Wish You Were Here

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.


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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

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.

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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.



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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