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: 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
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: 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: 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: 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.