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Mentoring for Writers

Mar 03, 2019

Writing with the Old Masters.

Plumbers take apprenticeships. So why do writers imagine they can learn their craft without taking one? That's effectively what we offer writers when you join The Novelry, a working, practical apprenticeship to your mentor author. You learn on the job.

Serious writers study the works of the great fiction writers, the way painters copy the old masters.  Part of our method at The Novelry is to encourage working novelists to read and re-read a 'hero book' during the course of writing their first draft. First for the story, then for the technique and to abide with this one book during the writing of a first draft as a training frame. The act of faith, abiding with it, is good discipline in itself for sticking with the novel, but when you read a masterful novel, it reveals itself to you in layers which you will only perceive after many readings. 

This week's blog post comes from our member, Viv Rich, who inspired by our recent writer's retreat has taken an old-school approach to taking a fresh look at her work in progress. Her chosen hero book is The Great Gatsby. You can find our suggested hero books listed here, there's one for every genre and they are chosen for the virtuous story structure which teaches novelists as they read.

Hunter S. Thompson typed out The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms as a method for learning how to write. 

“You know Hunter typed The Great Gatsby,” Johnny Depp told The Guardian after he’d played Thompson himself in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “He’d look at each page Fitzgerald wrote, and he copied it. The entire book. And more than once. Because he wanted to know what it felt like to write a masterpiece.” 

While I cannot compare myself to Fitzgerald or to Thompson, my love of Gatsby and a recent awakening of my need to elevate my writing style and form, has led me not to type out the book but to copy it by hand.  I have chosen this form because I believe there to be a more intimate, more physical connection to the words.  And it is how Fitzgerald wrote the book.

I have obtained a 340 page lined journal, several purple Frixion pens (yes, the colour of pen is absolutely crucial) and a new un-scribbled on, non-highlighted, ready to be a dog-eared copy of The Great Gatsby (Penguin English Library edition.)

On the first page of my journal, I have copied the lines of Thomas Parke D’Invilliers.  Why?  Because it sets the tone of the novel and I want to try to get into Fitzgerald’s mindset.  The next page has a dedication to Zelda.  On the third right-hand page, I begin with Chapter One.  The left page is there for my notes, ideas, witterings, musings and burblings about Fitzgerald’s writing and ideas about my own book.  I read each sentence, then read it again as I copy it out.  In this way, I hope to gain an understanding of the artistry and work that lies behind the book.  On the left page, as I copy more, there are more ideas, more notes, more arrows and more phrases and words that conjure the magic and glamour.  I can only assume that this will increase as I progress through the book to the point where I have amassed post-it notes and have a colour coding system to match that of Joseph’s Technicolor Dream Coat!

 This process is teaching me about structure, character and the art of a good chapter.  I have gained a wealth of ideas and have intimately seen how Fitzgerald draws us into Gatsby’s world.  It is a world where repetition is used to perfection as it keeps us safe, secure and engaged.  This is exactly where Fitzgerald wants us and we are happy to oblige him because we are drawn in by ‘The Pledge’ (Something we're taught at The Novelry in The Ninety Day Novel course).  We are being shown the ordinary – we see Daisy’s whiteness and implicit innocence, Tom’s strength (monetary and physical) and desire to be ‘profound’, Miss Baker’s balancing acts and how trustworthy and ‘ordinary’ our narrator, Nick Carraway, is. 

As a nearly-writer, I am driven by some unknown force to use the English language in its most extravagant forms – to search for a better word to use, to express intelligence through my choice of words.  Fitzgerald uses no such tricks. What he does so eruditely is to fix on a description that is clear, precise and unusual.  We all understand what he has created and even when that ‘murmur’ or ‘murmuring’ is used by another character, it fails to dilute the original meaning.  We see a connection instead.

I am now on page ten and I have realised how Fitzgerald plays with us when it comes to Daisy Buchanan…

We have in our mind an innocent, perhaps naive individual, married to money but missing something real.  It came as a surprise to me that Fitzgerald uses the following words instead of ‘said’ when Daisy is talking:-

Demanded        Complained

Accusingly        Objected

These create quite a different character to the one I had earlier perceived which is more in keeping with the following that Fitzgerald also uses:-

Helplessly         Whispered

Ecstatically       Irrelevantly


If you don’t fancy doing the same as me with Gatsby then use your own hero book and copy out the first page.  The entire physicality of the exercise brings you closer to the words, closer to the structure and draws you closer to your own writing ambitions because “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning –”

Happy writing,

Viv Rich.

Viv Rich is writing a novel with a mentor using our novel writing courses at The Novelry

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