Monday, April 29, 2013

A blog for Mrs. Neese

I’m neck-deep in two books right now, so here’s a blog entry inspired by my eighth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Neese.

If you knew Mrs. Neese, you’d be really excited by that sentence. From second through eighth grade, I attended a school that I’m still convinced was actually an outer ring of hell. I was miserable. Mrs. Neese was one of only two teachers I had during that time who had the good sense to take a highly self-motivated low-level genius and, rather than making her sit still and do what everybody else was doing, just let her run. One of those teachers put me in the school spelling bee so I got my longed-for chance to show everyone that I really was good for something (albeit not sports or being pretty or having rich parents). Mrs. Neese just let me write. 

I was in middle school by then, and she made clear early on that she was totally fine with my writing stories in her class as long as I also did the homework. And she was surprisingly flexible about the homework part. She let me write weird takes on her in-class assignments, like a love story with only one onstage character in it (he dropped dead at the end) and a legend in which the god of dreams was really a frustrated actor. The very first sentence of the very first story about Rae—which happened to be the very first story in what became the Masks universe—was written in her class. I even remember the seat I was in that January day: in the back row, the seat on the far left as I faced the chalkboard, the northeast corner of the room. I remember looking up and seeing her glance my way as I scribbled frantically in the notebook I’d stolen from the supply cupboard at home. There’s no way she believed I was doing eighth-grade homework in a 300-sheet three-subject spiral notebook. But she didn’t stop me. 

So when Mrs. Neese (a fan of Masks on Facebook, because she’s awesome like that) suggested recently that I blog about writers who have inspired me, I couldn’t exactly say no, could I? Here, then, is a by-no-means complete list of five authors who have something to do with who I am and what I do today …

1. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis – All right, nobody’s ever going to accuse me of writing fantasy in the style of either of these two men. My writing is about as far as you can get from the plummy Oxfordian tone of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia or the lyrical high fantasy of The Lord of the Rings. These two make the list, and make the list together, because their books are some of my earliest memories. My dad read me The Hobbit and Farmer Giles of Ham when I was four years old, and the Narnia books followed soon after—in their published order, beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, not the stupid retcon order beginning with The Magician’s Nephew. And say what you will about Lewis’s many shortcomings as a novelist or Tolkien’s bouts of academic logorrhea, they didn’t matter to me when I was too little to be reading tiny print by myself. Those stories showed me what was possible—that kids could wander into alternate worlds through mysterious objects called wardrobes, that animals could talk, that a creature called a hobbit could find himself on an adventure with dwarves and a wizard but keep worrying about his kettle and his pocket-handkerchiefs. Even though I didn’t go into fantasy writing as an adult, and I don’t even read much fantasy now (I joke that Tolkien set the bar so high that no one else will do), that baseline informs much of what I write now. If you ever wonder why Rae talks to figures of legend and why I think it’s totally okay to have a zombie arrow sitting next to the death ray at a supervillain auction, it’s because somewhere in the back of my brain is a five-year-old who knows that dragons exist, and that their scales can be pierced by arrows and by lion claws …

Best jacket photo EVER.
2. Timothy Zahn – This author made the list because where Tolkien and Lewis were the foundation of my childhood reading, he formed the basis of my “grown-up” reading life. I got into Zahn the same way most of his fans probably did—I read his first Star Wars tie-in novel, Heir to the Empire. I was ten years old and had just seen the original Star Wars trilogy, and I was starving for more Luke/Han/Leia action. But two things stuck out to me in that first book and never really went away. 

The first was that Zahn wrote one-sentence paragraphs. Heck, some of his paragraphs were sentence fragments. And it worked for him! I’d never seen anyone do that before, but for him it worked perfectly. He’s to blame for every one of my sentence-fragment paragraphs since then. The second standout point was the way he ran multiple plotlines simultaneously—something I hadn’t seen done much up to that point—and more importantly, several of those plotlines were intensely emotional. I was used to stories that painted human emotions in broad, melodramatic strokes; things like rage and grief and joy all served to advance the plot. Zahn used subtler emotions to color his scenes, to move his story along without requiring those emotions to spur an action, and occasionally to gut-punch his readers. For example, after a plot-heavy scene where a ghostly Obi-wan Kenobi tells Luke some plotty stuff and then says his final goodbyes, Luke’s reaction really stuck with me: “For the third time, he’d been orphaned.”
I admit, my ten-year-old self hadn’t thought about the situation that way; that sentence hit me like a wave. Suddenly the story wasn’t about space battles and laser swords anymore; it was about a kid who’d lost his family three times over. Lightsabers, hell; I read the next three books looking for more of that feeling. As soon as I finished that trilogy of novels, I tracked down every other Zahn book I could find, hunting for that thread of human emotion tangled up in his knotty sci-fi plots. And more fragmentary sentences, of course. (I also listened to several of his more action-oriented books over and over on audiotape, so he’s probably had a bigger influence than anyone else on how I write fight scenes. I even hear his readers narrating them in my head.)

Also the best author photo ever.
"What duck?"
3. Terry Pratchett – Good Sir Terry is a more recent addition to my list of influences, but he’s an important one thanks to my years-long battle with insomnia. Not long after I discovered Pratchett’s brilliantly satirical Discworld books, I began to have trouble sleeping at night, and my doctor advised me to set a rigid bedtime routine—the same actions repeated at the same time, every night, to cue my body and brain that it was time to power down for a while. The doctor recommended that I include reading in the regimen, as most people find that a relaxing activity. However, I tend to get really intensely excited while reading, so perhaps in hindsight it wasn’t such a great bit of advice. For several nights, I lay awake thinking anxiously about whatever I’d been reading before bed, wondering how the story would turn out. I finally decided that I’d have to read something so familiar, so utterly predictable, that I could go to sleep without thinking about it. I grabbed the nearest Discworld book, which I’d recently read two or three times, and started reading a few pages a night.

I want to emphasize that the works of Terry Pratchett, lyrical and innovative and side-splittingly funny as they are, don’t actually make a very good soporific for most people. But when you’ve read them enough times to know most of the jokes by heart, they at least won’t keep you up at night. Over the next several years, I read almost every book in the Discworld series, except for a few of the earliest volumes that I didn’t like so much, over and over and over again. There are about 20 Pratchett books on my shelf that just rotate across my bedside table. Right now I’m probably on my tenth reading of Monstrous Regiment, averaging 20 to 30 pages per night. That much exposure has to seep in somewhere, and I’m beginning to notice little signs: more absurd situations creeping into my stories, a certain renewed interest in wordplay, and an awful lot of British slang that I have to delete on the rewrites … 

4. Spider Robinson – Where I grew up, “hippie” was a dirty word. All that peace-love-dope stuff was for cowards and sissies. In my town, the most important social events were all held at the local shrine to Richard Nixon (it had a topiary effigy of Checkers in the garden and, at least when I was a kid, no mention of Watergate anywhere). Consider, then, the effect of Spider Robinson, a proud self-identified hippie best known for a series of witty and unexpectedly touching humorous SF stories set in a Long Island bar. The short stories in his Callahan series made me giggle, and then immediately made me think. While I won’t claim to agree precisely with Robinson’s views on everything (we will always differ in our opinions of the Beatles), he never stopped impressing me with a) the speed and subtlety of his wit and b) the breathtakingly human heart that beats in every sentence he writes. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more human writer, and I mean that in the best possible way. When he’s not writing about drinking games, punning contests, and intergalactic insanity, Robinson likes to wrestle with Big Ideas. He doesn’t always win, but how can I not love a man who defines what it means to be human as “to live forever or die trying … to strive in the face of the certainty of failure … to persist”?
I freely admit that I stole his definition of personhood—that a person is anyone who voluntarily says or otherwise communicates, “Excuse me”. (Thus, several dogs of my acquaintance are people, and a great many humans are not.) Robinson taught me not to shy away from the big stuff.

He also taught me that talking dogs are always funny if you write them right. (You’ll see what I mean by the end of Volume 2, if I can keep that bit about eggs from getting cut …)

5. Peter S. Beagle – This is the most recent addition to the list, but he has to make it just because I’ve spent the last couple of years tracking down every book of his available in every local public library. He got me into fantasy again, pretty much, because he wasn’t writing Tolkien wannabe material. Instead, Beagle’s stories focus on the liminal spaces where ordinary life interacts with the extraordinary bits of fantasy. His most famous book, The Last Unicorn, combines the familiar tropes of fairy tales with a very modern schlemiel of a wizard and a breathtakingly alien force in the unicorn herself. For my money, though, it’s his short stories that are best—like “The Rabbi’s Hobby”, in which a rabbi and a 12-year-old would-be bar mitzvah take on the case of a mysterious young woman appearing in old photographs, and end up unwrapping a tale of ghosts, and regrets, and unexpected uses for antique keys. Or there’s “Oakland Dragon Blues,” in which a dragon (loosely based on the dragon cut from early drafts of The Last Unicorn) comes to life in Oakland, California and goes looking for the author who stopped telling his story before it was done. And for my money, “Mr. Sigerson” is one of the best Sherlock Holmes pastiches I’ve ever read, focusing as it does on the exiled Holmes, now a violinist in a tiny backwater orchestra, becoming involved in a tricky local mystery and learning an unexpected thing or two about his own long-denied humanity. 
While I’d like to cite Beagle’s glittering, lyrical prose as an influence on my own, I’m not that good (yet—I hope!) and he’s really on this list for two other reasons. First, his stories gave me the guts to write poetry for the first time since high school, and that’s something I desperately needed for Teh Novel. And second, the very fact of those stories’ existence—the way they shine like perfectly cut jewels—makes me want to write, and write better, and finish things well. I’ve met Mr. Beagle twice at conventions, and both times he has been a faultless gentleman and a warm, wonderful human being. For all I know it’s a clever act and he’s really a total jerk, but at least when I talk to him, he makes me want to be a better person and a much better writer. He’s over 70 years old, though, and you never know with older authors and their health, so I’m hammering away at my current projects, hoping to finish something worthy of being presented to him someday, before I run out of opportunities. I want to thank him for the lessons he’s taught me with his stories, and for the encouragement he’s given me when he didn’t have to do any such thing. Peter S. Beagle and his writing make me want to create something worthy of them both; I hope someday to hand him a copy of a published novel with his name in the acknowledgments, or even the dedication. Even if he never reads it. Even if he never opens it. I just want to thank him properly. Some people are like that.

There are more than a few authors who didn’t make the cut—Jim Butcher, for example, whose joke about his writing motto being “Suffer, Harry, suffer!” inspired my own joking mantra Suffer, characters, suffer. And I can’t go too long without mentioning Homer’s Odyssey, my favorite work of Greek literature, or the original Sherlock Holmes stories, or Neil Gaiman’s Neil Gaiman-ness, or the glorious pulp adventures of Johnston McCulley and Edgar Rice Burroughs, or Michael A. Stackpole’s short story “Peer Review,” which taught me that prose stories about superheroes were a thing. And Stan Lee? Oh, yes.

But for now, these five will do. And I hope I’ve done Mrs. Neese proud, sentence fragments and all.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Why my alarm clock now seeks my death

Writing two books at once requires the moral support
of a stuffed Labrador retriever. Don't judge me.
I’m getting to bed late an awful lot these days.

Mind you, coming from a lifelong insomniac, that’s not exactly news. I began making up stories at the age of three because I couldn’t sleep at night and I was bored just lying there staring at the ceiling. (One of these days I’ll finally polish up that space epic about my favorite stuffed unicorn.) But lately I’ve been doing a lot better … except when the story ideas come knocking.

It goes something like this:

I lie down to sleep.

Brain: Hey, you missed something. What if [protagonist] cornered [secondary character] and said [really cool thing]? What about that, huh?

Go away, brain. I’m trying to sleep here.

You always say you’ll write this stuff down in the morning and you never remember. You could start a poem with [really cool line]. Grab a pen!

Stupid brain. Haven’t we had this discussion? Like, for years? And you know you won’t be working tomorrow if I don’t sleep tonight.

I don’t care. Ohhhh, look at this, I found a new way to torture [protagonist of different story]! You can’t imagine this without crying! You’ve got to write it down!

I’m good at torturing my characters. I need sleep more than I need that idea.

But this scene’s been kicking your butt for two weeks and here’s the PERFECT LINE that you will NEVER REMEMBER IF YOU DON’T GET UP AND GRAB A PEN RIGHT NOW … 

So that’s how I end up with bits like this, from a few different stories:


“I’d surely tell you were’t otherwise,” she said. “A funny little thing she must be, from her picture. Can’t be past ten year, and yet those eyes are a hundred years old.” She shook her head. “What did her father teach thee?”

“Lots of things,” I said vaguely, reexamining the photo myself. She was right; the little girl’s eyes were terribly ancient. My owners had eyes like that—even the best youth drugs on the market couldn’t take the years off their eyes. But hers were different somehow. As if her hundred years had been nothing like any of theirs.


“I’ve been dead. You wouldn’t like it.”


“But I’m on their side!” I protested.

“No, you’re not,” he said, his face hardening. “Because they’re not on yours. To them you are a tool, a useful device. No one deserves your loyalty who can’t be bothered to give you a name.”

I sniffed, and ached, and thought about that. Then I narrowed my eyes at [character] and whispered, “You’re loyal to them.”

“That’s different,” he murmured, and leaned back in his chair so we couldn’t talk anymore.


Then they found out they were all going to the same address. And then things got awkward.


“Fine. Damn it. Is there anything left?”

“Come and see,” she said.


And now you know why my sleep cycle is completely bonkers …

Monday, April 8, 2013

I didn't die! And here are some Comic Books You Should Be Reading.

Chapter 4 is going up. Really. On Wednesday. We’re having a one-week delay so I can finish my piles and piles of tax paperwork. I am part of that charming American segment known as the “1099 economy”, which means that I have a billion pieces of paper that must be assiduously collected and filed so that I don’t get audited into the next millennium. The last scene of Chapter 4 will get written after that. And before you groan, Chapter 5 was written weeks ago, so there’s no way in hell that’s not going up on schedule.

So, to tide you over until the taxman is satisfied, here are the best comic books sitting in my stack of recently read titles:

1. Guardians of the Galaxy. I’ve been really excited about this series. I’ve mentioned before that Star-Lord, the leader of GotG, is one of my all-time favorite superheroes, and I was pretty annoyed that the Marvel higher-ups allowed him to be killed off a few years ago in the Thanos Imperative miniseries. Granted, it was how he would have wanted to go—guns blazing, a universe about to collapse on him, shooting Thanos in the face a whole bunch of times and wisecracking all the way to his doom. With his best friend/occasional sidekick/all-purpose straight man Nova by his side, Star-Lord had a good end. But while I was psyched at the news of an impending Guardians of the Galaxy movie and happy to hear that Star-Lord would be returning to life in the comics—written by a big-name comic scribe, no less—I was apprehensive. Did I really want one of my childhood favorites to be sucked into the latest Marvel Comics megastory?

Well, so far I’ve been pretty happy with it. Nobody has yet explained how Star-Lord is alive again, and the World War I steampunk uniforms of the previous GotG have been replaced with some pretty stupid outfits that make everyone on the team look like Imperial Stormtroopers with arc reactors, and Iron Man is somehow a member now, but Brian Michael Bendis is getting the writing mostly right at the moment. He’s doing a good job with that world-weary, middle-finger-to-the-universe attitude that keeps my favorite character alive in a cosmos that constantly demands that he be, well, cosmic. (Which he never is, at least not anymore.) I’m also intrigued by the new take on Star-Lord’s absent father, an alien prince who used to be pretty much a good guy and is now more of a jerk. I’d wondered for years why nobody ever tried to have a word with Star-Lord about royal succession and the fact that Prince Jason never had any other kids, and now it looks like this hard-bitten hero’s going to be sucked into palace politics or die (again) trying to get out of them. Good times for me. I’ll probably give this title its own blog entry in another month or two.

2. Sherlock Holmes: The Liverpool Demon. This series, from the creative team that produced Dynamite Entertainment’s The Trial of Sherlock Holmes, keeps the old detective magic alive as Holmes investigates a series of murders apparently committed by Spring-Heeled Jack. Perhaps the best part of this series is that writer Leah Moore seems committed to keeping Sherlock Holmes weird—he leaves Watson hanging in mid-conversation so he can go investigate some random detail in a corner of the room, and generally creates quite a bit of social awkwardness that’s strongly reminiscent of the literary Holmes, even more than the obscure clues and bizarre crimes for which his stories are known. I can’t wait to see how this case will shake out, and how the Watson-Holmes relationship will evolve.

3. Young Avengers. Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvin and Mike Norton have taken over for Allen Heinberg and Jim Cheung on the saga of the superpowered teenagers who might be the next generation of Avengers … but definitely are in a lot of trouble, all the time. On top of the chaos-magic user Wiccan, his Skrull-Kree boyfriend Hulkling, and the snarky archer Hawkeye (a teenage girl, not the guy in the Avengers movie—long story), Gillen and company have added three new members to the team: a universe-hopping powerhouse named Miss America, an antisocial character named Marvel Boy who absolutely cannot be described in a single paragraph, and Loki. Yeah, the Norse god of mischief. He’s somehow a teenager (don’t look at me, I haven’t been paying attention) and doing all the usual Loki stuff, only with a bunch of superkids to work with. And they don’t want to work with him because, well, he’s Loki. It’s a blast to see Kid Loki work with that. Best line of the most recent issue: “Now that it’s clear exactly how communally buried in the waste of trolls we are, can we talk like civilized superbeings?”

4. Nova. This is Marvel’s other new “cosmic” title. In it, Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness bring us the saga of Sam Alexander, a teenage boy who inherits his father’s helmet and superpowers as a member of the Nova Corps. Except it turns out Sam’s dad wasn’t one of the straight-arrow space-cop Novas we’ve come to know and love … he did something a little more like interstellar black ops. And now 15-year-old Sam’s neck-deep in it, along with Gamora the green-skinned assassin and Rocket Raccoon the gun-toting space raccoon. This goes about as well as you’d expect. I still can’t read this title without giggling, especially the most recent issue, in which Sam tests out his powers and sets off every car alarm in town. And then he accidentally flies into the moon. Yeah, the actual moon. (“Off. Turn. Something. Stop. MOOOOOOOON!”) It’s that kind of comic book. No celestial body is safe …

5. Daredevil. I’ve blogged about this. Everybody’s blogged about this. This title won pretty much every Eisner Award there is, and it’s still awesome. They’re up to four volumes in hardcover and it’s still awesome. I thought they were going to run out of awesome after several arcs with terrific villains (Coyote had a stupid name, but ohhhhh the drama) and crazy twists with Daredevil’s powers (losing all his senses? What now?) and a romance that kind of made sense (the girl actually came to her senses and dumped Matt Murdock the Trouble Magnet for a good and non-crazy reason, which just makes her more awesome) … but now the title is balancing the mysterious appearance of crazy people with Daredevil’s hypersenses against the very personal drama of Matt’s best friend, Foggy Nelson, having cancer. Not the happy cured-in-two-issues kind of cancer, either. Daredevil’s been nicknamed the “Man Without Fear” since the 1960s, but Mark Waid’s wacky, supposedly lighthearted run on the title has taken this superhero to some intimately scary places, both professionally and personally. Honestly, just pick up any issue or collection you can get your hands on and start reading. It’s all that good.

Two more days until Rae and Trevor come back. Until then, happy reading!

Monday, April 1, 2013

What happens at WonderCon stays at WonderCon ...

Hawkeye and Thor went to WonderCon once. It was terrible.

I went to WonderCon!

No, don’t recheck old blog entries. I didn’t announce it. I deliberately didn’t announce it, because it was a last-minute decision to accompany a few friends and I wanted to just go as a fan this time. Well, a fan and an interior decorator.

You see, now that I’m settling into the new place, I’m noticing how bare the walls are. Sure, my wonderfully nerdy flatmate has gleefully participated in hanging Captain America’s shield (hers) up in our coat closet and a giant Hobbit poster (mine) on one wall, but my own personal space in the apartment has nothing hanging up but a whiteboard with my to-do list (essential if I’m going to keep to a writing schedule) and a little enamel figure of a fairy holding a typewriter. I’m not used to decorating, as I did most of my growing up in a room where the major blank wall was covered by decorative wood paneling. Now I suddenly want things on the walls, and because I’m me they must be geeky things, so to WonderCon I went, off to see the Artists Alley.

Oh, and that photo? I went with a gang of my friends, temporarily dubbed the Casual Saturday Avengers. That’s Hawkeye and Thor up there with Grumpy Cat. I was Loki. You can tell I was Loki because I’m not in the photo. Tricky that way, aren’t I?

Anyway, major discoveries at WonderCon include …

Cats as absolutely everything (the artist here is the wonderful Jenny Parks, and I particularly recommend her Lokitty and her Doctor Mew images):

Sorry for the low quality on Captain Amerikitty--
had to use a cheapo camera because my good one's on loan.
 A Moriarty comic series from Image that somehow completely flew under my radar:
I did buy a copy of this, but the photo didn't come out.
And Jessica Cathryn Feinberg’s Artlair, also known as the booth where I spent ALL THE MONIES. I walked away with two prints to use as wall hangings—a gorgeous watercolor of a dragon reading a book and a fascinating clockwork coyote. She’s also put out a terrific book called The Clockwork Menagerie that I suspect will be very, very useful in creating Street of Bakers art because it breaks down the process of drawing steampunk clockwork to the reading level of an eight-year-old. Which, as you might have noticed, is about my level of artistic understanding.

You heard it here first—if I ever get a deal for Bakers and am allowed to recommend an illustrator, she is the top of my list. Actually, right now she’s the whole list.

I mean, come on—a clockwork unicorn!