Friday, April 6, 2012

The Best Piece of Writing Advice-Thanks to My Mentor

by Ellen Marie Wiseman
                                                    

All my life, I’ve turned to books for advice and answers to my how-to questions. During my first pregnancy, I read everything I could get my hands on about what to expect while expecting. I carefully studied every chapter in books about taking care of newborns and toddlers. When I decided to fulfill a lifelong dream of owning my own horse, I bought books on backyard horse-keeping, training, and equine first-aid. I turned to books when I planted my first garden, bought my first flock of chickens, and brought home a lamb and baby goat in the back of my car. (That’s a story for another day.)


Years later, when I decided to get serious about writing, it was only natural for me to turn to books again. My favorites are “Bird-by-Bird” by Anne Lamott and “On Writing” by Stephen King. While trying to figure out the mysterious process of crafting a novel, I read about plot, character, style, structure, word painting, the importance of character naming, and how to find your muse. And I wrote.

After transcribing the first messy draft of The Plum Tree from several legal pads on to my computer, I tinkered with the beginning, lengthened the middle, finalized character names, and incessantly changed my mind about descriptive words. I tried to use what I’d learned in books to turn misplaced plot points and confusing flashbacks into a manuscript; hopefully a manuscript someone would want to read someday. But there was something else I needed to know. Was my writing any good or was I was wasting my time? Unfortunately, the answer couldn’t be found in books.

Having graduated from a tiny high school (400 students in K-12), I knew I had a lot to learn if I really wanted to revise and try to sell a novel. After all, I'd never taken a creative writing course, there were no local writers’ groups, and I didn’t go to college. I didn’t know any authors, editors, or creative writing teachers. The only place I had to turn was the Internet.  

I will be forever thankful that my search led me to William Kowalski, award-winning author of Eddie’s Bastard/HarperCollins. With my heart in my throat, I emailed him, asking if he would read the first ten pages of my manuscript. I’d never shown my writing to anyone, and now I was going to send it off to be critiqued by a complete stranger! Yikes! When he emailed the next morning, saying I write better than most college graduates he knows, I started shaking. I couldn’t believe that someone, let alone an award-winning author, thought my writing was good!

Over the next four years, William Kowalski became my editor, teacher, mentor, and, I'm honored to say, my friend. He taught me about style, structure, voice, and more importantly, how to be a storyteller. He was surprised by how fast my abilities improved, and the more I learned the more I wanted to know. It was an exhilarating time for me, discovering the skills I needed to turn my dreadful first draft into a real, live novel. I read his emails and devoured his comments like a sugar-charged kid ripping open presents on Christmas morning. Of course there were times when his edits and comments felt over-whelming, but he had warned me to read through them a few times, let them digest, then tackle them one by one. It was a necessary lesson on patience; priceless when it came time to work with the editor from my publishing house.  

My mentor’s faith in me and my work bolstered me during difficult times and pushed me to believe in myself. I taped his letters of encouragement above my desk and read them often. He taught me more about writing in those four years then I could have learned from a hundred books. One of the best pieces of advice he ever gave me (mentioned in his article about receiving the same advice from his mentor) was: Always Return To the Right Foot. This advice makes sense if you’ve ever been in the military. When the command, “At ease!” is given to a soldier, he is free to do anything: slouch, pivot, yawn, etc. But his right foot must never leave the ground.

The plot of a novel is that right foot. As novelists, we’re free to wander off in any direction, to taste the homemade bread and sweet jam or explore the castle ruins, as long as, sooner or later, we return to that right foot: the part of the narrative that makes the reader keep turning the page, that answers that all-important question: And then what happened?

What happened for me was this: I worked like a dog to transform The Plum Tree and get it in tip-top shape. Then I sent out large piles of query letters, found an agent, and sold my first novel.

I owe everything to William Kowalski. Somehow, he turned a small-town girl with no creative writing experience into a soon-to-be published novelist. Words can’t describe my gratitude. With his gentle guidance, unending patience, and immeasurable knowledge, he taught me how to return to the right foot, and in the end, changed my life.



23 comments:

  1. Thanks Ellen for this wonderful tribute to a generous writer--they are out there! I love your writing story and it sort of proves why I believe Shakespeare WAS Shakespeare--writers need only the love of reading and then, to write. This is Anne B

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  2. Whether it is your fantastic novel, that I have had the tremendous honor of reading or your blog, you write from the heart and soul of a well seasoned writer. William apparently picked up on that immediately. I think you were blessed to have such a seasoned mentor in William and something tells me that William also feels blessed to be guiding you as you enter the world of very very small town girl making it really really big!!!!

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  3. Such an inspiring story on so many levels. The kindness and generosity of an established writer, your determination and hard work, and now a book we're all looking forward to reading. (AND I really want to hear the story about that lamb and goat!)

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  4. Thank you SO much, Anne, Debbie, and Seré. oxox

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  5. You are very fortunate to find someone so accomplished to be your mentor. You left me with just one question: Did someone mentor him when he was first starting? "Paying it forward" seems to be a self-replicating habit. I wonder if it was in this instance.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Jack. Yes, his mentor was a writer he met while in a summer writing program.

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  6. Wonderful post! All so true. I'm going to keep that in mind - always return to the right foot. Thanks for sharing it.

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  7. Wonderful post. I have taken the 'return to right foot' advice to heart. Thank you!

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  8. Lovely to read this!
    When I suggest to my writing students that they contact a writer they admire, some look at me as if I have 6 heads,and rarely follow through. But for those who take the bait, I've heard some heart-warming stories about connections made.
    I am so indebted to every writer who ever helped me, and I still believe most writers want to mentor others, at some level - whether that's a one-off note of encouragement and a few tips, to a full relationship as you developed with yours mentor.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Lisa! One of the best things about getting my book deal was discovering that other authors are a wonderful, support group of people. Best of luck to you and your students!

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  10. Bill is one of my mentors as well. He has helped me many times, in many ways, and is a very generous man. Writing is a solo occupation, but we're in a community that tends to be giving and supportive. Good for you Ellen, and good for Bill!

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    1. Thanks for commenting Scott! I agree, Bill is a very generous man. I feel honored to know him. If he is one of your mentors, you are lucky indeed! He's a wonderful teacher.

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  11. Wow. Thank you. Writing may be a solitary profession in so many ways, but we are not alone!

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Sonny! We are SO not alone. Every writer out there knows what we're going through. And one of the best things we can do is reach out to each other. Good luck with your writing!

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  12. "I knew I had a lot to learn ... After all, I'd never taken a creative writing course, there were no local writers’ groups, and I didn’t go to college. I didn’t know any authors, editors, or creative writing teachers. The only place I had to turn was the Internet. "

    I am in that situation now. I want to learn, but I don't know where to go. The only difference between my situation and yours is that I DID go to college, but it was years ago and although I took a lot of lit crit courses, I didn't take creative writing.
    So how did you hone in on William Kowalski as someone that you thought might mentor you? I've "connected" with several writers on the internet, but in a "fan" way. How did you determine that this writer was someone who might be willing to mentor you?

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    1. Thanks for commenting! That's a good question. I'm not sure what drew me to him out of the many choices on the internet, but he was the only one I approached. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I've ever made! You might want to check out his website www.williamkowalski.com to see if you feel the same way. Good luck to you and keep writing!

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    2. Thank you for the response. It is really hard to work and improve without any feedback! I will check out his website. My name is Michelle -- I didn't know how to publish my comment other than through "anonymous" because I don't have a blog! Thanks again for your encouraging words.

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  14. Ellen,
    Bird by Bird & Stephen King's On Writing are Two of my favorite writing books as well! What a lovely piece about your writing mentor! Loved it :)

    Amy

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