Friday, February 26, 2010

Hearts, flowers, and the occasional death ray

Full disclosure: I don’t read romance novels. I don’t, as a rule, watch romantic movies. I get as weepy as the next geek-girl over Simon and Kaylee or Odysseus and Penelope, but I’m basically there for the explosions and the swordfights and the witty banter and the odd theme smacking me upside the head. And yet, in the dozen or so conversations I have per week about my book, I always come back to the same statement.

“Well, fundamentally, it’s a love story.”

I always feel I have to qualify the statement—“but a lot of stuff blows up”; “but it’s really funny, too”; “but most people remember the aphasic cyborg”—and yet the sentence keeps slipping out. Masks is a love story. Not that you can tell from the plot outline.

On paper, Masks is about two teenage superheroes (or, depending on your definition, superhero wannabes) thrown together by a piece of forbidden information. Rae (Peregrine) witnesses the internationally renowned superhero Cobalt trying to murder an unarmed villain. She saves the villain’s life, but Cobalt runs her down and tries to kill her before she can talk about what she’s seen. It looks pretty grim for Rae until Trevor (no codename because he lives off-grid) steps in and saves her life, blowing his cover in the process. They’re stuck with each other until they can find out what Cobalt is up to and stop him more permanently. The trail leads them from the depths of a supervillain pub to the shining corridors of a superteam’s airship, soaring above the city. There are several large fights and many more small ones, a lot of snarky banter, and a sideways look at what it means to be both a teenager and a hero, including how to sneak out of fifth-period civics to stop a bank robbery and what happens when your high school’s queen bee sets her sights on your cute but oblivious superhero pal. Somehow in all of this, the world gets saved. Mostly.

I joke that Masks is a cockeyed combination of Batman and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This makes people laugh and nod and say they want to read it. All well and good. But how did a wacky superhero romp by someone who doesn’t even read romance turn into a love story?

The short answer is: completely by accident. As I’ve said in previous entries, I created Trevor as a throwaway character—he was supposed to die in his first appearance, which I wrote when I was 17. He got a last-second reprieve because I felt sorry for him, and as I wrote more stories, he forced himself into them with increasing frequency until he finally developed a full-blown crush on Rae, who was unfortunately seeing someone else at the time.

But when you put one teenage girl and one teenage boy in a novel, and they’re both het, people expect things to happen. And in this case, naturally, the characters refused to cooperate.

Trevor was charmingly mushy in the series, but now that I’d made him a damaged ex-sidekick living in the shadows and on the run from dark forces, and now that the novel was so heavily about all that, he had more immediate things than romance on his mind. (I knew I shouldn’t have made him so smart.) And in order to write Rae as someone who constructs elaborate cover identities so as to avoid involving civilians in her life as a mask, I had to build walls high and strong around her real personality. I shouldn’t have made her so smart, either.) Try as I might, I just couldn’t get to the gushy-declarations-of-love scene. Rae and Trevor wouldn’t do it. The characters in my head broke scene and turned to me, scowling, arms crossed and feet tapping, waiting for me to write something that was worth living out. (Some people have told me that characters who have minds of their own and take over their own stories is a sign of vivid, fully developed writing. Others have told me it’s a sign of mental illness. I say there’s a fine line between the two, and I am merrily erasing that line and replacing it with the proverbial trout.)

Finally, I recalled why I don’t read straight-up romances. I find them dull. You want me to read 150 to 300 pages just to find out whether the two pretty people on the cover end up together? Assuming I even like them, I’m well aware that they’re on that cover together for a reason. There’s no pleasure in waiting for them to figure out what I already know, especially if they’re going to be mushy about it. Where’s the suspense in that? I treasure my friends, but after two hours of blather about a perfect new boyfriend, I’m ready to stick a spork in my eye. It’s been said that the dullest story ever written was, “He loved her and she loved him and they both lived happily ever after.” I love seeing my friends happy, but I prefer conflict in my entertainment, and that requires a certain amount of mystery, and a certain amount of misery.

I had plenty of conflict in my main plot—several major parties merrily getting in one another’s way, often with violent and surprising results. So if I was going to have a romance, as people insisted I should, why on earth should I make it so eye-sporking easy?

So Rae and Trevor dance around each other in Masks, and the relationship that develops between them is more complex than the typical happily-ever-after. Forget crushes—neither of these people has had a friend in years, and which makes it extra hard to adjust to having someone depend on you for immediate survival. Plus they’re living together—messing up the same hideout bathroom, arguing over strategy, driving each other berserk. Add in the adrenaline-fueled emotions of people in mortal danger, and you’ve got a dangerous mix. So neither Rae nor Trevor really knows what’s going on until it’s well underway. Weird things happen when two strangers suddenly become each other’s best friends, and even weirder things happen when life and death and destiny get involved.

The thing people forget when I say that Masks is about modern mythology is that the old myths were stranger than anyone realized …

[Sketch by Nicole Le]

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Spot the logical fallacy, or why no one is trying to sacrifice your cat

(Image by Aaron Williams for Offworld Designs - www.offworlddesigns.com)

Because a fair number of people who read this blog are new to the more traditionally disturbing aspects of fandom, I’m going to weigh in on the latest iteration of an old idiocy.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard someone say, “Dungeons and Dragons is evil.”

Yep, the old chestnut is back. A recent article in the Boston Herald trumpeted that Amy Bishop, the professor accused of the recent shootings at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, met her husband in a D&D club in the 1980s. The article connected this to the case of Michael “Mucko” McDermott, the software engineer who killed seven coworkers at Wakefield Technologies in Wakefield, Massachusetts, in 2000. Police seized two D&D manuals from McDermott’s home. (You can read the article at http://www.bostonherald.com/news/regional/view.bg?articleid=1233150.)

Now, before this blog entry becomes one long rant about the Evil Mainstream Media, I’m going to pause and point out that most of the people who bring you these stories—the reporters, editors, etc. who work the news beat—are not all that evil. They’re mostly intelligent, well-trained people doing their jobs as best they can, on starvation budgets, because they sincerely believe their work makes the world a better place. I spent my undergrad career in a prestigious journalism school; I learned the rules of the news game, I mostly agree with them, and I have great respect for the honest folk—many of them my friends—who bring you all the news that doesn’t show up in conspiracy theories or on TMZ.

That said, this particular story is a real turkey.

There’s an old logical maxim that tells us, “Correlation does not imply causality.” It means that just because you find two things in the same place, it doesn’t mean one of those things caused the other thing, or even that they have anything to do with each other. An example: I like eating tunafish sandwiches, and I occasionally walk around singing filk songs and annoying people, but that doesn’t mean cutting off my tunafish supply will stop the singing. (In fact, it will probably just make me sing about tunafish, so let’s not get crazy.) Consider: if Amy Bishop had met her husband in the chess club, there would be no story. So what is it about D&D that makes it a newsworthy aspect of a nasty workplace shooting?

Okay, for starters, there’s the packaging. D&D materials tend to show up in stores covered with, well, dungeons and dragons, along with wizards, warriors, and monsters of various kinds. Scantily clad females show up, too, and there’s a heck of a lot of violence and purported magical content. This is the box I’m talking about, mind you, not the game—the advertising, which is all most non-players see. By the standards of what I see at comic conventions and in specialty shops, D&D is positively tame. It is, in fact, old school. But I suppose it still looks a little scary to some Midwestern home-school parents, so the box will keep getting trotted out.

Then there’s the people who play D&D. Let’s be honest; a lot of them are nerds. Even now that nerds are some of the richest and most powerful people on the planet—heck, some of them are tastemakers—we nerds still seem to emit some pheromone that causes some non-nerds to want to give us atomic wedgies, and others to declare us irredeemably creepy. I’ve met many gamers who use gaming as a substitute for adequate social skills, and quite a few who don’t, but if you’re not paying attention, “can’t talk to a girl” looks an awful lot like “is headed for the nearest rooftop with a sniper rifle.” Remember that correlation-does-not-imply-causality thing? It’s handy to keep in mind when talking to nerds. About the only thing nerds have in common is that they spend a lot of time in their heads; what’s in there varies widely.

Finally, there’s that treasured stupidity, the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Anyone here old enough to remember that? I recall being forced to sit through videos in school telling me that there were satanists in every city in America who wanted to sacrifice my cat to the dark goat-gods. Anything with a wizard on it might cause me to murder everyone I knew and send all my money to TSR (if true, can I hire TSR’s marketing department to promote Masks?). I have a private theory that, now that the kids who grew up during the Satanic Panic are out there in the workplace and blogosphere, it’s become a meme that some of us can’t shake. Some Baby Boomers will never stop singing the praises of Elvis and the Beatles, and the beginning of Gen-Y will always have a few people who are unaccountably weirded out by D&D. And goats, but that may just be me.

And so you get articles like the Boston Herald piece, which basically boils down to, “Hey, you remember that chick that allegedly shot some people? She plays D&D! See, she must be evil!” Bringing in the McDermott connection is an even lower blow—among other things, McDermott also claimed at trial that he believed he had been born without a soul but allowed to earn one by traveling back in time to kill Nazis. The prosecution, meanwhile, held that he’d shot his coworkers because his employer was garnishing his wages to pay back taxes. I’m going to apply Occam’s razor here and suggest that wage garnishment and flat-out delusion both make more likely motives for murder than a mind-altering D&D manual.

Now, I’m coming at this issue from the outside. I don’t play D&D, so if the gamers in my life really are sacrificing cats in the basement or plotting to slaughter their coworkers, I will be as surprised as anyone else and will gladly eat my share of crow. But as far as I can tell, all this kind of gaming fosters is social interaction (admittedly, with other gamers), creative problem-solving, and lots of incomprehensible petty arguments about something called a “plus three enchanted mace.” (The major reason I don’t play D&D myself is that I find such games too constricting—I make up entire universes on a regular basis, so any constructed alternative pales in comparison.)

So why am I spending so much digital ink on this question? Mostly because I’m bothered by how much the “D&D is evil” smacks of censorship. Somebody finds somebody else’s entertainment a little creepy, and tries to restrict access to it. But if a work of art—book, movie, game, interpretive dance, whatever—is really so dangerous, doesn’t trying to silence it give it power it shouldn’t have? Do we really have so little confidence in our own reason that we would close our eyes and plug our ears rather than confront something that should be refuted?

One of the most useful writing classes I ever took required the students to read Mein Kampf … and list all the logical fallacies. I loved the idea so much, and learned so well from it, that I kept the textbook and have taught that very lesson myself many times in my own classes. I’ve never produced any Nazis, but I’ve turned out a few strong logical thinkers. As I often point out, if what you believe is really true, it can survive an intellectual challenge—and if it’s not, maybe you shouldn’t be believing it anyway.

So I’m all for warning labels on discs and content ratings at the movies. Truth in advertising = win. I’m even for the right of parents to restrict children’s access to stuff they’re not yet ready to handle, although I think parents should think long and hard about what they want to restrict and why. And I think child pornographers should be shot, several times, somewhere painful, because freedom of speech doesn’t give you the right to abuse kids. But when it comes to banning and burning art or entertainment, or trotting out hoary old fallacies about how the nerds in the basement are out to get you … it’s time to find a new boogeyman. Time to question the ideas that seem obvious, and get into the habit of thinking for ourselves rather than relying on decades-old urban legends—or even this blog entry. (Anyone who disagrees with me on any of this, feel free to post comments, and I’ll respond to all civil remarks.)

It’s things like this that make me aspire to be burned in effigy …

Monday, February 22, 2010

L.A. Noir, or Talking to Myself


I once read an interview with Stephen King where he described the process by which he designed his novel Desperation. He was driving through the small town of Ruth, Nevada, and noticed that the streets were deserted. He asked himself, idly, as writers do, “Why is no one out on a nice day like this?”

And because this is Stephen King we’re talking about, the man who famously described a writer as “someone who has taught his mind to misbehave,” he got an answer to his question. A voice in his head reportedly said, Dead. They’re all dead.

“Interesting. Why are they all dead?”

Sheriff went crazy and killed ‘em all.

Of such things are stories made.

I like to joke that Masks came from a similar conversation, spurred by the fact that at that time (the late 1990s), there were no successful superhero stories set in California. The West Coast Avengers and all the rest had failed dismally, even though Los Angeles was nearly as populous and surely as interesting as New York. Coast City got nuked, and that was the end of Green Lantern’s California days. If Chicago got Hawkman, why didn’t L.A. get anyone?

There used to be superheroes here … but now they’re all dead.

Oh, come on. They’re superheroes. Superheroes are hard to kill. How did they all die?

They were murdered. Someone killed them.

Oh, yeah? Who?

A bad guy. Obviously. Stupid. (My inner voice has a real attitude problem.)

So why didn’t any more superheroes come in to replace them? They do that, you know.

They’re all scared. Something has them scared that the next heroes might die, too …

Hmm. I like your style, psychotic inner voice. What are they scared of?

The thing that killed them is still here. It killed them, so nobody got rid of it.

Big monster. I like big monsters. What is this thing that kills superheroes?

Stupidity.

A big monster, indeed, but not a very good villain. “Look out! It’s Captain Stupidity!”

And you think I have an attitude problem. Look, you know how nobody ever notices that Clark Kent and Superman look exactly alike, except for the glasses and the spitcurl?

I have often noticed the silliness of that concept, in this age of facial-recognition software.

A bad guy noticed that resemblance one day … and he didn’t do anything about it.

This does not frighten me.

That’s because you haven’t heard the ending. He didn’t do anything about it except write it down. And he wrote down the next secret he learned, and the one after that. And this bad guy was the kind of villain who’ll be in the comic books for decades, so he learned a lot.

So why should I be worried about this big bad villain who just sits there and collects information and never does anything with it?

Because one day he found out he was dying. And he decided to take them all with him.

So that’s how the Los Angeles masks died, and how L.A. ended up bereft of superheroes. My mystery villain—who’ll remain a mystery for now, if you’ll forgive me—collected their weaknesses over the years, and then attacked them all at once. Magnaman was invulnerable, but only when he thought about it—so he was shot by a sniper while he lay in bed, asleep. Riptide was poisoned by a rare pollutant dumped into the right bay. The Black Mask was suckered into an ambush and blown up. The Blue Shadow went into hiding, but he had to come out to help the neighborhood kid for whom he served as a surrogate father, and he took a bullet on a rooftop as the boy watched. Califia vanished, and rumors swirled about the secret she’d been keeping all this time. They got Eagle Eye when he flew down to help a wounded comrade who was bleeding out in the middle of the Miracle Mile.

For days after I had my inner-voice exchange, I found myself thinking up ways for superheroes to die. Suddenly the imaginary world I’d carefully constructed throughout my childhood had a new area in it, as if demented Imagineers had suddenly doubled the size of Disneyland and added a death’s-head motif. Dead Superhero Land. It made for a very dark fictional world. I’d read my share of what I thought of as “dead hero stories”—The Death and Life of Superman, The Dark Knight Returns, The Death of Captain Marvel—and suddenly I had my own universe full of dead guys. I’m not sure why this happened, but it did, and it appealed to me in its sheer tragedy and in its gleeful perversity.

But it worked, weirdly. In fiction, L.A. is the birthplace of the hardboiled detective of noir fame—the stomping grounds of Philip Marlowe, the wasteland of Chinatown. (It’s something about the light, I think—bright sunlight makes shadows look darker.) Most mysteries start with one dead body; I had my own personal epidemic. A murder spree of these proportions called for one hell of a detective.

So naturally I handed the case to a couple of teenagers with severe personal problems, and let the good times roll.

Who says you shouldn’t listen to the voices in your head?

Monday, February 15, 2010

A word of encouragement for a friend



I don’t know if you know this, but I keep a file of possible blog entries just in case I haven’t got anything to say some Monday. Because sometimes an idea strikes me on Thursday and then I forget. But this week, the idea struck on Sunday night.

I’m constantly amazed at the number of people who ask me for advice on writing, or getting published. It’s really weird. I mean, I’m not published yet. By definition, I have not yet succeeded in this thing that matters so much to me. It is entirely possible I may never succeed. I do everything I can to prevent that sad state of affairs from coming to pass, but I could always get hit by a train tomorrow and that would be the end of that. I survived being run over by a compact sedan when I was twelve; the next bad driver I meet could be my last.

And yet, because I have finished something, even if it’s only a hundred short stories and a few novel manuscripts, people send me emails or come up to me in coffee shops (where I write a lot) and ask me how I do things. How did I get an agent? How did I managed to finish writing all those thousands of words? How do I keep my plots straight? It’s amazing and a little scary, because I’m making most of this up as I go, as I imagine most writers do, and I can’t guarantee any of this works for anyone but me. I just haven’t lived long enough, or known enough other writers, to answer with any authority.

One of my occasional correspondents is another aspiring author, someone I’ve known long enough that I based a Masks character on her back when I thought it didn’t matter. She recently posted a blog entry about rejection letters, and dealing with criticism. I composed a long and, I dare say, brilliant response and e-mailed it to her.

And right after I did that, I discovered that someone I greatly respect had recently written something much, much better on that very subject.

Neil Gaiman posted this in his blog the other day, in response to a fan letter (addressed to “the best writer who ever lived”) asking him how he deals with harsh criticism:

“Well, for a start, never take seriously anyone telling you you're the best author who ever lived, because if you do you'd have to take seriously the person who announces that you're the worst author who ever lived.

“If you make art, people will talk about it. Some of the things they say will be nice, some won't. You'll already have made that art, and when they're talking about the last thing you did, you should already be making the next thing.

“If bad reviews (of whatever kind) upset you, just don't read them. It's not like you've signed an agreement with the person buying the book to exchange your book for their opinion.

“Do whatever you have to do to keep making art. I know people who love bad reviews, because it means they've made something happen and made people talk; I know people who have never read any of their reviews. It's their call. You get on with making art.”

So to my friend, and to the other people reading this blog who love to write, compose, paint, dance, sing, whatever … what he said.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Trevor and the Acme Little Giant Killer


So Nicole finally managed to work Trevor’s signature weapon into some art in time for it to figure in the trailer—not once, but twice! And I suddenly realized I haven’t yet mentioned the weapon in question.

Trevor has a real knack for projectiles. He puts Cobalt to flight early in the book with some carefully aimed chunks of cinderblock, he’s lethal with shuriken, and he has a meaningful talk with John Lawrence about the fact that he actually can kill someone—easily—with a rock. And so his signature weapon is a sling.

Trevor’s sling came from a couple of places. The story of David and Goliath was a factor, of course—somewhere in my home I still have my older brother’s Acme Little Giant Killer slingshot left over from a childhood Halloween. Trevor, with his slight build, short stature, and lack of superpowers, makes a good David against the Goliaths of the world. I will also admit to being a massive fan of Timothy Zahn’s excellent Blackcollar novels, where his team of interstellar commandos make a point of collecting and using weapons that can bypass conventional scans. A slingshot (they seem to use the wooden kind) does not set off metal detectors, and you can find your ammunition pretty much anywhere. Trevor’s background as a sidekick also dovetailed with the idea of him as a kid hero, gleefully shooting pebbles at villains. But I wanted something even more basic.

Sometime in my high school years, the History Channel put together a series called Arms and Armor about various basic kinds of weapon. About the only one I remember was the segment on slings, which made excellent use of news footage of Palestinian teenagers slinging rocks at Israeli soldiers. The symbolism was rich, of course, but the documentary pointed out two other points about the simple cloth sling that David used. First, it’s the weapon of people with time on their hands—shepherds chucking rocks for hours because they’re bored, building their skills in case a predator prowls by. I could see Trevor chucking pebbles across rooftops on quiet patrol nights. And unlike the wooden model, the cloth sling is collapsible, and can be made out of just about anything. The first sling Trevor uses in Masks is made from garbage—the line from a twisted plastic grocery bag, the cradle from a scrap of rag. His ammunition of choice is broken cinderblock—common rubble out here from earthquakes, car accidents, and simple wear and tear on the landscape. Rae has access to the abandoned tools of a dozen dead heroes, but Trevor has only his brain and his hands. And for him, that’s enough.

I’ve mentioned several times that I love scrappy heroes who make do with what they’ve got, and it may be this side of Trevor’s character that I like best. He never gives up on doing the right thing, even when the only tools he has are the contents of a dumpster. I honestly don’t think he’s ever considered the possibility that he shouldn’t be running around in a mask without any powers. It has never crossed his mind. He sees a giant on the hilltop, and he goes looking for five smooth stones … and he’s only going to need one.

But that very confidence renders him terribly vulnerable. At the climax of Masks, Trevor must face an enemy who can end his existence with a thought. He has only his sling and his mind against someone who thinks faster than he does and vaporizes flying rocks. So while he goes confidently into battle with the weapons of a shepherd king, the forces arrayed against him are far better armed. He spends all of Masks building the confidence to enter that fight, and he forgets that a very similar choice led him to make the greatest mistake of his life, one that still gives him nightmares. But being a hero means trying even if you’re going to lose, and Trevor will be a hero if it means he dies trying.

All of which reminds me of the other piece of Trevor’s sling. I recently found in one of my old notebooks a poem I copied down in high school, around the time I created Trevor—his courage and his tragedy both. I’m not much for poetry, and I’m particularly not much for Emily Dickinson, but maybe this piece was a little bit prophetic:

I took my Power in my Hand --
And went against the World --
'Twas not so much as David -- had --
But I -- was twice as bold --

I aimed my Pebble -- but Myself
Was all the one that fell --
Was it Goliath -- was too large --
Or was myself -- too small?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Now with 50% more car-jumping action!

I didn’t suggest this, I swear. I do know these people (well, I know one of them and I met the other for ten minutes last month), but I had no idea they were going to do this until they emailed me the stills …

Waaaay back when Masks was my master’s thesis, my advisor suggested I think about turning it into a video game. Not sure whether she was kidding or not, I said I didn’t play video games. (They tend to make me nauseous—apparently I’m that lucky one person in a million whose eyes just aren’t set up for them.) She said, “Learn. This would make a great game. Maybe one of those online things—people could play as superheroes.”

Well, I probably won’t take up game design anytime soon, but the lovely Erik and Amber (not that Amber, another Amber) must have gotten really bored in City of Heroes, because they created Rae and Trevor avatars. Avatars that can run as fast as the Flash and jump over parked cars. I don’t think I’ve seen anything this cool since … well, ever.

But now you’ve seen it, too.

Remember to bug your friends to join up and nominate you in the fan contest … I wrote a fight between Rae and Captain Catastrophe last night, and it’s going to be a fairly awesome part of the FCBD story, “Motion Capture.” The winner of the contest and all his or her recruits get to read that story as early as March …

Monday, February 1, 2010

The MASKS Trailer

video

Features Carolyn Kabelitz and Jake Davis as the leads, with art by Derrick Fleece and Nicole Le. Also available on YouTube, MySpace, and Facebook!