Mentors for Writers
A writer never stops learning how to write.
Having produced dribs and drabs of prose and poetry all my life, I imagined when I set out to write in earnest four years ago that I knew what to do. Wrong.
At that time I began meeting regularly with a small group of friends who are writers. We are mentors to each other, sharing the pleasure each time one of us brings a more effective piece, as a result of our discussion, to a subsequent meeting. Long ago I lost any sensitivity to having my precious paragraphs pulled to pieces, and now I rewrite with enthusiasm, grateful for my improvement but realising, at each meeting, how far I still have to go.
In late 2011 I had more good fortune, winning a mentorship through the Australian Society of Authors program for emerging writers. The program aims to help successful applicants develop their work-in-progress to a publishable standard. My project was Daughter of Independence, the story of an Indonesian family closely connected with the tumultuous history of their country. That the manuscript had reached a high enough standard to attract the mentorship was due to our writing group.
My mentor was the writer and book editor Judith Lukin-Amundsen, who has edited the works of many Australian writers, including Helen Garner, Tim Winton, Robert Dessaix, Kate Grenville, Richard Flanagan and Amanda Lohrey.
At our first meeting after she read the manuscript, Judith identified which parts worked well and which did not. The main problems were structural – the various strands of the narrative were not well integrated and the themes needed to be better handled. There was a stark difference between the “filmic” first part, set during war and revolution, and the “episodic” later parts that followed the protagonist through adolescence and adulthood.
Judith’s approach was non-directive in that she enabled me to work out how to improve the parts that were not working. She suggested techniques such as diagramming the weaving of the main story with the ‘meta’-sections of background and context so that I could visually see the balance between the two. She identified what was missing in the writing and in the narrative, and therefore what was needed to make the manuscript an integrated whole. She pointed out parts that were not essential to the story.
Judith found several areas where more information was needed to prevent misunderstanding or confusion. Helen Garner has said that “stupid questions” are the most valuable ones an editor can ask. They show where writers, forgetting that they know more about the story than the reader, leave out things that readers need to know. For example, when the family moved to a particular city, was that city under British, Dutch or Indonesian control? I knew, but I had not told the reader. Writers can learn to ask their own stupid questions.
At our recent final meeting, we agreed that the manuscript had been vastly improved, and that it now felt like a book. Of course, it still needed work, but this was more editing than writing.
Working with Judith has been a joy, and has taught me much that I will use as long as I continue to write. Thank you to the Australian Society of Authors for this valuable program, and to the Copyright Agency Limited for funding it. The winners of this year’s program will be announced in March. And thank you to Judith Lukin-Amundsen and my writing friends for taking me up some of the steeper sections of the long road to learning how to write.