Jenn Gott

Word Witch and Professional Daydreamer

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Jenn Recommends… Secondhand Origin Stories by Lee Blauersouth – #IndieSuperheroSummer

Not gonna lie, I loved this book.

I knew I would. Secondhand Origin Stories is the story of four teenagers—three, the children of an elite superhero team called the Sentinels, and the fourth as an aspiring would-be member. Now, I’m a sucker for stories that deal with the long-term effects of a world where superheroes are real, so, right out of the gate it’s got that going for it. But really, I bought this book for the incredible diversity represented within the characters, and oh man, it did not disappoint on that front. This book has most of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum represented, plus some good body-diversity going on, plus a number of disabilities, plus a wide range of racial and cultural backgrounds. Several of the identities are also intersectional, and all of these aspects were handled with what looks from the outside like effortless grace.

Which makes sense, because the characters are by far the biggest focus and the biggest strength of the book. I enjoyed spending time with all of them, but if I have to play favorites Opal and Martin are going to win, hands-down. I mean, come on. Someone unapologetically pure and good and noble, plus an artificial (“synthetic”) intelligence? If I have weaknesses in fiction, these have got to be among the top spots.

I also loved the relationships. Stories about superhero teams live and die on group dynamics, and these are great. Both the younger generation and the older one are rich and interesting, and it was so much fun to uncover more and more about the history of the Sentinels as the book went along. This is one of those stories where the past has a distinct impact on how the future is going to unfold, and about the next generation rising up and trying never to repeat the mistakes of those who came before them. It was lovely and inspiring and timely. And it was such a breath of fresh air to read a book where people’s identities were just accepted by most of the people surrounding them, without fanfare or drama. Even when the characters themselves were struggling with a new perception of themselves, that conflict was rarely an external conflict, and I loved that so much. (And when it did cause friction, it never felt over-dramatic or weighed down.)

The structure did surprise me at times, but I wouldn’t call that a flaw. This book broke a lot of normal superhero genre conventions, and it made sense that I wouldn’t be able to predict the plot. It was soft and always character-centric, even when there were occasional explosions or fights. The central plot line was subtle, but always engaging. I appreciated the characters various reactions to violence, as well—it’s so easy in splashy genres like this to get caught up in the special effects and “coolness” of a good fight scene, but this book never takes the easy way out. It always remembers to stay grounded, stay human, and to remember the cost of violence. It wasn’t afraid to toe into what kind if impact that would have on the people committing it, even if their reasons were good.

If I had any complaint about the book, I would have wished for a bit more description at times. It’s possible that I was just reading it too quickly (I did mainline it in about two days), but there were definitely times where it was hard for me to maintain a clear image of the setting and character movements. But honestly, it wasn’t enough to break the enjoyment.

Overall, the book did what all good superhero fiction is supposed to: it took the kind of traumas and injustices that real people are facing today, and set it in an environment that was boisterous and fun and larger-than-life, a safe space to explore the damage that these very real-world issues can cause. It showed people reacting to those situations as shining examples of what people should do when faced with inhumanity. It showed that sometimes doing the right thing is hard and scary, but the effort is worth it. This is the kind of book that inspires. To be better, to do better. To try.

I can’t wait for the sequel.


Secondhand Origin Stories

Cover of Secondhand Origin Stories

Opal has been planning to go to Chicago and join the Midwest’s superhero team, the Sentinels, since she was a little kid. That dream took on a more urgent tone when her superpowered dad was unjustly arrested. Now, she wants to be a superhero not only to protect people, but to get a platform to tell the world about the injustices of the Altered Persons Bureau, the government agency for everything relating to superpowers.

But just after Opal’s high school graduation, a supervillain with a jet and unclear motives attacked the downtown home of the Sentinels’. When Opal arrives, she finds a family on the brink of breaking apart. She meets a boy who’s been developing secret (and illegal) brain-altering nanites right under the Sentinel’s noses, another teenage superhero-hopeful who looks suspiciously like a long-dead supervillain, and the completely un-superpowered daughter of the Sentinels’ leader. Can four teens on the fringes of the superhero world handle the corruption, danger, and family secrets they’ve unearthed?

5 Superhero Moments I Love – #IndieSuperheroSummer

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of both the tropes and the cheese often associated with superheroes. While I appreciate stories that flip things on their head, subvert expectation, and critically examine what we’ve come to expect from the genre, I also just love it purely for the spectacle, and the familiar beats that so many of our favorite superhero stories manage to hit again and again. So today, I’m bringing you five of my favorite superhero “moments”—pieces of a story that we’ll all recognize, but that I will never get tired of watching play out.

5) Learning to Fly

…or run, or morph, or punch, or whatever skills the hero has suddenly found themselves saddled with. I admit it, I love a good training montage—but what I love even more, is when the hero is running around with new powers they don’t quite understand, possibly screwing things up even more in the meantime. Let me see them fail a little, before they really learn to soar.

4) The Double-Identity Dance

While not strictly limited to superhero media, this is the genre I prefer it in. You all know the kind of scene: some elaborate setup has been established, which will require both the superhero persona and their mild-mannered alter ego to be in the same place at the same time. Quite possibly even interacting with the same people. The result is an increasingly awkward song and dance where the hero needs to keep finding excuses to run off, always “just missing” the other version of themselves, while every step has the potential for the whole thing to come crashing down around them. Sometimes, these scenes fall flat, a mess of embarrassing near-misses and a staggering lack of notice from their companions. But when it’s done well? Almost nothing else will make me laugh as hard as this.

3) Did You Hear?

This one could play into the kind of scene I just discussed above, or it can be placed in any context. A character who doesn’t know the superhero’s identity is talking to their mild-mannered alter ego, and discusses the actions of the superhero to their face. Sometimes it’s to praise, sometimes it’s to criticize, but it always ends up with the hero needing to skate across painfully thin ice in order to avoid revealing their secret. Bonus points if the hero learns information that is crucial to the plot they’re investigating as a superhero.

2) Save the Train!

Come on, who doesn’t love a good train rescue? It’s got even more speed than a car chase, plus the lives of innocent civilians hanging in the balance, plus this sense of unstoppable, almost inevitably failure looming over the hero. Physics alone make this a nearly impossible feat, and yet we manage to see our favorites do it over and over again. And while the iconic train rescue in Spider-man 2 will always hold a top spot in my heart, I will never tire of other stories jumping onboard (har har) and giving it their own go. In fact, I may have even attempted this trope myself.

1) The Dramatic Reveal

If I’m being honest, nothing in superhero fiction beats out on this moment for me. Yes, finally defeating the Big Bad is satisfying. Yes, watching the hero gain their powers is a wild ride. Yes, there’s all kind of joy to be had from superfights, and mistaken identities, and investigating evildoing. But this moment, right here, when the hero has been keeping their secret identity secret for a long time, and someone close to them finally learns the truth? Oh my god. This is the trope that made me truly fall head-over-heels in love with superheroes. To see all the infinite ways this moment can play out, to wonder when it’s going to happen, to see it coming, to not see it coming, to watch the reactions of their loved ones… This slays me every time, in all the best ways. This is one moment where even when it’s done badly, I will still whoop at the page/screen whenever it happens. Because after all, what’s the point of a secret identity if not to reveal that identity to the reader at the exact right time, in the exact right way?


Okay, so those are mine! What about you, what are your favorite superhero moments and tropes? Do they need to be done well, or are you a sucker for them no matter the context? Let me know!

A Chat with Nancy O’Toole Meservier – #IndieSuperheroSummer

 

Author photo of Nancy O'Toole

Hello friends, and welcome to the third and final interview of #IndieSuperheroSummer! Today I have the pleasure of welcoming Nancy O’Toole Meservier to the blog. Nancy is the author of Red and Black and it’s brand-new sequel, Black and Blue. This series is about fangirls turned superheroes, cute guys just trying to do the right-wrong thing, and an almost You’ve-Got-Mail type secret identity romance. In short, it’s simply adorable. Plus, we all know I have a soft spot for superhero stories that play into the splash of the genre, so I was really destined to like these books.

Nancy herself is also friendly and deeply enthusiastic about books (and comics!)–but then, what more would you expect from a librarian? You all should absolutely check out both her and her work. Come to her social media for the book talk, stay for the cat pictures. And on that note, let’s see what she has to say!


Tell us about your books! Where did you get the idea? How many books will be in the series?

Hello! I write the Red and Black series, which is all about Dawn Takahashi, a super powered fangirl with dreams of becoming Bailey City’s first superhero, and Alex Gage, a working-class guy who moonlights as Faultline, a henchman for Bailey City’s first supervillain. While the two clash at night, during the day, they can’t help but be drawn to each other in all together different ways. This leads to the question, what happens when you unknowingly fall for your nemesis?

I originally got the idea for the Red and Black series over a decade ago. I was obsessed with this super fun MMORPG called City of Heroes, which allowed you to create your own superhero and run wild in a sprawling metropolis. Once I created the character of Dawn, I found myself quickly filling in her backstory, which I hoped one day to turn into a web comic.

And well, it’s a good thing I can’t draw because the story was terrible. Dawn was a lifelong sufferer of an ill-defined soap opera illness. Alex was an atrocious, two-timing love interest. I honestly don’t know what I was thinking. The story was (thankfully) shelved for many years until National Novel Writing Month back in 2014. A fantasy novel I was working on completely fell apart around the midmonth mark. I didn’t want to “lose” NaNoWriMo so I started a new novel that would eventually become Red and Black.

So far, the series has two books, Red and Black and the recently released Black and Blue. As for the future of the series, I’ve already put a lot of work into the next two volumes, so there will at least be at least four books. I’d like to release even more.

What first drew you to the idea of writing about superheroes?

City of Heroes was what first sparked the inspiration of Red and Black, but I don’t know if the series would have existed if it wasn’t for this explosion of superhero media we’re existing in right now. Around the time I wrote the first draft of Red and Black, I was obsessed with the television show Arrow, and movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Having those types of stories in the forefront of my mind was probably a big part of what draw me back to these characters.

Your book is told in a dual POV between a hero and a villain. What drew you to showing both sides of this situation? And do you have any advice on crafting characters who do bad things for arguably good reasons?

When I originally started the draft for Red and Black, there was no dual perspective. It was only from Dawn’s POV. After a few chapters, I realized that this wasn’t working. Alex was underdeveloped as a character, and since Calypso was the type of villain that stuck to the shadows, Dawn would have no interaction with her until the end of the book, which left her severely underdeveloped as well. Adding in chapters from Alex’s perspective really helped to solve these problems.

As far as crafting characters who do bad thing for arguably good reasons, I think it’s important that you show the reader why they do the things they do. If the reader can connect to this “why” in some way, it will result in an emotional attachment which will make the characters far more sympathetic. Another way you can amplify this is by having villains that have suffered from genuine disadvantages, such as Alex’s financial struggles. Readers don’t like it when life is blatantly unfair to a character, and will end up feeling for them, even if they don’t necessarily agree with all of their methods.

I really liked the abilities that you gave to your superheroes and villains, especially Faultline. How did you come up with them, and was it hard trying to find fresh new abilities, or did the idea for them just come naturally?

When it comes to creating abilities, mine tend to fall into two categories. With some powersets, I just think they’re cool and want to play around them. But I think can be really impactful if their abilities are tied to their personalities/journeys in some way, which I did with both Faultline and Dawn. Faultline/Alex grew economically disadvantaged, which has left him with a slightly pessimistic perspective, especially with it comes to the damaging inequalities in society. Giving him an ability that literally shoved the physical faults of the world in his face seemed appropriate. That, and the fact that his abilities are fueled by his temper, something he can struggle with, also ties back to his character.

Dawn’s abilities, on the other hand, are rooted in his own insecurities. She sees herself as scrawny, weak, and shy. While in costume, she is brave, bold, and physically imposing.

As for how I came up with them, Dawn’s abilities were inspired by the character I created back while playing City of Heroes. I’m not going to lie, Alex’s originally emerged because I wanted a character who could smash things in a impressive way, but the more I thought about who he was, the more personalized his abilities became.

So far, I haven’t had any problems creating new powers, but I might feel differently once I’ve crafted a few more. So maybe ask me this question again once I’ve finished the series?

What are some of your favorite superheroes (not your own), from any media or franchise?

People always look at me strangely when I say this, but I love Squirrel Girl, and not just because she is arguably one of the most powerful superhero in Marvel Comics. Her strengths go far beyond her impressive fighting abilities. Sometimes she can outsmart her enemies. Other times (like with Kraven the Hunter), she can use empathy to see things from their perspective and urge them towards a better path. Squirrel Girl’s stories transcend typical hero versus villain storylines, and the comic (written by Ryan North) manages to do so in a way that is funny, smart and approachable. I’m going to be so sad when his run finishes up later this year.

Moving beyond comics, there are so many heroes to love in the MCU right now, but like pretty much everyone else on this earth, I see Tom Holland as the perfect Peter Parker. I could watch movies about him for years, I swear. And in the world of anime, I am a huge fan of All Might from My Hero Academia, who manages to be both completely ridiculous, and the embodiment of all that is pure and good about superheroes.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?

While I love to write about brave superheroes running in and saving the day, that is so not me. I’m much more suited for support roles. That’s why I’d love to be able to heal. I know plenty of people whose lives are impacted by illnesses or pain, and I would love to be able to alleviate or outright cure them.

What are the best and worst parts of writing about superheroes?

The best part about writing superheroes is they punch things and get to have elaborate fight scenes on top of speeding trains where anything can happen!
I’m only slightly kidding there.

But seriously, one of the best things about writing about superheroes is they are perfect conduit for studying duality. There’s good versus evil and everything in between. The relationship between the strong and the weak. Our inner selves versus our public selves. Secret identities and masks provide so many opportunities to look at these really crunchy topics.

The worst part of writing about superheroes is remembering who knows what. Who knows character X’s secret identity, but not characters Y’s. Or who knows character Z’s backstory but isn’t saying anything about it. It’s a lot to keep track of.

Do you have any advice you’d like to pass along to aspiring writers (superhero-related or otherwise)?

Write the story you want to read. Your enthusiasm for the topic will clearly shine through and be felt by readers. Also, you’re far more likely to finish a book if it’s something that excites you.

Lastly, let’s get to know the woman behind the mask a little. Tell us one thing about yourself that you normally don’t mention on social media.

When I was a kid, music was such an important part of my life. I sang in chorus for years, played piano in elementary school, handbells through middle and high school, and even tried my hand at guitar and violin for a little while. As an adult, these skills are mostly gone, but not the desire to keep music a part of my life. Unfortunately, writing has taken up most of my free time, so this will have to remain a bucket list item. Ironically, I’ve found that musicians have been infiltrating my fiction lately. I’m working on a novelette for my newsletter where an important character is a talented flute player. And in book three, Dawn encounters a violinist. I guess I’ll just have to live vicariously through my characters for now.


Nancy O’Toole Meservier is a vertically challenged librarian who spends her off hours writing fiction, reading, and thinking way too much about superheroes. She lives in Central Maine with two wonderful cats and one equally wonderful spouse. She is currently writing The Red and Black Series, which includes both Red and Black and Black and Blue.

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Red and Black

Cover of Red and Black

Dawn Takahashai knows all about superheroes.

She’s been a fan of them for years. So when she’s granted an impressive powerset of her own, she dives right in, eager to prove herself as Bailey City’s first superhero: Miss Red and Black.

Her first challenge is Faultline. He’s powerful, smart and, as a henchman for Bailey City’s first supervillain, standing right in her way. But that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that under the mask, Faultline is Alex Gage, a working-class guy trying to scrounge together enough money to help support his younger sisters.

Dawn has no idea that the charming and seemingly straightforward Alex is Faultline. Alex has no idea that the adorably awkward Dawn is the superhero he clashes with at night.

And Dawn and Alex have a date next week.

Monthly Author Check-In: July 2019

What I’m Writing: Hopefuls 3 and 4
What I’m Reading: Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi, These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling, and War of the Foxes by Richard Siken
What I’m Loving: A coworker convinced me to finally break down and watch Veronica Mars, and I am so, so grateful she did. (Thanks, Christine!) I am still on the first season, though, so no spoilers!

WIP Excerpt

The world compressed, flattening as neat as a page in the comics Jane drew. Smack dab in the middle: the open end of a gun, the barrel gaping so large that you feel you’ll tumble down into it. It’s a perfect circle, larger than life, and the rest of the scene warps inward around the image, the colors and shapes of the crowd distorting as if everything is being sucked into its orbit. Flip the page again. A narrow shaft of light cuts an otherwise solid field of black, and Jane, tiny in the middle, is caught in a free fall, as sure as Alice down the rabbit hole.

 

News Wrap-Up:

  • Who’s Afraid of Amy Sinclair? was released on June 24th to much enthusiasm, and managed to hit number 31 in one of its categories on Amazon—the highest I’ve ever seen for one of my books. Thank you all so much! If you’ve already read it, please remember to leave a review at your favorite bookstore’s site.
  • There’s now a special edition of The Private Life of Jane Maxwell, created in partnership with F-BOM (Feminist Book of the Month). There’s still time to pick up your copy today, so be sure to sign up on their site, so you can get behind-the-scenes content, including videos.
  • On a personal note, a little lost kitten found himself a home with us in June, exactly one week before Who’s Afraid of Amy Sinclair? came out. So that’s been a wild ride, especially the process of introducing him to my long-time cat, and a distraction I did not anticipate for the summer. But I cannot complain because come on, just look at that face.

So like I said, the summer’s been more of a distraction than I’d planned on. I haven’t managed to do as much promotion for my new book as I’d expected to, though thankfully my fans are carrying me through on their own, for which I am eternally grateful. As per usual, I took a few weeks off from writing after a new release to refresh and assess my current goals and deadlines, but now I am back into production. Currently, I’m plotting/outlining Hopefuls 3, while I am actually writing Hopefuls 4. I know, it’s out of order, but what can I say? I’m a chaos writer, through and through.

(No, in all seriousness though, Hopefuls 3 has a much more complicated plot than Hopefuls 4, so it genuinely requires more pre-planning before I can write it. Hopefuls 4, on the other hand, I can pretty much just wing it as I go.)

Meanwhile, my stint as F-BOM’s July/August Book of the Month pick is about halfway through, and it’s been so much fun! I’ve already recorded a sneak peak introduction of my book and gotten some reader feedback/questions in their members-only portal, and soon we’ll be sitting down to my first-ever video interview series. I’m really looking forward to that one. It’s been a delight, truly. Be sure to pick up your own copy, so you can have the Special Edition for yourself, as well as access to all the members-only content.

Now my sights are turning toward the rest of the year. I’m trying to figure out what I want my focus to be during the fall and winter months. I’ve got so many fun projects planned, so many new and exciting developments that I just haven’t had time to bring to fruition yet. But now that I’m back into drafting new books, I’m finally going to be able to juggle some of those other projects, and the only question that remains is, which takes priority? That’s my assignment for the next week or so, simply to figure out what I will bring to you all first. I cannot wait to share it with you.

Super Resources – #IndieSuperheroSummer

Even though superhero fiction is fairly new to the world of written novels (at least in comparison to many other genres), there’s still a whole wealth of history and established tropes from other storytelling mediums. Whether you’re a writer looking to break in, or just a curious reader, there’s bound to be resources that will prove interesting, insightful, or just plain entertaining for you. Below, I’ve listed some of the ones that I’ve found the most useful as I’ve been working with my own superhero fiction. Enjoy!

For Writers

Comic Vine and the Grand Comics Database

For me, one of the hardest challenges of superhero fiction is simply the act of naming things. Superhero personas, fancy tech, places… it all needs to have the right sound to it, it all needs to convey the right ideas, but most importantly, it all needs to have never been used before (or used so long ago/be so generic that it’s no longer really an issue). Enter Comic Vine and the Grand Comics Database. Plug in each of your superhero names into these search engines (plus good old-fashioned Google/Duck Duck Go), and then either rejoice at the lack of results, or—let’s be honest, more likely—scream in frustration as you discover that all of your ideas are already taken. It’s infuriating, but trust me, it’s worth doing.

Strip Panel Naked and PanelxPanel

Even if your superhero book doesn’t draw heavily from comics for its visual cues, it’s never a bad idea to learn about the roots of your genre. Strip Panel Naked (and the related magazine, PanelxPanel) are a fantastic, fun resource that delve deep into examining how comics use their specific visual language to convey ideas on the page. Plus, they’re just really cool, and learning the secrets of how comics work is endlessly fascinating in its own right.

Superhero Database, specifically their list of Superpowers and Abilities

For inspiration, as well as checking if something is too similar to yours or too overdone. Just be careful not to fall down the rabbit hole, because much like Wikipedia or TV Tropes, there’s a ton of information here.

For Readers

Kristen Brand

Kristen is another indie superhero author (so be sure to check out her books while you’re there!), but in addition to various superhero-and-comics-themed posts, she also periodically does good wrap-ups of recent superhero releases. Even though she hasn’t done one of those in a while, it’s still worth going through her archives if you’re ever interested in finding new books to try.

Superhero-Fiction

Another source of indie superhero books. This site is a database started a few years ago, and it’s got a wide variety of types of superheroes and genres represented. Just pick your favorite and go!

hoopla

But sometimes you’re just in the mood for some comics. In order to use hoopla, you do need your local library to be set up with them, but if you’re lucky enough to have access, oh boy is this the resource for you. Whether you’re keeping up with the latest issues, or want to try some new titles and back-catalogues, hoopla’s got you covered. I cannot even tell you how many amazing comic series and graphic novels I’ve found through here, and my TBR just keeps getting longer.

Further Reading (Books)

Still haven’t had your fill of superheroes and comics? Try any of these books. Each one explores a facet of comic/superhero history and culture from a unique and often under-represented perspective.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

Marvel: The Untold Story by Sean Howe

Why Comics? by Hillary Chute

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen by Hope Nicholson

Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation by Carolyn Cocca

The Ten-Cent Plague by Adilifu Nama

Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes by Adilifu Nama

 

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