The Mentor and the Mentoree

Mentorship: Learning Your Craft

by Matthew Roberts

How close can you get to your own manuscript? My manuscript is a work of fiction, a psychological suspense in 70,000 words. I had tried unsuccessfully to get agent interest. The doubts started to creep in. Does the point come across? Are the characters drawn well enough? Do I give too much away too soon, or is it not clear at all? And it’s written in the first person — could that be the reason for one agent’s derogatory comment about the main character’s self obsession?

And the big one. How can I read it through an agent’s eyes, as if seeing it for the first time?

The answer, of course, is that you can’t, even though a practised eye will know what’s required. So, to get both an honest opinion and some assistance in righting wrongs (as opposed to writing wrongs), I felt I needed a pair of fresh eyes that could help — a mentor.

Choosing a mentor appeared to be a task in itself, but ploughing through the list on the Writers’ Centre website I found there’s enough information on genre and style to quickly narrow it down to a couple — then, to decide on a match for my own technique. I found, after a bit of a search, the most recent novel of one of my prospective mentors, Don’t Leave Me, by Barry Oakley. It is a psychological drama about a man with problems going down fighting, written in the first person, and with an appealing style. Bingo, look no further.

But it’s what Barry could bring to my writing process that’s important. I sent Barry the manuscript, through which he patiently pored and, on receiving the reply, liberally pen-marked, we made a time to meet.

Most of Barry’s comments were probing, making me think about what I meant. As the writer, I was completely aware of what I was trying to say. The prose still meant the same thing to me on re-reading as when it was first conceived. I knew what I meant. But here was someone, wise and intelligent, telling me that he didn’t always understand what I was saying. What I could explain over a cup of coffee in Glebe was not so clear on paper.

Occasionally, there was a redundant paragraph, a yarn told on the side. Barry explained that I should only write what progresses the story. Often enough it was a small thing, an aside that was taking the reader’s focus away from where I had so carefully taken it.

I was left with an annotated manuscript, neatly commented on by my mentor — scrawled upon by the author — showing a string of strengths and a list of suggestions for consideration. Barry made it very clear to me that it was my work — as much as it may appear that way, this was not like school. There was no right or wrong as professed by a teacher. There was, however, experience and skill. A craft to learn. And I was sent away with the invitation to resubmit. Barry was keen to see the reworked version.

Ever erudite (Literary Editor at The Australian for years, recently awarded for a lifetime of service to Australian literature), Barry also showed me the beginnings of how to copy edit. Verbosity is not your friend. This can be a painful experience, watching the word count drop and favourite paragraphs dissolve after all those sleepless nights getting the manuscript this far — now whittling it away. But the prose turned out better for it and I managed to say what I needed to say less the waffle.

After the second reading, while Barry still had a few comments, our second coffee session was far less traumatic for the author, and the manuscript was proclaimed ready. The next step is to find an agent.

Writing is art. But there is a craft to it as well. Even the most natural of talents will benefit from learning the craft, mastering the tools of the trade. You must read, and of course you must write. Practise. But it can’t always be done in seclusion. Mentoring is a way to learn the craft, to gain insights that have been hard won by someone who has been there before.

Manuscript Assessment and Mentoring

by Barrie Oakley

In my days as literary editor of The Australian, I sometimes had to introduce famous authors at literary lunches. One of these was Ken Follett. At question time, after the coffee and cheesecake, a lady asked him why sex scenes in modern novels were so explicit. Detail is needed, replied Follett, because sex reveals character. We show more of ourselves, literally and figuratively, when we take off our clothes than at any other time.

Later, I checked this out in the novel he was promoting at the time. Here is typical Follett: “This was not what was supposed to happen, she thought weakly. He pushed her gently backwards on the bed, and her hat fell off. ‘This isn’t right’, she said feebly. He kissed her mouth, nibbling her lips gently with his own.”

I realised then that though Follett is a best-selling novelist, he is a terrible writer. He suffers from what could be called adverbia. In his four sentences, he has four adverbs: “weakly”, “gently”, “feebly”, and “gently” again. Adverbs, if you can remember back to the days when they taught grammar, tell us how, when or where something is done. As a general rule, the more adverbs you put in, the more you’re showing your lack of confidence in your writing. Use them, if you’ll forgive my own adverb, sparingly.

And what about Follett’s last sentence: “He kissed her mouth, nibbling her lips with his own.”? What else would he be nibbling her lips with? His ear?

When I assess a manuscript, what wins me over is not plot or character but tone of voice. This is something that reveals itself in the very first sentence.

“Call me Ishmael.” – that’s how Herman Melville starts Moby Dick.

“Unemployed at last” is Joseph Furphy’s opener to the great, neglected Australian comic novel, Such is Life. You can talk about developing character in the unfolding of a plot in a creative writing class, but tone is something unteachable. A creative writing teacher, or a mentor, can help you with aspects of the writing craft, but tone is more elusive. Think of a golf professional. If you have a reasonable swing with your driver, a pro can improve it for you – but only if there is something there already to work on.

Take Annie Proulx, the Tiger Woods of fiction, one of her new collections of stories – collectively titled Bad Dirt – which I recommend reading. Proulx knows the landscape of Wyoming and the people who battle to earn a living there on their ranches, and in that opening the emotion of fear, the country and the characters merge in one extremely confident tone of voice.

Tone of voice is linked in some elusive way with point of view. Sometimes third person works best – “he” or “she” did this or that – and sometimes the writing sounds more persuasive if you build it around an “I” – an involved narrator who’s telling the story from within the narrative. A mentor might suggest one or the other – but once you choose, you’re on your own – you, the writer, must take the leap or gamble.

This gamble may work or may not – this is the hardest part of the mentor’s business. The mentor must strike a fine balance between honesty and encouragement. If I have to choose between the two, I always go for the former. Better to temper (but not crush) a would-be writer’s work than falsely raise their hope.

If all this makes the art and craft of writing well seem somewhat unattainable, let me give you some examples of how wrong critics – and therefore mentors – can be. In the nineteenth century, the Quarterly Review predicted that Dickens “would have an ephemeral popularity followed by oblivion”. In the twentieth century, Edith Sitwell on Virginia Woolf: “I thought nothing of her writing. I considered her a beautiful little knitter”. George Jean Nathan on JM Barrie: “The triumph of sugar over diabetes”. Sean O’Casey on PG Wodehouse: “English literature’s performing flea”.

Is there a moral in this? There is. If your mentor gives you the thumbs down – to hell with him and keep on writing.

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