Saturday, December 31, 2011

5 Shortcuts to Finding a Literary Agent

ShortcutImage via Wikipedia


By coincidence, my final post of 2011 happens to be my 50th post overall.  There's something special about both the end of the year and milestones.  They convey a sense of accomplishment or perhaps survival ("Hey, we've made it this far!")

Both also provide an opportunity to take stock of where to go from here.

For me, I hope to launch into 2012 in a big way: by querying a literary agent.

I know, I know . . . there have been many discussions about whether agents are even necessary in the modern age of do-it-yourself publishing, and a lot of good arguments have been made for going it alone (that is, cutting out both middle men: the agent and the publisher).   Self-publishing  remains a viable option for most writers, but, for various reasons, the next logical step for me is to seek representation.  (Perhaps in a future post I'll detail those reasons.)

Assuming you're like me and want the best deal you can possibly get for the book you've labored so hard to create, one option to explore is finding a literary agent through AgentQuery.

(And a nod to Dave Whitaker at Writ by Whit for introducing me to AgentQuery.)

AgentQuery is a powerful search tool that lets you search for agents through keywords (the name of an agent, for example, or a book title) or through genre (fiction or nonfiction).  If you're as clueless about finding an agent as I am, the genre search is your best bet.  It helps you search for agents who represent anything from science fiction to chick lit, from graphic novels to erotica, from children's books to commercial fiction.  AQ then provides you with the tools to narrow down your search.

Here are five shortcuts for navigating your way around AQ:

1. Determine your book’s genre.  Many writers dislike the idea of "pidgeonholing" their books by genre, yet selecting the right genre can greatly reduce your search for an agent.  You may have written the most compelling vampire/steampunk/historical romance/thriller there is, but agents like to categorize things more narrowly (so, coincidentally, do publishers).  Decide which of those genres best represents your book and search according.  (Tip: If searching for one genre does not yield appropriate results, switch to one of the other genres.)

Sometimes, though, determining your book's genre can present challenges.  My novel, THE POWER CLUB, is a super-hero story, for example, and I tend to think of super-heroes as its own genre.  (Guess what?  AQ does not list "super-heroes" under its genre search.)  However, many agents, publishers, and readers tend to classify super-heroes as science fiction or fantasy.  This is useful to know since some agents state up front that they do not handle these genres.  It does no good to send an agent something she does not represent.

Fortunately for me, THE POWER CLUB™ also fits into another type of genre: young readers, specifically those aged 10 and up.  This classifies it as either Middle Grade (ages 8-12) or Young Adult (12 and up).  Also on my side: most agents who handle MG or YA handle both, so that means I can get by with doing just one search. 

2. Search for agents who represent books in your genre.  A search for "Middle Grade" turned up more than ten pages of agent listings!

This seems like a lot, but each blurb tells you immediately whether or not the agent accepts unsolicited queries.  Since your query will be unsolicited (unless you already know the agent, in which case this entire search is superfluous), you may safely bypass any agent who does not take unsolicited queries.

If the agent does accept queries, click on the Full Profile link for the next step:

3. Pay attention to each agent’s likes and dislikes.  Most profiles give very specific criteria for what the agent represents, does not represent, or has a special interest in.  Criteria can be anything from seeking out particular types of authors (e.g., Latinos or experts in certain fields) to specific sub-genres ("no mysteries or thrillers").  Do some hard soul-searching.  If your book falls into an agent's "dislikes," move on.

4. Research titles and clients the agent has represented.  One of AQ's most useful features is that it provides space for agents to list new deals and past and present clients.  Most of these entries contain pitch-like summaries of books the agent has sold to publishers.

Why is this valuable to you?  If an agent has sold a book like yours, she probably knows how to sell yours.  Also, agents are readers, too.  If an agent has fallen in love with a book similar to yours and worked hard to sell that book to a publisher, odds are he'll do the same for yours.

Be wary, however, of picking an agent just because he has handled a famous client or sold a New York Times bestseller.  Such an agent may have been the best match for that client or book, but may not be a good match for you.  Reviewing the kinds of books the agent has sold in the past can save you from querying those who are have no experience or interest in your genre.

After reviewing several pages of agent listings, you should have your own list of potential agents. Before you query, however, take one final step:

5. Rearch agent blogs and websites.  AQ provides links to each agent's literary agency, where you can find submission guidelines and other information.  But it's also helpful to type the agent's name into a search engine and see what comes up.  Some agents have consented to interviews, which are very helpful in gauging the agent's personality, how she works with clients, her experience, and what services she is willing to provide.  (One agent, for example, says he does not provide much hands-on editing.)   

Searching for an agent sounds like a lot of hard work, and it is, but AQ has greatly simplified the process for me. After going through the above steps, I now have a list of ten possible agents culled from just the first eight pages of my search.  Of those ten, two are "most likely" prospects and two are "somewhat likely".  All  I have to do now is finish my query letter, review their submission guidelines, pray, and submit.

Will it work?  Stay tuned.

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Free Story: "Santa Drives a Chevrolet," Part 2

Art: Steve Daniels

Click here for Part 1.  
            “Damon, wake up,” his mother said softly. “It’s Christmas.”
            His eyes shot open.  The morning glare hit him like a brass band. 
            “Take it easy,” his mother said.  “Let’s see if you’re up to finding out what Santa brought you.  Oh, I’m sorry.  I forgot.”
            Damon didn’t realize at first why she was apologizing.  He looked around the room, trying to remember . . . what?
            “Mom?  Did someone come into our house last night?”
            “Don’t tell me you’re going back to believing in Santa Claus, dear,” she said as he felt his forehead.  “Good news: Your fever broke.  Why don’t you go see what you got for Christmas?”
            Damon sat up.  He felt . . . strange, as if part of his brain were still asleep.  He remembered exhaling and summoning the darkspace, but he couldn’t remember making it go away – and Damon always remembered that!  He also remembered . . .
            The door handle!
            He ran to the front door. It looked undisturbed.  He reached for the handle to see if it was locked.
            “Why are you going outside?” his mother called to him.  “Go to the Christmas tree and see what presents you have.”
            The tree was surrounded by red and green packages with pictures of Santa, bells or angels.  There were a few gifts from Grandma and Grandpa Neumeyer, who always used the same white and blue-striped wrapping year after year. 
            Eldon was already unwrapping a toy bulldozer.  He looked up when he saw Damon.  “Did you see him?  Did you see Santa?”
            Damon hesitated.  “I don’t know.”
            Eldon frowned.  “I knew you couldn’t stay awake all night.”
            “But I did!  At least I think I did.”  Damon felt disappointed.  He must have fallen asleep, after all, and dreamed the whole thing.
            Eldon smiled mysteriously. “Well, you musta’ seen somebody.”     
            “What do you mean?”
            “You got an extra present.”
            Damon looked at the gifts under the tree, and there it was: a present in sky-blue paper, no bigger than a shoebox.  His name was written across the paper in a handwriting he didn’t recognize.  He picked up the gift, tore off the paper, and gasped.
            It was a Captain Meteor action figure.
            Damon opened the attached card.  In the same handwriting, it read:
         
Dear Damon,
            You won’t remember what happened last night because I used fairy dust to make you forget.  But you did something extraordinary – so Santa’s going to let you in on his little secret.
            When I opened your front door, it was black as a pit in your house!  Now, I’m used to coming to the district and all the powers some of you kids have, but my new elf assistant, Seymour, wasn’t.  He panicked, ran outside, and slipped on the ice.  He hurt his leg   badly.  Luckily, adults don’t believe in Santa or elves anymore, so your parents weren't awakened by his howling.
            Well, you felt so bad about what happened that you came outside, sick as you were, and tried to help.  You told Seymour stories about Capt. Meteor to get his mind off the pain while Santa used another batch of fairy dust to make him better.
            I’m so touched by what you did (but not Seymour – who says he’s never coming back to the district again!) that I want you to have your own Capt. Meteor.  Your mother’s right – he’s very expensive, so take good care of him.  More imporantly, you’ve got an amazing power.  Use it wisely, like Capt. Meteor would.   
                                                                                                                        Santa


            Damon searched his memory to see if any of it was true, but he couldn’t remember a thing!  He ran to the window to see if there were footprints in the snow, but his dad was shoveling snow off the sidewalk.
            “No!” Damon shouted.
            “What’s the matter?” Eldon asked.
            Damon thrust the card to his brother, but Eldon missed it.  The card fluttered to the floor.  When Eldon picked it up, he looked puzzled and showed it to Damon.  The card was blank.
            Eldon laughed when Damon told him what the card had said.  “It didn’t say that!  You made it up!”
            “It’s true!  Didn’t Seymour’s howling wake you up last night?”
            Eldon looked down at the bulldozer.  “I was already awake.  I was watching for Santa through the upstairs window when I saw a Hummer park across the street and two people got out.”
            Damon nodded, remembering that he’d seen the Hummer, too.  “It was just the district police, making their rounds.”
            Eldon shook his head.  “It wasn’t the police.  It was just people who work for the district. They went to one house after another, carrying presents.”
            Damon studied the Captain Meteor action figure.  “But why would people from the district bring us presents?”
            “Don’t they teach you anything in that special school you go to?” Eldon said, rolling his eyes.  “The district wants us to have a normal life, so they give us stuff ‘cause there aren’t many places inside the district to buy toys.”  
            “You saw them come into our house?” Damon said, bewildered.
Art: Joe Hall
            “’course not!” Eldon replied, reminding Damon that, from their room, they couldn’t see the front porch.  “But who else could ita’ been?”  He walked back to his new bulldozer.  “Last year, they drove a Chevrolet.  I guessed the district was too dangerous for Santa to drive a sleigh, but, when I saw that Hummer, I stopped believing in Santa Claus.”         
            Damon felt like a balloon that had lost its helium.  It all made sense.  Workers from the district would have keys to all the houses.  And maybe one of the workers had a power to make Damon forget.  They could have used a disappearing ink on the card.
            He held the action figure away from himself, as if it were an unwanted thing.  Through the packaging, Captain Meteor’s painted-on eyes stared at him with confidence and power as if to echo what the card had said.
            You’ve got an amazing power.  Use it wisely.
            Damon decided it didn’t matter if Santa Claus was real or not. He carefully opened the package and took out his new toy.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Free Story: "Santa Drives a Chevrolet," Part 1

Art: Steve Daniels


Note: This story takes place between the Prologue and Chapter One of THE POWER CLUB™.

          “Santa Claus isn’t real, and I can prove it!”
            As soon as the words escaped Damon’s mouth, he wished he could take them back.  While they had been out Christmas shopping last week, Mom had told nine-year-old Damon the truth, but under one condition: he was not to tell his seven-year-old brother, Eldon, who still very much believed in Santa Claus.
            But the words Damon could not take back went straight to Eldon’s ears.  It was bad enough that Eldon was standing at the edge of the couch, playing with that stupid toy – a race car with a Santa Claus figure he’d stolen from the Christmas tree – but he had just told Damon to be nice to his toy or the real Santa wouldn’t bring him anything.
            “How do you know?”  Eldon said.
            Damon, lying on the couch, felt bad enough as it was.  Having the flu was a lousy way to spend Christmas Eve.
            “How do I know what?” he said, stalling for time.
            “That Santa isn’t real?”
            Damon thought for a moment.  It was bad enough that he had disobeyed Mom, but now his pride was on the line.  It would be all right, he decided, as long as Eldon promised not to tell Mom that Damon had leaked the truth.  “You know how Santa always comes down through a chimney?”
            “Yeah?”  Eldon perked up, as if he were about to be let in on a big secret.
            “We don’t have a chimney.”
            “So?  Maybe Santa comes down a magic chimney.”
            Damon shook his head in frustration, which made him cough even harder.  When Eldon got an idea like that in his head, there was no convincing him otherwise.
            Still, Damon would not give up. “Okay,” he whispered, making sure his mother, who was in the kitchen, could not hear.  “We’ll stay awake all night.  After Mom and Dad go to bed, I’ll use my darkspace on both of us.  Then we can sneak downstairs and watch for Santa.”
            Eldon beamed at the idea, though Damon knew he was excited at the prospect of staying awake all night and watching for Santa, not at the idea of Damon creating darkness – the reason Damon and his family had to live in the district in the first place.  The darkspace would blot out any light and sound from outside, but it also meant his parents couldn’t hear the two boys sneak down the creaky stairs.  Damon would just have to be very careful and guide Eldon down the stairs, since only Damon could see and hear inside the darkspace.
            “El, stay away from your brother,” Mom called.
            Eldon scurried to the other side of the room as Mom approached Damon, carrying something in her hand.  “Open wide,” she said.
            Damon opened his mouth.  He was greeted by the thermometer, which he always liked – it was like sucking on hard candy – but this time he could barely taste it.  He watched cross-eyed as the mercury rose up and up and up.
            “I’m so sorry you’re sick on Christmas Eve,” Mom said, brushing his hair off his hot forehead.  “You’ll have to sleep downstairs again so your brother doesn’t catch it.”
            Damon’s eyes darted to Eldon, who was crouched by the furnace, playing with the Santa Claus and race car.  It annoyed him to see his brother still playing with such a stupid toy while Damon himself couldn’t get the toy he wanted for Christmas: a Captain Meteor action figure.  Now that he knew Santa wasn’t real, there was only one way he could get Captain Meteor.
            “Mom, I know what will make me feel better,” he said, straining to sit up.  “If you get me a Captain Meteor—”
            She shook her head.  “Honey, I told you.  Captain Meteor is too expensive.  Besides, a doll isn’t going to make you well.”
            A coughing fit prevented him from shouting, “It’s not a doll!  It’s an action figure."
            “Now hold still,” his mother said, gently pushing him back down.  “I’m going to get you an extra blanket and pillow.”
            As soon as she left the room, Eldon darted back over to Damon’s side.  “I heard what Mom said.  You have to sleep downstairs.  Too bad.”
            “We can still watch for Santa,” Damon replied between coughs.  “You’ll just have to be extra careful when you sneak downstairs.”
            Eldon shook his head so quickly Damon thought it would fall off.  “I’m not gonna sneak downstairs.  Last time we did that, Dad heard and we got in trouble, remember?”
            Damon remembered, but it was a long time ago.  “We were just sneaking downstairs to get cookies from the fridge.  This time, we’re going to prove Santa doesn’t exist!”
            “He DOES exist,” Eldon argued, clutching the toy.  “But you can stay awake and see for yourself.”
            “Oh, what’s the use if you’re not there to see whether he’s real or not, too.”
            “If you tell me you saw him or didn’t, I’ll believe you.”
            “You will?”
            “If you swear on a stack of Bibles.”
            They didn’t have a stack of Bibles, except imaginary ones, but that was good enough.  Damon raised his right hand.  “Okay, I swear.”
Art: Darryl Woods
            “Great!” Eldon said and started to wander off, but then he turned back.  “By the way, Santa doesn’t really come down through a magic chimney.  He comes through the front door.  And he doesn’t drive a sleigh, at least not in the district.”
            “What’s he drive, then?” said Damon, humoring his brother.
            “He drives a Chevrolet.”
* * *
            Staying awake wasn’t going to be as hard as Damon thought.  His nose was so stopped up it felt like a diesel truck had parked inside it.  His throat was still raw, and he gagged if he lay on his back for very long.  The chills and fever kept him cold and hot at the same time.
            But there was more than the flu keeping him awake.  It was Christmas Eve.  He wasn’t going to let being sick ruin the special day.  Damon tried to decide whether or not he should pretend to be asleep when Dad removed the presents from the locked closet by the front door and placed them under the tree in the next room. If he did, he would have to try really hard not to cough. 
            As the hours dragged on, Damon wondered what time it was.  He didn’t feel like sitting up, reaching across the table, and turning on the lamp to see the clock on the wall, but there was a better way.  Damon closed his eyes, concentrated, and exhaled.  When he opened his eyes again, the room was much darker, but Damon could see perfectly.  Everything appeared in black and white, like an old horror movie. He glanced at the clock.  It read 12:01.
            Damon couldn’t recall having ever been up past midnight before.  It made him feel both excited and scared.
            The curtain behind him glowed – headlights.  A car driving past the house.  At this hour? Damon recalled what his brother had said.  It was a silly idea – Santa driving a Chevy – but Damon had to be sure.  He thrust the covers aside, climbed up on his knees, and pushed the heavy curtain apart.
            Nothing.
            He couldn’t see the yard or the trees or the street.  It was as if the world outside his window had disappeared!
            Damon felt embarrassed.  I forgot to send the darkspace away.  He shut his eyes, concentrated, and inhaled.  When he opened them again, the darkspace was gone, and the yard, the trees, and the street reappeared where they were supposed to be.
            But the car was gone.  Damon caught a glimpse of something moving past the tree in the back yard, but it was much bigger than a Chevrolet.  It looked like a Hummer.  He could still hear the vroom of the motor as it faded.  It’s just the district police, making their rounds.         
            Suddenly, the vroom stopped, as if the car had parked nearby.  Why would the police park so close?  He waited to see if they would come back into view, but they did not.  Bored and shivering, he lay back down and buried himself in the blankets.
            The sound of something moving through the snow startled him.  Footsteps.  And more than one person.  Maybe it was just somebody walking by the house – after midnight? On Christmas Eve?  He lay perfectly still and listened.  The footsteps are getting closer!     
            Damon no longer felt safe, lying on the couch in the living room all by himself.  He got up and started to run upstairs.  But there was another sound.  A creaking sound.  They’re on the front porch!
            He exhaled.  The darkspace came, and everything appeared again in black and white.  He looked at the front door and waited.  Maybe I imagined it.  Mom and Dad would be upset if I woke them up for nothing. 
            Then the door handle turned.

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

What If Super-heroes Walked Among Us?


How would the real world treat people with super-powers?

Lots of stories have been written to explore this theme and, to a degree, I touch upon it in my work-in-progress, The Power Club.  However, I do so with a slightly different twist.

Most authors assume that people with extraordinary powers have some responsibility “to serve and protect” ordinary folks.  Like Superman, they become super-cops, in other words.  And super-hero fiction tends to adopt two extreme views of super-heroes: Either their influence on the world is overwhelmingly positive (Superman again) or overwhelmingly negative (Watchmen). 

But my take on people with super-powers (I’m deliberately avoiding the term “super-heroes” for a reason I hope will become obvious) is a little different.

In order to understand how people with powers would be received in the real world, we need to look at those the world already regards as exceptional: celebrities, politicians, star athletes, and anyone else who is famous for 15 minutes or longer.

First, though, we need to define what a super-power is.

A super-power can be defined as any ability that
  • is not shared by most people, 
  • makes its possessor stand out or unique, 
  • controls the physical world or manipulates perceptions, and/or
  • would be considered impossible by most standards of human limitations.

But even that definition breaks down.  Most people have some ability that makes them stand out from their peers or makes them unique in some way.  All of us have a limited ability to control our physical world, and the media, for one, manipulates perceptions every day.  Also, standards of human limitations are often broken by athletes.

Still, there would be an obvious difference between a bona fide super-power (Superman-level strength, for example) and more ordinary abilities (bench pressing 200 lbs, perhaps) – but where does a circus strongman who can lift a Volkswagen fit in?

Our inability to define precisely what a super-power is would play a role in how we treat those who are different.

We would start to question if anyone who exhibits remarkable abilities has a superhuman power. 

If my Uncle Fred has a unique ability to diagnose and fix car engine problems, does that mean he has some sort of car ESP?  Does a golfer who routinely gets holes-in-one use telekinesis to manipulate the ball in mid-air?  Do politicians who get elected year after year exert mind control over their constituents (actually, the last is probably true . . .).

This would create a lot of confusion, paranoia, and wish-fulfillment (“Daddy, can I have a super-power like Uncle Fred?”).

But let’s say that a few people – very few – could run at 200 mph, fly without artificial support, or manipulate light and darkness at will.  How would those people be regarded?

Most of us – busy with our own lives – would at first not regard them as much more than a curiosity, something to tweet about or share articles about on Facebook.  Sure, everyone would have an opinion.  Some would question why the government doesn’t use these people to take out [dictator or terrorist of your choice].  Others would wonder why they don’t use their powers to end world hunger or cure cancer (assuming, perhaps, that they have a responsibility to do such things).

And, if the government decided that people with powers must live in their own community – as happens in The Power Club – many of us express outrage that taxpayers have to foot the bill.  

So, for most of us, life would continue on as we watch Fox News and CNN or read the Internet to see what happens next.  Will the government figure out what do with these people who have special abilities?  Will they  figure out their own purpose?  Will Uncle Fred have to go live in “the district”?

And most of us won’t really care – until one of those people with powers goes rogue.

(And if that’s not a shameless plug for the novel, nothing is.)

Tell me your opinion: How would you react if you discovered your neighbor had a bona fide superpower?

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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Super-heroes Without Pictures: Michael Carroll’s Quantum Prophecy

Cover of "SAKKARA"Cover of SAKKARA
Image via amazon.com

Can super-heroes survive without the art of comic books or the spectacle of film to tell their stories?

Michael Carroll would argue they can.  

Carroll is the author of the Quantum Prophecy series published in the U.S. by Philomel Books.  (Originally published in the U.K., the series is known there as The New Heroes.)

Set in a world in which super-heroes once existed, but no longer do, the three-book series follows the adventures of two teens as they discover they have super-powers and set out to lead a new generation of heroes. 

Quantum Prophecy has all the elements that make super-hero stories irresistible: powers, villains, secret headquarters, gadgets, betrayal, action, and teen romance.  

The only thing missing is the art.  But Carroll’s writing is so deft, it assists readers in supplying their own visuals.

The first book, The Awakening (Quantum Prophecy in the U.K.), begins with an event called Mystery Day, in which all of the super-heroes – including Quantum, Paragon, Titan, Energy, and Diamond – go up against a super-villain called Ragnarök.  Though victorious, the heroes suffer great personal loss and mysteriously vanish.

Ten years later, two boys – Colin Wagner and Danny Cooper – discover they have powers.  Colin is super-strong, can hear conversations from a great distance, and is pretty much invulnerable; Danny possesses super-speed and receives a disturbing vision of what could be his future.  Their lives are turned upside down when they discover their parents are retired super-heroes: Colin’s mother and father were Energy and Titan, and Danny’s father was Quantum.  More, someone else has discovered their identities, so the two boys and their families make a mad dash to avoid being captured.

The second book, The Gathering (Sakkara in the U.K.), which I'm currently reading, begins with Colin embarking on his super-hero career as the second Titan (or “Kid Titan,” as the media calls him to his annoyance).  Still a young boy, Colin makes a mistake that costs him, his family, and his friends dearly: while preventing a mugging, he loses his mask, resulting in his identity becoming public knowledge. 

Colin, Danny, and their families are whisked away to a secret super-hero community called Sakkara, near Topeka, KS, where they meet other teens with powers.  However, their existence is threatened by an acid-scarred super-villain called Dioxin, who seeks to discredit the new heroes before they’ve even started.

The story's many twists unfold at breakneck speed.  However, Carroll affords us plenty of time to get to know these young heroes and become immersed in their world.  He never forgets that having super-powers would be fun.  After Colin learns the hard way that he cannot fly, the others brainstorm new codenames for him.  (Two suggestions: Pancake and Roadkill.)

But the story isn’t all laughs.  Dioxin and his group of thugs murder innocent people (the violence is mostly not “shown” – Carroll tells us what we need to know but does not dwell on blood and gore).  More, the story touches on contemporary themes such as gated communities and how ordinary people isolate themselves from others to feel safe.

And part of the fun is watching Carroll take super-hero tropes and turn them upside down.  One character learns, for example, that his father is not who he appears to be.  While the notion of one’s parent being replaced by a super-villain is as old as super-heroes themselves, the idea takes on new significance here.

Though intended for a Mid-Grade/Young Adult audience, Quantum Prophecy will appeal to anyone who loves super-heroes.

So, if you’re tired of the same old same old in super-hero comics these days, check out Carroll’s world.  You won’t even miss the pictures.

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Saturday, November 26, 2011

One Writer’s Inspiration: Artist Dave Cockrum (1943-2006)

A gathering of the 30th century's finest heroes, from Superboy # 197.
All characters and art © DC Comics.
Dave Cockrum passed away five years ago today.

"Who was Dave Cockrum?" you may ask. He was a comic book artist who worked on various Marvels and DCs from the early 1970s.  He is best known for his role in relaunching Marvel's X-Men in the mid ‘70s, building the foundation for the extremely popular franchise of today.

Cockrum's name, unfortunately, is not as widely known as some of his creations: Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and Wolverine's feral appearance.

But I’m honoring Cockrum for a different reason. Before his X-Men stint, he worked on DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes with writer Cary Bates.  The Bates/Cockrum era spanned just twelve issues over a two-year period (1972-74), but it played an enormous role in my developing interest in comics and super-heroes. Simply put, without Cockrum and Bates, there would be no Power Club.

(If you’ve never heard of the Legion of Super-Heroes, it's because they, too, are not as widely known as certain other comics heroes, despite having been around for over 50 years. The Legion, or LSH, is a team of young heroes who live and operate a thousand years in the future. While the Legion has been rebooted several times, in most versions they befriend Superboy (Superman as a teen), who, through time travel, joins them and participates in their futuristic adventures. For more information on all things Legion, visit the Legion World fan site.)

Element Lad and Brainiac 5 ambushed  by one of the Fatal Five (issue # 198).
By 1972, the Legion had been relegated to an occasional backup feature in Superboy. Cockrum, an up-and-coming young artist, turned the series on its head. No one was paying much attention to the Legion in those days, so he was free to redesign the Legionnaires’ costumes, most of which had been unchanged since the early ‘60s. His Legionnaires were sexy and elegant, not overly developed as later became the norm in comics. His science fiction settings borrowed liberally from the original Star Trek series (then growing in popularity due to reruns). Acknowledging this inspiration, Cockrum even drew Mr. Spock into a panel of one issue.

Not to be overlooked, writer Cary Bates (who is better known for his 17-year stint on The Flash, from 1968-85) specialized in inventive plots with surprise endings. In one memorable story (Superboy # 195, June 1973), the Legion rejects an applicant, ERG-1, who does not appear to have an original super-power. Refusing to take no for an answer, ERG-1 vaporizes a monstrous machine the Legionnaires cannot defeat – but apparently gives his life in the process.

(Not to worry: ERG-1 survived and became Wildfire, one of the most popular Legionnaires.)

The triumphant return of ERG-1
(Wildfire) in # 201.
The Bates/Cockrum run proved so popular with fans that, two issues later, the Legion “took over” the series and were given cover billing: Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes. Although Superboy remained the central character, nearly every story afterwards took place not in his home town of 20th century Smallville, but in the Legion’s 30th century. No longer a solo hero, Superboy shared his title with the likes of Brainiac 5, Saturn Girl, Timber Wolf, Dream Girl, and Star Boy.

Alas, Cockrum left just a few issues later, following a dispute with DC. His last issue was # 202 (June 1974).

The Legion prospered without Cockrum, but many fans feel that, had he stayed, the Legion could have become as popular as the X-Men eventually became. (Some of the characters Cockrum intended for the Legion turned up in the X-Men, most notably Nightcrawler.) 

Despite its brevity, Cockrum’s run had an enormous impact on Legion fans, particularly this one, whose writing to this day remains influenced by those issues. The Bates/Cockrum Legion was full of optimism, fellowship, confidence, and even humor. Other creators have developed those aspects of the Legion to varying degrees, but there was something special about that era: It was cool, sexy, and fun, as well as heroic. Cockrum's art conveyed a sense of urgency and semi-realism. His Legionnaires had distinct personalities in their faces and body language. His 30th century seemed both dangerous and inviting.
 
Future newlyweds Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel at play (# 200).

In a previous post, I mentioned that no story springs whole cloth out of nothing. Every story has antecedents it refers back to, deliberately or not.  I’m proud to acknowledge the LSH—and particularly Dave Cockrum’s version—as one of my antecedents for The Power Club

There are, of course, significant differences. Damon’s world exists in the present, not the future, and the team he joins will be much smaller and does not use code names such as Lightning Lad and Phantom Girl. Figuring out what to do with their powers will be a lot harder for Damon and company than it often seemed for the Legion. 

But every story begins with an idea or model that sparks the flame of its own individual growth. Dave Cockrum ignited such a spark for me.

Thanks, Dave.
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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Should Writers Be Original or Do What the “Experts” Say?

originalityImage by autiscy via Flickr


It’s an age-old battle between writers and the “experts” – agents, publishers, writing teachers, and so forth.  You (the author) have written a story unlike anything that’s ever been published before. It’s going to set the world on fire with its deathless prose, stunning turns of phrase, brand new characters and settings, and brilliant themes. It will blow away agents and publishers. You can’t wait for the bidding war to start.

And then you get your manuscript back with a form rejection letter: “not our market.”

Originality is one of those words that’s hard to define, but (as a Supreme Court justice said about pornography) we know it when we see it.

But how original does a story have to be? Does anything spring whole cloth out of nothing?

Every story has antecedents – ideas, stories, characters, situations that it refers back to and which it was influenced by.  Even Harry Potter, that benchmark of children’s literature these days, is basically a story about a kid who becomes a wizard.  This concept is not wholly new – J.K. Rowling merely added her spin on it.  And this is a good thing.  Even if you’ve never heard of Harry Potter before, you probably know what a wizard is, so you have some idea of what Harry’s books are about.

Growing up, I was a huge fan on the first Star Trek series, which was unlike anything else on TV at the time.  But even Star Trek had antecedents. It was a spin on Wagon Train (an earlier TV series about people exploring the Wild West), Horatio Hornblower (a series of books about a 19th century British naval officer), and, well, just about every science fiction series that came before it.

The experts tell you that if you want your book to be published, know what market your book best fits into, understand what readers of those books want, and tailor your work accordingly. And they’re right. Here’s why:

Book publishers publish what they think will sell. Obvious? Yes. But how do publishers arrive at their opinions? They watch what has sold in the past and what is selling now. It’s not an exact science, but trends can provide indicators of what an audience wants. Consider the popularity of vampire novels.

I read a newspaper headline yesterday which asked if Hunger Games was going to knock vampires off their lofty perch. I don’t know (or care) if it will, but the headline illustrates a point. Popularity of a particular type of book plays a key role in determining what publishers will publish.

Human beings like to read what’s familiar. We crave comfort through characters we can identify with, settings we recognize, and situations that are similar to those we’ve experienced. Harry Potter is about a kid going to a new school – everything else springs from this simple and universal concept. Star Trek was about exploring new lands (or worlds) on a ship – a call to adventure that is central to the human spirit.

This does not mean there is no room for originality. But originality works best in small doses, when it adds a fresh ingredient to the stew. Gene Roddenberry may have built on existing works when he created Star Trek, but he also added social themes (unheard of on television at the time), an optimistic future (unusual for the Cold War era), an interracial cast (also new to TV then), and serious, intelligent science fiction stories (going completely against the grain for TV).  

And Roddenberry knew what TV viewers wanted (or at least what the experts told him they wanted) – that’s why you see ray guns (phasers), fist fights, and battles with aliens on Star Trek!

So, go ahead. Be original! But know when not to be.


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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why Sad Stories are More Satisfying than Happy Endings

Dionysos mask, found in Myrina (now in Turkey)...Image via Wikipedia


After losing her father, a teenage girl prays for God to send her small town a doctor so no one close to her will ever get sick again. 

She gets her wish – sort of.

After the healer arrives, an unexplained illness grips the town. The squeamish doctor cannot find the cause – or is he the cause?

Sounds like the setup for a comedy – but it’s not. It's the premise for a tragic play called Anatomy of Gray, currently being performed at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, KS. 

Anatomy of Gray, written by James Leonard Jr., has nothing to do with a similarly named TV series. Set in the 1880s, the play takes us through the gamut of emotions from funny to sad.  But even though the play ends badly for most of the characters, it leaves us with a ray of hope as one character discovers her true identity and the courage to leave behind her sheltered life.

(The JCCC production is excellent, by the way. Full disclosure: I teach composition at the college. But even though I might be letting my bias show, I'm going to recommend the play anyway. It is free and open to the public, and more information can be found at the above link.)

The Ancient Greeks called these types of stories tragedies.  Such stories were meant to make the audience feel a sense of catharsis, or release of emotions, as we watch characters suffer catastrophic events brought on by their own failings.  The characters in Anatomy of Gray certainly have failings – most are superstitious townspeople who refuse to let the doctor examine them.   But do they deserve their fates, as certain characters in Greek tragedies do?

Only a heartless (fill in sobriquet of your choice) would say yes.

So, why do we do it?  Why do we watch or read sad stories? 

Simply put, sad stories satisfy needs that happy endings cannot.

Sad stories force us to respect the fragility of life.  When characters we’ve come to know suffer, we care about them.  We know the same things can happen to us and our loved ones – or have already happened.

Sad stories make the “good times” even better.  The teenage girl’s crush on the doctor is played for laughs, but this very ordinary circumstance takes on even greater significance as the tragedy unfolds.  The humor magnifies the tragedy and vice versa.

Sad stories make profound statements about the human condition.  Some wonk once tried to discourage writers from having anything meaningful to say in their stories by suggesting that, if he wanted to send a message, he’d call Western Union.

Balderdash!

As human beings, we want and need stories that are deeply meaningful, that stay with us after we’ve left the theater or put down the book, that challenge us, provoke us, make us think and feel.

This does not mean that every story must rely on gloom and doom.  In fact, overwrought dramas and shock endings can desensitize the audience or leave them unfulfilled.  Such stories (like many happy endings, where everything works out all right for the main characters) can thrust us into the realm of fantasy where we don’t have to deal with reality as it is. 

Sad stories make us confront reality head on.

Which brings me to my last point:

Sad stories help us cope with life.  Even when characters suffer catastrophe, they can leave us with a sense that the order of the universe has been restored.  In the classic Greek tragedy Antigone,  Creon, the king of Thebes, loses just about everyone dear to him because of his pride and rigid grip on power.  We’re meant to understand that these failings have led to his undoing.

When the townspeople in Anatomy of Gray refuse to let the doctor examine them, we understand how their fear and ignorance make their situation worse.

Sad stories reinforce “universal truths” better than happy endings can.  If you’ve ever put down a book or finished watching a movie or play and thought it would be a good idea to reexamine some of your own beliefs or shortcomings, the story has done its job.  Sad stories, in other words, can remind us not to be too rigid in our own lives or highlight areas in which we need more education.

Sad stories can also reaffirm that life is good, even when bad things happen despite our best efforts.

What do you think?  Have sad stories impacted your life?  Which ones?

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Saturday, November 5, 2011

When Does Writing Become Easier?

MUNICH, GERMANY - OCTOBER 20:  A student is wr...Image by Getty Images via @daylife


The short answer: It doesn’t.

The longer answer: One of my composition students recently wrote on an anonymous card (a method I use to encourage honest feedback), “Why does writing have to be so difficult?” He or she was referring to the practice of crafting thesis statements for essays, but the question could easily apply to any aspect of writing, including fiction.

My initial answer, trite as it may sound, was that nothing worth doing is easy. I don’t have to be a sports fan to admire the dedication and hard work athletes put into perfecting their skills. Musicians work long and hard hours to master their instruments. Mechanics and doctors study for years so they can diagnose a problem and fix it.

Writing, like all of the above, is a skill as well as a talent. To write well requires hard work, dedication and that old axiom: practice, practice, practice.

And the more you practice, the easier some aspects become. After writing several essays, my student will probably develop a sense of what makes an effective thesis statement and what doesn't – so, in future classes, he or she won’t become bogged down by anxiety when given a writing assignment. Likewise, the writer who writes more than one novel or short story develops a sense of when scenes don't move the story along, when there's too much description (or too little), when characters lack distinct personalities . . . and how to fix these things.

But!

There are always new challenges to face. For fiction writers, one such challenge comes after you’ve spent long hours and years perfecting your writing skills. How do you go about selling your work to an agent, editor, or reader?

Which brings me back to my initial answer to the student: Nothing worth doing is easy.

I'd love to read your comments. What aspects of writing have become easier for you? Which ones do you still need to master?

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Why You Can't Write for "Everyone"

Audience?Image by orkomedix via Flickr



Okay – technically, you can write for everyone.  But should you try?  That is, should your target audience be every living soul on the face of the planet?

Beginning writers often make the mistake of saying their target audience is everyone. And, on the surface, that seems wise. Who would want to exclude potential readers? And don’t the most successful works of fiction (e.g., Harry Potter) have broad appeal?

Well, yes and no.

In the first Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry is 11 years old. Mid-grade novels are usually written for children a year or two younger than the protagonist; therefore, J.K. Rowling’s intended audience was aged 9-10. Certainly, the cover and interior illustrations were designed for that audience, and Rowling even adopted her gender-neutral nom de plume to appeal to boys.

It happened that the world Rowling created was so magical and Harry so universally identifiable that the series appealed to girls, teens, and even adults as well as 9-10 year-old boys. But that outcome is rare.

Instead of targeting “everybody,” writers should focus on a narrow audience.

Who do you envision as your primary readers? Men? Women? What age range? What socioeconomic status? Do you see your readers having a religious affiliation? A political one? What would their interests and hobbies be? What music, TV shows, sports do they follow? What is their level of education?

The better you know your target audience, the better you’ll know what likely appeals to them and what likely turns them off.

This does not mean your characters have to be carbon copies of some imaginary reader who is male, 35, lives in the suburbs, goes to a Methodist church, votes Democrat, roots for the St. Louis Cardinals, and has a B.A. in architectural design.   In fact, you might want to avoid using such overly specific details in your story unless they are important.

But no character or story can appeal to every reader.

No, not even Harry Potter. When authors say their book is targeted to everyone, it usually means they haven’t given their audience much thought. 

Unless you are writing exclusively for yourself, you should consider who is going to see your book on the shelf or online, whose eye is going to be attracted by the cover design, and who is going to pay money to read the words you have worked so hard to craft.

Have you narrowed down your audience?

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

5 Tips for Dealing with That Difficult Reader

In your face !Image by aramolara via Flickr

When people read your story and tell you it's wonderful, they make you feel like you're soaring through the stratosphere.  But then THAT reader comes along.

You know THAT reader.  He's the one who tells you your story is good, BUT . . .  Or she listens patiently while you explain some aspect of your story and then trips you up with your own words.  ("That's not what I got out of your story!")

Sometimes, THAT reader does it to be mean.  More often, though, he genuinely cares about your story and is perplexed by something  something which didn't ring true to him or which left him confused about a character's motivation.  Sometimes, his questions feel like an interrogation and make you want to lawyer up. ("I'm not saying anything further until my character seeks counsel!")

So, how do you deal with THAT reader?

For me, I start by reminding myself that I don't have to win every argument.  I don't even have to participate in every argument put before me.

This simple technique can help you, as an author, preserve your sanity.  It acknowledges that everything you write reflects your opinions, views, and ideas.  These things come from deep within you and were formed by some combination of your life experiences, beliefs, values, assumptions, and even prejudices  all of which are unique to you.  This means your ideas can be flawed, even though you may not be aware of it.

But the reader also has his own ideas, which come from his own life experiences, etc., and may also be flawed.  Perhaps this is why he reacted so oddly to your story.  Or perhaps his ideas  and yours  aren't really flawed.  Perhaps they're just different.

As the author, your options when confronted by THAT reader are few.  You can attempt to set her straight by arguing your point of view.  You can dismiss her opinions as belonging to someone who just didn't "get it."

Or you can adopt a different attitude by following these tips:

1. Respect the reader's intent.  Particularly if the reader is a peer editor or beta reader, all feedback is good.

2. Listen with your mind blank.  This is difficult to do when we feel our work is being attacked.  Our normal response is to become defensive and start formulating a rebuttal.  But if we're focusing on what we're going to say, we are probably missing or misunderstanding what the reader is saying.  This means we may overlook a suggestion or insight which can improve the story.

3. Choose not to see the reader's comments as an attack.  Again, this is difficult, particularly if the reader comes across as an attacker or interrogator.  However, you are always in control of how you respond.

4. Smile and nod.  Affirmative body language does not have to mean you agree with the reader; it can mean you understand what he is saying.

5. After your emotions have died down, carefully consider the content  not the presentation  of the reader's words.  
  • Content is the substance of what is being said ("The ending of your story lacks dramatic punch").
  • Presentation is the delivery of the content ("How could you take me on this wonderful ride and leave me hanging???").
Separating content from presentation helps you see where the reader may have a point.  It also helps you avoid the feeling that she is winning and you are losing.

Dealing with THAT reader can be uncomfortable, but buried deep within his seemingly hurtful questions and comments may be nuggets of wisdom.  Getting to those nuggets takes patience and a willingness to put our own egos aside.   However, anything that helps us improve as writers is worth the effort.


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What Does The Power Club Have to do with Poetry?

Photo by  Morning Brew  on  Unsplash  . . . well, not much. But all writers should write a variety of things, so I've been exploring my ...