Monday, November 28, 2011

Lessons from a fever

This picture has nothing to do with anything. It's just a favorite image of my friend and favorite opera singer, Amber Peters.
If this blog is a little strange, blame the cold medicine.

I woke up on Thanksgiving Day and, as usual, got to work helping my mom with the preparations. I didn’t drop the turkey this year or commit any of my usual holiday atrocities, but that’s mostly because I noticed, around midday, that I had an ache high in my throat that two mugs of  my favorite ginger tea couldn’t banish. Shortly after that, the dizziness and the aches arrived, followed by something that felt a lot like fever, though I’ve always been bad at noticing when I have one of those. By evening, I had what looked like white colonies on the inside of my throat, but a rapid strep test found no actual bacteria—it’s just one hell of a flu infection. Further evidence that God is an iron.

I should explain that last bit, shouldn’t I?

It’s stolen from a Spider Robinson book—from a short story, in fact, called “God is an Iron.” The reasoning goes like this: if someone who commits gluttony is a glutton, and someone who commits a felony is a felon, then someone who commits irony is …? Ah, I hear the groans of understanding.

The irony here is that I just put in my two weeks’ notice at a job I don’t particularly like, and ordinarily I wouldn’t feel too bad about calling in sick. But I did just submit my resignation, and now my sense of honor refuses to let me sit back and be sick. I don’t want to be one of those lazy people who puts in their two weeks and then stops caring about the job. This employer has treated me quite shabbily, and in some ways getting sick makes me feel like they were right about me. I am lazy.

Except I know I only get sick when I’m massively stressed and running myself into the ground. If I’m sick, I know the one thing I haven’t been lately is lazy.

Anyway, what’s sticking in my head this week—and what may interest you writers, and perhaps even me when my brain clears—is music. I’ve  never been a terribly musical person, mind you; I took voice lessons in college, and when I filled out the form explaining why a non-music major wanted to study singing, I remember writing in the blank, “So I will no longer be shushed in church.” You know your singing’s bad when little old ladies turn around to shush you during “Amazing Grace.”

But I do enjoy singing, at least when I’m by myself, and after two years of vocal instruction I can carry a tune, at least if I have a bucket. Among other things, I can harmonize pretty well; I have a relatively low mezzo-soprano voice that makes a good backup to a higher mezzo or a full-blown soprano. I’m sort of a natural bass line.

But with a sore throat, I can’t sing. I can barely talk, and breathing and swallowing become a chore, too. So I find myself listening to my favorite bands, especially the ones with distinctive lead singers and lots of harmony in the vocals, and wishing desperately that I could sing with them. Even though I normally don’t sing along with recordings unless I’m trying to write a story to their lyrics, something about not being able to sing makes me want to sing more than anything.

So there’s your story idea. Have you ever noticed that suddenly losing an ability makes you want to use that ability like crazy? You break your leg, and all you want to do is run, even if you’re a couch potato. You lose your command of a language, and suddenly the world is full of people speaking and writing in that language that you never noticed before, and it’s driving you crazy that you can’t understand them.

So what would happen, I wonder, if a character in such a situation suddenly regained that ability—but in a completely new and different way? Suppose I got my voice back, but it was someone else’s voice. Would I still want to sing? Would I sing the same songs? Or would I quit singing altogether because it wasn’t my voice anymore?

Something to think about. Perhaps when the fever subsides. 

And if you're weirded out by all this, then here's a sneak preview of the art for Wednesday's chapter. Now who could this be?

Friday, November 25, 2011

MASKS Commentary Track: Chapter 19

Well, what do you guys think of this one, huh? Tell me I surprised you at least a little. Go on, tell me. No, seriously, I’ll cry otherwise.

Oh, all right. This chapter is one of those points where the differences between Trevor’s point of view and Rae’s become really apparent. Trevor’s actions in the previous chapter made perfect sense to him, but to Rae they were absolutely crazy. And of course the explanation only makes the whole situation worse.

I enjoyed bending genres in this chapter. I deliberately wrote Rae creeping through the tunnels as if she were in a horror movie. One of the things that always intrigued me about superhero comics is the way they combined genres in utterly insane ways. They’d have team-ups between kung fu masters and wizards and secret agents and vampires and space aliens and cowboys and time travelers and God knows whatall else. You never knew when your favorite superhero would find himself in the middle of a horror movie, or a spy thriller, or a cosmic odyssey. And the superheroes mostly take it for granted that these things happen. So the horror overtones in this chapter were my way of reminding everyone that in a book with a ghost cowboy, a teleporting super-commando, a were-tiger and the last son of a dying planet all running around, anything can happen. And it usually does.

Moving on!

I know I’m going to get asked about this, so I’ll mention it now: the “artist’s impression” Rae mentions was planted waaaaayyy back in Chapter 5, when Rae was griping about her bad press. Yeah, I plan that far back. Anything can happen!

Once again, the conflict in this chapter comes down to whom you believe. We’ve seen in Trevor’s flashbacks that he’s haunted by the train bombing, but do we believe his version of events—that he screwed up—or Rae’s—that he’s a murderous terrorist? And do we believe Rae’s story about finding the Peregrine costume in a box, or do we think she had something to do with Jude’s disappearance? Don’t worry, we’ll get into all these issues in later chapters.

The Masked Rider makes another appearance in this chapter, but you might notice the change in Rae’s behavior—for the first time, instead of hiding from him, she tries to chase him down. I think this is the first scene where we see how reckless Rae’s capable of being. We know she’s scared of the Rider, but that doesn’t matter when someone she loves is at stake. She’s willing to literally chase after the angel of death. She doesn’t do the greatest job of it—there’s no way she’s going to catch that horse on foot—but this is a major turning point for Rae, and you’ll see how it affects her as we move into the last third of the book. This won’t be the last time she does something crazy because she’s run out of non-crazy options.

The next chapter gave me an interesting bit of trouble. I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but the chapters in Masks alternate points of view—Rae gets all the odd chapters and Trevor gets all the even ones. Trevor’s just been kidnapped by Cobalt, so the next chapter would logically show what happens to people after Cobalt takes them. But … well, what you see isn’t always what you get, okay? Just come back next Wednesday for a guest star you won’t forget …

This week’s soundtrack is “Reason to Breathe” by Acacia Sears. (Personally, I prefer the recording on her album, "Dialtones", but I couldn't embed it here.) Something about this song speaks to the misunderstanding between Rae and Trevor: “Couldn’t we please just try this again from hello? / Take back the history, make believe we just didn’t know …” 
Reason to Breathe

Monday, November 21, 2011

My own personal Justice League

So I got to shoot the cover for Masks on Saturday, and it was a hoot and a half.

First, we had to find a new site after my carefully orchestrated plan went awry—the friend who’d offered to let us use her spare room as a studio couldn’t be there to open the door for us, so we ended up at the brand-spanking-new apartment of a different friend who didn’t have any real furniture in the place yet, and therefore didn’t mind if we invaded for a while.

So here’s the merry band of lunatics who showed up to help me make my own book cover:

From left to right, we have Tammy, a licensed esthetician who volunteered her services as our makeup artist; Johanna, our model; Paul, Johanna’s friend and a combination videographer/lighting tech; and Heather, the long-suffering owner of the apartment who also ran a mean set of lights. And yes, they were all that excited to prove their nerd cred. Live long and prosper!

It was very much like being able to call on the Justice League, except their superpowers were more specialized and they could be bribed with dinner.

Tammy made Johanna look even more fabulous while Heather, Paul and I got the camera rig set up and laid out snacks for everyone. (I spent too much time as a journalist covering the entertainment industry not to realize the importance of a good craft service table. In this case, the goodies were limited to a basket of apples, a bowl of nuts and raisins, and a box of Cheez-Its, but everyone seemed pretty happy.) Then we all ran around moving lights and messing with cameras and a tripod and generally keeping up a constant stream of wisecracks, stopping only when we needed Johanna to look serious and we were making her laugh too hard.  After a couple of hours of that, we switched over to dinner, the primary bribe—roast chicken, steamed green beans, and French bread.


I mention the menu only so I can mention the dessert. Johanna gave me a coyote-shaped cookie cutter for my birthday back in September, and I’d been waiting more than two months to pull out my mom’s gingerbread recipe. Gingerbread coyotes are the best dessert ever!

You’ll be seeing a few of the images that came out of the shoot in the next few days—including the lucky one that ends up on the cover—but I think my favorite raw image from the session is this one, which we captured after we gave up on artificial light and opened Heather’s blinds. The light, reflected off storm clouds outside, is almost painterly. I’m quite taken with it.

And then, of course, Johanna loaded up her kit pouch with throwing stars and went out looking for Captain Catastrophe …

Friday, November 18, 2011

MASKS Commentary Track: Chapter 18


I’m going to say it one more time, for those who missed my snark on Facebook: This is Trevor’s Inigo Montoya moment.

Nobody who has seen or read The Princess Bride can forget the scene where Inigo, a fencing “wizard” who has trained all his life to kill the six-fingered man who murdered his swordsmith father, finally confronts his quarry and gets to say the words he has waited all his life to say: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” 

One of the things I most wanted to play with in Masks was the idea of revenge-driven heroes. A surprising number of heroes are motivated by either a desire for revenge or a desire to make sure that a past wrong is never repeated. That’s a great motivation—come on, it’s propelled The Punisher for nearly 40 years and Batman for more than 70. And there’s a reason—it really speaks to readers, and it makes the job easier for writers.

Let’s face it, we’ve all wanted revenge, and sometimes that revenge has been disproportionate to the offense. I hated the bullies who tormented me as a kid, and I wasn’t above meting out horrible fates to them in my fiction—usually accidentally, of course, since they hadn’t actually wronged my characters. There’s nothing that makes us quite as savagely happy as seeing the bad guy get his. And revenge is an easy plot for a writer of adventure stories; if the bad guy definitely did something terrible, you can cram in some really crackling action scenes, secure in the knowledge that no punishment you can devise is too severe for a murder/child molester/terrorist/etc. None of this namby-pamby business of reasonable doubt; if he murdered the hero’s girlfriend before his very eyes, the audience is totally fine with seeing that villain get blown into hamburger.

But by now, you might have figured out that I can’t leave things alone, especially when they’re easy things, and the superhero obsession with vengeance always interested me because superheroes, almost by definition, don’t rely on due process. When they’re right, they’re really, really right—but they can also be really, really wrong. Trevor gets a lot of the classic elements of superhero origin stories, including the quest for vengeance on behalf of a murdered mentor … but what if all the evidence pointed to the last person the readers would want to see hurt? And what if we couldn’t be sure whether Trevor was wrong about her, or we were? Remember, we’ve had flashbacks to Rae’s childhood friend who went missing, but we have only her word about how she came by the costume and what happened to the man who gave it to her. Trevor, meanwhile, came to Los Angeles hunting the man who had stolen Jude’s identity, and it’s been pretty clear all along that whoever is wearing that costume—the man Moon was tracking—is connected to Jude’s disappearance. Now Trevor, like Inigo, has finally come face-to-face with his quarry … and it’s the girl he loves. Whoops.

This, by the way, gives me the opportunity to invert another trope. In superhero comics, a girlfriend finding out the hero’s identity is very often a cue for her to get killed off or turned evil. Well, Rae’s not going down so easily, and if she’s evil, she’s been evil all along. So are we dealing with a tragic case of mistaken identity, or a stone-cold sociopath who’s been stringing our hero along while wearing the symbol of a man she murdered?

The answer is … I’m not going to tell you just yet. But don’t kill me, because next week’s chapter picks up about ten seconds after this one ends, and Rae and Trevor are about to have their first really big fight. And once again, there are surprises in store.

This week’s soundtrack is Mumford and Sons’ “Dust Bowl Dance,” with lyrics drawn from the John Steinbeck novel The Grapes of Wrath. It’s become a sort of personal soundtrack for me when I write vengeful characters whose quests for vengeance end in a very, very bad place. I think the end of the song might be how Trevor’s feeling about now …

Monday, November 14, 2011

Crazy. Impossible. Glorious.

The hardest part of writing is that you always want to be writing, but you always have to be doing something else. Even when the something else is nothing at all.

One of my favorite authors, Michael A. Stackpole, once said that he has a note stuck to his bathroom mirror reading, “Time is stolen.” The universe doesn’t give you time to write. Life doesn’t slow down for you to contemplate and find the perfect word. Someday you’ll write that great novel, but someday never comes. If you want to write—or do almost anything of importance, really—you have to steal time for it. Steal time from your friends. Steal time from your “real” work. Steal time from leisure. Steal time to write.

Steal time from yourself.

I’ve had about five books living inside me for the better part of a year. That’s not counting Masks; much as we’re all enjoying that novel, it’s basically a massive therapeutic exercise to get me back into writing after the sturm and drang that began 2011. But over the last couple of days, I’ve tightened my old seven-book outline for the Masks saga, getting it down to five—four now, since Masks is basically done. And then there’s The Novel.

I’ve never had a story hollow out a place inside me and fill it up in quite the way The Novel has done. I hope that’s a sign that I’m improving as a writer, that my work is becoming more real and more personal and more undeniably human. Then again, I’d be just as happy if The Novel simply turns out to be a once-in-a-lifetime, exceptional kind of book. And I’d be all right if I’m just crazy, too. But whether it’s a new level in my writing, a life’s work, or another symptom of my ongoing insanity, The Novel won’t leave me alone, and I’ve been putting it off for far too long. New ideas have been filtering in all year, and now every day I don’t write it is a day I ache.

But it frightens me.

I’m writing about this because I know there are teachers and students reading this blog from time to time. (Hello, Mr. Olson! Hello, Desiree!) I know some of you want to be writers, so I’m saying this because no one ever said it to me and I had to find it out for myself: Writing is scary. Having strange people move into your head and talk to you all the time? Freaky. Seeing flashes of impossible places that won’t leave you alone until you write them down? Terrifying. I’d think I was going insane if there weren’t a plot involved that I can set down on index cards.

Mostly, though, I find that every time I sit down to write, I’m scared I won’t be good enough.

It has been a long, hard year, a year of dead friends and dying dreams. And The Novel feels so big, so intimidating, that I almost hesitate to pick it up. If I can pull this off, it will be the best thing I’ve ever written, by far. But what if I can’t? What if I’ve stolen all this time—and it comes to nothing?

Here is a secret that your English teachers will never tell you, one that you will learn for yourself if you stick with this writing thing, or anything that matters. The secret is this: the things that matter are always scary. But you steal time for them anyway—that’s what makes you a writer. Every human being alive has at least one story or one song or one great work inside them, but the ones who actually tell and sing and do those things are the ones who spit in the eye of fear and do them in spite of their terror. That doesn’t mean they never second-guess themselves, or get knocked down for a while. It just means they never stay down, never surrender to the tyranny of reasonable voices. They go out and do things. Crazy, impossible, glorious things.

So I’m going to get off this blog now and go fight The Novel until we’re both bloody all over. Whether you’re participating in National Novel Writing Month or you’re just tinkering with an idea, I encourage you to do the same. And if you’ve got the same sneaky, reasonable voices in your head that I do—screw ’em. You read that right. What do they know, anyway? They’re the voices that tell you to eat your vegetables, for crying out loud. Are you going to let a few vegetables stand between you and your crazy, impossible, glorious thing? No. You’re going to do it. And we’ll be crazy, impossible, glorious people together.

Are you with me?

Friday, November 11, 2011

MASKS Commentary Track: Chapter 17

In my head, this chapter is labeled INVISIBLE CLOWN ATTACK. With the caps and italics. This is partly because I changed the title of the chapter about five times and partly because I just think invisible killer clowns are hilarious.

I honestly don’t remember how I decided that Tammy would distract people by screaming about invisible clowns. I don’t think the real Tammy suggested it directly, because it sounds just a bit more like something I’d do than like something she’d do—she might come up with the screaming, but I don’t think she has a particular thing about clowns. Well, actually she does, but only as it concerns my friend The Puppet, and he’s entirely visible. I think.

I really liked the way this chapter brought out the unexpected sides of all the characters involved. Tammy, who might have come across as a little thick in previous chapters, turns out to be smarter than anyone expects. Soleil, who’s been playing the bitchy mean girl for most of the story, shows her vulnerable side, and Rae, the perpetual bullying victim, expresses sympathy for someone who looks and acts a lot like one of her tormentors. Trevor’s not the only character with secret corners inside him, or skeletons in his closet, and that’s what this chapter is about. (Well, that and invisible clowns!)

But man, Trevor’s skeleton is pretty big!

Before I delve into Trevor’s secret, I’d like to acknowledge the contributions of perhaps the most useful reference book I own. It’s called Howdunit: How Crimes Are Committed and Solved, and I received a used copy as a gift a couple of years ago. The description of fingerprint analysis in this chapter comes directly from that book, in a chapter by Anne Wingate. If there’s a writer or an aspiring writer in your life, and his or her genre involves crime or police activity in any way, this is the best Christmas gift imaginable. Seriously. Go buy it. It’s also just plain fascinating.

As far as I can tell, this scene pretty accurately reflects how crime-lab technicians would process the bottle, and the results Soleil and Rae get (only one usable print from their “suspect”) are not a reflection of their limited skill; sometimes even the most careful analyst will get only a limited result. Of course, there’s another reason for Trevor’s lack of fingerprints, too, but we’ll get to that later. [Evil smile.]

So—Trevor’s secret! What did you guys think of that one, huh? I know Rae will need a little time to process it. This is, of course, the source of the snowy mountainside and the burning train seen in Trevor’s nightmare waaaaay back in Chapter 2, and in a few flashbacks since. Obviously he’s haunted by the events of that day, but exactly how he got there and why he did what he did … well, that’s a story for a later chapter. For now, suffice it to say that we haven’t seen all of Trevor’s secret past, but we’ve definitely unearthed something he’d rather leave buried. This book is called Masks for a reason; everyone’s hiding something, whether they know it or not. This is the first of Trevor’s really big secrets, and I hope it’s piqued your interest enough to bring you back next week, because another of Trevor’s secrets will be coming out then …

This week’s soundtrack was a no-brainer. Tom Smith wrote the best scary-clown song ever, so with no further ado, here’s “Coulrophobia”: