Archive for the 'Superhero Novel' Category

Dec 27 2010

Flyover City is finished!

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Joel Wyatt just finished his 41st issue (chapter) of his free superhero story.  It strikes me as sort of a Seinfeldesque take on superheroes.  Here’s the protagonist reflecting on a fight between a superhero and a villain.

But you would be mistaken. Centrifuge, man: this guy’s got class, style… that certain je ne sais quoi that makes him the perfect dark horse for your super-group. His body’s center of gravity shifts wildly when he’s under stress, like the beads in one of those South American rainsticks, making the guy FLIP OUT, like a Topsy-Turvy Titan.

Now that is a freakin’ subtitle. Market analysis my balls.

“But Joel,” you say, “He didn’t even win the battle. Deacon Struck got away.”

“You, sir,” I retort, “are a dildo.”

5 responses so far

Aug 11 2010

Captain Freedom: A Writer’s Review

Synopsis: Captain Freedom was rough around the edges, but it was clever and funny.  The plot was pretty much an incoherent wreck.  If you liked Soon I Will Be Invincible, I highly recommend Captain Freedom, which put more thought into character-development and world-building.

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No responses yet

Aug 04 2010

Fake Superhero Stories on the Kindle

When I typed “superhero” in the Kindle searcher, there were a LOT of books masquerading as superhero fiction.  Publishing pro tip: if you’re republishing a book like Aesop’s Fables, The Divine Comedy, The Arabian Nights, Tarzan, Best Russian Short Stories, or Hannibal the Conqueror*,  I would highly recommend against selling such books as something they’re not.  Mismarketed sales are far more likely to result in disgruntled customers and awful reviews.

*Unless the elephants know something we don’t.

4 responses so far

Jul 04 2010

This superhero anthology looks interesting…

Published by under Superhero Novel

Simon and Shuster is releasing a superhero anthology later this month.  (Hat-tip: SF Signal).  Some of the stories include:

  • “Head Cases blasts through the blogosphere to expose the secret longings of a Lonely Superhero Wife.”
  • “The Non-Event removes the gag order on a super-thief named Lockjaw and pries out a confession of life-altering events.”
  • “Vacuum Lad unveils the secret origins of the first true child of the space age—and disproves the theory that nothing exists in a vacuum.”
  • “A to Z in the Ultimate Big Company Superhero Universe (Villains Too) presents a fully-realized vision of a universe where epic feats and tragic flaws have transformed the human race.”

(By the way, when you write summaries of your stories, don’t use these for inspiration.  Besides Head Cases, they’re pretty awful).

One response so far

Apr 18 2009

How would you fix this book?

Today, I came across a self-published book called Superhumans.

Here’s what it says on the back-cover:

Seth, a college student, is accidentally exposed to an experiment that gives him incredible powers. When he and his friend, Chip, try to unravel its secrets, they discover a threat to the world unlike any other. And soon, Seth will find himself faced with one obstacle after another as he tries to live a normal life with the woman he lives and their daughter.

I’ve posted the first page below the jump.  If you’d like a writing exercise today, please rewrite the first two paragraphs of the chapter so that they’re interesting.

Continue Reading »

20 responses so far

Jan 05 2009

What are some common mistakes of comic book and graphic novel teams?

We’re compiling a list of common mistakes of first-time comic book teams. I’ve got 40 so far, but I’d love to know what you would come up with.

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32 responses so far

Jan 01 2009

Some of the Differences Between Writing Comic Books and Novels

  1. Novels are overwhelmingly word-driven.  In contrast, the primary tool of a comic book writer is visual imagery.  Words are a secondary tool to express what can’t be shown visually.  Comic book readers are annoyed by long blocks of text.  As a rule, I’d recommend limiting a page to 175 words of text for an adult audience.
  2. Novels will usually describe the settings and what’s going on in the background at some length.  In comic books, those worldbuilding details are almost purely visual.
  3. Every novel relies on a narrator.  In contrast, virtually every comic book avoids narration and instead tells the story with a combination of action, visual scenery, and dialogue (in roughly that order).   A comic book narrator may offer us little snippets of information like “FIVE MINUTES LATER…” but it’s not very interesting or smooth for him to drop paragraphs of information on us.
  4. Novels are much longer (60,000-80,000 words vs. 2500-5000 and ~300 pages vs. ~24).  As a result, novels tend to focus more on dialogue and low-intensity scenes than action sequences, particularly combat.  A 24 page comic book might spend 10 pages on 2 fights, but a 300 page novel probably wouldn’t come close to 120 pages of fighting or 25 fights.   Having that many fights would get tedious.  Also, novel fight scenes tend to suck.  If readers wanted to see a rolling fight scene, they would go for a comic book or, more likely, an action movie.
  5. Novel readers (particularly adults) tend to expect deeper characterization, fresher characters and more interesting relationships.  Character growth is far more important in a novel than a comic book.  If the main character has not changed or grown in some way over the course of the novel, readers are likely to feel dissatisfied.  In contrast, a character like Superman tends to change very little over the course of a comic book series.

One response so far

Apr 06 2008

Scene of the Day (B. Mac’s Temporary Return!)

B. Mac gave me this to post. He says he will be healthy enough to return to full-time status within a few days.

Agent White, junior recruiter: Mr. Smith, I have no doubt that you are an excellent IRS auditor, but I’d like to know more about how an accountant might be qualified for this agency. What about killing. Have you done any of that?

Gary Smith: No, sir.

Agent White: Have you ever seen someone die brutally? A de-limbing, perhaps?

Gary Smith: No, sir.

Agent White: I see. You seem like an excellent fit… for the IRS. I’m going to do you a favor and ask that you leave now. You would break in ten minutes here and you probably wouldn’t even be the first.

Gary Smith: …

Gary Smith: Is that a request or an order?

Agent White: …

Agent White hits his intercom button.

Agent White: Agent Orange, could you step inside, please?

Agent Orange, a hulking mutated alligator, enters the room.

Agent Orange: Greetings, mammals! Mammal-White, Mammal-Smith.

Agent White: Sir, could you please describe to Mr. Smith what your job is here?

Agent Orange: Indeed! I’m the head recruiter and trainer. I determine who enters training and then how best to systematically destroy them. We’ve reduced our mortality/psychosis rate to a historically low 6%!

Agent White: Mr. Smith, so far Agent Orange has broken six Navy SEALS, five Force Recons, ten Army Rangers and so many Special Agents we’ve stopped counting.

Gary Smith: But no accountants, I bet.

Agent Orange: …

Agent Orange: When are you available to start?

No responses yet

Jan 28 2008

Comic Book Glossary

This is a glossary of terms related to comic books. (See the Superhero Nation-specific glossary here).

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Dec 31 2007

Quote of the Day: Mike-Catastrophe Part 4

Mike: You’re positive you’re not an alien?

Catastrophe: Do aliens frequently speak fluent English?

Mike: Decryption programs applied to radio transmissions can do surprising things.

Catastrophe: I was checking football club rankings when you found me. Unless aliens are frequently interested in football…

Mike: You’d be surprised. You follow football?

Catastrophe: Sometimes. There aren’t any good teams around here.

Mike: Name three.

Catastrophe: Good teams? Arsenal, Man U and Newcastle.

Mike: Please. If you ever need to make up sports teams in the future, I recommend going with animal names, not randomly selected adjectives and nouns. “New castle?” “Man you?” That doesn’t even make sense!

Catastrophe: …

Catastrophe: You don’t get out much, do you?

This is the final part of a four part series. You can see part 1 here.

No responses yet

Dec 29 2007

Conversation of the Day: Mike-Catastrophe Part 2

Mike: We have a non-optional orientation program for aliens. This is very simple. If anyone asks, say that you’re not an alien.

Catastrophe: I’m a cartoon character.

Mike: That was easy, wasn’t it?

Catastrophe: …

Catastrophe: Wait. There are aliens on Earth?

Mike: Uhh… no?

 

This is part II of a four part conversation. You can see part 1 here or part 3 here.

No responses yet

Dec 28 2007

Amusing Links

Agent Orange presents his link of the day and a related public service announcement for crocodile-Americans.

The Annals of Crocodile Failures, 94th Edition

Lions, buffaloes and crocodiles do battle for control of a Kenyan wildlife refuge. This film is rated PG… Pretty Gruesome. The crocodiles make their inglorious appearance at 3:30, but they’re so ineffective that the (mammalian) commentators only notice them at 3:38. Unless you enjoy watching lions play two crocodiles silly, I recommend skipping ahead to 4:30, which is when things get rowdy on the land. “They’ve got ’em surrounded” (5:45). I also enjoyed the sudden appearance of Superlion– he flies– at 5:45.
6:30 is outlandish and further indicates how completely pathetic the crocodiles were in their brief appearance. Any creature that is unable to cripple a baby buffalo is hereby banished from the reptile class. Experts at Palomar University, one of the world’s leading reptological institutions, have found that:

The class Reptilia [Reptiles*] includes turtles, snakes, lizards, alligators**, and other large reptiles…

Let’s face it, crocodiles: even turtles and snakes*** count as reptiles. But not you*. (Don’t snicker too hard, mammals… the lions did not make a persuasive case for your phylum).

Not to fear, crocodiles: although you are no longer reptiles, you may technically qualify as amphibians****. However, both mammals and reptiles will remain ashamed to share a subphylum with you.

Tailnotes

*clarified for the benefit of crocodiles. Not that I think it will help.

**Unsurprisingly, saving the best for last. Incidentally, 99 % of reptologists agree that alligators > lizards > snakes > amoeba > crocodiles. As for the last 1%, if you are ever so horrifically unfortunate to find one of them, escape quickly. (Even if you’re a mammal—it’s not worth finding out if it can spread across species). Say whatever you need to. “I need to sharpen my claws (fingernails)” or “my scales (skin) require polishing.”

***Crocodile sympathizers may dispute that snakes are more worthy of the reptilian name than crocodiles. And we can speculate about the psychological disorders that might prod them to do so. But the fact remains that snakes can eat hippos (not for the squeamish). And, furthermore, snakes have their own baseball team, with which I am not familiar, and dominate a city with which I am.

****Assuming they’ll have you. Don’t hold your breath.

No responses yet

Dec 28 2007

Conversation of the Day: Dec. 28 (Mike-Catastrophe Part 1)

Setup: Catastrophe is a statistician that has been transformed by a mutagen into something uncannily similar to a character on a hit cartoon show, Hegemon (“Gotta kill ‘em all!”) Mike heads the Office of Special Investigations’ efforts to conceal extraterrestrial life and mistakenly believes Catastrophe is an alien.

Mike: Hello.

Catastrophe: I’m reading.

Mike: This’ll only take a second.

Catastrophe: Time’s up.

Mike: …

Mike: Let’s say five minutes.

Catastrophe: That’s 30000% of your original request. Is talking with you really more important than the club rankings?

Mike: And considerably less likely to get you pushed down the stairs.

(This is part of a four part series). After 6:00 PM on 12/29, you can read part 2 here.

No responses yet

Dec 10 2007

Preliminary Search Engine Optimization Results

10 days ago, I changed the title of one of my most popular articles from “Helping Girls Write Guys” toWriting Male Characters(I explained my reasoning here). I think that it’ll take 20 or so more days until I have conclusive information, but so far the article has tripled in unique hits over the past ~9.5 days compared to the 10 days before the change. I had anticipated some change, because my target audience is much more likely to use words like male/writing/characters than helping/girls/guys, but the magnitude of the leap surprised me.

Additionally, the article has become more effective. I suspect that the new title retains readers that click the Google link more effectively. “Writing Male Characters” is very straight-forward and serious; “Helping Girls Write Guys” doesn’t sound nearly as helpful.

  1. Before, the article bounced an unacceptably high ~60% of readers. That has dropped to 35%. My preliminary conclusion is that strong titles are critical to retaining readers.
  2. Including readers that bounce after a very short amount of time, the average time spent on the article has increased from two minutes to three. Excluding relatively unpopular articles that are skewed by a few devoted readers (three people spent an average of 30 minutes on one of mine), only my review of Soon I Will Be Invincible and my article on naming characters retain readers longer. And my SIWBI review is 4000 words long.
  3. With the exception of the main site at www.superheronation.com, more readers enter my site through this article than any other.

 

One response so far

Dec 09 2007

Quote of the Day: Dec. 9

Agent Orange: Contrary to popular belief, the New York Times is not actually the most anti-American news outlet. CSPAN is far more dangerous, and not just because it is more accurate than the average comic book. You couldn’t design anti-American propaganda more effective than around-the-clock Congressional coverage.

No responses yet

Dec 08 2007

Quote of the Day

“You don’t change the world by whispering.” — NY Governor Eliot Spitzer

“Only a New Yorker could think that volume can change the world.”– Jacob Mallow

One response so far

Dec 07 2007

Quote of the Day

FROM: AgentOrange@osi.hr.gov

TO: OfficeofSpecialInvestigationsListServ@osi.gov

SUBJ: December Morale Issues

As you receive your duty schedules this December, please think of the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

What happened in the Rudolph case study

  1. Team-members pulling together to complete an important task
  2. Division of labor

What didn’t happen in the Rudolph case study

  1. Reindeer complaining about “hazard pay” or “life insurance premiums”
  2. Reindeer demanding to be at home on Dec. 24 or 25.
  3. Threats of congressional investigations into Reindeer Resources practices and relevant reindeer being kicked into a food processor

Ho, ho, ho! Have a cheerfully nondenominationally cheerful December season!

–Human Resources

No responses yet

Dec 07 2007

Quote of the Day

I reject the cynical view that politics is a dirty business.”– Richard Nixon

Sorry, I can’t think of any way to make that any funnier.

No responses yet

Dec 05 2007

Quote of the Day

“I’m a conservative, but I’m not a nut about it.”– George H.W. Bush

“And that is why you and I are different.”– Dr. Lizard, webmaster of the Lizard Lounge.

“Poor Darrell Hammond. What’s he going to do when I leave office?”– Bill Clinton

“Probably enjoy his internship more.”– Dr. Lizard

No responses yet

Dec 01 2007

Search Engine Optimization for Online Novels

This article describes some remotely technical details of search engine optimization, particularly for authors/novelists.

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One response so far

Nov 30 2007

Quote of the Day: Nov. 30

ATTN: SOCIAL JUSTICE LEAGUE

It has come to our attention that you have continued to violate our intellectual property rights. Continuing to infringe on copyrighted terms and concepts, including but not limited to the following, will force us to pursue alternate methods of defending our legal rights.

  1. superhero
  2. “superpowers”
  3. The concept of superpowered individuals concealing their identities with masks and capes.
  4. Accusations of lurid conspiracies by government personnel against the public interest

We eagerly anticipate your cooperation in this matter.

–Wonder Comics

ATTN: WONDER COMICS

It has come to our attention that you are attempting to restrict our linguistic rights for your selfish profit. Please refer your legal staff to the following concepts in US-American jurisprudence.

  1. Common usage
  2. Lawyers/media vs. police/military. Who do you think we have on staff?
  3. Billionaire playboys: you’ve either got them or you don’t.

We eagerly anticipate your lawsuit.

–The Social Justice League

No responses yet

Nov 27 2007

Black Superheroes and Writing Fiction About Racism

ABC did a story called Why Black Superheroes Succeed– and Fail. That’s interesting for whites writing black characters (or vice versa) or those wondering why some characters are popular and others aren’t.

I think black superheroes tend to fail because they get typecast as persecuted heroes. Even the article confuses two very separate ideas.

  1. The article’s first sentence: “Would Spider-Man be the box-office juggernaut he is today if he had been created as an African-American character?” All other things being equal, would a successful hero become unsuccessful if he is made black?
  2. The article’s second sentence: “What if Peter Parker had had to deal with the problems of being black in America in addition to adjusting to his powers when he was first introduced in 1962?” Would a successful hero become unsuccessful if white-on-black persecution were inserted into his plotline?

These two questions are very different! The second implicitly assumes that a black hero must face white-on-black persecution, which probably makes less sense now than it did in 1962. And, regardless of whether it is plausible that every black is persecuted by whites, persecution stories are usually depressing (particularly when the persecution is based on real-life events, rather than hating mutants or Muggles). Making the hero the victim of persecution changes the tone of the plot far more than just making him black.

Do black heroes have to be persecuted? I don’t think so. Most young people, especially, haven’t lived with the intense and highly visible racism of the 1960s, but the comics industry doesn’t seem to have caught on to that. Plot elements that were commonplace (or at least plausible) fifty years ago, like racial violence and particularly caustic racist remarks, often seem outlandishly cynical now.

If you do focus on racism, I recommend using elements of racism that are likelier to resonate with your readers circa now. People might step away in hallways and elevators or sit at different tables in cafeterias—I think that most readers would agree that’s how racism manifests right now more than, say, burning crosses and even racial slurs. More provocatively, someone might suggest that a minority has gotten where he is because of affirmative action or that affirmative action hires as a whole are less qualified than other employees. Bank guards might get antsy. Etc. (For some more manifestations of modern racism, please see the footnotes).

The point is that modern racism has become subconscious—I suspect that most racists genuinely believe that they aren’t— and that portraying racism as in-your-face, 1960s slurs will likely feel out of touch and preachy to your readers.

When I watched Crash, I laughed so hard when a car crash caused people to immediately start screaming slurs. Wouldn’t you, uhh, want to get their insurance information first? NO CUZ KKKALIFORNIA IZ RACIST. Crash wants to Make A Point and comes off as totally cartoonish.

Freedom Writers portrays a racially balkanized community much more plausibly.

If you feel the need to include intense racism in your work—something that will significantly affect the tone and marketability of your piece—Freedom Writers offers a pretty good model. It treats racism more seriously.

  1. FW is set in a school district with some really poor areas. Meeting basic, everyday needs is a struggle.
  2. Gangs and ghettos form as an attempt to form communities to meet those needs.
  3. Intense, Hobbesian struggles and racism arise as the communities clash.

FW suggests that racism arises from economics*. That offers FW’s world a sort of grim, perverse logic. FW’s world is deep—you see where the racism came from and why it is so damn hard to overcome. Readers understand economic motives and how much money matters, especially if you have very little. Readers won’t sympathize with race-based gangs, but they will appreciate that tolerance is a harder choice than they thought. That raises the stakes and makes the heroes larger-than-life.

In Crash, racism just sprouted from nowhere and persists despite economic concerns. Insulting someone rather than getting their insurance information is irrational. Furthermore, the story offers no explanation why the characters would think it’s rational. Why are characters intolerant? Because they’re emotional, maybe. That seems flimsy and unsatisfying. It also gives the story an arbitrary feel– the characters couldn’t overcome racism at the story’s start, so how are they able to at the end? It would feel much more logical if we knew why racism was a problem at the start.

Footnotes

*Although some sociologists do agree with Freedom Writers that racism is primarily rooted in economics, they’re in the minority. But that doesn’t matter– Freedom Writers feels coherent and plausible anyway.  99% of your audience has no idea what most sociologists think, so it’s the feeling that matters.

More modern racism

For the purposes of helping you write, I’ll broadly define racism as anything that might create discomfort or division along racial lines.

1) Affirmative action. I actually already mentioned this before, but I think it’s particularly useful because blacks and whites often strongly disagree not only about AA but about which statements/opinions about AA are socially acceptable. For example, in one class a white student discussing AA made the (not extremely controversial?) assertion that race influences faculty hiring decisions. This offended the black professor, who may have thought that the white was insinuating he was less qualified. The professor asked, “do you think I was hired because I’m black?” The white was taken aback by that point-black, personal question about what he probably perceived to be an impersonal, general statement. He said that he thinks that the professor’s being black was a factor.

As the author, you could paint this a few ways. Maybe the student is wrong to treat the issue impersonally, maybe the professor was being oversensitive, or that there’s just a gap in understanding between the white and the black that doesn’t suggest anything negative about either.

2) Whites saying “sup” to black peers. In terms of awkward hilarity, this is one of my favorites. Whites often feel pressured to act differently with blacks. You might chalk this up to insensitivity and/or oversensitivity. Saying “sup” probably isn’t sinister, but it may create tension because the black knows that the white is acting differently because he’s talking to a black. In a related example (one I can hopefully offer without making a political point), Hillary Clinton once adopted a painfully bad drawl when speaking before a black audience.

3) Subways, trains and buses. I’ve noticed that people (including nonwhites) strongly prefer to sit by people of the same race. Visual media, like comic books, have some fantastic opportunities for some grim humor by showing a black (or white?) sitting alone in a crowded bus like he has leprosy or something. However, I’ve never seen anyone change seats to specifically move away from someone of a different race.

4) The assumption that whites and blacks have substantially different skills, traits or tastes.

12 responses so far

Nov 25 2007

Header Art: Marketing Comic Book Novels

I’ll recap some of my past observations about cover art.

  1. Readers are extraordinarily sensitive to the quality of header art. In my four months running this site, nothing has been as important as my header art in determining how many people bounce from the site. The quality/quantity of my writing only began to influence readers after I added strong cover art.
  2. Readers respond better to characters that look like they could be related to. This is somewhat different than the conventional wisdom that “readers respond better to characters that look like them.” Readers reacted reasonably poorly to a draft of the cover art that had Agent Orange, Jacob Mallow and Catastrophe (respectively the dragon, the bleached-out super villain and the Mewtwo parody). Most readers I’ve asked have responded warmly to the addition of Lash and Oliver Ryan. If readers wanted characters that looked like them, presumably white readers wouldn’t respond well to a black character and women wouldn’t respond well to male characters (no on both counts).
  3. Nonhuman characters are not received particularly well, though it’s probably worked out better for Superhero Nation than might have been the case. For example, look at the British cover art for Soon I Will Be Invincible below. It focuses on Elphin (the fairy) and Feral (the conspicuously muscular tiger-man thing) at the expense of more relatable heroes, like Corefire and Fatale. I suspect my art makes Agent Orange look somewhat more relatable. His sunglasses, trenchcoat and badge suggest how the reader should interpret him. The only way to be more blatant was to give him an M-16 and a flag. Catastrophe has a labcoat (albeit one cut off by the logo). I don’t think he came off as well, but making a parody of a well-known cartoon character look relatable is damn hard.

SIWBI Coverart in Britain

Future experimentation on reader reaction to the header art

I can’t access my art materials right now, but I will remove Catastrophe from the header for a month or so.

Here are a few reasons I suspect that will be productive.

  1. Nonhuman overload. Reader longevity improved drastically after I added Lash and Ryan to the header art. Removing Catastrophe, at least until I’ve actually written him in, will probably help.
  2. Instinctive ripoff concerns. Readers that stay with the story will obviously pick up that he’s a parody of Mewtwo, but at first glance it might look like a poorly done ripoff or, worse, Pokemon fan fiction. *shudder*
  3. Header claustrophia. It feels cramped. Removing Catastrophe should make it easier to enjoy.
  4. Maybe having five characters feels overwhelming to new readers?
  5. Showing Catastrophe in the header before he’s actually in the story seems like cruel teasing.
  6. Character confusion. When my caption mentioned that one of the characters is a scientist-turned-hegemon, some readers assumed I meant Jacob Mallow (the only scientist introduced so far). I meant a different scientist, actually. Whoops! The picture heightens the confusion by placing Catastrophe immediately right of Mallow– Westerners naturally associate left-to-right with before-and-after.

After a month, I think I’ll be able to draw some assessments about how Catastrophe contributed to the header art.

No responses yet

Nov 18 2007

Quote of the Day: Nov. 18

Agent Orange: Can you hotwire that car?

Lash: No, jackass. I’m a Harvard MBA. And there is no way you would ask a white…

Agent Orange: Just because you attended Harvard doesn’t necessarily mean you’re devoid of useful knowledge. Excuse me for giving you the benefit of the doubt.

2 responses so far

Nov 15 2007

A Writer’s Review of Soon I Will Be Invincible

SIWBI is a first novel about a cyborg and her superhero team trying to stop a supervillain from taking over the world. Although it has redeeming qualities and the author is clearly very talented, I would recommend it only for writers.

Other reviews have been mixed. Here are some Amazon excerpts.

  • “This book reads more like a first draft than a published work.”
  • “This excellent novel reminds me more than anything of The Unforgiven in its deconstruction and reconstruction of its genre.”
  • “Most dismayingly, the two narrators sound remarkably similar, except that Fatale’s utterly flat sections lack the occasional moments of inspiration that sparingly pepper Dr. Impossible’s narrative.”
  • “Absolutely delightful.”
  • “The heroes don’t even take part in the fight that beats Impossible, yet the book wants you to feel like they’ve proved themselves at the end.”

SIWBI is not awful. It was, however, poorly executed and suffers from many flaws common to first novels.

Characterization

Within the first thirty pages we were introduced to nineteen named characters and three super-groups. Most of the characters parrot a popular comic book character but without any kind of new angle, sort of like fan-fiction but with new names. These characters are so thinly-developed that you can only differentiate them by remembering who’s a ripoff of Superman and who’s Batman. For example, let me run down the eight (!) main characters.

1) Fatale. She’s the main protagonist and one of the two narrators. She’s a female cyborg and former NSA assassin, very much like Black Widow. That wouldn’t have been a problem, if the author had provided any personal spin or commentary or improvement on BW. Without those, the best she could have been was BW fan-fiction. She didn’t even get that far. Instead, she does remarkably little throughout the story. Instead of affecting the plot and making things happen, she does a lot of watching and ruminating, but neither her perspective nor her voice are interesting.

2) Dr. Impossible. He’s the villain and the other narrator. He comes closer to parodying Dr. Doom, which is a plus. Early on, his voice was engaging. Nonetheless, he still wasn’t nearly developed enough to drive a story.

3) Blackwolf, one of Fatale’s teammates. He’s a millionaire (or billionaire?*) martial-artist without any superpowers. He’s a clumsy homage to Batman, but a Batman with a curious penchant for waiting around as things happen. Even Batman fan-fiction wouldn’t inflict that on us. Shouldn’t he be, umm… Solving crimes? Running down leads? Figuring out Lily’s secret identity? Epic fight scenes? Emotionally scarring Robin?
*Pages 20 and 61 disagree.

4) Corefire (Superman/Reed Richards). Corefire is dead at the book’s start and still affects the plot more than any of the other heroes. His death makes more things happen than most of the characters do while alive. No, really.

5) Damsel (Wonderwoman). I can’t remember her doing anything but throwing up. I don’t know why they have this character.

6) Feral is Beast, minus the intelligence. He sounds like every other character, bizarrely like a high school student. (“This is all geek stuff”). If anyone needed a distinct voice, I’d say it’d be the mutant lab experiment.

7-9) Mr. Mystic (any magical hero), Elphin (a female Sir Justin), and Rainbow Triumph (Dazzler).

Fatale’s group has eight characters, hardly any of whom do anything. You might wonder what does happen. We learn a lot about another supergroup that has literally no bearing on Dr. Impossible’s villainous plot. Dr. Impossible gets beat up by another supervillain, who just lets him go and then never shows up again.

Inexplicably, we learn the origin story of one of the other supergroup’s heroes. Incidentally, it’s an enjoyable and funny play on the Chronicles of Narnia. But the only reason the author could have possibly wanted to spend a chapter on that character is to set up a sequel. I think it was a significant misuse of space. There were eight main protagonists. Surely one of them deserved that space more than a character whose only purpose was to set up a sequel. One excellent way to set up a sequel—perhaps the best way—is to develop characters that are interesting enough that we want to see more. DC/Marvel fan-fiction? Not so much.

Lack of Originality and Flavor

SIWBI looked so promising. The title and cover are outlandishly fun. The first few chapters felt fresh. But the last 80% of the book is painfully bland.

The plot went like this.

  1. The villain starts his evil plot.
  2. The heroes try to stop him but fail.
  3. The villain raises the stakes.
  4. The heroes stop the villain in the final climax.

Isn’t there supposed to be something more? For example, the Incredibles and Spiderman had interesting themes about specialness and responsibility. The Matrix and X-Men 2 had great action. SIWBI had boring action scenes (even for a novel) and, if there were any notable themes, I missed them completely.

Perhaps most notably, the villain’s grand plan is just absolutely lame. At one point, Impossible teases us by musing about his past attempts to seize world power with armies of mushrooms and termites and stuff. Termite armies would have been epic compared to this.

It wasn’t just the villain’s plot and the action. Pretty much everything about this story’s world was forgettable. Generic. Me-too. If I could use an example, I think there are 4 ways for a superhero story to show (or not show) how its superheroes interact with the government.

Model 1: The government’s missing. The hero ties up criminals and presumably the cops come along later, but we never see them. Or maybe the story mentions that the government has deputized the heroes, which is a generic way to make the characters feel more sympathetic than vigilantes without getting bogged down in politics.

Model 2: The government is a mild antagonist, like the cops that get in Spiderman’s way. This gives the heroes an obstacle to overcome.

Model 3: The government is a villain, like in X-Men. This gives stories a more ideological edge, but can be interesting because it takes more finesse to handle a hostile government than a hostile villain. (You can’t just randomly stab cops, unless you’re Wolverine).

Model 4: Very rarely, the government is a protagonist. The Hood uses two minor FBI agents and The Taxman Must Die rocks out with an IRS agent transferred to a super-crime unit.

SIWBI goes for option 1, mentioning that the government’s okay with the heroes doing their thing. That’s fine, if generic. Maybe no one else cares about the government!  But it feels like every aspect of SIWBI is the equivalent of option 1 writing, an easy and conventional way to build a comic book world. You can’t develop every aspect of your world, but no aspect of this world is notable.

Narration and Voice
Each chapter was narrated by either Fatale or Dr. Impossible. They monologue a lot. Sometimes SIWBI’s monologues parody comic books, but usually they felt like weak storytelling. More importantly, Fatale is a poor choice for a narrator.

  1. Her back-story is cliché. She’s an injury victim-turned-cyborg, concerned about remaining human despite having mechanical parts. Boohoohoo.
  2. She’s new and doesn’t know what’s going on. That wouldn’t be a problem if introducing her to the world immersed us at the same time. It worked much better for Harry Potter and Frodo.
  3. She has no unique impact on the plot. Except for her inexperience, she brings literally nothing to the plot that other characters couldn’t replace.
  4. Even though she’s a cyborg superheroine, her voice was frequently hard to distinguish from a male megalomaniac supervillain. These characters should not have sounded at all alike.

There were a few chapters where I read through a page or two and found that I had actually mistaken the identity of the narrator. In one case, it took five pages.

Your readers should know quickly and without any doubt who is narrating each chapter. My rule of thumb would be that it shouldn’t take more than two paragraphs.

For example, here are a few ways to help readers keep the narrators apart.

  1. Write the narrator’s name right below the chapter title. This is 100% effective, though unsubtle.
  2. Use demographic cues. If the narrator mentions how her arm reminds her of a 1950s radiator, we can guess she’s a cyborg rather than a supervillain. If his tail swishes, we know he’s not human. Readers might miss these cues, but they draw the reader into the story more.
  3. Give them distinct voices! Making your characters sound different is definitely doable. It’s difficult, but it gets past the symptoms of voice confusion and addresses the problem, that your characterization and voice need work.

SIWBI attempted to identify the narrator by putting a graphic about the size of a gumball at each chapter’s start, a laser pistol for Impossible and an eye for Fatale. These graphics were too small to notice and I’m not sure why I would associate a laser pistol with a supervillain instead of a cyborg, or an eye with a cyborg instead of a villain.

All of the characters tended to sound alike. Here’s a multiple choice test: Who delivers these quotes from Soon I Will Be Invincible? Your choices are A) a mutant cat created in a lab accident, B) a genius millionaire gymnast-turned-businessman, and C) a whiny teen idol. (This should be easy, right?)

  • “Maybe you should be at work, then. Spend some time on the streets.”
  • “He always looks fine. I know you two kept in touch.”
  • “Darkness? Crime, you mean.”
  • “This is all geek stuff.”
  • “You honestly think there’s something behind this.”
  • “We haven’t seen a serious threat for almost a year. I’m almost bored.”

The first four are A and the last two are B. If you’re wondering why a mutated cat would use phrases like “geek stuff,” you’re not the only one. Notice that none of these lines actually came from the whiny teen idol, but pretty much all of them could have come from her.

Bloated Cast

I would recommend bringing in only as many characters as necessary. Each extra character is a liability.

  1. Each new character makes it harder for readers to keep track of the other characters.
  2. You have less time and space to develop each character.
  3. Adding characters leads quickly to superficial and underdeveloped relationships.
  4. Bloated casts ruin fight scenes. A book’s fight scenes are hard enough to visualize with two fighters, let alone SIWBI’s 7. (If you want to write epic fight scenes with many extras, could I suggest screenwriting?)

To paraphrase, redundant characters are reader kryptonite and should be removed. But how do we identify those characters? Generally, any character whose function/role in the plot can be performed by other characters can be axed.

SIWBI hit readers with eight characters whose only purpose was to represent a superhero archetype. For example, Mystic is the magical superhero and Feral is the mutated animal superhero. That’s not enough reason to add characters! Even if these characters were used well for parody/commentary– and they certainly were not– extra characters dilute every other character. If you absolutely needed characters like Feral or Elphin or Mr. Mystic to parody their respective archetypes, then it would make more sense to mention them as bit characters once or twice, rather than as Fatale’s teammates. That would have saved space for the few characters that did affect the plot.

I think SIWBI would have been much smoother and more coherent with only 3-4 characters on the superhero team.

  1. Fatale (or your favorite narrator; I prefer Lily).
  2. Someone to represent life before Fatale showed up (probably Damsel)
  3. Someone that can develop the narrator, usually by playing the foil or providing comic relief.

That leaves us with a core of three protagonists: the main character, status quo, and the foil. That’s elegant and flexible. You can go Harry-Hermione-Ron or Laurence-British society-Temeraire, for example. Three is easy, but a “core” of eight protagonists is completely unworkable. Depending on how you define “character” (such as minimum number of lines), I don’t know if His Majesty’s Dragon even has eight characters.

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Nov 13 2007

Quote of the Day: Tuesday (Nov. 13)

Agent Black: The quintessential yes-or-no question of our times is not “do you want to win the war on terror?”  There are actually two: “do you feel safe in New York City?” and “Should you?”

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Nov 09 2007

Only a Bumbling Person Can Stop a Supervillain

A supervillain is easily identifiable because power is sexy.  That’s why we always get the best women (no one really wants to date a mild-mannered reporter or an inept freelance-photographer).  But superheroes are also easy to identify if you know what to look for: the bumbling factor.  The more bumbling someone is, the more superpowers he’s waiting to unleash. For example, the last time my henchmen attempted to break into a presidential convention, they got absolutely shellacked by Tucker Carlson. If you have ever wondered whether someone that looks that bumbling could only get on TV because he was really a superhero, you’re not alone.

Tucker Carlson, Superhero

There’s really no way to know how many of my plots have been spoiled by Carlson and Alan Colmes, but I’d feel pretty confident saying that they’re the main barrier between me and global domination.

Hannity/Colmes

I’d give you two guesses whether it’s Hannity or Colmes that’s the bane of supercriminals everywhere. Remember, people that look bumbling are dangerous. And anyone that looks as bumbling as Colmes can strangle your best assassins with his mind.  Interestingly, Sean Hannity is also a superhero, but any supervillain that fears a conservative diversity hero should reconsider his line of work.

Way to keep a secret identity, dumbass

Unsurprisingly, the talk radio guy doesn’t know how important it is to keep his appearance secret.

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Nov 09 2007

Quote of the Day: Friday

The Refrigerator of DOOM

Doctor Savant: “Before we open my refrigerator, you better take this.”

Lash: “What the hell, a flame thrower?”

Doctor Savant: “Just in case.”

Lash: “Just in case of what?

Doctor Savant: “Exactly.”

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