Some writing shortcuts are gimmicks, and generally, if it sounds too good to be true, it is. Nothing allows a writer to bypass the work involved in writing a book. One of the best and most well-known supports is to work with a mentor or teacher who is already an established writer. Getting in-person critiques can make a big difference to writer of any age who’s starting out. But, not everyone has access to an established writer willing to help, and editorial services can be costly.
Instead of working with a mentor, consider using a mentor text. This means foregoing a coach who guides you by prompting you to write or who responds to what you've written. A mentor text itself acts as your guide.
What is a mentor text? A mentor text is a book that is already published which you use as a blueprint for the book you're writing. This means that it's not a book about writing which is essentially a self-help book with advice for writers. It's an already-published book that you choose and use in your own process as a successful example of what you’re trying to do.
Think of a mentor text as blueprint. It can be especially helpful as a guide for the plot, the tone, the characters, character arcs, and themes. There are so many different elements in a story that even a veteran writer can benefit looking at their current project with a different lens.
When looking for a mentor text, think about what you need most from the book that will serve as your guide. Do you struggle with plot? Do you want to keep the tone consistent? Would it help you to look deeply at defining characters and depicting their thoughts and emotions? Do you get caught up in the plot and forget what’s going on with the various characters’ arcs?
If plot is your main reason for using a mentor text, likely, you're going to want a book in the same genre. If you're writing a mystery or a romance, the plots will have similar "beats" in the three-act structure. Even a character-driven story needs a narrative backbone. This means you'll head to a particular bookshelf for that genre to find a mentor text. Start at the bookshelves that have the type of book you’re writing.
If keeping a consistent tone in your story is your reason for finding a mentor text, think about what tone you want. Are you writing a white-knuckled survival? An edge-of-your-seat thriller? A hysterical rom-com? You’re keying in to how the reader feels, so consider reaching out to friends and asking for recommendations. You may need to do more research to find the right mentor text, but a personal recommendation is a good start.
Characters are essential in every story. As a writer you need to know your characters and describe them internally and externally and all of their actions so that the reader understands them. It’s a challenge to write a protagonist so that the reader relates to them. Since virtually every story has characters, it can be harder to find a mentor text because there are so many choices. Hone in on the right text by thinking about attributes of your character that may be unusual or challenges the character may face. See if there are similar stories you can find based on these aspects of your character.
Character arcs are important because stories show characters over time interacting with other characters and overcoming obstacles. By mapping out each character’s arc in the story, a writer looks at the rise in tension towards the climax as characters’ motivations, mistakes, and mishaps propel them to the climax. If you want to find a mentor text to look closely at character arcs, try to find a book in which characters have similar relationships to the ones in your book. Look for buddies, siblings, co-workers, parents and children? While it's easy to focus on the protagonist, don’t forget the antagonist and key supporting characters. An online search for books with these types of relationships can be fruitful.
You don't want your book to be an exact copy of your mentor text. Your book needs to be your own and to stand as a "fresh and new" story. If you've done it right, nobody who reads your book will know which book you used for a mentor text.
Once you’ve chosen a mentor text, read it several times. First and foremost, a book should be enjoyable, so start out doing just that when you read a book for the first time. The plot twists will surprise you, and you’ll feel all the highs and lows of the emotions the protagonist feels. During a second read, you can look more closely to see what you missed the first time. With later reads, you already know the plot which makes the emotions less intense because you know what to expect. You can focus in on the mechanics of how the author crafted the various elements to make an engaging story. That’s when you can use it as a guide.
Mentor texts can be especially helpful because of how long it takes to write a book. Somewhere along the line, you might get derailed in terms of where the story is going or change the tone of your book. Referring back to your mentor text can help you connect with the elements of your story that are challenging for you.
A mentor text can be helpful at any stage in the writing process. If you’re just starting out writing, or if you have a solid draft, consider using a book that’s already published to help make yours ready for a wide audience and everything you want it to be.