The Next Big Thing (Week 26)

Thanks to Laura VanArendonk Baugh for nominating my blog for “The Next Big Thing.” I’m pleased people are interested in my blog and novel—though if you’re reading this, you should check out Laura’s own site at http://lauravanarendonkbaugh.com and her novella Kitsune-Tsuki, winner of the Luminis Award at this year’s Midwest Writers Conference! With any luck (or justice) her new novel Shard & Shield will get picked up and published soon!

Laura has asked me to answer 10 questions about my novel and then nominate other authors with blogs for next week’s “Next Big Thing.”  Let’s get to it.

  1. What is the working title of your book?  Fractured Myths, though a potential publisher pointed out that a more appropriate title might be Fractured Legends.
  2. 2.      Where did the idea come from for the book? My brother Andy wanted to pitch a cartoon series and asked me if I had any ideas. My 1st thought was “a teenage girl and her father aid an elite team that investigates myths that enter the real world. Each episode would have a different myth/character/creature and a new adventure.” That germ became my novel—the less kid-friendly origin story for the cartoon. And NO, this was never pitched as an animated series, so the novel is the only story that exists.
  3. 3.      What genre does your book fall under? YA Urban Fantasy . . . though I like calling it a YA Arthurian Urban Fantasy since King Arthur is one of the main characters, but that’s too much of a mouthful.
  4. 4.      Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

16-year-old Alanna O’Connor: No idea. If my book is published two years from now and is immediately optioned, it would still be at least four more years before the movie would come out. Therefore, the actress would be about 10-years-old right now.

King Arthur: Chris Hemsworth (Thor) or Hugh Jackman (Wolverine).

Dr. Zoe Bailey: Naomie Harris (Eve in Skyfall).

  1. 5.      What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book? This is nearly impossible, so here is the shortest pitch I can come up with:When sixteen-year-old fantasy enthusiast Alanna O’Connor sees Vikings, medieval knights, and mythological creatures appear in her hometown of Edinburgh, she thinks it’s a miracle . . . until they try to kill her. Alanna teams up with the one person she knows she can trust: the newly arrived and completely baffled King Arthur. Together, they must stop the myth invasion before Scotland—if not all reality—is fractured beyond repair.” 
  2. 6.      Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? Anything is possible. I have the option to Revise and Resubmit at a small press. I plan to do that, but I’m still querying agents, so we’ll see what happens.
  3. 7.      How long did it take to write the first draft of your manuscript? The first draft took me about two years. Even though I know that draft had serious problems, I still count it as one of my life’s major accomplishments.
  4. 8.      What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? Libriomancer by Jim Hines. I actually have a review of that book on my blog. The stories share a similar tone, balance between humor and adventure, and involve fiction/myths finding a way into the real world.
  5. 9.      Who or What inspired you to write this book? I partially answered this in Q # 2, but Andy asking me for an idea is only part of the reason why he should be considered the inspiration for my book. The truth is, once I had the idea, I tried giving it to Andy. He liked it, saw its potential, and encouraged me to write it as a novel so that I could maintain creative control over it. But these are only the immediate reasons why Andy is an inspiration. Years before my idea hit me, Andy quit his job in St. Louis and moved to New York to follow his dream of working as a story editor for Marvel Comics. He was there for six years and contributed to some fantastic storylines with all of our childhood heroes. Then he started his own business called www.comicsexperience.com where he teaches classes in writing, drawing, and everything else related to a career in the comic book industry. Then he moved to California and worked for IDW (another comic book company). Now he works in Hasbro’s creative department. So the thing is, Andy takes risks. He pushes himself. And no matter where he is, Andy maintains his creativity and integrity. He might be my younger brother, but he is also my hero. I just hope he doesn’t read this.
  6. 10.  What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? I have a pet peeve about stories in which a mythical character appears in the real world (my premise) because so far, every story I know of with this premise fails my “test.” The thing I always want to know is, “Which version of the character shows up and how is that decided?” What I mean is, if Achilles shows up in New York, I want to know if his skin is impenetrable or not (it is according to the legend of his body being dipped in the river Styx but he is mortal in Homer). The next question is, “How is that decision made and is there a consistent and logical reason for this within the story?” In other words, if it is the Achilles from The Iliad, why is it that Achilles and not the one with impenetrable skin? And whatever rationale there is needs to be clear and consistent with all other characters that appear. Sometimes the explanation/rationale is made clear, but often the characters are whatever version the author seems to like best. So my book passes my own test—the answers to the questions I pose are there and, I think, the answers will surprise you.

I now nominate the following blogs for next week’s “The Next Big Thing.” Hopefully, these authors will post their answers to the same 10 questions I just answered. Check their respective websites on December 5th!

Robbie MacNiven at http://robbiemacniven.wordpress.com/

Emilyann Girdner at http://www.anythingimagined.blogspot.com/

E.M. Castellan at http://emcastellan.com/

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Archetypes & Hero’s Journey: Ordinary VS Sacred Worlds

I’m beginning a series of posts about Archetypes & the Hero’s Journey – elements that I love finding in literature/film and that I infuse into my own storytelling.

Stories of heroes (even realistic ones) begin when the hero gets “a call” to action (I will have a post about “The Call” next week). For now, just know that the call is a request or impulse to begin the journey, accept a mission, or commit to a new goal. Yet even before this happens, we have to get to know our hero and the world in which he lives.

The hero usually begins in an ordinary, mundane world (small town, big city, somewhere familiar and unremarkable). He may seem like a common man and may not exhibit any particular signs of greatness. He is comfortable in this world and these surroundings. It is only in leaving this ordinary world for the sacred world that he can gain new experiences and change. The sacred world is the new world of mystery that will force the hero to change.

The ordinary world does not have to be a world with which you are familiar, but it must seem ordinary to the hero. As readers, we must come to understand this world so that we can appreciate that the hero is suddenly a “fish out of water” when he leaves.

The hero must cross the first threshold in order to begin his journey. A threshold is a dividing line separating one area from another (rivers, doorways, borders, etc.). While the hero will likely cross several thresholds during his journey, the most important one he must cross is the first one: the line that separates his ordinary world from the unknown and dangerous sacred world. The barrier between the two worlds is usually pretty obvious. This is the first test of the hero’s conviction. There may be a person or thing guarding the threshold (the threshold guardian) who will try to stop the hero at this point.

Examples:

  • In Major League, the ordinary world is 1980s pollution filled Cleveland with their long history of losing baseball seasons. Some of the players have been elsewhere (Mexico or a prison in California), but Cleveland is clearly the ordinary world. In this case, the sacred world is still geographically the same as the sacred. The Sacred World would be the world of winning. During spring training, the coaches are threshold guardians who will decide whether or not the individual players make it into the major leagues. After that, the coaches become true mentors while each team they face can be seen as threshold guardians trying to prevent the Indians from winning.  There are other thresholds in the story, including: Vaughn getting out of prison, the team climbing up in the standings, and finally winning the division title.
  • When we first meet young Harry Potter, he is living underneath the staircase in his step-parents’ home. He isn’t treated well and life could be a lot better. This is Harry’s ordinary world. Note that most of the novels/movies begin with Harry in this ordinary world before he leaves and enters the sacred world of magic. His step parents are the Threshold Guardians who do everything they can from keeping Harry out of the sacred world. The major threshold that he must cross is, of course, Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross train station in London.
  • The boys in Stand By Me live in the small town of Castle Rock, Oregon, in 1959. The sacred world is the unexplored path along the train tracks they follow until they find the missing boy’s dead body. When they first step onto the tracks, they pause at the bridge—an obvious threshold separating their hometown from the unknown. Minutes later, they encounter the Threshold guardian: Chopper—the dog in the junkyard. Of course, when they try crossing the big river later in the day, the approaching train becomes a threshold guardian that very nearly kills them.
  • As stated in the opening line of The Godfather, the ordinary world is America (“I believe in America”), but the story is really about the sacred world within the Italian mafia (1945 – 1955). Michael Corleone literally sits on the edge of these worlds in the opening wedding scene—sitting with his girlfriend away from the rest of the family. He has one foot in each world: he is a decorated soldier who fought in WW II—clearly a part of the ordinary America that he has defended with this life, but he is also son of the Godfather of the Italian mafia and grew up inside, though not truly a part of, that world. As he explains things to his girlfriend, “That’s my family, Kay. That’s not me.” As this is the story of an antihero, Michael will, of course, decide to join the family and enter the world of crime that he condemns in the beginning of the story. In this case, he has known the sacred and secretive world of the mafia all his life, it is just that he doesn’t want to be a part of it. Michael does not accept the call until about ½ way into the film (normally, this happens at the end of act I, or about 30 minutes in). Michael’s threshold guardians are his own family members who don’t want him in the sacred world: many are happy that he found a life outside of it. Once Michael decides to accept the call, they try to convince him to stay out. Michael’s threshold is a moral one: he kills two people and therefore “crosses the line.”
  • In Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam leave their peaceful ordinary world in the Shire and embark on the long road to (hopefully) meet up with Gandalf the wizard. As they hike across vast landscapes, Sam stops where the wheat turns a new color and says, “If I take another step, I’ll be farther from home than I’ve ever been.” The threshold guardian is the scarecrow (I love the subtlety). When they cross that line of wheat, Frodo and Sam have entered the new and mysterious Sacred World where they will be tested. There are dozens of thresholds and guardians in this story.
  • Batman/Bruce Wayne leaves his ordinary world of Gotham City in Batman Begins, takes a boat to China (threshold = ocean), and has many new experiences in the sacred world as he studies the criminal element and the nature of fear. When he returns years later, he begins a new stage of his life as Batman.
  • In the original Star Wars film, Luke Skywalker’s ordinary world is the boring desert planet of Tatooine. Once Luke decides to join Obi-Wan on his mission, they are stopped by the evil Empire’s guards, the Stormtroppers. After Obi-Wan uses a Jedi mind trick on the soldiers, Luke gets in a bar fight with a disgruntled alien who doesn’t like him. After that, there are even more Stormtroppers who try to stop our heroes from getting on a spaceship and leaving the planet. Each person who tries to stop Luke is a Threshold Guardian—attempting to prevent him from leaving his ordinary world and entering the sacred world of a galaxy far, far away.

Rejection & Temptation: Dealing with Feedback

In my last post regarding “dealing with rejection from literary agents,” I mentioned that you should keep track of why your book gets rejected (to see if there are common reasons) but to avoid rewriting your story based on one rejection.

I recently received a polite and professional rejection that was complementary (noting that my writing was good and that I was on to something), but the agent ultimately decided not to represent me. Her reason was that I did not provide enough World Building so that she didn’t feel connected to my protagonist.

Fine. That’s a solid reason to reject—I didn’t grab her. Interestingly, I had earlier versions of the book that had a lot more World Building. I cut much of it so that I got to the action more quickly. So my temptation is . . . put some of it back in. Maybe even put in more than was there in the original drafts.

I can’t help it. I find myself imagining ways to flesh out the protagonist’s life—finding ways to introduce new characters, having her in other scenes that show off what her life is really about and who she is.

So . . . do I add any of this?  No. I should not. Not based on one person’s opinion! The agent, no matter how wonderful and lovely, is just one person. Also, she’s not going to look at my book again anyway. She already said “No thanks,” so tailoring the novel to her liking doesn’t make any sense. She is never going to see it again.

And yet . . . This is hard to resist. In fact, I broke my rule. I added a little bit more World Building, fleshing out more of her backstory in chapter 2. I didn’t add much—just a few sentences here and there–certainly not enough for the agent to say, “Oh, now that’s plenty of World Building!” but I did add some.

And I’m making a list of more extreme ways to add more World Building should I receive the same reason for rejection in the future. If I hear this again, I will be further tempted to rewrite, but (hopefully) I will be strong and resist. If I hear this reason for rejection from a total of THREE people, then yeah. It will be time to start hacking away again.

Book Review: Libriomancer

LIBRIOMANCER

AUTHOR: Jim C. Hines

WORD COUNT: 90,000 (approx.)

GENRE: Urban Fantasy.

SIMILAR/RELATED BOOKS, MOVIES, TV: Inkheart + Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

PREMISE:

Book lovers know that words offer us a kind of magic, but that idea, and the objects those words describe, become literal in the hands of Libriomancers—special sorcerers who can reach inside novels and pull out, as if from a bag, the items described within. Mystical swords. Jewelry. Drugs. Potions. Laser guns. You name it.

Now that vampires have begun killing these sorcerers, it falls to an upstart and disgraced Libriomancer to solve a mystery, avenge his friend’s death, and prevent a war.

FIRST LINE: “Some people would say it’s a bad idea to bring a fire-spider into a public library.”

Two years ago, Isaac Vainio was kicked out of the Porters (Libriomancer guild) for breaking the rules. He’s spent that time as a librarian: cataloging books that might come in handy if he’s ever allowed to use his power again. So when a trio of vampires try to assassinate him, he has every weapon in literature at his disposal.

Vainio teams up with a beautiful and seductive dryad named Lena Greenwood to find out why the vampires have suddenly targeted Libriomancers. The result is an exciting, funny, highly imaginative tale for any lover of fantasy and science fiction literature.

This is a stand-alone story that will become a series. I can’t wait for the next one!

The book is a kind of magic—it’s like wish fulfillment for all my envious daydreams spawned by the great fantasy and science fiction tales of my youth.

Things to Avoid in Chapter # 1 of Your Novel

While I can’t give you a “To Do List” for your chapter # 1, I can give a “Don’t Do List.”

Avoid the following first sentence/opening clichés:

Blood or other gruesome scene: “The blood was everywhere.” Is it shocking? Maybe it used to be, but not anymore. Actually, if it was something like “The frog’s blood was everywhere,” I might read on because that’s odd. The real problem with a “shock and awe” opening is that we don’t care yet. If a news article began with “Blood was everywhere,” we’d care (or might care—let’s be honest) because some real person has probably died and it is sad and horrifying. As a no name fictional character though, we don’t care. You have not given us any reason to care yet—we know we’ve just picked up a work of fiction and we have nothing invested in this world or anyone who might have died in it.

Detailed Physical description: Avoid the temptation to describe your main character. We actually don’t need this yet and we probably need less of it than you think. In the beginning, we need to know just the basics about the characters in the scene—as little background info as possible should be told (including character description). I’ve gone back and forth on this, but I guess the reader does need to know some very basic details so that he can form pictures in his head that won’t totally contradict the more elaborate description you may provide later. I think readers need to know the main characters age (approx), race, gender, and one telling detail. Sometimes, one telling detail is actually all you need. Don’t provide this information in “fact sheet” style.

Over writing: Don’t be wacky for the sake of being wacky or show off your mastery of alliteration. Simplicity is powerful. SIDE NOTE: Alliteration might be the least desirable type of figurative language as it takes the reader out of the scene. The reader will notice alliteration and say, “Oh hey, there’s some alliteration,” instead of “Man! That scene was intense!”

Drama for drama’s sake: Don’t have an exciting opening scene that exists solely to be an “exciting opening scene.” The scene/line should reveal something about the character, plot, premise, etc. It shouldn’t be surviving a plane crash if the main character just walks away, says, “Wow! That could have been awful!” and then goes on with his mundane life. If you start with a crash, the crash must affect him in a profound way.

Dreaming: I did this in my very first draft. I was able to provide a lot of character information, foreshadowing, and symbolism. But opening with a dream is horribly cliché and a bit of a cheat, so I deleted it and have never been happier.

Waking up: This is just as cliché as the dream. While we might learn a lot about your character by his/her routine, looking in the mirror, seeing his/her home, etc., it is still a cliché (and boring!) way to begin.

Pontificating: Beginning with a preachy soliloquy about life or the world rarely works. I suppose musing might be interesting if done well—if you begin with a particularly odd or fascinating question/situation (“It was only when I karate chopped my mother’s ghost that I considered the possibility I was insane . . .”).

Beginning with dialogue: I’m not sure I should include this one. I can think of some great books that start with dialogue. However, if you want to play it safe, the very first sentence probably should not be dialogue because some agents don’t like it. Others don’t mind it, though I’ve never heard anyone say that actually prefer starting with dialogue. I can’t imagine an agent dismissing a submission because it began with a set of quotation marks, but you never know. The safer bet is to provide a little context before the conversation begins (where is the scene taking place + some idea of who is in the scene or what is going on). Providing some context and setting should help the reader ease into the story, picture what is going on, etc. If you start with quotation marks, we don’t know anything about the setting, characters, etc. so that is off-putting.

I’m sure there are more. Let me know what I left off the list!

Query Tips – Dealing with Literary Agent Rejection

There’s a lot to say regarding “rejection” from Literary Agents.

If you are not getting any requests for your novel, the fault may lie with your query letter. Are you sure it satisfies all the necessary requirements? Be honest with yourself and have others critique it. See my previous posts regarding how to write a query letter and read other people’s opinions on this as well.

For now, just go into your Query Quest with the knowledge that most published authors got rejected 50 – 100 times before they found their agent. I’m not sure where I read that, but it stuck with me. I’ve only sent my query to about 8 agents, so I have at least 42 to go before I should start getting frustrated.

I will say this about rejection: it is never fun, but it can be useful.

But in order for the rejection to be useful, you have to handle the rejection correctly. For revision purposes, keep track of why your novel gets rejected. If several agents provide the same reason for rejection—then you should probably revise the novel (maybe just a little, maybe a lot).

However, don’t revise after each rejection! That would destroy your novel’s pace, structure, voice—everything! Besides, so much of this is about personal taste. So if one agent says the pace was too fast, the next agent might claim the opposite. And maybe the best reason why not to re-write after each rejection is this: you’re not going to send it to that agent again anyway. You had your shot and it hit the target (because she requested it), but it wasn’t a bull’s-eye, so now you move on.

Archetypes, the Hero’s Journey, and Why They Matter

Many of the world’s most popular and enduring stories owe a good part of their success to archetypes and the hero’s journey. Any writer can learn storytelling techniques from even a passing familiarity with archetypes. A detailed study may produce the next Star Wars or Harry Potter.

I was in love with Archetypes long before I discovered the term. In fact, most of us are in love with the story of a hero who goes on a life-changing journey. This basic storyline is found in all cultures and major religions. Psychologist Carl Jung argued that every living soul is born knowing the hero’s story because it is part of the “collective unconscious”—a shared knowledge base that includes common character types (the hero, mentor, lover, etc.). Jung’s lifelong study of dreams lead him to believe that regardless of gender, culture, age, or anything else, all people instinctually recognize the hero’s story and its elements. In other words: to be human is to understand, at least on some level, the hero’s journey.

Joseph Campbell found Jung’s archetypes in mythologies and religions. It was Campbell who dissected these stories and discovered the common elements of what he called “The Hero’s Journey” and what is more commonly known as “The Monomyth” (“mono” means “one” so this literally means “One-myth”). For a detailed analysis, read Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. SIDE NOTE: I love this title. After all, as Campbell proves, there is essentially one basic story of the hero, but that hero’s face and name change with each telling of it.

It may be blasphemy to say it, but the following stories/people/characters are all quite similar:

  • Jesus Christ.
  • Shrek.
  • Michael Corleone (The Godfather).
  • Batman.
  • Luke Skywalker (Star Wars)
  • Simba (The Lion King).

“Wait!” you cry, “Jesus Christ and mafia leader Michael Corleone are NOT the same! Come to think of it, Christ wasn’t an ogre either!” And of course, you are correct: they are quite different . . . but the basic story outline is the same despite the fact that Jesus is a hero for all humankind, Michael Corleone is a fallen hero who becomes a villain, and Shrek is . . . Shrek.

These stories share common events, familiar character types, symbols, and motifs that Jung called archetypes (archetypes are the repeated character types, events, and symbols). The world’s heroes and the stages of their quests tend to share characteristics, though there are certainly different types of heroes and missions.

Today, storytellers use the archetypes of the hero and journey to craft their stories.  Often this is intentional, as writers want to capitalize on a story structure they know “works” and will have a ready audience, but it also can happen unintentionally because these stories are so ingrained in our minds and culture that stories end up borrowing archetypes naturally. That is to say, a writer’s story may have archetypal plot points, characters, or symbols simply because these naturally appear in our minds (since they have always existed in our collective unconscious).

Heroes do not have to be warriors and adventurers. A hero can be a bringer of peace, a woman working in man’s world, an underdog fighting for the moral right, or anyone who discovers his place in the world and seeks to improve that world.

By its very nature, the hero’s story is one of self-discovery. *This journey does NOT have to be physical! It can be inward or spiritual! The hero will leave his/her normal world that is comfortable. Once this happens the hero is opened up to new experiences that will test his character, abilities, and determination. He will grow and, in order to be successful, he must change. This transformation is essential. The hero must gain new knowledge or insight.

BASIC OVERVIEW: STAGES OF THE JOURNEY

The common monomyth elements are:

  1. The Call = Hero gets asked to do something, or perhaps just gets thrown into it.
  2. The Shadow or Other = Hero meets his other/shadow.
  3. The Journey & Initiation = Hero grows and matures as he experiences new things.
  4. Helpers and Guides = Hero gets friends, allies, and maybe a lover or mentor.
  5. The Treasure & Return = Hero wins and gets the treasure (hopefully), then heads home.
  6. The Transformation = The Hero MUST change in some way.

*    Atonement with the Father = Hero and parent find peace (*not in every story, but common).

I will have many posts about these stages and archetypal characters in the future. Keep posted.

SPOILER ALERT: When I write about archetypes and the hero’s journey, I will reference popular stories that provide examples. There are thousands from which to choose, but I will try to stick to the following for consistency’s sake:

  • Major League
  • Harry Potter.
  • The Godfather.
  • Stand By Me
  • The Lord of the Rings.
  • Batman Begins/The Dark Knight Trilogy.
  • Star Wars.