Monday Musings

Yesterday, this popped up on my Facebook feed:

FB Memory

The manuscript in question was for Action Figures – Issue One: Secret Origins. An agent had expressed quite a bit of interest in it, felt it had promise, and worked with me over the course of several months to flesh it out and polish it up. I spent much of that year convinced that, after years of trying and failing, I was finally on my way to becoming a published author.

And then in December of that year, I got the crushing e-mail that said, basically, the story was great but there was no market for a YA superhero series. The YA world was still enamored with Twilight and its many, many derivatives and was about to enter its “plucky heroine fights an oppressive government in a dystopian future” phase courtesy of The Hunger Games’ growing popularity, and this agent wasn’t one to take a leap of faith and support a book that wasn’t a variation on what was already popular.

(I say this not bitterly but as a plain statement of fact. The entertainment industry is filled with people who want someone else to take the risk on a new, unlike-anything-else-out-there property. Trailblazers are the exception, not the rule.)

Flash forward to about a year after the above FB post. I hadn’t written a thing outside of work-related material (I was still employed as a reporter) and had little motivation to get back to creative writing, but at the prompting of my friend Justin (fellow indie author J.M. Aucoin to the general public) I decided to take a shot at putting Secret Origins out myself. It was an experiment and I went into it with hopes but no expectations.

And here I am, four years after that post, with seven books out and several more on the way. I quit the paper and am making a living off my book sales (not an extravagant living, but I’m making money), I have fans who e-mail me to offer kind words and inquire when the next book will be out, I’m doing public appearances such as book signings and discussion panels…it’s like I’m a real author or something.

It’s hard to summarize the point of all this without resorting to some worn cliche, but I’ll do it anyway. This was a case of a door closing and a window opening, and following a road less traveled to realize a personal dream. It wasn’t how I planned or expected things to go, but taking a risk and trying something different paid off.

If you’re a creative person — be it a writer, an artist, an actor, a singer, a musician, et cetera– who finds him/herself stuck in neutral because what you’re trying now isn’t working, be brave and try a different direction. You might be pleasantly surprised at how it works out.

Action Figures – Issue Two – An Introduction

Benchmark time! Draft four of Action Figures – Issue Two is done, and now it’s off to my editor-slash-sister-in-law Tori for a final review. That means it’s time to start chatting this thing up.

So, what happened in book one?

Well, you could always buy a copy and read it, but if you’re going to be that way…

In Action Figures – Issue One – Secret Origins, we met the Hero Squad, a group of aspiring super-heroes — Carrie “Lightstorm” Hauser, Matt “Captain Trenchcoat” Steiger, Sara “Psyche” Danvers, Stuart “Superbeast” Lumley, and Missy “Kunoichi” Hamill — as they embarked on their first adventure. The teens ran afoul of Archimedes, a renegade artificial intelligence; the deadly mercenary Manticore; the mysterious mastermind known simply as the Foreman; and local super-hero Concorde, leader of the Protectorate, who tried (and failed) to ground the fledgling super-team.

What’s book two about?

Action Figures – Issue Two: Black Magic Women picks up a few days after the events of issue one. There’s no rest for the weary Squad as they find themselves in the middle of a feud between the necromancer Black Betty and Dr. Enigma, the Protectorate’s expert of all things magical and supernatural. The prize is the Libris Infernalis, a book of powerful dark magic — powerful enough to summon ancient demon-gods capable of laying waste to the planet.

What else happens?

The team learns more about their super-human capabilities thanks to Doc Quantum, leader of the Quantum Quintet and one of the world’s greatest minds; Missy undergoes some frightening changes; the Squad meets the Entity, the Protectorate’s mysterious fifth member; and Nina Nitro shows Carrie what it takes to play in the super-hero big leagues.

There’s also a little bit of romance in store for Carrie, but I would like to assure readers, there are and will continue to be NO LOVE TRIANGLES.

Hey, man, why the hate for love triangles?

One: they’re overdone. Every bloody YA series has a love triangle, it seems. Two: they’re a cheap, lazy way to generate tension in a story. There are better, more interesting ways to explore romance in a story than simply playing the Archie-Betty-Veronica card. Three: they can overwhelm the other, more important things going on in the story. In The Hunger Games series, the idea of a young girl being forced into government-sanctioned gladiatorial games gets overshadowed in media stories by the Katniss-Peeta-Gale triangle. Oh, yes, let’s focus on the cutesy romance instead, downplay the tragic death of hundreds of children over generations in the name of keeping the poor in their place.

But I digress…

Anything else I should know?

Make sure to read the acknowledgements in the back of the book, because I’ll be adding a little Easter egg for readers.

When will book two be available?

My goal is to have it out in March. That will depend in large part on how quickly my editor and my cover artist finish their respective jobs. I don’t like to be pushy or set hard deadlines on people who have other, more important responsibilities, so things will wrap up when they wrap up.

Will the book be available for the Kindle?

It will, although the e-book version will probably come out after the print edition. Formatting the manuscript for Kindle is a whole ‘nother project in itself.

Stay tuned for updates as they become available!

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 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 (and/or, if it shows up there, 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.

The (Way More Than) Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Use in YA Fiction

In looking for a relevant quote to open this post with, I found two that contrast each other nicely:

Profanity is the effort of a feeble brain to express itself forcibly. – Spencer W. Kimball

Profanity and obscenity entitle people who don’t want unpleasant information to close their ears and eyes to you. – Kurt Vonnegut

In other words, Kimball regards profanity as a poor method of self-expression, while Vonnegut seems to accept it as a part of our language and, if I may be so bold as to interpret the late great author’s remark, places the weakness on the listener rather than the speaker.

I follow Vonnegut on this one. Profanity is part of language and his has a purpose. Sometimes a crude, artless purpose, but profanity, especially the big guns — shit, cocksucker, cunt, asshole, fuck and its many, many permutations — has unmatchable power. As a person, I like profanity. I use it often. The only times I rein myself in are when young children are within earshot and when I’m writing young adult fiction, and it kind of galls me in the latter case.

This isn’t to say I want to load the dialogue up with shits and fucks, but I’d like to have the freedom to drop an F-bomb if I think it appropriate. However, the conventional logic with YA is that it’s generally a PG-level story for language and sexual content; hard profanity would get edited out, so why bother putting it in?

The real burn for me is the fact that I could stray into PG-13 or even R territory for violent content and mature themes and it would rattle fewer cages than a single “fuck” in the dialog. I can’t recall “The Hunger Games” having so much as a damn or hell, but a young girl getting gut-stabbed by a spear? No problemo.

In past discussions about writing dialog for younger characters, it’s been argued to me profanity is unrealistic because teens don’t use such language. I can only assume these people have never met a teenager, because they can be impressively created when they work blue. Swearing is as much a part of language for teens as for adults, maybe even more so because it still has that whiff of the forbidden, which is like catnip to teenagers. It should be acceptable dialog in YA.

Everything Old is New Again; or, Remember to Recycle!

I wasn’t planning to start a major new project, but somehow I’ve cranked out 12 pages of a YA novel. I’m still not sure if it will sustain momentum once I get deeper in, but I’m off to a very promising start.

The project in question is not brand-new, more of a fresh approach to an old, old idea. Years ago, as a joke, my friend Tricia (creator of the webcomic Swiftriver) and I re-imagined ourselves and our friends as super-heroes (y’know, like you do…when you’ve had a little too much to drink). These were not at all serious alter-egos (again: drinking), but some of the characters got stuck in my brain.

From time to time I’d mentally revisit the characters and see if I could find a purpose for them, and a few years back I tried them out in a TV series setting, and hey, it worked. Before long I had done something unusual for me: I had crafted remarkably detailed storylines for this imaginary series, including an overall series arc. I wrote up a script in the appropriate format for a one-hour television show — my first time doing so, and getting the pacing down to account for commercial breaks was TOUGH. Maybe that’s why the idea died on the vine and the project, which I’d dubbed Action Figures, went back to purely a thought experiment.

Every so often, I take an old writing project and try to resurrect it, and one of the things I like to try is to re-write an old story in a new format. I have a couple of stories that exist as both prose novel and screenplay, and in those cases I found the new format felt like a better fit for the story in question than the old one.

Since I wrapped work (temporarily) on Bostonia, I’d been wondering what my next project might be, and no ideas were presenting themselves. Then I began reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I was immediately struck by the first-person present tense perspective, and it sparked something. So I decided to bring back Action Figures — conceived as a very adult TV series — as a YA novel, told from the perspective of one of the characters.

So far the novel has come together quickly — 10 pages in one day! — but I foresee a few problems ahead. When you’re dealing with the fixed perspective of single character, the conceit is the reader sees everything he (or she, in this case) sees and nothing more. Other characters either have to have their moments in front of the protagonist/narrator or have them reveal those moments to the P/N later.

It’s entirely possible to simply have the P/N narrate these off-page moments as well and trust that the reader will follow, but for some people that can be jarring; in their minds, they’re wondering how the main character can know about developments he/she wasn’t there to witness first-hand (even though the idea that the character is speaking to them directly is accepted readily and without challenge).

Then there is the method I’ve seen Brad Meltzer use in his novels to split the difference, with the main character providing first-person perspective narration in some chapters and an omniscient third-person perspective narrator assuming control in others. Again, readers can be thrown off by this dual narration technique, but it never bothered me personally.

For me, I think finding the right approach is going to involve a bit of trial and error. I don’t mind the trial part, but I’m hoping to keep the error to a minimum.