Monday, June 28, 2010

Five tips for writers

A friend of mine is currently developing a Masks website as a class project, and asked me to write up some tips for aspiring writers. I enjoyed the exercise enough to reprint it here, since the website will be a strictly private project—at least for now.

Five Tips For Writers

First, write for yourself. If you do not love writing, all the money and fame in the world won’t make it worth your while. If you do love it, any reward will pale in comparison to the joy it brings you. You must love your story, you must love at least some of the hours you put in sweating over words and phrases and sentences and paragraphs. You don’t have to love every part of it—but you have to love the work as a whole. Writing is first and foremost an act of love. I used to tell myself that as long as I was writing something I loved, I would be content to spend my whole life writing, even if everyone else hated my work, and wish that life to be long. Now I’m living the life I only dreamed about when I was a kid, and I still find that writing is too much work to do if you don’t love it. So that’s lesson one—love your work, or find other work to do.

Second, read! I cannot stress this enough. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read books you like and books you don’t. Read magazines. Read newspapers. Read blogs. Read the encyclopedia, if you can find one. Carry something to read with you wherever you go. Read on the bus. Read while you’re standing in line. Your writing comes out of your hopes, your dreams, your thoughts, your ideas, and your memories—and reading enhances all of those. Reading gives you new words to use, new concepts to ponder, new ways of looking at the world. It gives you story ideas you could not have imagined. If a book is bad, figure out how it could be better. Look at how your favorite authors do things, and use that as your starting point for discovering how you do things. Most of all, just read! You will never be sorry. And you’ll never be bored in line at the bank, either. So that’s lesson two—when in doubt, read.

Third, be curious. Learn from the world around you. Watch what people do, listen to what they say. See if you can figure out what they’re thinking. Ask questions. Try to find out how things work. Use all of your senses, not just your eyes! Find out how things sound, how they feel, how they smell, how they taste. And pay attention to people. It’s been said that every person has at least one good story in them, and if you are a writer you will find people want to tell you their stories. Listen to them. You never know when they’ll come in handy. And thinking about the world beyond yourself is good practice for creating characters and worlds that can live outside your mind. So that’s lesson three—it’s not only okay to be curious, it’s vital.

Fourth, practice! The difference between a writer and someone who wants to be a writer is that a writer actually sits down and writes. Even if it’s terrible, even if it sounds stupid, a writer writes. Practice writing first drafts—getting everything down on paper before it flies out of your head, sitting down for a few minutes or an hour or however long it takes you to finish something. Keep at it. When you’ve written your first draft, put it away for a while and practice patience. Then take it out again and practice revising and rewriting and polishing your work until it shines. Know that it’s always hard at the beginning, but the more you practice and the harder you work, the more delightful your work becomes. So that’s lesson four—writing is a skill that must be practiced or lost.

Finally, keep the faith. Writing is a solitary effort, and it means spending a lot of time by yourself, getting ink stains on your fingers and scars on your heart, before you’re ready to share your creation with the world. Being a writer means believing that you can write, and that you should write. That kind of faith must be fed, so be sure to spend time every once in a while with readers, other writers, or whatever you need to keep yourself believing. Sometimes faith means slogging through a draft, putting one word after another because you believe you’ll end up with something you’ll love. Sometimes it means accepting criticism because it’s good for your story, even if it hurts. Sometimes it means rejecting criticism because it’s bad for your story, even if it feeds your ego. Often it means working hard to tell the difference. But mostly faith means never forgetting that what you do is worth it. You are a better human being for having written, and the world is a better place for what you wrote. So that’s lesson five—have faith.

If you can do these five things, you can shake the world to its very foundations. And I, for one, look forward to seeing that. I can’t wait to read the stories you will write.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Words you can't say in comic books

I’ve gotten more reader feedback about my characters’ vocabularies than any other subject, except for their love lives (or lack thereof). The consensus, at least among fans that bother to write in, seems to be that I have created a crew of pottymouths. I find this highly amusing.

I have long since figured out that the people who care most ardently about something are not necessarily representative of all the people who care about that something. I’ve also figured out that there are some elements of the comic-book world that don’t really line up with the book world, and vice versa, and elements of both that don’t really line up with reality. (My favorite example—comic-book people who hear about Masks can’t believe I’m writing a superhero story with a girl in a leading role, because making the lead character female is usually considered a good way to kill off a comic series. Meanwhile, book people who hear about Masks can’t believe I’m writing a YA novel with a boy in a leading role that’s not strictly a romantic lead, because the YA readership skews female and they want to read about strong female protagonists, not strong male ones. I hope I’ve hit a happy medium by ticking everyone off a little.) And language seems to be one of those things.

To dispel the popular myth: I don’t use swearwords for lack of other words to use. I have a very large vocabulary, and choose my words carefully. As a childhood spelling-bee champ, someone who was reading at a college level around fifth grade, and someone whose day job requires her to accurately use terminology from fields as diverse as oncology and Russian literature, I am extraordinarily comfortable with words. I regularly answer the phone with, “Good afternoon; telemarketers will be defenestrated.” So while I’m about to use a bunch of naughty words in this blog entry, it is not, repeat not, because I lack the vocabulary to use other words. I could use other words if I wanted to. I chose these words.

The pottymouth problem first reared its head when I was in high school and published a short story that included, at different points, the words “bastard” and “damn.” And oh, the floodgates opened. Letters, emails, people coming up to me in the halls. Interestingly, nobody had a problem with Rae calling a Nazi war criminal who tried to murder his mask cousin a bastard. No, the problem was with her saying she was “so damn close” to achieving something before she failed.

The problem popped up from time to time after that, but I found that, interestingly, I could avoid the wrath of my readers if I kept Rae’s language clean. Nobody else got such a strong reaction when they cussed. Apparently it was okay for Trevor to use the occasional four-letter word, and any bad guy was allowed to curse like a sailor. I am still scratching my head over this. But things got really interesting when I sat down to write a scene for the novel where, no matter how I rewrote it, Rae always ended up saying the F-word. There was simply no other word I could imagine her using. I’ll explain in a bit, but first, a little background on swearing in comics.

Because comic books have traditionally been regarded as a children’s medium, there’s a certain amount of eyebrow-raising every time observers outside fandom notice characters in mainstream comics doing, er, grownup things. So publishers seem to stick to the idea that grownup stuff in comics should be clearly labeled, usually by combining it with lots of other grownup stuff. Nobody wants to see a ten-year-old finding the F-bomb in an issue of Adventures of Superman and asking his dad what the word means (although any ten-year-old in the United States who hasn’t heard that word by now is awfully sheltered). So comics usually are either crammed with profanity, graphic sex, and ultra-gory violence, or they’re dialed strictly back to PG-13. I stick to the PG-13 side of things myself, mostly. I don’t often run across a story I want to tell that can’t be told within those boundaries, and I find the restrictions challenge me just enough that I end up with a more artful presentation. That’s what happens when I don’t have the option of simply ripping a character’s head off when I get bored.

And yet, no matter how I slice it, Rae always says the F-word to the Masked Rider.

The situation is this: Rae has gotten separated from Trevor and is being chased by a half-dozen or so angry supervillains. She finds herself in an alley with only one way out—and the Masked Rider is blocking that with his horse. The Rider offers her a lift, and she grudgingly accepts. What follows is a surreal journey down the rabbit hole into the Rider’s world. Rae expected to find herself riding with the Grim Reaper, and instead she finds herself hanging onto the saddle as the Rider gallops around downtown L.A. stopping random crimes, just like any other mask. The Rider, meanwhile, is asking her pointed questions about Trevor and why she trusts him, and Rae finally gets sufficiently fed up with it to ask the cowboy who the hell he thinks he is. The Rider tells her to watch her language.

And Rae says, “I’ll say whatever the [fudgesicles] I want to say.”

And that’s it. She doesn’t use the word again. It doesn’t appear in the book after that. Rae’s not an F-bomb kind of character, really. But it just seemed so right that Rae, being a naturally contrary person, would respond to someone telling her to watch her mouth by using an even more objectionable word. She’s also the kind of person who can’t resist pushing big red buttons marked “Do not push under any circumstances.” It’s just who she is. And once she’s made her point, she goes back to talking the way she normally talks.

I sweated quite a bit over this word, since it violated my PG-13 rule. On the one hand, I have always considered myself to be writing for adults, some of whom just happen to be too young to vote. (Remember, I was reading at a college level when I was in fifth grade, so I know that books get read quite a ways outside their intended audiences.) As far as I’m concerned, if you’re qualified to handle the moral dimensions of being a superhero, you’re qualified to handle one use of the F-word. And true to form, my reading circle usually splits down the middle on whether I should keep the word in. Half of them want me to take it out and replace it with something milder (which seems to me to be undermining Rae’s contrariness) and half write something like “Haha!” or “Best line ever” next to it (which worries me a little—that was my best line? Really?). I assume that on balance, it means I’m doing okay.

One of my very favorite Mark Twain quotes is, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.” I’d like to think that more often than not, I achieve lightning … it’s just that sometimes, in the words of Terry Pratchett, it involves standing on a hill in a thunderstorm wearing copper armor and shouting “All gods are bastards.”

Still, it’s quite a show, isn’t it?

Monday, June 14, 2010

So I changed my tagline ...

You might or might not have noticed a slight shift in the profile image on the Facebook page yesterday. It’s repeated here on the blog. The mock cover used to say, “A novel about truth, justice, and making life up as you go,” and it now says, “A novel about truth, justice, and growing up with secrets.”

The reasons for the change are many and mostly uninteresting. The old slogan sounded too much like an Indiana Jones line; Trevor is more or less an over-planner, so he’s not really making life up as he goes and thus the slogan is invalid; several people told me to put something about growing up in the tagline to convey that the book is about teenagers (though in my experience, growing does not happen to everyone, and may occur outside the teen years if it occurs at all). Personally, I wanted to get away from the Courier font on the old image and go with the Batik Regular font I prefer for Masks materials.

But mostly, I was tired of the old tagline bugging me.

Marketing is a tricky proposition in the book world. The kind of temperament that can write a really good story—something exciting and truly original—generally is not very good at marketing. Great stories involve surprises at some point; marketing is very much about making a product fit into the way people already see the world. And in the case of books, it involves boiling the story down into a catchy line that people can remember—but of course, if the idea of a book could really be condensed like that without losing anything important, the author would have written a catchy line in the first place and not a book.

But with some recent and not-so-recent developments in the publishing world, most authors now accept that they have to do a fair amount of book marketing, including in the early stages before a book is published. This requires that the “message” of those materials be simple, consistent, and memorable. And because I am an inveterate do-it-yourselfer—my childhood toybox full of pipe-cleaner action figures, my closet full of homemade apparel, my memories rich with imaginary friends and the universes they inhabit—that meant coming up with that message myself, at least until I have someone else to help me out.

I’ve got a notebook lying around somewhere with a dozen “truth, justice, and” lines in it. The construction naturally suggested itself as de rigeur for anybody writing about superheroes, but the third word in the list is problematic. “The American Way” will not sell even if I should own the copyright to it; too many people now believe the American Way is, for example, Abu Ghraib, and it will be a while before that changes for the better, if it ever does. (And I’m not going to say what I think it means, because it doesn’t matter for this purpose what I believe about it—if I use terms whose meaning my readers cannot correctly interpret, I am using the wrong terms.)

I’d played with the “truth, justice, and” construction before. A Masks story I wrote and put out sometime around 2002 was titled “Truth, Justice, and My Way,” and involved a Frank Sinatra joke and the debut of one of my more popular villains. “Truth, justice, and secrets” worked nicely in the first trailer, but the more I thought about it, the more vague it seemed. Anybody can have secrets. I have secrets myself—but most of mine are fairly boring. What was so special about secrets in a book that was already about people in masks?

Ah, but growing up with secrets … that spoke to me. Rae and Trevor are still developing as people. Rae and Trevor at the beginning of the book are not the same as Rae and Trevor at the end, and by the time their saga is finished they will be still more different. And the secrets they keep—from each other, from themselves, and even from the reader—shape their growth the way a trellis shapes the growth of a vine. When the novel begins, Trevor has wrapped his life around the secret of the Very Bad Thing that happened to him while he was searching the world for his missing mentor, and even when that secret is revealed, there is another secret, buried deeper, that threatens to make an enemy of Rae because he can’t bear to share it with her. Rae, meanwhile, has patterned her masked life after a secret of her own connected to the coyote—a secret glimpsed in the flashbacks that appear occasionally in the book.

And somehow, those three ideas worked together in a way they didn’t manage separately. Truth—so much of this book is about Rae and Trevor seeking truth, or trying to prove it, or dealing with its ramifications. Justice—the story wouldn’t go anywhere if Rae and Trevor were not both convinced that justice matters, and that Cobalt’s behavior was fundamentally unjust. Rae in particular is concerned with justice, from her earliest experiences with a schoolyard bully (although I’ll admit she shades over into revenge for a while there). Growing up with secrets—they are both shaped by their secrets, and those secrets define the people they are becoming, for good or ill.

Plus, hey, this way I got to use the Batik font.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear ...

A few years ago, I got my first MP3 player at a Black Friday sale at the local hardware store. More accurately, my mom and I were shopping for the rest of the family and she impulse-bought the player, striking me “blind” so I’d have to act surprised on Christmas morning. It was sort of weird because my mom does not impulse-buy electronics. (She impulse-buys fruit, a trait I have inherited and the reason that no house I live in is ever without apples.) But there she was, picking up a 5GB player and dropping it into the cart and waving her hand in front of my eyes in a manner reminiscent of Alec Guinness telling you these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

Just then, a sales associate or whatever they’re called walked up to these two obviously techno-illiterate females (there are not a lot of women who shop at that Ace Hardware) and asked if we had any questions about the player. Since he was about 70 and normally sold garden hoses, I wasn’t sure he’d know any more about it than I would, so I decided to mess with him a little.

And I said, “Yeah. It says on the box it’ll hold X songs. Do you know how many that is when the songs are half an hour long?”

He frowned at me. “What kind of music are you listening to?”

And I said, “The Green Hornet, mostly.”

The look on his face was priceless. I could all but hear the gears grinding as he tried to work out whether someone my age could possibly mean that Green Hornet or whether it was some kind of punk band whose songs were all half an hour long. Eventually, I put him out of his misery and admitted that it was that Green Hornet. He didn’t seem any less puzzled.

In all my life, I have met exactly one other OTR (old-time radio) buff. It is not a common hobby, at least for those below retirement age. But I discovered old radio shows young, and got addicted fast. I saw an article in the paper one Halloween announcing that the local news station was going to re-run Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds, and I tuned in to hear what had once made people panic. I wasn’t terribly impressed (what was with all the musical interludes?), but when the announcer came on during a break and explained that the station normally played old radio shows during its nightly “Drama Hour”, I was intrigued enough to tune in again. I listened to comedy from Jack Benny (though I preferred Burns and Allen), drama from Suspense, and cops-and-robbers from Tales of the Texas Rangers (no cowboys, just a ‘50s cop drama set in Texas) and the original Dragnet. I discovered a whole universe of Westerns, and quickly figured out that my favorites were The Six Shooter (James Stewart!) and Have Gun, Will Travel, which I only later discovered was also a TV show. I discovered Isaac Asimov when I heard X Minus One adapt his “Nightfall” for something called the “theater of the mind.” I got to know the Green Hornet and the Lone Ranger and the Shadow in their natural habitats, and liked them enough to track down the Hornet in NOW Comics, the Ranger on videotape, and the Shadow in the Alec Baldwin movie (which did not do the show justice, of course).

I taped episodes off the air and listened to them on my walkman (yes, it was that long ago). I haunted Talking Book World and jealously guarded whatever I could getGreen Hornet episodes were the best, but I also got my hands on recordings of Laurence Olivier acting out stories by Herman Melville and Nikolai Gogol, which was pretty cool, too. My grandparents’ friends would hear about my interest and give me their bootleg tapes of Sir John Gielgud playing Sherlock Holmes. I listened to my recording of “The Final Problem”—Orson Welles as Moriarty, and the entire Reichenbach Fall fight done as a violin solo!—until it was no longer intelligible.

I was fascinated by the old radio shows for several reasons. For one, this was the same age where I was concerned about going blind, but radio depended on the mind’s eye—and mine was always quite sharp. For another, little anachronisms in the shows’ writing fascinated me. I remember the first time I heard the Lone Ranger pray that he wouldn’t die—a double oddity, since good 1990s action heroes never showed fear and never prayed to any god about anything unless it was a Very Special Episode. I was so surprised that I rewound the tape four times and turned the volume up to max to make sure I hadn’t misheard.

It was also fascinating to hear the pieces of franchise characters that had been edited out over the years. How many people who watched the old Lone Ranger TV show knew that, before he was retconned into being a Boy Scout on horseback, he spent part of every radio episode ducking the town sheriff, who naturally was always trying to arrest the masked gunman running loose in his city? No wonder his descendant put on a mask to become the Green Hornet, supposed 1930s gangster and secret scourge of the underworld! The Green Hornet was always a shady character, but who knew the Lone Ranger was originally a glorified owlhoot? It was unbearably cool.

And then the news station was bought out, and the Drama Hour was canceled (the new head of the station later told me that he got more hate mail about cancelling the OTR hour than any other change he made). I had only my old tapes, in an era where even CDs were rapidly becoming passé.

God bless the internet.

There are now websites out there that offer radio episodes for download or for sale, since many of the recordings are now in the public domain. Thanks to and the like, I’ve discovered that Frank Lovejoy, star of my noir favorite Nightbeat, also played the hilariously hyperviolent Blue Beetle. (I can’t stop giggling whenever I imagine the hard-bitten reporter of Nightbeat putting on blue spandex and chainmail and jumping out of windows.) I found the 11-episode series of Superman where Batman gets kidnapped by anti-Marshall Plan wackos and Robin tracks down Clark Kent for help (Dick Grayson crying in the Daily Planet newsroom—weird).

Most of these sites promote the shows on the basis that they’re “clean entertainment for the whole family.” Don’t believe it. Anybody who says that has never listened to the nastier episodes of The Shadow or pretty much any of Nightbeat. No, I keep coming back to my crackly old treasures for their unique combination of ingenuity and imagination. It takes a certain kind of mind to write for an audience that can never see what is being described—and to understand the differences between writing for the ear and writing for the eye. (If you don’t believe me, read a newspaper article and then read a transcript of a radio news story—even the sentence constructions are different.) And it takes a certain kind of mind to view those limitations as advantages. I’ve lost count of the number of stories improved by the fact that writers could withhold certain details from “blind” audiences until a critical moment, and the moments when a single word or sound conjured an entire scene for listeners. Listen to a few episodes of Nightbeat if you’re ever having trouble with voice or scene-setting. Frank Lovejoy’s voice and a clarinet are all you need to build a world.

Someday soon I plan to start getting into podcasts with an OTR sensibility—I’ve been impressed with The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd and I’ve heard some promising ads for a podcast drama called Second Shift. And maybe someday I’ll stop getting weird looks at the gym when I gasp or break up laughing in the middle of a session on the stationary bike.

Well, that last one’s not too likely. But hey, I can dream.