About a decade ago, fresh from my war against cancer, I knew what I wanted to do. What I needed to do. And I took steps to achieve my goal to become a writer.
I began a few manuscripts (including Eden) and I got myself a writing mentor.
At the time, I didn’t know anybody, so I went through a local program called the Longridge Writers Group. Their program is a student-mentor design and it worked extremely well for me. I think the success of such a learning mechanism depends almost entirely upon the mentor you choose. Fate was on my side that day as I was assigned a fabulous mentor: Roberta Roesch. (some wisdom for writers from Roberta)
Though she tried her best to steer me away from fiction (she was also trying to mentor my career, and she knew the score – fiction doesn’t sell), we meshed on an intellectual level. Once she realized I wasn’t to be deterred, we had some great discussions about both my assignments and writing/life in general. Like me, she was “classically inclined.” What does that mean? Well- while we’d never put rails on how to tell a story, we both believed that one should actually tell a complete story.
On my first assignment from her, she noted: “Interesting situation, but there is no story here.”
We emailed back and forth as I tried to pry at her meaning. She explained that there is a world of difference between a ‘situation’ and a ‘story.’ A situation is something that happens to the characters and they react to it. Typically, not much is resolved and the status remains ‘quo’ at the end (don’t be fooled by character death – if it’s in reaction to something beyond their control, it’s still merely ‘situational’).
Story, on the other hand, presents challenges for the characters and their actions move things along. The status quo is most certainly disrupted in some way, and that could be anything from a ‘new normal/understanding’ for our character(s) to the destruction of the known universe. Classical stories have a beginning, middle and end while more experimental forms may have a more varied structure. That’s fine, as long as you’re still telling a story!
Yeah, yeah. This isn’t the best example, but I’ll reach into the movie world again. Sin City jumps right out in my mind as an interesting set of situations, but no real story to speak of. Now, the graphic novel may indeed have a story but the movie did not. In the movie, we are shown a few different situations where the characters react to the world around them and that’s pretty much it! Stylistic and interesting? Absolutely! Is a story told? Nope! (don’t try to argue with me, you will fail) 🙂
This one lesson from Roberta was worth the pittance Longridge collected from me. Hell, I feel like I owe them some money! Roberta helped me find the storyteller that resided within and yank it to the surface. I’m not saying a creative telling of a situation isn’t worth reading, it’s just not what I prefer to write. That’s just how I roll.
In addition to strengthening your weaknesses, a mentor can also sharpen the skills in which you already excel. For me, this sharpening came towards the end of my mentorship with Roberta. She had always made small tweaks to my dialog, but left the majority of it alone. On my last assignment, she remarked: “Matt, your dialog is some of the best I’ve ever seen anywhere. Don’t change a thing!”
Ahh – those kinds of validations are just as important as the fixing of your broken bits. It helps to know your strengths as well as your weaknesses. Take a look at Eden and notice the reams of dialog. All of my stuff is like that. It’s my way of ‘show don’t tell,’ and I am just playing to my strengths. I may not make up an entirely new language for my races of background characters or describe a palace for ten pages, but you’ll see plenty of exposition from my characters!
So, if you are just starting out and you are unsure of your talents – go grab a mentor! I was amazed at how cheap the Longridge classes were, and that 1-on-1 time is invaluable in a creative pursuit such as writing. Unfortunately, Roberta is no longer an instructor there and we have lost touch, but if the program is still the way it was for me I think you’ll find value there!