Friday, August 19, 2011

MASKS Commentary Track: Chapter 1

Hello, and welcome to the first installment of the commentary track for Masks! In these probably-weekly posts, I'll dissect all the hard work I do to entertain you over on PocketCoyote, offer a few tips for the aspiring writers out there, and generally make an idiot of myself. Which is exactly what commentary tracks are for, right? Right!

So here's how the commentary starts:
Beginnings are hard.

I have a bit of an obsession with openings. I compulsively re-read the chapter in Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing that deals with first words, first sentences, first paragraphs. A beloved high-school drama teacher used to tell me that, “As long as you have an opening and an ending, you have a show.” While that’s not strictly true of novels—people may sit through the dull middle of a play but they won’t slog through the dull middle of a novel—I have always tried to abide by his advice and provide bang-up beginnings and endings.

The first chapter of Masks came from several places. First off, I knew I had to introduce the character of Rae, and I'd have to go back to my original concept for the character. Waaaaayyy back when I started writing her as a pimply fourteen-year-old (long story), she was my idea of what it would take for a kid who didn't even have her driver's license, let alone superpowers, to become a hero. I had her inherit a costume and a name, and I gave her a bit of a secret in her past that would motivate her to jump off rooftops and punch Captain Catastrophe in the face. And while I've written her at many other stages of her career, I knew that this time I had to take her right back to that beginning--a scrappy teenage girl, making things up as she went along, zip-tying the bad guys to street signs. (Though she does have a driver's license this time, mostly because I had to cut the character who taught her to drive illegally. Ah, well, you can't have everything.)

The big goal with Rae in this chapter was to make her someone you guys could root for. I knew from experience that Trevor would provide all the angst and darkness and mystery and bad-boy appeal I could ever want, but it would be Rae’s job to carry the audience’s heart until Trevor softened up a little. In Masks, both Trevor and Rae become heroes—but only Rae starts out as someone you might actually want to talk to on the bus.

So I played up her nerves in this chapter, and borrowed a beloved moment from an earlier draft—the bit with the safety on the death ray, which my beta readers kept pointing out as the moment that won them over to Rae’s side. The moment also introduces the closest thing Rae has to a superpower—her ability to get into other people’s minds and understand how they think. She’s not a mind-reader or a shape-shifter, but she is uncannily good with people, mostly by instinct. Watch that brain of hers--it will get her into trouble before this story is through.

Second, I had to include the Masked Rider. This chapter introduces the Stetson-wearing angel of death himself! The Rider started out, years ago, as my homage to cowboy heroes in the comic books, and the fact that they all but died out with the arrival of the Silver Age superheroes in the early 1960s. Considering their roots in the pulps, and the dime novels before them, it made sense that death, to a superhero, might look like a masked horseman. He came in here because I needed to get rid of a lot of superheroes so that no one would wonder why the real heroes weren't stopping Rae from doing her thing. But the Rider’s a lot more than a simple omen of doom. Masks plays a lot with mythology, and you’ll see how he fits into our little modern myth. I needed his appearance to be brief and scary, and so I wrote it like I imagined most of his appearances would go from an outsider's point of view—he’s in and out, we never see everything he’s doing, but he scares the bejeezus out of everyone while he’s around.

Finally, I needed “The Wannabe” to be fun. I wanted a rollicking superhero adventure, a coming-of-age story for a very unusual girl, and just a bit of a scare for people who thought they knew how the tale was going to go. I knew there was plenty of darkness and trouble on the horizon in Chapter 2, so this chapter is all about what it’s like to be a superhero—the good parts and the bad, but mostly the good. There’s lots of running and tumbling and kicking people in the knee and making jokes at the expense of the bad guy, and a few moments of wonder mixed in with the terror. I really do think that’s what being a superhero would be like—exhausting, exhilarating, mysterious, and occasionally necessitating a change of underwear.

For this chapter, as for each chapter in the book, I have selected a song that connects to the content or the characters. (This may end up being the strangest Pandora playlist ever.) Since this chapter focused so closely on a rookie superhero, I’ve chosen “What If?”, from the filker Tom Smith’s excellent album The Last Hero on Earth.  Years ago, I wrote a Masks screenplay that used “What If?” as a superhero theme song, and I believe it still applies. Enjoy, and do check out the rest of the album if you like it—if you buy through Bandcamp, the money goes to Mr. Smith, not Steve Jobs.

Next time: Chapter 2, Trevor’s demons, and a little Social D.

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