Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Our story so far ...

Originally published 10/13/09:

Masks began as an experiment. That’s the long and short—I tried something to see what would happen, and what happened surprised me mightily. In fact, it seems to have surprised me more than it surprised anyone else, but that’s another story.

When I was 14 years old, I had exactly two friends. Both boys, which made my reputation at school pretty interesting, and both what would now be called geeks. Our common bond, besides the fact that none of us really liked showing our faces on the playground during recess, was our love of the nerdier side of pop culture. Comic books. Science fiction. Fantasy. Computers. Anything Joss Whedon wrote, ever. You know—cool stuff.

But if there was one thing we hated, more than playground jocks or bad dial-up connections or network executives, it was the three little words that make every fanboy scream. “To be continued.” And they happened so regularly! Every TV season, every cool anime episode, every issue of our favorite comic books, seemed to end with “to be continued.” It seemed so perverse. We had to wait days, weeks, even months to find out what happened. What if we got hit by a bus before then? What if we stopped liking something? It was so unfair.

So, as someone who was never without a pencil, I started to write my own endings. I’d never heard of fanfic, and wouldn’t discover it until years after, but that’s pretty much what I wrote. I’d take the season finale, the most recent issue or episode, and write What Happened Next. The results were passed around in a three-ring binder, which I carefully mislabeled in case my mother found it, and were so successful that my two friends began suggesting that I think about writing for a living. Comic books, especially—I was extra good at writing crackling superhero action, seasoned with funny little insights into what the characters were thinking. How did Batman and Superman REALLY get along? How would the X-Men deal with a normal human stuck at the mansion? If Daredevil had a hyperactive sense of touch, how did he feel when he punched someone?

It was an attractive proposition. But write a story every MONTH? On a DEADLINE? I wasn’t sure I could do that.

So I pilfered a spiral notebook from a cupboard at my house and started to write, just to see whether I could. I decided I should work with original characters so I wouldn’t have to keep up with established continuity for Captain America or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I chose a superhero story, since the genre seemed wide open, and set about creating my hero. Or rather, my heroine.

For most of my life, I’d been frustrated by the lack of interesting girls in the kinds of stories I liked to read. It seemed like most of the fictional girls clustered for protection behind pink covers, playing with dolls and doing each other’s hair, so when I wanted to go wrestle lions or fly starfighters or leap tall buildings in a single bound, I had to be content with mental crossdressing. It was easier to slip into Tarzan’s skin than Jane’s, more fun to identify with Superman than Lois Lane, more enjoyable to face Darth Vader as Luke Skywalker (or better yet, Han Solo) than Princess Leia. I didn’t want to be saved, I didn’t want to be a foil, and I didn’t understand why so few girls had adventures worth reading about. I dumped Nancy Drew as soon as I discovered Sherlock Holmes, and never looked back.

But there was nothing intrinsically wrong with girls, I reasoned—after all, I was one. Sure, they were a bit short on upper-body strength (except for Buffy), but if Professor X could fight evil from a wheelchair, surely a girl could fight evil without bench-pressing it. And it would be easier to write a girl protagonist than a boy one—after all, I’d been a girl all my life, and if my brothers’ ideas about girls were any indication, neither sex understood the opposite one very well. Leave boys for later.

So I set out to design a heroine for my story. She would be smart, and strong in spirit if not in body, because that’s how heroes should be. She’d have a wicked sense of humor, because I loved writing snarky lines. She’d get in over her head and scared witless at least once or twice per chapter, because I did that all the time and knew what it felt like, but she’d never let it stop her. And eventually she would, without meaning to, surround herself with the strangest people I could dream up. I made her a makeshift superhero, in a borrowed costume with a borrowed name, running around saving the world from evil by hook and by crook because most of the big-name heroes of her world were dead. And as I picked up the knack of plotting and writing to deadline, I genuinely started to enjoy her company in these stories written just for myself.

Then someone took my notebook.

I was 15 by that time, a freshman in high school. A sophomore walked up to me as I was scribbling away on a chapter in the school common area, said, “What are you writing?” and took the notebook out of my hands. She was taller than I was, prettier than I was, and often surrounded by giggling friends. I knew her. I was terrified of her. She walked off with nine or ten months’ work in a spiral binding, flipping idly through the pages as she went. I watched, feeling like I’d lost an arm.

Three days later, she brought the notebook back and told me to finish my chapter.

Things moved fast after that. More people discovered the notebook, and a rotation developed so they could all borrow it as I finished chapters. Then the covers fell off, so I began typing the stories and delivering stapled packets to my readers’ lockers twice a month. We started eating lunch together—the pretty sophomore, a tough girl who wore a leather duster to class, a quiet one who didn’t talk much but knew everything about The X-Files. The popular crowd reacted, too—the class president asked me if Rae was really me, and a cheerleader demanded I stop writing because it stole her spotlight. I just grinned at them both.

I relaunched my series at the beginning of my junior year, fixing three years’ worth of rookie errors and broadening the focus from Rae’s adventures to an evolving, expanding universe I called Masks. Readership grew to the point where I couldn’t afford to print the stories anymore, so I sent them out by e-mail. And it was right about that time that the troublemaker walked into my life.

Next: Trevor makes his appearance.

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