Tag Archives: writing life

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.

Writing Into the Unknown

Megan Norris Jones

Some people have compared our nation’s experience with the pandemic to the grieving process. Denial (that’s just in China!), bargaining (let’s stay home for a couple of weeks, and then this will all be better), anger (you can’t make me wear a mask!), depression (I’m going to get it no matter what I do), and acceptance. I’m not sure what acceptance looks like because I don’t think we’ve gotten there. 

From a creativity perspective, these months of upheaval and uncertainty have definitely affected my writing life, bringing it almost to a standstill. For a while, everything else was blocked out by the enormity of the pandemic. Events popped up on my calendar, and I just deleted them. Nothing was going to happen. All I did was devour news about the coronavirus. Even areas of my life previously devoted to writing shifted to focus on the disease. Half our weekly WriteOwls phone call was consumed by discussion of the pandemic. I quit reading fiction. I quit watching television and movies. I stopped midway through an audiobook. I sat down to write in fits and starts, but I didn’t produce much. I developed a hyperawareness of the fragility not just of my physical life but also of the activities and relationships that once filled my life.

Sure, some of my writing problems were scheduling issues, since the time I had blocked out for writing didn’t exist any more, and instead I was suddenly shifting to homeschool mode. But I can always stay up later or get up earlier to make time to write. I just wasn’t in a headspace for creating stories in the face of so many unknowns. Even when I was at the bargaining stage of hoping for a return to normal before the school year was out, I knew deep down that this experience was reshaping our culture in profound ways that I couldn’t yet identify. And if the whole world changed, then would the stories I’ve written and am writing even make sense in that new world? Continue reading

Practical Prompt 5-18-20

This month, we encourage you to identify three to five mentor texts that you can use to improve your writing. A mentor text is a book written in the same genre as your story, targets the same audience or explores comparable themes. It can also be set in the same time period as your work-in-progress or feature characters that face similar conflicts. Spend the next weeks reading through your mentor texts to study how other writers crafted dialogue, navigated between scenes or ramped up drama. As you read, make notes of the things you liked. Share with us the texts you chose and what you discovered. Then, be on the lookout for future posts here that dig deeper into how to get the most out your mentor texts.

 

Insomniacs Anonymous 5-11-20

During the COVID-19 pandemic, are you drawn to or turned off by books that take place during a pandemic? If you’re drawn to them, what are some you’ve been reading?

Find Your People to Stay Positive, Keep Writing

Laura Ayo

If you’re like me, you’re seeking positivity anywhere you can find it these days. Thankfully, the writing community is one of the most encouraging support systems I’ve ever encountered, and they have not disappointed when it comes to offering humor, inspiration, reality checks and a much-needed distraction during the uncertainty accompanying a global pandemic. Continue reading