SO, WHAT’S A MENTORSHIP?

When I started telling people that I’d received an ASA mentorship last year their first question was always the same, “So, what’s a mentorship?”

At this point I had no idea. I had researched and applied for the program but I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it would improve my writing craft and my manuscript but I wasn’t sure how. Now that I’ve finished the program, I can tell you how I think it works.

What is it?
A mentorship is like having a private, ongoing novel writing class on your manuscript. It’s about finding the weaknesses in your writing and overcoming them. It’s about learning to research, write, re-write and edit your manuscript until it’s worthy of publication.

A mentor will discuss with you what you want to get out of the mentorship. They’ll read through your manuscript (or partial) and give you their opinion. They’ll tell you what you should work on for your next draft and you can discuss/fight it out by email, phone or face-to-face. Then your mentor will send you back to your computer until you have completed the draft or installment for them to read. Then that process repeats for as much time as your mentorship allows.

Ooooh. A mentor? What’s that like?
Pretty awesome. Having a mentor is like having a writing teacher, a best friend, a manuscript assessor and a personal trainer on your team but all rolled in to the one person.

My mentor, Sue, showed me areas that lagged in my writing craft and exercises to work on. She settled my nerves when I thought I’d never get my manuscript together. She read over installments of my manuscript and emailed it back covered in track changes and comment bubbles. She also kicked my ass, usually by email, telling me when I was repeating mistakes or generally trying to get me to work even harder.

Sounds amazing! Is there anything else I need to know?
Yep. I’ve got a few warnings before you dive in to a mentorship.

1. It’s all about tough love.
If you think you’re going to be sipping coffee and listening to your mentor proclaim how amazing you are, a mentorship is not for you. A mentorship is about having your ass kicked. It’s like training for a half-marathon: you’ll see progress but it’s hard work and there will be times when you might hate it.

2. It’s better if you’re not a beginner.
Mostly because it might be too depressing and also because a beginner probably isn’t ready for it. I would say that the process is perfect for writers on their second/third manuscript (or later) as well as people who have had their work critiqued regularly. Otherwise, the mentorship is going to hurt really bad.

3. You need to listen to your mentor.
Remember when my awesome beginning was scrapped during the first meeting in my mentorship? It was one of many, many scenes that were cut from my manuscript for all different reasons. You wanted a mentor’s professional view of your work, so don’t be quick to throw it in their face. It’s a mentor’s role to dissect your writing and tell you what’s not working. Of course you can disagree with them, but you need to listen to their opinion first.

That sounds like hell! Why would I endure this foolishness you call a mentorship?
1. It’s going to make your writing so much better. It’s like a fast-track program and it’s easier to notice your progress from so much one-on-one contact.

2. It’s better that a writing mentor helps you through your embarrassing mistakes and teething problems than an agent or a publisher. Mostly because an agent or publisher will probably have to reject your work rather than take you on and coach you. (It’s not their job to teach you to write no matter how cool your idea is.)

3. The confidence and the thick-skin from the process feel really good. Seriously, I wouldn’t want to be charging into this industry without a certain amount resilience and self-esteem, and I believe a mentorship has the potential to help you with that. Plus, do you know how good it feels when a professional writer compliments your unpublished work? It’s. Totally. Freaking. Awesome.

As Sue was constantly telling me, ‘It’s a baptism of fire. Those who come out on the other side are the really good writers’. That phrase has always stuck with me and as painful as a mentorship can be, I would definitely go through it all over again.

**For people that are interested, I will be writing a series of posts to give you ideas for your 2010 writing goals. If you want to keep updated, become a google follower or subscribe to the rss feed. Otherwise I’ll tag all these posts, ‘goals’ in case you miss one.**

MAKING ACTION SCENES MATTER

The first time I met Sue to begin my ASA mentorship, we had this conversation…

Sue: Now, let’s talk about your first chapter.
Me: Sure. *thinking about how cinematic my opener is: a foot chase through the jungle ending in the murder of the point of view character*
Sue: You can’t have that.
Me: *blinks*
Sue: You just killed off a character that I don’t know anything about. I don’t care about them, so it doesn’t affect me that they are dead.
Me: Oh.

Now, I love action scenes. I will watch a bad film for an awesome car chase and sometimes I skip through a film to watch the fight scenes. But there are plenty of action films I should have loved but felt completely detached from the story. This is what Sue was teaching me. A vital component in action scenes are the characters and their relationship to each other.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself about action scenes in your story:

How are the character’s relationships being tested through this action scene?
Who does the reader care for and who are they cheering for in this struggle?
How does this action scene move the plot of the story?

It’s not to say you can’t kill off minor or insignificant characters in your books. (I still do and I have a few friends that still like that original opening scene.) As long as you realise that if the reader doesn’t care about the characters, then they won’t be moved by that particular sequence.

There are plenty of film makers and novelists who produce stories with a main course of action and a garnish of character emotion and growth. These people are successful and really love what they do. Hey, many of them still make money out of me.

I just prefer to be more grounded and connected with characters, both when I write and when I read. When I really love or really despise a character, I am invested in every moment that that character struggles, whether it’s an awkward moment in the elevator or a duel to the death.

THE PERKS OF BEING UNPUBLISHED

Take the pressure off and start soaking up the perks of being unpublished:

1. No Deadlines
I am a very deadline-orientated person and I give myself targets all the time. You know what the best part is? I make up the deadlines! Yes, all by myself! I don’t have to answer to anyone and it doesn’t actually matter if I don’t make the timeframe.




I’m the boss.

2. Time to Experiment
I can write whatever I want. I could write fantasy and then play with a historical romance without worrying about publisher or reader expectations. I have time to strengthen my writing style before I approach people as a YA writer or Spec-fic writer or that-writer-who-is-crazy-about-ninja lobsters.

Would you still be my friend if I wrote a book about lobsters?

3. Development Programs
I can enter programs that are designed to help writers with little or no publishing record. The Australian Society of Authors mentorship was one such program that has improved my writing beyond my expectations.

My mentor makes me do this all the time.

Feel free to add to my list if you can think of more.

RESEARCH PARANOIA

I have been stressed lately that I’ll never finish researching for my current project. I think this is probably spurred on by the fact that my mentorship is finishing (eeek!) and I’m still discovering new tidbits that could change parts of my storyline.

I’ve just started reading The Lost City of Z as part of my research and I am totally addicted. It’s non-fiction that reads like an adventure novel but starting this book made me felt like a total idiot.

I had not even heard of Percy Harrison Fawcett and yet, amateur explorers from all over the world try and retrace his steps, looking for the truth of his disappearance and what he may have discovered deep in the Amazon. I was horrified that I had been researching archaeology and pre-columbian history for almost a year and I had missed this; a true story that so closely identifies to the world of my novel.

At these times, there is a mean little voice in my head that pipes up with stupid comments like, “you’re not smart enough to put all that science and history into a fiction novel” or “even first-year archaeologists would tear your novel apart. Quit while you’re ahead!”

I posted my research question to YA author Justine Larbalestier, who has very generously posted her reply today, which you can read here.

It has really set my mind at ease. I will never stop researching (I’m a science and history geek) and I feel so much better knowing that this is normal. As Diana mentioned in the comments, there are so many historians and scientists who were inspired by fictional books and movies. Even through my research, I have learned how many archaeologists grew up on the Indiana Jones movies (yes, despite Indy destroying every mummy-dig site-etc he touches).

Perhaps, one day my books will inspire more kids and adults to learn the history of the world (because it is fascinating) and read the science articles in the paper (because they are seriously cool) and that would make all of this research paranoia totally worth it.

**Update: according to IMDB a film based on The Lost City of Z is in production to star Brad Pitt.**

THE FEEDBACK HAPPY DANCE

Sometimes getting feedback on my manuscript makes me want to curl up in a dark corner and die. I email my lovely mentor with attachment of my work and she replies with a ton of track changes and comments. And yes, the comments are always in red.

You’ve got red on you…

But today I’m doing the feedback happy dance!

I’ve just received feedback from my mentor for my new first chapter and it is very encouraging. Five pages of my manuscript and only nine red comments. (For those of you who have never submitted your writing for feedback this is good progress, trust me.)

Huzzah!

FAIRYTALE FAVOURITES

Right now I am planning a new project. Yes, it may not be the most logical time to be playing with a new MS when I should still be working through my ASA mentorship homework. Though, sometimes I need something fresh and new (and less painful). Now that I know how I like to write and edit a novel, it feels good to play with something that I haven’t done completely backwards.
My new baby is a fairytale; romance, fantasy, adventure – what more could you want! So, while I have been daydreaming and scribbling notes on scenes and viewpoint characters, I’ve started watching my favourite fairytale films.
My current list is:
1. The Princess Bride
2. Ladyhawke
3. Brothers Grimm
4. Any Disney film (Beauty & the Beast and Aladdin are my favourites)
What I want to know from you is, what do you love about fairytales? Also, feel free to add to my list if you have any suggestions for good fairytale movies or music to write to.