Writing Wednesday: What I Learned from Mentorship

If you’re on Book Twitter, you know there’s been a huge and ongoing conversation around diversity. In light of recent events, there’s a lot that smarter people than me could discuss about the toxicity of Internet culture and the failure of Twitter in particular to prevent online harassment and grassroots efforts like DVPit to combat inequality, but since the summer is almost over and I haven’t done a writing post in a while, I just wanted to talk a bit about how diversity advocates have helped my own journey.

I’ve mentioned that I was accepted into a writing mentorship program this summer. I can’t remember if I ever actually referred to it by name, but it was through Writing in the Margins, run by the fantastic Justina Ireland. The program paired emerging writers from marginalized voices–POC, LGBTQIA, writers with disabilities, etc.–with published authors and industry professionals. I was incredibly lucky to be paired with R.C. Lewis, author of STITCHING SNOW and SPINNING STARLIGHT. After three months working with her on re-envisioning and recalibrating my draft, I’m now working on a big revision with a much better plan for moving forward. So to wrap up this summer, I wanted to share some of the biggest lessons from this whole experience, cuz they were really, really big ones:

I learned how to freaking plot. 

I believe I’ve previously mentioned that I didn’t realize until relatively recently that even though I’m a plotter (as opposed to a pantser), I suck at plotting. I have big flashy ideas for high concepts and twists and climactic showdowns, but I’m not so good at logistics and I’m positively allergic to structure. To be honest, I still feel the urge to throw up in my mouth a little whenever anyone utters the words three-act structure. But realizing just how shaky my grip was on the basics of mapping a story made me realize I had to swallow my pride and learn to write in beats. And you know what? My revamped outline was a lot stronger for it. I still firmly believe that anyone who tells you there’s only one right–urgh–formula for structuring a story is the literary equivalent of a snake oil salesman. But I also realize that story structure is a concept for a reason. Sure, there can be many different kinds of structures, and writers can play around with them, but as with anything else, you have to learn rules before you can break them.

I learned not to just write stuff for the shock value or to be ‘original’ 

The funny thing is, I really don’t like stories that try really really hard to be shocking or subversive or ‘edgy’. I love lots of shocking and subversive and edgy stories–which is why I like a lot of modern Asian cinema–but it’s a huge problem I’ve had with, say, Ryan Murphy’s work, where any semblance of a story drowns in a sea of gonzo that increasingly shifts from so-outrageous-it’s-brilliant ideas to so-outrageous-it’s-boring. Now, I’m writing an MG book about superheroes and not anything like Scream Queens (which I found unwatchable), but I dabble a bit in dark humor and I do have a tendency to think in BIG IDEAS. I still do like a lot of them–this whole project started from a BIG IDEA–but having someone else respond to my work made me realize that I just how hard I had fallen into the trap of trying to pull off ideas that really didn’t work that well just to be ‘original’. Again, wanting to do cool things or be a little dark isn’t the problem. But it was a definitely helpful thing to realize and keep in mind, not just for this project but for future work.

I learned not to be afraid of radical change. 

The (funnier?) thing is, I kind of already knew many of the criticisms she had. I’m not saying that like “I knew that! I was just testing you!” I meant that I kind of knew the plot was a mess and there were way too many characters and whatever else, but I had repressed that knowledge in the hopes that I could fix it all later. Mind you, that’s not unhealthy during the first draft stage. But it was really hindering my book, and the mentorship forced me to realize that.

R.C. taught me to not just look for the simplest solution so I have to edit as little as possible. I ended up throwing out much of my original outline and you know what? I realized it would be worth it. Because even if I had to completely rewrite the book, thats okay–if it would make the story stronger.

I’m learning when to compromise and when to stick to my vision. 

I switched to present tense because, while this is sort of true of all the other ones as well, this one especially is something I’m still learning, and will probably have to really learn when I’m done with this third draft. But throwing out different ideas for revision made me  think hard about which points of my story I’m willing to revise based on feedback and which ones are more intrinsic to my vision. Again, a lot of this was a big lesson in humility. But I also hope that besides just learning how to respond to critique, I’ll also emerge with a better knowledge of when I should trust my instincts.

Last, but certainly not least, I learned I also have to watch out for problematic content. 

I’m a woman and a writer of color who goes to a pretty stereotypically liberal school in California, and I’ve commented on representation issues in manuscripts I’ve read as an intern. So it was pretty jarring when I got R.C.’s comments back and realized I’d inadvertently written a book in which the main ‘strong female character’ is a stereotypical dumb blonde and which generally felt, well, pretty objectifying. I had a rationale for this–the narrator is a 12-year-old boy and was originally supposed to be a much nastier character (see point 2). But it frankly wasn’t a good rationale, and it was humbling as hell. I want to emphasize this especially as a writer who’s from marginalized groups myself. It’s easy to assume that straight white men are the only ones who have to learn to write respectful representation, but we all have our hangups and biases that can filter into the story without our even knowing it.

I really can’t overstate how lucky I am to have been chosen–I didn’t even find out about it till the day before it was due. This was such an honor and a learning experience and I’m incredibly grateful to both Justina and R.C. for taking the time and energy to create this opportunity. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you, not just because of me, but to everyone in the publishing industry working to make the book world a better place.


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