Action Figures – An Introduction

Hello to what I hope is a readership of thousands (I’ll settle at this point for low hundreds, but hey, hope springs eternal).

Today is the day I officially start ramping up the publicity for my new soon-to-be-self-published young adult novel Action Figures. The manuscript has been fully edited and processed at Create Space, my chosen publishing platform, and is now awaiting its cover (my cover artist Tricia is plugging away at that now…unless her baby needs her, of course. She has her priorities straight).

She has already finished the novel’s logo, which looks a little something like this:

Cover Photo V1 copy

Cool, huh? Nice touch of old-school comic book logo going on there.

(That specific image, by the way, is the cover image on my new Facebook page. Expect a lot of cross-posting between that and this blog.)

To help build interest in the novel leading up to its official release, I am posting the first two chapters on this site, free to read at your leisure. You’ll meet Carrie, the main character, and get a sense of the story’s tone. It barely touches the plot proper, but hopefully this taste will encourage you to buy a copy of the full novel once it’s available — and I do plan to make it available as a trade paperback and as an e-book.

I’ve already posted once about what to expect out of the story, but I’m going to do so again in a question-and-answer format.

What is the novel about?

Smart-ass answer: about 400 pages.

Straight answer: it’s about a group of teenage superhero wannabes who find themselves in over their heads when an actual super-villain starts causing trouble. It’s also about the main character, Carrie, trying to put her life back together after her parents’ unexpected divorce and her subsequent relocation to a new home in a new town.

What can I expect from the novel?

A lot of humor (which I’m sure comes as a shock to no one who knows me), action and adventure, homages to some classic comic book tropes, and a reasonable dose of drama; I’m trying to avoid a teenage angst-ridden quasi-soap opera, so don’t expect “Teen Titans 90210.” Also, don’t expect to see what has become a cliche of the YA genre, the love triangle. I hate ’em and I’m not interested in writing one. This is not to say the characters will not have romantic experiences, but don’t expect Carrie to spend the entire series twisted in knots over whether to love Male Character A or Male Character B. Boring!

Wait, did you say “series”?

I did. This is envisioned as a finite series, of as-yet indeterminate length, and whether the second book happens depends in good part on how well the first one does (not that I’m trying to pressure anybody to buy it. Heavens, no). I say “finite series” because I do have an end in mine, and no interest in writing a series that goes on forever and ever…you know, like superhero comics do.

Hey, why are you doing this as a prose novel? Why not a comic book?

Quick, name three YA series that tell a superhero story.

You can’t, can you?

And that is why I’m telling this story this way. A superhero story told via the expected medium is going to be white noise. As a novel, I’m hoping Action Figures will stand out and really grab prospective readers’ attention.

Why a female protagonist? Shouldn’t a superhero story be told through the eyes of a male superhero?

Again, name three comic book series starring a woman. While you’re doing that, I’ll name ten times as many starring a male character. I won’t even cheat and just list off the multiple titles starring Batman or Wolverine.

The idea that comics in general, and superhero comics in particular, are only for boys (and men) is laughable. I know LOTS of women who dig superhero comics (my wife, for starters) and want to see more titles with female protagonists. Moreover, they want to see female protagonists that are presented well: as fully fleshed-out, well-rounded, layered characters that do more than back up the men while gadding about in impractically skimpy, skintight outfits.

Granted, I am taking a bit of risk here as a 40-something male writer telling a story through the eyes of a 15-year-old girl, but I was fortunate to have some beta-readers who were quick to point out when I got Carrie wrong — and aside from a complaint from my editor/sister-in-law about the cliche of girls being bad at math (which I address here), I made it through the manuscript without anyone calling bullshit on me. Hooray!

Does that mean male readers won’t like it?

Not at all. There are prominent male characters in the book, but that shouldn’t make a difference; I’d like to think male readers would pick this up as quickly as they’d snatch up The Hunger Games series or any of Cherie Priest’s excellent novels, and for the same reasons: they want to read a fun, exciting story, regardless of whether the main character is a boy or a girl.

For that matter, just because it’s a young adult novel, that doesn’t mean adult adults won’t enjoy it. Honestly, the “young adult” tag has lot a lot of its meaning over the past several years, what with us old fogies snatching up YA titles as quickly as the alleged target audience. Young adult novels nowadays are as complex and mature as many a “book intended for adults,” and I think the only thing that makes a YA title a YA title nowadays is the lack of the lack of a gratuitous F-bomb or two. But I digress.

Let’s say I bought a copy. I’ve done my part, right?

And I thank you for it (or will, when you buy one), but please remember that I’m doing this on my own here. I don’t have a publishing giant behind me to promote and distribute the book to stores across America and the world. I don’t have an advertising budget. I have this blog, a Facebook page, and (soon) a presence on Amazon.com. I know how to write and send press releases. It’s a start, but what I will need to make this endeavor really pay off is support from those who took a chance on an unknown writer and shelled out for a debut (self-published) novel.

If you like the novel, please take a couple of minutes to go onto Amazon.com (and/or, if it shows up there, Goodreads.com) and post a review. It doesn’t have to be long or elaborate, just give it a rating and say a few words letting people know why you liked it. Tell your friends and family about it, maybe even give them a copy as a gift (or at least let them borrow your copy). Share my Facebook and blog posts so new readers can learn about it. If you’re feeling really ambitious, shoot your local bookstore and/or library an e-mail asking them to carry a copy.

Okay, I’ve rambled on long enough. Go check out the sample chapters, and they stay tuned for further announcements about the release.

Whine And Women

While I was submitting Action Figures to publishers the other week, I noticed an interesting theme running through their submissions guidelines pages. When it came to young adult fiction submissions, two phrases came up time and again, the first of which was “no vampires.”

The second — and I am presenting something of a composite phrasing here — was: “We are interested in stories with strong, proactive heroines; no whiny, angst-ridden female leads, please.”

I don’t think it’s a stretch to trace both of these to the Twilight novels, which have spawned a legion of copycats and, judging by the moratorium on Bella Swan-like characters, wannabes, complete with wussy, shallow female protagonists who spend their time wallowing in anxiety and being led around by the nose by their male love interests.

(I say all this freely admitting I have never read any of the books or seen any of the movies. My knowledge of the Bella Swan character comes mostly from critical reviews and from friends who have read the books and told me, quite emphatically, how much they hated Bella because she was nothing but a self-obsessed lovelorn wimp.)

On one level, I am not a fan of female leads who are so, for want of a better term, damsel-in-distressy. It’s tough to root for a character whose primary, if not sole motivation is to win the man of her dreams, a goal she achieves by simply being there for said dreamboat to rescue from whatever threat presents itself. They’re not much fun to read and they’re no fun to write.

Conversely, I’m also displeased with how often stories sometimes go out of their way to empower their female leads, particularly in period pieces. I readily acknowledge that history had its fair share of real-life Xenas, from Boudicca to Joan of Arc, but what made these figures so extraordinary is that they were very much the exception to the rule. Most women of ancient history were not bad-asses; they were more likely to be in the role of damsel in distress.

Creating a weak female character is a tricky task, if for no other reason than the reception she’s likely to receive from the audience. There’s little tolerance for portrayals of the woman as a victim, a doormat, a prize — even a sexpot or a femme fatale can be subject to scathing criticism for embracing their beauty and sexuality over their more profound qualities.

The question for the writer is: what serves the story better? If the story calls for a strong, smart, independent woman to make things happen, great. I’m happy to write a character like that (and I do in Action Figures. The main character is one of my favorite creations).

But sometimes, a different approach is necessary. In Bostonia, I have two female leads who are definitely not cast from the strong protagonist mold. I could describe both of them as broken people, individuals who have been crushed by their life experiences and have adapted in their own ways to deal with it, neither of these ways all that great. One is reactive, passive, afraid of herself; the other is more proactive and takes shit from no one, but she is also selfish, self-destructive, filled with self-loathing. Neither of them are heroes in a true sense, but they are what that story needed, and I can’t bring myself to offer even a false apology for that.

However, I will reiterate that writing more positive female characters is much more gratifying and fun. I’ll close on an up note and present some of my all-time favorite female characters.

Ellen RipleyAliens

Sigourney Weaver’s iconic sci-fi heroine ends up on just about every list of great movie characters, female or otherwise, and there’s a damn good reason for that: she belongs there.

Ripley is the godmother of the modern action heroine, not because of her capacity to kick ass, but for why she does so: the thing that galvanizes Ripley, that allows her to break free of her crippling fear of the titular xenomorphs and crushing survivor’s guilt is the overpowering need to protect her child — or surrogate, in this case, the young survivor Newt.

Before Newt enters the picture (so to speak), Ripley is literally along for the ride, but then this little girl falls into her lap, and from that point on, everything she does is for the sake of getting her de facto daughter out of hell alive.

(If you’ve never seen the director’s cut of Aliens, rectify that as soon as possible. There is a crucial deleted scene that fleshes out the Ripley/Newt relationship to a much more profound degree than is presented in the already excellent theatrical cut.)

Hermione Grangerthe Harry Potter series

Harry might have been the star of J. K. Rowling’s mega-best-selling series, but Harry wouldn’t have survived the first book without Hermione. She was more than Harry’s co-sidekick (along with Ron Weasley); she was the brains of the operation, the voice of reason, and that against which even Harry occasionally checked his moral compass.

Hermione had her girly moments throughout the series, but she wasn’t simply “the girl,” and never let anyone force her into that role. She embraced her intelligence, never backed down from a direct challenge, and never apologized for sometimes being a right royal pain in the ass — and more often than not, she was proven right in the end.

When great modern literary heroines are mentioned, Hermione is often listed in the same breath as Bella Swan, but they do not belong on the same list. Bella is what young girls should avoid becoming. Hermione is everything young girls should aspire to be.

Briar Wilkes and Mercy Lynchthe Clockwork Century series

Cherie Priest has become a favorite author of mine, and I can always count on her for brisk, exciting stories filled with colorful characters, and Briar Wilkes of Boneshaker and Mercy Lynch of Dreadnought perfectly exemplify the tough-as-nails protagonists common in her novels.

The characters are similar in that they are both haunted by their fathers (albeit in different ways), are trying to live up to their late husbands, and are driven by their familial ties — Briar by her son, who gets trapped in the deadly ruins of Seattle, Mercy by her dying father, who summons her from the front lines of the Civil War for what could be their final visit.

Despite their respective tragic backgrounds, these women never let the past crush their spirits. Instead, they are driven by their prospective futures, futures that could turn out as badly as their pasts — if they allow it. Their status as action heroines is incidental; they don’t go out looking for a fight, but they won’t back down from one if it stands between them and their goals.

Kara “Starbuck” ThraceBattlestar Galactica

The re-imagined Starbuck (as brilliantly portrayed by (Katee Sackhoff) was one of the standout characters in the new BSG, which is saying something considering what a uniformly superb cast that show had.

It’s kind of a cop-out to simply call Starbuck “tough but vulnerable.” Was she tough? Hell yes. Put her in a combat situation and she was fearless and unstoppable, but take her off the battlefield and she was a mess. Killing she could do, dying she could handle, but living scared the shit out of her.

Almost purely id-driven, Starbuck could be an incredibly frustrating character. She could be a hardcore bitch, often to people who did not deserve it. She constantly sabotaged her own happiness. The people who cared about her the most were the ones who got hurt the worst by her selfishness. It was honestly hard to like her sometimes, but she was always compelling.

Sue SylvesterGlee

I wanted to end with a great female villain, but I had a devil of a time thinking of one that truly spoke to me. There are a lot of she-devils in film, TV, and literature but few rose to iconic villain status in my mind…and then I remembered Jane Lynch’s delightfully vile cheerleading coach and kicked myself for not thinking of her sooner.

Sylvester fits a number of villainous categories: the villain you love to hate, the villain who believes she’s the hero, and the villain with a hidden softer side — and it is that last category that makes Sue a fully realized character and not just a walking one-liner delivery system.

One of the character’s defining moments came in the first season, when she allowed Becky (Lauren Potter), a student with Down’s syndrome, to join the Cheerios. The audience spent the rest of the episode wondering what her angle was, how she would use and ultimately destroy this poor girl, only to learn that Sue’s decision was utterly sincere — and that she had an older sister, Jean (Robin Trocki), who also had Down’s syndrome.

Sue’s fierce devotion to and adoration of her disabled sister stands in stark contrast to the monster that roams the halls of William KcKinley High School, and while it humanizes Sue to a great degree, it does not diminish her boundless capacity for cruelty. Indeed, it makes her moments of genuine anger all the more terrifying, because the audience knows what sort of heart beats beneath that track suit: one that, when given just cause, can fuel an engine of absolute terror.