Wednesday, February 20, 2013

You Need a Mentor

Few people make it as writers all by themselves. Writing buddies, writing groups, critics, agents, and editors all play important roles. Add mentors to the list. A good mentor brings experience and expertise that comes from living the life of the writer. Mentors can give you personalized, informed advice that is free of hidden agendas.

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.
If you don't have a mentor, get one. Join a writing group, attend a conference, reply to a blog, take a class, ask for an introduction. Don't rush it. Make sure the experienced writer knows you before you pop the question. And don't be discouraged if the mentor you want says no. There are some wonderful writers who are too busy or who realize they don't have what it takes to be mentors. It's not personal. But make an effort to find a mentor. Don't go it alone.


  1. When the current round of mentoring began for CTRWA, I kind of felt stuck as to where I fit in. I've been writing with professional intent for ten years, mostly short fiction, and I've been published (again, short fiction). I didn't feel right being a mentOR yet, because I haven't been published in romance or with a novel. I feel more comfortable giving advice piecemeal as people need it, in areas I might know something about. Yet I felt a little weird wanting to be a mentEE because, even though it's been slow because of family stuff, I have been writing for quite a while, I'm in circles with people who started at the same time as me but have gone on to be very successful. I'm a leader in other ways in the writing community. Do I have any business having a mentor when there are people who need it more, maybe? Also, what I need help with for the most part is discipline, a way to keep me on task. Focus. Is that something within a mentor's realm? Like I told someone, I kind of need Darth Maul for a mentor. Genghis Khan. Someone who knows my situation, but who won't let me slide into using it as an excuse. A benevolent dictator ;). It kind of sounds like I'm looking for a babysitter, but that's not quite what I mean...

  2. Everyone is worthy of a mentor. Period. Don't worry about taking a slot. It's good that you know what you want. I tend to think the role of noodge is best filled by a writing buddy, but you may find a mentor who fills that role, along with helping in another way.
    ... and, with your experience, there are plenty of newbies who could benefit from your knowledge and care. Go for it.