I’m luxuriating in the moment where I’ve finished a manuscript after various edits, received the beta reader thumbs up, and added a few final touches. Now queries and the manuscript itself are in various agent and editorial hands, and I want to reflect upon the most helpful resource I used during the novel-writing process. Without a doubt, it was the use of a mentor text.
A mentor text is a work in the selected genre of what you want to tackle. For example, I was writing a middle grade novel (something new for me) so I specifically chose two texts to help me understand the structure and language of middle grade writing. While my goal was magical realism, I opted not to select a magical realism mentor text because I was worried about inadvertently including too much of the texts’ ideas into my work.
Emulation = awesome. Imitation = not so awesome.
I settled on Holes and When You Reach Me. When you’re selecting a mentor text, first and foremost read it once through for the sake of reading and enjoying. (If you find yourself bored or disengaged, drop it like a bad habit. It’s not the right mentor text for you!) Award winners or popular books are great because they’ve proven their success. Don’t shy away from older books, BUT I’d pair it with something more modern as well. As much as I love Holes, I wanted a book written in the past few years, too. Styles and trends change. (Goodreads and Amazon are my two favorite spots to find mentor texts, because works are broken down by category and reader reactions abound.)
Once you’ve read it/them for fun, get ready to be a detective and see how the book ticks. My process falls into Post-Its, a timeline, and a reader response journal. (Fellow English teachers, you’ll recognize that guy from what you assign your students, I’m guessing!)
1 – Note larger things such as plot structure, rising action, climax, high vs. low stakes, etc. Ultimately I chart the skeleton of the book. To make my life easier I do this all on multi-colored Post-It Page Markers, breaking my notes down into plot, character, and conflict.
2 – Pacing is key, and a simple chapter timeline showing where the ups and downs of the novel happen provides a lovely visual. (In other words don’t just write down what’s happening. The closer it is to the top of the paper, the happier it is for the protagonist. Conversely the low moments look low on the page.) Ultimately you can compare it to your own work down the road and see if you’re keeping the reader as engaged.
3 – Your reactions as a reader are, in my opinion, some of the most important harbingers of success when looking at how a novel functions. When does it make you love the protagonist, or hate them? When do you have faith in the narrative, and when are you hanging by a string?
As a Creative Writing teacher I’m always a bit horrified by students who love to write but refuse to read. “I don’t have time,” they argue. But without reading it’s nearly impossible to sort out the structural nuts and bolts of writing. The best prose cannot stand alone. Gorgeous lines must be draped on a formidable skeleton to support and highlight what you can do.
Good luck finding mentor texts, and happy writing!
A mother, teacher, and writer who enjoys all good stories and believes in the magic we can make every day by telling them.