Monday, February 27, 2012

What happens next. Also, thank you.

… I’m just going to wait here for a second while you scream at me for how Chapter 32 of Masks ended.

Got it out of your system? Good.

Yes, I will get around to showing more of the Black Mask’s hideout, and yes, I will explain what’s in those envelopes and how they got into the hideout well after the Black Mask got himself blown up ten years ago. All of that will come out in Book 2, which will begin serialization this summer (I’m aiming for July again). But considering some of the hysterical emails and comments I’ve been getting on this project, I think I should take a Monday to explain what’s going to happen next.

First things first. If you’re suffering from Masks withdrawal, I strongly urge you to buy the paperback or (if you can wait a week or two) the ebook when it comes out, for the sake of your own sanity. There are several nifty special features in there that I think you’ll enjoy, but probably the most relevant to those of you jonesing for more Rae and Trevor are the Hawkins Foundation Secret Files and a short story called “The Missing.”

The Secret Files feature is loosely based on something the Big Two comic companies would sometimes do in annuals—jumbo-sized bonus comics that came out once a year to supplement the main monthly title. In the back of an annual, which would usually include a main story and several backup features, there would often be little capsule bios of the hero and his major allies and enemies, just in case there were new readers who were coming in a little lost. The files would include things like the hero’s real name, his powers, his origin story, his history, and his affiliations with any major superhero teams. Because I designed Masks with the idea that every major character would have an arc—that everyone was the hero of his or her own story—there was lots of material to choose from, but I wanted to do something more than the usual biography. So I decided that these files would be Robert Paine Hawkins’ secret files on the various young masks who appear in the story, including his private analysis of their psychologies and possible futures as heroes (or not).

Probably the biggest surprise in writing those files was realizing that I hadn’t sketched out an origin story for Golem prior to the day he encountered Moon in that secret laboratory. How did a boy end up made of stone, and what sort of life would make him well-suited to being best friends with a chatty werewolf with poor impulse control? To my shock, I found his origin story taking shape almost immediately in my head as I typed—what his parents were like, what kind of student he’d been before he left school, how he came to be in that lab, and why he would never talk about any of it to anyone, not even Moon. Even his real name held a useful little secret. The exercise was a helpful one, not least because it showed me how his character would develop in future books, including a rather surprising romance. If you’ve enjoyed the mystery of Golem at all, you’ll probably want to check out the Secret Files feature. (There’s more dirt on Rae and Trevor, too, plus Soleil, Lady Luck, and Moonclaw.)

The second feature that might ease your Masks craving is “The Missing,” a short story that’s about as long as a chapter and a half of Masks and features four new Nicole Le sketches. The story’s about Rae and Trevor assisting in the search for a missing child—a search that takes them down into the side channels of the Los Angeles River just as it’s starting to rain, and a flood is building upstream. While they’re working against time to find and save a lost little girl, they must also hammer out a dent in their new relationship … and deal with the fact that each of them separately sees a bad omen, and chooses not to tell the other about it. Secrets and surprises abound, and I think you’ll like the ending.

Now, you may ask, what will I be doing while you’re stewing in your own juices?

Well, the picture at the top of this blog entry might give you a clue. I’m still working on revising The Novel, which has to go out to prospective literary agents before I do anything else. (I’ve promised to send it out by the end of March … fingers crossed!) After that, it’s full speed ahead on Volume 2 of Masks, and I’ll be dropping lots of hints and other goodies in this blog as I go. Remember, I managed to fill a blog with interesting content for years before my first novel came out, so I shouldn’t have too much trouble keeping up with it for a couple of months.

And then, of course, there’s Free Comic Book Day.

I can spill a little more about that story now that Chapter 32 is out. The FCBD story will serve as a kind of appetizer for Volume 2—which will involve the Black Mask quite heavily. I know, I know; the Black Mask has been dead for ten years, so how can he be a factor in the adventures of Rae and Trevor? Let’s just say there’s more than a couple of manila envelopes in that hideout, and the Black Mask wasn’t quite the lone wolf he appeared to be. In particular, the FCBD story will introduce two of his companions from World War II and follow him and them on a daring postwar rescue mission that you definitely won’t find in any of the official histories of superheroics. That unlikely trio will cast a long shadow, and two of them will appear in person in Volume 2, with a few secrets to reveal. I wouldn’t rule out an appearance by a certain cowboy, either. The story will be available on Pocket Coyote, as a free download, and maybe in a limited print edition on May 5. Until then, watch this space and Pocket Coyote for hints, spoilers, and all the goodies I can cram into them.

And now, a more personal note.

1 a.m. self-portrait, with coyote. :)
I’d like to take a moment to thank all of you for reading along this far, and for being so supportive with your comments on the various pages and on Facebook and Twitter. I began writing what became Volume 1 in a pit of black depression, and your support and enthusiasm gave me a lot of the momentum I needed to climb back out. With all of you behind me and everything I’m learning from The Novel, I think I can safely say Volume 2 will completely blow your minds.  One of my goals in serializing Masks was to give myself a public laboratory in which I could test what did and didn’t work in my storytelling, with real-time feedback, and you guys have really gone above and beyond in helping me learn. I plan to pour all that new knowledge and experience into making Volume 2 utterly fantastic.

I don’t like to talk much about my personal life online, except in the past tense, both because I think some things should stay private and because blogging about my dirty laundry seems like a great way to get myself sued, arrested, or beaten to a bloody pulp. But I want you guys to know that when I’m having a really bad day, when things are at their blackest, I pull up your comments, your cheers and jeers and questions, and I remind myself that there are total strangers out there who willingly return to my website, week after week, to read little bits of my soul in the form of stories. And they like them enough to comment, and to keep coming back. That’s enough to silence the vampires in my head for a little while, and to let me create more of the stories I love. So please, keep reading, keep commenting, and invite as many of your friends as you think can stand to join you.

You are my friends.

You are my tribe.

I hope to share joy with you for many years to come.

Thank you.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Wild things

Fingers ... om nom nom.
I consider myself lucky to have spent time with wolves.

Sazi, the pup's foster mom.
Domesticated wolves, mostly, or wolf-dog hybrids; a wolf-malamute cross, a wolf-German shepherd cross, a wolf-husky cross, and one magnificent creature who was half gray wolf and half red wolf, according to the experts’ best guess. For the record, I don’t keep them as pets and never have; keeping wolves is a rather restricted activity in California, as it is in many states, and my contact with these animals came through a friend who grew up alongside them and knows them far better than I ever will. Frankly, she’s the only person I’ve ever met who I believe was truly qualified to work with them. I spent a little time with her recently, and with a recently adopted pup, and it got me thinking about wild things.

At the top of the stairs, an invisible caribou.
The thing that nobody understands about wolves, even ones that have been raised by humans and are as domesticated as they’re going to get, is that they’re not dogs. I don’t care if they’re genetically similar; they’re different creatures. The red-gray wolf looks like a big shepherd dog with reddish-brown fur, but every once in a while she gives you a look that a dog never will. The look says: I don’t need you. Maybe I eat your food and live in your house, and maybe I consider you part of my pack, but there is absolutely nothing that could stop me from walking out that door and becoming the apex predator of some forest somewhere. Wolves are a bit like cats in that way; they might be domesticated, but they’re never, ever tame.

She was sure I was hiding raw meat on my person.
My friend told me once that the difference between a wolf and a dog is that when you call a dog in for dinner, it comes running without a second thought; when you call a wolf, it often trots into view and then stops, waiting to be convinced. They are considerably more intelligent than dogs, and have a much better idea of what humans are up to. They’re surprisingly strong, too; one member of my friend’s pack once pulled a wooden post out of cold concrete and didn’t notice she’d done it. She just ran off, dragging the post behind her, along with a big concrete chunk and a very surprised human who’d gotten tangled in the rope. The human got herself untangled within about 20 yards, but the wolf kept on running and it took my friend hours to track her down.

Taking a nap under my jacket.
(Photo is blurry because my jacket was on my lap.)
Think about that. Something that looks like a beautiful, friendly dog, but is frighteningly smart and so strong it doesn’t have to notice it’s pulling your weight. I’ve met people who tell me they’ve always wanted a pet wolf, and I’ve usually looked at them like they’ve sprouted a second head and said, “Are you sure? Have you ever met one?” They haven’t. Most of these people seem dumber than the average golden retriever. I can understand why, when we humans bred wolves into dogs, we bred them to be friendly, dependent, and just a little bit thick in the head. There’s something unsettling about a furry quadruped that seems to know something you don’t. Especially when it probably does.

Don’t get me wrong—I’ve loved every second I’ve spent with wolves, and my friend couldn’t imagine her life without them. The red-gray wolf effectively adopted her infant son—guarding his crib, hurrying to comfort him when he cried, curling up protectively around him when he sat on the floor to play. I swear I saw him spit up once, when he was six months old, and the wolf had licked him clean by the time his human mother had picked up the spit rag. It was a very doglike thing to do, except that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dog with reflexes that fast, or a thought process that complex. It was a wolf moment.

With a few select exceptions, I don’t think humans should live with wolves, or wolfdogs. My friend is an unusual case; after a lifetime of experience with these animals, she speaks their language and knows them better than she does human beings. Everybody else who meets her pack, myself included, takes one look at them and immediately thinks: Dog! And that’s where the trouble begins. They’re not dogs. They’re too smart, too strong, and too knowing. Most of the would-be wolf owners I’ve met have been fed the romance of the wolf, the wild beast that takes a human into its wild heart. And sometimes wolves do that—but more often they don’t. Unlike dogs, they choose their companions carefully, and many of them will never choose a human at all. They don’t have to, and don’t want to. They’re wolves.
I keep these lessons in mind whenever I write about animals, especially wild ones. They don’t care about the big bad wolf of fairy tales, or the noble wolf of modern myths. Maybe a few of their ancestors came out of the woods and joined primitive man beside his fires, but the rest of them didn’t. They stayed wolves. And whenever I write about the coyote in Masks, or any wild animal in any one of my stories, I remind myself: this isn’t a dog, or a cat, or anything I know. This is something else. This is something that stayed a wolf. They don’t have to come inside, and they don’t have to notice they’re dragging you in their wake, let alone consult you on where they’re going.

How would the world be different, I wonder, if more people understood that?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Mulligan schmulligan

It's like this, guys.

I had to stay up until the crack of why-am-I-awake to finish something for work, and I know I have to get up bright and early this morning to do something else for work. Don't get me wrong, I like being employed--but you're not going to get a lot of literary brilliance out of me today beyond "fire bad, tree pretty," to steal a phrase.

So here's a picture instead. It's an illustration from "The Missing," the short story (and postscript) that you can read if you buy Volume 1 of Masks in paperback (and ebook, when it's out--soon!) And you even get to see Rae's snazzy new haircut, which you will find out all about when you read Chapter 32.

More goodies soon, I promise!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Traffic accidents and a lack of pocket-handkerchiefs

Ugliest Hobbit cover ever ...    
but sadly, this is the edition I was carrying.
Saturday night was interesting. I’d just gotten in from a run to the grocery store after a day of cleaning, laundry, and a couple of work appointments. (I don’t really get days off at the moment—just the occasional morning or afternoon.) I was having an iron-deficient day, as I sometimes do, so I had splurged on a little bit of steak and was looking forward to grilling it up and topping off the old hematocrit. I was just firing up the oven to cook some potatoes, and figuring out what to do about a bag of frozen veggies, when I heard a loud BLAM from outside.

I yelled, “What was that?” to my brother, who happened to be in the living room, but I pretty much knew. You need a certain kind of upbringing to recognize that noise, and I had such a one. I grew up about 20 yards from the most poorly designed intersection imaginable—poor visibility, confusing signals, and it’s right between a large public high school (lots of inexperienced drivers) and a large public university (lots of distracted drivers). There’s been an accident there every couple of months, give or take, since 1991, and that’s just since I’ve been paying attention. That BLAM was the sound of a bad one—two cars colliding hard enough to send bits flying all over the place. I ran out of the house, expecting to see a car spun into the wrong lane and facing the oncoming traffic.

It wasn’t quite that bad this time; by the time I secured the oven and ran out, the airbags had deflated, both vehicles had limped over to a nearby parking lot, and the occupants of a bashed-in minivan were huddled on a little patch of grass, shivering and crying and speaking very rapid Spanish. A woman was weeping hysterically, and at first I thought she had been hurt, but it turned out that nobody had anything worse than a sprain, a bruise, or a couple of cuts on the leg from a bike derailleur. (The minivan had contained a family and the bicycles they’d just been riding at a nearby park.)

My brother was right behind me, and with our years of practice at this kind of thing, we tried to sort everybody out. There was a small dog that was running around in a panic, perilously close to passing traffic. The driver of the minivan and the driver of the pickup truck he’d hit were arguing. The woman was sobbing, two teenage girls were standing together like gazelles and staring around at the dark parking lot as if they expected it to contain lions, and an eight-year-old boy was just about hyperventilating from terror. We got the girls to round up the dog, sat the woman and the boy down on the grass, and tried to talk everyone down as much as we could with their fractured English and our fractured Spanish. Then someone from our street called 911, and the panicking started all over again when the police showed up. The boy went from frightened to total freakout in about three seconds flat, convinced that his father was about to be arrested.

Into all of this chaos came J.R.R. Tolkien.

By the time the cops were filling in their paperwork, I’d gotten the girls to help me convince the woman, at least, that nobody was going to be arrested or deported. I’d gone through all of my usual coping mechanisms; I’d run back into the house to turn off the oven and fetch bottles of water and random food (in this case, a bag of apples and oranges), and the people and the dog were chowing down on water, apples, and bolillo rolls they’d had in the van, which helped a bit. The cops even managed to get the dog to sniff their hands and tolerate an ear-scratching, which helped a bit more. But the little boy, whose name turned out to be Emilio, was not so easily consoled. Even after I told him four or five times that nobody was getting arrested, he was convinced that his father was going to be taken away and/or that he would somehow not get to school on Monday morning, thus getting into an awful lot of trouble. Even hugs from almost everybody he knew, and at least one total stranger (me), didn’t help enough.

Then I remembered that I had a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit in my shoulder bag. I had been teaching a literature class in a school library for several weeks, and my seat faced the T shelf, forcing me to look at about seven copies of the book for six hours a week, so I was now re-reading the story in self-defense. I got Emilio to sit down beside me and asked him if he’d ever heard of the Lord of the Rings movies. He shook his head. I asked if he’d like me to read him a story that my father once read to me, a very good story called The Hobbit. He asked what a hobbit was, and I promised to read him the part of the story that explained the word.

So it was that I ended up sitting on some rather abused grass beside a dimly lit parking lot, next to a terrified little boy, and opening a paperback to the words, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Some stories were just made to be read aloud, and The Hobbit is definitely one. Some of my earliest memories of books involve my father reading Tolkien aloud to me, one chapter at a time, chanting the poems and doing funny voices for all the characters. I was four years old when we made the transition from Farmer Giles of Ham to The Hobbit, but I tried to replicate my dad’s performance as best I could. Little Emilio looked up about every ten seconds to make sure his dad hadn’t disappeared, but in between glances he was staring at the page, his eyes following where I was reading, frowning at unfamiliar words like hobbit, pantries, and blundering. I read until my brother got Emilio’s father to agree to let me drive his shivering wife and children home in my tiny car, and all the way there Emilio chatted to me about his school and peppered me with questions about hobbits. I told him, as my father probably told me at some point, that he might be a hobbit himself, being about the right size, and that the thing to remember about hobbits was that while they didn’t like to have adventures, the ones that had them usually turned out to be the bravest adventurers of all. There was an awed silence from my backseat after I said that.

It’s been a while since I was a scared little kid, feeling alone on a cold, dark night, but I remember how much less terrifying it was if I had someone like Bilbo Baggins with me, even if he was complaining about not having a pocket-handkerchief. I wonder if that isn’t why we humans tell those stories—because they make the dark and the cold bearable.

… I hope Emilio remembers the word “hobbit” next time he’s in a library. That kid’s going to need to read that book.