Hermione Granger, Katniss Everdeen, and Arya Stark are sitting by my desk, having a conversation.
One of my greatest fears is ending up in prison. Anyone who’s seen even 90 seconds of an episode of HBO’s Oz will probably agree with me on this. It’s not that I’m a criminal — in my daymare I end up wrongly convicted. And I worry that while wrongly imprisoned, I’ll be super bored. (I have other worries of course, but I won’t cover those here.) I always used to tell myself, well, I could always write novels while in jail. Of course the thought of writing them longhand remains distinctly unappealing. I’m guessing they don’t allow Microsoft Word in the hoosegow.
I’ve always had a few premises bouncing around in my head that someday down the road would set me on the path to writing a novel. None of them necessarily more realistic than a prison term. But a little over two years ago, something changed. Despite having no prospects for getting incarcerated, I decided I would write a novel. And write I did. I crafted a 70,000+ word young adult urban superhero fantasy novel set in my neighborhood and starring three children that suspiciously resemble my own (plus or minus a couple of superpowers) — The Madrona Heroes Register: Echoes of the Past.
One novel wasn’t good enough either. I planned a seven novel series and the first one was number four — because Star Wars. I would write 4, 5, and 6, circle back to the prequels (which I wouldn’t screw up), and then write 7 and end everything with a big bang. Every night I would read the latest chapter to my then nine-year-old. (While I wasn’t in prison, she was experiencing a form of indentured servitude.) If she was bored, I knew the chapter needed work.
I even contacted an incredible illustrator — Caroline Hadilaksono who’s adorable Harry Potter and Star Wars travel posters had graced every nerd blog on the internet for a time. She was gracious enough to collaborate with me. The book was written, edited, illustrated, edited again, and polished. And then finally, published as an eBook and a print edition that looked pretty damn good.
The Madrona Heroes Register: Echoes of the PastFor a time there was some buzz. I got a bunch of reviews. I gave away bunches of freebies on Amazon. I debased myself and pressed a copy of my book into Hugh Howey’s hands at one of his book readings and into Charlie Jane Anders’ at one of hers. Cory Doctorow sent me a nice note and added me to his reading pile. (I think he’ll get to it by 2037 as they’re considering using his reading pile as the skeletal structure for the space elevator.) I did readings at the local middle school and even at a nearby yoga studio. And I sold lots of copies at the annual neighborhood fair. Through all this, I generated a few dozen fans. Primarily friends and family, tweens, teens, and even some adults. It felt not bad.
But that’s where it ended. There was no momentum. There was no organic growth. There was only silence.
But most writers say, don’t worry about promoting, just write more books. So I did. I sat down and wrote The Madrona Heroes Register: Underneath It All. And honestly, this one’s even better. My story got more intricate, my writing kept improving, and my early readers were psyched. My bigger saga was unfolding for them with surprises, drama, and excitement. Over 100,000 words later, the draft of the new book was done. But the idea that I had to do something to tell people that my books exist was still skulking around in the back of my mind.
In the music industry, the notion that you need a record label to find your audience has died. You need to find your audience and then you can decide whether you want to work with a label. The same has come true in the publishing industry. But when it comes to music, musicians have a tried and true mechanism to find fans — the cover.
A cover is when a musician records and/or performs a song, typically a popular song, made famous by another artist. It’s a particularly powerful vector for unknown musicians, as fans of a song, love hearing new versions of the song rendered in novel and interesting ways. Indie musicians today are doing a great job covering all kinds of popular songs, and putting them out as videos on YouTube. The band Pomplamoose is a great example of not just covering popular songs, but doing really interesting musical interpretations accompanied by very creative videos.
The problem is: how does an author do a cover?
I thought about this for awhile. And then I thought about it some more. The sounds of my daughter listening to everyone and their brother cover songs by Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and others were the soundtrack for my thinking. And then it hit me — fan-fiction. Fan-fiction is to authors, as covers are to musicians.
Of course, fan-fiction is frowned upon by most serious authors. Fan-fiction is to literature as porn is to cinema. And to make things more confusing, some of the most popular fan-fiction actually is porn.
But even if it’s not explicit, many successful authors aren’t fans of fan-fiction because they look at it as stealing. And guess what, it is. It’s as much stealing as when Kid Rock covers a song by Creedence. The legal realities are much more murky, but I figured, as long as I don’t charge for my fan-fiction, I should be safe.
Of course, if I was going to sully myself by doing the literary equivalent of reality television, then why screw around? I was gonna go straight to the top. I was gonna write Harry Potter fan fiction. But you see, excited by my new scheme for cravenly attracting new readers by riding the backs of other author’s popular creations, I got greedy.
Harry Potter wasn’t enough for me. Why not throw in the Hunger Games. And some Song of Ice and Fire for good measure. In fact, since the lead character in my first book — Binny Jordan — is a strong ten-year-old girl, why not take a young Hermione, a young Katniss, and a young Arya Stark, and team them up with my Binny for the ultimate fan-fiction. If I was going to debase myself, I was going to debase myself better than anyone ever had.
And then something funny happened. My little cover. My ploy to get people excited about my book became a serious effort. It started when I tried to come up with a premise for how these characters might meet. The Potter universe and Song of Ice and Fire had magic. Would I use that magic to transport all the characters to one of those worlds? Would the characters meet in someone’s dream? Those premises didn’t excite me.
But what if, these characters met in a place where all characters meet? What if I borrowed premise rather than characters from some other stories — Toy Story, Wreck-It-Ralph, and Roger Rabbit for example. I’ll let Hermione Granger explains the premise of my new book as she does it better than I ever could. In the first chapter, Hermione asks: “Binny, didn’t you ever wonder what happened to the characters in books when the reader has stopped reading?”
Where do characters from books go when their books are not being read? Hermione Granger, Katniss Everdeen, and Arya Stark are assigned to look out for the newest arrival in “The Stacks”. But something isn’t quite right in The Stacks. The newest arrival, Binny Jordan, and her new friends Hermione, Katniss, and Arya, will lead a giant adventure to solve the mystery.
I wanted to write a short piece of fan-fiction. I wanted to write something that would get readers excited to try out my Madrona Heroes book. I admit it, I was calculating at first. But somehow in the process, I’ve started creating a whole new book, in a new universe, with its own physics and rules, and its own good and bad. It turns out that borrowing from Rowling, and Collins, and Martin was only the beginning. I’ve stolen much much more. Cameos from literary characters you will and won’t recognize are virtually everywhere.
And dammit, it turns out that I want readers to read it as badly as I want them to read my Madrona Heroes books. Maybe even more.
When I was researching for this new book — and not just by reading the Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Song of Ice and Fire books — I inevitably wound up going through some of Joseph Campbell’s writing. For those of you who don’t know, he’s an academic who spent his career focusing on the Hero’s Journey or the Monomyth. It is his unified theory of storytelling. He has a lovely quote that ended up being the title of my new novel/experiment in fan-fiction.
“I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”
The Experience of Being AliveI have no idea whether anyone will notice what I’ve created, or whether this book will have just as fervent and microscopic following as my others. But I guess I don’t really care. It turns out, that creating this new universe was the reward. And if readers come along for the ride, that will be nice as well.
You can read The Experience of Being Alive right now, as it’s being written, for free, on Wattpad.
The Madrona Heroes Register: Echoes of the Past is available now at Amazon.com and on Wattpad.
The sequel, The Madrona Heroes Register: Underneath it All, will be available on March 8, 2015.