Sunday, March 29, 2009

good news and mentor characters!

Hello everyone out there in blog world! For those of you just signing on, this is a writing blog outlining my thoughts on the art of writing seen through some of my own. I don’t pretend to be an expert by any means. This is more of a journey, which I encourage others to take with me, as I discover and learn and hone my skills. Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes and be encouraged by my successes.

First of all, good news! I just had an article published in two newspapers, with a total readership of approximately 10,000 people! (That's people who actually read them, not just subscribe to them.) I don't think I've ever had one that high before! Second, I just won first place in a local short story contest! That's $75 baby! Wohoo!

So, without further ado, let’s dive into this week’s topic: the mentor character!

We’ve all had them in our lives, usually in the form of a parent, older sibling, teacher, professor, pastor, and many others. Many of us never “outgrow” our mentors; they’ll always be that someone in our lives we run to for advice or encouragement. But in all fantasy writing, and nearly all good story telling in general, I believe there has to be a time when the main character moves beyond their mentor by stepping out on their own. Sometimes they openly oppose their mentor, other times they’re forced to leave the wise sage behind, or, worst of all (and my personal favorite), the mentor dies! Mwahaha…I mean, so sad…

There’s plenty of famous examples of this, Star Wars probably being the most obvious. Obi Won Kinobe (or however the heck you spell his name) must die in order for Luke to reach his full potential. Gandalf must (supposedly) die for Frodo to gain the courage and independence he needs to penetrate the gates of Mordor and destroy the Ring. (We’ll get into the whole resurrection thing in a later entry.)

Sound familiar? This whole moving beyond the mentor thing should be familiar for anyone who’s read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces or similar works of literary criticism. But anyway, I found myself thinking about these things as I killed off my main character’s mentor on Thursday. Not bad for a Thursday. I realized that it’s something I do for nearly every book I write, which some people might find predictable, but it sure is a lot of fun thinking of new and interesting ways to do it. After doing it about a dozen times now, I’ve realized some practical dos and don’ts:

DO carefully establish the mentor and his/her relationship with the main character. The mentor needs to have all the traits of a well-rounded character: strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes etc. If they’re someone obscure from the main character’s past without a face or personality, the reader can’t mourn with the main character when the mentor dies.

DO include at least some description of the death. If the main character receives a letter or message about the death, a sentence or two outlining the cause (or mysterious lack-thereof) and the conditions (honorable, dishonorable, etc) will help the reader feel stronger about it. I get really annoyed with books in which the characters I care about just randomly die with no explanation. It feels too convenient or arbitrary. Even if there’s a delayed explanation, there needs to be one eventually.

DON’T go overboard. Nothing is more annoying than a ten-minute death scene filled with tears, goodbyes, regrets, etc. They’re unrealistic and sap the emotion.

Deaths with twists are great (and in murder mysteries often a necessity) but DON’T make them obvious. There’s nothing more annoying than an “I saw that one coming.” The easiest way to avoid this mistake is to throw away any immediate ideas that came to you. If you thought of them in five seconds, so will your reader. Personally, I avoid this by letting the reader in on the secret pretty early on, while the character, who can’t have all the pieces that the objective reader has, remains in the dark. That creates suspense, causing the reader to shout, “No, don’t trust him!” as the main character unwittingly steps into a trap.

DO your research. Read other books in your genre to figure out what’s been done and what hasn’t (we’ve all seen the “it wasn’t him; it was his twin!” trick a million times). There’s nothing wrong with repeating a good idea as long as you add your own twist to it. Sometimes the best way of making something fresh and unique is to include elements from your own life (we’ve all heard the phrase “write what you know”). If someone close to you has died, it’s not cruel or a sin to include some of those extremely powerful last moments in your writing. If anything, it’s an excellent way of honoring them and often cathartic for yourself.

Also along the lines of do your research, DO make sure the death is actually plausible. I read a book once where the character took a high dosage of cyanide and died a week later. Or in another the mentor was completely healthy, came down with tuberculosis and died within hours.

DO NOT foreshadow the death so much that by the time it comes the reader is moaning “get it over with already!” I once wrote a line in which the character said “this food is spicy enough to kill a man!” In that case, I wanted to alert the reader that he’d been poisoned, but if I didn’t want them to know, I’d definitely cut it. It sounds kind of corny out of context; I need to edit it to some degree or cut it anyway.

So, those are my two cents on getting rid of the mentor character. I always cry, but it feels oh so good. Thank goodness the murder of imaginary people isn’t a crime or I’d have been sentenced for life!

Friday, March 20, 2009

query letters

So I think I might have a publiser interestd in my book. Great! So why am I still sending out query letters? Agents! Just because you've got a publisher interested, or even if you HAVE a publisher, doesn't mean you can't benefit from some insider advice. Agents can help you get better deals, negotiate contracts, focus your career, promote your book, make your next sale, etc. This is not to say you don't have the greater share of the work to do; no agent is going to do stuff FOR you. They're a partner. But still, it be nice to have one. Do I write a form letter and send it out to a dozen agents? No, of course not! Do you like form rejection letters? In the very least I customize the first paragraph according to each agents interests/what they're currently representing and looking for. So here's what a sample query letter for TREASURE TRAITOR looks like:

Dear (names ommitted),

I love your blog and have found it very helpful in understanding the writing and publishing industry. I also admire the kind of books you represent, especially young adult fantasy with strong female protagonists. That’s why you may be interested in Treasure Traitor, my YA fantasy of 60,000 words.

Fifteen-year-old Renagada (Rena) wants nothing more than to live in peace with her best friend. There's only one problem. Her best friend's a vulture.

Rena lives in a pre-industrial world of superstition, where a woman’s only hope of power is to become a monara, a warrior who can speak to animals and use them in battle. Rena comes from a prestigious line of monara and longs to live up to her mother’s expectations, but she is a unitalker, only able to speak to her carrion-eater bird Acha. When Rena overhears her parents planning to kill Acha, she must flee with him into the desert, where danger and adventure await.

Soon into the journey Acha is shot and Rena pledges a year of service to a healer’s military regiment to save him. The healer informs her carrion-eaters only live a short time; Acha will die soon. To find a cure, Rena must escape from the regiment, join a crazy cult, befuddle bandits, traverse deadly deserts and travel to the heart enemy territory. Worst of all, she must sacrifice the one treasure dearest to her heart.

I am a member of Tulsa NightWriters, Oklahoma Writers Fed. Inc. and Oklahoma Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers. This past year I had a young adult fantasy short story published in two paying markets- Beyond Centauri and Storystation.com. I won second place for my young adult fantasy novel Ghosts of Gibson High from the Oklahoma Writers Federation Inc. and two honorable mentions for YA fantasy novels in the world-wide Writers of the Future contest. Treasure Traitor was one of them.

Thank you very much for considering my novel. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,
Laura Popp
laurajanepopp@gmail.com

OK, short, sweet, to the point. I started by relating my work to what they do, (and a little flattery never hurts). Then I inserted my hook, a snappy two-liner that grabs. Then comes a more detailed but short discription of the plot. It probably would be better to allude to the romance that serves as the story's subplot; I'll edit that next time I send it out. Then I go into my credentials, and finally thank them for their time. But of course, I'm not perfect. If anybody wants to comment on this and make it better, please do!

Writing tip of the week: Craft your query letter, your greatest selling tool, to specific agents and editors.

Let's get this party started!

As a fellow writer friend of mine has said, I've been "dragged, kicking and screaming into the 21st Century." I've tried this before, but now I have friends to help me and I am going to learn as I go along. So let me introduce myself! My name is Laura Popp, L.J. Popp in the writing world and this is a writing journal. I am a shameless self-promoter!

Every week (Friday or Saturday) I will post on a specific writing topic. I’ll incorporate my own writing samples and struggles, and each week will feature a simple “writing tip” that sums it all up. But before I post on this week’s topic, query letter, let me get into some of my credentials.

I write primarily young adult fantasy and science fiction, though I also write quite a bit of Christian fiction and non-fiction as well. I’ve been published in two paying markets, Beyond Centauri and Story Station.com, have had numerous unpaid publications and have won several significant awards, including Second Place for Young Adult novel in the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation Inc. Contest and two honorable mentions in the world-wide Writers of the Future Contest. Right now Zumaya Publications is looking (with interest) at one of my novels, Treasure Traitor. Cross your fingers everyone!

You can read more about this story and my writing endevors on the University of Tulsa website, http://www.utulsa.edu/. I'm one of the featured alumni! On the homepage, scroll down to where it says "alumni and friends." There's about three different featured alumni, so if I'm not there, just refresh the page a couple of times. They've had a couple of publications about me and my writing; never dis free publicity folks!

I also write for commission. Currently I’m working for the University of Tulsa writing a history of their Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge program and for movie producer of sorts, co-writing a script. I was a film major in college (just graduated from the University of Tulsa in December) and am currently showing my latest film “Malawi Missions,” an eleven minute documentary about my summer trip to Malawi, Africa. I'm organizing a Malawi film festival at Circle Cinema in Tulsa on Monday, May 4th from 6:30-9:30, and my film will be among the three presented. Y'all come now! And of course, it's on youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ApdQpfi4i7E. I'm screening it at different churches around Tulsa and for whatever societies can find me a projector or large TV. If you’d like to book a showing, please contact me!

All for now. Y'all come back now, ya'hear?