The next Madrona Heroes Book arrives in less than a month.

That’s right, Nothing as it Seems, the final installment in the first Madrona Heroes trilogy arrives in less than a month – Saturday, May 7 2016 to be exact. And yes, it’s book #6 — remember, we’re using Star Wars numbering here folks. But have no fear, to make the wait a little easier, we have the cover here for you to see. But this isn’t just the cover, you get to see the entire painting, including the parts that are too wide to fit on the print edition of the book. Check it out, and let me know what you think in the comments!

Wanna come to the book launch? It will be at 1pm on Saturday, May 7, 2016 at the Northwest African American Musuem. I will sign books, read a little, and there will even be some snacks!

Finally, I love seeing the three books together, so check this out. Cool huh?

 

cover-reveal

Batman v Superman was Actually Really Good

So here’s an unpopular opinion, The new Batman v Superman movie was actually really good. There, I said it.

Let me start with my bias. I grew up in the 1970’s and 1980’s on a steady diet in the classic Batman TV series, and the SuperFriends animated show on Saturday mornings. Even at the age of 10 I knew that what I wanted was to see the DC Comics superheroes (I’ve always been partial to DC) on the big screen, in a connected universe, across multiple films. But most importantly, I wanted movies that took superheroes seriously. I didn’t want a comic book. I wanted reality — just with superheroes. And when I was 10, that’s what I thought was about to happen. The first two Superman films were great for my pre-teen self. I loved them. But even back then I knew the later ones were awful. Veering to the silly.

I’ve had a bad feeling for months. Mostly because Zack Snyder’s movies have always been uneven for me. Man of Steel was probably the best (though I could have done with 65% less punching) with me absolutely loving the scenes between Clark and his parents and Clark growing up. Basically the behind-the-scenes moments of a superhero’s personal life. Love them. I also loved the tone of the film. Nobody can quibble with Zack Snyder’s ability to deliver incredible accomplished visual artistry. Truly, it was a beautiful film to look at. And I loved the seriousness too. There’s a fine line between having some humorous moments to relieve the pressure, and getting all quip crazy (which I think some of the Marvel films have done). When I saw the reviews of the new Batman v Superman movie I was crushed. My bad feeling started with the convoluted title of the film. It was awkward. It sounded like former Microsoft marketing folks had come up with it. And now the critics were confirming that it was a disaster. I secretly hoped that the low expectations might help me actually enjoy the film. But Facebook comments echoed that sentiment and then said, that even that didn’t help and the movie was just putrid. This morning we took our nine-year-old to see it. The twelve-year-old and fourteen-year-old said it looked like a hot mess. (Budding critics I suppose.)

I started watching and waiting. I kept waiting for the awfulness to show up. Like the way Fantastic Four took a left turn into shittiness in the third act. But the longer I waited, the more weird I felt because the moment never came. Now this is not to say that BvS was perfect. It wasn’t. So let’s get the quibbles out of the way first.

  • Jesse Eisenberg’s characterization was distracting and loopy. I can almost see the creative team deciding to go full Heath Ledger with Lex’s character. And given that concept I think Eisenberg did a great job at that. But for me, it just didn’t work. I think Jesse is a great actor. I think Eisenberg is an excellent actor. And I would have preferred to see him start out relatively normal, and sympathetic and then slowly get crazy. That evolution would have been interesting. Instead the justification for Lex’s anger just showed up suddenly. It felt unearned. But this is easy for me to say. Writers, directors, and actors can’t often win this battle. If they do too much explaining, they get accused of being unsubtle, but if they don’t explain enough then someone like me says it’s unearned. And even the direction of the writing and performance I’m sure would have sounded like a totally reasonable direction to everyone. Some things are just hard to predict. I’m sure this was one of them.
  • Hans Zimmer’s music was great. But there were moments where the movie was just overwrought in terms of the drama of the scene. Huge crushing symphonic bursts. Luthor cackling on screen, or Batman stomping. This really is more of a director problem than a composer problem. Snyder’s scenes demanded the music, and the music was as over the top as the scenes. The challenge is that these crescendos came way too often and way too early in the film. Contrast is essential. You can’t have all cake and cookies for dinner or by the time you get to dessert, you’re not gonna enjoy the sugar.
  • And finally, the title. It sucked. I said that already, but it’s so awkward and ham-fisted, I feel like it deserves a second mention.

Now onto the good stuff:

  • I read that Lois Lane was failed by the film. But I disagree. She had a big role. And i thought she was key. She didn’t fall victim to some of the standard tropes where the hero saves the princess.
  • Lawrence Fishburne was great as Perry White. He had all the gruffness you want, but wasn’t a caricature like that role usually is (in Spiderman too).
  • Ben Affleck was great as Batman. Really. And maybe even better as Bruce Wayne. In my opinion, Ben Affleck the director has purchased an infinite amount of storytelling credibility for Ben Affleck the human being (at least in my book). And I can’t wait for more Batfleck with him directing.
  • Was the story complicated? Yeah. Of course it was. But I thought it was the appropriate amount of complicated. There were moments when I went to explain what was happening to my nine-year-old who immediately responded with a look that said, “yeah duh, I got it.” so I’m not sure it was really all the hard to understand. Or maybe she’s just super bright. ;) I think that while the movie could have been even tighter (perhaps cut that second dream sequence by a bunch), the film wasn’t indulgent. He actually had a somewhat light touch in terms of storytelling, telling just enough of the plot in the film, and letting the audience connect the dots.
  • The setups and the payoffs. I won’t reveal these as I promised no spoilers, but I was actually surprised by a bunch of moments towards the end of the film both in terms of not expecting the outcome, and in terms of being thrilled at how things connected up nicely.
  • There were a couple of funny lines in the movie. And while I agree with the critics who said there could be more, the ones that were there were really good. I suppose we could have had a little more of that, and a little earlier. But like I said, this stuff is just hard to judge when you’re so close to a piece of art.
  • I mentioned it above, but the movie was gorgeous. And not overly slick or shiny. Just beautiful to watch. It’s hard to make a lot of this stuff feel real, and Snyder’s team nailed it. The Marvel movies sometimes feel a little too polished for me. And the DC superhero tv shows just look cheesy. This looked incredible. I loved just looking at it.
  • There was also a light touch when it came to the setups for the next films. Just enough to get you excited, and not a second more. I’m pretty excited to see this bunch of characters come together.
  • Wonder Woman. Holy shit. She rocked. The look, the acting, the writing, what she did. Sofa king cool. Why the studios have taken so long to make a movie about a female superhero I don’t know. But I could not be more excited for her solo film. She is just a total badass. LOVE!

I have a confession to make. As I mentioned above, I have always dreamed of an interconnected cinematic universe of superheroes that are taken seriously. Not cartoony. Not campy. Not cheesy. Seriously. I have dreamed of it so much that I have created my own – The Madrona Heroes. Mine starts with a group of kids who get superpowers in a neighborhood of Seattle. I’m about to release the third novel in the series (coming to Amazon in May!). And my focus is on just the things that I love – a world where superpowers and their consequences are considered seriously. I focus mostly on the personal moments in the lives of my superheroes, and try to save the action for small bursts when it really matters. Patience, pacing, contrast, are all key values for me in my books. And let there be no misconceptions, I wrote them with the eventual plan that I will make them into a series of interconnected films. But I walked out of this film thinking, ‘uh-oh’. This film, while not perfect, had a lot of what I value in a superhero film. And yet everyone hates it. Maybe what I want is just not what most people want? Maybe nobody will like my books because my less campy, more serious vision of what a series of stories about superheroes should be is just not what anybody wants?

So, execs at Warner Bros, Zack, Ben, Henry, Gal, Amy, Jesse, everyone (I’m on a first name basis with them)… I’m really really sorry that everyone is bitching about your movie. (Episode 1 of Star Wars has a 56% on Rotten Tomatoes. Need I say more?) Stay strong. Not saying you shouldn’t listen to the public. You should. But don’t do a total 180. DO NOT OVERREACT to the bad reception. You’ve got good DNA here. The beauty of a series of films is that despite being interconnected they can all be different in tone and voice and story. Stay with your overarching vision. Defend your art. This shit is hard, and you made a really good movie. Thank you, and keep going.

On Finishing

As many of you know, I’ve spent the last several years writing novels in my spare time. The main effort has been behind a seven-part-series called The Madrona Heroes Register about a group of kids in Seattle with superpowers. Like Star Wars, I started with book #4 which came out in 2013. The fifth book, came out in 2014, and now I’m eight-nine chapters away from finishing book #6. And while there are three prequels to write after this, and then a seventh final wrap-up book, I have been stuck on finishing the last 20% of this book for the last several weeks. But I need to get unstuck.

I know that most of you haven’t read the books, but some of you have. This book, book #6 represents the end of the first trilogy and therefore it really does wrap up several storylines. For two and three quarter novels I’ve been slowly revealing little tidbits, taking the reader on different paths, showing little clues about where the story is headed. And my alpha readers who are reading along as I write this latest installment have confirmed to me that they truly have no idea how this book is going to end. So that’s a good thing. I didn’t want to telegraph the ending.

But I think I’ve encountered a new challenge, I am desperately nervous that the ending won’t be satisfying. For weeks now I’ve avoided writing the end of the book with a myriad of stupid excuses (watching bad television, cleaning the basement, etc.). But now there’s no escape. If I’m gonna publish it in May it needs to be done now. And it’s not like I don’t know what happens. The ending has been pretty much set since the summer of 2012 when I conceived of the entire story. But here I am, struggling to finish these last few chapters. And the only explanation I can think of is that I’m worried my readers will get to the end and think “that’s it?”

In the previous two books I didn’t worry as much because I knew we were heading to a greater conclusion. I could always justify that they didn’t know the whole picture. But now, the readers really will know everything. (Or at least almost everything.) I didn’t expect to feel differently about ending this book, but it appears I do.

And if you’re wondering why I’m bothering to share this, it’s because what I have learned consistently over the last several years is that the only thing that gets me to write when I don’t want to is by making the ‘not-writing’ even worse than the writing. Never underestimate the power of self-imposed public humiliation.

So, now that this last excuse has been removed from my path (writing this post that is), I really have zero excuses for not finishing the book. My goal is to get it all done before Christmas Eve. Wish me luck.

–h

p.s. The image is a preview of one of the new chapter illustrations for the book. It’s also kind of what my workspace looks like right now. Enjoy!

The book you want your ten-year-old daughter to read.

And while you’re at it, your ten-year-old son too.

Like many people, I react negatively to books, movies, and television shows “with a message.” The last thing I need is a little lecture at the end of the story a la the old stop-motion Davey and Goliath. And yet, my favorite television show of all time, had a message, a big complicated one. For me at least, The Wire was about the ultimate power of institutions and the futility of trying to fight them from within (and without) but especially within. Is my acceptance of this deeply “message-oriented” story because it doesn’t have a religious origin (that I know of)? Is it because I agree with it? I don’t honestly know. Even lighter fare like Harry Potter and Star Wars have messages even if they are big and fluffy.

It got me thinking about my own novels. They’re just entertainment right? Or are they?

The first book in The Madrona Heroes Register Series was not just the start of the story, it was the start of my fiction-writing. I’d written for years, but never fiction. I knew the story I wanted to tell in broad terms, but the actual process of writing a 70,000 word novel scared the hell out of me. One of the ways I tackled that problem was by reducing the number of variables. I knew my heroes would be a group of kids. Why not my kids? I know them pretty well. At the time my son was 12, and my daughters were 10 and 7. And sure enough, my main characters are three siblings that happen to be those exact ages. And as the kids return for each successive book in each successive fictional summer, my novel children and my actual children are all exactly a year older as well.

But I didn’t just choose my kids as the stars of the books, I chose my middle daughter, as the main hero of the very first one. It’s her journey that we’re on. It’s her that we’re rooting for the most. And I didn’t just choose it out of convenience or a desire to make writing my first novel easier (and not just because she’s a super interesting character in real life as well). I chose her as the protagonist because she’s a girl. And there are already enough books with male protagonists to last a lifetime. Would people have liked the Harry Potter series less if Hermione had been the main character? If you ask me, she already was in many ways. But it’s not her name on the marquee, is it?

So, there it is — an opinion. A message that there aren’t enough books with female heroes. And we’re talking about literal heroes in this case as in my books the kids get super powers. It’s a perspective that my books can’t help but convey, or “shove down your throat” if you will. And it doesn’t end there. Over the series there many more interesting female heroes, not to mention, interesting characters that are Asian, Black, gay, divorced, refugees, old, disabled, homeless, and more. And I chose all that. I did it on purpose. Because that’s the world that I see in front of me and the world I want to write about. Am I preaching? Am I showing my bias? Am I trying to send a message? Do I even care?

Yeah I guess I do.

I am telling this story for a reason. For a few reasons actually. The first is that I want to create a world filled with characters that you the reader will care about. I want it more than anything. Every reader I find that cares about these characters is a gift to me. The pleasure it gives me is akin to meeting someone who cares deeply about my actual children. But there’s another reason I am telling this story. I worry about my daughters. I worry that the energetic, independent, assertive, almost super-powered young girls that I see at the age of 10 will hit a point around the age of 11 or 12 when they see what the world really thinks of them. Where the institutions around them, advertising, movies, TV shows, video games, books, music, sports, the business world, school, where it all tells them that they need to be a certain thing. An object to be defined by others. And I know in my heart it can’t be avoided. My daughters love to interact with the world around them, so they are going to swim in those messages. There’s no avoiding them. But that doesn’t mean I’m helpless.

The young women of my books are energetic, independent, assertive, and actually super-powered. They’re all different. And even though they may be superhuman, they all have human frailties as well. And I wrote them that way because I don’t want my daughters to lose those incredible qualities to a culture that tries to crush them into shapes that society finds pleasing. And while I’m at it, that’s the kind of women I want my son to respect and appreciate. So the books are for him too.

In retrospect, I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to admit that there is a message in my books. After all, it’s the truth. And if I’ve learned anything writing these books, is that the moments that resonate the most with my readers are the ones that do the best job conveying the hard truth of each of the characters. So it’s probably time I tried to do that not just in the my books, but when I talk about why I wrote them as well.

On Fans and Motivation

Writing a book is pretty sucky work. Writing seven of them is exponentially sucky. You don’t get to just give up mid-stream, as you’ve lured in some readers who want to know what happens next. But it turns out, at least for me, that the single biggest motivating factor for me in sitting my butt down in my chair and finishing my writing is having fans tell me what they think of the books they’ve read so far. Frankly, it’s a little addictive.

With Madrona Heroes, I’ve created a whole universe. But that universe resides in only two places at the beginning – on the pages, and in my head. And apparently, I’d like to be able to discuss events happening there with people other than myself or my characters. That’s where fans come in. And it doesn’t take that many for me to get pretty motivated.

There’s a family on the east coast who picked up my books while they were visiting Seattle. Mom, Dad, and two kids – a girl and a boy. Dad reads the books to the family on car trips and the like. But even better, Dad sends me feedback on what the parents and their kids are thinking all the way through. It’s fascinating! They have theories, all great whether they’re accurate or not, about why something happened, or what’s gonna happen. And my favorite is when they find little connections that I never intended to be there.

I work hard to have depth in the backstories of each person, place, and object in the Madrona Heroes universe. And they’ve even figured out some of the backstory that really is not even hinted at in the book. It just exists so I can create something that feels deep and textured and real. But they notice everything. So very cool.

The son in the family even made some awesome Madrona Heroes fan art of Zach and Binny. I’m posting it here with deep appreciation for the effort that went into it.

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Anyway, for all you budding writers. You don’t need huge numbers of fans tweeting to you all day to get motivated, sometimes a family from New England sending you the occasional e-mail, and awesome fan art is all it takes. Thank you.

Fantastic Four, Why?

You may ask why I went to see Fantastic Four today with my 8-year-old? Given the positively dreadful reviews, it’s a reasonable question. First, some background.

I was actually mostly afraid Fantastic Four was going to be really good. Here’s why. At some point I will make the Madrona Heroes books into a series of films starring kids and young adults becoming superheroes. I will want Reg Cathey to star as present day Caleb Adams in these films. And of course, they will take place in Seattle.

Now Fantastic Four was nominally about a group of young adults becoming superheroes, Reg Cathey starred as the father figure in the film (and to a couple of characters the ‘actual’ father). And finally, the movie was directed by Josh Trank, director of the universally lauded Chronicle about kids getting superpowers in Seattle (which I still haven’t seen and won’t until I finish my final Madrona Heroes book as I don’t want it to affect my writing).

I realize it’s a bit of a mushy connection, but I very much didn’t want my books and the eventual movies to feel like an also-ran after a splashy Fantastic Four movie. Lucky me, and unlucky Fox and Josh Trank, there is absolutely zero danger of that. The only real danger at this point is not that everyone will look at my story as an also-ran, but that nobody will finance my film because they think it’s been tried. But given the approach I’m going to take, I’m not really concerned about that. If I have to rely solely on present-day style major studio financing to make the movie, then it will never happen anyway. Luckily we live in an age where there are lots of new ways to make things. :)

But that’s neither here nor there. Let’s get to this movie. First the good. And there were two good things about this film that I remember. The first was 5th grade Reed Richards. He was funny. I liked him. He was kind of clueless about other people. It was actually a really great start to the character. (I also noticed that Ben Grimm is Jewish which I had forgotten about the character. There was a really clear shot of the mezuzzah on the wall and the menorah on the shelf in his house as a kid.) The second thing that was good was when Victor Von Doom gave the standard superhero movie asshole bureaucrat/official the finger as he said a sarcastic “thank you.” It was atypical for a major superhero movie and I liked it. It made me like Victor. And I speculate that it’s that attitude that Josh Trank brought to the film — trying to make more realistic characters. (But as I mentioned above, that could have come from somewhere else as I have no idea and I haven’t even seen Chronicle.)

Now the bad. The most important thing you need to know about how little respect this movie had for its audience is that it felt the need for Reed Richards to confirm that Sue Storm was adopted given that she had an African-American brother and father. Duh. Does the film have so little respect for us that it thinks we need this explained? Does it think that we can’t handle an inter-racial family without some sort of explanation? That wondering how the hell caucasian Sue Storm could have a black father would distract us to the point of not noticing the rest of the movie? And if they were so desperate to deal with an assumedly racist audience’s desperate need for pat explanations for an inter-racial adoption, then why not make it part of the story? Why not see Johnny and Sue as kids? Why not develop those characters more? Who knows, perhaps that was in the original script and it got cut. No idea.

Anyway, things go down hill from there. The effects were not good. Especially the fire effects on Johnny when he first got his powers. It looked handdrawn somehow over him. So weird. Things were mentioned and then never mentioned again or barely mentioned. Could the Captain Nemo thing really not have been exploited for more thematic points throughout the film? I got that Sue found Reed using the reference, but that’s it? The whole Reed as explorer theme couldn’t have been more reinforced? And what about Ben Grimm being physically abused by his brother who is then smacked around by the mother? We saw it. And then it was gone. How exactly did that inform our view of Ben as an adult? Did Ben ever do anything as an adult that made us reflect on where he came from? Nope. Is it wrong to say that it was sexist that the main character with the least character development was the one female character? Not to mention the way she got her powers which seemed like an afterthought. Why not just have her come along on the initial mission? No clue.

And finally, the main problem with the film was that characters just did shit. And for the most part, I had no idea why.

  • Why did Victor Von Doom want to destroy earth? Why wasn’t he happy to come home? Why was he even unhappy at the beginning of the film?
  • Why did Victor say no to Franklin and then change his mind immediately? No idea?
  • Why did Reed cooperate after he was captured? Hadn’t he spent a year avoiding everyone?
  • And what the hell was Reed so intent on building down in Panama? No clue. He never mentioned it again.
  • Why did Doom need to go to earth to set up his earth doom ray? Couldn’t he have done it from planet zero?
  • Why did Ben Grimm forgive Reed Richards? One minute he was mad. Then he wasn’t. So confused.
  • Franklin tells Sue that Johnny had it much harder than her growing up. Huh? Why? How?
  • Did Ben Grimm have genitals made of stone? Did he eat? Go to the bathroom? This topic could have been a pretty great opportunity for some lighter moments in the film. SO MANY UNANSWERED QUESTIONS!

Even the way they came up with their name was decidedly lame. Just so uncreative.

And to the gossipy part of my brain, the real question is — why? Not why was the movie so bad in terms of what was poor in the film, but why did this happen? Who’s fault is it?

If I know anything about large corporations it’s that they have the ability to crush the creative spirit. They take independent artists and try to make them fit. Large corporations like safety, and predictability, and being comfy. Typically, independent artists don’t have the temperament to navigate those waters, satisfy the corporation, and still get to deliver on their artistic vision and in their voice. Some might, but they are the exceptions.

Of course the truth is, I don’t really know. I wasn’t there. And very few people know what really happened. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Maybe Josh Trank was a huge pain in the ass. Maybe it was justified. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was somewhere in between. Was Chronicle a fluke? Did Josh Trank not deserve credit for why it was good? Once again, this shit is very hard to figure out.

All I can base my guessing on is what ended up on screen. And from that it looked like there were plenty of attempts to build deeper characters early in the film that never followed through (Ben Grimm domestic violence, Captain Nemo, love triangle with Victor, Sue, and Reed, Johnny’s tough time growing up, etc.. That sounds like a film that was well-intentioned, but someone got to it and butchered it to make it fit some other vision. If I had to guess, at what happened, Trank’s biggest failing was at getting the executives at Fox to back his vision of the movie. Once he lost their confidence (or just pissed them off), the movie was (apologies in advance) doomed.

I ran into this awesome fan at the Madrona Market this morning.

I stopped in at the Madrona Market this morning to buy some ice (our fridge died). Madrona Dry Goods in Underneath It All is based primarily on Madrona Market. Not only were they almost sold out of Madrona Heroes books (we’ll bring more tomorrow) but I got to meet the daughter of the proprietors who has already read both Madrona Heroes books. She checks the website regularly for updates on when the next one is coming out. Her favorite character? Binny. #natch It was so exciting for me to meet such an awesome fan of the books.

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This fan at Queen Anne Days Family Fest couldn’t wait to get home to read the books.

He just plopped down next to our table and started reading on the grass. He finished the first three chapters before he had to go home. When I asked him how it was, I got the thumbs up! Also, I am desperate to figure out a way to put a character in one of the next books with his hair. So cool.

A photo posted by Hillel (@hillelc) on

Puzzle Making

Writing a book (at least the way I do it) is like creating a puzzle. I worry about all the regular things, over-exposition, shallow characterization, plot holes, having the right number of dramatic and iconic moments, etc. But the thing I worry about most in terms of the puzzle building is giving away the wrong thing at the wrong time. The story has gotten so intricate and involved in this third novel that I find it very difficult to always be 100% sure I’m revealing just the right thing at just the right moment.

On the flipside, the reader is so familiar with the characters at this point in the books that I can just dive in. The story is moving faster than ever, even in just the first two chapters.

In related news, Chapter Two of The Madrona Heroes Register: Underneath It All is done! Roughly 43 to go.

P.S. Don’t forget to sign up for the Madrona Heroes Fans mailing list. :) http://eepurl.com/bs4siH