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 woudln’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, 0 comments

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, 2 comments

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, 0 comments

Memory Mining

Like many writers, I draw from my own life experiences for the things I write. As I write this, I’m currently working on the third book in the Dynamistress series. These books are filled with variations of events that actually happened to me as a kid or young adult.

I’d always planned to do this for the books, but some of the things that came to me were very unexpected, things I hadn’t thought of in an awfully long time. For example, at one point in the story, Dyna’s brother is making an analogy and he mentions a particular item from their (my) youth: a bag of marbles.

When I was a little boy, there was a big bag of marbles my dad had. They were old, and I knew that my older siblings (older by 15 and 16 years) had played with them when they were little. Sometimes I actually played with them in game form with my friends, putting a circle of string on the floor and we’d take turns shooting them out. But mostly, I just liked looking at them.

Not the actual bag, but…

There were all sorts. Some were plain glass of white or black. Others were “cat’s eye” marbles, with beautiful waves of color nestled inside the clear glass. There was one that was an old style, made of clay, rough to the touch. There were even a couple steel ball bearings in there.

When the memory of these marbles popped into my head, I allowed myself some time to savor the memory. But then, as I’m prone to do, I went online and started researching marbles, including how they’re made, how much some of them sell for, and so on. One of the things I learned is that some of the marbles being made today are crazy beautiful.

Now, sometimes I do deep research on things for the sake of making accurate points in my stories. Entire scientific articles are studied just for the sake of a single, almost throwaway, line in a book. But no, there won’t be anything about the marbles in the book aside from their use as an analogy. I was doing the marble research purely out of curiosity and fascination. Because I’m insatiably curious. Also, easily distracted.

I admit that when I first decided to use memories of my personal history for inclusion in the books, it was because it would be an easy source of material. What I’ve found, though, is that it not only allows for a richer storytelling, but also a deeper appreciation of my own life, both past and future.

Posted by vmwales in Details, Inspiration, 0 comments

It’s All About Marketing

Last month, I was one of the exhibitors at the Sacramento Wizard World Comic-Con. I had a table in “Artist Alley,” as I did last year. I do a few different such conventions each year, but this one is the largest of those.

As expected, I had great fun. I always enjoy meeting new people. And, obviously, I love it when people buy my books. But perhaps most of all, I love seeing the cosplayers and their often amazing costumes.

Nice kitty…?

The downside of being an exhibitor is not having the ability to attend the special events going on or getting to meet any of the celebrity guests.

Someday, my dear…

Then again, being always out on the floor has certain advantages. Like being randomly interviewed by SidewalksTV! Dyna and I were lucky enough to score about four minutes of facetime!

Click the pic to hear Dyna say mean things about me.

As you might expect, Dyna gets a lot more attention at these events than I do. And I’m really okay with that, socially awkward guy that I am.

I have a love/hate relationship with interviews. On the one hand, I enjoy being able to talk about my work, but on the other hand, I’d much prefer these interviews be in print, not on camera.

But I realize that interviews – and live appearances – are necessary. It’s all about marketing, as are this blog, my newsletter, Facebook, Twitter, etc. It’s not enough to produce a quality product, whether that product is a book, an automobile, or a salad dressing. People need to know about the products, too.

They say word of mouth is a great marketing tool, so if you’ve enjoyed my work, please tell anyone you think might also enjoy it. This socially awkward writer would appreciate it.

Posted by vmwales in Marketing/Promotion, 0 comments

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, 0 comments

Five Facts About Wish You Were Here

This is the first of a few “behind the pages” looks at my books, sharing some little known facts about the works. This week: Wish You Were Here.

Fact #1 – Yes, the Title is From the Pink Floyd Song

No, there isn’t a scene depicting this in the book.

I’m often asked this, so there’s the official confirmation. The original book, as written, contained the lyrics of five songs worked into the story. These were removed prior to publication because I couldn’t afford to pay for the rights to reproduce them. I’d certainly like to issue an updated edition one day that had the songs worked back in (along with the remainder of the accompanying scenes during which the songs are played in the story). The novel itself is divided into five “books,” each one named after the songs, although there’s no indication that this is the case. For the record (and in order), the songs are:

  • “What Am I Doing Here?” by The Moody Blues – Not one of their better known songs and only available (as of this writing) on Caught Live + Five (vinyl) or Prelude (CD).
  • “Night Vision” by Suzanne Vega – I first heard this as the B-side of her 1987 hit, “Luka.” It turned out to be the perfect song for a scene in the book.
  • “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd – What is there to say?
  • “Land Ho” by Roger Hodgson – Released on his second solo LP, Hai Hai, this particular song was written back in his Supertramp days.
  • “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits – Another song that just fit the story beautifully.

Oh, and yes, there is in fact a complete soundtrack to the book. The remaining songs that round it out are all instrumental pieces. Perhaps one day I’ll share those with you, too.

Fact #2 – My Cover Artist Saved Me From Embarrassing Myself

When my cover artist was reading the book to get a feel for the sort of cover she was going to do, she caught a boo-boo in the story. There’s a scene where the protagonist is watching someone field dress a rabbit. I got an email from her saying, “That’s not how you do that.”

Uh, no. Wrong kind of rabbit. Wrong kind of dress.

She’d caught me in a moment of lazy writing. I typically am good about researching things. For that book, I learned more about horses and herbology than you’d believe (and have, of course, forgotten most of it, now). But I didn’t look up how to field dress a rabbit. My bad.

Fact #3 – It’s a Damn Long Book

To my amazement, the book clocks in at more than 300,000 words. This makes it a good bit shorter than the complete The Lord of the Rings, but longer than the second and third books of that trilogy combined. Or for the Harry Potter fans, a bit longer than Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire combined.

I should really charge more for this book.

As I said, this amazed me when I realized it, because I believe (and others have told me) that the book reads very quickly.

Fact #4 – The Book Was Published at a Very Bad Time

The original edition of the book (there have been two) was released in August of 2001. Yes, just a month before a rather infamous event in U.S. history. And the simple truth is that consumer spending dropped considerably in the wake of 9-11. No, it didn’t last long, but another truth is that I wasn’t particularly motivated by that time to try to get people to buy the thing.

No words.

The second edition was released after my second book, One Nation Under God, had gained a lot of great reviews. (But again, since I hate marketing, it’s not as well known.)

Fact #5 – It is the First Book of a Planned Trilogy

Yes, I just said the first book was published in August of 2001, which is very nearly 14 years ago, as I write this. And the second book (which is, in fact, begun) probably won’t be published until 2020. With luck, book three in 2023. Those are just guesstimates, of course.

Besides, I’ve got another trilogy to complete, first.

Though, if she continues to piss me off, I may not finish her books.



Posted by vmwales in Five Facts, 0 comments

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

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

Leaving the City

It’s spring of 2006. I’m living on my own for the first time in two decades, a divorce pending, struggling to remember how to be single and live alone. I have a job, but lots of bills, and virtually no social outlets. My depression is kicking into high gear.

I need an escape… an outlet… something in which I can invest my time to take my mind off things.

Seriously? Who picks these pics?

I know what you’re thinking. I should be working on that next novel. And that’s true. I should be. But I’m just not inspired. I know that inspiration isn’t particularly necessary, but it would be nice, I think. I do try to write. I work a little bit on the sequel to Wish You Were Here, but my heart isn’t in it. I try, once again, to pull my first novel back from the dead… but it keeps falling back into the same ruts that doomed it before. I have other pieces of books in the works, but none are speaking to me.

No, my escape needs to be something different. Something social. But I have few friends here. And it should be something I can do at all hours, not dependent upon others. And it should be fun. Lots of fun. So that meant…

I said SOCIAL!

Video games.

The ex (fittingly) kept the Xbox. That’s fine, since she also kept the TV. But I had a computer. We don’t need no stinking console.

World of Warcraft? Highly recommended by some friends. Everquest 2? Highly recommended by other friends. But no… My brain reminded me of one I’d seen on a shelf some time ago. A superhero game. What was it called?

City of Heroes.

See… it’s a city… of… Oh, you get the idea.

Yeah, gimme superheroes over sword and sorcery any day. I bought the game. I created a character. Just one, to start, though many more would follow over the next six years. And none of those would ever come close to matching that first character.

For six years, I developed her, with the help of plenty of great (and some not-so-great) role-players online, many of whom I have since met in person and consider dear friends. This character… easily the most complex character I’ve ever created… has a life of her own. She’s on Facebook. She has a Twitter account. Her MySpace page is probably still there, too. For a while, she had a personal website, but I took it down recently in preparation for a major remodel.

Why? Because this character is the protagonist of my next novel.

Oh, I removed her from the game world and planted her firmly in “our” universe. I wasn’t about to steal any intellectual property of the game company. Not that I had any inclination to stop playing the character in the game. In fact, I looked forward to the book becoming popular and readers coming to City of Heroes to “meet” her.

Sadly, that will now never happen.

Today, it was announced that City of Heroes will be defunct by the end of November.

I learned this perhaps two hours ago. And it’s a surreal feeling. Yes, it’s a game. But it’s far more than that. It’s a community in which I made some great friends. It’s a creative milieu in which I created an amazing character. And even after six years, it was still a welcome relief from the daily grind. In fact, ninety percent of my time in the game for the past few years has been role-playing, not really playing “the game” part of it.

And in three months, that will all be history.

Of course, it already is, really. The past six years are history for this character. The book is her memoir, you see. And while it will not be about the world of that game, the stories I came up with for her on the screen certainly served as inspiration for her story on the page.

The next three months will be bittersweet. They will hold the final days of her life in the game, but usher in the first days of her life in a new form. I expect the final chapters to be done by the end of the year, with the book making its appearance almost exactly seven years after its protagonist first took form on my computer.

I’m excited as heck about that. But today, my heart is heavy.

Posted by vmwales in Inspiration, 0 comments