Being a full-time writer means not only working every day on my novel, but also performing the multiplicity of tasks that go with the profession: book-keeping, research, editing, publicity and so on. As an established novelist, I also get asked to present workshops, participate in writers’ festivals, judge competitions and give talks in schools. The better known you become as a writer, the more such requests you receive. It’s rewarding not only financially (most of the above are paid gigs) but also on a personal level, providing an opportunity to give back to the writing community. Of all the ancillary jobs that come my way as an established author, mentoring is probably the most rewarding.
Here in Australia, mentoring programs are usually run through the universities, the state government-funded Writers’ Centres, or one of our professional associations for writers, such as the Australian Society of Authors. That allows adequate funding, a properly managed selection process, and good oversight and accountability for the program.
Generally a genre writer (I write historical fantasy) will be paired with a mentee who is working in a similar genre. Sometimes a mentee requests a particular mentor whom they think will be best able to advise them. I’ve usually chosen my mentee based on a CV, synopsis and sample chapters. Generally I’ll work with someone who has completed a first draft. Among the qualities I look for is a good work ethic, often characterised by a preparedness to revise, but also by being able to work quickly and to put in long hours.
I’ve mentored a number of writers over the last few years. Sometimes the mentorship goes brilliantly. Sometimes things don’t progress as well as expected. A mentor/mentee relationship is, of its nature, quite intense. It requires tact, patience and honesty from the mentor and, from the mentee, that sound work ethic plus a willingness to take advice on board. And sufficient self-confidence to know when not to take the advice, of course. A mentor’s role is not to tell a mentee how to write her book. She’s there to provide guidance, support and the benefit of experience.
Being a mentor has taught me to look at my own writing and my work practices afresh. Here are a few things I’ve learned:
1. A good work ethic is worth its weight in gold. A born writer is prepared to lose sleep in order to finish another chapter. She seizes every opportunity for professional feedback. She lives and breathes writing. Above all, she’s willing to draft and re-draft until her ms is as good as it can be.
2. Voice is key to engaging the reader and to effective characterisation. Clever and imaginative use of voice can elevate a novel from OK to memorable. Voice can be one of the hardest elements for a new writer to grasp.
3. A writer should be prepared to make major changes, including cuts, to render a manuscript more readable / more publishable. Yes, even if it’s an aspect of the story that you are deeply fond of. Sometimes you do have to kill your darlings. I’ve had a mentorship come unstuck on this particular point.
4. It can be difficult to give critical feedback with the right combination of professionalism and tact. It can be difficult to receive it without feeling hurt / getting defensive. Mentors: Offer constructive suggestions, don’t lay down rules. Give your mentee time to talk. Mentees: Listen to advice, take time to digest it, use what works for you. Remember that your mentor is there to help you.
5. Everything I expect of my mentees, I should be demonstrating in my own work. A mentor’s advice is only valid if she can put it into practice.
6. When the terror of a looming deadline, the relentless need for self-promotion or the vicissitudes of the publishing business are weighing us down, the passionate enthusiasm of a young writer can remind us that we’re all, at heart, bright-eyed people buoyed by dreams. Never forget how much you love writing.
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Have you been a mentor or a mentee? How did you find the experience? If you had the opportunity again, what would you change?