A few weeks ago, I promised that I would write a blog post about finding a writing mentor. I am not going to write a long introduction to this post because I am going to be straight forward with providing information, explaining it…and I don’t want this to be like a recipe blog where you have to read about the blogger’s great-great-grandmother who grew up on a vineyard in Italy before they even mention the recipe. So…here we go:
Why Do I Need a Mentor?
A lot of us ask ourselves this question. Mostly out of fear and confusion more than a desire to avoid having a mentor. Or, maybe it is our ego speaking up in the back of our minds. Either way, there are quite a few reasons to have a writing mentor.
- When it comes to your own work, you may be wearing rose-colored glasses.
- You need honest feedback as a writer.
- Support & Inspiration.
- Continuous improvement as a writer.
- To access skill sets you don’t have.
- To develop a thicker skin.
- Kinship in a difficult field.
We all look at our own work as if it is our baby/child. We love it no matter how ugly it is. Sometimes we need an impartial person–who also wants us to succeed–to give us honest feedback and continuously give that feedback. We also need someone like this to hold us accountable to our writing goals, to check in on us, and to keep us from slacking off. A mentor will also be your biggest cheerleader – cheering you on and pushing you to go harder, faster, stronger – to live up to all of your potential. Mentors also make sure that we constantly have that impartial party looking over our shoulders when we need it so that we do not develop bad habits or revert back into bad ones we had before. We continuously improve with a mentor.
Mentors will also provide us with a way to learn skills we just don’t have or don’t know how to access. Maybe you are great at writing exposition and description but your dialogue isn’t so great. Maybe you’re good at first person POV but not so great at others. A mentor may be better at types, styles, and genres of writing that you are not, helping to teach you these things along the way. A mentor can also help you network, introduce you to new people in the writing world, to make friends you can learn from on your journey. The feedback and knowledge given by your mentor helps you to learn to take critique in a positive way and develop a thick skin so that both good and bad feedback is handled appropriately in the future. And lastly, we all need kinship in the writing world. It can be made unnecessarily competitive and exhausting by others, so having someone who understands your journey is invaluable.
Why This Particular Mentor?
Maybe you have a mentor in mind. Maybe you don’t. But once you set your sights on a particular person you want to mentor you, there are some questions you need to ask yourself.
- Do I just like this mentor personally, or do I respect them professionally?
- Do I think this person can make me better, or do I think we will just get along well?
- Do they write the same genre as you? Is that a good thing?
- What are their professional achievements?
- Do they have the professional admiration of others?
- Have you read their work?
We all want a mentor we can like and get along with…but if you don’t respect them professionally or think they can actually help you improve as a writer, what is the point? You need to select a mentor (and hopefully be accepted) whose work you respect and you think can take you to the next level of your writing career. Also, did you select a mentor who writes the same genre as yourself? That may not necessarily be a wise decision. If you are too similar to your mentor, they may help you improve some aspects of your writing but they may not help you become a well-rounded writer.
What work has this person done? What are their professional achievements? If there is nothing to gauge the mentor’s abilities by, why would you want them as a mentor? Don’t choose a mentor just because they seem like they know what they are talking about. Ask for proof. Additionally, ask others (in a respectful, private way) if they can recommend the person you are thinking of mentoring you. Lastly, have you read any work from this potential mentor? Was it good? Do you want to learn to write like them? What about their work makes you want them to teach you how to write better?
Let’s Be Realistic
Are you a new writer who has taken some creative writing courses or possibly published a few works in magazines or online? Maybe you have self-published a book. You are not going to get Stephen King to coach you on writing horror. J.K. Rowling will not offer to teach you to be a better MG/YA Fantasy writer.
There is nothing wrong with shooting for the stars but you must be realistic sometimes. Maybe you can’t get a bestselling, well-known, popular author to be your mentor. That is the case for 99% of the authors who have a mentor. Why not ask a proven, but lesser-known developmental or line editor to be your mentor? Or an independent author who sells decently and whose work you admire? You do not have to commit to one mentor throughout your writing career. If the mentor you choose (and accepts you) gets to a point that they feel you could benefit from the help of someone with a higher skill set, they will help you find a new mentor.
This may be one of the most important aspects of finding a mentor. Expect someone with actual writing skills, professionalism, and experience to guide you – but don’t feel you are immediately entitled to help from a masterclass writer.
How To Ask A Mentor To…Mentor You
Just like asking someone if they want to be friends or asking a person out on a date, respectful and polite behavior are key, and that goes without saying. But there are some key points you need to consider before approaching the person you want to mentor you.
- Do. Your. Research. Don’t show up “empty handed.”
- Will this person be open to taking on the role of mentor?
- Approach with a positive, enthusiastic attitude.
- Be prepared to take “No” for an answer.
- Make a case, not a demand.
- Tell them why you think you’d be a good writer to mentor.
- Tell them why you chose them to mentor you.
- Have a plan/timeline/schedule/method for mentoring set up before you ask.
First and foremost, have you researched what it means to be a mentee and have a mentor? Did you research the person you are going to ask to be your mentor? Do you know what they do in the writing world? Do you know about their career? What do you admire about them and their work? Why will you be a good mentee to their mentor role? Do you know if they would even be open to mentoring a writer? Have you thought about how the mentorship will work–especially if you are not geographically close to each other to meet? What are your different time zones (if you are able to get this information in a non-creepy way), how long do you feel you will need to be mentored? When will you “meet” to discuss your work and get critiques? Will this be Skype? Phone calls? Email? DMs? Are you close enough to meet in person periodically?
When you approach a mentor – have your research done, a plan formulated for how the mentorship will work, tell them why you would be an excellent mentee (this is the time to gas yourself up – don’t be self-deprecating. EVER.). Tell them why you chose them and make sure to mention what you like about their career that you think will make them a good mentor. Don’t be disingenuous, but complimenting a mentor’s work, professionalism, integrity, or work ethic never hurts.
Do this all with a positive, enthusiastic attitude – people love to work with positive, enthusiastic people – but make a case for the mentorship, don’t make it sound like you’re demanding their help. Explain all of your research and plans, why you two are a good fit, and why mentoring you is a good idea for the mentor. A mentor should only have to tweak your ideas for the mentorship, not develop a plan themselves. This is about helping you…so don’t be a jerk and not do most of the work.
Ultimately, you are selling yourself. Making a case that you are the mentee this writer has been waiting for their entire career. Don’t be arrogant – but make sure the potential mentor knows your strengths, your drive, your passion for writing, how hard working you are, your level of commitment…don’t be afraid to be your own hype man.
What If I’m Afraid?
Being afraid to approach a writer, especially one you admire, is totally understandable. There are many writers who, if I met them, I might not remember how to speak. Salman Rushdie being at the top of the list. It does you no good to tell you that there is no reason to be nervous or afraid since most writers will be very kind when you approach them for a mentorship. If you are afraid, you are afraid.
One solution is to employ a third party to approach the person you wish to mentor you. However, this can be seen as a big red flag by the writer/mentor, so it is not always the best idea. Not approaching the writer yourself may make it seem like you are not passionate, ambitious, or strong enough for the writing world. Some writers might find it endearing. Your research into your mentor may tell you if this solution is okay or not.
I advise that you should almost always approach a mentor yourself. A third party intervening on your behalf is usually only a good idea if they thought of the idea to match you up with a mentor on their own. But this is a decision you will have to make based on what you know about the potential mentor.
There are other solutions if you are afraid of asking someone to mentor you.
The AWP (The Association of Writers & Writing Programs) has a Writer to Writer Mentorship Program you can apply to be a part of as a mentor or mentee. As of this posting date, it is free. You only have to submit an application and 10 pages of your work (or 5 to 10 poems) to be matched up with a mentor. There is no guarantee you will be accepted and mentored by another writer, but it is a less fear-inducing way of trying to find a mentor.
Are you a horror writer? The Horror Writers’ Association has a mentorship program as well. They do require that you are a member in good standing (the yearly fee is $75 for an individual – which is prorated if you join later in the year) before you can apply. And you will have to submit “polished work” of 2-3 poems, a short story, or the first few chapters of a novel/novella.
Lastly, the National Novel Writing Month organization can help connect you with the writing community and mentors. For example, during “Camp NaNoWriMo,” they have “Camp Counselors” to help you along. By using their open discussion forums you may also be able to match yourself with a mentor.
If all else fails, you can always post to the #WritingCommunity on Twitter to ask for guidance. Sometimes you will not get a response (Twitter is glitchy often and it depends on traffic as to whether or not people will see your tweet) but other times, you will get dozens or hundreds of people in the community who are excited to help a fellow writer.
How To Keep Your Mentor
So…you have a mentor. How do you make sure that they will want to keep mentoring you until there is no longer a need?
- Do not be defensive or “check out.”
- Don’t be a punching bag.
- Communicate openly and honestly.
- Learn to express yourself eloquently and succinctly.
- Develop mutual respect.
- Have a strong work ethic.
- Don’t make the mentor do all of the work.
- Respect your mentors schedule and other obligations.
- Know how to communicate your schedule and other obligations clearly.
If you are wanting to be mentored, you should have already realized that a mentor is going to critique your work. Go into this partnership with the understanding that no critique is personal. Be an active listener, be willing to learn, do not get defensive with your mentor. And never, never, never, mentally “check out” if you get discouraged. Tell your mentor you feel discouraged so that you can work together in how best to convey critiques. Conversely, if you find yourself paired with a mentor who seems to love being antagonistic (and that is not your style), tell them so. Stand up for yourself. If your mentor cannot respect your boundaries, then maybe they are the wrong mentor. This all has to do with communicating in an open and honest (but respectful) way with each other. You are basically a “couple” now. Talk to each other. Don’t expect anyone to read your mind or read between the lines. When you communicate something, do it eloquently and succinctly. Your mentor needs to understand you…but they also don’t have time to read 10 page emails or DMs every day about your feelings, either. One way to run off a mentor is to make them feel as though you think their whole life is about mentoring and supporting you.
Develop respect for each other through communication, respectful behavior, a strong work ethic, and pulling more than your share of the weight. Do not ever make your mentor think they are more committed to the partnership than you are. If they are the one always reaching out to talk about your work, they will quickly stop doing that and leave you to find a new mentor. However, make sure to talk to your mentor about what they feel is too frequent communication. Maybe 1 email/DM a day is good. Maybe you will have a weekly meet up. Maybe you two will really “click” and constantly communicate with each other. Make sure you are both on board with your plans and expectations.
Lastly, a mentor is a living, breathing person with work, goals, dreams, aspirations, family, friends, and responsibilities of their own. Respect that. Do not get fussy with them if they do not respond to an email/DM/phone call immediately. They are mentoring you out of the kindness of their heart, so treat them well. Respect that they will not always be available at the drop of a hat but will respond as soon as they are able. A mentorship can turn into a lifelong professional relationship. Nurture it. Never abuse it.
Conversely, you have responsibilities, too. Make sure your mentor knows about your personal and professional obligations away from writing so that if you are busy at certain times, they know why.
When Will I No Longer Need My Mentor?
Well…I will have to write a post about this sometime in the future. I have been with my mentor for over 3 years, currently have 13 published books, and I still feel like a baby author. There is no hard and fast rule about what length of time is best for a mentorship. If you and your mentor are happy with your partnership, you are constantly learning and improving, and it doesn’t get to a point where you feel like you are being held back, keep the mentorship going. Personally, I love that my mentor keeps me grounded and gets onto me when he knows I am not doing my best (for whatever reason). My mentor and I have been together so long we fight like a married couple…so we’ll probably be together forever. At least, that is my hope.
Tremendous Love & Thanks,