Make Your Favorite Authors Your Best Mentors
My dad didn’t understand why I wanted to go to West Virginia University. I’d been accepted to two other relatively prestigious MFA programs in fiction writing, and even when I received their acceptance letters, it wasn’t enough to dissuade me. “You just got into American University and Columbia Arts College,” he said. “And you want to go to Morgantown?” The truth was, going to a prestigious school didn’t really interest me. WVU did. For one thing, the teaching assistantship package was by far the best offer I received, and I didn’t want to have to work my way through grad school making lattes at Starbucks.
But there was a bigger reason why it had always been at the top of my list. American and Columbia had the name recognition and reputation, sure. But there was one thing neither had that WVU did, and that was Mark Brazaitis. I first met Mark the summer before my senior year of college when I went to WVU for the West Virginia Writer’s Workshop. The four-day event included breakout sessions and readings in the morning and early afternoon, followed up with workshop classes in the afternoon that were each led by one of the event’s faculty members. I was assigned to Mark’s workshop. He was a professor at WVU’s MFA program, and was reserved, sensitive, and unassuming. Despite his easygoing attitude, he ran his classes with specific procedures to make sure each author got the best experience for improving and crafting their work, and he made these requirements very clear.
He was quiet and witty, and showed the utmost care and respect for his students’ work. I instantly felt at ease in his classroom, in a way I never had with any other instructor. Aside from the actual workshops, one of the best parts of the conference was hearing the faculty members read their own writing. On the first day of the event, Mark read some poems, as well as a story from his collection, An American Affair, which I bought moments after the reading ended and dug into later that night.
It’s rare that I find an author whose work I have an immediate connection with, who creates a world with their language that I can’t help but step into and stay for awhile. Mark’s writing did that for me. Finally, as part of our workshop classes, we each got a private conference with our assigned faculty member. I remember sitting down with Mark and him asking me what was next after college. Feeling encouraged by the conversations I’d had with current MFA students and other professors, I went out on a limb and told him I was going to apply to WVU that fall.
I waited with trepidation for his response, and was thrilled when he told me that I should.
I didn’t want to go to WVU because the program had a big name or because it was in a big, exciting city like DC or Chicago. I wanted to go because I knew working with Mark would empower me to master my craft. I was right. WVU's MFA program was the best thing to ever happen to me as a writer, and I'm so grateful to have had Mark as a writing mentor. I wrote The Goodbye-Love Generation as my master’s thesis, and while the book evolved a great deal in the ten years before I published it, it bears the fingerprints of his careful, considerate feedback and clear understanding of my vision for the project.
However...I also know that not everyone gets to go to an MFA program. And even if you belong to a writing group, not everyone even gets to work one on one with a published author who has years of experience. So what can you do? How do you find someone who is not just an ally in your writing, but a mentor you can model?
You turn to the authors who inspire you.
At this point you’re probably wondering if you now have to hold a séance for your now deceased favorite author, or write a fan letter to a writer you admire asking if they’ll personally work with you.
I’m not saying that last scenario is entirely unlikely—there are many cases where famous authors developed lifelong relationships with their readers. However, it’s obviously not something you can bank on.
So before you start building a shrine for Jane Austen and bust out an Ouija board, let’s dig into this some more. Maybe you can’t meet one on one with the authors you admire—but you can read their writing with the intent of analyzing and understanding why their stories work. On last week’s 10 Minute Writing Time, my weekly Instagram livestream, we talked about what it means to learn from the masters, and how reading like a writer can give you the tools to replicate your favorite authors’ most effective techniques. Here’s some tips I discussed on that talk, plus some extra stuff for the road.
#1: Copy the author’s sentences and paragraphs.
For the record, I’m not advocating for plagiarism. You’re not going to type up a short story by Joyce Carol Oates and then send it out for publication with your name on it.
But just as musicians become masters of their craft by practicing scales and playing difficult measures of a piece over and over again, you can use an author’s style to practice your art form. Pick a passage from a story you admire, then either handwrite or type it out word for word. Directly replicating the rhythm, sentence structure, and grammar will help you to analyze and emulate the mechanics of their style.
Just so you know, this isn’t some voodoo I made up. Other authors, including Joan Didion and Somerset Maugham, used to copy passages from their favorite writers just to unpack how their writing “worked.”
It's tedious and it might not seem like the most creative task, but it will help you acquire the linguistic muscle memory you need to expand the way you write on the line level.
#2: Read the author’s writing about writing
Most authors have published memoirs, essays, or other pieces detailing their philosophies and methods of the writing craft. Pairing a reading of a favorite story or novel with these supplementary writings can give you a behind the scenes look at how they felt about their own work and the writing process in general.
Last summer, I took an online class about my favorite author, Flannery O’Connor. We read a different O’Connor story each week, along with one piece from Mystery and Manners, an anthology of essays and lectures she gave during her lifetime.
This gave me great insight into why she picked the subject matter she selected, her process, and what she hoped to accomplish with her writing.
Perhaps you can’t have the writer you admire in the room with you (again, please don’t have a séance), but reading their own thoughts on their work is definitely the next best thing. #3: Model their writing for story ideas and subjects
At this point, there’s one particular concern you may have.
Won’t I come out of all this sounding like my favorite author and not myself?
No. I can personally guarantee that you won’t. These tips are not meant to turn you into a clone of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Tolkien, or whoever your literary role model might be. That’s really impossible. When you write, you bring your life experiences, world views, and personal quirks to the process, and those things can’t be erased just because you're studying how someone else creates. Studying the craft of authors you admire and incorporating elements of their work into your own doesn’t make you sound more like them.
It makes you sound more like yourself.
It also makes you a part of the creative lineage of the artists you admire.
It makes you a part of their legacy. Having said that, one of the best ways to study these authors is by letting yourself be directly inspired by them. Read one of their stories or novels, then challenge yourself to write a story where you borrow from them in some way.
You might choose to write about the same subjects they do, employ elements of their writing style, or write about an image or idea that came to mind while you were reading their work. Much of the act of writing is also subconscious. The more work by your favorite writers you take in, the more that influence will naturally be seen in what you create.
And that’s how you end up being able to call the authors you admire most your writing mentors as well.
Need some help identifying the elements of your writing style and current projects and making them really work in your writing? You’ll want to grab my free Ultimate Writing Project Workbook.
It contains writing prompts, templates, worksheets, and activities so you can come up with great ideas and strengthen what you’re already creating. Grab a copy here!