Monday, May 31, 2010

Requiem for an ink-stick

I am down to my last pen.

This is really quite traumatic for me. When I say my last pen, I don’t mean just any pen—I mean my pen. I may use dozens of pens in a given day, but my pens are different. I am very choosy about my pens, and I have found God’s own pen. And now I am running out of them.

My drug—er, pen of choice is the Sanford Liquid Expresso, Extra Fine Point. Perfect for writing and my feeble attempts to draw, its archive-quality ink never fades and makes even my handwriting look good, and its porous tip mimics the action of a fountain pen without forcing me to buy, and learn to use, a fountain pen. That means it writes so smoothly that it takes me an hour of scribbling to get writer’s cramp, even if I’m writing a fight scene. (Fight scenes mean I can’t sit still. If I’m hand-writing one, my pen carves deep grooves in the paper and my fingers go white at the knuckles and lock in place. If I’m typing one, I twitch in my seat. I once sprained my ankle while writing a particularly dramatic confrontation. I kid you not.)

I am not alone in my love of my pens. The reason I’m down to my last pen, less than a year after buying a fistful and guarding them like nuclear launch codes, is that nobody can leave my pens alone. I cannot, in good conscience, refuse to lend one to a friend—and they’re so perfect that I cannot, in good conscience, refuse to give one to someone who for one reason or another needs a truly perfect pen. I bought my father a box of them for Christmas just so he’d stop stealing mine. (I think arthritis is setting in.) Now the local art-supply store that has been selling me my beloved pens has closed, and no one’s answering e-mails through their website. Sanford is shutting down the Liquid Expresso line. I am bereft. And my very last pen—the medium-point felt-tip Expresso that I bought by mistake but that still writes more smoothly than any ballpoint, gel pen, or what have you—is sputtering as its ink runs out. I watch it miserably, mourning its passing. Don’t leave me!

It seems silly to get this worked up about a mere ink-stick. But I’m hardly alone in the obsession. Anybody who writes a lot—I mean really writes a lot--knows how important the right utensil can be. Nicole is fussy about her pencils and art pens; musicians are fussy about their instruments; I am fussy about that perfect line on a page, so smooth and easy that I no longer have to think about the process of writing (turn the tip this way to make sure it crosses the T) and can just let the words flow out.

I used to hand-write all my stories. The first 90 or so of the 100 stories that make up the foundation of Masks were composed longhand in a spiral notebook with a ballpoint pen. I couldn’t concentrate when I was sitting at a keyboard, possibly because I had failed three successive typing classes and would have failed the fourth one if I hadn’t thrown the assigned typing exercises out the window and spent 45 minutes a day typing my own handwritten stories into a computer file. Now, however, I literally can’t write fast enough to keep up with the words flowing out of my brain--unless I am using one of my pens, my perfect, nearly frictionless pens.

So now I must trust Amazon to distinguish between mere Fine Point and the sublime Extra Fine Point, and try to figure out whether something called a Liquid Flair is some kind of replacement for a Liquid Expresso. I have sent pleading emails to suppliers in the U.S. and Canada, researched variations on the trade name, and generally spent more skullsweat on these pens than I have on my taxes. Because taxes are once a year, and writing is every day! I’m willing to buy a box or two—heck, if I had the money, I’d buy a case. It seems excessive, but people have been asking me for weeks to sign zines for them. I firmly believe that if someone is going to go to such trouble for an autographed publication, or meet all kinds of crazy contest requirements to win one, the ink on that signature should not fade before the year is out. I have notebooks more than ten years old. I know what lasts and what doesn’t.

Hmm, maybe I can steal one of Dad’s to tide me over …

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Revenge of the comic books you should be reading!

Yes, it’s that time again. While I await my notes from the reading circle, I am catching up on my comic-book reading and I have some suggestions—some of a seasoned vintage, a few more hot off the presses. If I ever become one of those insanely famous authors, I hope to make my fans descend on comic shops like locusts, reading everything in sight. But for now I’ll settle for a list of comic books that I'm currently finding just plain fun.

1. Red Robin. I can’t believe how much I’ve enjoyed this comic over the past year, despite the persistent feeling that I was being plagiarized (highly unlikely, but even so). For those who don’t follow the Bat-verse, the gods of DC Comics killed off Batman a little over a year ago, and his family has been making do without him ever since. Dick Grayson, the first Robin, has assumed the mantle of Batman, and Damian Wayne, Bruce’s son by Talia al Ghul, has taken over as Robin despite his rather homicidal view of crime-fighting. This leaves Tim Drake, the kid who’s run around as Robin for the last 20 years of comics, somewhat at loose ends … until he somehow becomes convinced that Batman is not dead, and that he, Tim, has to find him. The search takes him all over the world and, after the rest of the Bat-family decides Tim is crazy and/or hip-deep in denial, Tim finds that the only person who believes him is Batman’s old enemy and Damian’s grandfather, Ra’s al Ghul. Throw in two rival assassin-cults, a nice girl from Gotham sent to bring Tim home, and the combination of Tim’s dry wit (“Ra’s al Ghul is my new Alfred. Butler to the damned.”) and his genuine grief at losing half the people he loves, and you have a neat little international thriller with a lot of heart to it. I didn’t even care whether Tim was right, wrong, or crazy; writer Christ Yost made me care about Tim, pure and simple. Start with the first collection, “The Grail.” I was so tired of Robin that I didn’t even bother to pick up this series on the shelf at first … but I went back and bought the trade because it was just that good. And if this sounds a bit like a certain other disgruntled sidekick searching the world for his missing mentor and falling in with bad company … well, that’s between you, me, and the phone booth. Rated PG-13 for lots and lots of violence, especially the part with the clown baby.

2. Black Widow. Marvel Comics’ femme fatale extraordinaire is in the spotlight right now because of her appearance in Iron Man 2, but Scarlett Johansson didn’t exactly do Natalia Romanova justice. For a glimpse of the perpetually conflicted superspy in her natural habitat, check out the recent limited series Black Widow: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell. The premise there is that the mysterious “Icepick Protocol” is killing off Natalia’s old friends and lovers … and man, is there a trail of those … and saving their lives will require quick thinking, a willingness to get her hands dirty, and the courage to face a disturbing secret that finally makes her origin make a bit of sense. Mainstream comics do not have a good track record on female characters, perhaps because they’re overwhelmingly written by and for male fans, but Cornell turns the conventional sleep-with-anyone Black Widow on her head and cranks out a rip-roaring, occasionally heartbreaking adventure. If you like Deadly Origin, try picking up the new ongoing Black Widow series by Marjorie Liu. You won’t be sorry. Rated PG-13 for sex, violence, and, well, being the Black Widow.

3. Lions, Tigers, and Bears. Oh my! This is my all-ages offering this time around. The brainchild of Mike Bullock (The Phantom) and Jack Lawrence and published by Image Comics, LTB is a loving look at kids, stuffed animals, and the power of imagination. Young Joey is unhappy about moving to a new town until he discovers that his set of stuffed animals, the Night Pride, comes to life at night and protects him and other kids from extradimensional monsters called Beasties. It’s all fun and games until the Beasties threaten Courtney, heir to the toymaker who created the Night Pride and—yuck—a girl! Why someone hasn’t already adapted this intelligent, heartfelt romp into a Pixar cartoon is beyond me. Rated G, if you don’t spook too easily.

4. Captain Britain and MI:13. This series is the reason I picked up Black Widow--because I will now watch Paul Cornell (who has written for Doctor Who and other things beloved of nerds) write anything. This series launched during Marvel’s Secret Invasion storyline (shape-shifting aliens invade earth—yawn) and ended about a year later, but it was well worth the ride. Focusing on a team of British superheroes and a couple of ringers (the British-born, American-raised Blade the Vampire Hunter and the American-born Black Knight, a personal favorite of mine—long story) who fight off aliens and assorted mystical threats, the series offered a nice balance of action, humor, and unexpected twists. Watch for more-intelligent-than-usual vampires and an interesting little puzzle with the Black Knight’s sword. Also one of the most realistic, non-stereotypical Muslim superheroes in comics today … who also happens to be a hell of a character in her own right. And oh, yeah, someone making Blade get over himself. Start with the first trade, Secret Invasion, and move quickly to the second, Hell Comes to Birmingham. Rated PG-13 for stuff blowing up and a lot of Britishisms.

5. Nightschool. I’ve mentioned before that this English-original manga by Svetlana Chmakova (best known for the anime-con romantic comedy Dramacon) is my current favorite offering from the land of big, shiny eyes and improbable fashion choices. But of course, it’s the writing that draws me in. Set in a world where creatures of the night attend a specialized high school for things-that-go-bump and where “hunters” track down and kill those who go astray, Nightschool is the story of a homeschooled weirn (witch) who begins attending night school to search for her missing sister and finds herself tangled up in an ancient prophecy, some decent impending doom, and a vengeful crew of hunters who have a few secrets of their own. This all sounds pretty standard, but it’s the little touches that make it shine. Watch for ghostly, cookie-gobbling “astrals,” unexpected family ties, and a colorful and unorthodox magic teacher with the best library ever. Rated PG-13 for some violence, boo factor, and cookie overdose.

6. The Unwritten. This improbable head-trip of a comic (from the appropriately named Vertigo imprint) turns literary obsession into a hold-onto-your-soul thrill ride. Nominally about Tom Taylor, the adult son of a vanished author and the supposed inspiration for the author’s megahit novels about a familiar-sounding boy wizard, The Unwritten is actually about reading—and not in the treacly reading-opens-new-worlds way of afterschool specials. No, in The Unwritten reading is dangerous, as Tom discovers when he finds out some bits of Wilson Taylor’s world might not be made up … and he might not be his father’s son at all. His quest for answers (and to escape a murder charge) takes him from the Villa Diodati, where Frankenstein was composed, to the darkest parts of the lives of books. (Watch for Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Joseph Goebbels, and the most terrifying take on Beatrix Potter you’ll ever see.) As events in Tom’s life begin to resemble sinister mirrors of the life of the fictional Tommy Taylor, the plot thickens with the discovery of what seems to be the first new Tommy Taylor book in years. Is Tom’s father alive? And is Tom going to live long enough to find out what the hell is going on? The series is ongoing, so I have no answers, but the first volume, Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity, is the place to start… if you dare. Rated R for naughty language and dangerous ideas.

That’s all for this week. Until next time, remember—treat your books as you would your friends, and introduce them to all the cool people you know.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Werewolf Blog Project: Eleven questions for Christine Johnson

In honor of National (or as national as we can make it) Werewolf Blog Day, I present an interview with Christine Johnson, author of the YA girl-werewolf novel Claire de Lune, which hits bookstores today from Simon PULSE.

Claire de Lune, if you haven’t already caught the buzz, is about sixteen-year-old Claire Benoit, who discovers 1) that she is a werewolf; 2) that a series of attacks in her town by a rogue werewolf have made suddenly sprouting fur hazardous to your health; and 3) her sometime boyfriend, the local soccer god and son of a noted lycanthropy expert, is leading the hunt without realizing he’s leading the hunt for his girlfriend. And you thought you had problems!

1. There's a lot of teen-werewolf stuff out there right now. Claire de Lune is emphatically NOT your typical teen-werewolf stuff. What makes Claire de Lune unique?

CJ: I think there are lots of unique aspects to the story. For one, in Claire’s world, all werewolves are female, and you are born a werewolf—it’s inherited matrilineally (it took me three tries to spell that correctly. Yeesh.) Anyway! Also, werewolves are a known entity. The werewolf-human relations aren’t so great, and werewolves have developed a pretty bad—and largely undeserved—reputation. Unfortunately, that means that all werewolves must keep their identities a strict secret … or risk paying the ultimate price.

2.How did you come up with your idea for the story in Claire de Lune?

CJ:I what-ifd my way into it. Seriously! My novel brainstorming is a looooong (like—weeks if not months) process of thoughts like—what if I wrote a novel about a girl werewolf? And I ponder that. And then I wonder—what if she were dating a human boy? Huh. Why would she do that? HEY! What if there were no male werewolves? And so on and so on and so on until I have a very vague plot. There’s a lot of staring off into the distance and pacing around the neighborhood and long showers during this process, too!

3. This blog is about a novel, Masks, that’s sometimes called "realistic with a twist"—it features a world that seems much like ours, except that superheroes are real and everyone has to deal with that. I've blogged about creating different aspects of this world—how transportation systems work in a world where people can fly under their own power, for example, or how different kinds of superpowers create a de facto class system among heroes. Claire de Lune's twist is that werewolves exist and everyone has to deal with that fact. How did you go about creating your world-with-a-twist?

CJ: I actually love creating real-worlds-with-a-twist. I didn’t really know I loved that until I wrote this novel, but I think it’s—in some ways—more thought-provoking than completely unique fantasy worlds. If it seems POSSIBLE that the world-with-a-twist could actually BE our world, I find that deliciously shivery.

4. All the werewolves in Claire de Lune are female. In fact, all werewolves in the book's world are female. What made you choose to make lycanthropy an all-girl occupation?

CJ: Several reasons. For one, I’d read so much fantasy where the male protagonist was the supernatural being (i.e. Twilight) or where the supernatural world was dominated by males, or the females were always trying to gain power … it seemed more interesting to me to make it an all-female society. Also, if the species is all female, but they need human males in order to continue the species, then they can’t go live some isolated, safe existence in the Himalayas or something. They have to stay connected to the human race, the human world, no matter how risky that is.

5. What did you read growing up? What do you read now? How have your experiences as a reader shaped your writing of Claire de Lune?

CJ: I read EVERYTHING growing up. I remember reading my brother’s Boy Scout magazines because I had read everything else in the house. I remember reading Clan of the Cave Bear when I was nine, because I could but I wasn’t supposed to and I wanted to know why I wasn’t supposed to. After having such a voracious appetite for books, there were times when exactly the book I was in the mood to read just didn’t exist, and I couldn’t imagine anything better than filling that empty space.

All sorts of books inspire me! Mostly I read young adult fiction these days, since that’s what I write and a) I love it and b) I want to know what‘s out there. That said, I also read a lot of stuff about sharks and A.S. Byatt novels and anything else that strikes my fancy and that I can find a few minutes to devote to reading!

6. What's your writing process like? What does a writer do all day?

CJ: My writing process changes a little bit with each manuscript I do—but generally I write the first draft pretty much straight through, and then I go back and pull it apart and start fixing individual character and plot arcs, rearranging scenes, etc. before I rebuild the whole thing.

And I have two small kids, so I’m often writing late at night, or scrambling to take advantage of a few hours of babysitting … I’m also not above putting the kids and the laptop in the car, driving until they fall asleep, and then writing while they nap in the back seat! In my ideal world, though, I have all afternoon to write, on the couch, with a Diet Coke and some dark chocolate. I don’t get that often (or almost ever) anymore, but some day the kids will be bigger and I’ll reclaim that favorite set-up of mine!

7. What was the best part of writing Claire de Lune? What was the worst part?

CJ: Finishing it was the best part. And finishing it was the worst part.

8. What surprised you most as you were working on Claire de Lune?

CJ: How real the characters became to me. At the risk of sounding insane (though all writers are at least a little crazy, right?), I found as I worked on the book and again as I’ve been working on the sequel that I’d start wondering what the characters were doing, the same way I’d wonder what my real-life friends were up to. That’s when I knew I had really gotten down deep enough into the story to make it what I wanted—to achieve the vision in my head.

9. What advice would you give to blog readers who are thinking about writing their own novels?

CJ: Write them! Seriously. Put your butt in the chair and turn out 300 or 500 or 1,000 words a day until you have a book. It’ll be a really, really bad book, since all first drafts are bad, but you can worry about fixing it later. You can’t revise until you’ve written. You can’t wait until you’re inspired to write. Go pour a cup of coffee and get started!

10. What shampoo do you use to get all that mud out of your fur?

CJ: Cheap shampoo works but it makes the fur frizzy and the chemical smell is almost unbearable. Good quality shampoo made without artificial scents is much preferable. :)

11. Last chance to tell us the one thing we should remember about Claire de Lune. What is it?

CJ: Though Claire is a werewolf, in many ways, her journey is the same as any teen’s. We all have to figure out who we are. And we all have to find a way to live with the answers, whether we like them or not. Also—remember to read it! Heh.

Thanks for having me by for a chat—I had a great time!


Christine Johnson lives in an old house in an old neighborhood of Indianapolis with her husband and kids. She likes yoga, cooking, and watching soccer. She lived in Chicago for quite a while, so it’s entirely possible she saw Trevor on the rooftops there, but if she did, she’s not telling. Also, there are probably werewolves in Indianapolis, but she’s not telling on that score, either.

For more about Claire de Lune, visit Christine’s website.

You can order Claire de Lune here.

For more of the Werewolf Blog Project, visit The Garden of Words.


Monday, May 17, 2010

What writers do on their days off

A newly rewritten chunk of Masks has gone out to my little circle of beta readers, which means I have to leave my story alone for two weeks in order to get some much-needed perspective. Which brings me to the question of what writers do during periods of enforced idleness like this.

And the answer is—we write anyway. At least I do.

A couple of years ago, my wonderful friend Amber Peters found what turned out to be the perfect gift for a writer. It was a leatherbound book with lined pages—your basic journal, presumably bought from Barnes and Noble. I know, I know, what’s so special about a journal? Only the fact that Amber knows me far, far too well.

I’d had people give me journals before. I have, in fact, a shelf of journals and sketchbooks more or less gathering dust. It’s an inescapable fact of the writing life—people will insist on giving you journals and/or pens for every occasion, apparently because they think writers don’t buy their own paper or carry their own pens. (Please note: I am extremely picky about my pens, and if you give me one I may or may not actually use it. Ever. I have used gift pens as crude hole-punches, very small levers, improvised knives—everything but writing utensils.)

But while other journals were selected for the cute slogans on their covers or the cunning ways in which they fastened shut, Amber knows what a serious writer needs in a journal—namely, something that can survive a nuclear war. She got me a slightly larger-than normal, leatherbound, unusually dense journal with the usual clever design embossed on the cover, not printed. This means that after several years of being carried around in backpacks, bags, and unusually large pockets, its pages are still quite readable and it looks new except for the corners being slightly bent. This is a Serious Journal.

So naturally I had to fill it with Serious Things.

I started out writing a story in it, then realized that I didn’t know enough about the story to just write the thing in there from beginning to end—I’ve gotten to the point where I’m wanting to rewrite things even as I write them, and therefore it’s easier to compose at a keyboard. So I converted the journal to something I needed more, but hadn’t known I needed. I call it my Book of Good Dreams, after a phrase I used on the first page that I belatedly decided would describe the entire volume.

Here is the real bugger part of being a writer: you will always have more ideas than time, except when you need an idea (at which point you’ll certainly come up blank). At any given moment, I have three or four story ideas ricocheting around my head like pinballs. One is usually the object of most of my attention, but the others are definitely there. I may hear a song on the radio that inspires me to add something to one, or I may find myself musing on it for an hour or so while my train is stuck on a siding. But if I have deadlines, I have to work on the main story, and the others are what is technically known as distractions, draining my creative energy when I should be spending it on my primary project. Eventually I lose interest in them as I get back on task, and they vanish. Or they did, until Amber bought me this journal.

Now, when I have a story idea I just can’t leave alone, I write it down in the Book of Good Dreams. It’s enormously helpful for getting ideas out of the way of my real work, and stupendously helpful months or years later when I decide I want to write one of the secondary ideas. I found I’d been forgetting half the important details of these stories when I set them aside, but by writing them down in this journal, I could go back later and find the better part of a short story, serial, or novel all laid out for me. “I’m going to have to figure out some way to make this character vulnerable—oh, I gave him that weakness? Good for me!”

If the stories get more than a certain number of entries, they graduate to their own dedicated journals so they don’t hog the whole book. Consequently, I have a very sturdy book full of pretty good ideas, each labeled with a cryptic “slug”—a one-word label that identifies all the entries in a particular story, regardless of what I may end up titling the thing. (Recent slugs include “Runner,” “Badlands,” “Knight”, and a few others.) Not only does it clear my brain, it’s also phenomenally entertaining. “Wow, I have an entire storyline in here about the Lady of the Lake and it is freaking amazing! Who cares if the train is stuck?”

So for the next two weeks, as the reading circle is reading and marking up a chunk of Masks for me, I will be playing with other ideas, some of them from the Book of Good Dreams. (Except tomorrow, when I will be running an interview with another author—werewolves! Show up!) The book is only half full so far, and I can’t wait to see how the second half will turn out …

Thursday, May 13, 2010

First it killed the Romans ...

I have a confession to make. I have a nasty case of Latin punning.

I first learned the horrid Latin pun “semper ubi sub ubi” from my older brothers, who took Latin in college. (Note: my eldest brother is seven years older than I am and was eight years ahead in school, so he started college the year I started fifth grade. You can imagine how his sense of humor interacted with mine.)

The pun works like this. Semper is the Latin word for “always,” as in “Semper Fi,” the Marine Corps motto that’s short for “semper fidelis,” “always faithful.” Ubi is the Latin word for “where,” as in, “Where is it?” It’s the root of the English word “ubiquitous.” Sub means the same thing in Latin that it does in English—“under,” as in submarine, subterranean, etc. Semper ubi sub ubi. Replace each Latin word with its English equivalent and sound it out. I’ll wait.

Yeah. It’s that bad. In my defense, I was eleven at the time. And for the record, it makes no sense whatsoever in Latin—it’s funny only to those who speak English too.

A few years later, when I was writing Masks as a serial, I kept in touch with my fans via an ancient device known as a letter column, or lettercol if you’re really into fandom. My readers would write me letters (primitive communications consisting of ink stains on paper, delivered by uniformed couriers), and I would reprint their contents on a designated page of each issue, including my response to each. This required me to step outside my normal authorial voice and speak more or less as myself. I have always been a little uncomfortable with this practice, as I started writing stories in part because I really didn’t have much to say to people otherwise, but it seemed to make the fans happy, and I am all about making fans happy. So I experimented with different writing styles in my lettercol responses.

And then one day I discovered Stan Lee.

You might remember him. He invented about half of the comic-book characters you like. Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, my own beloved Daredevil … if Marvel Comics publishes it and you like it, chances are Stan Lee tinkered with it at some point. Now, Stan’s personality could fairly be compared to an exploding cigar. He never met an exclamation point he didn’t like, and his alliterative headlines still give me nightmares. (For my money, the most daunting was, “A Quaff of Quixotic Quips and Quotes to Quench Your Quakes and Quandaries!”) But his style in interacting with fans was very personable and folksy, if hyperbolic, and it did manage to be amusing.

So one day, when I’d run out of other ideas, I did the lettercol in Stan-Lee-esque terms. Every sentence ended with an exclamation point, I alliterated wherever I could, and all my responses sounded like they should be read by one of those shouting announcers in car-lot commercials. It was fun.

And then, at the end, I had to come up with some kind of take on Stan’s trademark signoff, “Excelsior!” Well, I didn’t have a whole lot of Latin at my disposal, so I went with my trusty standby, “Semper ubi sub ubi!” It seemed to work, and I included a little note about its translation. It seemed particularly appropriate for a serial about people who sometimes wore their underwear on the outside. And I used it for a few months, then dropped it.

At which point I began getting letters about it.

“Where’s my semper ubi sub ubi?” “I need my semper ubi sub ubi!” “I haven’t gotten my money’s worth if I haven’t seen my bad Latin for the month!” (Money’s worth? The serial was free!) So I brought it back as the signoff. Soon the fan letters were including it. When Masks got a web archive, the domain name included the phrase. Sometimes it was shortened to its initials—SUSU. I appliquéd it on my laptop bag because, well, nobody else was going to have a bag like that, so I’d always know which one was mine.

And last month when Derrick texted me to ask what slogan Rae would have on her T-shirt, I couldn’t think of anything else to say. So there it is, rearing its punnish head once more. I don’t think it can be killed now. But at least it’s back to being an in-joke for everyone.

Oh, right, I should explain the blog title. It’s taken from a bit of doggerel almost every Latin student learns (and is, in fact, the title of a chapter in Masks where Trevor unexpectedly finds his life depends on his Latin skills):

Latin is a dead language,
Dead as it can be;
First it killed the Romans,
And now it’s killing me.

And so I now remind you, always … well, you know the rest.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Beating the dragon

The New York Times recently posted a piece that’s either very perceptive or blindingly obvious about the recent proliferation of bad or absent parents in young-adult fiction. (You can read it here.) The upshot is that YA fiction has recently turned up with a veritable swarm of adults who range from missing or merely negligent to full-on abusive or so helpless that their kids are doing the parenting. There’s a bit of hand-wringing over this, and it reminded me of my very first reader snit over the portrayal of parents in my own writing.

The reader having the snit was my father.

I was about seventeen, and I had been getting fan mail from readers for two years and my parents were beginning to realize that I might be serious about this writing thing. (For the record, I hadn’t realized it—I tried rather hard to have any career but writing until I found myself in grad school and unable to find any other kind of work. Really, it’s lucky that I love writing more than any other job in the world.) I refused to let my parents read my work at the time, for what I thought was a very good reason—I believed it was terrible. Even as a child, I had judged my writing by the most adult standard possible. I used to tell my English teachers, “Don’t tell me my writing’s good for a twelve-year-old. Tell me if it’s good. If you read it in a bookstore, would you buy it?” (I realize now what a terrible thing that is to say to a teacher, and I hereby apologize to all the teachers I caused to fear for my sanity—and no, I don’t know why I was so fixated on writing at an adult level when I insisted I didn’t want to be a professional writer. Maybe I was trying to master it and get it out of my system?) And while I was willing to burden my friends with my childish efforts at storytelling, I wouldn’t dream of bothering the two very busy adults in my life with such frivolity. Bad enough they insisted on going to my school plays. Besides, Mom didn’t read much for pleasure and Dad stuck strictly to nonfiction and murder mysteries, so what point was there in sharing my superhero adventures with them? They didn’t enjoy the genre even when it was done well.

This all seemed very logical to me, and it apparently convinced my father that I was hiding something. He pulled me aside one day and told me that I was, by God, going to put his name on my e-mail distribution list because “your mother thinks you’re writing pornography, and that’s why you don’t want us to see it.” I rolled my eyes and added him to the list, deeply annoyed. I thought that once he noticed my stories were nothing but juvenile humor, superheroic slap-fights, and adolescent attempts at emotional depth, he’d leave me alone and probably stop reading them altogether.

Stop laughing. Everybody’s allowed to be stupid at seventeen. It’s in the rules somewhere.

A few weeks later, he called me into his office and sat me down for a stern talking-to. Why, he wanted to know, were Rae’s parents absent from the story? Trevor was an orphan, and most of the other teenage characters were orphans, runaways, or the products of such nasty home lives that they were blasé about deceiving their parents and guardians about what they did all night on the city’s rooftops. Only Rae seemed to come from a stable nuclear family, and yet her folks barely got a sentence in any given chapter. Was I trying to make some veiled statement about my own family?

I rolled my eyes again. (I was a champion eye-roller.) The answer seemed obvious to me, but Dad kept pestering until I finally said, "It’s because I don’t want to write about parents. DUH!”

And I didn’t. I still don’t, really—at least, not normal, well-adjusted parents. My relationship with my own parents has always been complex, and I frankly didn’t want anyone trying to read anything into that relationship based on my writing—so I left them out. It seemed the best way to protect my privacy, and besides, what kind of parents would support their offspring’s desire to throw themselves off rooftops anyway? I’ll tell you what kind—the bad kind! Any good parents in my stories had to be lied to and excluded, or they’d stop all the interesting parts of the story from happening.

YA literature now, of course, overflows with bad parents. Is it because it’s natural for teenagers to see their parents as enemies and obstacles? I don’t remember seeing mine that way (well, except when they thought I was writing porn). My folks’ greatest offense while I was in high school was my father’s unconscionable decision to have a heart attack on a business trip three days before the school production of Our Town opened with me in a leading role. And frankly, I hated that production so much that I was glad Mom had to fly out of town to be with him. I was an orphan on opening night, and I liked it that way. Likewise, my friends all had pretty good relationships with their folks, although a couple of parents really lost it when we went off to college.

Perhaps there’s something about being a teenager that makes you want bad parents if you don’t have them—it’s part of having the kind of romantic, adventurous life you don’t have time for between a mountain of homework and a 24-7 activity schedule. It was kind of fun to have all my friends fussing over me when I was an opening-night orphan, though it probably would have been less fun if Dad had actually been in danger rather than just unable to board an aircraft.

But mostly I think the choice is a matter of narrative convenience. Good parents try to protect their children from dangerous adventures for as long as possible. Mine were more laissez-faire than most—I was allowed to ride my bike down a busy street or play in the flood-control channel or feed my lunch to stray animals as long as I didn’t get seriously hurt—but I do think they would have eventually noticed if I’d started showing up with bruises or climbing out my bedroom window at midnight. If Rae’s parents were around enough to notice she was constantly getting injured or running off at all hours to spend time with a scruffy teenage runaway, they’d ground her until she was eligible for Social Security. And what good is a book like that?

Masks, like most YA books, is at least partly a coming-of-age story, a tale of characters making the transition from carefree childhood to adult responsibilities—or, in Rae’s and Trevor’s cases, from childhood responsibilities to adult responsibilities. That means disconnecting from the mothership for a while and finding out who you are when nobody’s looking over your shoulder. Trevor began making that transition when he was six years old and realized that, no matter how unfair it was, he was the only person who could keep Jude out of the morgue and himself out of foster care. Rae took her first step on that journey at age eight, when she found out what happens when there are no adults around to look out for you. By the time they meet, they are doing the jobs of adult heroes because there are no adult heroes around to do them. Partly, that’s narrative necessity—would adult superheroes willingly leave the world in the hands of a pair of powerless wannabes too young to vote?—and partly it’s because of a truth of adolescence that most parents prefer not to acknowledge.

Namely, that here there be dragons.

Before my high school graduation, every single teenager I knew had run into at least one situation that most adults would consider above a kid’s pay grade. Sometimes it was the sudden death of a classmate. Sometimes it was addiction or abuse. Sometimes it was a relationship gone horribly wrong. Sometimes it was an act of God, like an earthquake or a flood with terrible consequences. Sometimes it was a seemingly ordinary day that just went bad, and there was nothing to do but stop the bleeding, pick up the pieces, and wait for the cops, the paramedics, or the coroner to arrive.

I lived in one of the good neighborhoods, but by the time I graduated I or my immediate circle of friends and acquaintances had seen grim death by cancer and car wreck; abuse by parents, employers, and loved ones; two chronic medical conditions that could kill their sufferers at any time; a little light terrorism; a near-fatal eating disorder; assorted hijinks with drugs, alcohol, and sexual stupidity; a nice range of mental illness; and enough fires and other disasters to fill a season of daytime TV. We were, for the most part, the lucky ones, the “good kids” who kept our noses clean, studied hard in a good school, stayed out of gangs and off drugs, and tried to make something of ourselves. It didn’t stop us from walking down the wrong street or opening the wrong door. I think we still have video somewhere of one of us helping to amputate a guy’s leg with a saw. Life happens.

Parents usually aren’t there for that. Sometimes they show up at the ER later, but they’re not there when you have to make a choice that will set the course for the rest of your life. That falls to you. The most important test you take is the one whose date isn’t on the calendar. That’s what happens in Masks--the world needs saving, and the grown-ups aren’t there. I love reading science fiction, a genre whose authors believe they can prepare us for the future if they just tell enough interesting stories about it. That’s what I try to do in Masks. I know my readers will have to face those unexpected crises, if they haven’t already, and they’ll face some of them alone. I want them ready. Rae and Trevor hear screaming, and run toward it. I don’t expect my readers to do the same—but I want them to think about what they’ll do before the screaming actually starts.

The great Victorian author G.K. Chesterton was once asked whether he thought children should have fairy tales read to them, since they were full of darkness and violence and monsters and they ultimately weren’t “true”. His reply was memorable: “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Is it so wrong to hand St. George a sword?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Some thoughts on rejection

Rejection is the natural part of the creative process. In fact, it seems to be an essential part, right after the part where you create something you love and just before the part where you wreak bloody revenge on the people who rejected your creation.

We’ve had a little setback recently—a little one, mind you. More of a pseudo-rejection than a full-blown rejection. We’re not out of the game, and as my agent is fond of saying, we have not yet begun to fight. There is no cause for alarm … well, no cause for inordinate alarm. I have had several people remark on how non-freaked out I am by this. I am, in fact, less freaked out by rejection than I was by waiting for what turned out to be rejection, and probably less freaked out by rejection than I would be by acceptance. (Sane? Who said I was sane?)

But while I’m sitting here all by my lonely, rejected self, I’m having a few thoughts about rejection that might help the other writers, musicians, and other artists in my life when it’s their turn.

1. Rejection does not always have to be about you. In fact, it probably isn’t about you now. I’ve gotten rejected for some pretty interesting reasons over the years—my personal favorite was the boss who fired me for “asking questions we don’t know the answers to”—and a surprising number of those rejections have been utterly impersonal. Try to remember that sometimes rejection is as random as the weather—maybe the person who rejected you had indigestion, or just couldn’t stand any piece of writing with the word “purple” in it. Don’t laugh. I’ve seen editors ready to scream at the word “rabbit.”

2. Rejection is not the same thing as criticism, and even when it is, not all criticism is necessarily helpful. This one took some getting used to. Most of the time, if you’re professional enough to get rejected by pros, you will get a reason. This reason may be good, and it may be complete hogwash. Sometimes it’s the standard and well-intentioned, “Your work does not meet our current needs.” Do not let yourself go crazy trying to guess what those needs are, and then trying to meet them. If someone gives you a more specific reason for rejection—say, they thought your main character wasn’t funny enough—ask yourself whether modifying your work to meet a demand like that will actually improve it. If you never intended your main character to be funny, the fact that someone doesn’t think he’s funny enough is pretty much irrelevant. It’s like saying your elephant isn’t green enough. What you need is not green paint for your elephant; it is someone who understands that elephants are supposed to be gray.

3. Rejection is an opportunity to learn. I know, this one seems counterintuitive if you read the last item, but trust me, there is a point here. Sometimes criticism is incredibly useful—which is why I have a policy of taking any advice I get that makes my story more fun for me to write and read. And sometimes the way in which the criticism is unhelpful is useful, too. Should you change your basic assumptions about your work? Should you change your strategy in submitting it—maybe take a different approach and submit to different places?

4. Rejection will only make you crazy if you let it. This is something you don’t see often on lists of advice for artists. Emotional maintenance for artists is just as important as mechanical maintenance for a car. If you don’t deal with stuff, you’re going to overheat and maybe burst into flames at an inconvenient moment. So whatever you do to stop things from eating at you—employ it in the face of rejection. Go for a walk. Play with a dog. Sing. Work on another project. Watch a movie. Spend time with people you love. Whatever it is, set aside some time for it in the event of rejection. Because I’ve seen people get eaten alive by depression and I’ve also seen people get eaten alive by stifled emotions, I have developed my own personal safety valve. I set a time frame in which I’m allowed to be upset about something. I don’t get to take it out on anybody else—at least, not if my primary emotion is anger—and if I have to get weepy, I use a designated listener. I take time out, even if it’s just a few minutes, to do something I enjoy and console myself. I’ll often reread a favorite book or work on a sewing project that requires me to focus on the task at hand while the back of my brain processes. Figure out what you have to do to handle the emotional side of rejection, and it won’t make you crazy when the time comes.

5. Remember that rejection can be the best thing that ever happened to you. Okay, you are now allowed to scream epithets at me. I have done exactly the same thing at people who gave me sunny platitudes when I was in the throes of rejection. But it doesn’t make this particular platitude less true. My first experience with real soul-crushing rejection (well, as a writer) ended up making Masks about a thousand percent better. It also forced me to sit down and figure out whether I was really serious about this book thing. I found that I was, which saved me a lot of angst and soul-searching later. Repeated rejection, with repeated reappraisals of my work in light of those events, forced me to get to know my own story much more intimately, until I was rock-solid certain of what had to be in there and what could change if I needed it to.

None of this means that rejection doesn’t suck like a Dustbuster in overdrive. But if you’re smart, and handle it right, it can be one more thing that makes you a great artist.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Happy Free Comic Book Day! - Updated!

It's here! It's here! Motion Capture is LIVE!

Okay, Free Comic Book Day has ended, so here's the regular ol' PDF of the short story, "Motion Capture." If you want to read the two tantalizing bonus chapters from the novel itself ... well, you'll have to buy the book. Or bribe me. Or blackmail one of the 20 users who downloaded it before I took it down. Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha ...
for free ... if you help me out on this.

Happy Free Comic Book Day!

Motion Capture