Julie's Reviews > The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life

The Writer's Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long
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's review
Aug 10, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: reference-instructional, best-of-2012, read-2012, writing-companions
Read from July 07 to August 03, 2012 — I own a copy

I get the same rush of hands-rubbing-together glee buying a new writing guide as I do a new cookbook (well, almost - if only writing guides had drool-inducing photographs of Truffled Saint-Marcellin or Bucatini all'Amatriciana or Salted Caramel (fill in the blank with anything).

An unread book on the craft of writing is full of possibility, of secrets waiting for revelation, of motivation and inspiration. It may contain the one thing I need to know that will turn my writing life around, the checklist I can follow that will make me a real writer, the advice that will level the uphill road and ensure a rejection letter will never again be addressed in my general direction.

Okay, I'm not that naive optimistic. Still, cracking open a famous author's literary toolbox and peering inside seems so hopeful and busy, like I'm thinking super hard about writing. When what I should be doing is, well, writing .

And about that famous author bit....have you ever heard of Priscilla Long? I sure hadn't, until I heard her speak at the Chuckanut Writers Conference in Bellingham this past June. She had me at, something - I've forgotten what it was she said - but I adored her. Modest, quiet, funny, pragmatic. And a ridiculously accomplished writer who works. Hard. Every day.

Enough of the preamble, the backstory, the poorly developed characters. Let me get right to the point:

You must read this.

Poring over the opening pages of this book coincided with writing the opening pages of my novel. Only a few weeks ago now, but I can't quite remember which came first. I finally gave in to the one thing that every author of a writing guide writes in their opening pages: You must write every day. Yeah, I know. I know. But look, I have a day job - writing every day isn't feasible. I already get up at the crack of dawn, earlier. I'm exhausted by the time I get home in the evenings. When am I supposed to do this writing? When do I get to work on what I want to work on, if I'm having to submit to the drudgery of a 15-20 minute free write, every day?

Excuses. That Priscilla Long finally gave me the courage to stop making. And it was so easy. Now I feel I have no other choice. And I'm thinking that if you aren't heeding Priscilla's advice by page 20, you should just stop reading this book until you can. The only thing that makes a writer a writer is writing. Every Day.

Thanks to my consistent daily free writing by hand, I have pages of scenes, character notes, setting sketches. Every day of scribbling brings me closer to my story, my characters, their motivations. I create and cover plot holes, I've literally sketched a bare bones layout of a stone cottage. I transcribe these daily writings into my Work In Progress on the computer and doing so leads to other scenes, ideas, characters.

And that, all from reading Chapter One.

The Writer's Portable Mentor is to a writer - of any level of experience and ambition - as much a toolbox as one of those gazillion-piece Craftsman tool sets is to an automotive repair pro. And Priscilla makes you work - there are no hypotheticals here. You take your writing, you take work of authors you admire, and you examine them and rework them, learning every step of the way.

I now keep a Lexicon notebook (right, so it was an excuse to buy what comes third in my bookstore thrill-seeking - after cookbooks and writing guides: Moleskine notebooks). But I have a growing collection of lovely, evocative, provocative, delicious words and sayings that I will find a way to use or to be inspired by: phrases such as back-lit light of polished steel (poet Mary Oliver), marzipan moon (author Hilary Mantel), as tender as an extension cord Pete Wells, restaurant critic, The New York Times; words like borage, palavering, sump, scialytic. It scares me to think of all the gorgeous words and phrases I've forgotten after forty years of reading!

I have several stories cooling in a drawer. I've chastised myself for not making the time or creating the courage to rework my pieces, research markets and submit them. Turns out I was wise to leave them sit, letting my thoughts sift, before returning to them with fresh, more critical eyes.

With Long's guidance on structure, openings, sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, word choice, revision, I'm tearing these stories apart and reassembling. And I will submit, resubmit - even those previously published - where possible. Long is very keen that you get your work out there - the creative process is not complete until you have attempted to share it with the world.

I will 'fess up: I did not do all the exercises. I did not comb through books I admire and craft my own sentences and paragraphs based on their models. I'm in too much of a groove with my writing and I don't want to slow the momentum. You can't be dogmatic about these things, any more than you can cook every single recipe in a cookbook and blog about it, then write a bestseller that will become a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep, now can you? Oh, wait...

This isn't the be all and end all of writing guides - there are so many astonishing and revelatory works to discover and reread - several that are on my list to explore for the first time, many others I return to for inspiration and practical advice. But if asked to make a Desert Island decision- if I could take only one book - my choice would be clear:

I'd take my writing-practice notebook. And a pen. Thanks, Priscilla.

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Reading Progress

07/09 "Page 9: "If you are like me, you will read the last chapter first. Then you will read the acknowledgments, then maybe Chapter 3."
This I read AFTER reading the last chapter, the acknowledgments (which are awesome, BTW) & the 1st chapter. I LOVE this woman (& having had the pleasure of meeting her, no one could be more down to earth and gracious)! & I'm going to love this book. But I can't tell you which page I'm on!"
07/15 page 50
14.0% "I bought a blank Moleskine cahier bound in a soft blue cover at Elliott Bay Bookstore and I have started a personal Lexicon."
07/20 page 139
39.0% "Though I'm still working through the "hand-on" sections for character & setting for my WIP, it's on to story structure. Makes me want to rewrite my short stories, to see what I could make of them as I absorb this amazing book."
07/23 page 172
48.0% "Opening sentences: today's challenge."
02/11 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

Julie Wait, you can't like my review yet. I'm still editing.. ;)

message 2: by Suzanne (new) - added it

Suzanne This book sounds so inspirational. And so is your enthusiasm and excitement about your writing. Thanks, as always, for sharing.

message 3: by René (new)

René I looked at the author's page and noticed there are no novels in her list of books. While I agree that writing every day is key in becoming, I also think novels, essays, short stories, poems, screenplays etc. are all different beasts and can't be approached in the same way.

Julie I agree wholeheartedly, René. If you are suggesting that the book's guidance is less valid because the author is not a novelist, I would encourage you to withhold judgment until you've read it. It's solid.

message 5: by René (new)

René As a rock?

Julie A little pre-dawn Ashford & Simpson? I can live with that!

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