Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Generation One: Children of Mars

Ladies and gents, on August 6th 2012, the Curiosity rover touched down on the surface of Mars for the first time, and today, exactly a year later, I am proud (and a little terrified) to announce that the Generation One: Children of Mars Kickstarter is officially LIVE! My team and I have been hard at work since March getting this thing ready to go. Please pledge, share with your friends, and help us get this thing rollin'!

Please like us on FB and follow us on Twitter! And, of course, watch the video. It'll tell you what's up.

(Tip: if you hurry, you can get in on our Early Bird Special and save 5 bucks when you pre-order the paperback!)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The #1 Rule of Everything

I ended my last blog post with this "pro tip":

Yes, your blog is important, but your family and your fiction are more important. If you have to take time off from your blog (say, to finish long overdue revisions on a novel), don't apologize for it. Very few—if any—of your readers are going to be camping out, wondering when the next post is going to drop. If anybody gives you shit, give 'em the ol' mental middle finger. You know what you're dealing with/going through/working on—they don't. Do your work, and get back to the blog when you can. You're only human.

And boy did I take my own advice seriously.

Hello again. The revisions to the novel are finally happening in a productive way, and I have a rare moment of nothing-to-do here to catch you up on what's been going on with me. I just won the 2012 Codex Halloween Contest, so that's pretty awesome. Ken Liu and I battled it out for first place, going back and forth several times, but the voting happened to end while I was up. I admire Ken a lot, so it was a real honor. (Ken's story, by the way, was very good, and I expect we'll see it soon in the pages of a major magazine. I'm currently shopping my story around as well, and I'm finding even good horror can be hard to sell, especially at 7500 words. I'll keep you updated on my progress.)

But that's not really why I'm writing this.

First of all, let me say, there's a tendency for writers to become obsessed with rules. If you're reading my blog series "Chasing the First Sale," you know I'm the chiefest of sinners; my series is full of rules, and there's a good reason for that: rules are helpful. They give shape to good tendencies and bad. They create the illusion of objective form, so we can more easily articulate and decide whether to embrace an idea/technique/etc. or discard it. And that's fine. That's why rules are everywhere in the fiction world. If you're a beginner, you're probably choking on them right now. Choke away. It's good to let these things into your head so they can battle it out; the truly good pieces of advice will emerge shining and victorious by producing publishable fiction for you again and again. But by then I suspect they won't be rules; they'll be habits, and that's the goal.

But rules are not free. In some ways, they own the bridge between you and your success, but the tolls they level at you can be a bitch. Let me explain what I mean.

"I made that up."

How often do you hear that word? I'm willing to bet you hear it (and use it) every day. Probably several times a day. If you're a fiction writer, you hear it all the time in relation to your craft. You're told you should show, not tell. You should write sympathetic characters. You should avoid passive voice like the plague. (Cliches too.) (You should also avoid using too many parenthetical asides.) Should, should, should. This "shoulding" is plenty annoying when it comes to issues of craft—it's merely annoying because it's easy to adapt to rules of craft. You just go, "Oh. Well, I guess I won't use adverbs in dialogue attribution anymore."—but it can become devastating in issues of the writing lifestyle.

You should write every day. You should write 500-1000 keep-able words in an hour. You should read a new book every week. You should keep up with the major magazines. You should know the names of every editor in the business, every prominent agent, every writer currently doing top notch work. You should attend conventions regularly. You should blog regularly. (Gotta build that platform!)

It doesn't stop there. The more rules you hear, the more "shoulds" you absorb, the more they can begin to crush you. You'll even start "shoulding" yourself.

You should be farther than this. You should have more sales. You should have won an award by now. You should be more visible. You should make more money.

At this point, the "shoulds" have got you running scared. You want to be a successful writer so badly, you can't bear the thought that it's slipping through your fingers. This can motivate you, especially in the short term, but chances are, if you let this kind of thinking go on long enough, you'll crash. You'll crash hard.

This is why I'm blogging today, guys—this happened to me.

No sweat.
I just won't fall and break my ass, that's all.
I don't recommend ever doing what I'm doing here. Discussing your personal life in a professional setting is generally a no-no. (This is one of the good rules, more often than not.) But I feel compelled to share this in hopes that maybe someone reading it will recognize this tendency in themselves and hopefully prevent a real crash. Because once you fall all the way down, it's a long climb back up.

A year and a month ago, I had never been to a writing convention. In the space of a year, I attended World Fantasy Convention where I got my first real look at the landscape of publishing, what it takes to make it, the scope of the competition, the sheer number of immensely talented people out there. (The truth is you're not competing, not really, but that's another topic altogether.) I attended C2E2 and learned the same things about the comics field, which I am also very passionate about. I won my first Codex contest, taking first in January's Weekend Warrior and beating many writers I look up to and enjoy reading.

This last one is weird. Winning a contest should (there's that word) be an affirmation that you're doing something right, but I didn't take it that way. To me, it meant it wasn't skill standing in my way anymore; it was me. I should've been writing more stories, submitting them more diligently, etc. It took the full weight of the "why aren't you farther along" question and dropped it squarely on my shoulders.

Now let's pause. At this point, what was actually wrong with me and my career? Well, nothing. I could have been writing more, but I was still producing some good fiction. I was blogging effectively and gaining twitter followers. My blogs were going up on SFWA as guest posts. I was even selling some stories. So what was the problem?

Just that word. Goddamn "should."

I had allowed my expectations, the rules I had heard, my fears, all of it to creep in and soil my resolve. In short, I had should my own pants.

I won't go into my personal life in detail, but suffice it to say, an unhappy person is never unhappy in just one area of their life. Like a lot of writers, I have a tendency to get depressed. And I did. Big time. My work suffered. My relationships suffered. On and on, the snowball rolled.

Somewhere in the middle of it all, my wife suggested I get some help, and in a rare moment of clarity, I heard her. I didn't want to feel like shit. I wanted to feel good, to tell my stories, to be a fantastic husband and father and friend. Not because I had to (nice try, should; I see through that disguise), but because I wanted to. Because that's what life means to me.

So I went. And I learned some things. And with the help of a low-dose of Welbutrin (SCIENCE, bitches!), I was able to put those things into practice. I learned that just because somebody else feels something, it doesn't mean I have to feel it too. I learned that each bad moment doesn't have to connect to every bad moment that came before or might come after. I learned that other people's opinions of me are none of my business. I learned that sometimes it's okay to say "fuck it." And most relevant to this post, I learned to (god, it sounds so simple) do my best, and cut myself some slack. Nobody follows all the rules all the time, so why should I expect to?

I titled this post "The #1 Rule of Everything," but that's just a title. There is no rule like that, and god, I'm glad of it. (If you must have a #1 Rule, make it "Don't let rules rule you." Or something similarly snappy that wouldn't be out of place on a church sign.) If I had to retitle this post, I would call it, "You're Only Human."

"We should be on the moon right now."

And that's okay, Blog Reader and Aspiring Writer. That's just fine. Learn what you can, collect and archive those rules we talked about, do your best to produce and improve, but when you hit a speed bump, for the love of god, don't beat yourself into the ground over it. Success is a sliding bar; it will always drift away from you. Reach one level, and you'll find the bar has moved on to the next. So rather than chasing "success," chase happiness.

Don't think about how happy you'll be when you're living on the coast in a stylish little cabin making 100k/year writing books that come easy. Instead, think about how good it feels to sit down to write, snug in your chair, fingers on the keys, realizing that there's nowhere else you're supposed to be. It's time for that familiar sense of struggle as you pull the words out, one by one, and by god, doesn't it feel great? Like hard exercise? Like skinning your knee and standing back up? This is what you are, Aspiring Writer, and you're being it, right now, in this moment.

Think that. Then move your fingers.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

22 Storytelling Tips from Pixar

(If you haven't read these, yer welcome.)

Recently, Emma Coats (storyboard artist for Pixar's Brave, among other things) tweeted 22 deceptively simple tips on storytelling. My wife brought them to my attention in the car the other day; she just handed me the list, printed from an email. I was distracted and thinking about other things (like driving—I keed!), but when I started reading the tips, I sobered right the hell up.

These are beyond fantastic. If writing were a pop quiz, this is the shit I would scribble on my forearm in sharpie. Go follow Emma right now @lawnrocket. And if you haven't seen it yet, go watch Brave—gorgeous doesn't begin to do it justice.

Without further jibber-jabber:

PIXAR'S 22 STORYTELLING TIPS (as tweeted by bad-ass Emma Coats) 

1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

2. You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

3. Trying for theme is important, but you won't see what the story is actually about til you're at the end of it. Now rewrite.

4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

8. Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

9. When you're stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you've got to recognize it before you can use it.

11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone.

12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it's poison to the audience.

14. Why must you tell THIS story? What's the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That's the heart of it.

15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don't succeed? Stack the odds against.

17. No work is ever wasted. If it's not working, let go and move on - it'll come back around to be useful later.

18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d'you rearrange them into what you DO like?

21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can't just write ‘cool'. What would make YOU act that way?

22. What's the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.


Don't those make you want to lock yourself in a room with a notebook for weeks on end? (Is that just me?)

One final tip before I go. This one is mine, and it's about blogging:

Yes, your blog is important, but your family and your fiction are more important. If you have to take time off from your blog (say, to finish long overdue revisions on a novel), don't apologize for it. Very few—if any—of your readers are going to be camping out, wondering when the next post is going to drop. If anybody gives you shit, give 'em the ol' mental middle finger. You know what you're dealing with/going through/working on—they don't. Do your work, and get back to the blog when you can. You're only human.

Be back soon, guys. Got some junk needs doing.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Chasing the First Sale (Part 3): Becoming a Student of the Job

"All artists are willing to suffer for their work, but why are so few prepared to learn to draw?" —Banksy

I grew up loving stories. Not in a normal way; I loved them so much it hurt. It wasn't enough just to enjoy them; I had to own them, imitate them, and—eventually—create some of my own. No matter what I did with my life, I knew telling stories was going to be part of it. I wanted to write for comics, for video games, for the screen. But like a would-be musician desperately wanting to "be in a band," I had to learn an instrument first. Short stories were the first instrument I picked up. If you're reading this, maybe they're your first instrument too.


That's right. One step at a time, little guy.
Wait. Is that the new Guitar Hero controller?!
Because they're a good first instrument to learn. You can't make a career writing short stories—sadly, those days are gone—but they can teach you most of what you need to know to write in other capacities later on. They teach you, first and foremost, how to tell a story. They teach you how to format a manuscript, how to submit to editors, how to deal with rejection and—occasionally—success.

For example, what do you do when an editor says, "It's great, but I hate the ending. Make it better. I'm not going to tell you how, but if you're up to the challenge, I'll buy it." (Big gulps, huh? Welp. See ya later.) Aren't you glad you aren't going through that with a novel your first time out? Aren't you glad it's just a story you have to fix? Learn to fight the battles in short form so you'll know what to do when you have to fight them in long form; if you learn your lessons well, when that times comes it will be a (not-so-simple, but simpler) matter of adjusting what you already know.

Short stories are a proving ground. They let you get out there, try a bunch of things out, and make your mistakes small so you don't have to make all of them big. When I hear an unpublished writer talking about the epic fantasy trilogy they're going to write, my first thought (other than, "Man, I remember that phase.") is, "What a shame." Not because I don't believe they can someday do it, but because they're trying to play to a stadium crowd without learning a G chord first. Practice in the garage, play some local shows, then bigger shows, etc. Don't be the guy or gal with thirty unpublished novel fragments taking up hard drive space. Be realistic, even if it hurts. Look at where you are, own it, and grow from there.

So how do you grow? How do you learn that G chord?


You start (I'm abandoning the music metaphor now) by making sure you've got English down. This means grammar, punctuation, the works. I can hear you groaning from here, but I'm serious. If you aren't sure where commas go, how to use a semicolon, when to write in past-perfect, what the subjunctive mood is (and why or why not to use it), learn that shit. I was fairly fortunate in that most of this stuff came easily to me. The tangles I found along the way (and the tangles I continue to find), I comb out, first by googling them to make sure I have them right, then by drilling them in my brain until they're second nature. Every time [problem x] comes up, a bell goes off in my brain, followed by a little voice that says, "That's that thing you've been doing wrong; you just did it again. Stop it. Forever this time."

Sound nuts? Welcome to life as a writer.

If you want to be a pro writer, it should bug the hell out of you when you don't know something. You should make it a point to be as technical as you can stand to be, because the industry doesn't have time for your mistakes, and there are plenty of people who are just as hungry and talented who know and follow the goddamn rules. Know them. Follow them. (Unless you need to break them for some compelling reason, in which case, for god's sake, know why you're doing it.) Don't fail on a technicality before the game even starts.

Here's how nuts I am: I don't even text in improper English. Sure, I swear like a sailor and say the kinds of stupid things we all say, but I capitalize. I put in my apostrophes and commas. I spell out my words. Whether I'm texting, Facebooking, you name it, I make sure to do these things.Why? It's not because I'm a Nazi or because I think my shit don't stink; it's because, when it's time to write something professional, I want it to be effortless, like buckling your seat belt without even realizing you're doing it. Because it's important stuff. I'm a member of a forum called Codex for pro and neo-pro writers. Guess what? It's the only forum I've seen (other than SFWA) where every member can spell, punctuate, etc. It's amazingly refreshing. Now go, and do thou likewise.

"i do it 2 sav time!!!1 itz werth it duh"

And yes, I realize I just painted a big target on my back. I'm human too, and if it'll make you feel cool to point out the typos and errors I've (no doubt) made while writing this blog, knock yourself out. But when you're done schooling teacher in front of the class, I hope you'll remember the point of the lesson. Work hard. Do your best to weed out mistakes. You'll be glad you put in the time, because we're about to get to the harder stuff.


Harder stuff? But the headline has the word "fun" in it!

Changing what you do for fun (or at least paying attention to it in a productive way) can be really difficult. We don't like being told to change our lives, not the least little bit, but that's exactly what I'm about to ask you to do. (I'm being dramatic; this will only sting a little.) Here are some ways you can tweak and transform the things you enjoy to help make you a better writer:

1) Read. For god's sake, read.

First, find some heroes. These will be a few writers you want to emulate, to idolize, to learn all you can from. My heroes are Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Orson Scott Card; between the three of them, my awesomeness bases are more than covered. Find your heroes (I'll happily share mine), those writers you find effortless to read, who make your head spin with their brilliance, who become like old friends and teachers. Chances are, you already have some people in mind. It's usually these heroes who inspire us to take up writing in the first place. Never abandon them. Keep them nearby as a measuring stick. Don't aspire to be the best in your school or your critique group or your family. Aspire to be like your heroes. Don't settle for anything less. And, if at all possible, leave open the possibility of looking past your heroes. You may never grow to their level, but who knows? You may grow beyond it.

Once you have some writers to look up to who are doing the kinds of work you want to do, it's time to branch out. Read outside your genre. If you write horror, read westerns. If you write sci fi, read romance. If you write fantasy, read mainstream. Don't camp inside your genre and spend your career reheating Tolkien or Lovecraft. If you want to do anything of lasting value in your genre, you have to bring new things in from outside it.

Read nonfiction. (Documentaries count too.) Read books on history and science and psychology and astronomy and anything else you can get your hands on. Read books on business and marketing (believe me, you'll need 'em). Hell, read books about mathematics. Devour this stuff. Know the world you live in, and you'll have more meaningful things to say about it.

2) Listen to audio books. Wait, isn't that the same as reading? Yes and no. Audio books will teach you something that reading text on a page can't: the music of language. There is a flow to the spoken word, a kind of rhythm that just sounds right when it's done well. I've never heard of anyone being able to teach this in a class room or a workshop. It's a slippery, subjective concept, but an important one all the same. Listening to stories (even nonfiction) read aloud is the only way I know to improve your awareness of this aspect of writing. I'm not even sure you can "pay attention" to this. Just give your ears time with words. (By the way, reading your own work aloud can—almost without fail—instantly improve it. Read everything aloud. You can file that away with your other tricks.)

"These ARE the world."
3) Play roleplaying games, video or tabletop. I don't give this piece of advice lightly, and it's not without its dangers. Roleplaying games use numbers to create a model of the world, which in turn allows you to simulate anything you could possibly imagine. Kinda. This is the danger—not that you will lose your soul or become a satanist or something similarly ridiculous—that you will lose your worldview to that model, and with your worldview, you'll lose any chance you had of being a truly creative individual. You'll drop your keys and say, "Oops. Failed my Dex check." You'll wonder what level or alignment the characters in your story are.

That's a HUGE red flag. If you start rolling up character sheets for the characters in your stories, you'll know you're in too deep. I've seen this happen. I've seen smart, potentially creative people lose themselves in the false limitations of the game. Their fiction becomes rigid, like a cardboard cut-out of a story. Combat drags on. Every story is about a team, one member strong, another stealthy, another magicky, another healy.

God in heaven. Don't. Let. This. Happen to you.

But! If you're careful as hell, there is one wonderful thing roleplaying games can teach you:

The Moment.

Players always want to be doing something. They want a reason to be where they are, they want to know what the next step is, and they want a chance to do something to get there. If you can apply this mentality to your fiction—that every moment should have its own entertainment value, not because it's pretty or clever, but because it's relevant to the journey and it moves—your style (and your readers) will thank you for it. Don't have people walk into a room, say some shit, and walk out again. Put the scene in a cool place, give it some zing, and have the characters do something.

Making up a story on the fly for an audience, being able to gauge their reaction to each event in real time—there are few experiences more valuable as a storyteller. Video games can teach you this same lesson, but you don't have the benefit of sitting in the creator's chair. You have to hold the experience up to a mirror to get the full effect.

Let's say you're writing a fantasy novel about a teenage boy at a swordsmanship school. In this particular scene, your main character needs to ask a female teacher for some dating advice. You could have him go into her office, stand awkwardly by her desk while he spills his guts and talks and talks and talks. OR! You could have him trying to sneak questions in while he's taking his swordsmanship final, dueling the female teacher in the clocktower of the school, jumping between giant cogs, dodging blows, trying not to get killed, trying to land just one strike before the clock strikes twelve. That's a hell of a lot more fun. And it opens up all kinds of story opportunities. He might fail the exam he's so concerned with his girl troubles. He might get injured. He might realize during all the sweaty running around that he's actually (gasp!) attracted to the female teacher!

"I said parry, not thrust."

Mastering "The Moment" isn't just a matter of flavor. When things move in a scene, they bounce around and collide with other things. You could end up with new ideas that take your story to the next level. So don't write a dull moment. This doesn't always mean action; what it means is having an awareness of each moment's entertainment value, each moment's importance and inertia. Learn this well, and you can pick your publisher.

(I'm still working on this myself, and the biggest problem I've had is laziness. It's easy to miss opportunities when you're not putting your all into your writing, allowing yourself to be distracted by life, liberty, and the pursuit of your kids not trashing the house. But that's a whole other blog, folks, written by somebody who ain't me.)


Once you're harnessing your free time to better your writing, it's time to learn the nitty-gritty of the craft. There are a few ways to do this well, but one of the cheapest is to read books on writing. I hear a lot of writers talking smack on writing books, saying they don't really teach you anything, that you're only ready to learn what you're ready to learn, that practice is the only way to get better. Almost true. Practice is the best way to get better, but there are some things, especially for new writers, that you shouldn't have to learn through trial and error. Sometimes, it's easier to have someone just tell you. That's what writing books can do for you: they can save you time.

I've read a stack of writing books in my time, and I can tell you, not one of them left me feeling empty. I came away from each with new tools, new perspectives, and new enthusiasm for the job. That's not nothing, ya nay-saying snobs. That's a big something, and I'd like to pass it along to you.

Here are some of the books that taught me the most (and, in many cases, continue to inspire me):

(I ain't gonna pad my list for no man!)

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
by Jack M. Bickham

This is a great first book if you're new to writing fiction. It's short, simple, and it hits the basics. If writing were basketball, this would be the fundamentals. Dribbling. Passes. etc. I've gone back to this book over and over just to remind myself what's what.

The Art of War for Writers

by James Scott Bell

This is the book I pick up when I really need refreshed. It's a beautiful, slickly-designed little tome full of good advice and motivation, and it always gets me excited about making things up and writing them down. This is a fire-extinguisher (and a damn fine piece of instruction as well). In case of burn-out or depression, break glass.

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy
by Orson Scott Card

If you want to write sci fi or fantasy and you haven't read this, you have to. It's an essential handbook on writing spec fic. I've found none better.

On Writing
by Stephen King

Stephen King is a rare talent. (If you don't like him, fine. But don't be a hater; the man's got chops.) He rarely outlines his books and has an amazing capacity to do things on the fly, and few, if any, of you reading this will reach your potential writing the way Stephen King does. So why is this book important for mortals like us?

First, because of King's staggering and unpretentious skill with language. The whole second half of the book is dedicated to this. If there is a book to teach you the nitty-gritty about the music of words, this is it. The first half of the book is largely biography, etc, but you skip it at your own risk. Why? That's the second thing.

This book is like having a teacher in your brain. Not a list of dos and don'ts, but a REAL human being who just happens to be the most widely-read living writer in the English language. If you skip the first half, it takes the knowledge out of its human context and greatly weakens it.

Lastly, this is a great read. Fast, engaging, personal. It's effortless. You can learn a lot just from that. If you can figure out why on God's green earth this book is so easy to read, that's something big.


Wait? Screenwriting books? What about all that stuff about short stories and learning to play your first instrument? I stand by all that stuff, but once you've banged out a decent prose style—through loads of study and practice—screenwriting books become just as valuable as other writing books, if not more so. They can teach you story itself better than almost anything else. Here are my favorites:

The Writer's Journey
by Christopher Vogler

The first chapter of this book will change your life. If you're looking for a perfect formula for good stories, this is probably as close as you'll ever get to finding one.

Save the Cat
by Blake Snyder

This is essential shit all around, but if nothing else, you'll learn to make your reader instantly care about your characters. I can't think of many things more important than that.

by Robert McKee

Everybody I talk to who has read this book swears by it. I'm just now reading it, but I can already tell it belongs on this list. Read it with me. Let me know what you think.

There are lots of other great books on writing. The First Five Pages comes to mind. Also, the Writer's Digest's Elements of Fiction Writing books are a great go-to. Especially don't miss Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoint. Avoid books on manuscript submission, querying, publishing trends, the internet, or any other topic you think might go out of date quickly; it's best stick to blogs and such for that kind of info. For example, if you want to know how to format a story for submission, just google it. (Here: I'll save you the trouble.) Better yet, read each magazine's guidelines. There are also some great books on self-editing, such as The 10% Solution and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (the chapter on dialogue beats is worth the price of the book by itself).

Gettin' ahead of myself. It's been a long night and one hell of a long, rambling blog post. Thanks for reading through to the end. I've made a mental note to keep things tighter in the future. There's a story about a famous writer who wrote a really long letter, then at the end said, "I apologize for the long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one." I can relate.

Be sure to check in next time when we'll talk about what could prove to be a very important aspect of your learning to write well, becoming a part of the writing community, and getting your first toe in the publishing door (it was for me): Audition-only workshops! It's a big topic that deserves its own post, and I'm looking forward to it. We'll see you in two weeks for "Chasing the First Sale (Part 4): Attending Audition-Only Workshops."

Monday, June 11, 2012

Switching to Weekly

I'll be blogging weekly from now on instead of semi-weekly. I wanted to start these two blog series strong, and I think I've done that in these first few weeks; it's time to pull back, spend more time working on my fiction, and continue to hone in on that ever-elusive "balance" everyone is always talking about.

There will be a new "Chasing the First Sale" this week, and a new "Owning Comics" next week.

By "the alien Perry" I of course mean "editors rejecting my ass."

Friday, June 8, 2012

Owning Comics (Part 3) : Superheroes and The New 52

We've talked a bit about how to read, and I've introduced you to a few classics to get you started; now we're going to delve deeper into what to read. We'll be getting into manga (Japanese comics), indie comics, movie/novel/game tie-ins, and a few other categories. [ETA: This may not happen for a while.] But first...

We're going to talk about superheroes.

First of all, let me apologize to the Marvel fans. I'm a fan of all kinds of (good) comic books—Marvel titles included—but I will admit to reading and enjoying more DC. Some people are cat people and some people are dog people. I'm an animal person (dare I say...an Animal Man?), but I'd probably prefer to own a dog. Because they love me...and they have Batman.

My own metaphor is confusing me.

I'll try to give Marvel some quality time later on, but for now, we're going to focus on DC's superheroes, specifically the New 52. They say write what you know, and I've been devouring New 52 titles lately; they're where my heart and enthusiasm are currently hanging out drinking beer.

Even if you're new to comics, I'm sure you're at least vaguely aware there are two big dogs (oh, so now they're both dogs?) in the world of comics, Marvel and DC. They each have their charms, their flagship characters, their own ways of doing things. The only way to get to know them well is with time and experience, but here's the short of it:

Reader, meet Marvel.

And this is his big brother, DC.
(It's short for "Detective Comics," but he doesn't really like it when you call him that.)

(Intimidated by the ridiculous number of characters? Don't be. Just pay attention to the front row or two. When in doubt, remember: Marvel = Avengers, Spiderman, X-men. DC = Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman.)

DC is the one we're concerned with today, specifically the New 52 titles. I'm going to list some of my favorites for you to check out, and we'll talk about where and when you can get a hold of them, but first, a little history lesson about "continuity":

DC comics has been making comic books since 1934. Back then, the concept of comic book continuity was in its infancy. Superman and the other heroes just...did stuff, and that was enough for a long time. But as comic series continued to run, the fans grew more savvy and sophisticated, and soon, the demand for a shared universe where cause-and-effect would carry over from issue to issue couldn't be ignored. Soon, continuity became one of the defining facets of comics, sometimes for the better, other times taking precedence over storytelling. (It's not hard to imagine how decades upon decades of continuity, encompassing the creative decisions of dozens of writers and artists from different time periods, could become something of a creative buttplug* in the hole of the industry.) Eventually, continuity became a straight-jacket, strangling the life out of the stories it had been intended to deepen. Survival of the fittest kicked in, shrinking the fan base down to only the most obsessive and dedicated, fans willing to interact (and put up with bullshit) on a level the average person couldn't. Woe.



In late 2011, DC made perhaps the best decision anyone ever made ever period and rebooted their entire line of titles, and the New 52 was born.

What this means for you: 

1) Instead of seeing Batman issue #704 on the shelves, you'll (currently) see issues in the #1-9 range. Let me say that again: In a lot of cases, you can easily find ISSUE NUMBER ONE of Batman, Superman, etc. This is a big deal. For collectors, sure, fine, but mostly for freakin' readers! You can find the beginning of the story! Being able to start at the beginning, the sense of involvement and ownership that gives you—that's magic.

2) The comic books are better than they've ever been. Freed from all that bulky continuity, the writers and artists of the New 52 are able to do better work that we've seen in a long time. They're free to pursue good craft, not just good continuity, and it makes all the difference in the world.

3) You have a rare opportunity to engage in something old-school, yet palatable to modern tastes. Reading the New 52 is like watching The Avengers at a drive-in theater while drinking a root beer float. There is something timeless and charming about a good, ol' fashioned serial reading experience—the delayed gratification of buying issues monthly, enjoying a small piece of the story each time, having it to look forward to. There's nothing quite like it.

The New 52 is currently the biggest thing happening in comics. It is to comics themselves what Marvel's Avengers movies were to comic book movies. The New 52 is the now of comics. And it can belong to you. You can own Superman and Batman the same way previous generations did—not just the paper and ink and staples of the books themselves, but the characters, the iconography, the pure superhero-ness of them—and not as an amusing piece of American nostalgia, but as something relevant and fun, something you read because you want to read it. Now that's pretty amazing.

(I swear to god, I am not on DC's payroll.)


Without further ado:

(It should be noted, there are freakin' 52 of these series, and I have read only a small percentage of them. This list contains some of my favorites, compiled with a bit of consideration for general importance and artistic merit. I've excluded a few for being either too niche—like Blue Beetle—or too guilty-pleasure-y—Catwoman. The order is spongy, and I'll probably want to come back and revise this list every time I read another good title, but as a general list of good shit for beginners to read, this will do fine.)

1) Batman - There are lots of New 52 Batman titles (Detective Comics, Dark Knight, etc), but good ol', standalone Batman is still the best. This is top notch work in every way, and it belongs on the shelf next to The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year One and The Killing Joke. I really think in ten years, people could put this story in that same category. This story presents Batman with an all-new threat to face, the mysterious Court of Owls, a body of masked, aristocratic manipulators and their deadly assassins (known as the Talons) whose roots go deep into Gotham's history and infrastructure. This series can be read on its own or as the core of the memorable Night of the Owls story, a comic book event spanning several titles (continuity used correctly!). The hardcover recently made the New York Times Top 50 Bestseller list. (Not the graphic novel list; the big list.) Don't miss out.

2) Aquaman - I never thought someone could make me care about Aquaman, let alone rocket him into the tip-top of my favorite superheroes, but Geoff John's smart, self-aware writing takes every joke you've ever heard about Aquaman and throws it in your face in the first issue. (He goes to a sea-food restaurant for shit's sake. It's gold.) But even if you've never so much as heard about Aquaman, you'll be captivated by the story of this noble, selfless person who sweats and bleeds to protect people who misunderstand and ridicule him. And, come on, after so much time spent gazing at city skylines, a trip to the ocean can be a welcome change of scenery.

3) Animal Man - This title literally gave me nightmares, and I'm a tough dude to disturb. This book has a maturity, depth, class, and boldness that reminds me of Sandman (my favorite comic ever, remember?). Here we have a less-recognizable superhero and really likeable guy living out his everyman existence with his family, and the shit hits the fan in a big way. It's surreal, it's touching, it's grotesque, it's inspiring, it's devastatingly creative, it's—just...just read it.

4) Justice League - This is a fantastic introduction to the Justice League, a who's-who organization of superheroes containing flagship characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Aquaman (among others). The story itself is secondary in this book, serving as a backdrop for the real fun of watching these iconic characters meet each other for the first time. In many cases, the banter is on par with the Avengers movie. Pure fun. (Oh, and there's the ice cream thing with Wonder Woman. ... It's not what you're thinking.**)

5) Nightwing - When he was a boy, Dick Grayson was the original Robin. Now he's grown up, he's spent some time filling in for Batman, he's grown tremendously, and he goes by the name of Nightwing. Dick is one of the most likeable characters in the New 52. I didn't know him well before this, but I've become a fan. He's the kind of guy you just want to spend time with. The story is not only entertaining, it feels important. Other than Batman itself, this is the most important series dealing with the Court of Owls. We get to go back to Haly's circus where Dick's parents died. We get to see Batgirl. It's a ton of freaking fun. Highly recommended.

(I'll get into where you can buy individual issues later on, but for now, I've just linked to the trade paperbacks and hardcovers on amazon. Some of them haven't been released yet, but this way you can wishlist them if you'd like. If you'd like to know more about what comes out when, here's a list of the titles and when the various collections will be out.)

To learn more about the New 52 and all its titles, click here. Don't neglect the abundance of good reviews online. A quick google search can help you sort out the must-read titles from the must-skip. Happy reading!

See you next week when we'll be getting into "Owning Comics (Part 4): Manga."

*If you clicked this link, you are a very brave soul. Now go clear your history.

**Cute doesn't do it justice.