Writing Process

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, 1 comment

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, 0 comments

The Negative Effects of Praise

Everyone likes being told that something they’ve done was good. Sure, some people do have difficulty accepting compliments, but most people appreciate that others feel our efforts are praise-worthy. And that includes writers. It’s wonderful to hear from readers who’ve enjoyed my work. Even after nearly a decade and a half, I never get tired of hearing it.

Of course, there are good ways to praise, and not-so-good ways. Here’s a great article over on Parenting Science, in case you’re interested in reading up on it. One of the points made by the author is especially relevant to me: “Encourage kids to focus on mastering skills—not on comparing themselves to others.” I think one of the biggest disservices done to school kids is giving praise for being “best in class,” so to speak, rather than actually being good. Throughout elementary school, my English teachers praised my writing. This continued through high school, so by the time I graduated, I thought I was some sort of literary genius, when in fact I was anything but. I might have been better than the majority of my peers, but that’s not the same as being good.

Okay… and…?

Because of this, I entered my college writing classes with a bit of an ego. And to be fair, my work was still better than many of those in my classes, but no longer was I receiving the glowing commentary from teachers. Instead, they pointed out the flaws. And before long, I realized that I still had a lot to learn. I realized I wasn’t anything special.

The truth was that I’d entered my college writing program without any understanding beyond my own instincts of what elements were necessary for a good story, since that wasn’t something I was taught in high school. Nor, it turns out, was there much of that in my college English classes. It wasn’t until I took a screenwriting class through the film department in my senior year that I learned these things. To say my opinion of the English program lowered then is an understatement.

Or actually teach me something of value.

In later years, I put together a series of classes (eight of them, in total, each focusing on a different aspect of fiction writing) for an adult education program in Sacramento. I had a number of students over the years tell me that they learned more in my classes than in all of college, which of course is why I put the classes together in the first place – to contain what I should have been taught all those years ago, rather than having to learn it on my own.

Praise is a double-edged sword. One edge was the praise that gave me confidence to continue writing and to consider doing it “for real” as an adult. The other edge, though, was praise that gave me false expectations of how that would go.

Everyone and their cousin is writing a book, today (and publishing e-books to sell for pennies). Likely as not, a huge number of them were once kids who were told they were good writers by well-intentioned primary school teachers, but who never actually learned to become good writers. Why should they? After all, they always got an “A” on their stories. That may be the most negative effect of praise: the current flood of mediocre novels.

Posted by vmwales in Writing Process, 0 comments

Are You a Writer, Yet?

Novice writers often fall into one of three categories. The first category is the almost stereotypical individual who never hesitates to proudly claim to be a writer and boast about works-in-progress and how great they are, but never seems to produce anything. Or at least, never shows the work to others.

The second category is someone who talks about writing a lot, and of the books or stories they want to write. They’ll have notebooks full of ideas, often quite detailed, but no actual words on the page.

The third category is the self-conscious person who doesn’t feel it’s appropriate to identify as a writer simply because none of their works have yet been published.

One of these three is actually a writer. Hint: it’s not the first or second.

When I taught fiction writing, I met a lot in this third category. These were people who wrote regularly. Sure, they had a lot of things to learn, but they were making the effort. Still, they felt that, because they weren’t published, it wasn’t right to call themselves writers.

That’s baloney. There’s only one criterion for being able to properly call yourself a writer, and that’s to write often.

Our bragging friend in the first category may have written something at some point. It might even have been good. The enthusiastic one in the second category may have lots of ideas that could one day become great stories. But unless there’s actual writing going on, the label of writer doesn’t apply to either of them.

Which category are you in?

Posted by vmwales in Writing Process, 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.

Yay!

But not happy enough.

Nuts.

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, 0 comments

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, 0 comments

Who’s Writing This Stuff?

One of the more interesting things about fiction writing is when your characters assert themselves, taking your story in a direction you didn’t expect. This has happened to me a few times over the years. Most recently, just this past weekend.

It began simply enough. I’d reached a point in the new book (Redemption, the sequel to Reckoning) where my protagonist was dealing with some difficult decisions and relationship issues. And then, as I was considering them, she said, “Dude, look… if I’m dealing with relationship issues right now, don’t you think there’s a pretty big one hanging over my life?”

Two things stand out about this. The first is that I hate it when she calls me “dude.”

Really? Why, man?

The second is that she was right. This particular relationship (an estrangement) had been casting an ugly shadow for most of her life. It was time to revisit it.

So we did. And… it went okay. Not the way I expected to, but… I liked it. The ugly shadow isn’t gone, but it’s not quite as dark as it was.

But then, while waiting for her flight at the airport, she said, “That went well. Let’s do another.” So there came a random meeting at the airport with a couple important people from her college days.

And that one went well, too. And again, in a way I didn’t expect it to go. For that matter, I never expected to revisit this particular shadow again at all.

It’s fine. We’ll come by soon.

Sometimes I wonder who’s writing this stuff.

Of course, I don’t always do what she says. I may change my mind about one or both of these events. Writing is a process, after all. Once you have an idea down, there are revisions, refinements, re-evalutations, and so on.

But when ideas seem to come to you from your characters, rather than your own conscious decision-making… I’ve found it’s usually worth a serious look.

 

Posted by vmwales in Characters, Plot, Writing Process, 0 comments

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, 0 comments

Get a Job

I often joke that writing is less a hobby and more an affliction. Many writers will tell you that they feel compelled to write, that if they were no longer able to write, their heads would explode or something like that. In truth, it does sort of feel that way. So I guess it makes sense that a lot of (non-writer) people would ask me, “Why don’t you get a day job where you’re writing? Like for a magazine or something?”

I think I’d sooner beat myself in the head with a hot iron.

Apparently, that can be arranged.

I do love to write. But I don’t like being required to write something. It’s like being forced to read a book in school that you might otherwise enjoy, but don’t, simply because it’s required reading for a class. Besides, if I’m writing all day long for the day job, the last thing I’m going to want to do afterward is to work on my novels.

That’s the irony of writing professionally. If you don’t write, you don’t publish. If you don’t publish, you don’t make any money. And if you don’t make any money, you’re stuck in your dreary 9-to-5 for the rest of your life. So even though you’re writing what you want to write, you’re having to force yourself to do so with more frequency than you might naturally desire.

In the end, if I have to have a boss, I’d prefer it to be me. I’m my own worst critic, after all. And I can’t get into trouble for cussing myself out behind my back.

And I’m a real bastard.

Posted by vmwales in Writing Process, 0 comments

Why I’m Not More Successful

About a month ago, I appeared on a live TV broadcast of Good Day Sacramento. It was just for a few minutes, wherein I answered some fairly general questions about my latest book. One question, however, I wasn’t expecting. But I should have. Because it’s a question that non-writers seem to be obsessed with: What do you do about writer’s block?

I’m hesitant to buy this…

I have to admit that the question annoyed me. I wanted to talk about the book I’d written, or even just about writing. I didn’t wan to talk about not writing. I handled the question well enough, I suppose, but I’d be happy if I never had to talk about it again.

People seem to think that writer’s block is the the writer’s main nightmare. They think it’s the result of running out of things to say. I suppose for some writers, that’s the case. But I think it’s more often the result of having too many things to say, the ideas getting log-jammed in your head. The problem is, therefore, not knowing which thing to say. I also think writer’s block is something that happens less and less frequently as you become a better writer, because you learn what to do when it happens.

So writer’s block is not an issue for me. It isn’t what has prevented me from being more successful. Nope. That would be because of one specific thing.

Marketing sucks.

I hate marketing. I don’t think I’m very good at it, and I don’t like taking time away from writing in order to promote. I suppose I’m just hoping for the sort of viral success that can only come by word-of-mouth. I know I have fans out there, just not enough yet to reach critical mass, where it’s inevitable that my work will sell well.

I guess it’s not too different from waiting to win the lottery. As they say, you’ve got to play to win. With publishing, you’ve got to promote to win. And just as I’ll happily accept any lottery tickets given to me, I’ll gladly welcome the efforts of volunteer marketing people! Any takers? For either?

Posted by vmwales in Marketing/Promotion, Problems, Writing Process, 0 comments