Prequel Schmequel

Like it or not, we live in a prequel/sequel world. It’s especially true in Hollywood, but is becoming more prevalent in the publishing world. I won’t really discuss sequels. Quite a lot of sequels suck, but I have nothing against them, in principle. Prequels, on the other hand, should die.

To illustrate some of the problems with prequels, let’s use a series of stories that most people know:

Admit it, you’re hearing the theme song in your head right now.

And we’ll begin with a prequel that isn’t terrible:

Or, “Rouge One,” as many internet posts would have you believe.

What saves this prequel from being terrible is that it’s only telling the backstory of one thing: how the plans to the Death Star ended up being acquired. Because of this, it avoids most of the problems that make most prequels awful, but the one issue it does have is big. In fact, it’s the most basic of prequel problems: ultimately, everyone knows what the future holds.

There’s no real tension or surprise. There’s nothing in it that changes how we see the original story. Nothing is really added because, frankly, it’s enough to simply say that the rebels acquired the Death Star plans. We don’t need to know how. Showing us just how it happened might be entertaining, but  it’s not truly important.

So let’s talk about some of the issues with the process of writing prequels. Anyone who’s read or seen the original book or movie already has a number of expectations, not to mention knowledge of what’s to come in the future. This means that the writer must make the story conform to these pre-established facts and, sometimes, that’s a very tall order.

Making your new story “sync” with the original story limits your writing ability. You have a set goal from the very beginning. But, as every writer will tell you, characters take on lives of their own. Taking such “living” characters and forcing them to conform to these pre-set actions can easily result in one of two things: either it makes these characters act in a way that’s counter to how they’ve been established or, possibly worse, they never come “alive” in the first place, but are flat through the whole story. On top of that, forced conforming of other story elements often results in clichéd plots or WTF moments that seem out of place.

Too much to say…

But my biggest issue with prequels is quite basic. If you feel the prequel’s story is one that’s truly important enough to be told, you should have written it first! So why didn’t you?

Posted by vmwales in Beginnings, Details, Plot, Writing Process

The Domino Effect for Writers

Writing a story is all about cause and effect. Every decision made, every action performed, has repercussions. This is pretty simple to understand and, generally, this is what we call plot. And when we limit it to the specific interactions of characters, it’s not difficult to control.

But when you write the kind of fiction I do, some actions can have far-reaching effects that are not always obvious, even though they’re pretty major. To be fair, it can be impossible to properly address all such repercussions without making a story much longer than it needs to be. Still, I don’t like the idea of just ignoring them.

And if you think this can become a pain in the ass, you’re absolutely right. Because cause and effect is like dominos. One thing leads to another, then another, and another, and at some point you just have to stop caring that the dominos are falling. Or else your 250 page book explodes to double its size, just because of the dominos. The trick is to determine how many dominos need to fall to make the story feel complete without being bloated.

I need to stop writing blogs when hungry.

One Nation Under God is my dystopian future novel. It was published in 2004 and is set in the years 2021 – 2030. The main character is the young daughter of the newly-elected president. One of my test readers pointed out that, while I was covering a lot of domestic social issues, I’d neglected to talk about international things, especially the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. Truth is, I figured that since that conflict had no bearing on the plot of my story, I didn’t need to talk about it. However, it would be something the prez would have on his mind. But, because his daughter is the main character, I could limit mention of it to a bare minimum, as it wasn’t at all a concern of hers. But it wouldn’t have been okay to ignore it completely. That would be like writing a novel set in the sixties and not mentioning Vietnam. It becomes the elephant in the room that no one’s talking about, but needs to.

Wait… There’s a war on?

And the more far-reaching the story itself is, the more extensive the repercussions of actions are likely to be. In Reckoning, the first book of the Dynamistress trilogy, it is revealed that Dynamistress is the only known individual to gain “super powers” by way of deliberate genetic manipulation. Even though it’s a far-fetched superhero story, I do try to keep things rooted in reality. Knowing that such a revelation would be a huge thing in the social and scientific communities, and wanting to avoid having to deal with that, I had this accomplishment be regarded as a rumor, rather than fact.

Kudos to you if you recognize this magazine cover.

However, an event in the forthcoming Renaissance, the final book of the trilogy, will bring her scientific achievements into the spotlight in a big way, so I’ll be exploring both public opinion and the inevitable scientific inquiries that she’ll be swamped with.

Ignoring elephants just isn’t a good idea.

‘Cuz they’re WAY bigger than you.

Posted by vmwales in Details, Plot

Being a Writer Is the Worst

Of all the creative, artistic vocations, being a writer is the worst. I mean, I love it, but it’s the worst.

I envy other artists because of something they can easily do that is ridiculously difficult for a writer to accomplish, which is one very simple thing: to see someone actively enjoying their work.

If you’re a musician, actor, or dancer, you can perform live for people. If you’re a painter, sculptor, or other material artist, you can watch visitors to a gallery showing your work.

But writers don’t get to watch people reading their books.

It’s considered creepy and is frowned upon in polite society.

“Not true,” some of you are saying. “Like poets, authors can do public readings of their work!”

Yeah, which means I can experience live reactions from a tiny audience hearing me read a few pages of a 300-page book. That’s like a painter displaying only the top inch of his wall-sized mural or a musician playing only the opening chords of a song.

Don’t misunderstand… I do keep correspondence from readers who have read and loved my work and those messages mean a great deal to me. But it’s all past tense. “I loved your book.” They’re done. They’ve read the entire work. There’s no way for the writer to see the moments of surprise on a reader’s face at plot twists, to see the reader cry when a beloved character dies, to hear them laugh at your stellar sense of humor. Because by the time they write to us, all that is just a memory.

I’ve been fortunate over the years to have been able to talk with a few readers while they’re between chapters of my books. And that’s really great, because they can share their reactions and thoughts when they’re at least still fresh. But those reactions aren’t now.

It’s never now for authors.

Being a writer is the worst.

Posted by vmwales in Readers, Writing Process

My Vicarious Life

Being a writer is not what you’d call an adventurous job. Generally, it’s a job spent at a computer, sometimes at home, sometimes at a coffee shop or other location. It’s often heavy with research, which can be entertaining as well as educational. But in no way is it adventurous.

So I feel safe in saying that all writers live a little vicariously through their characters. We write grand adventures and experience them through our protagonists. We write love interests who are “perfect” for us. You get the idea. But sometimes, we inject little things into our stories that seem utterly innocuous to the reader, but which have considerable meaning to the writer.

For example, when I was a college student at Penn State back in the 80s, I would visit a store called Book Swap every week. It was a used book store that also sold comic books. Today, it’s known as Comic Swap, and they’ve abandoned the used books and focus entirely on comics, games, and the like.

Drop on in – Fraser Street, between College and Beaver.

One day, I noticed a new store had opened right across the street from my comic dealer. It was a stationery store. This may come as a shock to some readers, but – as a writer – I really love pens and paper. And this place sold really nice pens, fancy paper, bottled ink… and the owner – a delightful woman appropriately named Joy – was a wonderful calligrapher. I adored this store. I would visit often, chat with Joy, occasionally commission her for some calligraphy work, but mostly just admire the goods, most of which I couldn’t afford, being a college student.

When I was writing Wish You Were Here, I decided to add a little touch that meant a lot to me. In the story, the protagonist – an Earth teen who has found himself in a strange world with magic and monsters – needs some income. So I gave him a job at a small stationery shop. And you’d better believe this was inspired by that store back in college. In the story, I was able to allow him to deal in pens and ink and fancy paper, just as I wish I’d been able to do.

It’s a small thing, basically meaningless to the reader, but it was a special thing I did just for myself. Call me indulgent.

See previous caption.

The Nittany Quill is still open and still across the street from Comic Swap. If you stop in, tell Joy I said hello.


Posted by vmwales in Details

The Science in Fiction

Recently I read an (old) article that was complaining about the practice of pointing out scientific errors in movies. The author of the piece was quite worked up about it, and his basic argument was, “It’s fiction. Escapist entertainment. It doesn’t matter if the science is wrong! Shut up and enjoy the movie!”

Now, to a point, he’s right. Many films have scientifically inaccurate things that we can overlook because they’re minor and don’t affect the plot. But once scientific ignorance does affect the plot, that’s when we, as writers, should have a real problem with it.

A lot depends on the type of story you’re telling, of course. For example, superhero movies defy physics to a crazy degree. But the very idea of superheroes sets the tone for how much we’re going to ruin science. This is why we can accept that Tony Stark is not turned to mush inside his Iron Man suit during a nuclear explosion.

Iron Man: “What the hell?”

And more “serious” or “down to earth” stories should have limits that are even stricter, which is why we can’t (or shouldn’t) accept that Indiana Jones wasn’t turned to mush inside a refrigerator during a nuclear explosion.

Audience: “What the hell?”

The example I give in my fiction writing classes is the movie Jurassic Park. (Yes, I’ll suspend disbelief enough to accept that ancient DNA could still be viable, even though it degrades to be useless in about a million years.) What I’m talking about is a point, early in the film, where Dr. Grant is freaking out a kid in describing how velociraptors attack. And he says something to the effect of, “You freeze… because you think maybe the velociraptor’s visual acuity is based on movement, like the T-Rex. So if you’re not moving, it can’t see you.”

The first time I watched the film, I just sat there with my jaw hanging open. And in my head, I was screaming, “WTF are you talking about!? You cannot know that from studying bones!” Now, had this just been a throwaway line, I’d have been willing to let it go. But it wasn’t. Later in the film, this “fact” saved him from being eaten by a T-Rex.

Yes, stand still. I don’t like fast food.

The most unforgivable part of this shoddy writing is that it could have been shown that the T-Rex’s vision worked this way, since they’d been studying live dinosaurs. It could have been something they learned and Grant could have been advised of this when he arrived. So there was no need for the inaccuracy in the first place, which makes it all the more unforgivable, from a writing standpoint.

In the grand scheme of things, though, Jurassic Park’s scientific blunder is nothing compared to other films, some of which are ridiculously wrong on so many scientific things that they’re unwatchable. And yes, as a viewer/reader, I’m willing to suspend disbelief… but only so far. And as writers, we should respect our readers enough to care about keeping things accurate.

Posted by vmwales in Details, Plot

Why You Should Torture Your Characters

Writing good characters can be torture. Or, at least, it should be.

Oh, I don’t mean for the writer. I mean for the character.

One of the biggest problems I see in novice fiction (and, um, many major Hollywood productions) is that the protagonists are never challenged to any real degree. I’ve read stories and seen movies wherein the hero practically waltzes through all the challenges without so much as breaking a fingernail.

Just gonna drop this here…

Good stories, though, lay setback after setback on the protagonist, making his or her ultimate success all the more rewarding to the audience.

“Where doesn’t it hurt?”

But let’s talk about this from the writer’s perspective. Challenging our characters is essential to a good plot. And let’s face it: it’s fun to write our characters into tough situations, to hurt them, to make them bleed and suffer and…

Um… yeah.

It’s easy to get carried away, too.

When I was writing Wish You Were Here, one of my test readers was my first wife. She was the one who first got to read new chapters, to see what new hell I was putting my hero through.

Sometimes, though, she didn’t need to wait to read them. She knew something was up when she’d hear my (easily mistaken for evil) laugh coming from the den, where I was writing.

“Oh, boy,” I heard her drawl from the living room. “What did you do to him now?”

What didn’t I do to him?

Could’ve been a lot of things. I admit I fucked him up pretty good, both physically and emotionally. But I did it not because I was sadistic, but because this was a character who had absolutely no reason to be successful in everything he attempted. Sure, I could have gone easier on him.

But where’s the fun in that?

Posted by vmwales in Characters, Plot, Writing Process

The Subject of Scenes

Every fiction writer struggles with scenes, occasionally, and each writer has certain types of scenes that are the most troublesome, according to his or her strengths and weaknesses. One writer may have difficulty writing scenes with lots of action. Another may fret over scenes with nothing but dialogue. But sometimes a scene is difficult not because of the writer’s abilities, but because of the scene’s subject matter.

Currently, I’m struggling with one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever written. The reason is that it’s a seriously important and emotional subject. It needs to be the absolute best I can make it.

In the first book of the Dynamistress trilogy, Dyna becomes a suicide prevention crisis counselor, as I was, myself, for a time. My treatment of that subject in the first and second books was pretty superficial. But in the third book, I wanted there to be something more. So I have a scene where she encounters a would-be jumper on the Golden Gate Bridge.

#1 suicide destination in the U.S.

Now, Dyna is strong enough to  easily just grab the jumper and hoist him back over. But that’s not addressing the problem. It’s like “treating” an alcoholic by removing all the beer from the fridge. I knew I needed to show what a suicide prevention counselor actually does, but with Dyna’s own particular flair. The danger, of course, is keeping the flair to a minimum and treating the topic with the seriousness it deserves.

I first wrote the scene about a month ago and thought I had it done to the point of being happy with it. But the back of my mind said differently. So, a week ago, I rewrote sections of it, improving the scene greatly. But no, I still wasn’t done. I’ve spent probably two full hours just on that scene this weekend.

I’m still not totally happy with it and no doubt will revisit it at least a few more times before the book is finished.  And it’ll be worth it.

Posted by vmwales in Details, Editing

The Perfect Reader

Art, in general, is a subjective thing. Two people can look at the same painting, listen to the same song, watch the same movie, or read the same novel and get very different things out of the experience. I can’t speak for all artists, or even all novelists, but I know that there are certain things I very much want my readers to get out of my work.

For example, I have scenes that carry a lot of emotional weight for me. I’d like to think they have the same gut punch for my readers, but of course, I’m never going to know it unless readers reach out and tell me. To my great satisfaction, this does sometimes happen. And sometimes, you find that one reader who tells you all the things you want to hear… how all the scenes you love as a creator are the ones that writer loved the most, too. I call them Perfect Readers… the ones who react as though you wrote your story just for them.

As opposed to Easy Reader.

Several years ago, I received an email from a young man who’d just finished reading Wish You Were Here. He went on at length, listing all the things he loved about it. But then he mentioned the last paragraph of the novel. The final sentence, even. He said they were perfect. Exactly what he wanted. And this meant so much to me, because I can’t tell you how many times I revised that final paragraph until I felt it was exactly what I wanted, too.

Of all the readers who gave me feedback (whether in actual reviews or in personal emails), he was the only one who specifically mentioned the final passage. His email is one I’ll forever treasure. He was my first Perfect Reader.

More recently, I was chatting with a friend who’d just finished reading Redemption. I was asking him what he thought of certain scenes, including ones no one had mentioned in reviews or emails. “What did you think of the airport scene?” I asked him.

“Omigod,” he said. “That was intense. I about cried.”

“Good,” I said. “‘Cuz I cried while writing it.”

Perfect Readers. I hope all you writers out there can find at least one.

Posted by vmwales in Readers

Learn From the Masters

It’s often said that to be a good writer, you not only need to write a lot, but read a lot. You can learn plenty from reading good writing. And this is quite true. But frequently, what you learn is how not to do something.

For example, I recently finished re-reading one of my favorite novels, by one of my favorite authors. In fact, if I had to name one author who most influenced my writing, it would be this guy. I first read the book when I was still in high school and have read it several times, though it’s probably been twenty years since my last reading of it. However, after this experience, I’m hesitant to re-read other old favorites. Because this time, the book really bothered me.

I still admire the work for the ideas it put forth, the impact it had on so very many people (and on society, for that matter), and continue to view it as a remarkable novel. It is rightfully viewed as this author’s masterpiece (though it has never been my absolute favorite of his books). I’m not going to name the author or the book, because I don’t want to see a bunch of emails telling me that I’m an idiot, that it’s a phenomenal book, etc.

The thing is, in the decades since I last read this book, I’ve published four books of my own. I’ve become a better writer during that time, and now, looking at this novel with more experienced eyes, I see lots of problems with it, problems that – were they to come from my own hand – I would find mortifying.

Virtually the entire story, for example, is told via dialogue. There is very little description, very little exposition. This is not uncommon in this author’s work, and because these works influenced my younger self quite a lot, my early writing also had a lot of plot in the dialogue. But that’s not what dialogue is for. Sure, conveying some information pertinent to the plot via dialogue is okay, but it should be limited. In this book, it is anything but.

Another problem very common in this author’s works is that the protagonists are hardly ever seriously challenged. They encounter no major setbacks, and they always seem to be financially well off, so money is never the concern it is for most people. Without challenge, a character can’t grow, nor can the reader feel much suspense. The ultimate impact of the book will be lessened.

Did you not have an editor or what?

Being a writer essentially forces me to look at any story, whether books or movies, from a writer’s perspective. And as this example shows, it often reduces my enjoyment of the stories – even when the works themselves are praised, and by highly regarded writers.

So yes… read a lot and you’ll learn a lot. Just don’t be surprised when what you learn is how not to write.

Posted by vmwales in Characters, Dialogue, Plot, Problems, Writing Process

In Defense of the Origin Story

None of my readers will be surprised to know that I’m a big fan of the superhero genre.

Ya think?

And I’m very pleased that superhero movies have achieved a much higher level of excellence than when I was younger. I really look forward to every new film to be released, especially the first ones. The origin stories.

To my surprise, I’m finding out that quite a lot of people don’t like the “origin” stories. They say that they can’t wait for the origin stories to be done so they can get to the “real” stories. I really don’t get that. There is nothing more important than the origin story.

Why? Because stories are about change. (Yes, I know sometimes they’re about a lack of change, but for the post part, they’re about change. Now hush.) And the origin stories are all about change! They’re dripping with it!

When Christopher Nolan did Batman Begins, I can’t tell you how many people were of the opinion that we didn’t need another Batman origin movie. Anyone who’s at all familiar with Batman knows how he came to be… parents killed by a thug, rich kid grows up to be Batman, etc. Simple.

Except it isn’t simple at all. Christopher Nolan did something that no other Batman movie director had done: he made a movie about Batman, rather than a movie about the villain.

Yes, you get an hour of Bruce Wayne before you get Batman. And that’s awesome.


You can’t watch Batman Begins without coming away with a really good understanding of the character of Batman. You understand the how and the why of the changes to Bruce Wayne, while other movies just glossed over them. Tim Burton’s Batman, for example, was really more of a movie about the Joker.

This genre needs an enema.

Let’s extend this outside the superhero genre. Sequels to movies are ridiculously common, today, despite the fact that sequels rarely live up to the quality or success of the first film. But there’s a good reason why most fail to do so: because in the first film, everything is new and fresh. We’re introduced to the situation, the characters, and often completely new worlds. We’re impressed by the novelty of it all, which is a large part of why we enjoy the story.

With a sequel, that novelty is gone. Sure, new characters and new twists are introduced, but that fresh thrill can’t be recaptured, no matter how good the sequel is. We’re in familiar territory, now, so it’s going to take a lot more to impress us. And that’s not an easy task, sometimes.

I’m aware, of course, that there’s a bit of irony in what I’m saying, since I’m making the Dynamistress story a trilogy. But again, I’m not saying that it’s impossible to have well-done sequels. Just difficult.

Which is why that third book is behind schedule.

And writers have allowed their sequels to get out of control. I can (but won’t) point at several talented authors who need to just stop writing books in their popular series. (And don’t get me started on Hollywood.) The longer a series goes on, the more likely it is to become drained of all the originality that endeared us to it in the first place.

I also believe some works simply should not have sequels whatsoever, especially one produced just for the sake of making money. A sequel should result naturally from the original. And by all means, when the major story arc is done, don’t force another one. Know when to stop. And if that’s after just one story, so be it.

Because that first one, the origin story, is the most important, anyway.

Posted by vmwales in Characters
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