember it as accurately as I did the next morning. But the next morning, you don't need notes. I just wrote it.

Bryan:
I've tried to use that personal experiences in some of the articles and books that I work on. I have not anything that was life-threatening as that but for other personal experiences that you used in the book, did you have old notes that you were able to look at or journal entries, or how did you go about this approach?

Brett :
Yeah, on and off I've journaled and kept diaries over the years. But one piece of advice I'd like to give to your listeners is that when you write from personal experience, we all have a tendency, especially in our first books, to try to overly heroize, and that's a made up word, of course, our various characters. If you're going to write from experience, that fallibility that you have built into yourself that makes you real, makes you human, understanding where your pain came from, understanding where your fears lie, that's what you're tapping into, not how great you want the world to think you are, but really... For example, if you have a terribly difficult conversation going on in the dialogue of your book and you think back to a situation where similar personalities interacted with you in a way that caused frustration or pain or anger or elation, you need to get the actual grit of that emotion expressed in vivid language, as opposed to the superficial, "Here's what happened to me one day," kind of thing.

Bryan:
Okay. So when you say vivid language, are you referring to dialogue or the inner thoughts of a character or something else?

Brett :
Yes, the words they use out loud and the words that they use in their own mind. So for example, let's say a person is having a conversation with an antagonistic other character and maybe that person is frustrated. The language that he uses in his dialogue has to be, I use the word gritty and is probably the wrong word and vivid maybe too over the top, but it has to be highly expressive in a way that readers can tap right into and share that understanding of how life goes. That's just an example of rough dialogue. But I have a situation where in my book, a girl wakes up in a cage in the basement of a cabin in Steamboat Springs, Colorado outside of town. She's trying to get control of her own thoughts. I've been in situations where the fear factor was out the roof.

Brett :
I lost both engines in an airplane over the Rockies and a blizzard at midnight one time, and that I wrote an article for Flying Magazine that went viral on that one. But it's explaining that inner dialogue where, for example, you want to curl up into a ball, suck your thumb and cry for your mama, but you have to find a way to overcome that paralysis of fear. That inner dialogue, I put a lot of time into that so that it wouldn't drag on, but it would give people the idea of here's what makes this person special because she's fighting her inner demons. She's terrified, but she somehow rises up to the level where she's able to think straight and start looking out for her own survival. Sorry for such a long answer, but that's what I'm talking about, is drawing on your own fears, your own past panics or your own inner demons and not sugarcoating things.

Bryan:
I can't let that go. What did you do when the two engines went dead and you were flying over the Rocky Mountains?

Brett :
Well, I'd like to start by saying I survived.

Bryan:
Well, you're here to tell the story [inaudible 00:20:18].

Brett :
Well, it's interesting. I had been trying one of the largest class action lawsuits in the history of American law in a federal court in Northern California. After the first week of trial, the judge gave us a three-day weekend. So I was going to fly back to Denver and just recharge my batteries a little bit. So we took off out of Oakland, California in a twin engine Cessna cabin class pressurized twin called a Golden Eagle or a 421C. I flew from Oakland to Salt Lake City, and I had to descend through some icing conditions and some generally bad weather. The aircraft was certified for flight in known icing. So that's by itself not that scary if you know how to do it, and I've been trained a lot.

Brett :
So I landed, and let the client out so he could go spend a weekend in his house. I refueled my aircraft and then took off again with one lawyer in the plane with me. Right at midnight, we climbed up to 23,000 feet above the blizzard that was camped out over the worst part of the Rockies around Provo, Utah. As I was adjusting my power settings for cruise power, I suffered an engine failure on one side of the aircraft, the left side. I did everything I could to try to restart that engine, could not do so. So I feathered the prop, which means I make it so that the blades are turned into the wind and I reduce the drag on that side of the aircraft. And then I turned around, declared an emergency, and started to sink back into the icing and the blizzard.

Brett :
The mountaintops at this area, many of them are north of 14,000 feet. So unable to hold my main altitude, I'm going to level off at about 14,400 feet. I had a GPS-based terrain mapping on my display on my panel. So I was able to avoid the higher peaks, but it was rough. And then as I got close to my emergency landing location, I lost the second engine. I was over a reservoir with about an inch thick layer of ice, which would not hold up an airplane. I struggled until I was 200 feet from impact to try to restart the other engine, and I got it restarted just long enough to bring me to the runway threshold in Provo, Utah.

Bryan:
Wow. Did that put you off flying?

Brett :
It was a first step in that direction. So, it scared me to death obviously. It took a month and a half to get the airplane fixed on the ramp in Provo. And then I went over one day on a United Airlines flight to go get my plane and ferry the mechanic back to Denver, Centennial Airport. I was pretty nervous taking off in that aircraft. I spiraled over the airport until I was at 20,000 feet, because if something crapped out on me again, I wanted to be directly over an airport, but it turned out to be an uneventful flight. And then I flew the airplane for two more years. And then I had another engine failure coming out of Burbank with my children on board. It was only one engine failure. So that's after you lose both, losing just one is kind of easy to deal with, but that was the last time I ever flew that aircraft.

Bryan:
Okay. Are engine failures common?

Brett :
Well, they're not supposed to be. I've had more than my share as a pilot. I've had experiences in military aircraft as well that were suboptimal. I watched an airplane crash on the ramp while I was in the pattern in an Air Force jet back in about, I would say, 1986 or so. That was a fatality, and I watched it over the canopy rail while I was on downwind for my own runway. So, I've seen a lot of spooky stuff. I also litigate aircraft cases. So a lot of local airplane crashes in the central U.S. that end up in lawsuits, we end up in those cases. I see the dark underbelly of civilian aviation.

Bryan:
Is there an air crash in Black Sunrise?

Brett :
No, there isn't. I've got airplane crashes coming-

Bryan:
In the next.

Brett :
... in the next book. Yeah. It's called Convergence of Demons. It's getting close to being finished. It is the sequel to Black Sunrise. We have lots of things that go boom in the night in that book.

Bryan:
It sounds like it will certainly be true to reality. Let's go back to the question of using personal experiences. Are there any times when you think that this personal experience maybe doesn't work after all in my book or my story and I should take it out?

Brett :
Well, sure. It depends on consistency with a character. One of the hardest things for a writer at any level of experience is to stay faithful to a character. I want to call it a personality matrix, that once you start to understand and define this character, you have to make sure to silo that character's traits and personality to that person. Every character in Black Sunrise lives inside me somehow. I was able to keep them straight so that they have their own way of speaking, they have their own personalities, their own view of the world, and the way they respond and react to circumstances, some of which are very stressful, is unique to each one. And so from time to time, I would put in some personal experience to try to make that more realistic for a given character. And then I realized that's the wrong experience for that character, and I'd have to go back and retread that ground.

Bryan:
So many new authors or writers worry about what those who know them think when they read their work. I guess that's particularly true of your using personal experiences. So what would you say to somebody who has concerns like that?

Brett :
Well, that's a great question. I have this term I like to use about the inner voices, because you've got an inner creator and an inner censor. There's no such thing as good writing, there's only good editing. But what happens with a lot of especially first-time writers is they have these ideas and they'll start to write. As they begin to do so, they censor themselves so badly that it creates this thing that some people call writer's block. But what that is, I don't think there's any such thing as a block, it's just learning to turn off that inner censor during the first phase of creation and just let it flow. Don't judge yourself. Don't try to figure out if it's or bad stuff, just do it, just write it. Then, come back and edit with a ruthless razor-sharp pen, and that puts the product together in a much better way. But if you try to edit or censor or judge yourself while you're doing the first outflow of writing, you'll freeze up. You won't make it. You won't finish your book.

Bryan:
I guess that's where the developmental editor and the copy editor can help as well, because they can tell you if it's going to work or not.

Brett :
Yes, but there's also the side of editing your own work before it gets to those people. So if I write a chunk of book, maybe I write 200 pages of a book and then I go back and edit that work as successfully as I can and I go through that process more than once until I sculpt it and polish it to the best I can create, then and only then it goes to the developmental editor.

Bryan:
Okay. That makes sense. Do you ever show extracts of your work to people who are familiar with their personal experiences that you've used?

Brett :
Yes, quite often. I get their take and their spin and sometimes their ideas. Some of the best ideas writers come up with happen over a dinner somewhere or over a cup of coffee with a friend at Starbucks or something, because I personally have found, and I know others say the same, that when you talk about your work with someone that you trust and you just start yammering, next thing you know an idea blurts out, either you come up with it or the other person does, but it's the discussion and the dialogue that can stimulate a lot of new creative concepts.

Bryan:
Yeah, I certainly agree with that, although I find it's helpful to talk about something from a few days ago, rather than something I've worked on that day.

Brett :
Agreed. Absolutely true.

Bryan:
So, Brett, where can people find more information about you or Black Sunrise?

Brett :
Well, I have a website. It's brettgodfrey.com. That's B-R-E-T-T-G-O-D-F-R-E-Y.com. You can google Black Sunrise, and you'll see lots of things pop up. I also have a professional webpage for my law firm, which I own and operate in Colorado. I don't think that readers that are interested in writing will give two hoots about what I've done as an attorney worldwide. But I can tell you that if you just go to Amazon and look up Black Sunrise and read that, you'll know everything you ever want to know, and hopefully you'll want to post a five star review.

Bryan:
Certainly. Well, good luck with the book, Brett. It was very nice to talk to you today.

Brett :
Thanks so much for having me.

Bryan:
I hope you enjoy this podcast episode. If you did, please leave a rating on the iTunes store. And if you want to accomplish more with your writing, please visit becomeawritertoday.com/join, and I'll send you a free email course. Thanks for listening.