A Writer’s Notebook: “mentor texts”

I think I might accidentally have started a new novel. It doesn’t look like much in this exercise, I admit, but believe me, it’s frighteningly large inside my brain. I don’t have time for this right now, frankly, and I’m going to have to put this on hold for a while (I might save it for this year’s NaNoWriMo), but here it is anyway, taunting me. I blame Orhan Pamuk, really. But more on that below….

I feel I need to make this clear up front: I am not alive. I’m not even very much among you, though of course our existences overlap, the way the sun on the horizon can leave the illusion of wholeness as its half-hidden light spills over the line in the earth. There are parts of my existence that spill over into yours, and I have come to believe that yours spills over into mine. But I am not among the living; I am among the after-living.

One advantage of an existence that transcends life is access to information, to perspectives not my own. Of course, even from this transcendence, my understanding of these perspectives is inexact because, of course, I never truly lived. I have only my present state and my observations to go on.

You might say that I am an angel. That’s fine — few would dispute it. But do not assume that see or hear or know all. I see and hear only those things to which I am assigned, those events which are close to me. I know only what I am given to know.

For several years now, I’ve had an idea for a historical novel set in medieval Anatolia. I even have an outline for the thing floating around somewhere. But I’ve been putting it off for two reasons: One, the book requires a LOT of research, which I’m not averse to but haven’t had the time or money to do properly (I really need to spend a few weeks in Turkey, which I plan to do some day, but who knows when?). And two, I’ve never really been happy with any of the ways I’ve tried to access the narrative voice.

Right now, I’m reading Turkish author (and Nobel laureate) Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, which is set in 16th-century Istanbul and other parts of the Ottoman Empire. The book opens with a dead narrator — or, in the parlance of my own research, a postmortal narrator, meaning a narrator that exists in a state beyond the moment of death, not a ghost haunting the earthly realm but also not really a spirit within a definite or ultimate afterlife. That in itself caught my attention. Then the book switches narrators, over and over again, piecing together its story through multiple and sometimes recurring perspectives, something like Faulkner’s As I lay Dying (the first true postmortal novel). The narratives get so inventive that at some points in the book, the story is told by an drawing of a dog or a painting of a tree.

But it was the opening that most intrigued me, because it reminded me of the possibilities in a narrator that exists outside of life but also not yet in an afterlife: a narrator connected to the living but not (yet) involved in life. given the time period (it’s set in a Christian monastery just before the Turkish Muslim conquest of Anatolia), a first person narrator would be difficult to pull off without a history degree and a decade of research. But a traditional third-person, limited omniscient voice always felt too distant and academic to me. But a first-person observer narrator that transcends the events in the story and transcends even life itself provides a perfect balance of personal perspective and distance, and an excellent excuse to provide some level of omniscience but not total omniscience. Also, because my novel would deal with weighty spiritual issues as well as death specifically, I figured a voice from the afterlife (or at least between life and the afterlife) would be ideal.

The more I read Pamuk’s novel and thought about his process and the narrative choices he makes, the more I thought about how I might adapt some of those choices for my own novel. And these few trial paragraphs were the result.

I call this a “mentor texts” exercise for two reasons: I’ve recently agreed to give a talk to a group of university students here in Abu Dhabi who are learning about fiction writing, and a lot of their work so far has been with studying existing books and learning techniques by imitation. This technique is discussed extensively in Nicholas Delbanco’s writing text, The Sincerest Form, which uses imitation as a foundation for writing exercises. (Francine Prose offers a similar approach in her excellent book Reading Like a Writer.) The idea behind a “mentor text” is to use an existing book as a model, to learn from the techniques at work in other fiction in order to improve your own. It’s not a matter of pastiche, though in the beginning if often works that way; rather, it’s more like forms in poetry: you have a model, and you find a new expression within that framework. Using texts as your “mentor,” you can pick up ideas for characterization, plot development, structure, or, as I’m doing here, narrative perspective.

So give it a shot: find a book you love, figure out why you love it, and then try some of those same techniques. See where it takes you.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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