A “Terrific” task indeed

I’m still working on Terrific, my superhero novel and first true novel (as opposed to series of novellas and novelettes). I’ve already written it twice, and now version three is under way. The first version wound up being an ongoing comic book series in novel form. The second version wound up being a movie in novel form. Now to write a novel in novel form.

Technically, I started this project in January 2015, right as I published Earths in Space vol. 2, but it also dates back to college, 2003 specifically, when I wrote a play called Super! It was workshopped at William & Mary and also appeared in a small Chicago theater a few years later. The main theme was escapism—adulthood is hard, so how do we hide from it? Into what can we disappear, and how unhealthy is that disappearance?

An old postcard for the play. Dates are 2008.

An old postcard for the play. Dates are 2008.

It was partially a superhero deconstruction, though I wrote a sequel that was more of a superhero reconstruction (also workshopped at W&M, though never professionally staged—probably for the best). I re-envisioned that reconstruction in a television pilot I wrote. Called Selfless, it was a set a year after the end of the play, using it as backstory but obviously needing to stand on its own. It was basically about a young woman who felt compelled to keep helping other people rather than do the hard work of sorting out her own life, but helping others winds up helping her, too.

I had fun mapping out a season of episodes that told individual stories that built on each other (kind of like Earths in Space and RIP). But it would’ve been a hard sell, and I realized building a television career wasn’t the right path for me. So I set the superheroes aside and put my comic book sensibilities to work in Earths in Space’s sci-fi adventures.

But then I joined the Comics Experience online workshop (which I highly recommend for aspiring comic book writers and artists). As I was experimenting with the medium and figuring out if I wanted to pursue working in it, I dusted off the old Super! characters, turned the clock forward about ten years, and just had fun telling classic-style superhero stories that were appropriate for kids and adults alike. These days, you can’t pick up a new Batman or Wonder Woman comic and be assured that it will be safe to give to a kid. Sometimes yes, but not always. So I wanted to produce superheroes who were good role models for readers of any age.

But…as I developed an initial story arc, I realized what I had wouldn’t neatly fit into a miniseries format. Plus, publishing it would almost certainly have involved the hiring of artists, a letterer, and probably others and fronting all that money, as well as for the printing, too. (No print-on-demand for comics!) I was working in newspapers at the time, so…yeah, pretty cost-prohibitive. And again, the story wasn’t fitting into an easily marketable format. If anything, I needed more space, and you don’t launch an ongoing superhero series as your first-ever comic. You keep it three or four issues, figuring sales will peak with #1 and decline with each subsequent issue.

But……perhaps a novel? Yes, a novel starring the world’s greatest superhero—Mighty Woman! And it would really be about what it takes to be that seemingly perfect role model when you know darn well you’re nowhere near perfect. I’d aim it at adults who have kids in their lives—parents, teachers, coaches, etc.—but I’d keep it appropriate for younger readers, just in case they stumbled upon it.

The first chapter got me into Taliesin Nexus’s first Calliope Workshop for fiction and nonfiction writers just about one year ago. We workshopped the concept, and I received excellent feedback that steered me toward a new approach that was more suitable for a novel. What I had was too episodic, too comic booky. Too many flashbacks, and a protagonist who was far too good at what she did.

I started over, played around with various ideas, and completed a second full draft. I turned it over to beta readers and learned that what I had was a fun, quick read that holds your attention and carries you through—but that’s not good enough. I had acquired habits from other mediums that were good habits there, but bad habits for a novel (namely, the wrong kind of efficiency—I streamlined the story far too much). Also, trying to write a novel for adults while keeping it kid-friendly—not the wisest move, as that would simply increase the challenge of finding an audience to get excited about it.

So I thought about what worked in the original play. The script was far from perfect, but I watched audiences enjoy it…and audiences never lie. The juxtaposition of gritty adult life and colorful superhero fantasy and all humor derived from that, the struggles and anxieties related to figuring out what to do with a less-than-perfect life, the subtext that naturally arises from secret identities—all that and more could work great in a novel. Though I wouldn’t discard the book’s original aim, using superheroes to represent that idea of young kids looking up to you like you’re so perfect and wise, but feeling like it’s totally undeserved because you’re nowhere near perfect…and if they saw what you were in your misguided youth… And yet you’re still doing great things for these kids. You just better not screw it up. It’s terrifying. It’s terrific.

Yes, funny thing about the word “terrific” … one of its definitions is “causing terror; terrifying.” This hadn’t even occurred to me when I named my superhero team the Terrific Trio back in 2003. I was simply using alliteration in the tradition of the Fantastic Four. That was a happy accident.

So I turned the clock back to before the events of the original play. Miranda Thomas, a.k.a. Ultra Woman, was a supporting character in Super! and perhaps the most simplistically self-centered (to satisfying comedic effect). But now I get to build her up from the beginning, fleshing out the various aspect of her life (or lives)…and I’m still deciding, but it may take more than one book. The first book would focus on the early days. The second would take its inspiration more directly from the play, but re-tailored for the page rather than stage. And the third would be closer to that second full draft I completed, but strengthened greatly with its backstory already covered much more vividly. And each book would have a complete beginning, middle, and end—with set-ups for the sequels, but no cliffhangers.

Plenty of work remains, but progress is happening. It may be easier than ever to publish, but we still have a responsibility to first put our work through the wringer many times over. Thinking back, so many people have lent their input to these characters, this world, and this story, and I’m sure more will. And I needed it all and will forever appreciate their assistance and insights.

This book (or three) is my focus for now. I’ll finish this book (or series), then return to RIP and finish that series, then add at least another installment to Earths in Space (which is designed to keep going and going). Not judging anyone else, but I’m personally uncomfortable using Kickstarter or any crowdsourcing, so RIP vol. 1 and the two Earths in Space books will have to fill that role to the best of their abilities.

Okay, enough update. Back to work!