Falling in Love with Mentor Texts

Saturday, September 02, 2017
In my last post, Diagramming Your Plot: The Big Picture, I mentioned using a mentor text. I used an early chapter book (Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne) to help me see how the plot should be paced in this type of book for new readers. Renee Roberson commented that she could see using a mentor text in many different genres. I know just how right she is because I’ve used mentor texts in many different situations and in many different ways.

The first time I consciously used a mentor text was when Red Line Editorial asked me to write The Ancient Maya. As I read the series guidelines, I wondered what they meant by “scholarly but casual” and “academic but approachable.” I knew I had to get the tone right, but I wasn’t sure what they meant so I asked for a mentor text. There were no books completed yet in the new series but they provided me with PDFs for two titles with the same tone. By the time I read through several chapters in each, I had a feel for what they wanted and was able to create it in my own manuscript.

I also used mentor texts when I was studying a new-to-me magazine, Highlight’s Hello. A friend has had great success in writing poems for this magazine geared toward toddlers, and she suggested that I submit work to them as well. But I was unsure about the parameters for a toddler poem. Does it have to be silly or tell a story? To get a feel for what the editors wanted, I checked out a full year of the magazine and got busy reading every single poem published in the last twelve months. Finishing the stack, I knew that the topics often touched on the familiar, like pets, but that twist endings were a plus. It took me multiple tries to create a short rhyme that was good enough, but I made a sale to their new editor.

Again and again I’ve used mentor texts in my career. I reread the works of both Sharon Shinn and Simone Elkeles to learn how to effectively work in character descriptions without creating an info dump. Their writing also taught me what about my character needed to be stated and what could be left to the reader’s imagination.

How to work setting details into a chapter book? Back to Mary Pope Osborne.

How to people a book with diverse characters without making my story look like some kind of showcase? Anne McCaffrey.

One thing to note, I always turn to new authors and titles when I want to study what is being published now. Thus, I read the last twelve issues of Highlight’s Hello instead of the first twelve. But when it comes to matters of effective craft, both old and new works provide the guidance I need.

Look to the books and magazines that you love to learn your craft. This will give you the opportunity to mentor with the best.


To find out more about Sue Bradford Edwards' writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.  Sue is also the instructor for Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins October 9th.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--What great advice. I have not ventured out into markets like magazines yet, but when I do get the courage, I will definitely follow your tips.

As a teacher, I use mentor texts to teach writing craft. Jane Yolen and Cynthia Rylant (their picture books) are two authors I often rely on.

As usual, thanks for the informative post.

Margo Dill said...

Completely Agree-I do this all the time! :)

Angela Mackintosh said...

This is excellent advice, Sue! I feel writers don't do this as much anymore...in fact, many new writers don't read anything about a publication before they pitch. It doesn't work that way. I wish they knew they were wasting their time! I know reading mentor texts and a year's worth of Highlights Hello takes a lot of time too, but really, if you love the market and want to write for it, why not? You'll be learning craft and providing opportunity for yourself. You're joining a community by being a reader.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

You've definitely mentioned something that I did not. You should love any market you try to enter. If you don't, it is going to show and your work will be rejected.

Mary Horner said...

Good advice, my problem is that sometimes when I read my favorites to study them, I get sucked in to the plot and forget to read with a purpose, which only shows how great the writing is! I've done that many times with Jory Sherman's book "The Ballad of Pinewood Lake."

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