Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Trouble with a boy

(Originally published 10/15/09)

I knew I’d have to put a boy in my story sometime. The superhero genre is dominated by male characters, so I needed to address my own gender imbalance. I’d tried it before, in fact—given Rae a superhero boyfriend so popular that one reader threatened to kill me if I let him die in some climactic battle. He changed a lot when I morphed the series into Masks, but I knew readers were still watching for him, so I decided to play with their expectations a little before I unveiled the real male lead. And that’s how Trevor came into the story, and how the trouble began.

He was supposed to be a one-shot character, a play on the grim-and-gritty trend that had dominated comics for so many years. If Batman had turned into Dirty Harry, I asked myself, what had happened to Robin? I sketched out an angry, disturbed boy who’d grown up believing he would inherit a heroic mantle until Something Went Terribly Wrong. I made him a brilliant detective and a hand-to-hand combat genius and gave him an emotional wound that would not heal. I found a way to pit him against my cunning but kindhearted heroine, and I let the fur fly, planning to kill him off at the end of the story in a tragic object lesson.

I forget now how I was going to have Trevor die. Maybe I planned to force Rae to kill him. Maybe he slipped and fell off a roof. Maybe he gave his life to save someone in an unexpected last gasp of heroism. But he was going to end up dead as disco … and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I think I felt sorry for him, honestly. I’d given him such a terrible life, and forced him into an excruciating position, and he was just some kid who just wanted to be one of the good guys. I felt he deserved another chance, so I ended the story with him defeated, but not dead. And I brought him back as a prickly, contrary part of the regular cast.

You should have seen the letters I got. How dare I toss an unrepentant villain into my pantheon of heroes? What made Trevor good enough to stand with the likes of Rae and the others? Wasn’t he just going to go psycho on them someday?

And ewwww, who said he was allowed to fall in love with Rae?

That last part was his idea, I swear. About a year after his accidental debut, I decided to do a life-changing story for Rae, and I needed someone to be in it with her. Trevor walked into the front of my brain, sat down, and refused to move until I wrote him in. Half of the story ended up being from his point of view—the first time he’d told his own tale—and I realized to my shock as I was writing it that he had fallen hard for the one girl who was forever out of his reach. And I started seeing ways that this could make the whole series a lot more interesting.

I still remember the reaction of one schoolmate who read the series a couple of years later. She read the first appearance and was flabbergasted that I’d let the little psycho live … until she got to “Fever Dreams,” as the two-part story was called. Then she came and knocked on my dorm room door one evening, and when I opened it, she said simply, “Okay. Now I like Trevor.” He’d won her over just like he’d won me over. Not bad for someone who was supposed to fall off a roof.

I continued writing Masks while I was in college, picking up new readers on campus and on the trains, hiding the series from most of my classmates in journalism school. Making stuff up was grounds for expulsion in J-school, and while I wasn’t sure writing sci-fi and fantasy stories counted, exactly, I didn’t want to take the chance. I did write an essay about my fictional alter ego, titled “The Best Friend I Never Had,” and it won a cash prize in a university writing contest and was published in an online literary journal. But mostly I flew under the radar. Everyone knew that writing silly stories wasn’t a job, and someday I’d have to grow up and get one. The time was soon coming when I would have to put away childish things.

Then, toward the end of my senior year of college, the foundation that funded my scholarship informed me that, because of my high grades and lots of other stuff like that (I’m one of those people who tests well, and yes, I think it’s unfair too), I had the option of taking a full-ride scholarship to graduate school if I wanted to go. But I had only a couple of months to get everything in order, or the offer would expire.

Noticing that the journalism business was, er, not doing too well, I decided to take a chance on adding some letters after my name. And if I was going to study only one subject for two or three years in grad school, there was only one choice. I began investigating writing programs, most of which had already stopped accepting applications for the coming year, and I found the Master of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California, which accepted apps year-round. I took the Graduate Record Examination without studying, passed, and spent the rest of my prep time working on my writing samples. I had only one possible sample source—Masks—so I was shocked when a literary writing program admitted someone who wrote about superheroes.

The program required degree candidates in fiction to complete a 200-page book of publishable quality, either a novel or a collection of short stories. I chose a novel early on, feeling I’d had enough of short fiction with nearly a hundred Masks stories under my belt. I tried to work on new material, but my superheroes and their world crept in, popping up in workshops whenever I had nothing else to submit, doodled in the margins of my lecture notes, illustrating when I tried to explain myself to poets and playwrights who hadn’t done much with deadlines before grad school. And when I had to pitch my master’s thesis, everyone who heard my options had the same answer: “I thought you were going to write about superheroes.”

“But you don’t like them,” I replied. “You never read comic books. Nobody does. Nobody likes superheroes.”

And someone would always mutter back, “I like yours.”

So I wrote the novel. I had interested nibbles from literary agents before I’d finished the first draft, which startled me (more on THAT process later). A year after I graduated, I had an agreement with an agency, and two months after that, I was meeting with editors.

The book’s about Rae, in all her scrappy, heartfelt glory, and about Trevor and his flawed aspirations. There are superheroes and supervillains and a masked cowboy on a black horse who just might be the Angel of Death (what else would death look like to someone in a cape?), and flying ships and talking animals and magic and mystery and myth. It’s about figuring life out when you’re 16 and think you know what’s going on and suddenly everything turns upside down on you. It’s about sticking up for what’s right, even when everyone else thinks you’re wrong. It’s a little bit about young love, too, in the cockeyed way that Rae and Trevor have.

And, because I’m still me, there are two bar fights and an awful lot of stuff blowing up. Hey, I can’t be serious all the time.

No comments:

Post a Comment