Austen, Speare, or Something Else? Choosing a Mentor Novel

Novelists out there: Ever been asked to choose a “mentor” novel?

The intensive novel writing class I begin soon requires that I choose a mentor novel.  This is a novel that I have already read and loved for its style, genre, tone, plotting, humor, language, or whatever reason, and wish to emulate in some way.

Question is, what to choose?  What novels are educative for the writer learning her craft?

I can say what will not work.  My preference might be the Eliots and Tolstoys, but Middlemarch and War and Peace wouldn’t make good mentor novels.  At least, good mentor novels for the likes of me.  Why?  They are too long and too complex.  Normally, as a reader, I would consider these to be good qualities in a novel.  Who doesn’t love delving into the delightful complexities of an epic masterpiece?  But they fail as mentor novels because a writer would be hard-pressed to get their minds around the structure of those books.  And getting our minds around the structure of a book is what having a mentor novel is all about.

That being said, I’m toying with two novels right now:  Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.

Pride and Prejudice is an easy, obvious choice.  I love Austen’s novels and I know them well (maybe a little too well). She’s a master at characterization, and emulating her would also help me achieve my near-impossible goal of being funny (considering that I’ve boldly opined on the lack of humor in new Catholic literature).  Perhaps, with Austen’s help, I’ll dream up another Mr. Collins?

One can only hope.

My one objection to using Pride and Prejudice is that it’s everyone’s mentor novel.  Need proof?  The Elizabeth Theory.  Contemporary fiction has way, way too many Elizabeth knockoffs.   Other than Shakespeare’s Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing), I cannot think of a single female literary character prior to P&P with the temperament and talent of an Elizabeth Bennett.  She became a type when she arrived on the scene – a beloved and much imitated type – and since then our female characters are measured according to the Pride and Prejudice standard.

My more pressing goal, however, is to work on plotting, and for that I can think of no better example than the Newbury Award winning novel The Witch of Blackbird Pond That Disney hasn’t already turned it into a movie is surprising, considering its vast popularity with fifth-grade teachers.  It’s a compelling and tightly written story set in colonial Connecticut, and the opening chapters are near perfection in its hook, establishment of the premise, characterization, scene structure, and foreshadowing. And, being a children’s story, the plot is easier to analyze.  Kit is another Elizabeth Bennett type, of course, but otherwise it’d be a great book to imitate.

How about you?  What novel (or book, for you non-fiction writers) would you choose as a mentor novel, and why?

Comments

  1. says

    I’m not a fiction writer but if I was my mentor writer would be Steinbeck. Master story teller.

    For non-fiction? Ann Voskamp. See her One Thousand Gifts to know what I mean.

    PS. I loved the Witch of Blackbird Pond in school. May have to read that one again with the kids…

    • Rhonda says

      I love the Steinbeck choice! Right on. I still need to pick up One Thousand Gifts (bad Rhonda)…

      You know what’s funny about WoBP? When I first read it (high school, maybe?), I thought it was anti-religion. Then when I taught it, I realized that it was anti-ignorance and anti-prejudice, not anti-religion. There’s definitely a bias for something other than Puritanism, but I think she’s actually pretty respectful of the Puritans. Even with the witch hunt stuff. But others might disagree with me on this. In any case, as a Catholic, I don’t see anything wrong with George’s portrayal of the good and bad of Puritan Conn.

    • Rhonda says

      Thanks for the link! I liked that one of my favorites, Kristin Lavransdatter (another wonderful epic that would not make a good mentor novel for the likes of me), was near the top of Deal Hudson’s list. This is a great resource, Colleen.

  2. says

    I have a novel that has been patiently waiting in my brain since 2008 waiting to come out. So far I only have a few pages of it written down. Maybe I need to become a naptime writer as well! My mentor novel would have to be Middlemarch, yet I feel that George Eliot’s style is inimitable. I have tried to write the way she does, deftly weaving her own commentary into the action, but it always comes off as stilted or supercilious. I love Middlemarch; maybe one of my favorite things that St. John’s introduced me to that I NEVER would have picked up on my own. As for writing non-fiction, Anne Lamott or Annie Dillard would have to top my list. Anne’s a little “out there” spiritually sometimes but I love a lot of her insights and she is pretty hilarious.