Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Masks Primer, Part Two: Why I'm Doing This

In a weird way, the story of how Masks came to be written is almost as interesting (at least to me) as the story that made it onto the page.

I began writing Masks as an experiment. Like Rae, I didn’t have many friends in school at age fourteen—I was a fairly bright girl with dark hair from the wrong side of the economic tracks, and the girls in my school tended toward blonde hair, family money, and pretending to be dumb, at least in public. Add to that an attitude problem that caused my dad to refer to me (affectionately) as “Cuisinart-mouth”, and I was not going to win any popularity contests. About the only kids who would talk to me were the nerds, which worked out well because we liked the same books, comics, and movies. And whenever they ran up against a nasty comic-book cliffhanger—Superman dying of kryptonite poisoning, Spider-Man dangling by a frayed web above a piranha tank—I would write them stories that solved the crisis du jour and wrapped up the story a month early. It was fun for me, and fun for them.

Then somebody suggested I write comic books for a living.

Now, there were very few women reading or writing comics at the time, so I was a little worried about trying to crack that particular glass ceiling. And besides, what if I got there and found out I couldn’t actually write about the same characters every month? I decided to try a little test, without telling anybody. I took a spiral notebook out of a cupboard and sat down to create my own fictional universe. Rae was the first character to come flying out of my pen—young, scared, and scrappy as hell. She lied about her age and fought bad guys twice her size. And I wrote about her every month, in the first person, as if the notebook were her diary. (In fact, it gave one of the popular girls quite a shock when she found the notebook in my backpack and read it, thinking it was my diary! She looked at me funny for the rest of the year.) I got pretty good at making up adventures, and I enjoyed exploring Rae as a person—figuring out what made her tick.

Then, nine months into my experiment, someone took my notebook.

I was a freshman in high school at this point, just turned fifteen. A pretty sixteen-year-old sophomore flounced up to me as I was writing in the notebook, asked me what I was doing, and took the book right out of my hands. She walked off with it. I watched her go, helpless and terrified. Everybody in school liked her, so picking a fight with her to get my notebook back would probably get me killed. Losing the notebook felt like someone had ripped my arm off.

Then, three days later, the girl came back. She pushed the notebook back into my hands and ordered me to finish the story I’d been writing when she “borrowed” it. I did. She liked it. I wrote another story. She liked that, too. Other kids began asking to borrow the notebook. I wrote more stories. The notebook’s cover fell off from being read too much. I duct-taped it back together and began typing up each chapter as I wrote it, stuffing copies into the lockers of my “subscribers”. Suddenly I had friends, people who got to know me through my stories and decided I was their kind of person. I started getting fan mail from my own classmates. One of the nerds from junior high photocopied a chapter and distributed it to his entire track team at another high school. The subscription list got too long to deal with on paper, so I started an e-mail subscription service. Then a website. Some of my readers I never even met—they emailed me through other readers, begging to be added. The oldest reader was a man in his eighties; the youngest was a twelve-year-old girl.

Some of the characters began taking on a life of their own at this point. Trevor was supposed to be a one-off character, a crazy ex-sidekick who tried to kill Rae in his first appearance and then got tossed off a roof. Except when I sat down to write the climax of that first story, I found I felt too sorry for the guy to kill him off. He just wouldn’t leave me alone. I let him live, and the next thing I knew he was elbowing his way into other stories, working through some of his issues and becoming quite the heroic figure. He even fell in love with Rae, which I swear wasn’t my idea (although it did get me more angry fan letters than almost anything else I ever wrote—it seems the fanbase was rooting for her to end up with the pretty boy, not the bad boy who happened to be an inch shorter than she was. Come on! He got a growth spurt eventually!)

The best part was, many of the earliest readers became my closest friends. That sophomore who took my notebook? I was a bridesmaid in her wedding, and we still hang out about once a week. In fact, of the five people I consider my best friends in the world, four of them met me through Masks.

I wrote Masks, putting out a new story every two to four weeks, right through high school and most of my college years. I was still doing it for the exercise, and because people seemed to enjoy it. I had no plans to become a professional writer, or publish my work anywhere outside my little website. And then I got a very interesting call from my scholarship foundation.

I was attending the University of Southern California on an academic scholarship that basically paid my tuition. (I’m one of those people who test well … and yes, I agree that it’s not fair.) I was preparing to graduate summa cum laude with a journalism degree—just as the bottom was falling out of the journalism business—when the folks who were paying my fees informed me that they were prepared to pay for a master’s degree, as well. They had just one condition: I had to find a graduate program that would take me by the beginning of the fall semester.

I think we had this conversation in March or April. I remember weighing the pluses and minuses. Plus: free master’s degree, probably my only chance to get one. Minus: pretty much any program worth its salt had long since closed its fall admissions. I decided to roll the dice anyway. I took the required tests in about a week, without studying, and aced them (see, I told you I test well). I decided that if I was going to spend two years studying just one subject, it was going to be something I loved, and there was only one thing I loved enough for that—writing. I discovered that, luckily for me, USC’s Master of Professional Writing program had a rolling admissions policy that would admit students at any time of year; even in April, I could start classes as early as that summer. I just had to submit adequate test scores and grades (no problem there) and a sample of my writing that proved I was talented enough to belong in the program.

Yeah, you can see where this is going.

Masks was where I’d done my best work, learned all the important lessons, honed my skills to their sharpest. I pulled out three of my finest chapters, polished them up, and sent them off. To my profound surprise, I soon got a phone call telling me I was in.

I was even more surprised when I got into my first writing workshop and discovered who else was in the program. I was sitting next to poets and playwrights and novelists who did things like read Russian literature for fun, sometimes in the original Russian. There were people there who wanted to win Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards, and whose writing was good enough to put them in the running. With my frayed jeans and my backpack full of comic books, I couldn’t have been more out of place. I have no idea how the admissions committee looked at my three stories about superheroes and decided I belonged in this crowd. Maybe it was April Fool’s Day or something.

But I was, and am, extremely stubborn. I don’t mind failing as long as I fail while doing my absolute best. I paid close attention in every class and took copious notes. I made friends with everyone who’d let me (that pretty sophomore had taught me how). I tried my best to help my classmates improve their writing, and asked questions whenever I got the chance. And whenever I had to turn in my own work, I sweated blood over it. Occasionally, though, I’d just run out of time or ideas, and I’d turn in another superhero adventure. I was good at them, and I loved writing them. A few of my classmates liked them. Most people just found them confusing.

In order to earn a master’s degree, I had to write a 200-page book of publishable quality. I submitted my proposals to several professors—three or four ideas that I could turn into novels. Most of my work had some sci-fi or fantasy angle to it, but I kept the ideas as straightforward as possible. But every professor I asked for advice had the same question: “Why don’t you just write more about your superheroes?”

“Because you don’t like them,” I said. “Nobody here likes them. You don’t read comic books. You don’t watch superhero movies. You don’t like superheroes.”

And the answer, whispered or muttered under the breath, was always the same: “I like yours.”

So I wrote the book based on my stories, surprised a few people with what I changed and what I didn’t, and got my degree. About a year after graduation, I got a literary agent (someone who can submit a manuscript to the major publishers—they don’t take submissions from just anybody). We’re now talking to publishers. It’s going rather well, I think, though I can’t post everything that happens on this blog because my agent will probably hunt me down and stab me with a letter opener.

And that’s where you guys come in. I started this blog, and the pages on Facebook and MySpace, in order to drum up support for Masks, to prove to the world that this weird little superhero story that won me the best friends I’ve ever had and won over an entire graduate program full of people who didn’t like comic books might just appeal to the rest of the world, too. That’s why I run contests and give stuff away and post free short stories. I’m trying to show everyone how amazing this little universe of mine really is, and invite them to come live in it with me. And the more people I invite in, the more people follow them. The more noise you guys make, the easier it gets to put Masks out there for everyone.

Because, you see, none of this was my idea, really. I didn’t mean for anyone else to read the notebook. I didn’t think stories about superheroes would get me into grad school. I didn’t plan to write Masks as my thesis. But people kept finding me, and reading the stories, and bugging me for more. And I kept writing them, because it was fun for them and fun for me. Writing is still my very favorite thing to do, even the painful parts, and if I didn’t have an audience I would probably still be filling up notebooks for my own amusement somewhere. But because I do have an audience, I want to give them (you!) the best experience possible. I want to make you laugh and cry and fall in love. I want to tell stories that change people’s lives. I want to bless you, the readers I’ve met and the readers I haven’t, as much as you have blessed me.

Masks has given me the best friends ever and the best job in the world. I can’t wait to see what it will give you.

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