Thursday, December 6, 2012

Masks Holiday Sale!

In addition to the book, I'll throw in bookmarks and buttons and other goodies.
The coyote mug, however, is mine.
It’s almost Christmas, and I am officially neck-deep in writing Volume 2 and finishing that Christmas surprise story for y’all … so why don’t you guys have some fun without me and buy some cheap books?

That’s right, Pocket Coyote is having its first-ever holiday sale! Through the end of the year, all signed copies of Volume 1 are $15.00 (as compared to $19.48 if you buy direct from the printer). It makes a great gift for the YA reader in your life, or anybody who likes superheroes … or mythology … or sarcasm … or really bad watercolors. I’m all about value.

For those of you who may have forgotten, the 412-page Volume 1 paperback includes not just all 32 chapters of Masks Volume 1, but also an essay about how Masks came to be, a feature on how I did the illustrations, the Hawkins Foundation’s secret files on a bunch of the characters, and an all-new short story, “The Missing,” which takes place between Volumes 1 and 2 and will never be published anywhere else. If you buy the book through Pocket Coyote, it also comes signed and personalized (that means I write in the recipient’s name and the brief message of your choosing—anything that’s unlikely to get me arrested, sued, or punched in the face). Once you’ve ordered, I’ll send you an email asking you for your preferred autograph text. Make sure you spell everybody’s names right; I will copy your spelling precisely, and you will be embarrassed if it’s wrong.

All books ship via U.S. Priority Mail, which means they get there within a couple of days if you live in the continental U.S. Unfortunately, Priority Mail shipping has gone up to $5.30, but if you order two books, I’ll refund your shipping costs on the second one. If you order three or more books, you’ll be the best reader ever and I’ll refund all shipping costs beyond whatever it costs to actually throw the books in the mail. I’ve never had to work this out before because nobody’s ever ordered more than two books at a time from me before; I encourage you to be the first person to give me this problem.

The package will also include a random assortment of Pocket Coyote goodies, including any or all of the following: signed bookmarks, handmade buttons, and goofy sketches I drew in the middle of the night while drinking too much tea. All of these make great stocking stuffers, unless of course I’ve had way too much tea.

That's a penny to show how thick the paperback is. 412 pages! With pictures!
You can order the books here. And whatever you’re celebrating this December, I hope you’ll enjoy having Rae and Trevor over to celebrate with you.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Let the (reading) circle be unbroken …

Like him? He’s my gorgeous new neighbor! He lives in the trees near my new place, and a few days ago he fluttered down onto the railing of the footbridge out front for a visit. According to one of my featherless neighbors, he and a particular squirrel have kind of a coyote-and-roadrunner thing going on, so I’ve nicknamed him Wile E. I don’t know his species. Bird nerds, a little help?

We now return you to your regularly off-schedule blog entry …

Recently, a friend of mine mentioned that she was setting up a reading circle for a novel she’d written. For those of you who aren’t up on this kind of thing, a reading circle is a group of people who read a manuscript before the pros or the general public sees it. They make notes and suggestions to help the author improve. I’ve run quite a few circles in my time, and participated in many more, but my friend hadn’t really done this before, so I offered her the system I use. And then it occurred to me that I don’t think I’ve blogged about that system, so here you go.

I like to have a mix of perspectives in my reading groups—male and female, young and old, with a range of interests that are still likely to overlap with the subject matter in some way. Basically, I try to cover as much of my probable audience as I can. And I make a particular point of including artistic professionals (other writers, and usually at least one musician or visual artist) who know how to give professional feedback. However, I also make a point of including civilians, preferably at least one of whom has no prior experience with my manuscript. That person goes in cold, with no idea how the story or the characters will develop, to act as a kind of barometer for the reaction of an uninformed reader.

Of course, the civilians—especially the noob or noobs—often don’t know how to give feedback. Their idea of constructive criticism was probably formed around third grade, and perhaps not used since. They often have trouble articulating their opinions, so I get unhelpful notes in my margins saying things like “This scene sucks” or “[name of character] should be taller.” (I’m not kidding—somebody actually wrote that last one once.) And if the civilian readers realize their feedback is unhelpful, many of them stop giving it entirely. Then I get notes like “Yay!” and “Good job!” because they’re scared to criticize me.

To that end, I give you the modified Sol Stein system of critical notation for amateurs. I stole it from Sol Stein, of course, the author of Stein on Writing and How to Grow a Novel, but I added my own special twist.

Stein’s system is simple: have a largeish group of readers (I find six is a good number) and ask them to make, at minimum, two kinds of marks on the manuscript: a check mark beside bits they like and an X beside bits they don’t. I add to this one sophistication: a sad face or frownie next to any bit the reader finds boring or confusing. (Most readers quickly come up with the idea of repeating the marks for emphasis when they really like or dislike something. This is fine.) If the reader can add a note explaining why a particular bit is good, bad, boring or confusing, and perhaps how to fix it, so much the better—but it’s not absolutely necessary.

The goal here is lots of data. If one person triple-checks a particular passage and three other people triple-X it, I know that’s a love-it-or-hate-it (mostly hate it) part. If anybody marks a frownie, I know to give that part extra attention because it bored or confused somebody and I can’t afford to let that slide. And here’s the important part—if one particularly articulate reader writes a long comment describing the virtues or failings of a particular passage, but a number of less articulate readers mark that passage differently with checks and Xs, I know I may be dealing with a matter of the articulate reader’s taste. The fact that one reader can write an eloquent comment and the other three can’t doesn’t give the eloquent reader’s opinion any extra weight.

That’s the advantage of this system—it keeps the writer from listening exclusively, or primarily, to the most polished voice. I know how important this is, because I’ve been that voice in many circles and writing groups. I’m an editor in my dayjob; I know how to give feedback and make it sound brilliant. And while I flatter myself that I’m fantastic at editing nonfiction manuscripts, screenplays, and everything under the sun, very occasionally I can read a friend’s manuscript and, because it’s my friend and I think I know him or her better than I do, completely mistake the direction they were trying to take. And then I give bad advice.

I don’t think I’ve ever been stupid enough to suggest something as ridiculous as adding more fight scenes to a romance novel or more wizards to a science-fiction story. My mistakes, when I make them, are small. But I remember the lesson of the early Masks reader—a grad student in writing who usually gave excellent advice—who told me with a straight face that the book would be so much better if I’d just have it turn out at the end that Rae was not a superhero but a mental patient with an elaborate fantasy life.

I still remember the stunned blinking of the other writers in the circle as I stared at the young woman and asked, just to make sure, “You mean I should have it turn out that it was all a dream?

“Yes,” she said. “That would be a great twist.”

After a long pause, the professor leading the discussion gave me an exasperated look and called on someone else for notes.

Even professional readers can make mistakes, and the opinions of “normal,” non-professional readers matter just as much as those of highly articulate pros—more, in some ways, because most real-world readers aren’t pros. Professional feedback is great for finding weaknesses that average readers won’t spot, things that will kill the story later on, and it’s wonderful for actually showing writers how to fix problems. But pros have their pet peeves and hobbyhorses too, and they’re better at disguising them as legitimate criticism. You can’t afford to mistake someone’s personal crusade against unicorns for a reason to never, ever write a story about a unicorn. Maybe all the normal people—the ones who will be buying your book—actually like unicorns. You won’t know unless you listen to a wide range of viewpoints.

So get those normal people into your group. Teach them the way of checks and Xs and frownies. You just might find something better than your dream ending …

Monday, November 19, 2012


Notebook page reading: This is me, blogging the old-fashioned way ...
I moved a week ago, and I’m still adjusting to the new place. The commute to work is longer half the time, but on the plus side, the other half of my job now has me getting paid to write books from my apartment. (No, not novels—boring grown-up books about grown-up subjects. Still, it’s money for writing, and the work is interesting. Yay.)

So while I’m unpacking boxes and reorganizing my book collection (priorities!), here are two news items.

The first is … I have very good reason to believe that I’ll have a nifty Christmas present for y’all. Perhaps the niftiest thing I have ever done. You see, I began writing Masks all those years ago in part because I was thinking about a career in comic books, but a) I had no idea how to write a comic script and b) at the time, there basically weren’t any women writers in the industry (the list, as far as I knew, began with Ann Nocenti and ended with Louise Simonson … and Simonson hardly counted because she always seemed to co-write with her husband Walt) and I was pretty sure there was some kind of law against it. Plus, I couldn’t draw, which I thought would somehow be a major impediment to a career as a comic-book writer. So I applied myself to short stories and novels, because women obviously wrote those, at least sometimes.

Now, however … now, I just might have a little comic book for you guys. My first-ever comic script, drawn and inked and everything.

No details yet. But it’s coming along nicely, the art is stellar (not mine), and the artist says it’ll be ready for posting by Christmas if I can do the lettering. Oh, and it’s a Masks story.

Yeah, I need to work on my lettering.

The other piece of news is that sitting in a quiet room and tapping away on grown-up books is making me itchy for my non-grown-up books. I was a little burned out on the Masks-verse, to be honest, with all the pressure building up from the personal-lifey things that prompted me to move house in the first place. But now I have a little breathing room, and I find I miss my friends.

The first draft of the first grown-up book goes to the client today, gods willing. After which I’ll have at least a couple of days of needing something else to scratch my writer’s itch. And I keep hearing a conversation in my head between Trevor and the Masked Rider, one where the cowboy’s got an unexpected message to deliver …

More chapters soon? I would like that. And I think you would too.

Comics coming. Chapters coming. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. (And if you’re outside the United States, happy random week in November.)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Big news!

I've got a ton of stuff to do, so I'll be brief--

I'm moving!

First time in about ten years, so there is a LOT of packing to do. Updates as I get them ... but this should be a very good thing for Masks and other things you guys love ...

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A superhero primer (without Watchmen)

Recently, a friend of mine decided that she wanted, at long last, to get into superhero comics. Just because she hadn’t grown up with them, she told me, was no reason to discard an entire genre. Where would I suggest that she start?

About five minutes later, when I came around from my faint …

Where should she start? Where should she start? The first thing to pop into my head was, “Oh, God, don’t let anyone say Watchmen.” I’ve heard way too many comic fans sing the praises of Alan Moore’s admittedly seminal graphic novel, and seen way too many copies thrust into the hands of unsuspecting neophytes. Those are the neophytes who don’t come back. No matter how many bestseller lists Watchmen makes, no matter how many awards it wins, Watchmen is a terrible place to start reading superhero comics. Watchmen is about taking all the tropes and devices of superhero comics and turning them upside down and inside out. It is, in a very real way, the destruction of superhero comics. I’ve long believed that Alan Moore actually hates his own genre, and that Watchmen is a major proof of this.

So after some thought, I decided to write this blog entry—for her, and for anyone else who eventually decides they need a starting point that isn’t Watchmen.

There are, as I see it, three major approaches. You can begin with the basics of the genre—something that will teach you the rules of the game and why the fans love it. Or you can pick a character you already like, or think you might like, and use that character as a guide to comicdom. Or you can just jump into any story that strikes your fancy. Any of these approaches will do. For the record, I entered comics by method two—I saw Daredevil on the Fantastic Four cartoon, liked him, found some of his old comics in a box in the back of a used bookstore, and never looked back. I got deeper into comics by using method three on my local library’s collection of graphic novels. But your results may vary, so do as you please. What follows is a list of likely titles for anyone wanting to use one of those three methods.

Method One: Begin with the basics. For this approach, you want a story that will give you a strong sense of how superhero stories work—what you can expect of heroes and villains and everything else. To my mind, there’s no better primer for this method than Astro City. Kurt Busiek’s multi-award-winning series, published most regularly in the 1990s but still coming out now from time to time, is a love letter to superhero comics and everything we love about them. Using a cast of strange yet familiar heroes—the Superman-like Samaritan, the Batmanesque Confessor, even the Spider-Man-like Crackerjack and Jack-in-the-Box—the series explores “what else happens” while those familiar adventures are going on.

In the very first story, “In Dreams,” Samaritan goes about his usual day, switching between his secret and superheroic identities, fighting bad guys, accepting awards from a grateful citizenry … all while harboring a secret. You don’t find out until the end of the story what that secret is, and how it informs his life as a superpowered crimefighter, but I dare you to read the ending without a smile. The story covers every major superhero trope while remaining surprisingly original.

Similarly, the second volume in the series, Confession (one of my favorite graphic novels of all time and a major influence on Masks), follows a boy who comes to the big city to become a hero and gets more than he bargains for. This book does a great job of subtly teaching the lessons of the superhero genre, this time from a sidekick’s point of view (the boy learns things like how street-level heroes actually investigate crimes, what sidekicks really do, and what motivates the typical supervillain) while keeping its focus on the relationship between the boy and his mentor. I dare you to read this story without crying. That’s how Astro City works—it relies on your knowledge of superhero tropes, and reminds you how they work as it goes along, so that it can tell real, moving, human stories. Superhero comics at their finest.

Method two: Follow a character. The trick here is to find a good story featuring a character you like. Sometimes you can luck out by walking into a comic-book store and asking a friendly employee, “Can you point me to a good beginner story about ____?” But if you haven’t got a comic-book store, or the employees aren’t friendly, here are some starting points.

DC Comics does a pretty good job with its origin stories, and that’s always a good place to jump on with a beloved character. The recent Superman: Earth One by J. Michael Straczynski, which portrays a young Clark Kent arriving in Metropolis and trying to figure out what he’s going to do with his life (luckily an alien invasion comes along to help him with that), is a terrific jumping-on point for readers who want a 21st-century approach to that hero. It introduces the central characters (Clark, Lois, Perry, Jimmy, Ma and Pa, etc.) and the fundamentals of their relationships, and still leaves time for smashing alien death machines. (I also recommend Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright, for similar reasons.) 

If you’re looking for Batman, I’m afraid he hasn’t fared as well in recent years, but Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Batman: The Long Halloween and Batman: Dark Victory do a good job of picking up just after Batman’s origin and setting up his relationships with most of his supporting cast. They’re also part of the source material for Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, so if you enjoyed those movies, you could do a lot worse.

Marvel Comics isn’t as origin-focused, but you can still find good entry-level stuff for most of their popular characters. If you enjoyed Thor, I recommend Langridge and Samnee’s Thor: The Mighty Avenger. It’s a terrific collection of lighthearted adventures set during Thor’s early days on earth, and has a great balance of humor, domestic drama, and smashing frost giants in the face. Likewise, Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man does a great job of retelling a lot of classic Spidey tales with a modern sensibility, and it heavily informed the Sam Raimi movies (including the early ones that sucked less).

Going back to the Avengers, if you enjoyed the Black Widow in The Avengers, you could do worse than pick up Paul Cornell’s Black Widow: Deadly Origin, which handily covers the character’s complicated history (both as a hero/villain and in a series of romances with other heroes). The best Hawkeye stories, by far, are those currently coming out of Matt Fraction and David Aja in their Hawkeye monthly series. Alas, I don’t have a lot to recommend on the Hulk and Iron Man fronts—not because there aren’t any good stories out there but because I don’t follow those characters closely and therefore don’t have any good recommendations. 

There’s a lot of good stuff on Captain America, of course, but the best of it will show up in the next section. For now, I recommend Captain America: Red White and Blue, a collection of short comic stories by various artists. You should find something in there to suit almost any taste. And if you’re a fan of the X-Men movies, try the various X-Men: First Class titles, including Wolverine: First Class, which has nothing to do with the recent stupid film. (It’s actually a hilarious buddy comedy featuring Wolverine and his sidekick—a 13-year-old mutant girl named Shadowcat. Weirdly, it’s still a great jumping-on point.)

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Daredevil: Yellow, about the first year of that character’s career (during which he wore a yellow costume, hence the title). It’s the most lighthearted and touching treatment of Daredevil’s origins I’ve ever read, not least because it’s written as a love letter to the hero’s first love interest, now dead at the hands of a supervillain. There’s a sweetness and an innocence to Yellow that makes it a perennial favorite of Daredevil fans, and popular with anyone who enjoys a good romantic comedy with superhero trappings.

Method three: Jump into a story. If you’re not too worried about getting all the previous continuity straight, you might try just jumping into any story that looks good. Superhero comics actually cover a lot of ground, genre-wise—you can easily find good mystery, fantasy, science-fiction and romance stories, to say nothing of the occasional Western and lots of thrillers. A useful guide here is either that friendly comic-shop employee or, sometimes, a list of awards. Usually each year’s Eisner Awards (comicdom’s equivalent of the Oscars) include at least one story worth reading. Check out the awards for best limited or continuing series, best writer, and so on for your best candidates. Then hit up Amazon and read a few descriptions until you find something intriguing. Or just see the list below.

If mystery’s your thing, you might try Peter David’s excellent X-Factor series, about a detective agency staffed by mutants, including former X-Men. Its narrator, a mutant with the ability to create duplicates of himself (and therefore a man with a chronic identity crisis), has a serious case of Raymond Chandler envy, and the results are well worth it as the series covers everything from alternate universes to Norse gods to the question of which duplicate fathered a certain female cast member’s baby. With wacky volume titles like The Invisible Woman Has Vanished, you know you’re in for something strange and wonderful. Start with the first volume, The Longest Night, and watch for Layla Miller, a troubled 13-year-old girl whose mutant power appears to be that she “knows stuff” … which sounds stupid until you find out why she unscrewed the taps from the upstairs bathroom and ordered from three pizzerias at once.

For a good espionage thriller, you’re best off starting with Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America, which heavily informed the recent movies. (I didn’t list it in the previous method because it’s just a bit too complicated at the beginning to make a real primer.) The story centers on Cap’s work with Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D., but it quickly goes zigzagging off through his World War II adventures and some very modern arcs involving espionage and international terrorism. Begin with the first story arc, The Winter Soldier, and see if you’re hooked by the time it wraps up.

Then there are stories and runs of issues that just stand alone really well, even if they’re not designed as jumping-on points. There’s J. Michael Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man, which manages to balance some of the most human Spidey drama ever (including the issue where Aunt May finally finds out how Peter spends his nights) and some fairly cosmic bad guys who will completely rearrange what you think you know about Spider-Man’s origins. The run has some of the best Spidey humor I’ve ever read, too, including a delightful rant about why Spider-Man doesn’t have pockets in his costume. To this day, I can’t hear someone pulling Velcro apart without wanting to giggle.

Brian K. Vaughan’s Runaways is about a group of teenagers who run away from home after they discover their parents are all supervillains. Think The Outsiders crossed with The X-Files and a heaping dose of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Start with the first volume, Pride and Joy, and feel free to steal lines like, “We’re like one of those multiethnic gangs that only robs people in bad movies!”

Going back to Straczynski—if you liked the movie Thor, you’ll probably love his run on the character. Start with Volume 1 (search Amazon for “Thor volume 1, Straczynski”, and you’ll find it), which picks up after Thor has been killed during the events of Ragnarok. See if it doesn’t blow you away. The run gets weaker as it goes on—Volume 2 is excellent, but wobbles toward the end—but it’s all pretty good stuff.

Likewise, Mark Waid’s current run on Daredevil is justly featured among the Comic Books You Should Be Reading. Taking a normally dark character into what seems like a sunny, happy-go-lucky storyline in which Matt Murdock tries to take himself less seriously, Waid actually manages to build a subtle and ultimately disturbing portrait of a hero who might be losing his mind. And the jokes are first-rate.

Speaking of jokes, this blog entry wouldn’t be complete without a reference to Joss Whedon’s terrific run on Astonishing X-Men. Start with the first volume, Gifted, or just get one of the omnibus editions. Astonishing follows the premier mutant superteam after the death of founding member Jean Grey, and largely eschews the notoriously complicated X-Men continuity for solid characterization and snarky humor. (My personal favorite moment is when a psychic villain “devolves” several of the X-Men, turning Beast into a growling animal and making Wolverine revert to his childhood self … which seems to be a hilariously na├»ve and racist Little Lord Fauntleroy. Can a character be hilariously racist? It turns out that Wolverine can … just look for the line, “AND, I met an Oriental!”)

You might notice that DC Comics is conspicuous by its absence from this third method. That’s not intentional, but it is a bit sad. DC has been a lot better than Marvel in recent years at tying absolutely everything going on in its fictional universe to whatever mega-crossover event is being pushed at the moment. There are major ramifications to this. First, almost any good DC storyline requires you to read three or four bad ones just to understand what’s going on. And second, because there’s one of these events every year, the universe changes dramatically all the time … which means a lot of the really good stories don’t have a lot of staying power. Good as they are, there’s no way to explain them to someone who hasn’t been reading DC Comics for years. The few DC stories I considered for this part of the list—mostly James Robinson’s Starman and Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come—are at least 15 years old, and I felt I’d already filled that slot with Astro City. They’re still good stories, though, and I encourage you to seek them out.

What about you, comic-book readers out there? What books do you recommend to friends who want to read superhero comics for the first time?

And if you say Watchmen, I will do my best to punch you through the internet …