Monday, April 26, 2010

A MASKS Scavenger Hunt!

I feel like doing another contest, so I’m going to give away an autographed copy of this year’s FCBD zine to the first person who can answer all these questions completely and correctly. They’re all clues to people and locations in Masks … and you should be able to answer them with some clever Googling. I think.

1. In the book, the slang word mask is used to describe costumed vigilantes, because they don’t all have superpowers but they’re pretty much all hiding something. In the world of Masks, the term came from the Black Mask, a pulp-style trenchcoat-and-fedora type who made quite a splash in the era of silent movies and remained active until the purge that killed off the heroes. What pioneering pulp magazine gave him his name, and what well-known American satirist started that magazine to support his literary endeavors? (Hint: It wasn’t the one pictured!)

2. The Masked Rider, a cowboy ghost who acts as a kind of Grim Reaper to the masked set, was inspired by a real-life incident where a group of cows broke loose on the Ventura Freeway and a rodeo cowboy, caught in the ensuing traffic jam, unloaded his palomino and proceeded to stage an urban roundup. (The California Highway Patrol wrote him a ticket for riding a horse on the freeway.) The incident was chronicled in the memoir Take An Alternate Route by Paul “Panther” Pierce, one of the original scriptwriters for the Lone Ranger radio show and one of L.A.’s first roving traffic reporters. What radio station did Pierce work for?

3. When Rae and Trevor have a falling-out in Masks, Rae goes to Griffith Park and walks the trails in the dark to think. (Don’t try this at home, kids—the park is closed at night, and you’ll probably walk off a cliff or into a mountain lion if you don’t get arrested!) The park is one of the largest urban parks in the United States, and sometimes called the “Central Park of Los Angeles.” What well-known superhero once made his home in the Bronson Canyon section of the park?

4. The hideout Rae and Trevor grudgingly share in Masks is built into a false storm-drain tunnel with an outlet in the Los Angeles River. The real river—including the real storm-drain outlets—is one massive graffiti canvas, and for at least 40 years, a particular kind of face has been regularly appearing, painted by guerrilla artists on storm drain covers. What kind of face is it?

5. The stumper comes last. Rae’s secret hideout has several exits, and one of them is a stone memorial in Exposition Park. I used a real-life memorial plinth as a model for the granite block that Rae moves aside—and I used two shots of the genuine article in the trailer. (You can see the close-up in the “Screenshots” album in the Photos section.) Whom is that plinth a memorial for?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Aiding and abetting (or) I'll bribe you to help me sell my book!

Yes, it’s bribery time again. And this form of bribery has a high return for very little effort! In fact, I’m pretty much bribing you for the privilege of letting me say I bribed you. And it just might help sell the book.

Interested yet?

Waaaaaaaay back in the dark ages, when I was writing Masks as a series of adventure stories primarily for my own amusement, I would often meet people who told me I should consider becoming a professional author. Never mind this high-school serial nonsense, they told me—write a novel! To shut them up, I made up a plausible-sounding story. I told them that I was only writing this silly little serial in order to build up an audience, so that someday I could walk into some publisher’s office, slap down the manuscript for the great American novel, and say, “I have _______ million monthly subscribers, and they all want to buy a copy of this novel from you. Let’s talk advances.”

Now, I wasn’t actually writing the series as any kind of marketing experiment. I was writing it because I genuinely enjoyed it, and because my friends genuinely enjoyed it, and because total strangers genuinely enjoyed it and sometimes e-mailed me to tell me so. But people who didn’t understand writing for love could understand writing for money, and it satisfied them.

Now, to my great amusement, I find I am actually going through with my stupid idea.

It works like this. On May 1, 2010, I am going to post an all-new, never-before-seen short story set in the Masks universe. It will also be available in limited-edition zine format at Beach Ball Comics in Anaheim, California. Both versions will be available free of charge, in honor of Free Comic Book Day. The story will feature new characters, new situations, and all kinds of goodies. I’m going to post it to Scribd in a PDF file, where it will be available for you to read or download. I’ll post a link to that Scribd page on this blog, and on the Facebook and MySpace pages, and anywhere else I can. Now, Scribd keeps track of the number of reads and downloads each file gets—it doesn’t keep any more specific information than that, but I can see the raw number of people who look at my stuff. So if you download the PDF, and you repost the link and get your friends to download the PDF—well, I see a whole bunch of people downloading my story, but I don’t get any information that will allow me to spam you. I just see a number.

Wouldn’t it be something, I ask myself, if I could walk into that publisher’s office with that number and say, “Look at all the people who downloaded my most recent short story on its first day online!”? I think it would get some attention. After all, publishers live and die by early adopters—the people who buy a book in its first few weeks on the shelves. That’s the kind of data that can land a book on the bestseller lists, or consign it to midlist oblivion. A good-sized crowd of early adopters might make the right people drool just enough. If they adopt early enough.

Now, I know you might not feel like downloading the story on that first day. I feel like I’m imposing by asking you to rush right out and download something, even if it’s free. But I think I can make it worth your while to hurry.

How’s this? If you download the file on May 1, you’ll find a little something extra in there, after the FCBD story. Say, a couple of scenes from the novel? Maybe even the expanded versions? I’ve got a honey of a scene showing Trevor on his last day as a sidekick that probably won’t get into the book in its entirety, and I’d be willing to throw that in to sweeten the pot. Maybe a little glimpse of Rae’s secret origin, too. Or some Masked Rider action—there’s a great scene where the Rider gives Rae a lift, and they have a hilarious conversation as she’s trying to figure out how to jump off a moving horse. And I’ll throw in some previously unreleased artwork as the cherry on top. Does that sound like it’s worth 30 seconds of your time to download a PDF file at some point on May 1?

Of course, if the Internet breaks and you can’t make it online until after Free Comic Book Day, the regular version of the story and its regular goodies will be available. It will, in fact, be a permanent link on this blog. But all those extra goodies will be reserved for those willing to help me make New York salivate.

You don’t have to buy anything. The file will be utterly harmless—a standard PDF, no technological monkey business. Heck, you can delete it as soon as you download it if it offends you for any reason. So can your friends, relatives, coworkers, and total strangers you recruit on the subway. I’m willing to give you something just so I can brag about how many people I gave it to.

So—to recap. I post a free story online that can be downloaded whenever you feel like it. And if you download it the day it comes out, you’ll get extra scenes that will give you a sneak peek at the book. That last is a reward just for downloading on the first day. You get a truckload of free stuff. I get to brag about how many people took my truckloads of free stuff. That’s the deal.

What do you say?

Oh, and there will be another fan contest in this blog on Monday—an Internet scavenger hunt. First reader to correctly answer all the questions gets an autographed copy of the zine. Just in case there wasn’t enough bribery on this blog already …

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Since when do my characters have free time?

So now everyone seems to be engaged in guessing Rae’s and Trevor’s hobbies, I guess I’ll have to work them out. Out loud. On the blog. Fasten your seatbelts.

I’ll start with Trevor. When I write him, I keep his physicality in mind as much as his personality. Trevor is happiest when he’s moving, and he has a gift for movement that borders on the preternatural. He can quickly pick up any move he sees, and although he can’t always execute it effectively if he hasn’t conditioned for it, he’s in good enough shape that he can do a lot, and likes pushing himself to try it all. He’s an excellent runner—both fast in a sprint and able to run steadily for long periods without tiring—because of his roofrunning experience in Chicago. So whenever I write downtime scenes for Trevor in Masks, he is in motion. He runs to clear his head and does kata to take his mind off stressful situations. I suspect he’d be a hell of a dancer if he ever decided to take it up, and maybe his relationship with Rae will motivate him.

Trevor’s also very good with his hands, and considering how quickly he can rewire a stolen PDA into a tracking device or anything else he needs, I can see him enjoying any kind of futzing around with computers. He is an excellent hacker and works to keep his skills sharp, but I don’t see him tackling security systems for fun or organizing botnets recreationally. He also does a fair amount of studying to keep up with his chosen profession—he’s the guy you’d expect to be up on everything from obscure martial arts to the latest forensic journals. And he is a bit of a compulsive autodidact; even though he’s been out of school for several years, he will be able to re-enter at Rae’s level as if he’d never left, mostly because he worked hard to study on his own during his travels.

Because Trevor was raised to be a mask, and because he genuinely likes it, he’s not much of a hobby guy. Part of his journey in Masks will involve discovering how normal people … well, people more normal than he is … spend their time. He’ll get dragged to movies and concerts and fed junk food (for the record, he’s going to hate Twinkies, but the character who shows him where to get a Maxwell Street Polish hot dog, Chicago style, in Los Angeles is going to be a friend for life).

Trevor’s a workaholic, but he’s the purest kind—he genuinely loves what he’s doing. And if he’s not moving, you know something’s wrong—he’s dead, he’s severely depressed, or he’s concussed yet again. (Trevor gets knocked in the head a lot; one disadvantage of being small and light and throwing yourself into fights is that you will fairly often get thrown right back out—and into a wall.)

Rae is the other end of the spectrum, really. While she does tend to go walking when she needs to sort out her thoughts (in Griffith Park … at night … which is completely illegal and quite likely to get her eaten by a mountain lion), she is also a voracious reader. While Trevor studies subjects he considers meaningful to his profession, Rae studies everything. That’s a big part of how she manages to maintain honor-roll grades even though she loses a lot of sleep and cuts class regularly—she already knows the material on the tests. The bookcases in the Black Mask’s hideout are mostly home to the dead hero’s reference library, but Rae has cleared out a nice little space for her own eclectic collection. It was her interest in books that led her to befriend the used-book dealer who turned out to be Peregrine, and who left his costume and identity to her when he vanished.

Rae is also strongly drawn to pretty much anything in the natural sciences. As a bookish little girl, she found herself taken under the wing of the neighborhood tomboy—a girl whose brash personality would later inspire Rae’s Peregrine persona—and spent her afternoons learning the habits of every cat, dog, and bird in the neighborhood. Rae is still keenly aware of local plant and animal life, and can often be seen watching the skies, the hills, or the nearest brush. So if it seems like she notices the coyote a lot when no one else sees it, remember that it’s possible she’s the only one looking.

Rae tinkers a bit with the Black Mask’s old motorcycle, but it’s mostly so she can keep it running in good condition. She’s not much of a gearhead. But all the reading and all the observing she does feeds into her talent. Her ability to assume a wide range of identities sometimes manifests itself in a tendency to play with disguises and con games. It wouldn’t surprise me to see her spend an evening in the villain bar, the Flying Tortoise, just people-watching and playing a role as much as gathering information. (Even though she’s only 16, she never gets carded. She’s that good. And before you call shenanigans, I’ll point out that someone tried to register me to vote when I was 12 years old. It happens. Except Rae does it on purpose, which makes her a bit scary, to my mind.)

A big part of Rae’s journey in Masks will be figuring out who, in the midst of all these identities, she wants to be. She’s built elaborate personae for herself, both in her mask life and in her secret identity, but having another person standing in her most private space will force her to think about who she is in that space. Rae doesn’t have time for a completely frivolous hobby, but turning all these little fragments of herself into a person—and figuring out how that person will deal with the rest of the human race—is a full-time job.

And now, because my characters are teenagers, I have to answer the inevitable TV question. What do they watch? Well, Rae is a movie buff, especially the old stuff—a lot of which will turn out to be connected to the history of the Los Angeles mask community, not that she knows that now. She loves the Marx Brothers, as well as anything of a swashbuckling nature—Robin Hood, Zorro, etc. She also likes sci-fi and fantasy and she knows her classics, as evidenced by her first meeting with Cobalt, when she immediately starts calling him “Darth Magnum.” Trevor, having lived overseas for several years, has a somewhat scattershot taste in entertainment, but he has a secret anime addiction left over from a stint in Japan that he doesn’t like to talk about. He’s also a kung fu movie buff, for obvious reasons, and is fascinated by wuxia films, especially Zhang Yimou’s recent work. He knows he can’t pull those stunts off without wires, but it doesn’t stop him from staring. Neither one of them watches a lot of American TV, except in repeats and on DVD—they both have other places to be when Lost is on. But we can be reasonably sure Rae’s seen most of Joss Whedon’s major works, or she wouldn’t talk the way she does.

How’s that, guys?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Superheroes on the move

As someone who’s grown up in southern California, I know my way around transportation nightmares. I’m told that other parts of the country measure the distance between point A and point B in miles, not minutes, and I have to restrain myself from asking, “But what if there’s a SigAlert?”

This would naturally have to affect crime-fighting vigilantes.

In Masks, neither of the two main characters can fly, teleport, or otherwise circumvent the laws of human physics. That means that in Los Angeles, they’re pretty much limited to feet and wheels, and the wheels aren’t always much help. I decided early on that Rae would have to ride a motorcycle rather than drive an enclosed car. (I chose a 1940 Indian Sport Scout just because it was cool.) While the Batmobile looks great plowing through roadblocks, I can’t see Batman consenting to sit in a midnight traffic jam.

And don’t get me started on public transportation! Even if you can imagine Spider-Man on the subway (as I, in fact, can—although he generally seems to have left his money in his other tights), the subway system in Los Angeles is famously useless. Because of a variety of bureaucratic hurdles and the decentralized nature of the city, you can’t actually find a subway line that takes you from your starting point to your ending point. I don’t think I’ve ever made a public-transportation trip in L.A. that required less than three different modes of transportation—buses, surface trains, subways, etc.—and that’s without counting things like taking two or three buses just to reach the nearest useful subway stop. And a good half of that is shut down at night, which means that any vigilante trying to take the subway to a crime scene is just going to have to wait for dawn. When my father was in college, it would take him about two hours to travel the ten miles from his university campus to his father’s office. I interned at an office in that area when I was in college, and found that the trip hadn’t gotten any shorter, despite the implementation of a new subway line and a high-speed bus service. I could walk the distance faster, if it weren’t for the neighborhood I’d have to walk through.

Yet L.A., in Masks, is distinctly lacking in heroes who can fly, teleport, or walk through walls. Rae gets around on the Black Mask’s old motorcycle; Trevor seems to improvise through a combination of running along rooftops, stealing cars, and tinkering with stuff in the hideout. John Lawrence can fly, but Cobalt uses a bizarre all-terrain vehicle. The Masked Rider probably has the right idea with a horse that can appear out of nowhere.

Not that the transportation nightmare gets any better once you get outside the city. In Masks, Trevor is invited to join a superhero team that uses an experimental “slideship” to travel to global hotspots and save the day. This sounds great in theory … except that the technology that allows them to cross the planet in two hours also causes unpleasant side effects in first-time passengers, so Trevor and four other heroes spend half the trip throwing up. The huge airship that serves as the superteam’s headquarters isn’t much better, at least in my view; I can’t look at my notes for it without thinking, “Wow, it’s a giant metal whale held aloft only by highly experimental propulsion systems … and it’s in a holding pattern over a populated area whose atmosphere is trapped in an air basin. That’s going to end well.”

And all of that’s when the system works! One scene in Masks features a herd of cattle getting loose on the 405 freeway where it winds through a mountain pass, so the cars are all trapped there while Rae and Trevor try to round up the cows. The scene is based on a real incident; while memorable L.A. freeway snarls have come from a lot of strange places, including an overturned truck full of pies, a small ocean of root beer, and a group of dogs having some kind of orgy in a tunnel, my personal favorite involved a cattle truck with a broken slat and six or eight steers on their way to market. The freeway was shut down so long that drivers not only turned off their engines, they parked, locked their cars, and hiked off the freeway to hail taxicabs, leaving the city to tow their vehicles. The California Highway Patrol was in no way equipped to round up cows on a freeway—as one wag pointed out, the typical trooper’s equipment did not include a lariat on his saddle horn—and things looked pretty grim until an honest-to-God rodeo cowboy finally decided to unload his palomino and show the cops how it was done.

But just to prove that no good deed goes unpunished, I should mention the aftermath of all this. After the cows were rounded up and the pony safely stowed back in its trailer, the cops wrote the cowboy a ticket. Turns out it’s illegal to ride a horse on the freeway.

It is with unbridled glee that I imagine a CHP officer trying to serve the Masked Rider with a citation …

Monday, April 12, 2010

No boys allowed?

I don’t know how the actual numbers shake out, but in my hazy memory of my childhood, there were not a lot of interesting books with female main characters. At least, not the kind I wanted to read. I found lots of coming-of-age stories and historical fiction and giggly romances and spunky but dull-witted girl detectives, but not a whole lot of the sword-swinging, spaceship-flying, world-saving stuff I’d come to love as I grew up in the shadow of two brothers. As I’ve said in earlier entries, my favorite memories of childhood reading involved mental cross-dressing because Tarzan, Frodo, Sherlock Holmes, Zorro, and the rest were just more interesting than their female guest stars.

So it really creeps the hell out of me that there’s apparently next to nothing out there now for boys to read.

For most of the twentieth century, teachers found girls more interested in reading than boys were, but the publishing industry tended to skew male. Male writers, editors, and publishers in the most popular genres chose books with male protagonists having manly adventures. Women got the romance section; girls got Nancy Drew; that was about it. Women would read books about men, but few men would read books about women, or so the conventional wisdom went.

But somewhere along the line, especially in children’s publishing, someone figured out that if girls read more, and more often voluntarily, than boys … well, then, girls were a better market, weren’t they? Add to that a sea change in the population of the publishing industry—including an influx of female editors—and the rise of chick lit and other female-centric trends in grown-up publishing, and you get what we see in bookstores today: an ocean of books with pink and foil covers, cute vampire boys, vicious gossip plots, and very little your average teen guy can be seen reading in public. Not helping at all is the fact that the rise of gay and lesbian YA fiction has accounted for a fair portion of the boy books still being published. Yes, I know, this segment of the population is long overdue for literary notice, but if the human population tends to assay out to no more than 12% gay on average (and I’ve seen no reliable higher numbers), that leaves 88% of teenage boys staring at bookstore shelves with the uncomfortable sensation that they’ve come to the wrong window.

I don’t blame the publishing industry for this—after all, if boys aren’t buying books, it makes little economic sense to be in the business of selling books for boys. But if they don’t buy books, and therefore nobody writes books for them, and therefore there’s nothing for them to buy, and therefore they don’t buy books and therefore nobody writes books for them … you see where I’m going with this? This trend has been a long time in coming, but it is now officially an ouroboros.

Even the boy books I loved as a kid aren’t doing as well as they might. Let’s face it, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels, brilliant and exciting as they may be, are also flagrantly racist, their grasp of things like animal biology and behavior is appallingly bad, and all that makes teachers and librarians wary. I was a precocious kid, so the vocabulary in the Sherlock Holmes stories was no barrier to my eleven-year-old joy in discovering them—but now I teach high-school kids who can’t parse the great detective’s statements. Ditto Tolkien’s masterful language—too many syllables, and too many concepts that were easy and familiar to his original readers, but now almost require footnotes for young readers half a century and an ocean away.

There are some bright spots. Rick Riordan’s recent Percy Jackson and the Olympians series has drawn in several reluctant male readers of my acquaintance. There’s always the Harry Potter juggernaut. Heck, some guys read Twilight. And comic books and manga have moved out of the ghetto and into the libraries. But as anyone who’s raised or grown up with boys knows, there are boys who will hunt for things to read … and then there are boys who will stare at the shelf for a moment or two and then go play Grand Theft Auto. Category one will take care of itself, bookwise. Category two is rapidly coming to represent the average male voter. Do we really want our male citizens to give up voluntary reading by age ten?

As much as I enjoy writing Rae Masterson as a brave, intelligent, vulnerable heroine like I wished I had when I was roaming the children’s library, I also believe that my cherished ideas must periodically be tested if I’m going to keep them. I believe that there should be entertaining, well-written stories out there for both sexes, including girls who have real, live adventures. But if this is true and I believe that adventure fiction needs strong, interesting girls, then I must also remember that it needs strong, interesting boys. Preferably in the same book. This is a big part of why Masks is told from two points of view—one male, one female: because literary ghettoes do no one any favors. That’s why Rae and Trevor travel very different arcs, but each story has a heaping helping of both action and emotion. Both narratives see stuff blow up, and blood spilled, and at least one metaphorical pie in the face, and both characters laugh, mourn, and grow dramatically, albeit in dramatically different ways. And the two lives weave together in such a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Mind you, I didn’t set out to do this. I didn’t sit down one day and say, “Hmm, I want to write a story that’s as much for guys as it is for girls, and as much for girls as it is for guys.” Rae and Trevor were the two strongest characters in Masks when it was a serial, and they worked best when they shared a stage, and that was that. I followed the story where it led, and wrote down all the parts I personally liked, whether those parts were powerful explosions or tearful confessions. It wasn’t until months and years later, when I began finding out more about how books are marketed, that I realized I had written one book for two very different audiences. But I grew up reading everybody’s books, and soon pulled my female friends into boy books and my male friends into girl books, and they all read Masks. The distinction is not as sharp as we’d like to think. My last census of readers of the Masks serial showed a nearly even split between male and female, from a spunky junior-high-school girl who cornered me in a parking lot to an 80-year-old retired professor who sent me an email out of the blue and said he was interested in my concept.

I like my world that way. A culture where the two sexes never read the same books is almost as bad as one where only one sex reads. And I’ve found that putting strong male characters and strong female characters in the same story—egads—makes that story more interesting! It’s almost like we’re members of the same species or something!

Now I’d like to hear from the guys who lurk around this blog. I know you’re out there—40% of my Facebook fanbase identifies itself as male. What do you want to see in a book? What pulled you in when you were younger, and what keeps you coming back now? What do you want your brothers and sons to know is out there?

The early comic strip Little Lulu featured a precocious little girl who was constantly trying to get past the “No Girls Allowed” sign on the boys’ clubhouse. It would be a terrible shame for Lulu to finally make it in only to find herself alone.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Socratic characterization, or how to create imaginary people by arguing with the voices in your head

There’s a wide range of theory on how to create good characters. Some people swear by the fill-in-the-blank character worksheet; some insist that characters can only be discovered by writing them and seeing where they go; lots of writers fall somewhere in between. And all of these methods work, to some extent. This is one of the things I learned early in my writing career—there’s a lot of excellent advice out there, and the fact that it’s excellent doesn’t keep it from being useless to you. Every writer is different; every brain is a different machine; some software runs better with certain operating systems than with others.

Personally, I like the Socratic method.

For those of you not fortunate enough to have a classical grounding in your education, the Socratic method of teaching involves asking students a series of carefully chosen questions so that they discover answers on their own rather than simply memorizing what the teacher says. Firing questions back and forth requires both sides to engage fully in the debate, and usually strengthens the arguments involved until some meaningful conclusion is reached. It’s labor-intensive, but its results are often spectacular.

When I sit down to create a character, I usually have some germ of an idea as a starting point. Perhaps I need a certain type of character to fill a role—“I need a villain who can really give my hero a run for his money,” or “I need someone who can see through illusions” or just “I need someone who can be funny occasionally, because all this doom and gloom is killing me.” Other times, I get a piece of the character before I find the story in which he appears—this happened with Trevor, where I imagined an ex-sidekick with emotional trauma before I knew he’d be meeting up with Rae, whom I’d already created. But however it happens, I don’t usually get the J.K. Rowling effect where a character just walks into my head, fully formed and ready to go. I have to discover enough of that character to get the story rolling, and then the story will help me discover more.

So I start with what I know. I list my needs, and then ask what kind of character might do and say the things I need done and said. Or I list what I know of this strange person living in my head, and branch out from there. Then I ask myself questions—principally “Why?” and “How?”—and the character begins to form.

Take the case of Eagle Eye, a former hero mentioned in Masks who will appear in later books, if I get them. Early on, I saw him in my mind as constantly responding to things other people couldn’t perceive—twitching his head at sounds no one else heard, following scents no one else smelled, etc. I liked this otherworldly quality, and it made him a great foil for other characters, but I didn’t want him to be just another cardboard cutout with ESP, so I gave him enhanced senses. He hears and smells things others don’t because his ears and nose are unusually acute. So how would this affect his life? Well, if he couldn’t turn it off, he would probably be miserable in a modern city, what with all the noise and air pollution. He would want to live in an environment he could control, which meant a large piece of property where he could keep people and stimuli out. I hit on the idea of using an abandoned aerospace facility in the South Bay region of Los Angeles—my childhood memories are full of rusting hangars and fenced-off warehouses and airfields. But how would he afford such a large piece of property?

At this point, I brought in an element I knew I needed. One of my teenage characters in Masks is an orphan who will have to build a fake identity—and while he can forge any number of parental signatures and computer records, he will need a flesh-and-blood relative to appear at some point in order for him to get one thing he desperately wants. Eagle Eye could be old enough to pass as this boy’s father or—better, for the boy in question—his grandfather. The combination of Eagle Eye’s newly acquired age and the aerospace element led me to the idea that this character had a long past, and some of it might be tied in to things like top-secret aviation. He’d been around a while, he was a mask, he was comfortable around aircraft and aerospace facilities, and he was content to live as a hermit, so he probably didn’t like people. He was hiding something. That led my brain to Cold War espionage and state secrets. What if this character knew something, and was using his information to extort the money he needed to live off-grid? That would explain how he managed to live the way he did, and why he did it—his enhanced senses made him want to isolate himself, and the fact that he had once been a hero (a relatively unselfish profession) and that he knew state secrets would make him want to avoid a couple of innocent kids for their own good.

Whoo. Headrush.

I went on from there. I decided to make Eagle Eye particularly active during World War II—it would make him old enough to look grandfatherly and connect him to the Golden Age of comic books—and that suggested his powers came from some kind of wartime experiment common in comic books of the day. I added a twist: rather than having his powers come from an American super-soldier experiment a la Captain America, what if his powers came from the Axis? It was a promising idea, but why would, say, the Nazis give superpowers to an American? I read up on medical experimentation in Auschwitz, and thought of all those American superheroes who were drawn into comics fighting the Nazis. What if Eagle Eye had been captured overseas on one of those missions, and after the scientists assigned to figure out what made him tick discovered he was just a standard cape-and-mask mysteryman, they decided to use him as a test subject for their own projects? He would have been in better shape than the average Auschwitz inmate, and they wouldn’t use strapping SS men for the first round of potentially lethal testing. So Eagle Eye was a test subject who survived, against all odds. The kind of mental toughness he’d need to get through that made him a very interesting character, especially when I set him up beside much younger, more uncertain heroes like Rae and Trevor.

But the reference to Eagle Eye in Masks had him wounded in action during the mask purge, ten years before the novel begins. How would a man who was a biological adult during World War II manage to operate as a superhero 60 or 70 years later? Okay, the experimentation would have to slow the aging process somehow—that was a comic-book gimme. And how would the subject of German super-soldier experiments come to know state secrets he could trade for a hermitage? I recalled that there was a lot of controversy about using scientific data gathered from Auschwitz (most notably, studies on the best ways to revive people suffering from hypothermia), so perhaps he knew of some U.S. government program trying to reconstruct what was done to him. That would give him the right combination of horror and tragedy. I liked it.

But wait! I’ve written myself into a corner. If he’s such a confirmed hermit, why would he come out of hiding to help my character who needs a fake grandfather? Plus any injury that would take a super-soldier out of action long-term would probably still be painful ten years later, physically or psychologically. What could this boy possibly offer him that would be worth the pain and indignity of going out into the world again?

I realized, at this point, that I had a very rich history for my character from the beginning of World War II to the present … but I had nothing before that. So my next question was: what kind of person would be running around in a bird costume at the beginning of the war? He had to live in New York, where my history of masks required their population to be centered at the time. The classic figure of the wealthy Manhattan playboy didn’t appeal to me … but I could see a poor kid from the tenements getting suckered into testing an experimental flying rig. (Who else would be willing to jump off a building for money?) So that would make him an immigrant, or the son of immigrants … and as I looked into the history of immigrant groups in New York, I found a promising lead on his ethnicity. But it would mean he came from a large and socially conservative family—people who would have been proud of him for going off to war, but people who probably wouldn’t react well to the freakish state in which he came home from that war. That meant he probably hadn’t seen or spoken to his big, happy, crazy family in more than 60 years. He went from being part of a large, loving unit to being a solitary person, in pain, surrounded by people he couldn’t trust.

And that, I knew, went right to the heart of Masks. Most of my masked characters are literal or figurative orphans, building their own families and communities out of the oddballs and outcasts they encounter. It seemed unlikely that Eagle Eye would have any children of his own, but if my orphan boy could show the right kind of spirit and determination, he would make a tempting surrogate son for a childless hero.

It took a bit longer than this in real time—I had to yell at the voices a bit more—but I ended up with a richly developed hero with a killer backstory and a compelling motivation in the present. I sat down later and worked out the precise mechanics of his powers and the experimentation that led to them, and that affected things like build and eye color, so they were written down some time after the initial session. But the basic soul of the character was done, and everything grew from there. I sent the rundown to Nicole, and she did her customary magic.

I think that’s the most awesome-looking helmet Nicole’s ever drawn …

Monday, April 5, 2010

I feel the earth move under my feet ...

Well, that was interesting.

As I sat on my bed, editing a blog entry yesterday afternoon, the mattress suddenly began to rock. It was unsettlingly like trying to type on a waterbed, and at first I thought some object had fallen on the mattress to make it shake. But no, all my books were in place on the shelf, and there was no previously undiscovered coyote bouncing on my bed with all four paws. It was an earthquake.

Oh, yeah. We get those. I forgot.

It’s easy to sound blasé about earthquakes when you’re not in the middle of one. That is to say, I sound calm now, but at the time I quite calmly closed my laptop, unplugged it, scooped it up and lunged for the doorway just in case. The world kept swaying gently like a boat riding at anchor, making the house creak and setting small objects to jingling in the cabinets, but that was it. I was annoyed. If I was going to get off my keister for an earthquake, I expected better than this. The only thing that fell off the shelves was a stuffed koala. Even the pocket paperbacks were still in place. What a rip-off!

I sat down in the doorway while the world rolled on (it was a long quake, as they go—felt like nearly a minute), and I thought about earthquakes. There are earthquakes every day in California, but we don’t notice most of them. Even the ones we do feel are mostly minor. I remember a quake shaking the classroom as I was taking an algebra test in eighth grade. Everything vibrated, and the classroom door rattled loudly in its frame … but that was it. Nothing fell, no one tripped or screamed. The students just lifted their heads and stared balefully at that noisy door, mentally cursing it for breaking their concentration.

After several seconds of shaking and glaring, the teacher sighed and said, “Okay. Duck and cover.” We reluctantly put down our pencils and crawled under our desks—our chairs, actually, since the school had brilliantly invested in new desks that were little more than tiny flip boards bolted to the armrests of chairs. Imagine a room full of eighth-graders trying to curl up under flimsy plastic chairs, holding onto a chair leg with one hand and covering the back of the neck with the other. Now imagine that doing them any good whatsoever if the ceiling were to fall in.

When the shaking stopped, we trooped outside to the parking lot in case, by some miracle, the school collapsed from a wimpy two-point earthquake centered five miles away. The tests were graded based on what we had done before the quake, so everyone’s grades were a bit low that quarter. Stupid plate tectonics.

But what most people forget about earthquakes—I assume because they want to forget—is that heartstopping second right after you realize the earth is moving. You don’t know how bad it’s going to be—it might be merely annoying, or it might drop the roof on your head. And there’s nothing you can do about it either way. When I was a kid, we were taught to stand in doorways and brace ourselves, supposedly because the doorway is the strongest point in the average room, but that measure is now considered important only if you live in an unreinforced adobe building, which is quite rare. Most people I know still dive for the doorway when the earth begins to move, though, because it’s all they know to do and it’s easier than dealing with the fact that you can’t do jack. Even running outside won’t help; there are too many trees, telephone poles, power lines, and other tall objects that might fall on you. You can do a little bit of preparation—moving heavy and breakable objects to lower shelves, making sure your quake retrofitting is up to snuff—but fundamentally, an earthquake is about as far out of your control as it’s possible to get. There’s no time to evacuate or climb into the storm cellar; the fire department won’t show up to stop it; you’re on your own, with seconds at best to make life-and-death decisions.

Naturally, this appeals to the writer in me.

I joke that earthquakes are the ultimate instant-gratification natural disaster—no wussy storm warning, no long buildup, just massive property damage and then all you have to do is find a broom to sweep up the pieces. They’re almost too good as a plot device, though; any story that properly conveys the suddenness and surprise of an earthquake runs the risk of having the quake dismissed as a deus ex machina. All of a sudden the ground began to shake and the death ray toppled over onto the villain? Pull the other one, it’s got bells on! And yet any story that features a long, dramatic buildup to an earthquake feels false to anyone who’s experienced one, because there is no such buildup. Properly speaking, earthquake movies shouldn’t even be advertised as earthquake movies—it spoils the shock of a real earthquake.

Instant-gratification disasters are, of course, a factor in Masks. The climax of the story features a very fast-moving emergency—one that combines earthquake-speed decision-making and the paralyzing problem of L.A. traffic at rush hour. Innocent people are going to be vaporized in ten seconds, ten miles away, and no terrestrial transportation can get you there to save your loved ones; what do you do? It’s what “always run toward the screaming” is about—that first reaction, the instinctive response that reveals character and, in many ways, makes a hero.

I’ve probably been awake for a dozen noticeable earthquakes in my life—not counting little wimpy ones where nobody did anything of note. It’s always fascinating to see what people do. I’ve seen folks run around screaming. I’ve seen people glare at the symptoms of the quake for interrupting them. I’ve seen people panic, and people suddenly snap into an icy calm. My personal favorite response was four people simultaneously lunging for the room where the baby was sleeping. (The baby didn’t wake up until four frantic adults burst in on her.)

Rae has the advantage of growing up in earthquake country. She knows what to do, as much as anything can be done. I like to think she’s hardwired to go for the baby when the earth begins to move. Trevor has a more general emergency response, but it’s just as strong. And it’s always fun to throw characters into a surprise disaster and see who will run toward the screaming.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Things that fester in a sealed skull

I had a fun discussion about this with a student not too long ago, so I think I’ll restate it here for the benefit of the writers, and anyone else foolhardy enough to wonder how fictional sausages are made.

My student was working on a fic (yes, I help my students write fanfic, and you would too if they’d finished their homework), and she was having a little trouble with her villain. Specifically, getting him to do something interesting. He was pretty much your basic “Mwa-ha-ha-ha, I am an evil supervillain and soon I will conquer the wooooorrrrrrld” kind of guy, and it was making the writing process dull and less than fun. And while I was trying to think of a diplomatic way to say that even Ming the Merciless occasionally had a little depth to him, I remembered something Robert McKee used to say in his seminars and in his useful screenwriting manual Story. So I paraphrased it.

“You know,” I said, “the best villains usually think they’re the hero of the story.”

It was great to watch the lights come on behind her eyes. Instantly, she was off and running again, creating a backstory and motivation for her villain that would set him on an inexorable collision course with the hero. Inside of five minutes, she had a terrific story worked out. I love working with this kid so much it’s not even funny.

While I don’t agree with McKee on everything, I do think he’s onto something with this villains-think-they’re-the-hero thing. It’s quite similar to what Sol Stein called the “Actor’s Studio method of developing drama in plots.” Stein did an exercise at the Actor’s Studio, many moons ago, where he had an actor and an actress playing a scene. The actor was the headmaster of a private school, and the actress was the mother of an expelled student trying to get her boy reinstated, and the scene wasn’t working until Stein pulled each actor aside, one at a time, and gave them private direction. He reminded the actress that her boy was a perfect angel, a gifted student and a caring friend, and the victim of a grudge by a mean-spirited teacher jealous of his intelligence. She simply had to get her darling boy reinstated. Then he told the actor, out of the actress’s earshot, that the kid was a little hellion, prone to disrupting class, destroying property, and generally making life miserable for teachers and students alike. Under no circumstances was he to let this student back into his school.

Well, you can imagine what happened next. Within seconds of restarting the improv, the two performers were screaming at each other and the audience was riveted. Stein later described such a technique, when used in fiction, as “giving the characters different scripts,” and it’s one of the most useful things I’ve ever learned. It’s quite true to life, too. Think back to the last argument you had with someone. Were you expecting the conversation to go some way other than the way it went? What do you think the other person expected? People don’t get up in the morning and plan to get into an epic conflict, so if you’re going to push your characters into one, you’ll have to send their tidy plans off the rails somehow. Next time your plot seems a little too rote, try giving your characters different scripts. Watch them stop agreeing and start living.

Spider Robinson once wrote a brilliant short story called “Two Heads Are Better Than One.” It was about telepathy and, among other things, the way a human adolescent would react to suddenly developing the ability to read minds. Forget what you’ve read in X-Men or seen on Heroes; this is as much a horror story as a light sci-fi piece. Robinson did an exquisite job of describing the torment of that first mind-to-mind contact:

“Have you ever considered how terrible it would be to find yourself in someone else’s head, with all that unsought and unwanted knowledge? As long as people remain locked in their own skulls, they should be—because as most people intuitively realize, the things that grow and fester in a sealed skull aren’t always fit to share … there’s the sheer shock of directly confronting a naked ego as strong as your own, and … it doesn’t help a bit that the other ego is unaware of you. Most people never get over believing that they’re the center of the Universe, even if they know it isn’t so—to have your nose rubbed in it is unsettling.”

This is how I came up with the character of Captain Catastrophe—a sad-sack villain who first put on his costume because he wanted to be a hero before it all went wrong. In his mind, he is the hero—he’s going to slay the dragon (with a made-in-China death ray) and get the girl (the less said about that, the better). And when his moment comes, and he finally gets a chance to prove what kind of hero he can be, he surprises everyone, and not necessarily in a good way. He’s definitely a bad guy. He carries a death ray, wears secondary colors, and robs banks (well, he tries). But he doesn’t think he’s a villain, and that makes him interesting when he runs up against people who think he is.

Honestly, don’t we all want to believe we’re the hero of the story? Don’t we like to secretly tell ourselves that the movie must be about us—after all, our mental camera is focused on us all the time? Imagine for a moment what happens when two mental movies collide. Is it any wonder so many of us drive each other up the wall?

So next time you’re stuck on a fic or a story or a script or whatever you write, ask yourself—what scripts do my characters have? What kind of heroes do they think they are? What happens when their epics collide? It may not be pretty, but it’s certainly interesting …