Month: May 2015

Finding Characters in the Real World

Writers often struggle with character creation, and they should, since it’s a crucial part of writing fiction. Good characters need to be fully developed, not flat and simple things. Part of this development is to give your characters memorable traits.

There’s a danger, here, though. Novice writers often make characters that are nothing but a collection of traits, with one of them to be the character’s “defining” trait, often exaggerated to the point of being a caricature, not a character.

Yes, that’s really me. I used to have hair.

Still, traits are important, and they should be more than the typical likes and dislikes, verbal tics, and so on. And a great way to find these is to be a people watcher. Study the people around you, not just your friends, but strangers, too. You might end up finding characters in the real world. Or at least parts that you can use to flesh out your characters.

For example, my first girlfriend had a number of odd traits, one of which was particularly curious. After she said something she felt was clever, she would say, “Um…” and pause, smiling, as though waiting for the applause to stop or the laugh track to wind down. It was a bit pretentious and a little annoying. But it was memorable.

Or throw money. Whichever.

On the grosser side of things, when I was quite young, I knew a kid who would surreptitiously stick his pinky up his nose, pull out a stringy ol’ boog, and stuff it in his mouth. We were about six years old at the time, and trust me, that was a long time ago. Yet, that image has never left me. I rather wish it would.

Not posting a pic of that.

Who among us has not had a school teacher who was memorable for things he or she said? I can think of three or four of my own, including a math teacher who would say things like, “Balls on toast, kids!” We did our best not to chuckle, and many of us were just at a loss as to why he’d say that in the first place.

In this case, turkey balls.

None of these examples, of course, are anything more than interesting tid-bits. They aren’t characters, but they certainly can be injected into a growing character to help flesh them out.

Being a good writer means being a good observer. The world around you is chock full of fiction fodder. Take it wherever you find it.

Posted by vmwales in Characters, Inspiration, 0 comments

The First Novel

I’d like to talk a little about my first novel. I don’t mean my first one published, but the first one written. The one I wrote about in this post.

I started writing it right around my eighteenth birthday. And, like many young writers, I didn’t know anything about writing book-length fiction. I’d been writing (bad) short stories for years, had one aborted attempt at something longer when I was a sophomore in high school, but this was the first serious attempt.

Well, I should say that it became the first serious attempt. Because at first, it was just something to pass the time. Next thing I knew, I had a hundred pages. That’s when I knew it was serious.

As an unforgivable curse.

And I was serious about it. As the post I linked to above describes, I had some very lifelike characters on the page. The book was set in New York City, and I did my best to research the place. Given that this was a decade before the World Wide Web, this meant books. It meant talking to people from there. At one point, I even managed to score an interview with a lieutenant of the NYPD. That’s pretty heady stuff for a kid who really didn’t know what he was doing.

Now, that earlier post mentioned that this book is still in the “unpublished” category. What the post didn’t mention is that it’s likely to remain there. It hurts to say that, because I have such wonderful feelings about the book. But the truth of the matter is that I was never quite able to make it work. Not to my satisfaction, anyway.

The entire first draft of the book was written longhand on loose-leaf paper in a three-ring binder. As I recall, it took me a year to finish the first hundred pages, a single month to finish the second hundred, and another year to finish the last hundred.

My second draft was used for my final fiction writing class at Penn State. I’d really progressed as a writer over the previous couple years and this was evident in the first draft. So this new, second draft was basically a total rewrite, in order to have a consistent voice throughout. The problem was, the writing wasn’t very good. My professor told me that it essentially read like a screenplay, rather than a novel. He suggested I take a stab at writing a chapter or two in pure script format, just to get it out of my system.

Instead, I wrote the entire thing as a screenplay. And that really did get the screenplay out of my head. (But since I didn’t know much about screenwriting, the end result wasn’t all that good.) The new third draft was right on target, as far as voice, structure, etc. I was very happy with it.


But not happy enough.


There were problems. And I had no idea how to fix them. But it would take several more years before I admitted that to myself.

The long and short of it is that I worked on this first novel for a total of ten years. And by this point, I was actually growing tired of the characters, tired of the plot, tired of the setting… everything. I was burnt out on it.

So I started writing Wish You Were Here. This one was much longer and in a completely different genre. And this one would be the first one published. That was followed by One Nation Under God, a few years later.

And then… well… I didn’t have anything in mind. So I returned to the first novel. And I started from scratch, only rarely referencing the original version. I was a much different writer by this point. It wouldn’t be right to just try to “fix” the work of a much younger version of myself.

But it didn’t take long for the new version to morph into something too similar to the first version. And there was one major issue with the book that was the kicker. I couldn’t fix that problem without having to change my entire concept of the story. And the truth was, not only didn’t I wan’t to do that, I didn’t think it would be a very powerful story if I did.

Ultimately, I put it aside. To this day, it resides only on a CD-ROM, in a sealed envelope, tucked away in a rack somewhere, just so I’m not tempted to waste more time on it. Because the truth I finally had to accept was that, no matter how much I loved the characters and the story, this first novel was my practice novel. It’s the one I cut my writing teeth on. It’s where I found my voice, where I learned pacing and how to write action scenes. I learned so, so much during that time. But what I learned couldn’t save the work itself.

I suspect many beginning writers out there would be much happier in the long run if they approached the first novel as practice. Sure, there are some first books that are fantastic and totally worth publishing and reading. But they’re quite rare. Most are mediocre, some are outright terrible. And unfortunately, a lot of them are being published, anyway, now that self-publishing is so easy.

Being a good writer is not just innate talent. It’s learned skills, practice, and hard work. It might feel wasteful to spend years writing a first novel that’s ultimately only a practice piece. But time spent learning is never wasted.

Especially in the Restricted Section.

Posted by vmwales in Writing Process, 1 comment

I Hate Marketing

In the world of independent publishing, there’s a huge focus on marketing and all the tips and tricks to getting the word out about your work. I’m not particularly adept at it and fully admit to hating pretty much anything having to do with marketing. And yes, I realize this is something I need to change, if I ever hope to be financially successful. But one thing I’ve come to realize as a result of reading about marketing techniques is this: virtually none of them would work on me as a buyer of books.

I see recommendation from some “experts” to get reviews, even if you have to pay for them. And while I’m sure there are some paid reviewers out there who really do give honest opinions, I find the whole thing too suspect to try. Yes, I do solicit reviews for my books, but won’t shell out a buck for them. I know some people do care about these things, so they’re nice to have. But as for me, the only reviews I pay any attention to are those from actual readers. Sure, sometimes those reviews are very shallow, but for the most part, I find them helpful enough, especially the negative reviews. I do this for the same reasons I ignore “professional” reviews of restaurants and such. I’d much rather hear from regular people who’ve been there.

NOT looking at a book review site.

In the days before Amazon, my method of discovering new books (aside from recommendations from friends) was typically by browsing the shelves at the local bookstore, and the sole factor affecting my decision to buy the book was the blurbage on the back of the book. Even then, I didn’t go in for reviews. Or advertisements. Try as I might, I can’t think of ever in my life having purchased a book because I saw an ad for it.

But today’s marketing is so much more than reviews and ads. It’s Search Engine Optimization. I may hate this more than anything. Because “good SEO” often gets in the way of creativity. According to SEO, a “good” title for a blog is one that plainly states what the blog is about. Certain key words need to be in the article title, the page title, the URL, the content, the meta description, etc. As a writer, I sometimes like to make intriguing titles that wouldn’t necessarily tell you exactly what the blog was about. “Days of Coffees Past,” for example, is a title that I think is intriguing enough to click on. It’s not SEO-friendly, because it’s not especially about coffee, but it’s a much better title than “Using Nostalgia to Improve Your Writing.” Is that title accurate? Sure, I guess. But, good grief, it’s boring.

Despite my abject hatred of marketing, I’m trying to be better at it. Yes, including SEO crap, even when it leads to boring article titles. Sorry about that. (Ironically, the title of this blog qualifies as a “good” title.)

And don’t be shy about chiming in with your thoughts and comments, here. I enjoy hearing from you all. Plus, it would be nice to see a comment on one of my articles that wasn’t spam. (Prediction: I will received multiple spammy comments on this article from SEO people offering to help me.)

Until next time, SEO later.

Posted by vmwales in Marketing/Promotion, 1 comment

Characters Based on You

I would imagine that one of the most common questions a writer gets is, “Are any of your characters based on you?” And I imagine most writers will give answers quite similar to mine: “Yes. Almost all of them.” When you consider how complicated any single human being is, it’s not hard to take one aspect of an individual’s personality and use that facet to create any number of characters.

I see bits of myself in each of these guys.

When I was in college, writing The Book That Remains Unpublished, I had four major characters. None of them were much like me, really, but each of them was the result of deliberately taking one part of myself and blowing it up into a complete character.

And in some instances, a writer will make characters often who have a lot of things in common with themselves. How many Maine writers has Stephen King written?

Of course, I realize the questioners really want to know if there’s a character who specifically represents me, i.e., am I a character in any of my books? And the answer to that is yes. For pretty much all of my books.

If you’ve read Wish You Were Here, you know the protagonist is named Vincent. And he is and isn’t me. By that, I mean that he’s representative of who I was at seventeen. But by the end of the book, he’s experienced things I never have, so – while still being essentially the same person – we’re quite different.

In One Nation Under God, there’s a character named Jude who is definitely based on me. Jude is responsible for a website called The Voice of Reason, a secular-centric site that points out the problems with what’s going on in the government and society. This is reflective of a site I ran for many years called The Atheist Attic, which was aimed at pointing out the entanglement of church and state, among other things.

I often joke that Dynamistress is just me in drag. And it’s not that much of a joke, honestly. She’s got an awful lot of my personality traits. Her brother, Dana, is also based on me quite a lot, too.

So this gets us to the question of egotism. In truth, I equivocated for a long time about naming the protagonist of my first book after myself. But as I mentioned in my last blog, the idea for the story came as a result of years of playing Dungeons & Dragons. And after playing a character named Vincent for so many years, it would have been somehow wrong to give him a different name for the book.

So does this make me – or any writer – egotistical? Perhaps it does. I think all writers have a bit of egotism inside them, as do all entertainers and performers. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t put ourselves, or our works, out there.

So if you feel there’s a need to put “yourself” in a story, don’t be afraid to do so. Just make sure there’s a good reason for it.


Posted by vmwales in Characters, Inspiration, 0 comments