Mentoring: Two-way Learning

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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.

Photo credit © Arne9001 | Dreamstime.com

Have you been a mentor or a mentee? How did you find the experience? If you had the opportunity again, what would you change?

 

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About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.

Comments

  1. says

    This is excellent advice. In addition to being an author, I work as a writing coach, which, essentially, is a mentor, and you are absolutely right. In helping to guide others through their own manuscripts, I can better see my own and wind up working through my own issues. Plus, I love cheerleading aspiring writers as they truly go for it and accomplish their dreams!

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  2. says

    Great guidelines, Juliet. I’d like to use this space to thank my mentors. Even though I often try to express it, they can never know the depth of my gratitude. I often wonder where I’d be as a writer–or if I’d even still be continuing any kind of serious pursuit of publication–if it hadn’t been for my mentors. I am certain my work is undergoing a transformation that I couldn’t have imagined without them after finishing a draft. It’s a beautiful blessing.

    Thank you, thank you, Juliet, and all of those who make the effort to shine their light back down for those of us climbing behind.

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  3. says

    After having just received a quote of nearly $30,000 to work with a writing coach over the next year, your article was timely. I checked out the ASA mentoring program/prices; would jump at a chance like this in my area. Thank you for sharing your insights!

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    • says

      $30,000 – that is pretty steep! I guess that’s because a writing coach is running a business. Although mentors are paid, they are usually funded through an organisation like a university or writer’s centre so you, the mentee, don’t have to carry the full cost of that person’s time (including the time it takes them to read your manuscript.) And the mentor’s role is a little different than that of a person running a coaching business.

      Do you have a writer’s centre in your area, or a State-based organisation for writers? For instance, here in Western Australia we have the Fellowship of Australian writers (WA.)

      Also, although face to face is best, it would be feasible to do a mentorship remotely using email and Skype. Not sure if ASA does this as yet.

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  4. says

    I’d love to have a mentor. My dream mentor would be Darynda Jones because of her voice or Donald Maass because of his knowledge.

    If I ever hit it big and people are asking me to mentor them, I’d definitely want to do that. I believe in paying things forward. And I strongly agree that we learn when we teach.

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  5. Denise Willson says

    Great advice, Juliet. Now where do I find me one of these heroes…? Any volunteers?

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  6. says

    I was fortunate to have John Grisham, a friend and neighbor, mentor me in writing a thriller. The experience was so incredible that I wrote a book about it so others could share the insights, techniques and principles that John imparted to me. “Writing With The Master” is coming out in February along with the novel I wrote with him, “Sleeping Dogs”. Working with him was challenging and arduous but also rewarding as I acquired knowledge and understanding I never would have attained on my own.

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  7. says

    Hey Juliet. I’ve been on both sides of this, mentee and now very recently mentor. I’ve been an editor for 15 years but still have trouble seeing what fails in my own stories. But I did learn a lot about my own writing as I examined the work of new writer. The show/tell issue comes up a lot. I know for my own writing, I have to do a separate read for “telling” because I can’t see my own telling during the actual writing process. But wow, I can see it in others’ writing! I think this is sharpening my eye and ear for it now.

    What I find most difficult is to criticize constructively without hurting the writer.

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    • says

      I’m learning with experience how to give critique without hurting a mentee’s feelings, but a lot does depend on the particular partnership. There’s no doubt some work better than others.

      Ideally, a mentee would go into the mentorship knowing it means intensive critique of his/her work. But what sounds fine in theory can still be painful in practice!

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  8. Carmel says

    I was in such a relationship with the publisher of a small press who was interested in my story and who, God bless him, was willing to help me for free.

    Sadly, it didn’t work out. Mostly, I think, because I didn’t have a clear vision of my story at the time, nor had I pinned down the overall tone I wanted to convey. In other words, even though I had a ‘completed’ manuscript, I had a very long way to go. There was too much of a struggle going on within myself to struggle with him also.

    It’s wonderful to be helped by someone more experienced, but the timing does need to be right.

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  9. says

    @Porter_Anderson referred me to my number one best mentor ever, Dave Malone. As you can probably tell by his name, he doesn’t sit around reading much chick-lit. (Neither does Dave!) Though I could write a trilogy with all the “good stuff” Dave cut out, I had way too much fun working with him and plan on darkening his doorstep soon. You’ve been warned, Dave!

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    • says

      DZ Malone! The last living man writing with his initials!

      (Dee, we really do have to tell him some day, word travels so slowly to the Ozarks.)

      Could not concur more readily, Dave Malone is a terrific editor — and affordable. I always trot him out when people line up to tell me they (a) can’t find a good one and (b) can’t afford a good one. Dave is always the “Well, shut my mouth” answer to those folks. :)

      Editor-mentor-poet and occasional tweeteur, too. Great call, Dee.

      I feel like this has been a good day’s work already, is it Campari time yet?
      -p.

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          • says

            Yesterday, I was reading a book about Ruth Bernhard and re-writing the sentences because the greatest sentence-writer I know is Darrelyn Saloom. To illustrate one of your points, Juliet, in our relationship, I started out as her editor, but now we are each other’s first readers. :)

            What I would give to write in such comic fashion as you, Dee. These Ozark hollers are too dark–we have pine and meth needles here–sharp, to the point–and unlike the late Paul Lynde, we don’t laugh at our own quips.

            Thank you, Porter. And surely, all roads lead from or to Jane Friedman. If I am giving as much as she, then I know I’m on the right track.

            Certainly feel free to get in touch, Lisa. :)

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    • says

      AND I should add that it’s thanks to Unboxed Writer Jane Friedman that I know Dave! She’s the one who put me on to him back in the 17th Century, and it’s been a beautiful relationship since then!

      It all goes back to Jane Friedman. Every time. “Porter’s Brain,” as we say. :)

      -p.

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  10. says

    Your mentees are lucky to have you!

    I mentored medical students and found it to be a wonderful way to guard against cynicism, intellectual laziness, and the creeping tendency to focus on pathology, rather than the daily miracles with which I was surrounded.

    I wish I’d had the ability to screen them for compatibility. (IMHO, you’re very wise to do so.) It didn’t happen often, but when they were there to tick a box off, rather than out of genuine interest, we all suffered for the encounter. I’d rather deal with an invested-but-unskilled younger colleague any day. I loved to hear “I don’t know”, but have a hard time with “I don’t care.”

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  11. says

    From a writer who is discover the joy of the storytelling, I really relate the importance of every one of these points, Juliet! Thanks for sharing. It is definitely hard to receive tough feedback and requires perseverance to truly get to a story’s full depth, but I have found that setting aside impatience and focusing instead on pouring all my energy into the process has opened up a new world which I can’t get enough of.

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  12. says

    Thanks, Juliet. I’ve been blessed by all the writers who have “reached down” to help me along. What’s surprising is the number of new writers who seek my advice, even though I’ve yet to publish a novel. The mentoring, apparently, can never start too early. I’ll keep your advice in mind and hope that I have the opportunity to mentor someone who will do amazing things.

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  13. says

    This article was spot on, Juliet. I learned very early on that the best way to learn something was to teach it! I’ve been teaching in some form or another since high school. I have been blessed with the most wonderful teachers/mentors and now have been able to give back to others in a similar way. And the amazing thing is that help arrives for me even now from the most unexpected places.

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  14. says

    This idea has been calling to me for a while now; I’d love to become involved in the right mentor/mentee relationship.

    And maybe a mentoring program is something we should consider for Writer Unboxed, though it will have to take a backseat to the 2014 live event.

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      • says

        Thanks, Lisa! I can’t commit to anything right now (new book out in a few months, and wheee!), but I really would like to explore the concept more in the coming year. And I sincerely appreciate your interest.

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  15. Michele says

    I love this post. Mentoring is so important. Where are the sites to find the best mentors?

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    • says

      I don’t have the answer to this, as my experience is confined to Australia and to face-to-face mentorships. Hoping the WU community can provide you with some info. Though I do suggest contacting any writers’ organisations in your area (or in your genre – for instance, for romance writers my first stop would be the Romance Writers of America site, and for sf/fantasy/horror I would go to SFWA.)

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  16. says

    i’m afraid the only mentoring i’ve done, and the description of such would be “very” debatable, would be hanging out with any of my five grand kids :-)

    more seriously, would like to see an article juliet on voice; i like how you express it’s need and seriousness (even if comic i bet!) and would love examples etc from your pov of the subject

    meanwhile, all the best wishes, happy holidays :-)

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      • Marilyn says

        I know Mentoring is challenging but for those of us writing it would be such a wonderful experience. I would love for you to do an Article on Voice. This was very informative I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

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  17. says

    I was reading over the comments and I see some of the commenters are looking for mentors. I’ve recently came off of NaNoWriMo and wrote a first draft of my first novel. I was actually able to complete the story and I know that it needs some changes. It was 74,000+ words. If I can be directed toward a mentor it would have to be someone who wants to do it just because. Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to pay someone.

    I have a blog that I’ve recently started and have enjoyed reading and reviewing. I’d really like to see if I could also author a novel.

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  18. MA Hudson says

    This is such a timely post for me as I’m currently awaiting the outcome of my application for an ASA Mentorship. I think it would be amazing to pick the brains of an experienced writer and get their opinion on which darlings should be killed in my WIP.
    Thanks for sharing what you’ve learned from being a mentor. Your tips on receiving criticism, on work ethic, and on voice, all make a lot of sense.
    Cheers,
    Mary Ann

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    • says

      Great – I hope your application is successful. As a result of my posting this piece, I was contacted by ASA and asked if I’d like to be on their mentors list – I have in the past mentored through the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA) and the writers’ centres here in Perth, but not through ASA. Makes it feel like a small world.

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  19. MA Hudson says

    Wow, that’s amazing. Hope you find it a fruitful experience and you still have lots of time to work on your own fiction.
    Cheers,
    MA

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  20. Marysia says

    Thank you for another thoughtful and helpful post, Juliet. Australia must be a wonderful place for writers. ;) I would also like to thank you for taking the time to respond to our comments. Your response to my comment on your last post actually helped me get unstuck when nothing else worked. I thought about what you said–that an antagonist is a protagonist of his/her own story–and this approach finally worked on the chapter I was avoiding. I have now finished a (very) rough draft of my novel and am in the editing stage. This is a huge first for me, as I have never made it to the finish line of a novel. As a devoted reader of your work, and an admirer of your nuanced writing style, thank you for your help. :)

    ~Marysia

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