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Weekend Assignment: Small Beauties


Welcome to another weekend writing prompt. Are you ready to get your creative wheels turning?

As part of my day job, I write about tricks to help kids become better writers. Many times, I’ve written about using mentor texts for writing. When I get stuck for a way to phrase something I use the same technique, and you can too. In fact, that’s what this weekend assignment is all about.

For starters, let’s talk about what a mentor text is. Put simply, it’s just a piece of writing by an author you look up to—hence, “mentor.” Any piece of fiction or nonfiction that speaks to you will work.

Now, let me be clear about this, we are not copying another writer’s work. No plagiarism here. This is more about recognizing and mimicking a flow of words and style.

First, you need to find what I like to think of as a small beauty—a passage that speaks to you from your mentor text. I’m going to borrow one posted in “9 Sentences Every Book Lover Should Read” posted on Oprah.com to use as an example:

“Looking back on that time, it seems to me that I was not unhappy. Anxious, tired, unsure, occasionally mortified—but never bored, never unengaged, always the thousand tiny cogs in my mind, whirling like Ferris wheels, twinkling like stars.” — Rachel Pastan, author of Alena

Now that I have my passage, I want to look at the parts that appeal to me.

First, I like the laundry-list nature of the description, and the way all the different emotional states add up to a tiny slice of character. Then, looking a little deeper, I also like the contrast of the double negative (not unhappy) of the first sentence, paired with the two nevers (the last another double negative)  “…never bored, never unengaged…” followed by that single glorious “always” of tiny cogs.

So, when I translate that to my own work, I know I want my first sentence to end with a double negative. In this case, thinking about a character I want to describe, I’ve decided on “not unacquainted.” Then, I also want to capture that laundry-list feel. In this case with character traits and mimic the never, never pattern I noted. At the end of my piece, I want to include a piece of imagery like those Ferris wheels twinkling like stars. In template form, my passage based on the mentor text looks like this:

Double negative
Never _, Never, Always
imagery (simile)

Notice that I’m not actually taking anything from the original text except the two instances of “never” and “always.”

Now, to build a passage around that template.

I tried to imagine a version of my father that was not unacquainted with recklessness. A beer-chugging, drag-racing, skinny-dipping, shoot-the-bird at the rule makers renegade–never apologizing, never looking back, always full of  black leather rebellion, like he roared through life on the back of a tricked-out Harley.

Is my passage an exact mimicry of the style in the mentor text? No, and that’s fine. I’m not attempting to become my mentor, but instead looking for a way to use my own voice to accomplish similar goals.

If you are in need of a mentor text, Publishers Weekly recently started a series they call 5 Perfect Sentences. The link takes you to the third installment, which links back to previous posts. If you don’t find inspiration among their 5 choices, be sure to check the comments. Many readers leave suggestions of their own.

Your mission for this assignment is to look to your favorite authors and books for small beauties that speak to you. Then, use their techniques as a way to expand your own style, either by writing a new passage, or editing an old one.

Until next time, happy writing!


Image credit: Ferris Wheel by David Feltkamp via Flickr Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.


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