I'm on a break between writing projects at the moment, which means I'm reading a lot right now. It's filling my creative well, but also informing my craft (Check out my Read Like a Writer Workbook to help you learn how to do the same).
But it occured to me that there's a great step two to my post earlier this month about finding your why. And that's identifying a mentor text for your work-in-progress (WIP) to help turn that WHY into a HOW.
What is a mentor text?
A mentor text is a book that you read specifically because it can help you learn about the craft elements of a particular aspect of your story. If you're trying to write a dark hate-to-love fantasy romance, for example, you might pick Holly Black's Cruel Prince as your mentor text. You might note the breadcrumb trail of hints leading to the realization (*spoiler alert*) that Jude and Cardan don't really hate each other (JudeJudeJudeJudeJude, *sigh*).
If you're planning a trilogy, you might pick up The Hunger Games and pay particular attention to how Katniss's world view expands bit by bit until she's not just fighting for her own life, but for the lives of millions.
If you're writing multiple POVs and want a master class in distinct voice that adds to the overall world building and plot, you might grab N. K. Jemisin's The City We Became.
Choosing a mentor text might be especially helpful if last week's exercises illuminated an unexpected theme or plot element as you dug deeper into your "Why." Not so you can copy exactly what they did, but simply so that you can study how they crafted that particular aspect of their story.
You may read multiple mentor texts for the same aspect of craft and play with doing a mix of both in your own work. You may decide to take a different approach with your own story. But the key here is that you took a look at the stories that were out there in the world and let them inform your own work. That's one of the best ways I know to be clear about where your own book might sit on the shelf some day.
How I use mentor texts
My clients are giving each other wry smiles as they read this, because they know that I often assign mentor text reading before embarking on a major revision. I not only have them do the line-level exercises I talked about in the Read Like a Writer Workbook, but I often have them look at how the mentor texts use structure, character arc, world-building, stakes or other big-picture craft elements to tell the story.
I'm gathering my mentor texts right now for this fledgling memoir I keep talking about. Digging into non-traditional narrative structures and speculative memoirs and memoirs dealing with the themes I'll be exploring (grief and loss, as I've written about in the past, but also addiction and trauma and recovering from both those things in the midst of what I've been jokingly calling the "shit sandwich" of launching kids into the world while caring for aging parents). I'm letting it inspire me, but also challenge me, because there are folks out there doing tremendous work in this space--it's taking a lot of bravery to throw my hat into this particular ring. Ultimately, I'm learning the skills I need to tell this story from those who have come before, with my "why" informing it all.
But that leads me to one final note on mentor texts. It's important to have the right mindset when you sit down to read. Your chosen mentor texts are published books that have been through multiple rounds of revision by the author and editing by a team of folks from agents to acquiring editors to copy editors and proofreaders.
Do not sit down to read and then get discouraged because your WIP isn't as good as N.K. Jemisin's final, polished work. If I let myself be intimidated by the brilliance shining from the workof Lydia Yuknavitch or Carmen Marie Marchado, this memoir would continue to haunt me for years to come and never end up on the page.
Instead, I'll keep reminding myself, and you as well, that we're doing all the right things to write the very best books we can write. And if we keep honing our craft, our books may one day become mentor texts for another aspiring author.
PS - As promised, the second story in my series on different publishing paths is live on Medium's The Writing Cooperative. Check out Deviating From the Traditional Path and let me know how I can help you find the right publishing path for your story.