Monday, February 28, 2011

A (Non-Comic) Book You Should Be Reading

Hey, look, I finally got around to a book review!

I usually read about four books at a time. Partly it’s because I tend to lose track of them for an hour or so, leave them in the wrong bag, etc., and I can’t stand to be without reading material. Partly it’s because I always have a thing or two I’m trying to read for work and a thing or two I’m reading because I’m me. But mostly it’s because I can rarely settle down enough to read only one book on any given day. 

For the last month, Michael A. Stackpole’s In Hero Years … I’m Dead has been in my Now-Reading stack. Repeatedly. As in I finished reading it and then I went back to the beginning and started reading it again. For about a week in there, it occupied my attention almost exclusively. It’s just that much fun, and nothing else in the stack could compete with it. It’s the superhero novel I’ve been awaiting for 15 years. And it’s pretty much worth the wait.

In Hero Years … I’m Dead is, as far as I can tell, only Stackpole’s second published foray into the world of superhero fiction, and his first serious whack at the genre in a decade and a half. (Full disclosure: his 1995 superhero short story “Peer Review,” which you can buy here, got me into writing my own superhero stories, which eventually became Masks, so I’m hardly impartial.) But it’s worth the delay. Unlike the hipster superheroes who surface periodically and skewer the genre before melting back into the cooler-than-thou mainstream (I’m talking to you, Soon I Will Be Invincible!), In Hero Years takes superheroes at their word. Guys in capes exist; some of them are trying to help and some of them are not; but people are people whether or not they’re wearing spandex. The result is something Stackpole calls “superhero noir,” and it mostly works. 

The narrator of In Hero Years is a former superhero, a “Felix” (read: mere-mortal costumed hero with a bag of tricks instead of superpowers) who went by the name Coyote in his spandex days, though his real name is never revealed. After being held prisoner for twenty years by mysterious enemies, the narrator returns to his home in Capital City to find it dramatically changed. Where once heroes battled villains in the name of good, they now fight it out in a manner reminiscent of fantasy football or tabletop gaming. Villains leak their plans online and heroes bid for the chance to defeat them. More successful heroes and more colorful villains rise in the rankings and see more income from the sales of their memorabilia; television viewers at home get the ultimate in reality TV; and damage to the surrounding landscape and people is minimized. Best of all, citizens participate through fantasy “superfriends” leagues, winning small sums as their favorite heroes succeed. It’s an alien world to the narrator, not least because the media-centric nature of the rankings ensure that those great heroes of the past who didn’t get on TV much—including his aged mentor, Puma, now stricken with Alzheimer’s—are nearly penniless and all but forgotten. Puma’s poignant appearances in the story serve to underscore that something is rotten in Capital City. 

But the protagonist of In Hero Years may be too far out of the game to do much about it. Twenty years past his prime, trying to reconnect with his lost love and get to know the daughter he didn’t realize he had, he discovers how fragile his tenuous existence can be. In his hero days, he lived under a series of assumed names, keeping his real identity secret even from the reader for reasons that I won’t spoil here. Now that he has to build a solid life for himself, he discovers the ground beneath his feet is quicksand—and he’s sinking fast, as someone on the villainous side seems to still be out to get him. He has three goals, then—catch the bad guy, fix his life, and somehow set the world to rights again. The result is a winning combination of superheroic action, noirish mystery, and moving character-based drama. 

In Hero Years is not quite perfect, at least by my private standards for the genre. Stackpole is just a bit too fond of indulging in psychoanalysis of his characters, and the intriguing creation of “p-crud”, or post-costume rage disorder (a psychological syndrome common to former costumed heroes), doesn’t completely make up for the narrator occasionally sounding like he’s working through a twelve-step program instead of solving a mystery or rediscovering his family or returning justice to the world. Some of the social commentary may or may not age well, either, like the evil mastermind Dr. Sinisterion writing an O.J.-like hypothetical confession called If I Were A Supervillain, though it’s all fun for now. But even Stackpole’s wobbles have a history of surviving nicely (his Star Wars novel I, Jedi is still considered among the best of the series over a decade after its publication, despite a few dated references and a similar psychoanalytic indulgence), so it’s probably best to let him run and see where these characters take him. Besides, it’s far and away the closest I’ve seen to a truly brilliant original superhero novel. At its worst, it’s still great.

Mostly, In Hero Years delivers the goods, and any stumbles are minor ones. The hero is a charming rogue, surrounded by colorful and engaging friends, lovers, allies, and enemies; the world is well-drawn and believable; the plot gamely balances superheroics, detective work, and family drama, leavened with delightful moments of humor (watch for the description of superhero poker night). Best of all, the twists of plot and character keep coming like a good roller coaster, right to the novel’s end, when the hero is revealed to be—well, I won’t spoil it. But I reread this book for a month just to see how Stackpole built up that dramatic reveal, and I dearly hope we’ll see more of his nameless hero.

Which brings me to the one big drawback to In Hero Years … I’m Dead. It’s a self-published, electronic-only novel, available for download in EPUB format here. I dropped the extra dollar for the deluxe edition, which included an afterword by Stackpole about how he came to write the book and how he developed various aspects of it, and it appears he tried for several years to get it published conventionally. Despite his status as a New York Times bestselling author, all deals fell through, and he finally decided to run the project up the online flagpole and see who saluted. Most of the wobbles in the book (including more typographic errors than I’m used to, though not enough to be really distracting) would probably be cleaned up by the attention of a professional editor, and so I join the author in hoping that a little online attention will help In Hero Years … I’m Dead finally see print in dead-tree format.

Especially because I don’t actually own an e-reader. Or a smartphone, or any other device optimized for the reading of electronic novels. I read the entire 700-page book on my laptop. I can’t say it’s my favorite way to experience books, but the free chapters Stackpole posted online were irresistible, and I’m a couple of years, a more steady job, and the conclusion of the format wars away from being able to purchase a dedicated electronic reader of my own. And so I made do with the EPUB and some e-book freeware, and it says something that this book held up so well under some fairly adverse conditions. 

One note on the two versions of the book available: the deluxe edition, which includes that afterword, is worth the extra buck for aspiring writers and anyone who really loves their DVD special features. If you’re the sort who just watches the movie and leaves the bonus disc in the box, you have my permission to go for the standard version with a clear conscience. Either way, you’re getting a ripping good yarn and the author’s getting several bucks per copy of his opus, as compared to the 50 cents or so he gets every time you buy one of his conventional paperbacks from Amazon. And he’s suggested before that books that sell more e-copies through his website will spawn sequels, so this is an excellent opportunity to vote with your dollars. 

I can’t wait to see what this Felix gets up to next …

Monday, February 21, 2011

The end, for now.

When I was nine years old, I entered a spelling bee and made an unpleasant discovery.

It was my second bee. At eight, I won first place in the local second-grade bee. It was my only extracurricular activity; being relatively friendless and spending all that time in libraries, I read so much that I couldn’t help knowing how words were spelled. The spelling-bee nerds were already at the bottom of the school’s social ladder, so they lost no face by being seen with me, which was a bit like having a social circle, especially with the coach encouraging me. And I found winning relatively easy, and liked it, so I accepted an invitation to enter the third-grade bee the following year.

The night before the bee, I went to bed feeling a little more tired than usual. I woke up the next morning with horrible stomach cramps, but there was no way I was going to miss the competition, and besides, the house rule was that if you were well enough to walk to the front door, you were well enough to do whatever you had to do on the other side of it. I could walk, albeit slowly, so I went to school.

I made it all the way through my first class of the day before I threw up on the floor of the school chapel. A teacher told me I was just nervous about the spelling bee that afternoon, and didn’t believe me when I told her that I wasn’t nervous at all. So I got into some parent’s car and was driven to the nearby site of the bee.

By the time the first round was over, I had to raise my hand and ask to be excused to go to the bathroom. Soon I was fleeing the room after every round, vomiting or passing diarrhea, and the grown-ups running the bee started sending proctors into the bathroom with me to make sure I wasn’t hiding spelling lists in the stall.

You see, every time I staggered back into that room and was given a word to spell, I spelled it correctly. Sometimes I swayed in place or doubled over when I was done, but I always spelled the word right.

In my memory, the day is a blur. I don’t remember a single word I spelled, only the black-and-white tile pattern on the bathroom walls and my fierce determination that I was not going to wash out on a technicality, not on the one thing I was any good at. My mom seemed to understand; while she never pushed me to keep spelling, she supported my choice every time I made it. And so after every round, regardless of whether I’d passed blood or heaved air into the toilet because there was nothing left in my stomach, I hauled my nine-year-old self upright and shuffled painfully back to that room and kept on spelling.

Shortly after they handed me the first-place trophy, I finally let my mom rush me to the emergency room, where assorted medical professionals yelled at us both for letting me get so dehydrated and not coming in sooner. I showed up at school the next day to show that teacher the trophy and the note from an ER doctor saying that I had a stomach virus and a lethal case of stubbornness.

I still have that golden-bee trophy, plus its twin from the year before; I use them as bookends. I’m looking at them as I type this, and remembering the lessons I learned that day.

First, I learned that I was some kind of bloody-minded psychopath when it came to getting something that really mattered to me. That was always a short list of somethings, but it was good to know that I was that disturbingly stubborn about the contents of that list. It made me keep a close eye on the list, lest I waste that suicidal stubbornness on an unworthy goal.

Second, I learned that the fact that a task is difficult, or even painful, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I hadn’t exactly been a quitter before, but now I knew that sometimes, if you just worked hard enough and thought fast enough and endured enough pain, good things could happen. Sometimes it was just a question of whether the good things were worth it.

With lessons like that, you’ve pretty much figured out this blog entry is bad news, haven’t you?

For the billionth time, I can’t tell you everything that’s going on with Masks … except to say that, at least for now, the book is dead. Some very promising leads have dried up, and barring a miracle, it doesn’t look like Rae and Trevor are going to see print anytime soon.

First and foremost, I want to tell you guys how sorry I am about that.

No, really. I think I may have the most astonishingly loyal and selfless fanbase in the world. The fact that, between MySpace and Facebook, over 1,000 people have signed up to support a novel that doesn’t even have a publisher—that maybe a half-dozen of them have read, in any form, ever—just blows me away. It makes me feel like I’m fifteen again and getting my first fan letter—who the hell am I to be attracting all this attention? I’m just goofing around having fun over here, and I’m sharing the fun because people asked nicely and it seemed the polite thing to do. And so I feel absolutely horrible to come before you now and tell you that the long-promised book is not going to materialize.

I wish I could hand you guys the book right now to read, for free. In fact, until recently, I had planned to serialize Masks on the Web if I couldn’t find a publisher, just because I didn’t want to leave you guys hanging. It’s what I did with the original stories, all those years ago, and I was happy doing it then because I was telling stories I liked and giving people a little joy. That alone is reason enough for me to write.

But, er, remember the lessons of the spelling bee?

Here, briefly, is the reason Masks has died: it’s not quite good enough. After four or five major top-to-bottom rewrites, trying to incorporate every set of notes under the sun—get rid of this character, bring them back, have one protagonist, have two, use this villain or that one, bring in these themes and toss those out—I couldn’t quite get all the disjointed pieces to fit together. When I was growing up in the South Bay, near the old aerospace factories, I used to hear the saying, “Beat to shape, trim to fit, paint to match.” Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that approach works … but when you do it the hundredth time, you often destroy your aircraft’s structural integrity. The major criticism of Masks, ultimately, was that it wasn’t “organic”, that the pieces no longer worked together as they should. I have been told I am a very good writer, good enough that I almost made it work … which is apparently very impressive all by itself. But I didn’t make it work, not quite, and ultimately publishers are no longer in the business of taking almost-but-not-quite-perfect books and trying to make them perfect.

Most people outside the publishing industry who have read Masks, including some Hollywood producers who got the manuscript by accident (long story, and it really was an accident), think it’s phenomenal. But I don’t want to write a screenplay, at least not yet. I want to write a novel. And I want to make it the best novel I can possibly make it, the kind of novel you guys deserve after waiting so long and so patiently for me to tell you this story. I want to write the kind of book that will curl up in your heart and keep it warm for years to come, the kind that never leaves you. I want to write something worthy of your support. And I want it as badly as I wanted that spelling-bee trophy in third grade, and for the same reason—this is the only thing I’m really good at, and there is just no point in using your one gift to do things half-assed.

So I am going to do the hardest thing I can imagine. Harder than passing blood, or spelling words when the only thing my mouth wants to do is vomit. Harder, even, than giving up on the book that has broken my heart, harder than digging a hole and burying it and moving on to more promising projects.

I am going to wait.

Right now, I have another project on the front burner, and it’s attracted a fair amount of interest. It’s a science-fiction story, both the darkest and the most joyous thing I’ve ever written, and intimately personal to me. It’s also—and I say this as someone who hates speaking ill of any project she’s worked on for more than a decade—quite a lot better than Masks. I have been advised to pursue this project, which is considered more saleable, for now. I love writing it, and I think it has great potential. You’ll hear more about it in the coming weeks.

And eventually—maybe after this book, maybe after the next, maybe a few years from now when I’ve learned enough to properly execute an idea as ambitious as Masks—I will come back to the world of Rae Masterson and Trevor Gray, and I will get it right. I will start again from the beginning, and I will use the lessons I’m learning now to write that book that will move into your heart and take up residence. And when it’s right, you’ll get to read it. I’m working on developing the maturity and the perspective to recognize right when it finally comes along, and while I’ll understand if you’re not willing to wait around indefinitely for a story you’ve never seen, I will do my best to make that story worthy of those who stay. And I promise that you’ll get to see it when the time does come, regardless of whether a mainstream publisher wants to take a chance on it.

I’ve tried a few times to quit writing Masks stories, but in 13 years I haven’t been able to do it. Perhaps I never will. Every story I write has a little fragment of my soul in it, but Masks has great heaping chunks. I go off to write other things and pursue other interests, and I never give it less than my full effort, but somehow Rae and Trevor never really leave me.

I don’t quit. I take occasional sabbaticals, but I do not quit. If it matters enough, I go back in that room and I keep on spelling. And this matters to me more than anything else I’ve ever written, not least because it matters so much to you guys.

So this blog will keep going. Some of the entries and videos will disappear, because they won’t be accurate anymore to whatever Masks will eventually become. The stories will go away, too, to be replaced by something better. I will wait for the wounds to scar over before I pick myself up and get back into the fight. And once the scarring’s done, from time to time, you will see little bits of what the world of Masks is turning into. Maybe there will be artwork, maybe a scene or a short story, maybe just a little fragment of something. I may ask for your opinions sometimes, and when I do that I’m asking for your real opinions, not your support (unless you believe the matter in question deserves that support).

You won’t see those fragments anytime soon. The current book, and the next book, and the others, will have to take priority for now. But difficult is not impossible. Painful is not insurmountable. I am a better writer now than I was when I started Masks, and if I keep practicing my craft and honing my skills, I have no reason to think I won’t improve still more. And I make you this promise now—when you do get to read Rae’s and Trevor’s story, whatever form it eventually takes, it will be worth the wait. It’ll be a thousand times better than almost-but-not-quite-perfect. I’ll do my best to earn your continued support with assorted interesting bloggery, and when the time comes, I will justify your faith with a book that’s worthy of all the time you’ve spent on it.

I hope you’ll stick with me until then.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day!

I'm having to run silent for a while longer, but I hope to be back soon. Until then, a mutant plush toy sends you his regards ...