Tag Archives: learning

Write by Midnight Pep Talk 6-29-20

Over the past month, we’ve asked you to identify books that were either written in the same genre as your story, targeted the same audience as your work-in-progress, or featured characters facing similar conflicts to those in your story. Turning to these mentor texts when you find yourself struggling to write every day can help you stay motivated, as well as improve your writing skills. Each of us have used mentor texts in various ways. Here, we share how we have found or turned to them to inspire and inform our writing.

Laura Ayo

Laura: I believe writers have the opportunity to learn something from every book they read on their journeys to becoming better writers. Sometimes the books are vital lessons in what not to do. But, for the most part, the stories I read help me to improve my craft in subtle, though sometimes profound, ways. I’m in the early stages of revising my work-in-progress, a middle grade historical fiction novel set in the mid-18th century. The story is told from the points of view of a brother and sister who are separated from their parents and each other during their people’s forced removal from their homeland. Here is a sampling of some of the mentor texts I’m using to make my story the best that it can be.

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley – how to consistently allow readers to experience the story through the eyes of the protagonist

Refugee by Alan Gratz and A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park – how to write about characters who are displaced from their homes/life as they knew it

Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram – how to write about a character’s first experiences with a new/unfamiliar culture/customs and language

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson – how to write about an epidemic in an 18th century setting (although mine is set a few decades earlier)

The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas – how to write about the ways culture and community leave their mark on characters

Salt to the Sea and The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys – how to write multiple points of view about the same (and little known and/or forgotten) event in history and how to weave period details into a story without info-dumping

One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt – how to write about a character hesitant to accept kindness and love from strangers

As you can see, not all of my mentor texts are historical fiction. They’re not all middle grade novels. While I’ve found something valuable in each of them to inform my own writing, they’re all brilliant and thoughtful in many respects, and may influence your stories in completely different ways. So read widely. You can always learn from others.

Megan Norris Jones

Megan: I had heard authors recommend finding mentor texts in the past, but I hadn’t really understood how to use them effectively. I thought I needed to find books that shared the same theme or subject as my work in progress, like comp titles. Now I realize that the best mentor texts are ones that excel in areas that I am working to develop. As a result, the texts I study will change over time as I focus on different aspects of writing craft. Right now I’m focusing on books that help me understand how to tell a compelling story, one that readers feel in their hearts, not just follow in their heads. My current mentor texts include Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah, and The Missing of Clairdelune by Christelle Dabos.

Naomi Hawkins-Rowe

Naomi: Years ago, I read a Random House interview with Zadie Smith in which, at that point in her career, she’d never attended a writing class and found that “[t]he best, the only real training you can get is from reading other people’s books.”  Very sage advice. (Though having been a professor of creative writing at NYU since 2010, I wonder if Smith is eating her words, or still advising her students accordingly). For me basically all of Smith’s books are mentor texts for story structure, character and well, just how she forms words into sentences.  For my current WIP, however, my mentor list includes Barkskins by Annie Proulx (setting as character), We Are Okay by Nina Lacour (difficult family relationships, among many other things), Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (story structure, theories of reincarnation and concepts of duel realities) and The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik by David Arnold (story structure and the blurred lines of consciousness).  While I know mentor texts are defined as books, my list extends to art and T.V. as well. Studying the surreal worlds created in Frida Kahlo’s paintings or in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Joshua Brand and John Falsey’s Northern Exposure have been as much help to me as Proulx’s Barkskins or the others on my list.

Stacey Kite

Stacey: I break mentor texts into two categories: those with brilliant prose, regardless of genre, subject matter or target audience, and those that have similarities to the book I’m working on.

The first group consists of novels by writers like Lois McMaster Bujold, M. R. Carey and Terry Pratchett. Though they have very different styles, there are so many things I learn by re-reading their works that it’s hard to know where to start. For rapier satire, there’s no book that matches Small Gods by Terry Pratchett. M. R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts is a masterclass in the art of showing incremental character change. Bujold novels are the ones I turn to when I find myself struggling with dialog, among other things. She writes it brilliantly with the most minimalistic use of tags. There’s a hilarious dinner scene in A Civil Campaign that lasts for 23 pages, includes 20 speaking characters and yet, averages less than one dialog tag per page. And the reader always knows which character is speaking. It’s amazing.

Then there’s the second category of mentor texts: those that share target audience and themes with mine. Since my story is told from animal POVs, those have been more difficult to hunt down. There are older, classic books, of course—Call of the Wild by Jack London, Watership Down by Richard Adams and The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, but finding contemporary, middle grade novels with animal POV’s was challenging. When my Amazon searches came out a bust, I turned to a writing friend of mine who is a middle school teacher, and she periodically asks her school’s librarian for recommendations and sends them on to me. That’s how I found Pax, by Sara Pennypacker. A wonderful MG novel with a fox for a protagonist.

Which leads me to my simple tip for finding mentor texts—ask people—especially librarians. Librarians rule!

We would love to here from you about what you look for in a mentor text and which have helped you the most.

The Aftermath of Discovery Writing

Naomi Hawkins-Rowe

A few years ago, I remember reading that Ruta Sepetys did two years of research before she began writing her books.  If she is the sort to keep a planning journal or story/idea wall, I like to imagine how pristinely organized it must all be. I don’t know her, so of course this is all speculation. But I can imagine these novel planning tools and they must be beautiful. Mini works of art.

I have actually attempted the plan-before-you-write method. For me, making story maps and sketching visuals in my journal are enjoyable planning activites. At the recommendation of my fellow WriteOwl, Stacey, I read some of Truby’s book and got excited to take my novel planning up a notch. It’s a great book!, but I confess I got as far as doing the activities in Chapter 1, before I began to feel anxious and had to put Truby down. The planning stage began to  feel less creative to me and I wanted to “discover” my story as I wrote it.

So I did. With general plot prompts and a whole lot of sidebar notes to be dealt with later, I “discovery wrote” the heck out of my first draft. In doing so, I discovered a few things. One, that I have a lot of rewriting to do, because, two, as I wrote I realized new things about my characters and that began to change the course of the plot. I also learned that writing this way made me insanely happy and excited to work on my book.

There is a reason I like the “blank page” and the question “what is possible?” I live for the part of making something that is purely creative, exploratory, imaginative. But any form of art requires tweeking, editing and revision. That is where I am. The backdrop I’ve created, the first notes I’ve written need details, need depth.

In the aftermath of discovery writing, I can see the advantage of thoroughly planning one’s novel; I am sure I wouldn’t have as many notes to sort through. But  I also believe we create in different ways. I need to be guided by whim at first so I can carve out the details later. For another writer, they may need the opposite. To each their own.

What say you? What method do you use to write a first draft?

 

 

 

The Fun Part

Megan Norris Jones

When I was a kid, my parents sent me to piano lessons. I had a vague notion that it might be kind of neat to play a musical instrument. That vague notion, however, did not translate into me actually practicing the piano. Most weeks, my thirty-minute lessons were the only practice I got. Which is how I became the musical genius I am today.

Kidding. My entire piano repertoire is pecking out “Twinkle Twinkle Little a Star” with one hand. I didn’t practice, so I never got better.

When it comes to writing, however, I have more than a vague notion about scratching out a story. I have serious goals, and I’ve put in the time to develop my skills, strengthen my weak points, and push my writing ability to its limit.
I wrote about the value of deliberate practice in an earlier post as a means of improving a skill. The things that sets deliberate practice apart from regular practice is that it requires me to constantly operate at the edge of my capacity in an effort to continue expanding that capacity. Continue reading

Pretty Good

Megan Norris Jones

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000 hour rule, which states that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a skill. This notion is both encouraging and discouraging. It’s encouraging because it means if I practice, I can become good. It has inspired me to dedicate time to my craft and consciously cultivate the skills I lack. It’s discouraging when I consider how long 10,000 take to rack up when I squeeze writing time into 15-30 minute increments. This is going to take a while.

Then I heard a TED Talk by Josh Kaufman, and he introduced me to the 20-hour rule. In it, he argues that, while it might take 10,000 hours to master a skill, 20 hours of deliberate practice can make you decent at most things. Continue reading

Books for Improving Your Craft

Megan Norris Jones

Megan Norris Jones

I’ve been reading a number of books on writing lately, so I’d like to share a few recommendations with you.

1. The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield.
Most of the books on writing that I have devoured over the years have looked at putting together an entire novel, but this book drills down to the level of the individual scene and delves into what makes these building blocks of a novel work. It’s a thoughtful and insightful guide to this aspect of storytelling, and I learned a lot in the process of reading it that I’m looking forward to incorporating into my own writing.

2. Novel Metamorphosis by Darcy Pattison.
Pattison taught an intensive course on revision at the conference I attended in September, but I couldn’t get up there a day early to attend it, so my sweet husband bought me the book as a consolation prize. It’s as much a workbook as an instruction manual, so wait on this one till you have a finished draft in hand. I already have a running list of things that need to be improved in the next draft of my manuscript, but digging into Pattison’s perspective on revision gave me a solid approach to the process.

3. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.
Written by two editors, this book gives great advice on improving your own writing that can take it from mediocre to exceptional. My favorite aspect was that most examples came from manuscripts the authors had actually edited, so I could see how to apply the advice in real life. A passage that sounded just fine to me would be taken to the next level with their editing techniques.

What books have you found most helpful in developing your craft?