research

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

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, 1 comment

I’m a Novelist (i.e., Researcher)

One thing many people don’t seem to think about… and, indeed, something many new writers don’t seem to think about… is just how much research can go into writing a novel. Research, many seem to believe, is reserved for non-fiction. But novels often require a ridiculous amount of research, too.

My novel, Wish You Were Here, is a sword & sorcery style fantasy. As such, most people wouldn’t think a lot of research had to go into it. And in truth, there wasn’t, compared to my later books. But one area of research that found its way into the book was herbology. All of the herbs mentioned in the book are real, and the uses depicted are, as well. The names I gave them, in many cases, are folk names for the actual herb.

Despite the name, it’s not what you think.

One Nation Under God required me to become a lot more familiar with Constitutional law than I had been. It also allowed me to use research on my own personal interests in topics such as intentional community, alternative education, and more.

But all of that combined is nothing compared to the research for my new series, The Many Deaths of Dynamistress. Just a few of the topics I’ve been diving into: human genetics, synthetic biology, a number of cool inventions from DARPA, acoustic weaponry, zero-point energy, and more.

Like the trauma pod.

My attitude has always been that in fiction – even fantasy, sci-fi, or superhero fiction – the more we pay attention to real science, the better the finished product. And the more we disregard it, obviously, the weaker the finished product.

It doesn’t matter how unbelievable your topic is. If you back it up with solid research, you can make it believable. Never assume that because you’re writing “out there” fiction that you can’t bring it down to earth enough to be swallowed.

Posted by vmwales in Details, 0 comments