I have had amazing mentors throughout my career as a writer (and some amazing mentees, as well). Mentors can up your productivity like no others by diagnosing problems, suggesting education, introducing you to people, evaluating your work, answering questions, and reading between the lines on notes from agents and editors. But you need to take steps to have a good mentoring relationship:
- Choose the right mentor. Mentors are not peers. They are people who know more about writing and the business of writing than you do. They also need to be committed to helping you in at least some areas where you have a need. Of course, a good personal relationship can make a big difference in the experience.
- Know what you're looking for. What are the main things you need to become the writer you want to be? Advice on plots? Encouragement? News about agents? Character development? Once you have your list, figure out what a mentor might be able to help you with. Determine which of these your mentor may have expertise it. Then articulate clearly to your mentor what you are hoping to get out of the relationship.
- Be open to suggestions. The fastest way to kill a mentor/mentee relationship is for the mentee to dismiss suggestions from the mentor. I've had mentees cut me off in the middle of sentences. Seriously. Listen and consider. Not every suggestion will be on point, expected, or worth acting on. But, if your mentor is a good match for you, they all will be based on good intentions and experience and worth your thinking about. Don't defend yourself when advice is given. The proper responses are requests for clarification and thank you.
- Be respectful. Your mentor needs to keep her career going. Her need to hit a deadline, promote a book, or have some down time exceeds your need to get an answer to a question, curse the gods, or share a bottle of champagne. Never guilt trip a mentor or demand a quick response. Know your boundaries. Respect stated limits. I've had some mentors willing to mark up full manuscripts and others who set limits on time (two hours a month) or what I could bring to them (loglines only, questions only). Don't be greedy.
- Pass it on. You should make an effort to be helpful to your mentor. This may mean writing an Amazon review or it could be just making sure the books stand out on the shelf in the bookstore. Often, however, there is an asymmetry in opportunity to help between you and your mentor. So much more is given than you can repay. In that case, you should mentor someone yourself. Be the best mentor you can be for someone who needs a hand up. This will honor your mentor's generosity, and it will also teach you about the mentor/mentee relationship.