Thursday, October 6, 2011

MASKS Commentary Track: Chapter 11

This was an incredibly fun chapter to write. I got into writing superhero stories in part for the challenge, and my favorite sort of superhero challenge was the mismatch. How could I take a massively underpowered hero and make him win out over a much more powerful opponent? And because that’s exactly what Rae does in this chapter, this chapter is one of my favorites. It doesn’t hurt that it practically wrote itself.

The idea for this confrontation had been kicking around in my head pretty much from the moment I figured out that Rae would initially have an adversarial relationship with Tammy and Soleil. As soon as Tammy made that thoughtless remark about Rae changing out of her “grubbies,” I knew I had to throw these characters into a physical fight, and I needed a dramatic location for that fight, preferably one that would appear to give the advantage to the more powerful characters but would actually benefit Rae. So I stole a real-life location.

I attended three different colleges before I finally got my bachelor’s degree (but I managed to do it within four years, so—points!). The school from which I eventually graduated, the University of Southern California, serves as a rough model for the layout of Walker University, except when I feel like deviating. One of the more interesting features of USC, at least to me when I was a student there, is a grove of trees called Founders Park. The grove supposedly contains a tree from every state in the Union, except Arizona, which, according to legend, sent a cactus. I don’t think there are actually enough trees in the grove for that to make sense at any point in history after the school’s founding, but it’s a nice little shady spot to eat lunch and get menaced by squirrels the size of cats. I also once saw a coyote-like stray dog evading campus police in the grove by pretending to belong to various students; it would curl up under a bench and look adoringly up at a student eating a sandwich, then attach itself to someone else when that student finished eating and left.

I spent a lot of time in Founders Park as an undergraduate because it was between the journalism building and the offices of the classics department, so I knew the paths well and knew the place could be unusually spooky at night. I also knew the greenery could hide surprisingly large animals, since I’d been surprised one morning by a huge German shepherd that had been completely concealed by a single scraggly-looking bush. I added a few extra trees to my mental map of Founders, removed a couple of lampposts, and set Castigan Hall where the classics offices would have been. Voila—instant set.

I’m particularly proud of Rae pepper-spraying Soleil. It’s an homage to the first superhero story I ever read, Michael A. Stackpole’s “Peer Review,” in which the hero, Revenant, takes down a superhero named Glacier by blasting him in the face with sticky cardboard wadding, thus obscuring his vision, and then hits him with half a pound of black pepper, causing convulsive sneezing. Soleil’s smarter than Glacier and would dodge a cloud of pepper, so I went with pepper spray and had Rae deploy it while Soleil was in midair. I don’t care how good your feline reflexes are; you can’t change direction in the middle of a parabolic arc. As for Tammy running into the tree—well, let’s just say I saw a lot of distracted students on cell phones who didn’t look where they were going.

Then there’s how Rae gets Tammy and Soleil on her side. Because this chapter is the first one to appear after the six-week gap for Rae’s training, I wanted to show how Rae had changed and how she’d remained the same. The scene was already a lock for demonstrating Rae’s newfound fighting prowess, but her negotiation with Soleil and Tammy is where we see how she’s grown up as a character. From now on, Rae will be much better at getting into her opponents’ heads and figuring out how other people think and feel. She’ll also be better at using that against them, though, so watch out! If she can use Tammy’s and Soleil’s desires to become full-fledged capes to get herself out of a jam, she can easily get herself into a jam the same way. And like most people with a knack for talking their way out of trouble, she’s liable to think her gift is the answer to everything … right up until it isn’t.

Gee, that wasn’t cryptic at all, was it?

This chapter’s soundtrack is a little strange, but it fits in my strange brain. About halfway through writing and revising the chapter, I realized that I was writing a Wile E. Coyote cartoon—from the Roadrunner’s point of view. So naturally, the soundtrack has to be Tom Smith’s timeless paean to that great American chump—er, hero. I give you “Operation: Desert Storm.” Say it with me: “I’ll get that roadrunner if it’s the last thing I do!”

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