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Mentors for Writers

February 26, 2013

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.

Wenny Achdiat and Achdiat Karta Mihardja

Daughter of Independence tells the stories of Wenny Achdiat and her father, Indonesian literary figure Achdiat Karta Mihardja

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.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2013 5:27 am

    Great post Bryce …. it’s exactly what I’ve been suggesting to my aspiring writer daughter … find a mentor (informal or formal) to help you. Perhaps an informal one in the early stages, and a formal one if you’re lucky enough when you get a little more sure of what you want to write (if that makes sense). Good luck with the book.

  2. Bryce permalink*
    February 28, 2013 9:24 am

    Thanks Sue. I was fortunate in finding mentors, both writer friends and Judith, who were empowering as well as skilled. If your daughter seeks a mentor, I hope she is as fortunate. Best wishes for her future as a writer.

    • March 22, 2013 8:14 pm

      Thanks Bryce … I hope she is too. She’s still young and is finding her way but all this advice helps her work out ways to go.

  3. Bryce permalink*
    February 28, 2013 9:34 am

    For an insight into Judith Lukin-Amundsen’s approach as an editor, see this transcript of the Bookshow (ABC Radio National) from June 2007: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bookshow/an-intimate-relationship-editors-and-writers/3236410
    It’s a conversation with Judith and writer Charlotte Wood, who captures what it is like to collaborate with Judith.

  4. March 22, 2013 7:34 am

    Wow, loved hearing about your experience with mentoring! Landing someone like this in your writing life is so huge. Having that person just saves you from so many unnecessary mistakes.
    Tahnks!

  5. Brian Roberts permalink
    April 6, 2013 2:57 am

    I am working on a scholarly project related to Achdiat Kartamihardja’s interactions with African American author Richard Wright during Wright’s 1955 visit to Indonesia. I would love it if you could contact me by email. Maybe we could share information about some of Pak Achdiat’s activities in 1955. Hopefully hear from you soon.

    • Bryce permalink*
      April 6, 2013 4:17 pm

      Thank you, Brian. I have sent you an email.

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