Excerpt: SUPERHERO IN TRAINING

Author’s Note: I’ve always loved romantic comedies…TV shows like Gilmore Girls and The Big Bang Theory…the novels of Janet Evanovich…and anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge fan of The Avengers–all of them! A little of this, a little of that, and soon I had the story of Charlotte “Charlie” Markham, owner of a comic book store in a Midwestern college town, and William Harwood, grad student and closet comic book creator whose superhero creation is about to turn the oddball community upside down….
(Originally published at Beishir Books, 4/22/13)
The funeral procession had begun.

The funny part was that nobody had died. Brenda Walker, who lived down the street, had just found out she was pregnant. Okay, in 2013 that’s not exactly the big deal it was in 1953, but Brenda’s ultra-conservative Southern Baptist Republican parents would have disowned her seven ways to Sunday if she’d publicly embarrassed them with an out-of-wedlock baby—so Brenda’s hero of a hubby, who married her in a quickie ceremony the day before he got shipped off to Afghanistan, was conveniently killed in action. Now, she was mourning the death of her hero, who had given his life to save his fellow soldiers. She looked good in black. She’d probably wear it until the baby was born. She’d play the grieving widow to the hilt.

“Who died?”

“Nobody,” I said without thinking. Then I turned around. The guy standing behind me wasn’t bad looking. Not the geeky sort I was used to seeing in the store. Too good-looking. No thick-glasses, no pocket-protector, none of the usual awkwardness. He was tall, smiling, wearing a leather jacket and a baseball cap. He had a backpack that looked to be filled to capacity. Nobody filled their backpacks anymore, I observed. Everybody used tablets or e-readers. I silently hoped he wasn’t a mad bomber or something. I didn’t know what to do if he was. Tony Stark would know what to do. Bruce Wayne would know what to do. Me? I’d just panic and open the cash register. And then he’d probably kill me for not having much in the way of cash.

“Are you lost?” I asked without thinking.

He looked puzzled by the question. “I don’t think so,” he said slowly. “But maybe they are…if nobody actually died….”

“It’s a long story. A long, boring story.” I decided to spare him.

“I see.”

I could tell by the expression on his face that he really didn’t, but he changed the subject then. “I’m looking for the new Marvel releases—Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America, whatever you’ve got.” He was still looking past me, through the window toward the faux funeral procession in the street.

“The widow there—she’s the one in black—her parents are very strict, very religious,” I attempted to explain. “She, on the other hand, is, well, a tramp.”

He looked at me and tried not to grin. Tried. But failed.

“She got sort of…knocked up.”

He gave me an odd glance. “How does one get ‘sort of’ knocked up?” he wanted to know.

He could tell I was embarrassed. I could tell he was enjoying it. I wanted to kick his ass, but I had a feeling he could become a regular customer. I was hoping, anyway. I could use all the business I could get. Bite your tongue, Charlie, I told myself. “She was playing Vatican Roulette with the local boys.”

“Boys? Plural?”

“Oh, great. An English major?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Psychology.”

I rolled my eyes. “It figures.”

“So…Trudy the Tramp is pregnant,” he said, guiding the conversation back to the mock funeral. “Her parents think she was married?”

“No. They just want everyone else to think she was,” I said, searching for the comic books he’d requested. “They’d be content at this point if she could just tell them who the father is.”

He shook his head and chuckled softly. “This looks to be an interesting neighborhood, at the very least,” he decided.

“The girls are all in mourning,” I attempted to explain. “Her dead husband gave his life for our country, you know. He was a hero.”

“Was he rich?”

I looked at him. “I don’t think so. Why do you ask?”

He shrugged. “If she’s going to fabricate a husband, she might as well go all the way,” he suggested.

“Nah,” I disagreed. “Easy to fake a dead husband, but if he’s a rich dead husband and her car gets repossessed, that’s going to be hard to explain.”

He laughed. “You have a point.”

I handed him the comic books. He looked them over and nodded with satisfaction, then reached into his pocket for his wallet. He gave me his credit card. I looked at it. William T. Harwood. “New to the neighborhood, Mr. Harwood?” I asked, trying to keep my tone casual. I ran the card through the reader and received a quick approval.

He smiled and nodded. “Call me Will.”

“I’m Charlie.”

He grinned. “You don’t look like a Charlie.”

“Charlotte.”

“You don’t look like a Charlotte, either.”

I hesitated. “What do I look like, then?” I wanted to know.

He studied me for a moment. “An Annie, maybe. A Dorothy, possibly.”

“A Toto?” I asked.

He shook his head, grinning. “Your ears aren’t long enough.”

“Thank Heaven for that,” I said. “Let me guess. You just blew in from Kansas.”

“I had that coming, didn’t I?” he asked. “No, actually, I’m from Vermont.”

“Ah, I should have realized—the New England accent.”

“I just moved here last week. I’m postgrad at the university. I’m just getting acclimated before classes start,” he said. “One of the first things on my list was to find a good comic book store.”

He took the credit card I returned to him and put it back in his wallet, then looked back toward the window again as the funeral procession returned. “Does this sort of thing happen around here often?” he wanted to know.

I laughed. “Better get used to it,” I advised. “It’s a community of oddballs.”

He grinned. “The perfect place for a writer.”

“You’re a writer?”

“Aspiring,” he said.

“Haven’t you published anything?”

“I haven’t finished anything yet.” He was looking toward the bar across the street. “What the—” he started.

I looked, too. One of the regulars was attempting to enter. Tuffy, a pit bull belonging to one of the neighbors, was, as usual, blocking his path. “Tuffy won’t let Fred in until Fred buys him a beer,” I explained.

“The dog drinks beer?” Will asked, surprised.

“He’s got a bit of a drinking problem,” I confided. “He hits all the guys up for a beer.”

“And they buy them for him?”

“If they want to get into the bar, they do.”

“And if they don’t?”

“Depends on how much beer he’s already had,” I said. “Tuffy’s a mean drunk.”

Will looked at me. “Does he…bite?”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Tuffy knows where to bite to inflict the most pain.”

He winced. “Ouch.”

“I’ve been thinking of hiring him as my night watchdog,” I said then.

“Good call. He’d work cheap. Get him a six pack and he’s happy.”

I gave him my business card. “Hope your introduction to our more—interesting—residents hasn’t scared you off coming back here,” I told him.

He grinned. “Quite the contrary, Charlotte. I think I’m going to like it here.”

Charlotte? He was going to call me Charlotte?

“Come back soon, Sir Wills,” I told him.

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Excerpt: SUPERHERO IN TRAINING

Author’s Note: I’ve always loved romantic comedies…TV shows like Gilmore Girls and The Big Bang Theory…the novels of Janet Evanovich…and anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge fan of The Avengers–all of them! A little of this, a little of that, and soon I had the story of Charlotte “Charlie” Markham, owner of a comic book store in a Midwestern college town, and William Harwood, grad student and closet comic book creator whose superhero creation is about to turn the oddball community upside down….

 superheroes

The funeral procession had begun.

The funny part was that nobody had died. Brenda Walker, who lived down the street, had just found out she was pregnant. Okay, in 2013 that’s not exactly the big deal it was in 1953, but Brenda’s ultra-conservative Southern Baptist Republican parents would have disowned her seven ways to Sunday if she’d publicly embarrassed them with an out-of-wedlock baby—so Brenda’s hero of a hubby, who married her in a quickie ceremony the day before he got shipped off to Afghanistan, was conveniently killed in action. Now, she was mourning the death of her hero, who had given his life to save his fellow soldiers. She looked good in black. She’d probably wear it until the baby was born. She’d play the grieving widow to the hilt.

“Who died?”

“Nobody,” I said without thinking. Then I turned around. The guy standing behind me wasn’t bad looking. Not the geeky sort I was used to seeing in the store. Too good-looking. No thick-glasses, no pocket-protector, none of the usual awkwardness. He was tall, smiling, wearing a leather jacket and a baseball cap. He had a backpack that looked to be filled to capacity. Nobody filled their backpacks anymore, I observed. Everybody used tablets or e-readers. I silently hoped he wasn’t a mad bomber or something. I didn’t know what to do if he was. Tony Stark would know what to do. Bruce Wayne would know what to do. Me? I’d just panic and open the cash register. And then he’d probably kill me for not having much in the way of cash.

“Are you lost?” I asked without thinking.

He looked puzzled by the question. “I don’t think so,” he said slowly. “But maybe they are…if nobody actually died….”

“It’s a long story. A long, boring story.” I decided to spare him.

“I see.”

I could tell by the expression on his face that he really didn’t, but he changed the subject then. “I’m looking for the new Marvel releases—Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America, whatever you’ve got.” He was still looking past me, through the window toward the faux funeral procession in the street.

“The widow there—she’s the one in black—her parents are very strict, very religious,” I attempted to explain. “She, on the other hand, is, well, a tramp.”

He looked at me and tried not to grin. Tried. But failed.

“She got sort of…knocked up.”

He gave me an odd glance. “How does one get ‘sort of’ knocked up?” he wanted to know.

He could tell I was embarrassed. I could tell he was enjoying it. I wanted to kick his ass, but I had a feeling he could become a regular customer. I was hoping, anyway. I could use all the business I could get. Bite your tongue, Charlie, I told myself. “She was playing Vatican Roulette with the local boys.”

“Boys? Plural?”

“Oh, great. An English major?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Psychology.”

I rolled my eyes. “It figures.”

“So…Trudy the Tramp is pregnant,” he said, guiding the conversation back to the mock funeral. “Her parents think she was married?”

“No. They just want everyone else to think she was,” I said, searching for the comic books he’d requested. “They’d be content at this point if she could just tell them who the father is.”

He shook his head and chuckled softly. “This looks to be an interesting neighborhood, at the very least,” he decided.

“The girls are all in mourning,” I attempted to explain. “Her dead husband gave his life for our country, you know. He was a hero.”

“Was he rich?”

I looked at him. “I don’t think so. Why do you ask?”

He shrugged. “If she’s going to fabricate a husband, she might as well go all the way,” he suggested.

“Nah,” I disagreed. “Easy to fake a dead husband, but if he’s a rich dead husband and her car gets repossessed, that’s going to be hard to explain.”

He laughed. “You have a point.”

I handed him the comic books. He looked them over and nodded with satisfaction, then reached into his pocket for his wallet. He gave me his credit card. I looked at it. William T. Harwood. “New to the neighborhood, Mr. Harwood?” I asked, trying to keep my tone casual. I ran the card through the reader and received a quick approval.

He smiled and nodded. “Call me Will.”

“I’m Charlie.”

He grinned. “You don’t look like a Charlie.”

“Charlotte.”

“You don’t look like a Charlotte, either.”

I hesitated. “What do I look like, then?” I wanted to know.

He studied me for a moment. “An Annie, maybe. A Dorothy, possibly.”

“A Toto?” I asked.

He shook his head, grinning. “Your ears aren’t long enough.”

“Thank Heaven for that,” I said. “Let me guess. You just blew in from Kansas.”

“I had that coming, didn’t I?” he asked. “No, actually, I’m from Vermont.”

“Ah, I should have realized—the New England accent.”

“I just moved here last week. I’m postgrad at the university. I’m just getting acclimated before classes start,” he said. “One of the first things on my list was to find a good comic book store.”

He took the credit card I returned to him and put it back in his wallet, then looked back toward the window again as the funeral procession returned. “Does this sort of thing happen around here often?” he wanted to know.

I laughed. “Better get used to it,” I advised. “It’s a community of oddballs.”

He grinned. “The perfect place for a writer.”

“You’re a writer?”

“Aspiring,” he said.

“Haven’t you published anything?”

“I haven’t finished anything yet.” He was looking toward the bar across the street. “What the—” he started.

I looked, too. One of the regulars was attempting to enter. Tuffy, a pit bull belonging to one of the neighbors, was, as usual, blocking his path. “Tuffy won’t let Fred in until Fred buys him a beer,” I explained.

“The dog drinks beer?” Will asked, surprised.

“He’s got a bit of a drinking problem,” I confided. “He hits all the guys up for a beer.”

“And they buy them for him?”

“If they want to get into the bar, they do.”

“And if they don’t?”

“Depends on how much beer he’s already had,” I said. “Tuffy’s a mean drunk.”

Will looked at me. “Does he…bite?”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Tuffy knows where to bite to inflict the most pain.”

He winced. “Ouch.”

“I’ve been thinking of hiring him as my night watchdog,” I said then.

“Good call. He’d work cheap. Get him a six pack and he’s happy.”

I gave him my business card. “Hope your introduction to our more—interesting—residents hasn’t scared you off coming back here,” I told him.

He grinned. “Quite the contrary, Charlotte. I think I’m going to like it here.”

Charlotte? He was going to call me Charlotte?

“Come back soon, Sir Wills,” I told him.

(Also appearing at Windchaser’s Journey ~ Blogspot)

The Road to Hell and the Worst of Intentions….

I had a blog planned for yesterday…but then some sick bastard decided to detonate a pair of bombs near the finish line at the Boston Marathon. There are so many things I could say, so many things I want to say, so many things that have already been said…but words are inadequate right now, really. I think this says it all:

And the Cheese Stands Alone…Literally!

It all started innocently enough.

Collin wanted spaghetti for dinner. Now, as anyone who’s been following this blog knows, I have never made any claims to being anything even remotely resembling a good cook. However, my spaghetti is passable. Collin likes it, and his stomach has never been pumped.

He also wanted garlic cheese bread. We had the bread, but no cheese. We were having lunch at McDonalds at the time…there was a dollar store next door…they sold food…. I could just pick up a bag of shredded cheese there, right?

I really need to learn to read labels.

No problems with the spaghetti. I then turned my attention to the cheese bread. I sliced the bread thick, topped it with the cheese and put it on a cookie sheet in the oven, expecting it to be ready in a few minutes.

After five minutes, the cheese hadn’t even started to melt.

Five more minutes. Still nothing.

Another five…nothing. Well, not exactly. The bread was toasting…burning…but the cheese was still not melting!

Huh?

What was this stuff, anyway? I got the package from the fridge and started reading. See for yourself….

Cheese that doesn’t melt? Whoa!

There’s no way I’m eating this crap, whatever it is–but Collin and I have been kicking around some ideas for alternative uses for it. I can see the headlines now…

NASA PROBE ARRIVES SAFELY ON VENUS WITH PROTECTIVE SHIELD MADE FROM DOLLAR STORE CHEAP CHEESE!

Hey–you never know where the next great invention will come from….

If Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery, What Does it Say About the Imitator?

When I sold my first novel, one of the first things I was asked by my editor and Berkley’s editor-in-chief (at that time) was: which authors did I most admire? Which books did I think my book was most like?

DANCE OF THE GODS coverThat was easy. I was a big fan of Sidney Sheldon. I’d learned a great deal from reading his novels and was quick to say so. I didn’t realize I’d opened my own personal Pandora’s Box. The marketing chimps took that and ran with it–to the extreme. I was launched as an author of glitzy romances with knock-off Sheldon titles that made no sense whatsoever, when what I had meant was that I wanted to write fast-paced thrillers with an international backdrop. The glamorous backdrops in my first two novels simply suited the plots–it had never been my intention to always look for glamorous settings. But it seemed I’d painted myself into a corner as far as the marketing department was concerned.

I’m still trying to figure out those nonsensical titles. Sheldon’s came from the epigraphs in his novels, but mine? I have no idea. A Time for Legends? I guess that was taken from The Sands of Time. Angels at Midnight? The Other Side of Midnight and Rage of Angels. Dance of the Gods? Windmills of the Gods, of course!

No author who wants a long-term career wants to be a copycat of someone else. Trying to be the next Stephen King, the next Dan Brown, the next J.K. Rowling, or the next anybody never ends well.

I was thinking of this the other day. Collin and I were watching Iron Man 2. Tony Stark found himself butting heads at a Senate hearing with a longtime rival, dorky Justin Hammer. Hammer is a Stark wannabe, but he never quite makes the grade. Why? Instead of being himself, drawing on his own strengths and abilities, he’s constantly trying to be something he’s not: Tony. He fails because he lacks Tony’s genius, his charm, his wit.

Even when he shows up at the Stark Expo with a whole platoon of battle drones, doing a little dance onstage onstage–again, in an attempt to emulate Tony–Justin Hammer just ends up looking foolish. He’s trying too hard to be something he’s not, and it shows.

It never works….

A Journey of the Heart

(From Sam’s Story at WordPress, April 3, 2013)

When I found Sam in that little pet shop in south St. Louis in spring 1990, I knew grey-cheeked parakeets were native to Ecuador and Peru, but I assumed Sam had been born–hatched–right here in the US. I thought he’d probably come from a breeder. I didn’t know the truth until the week before he died.

When I brought him home, I noticed a small metal band on his leg. The pet shop had given me a certificate for a veterinary exam to verify that he was in good health, so when I took him to the vet, I asked that the band be removed. I thought he would be more comfortable without it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to remove it without the risk of breaking his leg, so I let it go.

Sam wore the band for the rest of his life.

When Collin and I took him to the avian specialist, Dr. Kersting, the week before he died, he told me what the band was for. It was a quarantine band. Sam had not been hatched in the US. He had been quarantined in southern California when he was brought into this country from South America.

I thought about it. When he saw me in the pet shop, he seemed to know me. I felt the same way. Yet he had come thousands of miles to be in that pet shop on that day. I’d been there to buy a bird for my dad–a bird that had already been sold.

Coincidence? I don’t think so. Nothing happens by chance. That tiny bird who became such an important part of my life and Collin’s for almost twenty-one years had made a journey many young birds don’t survive. Had I found him, or had he found me? I think about that moment when I first saw him. He seemed to be waiting for me, as if God had sent him….

*Also check out my partner in crime William’s review of  Gravely Inanimated at his blog, Speak of the Devil (no, it’s not a Kristen Stewart bio)!

The Hit-And-Run Commentary

Sunday, I had a run-in with another author over on Facebook. (It was in the Writers of Mass Distraction Facebook group, but don’t bother looking for it. The thread ceased to exist shortly after the surly fellow departed from the group. I knew he started it to get attention, and I decided he wasn’t going to get any. At least not at WMD. What he does elsewhere is not my concern.)

Road RunnerI confess, I am sometimes a hit-and-run commenter. I’ll scan the posts, making a few casual comments without giving them much thought. This fellow’s post seemed to be designed for one purpose: to get fellow group members to buy his books. That’s fine, but taking pot shots at God to sell books is pretty lame. I gave the post a less thoughtful response than some of my fellow group members did. I thought the guy was a jerk. I still do.

He had a surprisingly extreme response which, to make a long story short, resulted in his departure from the group. Okay, so I edited my comment–according to him, after he responded. I don’t know. Maybe I did. I didn’t notice. I didn’t really care. I’ve posted responses to comments many times, only to find another member’s comment had come in before mine, completely changing the way mine sounded. It happens. I didn’t throw a hissy fit and go on and on about it, the way he did. It’s not a big deal–but obviously, it was to him. Why? Did he pick up on the fact that I wasn’t giving him much thought?

Another group member later told me later that he had been lamenting his lack of success elsewhere on the site. That explained his crankiness, as did an email from still another group member who recalled his bad attitude the day before, noting that he rarely interacted with the group anyway, only posting to push his books. I don’t recall seeing him there. I knew he was a member, but yesterday was the first time we actually crossed paths.

I am not familiar with this author’s work. I’ve never read any of his books, not even samples. I know nothing of his talents. I have, however, read a few five-star reviews of his work on a review blog I used to follow. The reviewer obviously thinks he’s good. His books sound a bit too quirky for my taste, but that’s just me.

There are any number of reasons why an author might not be succeeding, even if they’re talented writers with well-written books to offer. The website Author Media offers some possibilities and potential solutions. My friend and fellow author Mike Saxton points out that a large number of self-published authors make the mistake of marketing their books to other authors rather than to readers.  Everyone has the same objective: to sell books, not to buy them. I’ll buy books from authors who are personal friends, and I’ll buy anything else in genres I enjoy–but be realistic. Nobody buys everyone’s books, nor should it be expected.

I definitely would not buy a book from an author with such a bad attitude.

We all have our ups and downs; we don’t all take our down times out on whoever happens to cross our paths. If we’re to survive in this crazy business, we develop thick hides, we learn to roll with the punches, and we accept the realities of it. Self-publishing is not a career for anyone seeking overnight success. The fact remains that most authors–whether traditionally-published or self-published–have to keep their day jobs. Most don’t earn enough to write full-time. I believe the estimate, when I was starting out, was 10%. And that’s a pretty generous estimate. Furthermore, only a small percentage of those who made a living at it actually became wealthy.

Sometimes, we limit ourselves, our audience by the choices we make. I knew when Collin and I decided to self-publish Chasing the Wind that we were giving up a lot. At a time when most writers couldn’t get one agent, we were fortunate to have multiple agents excited about the book–conditionally. After getting past the “this is a movie, not a book” phase, we found ourselves with another choice to make: possibly removing the spiritual elements of the story to make it more mainstream. Not something I wanted to do. Collin was more receptive at that point. Truth be told, I think he still would be.

One agent, who loved my writing and believed the novel could be a big bestseller, felt it could only work if we took out all the supernatural aspects and made it a sci-fi thriller about genetic engineering. After much debate, we finally decided to self-publish. I would write the book I wanted to write, and accept that it would have a much smaller audience.

No regrets. And no whining.

Check ’em out:

Speak of the Devil

Basking in the Afterglow