How to Read to Level Up Your Writing
AKA, how to learn to worldbuild, craft compelling plots, and basically write as well as your favorite author! How? Two words: Mentor Texts.
First of all, what is a mentor text? Glad you asked! Often, when writers want to learn a new skill or level up in one they’ve already cultivated, they’ll turn to re-reading a mentor text, more specifically, a book they (or the New York Times or the Newberry Prize) really loved. By re-reading a book and dissecting the inner workings, you can gain a better understanding of how a certain craft is done well. I’ve used mentor texts to see how a fantasy novel was plotted, how a character’s emotional arc was seeded throughout a sci-fi, and how stakes and tension were raised in a “quiet” contemporary.
“That sounds great!” You might say. “But how do you do it?”
Well, just as in writing, there is no “right way”, but here is my way. I’ll use an example of the last time I turned to a mentor text to help me understand the inner workings of one of my favorite novels, NeverNight by Jay Kristoff. I had just finished the first draft of a story about a girl vying for the crown of the kingdom. It was a complete mess! The things I promised in the premise and set up in Act 1 completely vanished in Act II! I could also tell that there was no emotional arc and that the word count was blistering to an unmanageable number. So I put it in a drawer and turned to my favorite book, which also happens to be the book I’d chose to comp in my pitch to editors.
Essentially, I had six steps:
1. Know the Treasure
What are you going to be looking for in a mentor text? Do you want to know how the story beats fell into place, to help you plot? That’s what I wanted to know! Or maybe you want to see the growth of the emotional arc, or the progression of a romance, or the way a mystery unfolded. Whatever craft skill it is that you are trying to level-up, name it and know that that will be your focus moving forward.
2. Gather the Weapons
We are writers, so our weapons are pens and a notebook, or a computer opened to a blank document, ready for notes. If you have an app you’re fond of, use that! Basically you just need a way to take notes. You will also need that mentor text! Is it a fantasy, a middle grade mystery, a picture book, or a thriller? Grab it, whether that be physical or virtual. Got all that? Good! Now you’re ready for the fun part!
That’s right. To study a favorite/famous/bestselling text, you have to read it! (Isn’t our job just so much fun?) Here is where things can get tricky. You want to keep your brain working while you read. So instead of reading for pleasure, you will need to keep a keen eye out for that treasure, that craft skill you are trying to level up. You already know the story, so let that fade into the background. Zero in on the treasure.
4. Take Extensive Notes
Here is where the magic starts to happen. After every chapter take a few minutes to jot down all the treasure that you found. For me, I was looking at the plot, so at the end of the first chapter I wrote down “Opening Image” and in a few sentences explained what happened. I did this after every chapter. Even if the chapter didn’t move the overall plot, I still wrote down a summary of what happened. I included the main plot and any subplots, including romances, friendships, and all the antagonistic forces.
5. Review the Notes
Now for the studying. When you’ve finished reading the book, read through your notes. I tried to do this in one sitting, so that I could get the full picture of the book and all the treasure I uncovered. This is also where I questioned and dissected why certain beats fell after or before each other. I examined what story beat each chapter contained, and how the author used that progression to reveal plot twists. I was surprised to find how much I learned by seeing with a bird’s-eye view!
6. Your Turn
Here’s the second fun part: now you get to take your notes and your new-found knowledge, and apply it to your next story!
So there it is, my six-step process for using a mentor text. Try it out! What skill will you level up for your next story?