Other Writers

Imposter Sequels

As many creative people are, I’m pretty protective of my intellectual property. In this case, that means the stories I write and the characters who live them. I make no secret that I’m not crazy about “fan fiction,” even though I understand where the desire to write it comes from. Heck, in my youth, I made my own attempt at fan fiction in a story blending the Star Trek and Star Wars universes. Of course, it didn’t take long for me to abandon the tale, given how wildly different those universes are. After that, I never tried it again. For those who insist on writing it, feel free. But don’t for a minute think about publishing it.

Of course, there are those out there who will disagree with me on all of those points, including the last one. Because what is an unauthorized sequel to a book by a different author other than fan fiction?

Here’s one example.

A somewhat popular book that was made into a movie you might have seen.

Margaret Mitchell died decades before this thing was published:

The “sequel,” which was made into a TV mini-series you probably didn’t watch.

Another writer, though, didn’t have the decency to wait. Here’s another one you probably know:

The original.


The phony.

Salinger was still alive when the sequel was published in Sweden and was in the process of suing the publisher at the time of his death. A lot of things have been said about the book… that it’s not really a sequel, but a parody; that it’s a literary criticism of the original; and that it actually reads like fan fiction. (*ahem*) I wouldn’t know, since I have no intention of ever reading it (having not enjoyed Catcher in the first place). However, even though I wasn’t a fan of Catcher, I was opposed to this book for the same reasons Salinger was: I didn’t feel “J.D. California” had any right to publish it in the first place.

Now, there are plenty of sequels out there written by people other than the original authors, done with the approval of the copyright holders of the originals (the James Bond novels published after Ian Fleming’s death, for example). Some, I hear, are quite good.

My experiences have been less than stellar. Frank Herbert’s Dune series is, in my opinion, incredible. The Dune books by Frank’s son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson don’t really do it for me.

But a recently published work has me reconsidering my refusal to partake in such sequels again. I’m referring to The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Written by David Lagercrantz, it continues the “Millennium” series of books by the late Stieg Larsson, which gave us the character of Lisbeth Salander –  for my money, one of the most compelling characters ever written. It is that love for the character that made me consider reading it, while at the same time being afraid to.

Yes, read them.

Amazon reviews currently show it with a four-star rating, after some 1600+ reviews. That’s not bad. I tend to read negative user reviews first, and some of the complaints do give me concern, but they are so overshadowed by positive reviews that I’m willing to overlook them.

In the end, one factor has led me to decide to read it. I skimmed the first few pages using Amazon’s “look inside” feature, and learned that one of the minor characters is a young autistic boy who has yet to speak his first word by age eight. As it happens, I now have a young autistic boy in my life who has an essentially non-existent vocabulary at age seven. So, yeah… I think I’ll give it a shot.

Fingers crossed.


Posted by vmwales in Other Writers, Publishing

Five Facts About One Nation Under God

Part Two of the “behind the pages” peeks at my work. This installment is the 2004 dystopian future novel, One Nation Under God.

Fact #1 – People Do Judge Books by Their Covers

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, of course. After all, the purpose of having an attractive cover is so that people make the judgement to pick the thing up and look at it. But in this case, a lot of people judge it by not only the cover, but the title, too.

This cover should scare the hell out of anyone.

In my last blog, I mentioned an outrageous incident that occurred at the California State Fair some years ago. Here’s a less outrageous one. A guy sees the book and gives me two thumbs up and says something like, “One nation under god… right on, man!”

I gave a slight smile and said, “It doesn’t mean what you seem to think it means.”

“I don’t care,” he said. “Right on, man.”

Look at that cover. It’s meant to offend the shit out of people. Replacing the stars with crosses? That’s absolutely not okay, folks. But evidently, some people disagree.

Fact #2 – I Had to Change a Character’s Name

In the first draft of the book, President Christopher’s wife’s name was Laura. But then this dude who was running for the office in 2000 somehow “won” the election, and wouldn’t you know it, his wife’s name was Laura.

I didn’t model this character after Laura Bush, but this bonehead:

“Dr.” Laura – hypocritical conservative busybody.

I knew, though, that readers might make the Bush association, so I changed her name to Sarah. No, not because of Sarah Palin. At that time, I thankfully had no idea who that airhead was.

Fact #3 – It’s Clearly Not as Prescient as I’d Hoped

I’ve been asked frequently how I “predicted” some of the things in the book that eventually came to pass in the real world. My answer to that is that I didn’t “predict” anything. I just saw the writing that had been on the wall for a while, and just projected what would happen if the Prez and Congress went ultra-conservative and uber-religious. I mean, more than they were at the time.

However, there’s one thing I did not see coming whatsoever:

I just wasn’t that much of a doomsayer.

Social media wasn’t even on my radar when I was writing the book. Would it have changed the story? Well… no. Because of certain plot points, I wouldn’t have had the protagonist actually using social media, but minor characters would have, and it would have been nice to have included them, if only for more accurate setting.

Any book that’s set in the future invariably will either over- or underestimate how much technology will advance. We don’t have flying cars, yet, after all. But we have the interwebs. Sci-Fi writers of the 50s would probably be surprised by both facts. So I suppose that, even though I didn’t see social media on the near horizon, I’m still in okay company.

Fact #4 – The Book Came to Me Fully Formed

No, it didn’t come to me in a dream, but it might as well have. I was living in Utah at the time (essentially a theocracy) and was sitting at my temp job when the idea just sprang into my brain. Not just the ideas for the characters and general thrust of the story, but also the formatting, a sort of 21st Century epistolary novel, with diary entries, email exchanges, newspaper clippings, web pages, etc. I just knew this was how it needed to be told.

Ironically, it was this form that prevented me from getting agent representation. I kept being told, “Epistolary books are a tough sell.”

Because people don’t buy epistolary novels. Nor do they get made into movies.

Fact #5 – The Book is Actually a Scrapbook… and a Handbook

The format of the book is meant to reflect the scrapbook that the teenage protagonist put together, a chronological telling of her family’s story. This is why many of the aspects of the story are not examined in much detail – they are things only of passing interest to her.

But I also meant for the novel to be a sort of handbook, a very loose primer on many different unconventional ideas, many of which are near and dear to my heart. Just a few of them are: alternative communitiesalternative religionalternative educationalternative relationships, and so on.

a.k.a. Ten Years of Utter Weirdness

Educating while entertaining. That’s always been my goal.

Posted by vmwales in Five Facts, Genre, Other Writers, Setting

The Value of a Book

Several years ago, I was part of the California Authors exhibit at the California State Fair. This one evening, I was seated next to my friend Phil Silver, a children’s book author who had two small books for sale. At one point, a man and his son (maybe four years old) stepped over. The man picked up one of Phil’s books and flipped through it. Then he turned to his boy and said, “Hey, would you like to get a book?”

The son seemed fairly disinterested, but the father continued to leaf through the pages before saying, “Are these free?”

Phil and I sat there in shock for a moment before Phil advised him that, no, they weren’t free, but seven dollars each or both for twelve (or something to that effect).

The man looked absolutely incredulous and said, “Seven bucks? For a book?”

He said this in all seriousness, then put down the book and escorted his son away… carrying a can of beer that I knew was selling at the fair for six dollars.

This is what’s wrong with America.

I regularly tell this story as an example not only of a massive parenting fail, but of society’s misplaced sense of value. A man will pay six dollars to enjoy a beer for maybe fifteen minutes, but be utterly appalled at the suggestion that a book was worth seven, even though it would likely give his son many hours of enjoyment.

This could not be more backward. I admit that the concept of “value” is somewhat subjective, but only a person dying of thirst should find more value in a beer than a book.

Posted by vmwales in Other Writers, Readers

Why I Don’t Write Science Fiction

My first major in college was astronomy, believe it or not. If you’re happy that I’m a writer, you can thank calculus. My poor relationship with higher math wasn’t the only reason for the change of majors, though. The truth is, I’ve always loved science and found it beautiful, but I really never wanted to be an actual scientist.

In truth, I just wanted to look at heavenly bodies.

Most of the books I read as a teen and through my twenties were science fiction, and the more a story relied on actual science, the more I seemed to like it. So, one would imagine that, when I started writing, that’s what I’d do.

My only science fiction efforts were in high school, in the form of short stories that were published in our school’s monthly “newspaper.” And wow, were they terrible. Seriously. Just awful. And not even “real” science fiction, as the science involved was pretty vague, to put it mildly.

Okay, calling it “real” science fiction is a poor choice of words. Sci-Fi can be broken down into lots of categories, of course, but the two biggies are “hard” and “soft.” (Kinda like porn… but not.) The difference between the two is that “hard” science fiction is that very sort I mentioned, where the science is accurate and a crucial facet of the story. “Soft” science fiction would be where the science is basically just given a nod, whether accurate or not, and often just incidental to the story.

At any rate, when I finally found my voice and started writing novel-length stories, I didn’t go for science fiction. I’ve done fantasy. I’ve done “social science fiction,” in the form of a dystopian future story, but that’s not the same. And I’m currently in the middle of a superhero memoir trilogy.

See previous caption.

Now, the Dynamistress books actually do say “science fiction” on the covers. It’s not accurate, of course. Stories about super-powered individuals technically qualify as fantasy. But because I indulged myself and really got detailed with the science behind Dyna’s abilities, I labeled it science fiction. (Besides, most people think of fantasy as being along the lines of Tolkein and such.)

The question remains, though, if I love hard science fiction so much, not to mention science itself, why don’t I write it? And I have to admit that the answer is that I feel intimidated by the very idea. And there’s the fact that I don’t even have any solid ideas for such a story. I have a notes file with a few concepts I’d want to include in a Sci-Fi tale – some of which did make their way into the Dynamistress books – but nothing more than that.

Truth is, I’ve always had a particular gripe about hard science fiction. In my experience, the more focus there is on the science, the less memorable the characters are. Arthur C. Clarke was good at incorporating hard science. But the most memorable character he ever came up with was made of silicon, wires, and plastic.

Previous captions do not apply.

One of the most brilliant series of books I’ve read, science-wise, was Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy, Red MarsGreen MarsBlue Mars. I can’t think of anything else I’ve read that incorporated so many fields of science so thoroughly or so well. But again… his characters don’t stand out in memory. Robert A. Heinlein, on the other hand, created plenty of memorable characters, but the science content of his stories was never close to being equal to Clarke or Robinson.

Heinlein, though, has certainly been the writer whose work most affected my own story-telling. So if I ever write a “real” science fiction novel, I think it’s safe to say that it’ll have memorable characters. Whether that happens or not… just wait and see.

Posted by vmwales in Genre, Other Writers

Where Do You Get Your Story Ideas?

This is one of the more common questions I’ve gotten from people over the years, so I thought I’d address it, here.

Story ideas, of course, can come from just about anywhere. Writers pretty much play the “what if” game all the time. It’s just how we think. And it doesn’t have to be anything as grandiose as, “What if Germany had won WWII?” It can be something as simple as, “I found a shoe at the side of the road. What if there had been a foot in it?”

Er… okay. That works, too.

We find inspiration for story ideas in our own lives, of course, and that’s been a treasure trove for me. For example, One Nation Under God was directly a result of where I happened to be living at the time, which was Utah. I’ve long been an activist for freethought causes, especially the separation of church and state. And Utah… well… there’s not much separation, there, to put it lightly. I also began writing it around the time when George W. Bush was elected, and I saw a lot of writing on the walls, so to speak. My book was written essentially as a warning against the dangers of mixing government and religion. I’m not happy that some of the things I wrote about actually came to pass.

Story ideas can come not only from life events, but also from our hobbies. For example, people today know George R. R. Martin primarily for his book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, and the HBO Series based on it, Game of Thrones. But I first heard of the man many years ago when he was editing a series of books called Wild Cards. This series of books was inspired by, among other influences, a super-hero role-playing game that Martin and several other writers played together. And I can totally relate to this.

My first novel, Wish You Were Here, was inspired by my college days playing Dungeons & Dragons. At some point in our playing, one of the guys in our group decided it would be fun to create characters based on ourselves. Granted, they were idealized and exaggerated versions of ourselves, but in this way, “we” became adventurers in our games.

It didn’t take long for me to see the potential for a story, here. I’d always been a big fan of the “fish out of water” concept of stories, and one of my favorites was the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. John Carter was a Civil War captain who found himself mystically transported to Barsoom, the planet we call Mars, where he had all sorts of awesome adventures. So, with our D&D characters, I simply wondered what would happen if a teenage boy from Earth was somehow transported to a world of magic and monsters, with no idea how he got there or how to get back. The rest came pretty easily.

But Wish You Were Here isn’t my only game-inspired book. Many years later, I discovered an online MMORPG called City of Heroes. Creating my own hero and play-acting them with a bunch of others doing the same thing was an absolute blast. And the character I first created for the game, Dynamistress, was always my favorite. I played her for six years before the game was canceled. And now, she lives on in a series called The Many Deaths of Dynamistress.

I figure George R. R. Martin would probably dig it.

Posted by vmwales in Inspiration, Other Writers, Writing Process

When Is a Story Not a Story?

There is a particular short “story” (sometimes hilariously referred to as “a six-word novel”) that is often attributed to Hemingway (though almost certainly not his invention) that consists of only the following words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

This trifle of words is often lauded as being a masterpiece of flash fiction (which, to me, is an oxymoron). Now, I’m certainly not the first to point this out, but this bit of fluff is without any inherent meaning.

The only actual meaning contained in those words is that there are baby shoes for sale in new condition. Any meaning beyond that is given to it by the reader. And perhaps because stories are supposed to be about conflict, we assume the worst. A child who died not long after birth. A miscarriage, perhaps. An adoption that fell through. Or whatever. But those are all assumptions by the reader. There’s nothing in the piece that gives us any reason whatsoever to conclude any of those things, or anything else. Perhaps the shoes didn’t fit. Perhaps they were a gift for a friend, but were forgotten at the back of a closet and never given. Or any of a hundred other things.

Seriously, they were the ugliest fuckin’ shoes.

It’s all well and good to allow your reader some involvement with your work. There is no need for you to spell out everything in great detail. Once upon a time, a test reader of mine complained that I never stated what color eyes my protagonist had. “It’s important,” she said. “You can tell a lot about a person from the color of their eyes.”

Velcro? You’re joking, right?

Disregarding her obvious delusion, the fact was that there was no reason for me to state what color his eyes were. It had no effect on the story. I was perfectly fine letting my reader give him whatever color eyes they wished. Similarly, in most circumstances, I find it okay to let the reader imagine what sort of clothing my characters are wearing. Or what they like on their pizza. Or any of a thousand other things.

Leather!? You bought me leather!? I’M VEGAN, BITCH!

But the actual meaning of an event is rarely open to speculation. See, that’s my job, as a writer: to tell a story. I’m not here to write a puzzle that someone is to figure out (at least, not without giving the answer at the end).

Yet, that’s exactly what this piece does. It forces the reader to “write” the story, filling in the conflict themselves. But stories aren’t just about conflict. They’re about characters and how they change (or refuse to) due to the story’s events (or in spite of them). And there is no character, here. And that’s why I put “story” in quotes in the first sentence. Because it isn’t a story. It’s a scenario, nothing more.

Posted by vmwales in Details, Other Writers, Writing Process

My Friend, Parke Godwin

I’m often asked who my favorite writers are. This has always been a difficult question for me to answer because I tend to think in terms of favorite works, rather than favorite writers. For most of my life, I was an avid science fiction reader. Unquestionably, my favorite sci-fi book was Frank Herbert’s Dune. In fact, the first three books of that series were my favorites. But outside of the universe of Dune, I didn’t really care for any other of Herbert’s work. There were some, though, whose works were almost all enjoyable to me. Robert A. Heinlein was one such author. As an actual writer, it’s easy to point out flaws common to most of his works, but he always entertained and his books were all page-turners. Outside of that genre, Tom Robbins is another favorite, though if I’m honest, I really have to limit that to his first five novels.

I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I’d meet any of my writing “heroes” in my life. Herbert and Heinlein were both long dead before I was ever published. I suppose I might one day meet Robbins, though it would be easier if I lived in Seattle. Then again, he’s not exactly a young man, anymore, so it’s increasingly unlikely that our paths will cross. And let’s face it, writers in general aren’t exactly gregarious creatures. They’re not the easiest people to meet.

But sometimes, life tosses you some coincidence. In 2005, I was attending the annual awards banquet of Northern California Publishers and Authors. The speaker at the banquet was Persia Woolley. I knew her name, though I’d never read her work. But I almost had.

Persia Wooley… a truly lovely person.

In my early twenties, I went through a period of being very into Arthurian legend. And one day, at a bookstore, I was deciding between Persia’s Guinevere trilogy and two books by Parke Godwin. In the end, I chose the latter, Firelord and Beloved Exile.

I knew Persia and Parke were friends, as Parke thanked Persia in the acknowledgments of one of his books. And as luck would have it, after giving her talk at the banquet, she sat next to me at my table. We struck up a conversation (she’s a warm and lovely lady) and I happened to mention my fondness for Godwin’s books. (Firelord, by the way, would be my favorite non-science fiction novel.) My novel, One Nation Under God, won several awards in that year’s contest and I gave Persia a copy of it before the event ended.

To my shock, a few months later, I received an email saying, “I’m about a quarter of the way into One Nation. This is one hell of a book.” The email was from Parke Godwin. Persia had given him the book.

Obviously, I was stunned that the author of so many books I loved, including one of my all-time favorites, was really enjoying my work. Naturally, I replied almost immediately.

We exchanged a number of emails and, eventually, met in person. Turns out he lived only about 40 miles from me. Over the next couple years, I drove up to visit several times, Persia joining us on a couple occasions. And throughout, we emailed frequently.

As you’d expect, we talked about his work a lot. I told him that Firelord was one of my favorite books of all time, and was stunned to learn that it wasn’t even a book he wanted to write. His publisher told him they wanted a King Arthur book, as they were currently “hot.” He told them he didn’t want to write a King Arthur book. But he did it, anyway. So the book I held so dear was, amazingly, not something that came from his heart.

Parke – or, Pete, as he preferred to be called – was a courteous and entertaining fellow, with a streak of wild Irishman, and I greatly enjoyed our talks. Persia told me once that Pete really enjoyed my visits, too, which pleased me, of course.

Neither of us were truly at our best during the time we were acquainted. I was in a creative rut and dealing with moderately severe depression. Pete helped me with encouragement and compliments on my work. I wish I could have helped him, but his problems were beyond my influence.

I do have Pete to thank for one pretty major thing. In 2009, frustrated with my day job and lack of financial success in writing, I enrolled in graduate school to become a mental health counselor. For a year and a half, I worked full time and went to school full time. But halfway through the degree, I was going a bit nuts. Because all my time was devoted to those two things. I had zero time for writing.

I emailed Pete and vented about this. He replied, “What do you REALLY want to do with your life? If it’s writing, go for it; if mental health, go for that.”

Days later, I withdrew from school and immediately slammed out a serious amount of writing on Reckoning. I wrote and thanked him for the advice… and for reminding me of who I really am.

What’s your excuse?

Pete wasn’t in great health, though. And as it continued to decline, my visits became less frequent. The last time I saw him, which was the first time in a few years, was in October of 2011, when Pete was one of the guests of honor at the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego. It was a heartbreaking meeting, in fact. His health had deteriorated badly, as had his memory. He didn’t recognize me, at first.

In 2012, largely due to his cognitive decline, he was moved to an attended care facility. And on June 19, 2013, he breathed his last.

I do wish I’d visited him more frequently. But I’m grateful to have known him at all. RIP, my friend.

Parke Godwin – An Irishman who loved Scotch.

And to all my readers, please do check out his works. The man was truly talented.

Posted by vmwales in Other Writers