Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The saga begins . . .

[Originally published on MySpace on 27 October, 2007]

The story behind Masks begins, like most writers' stories, with rejection.

Like pretty much every other literate kid in America, I was short on friends growing up. My best (and only) pals in junior high school were my school's geek patrol—mostly boys, all computer freaks, all obsessed with comic books, sci-fi, and all things nerdy—and my neighbors' dog, a sweet-natured Labrador retriever who was very sympathetic to my need to cry into her fur about how the girls at school were kicking the emotional stuffing out of me every day. It's tough being the only girl in the geek patrol, especially when you prefer novels to computers.

The idea for Masks arose when I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about the then-crashing comic book industry. (Yes, I read the paper in junior high. The business section, no less.) The collectors' bubble had burst, 12-year-old boys were being seduced by the Internet, and the poor old print-media folks were in serious trouble. There was only one hope, the article said—getting girls to read comic books.

Psh. Yeah, right.

Still, I was game for any challenge—especially one that might get me some breathing room. I spent most of my time at school spying on the popular girls, anyway, trying to figure out some way to get them to leave me alone. I knew their interests, inside and out, although I didn't share any of them. And let's face it, some of these girls had gone to see Titanic 50 times. That kind of disposable income could save the comics industry, easy.

So I sat down with my spiral notebook and, after fiddling around for a few pages, decided to write the journal of a teenage superheroine. One without flashy superpowers, like most of my favorite good guys. She had to struggle for everything—lie about her age so other heroes would take her seriously, pretend to have powers so villains wouldn't beat her senseless, hone her brain and her reflexes so she could plot circles around anyone who stood in her way. And against all odds, she triumphed—most of the time. It was fun being her, sliding into her brain to pass the time during English class.

And then somebody found the notebook.

I'd gone to so much trouble to make it look like a diary that one of the popular girls thought it actually was one. Mine, to be specific. To be fair, I'd used real locations around town, real details of my own life. I walked into a room one afternoon, spotted the girl reading it, and grabbed it away. She immediately began pestering me about my "secret life"—which, for some reason, she thought was real. Some mighty interesting rumors went around school after that. I shoved the notebook into my backpack and promised myself that nobody else would ever get into my private world.

Then somebody stole the notebook.

More precisely, she bullied me out of it. This time it was a high school sophomore who took an interest in the nerdy little freshman and wanted to see what she was reading. It's hard to say no to someone who has more friends than you have fingers. It wasn't that I wanted her approval—it was more that I didn't want to suffer her wrath. I let her have my poor, tattered notebook, now full of superhero intrigue and teenage romance and a hell of a lot of explosions, and then I ran for cover and waited for the inevitable.

To my great surprise, she found me two days later, shoved the notebook back into my hands, and ordered me to finish the chapter I'd been working on when she "borrowed" it. She wanted to know what happened next.

Things moved fast after that. I lent the notebook out to a couple of other girls, with whom I was slowly becoming friends. Talking about the notebook made us good friends, even after our chatter ticked off a cheerleader and she ordered us to "stop writing" and "stop reading". Fat lot of luck she had. Take that, popular crowd.

I wrote more stories and passed them around. The notebook fell apart, so I began typing the chapters and passing them out. Then one of the geek patrol from junior high started photocopying his and passing them out to his entire track team. An e-mail distribution system got going. Then a website. The story expanded beyond my heroine to include her friends, family, enemies, unlikely allies. From stories about a lonely, secretive girl, we moved on to cowboys and ninjas and mad scientists and lost civilizations and city politics and cows getting loose on the freeway at rush hour. My heroine became the kind of smart, tough, vulnerable woman I always wished existed in the comics. The cast expanded to include an entire generation of young heroes, and a lost generation before that, wiped out ten years earlier. I wrote the geek patrol in as good guys, my new friends in as wisecracking sidekicks. I based an entire superhero on that Labrador. And somehow the stories kept coming, and so did the requests for subscriptions. I went to college, and made a friend in the dorm by giving someone a CD-ROM of the last few years of stories.

Somehow, improbably, I was popular.

Who'da thunk?

So when I had a chance to go to graduate school in writing, I revised a few old Masks stories and sent them off with my application. Crazy as it sounds, I got into a master's program with a murder mystery and a story about geeks arguing in a comic book shop. And while I pitched several different stories to my professors, somehow the conversation about possible thesis projects always came back to the same question . . .

"What's this thing with the superheroes?"

So for now, "this thing with the superheroes" is the name of the game. I'm busily writing the all-new, never-before-seen adventures of Rae Masterson, the unlikely superhero, and her magical and deadly world. Good thing I've lived with her for ten years. I'm getting to like her. She's got moxie. And she meets the most interesting people and does the most interesting things. Have I ever told you about how she got another superhero to teach her to drive when she was fourteen? Everything was fine until they got to Dead Man's Curve ...

Next entry: Pitching to literary agents, and why it pays to Google them in advance.

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