You’ve probably heard the advice that if you want to be a writer, you should also be a reader and I couldn’t agree more, partly because it gives me an excuse to read and call it ‘work’ and partly because reading, and reading widely both in and out of the genre you write, makes you a better writer. Mentor texts are a step beyond reading though.
A mentor text is a book you read (or film you watch) in order to see working examples of the craft of writing. This is when you get out your highlighters and pens and actively search for the hidden techniques and structures that make a story work, and that you don’t notice (hopefully) when you’re caught up in the thrill of reading for enjoyment.
So, how do you use a mentor text?
First of all decide what aspect of craft you want to focus on. Let’s say you want to improve how you sprinkle backstory into your work, that’s what you’re going to focus on when you read through your mentor text. Now get out your pencils and highlighters.
I know that there are people out there who won’t so much as dog-ear a page of a book, for you sticky notes are your friends. For everyone else, you’re going to write in the margins and underline those areas of interest. Every time the author incorporates backstory into the story, you’re going to mark it up and use a post-it note to mark the page (or, you know, turn the corner if it doesn’t horrify you to do so).
By the end of the book you will have a series of examples of how to effectively (or not so effectively) incorporate backstory into a story.
You can use this strategy for any writing technique you’re struggling with (I particularly find it useful studying chapter transitions), across any length of text and in any genre. And you can use the same mentor text over and over again. Don’t limit yourself to work you love either. Studying texts that don’t work can be just as enlightening as studying texts that do.