Excelsior!

In response to the recent death of Stan Lee, I’d like to say some things about Stan, and superhero comic books in general.

I’m old enough to have started reading comic books pre-Marvel: back when Batman was lighthearted (but not as silly as the 1960s TV show), and when Lois Lane was Superman’s girlfriend even though I can’t remember a single romantic moment between them. (Occasional issues had them getting married, but it always turned out to be fake or imaginary. Back then, they never kissed or even went out on dates. Later, their relationship became much richer; these days, I like it a lot. But when I first started reading comics, Lois only existed to get Superman in trouble.)

Then Stan Lee started Marvel, and the industry changed. He injected two priceless innovations into superhero comics: soap opera, and the soapbox.

By modern standards, Stan moved comic book characterization from zero-dimensional to one-dimensional. There was nothing subtle about Ben Grimm agonizing over his hideousness or Peter Parker smacked down by yet another horrible piece of bad luck. Most villains were complete numskulls; so were most police, army officers, politicians, and religious leaders.

But still, Stan Lee’s characters were more complex than elsewhere in the industry. We’d never seen anything like them. Not in comic books.

Characters actually had emotions and relationships. Sometimes, they got mad; sometimes, they were depressed; sometimes, they fell in love and actually did something about it.

Ben Grimm went over to Alicia Masters’ place on a regular basis—they ate dinner together and talked. Peter Parker went out on honest-to-goodness dates with Gwen Stacey and Mary Jane Watson. Sue Storm got ticked off with Reed Richards because he took her for granted, so she nearly had a fling with Prince Namor. (Maybe eventually, she did have a fling with Namor. I can imagine her looking into the camera and saying, “Whether I did or didn’t, it’s none of your business.”)

The characterization wasn’t subtle, but it was more than punching out bad guys. And it set the stage for decades of further evolution, in which comics did get subtle, at least sometimes.

Stan’s other innovation was the soapbox. Starting early in Marvel’s history, every comic had a page giving news about Marvel, and that page included Stan’s Soapbox: basically a monthly editorial column. Some of those columns are now legendary, denouncing racism and sexism, or urging kids and parents to have conversations about drugs.

Those editorials were far from revolutionary by modern standards—today we realize that racism and sexism are deeply systemic problems, not just overt misbehavior by people who are clearly “bad”—but at the time, Stan was applauded for going out on a limb. And remember, at the time, comics were still regarded as books for children.

But to me, the soapbox page was important for another reason: the page talked about comic book creators. I was old enough to know that superheroes weren’t real, but I hadn’t quite realized that the stories were made up by people. The soapbox page talked about the writers and artists as actual human beings making a living by inventing everything on the page.

Comics didn’t just happen—people made them. Sometimes there’d be photos of Stan, or Jack Kirby, or Steve Ditko, or Marie Severin working away at their desks. People made these books. Stan just sat down and invented new stories about Spider-Man. In fact, he invented the characters themselves (in conjunction with the artists, of course, but that’s a whole other topic).

The point is I realized that making up a stories was a thing you could do. Wow! And for that amazing revelation, let me thank the one and only Stan Lee.

[The image at the top of this post is excelsior.]

Publicity and a Podcast

They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded is now available everywhere! I’ve been doing publicity stuff for the past little bit, including appearing at places like the World Fantasy convention…but I’m back and will start blogging again soon.

I’ll also be doing some guest blog appearances at other sites. More on that when the blogs appear. In the meantime, you can listen to me talk about the new book and a great deal else at Invaders from Planet 3, a podcast hosted by Robin Shantz. I had a lot of fun recording the session, and Robin asked a lot of great questions. I hope you’ll give it a listen.

By the way, a number of people have asked how they can support my books (besides buying a gazillion copies, of course). If you like my books, or the books of any other author, you can support them by posting reviews on Amazon as well as other book-related sites like GoodReads.

Just ranking books is good (e.g. giving a book 5 stars) but verbal reviews are even better. Such reviews don’t have to be long—even 10 words will make a difference—but verbal reviews really make an impression on the automatic algorithms that decide whether or not to recommend a book to other people.

So online reviews would be great…for my books or for the books of any author you like. Thanks!

One Week to Go

My next book, They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded, comes out one week from now (i.e. on November 6)! So maybe I should talk about it.

First, I should emphasize it’s a standalone book. Yes, it’s a sequel to All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, but it has its own beginning, middle and end. You don’t have to have read the first book, and I promise there won’t be a cliffhanger. A few ongoing threads are left to continue into future books of the series, but hey, that’s life. If I tied off every little problem by the final page, it wouldn’t be realistic.

So what’s the book about? In All Those Explosions, four science students at the University of Waterloo gain superpowers. As a result, stuff blows up, other stuff burns down, and maybe something bad happens to some rats.

But the heart of the book is one of the students dealing with personal baggage. Because here’s the thing: I think a novel should be about a pivotal moment in someone’s life. Someone should find themselves facing a situation that could take their life in new directions. What does that person actually choose? And then what happens because of their choice?

Explosions centers on one of the students, Kim Lam. Read the book and find out how gaining superpowers affects Kim’s life.

The new book, Gun, starts ten days after the end of Explosions. The action centers on Jools, a slightly self-sabotaging biology student. Before becoming super, Jools was in danger of flunking out from university. Now, however, her powers make her human-best at everything. She’s as strong as the best Olympic weight-lifter, as fast as the best Olympic sprinter, as medically skilled as the world’s best surgeon, and so on. She’s not superhumanly strong, fast, intelligent, etc., so she’s not going to win an arm-wrestling match with someone who has truly super muscles. However, she’s still as good as any human anywhere on anything.

What happens when a screw-up gets that kind of power? What happens when you used to be lost in all your classes, but now you know more than your professors? What happens when you’re suddenly really amazingly smart, but still in the habit of thinking you’re a dunce?

That’s the emotional heart of the story. Also there’s a supervillain’s gun (maybe) that many people want to steal, including the supervillain himself and a gang of outlaws modeled on Robin Hood and his men. Plus a bunch more explosions, killer wasps, a great train robbery, jellyfish underwear, and maybe dropping Sherwood Forest on top of Waterloo.

If that sounds interesting, I hope you’ll preorder the book from any of the standard online sites or your favorite bricks-and-mortar store. Thanks, and I hope you enjoy it!

How I Write: Forays

After several past postings on how I write a novel, we’ve reached the point where I can actually start writing. At this point I have:

It’s now time to start some real writing.

I begin with forays into the story. Usually this means writing the first ten pages or so a bunch of times. I want something that has the right chemistry: specifically a tone of voice that will sustain my interest for the months it will take me to write the first draft.

After all, if I get bored, I’ll have trouble finishing…and of course, if I get bored, readers will too. So I need to find a voice that grabs my attention. If I’ll be writing from multiple points of view, I need to find multiple voices that catch my ear.

I’m not one of those writers who believes my characters actually exist. I know the characters are just inside my head. At the same time, when I write from a character’s viewpoint, I’m giving free rein to some specific part of my psyche. I’m putting myself into a particular frame of mind and seeing what comes out. I want the result to be organic, without other parts of my brain trying to horn in on the act.

So I need to find a voice that ignites emotional sparks. It has to be someone who can face what’s going to happen and react in engaging ways. The character will be affected by the needs of the story and the character arcs I’ve envisioned…but the arcs I’ve made at this point are all provisional. If a character goes in other directions, that’s great. That’s part of what “being organic” means. And hey, if it all goes off the rails, I can always rewrite the darn thing.

So I write the first few pages numerous times. Five? Ten? More? And I usually write it all longhand, because writing with a pen makes my brain go slow and feel around for what’s waiting to come out.

Eventually, something clicks. When that happens, I know it. I’ve found the spark: the way into the story.

Then all I have to do is write the first draft.

[Map of forays during the Age of Discovery by Universalis [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

How I Write: Going Somewhere with Characters

Recently, I’ve been discussing how I start a writing project: beginning with a seed and brainstorming, then establishing a keel, and generating a list of set-pieces.

The set-pieces give me externals: a varied group of settings and action elements. But I want my stories to have internal value too. In particular, I want the main protagonist and other characters to go through significant changes, inside as well as outside.

There’s an element of risk here. I’m talking about the starting stages of the project. If I’ve done any writing at all at this point, it will just be playing around with possible voices and with viewpoint options (first person, third person, past tense, present tense, that sort of thing). Usually I like to establish such choices as part of the keel—at the very least, the keel has to specify whether the book will be told from a single person’s point of view or from multiple viewpoints. So I may write a few sample pages, but nothing cast in stone.

This means that I don’t really know the characters yet (unless I’m writing a sequel to a previous book, and even then, there are bound to be new characters who play substantial roles in the story). As a result, I have to be cautious when it comes to dictating how characters will change throughout the book.

I can only start by tentatively deciding a few traits about each character, but I recognize (a) that these traits may change, and (b) that they may fade in significance as new traits arise during the actual writing.

As an example, take Kim Lam from All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault. At the outset, I decided that Kim was a geology student and third-generation Chinese-Canadian. I also knew that Kim was withdrawn because of a high school relationship gone bad, and that her character arc throughout the book would be gradually tearing down the emotional walls she’s been hiding behind.

But I didn’t start out knowing that Kim was non-binary. When I first wrote the passage where she describes what kind of clothes she usually wears, I simply intended her standard outfit of overalls and a nondescript shirt to be an outgrowth of her emotional walls. She didn’t want to project any sexual image.

During the writing, that all changed. It surprised the heck out of me when Kim eventually came out as queer. I remember thinking, “Crap, am I really going to do this?” There are obvious risks when a cis-het white male writes a gender-queer Chinese person who started life as female. If I did a bad job, it would be awful.

Then again, I could feel the rightness of what I’d discovered. In the book, Kim talks about evolving into her non-binary identity: “I knew what didn’t work, but it took a while to find out what did.” That echoes what happened during the writing. But once I realized Kim had to be non-binary, that identity became such an essential part of the character that some traits devised while planning the book just faded into the background. (By the way, for those who care, Kim ends the book by taking new pronouns and shortening zir name to K.)

So before I begin a book, I decide on a few characters traits and provisional character arcs. But I expect those to change during the actual writing. I love when they change during writing. That means the characters are starting to come alive.

[Diagram showing an arc of a circle by Cburnett [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons]

How I Write: Set-Pieces II

One thing I forgot in my previous write-up on set-pieces: set-pieces are relatively modular. By this, I mean that you can swap them out and replace them without changing much else in the story.

For example, I mentioned the meet cute as a common set-piece in movies. All that’s necessary for a meet cute is that the two leads meet in some entertaining way. Also, at the end of the scene they usually have to have developed a certain attitude toward each other (often initially hostile).

For a good meet cute, your couple might meet at work, or in a gym, or at the dentist’s, or in a fender-bender. It doesn’t matter. All that the plot requires is that they meet and establish that starting attitude.

So let’s say your original plan is that the two will meet when their dogs get into a fight at the dog-park. But once you start actually writing the story, you might get a better idea. As you develop the characters into more rounded people, maybe you decide that one of the romantic leads likes to do science fiction cosplay…so maybe the meet cute will happen when that person is dressed as a Klingon. The Klingon locks their keys in the car, and is trying to break in when the other person (a cop) shows up.

So you try writing that scene. If the result isn’t as good as you want, then you can try something else. Plotwise, it doesn’t matter as long as the two meet.

You can replace a set-piece with something very different, if ever you come up with something that will serve the story better…especially if you think of something that better reflects other parts of the story (e.g. character traits that you discover as you write). Eventually, you’ll have to smooth everything out into a well-connected whole, but that’s what revision is for. When you’re just starting to write a story, your set-pieces are provisional and replaceable. You want them to be good, but you shouldn’t consider them cast in stone.

How I Write: Set-Pieces

Once I have the keel of a book, it’s time to build the story around it. I do that with a sequence of set-pieces.

In Hollywood, a set-piece is a block of action: a car chase perhaps, or a meet cute (where two people who will eventually become lovers meet in an unusual way, often leading to an initial clash of personalities). But when I’m writing, I use the term more loosely. I think of a set-piece as a sequence of one or more scenes that all take place in the same general setting.

For example, the initial set-piece for They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded is a block of scenes all taking place at Waterloo Regional Airport. In the final version of the book, the lead character (named Jools) moves between various places in the airport—from a plane to the tarmac, to a luxury lounge, to a baggage handling area, then back to the lounge—but my initial plan for the book just said AIRPORT.

My plan also had a list of things that should take place at the airport. I wanted to introduce Jools and her world for people who hadn’t read Book 1, and to demonstrate various aspects of her character and her abilities. I also wanted to introduce several new characters, re-introduce old ones, and hint at major players in the action to come. I definitely wanted to show the super-weapon that everyone will be fighting over throughout the book (as specified in the keel). Finally, I wanted a superpowered fight that would cause mega-damage, because what’s the point of writing about superheroes without mass destruction?

My initial plan didn’t have a lot of detail or a through-line of the action. It was just a list, pretty much unsorted, of people and points that should be covered before Jools left the airport. The list included a lot of cool stuff I might throw in (as generated during brainstorming). However, I didn’t cast anything in stone, and there was quite a lot of hand-waving.

For example, the book features a modern day Robin Hood and his gang: they may be villains or not, but they want their hands on the super-weapon. So my plan called for one of Robin’s gang to appear at the airport and try to steal the weapon. However, I didn’t bother deciding what the would-be thief was like. I could come up with that later. Maybe some other set-piece would require a particular type of “Merry Man” and I could backfill the same character into the airport action. Or I could leave things undecided and dream up someone entertaining during the actual writing.

I like to leave openings like that in my plans. If I nail down too much in advance, writing the book becomes boring and forced.

So the first set-piece was AIRPORT. I continued on with the other set-pieces of the book, each placed in a different setting, to ensure an appropriate degree of variety during the course of the novel. (Other set-pieces included UNIVERSITY LAB, MEMORIAL SERVICE, and several different blocks of action in SHERWOOD FOREST. Read the book and find out how it all goes together!)

But let me point out that my initial plans for set-pieces are mainly external. For each set-piece I want a setting, a few plot elements, and which characters may be present. But I don’t think about the internal aspects of characters. I leave that for the next phase of planning: establishing character development arcs. I’ll talk about those next time.

[The photo of the airport and airplane is of RGIA Airport in Hyderabad, India. It was taken by Abhinay6597 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0%5D, from Wikimedia Commons. It is definitely not Waterloo Regional Airport.]